Wheel of Sharp Weapons: History and Structure

Today I’d like to begin our discussion of an important text known as Wheel of Sharp Weapons (mTshon-cha ‘khor-lo). I first studied this with one of my teachers in India, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and translated it under his supervision, with Sharpa Rinpoche, Khamlung Rinpoche and Jonathan Landaw, long ago, in the 1970s. This first translation was a poetical rendition to try to make it lovely to recite. Much later, I made a literal translation while teaching the text methodically and slowly in Berlin over a period of a few years. The recordings of that are on the website and are still in the process of being transcribed.

Background and History of the Text

The text is in the lojong (blo-sbyong) tradition of mind training and was written by the Indian master Dharmarakshita at the end of the 10th century, beginning of the 11th century. He was one of the teachers of Atisha, who had, in all 157 teachers. Often people have confusion about how to deal with having multiple teachers. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said to imagine them like the 11-faced, 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara. They are like different faces on one figure, and they all fit together in a very harmonious and integrated way. That’s very helpful.

Atisha was a great Indian master who traveled to Sumatra in Indonesia, specifically to receive a special lineage of the mind training teachings. He returned to India, and was then invited to Tibet. He was the person who began the second transmission of Dharma from India into Tibet after its decline at the end of the first transmission from which the Nyingma teachings derive.

No original Sanskrit version of the text is available. In the colophon at the end of the Tibetan version, none of the translators are listed. This is odd. The usual custom with Tibetan translations of Indian texts is to give the Sanskrit title at the beginning, and the name of the translators at the end. In this case, the Tibetan text just says that it was passed from Atisha to Dromtonpa, his Tibetan disciple, and then it continues to list the lineage after that. My suspicion is that it was just received orally from Dharmarakshita to Atisha, and it was actually written down in Tibet later, perhaps by Dromtonpa or somebody after that. This is also confirmed by the fact that the language and style of the text is purely Tibetan, and not at all the style found in texts translated from Sanskrit. 

In any case, according to Dromtonpa, Atisha had three teachers of bodhichitta, two in India, Dharmarakshita and Maitriyogi, and one in Sumatra, Serlingpa, his teacher from the Golden Island, the name of Sumatra at that time. According to tradition, Dharmarakshita had such great compassion that he cut off a piece of flesh from his leg to give to a sick man as a type of medicine. Maitriyogi was so advanced in his practice of tonglen – giving your own happiness to others and taking on their suffering – that he developed a bruise on his own leg when a dog was being beaten. He was able to take that injury on himself. But, Atisha said that the main source of the mind training teachings was Serlingpa. 

At that time, and for many centuries before that, there was a great deal of sea trade between India and Indonesia, specifically Sumatra. A great Buddhist kingdom flourished there at that time. Recently they have found the ruins of the monastic institution in Sumatra where presumably Serlingpa taught and Atisha attended. It was an enormous centre of learning, larger even than Nalanda University. There’s been very little research done on Indonesian Buddhism actually, but they translated a great many texts into Old Javanese, they had this great centre of learning, and Serlingpa was a great master from this monastic university. The present site is called Muara Jambi and the people there are trying to get it recognized as a World Heritage site to help with more archaeological excavations of this discovery.

Although Atisha said that the main source of the mind training teachings was in Sumatra, from Serlingpa, my theory is that prior to his journey there, he had received some similar teachings, like this particular text of Wheel of Sharp Weapons and a second text by Dharmarakshita entitled A Peacock’s Destruction of Poison (rMa-bya dug-’joms). These texts teach a great deal in common with the mind training teachings, and therefore my theory is that Atisha wanted to learn more about that, having been introduced to these teachings in India. To accomplish that, he needed to go to Sumatra and thereby bring them back in full to India, and then later transmit them to Tibet.

The question really concerns whether this text is part of the mind training tradition or a forerunner. How do we actually consider it? If we look at the 14th-century collection of mind training texts, Hundreds of Mind Trainings, it includes two of Dharmarakshita’s texts. In some editions it even adds onto the title, A Mahayana Mind Training, Wheel of Sharp Weapons, which is not part of the title that Dharmarakshita himself gave to the text.

The text has many aspects in common with the mind training teachings, particularly the practice of tonglen, giving and taking, and accepting the defeat on yourself and giving the victory to others. The source of both those two teachings is Nagarjuna’s text A Precious Garland:

(484) May all their negative potentials ripen on me and may all my constructive potentials ripen on them.

Shantideva, in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, also teaches the giving and taking practice in the dedication prayer at the end of his text, where he writes:

(X.56) Whatever suffering wandering beings have, may all of them ripen on me, and through the bodhisattva assembly may wandering beings enjoy happiness.

This tradition of giving and taking, with its long history in India, was elaborated on by Dharmarakshita with the emphasis in his text on the disadvantages of self-cherishing. Such a self-centered attitude prevents us from being able to actually take on the sufferings of others with compassion and give them happiness with love.

Love and compassion are the basis for the development of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is our mind being aimed at our own individual enlightenments, which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha nature factors. It is accompanied by the intention to achieve that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that attainment. Specifically, bodhichitta is aimed at the Dharmakaya aspect of our not-yet-happening enlightenments.

There are two stages, conventional and deepest bodhichitta. Conventional bodhichitta is aimed at the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya aspect, in other words, the enlightened mind of omniscience, with its conventional nature of being able to give rise to the Form Bodies of a Buddha, the appearances of a Buddha. Deepest bodhichitta is aimed at the Svabhavakaya, the Essential Nature Dharmakaya, namely the voidness or emptiness of the enlightened mind and the true stoppings on it.

The Structure of the Text

First, I’d like to give an overview of the text, before we delve into it so that we have an idea of the structure as a whole, and how each of four sections that I think it can be divided into fit with each other.

The text has 118 verses, and it starts with prostration to the Three Gems: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and gives its title, Wheel of Sharp Weapons – Striking the Vital Point of the Foe. Then it makes prostration to Yamantaka, who is also known as Vajrabhairava, the forceful form of Manjushri. This is quite unusual to make the prostration to Yamantaka, and we need to understand why Yamantaka has such a prominent place in the two works by Dharmarakshita.

Yamantaka

Yamantaka is the forceful form of Manjushri. Manjushri represents the discriminating awareness or wisdom of voidness (emptiness), which destroys the foe – the enemy – which is our ignorance, our grasping for an impossible false self that doesn’t exist at all, and our self-cherishing that derives from that. The only way to overcome those is through our realization that what we project about the self doesn’t correspond to reality. We need this discriminating awareness of voidness to discriminate between what is reality and what is pure projection of fantasy.

The Distinction between the Conventional and False Self

It’s very important to understand, when we have a text that deals with self-grasping and with overcoming and destroying that, what actually is involved. When we speak about the self, or a person in Buddhism, we need to differentiate between the conventional self and the false self.

The conventional self actually exists. Of course, we can get into a deep philosophical discussion about what it means to exist; but, to use a simple explanation, it means that it functions. It performs a function. We do things. We act in positive or negative ways, and we experience the results of our behavior. In that sense, we participate in cause and effect, and we can’t say that the self doesn’t exist at all. That would be the nihilist extreme. 

We don’t go to either the eternalist or nihilist extremes. The nihilist says that there’s no self at all; if that were the case, it wouldn’t matter what we do, because there would be no consequences to anything we do and we wouldn’t experience any results of our behavior. That certainly isn’t the Buddhist teaching. The eternalist position is that we have a solid self, and that solid self is never changing, it isn’t affected by anything, and it can exist independently of a body and a mind. In liberation it goes to a transcendental state of moksha, liberation, and just exists by itself. That also would negate the idea of cause and effect. If it were static and not affected by anything, again it wouldn’t matter what we do, we would not experience any effects from it. That also is refuted by the Buddhist teachings.

There is a conventional self. We all agree, and we experience it in the same way, as an imputation on the five aggregates, or to put it simply, on the body and mind. What we perceive, the emotions, and all the mechanisms with which the mind works such as attention, concentration, interest, these sorts of things, all of that is going on at the same time. These many different parts such as what we’re paying attention to, the emotions that are there, the sensations in the body, all these things are changing at a different rate. The self doesn’t exist as something separately from that. It’s not identical to any of them; but it is what is known as an “imputation” on the basis of them.

Imputation

I think the easiest way to understand an imputation – a very difficult idea actually – is with the relation between the whole and the parts. The relation between the self and the aggregates is not exactly the same; but, it’s close enough to get the idea. There are many parts, but there’s also a whole. We can’t say that the whole doesn’t exist; but the whole can’t exist separately from the parts. You can’t find the whole in any of the individual parts either; yet, there is such a thing as a whole. What’s the relation between the whole and the parts? It is that the whole is what is known as an imputation on the parts.

From one point of view, we would say that objectively it is the case that there is such a thing as a “whole” because it’s agreed upon by convention. In that manner, we have the convention that there’s a self and we feel it.

The False Self

Of course, the problem is, because of our limited hardware, our limited minds, that the self appears to be self-established and independent. It seems that it doesn’t have any parts, it never changes, and it is something that we experience in terms of this voice that goes on in our heads. It’s as if there is a me sitting inside, the controller that’s talking and complaining and commenting on everything. There’s this very compelling feeling that there’s a me inside that somehow is living inside our head, or living inside our body, with ongoing commentary like, “What should I do now? Everybody’s looking at me. What do people think of me?” It’s always insecure and trying to find some ways to make itself secure.

From this insecurity, we have these mechanisms of the disturbing emotions, like longing desire and lust. We feel, “If I can just get something to me and hold on to it, that’s going to make me secure.” With anger it is, “If I can get it away from me, that’ll make me secure”; or with naivety, “If I just pretend that it doesn’t exist and put up the walls, that will also make me feel secure.

But, of course, none of these strategies ever works, and out of anger, or greed, or naivety, they lead to our compulsive behavior. This is what karma’s all about, and that leads to problems. Obviously, our compulsive behavior brings problems for others, but particularly problems for ourselves because it builds up strong habits for the behavior to repeat. So, we get into a loop and we become almost addicted to our self-destructive behavior. 

All of that is based on this projection of how the self appears to exist. It appears to be this solid entity inside me, and that is identified in our text as the “foe.” Our real enemy is this false, imaginary projection that we project onto the conventional self. But we need to be careful here. The conventional self is not sitting inside our body or mind either, but we project this false self and grasp for it to correspond to reality.

Self-Grasping

When we use the term “self-grasping,” it has two levels of meaning. “Grasp” (‘dzin) is the same word as to take something as its object. On the first level of meaning, the mind takes something as its object; the mind projects this appearance and it seems as though there’s somebody talking inside our head – me. That is the perception of it. The second aspect of what’s called grasping is that we think that this corresponds to reality and how things actually exist.

We have to get rid of that belief. This is garbage; it’s like an illusion. Like an illusion, it seems as though it corresponds to reality, but it doesn’t. First, we have to cut off that deluded belief and then, we have to get our minds to stop projecting this deceptive appearance. The more we are totally convinced that this is nonsense, and the more that we focus on the absence of anything corresponding to our projection, which is what voidness is referring to, the less our self-grasping will be. 

I prefer the term “voidness” rather than “emptiness” for shunyata. Shunyata does not imply that there is a findable conventional self, sitting there, but it’s empty of the false self. It’s not like there is a glass on the table and there’s no water in the glass. That’s not the meaning of shunyata. Shunyata means there is no such thing as this impossible self, this false self. Nevertheless, it does not contradict the fact that we do things, and we experience the results of our behavior. Karma still operates; cause and effect still operate.

What we want to do is break the continuity of believing that this appearance of a false self corresponds to reality. The more we focus on no such thing, we break the force of our mind making that projection. During total absorption on voidness, focused non-conceptually on no such thing, the mind isn’t making the appearance of a false self. Because of that, the inertia and the force of our mind making it appear over and over again gets broken. Our projection and false belief become weaker and weaker the more we focus non-conceptually on voidness.

In that way, eventually the mind will stop producing this garbage, this projection. That’s how we overcome it. This is very important to understand, because that’s the main topic that is being discussed here in this text. This is the foe, the enemy. It is grasping at an impossible self. In other words, the mind making it appear and then believing that it corresponds to reality.

Self-Cherishing

What comes from self-grasping is “self-cherishing.” Self-cherishing means that we think, “I am the most important person, and you don’t count. I don’t care about you.” It is this type of attitude. In the West, we speak more in terms of self-centeredness or self-preoccupation; it’s just me, me, me. This me, me, me is the false self. That little me inside our head saying, “I’ve got to get my way; I’m the most important one, and everybody should pay attention to me. I should be first in line and I should get the best seat.” We obviously all experience this type of thing and it’s very compelling because it seems as though it really is how things are. That’s self-cherishing, this belief that “I’m the most important one and I have to take care of me first.”

Yamantaka, the Forceful Form of Manjushri

This is what Manjushri characterizes: the discriminating awareness that discriminates between what actually exists, reality, and what is complete fantasy. We need to cut off this false view in a very forceful way. This is what Yamantaka represents: a very forceful form of Manjushri. 

Sometimes we hear these forceful forms referred to as “wrathful.” At least in English, I don’t think wrathful has the right connotation that we are looking for. “Wrathful” means the mind is quite angry; one would be quite disturbed when the mind is wrathful. Although we have many images like that, and Dharmarakshita actually uses them; nevertheless, I think the point is that it’s very forceful. We want to use very strong energy against our disturbing emotions and against our self-grasping. The idea is to tell ourselves to stop acting like a baby, or stop acting like an idiot. Cut it out! It is this type of strong action that we need. Just stop it! – this type of thing. That’s Yamantaka.

The Weapon Wheel

In the second chapter of the condensed chapters of the Vajrabhairava root tantra teachings, the source of the Yamantaka, or Vajrabhairava teachings, there’s a description of rituals using various devices for extremely forceful actions against harmful beings. The text actually gives the instructions on how to make these things for rituals. Among these rituals, there’s the construction of a weapon wheel. A weapon wheel is actually a throwing star, as called in the Japanese ninja tradition. It looks like a star with a hole in the centre, and it has blades sticking out. It’s thrown as some horrible weapon. If you look at the iconography of various figures, like Yamantaka, that hold this weapon wheel, it is depicted that way. Yamantaka has thirty-four arms, and he holds this in one of them, and uses it to wage war against the enemy, our foe, the grasping for a false self whose existence is impossible.

When I made the poetic translation of the text and called it “Wheel of Sharp Weapons,” that title has somehow stuck as the name that other people also use for this text. This war against the false self is an image found throughout Buddhist literature. Buddha, after all, came from the warrior caste, and so it’s quite natural that this type of martial imagery is found throughout the Buddhist literature. For instance, the Tibetan translation of an arhat, a liberated being, is literally, as Jeffrey Hopkins’ translates it, foe destroyer: one who destroys the enemy. One of the ways of doing that is with the use of this throwing star, this wheel of sharp weapons.

Vishnu’s War Discus

The prominence of a weapon wheel can perhaps be traced back much earlier than this in the iconography of the Hindu god Vishnu. Vishnu, who goes all the way back to the Vedas, which is even before the time of Buddha, holds a war discus although it doesn’t have the knives sticking out of it. That’s called the “wheel of correct teachings.” This wheel appears frequently in all of the Indian teachings. It represents samsara, the wheel of recurring existence. This is the wheel of correct teachings, in the early Indian non-Buddhist philosophy. Vishnu holds this in one of his four hands, and it represents restoring the wheel of Dharma, the wheel of the teachings, even with war if it’s necessary. Vishnu throws this out to defeat the enemy and restore the pure Dharma. This image is carried on in the Buddhist teachings as well.

Mind Training

How do we do this in the Buddhist context? In the mind training tradition we do this through transforming adverse circumstances into circumstances that help us progress on the path to enlightenment. I think this is the essence of what the mind training teachings are all about.

The term “mind training” is a commonly used term, but we have to be a little bit careful about what we’re talking about. We’re not just talking about training in concentration; that’s not at all the point here. When we’re talking about the mind, we’re talking about our attitudes. The Tibetan term for “mind” in “mind training,” lo (blo), is often used for the attitudes that we have and how we view things. Our attitude is so important, whether we have a negative or a positive attitude to situations. We can change our experience of a difficult situation by changing our attitude about it. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was speaking about depression in answer to questions about how to deal with depression. Things are so terrible in the world, and particularly about the situation of Tibet, how do you avoid getting discouraged about what’s going on? His Holiness answered that if you can find just a little bit of something that is a little bit better than it was before, it gives you hope; and hope is the clue to being able to overcome depression and discouragement. 

If we change our attitude like this, we realize that something positive is possible, even if it’s very small. This change of attitude in how we view circumstances is what enables us to change adverse or difficult circumstances into positive ones. The word that’s used here for “training,” jong (sbyong) also has the connotation of “cleansing”; we want to clean out the negative attitudes from our minds and develop instead – as the Tibetan word is also used in the word for education – to cultivate something. We want to cultivate positive attitudes, and we do this primarily through this tonglen, giving and taking.

Reflection: Correct Understanding as a Prelude to Meditation

Take a moment now to reflect. This is what we’re going to be talking about: how to overcome this self-grasping. There is a difference between the conventional self and the false self. That conventional self, like the whole, it is not the same as the parts. It’s not different from the parts and it doesn’t exist separately from the parts; nevertheless, there is a whole, and nevertheless there is a self. It functions, even though we can’t actually pinpoint it anywhere. The projection that there actually is something like some little me sitting in our head talking and trying to be in control – that is impossible.

When we say to reflect or to think about it, that means what we need to do is to try to understand what this is talking about. First, we repeat in our minds, “I do exist: that there is the conventional me, but I don’t exist in the way that it appears to me. The way it appears is a projection of nonsense, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist.” This is what we think about. 

If we’ve listened and we’ve heard a clear explanation, then we try to understand what we have repeated in our minds. Once we understand the meaning of the words, then we have to see if they make sense and if the teaching is correct. We have to look in terms of our experience; we have to look in terms of what follows from it when we do think that way and when we do accept it. That way our understanding is based on all of these points.

Only when we are convinced that it is correct, then we actually do what is called meditation, to build it up as a beneficial habit. Understanding the teachings and being convinced that they are correct are the essential factors. Otherwise, to meditate on something that we don’t really understand, and we’re not really convinced that it’s correct, doesn’t take us very far.

This is the whole purpose of debate in the Tibetan tradition. We wouldn’t challenge our own understanding as unrelentingly and forcefully as others will in the debate. What our opponents are always trying to do in a debate is to challenge our understanding and make us contradict ourselves. Through a process of discussion with others ­– it doesn’t have to be formal debate – we check our understanding to see if we really understand correctly.

To concentrate on an incorrect understanding can be disastrous. We want to have a correct understanding and be convinced of it so that we don’t have any doubts. When we have doubts, it’s called “indecisive wavering,” and that is the big obstacle in meditation on these deeper points. Of course, we also don’t want to start mentally wandering about lunch, but that’s something else. However, on a subtler level, it’s this indecision about what something actually means that prevents us from really being focused in a meaningful way on any of the Dharma points.

In the process of listening, thinking and meditating, what’s called “thinking” means contemplating and analyzing. That’s what we try to do. Most of us aren’t really at that stage where we can meditate according to the definition of what meditation actually is. We need to really try to chew on the teachings first and figure out what they really mean.

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