I usually consider the teachings of the Buddha under two headings: activity and view. Activity means refraining from harming others. This is something that is universally helpful, something that all people appreciate, whether they are religious or not. View refers to the principle of interdependence. Happiness and suffering, and the beings who experience them, do not arise without cause nor are they caused by some eternal creator. In fact, all things arise from causes corresponding to them. This idea is upheld by all schools of Buddhism, and so I usually say that our view is that of interdependence.
The view of interdependence makes for a great openness of mind. In general, instead of realizing that what we experience arises from a complicated network of causes, we tend to attribute happiness or sadness, for example, to single, individual sources. But if this were so, as soon as we came into contact with what we consider to be good, we would be automatically happy, and conversely, in the case of bad things, invariably sad. The causes of joy and sorrow would be easy to identify and target. It would all be very simple, and there would be good reason for our anger and attachment. When, on the other hand, we consider that everything we experience results from a complex interplay of causes and conditions, we find that there is no single thing to desire or resent, and it is more difficult for the afflictions of attachment or anger to arise. In this way, the view of interdependence makes our minds more relaxed and open.
By training our minds and getting used to this view, we change our way of seeing things, and as a result we gradually change our behavior and do less harm to others. As it says in the sutras:
Practice virtue well;
Subdue your mind:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.
We should avoid even the smallest negative actions, and we should perform even the most insignificant positive actions without underestimating their value. The reason for this is that the happiness we all want and the suffering we all try to avoid are produced precisely by our actions, or karma. Everything we experience is, as it were, programmed by our actions, and these in turn depend on our attitude. Whatever we do, say, and think in our youth is the cause of the happiness and suffering we experience in our old age. Moreover, what we do in this life will determine the happiness and suffering of the next life. And the actions of this kalpa [eon] will result in the experiences of future kalpas. This is what we mean by the law of karma, the law of cause and effect.
On this basis, an action is called negative or evil if it results in suffering, which is something we wish to avoid. It is called positive or virtuous if it results in happiness, which is something we want. We consider an action positive or negative not on its own account but according to whether it leads to joy or sorrow. This all depends on motivation, and so the text says, “Subdue your mind.” A mind that is not disciplined will experience suffering, but a mind that is under control will he happy and at peace.
It is important to know all the methods for subduing the mind through the instructions of the vast and profound path. The antidote to hatred is meditation on love. To overcome attachment, we should meditate on the ugliness of what attracts us. The antidote to pride is meditation on the skandhas, or aggregates. To counteract ignorance we should concentrate on the movement of the breath and on interdependence. The root of the mind’s turmoil is in fact ignorance, on account of which we fail to understand the true nature of things. The mind is brought under control by purifying our mistaken notion of reality. This is the teaching of the Buddha. It is through training the mind that we can transform the way in which we act, speak, and think.
It would be helpful at this point to say something about the Buddha’s teaching in general. According to the Mahayana, after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha turned the Wheel of the Dharma, setting forth his teaching in three stages. First he taught the Four Noble Truths, on which the entire Buddhist doctrine is based. These are the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path. With the second (or middle) turning, he gave the teachings on emptiness and the profound and detailed aspects of the path, which make up the Prajnaparamita Sutras [see pages 177-213]. With the third turning of the wheel, he presented the teachings on emptiness in a more accessible fashion. In sutras such as the Sutra of Buddha Nature, he spoke of an absolute nature that is devoid of the dualistic concept of subject and object. This is also the subject of the Sublime Continuum.
The origin of suffering – namely, negative emotions – may be understood with varying degrees of subtlety, and this requires an understanding of the nature of phenomena. In the second turning of the wheel, the Buddha explained in detail the truth of the cessation of suffering. He showed that an increasingly subtle analysis of phenomena leads to a greater understanding of the negative emotions and finally to an ever more refined insight into the nature of emptiness. This in turn leads to more profound understanding of the truth of the path.
In the third turning we find a detailed explanation of the path for attaining enlightenment. It emphasizes the potential that we all have for future enlightenment. This potential, called Tathagatagarbha, or Buddha nature, is something we have always had, from time without beginning. When we talk about the truth of the path, we are not talking about something completely foreign to our nature, which might suddenly appear like a mushroom, as though without a seed or cause. It is because we have this foundation or capacity for ultimate omniscience that we are able to attain enlightenment.
The texts belonging to the second turning demonstrate the empty nature of phenomena, while the Sutra of Buddha Nature and other teachings relating to the third turning emphasize wisdom, the clear and luminous aspect of the mind.
The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths first, as the foundation of his whole doctrine. As he elaborated his teachings, he adapted his words to suit different needs and mental capacities. The way he taught varied considerably, and what he said was more or less profound, depending on those he was addressing. It is important, therefore, to know which teachings express the ultimate sense and which have been adapted to the particular capacities of his disciples. If, on analysis, we find that the Buddha’s words, taken literally, appear illogical or lead to contradictions, we should understand that such teachings are a relative expression of the truth necessarily adapted to the comprehension of particular beings. On the other hand, if his words can be taken literally and are without any contradictions or flaws, we can accept these teachings as expressing the ultimate truth.
Faith is very important in Buddhism, but wisdom is even more so. True faith has to be based on reasoning. Simply to say, “I take refuge,” or “I am devoted,” blindly and without reflection, is of no value. Without rational investigation, it is impossible to distinguish whether the Buddha was speaking in an adapted, or relative, sense or whether his words are to be taken literally as expressing the ultimate meaning. This is why the sutras mention the four reliances:
Do not rely on individuals, rely on the teachings.
Do not rely on the words, rely on the meaning.
Do not rely on the adapted meaning, rely on the ultimate meaning.
Do not rely on intellectual knowledge, rely on wisdom.
In contrast to ordinary intellectual understanding, the true nature of the mind is clear and knowing and has never been veiled by obscurations. The practice of the Mahayana is entirely based on this understanding.
In Tibet, all the teachings of the Buddha, from the Four Noble Truths up to the highest yoga tantras, have been preserved, and are practiced in the following traditional order. The first stage is the Shravakayana, or Fundamental Vehicle, the path of the Four Noble Truths. Beginning with the Vinaya, which teaches the training of discipline, one progresses through the thirty-seven practices leading to enlightenment, thereby developing the two trainings of concentration and wisdom. These three trainings are the basis for the two other vehicles.
The second stage is the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, and consists of the practice of the six paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, endeavor, meditative concentration, and wisdom. The third stage is the Vajrayana, the vehicle of the secret mantras, which sets out the extraordinary means for realizing profound concentration through the union of mental calm and clear insight (shamatha and vipashyana) and for progression through the four tantra classes: kriya, upa, yoga, and anuttara.
Buddhism has flourished for centuries in many countries, but it was in Tibet that all three paths, the Shravakayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, were preserved completely. It is, in fact, possible to go through all these stages of practice in the course of a single session. Moreover, Tibetan scholars never ignored the practice aspect, and experienced practitioners did not neglect to study. This seems to me a very good way of doing things. In the course of time, different lineages appeared within this complete tradition, influenced by extraordinary masters who, at different times and in different places, expressed the teachings in slightly different ways. We therefore have the ancient tradition of the Nyingma and the newer traditions of the Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu. The present Gelug tradition evolved from the Kadam lineage. Despite the differences between these lineages, they all incorporate the Buddha’s teachings in full, combining the practices of the Sutrayana and the Mahayana. The Bon tradition, which had existed in Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism, also came to possess a complete set of the Buddha’s teachings.
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