An Overview of Tibetan Buddhism
A talk at the Zen Center, Green Gulch, California. In a large hall the meditators chanted the “Heart Sutra,” after which the Dalai Lama spoke.
Dharma friends, I am truly happy to sit with you in meditation and to be here while you chant the Heart Sutra in the Japanese manner, since we Tibetans also frequently recite this scripture. Over lunch, Baker Roshi explained to me your practice. It is very different, very far from ours, but that degree of difference shows the richness and variety of Buddhism. As much as the systems appeared to be different, so much greater did my respect for Buddhism grow as I listened to him. While there are different philosophies and different methods, all have the same motivation—compassion, love, kindness, tolerance, and self-discipline—and all have the ultimate goal of buddhahood in order to help all sentient beings.
Kindness, or compassion, is the basis of Buddhism. Usually we speak of Lesser and Great Vehicles, but I prefer the terms Vehicle of Hearers and Vehicle of Bodhisattvas. In the Vehicle of Hearers the main essence is not to harm others; the whole vehicle is contained within the union of calm abiding and special insight, with ethics as their basis. Non-violence, or not harming others, is the root. Thus, compassion is the basic teaching in the Vehicle of Hearers.
In the Bodhisattva Vehicle, the essence is to serve others, to help others. Compassion has become more mature. The practice of compassion at the beginning, when your capacities to help others are still not developed, is not to harm others, but then when those capacities have developed, it is to go to others to help them. Thus, in both cases the basic teaching is compassion.
There is no question that compassion and kindness are important for those who practice religion. However, even for those who do not, these attitudes are extremely important. Even in a materialistic society, compassion and love are the basis of happiness. Whether you believe in a future life or not, whether you believe in the Buddha or not, whether you believe in the bodhisattva path or not, love and kindness are beneficial even in worldly life. Also, love, compassion, and kindness are common to all religions—Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and so forth. Their value is clear for all—believers and non-believers.
In Buddhism, there are many explanations of techniques for developing, training in, and implementing compassion. From this viewpoint, Buddhism is very useful to society these days, particularly when there is danger of the human problems of war, unrest, violence, and terrorism. Under these circumstances, the force of compassion, the force of love and kindness, is essential. For any activity related with human society, compassion and love are vital, whether one is a politician, businessman, communist, scientist, engineer, or whatever. If such people carry out their professional work with a good motivation, that work becomes an instrument for human benefit. On the other hand, if people work at their profession out of selfishness or anger, the profession becomes distorted. Instead of bringing benefit for humankind, the knowledge gained in the profession brings disaster. So compassion is essential. May all here practice it.
Now I will say a little about Tibetan Buddhism in general by way of the three trainings—ethics, meditative stabilization, and wisdom. In the scriptures of the Hearer Vehicle, the training in ethics is comprised of avoiding harming others. In the Bodhisattva scriptures, the training in ethics is based on restraining selfishness. In the tantric systems, the practice of ethics is centered around restraining ordinary appearance and conceptions of ordinariness. Although the terminology differs from that explained earlier to me by your abbot, the overall meaning is the same.
With respect to meditative stabilization, the process of achieving it is described in the scriptures of the hearers, and even though in the bodhisattva scriptures a great variety of meditative stabilizations are presented, the nature of the process is the same. However, in the tantric systems, the mode of achieving meditative stabilization becomes more profound.
The Tibetan word for concentration has the same meaning as “zen.” To describe briefly how concentration is achieved in meditation, first of all there is an object of observation that is either an external object or the mind itself. In the latter case, when the mind itself is taken as the object of observation, the practice is more profound.
In terms of posture, sit in either the full or half cross-legged posture with the hands in the position of meditative equipoise, the left hand below the right and the two thumbs touching,making a triangle the base of which is about four finger-widths below the navel. The cushion should be such that your rear is higher, the effect being that no matter how much meditative stabilization you cultivate, you do not become tired. The backbone is to be as straight as an arrow; the neck is to be bent just a little downward. Aim your eyes over the nose to the front; attach the tongue to the roof of the mouth; leave your lips and teeth as usual; and leave your arms a little loose, not forcing them against the body.
If your mind is involved with desire or hatred, it is necessary first to engage in a technique to loosen from it. Meditation on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath up to a count of twenty-one is the prime means for doing so. Since the mind cannot have two modes of apprehension simultaneously, this meditation causes the former conceptuality to fade. Then, it is necessary to form a virtuous motivation of compassion and altruism, wishing to help others.
Conventional and ultimate modes of being of the mind are set forth; here you are settling first the conventional status of the mind. For that, do not let your mind think about what has happened in the past, nor let it chase after things that might happen in the future; rather, leave the mind vivid, without any constructions, just as it is. When you remain this way, you understand that the mind, like a mirror, is such that any object, any conception, is capable of appearing under certain circumstances, like reflections, and that the entity of the mind has a nature of mere luminosity and knowing, of mere experience. When you identify the nature of the mind as mere luminosity and knowing, hold on to that experience—the mere luminosity and knowingness—and stay with it.
That is how to use the mind itself as an object of observation in the process of achieving meditative stabilization. If, rather than the mind, you use an external object of observation such as the body of Mañjushrı, first take a good look at a well-designed image of Mañjushrı and visualize it mentally, causing an image of it to appear to the mind.
Whether the object of observation is internal—the mind—or external, such as a buddha’s body, once you mentally locate it, techniques are needed to cause the mind to remain vividly on that object. Since sound is the thorn preventing concentration, initially it is very important to stay in a quiet place such as this meditation center. Also, both stability and clarity are needed with respect to the object. What prevents stability is the mind’s scattering, or excitement. When the mind does not stay on the object but becomes distracted, scattered, or excited, there is a coarse version of excitement in which the object of observation is lost. But there are also subtler forms in which, even if the object of observation is not lost, a corner of the mind is thinking about something else. You need to identify such scattering and excitement and, through mindfulness, not let the mind come under their influence.