The Jataka Tale about Shakra, Lord of the Gods
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – This morning, on the final day of the Great Prayer Festival, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to the Tsuglagkhang to read a Jataka Tale, a story of one of the Buddha’s previous lives.
As he walked through the temple yard, monks playing horns led the way, while a bright yellow umbrella fluttered over his head. Looking from right to left and smiling as he came, His Holiness engaged with as many people as he could. At the head of the yard, he greeted the Ganden Tri Rinpoché and took his seat on the throne.
The burly Drepung Gomang Chantmaster led a brisk recitation of the ‘Heart Sutra’ followed by a ‘Prayer to the Lineage Masters’. Meanwhile, tea and sweet rice were served to the packed crowd of more than 12,000.
Making a formal request to His Holiness to teach, the Ganden Tripa, followed by the Sikyong, offered the threefold representation of the body, speech and mind of enlightenment. Next, the assembled Abbots and former Abbots of the great Gelukpa monasteries paid their respects.
Addressing the congregation, His Holiness observed that it had been customary to gather on this day during the Mönlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival, in Lhasa, an event that has been celebrated for more than 600 years. Presently it’s difficult to hold the festival in the Land of Snow, but Tibetans in exile, inspired by the courage of the people in Tibet, have been able to keep the tradition alive. A key part of the proceedings on this fifteenth of the month, the first full-moon day of the year, is to read one of the Jataka Tales, the stories of the previous lives of the Buddha.
His Holiness joked that his predecessor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s name Thupten Gyatso meant Ocean of Shakyamuni’s Teachings, but his own name Tenzin Gyatso means Upholder of the Doctrine, which is even better. He recalled that he comes from the Siling region of north-eastern Tibet, which is where Jé Tsongkhapa was also born.
“Jé Rinpoché performed great service to the doctrine,” His Holiness remarked, “refining it and showing how to study and practise the content of the ‘Three Baskets’. I pray to be able to follow in his footsteps.
“When I was born, the Chinese warlord Ma Bufang was the local ruler. I met him when I was about three or four years old and he sat me next to him. Apparently my fearless and dignified demeanour, despite my young age, prompted him to announce that as far as he was concerned I was the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.
“Since then, inspired by the following prayer, I have also tried to serve the teaching as well as I could.
“Wherever the Buddha’s teaching has not spread
And wherever it has spread but has declined
May I, moved by great compassion, clearly elucidate
This treasury of excellent benefit and happiness for all.
“There is new interest in what the Buddha taught in the West where scientists are eager to learn more about the workings of the mind and emotions. Buddhism also flourished in Tibet, China and Mongolia, declined and is now showing some revival.
“As someone with the name Dalai Lama I am determined to serve the teaching of the Buddha by encouraging the study and practice of the Three Trainings—ethics, concentration and wisdom.
“In Tibet, thanks to Shantarakshita’s efforts, we maintained the authentic Nalanda Tradition. The important thing is to discipline your mind and control your emotions—to integrate what you study and learn with your mind.
“We Tibetans may be refugees living in exile, but we have been able to preserve our traditions well.”
Turning to the ‘Jataka-mala’ His Holiness first read a verse that summarizes the previous tale about the Bodhisattva who discouraged the sacrifice of animals.
Injuring animals never tends to bliss,
but charity, self-restraint, continence and the like have this power;
for this reason, he who longs for bliss
must devote himself to these virtues.
In this manner the Lord—the Buddha—showed his inclination to care for the interests of the world, when he was still in his previous existences.
The tale His Holiness was going to read was about Shakra, King of the Gods, Lord of the Heaven of Thirty-three. Before he began, he mentioned that the Buddha was born into a royal family and that, moved to seek a remedy for suffering, he engaged in austere practices for six years at the end of which he became fully awakened.
As it is said, the Sages do not wash unwholesome deeds away with water, nor do they remove the sufferings of beings with their hands. Neither do they transplant their own realization into others. It is by teaching the truth of suchness that they liberate (beings). What’s important to remember is that the Buddha taught on the basis of what he himself had practised and experienced.
“Today, we still have access to the Buddha’s teachings,” His Holiness observed. “We can apply them to ourselves and explain them to others. We rely not only on scriptural citation, but also on reason as Nagarjuna and his students have done. It’s only in the Tibetan tradition that we find this reliance on logic and reason. Such an approach used to be found in China and Mongolia too, but has since declined. May I contribute to reviving it so it may flourish in those places once more.
“As I said earlier, born in the same vicinity as Jé Rinpoché, but in a different time, I have done my best to preserve and uphold the teachings.”
His Holiness then took up the Jataka Tale. In a previous life, the Buddha became Shakra, the Lord of the Gods. His magnificence, as Chief of the Celestials, was like that of a palace adorned by a covering of fresh stucco made resplendent by moonbeams.
Now, the ‘ashuras’, jealous of his happiness and renown, waged war against him. He mounted his superb golden chariot, to which a thousand excellent horses were put. A great battle took place, but at the end, his army took flight. The Lord of the Celestials alone still held the field, barring the host of his enemies with his chariot. However, all at once, he caught sight of some eagle-nests which, built on a silk-cotton tree, just in line with the pole of his chariot, would inevitably be crushed by it.
He instructed Matali, his charioteer: “The birds’ nests on this silk-cotton tree are filled with not yet winged young ones. Drive my chariot in such a way that these nests will not be crushed by the chariot-pole and fall down,. Turn the chariot. It would be better for me to die by the terrible blows of the chiefs of the ‘ashuras’ than to live a life full of blame and dishonour because I had murdered those poor terror-stricken creatures.”
Matali turned the chariot and the foes gave way like dark rain-clouds driven away by the wind, while Shakra returned to his city.
The low-minded do wicked actions as a consequence of their cruelty. Average men, though pitiful, do so when they are in distress. But the virtuous, even when their own lives are in danger, are as little capable of transgressing a proper line of conduct as the ocean is its shore.
In this way the Lord—the Buddha—long ago protected animal life, even at the risk of his own. Keeping in mind that it does not at all befit a wise man to offend living beings, much less to harm them; a pious man must be intent on practising compassion towards all creatures.
Next, His Holiness led the assembly through the process of the all-encompassing yoga, which combines the two minds of bodhichitta.
“Although we live in a degenerate era, we still have the opportunity to study, reflect and meditate on what the Buddha taught. We can acknowledge that all human beings want happiness and reflect that what brings about suffering is actually within us—ignorance and a self-cherishing attitude. If we remain selfish, suffering will not diminish.
“Think about how all sentient beings are just like us. They don’t want to suffer; they just want to be happy. Here we are in a good place where we have encountered the teaching of the Buddha. We have the daily opportunity to cultivate the awakening mind of bodhichitta and an understanding of emptiness. How fortunate?
“Under such circumstances think to yourself, ‘How good it would be if all sentient beings were to overcome suffering and achieve happiness. I will help them to do just this. In this way generate a determination to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Make a wish to bring them omniscience. Give rise to the wish to become a Buddha to liberate them all. Visualize this conventional bodhichitta transforming into a moon disc at your heart.
“Then, if you ask why we suffer, you’ll discover it’s because things appear to us as if they have a solid, objective existence and we cling to this misconception in error. If you analyse things with the five-fold or seven-fold reasoning you’ll find you can’t pinpoint anything as this or that. The way things actually exist is in dependence, as merely designated. All phenomena are merely imputed by convention, labels, through language.
“The Buddha taught about emptiness of true existence on Vulture’s Peak. Think about how things have no solid, objective existence and visualize this understanding of their emptiness as a white vajra standing on the moon disc you’ve already imagined at your heart.
“Buddhahood is attained on the basis of these two principles—altruism and an understanding of emptiness. And it is from them that the Buddha’s form body and truth body arise.
“What really transforms your mind is cultivating bodhichitta and the wisdom understanding emptiness. That’s why I meditate on them both as soon as I wake up every morning. This is the key to practice. Deity yoga is very good, but without the foundation of these two principles it’s not much use.
“That’s all for today.”
After a thanksgiving mandala offering the chant-master led a recitation of the ‘Prayer of the Words of Truth’.
His Holiness then walked steadily through the yard, the ceremonial yellow umbrella floating overhead, smiling and greeting the crowd as he went.