The Middle Way - Preface
“How fortunate we are to have access to these brilliant teachings given by the Dalai Lama. A truly inspiring book.”—Mandala
This book, based on a series of important Buddhist teachings His Holiness the Dalai Lama conferred in Toronto in 2004, presents a comprehensive explanation of the foundational teachings of Mahayana Buddhism as they are understood in the Tibetan tradition. The teaching in this book is divided into two broad sections. The first section presents the Buddhist path to enlightenment based on an explanation of three key chapters from Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika) by the second-century Indian teacher Nagarjuna; the second section presents the way to put the understanding of the key elements of the Buddhist path into practice. This second section is based on the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, a lucid verse work originally written as a letter of instruction by Jé Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) to a student in a distant land. These two important classical texts are separated by nearly a millennium and a half yet complement each other beautifully. That both speak so profoundly even to the spiritual aspirant at the beginning of this third millennium demonstrates the universality and timelessness of the insights they embody.
As on numerous occasions in the past, I had the honor of being the Dalai Lama’s translator when these teachings were delivered. Right from the first day, I noticed something unique about this particular series of teachings. Unlike on many other occasions, His Holiness was proceeding through the texts in a particularly systematic fashion. He did this, in part, to substantiate his oft-repeated statement that Tibetan Buddhism is a direct continuation of the scholastic lineage of Nalanda Monastery in the Indian Buddhist tradition. Before Buddhism disappeared from central India, Nalanda was the most important Buddhist monastery there, thriving from early in the Common Era to the end of the twelfth century. The Dalai Lama began his presentation in Toronto by citing a text he himself composed to honor the key Nalanda masters whose teachings lay at the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (the full text of which can be found in appendix 2 of this volume):
Today, in an age when science and technology have reached a most advanced stage, we are incessantly preoccupied with mundane concerns. In such an age, it is crucial that we who follow the Buddha attain faith in his teaching on the basis of genuine understanding. It is with an objective mind endowed with a curious skepticism that we should engage in careful analysis and seek the reasons [behind our beliefs]. Then, on the basis of seeing the reasons, we engender a faith that is accompanied by wisdom.
A central aspect of what the Dalai Lama calls the Nalanda tradition is an emphasis on approaching the Buddhadharma not just through faith and devotion but also through critical inquiry. This approach, known as the “way of the intelligent person,” is emphasized in the writings of numerous Nalanda masters. The faith in the Buddha and his teaching—the Dharma—that is engendered in such a manner is unshakable and is of the highest kind. So, how do we go about developing such an unshakable faith? The Dalai Lama writes:
By understanding the two truths, the nature of the ground,
I will ascertain how, through the four truths, we enter and exit samsara;
I will make firm the faith in the Three Jewels that is born of knowledge.
May I be blessed so that the root of the liberating path is firmly established within me.
This stanza from His Holiness’s Praise to Seventeen Nalanda Masters provides, in a sense, the structure of the first part of this book, the explanation of key elements of the Buddhist path through a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way. The Dalai Lama first gives a commentary on Nagarjuna’s chapter on the twelve links of dependent origination, which is the twenty-sixth chapter of that text. That chapter presents in detail the Buddhist understanding of the causal processes that lock us in the cycle of existence. At the root of this cycle of twelve links is fundamental ignorance, which grasps at the inherent realness of our own selves and the world around us.
This is followed by a commentary on chapter 18, which presents Nagarjuna’s understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on “no-self ” (anatman), the selflessness of both the person as well as the five psychophysical components of the person. It is this chapter that presents the teaching on emptiness, which, according to Nagarjuna, is the ultimate mode of being of all things. This emptiness, to use Nagarjuna’s own words, is tathata (“thatness”), paramartha (“the ultimate truth”), and dharmata (“reality itself ”).
Finally, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s chapter 24, the Dalai Lama explains how Nagarjuna’s teaching on emptiness is not a form of nihilism but is, in fact, the understanding of reality that enables us to account for conventional reality. Only this explanation of emptiness makes the operations of cause and effect tenable. His Holiness explains how in Nagarjuna’s system, emptiness—the ultimate truth—and dependent origination—the relative truth—are inseparably intertwined.
By weaving together lucid exposition and penetrating analysis, along with the insights of such authoritative commentators as Aryadeva (ca. second century), Chandrakirti (seventh century), and Tsongkhapa (writing in the early fifteenth century), the Dalai Lama allows the verses of Nagarjuna’s text to reveal their deep insight into the nature of existence. Throughout, the Dalai Lama never loses the sight that, in the final analysis, the teachings on emptiness are meant to be related to our personal experience and bring a deeper understanding of the world around us. As Nagarjuna puts it, the purpose of the emptiness teaching is to pacify grasping at an inherent existence of both our own self and all phenomena so that we may gain genuine freedom.
The second part of this book presents the methods to put the understanding of the Buddhist path into practice. Here, His Holiness offers a beautiful explanation of Tsongkhapa’s well-known Three Principal Aspects of the Path, the three aspects being true renunciation, the altruistic awakening mind, and the correct view of emptiness. Having cultivated a reliable understanding of the Buddhist path based on critical reflection on the teachings on emptiness, the four noble truths, and the twelve links of dependent origination, one could then use this second section of the book as a manual for daily meditation.
In editing the transcript for this book, I have greatly enjoyed encountering this unique series of teachings anew. Numerous people have helped make this work possible. First of all, I am profoundly grateful to His Holiness himself for always being such a wellspring of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. I thank the Tibetan Canadian Association of Ontario, especially its president, Norbu Tsering, for organizing the 2004 Kalachakra initiation in Toronto that provided the occasion for His Holiness’s teachings presented in this book; Lyna de Julio and Linda Merle for their help in transcribing parts of the teachings; and Ven. Lhakdor and his team in Dharamsala at the Central Archives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for providing me a Tibetan transcript of His Holiness’s teaching, which proved enormously helpful in revising and editing the transcript of my own oral English translation. Finally, I thank my editor at Wisdom Publications, David Kittelstrom, for his invaluable help in making the language of this book lucid and readable. May our efforts contribute to making the wisdom of the great Buddhist master Nagarjuna, through the inspiring words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a source of insight and inspiration to many seekers on the path to awakening.