Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India, 4 August 2020: After His Holiness the Dalai Lama had entered the room in his residence from where he was giving teachings this morning, he saluted the Tibetan students he could see on the screens before him and sat down. They chanted a couple of prayers, including the mandala offering, and he began.
“Today, this teaching is mainly for young Tibetans. The word dharma has existed for several thousand years. Now we are in the 21st century and there have been substantial advances in science and technology. We might ask, whether religion is still relevant?
“For thousands of years, religion is something people have relied upon when they faced difficulties. There are now more than seven billion human beings on this earth. Some believe in religion and some don’t, some are opposed to religion and others are indifferent. However, all of them want to be happy and avoid suffering. Are those who are opposed to or indifferent to religion happier than the others? In general, it seems that those who rely on a religious practice are more contented.
“From the moment of our birth, love and compassion are important to us as the basis of our survival. It’s fundamental human nature to be compassionate. Scientists say that since human beings are social creatures, they naturally care for others. What is clear is that we can’t survive by ourselves.
“Religion is found only among human beings, but even animals experience destructive emotions like anger and attachment. We talk about angry people or superstitious people with some wariness, but those who are kind are appreciated by all.
“Love and compassion are common to all religions, but ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, rooted in ‘karuna’, compassion, belongs to Indian tradition. And the Buddha’s teaching is based on Indian tradition.
“Theistic traditions that believe in a creator God, who is full of love, aspire to be like him. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have wrathful deities because of the tantric practice of taking anger into the path. From an ordinary point of view, the three poisons, anger, attachment and ignorance, are to be eliminated from the mind, but from a tantric point of view they can be transformed. Just as poison is transformed into medicine, there are ways for destructive emotions to be transformed into the path.”
His Holiness cited Matrceta’s famous verse:
Buddhas do not wash unwholesome deeds away with water,
Nor do they remove the sufferings of beings with their hands,
Neither do they transplant their own realization into others.
Teaching the truth of suchness, they liberate (beings).
The Buddhas help sentient beings by sharing with them the teaching of suchness. They share their experience of the path, how they practised and became enlightened. His Holiness suggested that all religious traditions may share the function of dharma, which is to protect us from fearful states. The word dharma conveys a sense of transforming the mind.
“If you are kind and affectionate, you’ll be happy and the people around you will be happy. Transformation isn’t the result of taking medication, it’s about working with the mind. So, our aim is the promotion and increase of love and compassion within the mind. At the same time, we need to reduce anger, jealousy and attachment.
‘We have many emotions and some of them disturb our peace of mind. They arise from misconceptions, from an inappropriate view of reality.
“Both Pali and Sanskrit traditions of Buddhism teach about the three trainings: ethics, which is essentially about doing no harm; concentration, which involves withdrawing the mind within, and wisdom. Just now, our minds are distracted by different sensory perceptions. Mental afflictions do not arise from sensory perceptions but from mental consciousness.
“Single pointed concentration is cultivated on the basis of ethics. It’s good to try to develop it early in the morning. Focus the mind within. In the absence of distractions, you may experience a sense of vacuity. Take that as the object of meditation. Analyse the nature of the mind. Concentrate on its clarity and awareness. You can also analyse what is happiness and what is suffering.”
His Holiness observed that happiness and suffering have physical and mental aspects. He quoted a verse from Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ that says ‘Through the elimination of karma and afflictive emotions there is liberation. Karma and afflictive emotions come from conceptual thoughts. These come from mental fabrication and fabrication ceases through realizing emptiness.’
Because of negative karma, negative action, we spin through the cycle of existence. Liberation can only be attained by eliminating karma and afflictive emotions. Mental afflictions are rooted in the ignorance that believes that things exist as they appear. Nagarjuna writes that mental afflictions arise from conceptual thoughts that arise from exaggerated fabrication. Such wrong views can only be eliminated by understanding reality.
His Holiness remarked that quantum physics states that although things appear to have objective existence, when we analyse them, nothing has any objective existence. Raja Ramanna told him that while quantum physics was new to the west, similar thoughts can be found in ancient India. The Middle Way School says we can only talk about the existence of things in the context of the perceiving mind. The Mind Only School asserts that objects are mere reflections of their perceiver.
The reference in the ‘Heart Sutra’ to the Buddha’s absorbed in the ‘Illumination of the Profound’ could be interpreted as concerning the two truths, conventional and ultimate truth. Things exist and affect us, but when we search for them and their reality, they can’t be found.
His Holiness cited another verse from Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ related to the Tathagata.
Neither the aggregates, nor different from the aggregates,
The aggregates are not in him, nor is he in the aggregates.
The Tathagata does not possess the aggregates.
What else is the Tathagata?
He then mentioned that he often reworks this to refer to himself and reflects on it accordingly:
I am neither one with the aggregates, nor different from the aggregates,
The aggregates are not in me, nor am I in the aggregates.
I don’t possess the aggregates.
What else am I?
“We have a strong sense of ‘I’,” His Holiness explained, “but when we search for it, some say it is one of the psycho-physical aggregates, such as mental consciousness. However, we talk about ‘me’, ‘my consciousness’ and ‘my speech’ as if there is another owner.
“In his first round of teachings, the Buddha revealed the four noble truths. The ‘Sublime Continuum’, that belongs to the third round, explains that mental defilements, based on ignorance, a misconception of reality, are adventitious. The more we think about it, the clearer it is that things do not exist as they appear.
“The second round of the Buddha’s teachings presented the perfection of wisdom in terms of reason and logic. This was the approach adopted by the masters of Nalanda University, an approach that was transmitted to Tibet.
“All those who study the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) texts regard Nagarjuna as a second Buddha. He summarized the perfection of wisdom in his work ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’. Aryadeva and Buddhapalita followed him, but supreme among the masters of the Middle Way School was Chandrakirti. I continue to read and study his auto-commentary to his ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ as well as Nagarjuna’s Six Collections of Reasoning.
“Shantarakshita established an approach to study and training that involved developing understanding by reading and listening, deepening that understanding in reflection, using reason and logic, and acquiring experience of it in meditation.
“It would be good if students in Tibetan schools could study the second chapter of Dharmakirti’s ‘Compendium of Valid Cognition’, which elucidates the verse of salutation from Dignaga’s ‘Compendium of Logic’. It explains how the Buddha is reliable, is compassionate and how he has become a teacher and protector. If you study this, you’ll be equipped to check if someone is qualified to be a teacher or not.
“In Tibet, we maintained strong traditions of study and meditation. Jé Tsongkhapa was interested in the Middle Way View from his childhood. Lama Umapa had had visions of Manjushri since he herded sheep as a boy. He helped Jé Rinpoché put questions to Manjushri. On one occasion Jé Rinpoché described his understanding of the correct view and asked if it accorded with Mind Only or the Middle Way. Manjushri told him it was neither and gave him a terse instruction. When Tsongkhapa reported that he’d been unable to understand it, Manjushri advised him to go into retreat to purify negativity and accumulate wisdom and merit.
“Tsongkhapa followed this advice and during the course of his retreat, when he was reading Buddhapalita’s commentary to Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ reached a point where he gained insight into emptiness. He felt such gratitude and respect for the Buddha that he composed this text, ‘In Praise of Dependent Arising’. I received it from my Senior Tutor, Ling Rinpoché.”
His Holiness took up the text and read the first eight verses that celebrate the Buddha for revealing dependent arising ‘The seeing of which will undo ignorance’. Echoing Nagarjuna’s verse:
There does not exist anything
That is not dependently arisen.
Therefore, there does not exist anything
That is not empty.
Tsongkhapa writes, ‘Whatsoever depends on conditions, that is devoid of intrinsic existence.’
His Holiness took several questions from his virtual audience. On this occasion, they were put by students from the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education in Karnataka and Upper TCV School in Dharamsala.
Asked how to apply compassion and dependent arising in daily life, His Holiness acknowledged that we all have self-cherishing attitudes. However, if we consider how we are all dependent on each other, we’ll understand how important it is to cherish others. He noted that in his ‘Entering into the Middle Way’, Chandrakirti is full of praise for compassion. For bodhisattvas, the focus of compassion is sentient beings, while the focus of wisdom is enlightenment.
Comparing modern science with Buddhist science, His Holiness remarked that the former primarily paid attention to investigating physical phenomena. Today, however, scientists are beginning to show more interest in mental consciousness. Richie Davidson and his colleagues have been examining how meditation affects the brain. Others are looking into the phenomenon of ‘tuk-dam’ which occurs when experienced practitioners remain in meditative absorption after clinical death. He mentioned a case at present of a Geshé who has passed away in Taiwan.
“When we fall asleep,” His Holiness explained, “our sensory perceptions stop and our state of mind is subtler than the waking state. When we dream it’s slightly coarser, but in deep sleep a subtle state of mind manifests. Scientists are now investigating these different states of mind. As far as the workings of the mind and emotions are concerned, ancient Indian understanding was advanced. Modern science is still catching up.”
His Holiness discussed how the existence of past and future lives is based on consciousness, not anything physical. He cited people’s memories of their previous lives as evidence. What goes from one life to the next, he clarified, is subtle consciousness. He recalled his mother telling him that as a child he had memories of his previous life. He mentioned the reincarnation of a Ganden Shartsé Geshé who was born in Lhasa, who clearly remembered where he had lived in his monastery in South India.
His Holiness has suggested that Buddhist literature be categorised under three headings: science, philosophy and religion. A student from Upper TCV School asked which category the text he’s explaining belongs to. His Holiness replied that in Buddhism philosophical view is always important. He suggested that many texts from the rational, logical Nalanda Tradition incorporate factors of all three categories — science, philosophy and religion. He then referred to himself as a scientist, a philosopher and a Buddhist monk.
Invited to contrast the role of a creator God and the Buddhist view of causality, His Holiness confirmed that for Buddhists happiness and pain are a result of karma or action. Positive karma gives rise to pleasure and happiness; suffering is result of negative action. He clarified that things arise from both substantial causes and cooperative conditions. In that context, the external world can be seen as a cooperative condition for our happiness.
Finally, His Holiness advised someone who wanted to know what difference it made if you believed in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha or not to examine his companions and his own life. Who among you is calmer? he asked.
His Holiness noted that he’d read up to verse eight saying that he would stop there for the day.