Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A Unified View of Buddhist Teaching

When I first encountered Buddhism, I was euphoric to find the number of books available on the topic. There were bookshelves after bookshelves at the local bookstores. Just now, I did a search on Amazon, and it returned 197,008 items about Buddhism. I read several of them and found all of them helpful. But, in the process of reading all them,  I was also getting confused about the core message of Buddhism. Fortunately, I encountered teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his approach helped me see the overall framework of Buddhist teachings. I was happy to discover that Buddha's teaching, contrary to my earlier impression, have a coherent structure,

What I found most comforting about Buddhism was the emphasis on the Four Noble Truths. Buddha's first teaching to his first five disciples, who were his erstwhile friends, was the Four Noble Truths. A long career spanning fifty years followed his first teaching; Lord Buddha was a prolific teacher. But he never veered from what he taught at his first sermon. That makes sense because the Four Noble Truths were the essence of Buddha's Enlightenment. And he set out to share that knowledge with the world. It would not have made sense to make changes to the ultimate wisdom he had already received.

It is important to all Buddhist practitioner to have a firm understanding of the framework, most importantly the Four Noble Truths. Without a good knowledge of this context, there is a danger that one may not gain all the benefits Buddhism has to offer. One may go to retreats here and there, attend classes on meditation, read books on compassion and so on. They are all good. But without the understanding where to locate those retreats, Dharma classes, and books on the framework, one's practice will remain incomplete.

I am an engineer by profession, and I learn by drawing pictures. I have created a diagram to depict the unified view of Buddhist practice.

The different bubbles on the map are not to be followed in sequence; rather one should be prepared to deal with several of them concurrently. For example, one may be working on the solution of one suffering while also analyzing another unrelated suffering.

You can download the original file http://thcal.us/sites/default/files/frarmework-of-buddhist-teaching.png.

Below is the outline of the information shown in the diagram. As I had mentioned earlier, the Four Noble Truths are the bedrock of Buddhist practice. One cannot claim to practice Buddhism without having the understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

The ordering of the Truths is scientific: We have the problem statement, its cause, the solution, and the path to the solution. First among the Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering. One cannot make progress on the path without knowing his or her suffering first.

    1. The Truth of Suffering
      1. The Types of Suffering
      2. The Five Aggregates
    2. The Truth of Origin
      1. The 12 links of Dependent Origination, also known as the Law of Karma
    3. The Truth of Cessation
    4. The Truth of Path
      1. Ethics
        1. Balanced Speech
        2. Balanced Livelihood
        3. Balanced Action
      2. Meditation
        1. Balanced Effort
        2. Balanced Mindfulness
        3. Balanced Concentration
      3. Wisdom
        1. Balanced View
        2. Balanced Resolve
The members of the Eightfold Path are often called Right View, Right Resolve, etc. But I prefer to use the word Balanced instead of Right.
There is an enormous amount of text dealing with the Wisdom aspect of the Truth of the Path. The practitioner must keep in mind that alleviation of suffering is the ultimate goal. Keeping a keen eye on suffering also helps the practitioner gauge his or her practice. Every word of wisdom or advice must have a positive effect on the practitioner. If this information seems self-centered, please keep in mind that those who have achieved the highest level of compassion, suffer less, compared to those who have not.
If one feels that he or she has accumulated a large amount of wisdom and discovers that his or her suffering is not lessening, that person review the application of wisdom; there has to be something lacking in putting wisdom to practice. 

The Question of Validating the Path: His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The following excerpt is from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's book Transforming the Mind: Eight Verses on Generating Compassion and Transforming Your Life. In the paragraphs below, His Holiness has shared something crucial for those who wish to benefit from Buddhist practice.

His Holiness teaches that there are four valid factors of knowledge

  1. Valid scripture
  2. Valid treatises or commentaries
  3. Valid teacher
  4. Valid experience.

Here His Holiness advises that practitioners must start with "Valid Experience." 
The Question of Validating the Path

When you consider the reasoning I have just outlined, you might think it all sounds fairly rational and seems to make good enough sense. But what evidence do we have to show that these arguments are valid and that their logic is meaningful? ls there a proof that we can observe or experience?

On this question, I would like to refer to an explanation that I find personally helpful, which is taught in the Sakya teachings, in the Lamdre tradition of Path and Fruition. According to this, there are four valid factors of knowledge, namely valid scripture, valid treatises or commentaries, valid teacher, and valid experience.

In terms of their origin, of course, the valid scriptures were taught first, and the valid commentaries were elaborated on them later. Then, on the strength of their study, valid teachers emerged who became masters of those commentaries. This led to their having valid experiences. However, from the point of view of the development of one's own personal conviction it is suggested that this order is reversed-in other words, one must first begin with some kind of personal experience. If we take the case of reflecting upon the Four Seals, or the empty nature of phenomena, or the benefits of altruism, unless we have some taste or personal experience of the theme, that is, unless we have a glimpse of its truth, it is less likely that we will be inspired deeply enough to persist in our practice.

Of course, there are many different levels and degrees of spiritual experience. There are profound levels of realization, which I for one may not have, but there is also a beginning level which we all have. In my own case, whenever I contemplate on the virtues of compassion and altruism I feel deeply moved. But how can we know that such experiences are valid? One way is to look at the effects they have upon us. When we reflect on certain spiritual qualities and cultivate them, and when we begin to feel deeply inspired, this creates a sense of inner strength. This experience makes us more courageous, more expansive, and less prone to worry or insecurity. All these are indications of the validity of our experience.

So, as I mentioned before, reflecting on certain spiritual qualities often moves me deeply, and this profound inspiration then increases my admiration of the masters who personify these values. Contemplating in this way, I begin to recognize that perhaps there is some truth in the biographies of the great masters and in their accounts of profound spiritual realization. No doubt we have to accept that anecdotal accounts and biographies are often prone to exaggeration, especially in the case of over-enthusiastic presentations of a guru's qualities by his own disciples. However, we cannot dismiss an entire category of literature on the grounds that it is untrustworthy. This cannot be the case-there must be some accounts of masters that relate to genuine experiences.

Indeed, this is not the only instance of exaggeration in the Bud­dhist literature. When I read a very sophisticated commentary written  by a great scholar on a short text written by one of his masters, the commentary is sometimes so detailed and comprehensive that I begin to wonder whether the author of the original short text really had all these points in mind!

So when you can relate to the experiences narrated in the biographies of the masters from the vantage point of your own personal experience, you begin to develop deep admiration for the valid masters. From valid experience, then, you proceed to valid masters, and once you respect the valid masters, you then develop conviction in the treatises they have written, which in turn helps you to develop a deep conviction in the basic source of the teachings, namely the Buddhist scriptures. I personally find this way of approaching the teachings very helpful: you start from your personal experience, which constitutes the cornerstone of your spiritual practice.

For a Buddhist practitioner, especially for a Mahayana practitioner, it is vital to have deep admiration for the Buddha, and that admiration must be grounded in a profound understanding of the essence of his teaching, the Dharma. The understanding of Dharma should itself be based on the understanding of selflessness or emptiness that I mentioned earlier. To perceive the Buddha merely as a historical person who was a great teacher, with admirable and extraordinary qualities and immense compassion, is not the perspective of a serious practitioner. A Buddhist's appreciation of the Buddha should be grounded in knowledge of his central and most profound teaching, which is emptiness. Such a person should realize that Buddhahood, or complete enlightenment,  is the  embodiment  of  the  four kayas  or four "Buddha-bodies." This principle should itself be understood in relation to another fundamental point which is that, at the deepest level, mind and body are non-dual. Therefore the fully enlightened state should be understood as the total non-duality of wisdom and compassion.

To sum up the discussion so far, the Four Seals or axioms of the Buddhist teachings  tell  us that  the suffering that  none  of us wishes to experience comes about as a result of afflictive thoughts and emotions, which in turn have their roots in false views. The four main false views are holding things to be permanent, believing impermanent things will bring happiness, holding things to be desirable, and believing that things enjoy independent existence. These views can all be eliminated, and this is done by developing insight into the true nature of reality. As you cultivate this insight and enhance it, false views are gradually eradicated along with their derivative thoughts and emotions. This process requires discipline. It is through such a process that transformation takes place.

In terms of the actual method of bringing about a transformation of heart and mind, the Buddhist tradition explains that there are two main dimensions to the path, which are known as "the method aspect" and "the wisdom aspect." One could  say  that the  method  aspect, which  includes  the various  skillful  means

The Sanskrit word kaya means "body"in the sense of a body or embodiment of numer­ ous qualities. The four kayas are: Svabhavikakaya, the Buddha-body of enlightened nature; Jnanakaya, the Buddha-body of perfect wisdom; Sambhogakaya, the Buddha­ body of perfect  resource; and Nirmanakaya , the  Buddha-body  of  perfect emanation. employed on the path, is a preparatory phase. It enables the practitioner subsequently to apply the wisdom or insight that eliminates negative afflictions directly.

Basics of Buddhism by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a 3-day teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, India. The topic of the lesson was Bodhicaryāvatāra or The Way of the Bodhisattvaava, a text written of Venerable Shantideva.

But His Holiness did not start his talk with Bodhicaryāvatāra. He spent the first day and the half of the second day going over the basics of Buddhism. Most of the attendees had a copy of the text Bodhicaryāvatāra in their hands, and they were flipping through the pages to spot the location His Holiness was teaching from.

I had witnessed something similar during His Holiness's talk at the American University in 2010. According to the published agenda, His Holiness was supposed to speak about a topic in Buddhist philosophy. Instead, His Holiness spent the scheduled time going over the basics and he never came around to the topic that was published.

I have observed the same pattern in most of the books His Holiness has written: He spends the first several pages going over the basics of Buddhism.

Here are those topics.

  1. The Four Noble Truths
  2. The Four Seals of Buddhism
  3. The Five Aggregates
  4. Two types of Buddhist Meditation: Shamatha and Vipashyana
Regarding the Four Noble Truths, in his book Transforming the Mind: Eight Verses on Generating Compassion and Transforming Your Life, His Holiness writes "Actually, contemplating on the Four Noble Truths is the foundation of the Buddha Dharma."

I appreciate His Holiness's emphasis on teaching the basics. Buddhism contains a vast body of text, some of them deals with topics that are complex bordering on esoteric. It is easy for practitioners to lose sight of the fundamental goal of Buddhism: Working on Human Suffering.