The Dharma of Transformation

Last week, on Wednesday August 10, in Thiksey Ladakh India, Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, gave teachings on “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” (Bodhichittavivarana) by Nagarjuna and Atisha ‘s “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” (Bodhipathapradipa).

At this session, the Dalai Lama made a some comments I thought were shareworthy.  They concern the term ‘dharma.’

dharma-chinese2b[Image: Chinese character for dharma, fa]

Dharma is a key Buddhist term layered with multiple meanings.  The original Indian definition referred to ‘duty’, and ‘law.’  In Buddhism, we often see dharma translated as ‘law,’ meaning a natural order or ultimate principle of the universe.  The Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by Soothill and Hodous provides more definitions: “(1) thing, object, appearance; (2) characteristic, attribute, predicate; (3) the substantial bearer of the substratum of the simple element of conscious life; (4) element of conscious life; (5) nirvana, i.e. dharma par excellence; (6) the absolute, the truly real; (7) the teaching [of the] Buddha.”

Here is what the Dalai Lama said about dharma:

Since you’ve gathered here to listen to a Buddhist discourse, you should understand that the word ‘Dharma’ refers to making a spiritual transformation within ourselves by putting the teaching into practice . . .  You can’t expect to make such transformation just on the basis of wishes or prayers.  It will only come about by integrating the teaching within ourselves.  The source of our problems is our disturbing emotions.  Since we all want to be happy and avoid suffering we need to know what needs to be abandoned and what needs to be cultivated in order to fulfill these aspirations.  To bring about a transformation we need to apply the teaching within ourselves and in order to do that we need to listen and learn what’s involved . . .”

In this way, we can add another layer of meaning to the term and say that dharma is transformation.  Not merely arbitrary change, but rather change according to Buddha’s dharma, which is directed at the task of inner transformation.   The dharma that supports a revolution of body, mind and spirit, is not difficult to find.  Dharma is all around us, or as Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school, said,

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Read the article about the Dalai Lama’s teaching session, with more excerpts, on the Dalai Lama’s website here.

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Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

Evidently, there was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century.  This Nagarjuna and the legends surrounding him were mixed up with the earlier Nagarjuna (c. 250), known as the “second Buddha,” the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

There is a story about how one of these two Nagarjunas, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold bowl.

bowlOne day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door.  The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

But Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave him the bowl, encouraging the man to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl back to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate.  Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The short tale empathizes an aspect of non-attachment that we probably don’t appreciate enough, which is, that letting go of attachments to material things is actually a way to realize great wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is said to be renunciation, a word that means to reject something, e.g. a belief, claim, or course of action.  It also coveys sacrifice, giving up.   Naturally, in the context of Buddha-dharma and Taoism, there is more to it.  The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind.  It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

He goes on to write, “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

I did an internet search for se and found it defined as “stingy, mean.”  But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl suggests that non-attachment requires generosity.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu or “Precepts collected from Here and There”, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action, Robert Thurman writes,

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states.  It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

For us, a key aspect of non-attachment means to go beyond the mere rejection of materialism. Go beyond ‘giving up.’  Spread out into giving.  Non-attachment is a state or quality of mind that helps us develop openness, spaciousness of being.

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Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

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The Real Enemy and True Heroes

Mass shootings like the one in Oregon last week leave many of us with feelings of despair and frustration. Are we helpless to stop these incidents? They also lead to questions about guns and mental illness. Investigators have portrayed the Oregon shooter as an angry young man disconnected from others. How can prevent people like this from amassing stockpiles of weapons?

Frankly, angry and disconnected describes an awful lot of us, and from the Buddhist point of view, we all have mental health issues.

Buddhism teaches that all human sufferings stem from mental afflictions. We also call them delusions. The Sanskrit word is kleshas, meaning, “that which disturbs the mind from within.” A primary affliction is anger, also known as aversion or hatred.

Anger is a vengeful attitude toward one’s self, toward others, towards things that produce frustration, and towards frustration itself. Individuals who live in the realm of anger are obsessed with fault-finding, and while they may display a victim mentality, the truth is, as T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put it, they are more “like a hawk sweeping the sky in search of prey.”

Dalai Lama6One of the most instructive and powerful Buddhist texts dealing with anger is the one I mentioned in a recent post, Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (or “Way of the Bodhisattva”). The Dalai Lama has given teachings on this work many times, in particular on the “Patience” chapter.* In 2001, I attended one of these teachings in Pasadena California and took copious notes.

Anger has lingering effects. The Dalai Lama said that when strong anger arises, all our normal senses of behavior are destroyed:

When one is under the domination of anger, those around us suffer also. Even friends and family suffer because they worry about our bad mood. Small outbursts of anger may seem to bring some satisfaction but there are long term negative effects. Anger [that arises when another person has harmed us] does not reverse. If we return the harm then the person responsible just becomes angrier and it becomes a vicious circle.”

The Dalai Lama pointed out that Shantideva identifies anger as “the real enemy, our inner enemy.” Anger is very powerful and comes from causes and conditions that we need to analyze so that we can prevent the causes from arising. He said, “The Buddhist way is to try and trace back the causes and counteract them.”

Here, I’d like to say that when we talk about causes and conditions, it is not just causes and conditions. It is also choices. I don’t accept that Shantideva or Buddhism in general is determinism. We have free will. Many of the causes were produced by actions we chose to undertake, and because mental afflictions disturb the mind from within, only we can chose whether or not to take the necessary actions to defeat them.  This should be empowering, for it tells us that we are not at the complete mercy of external forces.

Verse 8 in the chapter on Patience reads,

Therefore, I should eradicate
the fuel of this enemy,
for this enemy has no other function
than to harm me.

According to Shantideva, the practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger. It involves cultivating tolerance and compassion, but it also requires an ability to endure hardship and maintain a strong determination to remove the causes of anger.

What happens in society is a reflection of what happens in the minds of those who live in that society.  Because of this, we are not helpless to stop gun violence and societal anger.

I believe that Buddhism rejects the notion of helplessness. If there were not a possibility of rational hope for human beings in the face of suffering, the Buddha would not have taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he said, “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering . . .”

We change the world by changing ourselves and it can have a ripple effect. We are only helpless when we become hopeless, and because we can change, there is always hope.

As the Dalai Lama noted, in itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality. It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our minds will move.

Shantideva wrote,

Since my mind is not physical,
no one can destroy it.

And the Dalai Lama said,

We are changing our natural habitual patterns and since what we are changing is so monumental, there can be no relaxing in the battle against mental afflictions. Those who battle mental afflictions are true heroes.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* A 1993 teaching given by the Dalai Lama on the “Patience” chapter in Shantideva’s Guide was published as Healing Anger The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

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The Dalai Lama’s Message: True Compassion

Today Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, turns 80. To celebrate this milestone, friends of the Dalai Lama organized the Global Compassion Summit, a three day event in Orange County, California. The summit began yesterday with the “official birthday celebration” in which world leaders, Nobel Laureates, celebrity guests, speakers and performers from around the world gathered at the Honda Center in Anaheim to pay tribute to “His Holiness” and to listen to him speak on creativity and compassion.

This October, in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center will present the Dalai Lama with the Liberty Medal “in recognition of his advocacy for human rights worldwide.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, lamas (teachers) only teach when requested to do so, and during the several decades that the Dalai Lama has been giving public teachings and talks, compassion has been his most consistent and fundamental message. Compassion is more than an emotion, it should be dynamic, for it is also behavior.  In Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama writes,

978bCompassion can of course be understood on many levels, and at the highest level, compassion ultimately liberates you . . . According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive – it’s not empathy alone – but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering . . .”

The aspiration, the state of mind the Dalai Lama is referring to here is what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, the wish or intention to realize awakening in order to help all living beings. Without this altruistic intention, it is not possible to realize full awakening.

However, during the practice of bodhicitta, we find that awakening is not as important as the generation of altruism and the performance of compassionate action. Or, perhaps, it is rather that deep altruism and compassionate action is awakening. The consummation of bodhicitta requires overcoming all narrow self-centered concerns and limitations, along with developing a genuine feeling of responsibility for others. What he said above, the Dalai Lama has stated many times: ultimately, compassion liberates us, and this is because through transcending the limitations of self and helping others become free from suffering, we become free from suffering, ourselves.

In another book, The Compassionate Life, he says,

True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.

For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe.”

Real compassion is not based on any religious or political creed; it is altruism that is truly universal. It comes from the heart, and the mind, and not from belief.

Tenzin Gyatso, Ocean of Wisdom
great teacher of the Middle Way,
I make this request O Lama,
please remain strong and please live long.

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