Teaching Nagarjuna’s ‘Precious Garland of the Middle Way’
October 3, 2019
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India – The sun shone in a clear sky this morning as His Holiness the Dalai Lama walked from his residence to the Tsuglagkhang, the Main Tibetan Temple. He greeted members of the public gathered in the yard and around the temple on his way, stroking a child’s cheek here, exchanging a few words there and waving to those beyond his reach. Once in the temple he respectfully saluted the former Ganden Throneholder, Rizong Rinpoché before taking his seat on the throne. A recitation of the ‘Mangala Sutta’ in Pali by Thai monks was followed by the chanting of the ‘Heart Sutra’ in Chinese.
The more than 7500 people gathered in and around the temple included individuals from 61 countries. Of these, the principal students were 1127 from Taiwan belonging to 21 organizations under the umbrella of the Taiwan International Tibetan Buddhist Association. Largest among these various groups was ‘Bliss and Wisdom’ and its 850 members.
After reciting the customary verses of homage, His Holiness addressed the congregation.
“Today, Chinese from Taiwan and elsewhere have come to listen to this teaching. We are here to learn how to transform our minds. The Buddhist tradition in general and the Nalanda Tradition in particular teach about the mind using logic and reason. They explain how to counter destructive emotions like anger and jealousy, which has the additional physical benefit of boosting our immune systems.
“We have to identify what disturbs our peace of mind and learn how to counter that, much as we take the appropriate medicine when we are sick. When we are angry, we should ask why. Note that anger may cause you to see someone as an enemy, but that can change. Someone who seems like an enemy today may be a friend tomorrow. When someone criticizes you, if you get angry it doesn’t relieve your irritation, whereas if you remain patient and calm, you don’t get upset. Anger, arrogance and jealousy disturb your peace of mind. They spoil your health and disturb your friends.
“Peace of mind is important because we all want to be happy. Cultivating and preserving it is not so much a religious practice as taking a practical step towards being happy. All religious traditions teach love and compassion because as human beings we are social animals. Our well-being depends on the members of our community. Generally, a child brought up by a loving mother grows into an affectionate adult. In the past, people lived with their families in relatively small groups, but today, we are all dependent on each other. All 7 billion human beings make up one human family. Therefore, it’s crucial that we take account of the oneness of humanity.
“Buddhists talk about helping all mother sentient beings, but those who we can really help are human because we can communicate with them. It’s much more difficult to help animals who have no language. If our brains are slaves to afflictive emotions, they’re not of much use, but if we cultivate love and compassion for others we can achieve happiness. As Shantideva writes:
And so, today, within the sight of all protectors,
I summon beings, calling them to Buddhahood.
And, till that state is reached, to every earthly joy;
May gods and demigods and all the rest rejoice.
“If you cultivate the awakening mind of bodhichitta, all beings will be your friends. You’ll see all as amiable and none as foes. On the other hand, if you only think of yourself, everyone will seem like a threat. The scriptures tell us that this human life is hard to find and precious because it enables us to fulfil the aims of others and ourselves.”
His Holiness talked about how all religious traditions commend us to be warm-hearted, although they take different philosophical approaches to this goal. Some theistic traditions, like Judaism, Christianity and Islam place their faith in a creator god, seeing other beings as children of that god and so as brothers and sisters. Non-theistic traditions in India, such as a strand of the Samkhya tradition, Jains and Buddhists see happiness and suffering as dependent on our actions. This point of view gave rise to the idea of non-violent conduct promoted first by Jains, but also adopted by the Buddha.
His Holiness clarified that the Buddha’s foundational teaching was given openly, in public and was later recorded in the Pali language. This tradition is followed in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Later teachings were recorded in Sanskrit, a more scholarly language. He mentioned that since the terms Hinayana and Mahayana, implying a lesser vehicle and a greater vehicle, can be viewed as discriminatory, he prefers to speak of the Pali and Sanskrit traditions. Monks of the Pali tradition maintain good monastic discipline. Scholars of the Nalanda Tradition that exemplifies the Sanskrit traditions emphasized the use of reason and logic. Its members investigated the Buddha’s teaching without taking it for granted.
The Buddha himself encouraged his followers to examine his teaching carefully in the way a goldsmith tests gold. When Nagarjuna and his followers did this, they classified what the Buddha had taught into definitive and interpretable instructions, after subjecting them to analysis akin to a scientific approach.
Reiterating the importance of cultivating and maintaining peace of mind, His Holiness stressed that it is not necessary to be religious to do so. What is important is learning how to tackle disturbing emotions. He mentioned that he has been encouraging the introduction of social, emotional and ethical learning to the education system.
Although he considers Buddhism to have some of the profoundest understanding of reality, what he is particularly interested in is for Buddhists to use that knowledge to help others. He observed that while philosophical and psychological ideas were introduced and explained in religious literature, they can be well employed in an objective, secular and academic context.
His Holiness reported classifying the content of the 300 volumes of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the collections of translations of the Buddha’s teachings and subsequent Indian treatises, under the following headings—science, philosophy and religion. These materials have been compiled into separate books in Tibetan and translated into Chinese, English and other languages. Work on the volumes dealing with science is complete, while work on the philosophical volumes is underway.
His Holiness discussed different ways in which the selflessness of persons and phenomena are explained within the Buddhist tradition.
“The Mind Only School assert that no phenomena exist externally, they are but reflections of the mind. They speak of non-dual emptiness. The Middle Way School allow no kind of essential or intrinsic existence. For them nothing exists independently. Things exist merely as designations.
“In the ‘Heart Sutra’ Shariputra asks “How should a child of the lineage train who wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom?” Avalokiteshvara tells him, “’Whatever son or daughter of the noble lineage wants to train in the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom should consider things in the following way. First, he or she should clearly and thoroughly comprehend that the five aggregates are empty of any inherent nature of their own.” Although things appear to have a solid, independent existence, they do not actually exist that way. Form is empty means that it does not exist the way it appears.
“Because things are conditioned by other factors, they exist as mere designations, labelled by language. When we critically examine form, it is empty of intrinsic existence. But when we accept what appears, form exists on a conventional level. “Emptiness is not other than forms and forms are not other than emptiness.”
“Mind exists as a series of moments, moments of consciousness.
“Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ explains in Chapter 26 how we are brought into unenlightened life in the cycle of existence. Chapter 18 deals with selflessness, and Chapter 24 clarifies the Four Noble Truths. There are commentaries on ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti. Je Tsongkhapa read these and other classic texts in preparing for his own commentary. At a certain point he had a vision of Manjushri who gave him an answer to a question that he found difficult to understand. Manjushri then advised him to engage in further study and practice. Eventually, it was when he was reading Buddhapalita’s commentary that he achieved a correct insight into emptiness.”
His Holiness remarked that when he gives someone a statue of the Buddha, he explains that the Buddha was a teacher. Consequently, what’s important is to study his teachings. He observed that the Buddha’s teachings reached China before they reached Tibet. However, since the pilgrim Xuanzang studied at Nalanda before returning to China, and Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by the foremost Nalanda scholar Shantarakshita, both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism belong to the Nalanda Tradition. The difference is that while the key works on logic and epistemology by Dignaga and Dharmakirti were translated into Tibetan, they were not translated into Chinese.
Declaring that he had intended to read the first chapter of Nagarjuna’s ‘Precious Garland of the Middle Way’ today, His Holiness summarized its contents. The chapter distinguishes between being born with high status and achieving definite goodness. “High status is considered to be happiness, Definite goodness is liberation.” It is necessary to transform the mind, employing wisdom and analysis in order to achieve definite goodness, but that is only possible on the basis of life as a human being. His Holiness emphasized that transforming the mind does not come about in a short time, but if you keep up your effort, you’ll achieve your goal. Whatever you read or hear, you must reflect on it over and again, to gain conviction. Through meditation bring about experience of what you’ve understood to transform the mind.
As he brought the session to an end for the day, His Holiness encouraged his listeners to attend the opportunity to review what he had been talking about. He told them not to sit quietly, but to ask questions to settle whatever doubts they might have. He will resume his explanation tomorrow.