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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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The Dalai Lama’s Reflections on the Realistic Approach of Buddhism: Talks to Former Dharamsala Residents from the West

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India, November 2 – 3, 2010
Transcribed by Sean Jones and Michael Richards
Edited by Luke Roberts and Alexander Berzin
[with clarifications indicated in violet between square brackets]

Part Three: Buddhism in the Twenty-first Century

How to Be Twenty-first-Century Buddhists

I’m always telling the Tibetans and also the Chinese and Japanese, and the Ladakhis and all the Himalayan Buddhists – I’m always telling them that now we are in the twenty-first century, we should be twenty-first-century Buddhists. That means having a fuller knowledge about modern education, modern science, and all these things, and also utilizing modern facilities, but also at the same time having full conviction about Buddha’s teachings about infinite altruism, bodhichitta and the view of interdependency, pratityasamutpada [dependent arising]. Then you can be a genuine Buddhist and also belong to the twenty-first century.

Recently I was in Nubra [Ladakh], and I stopped on the road for lunch. Some local people came – some of them we’ve known for twenty or thirty years – and so I chatted with them. I told them that we need to be twenty-first-century Buddhists and also that study is very, very important. Then I asked them, “What’s Buddhism?” And they said, “Buddham saranam gacchami. Dharmam saranam gacchami. Sangham saranam gacchami. [I go for refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.] That’s Buddhism.” That’s too simple. Then I asked them what are the differences between Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad? They said, “No differences.” That’s not right. As far as being great teachers of humanity, they’re the same. But as far as their teachings are concerned, there’s a big difference. Buddhism is nontheistic. I asked you one day whether Buddhism is a form of atheism or not, and you mentioned that atheism means “anti-God.” Buddhism is not anti-God – Buddhism respects all religions – but Buddhism is non-theistic in the sense of there being no creator, no concept of a creator. So on the teachings side, on the philosophical side, there are big differences between Buddhism and these other religions, but these villagers felt they’re the same.

That reminds me: One time in Tibet, a lama was giving some teaching, and people asked him, “Where are the Three Jewels? Where is Buddha?” And he kept quiet for a little bit, and then he pointed at the sky and said, “Oh, the Buddha is in a crystal palace in space, surrounded by brilliant lights.” That’s not true. Buddha is ultimately here in our hearts – Buddha-nature.

So therefore I want to share with you that we must go to the real basis of Buddha-dharma [the teachings of the Buddha]. Like when you have the main food – rice or flour or, in the Tibetan case, tsampa – and then some vegetables. Beautiful vegetables; they’re very good. But without the main food, just having a few vegetables – just having a few side dishes – is not sufficient. And that’s important to understand.

The Trunk and Branches of the Tradition

I usually describe Tibetan Buddhism as being the pure Nalanda tradition [in the sense that it is heir to the teachings of the seventeen great masters of the ancient Indian monastic university of Nalanda.] That’s the basic thing. I also explain to our Buddhist groups, including those in Ladakh, about the analogy of the tree trunk and the different branches. The Nalanda tradition is like the tree trunk. Then [the Tibetan traditions of] Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, Kadam, Jonang – all these are like the branches.

Recently I was in Dorzong center, a Drugpa Kagyu center. Their rinpoches usually have very good study programs, not only for their own monks but also for young Tibetan lay students. I asked Dorzong Rinpoche about their program, and it’s a very good one. So I explained to them there about the trunk and branches and how, as far as unity is concerned, Sakya, Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, Kadam, and Jonang all go to the root. There are no differences. But when there’s too much emphasis on the branches, then the little differences here and there stand out too much. These branches are important; some special things are there, like dzogchen [the great completeness] and mahamudra [the great seal] and Sakya lamdray [the path together with its results] and seltong-zungjug [the joined pair of clarity and voidness]. Each one is good, but they’re all related to the trunk. It’s very good when these special features come on top of full knowledge of the basic teachings of the trunk. Then it’s complete. But if you neglect the basic teachings and just hold these branches, then it’s not complete, and also there’s the danger of misinterpretation.

So that’s the trunk, the Nalanda masters. I usually describe seventeen Nalanda masters. Their texts are the explanations about basic Buddhism. The others are the branches.

The Importance of Skepticism

According to the trunk – the basic Buddhist teachings – skepticism is very essential. Now, I think and hope I am a Buddhist, but I no longer have any conviction in Mount Meru. The two truths and

noble truths are the real explanations for the cosmos, for the galaxies and the Big Bang. That’s the real teaching of Buddha and Buddhism.

The presentation of the classic texts is structured around the four placements of confidence (rton-pa bzhi). [Don’t place your confidence on the person, place it on his or her teachings; don’t place your confidence on his or her words, place it on their meanings; don’t place your confidence on their interpretable meanings, place it on their definitive meanings; (to understand them) don’t place your confidence on your dividing consciousness, place it on your deep awareness.] The classic texts mention that the real audience of these books, their serious readers, must have a skeptical attitude. They need to investigate whether the content of the book is something relevant to their lives or not. What temporary benefit does it have? And in the long run, what benefit does it have? The serious audience must be clearly aware of the relevance of the text before following its teachings.

That’s exactly the Nalanda approach. People in the audience must be skeptical. Skepticism brings questioning; questioning brings investigation; investigation brings answers. That’s the only logical approach.

Refuting Beliefs about Mount Meru and the Location of the Hell Realms

When I was in Sar Ashram forty years ago, on one occasion I mentioned, “Buddha didn’t come to this planet to make a map. So it’s not Buddhist business whether there’s a Mount Meru or not. It doesn’t matter.” Like that. So we have the liberty to reject Vasubandhu’s explanation [in Abhidharmakosha, A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge]. We must make a distinction between literal and symbolic meanings. In Kalachakra it’s mentioned that Mount Meru and all these things symbolize the human body, from the head to the soles of the feet. There are many similar tantric explanations. So these symbols have a certain meaning, a certain purpose.

And about the hells, the concept of the hells: I find it very difficult to accept what Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha mentioned: that twenty leagues [pagtse (dpag-tshad), Skt. yojana] beneath Bodhgaya are the eight different hell realms. The pagtse is much longer than a kilometer. So if you go down further and further, then most probably the hells exist in America! But it’s disgraceful to say that America is a hell. So these things aren’t difficult to refute.

There are three ways of understanding things: through sensory perception, through inference based on reasoning, and through relying on the authority of scripture. That means [in the case of scripture] relying on a third person. I often tell people that it’s like our own birthday: We have no way to investigate what’s our real birthday. We have to rely on a third person; for example, our mother. And in order to accept the third person’s description, first we have to prove that person is honest, reliable, and has a normal mind. So we need to test some other field that the third person has mentioned, something that we can investigate. If we investigate and find it’s correct, we know this person is truthful and has no reason to lie or pretend things. Then we can accept that person’s other statements.

So, like that, there might be mysterious phenomena that are beyond our level of understanding and that we have no experience of. If there are people who say they have actually experienced these phenomena, we can check their writings and see if they are reliable concerning other points. If so, we can rely on this third person’s explanation of the things that are beyond our reasoning. We have to take this sort of approach with some of the explanations in Buddhist literature.

Now, according to pramana – logic and epistemology – [there are different types of proof and refutation. One type of refutation involves a phenomenon that should be observable, but isn’t]. For example, according to the Abhidharmakosha, the sun and moon are the same distance from Earth, and as they revolve around Mount Meru, day and night come about. Seemingly we actually experience Mount Meru’s shadow [during the night], but if we experience its shadow, then we should also be able to see the mountain. In ancient times in India, Vasubandhu didn’t have the possibility to check to see if there is a Mount Meru. But now we have spacecraft, so we should be able to see it. If Mount Meru exists, we should be able to see it. But since we cannot see it, we can say it doesn’t exist.

So there are refutations that involve not being able to observe the phenomenon you are trying to prove or where you observe the opposite of it. Dignaga and Dharmakirti clearly mentioned these things in their texts. So utilizing our own Buddhist epistemology, the nonexistence of Mount Meru is easily proved. It’s no problem to refute these things.

One time in South India, at a big gathering of student monks – I think more than ten thousand student monks (all the major monastic institutions’ students were gathered there) – I mentioned my views about the importance of science and that we must learn science, modern science. And then I mentioned that I don’t believe in Mount Meru and all these things. Then I said, “Oh, but please don’t consider me a nihilist.” On the first day my teaching was more on the relation between Buddhist science and Western science. Then the second day I explained about the Buddhist teachings. So the first day I was being more innovative in my teaching, and the second day was more traditional religious teaching. So anyway it’s no problem to refute these things.

Potential Dangers of Guru-Devotion

So now if we go to the root, there is no emphasis on the importance of devotion. But if you go to these branches, like mahamudra or dzogchen, then guru-yoga is very important. That’s actually spoiling some of these lamas, and then their centers can become cults. Why? Because of forgetting the basic Buddhist teachings and focusing just on these branches.

Like Naropa, the main teacher of Marpa, the Kagyu lineage’s main figure. Naropa was one of the great scholars of the Nalanda institution. Then later he practiced Tantrayana looking like a beggar or sadhu. Naropa only had the potential to practice these things because he studied all the important texts available in the Nalanda tradition. But now some of the practitioners in the West – among Tibetans also, among the Ladakhis also – without knowing the foundation of Buddha-dharma, do whatever their lama says. Even if their lama says, “West is east,” he or she believes: “Oh, that’s the east.” That’s against the Nalanda tradition.

Of course the person who is really fully qualified in the basic knowledge about Buddhism is different from a lama who just sits on a high throne – like me on a high throne – but whose real experience is very limited. Now it maybe looks as if I’m a little bit jealous of these lamas! But according to my experience, I think they don’t have proper, full knowledge, and they just emphasize these branches. That creates a lot of misunderstanding. That’s important to understand.

Adapting Buddhism to the West

The idea of having a Western Buddhism is perfectly all right, perfectly all right. You know that Buddhism originally came from India. Then when it reached different places, it mixed with local cultural traditions and became Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism: like that.

Some of the musical instruments that our Tibetan monasteries use don’t come from the Nalanda tradition, but come from the Chinese side. There’s an instrument called a gyaling (rgya-gling) [the Tibetan shawm or oboe], literally “Chinese flute.” And in some of these monasteries, the people who play that also dress like the Chinese. Silly, isn’t it? That’s not part of Buddhism; that’s just a cultural aspect. So similarly in the Western Buddhist community, you can use modern instruments and pray to the tune of a Western song. That’s okay. That’s no problem.

But as far as the idea of the four noble truths and altruism and all these are concerned: You see, Buddhism deals with emotions, and today’s human emotions are the same as the human emotions 2600 years ago. People’s emotions have been the same for I think the last three or four thousand years and will remain the same for the next few thousand years. After ten thousand or twenty thousand years, some new shape of brain will have evolved, and then maybe things will be a little different. But that’s too far ahead. There’s no need to modify the teachings for our generation, the second generation, the third generation – it’s the same human brain and the same human emotions. You can ask scientists about this, brain specialists, and they’ll say, “Oh, it will be the same brain for at least the next few centuries. No change.” Like that. So the basic Buddhist teaching must be authentic.

One time in France I mentioned the New Age – you take something from here, something from there, something from there, and the final result is not authentic. That’s not good. I think we must keep the real Nalanda tradition. That’s very important. But cultural aspects can change.

The Problem of Misunderstanding Advanced Teachings

Now I think perhaps I have some constructive criticism. In the West I’ve met some people who know just a little bit, but who felt: “Oh, I have full knowledge!” Then, due to their own limited knowledge and misconceptions, they make up teachings. Of course among Tibetans as well this is possible, particularly those people who don’t study these big philosophical texts.

There’s one example that I think I can share with you. I visited San Francisco immediately after a great earthquake. My driver at that time was not from the State Department. It was a private car, and the driver was one of the Dharma center’s members who practiced dzogchen. I casually asked him, “When the great earthquake happened, what did you feel?” And he said, “Oh, it was a great opportunity to practice dzogchen, because it was a shock, a great shock.”

But to be in a state of shock with no thoughts – if he felt that was genuine dzogchen practice, then I think it would be quite easy: get hit and you can practice dzogchen! Dzogchen is not that easy. I myself have practiced dzogchen. Oh, it’s very difficult, very difficult.

There’s a saying: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” There’s a little bit of truth there, so be careful. Study. And don’t rely on a lama’s instruction; rely on these authentic books. That’s important. Don’t rely on my word. Study these authentic texts written by Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, all these Buddhist masters. The teachings have been tested through centuries by those scholars. Arya Asanga wrote and argued with some other philosophers. For example, some of Nagarjuna’s writing was criticized a little by Arya Asanga; and then another master analyzed Arya Asanga’s work and criticized it. These great texts written by these masters were experimented with and tested through centuries, so they are really reliable.

And then there’s the doha, the spiritual songs [the spontaneous spiritual songs of accomplished masters]. These very individual practitioners, like Naropa or Tilopa, thoroughly studied the Nalanda tradition. Then, through practice, they gave up all worldly life, including monastic life, and completely lived as mendicants and yogis. And then through their own experiences, they composed these poems according to their own deep understanding and simple words. So there is a danger of misunderstanding these if a person knows only the basic tradition [and no further.]

The Nyingma tradition describes a system of nine yanas [vehicles]. The first three yanas – the shravaka-yana, pratyekabuddha-yana, and bodhisattva-yana [the three sutra vehicles] – are based mainly on the understanding of the four noble truths. And then the three next yanas – kriya, upa, and yoga [vehicles related to the three outer classes of tantra] – emphasize the practice of cleanliness. And then the last three yanas – maha, anu, and ati [vehicles related to the three inner classes of tantra] – emphasize the practices for controlling one’s mind.

The real meaning behind these last three yanas is to allow the emotions to develop and then, rather than becoming enslaved by that emotion, your main mind is able to look at the ultimate nature of the emotion. That’s clear light. So in these last three yanas, the destructive emotions are not seen as something that you have to overcome, but you look at the nature of these destructive emotions and see the reality. So this is on the basis of deeper experience, and it’s a very different sort of practice to that of the earlier stages. So some of the teachings from high level practitioners who have already passed through these stages are difficult to practice on our level. These nine stages aren’t easy.

Should We Act in the Name of Humanity or in the Name of Buddhism?

Recently I was in Patna, Bihar State. They made a huge construction of a Buddhist vihara, a Buddhist temple. They acquired some relics from different Buddhist countries, and I also offered them some relics. At that function, the chief minister mentioned that due to Buddha’s blessings, Bihar state will progress rapidly. Then I told him – because I know him, he’s a very close friend – “If Buddha’s blessings can help to develop Bihar state, it would have developed much earlier, because Buddha’s blessings were already there. Until an effective chief minister comes, development will not take place. Buddha’s blessings must go through a human’s hand.”

Prayer has no real effect, although prayer is something very nice but doing something is different, isn’t it? Real effect requires action. That’s why Buddhism says, “Karma, karma.” Karma implies “action.” So we must be active.

Action should be taken with the belief: “I’m one of nearly seven billion human beings. I have the responsibility to take serious concern about the well-being of nearly seven billion human beings.” Like that. When we offer a Buddhist prayer, we always say it’s for all sentient beings. No Buddhist says prayers only for Tibetans. Never pray that way. Or for just this world – there are infinite worlds, infinite sentient beings. And then we must implement that; otherwise our prayer becomes hypocrisy. Praying on the basis of a big “we,” but having our actual karma – our actual “actions” – based on a strong feeling of “we” and “they” is hypocrisy.

Now, should our actions be done in the name of humanity or in the name of Buddhism? If you try to promote basic human values on the basis of Buddhist teachings, then it becomes narrow and it cannot be universal. India’s thousand-year-old tradition involved pluralism in all religions, and it was secular – no preference of one particular religion; respect all religions. Besides the homegrown religions, all the major world religions eventually settled in India. So for the last at least two thousand years, all major world religious traditions have lived together in this country. So naturally, because of that reality, they developed secular ethics. That’s very good. There are so many religions that we can’t place stress on religious faith. So therefore the only practical, realistic way is without touching on religion – just simply secular ethics.

I’m a fully committed Buddhist. If someone shows an interest in Buddhism, sometimes I feel happy; but I never try to propagate Buddhism. Religious faith is an individual’s business. Secular ethics is the business of all human beings. So we, the Buddhist community – beside your own daily practice as a Buddhist – should think more along these lines.

I really appreciate the work of our Christian brothers and sisters. I think they’ve made the greatest contribution to education on this whole planet. You don’t see any other religion doing that. Recently in India the Ramakrishna Movement is doing something [in the area of mass education], but all the other religious groups remain in their own temples and collect money. You see, we must be active in promotion of a better, healthier society. On that level, I think our Christian brothers and sisters have done a tremendous service to human beings. But in the meantime, they also carry out missionary work, conversion work, and that’s a complication.

One time in Salt Lake City, the Mormons invited me to their headquarters. I met their leaders, and then later I gave a public talk there. I mentioned that when missionary workers go to areas where there is no solid religious tradition, then it’s good to convert the people there to Christianity. When there’s no solid philosophy there already, it’s very good. But in areas that already have solid religious beliefs, conversion creates clashes and difficulties.

Sometimes they provide money when they carry out these conversions. When each conversion takes place, they give fifteen dollars. Mongolians are quite clever about this: they undergo conversion every year, and so each year they get fifteen dollars!