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Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part I: The Lam-rim Graded Stages as Preparation Shared in Common by Sutra and Tantra Mahamudra

Session Six: Happiness, Suffering and Questions

The Pursuit of Happiness

We have two types of happiness, physical happiness and mental happiness, and most of the effort we put into our lives is involved in the pursuit of physical comfort and happiness. In the pursuit of physical happiness and comfort a lot of people engage in all sorts of activities. They can become murderers and robbers, steal all sorts of things and sell them to get some money and get some physical comfort and happiness, and, in fact, they are able to get some comfort in that way. But this is just exchanging one problem for another and, in the long run, it just brings them more problems. It would be as if you had a big wound on your cheek and you cut off your nose and transplanted it on your cheek to take care of the wound there: you are just exchanging one problem for another. Then there are others who pursue physical comfort and happiness through making an honest living as farmers, merchants, and so forth, and there are many people who are successful in making a living in this way, by farming or engaging in commerce.

There are also people who are very unlucky and things never work out for them. No matter how much they try to run a business it doesn’t succeed, or a store, they’re not able to sell things, or they have a farm and are unable to really make it work. When you have two persons doing the same type of work, both working equally hard, but one succeeds and the other fails, you may ask, “Well what’s the difference? What makes one succeed and the other fail?” It is because of the different types of potentials they have built up in past lifetimes. If in the past they have built up positive potentials, then they succeed in what they are doing and things go well. If they’ve built up negative potentials, then nothing ever works out.

However, you will find that no matter how successful people might be in their material pursuits and in their career, no matter how much money and possessions they have, although it can bring some physical comfort, it doesn’t bring mental happiness. You’ll find that the more things you have, the more problems and worries you have over them. If one person had all the wealth and possessions of this entire country, of America, this person would just have this type of thought: “Oh, I just wish I had even more.” In other words, nobody is ever satisfied, nobody ever feels, “Now I have enough material things, I don’t need anything else.” Therefore, we must look for a spiritual practice of Dharma, something that can bring us a greater happiness than this, a happiness that is long lasting, that is very great and that will never end. We need to realize and accept that other than by following the spiritual methods of Dharma, taking these preventive measures, there’s no way we will be able to really gain a lasting happiness.

Suffering

Having been born, then there are the various sufferings and problems of getting sick, getting old and dying. There is nobody who doesn’t have these types of problems; they are common to absolutely everybody. Everybody gets sick at some time, everybody dies at some time; it’s just a matter of time when is it going to be your turn. If when you are sick you get all upset about it and get really freaked out and worry “Oh, I’m sick, how horrible,” then, in addition to the physical unhappiness and discomfort of being sick, you’ve added on top an unnecessary extra burden of also being mentally very unhappy. So, if when you get sick you think “Well my getting sick is the result of negative potentials that I’ve built up in the past from acting destructively; that’s what’s causing me to be sick,” then you can feel very happy because, “Now that this potential has ripened and I’m rid of it, I won’t have to experience it any more. I don’t have to carry it around any longer. Now it’s ripened into this sickness and I’m done with it. In the future I’m not going to act destructively any more so that I can avoid causing further negative potentials to build up.” You accept the sickness with this positive attitude, aware that now you are rid of this negative potential you’ve built up, and happy to be rid of it. Not only that, but you say, “I wish that I could likewise take on everybody’s sicknesses. And that my being sick would suffice to prevent everybody else ever having to be sick. Let all the possible sufferings that anybody else might ever have from getting sick come on me now. May my being sick now end everybody’s potentials for being sick.” Then you will find that your experience of being sick is completely different and you will not have a hard time with it at all, rather you’ll be very happy that you got sick because you can use this positively.

The great Kunu Lama Rinpoche, a great recent master, described that in the land where he came from there was one man who did this type of practice of healing others by taking their sicknesses on to himself. Once, there was someone who had a very, very bad head injury with a heavy infection and a lot of pain, and this old man went to him and waved his hands saying, “May this sickness come on me, may it come on me.” He was actually able to heal this person, but he himself got the head injury and infection and died from it.

The Reliability of the Great Masters of the Past

Even if you’re staying in a completely luxurious house, filled with all the gadgets, possessions and things that you can imagine, and having the best possible food and drink, it is quite possible to be there and be totally miserable because of your attitude, regardless of how much food, drink and gadgets you might have to amuse yourself with in this house. Conversely, somebody else could be staying in a really awful, second-grade type of place, but because of their attitude they are very happy and content. You can look at the example of the ever-vigilant Milarepa who lived in a cave. There was absolutely nothing in the cave. If we were to be stuck in such a place we would find it really tough and difficult, but Milarepa was very content and pleased with it. He said, “I have no worldly concerns or anything that’s perishable,” and was extremely happy living with nothing.

The ever-vigilant Milarepa was once sleeping outside on a meadow next to a roadway. He was just lying there, looking very skinny. A girl walked by and seeing him said, “Oh, what a miserable looking body this person has. May I never take such a body in my future lives; may I never fall to such a state as this person.” Milarepa got up and said, “You don’t have anything to worry about. Even if you prayed to become like me, you wouldn’t become like this.”

Milarepa’s teacher, the translator Marpa, went to India three times to meet his teacher Naropa. As he was going to India the third time, his teacher Naropa had already passed away. On the way to India, on a mountain pass, he met the great Atisha who was on his way to Tibet. Atisha knew that Naropa had passed away, and in fact was taking some of Naropa’s relics and possessions with him to Tibet. However, he didn’t say anything to Marpa about Naropa’s death because he knew that Marpa was a rather remarkable person who would be able to meet with Naropa, even though he had passed away, and so he let him go on to India. Marpa continued on his way through Nepal, came down into India and went back to the place where Naropa had been living and, in fact, he did receive a vision of Naropa there and he did receive teachings from him.

All these great beings, Milarepa and so forth, aren’t speaking a lot of nonsense when they talk about past and future lives. They have no reason in the world to fool anybody. They have no interest in getting worldly things or anything like that by making up stories and fooling people. Their only wish is to be of benefit to everyone and, therefore, what they say about past and future lives is true and there is cause to believe in them.

There are some charlatans who might go around trying to convince you that a certain machine has a mind in order to sell it and make an awful lot of money off you, but if you look at Milarepa’s example, there’s no reason for him to act as a charlatan. He’s not trying to sell you anything; he’s not trying to make any money off people. He lived in a cave and had completely given up all worldly possessions and things, and simply taught in order to benefit everyone. Look at the examples of Buddha Shakyamuni and Atisha: both of them renounced their princely lives and devoted themselves completely to spiritual pursuits. Look in the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Gelug traditions: all of them have many great masters who likewise gave up all worldly concern, and all these masters taught about the existence of past lives, not in order to convince you so they could sell you something. Rather, they themselves had no concern for material goods. By these teachings they only wished to benefit you and convince you that if you act in a positive way, it will be of benefit to you; things will work out better for you. So their teachings about past and future lives are all intended to be of help.

The Dharma activity of devoting yourself to a spiritual life is very difficult at the beginning and requires a lot of hard work. It’s not a very easy pursuit to follow. If it were so easy that you could just sit back and relax and still be a great spiritual practitioner, you’d be a bit suspicious of it. It does require a lot of hard work and effort but, although it involves a great deal of hardships, you’ll find that regardless of how difficult things might become, deep inside you have inner peace and happiness, and things work out well. Among the many sincere spiritual practitioners in Tibet and India, it’s unheard of that some are unable to make it because things are too difficult. You will find that, in fact, they are able to make it because they have this inner happiness, strength and peace.

The Dharma spiritual practice is something that can reach an end. You can reach the completion of the spiritual quest and journey and it ends in a state of great happiness. In contrast, a material quest is something that has no end and when you are forced to stop your quest at the time of death, it ends in a state of total tragedy and unhappiness, completely different from the spiritual quest that has an end and ends in happiness.

You should think about what it means to complete your spiritual quest and journey, what does it actually mean? What it means is that you come to the final point at which you’ve learned everything, you’ve gained all good qualities and there is nothing left for you to learn, you’ve mastered everything. It’s not that you finish your spiritual quest and that means that you have finished your work and can just lay back and go to sleep and do nothing. So you should think about what it actually means to complete the spiritual journey that you are setting out on.

This is all for today. Are there any questions?

Participant: Three questions. The first one concerns Rinpoche’s example of Dharmakirti and the pearl in the mouth. I understood that in the process of death it is only the subtle consciousness and the seeds of karma that continue on. This example seems to imply that one carries on a physical body as well?

Serkong Rinpoche: It’s not that you can take some physical object with you into future lives. There are also the examples that I gave the other day of people who made offerings of gold and were reborn with gold earrings or the ability to have gold coins come out of their hand and things like that. All of these come from instincts and potentials that have been laid very strongly on the mental continuum and then ripen in the next rebirth. So it’s not that you put a pearl in somebody’s mouth and they can take that along into their next life and they have that same pearl they had in their mouth when they died. Rather, it was through the force of Dharmakirti’s very powerful single-minded concentration that, by putting the pearl in this person’s mouth, it created an extremely strong potential and instinct on the mental continuum of that person to generate having a pearl in the mouth again when the person was reborn.

For instance, you have the example of Marpa’s son, Dharmadodey, who sustained a foot injury and in his future reincarnations he was born with some sort of marking on his foot. It’s not that he took the same injury along, but that it was a very strong instinct that continued on the mental continuum and gave rise to a similar thing.

Do Plants Have Minds?

Participant: Second question. Rinpoche was saying how a pillar or a beam doesn’t have a mind and that if I were without a consciousness, then the body would be similar to the pillar or the beam. As I understand it, the Buddhist tradition says that plants don’t have a mind, yet I would not be able to liken a tree out there to this beam, because a tree is living. On the other hand I don’t see it has a mind, so I am confused now in this relationship, if that is a proof for something having a mind and it’s living, then we would have to say that plants have a mind?

Serkong Rinpoche: Does a corpse have a mind?

Participant: I don’t believe so.

Serkong Rinpoche: Did the corpse come out of the mother’s womb? Did the body of the corpse come out at that time and did it have a mind?

Participant: Well the corpse itself didn’t come out, no. A being came out that was impermanent, changing moment by moment, so when it is a corpse, it isn’t the actual object that came out of the mother’s womb.

Serkong Rinpoche: So if the body itself doesn’t have a mind, are you saying that the tree has a mind because it gives birth to leaves and twigs, which are things like a body that do not have a mind?

Participant: I’m saying that if something is living, that proves that it has a mind. Then, if I say that because this body is living, it has mind, I should be able to apply that same proof to a tree: that because it is living, it has mind.

Alex: Well what do you mean by living – that it has life force?

Participant: Yes. The fact that that is all I can see to differentiate between myself and that pillar – I’m alive, I have some active force, but the pillar doesn’t – that’s the only way I’m able to see the difference at this point.

Serkong Rinpoche: Are you stating that if something has a life force, then it has a mind? So are you stating that because a tree gives rise to leaves and twigs, therefore, it has a life force?

Participant: I would say not so much leaves and twigs, but the fact that it can generate a new tree seems to me an example of its life force?

Serkong Rinpoche: So which are you stating as the reason for it having a life force? The fact that it gives rise to leaves and twigs, or the fact that it gives rise to seeds which, when planted, will give rise to other trees?

Participant: I would say both. The fact that it is growing, that it has the force of growing, it’s not a static thing, it is actually taking in material and transforming it in a growing process, and that it has the ability to have a sexual union of sorts which produces offspring – that proves it has a life force.

Serkong Rinpoche: What about the example that there are certain corpses that are mummified and after they have been mummified for many centuries you find that the hair and nails have grown on these mummies? Many strange things happen with mummies. Would you say that also these mummies are alive, because they have given rise to more hair and nails? If so, then you would have to say that corn and wheat also have a life because they too give rise to seeds, and do you also assert that if corn and wheat have a life force they also have a mind?

Participant: This is where I am confused. It didn’t seem to need any great leap of faith to see these things as living, but to see them as having mind? I’ve never understood that a plant had mind.

Serkong Rinpoche: If you are defining the word “life” in terms of simply having the ability to grow and produce seeds which then can grow into a new object, and you are not equating it with having a mind, then that’s a completely different matter and it’s just a question of terminology, so there’s no problem there. However, if you are using the word “life” as an exact equivalent for the Tibetan word “srog,” which is the Sanskrit word prana, then since the Tibetan term has the connotation of “being conscious,” of “having ways of knowing and having mind,” then it won’t do. So it’s a matter of terminology.

You could say that dry tree trunks like this pillar are also devoid of life force, but what if you take these pillars and put them in water and they get very moist and then start to get green again?

Participant: But that is another organism growing on the basis of the pillar. An organism could grow on my body, on this basis.

Serkong Rinpoche: But you’ve set that as a reason for being alive, and so then you’d have to say that the pillar was alive because it has given rise to a new form.

Participant 2: I don’t quite see that because you can have mold growing on the floor, but the floor is not alive, although it’s providing causes and condition for something to grow. But there is the question that you can kill a tree. I mean, would you speak of killing trees?

Alex: What Rinpoche is saying is that it is a matter of terminology. In English we speak of a tree as being alive, and of killing trees and plants. That is not the same as making that statement in Tibetan or Sanskrit because in those languages, when they talk about life force and killing, it is more specific and the definitions don’t cover what we would cover by our usage of the words “kill” and “alive.” It’s not a matter of disagreeing with each other; it’s just a matter of having words that have wider or narrower boundaries in the scope of their meaning.

Participant 2: So does that mean that in those languages the word “life” is equated with mind?

Alex: Yes.

Participant 1: Conversely then, if it’s true that if we put that in water and mold or some organism grew on it, logic would then assume that that pillar would have to have a mind to produce another life.

Alex: Now we are talking about another question. That aside, Rinpoche is bringing into question the Western definition of something being alive.

Participant 1: Well if we were to take the converse, that means that if you can’t prove that to be true – that if something is alive, it needs to be able to produce another life – then that would prove it to be dead.

Serkong Rinpoche: Would you say that a rocket ship has a life, is it alive? What’s the reason for saying that the rocket ship isn’t alive?

Participant 1: It lacks the ability to take in organic or inorganic material and reproduce itself, extend itself, or produce a seed that would produce another rocket.

Serkong Rinpoche: What about machines in general, do they have a life? So for something to be alive, it has to eat food?

Participant: It has to take some form of nutrition, whether it’s subtle or gross.

Alex: That confused Rinpoche because rocket ships eat rocket fuel and machines eat electricity. They have motion and they move and, moreover, machines can make other machines. So it’s a little difficult for Rinpoche to understand what the meaning of the Western word “life” is.

Participant 2: Cell division?

Alex: Can you explain cell division a little bit more, because you do have machines that can make other machines.

Participant 1: Cell division is growth.

Participant 3: Cells divide and reproduce themselves.

Alex: I’m hard pressed to find the Tibetan word for cell. Instead, I was explaining to Rinpoche about the case of some type of worms that you chop in half and get two worms.

Participant 1: I was also saying that to explain it, if you were to damage that cell in some way, it would lose its power to duplicate. It has this ability to duplicate but can lose it.

Serkong Rinpoche: So what about the cells in the wood in the pillar? Doesn’t that wood have cells?

Participant 1: They are cells that have lost the ability to multiply.

Serkong Rinpoche: What is the way of differentiating whether or not they have that ability?

Participant 1: No matter what you do to them, they are not going to duplicate. But if you add another cell to it that is alive, it can use those cells as a basis for growth and itself can then duplicate.

Participant 4: Can I just pursue something, to extend it? There are particular trees, there are single trees or groups of trees that are said to possess certain qualities, special energies, special spirits, what is the nature of that?

Alex: Now you are getting into a completely different discussion. We’re talking about the tree itself not spirits.

Participant 3: I would like to know whether, from the Tibetan perspective, there is a difference between trees and rocks. I mean not rocks, not even part of the earth, but trees and metal?

Alex: Plants give rise to trees and twigs and things like that, whereas rocks and pieces of iron don’t. It’s the same, it’s just what you want to call it, how you want to divide your pie.

Participant 3: But those are not considered to be alive because they do not have a mind?

Alex: You would accept that a plant, a tree, is alive, but doesn’t have a mind? Yes, it is exactly like that in the Tibetan. We’re much better off not using the word “life” to translate the Tibetan word because it will just get confusing since they are not equivalents. The word that they use, that something has a “srog” is something that has consciousness. Now, something that has life is a different issue. In Tibetan you have animals, plants and minerals, and the Tibetans place animals together in one category, and plants and minerals in another category. Westerners place mineral in one category, and plants and animals together in another category, that’s what the whole issue boils down to. So Rinpoche would like to know what is your reason for lumping animal and plant together in one category, whereas they would lump plant and metal together in one category although still acknowledging that they are different things? Are you saying that “life” isn’t the same as “having a mind,” in the sense that the Tibetans would assert that “life” isn’t exactly the same as “being conscious”?

Participant 1: During a past teaching, someone commented that he was having difficulties differentiating between a plant and an animal, and asked about this to Rinpoche. In answer to that question, Rinpoche gave the example of a funeral in Tibet where they were taking this man up to be cremated. A very highly realized doctor came over and said, “This man isn’t dead.” He took the man home and revived him; the man had been in a very subtle state of consciousness. If you don’t know, if you can’t even tell if a human is alive or dead, whether he has a mind or not in that body, then you won’t be able to tell with a plant. So it is difficult to say whether a plant has mind or not, or whether a human has a mind or not if you don’t know what the mind itself is. But, on the other hand, it is difficult for me to say that a plant isn’t alive, that it’s not growing.

Alex: Yes, but our whole discussion is about what does it mean for something to be alive. Rinpoche would like to understand what the Western concept of being alive and life is?

Participant 1: It’s just the force of growing.

Participant 3: Well, how can you account for the improved growth of a plant by talking to it?

Alex: Rinpoche says that it’s quite possible for speech directed at a plant to affect its growth. That’s nothing remarkable or strange, but it doesn’t prove that the plant has a mind. That is just things’ response to causes and conditions within the general presentation of everything being dependently arisen. Just because it responds to stimuli doesn’t prove it has a mind.

Serkong Rinpoche: For instance, there are plants like the Venus flytrap and similar plants that eat insects and some of them, not all, would have a mind. But just because it catches insects and destroys them you can’t give that as a reason for having a mind because you can also have an electric fly trap that catches flies and destroys them and you wouldn’t say that just because it does that, it’s alive. Not just that it’s alive but that it has a mind.

Participant: Could we conversely say then that some things that look like human beings walking around don’t have minds?

Alex: Sure, there are tons of robots and things like that around. On the East Coast and in the mid-West there are these pizza palace places that have robots in the form of bears, apes and gorillas up on stage run by computers, and they sing songs and dance. Once we walked into one of these computer pizza palaces and Rinpoche first said that they were all alive, although it was quite obvious they weren’t. So there are tons of things like that. This is after all a land famous for all sorts of contraptions of that kind, so you don’t have to think very much to answer your question.

Can One Take Someone Else’s Sickness upon Oneself?

Participant 1: I have one further question. The last question concerns the story that the Kunu Lama gave about the man who was able to take on someone else’s sickness. It seemed to me that this contradicted one of the laws of karma that the Buddha taught, that unless you have created the cause, such as if you had created the cause for a sickness and it comes on you, you would not have to experience it?

Serkong Rinpoche: Of course, this person had accumulated the karma to be able to take on this sickness of the other person; it’s not that it just happened for no reason.

Alex: Rinpoche has done the karma, or some actions, in the past, or built up potentials to be able to take a meal from you and receive food from you here and have that meal. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for Rinpoche to take food here. It would be like a beggar who comes and is sent away.

Participant 1: Well there’s the expression that the Buddha can’t remove your delusions like a thorn from your foot, but this more or less makes it sound like you can, that all your suffering that the Buddha couldn’t remove himself, someone else could?

Serkong Rinpoche: It’s the same thing with the person in the example. He had built up the karma to have his sickness taken away by that particular person. It’s the same thing: The Buddha can’t pull out suffering like a thorn unless you have the karma to be helped by the Buddha. If you haven’t built up the karma and don’t have the potentials for that to happen, it won’t happen. It’s as if you were working in a factory, you have to be taught how to operate the machines and so forth, and then you know how to operate them. You can’t just walk in and have everything working for no reason at all; it comes about from a causal process.

But this particular type of question is really quite crucial; these questions about karma are very good to ask. It’s not such an intelligent question to ask whether or not you can have things that look like human beings with no eyes. That’s a pretty stupid question! Of course it’s true that if you haven’t built up the karma in the past to have these things happen, in terms of being healed by someone else and so forth, they won’t happen. These things don’t just happen for no reason; otherwise, as you say, you have these contradictions. Thinking about these questions is very good. Like when they talk about being reborn in a pure land field, which is like some sort of paradise, though not quite the same, this type of thing doesn’t happen without having built up the causes for it. It’s not just that you can do anything and then go off to a paradise and are able to enjoy all the things. You must create such a situation yourself by your actions.

For instance, there is this group of us here today and we’ve all built up the causes and have the karma to be here today in this group. If you didn’t have that karma to be here in this group and participate in this teaching, this event, then you wouldn’t have shown up, you wouldn’t have come here. Some years ago, at Gomang monastery, I recall there was a very learned Mongolian. The abbot of Gomang monastery at that time was also extremely learned, a great master. In the monasteries’ educational system there’s what’s called the Lharampa degree of geshe, which would be like the top level of a Ph.D. in their education system. The abbot said to the Mongolian who was at the monastery, “Don’t take this Ph.D., don’t sit for the exams, don’t go through with its procedures,” but he wanted to get this degree.

When the abbot went outside the grounds, the Mongolian said, “In saying that I shouldn’t sit the exam, the abbot was making a show of demonstrating ESP to me. But according to the rules of discipline, you are not supposed to demonstrate ESP, so he must have been lying to me.”

In any case, out of consideration for the abbot’s authority, the Mongolian sat the exams for the next grade down from the top one, the grade right below, because he had studied very well and knew the texts well, and he wanted to take the exams and get some degree. In the monastic system, once you’ve taken the exam for the lower grade of degree and gotten that degree, you can’t do the exams for the higher level in that degree because you have already received the degree of a particular category.

When the abbot passed away, the Mongolian decided he wanted to take the exams for the higher degree level anyway, because the abbot was no longer around and he felt alright to do that. There were ten thousand monks present for the examination. The way that the exam is taken is that, in front of this large assembly, first you have to recite certain texts by heart and then you do the actual oral examination, which is in the form of a debate. So he went out and stood in front of a pillar to do the recitation from memory that was required as part of the exam, and when he went over to take his seat at the pillar to start the recitation, as soon as he put his foot on that seat, he dropped dead.

So he was unable to take the exams for the higher degree level because he didn’t have the karma to be able to do that. The abbot had in fact known about this and that was the reason why he had said, “You shouldn’t take the exam.” People then looked in the notebooks and belongings of this Mongolian who had dropped dead on the spot where he tried to take the exams, and in his notes they found that he had in fact asked his Dharma protector whether or not it would be OK to take the exams, like asking an oracle in a sense. The answer that had come was that he shouldn’t, but as he didn’t particularly like that answer and wanted to take the exams anyway, he had made this accusation against the abbot outside, saying that the abbot was pretending to have ESP and went on and tried to take the exams anyway.

In this example, the point isn’t whether or not the abbot had ESP, but that if you haven’t built up the karma for a certain event to occur, it’s not going to happen no matter how much you try to push it. The same thing would be true in terms of taking on somebody else’s sickness. Both parties involved must have built up the karma for this to happen.