In this selection from my manuscript, the Dalai Lama delves into a heavy subject: the nature of reality. He discusses why, if things are deemed to be unreal, they seem to us very real. He also provides some crucial guidance about how we should understand emptiness (sunyata).

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XIV

One question that can be raised is, if things and events do posses a production caused by their conditionality, then what is the nature of that cause and what is the relationship between that cause and the thing caused? The nature of the cause is then examined in terms of whether it is simultaneous to the result or if it is prior to the result, or if it is distinct from the thing that is produced. Of course, such forms of analysis is taking place from the perspective of ultimate analysis. So a cause that is prior to the object cannot be said to produce an effect, because at the point where the effect takes place, the preceding cause has already ceased and if the cause is said to simultaneous, again, it cannot be causation because simultaneous events cannot cause simultaneous effects and so on.

Therefore [this verse] reads that:

A cause that occurs before (its effect) or simultaneously (with it)
is not really a cause at all,
because (such causes) are not accepted conceptually,
and production is not accepted ultimately.

So this suggests that causation is something that can be maintained on the conventional level but not in the ultimate sense. What this suggests is the understanding of causation in terms of mere conditionality, in terms of dependent origination. So, in [the next] verse, The Precious Garland then gives us two examples of dependent phenomena – one is dependent in terms of dependent designation and one is dependent in terms of dependent causation:

Where this is, that arises,
just as when there is ‘long,’  there is ‘short.’
When this is produced, that arises,
just as, when a lamp’s flame is produced, light arises.

“Where there this is, that arises,” – this is the general principle of dependent origination. The examples are, just as there is long there is short. This is an example of dependent designation. The idea is that when we talk about something being long or short, there is no independent existing longness or shortness, rather the very concept of “long and short” are relative concepts, and it is only in relation to certain frames of reference that we can maintain notions of long and short.

Then the next two lines gives an example of dependent origination in terms of causation. Through understanding of dependent origination, one can understand the existence of the reality of phenomena can only be maintained at the level of conventional truth and only in terms of dependence upon other factors. Nothing, no event enjoys a status of existence that is its own, that is autonomous.

But when there is no short,
there is no intrinsically existent long.
and when a lamps (flame) is not produced,
the light also does not arrive.

Seeing that an effect arises from a cause,
one does not claim that (causality) is nonexistent,
having provisionally accepted (causality) in accord with
the way it arises for the world from conceptual fabrication.

(Ultimate causality is) refuted; it would be absolutistic
to accept that it has not arisen from conceptual fabrication
and that it is truly real, just as it is. (But its ultimate reality) is not (accepted).
Thus, not relying on the two (extremes), one is liberated.

A form that is viewed from afar
is seen clearly by those nearby;
if a mirage were actually water,
why would those nearby not see it?

The Precious Garland entertains the question that if it is the case that things and events are in the final analysis devoid of intrinsic reality and they are empty of independent reality or essence, how is it that to our perceptions there is this multiplicity of appearances that seem to enjoy some sort of uniqueness and distinctiveness in their existences? The following verses address that problem.

If the way in which we see the world reflects the true nature of reality, then the deeper we probe the nature of reality, the clearer the perception of the world should becomes. However, that is not the case. Just as a mirage appears from far away, but the closer you come the mirage disappears, similarly with the perception of the world, the closer you come to the nature of reality, the more untenable it becomes.

As in the case of a mirage
those far away who (view) the world
see it to be real just as it is,
but being signless, it is not seen by those nearby.

In [this] verse, it says “those far away.” Far away here is a reference to our ordinary perceptions of the world, which is far away from the actual nature of reality. As we approach close, that sort of perception is dismantled because the actual nature of reality is “signless.” These conceptual apparitions that we create do not really reflect the nature of reality.

A mirage seems to be water,
but it is not water, nor is it real.
Likewise, the aggregates seem to be the Self,
but they are not the Self, nor are they even real.

(Seeing) a mirage, one might think,
“This is water,” and then go up to it;
if one still grasped (at the water, thinking,)
“That water isn’t here,” it would be quite stupid.

In [these] verses, we see that when one first imagines the mirage to be water, then you approach and find that there is no water, you think that there was water before but there isn’t any now. That is the wrong way of thinking. Rather, one should conclude that the initial perception of there being water was a mistake. Similarly, when one arrives at an understanding of emptiness, one should not feel that the intrinsic reality or essence that existed before has been eliminated or in some sense shown to be non-existent. Rather one should understand that the intrinsic reality that one perceives to begin with, is not there at all.

The reference in [this last] verse resonates a form of argument that we find in the Madhyamaka Kavatara [“Entrance into the Middle Way] where Candrakirti argues that if one’s understanding of emptiness is that emptiness negates the intrinsic reality, then the transcendent awareness of the Aryan Beings [This is a reference to those who have already become enlightened; “Aryan” literally means “noble.”] would be a cause for the destruction of the empirical world. therefore, one denies it. So, it is the same kind of argument.

To be continued . . .

To read previous selections from this teaching, click on the category “The Precious Garland” to the right above.

In this section, there is mention of higher and lower rebirths. Some readers may not accept the idea of rebirth in the Buddhist context, or at least may have doubts about it. In those cases, the reader may wish to view to interpret the teachings in this way: lower rebirths correspond to having a low condition of life in the present time, a state of life dominated by suffering, and higher rebirths would correspond to higher conditions of life, a state of life where one experiences a certain amount of freedom from suffering and liberation from the destructive afflictions of the mind. The idea behind the doctrines discussed here work just as well with this sort of viewpoint.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XIV

Let’s return to the text:

Having listened to this Dharma
that puts an end to suffering,
the undiscerning, afraid of the fearless state,
are terrified because they do not understand.

In this verse, The Precious Garland states that in actual fact emptiness is the state of fearlessness. Therefore, one should not develop a sense of fear towards it, rather a sense of joy. The reason why the childish feel terrified, sees emptiness as an object of fear, is because of their ignorance. When one doesn’t understand the nature of emptiness, it becomes a source of fear.

In the next verse, The Precious Garland is arguing with the Buddhist essentialists, particularly the Vaibhasika’s [a “Hinayana” school] who maintain that the attainment of nirvana, on one hand constitutes cessation of the continuum of consciousness. So The Precious Garland is arguing that if this is the understanding of nirvana or liberation, then since you do not fear the concept of total cessation of the individual in the continuum of consciousness, then how can you be afraid of the concept of emptiness? Emptiness, or nirvana, from the Madhyamaka standpoint is the state where all the negative afflictions of the mind are purified or calmed within the state of emptiness of the mind. Therefore, if the Vaibhaskika’s maintain that nirvana or liberation constitutes a total cessation, then why are they afraid of the notion of emptiness, where all the afflictions of the mind are eliminated?

In liberation there is neither Self nor aggregates:*
if you are intent upon that kind of liberation,
why are you not pleased with the teaching that
refutes Self and aggregates here as well?

*[Aggregates: Skt. Skandhas; lit. heap or bundle – the five aggregates that make up the individual: corporeal form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness.]

The point about liberation where there is no self or aggregates is that because according to the Madhyamaka understanding, nirvana constitutes the total elimination of all the delusions of the mind within the sphere of emptiness, so from this view of nirvana, no duality can be maintained. Therefore, no self or aggregates or perception can be maintained. All the dualities are calmed or dissolved into a state of emptiness. This is further developed in the next verse:

Nirvana is not even non-existent,
so how could it be existent?
Nirvana is said to be the cessation
of the notions of existence and non-existence.

So this develops the Mahayana understanding of the concept of Dharmakaya, which is the state where all the dualities dissolve into the sphere of emptiness. All forms of dualities, such are subject and object, such as aggregates, and also emptiness, itself, is dissolved here – so therefore, the Madhyamaka school talks about the emptiness of emptiness, as well.

In brief, a nihilistic view
is the belief that karma has no effect,
it is a nonmeritorious, and (it leads to)
low rebirth; it is said to be a false view.

In brief, a realist view
is the belief that karma has an effect.
it is meritorious, and (it leads to)
high rebirth; it is said that it is a proper view.

Through knowledge, one subdues the (notions of) existence
and non-existence, and one thus transcends sin and merit.
Hence, one is liberated from high and low rebirths –
this is what the holy one says.

Here, The Precious Garland is responding to a possible objection against the Madhyamaka concept of emptiness, because this concept rejects any independent existence or objective reality, it is possible for someone to understand it to entail [the rest of this sentence was lost when the tape was changed] . . . the rejection of independent existence does not imply the rejection of everything at the conventional level, therefore it is not a nihilistic view. A nihilistic view involves the total rejection, even in the conventional sense of things and events. Nihilism involves a rejection of the very principle of dependent origination and causation.

Then it [the text] states that sometimes it is possible, because of the principles of dependent origination and causation that someone may infer that there may be some intrinsic essence or some kind of objective reality.

Nagarjuna accepts the possibility that such absolutist interpretations of dependent origination can function as a basis to act in a positive way, thus creating karma for attaining a higher rebirth. Therefore even virtous actions can take place as a result in such a belief. However, if one understand these principles in terms of conditionality with no objective inherently real basis, then one will be able to not only undercut the commitment of negative actions, but also the very karma that gives rise to rebirth in the cyclic existence. Thus the understanding of emptiness acts as an antidote to undermine the process of rebirth in the cyclic existence. When dependent origination is viewed in the correct way, then that understanding can act as a counterforce against both the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.

Seeing that production has a cause,
one transcends (the notion) of non-existence.
Seeing that cessation has a cause,
one does not accept (the notion of) existence.

Because things come into being as a result of causes and conditions, one can transcend the nihilistic tendency to accept that they are non-existence. Because cessation comes into being as a result of causes and conditions, one transcends the possibility of a defined existence.

To be continued . . .

The Chinese government recently passed a new law that bans Tibetan lamas, or monks, from reincarnating without Chinese government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

This is so ridiculous, and utterly petty, on the part of the Chinese. You would think a world super-power might have better things to do than go around “approving” reincarnations and bickering with a 76 year-old monk. Yet, there may be a method to their madness. After all, it does divert attention away from the Chinese government’s ongoing campaign in Tibet of ethnic cleansing through population transference and their reign of violence and terror.

The ruling has forced the Dalai Lama to make a formal pronouncement on the subject of his reincarnation. He says that when he reaches the age of ninety, he will decide for himself about the matter.

Despite his well-constructed argument in favor of reincarnation, logical from the particular point of view of Tibetan Buddhism, I would not be a bit surprised if personally the Dalai Lama didn’t have a more practical approach to the subject. For one thing, he is an astute scholar of Buddhist philosophy and he must realize that “reincarnation” does not comport with Buddhist teachings, which deal with the subject of “rebirth,” a somewhat different sort of thing. But I think his “reincarnation statement” is more of a political statement, using reincarnation as an expedient. He may be retired as head of state, but he is in no way removed from politics. As long he is Beijing’s rhetorical crosshairs, he’s in the game.

Were it not for the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama might have made a pronouncement of another kind. Several years ago, during a visit to the U.S., he made quite a point of denying his status as a “living Buddha.” It was a courageous thing to do. For many years, it has been the Dalai Lama’s special status that alone has held the Tibetan community together. By undercutting the mystique surrounding him, and which he is reportedly uncomfortable with, he gambled that his people and the world would see and accept him for the human being he is, and not as some sort of living god in the way others and his tradition has proclaimed. In this way, he helped move his culture in a more modern direction.

I suspect that Tenzin Gyatso would much prefer having a reasonable and fair dialogue with the Chinese over the issues, but since, from the Chinese side, it doesn’t seem possible, he feels compelled to perpetuate some of these old myths and superstitions. By putting a “final” decision off for fourteen years, he buys some time, for the situation to become diffused, or perhaps for both sides to grow up. But, don’t be surprised if someday, he ends up disavowing or radically changing this reincarnation message.

In the meantime, the Tibetans have the right to believe in any damn fool thing they wish. The Chinese have taken everything else from them. You can’t begrudge them trying to hold on to their idea of reincarnation.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997


We will begin the session. First, I would like to thank the members of the Chinese Sangha for their recitation . . . So we begin the questions.

Previously questions were submitted on pieces of paper, which the translator reads in English and then in Tibetan. Several of the questions concern virtuous and non-virtuous actions in which the Dalai Lama basically repeats the points about these kinds of actions he has already made in the previous session.

The next question deals with religious tolerance, in which he makes the following points: 1) He feels that is more appropriate for people to follow the religious tradition of their own society or culture, but there can be exceptions to that; 2) if someone does decide to change religious traditions, this should be done only after careful consideration; 3) the differences between traditions especially between Buddhism and other traditions, reflect the richness of spiritual diversity and should be a cause for greater admiration; 4) it is possible in the beginning for a person to be able to follow both the Buddhist path and the Judeo-Christian path, but at some point one must choose between one or the other, since the Buddhist concept of emptiness and the Judeo-Christian concept of a creator god do not really fit together; 5) this last point may hold for people in the Buddhist tradition also, since there are some concepts from the various schools that, also, do not fit together. But no matter what, one should never become overly critical of religious tradition different from your own.

Q: How can we maintain faith when so many of the lamas and teachers misbehave?

A: If one is able to cultivate a faith that is grounded in a personal understanding, then there is no possibility of developing such a faith towards a lama or teacher who misbehaves.

It is very important when you relate to someone who is a dharma-teacher to use your critical faculty to subject that person to close scrutiny, so that you are aware that if not all the qualifications that are commented on in the scriptures are not found in that person, at least most of them are found in that individual.

Sometimes people select a dharma-teacher or choose a particular tradition during a very low period in their personal life. When that happens, when someone chooses a person or a tradition because they have a need to lean on someone or they lack confidence or self-esteem, then there is a real vulnerability for abuse and when that dependence is placed on someone, given that you are not really able to use the critical facility, then there is scope for abuse and disappointment.

Often when it comes to choosing a spiritual path or a teacher, our tendency is to be hasty and take on anything that comes near you, like a dog who will eat any food that comes its way and that is not how we should approach the question of choosing the dharma or a teacher.

As I say to members of the media, that they should have as long noses as possible, sort of sniffing around [laughter] and also this is true for the students-you should be able to sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back. Sometimes what happens is that things may look very impressive from the front, but from the back they may be sort of empty, just hollow. [laughter]

If a teacher is able to maintain a good kind of integrity, then, of course, that person is worthy of your admiration and trust.

Judging the integrity of a teacher should be approached in the context of the three higher trainings on morality, meditation and wisdom or insight. That is what the Buddha taught in the Tripitaka, the Three Spiritual Collections . . . So, this means that since I am also a teacher, you should subject me to such investigation as well. [laughter]

Q: What is the quickest and easiest way to realize selflessness or no-self?

Both the Dalai Lama and the audience laugh, but it soon tapers off into a rather long pause.

A: Let us be serious, now. Even though I cannot claim to have any high levels of realization in relation to the understanding of selflessness, the little realization that I have is a product of effort over thirty years of time and also –

It was difficult to follow the translator here. Even after listening to the tape repeatedly, I am unsure exactly who the Dalai Lama via the translator is referring to here, whether it is himself or some other lama.The Milarepa story below seems separate from this.

Translator: Tenzin Gyatso [?], after he met with [? name unclear] and he had a long discussion with him  . . . later, he happened to write a biography of [?] and in it Master [?] mentions . . . that the realizations that he attained were a result of intensive effort and commitment of over a period of forty years, and now he’s reached . . . a point where he is on the threshold of gaining a high liberation.

The Dalai Lama says something to the translator in Tibetan. There is another long pause. Silence. The Dalai Lama then begins to cry. He wipes his eyes. The entire hall is completely hushed. The Dalai Lama muttering to himself, continues to wipe his eyes.

Translator: His Holiness was saying that Milarepa [one of the most revered teachers in the history of Tibetan Buddhism], when Milarepa was giving his last instructions to one of his foremost disciples, sGam-go-pa, he showed his behind to him – ah, he showed the calluses on his behind that were the result of his long sitting in meditation and said, “Look that this! This is what I’ve endured. This is the mark of my practice.” And this is how, you must remember that the realization of dharma requires effort and commitment –

The Dalai Lama breaks in, speaking for the first time in English:

So don’t think easiest, best, cheapest!

The rest of his comment is drowned out by applause.

[Back to Tibetan and the translator]: What one Tibetan master [? name unclear] said is very true. He said that someone who, at the initial stage is so enthusiastic about the practice that he or she doesn’t have time to eat properly, but this lasts only three or four days, then they are distracted and go on to something else and loses interest – such a person expects to have results immediately, but then loses interest – such a person will never achieve anything. therefore, it is important to always maintain a steady flow of effort, a steady flow, like a stream, always continuous.

[The Dalai Lama in English]: You agree? [audience applauds] That’s good!

Two days later, at the very end, following the empowerment ceremony on the last day, the Dalai Lama offered his only other words spoken in English: “I hope that you will reflect deeply on these teachings, so that the next time I come you won’t have to ask about best, fastest, easiest.”

To be continued . . .

For the sake of some readers, I thought it might facilitate understanding to provide a bit of background to today’s presentation of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna.

He refers to the 12-link chain of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada). This doctrine is one of Buddhism’s core concepts, thought to have been taught by the historical Buddha himself. It describes the way existence characterized by suffering comes into being. Essentially, it is the Buddhist conception of how Samsara, the world of birth and death, the mundane world we live in, “works.”

Dependent Origination is envisioned as a chain of causes and conditions with 12 links: the fundamental state of being is (1) ignorance, which gives rise to (2) volition, which conditions (3) consciousness, which is joined to (4) name-form (the psycho-physical entity); then the (5) six-senses are activated, and they come into (6) contact with objects of desire, and as a result, (7) feeling, (8) craving, and (9) grasping arise; all of these factors cause and further condition the (10) becoming of life; and all that is becoming is subject to (11) birth, (12) old age and death.

According to Dependent Origination, all persons are interrelated through these causes and conditions, so there is no independent self-being or self-essence to be seized.

Early Buddhism accepted the selflessness of the person but not of phenomena since they promoted the idea of “dharmas” (or things) as pieces of existence that were atom-like particles. While there was some difference of opinion within the Madhyamaka school and Mahayana early on, in general the Mahayana branch of Buddhism acknowledges the selflessness, or emptiness, or both the person and phenomena.

The Dalai Lama launches into a discussion of the degrees of subtlety of these two selflessnesses or emptinesses. As far as I understand this discussion proceeds within the context of consciousness, which in Madhyamaka consists of three levels: gross (or coarse), subtle, and extremely subtle. Gross consciousness is limited to the senses. Subtle consciousness is cognition and the mind dealing with concepts, forming judgments, etc. Extremely subtle consciousness is nonconceptual in nature and is said to be “clear light”.

There’s also a reference to Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas. In early Buddhism these were considered as different stages of the path. The Sravaka or “voice-hearers” are disciples. This is the level of “stream entry”; they have entered the stream that flows to nirvana.  Pratyeka-buddhas are private or lone buddhas, who realize awakening on an individual or solitary basis. In Mayahana, Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas are viewed more as separate vehicles or ways, and are contrasted with the Bodhisattva, which is considered to be a higher path. The Bodhisattva vehicle also has various levels or stages (bhumi).

With that out of the way, we wrap up the morning session of the second day of the teachings.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XII

Verse 31 reads:

Depending upon a mirror,
the reflection of one’s face
is seen, but it does not
ultimately exist at all.

In verse 35, The Precious Garland argues that without the existence of the physical and mental aggregates, the natural sense of “I” cannot arise. In the next verses, Nagarjuna explains why:

With these three phases mutually causing each other,
the circle of samsara whirls around,
like the circle (formed by a whirling torch)
without beginning, middle or end.

But that (samsaric process) is not attained from itself,
from something else, or from both; nor is it attained in the three times.
Therefore, (for one who knows this) the fixation on “I” ceases,
and hence also karma and birth.

[The three times: past, present, and future]

True understand of no-self of person requires a deep understanding of phenomena. This is because the natural thought of “I” or “I am” cannot arise independently of the physical and mental aggregates. Therefore, what Nagarjuna is suggesting is that so long as one subscribes to a belief in selfhood, there is no possibility of arriving at true insight into emptiness.

This passage seems to reinforce the Madhyamaka-Prasangika [a sub-school of the Madhyamaka; also refers to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argumentation used by the Madhyamaka schools]. So far as the true selflessness is concerned there is no real difference in terms of subtlety. The difference really lies in the difference of the object in which the two selves are presented, no-self of person is the emptiness of the person. No-self of phenomena is the emptiness of phenomena. So far as the selfhood that is being negated, there is no real difference between selfhood of person and selfhood of phenomena. And this difference reinforces the Madhyamaka position against, or in contrast, to other interpretations of Nagarjuna, where there is an acceptance of the real substantive difference between the no-self of person and the no-self of phenomena, in that the no-self of person is understood in terms of negation of self as a substantial reality rather than self as devoid of intrinsic reality and there is no-self of phenomena  – it is posited differently. So it seems that this passage from The Precious Garland supports the Prasangika, in as far as the two selves are concerned, there is no difference in subtlety.

Of course, there are very important commentators of Nagarjuna, such as Bhavavineka, a Madhyamaka philosopher who read Nagarjuna in a different way.  For example, Bhavavineka accepts that there is no real substantive difference between no-self of person and no-self of phenomena, but there is a difference in subtlety. There is also a difference of subtlety of the two forms of grasping – grasping at selfhood of person and grasping at selfhood of phenomena – given that one of the implications of that kind of position is to accept that the root of unenlightened existence, the root of samsara, is really the grasping at the selfhood of the person, not the selfhood of phenomena. Therefore, in order to obtain liberation from samsara, we need to gain insight into the no-self of phenomena. According to Bhavavineka, it is perceived that the insight into the no-self of phenomena is more related to the attainment of omniscient states, than attainment of liberation from samsara.

Continue reading »

Here’s another installment in this series. If you want to read any of the previous entries, just go to “Categories” on the right and click on “The Precious Garland” and they’ll be displayed in reverse chronological order.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XI

Since we have already had a little discussion about the nature of mind as part of one of the questions, I would like to cite here from the Prajna-paramita [Transcendent Wisdom] Sutra which reads “mind is devoid of mind, because the nature of mind is clear.”

When we talk about the nature of mind being luminous or clear light of course we can understand it at two levels: one, in the context of the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra and also, in context of Hevajra Tantra [a key Tantric or Vajrayana text]. One could say that the understanding of clear light, the nature of mind according to the Hevajra Tantra, could be seen as a perfection or culmination of clear light, according to the Wisdom sutras.

Yesterday we had discussions, from the Precious Garland, about the various dharmas and how, many of these dharmas could be present through the three doors of body, speech, and mind.

Generally speaking, when we talk about the practice of dharma, one should know that we are talking about a form of practice and training at the level of body or heart. Aryadeva [Nagarjuna’s closest pupil] in his Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way, identifies three principle approaches to religious life: one is ritual, which has more to do with physical action and moral conduct; a second type is a more basic form of verbal action, which has more to do with the recitation of mantra sounds and so on; and a third type which approaches at the level of mind through thought and contemplation. He states that so far as dharma practice of the Buddha is concerned, it is the third approach that one should pursue.

A true practitioner of dharma constantly checks one’s own mind, subjects it to analysis. Given that dharma is like a medicine of the heart and mind, one must utilize it in the correct manner. When we are ill, we use medication and the medication is aimed at not only eliminating the symptoms but also by getting at the root of the conditions that cause the illness. Similarly, we should be able to use the dharma at the right instance, when it is needed the most, through constant self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-investigation. When one confronts a situation where, within the mind, there is any possibility of even an inkling of an arisal of negative emotions or non-virtuous thoughts – it is at that moment the dharma should be able to counter-act these disruptive forces.

Because negative action is an expression of the negative motivation or negative states of mind, if you are able to apply dharma at the right instance, before it becomes expressed in negative action, then you will be able to deal with it at that time. Otherwise one’s practice will become as [ Word unclear] master said, “sometimes for some people, the dharma can only be seen when things are fine.” There is a verse that reads that some can only be a practitioner when their stomach is full and everything is like sunshine, but the moment he or she encounters a crisis, the dharma goes out the window and they are complaining and blaming everybody and they act worse than someone who has no belief in dharma practice. This is not how we should do.

Some of you may have heard this story, but I will tell it again. Once there was a master who was previously a thief but was transformed and became a great dharma teacher. One day, in his meditation cell, he remembered that his benefactor was coming to visit, so he thought ‘I’d better prepare myself to look more impressive.’ So he arranged the altar in a more impressive way and laid down the offering of the water and so on. When everything was arranged properly, he sat down and examine his motivation to do this, and he realized that he was doing it not out of commitment to his spiritual practice, but rather so he could impress his benefactor. He realized his motivation was not really dharmic, it was out of worldly concern, to impress someone so that he would continue to support him financially. So, at that moment, he picked up a handful of dust and threw it on the altar and spoiled the whole thing. So when the benefactor came, there was no welcoming greeting and the benefactor looked around and the meditation cell was messy and the altar was covered with dust and he was rather shocked. And he went back and the story was heard by a great Kadampa master, who said: “That is the mark of a true practitioner!”

Also when you read the life story of the great meditation master, Milarepa, you also see that the true spirit of Buddhist practice is to constantly examine one’s motivation when one does something, so that the motivation becomes pure. Otherwise sometimes it is possible that one may engage in non-virtuous acts, even if on the surface such activity may seem like spiritual work.

We are looking now at verses 28-30. Yesterday the verses that we read, spoke about how the concept of no-self can cause fear in the minds of the childish and cause delight in the minds of the wise. The reason why no-self can cause joy in the minds of the wise is because the wise understand the nature of no-self and also see the potential of that insight, in the sense that this insight can lead to liberation. [In The Precious Garland] we find further explanation on why the wise find the doctrine of no-self joyful and it expands on what is meant by no-self:

Ultimately, the notions “I exist” and
“What is mine exists” are false, because
from the perspective of knowing (things)
as they truly are, there is neither “I” or “mine”.

The aggregates arise from fixation on “I”;
the fixation on “I” is ultimately unreal.
How then can there really be any production
of that whose seed is unreal?

Seeing in this way that the aggregates
Are unreal, one forsakes fixation on “I.”
And due to forsaking fixation on “I”
the (afflicted) aggregates do not arise again.

Our problem is our habit of grasping at things. Whatever appears to our mind, whatever we perceive, we generally tend to view as enjoying some kind of objective reality. Because of this, when the thought of “I” arises in us, the self appears to us, to enjoy some kind of intrinsic reality. However, when we analyze the nature of such existence, we find that the self or “I” is unreal, and if the self or “I” is untenable, how can the object we are grasping at, which is our physical and mental aggregates, which is seen as mind – how can this be maintained?

Through this way, we will realize that, in the ultimate sense, the self, as we perceive it, does not exist. Similarly, the physical and mental aggregates also do not exist. Once that is realized, then we understand that there is a real possibility of eliminating the root of unenlightened existence, which is this grasping at the intrinsic nature of self and mind. This becomes possible through the constant reaffirmation and re-understanding of no-self for long periods of time. In this way, there is no possibility of the arisal of that process of unenlightened existence.

To be continued . . .

First, a follow-up to Tuesday’s post: A Chinese court has sentenced 46 year old Buddhist monk Lobsang Tsundue to 11 years imprisonment for allegedly “killing” his nephew, Rigzin Phuntsog, a 16-year old monk who set himself on fire last March. Tsundue was found guilty of hiding Phuntsog which prevented the boy from receiving emergency medical treatment for 11 hours. Eyewitnesses claim that that after Chinese security personnel doused the flames, they severely beat Phuntsog’s charred body. Tsundue, they said, was trying to save his nephew from any further beating. Tsundue’s supporters also claim that young monk Phuntsog died as a result of the beatings and not from his self-immolation.

In related news, the former Tibet Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli who led China’s hard-line policy against the Dalai Lama and his supporters, has a new job and a new target.

Zhang Qingli, aka “The Tibetan bulldog”, has been appointed Communist Party Secretary of Hebei province, home to about one quarter of China’s Roman Catholics.  According to the, Hebei province is “where tensions between the state and the Vatican run at their highest.”

Although there is no evidence that Zhang Qingli plans to mercilessly persecute the Catholics, and perhaps unfair to suggest that he will, it’s still a safe bet things will be no picnic for them in the foreseeable future, because if you know anything at all about modern day China, you know that the government has no use for religion or spirituality.

And now, here’s another exciting episode featuring the guy the Chinese government just loves to hate:

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part X

Day Two – Morning Session

After leading the audience in a short sutra recitation and a series of mantras, the Dalai Lama begins the morning session with a long question-and-answer period. Since some of the questions dealt with specific topics within the Tibetan tradition, they have not been included. Some of the answers have been condensed and summarized.

Q: When you are talking about finding the nature of one’s mind, clear and knowing, in relationship to the past, present and future; and finding the empty space and consequently expanding it, as a concentration – how does this assist the attainment of one’s understand of selflessness?

A: When we are talking about the nature of the mind or consciousness, we must bear in mind that there are two different levels. One is the relative level and one is the ultimate level. So when we are talking about the possibility of actually defining the nature of the mind through a meditative process of preventing the arising of thoughts of the past and anticipation of the future and remaining in the present, then we are dealing with the nature of the mind at the conventional or relative level.

Of course, through such a meditative approach if one is able to develop a greater degree of awareness of the relative nature of the mind in the form of mere knowing or luminosity, then it could have positive benefits. When you reflect upon the emptiness of the mind, you can have a greater clarity, a clearer identification of mind itself.

As far as the actual nature of emptiness is concerned, which is the absence or the negation of the intrinsic reality, one cannot make a distinction between the emptiness of vast space and the emptiness of the mind. However, the difference in the subject or object upon which you meditate on emptiness – there is going to be a difference in the impact or effect it will have on your mind. For example, compared to the reflection on the emptiness of [? Word unclear.] certainly reflection on the emptiness of mind will have a greater effect. Also, in the Madhyamaka commentaries, in their discussions of how all the negativities of the mind are, through meditation, calmed or purified or dissolved into emptiness – the reference here is to the emptiness of mind. Similarly, when we talk about the qualities of the Buddha’s wisdom and transcendent mind, one of the dimensions of the dharma-kaya [dharma body] is said to be the emptiness of the mind.

Q: When people ask if Buddhist believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

Q: What do you recommend as a daily meditation for a lay person who is not skilled in meditative practices? Something to use in the morning after waking up and at night before falling asleep.

A: There is a set of verses from the Ratnavali, The Precious Garland [see below] which could be used as a daily recitation and also as seeds for thought. So that you read through and reflect on the meanings of these verses on a daily basis. Or one could personally select certain extracts from a text like The Precious Garland, certain key passages as a basis for daily practice.

Continue reading »

Again I hope that people are enjoying this series. I know of a couple of people out there who are, although enjoy is probably not the right word . . .

In any case, there is still a long ways to go as we are just finishing with Day One in this installment:

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part IX

But the Victors said that
the Dharma of the highest good
is the subtle and profoundly appearing;
it is frightening to unlearned, childish beings.

From verse 25 the discussion moves on to the dharma and three associated practices related to the attainment of what the text calls the highest good. The highest good here refers to liberation or nirvana. And it is said to be the highest good in the sense that liberation constitutes the definitive attainment and happiness and it is also positive in all its aspects.

Now the question is why is liberation or nirvana said to be the highest good? Here my explanation is from the point of view of the Madhyamaka [the Middle Way school of Nagarjuna] philosophy. It is said to be the highest good because liberation or nirvana is constituted by the total overcoming or elimination of the state of existence that is characterized by ignorance and the bondage of clinging to self. So long as one remains in a state where one is clinging to self-existence, there is no real scope for lasting joy or happiness because such an individual remains in the bondage of karma and afflictions of the mind. Therefore, any effort toward total freedom from that kind of bondage really constitutes the highest form of attainment.

When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he taught the first truth, the truth of suffering, in terms of description of the four characteristics of suffering. The first being impermanence. The fact that existence in the unenlightened states is transient, ultimately unsatisfying, there is emptiness [Skt. Sunyata] and there is an absence of self-existence. When we talk about impermanence, in a conventional sense, one can have a rough understanding in terms of the continuum of life. But that is a coarse understanding of the transient nature.

The transient nature being taught here as one of the cardinal characteristics of existence should be viewed in terms of its dynamic process, its ever changing nature. It is momentary but even in the individual instances themselves, the moment they come into being are in the nature of disintegration. It is not as if things come into being first and then some third condition or some other factor cause it to cease to exist. It’s not the case. Whatever phenomena comes into being, the very instant they are born, they are born with the full mechanism for their disintegration.

One could say that the very cause that creates them also creates the destruction of the phenomena, so that the seed or mechanism for disintegration is built within the phenomena itself. So now, we apply that subtle meaning of impermanence to ourselves in an unenlightened form. We are then talking about an understanding of the causal process, where the two primary causes are negative karma and afflictions of the mind. Underlying all of the afflictions of the mind is the cardinal root cause, which is described as avidya or ignorance.

The very word avidya or ignorance in itself show a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace. Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether that advidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.

Now, of course, within the Buddhist tradition there are divergent opinions as to what is the nature of ignorance. Such masters as Asanga [Buddhist philosopher who was the creative force behind the Yogacara school and the “Mind-Only” doctrine] made distinctions between self-grasping – the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. Asanga, and others like him, saw ignorance more in terms of an inactive state, a mere not-knowing, where other Buddhist thinkers such as Dharamkirti [a Buddhist logician] and many Madhyamaka philosophers defined ignorance as an active state of mis-knowing, relating to the world in a distorted way of perceiving. In that sense, the self-grasping mind itself is the fundamental ignorance. From the last point of view, the quest for freedom from Samsara [the cycle of birth and death fueled by ignorance] really becomes the quest to dispel ignorance and its mortal apprehension.

One could say that this fundamental ignorance is the definitive enemy within us. As Shantideva’s Bodicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, points out, the power and the extent of harm that the internal enemy can inflict upon us should cause us to view ignorance as the most definitive and inner-most enemy that we combat.

When we talk about ignorance, we must know that, to a large extent, it is something that is natural and innate within us and sometimes this naturally flowed way of viewing life can be reinforced by philosophical speculation. So when the Buddhist teaching of anatma or no-self is taught, often it can create a sense of unease within us. Because the grasping for self-existence is so deeply rooted in us, reflection on the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anatma can create some discomfort. Especially for those in whom this inherent self-grasping is further reinforced by metaphysical speculation – for them the sense of discomfort or unease can be even greater.

I can tell you a story about an Indian from Behar, who later became a Buddhist and part of the monastic order. One day I was teaching to him the doctrine of anatma, no-self, and when I mentioned to him that Buddhism rejects the concept of a soul, the person was literally shaking. So this shows how a genuine reflection of this most basic Buddhist teaching of no-self can go against the deeply imbedded ways of viewing the world that we possess.

This is what is meant by verse 26, where it reads, “the teaching of selflessness terrifies the childish./For the Wise, it puts an end to fear.”

For the wise, the teaching of selflessness really shows that there is an opening to getting out of this condition of being in an unenlightened state of existence.

In verse 27, it reads that,

All beings arise from fixation on self
such that they (thereby) are fixated on ‘mine’;
this is what has been stated
by the one who speaks solely for the sake of beings.

Given that it is this grasping at the concept of self-existence which gives rise to the unenlightened forms of existence, the Buddha has taught, out of compassion for all sentient beings, the path which would liberate all out of that bondage. The path here refers to the path of no-self.

So we will leave at that. Those of you who have deeper interests in what we have discussed so far, I would suggest that you reread the sections that we have covered today and try to reflect on their meanings. So, through this way, you will gain greater benefit.

Since the process of understanding takes place in the form of attaining different levels of understanding, and in the scriptures there is a description of a procedure where one arrives at an understanding derived through study and listening and which can then develop into the second level of understanding, which is contemplation, which goes to the third level of understanding-through-meditation. In the first level of study, listening and hearing, what is important is to be able to train and focus when listening and studying so that one can deepen one’s insight. So this is why in the sutras there is the advice that you should listen well and then put what you have heard into heart. So, it is listening well and the using one’s faculty of mindfulness that one can then put into memory what one has learned.

Both knowledge and mindfulness are very important in insuring that we are successful in living a life-style which is in the bounds of an ethically disciplined way of life. So when we talk about mindfulness [Pali: anapanasati, literally, mindfulness of breath], we are not always talking about being self-conscious, but rather an underlying alertness. So that we are ever-vigilant, so that when we are confronted with situations that demand an ethical judgment, because of our underlying mindfulness, we are instinctively able to respond in the right manner, and therefore, without knowledge we won’t know how best to act or what ethical way to act. So when there is knowledge, but no mindfulness, then that knowledge is not beneficial, so you need both knowledge and mindfulness.

So that is all, we will end the session with a prayer of dedication.

[The Dalai Lama leads the monks on stage in chanting a short prayer in Tibetan.]

[in English] Thank you, good night.



To be continued . . .

All of Nagarjuna’s works were written in verse, though I don’t know if you could say they are poetry per se, and certainly they are not as poetic as many of Shantideva’s verses. Nagarjuna was primarily a logistician and his dialectic is often described as a form of reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”), the method of pointing out the contradictory or absurd consequences of an opponents argument. Although, Nagarjuna maintained that “If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error; but I do not make a proposition, therefore I am not in error.”

Karl Jaspers wrote, “Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said. Consequently he moves in self-negating operations of thought.” On the surface, it appears that Nagarjuna’s logic is rather negative, however, as many have pointed out, it would be a mistake to brand it as nihilism.

Here is more of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on one of Nagarjuna’s most famous works. In this transcript, I have only included those verses that were read aloud to the audience. If you would like to read the verses the Dalai Lama refers to, or the entire work, go here. It’s not the same translation as was used at the teachings, but the differences are minor.

The Free Tibet Network has reported that Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year old Buddhist monk died Monday  after setting himself on fire in protest against the continuing Chinese crackdown on Tibetan monks. According to witnesses, as he set himself ablaze, the monk shouted, “We Tibetan people want freedom,” “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.”

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997


In the next two verses, the text defines what are the ten non-virtuous acts: violence, theft, adultery, lying, divisive speech, harsh words, idle talk, miserliness, maliciousness, and nihilistic views. It says there are ten bright paths of action and that the reversal of the virtuous actions are the ten negative actions.

In verse 10, Nagarjuna, in addition to the list of positive actions, gives a list of another six dharmas: three dharmas of avoidance and three dharmas of acceptance [not drinking liquor, maintaining a proper occupation, abandoning harm, being respectfully generous, honoring the worthy, and cultivating love].

The point of indentifying these as the dharma here is to insure that the individual does not give any opening to negative actions or engage in negative activity. These are said to be the 16 Paramitas [Perfections], the ten positive actions plus the six dharmas, the 16 Paramitas is aimed at attaining the elevated states of existence, which means higher forms of rebirth.

Given the adoptions of these positive actions are constituted by abstaining from their opposite forces, what is important is to abstain from these negative actions throughout one’s entire life. If not, at least avoid them as much as possible. Even in the event that we find ourselves engaging in these negative actions, what is important is that we insure that our thoughts are influenced by repentance, so that we won’t take pleasure in the commitment of these deeds, so that there is no degree of indifference, because if someone has no regard for what happens in engaging in these acts, to such a person it is said that there is not even a smell of a good, practicing Buddhist.

So in verses, 11, 12, and 13, the text emphasizes the fundamental point that dharma activity by nature must be a beneficial activity. Because the essence of dharma is to be of benefit to oneself and others. If it is an activity that involves inflicting pain on others or on oneself, such forms cannot be considered as being the dharma of liberation or dharma that leads to higher forms of rebirth. In these verses, the text defines that if in engaging in such physical austerities, pain is inflicted on oneself or others, then it is not dharma at all.

Whenever I give instructions in Buddhism, I always tell people that the entire teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in two principles: one is the cultivation of the view of the interdependent nature of reality, and two is adopting a form of behavior that is not harming others. Those two principles capture the entire essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

The next set of verses address the question that sometimes one might wonder how murder and stealing and telling lies can be said to be negative in the sense that they cause pain, because certain things, which are said to be negative, can also bring a degree of satisfaction to the individual. For example, someone who has committed a murder or someone who has stolen something might, for a short time, feel satisfaction. So one could argue that these actions may not always be negative.

Nagarjuna addresses that question by showing how all these actions are negative and lead to undesirable consequences with the individual, and he suggests that in verse 18 that “prior to all of these there is a bad rebirth,” suggesting that these negative actions – if the deeds are done with strong emotion, great intensity and cool, calculated motivation, then the karmic result of these acts leads to rebirth in lower states of existence, even if one is reborn as a human being, these acts lead to undesirable consequences. This is described in verses 14 through 19.

The last verse indicates that when you refrain from these negative actions, you can have positive results, if you abstain from murder, you will have a long life span. If you abstain from violence, you will not be an object of violence.

Verse 20 of the text summarizes what is meant by negative or non-virtuous actions, and positive or virtuous karma, in terms of negative or positive in the sense that an action leads to liberation or not.

The next several verses summarizes the definition of what is meant by negative action and what is positive action, on the basis of what kind of effect it produces. Those actions which produce happiness and positive rebirth are virtuous. There are three doors from which actions are committed: body, speech, and mind. The text says that the dharmas given here are to be committed in observance of the right kind of code of ethics for body, speech, and mind. Then it reads that if one engages in such a dharmic way of life, not only will one attain higher forms of existence in the next life, but within that life one will also gain results like happiness and less suffering.

Verse 24 explains that within the realm of enlightened states, there are more elevated states of existence corresponding to the levels of consciousness and subtlety of concentration. And also there are said to be four levels of concentration and formless realms, regardless of whether or not they exist in the objective world. However, it is true as we approach deeper into the more subtle levels of consciousness there is a degree of tranquility, a corresponding level of freedom from the conceptual restlessness that seems to dominate our minds in the ordinary states of existence. So, compared to thoughts of the individual in the realm of existence, those individuals abiding in the formless realms are said to be at a level where these is a degree of tranquility and freedom from the gross levels of affliction of the mind, delusions and so on.

Within the formless states there are different levels of subtlety. For example, in the scriptures, there is a mention of a formless state which is said to be infinite space. Then the next state is infinite consciousness, which is even more subtle than infinite space, and next is the state of non-observation of nothingness, that is said to be more subtle than the state of infinite consciousness. And the highest level of formless realms is sad to be the most subtle.

The point is that as a result of engaging in different forms of concentration and absorptive meditation states of mind, one can attain corresponding subtleties of consciousness.

In the Prajna Paramita [“Transcendent Wisdom”] Sutras, there is mention of different yanas or vehicles. There’s discussion of human vehicles and deva [“radiant ones”] vehicles and Brahma [in this context, the ultimate divine reality] vehicles. And all the practices within the cultivation of these form and formless realms are said to be the Brahma vehicle, referring to levels of tranquility. The practice of the ten virtuous actions and the six dharmas that we spoke of earlier can be said to be part of the human yana or vehicle. And corresponding to the diversity of conceptual qualification, there are diverse forms of yana or existence.

Do we have the questions ready? [The answer is no]. So in that case, I will continue to read from the text and you can prepare the questions for tomorrow. You can write down the questions on a piece of paper and give them to the usher and tomorrow we will deal with them in one of the sessions.

To be continued . . .

There’s some doubt about whether Nagarjuna actually composed all the texts attributed to him, but most scholars accept The Precious Garland as part of his official corpus of works. According to the preface in the commemorative book given out at the Dalai Lama’s teachings, “The text is classified by the Tibetan tradition as belonging to the ‘Epistles’

As far as I know the king to whom the epistle was written for, has never been identified. But as Nagarjuna states in the text, he did not write it solely out of his “affection” for a king, but “also due to my compassion for beings.” In that sense, The Precious Garland is really a letter to all humanity.

In this section, the Dalai Lama offers some indispensable guidance on the various ways we approach the path and on the nature of faith and wisdom.

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part VII

There have been some problems with the lights in the auditorium (Pauley Pavilion at UCLA). When the lights are restored to the stage, they go out again in the audience area.

So, now . . . if you can read in this dark – [laughter].

Translator: In that sense, he has an advantage over you [referring to the Dalai Lama – more laughter.]

Now, we read from the text:

King, I will explain the wholly virtuous Dharma
So that you may accomplish it,
For the practices will be accomplished when it is explained
To a vessel of the true Dharma.

In one who first practices the Dharma of elevation;
Afterwards comes the highest good,
For, having obtained elevation,
One proceeds gradually in stages to the highest good.

Here, I say that elevation is happiness,
And the highest good is liberation.
Briefly, the method for attaining them,
I summarize as faith and wisdom.

Because one has faith, one relies on the Dharma;
Because one has wisdom, one truly knows;
Of these two, wisdom is primary,
But faith must come first.

What is being stated in these verse is that the dharma being taught is the dharma of the Buddha. And what is the Buddha’s dharma? It is the way and means by which the highest good, which is liberation, is attained. Since the attainment of liberation may take a long process, it becomes essential for the practitioner to insure that during the process moving toward liberation, one possesses the right kind of existence, the right forms of existence, which equips the individual to use the resources toward the perfection of liberation. Thus, there are two principle forms of dharma: there is the dharma of elevated states of existence, such as human existence, and the second dharma, which is the more important dharma, that is related to the process of attaining liberation. And practice associated with the first kind of dharma has more to do with the cultivation and development of faith.

Faith here refers to the Three Jewels, the three objects of refuge: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It also refers to a conviction in the validity of the law of cause and effect. By developing that kind of faith, one engages in a life style where the individual lives within the bounds of an ethical way of life, thus insuring the possibility of attaining higher forms of existence.

For the dharma of attaining liberation, it is not faith that is crucial, but wisdom or insight is the essential aspect of the path. And wisdom here refers to the wisdom that penetrates into the ultimate nature of reality, thus being able to act as a direct antidote to dispelling the afflictions of a distorted state of mind. So although faith precedes wisdom, wisdom is central to the path.

One who does not neglect the practices
Through desire, anger, fear, or ignorance
Should be known as one who has faith,
A supreme vessel of the highest good.

A wise person is one who
Having thoroughly analyzed
All actions of body, speech and mind,
Always practices for the benefit of self and others.

In verse six, Nagarjuna is talking about engaging in a formal practice of dharma. He defines what he sees as four flawed ways of pursuing the practice of dharma. One is pursuing one’s practice of dharma on the basis of a strong attachment of one’s own approach – because it is my approach, it is the best – and that way of pursuing the path is totally flawed, in the sense that your attachment prevents you from actually understanding the true nature of the path. Your approach is not grounded in a valid understanding of the process of the path.

The second flawed way of pursuing the path is to pursue an approach that is based on anger, hatred, or revulsion. And this refers, again, to a formal practice where you totally reject  someone else’s  approach on the grounds that is it not your own. And this strong revulsion to others opinions blinds you from any possibility of gaining insight from others approach.

Nagarjuna defines the third flawed way as where your approach is hindered by inhibition or fear. Fear in the sense that you feel threatened and this inhibits your approach to the path.

And the fourth flawed way is where you approach the path or practice purely on the basis of blind faith. You understand nothing, it’s just simple faith that is totally blind. It is again a flawed way of pursuing the path. By drawing contrast to these four wrong ways of going about one’s practice, the text defines what is the true sense of faith.

Here Nagarjuna defines that someone who’s faith in the path, the Three Jewels, and the law of cause and effect, is grounded in a personal understanding and knowledge—such a person is someone who is said to possess the right kind of faith, the right kind of competence to engage in the path.

The kind of understanding that is referred to here, upon which one must ground one’s faith, is a fundamental understanding of the Two Truths [Skt. samvrtisatya ‘conventional truth’ and paramarthasatya ‘absolute truth’] of the Buddha’s teachings. Then on the basis of understanding the Two Truths, one will develop a good understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Understanding the Four Noble Truths will allow you to develop a greater appreciation of the Three Jewels, and though this understanding one can develop a deep conviction in the law of karma. Thus one will be able to engage in a dharmic life, and live according to a life-style that is with the bounds of an ethical and disciplined way of life. Such a person, whose faith and conviction in dharma is grounded in such an understanding, is said to be the ideal practitioner.

This sets the actual procedure of the process of the path, the first stage of the dharma practice is engaging in the practice where the primary emphasis is to disengage one’s body, speech, and mind from any kind of negative actions. So there is an element of restraint here. The next stage is to engage in the practice of understanding the Anatma [no-self] teachings. Once the level of understanding of no-self is developed then one should be able to adopt the third level of practice, which I view as the primary level, which is overcoming not only delusions but also the imprints left by delusions. Someone who is capable of understanding such an approach to dharma is said to be a wise practitioner, is said to be truly insightful.

So these considerations are directly related to the three qualifications that are recommended on the part of the student in Santideva’s “Four-hundred Verses on the Middle Way”, where he defines three principle characteristics that are necessary on the part of the student listening to the teachings. One is open-mindedness. The second is intelligence, in the sense that one is able to employ his or her critical faculties. The third is that a person should have a good degree of enthusiasm and commitment.

If you lack the first qualification of objectivity, then you will be swayed by your prejudices and certain preconceptions that you may have and this would then color your judgment and you won’t be able to really appreciate what is being taught. Also, you won’t be able to engage in discourse.

The second qualification of intelligence is vitally important, especially for the Buddhist practitioner, for within the Buddhist scriptures there are different types of scriptures that are taught to different audiences for different purposes at different times. So, because of these specific contents, one should be able to apply a critical faculty to be able to judge what are the definite true meaning of the scripture and what are conditional, to what degree what is said explicitly in this scripture is contextual, relative to a particular context and cannot be applied universally across the board, or to what extent there is a deeper underlying subject matter that is being taught.

So on the part of the Buddhist practitioner there is a real need for the ability to draw from one’s own critical resources so that one is able to really discern the true meaning of the scriptures. Without a critical faculty, one may not be able to judge the validity of what is being taught to you, especially when one comes across a teacher who either out of ignorance or pride or certain prejudices gives a teaching that is not in the true spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Then if you lack this critical ability to determine the validity of the teachings, there is a real danger of being led astray.

Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings. It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.

Now the question of how do we acquire a knowledge of the basic tenets or an understanding of the fundamental framework of the Buddhist path? Here I would suggest to all of you that before taking someone on as a teacher—one should not be hasty in selecting a teacher, rather one can attend lectures on the teachings and one should do as much reading as possible. These days there are books and texts available, thus try to develop a good body of knowledge of the basic framework of the Buddhist path, then you will be equipped with the critical ability to analyze and examine what is being taught, so that you will not be led astray.

And the third qualification is that you must have a degree of interest or commitment. This is important, otherwise there will be an absence of engagement on your part.

To be continued . . .

In this section, the Dalai Lama continues with his explanation of the first line of The Precious Garland: “Completely free from all faults/and adorned with all good virtues,/the sole friend of all beings/to that Omniscient One I bow.”

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part VI

In the context of our discussion here, when I talk about undisciplined states of mind, I’m talking about a state of mind that is dominated by afflictions of the mind, such as delusions and so on. So the question arises whether it is possible to eliminate these afflictions from one’s psyche.

When this undisciplined or untamed state of mind – when we examine it at a deeper level one could say its root lies in a state of mind that in the final analysis is distorted. Whereas, a disciplined or tamed state of mind does not arise out of states of confusion or distorted mind. So the question is to see in what way an undisciplined state of mind has its roots in a way of perceiving the world that is distorted – what sense that understanding, beliefs or perceptions of the world are distorted, and if it is distorted, then is there a way to overcome that distortion? Is there an opposing force or antidote that will enable us to dispel that distortion and cultivate the right way of perceiving the world? Through this way, we can learn that not only is this distorted mind ungrounded but it does have an opposing force and antidote.

This is the correct form of knowledge, it is insight, and this insight can counteract the fundamental distortion and confusion. Not only is this insight founded in a continuum of consciousness, which we spoke about earlier and which is beginningless, unlike physical characteristics – this insight reflects the capability of the mind which is much more deeply rooted and enduring. Also, unlike physical characteristics, its scope, or its potential for development is limitless. The physical power, like athletic power, is somewhat limited, in that you reach a limit that you cannot go beyond. Mental ability has the potential for limitless development. So when you reflect on these considerations, then you gain a degree of understanding that these distorted states of mind can be removed, can be eliminated.

Depending on the basis of these properties or qualities, depending on how coarse or gross they are, one could say that there is a difference in the degree of subtlety in these qualities. For example, if the property is contingent upon a physical object that is tangible, like the earth, then the scope for its development or perfection is surely limited. If the property or characteristic is based on more subtle forms of phenomena, like air, then it has a greater degree of flexibility. Compared to air, the qualities based on space, again, have a greater degree of flexibility. So one could say that characteristics based on consciousness have even greater flexibility and scope for development.

It is along these lines that the explanation of cessation and the path that leads to cessation can be understood. It is on the basis of a profound understanding of the nature of the Four Noble Truths that one can finally arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature of dharma.

All the Buddhists traditions agree that the Four Noble Truths was among the first dharmas or doctrines that the Buddha taught. And according to this dharma, the cessation of suffering that one attains and, also, once you are able to recognize the possibility of such attainment, then one will also be able to recognize the path that leads to such cessation.

So if you are able to understand the nature of dharma, then you will be able to conceive the individual or being in whom such realization has taken place. These individuals or beings are sangha, the true sangha, and once you are able to conceive the existence of sangha, once you can conceive of sangha, then one will be able to recognize the possible attainment of Buddhahood, because these fully realized and enlightened beings, these Ariya [Pali: Ariya-Pubbala: “noble ones”] Sangha who have perfected these levels of realizations to the highest point – through these perfections, one is able to develop a good understanding of the Three Objects of Refuge: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Therefore, in the text it reads, “he is completely free from all faults”, referring to the qualities of the Buddha, which is an elimination of all faults. In the next line, it reads, “adorned with all good virtues,” refers to the perfections inherent in our consciousness. In that sense, the capacity to perceive, to know something is inherent within our minds and it is only the delusions that obstruct that full expression of the natural capacity of the mind.

So when the obstacles are removed, then the full flowering of that natural capacity of the mind to know is expressed as the wisdom of the Buddha, which directly recognizes the ultimate nature of reality and the relative world of multiplicity and diversity.

Since the perfections of these two wisdoms takes place only on the basis of the complementary factor of accumulation of merit based on universal compassion toward all sentient beings, the third line, therefore, refers to the Buddha’s quality of having perfected compassion. So it reads, “The sole friend of all beings.”

So the explanations I’ve given so far, on the basic tenets of Buddhism and the basic framework of the Buddhist path, are based on the explanations given by great masters like Nagarjuna and other true masters of India.  And the explanations given, in their words, should not be viewed only in academic terms, as some sort of scholarly exposition, but they also reflect insights which come from the personal experiences of these great masters.

For example, in my own case, although I don’t claim to have any profound experience or realizations of these facts that the great masters are talking about, I can assure you, that from my own personal experience, as a result of continued persistence, that what is taught in these scriptures is truly powerful.

These teachings can make a difference and they can have an impact on your mind, in the sense that they can bring about an inner-change, a transformation.

One thing I realize as I’m here, so far as the potential for developing within us the wisdom penetrating into the true nature of reality is concerned, we are all absolutely equal. Everybody has these potentials. The question is whether one recognizes that fact and whether one utilizes or develops these potentials. That is entirely in the hands of the individual, but if one recognizes this fundamental fact of equality, the possession of the potential, and utilizes that knowledge, then each of us has a real chance of bringing about real spiritual change within us.

I would like to remind all of you who consider yourself practicing Buddhists to reflect upon the point raised in the sutra that we should relate to the teachings in the scriptures like the mirror. We should see our own thoughts, feeling, actions, and so on reflected in the mirror and constantly judge to what extent of thoughts, feelings, behavior, and motivation are close to that reality reflected in the mirror, or to what extent they are deviating from the scriptures, and it is through that constant comparison and checking that you should adopt the practice.

It is very important for practicing Buddhists to unsure the right kind of attitude and motivation, particularly when participating in a teaching or a lecture like this. For example, if my motivation as a teacher is colored by considerations or thinking that if I give this series of lectures I’ll be famous or that you’ll be impressed by my teaching skills or people will have high regards for me – or worse, if I am motivated by considerations of monetary gain – then of course, on the surface it may seem a spiritual work but in substance it becomes another act for accumulating non-virtuous merit. Similarly, on the part of the students, if your motivations are influenced by considerations like “If I attend these teachings I will increase my knowledge of Buddhism, I will become an expert, I will be able to impress other people, I will be able to write and be famous – such considerations are flawed. In such a case, what you are doing here may seem like a dharma activity but, in reality, it is a non-dharma activity.

Therefore it is very important for us practicing Buddhist to always reflect upon such profound thoughts, such altruistic thoughts like the ones we find in the beginning of the first verse of the Eight Verses on Training the Mind which state, “Whenever I am with others, may I always see myself as lower than others, from the depth of my heart may I always take others as dear and precious.”

It is quite rare, for us as individuals, to engage in the practice of dharma. So when we do find ourselves engaging in a dharma activity, it is all the more important to make sure that it really becomes a dharma activity. Now, behind me are a lot of Thangkas of Buddha Shakyamuni. If they are displayed as an object of veneration, admiration, and faith, then that is wonderful. But if they are displayed here a part of a decoration, then I thing that is wrong, so the point is that we should constantly check our motivation in whatever we do.

To be continued . . .