Listening to, Thinking about, and Meditating on the Dharma
Moscow, Russia, May 2009
Session Two: Listening to the Dharma Teachings
The topic for this weekend is “meditation, how to transform ourselves.” It’s quite clear from that title that meditation is a method for working on ourselves, and so that means seriously dealing with our situation, with the quality of our lives – and the quality of our lives as it is affected by our personality and our moods, which of course will be affected by our living situation, our economic situation, people that we live with, our friends and so on. But, if we have some experience in life, then we realize that despite changes in external things like work, economics, friends and so on – that if our attitudes, our state of mind, is not changed, the problems that we had just reoccur. I’m talking about thinks like getting angry, feeling insecure, feeling frustrated, being selfish, being greedy – all these things are not going to really change just by changing our external circumstances.
And so, in order to bring about real change in the quality of our lives, we need to work on ourselves, work on our minds. And, we’re not just talking about our intellectual qualities, like for instance our intelligence, or even such things as having difficulty concentrating, and laziness, this type of things. Not only that – these are important to work on – but deeper in terms of emotional situation; even deeper, things like insecurity and confusion about life itself.
And meditation is something that we find in many, many different systems, not only Buddhist. And if we look at the meaning that it has in the Buddhist context, we’re talking about actualizing a positive state of mind through a method of repetition. So, what we are doing is familiarizing ourselves with a positive state of mind by generating it. So it’s a type of training similar to what we do with our bodies when we have athletic training or when we train to play a musical instrument: we have to repeat certain exercises over and over again. And although in the beginning it might seem very artificial and forced, eventually with enough familiarity it becomes just a natural part of ourselves.
So, just because something is generated new doesn’t mean that there’s something inappropriate with it. Some new state of mind, when we train to do something new, we shouldn’t think, “Oh, this is not natural.” A lot of people think, “Oh, just be natural, this is what would be best, and don’t artificially try to create anything.” But if we remained in a natural state, we would continue to go to the toilet in our pants. And so we trained in various methods. We don’t still crawl on the floor, we learned how to walk, we practiced it and this is perfectly fine so that now it is natural to us.
So, we can’t use that argument that, “Well, I should just be natural and then everything will be perfect,” because being natural often means when I lose my temper, I just hit the baby when the baby is crying. That’s not really what we want to do. When the baby is crying to just hit it to shut up. We might feel like that in the middle of the night when the baby wakes us up, or especially if it’s the baby upstairs that is not our own. Nevertheless, we know that that’s not the appropriate way to act, even though that might naturally be the first thought that comes to our mind, “Oh no, shut up and let me sleep. Not again.”
So we have meditation, and it plays a very important role in the study and practice of Buddhism. But some people make a big mistake in thinking that study and meditation practice are two separate things, whereas this is not at all the teachings of the Buddha. In order to develop more beneficial habits, we have to study about what they are; we have to learn. “Study” means to learn something, and learning, then, is not an end in itself. We have to integrate it and make it a part of ourselves, which is what the meditation does. But just as we cannot digest something unless we eat it, similarly if we don’t put teachings into our minds, then we can’t digest them through meditation. We have to eat the teachings, and so that is what the studying is like: it’s like eating, and the meditation is like digesting. And we do need both, you can’t just eat and then spit it out, that doesn’t help us. You have to swallow and digest it in order to benefit from the food.
So, how do we begin meditating? I was asked to teach this weekend on a practical level, and not speak too much about complicated theory, and so I will try to do that. Whether I am successful or not, I don’t know. The practice of meditation as I explained last night is step three of a three-part practice. This three-part practice is something that we find in general in all Indian systems. It appears in the Upanishads in the Hindu tradition, as well as the Buddhist tradition. I think that many people who study Buddhism don’t appreciate really the fact that most of the methods used in Buddhism are shared in common by various other Indian systems, like various Hindu schools. But what is unique to Buddhism is the context: what the aim is, what the understanding of reality is, what the motivation is. The methods are something which are commonly available in Indian thought.
And so, when we are practicing meditation, if we’re practicing it in the Buddhist context, then we need to use it for digesting the Buddhist teachings. Now, the method, this common method, has three parts, and meditation is the part number three. And these three parts are listening, thinking or pondering, and meditating.
So, why is it called “listening” or “hearing?” “Listen,” I think, is a better word because it means that you pay more attention. You hear the noise in the street, but that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about really paying attention and listening. And it’s called “listening” for several reasons. The first is that at the time of the Buddha, none of the teachings were written down, so the only way that you could learn them was to listen to somebody explaining them. You couldn’t read them. Nowadays of course we can read the teachings, so is there any benefit to actually listening to them? Well, why don’t we think about that for a moment? We want to make this a little bit of a practice thing, a little bit of an interactive – or at least an active on your side – process. So, think, why would it be more beneficial to listen to the teachings rather than reading them? Is there any benefit? Is one more helpful than the other, and if so, why?
Okay, so tell me, is there a benefit of listening to the teachings rather than reading them in a book or on the Internet?
Participant: Direct contact with the teacher.
Alex: Right. Direct contact with the teacher. Yes.
Participant: There’s also your wish for us to, to understand the teachings.
Alex: Right. The teacher has the wish for the students to understand, but it’s not just sitting here and wishing and praying that you understand, from my side as the teacher. But it is a live situation, and so I am looking at you and if you are puzzled or give some indication that you don’t understand, I make more of an effort to explain as the teacher. And what is the benefit of contact in addition to that, with the teacher? What about if you have questions? Can you ask questions to a book or an audio tape? No, you can’t.
Now, if you lose your attention while reading, you can of course go back, can’t you? The same thing with an audio recording, you can rewind. With a teaching, a live teaching, that’s not so easy because then it’s a little bit embarrassing. You have to ask, “Could you repeat that, I wasn’t paying attention.” And that becomes very embarrassing if you are in a large group of people. You can’t do that. So there are certain disadvantages as well, aren’t there? You might be sitting in the back and not hear so well. It might be extremely hot, like this room is and so we get sleepy. But, that means you have to put in more effort, doesn’t it? And needing to put in more effort is really a quality that needs to be cultivated in the Buddhist teachings. Learning and practicing Buddhism is not a passive method. It needs to be something very active on the part of the student. We are working on ourselves, trying to learn to think for ourselves and to be able to develop good qualities in our personality.
And so the instructions for a teacher are that you shouldn’t make it too easy for the student. It’s very interesting actually. It’s said that you should not explain things as a teacher very clearly the first time. For some teachers – like myself – that’s very difficult, because I like to be very clear, at least what’s clear to me. But if I really followed the instructions of my own teacher – who taught me how to teach when I was his translator – Serkong Rinpoche, he very consciously taught me how to teach – he said that to me. And he said: “You don’t explain clearly in the beginning, because what you want is to separate out those who are really interested from those who are just there because of some other reason, some not very deep reason. And those who are really interested will ask more, and that’s important that the student develops their own strong wish to learn more, to get a clearer explanation.”
And so when a student complains and says, “Oh the teacher wasn’t clear and I don’t want to go to that teacher,” then you have to examine what was the quality of that teacher. Is the teacher really unqualified and doesn’t know how to explain clearly? There are many who are like that. Or is the teacher not giving you all the details at once, doing that on purpose, in order to encourage you to develop your perseverance and patience to ask for more. And in terms of listening, it’s all intended for the second step, which is to think about the teachings, to try and understand them. And so, just as I did now with this particular question of: “Is there some benefit to listening to the teachings rather than just reading it?” it’s not so helpful for me as the teacher to just instantly give you the answer. But what is more helpful is to give you the opportunity to think about it first, because that develops within you the quality of examining the teachings.
And this is very important: to examine them, to see, “Does it make sense?” To make an effort to try to understand, and to see, “What do I think about this?” and then to get some feedback, is that correct or not so correct? Now of course that’s difficult in a large group; and particularly difficult when there is a teacher who only comes once a year, but I’m talking about what would be ideal. In many centers that is not possible and you have to rely on reading or listening to audio tapes, and we should be very happy that those are available – because we can learn a great deal from them; however, we need to know how to learn from them. And we don’t just read it like some novel or something that you can just read on the toilet. Right? That’s not the type of reading that Buddhist material should be.
But it needs to be read in a respectful state of mind, like when we come to teachings then we sit respectfully, we don’t just shout and get up and do strange things. And we would go slowly and try to think about each point. And what’s very helpful in centers is to get together with other people who are interested in this, and read it together and then discuss each point: “What do you think about this? What do you think about that? How do you understand it?” Because although it might not be with a teacher, there will be some people who have more experience, and some people will understand one thing more easily, and other people will understand other things more easily, and it becomes much more of a live situation.
And making it a live situation – interacting with others – is very helpful; otherwise often it just stays very intellectual and not really brought together with life. Working with other people and interacting in terms of the teachings brings it much more to life. But you have to be serious about it. Now serious about it doesn’t mean that you sit there stiffly and nobody ever smiles or relaxes. It certainly is not the Buddhist way. If you ever have the opportunity to watch the Tibetan monks debating, there’s a tremendous amount of laughter that goes on with it, but it’s very serious as well. We’re not talking about football; we’re talking about the Dharma teachings. But they are relaxed about it so they can laugh when something is funny or when somebody says something silly, you know, makes a silly mistake, or whatever.
For some Western people that’s quite difficult to do, but it’s something that I think we definitely need to learn from our Tibetan friends; to be relaxed with the teachings, and nevertheless to be serious about it. That is an indication of how you integrate the teachings into your life. After all, one of the basic purposes of the teachings is to be happier. If we’re very still and formal like we’re in the army, it’s not a very happy state of mind. We’re afraid we will not be perfect and make a mistake and then we will get hit or punished. That’s not Buddhism, please, that’s the army.
So, listening. There are various teachings on how to listen. Okay, so, one point in the instructions is to avoid the mistakes that are like the example of a vase, or a pitcher of water. Now many of you have perhaps heard this already, but it never hurts to hear it again. We need to be not a vase that’s upside down. If it is upside down, nothing will go in. That means we have to have an open mind. Alright? Not this attitude that I know everything and nobody can tell me anything. And we have to be sure that we’re not like a dirty vase, which means that we have so many preconceptions before that it confuses us.
So one thing that we really have to avoid when listening to the Buddhist teachings is comparing it with some other system. Alright? Well you hear something, you say, “Well isn’t that just like in Hinduism it says this, or Daoism it says that and so on.” One of my teachers used to really point this out as a fault of Western people. He said, “If you are trying to compare two things, neither of which you really understand, and so it makes no sense; all you have is confusion.” The only time that a comparison of two systems is worthwhile is when you really have a good understanding of both. But if you don’t understand the Buddhist teachings, first you have to put aside any thought of: “Is it like this or is it like that?” and just listen to the teachings by themselves. Otherwise we mix together what we understand with things from other teachings that, first, we don’t understand really well and, second, they’re not relevant.
And then the third fault like the vase is, that we have to avoid, is having a hole in the bottom, which means not remembering, not retaining what we learned. And so for a lot of people it’s helpful to take notes. Now for some people that’s easy to do, for other people, you lose concentration. And even if we take notes, often we never look at them again. So what’s the benefit? Or we can record the teachings and listen to them again, but that takes a lot of time. Doesn’t it? And there might not be so much essence in that. You know the essential points might be very brief, but you might have to listen for a whole hour in order to get it. And so unless we have a really good memory, it’s good to take a least some notes, and then we have to review them, look at them again and try to learn them.
Now it’s very interesting, if we look at our psychology in the West, unless we are given a test, an examination, usually we don’t learn something. You know? We learn it in order to pass the exam, and if we can cheat in order to pass the exam – why not cheat, that’s easier. And anyway then I might get a better mark. Or maybe I give the teacher some money, bribe the teacher and then I get a better mark. Well, that doesn’t work here. That’s not the point to pass an examination and get a good grade. And that’s not the point to get the approval of the teacher and the teacher pats us on the head and like a dog we wag our tail.
But the whole point is that we’re trying to improve ourselves, and anything that Buddha taught – if we really have faith in the Buddha – was taught for the benefit of others. He didn’t just teach something stupid for no reason at all. And if we don’t understand what was Buddha’s purpose in teaching this, then we have to learn and find out. We assume, we presume, that Buddha had a purpose in teaching this, and it was to benefit others. And as the great Indian Buddhist master Atisha said, “It’s not that this is to benefit some other person over there, but it’s irrelevant to me.” We need to think of it in terms of this is to benefit me. Right? “That other person has anger, I don’t have anger.” That’s not the way we need to think. It says that the mirror of the Dharma should face yourself, not face outside.
So, how can this benefit me? Maybe it might not benefit me now; maybe it’s for some more advanced stage. But we have to think in terms of how can this possibly be relevant to me? And we might come to the conclusion that: “I don’t understand. I don’t know how this could benefit me. But rather then concluding that therefore it is stupid, I will assume that it is of some benefit and I will be open-minded to eventually learn how it will be of benefit.”
With each of these three steps, listening, thinking and meditating, there is a certain type of discriminating awareness that we develop. Right, discriminating awareness, what does that mean? It’s often translated as “wisdom,” but that’s such a vague word it doesn’t mean anything. We have a mental factor called “distinguishing,” in which we can distinguish one thing from another thing. We might not know what it is, but we can distinguish the colored shapes of this face, from the colored shapes of the wall, and put it together into one object. I can distinguish that. Even a worm can distinguish that. So that functions all the time, otherwise we couldn’t function in life. We have to be able to distinguish something from the background, or something from something else. And discriminating awareness is the mental factor that adds certainty to that. Alright? So now we are definite that something is this and not that.
So here, with thinking, the type of discriminating awareness that we have is that we are definite that this is a teaching of the Buddha and this is a correct teaching. Right? So that’s important. We need to be convinced that this is the correct teaching; otherwise, if it’s something which is incorrect, then later on, we’re going to have problems, obviously, and if we’re not sure was this correct or not, then while we’re trying to practice, we will be filled with doubts. So, before we go any further with the Buddhist practice, we have to be sure. “Did I get correct information?” And we need to be very convinced. Then we have confidence. Then you develop the state of mind of confidence that this is correct – what I am trying to practice. I got the teachings correctly. And so there are many methods to check whether or not it’s correct.
In tantra it’s very interesting. You know we have these mantras. Mantra are certain syllables and Sanskrit words that are repeated for many, many different purposes. There’s no need to go into that now. But there is a certain ritual ceremony that’s done with the mantras in which you have a picture that’s made of the Sanskrit alphabet, with the vowels and the consonants separately, and they are arranged in rows and columns. And then it says very specifically, “The first syllable is the consonant which is in the second column, the fourth row. And the vowel is the forth vowel.” And it specifies like that every letter of the mantra. So at the end we can be very confident that we got the mantra correctly. So, like that, it’s very important that we have confidence that this is correct. This is not, somebody made a mistake.
And we need to check the teachings. One of the criteria that a great Indian Buddhist master Dharmakirti said for testing whether something is really the teaching of the Buddha was: “Does this fit in with the basic teachings of the Buddha. Is it consistent?” That means that we have to learn quite a bit about the Buddhist teachings in order to first be able to see what the general idea of the Buddhist teachings are. And that means being open minded, not saying after listening to one lecture, “Now I know everything, and that’s it. Now I’m going to go sit like a great mahasiddha,” or something like that. So, we have this, this certainty now that the teachings that I received are correct. They are the authentic teachings; and that means that the source of the teachings was correct. We checked the teacher.
Does the teacher know what they’re talking about? How was the teacher trained? And how is the character of the teacher? If the teacher is somebody who is very angry and greedy and the personality is very, very… what shall we say… disturbed, then obviously they haven’t really integrated the teachings very well. It’s suspicious. One of the most important functions of a Buddhist teacher is to inspire us by their example. Alright? The function of the teacher is not just to give us information. That’s why, as you said, the direct contact is important in order to receive inspiration. Well, the teacher needs to be a living example of what they are teaching, which means that they are motivated just to help others – not to be famous or to get a lot of power or money or whatever.
And they know the teachings and they have actualized them in themselves and they are able to explain them. So, they’re many, many qualities of the teacher. It’s interesting in one text by the great Tibetan master Tsongkhapa, although there are many, many lists of qualifications of the teacher, the ones that he points out are really very important. He says the teacher needs to know what are the states of mind that we need to develop and which are the ones that we need to get rid of. And not add anything that shouldn’t be there and not leave anything out. And know how to, what is the graded order for developing these qualities and be able to adopt that to each student. Then the teacher is really a good teacher.
Okay, so the teacher has to be authentic. We check that. The same thing if we’re just relying on a book – that the book has to be from an authentic author or authentic translator. There are a lot of translations and a lot books which are not very accurate. Now, this is very difficult to judge – especially for newcomers – and unfortunately it’s going to become more difficult in the future because of the Internet. The Internet is a wonderful media, but you look up Buddhism in Google and you get how many millions of websites; and every year there’s more. So there’s so much information – how do we differentiate what is authentic and what is garbage – because unfortunately the majority of it is garbage.
And yeah, some people might recommend this site or that site, but are they reliable? And anyone who runs a large website knows that there are methods for getting your website higher up on the list of Google. And by using these tricks, even though your website might be absolute garbage, you can come out number one – the first thing in Google. And so, I don’t know really what to say in terms of how to overcome that problem. We have to consult other people who we have confidence in and get enough experience with the teachings to know how to weed out what is garbage and what’s not. And as I say, that’s not an easy task and it’s just becoming more and more difficult and that’s – that’s unfortunate. But, the Internet is a wonderful tool and this is the reality, so we’re going to have to learn somehow to weave our way through all this information. And that’s why the teacher becomes even more important because the teacher can direct our reading.
As Tsongkhapa said, the teacher needs to know what is the correct order for studying and practicing, because if you just go to the Internet you don’t know where to begin. So at my website for example, I try – berzinarchives.com – to at least indicate level one, level two, level three, to give some sort of order. But these are things that need to be developed more and more, and as a student of Buddhism I think we at least need to be sensitive to what are all the problems associated just with this first step of listening to the teachings. In other words, learning what they are and having confidence that this is correct and this is where I would start.
So, we have these instructions of how to listen; and then there’s also a further instruction concerning how we listen, which is that we need to regard ourselves as a sick person and the Buddha and the teachers as doctors and the Dharma teachings as the medicine. And the other members of the community – and we’re not just talking about anybody who walks in the door of a Dharma center, but those who are highly realized – they’re like the nurses to help us. In other words, we need to enter into the practice of Buddhism, the practice of meditation, with the recognition that I have problems.
It’s like a sickness, which is my selfishness, or my anger or whatever it might be, and this is something that I want to get cured of. And Buddha’s the supreme doctor and I’m going to get the medicine and not just get it and forget about it, and not just get it and let it fall out of my pocket. I’m going to take it and eat it and I will follow the instructions and take it properly, not swallow a whole bottle at once. Alright? It’s like taking antibiotics. You have to take it at a certain time, in a certain number and it’s no good if you stop in the middle or forget it for a day. So that’s one instruction of viewing this like a medical situation.
And another instruction is to imagine when we are receiving teachings that we are in a pure land and the teacher is a Buddha and we are receiving the teachings, the pure teachings of the Buddha. Now does that mean that the teacher really is a Buddha? No, of course not. What is being referred to here is to have a feeling of respect for what we’re doing and for ourselves and for the teacher and the teachings. Because what we’re doing is something which is serious, it’s affecting our lives; but serious doesn’t mean with a horrible look on our face. And we are learning the teachings of Buddha, so this is the source. And this is a pure land that we are sitting in here, which means that we don’t complain about how hot it is in this room, but rather we try to ignore that fact and just listen with an open mind. So, these are the instructions about listening. So at the end, as I say, we have confidence that these are the teachings, that it’s correct and we don’t necessarily understand them.
So what is the way of relating to the teachings? Now, in the Buddhist teachings it talks about different ways of knowing something. And one way of knowing something is called “presumption.” We presume or assume that it is true. “I don’t understand what this actually means, and I don’t really understand what the benefit of this might be, but I will presume that it’s true what Buddha taught, and I will presume that it is of benefit.” Now, that doesn’t mean blind faith. What that means is that I will give it, we say in English, “the benefit of the doubt.” It means that I will for the time being assume that this is true and then I will examine it more carefully.
Buddha said very strongly: examine my teachings as if you were buying gold. Don’t just believe because of your faith in me. But to be able to do that, that means to have an open mind to be able to examine it. And with that open mind and without mixing it with other things, then I presume that there must be some benefit to this – you know Buddha wouldn’t teach something stupid – and now I’m going to examine and see what it means. Does it make sense? Does it not make sense? And adopt what is beneficial. So, this is the way that we need to listen, and I’ll give an example of what I am talking about here with presumption, concerning presumption, which is for instance past and future lives.
Now past and future lives… I was raised in a typical Western fashion and I certainly didn’t believe in them. When I first started studying Buddhism, I did not believe in past and future lives. Right? This is alien to most people’s ways of thinking; and if they think anything of future lives, they think of an afterlife like in Christianity that you go to a heaven or hell. I think that’s quite typical of most Europeans and Americans, Western people who approach Buddhism, but there it is in all the Buddhist teachings, past and future lives, beginningless mind etc., etc. Everybody has been my mother in a previous life. All these teachings, so you can’t just throw it out the window.
And so the way that I approached this in the beginning was to say, “Okay, I will assume that this is correct, that this is true. I don’t understand it. I’m not going to make excuses about it and just put it to the side here under the table and not consider it like a lot of Westerners do about the Buddhist teachings concerning the hells. This is just too nasty, that: ‘Well, no, I mean I don’t want to deal with that,’” so we just forget about that it’s part of the teachings. And what I did, what I think is the correct way of approaching it, is saying that: “I will assume for the moment that this is correct and then see what follows from accepting this. Alright? What are the things that are built on this basis and if what is built on this basis is beneficial, then maybe that basis – the whole teaching on rebirth – actually is correct.
And actually if I don’t understand what the Buddha’s teachings are concerning what is it that’s reborn, then I really can’t understand rebirth at all. So I’m going to have to really understand things on a much deeper level in order to really understand the Buddhist teaching on rebirth. And only if I understand then can I start to understand these other realms of ghosts and hells and so on. If I don’t understand the nature of the mind, I can’t possibly understand what they’re talking about here. So, that’s important not to just reject part of the teachings immediately because I don’t understand it and it’s just too strange. So, this is what it means to have an open mind and to have this discriminating awareness that: “Yes, this is what Buddha taught. Buddha taught about rebirth. Sorry, I may not like it, but there it is, and I’m going to have to deal with it if I want to go deeper in Buddhism.” Alright? So that’s the first step and it’s a step that is important not to skip.
Now, that perhaps is enough for this evening and then tomorrow we’ll start with the thinking process, and then how do you actually think about the teachings, and then how do you actually meditate. And hopefully I won’t just talk like I did this evening, but also to be a little bit more active from your side.
Okay. So do you have any questions?
Participant: The question is when some practitioner is in deep meditation then his brain waves – which characteristic does it have? Is it the same as a person has when he or she is active in the usual life or is it the same as when he or she is sleeping and so on.
Alex: Well, there have been a number of scientific research projects concerning that, in which they actually measure the brain waves of mediators doing different types of meditation. And I must confess I have not kept up to date on all the results of that, but there’s a lot of literature about it. I think one of the things that they found, if I remember correctly, was – I mean, not only is it not our ordinary usual state of mind and it’s certainly not like when we are asleep, but that through meditation processes it was possible to make more and more connections, actual neuron connections between the right and left hemispheres. So I mean they found that actually you can, through meditation, affect the neural pathways of the brain. But we’re not talking about just ordinary people that maybe meditate with a lot of mental wandering an hour a week. We’re talking about really serious deep practitioners. But they have found that they definitely are able to make changes in the chemistry and the wiring in the brain.
Participant: In the question you already mentioned the common mistake for Western people trying to compare some parts of the Buddhist teaching they think they understand while they don’t with some other parts of Indian Hinduistic teachings or something like that but…
Alex: ...which they also don’t understand...
Participant: Yes, of course, but sometimes we can try to compare different parts of different Buddhist teachings, for example like mahamudra and dzogchen, sometimes when you read about the first and the second… of course, I’m very far from understanding that deeply… but sometimes you think that that’s speaking about the same way. And what do you think? How wrong is that for Western people who are not very experienced to compare such things and believe that mahamudra teachers were saying about the same thing as dzogchen teachers.
Alex: So, let me repeat it in English for the recording. He’s saying that we mentioned the problem that many Western people have of listening to some teachings on Buddhism, not understanding it, and then comparing it with some other Asian philosophical system which they also don’t really understand. And is there that similar problem within the Buddhist teachings, when we hear some teachings about mahamudra for example, and start to compare it with teachings on dzogchen – neither of which we have very much of a deep understanding.
So I think there is a problem here. Mahamudra and dzogchen may be similar in certain respects – but they are actually quite different practices, quite different teachings. One of the problems is that often they are explained in a very superficial way, not in a very deep way, and when learned about in a superficial manner, of course they sound quite similar. But one thing which is usually not mentioned is that both mahamudra and dzogchen are very advanced teachings, not at all for beginners, and they are very, very difficult practices. To recognize the nature of the mind… we don’t even know what mind is, let alone what the nature of the mind is. Right? We can’t even concentrate, let alone examine the mind. Another problem is that many of the teachers of mahamudra and dzogchen are masters of both systems and they don’t necessarily separate them very well, or very clearly I should say.
But if we look at the texts of Karma – I’m not quite sure of the name of the teacher [Karma Chagmey] – but there was one great master who lived several centuries ago who taught how to put the practices of mahamudra and dzogchen together. And in his explanation, we practice the mahamudra practices up to a certain point – which is quite advanced – and then the final stages from that point to enlightenment are using the dzogchen method. So that’s how he put them together and that seems to be the practical way in which it’s actually done. But really it is going to be much more beneficial that when we listen to mahamudra teachings we just try to fit it with other mahamudra teachings; and when we listen to dzogchen teachings, try to fit it with other dzogchen teachings. And don’t be satisfied with just staying on the superficial level. And if anyone tells you that it’s easy, this is the easy speedy path, be suspicious. They’re not easy.
Participant: As for the question on transmitting the teaching. How do think now please? What form of the transmission of the teachings is the most appropriate? What could you advise on this?
Alex: That’s not a very easy question. I was recently about a month ago in Dharamsala, and this was at the end of a conference of translators, Dharma translators. And the purpose of the conference was to organize a one hundred year project for translating the Kangyur and the Tengyur, the Buddhist scriptures, into all major languages. It will be fortunate if it’s finished in a hundred years, but at least it’s started now. This is something that a large group of translators around the world will work on. And although there is not an oral transmission of the Tengyur – which is the words of the writings of the Indian masters, the Indian Buddhist masters – there is the oral transmission of the Kangyur, the words of the Buddha. Because when we talk about transmission – I mean that’s very specific in the Buddhist terminology. That’s called lung in Tibetan, in which somebody who has the lineage reads the text out to you and you listen to it, you digest it that way. So the question was asked to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in order to translate the Kangyur do we need the oral transmission of the Kangyur? Only the Kangyur has the oral transmission. Well they asked in general. The people didn’t even know that there wasn’t the transmission lineage of most of the Tengyur. Only a few texts in the Tengyur have the oral transmission. The people who asked the question just asked in general.
So first His Holiness pointed out, “Well for a lot of the Tengyur there isn’t even an oral transmission, so it’s irrelevant.” And then he said, “What’s most important is the motivation. If you have the correct motivation, then it doesn’t matter whether you have the oral transmission or not. But just the oral transmission without the correct motivation is useless.” Now of course one could understand that to mean that you need to have both, and some of the translators understood it that way – that you need both the transmission and the correct motivation – but what his Holiness was meaning, I think, is that if you receive it fine, but if not, it’s really not necessary.
Because also, bear in mind that the oral transmission of the whole Kangyur for somebody who reads it out loud – and we’re talking about one hundred volumes of about a thousand pages each – they read it at absolute top speed, so it’s almost impossible to differentiate any of the words in it, it takes about three months of a whole day each day, and your commitment in order to receive it is that you never fall asleep during the transmission. If you fall asleep during the transmission, you did not receive the transmission. So, how many people really receive it? It is highly boring.
So, then the question is, “Well, what is an oral transmission?” Actually, I have a whole big article on my website about that. But what you have to remember is that how did the tradition begin? And it began because the teachings were not written down. And the only way you could learn the teachings was to hear them, to get the oral transmission. That was the only way you could receive them. And there wasn’t the custom to write it down, so it had to be repeated often so that you remembered it. And they memorized it. That was the only way. So, it had a very purposeful reason in the early days, it was necessary. Nowadays it’s written, so that original purpose is not necessary.
Does the teacher need to understand the teaching in order to give the transmission? I thought that was the case. I thought that the teacher had to understand it, but I was wrong, because my teacher, the old Serkong Rinpoche, had a very special oral transmission of a certain teaching from his father who was a great master, a great teacher. And I received that oral transmission; and when the reincarnation, the young Serkong Rinpoche, was old enough, he wanted to get that oral transmission, and there was nobody left who had the oral transmission of that except me. And so he wanted that oral transmission from me and I told him I’ve never studied the text; I have no idea what it means. It’s the most advanced difficult philosophical text of Tsongkhapa and it’s a special transmission of it, not the usual one.
So, I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Can I give this oral transmission to Serkong Rinpoche? He wants it. There’s nobody else that has it” – even the Dalai Lama didn’t have it. And I explained, “I haven’t even read that book, let alone studied it.” And His Holiness said, “Yes, give it to him.” So that completely shattered all my preconceptions about what an oral transmission was. And so really we have to understand it’s not some magic power that’s transmitted – bzzzzzz – you know from one person to another. It’s certainly not that. But rather it’s just a certain confidence of continuity. And it’s not that the teacher is transmitting some understanding to the student either, but it’s just sort of a confidence that okay there is a tradition. It does have a source. It has gone from one generation to another. I think that’s about all.
But in the case of the Tengyur, you know the works of the great Indian masters; I think we can be fairly confident that these are authentic even without the oral transmission. Now in some cases in tantra, the oral transmission is also in a sense giving permission to practice. But even that’s questionable because these oral transmissions are given to groups of a thousand people, so how do you know that everybody’s ready? Where it becomes particularly useful though is in the oral transmission of a mantra, because you repeat it from the teacher and so you know how it’s pronounced.
Okay one last question and that’s all. I’m sorry I have the bad habit of answering too long.
Participant: The question is when Alex Berzin transmitted this teaching to Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche did Alex Berzin improve his understanding of this teaching?
Alex: Yes, because I read the text, and not only read it, but I practiced reading it out loud many times so that I could read it out loud in a reasonable amount of time in Tibetan, and read it out loud in a fluent way.
Participant: So, the conclusion is that the oral transmission is an opportunity for the teacher to improve his or her understanding of teaching.
Alex: Correct. But it was interesting, I went to India specially to give this transmission to the young Rinpoche and he said, “Fine, the only time that I have during the day [for you] to give it is in the morning.” I think we started at 5:30. From 5:30 to 6:30 and then I did it for several days in a row, because it took about five days to do. It was a very good experience, very good training for me too. And it certainly made for an even stronger connection with the old Rinpoche and the new Rinpoche.
So let’s end here with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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