The Vimalakirti Sutra
Back in May 9, 2017, Khenpo Sodargye announced that if circumstances permitted, he would like to give a teaching on the Vimalakirti Sutra in the following year. Then on March 27, 2018, Khenpo Sodargye formally started this teaching and has been explaining this sutra twice a week.
Khenpo believes that in this modern age, people do need to study this sutra for three reasons. 1) For lay practitioners, the Vimalakirti Sutra provides powerful instructions for transforming suffering and afflictions on the spiritual path. 2) The Vimalakirti Sutra is a rare sutra which combines the profound teachings of both Sutrayana and Tantrayana. 3) The Vimalakirti Sutra is a great pith-instruction text which demonstrates super power as a direct antidote to negative emotions.
On this webpage, we kindly offer you the key messages of Khenpo’s teachings in both written and video format. These lecture notes are summarized by Khenpo’s translation team and will be updated on a regular basis.
A Few Words Before the Teachings
Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche encourages students to take notes during the teaching. In fact, memorizing the teachings by heart would be best, especially if you can memorize the content as well as the meaning, but taking notes is encouraged. Some say that writing directly on a sutra is not respectful, but many Tibetan Buddhism masters took notes directly onto their texts. In fact, annotating in a respectful manner, on the margins of the sutra, is fairly useful. It can help with comparing content and meaning in a clear and more helpful way.
Time and Schedule
Khenpo urges us to be punctual and to attach great importance to attending his live teachings. When it comes to catching a train, an aeroplane, or attending a meeting, most people would be very prompt. So why is it that some people only turn up halfway through a Dharma class? Therefore, in your mind you should attach great importance to the Dharma classes, and add them to your schedule. This way you can gain the greatest benefits.
Suggestions to the Western Students
Khenpo is aware that people from other parts of the world want to study this sutra. Therefore English and Japanese simultaneous interpretations are offered to help them. Although the number is rather small compared to the Chinese audience, it is still meaningful to provide such an opportunity for them to follow the teaching. As Khenpo said, “On the one hand, it is an auspicious start; on the other hand, even if there are just a few people who are able to follow the teachings, it is my great pleasure to help them understand and further realize this profound wisdom which originated from the ancient East.”
Khenpo particularly reminds the western audience that the Vimalakirti Sutra carries the profound Buddhist philosophy from the ancient East. Thus some of the messages in the teachings could sound abruptly shocking to westerners, especially in the 21st century. For example, the teachings in Buddhism are quite different to the commonly held beliefs of individualism that pervade in the West. Therefore, Khenpo suggests that the audience keep an open heart and an open mind while studying this sutra, so as to take the ancient teaching into their hearts and to reflect deeply on it. This is how Buddhist philosophy can benefit students, no matter what their ethnic, cultural background or language. Otherwise, if one only holds a critical mind from the perspective of western thought and fails to accept the teaching in an inclusive manner, no matter whether one is a scholar or a practitioner, then the study of the sutra may not necessarily bring one great benefits.
Actually, this suggestion is not just for westerners. Different beings have different mindsets, preferences, propensities and capacities. So their interest and their focus on the Vimalakirti Sutra could also be different. But all in all, an open and inclusive mind is crucial during the learning process.
Which Version Are We Going to Use?
There are currently various translations of this sutra in English, French, Russian, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Manchurian. Although lost for centuries, in 1999, a version in the original Sanskrit was recovered amongst the Chinese government’s Potala collection in Tibet.
The Tibetan translation has two known versions, one of which is found in the Kangyur Canon, translated from original Sanskrit around the early 8th or 9th century, and the other being the Tun-Huang version found in the early 20th century.
Historically speaking, Han Chinese had extraordinary faith in the Vimalakirti Sutra, and because it was highly emphasized in Han Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra has been translated from the original version seven times throughout history, the first being produced in 188 CE by the Kuṣāṇa monk Lokakṣema. Today, only three versions are still in existance:
- Fóshuō Wéimójié Jīng (佛說維摩詰經) – translated by Zhi Qian in 223-228 CE
- Wéimójié Suǒshuō Jīng (維摩詰所說經) – translated by Kumārajīva in 406 CE
- Shuō Wúgòuchēng Jīng (說無垢稱經) – translated by Xuanzang in 650 CE
Earlier translations have been done by Lokakṣema (188 CE), Dharmarakṣa (308 CE), Upaśūnya (545 CE), and Jñānagupta (591 CE). Of the three remaining renditions, Kumarajiva’s has traditionally been the most popular.
In the English language, there have been more than four versions translated. Some were translated from the Chinese version by Kumarajiva, and others were translated from the Tibetan version in the Kangyur Canon. Most Japanese versions are based on Kumarajiva’s version.
This time Khenpo Sodargye will give the oral transmission of the Vimalakirti Sutra by reading its Tibetan version from the Kangyur Canon. And since he teaches in Chinese, Kumarajiva’s translation is chosen as the main text for Chinese students. For English speakers, John McRae’s translation from Kumarajiva’s version is recommended.
When comparing the Chinese and Tibetan versions, Khenpo found that Xuanzang’s translation is much closer to the Tibetan version. Nevertheless, Khenpo still decided to use Kumarajiva’s translation to give the teaching. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, Kumarajiva’s version is full of incredible blessings. Of course it does not mean that Xuanzang’s version does not have blessings, but Khenpo himself feels a strong connection to Kumarajiva’s version. Secondly, Kumarajiva’s translations such as the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, as well as the Vimalakirti Sutra, have all gained extreme popularity with Han Chinese throughout history. Both ordained and lay practitioners have great faith in his translations.
What Benefits Will the Teaching Bring to You?
More than 1,500 years after Kumarajiva translated the Vimalakirti Sutra into Chinese, the sutra had a great impact on various aspects of Han Chinese culture and art including sculpture, painting, drama, and so on. Knowing that it has greatly impacted people’s lives, we should spend time to get to know the profound meanings behind this sutra.
Unlike the Diamond Sutra or Condensed Prajnaparamita, which contains lots of profound philosophies that might appear abstract to people without much Buddhist theoretical background, or the Sutra of one Hundred Karmas and the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish, which mainly focus on interesting stories but lack theories and logic, the Vimalakirti Sutra is a combination of both vivid stories and profound theoretical teachings that can counteract mental afflictions in our mind. If one can understand this sutra in great detail, one will definitely gain much benefit for taming the mind.
Back on May 9, 2017, Khenpo Sodargye announced that if the circumstances were favorable, he would like to give teachings on the Vimalakirti Sutra in the following year, because he believes that in this day and age this sutra can greatly benefit modern people in the following four ways:
- To lay practitioners, the Vimalakirti Sutraprovides instructions for transforming pain and afflictions on the spiritual path. In this modern age, more than 90% of Buddhists or lovers of Buddhism are lay people. This sutra specifically talks about being a lay practitioner, how to tame one’s mind and cope with one’s mental afflictions, and furthermore, how to achieve enlightenment.
- The Vimalakirti Sutrais a rare sutra which combines the profound teachings in both Sutrayana and Tantrayana. It is indeed a sutra that contains pinnacle teachings according to Tantrayana, some of which are very similar to the pointing-out instructions in Dzogchen, such as “if your mind is pure, the land is pure” and “affliction is bodhi”. Moreover, unlike any Tantrayana teachings, the study of this sutra does not require the completion of five hundred thousand preliminary practices, nor a specific empowerment from a certain guru, which makes it accessible to an even larger audience.
- The Vimalakirti Sutrais a great pith-instruction book which demonstrates super power as a direct antidote to mental afflictions. This is especially needed in the modern society, where people have many mental afflictions deriving from desire, technology, chores, and so on. The wisdom and instructions in this sutra can be of great benefit to modern people’s life, work, and spiritual practice.
- During the teaching, Khenpo Sodargye offers you the precious and pure oral transmission of this sutra. In Buddhism, both in Sutrayana and Tantrayana, oral transmission is always emphasized. Without the oral transmission of a text, one is not allowed to teach it to others. But once you receive the oral transmission of this sutra, you are able to pass it on to those who are interested, hence making sure that this sutra can be taught widely in the future. Khenpo believes that given its powerful blessings and unique pith instructions, no matter which perspective, theoretical studies or personal practice one has, the teaching and the study of this sutra will greatly benefit numerous beings.
Before starting the teaching Khenpo made a prayer to all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and lineage masters as well as Dharma protectors and Devas who protects the Dharma, to grant blessings and to ensure that the teaching will be thoroughly transmitted and taught, and that everyone attending this course will successfully complete the teaching as well as receive the entire transmission.
Khenpo also prayed to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to grant blessings to every student, so that not only can everyone understand the theoretical teachings in this sutra, but also achieve certain level of realization of its profound meaning and be able to truly transform afflictions into wisdom.
Nowadays practitioners need bigger hearts and deeper wisdom, and this sutra exactly provides efficient instructions on how to accomplish that aim. Most of our afflictions arise due to a narrow and clinging mind; when the mind is in a clinging, anxious or depressing state, it becomes fragile. Some practitioners are too “tight”, causing their practice and even their interpersonal relations to deteriorate. The fundamental reason behind this is a lack of deepening of study and practice. Therefore, Khenpo sincerely hopes that this sutra can bring practical and genuine benefits to everyone.
Khenpo's Expectations for Those Who Follow the Teaching
Usually every Monday and Tuesday class begins at 7:30pm, and lasts for two hours, including the chanting before and after class. Khenpo Sodargye strongly encourages the audience to remain for the whole class for the two hours. As tens of thousands of practitioners will be chanting the prayers and making aspirations all together, those who understand the law of causality can imagine how immeasurable is the merit generated by such collective group practice.
In 1987 when His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was still alive, there was no internet at Larung Gar and only around 1,000 people were present during his teachings. Yet, His Holiness cherished group chanting a lot, saying that if all the audience chants the King of Aspiration Prayers together once, everyone is able to accumulate a thousand times the merit. Later, in 1996, when His Holiness composed the Song of Victory, there were around 5,000 to 6,000 monastic students. So His Holiness said, “Even if you don’t understand my teaching, just by chanting the King of Aspiration Prayers together with the whole sangha, you are able to accumulate immeasurable merit.”
Due to the influence of His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, as well as to his strong faith in Mahayana teaching, Khenpo Sodargye places great importance on chanting. Consequently, he encourages everyone to complete the chanting before and after class.
For those who don’t have time to participate in the chanting, receiving the full live teaching, which takes about one hour, is highly encouraged. The formal teaching starts at 8pm, and is the most “juicy” part of the meal so to speak. As Khenpo pointed out, westerners and urban audiences who may not be interested in chanting or who do not have enough time should at least try their best to attend his live teaching.
Again for those who are very busy with other commitments, you should at least receive the oral transmission offered during the live streaming. The transmission only takes about ten to fifteen minutes. After the chanting, at 8pm, Khenpo will begin by giving the oral transmission in Tibetan. If you want to get the transmission, you must attend the live streaming. Later on, you may find your own time to receive the oral teaching by following the video recording, which will be available on Khenpo’s Facebook page.
No matter if you watch the teaching live or via delayed recording, Khenpo wishes that those who decide to join the class and follow the study of this sutra, should persevere from the beginning to the end, to start well and end well. These are the expectations that Khenpo has toward all the students.
What You Need to Do Before and After the Teaching?
A Proper Attitude for Receiving the Teaching
Khenpo Sodargye and his team put a lot of effort into the preparation of this course on the Vimalakirti Sutra. Since the announcement was made last year, many people were interested and registered for this course. Given that tens of thousands of people from all over the world show interest in studying this sutra, Khenpo pointed out that the Dharma is not drama. In fact, while you may feel an immediate impact when watching a play, Dharma teaching doesn’t promise you the same immediate thrill. In order to enjoy the delicacy of the Dharma, persistence is the key.
If we read the biographies and stories of the Masters of the past, we may notice that they made listening and practicing the Dharma a priority in their lives. They are perfect examples for us to learn from. It is important to prioritize the Dharma in our life, because this is the only way that we can be benefit from it.
Therefore, Khenpo wishes everyone to keep a stable mindset and to make a strong determination to complete the study of this sutra, which may take a couple of years. One may make a quick decision to register for this course, maybe just out of curiosity. However, once getting started, it is necessary for everyone to seriously follow the teachings and consider it as a precious opportunity to improve oneself. If you feel that the teaching is some kind of entertainment that you may enjoy only during your leisure time, your study will hardly bring you any change.
Khenpo hopes that after a couple of lectures, the audience attendance will remain stable. After the opening part of this sutra, many essential instructions for transforming afflictions will be taught in great detail. So it is important to keep on listening to this course with a proper attitude and persistence. Only in this way can one receive great benefits from Dharma teachings.
Of course these suggestions do not mean that Khenpo himself has strong attachment to every listener, nor does he want to convert everybody into being his disciple. In this modern age which is occupied by all kinds of information, everybody needs an open space to make their own choice. It is impossible to limit anyone’s freedom and force them to do something. So Khenpo fully understand modern people’s mindset; however, for those who take the study and practice of the Dharma seriously, these suggestions are truly meaningful in helping them stay on the Dharma path and make spiritual progress.
What Prayers Are We Chanting?
In this lecture, Khenpo Sodargye kindly gave a brief introduction of the prayers being chanted before and after class, so that people can have a general idea of their incredible merit and develop a deeper faith in practicing them.
The first one is the Multiplying Mantra, as taught by Venerable Atisha. This mantra, when chanted only once, can multiply whatever prayers you make by 10,000,000 times.
The second one is the Verses of the Eight Noble Auspicious Ones. It invokes the power of goodness exemplified by buddhas and bodhisattvas. It can overcome any harm or obstacles. As it says in the colophon of the prayer:
If you recite this upon waking, all the tasks of the day will be accomplished. If you recite it when going to sleep, it will bring you good dreams. If you recite it when entering battle, it will bring total victory. If you recite it at the outset of a project, all aims and wishes will be fulfilled. If you recite it continually, you will enjoy a long life, glory, renown, prosperity, auspiciousness, abundant happiness and positivity, and the fulfilment of all wishes; all your misdeeds and obscurations will be purified, and you will achieve the higher realms and liberation. This was declared by the sublime victorious one himself.
The third one is the liturgy of making offerings including the Clouds of Offering Mantra. The mantra is not only recited for receiving blessings, but it also has the power of multiplying the offerings. By reciting this mantra each buddha receives skies of offerings.
The fourth one is the Seven Limb Prayer in the King of Aspiration Prayers and the Bodhisattva vows, which are required as a daily practice for every Mahayana practitioner.
The fifth is Wang Du, which is chanted three times. Khenpo feels its blessing to be incredible. Therefore, last year he called people to chant it ten thousand times and prepared a red bead for everyone who finished the recitation on time. The red bead is blessed by all the Sangha members and by Khenpo himself. Such a small red bead may look ordinary. However, it has gathered the merits of billions of recitations, thus the energy that it contains is incredible.
Then it is followed by the Seven-line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche and the Prayer Which is the Source of All True Realization. The latter one arose from the lake of the mind of Ju Mipham Rinpoche at the age of 52. Once Khenpo Sodargye said that although there are many prayers of Guru Rinpoche that can dispel obscurations, this prayer is extraordinarily powerful.
The seventh one is the Treasury of Blessings—A Practice of Buddha Shakyamuni. This liturgy was chosen after Khenpo finished the translation of The Extensive Biography of Buddha Shakyamuni, in 2002. Back then, Khenpo had increasingly developed strong faith in and devotion to the Buddha, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if every Buddhist could supplicate to the Buddha before class?” Therefore, he added this liturgy to the current chanting as well.
Then comes the prayers to the Dharma protectors and His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche’s Guru Yoga. Finally, the last prayer is the Praise to Manjushri – Glorious Wisdom’s Excellent Qualities.
The chanting of all these prayers before the teaching takes about 30 minutes. Then after the actual teaching, we will dedicate all the merit by chanting the latter part of the King of Aspiration Prayers, which takes about 10 minutes.
For rather slack practitioners, simply participating in the chanting could help them finish their daily chanting practice. On all accounts, as long as time permits, one should schedule 2 hours to fully complete both the teaching and the chanting.
For people who don’t make a point of chanting prayers, the chants may feel quite lengthy, but for those who have faith in the vajra speech, forty minutes of chanting is not at all lengthy, because the merit being gathered is truly incredible.
Use of a Prayer Wheel During the Chanting
Khenpo uses a large prayer wheel when chanting before and after class. However, not many people outside the shrine hall know about this, as this scene is not usually broadcasted. The particular prayer wheel used by Khenpo was wielded by a great master during the culture revolution and contains The Great Liberation Sutra and Mani mantra in it.
Some western practitioners also use prayer wheels at the request of their teachers, but some don’t understand the meaning behind using prayer wheels. In fact, the benefits of using prayer wheels is immeasurable, and is taught in many sutras, shastras and tantras, some of which are translated into English.
Briefly speaking, turning a prayer wheel creates extensive merit and purifies negative karma and obscurations. A prayer wheel provides great blessings so that one can remain physically and mentally healthy and never be apart from the Three Jewels. It has tremendous power to eliminate the self-cherishing mind that keeps us from cultivating compassion and from realizing perfect bodhichitta. When put one beside a person’s deathbed pillow, a prayer wheel can protect even people with deep karmic hindrances from being reborn in the three lower realms.
In principle, turning a prayer wheel that contains 100 million mani mantras would accumulate as much merit as having verbally recited 100 million mani mantra. In those few seconds, you can perform a powerful purification and accumulate a great deal of merit. Before his passing into parinirvana, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche specifically gave some instructions and advice to his students. Using prayer wheels was one of his pieces of advice. It is in his book Always Remember that His Holiness once said:
The money you spend to buy a prayer wheel will reap infinite virtue that is inexhaustible. That is why their purchase is not an insignificant endeavor. It is an affordable and perfectly practical way to accumulate great merit, so procure one and spin it diligently!
Avoid spinning a prayer wheel that is not held straight up. Avoid leaving it on a bed or stepping over it. Always keep it in a clean place. These prayer wheels are actually the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara himself, so please bear this in mind.
So as Buddhist practitioners, we should use prayer wheels as part of our daily practice.
Who Is Vimalakirti?
The Way of Naming a Sutra
Giving a scriptural text a name is of profound significance. As is mentioned in the Lankavatara Sutra:
the world is utterly wrapped in the cloud of confusion.
Therefore, thanks to the skilful means of the Buddha,
different names were given to each phenomenon.
There are specific ways to name a scriptural text, such as by the name of the people, by the place, by the time, by a metaphor, by content or by the amount of verses.
An example of naming by the place of the teaching is the Lankavatara Sutra, because the Buddha taught this sutra at a specific place called Lankavatara. An example of naming by the name of the people is the Sutra Requested by the Bodhisattva Maitreya. Examples of naming by a metaphor are the Lotus Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, which are named by a metaphor that conveys the meaning of the text. An example of naming by content is the Sutra of the Ten Bhumis. An example of naming by the amount of verses is Prajnaparamita Sutra in 100,000 Stanzas, or Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8,000 Stanzas. An example of naming by the time of a teaching is Meeting the Father and the Son Sutra. The Vimalakirti Sutra is named by the name of the main person in this sutra.
The full name of the Vimalakirti Sutra is Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra. Vimalakirti is the name of a lay practitioner who was quite an incredible figure in Buddha’s time, and was the main person to give the teachings in this sutra. Within his name, Vimala means stainless or undefiled, and kirti means named or famed as. The word Nirdesha means instruction, advice or teaching.
Who Is Vimalakirti?
Vimalakirti appears as a lay practitioner, and in the 12th chapter of this sutra, the Buddha Shakyamuni says that Vimalakirti came from the Immovable Buddha land called Wondrous Joy. According to other sutras, Vimalakirti is the manifestation of an ancient buddha named Jinsu Buddha.
The unfathomable manifestations of buddhas and bodhisattvas are beyond our limited way of thinking. Therefore we should try to go beyond our cocoon like mentality, and beyond our habitual tendencies of trying to fathom the unfathomable with our limited mind. Otherwise it is just like a blind man trying to describe an elephant. Similarly, if we use our dualistic conceptual mind to fathom the profound Dharma teachings, the true meaning cannot be revealed due to our conceptual and afflictive obscurations.
According to the Mahāvaipulya Mahāsamghāta Sūtra, in an easterly direction, past numerous buddha lands, there is a buddha land called Immeasurable and a Buddha called Five Qualities. A bodhisattva named Sun of Secret Bodhisattva also resides there, and they have seen many bodhisattvas heading to the west. Thus he curiously asks the Buddha: “Why are all the bodhisattvas heading to the west?”
The Buddha answers: “There is a world called Saha to the west where Shakyamuni Buddha is turning the wheel of dharma, thus many bodhisattvas went to the west to listen to the Dharma teachings. I shall give you a Dharani mantra so that you can go there and use it to make auspicious connections to the sentient beings in the Saha world.”
Sun of Secret Bodhisattva refuses the offer and replies: “I’ve heard that the Saha world is impure and chaotic, that it is a place of degeneration, and I’d rather not go.”
The Buddha then says: “I’ve heard of a lay practitioner named Vimalakirti who resides in the Saha world, whose body is no other than your own. If this is so, why you are afraid of going?”
Then Sun of Secret Bodhisattva admitted this was true in silence and went to the Saha world with the Dharani mantra given by the Buddha.
Something Beyond Ordinary Thinking
It is hard for ordinary beings like us to imagine the behaviors of buddhas and bodhisattvas who can transform from one to many and from many to one. Just as in Je Tsongkapa’s biography, where some describe that his manifested body resides in Mount Wutai. While others say he is turning the wheel of dharma in Tushita Heaven, among many other statements.
These type of descriptions are difficult for people with conceptual mind to understand, thus in some cases doubts and even criticisms arise. Actually everything is possible, so please do not hastily reject new ideas. Especially when our knowledge is limited and our mind is obscured. We don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of our vast universe, the macro world, and nor do we even know so much about the micro world.
We may get carried away by our own intelligence sometimes, but at other times, we may feel utterly ignorant. For example, we don’t even know what is happening in our own body, which we carry with us from birth all the way until we die. It is extremely difficult to describe all the structures within this body, and when we get sick, we have no idea what mechanism went wrong in the body. If our wisdom is so limited when it comes to our own body, so limited that we can’t use our wisdom to verify science, how can we use this limited wisdom to verify the limitless realizations of the buddhas and bodhisattvas?
Some scholars may feel no one can out-smart them, and that they know everything already. On the one hand it is good to have confidence, on the other hand, jumping to quick conclusions and denying what is unknown to the current conceptual mind simply does not work. Thus, with reference to theVimalakirti Sutra, when you hear something that is hard to imagine, don’t reject it right away. If you were to reject it, at least you should come up with valid reason, otherwise arriving at conclusions based on your doubts and ignorance could result in regrets.
The Merit of Listening to the Mahayana Sutra
Khenpo Sodargye intends to teach this sutra in a rather detailed style. When Master Chiyi of the Tiantai School taught The Sutra on the White Lotus of Sublime Dharma, he spent 3 months alone on explaining the word “sublime” in the title. Khenpo will not be as explicit, but he explained that, this is a rare opportunity to teach this sutra to so many people, he is pleased and grateful to all the volunteers who made this course possible and to the audience who attend this course, thus he is going to take his time to expand on the teachings, even if he ends up only teaching 4 verses in one class.
We should all be aware of the merit of listening to Mahayana teachings. The Jewel Heaped Sutra states: “If one offered seven treasures to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions, the merit would not be as great as listening to one four-line stanza of Mahayana teaching.”
Now that we have been listening to more than one stanza of Mahayana teachings, Khenpo feels happy about the merit that we have all accumulated. Especially as we have all made aspirations for bodhicitta, chanted prayers before class and dedicated the merit after class, all of which make this human existence valuable and meaningful. Even if our listening is not of one-pointed focus, the merit accumulated is still inexhaustible.
Who Is Kumarajiva?
Kumarajiva is a great sage and an extraordinary translator in the Later Qin Dynasty. He is considered one of the four greatest translators in Han Buddhism, with the other three being Paramartha, Xuanzang and Amoghavajra. Of course there are many other translators who have made indelible contributions in history as well.
Originally of Indian noble descent, Kumarajiva came from a family of distinction which had produced prime ministers for many generations. His grandfather was also supposed to have had a great reputation in the country. However, unlike his forefathers, Kumarajiva’s father, named Kumarayana, was unmoved by fame or position. He left home and became a monk, crossed the Pamirs and arrived in Kucha, where he married the king’s sagacious sister, Jivaka and produced Kumarajiva.
During her pregnancy, Jivaka’s wisdom and compassion increased to an unusual extent. Just like when Ananda’s mother was pregnant with Ananda, Jivaka suddenly understood many other languages and great compassion arose in her heart. In general, many auspicious signs were exhibited during her pregnancy.
After Kumarajiva was born, this young boy demonstrated many unusual signs such as the ability of memorizing upon seeing, and naturally having kindness and compassion. When Kumarajiva was 7 years old, Jivaka wanted to be ordained. At beginning Kumarayana did not agree at all, then it is said that with a firm renunciation in her mind, she went on a hunger strike for 7 days and 7 nights. When her life was hanging on a thread during her hunger strike, Kumarayana finally agreed to her request, thus she was ordained and left home with the young Kumarajiva.
Kumarajiva’s mother and him travelled around Kashmir and many other places in ancient India and studied the Dharma with many Theravada and Mahayana teachers. When they were in India, Jivaka attained enlightenment and decided to stay in India. At first Kumarajiva wanted to stay with his mother, but through her wisdom, Jivaka foresaw that though there would be grave difficulties and many hard-to-endure obstacles for Kumarajiva himself, the Dharma could flourish if he was to go to China. After telling him so, Kumarajiva assertively chose to go to China, and said that he would plunge into an ocean of fire if that’s what it takes to propagate the Dharma and benefit sentient beings.
At that time, Emperor Fujian of the Former Qin Dynasty knew of Kumarajiva’s preeminent scholarship, so he sent a delegation to invite him to court in Changan. Nevertheless, on the way back, Lüguang, the general sent to conquer Kucha and fetch Kumarajiva, heard that Emperor Fujian was killed and his kingship was taken by Yaochang. Taking advantage of the situation, he rebelled and declared himself the new king of Liangzhou in 386 A.D., and, subsequently, became known as the founder of the Later Liang Dynasty. Since then Lüguang had Kumarajiva captured and held in Liangzhou for nearly 18 years.
Eventually in 401 A.D., following the defeat of Lüguang’s armies, Kumarajiva was brought back to Changan at the edict of the Later Qin Emperor, Yaoxing, the son of Yaochang. At that time, Kumarajiva was already 58 years old. Upon arrival in the capital of the new state, he immediately engaged himself in translation projects. During the 11 years between then and his death, he translated more than 300 volumes of sutras and shastras. The current Caotang Temple in Xi’an was one of the places where he did his translation, and today there is a stupa there containing the relics of Kumarajiva.
Kumarajiva’s Translation Style
Kumarajiva’s translation style is renowned for its beauty of diction, and conciseness of content. Because he didn’t follow the literal translation style, many people questioned the correctness of his translation. Facing these controversies, Kumarajiva publically vowed that: “If what I’ve translated is correct and in accord with the genuine meaning of the Dharma, may my tongue remain unburnt after the cremation of my body.” Miraculously, after his cremation, his tongue was preserved, despite this being the softest part of the human body. Such was the power of his vajra speech.
So it is not surprising that many of Kumarajiva’s translations of seminal Mahayana texts have often remained the most popular to the present day, which include Diamond Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika and Dvadashanikaya Shastra, Aryadeva’s Shatashastra and so on. His translations have become the most fundamental and essential texts for all the eight major schools of Han Buddhism, such as Pureland School, Chan School, Tiantai School and Huayan School.
Some scholars also consider that Kumarajiva’s translations of The Lotus Sutra and Diamond Sutra laid a firm foundation for the Chan School in China, before Bodhidharma came from India and formally transmitted Chan Buddhism to China. During the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival, the Han Chinese were not strangers to the concepts of emptiness and prajnaparamita, which made them more accepting of Bodhidharma’s teaching. From this perspective, the flourishing of Chan Buddhism in China cannot be separated from the aspiration and efforts of Kumarajiva and his translations.
When Khenpo Sodargye was looking at the different versions, he felt that although Xuangzang’s translation align very well with the Tibetan translation, nevertheless he chose Kumarajiva’s translation because of its excellent readability and the special transmission of the blessings that it carries with.
Kumarajiva stands out in the crowd of translators due to his unusual aspirations and blessings. From a literary perspective, some translators may have similar translations, but from a spiritual perspective, due to the difference in aspirations and the strength of blessings, some translations slowly disappear after the passing of the translator, while others flourish around the world.
Having heard so much about the merit of the Vimalakirti Sutra and its translation, now that we have this precious opportunity to study this amazing sutra, shouldn’t we be joyous and study with great faith?
Some Academic Issues
Some scholars nowadays consider Kamalasila to be the same person as Kumarajiva but Khenpo Rinpoche disagrees with this opinion. The reasons are firstly, the timeline of their birth and death doesn’t correspond; secondly, in history Kamalasila had great debates with Heshang Moheya, whose opinion was actually quite close to Bodhidharma’s Chan ideas. So this opinion is not supported by either historical facts or academic perspectives.
Western scholars often place much emphasis on historical facts, and this is a good point that we as dharma teachers should learn from. As Khenpo said, “I visited university professors of Buddhism and their classes many times, and I always notice that they place much emphasis on the biographies and the related histories when they try to understand a certain great Buddhist master.”
Being Buddhists, before the actual studying of a sutra or a shastra, we should get to know the background of the author and the translator, not only from an academic point of view but also from a Buddhist perspective. For example, before going to the real text of the Vimalakirti Sutra, we should start off by getting to know its translator, Kumarajiva. From the Buddhist point of view, emphasis should be placed on his study and practice of the Dharma, his personal realization, his qualities and aspirations during his life, as well as his influence after his death, including whether there were relics left, so that students can develop strong faith in his works. From an academic point of view, the emphasis should be placed on his birth and death, the social, cultural and historical context during the time, as well as the contributions he made to the whole of society during his life. All of the information from these two perspectives is quite indispensable for dharma practitioners to gain a good understanding of this great translator.
When & Where the Teaching Takes Place?
Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was in the garden of Amrapali near Vaisali, in the company of a great congregation of eight thousand bhiksus.
There were thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas, …
Thus Have I Heard
The first chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra is titled Buddha Land, with the main theme of “pure mind, pure land”. All the Buddhist sutras start with Thus have I heard, which means the following words are exactly what the hearer, I, have heard in front of the Buddha, and here “I” refers to Ananda.
The Meaning of Thus Have I Heard
In the Nirvana Sutra, Ananda asked the Buddha, “Buddha, you have spoken many sutras. When we compile them, with what words should they begin?” The Buddha answered that all sutras spoken by the Buddha should begin with the words, “Thus have I heard“, and then followed by when and where the teaching took place. It means that the Dharma which is Thus can be believed, and the hearer personally heard it. The Buddha also gave Ananda permission that at the end of a sutra, he may include the praises given by humans, non-human beings, devas and others.
The Phrase “Thus have I heard” may appear simple, yet the implication is rather profound. When Ananda, Mahakashyapa and Upali compiled the tripitakas of the Buddha, it was with their Dharani of unforgetting that they were able to transcribe all the teachings of the Buddha so precisely. So “Thus have I heard” refers to the high accuracy of the words, rather than a vague and approximate record.
The Commentary on Vimalakirti Sutra composed by Master Sengzhao, one of Kumarajivas’ main disciples, includes Kumarajiva’s comments that, if there were not the phrase “Thus have I heard”, people might think that this text was not actually taught by the Buddha, and that its compiler may have added his own thoughts to the text. As a result, this could cause doubt about the reliability of the sutra, and introduce disagreement or even conflict among the followers.
A Well-Established Tradition to Maintain the Pure Transmission of the Teaching
In fact, it is not unique in Buddhist sutras. For example, this is also the method used in Confucianism. Texts such as Analects of Confucius and Classics of Filial Piety also start with the words “Confucius says”, which means that the teachings of Confucius were well documented by his disciples after his passing. The situation was probably quite similar 2,500 years ago, that is, after a certain great sage died, his followers started to compile his teaching into scriptures.
In Buddhism, this tradition is very well preserved and the pure transmission of the Dharma teaching remains to this day. For example, once Khenpo Sodargye told his students: “His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche gave the Vajrayana teachings in this way, thus I am following the same way to give the teachings. This is what I have heard in front of my guru, therefore I am transmitting the same teaching to everyone, to make sure that there are no personal and individual conceptual thoughts being added to the teaching.”
The lessons here are, whenever we are transcribing commentary or class notes onto paper, we need to make sure we are transcribing “what I have heard”. That being said, some additions and omissions are also needed, because oral teachings and written teachings are quite different. Oral teachings commentates to various conditions, such as the audience, the environment and general atmosphere. It is also more relaxed and can have more repetition. However, when it comes to a written format, the style needs to be more concise, because the written word will continue on for generations to come.
Though we have the recording technology, it is still necessary to transcribe the oral teachings into written transcripts. In terms of transcribing, Khenpo said, “On one hand, I am very grateful to the transcribers who have organized my teachings into written transcripts; on the other hand, I will not be pleased if serious additions have been made which have twisted the original meaning of the teachings. In this case it will have lost the essence of making written copies based on the teacher’s intent.” Therefore, it is quite crucial to stick to the teacher’s intent and understand the real meaning of each word. Nevertheless, we shall be grateful to the work that the volunteers put into the transcripts, as it is quite time consuming.
For some great masters, their teachings are transcribed only after they have passed away; while for others, their teachings are organized into a very good written format while they are still alive. If the teachings of great masters, Khenpos or Khenmos can bring benefit to many people, it’s better to make them available in written format and in many different languages. Otherwise when a great master passes away, it is hard for the disciples to collect and document the related materials.
When His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was alive, he was very selective about transcribing his oral teachings, because he taught in a relaxed fashion. Since His Holiness is now no longer with us, his disciples have had to search everywhere for his precious teachings. A little while ago, Khenpo Sodargye got some teaching videos of His Holiness which he cherishes as treasures. However, to transcribe these recorded teachings could be very difficult, as there is no one to go to for clarification on the content anymore.
When & Where the Teaching Takes Place?
The following are the five perfections of the teachings, i.e., when and where the teaching takes place, who is giving the teaching, who is receiving the teaching, and what is the teaching.
At one time indicates that there is no specific date recorded in sutras, which may appear rather vague, almost as if Ananda didn’t remember the exact date and time. In fact, it has quite a significant meaning, as the Buddha taught different sentient beings according to their unique capacities and perceptions, such as devas, nagas or humans, so the sense of time is different for them all.
From a scientific point of view, different planets and stars also have different times, due to their rotation and revolution. Even on the same planet, for example, this Earth, difference places also have different time zones. Albert Einstein used to say, “Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.” It is not easy to understand by our ordinary thought, but indeed it is much closer to the true reality. Therefore, the term “at one time” is quite a good phrase to convey such subtlety.
…the Buddha was in the garden of Amrapali near Vaisali, in the company of a great congregation of eight thousand bhiksus.
There were thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas, …
Vaisali was a city in present-day Bihar, India, and now an archaeological site. It used to be one of the six largest cities in ancient India. It is near Vaisali that Ananda passed into nirvana, and today the Ananda Stupa is still well preserved. Khenpo went to the site years ago one afternoon, and he felt the city to be rather small. But according to historical literature it used to be a beautiful and prosperous city. Buddha Shakyamuni gave many teachings in Visalia, including The Medicine Buddha Sutra and some other Vajrayana teachings.
Amrapali is the name of a royal concubine of the King Bimbisara, who was born from an Amrapali tree in a garden, so later that garden was called the garden of Amrapali, or Ambapali vana, and was offered to Buddha Shakyamuni as his vihara (place to teach and practice).
An Amrapali tree is a mango tree. Indians really like mangos, they cook lots of food with mango, just like Chinese like potatoes. In Letter to a Friend by Nagajuna, the metaphor of mango is used to describe four types of practitioners, and as practitioners we should remember it often:
People are like mango fruits:
Unripe, but seemingly ripe;
Ripe, but seemingly unripe;
Unripe appearing unripe; and ripe appearing as ripe.
There are eight thousand bhiksus and thirty-two thousand bodhisattvas gathering together to receive the Buddha’s teaching. This part briefly tells us about the large assembly around the Buddha.
The Three Styles of Teaching
There are many teaching methods in Tibetan Buddhism, most of which have come from one of the two lineage schools, either from Nalanda University or Vikramashila University in ancient India. The most often used methods are listed as follows:
Structural teaching, like a tiger leaping through ravines
Just like a tiger leaping through ravines without any difficulty, the structural teaching uses the most concise words to encapsulate the entire content of a text by following its textual outline.
Amid mountains or in forests, tigers can leap without any effort, from one tree top to another, from one hill to another in a short period of time. The structural teaching of a text is quite similar to this. Take the Vimalakirti Sutra as an example; some masters, from both the Tibetan tradition and the Han tradition, teach the entire sutra within only a few classes. With ‘the tiger leaping’ way of teaching, a few classes on the Vimalakirti Sutra is a legitimate way of teaching the Dharma.
Or it may be interpreted from another aspect. As a tiger’s step is unpredictable, it can leap from one place to another without a predestined direction, the same applies to our train of thoughts. It is best to follow a step-by-step method, where a good link of logic can be followed. However, being unpredictable could also be a modern style that people tend to enjoy as well, like some public speeches given by western speakers or scenes in a movie, where it suddenly cuts from one scene to another. Indeed, it’s not without a good reason that the speaker jumps from one topic to another. There are still some hidden meanings or intent that the speaker wants to express, although it might be too fast for general listeners to follow his or her thinking.
Detailed explanation, like a turtle’s movement.
Such a method explains a given text word by word, and sentence by sentence, without skipping anything. So it is a slow, step-by-step way of teaching, just as a turtle moves very slowly. By following this way, people can understand the subtle and hidden meanings of each word and each sentence.
There are people who don’t understand the importance of this teaching method, and may feel the words are easy to understand, thus there is no point in repeating them. However, considering that all sentient beings have very different capacities, to some people, detailed explanations are very necessary and helpful. This is why many Indian masters composed shastras in such a detailed way.
Take Chandrakirti’s Clear Words as an example. To explain “all conceptual constructs utterly subside” in the last verse of the 25th chapter of The Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, Chandrakirti elaborates on this topic from 3 or 4 different perspectives, such as what’s the meaning of subside, does it subside of all conceptual constructs, what’s the meaning of conceptual constructs. Another example is Garab Dorje’s commentary on the Tantra of Liberation by Wearing, in which it explains the text word by word, such as fabrication means conceptual thoughts; extinguishing means elimination; and it is from its root that all graspings are eliminated. Sometimes people may feel the terms being explained are quite similar to those terms being used to explain them. But somehow, the ‘turtle moving’ way of teaching is necessary for many followers.
Summarization, like a snow lion.
The snow lion is majestic, especially when it is standing on the top of a snow mountain, taking a bird’s eye view over all the other animals. In a similar way, the teaching of summarization points out the essential meaning of every part of a given text, and how each of them cannot be refuted or replaced by any other similar statement.
Masters of the past taught the Dharma in the three styles that are listed above. If you knew these styles, you would be able to identify the particular style of teaching right away, and you won’t be feeling lost or irritated by a distinctive style.
Qualities of Bodhisattvas
…recognized by the congregation.
All the bodhisattvas were well known by the assembly. Like the sun and the moon in the sky, the bodhisattvas brightened the world; or like the wisdom eye of all beings, they guided people onto the path of liberation; and they were renowned in the world for their wisdom, compassion and great virtues.
In this sutra, there are only a few names of bodhisattvas mentioned, such as Manjushri, Avalokitesvara and so on. However, we should be aware that innumerable bodhisattvas manifested in this world back at the time of the Buddha, and also after Buddha’s parinirvana. They continue to manifest in the present, and will continue to manifest in the future. All these bodhisattvas from the past, present and future are adorned by the qualities listed in the following descriptions.
Compared with the renown of bodhisattvas, the worldly people nowadays are renowned for their abilities of accumulating wealth, their good looks, their artistic skills and so on. In this era, general public values are so different that people with the great qualities mentioned here are probably not well known.
As Mahayana practitioners, since we all make the aspiration of bodhichitta, we should get to know the qualities of bodhisattvas, and further reflect upon ourselves to see what kind of qualities we have already obtained, and what kind of qualities we still lack. Surely, we can work now to obtain the qualities which are lacking.
The [bodhisattvas present] had all accomplished the original practices of great wisdom;
All the bodhisattvas had attained great wisdom, and their actions practiced were all virtues. Great wisdom here refers to the wisdom of the realization of emptiness. Original practices are the practices of six paramitas which are characterized by the altruistic actions of benefitting others. In other words, they had all accomplished wisdom and compassion, the wisdom of knowing the truth of all phenomena, and the compassion of practicing six paramitas to benefit others. These two are the main characteristics of a great bodhisattva. If one possesses these two characteristics, one can be called an authentic bodhisattva.
Another way to explain this is from the view, practice, action and fruition point of view: the view of the Mahayana is the wisdom of no-self; the action is to benefit others; the practice upon these two leads to the fruition of the perfect union of wisdom and compassion, or the accomplishment of the original practices of great wisdom.
were established by the numinous charisma of the buddhas;
The Bodhisattvas had already obtained the numinous charisma of the buddhas. Instead of “numinous charisma”, the word “blessings” was used in both the Tibetan translation and the Chinese translation by Xuanzang. Maybe the word “blessings” was not used in Chinese language in the time of Kumarajiva, but was more commonly used in Xuanzang’s time. For example, in Kumarajiva’s The Lotus Sutra, the similar term “numinous charisma” is used to express the meaning of blessing. Here, it means that the bodhisattvas were constantly empowered by the blessings of the buddhas in their body, speech and mind.
If bodhisattvas cannot be parted from buddhas’ blessings in order to benefit sentient beings, then each of us as followers should not be apart from the blessings of buddhas, bodhisattvas, lineage masters and root gurus either. So why is that? Through the manifestation of bodhisattvas, we can deduce that we Buddhists must rely on the blessings from lineage masters and root gurus. Otherwise, if the spiritual strength is missing, with a lack of power from the blessings, even if one’s wisdom and eloquence are impressive, the ability to benefit others will be weak.
In a short period of time, if some Buddhists start a Dharma center without making supplications to the lineage masters, the guru or the Three Jewels, Khenpo has concerns about the long-term development of such Buddhists as well as their Dharma activities. When we pray to Amitabha Buddha in order to take rebirth in Sukhavati, both the Buddha’s blessings and our own devotion must be present so that the result of being reborn in Sukhavati can come true. Similarly, if we have great devotion and constantly supplicate and visualize the lineage masters, buddhas, bodhisattvas and dharma protectors, the blessings will inevitably dissolve into our mind stream. When the blessings are completely bestowed, despite the lack of great personal capability, one can still easily accomplish many activities that benefit sentient beings. Khenpo believes these two: both strong devotions to the guru and the Three Jewels and the empowerment of blessings from them, together with the karmic connections from previous lives, are the key elements to give rise to the auspicious result of benefiting sentient beings.
Therefore, Khenpo Sodargye encourages us to make supplication frequently to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Do not remember them only when you are free or encounter some difficulties. Nor like some Buddhist scholars who only focus on academic study but neglect praying and supplicating. Instead, if those scholars could carry on their research together with genuine faith, their academic study would also progress further. That is because Buddhism contains not just purely intellectual studies, but also profound experiential realizations, which transcends words but can only be experienced by one’s own mind. Without genuine faith, the understandings of Buddhism can be just partial and superficial. You may be able to understand the outer or even the inner meanings of the Dharma, but definitely not the secret meanings of the Dharma, which can only be obtained through a genuine faith.
maintained the correct Dharma for the defence of the Dharma city;
From a literal point of view, the defence of the Dharma city means the bodhisattvas protect the dharma city of buddhas and bodhisattvas by upholding the correct dharma through listening, contemplating and meditating. Some commentaries explain the Dharma city as the true nature of all phenomena, which is from the perspective of the profundity of prajnaparamita, so the defence of the Dharma city means to abide in the true reality of phenomena.
Maintaining the correct Dharma includes the study and practice of the Dharma through listening, contemplating and meditating. We Buddhists must first study and practice the correct Dharma in this way, so that we are able to share the Dharma teaching with other living beings. Otherwise, if we ourselves do not even understand the profound meanings of the Dharma, how can we benefit others with the supreme Dharma?
So in terms of upholding the Dharma, one should engage in one’s own study and practice of the Dharma; furthermore, if one has a good ability, it is better to set up dharma groups, establish dharma centers or clubs for college students or company employees. The merit of protecting and upholding the Dharma in this way is even more incredible. In the Sutra of Ten Cakras of Earth Store it is said that, “If in numerous eons, the wise are practicing diligently concentration, the merit and wisdom being generated are still not as great as protecting my teachings.” Here “my teaching” refers to the Dharma taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni.
We should be aware that, upholding the Dharma is the responsibility of every Buddhist, not just the job of great masters or dharma teachers. In fact, as soon as you become a Buddhist, you have the responsibility to protect the Dharma. It is just like a newlywed, at the moment of wedding, you carry the responsibility for the new family. So you should not be narrow-minded and consider yourself as the reaper of dharma, and others as the protector and propagators of the Dharma.
Since we have personally tasted the wonderful flavour of the Dharma, it is quite natural to want to share what we have learned with others. The intention is not to have a bigger group or to attract many fans, it should be a genuine wish to help all beings achieve liberation from samsara. We must maintain such a pure intention no matter what kind of activities we are engaged in.
As Buddha Shakyamuni said in the Nirvana Sutra, on certain occasions if necessary, the Buddhist followers can hold a knife, swords and other weapons to protect the Dharma. The weapons are used only to overawe others, but not to kill others. The Buddha emphasized that protecting the Dharma is the essential discipline for Mahayana practitioners. However, when compared to other religions where killing others is allowed in order to protect their own religion, Buddhism advocates the protection at urgent times, but refrains from killing others.
made their names heard throughout the ten directions through their ability at the lion’s roar;
As the king of animals, the sound of the lion’s roar terrifies all the other animals. Similarly, as the essential philosophy of Buddhism, the teaching and the realization of emptiness by bodhisattvas can overthrow all the heterodox theories, because no other philosophers can defeat the teaching of the Middle Way in Buddhism. The sound of teaching on emptiness is victorious, just like the lion’s roar.
Khenpo Sodargye encourages us to study the philosophy of the Middle Way more extensively and deeply. The great treatises such as The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, Four Hundred Verses on Middle Way, and Ornaments of the Middle Way all contain precious teachings and profound instructions on the Middle Way. People with rather solid foundations in the studies of the Middle Way have no trouble to understand the other Dharma teachings, such as the karmic law, and thus develop a strong confidence and devotion to the Three Jewels. Since they fully understand the true reality of all phenomena, and through their understanding they attain a reliable guidance for their lives, no matter what kind of challenges or difficulties they encounter, they can always face them with full confidence and bravery. However, people without much understanding of the true reality of emptiness, could be quite timid when being questioned or challenged by others.
Through their ability at the lion’s roar, the bodhisattvas’ names were heard throughout the ten directions. Some bodhisattvas are indeed quite famous, well known in all six realms, including the hell and heaven realms, such as Avalokitesvara, Manjushri and so on. Unlike celebrities or famous people who are only known in certain area or certain country, the bodhisattvas are well known in the ten directions thanks to their unusual aspirations and numinous power. This is still true in today’s society. People with great merits of the three studies, i.e., discipline, concentration and wisdom, are well known by others and these powerful and excellent inner qualities can never be defeated by any kind of jealousy or bad intentions.
befriended and pacified people without being requested;
Without being requested, the bodhisattvas brought the fruition of comfort and happiness to all sentient beings. Worldly people only help others when begged to do so. On the contrary, these bodhisattvas voluntarily benefited others without being supplicated or reminded; they engaged in helping others willingly and readily at all times.
Of course under some circumstances there could be exceptions. For example, when the Buddha reached the profound and blissful state of awakening under the Bodhi tree, he remained for seven weeks in solitude without teaching because he felt no one would understand the depth of his realization. Then, the celestial gods Brahma and Indra came on three occasions to supplicate him to turn the wheel of the Dharma. Indeed, this is a manifestation of the Buddha’s skillful means to remind people that the Dharma is precious and rare in this world. Living beings should deeply cherish it rather than being distracted and occupied by worldly concerns.
Back to us, if there is any opportunity to benefit others, we shouldn’t wait to be asked, otherwise a good opportunity could be missed. With the sincere aspiration of bodhichitta in our mind, whenever there are proper conditions to help others, we should naturally extend a helping hand without any hesitation. This is the nature of bodhisattvas and because of this, they are called the friend, the spiritual teacher and the saviour of all living beings.
Exalted the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) and were thus able to keep them from being cut off;
In the Chinese version of this sutra, exalt has the connotation of inheriting and spreading to flourish. So exalted the Three Jewels means to carry on the Three Jewels and to ensure their continuance and prosperity, making certain that they never vanish. A Buddhist should always carry on the activities of the Three Jewels, of which the most important is to benefit all sentient beings. This mission should never cease in the generations to come.
The Three Jewels are: the awakened one as the teacher (Buddha), the teachings of the awakened one as the philosophy and doctrine (Dharma), and the community who follows the teaching (Sangha). These three together can bring happiness and peace to all living beings.
As Mahayana practitioners, we are obliged to carry on the activities of the Three Jewels and make the teachings of the Dharma flourish in the world. During this process, there will inevitably be difficulties and obstacles. Khenpo encourages us to be brave, not to be defeated by fear and sadness. As in our journey of life, we stumble through obstacles as well. However, the difficulties do not lie in the obstacles, but in our hearts. So if we have a strong and brave heart, nothing can harm us, but if we are weak-hearted, unfavourable conditions will continuously arise.
subjugated the vengeful Maras and controlled those of the heterodox paths;
Subjugated the vengeful Maras means bodhisattvas had subjugated the four Maras: the Mara of the destructive emotions, the Mara of the aggregates, the Mara of the Lord of Death, and the Mara of the sons of gods.
Having realized emptiness, bodhisattvas eliminated all mental afflictions such as greed, anger and ignorance, thus the Mara of the destructive emotions disappeared, which led to bodhisattvas not being attached to the five aggregates. Then the Mara of the aggregates was eradicated, which in turn led to Bodhisattvas not being fearful of death, thus the Mara of the Lord of Death was destroyed. The Mara of the sons of gods refers to one of the desire realm gods named “Controlling Others’ Emanations”. Without fear of death, this Mara naturally lost his power in front of these bodhisattvas.
Therefore, subjugating the Maras doesn’t mean destroying the armies of the outer Maras by holding all kinds of weapons. It rather refers to subduing our mental afflictions and the Mara of our own mind stemming from self-clinging, which brings harm to both oneself and others.
Controlled those of the heterodox paths means to subdue all tirthikas who follow the heterodox paths. In ancient India, there were 96 kinds of tirthikas such as Vaisheshika and Samkhya. Today, the heterodox paths mainly refer to eternalism and nihilism, or the extreme views of existence and non-existence.
Nihilism refers to the belief that everything is short-lived and naturally comes into being. From that logic, the present world is originated from itself without causes and conditions. This is absolutely a wrong view. According to the principle of dependent arising, sentient beings have past and future lives, all phenomena depend on causes and conditions.
Eternalism refers to the conviction that everything, including the creator, is permanent. However, whether being analyzed from a Buddhist perspective or from the scientific point of view, this view can’t be justified and will bring countless faults.
In a nutshell, other than eternalism and nihilism, any school whose view neither aligns with logic nor with the natural law, can be referred to as heterodox. In the course of seeking truth, we do not need to serve and respect any school which is not in accordance with the truth. This is the spirit of the Buddhist philosophy. Some people narrow-mindedly deem any non-Buddhist school automatically as tirthika, which is irrational.
were entirely purified and had forever transcended the impediments (i.e., afflictions);
Here impediments refer to five hindrances and ten fetters. “Hindrance” means being concealed and obscured by mental afflictions, which impairs one’s ability to take action and make progress. The five hindrances, namely sensory desire or greed, ill-will or aversion, sloth-and-laziness, restlessness-and-worry and doubt, are seen as the five major mind-related forces that hinder our ability to become concentrated.
According to Abhidharma, “fetters” means that sentient beings are tightly bound, thus they cannot attain freedom and liberation from samsara. Here ten fetters refer to ten destructive emotions, which are shamelessness, recklessness, jealousy, miserliness, worry, laziness, restlessness, sloth, anger, and the concealing of one’s own faults.
These Bodhisattvas were free of the five hindrances and ten fetters. As followers, we have not achieved their level yet, but we need to endeavor to keep our defilements in check. As ordinary beings, naturally we have faults and we need to strive to reduce them. We should not take for granted that once we take refuge in the Three Jewels, our mental afflictions will be uprooted straightaway. Some people are constantly worrying, “Oh, I still have negative emotions, what should I do?” This thought results in sadness, misery, despair, etc. An attitude like this is not necessary. We need to make steady efforts and then swiftly reach the destination.
maintained their minds always in peace and unhindered emancipation;
The bodhisattvas abided continuously in the true reality of all phenomena. Once realizing the true nature of all phenomena, the bodhisattvas were free from all kinds of hindrances and thus attain the ultimate liberation. In that case, they were able to maintain their mind in a constant state of peace.
Here emancipation refers to a sublime state of liberation that transcends conceptual thoughts. It means that when free from any attachment, the mind dwells in a spacious, luminous and easeful state, which can eradicate any obscuration without any hindrance. These bodhisattvas were endowed with this quality. At present, it is difficult for us to reach this state, but we need to make continuous efforts, which is the key to achieving this goal.
As Shantideva says in The Way of the Bodhisattva, “Like a tree you should remain.” Also, “So come what may, I’ll not upset my cheerful happiness of mind.” We should not be swayed by any situation that we encounter. We should just maintain a calm and peaceful mind instead of being caught up in any circumstance. As ordinary beings, we can put this teaching into our daily practice.
were unfailing in their mindfulness, concentration, dharani (i.e., memorization of the Dharma), and eloquence;
Bodhisattvas were endowed with sublime qualities, such as having constant mindfulness of their body, speech and mind; dwelling unceasingly in the concentration of the perfect union of emptiness and luminosity; memorizing words, meanings, and mantras incessantly, and having ceaseless eloquence.
The Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom and the commentary on The Flower Garland Sutra illustrate eloquence in seven different ways.
The first is direct eloquence, which means that one can answer any question in the most direct and simple manner.
The second is quick eloquence, which means that one can answer any question without any hesitation. Ordinary beings tend to stop for a while to think about the answer, while bodhisattvas always come up with the answer swiftly.
The third is eloquence according to different capacities and propensities. When answering a question, bodhisattvas are able to address the questioner’s mentality and cultural background, and to give the answer based on when and where this question is asked. This is highly important. For example, if we answer a secular question from the point of view of emptiness, or use many Buddhist terms in front of a non-Buddhist, then the inquisitor will have no understanding of our response.
The fourth is unmistaken eloquence, which means that the answer is in accordance with the truth and the right logic, thus it is unmistaken.
The fifth is uninterrupted eloquence, which means that the answer is in a smooth and flowing manner, sparking with witty remarks.
The sixth is eloquence from all different perspectives, which means that the answer has rich meanings, is profound, and is packed with extensive metaphors, scriptural and reasoning evidence.
The seventh is the most wonderful and melodious eloquence, which means that the way of answering entails five qualities: its meaning is clear and easy to understand; its sound can be heard from afar; its tone is like wonderful music; all beings love to hear it; and it is an unsurpassable answer.
were replete in charity, morality, forbearance, exertion, meditation, wisdom, and the power of skilful means;
These bodhisattvas were endowed with the ten paramitas: generosity (charity), discipline (morality), patience (forbearance), diligence (exertion), meditative concentration (meditation), wisdom, skilful means, strength, aspiration prayers and primordial wisdom.
had attained the forbearance of the nonarising of dharmas and the nonattainment [of all things];
These bodhisattvas had attained the wisdom of emptiness and reached the state free of conceptual thoughts, thus they realized that there is nothing to attain.
were able to accord with [the truth] in turning the irreversible wheel [of the Dharma];
Based on Khenpo’s teachings, this sentence should be understood as to “accord with the preference of beings” rather than to “accord with the truth”. These bodhisattvas were able to give proper teachings to different individuals according to their own capacity and propensity. In other words, they knew how to comply with others and to turn the Dharma wheel without any mistake and any rest.
Ordinary beings may share the Dharma teaching with others for certain periods of time, but their enthusiasm tends to ebb. On the contrary, bodhisattvas persevere to benefit living beings through turning the wheel of the Dharma and they will never give up this job.
Here Khenpo stresses the importance of turning the wheel of the Dharma, and encourages everybody to engage in such activities. Khenpo mentioned that he used to hold high expectations of someone for their ability to teach the Dharma, as they had outstanding eloquence, wisdom and altruistic mind. However, maybe due to their lack of merit, when their Dharma teaching activities came across difficulties, or when they felt tired, they just failed to keep moving forward. This is such a pity! Or in some worse cases, some Dharma teachers promote wrong views and make people blindly follow them because they are seemingly intelligent and smart, and because they have some background in Buddhist philosophy. This is quite dangerous both for themselves and for their followers.
understood well the characteristics of the dharmas and understood the capacities (lit., “roots”) of sentient beings;
These bodhisattvas had grasped the myriad characteristics of all phenomena, as illustrated in the Abhidharmakosa. Typically, the bodhisattvas fully understood the characteristics of all phenomena according to the three different yanas which are metaphorically represented as the sheep-chariot, the horse-chariot and the yak-chariot in the Lotus Sutra.
The bodhisattvas apprehended sentient being’s capacities and propensities. This ability is quite essential. Without a clear knowledge of sentient beings’ various capacities and propensities, it would be difficult to engage in even a simple task such as mediating a dispute between two persons. Besides giving the teachings of Sutrayana or Tantrayana, even when dealing with worldly matters, it is necessary to understand other’s propensities.
had attained fearlessness in sheltering the great congregations;
These bodhisattvas would not be influenced by the conceptual judgements of sentient beings, rather they were able to tame beings’ wild minds through their wisdom of selflessness, and thus they were fearless.
Some commentaries elaborate on the fearlessness of bodhisattvas from four aspects: possessing the Dharani of memorizing thus no fear; knowing living beings’ capacities thus no fear; being able to answer various questions thus no fear; being able to dispel various doubts thus no fear. Therefore, such fearlessness does not mean fighting with others by holding a weapon. Fearlessness rather comes from the realization of emptiness, the wisdom that leads us to the ultimate freedom. Khenpo emphasized that we can achieve similar fearlessness if we make continuous efforts to study and practice.
Qualities of Bodhisattvas
cultivated their minds with merits and wisdom; were paramount in the adornment of their bodies with the [thirty-two primary] characteristics and [eighty subsidiary] marks; had dispensed with worldly adornments;
These bodhisattvas had accumulated boundless amounts of merits and wisdom. How do they accumulate merits? They do so by practicing good deeds in the phenomenal world. How do they accumulate wisdom? Wisdom is attained through understanding and realizing the ultimate truth of emptiness.
Adornment of merits and wisdom are the finest and the most beautiful of all, because their appearances are a manifestation of one’s own mind. If you are kindhearted, people will regard you as a good person even if you are not particularly good looking, but if you act meanly, no matter how beautiful you may be, people will consider you as a bad person. These bodhisattvas’ appearances were paramount in the world due to their compassion and wisdom. Our appearances are also a manifestation of karma from previous lives. Therefore, we should try to confess all non-virtuous deeds in past lives as well as our present life, promising not to commit bad deeds in order to maintain an appearance of beauty in all of our lives.
Khenpo hopes that all practitioners will adorn bodies and minds with merits and wisdom, as these adornments will take precedence over superficial and material adornments such as diamonds, agates, gold and turquoise. We will appear incredibly majestic if simply decorated with merits and wisdom even without any superficial decorations; however, if we are narrow-minded and full of contaminated thoughts, we will never appear majestic by decorating ourselves with material adornments. As the saying goes, a kind heart is the foundation of everything and everything is manifested by mind.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva, it is communicated as follows:
The hellish instrument to torture living things—
Who invented them for such intent?
Who has forged this burning iron ground;
Whence have all these demon-women sprung?
All are but the offspring of the sinful mind,
This the mighty Sage has said.
The hell realm, animal realm and hungry ghost realm are no more than manifestations of one’s own mind. In the description of Iron Rod Mountain in the hell realm, it is said the women on that mountain are vicious and demonlike, but all of those horrific images come from the mind, being a projection of one’s negative karma accumulated in previous lives. As the Buddha stated, the burning iron and women in hell realms are all manifestations of a negative mind. If we fail to purify all negativities in this life, it is likely that ugliness and fearfulness will be manifested in future lives.
In the material world, our mind creates images of the external environment as well as our own bodies. There are people who constantly complain about others, only seeing the shortcomings of others. Indeed, that is attributable to a mind that is not pure, only seeing thistles and thorns which constantly puncture their mind and body. Another type of person practices pure perception all the time, seeing everyone as meritorious bodhisattvas and the world as a pure buddha land. People who practice pure perception can get along well with everyone and anyone. Even if thrown in prison and slapped by others, they will still be grateful because those adversities help them to purify all past negativities.
In Christianity, they say that if you are slapped on one side of your face, then you should present the other side of your face for the next slap. It is the same in Buddhism, but some practitioners’ mindsets are not so inclined, because even before an attack, they are already prepared with weapon in-hand.
All in all, the environment is closely correlated to our mind. For a good practitioner with a tamed mind, he or she will be able to perceive the most beautiful place even in the worst environment. For this kind of practitioner, worldly adornments are not necessary. Of course, this does not mean that Buddhists cannot dress up. You don’t have to give up all your accessories and beautiful clothes and offer them to the Three Jewels.
Some practitioners tend to think in extremes. They give up all of their expensive accessories and clothes after taking refuge, believing that they need to abandon all of their worldly possessions. Some give up modern technology, like laptops or cell phones, and isolate themselves from society. Wearing ragged clothes, eating leftovers, and looking rather ill, how can such Buddhists be accepted by society? The majority of people cannot see what is happening in your mind. Even if your perceptions are the same as enlightened beings such as Shantideva or Chandrakirti, without proper appearance and behavior, it’s hard to blend-in. Moreover, this kind of improper behavior may lead to a negative impression of Buddhism, making others wary.
Therefore, we need to behave in the middle way, being more accommodating to the mentality of all sentient beings. More importantly, one should abandon arrogance and pride when wearing adornment, just like bodhisattvas who adorn themselves only for the sake of other beings, as was said in Ju Mipham Rinpoche’s The Just King.
were known above and beyond even Mount Sumeru.
The reputations of these great bodhisattvas were well-known in all three realms and went far beyond Mount Sumeru. Even in the hell realm, some of their names can still be heard, names such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Mahasthamaprapta, being much more well-known than celebrities and head of states in the ordinary world.
Through the skillful means of using their reputations, bodhisattvas and many great masters can bring many benefits to all sentient beings. Even though these sentient beings have never met the bodhisattvas or enlightened masters, once they hear their names, immeasurable merits and benefits would naturally arise in their minds. For example, just by hearing the name of Thogme Zanpo or Patrul Rinpoche, a seed of bodhichitta can be planted in their minds.
were firmly resolute in faith like Vajra (i.e., diamond);
The faith of these great bodhisattvas were firmly resolute, like a diamond that cannot be destroyed. In the Tibetan version, it is the faith in the Three Jewels. In the Xuanzang’s translation, it is the faith in Buddha and the Dharma, and the Sangha is not mentioned. In this version, it is not specified. Nevertheless, the object of faith is to the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, and the law of causality. This kind of faith should be based on wisdom, otherwise it is simply superstition, quite shifty and not beneficial to oneself or others.
It is quite a pity if practitioners lack genuine faith endowed with wisdom. As it is said in the Uttaratantra Shastra, it is only by relying upon faith that one can realize the ultimate truth. And it is said in The Extensive Commentary on Sutra of Mahayana’s Four Dharmas, for those with faith, that realization is achievable if they probe deep into the Dharma; and for those without faith, little benefit will be gained even if they can perfectly understand the literal meaning of the Dharma.
The study of Buddhism is completely different from that of worldly knowledge. For the latter case, as long as you understand content and meaning, you can consider yourself as a professional and it has nothing to do with faith. However, in order to gain wisdom in Buddhism, you have to develop genuine faith and the intellectual meaning is simply not enough. In fact, it is not just in Buddhism, but in all other religions as well, that the difference lies in the object of faith.
Once you have firm and resolute faith like a diamond, the merits are immeasurable. In The Great Compassion Sutra, it is said that if one generates confidence in the Buddha, even for a moment, that person has already accumulated immeasurable merits which will never be exhausted in kalpas to come.
As Khenpo suggested before, when traveling around or taking a trip, you should take a small buddha statue with you as an object on which you can pray and take refuge. Whenever you see a buddha statue, a stupa, a supreme sutra, or a great master, you should fold your hands and say “Gya sem cho”, meaning “I take refuge”. These kinds of practices, having been completed with sincere devotion, will bring you incredible merit. If possible, you can also offer lamps and water, make prostrations, or chant mantras in front of Thangkas or statues of the Three Jewels. If you can continue to do these in your daily life, the faith will gradually become stable and stronger, eventually becoming as solid as a diamond.
Faith is one of the seven treasures of the noble ones, so don’t lose that precious treasure of yours. In Gampopa’s Precious Garland of Supreme Path, there are ten regrettable things and Khenpo believes that losing faith could be the eleventh. Having said that, we must strengthen our faith through day to day practice and, in the long run, it will definitely become more solid and resolute.
illuminated the Dharma jewel everywhere and rained down the sweet dew [of the Dharma];
The bodhisattvas could dispel all sentient beings’ darkness of ignorance by illuminating the Dharma jewel and showing them the path towards the brightness of liberation. It is through the light of wisdom that the bodhisattvas were able to brighten the minds of sentient beings and bring them the ultimate benefit. Even if there is only one great master, as long as that master keeps teaching them the Dharma, all sentient beings receiving that teaching will benefit.
For example, Khenpo said that he visited a small monastery in Barkam in 1986 and got to know a master who had been secretly teaching the Dharma for many years, going back to the 1970s, a period when Dharma teaching was not allowed. As a result, he noticed that the local people cultivated great wisdom and strong faith. A few years ago, this master passed away, seemingly without any fame or glory. In fact, there are many people who do not possess great fame or high position in society, but their actions are indeed those of bodhisattvas, bringing incredible benefit to others.
The importance of spreading the Dharma can be illustrated by another metaphor. Once the sweet dew of the Dharma has rained down into the droughty hearts of sentient beings, their minds will be moistened and the sprouts of liberation will start to grow. As it is said in The Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom, if the seed of a grain is not moistened by raindrops, it will not sprout; and, similarly, if one didn’t receive the rain of the Dharma, there is no way for the seed of liberation to sprout out of one’s own mind.
Therefore, as Buddhist practitioners, we should cherish every opportunity to receive Dharma teachings, especially those profound teachings of emptiness and luminosity in Sutrayana and Tantrayana which are able to completely destroy the solid attachments caused by our deluded minds. Meanwhile, Khenpo encourages both monastic and lay practitioners to constantly rain down the Dharma dew whenever given the chance, this being the best way to help others to be free from afflictions and suffering, achieving liberation from samsara.
were paramount in the subtleties of the host of [spoken] sounds;
These bodhisattvas used different sounds and languages to expound the profound Dharma to all living beings of the six realms. These subtleties indicate that the bodhisattvas were skillful in disseminating the profound and detailed teaching, ensuring that the sound of their voice was beautiful and pleasant. Their teachings possessed such melodious sounds that all sentient beings, from far and wide, were strongly attracted, never feeling bored or tired when listening to the teaching. Meanwhile, their teachings contained the true reality of all phenomena and powerful antidotes to their mental afflictions, both of which directly touched their hearts and made them feel better. Therefore, the teachings of bodhisattvas cannot be mimicked by ordinary beings, even if the ordinary beings repeat the language word for word, the effects are completely different.
The bodhisattvas knew how to communicate with different beings from all six realms. In the human world, they could speak to different people by using their own language. As followers, it is necessary for us to spread the Dharma by teaching in different languages when possible. Communicating with people by using their language is always the most effective and beneficial way to communicate. People feel more comfortable and find it easier to open their hearts and accept the teaching. Therefore, those who have talents in languages are highly encouraged to deepen their understanding of the Dharma teachings, translating them into the languages in which they are proficient. During the teaching, Khenpo also made it clear that he aspires, in his next life, to be fluent in many different languages in order to teach the Dharma more effectively.
profoundly entered into conditioned generation to eliminate the false views; were without any residual influence of the two extremes of being and nonbeing;
In this passage, conditioned generation refers to the principle of dependent arising. Through their realization of dependent arising, bodhisattvas eliminated the wrong views of existence and non-existence, as well as all of the related habitual tendencies. Without the attachment to these two extremes, existence and non-existence, or being and nonbeing, all the other wrong views were completely eradicated, so bodhisattvas were without any residual influence of the two extremes.
The principle of dependent arising is the primary tenet of Buddhism. In the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna paid homage to the Buddha by saying that, “I reverently bow to Guatama who, out of compassion, has taught the true doctrine in order to relinquish all views.” This homage indicates the two main features of Buddhism, compassion and wisdom. The Buddha had attained the profound wisdom due to his realization of the true nature of all phenomena and, out of his great compassion, he had taught the true reality to all living beings in order to relinquish their wrong views.
So if someone asks you, “What makes Buddhism different from other religions?” You can reply to them the words spoken above by Nagarjuna. The majestic and beautiful appearance of the Buddha is not the most unique thing in Buddhism. The main difference between Buddhism and other spiritual traditions lies in the view, the view of emptiness as well as in its realization, followed by unbiased and pervasive compassion. These are the significant characteristics of Buddhism.
preached the Dharma without fear like the lion’s roar;
Among Buddhist and non-Buddhist communities, bodhisattvas preach the Dharma, especially the teaching of emptiness, without any fear, like a lion among other wild animals. The reason is that the view of emptiness is the ultimate truth of all phenomena and cannot be refuted by any other thought. So, as Buddhists, we never try to praise ourselves or put down others, but we should have confidence in this understanding by realizing that emptiness can dispel any fear in any circumstance.
Many people have asked Khenpo, “Aren’t you afraid to tour around all these prestigious universities? You don’t really know much about their studies, right?” Khenpo has said, “I’m not that arrogant, I do know a little about high technology, but I have been studying Mahayana Buddhism for so many years and am confident that I can answer any question they might have.” Indeed, Mahayana practitioners who have attained a certain level of realization of the concept of emptiness are able to give teachings in any environment and to any community without fear.
preached with reverberations like thunder;
The teaching of bodhisattvas rolled forth like spring thunder and awakened all the deluded beings. When the Tibetan nomads hear the first spring thunder, they hope that calves will be born soon in order to have fresh ghee and milk. Spring is usually the hardest season for nomad families as their provisions for winter are almost gone and there is a period of temporary shortages. This is also true for farmers because they harvest their crops in autumn and their provisions have also dwindled. So, people living on the Tibetan plateau usually take the spring thunder as an auspicious sign of hope.
For the same reason, when living beings hear the thunder of the Dharma teachings of emptiness or of great compassion, they are awakened from the deep sleep of ignorance and the seed of enlightenment is ready to sprout. This is the powerful blessings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
were without measure and beyond measurement;
Some historical masters have explained this sentence in the following way: because bodhisattvas have abided by the Dharmadhatu, the true reality, they have transcended all conceptual thought, therefore they were without measure. And because they were not confined by any worldly principles or rules, they were beyond measurement. So without measure indicates their realization of the ultimate truth and beyond measurement indicates that their freedom is beyond any worldly confinement.
According to the Tibetan version, this sentence is translated as the bodhisattvas have surpassed all phenomena that can and cannot be measured. Those which can be measured are color, size, weight, etc. and that which cannot be measured is the real nature of emptiness. The realization of the bodhisattvas has transcended them both.
were like ocean captains who had collected the many Dharma jewels;
The Dharma jewels are the jewels of wisdom and the merits bodhisattvas had accumulated. Just like an experienced ship’s captain who is familiar with the route and can take merchants on a journey in search for jewels, bodhisattvas precisely understand the jewels of the deep and vast Dharma and are experienced in how to put them into practice.
If we want to rely upon a teacher, we should look for those with great merits and wisdom. If the teacher doesn’t have merits and wisdom, it is difficult for his followers to accumulate such qualities. Or, in an even worse case, followers may be misguided onto a wrong path that creates even more negative karma.
Many masters sought the Dharma jewels through diligent study and practice throughout their lives. In only a few cases were they able to easily recover the Dharma jewels just upon hearing them due to the practice in previous lives. As young Buddhists in this modern age, you should cherish every opportunity to diligently study and practice the Dharma, putting all of your efforts into extensively and deeply studying and reflecting on the Dharma. Only in this way, when growing old, will you have collected abundant Dharma jewels in your mind.
comprehended the profound and wondrous meanings of the Dharmas;
As it is said in the Avatamsaka Sutra:
They distinguish all phenomena, they do not grasp them;
They know all dharma, their minds are free from any attachment.
It is in this way that bodhisattvas comprehend the profound and wondrous meanings of the Dharma.
Nowadays, some scholars are really good at giving speeches, yet their mind is still contaminated with their own attachments, holding wrong views and slandering others. They like to criticize the sutra as being fake, or that a person is not genuine, or that a dharma teaching is not right. If they are skilled in debate, they may guide many people in the wrong direction. Therefore, we need to be very careful. Having eloquence while lacking wisdom or having wisdom while lacking eloquence are not the qualities of a wise person. A wise person must have both wisdom and eloquence.
understood well the past tendencies and [current] mental processes of sentient beings;
These bodhisattvas understand past and future life trajectories of living beings in the cyclic existence of samsara. All living beings are trapped in samsara just like bees trapped in a bottle. In this huge bottle of samsara, sometimes beings are in the three higher realms and sometimes the three lower realms. Today they may return to be humans, tomorrow animals, and the day after tomorrow gods. While in their human form, they could become westerners or easterners. If we could understand our previous lives, we would be shocked and exasperated by the meaninglessness of samsara, generating a strong renunciation of suffering.
Without a determination to renounce samsara, it would be impossible to have both bodhichitta and the wisdom of non-dualism arising in our mind. Even worse, we may lack the right view of the law of karma. So, the practice of renunciation is the foundation for the study and practice of the Dharma. Without this view, enlightenment, or benefiting all sentient beings, results in empty words. As Nagarjuna says in his Letter to a Friend,
If higher birth and freedom is your quest,
You must become accustomed to right views.
Those who practice good with inverse views
Will yet experience terrible results.
Here, inverse views denotes wrong views that may deny the blessings of the Three Jewels, karmic law, and conventional or ultimate truth. His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche used to criticize those who had wrong views, so all of his disciples were afraid, reflecting upon themselves: “Do I have any wrong views? Is His holiness talking about me?” For ordained monks and nuns, holding wrong views may suggest having already broken the vows. According to Abhidharmakosa, virtues can be continued only after wrong views are dispelled and right view are renewed.
approached the unparalleled autonomous wisdom of the Buddha, the ten powers, [the four] fearlessnesses, and all the eighteen exclusive [attributes of the Buddha]; had closed all the doorways of the evil destinations but were born in the five destinations in order to manifest their bodies there;
Unparalleled autonomous wisdom belong to all Buddhas and the Tibetan version refers to the empowerment of autonomous wisdom. Those bodhisattvas were very similar to the buddhas in terms of the wisdom, the ten powers, the four fearlessnesses, and all the eighteen exclusive attributes, having closed all doorways to the three lower realms. Those who have already reached the stage of acceptance on the path of joining will no longer fall into the three lower realms. The realization level of those 32,000 bodhisattvas are much higher than the stage of acceptance, so it is impossible for them to fall into the lower realms any longer. However, they could still choose to take birth in all six realms in order to benefit different living beings. Sometimes, people refer to the six realms as five realms because the demi-god realm can be included into the god realm.
were great medicine kings who were good at healing the various illnesses; provided medicine according to the illness and caused it to be taken;
What methods did these bodhisattvas use to benefit sentient beings? They manifested their bodies in different realms, acting as great medicine kings who were very good at healing various illnesses. They knew the causes of various illnesses, provided proper medicine in different situations, and ensured that living beings take the right medicine and be cured. In the Avatamsaka sutra, it is said: “with immeasurable wisdom, they appear in different forms of body that accord with different sentient beings’ capacity, to liberate all the beings in the realms of cyclic existence.” Also in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses of the Middle Way, it goes as follows:
Just as for an experienced physician
A sickness that cannot be cured is rare
Once Bodhisattvas have found their strength
Those they cannot train are extremely few.
On the contrary, nowadays it is quite commonly seen that some diseases are very hard to cure, especially when complicated operations are required. Khenpo heard that someone who had the same operation that he had a few years ago had eventually passed away. Before Khenpo’s operation, the doctor came and told him in private, “You need to be prepared because there is a chance of failure in this operation because there is a large blood vessel right beside the tumor and during the operation, you may be in great danger.” Upon hearing this, Khenpo described feeling quite calm and without fear. While he realized that it might be the last time he saw the morning sunlight, he did not tell this to anyone. Actually, everyone should be prepared for all possibilities in life, since the nature of life is impermanence.
For those bodhisattvas, there were very few beings that could not be helped. While the majority of beings could benefit, exceptions still exist. There were those people who not only rejected the Dharma teachings, but even slandered or defamed the bodhisattvas. This was likely due to vicious aspirations in previous lives.
Given this situation, especially in these modern times of the Internet, whenever we hear this kind of statement, we had better not believe it right away without observing through our own wisdom. Otherwise, it would be troublesome to believe in all of the slanderous gossips flowing over the internet. His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche used to say, “Language is like a hammer in an ironsmith’s hand. The ironsmith can use it to forge iron into a sickle, an axe, etc. Similarly, language is like a tool that can be used to slander or to show respect, just based on the speaker’s intention rather than on true fact.” Therefore, it is crucial to cautiously distinguish different words with wisdom, particularly in this modern age.
were accomplished in all the immeasurable merits; had ornamented and purified all the immeasurable buddha lands; unfailingly used what they saw and heard for the benefit [of others]; and never squandered away their endeavors. Thus, were they entirely replete in all merits.
These bodhisattvas had inconceivable merits, ornamenting and purifying all of the immeasurable buddha lands. If ordinary beings were able to see the bodies of these bodhisattvas, hear their voices, receive their teachings and so on, they would receive great benefit. Even if these bodhisattvas passed away, if we are able to follow their teachings, there would be no difference even without seeing them in person. For example, whenever Khenpo Sodargye reads Longchenpa’s Seven Treasures, he feels that it is just the same as directly hearing Longchenpa’s voice and receiving the teaching from him. Briefly speaking, thanks to the amazingly and powerfully unfailing and inexhaustible aspirations of these bodhisattvas, anyone who sees them, hears them, recalls them, or makes a connection with them, will definitely receive immeasurable benefit.
The virtues of these bodhisattvas are incomparable. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, it is said: “to expound their virtues for countless eons would hardly amount to a drop in the sea of their merits.” Indeed, the bodhisattvas’ virtues cannot be easily imagined, even if we could count all of the drops in the sea, we could not count all of their merits. As Khenpo said during his teaching, “For those masters whom I have followed, some are still alive and others have passed away, but their merits are beyond our ordinary thinking. Their virtuous qualities and their compassionate dharma activities are much more vast than space and deeper than any ocean.”
We may say that space and the ocean are immeasurable, but the benefits that all realized masters have brought to sentient beings are even more immeasurable. From life to life, those enlightened masters have been dedicating themselves to the liberation of sentient beings from ignorance and suffering. The Dharma jewels they have left for sentient beings, as well as the dharma activities they practiced in this world, are hard for ordinary beings to fathom. Khenpo encourages us to memorize this stanza for reminding us of the masters’ incredible merits and kindness. As Jigme Lingpa says in his Treasury of Precious Qualities, “For those great masters, no matter how little or random their actions may seem, we definitely should not regard them as simple or superficial. They must contain very deep and limitless meaning, being beyond the meaning of words to describe.”
Through the accumulation of merits and wisdom since the beginningless time, these bodhisattvas have possessed many qualities in their bodies, speech, and mind. Thus, they were entirely replete in all merits. They could have manifested, at will, in different bodily forms in front of different types of beings, guiding them onto the path of liberation.
The Names of Bodhisattvas
Their names were Equivalent Contemplation Bodhisattva, Inequivalent Contemplation Bodhisattva, Equivalent-Inequivalent Contemplation Bodhisattva, Autonomy of Meditation King Bodhisattva, Autonomous Dharma King Bodhisattva, Dharma Characteristic Bodhisattva, Radiance Characteristic Bodhisattva, Radiance Ornament Bodhisattva, Great Ornament Bodhisattva, Accumulation of Jewels Bodhisattva, Accumulation of Eloquence Bodhisattva, Jewel Hand Bodhisattva, Jewel Seal Hand Bodhisattva, Constantly Raised Hand Bodhisattva, Constantly Lowered Hand Bodhisattva, Constantly Lamenting Bodhisattva, Roots of Joy Bodhisattva, Joy King Bodhisattva, Eloquent Sound Bodhisattva, Store of Space Bodhisattva, Holding the Jewel Torch Bodhisattva, Jewel Courage Bodhisattva, Jewel Vision Bodhisattva, Indra’s Net Bodhisattva, Illumination Net Bodhisattva, Unconditional Contemplation Bodhisattva, Accumulation of Wisdom Bodhisattva, Excellent Jewel Bodhisattva, Heavenly King Bodhisattva, Destroyer of Māra Bodhisattva, Lightning-like Virtue Bodhisattva, Autonomous King Bodhisattva, Ornament of the Characteristics of Merit Bodhisattva, Lion’s Roar Bodhisattva, Sound of Thunder Bodhisattva, Sound Striking the Mountains Bodhisattva, Fragrant Elephant Bodhisattva, White Fragrant Elephant Bodhisattva, Constant Exertion Bodhisattva, Unresting Bodhisattva, Wondrous Birth Bodhisattva, Flower Ornament Bodhisattva, Contemplates the Sounds of the World (Avalokiteśvara) Bodhisattva, Attains Great Strength Bodhisattva, Brahmā’s Net Bodhisattva, Jewel Staff Bodhisattva, Undefeated Bodhisattva, Ornamented Earth Bodhisattva, Golden Crest Bodhisattva, Pearl Crest Bodhisattva, Maitreya Bodhisattva, Mañjuśrī Dharma Prince Bodhisattva—there were thirty-two thousand such as these.
Constantly Raised Hand Bodhisattva does not mean that the bodhisattva always keeps his hand up, but means that the bodhisattva stretches out his hand to call upon sentient beings to engage in virtuous deeds. Constantly Lowered Hand Bodhisattva indicates that the bodhisattva constantly gave Dharma teachings in a state of loving kindness. On the other hand, Constantly Lamenting Bodhisattva was empathetic and constantly contemplating on the suffering of sentient beings. In the Tibetan version, there is also a Constant Laughing Bodhisattva and an Arrival of Aspiration Bodhisattva.
Kumarajiva stated in his commentary that these names follow a sequence of the state of their realization, from lowest to highest. Perhaps they are listed in such a way because in this world, Maitreya, Avalokitesvara and Manjushri are more relevant to us, so they are listed at the end. All of these bodhisattva names have incredible merits and whenever we hear their names, we are greatly blessed by them.
An Amazing Story of Manjushri
Praying to Manjushri is extremely important for our dharma practice. In the Manjushri Parinirvana Sutra, it is said that just by listening to the name of Manjushri, one could eliminate all negativities accumulated over 1.2 billion eons. Also, people who hear the name of Manjushri or see his image will not take rebirth in the three lower realms for hundreds of thousands of eons. Since Manjushri’s name has such incredible merit, we should more diligently chant his mantra: Om A Ra Pa Ca Na Dhih. Below is a story of Manjushri from the The Jewel Casket Sutra.
Once during a rainy season retreat, Manjushri didn’t stay with the Sangha but spent the entire three months in three different places. For instance, he spent one month with an assembly of queens and retinues at King Salgyal’s palace. When Manjushri returned to the Sangha on the last day of his retreat, all of the other members were quite upset, especially Mahakashyapa, the enforcer of the Sangha. When Mahakashyapa sounded the gong to call the entire assembly together, his intention was to expel Manjushri from the Sangha. The Buddha, knowing Mahakashyapa’s intention, informed Manjushri and exhorted him to reveal the power of his qualities.
Then Manjushri illuminated the world with his numinous powers, numerous buddha lands from all ten directions were seen by everyone. In each buddha land, there was one Manjushri and one Mahakashyapa who was sounding a gong. Buddha then asked Mahakashyapa: “Out of all the Manjushris in all of the buddha lands, which one are you going to expel? Are you expelling all of them or just this one?”
Mahakashyapa felt remorse and wanted to throw the gong away, but was unable to do so and the gong continued to sound in all of the buddha lands. Mahakashyapa then asked the Buddha for forgiveness, admitting that Manjushri’s realizations were beyond his conception. The Buddha told him that during these three months, Manjushri had taught five hundred children, five hundred women, and five hundred prostitutes, all who had achieved, and would, henceforth, never lose enlightenment.
Everyone, including Mahakashyapa, were astounded, asking Manjushri how he had accomplished such a feat. Manjushri replied: “I used many skillful means to teach them. I played games with the children; I used money with the poor; I demonstrated good deeds to some; I revealed my powers to others; I terrified some with faces of fear; and I consoled others with visages of love. Why did I do so? You should know that people are different, so I had to tame them, connecting with them in many different ways. Their minds had to mature so I could eventually benefit them with the Dharma.”
The Other Audiences of the Dharma Assembly
It has been more than one month since we started to study the Vimalakirti Sutra. In the very beginning, some might have decided to have a taste of this sutra out of sheer curiosity. After a period of time however, they may have given up already. Especially for those who have not formed the habit of studying the Dharma in a step-by-step manner, they may think listening to the Dharma in such a long horizon is too difficult.
On the other hand, some Buddhists are admirably diligent. Even at 3 or 4am in their local time, they would attend the teaching on time and never miss even one single class. This takes great exertion. For the audience from different countries, there may exist a conflict between Khenpo’s live teaching schedule and their normal schedule. Khenpo can only choose this hour of the day to give teaching for the convenience of the majority. Therefore, those who cannot listen to the livestream due to their work, family duties, or other issues, can try to catch up with the teaching on the following day.
Indeed, patience is essential in studying the Dharma. One can never delve into the profound meanings of the Dharma without true patience. Some mistakenly believe that being a Buddhist only indicates to receive certain blessings or empowerments, to follow some simple rituals, or to practice sitting meditation. Indeed, all these external appearances do not necessarily convey the essential spirit of Buddhism. It is only through the systematic study of Dharma that one can grasp the essence of Buddhism. Normally one needs to study over a dozen sutras and shastras to gain a good understanding of Buddhist philosophy.
During the course of study, some may make progress quickly while others may not. Nevertheless, as long as one persists in the systematic study of the Dharma in the long run, one will find gradual changes in one’s mind. Even if there were no obvious effects, at the very least, the seed of liberation will be planted in one’s storehouse consciousness. As it is said in a sutra, once you hear the Dharma teaching, the seed of liberation is forever planted, and when there are proper conditions, this seed will for sure give rise to the fruit. So the merit of listening to the Dharma, even only once, cannot be exhausted. Anyone who believes in the law of causality will understand this point.
Therefore, we need persevering determination in the learning of the Dharma. Without such attitude, we can never attain success. If you learn a little Dharma once a while but cannot persist, in similar situations in the future you will be hardly able to complete anything that you’ve started. Eventually you will find yourself stuck in those situations and will be incapable of carrying anything through. So it’s better to commit yourself in the process of learning the Dharma and to keep your promise until the end. With this determination and commitment, you can put more pressure on your study, to make sure you will successfully complete it.
Speaking of commitment, some western scholars and practitioners would take a long time to make a commitment at the beginning. But once they made the commitment, they won’t change any more. For example, some professors that Khenpo met in western universities have been studying Tibetan Buddhism over decades, and this perseverance is very admirable. As we study the Vimalakirti Sutra, it is a good opportunity to observe our mind, whether it is steady or rather shifting. Just like Nagarjuna said in his Letter to a Friend,
Understand your thoughts to be like figures drawn
On water, sandy soil, or carved in stone.
Of these, for tainted thoughts the first’s the best,
While when you long for Dharma, it’s the last.
The superior commitment is like the inscription on stone, very firm and unable to fall off. The middle one is like the words on sandy soil, which can be preserved for a period of time if there is no strong wind. The inferior one is like the ripple pattern on water, which rises, falls and disappears quickly. When studying a text or conducting research on a particular area, we can observe what level of commitment we have, and furthermore, how to make it more stable. It is crucial to have a strong determination in the course of studying the Dharma.
There are people who are constantly changing like a leaf blown in the wind, flying here, swaying there and then disappearing somewhere else. They can seldom stick to a study or practice with persistence. As human beings, we must maintain certain principles, and have long-term plans for our practice as well as for our lives. Through the study of the Dharma, we should be able to tame our restless mind and to develop stable mentalities. Otherwise we will get lost in this mundane world where so many people are drowning in chaos and confusion, and desperately needing a lamp of wisdom more than ever. Therefore it is of great significance to study the Mahayana teaching, so as to make our human existence meaningful and to enable us to stay on the path towards a bright future. We should really cherish this opportunity from the depth of our hearts.
There were also ten thousand Brahma heavenly kings, Sikhin and others, who descended from the other worlds of four continents to proceed to where the Buddha was in order to hear the Dharma. There were also twelve thousand heavenly emperors (i.e., Indras), who also came from the other worlds of four continents to sit in this assembly, …
In Sanskrit, Sikhin means topknot, an appellation to call the Brahma heavenly kings. There are ten thousand Brahma heavenly kings who descended from the other worlds to attend the Dharma assembly. There are also twelve thousand Indras or heavenly emperors, coming to this assembly to listen to the Buddha’s teaching.
In terms of the audience coming to this assembly, this paragraph mentions two groups of gods. According to the Buddhist cosmology, the entire universe of a buddha land is composed of billions of small worlds that are centered by Mount Sumeru and surrounded mainly by four great continents in the ocean. In the text, Brahma heavenly kings are mentioned to represent all the gods from the heavenly realms above Mount Sumeru, and heavenly emperors to represent all the gods from the heavenly realms based on Mount Sumeru.
… and the other awesomely powerful gods (devas), dragons (nagas), yaksas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, and mahoragas, who all came to sit in the assembly. The bhiksus (monks), bhiksunis (nuns), upasakas (laymen), and upasikas (laywomen) [also] came together to sit in the assembly.
There are also other types of living beings present in the Dharma assembly. Powerful gods, or devas, refer to heavenly beings from other realms, rather than the two groups of gods mentioned above.
Dragons, or nagas, may live in the sky, on the earth or underneath the earth, and they all have supernatural powers.
Yaksas are demons floating in the space, and some of them are on duty at the gate of heaven palace. It is said that those Dharma practitioners who did not maintain pure precepts would likely be reborn as Yaksas in their future lives.
Gandharvas are the gods of music, as they are proficient in music. They have very gentle and soft hearts and are very compassionate to others.
Asuras are semi-gods, and also called “No drinking of alcohol”, indicating they do not drink alcohol. They are very aggressive and belligerent, and often fight with gods. The male asuras are quite ugly, whereas the female are really beautiful.
Garudas are the golden-winged birds, and can take birth from womb, moisture, or egg, or just by spontaneous transformation. In many sutras, tantras, or termas, there are different descriptions of garudas. Some of them are Dharma protectors, some of them are enlightened beings, while some of them are ordinary beings and often bring harm or sickness to other beings.
Kimnaras resemble human bodies but are non-humans, as they have horns on their heads. And they also have beautiful voices.
Mahoragas are snake forms that move on their stomach, but can also transform into different shapes and images.
Above are eight kinds of nonhuman beings, who exist in all the six realms as gods, semi-gods, or animals. All of them came to sit in the assembly to listen to the Buddha’s teaching. Beside them, there are also monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, i.e., the four groups of the Buddha’s disciples, sitting in the assembly. All of these beings paid reverence to the Buddha and were happy to see the Buddha and be in his presence.
At that time the Buddha explained the Dharma for the congregation of immeasurable hundreds of thousands surrounding and revering him. He was like [Mount] Sumeru, the king of mountains, rising high above the ocean. Peacefully seated on the many-jeweled lion seat, he towered over the great congregation of all those who had come there.
In the presence of the Buddha, an immeasurable amount of beings, including heavenly beings, non-human beings and human beings, as well as bodhisattvas and arhats, were all gathering together and listening to the Buddha with full reverence and great joy. In fact, can you imagine that scene? It’s quite grand! Buddha was like the majestic Mount Sumeru, being seated immovably above the ocean of disciples. From his many-jeweled lion seat, the Buddha was radiating brilliant lights over the great congregation. The bodhisattvas, gods and other beings can also radiate lights, but their lights are just like the light of fireflies or distant stars when compared to the Buddha’s, which are like a brilliant full moon in an autumn night that makes all the other lights rather dim. So in such a large assembly, the Buddha is the most majestic of all.
Some might feel that the existence of heavenly and non-human beings is only based on religious superstition. Regardless of religious beliefs, there are so many phenomena that cannot be perceived by ordinary beings’ sensory faculty. If one does not acknowledge those phenomena that are beyond one’s ordinary perception, it only indicates this person has a blind faith in him or herself. When we study the Dharma, we should keep an open mind about those mysterious things beyond our ordinary life or beyond our habitual thoughts. We should not be so materialistic in terms of what we can or cannot perceive. Only by opening up our mind are we able to gain a deep understanding of the phenomenal world.
For example, chanting mantras, making smoke offerings, or even turning prayer wheels brings great benefits to tormented hungry ghosts or non-human beings whom we cannot perceive. Also when we are heavily sick, or in the middle of a nightmare, sometimes it can be very obvious for us to feel the presence of some ghost or spirit. One more example is that in some places where car accidents happened frequently, there are always ghosts or non-human beings lingering around.
Talking about the audience present in a Dharma assembly, in fact, it is not just the assembly held by the Buddha that all the gods and non-human beings would attend to receive the teaching. Whenever there’s a Dharma assembly held by a great master, those beings would also come. Khenpo Sodargye recalled the early years at Larung Gar. In 1985, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche said in a Dharma assembly, “We now have a big sangha of more than 300 persons.” But in Khenpo Sodargye’s mind, there were much less than 300 persons, and he wondered why His Holiness would speak this way. Later on, in an another Dharma assembly, His Holiness told everyone that whenever counting the number of participants of a Dharma assembly, the number should be increased since there are other types of beings like nagas or gods present.
For people with transcendental powers, they can perceive these beings with their divine eyes. But ordinary people like us should understand this fact based on scriptural authority and referential reasoning. That is why in most Dharma assemblies, there are some required rituals to make offerings to the Dharma protectors and other deities.
The Importance of Making Offerings to the Buddha
At that time there was an elder’s son in the city of Vaisali named Jewel Accumulation. He and five hundred other elders’ sons proceeded to where the Buddha was, holding canopies made of the seven treasures. Reverencing [the Buddha’s] feet with their heads, they all simultaneously offered their canopies to the Buddha.
Here elder means a noble man who is of great virtue and wisdom. The son of this noble man is called Jewel Accumulation or Ratnakuta. He is also the main character of the Maharatnakuta Sutra and other Mahayana sutras. Ratnakuta is said to be the manifestation of a great bodhisattva, and also a good friend of Vimalakirti. They often accompanied each other to attend the Buddha’s teachings. This time since Vimalakirti was sick at home, Ratnakuta came to the assembly along with five hundred other elders’ sons.
Each of these five hundred elders’ sons held one canopy made of the seven treasures. They first bowed in obeisance to the Buddha’s feet with their heads and then offered their canopies to the Buddha. A canopy looks similar to a large umbrella. It is one of the eight auspicious objects in Buddhism. According to the Sutra of Different Karmic Rewards, it is said that offering canopies to the Buddha brings ten different rewards, such as having a peaceful mind without mental afflictions, gaining good reputation and being respected by others and so on.
In fact, one needs a lot of merits to have the opportunity of seeing the Buddha himself and making offerings directly to him. As Khenpo said, every time he reads this kind of description in sutras, he cannot help but thinking how wonderful it would be if he were able to receive the teaching directly from the Buddha and to hear his voice in person. Even if he were to take only the form of an ant in front of the Buddha, it would still be a rare opportunity that could only happen with great merits.
Although we currently don’t have the opportunity to see the real Buddha, at least we can make offerings in front of the statues of the Buddha, and the merit we accumulate in this way is also immense. According to the tradition of Han Buddhism, people would hold canopies and trail behind a great master, in such a way to show great respect to the master. For us, we can put a canopy with proper size on the top a Buddha statue, such as Buddha Shakyamuni or Padmasambhava. By doing so we can accumulate great merit. For those who receive respect, who have good reputation and who enjoy peaceful mentality, it is very possible that they made such kind of offering to the Buddha in their previous lives. On the other hand, those who are often neglected by others, probably also cheated, despised or bullied others out of arrogance in their previous lives.
The Buddha’s numinous charisma made the jewel-laden canopies all turn into a single canopy, which covered the entire trimegachiliocosm, yet allowing all the characteristics of the breadth and length of this world to appear within it. Also, all the trimegachiliocosm’s Mount Sumerus, Snowy Mountains, Mucilinda Mountains, Mahāmucilinda Mountains, Fragrant Mountains, Jewel Mountains, Golden Mountains, Black Mountains, Iron Ring Mountains, and Great Iron Ring Mountains; the oceans, rivers, streams, and springs; the suns, moons, and stars; the palaces of the gods, the palaces of the dragons, and the palaces of the honored gods—all these appeared within that jewel-laden canopy.
Those who are familiar with Abhidharmakosa probably have a clear picture of such a scene. The transcendental power of the Buddha is inconceivable by our ordinary imagination. Take VR technology as an example. This technology is so common today, but was hardly conceivable years ago. The same goes with the Buddha’s numinous power. It is hard for us to make assumptions of the Buddha’s ability based on our limited experience.
Kumarajiva stated that the manifestation of Buddha’s power served two purposes. The first is to demonstrate the profound wisdom of the Buddha, since such numinous power comes from the enlightened wisdom. The second is to indicate that a small virtuous deed can bring about incredibly great and rare fruition.
Also, the buddhas of the ten directions, as well as the buddhas’ preaching of the Dharma, also appeared in that jewel-laden canopy. At that time the entire great congregation observed the numinous power of the Buddha and exclaimed in praise of its unprecedented [quality]. They held their palms together and reverenced the Buddha, gazing up at his revered countenance without interruption.
Not only the innumerable worlds, but also buddhas and bodhisattvas of ten directions, as well as their preaching of the Dharma appeared within one giant jewel-laden canopy. By doing so, the Buddha inspired the bodhisattvas to build their own pure lands, and showed them a direction of how to build pure land. Actually, many sutras begin with such auspicious demonstration, that is, before the teaching, the Buddha showed buddha lands of the ten directions to the assembly through his miraculous power.
When the Buddha had such miraculous demonstration, all the gods, nagas, human and non-human beings, as well as bodhisattvas, joined their hands together and reverenced the Buddha. They gazed upon his revered face without any interruption, and praised him with beautiful verses in different languages.
The elder’s son Ratnakuta made offering to the Buddha with his body, speech and mind. In term of his body, he, along with 500 young men, offered the jewel-laden canopy to the Buddha. In terms of his speech, he proclaimed the verses below as a praise to the Buddha. And in term of his mind, he constantly had pure faith in the Buddha. Or from the aspect of what offering he made to the Buddha, we can say that the jewel-laden canopy is the offering of material, and the praise to the Buddha is the offering of the Dharma.
Making offerings to the Buddha or the Three Jewels is an important daily practice. With our bodies, we can make prostrations, offer water, flowers, incense and so on in front of the Buddha. With our speech, we can chant liturgies or scriptures, typically those that compliment the Buddha. With our minds, we can compose songs or poems in praise of the Buddha, or make an aspiration to do so when we have good abilities.
In Tibetan Buddhism there are many great masters who composed a lot of poems of praises for buddhas and bodhisattvas. For example, Mipham Rinpoche, Je Tsongkhapa, Longchenpa, Jigme Lingpa, Patrul Rinpoche composed great volumes of praising verses to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Khenpo also mentioned that, about 30 years ago when he accompanied His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche to visit Mount Wutai, he wrote a poem in praise of Manjushri, and nobody knew about it. Last year, 2017, when he visited Mount Wutai again, he translated it into Chinese and shared it with all his Chinese students.
So in order to accumulate virtuous provisions from life to life, it is quite necessary to fully use this precious human body to conduct such virtuous deeds. If the author is not famous, the writing may not be widely known. Yet, it’s still very good to recite some famous verses composed by great masters, as a way of accumulating merits for oneself.
Meanwhile, if you have good voice you can sing songs to praise the Buddha. This is a rather common tradition in both Tibetan and Han Buddhism. In the Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom, it is said,
If one extols the merits of the Buddha,
Letting the Buddha’s merits be widely known by all beings;
As a result, one will be able to
Enjoy the happiness of having great reputation.
There are many verses of praises to the Buddha. In Han Buddhism, people often chant this very famous verse from the Abhinskramana Sutra:
In the heavens above, in all that is below, nothing compares with the Buddha,
Through the worlds of the ten directions, he is matchless,
Of all I have seen in the world,
There is nothing at all that is like the Buddha.
Also in The Treasury of Blessings – A Practice of Buddha Shakyamuni, a verse goes like:
Like all the buddhas and their heirs – in the enlightened intention,
And in activity, aspiration, wisdom, love and capacity,
In these and all the ways unsurpassable wisdom manifests –
May I and every other being too come to be exactly as they are!
These verses have incredible merits so we should chant them in our daily practice.
The Verses Proclaimed by Jewel Accumulation
At this the elder’s son Jewel Accumulation proclaimed in verse before the Buddha:
Jewel Accumulation praised Buddha by chanting these verses below, which are not only beautiful in words but also profound in meanings.
Your eyes are pure,
And as large as blue lotuses;
Your mind is pure, having mastered the concentrations.
Long have you accumulated pure action – you are immeasurably praiseworthy;
You have guided the congregation with serenity, and therefore we bow our heads to you.
This verse is to praise the Buddha’s body, mind and the merits that he accumulated in previous lives.
As for the Buddha’s body, it says the Buddha’s eyes are pure, broad and long, just like the petals of a blue lotus from India. Some people also have beautiful eyes that are clear and bright. If you see the drawing of the Buddha, you’ll notice the beautiful shape of the Buddha’s eyes. Also the Buddha’s eyes are neither fully open nor fully closed. Relating to sitting meditation, it may be easier for you to fully close your eyes to avoid distractions, but this is not really helpful for your practice. The best choice is to follow the Buddha’s posture.
As for the Buddha’s mind, the Buddha has already broken free from all afflictions, and reached the pure state of nirvana. The Buddha’s concentration surpasses all the worldly meditations featured by clarity, bliss and absence of thought, and he is constantly abiding in the transcendental state of the highest realization.
Both the elegant body and the pure mind result from the Buddha’s accumulation of merits through his body, speech, and mind in numerous previous lives through three incalculable eons. And thanks to his wisdom of serenity, i.e., the wisdom of pacifying all mental afflictions, the Buddha has guided infinite living beings onto the right path of nirvana. Therefore, we should bow our heads to the Buddha. As Buddhists, we should always recall the Buddha’s magnificent appearance, pure mind, profound wisdom, as well as his great kindness to us.
We see the Great Sage use numinous transformations
To manifest the immeasurable lands throughout the ten directions,
Within which the Buddhas preach the Dharma,
And we thus can see and hear them all!
This verse is to praise the Buddha’s miraculous powers. Through his powers, the Buddha makes such numinous transformations that the whole assembly can see immeasurable buddha lands of the ten directions. In every buddha land, the assembly can witness a buddha teaching the profound Dharma. Not only can people see such magnificent scenes, but they can also hear all those teachings. These amazing transformations definitely cannot be done by any worldly person. It is only due to the Buddha’s infinite power.
Nowadays many people really believe in miraculous powers. Given any demonstration of a certain person’s miraculous power, they would immediately put trust in that person. In Buddhism however, the miraculous transformation is not the most important attribute, as other religions can also perform miracles. It is the authentic Dharma taught by the Buddha that is the most important aspect of Buddhism. However, in order to attract some beings and ease their mind, or enhance their faith in the Buddhadharma, it is also necessary to demonstrate such numinous transformations now and then.
The Dharma power of the Dharma King surpasses all other beings,
And you always give the wealth of Dharma to all.
Well do you discriminate the characteristics of the dharmas and remain unmoved within the cardinal principle.
You have already achieved autonomy with regard to the dharmas, and therefore we bow our heads to you as Dharma King.
Here the Buddha is called the Dharma king because he has already attained the autonomy with regard to all phenomena, just like a king who has power over everything. The Buddha surpasses all other beings by his Dharma power, so he constantly gives the wealth of Dharma to all living beings.
What is the wealth of Dharma? On the conventional level, the Buddha is able to clearly discriminate the characteristics of all phenomena, such as general characteristics, self-characteristics, the classifications of all phenomena, etc. With his wisdom that knows the multiplicity of phenomena, everything can be known exactly as it is. For example, if you look into the Buddha’s teachings related to psychology, you will be surprised by its accuracy and clarity.
On the ultimate level, with his wisdom that knows the nature of all phenomena, the Buddha remains unmoved within the cardinal principle of the one great truth, i.e., the ultimate truth of emptiness. Here unmoved indicates that the ultimate truth of emptiness is unchangeable. No matter if one achieves Buddhahood or not, the true nature of all phenomena always remains as emptiness.
Through turning the Dharma wheel, the Buddha has clearly expounded the conventional and ultimate truths to all beings. Therefore, we know that the Buddha has completely attained autonomy with regard to all phenomena. Thus, Jewel Accumulation pays homage in the most the respectful way to the Buddha as Dharma king.
Although the Buddha possesses many incredible qualities, such as a magnificent appearance, the power of miraculous transformations, and so on, he guides living beings mainly through giving the Dharma teaching. As Lama Tsongkhapa said in his Lamrim,
Sages do not wash away sins with water,
They do not clear away beings’ suffering with their hands,
They do not transfer their own knowledge to others;
They liberate by teaching the truth of reality.
This verse is quite influential in Tibetan Buddhism, and often quoted by many scholars in Tibet. It emphasizes the importance of the Dharma teaching, which is the very fundamental way to benefit sentient beings. As Buddhists, we should also follow the same way to benefit others. Given different situations, sometimes we can share the teachings related to the conventional truth, and sometimes give the teachings of the ultimate truth. If we are not capable of directly teaching the Dharma, we can still support the qualified Dharma teacher to do so, and this kind of contribution is very meaningful.
All in all, the essence of Buddhism is to teach and educate people. Buddhism is not a theology which is only based on rituals and simply relies on some divine beings’ power to eliminate people’s sickness and sufferings. If it were really that simple, it would be great. However, the phenomenal world doesn’t operate in such a way. So viewing Buddhism as an education is very important.
You explain that the dharmas are neither extant nor non-extant,
Although the dharmas are generated from causes and conditions;
That they are without self, without creation, without experiencer,
Although good and evil karma is also not extinguished.
So what is the teaching that the Buddha taught? The Buddha explained that all phenomena are neither existing nor non-existing, and people should not fall into the extreme of existence or the extreme of non-existence. Ultimately speaking, everything is free from conceptual elaborations; and relatively speaking, everything can dependently arise from causes and conditions. So in true reality, there is no self, no creation, and no experiencer: there is only good and bad karma which governs the appearance of everything and will not be extinguished until one achieves Buddhahood. The ultimate truth of emptiness and the conventional truth of appearance are the essential teachings of Buddhism. It is said in The Introduction to Middle Way,
So too all things, though empty,
Strongly manifest within their very emptiness.
And since inherent nature is in neither truth,
Phenomena are neither nothing nor unchanging entities.
This is how we should understand the fundamental view of Buddhism. Similarly, in Daoxuan’s The Way of Purifying the Mind and View, a verse goes like
Although there is no self and no phenomena,
Virtues and non-virtues still exist.
There are unbearable sufferings in samsara,
And the cycles of life and death in the six realms are endless.
Ultimately speaking, there is no intrinsic existence of self and phenomena; however, the manifestation of virtues and non-virtues do exist. The immense sufferings in samsara are unbearable, and the cycles of life and death will continue without any interruption. It is only after one achieves enlightenment that he or she will abide in the empty nature of these manifestations and be no longer bounded by them.
This state of enlightenment is well described in a poem: “The six realms vividly appear in a dream, yet nothing really exists after awakening.” In the delusional dream of samsara, everything appears to be real and existent. However, once you wake up, everything in the dream is nowhere to be found.
Initially, under the bodhi tree you forcefully subjugated Mara,
Attaining extinction, like sweet dew, and achieving enlightenment.
Without any intention in mind and without experiencing any process,
You thoroughly vanquished the heterodox paths.
This verse mainly praises the realization of the Buddha, which belongs to the twelve deeds of the Buddha. The Buddha subjugated mara through his ten powers under the bodhi tree, and thus achieved enlightenment and attained the sweet dew of nirvana. The Buddha vanquished the heterodoxy not through armaments or missiles. Rather, the Buddha first vanquished and subjugate the self, and then all the external maras were naturally subjugated. This is the most nonviolent and compassionate way of subjugation.
In Tibetan and in Xuanzang’s translations, instead of vanquished the heterodox paths, it is “beyond heterodoxy’s understanding”. The Buddha’s enlightenment is free from feelings, thoughts, and mental processes such as grasping. There is no creator to determine everything. Some philosophy schools believe that there has to be a creator to govern everything. For them, they cannot understand this profound realization of no intention, no experiences and no mental processes.
Traditionally speaking, Tibetan Buddhism put great importance on the teaching of twelve deeds of the Buddha. Even for people without extensive knowledge on sutras and shastras, they are very familiar with these twelve deeds. Usually on the last day of three-month summer retreat, it is required to teach the twelve deeds of the Buddha all night long. So Khenpo encourages everyone to study well this topic, which is a basic requirement of being a Buddhist. Khenpo once taught the twelve deeds of the Buddha at Yale University, and there’s an auspicious coincidence since it was right on the day of Buddha Shakyamuni’s descent from Tushita Heaven.
With three turnings of the wheel of the Dharma in the chiliocosm,
The wheel is fundamentally always pure.
The achievement of enlightenment by gods and humans attests to this,
And the Three Jewels are thus manifest in the world.
After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he turned the Dharma wheel three times: during the first turning he taught the Four Noble Truth, during the second turning he taught emptiness, and during the third turning he taught the buddha nature. However, from the ultimate point of view, there was no Dharma being taught, and there was no teacher who taught the Dharma.
As the Buddha said in many sutras, from the day he achieved enlightenment to the day he passed into parinirvana, he did not teach even one word, and the so-called teaching was merely the manifestation in front of sentient beings. Thus the nature of the Dharma wheel is fundamentally always pure, undefiled by dualist thought. But within the manifestation of turning the Dharma wheel, by relying upon the Dharma teachings, human beings and celestial beings achieved enlightenment.
After the Buddha turned the first Dharma wheel in Deer Park, five bhikshus and eighty-thousand devas were all enlightened. During the second turning of the Dharma wheel at Vulture Peak Mountain, numerous Bodhisattvas reached the path of seeing. And the same goes with the third turning of the Dharma wheel that took place in Vaishali and other places. Thus through the turning of the Dharma wheel, the Three Jewels appeared in this world.
With this wondrous Dharma you save sentient beings,
Who after experiencing it never regress from permanent serenity.
As the Great Medicine King who saves us from old age, illness, and death,
You should be worshiped as a Dharma sea whose virtues are boundless.
The Buddha saves sentient beings through his wondrous Dharma. Whoever has experienced the Dharma and achieved enlightenment would never regress to an ordinary being. Rather, he or she constantly remains in the luminous wisdom of non-dualism, and pacifies all mental afflictions and conceptual elaborations. In such a way, the Buddha has saved numerous living beings from old age, illness and death. Therefore, unlike those ordinary doctors who can only cure physical illness, but not the illness of ignorance deeply rooted in ordinary beings’ mind, the Buddha is called the Great Medicine King. So one should worship the Buddha as a Dharma sea whose virtues are boundless.
Here Jewel Accumulation praised the Buddha from the aspect of being the medicine king of the world. In the Avatamsaka Sutra it says:
Knowing well all the causes and antidotes of sentient beings’ sickness,
The enlightened being dispels their doubts and eradicates their ignorance.
The Buddha knows well about the illnesses of sentient beings, which is the truth of suffering. He also knows the causes of their illnesses, which is the truth of the cause of suffering. Furthermore, he knows the antidotes of their illnesses, as well as the final state of the eradication of their illness, which are the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the cessation of suffering, respectively. So the Buddha is able to dispel the deluded beings’ doubts and ignorance and to guide them towards liberation. Through this verse, we can see that the Buddha is completely different from all the other saviors in the world.
The Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truth, on the principle of dependent arising and emptiness, and on the twelve links of dependent origination are the most fundamental teachings in Buddhism. They are also the unsurpassable knowledge in this world. As Buddhists, we must at least understand these teachings. On the contrary, if one neither has any understanding or realization on emptiness, nor has any conviction on the karmic law of causes and effects, there’s no point of being a Buddhist. Khenpo mentioned that he may point out others’ faults from time to time, and it’s important that we reflect upon these teachings during our daily practice.
The Verses Proclaimed by Jewel Accumulation
At the beginning of the teaching, Khenpo said that he was so delighted that many people have the great merit to receive the Dharma teaching. For a well-endowed human existence, eight freedoms are expounded in Buddhist philosophy, while Longchenpa elaborated the other sixteen factors that leave no opportunity for the Dharma study and practice in his Wish Fulfilling Treasury. As worldly beings, we’re subject to different undesirable causes and conditions, such as lack of persistence and enthusiasm, and it’s fairly easy for us to end up not being able to listen to and practice the Dharma. Considering either internal or external factors, it is very rare and precious for us to have the chance to study the Dharma like we are enjoying now. Thus, before serious illness or other undesirable situations incapacitate us, we must all strive to create favorable causes and conditions for listening to the Dharma, for ourselves and others.
The Vimalakirti Sutra is a renowned classic in Tibetan Buddhism and a great deal of research literature has been published in various languages. For these reasons, Khenpo would like to take his time to teach on this sutra. In his view, imparting the sutra is not about accumulating numbers, hurrying to finish one and start another. In the process of listening to the teachings, audiences might come across difficulty to comprehend contents, so Khenpo will tell less worldly stories, rather he will expound on this sutra from the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, focusing on explaining its meaning from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism.
For the present teaching, Khenpo will refer to different versions of translation, with main emphasis on the Tibetan and Kumarajiva’s version. He encourages audiences to look up the Chinese and English translations and study them well. For general audience, Khenpo considers it is irresponsible to only listen to the teachings without preview and review of the teachings. Personally when receiving the teaching, Khenpo would read the text a couple of times in advance. Similar to when giving the teaching, he will also read the related commentaries and notes as much as he can. Dharma is too profound for us to grasp if we handle it haphazardly.
Immovable before abuse and praise, like [Mount] Sumeru,
You are equally compassionate to those who are good or not.
Your mental processes are universally same, like space-
Who could hear of Jewel Among Human without becoming devoted [to you]?
This verse praises the Buddha from the perspective of praise and abuse. The Buddha is not affected by any praise or defamation. In Xuanzang’s translation, it is stated as “not swayed by eight worldly dharmas” instead of immovable before abuse and praise. Worldly people are easily influenced by the eight worldly concerns—gain and loss, happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance, and praise and blame. The Buddha, like Mount Sumeru, is unshakable by honor, scorn, or whatnots.
In the past, when five hundred Brahmins slandered the Buddha with various lies, the Buddha was so utterly imperturbable by insults such that the Brahmins developed great faith in him. They then praised the Buddha expansively, but the Buddha again maintained the same steadfast composure.
Unfortunately, we ordinary beings don’t react the same way. Khenpo considers himself well “tempered” in this respect. For instance, the other day when he was told about someone’s criticisms on him, instead of getting upset, Khenpo answered calmly: “Brilliant, many thanks to him!” Khenpo has always maintained such a grateful attitude toward those who are at odds with him, as he mentioned, he may have even more gratitude to these people than to those who made offerings to him. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have eradicated mental afflictions at the root,” Khenpo explained, “but rather that others’ scolding or criticism is the best opportunity for my mental exercise, whereby I can strengthen my muscle of positive qualities!”
The second line says that the Buddha benefits everyone without bias, regardless if they are kind-hearted persons or depraved ones indulging in negative deeds. Zhi Qian’s translation goes as, “You are equally compassionate to all, whether they uphold the precepts or violate them.” Normally, we look up to those who keep pure precepts while disparage those who breach precepts; however, the Buddha treats both groups with equal love.
Whether in meditative or post-meditative state, the Buddha is always poised in equanimity; his mind is like the sky transcending praise and criticism, good and bad. Upon hearing about the Buddha, the Jewel Among Human, who would not honor and give respectable assent?
Even in our ordinary world, the quality of staying unruffled by acclamation and abuse is also highly regarded. The Dhammapada says: “Just as Mount Sumeru is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.”
Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita told the story that Devadatta tried to assassinate the Buddha, and once he rolled a boulder down a hill aiming at the Buddha. However, the Buddha still received Devadatta with great empathy, in the same way he would extend to his only son Rahula who reverently stood by the Buddha ready to serve. The Buddha was seeing no difference like between a poisonous plant and the sandalwood tree. So the verse goes as:
Devadatta angrily hurls a rock at the Buddha,
While Rahula attends in front of him,
He sees them both with the eye of mercy,
Like treating poison and sandalwood equally.
Nonetheless, Khenpo points out that such impartiality is an exalted state attained only by Buddha’s realization. For ordinary people, it is frustrating that some neither feel gratitude towards others’ kindness and offerings, nor feel ashamed upon others’ complaint. This indifference state is not the same as Buddha’s impartial state of realization.
Now we offer the World-honored One this subtle canopy
Within which is manifested to us the trimegachiliocosm,
Including the palaces in which the gods and dragons abide,
As well as the gandharvas and yaksas.
We see all that transpires in the world
As He of the Ten Powers compassionately manifests these transformations.
The congregation has observed this rare event and all exclaimed in praise of the Buddha,
And now we bow our heads to the Honored One of the triple world.
Jewel Accumulation and his retinues made offerings of five hundred canopies to the Buddha. By the Buddha’s mighty blessing, these canopies instantly turned into one, beneath which the entire universe appeared, including palaces where gods, dragons, and spirits resided, and there were humans and nonhumans of gandharas, yaksas and all other beings. The Buddhas of the ten directions who were expounding the Dharma too were visible within the canopy.
The Buddha makes manifest these miraculous transformations by his ten exclusive powers out of compassion towards sentient beings. Although the offering of a canopy is not a big deal for these elders’ sons, such a small cause brings about the magnificent and transcendental results. This exactly accords with the principle of dependent arising. All beings, including human and non-humans alike, witnessed Buddha’s miraculous display out of his ten powers; they perceived these rare events and praised Buddha unceasingly.
This is the state beyond ordinary beings’ imagination. When reading a depiction like this in the sutra, we think it’s unbelievable due to not seeing it ourselves, thus we become skeptical. However, modern high tech is also equipped with similar inconceivable powers.
For instance, decades ago it would take a long time to deliver a mail between the United States and China, and to converse by phone was not easy, let alone live video chat. However, nowadays these are no longer big deals. More recently, there have been reports on developing supersonic aircraft, under-water bullet train, and the possibility of colonizing the Mars. All such feats were unimaginable in the past. We, as modern citizens, have witnessed many technological achievements made possible by innovators, which is in the same vein when we read that during the Buddha’s time, due to the merits of the disciples and the Buddha’s blessing powers, a small offering of canopies was rendered a supra-mundane transformation in which the three thousand worlds were revealed.
As everything depends on causes and conditions, if we become endowed with Buddha’s ten powers and compassions, we can enable countless sentient beings to attain enlightenment. Oppositely with an inclination of violence, we will bring terror, fear, and anxiety to this world. Not only countries, but also individuals, families, and personal health will be affected.
[You,] the Great Sage and Dharma King, are the refuge to the congregation,
Who purify their minds in contemplating [you], the buddha, all of them in ecstasy.
They each see the World-honored One in front of himself,
Through the [eighteen] exclusive attributes of [the Buddha’s] numinous power.
The whole assembly took refuge in the Buddha, the Great Sage and the King of the Dharma. There is none who did not rejoice. Whether in front of the Buddha on that occasion or at the present time, anyone who contemplates the Buddha’s body with a pure mind will be joyful, and there will be the Buddha present in front of them. Despite Buddha’s passing into parinirvana, his blessing and illusory body will manifest before sentient beings forever. This is due to Buddha’s omniscient capacity, which even Shravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas are not endowed. For example, the King of Samadhi Sutra states: “Those who, while walking, sitting, standing, or sleeping, recollect the moon-like Buddha, will always be in Buddha’s presence.”
A Chan master in Song Dynasty wrote: “A thousand lakes and rivers there are, a thousand moons’ reflections appear therein; ten thousand cloudless miles there are, ten thousand miles of open sky there are.” Originally, this poem denotes that every sentient being has Buddha nature, which will come to the fore when obscurations are eliminated; and obscurations are like clouds in the sky, which can be cleared away and leave the sky-like Buddha nature to appear. In the context of this teaching, this verse can be explained in the way that the Buddha will appear to every sentient being who has faith in him, just like the moon reflected on all the water surfaces on the earth.
Guru Rinpoche also teaches: “For all men and women with faith in me, I, Padmasambhava, have never departed. I sleep beside their door. For me there is no such thing as death; before each person with faith, there is a Padmasambhava.” This again stresses the importance of supplicating to enlightened beings with faith, devotion and yearning.
Khenpo reminds us that as Buddhists, we shall forever be grateful to Buddha Shakyamuni for his kindness in caring for us with surpassing compassion. We aspire to practice regularly the sadhana The Treasury of Blessings — A Practice of Buddha Shakyamuni, which, thanks to Khenpo, is included in the Larung Liturgy of Daily Practices. Khenpo himself often chants a stanza from it before giving teachings:
With your great compassion, you embraced this turbulent and degenerate world,
And made five hundred mighty aspirations.
You are as exalted as the white lotus; whoever hears your name shall never return to samsara –
Most compassionate teacher, to you I pay homage!
Also, Khenpo reminds us that when traveling, we should remember to bring a small Buddha’s statue with us, which will be the object of our veneration whenever we go.By entreating to Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche, or other deities with one-pointed concentration and reverence, we will experience blessings and deepen our Dharma practice. If we treat Dharma study as an academic research without the essential ingredient of faith, the fundamental and ultimate meanings of Dharma will elude us. Compared to mere academic approach, arousing faith in our Dharma study will beget many more benefits, including the sharpening of our wisdom. This is something we must deliberate on carefully, as implicit in it are the Buddha’s numinous powers.
The Buddha explains the Dharma with one sound,
And sentient beings each attain understanding according to their capacity,
Each one says the World-Honored One is speaking his own language,
Through the exclusive attribute of [the Buddha’s] numinous power.
The Buddha explains the Dharma with one sound, all beings understand according to their own lineage, saying the Buddha speaks their own languages. This is due to the Buddha’s unshared numinous power.
In modern day international conferences, as we know, simultaneous interpretation in different languages is provided such that people from different parts of the world using English, French, Spanish, Indian, Mongolian etc., can all understand the speakers. The same happened in the grand assembly described in this sutra, except that no simultaneous translators were present. The Buddha expounded the Dharma in Sanskrit; however, beings of various origins heard the teaching in their own languages.
Why is that? It is because the wisdom for beings to understand language is always present in them, in the emptiness of Dharmadhatu, or the ground of indivisible union of emptiness and luminosity. We all have this innate ability to grasp all languages, otherwise there will be no way for us to learn to talk from an early age. However, so far we don’t have the merits to fully master this ability; the Buddha, on the other hand, is spontaneously proficient in all worldly languages by virtue of having realized the profound indivisibility of appearance and emptiness. Thus the Buddha can render all beings’ comprehension of his teaching according to their kinds.
The Buddha preaches the Dharma with one sound,
And sentient beings each understand accordingly,
Everyone accepts and practices it, and receives its benefit,
Through the exclusive attribute of [the Buddha’s] numinous power.
The Buddha preaches the Dharma in one sound, all beings understand it according to their own capacity, mental propensity, and lineage. They all undertake the Buddhas’s practices and acquire profit thereby. For instance, people who have affinity for Vinaya will attain the wisdom of Vinaya; while those enjoy giving will achieve the wisdom of generosity.
Some commentaries interpret that when the Buddha himself is present among different beings, his body can appear in different forms to various sentient beings and they in turn receive corresponding benefits. For example, humans perceive the Buddha as a golden image and feel inspired. To heavenly beings, the Buddha appears in the same form like them; and to animals, he assumes the forms of animals. In short, through various sounds and forms, the Buddha benefits all living beings. Particularly by giving the Dharma teaching, the Buddha brings genuine welfare to sentient beings and dispels their sufferings.
The Buddha preaches the Dharma with one sound,
But some are afraid and some joyous.
Some generate revulsion [to the world of suffering] or eliminate their doubts,
Through the exclusive attribute of [the Buddha’s] numinous power.
The Buddha expounds the Dharma with one sound; but to some it brings fear, and to others delight and joy. For instance, previously some people might have no particular fear towards samsara. After hearing the Buddha’s teaching on its miseries, however, they instantly experience terror. To experience a reaction from the teaching is important, Khenpo says, otherwise, it’s not that good if you are like a stone incapable of responding with joy, sorrow, or dread. Listening to the Dharma while spacing out will bring no effect on your mind.
In a teaching when the sufferings of three lower realms are expounded, you shall take in the description so much so that your hairs stand on ends, and you think, “Gosh, I need to practice Dharma diligently, otherwise, what if I am reborn in these horrible realms?” When the merit of the three upper realms and liberation is explained, you shall generate a sense of joy: “Wow, I’m so fortunate to come across the Dharma and the path to liberation!” When hearing the defects of samsara, you shall resolve: “I will not cling to the samsara anymore, I need to foster renunciation from now on”, and overcome your strong attachment to samsara.. Some people, with all kinds of confusion, lack the firmly held understanding of the worldly and transcendental truths. In this case, they shall eradicate their doubts through hearing the Dharma as quickly as possible.
The Dharma can be taught by bodhisattvas, arhats, or ordinary people, but it is the Buddha alone who is replete with the transcendent powers that bring relevant boons to all beings. Khenpo recalls his days as a disciple under his root guru, H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche. When Khenpo heard His Holiness’s teaching on The Extensive Biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, he generated irreversible faith in the Buddha. When hearing the sufferings of samsara described in Letter to a Friend, he aroused strong aversion towards the cyclic existence. In the winter of 1985 when Khenpo freshly arrived at the academy, he received His Holiness’s teaching on vinaya. He was so nervous about breaking the pure precepts that he would not even dare to walk as usual..
In all, Khenpo stresses that Dharma teachers are to be genuinely affected and moved by the teaching themselves before imparting it; the students, in turn, shall listen to the teaching with an open heart, and with no pretense to feel scared when meant to be, to have joy when situation calls, or to feel revulsion when must, and so on. Having this kind of resonance and communication during a teaching is important for it to be effective.
In the Tibetan version, this stanza differs slightly from the above, saying: “When the Buddha expounds Dharma, some sentient beings sow the seed of liberation, some attain realization, some dispel doubts.” The variation might have come from different Sanskrit originals; we must respect different translation versions and refrain from making changes.
We bow our heads to Him of the Ten Powers and Great Exertion.
We bow our heads to Him Who Has Achieved Fearlessness.
We bow our heads to Him Residing in the Exclusive Attributes.
We bow our heads to the Great Guide of All.
The Buddha possesses the ten powers such as the power of knowing what is true and what’s not, the power of knowing the work of karmic causality in all beings, and so on, which are elaborated in The Introduction to the Middle Way and The Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutra. The words “great exertion” do not appear in the Xuanzang’s and Tibetan versions.
The Buddha has attained four fearlessnesses of benefiting self and others — fearlessness in asserting one’s own perfect realization, fearlessness in asserting one’s own perfect abandonment, fearlessness for the sake of others in revealing the path to liberation, and fearlessness for the sake of others in revealing potential hindrances on the path. So we bow our heads to the one who knows no fear.
The Buddha dwells in eighteen distinctive qualities, acquiring perfection in actions of body, speech, and mind. We bow to the one who fully manifests these exclusive attributes and who is the great guide of all beings!
We bow our heads to Him Who Can Eradicate the Fetters.
We bow our heads to Him Who Has Arrived the Other shore.
We bow our heads to Him Who Can Save [Beings in All] the Worlds,
We bow our heads to Him Who Has Eternally Transcended the Realm of Samsara.
Fetters are the mental chains that shackle all ordinary sentient beings to cyclic existence of pain and suffering. When arriving at the first bhumi, bodhisattvas successfully eradicate the three fetters of belief in a self, doubt, and attachment to rites and rituals. The Buddha, without mention, has cut the bondage of all fetters and arrived the other shore of the paramitas from generosity to prajna.
Having attained enlightenment himself, the Buddha is able to liberate countless sentient beings. Some tirthika achievers may temporarily feel free from impediments, yet they will regress later on and plunge right back into cyclic existence. But the Buddha has eliminated the subtlest cognitive obscurations and forever left behind the rounds of birth and death. With all these qualities possessed by the Buddha, we bow our head to him!
You understand the past and future characteristic of sentient beings,
And well have you attained emancipation with regard to the dharmas,
Unattached to the world, like the lotus flower growing out of the mud,
You always enter well into the practice of empty serenity (i.e., nirvana).
You have attained the characteristics of the dharmas without hindrance,
And we bow our heads to Him Who Relies On Nothing, Like Space.
The Buddha knows very well the comings and goings of sentient beings in samsara and how they are forever trapped in it due to their ignorance. The Buddha himself has entered and dwelled in samsara also, yet he is free from it and attains emancipation with regard to all phenomena. He is not tainted by samsara, like the lotus growing out of the mud, unsullied, as described in the verse: “Just like the lotus flower to which mud and water cannot cling, or sun and moon that course unhindered through the sky.” Why? The reason is that Buddha has completely realized emptiness and always entered well into the practice of empty serenity. The Buddha has no obscurations, as described in the Heart Sutra: “Since their minds are unobscured, they have no fear. Transcending all forms of misconception, they reach nirvana.”
In the Tibetan and in Xuanzang’s translations, there are two sentences preceding the last one: “Fulfilling sentient beings’ wishes and having no wishes, his miraculous power is inconceivable.” The Buddha can fulfill sentient beings’ wishes, but he has no wishes, because he has attained ultimate realization. The Buddha can probe the depths of everything without hindrance, and who, like space, relies on nothing. So his miraculous power is beyond the reach of ordinary beings, thus Jewel Accumulations pays homage to the Buddha.
Some may wonder why it is necessary to praise the Buddha, since he is unmoved by praise and blame, and transcends any worldly concerns. Indeed, it is a meaningful practice for us followers to perfect our accumulation of merits. Meanwhile, upon hearing the praises of the Buddha’s exclusive attributes, non-believers or people with doubts can gradually develop faith in the Buddha, and eventually embark on the path of liberation. Therefore, the great masters of the past composed many poems to compliment the Buddha, such as Je Tsongkapha’s In Praise of Dependent Arising, Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita and so on. Buddhacarita describes an epic life of the Buddha in 28 chapters, from his birth until his entry into nirvana, as well as how his relics were distributed worldwide. Till today, it is an important poem for people to study the life and acts of Buddha Shakayamuni.
Bodhisattva Jewel Accumulation Asked Buddha a Question
When the elders’s son Jewel Accumulation finished speaking this verse, he addressed the Buddha: “World-Honored One, these five hundred elder’s sons have all generated the intention to achieve anuttara samyak-sambodhi (complete, perfect enlightenment). We wish to hear of the purity of the countries of Buddha. Would the World-Honored One please explain for the Bodhisattvas the practices by which a land is purified?”
After uttering the verses, Jewel Accumulation addressed the Buddha that the five hundred elder’s sons had set their minds on seeking the supreme, perfect enlightenment. They wanted to hear about the magnificence of buddha land and begged the Buddha to explain the practices carried out by bodhisattvas in purifying their lands.
The Buddha said, “Excellent, Jewel Accumulation! You’re able to inquire on behalf of the Bodhisattvas regarding the practice by which the Tathagata purified his land. Listen clearly, listen clearly, and consider this well. I will explain it for you.” At this Jewel Accumulation and the five hundred elder’s sons listened as instructed.
Upon this request, the Buddha gave his approval to Jewel Accumulation, saying that for the sake of bodhisattvas he had asked a good question about buddha land and the cultivation of it.
Listen clearly, listen clearly is an emphatic reminder for audiences to pay full attention, thus representing the wisdom of hearing. Consider this well means to ponder it over, thus entailing the wisdom of contemplation. The word consider in the Chinese version has an additional character that means “be mindful”, which signify the wisdom of meditation and practice. The phrase “listen clearly, listen clearly, and consider this well” appear quite often in the sutra, prompting us to exercise the three wisdom tools of listening, reflection and meditation when we study the Dharma, and to incorporate it into our daily lives.
Hearing this, Jewel Accumulation along with the five hundred elder’s sons, gods, and all others were in great joy and listened with respectful attention to what the Buddha had to say.
The Buddha said, “Jewel Accumulation, the categories of sentient beings are the bodhisattvas’ buddha lands. Why is this? Bodhisattvas acquire the buddha lands according to the sentient beings they convert. They acquire the buddha lands according to the sentient beings they discipline. They acquire the buddha lands according to what country sentient beings need to enter into buddha wisdom. They acquire the buddha lands according to what country sentient beings need to generate roots [for becoming] bodhisattvas.
The Buddha then explained a unique way of cultivating buddha land that takes into account of the sentient beings to be tamed. Such an approach differs from that of Amitabha Buddha and Medicine Buddha who first established their pure lands according to their forty-eight vows or twelve vows, respectively, and then invoke sentient beings to come over to their lands. What the Buddha is revealing here, instead, is quite similar to the Vajrayana approach in which the main focus of cultivating a buddha land is sentient beings. In other words, it is in responding to sentient beings’ categories and propensities that a buddha land comes into being. We must pay attention to these differences.
The Buddha told Jewel Accumulation, “The categories of sentient beings are the bodhisattvas’ buddha lands.” It means that when the bodhisattvas establish their own buddha lands, they must consider sentient beings’ preferences and wishes. In the Tibetan and in Xuanzang’s versions, the categories of sentient is interpreted as “the lands of sentient beings”, meaning the lands of sentient beings are in themselves bodhisattvas’ buddha lands. Why is it so? There are four reasons:
First, bodhisattvas acquire the buddha lands according to the sentient beings they convert. It is by converting various beings to the teachings that the bodhisattvas acquire that buddha land. If sentient beings favor the practice of generosity, the buddha land for them will be adorned with seven jewels. If sentient beings have perfected discipline, then there will be no thorns in the buddha land, and so on. Acquire the buddha lands denotes to cultivate, to embrace, or to create buddha lands in the future.
Second, bodhisattvas acquire the buddha lands according to the sentient beings they discipline. Bodhisattvas are adept in employing skillful means to teach sentient beings, whether by way of the six paramitas or by manifesting themselves in majestic or modest forms. To the extent that sentient beings become disciplined in their desire, anger and ignorance, to that extent bodhisattvas appear to them.
Third, bodhisattvas acquire the buddha lands according to what country sentient beings need to enter into buddha wisdom. According to their inclinations, sentient beings in their future will enter a certain buddha land and attain buddha wisdom. For instance, if people have practiced the four conducive causes of rebirth in Sukhavati, they will be born there after death and thereby attain buddha wisdom. By knowing what country sentient beings need to enter into buddha wisdom, the bodhisattvas establish their buddha lands.
The last reason, bodhisattvas acquire the buddha lands according to what country sentient beings need to generate roots for becoming bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas cultivate buddha land according to the country where sentient beings will be reborn, in which they will grow their bodhisattva root. The root of bodhisattvas, known also as the “sacred root”, includes the wisdom of non-duality, the five faculties of faith, mindfulness, etc., as well as the sublime root of never falling back from the path to enlightenment. By knowing what country sentient beings need to generate roots for becoming bodhisattvas, the bodhisattvas establish their buddha lands.
Why is this? Because bodhisattvas’ acquisition of the pure countries is entirely for the benefit of sentient beings. It’s like a man who wants to build a palace on empty land who is [able to build it] according to his wish without hindrance. He would never be able to build it in space. Bodhisattvas are like this. In order to accomplish the [salvation of] sentient beings, they vow to acquire the buddha countries. The vow to acquire a buddha land is not done in empty space!
Bodhisattvas’ acquisition of the pure countries is entirely due to their having brought benefit to living beings. This is a crucial point. If sentient beings could not derive benefit from the buddha land, the bodhisattvas would not set their mind to build it in the first place.
Here is an example: Suppose a man wants to build a mansion on a plot of open land. Having the support of the ground, he will able to build it according to his wish without hindrance. But, if he tries to build the mansion in space, the empty air, he’s bound to fail. Bodhisattvas are like this. If their acquisition of buddha land is to accomplish the salvation of sentient beings, their job is workable, like constructing a building on empty land. On the contrary, if their motivation is not an altruistic one, success is totally out of question, as futile as planting flowers in the air or building mansions on frozen lakes.
Therefore, the vow to acquire a buddha land is not done in empty space, but rather based on the needs of sentient beings. For us followers, we must also have the same consideration for our dharma activities. For example, if we want to start an organization to help others, we do need a clear idea of what this organization is mainly for, and then how to fulfil this purpose. Some dharma practitioners may think that the best situation for them is to find a retreat place in solitude and keep meditating, so as to avoid all kinds of social activities and engagement with others. Indeed, this thought has no difference with the idea of building a house in the empty sky. Mahayana practitioners should endeavor to help living beings by all means and to make the proper aspirations based on others’ needs.
What Is a Buddha Land? (1)
Jewel Accumulation, you should understand that sincerity is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva attains buddhahood, it is sentient beings who do not flatter [and lie] that come be born in his country.
Now we are talking about the main theme of “pure mind, pure land”. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, a pure land cannot be built in empty sky, but must have a foundation. Just as one will design a yoga studio or coffee shop based on its customers’ needs, the bodhisattva will also design his future land based on sentient beings’ needs. So how will be a bodhisattva’s pure land like? And how will a bodhisattva’s pure land attract other beings? In fact, it is through Dharma practice to build a pure land and satisfy other beings’ needs.
Dharma practice plays a crucial role in this regard. Even in this ordinary world, good practitioners see everywhere as pure land. When they go to the cities, they feel the urban environment is nice and everyone looks like a bodhisattva. When they go to a solitary place, they will also be joyous, “Wow! Lama Chen! What a pleasant place for meditation!” Therefore, in their eyes, everyone and everything is wonderful. On the contrary, bad practitioners see others as their competitors or enemies, ugly witches or ferocious demons. Wherever they go, they feel that the place is scary and full of thorns. Thus, one’s feeling is quite related to his or her Dharma practice.
According to the Vimalakirti Sutra, a pure land is manifested by a sentient being’s pure mind, which is quite close to the tantric teachings, such as the self-manifested pure land illustrated in the Guhyagarbha Tantra. They are similar, but not exactly the same. In both cases, we should know that a pure land is only a manifestation, otherwise, a truly existent pure land is contradictory to the conventional valid cognition of pure vision.
Here the sutra tells us that when a bodhisattva attains buddhahood, sincere sentient beings who are not hypocritical or dishonest will go to his pure land. Because this bodhisattva has practiced sincerity at his casual stage, he will certainly attract sincere beings to come to his pure land. For example, the supreme and stately pure land of Buddha Amitabha is closely related to his aspirations made in his previous life when he was a great bodhisattva. As such, if one practices sincerity now, in the future sentient beings who don’t flatter or lie will be born in one’s pure land.
Here sincerity means no flattery, lie or hypocrisy. As explained in Abhidharmakosa, it is a mind devoid of flattery and lie. So it is a genuine and honest mind. In Ju Mipham Rinpoche’s The Words on the Mundane and Transmundane Codes, there is a chapter specifically talking about sincerity, which is described as a pure mind without cunning, flattery and deceitfulness.
Some people think that they are straightforward, so they do not need to hide their greed and hatred, and they always point out others’ faults directly. However, such behaviors do not show their sincerity, but show their lack of wisdom as they are too blunt. The wise won’t speak out their thoughts all the time because they will observe if it is a proper occasion. Just as what Patrul Rinpoche said in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, sometimes you don’t need to speak your mind, and sometimes you don’t need to walk your talk. For instance, when some people feel angry, they cannot control their emotions and will say some harsh words like “I will hit you” or “I will kill you”, but they won’t really do that. Therefore, the so-called “straightforwardness” is not the “sincerity” mentioned in this text. Here, sincerity is integrity that a Dharma practitioner must have. As Zen Master Guishan Lingyou said,
As a Dharma practitioner, one should have a mind
That is sincere without any hypocrisy,
That is free from duplicity and unfrank obedience,
That is far from being cunning and deceitful.
This means that Dharma practitioners should have a righteous, honest and pure mind, and they are not double-dealers. Such sincere sentient beings could be reborn in pure land. From the other perspective, if you make aspirations to be sincere, when you attain buddhahood you will have a pure land of sincerity.
This is the first kind of mind. According to Master Sengzhao’s commentary, this sincerity is the very root and the foundation for a profound mind.
A profound mind is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva attains buddhahood, it is sentient beings who are complete in merit that come to be born in his country.
In Tibetan version, a profound mind is called confident faith, which is steadfast and cannot be changed by others easily. A profound mind is not a simple, shallow and unstable state of mind, neither just a lip-service. It is a firm and one-pointed mind to carry on all virtuous deeds, and abstain from all non-virtuous deeds, and it is the bodhisattva’s pure land. Because a bodhisattva has such a profound mind, when he attains buddhahood, he will naturally be endowed with infinite qualities and possess the complete collections of merits and sublime wisdom.
In The Treasury of Good Advice by Sakya Pandita, it is taught,
A fool’s knowledge shows on the surface,
But a wise person’s knowledge is hidden within.
A straw floats on top of water,
A jewel sinks even when placed on the surface.
People with little wisdom tend to show off all they know, just like a straw floating on top of water. But people with profound knowledge usually hide their merits and wisdom deeply. When it is necessary, the wise will give an eloquent speech; when it is not, they will not show off their knowledge.
Thus, as a Dharma practitioner, one should first have sincerity, and then cultivate a profound mind, which is a steadfast confident faith. As this approach itself is indeed a gradual path of Dharma practice.
The mind of bodhi is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings of the Mahayana come to be born in his country.
Based on sincerity and a profound mind, one should generate the supreme bodhichitta. As we all know, if one aspires to develop bodhichitta, one makes the determination to attain buddhahood in order to guide all sentient beings toward enlightenment. The mind of bodhi is a bodhisattva’s pure land. When the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, his pure land will have no Hinayana but all Mahayana Buddhists. Just as in Buddha Amitabha’s pure land, everyone is a bodhisattva with altruistic intention, and there are no beings of lower realms, no beings with wrong views, and no Shravakas or Pratyekabuddhas.
So if we can arouse the supreme bodhichitta now, it is our Bodhimanda, site of enlightenment. We usually say that “sincerity is a Bodhimanda”, which has a profound meaning. Without a systematic study, many people only have a literal understanding of this instruction. Only through studying, contemplating and meditating on the Dharma will they know how matchless are the merits and benefits generated from practicing prajnaparamita or from cultivating the unsurpassable bodhichitta.
Whenever Khenpo gives a teaching, he will remind us to generate bodhichitta. He didn’t elaborate on the content of bodhichitta in this lecture, because the definition, merits, benefits, and types of bodhichitta are well illustrated in many Mahayana sutras and commentaries. This text here emphasizes that the cultivation of bodhichitta will lead to the Mahayana enlightenment.
It is the systematic approach of Mahayana Buddhism to gradually develop these three types of mind, i.e. sincerity, profound mind and bodhichitta. First of all, we should have an honest personality without flattery or cunning; based on this, we should develop confident faith; and then generate the supreme bodhichitta according to the Mahayana teachings. This is the basic requirement for each Buddhist.
Charity is the bodhisattva’s pure land—all sentient beings capable of renunciation come to be born in his country.
Charity, or generosity, is the bodhisattva’s pure land. This statement is a little bit different from some common teachings in the Sutrayana tradition. People may feel it difficult to understand why generosity is a pure land. But in fact, the practice of generosity will create one’s own pure land. When one attains buddhahood, all sentient beings who is generous without any stinginess will come to be born in his pure land.
As a Tibetan saying goes, pull out one hair from the nostril, tears will come out from the eyes. This is to describe how some people are too reluctant to give out things. For example, after the meal, the one who has to pay the bill for others would feel very sad. Khenpo joked that when a generous person attains buddhahood, he would be surrounded by generous people and everyone would fight over to pay the bill. So if you practice generosity, either the giving of material things or of the Dharma, when you achieve buddhahood, all the attendees in your pure land will be generous.
As Master Ji Zang said in his commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra, when one attains buddhahood, all beings who have received his giving will be able to take birth in his Buddha land. For instance, if one benefits 500 persons by giving them material goods, with such karmic connection, these 500 persons will take birth in one’s Buddha land in the future. The same applies to the giving of the Dharma. There is a story in The Sutra of One Hundred Karma Stories: At his causal stage, Buddha Shakyamuni once offered his body to five yaksas. When he attained buddhahood, the five yaksas were reborn as five Brahmins, and later became the first five Bhikshus in the Buddha’s sangha. Therefore, the practice of generosity will serve as an auspicious cause for one’s attainment of buddhahood and cultivation of pure land in the future.
In fact, the practice of generosity is marvelous as it will bring happiness to each sentient being. It is said in Nagarjuna’s Mahaprajna Paramita Sastra that the act of giving, no matter how big or small, will make beings happy, including animals and enemies. So sometimes the act of generosity is the best practice. Sentient beings will be very glad to receive our generosity, although some of them might not want to repay our kindness for the moment.
Khenpo said that one day when he wanted to throw away some stuff in his house, a lama said to him, “Please give them to me, and I will give out to others. They will for sure be happy.” Khenpo didn’t think those things were useful, but the lama insisted, “It doesn’t matter. They must be useful for some people.” Therefore, some stuff may be useless to one person, yet be appreciated by another for its direct or indirect usefulness. So it is better for us to practice generosity, then in the future generous beings will be born in our country. Otherwise, it would be terrible to have a pure land full of misers.
Morality is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have fulfilled their vows to practice the path of the ten types of good come to be born in his country.
When a bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have practiced the path of the ten virtues and therefore whose aspirations can be fulfilled will come to be born in his Buddha land. According to Master Sengzhao, although there are many precepts in the bodhisattva vows, all of these precepts can be included in the path of ten virtuous deeds. Since it is not easy to observe pure percepts in every aspect, for those who have perfectly practiced the path of ten virtues, their aspirations can be consequently fulfilled.
The practice of ten virtues is not only a Buddhist doctrine, but also common ethics and a code of conduct of all human beings. No country in this world will accept the ten unvirtuous deeds, i.e., killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, harsh speech, sowing discord, idle gossip, covetousness, wishing harm on others and wrong views. Each country will have similar regulations to forbid such behaviors.
The Buddha’s teachings are universally applicable. No matter if one is a Buddhist or not, and no matter if one observes the discipline or not, anyone who takes unwholesome actions will sow negative karmic seeds in his mind. On the contrary, anyone who practices the ten virtues will naturally receive large benefits in his life. Therefore, it is vital for us to observe pure precepts, and the practice of ten virtues is the foundation of it. In the text, the higher discipline of bodhisattva vows and Vajrayana vows are not mentioned. Only the cultivation of the ten virtues is emphasized. Those whose wishes can be fulfilled through such an auspicious cause will come to be born in a Bodhisattva’s Buddha land.
Forbearance is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have ornamented themselves with the thirty-two marks [of a buddha] come to be born in his country.
It’s important for us to practice forbearance, or patience, which will bring us good appearance in all lifetimes. In Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way, it says that patience brings one good look, which will make people adore him or her. In contrast, those who have never cultivated patience will be ugly and disliked by others. Although appearance is just a conditioned phenomenon without any inherent nature, it has been valued by people throughout the ages. Anyone who looks beautiful or handsome is generally more appreciated in this world. But in some cases, these people tend to be arrogant and not aware of their own ignorance.
In fact, a good appearance is a manifestation of one’s mind. People usually say that one’s appearance is related to one’s mind. There is story illustrative of this: A painter wanted to paint a religious scene representing an angel and a devil., He went out to look for models. Before long, he found a ten-year-old boy who looked very sweet, pure, and beautiful. He asked him to be his model and successfully painted him as an angel. Then he started to look for a model for the devil, but couldn’t find a proper one for ten years. Eventually he found an extremely ugly and terrible-looking man in a bar and asked him to be his model. Then he painting him as a devil. But later he found out that these two models were actually the same person! The boy looked like an angel when he was 10 years old. However, afterwards he became addicted to alcohol and gambling, and did a lot of negative deeds, so finally he became a useless vagrant. His misdeeds made him look like an ugly demon.
Not sure how true this story is, but Buddhism says that everything is created by the mind. Indeed, on the one hand, if one is kind-hearted and always helps others, he will be beloved by people even despite his unpleasant looks. On the other hand, if one looks good but is vicious, everyone will be afraid of him and leave him alone, which may even make him perceive himself as a demon. So even for the sake of appearance, it is meaningful for us to practice forbearance.
Common people all want to be good-looking, healthy and long-lived. However, without the practice of forbearance, it is impossible to achieve these goals either in this life or the next. In Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva, it goes as follows:
For patience in samsara brings such things
As beauty, health, and good renown.
Its fruit is great longevity,
The vast contentment of a universal king.
It means that if one practices patience in all lifetimes, one gains beauty, health, longevity and good reputation. Like a universal king, one can effortlessly obtain plenty of wealth and spontaneously get many other advantages in one’s present life. Many people want these badly. A short-tempered one might say, “You’d better not make me angry, which is very bad for my health and will make me die quickly.” Although we can be quick at puting the blame on others, the root cause of our problems is our own mind. In reality, it is one’s bad temper that makes one sick and die quickly.
Exertion is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have energetically cultivated all the [types of] merit come to be born in his country.
Exertion is the source of all the merits. Wherever there is exertion, there is a bodhisattva’s pure land. When a bodhisattva becomes a Buddha, a retinue with the same quality of exertion will come to his Buddha land.
Different people have different qualities, which is true among both dharma practitioners and ordinary people. Some teachers are surrounded by indolent students, and have to scold them, “Why are you guys so lazy and sleep late?” Some teachers may even cry, “How come I am so unlucky that the naughtiest students of the school are in my class? They are so lazy, ugly and stupid.…”
In fact, the external environment is a manifestation of one’s own mind. If you didn’t practice exertion well in previous lifetimes, now your followers will manifest in the same way. Similarly, as an entrepreneur, the ability of your subordinates is also related to yourself. You could observe and think about what kind of employees you have. If they are good, then you can give half of the credit to them and half to you because it is your merit of exertion that enables you to attract a retinue with the same quality.
Many sutras and shastras say that exertion has a direct impact on our virtuous behaviors. As stated in The Six Paramita Sutra that Embraces the Essentials of Mahayana,
Like the wind is to the fire,
which makes the flames grow;
So is diligence to positive deeds,
enhancing our virtuous merits.
A single spark can grow into raging flames with the help of blowing wind. Likewise, merits can grow rapidly by undertaking positive actions diligently, no matter how small the actions are. Therefore, if one is not smart but diligent, his flames of wisdom will be sparked in a short time and then keep blazing. On the contrary, if one is too lazy, then no matter how smart he thinks himself is, he wouldn’t be able to make any real progress in the worldly or unworldly affairs.
As dharma practitioners, we should avoid indolence and cultivate diligence to fully utilize our short and precious human life. To fully qualify our practice as the paramita of transcendent diligence is difficult, but we should have some basic requirements for ourselves. Khenpo suggests us to keep doing something virtuous every day, then step by step we will be diligent. Pressure helps sometimes. For example, no matter how busy or tired, many dharma friends persist in attending the live teaching. Khenpo said that he especially admired people in different time zones who always tried their best to attend on time. If some of them really couldn’t attend the class, they would make up the teaching the next day. Such kind of exertion is really worthy of admiration.
If we don’t have such kind of exertion, we would not spend much time on studying, reflecting and meditating on the Dharma, just like those ignorant and playful children who, without the supervision of teachers and parents, would indulge themselves in play and even fail to finish the primary school in the end. Khenpo once posted on his Weibo: Ordinary people are like naughty and ignorant children who, without the guidance of spiritual teachers, would just be hooked on the five sensory stimulants and have no intention to learn and acquire the transcendent knowledge. However, if one keeps on practicing exertion, he will cultivate it as a habit and eventually never lose it. As one knows well the impermanence of this short life and also sees the suffering in samsara, he will try his best to practice virtues and diligently benefit sentient beings.
Meditation is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who control their minds and keep them undisturbed come to be born in his country.
In Tibetan, in Xuanzang’s, as well as in Zhiqian’s translation, control their minds and keep them undisturbed is interpreted as “mindfulness and vigilance”. That is to say, people who enter samadhi with mindfulness and vigilance will be born in this pure land.
Actually controlling one’s mind and keeping it undisturbed convey the same meaning as mindfulness and vigilance. It doesn’t mean doing nothing at all or only engaging in sitting meditation. Rather, it means staying focused on whatever you are doing. If we have a disturbed mind, we can hardly do anything successfully. Therefore, if you are chanting mantras, you should be focused on chanting mantras; if you are listening to the teaching, you should be focused on the teaching; if you are working, you should be focused on what you are doing. All in all, you should concentrate on whatever you are doing. People who lack concentration, mindfulness and vigilance usually can’t follow up on what they are doing because they are easily distracted or disturbed, and in the end they can hardly accomplish anything at all.
Everyone should know what needs to do in this life and then do it with mindfulness and vigilance. For example, if you are giving or receiving a teaching, you should do it properly from beginning to end. Sometimes you might not understand what is taught, yet you should remind yourself, “These instructions are derived from the real wisdom of the Buddha, so I must listen one-pointedly.” Khenpo said that sometimes he felt some books of worldly knowledge were difficult to understand because of the cultural difference, yet he still persisted in reading them through since they were valuable in some regards.
So we should examine our minds with mindfulness and vigilance, otherwise no job can be well finished with a distracted mind. With the advanced information technology, multitasking becomes more and more usual in our daily life. People can check social media, watch TV, make phone calls and send text messages in the meantime, but their efficiency is getting lower because of their distracted and unconcentrated mind. In fact, only by doing one thing at a time with full attention can one finish the work efficiently and successfully.
There are many teachings in regard to mindfulness and vigilance from the past great masters. For example, one instruction says that, lift your foot only when the other foot has already planted firmly on the ground; and it is unwise to do many things all at once and to fail to complete anything in the end. Nowadays, different approaches of meditation are very well accepted by the majority of people, either with or without a religious background. It is quite necessary for modern people to cultivate an ability of concentration to prevent them from being disturbed by all different things.
So no matter what you are working on, since you are not forced by others and it is your own choice, you should do the job carefully and attentively. This is quite important. Many people describe themselves as earnest, but this might not be true if they can turn inward to reflect on themselves.
Wisdom is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who [have achieved] correct concentration come to be born in his country.
Here correct concentration refers to prajna, which is the wisdom of the realization of emptiness, not what is commonly referred to as being smart or knowledgeable. According to Master Kuiji’s commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra, there are sentient beings with correct concentration, sentient beings with wrong concentration and sentient beings with uncertain concentration. Those who have realized the emptiness of self and phenomena, or who follow the right view of emptiness, are called the ones with correct concentration, and they will be born in the pure land.
As stated in The Mirror that Reflects Our Mind, without prajna as a guide, the other five perfections are just like a blind person who cannot transcend the dreadful ocean of samsara. For example, without prajna, the wealth as a reward of practicing generosity will soon be depleted; although one can take rebirth in the three higher realms, the fruit of such retribution will be exhausted soon; although the practice of patience will make one look good in the next few lifetimes, it will not last forever; the practice of diligence will generate many merits in one’s current and future lives, but they will exhaust eventually anyway; by practicing meditative concentration, one can well control his mind, but without prajna, it is only a worldly samadhi that leads to the rebirth in form or formless realm.
Therefore, only when one realizes the nature of mind, his merits will take hold of prajna and won’t disappear before he attains buddhahood. Just like a wasteful person who will run out of money soon, if he could save it in the bank with high interests, his wealth won’t be completely consumed. The Mirror that Reflects Our Mind also says, “For any virtuous activities which are to be done without applying the wisdom of emptiness, they are tainted by clinging, and would never lead to the unconditioned fruition of enlightenment.”
If we don’t have the wisdom of emptiness, while wandering in the samsara and changing our physical bodies, those nice identities and merits tainted by ego-clinging will disappear after a certain time. It is just like when we shoot an arrow, eventually the arrow will fall because there is no strength in it any more. If this arrow could be driven by some special force, it would continue to fly very far. By the same token, the merits generated by practicing generosity and so on belong to the collection of merits and can’t last long. But if these merits can be rooted in prajna, they will not be depleted before one attains buddhahood.
Therefore, it is important for us to apply the paramita of wisdom to every virtuous deed, and then the merits accumulated will last forever. This is why many great masters keep emphasizing the importance of practicing prajnaparamita. Without it, the other five paramitas and the ten thousand performances of a bodhisattva will lose their essence.
What Is a Buddha Land? (2)
The four unlimited states of mind are the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have developed sympathy, compassion, joy, and equanimity come to be born in his pure land.
As we know, the practice of the Four Immeasurables is the pre-condition for cultivating bodhichitta. Currently at Larung Gar, many classes are practicing the Four Immeasurables. Khenpo suggests to read A Guide to the Words of My Perfect Teacher by Khenpo Ngakchung, which has very detailed instructions on how to practice and has great power of blessings towards the practitioners. Khenpo didn’t go into details on how to practice the Four Immeasurables in this teaching, as it is familiar to most students.
The four means of attraction are the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who have been attracted through his emancipation come to be born in his country.
The four means of attraction are being generous, having a pleasant language, teaching each individual according to that person’s needs, and acting in conformity with what is taught. They are the bodhisattva’s pure land and when the bodhisattva attains buddhahood, sentient beings who benefited through these four means will come to the pure land. There is a very explicit explanation about these in The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras by Maitreya.
During the teaching, Khenpo apologized for his fast speed of speech today because he had many things to handle after the class. He even didn’t take a break to drink water and as a consequence the interpreters might have fallen behind. Khenpo said that he used to perform simultaneous interpretation for His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, and when H.H. talked too fast, he would hardly have time to take a breath. So he totally understands how hard it is to do simultaneous interpretation.
Both the six paramitas and the four means of attraction contain the practice of generosity. The difference is that the practice of generosity in the six paramitas is to eliminate the suffering of sentient beings, such as hunger and thirst, while the generosity in the four means of attractions will not only wipe out the pain but also intend to attract sentient beings and place them on the right path to liberation.
Pleasant language implies affectionate and gentle speech, but it doesn’t mean to use sweet words only. Sometimes pleasant language could be harsh but helpful. Therefore, a speech can be called pleasant language as long as it can benefit sentient beings and tame their minds.
The remaining two means are benefiting beings according to their needs and acting in conformity with what is taught. If whatever you do is driven by an altruistic mind, people will recognize it. Acting in conformity with what is taught requires you to be the role model yourself. If you want others to follow what you preach, you need to act accordingly. For example, if a teacher wants his students to study hard while he enjoys himself in the pub every day, the students certainly will not listen to him. On the contrary, if the teacher himself is very hard-working and diligent, the students will naturally follow suit. Especially for practitioners who have made the aspiration to benefit others, their activities of altruism are closely related to their own behaviors. Khenpo always believes that one needs to devote oneself to a real activity instead of talking only.
Of course, even lip service is better than nothing, to say the least. Khenpo said that he once joked with another Khenpo, “You always talk about your good ideas but seldom put them into practice.” This Khenpo answered, “It will be worse if I don’t even think or speak about them.” Then Khenpo said to him, “You might be right, but what’s more important is to take real actions.” For example, if one feels pity for a beggar at heart, and the other only orally expresses such feeling, but neither of them gives the beggar any money, how can they relieve the beggar’s suffering? In the practice of six paramitas and four means of attraction, what is more important is to engage in altruistic actions in person. No matter how small the things are, we should do them by ourselves and be more diligent. Khenpo thinks that many dharma friends at Larung Gar have a nice personality. They don’t have strong arrogance and don’t put on airs, and they are willing to do things by themselves. This is a good atmosphere.
If you have tried but cannot make it, you should explain directly that you are not able to do it. That is also fine. But some people are not like this. Although they have agreed superficially, they don’t really want to help others at heart, so they tend to postpone all the actions. This is not the style of a true dharma practitioner. All in all, it’s not enough just to think or talk, we need to deliver.
Skillful means are the Bodhisattva’s pure land—when the Bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings whose skillful means are without hindrance regarding all the dharmas come to be born in his country.
Skillful means are the bodhisattva’s pure land. Anything done with skillful means will have a wonderful result. When one achieves buddhahood, he will apply skillful means to do all kinds of things. For the part “sentient beings whose skillful means are without hindrance”, both the Tibetan and Xuanzang’s version translated it as “sentient beings who are good at observation”. The meanings are kind of similar. Sentient beings who have skillful means are for sure good at observation, and as a result, they will come to be born in the pure land. Or, if you have skillful means and are good at observation, then when you attain buddhahood, bodhisattvas with the same qualities will come to your Buddha land. So it is essential for us to apply skillful means and be observant at present.
In Master Kuiji’s commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra, he said skillful means also include dedication and relief. Dedication of merits is a good skillful means to benefit sentient beings. Relief means eliminating the suffering of all sentient beings and rescuing them from disasters. Life-release and poverty relief can be good examples in this regard.
From the worldly perspective, if one has skillful means and is observant, he will accomplish the task easily and smoothly; if one doesn’t have such abilities, he will find it difficult to accomplish anything. The same is true with the Dharma practices. If one can develop bodhichitta and apply the three noble principles to whatever he does, then even if the action is insignificant, the fruit will be immeasurable. Without skillful means, however, things sometimes can’t be done successfully.
Even a thought of the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” will bring magnificent merits. Khenpo said that he often chanted “Om Mani Padme Hum” when he was a little boy. He also wrote the mantra on hands and trees and carved it on stones. According to many sutras and shastras, immeasurable merits could be brought by seeing or hearing this mantra. Thus, spreading this mantra by using modern technology such as videos and audios could bring lots of benefits. Even if others do not believe in the merits, simply seeing it or even a glimpse of it could still be beneficial. You can share this mantra with your friends through your social media. Khenpo said that if someone looked for him on Wechat when he was occupied, he would send a coffee icon to that person no matter if the person likes coffee or not. However, it would be more meaningful to send over the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” because it could plant a virtuous seed in the mind of whoever sees it.
So we need to have these skillful means. Just as the merit of aspiring for bodhicitta is immeasurable, the benefit of having skillful means is also immeasurable. In Buddhism and especially in Tantrayana, there are plenty of supreme skillful means. As stated in The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras, wisdom without skillful means is bondage, just as skillful means without wisdom is bondage. This is how important skillful means is.
The thirty-seven factors of enlightenment are the bodhisattva’s pure land— when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings who [have accomplished the] foundations of mindfulness, correct exertions, numinous capabilities, faculties, powers, and the noble path come to be born in his country.
The thirty-seven factors of enlightenment could be presented in seven groups:
- When one reaches the lesser path of accumulation, one attains the four applications of mindfulness.
- When one reaches the intermediate path of accumulation, one attains the four right exertions.
- When one reaches the greater path of accumulation, one attains the four bases of miraculous powers.
- When one reaches the stage of warmth and stage of summit of the path of joining, one attains the five powers.
- When one reaches the stage of acceptance and the stage of supreme attribute, one attains the five strengths.
- When one reaches the first bhumi, one attains the seven elements for enlightenment.
- When one reaches the second to the tenth bhumi, one attains the noble eightfold path.
According to The Gateway to Knowledge by Mipham Rinpoche, the definitions of thirty-seven factors of enlightenment are slightly different between Mahayana and Theravada. Taking for example the four applications of mindfulness, a Theravada practitioner would observe his own body, feeling, and mental activities, whereas a Mahayana practitioner’s objective includes all beings. Another example is that, according to Theravada Buddhism, the concept of suffering, emptiness and selflessness is considered as the ultimate truth, but in Mahayana, these are considered dreamlike on the level of conventional truth and in the ultimate truth, even the concepts of suffering, emptiness and selflessness do not exist.
Khenpo wonders if we have read The Gateway to Knowledge or not. It seems that the characters in the Chinese version are too small so the book is thin. The English version is a collection of four volumes, which was translated long time ago, but if no one reads it, the translation will be meaningless. Only by teaching and studying it will people know the value of this book.
In Han and Tibetan Buddhism, many sutras and shastras were just put on the bookshelves after they were translated. It is such a pity that no one studies them! When Khenpo visited some universities in the western countries, he found that they have lots of books in English such as Ornament of the Middle Way, Uttaratantra Shastra, and Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, etc. But when he asked the professors how the general meaning was taught in those books, they only answered in an unclear way. Indeed, if one can study and thoroughly understand these commentaries, one will find immeasurable value in them.
The attitude of rededication [of merit] is the bodhisattva’s pure land — when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, he attains a country that is complete in all [forms of] merit.
Dedication of merits is really important. When one achieves buddhahood, the practice of dedication during one’s causal stage makes his Buddha land possess all forms of merit. As The Avatamsaka Sutra states,
The aspirations of a Bodhisattvas pervade everywhere,
Just as the principle of truth penetrates everything.
The minds of Bodhisattvas concern all, no matter they can see or not,
Bodhisattvas dedicate their whole merits for all sentient beings’ benefit.
With the bodhisattva’s dedication of merits, they can benefit the sentient beings that they have seen or haven’t seen. This is why we chant Samantabhadra’s King of Aspiration Prayers at the end of each class as a means to benefit all sentient beings that we can see or can’t see.
Explaining how to eliminate the eight difficult realms [where the Buddha and Dharma are unknown] is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, his country is without the three evil destinations and eight difficult realms.
The eight difficult realms refer to the eight states without freedom to practice the Dharma. When the bodhisattva attains buddhahood, his pure land will not have such places as the three lower realms, or the eight difficult realms. The three lower realms are actually contained in the eight difficult realms, as what is taught in The Words of My Perfect Teacher,
Being born in the hells, in the preta realm,
As an animal, a long-lived god or a barbarian,
Having wrong views, being born when there is no Buddha,
Or being born deaf and mute; these are the eight states without freedom.
Maintaining one’s own practice of the precepts without reviling the deficiencies of others is the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, his country is without the names (i.e., without even the words) ‘violation’ and ‘prohibition’.
Observing precepts without speaking about others’ faults is the bodhisattva’s pure land. When the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, even the words “violation” and “prohibition” will not be heard in his pure land. Violation and prohibition mean breaking the precepts. We need to observe our own precepts, and meanwhile we should not talk about others’ deficiencies. Some people who keep precepts are arrogant and always like to point out that others fail to keep pure precepts. In fact, unless you are in the managerial positions that sometimes you might have to point out others’ problems if needed, ordinary people have better not to make such kind of comments, and then your future Buddha land will have even no such word as violation or prohibition. If you talk about others’ faults every day and can’t observe pure precepts yourself, you should be worried about your future land.
The ten goods are the bodhisattva’s pure land—when the bodhisattva achieves buddhahood, sentient beings whose lifespans are not interrupted, who are very wealthy, who are chaste, whose words are truthful, who always use gentle language, who do not isolate themselves from their subordinates and who are good at resolving disputes, whose words are always beneficial, who are not jealous, who are not prone to anger, and who have correct views— [all these types of sentient beings] come to be born in his country.
The ten virtues are the bodhisattva’s pure land. The text here talks about the reward of each virtue. No interruption of life span and gaining longevity are the fruition of renouncing killing; wealth is the fruition of no stealing and renouncing taking what is not given; chastity is the fruition of no sexual misconduct; truthful words is the fruition of renouncing lying; gentle language is the fruition of abandoning harsh speech; being not isolated from subordinates and being good at resolving disputes are the fruition of giving up sowing discord at their causal stage; that whose words are always beneficial to others is the fruition of renouncing worthless chatter; no jealousy is the fruition of renouncing covetousness, as most time jealousy is generated by greed; no anger is the fruition of no hatred and giving up wishing harm on others; having correct views is the fruition of putting an end to wrong views. People with the above qualities will be born in the bodhisattva’s pure land.
How Should Bodhisattvas Cultivate Their Buddha Land?
Before the teaching, Khenpo reminds the audience to generate supreme bodhichitta and listen to the teachings attentively with a joyful mind while letting go of various mental afflictions and impure thoughts.
During the study, we may find this teaching differs somewhat from our usual way of thinking and understanding; in that case, Khenpo encourages us to look up commentaries of past masters. Khenpo himself has not had the time to read them all, but he is immensely impressed by the few he has read. He finds that especially Master Kuiji and Master Sengzhao have hit their points precisely onto the message of this sutra.
Khenpo’s teaching is not fully extensive and because of that, as Khenpo mentioned, he is afraid that he would not finish the teaching in several years. On the other hand, he will not quickly finish the teachings in just a few lectures, like a tiger leaping off a cliff. He would like to elaborate each paragraph of the sutra in some detail. In this way, the audience should be able to gain a better understanding of the deep meaning delivered in this sutra.
In terms of the attitude of listening to the Vimalakirti Sutra, some may approach it from the perspective of personal practice. They will find ample glimpses of primordial purity in this sutra, which is the essence of Vajrayana teaching. Also, they will see how Buddha Shakyamuni expounds the creed of “all phenomena are pure” in a sutrayana setting. On the other hand, audiences from universities or research institutes may take an academic approach. For them, Khenpo’s teaching provides comparisons of three Chinese translations (by Kumarajiva, Xuanzang and Zhiqian Liu) along with the Tibetan version. Also a Japanese version translated from the Sanskrit version is referred to as another support. Khenpo hopes all these will serve as helpful referential aids.
Thus, Jewel Accumulation, according to his sincerity does the bodhisattva generate his practice. According to his generation of practice does he attain the profound mind. According to his profound mind does he discipline his intention. According to the disciplining of his intention does he practice in conformity with the teachings. According to his practice in conformance to the teachings is he able to rededicate merit.
The Buddha told Jewel Accumulation that a bodhisattva’s mind is not deceptive, but rather is full of sincerity, and according to his sincerity will the bodhisattva engage in benefiting sentient beings with virtuous conduct.
A teaching of H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche says: “The profound and vast Dharma given by all buddhas and bodhisattvas in three times and ten directions can be subsumed in cultivating a kind heart and engaging in virtuous deeds. You fortunate ones, therefore, exert yourself in these practices!” This is a key instruction emphasizing both intention and conduct. If a person is kind, he will engage in virtuous acts, and because of his virtuous performance, he will attain a profound mind.
A profound mind is a mind full of unwavering and irreversible faith in the path. With unwavering faith in the path, the mind gets disciplined. Being disciplined means that the defilements of greed, aggression, and ignorance in the bodhisattva’s mind have been suppressed, and the bodhisattva is steered toward virtuous deeds and no more negative actions will ensue. As a result, the disciplining of the bodhisattva’s mind enables him to undertake and succeed in any task, however daunting it may be. Thus the bodhisattva can practice in conformity with the teachings of buddhas and spiritual teachers.
If the bodhisattva acts according to the teaching and engages in various beneficial activities under the guidance of bodhichitta, then he will dedicate all his merits to sentient beings and lead them toward enlightenment.
According to Master Kuiji’s commentary, the content above is the progressive steps of mind training in Mahayana practice, which starts from cultivating good personalities to generating bodhichitta, and lastly to dedicating merits to sentient beings. This is what deemed to be the most wholesome endeavor in the world. The following part talks about Mahayana practice from the perspective of the results.
According to his rededication does he have skillful means. According to his skillful means does he make sentient beings accomplish liberation. According to his accomplishment of the liberation of sentient beings is his buddha land pure. According to the purity of the buddha land is his explanation of the Dharma pure. According to the purity of his explanation of the Dharma is his wisdom pure. According to the purity of his wisdom is his mind pure. According to the purity of his mind are all his merits pure.
Dedication of merit according to Mahayana’s three noble principles is a skillful means, with which a person will not fall back again into cyclic existence. The three noble principles are, arousing bodhichitta in the beginning, doing the main practice without concepts in the middle, dedicating the merit in the end. As Longchenpa says, “These, together and complete, are the three vital supports for progressing on the path to liberation.”
According to Kumarajiva, there are three categories of skillful means: first, arousing bodhicitta without grasping when one performs good deeds; second, not aiming for the realization of shravakas and pratyekabuddhas; third, taming the minds of sentient beings. With these three kinds of skillful means, one can help sentient beings accomplish liberation. Mainly, it is through giving the Dharma teaching, particularly six paramitas, that bodhisattvas lead sentient beings to accomplish liberation.
Accomplishing the liberation of sentient beings results in a pure buddha land. As we covered previously, each bodhisattva acquires his buddha land according to those sentient beings that he liberates. If those sentient beings’ minds are purified, then the bodhisattva’s buddha land is bound to be pure.
If the buddha land is pure, then certainly there is no meaningless chatter, idle talk, and deceptive conduct; hence the teachings are all pure. Since the teachings are free of contaminations such as the eight worldly concerns, every sentient being who receives the teaching will attain pure wisdom. Since wisdom arises from mind, with the pure wisdom, the mind must be pure.
All the worldly and spiritual qualities including the accumulation of wisdom and merits will be pure with a pure mind. All excellent qualities depend on the mind, and hence a pure mind will definitely lead to a pure land. The Flower Adornment Sutra says: “If the sentient being’s mind is pure, he perceives the purity of the buddha land.” A person with a pure mind will always see the external land as pure, no matter where he goes.
Concerning the latter part of this paragraph, Xuanzang’s translation is a bit different from Kumarajiva’s, in that it has additional contents such as “According to the purity of his wisdom is his discrimination pure. According to the purity of his discrimination is his conduct pure.” Tibetan translation is similar to Kumarajiva’s version in this part.
Pure Mind, Pure Land
Therefore, Jewel Accumulation, if a bodhisattva wishes to attain a pure land he should purify his mind. According to the purity of his mind is his buddha land pure!
Now we have the key point and we must bear it firmly in our minds! The main idea of what we expound all along, “a pure mind leads to a pure land”, is right here. It means that if a bodhisattva wishes to attain a pure land, he should purify his mind first, and then according to the purity of his mind is his buddha land pure.
This is also the origin of the motto “pure mind, pure land” of many Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Although they may talk impressively about it, but actually very few have comprehended its deep meaning.
Khenpo believes that in expounding the Vimalakirti Sutra, the teacher would better have understood or practiced experientially the Vajrayana teaching of the primordial purity, such as Great Perfection or Mahamudra. Otherwise, without any clue of the tantric view, any explanation on the interplay of pure mind and pure land will probably miss the profundity implicit in the first chapter of this sutra. Khenpo encourages the audiences to pay close attention to this point with due diligence.
In Guhyagarbha Tantra, it teaches clearly and extensively on the doctrine of primordial purity. In his overview of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, Essence of Clear Light, Mipham Rinpoche expounds thoroughly the truth of primordial purity in the first chapter. There is a stanza often quoted by the lineage masters: “The five aggregates are renowned as the five perfect buddhas, and the five elements are the five female buddhas.” It states that the five aggregates—form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are the five buddhas, while the five elements—earth, water, fire, wind and space are the five female buddhas. The lineage masters such as Rongzom Pandida and Longchenpa expound it in penetrative detail, enabling us to see the pure counterpart of five aggregates and thus grasp easily the profound meaning of “a pure mind results in a pure land”.
Although sutrayana scriptures such as the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch also mention “affliction is bodhi itself”, “affliction is vajra relics itself”, or “affliction is wisdom itself”, and so on, but they give no detailed explanation. It is only in tantrayana teaching, such as in the seventeen-branch tantras, in Longchenpa’s Seven Treasuries, especially in The Treasury of Dharmadhatu, as well as in other tantric pith instructions, that the principle of primordial purity of Great Perfection is elucidated. These accounts don’t stop at the theoretical level only, but advance further to offer essential instructions that naturally render tantric practitioners a clear grasp of what is truly meant by “affliction is bodhi itself”, and that a pure mind perceives a pure realm.
In order to acquire a pure land, the mind has to be purified first; only will a pure mind result in a pure land. Traditionally, there have been a number of legends and historical examples illustrating that when one’s mind is pure, one then perceives all appearances in the world as pure.
In 1987, when leading a pilgrimage to Wutai Mountain, H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche promised that every pilgrim would come across Manjushri there. Khenpo himself also read in both Chinese and Tibetan the prophecies that Manjushri dwells at Wutai Mountain and will appear to visitors, whether as a beggar, a farmer, or whatnots. As it turned out, when the group on their way encountered peasants working in the rice field, it struck Khenpo and others that each peasant was actually the manifestation of Manjushri. Until these days, Khenpo still feels this kind of awe, which attests how strongly a wise advice can empower a budding faith. Precisely because Khenpo set off his pilgrimage with a pure aspiration, he continues to perceive purely some peasants as Manjushri, even long after returning from Wutai Mountain.
For an ordinary being, such an experience happens only once in a blue moon, however, this is exactly where we need to train, which is the very practice of transforming perceived objects into purity by pure perception. Otherwise, should Manjushri himself really appear to us, we might fail to recognize him.
There is a story about the Stupa of Manjushri’s Hair at Wutai Mountain. In Northern Wei Dynasty, a temple called Dafu Vulture Temple at Wutai Mountain would offer vegetarian meals to all visitors without discrimination on the grounds of age, sex, or background in March of each year. One day a female beggar arrived with two kids and a dog for the meal. She told the receptionist monk: “I’m too poor to make offering to the temple, but I would be happy to offer a lock of my hair.” In ancient times, hair, being a part of body, was considered rather valuable. The monk was pleased to receive it. According to the temple’s rule, an animal was not entitled for offerings, however this monk gave this woman, her two kids, and the dog each a hearty serving.
Nevertheless, this woman, seeming not yet contented, said she had one more baby in her belly who should also get its portion. This instantly set the monk off, and he scolded this woman as being too demanding and greedy. Suddenly the woman ascended into the air and appeared as Manjushri, and the dog turned into a lion. Manjushri rode on the lion, with two attendants who were transformed from the two kids standing by his sides.
The monk was gutted and bitterly regretted his actions. Then from the sky came the sound of Manjushri: “Ordinary beings try to treat everyone equally, yet their minds drift with the changes of external conditions; numerous bodies were abandoned in their previous lives, which one deserved their love and which one made them aversive?”
It means that sentient beings need to learn equality and not to be swayed by external circumstances. The body is impermanent and will be abandoned eventually, why harbor attachments and hatred toward it? Manjushri gave a lesson to the monk, saying that one should not be too stingy. If even a bowl of rice is hard to let go of, what else is there to practice? Out of repentance, the monk engraved the story and the stanza on a stone, built a stupa and interred it with the particular lock of hair.
While on the pilgrimage to Mountain Wutai, Khenpo found this small stupa and paid homage to it. When he was circumambulating it again and again, suddenly Khenpo found himself being able to memorize the Praise to Noble Manjushri and the Aspiration of the Great Perfection of Manjushri, which until then had eluded him. This obviously came from Manjushri’s great blessing power endowed in this Stupa of Manjushri’s Hair.
In July 2013, Khenpo was invited to give a talk on this very theme of “pure mind, pure land” at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. At that time, Khenpo illustrated it mainly from the academic perspective and used the teaching from the Vimalakirti Sutra. Certainly, this topic can also be elaborated from the angle of spiritual practitioners, which, Khenpo believes, will bring great benefit to actual practice.
We often talk about “cultivating a pure vison”. Its creed, actually, does not entail a deliberate effort to regard something that’s dirty itself as pure and clean. Otherwise, regardless of how hard one practices, it will end nowhere but pretenses. For example, if one is convinced of samsara as impure, yet feels compelled to see it as pure is like, according to Mipham Rinpoche’s Beacon of Certainty, to force oneself to perceive a bottle filled with vomit as unsoiled and spotless is utterly fooling oneself.
Pure vision can be established from sentient being’s innate buddha nature, as well as from being’s physical body and the four elements of material world. Cultivating a pure vision followed by integrating it into daily practice is the right approach. This is what Khenpo wishes the audience would subscribe to. He says, “Be steadfast in your Dharma study, and realize the profound meaning of ‘pure mind, pure land’, instead of keeping it merely as a saying. This is the natural state of all phenomena.”
At that time Shariputra was influenced by the Buddha’s numinous charisma to have this thought: “If the bodhisattva’s buddha land is pure according to the purity of the bodhisattva’s mind, then when our World-honored One was a bodhisattva his mind must have been pure. Nevertheless, this buddha land is so impure!”
The Buddha knew what he was thinking and asked him, “What do you think? Although the blind do not see them, can the sun and moon be anything but pure?”
[Shariputra] answered, “No, World-honored One! This is the fault of the blind, not that of the sun and moon.”
[The Buddha said], “Shariputra, it is through the transgressions of sentient beings that they do not see the purity of the Tathagata’s (i.e., my) buddha land. This is not the Tathagata’s fault! Shariputra, this land of mine is pure, but you do not see it.”
Thereupon, Shariputra, influenced by the Buddha’s numinous charisma, thought to himself: “If a buddha field is pure only to the degree that the mind of the bodhisattva is pure, now that the Saha world is not pure, does it imply that our Buddha, the World-honored One’s mind was impure when he was training as a bodhisattva?”
This doubt seems pretty reasonable. The Buddha’s mind must have been impure at his causal stage as a bodhisattva. Otherwise, how could his buddha land end up being so impure now? Indeed, the era we live now has been called a degenerate era since the Buddha’s time, and the world in general has been dirty and chaotic.
The Buddha knew Shariputra’s mind and used an analogy to prompt Shariputra’s reasoning: Is there something wrong with the sun and moon when a blind man can’t see them? Could it be said that the sun and moon are to blame? Or rather it’s the blind man’s fault?”
Of course, it is the blind man’s fault. Then the Buddha said: “In the same way, because of their negative karma, living beings do not see the splendid majesty of my pure land. It is not my fault. My land has always been pure and magnificent, but ordinary beings do not see it that way.” Impeded by their narrow faculties, shravakas and pratyekabuddhas like Shariputra are also spiritually blind and fail to perceive the world as it truly is.
Conch Crest Brahma King’s Answer
At that time Conch Crest Brahma King said to Shariputra, “Do not think thus, saying that this buddha land is not pure. Why? I have witnessed the purity of Shakyamuni’s buddha land. It is like the heavenly palace of Isvara.”
Shariputra said, “As I observe this land, it is hills and hollows, brambles and gravel, and rocks and mountains—all filled with defilements.”
While the Buddha and Shariputra were conversing, a deva called Conch Crest Brahma King who was at the assembly came up to them. As Khenpo explained, “Conch Crest Brahma King”, read as Tsangpa Ralpa Chen in Tibetan, means a Brahma with a tuft of hair on his head resembling a conch. In the Essence of Clear Light it was translated as “Crest Brahma”; Xuanzang also had a similar translation and Zhi Qian translated it as “Brahmin with braided hair”.
Conch Crest Brahma King told Shariputra: “You should not think and say that this land is impure. Indeed, as I observe, this land of Buddha Shakyamuni is as pure as the heavenly palace of Isvara.” The heavenly palace of Isvara refers to the heaven of controlling others’ emanations. This heaven is the most refined state in which one can be reborn within the desire realm. Although still a tainted world and the abode of the Demon King Mara, gods in this realm enjoy pleasures created magically by other gods. Therefore, this heaven realm is a fitting analogy for Conch Crest Brahma King to describe Buddha Shakyamuni’s pure realm.
If something is seen with one’s own eyes, it is a valid cognition of direct perception, so how can it be invalidated? Both the Buddha and the Brahma King affirmed that this world is as pure as the heavenly palace of Isavara. However, Shariputra was still unconvinced, and said, “No way. As I observe this land, I see it full of hills, mountains, precipices, abysses, thorns, stones, dirt and filth, which are all contaminated by defilements.” He described what we see about this world.
This part of text appears in Mipham Rinpoche’s Essence of Clear Light as well. When trying to establish the tantric view of primordial purity, Mipham Rinpoche did so with the support of scriptural authority and logical analysis. Concerning the support of scriptural authority, he quoted this part from the Vimalakirti Sutra. Although Essence of Clear Light is a tantric treatise, it nonetheless quotes from sutrayana texts, such as the Vimalakirti Sutra. This is quite essential, which can dispel doubts on the rationality of tantrayana, since a fair number of Buddhists think that many tantric views run counter to the sutrayana teachings.
The fact of the matter is, anyone well-versed in both sutrayana and tantrayana will see, certain sutra teachings do require an interpretation from the tantric point of view, otherwise, their meaning will remain elusive. For instance, many sutra passages mention, “affliction is bodhi itself.” But, why so? How can afflictions like desire, anger, and ignorance are bodhi? According to the view of sutrayana, afflictions need to be eradicated on the path of seeing and on the path of meditation. Earmarked as something to be uprooted, how can afflictions be turned into bodhi? Many questions like these will arise.
Therefore, Khenpo hopes that the audience will not reject tantrayana prematurely. Saying so isn’t because Khenpo himself is a Vajrayana practitioner and thus is wary of personal attacks. Instead, it is for encouraging audiences to study Buddhist doctrines and to make careful comparisons between tantrayana and sutrayana. At times, a sutrayana teaching can be sufficiently explicated from its own view; at other times, however, it may call for a tantric way of explanation to render a thorough insight.
Unfortunately, today there are people who shun away from studying Buddhism properly yet are quick to criticize or even slander it. This is absurd. Khenpo asserts that to call oneself a Buddhist, one should work hard in learning scriptures and commentaries of both sutrayana and tantrayana. Some people tend to think being a Buddhist is about taking refuge only. That’s not the case, far from it actually. In the case of learning a foreign language, be it English, Japanese, or French, can its rules be mastered after attending one or two classes? Is that all it takes? As we know, language is a very sophisticated communication system. A superficial dabbling will never afford a good command of a new language. It usually takes a smart person a minimum of five or six years of effort to gain proficiency of it. In the same vein, any Buddhist worthy of the name should invest at least four or five years in systematic Dharma study. If a person is unwilling to go through such training, yet still vainly attempts to negate the tenet of sutrayana and tantrayana, it is a total joke. In Khenpo’s opinion, it doesn’t become qualified to make any criticism or assessment of certain Buddhist views until one has immersed themselves in Dharma education for five to ten years. Otherwise, airing critiques will be like what Tibetans say, “shooting arrows blindly toward the sky without aiming at the bull’s eye.” Any seasoned practitioner will not take random negations seriously and will not waste time and energy to be bothered by such views, since they are obviously an amateur’s comments.
Conch Crest Brahma King said, “Sir, your mind has high and low because you are not relying on buddha wisdom. Hence you perceive this land as impure. Shariputra, the bodhisattva is universally same [in attitude] regarding all sentient beings. The purity of his profound mind relies on buddha wisdom and therefore is able to perceive the purity of this buddha land.”
Conch Crest Brahma King said: “Venerable Shariputra, you’re being judgmental, which obstructs you from seeing the world as pure.” Whether one’s perception is pure or not depends on one’s mindset and the power of past actions. Compared with buddhas and bodhisattvas, shravakas and pratyekabuddhas have a lower level of realization. Not relying on buddha wisdom, they cannot perceive the world as pure.
Conch Crest Brahma King is a great bodhisattva of extraordinary accomplishment. He further told Shariputra that a bodhisattva is impartial towards all living beings who are all endowed with the same nature. Through practice, his mind can be purified and rest on buddha wisdom; then he will see clearly the purity of this world as a buddha land.
This state of primordial purity is also described in the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, a definitive and important sutrayana scripture. It says: “Sentient beings and worlds have the same nature, both hells and heavens are Pure Lands.” All living beings and their environments are in the realm of dharmadhatu, thus in true reality, hells and heavens are not different from a pure buddha realm. By relying on buddha wisdom, this world is seen as fundamentally pure.
The Buddha’s Evidence
At this the Buddha pointed to the earth with his toe, and instantly the trimegachiliocosm was as if ornamented with a hundred thousand jewels. It was like the Jewel Ornamentation land, with all its immeasurable merits, of Jewel Ornament Buddha.
The entire great assembly exclaimed at this unprecedented event, and they all saw themselves sitting on many-jeweled lotus flowers.
Thereupon, the Buddha pointed to the earth with his toe and blessed all present with radiant pure cognition. The three thousand-fold universe (the trimegachiliocosm) suddenly became pure and was as if ornamented with a hundred thousand jewels and precious gems. Everyone saw this Saha world immaculately pure just like the Jewel Ornamentation land, with all its immeasurable adornments and merits, of Jewel Ornament Buddha. They were all filled with wonder and praised this event which they had never seen or experienced before. Meanwhile, they saw themselves free from afflictions and sitting on many-jeweled lotus flowers.
Concerning this miraculous scene, Zhi Qian’s translation describes it in general terms of a buddha land decorated with precious jewels. In Kumarajiva’s version, Jewel Ornament Buddha’s land is used as an analogy to elaborate the sublime qualities of this land.
Besides the Vimalakirti Sutra, a similar scenario is found in sutras like the Nirvana Sutra: Prior to expounding the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha with his numinous power transformed the whole world into a glorious and immaculate land. The Buddha, on occasions deemed special, would confer blessings that empower being to abide in a state of pure mind, such that they can personally witness the natural purity of the world as it really is.
The Buddha told Shariputra, “You should now observe the purity of this buddha land.”
Shariputra said, “So it is, World-honored One. Originally I did not see it; originally I did not hear it. Now the purity of the Buddha’s country is entirely apparent.”
Shariputra answered: “It is true. This world is primordially pure. However, I have never seen and heard of its imposing majesty until now, thanks to your miraculous power.” Thus it all hinges on having a pure mind. Shariputra recognized that it was only through the Buddha’s blessing that his impure perception was transformed into a pure one, which revealed the nature of world as pure and majestic.
Khenpo hopes that the audience will contemplate repeatedly the dialogues covered in this chapter. He doesn’t imagine their underlining meaning can be internalized by listening to an hour-long teaching alone; rather, it demands dedicated reflection and close scrutiny. Do not treat Buddhist scriptures as mundane novels that are tossed away after a casual reading. Khenpo urges us to continue to reflect on the above paragraphs for ten, twenty, or even forty years if we must, until their profound meaning is truly understood.
The Buddha said to Shariputra, “My buddha country is always pure, like this. It is only so as to save inferior persons here that I manifest it as a defiled and impure land. It is like the many-jeweled eating utensils used in common by the gods, the food in which is of different colors depending on their merits. Just so, Shariputra, if a person’s mind is pure he sees the merits and ornaments of this land.”
Here is the key point. The buddha land is always pure, and it is only for the sake of people with lesser capacity that the Buddha makes it appear defiled and impure. For example, heavenly beings all take their food from a precious vessel, yet the food each obtains takes different colors and tastes according to variations of the merits each has accumulated.
The Mahayana Sutra of Mind Contemplation states: “A pure mind leads to a pure world, and a dirty mind leads to a filthy world.” It is very true. In our daily life, what one perceives as beautiful or delightful can be seen as ugly or nauseating by others. It’s all based on each individual’s mental state and karmic propensity. Hoya, or wax plant, blooms pink scented flowers. Some enjoy its fragrance while others can’t stand its overpowering odor and will never place it indoors. Some individuals think the tropical fruit durian is very delicious with sweet fragrance, whereas others find it smelly, as intensely disgusting as raw sewage.
Indeed, sentient beings’ karma manifests in all shapes and sizes. An online video tells the story of a young man who once rescued an injured owl. After its recovery, the owl would return to its savior and bring along a prey, a dead mouse, as an offering. The young man appreciated the owl’s gesture of repaying kindness, even though he never would partake what the owl considered as a delicacy. In the same token, the appearances in the world are labeled as clean or filthy according to the level of our perception. Through investigation, we will gradually come to comprehend the fundamental principle, “A pure mind leads to a pure world, and a dirty mind leads to a filthy world.”
The story of Su Shi, a famous poet of Song Dynasty, and his friend the Chan Master Foyin is well known. One day, Su Shi bragged to his younger sister Su Xiaomei: “Today I won a contest with Master Foyin. After we sat in meditation together, I commented that Master Foyin looked like a pile of cow dung, whereas he said I looked like a stately buddha statue.” Su Xiaomei, a talented lady and a Dharma practitioner herself, told Su Shi: “Brother, you are totally defeated by the Master! It is because of his pure mind, Master Foyin perceived you like a stately buddha statue; while due to your impure mind, you regarded this great Chan Master as a pile of cow dung. You lost thoroughly!” On surface, this story appears as a dispute or witty exchanges, yet there are thoughts implicit in it to chew on.
Our self-nature can be likened to a “land”, and our self-esteem has a lot to do with our perception about this land. If we are upbeat and optimistic about ourselves, then when encountering afflictions, we can easily apply the motto “affliction is bodhi itself”, and thus bolster our courage and wisdom steadily. If we are constantly tormented by depression or sorrow, we’re nowhere near the state of “a pure mind leads to a pure world”.
When the Buddha manifested the purity of this country, the five hundred elders’ sons led by Jewel Accumulation all achieved forbearance of the nonarising of dharmas. Eighty-four thousand people all generated the intention to achieve anuttara samyaksambodhi.
The Buddha then withdrew his numinous powers, and the world returned to its former [appearance].
When the Buddha in this way revealed the marvelous purity of the land, the five hundred elders’ sons who accompanied Jewel Accumulation all achieved the forbearance of the nonarising of dharmas, reaching bhumi levels from the first to the eighth. Eighty-four thousand people set their mind to attain enlightenment. The Buddha then withdrew the supernatural power that he had exercised and the world returned to its former appearance.
According to Master Kuiji’s interpretation, the reason the Buddha did so is to let beings realize that it is only through Buddha’s blessing that they get to see the world as truly as it is. Nonetheless, it’s merely a glimpse. In order to secure a steadfast pure perception, they must exert in personal practice. This is a pivotal point. In other words, the Buddha rendered temporary pure perception to Shariputra and others present so that they came to see the true reality of the world, which, after all, was a temporary experience facilitated by Buddha’s powerful blessing. In order to attain the stable realization, sentient beings need to practice fervently.
The thirty-two thousand gods and humans who sought the shravaka vehicle understood that conditioned dharmas were all entirely impermanent and, distantly transcending sensory defilement, they attained purity of the Dharma eye.
Eight thousand bhiksus [achieved] nonexperiencing of the dharmas, their minds liberated by the elimination of the flaws.
At this time, thirty-two thousand gods and humans who wished to pursue the shravaka vehicle comprehended that all conditioned phenomena were impermanent. It is possible to gain enlightenment when the truth that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent is penetrated. There have been practitioners who focus on the practice of impermanence and attain realization instantly when the right conditions come together.
Distantly transcending sensory defilement means that they attach neither to external phenomena nor to an inner self, and that they eradicate completely the eighty-eight afflictive emotions and the obscurations to be dispelled at the path of seeing. Eventually, they attained purity of the Dharma eye, which stage is generally referred to as the fruition of stream-winner, i.e., the path of seeing in the shravaka vehicle.
Moreover, eight thousand monks achieved nonexperiencing of the dharmas, meaning that they successfully severed all attachments from “me” and “mine”, eradicated entirely contaminated afflictions, and accomplished the fruition of arahant.
At the end of this chapter, we read that many beings attained liberation after listening to the Buddha’s exposition. While rejoicing at their great feats, we shall always apply the view of “a pure mind leads to a pure world” to our daily dealings with the world. The content of this chapter parallels quite well with the tantrayana teaching of primordial purity. The Vimalakirti Sutra, even as a sutrayana scripture, nonetheless touches upon the tantric view of primordial purity from the aspect of the external world in this chapter, and will further address this topic in later chapters.
A Few More Words about the First Chapter
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the first chapter, “Buddha Land”, serves as an introduction to this sutra. The main body of the sutra is from the second chapter to the twelfth chapter, which according to Master Kuiji’s commentary, can be divided into three parts: view (chapters 2-10), meditation (chapter 11), and fruition (chapter 12). The final two chapters (chapters 13-14) are dedicated as the exhortation for propagating this sutra.
In the first chapter, the essential message is that all phenomena are fundamentally pure and that a pure mind leads to a pure land. This can be briefly explained by the doctrine of the Chittamatra School: Everything is created by the mind, so as long as the mind is pure, the external world will become pure too. However, the profound meaning of this message can be expounded more astutely and subtly by following the Vajrayana teaching. The word “pure” here refers to a state that is none other than the union of emptiness and clarity, utterly free from any defilement of mental afflictions and suffering. To arrive at such a state is the practice of purifying one’s mind.
Without hearing sufficient Vajrayana teachings in this aspect, people tend to be confused and raise questions. For example, in the first chapter it says that bodhisattvas establish their buddha lands according to sentient beings’ propensities; at another point it says that the Buddha manifests impure land for the sake of inferior sentient beings; and at another point it claims that only when a bodhisattva’s mind becomes pure will the buddha land be pure. Aren’t these statements contradictory?
Actually there are no contradictions at all. Now, let’s suppose that we are dreaming. From the perspective of a dreamer, nothing exists outside of the dream, whether it is what’s being dreamed, the dreamer, or the dreamed places. Upon waking up, the real world immediately comes back. Thus, dream visions appear solely from the mind. Similarly, because we are still trapped in the deluded dream of samsara, we cannot see the true reality of this world. As soon as our obscurations are purified, we will be able to immediately witness a pure land without having to go to any other places. This point will be analyzed further as we go along.
An Overview of the Second Chapter 2: Skillful Means
The second chapter, “Skillful Means”, mainly talks about the expedient means of bodhisattvas. For non-Buddhists, the words “skillful means” are often interpreted as convenient or easy ways to accomplish a task. Indeed, the so-called skillful means in Mahayana teachings embraces all the bodhisattva practices of six paramitas, or the display of great compassion. Its profound meaning is unfathomable and difficult to grasp for ordinary beings.
The skillful means described in this chapter actually refer to the activities of the Elder Vimalakirti who, as a lay person and having mastered the art of skillful means, rendered whatever he did, said or thought of to become the causes of benefiting self and others. This is an incredible feat, on which Master Kuiji elaborated extensively. From the perspective of personal realization, skillful means would require six types of practice such as being compassionate to sentient beings and not forsaking them, staying in samsara while not being tainted by defilements, longing for the wisdom of enlightenment and engaging in diligent practice, and so on; from the perspective of benefiting others, skillful means are to encourage sentient beings to practice generosity, to help sentient beings eliminate their aggressions and enter into Mahayana path, to further mature their mind-streams in the Mahayana path, to cause them to attain liberation, etc. Outwardly, the Elder Vimalakirti appeared to reside in a city and live an ordinary life. However, his qualities and accomplishments, as we’re about to learn in this chapter, were anything but ordinary.
As the lead character of this sutra, it is not until the second chapter that the Elder Vimalakirti starts to appear. This is reminiscent of how a TV sitcom with a dozen episodes unfolds: the key figure is mentioned in name only early on, and later, when momentum has been built up, he pops up with much fanfare. Here, in the second chapter, Vimalakirti makes his grand appearance when the stage is set. But even before that, the sutra has to enumerate his ample qualities first.
Why is this so? Khenpo reiterates his motives for teaching this sutra, one of which relates to lay practitioners who have to juggle family and social responsibilities with spiritual practice. Hence, the chance for them to attain enlightenment is generally perceived as being quite slim. Khenpo thinks this is actually a misguided opinion.
Traditionally to practice the Dharma, the path of renouncing worldly life and entering the monastic order is preferred and highly praised. Still, it must be made clear that the Dharma can also be practiced within the context of a lay lifestyle. If lay practitioners excel, they may outshine the monastics considerably, as vividly illustrated in this sutra from chapters two to twelve. For instance, when Vimalakirti fell ill, the Buddha tried to send an envoy to inquire after his health, but the Buddha’s request was politely declined one after the other by his top ten disciples. The reason was that all the disciples felt they were not qualified to make the call. Recounting their previous encounters with Vimalakirti, the disciples described how they were all defeated and intimidated by his sharp realization and superior eloquence. Thus, all the disciples, despite their monastic status, admired and revered deeply the Elder Vimalakirti, a lay practitioner, without reservation.
Here lies the key message of this chapter. First, lay practitioners like Vimalakirti can become highly accomplished; second, monastic practitioners should never look down upon lay practitioners. Remember, many lay individuals have achieved high levels of realization surpassing those of ordained shravakas, and thus they are the worthy objects of respect.
For you lay practitioners, Vimalakirti serves well as a model and reference point for your self-assessment; moreover, inspired by his excellence, you should strive on the Dharma path to attain at least some qualities like his, even though for now you are not yet on par with him. For non-Buddhists, whether having an affinity or revulsion to Buddhism, you can always analyze the doctrine with intellect and wisdom. Do not rely on personal opinions, Khenpo advises, since they can never fare well in such an investigation. Only a reasoning based on unbiased wisdom can be sound and powerful enough to make a convincing conclusion. This is of paramount importance.
When studying this chapter, we need to generate strong faith and trust in the Elder Vimalakirti. He was extremely brilliant, manifesting in whatever way to suit beings and benefit them. His deeds also demonstrate that as long as one is imbued with wisdom and skillful means, all one’s activities fall in the domain of spiritual practice.
Vimalakirti’s Extraordinary Qualities (1)
At that time there was within the great city of Vaisali an elder named Vimalakirti. He had already made offerings to immeasurable buddhas, deeply planting the foundation of goodness.
Vimalakirti lived in Vaisali, one of the six biggest cities in India at the time, and he was recognized as the leading practitioner in the city. He had made offerings to countless buddhas with his body, speech, and mind, exerting his best effort and never becoming weary of it. Therefore, he had deeply planted the foundation of goodness.
In his All Virtues Are Subsumed Within One Nature, Chan Master Yongming Yanshou states that bodhisattvas are insatiable in three endeavors: one, insatiable in making offering to buddhas; two, insatiable in learning the Dharma; and three, insatiable in making offering to sanghas. This aptly describes Vimalakirti, as he had made offering to, served, and supported innumerable buddhas for a long time; yet, being not content with it, he continued to engage in numerous relative virtues, lifetime after lifetime.
H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was also like that. On the one hand, we can easily infer that in his past lives he must have served countless buddhas and bodhisattvas as well as made offerings and aspirations in front of them. More prominently, in this life he also placed extreme importance on relative virtues of all aspects, big or small. For example, he unceasingly urged his disciples to engage extensively in circumambulation, life release, mantra chanting, offering alms to monastics, and so on. His Holiness often said that a Buddhist worthy of the name will always have a mala held in his or her hand, which is an indication that this Buddhist is constantly engaging in practice, be it deity yoga, earnest confession, or mantra accumulation. Precisely because of his guidance, his lineage students at home or abroad all are keen to gather the accumulation of merits and wisdom, not merely in the aspect of ultimate truth, but also in the aspect of relative truth, performing worldly virtues of body, speech, and mind with all endeavor.
He had attained forbearance of the non-arising [of dharmas], and his eloquence was unhindered. He disported in the numinous penetrations and had achieved all the dharanis.
Bodhisattvas train through various stages and paths. After prolonged cultivation, they attain the forbearance of the non-arising of dharmas that all phenomena are without arising and cessation. This is the realization attained by bodhisattvas on the first to eighth bhumi, at which they have no fear toward the nature of emptiness and readily accept the truth of no birth. When they reach the path of no-more-learning, the state of non-arising is consummated, and not even a trace of the concept of “forbearance” ever remains.
The word “avaivartika” mentioned in sutras such as The Amitabha Sutra means the same state as “the forbearance of non-arising of dharmas”. A bodhisattva abiding in such forbearance has established unwavering conviction in the true reality of emptiness. In fact, the Elder Vimalakirti had long arrived at this state, an extraordinarily high level far surpassing those realized at the path of accumulation and the path of joining.
Vimalakirti’s eloquence was unhindered. The quality of eloquence, entailing the ability of verbal expression, debating, as well as wit and intelligence, is a valuable personal asset. Without it, one is awkward in speech and won’t be able to reveal whatever knowledge or wisdom one may possess internally. As a consequence, one’s activity in spreading Dharma and benefiting living beings is severely impeded. However, Vimalakirti could effortlessly convey his Dharma realization to others through eloquent speech, and he always emerged victorious in any debate.
He could manifest various supernatural powers in the presence of dull-witted and faithless beings. In Buddhist tradition, supernatural powers including the five eyes and six forms of clairvoyance are sometimes allowed to display in order to impress dubious spectators. Through exhibiting mystic feats, such as ascending the body into the air, emitting flames, or creating an unearthly sound, the sages create suitable conditions for disseminating the truth and delivering those faithless beings.
Dharani means the sublime power of total recall. Among ordinary folks, there are those who possess an extraordinary capacity to remember things like numbers, the order of poker cards, and so on that have been shown live on TV. However, rather than such frivolous entertainment, Vimalakirti’s dharanis of wisdom was concerned with the essential teachings of all the sutras and shastras.
In some commentaries, the above three qualities are explained from the aspects of Vimalakirti’s speech, body and mind. Unhindered eloquence refers to the quality of his language; numinous powers refers to the quality of his body; dharanis refers to the quality of his mind. So the outstanding qualities of Vimalakirti’s body, speech, and mind are all extolled.
He has attained fearlessness and subjugated the troubling vengeance of the Maras.
The Buddha is replete with the qualities of four fearlessnesses and eighteen unshared characteristics; and with his ten powers, he subjugates devils and foes without having to resort to weapons, and the like. Similar qualities were also evident in the Elder Vimalakirti: he always dwelled in the state of utter fearlessness, whether in asserting his own realization, in guiding others to realization, in his own meditation, or in imparting the Dharma to others. Moreover, Vimalakirti had subjugated the troubling vengeance of the four Maras. Indeed, as soon as one realizes the truth of no self, all external devils and foes highlighted by the four Maras are automatically vanquished.
People often dread the phenomena of demonic vengeance and demonic disturbance; in today’s society they have manifested as extremist and terrorists. Many terrorist attacks and threats continue to explode worldwide and have elicited serious global concern. Khenpo read that terrorist organizations have developed sophisticated ways to recruit new members, so even though this topic may not be directly related to the subject matter of the Vimalakirti Sutra, Khenpo nonetheless shares his insights.
The terrorist groups start with a gentle approach. Through digital communication platforms they target the younger generation, those who have no jobs or ideas and who often stay home surfing the Internet, to join them. Obviously the creators of propaganda won’t reveal their true colors; rather they paint such a glorified viewpoint such that their organization looks humanizing and gentle, open and welcoming to future recruits. Mesmerized and manipulated, many youths are drawn into the fold of terror; some must even forsake their education. However, once sucked into the organization, they lose their freedom. Many can never go back home.
Few of the foreign recruits manage to be rescued and returned to their home countries, and the seed of hatred sown in them remains a potential hazard. Therefore, young men or women who are at risk of recruitment and radicalization, including university students and job seekers, must exercise extra caution in order to identify this misinformation online. Otherwise, when one is caught in the mire of terrorist group, it will be too late for tears.
Syrian War: The Brutal Reflection of Human Fallacy and Suffering
These days, the crisis in Syria has been at the center of global attention. A new battle flares up again on the day of this class, Khenpo feels it’s timely to say a few words about this complicated war.
Syria, for thirty years since 1970, was under the rule of an autocratic president, Hafez al-Assad. In 1994, Bassel al-Assad, Hafez’s oldest son and his heir apparent, died in a car accident. So Hafez had no choice but to let his second son, Bashar al-Assad, take over his brother’s place. Bashar was an ophthalmologist who was then studying in the U.K. with no prior background in politics, military, or economics. He took office in 2000, and not long after, Syria ended up in disarray and the public became discontented, wanting the regime to fall. In 2011, some teenagers painted anti-government graffiti in an act of adolescent defiance. The Assad regime, determined to stamp out what it perceived as a revolutionary spark, arrested fifteen of these boys who were completely brutalized with some fatally wounded.
The incident infuriated the public; protests broke out and spread around the country, escalated by the regime’s shooting of civilians to suppress demonstrations. Armed rebel coalitions began to form, and by 2012 the conflict had blown up into a fully-fledged civil war. Moreover, it also mushroomed into a brutal proxy war that has drawn in regional and world powers: The Russian force backs the Assad regime and has launched air campaigns against the rebels; the United States supports some of the rebels with weapons and other types of reinforcement; Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries have also gotten involved to various degrees.
Conflicts in Syria also facilitated the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). This extremist terrorist organization had been well trained in military and intelligence operations under the Iraqi military wing of Saddam Hussein, and later, it became an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. When Syria’s protests descended into a violent insurgent movement, the group exploited the situation to establish bases in Syria and has rapidly expanded its territory and control; rebranded itself as ISIL, it continues to horrify the world by beheading prisoners and other atrocities.
The fabric of Syrian society has been torn into three main divisions, one being the Assad regime propped up by Russia, the other the moderate rebel group aided by United States, and the third, ISIL. Wars continue to rage among them as well as within sectarian factions, at times locked in bloody stalemates.
The war in Syria is causing profound effects beyond the country’s borders; world leaders are following it closely and many are deliberating how to intervene. But their decisions will be shaped by complex factors of personal interest, grievances, conciliation, diplomacy, and other hidden agendas.
The Syria war so far has been called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time and civilians have suffered the most—more than 11 million Syrians have been killed or forced to flee their homes. The plight of massive numbers of Syrian refugees screams for international compassionate action, yet humanitarian aid is still very limited. From the perspective of the law of causality expounded in Buddhism, such calamities, wretched as they are, may be inferred as a ramification of a collective karma of having slaughtered the innocent in the past. But, by all means, global communities must rise up and collectively focus on healing the wounds of war in Syria.
The above is Khenpo’s side discussion concerning the current situation of Syria. Khenpo tries to keep up with current events, not only those of the East but also the West. In his opinion, it makes more sense to care about worldly affairs than to worry about trifles.
In a sense, pervasive suffering on Earth actually underscores the spirit of all-encompassing loving kindness and compassion of Buddhism. When confronted with enmity, Buddhism does not advocate subjugation by force; rather, it will employ skillful means to pacify aggression and lead beings to the sublime state of liberation. Such are the unique features of Buddhism in taming and helping living beings.
In everyday life, we are bound to encounter various harm and misfortune. If during these occasions we call upon bodhisattvas and abide in their presence, many demonic disturbances will vanish on their own. This method is also applicable to smooth out obstacles on the spiritual journey.
Two root causes are to blame for human sufferings: One is the clinging to an “I,” and the other the non-recognition of emptiness. As long as we believe in a self and invest things with true existence, fear and suffering will ensue. Take the example of a worldly business you engage in: If you’re overly worried and fixated on the outcome of it, you will become compulsively neurotic, which actually allows hordes of demonic influences to take over you. On the other hand, if you have genuinely realized that all external phenomena are insubstantial and that your sense faculties are likewise illusory, your sufferings and afflictions will vanish the moment you let go of your attachments and obsession. In addition, negative forces will fizzle out.
Vimalakirti’s Extraordinary Qualities (2)
Entering into [all the] gates of profound Dharma, he was excellent at the perfection of wisdom. Having penetrated skillful means, his great vows had been accomplished. Understanding the tendencies of the minds of sentient beings, he was also able to discriminate between those of sharp and dull faculties.
Vimalakirti had mastered the profound empty nature of reality, and realized the transcendental wisdom of the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena. Speaking from the ultimate sense, Vimalakirti had penetrated the truth of all phenomena. From the relative sense, his insight into the absolute nature made him an adept of all expedient means, including the six paramitas from generosity to wisdom. The great aspirations he made in countless past lifetimes were all fulfilled without exception, just like Buddha Amitabha’s accomplishment of his forty-eight vows and Medicine Buddha’s twelve vows. In short, Vimalakirti had perfected his roots of virtues from both ultimate and relative perspectives.
Vimalakirti understood the tendencies of the minds of sentient beings. In both the Tibetan and Xuanzang’s version, tendencies of the minds are translated as “mind and conduct”. Since conduct is always determined by mind, the tendencies of the minds can be interpreted in these two aspects. Vimalakirti could clearly discern others’ minds and conduct, such as their likes and dislikes, their virtuous and non-virtuous thoughts, and their purpose of certain behaviors.
Vimalakirti was also able to discern those of sharp and dull faculties. Usually, it’s not easy for us to judge people from their outward bearing. For instance, earlier on we may have regarded someone as having sharp faculties, yet such “sharpness” turns out to be devious in that, when gaining strength, it will have a devastating potential to undermine Buddhism. Conversely, someone we deem dull-witted may, after a while, surprises us with his or her profound faith and enlightening wisdom. Then we end up asking ourselves: “Wow, that person has some talent after all. How could I not have seen it in the first place?”
Indeed, lacking the ability to read the minds of others, we often see that a prospect for whom we have high hopes ends up being a total failure in benefiting beings and spreading the Dharma; while a person we ignore or pass over becomes impressive overnight, demonstrating remarkable achievement. Vimalakirti never knew such embarrassment, since he had a thorough understanding of beings’ abilities, motives and behaviors, as well as their sharp or dull faculties. Moreover, as mentioned in the Tibetan translation, Vimalakirti could give the Dharma teaching appropriately to each being according to the individual’s capacity.
Long [a practitioner of] the path of buddhahood, his mind was already pure, and he was definitively [dedicated to] the Mahayana.
During countless lifetimes, Vimalakirti had been a practitioner of the Buddha path and abided in a realized state. His mind was completely tamed and spotless and could handle any situation with great finesse. Today, for some laities and monastics, they are like a mango fruit that is ripe outside but raw inside, that is, even if they appear to be veteran Buddhists, their minds are still untamed. Even having taken monastic orders for years, a monastic can still succumb to raging hatred and evil deeds.
Therefore, one must authentically dwell in the way of the Dharma to pacify the mind. Khenpo knows a number of elder Tibetans whose lives have been wholly dedicated to the Dharma. Immersing in practices without caring about money or fame, they live in anonymity and are the unsung heroes of the path, from whom we self-proclaimed experts trail miles behind.
As to definitively dedicated to the Mahayana, the Tibetan translation interprets that Vimalakirti had grasped and energetically applied the Mahayana teachings. The Abhidharmakosa says that the nature of some people is indecisive and sways between Hinayana and Mahayana, while some others are decisively inclined toward Mahayana. Since Vimalakirti was conversant with the Mahayana’s essence of bodhichitta, he definitely was an heir of this lineage.
Khenpo here advises the audiences to remain steadfast in their spiritual pursuit. Those having taken refuge in Mahayana Buddhism, especially, must vow to stick to their commitments lifetime after lifetime, come what may. Or if this is too difficult for someone, at least one should swear that within this very lifetime one would never fall away from the Mahayana faith. Actually, our inclination toward a certain lineage reflects the ripening of our past vows made before buddhas and bodhisattvas. Thus it is essential that we continue to reaffirm our aspirations on a daily basis, otherwise we are at risk of giving up halfway.
Even at Larung Gar, there have been people who quit but who, in the beginning, displayed extreme assiduousness that was utterly impressive. However, their enthusiasm later sank into oblivion, which makes Khenpo feel sad or even disturbed.
We must uphold our Mahayana lineage and not regress in spiritual pursuits. Moreover, Khenpo cautions us to refrain from switching between teachers and practices, or we may return empty-handed. Khenpo never pressures students to follow certain teachers or lineages, but emphasizes finding and relying persistently on authentic gurus and pure Dharma. These are the crucial issues.
He considered well the activities of the realms of existence, and, residing in the deportment of the Buddha, his mind was great as the ocean.
Regardless of worldly or spiritual matters, Vimalakirti always sought wisdom for guidelines. He acted only after having investigated carefully with intelligence, instead of being wavered by others’ opinions and committing reckless actions.
It is prudent that we do not conduct ourselves in a reckless way. Never make impulsive decisions upon some news; otherwise, dire consequences may befall, like the recruits mentioned earlier who were drawn into terrorism. Indeed, some overseas Chinese students have naively believed rumors that such and such place is heaven for making money, and belatedly find themselves in hazardous traps. Their stories are quite lamentable.
It is now an era of restless mentality when people always indulge themselves in devious entertainment. As practitioners, we need to ascertain if a diversion bears any value. Moreover, modern people are bombarded with constant commercial ads and junk news. We must be cautious about being open to them or not, otherwise we run the risk of wasting our lives consuming rubbish.
Vimalakirti resided in the deportment of the Buddha; his bearing while walking, sitting, or lying down was in accordance with the Dharma. As a layperson, Vimalakirti’s deportment was well polished, reserved, and dignified like those fully ordained monks who observed the two hundred and fifty precepts.
Vimalakirti’s mind was like an ocean, vast, deep, and unfathomable. On the contrary, our minds are narrow, closed, and temperamental; our moods are like the whimsical spring weather bright at one moment and downcast the next even at the slightest provocation. Undermined by our karmic forces and chance influences, we often become distressed for no apparent reason, which is no fun at all. Thus we need to foster an ocean-like mind, inclusive and open, and at the same time not relinquishing our precepts and vows.
According to Kumarajiva, the ocean is said to have three sets of qualities: first, its immense depth and breadth; second, its pure nature of not being contaminated by dead body; and third, its abundant treasure trove. The mind of an adept Dharma practitioner is just as deep as it is broad. Allowing no room for illusory defilements to arise, it is spotless and naturally endowed with the immaculate qualities of the fruition stage. Therefore, the great ocean is a fitting analogy to describe the mind of an enlightened being.
At present, we as ordinary beings cannot match Vimalakirti’s state of realization. Yet, at least we can make positive, transformative changes in our minds and deeds through the three wisdom tools of listening, contemplation, and meditation. Slowly, we cast off being miserly, capricious or bellicose toward our close ones or strangers, and stop bring mounting misery to others and ourselves. Meanwhile, we immense ourselves in the great joyfulness of the Dharma. Many eminent masters, despite of their own illnesses or other personal sufferings, maintain their amicable and gracious dispositions, rendering whoever comes into contact with them peace, bliss, and a kind of unspeakable blessing. Isn’t it wonderful!
The buddhas praised him [as their] disciple, and the Indras, Brahmas, and world lords revered him.
The Tibetan translation doesn’t mention disciple, just saying that the buddhas all praised Vimalakirti. World lords means world protectors, such as the Four Great Deva Kings, or the Twelve Heavenly Generals depicted in The Sutra of the Medicine Buddha.
Vimalakirti’s qualities were indeed peerless: First, he possessed sublime qualities rarely found in ordinary laypeople; second, he was skilled in attuning himself to sentient beings’ needs, which is an ability we commoners can aspire to achieve; third, he arose to great prominence that commanded the respect of humans and gods. Here the text states that Vimalakirti was revered and extolled by Indra, Brahma, the Four Great Deva Kings, and scores of other worldly protectors.
If one acts according to the Dharma and thinks often of cherishing beings, then this person will be praised by the buddhas of ten directions. Whereas, if one is ill-willed and acts perversely by harm living beings, then not only will this person be denounced by worldly people but will also be scolded by all the buddhas.
For instance, our guru Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche urged us time again to refrain from taking life. In a recorded video teaching, he likened the slaughterhouse to a living hell and admonished the horrendous negative karma committed therein. We walked away from the teaching with an apprehension that one would be better off to die soon than to continue living plagued with the heavy karma of killing every day.
As Dharma practitioners, even though we have not made satisfactory progresses, if we can refrain from killing with our own hand or from killing indirectly, such as by ordering a live being to be cooked at restaurants, we have at least eradicated a major non-virtue. In fact, observing merely one precept of not taking life wins the praise of buddhas and bodhisattvas, because they always cherish sentient beings the most. When living beings are mutilated and experiencing suffering, it pains them to no end. Thus if a person abstains from killing, all buddhas and bodhisattvas will be joyous.
In teaching the Vimalakirti Sutra, Khenpo often describes the qualities of Vimalakirti and then refers back to our own. Such a teaching style is less rigid than delivering a formal shastra. It is Khenpo’s hope that the audiences will make some positive changes in their minds by constantly reflecting upon their own situations. For instance, compared with Vimalakirti, think: What good qualities do I have or do not have? How do I make an effort to cultivate those I don’t have?
Wanting to save people, [Vimalakirti] used his excellent skillful means to reside in Vaisali, …
In order to help living beings with his skillful means, Vimalakirti chose to live in the great city of Vaisali. Had Vimalakirti desired a heavenly way of life, he wouldn’t have any problem picking any godly realm to live there. But he had set his heart on humans; thus he came to our world to benefit living beings in expedient ways.
Khenpo illustrates skillful means by comparing the vows of individual liberation (pratimoksha) and the vows of bodhisattva. In the pratimoksha setting, non-virtuous behaviors such as killing and stealing are flatly prohibited. The bodhisattva vows, on the other hand, focus more on living beings’ welfare: On the premise of not committing the root downfalls, one is allowed to act in ways that run counter to the pratimoksha vows. Even in the pratimoksha setting, lying is permitted in some special cases. For example, you see a deer being chased by a hunter. In order to save this deer’s life, you can choose to lie to the hunter that you haven’t seen it. This won’t break your pratimoksha vow. Then in the Mahayana setting, more strictly, if you tell the truth without protecting the deer, then you indeed violate the bodhisattva vows. Thus, what action is permitted or forbidden varies in the context of different vows.
This sutra devotes a good portion on how Vimalakirti deftly applied skillful means, and Khenpo encourages us to emulate Vimalakirti so that we may also effectively help others by assuming different roles.
The Proper Attitude of Studying the Sutra
Before the teaching, Khenpo mentioned that during his preparation for this teaching on the Vimalakirti Sutra in 2017, he compared the Tibetan translation version with Kumarajiva’s version. When reading through the text, sometimes he was so moved by the story, and sometimes he felt ecstatic with the profound teaching. He repeatedly thought that if there was any opportunity to teach this sutra even once in this life, it would greatly benefit both himself and the audience. Such a great sutra had been studied generation after generation in history, and now in this modern world, its incalculable values will surely benefit different groups of people, either Buddhists or non-Buddhists, Westerners or Easterners.
Although every time during the teaching Khenpo is surrounded by monastics at Larung Gar, the majority of the current audience are lay practitioners from all over the world. Khenpo wishes that everyone should receive the teaching with a cherishing and joyous mind. As always, if one is highly interested in doing something, then any difficulty that may happen during the procedure can be easily overcome.
The second chapter, Skillful Means, talks about Vimalakirti’s various qualities and his dharma activities. It provides clear answers to many questions that may arise in various situations in our daily life. Such teachings can eliminate many misunderstandings of non-Buddhists towards Buddhism. As Buddhists, it is also quite necessary to study these teachings in order to dispel their doubts and wrong views in regards to certain Mahayana behaviors.
Specifically speaking, many people tend to think that Buddhism is all about letting go of everything, going into solitude, wearing shabby clothes, and living an ascetic life. Actually it is not necessarily true. Even from the perspective of the Pratimoksha vows, monastics are allowed to live a luxurious life such as wearing expensive robes, living in magnificent houses, and enjoying delicate food, as long as they observe pure precepts and keep a sincere mind of renunciation. Therefore, it is hard for us to make any judgment based on someone’s external behavior. We do need to cultivate pure perception in such a situation.
Bodhisattvas’ behaviors are even more unfathomable. If we are not able to understand or accept them, we should not deem them as not aligning with the Dharma and hastily slander, refute, or spread bad words about them. This is absolutely not reasonable. Today some Buddhists have accumulated severe negative karma by criticizing others in writing or verbally, which is quite sad. Therefore, it is essential for us to deepen our knowledge about bodhisattvas’ great qualities and skillful means. It will be so great if we can follow the steps of Vimalakirti to benefit sentient beings, yet we need to avoid overdoing it. Before reaching a high level of realization, we need to pay close attention to our current situation and tame our own mental afflictions. If troubled by any defilement arising from self-attachment, we need to conduct ourselves according to the Pratimoksha vows. This is fairly safe and hazard free. Otherwise, without any attainment of the realization of the true reality, while behaving in a way of not differentiating good and bad, virtuous and non-virtuous, such contradiction between a practitioner’s view and conduct will lead him or her to descend to the three lower realms and experience tremendous sufferings.
Vimalakirti’s Dharma Activities (1)
where with wealth immeasurable he attracted the poor, with the purity of his morality he attracted the miscreants, with the moderation of his forbearance he attracted the angry, with great exertion he attracted the indolent, with single-minded concentration he attracted the perturbed, and with definitive wisdom he attracted the foolish.
Vimalakirti attracted sentient beings through the practices of six paramitas. “Attracting” here means benefiting others through the skillful means of the six paramitas, or setting himself as an example in these six aspects and encouraging others to follow his practices. Vimalakirti’s ample merit brought him inexhaustible prosperity. Most people have wisdom but lack wealth; others have wealth but not wisdom; Vimalakirti is endowed with both, which is utterly rare. However, instead of indulging in his good fortune, he made vast offerings to sustain the poor and wretched.
Vimalakirti observed all the disciplines, and was completely untainted by naturally negative acts and downfalls that violate the Buddha’s edicts. Meanwhile, he protected and corrected those who broke the precepts without despising or deserting them, since they were actually quite pitiable themselves.
Through his forbearance, Vimalakirti tamed his own three doors of body, speech, and mind, and also attracted and tamed sentient beings tormented by jealousy, malice, and aggression. That is, bodhisattvas not only practice patience themselves, but also strive to reconcile beings overwhelmed by intense rage and narrow-mindedness.
Vimalakirti was ablaze with extraordinary energy when it came to helping others, especially in inspiring those who were lazy, indolent, and wasting their lives aimlessly. He practiced the paramita of concentration, and rested his mind one-pointedly in the union of Shamata and Vipassana. Meanwhile, he tamed beings who were restless, distracted, or easily troubled by dullness and agitation. He ascertained emptiness with his wisdom and guided many ignorant and deluded beings with his insights on the selflessness of persons and of phenomena.
Following Vimalakirti’s footsteps, we shall apply whatever tiny level of the six paramitas we have realized to help sentient beings. When our pocket is full, we make donations; when our vows are firm, we lead lost beings onto the right track; the same goes with the paramitas of patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. This kind of altruism is what an heir of the Mahayana lineage cannot do without. We shall deem cultivating ourselves extensively and helping others unceasingly as our premier aspiration and objective.
Although he was a white-robed [layman], he maintained the pure Vinaya conduct of a sramana; although he resided in the home, he was not attached to the triple world. He manifested the existence of wife and sons, but always cultivated chastity. He revealed the existence of subordinates, but always enjoyed transcendence.
Vimalakirti was a layman wearing a white robe. Indian lay people have this tradition of wearing white robes. Although a part of the laity, he upheld all of the vows meant for fully ordained monastics, even more impeccably than some of them did. Today, many lay individuals, despite of their heavy worldly responsibilities of families and jobs, still manage to keep their vows such as the Five Precepts, the Eight Precepts, as well as the refuge vows. Khenpo has met many such conscientious lay people of both Han and Tibet whose excellent conduct humbles even veteran monastics.
Vimalakirti lived at home, but unlike other householders who cling to their own families, jobs, and worldly pleasures, he never craved fame, status, or wealth; nor was he entrapped in the bliss of meditative absorption of the form realm or of the formless realm. He really distinguished himself as a pure lay practitioner. Ordinary folks carry with them endless lists of worries about kids, relationships, careers, looks, wrinkles, fame, and whatnot; the only exception that they do not worry about, Khenpo half-jokingly said, may be their own spiritual practice!
Vimalakirti was married and had children and, according to the Tibetan version, may have kept concubines. Although he lived a seemingly mundane family life, he was diligent in his practice of pure living. As mentioned in Ascertainment of the Three Types of Vows, a chaste layperson refers to a lay practitioner who keeps all the five root precepts and remains celibate as the monastics do.
In Tibetan history, there have been tantric practitioners who observed strict precepts. However, in order to create favorable conditions for their Dharma activities, they may follow a typical lifestyle with consorts, children, and possessions. For example, Saraha, who is the teacher of Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava, the first and the second Dudjom Rinpoche, as well as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche all appeared to have spiritual consorts. Yet, they were never tainted by defilements and, with inconceivable realization, actualized immense enlightened activities. In the Han area there were similar cases. Kumarajiva, for example, during his later years displayed secret conduct seemingly unacceptable for commoners; however, his spiritual attainment defies description.
As the head of the family, Vimalakirti must have been surrounded by kin and attendants all the time, yet he was always delighted in withdrawing from them and staying in solitude. Outwardly, great accomplished practitioners have acted in ways that conform to or contradict with those of ordinary practitioners. When examining spiritual guides or our own practice, we should bear in mind that Buddhists share the commonality of the world in the way that they are attuned to how other beings are but not succumbed to their way.
In describing the qualities of authentic teachers, Finding Comfort and Ease in the Nature of Mind states that great masters follow traditional standards of conduct on the one hand, but on the other hand they act in a nonconforming manner. This is because if they were exactly the same as ordinary beings, they would lose their spiritual practice, and if they were entirely different, they couldn’t relate to others and benefit them. Therefore, spiritual approaches need to strike a balance.
Although his clothing was richly decorated, it was with the marks and features [of a Tathagata] that he adorned his body.
As part of the social elite of his time, Vimalakirti was smartly dressed and elegantly ornamented. Yet his true adornment was not his finery and jewelry but rather his outer appearance featured by the auspicious marks and signs that reflected his inner profound realization.
There has been a notion that Buddhists need not pay attention to their looks or clothing. This is actually wrong, Khenpo says. Although we shouldn’t waste time and energy to overly dress ourselves up, we need to present an image that is poised, polished, and prepared. For monastics, this is to wear clean robes gracefully. Khenpo gave an example of the lama who used to live next to him. Every time when attending feast offerings or dharma assemblies, that lama would put on a freshly new yellow robe with sheepskin underclothes. Likewise, lay people should take care to look their best, which means grooming well and wearing proper outfits and accessories. This will project a confident personality and help Buddhists to make a good impression on others.
Wearing ornaments of gold, silver, and so on has been considered as a sign of good luck and prosperity since ancient times. Buddhism doesn’t forbid wearing ornaments. Although Shakyamuni Buddha in statues and paintings appears in plain robes only; sambhogakaya deities such as Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are richly adorned with the thirteen ornaments of a perfect sambhogakaya—the five silk garments and eight jewels. Besides having deep symbolic meanings, these adornments also enhance beauty and attract living beings. Interestingly, the depiction of buddhas and bodhisattvas are influenced by regional culture and aesthetics such that they appeal and delight people in that area. For instance, the images of buddhas and bodhisattvas look different in China and India, as they reflect regional flavors. Also, some scholars notice that in certain Afghan areas, high officials wear a type of hat which shape is typically similar to Padmasambhava’s hat. They believe that it is because Padmasambhava was born there and this tradition has been kept till today.
As lay Buddhists, we need not act impulsively to give away all of our jewels and belongings and end up living and looking like beggars, which can only prompt negative images to those entering the Buddhist path. If we are well off, we can enjoy wealth unapologetically and be agreeable to sentient beings; at the same time, we should be fully aware that all compounded things are inevitably changeable, empty, and the very source of suffering. Since there is nothing stable and permanent in this conditioned phenomenal world, it is better for us to release our clinging to anything and just take the things as they are.
Although he drank and ate, the joy of concentration was his [favorite] flavor. If he went to gambling houses or theaters it was only to save people.
Although Vimalakirti could enjoy all kinds of exquisite delicacies, he had no attachment to them. What he truly savored was the joy of meditation, the fundamental sustenance to him. People are fussy about eating well, and these days they can’t wait to share photographs of their fancy food through social media. Connoisseurs of spiritual quests like Vimalakirti are free from such gastronomical afflictions. In fact, a daily recitation before meals in Han monasteries includes the line: “I shall take meditative bliss as my sustenance.”
Vimalakirti also frequented gambling parlors and public places of entertainment. It was not because he took pleasure in such pastimes; rather, he felt a need to make connections with beings mired in those places and to educate them. Some eminent masters today, without concern for being misjudged, also adopt such an approach solely for bringing enlightenment to all sorts of beings.
Khenpo recounts that during an overseas trip he had to pass by a casino to go to his hotel room. Many gamblers would look askance at Khenpo and he himself felt uncomfortable and self-conscious. In contrast, true bodhisattvas can enter dubious places courageously without inhibition, since they have realized the ultimate truth of non-duality, and they are completely free from self-attachment and any clinging to the external world.
All Virtues Are Subsumed Into One illustrates how the “similar in deed” of bodhisattva’s four means of attracting sentient beings is exercised. Bodhisattvas may choose to keep company with thieves, butchers, or prostitutes; by acting in similar ways and winning their trust first, they succeed in guiding these beings on to the Dharma path. Thus, bodhisattvas can skillfully employ a full range of methods to help others by venturing into all different places. Eminent masters of the past often demonstrated this kind of uncommon activity, and so did Vimalakirti.
Vimalakirti’s Dharma Activities (2)
He hosted those of the heretic paths without breaking his correct faith. Although he illuminated the profane classics he always took pleasure in the Buddha-Dharma.
Vimalakirti listened to the doctrines of other religions and theories, yet his own faith maintained intact. Today, some Buddhists who hardly have a firm view themselves purposely dabble in other schools, only end up becoming one of them. It is mainly because they have neglected to build a solid foundation first, which renders them vulnerable to persuasions and losing their judgment between right and wrong.
Though Vimalakirti knew worldly classics, he always took joy in the Buddha Dharma. He was well versed in all knowledge fields of the world, for instance the five sciences listed in The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras—science of language, science of logic, science of medicine, science of fine arts and crafts, and science of spirituality. Did such erudition cause Vimalakirti’s view on Buddhism to die out? Absolutely not.
Today, benefiting sentient beings also entails an understanding of worldly knowledge, or else we will be ill-prepared to face the challenges particular in our current high-tech society. Monastics ordained at a young age and raised in the monastery may be well trained in the Tripitaka but not possess much worldly intelligence. Tibetans living in rural areas also suffer from having a limited outlook. When such individuals leave their familiar setting, they run the risk of getting mired in material lures, often with the sad ending of losing faith and accomplishing nothing.
Some worldly classics are branded as heretic paths, but they may have practical values. For example, India’s four Vedas covers the knowledge of various fields, such as medicine, fortune telling, divination, military strategy, and their regimens for preserving health are attractive even to modern people.
In Chinese history, Master Huiyuan of the Eastern Jin Dynasty was proficient in nine major philosophical schools of China. However, when he heard the Prajnaparamita Sutra expounded by Master Dao’an, he was struck by the sheer profundity of this sutra and instantly denounced the nine major philosophical schools as worthless stuff. This sudden revelation is the awakening of his previous propensities and virtue. The Four Hundred Verses on Middle Way advices that if one has doubts about the Buddhadharma, one should start the study on emptiness first, which will lead to a deeper understanding of the Dharma.
In theory, masters like Huiyuan regarded secular books and theories as tasteless and worthless when compared with the Dharma teaching. However, in a practical sense to help sentient beings, we need to pay attention to the games the world plays. Meanwhile, like Vimalakirti, we should remain steadfast in our own view and faith.
He was revered by all as the one most worthy of offerings.
Everyone who met Vimalakirti revered him and made offerings to him. Zhiqian’s version states the same, while Xuanzang’s translation says that he was admired and showered with gifts because of his excellent teachings. The Tibetan version reads that he mixed in all crowds, and was regarded most worthy of respect and offerings. Despite minor discrepancies, two common aspects emerge: first, Vimalakirti’s presence brought joy to humans and gods without pretense, and such a rare knack was an outflow of his inner realization; second, he got along well with everyone, a quality we practitioners must reflect upon ourselves.
This touches upon the reasons Khenpo decided to teach this sutra, one of which concerns the aloof attitude of some Buddhists: They associate with only one or two close friends while remaining apathetic or at odds with others. Khenpo considers this a significant mistake contradictory to the Mahayana way that takes no preference between friends and foes. It is terrible if one is downright incapable of connecting with beings according to their inclinations.
In the attempt to spread the Dharma, don’t overdo it, unless you want to turn your prospects off and confuse them. Khenpo says that the renowned contemporary spiritual teacher Nan Huai-Chin was wary about unsolicited proselytizing of any sort. Once, a group of Christians came to his house preaching to him nonstop for two hours. Finally, he was compelled to hand them a note saying: “God says you shall not disturb other’s tranquility.” Only then did they leave. Similarly, Buddhists should not impinge on others with their own rigid and stubborn mode of operation.
Sure, when we are in like-minded Buddhist groups, Khenpo encourages us to let loose our Buddhist temperament and freely roll out our Buddhist diction, expounding the Middle Way, Buddhist Logics, or whatever. However, in a non-Dharma setting, we need to act more reservedly. A case in point is using a prayer wheel: At Larung Gar, it is a common and even required activity, but when using it blatantly in a public place that does not identify with Buddhism, you will only invite disapproval or criticism.
In all, we should avoid becoming a helpless formalist or a fanatical preacher. As we are sharing this Earth with many other beings, we need to align ourselves with the norm. Adhere always to the basic principles and try our best not to deviate from them. In extreme cases, we can seek special permission when needed, as long as we do not violate root vows.
In supporting the correct Dharma he attracted both old and young.
The “correct Dharma” here is to be understood from the mundane point of view that includes the social code of conduct and its ramifications. Vimalakirti embraced and upheld the worldly rules himself, and gave guidance to both old and young. In the Tibetan version, this includes three age groups: the elders, those of middle age, and the young.
We should aspire to introduce the Dharma to people of all ages and backgrounds in ways that is beneficial and suitable for each group. It is important to cultivate a “Can Do” spirit, instead of harboring a cowardly mentality with tunnel vision. Remember, by opening our minds, we generate great aspirations, which will endow us with great strength! The sun and moon and their symbols are our excellent examples. Their radiance shines forth on everything; our aspiration shall be likewise pervasive: “I vow to benefit all sentient beings. Even if I cannot accomplish much in this life, I’ll continue in all lives to come. Even if I can help merely one living being, I shall spare no effort in it still!”
In all of his business dealings, although he made worldly profits he never took joy in them.
Vimalakirti was astute in business enterprises and had easily reaped profits. Yet he placed no importance in wealth and other worldly blessings. To him, business opportunities were merely a tool to support his real vocation of cherishing living beings. He clearly saw the harm in hoarding money, as stated in The Way of the Bodhisattva,
For those distracted by their love of wealth
There is no chance for freedom from the sorrows of existence.
Wealth makes people distracted and renders their liberation out of reach. Thus we should not painstakingly grasp worldly wealth and look for our joy in it. On the other hand, there is no prohibition to embrace prosperity that comes our way. Some Buddhists have misgivings about launching a business career, worrying it may infringe on their Buddhist status. Actually, Buddhism does not forbid making money as long as it is earned by a conscientious livelihood that causes no harm to other living things.
For lay people, gaining affluence and financial security are deemed appropriate. Tremendous merit can be generated if wealth is offered to the welfare of the monastics. Khenpo mentions one such merit field is providing medical and pension funds for aging monks and nuns at Larung Gar, who otherwise would have no resources to cover these expenses. Within lay practitioner groups, the well-off lay people should help out those having difficulty to make ends meet. In this way, lay practitioners can maintain their own sangha community in a long term. Because nobody can take their wealth with them at death’s bed, it’s essential to share the resources with others who need them.
For monastics, it is also essential to undertake volunteer jobs within the sangha to sustain themselves. In this way, there is no harm for them to use the resources of the Three Jewels. According to the Chan tradition in Han Buddhism, if an ordained person does not work for one day, then he would not receive any alms during that day.
In wandering the crossroads, he dispenses benefits to sentient beings.
While walking in the crossroads, Vimalakirti never failed to convert others to the Dharma. Xuanzang translated “crossroads” as “cities”, meaning Vimalakirti traveled to various big cities in order to educate people there. Khenpo said, he would also like to learn from Vimalakirti to travel more around the world and make auspicious connections with different people.
The Importance of Skillful Means
There is abundant knowledge in the Vimalakirti Sutra that is worth studying. More importantly, we should not only study it but live by it. We do need to take the teachings in this sutra as a guidance for our life rather than as pure knowledge. In this chapter, we have talked about how Vimalakirti benefited all beings with many skillful methods. Actually, having skillful means is indispensably needed when one tries to achieve anything, be it worldly affairs or any Buddhist activity such as personal practice or the spreading the Dharma to benefit others. When adding the touch of skillful means, we can accomplish everything smoothly; otherwise, we may encounter obstacles at the very beginning, struggle a lot during the middle, and end up with a result that is less than satisfactory. Basically, everything we do should be first examined and analyzed carefully in order to establish its feasibility; then we should build a strong determination, which implies never to waver but to persevere and carry through. This is a principle that every wise person should have.
The main purpose of listening to and reflecting upon the Dharma teaching lies in two aspects. The first is to tame our mental afflictions and maintain a purified mind. The other is to benefit all sentient beings as much as we can in our lifetime. We should apply the Mahayana teachings to our actions and start from the smallest altruistic things we are capable of doing. Altruism is needed by everyone, regardless of nationality, race, and religion. By conducting altruistic actions, temporarily speaking, we can benefit human beings and the society. Ultimately speaking, altruistic actions are the cause of the attainment of Buddhahood.
When engaging in any activity to benefit others, it is necessary to rely upon skillful means. For example, when we are with different groups of people, we convey the Dharma teaching in different ways in accordance to people’s different capacities. This requires us to observe beings’ intentions, preference, what they need and what they can take, as well as different environmental settings. Sometimes we approach them as superiors, sometimes as equals, sometimes as inferiors, etc. As a matter of fact, there are a lot for us to consider when it comes to providing help to others in a proper way, both physically and spiritually.
A human is the combination of mind and body. We maintain our physical body with material provisions while we nourish our mind with the nutrition of religion and faith to obtain happiness and joy. It is very narrow-sighted to assume that happiness is established upon the basis of objects only and that the ease of mind relies on wealth and nothing more. In fact, people who live in developed countries where material wealth is abundant do not necessarily eradicate their pain and suffering easily. In fact, they can struggle even more than people living in developing countries.
We can examine our own life this way: Has the abundance of material goods and advanced technology eradicated our afflictions? Technologies are highly developed in some countries where people can enjoy their corresponding advantages. However, have these people truly obtained eternal happiness? Not necessarily. More often than not, scientists and people of high ranks suffer more than ordinary ones. Perhaps, people who live in relatively backward areas are happier.
All beings, not only humans but also animals, including ants and worms, hustle and bustle day and night in the pursuit of happiness, but very few can obtain it. Actually, happiness is not that far away. By studying and practicing the Buddha’s teaching we can truly have incomparable and eternal happiness, which cannot be obtained through material abundance. We need to study and reflect on this topic and make the wise choices to follow the right path.
Vimalakirti’s Dharma Activities (1)
In entering into the government administration, he safeguarded everyone.
Vimalakirti participated in government administrations in courts, public prosecutions, juridical departments, and even jails and prisons, etc., as a government officer who created laws and regulations. Some may ask if a Buddhist should get involved in governmental activities where Buddhism does not seem to belong. Vimalakirti thought differently. He took part in law enforcement and in the administrative work of the government in person. He did not do so to earn a big salary or to punish the commoners. What Vimalakirti did was to safeguard everyone with justice and to reduced injustice, mistakes, and veiled dealings in law enforcement. He helped people to enjoy their lawful rights and to obtain equal treatment.
People learning Mahayana Buddhism should use skillful means in this regard. No matter what type of country or district you live in, whether it is a democratic country or not, it is important for Buddhists to get along with government officials and administrators. It is not necessary to completely blend in with them and change your own mindset and belief to conform theirs. In the same way, you do not have to go to the other extreme and refuse to get any close to them. What we should do is to exert friendliness and use our wisdom to help people within the present system. Therefore, it is important to build friendship with the government officials and administrators.
It is also important to extend our care and attention to people who are at the bottom of the social ladder, such as prisoners. Lay practitioners and teachers should give a helping hand and speeches of encouragement in jails and correctional institutions. These inmates are already enduring tough punishment for their wrong deeds. During their terms many inmates worry about their family, especially their children’s education. Their families usually suffer from social discrimination. If we can help them, there will be a chance for them to start over. This is also an act of Bodhisattvas.
In entering into the lecture halls, he led people by means of the Mahayana.
Not only did Vimalakirti go to government departments, he also went to lecture halls. In ancient India, lecture halls were places hosting debates for people from different religions and schools. The tradition is that the one who has lost the debate must give up his own school and follow the winning one. Vimalakirti often went to such lecture halls and, out of compassion, shared the Mahayana teachings and gradually brought non-Buddhists onto the Mahayana path.
These lecture halls are similar to symposiums, forums and other gatherings of today, where people of different ideologies compare and exchange opinions and learn from each other. If we can use our wisdom and spread the Dharma through this kind of skillful means, virtuous roots could be planted in others, and some may turn to Buddhism and even start to embark on the Mahayana path.
However, nowadays some practitioners hold a rather conservative attitude towards forums. They have very fixed ideas, such as focusing on chanting mantras and finishing the preliminary practice only. While it is necessary to make efforts on personal spiritual practice, it is also important to take our responsibilities as Mahayana practitioners and to promote the Dharma teachings to benefit all beings. With altruistic aspirations we can promote the Dharma teaching by building Buddhist centers and monasteries in different places. Last year, when I attended a symposium, someone requested me to found an international Buddhism institute. Maybe this is an impossible task, but that was an auspicious suggestion to start with. If we make aspirations, we can gradually lead people into Mahayana teachings through various means.
In entering the schools, he inspired the children.
Vimalakirti often went to schools as well, including kindergartens, middle schools and universities, to enlighten and inspire children and youth. It is very important to get engaged in all kinds of beneficial activities, such as the education of traditional culture, charity and the release of captive animals. Meanwhile we should not neglect the study and practice of Dharma. Some practitioners only focus on study and refuse to take part in other activities, while others spend all their time on promoting traditional culture and give up the Dharma study and practice. It is important to keep a balance and not to tread on extreme paths.
Education is mandatory for children. When Prince Siddhartha was young, he was studious. Once he asked his teacher 64 questions, and his teacher could not answer them. Prince Siddhartha was an extraordinary student who had accumulated virtuous roots and wisdom through past lifetimes. Though very unlikely that we will have the opportunity to teach smart students like Prince Siddhartha, we should engage in promoting education with great enthusiasm and consistency. This is a very meaningful cause.
Ten years ago, I set my sights on promoting Chinese traditional culture to young people, especially to children, so that these youngsters could root themselves in a tradition. Now we have the World Youth Buddhist Society and the Ren Culture Society which promote both Chinese traditional culture and Buddhism education. Through these platforms, many young students have learnt a lot and gradually changed their mind.
We should tailor education for the young, the middle-aged, and the old. Here is about the education of the young people. Since they have a long journey ahead, and the future is in their hands, it is crucial to teach them how to be a good person. They should not become the kind of people who are only concerned about money and who have no idea about a good personality. We should inspire them with integrity and honesty through education.
In Western society, people attach much importance to honesty. Once you lie you leave a bad impression and you destroy your own credit. But there are many people in different places who tend to lie and who do not have any sense of credibility or honesty. Lying and breaking promises become habitual patterns for people because they did not have a good education of morality while growing up. So it is necessary to fortify such education and improve public morality.
Another quality we need is consistency. Some people start doing something with great enthusiasm. They bring up ideas with passion. But after a while, they hit small obstacles and just give up. This is improper. When beginning, we do not have to be overly passionate. Reasoning and caution are necessary. In the middle, we do need to be steady and work step by step, in order to make every step successful and reliable. So the young people, when planning for the future, should have a steady mindset, should be reliable, stable and honest. That is why we should go to school and inspire the children.
In entering the brothels, he revealed the transgressions [that arise from] desire.
Vimalakirti was a wealthy and famous lay practitioner and had a big family. But he also went to brothels, which was unusual. Vimalakirti did so not because he was degenerated or without moral values. Actually, he went to brothels to teach people about the transgressions arising from desire. Such places are full of people with strong greed and desire. With skillful means, Vimalakirti gradually let them realize the faults of desire.
Most people, including Westerners, consider brothels dirty and their patrons morally corrupted. People from upper class, such as the president of a country, will scandalize the public if they visit brothels. Weirdly enough, casino gambling is sometimes considered acceptable. In ancient times, brothels were places to socialize for the upper class and the refined scholars. They were socially and culturally acceptable in some traditions and under some reigns. Vimalakirti visited brothels but was not tainted by the transgressions that derive from desires. On the contrary, he liberated many people there from the mires of desire.
There are many stories of ancient Indian Buddhist masters who also took similar actions. In Master Sengzhao’s commentary, there is a story of a famous prostitute named Wondrous Golden Light. One day, Wondrous Golden Light was invited to a garden by a merchant’s son with the offer of fifty kilograms of gold. At that time, Manjushri knew Wondrous Golden Light was ready for enlightenment. So Manjushri manifested as a gorgeously dressed handsome young man that was even more radiant. Wondrous Golden Light was instantly attracted to him, and left the merchant’s son. She asked Manjushri for the beautiful clothes he was wearing. Manjushri said, “Sure, but you should aspire for bodhichitta first.” Wondrous Golden Light asked: “What is bodhichitta?” Manjushri answered: “Bodhichitta is no other than your body, because they are both empty.”
At that moment, Wondrous Golden Light reached enlightened because she had already listened to the teachings on emptiness in front of Kashyapa Buddha lifetimes ago. She attained the forbearance of non-arising and wished to get ordained. But Manjushri refused and instructed her to go back to the merchant’s son. So she did. While in the garden with the merchant’s son, she dropped down and died. The merchant’s son held her in his arms, completely heartbroken. Very quickly her dead body started to rot and gave out terrible odor. In no time, all that left was a set of skeleton. Witnessing the whole scene, the merchant’s son realized the faults of attachment and desire and experienced a great sense of renunciation. He then went to follow the Buddha and soon attained the forbearance of non-arising. In this story, Wondrous Golden Light did not actually die. Her death was manifested to inspire the merchant’s son.
For those who have heard or practiced emptiness in their past lives, their virtuous roots revive as soon as they encounter the teachings on emptiness again. There are signs for the revival. Just as described in The Introduction to the Middle Way, sometimes the hair on their neck stand up and tears gush out for no reason when they hear the teachings on emptiness. A very important verse in the Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way says that if you have doubts about the Dharma, you can dispel them by learning teachings of emptiness:
Whoever doubts what the Buddha said,
About that which is hidden,
Should rely on emptiness,
And gain conviction in him alone.
This verse is quite important and we’d better have it memorized. People may have doubts about the concept of samsara, karma, reincarnation, and many others. If one can patiently learn the six treatises on the Middle Way and the Prajnaparamita Sutra for a few years, one will firmly believe that since the Buddha could reveal such profound truth of emptiness, then the Buddha must have fathomed those simpler ones like samsara, karma, and reincarnation.
Dharmakirti also states in his Commentary on Valid Cognition:
By knowing what should be adopted and what should not,
That is, the cessation of suffering, the suffering and its cause,
And their skillful means, the path to the cessation of suffering,
Buddha is recognized as the One with Valid Cognition,
Yet not for his knowing all the trivial matters.
In this stanza, “what should be adopted” is the truth of the cessation of suffering, and “what should not” is the truth of suffering and the truth of the cause of suffering. And “skillful means” is the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. The fact that the Buddha revealed the four noble truths, is proof enough that the Buddha was the one with valid cognition. Buddha did not have to tell us the exact number of leaves of grass on earth to show he had valid cognition. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are quite a few of such teachings to establish that the Buddha has valid cognition. We should deeply reflect on them so that we can cultivate a strong conviction on the Buddha’s teaching.
In entering the wine shops, he was able to maintain his [good] intention.
Vimalakirti also went to bars where alcohol was served. Some Chinese commentaries say he went to cabarets where there were many dancers and singers. Did he drink shots and get drunk like others? No, he actually taught the alcoholics to get sober, to be kind and wise and find purpose for future life. He truly wished to benefit people and did not mind the places he frequented.
Most of the Buddhist lay practitioners have taken the vow to abstain from drinking, not to mention monastics. This is really good. But after we have gained certain level of realization, we should also use skillful means to liberate different beings. We can go to these places to mingle with people and try to benefit them. But there is a big risk. As the saying goes, compassion without wisdom can bring trouble, while skillful means without wisdom can be tainted. Before obtaining some realization, we may not be able to draw the thin line between skillful means and improper actions if we blindly copy the unusual actions of great masters. It is no less than playing with fire if our mind is tainted with afflictions, while we are unaware of them, and thinking we are using skillful means. Remember, only true Bodhisattvas are qualified to visit such places.
As we know, the ills and error of drinking are taught in many sutras. The Satyaka-Nirgranthaputra Sutra says that drinking leads to carelessness, lack of wisdom and poor memory in this life, and reproof from the wise. In the Vinaya teaching, the Buddha said to his disciples that they should not drink alcohol, not even a drop as small as the dew on grass tips. If they did, the Buddha ceased being their teacher and they were not considered the Buddha’s disciples. However, some realized masters, especial those Dzogchen practitioners and great yogis, actually use alcohol to keep themselves vigilant and to abide in the true reality of equality and luminosity. But it is hard to tell whether someone is truly realized or just drunk by their appearance. The intention of a siddha is not easy for an ordinary person to understand. I remember Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was often criticized, especially by those following the common vehicle teachings and holding pure precepts. From their point of view, it is certainly understandable, since drinking obviously breaks the precept. Yet, those whom the common vehicle teachings could not tame and convert, such as the hippies in the West, were very well tamed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s unusual means.
Once, with a secretive look, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche told his hippie students: Bring your weed and let’s have a party. His students were so excited and brought all of their marijuana to the party, thinking that they would have a good time with their guru. During the party, Trungpa Rinpoche took everyone’s marijuana and threw them to the fire, saying “This is our self-grasping, this is our greed…” At the time, some students were happy while others were sad, but because of Trungpa Rinpoche’s skillful means, they were tamed as capable students.
It is hard to distinguish whether some actions are crazy or skillful means of a guru. We learned “the ten confusions” in The Precious Garland of Supreme Path which say that it is easy to confuse realized masters with charlatans. It is really hard to tell whether a person is a realized master or just an ordinary one with unusual actions.
Hence, Vimalakirti often visited those places of dissipation and benefited many sentient beings. We should rejoice at such Bodhisattva activities and aspire to attain the state of no attachment in order to help countless beings engrossed in debauchery. Meanwhile, we should be very careful because without any level of realization, such behaviors are very dangerous. We could get easily turned upside down if we do not have stable mindfulness and vigilance, or if we have not conquered afflictions and are too anxious for success. Therefore, we should always take our actions carefully.
Vimalakirti’s Dharma Activities (2)
When he was with the elders, as the most honored of the eminent he explained the excellent Dharma for them.
Here “elders” refer to distinguished merchants or successful businessmen. When Vimalakirti was with them, he was the most honored, as he taught them wonderful transcendent Dharma. The merchants had strong clinging toward their wealth, and most of time, they only prayed to the God of Wealth to accumulate worldly fortune. They did not care for the transcendent teaching of liberation from samsara. Therefore, Vimalakirti taught them the Dharma of liberation to inspire their renunciation. Vimalakirti maintained a good relationship with the merchants not to make himself wealthy, but to benefit them on the transcendent level.
When he was among retired scholars as the most honored of the retired scholars he eradicated their attachments.
Here the “retired scholars” refer to those Buddhists who were not merchants but were fortunate and wealthy. They had strong attachment to their wealth and were unwilling to make offerings or give alms, so Vimalakirti taught them the faults of greed and trained them to cut off greedy attachments and to be more generous and philanthropic.
Vimalakirti was the most honored and highly respected among these rich laypeople. We need to learn from Vimalakirti and get along with any kind of people instead of staying only within our own social circle. For example, we can discuss with businessmen about the stock market, come to rich men’s parties, maintain a good rapport with wine-sellers, with prostitutes, and with people of all walks of life. We do need such skillful means to benefit others, which is one our main purposes for studying this sutra. Let us see whether we can become less stubborn about who we are, and be more open and flexible through the study. Of course, from the perspective of the Pratimoksa vows, we should keep our precepts pure and be cautious and aware of our behaviors all the time; but from the perspective of Mahayana vows, we need to be flexible, to be able to adjust our actions and speech to different situations, so that we can efficiently benefit sentient beings according to their capacities.
For wealthy people, it is better to make donations before they pass away, because after that, they can no longer enjoy their money anyway. Some Buddhist practitioners may go to the other extreme and give away all their money, including basic allowances, and cause problems in their own life. This is neither sensible nor necessary. We need to carefully plan our livelihood as well.
Nowadays the world changes so fast, no one knows what is going to happen next. The money that you are holding in your hand at this moment could vaporize in the next just because of a wrong decision. In Chinese, we say “tens of thousands of things change in the blink of an eye”. But now, it seems like in the blink of an eye, millions of things have already changed. So we must think carefully before making any decision.
When he was among ksatriyas, as the most honored among ksatriyas he taught them forbearance. When he was among brahmans, as the most honored among brahmans he eliminated their arrogance. When he was among the ministers, as the most honored among ministers he taught them the correct Dharma. When he was among princes, as the most honored among princes he instructed them with loyalty and filiality. When he was among palace officials, as the most honored among palace officials he converted the palace women.
Ksatriyas refers to the second highest social classes in ancient India who was taking the role of governing the country. Vimalakirti had very good relations with them and was revered by them. He taught them how to nurture forbearance, because as kings, rulers or governors, they had to deal with many different voices, criticism, and resistance, and were easy to get angry. So for political leaders, it is important to practice forbearance. Otherwise the objections from different political and academic groups will cause them great pains.
In the Asoka Sutra, there is a story about the king Asoka and his spiritual guide, Upagupta. In a small country, Upagupta planned to build more than one hundred monasteries, but the king of that country created a lot of obstacles and the project was halted. Upagupta then went to Asoka for help, since he was the king of a big country. Asoka was very pleased to see him and asked what he could do for him. Upagupta told him about the kind and about the hostile conditions undermining the building of monasteries in that small country. Asoka got very angry and said, “I will kill him right now!” Asoka used to be a tyrannical despot who only started learning to restrain his temper after meeting Upagupta. Upagupta told him, “The reason why I came to see you instead of just sending you a letter is to let you solve the problem without killing.” Then Asoka wrote a letter to the king and sealed it with his bite mark. Due to Asoka’s power, the conflict was easily pacified. So people who have power and influence or who possess a high position should often listen to different voices. It is quite important for them to have patience in such situations.
Brahmans were well-educated elites in the society, and belonged to the highest caste in ancient India. So in order to eliminate their arrogance, Vimalakirti taught them the Dharma. The ministers executed the king’s will and orders and often had to punish people, so Vimalakirti gave them the teaching on holding the principle of justice and selflessness. He was also revered among the princes, and taught them about loyalty and filial respect. In the harem, female officials usually had afflictions, such as jealousy, and were not immune to wrong behaviors. So Vimalakirti corrected their behaviors and converted them.
When he was among the common people, as the most honored among the common people he had them generate the power of blessings.
Vimalakirti was also revered among the common people, and helped them accumulate merits. There is a story in Kumarajiva’s commentary on this sutra: Once a poor man saw a very rich person who was gorgeously dressed and riding a steed. The poor man said three times “Too bad!” upon seeing him. The rich man was surprised and asked “What is so terrible in my dashing appearance?” The poor man answered, “I’m not saying this to you but to myself! For my lack of merits in my past lives, I am now a poor man and cannot come close to your class! I’m saying this as I am ashamed of myself!”
So just like this story, when we see others with nice cars, luxury houses, and beautiful appearances, instead of feeling jealous, we should remind ourselves to take good actions and accumulate merits. For example, circumambulation is a good way to accumulate merits. In Atisha’s biography, it is recorded that once Dromtonpa asked his teacher Atisha, “Why do you circumambulate the stupa everyday instead of doing meditation?” Atisha said: “No other worldly positive action is better than circumambulation. When I circumambulate the stupa, I can accumulate all the merits in terms of body, speech and mind. But meditation can only accumulate the merit in terms of mind. In India, some attained their accomplishments by circumambulating big cities monasteries, stupas, the statue of Avalokitesvara, etc. But you Tibetans pay no attention to such important practice.” Dromtonpa then understood the importance of circumambulating stupas, and did so every day. In his later years, although he was in bad health, he still circumambulated the stupa with the help of wheel chair for at least three circles per day.
So Tibetan Buddhism puts great emphasis on circumambulating mandalas, stupas, monasteries, and holy mountains to accumulate merits. Just talking about accumulating merits is surely not enough. It is quite essential to conduct good deeds and accumulate merits through our mind, speech, and body.
A Reminder of Impermanence
The teaching of the Vimalakirti Sutra was supposed to take a break during the month of July, when Khenpo goes on a scheduled lecture tour overseas. But the travel plan fell through unexpectedly, thus Khenpo is now back in Larung Gar to continue the teaching instead of August. This unforeseen change of schedule, Khenpo points out, is actually a good example of impermanence. In our everyday life, plans rarely catch up with changes—things don’t always go as planned. Such is the natural rule of phenomena.
Khenpo figures it will take one or two years to finish the teaching of the Vimalakirti Sutra. At the onset of this class, he bid the audience to cultivate patience and perseverance. In the past, eminent masters had discoursed on sutras such as Nirvana Sutra and Flower Garland Sutra for five or even ten years. Many of their audiences also persisted along and received unbroken transmissions. Khenpo says that our task may not be as daunting, but during the recently finished teaching of the Lotus Sutra, which took more than one year, many had attended all the sessions from beginning to end. Such a tenacious spirit is commendable. In regard to another extensive teaching, The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras, that has been going on for nearly four years, Khenpo also expects many listeners will have full attendance and obtain a complete transmission.
Khenpo reminds us that before receiving Dharma teachings, we should reflect inwardly and ask ourselves: Why am I listening to the teaching? What’s my own purpose for it? Having received the teachings, how should I apply it to benefit beings? Go over this checklist each time and generate the precious bodhichitta. It’s best to arouse bodhichitta when leaving your place for the Dharma hall. If not, alert yourself and reorient your mind correctly upon arriving the Dharma hall, or before the teaching commences.
The Good Fortune in Receiving Dharma Teachings
According to the sutra, there are four things that are difficult to encounter: a human birth; a place where the Dharma flourishes; an authentic teacher; and the authentic Dharma teaching. To be born a human is rare, and taking birth in a place where Dharma flourishes is also difficult, meeting a qualified spiritual mentor is sheer luck, and willing to endeavor in Dharma study is exceptional. Above all, having heard the Mahayana doctrine is doubly difficult.
Now that we have all these favorable circumstances in hand, we must cherish each and every teaching, whether attending it onsite or online. There are remarks that online learning is not as effective as being personally in the Dharma hall. Khenpo suspects this has a lot to with the listeners’ attitude. Often times, online audiences tend to move around ad libitum, engaging in eating or chatting when the teaching is actually in session. Such careless conduct is quite improper and has to be remedied. In all, wherever you are, it’s imperative that you listen to the teachings without distraction, and take part in the pre- and post- class recitations. Only by investing in sincere effort will you experience extraordinary blessings and benefits.
The Lotus Sutra that had been taught by Khenpo last year is noted for its tremendous blessings, and the Vimalakirti Sutra of our current focus is just as powerful. Khenpo is confident that studying this sutra will bring forth positive transformations to many, and those who previously did not know how to tame their minds according to Mahayana Buddhism will get the gist of it this time. In addition, some audiences may vow to emulate Vimalakirti in helping beings with skillful means.
Mahayana Buddhism often extols the three qualities of the Buddha: wisdom, compassion, and power. Wisdom is like the sunlight that dispels sentient being’s ignorance; compassion is like the cool moonlight that pacifies raging afflictions of suffering beings and brings them happiness within reach; power is like the earth that, with its distinctive qualities, supports everything and sustains animals and plants with nutrients and vitality. So Khenpo encourages us to make an aspiration: In all my lifetimes, may I attain the qualities of wisdom, compassion, and power; like the sun, moon, and earth, may I serve limitless living beings in the entire universe in an unhindered and unselfish way.
A Brief Review of Previous Two Chapters
Khenpo briefly reviews what has been taught so far: the first chapter “Buddha Land” explicates a pure mind leading to a pure buddha field, which also touches upon the “pure perception” of the Vajrayana tenet. The second chapter “Skillful Means” illustrates the myriad skillful means that the Elder Vimalakirti applied in delivering sentient beings, especially how he went about in cities and proficiently connected with all kinds of people. For instance, he imparted profound Dharma to lay practitioners according to their propensities and earned their high respect; when associating with kings, brahmins, or ksatriyas, he was always honored by all of them. When he went to the god realm, the asura realm, or other realms, he was the object of their veneration and offerings.
Khenpo reminds us to internalize the meaning of these teachings, rather than leave it untouched on high shelves. We must not remain intransigent in our daily life. Rather, like Vimalakirti, we should interact with people with ease. By mingling into society and various communities, we can serve others according to their needs. Some monastics are eloquent in teachings and can handle things well at the monastery, but once they leave their comfort zone, to an urban setting for instance, they are at a loss like fish out of water. Often they fall into the extremes of being totally withdrawn or fully caught up in the eight worldly concerns. Neither of them is in accord with Mahayana spirit. Likewise, today many young people have a phobia of taking up the responsibilities of life; when they finally pluck up their courage to do so, they are usually inflicted with mental disorders of depression, anxiety and other difficulties. Even if they have studied some Dharma, they usually fail to apply it to transform problems into spiritual advancement. The reason for such inept attacks is due to the lack of Mahayana’s skillful methods—of the style, wisdom, and deftness Vimalakirti possessed. Therefore, we need to cultivate genuine interests in people of all walks of life and learn to have a conversation with them, be they doctors, policemen, spiritual adepts, or beggars.
When practitioners are fully fledged with wisdom and power, they can effortlessly fit into any surroundings: when alone in retreat, they practice the Dharma authentically; when out in the world, they intermingle with various beings harmoniously. If in this life we don’t have the causes and conditions to become a monk or a nun, it needs not to be forced; bear in mind that many highly accomplished siddhas in Tibetan Buddhism such as Jigme Lingpa and Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche also manifested as householders whose spiritual accomplishments far surpassed many monastics.
Our lives are always evolving; we simply can’t stay in familiar surroundings forever. Therefore, wherever we find ourselves in, be it at the Tibetan plateau, India, or a Western country, we should become familiar with the culture and history of each region, and at the same time retain our own traditional background and keep up with modern knowledge.
Vimalakirti’s Dharma Activities
When he was among Brahma gods, as the most honored of the Brahma gods he taught with superior wisdom.
Previously, we’ve learned Vimalakirti went to palaces and brought his audiences to spiritual maturity. Here, when he was among Brahma gods, he received the highest respect and numerous offerings. To them, he taught the superior wisdom related mainly to the profound vipassana. Why is this teaching? It is because brahma gods, despite their mastery of shamatha meditation, lack the vipassana wisdom that realizes the emptiness of self.
We can follow Vimalakirti to expound a specific aspect of Dharma that others lack. For example, a Zen monastery may focus on one approach of meditation but miss other disciplines, which can then be introduced as supplementary teachings for them. Reciting the name Amitabha diligently is excellent, but if the devotees are unfamiliar with the law of karma or the meaning of ultimate truth, a teaching on these will be illuminating to them. On the other hand, Khenpo may also emphasize topics that are in line with the particular sect of a monastery, such as the principle of pure land for Pure Land monasteries, or the Tiantai doctrine for a monastery of Tiantai School. Of course, if people are open to traditions other than their own, Khenpo is willing to confer for their greater benefit.
When he was among Indras, as the most honored among Indras he manifested impermanence.
When he was among Indras, Vimalakirti was also loved, most honored, and served by tens of thousands of celestial beings. Dwelling in the desire realm, these gods indulged themselves day and night in endless sensory pleasures that were hard to break away from. Thus Vimalakirti explicated the principle of impermanence, educating them that their enjoyment, sensory pleasures, alluring bliss, melodious music, and fun games were all fleeting and ephemeral.
In our world, privileged individuals who enjoy a comfortable life without any difficulty are actually in great need to hear the teachings on impermanence. Many high government officials and business tycoons reveling in their high position hardly notice the transient nature of life. They believe their satisfactory situations will last forever, and when misfortunes befall on them, leading to their demise in status, wealth, or looks, they have no way to cope. Thus it is essential to alert them that everything is liable to pass before it’s too late.
Khenpo has personally met such so-called successful figures. One of them told Khenpo recently that he had just invested several billion RMB on some business and was planning overseas investment and so on. Hearing this, Khenpo couldn’t help thinking, “Life is impermanent, your body will betray you one day before you notice its change…” Khenpo also encounters extremely sick patients who barely manage to live on and must take all sorts of medicine every day. Death is obviously imminent, yet they have indestructible confidence and behave as if they would live on forever. All of them should take a lesson or two about impermanence.
When he was among world-protector [gods], as the most honored among world-protectors he protected sentient beings.
The world-protector gods mainly refer to the Four Heavenly Kings of the desire realm. These Four Heavenly Kings all retained immense regard and esteem for the Elder Vimalakirti. In the Tibetan translation, “he protected sentient beings” means that Vimalakirti protected and benefited the world-protector gods by ripening their mindstreams with the Dharma. Since their minds are constantly agitated by worldly distractions, Vimalakirti imparted the profound Dharma teachings to them according to their inclinations and guarded their minds from non-virtues.
Buddhist scriptures described how the Four Heavenly Kings have vowed to protect the Buddhadharma. Their representatives are displayed in both Tibetan and Han temples, with a bit of a difference in style. Thangkas and murals of the Four Heavenly King greet visitors at the foyer of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, while in Han region, they stand at the two sides of Maitreya in the front hall.
The Elder Vimalakirti used immeasurable skillful means such as these to benefit sentient beings.
Vimalakirti used immeasurable skillful means, such as relating to others by using their own language, to benefit sentient beings. Expedient means are indispensable when it comes to helping others, and the first step, Khenpo says, is trying to integrate oneself into that society. For monastics, this doesn’t mean they should disrobe and change into suits and ties or teeter in high heels as a way of conforming to the world. The gist is to learn the cultures, traditions and languages of different regions and be willing to assimilate; never should we side only with our own faction and distance ourselves from those who disagree with us. If one has traveled to various places in the world, as Khenpo has been doing in recent years during his lecture tours, one will witness the inconceivable ways people vary in their likes and dislikes, as well as their habits and propensities, and come to respect their diversity.
Dharma Protectors and Protector Practices
Tales of Dharma Protectors are recorded in Han Buddhist history. Khenpo tells a story about a Zen master during the Tang Dynasty who used to meditate by the edge of a cliff. Becoming drowsy one day, he fell off and thought he was plunging to his death. Instead, he found himself safely caught by a deva, the Bodhisattva Wei Tuo (Skanda). This Bodhisattva had vowed that in this eon with its one thousand prophesied buddhas appearing, he would promote and guard the Buddhadharma and protect devotees from all negative forces. Bodhisattva Wei Tuo is widely revered and supplicated as one of the main Dharma Protectors in Han Buddhism.
Relatively speaking, there is a longer list of Dharma Protectors in Tibetan Buddhism. As far as the Nyingma lineage is concerned, we are closely related to King Gesar, the three main protectors of the Great Perfection—Ekajati, Za Rahula, and Dorje Lekpa, as well as Tsiudmar Dharmapala, each replete with impressive accounts of activities. Khenpo Sodargye shared a personal story that he had personally witnessed the appearance of Tsiudmar Dharmapala. In 1990 he accompanied His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche to visit Bhutan, and on the way to the Gangteng Monastery, Tsiudmar Dharmapala descended into a Bhutanese, who all of sudden could speak fluent Tibetan. According to Tsiudmar’s request, His Holiness offered him the initiation of Vajrakilaya and Tendrel Nyesel. Tsiudmar was ultimately pleased and made some future prophesies for His Holiness, saying, “In case of extreme urge, call upon me, for I will assist with all my abilities.” So later His Holiness also composed a liturgy of supplicating Tsiudmar Dharmapala.
For serious Vajrayana followers, it is essential to do daily protector practice. In general, protectors play a significant role in guarding the purity and authenticity of the Buddhadharma. Specifically, they make sure that practitioners are free from all kinds of impediments and can persevere until reaching their final goals, no matter that they are engaged in the practice of compassion, wisdom, or any specific Vajrayana practice. It is not uncommon to hear adherents attesting to their experiences with the Dharma Protectors’ mighty power, which is inscrutable for the non-initiated. One key point that Khenpo mentions is that, Dharma protector practice should be kept as a personal and secret practice. Just like many Vajrayana practices, we’d better maintain this practice in an inconspicuous manner, instead of making it noticeable to everyone. Only in this way, can we attain the blessings from Dharma protector to help us dispel obstacles and create favorable conditions in our daily life and spiritual practice.
At Larung Gar, the invocation to Dharma Protectors is performed regularly, and a more intensive group ritual takes place each summer. It is said that more than 100 years ago when Dudjom Lingpa was at Larung Gar, he and a deity of the locality had some disputes that were settled later. Dudjom Lingpa then promised to make offerings to the deity and other Dharma Protectors annually. Thus on the 26th day of the 6th month of the Tibetan calendar, monastics and laities at Larung Gar all participate in a feast offering to Dharma Protectors and local deities, which is quite special.
In the Han College at Larung Gar, we have the tradition that the sangha together evokes the Dharma protectors as part of prayer chanting every time before Khenpo Sodargye’s teaching. Khenpo says that this tradition is kept probably due to his personal habit, since even before he got ordained and came to Larung Gar, being a young student, he understood the importance of praying to Dharma protectors and kept this practice on a regular basis. And thanks to this tradition, although the Han College underwent many unexpected situations in the past few decades, it maintains a stable development.
If Dharma Protectors are properly and constantly evoked, they can actually bestow blessings to practitioners. People worry that the protectors may become “wrathful” should daily offerings to them be interrupted. Khenpo says such a concern is not warranted. There are two kinds of protectors: worldly protector and wisdom protector. The worldly ones have a similar temperament to human beings, and we can relate to them the same way we interact with one another. For instance, if you often keep in touch with your friends or acquaintances and make nice gestures to them, they will be nice to you too. On the other hand, if you ignore them all the time and only look for them when you are in trouble, your chance of getting help from them is slim. Therefore, in order to maintain an ongoing good relationship with worldly protectors, we shall regularly make offerings and prayers to them.
Wisdom Dharma Protectors, on the other hand, are transcendental and will come to your aid no matter what. Nonetheless, as all things are interdependent arising, we need to establish auspicious connections with them through beseeching and making offerings. His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche taught that instead of merely mouthing the protector liturgy, it’s better to accompany it by actual material offerings, such as liquor and food. However, Han temples are unfamiliar with the Tibetan way of practice, and the disposal of offering substances may pose a problem for city dwellers. Thus Khenpo advises us to be sensitive to our circumstances, and on some occasions it is fine to symbolically offer some biscuits, candies, and tea, just making sure that within the offerings there are both drinkable and eatable stuff.
This doesn’t mean that protectors need our offerings because they are hungry. In the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava subjugated the twelve tenma goddesses and other spirits hostile to the Dharma, including Yakshas, Raksasas, and non-humans. Guru Padmasambhava bound them under oath to protect the Dharma and accepted their vows of allegiance. He also gave appropriate teachings to them and promised that future practitioners would also appreciate their help by making offerings, praise, and recitations to them. Therefore, when praying to Dharma Protectors, it is necessary to have nice food and wines as an auspicious favorable support to evoke them.
Our guru H.H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche composed an invocation to the twelve tenma goddesses during the bleak upheaval years. Rinpoche pleaded: “Today, Buddhism in the Tibetan area has come to a crossroad facing great obstacles. Protectors, please recall the vows you made previously! Please enact your activities from the basic space of wisdom!” And indeed, the supplication worked in various cases. Thus we can’t afford to let slip the practice of Dharma Protectors.
Vimalakirti Fell Sick
Using skillful means he manifested becoming ill himself. Because he was ill, the king, ministers, elders, retired scholars, brahmans, the princes and the other palace retainers, and innumerable thousands of people all came to inquire about his illness.
As one of his skillful means, Vimalakirti manifested becoming ill himself. This is how he, as a bodhisattva, exercised skillful means. First, in terms of his body, by appearing to be ill, he prompted people to come forth inquiring after his health; second, in terms of his speech, he took this opportunity to impart Dharma to his well-wishers. Thus, falling ill may turn out to be a useful situation. In hospitals, we may meet certain individuals with whom we try to make connections and introduce the Dharma to them. Especially when people are sick, it’s easier for them to have kindred feelings toward others who also fell prey to illness, and they are open to the words taught by fellow patient masters.
In Khenpo’s case, when he was hospitalized not long ago, he met a fellow Tibetan who requested that Khenpo confer blessings. This patient actually had late stage cancer with malignant cells spreading all over his body and, according to the doctor, would die within a month. His family nonetheless kept this news from him. They specifically asked Khenpo not to instruct him phowa but to chant long life prayers; Khenpo then chanted the names of buddhas and the liturgy of Amitayus Buddha. The patient was very happy and said to Khenpo: “My family told me I’ve recovered completely and I will check out of hospital in a month!”
Because Vilamakirti was ill, innumerable thousands of people including the king, ministers, elders, retired scholars, brahmans, the princes, and others came to inquire about his illness. This list of visitors of high status revealed that Vimalakirti must have been an eminent celebrity himself. Also, he must have visited other patients as well, and now they were reciprocating his favors. Khenpo said that recently two people from his hometown fell ill at the same time. They had similar backgrounds, but one had lots of visitors, whereas the other hardly had any, even his son did not show up. Perhaps his karmic connection with others was to blame. In any case, if Dharma friends fall ill, it is thoughtful for us to call on them.
At the time of the Buddha, a monk was ill and kept on lamenting, “I have no one to protect me, I have no one to rely on!” Buddha came over and comforted him, “Fear not, I’m your very protector!” So the Buddha attended his illness personally and cleaned up his filthy room till it was spotless. If even the Buddha could serve a sick monk this way, what about us?
However, among friends and relatives, not every sick person needs or wants help. To them, Khenpo advises we refrain from visiting, otherwise it may be inconvenient to them. For those who are lonely and need help, we should offer to help with compassion. The Brahma’s Net Sutra says, “If you see someone who is ill, you should always make offerings to them, no differently than you would for the Buddha. Among the eight fields of merit, that of caring for the ill is foremost.” Thus when we come across a sick person, we should take care of them in a way exactly the same as for the Buddha. Moreover, it is said that the service of looking after a sick person is paramount among the eight fields of merit.
If our resources allow, it would be ideal to establish foundations geared toward patients’ welfare. Although health insurance is common these days, some impoverished persons still have no access to medical care, and they need our help financially and physically. In Sichuan Province, there are organizations that aid patients living in remote areas where it is difficult to reach a medical facility, or that help patients communicate better with medical staff members, and so on. It is important to assist underprivileged people on a regular basis.
Another support system is the hospice care that has been established overseas in the United States, Canada, and other countries. Hospice care focuses on the holistic well-being of patients facing terminal illnesses, addressing not only physical conditions but also their emotional and spiritual needs. Patients are not subject to aggressive medical procedures to extend their lives, nor are they hastened to die by assisted suicide. The overall mission of hospice care is to help patients spend the remainder of their lives as fully and comfortably as possible, and to aid their family and friends dealing with the grieving process. Khenpo understands that in Han China, some charity organizations and hospitals are setting up these kinds of facilities to provide humane care for dying patients and their loved ones.
Vimalakirti Expounded the Fragility of Human Body
To those who came, Vimalakirti used the occasion of his illness to make extensive explanations of the Dharma.
“Sirs, the body is impermanent, without strength, without power, without solidity. Given the way it rapidly disintegrates, it cannot be trusted.
Sirs means virtuous ones, which is referred to as friends in the Tibetan version, indicating people who called on him were his friends. Khenpo points out that how one addresses others actually reveals one’s inner quality and character. It’s best to use respectful and polite terms when greeting others and avoid any denigrating and hurtful names. Patrul Rinpoche says in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, “Throughout all my lives, may I never harm so much as a single hair on another being’s head, and may I always help each of them.” This passage has made an indelible mark in Khenpo’s mind; we should likewise align our heart and conduct accordingly, and keep this aspiration as our motto for life.
Using the occasion of his illness, Vimalakirti gave the extensive Dharma teachings to his visitors. The teachings below are very crucial, because it reveals the Buddhist way of analyzing the human body: First, the body is impermanence; second, it is full of suffering; next, it is emptiness; forth, it is devoid of an inherent existence of self; and finally, it is impure.
Impermanent speaks generally of the body’s transient nature. Without strength means when the body ages, it loses its strength and becomes fragile and feeble. Without power indicates the body is not durable, which is not obvious when healthy, but becomes evident the moment sickness strikes, just like Patrul Rinpoche’s metaphor of a sparrow being hit by a stone, unable to move or eat at all. Without solidity means this body is insubstantial. Our body is believed to be stable and solid, but it’s not. For example, at the charnel ground when the body is chopped up and devoured by vultures, instantly it becomes nothing. Indeed, it was having witnessed the sights of old age, sickness, and death that Prince Siddhatha, the future Buddha, was propelled to embark on the path of seeking truth.
So our human body is unreliable; it will betray us when we are sick, aging, or dying, and quickly rot away. As said in the Sutra of the Sublime Dharma of Clear Recollection,
The lives of all sentient beings,
Like lightning, like the wheel of fire,
Like a city of gandharvas,
Elapse quickly without suspending.
Likewise, a verse quoted in Lamrim Chenmo and Finding Comfort and Ease in the Nature of Mind echoes:
The three worlds are impermanent like an autumn cloud.
The birth and death of beings is like watching a dance.
Crucially, regardless who you are, let this view sink in your heart, even if you consider yourself quite strong and healthy for now. In one hundred years at most, not to mention a time much sooner, we definitely will lose this body. If we have understood the above teachings, we can face illness or death in ways unattainable by those who are otherwise unprepared. When the final moment comes, we embrace it courageously and confidently, in stark contrast to others gripped by agony, desperation, and fear, even if they have been world-renowned scientists or celebrities.
Alternately suffering and vexatious, it accumulates a host of illnesses. Sirs, the wise do not rely on such a body.
The body is also full of suffering. Sentient beings are afflicted with a host of illnesses. In fact, the body is the location, the source, and the working basis of our suffering and defilements, upon which illnesses accumulates. It is said in the scriptures that physical diseases caused by the disorder of each of the four elements, i.e., earth, water, fire, and wind, amount to one hundred and one, thus totaling to four hundred and four bodily maladies. Additionally, the Sutra of the Heap of Jewels lists three humors of wind, bile, and phlegm as the vital substances of the body, and an imbalance of one or more of the humors results in disease. In other versions, it accumulates a host of illnesses is followed by it possesses the nature of decaying, meaning our body naturally declines.
Therefore, the wise do not rely on such a body. No person of wisdom would depend or cling onto a thing like this body. Why? Because no matter how tenaciously one tries to hold onto the body, it will slip away in the end. The sages deem that having a body is what makes them liable to great calamity, whereas the foolish never tire of becoming infatuated with their own body, imagining it as most handsome and everlasting.
The Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way states:
Although the body is seen like a foe,
Nevertheless it should be protected.
As we depend on having a body to perform virtuous deeds, we have to care and maintain our body; but in fact it is like an enemy unworthy of our clinging. Today many people get very disheartened when becoming sick or seeing wrinkles on their faces. Indeed, if one lacks a thorough understanding of the above teaching, suffering from the attachment to the body is unavoidable.
This body is like a bit of foam that cannot be grasped. This body is like bubbles that do not last very long. This body is like a mirage, generated from thirst. This body is like a banana tree, with nothing solid within. This body is like a phantasm arising from confused [views]. This body is like a dream, an illusory view. This body is like a shadow, manifested through karmic conditions.
This body is like a bit of foam that will not stay when being touched, tapped, kneaded, or handled. Glittering foam is beautiful, but it will burst on contact with another object. Our physical body is just as fragile. No amount of maintenance including taking the most exalted dietary supplements can prevent its eventual demise to nothingness. Be sure to understand this essential instruction!
This body is like bubbles that cannot last very long. Water bubbles or soap bubbles last only a few seconds, similarly we’re not immortal. People reach their prime during youth, and then everything goes downhill from there; in the twinkling of an eye, wrinkles will take over one’s face.
This body is like a mirage, born from the thirst of love. When people are lost in the desert and run out of water, they may see a shimmering puddle of water on the horizon and feel elated. However, it’s not a pool of water but a mirage, an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions that has fooled many thirsty explorers and animals. Likewise, due to desire we have this temporary body that is a mere gathering of five aggregates. It is an illusion not worth clinging to.
This body is like a banana tree which has many layers. When one layer after the other is peeled off, nothing solid within can be found. The hollowness of banana tree has been used as a metaphor in both The Root Stanzas on the Middle Way and The Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way, to illustrate the insubstantial nature of the body. Additionally, the Tibetan version points out that the body, like a machine, is a nexus of flesh, blood, tendons, bones, and so forth. These parts make up the totality of what we regard as a “body”, but there is not a singular entity that is the body itself. The solidity of the body cannot be found when investigated by empirical methods.
The body that we normally regard as truly existing is actually like a phantasm, arising from confused views. The characters in a movie seem to possess real bodies, but they are devoid of true existence. Similarly, this illusory conjunction of five aggregates, the body, is believed as true and real, yet it has no inherent existence.
This body is like a dream, being formed by false and illusory views. When we are dreaming, everything in it appears to be real; only upon waking up will we realize what happens in the dream is false and illusory. The body we have now is actually a body in a bigger dream, an illusion compounded by false visions.
This body is like a shadow and is caused by karmic conditions. Shadows reflect the shapes of things; similarly, our body that comes in all sizes and shapes reflects our former actions. Our present body, whether it is beautiful, ugly, slim, fat, satisfactory to us or not, is not determined by our parents, who serve merely as facilitators. The real creator of our body is our karma of previous lifetimes. Do bear this in mind! Some people are not happy about their looks and blame it on their parents. Actually, our parents are quite innocent in this. Should parents have the choice to decide, would they not make the cutest baby, the perfect offspring? But they simply don’t have the option. By the same token, our future bodies will be formed depending on virtuous or non-virtuous actions we commit in this life. Take this advice as “golden counsel”!
A Few Words Before the Teaching
Before the teaching, Khenpo thanked all the volunteers who dedicate themselves to providing all the necessary resources and conveniences to support the live teaching. Without their efforts, many people won’t be able to have such a good opportunity to receive the teaching. So Khenpo conveys his sincere gratitude to all the volunteers, and asked the sangha to bless them and to dedicate the merit to them when chanting The King of Aspiration Prayers after the teaching.
Khenpo emphasized once again that, everyone must take the Dharma teachings seriously. Through reflecting on the rarity of human existence, the impermanence of life, and the difficulty to encounter the Dharma, one should not simply regard the Dharma as something casual and just listen to the teaching out of sheer curiosity. All great masters throughout history had strict requirements on the motivation and the discipline of receiving the teaching, and we should follow such requirements.
Thanks to the modern technology, nowadays most people receive the profound Mahayana teachings through live streaming, but sometimes the online audience doesn’t behave as properly as the onsite students at Larung Gar. People online may be too casual toward the teaching of the Dharma, as they are often late and tend to be less focused and attentive during the teaching. Hereby, Khenpo requested that the audience adopts a proper manner towards the Dharma teaching.
Since life is short and time is very precious, if one has made the decision to receive the teaching, then he or she needs to earnestly and diligently follow the teaching. Every time before the teaching, it is better to have all the chores done before hand. If one is busy with other things and suddenly recall, “Oh, I have a class today!”, it only indicates that this person does not care much about the Dharma. As a Buddhist, one should be ashamed to have such an attitude.
Currently we are talking about the Buddhist view on the human body. Khenpo wishes that through these teachings everyone can correct their wrong views concerning the body, and gain a better and thorough understanding of it. Everyone cares about and attaches great importance to their physical body, having no idea that the body is constrained by the bondage of various causes and conditions. As mentioned, the body is like a shadow, manifested through karmic conditions. So we are the maker of our body, not our parents. To be fair, nobody should complain that their parents made them ugly. If their parents have such abilities, why haven’t these people made their own babies the most beautiful in the first place? Apparently, they don’t have such choice.
Some scientists and medical experts attribute the gene mutation to a person’s look, reckoning that under special conditions beautiful parents’ genes have been mutated and thus their children become ugly. This statement is not necessarily true. Indeed, it takes more than genetics to illuminate the law of cause and effect. The karmic law pervasively governs everything, including our own body. Therefore, we should reflect like this, “Whether I am beautiful or ugly, healthy or ill, strong or weak, it is only due to my own karma accumulated in the past lifetimes. If I want to complain, I can only complain about my karma. For example, if my body tends to easily fall sick, I might have created too much bad karma in the past.” In fact, many incurable health problems are the continuation of the karmic effect of our previous lives.
Vimalakirti Expounded the Fragility of Human Body (1)
This body is like an echo, dependent on causes and conditions.
Like an echo in the valley, the body is a product of various causes and conditions, including one’s ignorance, good and bad karma, as well as father’s sperm and mother’s ovum, the four primary elements, etc. It is produced by the combination of all the above, not a single one. Not only our body, but also our feelings, our life experiences and so on all dependently arise from certain causes and conditions. This principle of dependent arising is very profound and incredible, and has been taught in many sutras and shastras, such as Lama Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of Dependent Origination. As Buddha Shakyamuni said,
All things arise from causes,
Those causes have been taught by the Tathagata.
And those things cease because of causes,
This, too, has the Great Shramana explained.
It is the truth revealed by the Buddha who later used a great deal of skillful means to expound it to different living beings. Upon hearing this profound truth, we should have a better understanding of our own conditions, including health issues and mental problems, etc. Some illnesses are probably caused by short term disorders, such as flu, whereas long-term disorders may be triggered by causes that can be traced further back to the previous lives from even tens of thousands of year ago, and cannot be healed immediately by medical treatment, chanting prayers or practicing virtues. If we truly understand this principle, we will be open-minded about many things happening in our life. For example, some people could feel very sad about their dissatisfactory looks, fragile health or destitution, but once they understand that they themselves are the creator of their own lives, they will stop grumbling.
This body is like a cloud, which changes and disappears in an instant.
Clouds may seem changeless on first glance, but under a close observation, they are actually changing moment to moment. For example, the white clouds turn into dark ones; the heavy cloud clusters change into slender strips; the cloudless morning sky becomes clouded over the afternoon. So clouds are constantly changing into different shapes, which are determined by different conditions. Similarly, the physical body is impermanent and changes constantly. Someone may wonder, “How can it change constantly? My body seldom changes.” This is just one’s own delusion. As a matter of fact, some used to be slim but become fat and need to take diet pills; some were pretty at a young age then gradually turn ugly when getting old.
Looking at one’s own photos in different ages, some may feel disappointed, be puzzled by the big difference between the young face and the old one. When and how did this change happen? Or take a look at those great persons of history, one can never predict their future from how they appeared in their youth. It is difficult to see the changes of our body within a day or two, but after a period of time, we will notice its dramatic change. Like clouds in the sky, the nature of our bodies is impermanence and we should accept this fact.
Also, some people track their weight every day and their mood swings with the increase and decrease of the weight. However, it is not necessary to feel happy or sad about the weight because it is certainly impermanent, like the forming and disappearing of the clouds.
This body is like lightening, unstable from one moment to another.
The physical body is like lightening which appears and disappears in an instant. Death can take our body away in the snap of a finger. In The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, it goes as follows, “This body is not eternal, and does not stay stable even for a second. It is like lightning, madding water, and a mirage.” These metaphors all demonstrate the instability of our body that changes from one moment to another. Some may feel it is hard to believe, but this is the reality.
As early as in 1978, the term Karōshi, means overwork death, was invented in Japan to refer to an increasing number of people suffering from fatal strokes and heart attacks attributed to overwork. But there are more reasons that can cause sudden death. Many people are safe and sound before going to sleep, but are found dead the next morning. According to an official report, every year there are over 1.8 million people who die of sudden death in China, amongst whom 1,400 people die of heart attack every day. Therefore, life is fleeting. Even though illness has spared us today, traffic accident could take our life tomorrow. Then two or three days later, the body would be either buried under ground, cremated or exposed to the sky burial. A life once so alive and vital is quickly gone, leaving no ashes on the earth.
Hence, the human body is not strong nor stable. If we often listen to and contemplate the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, we will cultivate a firm belief in this truth. Then we can accept the death and misfortunes in our lives more peacefully instead of wailing and complaining about the injustice of fate, or being caught in desperation. Take terminal cancer as an example. Those who have little religious education and poor mental endurance are likely to suffer a nervous breakdown; while those who have been educated in this regard, on the other hand, are more likely to be prepared for the dramatic change of body, and be fine with whatever time that is left for life.
The body is without master, like the earth.
The earth has no fixed master, as Kumarajiva said in his commentary, “It belongs to the powerful one.” For instance, a country was ruled by different monarchs during different historical periods, and its master kept changing. So does our body, which is like the earth, without a constant master. When we are sick, the body belongs to Mara of Illness; when we are aging and dying, the body belongs to Mara of Death; when other incidents happen, the masters of the body will change accordingly.
Some may think that they can become the owner of a land after purchasing it, but it will not belong to them forever, and after death, it will be kept by someone else. So does our body. Once consciousness leaves the body, the body can be owned by vultures as a big meal. One day, a group of non-Buddhists went to see the sky burial at the charnel ground. When they were back, Khenpo asked them, “How do you feel about the sky burial?” They answered, “Oh, it left us a deep impression! The body we nurture and adorn tirelessly everyday will end up with nothing.” Actually, this is the exact reason why Shantideva and Chandrakirti emphasized the importance for Dharma practitioners to visit the charnel ground.
We always consider ourselves as the master of our body, but it is not the true reality. Khenpo suggests that we reflect on this teaching again and again, and ask ourselves, “Isn’t my body like fire, lightening or cloud?” In fact, such kinds of observation and contemplation is exactly the Dharma practice.
The body is without self, like fire;
When proper conditions gather together, the fire can be started; when these conditions disappear, the fire will go out. Likewise, the body does not have a so-called independent self (or “life” in the Tibetan version), and it only exists when causes and conditions are sufficient. When any of those causes and conditions are lacking, the body will disappear. For example, it will become a corpse after death, or it does not exist before birth.
The body is without lifespan, like the wind;
The body has no real lifespan, as random as the wild wind. We don’t have a fixed lifespan, and nobody can guarantee that we will live 80, 100 or 120 years, which rarely happens. As the old saying goes, “On the road to death, there are both the young and the old; moreover, those lonely tombs mostly belong to the young.” Although there have been numerous people who died at a young age, we still take it for granted that we won’t die as we’re still young. Indeed, just like the changes in weather in that a gale can suddenly blow across the bright sky, one may go to bed peacefully at night and never wake up the next morning.
Nagarjuna says in his Letter to a Friend,
With all its many risks, this life endures
No more than windblown bubbles in a stream.
How marvelous to breathe in and out again,
To fall asleep and then awake refreshed.
This verse means that our life is as fragile as the bubbles, which will burst as soon as the wind blows. It is common to breathe one’s last while sleeping or awake and then die. Death may occur to anyone so suddenly and easily. In the old days, the Kadampa practitioners who constantly meditated on impermanence would put their bowls upside down before going to sleep, because they did not believe that they would wake up the next morning. Tibetans usually preserve fire in ashes before sleep so that they can restart the fire the next morning. But those practitioners wouldn’t do this either, as they would not believe that they would be alive the next day.
We should adopt such a practice accordingly. Some may think, “This attitude is too pessimistic. It’s not necessary to think so!” In fact, if one meditates well on impermanence, he or she will lead a happier life. As Bhutanese have a common saying, “Take this very moment as the end of your life, and contemplate it five times a day, you will be a happy person.”
This body is without person, like water.
There are two ways to explain this sentence. One is that body is like the reflection on the water which is unobtainable. The so-called person cannot be found in the body. The leg is not me, the foot is not me, and the heart is not me, etc. When observing closely and analyzing part by part like this, the person can never be found, just like making vain efforts to grab a hold of the moon in the water.
The other explanation is that body is like the flowing river. Under close observation, we will find that it is our conception to call the flowing water a river. The river is devoid of intrinsic existence. Once Khenpo met an old lady during his trip in Thailand, who said to him, “The Mekong River has been here since I was a young girl, and it is still here.” At that time, Khenpo thought to himself, “This is even not the same river in this morning, not to mention the one when you were young.” The same goes to our body. Although it looks the same yesterday and today, it is changing all the time and empty in nature.
Above are the metaphors of the four primary elements (earth, water, fire and wind). In the Tibetan version and Xuangzang’s version, it is followed by the metaphor of space, saying that the body is like the space, which lacks intrinsic existence.
Vimalakirti Expounded the Fragility of Human Body (2)
This body is insubstantial, being housed in the four elements.
All in all, the body is insubstantial, as it is constituted by the four primary elements of earth, water, fire and wind. We call this combination “body” or “self”, which is actually an imputed identity. In Chandrakirti’s commentary on Introduction to the Middle Way a verse says,
When different parts of a vehicle are gathered properly,
It is named by people as “vehicle”,
So too does the accumulation of the five aggregates,
It is designated as “sentient being” on the conventional level.
This metaphor is excellent. We call it “vehicle” only because there are wheels, steering wheel and many other different parts that are being put together. By the same token, we designate the combination of the four primary elements or five aggregates as “sentient being” on the conventional level. On the ultimate level, the “body” or “self” does not exist at all.
This body is empty, transcending self and the qualities of self.
Here empty doesn’t mean empty space. It means that the body is devoid of intrinsic existence, no matter from which aspect it is observed. For this reason, self-clinging can be eliminated, without which the clinging to personal possession will not arise either.
This body is ignorant, like plants and rocks.
Other than Buddhism, modern science also points out that our body is made up of protein, carbohydrates and water, etc. It is said that 60~70% of human body is water, and the percentage varies according to the gender. So the body is the same as plants and rocks that are formed by elements such as earth, water, fire and wind, etc. The body itself is senseless, the cognition and feeling simply arise from the involvement of five sense consciousnesses, mental consciousness and alaya consciousness.
This body is inactive, being turned by the power of the wind.
The body is inactive, and cannot move by itself, like a corpse. But why can we wave our hands? It is because that the body is replete with wind. When Anuyoga talks about the channels, winds-energies and essences, it is stated that there are five root winds in human body, namely upward-moving wind, downward-clearing wind, all-pervading wind, fire accompanying wind, and life-supporting wind. With the movement of these winds, our body can move and our conceptual thoughts can change. Without such conditions, our body will be motionless, like a windmill without wind.
In some commentaries on Vimalakirti Sutra, it is said that like a puppet which cannot function if the cords are broken, our body will be motionless without the movement of winds. So the movement of body is supported by various causes and conditions, without which the body will be unconscious or unmovable, just like those patients in vegetative state or with hemiplegia. Thus, we should understand that the body itself is inactive.
This body is impure, replete with defilement.
The origin of the body is the impure seeds of parents, the place it comes from is the impure womb, and it is composed of 36 impure elements, therefore, the body is impure. Some people may argue, “It is not true. My body is really clean, pretty and smells very good.” If you wear perfume, your body will smell good, but as stated in The Way of the Bodhisattva, the fragrance is from the perfume, not your body. The Introduction to the Middle Way says, if your body is pure and really smells good, then how come after the clean and delicious food going through the body system, the impure excrement comes out and pollutes the earth in the end? Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way also says that,
Clean things are looked upon
As the most worthless of all.
What intelligent person
Would say that it is clean?
After the food is eaten and digested by our body, it becomes impure. So a wise person won’t think the body is pure. To console people we might say it is pure, but honestly speaking, the body is impure and even terrible.
Milarepa said that the so-called body is very horrifying and it is no different to the corpse. When we see a corpse, we will say, “Oh, that’s disgusting. How dirty and smelly it is!” At Larung Gar, there is an area for placing dead bodies temporarily, where monastics would chant prayers for those dead. When some people pass by that area, they will cover their noses with some part of their clothes and still feel that it really stinks. Actually, the only difference between us and corpses is that we haven’t fallen down yet, so everyone is like a walking corpse.
This body is untrustworthy, since even though one washes, clothes, and feeds it, it will necessarily disintegrate.
Through careful observation, no one can disprove that the body is an aggregation. No matter how well we take care of this body by washing, clothing and feeding, and no matter what nutritious and healthy food we take, the body will disintegrate sooner or later, and there is nothing we can do about this nature of impermanence.
Many people nowadays are willing to try different ways to look younger, and that’s why yoga courses and gym membership fees become more and more expensive. Those “little fresh meat” (young boys) want to develop 8-pack abs, and young ladies want to keep fit and get V-line abs. It is said that recently many rich people in China go to Ukraine to receive stem cell injection, which may cost 600,000 RMB. By doing so, they believe that they can become as young as 30 years old. On one hand, it is good to maintain a good body shape and good health; on the other hand, we must accept the fact that the physical body follows the natural law of aging and no one can escape from it.
Now is an age when being young has many advantages, and society values the young generation the most. Although they are just a small proportion of the population, most commercials focus on them, and many TV programs are tailor-made for them. Many people think that once they get old, they will be useless and abandoned by the society. This kind of attitude is taken advantage of by many advertisers who induce people to become younger in order to squeeze money out of them.
When looking at this phenomena, we should ponder why the value system of the modern society is changing like this, and who will care and carry forward the most meaningful and valuable cultures? Haven’t people around us or even we ourselves already turned our eyes to the rejuvenation of the body, and is it reasonable? Rationally speaking, a person should not only be judged by their appearance. The young appearance only lasts 10 or 20 years at most, and nobody can stay young forever. In Tibetan traditional culture, seniors are admired for their deep wisdom and rich life experiences, and no one discriminates the old and praises the young. But now there could be some changes. So for us modern people, probably it is more essential to understand the fact that the physical body is untrustworthy because it will disintegrate sooner or later.
This body is a disaster, vexed by a hundred and one illnesses.
The body is a burden and a disaster which is disturbed by 101 illnesses caused by each of the four great elements, so the physical body is the cause of all suffering. In a Buddhist text, it says that having a physical body is more suffering than anything else in this world, and Laozi also has the similar statement. It is this body that causes diseases today and tomorrow and makes one feel uncomfortable.
This body is like a well on a hill, pressed by age.
A well on a hill is a literal translation from Chinese, which actually means an old well that has almost dried up. Without water source, a well is drying out day by day. Similarly, the physical body is threatened by aging. People may be not clearly aware until the aging process becomes obvious. Some would say it starts at 30 years old, while others say it starts at 40s or 50s. In fact, ever since we were born, we have been growing old and heading for death day by day.
With the passing of time, those “little fresh meat” will become “dried meat”. When Khenpo meets some Tibetan folks, sometimes he thinks to himself, “They must have been handsome when they were young, but after going through so many joys and sorrows of life, they become what they look now.” Everybody will be like this, becoming more and more like a dried well.
This body is unreliable, dying in spite of being needed.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva, it says that there will definitely be one day that death will approach and the body will be gone. This is something one should have no doubt. Nobody can avoid meeting his or her demise. In Sutra of Dispelling Uneasiness, it also says,
Either on the earth or in the heaven,
Among beings in these three worlds,
And born in any of the four modes of birth,
No one can escape from impermanence.
There is no one in this world who could escape from impermanence and live forever. Emperor Qin Shi Huang also tried to seek Taoist methods and other special powers to be immortal, but of course, that kind of live-forever power was not obtained then, neither is it now. At the time of death, even if the Medicine Buddha or the best doctor in the world comes to you, there is no way to escape death. Impermanence cannot be avoided by anyone, and death is the destination of all sentient beings.
This body is like a poisonous snake, a vengeful bandit, an empty aggregation. It is the composite of the skandhas, sensory realms, and sensory capacities.
The body is controlled by the five skandhas, or the five aggregates, just like someone being controlled by vengeful bandits. The body is restrained by eighteen dhatus, or the eighteen sensory realms, just like a prey being captured and entangled to death by a poisonous snake. And the body is locked by the twelve ayatanas, or the twelve bases of cognition, like an empty aggregation, i.e., an empty village which used to be full of residents but is deserted now.
Kumarajiva told a story in his commentary. Once, there was a man who was to be secretly killed by the King. The King asked him to carry on the back a basket in which there was four poisonous snakes. The plan was to have five bandits attack him as he carried the basket. Before the attack took place, a spiritual teacher came and urged him to escape, otherwise he would be killed. So this man fled to some place and saw an empty village where he planned to take up residence. However, the spiritual teacher told him to leave again as there were many bandits living in this abandoned village. Thus, he left and later met a river on the way. He made a raft himself to cross the river and eventually gained freedom after reaching the other side of the river.
The implied meaning of this story is: The King represents mara; the four snakes represent the four primary elements; the five bandits are the five skandhas; the empty village with many bandits in it is the twelve ayatanas. When he was threatened by all these, the spiritual teacher guided him out of there. In the end, with the raft of the noble eightfold path, he cut through the samsara and reached the other shore of nirvana. By using these metaphors, we can learn that the body is full of faults.
The Body of the Buddha
“Sirs, this [body] being so calamitous and repugnant, you should wish for the body of the Buddha. Why?
“The body of the Buddha is the body of the Dharma. It is generated through immeasurable wisdom and merit. It is generated through morality, meditation, wisdom, emancipation, and the knowledge and vision of emancipation.
According to some commentaries, the teaching above analyzes the human body in terms of its impermanence, suffering, emptiness, selflessness and impurity. Through these analyses we should understand that the body has infinite faults, and therefore, we should detest this physical body and aspire for the body of the Buddha. Fundamentally speaking, the body of the Buddha comprises three kayas, namely the nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya and dharmakaya, among which the most ultimate, adamantine and indestructible body is the dharmakaya.
The dharmakaya of the Buddha derives from the countless and boundless collections of merit, quality and wisdom. It is generated through morality, meditation, wisdom, emancipation, and the knowledge and vision of emancipation. Emancipation is the stage of nirvana, and the knowledge and vision of emancipation is the wisdom of emancipation, which refers to the wisdom that knows the nature of all phenomena and the wisdom that knows the multiplicity of phenomena of the Buddha.
It is generated through sympathy, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It is generated through the perfections of charity, morality, forbearance and adaptability, energetic exertion, meditation, emancipation, samadhi, and learned wisdom.
The dharmakaya is generated from the four immeasurables of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. It is also generated from the six paramitas. Here, forbearance and adaptability correspond to the paramita of patience. Meditation, emancipation, samadhi are the paramita of concentration, and learned wisdom belongs to the paramita of wisdom.
There are corresponding trainings in discipline, meditation and wisdom in the causal stage, which is well explained in Mipham Rinpoche’s Gateway to Knowledge. The qualities of the Buddha are taught in many shastras such as The Ornament of Clear Realization, Uttaratantra Shastra and The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras. But such a state of realization is out of our current reach. Many of us may feel quite clear when we talk about the faults of the physical body, whereas we may not have a good grasp on the enlightenment state of buddhas and bodhisattvas, therefore Khenpo just goes through this part quickly.
It is generated from skillful means; it has been generated from the six penetrations; it is generated from the three illuminations; it is generated from the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment; it has been generated from concentration and contemplation; it is generated from the ten powers, the four fearlessnesses, and the eighteen exclusive attributes; it is generated from the eradication of all the dharmas that are not good and accumulation of all the good dharmas. It is generated from the truth; it is generated from the absence of negligence.
The three illuminations refer to the supercognition of one’s own and others’ past lives, the supercognition of the divine eye and the supercognition of the exhaustion of the defilements. The truth refers to the correct view, and the absence of negligence addresses the actual practice. One needs to cultivate the right view and to engage in the actual practice of bodhisattva from life to life.
The qualities of the Buddha are not cultivated in a day or two. Some people take it for granted that they would attain enlightenment quickly once they engage in the Dharma practices. In fact, it is not that easy at all, as buddhahood can only be achieved through immeasurable efforts to accumulate merits and to purify obscuration.
“The Tathagata’s body is generated from immeasurable pure dharmas such as these.
The immeasurable pure dharmas can only be accumulated day by day, life by life, not overnight. One’s mind has to be tamed gradually through accumulating merits and eliminating mental afflictions in numerous lifetimes. In Bodhisambharaka, it is taught,
With but a lesser accumulation of merit
One remains unable to realize bodhi.
Merit the measure of a hundred Mount Sumerus
Only an accumulation exceeding that would enable one’s enlightenment.
So it is impossible to achieve buddhahood with a little merit. The dharmakaya can only be achieved through accumulating merits exceeding the measure of a hundred Mount Sumerus through countless lifetimes.
Nowadays, some people usually lack patience in accumulating merits and cultivating virtues, and they would expect to make great progress after a short period of practice. Indeed, all those great masters had been diligently practicing virtues in countless lifetimes. Without patience, even the worldly achievement will be out of reach, not to mention the achievement in spiritual practice. Therefore, we should firmly and stably cultivate the right views, carefully discipline our behaviors, and remain cautious and mindful all the time, so that we can accumulate immeasurable pure dharmas from life to life.
Sirs, if you wish to attain the body of the Buddha and eradicate all the illnesses of sentient beings, you should generate the intention to achieve anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi!”
We should not only aspire to attain the body of the Buddha for ourselves and eradicate our own illnesses, but we should also aspire to eradicate the illnesses of all sentient beings. Many people have a fear of being sick. Especially those people who seldom fall sick worry all day long about their illness and are scared of death. Actually, it is not so bad to be sick sometimes. There are two things to ponder when we are sick. One is that given the nature of impermanence of the body, it is a great opportunity to practice the exchange of self and others at that time. The other is that we should take this opportunity to introduce more people to the Buddha path of liberation, such as the doctors, nurses and other patients nearby. In this way, our illness would be valuable.
In the past, when His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was hospitalized, many people went to see him. Later on, these people as well as some doctors and nurses around him all became faithful Buddhists. Khenpo wishes that if we have to go to hospital, we should happily take this opportunity to benefit all people around us, just like Vimalakirti.
Thus did the Elder Vimalakirti explain the Dharma for those who inquired about his illness, causing innumerable thousands of people to all generate the intention to achieve anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi.
The Elder Vimalakirti explained the nature of the body for those who came to visit him. It was very suitable to teach the Dharma on that occasion, because it is easier for them to accept such teachings related to their own body. Vimalakirti’s teachings made innumerable thousands of people generate the intention to achieve anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi. Khenpo also encourages us followers to benefit sentient beings through various means. In the audience some are doctors, and Khenpo hopes that they fulfill their duties and be more responsible and do their best to treat the patients. This is a good opportunity for them to accumulate merits. The patients should learn from Vimalakirti, too. Our body is the source of suffering and everyone will inevitably get sick. Everybody should understand this true reality and transform sickness into favorable conditions for spiritual practice.