The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 15

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.


An American Buddhist Life

Yesterday I wrote about a book that I haven’t read. Based on the promotional material accompanying it’s release, I formed an negative impression of this work. That might seem unfair. But consider this: the author promotes his book in various ways, including interviews and writing opinion pieces. The idea is to inform potential readers about the author and his book in the hopes of creating a positive impression that will lead to book sales. Sometimes an negative one is created and that’s what happened with the book by Owen Flanagan.

Today, I’d like to mention another book, also by a scholar, which I also have not read, but one that I have a very favorable impression of: “An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer” by Charles S. Prebish (2011, Sumeru Press Inc.).

Prebish is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Penn State. The difference between Prebish and Owen Flanagan is that Prebish is also a practicing Buddhist. In fact, he has paved the way for scholar-practioners, a breed sorely needed. So, to me, that’s a big difference. It’s means that Prebish’s thoughts have a bit more credence since he is inside the practice, not outside looking in.

Prebish is also a founding co-editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Journal of Global Buddhism, co-editor of the Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism series and the Routledge Curzon Encyclopedia of Buddhism project, an officer in the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and co-founder of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion. If that isn’t enough he’s  written or edited more than 20 books. In other words, he’s got some credentials.

The book is a memoir that details Prebish’s “role in bringing the field of American Buddhism to prominence. The difficulties he faced in establishing American Buddhism as a legitimate field of study, and in trying to be recognized as a “scholar-practitioner,” as one reviewer describes it. The subject of Buddhist studies is not an altogether un-sexy, since apparently Prebish dishes some dirt and names names. It’s also an informal history of Buddhism in America. As I said, I haven’t read the book, which was released in May, nor have I been able to find any excerpts. However, according to the publisher,

Dr. Prebish has been involved in virtually everything exciting in the Buddhist world over the past forty-five years. Because of his unique involvement and longevity, he has an incredible historical record to document and share, and a huge number of stories to tell. These stories allow us to share his incredible personal journey, and provide a true “insider’s” viewpoint.

This sounds infinitely more worthwhile that yet another “lets-fix-Buddhism” tome, a genre that is growing increasingly tiresome. Some of the self-proclaimed historians on the Net who claim that modern Buddhism is some sort of conspiracy being foisted upon us would do well to read some of Prebish’s other books (such as “Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America”) in order to learn something of the real history of Buddhism in the West.

When Prebish calls himself a pioneer, he isn’t kidding. He was one of the first to have “touched on Buddhism as a ‘Western’ phenomenon in any classroom in North America” (his own words). And while he is concerned with the development of “modern” Buddhism, from what I have read of his work, Prebish does not seem obsessed with the so-called hocus pocus aspect of Buddha-dharma, that so many others feel compelled to whine about ad nauseum.

Instead, many years ago, Prebish coined the term “two Buddhisms”: Asian-American Buddhists, practicing what might be described as “family Buddhism” vs convert white Buddhists centered around “sometimes only meditation.” In the early 90s, he rejected the notion that Asian-Americans were contributing little to the development of American Buddhism. Rather, he saw that both Buddhisms were doing valuable work and that if they could only talk with each other, it might be possible to create a harmonious American Buddhism that had nothing to do with one’s ethic or religious background.

This, I think, is an important issue facing Buddhism in the West. Complaining endlessly about karma and rebirth and hocus pocus does not bring us together. It doesn’t add much to our understanding of dharma, since the supernatural aspects are only there if you take everything literally.

Yesterday, I mentioned the spirit of Buddhism. I have found this concretely stated by Lama Govinda in his book, “A Living Buddhism for the West“, in which he writes

The Dharma of the Buddha differs from many other forms of religion in that it does not demand of its followers that they should believe in anything that lies beyond the experience of the individual. It allows a fresh view of reality to ripen within us, which grows from an experience that is only possible through hard work on ourselves and service to others.

There you have it. No one has to believe anything they don’t want to. It would be nice to get past all the discussion over belief and superstition and quit disparaging others because their practice either is or is not meditation based, and starting talking about how we can transcend sectarian differences and create a holistic and inclusive home-grown Buddhism.