Teachings on Lamrim Chenmo

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In July 2008, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama gave a historic six-day teaching on The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo), Tsongkhapa's classic text on the stages of spiritual evolution. Translator for His Holiness was Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.

This event at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, marked the culmination of a twelve-year effort by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC), New Jersey, to translate the Great Treatise into English. The transcripts were kindly provided to LYWA by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, which holds the copyright. Webcast recordings of these teachings are available through His Holiness’ official website.

The transcripts have been published in a wonderful book, From Here to Enlightenment, edited by Guy Newland and published by Shambhala Publications. We encourage you to buy the book from your local Dharma center, bookstore, or directly from Shambhala.

Day Two, Morning Session, July 11 2008

Transcript #2


Chanting of Heart Sutra in Vietnamese

[not included in audio file #2 on labsum.org]

Using Human Intelligence to Transform Our Minds1

His Holiness: Now, I think in the beginning of the afternoon session, perhaps some questions may be useful.

So, Buddhadharma. Some scholars described, “Buddhism is not a religion but a science of mind.” I think it’s quite true, because in Buddhism, like any other non-theistic religion, the basic concept is law of causality—cause-and-effect, cause-and-effect, goes like that.

So the thing which we are very much concerned with, that is suffering, pain, and the joyful or pleasant, happy…

Thupten Jinpa: …happiness.

His Holiness: So the pains and pleasures, these things are feelings. So feelings means—part of our mind. So the causes of that (of course external factors are also there) but mainly within our own mind. So logically, in order to reduce suffering, pains, worry, sadness, fear—they ultimately depend upon our mental attitude.

So shaping in new ways our mind—just mere determination, or mere wish—to some extent it has some effect, but that cannot sort of affect us in a more profound way. So here I think conviction—firm conviction—that is something important.

Now firm conviction must come out of analytical meditation. So therefore the Buddhist way of approach is—utilize human intelligence in maximum way, and through that way, transform our mind.

So now in Buddhadharma—the essence of all Buddhist teachings—based on the four noble truths. [continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So when we speak of the four noble truths we recognize two sets of cause and effect. [pause for adjusting of microphones]

So when we speak of the four noble truths, essentially, within the teaching of the four noble truths we recognize two sets of cause-and-effect: one set that relates to the nature of suffering which we do not naturally desire. And also that suffering and its origin relate to one set that pertains to the afflicted class of phenomena or unenlightened existence. And a second set of cause-and-effect we find in the teaching of the four noble truths relates to happiness—what we aspire for and what we wish to achieve—and that cause-and-effect category belongs to the class of enlightened phenomena or enlightened class.

Perfection of Wisdom2

His Holiness: And then Sanskrit tradition...[continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in the case of… We were talking about the importance of determination but at the same time, aspiration and determination in itself cannot bring about the profound transformation we are seeking for. So, for example, at the beginning of the Heart Sutra which was chanted, the Heart Sutra opens with a dialogue between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara while the Buddha Shakyamuni remained in the meditative state.

So in the opening of the dialogue between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara a question is raised: “For a bodhisattva who wished to engage in the practices of the perfection of wisdom, how shall he or she go about doing it?” And then the text opens with a saying that... the statement that, “The bodhisattva who wishes to engage in the practices of the perfection of wisdom must proceed in the following manner. He or she must view all the five aggregates—the physical and the mental aggregates—to be devoid of inherent existence.” So right there, at the beginning, at the very opening of the text itself, there is a reference to the need for cultivation of the wisdom of emptiness.

So the point being made here is that, although determination based on aspiration is very important to motivate one toward the practices, but it is the determination and aspiration complemented with the faculty of wisdom that is going to make the big difference. So between the two primary modalities of an approach on the path—one approaching more in the form of aspiration and determination, one through the application of intelligence— between these two, it’s the application of the faculty of intelligence that is more important.

So when we speak about wisdom here, generally in the text, there are mentions of wisdom pertaining to the conventional level of truth of phenomena and wisdom pertaining to the ultimate level of truth of phenomena. Between these two, it is the wisdom related to the understanding of the ultimate truth that is primary. And so when we speak about perfection of wisdom, for example, even the very title of the text is referred to as Perfection of Wisdom. So here we are talking about not just any wisdom, but a wisdom realizing emptiness, and that also at the level of a perfection.

So when we speak of the perfection of wisdom, we are talking about the realization of emptiness which is reinforced and complemented with a factor of awakening mind, of bodhichitta. So the direct realization of… The wisdom that directly realizes emptiness that is complemented with the factor of bodhichitta—that is referred to as the perfection of wisdom.

So when we look at the etymology of the term perfection of wisdom, prajna-paramita, or paramita, paramita means to go beyond. So, in the etymology, one can understand this in terms of the actual process—that which goes beyond or that to which one has gone beyond. So if you understand perfection in terms of the actual process, then the wisdom directly realizing emptiness that is present in the bodhisattva’s mental continuum, that can be understood as the perfection of wisdom. So the main point is that all of this emphasizes the role of wisdom, particularly in the Sanskrit tradition.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So for example just now we had the recitation of the Heart Sutra, and towards the end of the Heart Sutra there is a mantra, a string of mantra, which begins in the following, which reads in the following way—tadhyata gate gate paragate parasamgate. So tadhyata means ‘it is thus’, gone, gone, gone beyond. So this explains the process of going beyond.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So of course the major explanations will come later.

His Holiness: So that’s the basic sort of structure of Buddhadharma. Now…

Goals and Conditions for Learning3

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So the next major outline of the text we will be reading from or addressing is: having explained the greatness of the author and the teaching itself, the third outline is how to now engage, proceed with, the exposition, teaching and listening to the teaching itself and with what kind of attitudes and states of mind.4

And here the main point being made is that the reason why we engage in the exposition of and listening to the teachings is to really fulfill our aspiration to bring about the realization of our immediate and long-term welfare. And in order to bring about the realization of that aspiration successfully, certain conditions need to be met on the part of both the listener and on the part of the teacher, so that whatever is taught and whatever is heard really serves the purpose of becoming as beneficial and as effective as possible.

So on the part of the listener certain conditions need to be created so that your state of mind and your attitude and your motivation for listening to the teachings remain pure so that it makes you receptive to benefit from the teachings. And on the part of the teacher also, it is important to make sure that, as far as the motivation of the teacher giving the teachings is concerned, it is unadulterated, it is pure. So the motivation is really to bring benefit to the student, to the listener.

And here, for example, the qualities that are very important are… for example in the qualities that are listed for attracting students and gathering students, there are four qualities that are identified. And the last two are very important. These two are teaching appropriately and living those ideals that you teach, living through your own example.

So these are very important on the part of the teacher so that whatever is taught... And also, as much as possible on the part of the teacher, it is important to have the skills to adapt the teachings according to the level and the need and specific circumstances of the listener, so that whatever is presented is most effective in bringing about the necessary transformation that one is seeking.

So once these conditions are created, then when you engage in, participate in, listening to a teaching or giving a teaching, then the activity will become beneficial. So these are the points Tsongkhapa is making under this outline.

How to Guide Students5

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So the fourth major outline is, “How to lead the students with the actual instructions.”6

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in this context when we talk about instructions, we are talking about instructions of the Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So with regard to the procedure by which students are led on the basis of instructions, there can be different approaches. For example, even in Nagarjuna’s own writing we see a divergence of approaches. For example, in his Precious Garland, the main procedure that is adopted is first by presenting all the teachings that are related to the realization of attainment of a fortunate rebirth, higher rebirth in a fortunate realm. So within that context, the teaching on the morality of abstaining from ten negative actions and also how to maintain a way of life that is free from falling prey to various forms of wrong livelihood—all of these are explained within the context of a practitioner who aspires to attain a favorable rebirth in a higher realm in the next life.

And then, having explained that part of the practices, then in the second part, in the latter part of the text Ratnavali (Precious Garland) Nagarjuna then goes on to explain all the practices that are related to the attainment of liberation, nirvana and definite goodness. Here in this context, the presentation of the view of emptiness is explained—the correct view of emptiness is explained.
So now this approach, since Ratnavali (the Precious Garland) is explicitly written as a letter of instructions, a letter of advice to a king, so the approach being presented in that is very specific to a particular individual. Whereas if you compare that to Nagarjuna’s own text, Commentary on the Awakening Mind (Bodhicittavivarana) then the approach is very different.

In the Commentary on the Awakening Mind in fact, the entire text is an exposition of a verse, a stanza, from the root tantra of Guyasamaja, where it explains how all phenomena are devoid of intrinsic existence and also devoid of the duality of subject and object, and it explains equanimity in terms of the absence of inherent existence of all phenomena. So that passage from Guyasamaja root tantra forms the basis for the exposition of this particular text by Nagarjuna which is a commentary on the awakening mind. And in this text, since it is a commentary on exposition of this particular stanza from the Guyasamaja Tantra, clearly the audience that is being targeted in this text are really practitioners of advanced capacity because they are practitioners of highest yoga tantra. Therefore for trainees of highest yoga tantra, the procedure of the path presented there is very different.

So in fact, in this text Nagarjuna immediately begins with an explanation of emptiness. So there the practices that are related to cultivating the correct view of emptiness are presented first. So on the basis of studying the teachings on emptiness, when one develops a deep understanding, and on that basis when one reflects critically upon one’s understanding, then on that basis one will develop a deep ascertainment of the meaning of emptiness. Which, when through meditative practices becomes internalized, then the individual practitioner will even arrive at a point where there will be a certain experiential flavor to the person’s understanding of emptiness.

And once you have that kind of understanding of emptiness, then you begin to recognize the possibility of an end to suffering because you recognize suffering arising from ignorance which is a distorted state of mind. And you come to recognize that this distorted state of mind has an antidote—a powerful antidote— that directly negates the content of that perspective, of that ignorance. And by seeing that for the root of suffering there is a powerful antidote that can eliminate it, you begin to recognize the possibility of an end to suffering.

And so once you recognize the possibility of an end to suffering, then this realization of the possibility of an end to suffering can in fact generate within you a powerful feeling of compassion for all beings. So therefore Nagarjuna in fact writes in the Bodhicittavivarana (the Awakening Mind) where, having explained the meaning of emptiness, at one point he says, “In the person in whom the realization of emptiness has arisen there is no doubt that attachment for all beings will arise.” Now here “attachment” refers to compassion.

So what we find in the Bodhicittavivarana is a procedure where the practitioner begins with cultivating the understanding of emptiness, and thereby cultivating the ultimate awakening mind, and then on the basis of that ultimate awakening mind, one cultivates the conventional awakening mind which is bodhichitta, and proceeds in that manner.

So these two approaches are very different. And so, if you look at these two approaches, then it makes sense. For example a kind of a latter-day Tibetan master Nyen-tsun Sung-rab developed the phrase where he talks about certain approaches of the teaching which are specific to an individual and certain approaches of the teaching which are taking into account the overall structure of the path. So you can see that this kind of understanding really applies to the two quite different approaches found in Nagarjuna’s teaching, one in the Precious Garland and the other in the Commentary on the Awakening Mind.

So, in short, when Tsongkhapa talks about how to guide the student on the basis of instructions, here instructions refer to the Buddha’s instructions. And the purpose of the Buddha’s instructions is to bring about the attainment of definite goodness, which is the liberation and buddhahood, and there the principal factor is really the cultivation of wisdom as explained before.

Understanding Emptiness as the Key7

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So with respect to these two diverse approaches of presenting the Dharma—one with relation to a specific individual’s need and context, one from the point of view of the overall presentation of the Buddhadharma—here, for example, in the 400 Stanzas by Aryadeva, again Aryadeva talks about these two different primary purposes of the Buddha’s teachings: one aimed at realization of an immediate aspiration, which is the attainment of a favorable rebirth; the other one is attainment of definite goodness or liberation.

Here if you look at the teachings, the practices, that are related to the attainment of a favorable rebirth, then we are primarily talking about understanding the law of causality and the teaching on dependent origination in terms of karma, the law of causality. And there the primary law of causality that we are trying to understand is really karma.

And, however, when it comes to the presentation of karma and the karmic laws, there are many aspects, facets, of the karmic law that remain totally obscure to us. And similarly if you look at the various presentations of the subtleties of various aspects of the various levels of realization of the path, at this point many of these very subtle aspects of the various levels of the path will remain obscure to us. So in these cases, the way in which we cultivate conviction in these aspects of cause-and-effect initially will primarily take the form of having some kind of admiration, and having some kind of conviction based upon that admiration.

However Aryadeva points out that, in terms of cultivating a conviction in those aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, the most skillful way of doing this is to first understand the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness, Buddha’s teaching on no-self. And so he says that with relation to the Buddha’s teaching related to very obscure facts, one can approach them and cultivate conviction in them on the basis of having a deep conviction in the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness.

Similarly Dharmakirti says in his Pramanavartika (Exposition on Valid Cognition) that because the Buddha, the teacher, has proven to be faultless or reliable with respect to the teachings on the principal teachings—particularly on the four noble truths, no-self and emptiness—therefore one can extend the same level of conviction and confidence in other teachings that the Buddha has given.

So what we see here is that, when it comes to the presentation of the Buddhist path from an overall point of view, the principal approach is to really proceed with cultivating a deeper understanding of the principal teachings of the Buddha which relate to the four noble truths and which relate to the teachings on no-self and emptiness. And so even in the context of the four noble truths, the key point is to really develop a deeper understanding of the third noble truth, which is the truth of cessation, and to recognize and appreciate the possibility of the attainment of cessation.

Otherwise, if we look at the teachings on suffering and its origin and then, if there is no possibility of an end to suffering, then there is simply no point in reflecting on, contemplating deeply on, the nature of suffering. Because if there is no possibility of an end to suffering and there is no possibility of the attainment of cessation of suffering, then any kind of deeper contemplation on suffering and its origin will result in depression. And clearly Buddha was not interested purely in making his followers depressed by delving ever more into the nature of suffering.

So for example, when we look at the nature of suffering, we are talking about evident suffering that we can all identify. Also we are talking about the suffering of change that we conventionally identify as pleasurable experiences. Then there is the third level of suffering which is the suffering of conditioning. So, as one contemplates deeply upon the nature of suffering, one comes to recognize that particularly the suffering of conditioning, which is the most profound level of suffering, arises on the basis of karma and afflictions which are all rooted in the fundamental ignorance and grasping at some form of enduring self.

And then once one recognizes the distorted nature of that grasping, then one will appreciate the possibility of cultivating a perspective that directly opposes that. And through understanding this, one will recognize that there is at least a possibility of bringing an end to that suffering.

And once you recognize that, then there is a real meaning and purpose to contemplating on suffering. So that’s the reason why there is a degree of confidence behind the Buddha’s teaching on suffering and its origin, because the confidence is stemming from the fact that he knows there is the truth of cessation.

And so when we understand the Buddha’s teaching, we need to relate all the teachings to the principal teaching on emptiness, and the purpose of that is the attainment of liberation. Because otherwise, if we confine our understanding of the Buddhadharma specifically to individual practices alone (say for example, guru yoga or proper reliance on the spiritual teacher, or cultivation of the awareness of death and impermanence, or taking refuge in the three jewels, and living one’s life according to following the precepts…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: Sorry... taking refuge in one’s own object of refuge and following the precepts based upon that, going for refuge, all of these teachings, practices, can be found in non-Buddhist teachings as well. Not only in the classical historical non-Buddhist teachings but even in all the contemporary non-Buddhist spiritual traditions, you can find a version of all these—a version of taking refuge, a version of living one’s life according to the precepts stemming out of that taking refuge, some recognition of the importance of awareness of death—all of these can be found in the non-Buddhist traditions as well.

And similarly, for example, when we look at the practice of morality, say for example, abstaining from killing, the act of abstaining from killing need not be by itself a Buddhist practice. One can be totally nonreligious and out of fear of legal consequences abstain from killing. And that is the act, but that is not a spiritual religious practice. Similarly, a non-Buddhist practitioner can adopt the morality of abstaining from killing with a view or the belief that doing so would violate God’s wishes.

So again, you can see that by themselves these individual practices, so long as you don’t tie them to the ultimate aim of the Buddhist path and point of the Buddha’s teachings, they in themselves are not specifically Buddhist practices. They are common practices that are found in all the other traditions.

For example within the morality of abstaining from the ten negative actions, we have three mental: abstaining from covetousness, ill will or harmful intent, and wrong view. So we can see that this is at the level of the practices relevant to the person of initial capacity. So there, attachment and aversion and ignorance are not listed, but very specific forms of these three poisons are listed. Instead of the general attachment, a more specific form, covetousness, is listed. Instead of aversion in its general category, a more specific form, harmful intention, is listed.

And also with wrong view, at the level of the initial capacity practice, wrong view need not necessarily be understood in terms of the law of karma and so on. But rather wrong view can be understood in terms of a person who defies the morality and engages in, say for example taking life, thinking that there are going to be no moral consequences for this. So that kind of view is a wrong view. So you can see all of these practices can be, in themselves, not necessarily specifically Buddhist.

However, what distinguishes a particular spiritual practice as Buddhist is when it is tied to the overall motivation and purpose of the attainment of liberation, which is based upon recognition of the possibility of an end to suffering and its origin—which is based upon the recognition of the possibility of the truth of cessation—and where all these practices are complemented with the understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on no-self and emptiness. Then these become Buddhist practices.

And even in the case of liberation, one needs to understand that the way in which Buddhism defines moksha, or nirvana, is not really transcending into some form of physical plane that is a heavenly realm. Rather moksha or liberation is defined in terms of a quality or a state of mind where the individual practitioner has reached a state where the person has purified his or her mind from the stains of grasping at the inherent existence or true existence. And therefore the point is that the teaching on no-self and cultivation of the view of no-self really becomes central to defining any spiritual practice as being Buddhist. And so the teaching on no-self and the cultivation of the view of no-self is what defines a spiritual practice as Buddhist.


Four Noble Truths: Instructions for Liberation8

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So we will now move on to the next section, which is the section: stages of the path for persons of middle capacity.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So we actually are not going to go straight there. The point we want to refer to is to really introduce what is meant by the actual instruction. And the actual instruction is the instruction of the Buddha, and the heart of that is to provide instruction that relates to the attainment of liberation.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in this section, in the opening part of the Lamrim Chenmo section dealing with the practices related to the person of middle capacity, Tsongkhapa writes what is meant by liberation. So he writes: “Liberation means freedom from bondage, and what binds you to cyclic existence is karma and afflictions,” and then says that, “Since this is the nature of bondage, freedom from rebirth impelled by karma and the afflictions is liberation, and the desire to obtain that freedom is the mind intent on liberation.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So generally speaking, if you look at the various classical Indian spiritual traditions, the notion of moksha or liberation is common to the classical Indian traditions. However in the Buddhist context, moksha or liberation is defined generally as a state of mind or quality of mind, particularly in the form of a freedom—freedom from some pollutants. And to be more precise, Nagarjuna explains this very clearly.

Of course in the Buddhist context the very understanding of moksha or liberation is tied intimately to the view of no-self. Nagarjuna gives a much more precise explanation of this in his Mulamadyamakakarika (Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way) where he says that through the cessation of karma and afflictions one gains freedom; and karma and afflictions come about from false conceptualizations; and conceptualization is calmed by means of emptiness. So on this reading of Nagarjuna’s text, emptiness is explained as a method by which the cessation of afflictions and karma is brought about.

However, there is also an alternative reading of the Sanskrit text, where one reads the last line in a locative sense, not an instrumental, where then we read the false conceptualizations are calmed within emptiness. This reading suggests that because unenlightened existence or samsaric existence arises on the basis of our ignorance and distorted understanding of the nature of mind itself, therefore it is by cultivating insight into the nature of mind, where through this wisdom all the pollutants and the distortions are literally kind of calmed, dissolved, come to be dissolved within the nature of mind itself. Therefore the nature of mind at that point, when all the conceptualizations, the false conceptualizations, have been dissolved and calmed, that state, that quality of the mind, is understood by Nagarjuna as liberation, what is meant by liberation in the Buddhist context.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So we read here in the Lamrim Chenmo, when Tsongkhapa explains what is meant by liberation or freedom, he says that, “Liberation means freedom from bondage and what binds you to cyclic existence is karma and afflictions.” So he’s identifying karma and afflictions as the things that bind us in cyclic existence, and the location where we are bound is identified as cyclic existence. And so this is identified as conditioned existence within aggregates that are appropriated. “Appropriated aggregates” is the term that is used.

So it’s not just any existence, because there can be existence with uncontaminated aggregates. But here, karmically conditioned aggregates—birth within the karmically conditioned aggregates—is defined as being in samsara or being in cyclic existence. And continued existence from such aggregates to another set of aggregates is what is meant by “cycle of existence.” And within that, because it is karma and the afflictions that is binding us in this, there is an element of a lack of control, a lack of freedom on our part. And this kind of conditioned existence, continuous existence, is the cycle. And so that’s why Nagarjuna also says that suffering within cyclic existence is when one is bound within the existence of the aggregates.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So this was in the Pramanavarttika, in Dharmakirti’s text, where he identifies the aggregates as samsara, within which we undergo the experience of suffering.

Order of the Four Noble Truths9

Thupten Jinpa: And then we move on to the next section when Tsongkhapa explains the process by which we continue to exist in samsara.10 So here he says, “Reflection on the truth of suffering” is explained in terms of “Showing the significance of the Buddha’s asserting the truth of suffering as the first of the four noble truths.” And “The actual meditation on suffering.”

And then the first: here Tsongkhapa writes… he first raises a qualm, “True origins are the causes and true sufferings are the effects. Why then did the Blessed One reverse that order?” (if the origin precedes suffering in, say, months) and say this is the noble truth of suffering and this is the noble truth of the origin? Then Tsongkhapa responds, “In this case the teacher reversed the sequence of cause and effect.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: For example in Maitreya’s text, Ornament of Clear Realization, he explains suffering and the origin in their actual sequence of order because origins come first and sufferings arise as a result and so on. But when Buddha first gave the sermon on the four noble truths he reversed that order, and he began with a result, which is suffering, and then moved on to the origin. So the question is being raised here, “What is the significance of reversing the actual order and explaining the truth of suffering first?”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So the significance of explaining the truth of suffering first is that the Buddha explains that it is only when one comes to understand the nature of suffering that the true aspiration to seek freedom from that suffering really arises. Therefore the suffering, the truth of suffering, was taught first.

So when we are talking about suffering in the context of the four noble truths and the Buddha’s admonition that we must recognize suffering as suffering, we are not talking about suffering in the conventional sense. For example, in a conventional sense many experiences, for example, that are pleasurable and mundane successes, these actually we see (instead of as being in the nature of suffering) we see them as desirable.

In fact for example, when we talk about happiness in the conventional sense, often we are talking about successes and excellences in the mundane context. In fact, the reason why this is so is that, for example, when we examine our attitude towards people who are successful in worldly terms, we feel admiration and in some cases are even envious, which suggests that actually what they have is what we wish to have. So this shows that instead of recognizing these to be in the nature of suffering, we take them to be aspects of happiness.

So the suffering that we need to cultivate the understanding of has a deeper meaning... a deeper meaning here. The Panchen Lama Lobsang Chogyen sums it up quite beautifully, which I often cite. He says that there are many ways in which one can contemplate the nature of suffering. At one level, with relation to evident obvious suffering, this is a level of suffering which even the animals are capable of recognizing as undesirable and they want to get away from these.

And then the second level of suffering, which is the suffering of change—which is quite conventionally identified as pleasure and happiness—with relation to that level of suffering, the non-Buddhist practitioners who seek heightened states of form and formless meditative states are capable of cultivating a sense of disenchantment towards that level of pleasure, pleasurable sensations, and avoid them.

So, in the context of the Buddhadharma, when the Buddha talks about cultivating a true recognition of the meaning of suffering, it is the third level of suffering, which is the suffering of conditioning. So when we say suffering of conditioning, the conditioning here refers to conditioning by karma and afflictions. And here it refers to our very existence as being propelled and conditioned by karma and afflictions. And here, as Tsongkhapa explains in Lamrim Chenmo, the Panchen Lama also identifies that our existence, is bound within karmically conditioned aggregates that are in a sense like the vessels, the container, within which the fruits of our past karma and afflictions are ripened. And it also serves as a further condition that enhances the causes and conditions that would give rise to future sufferings. So our aggregates serve both as a container of suffering, present suffering, but also they serve as a condition for future suffering as well.

And, therefore, the one who is able to recognize suffering in that sense, that one will then be able to generate a genuine aspiration to emerge definitely from that kind of conditioned existence. And this is what is meant by nyen jung or true renunciation—a definite emergence an aspiration to definitely emerge from that kind of conditioned existence.

Why Our Minds Can be Transformed11

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So we read from the text (which is on page 269, last paragraph12) where Tsongkhapa writes, “Next, you develop an understanding of the truth of….” Sorry, I think it was the penultimate paragraph:

“Once you recognize suffering, you see yourself as submerged in an ocean of suffering, and realize that, if you want to be liberated from suffering, you must counteract it. Moreover, you recognize that you cannot stop suffering unless you counteract its cause. By investigating the cause of suffering, you come to understand its true origin. Consequently, the Buddha spoke next about the truth of origin.”

And then he goes on to write, “Next you develop an understanding of the truth of the origin, an understanding that contaminated karma produces the suffering of cyclic existence, that afflictions produce karma and that the conception of self is the root of the afflictions. When you see that you can eliminate the conception of self, you will vow to realize its cessation, which is also the cessation of suffering.” So when we…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: …so…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So the conception of self, or grasping at self, that is being referred to here—Tsongkhapa is using it in a very broad, kind of general sense. Of course when he explains it in a more specific way, later on, it will be related to the teaching on emptiness. But here he’s presenting it on a very general level, where the consensus among all the Buddhist schools is the recognition that grasping at self lies at the root of cyclic existence.

So what Tsongkhapa is pointing out here is that, once you recognize that suffering arises from its origin, and its origin is constituted primarily by, principally, by karma and the afflictions, and then you come to recognize that at the root of all the afflictions lies the grasping at self—then it becomes very important.

The question is, this grasping at self, which is a very natural feeling that we all have, it is an innate mental state. It is not something that is acquired intellectually as a result of some kind of philosophical conditioning, but rather it is a natural state of mind that we all possess. It is an innate mental state.

Then the question is, “The perspective of this innate mental state—the natural sense of grasping at the self that we possess— is the perspective of this correct? Does it accord with the reality?” This becomes an important question because, just because something is natural, a perception or a mental state is natural, does not necessarily mean that its perception accords with reality. So we need to ask that question.

And then furthermore, when you probe in this manner you will come to recognize that this grasping at self is really a form of an ignorance. And therefore one needs to understand its distorted nature. And then the way in which we understand its distorted nature is to really again differentiate between our perception of reality and the reality itself. So some form of differentiation needs to be made between the way things appear to us, the way we perceive things, and the way things really are.

And so generally when we react to events on the level of emotions, with afflictions, we tend to react on the level of perceptions, on the level of appearances of things. And then, because things appear to us as possessing some kind of independent reality of their own, we tend to immediately affirm that perception, affirm that discreteness and solidity, and we react to the events and to the objects on the basis of that confirmation of this perception.

Then we tend to grasp very strongly at the solidity of the objects that we perceive. So therefore… However, by doing so, we only relate to events on the level of perception. We are not relating to them at the level of their reality. So then the need arises to compare whether there is a gap or disparity between our perceptions and the actual reality.

So therefore we need to understand what the reality is. And this relates to the need to have some way of understanding the true mode of being, the actual mode of being of things. And this, of course, ties up with the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness because the teaching on emptiness involves… All the various reasonings that are presented in the text to establish emptiness are really all aimed at establishing a proper understanding of the actual nature of reality.

So once we recognize this, then we will come to recognize that this naïve perception of things as possessing self-existence really comes to be recognized as being distorted. And when we recognize that they are distorted, then we will come to recognize that they are unstable, and there is a possibility of rooting these out from our mental states. And so this is one important fact that one needs to recognize.

The second important fact that one needs to recognize is that, in itself, the essential nature of mind is not really polluted. So, for example, when we look at the afflictions such as anger or hatred, a person may be hateful by temperament, but that does not mean this individual is going to be always in a state of hatefulness. The same individual may experience moments of loving-kindness, moments of compassion. And loving-kindness and hate, hatred, are diametrically opposed mental states. The two of them cannot coexist in a single individual at a single moment. So this shows the fact that even the hateful person never remains hateful consciously all the time and has occasional moments when loving-kindness and compassion arise in this individual. This shows that the essential nature of the mind itself is not inseparable from the afflictions such as hatred and so on.

Similarly in all of us, although our compassion and our loving-kindness may be biased, but still natural emotions like loving-kindness and compassion do arise within us. So this shows that in itself the essential nature of mind has the ability or capacity to allow the arising of opposing mental states, whether it is afflictions or their opposites.

Similarly, although our grasping at true existence, self-existence, of things may be very real and solid and natural, but that does not mean that somehow this is an integral part of the essential nature of mind itself. Because by cultivating the wisdom of no-self we can gradually undermine the solidity of this grasping and eventually conceive, envision, a point where one will be able to actually recognize the absence, the opposite, of self-existence. So this shows that no matter how strong a particular state of mind may be, these afflictions are not an integral, inseparable element, aspect, of the essential nature of mind.

So therefore these two premises become very important. One, that the afflictions, particularly their root which is ignorance, are distorted. And secondly, the essential nature of mind is separable from these afflictions. On the basis of these two, one will then come to recognize that grasping at self-existence is a state of mind that is removable, that is a perspective that one can remove.

Once you recognize that kind of… have that kind of understanding, then a genuine kind of a flavor, a feeling, will arise in you, when we are talking about the cessation of suffering. And therefore a true aspiration will arise on that basis—to gain that kind of freedom.

Understanding Dependent Origination as the Reason for Emptiness13

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So when we speak about ignorance, fundamental ignorance, depending upon one’s understanding of reality, how you define what constitutes fundamental ignorance is going to be different. So for example in the case of Nagarjuna, Nagarjuna’s own final position on this is found in the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness where Nagarjuna writes that the phenomena that has arisen from causes and conditions—that which grasps at these as possessing final existence—that the Buddha has explained to be ignorance. So in other words, Nagarjuna is identifying ignorance to be that mental state which grasps at phenomena, dependently originated phenomena, as possessing some kind of final reality of their own.

And this is explained more clearly in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way [v.135] where he says that just as the body faculty permeates all the other senses (sense faculties), in the same manner delusion, which is referring to ignorance, he says permeates all afflictions. And then when he explains what is meant by delusion here, or ignorance here, then he explains this by way of presenting its antidote. And here he says that he who understands dependent origination, sorry, “He who sees dependent origination, in him ignorance will not arise” [v.136]. And “Therefore with all one’s efforts here,” “I shall… “One should engage in the discourse on dependent origination.” So by pointing out that the insight of dependent origination is the direct opposite, the direct antidote, to ignorance, he is identifying ignorance to be grasping at phenomena being devoid of dependent origination—as possessing some kind of final existence or final reality.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So when you look at Nagarjuna’s stanza from the Seventy Verses, he actually cites the fact that phenomena come into being in dependence upon causes and conditions as the proof or reason for rejecting their possession of some kind of final existence. So, in other words, the emptiness of phenomena is being established by means of taking the fact of their causal origination as a kind of a premise or a reasoning. Now, and this is an important point, because what Nagarjuna is saying is that all phenomena are devoid of… all the causally arisen phenomena are devoid of inherent existence because they come into being in dependence upon their causes and conditions.

And, generally speaking, the causal relationship is something that we are all kind of naturally aware of. To some extent, at a very gross level, even the animals are capable of making causal connections. For example, they know that if they eat they won’t be hungry, and if they’re feeling too hot they will look for shade. So even the animals are capable of making causal connections between events, and of course in the human… in our case, we are more capable than the animals.

So, for example, that’s why we think about our own future welfare. We try to save for our future and in order to save, to make more money, we try to better educate ourselves so that we have better qualifications, so that we can get jobs like professorships and professorial positions with bigger paychecks. And also, we may try to… If you’re in business, you may try to join a more well-known company, a larger company, so you have bigger salaries and so on.

The idea here is that we make causal connections between certain things that we want in the future and the conditions that are necessary to get there, and on the basis of that we make all our efforts. So all of this shows that we do recognize in our day-to-day lives the cause-and-effect relations and operate on the basis of that knowledge.

But what Nagarjuna is pointing to is making us reflect more deeply upon the very fact of this causal, cause-and-effect relationship. Why is it that the effects depend upon their causes? So we can raise the question, “Why is it that the effects depend upon their causes?” This is because in reality, in nature, there is the phenomenon of dependence. There is a phenomenon of relationships.

And what allows for this cause-and-effect relationship to function in the first place is that there is a certain openness. The causes and effects are not self-enclosed realities. So there is a certain openness that allows for this kind of relationship to occur. And because of this relationship, the possibility of this relationship, then events can relate to each other in a cause-and-effect manner.

So once you recognize…Therefore what Nagarjuna is pointing out is the possibility that, simply by reflecting deeply upon cause-and-effect relationships, we can come to recognize the basic possibility of relatedness between events. And once you recognize that relational, dependent nature, then on that basis we can come to recognize all phenomena as being devoid of self-enclosed, intrinsic reality of their own. And once you come to recognize that, then you will come to be able to understand how we can understand the reality and existence of things in terms of designation and conventional understanding.

So therefore, when Buddha taught dependent origination in terms of causes and effects in the twelve links, although he is not explicitly teaching emptiness, but he is in fact providing the very foundation that serves as the basis for us to then understand emptiness.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So, from another point of view, we can look at the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination at the level of cause-and-effect; and dependent origination in terms of emptiness. The first level of teaching pertains more to the causes and effects that are related to attainment of favorable rebirth—future favorable rebirth in higher realms of existence. And the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination in terms of emptiness pertains to the cultivation of the causes and conditions that are relevant to the attainment of liberation. So that’s one way of looking at these two sets of teaching.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So what we recognize here is that, whether it is the attainment of the realization of our temporary aim of obtaining favorable rebirth, or whether it is the attainment, the realization, of our long-term aim, which is the attainment of liberation, in both of these the understanding of the teaching on dependent origination becomes relevant. Therefore Nagarjuna, I think this is in the Seventy Stanzas,14 says that this teaching on dependent origination is the most precious among the treasury of the Buddha’s teachings, Buddha’s scriptures.

Realization of the Two Aims: Favorable Rebirth and Liberation15

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: Then Tsongkhapa writes in the text (this is on page 270) “In this way” it’s the third paragraph, “In this way when you think ‘I shall realize that cessation that is liberation’ you become interested in the truth of the path.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in terms of the actual …

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in terms of the actual realization of the two aims, of course the attainment of a favorable rebirth must precede. And then on that basis, one can attain the realization of the second aim, the attainment of liberation. Because, since the engagement on the path aimed at the attainment of liberation requires the maximum use of our faculty of intelligence, and given that the human form (human existence) is equipped with the most advanced form of faculties of intelligence, therefore in order to engage in a path that is directed toward the attainment of liberation, one needs to have a form of existence that is equipped with those kinds of qualities of intelligence. And therefore in the Precious Garland, all the practices that are aimed at obtaining favorable rebirth are explained first, and then this is followed by the other teachings.

Similarly, in the Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way [v. 190], Aryadeva presents a sequence of practices where he says that, at first, one must avert all the de-meritorious activities, and then in the middle, one must cease grasping at self, and finally one must cease grasping at all views, false views. And also in the lam-rim teachings the approach begins with first trying to deal with preoccupations that are totally confined to the concerns of this life.

Once you’ve done that, then you move on to dealing with the preoccupations that are concerned with the immediate future life and so on, and here Tsongkhapa writes in the text (this is on page 270 fifth para):

“This being the case, the four truths are taught repeatedly throughout the Mahayana and the lesser vehicle teachings. Since the Sugata has included in the four truths the vital points concerning the process of cyclic existence and its cessation, this teaching is crucial for achieving freedom. And since this synoptic outline of the practice is important, it must be taught to students in just this order.”

So here Tsongkhapa is making a very important point—the need to guide students on the basis of the sequence of the four noble truths.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So here, in this big outline that we have referred to, is “the process by which the student should be led on the basis of the actual instructions.” So all of these explanations are really trying to point out what is meant by “the actual instructions.”

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So given that this is what is meant by the actual instruction, then Tsongkhapa in the text says that when he explains this outline (the process by which the student should be led on the basis of the actual instructions) he explains first how to rely on a spiritual mentor and, on that basis of reliance, how to lead the student. And given that, on the basis of discussions, we understood what is exactly meant by the instruction here.

Therefore the spiritual mentor who is going to guide the students needs to have the qualities that are necessary to guide the students on the basis of such an instruction. Therefore in this text Tsongkhapa talks about the qualities that are important on the part of the teachers, the qualities on the part of the students, and then how to then rely on the spiritual mentor on that basis.

His Holiness: Now break for lunch.


1 See Newland, From Here to Enlightenment, ch. 3:27. [Return to text]

2 See Newland, From Here to Enlightenment, ch. 3:28. [Return to text]

3 See Newland, From Here to Enlightenment, ch. 3:29. [Return to text]

Great Treatise, I, ch. 3:55. [Return to text]

5 See Newland, ch. 3:29-31. [Return to text]

Great Treatise, I, ch. 4:69. [Return to text]

7 See Newland, ch. 3:31ff. [Return to text]

8 Newland, ch. 5:49ff. [Return to text]

9 Newland, ch. 5:50-52. [Return to text]

10 Great Treatise, I, ch. 17:268ff. [Return to text]

11 See Newland, ch. 5:52-54. [Return to text]

12 See Great Treatise, I, ch.17:269. [Return to text]

13 See Newland, ch. 5:54 ff. [Return to text]

14 Citation should read: Tsongkhapa’s Praise to the Buddha for Teaching Dependent Origination, verse 23. [Return to text]

15 See Newland, ch. 5:56. [Return to text]