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Teaching ‘Stages of Meditation’ and ‘37 Practices of a Bodhisattva’

Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India, 13 March 2017 - The Tsuglagkhang, the Main Tibetan Temple, and its surrounding verandas, as well as the courtyard below, were filled with people this morning waiting for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to arrive. When he did, he stood before the throne, hand raised in greeting, looking carefully to see who was there. Among the crowd were pilgrims from Tibet and they were who His Holiness addressed once he sat on the throne.

“Since many of you couldn’t attend the recent Kalachakra empowerment, this teaching today is principally for you. I have great admiration for the strength of spirit of you people in Tibet. Today, there are 400 million Buddhists in China who follow traditions similar to ours, but where we differ is in our use of logic and reason.  Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet in the 7th century when the Emperor Songtsen Gampo married a Chinese and a Nepalese princess and each of them brought a statue of the Buddha with them. But when Emperor Trisong Detsen wanted to strengthen Buddhism in the country he turned to India and invited Shantarakshita who was one of the top scholars from Nalanda.

“Shantarakshita may not have been widely renowned, but when we read what he wrote we can judge his calibre. His works include the ‘Ornament of the Middle Way’, which deals with what the Mind Only and Middle Way schools of thought have in common, and the ‘Tattvasamgraha’, an explanation of epistemology.

“It was also in Trisong Detsen’s reign that Samye Monastery was founded. It included a Monastic section and a Translation section, where translation of texts that would make up the Kangyur and Tengyur collections was done. There had been Chinese monks in Tibet since the time of Songtsen Gampo and many of them were part of the Unwavering Concentration section which focussed on single-pointed meditation. Some of these monks asserted that there was no need for study, what was required to attain enlightenment, they claimed, was to empty the mind of thought.

“Shantarakshita had anticipated that a conflict might arise between his logical, reasoned approach to the Dharma and this non-conceptual method. He’d advised the Emperor to invite his disciple Kamalashila to Tibet to deal with it. Kamalashila was also a scholar of epistemology. His view prevailed and Tibet became the only Buddhist country where the Nalanda tradition and the use of reason and logic were preserved. We have kept this alive for more than 1000 years.”

His Holiness remarked that the opportunities to preserve these traditions in Tibet has been difficult in recent years, particularly in the great monasteries of Central Tibet, but has not been so tough in Kham and Amdo.

He mentioned that the first text he was going to read, the middle volume of Kamalashila’s three part ‘Stages of Meditation’ had been written at the request of Trisong Detsen and had been composed in Tibet. He said he feels it has a special connection with Tibetans. At the time, Trisong Detsen was a man of great influence, exercising authority over the whole of Tibet. His Holiness contrasted this with the status of the Ngari chieftain who invited Atisha to Tibet and who requested him to compose the ‘Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment’. He clarified that of the three volumes of the ‘Stages of Meditation’, the first dealt with single-pointed concentration, the second and middle volume dealt with both concentration and special insight, while the third focussed on special insight.

Regarding the second text that he proposed to read, the ‘37 Practices of a Bodhisattva’, His Holiness mentioned that the author, Gyalsey Thogme Sangpo, a contemporary of the great scholar Buton Rinchen Drub, was widely regarded as a realized bodhisattva. There is a report that when the two masters met, Buton Rinpoche, who had some trouble with his legs, requested Thogme Sangpo’s blessing to gain some relief.

Brief prayers were recited and His Holiness advised that everyone, teacher and students should correct their motivation in relation to the teaching. In connection with the common verse for taking refuge and generating the awakening mind, he obsereved that often people seem to regard the Three Jewels as external to them, something like a creator god, rather than as something to aspire to attain in themselves.

“As I said yesterday, we need to gain insight into the nature of the mind, thoroughly eliminating the disturbing emotions and their imprints. Nagarjuna says the elimination of karma and disturbing emotions yields liberation. Our distorted way of looking at things can be overcome by understanding the teaching of the Buddha. And in Tibet we have a complete teaching of the three vehicles comprising the fundamental instructions, the Perfection of Wisdom teachings and Tantra.”

During his reading of the ‘Stages of Meditation’, His Holiness again alluded to the importance of tackling the disturbing emotions. He pointed out that it is their nature that the moment they arise in our minds, they disturb us. We can see this clearly if we examine our own experience. He added that today, scientists too recognise that peace of mind is good for our physical well-being.

“What is unique about the Buddha’s teaching is his explanation of selflessness. Just repeating the words to yourself is not enough, it’s necessary to understand what it means—things do not exist as they appear.”

Unable to complete his reading of ‘Stages of Meditation’, His Holiness told his audience that since they had copies of the text they could read it for themselves and try to understand it. He then read the ‘37 Practices of a Bodhisattva’, in the course of which he again noted that we have a distorted view how things exist. We exaggerate, see things as independently existent, create karma and because of that face problems.

At the end of his reading His Holiness mentioned that he had received the ‘Stages of Meditation’ from the Sakya Abbot Sangye Tenzin. He in turn had heard it when he went from Lhasa to Samye and found a Dzogchen Lama teaching it there. The ‘37 Practices’ His Holiness received from Khunu Lama Tenzin Gyaltsen. He added that the copy of the text he uses personally, and held it up for all to see, had been sent to him from Lhasa by the previous Lhatsun Rinpoche.

Announcing that he will give an Avalokiteshvara empowerment tomorrow, His Holiness declared that he will read Je Tsongkhapa’s ‘Three Principal Aspects of the Path’, which happens to be included in the book that was distributed to the audience, as the preliminary teaching prior to that.