As I see it, we’ve been sucked into this debt ceiling crisis because some folks in Washington are more interested in demagoguery than discussion and quite a few of them don’t have a very good understanding of the spirit of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, all parties share the blame. I think they could get some valuable insight by taking a look at how the early Buddhist Sangha functioned as a democratic body.

During the Buddha’s time, or what we assume was his time, around 2500 BCE, the prevalent form of government in India was republican, although it was making way for monarchies. The Buddha’s father, rather than the rich and powerful king of legend, was probably the elected head of a tribal assembly, known as a sangha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha*, says that “Government by discussion was the keynote of the republics.” And it’s believed that the Buddha modeled, and obviously named, his assembly of spiritual seekers after this form of government.

Prof. Ling further notes that,

Certainly every member of the Sangha was regarded as having equality of rights in any deliberations concerning the life of the community . . . The Sangha has been described, also, as a ‘system of government formed by the Bhikkhus, for the Bhikkhus and of the Bhikkhus’**, and therefore a democracy.”

Ling points to the Buddha’s response to the controversy regarding the Vajjian confederacy, found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

So long as the Vajji meet together in concord, and carry out in concord their affairs . . . so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”

Prof. Ling calls attention to the word “concord.” He says “It is expressly stated that ‘concord’ or unanimity is essential for the proper functioning of the Sangha.” Some other translations use “harmony and unity.” Further on in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha relates the seven factors of non-decline for the Bhikkhus: regular assembly, concordant assembly, reasonable rules, respect for others, skillfulness at non-attachment, peaceful atmosphere, and mindfulness.

The spirit behind these factors should be integral to any kind of democratic assembly. It’s about mutual respect, listening to others, working together harmoniously. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. Difference of opinion is only natural and should be encouraged. But, in the end, harmony and compromise must rule the day for any group of individuals to prosper.

What many of our elected officials tend to forget is that they are representatives, and as such, once they take office they serve everyone in their district, including those who didn’t vote for them and those with whom they disagree. They are not really in office to vote solely out of concern for their principles, they’re supposed to vote with a concern for the greater good of all. I don’t think anyone wants to see the interest on their credit card go up, or have any further damage inflicted upon our already weakened economy. We’d rather see them come to some sort of agreement, sooner than later.

When something like this happened in the early Sangha, when there was no hope of compromise, the dissenters would leave and form their own assembly: “The Buddhist method is one which allows minority views to be held, and not disregarded, but the price to be paid is the multiplication of bodies with different points of view . . .”

Unfortunately, when it’s a nation at stake, picking up your ball and going to play elsewhere is not an option. Actually, we did that once before. Didn’t work out too well. I think they call it the Civil War.

The only other option for the Sangha was to adopt the approach used by the Catholic Church and some others, totalitarianism. You know, brand the dissenters as heretics and condemn them to hell by excommunication or by sword. Fortunately, the early Sangha decided not to go that route.

Ling notes that this early Buddhist model of democracy,

[As] a prototype social organization of the future . . . [has] so to speak, a large practicality gap . . . The two major reasons against the idea of the whole of contemporary Indian society becoming a universal Buddhist sangha were, first, the existence of powerful monarchies, and second, the unreadiness of the mass of the people for participation in the kind of society envisaged in Buddhist teaching.”

The situation is not much different today. Still, our representatives, and we, the people, could benefit from some reflection on the principles discussed here.

* T. Ling, The Buddha, Great Britain, 1976

** G. De, Democracy in Early Buddhist Sangha, Calcutta, 1955

I hope you are finding this commentary by the Dalai Lama to be of interest. Just to remind you, this is a verbatim transcript, so in places it is a bit redundant. As far as I can tell, when he gives teachings, the Dalai Lama speaks extemporaneously. I’ve included his asides along with short descriptions of the action taking place, which hopefully will give you a sense of the atmosphere.

This is a long section so I will cut to the chase and merely add that in this excerpt, the Dalai Lama discusses suffering and happiness, the Four Noble Truths, karma, and motivation.

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part V

1st Day – Afternoon session

The second half of the day’s teachings were opened with sutra chanting in Japanese, led by Rev. Noriaki Ito, Abbot of Higashi Hongwanjii Temple in Los Angeles.

I would like to express my appreciation to the members of the Japanese Buddhist sangha for their wonderful recitation. I was not able to follow the meaning of the verses, though. [Laugher.]

Now, I will resume our discussion where we left in the morning session.

We were talking about beginninglessness and the continuum of consciousness and also the continuum of the individual being, which is designated upon the basis of this beginningless continuum of consciousness or mind.

However, in the Buddhist schools of thought, as far as whether or not there is a possibility to an end of this continuum, all Buddhists schools converge on the point that it is beginningless. But, as far as whether or not there is a cessation or an end to the individual, which is designated in the continuum of consciousness, there are divergent opinions among the Buddhist thinkers on this point.

In any case, as human beings or as sentient beings, we all posses this fundamental fact of our own existence, which is the ability to discern or perceive things. And similarly, as human beings, we all have the natural capacity to experience pain and pleasure and the natural capacity for feelings. Within the realm of feeling or sensation, we can, generally speaking, distinguish between two principle forms: those types of feelings which are pleasure or joy, and those other types of experience that are undesirable in the sense that when they occur within us it creates a sense of disturbance or affliction.

So, as human beings, as sentient beings, we are all naturally drawn towards happiness. We wish happiness and we wish to overcome suffering. We would like to avoid suffering. That is a natural disposition we all have.

And within the sphere of joyful experience, or pain and pleasure, one could say there are certain types of experiences which may be uncomfortable or painful in the short term, but in the long run it could lead to greater experiences of joy and fulfillment. Within the category of pleasurable experience, there could be certain sorts of joyful states, which in the short run could, temporarily, lead to a sense of joy or pleasure, but in the long run, it could lead to dissatisfaction or suffering.

So, one could say that there are four types of sensation: ones that are joyful in the short term and also in the long term; ones that are joyful in the short term but lead to suffering in the long term; ones which are not only painful in the short term but also in the long term; and others which are temporarily painful but in the long term lead to more joyful or lasting happiness.

Whatever we feel in the nature of experience, if it is a painful experience, it is something we instinctively want to avoid. It is something that we do not desire. And if it is a joyful experience we are naturally drown toward it and it is something that we instinctively desire. So the point that I am making here is that, insofar as the basic disposition of wanting happiness and wishing to overcome suffering is concerned, it is something that is so fundamental to all of us as sentient beings, and each of us has a right to fulfill this basic aspiration. Not only do we wish to overcome suffering, but if there is any possibility at all of remaining in a state that is totally free of suffering, then it is natural that we seek such a goal.

Now it is crucial for us to think whether or not the attainment of such lasting states of freedom from suffering is possible, and it is something that can be understood only on the basis of examining where the root or the causes of happiness and suffering lie. It is only through causal analysis that one can address this question. So, when going through such a line of thinking, then the Buddhist teachings on the Four Noble Truths becomes immediately relevant to one’s question.

The procedure of the Four Noble Truths becomes established. That is, at the first stage one must recognize the nature of suffering, to define suffering as suffering. The second stage is to then seek where the suffering comes from, where does the principle source of suffering lie. And, when you find that, then the third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to bring about a cessation of suffering. Once you have gained real confidence about that, then the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can attain the cessation of suffering.

Another fact of existence is that within the spectrum of reality you find that certain phenomena or certain facts – if their causes or origins have other opposing forces or antidotes and if through the development and enhancement of those opposing forces, can the origin of suffering be diminished? We know that such facts as suffering and pain, are in some sense, occasional, that they come into being as a result of certain conditions and they come into cessation as a result of certain causal positives.

At this point, all the lights on the stage go out, along with most of the lights of the hall. The audience beings to chuckle, but the Dalai Lama continues talking.

Let us take the example of physical illness, if there are opposing forces to the conditions that lead to certain symptoms, if there are antidotes or medications which can counteract the agents that cause the illness, then there is a real chance that one can bring about a cure for that particular illness. If there are no counter-forces or antidotes which counteract the agents that lead to illness, then it would mean that once we are sick there is no chance of a cure.

In fact, many of the tasks that we engage in our everyday lives, such as the plans that we have or projects we undertake – these everyday activities require a degree of comparison and investigation into the competition between different forces of opposing elements.

The lights come back on in the hall but not on the stage.

Earlier the lights were unequal and certain parts of the hall were quite dark, but now it’s completely qualitative. [Laugher.] Except for the stage. [More laugher.]

The Dalai Lama continues to speak in the dark for several minutes before all the lights are restored.

According to Buddhism, the causal process of pain/pleasure or happiness/suffering is understood in terms of a particular kind of process. Of course, many of our experiences have their conditions in circumstances that are really immediate. However, in Buddhism, there is an appreciation of deeper underlying causes that make these immediate conditions to give rise to a certain form of experience, be it painful or joyful. And if these underlying causes are certain potentials or dispositions planted in the psyche of the individual as a result of certain deeds committed by the individual in the past, and these deeds may not be present right now but they retain their potency, retain their potential and this potential then causes immediate conditions to create either a joyful or painful experience.

Among deeds or actions – we are talking about karma now – of the individual, there might be certain types of actions or deeds that may not be potentials, may not be motivated, but occur in context of certain situations only and these may not be important. But there are many other types of actions which are motivated by certain forms of thought or intention, and these can be said to be very important, in the sense that they are motivated action. Because of these distinctions, the Buddhist scriptures mention certain types of actions, certain kinds of karma, which are definitely coming into fruition, certain types of karma that are not determined.

Given that it is on the basis of intensity and the nature of the motivation that makes a kind of action important or powerful, motivation becomes very crucial in determining the nature of the action. Therefore, when we talk about motivation, we are talking about virtuous states of mind that create virtuous actions and non-virtuous states of mind which create negative actions. Given the cardinal importance of insuring the outcome of motivation, it becomes central in Buddhist practice to target the disciplining of mind as the key objective in one’s religious life.

More to come soon . . .

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night about the debt ceiling crisis, and the Republican response. While there may have been some exaggerations in the President’s remarks, none really popped out at me. Perhaps that’s because of my liberal bias. I was pre-disposed to have a generally favorable view of what Obama was going to say. On the other hand, also due to my bias (at least I’m honest about it), and because after more than a few decades observing the American political scene, I have found that those on the right have a tendency to be less truthful, I was ready to play gotcha with John Boehner. And sure enough, he did not disappoint.

Boehner exaggerated when he claimed that last week’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” Act passed the House passed “with bipartisan support.” Now, just a few hours earlier I had been watching “Hardball” with Chris Matthews when this subject came up and I remember an exchange between the host and  Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party supporter, in which it was revealed that only five Democrats voted in favor of the bill. That’s hardly what anyone would call “bipartisan.”

It reminded me of something by Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who is thought to have authored a seminal work of Chinese philosophy named after him. This is from the Burton Watson translation, found in The complete works of Chuang Tzu:

Let me tell you something else I have learned. In all human relations, if the two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust. But if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasant to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world. Where both parties are pleased, there must be some exaggeration of the good points and where both parties are angered, there must be some exaggeration of the bad points. Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.’ If you do that, you will probably come out all right.”

I don’t know what the real solution to our political deadlock is, but politicians speaking with words that can be trusted would be a great beginning.


Today is the birthday of Carl Gustav Jung, who if still alive would be 136 and no doubt one of the oldest people in the world. The famed psychologist is, as you may know, the subject of a famous song by Bob Dylan, in which the singer expresses the sentiment, “May you stay forever Jung.”

Which has no connection whatsoever to the Mott the Hoople song, “All The Jung Dudes.”

There is, however, a connection between Jung’s work and Buddhism. Jung himself once said, “The goal in psychotherapy is exactly the same as in Buddhism.” There are those who feel that Jung misunderstood Buddhist philosophy, but it is certainly clear, as Polly Young-Eisendrath writes in The Cambridge Companion to Jung: Second Edition, that

C. G. Jung was the first psychoanalyst to pay close and serious attention to Buddhism and to write commentary on his own careful readings of Buddhist texts . . .beginning with Jung’s 1939 “Foreword” to Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism . . . Jung wrote about and commented on writings from Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese sources. Bringing in both original insights and important questions, Jung’s essays formed an early backdrop for various conversations to develop between Western psychology and Buddhist practices.

The correlations between Jung’s work and Eastern philosophy (he was interested in Hindu Yoga, particularly Vendanta, both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Taoism, especially the I Ching) is too vast a subject to handle in a blog post. My own feeling is that while he was occasionally off the mark, in general Jung’s interpretation of Eastern philosophy was, if nothing else, interesting. For example, his take on several core concepts, such as karma, that he saw as archetypes. In “Psychological Commentary on Kundalini Yoga,” Jung wrote,

There is a rich world of archetypal images in the unconscious mind, and the archetypes are conditions, laws or categories of creative fantasy, and therefore might be called the psychological equivalent of the samskara.”

Samskaras are generally regarded as “karmic formations” or karma-formed states. In Buddhism, samskara is the the fourth skandha (aggregate) and the second link in the twelve Nidanas (links), the chain of dependent arising.

Today is quite a day for birthdays: Mick Jagger (68!), Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Dorothy Hamill, Susan George, Helen Mirren (unforgettable as Jane Tennison in the “Prime Suspect” series), Dobie Gray (song “Drift Away”), Bobby Hebb (song “Sunny”), Brenton Wood (song “Gimme Little Sign”), Darlene Love (song “He’s a Rebel”), film director Stanley Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”, “2001″, “A Clockwork Orange”), director Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”), comedian Gracie Allen (Burns and Allen), author Robert Graves (“I, Claudius”), Irish English novelist Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Pearl Buck (“The Good Earth”), George Bernard Shaw (“Pygmalion”) and Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote the following, entitled Cantares or “Songs [Machado’s Testament]“:

All goes, and all remains,

but our task is to go,
to go creating roads
roads through the sea.

My songs never chased
after glory to remain
in human memory.
I love the subtle worlds
weightless and charming,
worlds like soap-bubbles.

I like to see them, daubed
with sunlight and scarlet,
quiver, under a blue sky,
suddenly and burst…

I never chased glory.

Traveller, the road is only
your footprint, and no more;
traveller, there’s no road,
the road is your travelling.

Going becomes the road
and if you look back
you will see a path
none can tread again.

Traveller, every track
leaves its wake on the sea…

Once in this place
where bushes now have thorns
the sound of a poet’s cry was heard
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

The poet died far from home.
Shrouded by dust of a neighbouring land.
At his parting they heard him cry:
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

When the goldfinch can’t sing,
when the poet’s a wanderer,
when nothing aids our prayer.
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line.

In Japanese Buddhism one of the terms used to convey the concept of enlightenment is jobutsu, which means “to become a Buddha” or “to uncover one’s Buddha-nature.” Jo means “to open” or “uncovering” and butsu means Buddha. In a word, Jobutsu sums up Buddha-nature. It means uncovering one’s potential. This is why we say that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, because all people have potential or the capacity to realize wisdom and overcome sufferings.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature developed from Indian Mahayana thought, there is no exact Sanskrit term for it. The term “Buddha-nature” or fo xing originated in Chinese Buddhism. The Sanskrit term that most closely matches Buddha-nature is buddha-dhatu, which is regarded as both the nature (dhatu/dharmata) and the cause (dhatu/hetu) of Buddhahood.

The history of Buddha-nature is long and complicated, but I believe I can summarize its development, insofar as I understand the concept, with the following quotes. First, from Hui-ssu of the T’ien-t’ai school:

The Mind is the same as the Mind of Pure Self, Nature, True Thusness, Dharma-body, Tathagata-Womb, Dharma-realm, and Dharma-nature.”

Hui-ssu’s student, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i later elaborated:

If one contemplates the Mind to be Buddha Nature and practices the Eightfold Noble Path, then one is capable of [attaining enlightenment]. With the understanding that all dharmas (things) originate from the Mind, [then] the Mind is the Buddha Nature.”

So, the expression “Buddha-nature” embraces many different Buddhist concepts and unifies them into a single term, which is identified with the mind. This understanding was not unique to the T’ien-t’ai tradition, for instance Ma-Tsu of the Ch’an school and Dogen of the Zen school, among others, held that “Mind is Buddha.”

Now, what is a Buddha? For that, I’ll borrow the Dalai Lama’s description from Part 3 of my transcript of his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland: “a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective.” Buddha is a state of mind or a condition of life, attained when human beings overcome the negative aspects of psyche and human nature, or we could say when the positive aspects become more powerful than the negative ones.

Because Buddha-nature is the potential we possess to elevate our condition of life, it acts as a cause for Buddhahood. Everything arises from causes. Suffering has a cause. That’s one of the Buddha’s first teachings. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. If suffering has a cause, then whatever is the opposite of suffering must also be caused, and this opposite thing is jobutsu-tokudatsu, “to become a buddha and obtain liberation” from suffering, which is also called nirvana. It’s cause is Buddha-nature, or you could call it nirvana-nature. The name is not important.

Both suffering and nirvana are innate within living beings. The potential for suffering is always present. Likewise, the potential to overcome suffering is also present, and it is in this way I feel Buddha-nature is best understood: as potential. We have the potential to experience wisdom and happiness, just as we have the potential to experience suffering. The concept of Buddha-nature is empowering, because it reminds us that we don’t have to remain in a state of ignorance and delusion, that we have the capacity, the ability to overcome our sufferings.

It’s easy to get stuck on the extravagant language often used in Buddhist literature. If we take some of the elaborate and fantastical descriptions of Buddha-nature literally, we might get the idea that it’s an entity or some sort of mystical force, or that becoming a Buddha entails the acquisition of something new, something outside of our lives. That would be a mistaken impression. All we are talking about is uncovering our human potential. We have to be able to see beyond the poetry and mythology, or, if you will, read between the lines. Then, when we can view subjects such as Buddha-nature through a more prosaic lens, they make perfect sense.

Of course, this is just my take on things. But I’m not the only one with this view of Buddha-nature. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When he woke up at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha Shakyamuni said, “How strange—all beings possess in themselves the capacity to understand, the capacity to love, the capacity to be free. Everyone has that capacity, but everyone allows himself or herself to be carried away on the ocean of suffering. How strange.” This is what the Buddha declared at the moment of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He noticed that what we are looking for, day and night, is already there within oneself. What is beautiful, what is true, what is good, is already there in oneself. We can call it the Buddha-nature, the Buddhahood, the awakened nature, the true freedom, which is the foundation for all peace and happiness. This wonderful thing is in us, and a real teacher is someone who can help you to touch that thing in yourself, who helps give birth, to bring about the real teacher which already exists in yourself.

Here too, we should avoid a literal interpetation. No one actually knows what the Buddha said when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking metaphorically. Likewise, when we talk about “the true freedom” this does not mean one can ever escape suffering. Even buddhas experience suffering, because the potential for suffering is innate, just like the capacity for Buddhahood. Suffering does not magically disappear when you turn on the enlightenment switch. Yet we can experience freedom from the oppressive effects of suffering. We can take away the power suffering has to dominate our lives. That’s what “true freedom” means to me.

I should also mention that in the T’ien-t’ai traditon, Buddha-nature, Buddha, and Buddhahood, being three designations for the same state of mind, is “all-embracing” in that there is no duality, or discrimination in the ultimate sense. They “embrace” the negative aspects as well as the positive things. For example, a Buddha can also posses an “evil nature.”

In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that many people have some difficulty with Buddha-nature. To some, it is nothing more than another version of the God concept. I can understand to some extent how people could have that impression, but I think nothing could be further from the truth.

God has nothing to do with it. The only purpose the idea of God has in any discussion of Buddhist philosophy is to provide a contrast, which seems to be necessary because we (those of us in the West) have been indoctrinated with this concept and it is not easily dispelled. The ancient Buddhist philosophers, including the Buddha himself, had never heard of the God of Abraham or Jehovah, and it is very clear that the early Buddhists rejected the atman and absolute Brahman of the Upanishads. As the Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera, a Westerner, in his essay “Buddhism and the God-idea”, notes,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

Along these lines, I am also inclined to reject the idea of “Protestant Buddhism” when it is defined as the widespread pollution of Buddhism by Judeo-Christian ideas. While there is no question that the early Westerns scholars and translators used Christian terms – such as “sin” which technically would have no place in Buddhism since it refers to a transgression against God – the notion that the infusion of Christianity into Buddhism is so pervasive that it has changed or perverted the dharma is, I think, rather dubious. But that’s another subject for another time.

The message today is simply that understanding Buddha-nature means to know that Buddhahood or enlightenment is our capacity to achieve our highest potential, and it is a potential already inherent in life. By observing the mind, we can perceive this potential and realize it, thereby awakening our Buddha-nature.

More from my transcript of the Dalai Lama’s commentary Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, held at UCLA June 5-8, 1997. If you need to catch up here is Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

In this excerpt, it is still the morning session of the first day of teachings and the Dalai Lama is discussing the nature of consciousness:

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

Part IV

I can say that from one’s own meditative experience, there is a possibility of getting a glimpse of what consciousness is. For example, when one enters into a deeper level of the mind by maintaining a degree of focus of consciousness, with an attempt to insure that your thoughts, or mind, is not swayed by thoughts of past memory or thinking about this happened or that happened, and also insuring that your mind is not swayed by thoughts of the future, such as anticipation or hopes or fears, rather trying to remain in the state of that present or just mere presence. Once you are slowly able to do that, then you notice that previously in your normal state of consciousness, your mind is always consumed with competing forces or thoughts and sensory perceptions, which are all to a large extent driven by object orientation, always outward-looking, driven by chasing after objects.

But if you are able to isolate your mind from such object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery. I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what conscious really is.

According to the Buddhist explanation, consciousness or mind is said to be non-obstructive – there’s no physical properties, there’s no shape, it’s colorless, and it is in the nature of mere experience. And it is the form of knowing and awareness. Also we find in Buddhism that there is an appreciation of the existence of different levels of reality. First of all, in Buddhism, whether or not that object or phenomena exists or not is considered from the point of view of whether the perception of an object or phenomena is a valid experience.

Considering this, it is possible that you can get a glimpse of emptiness, given that consciousness is a phenomena that is dynamic, that is in the form of a process. Consciousness is transient, it goes through various stages of changes and that, in itself, is an indication that it is a product of causes and conditions. In the case of human consciousness, or mind, if we trace the path of causation we find that within the category of causes there are certain types of causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes. It is these factors that actually turn into the phenomena. There are other types of causes which are more corporative or contributing conditions. In terms of consciousness or mind, since it must posses a substantial cause, one could argue that the continuum, in terms of it’s origin, the continuum of the substantial cause must remain. Therefore, the substantial cause of any sense of consciousness must necessarily be consciousness, either in a manifest form or in potential.

So through this analysis of the causal origin of mental phenomena, then the question arises if there is a beginning point of whether the chain of causation goes on infinitely. If we were to choose the first option, which is to say that there must be a beginning at some point, then this immediately throws up conceptual problems about the status of the first cause – whether that first cause comes into being relatively or if it comes into being through self-causation. So, it throws up all sorts of conceptual problems.

The Buddhist option is to choose the second option of accepting the infinity of the causation. Although one could, in a conventional sense, accept or talk about origin or a beginning point of some particular object, like the objects of everyday life, but in a deeper sense, consciousness or mental phenomena are beginningless in terms of their continuum. And since this is the case, according to Buddhism, the continuum of the individual or person can said to be beginningless, because being or person is designated upon the continuum of consciousness or designated upon the phenomena that makes that person a knower or expeierencer or agent. Since the basis, which is the continuum of consciousness is beginningless, therefore the continuum of the individual being is also said to be beginningless. However, when we conceptualize it in individual situations, we can say that, in a conventional sense, there is a beginning and there is an end.

Therefore, let us take a break and try to end our empty stomachs.

End of the 1st morning session

To be continued . . .

One of the things that first attracted me to Buddhism was that it was a spiritual philosophy without a God, a supreme being. Sure, there are gods a plenty in Buddhist cosmology, but I’ve never taken them seriously, and frankly, I don’t think many of the astute Buddhist scholars from the past did either. I think they understood them as symbols. But that may just be wishful thinking on my part.

In any case, most other religious philosophies teach that all things come from an external force, often referred to as God, and several of these maintain that the sole purpose for the existence of human beings is to love and serve this God that is external to and independent to some extent from their own lives.

Buddhism, however, teaches that there is no difference between the ultimate reality and human nature. And of course, a Buddha or “Awakened One” is an ordinary human being. All livings beings posses a pure, enlightened nature which exists as a potential. Since this potential is universal, anyone can become a Buddha. We call it Buddha-nature.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature has it seeds in Indian Buddhism, one of the first to really advance the idea was Tao-sheng (360-434 CE), a Chinese monk and scholar.

Tao-sheng taught, among other things, that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature and that there is no Buddha-world beyond the present. These were revolutionary teachings for his day and Tao-sheng was excommunicated from the Buddhist Sangha because of them. He was later vindicated when the complete Nirvana Sutra, which distinctly mentions Buddha-nature, was at last translated into Chinese.

Although, Tao-sheng did not use the actual term “Buddha-nature”, from statements like these found in his commentary on the Lotus Sutra, there is little doubt about what was getting at:

The sentient being’s endowment with [the potential for] great enlightenment leads all to succeed in becoming a Buddha . . . The sentient beings all possess the endowed [capacity] for great enlightenment; there is no one that is not a potential bodhisattva . . . All sentient beings without exception, are Buddhas, and all are also [already in the state of] nirvana.”

Even though we have this pure and enlightened nature, we are unaware of it. Another thing we can blame on ignorance. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, ignorance is a sort of mis-knowing, a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. One way to dispel ignorance is to realize intellectually that Buddha-nature exists originally within our life, and then to realize Buddha-nature spiritually through meditative practice.

While I tend to view this as a gradual process, Tao-sheng saw it as a “Sudden Awakening.” In his view, Buddha-nature could not be divided and one either realized it as a whole or did not realize it at all. He said,

By gaining freedom from illusion, one returns to the ultimate, and by returning to the ultimate, one attains the original.”

The state of attainment of the “original” is what we call the state of nirvana, which is neither external to nor different from this saha or mundane world we inhabit.

That’s another reason why in Mahayana Buddhism, we say “sufferings are nirvana.” This everyday world, filled with all manner of sufferings, is exactly the same as nirvana, enlightenment. The world is a realm of absolute happiness. There is no other place for us to aspire to than this one.

It seems simple, that this Buddha-nature is innate within our minds and that attaining Buddhahood lies in realizing the existence of Buddha-nature within our minds. Some people, however, have some difficulty with it. It’s not something that we take on faith. We don’t believe in Buddha-nature, we actualize it.

As Sallie King notes in her book, Buddha Nature,

Thus Buddha nature can be present now, in its fullness and purity, even though it is not an entity of any kind and even though one is enmired in the condition of delusion insofar as it is manifest in acts of practice, or in other words, insofar as, and no farther than, one’s actions bring that Buddha nature into the world of experiential reality.”

It’s been said that pratitya-samutpada is the foundation for all Buddhist concepts. One Buddhist scholar, Jeffrey Hopkins has called it the “king of reasons.” In Majjhima-nikaya I, the Buddha is recorded as saying, “Whoever sees pratitya-samutpada sees the dhamma and whoever sees the dhamma sees pratitya-samutpada.”

This term is known by many names: dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, and so on. I often prefer to use interdependency or interconnectedness. All of these renderings taken individually fail to capture pratitya-samutpada precisely, and actually, a precise, literal definition is hard to come by.

In general, it means, “the arising of things in dependence of causes and conditions” (Chandrakiirti). In Mahayana, pratitya-samutpada includes interconnectedness, the multiplicity or diversity of forms, emptiness, compassion, and the Middle Way.

Because all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, they are interconnected, and while all things have a reality, it is a transient one as none posses independent existence. By reason of the emptiness of both self and phenomena, everything is equalized, thereby eliminating any foundation for preference, prejudice and hatred. However, if we are all fundamentally one, there is a foundation for compassion. The Indian scholar Dr. Krishniah Venkata Ramanan, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sastra, writes,

Comprehension has its dimensions of depth and width and to the farer on the Great Way this means, on one hand, the penetration into the deeper nature of things which culminates in the realization that the ultimate nature of the conditioned is itself the unconditioned reality. On the other hand, comprehension stands also for the realization of the essential relatedness of determinate entities . . . with regard to the human individual it has the all-important bearing of one’s essential relatedness with the rest of the world. It is the insight into the true nature of things that is the basis of the universal compassion of the wise.

This is the same message the Heart Sutra imparts, and it’s the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.

Sufferings arise from causes. The Buddha’s method is to try to trace back the causes and reverse them. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. Here, ignorance is different from our ordinary understanding of the word. It means un-knowing or mis-knowing, a deluded state of mind based on the idea of svabhava or self-being, the notion that we possess an inherent essential nature that is unconditioned, self-contained, self-supporting, and permanent.

Self-being is rejected because such an essence or nature would have to come into being on its own, without causes and conditions, it would have to stand on its own side as an entity independent from other things, and it would need to be able to persist indefinitely in an unchanged state. This is considered untenable. It’s a delusion.

In Mahayana, the general view is that ignorance is dispelled through a deep understanding of emptiness. In turn, emptiness is the ground of pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising, the foundation for this diverse world. Buddhapalita, the great master of the Prasangika tradition, said that to understand emptiness, you must understand dependent arising.

Sunyata (emptiness) is often discussed in terms of “relativity”, “relatedness”, “interconnectedness”, and “interdependency.” Even to take this holistic aspect of the term for its entire meaning is insufficient. In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, Frederick J. Streng states,

Sunyata is both relatedness and emptiness; it stands ‘between’ the absolute and the conditioned phenomena . . . If we use the symbolism of a circle, with its center and circumference, we would suggest that ‘emptiness’ is represented neither by the center (from which all points on the circumference radiate) nor by the points at the end of the radius. Nor is it even the relationship between the center and the circumference; but it is the recognition that ‘center,’ ‘circumference,’ and ‘radius’ are mutually interdependent ‘things’ which has no reality in themselves – only in dependence on the other factors.”

This, I believe, leads us to the true spirit of renunciation, which ultimately must mean leaving behind the idea of self-being. As Streng states, “The alleviation of suffering could not apply only to some single individual entity, since such an ‘entity’ could not come into existence or change. Release from the bonds of karma [is] feasible for ‘one’ only if it involve[s] a relationship to ‘all’.”

I feel true renunciation is a state of mind and it does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. That’s not my contention because it’s a more modern or Western point of view, or because I’m picking and choosing and trying to bypass practicing austerities, it’s because I think it is a deeper view that goes right to the heart of the matter. It stands to reason that the highest form of renunciation is to let go of our attachment to the notion that things, including living beings, have an independent self or soul, a delusion that lies at the very heart of suffering. Renunciation is the genuine desire to transcend suffering for the sake of others.

You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our Zazen [meditation]. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between [Buddhist] practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish,

- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The title of today’s post comes from the English lyrics to “The Windmills of Your Mind” (“Les moulins de mon cœur”) by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, from the 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair

It’s Mandela Day, formally known as Nelson Mandela International Day. The celebration was officially declared by the United Nations in 2009 and is held each July 18th, Mandela’s birthday. Today, he is 93. says, “The Mandela Day campaign message is simple: Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it’s supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community.”

For Buddhists it’s a good day to practice loving-kindness meditation, to reflect on the nature of compassion, to perform some sort of Bodhisattva action. But, of course, as in the same spirit of the logo above, every day is a good day for that.

I find Nelson Mandela inspiring for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the way he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment without hatred or bitterness. But rather than read my words about this, here are the words of someone who has actually met Nelson Mandela. This is what former president Bill Clinton wrote a few years ago:

Mandela made a grand, elegant, dignified exit from prison and it was very, very powerful for the world to see. But as I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered whether he was thinking about the last 27 years, whether he was angry all over again. Later, many years later, I had a chance to ask him. I said, ‘Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’ It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.

He’s got so much to teach us about forgiveness. It isn’t about being soft-headed and kind-hearted and essentially weak or forgetful  . . .  Mandela found that forgiveness was a strategy for survival. Because he found a forgiving heart under the most adverse circumstances, because he learned to hate the apartheid cause without hating the white South Africans, he had space left inside to learn and grow and become great.

To me he represents a great political leader. He had the discipline to stay the course for almost three decades, through enormous punishment, to achieve the political objective he sought. And he did it in a way that, in the end, had the support of people across the racial divide. In the process he freed not only black South Africa but, as Martin Luther King said about America, he freed white South Africans, too. It’s a terrible burden oppressing someone else; it’s like being in chains yourself.

What makes Mandela so special is that he’s a real human being. He laughs, he cries, he gets mad, he fell in love with Graça Machel. He’s got a real life. And the fact that he is so flesh-and-blood real makes his greatness and his sacrifice and his wisdom and his courage in the face of all that has happened to him even more remarkable. He never pretended to be somebody who didn’t like soccer or wouldn’t like to be able to go to a boxing match again. He’s not just great: He is a good man. Not because he is perfect—he still has his flashes of anger and regret—but in the big moment, in the big ways, there is nobody like him.”

I couldn’t agree more.

After having offered some introductory remarks, the Dalai Lama now begins his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in earnest.

The “Middle Way” school mentioned here is the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) stream of philosophy based on Nagarjuna’s teachings. In terms of doctrine, all the schools of Tibet are within the Madhyamaka tradition.

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part III

We will now begin with a reading from the text. I think that all of you have a copy of the commemorative volume. The name of the text is The Precious Garland, an Epistle to a King. There is a salutation from the translator, in Tibetan, which reads, “Homage to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” And the actual homage from the text itself is in the first verse, which reads,

Completely free from all faults
and adorned with all good virtues,
the sole friend of all beings –
to that Omniscient One I bow.

The Precious Garland was composed by the Indian master Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna was not only a great, accomplished scholar but also he was a highly realized adept. Someone who was revered and admired universally by the Indian Buddhist world and also by masters who may have shared a philosophical persuasion of a different kind, such as the Mind-Only school, and so on. But so far as the admiration and reverence of Nagarjuna and the condition of his contribution to Buddhism in India, he was universally acknowledged. The Precious Garland is part of a class of texts, composed by Nagarjuna, known as the “Six Analytic Corpus.” Within that, the most fundamental text is of the Middle Way school is, of course, the Madhyamaka-karika ["Fundamentals of the Middle Way"], and the “Ratnavali” or Precious Garland is part of that category.

Of course, some people count Five Analytic Corpus and the Precious Garland separately. Regardless of whether you count the “Ratnavalli” as part of the “Six Analytic Corpus” or not, the uniqueness of the “Ratnavali” lies in the fact that it not only addresses many of the fundamental philosophical issues of the Middle Way philosophy, but also it deals with many aspects of the skillful means [Skt. Upaya; Jp. Hoben] and the dimensions of the Buddhist Path. In addition, the Precious Garland was explicitly written in the form of a letter, in the form of advice, and deals with many issues, such as compassion, social justice and so on. So, in that sense, the Precious Garland, as a text, is very unique in the Buddhist literature.

If you look at some of the sections of the text, particularly the sections on the two selflessnesses, the no-self of person and the no-self of phenomena, the way in which the concepts are introduced and taught in this text, I personally find not only to be very profound, but when you relate them to your own understanding and personal experience, I find them to be highly penetrating and also effective. Similarly, when you read the section that talk about causes and conditions for obtaining certain qualities of the Buddha and also the accumulation of merit – there is also a section that talks about the Four Limitless Practices – and when I reflect on those points, I find them not only deeply inspiring but also a tremendous source of courage.

So, this is from my own personal experience. I feel that the Precious Garland is not only very profound as a Buddhist scripture but also something that has direct relevance to our day-to-day life, our day-to-day experience.

Although I don’t claim to have – it is not only me, but also a lot of people here when they approach a text like this, we tend to deal with the text in a manner that reflects a real arrogance that we are actually, in a sense, more skilled and have greater intelligence than the text. So we don’t follow each and every word that is taught in the text. Rather, we select what we think is the most appropriate to us and then feel that we have really penetrated the insights that are taught in the text. But I feel that when I read and reflect on the meanings of the teachings of this text and the teachings found in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life – when I compare the two, I find this combined effort deeply moving and also very effective.

So when I read the text, where there are sections that I feel is important, I will explain the meaning of the text.

Now, when we reflect on the meaning of the first verse that pays homage and makes salutations to the Buddha, immediately a question arises: whether it is possible at all to realize such a state? A state that is utterly free from all faults, a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective. Also a state where the individual has attained the highest perfections of universal compassion. So immediately the question arises as to whether or not the attainment of such a state is possible.

So, one could say right there is a need for understanding of the basic tenets of Buddhism.

Since a reflection of the first verse demands an introduction to the basic teachings of Buddhism – however, I feel that the majority of the audience here are already familiar with some of the lectures I have given on the introduction to Buddhism – and given that now we live in an age where there are technological facilities which makes it possible for these lectures to be immediately available in the form of audiotapes or transcripts or books and so on . . . So, I feel that the majority of the audience here is already familiar with the basic ideas of Buddhism, so, in one sense, there is no need to repeat.

I will approach the question of the introduction of basic teachings and concepts from, perhaps, a different angle. Let us now reflect on our own present state of mind. Say that I, as a lecturer, and you, as the listener – we are all united in certain fundamental facts of existence as human beings, such as we all share this instinctive thought of “I’m here, I’m doing this.” There is a sense of self-awareness in all of us and similarly, all of us are united by the fundamental fact that we have certain motivations, our human actions are motivated by certain intentions. These mental events that we all posses, we can label them as states of mind or consciousness. But if we probe deeper, what is this consciousness? What is this mental event? We know that it is the agent with which we cognize the world. It is the agent through which we know things. In some sense, one could say that consciousness or mind is that which enables us to be aware, which enables us to know and see, so it is a form of potential.

Now, if we go further and try to observe the process of this mental event and consciousness, we know that from our own personal experience that there is a capacity to go through rapid change. Change in the form of various modifications and also a change in the sense of being able to focus, to be able to direct focus on different objects. This indicates that we call consciousness and what we call mind is a dynamic process, it’s not a static entity.

Even in the more absorbed states of mind, say in a meditative state of mind, there we feel there is a degree of stability, a sense of absorption into a particular state of mind. Even in that state, although on the surface it seems as if the mind is not in a dynamic process – it is in some sense stationary, fully focused on a chosen object – even in that state, if you probe deeper, you will find that there is indeed a process going on. There are stages when you are applying certain antidotes to insure, to protect that your level of concentration does not diminish as a sort of distraction or as a sort of lowering down of the intensity of your focus. Similarly, you will also find stages when you mind is able to remain in a state of equalization, where there is no need for such applications or vigilance. So these processes themselves, even in levels or states of meditative mind – even within these states there is a constant process that one is going through.

Now if we observe the world of our consciousness, the world of mental phenomena, we will see that within all categories of our mental world, there are many states of consciousness, which are very obvious to us. They are contingent upon the physical and psychological conditions. For example, like all of our sensory perceptions, such as the visual or the audio and so on, they arise as a result of interaction between our sense organs and also the objective conditions, visual form, signs, and so on. Similarly, they are also what can be called mental consciousness, which may require such immediate external conditions and physical organs for their arisal. But even then, they can be said to be contingent upon our physical basis. One could say that our human consciousness – that we have a human consciousness – it is the consciousness of a human being in the sense that it is contingent upon the human body that we have and also given that, as human beings, we have certain psychological constitutions, according to the Tibetan tradition, psychological conditions described in terms of energy, channels, and also vital essential elements. Such psychological constitutions then give rise to a certain kind of mind or consciousness, which is called human consciousness, because they are contingent upon the human body.

However, that is not to say that these – rather, let us say, that if we think deeply we find that although the occurrence of thoughts and many emotional states are dependent upon a physical base, such as a body or a brain, this is not to say that these emotional states and thoughts are reducible to states of the body. Just because their occurrence or arisal is dependent upon physical conditions, there is not enough evidence or proof to conclude that they are reducible to a physical state. For example, one could argue that, in the case of human beings, the occurrence of anger, hatred, attachment within our mind, and so on, require physical conditions such as the human body, certain brain activity, and so on. However, the existence of such activities doers not guarantee the occurrence of these states within our brain. For example, as human beings we all posses the potential for these strong emotions, but it is only on occasional stages within our daily life that we have conscious manifest forms of emotion. Also, we may posses the potential for the occurrence of these emotional states, yet no single person is angry for 24 hours a day, no person is gripped by a strong attachment or greed 24 hours a day. This indicates that although there are emotional states that are dependent upon physical conditions, they are not identical with the physical state, which gives rise to them. This suggests, in a profound sense, that they are distinct from the physical evidence.

To be continued . . .