by His Eminence Dezhung Rinpoche
When you come to approach the Dharma you should do so with the attitude that it is for the benefit of others; the concern should be for all sentient beings who have been your mother and father since beginingless time. Out of concern to help them you are listening to the Dharma in order to become a buddha, for this is the one way in which you can truly help others. When you listen to the Dharma you should be free from inattention, free from ill feeling or emotional disturbance. You should listen as one who is hoping for some kind of cure for an ailment which is within us all the time.
When we listen to the Dharma we should be free from any worldly thoughts; that is, we think no longer of this world's mundane cares. We imagine that we are listening to the Dharma in the presence of a buddha whose resplendent form sits shining before us. We should imagine that the place we are in is a beautiful meadow filled with light, flowers, and fragrance. We ourselves are not in our corporeal forms, but instead we are all in the form of enlightenment, the bodhisattva. Also, we come to the dharma believing that nothing is weighted down by tangibility, by substantiality; everything appears fresh and breathtaking, like a clear dream. If with these ideas in mind we listen to the Dharma, understand it and apply it.
What I'm going to say now does not at all come from me; it is not the product of my imagination, but has been taught to me by very great teachers who represent a living tradition of study and realization that extends back in time for about 2500 years. I would like to share some of this tradition with you, because I think that its teachings are very valuable, very important, and for this reason I hope that you'll listen very carefully.
There are a few billion people living in the world at this time, and most of them have little real concern for any form of religion. Most people are concerned with just looking after their own needs and those of their families, or escaping from enemies or problems. They are just struggling for survival in the world, one way or another.
Most people are quite involved with just living from day to day. There are a few people who do manage to think about the end of life, of death, or about their actions in this life and their consequences, or maybe about the special ways in which they can make their lives more satisfactory, less painful.
The people that we call religious can be divided for our purposes now into two groups.
Most religious people basically see themselves as existing in a relationship of God and man. This relationship is commonly felt to be one of master and servant, or even of owner and slave. One feels that "out there" there is something, someone, who is much stronger, more powerful, wiser, more intelligent, than I am. So, therefore one concludes, if I do what he wants me to do, this god, in turn, will give me what I want. It might sound like a business relationship in some religions. In some other religions one's own position might be even less than this. If one is poor, weak, miserable, one will throw myself on the mercy of him out there and he, out of his kindness, will help me; in some religions this almost has the sound of a begging relationship.
The way of the Buddha's Dharma, in comparison with the situation described above, might not even be called religious because it is basically concerned with man himself, and with the most important part of man's personality, his mind. We can describe the Buddha's Dharma as mind training.
As a person I have certain abilities, there are things that I can do. If there are certain things that I want, my mind, as the controller of my body and speech, needs training to be able to provide what I want. Now, anybody can understand that; if I want to be an accountant, I can take an accountant's course; if I want to learn French, I can study it.
But Buddhist claim that the most useful thing that I can learn is what the real nature of the world is. The course I can take is meditation and mind training which will provide direct awareness and insight of the true nature of reality. Everything in Buddha's teachings are concerned with the training of mind.
The source of the teachings that we know today as Dharma (the way to enlightenment) are from the Buddha named Gautama, the sage of the Shakya clan, who was called Shakyamuni. He was a buddha, or enlightened person, who reached full enlightenment in India some 2500 years ago.
His enlightenment occurred after a career which began with his determination to reach enlightenment in order to help all sentient beings. On the basis of that determination he practiced mind training, and cultivated the positive qualities which resulted in his full enlightenment as a buddha. During his lifetime he taught the Dharma throughout India. If we consider how to approach his teaching, it can be summarized in one concise verse, "Through attachment one is bound, through disengagement freedom becomes complete."
These two lines may be expanded into the Four Noble Truths; "There is suffering, suffering arises from negative emotions and desire, the cause of suffering can be removed, and there is a way for this removal to take place."
To elaborate, suffering and attachment refer to the ignorance, emotionality and the actions and their results that we are all caught up in. As long as we have ignorance and emotionality, or act out of emotional motivation, then this action binds us to the sort of existence that is called daily human life.
Yet, when we are free from ignorance, we have come to a full realization of the nature of reality. So then there is no longer any basis for emotionality, then there is only freedom; freedom from any kind of compulsion or constraint. That is when one has attained the goal of enlightenment, Buddhahood.
What does it mean for an individual to practice or follow the teachings of the Buddha's Dharma? First, it means that he has a certain inclination towards the dharma. Second, it means that he learns, or begins to appreciate, a certain approach to the understanding of life.
This inclination is called going for refuge. It focuses upon the possibility of enlightenment as expressed in the concept of buddha-nature; that is the concept that it is possible to become a buddha. The way to such enlightenment is through the practice of the Buddha's teaching, and the support for such an undertaking will come from the congregation, those who are engaged in the practices and teachings of the Dharma.
A Buddha has the direct realization of reality; he is that realization expressed as communication; he is the form which a buddha can take in order to help sentient beings. The Dharma is both experience and learning. It is the learning which is training in morality, meditative ability, wisdom and understanding. It is the direct experience of the realization of reality.
A Buddhist, then, is oriented toward and takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha. Now, the way he begins to approach the world can be laid out in four statements: All composite phenomena are impermanent, all emotionality is suffering, all phenomena lacks a self-nature, and the transcendence of suffering is peace.
How can we explain the possibility of the process of enlightenment?
The potential for enlightenment is called buddha nature. This is the framework for the achievement of enlightenment. With the instructions of a buddhist teacher, there is the result (buddhahood) and the continuous activity in which one works for the welfare of others.
This shows the real possibility that one can become a buddha; this fundamental concept is found right at the beginning with the concept of buddha nature, the seed of buddhahood. We have to recognize that there must be some potential within us if it is going to be possible for us to become a buddha.
If there were no buddha nature, we would be caught in the cycle of suffering with absolutely no possibility of freedom. We would continue to suffer the pains and frustrations of existence that we do now, and this process would have no possibility of ending; there would be nothing that we could do about it.
But this is not the case, because many people have become enlightened buddhas. On the other hand, it is also not the case that we are enlightened now, because we do experience pain and frustration, and a buddha is totally free from pain or frustration. So how are we to understand this potential?
Buddha nature in essence is mind itself. Once it's recognized as such, then you are a buddha. And as long as it's not recognized, there is suffering.
The sutras say, "The mind of a sentient being is buddha itself; it just happens to be clouded and bewildered. When this bewilderment and misunderstanding are removed, buddha is present." This is to say that, in a sense, we are each a buddha and yet don't realize it; only our blindness, our emotions and ignorance prevent us from realizing this.
To understand more clearly, it would perhaps be helpful to investigate what we mean by the word mind. There are various words which denote mind. Mind as a complex of attitudes, mind as a complex of emotions, and mind as a function of consciousness.
When we consider the scope of mental activity, we have to consider six elements. First, we are conscious of what we see, of what we hear, of what we touch, taste and smell, and we are conscious of our own thoughts. So there are six aspects to consciousness.
Now to these six aspects we may add two further ones (1) mind as emotionality, that is, regarding the essential ignorance which is present in mind, and then, (2) mind as just a basic cognition, something which is conscious of, or cognises events. The fact that mind is simply aware of things designates the potential for buddhahood (buddha nature) .
There is a distinction between the way our consciousness perceives objects and the way our consciousness of thought functions. By this, the consciousness which perceives objects does not discriminate. We just see an object, and there is no thought of good or evil, or of "that's a nice form, I don't like this one." It is simply awareness that seeing is taking place. In the same way, when we hear a sound, there is simply consciousness of the sound, without any discrimination to the nature of the sound, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, The same is true of taste, touch and smell. So, these forms of consciousness can be free from discrimination; yet, these are not buddha nature.
Discrimination, discursive thought, is the created by emotional thought. "Oh it's too hot out, It's cold today, I like this, I don't like that, I'm attracted to that, I don't want that, I don't understand this, What's happening over there!"
All of these thoughts, and there is an endless infinity of them, are the domain of mental consciousness; we are aware of these thoughts which perceive and make distinctions about the objects we see. But this tremendously active aspect of consciousness is not buddha nature either.
And then, if we can still our mind so there is no perception taking place, so that there is no discursive thought taking place, there is still a definite sense of the self. We go "I am, I exist," and we regard ourselves as being something.
It is that sense of a self which is the cause of emotionality; the cause of our self-interest. Even though when asked we cannot find out what this self is, we still feel that it is very, very present. And this habitual, or instinctive, grasping at the sense of a self, this pseudo-consciousness of an 'I', is what may be called the emotional aspect of consciousness.
Suppose now that the mind were to become so still, so that even the sense of 'I' were gone. Then, there is nothing that is apprehended. No color, no form, no shape of any kind, yet there is a clarity. There is no grasping after 'I' and 'mine', but just a brilliant clarity. There is a total freedom, a total lack of any obstacle, a total lack of any dualistic impediment of any kind.
This which is clear, empty, unimpeded is basic cognition. If one recognizes basic cognition for what it is (if there is a direct realization of that), then ignorance is banished. However, as long as that is not recognized for what it is, there is bewilderment.
So in a sense this basic cognition, when it is realized, becomes buddhahood. When it is not realized it becomes the cause of everyday existence. It is like a jewel in a mud puddle. A jewel covered with mud does not shine, no fire burns inside it. But when we take it out of the puddle and wash the mud off it and hold it up to the light, it burns with its inner fire. Basic cognition is also a bit like gold in the ground. Gold ore is not visible and we do not see the gold in the ore right away. However, if we take gold ore and smelt it, refine it, then the gold becomes very evident and glistens in its pure state.
Now, we will review what has been discussed by distinguishing between three aspects of mind:
(1) There is the mind itself, which would correspond to basic cognition, the simple act of cognizing. This is mind as clear, empty, and unimpeded.
(2) Then there is mind as an emotional attitude, which would be this attitude or feeling that I am something.
(3) And then there are all those aspects of consciousness ---consciousness as thought, sound, touch, sight, etc, which are properly termed just consciousness.
Now our concern here is to recognize basic cognition. But even here we have to distinguish. Within basic cognition there is the aspect which views phenomena as composite, which leads to ordinary courses of action. This is the consciousness functioning in its ordinary way, and this is the cause of everyday life, our existence as we know it.
And there is also what we might call an uncomposed, non-dualistic aspect of basic cognition, and this is what we really need to realize. When we try to determine what it is, we are led to view it as simply nothing, as being empty ---there is simply nothing which can be grasped there.
Yet, if it is only regarded as empty, then a serious error has been made! Because, if it were in fact simply nothing, then where would any possibility of action come from? From what could anything emerge? What would be the concept of action if there were nothing for a foundation?
It would be like trying to expect the sky to do some work. There is simply nothing in space, so space is totally impotent; there is just nothing there to act. So this basic cognition, in its uncomposite aspect, is not simply nothingness, is not simply void.
There is a clarity which could almost be called an immediacy. This emptiness and clarity are, in fact, identical. Yet, there is simply nothing that can be grasped conceptually. And this is why we say that the true nature of phenomena is divorced totally from any concept.
The great scholar Taranatha has said, "One must distinguish between mind, and mind-in-itself. Mind is simply consciousness; it is the basis of life as suffering. But mind-in-itself is the essence of what really is. Most people simply realize mind, and they feel they've come to some realization; they have experienced emptiness and clarity, but this is simply the impotency of basic cognition which is of no value. It is only when you meditate, and continue, and deepen that realization over a long period of time that you begin to get a glimpse of what mind-in-itself is really like."
Another statement relays, "All that we do in Dharma practice, right from the very beginning of going for refuge, is concerned with coming to this total realization. Everything that we do is a means by which we clear away the various levels of distracting thought, emotionality and habitual grasping, until we come to see mind-in-itself. "
This seed of buddhahood (buddha nature) makes it possible for each of us to become a buddha. The framework and opportunity in which we can become a buddha is the precious human existence. This is the framework because it is the only form of existence in which can hear and are able to comprehend the dharma teachings.
This is the true uniqueness of the human situation ---the ability of communication, and the inclination to pursue religious practice. What makes it possible for us to do this is contact with a spiritual teacher; it is through contact with a teacher that you come to understand, to learn that there is something to be understood. We receive instructions from the teacher and we must apply them.
We begin with various kinds of contemplation and various modes of proper conduct. We can begin by thinking about how fortunate we are to be human, to have contact with the Buddha's teaching, how very precious such an opportunity is. We think about the effects that our actions will have on us in the future, what experiences such actions will develop into. We think about the continual presence of suffering in any form of existence. This suffering is due to ego-clinging. These kinds of contemplations will lead us to a firm determination to become free of everyday existence, to remove all ignorance. Then, we continue to develop compassion and love. So, we wish to reach enlightenment for the benefit of others.
On this foundation we need to develop the meditative ability to still the mind, so we can understand what the nature of phenomena is. If we are going to realize buddha nature (emptiness, clarity and unimpededness), we have to understand the true nature of phenomena. And the key to this understanding is to to understand that the appearances that we perceive are not really as real as we suppose them to be. They are not nothing altogether, but they are not existing either. This point of view is called the Middle Way (Madyamika). Understanding this leads directly to the realization of buddha nature.
Now, there was a great Indian scholar named Atisha who gained realization. About one thousand years ago, he was invited to Tibet to teach the Dharma there. When he first arrived, there were many Tibetans interested in learning more about the Dharma.
So Atisha started to instruct them in the middle way. He said, "All appearances, all phenomena, all things that happen, are like magic; they do not have any absolute reality, there is no essence to any of these phenomena." But, he looked around and saw that his listeners looked a little bit puzzled.
That is when Atisha explained that in India there are many magicians and sorcerers who can create the experience of a whole life. Atisha told the story of a a young man (who had a wife and family), the man's friend was a sorcerer. This young man was a husband and father already. The young man became interested in this magic and wizardry, and invited his friend over for dinner. The sorcerer said, "Well, perhaps, we'll see."
When they sat down to eat soup together, the young man noticed a stranger coming down the road in front of the house. The stranger was leading an absolutely magnificent horse, a beautiful animal, quite large, well formed.
As the stranger approached he called out, "How would you like to buy this horse!"
The husband replied, "Oh, I would never have enough money to be able to purchase an animal like that."
But, the stranger said, "Well, maybe I don't want so much, maybe just a few needles or something." The husband was taken aback in surprise, but before he could say anything, the stranger said, "Do not decide too quickly. You should first ride the horse. After all, you want to make sure you like it."
The young man agreed; he mounted on the horse and rode off. The horse was indeed a magnificent animal. It galloped with the speed of the wind over rivers and through forests, across meadows, over mountains.
It was such a thrilling experience that the young man lost track of time completely. He lost track of where he was, lost the road, and after many hours he noticed the sun was setting. So, he drew up and dismounted and looked around him, and he thought that he'd never been in a country like this before.
Nothing around him looked familiar. After such a long ride he was tired, hungry, and thirsty. He was not even sure where he was going to stay the night. But in the distance he saw a light, a lamp burning, so he walked towards it. He found that the lamp was burning in the window of a house.
Out of the house stepped a woman, and he asked her where he was. Still, he did not recognize the name of the place and she never heard of the country he was from.
The young man looked a bit distressed, saying, "I've ridden a long way, I'm hungry and tired, and I don't even know where I am."
The woman replied, "Well, do come in." She served him supper, he stayed the night there. Since he did not know how to get back to his own country, he stayed there. He lived with this woman and they had a family together. Once their sons and daughters were beginning to get older, the whole family went to a lake for a picnic.
As they stood beside the lake, one by one each of the young man's children jumped into the lake. Then so did his wife, whom he had loved all this time, and lastly his horse. And there he was, an old man with white hair, completely alone. He was completely overcome with grief he broke down in tears.
As he cried, he felt someone shake his shoulder. He turned around, looked up, and there was first wife of many years before, saying, "What are you crying for, what's the matter with you!"
And he said, "If you only knew what has happened to me!"
"But nothing's happened to you;" she said, "It has not been half an hour since we had our dinner. See, the soup pot is still hot."
And the young man, the husband, began to realize that everything that he had experienced had had no reality at all. It was like a dream.
Now, when Atisha had finished telling the Tibetans this story, he said, "And this is what all the world is like. It has no reality; it is simply an experience without any absoluteness to it at all."
Atisha then asked his Tibetan students, "Do any of you dream?"
And the Tibetans answered, "Yes, yes, we dream, we're human, after all, of course we dream."
"Well then," said Atisha, "Life in a sense, is like a dream; we have a dream, and it seems very real while we are dreaming it. When it's over, when we wake up, we realize that it was nothing more than a dream."
So Atisha used this way to explain the great middle way. Everything that we experience is simply appearance; it has no intrinsic reality, and when we come to understand this, then we understand buddha nature, and we have become free from suffering.
© translated by Ken McLeod. edited by Simhanada