Boston, MA, USA 30 October 2014
In bright, clear autumn light, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made a short drive this morning from his Boston hotel to the Wang Theater, a theater elaborately decorated in a renaissance style that is part of the Citi Performing Arts Center. He had been invited to teach by the Prajna Upadesa Foundation, a community of Vietnamese Buddhists interested in the Nalanda tradition established in 2009. His Holiness was ceremoniously led onto the stage by three Vietnamese monks and welcomed by a capacity audience of 3500 including monastics and many Vietnamese and Tibetans. The session began with the Heart Sutra being recited in Vietnamese, Sanskrit and English.
“Spiritual brothers and sisters,” His Holiness began, smiling, “I feel very honoured to be here among you and grateful to you for inviting me. There are Vietnamese communities in many countries, refugees like us. And like us you have made efforts to keep your culture and religious traditions alive. Preserving Buddhist tradition is not mainly about building temples or statues, it’s something that takes place here in the heart. Essentially it involves infinite love, altruism combined with our wonderful human intelligence. The proper approach is through study and analysis. Especially in the 21st century we should heed the Buddha’s advice not to take his words at face value, but to examine and investigate them; to experiment with what he said.”
His Holiness said he was going to explain the ‘Eight Verses for Training the Mind’. He mentioned that the basic formula of the Buddhist path to enlightenment was laid out as the Four Noble Truths. That description of suffering and its origin, cessation and the path to it are two sets of causes and effects. Suffering arises as a result of causes and conditions. Cessation, which refers not to ordinary pleasure, but to lasting happiness, also comes about due to causes and conditions. The instructions contained in the Four Noble Truths are common to all schools of Buddhism. They were taught during the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, whereas the second turning dealt with the Perfection of Wisdom teachings and the third is exemplified by the Unravelling of Thought Sutra.
The Heart Sutra belongs to the Perfection of Wisdom sutras and teaches how to understand reality. His Holiness remarked that while we tend to think of things as self-defining entities out there, the explanation of emptiness loosens this misconception. Understanding emptiness counters the ignorance that is the source of suffering. The explanation of ‘no-self’ is unique to Buddhism.
“When the Heart Sutra says, ‘form is empty, emptiness is form’, does that mean form or matter does not exist?” His Holiness asked. “No, because form is something we experience; it exists by way of dependent origination. When we investigate form, we don’t find it, because it doesn’t exist the way it appears; it’s empty of true existence. It exists only by way of dependent designation. Because phenomena exist through dependent origination, form is empty.”
His Holiness suggested that a more effective understanding can be achieved by substituting ourselves for phenomena, thinking, ‘I am empty, emptiness is me’. He said emptiness and phenomena are not different things, they are aspects of the same reality. There is a resemblance to the understanding of quantum physics. He argued that our strong negative emotions such as attachment and anger are a result of strong sense of the inherent existence of things. He mentioned meeting the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck a few days ago and discussing with him his insight that 90% of our sense of the attractive or negative qualities of an object when we are attached or angry is mere mental projection.
It is this kind of mistaken projection, this ignorance of emptiness, that binds sentient beings in the cycle of existence. His Holiness stressed that it is not enough to listen to such explanations, we have to reflect on them regularly and deeply until we understand them. Having done so, we have to apply that understanding to our own experience.
After eating a delightful variety of Vietnamese dishes for lunch, His Holiness was once again led respectfully back onto the stage by monks. He told the audience he wanted to share some things with them.
“As human beings we have the same experience of destructive and constructive emotions. We also have a human mind capable of developing wisdom. We all have the same Buddha nature. Dharmakirti speaks of different aspects in relation to one thing. For example, I’m a human being like all of you, but I am also a religious person, a Buddhist. In that context I try to promote inter-religious harmony. It’s because of our different inclinations that the Buddha gave sometimes divergent teachings. It’s not because he was confused or unclear, nor that he was trying to confuse his followers. He taught according to the needs and capacity of his disciples.”
His Holiness repeated that the Four Noble Truths explained in the first turning of the wheel, are common to all schools of Buddhism. The Perfection of Wisdom teachings of the second turning deal with the six perfections, including the correct view of reality. However, within the Mahayana, even the correct view can be explained according to the Mind Only and Middle Way schools of thought.
With reference to Buddhism’s coming to Tibet, His Holiness recalled the first images of the Buddha arriving in the 7th century. The serious establishment of Buddhism took place in the following century when the Tibetan Emperor invited one of Nalanda’s foremost scholars, Shantarakshita, to Tibet. He was a bhikshu, a philosopher and logician, whose writings reveal a sound brain and a sharp mind. He encouraged Tibetans to translate Buddhist Sanskrit literature into their own language, Tibetan, granted ordination and taught philosophy and logic. Thus, the major classic Buddhist texts were rendered into Tibetan, ensuring that Tibetan Buddhism became the most comprehensive Buddhist tradition incorporating the Pali and Sanskrit traditions and the Vajrayana.
While the transmission of Buddhism that took place under Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava is known as the Nyingma or ancient tradition, that which began at the time of the translator Rinchen Zangpo, is known as the new transmission and includes the Kagyu and Sakya traditions. The ‘Eight Verses’ belong to the Kadampa tradition that traces its foundation to Atisha and Dromtonpa. The text was written by Geshe Langri Tangpa, a disciple of Geshe Potowa and deals with the conventional and ultimate minds of the awakening mind of Bodhichitta. His Holiness said he had heard it from both his tutors, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche.
The first verse shows how to cultivate the awakening mind. There are two principal methods, the Seven Point Cause and Effect and the Equalizing and Exchanging of Self with Others. Nagarjuna and Shantideva both preferred the latter method. Although the ‘Eight Verses’ is a profound text, His Holiness said an array of supporting material is needed to fully understand it. It deals primarily with great compassion, the sense not only that others’ sufferings are unbearable to you, but that you are moved to do something about them. His Holiness said:
“Although I make no claim to having realized bodhichitta, I have an idea what it would feel like. Genuine bodhichitta brings a sense of freedom, a deep sense of being relaxed, which is the beginning of really shaping the mind.”
The second verse advises regarding others as superior to you. The third counsels being wary of disturbing emotions, while the fourth speaks of the value of holding troublesome beings dear. The fifth verse recommends offering the victory to others, and the sixth recommends seeing enemies as spiritual friends. The seventh verse explicitly expounds the practice of giving and taking in which imagining taking on others’ suffering accords with great compassion, while giving happiness in return accords with loving kindness.
Finally, the first two lines of the eighth verse warn against giving in to the eight worldly concerns for praise and blame and so forth. The last two lines refer to seeing all things as like an illusion.
Having completed his reading of the text, His Holiness led the audience in a ceremony to generate the awakening mind. When he stressed the importance of putting it into practice in day to day life over the coming weeks, months, years, decades and aeons, in life after life, the theatre filled with stirring applause. Outside in the street, jubilant crowds of Tibetans cheered His Holiness’s presence and prayed for his long life.