Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).
- Qualities of the sangha jewel according to Maitreya’s Treatise on the Sublime Continuum
- A reminder that bodhicitta is the aspiration to become a buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings, without excluding a single one
The Essence of a Human Life: Qualities of the Sangha Jewel (download)
Today we’ll continue on with the qualities of the Three Jewels, taken from the text The Sublime Continuum, or Gyü Lama in Tibetan. We did the Buddha Jewel and Dharma Jewel the last couple of days, and now we’re on the Sangha Jewel. The verse reads,
Because of pure inner exalted wisdom,
seeing the modes and varieties,
the assembly of intelligent, irreversible ones,
is endowed with unsurpassable excellent qualities.
The eight qualities. First is the excellent quality of knowing the mode of existence. We’ll talk about this one in conjunction with the second one, which is the excellent quality of knowing the varieties.
When we talk about the Buddha’s exalted wisdom…. We’ll start out with the Buddha. When we talk about the Buddha’s exalted wisdom we say that all the Buddha’s consciousnesses are omniscient, so all of the consciousnesses, even the sense consciousnesses, can see the nature of reality and can see the variety or diversity of conventional truths.
Being omniscient means anything that’s existent, be it an ultimate truth (the ultimate mode of existence) or a conventional truth (all of the other phenomena that are in the world), all of the Buddha’s consciousnesses know all of these.
However, when we talk more specifically about the first one here, the excellent quality of knowing the mode of existence, that’s referring to the Buddha’s exalted wisdom knowing the mode of existence, so that’s the Buddha’s wisdom that directly knows the emptiness of all phenomena.
In beings like the Sangha, that wisdom knows only the mode of existence, it doesn’t know conventional truths. Because remember, the Buddha is the only one who can see ultimate and conventional truths simultaneously. Everybody else, when ultimate truth is being perceived directly, there’s no appearances of conventional things. Even the object that’s emptiness you’re meditating on, they don’t appear. And similarly, for all consciousnesses, except the Buddha’s, no one can see simultaneously both the ultimate truths and the conventional truths. For lesser people, when they’re perceiving conventional truths, the ultimate truth cannot be directly perceived. So for all sentient beings, you’re either in one or you’re the other. The Buddha is the only one that has both. Which is an extraordinary quality of the Buddha, which gives the Buddha the ability to be of such great benefit to sentient beings, because he can know everything all at once and doesn’t have to change what he’s doing to do that.
So the first quality is knowing all the modes of existence. So this is the Buddha’s exalted wisdom that directly knows emptiness. And the second is the excellent quality of knowing the varieties. That refers most explicitly to the exalted wisdom that knows all the varieties, meaning all the other conventional truths and so on.
I explained the first and second one in terms of the Buddha. The Sangha also has those two abilities of knowing the modes and knowing the varieties, but they’re two different consciousnesses, and their consciousness that knows the variety of conventional truths doesn’t know all conventional truths, just some of them. But the idea is, by saying that these are qualities of the Sangha, that the Sangha is developing both of these wisdoms—they have them right now, to some extent—they’re developing both and then the difference between somebody who is an arya who’s a non-buddha and an arya who’s a buddha is the extent to which these two wisdoms have been developed, and whether the two wisdoms can function at the same time and have the same range of phenomena that they know. Because in the Sangha the wisdom that knows the mode of existence doesn’t know the varieties, and the wisdom that knows the varieties doesn’t know the mode of existence. In the Buddha each of these wisdoms knows all phenomena. Okay? Is that clear? Here they’re referring to these two as qualities of the Sangha Jewel, so it may be the Sangha of any of the three vehicles: hearer, solitary realizers, or bodhisattvas.
The third quality is the excellent quality of inner exalted wisdom. The Sangha Jewel has the knowledge of the buddha nature as it exists in all sentient beings. Somebody who has perceived emptiness directly, when they know that with respect to the emptiness of their own mind, then they know their own buddha nature. They may not—like the hearers and solitary realizers—may not use the term “buddha nature,” but the aryas definitely—of the bodhisattva vehicle—use that. And when they perceive the emptiness of other beings’ minds, then they know our buddha nature as well. And in particular, this is called our natural buddha nature. We have an evolving buddha nature, too, but that’s a little bit different. Here it’s referring to knowing the emptiness of sentient beings’ minds.
The fourth is the excellent quality of being pure, or free from some portion of the obscurations of attachment. The obscurations of attachment refers to the afflictive obscurations. Here the obscurations that prevent liberation, that keep us bound in samsara: ignorance, all the afflictions that are derived from ignorance, and then of course the polluted karma we create under their influence. Any arya Sangha member is free from some portion of those afflictions.
The fifth one is the excellent quality of being pure, or free from some portion of the pervasive obstructions. Pervasive obstructions refers to the cognitive obstructions, which means the obstacles, or obscurations, that prevent us from cognizing all phenomena.
Those are the two obscurations. Those two qualities correspond to being free of a portion of them. In terms of being free from the obscurations of attachment, that would refer to all of the Sangha members except the arya who’s on the uninterrupted path of the path of seeing. Because they don’t have a true cessation yet. So they aren’t free of those. Being free of the pervasive obstructions, that refers only to the bodhisattvas on the eighth, ninth, and tenth grounds, and the Buddha. Because according to the Prasangika, first all the afflictive obscurations are eliminated, and that’s finished at the end of the seventh ground, so that when you attain the eigth ground you are now free of all afflictive obscurations. And then the cognitive obscurations are eliminated on those last three grounds. The Svatantrika-Madhyamikas present it the way these obscurations are overcome differently, but this is the Prasangika view.
The sixth quality is being pure, or free from some portion of the inferior obscurations. Inferior obscurations can mean a number of different things. One meaning is the self-centered thought. Being free from even the subtlest trace of the self-centered thought. Of course, by the time somebody is an arya of any of the three vehicles, the gross self-centeredness that lies behind attachment and anger is very, very weak, because by the time they’ve reached the path of seeing they haven’t eliminated all their attachment, anger, and the other afflictions, but they don’t manifest very often, or very strongly when they do. So that’s kind of the gross self-centeredness. And that’s the self-centeredness most of us are pretty aware of in our lives, and that we talk about a lot in the teachings. But we also have to realize there’s a subtle self-centeredness, and this is the mind that cares more about our own liberation than the liberation of others. This is a mind that arhats, for example, or any of the aryas in the hearer and solitary realizer vehicles, they still have that obstruction because they’re still valuing their own liberation more than the liberation of other living beings. Whereas bodhisattvas, definitely by the time they’ve reached the eighth bhumi, and sometimes before, are completely free from this kind of self-centeredness.
Inferior obscurations can also refer to obscurations that prevent an arya from freely moving between different states of meditative absorption. When we look at the different kinds of meditative absorptions, there’s attaining serenity, there are the four jhanas, there are the four meditative absorptions of the formless realm, and, like bodhisattvas, they want to be able to move very freely in and out of all of these states because to become a buddha your mind needs to be perfected in all aspects, and this is one aspect of the training that needs to be worked on. So there can be obstructions sometimes that make it difficult to go in and out of these different kinds of meditative absorptions very freely and easily.
Somebody who is able to identify that obstruction in their mind is already somebody quite highly realized. Some of the people on the hearer and solitary realizer vehicle also seek to have that same kind of meditative flexibility of being able to go in and out of different meditative states, but some of them are not so interested in doing that. They’re just focused on let’s get liberated ASAP and we’re not going to worry about developing all the different states of concentration and super-knowledges and these kinds of things.
The seventh one is the excellent quality of knowledge, which is the true paths. That encompasses the first three of the qualities of the Sangha: knowing the mode of existence, knowing the varieties, and the inner exalted wisdom that knows the buddha nature.
The eighth quality is the excellent quality of liberation, which is also called irreversibility, and that’s the true cessations. That refers to the fourth, fifth, and sixth qualities: being pure from some portion of the afflictive obscurations, the cognitive obscurations, and the inferior obscurations.
In all of these, when we have the eight qualities, the last two kind of summarize the first six. It helps you remember them.
Here when they talk about irreversibility, it’s referring specifically to bodhisattvas who have stopped any tendency to strive only for their own liberation. Again, those who have removed the inferior obscurations. If a bodhisattva didn’t attain this kind of irreversibility—meaning they can’t fall down to being a fundamental vehicle person…. Actually, after the middle of the path of accumulation, way before that, they can’t lose their bodhicitta, so here it’s just kind of a double-whammy. If those bodhisattvas haven’t eliminated all of the self-centeredness before, then they do it by the eighth bhumi.
Like I said, even at the second part of the path of accumulation, which is the first path, although they haven’t removed all of the self-centeredness, for bodhisattvas it can never manifest in a way that makes them lose their bodhicitta. On the small path of the path of accumulation if you’re not careful and some sentient being acts in a really obnoxious way to you, you might get upset and say, “Forget you,” and then you lose your bodhicitta, which is very serious, it creates a lot of negative karma, and it also becomes a huge hindrance on the path, because if we exclude even one sentient being from the range of our bodhicitta, we cannot become buddhas. Because bodhicitta is the aspiration to become a buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. You can’t miss out even one. That’s why they say when we look out at all the little insects, and critters, and things like that, don’t have harmful intentions towards them because our bodhicitta, our generating bodhicitta, depends on them. And so our enlightenment depends on them.