Entering into the Middle Way
September 8, 2021
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – This morning Ms Ng Wee Nee welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama as soon as he had taken his seat in the webcast studio at his residence. She thanked him on behalf of a group of Asian Buddhists from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, who had requested him to teach. She explained that first a monk at the Doi Wawee International Vipassana Centre, Thailand would chant the Mangala Sutta in Pali. After that, monks and nuns from Quan Am Cac Temple, Vietnam would chant the ‘Heart Sutra’ in Vietnamese.
Once the recitations were complete, His Holiness explained that a collection of different Asian Dharma centres had requested an introduction to Buddhism based on Chandrakirti’s auto-commentary to his treatise ‘Entering into the Middle Way’.
“I have received the transmission of the root text from my Abbot, Kyabjé Ling Rinpoché,” His Holiness confirmed, “and the transmission of the auto-commentary from Sakya Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk.
“Buddha Shakyamuni turned the wheel of dharma more than 2500 years ago. However, he also made clear to his followers that they should not take his teaching for granted, but should examine it as a goldsmith tests gold. He encouraged them to check that what he said was reasonable and would have the effect of transforming their minds.
“Preservation of the Buddha’s teachings was first entrusted to the Seven Patriarchs who came after him. Ultimately, however, it was in centres of learning such as the University of Nalanda that they were kept alive. Writings of the masters of Nalanda, including ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ and its auto-commentary, reveal how learned they were.
“In 7th century Tibet, Emperor Songtsen Gampo commissioned the creation of a Tibetan alphabet. Despite close relations with China, he chose instead to model it on the Indian Devanagari script. A century later, Emperor Trisong Detsen turned to India once again when he invited the eminent Nalanda scholar Shantarakshita to establish Buddhism in Tibet.
“Aware that Tibetans had developed their own written language, Shantarakshita encouraged the emperor to organize the translation of Buddhist literature into Tibetan. The result was the 100 volumes of the Kangyur, the translated words of the Buddha and the more than 200 volumes of the Tengyur, the translated collection of treatises of subsequent masters.
“These translated works formed the basis of a Buddhist education in Tibet. When I was very young, I memorized ‘Entering into the Middle Way’ and could recite it aloud without knowing what it meant. In due course, I found out by studying the text word by word. A key aspect of the Nalanda Tradition was to take a reasoned, questioning approach to the books we studied. These days, if I can, I read a few pages of Chandrakirti’s auto-commentary every day, which prompts me to reflect on the way things exist. I take great inspiration from verses at the end of the sixth chapter.
Thus, illuminated by the rays of wisdom’s light,
the bodhisattva sees as clearly as a gooseberry on his open palm
that the three realms in their entirety are unborn from their very start,
and through the force of conventional truth, he journeys to cessation. 6.224
“Whatever object of knowledge there is has two natures, a conventional truth and an ultimate truth, but both refer to the same entity. Although things exist on a conventional level, if we search for them through analytical meditation, there’s nothing to be found.
“Things appear to have objective or independent existence, but do not actually exist that way. We cling to the apparent solidity of things. However, as chapter six makes clear, yogis reject things having any kind of self-identity. They do not exist in and of themselves. There are several different forms of reasoning employed to establish this.
“Because I have studied, reflected and meditated on emptiness for decades, I cherish the hope that I may yet achieve cessation. As Chandrakirti states at the beginning of ‘Entering into the Middle Way’, you can’t reach Buddhahood without the two collections of merit and wisdom. This is why I consider generating the awakening mind of bodhichitta and an understanding of emptiness to be my main practice day by day. I’m telling you this in order that you understand that meditating on emptiness, dependent arising and a lack of inherent existence is effective.”
His Holiness quoted the second verse of the root text, ‘Entering into the Middle Way’:
As compassion alone is accepted to be
the seed of the perfect harvest of Buddhahood,
the water that nourishes it, and the fruit that is long a source of enjoyment,
I will praise compassion at the start of all. 1.2
He remarked that Buddhists traditionally pray for the welfare of all sentient beings, but in practical terms it is the seven billion human beings alive today who we can help. He explained that conflicts in the world come about because we are subject to destructive emotions. Anger provokes us to do harm. It distorts the expression on our faces and causes us to adopt an ugly demeanour. His Holiness quoted verses from chapter three:
Wrath disfigures your face and leads you to what is unwholesome;
it robs your mind of the judgment of what is right and wrong;
intolerance is swift to throw you to the lower realms.
But forbearance brings qualities opposite to those just described: 3.7
forbearance makes you attractive and dear to the sublime ones,
you become wise in knowing what is appropriate and what is not,
afterward you gain birth as a deva or a human,
and it secures the exhaustion of negative karma. 3.8
His Holiness remarked that if we promote love and compassion, as all religions encourage us to do, we will reduce anger and hatred, which will make a real contribution to peace in the world.
Turning to the text of Chandrakirti’s auto-commentary, His Holiness noted that when Buddhist literature was translated into Tibetan a convention was observed to start by citing the title of the work in the Indian language to verify its authenticity. This book is entitled, ‘Madhyamakavatara Bhashyam’ — ‘Commentary to ‘Entering into the Middle Way’. Similarly, the translators would pay homage, in the case of Sutras to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; in the case of works involving higher knowledge or Abhidharma, to Manjushri and to the Omniscient One when the text dealt with Vinaya. The homage in this book is to Manjushri.
His Holiness began to read briskly through the text, pausing to comment here and there. He pointed out that the Buddha’s teaching is founded on the notion of dependent arising. He also noted that great compassion is very precious. Compassion is not only crucial to Buddhist practitioners, but is essential in ordinary life. As human beings, if we remain peaceful and helpful to one another, not only will we be happy, but we’ll create a happy atmosphere around us.
“When you have compassion,” he added, “you not only aim to free beings from suffering, but also to reduce the causes and conditions that give rise to suffering. However profound your understanding of emptiness may be, it needs to be conjoined with compassion.
“We naturally think of my body, my speech and my mind, but where is the ‘I’ that possesses them? When we search for this governor of our body, speech and mind in the light of reason, it can’t be found. I think of myself as one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s bhikshus, but when I look for the self of that bhikshu, I can’t find it. Clinging to the sense that we possess an objectively existent, solid ‘I’ is effectively undermined by cultivating an understanding of emptiness and dependent arising.”
When he had read the commentary to the fifth verse of the first chapter, His Holiness announced that he would stop reading for the day. He invited questions from the audience.
Among his answers he explained that when we talk about overcoming grasping, we’re referring to the misapprehension that something exists independently. Merely apprehending an object is not what needs to be overcome. As your understanding of the view of emptiness grows, he said, you will hold less tightly to the idea of the solid appearance of things, which is how they appear. They also appear to exist inherently, and coming to understand that they don’t exist in that way helps reduce attachment to them.
His Holiness was asked if the hardship refugees and others are facing is the result of previous karma. He replied that we need to think about it in terms of causes and conditions. How a cause that is a result of karma plays out depends on other conditions. Being kind and of service to others creates conditions that can relieve how severely even negative karma ripens. His Holiness declared that to just blame whatever happens on karma, as if it is inevitable, is a lazy way of thinking. He was clear that confession and a powerful practice of the dharma can eliminate negative karma.
There is a need for wisdom and skilful means. Understanding that things do not exist in the way they appear to us and that they are dependently arisen will help overcome suffering. Bodhisattvas may seem to be fervently dedicated to helping sentient beings, but they are not attached to doing so.
It’s important to act intelligently rather than impulsively. We need to think of the long-term benefit. Bodhisattvas think of how they can help all sentient beings. There may be occasions when pride is justified and yet no arrogance is involved. Mahatma Gandhi had the courage to really be of help to others. Martin Luther King and Bishop Desmond Tutu are further examples of such courage—completely dedicated to the service of others.
Asked to comment on the relationship between modern science and Buddhism, His Holiness pointed out that science tends to focus on external, material things rather than on consciousness within. Buddhism, on the other hand, has extensively explored the mind. Consequently, while Buddhists have learned about the external world from scientists, there is much that they have been able to explain about the workings of the mind and emotions.
Finally, in reply to a question about how best to heal in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic, His Holiness acknowledged that a great deal of research has been going on. Therefore, it’s important to follow medical advice. He expressed his appreciation of all those who have dedicated themselves to caring for others under very difficult circumstances. He mentioned that it is important for the sake of yourself and others to observe recommended precautions, such as wearing masks in public places.
The moderator, Ms Bui Mai Chi, thanked His Holiness for the day’s teaching and told him that everyone taking part was looking forward to listening to him again tomorrow. His Holiness’s response was: “See you tomorrow.”