The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Prologue to the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way

by Kestrel Slocombe
August 6, 2014
Wed, 08/06/2014 - 09:59 -- Kestrel Slocombe


By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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.

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