Sunday Dharma: The Dalai Lama on Faith, Sutras, and Teachers

In 1997, I attended the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Nagarjuna’s “Precious Garland”. It was four days of teachings and I taped it all. Fifteen 90 minute cassette tapes, some 22 hours of material. I transcribed it by hand, and then typed it up on a typewriter as I had no computer then. Needless to say, it was a time-consuming process, but it embedded the teachings in my mind.

In this section, the Dalai Lama talks about faith, and about how to use one’s “critical faculties” to judge both teachings and teachers:

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 of 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 fundament 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.

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