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Verse 106: Transcending the indulgences of samsara and nirvana

Verse 106: Transcending the indulgences of samsara and nirvana

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Giving up the self-centered mind
  • Generating bodhicitta
  • Accomplishing the path to full awakening

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 106 (download)

What is the way to transcend the indulgences of samsara and nirvana?
Turning one’s back on self-centered thoughts and arousing the bodhi mind, the altruistic wish for awakening.

You might wonder why do we talk about transcending nirvana? Isn’t that one of our goals? And why does it say the “indulgences” of samsara and nirvana? How are you being indulgent in nirvana if that’s one of the goals of the path?

Here “nirvana” is referring to the personal peace, the personal state of liberation of an arhat. So somebody who’s followed the path, who has eliminated all the afflictive obscurations, has attained arhatship. That person is free from samsara, which is wonderful. I mean, it’s an incredible attainment, achievement. But that person still has the cognitive obscurations. The cognitive obscurations limit the mind from perceiving all phenomena. And so not being omniscient that person can’t be of the greatest benefit to all other living beings. And one of the reasons that they haven’t eliminated the cognitive obscurations is because of the very subtle self-centered thought.

There are two kinds of self-centered thought. There’s the very gross one that we’re really involved in. “I want this, give me that, get this away from me, how come you did this….” That’s the gross one. But then there’s a subtle one that you can still have even after you’ve overcome the gross one, which is a subtle partiality, we can say, for one’s own state of peaceful nirvana. And so that partiality of treasuring one’s own nirvana more than the liberation of other living beings limits one’s own mind from attaining full buddhahood and eliminating the cognitive obscurations which it’s necessary to abandon in order to attain full awakening.

Another way of talking about two extremes. There are many sets of two extremes (don’t get confused). Here there’s the extreme of samsara and the extreme of nirvana. The extreme of samsara, we’re living in the middle of that, where you have the self-grasping ignorance, and the very gross self-centered thought, and our minds all the time are just about “my happiness now.” So having overcome that by eliminating the afflictive obscurations on attains nirvana, but if one attains nirvana without having generated the bodhicitta then it’s one’s own personal peace and one still has the cognitive obscurations. So that’s said to be the other extreme, because one still hasn’t arrived at full awakening where one can be of the greatest benefit to all beings.

Those are two extremes and they’re indulgent in the sense that both of them the star of the show is me. Or the preference is me. The one who’s the chief one is me. So we have to overcome that unhealthy emphasis on the self so that we can generate the equal-hearted and impartial love and compassion for all beings and then generate the bodhicitta which will lead us to really deepen the wisdom realizing emptiness and use it to eliminate even the cognitive obscurations so that we attain full awakening.

Is that clear?

Sometimes we talk about “three vehicles,” being the Hearer Vehicle, Solitary Realizer Vehicle, and then the Bodhisattva Vehicle. The Hearer and Solitary Realizer Vehicle are those people who strive to attain an arhat’s liberation. The Bodhisattva Vehicle, when you follow that, leads you to buddhahood.

[In response to audience] In the Pāli tradition most of the people wouldn’t study so much about bodhicitta. They would maybe study the pāramīs (the perfections), and learn those, because those are ways of accumulating a lot of merit. But only a few people would study the bodhisattva teaching within the Pāli tradition. Because there is a Bodhisattva Vehicle set out there. It isn’t as well explained and extensively explained as it is in the Mahayana teachings, or in the Sanskrit tradition. But it’s still there.

But what you have nowadays that’s really interesting is you have some people who are Theravada practitioners who will attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, and even take the bodhisattva vows. In the West you have a lot of people going beyond their own tradition and learning more about other traditions.

[In response to audience] Yes. Once you become an arhat you can then generate bodhicitta and attain buddhahood. But that’s the long way to get to buddhahood. Because if you do it that way then you go through the five Hearer Vehicle paths and attain arhatship. Then you remain in your blissful samadhi on emptiness for a long time, until the Buddha wakes you up. And then you have to go back to the first of the bodhisattva paths, the path of accumulation—even though you have the realization of emptiness, you don’t have all the merit that the bodhisattva’s have. So you have to start on the first bodhisattva path in order to accumulate the merit that helps you to go from one path to the next. Even though you’ve already realized emptiness … which the new bodhisattvas (who haven’t become arhats) they don’t have the direct realization of emptiness until the third path.

[In response to audience] Well it’s quicker to enter the Bodhisattva Vehicle directly, without first entering the Hearer’s Vehicle, completing it, and then going back to the beginning of the Bodhisattva Vehicle. It’s easier just to generate bodhicitta from the get-go and do that.

It’s kind of like—a very bad example, but some kind of example—is when you transfer colleges you always lose credits and you have to go back some. [laughter] I told you, it’s a bad example, but it’s the idea. If you directly go into the college you want to graduate from it’s easier and quicker than if you go to one college and then you have to transfer, and you’ve missed some classes, and you have to do some things over, and so on.

[In response to audience] Actually, some people in the Pāli tradition have loving kindness and compassion (101, 102, 103), but they don’t have the bodhicitta. So they’re different.

Another point here is that having said that it’s very important to respect arhats. Because they have a very high realization, much higher than we do (who are fumbling around trying to be bodhisattvas, trying to generate our artificial bodhicitta), so they’re already liberated from saṃsara, so I mean definitely worth of respect. But we don’t follow everything they’re practicing because, while we dwell on renunciation of saṃsara, we expand that renunciation to be “for all living beings.” To renounce the misery of all living beings.

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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.