The Middle Way - Selections
“How fortunate we are to have access to these brilliant teachings given by the Dalai Lama. A truly inspiring book.”—Mandala
The power of compassion
Many centuries ago, humans realized the importance of harnessing the intellect. From that evolved writing and, eventually, formal education. These days, it is a truism to say that education is vital, but it is important to remind ourselves of the larger purpose of education. After all, what good is the accumulation of knowledge if it does not lead to a happier life?
We’ve all come across people who have received an excellent education but who are not very happy. Education may have brought them more critical thinking power and greater expectations, but they have had difficulty actualizing all those expectations, leading to anxiety and frustration. Clearly, education alone does not guarantee a happier life. I think of education like an instrument, one that we can use for either constructive or destructive ends.
You might think that the goal of education is merely to augment one’s ability to increase one’s wealth, possessions, or power. But just as mere knowledge in and of itself is not sufficient to make us happy, material things or power alone also cannot overcome worry and frustration. There must be some other factor in our minds that creates the foundation for a happy life, something that allows us to handle life’s difficulties effectively.
I usually describe myself as a simple Buddhist monk, and my own formal education has not been that extensive. I know something about Buddhist philosophy and texts, but I was a rather lazy student during my early years of study, so my knowledge of even that field is limited. On top of that, I learned next to nothing of fields like mathematics or world history or geography. In addition, as a young person, I led a fairly comfortable life. The Dalai Lamas were not millionaires, but still my life was comfortable. So when the Chinese invaded and I had to flee my native land, I had only some limited knowledge of Buddhist teachings, and I had little experience of dealing with problems. A great burden and responsibility was thrust upon me suddenly, and what training I had was put to the test. During those years, my most reliable friend was my own inner quality of compassion.
Compassion brings inner strength, and compassion also brings truth. With truth, you have nothing to hide, and you are not dependent on the opinions of others. That brings a self-confidence, with which you can deal with any problem without losing hope or determination. Based on my experiences, I can say that when life becomes difficult and you are confronting a host of problems, if you maintain your determination and keep making an effort, then obstacles or problems become really very helpful, for they broaden and deepen your experience. Thus I think compassion is the most precious thing.
What is compassion? Compassion involves a feeling of closeness to others, a respect and affection that is not based on others’ attitude toward us. We tend to feel affection for people who are important to us. That kind of close feeling does not extend to our enemies—those who think ill of us. Genuine compassion, on the other hand, sees that others, just like us, want a happy and successful life and do not want to suffer. That kind of feeling and concern can be extended to friend and enemy alike, regardless of their feelings toward us. That’s genuine compassion.
Ordinary love is biased and mixed with attachment. Like other afflicted emotions, attachment is based not on reality but on mental projection. It exaggerates reality. In reality there may be some good there, but attachment views it as one hundred percent beautiful or good. Compassion gets much closer to reality. There is a vast difference.
The big question is whether we can cultivate such compassion. Based on my own experience, the answer is yes. It is possible because we all possess the seed of compassion as the very nature of our human existence. Likewise, our very survival as human beings, especially in our first few years of life, is heavily dependent on the affection and compassion of others. We have survived up to now only because at the beginning of our lives, our mother—or someone else, of course—cared. Had she been negligent even one or two days, we would have died. As human beings, using our intelligence, we can extend this sense of caring throughout our whole lives.
The need to systematically cultivate and enhance this natural capacity is today more urgent than ever. In modern times, due to population, technology, and the modern economy, the world is now deeply interconnected. The world is becoming much smaller. Despite political, ideological, and in some cases religious differences, people around the world have to work and live together. That’s reality. So the role of compassion on the international level is vital.
Every day, the media brings news of bloodshed and terrorist activities. These events do not come to pass without causes or conditions.
Some of the events we face today I think have roots in negligent actions in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And unfortunately, there are some who deliberately try to escalate people’s vengeful urges for political gain. What is the best way to face this violence? I would argue that it is not through more violence and bloodshed. Problems rooted in violence cannot be solved by violence.
Why is this? Firstly, violence by its nature is unpredictable. You may start out with a certain goal of “limited” violence, but then it gets out of control. Secondly, violence harms others, and violence therefore creates more hatred in others’ minds. That in turn creates the seeds for future problems. War is like a legalized outlet for violence. In ancient times, when countries were less dependent on each other, the destruction of an enemy could be construed as victory for oneself. But today, due to the profound interconnectedness of all nations, war is ineffective. The destruction of your enemy just ends up destroying yourself.
Therefore, when we encounter conflict or competing interests, the best way—indeed the only effective way—to solve it is through dialogue. You must respect others’ interests, others’ desires, and make compromises, because if you neglect others’ interests, ultimately you yourself will suffer. You must take care of others’ interests.
I often tell audiences that the twentieth century was a century of violence, and through that experience we now know that violence cannot solve problems. The only way to solve them is with peaceful resolution. Therefore, the twenty-first century should be the century of dialogue. For that, we need determination, patience, and a broader perspective. Again, this is where compassion has an important role. First, as I mentioned, it brings us self-confidence. Compassion brings us deep recognition of others’ rights. Compassion also gives us a calm mind, and with a calm mind, we can see reality more clearly. When our mind is dominated by afflictive emotions, we can’t see reality, and we make poor decisions. Compassion gives us a more holistic view.
I respect the world’s political leaders, but sometimes I think they should have more compassion. If even one of these political leaders cultivates more compassion, then millions of innocent people get more peace. Many years ago, at an official function in India, I met a politician from the Indian state of East Bengal. The meeting included a discussion of ethics and spirituality, and he said, “As a politician I don’t know much about those things.” He was probably just being humble, but I gently chided him. Politicians need more ethics, more spirituality, I said. If a religious practitioner in a remote area does something harmful, it probably doesn’t have much global effect. But when leaders and politicians are not mindful and compassionate, it is very dangerous.
I believe compassion is not a religious matter. Some people think compassion and forgiveness are the domains of religion, and if people have a negative view of religion they may become negative about these things as well. That’s a mistake. Whether we accept a religion or not is up to the individual, but as long as humanity inhabits this world, these deeper values are crucial and must not be neglected. Everybody is making every effort for material prosperity. That’s fine, but if in the meantime we neglect our inner world or inner values, we will not be happy. We must combine material development with the development of internal, human values. We need to develop respect, love, and a sense of compassion in order to have happier lives, happier families, happier communities, and finally a happier world. We need these inner qualities. This should be the ultimate goal of education today.
About this book
I do not believe that religion is necessary to develop ethics and a good heart. Nonetheless, the major world religions have over time developed many valuable tools for cultivating such universal human virtues. Buddhism is not alone in this respect, but it is the tradition with which I am most familiar, and I also believe that the Buddhist tradition contains unique elements, particularly its teachings on selflessness, or emptiness, and on the nature of the mind. And so, part of my purpose in this book is to give you a good understanding of the overall framework of Buddhism.
I will first present a general introduction to the Buddhadharma, and to do this I’ve selected three chapters from Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way, a classical Indian philosophical work that contains twenty-seven chapters in all. As I explain the basic framework of the Buddhist path, I will relate my explanations to specific sections of these three chapters. The general introduction is then followed by an explanation on how to put these teachings into practice on the basis of Jé Tsongkhapa’s short verse work, Three Principal Aspects of the Path. Tsongkhapa is the founder of the Geluk tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
When teaching or listening to Buddhadharma, those who consider themselves practicing Buddhists need to do so with a pure motivation. The teacher must ensure that he or she does not conduct the teaching out of a desire for respect, fame, or financial reward; he or she must be motivated purely by the wish for the well-being of all sentient beings. As listeners, too, your motivation must not be polluted by aspirations for greatness as a scholar, high reputation, or financial reward; rather, you must listen to the teachings with the wish to turn your mind toward the Dharma, to make your Dharma practice successful, and to make your practice a cause for attaining liberation and the omniscient state of buddhahood.
How do we ensure the purity of our motivation when giving a teaching or listening to one? One way is by reciting special prayers of aspiration before we begin. Now, for a teaching to truly become Buddhist, it must be predicated on the practice of going for refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the community of true practitioners. For a teaching to become a teaching of the Mahayana tradition—the bodhisattva path—it must be based on the generation of bodhichitta, the altruistic awakening mind, which strives for enlightenment for the purpose of benefiting others. To begin, then, we remind ourselves of these two practices of going for refuge and generating the altruistic awakening mind by chanting or reflecting on the following stanza:
To the Buddha, Dharma, and the excellent assembly,
I go for refuge until I am enlightened.
Through pursuing the practices of giving and the other perfections,
may I attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.
When I give introductions to the Buddhadharma, non-Buddhists are always welcome to follow along in order to seek something beneficial. If among my explanations, you find that some are useful, incorporate them into your everyday life; those that are not so useful you can simply discard. However, in my explanations on Buddhist philosophy, many points of difference will naturally emerge, since I am presenting a Buddhist text that espouses, naturally, the Buddhist outlook. When this occurs, please don’t feel that I am somehow disparaging your tradition.
Of course, historically, the great Buddhist scholars of India’s Nalanda monastic university had extensive debates among themselves. Proponents of the Mind Only (Chittamatra) school, for example, criticized the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) position as falling into the extreme of nihilism, while proponents of the Middle Way school criticized the Mind Only position as falling into the extreme of absolutism. Therefore, in this regard, I share the sentiment of the eighteenth-century Tibetan master Changkya Rinpoché (1717–86) who wrote:
It’s not that I do not respect you;
Please forgive me if I’ve offended.
The Buddhism that flourished in Tibet is a comprehensive tradition. It contains all the essential elements of all the teachings of the Mahayana and Lesser Vehicle traditions, and on top of that includes the tantric teachings of the Vajrayana as well. From the standpoint of source languages, the Tibetan tradition encompasses many of the key texts in the Pali-language tradition, but is based primarily on the Sanskrit Indian tradition. In terms of the origin of its lineages, the tradition is most indebted to the great masters of Nalanda, the monastic institution that flourished in northern India during the first millennium. For example, the key texts studied in the Tibetan monastic colleges are all composed by the great Nalanda thinkers and adepts. I have actually composed a prayer, Praise to Seventeen Nalanda Masters, to acknowledge the origin of our tradition and the debt that we Tibetan Buddhists owe to their writings. The full text of this prayer appears at the end of this book. In the colophon to that, I wrote:
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 acquire faith in his teaching on the basis of genuine understanding.
It is out of this conviction that the ancient teachings of Buddhism are as relevant and valuable as ever that I present this introduction to the Tibetan tradition.
CHAPTER 1: APPROACHING THE PROFOUND
Today, here in the twenty-first century, humanity has reached a highly advanced stage of material development and of knowledge of various fields, and we continue to progress in these areas. However, the demands on our attention are never-ending, and in such an environment, it is vital for the Buddhists to obtain genuine confidence in the Buddhadharma grounded in understanding and reason.
How do we go about obtaining a faith grounded in understanding? As I wrote in the colophon to Praise to Seventeen Nalanda Masters,
It is with an objective mind endowed with a curious skepticism that we should engage in careful analysis and seek the reasons. Then, on the basis of seeing the reasons, we engender a faith that is accompanied by wisdom.
Now, whenever we engage in an analysis, such as on the nature of mind or reality, if we proceed from the start already convinced that “It must be so and so,” then due to our biases, we will be unable to see the actual truth and will instead see only our naïve projection. It is therefore essential that the analyzing mind strive to be objective and not swayed by prejudices. What we need is a skeptical curiosity, our mind moving between the possibilities, genuinely wondering whether it is thus or some other way. We need to begin our analysis as objectively as possible.
However, if we maintain an objective stance unswayed by bias yet have no feeling or interest in the analysis, this too is incorrect. We should cultivate a curious mind, drawn toward all possibilities; and when we do, the desire to deeply investigate naturally arises. If this mind drawn toward possibilities is absent, we just abandon the inquiry and simply say, dismissively, “I don’t know.” This way, then, brings no real benefit because we are not open to new insights.
Therefore, a curious skepticism is extremely important. For where there is such skepticism, constant inquiry also takes place. One of the reasons science progresses is because it persistently inquires and performs experiments on the basis of a genuine objectivity, “Why is it like this?” with a curious mind that is drawn to all sorts of possibilities. In this way, the truth becomes clearer and clearer, allowing these truths to become correctly understood.
“Careful analysis” indicates that a rough or incomplete analysis is not adequate. For example, in the method of analysis presented in Buddhist logic and epistemology texts, it is not adequate to rely on a proof that is based only on partial observation of a fact, on additional observation of the fact in a similar class, or on mere nonobservation of the fact in any dissimilar class. To base your conclusion on such partial grounds is inadequate. Buddhist logic and epistemology texts emphasize the need for proving the truth of an assertion based on sound reasoning rooted in direct observation. With a careful analysis, our conclusions are more stable and sound.
As we become more aware and understand the reasoning presented in a text, these should be related back to our own personal experiences. Ultimately, the final proof is a direct valid experience.
Buddhist texts speak of four types or qualities of intelligence: great intelligence, swift intelligence, clear intelligence, and penetrating intelligence. Because we must analyze the subject matter carefully, we need great intelligence; because we cannot naïvely conclude that something is the case except on the basis of a meticulous analysis, we needs clear intelligence; because we need to be able to “think on our feet,” we need swift intelligence; and because we need to pursue the full implications of a line of inquiry, we need penetrating intelligence.
By analyzing in such a manner and seeking what consequences and significance we can draw from our understanding, we will come to see those results. Here, we must first systematically organize the lines of reasoning presented in the texts and then correlate these with our own personal experience so that the reasoning is supported by direct observation and empirical evidence. When, on the basis of relating these lines of reasoning to our own personal experience, we feel “Yes, they are truly helpful” or “This is truly wonderful,” we have gained a decisive sense of conviction in the Buddhadharma. Such a confidence is called a faith grounded in genuine understanding.
Sequence of analysis
As for the actual sequence of engaging in analysis, in Praise to Seventeen Nalanda Masters, I wrote:
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.
Here, when we speak of practicing the Buddhadharma, we are speaking of observing the ethics of refraining from ten nonvirtues and cultivating compassion and loving-kindness within a context of seeking liberation. Merely refraining from the ten nonvirtues or cultivating of compassion and loving-kindness alone do not constitute a specific practice of the Buddhadharma; such practices of ethics and compassion are, after all, a feature of many spiritual traditions. When we speak of Buddhadharma in this context, the term Dharma (or spirituality) refers to the peace of nirvana—liberation—and to definite goodness, a term that encompasses both liberation from samsara as well as the full enlightenment of buddhahood. We use the term definite goodness because the peace of nirvana is utterly excellent, pure, and everlasting. When practices such as avoiding unwholesome, harming actions and cultivating love and compassion are part of a quest for gaining liberation from cyclic existence, then they truly become Dharma in the sense of being Buddhist spiritual activity.
“Liberation” here is defined as the cessation of the mind’s pollutants through the power of applying their corresponding antidotes. The main pollutant, the very root of our unenlightened existence, is the grasping at selfhood, at self-existence, and all the associated psychological and emotional factors that accompany and proceed from grasping at self-existence. The direct antidote to the self-grasping mind as well its associated mental factors is insight into selflessness. Therefore, it is on the basis of realizing selflessness that we attain true liberation.
This is how the method of attaining definite goodness is presented, and the spiritual methods associated with the attainment of such liberation are the unique way of Buddhism. Therefore, I wrote, “May I be blessed so that the root of the liberating path is firmly established in me.”
The four noble truths
Now to establish the root of the path to liberation firmly within ourselves, it is essential to understand the four noble truths.2 The four truths are like the foundation for all the Buddha’s teachings— both sutra and tantra. When the Buddha first taught the Dharma to his earliest disciples, he taught the four noble truths.
If we reflect deeply upon the way in which the Buddha taught the four noble truths, we see that he first described their characteristics or nature, second their functions, and third the outcome that we will experience once they are realized directly. This is why, in Buddhist teachings, we often find discussions of the three main elements of ground, path, and result. The understanding of the nature of reality is the ground, the path is pursued based on the understanding of the ground, and finally the result is experienced as an effect of cultivating the path.
The Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths is a description of the actual nature of reality. When the Buddha taught the four truths, he began by describing their natures, saying, “This is the noble truth of suffering, this is the noble truth of the origin of suffering, this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and this is the noble truth of the path.” By declaring the truths in this way, the Buddha was making a statement about the way things exist; he was describing the nature of the ground.
Now, the “suffering” in the Buddha’s first noble truth, in which he says, “This is the noble truth of suffering,” includes all the sufferings that plague us. Within this there are many different levels of subtlety, not just the manifest suffering of pain and hardship but also a deeper and more pervasive quality of our experiences. The statement “This is the noble truth of suffering” recognizes that all these experiences are unsatisfactory, or “in the nature of suffering.”
In the second truth, the statement “This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering” declares the cause that brings about suffering or that constitutes the source of suffering. Even though the origin of suffering is itself also a form of suffering and thus included in the first truth, suffering and its origin are here distinguished and described in the manner of a cause and an effect. Again, the primary cause of suffering that the Buddha identifies is our grasping at self-existence, the fundamental ignorance that distorts our view of reality and causes us to relate only to our confused appearances and not to the way things truly are.
The statement in the third noble truth, “This is the noble truth of cessation,” declares the nature of freedom from suffering, its complete cessation. It states that the causes of suffering can be deliberately brought to an end. When the seeds of these causes become fewer and fewer and are finally eradicated, naturally the fruits that would otherwise have been produced and experienced cannot arise. So the statement here declares the possibility of a time when our suffering and its origin are totally pacified.
To fully understand the possibility of such a cessation, you cannot rely on your understanding of phenomena on the level of mere appearances; rather, you must penetrate their true mode of being. You cannot rely on the ordinary level of appearances because they are unreliable. The very root cause of your suffering, fundamental ignorance, is deluded about the true mode of being of phenomena—the way things actually exist—and fundamental ignorance dominates every moment our present experience.
This fundamental ignorance, however, is not inextricably fused with the luminous nature of our minds. Ultimately, ignorance and the mind can be separated; ignorance is not inherent to the nature of our minds. Therefore, the statement in the fourth truth that “This is the noble truth of the path” declares that cessation can be realized within our mental continuum through certain methods. Foremost among these is the wisdom that realizes the nature of reality. To eliminate fundamental ignorance, we cultivate the knowledge of selflessness and meditate upon this truth. The path that directly realizes selflessness can directly attack the deluded mind that falsely perceives selfhood and eliminate it. In this way, the nature of the path is declared.
In brief, by enumerating the identity of the four truths, the Buddha taught the nature of the ground, the way things actually are, which is illustrated by the following analogy. When someone is ill with a curable condition, you have the suffering of the illness itself, the external and internal factors that gave rise to the illness, the potential for healing, and the remedy or medication that counters the illness’s causes and brings about its cure. In the same manner, there is a path that leads to the cessation of all sufferings. This is the nature of the ground, the understanding of the way things actually are.
No one has to compel us to seek happiness and try to overcome suffering, and we don’t need to logically prove the value of these two pursuits. The inclination to seek happiness and shun suffering exists naturally in us all, even in animals. Just as this natural inclination to seek out happiness and avert suffering is a basic fact of our reality, the four causally connected truths—suffering and its origin, cessation and the path—are also basic facts of reality.
Now the question is, “Taking these facts as the basis, how do we apply our knowledge of the four noble truths—our understanding of the ground?” In response to this question, the Buddha answered, “Recognize suffering, eliminate the origin of suffering, actualize cessation, and cultivate the path.” In this, his second enumeration of the four noble truths, the Buddha taught their functions, the process we must follow to actualize them in our own minds. Among the threefold explanation (of ground, path, and result) this is the explanation of the path.
Now, when we come to recognize the sufferings thoroughly, the wish to be free from such sufferings arises naturally. Therefore, with the statement, “Recognize suffering,” the Buddha taught the importance of well understanding all the gross and subtle levels of suffering. The contemplation of suffering proceeds by way of three progressively more subtle varieties of suffering—evident suffering, changeable suffering, and the suffering of conditioning itself. Evident suffering, which is also called the “suffering of suffering,” is manifest pain and hardship—the worldly definition of suffering. Changeable suffering is conventionally understood as pleasure, but its inherent instability, its impermanence, always brings suffering in its eventual wake. The subtlest level, the suffering of conditioning, is the very quality of all experience conditioned by ignorance—painful, pleasurable, or otherwise. Whenever ignorance is a factor in our perception of reality—and for most people, that is all the time—then whatever actions we perform and whatever experiences we have will be colored by the unease engendered by misperception.
In general, evident suffering is something even animals can recognize. We don’t require extraordinary contemplation to develop the wish to be free from it. However, evident suffering comes on the basis of changeable suffering, which in turn is rooted in the suffering of conditioning. So though we may try and eliminate evident suffering alone, as long as the suffering of conditioning persists, evident suffering may come to be reduced but it cannot be eliminated. Therefore, to eliminate evident suffering entirely, we must eliminate the suffering of conditioning. Thus the meaning of the statement “Recognize suffering” is to recognize the suffering of conditioning.
Similarly, the meaning of the statement “Eliminate the origin of suffering” is to eliminate the root cause of all sufferings, which is fundamental ignorance. The meaning of the statement “Actualize cessation” is to cease suffering and its origin. This is what we must seek, the final objective we must aspire to—the definite goodness mentioned above.
Finally, “Cultivate the path” means that what is called cessation must be actualized within our own minds, and we must therefore train in the causes that will lead to its attainment. We must put our understanding into actual practice. In speaking of enlightened and unenlightened existence—samsara and nirvana—we are really talking about two different states of mind. As long as the mind remains in an unenlightened, deluded state, obscured by ignorance, we are in samsara or unenlightened existence. Once we gain insight into the true nature of reality and see through the deception of ignorance, the process of enlightenment begins. Hence samsara and nirvana, benightedness and enlightenment, are actually functions of whether we are ignorant of or have insight into the ultimate nature of reality. The heart of our journey to enlightenment is developing this insight.
In brief, having first declared the four noble truths, the Buddha then taught how to apply them, explaining the sequence we need to tread the path. The first step the Buddha advises us to take is to “Recognize suffering.” The Buddha elaborates, saying, “Recognize suffering, but there is no suffering to be recognized; eliminate the origin of suffering, but there is no origin of suffering to be eliminated; actualize cessation, but there is no cessation to be actualized; cultivate the path, but there is no path to be cultivated.” With these statements, the Buddha evoked how knowledge of the four noble truths can reach its culmination—the result of the path. At the path’s fruition, we no longer need to recognize any further suffering or to eliminate any further origin of suffering. This reality is the final realization of the four noble truths.
This is how the Buddha presented the four truths in terms of the ground, the path, and the result.
When the Buddha taught the four noble truths, he spoke of two sets of cause and effect—suffering and its origin on the one hand, and cessation and its cause, namely the path, on the other. The first cause and effect pertains to afflicted phenomena—to our rebirth within cyclic existence—while the second cause and effect pertains to enlightened phenomena—to the state where suffering is totally eliminated. The causes and effects of the afflicted class have ignorance as their root, whereas enlightened cause and effect proceeds through the cessation of fundamental ignorance—the purging of afflicted cause and effect. We see here again that both cyclic existence and its transcendence—samsara and nirvana—are defined in terms of knowledge or ignorance of the ultimate nature of reality. And again we see that the difference between samsara and nirvana is a difference in how we perceive reality.
A hierarchy of views
The four noble truths are accepted by all schools of Buddhism. But to fully understand the subtle aspects of this central teaching, you need to grasp the teaching from the perspective of the most advanced presentation—because without a correct understanding of the nature of reality, you will not achieve a complete cessation of suffering. The highest and most subtle teaching on the correct view is found in the Middle Way school.
Since spiritual trainees have such different levels of intelligence, the Buddha, when explaining the ultimate nature of reality, first spoke of the gross level of ignorance. Later, to benefit spiritual trainees of medium and advanced mental aptitude, he spoke of the subtle level of ignorance. In the Buddhist scriptures, therefore, you can find explanations of ignorance or of ultimate reality at various levels of subtlety, depending on the audience the Buddha was addressing. From a philosophical standpoint, the subtle explanations he gave are more definitive than the grosser explanations.
If you engage in an analysis, using the reasoning process taught in the Middle Way treatises, then the presentations of the ultimate nature of reality found in the lower philosophical schools are revealed to be contradictory and undermined by reason. Of course the other schools leveled critiques of the Middle Way standpoint as well, but these critiques fail to fully comprehend the true nature of things. Nothing in their objections is grounded in a comprehensive understanding that can demonstrate any logical contradiction in the Middle Way standpoint. Therefore, while both are equal in having been taught by the blessed Buddha, those sacred words whose meaning is free from any defects when subjected to critical analysis must be accepted as definitive.
The Buddha himself stressed the need to analyze his words with an objective mind of curious skepticism. The Buddha stated:
O monks and wise ones,
like gold that is heated, cut, and rubbed, examine well my words
and accept them, but not out of your reverence.
It is because the Buddha took into account the diversity of the mental faculties, inclinations, and interests of his disciples that he gave such diverse teachings. Thus within Buddhist teachings, it is important to distinguish between teachings that are provisional and present provisional truths and those that are definitive and can be accepted at face value. It is the view of the Middle Way school that can be upheld with a deep sense of satisfaction, for the ultimate nature of reality identified in this view is not vulnerable to refutation, no matter how much it is subjected to critical analysis. Scriptures that present the Middle Way view, therefore, are considered definitive.
To speak of the four noble truths according to the Middle Way understanding, then, is to speak of two levels of the four noble truths—a gross level and a subtle level. Since the Buddha made both gross and subtle presentations of fundamental ignorance and the nature of reality, the four noble truths likewise have a gross presentation, which is based on the provisional teachings that the Buddha gave, and a subtle presentation, which draws on his definitive teachings on the nature of reality.
The two truths
The great master Nagarjuna states in his Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way that:
Teachings given by the Buddha
are purely based on two truths.
To understand the presentation of the four noble truths in accord with the Middle Way view, it is essential to understand these two levels of truth—conventional and ultimate. For as we have seen, without understanding the ultimate truth—the true mode of being of things—it is extremely difficult to posit cessation in all its comprehensiveness. This is why I wrote,
By understanding the two truths, the nature of the ground,
I will ascertain how, through the four truths, we enter and exit samsara.
And since it is on the basis of understanding the two truths that we understand fully the nature of the Dharma Jewel, and on this basis, gain deeper understanding of the natures of the Buddha Jewel and the Sangha Jewel, I wrote:
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.
In other words, may a firm confidence in the Three Jewels arise in me brought forth by true knowledge based on clear recognition of the natures of the three objects of refuge; and on this basis may the root of the path to liberation be firmly established in me.
The sequence I have delineated here is based on Maitreya’s approach in his Ornament of Clear Realizations (Abhisamayalamkara), where, after generating the awakening mind, he presents the following instructions:
The practices and the [four noble] truths,
as well as the Three Jewels such as the Buddha…
In these lines Maitreya, in discussing the content of the practices, presents the instructions on the two truths, the instructions on the four noble truths—the framework of the practices—and the instructions on the Three Jewels, which are the support of the practices. I followed this same sequence in my verse above.
Now, the goals in Buddhism are the immediate aim of attaining higher rebirth as a human being or as a god and the ultimate aim of achieving definite goodness. The teachings on the means of attaining higher rebirth are based on cultivating “the right worldly view.” What is the right worldly view? It is the right view of the law of karma and its effects based on conviction in the principle of dependent origination. The goal sought and attained on the basis of such a view is higher rebirth.
If, on the other hand, we develop the understanding of the subtle meaning of how things exist as conceptual designations, we will then understand dependent origination to be empty, and on that basis, “the right transworldly view” (as opposed to “the right worldly view) arises. The goal achieved as a result of this view is definite goodness. Therefore, even the goals of Buddhist spirituality are framed within the context of the two truths.
Furthermore, the highest definite goodness, the omniscient state of a buddha, is composed of two embodiments—the sublime body of form (rupakaya) and the sublime body of truth (dharmakaya). A buddha’s form body is achieved through the accumulation of merit—the positive potential produced by pure acts of kindness, generosity, and other virtuous practices—while a buddha’s truth body is achieved through the accumulation of wisdom, or insight into reality. Since we accumulate merit on the basis of the apparent aspect of dependent origination and accumulate wisdom on the basis of the empty aspect of dependent origination, it emerges that even the state of buddhahood is defined on the basis of the two truths. It is for these reasons it is stated that all the teachings the Buddha presented, however vast they may be, were taught within the framework of the two truths.
What are referred to as two truths are the two levels of reality, that of appearance and that of actual reality. Corresponding to these two levels is the understanding of the world that is grounded within the appearance level and the understanding of the world grounded within the level of actual reality, the way things truly are. In our day-to-day way of speaking, we recognize different levels of reality; we make distinctions between appearances and reality, and we sense different levels of truth. The teachings of the two truths explicitly conceptualize our intuition of this difference. In this distinction that we experience between appearance and actual reality, the final, actual nature of things constitutes ultimate truth, while understanding developed within the framework of appearance, or of our everyday perception, constitutes conventional truth.
What then are the characteristics of the two truths? Conventional truths are facts of the world obtained by an understanding that is uncritical in regard to ultimate reality. Whenever we, not satisfied by the mere appearances discerned by an uncritical perspective, probe more deeply with critical analysis, searching for the true mode of being of things, the fact obtained through such an inquiry constitutes ultimate truth. This ultimate truth, the final nature of things, therefore, does not refer to some independent, self-standing absolute—some lofty ideal entity. Rather it refers to the final nature of a particular thing or phenomenon. The particular thing—the basis—and its true mode of being—its ultimate nature—constitute one and the same entity. Thus, although the perspectives or the characteristics of the two truths are defined distinctly, they pertain to one and the same reality. All phenomena, whatever they may be, possess each of these two truths.
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© Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, The Middle Way (Wisdom Publications, 2009)
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