The Importance of Correct Discriminating Awareness of Emptiness

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Brief Introduction to Nalanda Monastery

Today we are here at Nalanda Monastery in France. In ancient India there was also a Nalanda Monastery, or Shri Nalanda in Sanskrit, meaning the great all-around perfect Nalanda Monastery. Many great masters studied and taught there, starting from Nagarjuna and the great Chandrakirti. The teachings flourished there greatly. In accordance with that profound history, it is very auspicious for this monastery to be similarly named, and for the sangha consisting of the full monks, as well as novice monks and novice nuns to have gathered. Here, you have the opportunity to study and work to achieve spiritual progress, studying Dharma in general and, more specifically, the study of Mahayana, the vast-minded spiritual measures. Within Mahayana, you are studying the peak of the Mahayana teachings, the profound view of reality, voidness, according to the Madhyamaka Prasangika School. In addition, you are following the practices of tantra, and therefore following a completely integrated path of both sutra and tantra.  

Recently, you had the good fortune to be honored with a visit from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Avalokiteshvara himself, and now, you have invited me to be here today. I consider myself very fortunate and therefore I am very happy to be with you at this Nalanda Monastery.

In history, there were various debates that took place at Nalanda Monastery. For instance, there was a debate between Chandrakirti and Chandragomin over various issues of the Svatantrika tenets. Likewise, this monastery was the place where the great Naropa and the great Maitripa lived. There are various accounts of the teachings of the Buddha being upheld by masters stationed at the gates of the monastery, who debated with various opponents from non-Buddhist traditions as they arrived from the east, west, north, or south gates.

Not only were there very excellent Buddhist scholars and masters, but in general all the scholars of that time were gathered in that area. People came especially to Nalanda to do their training and study the scriptural texts and the various classics. When certain philosophical disputes occurred, people sometimes left the monastery, yet they stayed in the nearby towns. These towns, this entire area around Nalanda, can still be seen today as having been the location of this extremely famous monastery. 

There is no need to further describe all the various historical accounts of what occurred at this great monastery; nevertheless, in general, various great classics and their commentaries were composed there. In particular, however, one of the most notable masters, the great master Shantideva, outstanding in all regards, was also present at Nalanda. It is there that he wrote Bodhisattvacharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.  

The Root, Engaging and the Four

This great work of Shantideva, Bodhisattvacharyavatara, was composed in ten chapters. Although this included within it all the meanings of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, Shantideva did not compose it to make himself famous as the great master of all this literature. Shantideva had developed a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, and on the basis of his bodhichitta aim, he composed this text in order to be able to benefit all beings. With modesty, however, Shantideva himself explains at the beginning:

(I.2) I’ve nothing to say here that’s not come before, and I lack any skill in the crafting of verse; yet, though I lack even the thought to help others, I’ve composed this to familiarize my mind.

With such a humble presentation, he composed this text and included a great deal of material designed specifically for personal practice.

Within this text of ten chapters, I have been asked to teach the ninth chapter. The ninth chapter concerns wisdom, which refers to the discriminating awareness of emptiness, voidness. It is extremely auspicious to be able to teach this at Nalanda Monastery named after the original monastery where Shantideva lived and composed this text. 

In general, when we talk about the profound view of voidness, there are three major texts that we rely on as the sources. They are known, for short, as “the Root, Engaging and the Four.” “Root” refers to Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called Discriminating Awareness by the great master Nagarjuna. “Engaging” doesn’t necessarily apply to Madhyamakavatara, Engaging in the Middle Way by Chandrakirti. “Engaging” can also refer to our text, Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Lastly, “Four” refers to The Four Hundred Verse Treatise by Aryadeva. Shantideva’s text, then, is one of the major Indian sources about voidness.

Overview of Bodhisattvacharyavatara

Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, as mentioned, is divided into ten chapters. The first chapter discusses the benefits of developing a dedicated heart of bodhichitta. The second introduces the benefits of openly admitting to the wrongs that we have done, or confession. The third is on taking care about this dedicated heart. This is followed by chapters on safeguarding with alertness, patience, perseverance, concentration, discriminating awareness or wisdom, and the final chapter of dedication. 

The Commentary by Khunu Lama Rinpoche

Concerning the first of these chapters, the benefits of developing bodhichitta, dedicating our heart to others and to enlightenment, there is a commentary on that by the great Khunu Lama Rinpoche. This also is an inconceivably great text. Khunu Lama Rinpoche composed a four-line verse on bodhichitta every day for an entire year, never missing a day. This is the way that he composed this great text. Some people recite it as part of their daily practice and never miss a day, just as others may do a daily meditation on voidness without ever missing a day.  

There are many additional texts on the benefits of having a bodhichitta aim found among the sutras and their commentaries. These commentaries have been translated into Tibetan and all their points are incorporated into this commentary. 

In his commentary, Khunu Lama Rinpoche refers to a point in Shantideva’s text that advises us to look over and again at The Compendium of Sutras and The Compendium of Trainings. When masters asked Shantideva about them, he said that there were these additional texts that he had composed. He said he had written them in miniscule writing on very tiny pages and had hidden them away, to be found later. Similarly, this commentary by Khunu Lama Rinpoche on the benefits of bodhichitta was also found hidden like that. It was wrapped with many pieces of cloth and string, in the manner of an Indian bedroll, and was later found in a box, written on tiny pieces of paper in miniscule writing.

When we fled Tibet, we were very poor and couldn’t take many things with us, but this commentary arrived and Gen Gosar suggested that it would be good if it were printed and published, and so it was. In Dalhousie, there was a great, learned Geshe, Treu Gyupon Rinpoche from Drepung Monastery, and I presented him with a copy. He was such a highly realized and developed master, there was no need for him to see and read such a text; nevertheless, for auspicious reasons, I presented him with a copy. Later, I asked him if he had read it and he said, “Not only have I read it, but I have been looking at it for the last five or six days. I never realized what a great master Khunu Lama Rinpoche was until I read this, and, now, I realize what an inconceivable master he is. All the meanings found in Bodhisattvacharyavatara and likewise in Shantideva’s Compendiums of Trainings were incorporated in it. All the various trainings and practices one would follow as a bodhisattva were there; although, it seemed inconceivable how all of this had been incorporated.”

When we are studying the very extensive, large commentarial texts, it is not necessary to consult the smaller ones. However, if we don’t have the capacity to study in that extensive manner, then this text has everything already made and incorporated. It is ready to be practiced, with all the ingredients fully prepared and the meal ready to be eaten. This shows the benefit and advantages to be found in developing such a dedicated heart of bodhichitta. It is to make that point that I relate to you this historical account. 

The Heart of All the Teachings, the Teachings on Voidness

With all of that as an introduction, we are looking here at the ninth chapter. As the Buddha said, the heart of all teachings is voidness, emptiness. The Buddha himself set forth three rounds of transmission of the Dharma when he turned the wheel of Dharma three times. His main purpose was to lead all disciples to a state of liberation from their uncontrollably recurring problems, samsara. Tsongkhapa, in his Grand Presentation of the Graded Path to Enlightenment, the Lamrim chenmo, similarly states this intention. The purpose of all the turnings of the wheel is to allow all diverse disciples to cut the root of their uncontrollably recurring existence. Because the root of this is grasping for things to have truly established identities, therefore the heart, the essence of all the teachings is voidness. The teachings on it offer the means to cut this root and so enable us to gain liberation.

Even if we have a bodhichitta aim, nevertheless, if we don’t have this understanding of reality, this most profound view of voidness, we won’t be able to gain liberation. This shows the importance of understanding the correct view of voidness. The same point is indicated in the Lamrim chenmo by Tsongkhapa. After his presentation of the far-reaching attitudes or perfections, he adds a separate, extensive presentation of how to gain a stilled and settled mind of shamatha and an exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana. The reason for this separate discussion is indicated by the crucial necessity mentioned here – to help others to cut the root of their uncontrollably recurring samsara.

Not only does Tsongkhapa present this great discussion on the exceptionally perceptive mind of vipashyana in Lamrim chenmo, but in addition, he wrote a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way, which is called Ocean of Reasonings. It constitutes one volume of his collected works. He also composed The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings, another volume in his collected works, as well as Illuminating the Intent of the Middle Way, his commentary of Chandrakirti’s Engaging in the Middle Way, yet another volume. All these great texts of Tsongkhapa can be seen as expansions on the meanings that are discussed here in this chapter on discriminating awareness. With a more extensive study of all those major texts, your understanding of voidness can never be stolen away. 

The Necessity for Discriminating Awareness or Wisdom

The lam-rim graded-path teachings for training as someone of initial, intermediate and advanced scopes includes, firstly, before going into detail about shamatha and vipashyana, the teachings on the far-reaching attitudes – the perfections of generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, perseverance, mental constancy or concentration, and discriminating awareness. In a similar manner, here, in Bodhisattvacharyavatara, Shantideva starts with the chapter on the benefits of developing a bodhichitta aim and then the following chapters present these far-reaching attitudes. These are the branches, the causal practices, that build up and enable us to gain a correct understanding of voidness, as presented in the ninth chapter. Therefore, Shantideva states in the first verse of this ninth chapter: 

(IX.1) The Sage has spoken about all these branches for the sake of discriminating awareness. Therefore, generate discriminating awareness with the wish to pacify sufferings. 

The Buddha taught all these various casual practices for us to be able to develop discriminating awareness. Some people assert that this discriminating awareness of voidness is needed to gain enlightenment but is not necessary to simply achieve liberation. They assert, for instance, that it is not necessary to gain a total understanding of voidness on its most profound level to be simply liberated from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. However, this is not sufficient and will not do. To be liberated from samsara, it is necessary to gain a correct understanding of voidness. This point comes later in this text, but it is confirmed by a quotation from Nagarjuna, often cited as a source to establish that it is, in fact, necessary to gain a complete understanding of voidness in order to gain liberation. 

As long as one continues to grasp for truly established identities, one will continue to be reborn into uncontrollably recurring situations of samsara. Unless one eliminates completely the root for all this, one will not gain liberation.  

The Root of Samsara

When we search for the root of compulsive existence, samsara, it is found to be our grasping for truly established identities. There are many varied situations in which we might be reborn in samsara. It is even possible to be reborn as the king of the gods Indra, or at the peak of all the various gods on the plane of sensory objects of desire, the desire realm. Above that, we could be reborn on the plane of ethereal forms, the form realm, or even at the peak of this realm, the realm of those with the fourth of the states of mental constancy, the fourth dhyana. Nevertheless, no matter where our rebirth takes place, even in these realms, no matter what splendors we might enjoy, there is nothing but problems involved. That’s because we have not cut the root that is causing our compulsively recurring samsaric existence. 

This can be understood by an example. For instance, here in Paris, you have the Eiffel tower. You can go to the top of that, or the top of the CN tower in Toronto, but although you have arrived at the top of such a tower, there is nothing left to do except to go back down again. You cannot go higher. To go anywhere else in France, you have to come back down. Even if you are up there on the top, there is that ongoing problem. 

Like this, no matter which samsaric situation we are in, it is still not the ultimate stage. We still haven’t cut through this grasping at things as if they had truly established identities. We can only reach the ultimate stage by cutting through this root that is causing our never-ending samsaric situations to recur.

First, it is necessary to understand how this grasping for truly established identities functions as the root of all compulsive samsaric situations – all our problems and suffering. With this understanding, we will develop a state of mind where we will actually want to gain freedom from this. The cause for all these problems and suffering is our compulsive behavior, or karma, and our disturbing emotions and attitudes, all our delusions. These are the true causes of all our problems. It is essential, therefore, to rid ourselves of all our disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior.

The Four Noble Truths

Therefore, when the Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma, he identified what are the true problems, true suffering. Following this, he taught the true sources of all suffering. These are the first and second noble truths. Together, they form a set of cause and effect, with the true cause being the source all our true problems and suffering as its effect.

Suffering and problems don’t come about from “no cause.” They do have causes. If we can eliminate the causes that produce problems and suffering as their effect, we will achieve a true stopping or cessation of all these problems.

There is a way or a cause that will allow us to get rid of these disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior, karma and delusions. What is that cause? It is developing discriminating awareness, the wisdom to understand that there are no such things as truly established identities. With discriminating awareness, we can eliminate the disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior that act as a true cause of suffering. Without a cause, there can no longer be its effect. Without grasping for truly established identities, the disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior that it creates and the suffering that comes from that will come to an end. Therefore, as it says in the text:

Generate discriminating awareness with the wish to pacify sufferings.

When we achieve a state in which all the causes for our suffering have been depleted, where we have rid ourselves of the compulsive behavior and disturbing emotions that bring about our suffering and problems, we achieve a state in which there is no longer any suffering or problems. We achieve a true cessation of suffering. This true cessation is the third noble truth. To achieve this third noble truth of cessation, we need the fourth noble truth, the noble truth of the path, referring to the pathway mind of discriminating awareness.

In the line in the text, the wish to pacify all suffering, “pacification” refers to the state of a true cessation. This entails ridding ourselves of the true causes of suffering by developing discriminating awareness, the understanding of how all things exist. The root of all uncontrollably recurring existence, samsara, is grasping for things as if they had truly established identities. Therefore, we need to develop the wish to abandon or rid ourselves of such grasping. We need to abandon our total involvement with grasping for a truly established “I” and the self-preoccupation that comes with that. This is what is meant by the last two noble truths, a true path to achieve a true cessation. 

What will cut this grasping is the discriminating awareness with which we understand that there is no such thing as a truly established identity to anything. Therefore, what is necessary to develop is the wish to achieve such a type of discriminating awareness. This is the actual point and the essence that needs to be understood. 

It is well known how the Buddha himself set flow the rounds of transmission of the preventive measures or turned the wheel of Dharma three times. The first was when the Buddha was initially requested by his first group of disciples. With this, the Buddha presented the four facts seen as true by highly realized beings, known as the “four noble truths.” The main point was that we need to develop true paths of the mind, the fourth noble truth. Within the Three Jewels, that is the Jewel of the Dharma. 

To actually take refuge in the Jewel of Dharma, in discriminating awareness as a true path of the mind, it will be of no benefit to merely know about the nature of how everything exists. We need to meditate on it. But it is not enough to just meditate; it is necessary to actually develop this discriminating awareness as a pathway of our own mind.

In order to get rid of the root, with the wish to pacify all suffering, it is necessary to generate and develop this discriminating awareness on our own minds. It doesn’t say in the text that we need to merely know what this discriminating awareness is. It says that it is necessary to develop it. How is it possible to generate this discriminating awareness in our own minds? As it says in the text: 

The Sage has spoken about all these branches for the sake of discriminating awareness.

How to Develop Discriminating Awareness

The question is then raised, to gain this discriminating awareness, does it arise from merely listening to the teachings on it, then thinking about or pondering them, and then meditating on them to build them up as beneficial states of the mind? Is that enough, or are the causal practices that have been discussed also necessary for developing discriminating awareness? The causal practices refer to all the practices for developing the six perfections or far-reaching attitudes. Is it necessary for developing discriminating awareness to meditate on all of these as well?

Briefly, in general, when we look at the discriminating awareness generated by the listeners to the teachings, the shravakas, and by the self-realizer pratyekabuddhas, it is not necessary for them to do all these various causal practices in order to develop discriminating awareness. However, for those of us who are vast-minded practitioners, Mahayana practitioners, our aim is vast. We aspire to be able to eliminate all our mental obscurations and to do this not only to get rid of our own problems, but to enable us to eliminate the problems and sufferings of everyone else as well. Therefore, for us Mahayana practitioners, we need to do all these various causal practices to gain such discriminating awareness. 

As Mahayana practitioners, we need to eliminate all our mental obscurations, both the emotional ones, which prevent our liberation, and the cognitive ones concerning all knowable phenomena, which prevent our omniscience. To eliminate both types of mental obscurations requires a powerful type of discriminating awareness. That explains why all the causal practices – developing bodhichitta and the far-reaching attitudes – are given for gaining such discriminating awareness; they provide that power behind it.

When the text states that to be able to pacify all problems, it is necessary to generate this type of discriminating awareness, what we should understand is that this means developing a Mahayana motivation, with the wish to be able to tame all others’ minds in order to help them. To help tame their minds, there is the Mahayana practice of the four ways of being a positive influence on others. However, to tame the minds of others, we need to have tamed our own minds first. 

In one of the very first verses of this text, as mentioned, Shantideva is being extremely humble by saying he is composing the text not to help others but only in order to train and tame his own mind. The point to be understood from this is, when we study, it shouldn’t be with a pompous attitude that we are doing this in order to become very learned and famous as a great teacher. Rather, the main aim should be to tame our own minds, with the more long-term attitude, on the side, of then being able to benefit others. The point is to be humble in going about our spiritual practice. When we hear Shantideva’s words, this is the way we should understand them. We need to listen to, think about, and study the text in order to tame our own minds first. And when we practice as well, this is the manner in which we need to go about it.

This is the same attitude to have regarding any of the great scriptural classics. When we study them, it shouldn’t be with the pompous attitude that I want to learn this so I can become a famous teacher and teach it to others. If that’s our attitude, there won’t be much benefit. Even though we might become very learned, nevertheless, if we try to benefit others, our arrogant pride will, in fact, hinder our ability to help them very much. Whereas, if we have trained ourselves in all these causal practices as has been indicated here, then as we approach the study of this subject matter and become very skilled and learned, we will be able to help others tame and train their minds in accordance with their particular circumstance when the necessity and situation arise.

It is very important, then, to always take a humble and modest position, as is shown by the example here of Shantideva. Shantideva, throughout his life, always kept a very low profile. When he taught, he demonstrated various powers of miraculous transformation and emanation when there was a need to do so; however, his practice and way of going about life was always one of extreme humility.

Even in terms of the practice of liberated beings, arhats, we can see that they are limited. For example, Maudgalyayana, who had the powers of miraculous transformation and emanation, had liberated himself from disturbing emotions and thus had gained the state of an arhat. Nevertheless, when the situation arose in which he wanted to help his mother, who had been reborn in a very distant hell realm, he was unable even to see her and had to ask the Buddha for help.

Therefore, when the text states that to gain peace and pacify all problems, it is necessary to generate and develop discriminating awareness, not only should we wish to pacify our own sufferings and problems, but likewise the sufferings and problems of all others. To do that, to get rid of our own and others’ suffering and problems, it is necessary to train in all these causal practices mentioned before. No matter what type of approach we take to understanding this line, it all comes down to the same point. To be able to eliminate all types of mental obscurations, to benefit not only ourselves, but also others, it is necessary to approach gaining an understanding of discriminating awareness, this understanding of reality, in the context of practicing all these various causal processes and procedures as the method.

The great Chandrakirti has said that just as a bird cannot fly without two wings, likewise we won’t be able to proceed to the highest ultimate state without the two wings of both method and wisdom. If our scope is then to be able to benefit all beings and to eliminate all our mental obscurations in order to do that, then it is necessary to practice a path that is integrated and has both the method and wisdom sides. As is indicated here by the verse, to gain pacification of all our problems, it is necessary to generate discriminating awareness. It is for that sake that all these preceding things have been discussed by the Buddha as a causal process for gaining such a high level of discriminating awareness.