Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India - After Thai monks had recited the Mangala Sutta in Pali, a discourse in which the Buddha responds to a question about what is the greatest blessing, a group of nuns led a recitation of the ‘Heart Sutra’ in Korean. They were joined by several rows of nuns seated at the front of the temple.
“Today is the second day of discourse for our Korean brothers and sisters,” His Holiness announced. “Almost the whole of the continent of Asia follows the Buddha’s teaching. Buddhism is not something new to us. It’s about using reason and logic to transform our minds. Although there has been something of a custom not to study, these days I advise those interested to try to be 21st century Buddhists. This entails some level of study in order to understand what the Buddha taught.
“During his first round of teachings, the Buddha introduced the Four Noble Truths and their 16 characteristics. This leads to the idea of taking refuge, but when we talk of the Three Objects of Refuge, we should understand that it is the Dharma, not the Buddha, that is the actual refuge. We can speak of the scriptural Dharma and the Dharma of realization, which includes true cessation and the true path. To attain true cessation requires an understanding of the true nature of suffering and a realization of selflessness.
“The four Buddhist schools of thought and their subdivisions propound different interpretations of selflessness. They reflect the way the Buddha shaped his instruction according to the dispositions of those who were listening to him. The views of the Particularists (Vaibhashika) are undermined by the Sutra Followers (Sautrantika). Their position is countered by the Mind Only School (Chittamatra), who in turn are challenged by the Middle Way School.
“The first round of the Buddha’s teachings included the Four Noble Truths and the Vinaya. This code of monastic discipline is strictly observed in Thailand and Burma, for example, where monks still beg for food on an alms round. The second round of teachings entailed the Perfection of Wisdom teachings.
“The third round included the ‘Unravelling of the Thought Sutra’ that is relied on by the Mind Only School. They assert that there is no external existence, but that the mind has true existence. The Middle Way School counter this by stating that not only do external phenomena have no inherent existence, but the mind doesn’t inherently exist either. For them, things are merely designated.
“At the beginning of the ‘Heart Sutra’, as I mentioned yesterday, it is explained that even the five aggregates are empty of true existence. The word ‘even’ is not included in the Chinese translation, nor those derived from it in Korean and Japanese. I have checked and verified that it is present in the Sanskrit original. What it means is that not only a person, but also the five aggregates that are the basis for the designation of a person are empty of intrinsic existence.
“The Mind Only School declare that external objects don’t exist as they appear. They explain that what appear to be externally existent objects are mere reflections of the mind. The Consequentialist Middle Way School, the highest school of Buddhist thought asks if things were to have an essential existence in and of themselves, what need would there be for dependent designation? They state that things exist only by way of designation by our conceptions.
“If things existed as they appear, it would mean that they exist from their own side, but since they don’t, they exist by way of designation. What’s more, even the name, the designation, does not truly exist. Changkya Rölpai Dorjé said, “Whatever objects there are, none of them have any essential existence that you can point your finger at.”
Turning back to the text, His Holiness highlighted the four-fold emptiness: ‘Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.’ Form does not have any independent existence, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Form exists through the coming together of many different factors and is designated on the basis of several different factors, such as colour, shape and so forth. Things exist, although they lack inherent existence. To say form is empty is not nihilistic because what it says is that form has no essential existence.
Nagarjuna clarifies this in his ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’:
That which is a dependent arising
Is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
His Holiness noted that although quantum physics has little to say about the mind as such, it does assert that there is an observed object only when there is an observer, which is similar to the Mind Only position.
The two truths, conventional and ultimate truth, are aspects of the same reality that are conceptually different. Without an object there is nothing to be empty. The object is the basis of emptiness. The fourfold emptiness shows that form and emptiness are of the same nature while being different conceptually. This also applies to feelings, discriminations and so forth.
His Holiness clarified what the mantra of the perfection of wisdom means.
"Gaté gaté - proceed, proceed - indicates the paths of accumulation and preparation and the initial experience of bodhichitta and emptiness; paragaté - proceed beyond - indicates the path of seeing, the first insight into emptiness and achievement of the first bodhisattva ground; parasamgaté - thoroughly proceed beyond - indicates the path of meditation and the achievement of the subsequent bodhisattva grounds, while bodhi svaha - be founded in enlightenment - indicates laying the foundation of complete enlightenment.
“As the Sutra makes clear, all the Buddhas of the three times, rely on the perfection of wisdom to reach the state of unsurpassed, perfect and complete enlightenment.”
His Holiness referred to the custom of reciting the ‘Heart Sutra’ and a subsequent verse to drive away obstacles and interfering forces. He expressed scepticism that reciting without understanding would be very effective. He pointed out that in any case the principal obstacles are within us and that to overcome them we have to study and practise.
Before reading the ‘Three Principal Aspects of the Path’, His Holiness recited a verse of tribute to Jé Tsongkhapa. It first pays respect to the translator and then to Rendawa and his understanding of emptiness, describing his intelligence as vast as space. Tsongkhapa, his disciple, was born in Amdo. In his childhood, Chöjé Dondrup Rinchen took care of him and gave him instructions. Later, he advised him to go to Central Tibet to study. This Tsongkhapa did, spending time at centres of learning like Sangphu Monastery.
Lama Umapa, who had visions of Manjushri, enabled Tsongkhapa to consult him. Eventually Tsongkhapa was able to communicate with Manjushri directly himself. On one occasion he asked questions about the correct view. Manjushri gave a terse, abstruse reply, which Tsongkhapa told him he found hard to understand. As a consequence, Manjushri told him to go into retreat to engage in practices of purification and collection of merit. Jé Rinpoché reported to Manjushri that to abandon the disciples he was teaching in order to go into retreat might attract criticism. Manjushri recommended he practise patience and remarked, “I know what will be most beneficial.”
At some point during the retreat, Tsongkhapa had a dream of Nagarjuna and his five main disciples. One of them, who he recognised as Buddhapalita, came forward and touched his book to Tsongkhapa’s head. The next day he obtained a copy of Buddhapalita’s commentary to Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’. And it was while reading it that he achieved deep insight into emptiness.
“Jé Rinpoché composed this text ‘Three Principal Aspects of the Path’ in response to a letter of request from his close student Ngawang Drakpa,” His Holiness explained. “The first verse gives a concise explanation of his intention. Verse two shows that the goal is higher rebirth and definite goodness. The first is achieved through morality, the second through practice of the three trainings.
“Verse three gives the reason for cultivating a determination to be free, while the fourth reveals how to develop it in the context of the leisure and opportunity of human life. Difficult to find, such a life is easily lost to the inevitability and uncertainty of death.
“Verse five gives the measure of having developed the determination to be free. Six shows the reason for developing bodhichitta, while verse seven and eight explain how to do it.
“Verses nine, ten and eleven focus on cultivating a realization of emptiness in conjunction with dependent arising. Verse twelve stresses that emptiness and dependent arising complement each other. Thirteen clarifies that when analysis of the profound view is complete you will not be captivated by either extreme view—existence or non-existence. The advice of the final verse is to realize the keys of the three principal aspects of the path, resort to solitude and making strong effort reach the final goal.
“In an accompanying letter, Jé Rinpoché gave Ngawang Drakpa the assurance that in the future, after his enlightenment, he, Jé Rinpoché, would share the nectar of his first teaching with him.”
His Holiness was pleased to complete reading the text in the allotted time. He announced that tomorrow, the third day of these teachings, he will conduct a ceremony for generating the awakening mind of bodhichitta—a practice he finds it beneficial to observe several times a day.
As he walked from the temple, His Holiness stopped several times to engage with people who lined the path, speaking to some and shaking hands with others. At the bottom of the temple steps he looked around and waved in several directions to those in the yard. As he climbed into his car, he looked up to wave to those in the temple above. Many people waved to him as he drove the short distance to the gates to his residence.