The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 4

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 . . .


All God’s Children Got Buddha-nature

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.”


“Like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”

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


“I wanted to be free so I let it go.”

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.


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 3

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 . . .