Vidyaloke Talk for All Citizens – Indian Wisdom and the Modern World
August 12, 2018
“Good morning everybody, I hope you all got enough sleep so you won’t doze off and discourage me during my talk.” His Holiness teased the audience. “‘Ancient Wisdom in Modern India’ is one of my favourite subjects. Despite the material, technological and scientific developments we see around us, we are passing through an emotional crisis. I don’t think prayer alone is an effective way of stabilizing the community.
“More important is to bring about your own peace of mind. To do that requires knowledge of the workings of the mind and emotions and an understanding of reality. What’s crucial is training the mind, for just as we value physical hygiene, we ought also to appreciate emotional hygiene.
“We can do this in a secular context, without bias towards any particular religious tradition. I use the word secular in the way it is understood in India to imply respect for all spiritual traditions, and even for the views of those who have no faith. Some of my western friends feel that the term implies disrespect for religion. Be that as it may, my concern is to see how individuals can become peaceful, joyful people regardless of their religious allegiance. And in this connection I believe that many elements of ancient Indian wisdom can be applied in practical and realistic way.
“Since all religious traditions involve human beings, they all convey a message related to human values like love and compassion. Theistic traditions base these on faith in a creator God. However, in this country, India, three traditions emerged that don’t found their practice on belief in God—a branch of the Samkhya Tradition, Jainism and Buddhism. They deal with consciousness and accept a succession of lives.”
His Holiness suggested that the memories some people have of their previous lives suggests there is something to remember. He mentioned two girls he has met, one in Patiala and another in Kanpur, who had clear and vivid memories of their previous lives. They each identified their previous family. Another case he cited involved a boy born in Tibet, who insisted to his parents that he belonged in India. They brought him to Dharamsala where he told them that he had lived in South India. When they brought him to Ganden monastery he was able to show them his old house, pointing to a box where they would find his glasses. American psychiatrist Ian Stevenson researched and collated many such stories from different parts of the world.
His Holiness observed that, particularly since the discovery of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change, brain specialists have begun to acknowledge that there may be more to consciousness than being a mere function of the brain. According to Dharmakirti something that is not consciousness cannot give rise to consciousness, but his explanation is quite rough compared to modern knowledge of the function of the brain. His Holiness recalled mentioning to a scientist that if you are quiet, you can give rise to different emotions simply on the basis of thought. He conceded that that seemed to be what was happening, but didn’t necessarily accept it.
There are said to be levels of consciousness that differ according to their subtlety. The coarsest level of consciousness is our normal waking state, filled with sensory awareness. Subtler than that are the dream state, deep sleep state and what happens when we faint. Subtlest is the consciousness that manifests at the time of death.
For non-Buddhists the self has an important role in rebirth, but Buddhism refutes the existence of a permanent, single, autonomous self, stating that the self is designated on the basis of the five psycho-physical aggregates.
The Vaibhasikas or Particularists, the most basic of the four main Buddhist schools of thought, speak of things coming into being, enduring, decaying and disintegrating. Other schools speak of things changing from moment to moment and refer to a substantial cause and cooperative conditions. In terms of consciousness, the substantial cause must be a previous moment of consciousness.
His Holiness explained that the Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas, or Sutra Followers, only speak of the selflessness of persons. The Chittamatrin, or Mind Only School, also accept the selflessness of phenomena, but they assert that nothing exists externally. They also assert that visual consciousness and its object, for example, are non-dual. They say a visual object appears as a result of imprints on the mind. This may help counter attachment to external things, but does little to counter a disturbing emotion like hatred that is part of our inner world.
His Holiness went on to state the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, view that whether or not things exist externally, the mind has no intrinsic existence. In explaining the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, Nagarjuna emphasised dependent arising. His Holiness cited two verses from ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’:
That which is dependent origination
Is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
There does not exist anything
That is not dependently arisen.
Therefore there does not exist anything
That is not empty.
To say form is empty is not to deny physical existence. Nagarjuna says that someone who is able to see dependent arising can understand the Four Noble Truths – true suffering, cause, cessation and path.
His Holiness clarified that the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths first and that the Perfection of Wisdom came later. Explained along with the Four Noble Truths were the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, which outline how suffering and its causes arise and how they can be ended.
His Holiness cited another verse from Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ that he compared to what American psychiatrist Aaron Beck told him. Experience treating people with problems to do with anger has taught Beck that when we are angry we see the object or focus of our anger as 100% negative, but 90% of that feeling is just mental projection.
Through the elimination of karma and mental afflictions there is Liberation;
Karma and mental afflictions come from conceptual thoughts and
These come from mental fabrications.
Fabrication ceases through emptiness
The misconceptions that give rise to karma and mental afflictions come from mental fabrication—and that is ended through emptiness.
In his ‘Entry into the Middle Way’ (Madhyamakavatara), Chandrakirti establishes that no part of a chariot by itself is the chariot. This does not mean that there is no chariot, it functions and exists on a conventional level.
“We need to practise using our intelligence to the full,” His Holiness advised. “Thinking about emptiness is of immense help in weakening our destructive emotions. The two books I’ve mentioned, ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ and Shantideva’s ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ are powerful weapons with which to challenge the inner enemy of self-centredness and defeat our destructive emotions. Compared to these, all the visualizations of deities and so on are relatively ineffective.
“This life can become meaningful, guaranteeing that the next life will be fortunate too. Since the teacher has spent a great deal of time on this, you can’t expect to make great achievements in a short time. You have to study, analyse and meditate on what you have learned.”
The audience responded with applause. In the last few minutes of the session His Holiness answered several questions from them. He talked about cultivating compassion. He expressed his approval of organ donation and moves to encourage vegetarianism. Asked how to make everyone happy, he answered, “First, smile.”
He reminded his listeners that the Buddha had been born a prince, but after becoming a monk he lived like a beggar. He noted that despite his education as a lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi also lived like a humble, lowly person.
Finally, a schoolboy told His Holiness that he had had to play the role of Dalai Lama in a school exercise and had learned a lot about His Holiness. Nevertheless, he wanted to ask him directly if he actually practises compassion and if so, how he does it. His Holiness repeated advice he gave yesterday about the value of carefully studying Shantideva’s ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’.
“Read it and compare what it says to your own experience. And when you are acting as the Dalai Lama, don’t forget to smile and then smile some more.”