Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India - Early morning rain had cleared the air and the sky was blue as His Holiness the Dalai Lama walked from his residence to the Tsuglagkhang, the Main Tibetan Temple today. An estimated 6500 people awaited him. Of those, 2000 were visitors from 69 countries—855 of whom belonged to 38 Asian groups.
Entering the temple, His Holiness greeted the Abbot of Namgyal Monastery, Thamtog Rinpoché and former Ganden Throne-holder Rizong Rinpoché, as well as others seated around the throne. Before sitting down, he turned to salute the statues of the Buddha and Avalokiteshvara.
Thai monks chanted a homage to the Buddha in Pali, following which the ‘Heart Sutra’ was recited in Chinese.
“Here we are gathered in Dharamsala once again,” His Holiness told the audience, “and I’d like to welcome all those of you who have come from different parts of the world. People from traditionally Buddhist countries have been coming here for several years, showing great interest and enthusiasm for the teachings. On this occasion too, we’re going to hold a discourse and I’d like to thank the organizers who have made this possible.”
The event is being live webcast and His Holiness’s remarks, made in Tibetan, are being simultaneously translated into English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hindi, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German, Thai and Indonesian.
His Holiness explained that all our different religious traditions convey a message of love, compassion, tolerance and contentment. As human beings our lives begin in the shelter of our mother’s care and affection, without which we would not survive. He added that it’s our basic human nature to love and be loved. Different religious traditions uphold their different philosophical standpoints, but all are focussed on love and compassion in practice. We cannot say this or that religion is best, any more than we can say this or that medicine is best—it depends on the patient’s condition and need. Our present spiritual inclinations may depend on all sorts of factors, including imprints from past lives.
There are theistic traditions that believe in a creator God and non-theistic traditions that do not. Among the first category are Christianity, Islam and Judaism. All of these traditions have been beneficial to their followers.
“I have many Christian friends who are dedicated to serving the poor and needy,” His Holiness clarified. “They are serious about their practice of love and compassion. In 1964, I was in Thailand where I met the Sangharaja and mentioned to him how our Christian brothers and sisters serve the community, but Buddhist monks do not involve themselves in this way. He replied that Buddhist monks are supposed to live in isolation, away from towns and villages.
“I was in Mangalore the other day attending a meeting of Catholic educationists, which again reminded me of the great contribution Christians have made to education. However, I have also come across situations where serving the people is a cover for proselytization. I think it’s one thing to bring religious practice to people who have none, but quite another to try to convert people from one faith to another. Seeing the positive benefits of spiritual practice, whatever tradition people follow, I work to encourage inter-religious harmony.
“When I lived in Tibet, I wasn’t very aware of the need for understanding and good relations between spiritual traditions. Since I’ve seen the drawbacks of focussing only on material development, to the neglect of the mind, and situations where people function like parts of a machine, I think it’s crucial.
“By the end of the 20th century, scientists began to appreciate that consciousness may be something more than just a function of the brain because, as the discovery of neuroplasticity shows, consciousness can effect changes in the brain.
“In ancient India, working with the mind gave rise to the traditions of non-violence and compassion, ‘ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’, as well as tranquillity and insight, ‘shamatha’ and ‘vipashyana’. Of the three ancient civilizations in Egypt, China and the Indus Valley, it’s in India that there arose the most profound knowledge of the workings of the mind. A belief also arose in a single, permanent, autonomous self that functions as the governor of the body-mind combination and that goes on from life to life.
“While Judaism, Christianity and Islam prevailed in the West and West Asia, Buddhism proliferated widely in the East. Originating in India it spread to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and other parts of South-east Asia, as far as Indonesia. Travelling north it reached China and from there was carried to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. By a separate route it was carried to Tibet and on to Mongolia.
“Xuanzang studied at Nalanda, and is reputed to have met Nagabodhi, before returning to China. The Jowo, the statue of the Buddha enshrined in the Jokhang was brought to Tibet from China when King Songtsen Gampo married a Chinese princess. However, when King Trisong Detsen sought someone to teach Buddhism in Tibet, he invited Shantarakshita from Nalanda.”
His Holiness explained that after the Buddha was enlightened, his first teaching, in Varanasi, which is recorded in both the Pali and Sanskrit Traditions, involved the Three Trainings —ethics, concentration and wisdom. It included a description of selflessness. The Perfection of Wisdom teachings that belong to the Sanskrit Tradition were revealed on Vulture’s Peak, near Rajgir. These included the ‘Heart Sutra’, which recounts a dialogue between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra that explores how to understand reality.
“Nagarjuna states that the Buddha’s teaching is based on the Two Truths, the distinction between appearance and reality,” His Holiness continued. “Today, quantum physics, which deals with external objects, not consciousness, denies that material phenomena have objective reality, despite appearances to the contrary. This corresponds with the Mind Only School’s position that only the mind is real. They claim there is no external existence. Things are only a reflection of the mind. The Practitioners of Yogic Conduct, Autonomist Sutra Followers of the Middle Way School (Yogachara-Svatantrika-Sautrantika-Madhyamaka) also declare that nothing whatsoever has any external existence and yet they also assert that the mind has no essential, true existence either.
“Because the Perfection of Wisdom teachings were not revealed to the wider public, they are not recorded in the Three Baskets of the Pali Tradition. Consequently, some have asserted that the teachings of the Sanskrit Tradition were not given by the Buddha, a position Nagarjuna vigorously challenged.
“The second round of the Buddha’s teachings revealed emptiness, the object clear light. The third round, in the ‘Unravelling of Thought Sutra’ and the ‘Sutra on Buddha Nature’ revealed the clear light nature of the mind or the subjective clear light. Gungtang Rinpoché observed the progress made in these three rounds of teaching, culminating in the tantras, and especially its account of pristine awareness or the innate, spontaneously arisen clear light mind. All coarser levels of the mind arise from this luminous awareness and ultimately dissolve back into it.
“The first round of the Buddha’s teachings presented the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering, origin, cessation and path, based on the Two Truths, conventional and ultimate truth. When the Buddha taught about the truth of suffering, he did so in the context of four characteristics—impermanence, suffering, emptiness and selflessness. Impermanence refers to subtle change in phenomena. Death is a coarse aspect of impermanence. We observe that things change over the course of a year, but at an atomic level things change from moment to moment. I’ve seen this through a microscope.
“Change leads to suffering. We tend to cling to what is suffering as if it were pleasant. The body-mind combination comes about as a result of karma and afflictive emotions, so is subject to suffering. To counter this the Buddha taught selflessness, observing that under investigation we can find no single, permanent, autonomous self.
“The four aspects of the truth of cessation are cessation, pacification, being superb and definite release or liberation. Afflictive emotions are related to our clinging to the idea of an independent self, but once eliminated do not reappear. What we need to overcome is ignorance, our distorted view that there is a single, permanent, autonomous self—that is the root of afflictive emotions. Things exist, but not as they appear. In his ‘Entering into the Middle Way’, Chandrakirti stresses that if things existed in the way we cling to them, we should be able to find them, but we can’t. Because of ignorance we have an exaggerated outlook. An understanding of emptiness undermines this misconception. As Nagarjuna writes in his ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’:
Through the elimination of karma and afflictive emotions there is nirvana.
Karma and afflictive emotions come from conceptual thoughts.
These come from mental fabrication.
Fabrication ceases through emptiness.
“Training in the Nalanda Tradition, with its extensive use of reason and logic, sits well with scientific tradition. For almost 40 years I have engaged in dialogue with modern scientists to our mutual benefit. The Buddha encouraged his followers to be sceptical—‘As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so, bhikshus, should you accept my words only after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me’. The Nalanda Masters took him at his word and scrutinized his teachings, dividing them into those that were definitive and those requiring interpretation.”
His Holiness noted that afflictive emotions like anger and attachment are damaging to our health, whereas compassion and love improve it. Anger and attachment arise because of our self-cherishing attitude. This can be countered by cultivating the awakening mind of bodhichitta. He observed that cultivating bodhichitta and an understanding of emptiness are very useful for taming the unruly mind.
His Holiness declared that he is committed to encouraging others to cultivate non-violence and compassion. He is also committed to promoting harmony between religious communities. As a Tibetan, who six million Tibetans look to as a source of hope, he is dedicated to keeping Tibetan language and culture, the pure Nalanda Tradition, alive. He expressed his belief that Tibetan Buddhism is a comprehensive tradition, aspects of which can be of benefit to the whole world.
He encouraged Buddhists to be 21st century Buddhists with an understanding of what the Buddha taught. He stressed that simple faith is not enough. He quoted Haribadra’s assessment that there are dull and intelligent followers of the Buddha. The intelligent question and investigate what they learn. If Buddhists today do this, he said, the Buddhist doctrine may survive for some time to come, but if they simply fall back on faith that is unlikely.
Declaring that he had today given a general introduction, His Holiness announced that tomorrow he will read through Nagarjuna’s ‘Commentary on the Awakening Mind’.