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Completing an Explanation of the Heart Sutra and Continuing Chapter Nine of the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

New York, USA, 19 October 2013 - For the second day, today, Rato Khenpo Nicholas Vreeland, with incense in hand, escorted His Holiness the Dalai Lama onto the stage of the Beacon Theater, New York. Once His Holiness had greeted members of the Sangha, performed prostrations to the Buddha, saluted the audience and taken his seat on the throne, a group of Chinese monastics recited the Heart Sutra in Chinese. He began with the remark that there is a verse at the end of the Heart Sutra that encapsulates the practice of the Dharma:

May I be able to dispel the three poisons May the light of insight shine brightly May I be able to overcome all obstacles May I be able to engage in the deeds of Bodhisattvas.

He suggested that if in addition to chanting these lines, which encompass the content of the Pali and Sanskrit traditions, we are able to incorporate their meaning into our practice it will be of benefit.

“Shantideva, a scholar-adept at Nalanda University, says it is our duty to pay respect to senior students of the Dharma, for example, those who follow the Pali tradition. The next most senior are followers of the Chinese tradition. However, while the Tibetans are relatively junior students, our level of knowledge is not bad since we study rigorously for 20-30 years to qualify.”

In Tibet there was a tradition of acknowledging a set of Indian masters known as the Six Jewels and Two Precious Ones, however several masters important to the Tibetan tradition were not included in this list. Therefore, His Holiness explained, he extended the list to include the 17 masters of Nalanda to express appreciation of each of their contributions.

“The Buddhist approach is to transform our emotions and to do this successfully we need to open and sharpen or minds, an enterprise in which we rely on the works of these Indian masters.”

His Holiness also mentioned that in addition to the scholars of Nalanda, there is a tradition of acknowledging the contribution of the adepts known as Mahasiddhas, who produced very specific instructions. To be effective these teachings need to be seen in the context of an overall view of the Buddhist path, which is why there is a need to study.

“Whether you engage in the practice of the Buddhadharma or not is a matter of choice. It’s not imposed from outside. The Buddha’s purpose in teaching was to alleviate suffering, but when he taught, he did so in a way that was sensitive to his listeners’ needs. He taught about the vehicle of an ordinary person concerned mostly with this life, which corresponds to my thoughts about secular ethics. Then there is the celestial vehicle that involves our aspiration to achieve a better future life, something almost all religious traditions concern themselves with. The Brahma vehicle deals with the absorption and insight involved in the practice of meditation.”

His Holiness resumed his explanation of the Heart Sutra at a point where what has been understood regarding emptiness and form needs to be applied to the other aggregates too. He indicated the sections of the Sutra that relate to the path of seeing, the path of meditation and the presentation of the twelve links of dependent origination. He said:

“Underlying all our problems, our suffering, is a fundamental ignorance that is of two types: ignorance of the principle of causality, the law of cause and effect and ignorance relating to our understanding of emptiness.

“The Heart Sutra is presented in the form of a dialogue, but it is different from the way the Four Noble Truths and the Vinaya are taught. Mahayana teachings like this refer to bodhisattvas such as Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara who appear in celestial form. Such teachings were given to disciples whose karma was ripe. If they hadn’t been they would probably only have been aware of Shariputra talking to himself on Vulture’s Peak. Clearly the Heart Sutra and the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines were teachings not given openly in public. Now for another hard text.”

As His Holiness turned his attention to the Ninth Chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life he repeated that he had received the explanation and transmission from Khunu Tenzin Gyaltsen, who held a Dzogchen lineage deriving from Dza Patrul Rinpoche. He clarified that he had also received an oral transmission of it from Trulshig Rinpoche, a steadfast non-sectarian. He had received it from the 94th Ganden Tripa, Lhundrup Tsondru, a great scholar who had heard it from Choney Lama Rinpoche, who heard if from the Labrang Tashi Khyil mystic, Shang la wa.

The text has ten chapters, the first dedicated to the benefits of the awakening mind, which Shantideva summarizes when he says that the source of all happiness is concern for other beings, even if your interest is only in the happiness of this life. Those who aspire only to achieve a better rebirth will still benefit if they resist harming others and helping them if they can. All the world’s major religious traditions are grounded in compassion, including the Buddhist tradition. It is clear, His Holiness, remarked that altruism is the root of happiness, whether in the short or long term.

Chapter two deals with the seven limb practice preparatory for chapter three’s ceremony for generating the awakening mind. The first three chapters involve generosity. There is no separate chapter on morality, but chapters four and five present morality as part of protecting practice of the awakening mind. Chapter six deals with patience and chapter seven with joyous effort. In chapter eight, concerning meditation, there is an extensive explanation of the practice of the awakening mind of bodhichitta, focussing on the practice of exchanging self and others. Chapters six and eight are the most important. In chapter six we learn that to develop the practice of patience we have to rely on an enemy. Without such a hostile person we cannot develop patience.

Since our problems lie in our misconceptions of self and habit of self-centredness, we need to cultivate the wisdom understanding emptiness and the awakening mind of bodhichitta. With compassion we focus on sentient beings; with wisdom we focus on enlightenment.

The target of the ninth chapter is wisdom, the sixth perfection. It is the complement without which the other practices are not rendered perfections. We all want to avoid suffering and yet we continue to generate its causes, mostly because there is a disparity between the way things are and the way we perceive them.’

Returning from lunch, the afternoon session was opened by Buryat monks reciting the Heart Sutra in their own language. This prompted His Holiness to note that when he visited Buryatia in 1997 the monks were chanting in Tibetan, but now they chant in Buryat, which is good.

“All the teachings of the Buddha have been given within the framework of the two truths,” His Holiness taught. “Shantideva says that the two truths are the conventional and ultimate. However, the ultimate is not an object of the intellect, because the intellect is conventional.”

The text describes two kinds of people, yogis or contemplatives and ordinary people. Yogis are those who engage with the mind in a discerning way. His Holiness read through the verses that defend the Madhyamaka view of emptiness and challenge other points of view up to verse 40 when he said:

“Let’s leave it there in the hope, like that we have for the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 lines, of coming back to it another time. I received the oral transmission of this text in 1967, since when I have read and thought about it many times. I commend you to do so too.”

Answering several questions from the audience, His Holiness responded to one that asked how we can combat laziness.

“O, I’m quite a lazy person too. The key is to keep up your passion for what you are doing.”

Tomorrow His Holiness has agreed to give an empowerment concerning The Buddha Establishing the Three Pledges, during which he will also conduct the ceremony for generating the awakening mind.