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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 6: Major Indian Mahayana Texts > Overview of Uttaratantra > Session One: Background and the Buddha and Dharma Gems

Overview of Uttaratantra

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, October 2005

Session One: Background and the Buddha and Dharma Gems

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:56 hours)

Origin of the Text According to Tradition

This weekend we are talking about the great Mahayana text by Maitreya, Mahayana-uttaratantra Shastra (Theg-pa chen-po rgyud bla-ma’i bstan-bcos), about Buddha-nature. It’s A Composition to Indicate the Vast Vehicle of Mind (Mahayana): the Furthest Everlasting Stream. It was written down by Asanga (Thogs-med) although it was composed by Maitreya (Byams-pa), the future Buddha. Asanga lived six hundred years after the Buddha, for one hundred and fifty years; so if Buddha passed away in the mid-sixth century before our era, he lived between 50 and 200 of the Common Era.

Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras in which there is the extensive and profound teachings about voidness. The one hundred thousand verse version was brought by the gods to the god realm; the twenty-five thousand verse version was taken to the realm of the yakshas, the lords of wealth; and the eight thousand verse version was taken by the nagas to their realm beneath the sea. These were protected. What that actually means, for them to go to these various realms, is hard to understand. From a Jungian point of view one could say that they were hidden into the unconscious and guarded by these various types of beings; particularly the nagas, that are similar to dragons guarding the princess and the tower and the treasure, and so on, that we have in Western myths.

Nagarjuna brought the eight thousand verse version back from the nagas from beneath the sea and explained the profound teachings on voidness. Whereas Asanga studied the Prajnaparamita with Maitreya in the god realm and he brought that back with him and explained particularly the extensive mind – the extensive teachings on the mind that understands voidness. In a sense we can say that symbolically the deep profound teachings on voidness come from the bottom of the ocean, and the extensive teachings about the mind and the method for understanding voidness come from the heavens, which are extensive like space.

Asanga, in order to get these teachings, thought that he would have to do a meditation retreat on Maitreya to try to get a vision of Maitreya and get these teachings, and so he did retreat for twelve years. Actually it was divided into many three-year retreats; probably it was a type of mantra retreat, although that’s not clear. After the first three years he didn’t experience any type of vision, no results, and he left his cave. He saw a man who was dusting a large rock – with a feather – that was in front of his house, and he asked the man what he was doing. He said he was trying to remove the rock by dusting it with the feather because it was blocking the sun from his house. Asanga thought if this man can put so much effort and so much perseverance into doing something so trivial then I can also do something with much more perseverance. Obviously the symbolism here was to remove what is blocking the sunlight, the light of Buddha, and so on, from the inner house. It’s something that one has to exercise great perseverance in order to accomplish that.

Then after the next three years with still with no results, Asanga gave up. And he saw again an old man who was polishing a long iron bar with a silk scarf. He asked what the man was doing, who said, “I am trying to make a needle out of this.” Again Asanga said if he can have so much perseverance then I can also. This probably represents taking our dull mind and polishing it, to make it sharp like a needle for understanding voidness. Then, after three more years with no results, Asanga again left in disgust and discouragement from his retreat. He now saw an old man shifting a hill from one side of a valley to another – with bags of dirt. He again asked what he was doing, and the old man told him; and, again, he learned perseverance. This likewise could represent trying to shift our old samsaric ways to a new nirvanic type of way, slowly, bit by bit, with moving the bags of dirt from one side of the valley to the other.

So again Asanga did three more years of retreat. At the end of it, after twelve years with no results, he left the retreat and he saw an old female dog that was covered with maggots. He was filled with great compassion for the dog and for the maggots. He thought that if he took the maggots off and put them on the ground, they would starve. So he cut off a piece of his leg, a piece of flesh from his leg, and put it on the ground. Also he thought that if he removed the maggots with his fingers he would harm them, but if he removed them with his tongue it would be much better. So he bent down, closed his eyes, and stuck out his tongue to take the maggots off the old dog. But he could never reach the dog. He opened his eyes and the dog turned out to be Maitreya. Asanga asked Maitreya, “Where have you been all this time?” Maitreya said that “I’ve been here all along. It was because you developed love,” which is actually what the name Maitreya means, “that you were able to cut through your obscurations and you are able to see me.”

So it was the idea of love that was able to cut through all of this obscuration. Maitreya said, “As proof that I was here all the time with you, I was not only these old men that showed you these signs, but look here on my robe. Whenever you blew your nose, all the snot from your nose landed on my robe, so here it is.” That would symbolize that the jewel of the teachings (and particularly of love and Buddha-nature) was covered by Asanga with his snot (with his impure ideas) and that it was only love that was able to break through that.

Then Asanga was taken by Maitreya to the Tushita Buddha-field, the realm of the gods here represented by the Buddha-field Tushita, and he listened to the stages of the extensive teachings (of how to understand voidness and put them into practice) by Maitreya. He was there for a morning of the gods, which was fifty human years. Later he came back down and he wrote down from memory The Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya (Byams-chos sde-lnga). These are A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara); A Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras (Theg-pa chen-po mdo-sde rgyan, Skt. Mahayanasutralamkara); Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes (dBu-mtha’ rnam-‘byed, Skt. Madhyantavibhanga); The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra, our text here); and Differentiating Phenomena and Their Actual Nature (Chos-dang chos-nyid rnam-‘byed, Skt. Dharmadharmatavibhanga).

The Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya

The Abhisamayalamkara explains from the point of view of Svatantrika, specifically Yogachara Svatantrika, but ultimately points to the Prasangika view. The fourth one, Uttaratantra, that actually is a Prasangika text. The other three are Chittamatra, although some say the last one, Differentiating Phenomena and their Actual Nature, is like a commentary to Uttaratantra.

The texts of Maitreya have played a great influence in Tibet. They are studied by all the different traditions. What is quite noteworthy of it, as was pointed out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama – I studied this text twice with His Holiness and once with Serkong Rinpoche – His Holiness pointed out that the style of Maitreya’s text is that it starts with a few summary verses, like an outline. Then it goes through each point of the outline, first with a brief indication of the subject matter, then with an extensive explanation, and then, at the end, an abbreviated summary of the meaning. So this outline style that you find in Tibetan commentaries derives here from Maitreya’s texts.

The two texts from this that are studied most by Tibetans are the Abhisamayalamkara, the Filigree of Realization, and that takes as its subject matter the different levels of voidness. Because in Svatantrika you have the person being devoid of one impossible way of existing and all phenomena being devoid of other ways of impossible ways of existing. It discusses these different levels, which is the manifest topic that is discussed in Prajnaparamita, but in greater depth. It discusses in great detail the stages of the realization of the mind that understands voidness. Whereas the Uttaratantra discusses the root, or foundation, from which all of this is possible, which is the Buddha-nature. This is the qualities of the everlasting mind-stream of the practitioner upon which good qualities can be developed and faults can be removed.

The Title of the Text

The title of the text has four words in Sanskrit, which are very meaningful. The main term here is “tantra,” it’s an “everlasting stream of continuity” and refers to the mental continuum on the basis of which the various fleeting stains can be removed and the good qualities developed. That stream has a basis level, or ordinary situation, when it is not yet purified from these stains; the path level, which is when it is partially purified, particularly the stage of a bodhisattva arya; and the resultant level, when it is fully purified. And this is the topic – of how to purify this mental continuum and work with the mental continuum – this is the topic of “uttara,” the second word in the title, which means the furthest or latest, or superlative, or ultimate transmission of the Dharma. That refers to the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, or the third round of transmission, which was the latest and supreme teaching of Buddha. And what the text is also teaching about is “Mahayana,” another word in the title, which is a vehicle of mind that can take one to enlightenment, both a causal level (which is the basis and the path level of purifying the mind-stream) and the resultant level of enlightenment. That also is a main topic of the text. And it a “shastra,” an indicative composition which indicates this meaning and cuts away any doubts about it. So we get the title of: a composition, or exposition, to indicate a Mahayana vast vehicle of mind, which is the furthest everlasting stream, the everlasting stream of mental continuum taught in the furthest or ultimate teaching.

The Three Rounds of Transmission of the Dharma

To understand that, we need to understand the three rounds of transmission of the Dharma. This is what is usually translated as the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma (this is a classification system for sutra, not for tantra). Although the non-Gelugpa schools refer to and analyze these three rounds in terms of the time when Buddha taught them (so the third round would be the last round that Buddha taught in time), Tsongkhapa, in the Gelug tradition, classifies and explains them differently according to the subject matter.

According to the subject matter, the first turning of the wheel of dharma (the first round of transmission) teaches that all phenomena have true existence. This is the Hinayana presentation – particularly with the Dharmachakra Sutra (Chos-‘khor-gyi mdo), the Sutra of the Wheel of Dharma, which presents the four noble truths. Then the second round teaches that all phenomena lack true existence. This is the Madhyamaka teaching, it’s found in the Prajnaparamita Sutras.

The third round according to Tsongkhapa is the teachings of the Chittamatra, the mind only school, which says that some phenomena have true existence (this would refer to voidness and nonstatic phenomena) whereas the others do not (this refers to the static phenomena other than voidness, what are known as the completely conceptual phenomena). This is taught in chapter seven of the Sandhinirmocana Sutra (dGongs-pa nges-par ‘grel-ba’i mdo), the Sutra that Exposed Clearly What Is Intended. But His Holiness explains that we don’t need to limit our understanding of the third round of transmission just to the Chittamatra teachings, but we can also take it the way that the non-Gelug schools say, which is that the second round of teachings deal with voidness (which is the clear light as an object). In Uttaratantra it speaks of clear light on a sutra level (so it returns to voidness as an object). Whereas the third round speaks about the mind that takes as this object this object clear light (it’s sometimes called the subject clear light) and on the basis of which, all faults can be removed and all good qualities developed.

If we understand the third round in terms of speaking about the mind that understands voidness, the subject clear light, then we can say this is the furthest everlasting stream. It would include in the sutra teachings of Buddha the Tathagatagarbha Sutra (De-bzhin gshegs-pa’i snying-po mdo), the Sutra on Buddha-nature. And Uttaratantra, our text here, can be understood as a text that expounds or explains in terms of that.

Although Uttaratantra is usually explained in terms of sutra and not tantra, nevertheless we can say that the text points toward Buddha’s deepest intention – which is tantra and, within that, anuttarayoga tantra. So when it says in the text that the nature of mind is clear light, although we can understand this on a sutra level to mean that the nature of the mind is clear light as an object (in other words, voidness) and also clear light as a mind, which refers to the defining characteristics or conventional characteristics of mind, which is clarity and awareness, we can also say that this points to the ultimate end point of what Buddha intended – which is the clear light subtlest consciousness as discussed in the highest class of tantra (anuttarayoga tantra). And so we find in some commentaries that in addition to the sutra explanation we also have an anuttarayoga tantra explanation.

This is what we discussed yesterday. Thank you for your patience to listen to that again.

History of the Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya

Today let’s discuss now the history of the text, particularly of these five texts of Maitreya. The first three of them, Abhisamayalamkara, Mahayanasutralamkara, Madhyantavibhanga, these texts were taught publicly and widely and openly, and they passed down in India through a lineage of Dignaga (Phyogs-kyi glangs-pa) and Sthiramati (Blo-gros brtan-pa), and many famous commentaries were written to them, particularly by Haribhadra (Seng-ge bzang-po). These were translated into Tibetan during the Old Translation Period (Nyingma) [by Peltseg (dPal-brtsegs) and Zhang Yeshey-dey (Zhang ye-shes sde)]. But the last two, Uttaratantra (that’s our text) and Dharmadharmatavibhanga (Differentiating Phenomena from their Deepest Nature), these were considered not suited for the disciples of those times and so they were hidden, like treasure texts (gter-ma). We have this tradition of treasure texts in India; the oldest example would be the Prajnaparamita Sutras which were hidden and then recovered by Nagarjuna. Here we have this Uttaratantra and the Differentiating Phenomena from their Actual Nature also being hidden as treasure texts and found later in India. So the Nyingma tradition didn’t begin this tradition of treasure texts or the tradition of pure visions (dag-snang) like Asanga had of Maitreya, but these derive from India.

The text was rediscovered or recovered by Maitripa (Mai-ti-pa) somewhere between the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is interesting “Maitripa” also comes from the name Maitreya, meaning “love.” He was the mahamudra teacher of Marpa. Marpa studied in India with two great teachers: Naropa and Maitripa. Maitripa saw light coming from the center of a stupa and he investigated it, and these two texts by Maitreya were there; he found them. And so he gets the name Maitripa from Maitreya. He made requests to Maitreya, and Maitreya appeared in a vision and gave the oral transmission of the texts. This is how they came about. He taught the text to an Indian pandit called Anandakirti (dGa-ba’i grags-pa), who then took it to Srinagar in Kashmir. It passed down through a line of two more Indian pandits [Ratnavajra (Rin-chen rdo-rje) and Sugata (bDe-bar gshegs-pa)] and, from the second of them, it went to Pandit Sajjana. Sajjana is the one who transmitted it to Tibet.

Question: What was the reason why the text was hidden? Was it dangerous?

Alex: What was the reason why the text was hidden? I have no idea. It just said that this was inappropriate for that time. Perhaps the teachings on Buddha-nature, they thought, were not appropriate. Perhaps because it had an indication of the clear light, the subtlest mind in tantra, that it was hidden. I have absolutely no idea.

Why were the Prajnaparamita Sutras hidden? It teaches about voidness, and it’s said that people at that time were not suited for the voidness of all phenomena. You see it’s very difficult to really come to any decisive conclusion about this because one needs to evaluate whether or not one could take this history literally – that it actually was written down by Asanga and then hidden by Asanga at that time, for whatever reasons – reasons which one would have to correlate with the history of what was going on at the time. And then it was only recovered at the time of Maitripa, and one would correlate it with the history of that time. Or probably Western academics would say that it was just written probably by Maitripa at the time that it was actually written. So again we go back to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s line about this, which is: to say that it wasn’t written down by Asanga and it was not hidden as a treasure text, just for the reason that “I don’t think so!” is not a sufficient reason.

One could speculate on the basis of history, of what was going on at the time, but nothing pops out in my mind that was particularly noteworthy at the time of Maitripa. Buddhism was not forbidden. The Turkic invasions of the area were around Punjab, getting close to Kashmir, although the Muslims, the Turkic invaders, didn’t actually go to Kashmir. That was at the beginning of the eleventh century when this text would have appeared, and so one could think that in a time of invasions and massacres that people would need encouragement with teachings on Buddha-nature, and so the time was ripe for that. One could speculate like that.

The great Tibetan translator Ngog Lotsawa Loden-sherab (rNgog Lo-tsa-ba Blo-ldan shes-rab) went to Kashmir and he studied with this pandit Sajjana, and he translated the text and he brought it back to Tibet. Now prior to that, Atisha had actually done a translation of this, together with Nagtso Lotsawa (Nag-tsho Lo-tsa-ba), and two other very famous translators: Patsab Lotsawa (Pa-tshab Lo-tsa-ba) (Lotsawa means translator), and actually Marpa also translated the text. But Ngog’s translation was considered the best and this is the one that survived and came down and was transmitted, which is also a very interesting point – that you can have so many very famous skilled translators and all of them make versions of the same text, but that only one of them stands the test of history.

This particular lineage of Loden-sherab’s translation explains Buddha-nature in accordance with the second round of transmissions of the teachings, in accordance with voidness as being a refutation with no implication left over (med-dgag, nonimplicative negation) – there’s no such thing as true existence. The commentaries from the Gelug tradition and the Sakya tradition follow this.

Now there was another line of transmission that went through a young boy who went with Ngog Lotsawa to Kashmir and also was there studying with Sajjana. And since the boy was about to die, he received special teachings on this text; and he obviously survived and he became known as Zu Gawey-dorjey (gZus dGa’ba’i rdo-rje). He wrote a commentary on the text together with another great master [Tsen Drimey-sherab (gTsan Dr-med shes-rab)]. He spread this in Tibet and this became known as the Meditation Tradition of the Dharma Texts of Maitreya (Byams-chos sgom-lugs). The Third Karmapa, Rangjung-dorje (Kar-ma-pa Rang-‘byung rdo-rje), received this second tradition and through his own realization he wrote his own commentary on it, and this is the line that the Kagyus and the Jonangpas follow – Nyingma follows this as well. This tradition puts the emphasis on the Buddha-nature being the clear light consciousness, rather than clear light object or a voidness, and so this is the other-voidness (gzhan-stong) explanation.

Other-voidness is the refutation or a negation with implication (ma-yin dgag, implicative negation) – it has the implication of the mind that understands voidness. It speaks about the mind itself which is devoid of all the various stains. And so we get two different ways of explaining Buddha-nature. One is the voidness of the mind; the other is the conventional nature of the mind, the clear light nature of the mind, which is free of all these stains. The first being the self-voidness position and the second being the other-voidness position. And then there are tons of commentaries written on Uttaratantra, written from each of these points of view from all the four Tibetan traditions. Actually it is not an easy text to translate into our Western languages because the commentaries differ so much. One needs to be able to translate the root text in an open enough way so that it could be understood and interpreted from the two quite different points of view.

This all comes from Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche’s (‘Jam-mgon Kong-sprul Yon-tan rgya-mtsho) commentary to the text on Buddha-nature (rGyud bla-ma’i ‘grel-ba phyir mi-ldog-pa seng-nge’i nga-rol, A Commentary on “The Furthest Everlasting Continuum”: The Unrevertible Lion’s Roar). He gives a very detailed history.

Question on Voidness

Question: Emptiness is free of obscurations. Can you explain in more detail what is the difference and what is the focus on pointing out?

Alex: The question has to do with the difference between the explanation of Buddha-nature in terms of the clear light voidness or in terms of the clear light mind that is capable of understanding voidness.

In order to really answer this we have to jump a little bit ahead in the presentation of the text. There are various types of Buddha-nature – these are the factors that allow us to reach enlightenment. Without going into tremendous detail at this point, one of them is known as the abiding nature (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs) – this is the one that doesn’t change, which is there from no beginning, which is constant and static, in a sense. So for this we can state either the voidness of the mind, its deepest nature, which would be the way in which it is explained from the first tradition (which is the tradition followed in the Gelug or Sakya lineages); or we can explain this in terms of the conventional nature of the mind, which is the nature of the mind that is usually translated as clarity and awareness – clarity and awareness: giving rise to appearances and cognition.

Now this conventional nature of the mind – although again there is discussion whether that could be considered a deepest nature or a conventional nature (some of the Kagyus and Nyingmas will consider even that a deepest nature) – but in any case this is something that doesn’t change, it’s always the same, is constant forever, and it is free of all the fleeting stains – like rigpa, it’s the nature of rigpa. Sometimes it is identified with that, although we can speak about it purely in terms of the nature of the mind itself. And so that is an abiding factor that allows us to achieve enlightenment.

The fact that the mind is void of impossible ways of existing means that the stains can be removed, and so on; they are not inherent in the mind; the mind itself is not some fixed truly existent thing. So because of that voidness, we can achieve enlightenment. But also the fact that the mind itself is this clarity and awareness, this appearance-making and cognizing, that is not stained, has never been stained by nature – that also allows for enlightenment because those stains can be removed.

So the difference here is in terms of which one do you emphasize, and it makes a big difference in how you meditate on Buddha-nature. Are you going to meditate on: no such thing as true existence with respect to the mind? Or are you going to meditate on the mind that has never been stained with the belief in this impossible existence (and which doesn’t exist truly anyway)? So in meditation do you try to get to that state of mind, realize that state of mind, that has never been stained; or in meditation do you try to understand there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing? They are quite different ways of meditating. Although as His Holiness always says, they come to the same thing because you have to have a mind that understands voidness, and that mind which is free of stains needs to understand voidness. So it comes to the same thing in the end. It’s just a matter of which one do you emphasize in your meditation as the way of getting to the combination of object and subject clear light.

When you do these meditations – if you do it in the Kagyu and Nyingma style, although they have studied Madhyamaka earlier in their training and gone through the analytical understanding of voidness and so on, the emphasis in this type of Buddha-nature meditation that you would do in mahamudra or dzogchen would be primarily quieting down. If you quiet down, then you get to this state of the natural purity of the mind and then you recall your understanding of voidness that you’ve trained in before (it isn’t just going to come like that for no reason). Whereas in the Gelug and Sakya tradition, primarily in the Gelug, then you do this analytical understanding of voidness and you try to come to a very decisive understanding in your meditation. You stay with that decisive understanding which cuts off completely, like a guillotine – BAM! – there’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing! You stay focused in that. And as you stay focused in that, then you get quieter and quieter and quieter down. So in the end you come to the same thing, but they are two very different styles of meditation. Actually, to be more accurate, what you cut off is this impossible way of existing, which never existed in any case. There is no such thing – in doing that, to the side, you cut off the mind that believes in it. “There is no monster underneath the bed!” And when you are totally convinced of that, you’ve cut that off to the side, of course you’ve gotten rid of your belief in it. Although if the habit is very deep (in believing it), it comes up again and again, and so you have to constantly meditate and constantly remind yourself there is no such thing.

The text also has a subtitle [in a Sanskrit fragment], which is Ratnagotravibhanga. “Ratna” is the Gems, the Three Precious Gems (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). And “gotra” means family or caste, and so I translate that as “family traits.” This is a synonym for Buddha-nature. So when we talk about the Buddha-families – the three Buddha-families, or four Buddha-families, or five Buddha-families – these are referring to different aspects of Buddha-nature. And “vibangha” means to differentiate, so the subtitle means: Differentiating about the Family Traits for the (Three) Gems. “Trait” means characteristic. So that gives much more specifically what the text is discussing.

Let us take our tea break and then we will get into the text itself.

The First Chapter of the Text

Let us begin our discussion of the text. The first chapter is the chapter on Buddha-nature, and the text starts by giving its subject matter in an outline form (remember that Maitreya’s texts start with the outline) and the text is going to cover seven diamond-strong points (rdo-rje’i gnas-bdun):

The Seven Diamond-Strong Points

The first of these are the Buddhas. The second is the Dharma, the preventive measures. The third is the Sangha; this is the highly realized community of those who are intent on one of the positive goals of either arhatship (liberation) or enlightenment. The fourth is Buddha-nature, which is known by many different names here. The fifth is the state of enlightenment (byang-chub, Skt. bodhi) itself. The sixth are the good qualities (yon-tan, Skt. guna) of that state. And the seventh is the enlightening influence (‘phrin-las, Skt. samudacara) that we will have once we have reached that state.

So these seven diamond-strong points are discussed in five chapters, and four hundred and ten verses. The first chapter treats the first four points; then the second chapter treats the fifth point; the third chapter, the sixth point; the fourth chapter, the seventh point; and then the last chapter presents the benefits of studying these topics.


The terminology here is actually very interesting and very important. Serkong Rinpoche always emphasized that we can learn so much from the terminology and the way that things were translated. So when we look at the words for Buddha-nature, the word that is used here for the title is the “source” – that word is “kham” (khams, Skt. dhatu) – “source” implies the source for our enlightenment. But then the other words that are used very much for this have slightly different connotations in Tibetan and Sanskrit: We have the “tathagatagarbha” (Tib. de-gshegs snying-po) in Sanskrit. “Garbha” (snying-po) means the womb. And “tathagata” (de-bzhin gshegs-pa), is another name for a Buddha, usually translated as “thusly gone ones.” Those who have gone, or progressed – “thusly” means an accordant way – in accordance with, or in harmony with the actual path: with voidness and so on. So “Tathagata” can refer to those who have progressed in this way, or gone thusly; and it can also refer to the state that they achieve, thusly going. So it is the womb of that. Whereas the Tibetan word that they use for womb is “nyingpo” (snying-po), which means the heart or the essence – so, the essential factor that gives rise to that. They don’t use this word that really has this connotation of the womb, giving birth to it. The other big term that they use is “sugatagarbha” (bde-gshegs snying-po) the womb giving rise to those who blissfully progress or have gone blissfully. Again the Tibetans use the essential factor, nyingpo, the heart that gives rise to that. What’s interesting is that neither in Sanskrit nor Tibetan is there a word that literally means “Buddha-nature.” So it’s really quite curious how the Western translators came up with the idea of putting the word “nature” there.

The other term that is very interesting is the term for good qualities “guna” (yon-tan). Serkong Rinpoche always explained this as meaning it’s a correction of inadequacy, which is very meaningful. In other words we have various taints, various deficiencies, and various inadequacies; and when we talk about good qualities it is a correction of that – it’s bringing something bent back to its proper state. That gives us a lot to think about in terms of how we develop good qualities. Develop good qualities by basically correcting your inadequacies. Without correcting the inadequacies how can you get good qualities on top of those?

After stating the outline of the subject matter, the seven vajra points, then the text continues with giving the sutra source of these points. In other words Maitreya didn’t just make this up, but he got this from one of the sutras of the Buddha. And in the commentaries it goes into tremendous detail with lots of lists of where all the various points come from in this sutra – it’s the Sutra Requested by the Bodhisattva King Dharani Ishvara (gZungs-kyi dbang-phyug rgyal-pos zhus-pa’i mdo, Skt. Dharanishvara-raja-pariprccha Sutra, also known as Sutra Showing the Great Compassion of the Thusly Gone Ones, Skt. Tathagata-mahakaruna-nirdesha Sutra).

Next comes the reason for why the seven points are in this order. First comes (1) the Buddhas, and the Buddhas indicate (2) the Dharma, they teach the Dharma. The Dharma refers to the preventive measures that will eliminate suffering – that’s what the word “Dharma” means. That refers to the third and fourth noble truths: the true stopping of suffering and its causes, and the true pathway minds that lead to it, and the true pathway minds that are the result of that elimination. So the Buddhas indicate that, both verbally and through their realizations.

Then comes (3) the Arya Sangha. This is the community of those who are intent on gaining the third and fourth noble truths and who have actually started to get them (when they become aryas). And so these are the ones that attain the Dharma, that realize the Dharma. How do they do this? They do this by purifying (4) the source, the Buddha-nature, purifying away the inadequacies and the fleeting stains and so on. When that source is fully purified then you get the attainment of enlightenment, so the next point is (5) the state of enlightenment itself. And with enlightenment, one has (6) all the good qualities (that are corrections of inadequacy). All the good qualities are there, and based on these good qualities one has (7) the enlightening influence to benefit others. This is usually translated as Buddha-activity or enlightening activity. But it is something that is done without effort, and spontaneous, and it doesn’t require Buddha actually doing something – so much closer to the meaning is the “enlightening influence.”

So that’s the reason for the order of the seven.

The Buddha Gem

Then the text begins the discussion of the Buddha Gem. One of the characteristics of this text is that it uses many, many epithets, many synonyms for the same thing. Again Serkong Rinpoche always used to emphasize that each of these different synonyms, these epithets, particularly for the Buddha and so on, are very meaningful; and that it is not fair at all to just translate all of them as “Buddha” or to leave them in the Sanskrit – tathagata, sugata, bhagavan, and so on – because for most people that doesn’t convey anything, whereas the Tibetans translated them. So what I have tried to do in the translation that I have prepared was to actually translate these terms so that when you get the Tibetan commentaries to it, the commentaries make sense.

The commentaries will comment on each syllable within it. So a Buddha, “sangyay” (sangs-rgyas), means: “sang” is clear – so cleared out all the faults and inadequacies; and “gyay” is to expand, or evolve fully. So you get “the clear evolved ones.” I don’t know that this is terribly easy to say in German, but that is the connotation of a Buddha. They are called the triumphant ones (rgyal-ba, Skt. jina) because they have triumphed over their limitations, and in this way they have become “bhagavans.” A “bhagavan” is one who has – the Tibetan is three syllables “chom den day” (bcom-ldan-'das). “Chom” – they have overcome, destroyed all the limitations. “Den” – they have come to gain everything (“den” means to possess). “Day” – they surpass the Hindu gods, who are also called “bhagavans,” and so the Tibetans add this syllable to it. Mind you the Sanskrit words have different connotations, but this is the way the Tibetans understood them. So they have overcome and gained all.

The Buddhas in this text are also called “rishi,” maharishi. And “rishi” (drang-srong) means, in Tibetan, somebody who is totally upright and straightened. Again the same connotation that we had with good qualities. They are upright and straightened from their inadequacies, from their faults. So they become “muni,” that’s the word in Sanskrit which means sage, but the Tibetans usually translate it as the able ones (thub-pa). They are fully able to benefit both themselves and others. They are “natha” (mgon-po, “gonpo”), which is a guardian, the guardians of the teachings, the guardians of all limited beings. They are “nayakas” (‘dren-pa), complete spiritual leaders, the ones who could lead everybody to enlightenment. They have reached the state of “bodhi.” Bodhi in Sanskrit, that’s “chang-chub” (byang-chub) – the same word that we find in bodhisattva. But “bodhi” is similar to “sangyay,” in the sense that the first syllable of it means purified (chang), and chub means to grow – sometimes I abbreviate it as a purified state, but you can’t just translate it as enlightenment because there are three bodhis, there are three purified states of purification and growth. There’s what a shravaka arhat attains, what a pratyekabuddha arhat attains, and what a Buddha attains. So what a Buddha attains is the complete state of purification and growth. They have done this by “tathagata” – progressing in accordance with voidness, in accordance with the way that things actually exist. So they have gone thusly, and they are blissfully progressed – they’ve gone in accordance with a blissful path. They are also called here self-begotten, “svayambhu” (rang-‘byung) like Swayambhunath the stupa in Kathmandu. In other words their qualities are things that are there in the potential form, the mental continuum, so they are self-begotten – it’s not come about by having to import something from outside. They are also called “shastr” (ston-pa), which is the indicator for the whole universe, they indicate the Dharma with their realizations and their verbal teachings. So these are all the synonyms, the epithets, that are used for Buddha in the text and one can draw from them a great deal of meaning.

The section on the Buddha then first begins with a homage verse – respect to Buddha in terms of describing different aspects of the Buddha. Then it lists the eight qualities of a Buddha. We have eight qualities for the Buddha, eight qualities for the Dharma, and eight qualities for the Sangha. The first three qualities are summarized in the seventh, and the second three qualities are summarized in the eighth. This is the way this is structured.

And so the first three qualities here are summarized by the seventh, which is the ability to fulfill his own purposes. The first quality is that it’s unaffected, unconditioned. The state of Buddhahood is not conditioned or affected by anything. It always remains the same. The second one is that it spontaneously accomplishes everything, through the enlightening influence. Buddha doesn’t have to apply any effort to be able to benefit others; he spontaneously accomplishes everything that he would want. This is for one’s own purposes, so that Buddha doesn’t have to actually exert effort to do anything. The third one is that it is not realized through the circumstances of others. This is the connation that we had with self-begotten (svayambhu) that Buddha does not have to rely on anything else. Buddha himself has these qualities; these qualities were there in potential form from the beginning. So these are the three qualities that are summarized by the seventh one, which is the ability to fulfill the purposes of himself, of oneself.

Then the next three qualities are summarized by the eighth quality, which is the ability to fulfill the purposes of others. The fourth one is the omniscient awareness – Buddha is all knowing. The fifth one is that a Buddha has intense loving concern, so equal loving concern and compassion and love for everyone. The sixth is powerful abilities. Buddha has the abilities to be able to benefit others, to manifest in different forms and do various types of things. Those last three qualities, by the way, are often embodied in Manjushri being the omniscient awareness, by Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) as the loving concern, and Vajrapani as the powerful abilities. That is why you have Tsongkhapa encompassing these three in the Tsongkhapa guru yoga of “migtsema” (dmigs-brtse-ma) – that is the name of the verse that’s recited for Tsongkhapa.

After listing the eight then there is an explanation of each of the eight. The way that it does this explanation is that it connects it back to the eight adjectives that were given in the homage verse. So the eight qualities go together with the eight adjectives in the verse of homage, and that is the way that we have this type of explanation, presentation, of the Buddha Gem. The presentation of the Dharma Gem and the Sangha Gem will follow the same structure.

If we want to know the definition of a Buddha then this is the definition. A Buddha is the one with these eight characteristics. So it actually gives us a lot to think about when we take refuge, or go in this direction. What are we actually aiming for? We are aiming to become this type of being.

We want to attain a state in which we can benefit everybody, with omniscience, with equal loving concern for everybody, powerful abilities. It will be a situation that is not affected by anything, in other words it’s constant; and it will be spontaneously able to accomplish all our own purposes. It doesn’t require any effort to be able to benefit others, and it is not realized through circumstances of others – you don’t have to depend on anybody else. It comes from the Buddha-nature that we have within.

You have compassion for others, so in that sense it depends on others, but the qualities themselves are not something – you have to depend on the teacher, etc. – but the qualities themselves are there and it is on this basis that one achieves enlightenment. So it really gives quite a lot to think about if we can put it together and focus on: this is what we are aiming for with bodhichitta. How we will be able to benefit others and how we will be able to stay in our state of enlightenment.

The Dharma Gem

Then we have the second topic, which is the Dharma Gem. This is presented with the same structure. A homage verse that has eight adjectives in it, then the eight qualities themselves, and then the explanation that connects the eight qualities with the eight adjectives. The first three qualities are summarized by the seventh point, which is true stoppings (the third noble truth). And the second three are summarized by the eighth one, which is the true pathway mind (the fourth noble truth).

So the qualities that are summarized by the true stoppings. What is a true stopping? It is, first of all, unimaginable. Unimaginable – it is not something that could be an object of our ordinary type of thought; it has to be gotten through meditation and so on. Then the second characteristic is that it is without the two. Without the two – obviously this could be understood in many ways. One way of understanding it would be that it is without the two obscurations, those that prevent liberation and those that prevent enlightenment (or omniscience). It could also be nondual; without the duality of true existence. The third quality is that it is without conceptualization: if we have a true stopping, then conceptual thought (and all of that) is not there. So these are the qualities of true stopping.

Then the second set of three are the qualities of the true pathway mind. The true pathway mind is pure, it is clear or clarified. It is pure of all disturbing emotions, and so on; it is clear or clarifying (it’s able to make everything clear). And it is on the side of being an opponent because it can overcome the obscurations and ignorance and so on. The seventh and eighth characteristics (which summarize these in the text) are what brings about a parting from attachment and has the defining characteristics of the two truths – so the true stopping and the true pathway mind that leads to that, and as a result of it they bring about a parting from attachment, and they have the characteristic of two truths (referring to not conventional and deepest truth, but referring to the third and fourth noble truths). So that is the Dharma Gem – what we aim to realize, to attain.

Participant: Sorry, but I did not get the second point “without the two.”

Alex: “Without the two” is either without the two obscurations or without duality. Duality is having true existence, which is different from the way that things actually exist – which is without that.

The meaning is that it cannot be an object, there are many commentaries. Hearing, thinking and meditating it is not something that can be thought or imagined by arhats (shravakas, pretyekas), it is something that you have to realize or actualize in order to know what it is. Unimaginable is something that unimaginable to someone who is not on this path, who has not have one of these true stoppings. They would not be able to imagine this. Without conceptualization is something that is attained in a nonconceptual type of way.

If we look more closely at “without the two,” if we look at that in terms of the general aryas then we would have to say that is without karma and disturbing emotions. It depends on the tenet system whether you get rid of the two obscurations together. The shravaka aryas, they achieve true stoppings but it is not of the second type of obscuration – those that prevent omniscience. So the ultimate Dharma Gem, we can say that it is free of the two obscurations, “without the two.” If we look in a more general sense you’d have to say it’s free of karma and disturbing emotions, which are what’s included in the first set of obscurations – those preventing liberation. As I say, each of these can be understood on many levels and in many different ways. That is why you can’t translate it as “nondual.” You have to leave it quite open and say “without the two.”

That brings us to lunchtime. Let’s end with a short dedication: Whatever positive force has come from this, may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.