Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India - Once His Holiness the Dalai Lama had taken his seat this morning, he was welcomed by Ms. Wee Nee Ng on behalf of Buddhist students from six Asian countries: Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. She explained that monks at a meditation centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand would first chant the 'Mangala Sutta' in Pali. They would be followed by two nuns at a nunnery in Malaysia, who would recite the ‘Heart Sutra’ in Chinese.
His Holiness began by reminding his listeners that the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma more than 2500 years ago. “Today, we are witness to great material development, but people are distracted from the real source of happiness. Many people who follow a religious tradition find it helpful to maintain an emotional balance.
“The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings was the four noble truths. This is the case whether you follow the Pali or Sanskrit tradition. He taught about suffering, its origin, cessation and the path. When we look to see what the causes of suffering are, we are led into the realm of psychology, dealing with the workings of the mind. Significant among the causes of suffering are destructive emotions, such as attachment and anger. These are not of the nature of the mind. They arise because of the way we relate to the appearance of things.
“Nagarjuna states that the causes of suffering are karma and afflictive, or destructive, emotions, which in turn are rooted in ignorance. The Buddha taught that it is possible to achieve the cessation of suffering through the elimination of afflictive emotions. He explained this most thoroughly in the perfection of wisdom teachings and outlined the five-fold path alluded to by the ‘Heart Sutra’ mantra.
“Afflictive emotions arise due to ignorance — our misconception about how things exist. Today, quantum physics declares that things do not exist as they appear. In the ‘Heart Sutra’ we find a fourfold expression of emptiness:
Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.
“In revealing dependent arising, the Buddha showed that it is possible to overcome the extremes of both eternalism and nihilism.
“Reaching countries like China, Vietnam and Japan, as well as Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, the Buddha’s teachings spread across Asia. There emerged the Pali Tradition and the Sanskrit tradition. Sanskrit is regarded as a learned language and the tradition relied on the use of logic and reason. Pursuing the Buddha’s own advice not to accept what he said without examining it as a goldsmith tests gold, followers of the Sanskrit tradition scrutinized even the Buddha’s instructions and classified them as definitive or as needing interpretation. This was akin to a scientific approach.
“According to the Buddha’s explanation of dependent arising, things do not exist in and of themselves. They exist merely by way of designation, through concepts and labels. Form has no intrinsic existence. As the ‘Heart Sutra’ records, ‘Form is not other than emptiness; emptiness is not other than form’. This counters the two extremes of permanence and nihilism.”
With regard to Nagarjuna, His Holiness said we don’t have to rely on the biographies to know what kind of man he was. We can read his six principal compositions. In due course, Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita, renowned scholars, wrote commentaries to his ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’. They adopted a dialectical approach, refuting others' positions, asserting their own and rebutting subsequent criticism.
His Holiness mentioned that in the re-established monasteries in India today, there are growing numbers of monks and nuns who have memorized Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’. Others have memorized the ‘Ornament for Clear Realization’ and ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ — he included himself among them. And having memorized these treatises, these students study the commentaries of Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, Chandrakirti and so on, examining what they wrote in the light of reason. This was the approach that Shantarakshita recommended when he established Buddhism in Tibet.
His Holiness mentioned the verse in Chandrakirti's 'Entering into the Middle Way' and references to it in his auto-commentary that criticise Vasubandhu, Dignaga and Dharmapala for misapprehending Nagarjuna's intention. They failed to grasp the actual meaning, because they were alarmed by his words and rejected his world-transcending teaching.
Terrified by the blinding colour of the utterly vast ocean of Nagarjuna's wisdom,
some have shunned and kept their distance from this most wonderful tradition.
Yet moistened by the dew, these stanzas opened like the buds of water lilies.
Thus, the hopes of Chandrakirti have now been realized. 11.54
He noted that ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ was translated into Chinese and consequently was also translated into Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean. However, the crucial issue is that we now need to read and study what is written in it. All followers of the Sanskrit tradition recite the ‘Heart Sutra’, but few study it. A Japanese Abbot once told His Holiness that although his monks and followers regularly chanted the ‘Heart Sutra’, they did so without understanding what it meant. As a result, he really appreciated His Holiness’s explaining it to them.
His Holiness reported that when he was memorizing ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ as a small boy, there was a particular word or phrase he found difficult. It made him angry and he scrubbed the words out of the book he was using. Later, when he had studied the treatise and gained some understanding, he learned to appreciate that dependent arising reveals the relativity of things.
“In his work, the ‘400 Verses’, Aryadeva tells us:
As the tactile sense [pervades] the body
Ignorance is present in all [afflictive emotions].
By overcoming ignorance, you will also
Overcome all afflictive emotions.
“What this means is that although there are specific ways to counter anger and attachment, by coming to understand emptiness and dependent arising, it is possible to root out all destructive emotions.
"Nagarjuna explains that we spin in the cycle of existence because of negative karma, negative action, and liberation can only be attained by eliminating karma and afflictive emotions. He writes that mental afflictions are rooted in the ignorance that believes that things exist as they appear. Mental afflictions arise from conceptual thoughts that arise from exaggerated fabrication. Such wrong views can only be eliminated by understanding reality.
“We cling to the idea that things exist intrinsically and independently. Destructive emotions such as attachment and anger arise because of this exaggerated view”.
His Holiness expressed appreciation that he is able to connect with people over the internet, especially at a time when the pandemic means it’s not possible to meet in person. He remarked that theistic religious traditions such as Christianity help great numbers of people because they teach the importance of love and compassion. Followers of Buddhism, particularly those who follow the Sanskrit Tradition, should combine training in love and compassion with an understanding of emptiness.
“People want to find peace of mind,” he declared, “there’s no one who doesn’t want happiness. The religious aspect of Buddhism is for Buddhists, but the scientific and philosophical ideas can be of benefit to anyone.”
Turning to the ‘37 Practices of a Bodhisattva’ His Holiness mentioned that the author Gyalsey Thogmé Sangpo was a contemporary of Butön Rinchen Drup. He lived in Ngulchu, which is why that is sometimes added to his name, the first part of which, ‘Gyalsey’ refers to his having been widely regarded as Bodhisattva. His Holiness clarified that of the Buddha’s eight close disciples, Lokeshvara was entrusted with preserving compassion, therefore the salutation at the beginning of this text pays homage to him.
His Holiness read steadily through the verses that disclose that studying the Buddha’s teaching, giving up your homeland, seeking solitude to practise and letting go of this life are among the practices of bodhisattvas. He quoted Gungthang Rinpoché’s observation that hostile friends do not have horns and fangs, they are those who pretend to take care of you, but lead you astray.
Verse six refers to relying on a spiritual master who needs to be not only someone learned, but someone who has personal experience. Jé Tsongkhapa remarked that in his own life he studied extensively, came to see all teachings as personal instructions, applied them and generated experience of them within himself.
Subsequent verses say that if you cause others to be unhappy there will be bad consequences for you; never do wrong. Aspire to achieve cessation. Verse nine summarizes the path common to beings of intermediate capacity. The gist of the next verse is that if, due to the practice of love and compassion, there is an affectionate atmosphere around you, you’ll be happy. His Holiness recalled Shantideva’s advice:
‘For those who fail to exchange their own happiness for the suffering of others, Buddhahood is certainly impossible — how could there even be happiness in cyclic existence?’
This is echoed in verse eleven. The kinder you are to others, the more you will also benefit. We all have natural self-interest; the wise way of fulfilling it is to serve others. The following verses recommend speaking of others’ good qualities, and regarding those you have helped who are hostile in return as being as kind as your mother. They counsel not to become discouraged, nor to become conceited. Gathering the militia of loving kindness, subdue your own mind. Regard sensual pleasures as like salt water.
When meditating, remain in space-like absorption, but in the post-meditation period see things as like illusions, whose appearance is related to your own mind. Remember that the appearance of things depends on the observer. Seeing attractions too as illusory, give up attachment to them. These are the practices of bodhisattvas.
His Holiness stopped after verse twenty-three, promising to continue from there tomorrow. He invited questions from the audience. The first concerned how to ensure good rebirths in the future. In his answer he quoted Maitreya as saying, I bow down to bodhichitta which leads away from the lower realms to higher realms and ultimately the deathless state. The less selfish you are the happier you’ll be. If you help others, you’ll gather the causes for higher rebirth. At least be warm-hearted and don’t do others harm.
In replying to a question about how a beginner might relate to the three principal aspects of the path, His Holiness first reviewed what they are: a determination to be free, the awakening mind of bodhichitta and correct view. He clarified that in order to understand true cessation, as one of the four noble truths, it’s necessary to understand the two truths — conventional and ultimate truth. His Holiness remarked that he has been thinking about the two truths for a long time. Examine how things exist, he advised. They change because they are not intrinsically existent. When you understand the two truths, you’ll understand that the cessation of suffering is possible.
Asked how to help people who are inordinately self-satisfied, His Holiness replied that when individuals are too selfish and arrogant, others are wary of approaching them. He said we are all selfish to some extent, but being wisely selfish involves concern for others.
His Holiness observed that an underlying problem in the world today is the yawning gap between rich and poor. He encouraged the wealthy to provide material help to the needy, but also to make provisions for their education. He said that since learning about socialism in China he has counted himself a socialist. With regard to the pandemic he expressed appreciation for the research that is going on to find remedies for it. Meanwhile, the members of the public must continue to take all the necessary precautions to protect themselves and each other.
The answer to the question of ensuring that children grow up happily involves education. Modern education, with its origins in the West, focusses largely on material development. However, in India and other Asian societies, there is a tradition of learning how to pacify negative emotions. To do this it’s important to learn about the workings of the mind and emotions, as well as learning to tackle them in a way that His Holiness refers to as cultivating emotional hygiene. Children tend to be naturally pure and open-hearted. His Holiness stressed the importance of preserving and enhancing these qualities.
Finally, His Holiness was asked his advice about developments in Hong Kong. He began by noting that in addition to all the other problems we face, there are the troubles brought about by politicians. Chinese influence in Hong Kong is growing, but he urged Hong Kongers not to become emotionally disturbed. “Look for solutions to the problems you face. If there is a remedy, there’s no need to worry. If there’s no remedy, worrying is of no use. Faced with a problem it’s necessary to find a way to overcome it. In the case of a challenge like climate change, it may be beyond our control. Nevertheless, you have sharp brains and courageous hearts; don’t lose your determination to overcome the obstacles you face.”