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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > History of Buddhism and Bon > The Three Rounds of Transmission of the Dharma (The Three Turnings of the Wheel) > The Three Rounds of Transmission of the Dharma (The Three Turnings of the Wheel)

The Three Rounds of Transmission of the Dharma (The Three Turnings of the Wheel)

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, March 2010

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:45 hours)

This morning we are going to be speaking about the teachings of the Buddha, actually, and how he taught them and how we understand them. The actual title that was announced is “The Turning of the Dharma Wheel and the Development of the Four Philosophical Schools”.

Buddha in Hinayana

After Buddha achieved enlightenment (he achieved enlightenment at the age of 35), he taught until he passed away at the age of 81. If we look at the Pali canon (Pali is a language of India), it’s the textual tradition of the Theravada school, so if we look at that then we find one way of describing how Buddha taught. In these texts it always describes the setting of how Buddha taught one particular teaching or another, and it was mostly as a part of an invitation that Buddha and his monks received. They lived by alms, collecting alms, so different people invited them to a meal, for lunchtime, and then after lunch the Buddha gave a talk.

Buddha always taught with what is known as “skillful means”. In other words, he taught in a way that would be understandable and suitable to each of his audiences. So although when we look at the material of the actual contents of Buddha’s teachings, and if we look at it just from a dissociated point of view, it looks as though there are many contradictions in it; however, yesterday what I mentioned was that everything has to be understood within a context, and so each teaching has to be understood within the context of the audience to whom Buddha was addressing it.

Buddha in Mahayana

Now when we look at the Mahayana texts we find a slightly different description of ways in which the Buddha taught. Mahayana is very concerned with teaching and benefiting all beings throughout the universe and helping them to achieve not just liberation, but enlightenment. And so the audiences in these Mahayana sutras are absolutely vast.

So we find Buddha teaching, for instance, the Prajnaparamita Sutras, sutras on the deepest meaning of reality: far reaching discriminating awareness, I call it, or perfection of wisdom (there are many ways – let’s not get into translation problems here). He’s teaching on Vulture’s Peak, which if you’ve ever been there it’s a little ridge that has a platform on the top, a flat top, and then a vast, wide valley underneath it so you can see. So this is the setting. It is filled with billions of beings from all different universes and all different types of life forms.

Sometimes Buddha will sit in meditation, and through the inspiration of the Buddha somebody else, one of his disciples, will deliver a teaching, and then at the end Buddha will say, “Well said, well said. Well done. Congratulations. I accept what you said.” Actually that opens the door for later developments of Buddhist teachings in which Buddha might not be visibly present, but great masters will be inspired by the Buddha to give commentaries or give various teachings, and so on. So we find a trend starting here with the Mahayana texts of the Buddha. And as long as the teaching fits within the context of the main principles of Buddhists teachings, even though it might vary in certain points, that can be understood in terms of skillful methods – teaching different people of different abilities and different levels of development.

By the way I should mention, since this will be relevant in our discussion later on, that there is a difference between liberation and enlightenment. Although in many texts both of them will be referred to as “nirvana”, actually they are different. Someone who achieves liberation is known as an arhat, and an arhat is someone who has been liberated from samsara (uncontrollably recurring rebirth), which means that they are free of their unawareness of reality, their confusion – sometimes called ignorance, but I don’t like that term in English because it implies being stupid, and it’s not that they are stupid, they just don’t know. We all don’t know how things really exist. So the German word “Unwissenheit” is quite good here.

There are all sorts of disturbing emotions that arise from this confusion. Based on these disturbing emotions, one acts in compulsive types of ways, and that causes more and more problems and suffering and continuing rebirth. That uncontrollably recurring rebirth filled with problems and perpetuating the problems, that’s known as samsara.

So one can gain liberation from that through a great deal of training, with ethical discipline, concentration and the discriminating awareness to understand, very clearly, cause and effect, and reality – particularly the reality of how we exist. When we understand reality, the main emphasis is understanding how we ourselves exist. One also meditates on love and compassion, and so on. There are many aspects of the practice to achieve liberation.

Now a Buddha is not only liberated but, beyond that, a Buddha is developed to such a point that a Buddha is able to help everybody overcome their samsaric existence. As we look at the development of Indian Buddhism, we will find the distinction between an arhat (a liberated being) and a Buddha getting larger and larger and larger. So when we look at the development of Indian Buddhism, various Indian schools, we’ll see that as a theme: just what is a Buddha? That ties back with what we were speaking about yesterday, that your concept of what a Buddha is affects very much your way of describing the life of a Buddha. The main point of being a Buddha is the ability to teach others how to reach a similar type of goal. So in Mahayana the concept of a Buddha is very much expanded, and the Buddha teaches these vast audiences with innumerable types of beings from all over the universe because this is a much more universal type of view.

Buddha in the Tantras

When we look at the tantras, which are a subdivision within Mahayana, then we find that these teachings that are there are given by Buddha in the form of all these – what we call meditational deities – these figures with many faces and many arms and many legs. And although they are called deities, we shouldn’t think of them as creator gods or anything like that. It’s quite different, and also quite different from the Hindu gods and the Greek gods, but it’s difficult to find a good word for them. I like to call them Buddha-figures. So although from the Mahayana point of view a Buddha can manifest in any form that’s going to be helpful in order to teach others and help others, but in tantra Buddhas manifest with these incredible forms that, as I say, have multiple faces and arms and legs, which all represent different aspects of the Buddha’s realization. So the actual body of the Buddha teaches even more explicitly the enlightened state of a Buddha.

We find that in the tantras Buddha is in these forms and sometimes teaching on the Earth, some special places, but sometimes in other realms – so-called Buddha-lands or Buddha-fields, “pure lands”. Various masters will somehow be transported to these places, either physically or mentally, and they receive the teachings and they come back to Earth and they write down whatever they could have memorized. And so that fits within this theme that I mentioned, that a Buddha can inspire other people to transmit the teachings. And how Buddha actually teaches can be verbally or it can be, in a sense, in some different realm, maybe not in an actual verbal way. There are many different ways.

Main Themes of Buddha’s Teachings

So we get a big expansion of what actually are the Buddha’s teachings, not just in terms of content, but in terms of how they are delivered and transmitted. As long as they fit within the general framework of Buddha’s teaching that, as I said, are leading to liberation and enlightenment, and have these themes of ethical discipline, concentration, etc., then it’s good, it’s acceptable. So the teachings have to fulfill some of the basic trademarks of Buddha’s teachings – that phenomena that are affected by other things are impermanent, they change all the time. And do a big discussion of suffering and unhappiness – to recognize what it actually is and where it comes from, what it comes from. Because even our ordinary happiness is actually problematic because it doesn’t last, it’s never satisfying. And if we have too much of what we consider happiness… Like eating our favorite food – if it were really happiness then the more you ate the happier you would become in one sitting; and obviously we reach a limit at which, after we eat more, instead of it bringing us happiness it brings us unhappiness, so there’s a problem.

Also a basic theme is how the self, how the person, how the individual, how we and others exist. We don’t exist as some sort of solid findable unchanging thing that goes from one body to another body, and which somehow sits inside a body and mind – like it’s a house – and pulls the levers and controls it as its possession and uses it. It’s not like that. Right? Like there’s a little me sitting in our head behind the control board, and information comes in from the eyes and from the ears, and then it presses the buttons to move the arms and the legs and to say this and to say that. Even though it feels like that because we think this little voice in our head that we hear is “me”, sitting behind the control board, but that is false. It’s not referring to anything real. But we of course exist, but not in this impossible way. And so this is a major theme of Buddhist teachings, and the teachings have to conform to that, regardless of how they’re given.

The teachings also have to conform to the fact that what is called nirvana (here it’s referring to liberation from all of this) is peaceful. In other words, you get rid of all this confusion, and so on, and because of that all the problems that would arise from it will never arise again. In other words this state of confusion, or not knowing how things exist, is not part of the nature of the mind. The mind is able to understand reality correctly and perfectly, and when it does that, and it’s able to do that all the time, all that confusion will be gone forever and it will never arise again. It’s very basic to Buddhism.

So we have all the various teachings, then, within this context. And, as I said, each is taught to a different type of audience, a different type of person, to suit their disposition, their background, their level of spiritual development. So now the problem comes: how we organize these teachings? How do we somehow put them together? This was a major issue in the development of Buddhism throughout its history.

I’ll just give an example. When the Buddhist teachings spread through Central Asia to China, then one has to really try to picture or imagine the situation of these Chinese translators. These pilgrims that went to India learned the language, and whatever texts they could find, whatever teachers they could find, they got them, they translated them, and brought them back to China. And what a mess! They all are talking about something different. So how do you organize it? And each of the translators brought back to China a different bag containing different texts.

The Chinese way of thinking is very, very hierarchical. You have an emperor and you have the various ranks of bureaucracy underneath, and so on, and so the Chinese used this way of organizing things to organize the Buddhist teachings. So we find the development of different Chinese Buddhist schools according to which text they decided is the “emperor” of the texts. Which one? This is the real one! This is the highest one. Whether it’s the Lotus Sutra, whatever, the Pure Land Sutra – this is it, and everything else is lower in the hierarchy; very well defined: number one, number two, number three, number four.

The Three Rounds of Transmission

Another scheme (which is our topic, actually) is the three so-called turnings of the wheel of Dharma. That’s another way of organizing the material. Although “turning the wheel of Dharma” is sort of a very literal way of translating the term, I find it more useful to translate it as the “three rounds of transmission”. A round, like a wheel, is something in which Buddha gave a certain set of teachings. It’s a transmission of teachings. This is the scheme that we find in Mahayana teachings.

In the Theravada they weren’t so concerned about really organizing the material according to subject matter. If you look at the Pali canon, the way that it’s organized is basically according to the length of the sutra (the teaching that Buddha gave). You have short ones in one collection, you have medium length ones in another one, you have long ones in another one. Why not? We can use any sort of system to classify this wide variety of material. But when we come to the Mahayana teachings, which are now in addition to these Hinayana teachings (Theravada being one form of Hinayana), then we have a much wider diversity of material. So just arranging things according to how long the teaching was is not sufficient.

Now things start to become a bit complicated. Remember the basic principle here is that of skillful methods. Everybody is different, and for some people a certain way of organizing the system is helpful, but with skillful methods one doesn’t insist on “this is the only way”, and there are other ways of organizing. So even with these rounds of transmission there are many ways of understanding it and even organizing it, and all of them are valid within their contexts. Although we do find debates within the Buddhist history – one system, from one point of view, will say “your system is illogical and ours is more logical” and so on – but we shouldn’t get distracted by that.

As Western persons brought up in Western culture with Western philosophy and Western religions, when we start to study Buddhism we need to be aware that there are many, many assumptions that we have that are culturally specific to our own background. They are not universal. One of the things that is culturally specific to us Westerners is this concept – we find it in the Bible – of one truth: one God, one truth. And so when studying Buddhism or many other Asian philosophies or religions, as Westerners we tend to want to know “but what does it really mean?” There are all these different views, but what does it really mean? Because there really has to be only one meaning – one truth. That is a culturally specific way of thinking being projected onto the Buddhist material. It’s not the way the Buddhists look at it. And we get very frustrated when we read a text and we see that there are five or ten different ways of understanding the text. Then we go crazy. Which one is real, which one is true? And although they will debate back and forth with each other among these views, ultimately each one has its own validity for a particular level of understanding, a particular background, and so on. They’re all true. So if we can understand this from the beginning, then hopefully we can avoid getting so confused and bewildered by this vast array of different things that are called Buddhism.

So we have these three rounds of transmission. Some Buddhist schools, some authors, will define them according to when the Buddha taught them. Some will organize them according to the subject matter and, within that, some will organize it according to whole sutras that talk about a certain type of subject matter, and others will organize it according to just little portions of texts (not the whole thing) that talk about a specific topic. No need for me to mention who says what, but just to get the general idea that even with these three rounds there are many, many ways of understanding them.

Now the content of the three. I laugh because it’s so diverse, in terms of how it can be understood, it’s really – you have to have a good sense of humor, by the way, if you’re going to study Buddhism, otherwise you’ll just go crazy because it’s so complicated. How much more complicated can it be? Come on, throw on more complicated, more different points of view! And just laugh at it. That is the way to approach it, and that’s the way the Tibetans do. Tibetans have a tremendous sense of humor about all of this, despite the fact that they are debating about it very enthusiastically, but it’s all filled with humor. It’s a very different concept in terms of what does it mean to take something seriously. To take it seriously, does that mean you have to be grim about it? Or can you take it seriously and also laugh at it, enjoy it?

The First Round of Transmission: The Four Noble Truths

With these three rounds, the first round is basically the Hinayana teachings. I should speak about Hinayana and Mahayana. These are terms that were coined by Mahayana, and they’re not very nice terms. “Hinayana” is a vehicle, it doesn’t mean a car or a chariot (although it’s used for that). It’s a vehicle of mind. It’s a way of understanding which will take us to a goal, a spiritual goal. “Hina” means small and “maha” means great, and so we are better than you!

Nobody liked that terminology in the so-called Hinayana sphere because Hinayana is leading just to liberation and Mahayana to enlightenment as well, which is a greater goal. Although Hinayana does teach and explain a path to becoming a Buddha, not many people can do that in any particular world age; whereas Mahayana says everybody can become enlightened, all the time. The problem is that within Hinayana there are eighteen different schools and we don’t have a name that can cover all of them. So what do you call all of them? This is the problem. Although various Western scholars will suggest different names for them, there are problems with those names, in terms of they have other meanings besides just these eighteen schools. And so, although it’s a derogatory term, I use it. I use it because I can’t think of any other that would work, and admit that it’s not a nice term. Fair enough.

[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]

So this first round of transmission gives the basic Hinayana teachings, and the main point here is the four noble truths. And this is in fact what Buddha taught first. When we use the word “noble”, that’s a translation of the word “arya”, and that’s the word that we derive “Aryan” from. We also derive “Iran” from this word. Actually it was the name of a certain tribe from Central Asia that conquered India about two thousand years before the Common Era, and they declared themselves to be the upper class, obviously, compared to the natives in India. So we get that term. It’s not a very nice term, but anyway, we get the term.

An arya, within the Buddhist teachings, is someone who has had nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths. That’s why they are called the four truths – what an arya sees as true, nonconceptually. This is what it actually means: what an arya understands. Later on when we get into our discussion of Buddhist metaphysics, we will look at what it means to be conceptual and nonconceptual; that’s not so obvious to understand. But, anyway, these four things, four points – those who really see reality nonconceptually would see this is true, even though people who don’t see reality, or are confused, don’t consider it true.

The First Noble Truth

The first one is suffering. What is suffering? It’s not just unhappiness and pain. That’s one type of suffering. It’s not just our ordinary usual type of happiness which, as I said, changes all the time, never is satisfying, we never have enough. But what is the deepest problem suffering is the uncontrollably recurring rebirth, with the type of body and mind that we have that is the basis for our experiencing unhappiness and our ordinary happiness. That’s the real problem: that it is self-perpetuating. It just goes on and on and on as the basis for the first two. So these aryas see that’s the real problem. The first two, most people understand that those are problems: it’s a problem to be unhappy, and everybody knows that. Many religions teach to overcome worldly happiness and attain eternal heavenly happiness, so that’s nothing special here. It’s the third one that is special to the aryas. So nothing special there.

The Second Noble Truth

The second point that they say is true is what is the real cause of this – the true cause. The true cause is unawareness, unawareness as defined in Buddhism, because everybody says (in Indian religions) that the problem of our suffering is unawareness, ignorance. But here, in terms of how you define that, what really is the confusion? That’s the second truth. That’s a major point in Buddhism: everything happens from causes. All the problems that we have come from causes, so the point is to identify what really is the problem and what really is the cause. And so, of course, that is a very important point in life in general. We have problems. Don’t just look at the superficial problem. Find what is really the basis of the problem, the foundation of the problem, and what really is the cause. And go deep, as deep as possible, to find the cause, not just the superficial thing.

The Third Noble Truth

The third truth is that there is such a thing as a true stopping (sometimes called true “cessation”, but that’s a word that’s not very common in English). You can stop these problems forever by getting rid of the cause. You get rid of the cause and the problems will never arise again. So aryas see that actually is possible. And the problems will never arise again – that’s the important point, not just temporarily stopping them.

The Fourth Noble Truth

And then the fourth truth is what – again, cause and effect – what will bring about that true stopping. And that is correct understanding of reality – that’s usually translated as the “true path”. But again we have to understand this word “path”. It doesn’t mean something that you walk on; it’s not a course of study, a course of practice. But again it’s referring to a level of mind and understanding, and that level of mind acts as a “pathway” for reaching a goal, which is liberation, true stoppings. Then again that is very helpful in daily life – that we have various problems, that we shouldn’t just be satisfied with suppressing them or getting a temporary solution, but we should think in terms of a long-term solution, so that the problem doesn’t arise again. And the main way to bring that about is through education, understanding, and so on. So actually some of the more forward-thinking people in this world look at problems of terrorism, of this and that, and seeing that what would help tremendously would be education, not just more police and guns. So the first round of transmission basically is teaching this. Buddha taught this.

The Second Round of Transmission

The second round starts with the Mahayana teachings. The second and third rounds are Mahayana teachings. By the way, these three rounds are just referring to sutra teachings. Sutra means literally a “theme of practice” and it deals with all sorts of methods for gaining concentration and topics upon which you can gain concentration. We find that in both the Hinayana and Mahayana texts (we find sutras). And within Mahayana we have, in addition to sutras, we have tantras. The tantras are special methods for reaching enlightenment which are very, very advanced. They’re based on having already mastered the sutra teachings (to some level) and working with much more efficient means, particularly using the powers of the imagination, just to put it very simply. These three rounds, then, are just ways of organizing the sutra material. Tantra is not included in them. As I said, there are so many different ways of organizing this vast amount of material. So these three rounds just deal with sutra.

The second round is primarily with what is known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras. Those are the sutras that are dealing… Prajnaparamita – paramita is translated as “perfection” usually; I don’t like that term because it sounds as though we have to be perfect, which a lot of us feel is impossible. It’s a “far-reaching attitude”. It’s an attitude that takes us far, all the way to enlightenment. And prajna, which is usually translated as “wisdom” (which is a meaningless word because it’s so vague in our languages), is “discriminating awareness”, to discriminate between reality and what is unreal.

In these sutras Buddha teaches what’s known as voidness. Now we get into a big topic and I’ll try to explain that very simply. I don’t like the word emptiness, even though the German word “leer” also means empty. It’s very misleading. We’re not talking about something like a container, like a glass, that is empty and there’s nothing inside. It does not mean that. But actually the word means an absence (“Abwesenheit” in German). We imagine and we project all sorts of impossible ways in which things exist. And what is absent, totally absent, is that these projections are referring to anything real.

So let’s give an example. We see somebody on the street at Christmas time dressed as Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, whatever you call it here. “Christmas Man” you call it here. And the red suit and the white beard, and so on (which is an image created by Coca Cola, by the way), and although that really looks like Santa Claus, like Father Christmas, it’s not referring to anything real. There is no such thing as a real Father Christmas. There is a total absence of that. So although this man looks as though he exists as a real Father Christmas, there’s a total absence. It’s not referring to anything real. Now of course the man exists. But he doesn’t exist in the way that he appears to exist. He appears to exist as Father Christmas, but there is no such thing.

Okay, so that’s voidness. Voidness is this total absence of these impossible ways of existing – which is the way the things appear to us. Things appear to exist, for example, totally by themselves, independently of any context. But nothing exists like that. Everything exists in context. We spoke about that yesterday. That’s just as an example. Ok, you’re going to come across this term “voidness”. The Sanskrit term is shunyata. You’ll find that in many texts. That’s what Buddha taught in the second turning of the wheel, the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, the second round of transmission. And he spoke about it not just in terms of how beings (me and you) exist, which is what was in the first round, but about everything, not just individual beings.

The Third Round of Transmission

Now the third round of transmission is understood in two very different ways. As I said, many different ways of putting this material together. According to one way, it is referring to teachings of the Chittamatra school of Mahayana. Mahayana is divided into Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools, and it’s referring to the teachings of Chittamatra. The second round was referring to the Madhyamaka teachings. So Madhyamaka means “the middle way”; which is a middle way between existing in an impossible solid way (things all by themselves), or not existing at all, because everything exists dependent and relative on everything else – the middle way. Everything is connected with each other throughout history, throughout the universe, time and space. Everything is interconnected by causality, relations. That’s why we study relations in metaphysics.

Chittamatra means “mind only”. Another name for the school of Chittamatra is Yogachara. “Chara” is a type of conduct, and “yoga” means literally a way to yoke, to join yourself with what’s real. And “mind only”, that doesn’t mean that everything just exists in my mind. You don’t exist, you only exist in my mind! That would be very hard for that to be really Mahayana. Why should I help you if you only exist in my mind? If I shut my eyes, you stop existing. That’s certainly not what that school is referring to by “mind only”. What it’s saying is that we can only establish the existence of everything in relation to a mind that is either thinking about it, seeing it, describing it, whatever. Everything exists in relation to a mind – not that it exists in relation to a mind: you can only establish that it exists in relation to a mind.

In other words, how do I know that anything exists? I see it or I hear it or I feel it. So it’s in relation to a mind. And it’s an appearance, isn’t it, that I see – how it appears to me. So the flowers appear – I see them from this side of the table; you see them from the other side of the table. Each of you is looking at these flowers from a different angle and a different distance. So how do you prove that we are all seeing the same flowers? Because if each of us took a photo of it on our cell phones, we’d all have a different photo. So how do you know that we are looking at the same thing? Can you prove it? So how do you prove that we are seeing the same thing? Are we in fact seeing the same thing?

The only way that we can discuss this is in relation to how things appear to us, to a mind. Or we’re talking about it. Well, I’m talking about it with words in my voice; you’re talking about it with perhaps different words in your voice. Are we talking about the same thing? It’s in relation to sounds that parts of a human body are making. It’s related to a mind. The sounds are – what is it referring to? All we can relate to are these sounds that we are producing and, in the mind, some understanding of the meaning of what it is referring to. Everything is a stimulation to a mind. That’s the Chittamatra school. How you establish (how you know that everything exists) is in relation to a mind.

So according to one way of understanding the third round, this is what Buddha taught in the third round. So the first round, all the Hinayana teachings; the second round and third round, Mahayana. Within that second round is Madhyamaka, the third round is Chittamatra.

According to another way of understanding of the third round, what the Buddha taught there was about Buddha-nature. According to this view, the sutras that are lumped together in the third round are different from the ones that the other view put in the third round. Buddha-nature refers to those factors that we all have – like for instance the purity of the mind, the basic purity of the mind – which will allow all of us to become a Buddha. “Buddha-nature” is not a terribly good way of explaining, of translating it, because it implies that we’re just talking about one nature. We’re not. We’re talking about various traits, various characteristics that we all have, like for instance we all have a body, speech, and mind. We have a physical aspect. We have a communicative aspect – so speech, verbal. We have a mental aspect. And because we have these three aspects in a limited form now, we can have them in an unlimited form as a Buddha. These are also aspects of so-called Buddha-nature. We don’t just think of it as one nature. And since we hear about body, speech, and mind so often, I will underline and repeat that we need to understand this in terms of physical manifestation and dealing with the world [that’s body]. Then [speech is] communicative – whether it’s with words, or gestures, or grunts, or writing, it’s communication. And so the energy goes out, this sort of energy – physical energy – the energy goes out, communicates. And a mental aspect, understanding, perceiving. We all have these. So don’t think in terms of very solid body, speech, and mind. What about people who can’t speak? So think broader, please.

This was the third round according to this second view of the third round. There are many, many further ways of interpreting it. According to, for instance, different ways in which phenomena exist. That’s another way of dividing these three. But no need to go into that – and we also don’t have time. But you get the general idea of at least some of the basic Buddha teachings and also the problem of how do you organize them, because they are so varied.

The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika Schools

The only thing that we need to include here that we haven’t covered – since this topic is also the four Indian philosophical schools – we covered a little bit, but basically it’s Madhyamaka talking about voidness. We talked about Chittamatra, which is mind only. So now within Hinayana we have other divisions. And we will speak about these divisions within Hinayana in our next lecture when we deal with the Buddhist Councils. But now just a very, very brief – a sort of appetizer. The ones that are studied – that were studied later in India and in Tibet – we have four basic philosophical schools. So within Mahayana: Chittamatra and Madhyamaka. And within Hinayana, subdivisions of the Sarvastivada, called Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.

We will discuss these in more detail in the next hour. But the basic philosophical point of these two schools – what would be the main thing that we can see between them – is with Vaibhashika, that all things that change are made up of small particles. And so if we think in terms of time, it’s made up of microseconds. Remember, what is the main problem? The true source of problems is our unawareness. We think that everything exists in ways in which they appear, but the ways in which they appear are deceptive. Deceptive, like an illusion is deceptive. It appears real, but it is not referring to something real. Like a mirage in the desert. So, Vaibhashika: Things appear to us to be solid. They’re not solid. That’s a false appearance. This chair is made up of an enormous number of small particles. My body is made up of a small number of particles. Most of it is empty space, so there is nothing solid about it at all that we grasp to it as “my chair”, “my body”, as if it were some solid thing. Well it is made up of all these different atoms, all these different particles. But here’s the big nevertheless – “trotzdem” in German, a very good word. Nevertheless, I don’t fall through the chair. Even though this chair is not solid, my body is not solid – nevertheless, I can sit on it and I don’t fall through to the floor. That is really quite extraordinary if you think about it.

We have a problem in the world. Actually we only experience one moment at a time, don’t we? And each moment is different; something else is happening. So this problem, which in our imagination is this horrible solid “monster”, is actually made up of millions, billions of people having different experiences that are changing every moment – so what’s the problem? So if we understand that fact about reality, it’s not so frightening anymore. But now the “trotzdem” factor comes in: nevertheless, there is a problem and we need to deal with it and try to find some solution. Okay, basic Vaibhashika.

Sautrantika makes a very clear distinction between objective reality (objective entities, I call them) and metaphysical entities. We’ll get to this in our discussion of metaphysics. In other words, what it is really focusing on is differentiating reality from our projections. And we try to understand reality and stop projecting all sorts of garbage onto it because that garbage is not real. Like paranoia – we project how everybody is against me, these sorts of things. That’s an extreme example, but when we analyze more and more deeply, we find many, many examples of what we are projecting. Our expectations on others: I project on you, my partner, that I am the most important person in the world, and you should always be concerned about me, and I’m the only one in your life, nothing else is happening. So you have to get rid of that. That causes problems, doesn’t it, when we think that I’m the only one in your life. You have nothing else going on in your life, only me. So you should always be available for me. Okay? So that causes problems when we think like that, obviously.

And then Chittamatra – well, everything appears to everybody differently, so we have to understand things in terms of how it’s appearing to your mind. And Madhyamaka – that all this junk that we project is not referring to anything real.

The way that the Tibetans study all of this, these four, is in a graded order. First Vaibhashika, then Sautrantika, then Chittamatra, then Madhyamaka, that it leads you deeper and deeper and deeper, in terms of dispelling more and more subtle levels of confusion about reality. That’s quite different from the Chinese way of the emperor and the bureaucracy. It’s not that one is better than the other, in a power scheme, but rather each one leads to the next. It’s sort of a graduated course of study that will bring us deeper and deeper, going from Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, Madhyamaka.


So we can see that there’s so many different ways of classifying things within the teachings, because the teachings were given in such a variety of manners. And although we’ve just given an introduction to some of these ways of classifying it, please remember it’s just an introduction. This is complicated material. We need to become more familiar with it, study it, and so on. The main point is not to be frightened by it.

What can we learn from this in our daily life? Life is complex; there are many, many different things going on and how do we make sense of it? And the main point, according to Buddhist thinking, is there’s not just one truth. There’s not just one way of making sense of it. You can make sense of it in many, many different ways. Organize it in many different ways. And each way that you organize it is going to be helpful, so long as the way that we are organizing it is something that is reasonable. It’s not just anything goes, and what’s happening in the world is the evil influence of invaders from the fifth dimension. I mean, that’s nonsense. So it has to be reasonable.

Okay? Let’s take our break and then we will continue.