Bodhgaya, Bihar, India – After rain yesterday left Bodhgaya’s streets wet and muddy, it was a bright morning today as His Holiness the Dalai Lama drove out of the village. He was headed to the First Conference of Scholars of Different Traditions on Jé Tsongkhapa’s ‘Essence of True Eloquence’. Many people lined the road to see him pass. On arrival at the venue, where a large tent had been put up to accommodate the meeting, His Holiness was welcomed by Kirti Rinpoché. Ganden Trisur, Ganden Tri Rinpoché, the Sharpa and Jangtse Chojés and Abbots of the great monasteries were also there to greet him.
His Holiness was invited to lay the foundation stone for the prospective Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Nalanda Academy. He added a block carved with a double vajra to an existing wall and recited prayers of auspiciousness.
Once inside the grand tent, Kirti Rinpoché offered His Holiness a mandala and representations of the body, speech and mind of enlightenment. ‘The Praise to the Buddha known as the Three Continuums’ and the ‘Praise to the Buddha for Teaching Dependent Arising’ were recited. Rinpoché introduced the occasion—the First Conference of Scholars of Different Traditions on Jé Tsongkhapa’s ‘Essence of True Eloquence’. He expressed gratitude to His Holiness for taking the time to attend the inauguration. He pointed out that the conference had a broad base with scholars from all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Bön participating. Among them were Geshemas as well as Geshes.
Kirti Rinpoché explained that a similar conference, attracting scholars from all Tibetan Buddhist traditions and Bön, had been held at Taktsang Lhamo, his home monastery in Tibet, in 2016. On this occasion, 62 papers are to be presented, discussed and debated by Lharampa Geshes, 12 Geshemas and seven lay scholars. Altogether the conference has attracted more than 700 participants of whom 442 are scholars from the three Great Seats of Learning, Ganden, Sera and Drepung. Taking part in the debates will be representatives of the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Geluk, Jonang and Bön traditions.
The focus of the conference is Jé Tsongkhapa’s ‘Essence of True Eloquence’, which he wrote 610 years ago. Organizers have found 89 commentaries and annotated editions as well as 125 contemporary scholarly papers about it. Kirti Rinpoché observed that in the Ngaba region of Do-mé, Tibet, many monks carry the ‘Great Stages of the Path to Enlightenment’ and ‘Essence of True Eloquence’ with them wherever they go. Knowing this, it was common for lay-people to ask monks to place the books at the head of their beds as they died.
It was customary for monks at Kirti Monastery to try to memorize ‘Essence of True Eloquence’ and Rinpoché has the names of 200 monks who have accomplished this feat. He mentioned that on his journey from Amdo to Lhasa to join Drepung Loseling he memorized the Mind Only section and hoped to be examined on it. However, the upheavals in Lhasa put paid to that. Rinpoché remarked that it is said that without understanding ‘Essence of True Eloquence’ you can’t claim to have understood philosophy.
Ganden Tri Rinpoché noted how auspicious it was for Kirti Monastery to have organized such a conference in the presence of His Holiness. Jé Tsongkhapa was regarded in Tibet as trailblazer, he declared, with ‘Essence of True Eloquence’ singled out in relation to sutras and ‘Lamp for the Five Stages’ in relation to tantra. ‘Essence of True Eloquence’, he said, is based on the ‘Unravelling of Thought Sutra’ and the ‘Sutra of Akshyamati’, discussing both Mind Only and Madhyamaka points of view. To study it from beginning to end is equivalent to studying the essence of the great classic texts. Jé Rinpoché’s purpose in writing the book was to enable people to study and put what they learned into practice in order to reach the state of omniscience. Tri Rinpoché concluded with a prayer that all may attain the state of union.
His Holiness began his address by explaining that Kirti Rinpoché had earlier planned to convene the conference at his monastery in Dharamsala. “I suggested he hold it here in Bodhgaya. Rinpoché has dedicated his life to the benefit of beings and has created opportunities for people to really study. Sometimes we see impressive monasteries with imposing buildings, but nothing going on inside. They just represent hollow grandeur. It’s a bit like colossal statues that have their value, but will never speak.
“Understanding the Buddha’s teachings requires scriptural knowledge and realization. To achieve them we have to study, reflect and meditate. It’s not enough to just study the words, we have to reflect on what we’ve learned, analysing it through the fourfold reasoning. Once we have an understanding based on reflection, we need to generate experience of that understanding in meditation.
“Kyabje Ling Rinpoché used to tell me that ‘Essence of True Eloquence’ was likened to a steel bow, hard to draw but capable of shooting a powerful arrow. Most important is the second section dealing with the Madhyamaka view, in which Jé Rinpoché quotes profusely from Chandrakirti’s ‘Entering into the Middle Way’. He makes clear that Prasangikas state that things lack any ultimate existence, while maintaining conventional existence. He shows how Prasangikas’ denying any inherent existence whatsoever distinguishes them from the Svatantrika School.
“If you read Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ he uses a lot of negative expressions—not this, not that. In Chapter 24, however, Nagarjuna states:
“That which is a dependent arising
Is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent arising,
Is itself the middle way.”
His Holiness spoke of recently meeting a Russian scientist who is interested in setting up a project to investigate ‘thukdam’, the phenomenon of a meditator remaining in meditative absorption for some days after clinical death. The professor reported that he had already visited the three Great Seats of Learning in South India. His Holiness told him that the Russian republics of Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva followed the same Buddhist traditions as Tibetan. They used to study at Drepung Gomang Monastery. Among them were excellent scholars like His Holiness’s debate partner, Ngodup Tsognyi.
“Buddhist literature can be classified into religion, philosophy and science,” His Holiness continued. “Religion can be a source of ‘peace of mind’, but where other religious traditions focus on prayer, the Nalanda Tradition is based on the use of reason. Mental afflictions are rooted in ignorance, the misconception that things exist the way they appear. Aryadeva states in his 400 Verses that mental afflictions are permeated by a misconception of reality.
“As the tactile sense [pervades] the body
Confusion is present in all [mental afflictions].
By overcoming confusion you will also
Overcome all mental afflictions.
“Many of the insights of ancient Indian philosophy and psychology can be usefully applied in an objective, secular context. The Buddha was a product of Indian traditions for cultivating a calmly abiding mind and insight (shamatha and vipashyana). Nevertheless, he discovered that unless you eliminate the view of an independent self, you won’t overcome suffering.
“Following his enlightenment, the Buddha is reported to have said:
“Profound and peaceful, free from elaboration, uncompounded clear light
I have found a nectar-like Dharma.
Yet if I were to teach it, no one would understand,
So I shall remain silent here in the forest.
“The first words of the first line ‘profound and peaceful’ refer to the true cessation that was the focus of the first turning of the wheel of dharma. ’Free from elaboration’ alludes to what he eventually taught in the second turning of the wheel and ‘uncompounded clear light’ pertains to the third turning of the wheel.
“If we follow an intelligent approach to what the Buddha taught, employing study and understanding, Buddhism will endure. If we take a more stolid approach based on faith alone, who knows how long it will last? The Buddha’s advice to his followers: “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so, bhikshus, should you accept my words—after testing them, and not merely out of respect for me,” bears this out.
“If we can explain philosophical views on the basis of reason and science, people today will pay attention. And in the monasteries, we now have laboratories where we can test theories through experiment.”
Abbot of Ganden Shartse, Jangchub Sangye moderated the presentations. He explained that each presenter would have ten minutes to read his or her paper. That would be followed by 15 minutes during which scholars or members of the audience could raise questions that the presenter could answer.
Veteran scholar from the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies, Geshe Yeshe Tapkay opened the presentations giving a broad overview of the text. He was followed by Ganden Shartse Geshe Gyaltsen Wangdu, who now teaches at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala. The final presentation before lunch was by Lobpon Rinzin Dorjee of the Dzongsar Institute.
His Holiness ate lunch with invited Lamas and Abbots. At one o’clock the conference’s afternoon session began and His Holiness returned to Gaden Phelgyeling.