The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 10

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.

Keep reading →


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 9

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 . . .


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 8

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 . . .


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 7

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 . . .


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 6

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 . . .