Chapter One Deep Connections
Good afternoon, everybody. Indeed I am very, very happy to be here to lecture on the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (lam rim chen mo).1 I visited the late Geshe Wangyal’s center during my first visit to America in 1979 because, especially since the time of the Third Dalai Lama, there have long been very close links between Tibetans and Mongolians.2 Tibetans have a unique and very close relationship with Mongolians, including the Kalmyks and Buryats. In my own case, one of my best study partners was Ngodrup Tsokyi, a Mongolian. He helped me so much, so I feel a very close, personal connection. One time when I visited the late Geshe Wangyal’s center, we reflected on the many stories of our strong connections in the past. Everyone was deeply moved and we were all in tears together.
Joshua Cutler, Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, is neither Tibetan nor Mongolian; he is European American. But I do think Joshua and Diana have very faithfully carried on the late Geshe Wangyal’s spirit. They asked me to teach the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment and they translated it into English. I promised that in the future I would teach this text. Today, that is realized.
But of course this book is quite thick. Reading it all in a few days is impossible. So I will teach primarily by summarizing its essential points, elaborating as necessary.
The Great Treatise was written by Lama Tsong-kha-pa, a great scholar, a real holder of the Nalanda tradition.3 I think he is one of the very best Tibetan scholars. Although it is now widely available in Tibetan as well as English, you see that I brought with me today my own personal copy of this text. On March 17th, 1959, when I left Norbulingka that night, I brought this book with me.4 Since then, I have used it ten or fifteen times to give teachings, all from this copy. So this is something very dear to me. Global Responsibility
Most of you are familiar with my commitments, my views and thoughts. But perhaps some of you are new, so I want to mention briefly my basic commitments. In the first place, I am just one human being among six billion. The fact is that all six billion human beings share one planet. We all survive under one sun. Today, especially, we are simply one community in the face of population growth, instantaneous communication, the modern global economy, and our common environmental problems. We are really one entity. In reality, there is no separate, independent, individual interest. For each of us, the future is entirely dependent on the rest of humanity, the rest of the world. But our ways of thinking about things are still based on concepts inherited from ancient times when each community lived more or less independently. There is a growing gap between our perceptions and reality. Our outdated way of thinking gives us the mistaken view that we––and our communities–– are separate from the rest of the world. Based on that, our actions are unrealistic.
Nobody wants more problems. Nonetheless, there are many problems and many of them we create for ourselves because we lack a holistic, realistic view. In order to develop a sense of global responsibility, we have to look at the entire planet. It is just one small planet and our individual futures entirely depend upon it. We must take care of it. The only way to safeguard our futures as individuals is to develop a sense of concern for the well-being of all other people, all of the other living beings in the world.
So my primary commitment is to make it clear that we need a sense of global responsibility. In this regard, I consider Buddhist teachings not as a religion, but simply as some ideas that may be helpful. It is useful, for example, to consider all living beings. Maybe it seems unrealistic to think about other beings in other worlds. Whether you think it makes sense or not, emotionally it is very useful. When we have been practicing extending our concern to an infinite number of beings on an infinite number of planets, then of course there is no question that we would want to care for six billion human beings right here on this planet. And billions of animals—they really suffer immensely at human hands, don’t they? So the Buddhist message of infinite altruism is very relevant. It is not about our future lifetimes or becoming enlightened. It is simply that infinite altruism is very useful for becoming a happier person, a sensible and useful person on this planet.5
In day-to-day life, whenever we are facing difficulty, some of these Buddhist ideas can be really helpful. They equip our minds, particularly our emotions, so that we can maintain peace of mind when we are facing difficulty. This is good for our health. Too many worries and too much ambition are bound to increase suspicion and jealousy, leading to even more mental disturbance. Some of these Buddhist ideas can be very helpful to the well-being of individuals, mentally and emotionally. And in dependence upon that, they have physical benefits as well. So if you are a nonbeliever who has no interest in religion, fine. Listen to some of these ideas and if you hear something that seems useful, then take it. If you it feel that is nonsense, then just forget it. Religious Harmony
My second commitment is to promote religious harmony. I am a Buddhist; sometimes I am considered a staunch Buddhist. Those ancient Indian Buddhist masters, particularly the scholars of Nalanda University, had very, very critical minds. 6 They analyzed everything, both the Buddha’s own words and the views of non-Buddhist traditions. Buddhist masters like Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, and Shantarakshita were very sharp logicians who were able to find every crack, every weakness, in non-Buddhist philosophical positions. I am like this, at least to some degree. I want to investigate, to analyze, and in that sense I can say that I am a very staunch Buddhist.
At the same time, I also accept the value or potential of all of the major traditions. It is so terrible, so sad, that there is conflict in the name of religion. Innocent, genuine, faithful people suffer as a result. So it is essential to make an effort to promote religious harmony within a sense of respect and mutual understanding. It helps for non-Buddhists to understand something about the structure of Buddhism and for Buddhists to understand other religions.
This is why, yesterday, I went on pilgrimage in Rajasthan to the Ajmer Sharif shrine, a famous Muslim holy place.7 It is perhaps the holiest place of Sufi Islam. Each year, prayers are offered for six days to commemorate the death of a great saint. They invited me. They prayed all night, but I preferred to participate in the early morning. So yesterday from 2:30 to 4:30 A.M. I prayed while wearing a Muslim hat—a Buddhist monk’s robe and a Muslim hat.8 There seemed to be several hundred thousand people and it was incredibly hot and humid. Of course, with so many people packed in a small area, there was sweat and odor. Maybe we can call it the scent of ethical discipline—mixed, of course, with sweat! My robes are still damp right now. I really enjoyed this; it was wonderful.
A few weeks earlier there was an international Muslim conference in Delhi. They invited me and I think I was the only non-Muslim participating. That afternoon, I visited the Jamma Masjid in Delhi and prayed together with thousands and thousands of Muslims.9 That was the first time I wore the Muslim white cap. Personally, this made me very happy, conservative elements might feel differently about my doing this. But the response from the mainstream community was excellent. It seems that people appreciated my efforts to promote inter-religious harmony and genuine respect across the traditions.
If you also think that this issue of understanding and harmony across the world religions is important, then please take action. Make closer contacts with the followers of other traditions. Since the September 11th event, it is extremely important to reach out to Muslim brothers and sisters, to make contact with them. Many people have a negative impression of Muslims and that is totally wrong.
Of course, in the past, many Indian Buddhists did suffer a great deal at the hands of Muslims, but the past is gone.10 It is useless to dwell on this and to hold on to hatred. It is absolutely foolish. Today, for example, there are many Muslims living in the Bodhgaya area. I think that perhaps their ancestors came to Bodhgaya in order to destroy the Buddhist temple there.11 But now they are the best friends of Buddhist pilgrims. Whenever I visit Bodhgaya they welcome me with tea and some very delicious nuts. I always enjoy that. That is the reality today. China and Tibet
My third commitment is to the cause of Tibet and its people and culﾭﾭans and Chinese, it’s my moral responsibility to speak for Tibetans. Unfortunately, since the crisis of March 10, 2008, Chinese government propaganda has given many Chinese the sense that Tibetans are anti¬Chinese.12 Feelings were running high. During my last visit to America, some Chinese were demonstrating where I was speaking, so I wanted to meet some of them. I did meet seven of them. Two of them calmly listened to my explanations, but the rest were very angry and had no interest in listening. The emotions involved are just too strong.
I suggested that now is a perfect time to set up friendship groups communities. They should get to know each other so that when a problem arises, they can discuss it, exchanging information and perspective. Without this, there is usually no communication between these groups. They remain isolated and then, when there is an incident, emotions overwhelm them.
You can help. In any community where there are some Tibetans and some Han Chinese, help them to create a common friendship group. You can join as well, as long as you have some sincere motivation. But in the end, the Tibetan problem has to be solved between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans. No one else can do this for us.
We Tibetans extend our right hand to our Han Chinese friends and our left hand to our Western supporters. Of the two hands, the right hand is considered more important. We extend this hand to the Chinese government. But as long as this right hand remains empty, our left hand accepts help from other people who are really concerned for us. It is only logical and natural. When the right hand gets some concrete result, then the left hand will withdraw and wave goodbye.
It is extremely important that our Han Chinese brothers and sisters have full awareness of the Tibetan problem. It is helpful to take every opportunity to tell them about Tibetan culture, Tibetan language, or Tibetan spirituality. Then there will be a chance to say something about history, considering Tibetan views and Chinese views. Among the Chinese, there are different views about history; not everyone accepts the official version. We need a realistic approach and in order to have that, we need fuller knowledge about reality. Maybe some of you can help in this way. Junior Students in the Dharma
According to the conventional understanding of history, the Buddha came to the world almost twenty-six hundred years ago. Eventually the teachings of the Buddha spread from India to different regions, including Southeast Asia and East Asia. Today, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and so forth mainly follow the Pali tradition. In China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam—as well as Tibet and Mongolia—the Pali tradition is present, but there is also the Sanskrit tradition.13 For understanding Buddhism in the Sanskrit tradition, Chinese language is most important, followed by Tibetan. Buddhism flourished in China at least three or four centuries earlier than in Tibet.
I consider the Pali tradition to be the most senior; it is the foundation of the Buddha Dharma. Those who hold this tradition are the most senior students of the Buddha. Then, within the Sanskrit tradition, the Chinese Buddhists are the most senior Buddhists. We, the Tibetans and Mongolians, rank after that. So, whenever I give a teaching to the Chinese community, I always begin by expressing my respect to them as elder students of the Buddha.
At the same time, I might mention that as far as knowledge is concerned, junior students are sometimes better. Tibetan Buddhism was established by Shantarakshita, one of the very best logicians and philosophers of the Nalanda tradition. He personally came to Tibet. He and his student Kamalashila were both great scholars and their writings are still available. They were great logicians, Madhyamika philosophers and monks; naturally they wanted their students, the Tibetans, also to be like that. Even now, in the twenty-first century, we study important texts in a rigorous way. First, we memorize them and then get a word-by-word explanation. After that, we debate their meaning in a thorough and highly precise way. Tibetans in general have knowledge of the Buddha Dharma simply because of these great teachers; through them, we became real holders of the Nalanda tradition. So, in terms of having a deeper and more complete form of the teaching, I do think the Tibetan tradition is the best.
Between texts written by Indian masters and texts written by Tibetan masters, different circumstances led to different styles. India was not just Buddhist; there were many non-Buddhists and there were extensive discussions among the best scholars of the different traditions. So Indian masters like Nagarjuna and Aryadeva wrote texts that take a more comparative perspective and engage in deeper analysis. The Tibetan masters, on the other hand, took for granted that their audience was entirely Buddhist, so they do little comparison. Reality Is neither Buddhist nor Christian
On this planet there are many different religious traditions; each started in a different area and each is suitable to the peoples of that region.
For more than one thousand years, and in some cases for more than two thousand years, these traditions have truly served humanity. Today, many millions of people get inspiration from these traditions. It is a fact. And in the future these major traditions will remain, serving humanity.
Sometimes in the past, the existence of many different religious traditions caused problems. From now on, I hope we will have fewer such problems because of a greater sense of closeness. We understand more about the value of other traditions. Just as there are many different kinds of people, there are different traditions that suit them. Generally speaking, in the West, Christianity is dominant; the culture has a Jewish and Christian heritage. It is often safer and better to keep to your own religious tradition.
To illustrate this, let me relate some things that I have personally observed. There was a Polish woman who was a Theosophist—I met her long ago at the Madras Theosophical Society.14 After 1959, when a great many Tibetans came to India, she became very close with Tibetans and she helped many young Tibetan students with their education. As a result of this connection, she came to accept Buddhism as her own religion. But later, when she was more than eighty years old and approaching death, the concept of God as the Creator became more and more vivid in her mind. This certainly created some confusion for her.
Here is another story. There was a Tibetan woman who was married to a Tibetan government official. He died, leaving her with several small children. Christian missionaries helped her a great deal, making sure that the children were educated. In the mid-1960s, she came to see me and she was really very sad. Because the Christian missionaries had helped her so much, she had decided that for this lifetime she would be a Christian. But she resolved that in her next lifetime she would again be a Buddhist. Again, you can see that this is a clear sign of confusion.
These days, there are Westerners who have taken an interest in Buddhism and have become genuine Buddhist practitioners. But I must say that for the general public it is much better, and much safer, to stay with one’s own tradition. By comparison, consider that there are millions of Tibetans and almost all of them are Buddhist—yet, in the Lhasa area over the last four centuries, some Tibetans have been Muslims. Generally, Muslims came from Ladakh, settled in Tibet, and married Tibetans. This caused no problem. Also, since the beginning of the twentieth century, there have been some very faithful Christian Tibetans; their numbers are quite small. Thus, out of six million Tibetans, a few thousand do find themselves more attracted to other traditions. Likewise, there are millions of Westerners whose heritage is basically Christian, but who have a special interest in Buddhism. In some cases, people want a kind of spirituality that they are not finding in their home tradition. If the Buddhist approach really helps you, then that is okay, but in any case it is extremely important always to keep genuine respect for your traditional religion.
Reality is neither Buddhist nor Christian. When I teach about Buddhism in the West, I always make this clear because I do feel some hesitancy.15 On the other hand, when I teach Buddhism to Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians, Japanese, or Vietnamese, I am aware that the majority of these peoples have traditionally been Buddhist. There is no problem. In fact, I have a sense that I am restoring to them their own traditional teachings, their Dharma, their religion.
I am especially moved, so very deeply touched, when I have the chance to give Buddhist teachings to Indian Buddhists. Everywhere in the world that I go to teach, my whole message is nothing but ancient Indian thought. That’s all there is. For example, the message of nonviolence, ahimsa—this is the Indian tradition. And everything I am teaching here about the path to enlightenment—this is the treasure of the Nalanda tradition. When I teach my Indian friends, I think of how we kept alive in Tibet the treasure that they largely lost over the centuries. It gives me an incredible feeling of happiness to return this to them.
There is great value in maintaining your own tradition. Of course, you can include some practices from other traditions such as Buddhism. Some of my Christian friends are developing compassion, tolerance, and a sense of contentment by incorporating some Buddhist techniques—without changing religion. This seems healthy and good.
On the other hand, when my Christian friends are curious about emptiness, I usually laugh and tell them, “This is not your business.” I am joking, but in a way I do want to caution them that their interest in emptiness may harm their faith in a Creator, in something absolute, in a powerful God. It is difficult to talk about such things from a Buddhist viewpoint.
Many years ago in England, a Christian group asked me to teach the Gospels to a Christian community. This was a big challenge because Buddhists, strictly speaking, do not believe in a divine Creator. So they were asking me to help to promote faith in a Creator in whom I myself do not believe. But I did my best. I used some of the reasons for belief found in ancient Indian traditions that do accept a Creator. The audience was very pleased by my explanation of some passages from the Gospels. In fact, I think they really did get a deeper understanding of God.
Of course these different religious traditions have tremendous philosophical differences, but they are the same at the practical level. They show us how to practice love, kindness—together with forgiveness, tolerance, self-discipline, and contentment. Along with faith, all major religions teach these things. One of my Christian friends in Australia, a minister who is very much involved in helping the poor, introduced me to an audience as “a good Christian.” I really liked that. I joked with him, telling him that I consider him a good Buddhist. The point is that there are so many practices in common among traditions, and all of them are sincerely practiced with a sense of dedication to the well-being of others. That is the purpose.
When you practice with a sense of dedication to the well-being of others, then you yourself feel fulfilled. This is the purpose of our life. What is the point of having merely a luxurious way of life, spending lots of money, while on the same planet others are facing terrible difficulties, even starving? Helping others, serving others—this is the real meaning of life. And if you believe that God created us as social beings, then there must be some deep meaning in this. Among social animals, the very basis of life is taking care of each other, showing concern, helping one other.
Gung-tang Rinpoche’s songs include these linesHaving attained this precious human life of leisure and oppor¬tunity, there is a danger that I may lose it without giving itmeaning. So now is the time for me to reach for liberation.He goes on to admonish himself:Now, therefore, I must be seized––as though by an ironhook––by awareness of impermanence.
We all have to recognize the tremendous opportunity that we have. As humans we have this rare intelligence, but there is a real danger that we will waste it. Death is certain, but when we will die is totally unpredictable. We could lose our precious human existence at any moment. With such reflections, we must motivate ourselves to do something meaningful right now. The best way to make your human existence meaningful is to really engage in the practice of Dharma. During formal sitting meditation and in between sessions, in different ways, be mindful and introspectively vigilant. Keep constant watch on your mind.
Remember that such practices are common to all traditions. It is entirely up to individuals––whether they accept religion or not––to decide whether to do these practices. You do not have to be a religious person in order to be a good, sensitive human being; among nonbelievers, there are many wonderful people. But if you do accept religion, then you should be serious and sincere. Make the teachings of your tradition a real part of your life. Every day, from the moment you wake, use one corner of your mind to watch your mind and your behavior.
One time in Jerusalem, I was in a meeting with some Jews and Palestinians together. An Israeli Jewish teacher told us how he teaches his students to deal with situations where they cannot avoid people they do not like. For example, he said that his Palestinian students feel a sense of agitation at Israeli checkpoints. He advised his students that, when meeting someone whose presence agitates their minds, they should practice considering that person as someone made in God’s image. His students told him that this was extremely helpful. When they remembered his advice, their minds were much calmer and it was easier to meet the guards at checkpoints without being overwhelmed with irritation. This is what practice means. We actually have to do these things. The whole point of religious teaching is its practical implementation, which can be so wonderful.
In order to carry out a practice––such as constantly watching the mind––you should form a determination, make a pledge, right when you wake up: “Now, for the rest of this day, I will put into practice what I believe just as much as I can.” It is very important that, at the start of the day, we should set out to shape what will happen later. Then, at the end of every day, check what happened. Review the day. And if you carried through for that whole day your morning’s determination, then rejoice. Reinforce further your motivation to continue in the same line. However, when you do your reviewing, you may discover that you did things during the day that are contrary to your religious values and beliefs. You should then acknowledge this and cultivate a deep sense of remorse. Strengthen your resolve not to indulge in these actions in the future.
If you keep practicing in this way, then it is certain that over time there will be real change, genuine transformation, within your mind. This is the way to improve. It is impossible to really change through one session of prayer. But improvement definitely can come by constantly watching our minds and carrying out the practices we believe in day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade. This understanding is common to believers of all religious traditions.
Excerpted from From Here to Enlightenment by H.H. the Dalai Lama; translated by Guy Newland. Copyright © 2013 by H.H. the Dalai Lama; translated by Guy Newland. Excerpted by permission of Snow Lion, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.