by Khempo Ringu Tulku
When talking about Buddhism one has to understand that it constitutes nothing but a way or a system by means of which one works for one's own inner development. The sole focus and objective of all Buddhist teachings is to provide the means which enable one to develop one's mind and heart in terms of an inner growth. This can also be called a spiritual development in that one tries to change the way one is and the way one sees oneself and everything around one.
This attempt is made, since it is clearly to be seen that there are certain problems and confusions which are not too pleasant. Each of us is subject to a considerable amount of emotional conflicts, of various kinds of suffering, pain and misery. So we try to find a way to change these problems most of which are very basic, being native to every human being. In doing so we find that some of them cannot be changed. This is, for instance, true for change itself. Change takes place all the time. Usually we cannot face and accept this change. Due to this incapacity we are afraid of death or of sickness, for example.
Here the question arises how to deal with this, how to find a solution to these basic problems. Trying to change them out there is impossible. The attempt, therefore, is vain and leads one into further suffering. This is the situation in which Buddhism in its actual sense or any other kind of spiritual teaching and practice are needed. The purpose of spiritual teaching and practice is to solve the problems each human being has to face, not from the outside but from within. It provides the means to change one's attitude, one's way of feeling, of experiencing, of saying and doing things. Through this change one's confusion will gradually lessen and allow for a greater amount of clarity which in its turn will bring about true transformation.
We therefore try to develop inner strength by means of which we change, we transform, thus gaining the ability to solve those basic human problems which cannot be changed externally.
This again does not mean that one cannot change anything. It would be a severe misunderstanding to think that since problems can be solved through a process of inner transformation one does not have to do something about social or ecological problems, for instance. One should do whatever one can to improve whatever is improvable. Suppose this house had no heating system, it would be very cold and uncomfortable in winter. There is nothing wrong to install one, provided one has the necessary means. A heating system, though, does not solve all one's problems. One can find oneself in the possession of all the luxury one could possibly dream of and still get at times very unhappy and sad. Equally one can be in a very bad and hopeless situation and yet not feel too desperate about it. One may wonder why this should be so. The difference lies in the degree of one's inner development, in the way one sees and experiences. The aim, therefore, is to work with oneself, to transform in such a way that one is able to be happy when one has everything one needs and likewise when this is not the case. The way to develop inwardly is to gain independence by understanding that happiness does not depend upon outer conditions. It is one's own development which decides whether one can be happy or not. And unhappiness is equally almost independent from outer things. With inner strength one can be happy in spite of one's situation not being too bright.
Inner strength means to understand and accept the facts of life. Milarepa said: "I was so afraid of death that I ran away into the mountains and meditated so much on impermanence and death that finally I attained deathlessness." He opened his eyes. He knew and understood the inevitability of death. He, therefore, tried to deal with it and worked hard.
In the context of Buddhism the necessity of acceptance is widely mentioned. Sometimes, though, this is not understood in the right way in that one tries to accept too passively. "When somebody gives me a slap in the face, he can give me another. Whatever happens I will accept." This is not quite what is meant. One's acceptance should be more active. If, for example, one tries not to think about death, if one does not speak about it, since this is not done, if one tries to disguise it, this is not acceptance in the Buddhist sense. Milarepa knew that death is inevitable, that it will surely come, that it is there, an unalterable fact. He saw the problem clearly, in an unconfused way. He did not try to avoid it, but worked on it. Once one sees one's problem clearly with open eyes, one is actually able to overcome it. When Milarepa said that he meditated on the inevitability of death to such an extent that he attained deathlessness, this means that he had no more fear of dying. This is the true transformation. It does not mean that he did not die. He did. Yet, since he understood it completely, in its true perspective, it did not cause a problem. Once one is able to deal with and work on one's problems in this way, even death which is usually regarded as something extremely negative, sad and morbid, though it will definitely happen, will no longer constitute a problem. Whereas, as long as one is not able to have the type of fearlessness that Milarepa attained, one's problems will be very severe.
This is, therefore, what the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is for. Why did the Buddha feel compelled to leave his palace and seek the Dharma? He did so because he found that the basic problems which every human has to face, such as death, sickness, ageing, getting what one does not want, not getting what one wants and so forth, cannot be avoided. Seeing this, he tried to find a way to solve these problems. In this context the only thing we work with is ourselves. We work with our mind together with our heart, with everything that we call 'ourselves'. Thus our mind is the practice, we ourselves are the practice.
The teachings of the Buddha are his own experience which he conveyed in accordance with the individual and specific requirements of different people. Human beings are of so many kinds in terms of the level they are on, of their capacity, mentality and attitude, that one way of teaching could never be sufficient. For this reason the Buddha gave many teachings and provided a multitude of different ways and approaches. He started with the Four Noble Truths and The Eight-Fold Path to then proceed to a more advanced level of philosophy and meditation, which in a third stage were introduced ever more deeply and directly. Thus the teachings of the Buddha have been written down in different Sutras and Tantras, each dealing with a specific subject matter on a specific level. The Buddha himself did not categorize his teaching. Yet, due to its vastness and depth it is difficult to penetrate as a whole. To facilitate study and understanding, it was therefore put into categories, which emerged as three sets of teaching called Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. From the Buddhist point of view, though, these are not separate from each other but constitute in their entirety the one and complete teaching that the Buddha gave. This complete teaching of the Buddha was originally put into writing in Sanskrit and later directly translated into Tibetan, consisting of one hundred and eight, or of one hundred and three volumes respectively, depending on different systems of presentation. These volumes, or 'poti' as they are called in Tibetan, are of different sizes, consisting of six hundred pages up to one thousand and two hundred pages, or slightly more. They comprise the entire teaching of the Buddha and are called 'kha gyur' in Tibetan. 'Kha' means 'coming from the mouth', 'oral command' or 'speech' and 'gyur' means 'translation'. These are presented in terms of three 'Yanas' or vehicles the followers of which are called Theravada-, Mahayana- and Vajrayana-Buddhists respectively.
Out of these, Theravada-Buddhists mainly or even solely rely on the Hinayana-Sutras as their basis of understanding and practice. There is a slight difference in the usage of the terms 'Hinayana' and 'Theravada' respectively. The last mentioned has the following origin. After the Buddha had passed away, it was part of the discipline of a monk to recite the Vinaya, the set of rules an ordained person has to observe, every fortnight at regular intervals. As to this subject a certain division developed in that some, mostly the elder monks, wanted to do the recitation in Pali, a more colloquial form of Sanskrit, whereas the younger and more erudite monks preferred to recite in Sanskrit. 'Thera' means 'old', thus the name 'Theravada' came about.
From India Theravada Buddhism mainly went south and is now based in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and so forth. Mahayana Buddhism the practice of which is based upon the Mahayana-Sutras spread in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and so forth, whereas Vajrayana Buddhism mainly developed in Tibet and Mongolia, as well as in Japan, China and Korea to a small extent.
Out of these, Vajrayana Buddhism aims at presenting the entirety of the Buddha's teaching. The teachings pertaining to the Hinayana and Mahayana systems are not considered as being separate. All three vehicles are one and the same and form an integral teaching. The categorization is just for the sake of an easier understanding. The Hinayana comprises the most basic and fundamental teachings without which one is not able to understand those of the Mahayana or of the Vajrayana respectively. The three Yanas can be understood in terms of three circles, the wider comprising the preceding one, or in terms of levels, the Hinayana constituting the basis and the Vajrayana forming the pinnacle. Whatever is taught in the Hinayana system is therefore not rejected by the Mahayana or Vajrayana teachings, but is clarified further and disclosed to open the understanding of an ever deeper level.
When in the following this subject is to be expanded, it should not just be on an academic and intellectual level. To do so would be quite easy, whereas trying to promote the subjects to be discussed to result in a personal experience, into an understanding which enables one to put them into practice, is considerably more difficult. Nevertheless, this is a challenge one should accept. If I were to convey just a province of knowledge by academically clarifying the three levels of teaching called the three Yanas, this would not be very difficult. At the same time it would be quite dry and useless as well. There would be an intellectual understanding in one's head, another piece of information that one memorized. As opposed to that one has to learn how to build the teachings one receives into one's practice, how to turn them into a path, how to integrate them into one's daily life. Especially in the west one comes into contact with so many teachings from all kinds of levels, with so much Maha Ati, Mahamudra, Tantra and so forth, that they can turn into a hot pot, a stew, in which all ingredients are mixed up to the extent that one cannot tell them apart. As for a dish this can be delicious, but as far as understanding is concerned the information can easily be slightly confused and also more than what is really needed. What is required is a clear view and perception of how these three levels of teaching, which are called the three Yanas, build up on each other and where each item falls into place. This needs to be understood experientially. An intellectual understanding is not enough. The real and actual practice of the Dharma does not take place in one's brain. Practice means just working with oneself. I am often asked whether it is possible to practise different aspects simultaneously, such as combining Zen and Mahamudra practices or the Sadhana of Avalokitesvara and Calm Abiding (Skt. Samatha, Tib. Shiné). Here the question arises: "What is practice?" It is not Avalokitesvara and so forth. It is myself. I am my practice. So I will use whatever is helpful. If the practice of Zen or of Avalokitesvara helps to improve myself, I will use these methods. I will use anything that contributes to my improvement. If I take myself as the practice and thus work on myself, nothing is contradictory. There is no conflict between anything. If we can build an understanding in this way, it will be well-grounded. Often our understanding is very fragmented. For this reason we are not on solid ground. For most of the time we have information from here and there, both in study and practice, and then rely on this wobbly surface.
In this situation it is very important to start at the beginning. Personally speaking, the more teaching I received, the more it caused me to go back. When I received Maha Ati and Mahamudra teachings, I found: "O this is wonderful but I cannot do it without having taken the preceding step!" Thus I retraced my steps more and more up to the very starting point. At first one is looking for a swift way out. One is enamoured by teachings such as: "If you practise this in the morning, you will be enlightened in the evening. If you practise this in the evening, you will be enlightened in the morning." When misunderstood these statements can arouse false expectations. One will hope for a quick result and an easy way to achieve it. This even happened to Milarepa. After he had first been an extremely powerful black magician, being able to launch hailstorms and so forth, he finally repented of his evil deeds and wanted to practise the Dharma. The first teacher he turned to held a very high and effective teaching. Being slightly proud of this fact he praised it and said to Milarepa: "You are very fortunate! My teaching is such that whoever practises it in the morning will be enlightened in the evening and the other way around." This flattered Milarepa and he thought to himself: "I am really a very special person. First I was a black magician and with but little effort attained great powers. Now the practice of the Dharma is even easier. I am a genius!" After having bestowed the necessary instructions the teacher set him to practise. A week later the teacher went to his retreat and inquired for the results he had achieved. Milarepa replied: "Since your instructions will yield such a quick result, I have not yet started to practise. I first had a rest." At this the teacher realized that he had been too rash, and said: "Being so fond of my teaching, I have been bragging too much. These instructions are not suited for you. You must go and find Marpa!" Hearing this name, Milarepa was instantaneously filled with great faith and followed the advice. Then in the time to come Marpa gave him real trouble before even accepting him as a disciple. It can happen, therefore, that one practises in the morning and is enlightened in the evening, but it needs some doing. It needs starting at the beginning. Otherwise one may gain a certain amount of understanding, but will not come to the real ground work. This is especially true for a teacher. It is comparatively easy to talk on 'higher things'. With a little quotation here and a little quotation there it is not difficult to produce an academic paper. This approach, though, does not work as far as the basics are concerned. In order to talk about these we have to come down to our everyday life, we have to deal with our assumptions which we build up all the time and on the basis of which we then work and function. As long as we cannot see whether these are right or wrong, there is no working ground. To clear away all our false assumptions is therefore the most difficult part of the whole task. Just as writing a book for children, for example, is most difficult, when it is meant for very small ones, whereas a book for older children is comparatively easier to compose. In the same way, it needs much more effort and skill to impart a valid understanding of the most basic teachings of the Buddha, while the higher teachings are somewhat easier to convey.
Then again, anything that is worthwhile is not easy. When it is said, for instance, that one can reach enlightenment in one lifetime, this has to be understood in the right way. Of course, that is possible, yet under the prerequisite that one has gained a genuine understanding and applies it accordingly. It depends upon the extent in which one understands everything that needs to be practised, and then upon the extent in which one actually practises it. As to 'enlightenment' itself, there is also sometimes a slight misunderstanding. When one speaks of 'reaching enlightenment', there is the tendency to think: "Now I am not enlightened but in the future I will reach this goal." According to the Vajrayana, though, enlightenment is nothing other than the realization that one is already enlightened. It is probably for this reason that the Vajrayana teachings seem so easy. What they express is the fact that reaching enlightenment is not something that can be compared to climbing a mountain, to struggling hard and thus finally reaching the top. It is not obtained from somewhere else. Once one knows how to look and in consequence everything is seen clearly as it is, without any delusion, this is enlightenment. For this reason, the concept: "I have to reach enlightenment in one lifetime!", this kind of struggling and fighting attitude, can almost become a hindrance. Through one's practice of the Dharma one should get increasingly more relaxed, up to the point where one almost does not want to reach enlightenment any more, so that, when it happens, one could say: "What I thought so big is just that simple." Thus an attitude based upon struggle is difficult. The methods provided by the Vajrayana are not accessible through understanding alone, but offer a simple technique the experience of which has to come from oneself, once it is understood correctly. In this way these methods are very effective and strong. At the same time they are not that easy to apply. The difficulty in their application is due to the fact that we normally do not trust in these methods. Our assumptions and concepts, our intellectual understanding, do not allow us to follow them. These techniques need to be put into an experience, they need to be carried out in an experiential way. Not being used to such an approach we do not find it easy. Furthermore, once one is able to apply these methods, one has to work hard. Milarepa's best disciple was Gampopa. After he had received all the necessary instructions and gained a genuine experience of them, Milarepa told him to go to a mountain called 'Gampodar' near the Nepalese border where he would find his disciples. When Gampopa was ready to leave, Milarepa accompanied him part of the way until they had reached a small stream. Here Milarepa said: "Now you go, my son!" Then he hesitated and said: "I have not yet given you my most secret teaching, though, but maybe I should not do so either." Gampopa prostrated himself many times, offered a Mandala and entreated Milarepa to bestow this teaching. Milarepa would not be moved, so finally Gampopa went on his way. After he had crossed the water and reached the far bank, Milarepa called him back and said: "After all you are my best disciple. If I do not give this teaching to you, to whom else should I give it?" Gampopa was filled with joy. He prostrated himself over and over again, expecting a very sublime and outstanding instruction. Milarepa turned around and, lifting his clothes, showed Gampopa his backside. It was covered with innumerable scars, since Milarepa had meditated sitting on rocks for so long. He said: "Look, my son, this is my final and most secret teaching!"
It is therefore vital to start at the beginning and thus provide a sound working basis.
As has been mentioned before, it is very important to understand that the three sets of teaching called Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana are not to be considered as separate entities but are one and the same subject presented on different levels. Whatever is introduced at the beginning is then explained further and thus widened and deepened into another level. A good example for this process is the fact that the term 'Bodhisattva' is also used in the Hinayana Sutras to describe the Buddha during the time in which he had not yet reached his ultimate realization. Though the term is mentioned in the Hinayana context as well, it is not explained any further, whereas on the Mahayana level of teachings this proves to be what they are all about. They explain in great detail and very clearly what is to be understood by the term 'Bodhisattva', what is the attitude of a Bodhisattva, which view, meditation and action constitute a Bodhisattva's way of being. When this description is added to the Hinayana teachings, this is Mahayana. The difference is just that. Nothing is taken away. Once the Hinayana teachings are supplemented by the instructions on the Bodhisattva path, this is the Mahayana level of teaching. The same process is true for the Vajrayana. In addition to the Hinayana and Mahayana the Vajrayana introduces one to the fact that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, which is also called self-born wisdom, the ordinary mind, basic goodness or inherent purity. It clarifies that there is a nature within us which is already pure and complete, which only needs to be realized. One therefore does not have to make any kind of construct in order to reach enlightenment. Nothing needs to be added to what is already there. It is just a question of realization. The sole subject of the Vajrayana teachings is to show how to awaken and realize this Buddha-nature. There is nothing more than that.
Thus the Hinayana system comprises the most fundamental teachings. Without these there is no way to add anything. Without the basic ground one would just be hanging in the air.
The Four Noble Truths
The first teaching of the Buddha is the teaching on the Four Noble Truths. One cannot say that these are just Hinayana. They are everything. Apart from the Four Noble Truths there is nothing else in the whole of Buddhism. Thus they constitute the most important thing. The Buddha taught them in accordance with the way in which a person would normally solve a problem. In this process one will first try to find out what the problem is. One will try to see its nature and depth, how much of it is actually there. Once this is seen clearly, one can also look for its cause. Only by knowing the cause it is possible to solve any problem. A problem is solved through eliminating its causes. One therefore has to find a way to do so, to achieve the elimination of whatever caused the problem. Thus the first teaching of the Buddha is very down to earth. No matter what kind of problem one has, one first has to see it clearly, one then has to recognize its cause and upon recognizing that, one has to find the way to eliminate it in order to achieve the result, which is freedom from the problem.
This is the most important part. In this context mere understanding is not enough. One has to learn how to relate and apply it to one's life.
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he repeated them three times, expanding them successively:
First he said: There is suffering in this world. There is a cause to this suffering. There is cessation of suffering and there is a way to reach the cessation of suffering.
Then he said: There is suffering in this world, one has to understand it. There is a cause to this suffering, one has to eliminate it. There is cessation of suffering, one has to attain it. There is a way to reach the cessation of suffering, one has to work on it.
The third time he said: There is suffering in this world, one has to understand it, but actually there is nothing to be understood. There is a cause to this suffering, one has to eliminate it, but actually there is nothing to be eliminated. There is cessation of suffering, one has to attain it, but actually there is nothing to be attained. There is a way to reach the cessation of suffering, one has to work on it, but actually there is nothing to be worked on.
This was the first sermon of the Buddha which he gave at Sarnath to his first five disciples Kaundinya, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Asvajit.
The Truth of Suffering
Thus the first subject the Buddha taught was 'Duhkha' as it is called in Sanskrit, which is sometimes translated as 'suffering' and also as 'dissatisfaction' or 'misery'. I do not know which translation is best. What it means, though, is that one has to understand whatever problem is there. One has to see it clearly, one has to accept it, not in a passive way, but by opening one's eyes and looking at it. Without this there is not the slightest chance to find a way to overcome any problem. The Buddha, therefore, just looked at life, at Samsaric or human existence, and then talked about the problems he saw. If there were none, there would not be any need to worry. Yet, if there are problems, one has to talk about them, one has to point them out, in order to find a solution. It is sometimes said that Buddhism is a very pessimistic religion, since it constantly talks about suffering. It does not aim, though, at creating suffering or a pessimistic idea. Buddhism talks about suffering in order to engender an optimistic outlook. It conveys the message: "Yes, there is suffering, but it can be removed!" In order to do so one has to open one's eyes. If one tries to pretend that everything is all right, this will not be of much avail as soon as a problem comes up to the extent that it cannot be denied any longer. One must therefore clearly understand whatever problem is there, so that in consequence one can also see its causes, thus providing the necessary conditions to be able to actually work on it. When we look into our life and find that there is no problem whatsoever, that everything is perfectly all right, there is no need for Dharma. Yet, if we find that there is some problem, that we are not completely satisfied, if we feel that something is not quite right, that there is something tormenting us, making us unhappy, we will be alerted to the fact that there must be something that we can do about it, as well. The recognition of the problem raises the question: "Why do I not feel completely great all the time?" "What is it that prevents me from being happy?" Thus the Buddha's teaching on suffering conveys a positive, a constructive perspective. It does not mean that one cannot enjoy anything. We enjoy ourselves most of the time. The teachings on the Four Noble Truths contain the message that it is possible to enjoy oneself all of the time, provided one has the necessary means. As soon as one is able to remove the causes there will be cessation of suffering and thus the possibility of continuous, of uninterrupted happiness.
The teaching on Duhkha, therefore, means that one first looks at one's life, one tries to see what kind of life one has. "Is it always peaceful and happy, is it always like walking on roses?" In doing so one may find that there are things which are not so nice. One may fall ill, for instance, one may find oneself getting something that one does not want. One may lose something that one loved so much. Then one will feel sad, dissatisfied, frustrated and very miserable. Once these feelings are there, one will wish that they were not and try to ignore them. Yet, this does not work. So we must open our eyes to what we have.
The Buddha categorized suffering into three kinds. The first is called 'the suffering of suffering'. This refers to real pain, such as having been direly hurt, as having had a truly terrible experience, as having lost one's job and so forth. It is the type of suffering everybody recognizes as such, to which nobody needs any introduction. This kind of suffering everybody knows.
Yet, apart from that there are less apparent types of suffering which are not immediately recognized as such. These are called 'the suffering of change' and 'all-pervasive suffering'. The first refers to a situation in which one may not be experiencing the suffering of suffering, in which nothing really painful is happening, and yet there is some kind of dissatisfaction. One is not completely peaceful and happy. Why should this be so? It is due to the constant change which takes place all the time. We may not be conscious of it, but at the back of our mind we know that something is going to happen. Whatever is there will eventually change. Thus we know, whenever something goes well, that it is not going to last, that a problem may come up any time. Everything changes and does not go on forever. We know this in our mind in terms of a dull understanding. So we are disturbed even while experiencing happiness. There is always the anxiety that it is going to change. This apprehension causes us a lot of pain.
Then on top of this, there is a third type of suffering in that this changing nature is all-pervasive. Everything moves on, one cannot hold on to anything. Thus, although one longs for complete security, one can never get it and knows this as well. If I were to ensure my life for a large sum of money, this could not prevent me from dying. The money would be there after my death and might be useful to other people but it would not be of any avail to myself. There is no real security. At the same time every human being seeks security and longs for unchangingness. This longing proves impossible to fulfill. Everything changes all the time and whenever change happens, we get a shock.
Once one knows the way things are, once one clearly sees the condition of one's life, one is at least no longer in darkness. This knowledge is not enough of its own. One has to recognize the causes and work upon these. Yet, even just knowing this will relieve a lot.
What needs to be done, therefore, is to understand that the words of the Buddha are the expression of his experience which in consequence is to be evaluated and used in an experiential way. This is the clue. One cannot take his teaching in terms of just an information telling us that there are so and so many types of suffering. One has to see from one's own experience whether there is suffering or not, what kind of suffering is there, to then see its causes and so forth. One has to open one's eyes to one's life. Looking directly and openly at it, one gets an understanding of the way it functions, of what one's life actually is. That is the true understanding which is to be achieved.
Seeing life as it is will be of great benefit even at the time when one cannot yet see the causes of suffering. One will not be shocked by whatever comes to pass. One will be open to what is there and see it in proportion. It happens quite often that a person who comes to see me is in a very low mood and tells me that everything in his or her life is so bad. I might suggest going to India, for instance. Sometimes the comparison helps. Lacking a realistic perspective we can make ourselves miserable without any need. There is a story to illustrate that.
A man who had a wife and many children lived with his family under extremely cramped conditions in a very small house. This caused him lots of problems, especially since the children were very naughty. Increasingly he felt so oppressed that one day he went out to consult an elder relative in whom he confided to get some advice. After the man had related how he was nearly going mad with the house being so small and the children so obnoxious, his relative reflected for a while and then told him to buy a goat and bring it home. The man followed the advice. After a few days, though, he came back and lamented upon being asked how he was: "O it is so much worse. On top of everything else now the goat is running around in the house and makes everything dirty!" His relative advised him to buy a cock and bring it home. The man having done so, it did not even take three days until he was back and said almost choking with tears: "I cannot support it any longer. This is unbearable. Now the goat and the cock together mess up the whole house and make everything filthy!" His relative thought for a moment and said: "Just go and sell the bird!" After seven days they met again and the relative asked the man how he felt. The reply was: "O my life is much better!" The relative said: "All right, sell the goat as well!" When they met a week later and the relative inquired about the man's situtation, he got the answer: "O my life is just wonderful, everything is so peaceful!"
This pictures how a problem can be comparatively small when seen in proper perspective. Once one is able to fathom the full extent of all the problems which could occur, once one can have an eye for the various problems of one's fellow-beings and see that their difficulties are often much severer than one's own, one can be more confident in dealing with whatever difficulty is at hand. It will be seen in due proportion. As long as our field of vision is narrowed onto just our own problem and our feelings about it, we get easily too upset. When, for instance, I look at the palm of my hand from a certain distance, it is neither too big nor too small. Yet, if I hold it in front of my eyes, it blots out everything, I cannot see anything else. On top, what I see is not clearly distinguished, since it is far too near to my eyes. As long as one does not see clearly and in proper perspective, even the smallest thing can be completely overpowering. When, on the contrary, one is able to see how things are and thus perceives their inevitability, there will be a greater amount of clarity. One will be more broadminded and thus gain inner strength. That is the benefit of just knowing, of knowing the state of affairs. As soon as one sees how things are, one knows suffering or, in other words, reality. When reality is seen more precisely and in greater depth, the solution is almost at hand.
Once one knows suffering and pain, one is able to go further. One can see that the experience of these is caused by constant change which in its turn cannot be avoided. Change happens all the time. The reason for this is the fact that nothing whatsoever has any substance of its own. Everything is due to interdependence, to different influences affecting each other. Thus nothing stands still. Looking into this fact more deeply, one will eventually see the interdependent nature of everything, the way in which everything is due to cause and effect. In this way one can actually perceive how things really are. One can see their true nature. Having gained this capacity one will see oneself as being part of this ongoing process of change. Being oneself subject to this interrelatedness one is no longer separated from anything else.
In this way, all our usual endeavour to be separate from everybody and everything else, our constant trial to be just ourselves, our manner of being egoistic, of being our sole focus and centre of attention, so that the only measure for everything that happens is whether it is nice or not nice to us, contradicts reality and therefore leads into direrer suffering. Normally we act and react in terms of 'I and the rest of the world'. Whatever another person does is seen and evaluated in relation to ourselves. This leads to a constant need to protect oneself, this urge getting ever stronger, up to the point where one has completely closed up and everything is experienced as a painful hurt. Figuratevily speaking, one turns into a wound filled with puss, which is ever so sensitive to the slightest touch. Once one changes this unrealistic way of experiencing, knowing the interdependence and interrelatedness of oneself and everything else, which is the true nature of things, this isolation is resolved. One opens up. One gets freer and more relaxed. This happens just by knowing the facts of life, the way things are. Thus the teaching on the truth of suffering is not pessimistic but provides a more realistic outlook which is born from within.
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
Once one has gained this realistic view of oneself and everything that is around one, one cannot leave it at that, but has to go deeper. One has to see the cause. This is the most important teaching of the Buddha, his most significant discovery. It is where his whole teaching comes from and where it is directed to.
In Buddhism it is said that the actual and final cause, the cause of causes, of all one's suffering and problems consists of two things, which are karma and the mental poisons. To have pointed this out constitutes in my view the real discovery the Buddha made. No one had said this before.
In order to fully understand that karma and the mental poisons are the true causes of all suffering, one has to have a genuine experience of the path. To begin with, though, one should look into the question what is meant when the term 'karma' is used. On one hand, nowadays, almost everybody has heard of and talks about karma. Yet, on the other hand it is not that easy to understand and there are many misconceptions about it. Karma is cause and effect. When one talks about karma, one talks about the law of cause and effect. A similar cause yields a similar result. A sweet seed will result in a sweet fruit and a bitter seed in a bitter fruit. This is the philosophy of karma. To comprehend it, a background is needed, which is the understanding of interdependence. One has to see that not just one thing gives rise to another, that there are many influences to each and every thing, and that each single thing in its turn effects many others. Everything is due to a multitude of causes of various kinds. There is, for instance, also the cause in the sense of something not constituting an obstruction. Taking a flower as an example, it was caused by whatever was helpful to its growth, by everything that actively furthered its development, as well as by everything that did not prevent or obstruct this. Thus, when I encounter a flower, I am also in a way a cause of this flower in that I do not cut it down and prevent it from growing. Furthermore, there is not just a person's karma. There is the karma of a family, a community, a nation, of the whole world and so forth, as well.
As far as individual karma is concerned, it is sometimes understood in terms of the notion: "I have done something in the past, which now inevitably has to surface. Everything is predestined. Whatever my future may be, it is all written down. I cannot do anything about it." This is a misconception. Karma is not static. It is very changing and dynamic. What I am now is the karma of my past. Whatever I did in my last life and since the very beginning, whatever I did in this life during my childhood and youth until the present, all of that made what I am now. This is called 'nam min kyi pungpo' in Tibetan, the 'skandhas which are completely ripened'. I am the result of all my actions. Yet, this result has already happened. There is, of course, a continuation into the future. Whatever has left a strong impression in my mind will affect my stream of being and thus change the course of my life to a certain extent. I am like a river. If one puts something very big into it or forcefully manipulates its banks, the course of a river will change. It can become a flood, or divide into two streams, or turn into a canal. Thus a certain limitation through what already happened is there, but with this limitation I can go into any direction. What I do from now onwards is in my own hands. Karma, therefore, does not mean that one cannot do anything. Karma is very dynamic. Every single moment a new Karma is created. In this way everything changes all the time.
Karma is of different types and of an accordingly varying impact. There are four ways in which karma ripens. The strongest karma is a cause which will yield an immediate result, which is done and experienced in this very life. The second is a cause the effect of which will be experienced in the next life. The third will produce a result at an uncertain time. It is not sure when this will happen. The fourth is uncertain in that there may be a fruit or there may be none. Out of these the first is called 'thong chö ngön gyur gyi lä' in Tibetan, the karma which one sees and experiences directly. This will take presidency over any less powerful karma, such as the one resulting from one's last life or from the preceding ones respectively. If, therefore, one makes a strong decision, from now onwards one can lessen or even neutralize the impact of the karma one has to deal with. Thus there is a chance to overcome it.
Shortly speaking, karma means that any good and positive action will result in a corresponding fruit, in more pleasure and happiness, whereas any negative and harmful deed will also result in its equivalent, in more suffering and pain. Neutral actions will yield an equally neutral fruit.
In this context the question arises, how karma functions and what are its causes. In Buddhism the mental poisons are held to be the causes of karma, ignorance being their root. The Tibetan term which is here rendered as 'mental poisons' is also translated as 'afflicting emotions'. Ignorance, though, is not exactly an emotion. It is a state of mind which is extremely unclear and confused. It is delusion in the sense that one does not know how things truly are. This is considered as being the real basis of karma. Due to confusion and unclarity one identifies oneself with something which is not the truth, which does not correspond to the actual state of reality. Thus ignorance is basically a misconception, a misunderstanding.
What is meant, therefore, when it is said that karma arises from ignorance? It is very important to understand this. At the same time it is quite difficult to comprehend and to accept. For this reason it should best be explained strictly according to the tradition.
When talking about ignorance in the Buddhist sense one refers to the identification of a self as being separate from everything else. There is an 'I' which is not part of anything else. "I am one and unique. Everything else is not me, it is something different." This is what is called 'Atman' in Sanskrit, the identification of a self or an ego. In Buddhist terminology the term 'ego' means the following. When we look at ourselves we find that we are not just a single entity. We are compounded. We consist of form, feeling, consciousness and so forth. Nevertheless we take all these different constituents as being just one thing. We conceive of them as an I, we say: "This is me" and thus make an identification, a projection. From this stems the dualistic view, since once there is an 'I', there are also 'others'. "Up to here this is me, then the rest is they." As soon as this split is made, it creates two things, two opposite ways of reaction. "This is nice, I want it. This is not nice, I do not want it." There may be a neutral reaction as well but this can be neglected. It does not constitute a major problem, whereas the first mentioned two are far more serious. On one hand there are those things which are threatening me, which are going to harm me, to take away my identity, and thus are a danger to my security. Due to this ideation aversion comes up which in its turn gives rise to fear, to the anxiety that the threat associated with these things might prove true. In consequence one will reject them, one will try to run away or to fight them off. Thus aggression arises. Then on the other hand there are these things which are so nice. "I want them! I want them ever so much! I must run after them! I have to get them! Once I have got them I cannot part with them!" Thus first attraction and desire, then clinging, then attachment arises.
In this way aversion and attachment which are based upon ignorance, upon not knowing how reality truly is, are the mental poisons. The functioning of karma is propelled by these. As long as one is subject to these three poisons, one is in Samsara. In the centre of an image of the wheel of life, which pictures Samsara, the cycle of existence, three animals are depicted: a pig, a snake and a bird. They represent the three poisons. The pig stands for ignorance, although a pig is not necessarily more stupid than other animals. The comparison is based on the Indian concept of a pig being the most foolish of all animals, since it always sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes its way. For similar reasons the snake is identified with anger. It does not mean that a snake is particularly angry, but it will be aroused and leap up at the slightest touch. The bird represents desire and clinging. Though in western publications it is frequently referred to as being a cock, this is not exactly accurate. This particular bird does not exist in western countries, as far as I know. It is used as an image, since it is very attached to its partner. These three animals represent the three main mental poisons which are the core of the wheel of life. On these the whole cycle of existence evolves. Without them there is no Samsara.
Samsara, therefore, is not a place. It is a state of mind. Wherever these three mental poisons are active, Samsara is present. It constitutes a state of mind in which one constantly runs away from or after something respectively. Being caught in this circle there is no peace, no relaxation and no rest. As long as our mental frame is such, we are in Samsara. We are always running. Suffering is also to be understood in these terms. All our problems are rooted in either trying to get something or to avoid something respectively. In this constant endeavour we are never satisfied. To want something means not to have it. One is therefore in the pursuit of something, one is searching and struggling for it. This is not an agreeable experience. Equally, running away from something means that one does not like it, that there is a strong apprehension and fear of it, which again is a painful experience.
As long as we are in this state of mind, which is marked by aversion and attachment stemming from ignorance, we are in Samsara and thus bound to suffering. We are constantly in a struggling mood, trying and fighting all the time.
While such is one's frame of mind one creates karma in three different ways, through three types of action, which will result in corresponding consequences. Actions can be positive, negative or neutral. When one feels kindness and love and with this attitude does good things which are beneficial to others, this is positive action. When one commits harmful deeds out of an equally harmful intention, this is negative action, whereas it is neutral, when one's motivation is indifferent and one's action is neither harmful nor beneficial. The result will accord with the quality of one's actions. One will experience less suffering and more happiness or the opposite, respectively. Yet, no matter how good one's actions may be, as long as one is caught in this structure, in this state of mind, which is dominated by aversion and attachment due to ignorance, one can reduce one's suffering and augment one's happiness but is still within the samsaric world. These are the real cause, ignorance being the root. As long as one does not succeed in overcoming these mental poisons, one cannot dispel all the causes of suffering. One will continue to suffer. One can run after all kinds of things, after a name, after fame or pleasure. One can even run after enlightenment, after spiritual attainment. Yet, this does not make any real change. It is still the same mentality, the same attitude of being constantly in the pursuit of or on the run from something.
Deep down inside we all have a very basic feeling of insecurity. In a way we know that this identification of a self does not grasp anything that is really concrete and substantial. There is not really anything to hold on to. For this reason we feel insecure in a very deep-rooted way. Yet, despite our faint notion of its insubstantiality and intangibility we try to hold on to this self. We do not want to know about and accept the truth. We want to make sure that there is something to identify with. There is the urge to define ourselves in terms of: "I am here and the others are there." Thus we react within the pattern of aversion and attachment. This is our main ignorance.
The Buddha has said from his experience that once one succeeds in eliminating this ignorance, one actually breaks the functioning of karma. There is no longer any basis for it. Without ignorance there is no attachment and no aversion. Thus there is no ground on which to create any karma. This state of freedom from ignorance is called 'Nirvana', and a person who has reached this state is called an 'Arhat' in Sanskrit, or 'dra chom pa' in Tibetan. This means literally 'he who has defeated his enemies'. The enemies which are to be defeated are one's own mental poisons, one's ignorance. Someone who has uprooted his mental poisons through eliminating his ignorance is an Arhat who in doing so has attained the state of Nirvana. This is freedom from all suffering without exception. Since all confusion, all misinterpretation, all wrong identification has ceased, there is no more duality and therefore no more suffering. This is expounded in the teaching on the third Noble Truth.
The Truth of Cessation
Once one has developed a genuine understanding that ignorance is the cause of all suffering, one is eventually able to overcome it and thus reach the point where all affliction ceases. This understanding is therefore vital. At the same time it is not that easy to achieve. I personally had quite some problems. In order to gain this insight one should not just accept what Buddhism says. When one finds oneself unable to do so, one has to admit that. Being born in a Buddhist society, for instance, I may have less difficulties to accept the teachings of the Buddha. To me their logic seems to come together so that I strongly feel that they are true. There are other ways and approaches, though. Due to that, just a slight change in the manner of explanation can make all the difference. In the west, for example, people tend to be oriented outwardly. Everything is seen as being happening out there. In consequence, cause and effect are also viewed in this light. Yesterday somebody asked how we could change society, how we could teach and help other people. This is a very good motivation. It has to be seen, though, that the emphasis is on the plural. "How can we change things and be helpful to others?" As opposed to that the Buddhist approach is to ask: "What can I do?" The attempt is to first solve one's own problems, thereby gaining more knowledge and true understanding, which in their turn will engender the capacity to help others to do the same. Thus the attitude is slightly different. At the same time it provokes an enormous change. As long as, for instance, one experiences other people as being the cause of one's suffering, one will have a very hard time. Whereas, as soon as one is able to put the blame on oneself and is capable of saying: "This is my problem and my confusion!", once one turns one's own problem into one's own experience, there will be a greater amount of clarity.
Working on oneself in this way one will eventually reach the cessation of suffering. There will be a gradual change of one's usual manner of seeing things and of reacting to them. Once it is clearly seen that the strong impulse to always run away from or after something, which is initiated by aversion and attachment, is due to one's own confusion, to a wrong manner of seeing things, one will also understand how unnecessary it is to function in this pattern. When one can deeply feel that there is not the slightest need for this struggle, when one has gained a genuine realization, a profound experiential understanding of this, one's confusion will be cleared. The misunderstanding will be eliminated. One will see reality as it is. When this is seen, there is peace, tranquillity and freedom.
This is the state of an Arhat which the Buddha described in terms of five qualities. In Tibetan these are called 'lang po chen po', 'dja wa dje pa', 'kur pur wa', 'rang gi dön dje su tö pa' and 'nyen pa me pa'. Literally this means 'elephant', 'the task is done', 'the burden is put off', 'one's own aim is achieved' and 'free from pride'. Thus an Arhat is like an elephant who is not afraid of anything or anybody and does not need any protection when walking the forest. He is completely independent. He is comparable to someone who has achieved a great feat, who has been working hard for a very long time and suddenly finds that his dreams have come true. There is a feeling of accomplishment and deep satisfaction. Having reached one's destination, the end of the journey, one has relieved oneself from the heavy burden that was carried for so long. One has accomplished one's own purpose and interest to its full extent. There is nothing more to achieve for oneself. Having done everything that is needed one is completely free. Thus there is the capacity and a natural and spontaneous willingness to work for the benefit of all other beings. The realization which is reached does not entail the notion: "Now I have done it!" It does not involve any pride. It simply means that things are seen as they really are. This is not experienced as being a big deal. It is rather comparable to awakening from sleep. While one is sleeping one has all kinds of dreams. The moment one wakes up all these dreams are simply no longer there. One will not be particularly proud of having woken up.
This is how the Buddha described the way in which one attains the cessation of suffering. It is brought about by the realization of how needless it is to react through aversion and attachment, which are due to confusion, to one's perverted way of perceiving reality in terms of 'I' and 'other than I'. Once one can see this confusion, one has a clear view, one's mind is cleared. There is nothing to learn. Just by seeing it one's misconception is eliminated and thereby also one's wrong way of saying and doing things. This is the state of an Arhat.
There are different philosophies holding different views of what Arhathood means. The question often arises what is the difference between a Buddha and an Arhat. I personally would think that for us this does not matter too much at the moment. The realization is the same. The difference lies in the degree. Once one has gained the understanding described above, one is completely at peace. One is satisfied resting in this state of peace. From the Mahayana point of view, though, there are still very subtle habitual tendencies which are not yet removed. These are overcome on the path towards Buddhahood. The realization of a Buddha is clearer and more complete than that of an Arhat. The difference lies in the depth and vastness of the realization. This can be illustrated by the example of looking at the sky from within a small house or from a wide beach or a very high mountain. The sky is the same but there is a great difference as to the range of vision.
A lot more could be said to this subject. The foregoing is just meant to give an impression. The important thing to understand in the context of the explanation of the Four Noble Truths is the fact that someone who has attained the cessation of suffering or, in other words, Nirvana, the state of an Arhat, will no longer react within the pattern of aversion and attachment. Thus his or her way of seeing things will be non-dualistic and therefore non-conceptual. This statement again can easily provoke all kinds of ideas as to its meaning. Most people will think that once one has reached this realization one will no longer bother about anything. One will react like a vegetable. Being non-dualistic one does not know any more who one is and who the others are. One has become like a blank space. Though this notion will frequently be developed, the truth is something quite different. At present, our manner of seeing and of reacting to everything else, is in terms of contrasts and judgments, such as: "This is good! This is bad! I like it! I do not like it! I want it! I do not want it! I fear it! I desire it!" Everything is seen in this fragmented and thereby totally confused way. Whatever is perceived is immediately labelled as "This is good!", "This is bad!" and so forth. These labels are then elaborated upon into "This is very good!", "This is very bad!", this process progressing ad infinitum. We never see the thing as such. We only see what is in our mind, what has been built up by all kinds of concepts. Taking a flower for example, the very first instant our eyes come into contact with it, it is seen distinctly in all its parts, like on a photograph. Yet, the moment the message is passed on, our mind only sees a fragment. We say: "This is a tulip. It is yellow. It is a yellow tulip." Once this has happened our mind sees only that. The many parts of the flower are not seen, but are confused and solidified into just one thing. We may even say: "This is a very beautiful yellow tulip flower!" Still we do not see it in total, we do not see most of its features, such as its shape, its leaves and so forth. Our perception is based upon habits. We only see what we are used to and neglect the rest. We always perceive what we have already experienced and know. Then the new sense-experience is joined to a similar one from the past and thus labelled as being pleasant, unpleasant and so forth. In this way our perception is very fragmented. We do not see what really is. If, as opposed to this, one can see in a way which is unconfused, if one can see without aversion and attachment, one sees what is there and how it truly is. Thus there is no need for fear and attachment. One sees who one is, how and what one is, precisely, without there being any mental construction. Nothing is added to what is actually to be seen. Thus there is a direct, clear and unpolluted experience. This is described as being non-conceptual, since nothing is added from one's own part. When we call something beautiful, this is our contribution. "Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder", as the proverb says. It is therefore not necessary to have aversion. Aversion will not arise before we say: "This is bad! I do not like it!" Once this judgment is made one will have a problem. If, for instance, one does not like one's job, one will usually not leave it at that. One will build on this resentment and make it bigger, until one day one cannot stand one's work any more. Then one will desperately search for something that is different, for something that one likes or is supposed to like. Once it is found, again it will be elaborated, first into clinging and finally into attachment. When this dual reaction is gone, there is nothing which is haunting, nothing which is fearful any more. One sees clearly. Nothing is imposing, since one does not impose anything. When there is nothing one does not like, there is nothing to fear. Being free from fear one is peaceful. There is no need to run away from anything and therefore no need to run after anything either. Thus there is no burden. One has inner peace, strength and clarity which are almost independent from circumstances and situations. One has complete freedom of mind rid of any circumstantial entanglement. This state is called 'Nirvana' in Sanskrit, which literally means 'gone beyond'. Someone who has reached this state has gone beyond our usual way of getting entrapped and imprisoned in our habitual patterns, in our wrong way of seeing things.
The Truth of the Path
The teachings of the Four Noble Truths can be said to form a natural sequence. The understanding of the preceding one leads to the understanding of the next. Once one can acknowledge that there is suffering, once one can truly understand the problems which are at hand, one will see the necessity to discover their cause. What is meant here is not a minor thing such as the usual psychological disturbances human beings have, but the actual and fundamental cause which is the root of all suffering. When this is understood and it is further comprehended that by working on this root one can clearly see how things really are and thus overcome all one's problems, the way is paved. In this context one's understanding should not just be in terms of words. Otherwise the statements of the first three Noble Truths can easily become mere slogans. One knows suffering, the cause of suffering and the cessation of suffering, but this could be just empty talk. One should therefore not use these terms too much. Words are formed for everything. We need words for whatever we want to express. Sometimes, though, we get too familiar with words without understanding them deeply. This can almost become an obstacle. Words do not mean anything of their own. One needs to understand the actual meaning behind them. As long as one does not manage to do so, it is very difficult to progress. This is especially true for the words which express the basic teachings of the Buddha. Having gained a genuine understanding of these, one has a real chance to go forward. Otherwise one may lose one's ground. Having no grip on the ground one is somewhat floating and therefore not able to relate to practice in a real and experiential way. Thus the teachings conveyed by the first three Noble Truths are very fundamental and important. At the same time they will be quite difficult to apply when accompanied by too many assumptions. The more one realizes their actual meaning, the more one's practice will be improved. One will increasingly understand what practice is, that it can really do something for oneself and all others. Once this genuine understanding is gained, the question arises in which manner to work on the cause of suffering. This has to be done slowly and gradually. It is not achieved by starting in the morning and being enlightened in the evening. Some individuals may be capable of such a feat but most are not. On the other hand each tiny improvement will be of great help and will yield an enormous benefit. The gradual way towards the cessation of suffering has been shown by the Buddha by means of the Noble Eight-Fold Path. This again is a very basic teaching and at the same time not just a preliminary one. When examined deeply, it proves to constitute the whole way. Even the Mahamudra or Maha Ati systems do not present anything beside it. They just contain clearer and more direct means. Thus the entire teaching of the Buddha is included in this path which provides the basic guideline on how to work with and overcome the sources of suffering.
The branches of the Noble Eight-Fold Path are called right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. These can also be categorized into three, which are right view, right action and right meditation. The view comprises understanding and thought, the action includes speech, livelihood and effort, the meditation is equivalent to mindfulness and concentration.
The right view, the correct way of seeing things, is considered as being the most important element of practice. This is due to the fact that the basic problem which is to be solved comes about through a wrong view, a perverted perception of reality. The problem is overcome once everything is seen as it really is. To get rid of one's wrong views and attitudes is therefore the most fundamental issue in Buddhism. This does not mean that one tries to adopt a Buddhist way of seeing things. One tries to find out how they really are. In this context an intellectual understanding is helpful but not sufficient of its own. What needs to be developed is the right view in terms of a direct and genuine experience. There is a slight difference between an understanding which is derived from a chain of reasoning and an actual experience or realization. Seeing reality directly as it is, without any doubt, is what completely shatters ignorance. One therefore needs to arrive at this direct experiential vision. This is meant when the Buddha speaks of right understanding. An intellectual correct understanding, though, is a very important step towards this goal. In order to achieve the direct and clear view that is required, three aspects are needed, which are learning, reflection and meditation. Besides these one also needs the right environment, which is to say, right action and right livelihood. All of these are interrelated.
In this way the first branch of the Noble Eight-Fold Path is very important, the right view being the real weapon against ignorance and confusion. The clear, direct and unwavering experience or vision of the truth is the only means to dispel all delusion. This is therefore the most essential and powerful practice. To arrive at this vision, though, one has to build one's understanding gradually, starting with the Four Noble Truths. A correct knowledge of the Four Noble Truths is also right understanding. Knowing that things are constantly changing and interrelated, that nothing exists of its own, one is eventually able to see the nature of everything. Thus we try to understand little by little, going ever deeper in this process. Once we are able to see that there is a cause to everything we experience, we will also see that there being cause there is also effect. Each cause in its turn is the result of multiple causes. In this way karma is just a sequence of cause and effect. This leads into an understanding of the impermanent nature of everything. If all things are cause and effect at the same time, they keep on changing. There is no real tangible substance to anything. Refining one's understanding in this way, one will arrive at the genuine vision of the ultimate truth.
I, for my part, try not to talk about this subject too much. There seems to be a reluctance to understand it rightly. A student once told me, she felt that everything was empty and non-existent, that there was no self. She said that there was no concrete thing within her, that everything was flowing. At first I said this was very good, a certain experience of egolessness. Later, though, I discovered that this was not quite what was happening. It was rather like going crazy. When one experiences egolessness, one is joyful and stable. All one's problems are resolved. As opposed to that she got gloomier than she was before. She could not find any purpose in life. When the teaching on the absolute truth engenders such a notion, something is wrong. Also, there are so many people who would say: "I do not like myself! I hate myself!" To tell that kind of person: "You do not truly exist" would not be beneficial. To such a person one has to say beforehand: "You are very much there, you are very good and you must first take care of yourself!" If one said: "You are just an illusion", this feeling would already be there, but in a totally distorted way. Such persons, therefore, have to learn first how to love, cherish and appreciate themselves.
When the right view is described, it is usually called the Middle Way. This term is used, since the right view should be free from any extreme. Knowing that everything arises in terms of cause and effect, that everything is due to causes and conditions, one does not fall into the extreme of nihilism. There is not just nothing at all. On the other hand, cause and effect are not substantial either, they do not constitute a solid reality. As long as they are there, they are are there, but as soon as they have changed, they have changed. The right view is therefore not eternalistic either. The truth lies in between. This is not easy to grasp. Normally we understand in terms of 'this or that', 'black or white', 'yes or no', but the way things really are is not exactly a matter of these contrasts. It is slightly more complicated and beyond our simple 'yes and no' business. Thus there is no word and no concept for it. As soon as one applies a word to it, it is solidified and thereby distorted. Right view, therefore, is direct understanding without any words and concepts. That is what needs to be achieved. All the other branches of the Noble Eight-Fold Path are just different methods which help to develop the right view. Once it is there, this is almost the end.
If one is to use a word, though, 'interdependence' is a very good one. In this context it is often spoken of 'emptiness', but this can be a bit scary and is easily subject to misconceptions. Emptiness is nothing other than interdependence. It means that there is no independent substance to anything, that nothing exists of its own and is permanent, independent from everything else. Everything is cause and effect. All things are conditioned and interrelated. Once this interdependance is understood, one understands the empty nature of everything. In this way right understanding is very basic and very advanced at the same time.
To engender this understanding we train ourselves through study, reflection and meditation. These are the main methods to gain the right view. First one gets information, one listens to teachings or reads books, thus acquiring an initial intellectual understanding. The information one has received is then processed inwardly, one tries to put it into place. One has heard about the Four Noble Truths, about Mahamudra, Bardo, wrathful deities, Madhyamaka, Chö and so forth. So where to put what? Where does it all fall into place? The process of gaining an overall view and of putting everything to where it belongs is the stage of reflection. Both study and reflection are intellectual. They do not really change our way of being. Meditation is needed to turn our intellectual understanding into an actual experience, to allow us to be within it, to bring it from head to heart. This is said to be the longest journey.
With these three aspects one gradually develops the right view.
In this context it is most important to comprehend the predominancy of thought. Whatever action we take, be it right or wrong, is preceded and initiated by a thought. Many people will not agree to this and claim that their emotions, such as anger for instance, come up before they can even think. Looking more closely one finds this to be a misperception. For anger to arise, first there has to be the concept that something is not nice. This process will usually happen so fast that it goes unnoticed. It does not mean, though, that there is no initial thought giving rise to one's anger. Yet, since we are so used to it, the thought happens too quickly to be recognized. Everything that follows upon the actuating thought, all the positive and negative deeds that we do and even all our positive and negative emotions, are habits which we have eventually acquired. The more one gets into a particular habit, such as being prone to anger, jealousy and so forth, the more one will turn into a person with this particular trait of character. The question what kind of a person one becomes is a matter of habitual tendencies. For this reason a person is able to change. Bad and good habits are equally changeable. The more one cultivates good habits, the more one will weaken the negative ones, and the other way around. This is the central point to be understood. Santideva said in this context: "If one is habituated, there is nothing which will not come easier." The more one familiarizes oneself with something, the more it will become one's second nature. This is true for positive and negative tendencies alike. It is therefore very important to understand that a thought is the master of every action we take. If we have thoughts which are characterized by kindness, compassion, love or joy, our actions will be of a corresponding quality. Our thoughts, in their turn, are not arbitrary. They are habits which can be changed. This change has to be brought about actively, it will not happen by itself. If, for instance, one would like to be a joyful person, one has to grow into this side, one has to adopt the habit of being joyful. To be very depressed and narrow and to expect to become joyful some time in the future, thinking: "Now I am very sad, but something will happen!", as if joy might fall from the sky, would be a vain hope. Buddhism says one has to do it oneself. Then something will happen. There is a story to illustrate that.
A bird mother nested in a field and hatched chickens. When the chicks had come out of the shell, the mother went away every day to fetch food and came back in the evening. One day she found her children deeply worried. In a great flurry they told her: "We have to leave immediately! We are in great danger! The farmer has been here with his son. They said they will reap the grain tomorrow and get all their neighbours in the village to help them!" The mother reassured them and said: "Don't worry! Just sit here quietly! Nothing will happen!" The next day she went out as usual and her words proved to be true. Upon her return, though, the chicks were very excited again and told her: "The farmer and his son have been here once more and said they will now harvest the grain tomorrow. Since none of the neighbours had time, they will ask all their relatives for help." Again the mother soothed them and said: "Don't be anxious! Nothing will happen!" When she returned the following day, the chicks were quite calm and relaxed. She had been right again. Nothing had happened. They told her, though, that the farmer and his son had been around again and had mentioned that, since the grain needed to be cut and since their relatives did not have time either, they would do it on their own the following day. Hearing this, the mother was alerted and said: "Get ready! We are no longer safe here! We will leave as soon as we can!"
Our habits, therefore, will not change, unless we change them ourselves. In this context our thoughts are the main objective, since they constitute the starting point to all our actions. Our thoughts decide whether we act in a right or in a wrong way and upon what kind of person we become. As soon as we have the right thoughts, our actions cannot go amiss. In the beginning, the attempt to reform one's habits of thought will not prove so easy. One may have the impression that there is no progress at all. Yet, there will be progress, as is illustrated by the meditation method that a great master gave to one of his disciples. He made the disciple get two bowls and two heaps of black and white pebbles respectively. The master then told him to put a white pebble into one of the bowls whenever a good thought came to his mind and to put a black pebble into the other bowl for every negative thought that arose. During the first few months the black pebbles piled up, while the white ones were very scarce. Then, slowly, the picture changed. The black pebbles got less and less and the white ones increased, until finally the bowl for the black pebbles remained empty. This shows the manner, in which one should reform oneself and cultivate one's motivation. One does so through trying to be as aware as possible. It does not mean that one should feel guilty each time one has a negative thought. Simply by being aware and by continuously exercising this awareness one's negative thoughts will gradually decrease and make way for more and more good ones.
Right speech and action
As far as the cultivation of right speech and action is concerned, the same applies as to the development of right thought. Without the three aspects of body, speech and mind a human being cannot do anything. There is no other way of expression. One should therefore try to act in a good and positive way as much as one can. Good verbal and physical action is whatever is beneficial to oneself and to all fellow-beings. Thus the sole purpose is to cultivate this kind of activity and to increase it to an ever greater extent.
In this context some people think that when anger, for instance, arises one has to express it, one has to let it out. Otherwise it would be suppressed and might thereby eventually develop into an illness. There is a certain truth in this. If one keeps something in one's heart and cannot let go of it, if one does not speak about it, but thinks of it all the time, one suppresses whatever emotion is there. Yet, if on the contrary one does not hold on to it, if one simply gets angry and that was it, there is no suppression involved. Here one should look into the question where one's anger comes from. Some people seem to think that it exists somewhere in the body, as if there was a little bag from which anger is taken out at need. Our emotions, though, are not stored within us. As long as one does not get angry, there is no anger. By thinking it exists permanently one will make it stronger whenever it arises. It is therefore quite important to understand that one's emotions are not something which is constantly present. For this reason one should not be too upset when anger comes up. If one gets angry, all right, leave it at that. It has happened so many times before. It is nothing unusual. There is no need to feel guilty about it. Feeling guilty one will also hold on to one's anger, one will keep it alive and prolong it, thereby making more out of it than is actually there. The important point, therefore, is to acknowledge the fact that one has got angry, but then not to keep it and thus make it stronger. The right way of 'suppressing' anger and the other negative emotions is to try to cultivate their opposite side. The antidote to anger is loving kindness. The more one can develop loving kindness, the less one's anger will get.
The same is true for jealousy. The more one indulges in this feeling, the more it will grow in power. Whereas, the more deeply one can understand how useless it is, how harmful it is to oneself and to others, to the same extent it will be weakened and therefore decrease. This applies to everything. For whatever one trains, the more intensively one does so, the more strongly it will develop and eventually turn into an own experience. One must therefore submit oneself to a certain amount of discipline. Equally, when one is wont to talk in a very harsh way, or to talk too much or just meaningless things, one should try to use a speech, which is beneficial to oneself and to the other beings, and thus create a better atmosphere. It can often be seen that the question, whether a person one talks to gets angry or not, does not depend so much upon what is expressed but rather upon the way in which it is said.
We should therefore try to discipline ourselves, to not just do or say whatever comes to mind all the time. We should try to see clearly, which way of saying and doing things will be beneficial to ourselves and to our fellow-beings and which way of acting would create a lot of problems. We are free to choose our own behaviour. We do not have to be dominated by our emotions. Thus we should be under our own control and try to change for a better way.
The difference between right action and right livelihood is that the latter refers to one's way of life, to the manner in which one earns one's living. Ideally this should not be harmful at all, but of utmost benefit to oneself and to all sentient beings. Very often, though, there is not so much opportunity to choose one's lifestyle. In this situation one should do whatever one can to act as beneficially as possible. Whenever there is no way for that, one should at least do one's best not to cause any harm to oneself and to other beings.
Right effort and right mindfulness
Right effort and right mindfulness are needed for the cultivation of all the other branches of the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Frequently we do not use our energies in the right way. We are often willing to make a great effort for something which is not worthwhile at all, whereas we lack this willingness when things are concerned, which would be very good and beneficial. Right effort, therefore, means to control one's actions, to put one's energies into the right direction. This applies to everything that needs to be developed. Once one understands which would be the right course of action, mindfulness is needed to be able to apply one's understanding correctly. The degree of one's capacity to do so depends upon the degree of one's mindfulness and also one's effort. As long as one is not mindful, one will fall to one's habits and thus just follow one's habitual way. To avoid this, one has to bring oneself back to the present, one has to constantly try to remind oneself of what is the best thing to do. Bringing one's mind back to the present moment, one prevents it from being scattered. This is the main issue of practice. For that effort is needed, since we are not habituated to doing good and beneficial things. For this reason, we will not always like it and will in consequence not find it so easy. We will often prefer to idle away our time, to just walk around or to spend the day gambling or in a bar. To counteract one's habits, it is therefore necessary to exert a certain amount of effort and to set one's mindfulness and awareness against them. Doing this again and again, one carries the practice of the Dharma into one's daily life. There is no special technique for that, it is simply done through mindfulness and effort. How much one practises in this way depends entirely upon oneself. As has been said earlier, we ourselves are the practice. There is no other practice apart from ourselves. Thus it is not reserved to a special time. The whole day is practice. We constantly face all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of emotions. Whenever we manage to be mindful in dealing with these, we practise. In this way we can turn every aspect of our everyday life into practice.
All the different ways of Buddhist meditation can be categorized into two aspects, which are called 'Samatha' and 'Vipasyana' in Sanskrit, or 'Shiné' and 'Lhagthong' in Tibetan. The terms 'Vipasyana' and 'Lhagthong' are not totally synonymous. When speaking about 'Lhagthong' meditation, this is not just equivalent to 'Vipasyana', but covers a slightly wider field. 'Shi' means literally 'peace' or 'tranquillity' and also 'subsiding'. 'Né' means 'stable abiding'. Thus 'Shiné' can be translated as 'peaceful abiding'. 'Lhag' means 'extraordinary' and 'lhag ger' means 'clearly' or 'vividly', 'without any obstruction'. 'Thong' means 'seeing'. 'Lhagthong' therefore is 'clear seeing'. Out of these 'Shiné' is the means to make the mind calm, stable and peaceful and 'Lhagthong' will lead one to clearly see the truth, the true nature of everything. All meditations are included in these two.
There are different traditions as to the order in which they are to be practised. One of these emphasizes that 'Shiné' has to come first. Otherwise it is not possible to see the true nature of the mind. Normally our mind is in too much turmoil, too confused and too rough, like a wild churning sea, to allow this to happen. First, therefore, the mind has to become calm and thereby eventually clear. When it is calm and clear, one can see its true nature. Then again, it is said that there is a danger, if one lets one's mind just dwell in calmness and clarity for too long. The ego can get attached to this state, which is experienced as being very nice, so that in consequence one may fall into the extreme of tranquillity. When this happens one cannot progress any more. Once a certain level of 'Shiné' is reached, one is therefore advised to break it and to proceed to 'Lhagthong' meditation. According to a third tradition one should train in 'Lhagthong' first, since one needs a certain amount of understanding as a prerequisite to any practice.
In my view, though, these differences in approach are not of major import at the moment. It is vital for all of us to make our mind calm and clear, not only as a means to see the truth, but to enable us to deal with our emotions, with our everyday life, to be more relaxed in going about that. Furthermore, once the mind is calm and clear there is a greater chance of seeing clearly. How much is then seen depends upon how much one looks and knows how to look as well. Thus both aspects are necessary. In the end they should be in union.
As to the question how 'Shiné' meditation is done the main idea or principle can be described as follows. If one has water which is clouded by mud and dirt, an easy method to clarify it, is to leave it undisturbed, to let the dirt settle by itself. In this way the water will get clear. Similarly, if one leaves the mind to itself without interfering with its waves, its confusions and bubbling, these will slowly subside, the mind will become calm and clear. The technique, therefore, is very simple. One does not do anything at all. Then again, not doing anything is not that easy. One has to start by doing something. One will make use of something to occupy one's mind just lightly, just to the extent that not too many things can take place within it.
Concerning the way in which this meditation is carried out, it is traditionally said that the physical posture is very important, since body and mind are interrelated and their relationship is very intense. Thus the posture of the body affects the mind in many ways. Once the physical posture is correct, its effect on the mind will be very positive, as is shown by one story contained in the Sutras. A group of monkeys watched some Arhats who meditated in the woods. Later these monkeys were seen sitting in the same posture. Through this they actually attained the state of 'Shiné'. The correct posture for 'Shiné' meditation is called 'The Seven Point Posture'. Once one is used to it, it is very comfortable and allows one to meditate for long periods without feeling physical pain or discomfort. Out of its seven points the first is most important. This is to say that one's back should be as straight as possible. The other six points are just aids to facilitate that. If one is able to do so, one should sit cross-legged, ideally in full Vajra-position. If one finds that too difficult, though, one can sit on a chair. It does not matter very much, as can be seen from the fact that the future Buddha Maitreya also sits on a chair. The hands should be in the so-called 'Dhyana Mudra', the right hand on top of the left and the thumbs slightly touching each other. This helps to balance the shoulders. The shoulders should not lean to the right or to the left too much, since the first will promote the arisal of anger and the second the arisal of desire/attachment. One can also sometimes rest one's hands on the knees. The chest and the shoulders should be expanded to allow one's breath to flow in and out as deeply as possible. The neck should neither be held to the back nor to the front too much. It should just slightly bend forward so that the Adam's apple is to be seen. One's mouth should be relaxed. If this area is too tight, one will almost create a tension. The worst part of the film "Little Buddha" was the scene, in which he sat under the tree and 'reached enlightenment' grinding his teeth. One's teeth, therefore, should be a bit apart to the extent that one's lips are slightly parted as well, so that one could breathe through them, if one wanted to. The tongue should touch the upper palate being sprayed flatly against it. This is a very good means to prevent one from having to swallow saliva too often. The most important point is the relaxation of the eyes. As soon as the eyes are relaxed, body and mind are relaxed as well. Without relaxing the eyes there is no way to relax body and mind. Some people prefer to close their eyes. Yet, according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the eyes should not be completely closed. One should leave them slightly open, neither looking too far away nor too closely nor getting cross-eyed either. What is meant can be seen from Buddha images or from the photographs of great masters. Though the eyes should not be closed, one's gaze should not be tense or focused on anything in particular. The eyes should just be lightly open. This again is the general rule, which as such does not always apply. Sometimes, when the mind is very active, it can be better to close one's eyes. At other times one's mind may get so sleepy that the eyes will close unvoluntarily. In this case one may be advised to open one's eyes quite wide, to even look up high into the sky or to look far away. Thus the general meditation instruction does not mean it would be always like that.
In 'Shiné' meditation the 'posture' of the mind is what is truly essential. The mind should be completely relaxed. To achieve this relaxation, one should first try to feel one's body being totally relaxed. Although one sits in this posture which is slightly tense, within it there should be looseness and spaciousness. The body should rest very loosely, similar to the following example. When one takes a bundle of straws and cuts the string, which keeps them together, immediately the straws will fall into place. One should feel this relaxation from the core of one's being and then let the mind be. That is the main point. As long as one is in the very present moment, one is relaxed. In this context, a practice which is widely used, is to be just lightly aware of one's breathing. This is a very suitable method, since breathing happens automatically, one cannot be without it. Thus, being aware of one's breathing one is here and now, one is aware of the present moment. That is the central issue. Not being involved in the past or in the future, one should take a vacation from one's hard work and just relax. One should allow oneself to think: "For fifteen minutes I will be off duty, away from my usual routine of going around twenty-four hours every day, thinking all the time of my past and future worries!" That is possible in all kinds of situations, while sitting in one's room, in a railway station, wherever there is a bit of time. There are many methods to just sit and relax. The essential point is to be here and now, in the present moment, and neither in the past nor in the future.
When using the 'breathing method' one should not concentrate on one's breath in the literal meaning of the word. One's concentration should be very light, since the aim is to loosen one's tension. One tries to be calm and clear. By concentrating in the actual sense one counteracts that and builds up tension. There should therefore just be a light awareness. The mind is allowed to be aware of the process of breathing in and out, this only forming a kind of basis on which the mind settles. One does not close one's eyes and ears. One does not cut off anything or try to avoid it. When, for instance, a car passes by, this is all right. One does not pursue the event, though, by thinking: "O this car disturbed me!" The passing of the car is just one moment, which then is over. There is no need to think about it. One should just be with one's breathing without wondering: "How do I breathe in and out?" One could occupy one's mind with anything in this way, not only with breathing. The aim is to be aware of the present moment and not to think about it. Thinking about it means to bring something that already happened back through one's memory and analyze it. As soon as one thinks, one is no longer there but elsewhere. One should let it flow. Whenever one holds on to something, one interrupts the flow.
In learning how to do 'Shiné' meditation or any other meditation practice mere struggle and deliberate trial are of little avail. Too much trying is not very helpful. Although a great amount of effort is needed, it should rather consist of the willingness to do it again and again. There is not really a technique in the sense that something is taught and learned and then simply applied accordingly. One learns through doing. This can be compared to the way in which one learns how to swim or to ride a bicycle. Someone who knows will advise the adept: "Just be flexible and relaxed! Do not forget to pedal!", and so forth. Once one sits on one's bike one will tell oneself: "I have to be flexible and relaxed...!", but this will not prevent one from falling down. If one keeps to it, though, a point will be reached at which one finds to one's astonishment that one does not fall down any longer. One has learned how to do it but does not know how that happened. Once it has happened, there is no struggle. Almost the same process is true for meditation. It is described through three characteristics, which are called 'de', 'thö' and 'yang' in Tibetan. 'De' means 'comfortable' and thus refers to not experiencing any pain or discomfort. One just sits comfortably at ease. 'Thöpa' is the contrary of tightness. It describes a state of total relaxation. 'Yangpa' means 'spacious'. This is to say that one should be very open and wide. Meditation is not equivalent to controlling one's mind, to putting it into a small box or into a narrow canal. One does not close one's eyes and ears. One should be open to such an extent that one almost dissolves into and merges with everything. This is not brought about through deliberate trial. Thus the three important features of meditation, feeling at ease and comfortable, being relaxed and spacious, may not be achieved very easily. They have to come one by one. Just in order to learn how to relax, a lot of exercise is needed. We will not find it easy, since just letting go, letting everything be, not doing anything, just loosening up, is totally opposite to our usual way of behaviour and of dealing with things. Once we are able to give in a bit, to relax our muscles, our stomach, our shoulders and finally our eyes, that in itself is already meditation. There is a Yoga exercise in the course of which one first feels the total relaxation of one's trunk and then is gradually at one with the relaxation of one's feet, one's ankles, calves, knees and thighs. From here on one slowly feels one's intestines relax, one's kidneys, liver and so forth, thus proceeding to one's hands and shoulders, to one's face and mouth, which should be very relaxed, until one finally arrives at one's eyes. The relaxation of the eyes is most vital, since according to Buddhism the eyes are directly related to the heart. Once one can relax one's eyes, one can really relax. At the same time, this is quite difficult, since almost all our tensions are chanelled through the heart. In order to learn how to relax the eyes one should neither fully close nor fully open them. This point is very important.
Thus 'Shiné' meditation in the actual sense means not to do anything, just to let oneself be. For this reason, even though a focus is used for the mind to settle upon, such as breathing, an image, a light or a letter, these things are not necessary as such. They are just used when one finds that one's mind is too turbulent or distracted. In this situation it is sometimes helpful to have something on which the mind can settle down, which lightly occupies it. This is the only reason why these means are applied. One could make use of anything that serves this purpose, not just of one's breathing, of an image and so forth. In Tibet pebbles or pieces of stick were at times also taken as a focus in meditation. The main thing is to know when one is distracted. As soon as this happens the mind is slightly settled on whichever focus is used. When after some time one finds that the mind is not really there, one simply brings it back. Meditation just means to make oneself calm, to be relaxed and spacious, and thereby eventually clear. In this context two faults can arise, which are totally contrary to it. One is distraction, a state in which the mind is not there. The other is sleepiness and dullness. Both are not meditation. When one is distracted, one should use a bit of concentration. One should either be more alert or more relaxed, whichever proves necessary to bring the mind back to focus. When one has fallen into dullness, one should be more alert. One should look up or make oneself slightly tense. Machig Labdrön described the right balance in meditation through the example of how one twines a thread by alternately tightening and loosening the yarn. Similarly, when meditating there should be a certain tension and a certain softness as well.
There is a large number of meditation techniques. This allows for the fact that there are so many different types of human beings that individually one method will be more suitable than others. Apart from that it does not matter very much which technique is used. Each will lead to three experiences, which are bliss, clarity and non-conception. About these, though, one should not talk too much. One might arouse expectations which would kill the meditation. One technique, which can be combined with breathing, is to concentrate on the area four fingers below one's navel and to imagine some warmth there, a kind of vibrating comfort, which is then totally absorbed throughout the whole body. Thus one feels very comfortable and blissful, very nice and warm. When this feeling is there, one just remains in it. It is much easier to concentrate on something that is nice than on something that is not agreeable. Feeling oneself completely blissful, comfortable, happy and warm is therefore quite a good method. One can also alternate different techniques, such as for instance focusing on one's breath for five minutes and then resting five minutes without any focus, just within the sensation of one's blissful nature. Sound is another good object for 'Shiné' meditation. When one recites Mantras, for example, this is nothing other than concentrating on sound. In Hinduism sheer concentration on sound is practised much more widely than in the context of Buddhism. One can concentrate on the sound of the syllable 'OM' for example. Just saying it slowly will keep one's attention. Some individuals have rather a 'sound nature'. Especially in the west many people will say that they find visualization rather difficult, that it is far easier for them to remember a sound than a form. Thus concentrating on the syllable 'OM' is also a method of meditation. In the same way one can use a Mantra, no matter which one, be it the Mantra of Avalokitesvara, of Tara, and so forth. 'OM' is said to be the origin of all sounds and words. One may wonder for what reason. If one were to utter something without using any consonants and vowels, it would emerge as this sound, as 'OM'.
As was mentioned before, we have to learn how to meditate by ourselves, through trial and error. One has to fall down and get up and do it again. Lately I learned how to swim. In Tibet the opportunity did not arise and in Sikkim, where I live nowadays, there is no chance to even venture to do that. The rivers come down like swords. Last year I spent some time in Barcelona and was taken to a very nice beach where I was taught how to swim. I did not do very well. I was told I had to do this and that. Yet, whatever I tried did not work. I always went down head first. Then the people who taught me said: "If you just lie on your back you will float!" That did not function either. At last I was a bit frustrated and said: "Let it be! Let me down!" Then somehow the ears went in but the rest did not. I floated. It was the most wonderful thing ever happening in my life. So it was actually fear which prevented it. When there is no fear one can float. As soon as it comes back one will go under again.
This pictures the way in which one learns how to meditate. In the beginning one will often find that one cannot completely relax, that one cannot be totally tranquil and peaceful. Sometimes one may even feel that ever more disturbance comes up. Then one will think one is getting worse and worse. Yet, this is said to be a good sign. It does not mean that one is more distracted, but that one is more aware of how busy one usually is. If, therefore, one has the feeling that more things come up in one's mind, that it is more agitated and unable to be peaceful, this does not signify that meditation is not taking place. During this time, though, many people give up. They think: "This is too hard! I cannot get any peace!" In this situation patience is needed to be able to go on. If one does so, one will find that it gets much better.
One may wonder whether it is possible to reach enlightenment solely through 'Shiné' meditation. It is the only practice. Though one may not get enlightened just by being peaceful and clear, it is the only means in that the other part, which brings enlightenment, will almost arise spontaneously once a good and strong state of 'Shiné' is reached. This is 'Lhagthong', insight, seeing the truth. Once the mind is calm and clear and one does not get stuck in this experience of calmness and clarity, all one has to do is looking. This is called 'shi lhag zung drel' in Tibetan, the union of 'Shiné' and 'Lhagthong'. This union will result in enlightenment. Santideva has said in this context: "Insight born from strong Samatha is what totally destroys all the negative emotions." For this reason 'Shiné' is the foremost practice. By means of it alone, though, one cannot get enlightened. It has to lead into insight. 'Lhagthong' is seeing things as they really are, seeing the truth inside. This is not comparable to the way in which one sees with one's eyes. It means being in this kind of awareness. This will be explained further at a later stage, in the context of the explanations on Mahamudra. Within Mahamudra practice 'Lhagthong' is the main thing. As has been mentioned before, the Tibetan term 'lhag' has two meanings, which are 'special' or 'extraordinary' and 'clear' or 'vivid'. 'Thong' means 'seeing'. Thus 'Lhagthong' is seeing things vividly, knowing the truth, not just intellectually but directly, without any confusion. That is what really cuts through ignorance, through the root cause of all our problems. Ignorance gives rise to aversion and attachment. From these stems everything else. Cutting through ignorance one attains enlightenment. Once one is rid of ignorance, one is enlightened.
There is a chart depicting the development of 'Shiné' and 'Lhagthong'. It shows a road winding upwards on which varying scenes are to be seen. The last is a man who wields a flaming sword and rides a white elephant being surrounded by flowers. This stands for 'Lhagthong', whereas all the other pictures are images of the development of 'Shiné'. The practice of 'Shiné' is supposed to lead to 'shin jang', as it is called in Tibetan, to suppleness and flexibility of body and mind. When this is reached the mind is completely under control, it is no longer wild and distracted. At that point it is just a matter of looking to eventually see the truth. At the beginning there is a person, a monk, who carrying a hook and a rope is chasing after a huge black elephant which is running wild and led by a monkey. In the east a person who is very naughty and cannot sit still is called a monkey. A wild elephant is very dangerous. The hook and the rope represent mindfulness and awareness, these being the main instruments used in meditation. The black elephant led by an equally wild monkey pictures our mind in its present state. A wild elephant goes everywhere, one cannot control it. Being too big it crashes into everything. On top of that it is led by a monkey. It cannot sit still for a single moment. In the same way our mind is too busy and thus totally distracted like a monkey. It is wild like an untamed elephant and at the same time dull and confused as well. The latter is represented by the black colour. Then one runs after the elephant trying to use one's tools on it, meditating and meditating. After some time distraction will not be gone but will have slowed up a bit. There will be a certain amount of clarity. The elephant and the monkey are still there, but no longer running. This picture, though, should not be taken too literally. While meditating one should not run after anything. The less one runs the better it is. Meditation means to know how to be, how to sit and let things be. One cannot run after one's mind. Trying to do so is like trying to catch water with one's hands. Especially, if one holds on tightly, everything goes away. What is needed is a very skillful way of letting be and of letting oneself relax. When one can do that one knows how to meditate. This is only learnt through doing, like learning how to swim or to ride a bicycle. It will not be achieved through thinking or through reading a book about it. Once one gets the rope of one's mindfulness onto the elephant one holds it, one is able to hold on to one's mind for a little while. Thus the monkey is still there, but it is not really leading any more. This will come and go by the moment, but as long as one has a grip the monkey's leadership is broken. Then a problem comes up. There is a rabbit sitting on top of the elephant. A rabbit may, in the midst of running, suddenly duck into hiding and fall into a kind of trance, which can last for quite a long time. In this state one can even touch it. That stands for dullness. So far one has been trying so hard to get one's mind settled. Now that it has happened the notion comes up: "I am very peaceful! At last I have got it! I am a great meditator!" But maybe one is just doing the rabbit thing. That is the extreme opposite of agitation. The mind is not distracted any more. It is there, but more or less sleepy, in a kind of trance, a dull stability. This is not the right kind of meditation. If one enters into that kind of state and cannot get out of it, one will not advance any further. It is therefore regarded as an obstacle. To go beyond it one needs to awaken oneself. Once one has overcome agitation and is able to concentrate on one thing, one has to be aware of this subtle dullness and has to work on it by means of more clarity. The elephant starts losing its black colour. It gets progressively whiter. This means that clarity increases. One is not just stable but also gets clear. Next the practitioner is not only using the rope, but has also got the hook on the elephant and thus gained real control. Furthermore he now walks in front. He is leading the elephant. Distraction is lagging behind. The monkey still tries to keep on, but it is very tired and almost unable to do so. Soon it is seen being dragged along on all fours, desperately holding on to the tail of the elephant. One walks ahead and does not even need to use one's hook on the elephant any more. One has become able to practise in one's daily life and not just in meditation. Even when one is not meditating one's mind will follow. It is more settled and clear. This is getting very near to the actual and final state of 'Shiné'. The elephant is almost completely white and just walking. There is no need to lead it and the monkey is left behind. Distraction is gone. Then the elephant is totally white. Whatever one does, it follows. A state of non-meditation is reached. When one sits, it sits. When one walks, it walks. This is 'shin jang', the final state of 'Shiné'. The mind is completely trained, totally under control. It has reached the utmost level of peace and clarity. From there on one just has to look. Then 'Lhagthong' comes. One rides the elephant wielding the sword of wisdom. One is prepared to fight. One's flaming sword can burn and cut anything.
In this way the technique is very simple. One just uses mindfulness and awareness as one's instruments in meditation. When meditating there are two things to deal with, which are distraction and dullness. To overcome these one implements mindfulness and awareness. Then one just needs to do it. 'Shiné' meditation is really working with one's mind. It is not something that one can measure in terms of time or of counting, such as saying: "Now I have done a three years' retreat! Now I have completed a hundred thousand Mantras of Tara! Now I am great!" It is not like that. 'Shiné' meditation means working with oneself. The only measure is how much experience is there. This judgment can be quite hard. One cannot cheat. One has to be honest and just see oneself. For this reason one will sometimes feel that it is quite difficult. It is said, though, that if one can really do it 'Shiné' meditation is not hard at all. Yet, if one only practises twenty minutes a day, one may not be able to reach that stage. One therefore really has to try to integrate it into one's daily life. Sitting for thirty minutes in a quiet place may be helpful, but the latter will have a far greater effect. Here the question arises how mindfulness and awareness should be applied in one's daily life. This has to be done in due proportion. I remember a Buddhist institution, where people are so mindful and aware that one will not get an answer to one's phone call even after fifteen minutes. The person in charge will hear the sound and then be mindful and aware of everything that is happening: "The telephone is ringing! I must be mindful and aware! Now I am standing up! Now I am walking towards it!" By the time that person is ready to pick up the receiver the telephone has stopped ringing a while ago. One of my friends, a German, said: "Mindfulness is great, but that is maybe going too far!" To bring mindfulness and awareness into one's daily life means to be mindful and aware of what one is and of what one is doing. A Zen master said: "When I eat I eat, when I sleep I sleep." This is not what we are usually doing. I brush my teeth and do not know where my mind is. I eat and cannot remember what I have eaten. We are not there. Our elephant has run away. One should therefore try to be with what one is doing. If one is there the moment one is doing something, one can deal with it much more clearly and efficiently. Then as soon as one leaves it, one leaves it. One can rest. One is not forced to carry something in one's mind all the time. This is the reason why we have so much stress and tension. We carry a problem in our mind all the time. So when one is doing Puja, one should be doing Puja. When one is working, one should be working. There is no need to bring a problem into it. If one has to deal with a problem, one should deal with the problem. Once one can apply this principle to one's life, there will be a lot less problems. Many of these are also created by postponing what ought to be done. I, for instance, have quite a tendency of not answering letters too soon. In order to counteract that I wrote: "Stop procrastination!", which I thought was a very nice word, on a sheet of paper and put it on a wall in my room. One day, while I was away, a very good friend came by and upon seeing it wrote underneath: "From tomorrow!" I get a letter and liking to get letters I think: "O very nice! I will reply to it tomorrow!" After a week I will say: "I must really do it!" In this way all these letters pile up and are always in my mind. To actually answer them would maybe take two hours. Instead of doing it I think about it all the time. In this way I get very tense but still never do it. Thus knowing how to do it is very simple, whereas actually doing it is not that easy. It is like alcoholics who will usually tell people not to drink but do it themselves.
© Khempo Ringu Tulku