The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 12

For the sake of some readers, I thought it might facilitate understanding to provide a bit of background to today’s presentation of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna.

He refers to the 12-link chain of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada). This doctrine is one of Buddhism’s core concepts, thought to have been taught by the historical Buddha himself. It describes the way existence characterized by suffering comes into being. Essentially, it is the Buddhist conception of how Samsara, the world of birth and death, the mundane world we live in, “works.”

Dependent Origination is envisioned as a chain of causes and conditions with 12 links: the fundamental state of being is (1) ignorance, which gives rise to (2) volition, which conditions (3) consciousness, which is joined to (4) name-form (the psycho-physical entity); then the (5) six-senses are activated, and they come into (6) contact with objects of desire, and as a result, (7) feeling, (8) craving, and (9) grasping arise; all of these factors cause and further condition the (10) becoming of life; and all that is becoming is subject to (11) birth, (12) old age and death.

According to Dependent Origination, all persons are interrelated through these causes and conditions, so there is no independent self-being or self-essence to be seized.

Early Buddhism accepted the selflessness of the person but not of phenomena since they promoted the idea of “dharmas” (or things) as pieces of existence that were atom-like particles. While there was some difference of opinion within the Madhyamaka school and Mahayana early on, in general the Mahayana branch of Buddhism acknowledges the selflessness, or emptiness, or both the person and phenomena.

The Dalai Lama launches into a discussion of the degrees of subtlety of these two selflessnesses or emptinesses. As far as I understand this discussion proceeds within the context of consciousness, which in Madhyamaka consists of three levels: gross (or coarse), subtle, and extremely subtle. Gross consciousness is limited to the senses. Subtle consciousness is cognition and the mind dealing with concepts, forming judgments, etc. Extremely subtle consciousness is nonconceptual in nature and is said to be “clear light”.

There’s also a reference to Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas. In early Buddhism these were considered as different stages of the path. The Sravaka or “voice-hearers” are disciples. This is the level of “stream entry”; they have entered the stream that flows to nirvana.  Pratyeka-buddhas are private or lone buddhas, who realize awakening on an individual or solitary basis. In Mayahana, Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas are viewed more as separate vehicles or ways, and are contrasted with the Bodhisattva, which is considered to be a higher path. The Bodhisattva vehicle also has various levels or stages (bhumi).

With that out of the way, we wrap up the morning session of the second day of the teachings.

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part XII

Verse 31 reads:

Depending upon a mirror,
the reflection of one’s face
is seen, but it does not
ultimately exist at all.

In verse 35, The Precious Garland argues that without the existence of the physical and mental aggregates, the natural sense of “I” cannot arise. In the next verses, Nagarjuna explains why:

With these three phases mutually causing each other,
the circle of samsara whirls around,
like the circle (formed by a whirling torch)
without beginning, middle or end.

But that (samsaric process) is not attained from itself,
from something else, or from both; nor is it attained in the three times.
Therefore, (for one who knows this) the fixation on “I” ceases,
and hence also karma and birth.

[The three times: past, present, and future]

True understand of no-self of person requires a deep understanding of phenomena. This is because the natural thought of “I” or “I am” cannot arise independently of the physical and mental aggregates. Therefore, what Nagarjuna is suggesting is that so long as one subscribes to a belief in selfhood, there is no possibility of arriving at true insight into emptiness.

This passage seems to reinforce the Madhyamaka-Prasangika [a sub-school of the Madhyamaka; also refers to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argumentation used by the Madhyamaka schools]. So far as the true selflessness is concerned there is no real difference in terms of subtlety. The difference really lies in the difference of the object in which the two selves are presented, no-self of person is the emptiness of the person. No-self of phenomena is the emptiness of phenomena. So far as the selfhood that is being negated, there is no real difference between selfhood of person and selfhood of phenomena. And this difference reinforces the Madhyamaka position against, or in contrast, to other interpretations of Nagarjuna, where there is an acceptance of the real substantive difference between the no-self of person and the no-self of phenomena, in that the no-self of person is understood in terms of negation of self as a substantial reality rather than self as devoid of intrinsic reality and there is no-self of phenomena  – it is posited differently. So it seems that this passage from The Precious Garland supports the Prasangika, in as far as the two selves are concerned, there is no difference in subtlety.

Of course, there are very important commentators of Nagarjuna, such as Bhavavineka, a Madhyamaka philosopher who read Nagarjuna in a different way.  For example, Bhavavineka accepts that there is no real substantive difference between no-self of person and no-self of phenomena, but there is a difference in subtlety. There is also a difference of subtlety of the two forms of grasping – grasping at selfhood of person and grasping at selfhood of phenomena – given that one of the implications of that kind of position is to accept that the root of unenlightened existence, the root of samsara, is really the grasping at the selfhood of the person, not the selfhood of phenomena. Therefore, in order to obtain liberation from samsara, we need to gain insight into the no-self of phenomena. According to Bhavavineka, it is perceived that the insight into the no-self of phenomena is more related to the attainment of omniscient states, than attainment of liberation from samsara.

So in contrast, commentators like Candrakirti read Nagarjuna in a different way. Particulary Candrakiriti, when he comments on certain sections of the Dasabhumika Sutra [a Mahayana text that sets out in detail the ten stages of the Bodhisattva path]. There is a passage that states, “The Bodhisattva’s transcendent wisdom can outshine the transcendent awareness of Sravaka and the Pratyeka-buddhas only at the level of the seventh bhumi [stage], not at the first Bodhisattva bhumi.” Because just as the Bodhisattva at the first level has a direct experience of emptiness, the Sravaka and the Pratyeka-buddha also posses this direct understanding of emptiness.

So the point that Candrakirti is driving at is, so far as that need for any insight into the two selflessnesses are concerned, there is no difference between the Bodhisattva and the Sravaka. Not only that but one must maintain the Arhats [“worthy ones”, anyone who has attained full awakening and realized Nirvana] will have gained liberation through the path of Sravaka-yana and Pratyeka-yana [yana: vehicle or “way”], one must maintain that their insight into emptiness is complete and comprehensive. Therefore, the consequence of that is to accept that just as the grasping at the selfhood of the person is the root of samsara, grasping at the selfhood of phenomena is also the root of unenlightened existence and liberation from samsara involves the elimination of both grasping.

I think that in this particular passage from “The Ratnavalli”, The Precious Garland, very strongly supports the reading of Bhavaineka and Candrakirti and shows that their interpretations are really sort of supreme.

The next verse talks about the nature of the [word unclear, probably “chains”] which perpetuate the process of unenlightened existence. It refers to the three phases mutually causing each other. Here the three phases refer to three basic conditions that perpetuate the individuals existence in an unenlightened state; these being the afflictions of the mind, then the karma that the individual creates, and then the next is births.

When we reflect on the 12-link chain of dependent origination, although from the point of view of an individual’s birth, there is a kind of definite sequence in the order of the 12 chains, but even when the individual has already taken birth, the elements of other chains, of other cycles can arise. So from that point of view, there is no real beginning as such. Where there is ignorance, there will be other forms of volitional action. So, in that sense, the individual perpetuates in this cycle of unenlightened existence, the 12 interlocking chains of dependent origination. It is only from the point of view of the individual taking rebirth that one could posit the beginning as ignorance. Only when one is able to eliminate the continuum of that ignorance is one able, then, to put an end to the process of the cycle of rebirth.

In verse 36, Nagarjuna refers to a very important concept in Buddhism, the concept of dependent origination. All denominations of Buddhism accept the importance of dependent origination as one of the fundamental teachings. We all understand the relevance of dependent origination as a causal chain in which ignorance gives rise to volitional acts, which give rise to consciousness, and so on. However, it we explore the concept of dependent origination, we can gain a deeper understanding of it.

When you understand the interdependent nature of things, and in particular Nagarjuna refers to mutual dependence here – it is a fact that things and events come into being purely as a result of the interaction of both causes and conditions – this is a very powerful idea. Nothing, no event can posses any kind of objective intrinsic reality, nothing can posses any kind of independent existence, even their identity is something that is dependent upon many factors, so it is only through interdependence that they come into being and they exist.

Once one realizes that, then one can understand that things are devoid of any independent intrinsic nature which gives them some sort of self-sufficient status. The absence of that kind of independent status is the emptiness being talked about here.

In verse 37, the text says that so far as an independent existence is concerned – the kind mentioned in verse 36 that is without beginning, middle or end – that kind of thing or event does not come about due to a cause that is identical or a cause that is intrinsically distant from the effect, nor can such an independent existing entity remain in existence in any of the three times.

We will leave at that. Thank you.

To be continued . . .


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