The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 14

In this section, there is mention of higher and lower rebirths. Some readers may not accept the idea of rebirth in the Buddhist context, or at least may have doubts about it. In those cases, the reader may wish to view to interpret the teachings in this way: lower rebirths correspond to having a low condition of life in the present time, a state of life dominated by suffering, and higher rebirths would correspond to higher conditions of life, a state of life where one experiences a certain amount of freedom from suffering and liberation from the destructive afflictions of the mind. The idea behind the doctrines discussed here work just as well with this sort of viewpoint.

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

June 5-8, 1997

Part XIV

Let’s return to the text:

Having listened to this Dharma
that puts an end to suffering,
the undiscerning, afraid of the fearless state,
are terrified because they do not understand.

In this verse, The Precious Garland states that in actual fact emptiness is the state of fearlessness. Therefore, one should not develop a sense of fear towards it, rather a sense of joy. The reason why the childish feel terrified, sees emptiness as an object of fear, is because of their ignorance. When one doesn’t understand the nature of emptiness, it becomes a source of fear.

In the next verse, The Precious Garland is arguing with the Buddhist essentialists, particularly the Vaibhasika’s [a “Hinayana” school] who maintain that the attainment of nirvana, on one hand constitutes cessation of the continuum of consciousness. So The Precious Garland is arguing that if this is the understanding of nirvana or liberation, then since you do not fear the concept of total cessation of the individual in the continuum of consciousness, then how can you be afraid of the concept of emptiness? Emptiness, or nirvana, from the Madhyamaka standpoint is the state where all the negative afflictions of the mind are purified or calmed within the state of emptiness of the mind. Therefore, if the Vaibhaskika’s maintain that nirvana or liberation constitutes a total cessation, then why are they afraid of the notion of emptiness, where all the afflictions of the mind are eliminated?

In liberation there is neither Self nor aggregates:*
if you are intent upon that kind of liberation,
why are you not pleased with the teaching that
refutes Self and aggregates here as well?

*[Aggregates: Skt. Skandhas; lit. heap or bundle – the five aggregates that make up the individual: corporeal form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness.]

The point about liberation where there is no self or aggregates is that because according to the Madhyamaka understanding, nirvana constitutes the total elimination of all the delusions of the mind within the sphere of emptiness, so from this view of nirvana, no duality can be maintained. Therefore, no self or aggregates or perception can be maintained. All the dualities are calmed or dissolved into a state of emptiness. This is further developed in the next verse:

Nirvana is not even non-existent,
so how could it be existent?
Nirvana is said to be the cessation
of the notions of existence and non-existence.

So this develops the Mahayana understanding of the concept of Dharmakaya, which is the state where all the dualities dissolve into the sphere of emptiness. All forms of dualities, such are subject and object, such as aggregates, and also emptiness, itself, is dissolved here – so therefore, the Madhyamaka school talks about the emptiness of emptiness, as well.

In brief, a nihilistic view
is the belief that karma has no effect,
it is a nonmeritorious, and (it leads to)
low rebirth; it is said to be a false view.

In brief, a realist view
is the belief that karma has an effect.
it is meritorious, and (it leads to)
high rebirth; it is said that it is a proper view.

Through knowledge, one subdues the (notions of) existence
and non-existence, and one thus transcends sin and merit.
Hence, one is liberated from high and low rebirths –
this is what the holy one says.

Here, The Precious Garland is responding to a possible objection against the Madhyamaka concept of emptiness, because this concept rejects any independent existence or objective reality, it is possible for someone to understand it to entail [the rest of this sentence was lost when the tape was changed] . . . the rejection of independent existence does not imply the rejection of everything at the conventional level, therefore it is not a nihilistic view. A nihilistic view involves the total rejection, even in the conventional sense of things and events. Nihilism involves a rejection of the very principle of dependent origination and causation.

Then it [the text] states that sometimes it is possible, because of the principles of dependent origination and causation that someone may infer that there may be some intrinsic essence or some kind of objective reality.

Nagarjuna accepts the possibility that such absolutist interpretations of dependent origination can function as a basis to act in a positive way, thus creating karma for attaining a higher rebirth. Therefore even virtous actions can take place as a result in such a belief. However, if one understand these principles in terms of conditionality with no objective inherently real basis, then one will be able to not only undercut the commitment of negative actions, but also the very karma that gives rise to rebirth in the cyclic existence. Thus the understanding of emptiness acts as an antidote to undermine the process of rebirth in the cyclic existence. When dependent origination is viewed in the correct way, then that understanding can act as a counterforce against both the extremes of nihilism and absolutism.

Seeing that production has a cause,
one transcends (the notion) of non-existence.
Seeing that cessation has a cause,
one does not accept (the notion of) existence.

Because things come into being as a result of causes and conditions, one can transcend the nihilistic tendency to accept that they are non-existence. Because cessation comes into being as a result of causes and conditions, one transcends the possibility of a defined existence.

To be continued . . .


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