The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
24 August 2021
The Gyalwang Karmapa introduced the summer teachings by detailing his overall intention to increase the knowledge of Vajrayana and related topics among the monks and nuns in all the Kagyu centres, but particularly among the monks and nuns in tsok-dra – the ritual study and training sections of monasteries. The Karmapa noted that from the time of Marpa the Translator onwards, the Kagyu tradition has held two lineages: the lineage of practising the secret mantra and the lineage of teaching and studying the tantras. These days, however, though the lineage of practice remains, there is very little left of the lineage of study and teaching of the tantras and few extant teachings on the tantra. This may be because the Marpa Kagyu lineage is incomplete or it may be that we have not managed to maintain it, he posited, and urged all the Kagyu communities of teaching and practice, lamas, tulkus and lay students, male and female, to be highly motivated and energetic and to co-operate together in order to revive the teachings.
The main reason for calling this summer teaching the “Mar Ngok Summer Teaching” was to remind everyone of Marpa and Ngokpa, to inspire us and to uphold their tradition of studying and teaching the tantras, he explained. To revive these teachings and continue the tradition was his aim in giving it that name, not to make it sound impressive or eloquent. “We are always boasting of the forefathers of the lineage but if we are complacent, in the same way that fruit rots, we will rot from within,” he warned. We must face up to the actual situation and see how much strength and courage we can muster to revive these teachings.
Speaking personally, the Karmapa said that, in spite of many external and internal difficulties which seemed to be dragging him backwards, he still held the intention and resolve to work for the benefit of beings, and he is trying his hardest to move forwards. “Sometimes I don’t see the path forward, but I feel that if I can hold strongly onto my belief and continue to move forward, even though I can’t see it, there is a light waiting for me at the end, and that gives me more strength,” he explained.
The reason we need to discuss the history of India when discussing the origins of mantra
The Buddhadharma consists of a philosophy and practice with a vast outlook; it requires great patience, the prajna of understanding interdependence, and equal loving-kindness and compassion for all beings. It transcends any borders of ethnicity, areas of knowledge, or time. It has been spreading for more than 2000 years but still has an essential meaning and significance that is of practical use. It transcends any individual language, any particular topic of study or even our habits of thinking, and it also must transcend those because the Buddhadharma which was appropriate for people 2000 years ago is still appropriate today. But how did the forms of Buddhism arise? How is it that the Buddhism we encounter and practise is so precise and clear? How is it that the buddhas and bodhisattvas have such specific forms? Why does it use a particular terminology and have a particular philosophy? Though actual Buddhism transcends words, thoughts, and appearances, the form of Buddhism that we encounter today has been passed down through a long history of human civilisation and knowledge. It has taken the form that has proved most appropriate and beneficial to human beings, easy to understand and accept. It is a skilful means.
The methods taught in the Buddhist scriptures accord with the way people see things in human society and what they consider valuable. We can even say this is a way to make it easy to understand and accept. That being the case, it is important for us to understand first of all the history and environment which has led to its development into this form. For that reason, it is important to know the history of India; the place where the Buddhist religion initially arose is India. Ancient Indian society, philosophy, and logic, and the Indian way of thinking were the basis for describing the subject matter of Buddhism, and the different forms and techniques of Buddhism were produced and sustained by the culture and traditions of that time.
The Karmapa explored how the external forms of Buddhism differ because they reflect cultural differences. In order to benefit beings in an appropriate way, the Buddhadharma must accommodate country, time and place, he said, drawing on ancient images of buddhas and bodhisattvas as examples. Buddhist statues from Gandhara look like people from Rome, Chinese statues look like Chinese people, and statues from Thailand and other places are strongly influenced by the cultures of those places. If you made a Tibetan choose between a Thai statue of the Buddha and a Tibetan one, they would probably choose the Tibetan one. This is not a question of whether they have faith in the buddhas and bodhisattvas or not. Rather, it is their familiarity with statues in such a form and what feels closest to their heart, which makes it easier for them to develop faith and devotion.
In order to understand the roots and origins of secret mantra, we need to know the history of secret mantra, and to know that, we need to know the history of Buddhism in general, and to understand that, we need to know the history of India, especially ancient Indian society, culture and philosophy, as that is where the roots and development of secret mantra lie. Once we know those well, it will help us to no longer be distracted by external forms and rituals, but to arrive at a deeper understanding of Buddhism and the secret mantra Vajrayana in particular. Then we can understand the thought of the Buddha as it is.
A background to Indian culture and learning
India is on the Indian Subcontinent in South Asia. However, academic research has revealed its significance in human history and how its influence has spread across the world. Northern Indian languages and many European languages come from the same language family, and through the spread of Indian religions, Indian philosophy and ways of thinking have also spread throughout many Asian countries including Tibet. Furthermore, India has been central to the development of human thought: three great religions and six great philosophies developed in India, representing significant developments in human understanding of the mind.
How ancient Indian traditions have been preserved
Researchers from many countries take great interest in Indian history and traditions because India has uniquely preserved many very ancient traditions. The first example is the language of Sanskrit. Though most people do not speak Sanskrit, educated Brahmins are still able to speak and write in Sanskrit.
Brahmins still copy out Sanskrit texts by hand, following ancient customs.
Brahmins learn the sacred Vedas by heart, just as they did before Alexander the Great invaded India. Even though many handwritten manuscripts have been destroyed, they are still able to recite the words of the Vedas exactly without any hesitation.
The flame to light fire pujas is generated by rubbing two sticks together: a technique from prehistory.
In India it is still possible to see the origins and developments of many traditions that have been preserved up to the present, and this probably cannot be done anywhere else.
The country without a history
However, before 400 BCE, Indian history is a blank. There are no historical records of dates or people. It seems that Brahmins took absolutely no interest in recording dates and history. It may be because they viewed human life as full of suffering and misdeeds. Lacking historical records, scholars have had to rely on early Indian literature to reconstruct a history. This has proved difficult because there are no clear boundaries in Indian literature between historical fact, myth, and legend so it is difficult to distinguish what is fact and what is fiction.
Research into Indian history only began 200 years ago when the British took control of India. The British viceroy was fascinated by Indian culture and strongly encouraged the study and research of Indian history. Some Europeans also began to research Indian history. It seems that the study of Indian history was introduced by European academics, and nowadays there are historians researching Indian history all over the world.
The documents used in researching Indian history
As already mentioned, scholars are dependent on extant ancient Indian texts if they want to explore the history of India prior to 400 BCE. These are primarily religious texts or literary works heavily influenced by religion. They do indicate to a certain degree what the society of that time was like but are mixed with many myths and stories from the Vedas, so it is difficult to say they are actual historical documents. The religious texts are mainly the Vedas and Rigveda. The literary works are mainly the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Thus the way we can understand the 1000-year period from 1500 to 500 BCE, after the Aryan peoples settled in Punjab, is primarily through these texts.
The first time that non-Indians learned of India was when Alexander the Great began to move east with his armies. After his death, Alexander’s general, Seleucus I Nicator, sent Megasthenes as an ambassador to Magadha in central India, [in the area around present-day Bodhgaya]. Megasthenes recorded everything he saw, heard, and experienced, and this text became very well-known. The text described the situation in the period of the 4th century BCE (400 BCE to 300 BCE), and, though the original text is no longer extant, there are second-hand accounts, so for researchers it is an invaluable text. However, when people read his writings at the time, they couldn’t believe that what he had written was true!
The history prior to 400 BCE must primarily be inferred, deduced, or guessed, and there are no events or historical personages we can describe with any great certainty.
In the 4th century CE, the Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian [Light of Dharma] recorded his travels to India in Travels to the Noble Land also called A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms.
In the 7th century CE, Xuanzang (602–664 CE), crossed the deserts to travel to India. He actually visited all of India and wrote his Great Tang Records on the Western Regions recording in detail the situation in many areas of India including details of culture and politics.
At the end of the 8th century CE, the Chinese acharya Yijing [Pure Meaning] travelled by sea to India and later wrote A Record of Buddhist Practices Sent Home from the Southern Sea.
The Karmapa noted that even today, the travel diaries these three wrote are preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon and are very influential on research into determining the actual history of India. In particular, Xuanzang’s Great Tang Records on the Western Regions is the most highly regarded, and Indologists find this text the most helpful.
There are only a few texts that are good sources for research into Indian history prior to the 13th century. From the 13th century onwards, after the advent of the Muslims, records of the dates of royal reigns and histories written by individuals began to appear, including historical events and personages, so there are more sufficient sources for historical investigation.
For these reasons, when we discuss ancient Indian history, we must discuss it in terms of the Greek manuscripts, the travel diaries of the Chinese masters, and the edicts of Emperor Ashoka carved on rocks and in caves.
The four periods of Indian civilisation
In terms of archeological evidence from the Stone Age, we can say that humans were living in India tens of thousands of years ago. The starting point for ancient Indian civilisation is approximately 3000 BCE until about 1200 CE. So it lasted roughly 4000 years.
In the latter part of the 12th century, the kings of the Ghurid Empire in Afghanistan invaded India, and India became a Muslim country. That dynasty [the Delhi Sultanate] continued for some 300-400 years.
Later, in the 16th century, the Mongolian Mughals invaded India and mostly extirpated earlier Indian civilisation. From that time on, there was nothing but ruins left of Buddhism in India, and a new era began in Indian civilisation.
The Karmapa explained that, in order to make it easier to understand, he would divide Indian history into four major periods:
- The Indus Valley Civilisation, also called the Harappan Civilisation and the Indus River Civilization. (34th – 16th century BCE)
- The Vedic Period (16th century – 600 BCE)
- The Buddhist Period (6th century BCE – 13th century CE)
- The Period of the Disappearance of Buddhism in India (13th century CE onwards)
1.The Indus Valley Civilisation began at approximately 3300 BCE. It reached its greatest extent from 2600 to 1900 BCE. It was primarily a civilisation of the Dravidian peoples.
2. The Vedic Period began ca. 1600 BCE. At that time, the Aryan peoples arrived in India and settled in the region of the greater Punjab [contemporary Pakistan and India]. They had great faith and devotion in nature and offered praises to nature. The primary textual sources for this period are the Rigveda and then the Four Vedas. The Aryan peoples moved eastward from the Indus Valley and settled permanently in the Ganges River Valley. During their time, they founded many powerful kingdoms, the caste system developed, and the power of the Brahmin caste was solidified. During this period, the Brahmins compiled the four Vedas as well as the texts named the Brāhmaṇa and the Upaniṣads. The epic poems of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana were also written during this time. This period was a well-spring for Indian culture.
The Aryan peoples gained control over much of India. Based on the Vedas, the presentations of the six non-Buddhist āstika and nāstika schools developed, and many other views and philosophies. Jainism also developed during this time.
3. The Buddhist Period: The Buddha was born at the end of the 6th century BCE. The kings of this time mostly supported Buddhism, which caused Buddhism to flourish and the influence of the Brahmins to decline, which was a great loss for them. The emperor Ashoka [c. 268 to 232 BCE] united most of India, and established Buddhism as the state religion. In addition, he convened a Council to compile the words of the Buddha.
Similarly, a powerful dynasty called the Andhra appeared in the south and then the Gupta dynasty arose in the north. In addition, the Bactrians invaded from the west, and one of their kings Kanishka the Great [c.127–150 CE] converted to Buddhism. During this time, Buddhism spread out of India.
However, the tide was turning and King Vikramāditya in North India was a generous follower and patron of the Hindu religion. During his reign the Brahmanical religion revived and evolved. It was in active opposition to Buddhism.
King Harshavardhana [c. 590 CE —died c. 647 ruler of a large empire in northern India from 606 to 647 CE.] was a Buddhist convert from Hinduism. He was a strong patron of Buddhism, and Buddhism revived during his reign, but never regained its previous strength.
4. The Disappearance of Buddhism: First the Arab Caliphate invaded India several times, and later Turkic peoples from Afghanistan invaded and eventually in the 13th century they established the Delhi Sultanate. During that period, Buddhism remained in a few areas, but it was in such a state that it was hard to tell whether it was living or dying. However, when the Mughals invaded in the 16th century, they established the Mughal Dynasty and India was converted to Islam. From that time, Buddhism vanished from India without a trace.
Although the Karmapa has divided Indian history into four periods or eras for the purpose of these teachings, he explained that it is hard to divide Indian history into periods according to dynasties, because for much of its history, it has been a fragmented country of minor kingdoms. Other than during the times of the Emperor Ashoka, the later Mughal Dynasty, and the period after the British gained power, it was never united. At times the kingdoms were at war, sometimes they lived harmoniously, and sometimes they conquered each other. Hence, he has divided the history into periods primarily from the perspective of Buddhist history, describing roughly the period before Buddhism appeared, the period when Buddhism flourished, and the period when Buddhism had disappeared.
The Origin of the Names “India” and “Hindu”
The Karmapa concluded the session with an explanation of the origins of the various names for India. When the Aryan peoples migrated to the Indian subcontinent from the northwest, they settled on the banks of the Indus River. The source of the Indus River is in Kailash in Tibet. It has many tributaries and eventually flows down into the Arabian Sea. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit name of this river —“Sindhu”. It is a river of powerful currents and the people who lived on either side of the river called it Sindhu meaning either “water” or “ocean”, and the area became known as the Sindhu River Valley. Later this became the name of all of India. India was a neighbouring country to the ancient Persians, and they referred to India as “Sindhu”, but they pronounced it as “Hindu”, so the name eventually changed to that pronunciation. Even in ancient Chinese, India was called Juān-dú, Xián-dòu, Yìndù and so forth.
The ancient Indians used a different name: they called it Bhārata or Jambudvīpa. It was the Romans who first called India “India”, the name adopted by Europeans.