Cultivating the correct view
Cultivating the correct view
Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington.
- Wisdom cuts the root of cyclic existence
- The twelve links of dependent arising
- Understanding inherent existence
- Gaining the correct view through proper scriptures
Emptiness, part 1: Cultivating the correct view (download)
Let’s recall our motivation. We generate this highest wisdom, the wisdom that understands thusness or how things actually exist, so that we can use that wisdom to purify our minds and make our lives beneficial to all living beings.
The five major outline points of The Three Principal Aspects of the Path
Even if you meditate upon the determination to be free and the altruistic intention, without the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature, you cannot cut the root of cyclic existence. Therefore, strive for the means to realize dependent arising.
That verse talks about the first outline under the correct view, which is “Why you need to meditate on the correct view.” I’ll just review the text so that we’ll have the whole outline.
The second point under the correct view is “What is the correct view.” That’s the next verse, the one that says:
One who sees the infallible cause and effect of all phenomena in cyclic existence and beyond and destroys all false perceptions (of their inherent existence) has entered the path which pleases the Buddha.
The third outline is “How to know when the analysis of the correct view (you’re doing) is still incomplete.” So you’re on the way, but it’s not all the way there yet. That’s the verse that says:
Appearances are infallible dependent arisings; emptiness is free of assertions (of inherent existence or nonexistence). As long as these two understandings are seen as separate, one has not yet realized the intent of the Buddha.
Then the fourth outline is “How to know when the analysis of the correct view (that you’re doing) has been developed completely,” when your analysis is complete, when your understanding is complete. That’s the next verse, that says:
When these two realizations (that is of emptiness and dependent arising) are simultaneous and concurrent, from the mere sight of infallible dependent arising comes definite knowledge which completely destroys all modes of mental grasping. At that time, the analysis of the profound view is complete.
The fifth outline is “The unique teaching of the Prasangika Madhyamaka view,” that’s the tenet school view, what’s called the Middle Way view. Sometimes it’s called the Consequentialist Middle Way view which is regarded as the highest view of emptiness. Their unique teaching is the fifth point; and that verse says:
In addition, appearances clear away the extreme of (inherent) existence; emptiness clears away the extreme of nonexistence. When you understand the arising of cause and effect from the viewpoint of emptiness, you are not captivated by either extreme view.
That is, the extreme views of absolutism and of nihilism.
Verse 9: Why we need to meditate on the correct view
Let’s go back to the first outline. Why do we need to meditate on the correct view? Lama Tsongkhapa says it very clearly: “Even if you meditate on the determination to be free (renunciation) and the altruistic intention (bodhicitta), without the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature.” In other words, without the wisdom that understands how things actually exist, not how they appear to exist but how they actually exist, what their deeper nature is. Without that wisdom we can’t cut the root of cyclic existence.
What’s the root of cyclic existence? It’s the ignorance that grasps things to exist in the way that’s opposite from how that wisdom sees things exist. “Therefore, strive for the means to realize dependent arising.” Here when he says “strive for the means to realize dependent arising,” it means through realizing dependent arising, therefore realize the emptiness of inherent existence. He’s really emphasizing here that a complete understanding of dependent arising leads to the full realization of emptiness.
What is the correct view?
There are a few things we have to talk about here. First of all, what is ignorance, and why is it the root of cyclic existence, and how come wisdom counteracts it? This is a quote from Nagarjuna in the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness:
That which conceives things produced from causes and conditions to be real [that is, inherently existent] was said by the teacher Buddha to be ignorance. From it the twelve links arise. Through knowing well that things are empty, due to seeing reality, ignorance does not arise. That is the cessation of ignorance whereby the twelve links cease.
The twelve links of dependent arising
The twelve links is a teaching in the lamrim that talks about how we are born in cyclic existence and how we get out of cyclic existence. The first link, the origin of it all, is ignorance—and here, ignorance has a very specific meaning. It’s the ignorance that grasps at inherent existence. We’ll get into a little bit more about what inherent existence means, but basically what it means is that things have their own independent essence that is independent from everything else. In other words, that things can set themselves up, they exist under their own power, they have their own essence. That’s what ignorance is.
The thing is, this sounds like a bunch of gobbledy-gook to us. Basically we’re seeing things through the eyes of ignorance all the time. We’re so used to the view that we don’t realize that what I just explained is a description of how we see things. The analogy I like to give is if a baby were born with sunglasses. It’s just an analogy. Then everything the baby sees is colored. The baby has never seen anything without the sunglasses. From the point of view of that person, that starts as a baby and grows up, what exists is everything that’s shaded because that’s all they’ve every known. They’ve never known that there are things that are empty of being shaded. They’ve never seen that. So if somebody comes along and says, “Oh, you see everything shaded,” the person goes, “No I don’t!” This is how they are because that’s all they know.
It’s similar with us. We are so used to assenting to the way things appear to us—we believe that is the way they actually exist—that when somebody comes along and says, “Oh, you’re grasping at inherent existence.” You go, “Huh? I’m just seeing reality.” This is one of the hardest things in the whole topic of correct view—is to figure out what it is that wisdom sees the lack of. It’s called the object of negation. The object of negation is what ignorance sees. And, it’s what wisdom sees doesn’t exist. What wisdom sees doesn’t exist is what ignorance thinks does exist. They’re diametrically opposed.
We’ve been talking a little bit about the feeling of “I”—especially when we have afflictive emotions arising in our mind. When we get angry, we get afraid, we have a lot of envy, or whatever, then there’s this very strong sense of “I.” At that time we’re grasping at an inherently existent “I,” an inherently existent person. We’re so used to this feeling of big “I” that’s there, that needs to be protected, that we don’t even question its existence—for we’re so used to it. It’s also the I that has to be rebellious, the I that has to be non-conformist, or the I that has to conform because we don’t want to be different from others. The I that says, “I want things to go my way.” The feeling of I that says, “Why does that person have that? I should have that.”
That whole feeling of I, so often we never question how that I exists. Does it? We never question whether that feeling of I has anything to do with reality or not. It just pops in the mind and we say, “Yes, follow it!” Right? True or not true? Completely true.
Everything we look at, whether it’s external phenomena, or ourself, or other people, we grasp it all to have its own essence—its own essence that’s independent of everything else—and we just assent to this. We look at a tree and that’s a tree. Why is it a tree? Because it’s a tree! It’s not a grapefruit, it’s a tree. We look at the tree and it seems like it has its own essence that makes it as a tree, right? If you think of a person you don’t like, first of all, it looks like there’s a real person there. And second of all, it looks like there are real negative qualities inside him, and you’re totally justified in thinking he’s an idiot, right? Do you ever doubt your opinion? “No. There’s a real idiot there.” Why? “Because I see it.” We never question.
In this third principal aspect of the path we’re starting to question, “Do things exist in the way they appear to me?” The way I grasp things, the way I hold on to things to exist—do they really exist that way? Why is this important? Because when we don’t question it, when we simply assent to the way things appear to us, then we start struggling with everything. If everything has its own essence that makes it it, then attractive objects are inherently attractive, “And by gosh, I’ve got to have them! And I’ll do anything I can to get them.” There we have attachment.
If the people or things that interrupt me getting what I want, me getting my happiness, if they are really solid and inherently existent people the way we see them, then yes, anger says, “I’ve got to destroy them. These are awful people. I’ve got to destroy them.” This is what happens as soon as we start making our self and other things all solid and concrete, and having its own nature. Then attachment jumps in because there’s this real me that needs the real happiness that comes from those real external objects and people. Anger jumps in and hostility jumps in because, “Oh, there are these real things that threaten my happiness. I’ve got protect myself against them and destroy them, or run away from them, or do something.” There we have attachment and we have hostility. Then of course, we get jealousy because those things are real and they’re better than me. And we get arrogant because there’s a real me and I’m better than those things.
Based upon all these kinds of afflictive emotions then we act. We say things, we do things, we make plans in our mind—that’s karma. Those are the karma of the three doors: of the body, speech, and mind. When we act, the action finishes but there’s a residual energy left by the action. We call this a karmic seed. That karmic seed kind of floats along in our mindstream and when it encounters the proper conditions it ripens and becomes what we experience. Thus we go around, and around, and around in cyclic existence.
Under the influence of ignorance and karma: we get born, we have this view of ourself as a solid concrete person, and there are these real desirable things out there, and real threats out there. So now we’re clinging and grasping. We do all sorts of manipulation and unethical things to get what we want; and when things get in our way we do all sorts of unethical things to get them out of our way. We create karma. At the time of death, when it’s dawning us that the mind and body are separating—ego freaks out and says, “Ahh! Who am I going to be without a body? I’ve got to have a body. I exist. I’ll grasp at anything to show I exist.” That makes the karma ripen, one karma or another, and then boing, there we go! Headed towards another body, another one of these bodies we are talking about made of flesh and blood. As soon as it gets born then we’re on the track to aging, sickness, and death—again.
Between birth and death, besides aging and sickness, we have: not getting what we want, getting what we want and being disappointed with it. We have so much frustration and no peace of mind. Within all of that, within: trying to get what we want, getting it and being disappointed; not getting it; and getting what we don’t like—then again, all sorts of afflicted emotions come up. We do all sorts of actions, plant more and more karmic seeds. That gives rise to more and more birth, and then we do the same thing over and over again.
The teaching on the twelve links, I won’t go through all twelve links because it’s a little bit complicated. Basically what I just talked about is how we get born in cyclic existence again and again. When we meditate on the determination to be free we see all the disadvantages of cyclic existence. Then we say, “Enough already. I want some real peace. I want to get out of here!” That’s why the determination to be free comes first.
When we look around we see other people suffering due to their ignorance that grasps at true existence, and we say, “This is horrible. It’s not only me. Look at what everybody else is going through!” Then we generate bodhicitta and we want to attain full enlightenment for everyone’s benefit. We have to actually clear the obscurations from our mind (the afflictive and the cognitive obscurations), so that we can become fully enlightened Buddhas. What it is that actually clears the mind? It’s this wisdom that clears the obscurations. It’s this wisdom that recognizes how things actually exist, in other words, that they’re empty of all the fantasized ways of existence that we project on them. The biggest fantasized ways of existence is that they have their own inherent nature independent of everything else.
Recognizing how we see inherent existence
One way to get some idea about how we see inherent existence, one thing they recommend, is just watch when we have a very strong emotion. Watch how we think, in this case the “I,” the person, the self exists. Then we get a sense of grasping at the inherent existence of our own self. When fear comes up, how does the I appear to exist? There’s a very strong appearance of I that’s terrified. How does that I appear to exist? Or if it helps you, “Who is that I that is terrified?” Do that. “What is this I?” There’s a strong feeling of an I. What is it?
When strong desire comes up, “I’ve got to have this,” or “I’ve got to be this,” or “I’ve got to do this.” There’s a strong I at that moment. How does that I appear to exist? When there’s strong anger or rage, “That’s unfair, I can’t stand it!” How does that I, that’s so enraged, appear to exist? In all those cases it’s something that appears very real, something that’s there, that seems totally independent of everything else. It doesn’t seem dependent on our body, on our mind, on our anything else. It’s just that this solid being of I. So watch, when you’re having a strong emotion, how the I appears to exist. That’s one way to get a little bit of a sense of what we’re talking about.
Another thing that I find interesting: you look at something that’s a flower. We say, “That’s a flower.” Next don’t just leave it as, “That’s a flower,” but say, “Why do I say that’s a flower? Why do I say that’s a flower? What makes that a flower?” It looks like there’s a flower there, right? It looks like there’s a real flower there. What is that real flower? Why do I say it’s a flower? Our instinctive answer is, “Because it’s a flower! Any jerk who walks in the room sees it’s a flower.” Right? Why do we think that way? This is because we think that thing has its own inherent flower nature—so that anybody should see flower. We don’t see that flower is something that’s labeled in dependence upon a certain accumulation of atoms and molecules, we don’t see that. We see that there’s a real flower in there.
Same way if we look at the clock. We walk in the room and there’s the clock. Any idiot knows it’s a clock. Why? Because it’s a clock! That’s the way it appears to us, doesn’t it? “It’s just a clock. Any idiot can see it. Just because it’s a clock, it’s radiating clock-ness.” Yes? We don’t think, “That’s called a clock.” We think, “That is a clock.” It’s not called a clock, it is a clock. And so of course, if anybody should see it they should know that. What’s there to talk about?!
Now, you might say, “Well, how could all this cause samsara? How does that cause suffering?” I remember leading a retreat on the border between Israel and Jordan. We had our meditation hall. A few feet away from the meditation hall was the fence. This was a strip of no-man’s land where they patrol. You go out there and, “This is Israel, and that is Jordan, and there’s a fence between the two.” For anybody who looks, “This is Israel. We commit a crime here, they get you here. That’s Jordan. If you commit a crime there, you go somewhere else.” If you step back for a minute it’s all sand. That’s all that was there. It’s sand here, and it’s sand there, and there’s a fence in the middle of the sand. You wonder, “Why is there a fence in the middle of the sand? If the wind blows the sand that’s on this side of the fence to that side of the fence, then has Israel become Jordan? Or has Jordan become Israel?” What’s going on? The sand is blowing from one side of the fence, what country were we in? Think of how many wars are fought over a establishing what the border of a country is. How many wars are fought because, “This is my sand, not your sand.”
Now we think that’s what the politicians do—but think about my house. When you think about your home there’s a real feeling of mine there, isn’t there? It’s my home, it’s not anybody else’s home. It’s inherently, intrinsically, in its very roots and foundation mine. Therefore, anybody who does anything to it, I have a right to beat them up. I can beat him up, I can chase him out, I can arrest them, I can throw rocks at them—because, “This is mine.”
Actually, what’s there? There’s wood, some rock, some nails, a little bit of flooring, some drywall, some insulation if you’re lucky. What is mine about it? What is house about it? When you start to look, there’s no house there and there’s also no mine in all that stuff. But to our ordinary unaware consciousness there is this strong feeling of there being a real me—that is the possessor and the owner of that house. And there’s a real house that is possessed and owned by me. We have this whole long meaning that we give it—about “This is mine and I can paint it any color I want to. I can do what I want. And you know, the government can’t tell me to do this and that. Well they can, but I can get around them. And nobody can come in it unless I want them to.” Then also, “This house symbolizes my success in life, and if it doesn’t look good it means I’m not successful. The house is how I impress other people with how much I’ve attained because I need them to value me …”
How suffering arises from assenting to the appearance of inherent existence
Talk about proliferation! Do you see how it starts? It starts with just seeing that there’s a real house and a real mine, and then peeoow! [onomatopoeia for a generally rapidly expanding phenomena]. Don’t they have these toys that, it’s like some jack in the box but not just with one thing, but many, many, like thousands of things. You lift the top and then boing! All these jacks then spring all over and fill the entire space. Akin to this it’s like you have some inherent existence that you’re grasping on here. As soon as you grasp, boy, it pulls that trigger and all these preconceptions, all my rules of the universe about how people should treat me and my house, boom, everywhere! So much suffering arises, doesn’t it? This is because as soon as it’s mine then I have to protect it. That means I have enemies—because somebody else is going to want it besides me. Maybe the bank wants it. Actually, it’s the bank’s house, isn’t it. Why do we call it our house? It’s mostly the bank’s house. The bank is letting us live there. Do we say thank you to the bank? No! We say get out of here, don’t foreclose on me!
But do you see how from seeing things as concrete, and especially how seeing things as me or as mine, so much suffering just comes like a waterfall after that. It’s just constant suffering. So as soon as there’s this big fat I that’s there, that’s real, then we relate to everything in relationship to I. And suffering, big suffering arises. It’s because all these opinions, how everything is—is how it really relates to me. So then I have so many opinions about what everything is—because everything is related to me, everything affects me.
Take for example this paperclip. I’m going to admit something here: I’m attached to this kind of paperclip. You know, the kind that have plastic over them so that they don’t rust? When I have one of this kind of paperclip I make sure if it’s on something that I have to give somebody else that I change it to a metal paperclip—and I’m not lying. This is the depth of attachment, isn’t it! The I has to have everything that it thinks is valuable. It can’t share even a paperclip. Anybody else do that besides me? Oh, good, misery loves company! So we are the people attached to plastic-covered paper clips club. Oh yes, the colored ones look really nice. This one’s white. (Well, white counts as a color.)
Just look how, on such a small thing as a paper clip, the I is eking out pleasure that’s going to give me eternal, everlasting pleasure. Just by having this paperclip! Now is that suffering or is that suffering? Isn’t that the depths of suffering, when your mind is so out of whack with reality that you think hanging on to a plastic-covered paperclip is going to give you happiness? Why? Because I deserve this paperclip more than anybody else. Why? Because I’m me! Why? Because I’m the center of the universe. So don’t take my plastic-covered paperclip because you’re in trouble if you do.
Or, if you take it, you have to like me and remember that I gave it to you. If I give you this paperclip then you’ve got to see how kind I am. Oh yes, that’s real misery. They don’t realize the value of a paperclip and they take it off and throw it away. Then your mind goes bonkers, and as soon as they turn their back you’re, “Quick, get the paperclip out of the garbage.” And then we embellish it with all sorts of ideas of, “I’m saving the environment by this action,”—but actually it’s my paperclip. Look at how out of touch with reality our mind is when you suffer because of a paperclip. Now that’s really suffering, isn’t it?
You’re going to say, “Well now, that’s just a paperclip.” Well, we suffer because of a piece of paper too, especially if that piece of paper is basically green and has a watermark and has a lot of zeros on it. If that piece of paper is called money and somebody threw that in the garbage—big suffering. Paper, we get all bent out of whack over the paper. There’s so much symbolism to this paper. This paper really symbolizes who we are. It symbolizes freedom, “I can do what I want when I have this paper.” It symbolizes success, and other people will see that I’m successful. It symbolizes power because people who have more paper have more power. Paper power! Look at all the significance things this paper brings us: self-worth, freedom, success, love. If we have paper we have friends, right? If we have paper, then even if we’re not very nice to our kids we can give them paper and they’ll still love us. Or, if it’s not our kids, it’s our friends and if we give them paper they’ll love us. Paper symbolizes a lot of things for us. You see, it’s just paper. But we imbue this—it’s inherently existent money. And then we imbue all this meaning, all this symbolism. Then especially when it’s mine, “Oh, got to hold on to it. This is mine, not yours.” You can’t have it unless I deem so—and then you’ve got to like me, or you’ve got to think well of me, or something. That’s suffering, isn’t it? That’s suffering.
Or, instead do you think, “My child, my partner, my parents, my friend, my, my. My child has to be the best one.” Why? Because they’ve got to be everything I wasn’t. Why? Because I want to be happy! Why? Because then I’ll feel good about myself. I’ll be a successful parent. Why? And it goes on and on and on and on. And it’s my child. Doesn’t matter if they mixed them up in the baby ward with somebody else’s baby; as soon as you label mine on it, look out—for so much stuff gets put on this little baby.
It’s the same with my friends, my job, my company, my anything. This is because there’s this concrete I, there’s a concrete mine. Then of course, we’re seeing everything else as concrete and then we struggle with it because we have to get what pleases us and push away what doesn’t. It’s just so much suffering. We create so much karma, that creates more rebirth, that creates more karma and more suffering—and it goes around and around.
How wisdom frees us from samsaric suffering
All this happens because we don’t recognize that the object that ignorance thinks exists does not exist. We don’t recognize that the inherent existence that ignorance just takes for granted is a total hallucination, it’s a total fallacy. That’s why realizing emptiness is important; that’s why generating this wisdom is important. It’s because the wisdom sees the emptiness, the lack of that inherent existence in all people, all phenomena. When that wisdom is in the mind, the ignorance can’t arise at the same time. Then slowly what happens is the more the mind has that wisdom perceiving emptiness, the more it just rubs away at the ignorance and cancels it out, cancels it out. Cancels it out until eventually the ignorance is eliminated from the mindstream altogether. The ignorance and its seeds are eliminated. When the ignorance is no longer there then there’s no attachment to anything, there’s no hostility towards anything. This is because we’re not perceiving things in that same old way that give rise to attachment and hostility.
When we have ignorance we keep cycling in samsara or cyclic existence. When we have the wisdom that realizes reality, we start eliminating that ignorance. When it’s fully eliminated that’s the state of nirvana. So nirvana is the cessation, the absence, the elimination from its root such that it can never appear again—of ignorance, the afflictive emotions and disturbing attitudes, and the karma that creates cyclic existence. That’s what nirvana is. It’s the lack of all that, the elimination of it, so it can no longer arise. That’s a sketchy definition of nirvana. Buddhists get into all sorts of debates about nirvana too, but we’ll save that for later.
Scriptures of the three turnings of the Dharma wheel
How do we go about realizing emptiness? We have to rely on proper scriptures, scriptures that teach the correct view, and on the explanation of the great sages that know the correct view. Of course the great sages start with the Buddha. The Buddha is the originator of the teachings in our historical time period. And then we rely on great sages like Nagarjuna. He lived around the second century A.D. A very great Indian sage, he wrote The Root of Wisdom and many other texts. It’s said that he had the correct view propounded by the Buddha. His disciple was called Aryadeva who wrote this wonderful text called The Four Hundred—it’s four hundred stanzas on the path. It’s a wonderful text. We depend on other sages like Buddhapalita who appeared, I think Buddhapalita was maybe the fifth century [470-550 A.D.] and he developed Nagarjuna’s thought. Then Chandrakirti in the seventh century—who really clarified Nagarjuna’s thought. Also there was Shantideva, the author of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. So we rely on these great Indian sages.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls it the Nalanda tradition and in recent years he’s been speaking about this. Nalanda was a great Indian monastic university. It existed, it opened around the second or third century and went to, it was definitely over by the twelfth century when the Mongols invaded. That’s probably when it ended [1193 it was sacked by Turkic Muslim invaders]. Due to all of the great sages that came out of that university, His Holiness calls it the Nalanda tradition.
Then of course Buddhism spread to Tibet and you had many commentators on the correct view. We are following specifically the commentaries of Lama Tsongkhapa who was a Tibetan sage who lived in the late 14th early/15th century. He’s also called Je Rinpoche. What’s so incredible in Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings is that they’re incredibly clear. Once you understand them, they’re very clear. Sometimes the language is hard to understand. But he goes into so much depth and he really teases apart all these different things which make the wisdom very clear. Personally speaking I find it very helpful. It’s not a fuzzy thing of just, “Whoa, everything’s empty, can’t you see it?” Or, “Just sit there and you’ll see emptiness. Huh?” But instead there’s so much detailed explanation about what is the wrong view, what’s the object of the wrong view, what’s the right view, how does it counteract the wrong view, what are the different layers of the wrong view, and what are the different layers that are the object of the wrong view. There’s much detail and that detail really helps you understand things more clearly.
We’re following that lineage of those great masters who can help us. Also we follow certain scriptures too. So when the Buddha taught there were three turnings of the Dharma wheel—this is according to the Mahayana tradition. The first turning of the Dharma wheel was when the Buddha taught at Sarnath. The first teachings he gave on the Four Noble Truths. Basically these teachings he gave are commonly accepted by all the Buddhist traditions. These form the basis of the Pali Canon which is the root of the teachings in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and such—the Theravada tradition.
In those scriptures the Buddha talked about selflessness. Here he talked about things like there’s no soul or no atman, no permanent partless autonomous person. That’s basically what the Buddha negated in those initial teachings that he gave. He negated some idea of a soul or a true self—some solid real me that just picks up out of this body and transplants into another body.
In the second turning of the Dharma wheel are the teachings that the Buddha gave in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras—like the Heart Sutra, and the Eight Thousand Verse, Twenty Thousand Verse, and One Hundred Thousand Verse Prajnaparamita Sutras. In those he taught the view, a very radical view of emptiness—saying that nothing, absolutely nothing, has any inherent existence. That was the second turning of the Dharma wheel. And those scriptures, His Holiness’s view on those scriptures is that the Buddha gave those teachings while he was alive, but to a very select group of disciples. They weren’t widely given. If you read the Heart Sutra there were a lot of beings present at the teaching of the Heart Sutra, but not a whole lot of human beings. So it was a small group of human beings. But there were gods, and Bodhisattva, and all sorts of celestial beings—lots of beings heard it but few human beings. So those scriptures His Holiness thinks were like written down and just kept very quiet among a few people—because they were difficult to understand and the teachings in them were so radical. They became more popular during the time of Nagarjuna, who found them and publicized them and commented on them a lot. So they became a lot more popular after that. Those were teachings of the second Dharma wheel, but they were built upon the initial teachings that the Buddha gave at Sarnath.
Then in the third turning of the Dharma wheel it’s said that Buddha had taught in the first turning there’s no permanent partless autonomous soul; and then he went, “Whoa, there’s nothing that has any inherent existence at all!” That’s a big jump. So some people felt a little shaky, like “Hey, we can’t go all the way to there’s no inherent existence.” So then it’s said that the Buddha gave the third turning of the Dharma wheel to kind of balance that out. There he taught that some things have inherent existence and some things don’t. So that was the teaching of the third Dharma wheel. Also in the third Dharma wheel he gave a lot of teachings about Buddha nature—the scriptures that talk about Buddha nature.
What happened in ancient India, and this is according to the Gelugpa interpretation of how things evolved, is that various philosophical schools evolved as time went on. This was because different people heard the Buddha’s teachings; and different people relied on different scriptures; and so different views grew up. Thus different philosophical traditions came up. Now, as it happens, early on you would have many people with many different kind of views living in the same monastery. The different philosophical schools were not very clearly differentiated. As time went on they got more and more differentiated. Then in Tibet, what happened with the traditions is, they developed a very skilful way of systematizing the beliefs of these philosophical schools. They did so in such a way that it actually helps us as one person refine our philosophical view.
The way the philosophical traditions are set up right now within the tradition is Vaibhashikas believe this, Sautrantrikas believe this, Cittamatrins believe this, and Madhyamikas believe this. I’m not so sure that at the actual time all these people existed in ancient India that they necessarily would have laid out their own views in such detail, in such exact labels. My guess is that within the Sautrantrika school there were probably a variety of different views. And, for example, within the Madhyamaka school the division into Svatantrika Madhyamikas and Prasangika Madhyamikas, that probably became a very distinct division in Tibet, not in India. The way these schools have been set up is quite helpful in terms of us being one individual and just going from, starting with the lower schools and progressing to the higher schools—going from the very gross view of selflessness and then subtly refining it and refining it until we get to the final view of selflessness. This is the view that was taught in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the second turning of the wheel of Dharma.
Buddha’s skill in teaching to the dispositions of beings
Don’t think that because the third turning was last or because the first was first it was the best, it’s the middle one that is the best. What happened is because the Buddha taught all these different views, one scripture he taught no permanent, partless, autonomous self; one scripture he taught no inherently existent anything; another scripture he says well, actually, imputed phenomena are not inherently existent but dependent phenomena are. So you could go, “Wait a minute, how come the Buddha taught all these different things to different people? Was the Buddha lying? Was he confused?” Actually the Buddha was quite a skillful teacher. He realized that according to the level, according to our karmic disposition, according to the level of our faculties, according to our receptivity—people have different abilities, different capabilities. So he gave different teachings to different people according to what would benefit them given their particular level at that time.
You all know how when you have a little kid who’s learning the ABCs, if you start teaching him algebra, he’s going to get scared and freak out and won’t even learn ABC. It’s much more skillful when we have a little kid teach him the ABCs and save algebra for later, right? So the Buddha did that when he taught sentient beings. He gave different teachings to different beings with different faculties. That’s why we have all these scriptures in which the Buddha sometimes sets out different views of reality.
Definitive and interpretable scriptures
To know which scriptures we need to follow in order to really get the final view of reality, we have to differentiate between what are interpretable scriptures and what are definitive scriptures. Also we need to differentiate what are interpretable meanings or objects, and what are definitive meanings or objects. From the view of the Prasangika Madhyamaka the definitive meaning, the deepest level meaning, is that all persons and phenomena lack inherent existence. The scriptures that teach that are, for example, the Prajnaparamita scriptures.
The Cittamatrins are another philosophical school. They’re also called the Mind Only or Yogacara school. They say, “Oh no, actually the scriptures that came from the third turning of the Dharma wheel, those are the definitive ones because they have the final view. All the other ones are interpretable.” Interpretable meaning that they don’t describe the final view. There’s a lot of discussion around this—what’s definitive and what’s interpretable. I won’t go into a lot of depth here because it can get complicated. This is because then there’s the whole topic of if it’s literal, does that mean it’s definitive? Well, for some schools yes for some schools no.
For now just know that there’s discussion about this thing and that it’s important. Also know that the way the Prasangika define it as the definitive is the ultimate meaning—emptiness; and the scriptures that are definitive are the scriptures that mainly are explicitly describing this view of emptiness. So from a Prasangika view, if a scripture talks about another topic that’s not emptiness, even if the way it talks about that topic can be understood literally, it’s still called an interpretable teaching because the meaning that’s being explained is not the ultimate nature of reality. The meaning still needs to be interpreted to get right to the ultimate nature of reality. From the Prasangika view being literal is not the thing that makes something definitive, it’s the topic that’s being discussed, and if that topic is discussed mainly and explicitly.
Now, you get to something like the Heart Sutra. (That’s in the blue Pearl of Wisdom I prayer book.) There the Buddha starts saying there is no eye, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form, no sound, no space, no smell, no taste, no tactile object, no phenomena. And you go, “Oh, the Buddha is saying that nothing exists. You said that was a definitive teaching, you said it’s the ultimate nature of reality that’s being discussed there and that Buddha’s explaining it explicitly, so is Buddha saying that nothing exists here?” No. Because earlier in the Heart Sutra, I’m saying the Buddha but actually it’s Avalokiteshvara who’s speaking this sutra inspired by the Buddha. But Avalokiteshvara says (and he’s speaking to Shariputra), “Shariputra, whatever son or daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should look perfectly like this. Subsequently looking perfectly and correctly at the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates also.”
Early on in the Heart Sutra the Buddha mentions emptiness of inherent existence. When he says that, that’s where he’s really being quite explicit and quite literal about what things are empty of. You take that empty of inherent existence and you apply that to the whole sutra. In this way you understand when the Buddha says there’s “no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no tactile object, no phenomena,” he means there’s no inherently existent form, no inherently existent sound, no inherently existent smell, and so on and on. Because the Buddha said it at one point, that is, the full explanation of empty of inherent existence at one point in the sutra, you generalize that to all the other situations. Otherwise it gets really fatiguing.
What would happen if you sit there and read, “There’s no inherently existent eye, no inherently existent ear, no inherently existent nose, no inherently existent tongue, no inherently existent tactile object, no inherently existent form, phenomena, there’s no inherently existent eye element and so forth up to no inherently existent mind element and also up to no inherently existent element of mental consciousness.” So Avalokiteshvara abbreviated; he just said there’s no eye, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. He leaves it to us to understand that because he said empty of inherent existence at the beginning and you apply that throughout the entire sutra. So it’s still a definitive sutra because it’s talking mainly and explicitly about the ultimate nature of reality, the definitive meaning—emptiness of inherent existence. We want to make sure that we follow those kinds of sutras.
Audience: Earlier you said that in the third turning of the wheel that sometimes [inaudible] inherently exist …
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): No, sometimes he taught that. In the third turning he taught that some things inherently exist and some things don’t inherently exist. He taught that in the third wheel of the Dharma because some people weren’t ready for the teaching in the second wheel of the Dharma—that nothing was inherently existent. So he modified it for the benefit of those disciples as a skilful way, because by realizing the emptiness talked about in the third turning of the wheel was easier for them to realize. It got them part of the way there. Then afterwards, later when their mind and their faculties developed, then they could later go to the Madhyamaka view and see that nothing is inherently existent. Okay? Does this make sense?
Audience: Where was the third turning?
VTC: I don’t know. The third turning—I can’t remember when and where the third turning was given.
[The third turning took place in various cities, beginning in Vaishali. The third turning was also delivered to an audience of bodhisattvas in Shravasti and other Indian locations (e.g. in Kusinagara, to Bodhisattvas and on looking Buddhas, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra)—or even in transcendental Buddhic realms (in the Avatamsaka Sutra).]
VTC: Okay, so what’s meant by permanent phenomena? We’re going to get into this, but basically when we talk about phenomena they’re divided into two broad categories. One is impermanent and the other is permanent. Impermanent phenomena are those that are produced by causes and conditions, and so they change, they’re impermanent. They change from moment to moment. Permanent phenomena are things that are not produced by causes and conditions. It doesn’t mean they’re eternal which would mean that they always exist. They can still exist only sometimes. But during the time they exist they don’t change. So an example of that would be empty space. Empty space is the lack of obstructability and tangibility. Empty space never changes. It’s always empty of obstructability and tangibility. Even if we put something in that empty space, that empty space is still there. This is because without it nothing could have been put there. So that empty space is a permanent phenomenon.
When we talk about nirvana, the absence of all the defilements and karma so that they never return, it’s an absence of something. That’s permanent, it didn’t arise out of causes and conditions because something that’s an absence is just—it’s a lack of something. It’s a negative phenomenon. I’m speaking quite generally here.
As the days go on we’ll be getting into a little bit more about some of these things. If everything’s not perfectly clear at the beginning that’s okay! People study this topic for decades and lifetimes and eons, and if it were easy to understand we all would have been Buddhas long ago.
Audience: … His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he has been meditating on emptiness for a long, long time and [inaudible]. So, if he doesn’t understand emptiness … [inaudible].
VTC: Well, I think he’s being humble because I’ve heard him teach on emptiness and he understands some. Okay? A lot more than I do!
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.