How to Get to the Heart of Buddhadharma
by Khen Rinpoche Geshe Chonyi
Whenever you listen to an explanation of the Dharma, as you are doing now, it is very important that you reflect and analyse as you listen to what is being said. This is extremely important. If you only listen to what is being said without thinking at all, without reflecting or analysing, then there is no way you are going to learn anything.
In the process of educating yourself, when you are learning the Dharma and hearing an explanation, you have to simultaneously analyse as you listen. Without such analysis, you will not be able to check whether you understand what is being taught or not. If you don’t think about it, you will not be able to see whether you agree with what is being said or not.
While thinking as you listen to the teachings, if you find points that are objectionable to you or that you cannot agree with, then you need to bring them up and ask me. You pose a question: “Why did you say that? Is that correct? Is that wrong?”
When you are dealing with Buddhist philosophy and looking at the great treatises, in order to understand what is in the text, you have to reflect and analyse in order to understand its meaning. Otherwise, there is no way to understand these topics at all. When you engage in studying these topics, you have to try your best. Your mind has to be very alert in seeking out the answer through analysis and reflection.
IMPORTANCE OF THE TWO TRUTHS
The first line in the “Vajra Cutter Sutra”: “A star, a visual aberration, a flame of a lamp,” is an introduction to what constitutes reality. The whole of reality, anything and everything that exist, can be included in the two truths. So this is the introduction to the basis.
It is stated in the teachings that if we do not understand the basis, what constitutes reality, especially in terms of the presentation of the two truths, we will not discover and understand well the intent of the Buddha and his teachings. In order to understand well the intent of the Buddha and the intent of his teachings, we need a good grasp of the two truths. When we have a good grasp of the two truths, we will be able to complete the accumulation of the two collections. With that, we will achieve enlightenment. These are the benefits of having a good grasp of the two truths.
This is how it is presented in the teachings in terms of the basis, the path, and the result. The basis is the two truths. The path is the method and wisdom. The result is the two bodies: the truth body and the form body.
It is so important to have some idea of the two truths. This is why I am repeating this over and over again, saying the same thing in different ways. The two truths are the bedrock or foundation for everything else. The purpose of repeating myself over and over again is to emphasise their importance. You should also think about them over and over again.
If somebody were to ask you what the two truths are, at least you should be able to say decisively, “The two truths mean this; these are their names and this is what they are.” At the very minimum, you must be able to say this. It doesn’t matter who is asking this question about reality or the two truths or how they phrase their question. You should be able to deliver a definitive answer. That means you don’t have one answer for one person and another answer for another person. Your answer should be a standard answer, which is reflective of reality.
There are many people who are easily swayed. This means that if somebody says, “It is like that,” these people would agree readily, “Yes! Yes! It is like that.” When another person says something completely different, they will also say, “Yes! Yes! You are right. It is like that.” Their understanding is not stable at all!
What I am trying to say is, that whatever understanding we gain from our studies, the conclusion we arrive at must be firm and unshakeable. We must be convinced of the conclusion we arrive at. This is one point I want to drive home. I am not saying that we should aim to be foolishly stubborn. Being decisive and holding on firmly to a position is not being foolishly stubborn: “This is so because my guru said so! Therefore, it has to be so.” It should never be like that. Your decisiveness comes from having thought thoroughly about the subject matter. You understand what you are saying because you have thought about it and you know that your position is backed up by reason.
The result of learning and reflection should be this kind of decisive, unshakeable conclusion. This is especially important when we are dealing with Buddhist philosophy. The end result we are aiming for must be like that. We cannot be wishy-washy with our command of the topic.
What I am presenting here is not something new. You have already studied the tenets that cover the Great Exposition School, the Sutra School, the Mind Only School and the Middle Way School. Each of them has their own assertions of what the two truths are. If you remember what you have studied, this should not be anything new to you.
You have to know the presentation of the two truths from the perspectives of these four Buddhist tenets. With an understanding of the presentation of the two truths by the lower schools, only then will you see how the presentation of the two truths according to the higher schools is special, unique and extraordinary.
THE ART OF LISTENING TO TEACHINGS
Although we don’t like suffering, we experience suffering in many ways. There has to be an answer to that. We don’t like it, yet it keeps on coming our way. We get angry and we have attachment for all kinds of things. We don’t like to be upset and we don’t like to be angry, yet anger still arises. Why? There has to be an answer. We can talk about reality, “Reality is these two truths. It is this and that.” But we still have to answer the question, “Why do we get upset? Why does attachment arise?”
When you hear an explanation like this, this is the way to listen to a teaching. For example, I had just asked the question: “Why do we get upset? Why does attachment arise?” At the same time, you should be analysing my question. You should not just sit there, thinking, “He is asking why we are angry.” You have to ask yourself the question, think about it and look for the answer. This is why there is an art to learning and studying the Dharma and an art to listening to the teachings. It is not just sitting there and registering the words you hear.
If you don’t think about what you have read or heard, it is impossible to develop any insights or understanding. Often people think, “You are saying this again. I have already heard this before many times. I already know this as you have said it numberless times already.” With this kind of attitude, not putting effort into analysing what you have studied or heard, you will not taste the Dharma. The Dharma will not go into you. And this is why you don’t change. This is the problem.
We should ask ourselves this. Many of us, if not all of us here, have heard numberless teachings over many years but nothing much has happened, isn’t that right? It is important then to ask our selves, “Where does the problem lie? What happened?” This absence of change despite having heard so many teachings over so many years is not due to a shortage of teachings. It is not due to experiencing the poverty of Dharma teachings. It is also not the fault of the teachings themselves. If we analyse and think carefully, it is evident that we have never ever seriously analysed what we have heard and what we have read. The problem comes from that lack of reflection, just listening to teachings and reading but no reflection at all.
INVESTIGATING BEYOND APPEARANCES
It is said in the teachings that when we look at our own or someone else’s body, the body appears to be something solid right there, whether we call it an inherently existent or truly existent pleasant body. Furthermore, we assent to that appearance.
When we see somebody that we dislike, what is the basis for our unhappiness with that person? It is just the mere appearance of the body of that person that makes us feel uneasy. It is said in the teachings that our feeling of unhappiness is based on our belief that there is a bad and terrible person existing right there from its own side. Whether this is true remains to be seen from our own experience. We have to think about this.
The big question pertains to our object of attachment, say the body of another person. In the view of that attachment, that attractive body appears to that mind of attachment in a certain way. The big question is this: “Yes, this is how this body is appearing to me, but is that representative of how that body actually exists?” We have to think about this deeply.
Likewise, with regard to the enemy or the person we dislike so much, in the view of that mind of aversion or anger, that enemy or bad person appears in a certain way. Is that appearance indicative of how that person actually exists? This is what we must investigate.
The correct conclusion from thinking about what I have just said should be the same as what the line, “Form is empty” [from the “Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra”] is trying to convey. We say that things do not exist in and of themselves, although they may appear in that way, be it our object of aversion or object of attachment. Applying the line, “Form is empty”, to our enemy or object of attachment, that person does not exist in the way that our anger or attachment believes it to exist. Just by understanding well that our enemy or friend does not exist in the way they appear and the way our mind believes them to exist, our emotion, be it anger or attachment, will be reduced substantially. There is no force behind that anger or attachment anymore. When we develop this understanding, it is said that not only are those emotions subdued but we can eradicate those emotions completely because there is no longer any basis for them to arise.
Sometimes, when adults play games with children, they clench their fists and pretend to be holding something in them. Then they tell the children, “I am holding something special in my hand. If you can guess what it is, then it is yours.” The children become excited and fantasise about what the special object may be. They look forward to getting that object inside the fist.
Actually, there is nothing there.
Likewise, we are like those children in that we imbue so many hopes and expectations onto the object we are clinging to, be it the enemy or friend. This can only lead to either very strong aversion or very strong clinging. At the end of the day, however, we are clinging on to nothing. We are getting upset with nothing. We are just like the child who is so excited over that empty fist. When the fist opens up, there is nothing there.
This is very clear evidence that we have been suffering and we will continue to suffer over nothing. Due to our hallucinated view, while there is nothing there, we think that it is everything although reality is not like that. Reality exists in terms of the two truths. Not knowing that all phenomena are empty and exist only in mere name, we lead life based on our made-up reality. Our hallucinated mind is the bedrock of all our views. Based on that, we lead our lives believing whatever our hallucinations tell us to be true. While they are not true, we think they are true and correct. We accept whatever appears to our mind. “The person appears like this. The object appears like that then it has to be like that. What I think is correct. How it appears to me is correct. There is nothing more than that. There is no other possibility for reality.” This is how we lead our lives. Based on this hallucination, we create our suffering life.
HOW TO TASTE THE ESSENCE
This is why it is so important to gain an understanding of reality and what actually exists. Because we don’t know this at all, this is why we suffer so much and we continue to be in samsara. If we don’t understand the two truths, we will never see the icing on top of the cake, the most delicious part of the entire Buddhadharma.
What is the essence, the very heart, of the entire Buddhadharma? If we don’t understand the two truths, there is no way to see the intent of the Buddha. Without understanding the two truths, there is no way to see how the Buddhadharma is truly in a class of its own. We will not be able to see how special, extraordinary and different it is from other beliefs and traditions. Appreciating the wonderful and special qualities of the Buddhadharma can only come from understanding well the presentation of the two truths, the Buddha’s explanation of what reality is. This is a hallmark of Buddhism that truly sets Buddhism apart from all other traditions.
Arya Nagarjuna said in his “Essay on the Spirit of Enlightenment”, that when one comes to understand the emptiness of all phenomena — how things do not exist inherently — and at the same time, is able to explain how actions can give rise to their effects, when you have the realisation that emptiness is complementary with the working of karma and its effects, that realisation is beyond marvellous and exceedingly amazing.
Many people think that they have some understanding of emptiness. Yet, they are the very people who assert that since everything is empty, there is no karma because that is empty too. That is why there is no karma and no effects. This is no way to understand the heart of the Buddhadharma.