No Independent Existence

Amy EdelsteinBlog, Featured Posts, Philosophers & Mystics, Traditional Spirituality


An exclusive interview with H.H. the Dalai Lama.

If you had the opportunity to interview anyone alive today to learn what the heart of the Buddha’s teaching of enlightenment truly is, it would most likely be to the monk Tenzin Gyatso that you would turn.

And so began a string of faxes and phone calls to the mountain enclave of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and home of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. Perhaps one of today’s most sought-after public figures, the Dalai Lama is besieged with requests for his time by everyone from New York Times reporters and Hollywood film producers to United Nations officials and heads of state. In the midst of all his worldly responsibilities, the Dalai Lama is also the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, acting head of the four principal sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the figure to which this beleaguered nation turns for faith, inspiration and guidance.

The Dalai Lama was ordained in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Founded by the great scholar Je Tsongkhapa in the fourteenth century, the Gelugpa lineage is most noted for its scholarly interpretations of the Buddhist teachings. Its monastic training includes many years of rigorous study, memorization and debate.

Tenzin Gyatso began his own training as a young child, and although he writes of himself that he was a poor student, he excelled both in debate and in his arduous examinations. He now gives teachings and tantric initiations [esoteric Buddhist practices] to Buddhist practitioners, sometimes drawing assemblies of over 100,000 monks, nuns and laypeople eager to receive his interpretation, instruction and initiation. When we sent his advisors information about this issue of WIE, they were intrigued. We were endeavoring to ask the essential questions about the Buddhist goal of enlightenment—questions, they agreed, that His Holiness would like to respond to. We were granted an interview at his residence in India and excitedly began our preparations.

India at the end of May is always hot, but this year an unusual heat wave was sweeping across the nation. In New Delhi it was 113 degree and even the night breeze felt like a roaring tandoori oven. The town of Dharamsala is perched on a rocky ridge by the Dhauladhar mountain range in the Himalayan foothills. Once a British hill station and refuge from the summer heat, its slopes are covered with fragrant evergreen trees and wild crimson rhododendron. Monks are hidden away in caves in the shadow of the snow-covered peaks. Under the guidance of the Dalai Lama and other teachers, these recluses do intensive meditation practices for many years at a time. The land is still wild and rugged, and sadly, one long-term ascetic lost his life several winters ago when he was attacked by a mountain bear.

In the time since the Dalai Lama settled here, Dharamsala has grown from a disorganized and haphazard refugee village into a thriving community. Fifteen years ago there were only a handful of restaurants, like the dark and smoky “Tibet Memory,” where newly arrived Khampa refugees would sleep on the floor on pungent bed rolls next to Western hippies and dharma seekers. Today, clean new hotels, often operating as income generators for the monasteries, offer hot water, fax machines, mountain views and even email. Volunteer centers have been set up where Western tourists teach English and Microsoft Word to Tibetans, aid with recycling programs or watch Kundun or the latest documentary about the Dalai Lama at regular video showings.

The day I arrived there were over five hundred Westerners at the Tsuglakhang, His Holiness’s temple, waiting to meet the man many think to be a living Buddha, shake his hand and perhaps receive a red, knotted blessing cord. In the space of a few hours he personally greeted several thousand people, including local residents and new refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet. Then, at midday, almost everyone in the entire town lined the narrow, winding mountain road, chanting peace slogans and prayers as five hunger strikers arrived from New Delhi. Several days before, in a desperate move to call the world’s attention to the untenable situation in the Tibetans’ homeland, one hunger striker had self-immolated. The Dalai Lama, an avowed proponent of nonviolence and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, was caught in a difficult position as the strikers called for his support. These are the kinds of painful dilemmas this “simple monk,” as he refers to himself, has been faced with since he assumed rule of the Tibetan people when he was fifteen years old. Now, with his ever increasing popularity as the leader of a nonviolent resistance movement, millions from the East and West look to him for guidance and direction in finding a clear answer to the question, “What is the path that a Buddha would tread?”
The day before our interview, I met with his private secretary, Tenzin Gyeche, a soft-spoken man who has assisted His Holiness for many years with everything from international affairs to dialogues with Western spiritual teachers. As we sat and discussed this issue of WIE, Tenzin Gyeche became both deeply thoughtful and animated. “His Holiness never gets asked questions like these,” he said with interest, pondering what his answers might be. “Very recently in teachings with His Holiness, something finally got through this thick head of mine,” he reflected, tapping his head lightly with his knuckles. “His Holiness was explaining how once you get a true glimpse of emptiness, even the most basic of Buddhist practices, like taking refuge in the Triple Gem [Buddha, dharma and sangha], take on a very different meaning. . . . Yes, these are important questions.” I left this meeting filled with excitement and anticipation about what our interview might bring.

The following afternoon, as I walked through his courtyard past three hundred monks reciting memorized prayers as part of a week-long prayer ceremony, I hoped that I would be able to learn as much about His Holiness’s personal experience as about the traditional and methodical Gelugpa teachings on emptiness, enlightenment and Buddhahood.

At 1:00 p.m. a beautiful chuba-clad Tibetan woman escorted me up the flower-lined drive to His Holiness’s offices. We had just finished a passport check and thorough body search, measures to preserve the tenuous security around this individual whose unshakable religious conviction is regarded as a significant threat by one of the most powerful governments of our time.

I was ushered straight into a meeting room, expecting to have a few minutes to set up my tape recorder. It was a surprise then, when the monk fiddling with the air conditioner turned around to greet me. The familiar face and bright black eyes met mine and, not standing on ceremony, the Dalai Lama motioned me to sit down. He was ready to begin. Here was a man, serious and self-contained, the cares that rested on his crimson-robed shoulders completely invisible. What did this extraordinary man think about the goal of the Buddhist path?

Traditional Tibetan teachings follow a systematic and predictable structure. Like highly stylized thangkas [religious paintings depicting the Buddhas], these teachings on the nature of the human condition and the way out of the suffering of cyclic existence have been codified in a precise and methodical form. And while they represent a very refined science of spiritual endeavor and a complex and subtle explanation of the nature of the human mind, they can often seem more like technical formulas than the spontaneous outpourings of the highest aspiration of the human heart. In preparing for our interview, one of the challenges the editorial team considered was how to ask the Dalai Lama about his own experience of these subjects, classical definitions aside—how to ask someone so thoroughly schooled in the art of debate, logical deconstruction and analysis to tell us what he thinks “emptiness” is.

Interviewing this man whom millions consider to be a living saint was an extraordinary experience. Simply while sitting with him, one experiences his rare sense of goodness, deep faith in humanity and joy. Looking into his gentle face just a few feet from my own and listening to his unforgettable laugh was like being swept up into one of the thousand arms of Chenrezig [the Buddha of compassion], which the Dalai Lamas are said to be incarnations of. Throughout the course of our interview, while his translator and foreign religion advisor, the venerable monk Lakhdor, was interpreting his Tibetan, he would laugh and look at me warmly, as if wanting to communicate something more or different than his classical answers conveyed.

In the end, something compellingly vibrant was communicated more by his disarming sweetness than by the words of the Gelugpa explanations—erudite and prescribed descriptions of the stages and categories of enlightenment and emptiness for which this school is known. Without my own experience and knowledge to flesh out those descriptions, it was hard for them to evoke the same response in me that His Holiness’s irresistible, infectious, and radiant compassion invariably did. Tibetan Buddhism, despite its growing popularity in the West, still remains something of an enigma; the contrast between the great stature of some of its revered lamas and the classical texts that they often present raises that very challenging question: What is enlightenment?

Reflecting on our interview, I again wondered what the Dalai Lama really thought. For as I stood in the waiting room afterwards, packing away my tape recorder, still feeling the warmth of his hand pressed on my arm, his translator turned to me with excited eyes and said, “Very good questions, very clear. I think His Holiness really enjoyed this.”


Science of Mind

AE: The goal of Buddhist practice is said to be enlightenment. While the word “enlightenment” is now commonly used in the West, there are many vastly different definitions of what enlightenment is. In your approach to your own practice, when you think about enlightenment, what are you striving to achieve? What does the goal of enlightenment mean to you personally?

H.H. THE DALAI LAMA: So, enlightenment! “Consciousness” or “mind” has cognitive ability—there is something through which we know. Usually, we say: “I see, I learn, I know, I remember.” There is one single element that acts as a medium for viewing all objects. At our level, the power or ability to know is very limited, but we have the potential to increase this ability to know. “Buddhahood” or “Buddhahood enlightenment” is when the potential of this ability to know has been fully developed. Merely increasing that capacity of knowing is also a level of enlightenment. So, the term “enlightenment” could refer to knowing something that you did not know or realizing something that you had not realized. But when we speak about enlightenment at the state of Buddhahood, we are speaking about a fully awakened state.

That is why, according to Buddhism, all our efforts ultimately should go to training or shaping our minds. Emotions such as hatred or strong attachment are destructive and harmful—we call them “negative emotions.” So how can we reduce these negative emotions? Not through prayer, not through physical exercise, but through training of mind. Through training of mind we try to increase the opposite qualities. When genuine compassion, infinite compassion, or unbiased compassion is increased, hatred is reduced. When equanimity is increased, attachment is reduced. All of these destructive emotions are based on ignorance, and the opposite, or antidote, of ignorance is enlightenment. This is why it is very important to analyze the world of the mind and find out what its basic nature is. What are the different categories of mind? Which minds are destructive? Which minds are constructive? and so on. Once we have analyzed all these questions, then we should try to control our minds by adding more good and removing the bad. Some modern scholars describe Buddhism as a “science of mind” for this very reason.

AE: Many people have become interested in Buddhist practice these days as a means of cultivating peace of mind, relaxation or mindful awareness, rather than specifically as a means for reaching enlightenment. In your view, what is the difference between engaging in Buddhist practice for the purpose of gaining relative benefits such as these and practicing with the sincere intention of attaining enlightenment?

HHDL:Some ideas that come from Buddhism can be implemented without the individual needing to become a Buddhist or even to be a believer in Buddhism—there is no problem with that. Someone who has complete trust and belief in Buddha may try to be a good human being, and they could be considered Buddhist even if they have no particular interest in the next life or in attaining nirvana. But in order to make your practice a real Buddhist practice, it is important to have genuine aspiration for the achievement of nirvana or enlightenment.

AE: Can you explain why this aspiration is essential?

HHDL:The definition of Buddhism, I think, is in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Once you know and accept that these are the basic teachings of reality, and you follow and implement these teachings, that is Buddhism. Now, you could still be a Buddhist without that kind of practice. It is not necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of the in-depth meaning of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths to be a simple, ordinary Buddhist. One could simply take refuge in Buddha, dharma [teaching] and sangha [community of practitioners], do simple practices, and be categorized as a simple Buddhist practitioner. But to become a genuine Buddhist practitioner in the true sense, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the teachings of the Four Noble Truths. And for that pursuit, it is important to have a clear idea of nirvana and enlightenment.

No Independent Existence

AE: The doctrine of “emptiness” is one of the pivotal teachings of the Buddha, and understanding what “emptiness” truly means is said to be critical for those on the Buddhist path. While emptiness has been the subject of extensive commentary, analysis and debate, there seem to be widely different interpretations of what its nature actually is. We have found that some Buddhist schools say that “emptiness” refers to nothingness, while others say that “emptiness” implies the existence of something transcendent. Would you tell us simply what you feel “emptiness” refers to?

HHDL: Buddha himself taught different levels of emptiness. But generally, emptiness means the lack of true existence of the “object of negation.” To begin with we have to ask: What is that object of negation? There are different modes and processes of identifying the object of negation. These include processes for identifying the selflessness of the person, the selflessness of phenomena and so forth. And there are different interpretations and different concepts about emptiness according to different schools of thought.

Now according to Madhyamika [the philosophy of the “middle way”], generally, emptiness is the absence of independent existence. So this means that something exists, and emptiness is one of the qualifications and characteristics of that which exists. We cannot talk about these qualities in reference to a nonexistent object; there is some base. The absence of independent existence is nature—it is the way of existence—and the absence of independent existence is possible only because there is something that exists. So therefore, the mere unfindability of the object of designation is not what “emptiness” refers to. If we search for a totally nonexistent object and we do not find it, that is not emptiness. For example, there is no flower on this table. If we look, we see that there is no flower on the table. That “absence” of flower is not emptiness. But now, let us take the example of the tape recorder, and investigate: What is the actual nature of the tape recorder? If you look at the shape, material and color of the tape recorder separately, there is no longer the existence of “tape recorder.” So you see, although there is a tape recorder, if we investigate its individual qualities and characteristics, we can’t find it. Then you can see that “tape recorder” is a mere designation. But, again, the mere “absence” of flower is not emptiness.

AE: There is a quote in the Pali sutras, in which one of Gautama the Buddha’s monks asks him whether there is “nothing at all” that exists. This question—whether there is “something” or “nothing”—is an interesting one, because the notion that “nothing at all exists” could easily lead to nihilism. The Buddha is said to have responded definitively to this monk by declaring that there is what he called “an unborn,” and it is because of this that the possibility exists of an escape from the suffering of worldly existence. I have heard that some Tibetan sects also describe the existence of “something.” Could you explain to us what you think the Buddha meant when he said: “There is that which is not born, not become, not made, not conditioned. If there were not that which is not born, not become, not made, not conditioned, there could be made known no escape from that which is born, become, made, conditioned here. But since there is that which is not born, not become, not made, not conditioned, therefore the escape from that which is born, become, made, conditioned is made known.”

HHDL: This points to exactly what was said earlier. If there was inherent existence and inherent causation, then we couldn’t escape from samsara [cyclic existence]. So therefore what we say is that on the conventional level there is a path, there is causation and so forth. But because of the fact that the causation has no inherent existence, to perceive that causation does have inherent existence is ignorance. And to be able to perceive that lack of causation in the nature of inherent existence is wisdom.

If there were independent existence, then the perception of that existence would be valid. If there were independent existence, then when we investigate to find out whether an object exists independently or not, we would have to be able to find it. But when we analyze carefully, we can’t find these objects existing independently. This is how we can see that the perception of independent existence is wrong, is ignorance, and that the perception of nonindependent existence is valid, is wisdom. These two possibilities are in opposition, and when you have two things like this in direct opposition they cannot go together; only one could have a valid foundation.

Beyond Good and Evil?

AE: Some people say that if one is enlightened, then that individual’s actions would have to express goodness. But there are other views, and even entire schools of thought, which hold that one who is enlightened is beyond good and evil, and that the actions of such an individual therefore cannot be judged by others. What is your view on this?

HHDL: In the nature of emptiness, in the nature of the absence of independent existence, in that nature, both bad and good are equal. So when someone meditates on the ultimate reality, in that reality there are no differences between bad and good. From the perspective of Buddha, who is in a state of total absorption, there are no differences between good and bad. But even at other levels of practice, when you gain some experience of shunya—of the ultimate reality—then in that moment, when your mind is fully absorbed in that reality, there is no feeling of good and bad; then everything is equal.

When you deeply experience the ultimate reality, it is so powerful that the understanding of a conventional, objective reality will be very different. For example, if the absorption of one’s mind in emptiness is really powerful—totally absorbed in the state of ultimate reality or emptiness—the influence and appearance of conventional reality will be almost negligible.

But this does not mean that on the conventional level there are also no differences between bad and good. That’s simply not the case. There is good and there is bad. That’s why Buddha himself followed self-discipline. If there were no good and bad, then Buddha could have led a very casual life. So in order to achieve the training of wisdom, we need to practice the training of concentration and meditative stabilization; and in order to do that, we need to have a solid foundation in the practice of morality and ethical discipline.

The Triple Gem

AE: As a Buddhist, you formally took refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha—what is known as the “Triple Gem.” In the West today, there are numerous interpretations of the significance of each aspect of the Triple Gem, of what taking refuge in each of these aspects means, and even whether refuge in all three is necessary. Do you feel that all three of these aspects are essential parts of taking refuge? And could you please explain the significance of each one?

HHDL: Of the three objects of refuge, the most important object that you should take refuge in is the dharma. Then the person, or the source of dharma, becomes your refuge, and then those beings who follow and practice the dharma are also very worthy of respect. These three jewels follow each other, but usually, Buddha comes first. Why? Normally in the course of taking refuge, we take refuge in Buddha first because dharma was first taught by teachers, by particular Buddhas.

AE: It’s interesting that you say that usually refuge is taken first in the Buddha. Having a Buddha or perfect teacher to show the way seems to be almost essential to the path, and you have often spoken about the deep reverence and respect that you have for your teachers. Can you explain more about the value—or the necessity—of having a spiritual teacher?

HHDL: Without Buddha, I think it is very difficult for a Buddhist practitioner to understand the ultimate reality. These things are difficult. Once Buddha opens our eyes, then of course we have to make effort and investigate. But there should be someone who opens our mind or shows us the direction. Therefore Buddha is very important. It is difficult to understand what is Buddha without knowing dharma. Once you have genuine faith that comes from an investigation of dharma, then naturally there will be a feeling of great closeness and respect for Buddha. It will automatically come. And the same will occur with sangha, because sangha includes all the great teachers and great practitioners, like Nagarjuna [a revered second-century Buddhist philosopher], all extraordinary human beings. Of course, all these beings were not extraordinary right from the beginning, no. They were ordinary human beings, ordinary sentient beings. Then, through the practice of Buddha Dharma they became very extraordinary.

But as to whether one really needs their own teacher or not—generally, books can be the teacher. When one Tibetan lama was about to die, he said to his disciple, “Now you should no longer rely on a human teacher, but you should rely on books to be your teacher.” I think that’s very wise. Without investigation and without knowing a person properly you may hurriedly take someone as your guru or teacher, and there is too much involved in guru devotion or guru yoga. So it could land you in trouble. The thorough investigation of a teacher is very, very important.

AE: You have spoken about your own spiritual practice and your wish that you could devote more time to it, and I certainly hope that some day circumstances allow that. Many of our readers probably wonder, given your intensive travel schedule and your many responsibilities, how you manage to find the time to do your spiritual practice.

HHDL: Well, usually my work or program starts at seven or eight in the morning. So I get up at four and then I have at least a few hours to do some meditation, some recitation or some prayers. And then I do what I can whenever I have the time—when I travel by car or train for a long time, it’s a very good opportunity to do my recitations. So, like that!


(C) 1991-2010 EnlightenNext, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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