York College, Queens, New York — June 7, 2018
Today, the third day of the Monlam, the Karmapa continued his teaching with the reminder, “We are looking at the text of Je Tsongkhapa known as the Three Principles of the Path. Its subject is common to all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, though the words themselves and the enumerations might differ. In addition to the Geluk tradition of this text, we find in the Nyingma and Kagyu tradition the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind, and in the Sakya tradition, Parting from the Four Attachments.
“The key points of all these teachings are the same: They present a summary of the entire path of the sutra and tantra, brought together in one place and formulated as practical instruction. Since the Buddha’s teachings are vast, it would be very difficult to find the time and opportunity to study them all. However, if we study well these key instructions of the great gurus and come to understand them, we will know how to practice Dharma.
“Yesterday we began looking at the desire for liberation as it is presented in the Three Principles of the Path. This is one of the three main topics of this treatise along with developing bodhichitta and a correct view. The text is also presented in three parts: the introduction, the main part, and the conclusion. The Introduction with its several subdivisions is not as important as the main part, so we will focus on this, reprising the topic of the desire for liberation, and then turning to generating bodhichitta.
“As we saw before, the first topic has three aspects: the reason for developing the desire for liberation, the way to do this, and how to gauge its extent. The first one is described in the following stanza:
Without a completely pure desire for freedom from samsara,
There is no way to pacify suffering while one is seeking the results of pleasure
in the ocean of existence.
Through craving for further existence beings are utterly bound.
Therefore, first seek to develop a sincere desire for freedom from samsara.
“The first reason why we need to cultivate the desire for liberation at the very beginning is that we have not become saddened, displeased, or fed up with samsara, and so we do not let go of our craving for its pleasures. Consequently, it would not be possible for us to attain liberation. We must, therefore, relinquish our attachment and craving for samsara itself. An analogy for our mind’s relation to samsara is that of a moth to light. The moth is attracted to the light, but the heat burns and kills the moth. The light itself does not cause its death; it is the moth’s own attachment to light that ends its life. Likewise, through our attraction to samsara, we humans take what is actually suffering to be happiness and so bring about our endless cycling through samsara.
“Usually when we describe the root of samsara, we say it is a powerful fixation on oneself, which is a kind of ignorance. Actually, this is the first of the twelve interdependent links that generate samsara. In addition ignorance, the eighth link of craving and the ninth link of undertaking—all considered afflictions—play an important role in the formation of samsara. When all three are present, the causes and conditions for samsara are complete and it becomes fully functional. However, without craving, the mechanism of samsara does work well. Since ignorance, craving, and undertaking cause us to remain in samsara, it is essential that we bring an end to our craving and attachment.
“Over the years, we may have done a lot of spiritual practice, performing prostrations, making offerings, and meditating on the yidam deities, and we hope that blessings will come to us from doing all this. Yet we have neither tamed nor transformed our minds. The fundamental reason for our lack of progress is that we do not know the essential point of how to practice the Dharma. What is the real way to practice? How is it that Dharma turns into true Dharma? The key point is that actual practice happens through reversing our attachment to samsara.
“Often we use the term samsara without really knowing what the term means. For example, where I was born, ordinary people think that samsara refers to householders, who get married and have children. They think monastics are much better off because they have abandoned samsara. When speaking of their own experience of raising and supporting many children, they say samsara is no fun, but they really do not understand the depth of samsara; marriage and having children is much too narrow a definition.
“Those who have studied Dharma a little bit think that samara refers to this world or the three realms of samsara. If, however, we were to ask, ‘What is samsara really?’ we would have to think carefully about it. Usually, samsara is described as our connection with the five aggregates that are contaminated and that continually take on or appropriate samsaric existence one moment after another. This is the way we cycle helplessly through the three realms of samsara.
“A story about Phakmo Drukpa (1110-1170) further illustrates this. He was the one of the great disciples of Gampopa, and from him stem the eight later lineages of the Kagyu. He first studied in the Kadampa monastic colleges, then received the teachings of Path and Result from a Sakya master, and finally, he became a close disciple of Gampopa.
“From his early studies, Phakmo Drukpa had a question that he thought about a lot and frequently asked: What is the cause of cycling in samsara? When he asked his tutors in the monastic college, they replied, ‘Ignorance,’ and gave him extensive explanations of this classic reply found in most texts. Though this was true, Phakmo Drupa did not find it particularly helpful. When he was studying with the great Sakyapa and asked the question, he did find the reply somewhat helpful. Finally, when he came to meet Lord Gampopa, he asked him this same question.
“How did the meeting go? When Phakmo Drupa meet Gampopa, the master was eating tsampa (roasted barley flour, a Tibetan staple) rolled up into balls. By way of introduction, Phakmo Drukpa related to Gampopa an account of what he had studied and practiced, and then he asked his question. Gampopa replied, ‘The cause of samsara is this mind of the present moment.’ He added, ‘You have done a lot of Dharma practice, but you’ve completely missed the point. Your practice amounts to nothing. My ball of tsampa here is more valuable than all of your study and practice put together.’ Gampopa’s answer benefited Phakmo Drupa so much that he realized Gampopa was his karmically destined guru on whom he had relied in previous lives, and so he took him as his guru for this life, too.
“You might wonder why Gampopa’s reply, ‘The cause of samsara is this mind of the present moment,”’ finally answered Phakmo Drupa’s question. When ignorance is defined as the root of samsara, and it becomes something we talk about and discuss, we are actually distancing ourselves from our own ignorance. Why? Because in thinking of ignorance as an object to discuss, we are distancing ourselves from it, setting it apart in some place over there. Meanwhile, we are not looking at our ignorant mind that is right here in front of us. If in this way, we separate ignorance from our present mind, our study and practice will not reduce self-fixation, because we are not paying attention to its real source—our present mind. Ignorance is just this mind. Self-fixation is just this mind. The accumulator of karma is just this mind. And it is only on the basis of encountering this mind directly that we can effect real change.
The second section about the desire for liberation concerns the means for removing the craving for samsara from our minds. This has two divisions—turning around the attachment to this life and to future lives—which are explained in a single stanza:
By meditating on the difficulty of attaining our freedoms and resources, and
the short time we have in this life,
Our attachment to this existence is reversed.
By meditating repeatedly on the infallible results of actions and the sufferings of
Our attachment to future lives is reversed.
“The type of rebirth we all of us here have is a combination of freedoms and resources that allow us to practice the Dharma: All the conditions conducive to the practice of Dharma are present and all the conditions what could prevent it are absent. As such, this life is extremely useful and very rare. Nevertheless, there are many situations, however, that can destroy this life, and further, the time of our death is uncertain. Contemplating these two things—the positive and rare attributes of our life and tits immanent destruction—are an excellent way to keep us from being distracted by the entertainments of this world and turn our minds to practicing Dharma.
“Many people entertain the thought of practicing Dharma, but their problem is procrastination. They say, “I’ll start tomorrow or the day after,” and in this way deceive themselves. This is why the precious human rebirth with its freedoms and resources is taught together with the contemplation of impermanence; it allows us to get the point that although this precious human birth is rare and supremely useful, it is easily lost. This spurs us on to engage in practice.
“It is easy to describe the freedoms and resources that make this human body so precious. It is more difficult, however to describe how rare it is to have one, since this requires a belief in past and future lives. I will not enumerate the eight freedoms and ten resources now, but give their essence. More than other species, as human beings we have a great capacity for conscious moral choices. We have the discernment that can know what we should and should not do. The means that as human beings if we use this capacity well, we can make our human lives extraordinarily meaningful. However, we also have the capacity to waste our life or worse to misuse it. Making our lives meaningful and worthwhile is a key point of the Dharma.
The second key point is meditation on impermanence. Many people think that this means creating the fear of death by fixating on the thought “I’m going to die.” But impermanence is more than focusing on the fact that things pass away; it also means that everything is changing moment by moment—nothing stands still—and so impermanence brings us the opportunity to change at any time. We need to know the good news that we are not limited to just one chance; every instant opens up a new opportunity. We need to see this and not waste our chances in frivolous actions, but use the opportunities that are constantly unfolding before us.
The second section deals with reversing attachment to future lives. This is contemplated through two aspects: the infallible connection between cause and result and also the faults and hence the sufferings of samsara. These two contemplations are brought together because virtuous and unvirtuous actions are respectively the causes of pleasure and pain in samsara. In other words, since karma is the cause of samsaric birth and experiences, these two are contemplated together.
The third section under the topic of the desire for liberation is how to gauge its extent. Here the verse reads:
By meditating on these points, if the wish for the attractions of samsara
Does not arise even for a single moment,
And the desire for liberation arises throughout the day and night,
This is the time when the desire for liberation has arisen.
“Through repeatedly using these means to reverse our attachment to samsara, we come to the point where we do not believe in samsara and no longer find it pleasant. We could feel a flash of renunciation, but this is ephemeral, and what we need is an authentic desire for liberation that is stable throughout the day and night so that the craving for samsara never arises.
“A short while ago I spoke of the different ideas people have about what samsara is, and how some people without much education think of it as family life and how those with a bit more education define samsara as this mundane world. Similarly, there are different understandings about the term ngejung that we have been translating here as the desire for liberation. It can also be translated as “renunciation.” Sometimes this word is misunderstood as becoming disgusted with samsara based on a particular situation. When we are involved in family life, which can be problematic and disturbing to us, we could feel for a while, ‘Oh, this is pointless.’ This is not what is meant here, because authentic renunciation is not just for one situation but for samsara as a whole.
“Further, to have authentic renunciation we must know what samsara is; otherwise, how would we know what we are renouncing? We have to know the object of our thinking. Once we know what samsara is, we have a basis for our renunciation.
“The second main topic is bodhichitta, which has two parts, the reason why we should generate bodhichitta and the effective means for doing it.
Furthermore, if the desire for liberation
Is not combined with a pure generation of bodhichitta,
It will not become a cause for perfect happiness.
Therefore, generate bodhichitta, the wish for supreme awakening.
“As practioners of the mahayana, it is essential that we generate bodhichitta, which here means the intention to attain supreme awakening, (which includes the wish to benefit others). We could wish to attain the awakening of the Foundational path, but here we are dealing with the Mahayana path and for this, bodhichitta must arise in our being. If our bodhichitta is uncontrived, there is no need to mention that this is a cause of awakening. But even small virtuous actions motivated by contrived bodhichitta, such as giving a morsel of food to an animal, are definite causes of awakening. On the other hand, even the authentic contemplation of emptiness cannot be a cause of buddhahood if it lacks bodhicitta.
The bodhichitta of the mahayana is wanting to achieve buddhahood for the good of others, and this depends on the altruistic motivation of wanting to benefit them. This in turn depends on compassion—the wish that others be free of suffering and its causes—and on love—the desire that others possess happiness and its causes. We could say then that the main cause of bodhichitta is the altruistic commitment to benefit others and that compassion and love are its branches.
There is a difference between what is meant by altruistic commitment and what is meant by love and compassion. One sutra gives the example of a child who has just learned to walk and falls into a cesspool. It was so large that one had to be able to swim in order to reach the child. Of course, everyone was horrified by what had happened, but only the father knew how to swim and could rescue the child. All of the people there felt compassion and the altruistic commitment to help others, but the father just jumped in.
To balance the genders here, I will tell a story in which the mother is the heroine. It comes from the Angulimala Sutra, about a man who was a serial killer and later an arhant. At the time of this story, he had already killed 999 people, so no one wanted to go near him and he could not find food. His parents were still alive, however, and his mother asked the father to take him food, but he replied, “I don’t dare. He’ll kill me.” So the mother, knowing she was risking her life, went to bring him food. The fact that she was willing to actually do something rather than just feel sorry for him, is an example of true altruism.
In either case, the difference between what we normally think of as compassion and real altruistic endeavor is that the latter is more than simply wishing or praying, “May it be so,” or “Wouldn’t it be great if they were free from suffering.” The real thing is the thought, “I will make it happen.” “I will free them from suffering.” And in a powerful form, we can even say, “I will make it happen all by myself.” With this encouragement to engage directly in helping others, the Karmapa closed his morning talk.
The next session can be read here.