Buddhism’s common ground

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This interview originally appeared in the October-December 2014 issue of Mandala Magazine.

Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions is an unprecedented book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron that explores the similarities and differences within Buddhist traditions. In July 2014, Mandala’s managing editor Laura Miller had the opportunity to interview Venerable Thubten Chodron about her work on the book, which is being published by Wisdom Publications in November 2014. You can read an excerpt from the book with this issue’s online edition.

Mandala: Tell me how this book project came about and the intentions behind it.

Cover of Taming the Mind.

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Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It must have been 1993, or perhaps 1994. I went to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and requested him please to write a short lamrim root text that was especially for Westerners, because lamrim assumes the student is familiar with certain points and has a particular world view. However, Westerners have grown up in a different culture and don’t have the Buddhist worldview when they begin studying the Dharma. I requested, “It would be so helpful if you could write a text for Westerners that contained all these points and that the geshes could use as a root text for their teachings.” His Holiness responded, “Before we do that, we should first write a long explanation on the lamrim.” He then gave me a transcript of a teaching he had given on the lamrim text Sacred Words of Manjushri and said, “Use this as a basis, add more material and come back with something.” I came back a few years later and by that time, the manuscript was book-sized. We started to read through it to check it, and after a couple of days His Holiness said, “I don’t have time to go through the whole manuscript,” and asked Geshe Dorji Damdul to help me. So we started working together.

In the meantime, I was learning more and more and listening to more and more of His Holiness’ teachings. The book kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. At some point, I met with His Holiness and showed him the manuscript again, and he said, “This book should be unique. Put in material from other Buddhist traditions so practitioners in the Tibetan community and the West can learn about the Theravada tradition and the Chinese tradition. Do research on these.” His office gave me a letter to show others when I asked for their assistance in the research.

I did this research, and from time to time went to see His Holiness to ask him questions and clarify points. At one point it became clear that what His Holiness wanted was a book that showed the various Buddhist traditions — their similarities and their differences. His intention was to dispel people’s misconceptions about other Buddhist traditions, to show how all the teachings go back to the Buddha, and thus to bring the Buddhist traditions closer to each other. He wanted a book in English that could be translated into Tibetan, Thai, Sinhalese, Chinese, and so on. So from this huge manuscript, which by that time if published would have probably been four or five volumes, I extracted the important essential points and narrowed it down into what I call the “small book,” which is around 350 pages. That is the book that is entitled Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions. Wisdom Publications is publishing it, and it will be out this November. My hope is to go back to the long manuscript, polish that up, and get it out in print later on.

Mandala: You cover a tremendous amount of ground in this book. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached researching and organizing the material in the book?

VTC: There were certain topics that His Holiness definitely wanted included, for example, the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. The other topics were fundamental topics common to all the traditions: refuge, the three higher trainings, selflessness, the four immeasurables. The Pali tradition also speaks of generating bodhichitta and following the path of the perfections, so that, too, is included. These topics are vast but are presented as succinctly as possible in the book.

Something I was enthused to talk about in the book is similarities between the traditions that I didn’t know existed before. Since the time I lived in Singapore, where there are a variety of Buddhist traditions, I’ve been aware that Buddhists have a lot of misconceptions about other traditions. For example, many Chinese think Tibetan Buddhists practice magic and that Tibetan Buddhism is degenerate because of tantra. Most Tibetans believe that the Chinese do blank-minded meditation and that all the people who practice in the Pali tradition are selfish. The Pali tradition looks at the Tibetans and says, “Do they practice vinaya? It doesn’t look like it,” and “Tantra isn’t the Buddha’s teachings.” None of these ideas is correct.

Seeing this, I understood His Holiness’ reason for wanting to have this book show, from the side of the teachings, what we have in common and where we have differences. Then people can see that all the traditions adhere to the same basic teachings and that a lot of the misconceptions that we have about each other are just that—misconceptions.

Mandala: In the West, at least with Buddhist converts, we tend to be open to intra-Buddhist dialogue. Is this different in Asia?

VTC: People who live in Buddhist countries in Asia tend to know very little about other Buddhist traditions. In Thailand, people will know something about Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Burma, but not so much outside of that. The Tibetans know about Buddhism in Mongolia, but what they know about Buddhism in China or Theravada countries is limited. Only when you go to places such as Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Europe and North America do you find temples, centers and practitioners from a variety of Buddhist traditions and thus there is a greater opportunity for people to learn about other traditions. Otherwise the average Tibetan monk, for example, who lives in India will have very little interest or opportunity to go to Thailand to meet the monastics there, and very few Theravada monastics will visit Tibetan monasteries in India. In the United States, on the other hand, each year monastics from a wide variety of Buddhist traditions meet to get to know each other and discuss topics of mutual interest. This year will be our 20th Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering.

Mandala: Let’s talk a little bit about the language and the terms you have chosen to use for the book. For example at the beginning you explain the “Sanskrit tradition” and the “Pali tradition” and how these traditions connect to the different traditions practiced today, but you don’t use the word “Mahayana” in this context at all.

VTC: In recent years His Holiness has used the terms “Pali tradition” and “Sanskrit tradition” and stopped using “Hinayana” and “Mahayana.” No one refers to their own tradition as “Hinayana,” and that term is very offensive. I didn’t want to use “Theravada” and “Mahayana” because those words are easily misunderstood. Westerners often speak of three Buddhist traditions: Vipassana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Many people think that “Mahayana” refers only to Zen and Pure Land, and that Vajrayana is synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism. This is incorrect. Actually, vipassana is a meditation technique found in all Buddhist traditions. Mahayana practice rests on the foundation of practices explained in the context of the hearer’s vehicle. Mahayana is not something totally separate and unrelated, as people often think it is. In many cases, Mahayana philosophy elaborates on points raised in the early sutras and the Pali canon. Furthermore, Vajrayana is a branch of Mahayana, and thus depends on knowing the four noble truths as well as the bodhisattva practices. In addition, not all of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice is contained in Vajrayana. In fact, Tibetan Buddhism contains the fundamental practices associated with the four noble truths as also described in the Pali canon, the bodhisattva practice of the 10 perfections as presented in Mahayana sutras and treatises, and then Vajrayana practices found in the tantras.

Pali literature mainly describes a hearer’s path, but a bodhisattva path is also presented. Sanskrit literature mainly speaks about a bodhisattva path, but a hearer’s path is also present. Considering things in this light, the various Buddhist traditions have a lot in common.

Mandala: What is the Pali tradition and canon and how does it relates to the Sanskrit tradition and canon?

VTC: The Pali tradition is principally practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of Vietnam. Like the Sanskrit canon, the Pali canon consists of “three baskets” of teachings: vinaya, sutta and abhidhamma. The material contained in each basket has some overlap, but there are many different scriptures as well.

What we now call the Pali tradition became public in the world during the Buddha’s time. The Buddha spoke a form of Prakrit, and later those early suttas were put into Pali. Similarly, the early commentaries were written in Sinhalese and later translated into Pali. What we call the Sanskrit tradition became public and was widely circulated later. While some scholars say it was fabricated, His Holiness of course doesn’t agree and suggests other reasons for its later appearance.

The majority of lamrim topics are found in both the Pali and Sanskrit literature: precious human life (including the example of the tortoise putting his head through the golden yoke), impermanence and death, the praise to the Buddha that we say at the beginning of teachings, the four fearlessnesses of the Buddha, the 10 powers of the Buddha, karma and its effects, the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the 12 links of dependent arising, the monastic discipline of the vinaya and the divisions of afflictions (there are differences, but also much overlap) are all in common.

In the Tibetan canon itself, very few sutras are in common with those in the Pali canon. But, there is so much in the lamrim that is the same as in the Pali canon, so how did those teachings get into the lamrim? Here, we see the role of the great Indian commentators who wrote the shastras. They quoted passages of the early sutras — sutras found in Pali, Sanskrit and Central Asian languages. So much of the foundational teachings in the lamrim came into the Tibetan tradition through these commentaries, through sages such as Asanga and Vasubandhu.

Studying the Pali suttas and commentaries gave me a much better ideas of where Nagarjuna was coming from — what views were commonly debated at his time. It seems to me that he was refuting the substantialist views of the Savastivada sect. He did this by taking arguments found in the Pali suttas and Sanskrit sutras and redefining the object of negation, making it more subtle. Many of Nagarjuna’s arguments in his Treatise on the Middle Way are shared in common with Pali suttas, and he is building on those arguments. One of the refutations we in the Tibetan tradition use in refuting inherent existence is the diamond slivers, which says that things aren’t produced by self, other, both or causelessly. I was surprised to discover that refutation is in the Pali canon. The depth of the object of negation may not be the same in the Pali, but the refutation itself is there. Nagarjuna’s five point argument analyzing whether the I is the same or different from the aggregates, whether the self possesses the aggregates, whether it depends on the aggregates or the aggregates depend on it is also in the Pali suttas. For me, it was exciting to see this similarity and also to respect Nagarjuna’s radical approach in negating inherent existence.

The oft-quoted passage that the self is a demonic view that is often found in Tibetan teachings is also found in the Pali Samyutta Nikaya. Interestingly, it was spoken by a bhikkhuni!

There are suttas in the Suttanipata that speak about phenomena being insubstantial, like illusions, bubbles, and so on. What is the object of negation here? Is there a difference from the Madhyamaka philosophy?

Mandala: Talk a little more about the bodhisattva path in the Pali tradition.

VTC: One of my Dharma friends, a Westerner who is a scholar in the Tibetan tradition, was at a teaching given by a Westerner from the Pali tradition. Afterwards he said to me, “Wow. This person gave a great talk about love and compassion. I didn’t know they meditated on those topics.” He was so surprised because in the Tibetan tradition we are told that followers of the Pali tradition are selfish and don’t really care about others.

There is one text in the Pali canon, the Buddhavamsa, that tells the story of Shakyamuni in a previous life when he first generated bodhichitta. I was so moved by that story and imagine it again and again when I bow to the Buddha.

Bhikkhu Bodhi gave me an English translation of a treatise by the 6th century Pali sage Dhammapala about the “paramis,” which are the “paramitas,” or, the “perfections.” The Pali tradition contains a list of 10 paramis; some of them overlap with the Sanskrit list of 10 paramitas, some are different. However, the meaning of even the ones that are different is found in both traditions. Pali suttas also contain the four ways of assembling disciples.

Many of the points that Shantideva spoke about in chapter six of Engaging in a Bodhisattva’s Deeds about handling anger and cultivating fortitude are found in Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification (5th century) and Dhammapala’s Treatise on the Perfections (6th century). Shantideva was 8th century; what was the link between these sages?

Bhikkhu Bodhi also told me that he found some passages about the bodhisattva path in Dhammapala’s treatise that are almost exactly the same as some passages in Asanga’s Bodhisattva Bhumi.

Mandala: When working in the Pali tradition in particular, were you working with specific people to help you understand some of the teachings?

VTC: Yes. Bhikkhu Bodhi has a series of about 120 teachings on the Majjhima Nikaya. I listened to and studied all of those, and Bhikkhu Bodhi was very generous with his time in responding to my many questions. I also started reading the translations of other material in the Pali tradition, such as their Abhidhamma, the Path of Purification, and Dhammapala’s Treatise on the Paramis. There is still so much more for me to learn and I’m enjoying it tremendously.

Mandala: That sounds like it was a rather beautiful process in and of itself—connecting with different traditions and scholars and teachers.

VTC: His Holiness wanted me to stay in a Thai monastery, so I did that. I received teachings from the ajahn [teacher] there. Staying at that Theravada monastery was an eye-opening experience for all of us. I’m a bhikshuni [fully-ordained nun], and the monks there didn’t know what to do with me because there were no Thai bhikshunis at that time. But it all worked out very well.

I went to Taiwan too and met with different practitioners and scholars there to do the research for the book. Venerable Dharmamitra, an American monk in Seattle is translating a lot of the Chinese Buddhist material into English, and he, too, was generous in sharing his translations. Another Chinese American monk was very helpful as well. Working on this book has been a wonderful opportunity for me in so many ways, and I’m very grateful for being able to do this.

Mandala: Who is the audience for the book and who would benefit from reading it?

VTC: Of course, I want everybody in the world to read it! On a more serious note, His Holiness has in mind people from the various Buddhist traditions in Asia as well as the West. He wants the book translated into many Asian and European languages and made available to the Sangha and the lay followers in Buddhist countries. His Holiness says that he has had much closer contact with Christians, Jews and Muslims than he has had with Buddhists from other Buddhist traditions. He believes that as a Buddhist community we need to come together and understand each other better, to accept and respect each other so we can act as a more unified force in the world. He wants us to learn about and appreciate both our similarities and differences, and in that way reduce sectarianism born from misconceptions.

Mandala: What are the plans for translation?

VTC: The English will come out first. One of the reasons I chose Wisdom Publications to publish the book is that publisher Tim McNeil was very open and enthusiastic to help find excellent Asian language translators. Through their agents Wisdom will be in contact with different publishing companies in Asia. If those publishing companies have their own translators, we want to check the translation because His Holiness was very clear that the translations should be excellent. We are also talking to individuals that we know from the different traditions to find good translators. In some of the countries, we may have to print the book for free distribution because that is the way many Dharma books are circulated in certain places. There is still a lot to do to reach the audience His Holiness would like to reach. Perhaps some readers will have knowledge of good translators, publishing companies, and so forth in Asia.

Mandala: What would you say you have gained as a teacher and as a practitioner from working on this project?

VTC: This deepened my respect and admiration for the Buddha as a skilled teacher. He gave many teachings, but all were for the purpose of leading sentient beings, who have very different inclinations and interests, to awakening. No matter whether we follow the Pali or the Sanskrit tradition, we are all followers of the same teacher.

I also gained a broader appreciation for the teachings in the various traditions. The teachings in the Pali suttas about the disadvantages of samsara are very powerful, and meditating on them increased my renunciation. Implementing some of the bodhicitta meditations done in the Chinese tradition into my practice was also helpful. When we have good grounding in our own tradition and then learn the teachings in other traditions, we can make our minds much broader and more flexible by understanding the Dharma through different words, different images and different language.

Researching the book and editing His Holiness’ teachings were a tremendous aid to my own Dharma education and practice. Writing forced me to think more deeply about the teachings because before you can write or edit Dharma material, you have to think more deeply about it and deepen your understanding. Otherwise what you write doesn’t make sense.

This project was, and still is, an offering to His Holiness. Working on it strengthened my connection with him and my respect for the brilliance of his mind and the depth of his kindness, compassion, and concern for sentient beings.

Working on this book brought home to me that serving our spiritual mentors and the Three Jewels, and benefiting sentient beings come to the same point.

After this book is published, I would like to offer it to His Holiness and then request his permission to get the rest of the larger manuscript in print. The larger volumes will serve a valuable purpose because at present there are many shorter lamrim books written from geshes’ oral teachings and there are translations of Indian and Tibetan philosophical treatises. There is very little in between. I’m envisioning the larger volumes as something that will help people who aren’t yet prepared to read the treatises with their technical language, but who are ready to go beyond the basic books.

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