The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 3

After having offered some introductory remarks, the Dalai Lama now begins his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in earnest.

The “Middle Way” school mentioned here is the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) stream of philosophy based on Nagarjuna’s teachings. In terms of doctrine, all the schools of Tibet are within the Madhyamaka tradition.

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part III

We will now begin with a reading from the text. I think that all of you have a copy of the commemorative volume. The name of the text is The Precious Garland, an Epistle to a King. There is a salutation from the translator, in Tibetan, which reads, “Homage to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” And the actual homage from the text itself is in the first verse, which reads,

Completely free from all faults
and adorned with all good virtues,
the sole friend of all beings –
to that Omniscient One I bow.

The Precious Garland was composed by the Indian master Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna was not only a great, accomplished scholar but also he was a highly realized adept. Someone who was revered and admired universally by the Indian Buddhist world and also by masters who may have shared a philosophical persuasion of a different kind, such as the Mind-Only school, and so on. But so far as the admiration and reverence of Nagarjuna and the condition of his contribution to Buddhism in India, he was universally acknowledged. The Precious Garland is part of a class of texts, composed by Nagarjuna, known as the “Six Analytic Corpus.” Within that, the most fundamental text is of the Middle Way school is, of course, the Madhyamaka-karika [“Fundamentals of the Middle Way”], and the “Ratnavali” or Precious Garland is part of that category.

Of course, some people count Five Analytic Corpus and the Precious Garland separately. Regardless of whether you count the “Ratnavalli” as part of the “Six Analytic Corpus” or not, the uniqueness of the “Ratnavali” lies in the fact that it not only addresses many of the fundamental philosophical issues of the Middle Way philosophy, but also it deals with many aspects of the skillful means [Skt. Upaya; Jp. Hoben] and the dimensions of the Buddhist Path. In addition, the Precious Garland was explicitly written in the form of a letter, in the form of advice, and deals with many issues, such as compassion, social justice and so on. So, in that sense, the Precious Garland, as a text, is very unique in the Buddhist literature.

If you look at some of the sections of the text, particularly the sections on the two selflessnesses, the no-self of person and the no-self of phenomena, the way in which the concepts are introduced and taught in this text, I personally find not only to be very profound, but when you relate them to your own understanding and personal experience, I find them to be highly penetrating and also effective. Similarly, when you read the section that talk about causes and conditions for obtaining certain qualities of the Buddha and also the accumulation of merit – there is also a section that talks about the Four Limitless Practices – and when I reflect on those points, I find them not only deeply inspiring but also a tremendous source of courage.

So, this is from my own personal experience. I feel that the Precious Garland is not only very profound as a Buddhist scripture but also something that has direct relevance to our day-to-day life, our day-to-day experience.

Although I don’t claim to have – it is not only me, but also a lot of people here when they approach a text like this, we tend to deal with the text in a manner that reflects a real arrogance that we are actually, in a sense, more skilled and have greater intelligence than the text. So we don’t follow each and every word that is taught in the text. Rather, we select what we think is the most appropriate to us and then feel that we have really penetrated the insights that are taught in the text. But I feel that when I read and reflect on the meanings of the teachings of this text and the teachings found in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life – when I compare the two, I find this combined effort deeply moving and also very effective.

So when I read the text, where there are sections that I feel is important, I will explain the meaning of the text.

Now, when we reflect on the meaning of the first verse that pays homage and makes salutations to the Buddha, immediately a question arises: whether it is possible at all to realize such a state? A state that is utterly free from all faults, a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective. Also a state where the individual has attained the highest perfections of universal compassion. So immediately the question arises as to whether or not the attainment of such a state is possible.

So, one could say right there is a need for understanding of the basic tenets of Buddhism.

Since a reflection of the first verse demands an introduction to the basic teachings of Buddhism – however, I feel that the majority of the audience here are already familiar with some of the lectures I have given on the introduction to Buddhism – and given that now we live in an age where there are technological facilities which makes it possible for these lectures to be immediately available in the form of audiotapes or transcripts or books and so on . . . So, I feel that the majority of the audience here is already familiar with the basic ideas of Buddhism, so, in one sense, there is no need to repeat.

I will approach the question of the introduction of basic teachings and concepts from, perhaps, a different angle. Let us now reflect on our own present state of mind. Say that I, as a lecturer, and you, as the listener – we are all united in certain fundamental facts of existence as human beings, such as we all share this instinctive thought of “I’m here, I’m doing this.” There is a sense of self-awareness in all of us and similarly, all of us are united by the fundamental fact that we have certain motivations, our human actions are motivated by certain intentions. These mental events that we all posses, we can label them as states of mind or consciousness. But if we probe deeper, what is this consciousness? What is this mental event? We know that it is the agent with which we cognize the world. It is the agent through which we know things. In some sense, one could say that consciousness or mind is that which enables us to be aware, which enables us to know and see, so it is a form of potential.

Now, if we go further and try to observe the process of this mental event and consciousness, we know that from our own personal experience that there is a capacity to go through rapid change. Change in the form of various modifications and also a change in the sense of being able to focus, to be able to direct focus on different objects. This indicates that we call consciousness and what we call mind is a dynamic process, it’s not a static entity.

Even in the more absorbed states of mind, say in a meditative state of mind, there we feel there is a degree of stability, a sense of absorption into a particular state of mind. Even in that state, although on the surface it seems as if the mind is not in a dynamic process – it is in some sense stationary, fully focused on a chosen object – even in that state, if you probe deeper, you will find that there is indeed a process going on. There are stages when you are applying certain antidotes to insure, to protect that your level of concentration does not diminish as a sort of distraction or as a sort of lowering down of the intensity of your focus. Similarly, you will also find stages when you mind is able to remain in a state of equalization, where there is no need for such applications or vigilance. So these processes themselves, even in levels or states of meditative mind – even within these states there is a constant process that one is going through.

Now if we observe the world of our consciousness, the world of mental phenomena, we will see that within all categories of our mental world, there are many states of consciousness, which are very obvious to us. They are contingent upon the physical and psychological conditions. For example, like all of our sensory perceptions, such as the visual or the audio and so on, they arise as a result of interaction between our sense organs and also the objective conditions, visual form, signs, and so on. Similarly, they are also what can be called mental consciousness, which may require such immediate external conditions and physical organs for their arisal. But even then, they can be said to be contingent upon our physical basis. One could say that our human consciousness – that we have a human consciousness – it is the consciousness of a human being in the sense that it is contingent upon the human body that we have and also given that, as human beings, we have certain psychological constitutions, according to the Tibetan tradition, psychological conditions described in terms of energy, channels, and also vital essential elements. Such psychological constitutions then give rise to a certain kind of mind or consciousness, which is called human consciousness, because they are contingent upon the human body.

However, that is not to say that these – rather, let us say, that if we think deeply we find that although the occurrence of thoughts and many emotional states are dependent upon a physical base, such as a body or a brain, this is not to say that these emotional states and thoughts are reducible to states of the body. Just because their occurrence or arisal is dependent upon physical conditions, there is not enough evidence or proof to conclude that they are reducible to a physical state. For example, one could argue that, in the case of human beings, the occurrence of anger, hatred, attachment within our mind, and so on, require physical conditions such as the human body, certain brain activity, and so on. However, the existence of such activities doers not guarantee the occurrence of these states within our brain. For example, as human beings we all posses the potential for these strong emotions, but it is only on occasional stages within our daily life that we have conscious manifest forms of emotion. Also, we may posses the potential for the occurrence of these emotional states, yet no single person is angry for 24 hours a day, no person is gripped by a strong attachment or greed 24 hours a day. This indicates that although there are emotional states that are dependent upon physical conditions, they are not identical with the physical state, which gives rise to them. This suggests, in a profound sense, that they are distinct from the physical evidence.

To be continued . . .


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