Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teachings on Nagarjuna’s “Letter to A Friend” – Detailed Report
Setting the Scene – Early Morning, Tergar Monastery
The following summary of the morning’s teachings is based on Ringu Trulku Rinpoche’s translation from Tibetan into English, except where the Gyalwang Karmapa spoke directly in English.
The teachings should have begun promptly at nine o’clock. Gyalwang Karmapa was seated expectantly on his majestically high, intricately carved and gilded throne. The sound crew was confident. Hours of preparation had gone into setting up the sound system: microphones, speakers, and the FM translation transmission system. At the final dress rehearsal everything had worked perfectly, but now suddenly, it took on alife of its own and began emitting high-pitched squeals, squeaks and whines. The audience sat patiently while the sound crew dashed back and forth, fretting over banks of equipment, antennae, cables and microphones. His Holiness smiled, pulled faces, and tentatively tapped his microphone. Finally the problems were resolved, and the teachings were under way.
Having greeted everyone warmly, Gyalwang Karmapa explained why he had chosen this particular text – Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend – because, not only did it thoroughly cover the philosophy of Madhyamika, but it was mainly an instruction for householders on how to practice dharma. In ancient India householders who held the five precepts would study the text. It was His Holiness’ hope that this teaching would provide a new perspective for laystudents on how to be a householder and practice the dharma at the same time. A new edition of the text, containing the original Tibetan and translations into Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, English, French and German, had been published specially for the occasion. He pointed out the illustration depicting Nagarjuna on the front cover which he himself had drawn and wryly commented that some people had complained, “The face doesn’t show much character and the body looks like a rock.” He explained that, although he hoped to be able to go through the whole text, there would not be enough time to cover all the stanzas, so his objective would be to convey the essential meaning, stopping to elaborate on some points in detail but glossing over others.
Turning to the text, Gyalwang Karmapa then read and began his commentary on the first three verses which form an introduction to the teaching and more detailed instructions, and request people to listen to the teachings.
Listen now to these few lines of noble song
That I’ve composed for those with many virtues, fit for good,
To help them yearn for merit springing from
The sacred words of He Who’s Gone toBliss.
The Karmapa explained that its author, Nagarjuna, was a great scholar who, it is said, lived during the 1st or second century CE. The main exponent of the Madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy, he wrote Letter to a Friend, a text focussing on the six paramitas, to his friend, a South Indian king called Surabhibhadra. This is one of the many texts written by him preserved in Tibetan literature, which include several commentaries on sutra, and other important texts on tantra, demonstrating that he himself was practising both. It was he who composed the Mula-madhyamaka-karika which is the foundational text on Madhyamika. It was he who brought the Perfection of Wisdom sutras to the Mahayana tradition. There are two accounts of how this happened. One tells how the King of the Nagas gave these books to Nagarjuna. The other, found in a Chinese souce, is from a biography of Nagarjuna written by the great Indian scolar, Kumarajiva, who travelled to China and translated many Buddhist texts into Chinese. According to Kumarajiva, Nagarjuna had a vision in which he entered a jewelled palace where he met a great boddhistatva who showed him many caskets, containing sutras which he had never seen before. When he rose from this vision he wrote down what he had read —the 100,000 Stanza Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.
Although the letter was written specifically for the king it also applies to others as well, including ourselves, commented the Gyalwang Karmapa. In the first stanza Nagarjuna says that all his instructions come from the sacred words of the Buddha himself and from no other source, and their purpose is to generate the yearning to do the positive.
The wise will always honour and bow down
To Buddha statues, though they’re made of wood;
So too, although these lines of mine be poor,
Do not feel scorn, they teach the Holy Way.
Even if a statue of Buddha is not made of precious materials, wise people still honour the image. Similarly, though these instructions were written by a simple monk, the source is the Buddha, so it is worthwhile listening to them.
While you have surely learned and understood
The Mighty Buddha’s many lovely words,
Is it not that something made of chalk
By moonlight lit shines glowing whiter still.
The text refers to the Great Muni , the one of great capacity who can defeat the kleshas, the afflictions,so Nagarjuna says that even though you may already know the teachings of the Great Sage, it is worth heeding these verses because a chalk or plastered building gleams clearly and brightly in moonlight.
His Holiness explained that it is important to know about what we don’t know, but even the things we know have to be internalised. This is the threefold process of hearing or studying, thinking, and meditating. Initially we have to study, applying our wisdom and our intellect.
Six things there are the Buddhas have explained,
And all their virtues you must keep in mind:
The Buddha, Dharma,Sangha, bounteous acts,
And moral laws and gods-each one recall.
The fourth verse introduces the actual instructions, which are organised into three main topics. The first topic is the practice of positive virtues, the second is understanding the nature of samsara and feeling renunciation, and the third is seeing the benefits of liberation. The first general instructions are common to householders and monastics: six things to be mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, ethical behaviour, giving, and deities.
Gyalwang Karmapa stopped momentarily and surveyed the assembly hall, then commented in English on the fact that the traditional tea was not being provided during the foreign teachings.
“No tea break, “ he observed, “I hope my words become tea.”
He then began to discuss the meaning in the Buddhist tradition of taking refuge in the three objects of refuge: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
There was a further exchange at this point between the Gyalwang Karmapa and the audience because at the FM transmission stopped working properly and members of the audience were gesticulating anxiously that they couldn’t hear.
“Can you hear me?” asked the Karmapa, looking down over the audience, who shook their heads. When he realised that they couldn’t hear the translations, he quipped in English,“Is it the FM not working or the mind not working?” Everyone laughed. He then advised us to try to meditate on patience while the sound crew worked to rectify the problem.
A few minutes later, the teaching resumed and Gyalwang Karmapa continued his commentary on taking refuge. He said that generally it can be difficult to differentiate between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, but that refuge, if properly understood, provides a demarcation line. Three things had to be considered: the person who takes refuge, the objects of the refuge, and the nature of the refuge. With reference to the first, those who go for refuge can be categorised according to the three capacities of beings. Those of small capacity take refuge with the motivation that they do not want to suffer in the lower realms. Those of medium capacity have understood the nature of samsara as suffering or unsatisfactoriness and wish to liberate themselves. Those of great capacity , because of their immense compassion, are motivated by the wish to liberate all sentient beings from samsara.
Earlier, during the Gunchoe teachings His Holiness had raised the question whether those who do not believe in rebirth can be classified as Buddhists. He now returned to this dilemma again, questioning whether it was possible or meaningful for people who do not believe in rebirth and cyclic existence to take refuge. He was unsure what its function could be for such people. He also clarified the purpose of differentiating between people of different capacities. It would be wrong to think in terms of one being better than another, which might lead us to try to do something beyond our capability. The categories were there to help us. We needed to examine our own mindstate and decide which was the most suitable starting point for us. Then we would be able to make a natural progression, step-by-step, based on our aspirations at that point in time. It would also be wrong to look down on others because they had different aspirations.
Moving on to the objects of refuge, the Gyalwang Karmapa first considered the historical Buddha. Born more than 2500 years ago, a prince who enjoyed a protected life of luxury, he renounced samsara, underwent hardship during six years of meditation, then finally achieved enlightenment. This, he explained, is the biography of the Buddha as a human being, a bhikkshu who then became a Buddha. The Tibetan word for Buddha – sangye – has two parts: sang means to awaken from ignorance and gye means vastness in the way that mind or wisdom becomes vast.
At this point Gyalwang Karmapa made a Hindi/Sanskrit pun. In Hindi the word budhu means idiot, but change the spelling slightly and the word becomes buddha, thus we can all become Buddhas from budhus.
The supreme emanation Buddha revealed the Four Noble Truths to his five disciples in Sarnath, and at this point they experienced the true Dharma. The Dharma has two parts: true cessation and true path which means the experience of liberation and the path. Cessation occurs when all karma is exhausted and negative emotions completely extinguished. His Holiness emphasised that cessation was not to be understood in a nihilistic way, as a form of annihilation, but rather as a completely joyful experience, similar to the feeling of relief and well-being we experience on becoming completely well after a long, painful illness. The true path is the clear realisation that leads to freedom.
Finally, the third object of refuge, is the noble sangha which means those who have experience of cessation and the path.
As to the manner in which we take refuge, there are three things to be considered: our motivation, the depth of our refuge which depends on our motivation, and the level of our faith and devotion.
When we understand and appreciate the suffering of the three realms, the fear of this suffering propels us to seek liberation from samsara and pursue enlightenment. It is important to understand that ‘fear’ here refers not just to being frightened but also includes realizing the disadvantages of samsara. Having seen its negative side, we have the conviction that we must free ourselves from cyclic existence. His Holiness warned that to be ruled only by fear was the road to madness. It was also essential to clearly understand that there should only be fear of samsara; the objects of refuge should never become a source of fear. Indeed they are the source of fearlessness. The question of fear also applies to the samaya relationship between guru and student in the Vajrayana tradition. The guru should be viewed as our best friend who will always help us in whatever situation we find ourselves, so, in one way, it is inappropriate to have fear of the guru with regard to breaking samaya.
With regard to faith and devotion, His Holiness observed that though foreign disciples usually go through a process of examining the Buddhist teachings, becoming convinced and then taking refuge, and consequently their faith is based on a clear understanding, there is often a different process at work for Tibetans and those who have been born into Buddhist families. Such people may not have `gone through this thought process, but may have developed great faith and devotion. However, when we consider faith and devotion, it is crucial to have a correct understanding of how the objects of refuge help us; if this is misundertoood, there may be many problems. Faith can degenerate into blind faith and superstition. His Holiness illustrated this point effectively and humourously, giving three examples of blind faith in action. For Buddhists the Buddha embodies compassion, loving kindness and blessing, but a person of blind faith may suppose that the Buddha, out of his great compassion, will take care of everything. Someone who flings their dirty clothes into a corner, thinking the Buddha will wash them, will end up with a pile of dirty laundry. When crowds of mosquitoes are buzzing around, someone who believes that Buddha will protect them from being bitten, will end up being badly bitten. A school student who relies on blind faith in Buddha rather than studying hard to pass their exam will get a zero. The Buddha taught the way but then we have to practise it. The Buddha is in a different world – the pure realm—and cannot transform us into enlightened beings. We have to do the work ourselves. If you then ask, why do we need the Three Jewels, the answer is that we need to know the way and we need someone to instruct us. Buddha shows the way, and we have to follow that path, work hard ourselves and then there will definitely be a result. Once we have taken refuge, we still have to work on ourselves.
Who then are the noble sangha? In the Hinayana sutras it states that someone who upholds ethical discipline, who has achieved a degree of meditative stabilisation, has generated some wisdom and is contented, and has abandoned the afflictions, can be called one of the noble sangha. They have entered the path, and if they continue to practise the ten virtuous actions they will attain enlightenment, without a doubt. Because of their qualities, the ten virtuous actions will continue to grow and increase.
In the end, the final result depends on us.
After offering three bows and prayers, His Holiness continued his teaching on Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend. in the afternoon of December 20, 2009.
There are benefits that come from bringing to mind the gods who live in the higher realms. In order to arrive at their high status, they needed to develop their practice of peaceful abiding (shamatha), so remembering their achievements can have the positive effect of our becoming more mindful and aware. We can also recall that in order to arrive at a rebirth in a higher realm, the gods had to engage in numerous virtuous actions. So we should bring to mind how the gods attained their rebirth. Being a powerful god is the result of positive actions.
His Holiness then read out the Verse Five:
With body, speech, and mind always rely
On wholesome deeds, the tenfold virtuous path.
Avoiding liquor at all costs, thus find
True joy to lead a life of virtuous deeds.
The ten wholesome, or virtuous actions, are to avoid the ten unwholesome or unvirtuous ones. We should understand why it is important to follow this teaching, for it leads us away from what is not harmonious with Dharma and turns us towards what is.
In the Vinaya, a positive way of life is emphasized through respect for the rules of conduct. There is a lot say about this, but not much time, so we will focus more on the life of the householder, who develops respect for the Dharma.
First let us look at vows. Taking refuge in the three jewels is the basis for all other vows. Any other kind of Buddhist vow we might take is based on refuge. If we take refuge, we can become an upasaka (a lay holder of vows).The initial promise we make when taking refuge is not to harm living beings and refrain from violence. The first practice of Buddhism is not to harm others. In particular, abstaining from harming is the basis of the Foundational Vehicle.
Not harming can be understood in terms of avoiding the ten unwholesome actions: the three related to the body (killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct); the four related to speech (lying, harsh words, gossip, and divisive talk); and the three related to the mind (wishing to harm others, envy, and wrong view). All of these actions injure others. If we are able to purify our minds, then doing harm to others along with its very basis is eliminated.
The mind is the basis of the first seven unwholesome actions of body and speech, which directly harm others. If the three negative mental actions are not present, then the negative actions of body and speech will not happen. If we eliminate negative actions and the afflictions (klesha) from our mind, we will naturally have a mind that benefits others, because the ten negative actions of the mind stem from the afflictions of hatred, excessive desire, and ignorance. Therefore, giving these up relates directly to not harming others.
Hinayana also speaks of not harming others. Sometimes we may think that the Mahayana is the only path of compassion, but that is not completely true. The extent of the compassion may differ, as the Mahayana aspiration is for all living beings, but in the Foundational vehicle there is a very strong desire not to harm others. If we speak only of not harming others, it is difficult to separate the Hinayana from the Mahayana.
Motivation is extremely important. In the beginning, we may have a good motivation, but if we have not worked on eliminating our negativity, then we could harm others later. Meditation helps us to work on our afflictions. We can learn to subdue and control our anger, for example, and in general, our minds will become more flexible. If we do not meditate, we may start with intention to help others, but it is possible that our negativity will return and subvert what we are trying to do, so we could wind up harming others.
According to the Abhidharmakosha, the first seven negative actions (the three of the body and the four of speech), are karmic actions; the three of mind are not karmic actions, but create the path through which actions happen.
If we commit a negative action, we can make a firm resolution not do it again. Then we can purify the negativity in front of a Dharma support, such as a statue or image of the Buddha. Our motivation should be so strong that even at the risk of our lives, we would not do it again.
If we take as an example, the negative action of killing, then we can see that it starts with rejection or aversion. At this point, however, the action is not complete, so we have time to stop it. There are many different stages so we can tell ourselves why we should not kill and change our intention. If you can catch it at this stage, then an action is not complete. So our intention is the main thing and it allows us to catch a negative action before it happens.
You might think that the three negative actions related to mind happen so quickly that there would be no time to change them. But it is possible. For example, suppose you really wanted a certain computer. First you think of computer—how critical it is to your life; how beautiful it is, how useful, and so forth. You think of all the good things connected with it and you convince yourself that you have to have that very computer. Your life will go well. You’ll finally be happy. If you don’t have it, you’ll be just miserable. Finally, you think , “I must absolutely have that computer.” You mind narrows down around this one thing and becomes stuck to it. So there is a process here and there is time to interrupt it. First we have the thought related to a negative emotion, then an object for it appears, and finally we do something negative.
We must be mindful, aware, and conscientious, because these patterns repeat themselves. When problems arise, they provide an occasion for these afflictions to surface. So we have to apply ourselves again and again to identifying and halting negative thoughts.
Working with our minds is especially important, because the mind is the source of our physical and verbal actions. If we do not this, then our negative actions become like thieves who steal away our merit and virtues. If we are involved in any of the ten negative actions, we will accumulate karma. So our intention to improve ourselves and change is very important. If we do not have this positive motivation, then transforming ourselves is very difficult. Mindfulness and awareness are arising with every moment and we should try to maintain this continuum and not waver from it because negative actions can be halted by mindfulness.
The third negative action related to the mind is wrong view. In the Abhidharmakosha, it is said that for monastics, it is difficult to avoid wrong view because they are dependent on others: They beg for food and rely on other people for donations. This may led them to say something in order to receive offerings; they could play the dancing monkey for their sponsors.
For lay people it is difficult to avoid wrong views due to the way that they use divinations (Tibetan, mo). When they encounter difficulties, lay people tend to ask for a mo. They also practice Dzambhala to accumulate wealth or Tara if they are sick. This is not the right way to apply the Dharma, because we are using it to gain worldly benefits. These are the kinds of mistakes lay people make.
Actually, the Buddha already made an excellent mo for us. He said that if we engage in virtuous actions, the results will be virtuous; if we engage in negative actions, the results will be negative. This is very clear. The most effective mo is to practice virtue.
In working with negative actions, it is also very helpful to take vows. They give constancy to our actions and provide a counteracting force to our negative tendencies. They also serve as a basis for awareness. There are hundreds of ways to take vows. One way is related to number of people. For example, first we meditate on not killing. Then we can vow not to injure one person, a group of people, or no one at all. In terms of time, we can take a vow for one day, one month, one year, or until you die. You could also take a vow not to kill or seal from the Karmapa (laughter).
If someone takes a vow to give up any, some or all of the negative actions, we should praise and encourage them, and also rejoice. We should all train in avoiding the ten negative actions.
Another way of working with the afflictions is to look into how they come about. We can examine to see: Where did this negative action come from? Where does it stay? Where does it go?
The last two lines of Verse Five state:
Avoiding liquor at all costs, thus find
True joy to lead a life of virtuous deeds.
This applies to both the lay and ordained sangha. For those with lay vows, there are negative ways to earn a living, such as selling alcohol, selling poisons, killing others, and selling meat. However, the main negative actions are all contained with in the ten that we should abandon. We should also practice the six perfections. These are very important.
Question and Answer Session
Question: When we are separated from our root teacher, sometimes we are moved to tears from longing. Is this crazy?
Answer: Not really. When we recall the positive qualities of our teacher and are moved to tears, that is devotion. It is positive and strong. If you’re oversupplied, perhaps you could pass some along to me (laughter).
Question: How should we understand the eight worldly dharmas or concerns?
Answer: We can understand the eight, (gain and loss, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, fame and infamy), as belonging to three types: white, black, and mixed. The black dharma is a concern only for this life; one looks to benefit oneself and does not think of others. The white dharma is concern for others. The mixed dharma is what most of us have, black and white together. Genuine Dharma is not just for this life, but for life after life.
The following summary of the morning’s teachings is based on Ringu Trulku Rinpoche’s translation from Tibetan into English.
Gyalwang Karmapa began by reviewing yesterday’s discussion on ethical discipline, emphasising that practising ethical discipline was important for the world in terms of transforming society. Behaving ethically meant abandoning the ten non-virtuous actions. For householders who hold the lay vows, adopting ethical behaviour can also be very helpful on an individual level; a couple who quarrel can create a harmonious relationship instead, for instance.
The Gyalwang Karmapa continued his teaching with an exposition of verse six. He explained that the previous verses had been applicable to both householders and those holding monastic vows, but the sixth verse is addressed specifically to laypeople.
Possessions are ephemeral and essence less—
Know this and give them generously to monks,
To Brahmins, to the poor, and to your friends:
Beyond there is no greater friend than gift.
Stanza four had mentioned the six paramitas, one of which is generosity. Three things needed to be considered with reference to generosity: the objects, the reasons, and the benefits. This verse explains the importance of generosity and who best deserves to receive it. There are two types of object: the higher ones, those who are a field of good qualities, which includes Brahmins, monks and nuns, and those who are a field of benefit such as one’s parents. The second group includes the poor and disadvantaged. The reason for giving is that wealth is impermanent and unstable – as we can see from the present economic crisis – so the most effective way of using our wealth is to share it, even though we may have limited resources.
The benefit of giving is that , even if you give only a little it establishes predispositions for future lives and ensures rebirth in a good migration with good resources.
Keep your vows unbroken, undegraded,
Uncorrupted, and quite free of stain.
Just as the earth’s the base for all that’s still or moves,
On discipline, it’s said, is founded all that’s good.
This verse is an instruction for monks and nuns. Monastics have taken vows of ethical discipline and it’s important not to allow them to degenerate. One needs to give up all harming of others. The actions to be abandoned are the seven of body and speech, and the three mental actions that are the cause of the former. Hence, one trains in abandoning these by hearing, thinking and meditating. Ethical discipline should be uncorrupted meaning that it is not kept only because of concern for this life. It must be quite free of stain meaning that ethical discipline should not be solely for the purpose of future lives either. The basis of one’s virtuous actions should be the goal of attaining liberation and omniscience. The three precepts are ethics, concentration and wisdom, and ethical discipline is the basis on which we realise the latter. His Holiness observed that if we cannot control body and speech, we cannot control our minds. Even for hearing, thinking and meditating one needs one-pointedness of mind, and this too is difficult to develop without a base of ethical discipline.
Generosity and discipline, patience and diligence,
Concentration and the wisdom of thusness-
Those measureless perfections, make them grow,
And be a Mighty Conqueror, who’s crossed samsara’s sea.
This verse gives more detailed instructions for monks and nuns and lists the six perfections.
As it is said in the Madhyamika-avatara, if ethical discipline exists, the other five perfections grow and increase, but, without it, it is very difficult for the other five to develop. To become a bodhisattva is not easy. A bodhisattva has to have great skill, real compassion and wisdom, and training in all six perfections in order to attain this.
Nagarjuna’s detailed instruction for householders, which follows, has nine parts, the first of which is to respect one’s parents.
Those who show their parents great respect
With Brahma or a Master will be linked;
By venerating them they’ll win repute,
In future they’ll attain the higher realms.
His Holiness commented that we all come from many different backgrounds and life situations. He himself had been able to meet a wide range of people, many of whom had love and respect for their parents, but some of whom had great difficulty doing this, so it was necessary to explore ways in which we could relate to this verse. He himself had no problems loving and respecting his mother and father. His only problem was having little opportunity to do this. He suggested that perhaps he was not the right person to give instructions to those who did have problems doing so. However, there are many teachings in Buddhist texts on cultivating patience, kindness and compassion, and how to regard all beings as attractive. Perhaps those who have difficulty loving and respecting their parents, he advised, could use these trainings, so that they abandoned feelings of anger and hatred, and practiced patience. In that way they could rid themselves of negative feelings towards their parents. As we as Buddhists must practice equanimity and show loving kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings, whether they are relatives and friends or not, if there were difficulties, perhaps we could include our parents in the latter group. Moreover, we need to reflect on our past history, learn to forgive ourselves and others, and let go of any painful or negative feelings we may still harbour.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
Eschew all harm, don’t steal, make love, or lie,
Abstain from drink, untimely greed for food,
Indulging in high beds, and singing too,
Refrain from dancing, all adornments shun.
For men and women who keep this eight-branched vow
And emulate the vows the Arhats took,
Their wish to nurture and to cleanse will grant
Them handsome bodies as celestial gods.
This second and third verses of detailed instructions to householders encourage them to take the eight Mahayana sojong precepts, which can be divided into 4 root precepts , and 4 branches and are taken for twenty-four hours. During Buddha’s time, the Buddha instructed his followers to observe the sojong precepts on the 8th, 15th and so forth of the month. It is said that those who had done so, when they heard one word of instruction from the Buddha, became Arhats. By observing these precepts, His Holiness said, there will be great benefits in the next life.
He then introduced Verse 12, which lists actions and attitudes to be avoided by householders.
Stinginess and cunning, greed and sloth
And arrogance, attachment, hate, and pride
(“I’ve breeding, good looks, learning, youth, and power”)—
Such traits are seen as enemies of good.
Question and Answer Session
Question: When I have a negative emotion like attachment and look into it, the emotion becomes stronger. What should I do?
Answer: His Holiness advised that there are many different ways to work on negative emotions. He suggested that sometimes when you dislike a particular person, something has happened or they have done something to you, it can help to change your focus, moving your mind away from that person or situation, in order to defuse the anger. This can help.
Question: Is it permissible to support ourselves by selling dharma articles with the intention of benefitting others? Westerners need Dharma articles.
Answer: His Holiness suggested that there were several things to be considered. If the motivation were more than just a business, it might be permissible, but one needed to consider how and to whom they were sold. For instance, there was the danger of selling them to people who would not respect them.
Question: Monks and lamas eat meat in Tibet, especially during Losar. Is this not a wrong thing to do?
Answer: His Holiness commented that the questioner seemed to know Tibetan custom! He then explained how, historically, because of the geography, climate and situation, there used to be little choice of food in Tibet, and it was very difficult to get vegetables and so forth. Nowadays things had changed. New fruits and vegetables had arrived in Tibet, particularly from China, and it was his hope that this would lead to a change in the Tibetan diet, so that monks and lamas eating meat would no longer be an issue.
Question: When there are too many mosquitoes, I kill them. I’m sorry. I don’t want to do it, but how can I stop it?
Answer: His Holiness commented that this was a difficult dilemma. The right conditions in terms of room, screens, nets, repellant and so forth could help. However, it was essential for us to understand that although an elephant is very large and a mosquito is very small, the difference is in size not value, both are living beings. Thus, although a mosquito may seem small and insignificant it has life and it is probably wrong to take that life. Instead we should use our skills and resourcefulness to find a solution which does not harm them. Talking from personal experience he said that a few days ago he had noticed that the anti-mosquito device that many people use here seemed to be killing the mosquitoes, so he didn’t turn it on and tried driving them away instead. That didn’t work and they continued to bite him in spite of everything. Then he developed a genuine feeling of giving.
“So at least I was giving my blood freely; they benefit from receiving it and I have the positive benefit of giving. I’m trying this, I’m not saying that everyone has to do this, but this is my current thinking.”
Question: Would His Holiness please give the refuge vows. How can we take His Holiness as root guru.
Answer: His Holiness began his reply by saying that this question of the ‘root guru’ was something which had been bothering him for some time. He explained that usually when we use the term ‘root guru’ it is in the context of Vajrayana practice. The ‘root guru’ is the one from whom we receive an empowerment, the reading transmission and the root instructions. It is also possible, however, to have a ‘spiritual friend’. This is the person who shows us the right way, and instructs us in what is to be adopted and what is to be abandoned.
Gyalwang Karmapa explained that from his personal point of view he felt he did not have the qualities to be a root guru yet, although he was working hard to develop them, and it was his aspiration to gather all the genuine qualities that are necessary. However, many people has placed their hopes, wishes and confidence in him, so, in order to encourage them, he accepted the role of root guru. He thought that he, the individual Ogyen Trinley, did not have the qualities to be a root guru, but through his connection with the Karmapa lineage, there might be some benefit to people. Thus, whenever he agreed to take someone as a student or to be their root guru, he visualised the great masters and took inspiration from them. It was important to understand that the focus should not be on him personally but on the lineage and the teachings of the lineage. Even someone with hundreds of negative qualities was worth listening to if they gave one positive instruction. His Holiness reminded everyone that one of the four reliances instructs us to rely on the teaching(Dharma) and not on the person. “It’s the teaching that is great, not me,” he maintained, and advised everyone to take the teachings as the main guru and regard him as a spiritual friend; then there wouldn’t be any problems.
Gyalwang Karmapa concluded the morning session with two reading transmissions: Thogme Sangpo’sThe Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva and the dedication prayer from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva.
Today we will begin with discussing mistaken attitudes, or literally, “what is turned around the wrong way.”
Verse 12 reads:
Stinginess and cunning, greed and sloth,
And arrogance, attachment, hate, and pride
(“I’ve breeding, good looks, learning, youth, and power”)—
Such traits are seen as enemies of good.
When people are stingy, they’re unable to give to others. They can’t give either the Dharma or material things, but must keep everything to themselves.
The next mistaken attitude is translated as “cunning” but actually it’s made up of two words. g.Yo means that you conceal your faults and sgyu means that you pretend to have qualities that you do not, so there are two ways of being cunning. “Sloth” refers to allowing ourselves to be carried away by laziness.
With pride, we think we’re something very special. We are puffed up, inflated with ourselves. We are one hundred percent certain that you are a wonderful person, even if we actually don’t have so many positive qualities. We are so stuffed with the idea of our self that there’s no space for anything else. Our mind is obese. We think that we are some high ranking VIP. Or we think we’re special because we have tons of money or years of learning. No matter what positive qualities we may have, it’s important not to come under the sway of pride.
Of the three poisons, attachment comes in two kinds: attachment to people and to material things. Then, even though we may have all that we need and more, we still have aversion and feel the need to compete with others. None of these mistaken attitudes are good for this life or the next. They steal away our positive qualities and so they are seen as “enemies of good.” None of them allow us to make good connections with others, which is another reason why we should discard them.
It’s a tradition in India and Tibet that great masters are very humble. They say things like, “I really don’t know very much.” “I haven’t studied a lot.” “I have no realization.” Now that the Dharma is spreading to the East and West, many masters are traveling and they still follow this tradition of humility. However, some people assume that the masters are actually telling the truth and take what they say at face value: “Well, if he doesn’t know, then there’s no need to take teaching from him.” They have not yet learned that this is an expression of humility. It is possible that someone could have false humility and harbor pride deep within. Such a person is not a true practitioner. So students have to understand this tradition of humility. When the teacher and students are of one mind, then something good can happen.
Real humility is felt deep inside. Even if we have many positive qualities, we understand how much more we have to learn. When we compare ourselves with others, we can see that what we know is like a drop of water in the ocean. We feel a natural humility when we see the great qualities we have yet to attain.
It is important for us to practice love and compassion, to the point that they become inexhaustible. From our heart we wish that living beings be free of suffering and find real happiness. We want to extinguish all the suffering of living beings and be their servant. To be able to do this well, we have to work on reducing our pride. But we should not do this by putting ourselves down. The Supreme Continuum (Uttaratantra Shastra) by Maitreya gives reasons why the Buddha taught about Buddha nature, (tathatagarbha). If we know that this essential nature of ours, (and that of all living beings), is basic goodness, the potential for full awakening, then we will not be discouraged or plagued by a sense of worthlessness. We should definitely not seek to diminish our pride by putting ourselves down because that will just make us feel hopeless. Instead, we can just think that there are many more qualities that we could attain and that now we are a small pond compared to the vast ocean of what is possible. This humble mind is what we need to develop.
Verse 13 concerns with being careful or conscientious.
Carefulness is the way to deathlessness,
While carelessness is death, the Buddha taught.
And thus, so that your virtuous deeds may grow,
Be careful, constantly and with respect.
We may have the name of a practitioner or call ourselves Buddhist but we may not really practice, so we are merely assuming these names. What we should do, however, is examine ourselves to see what is positive and negative. In this way, we should be the witness for ourselves. As it states in The Seven Points of Mind Training: “Of the two judges, rely on the first.” And the first is we ourselves.
This verse compares being careful and attentive to nectar. The word for nectar, or amrita, in Tibetan is made up of two syllables: Dud (Tib. bdud) refers to maras or demons, which actually refer to obstacles of various kinds, such as old age and sickness or the four traditional maras of the afflictions, fear of death, the aggregates, and worldly pleasures. And tsi (Tib. rTsi) here means “to get rid of.” So the word means that those who are able to recall the nectar of carefulness are able to eliminate obstacles. Such a person is a true Dharma practitioner. To avoid negative actions of body and speech, we look very carefully at our minds to make sure that a mara does not slip in, whether it is during or after a session of meditation.
This careful attentiveness is actually necessary for any kind of practice. When following the Vinaya, we need this carefulness and mindfulness, for example, in observing the five virtuous acts. In the Mahayana the mind is much more important than body and speech. We need to be aware and evaluate what is going on in our mind. This is even more true in the Vajrayana.
Verse 14 continues to speak of carefulness:
Those who formerly were careless
But then took heed are beautiful and fair,
As is the moon emerging from clouds,
Like Nanda, Angulimala, Darshaka, Udayana.
Here Nagarjuna speaks of first being corrupted by misdeeds and then purifying ourselves of them. This process is likened to the moon escaping from behind the clouds. It tells us that change is possible. The examples given are Ananda, who had strong attachment; Angulimala who killed hundreds; Darshaka who killed his mother, and Udayana who committed many negative actions.
So it is possible to purify even extremely negative actions, and this process happens through stages of purification. First we regret what we have done and see it as a real mistake. We make a confession in front of the Three Jewels or a lama; we vow not to do it again, and then we practice to purify it through reciting, for example, Vajrasattva’s mantra. What is most important is that we see what we have done as wrong. Fearing suffering, some people might still harbor some hesitation deep down inside and this will subvert the purification. So it is important to confess from our very depths. When we can do this, it brings us true joy and happiness.
We should not think, however, that we are all black inside. This would be an obstacle to our path of practice. If we reflect on our present and past lives, the fact that we have made mistakes is not at all surprising. From our numerous past lives, we are not arriving here perfectly white; there are faults that we have not discarded; it is due to our karma and our afflictions, we have taken our present birth. What we have done wrong in past lives might be huge compared to this life.
So it’s good to recognize what we have done wrong, but we should not feel totally discouraged and think that there’s nothing to be done. We can change by recognizing our faults and then confessing. And when we do this, it should be complete; we shouldn’t leave behind anything inside us. Confessing is like splitting an apple in half; we totally cut ourselves off from what is wrong. For example, Milarepa worked very hard on building the towers to purify killing so many people. We can look at this from two sides: from one side he was purifying his negative action, and from another side he was creating great joy.
The following summary of the morning’s teachings is based on Ringu Trulku Rinpoche’s translation from Tibetan into English.
The Gyalwang Karmapa began by saying that this the third day of the teachings would also be the final session. Consequently it would not be possible to give a detailed commentary on the whole text so he preferred to at least give the reading transmission of it, occasionally commenting, in order that both he and the audience would have a sense of completion.
The next three stanzas, 17, 18, and 19, contain instructions to abandon lowly actions of body, speech and mind.
Understand your thoughts to be like figures drawn
On water, sandy soil, or carved in stone.
Of these, for tainted thoughts the first’s the best,
While when you long for Dharma, it’s the last.
This verse is concerned with abandoning negative thoughts. The simile compares a drawing on water which is immediately erased, with a drawing on earth which remains for a short while, and a carving on rock which can last for centuries. His Holiness explained that, especially when we first begin to practice, we experience many afflictions in our minds. Thus, we should train our minds so that these afflictions become like words on water. When, on the other hand, we train in positive qualities such as loving kindness and compassion and so forth, the results should be like rock carvings, at best, or, at least, as if drawn on the earth.
Three kinds of speech are used by humankind,
And these the Victor variously described:
Like honey, sweet; like flowers, true; like filth,
Improper speech—the last of these eschew.
This verse describes three different types of speech – helpful and beneficial which is sweet like honey; truthful and beautiful like a flower; the last is wrong speech, unclean like dirt, and refers to such things as lies and divisive speech, which should be avoided.
Some there are who go from light to light,
And some whose end from dark is darkness still,
While some from light to dark, or dark to light
End up, thus four, of these be as the first.
Verse 19 explains why we should stop non-virtuous actions and train in positive qualities. Our ultimate aim is enlightenment, but in cyclic existence negative emotions influence our actions, and our actions harm others. If we turn away from these non-virtuous actions and work on positive deeds instead, our lives now will become happier and there will our rebirths will also be more fortunate. Gyalwang Karmapa quoted from Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva “If you ride the horse of bodhichitta you will go from one happy place to another. So how could a bodhisattva ever be lazy?” Of the four possible directions we can take in samsara, he advised, we should aim to go from light to light, to turn ‘good’ into ‘better’.
His Holiness then read verses 20 to 29, pausing to comment on verse 29.
You who know the world, take gain and loss,
Of bliss and pain, or kind words and abuse,
Of praise and blame—these eight mundane concerns—
Make them the same and don’t disturb your mind.
This verse refers to the eight worldly concerns and the problems that can arise if we depend too much on external conditions for our happiness and well-being. This leads to an imbalance in our lives and our mental states become like waves on the ocean. For instance, some people when praised become overjoyed, but then when they are criticised they become sad and depressed. Consequently they have no stability. If, instead, we can be content with whatever conditions we face, we will always be happy. His Holiness warned that Dharma practitioners should not pay too much attention to what people are saying about their practice. He advised that if we can maintain internal stability and equanimity, irrespective of what is happening externally, life becomes trouble-free. As practitioners we should understand and accept the nature of samsara. The definition given of samsara is ‘not everything goes well’, so why should we be surprised when things go wrong? If you put your hand in hot water you will be scalded. You shouldn’t be shocked by this – it’s how things are. If you take a bath in icy water, you aren’t surprised that it’s freezing cold! Our view of samsara should be similar – we should be expecting problems and not be thrown off balance by them.
Gyalwang Karmapa went on to suggest ways in which it was possible to maintain mental equipoise in daily life. The Abhidharma lists five ever-present mental factors, one of which is samadhi– a one-pointed factor of stability. Speaking from his own experience he said how sometimes he was so busy that when he reviewed the day at night, he failed to recall anything useful that he had done and felt that the day had lacked purpose and that this precious human life was being wasted. His Holiness then moved on to consider what it really means to waste time. The essential thing, he advised, was to maintain a stable awareness in whatever we are doing, and if we can do this we will never be wasting time. There was no point fretting over time spent brushing our teeth, sitting in a traffic jam, or standing in a check-out queue. These were merely external conditions. We always have a choice, whatever we are doing; we can always make use of our minds. Some people misguidedly believe that their happiness and well-being depend on external conditions such as acquiring a new car, but, a careful examination will show that happiness depends on internal not external factors. If we understand this, whatever is happening around us, we can work on our minds and use that time in a positive and meaningful way. It is fundamentally important to understand that happiness comes from within.
Gyalwang Karmapa then gave the reading transmission of verses 30 – 57. He paused again at verse 58, to discuss the correct understanding of impermanence.
It’s all impermanent, devoid of self,
So if you’re not to stay there refugeless
And helpless, drag your mind away, O King,
From plaintainlike samsara, which has no core.
Observing that some people became fearful when they meditate on impermanence, he commented that this was not the point; it is not intended to bring fear. As Buddhists we believe that this birth is but one of a succession, a cycle of birth and death. However, people often mistakenly think in terms only of this life—one birth, one life, one death. As a consequence, death becomes uncertain and frightening. The correct way to look at impermanence, however, is as a sequence of births and deaths which we can see operating at all levels of our everyday lives. Moment by moment, new things come into being, that is birth, and other things come to an end, that is death. Understanding impermanence in this way should have two positive effects: firstly, it should reduce our fear of death itself, and secondly it should heighten our appreciation of our moment-to-moment existence leading us to value and focus on each moment. If we fail to do the latter, we may waste our lives. If we take each moment as a drop, we can make our lives an ocean of happiness.
Gyalwang Karmapa resumed his reading of the text and completed the reading transmission.
Question and Answer Session
Question: Should not some Rinpoches have the aspiration to take rebirth as females, as Tara did, in order to show that women are capable of enlightenment?
Answer: Having suggested that this was worth praying for, His Holiness commented that In Tantra it is clear that one can attain Buddhahood in the body of a woman. A Buddha can emanate in any form – male or female—hence Tara, but it would be wrong to think in terms of a competition between men and women. There needs to be a reason such as compassionate action for the benefit of women requiring birth as a woman. It doesn’t have to be a Rinpoche, His Holiness observed, some of the audience could do it too.
Question: There are so many bhikkshunis here – but none from the Tibetan tradition. When will Your Holiness start gelongma ordination? If Your Holiness does not start the tradition, who will?
Answer: Gyalwang Karmapa explained that during the recent Vinaya Conference, there had been a great deal of discussion on the issue of gelongma (Skt. Bhikkshuni) ordination and how it could be introduced into the Tibetan tradition. There were several difficulties which needed to be thoroughly discussed, as it would be wrong to act hastily. One difficulty was that there were no gelongma in the Mulastavastavadin tradition, which Tibetan Buddhism follows, although it seems that some Tibetan masters in the past may have ordained nuns. A second was finding a method by which the gelongma ordination could be introduced so that its future was stable. Possible solutions discussed at the conference included carrying out gelongma ordination by a sangha of monks only, or by a combined sangha of monks from the Mulastavastavadin tradition and nuns from the Chinese Dharmagupta tradition. It was difficult to know at what point gelongma ordination would become possible but His Holiness promised that he was working hard on the issue, with pure motivation. It could not be done hastily. It had to be done properly in order to secure the future of the gelongma.
“Don’t worry. I will do it,” he said in English. “Be patient.”
Question: What is the right way of life for a nun who is working in a hospital far from other sangha members?
Answer: For a getsulma (novice nun), His Holiness advised, the most important thing from the Vinaya point of view, is keeping the four root vows, and not doing something which lay people would take offense at in terms of making them lose their respect for or faith in the sangha.
Question: How should we meditate on selflessness? And how does this relate to helping sentient beings?
Answer: His Holiness commented that although we often think of ourselves as separate and independent , a closer examination of our situation proves that we are not. From the very air we breathe which sustains our life, to the food we eat and the books we read, we are dependent on others. We are a part of everything around us, and compassionate action is a product of a thorough understanding of this interdependence. From his own experience, he observed, the more he understood interdependence the more he understood how important others were, and the importance of working for their benefit. Usually we think I exist, so others exist, he said. We need to understand that I exist because others exist. If others didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist.
Understanding selflessness and emptiness is basic to understanding compassion too, he said. Sometimes when meditating on selflessness it seems as if all becomes nothing, but when one really understands selflessness, compassion also arises.
This concluded the teaching. Gyalwang Karmapa thanked everybody for coming . Hundreds of years ago the friendship between Nagarjuna and King Surabhibhadra had produced this text, and now, because of the text, everyone at the teaching had formed a karmic connection, and he would pray to ensure that this connection would be renewed in future. He hoped that everyone would carry the experience of friendship, love and harmony they had shared back to their own countries, East and West.
The Closing Ceremony
After three days of inspiring teaching, His Holiness brought to a close his discussion of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend with thanks to the students who had gathered for so far away.
He said, “I am happy to have been able to give teachings on this text and thank you for giving me this opportunity. Letter to a Friend was composed over a thousand years ago when the great scholar Nagaruna sent a letter to his dear friend, King Decho Zangpo. I am very happy to have been able to speak about this text to faithful students from the East and West. The fact that we could all meet here is due to our gathering considerable merit in the past. I sincerely hope that in the future we will be able to meet again and again. I am continually doing as much as I can to make this possible.”
As thanks to His Holiness for these special teachings and with prayers for his very long life, leaders from Dharma centers and the organizers offered him the supports of body, speech, mind, qualities and, activities. Then Lama Chokyi from France spoke for everyone when he compared His Holiness to a skilled gardener. In the beginning, the seeds are rather colorless and not very attractive, but the gardener knows that with care they will grow into beautiful flowers, so he nurtures them as they grow to maturity. Likewise, in the beginning, we students are rather undeveloped, but with His Holiness’s compassion and teachings, we hope to blossom into true flowers of the Dharma.
Afterward, everyone had the opportunity to offer their auspicious scarves and personal thanks to His Holiness and receive his blessing. Many stayed behind in the surrounding gardens of Tergar Monastery to enjoy the sunny, warm weather, to circumambulate the shrine building where His Holiness stays, remaining a little longer in his presence.