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 . . .


5 Comments for “The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 9”

Karen Wallwork


Hello David
I would be interested in the rest of the commentary for Precious Garland as a pdf pls



Hi Karen,
I am glad that you are interested enough to want the entire commentary. The problem is that I my original transcript was prepared back in the days before I had a computer and I used an ancient device known as a typewriter. In the years since then, a number of pages were lost and to recover them, I need to listen to the tapes and transcribe them again. It’s about a two hour gap and I just have not been able to muster up the will to sit down and do the work, since it is rather tedious. However, some others have inquired about a PDF and I promise I will complete this soon, publish it on the blog with a link to download a PDF and will let those who have expressed interest know about it via email. Thanks, and sorry for being such a lazy bum.

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