Studying the Two Truths in Chittamatra

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Brief Review

Our text is Bodhisattvacharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, by the great master Shantideva. This is one of the texts in a collection of three known as “The Root, Engaging, and the Four” as previously explained. This text has ten chapters, and we are looking at the ninth chapter on discriminating awareness, or wisdom.

The main subject matter of this great chapter concerns the two truths and, specifically, the deepest truth, voidness, and the various ways of asserting voidness. The subject matter of the presentation of the two truths is extremely profound, particularly the presentation of voidness.

There are two sides of the teachings, the extensive and the profound, and this teaching deals with the profound. It is extremely difficult to understand and the presentation of the two truths is an extremely essential point. The ever-vigilant master, the great spiritual leader, Tsongkhapa, said that only by entrusting himself totally to the great Manjushri was he able to understand and gain realization of this most difficult-to-understand topic.

Since the texts on this subject matter are extremely difficult to understand, they are not just things that we can pick up, thinking that they deal with trivial matters and can be understood immediately. It takes a great deal of time and is very difficult. It is like when we first come to this county, France, and we don’t understand a word of French, when we first hear French spoken, we are not going to understand anything. 

The Great Lama Tsongkhapa

When the great Lama Tsongkhapa first generated a bodhichitta aim, he prayed to be able to combine the teachings of the profound view of voidness with the secret teachings of tantra and make this combined teaching spread far and wide. This was the great prayer with which he dedicated his heart. When he developed bodhichitta in this manner, in the presence of hundreds of thousands of bodhisattvas, he was given the name of “The One with Great Willpower and Strength of Mind.

Gaining the Advice of Manjushri

At one time, Tsongkhapa studied with Lama Umapa Pawo Dorje, who originally came from the eastern area of Tibet, Kham, where he’d been a shepherd. He had a very special and close relationship with Manjushri for many lifetimes. From the time of being a small child, the sound of the syllables of Manjushri’s mantra, om arapatsana dhih, would reverberate within him. Lama Umapa had constant contact with Manjushri and saw his actual face and was able to ask him questions directly. When Tsongkhapa was studying with Lama Umapa, he asked many questions of Manjushri through the medium of Lama Umapa. He cleared up many doubts about the correct view through the medium of Lama Umapa. 

By that point, Tsongkhapa had already achieved the level of samadhi, absorbed concentration, where he could sit in total and complete concentration for seven days. 

In order to now gain an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana, he was investigating and analyzing to try to gain the ultimate correct view of voidness. For this, he consulted Manjushri through Lama Umapa to gain a firm understanding. Manjushri told him that he still hadn’t come to the ultimate and final understanding of the Madhyamaka view. He kept saying that Tsongkhapa’s understanding was not quite correct. Then, Manjushri gave him a four-line stanza that was extremely difficult to understand. Tsongkhapa couldn’t figure it out at all. If Tsongkhapa had difficulty with this ultimate stanza, then we would have no chance to understand it.  

Manjushri told him that this was extremely difficult for him to understand now and that, to understand it, he had to build up a tremendous amount of positive potential by undertaking constructive practices, purifying himself of negative potentials and obscurations, and studying many great scriptural texts. On the basis of this, he would finally gain an ultimate understanding of this four-line stanza. 

At that time, there were still profound masters in India. Tsongkhapa thought of going to study with them so as to gain the correct understanding of the profound Madhyamaka view of voidness, but another one of his spiritual masters, an emanation of Vajrapani, the great master Lhodrag Namka Gyaltsen who appears in our lineage prayers, advised Tsongkhapa not to go. He said that if Tsongkhapa were to go to India, he would gain this understanding of the ultimate view of voidness and become an inconceivably great learned abbot at Bodh Gaya. However, he warned that the various disciples who would accompany him to India would become very sick due to the great heat, and they would be greatly harmed.

Again, Manjushri advised Tsongkhapa through Lama Umapa, and suggested that for gaining this correct understanding, he should give up the activities he was involved with and go into an intensive retreat. Lama Umapa explained to Manjushri that Tsongkhapa is a very great teacher and master involved in teaching and guiding a large number of disciples who are very interested and involved. Lama Umapa said that if he were to send Tsongkhapa off to this intensive retreat and cut off all his other activities, he would be severely criticized. Manjushri said, “Let them criticize you; it doesn’t matter. You don’t understand, but I know what is best. Send him off into retreat.”

Tsongkhapa’s Retreat

Likewise, Manjushri gave the names of the eight pure and perfect disciples who should go into this retreat with Tsongkhapa. Four disciples were from the central region of Tibet and four from the northeastern region, Amdo. This was a very strict intensive retreat in which they couldn’t take anything with them except their three robes, monks’ begging bowls, and monks’ staffs. They went off from Lhasa to the north, and then west, to an extremely isolated and empty area into an empty cave. The area they reached was called Sangri. There, they engaged in a practice of the eighteen arhats, or steady and stable elders of the past. 

When they arrived at this place, there was an extremely old woman who lived there. She saw Tsongkhapa and his disciples going off into this isolated region. She returned home to her family and told them that long ago in the past she had seen monks going like this, with the monks’ staffs in their hands, begging bowls on their backs, offering their practices like that. At that time, she said that everything was very happy and good and that now again it seems that the times are going to be very happy and good like they were in the past. 

There was the early flowering of the Dharma during the Nyingma early period. However, then, King Langdarma, under the influence of very evil ministers, did great damage to the Dharma, similar to the type of things that have been done these days in Tibet. Things were difficult in terms of the Dharma in that the teachings declined and a great many people who were ordained as monastics were forced to disrobe or be killed. 

Whether or not the teachings of the Buddha remain extant is dependent on people upholding the Vinaya rules of monastic discipline. The existence of the tantra teachings is determined by whether or not there are those engaged in the Guhyasamaja practice. Therefore, during this troubled time, the teachings declined because the monks were disrobed, and they no longer upheld the Vinaya. As a result of this decline of the teachings and Dharma, there were great disasters in that area – famines, droughts, floods and the like. 

This old woman who witnessed the arrival of Tsongkhapa and his disciples was extremely old and had lived through that difficult time. She recounted that prior to the difficulties, there were monks with this type of dress, and those times were very good and everyone was very happy. To see people coming again like that meant that, again, times would be happy. 

Tsongkhapa and these eight disciples went off into an empty cave, into the mountains in this manner, and they did an extremely intensive retreat of ngondro preliminary practices for building up positive potential. They offered an extremely large number of mandalas with their bare wrists, using just slabs of bare rock mandala plates. They also offered 35 sets of 100,000 prostrations, a total of 3.5 million prostrations. After they finished this intensive retreat, Tsongkhapa and his disciples returned to where he’d been before. 

As a result of all this positive potential, he was able to gain his actual full realization of the ultimate view of voidness, the Madhyamaka view. The night before his realization, Tsongkhapa had a dream in which Buddhapalita came to him. Buddhapalita took his text known as Buddhapalitavrtti and touched it to his head three times as an auspicious omen. The next day, a monk came to Tsongkhapa and offered him that text by Buddhapalita. As he went through this text, when he came to the 18th chapter, at that point, he actually gained his full realization of voidness. Having realized voidness, he was so ecstatic that he composed the famous text, called the Praise to Dependent Arising.

Among the various works of the Buddha, there are those that are collected into the Sutra Pitaka, the Basket of Sutras. Within these, there is the collection of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the sutras on far-reaching discriminating awareness. In connection with these, among the various commentaries, the most profound commentary is Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called Discriminating Awareness by Nagarjuna. There are eight famous commentaries to that written by Indian masters, and one of them is this text by Buddhapalita. 

As Tsongkhapa reached the 18th chapter of that text that helped him gain his full realization, not only Tsongkhapa, but all these eight pure disciples were able to gain a pure vision of Manjushri and converse with him. Looking at the example of Tsongkhapa, in order to gain the understanding of voidness, he put a tremendous amount of effort into listening to, reading and studying all the texts. He then thought about them, pondered them very extensively, and put in a vast amount of effort and energy to build up positive potential with prostrations and mandala offerings. He did all these things to build up a store of positive potential that would allow him to understand voidness. Likewise, he gathered all the prerequisite factors conducive for gaining vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. Then, on the basis of all his studies and vast learning and his continual study of the great scriptural texts, he was able to gain his understanding of voidness.

Just as this old woman predicted, the teachings flourished once more in Tibet. They spread and were propagated and, up until 1959, they continued in an extensive manner. Then, due to the very profound and deep laws of cause and effect, behavior and results, again the teachings have declined, and it has now reached an extremely pathetic situation in Tibet. However, the teachings are still being watched over by His Holiness, Avalokiteshvara, and now there are new places like where we are now with fully ordained monks involved in study. I think that perhaps things are going to get better once more.

We all have a great deal of interest in the teachings and in this profound subject matter and we are all engaged in studying these great texts. Likewise, you have very excellent spiritual masters here. Now you have Geshe Tengey and soon you’ll have Geshe Thekchok coming. On the basis of your studies with such great spiritual masters, you will be slowly able to understand. However, you should remember that this is an extremely difficult subject matter. You are not going to gain understanding and realization easily, but through long steady efforts, slowly you will be able to understand something. 

This chapter we are discussing on discriminating awareness, this wisdom chapter, is extremely difficult. The verses are extremely complicated, and it is even difficult for me to understand. I consider myself as very fortunate to have an opportunity to speak a little bit to you about it, but you should realize that it is an extremely difficult subject matter. In listening to this, you might not be able to understand all the things that are being said; nevertheless, you will gain a little bit of instinct and a little bit of an understanding of what is involved. 

The Need for Understanding the Two Truths in the Tenet Systems

To begin, there is the presentation of the two truths, which is extremely profound and extremely difficult. It discusses how the different tenets become progressively more and more profound. To gain an appreciation of the most sophisticated presentation of voidness, we have to understand the less sophisticated tenets, which are also extremely difficult to understand. Without some understanding of the presentation of the two truths in the various tenets, there is no way to appreciate or understand the rest of this chapter. 

What follow in the chapter are the refutations of these different tenet presentations. Therefore, I am putting a bit of time into this beginning portion, the presentation here of the two truths, so that we will have some appreciation and get a little bit of understanding of some of the difficulties that are involved. To that end, yesterday, we were speaking about the Chittamatra Mind-Only School and its presentation, which itself is extremely difficult to understand.

Texts of Definitive and Interpretive Meaning

In terms of the various texts and classics with which we will be able to gain our understanding of voidness, we need to rely on texts of definitive meaning. To rely on texts of interpretable meaning for gaining an understanding of the Chittamatra view, for example, won’t do. 

In a text of the Arya Asanga, he referenced quotations from the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, The Sutra Unraveling What Is Intended, and asserted that these were of definitive meaning. This wasn’t in terms of all the chapters of the Samdhinirmocana Sutra. The sutra has ten chapters and each of them has the name of a bodhisattva as its title. Asanga was referencing the seventh chapter, the chapter of the bodhisattva Paramartha-samudgata, in which the Chittamatra assertion of what is definitive and what is interpretable is presented in terms of the three rounds of transmission of the Dharma, the so-called turnings of the wheel of Dharma.

On the other hand, fatherly Nagarjuna and his spiritual son Aryadeva and the followers who came after referenced the Akshayamati-nirdesha Sutra, The Sutra Taught by the Arya Akshayamati, as their source for how the differentiation between definitive and interpretable is made. 

The Chittamatra School

Yesterday, we were speaking about the Chittamatra view, in terms of the assertion of Asanga and his spiritual sons, based on the presentation in this particular chapter from the Samdhinirmocana Sutra concerning the third round of transmission of the Dharma. There, the three types of characterized phenomena are presented: totally conceptional phenomena, dependent phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena. Totally conceptional phenomena lack an essential nature of existing with defining characteristic marks, dependent phenomena lack an essential nature as something that does not arise, and thoroughly established phenomena lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena.

Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma

Buddha Shakyamuni, the great fourth universal teacher of this fortunate eon, set forth three rounds of transmission of the Dharma. The first round of transmission, called the “Dharma Wheel of the Four Noble Truths,” was the presentation of the four facts seen as true by highly realized beings, the four noble truths. It was given at the Deer Park in Sarnath, near Varanasi, Benares. The Buddha delivered the second round of transmission of his teachings, called the “Dharma Wheel of the Lack of a Defining Characteristic Mark,” at Vulture’s Peak. The third round of transmission, called the “Dharma Wheel Containing Fine Divisions,” was given at Vaishali. 

This third round of transmission, the “Dharma Wheel Containing Fine Divisions,” is the source of this Chittamatra view. This third round came about because of questions asked about the first two rounds of transmission. They were not silly questions, such as “do trees have mind?” In the first round of transmission, the Buddha said that, except for certain exceptions, the five aggregates have existence established by their defining characteristic marks. In the second round of transmission, the Buddha said that nothing has existence established by their defining characteristic marks. As these two explanations seem contradictory, then the bodhisattva Paramartha-samudgata asked the Buddha how these two rounds should be understood? What was the intended meaning?

Buddha explained that when I said that things have an essential nature, I meant this and this; and when I said that things lack an essential nature, I meant that and that. It is this way that the third round of transmission was “the Dharma Wheel Containing Fine Divisions.” In that presentation, all phenomena were then divided into the classification scheme of the three types of characterized phenomena: totally conceptional phenomena, dependent phenomena, and thoroughly established phenomena.

Buddha said that the necessity for stating that all phenomena lack an essential nature is because totally conceptional phenomena lack an essential nature of existing with defining characteristic marks, dependent phenomena lack an essential nature as something that does not arise, and thoroughly established phenomena lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena. That lack of an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena of thoroughly established phenomena itself has two divisions, since dependent phenomena also lack an essential nature of existing as ultimate phenomena.

The Buddha also presented there not only the three types of lack of an essential nature, but also that each has a lack of an arising. This is in terms of the sutra quotations where the Buddha said that things have no arising, no abiding, no cessation, no self-establishing nature and so forth. The lack of an arising applies not only to dependent phenomena lacking an essential nature as something that does not arise, but also to totally conceptional phenomena and thoroughly established phenomena.

We’ll stop here for today.