A Dialogue on Tibetan Tradition

A Dialogue on Tibetan Tradition

His Holiness:
Earlier today in our private meeting, I was very impressed and pleased to hear that Venerable Sheng-yen once spent six years in solitary retreat. Listening to your presentation of Chan Buddhist teachings, my immediate and very profound feeling was that I was listening to words of wisdom from someone who is very experienced and a great practitioner. For all of us, to have knowledge of Dharma is indeed very important, but perhaps what is more important is to put that knowledge of Dharma into practice.

Listening to your explanation of Chan Buddhism, I jotted down a few questions that I would like to ask. First, in which century did Master Huineng live?

Master Sheng Yen:
He lived in the eighth century of the Common Era.

His Holiness:
The reason I ask is that there is some historical connection to Chan in the origin and development of Tibetan Buddhism. We know that Lama Tsongkhapa had been one of the most vocal critics of the sudden teachings of Chan in Tibet, and there was a great debate surrounding Chan and the teachings transmitted from Indian Buddhism.

However, in the Samye Temple during the formative era of Tibetan Buddhism in the reign of King Tri-song-Deutsen, different wings were devoted to different practices. One section was devoted to the Vajrayana practitioners-the tantricas. Another section was dedicated to the lozawas and the panditas-the translators and the scholars. The third section was called the dhyana hall, the place of meditation. This is supposed to have been the residence of a Chinese master referred to as Heshang. It was during the eighth century, when Samye was built, that the Indian masters Santarakshita and Kamalashila were active in Tibet and were part of the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

My feeling is that if Santarakshita built a separate wing in the Samye temple for the residence of the Chinese Chan masters, he must have welcomed that tradition and recognized it as an important element of Buddhism in Tibet. However, it seems that during the time of his disciple, Kamalashila, certain followers of Chan in Tibet perhaps promoted a slightly different version of the original doctrine. They placed tremendous emphasis on rejecting all forms of thought, not just in the context of a specific practice, but almost as a philosophical position. This is what Kamalashila attacked. Therefore, it seems to me, there were two different versions of Chan that came to Tibet.

Master Sheng Yen:
I am very grateful to His Holiness for bringing up the subject of the Chinese master Heshang. From the story, it seems that those Chinese monks during the time of Kamalashila were not qualified to represent Chan. In the Dunhuang Caves, a place where many Buddhist texts were excavated, Buddhist scholars have found ancient texts relating a similar story about the first Chinese monk who greatly influenced Tibetan Buddhism, in particular the practice of meditation. So maybe the first Chinese master who went to Tibet wasn't so bad after all!

His Holiness:
In the Tibetan story, the first Chinese master was welcome; the second master supposedly lost the debate!

Master Sheng Yen:
So maybe the problem will not be with me, but with my successor who will again lose!

His Holiness:
Yes! From the Tibetan viewpoint, we welcome the first Heshang. To the followers of the second Heshang, we will have to say "good-bye!" If the Chinese masters that we encounter now are followers of the first Chinese master in Tibet, we will gladly receive them. If they are followers of the second Chinese master, we will have to say "farewell."

I do not personally feel that there is a real contradiction between the approaches of the gradual path and the sudden path. However, this is not to say that the sudden path will be appropriate for everyone. There may be exceptional circumstances in which certain individuals may gain greater benefit from an approach that is spontaneous, simultaneous, and instantaneous, but generally speaking, the gradual approach is probably more appropriate.

Master Sheng Yen:
I agree with what His Holiness has just said about instantaneous enlightenment and gradual practice. I should, however, caution people not to think that only very well educated people of the highest intellectual caliber can practice the instantaneous approach. In fact, sometimes the instantaneous approach can be useful for people who have no education. An example of this was the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. Although he was illiterate, he demonstrated a profound grasp of the Dharma.

A similar story happened at the time of the Buddha. Suddhipanthaka, one of the Buddha's disciples, was a person of very low intelligence who understood none of the teachings. However, he attained arhatship following a method the Buddha taught him: sweeping floors and cleaning shoes!

His Holiness:
Here I would like to clarify one point. In Buddhism, we find a lot of emphasis on wisdom, intelligence, and insight. Sometimes the impression is given that we are talking about brainy people, people with a high caliber of brainpower, but this is not necessarily the meaning of wisdom or insight in the Buddhist context. In the Buddhist scriptures, there are descriptions of intelligence gone berserk, where persons have gone to the extreme of analysis yet simply do not have any insight, just a lot of clever ideas. Wisdom need not include intelligence but has more to do with insight and knowledge.

Second, I would like to point out that there might be people whom we would not call clever or brainy, but who may have the necessary focus and power. As for the story of the monk who was very dull, we can see that by sweeping the floor and cleaning shoes, Suddhipanthaka increased his level of wisdom and knowledge.

You spoke about Chan Buddhism and some of the key teachings of the Chan tradition. In Tibetan texts, we do find references to the Chan method, particularly the sudden or instantaneous approach. For example, I can remember a text from the Kagyupa tradition that has a very explicit statement on the practice of mahamudra as a sudden path, stating that those who understand mahamudra in a gradualistic way are completely deluded! Indeed, there is such a thing as a sudden approach to realization, which is spontaneous and not limited to the structure of gradual practice.

We also find such expressions as "simultaneity of knowledge and liberation" in the writings of the Sakyapa tradition, particularly in the practice of rdzogs-chen [pronounced Zog chen] of the Nyingmapa tradition. In the Gelugpa tradition, even Lama Tsongkhapa accepts the notion of simultaneity and instantaneous liberation. However, he points out that what actually seems like an instantaneous realization is actually a culmination of many factors suddenly coming into play, leading to that moment of liberation.

Lama Tsongkhapa gives an example from a sutra relating the story of a king from central India who received a very expensive gift from the king of a distant kingdom. The king did not know what gift to send in return because he felt that the gift he had received was so valuable. Finally, he approached the Buddha and asked for advice. The Buddha suggested that the king send a painting of the Wheel of Life depicting the twelve links of dependent origination together with a description in verse form. The king sent that gift with the message "You should receive this gift with great joy and festivity."

The other king was quite curious when he got the verbal message, but he made all the arrangements to receive this gift with great festivity. When he finally opened the gift, he was quite surprised to see that it was such a small painting. He looked at the painting and began to understand the image, and when he read the descriptions of the twelve links of dependent origination depicted in the Wheel of Life, he instantaneously realized its truth. This experience occurred suddenly, out of the blue, simply as a result of the visual experience of the painting and a statement of its meaning. From Lama Tsongkhapa's point of view, although the actual event may be instantaneous, it is the result of many factors coming together. The final, momentary event operates as a spark, a catalyst.

In the Tibetan tradition, masters do not use the stick, as the Chinese master did in your story, but in the rdzogs-chen teaching, there is a similar approach, wherein the practitioner shouts the syllable "peh!" with great force. It is said that when the syllable is uttered, the whole chain of thought processes is instantly cut off, and the practitioner experiences a sudden, spontaneous realization. This experience is described as a sense of wonderment and non-conceptuality-a state free of thoughts.

Master Sheng Yen:
Will the practitioner remain in this state of wonderment? Is it just a momentary experience, or is it a prolonged experience?

His Holiness:
In response to this, there is a verse attributed to Sakya Pandita, saying that between the gaps of different thought processes, inner radiance or clear-light takes place continuously. The verse suggests that when you shout "peh" and experience this sudden spontaneous sense of wonderment and non-conceptuality, what you experience is this clear-light, which you also call emptiness. However, this experience is only momentary. It is also said that those who have great accumulations of merit can experience emptiness when all the conditions are ripened. In the rdzogs-chen teaching, if your wonderment is accompanied by blessings and inspirations from your guru, and possessing a much higher store of merits, you will be able to perfect that experience into rigpa, true pristine awareness. When you experience this clear light, the whole world fuses into the nature of emptiness, or ultimate reality.

Master Sheng Yen:
How long can the individual maintain this state of clear-light and perceive the nature of emptiness? Does this experience gradually fade away? Can the person experience other afflictions of the mind? How does this experience affect one's dream state?

His Holiness:
Again using the rdzogs-chen terminology, when we talk about the clear-light nature of mind, we are actually talking about an essential quality of consciousness, which is continually without interruption. By analogy, so long as there is water, the clear nature of water will remain. Of course, sometimes the water is muddied and we cannot see its essential clarity. So, when we stir the water, it becomes more muddied. In order to perceive the clear nature of the water, you have to let it lie still. Once you stop stirring the water and let it lie still, it will regain its clear nature. So it is only by stilling that muddied water that you will see the clarity of the water. The clarity of the water does not exist somewhere outside the muddied water.

Similarly, whether one has a virtuous thought or a non-virtuous thought, one is still in the state of mind pervaded by the clear-light nature. From the viewpoint of practice, both virtuous and non-virtuous thoughts are obstructions to experiencing clear-light. Therefore, we place the emphasis on trying to still one's consciousness, on stopping both the virtuous and the non-virtuous thought processes. Only then will one experience the clear-light. We can see a lot of similarities or parallels between these teachings and those of the sudden, simultaneous approach of Chan Buddhism.

Once an individual is able to have conscious experiences of clear-light, there will be an immediate effect on the clarity of one's dreams. However, such rdzogs-chen approaches to instantaneous teachings require preliminary practices called "seeking the true face of mind." One does this by analyzing the mind's origin, abidance, and dissolution or disappearance. Here, the analysis is quite similar to the four-cornered logic of the Madhyamika tetralemma, or fourfold analysis.

In the Tibetan tradition, there are also discussions of the simultaneous attainment of shamatha and vipashyana. But to attain this level, the practitioner would have to reach at least the eighth level of mental development as the result of tantric meditation and Vajrayana practices. Only then can the practitioner attain shamatha and vipashyana simultaneously.

You described a form of Chan meditation where the practitioner is encouraged to search for that "I" who experiences the negative afflictions through questions such as "Who am I?" "Who creates this experience?" and so on. That approach is quite similar to the Madhyamika's approach of diamond-splinter analysis, which views things from the perspective of causes and effects. We also find similar approaches in the scriptures on the seven-point analysis of personhood or selfhood that Chandrakirti (600-650) used. In the Kagyupa tradition, the great yogi Milarepa (1040-1123) used similar approaches by constantly asking his students to look for themselves: "Where are you?"

I would also like to point out that one of the central teachings of the Middle Way School is to constantly question whether or not things exist in the way they seem to exist. Here, it seems important to understand what emptiness really means. For example, we can say whether, in front of our eyes, an insect exists or not. After close inspection, we may arrive at the opposite conclusion, that there is no insect there. But this absence is not emptiness. So, sometimes finding and not finding seem to coincide. Emptiness is something that is found as a result of subjecting something that exists to close scrutiny and trying to find out what its ultimate nature really is.

Master Sheng Yen:
Some people think that when they ask themselves "Who am I?" and find an absence of mind, or when they rest in a blank state of mind, that they have reached enlightenment. This is a grave mistake! This state is sometimes in Chan called "stubborn emptiness." A qualified Chan master must confirm the student's experience. In addition, the student must reflect on and observe his or her daily life to see whether there are still many afflictions or strong attachments.

If a person has a genuine glimpse of emptiness, this is called "shallow enlightenment," or "seeing one's self-nature." If the individual can maintain that experience continually without end, we call that thorough enlightenment. However, if the individual's experience does not accord with the nature of emptiness in the Middle Way teaching, we also do not recognize that as true enlightenment.

The realization of no-self is really the result of the practice of non-seeking, because as a person's practice advances, he or she ceases searching for individual enlightenment and concentrates on helping others. When you have ceased to be concerned with your own attainments and are thoroughly involved in efforts to help liberate others from suffering, then there is a possibility of enlightenment.

His Holiness:
In Tibetan and Indian Buddhism, there are eight preparatory stages of cultivation of the four meditative absorptions. The purpose of the fifth stage, analysis, is to check whether one has gained control of certain strong emotions. In the case of a man, one would conjure an image of a woman. If at that point a person still has lust, then that person would have to retrain. The point is that one who has attained the first state of absorption has already overcome various attachments and lust. On the other hand, some people have realized emptiness but have not calmed their inclinations to lust, desire, and other attachments, which have so many levels.

Master Sheng Yen, you mentioned that an individual can remain in the experience of emptiness uninterruptedly. Such experience of realization can take place only at a much higher stage of development, because this involves a self-mastery over both meditative equipoise and subsequent realizations. In many of the stages, before one becomes fully enlightened, meditative equipoise and the subsequent realizations are sequential and they alternate. It is said that at the state of full enlightenment, meditative equipoise and the subsequent realizations would become simultaneous. From that point of view, anyone who is able to maintain the direct experience of emptiness in meditative equipoise without ever veering from it is fully enlightened.

Master Sheng Yen:
Thorough enlightenment is not the same as arhatship. A state of thorough enlightenment does not end afflictions. Rather, it is a state in which doubt with regard to the Dharma is forever terminated. Fully enlightened people may still have afflictions, but they will not manifest them verbally or bodily. They are not free from all afflictions, but they clearly know the path of practice they must follow.

Chan does not emphasize the sequential practice of dhyana. I have personally practiced sequential meditative equipoise or dhyana; however, the personal experience of "seeing self-nature" or emptiness is more important. Like the first taste of water, it is something that you must experience for yourself. The experience of the nature of emptiness is the same. You must experience it personally or you will never know it. You may hear of it, but that is not good enough. Thorough enlightenment, however, differs from seeing self-nature, the initial experience of emptiness, in that you may return to the ordinary state of mind after you see your self-nature and not fully recognize how afflictions operate and manifest. A thoroughly enlightened person, whose mind is extremely clear, is fully aware of the workings of afflictions at all times.

Furthermore, from the Chan point of view, a thoroughly enlightened state is not something that is maintained in meditative equipoise.

Because this is the first time we have had such a dialogue, and we have so very little opportunity, it may not be very easy for us to delve into the details very clearly. It may take two or three days at least to clarify some of these issues.

His Holiness:
As the scriptures state, for practitioners who have directly experienced emptiness, its truth is inexpressible, beyond language and words. Without this direct experience, emptiness is only intellectual and conceptual understanding.

I would like to refer to the Master Sheng Yen's new initiative, which involves building the purity of society and the environment around the purity of the individual's mind. I find this very encouraging because it is rather similar to and confirms my own approach. Often, I tell people that as far as liberation from samsara and suffering is concerned, in some sense it is the private business of an individual. However, at the level of community, it is more important to try to create what I would call "the nirvana of society." In this society, strong negative emotions such as hatred, anger, jealousy, and such restless states of mind would be less dominant. So here I think there is a real meeting of minds. I would like to express my thanks for your new initiative.

Master Sheng Yen:
Talking to His Holiness is not like two beings from different worlds talking to each other! Our language may be different, but the basic ideas and concepts are the same. Thank you.

His Holiness:
In the future, it would be wonderful to have more of this kind of dialogue and discussion, especially on emptiness, at Mount Wutai in China.

Master Sheng Yen:
It is said that Manjushri's place sacred on this earth is Mount Wutai in China. Welcome everybody, and let's pray that we can return to the mountain soon!

His Holiness:
If we had the opportunity to engage in such dialogues on emptiness on Mount Wutai, Manjushri's sacred place, and if we still could not be blessed by Manjushri, perhaps we could conclude that Manjushri is empty!

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