A Teaching on Maitreya’s Semtsema (Part 1)
by Khenchen Appey Rinpoche
The “Semtsema” is one the twenty-two chapters of the ”Ornament of Mahayana Discourses”, the first among the Five Works of the Great Bodhisattva Maitreya, which were brought down to earth from Tushita Heaven to Arya Asanga.
Whenever we receive teachings, it is important to generate the right motivation. We think: “I’m going to listen to these teachings in order to benefit all limitless sentient begins.” This is the motivation with which disciples should listen to a teaching. Likewise, the one giving the teaching should cultivate the aspiration that, by bestowing these teachings of the Buddha, he or she might help to liberate all beings that are afflicted by suffering. It is with this as primary purpose that the teacher should impart the teachings. So it is important to begin with all of us cultivating right motivation. It is said that the act of listening and receiving teachings is very meritorious, and that through this not only will one create a lot of merit, but also will accrue tangible, practical benefit for oneself.
It is said that it is more meritorious to listen to teachings than to make offerings to all the Buddhas in the three thousand worlds. Even if one were to engage in explaining and listening to teachings on one single verse, the merit would surpass any merit that one may receive by making offerings to thousands of Buddhas in the thousands of realms of existence. Making offerings to the Buddhas, with right motivation, even offering one single flower to all the Enlightened ones, will bring benefit, even higher rebirth, but it will be limited to reaping temporal benefit, and will not become the cause of liberation. Whereas listening to the teachings of the Buddha and contemplating on them will lead one to understand the causes that lie within one’s own afflictions, thereby allowing one to achieve liberation. Hence, listening to the teachings is far more meritorious that making offerings.
Generally, two aspects are regarded as indispensable in receiving the teachings of the Buddha: that of listening to them, and that of meditating on them. But of the two, the practice of meditation is given more importance. Study, if not followed up by practice, won’t bring significant result. But, at the same time, if one seeks to practice, it is necessary to receive and understand the teachings, to understand what it is that one has to practice. The teaching acts as support to the practice.
In certain practices, external phenomena can become the object of study. For example, the object of study for those who study the Vedas is the act of listening to them, and engaging in reciting their verses. Similarly, for the Jains who engage in the practice of asceticism, their very practice of asceticism becomes their object of study. In the practice of the Dharma, on the other hand, the object of study is not something external. The mind itself is the object of our focus, and so, with the help of the Buddha’s teachings, we need to understand how to best view the mind objectively as an object of meditation.
The topic at hand in the teachings that we’re looking at here, is reflecting on the qualities of the Buddha, pointing out His qualities, eulogising them, and paying homage to them. The qualities of the Buddha are very well articulated by Maitreya Nata in his texts, but not comprehensively covered. And so the text that we now have at hand, composed by Sakya Pandita, is a complement to Maitreya’s writings on the qualities of the Buddha. It is important to know who the Buddha is, what His qualities are, because in order to feel connected to His teachings, one needs to be motivated by seeing the qualities of the Buddha, until one develops faith in Him. We have to have a reasonable understanding of the qualities of the object in which we deposit our faith.
One may develop faith in the Buddha by merely emulating others who have a strong faith in Him. This is faith based on no valid reasoning, and is referred to as developing faith. It isn’t strong or stable, because it depends on external causes, rather than on our own reasoning. Because of this, it can bring some benefit, but very little in comparison to the benefit reaped by having faith based on sound reasons. Whereas, if one gives rise to faith in the Buddha by realising His qualities, by very clearly understanding them, then one’s faith is validated, and so one can develop a very strong conviction that will not wane.
There are three kinds of faith that we need to cultivate. The first is lucid faith. This is gained when one has so clearly seen the qualities of the Buddha, that it is with a very lucid mind, completely free from doubt, that one adopts the Buddha as our object of refuge.
The second type is trustworthy faith. Here, one has the firm conviction that the teachings of the Buddha are incontrovertible and infallible, and that they are the only possible path for one to follow. There is a deeper understanding of the teachings, and a commitment to their practice.
The third kind is called aspirational faith. It is a desirous faith, as it actually gives rise to a strong sense of desire and passion to the extent of wanting to achieve the state of enlightenment as a vital and ultimate goal. And so it leads one to study, meditate and contemplate on the teachings, and totally engage into the pursuit of enlightenment.
So the text that we are studying here pays homage to the infinite qualities of the Buddha. The qualities of the Buddha are infinite and, because of this, it is impossible to express them all. However much one describes the qualities of the Buddha, there is never the possibility of covering them all. This infinity or immeasurability of the qualities of the Buddha is one of His unique characteristics.
As Chandrakirti said, when a bird soars into the sky, no matter how aggressively he might strive to stay in flight, it eventually has to land. And this is not because it doesn’t have enough space to fly in, but rather because of its own limitations. In the same vein, however much great scholars and poets might indulge in enumerating and eulogising the qualities of the Buddha, they would come to a limit. And this would not be because of the qualities of the Buddha were exhausted, but rather because of the limitations of those who ponder on them. And so even Maitreya, who so eloquently and extensively described the qualities the Buddha, and Sakya Pandita who felt that there was even more to add to Maitreya’s eulogy, even those two great masters could not come close to expressing all the qualities of the Buddha.
The qualities of the Buddha are of two kinds: shared qualities and uncommon qualities. The first, shared qualities, are qualities of the Buddha that are also found in other beings, whereas the second, the uncommon qualities, are unique to the Buddhas. They pertain only to the domain of the Enlightened ones.
The first quality referred to here is the quality of immeasurability. The term ‘immeasurability’ applies to the compassion of the Buddha, which is infinite. The number of sentient beings is immeasurable, and the compassion of the Buddha embraces every single sentient being, and so it is immeasurable. The immeasurability of the Buddha’s qualities is based on two unique intentions: the intention of establishing every being into a state of temporal happiness, and the intention of benefitting every being in the ultimate sense: by leading them to enlightenment, to definite Liberation, to a state of omniscience. This is the Buddha’s ultimate aim.
The Buddha tailors His teachings according to the predispositions of different beings. Those who merely seek temporal happiness, the Buddha leads to happiness by helping them obtain a higher rebirth. But for those who seek a higher goal, the pratimoksha, bodhisattva and vajrayana practitioners, these three vehicles are taught in order to lead them to the ultimate accomplishment. These are the two main intentions of the Buddha.
Of the four Immeasurable qualities of the Buddha, the first three serve to provide sentient beings with happiness and its causes, and to separate them from suffering and its causes. These three are kindness, compassion and joyfulness. They all stem from the first intention of the Buddha, to establish beings into a state of happiness that will not turn into suffering. The fourth and last of the Immeasurable qualities of the Buddha, is equanimity. This refers to the state of mind that makes no distinction between beings, whether close and dear or distant and indifferent, or even unpleasant. Whereas ordinary beings develop attachment and aversion depending on the object, the Buddha is able to transcend this duality of attachment, and feels equanimity towards all sentient beings. The Buddha’s equanimity is immeasurable equanimity, which pertains to His second intention, that of establishing beings into ultimate liberation.
Where the text addresses the Buddha with the words ‘You who have kindness towards all sentient beings’, this refers to the immeasurable sentient beings. This kindness is not the kindness related to the four immeasurables, but rather the kindness of all four immeasurables combined, ie the intention of establishing beings into the ultimate state of happiness. It signifies that the Buddha intends that every one of the immeasurable sentient beings have happiness and its cause, be parted from suffering and its cause, and that they remain in a state of joy, inseparable from happiness. This is the first intention. But the Buddha also wishes for beings to find ultimate happiness, liberation, and this is the second intention. So here, the author is paying homage to ‘He who is endowed with the two great intentions.’
Paying homage can be done in three ways: physically, verbally and mentally. We can pay homage physically by doing prostrations, by actually touching all five major points of the body out of deep faith and devotion; we can pay homage verbally by speaking of the qualities of the Buddha, or by uttering prayers or words of salutation such as ‘I pay homage’; and we can pay homage mentally by generating a strong yearning for the qualities that we perceive in the Buddha, thus arousing a strong devotion that will urge us to pay homage physically and verbally. Each of these activities of paying homage benefit in two ways: it eradicates negativities, in particular pride, and accrues merits that are the antidotes to this.
The Fully Enlightened One, the Buddha Himself, is one who has reaped the benefit of paying homage. The Buddha in His former lives showed courtesy and respect not only to His own spiritual teachers and masters, but also to others whom He saw as venerable, who had qualities that He Himself sought to gain, and from whom He could learn. Because of this, after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha not only became a worthy object of homage for humans, non-humans and gods, but also for inanimates such as flowers, trees and mountains. All of nature paid homage to the Fully Enlightened One. All this stems from the merits that the Buddha accrued in His former lives by paying homage.
In one of the biographies of the Buddha, there is a passage in which a bikshu called Anirudda was seeking to be ordained, but discovered that he would have to pay homage to Upali, a monk who had previously been a barber. As Upali was from what was considered a lower caste, Anirudda became worried and consulted with the Buddha as to whether it was proper to pay homage to someone from a lower caste. The Buddha, of course, answered that Anirudda would indeed have to pay homage to Upali.
The main purpose of practicing the Dharma is to eradicate our defilements, and, in order to be able to defeat our defilements, we need to identify them and to establish what the most effective remedy is to destroy them. For example, so many actions that we perform become causes for suffering, but most of us have the attitude that we’re not as bad as others. We have trouble seeing ourselves with humility. But if we correctly practice the Dharma, we’ll begin to understand that we had best see ourselves as inferior to all. Thinking this way will eradicate the defilement of arrogance, and lead us to cultivate the virtue of humility. By practicing the Dharma, we understand our defilements and apply the correct remedy to defeat them.
The qualities that are contained in the four immeasurables are shared by worldly beings, such as sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, but never to the same degree as the Buddha. The qualities of the Buddha are boundless. But by realising the qualities of the Buddha and trying to emulate them, it becomes possible to plant a seed of the four immeasurables in ourselves and to gradually allow it to take root and grow. This will gradually endow us with the qualities of the four immeasurables.
The teaching on the four immeasurables is one of the most important concepts of the Buddha’s Dharma. Of these four, the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion towards all living beings are the most important. And of these two, the act of compassion, of relieving beings from suffering and its cause, is paramount.
Whatever practice of the Great Vehicle teachings you may engage in, compassion is always at its very core. Compassion is the intention behind generating Bodhicitta, it is also what motivates generosity, morality, and listening to teachings. Because of the fundamental importance of compassion, it is very important to analyse it – what it really is, and how we can dispense it effectively. We need to think very carefully about this concept of compassion, and look into oneself – ‘Just as I wish to be free from suffering, so do all living beings’. In this way, we try to universalise the need to be free from suffering – we need to develop the deep wish for all beings to be free from suffering. Sentient beings have no real freedom – they are totally controlled by external forces, the external forces of defilements and harm. They are in a piteous state, and don’t realise the sorry nature of their state. They wish to be free, but don’t know how to accomplish this. They are completely controlled by their own defilements. They have to bear much, much suffering that they have no wish for. And however much they are suffering, they have no one to guide, protect or assist them, to lead them out of their suffering. We need to realise deeply the pain that afflicts beings, and develop a great sense of empathy and pity for their suffering and for their incapacity to escape it.
So, in order to develop compassion, we use logical reasoning. We reflect on the importance of giving rise to compassion in our mind. Sometimes the mere effort of giving rise to compassion might bring us to naturally feel compassionate toward all sentient beings. So through deliberate effort, we gradually develop a compassionate tendency that becomes second nature to us.
Right now, we may not have this unsullied compassion and therefore, we have to create, to fabricate a tendency to feel it. And then, when we are familiarised with it, it develops into uncontrived compassion, effortless compassion. Through this deliberate act of moulding our mind to become compassionate, compassion will eventually arise spontaneously.
So, if one is to practice the Dharma, it not necessary to try to learn everything. If we practice compassion, then we have the teaching, the qualities, the basis, the foundation, the stages leading to Enlightenment, all in the palm of our hand. We don’t need to do much else when we practice compassion.