Tuesday, 19 July 2016

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.

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