The Importance of Study
by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje
I would like to simply offer some general suggestions related to the dharma. I think that in what I have to say there will be a few essential points that will be helpful to hear, and if you listen well they will be beneficial to you. For those of us who are gathered here as followers of the Kagyu tradition, it is very important to have a pure motivation in coming here, because we are only able to gather like this for a very short period of time out of each year.
Today, I would like to talk a little bit about study and education. In general, study and education are indispensable elements for everyone. Many reasons are given as to why study is important, and among these are the teachings of the protector Maitreya in his ‘Ornament of Mahayana Sutras’. In this text, Maitreya says that buddhahood is attainable only through studying the five fields of knowledge. Without studying these, he says, there is no way we can attain buddhahood. This is indeed very true. We shouldn’t expect to attain buddhahood and higher understanding without undertaking a process of learning and study.
It is important to work hard and apply diligence to the process of learning. As has been taught by the Buddha, and as can be proven through reasoning, all sentient beings (everyone endowed with a mind) have one thing in common. What is that one thing? Suffering. All beings find suffering undesirable. The Buddha, with his omniscient wisdom, discovered that the ultimate cause for that suffering is ignorance, or not knowing. If we ask what is the antidote for such ignorance or not knowing, we find that the antidote can be found in the opposite of ignorance, which is knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, in order to overcome ignorance, we need to develop our knowledge.
In order to develop our knowledge, we need to understand that all phenomena arise due to causes and that the causes of wisdom and knowledge here are the study of the five fields of knowledge. Without such training, wisdom and knowledge will not arise of themselves. It is not the case, such as is asserted in some spiritual traditions, that wisdom is something handed down to us by a creator god. Therefore, it becomes very important to put a lot of effort into the learning process from our own side. The Buddha himself gathered knowledge and exerted himself very diligently in learning throughout three countless aeons. This process is recorded in great detail in the histories of his previous births. In his final birth the Buddha was Prince Siddhartha, who also studied and thoroughly integrated in his mind all of the fields of knowledge, after which he attained full enlightenment. He did this through great effort and learning, not simply going to Bodhgaya as a fool and then automatically becoming enlightened.
Therefore, we can easily see that buddhahood is not something that arises causelessly; it requires extensive training and learning. In the same way, for we followers of the Drogon Kagyu tradition, it is very important to examine the life stories of the founding masters of the Kagyu lineage and try to follow their examples. We will see that all of the previous great masters of the Kagyu lineage attained perfection in both scholastic and meditative accomplishment. None of them reached their exalted state through simply coasting there easily. The great Indian siddha Tilopa was also a proficient scholar, as was the master Naropa. There are the six ornaments and the two supreme ones, as well as all of those masters in Tibet during the earlier and later phases of the spreading of the teachings. Naropa was one of the renowned nine great scholars of India. We can also examine the life of Marpa Lotsawa. In his songs, he sang of his resolve to travel to India three times. He lived in India for some forty years of his life and there he studied, contemplated and meditated. From among those three activities, it is said in the histories that he primarily focused on study and contemplation.
As for the Jetsun Milarepa, most people hold the view that his path did not involve much study and contemplation. They say that his life story only tells of his practising meditation and attaining buddhahood on the basis of that. That might be how it appears at first glance, but if we really take a good close look at the life story of Milarepa, we will see that his path also involved study and contemplation. It would not have been possible for him to attain buddhahood in one life and one body had he not studied and contemplated. According to the history written by Kunkhyen Pema Karpo, entitled ‘The Sun that Expands the Teachings’, Milarepa in his younger years studied and learned the art of black magic which he used to kill many people. Afterwards, he came to engender remorse towards the negative actions he had committed by killing people. After he had engendered such regret, it took him fifteen years until he was able to meet with Marpa Lotsawa.
From this, we can see that Milarepa had a very firm mind of renunciation from samsara and an earnest desire to practise the dharma. We can also see that he was free from laziness. There is clear indication in such histories that Milarepa always tried his best and was endowed with tremendous exertion towards learning. So even for people like Milarepa, the first stage is hearing and contemplating. Through hearing and contemplating, we remove our exaggerations and denials about the way things are and then finally we are able to practise meditation and generate the wisdom that arises from meditation.
As for Gampopa, or Dakpo Rinpoche, he is considered to be the one who unified the tradition of the Kadampas with the Mahamudra teachings. He is also the founder of our own unequalled Dakpo Kagyu lineage. At the time of Gampopa, the tradition that was strongest in intellectual studies was the Kadampa tradition. Since that was the case, Gampopa studied with many Kadampa masters. Also, from Milarepa, he received key oral instructions in the manner of one vase being poured into another. This was how Gampopa trained – we don’t have any stories here like those of going to Marpa’s house and building and tearing down towers.
In general, Gampopa had many disciples, and from among those disciples, the one with the vastest activity was Phakdru Dorje Gyalpo. If we look at his life story, we can see that he also studied all of the major texts of the Kadampa tradition, and in this way became very learned. Not only that, he even came to take on the role of being a teacher to Palden Sakyapa. Therefore, there is no need to mention he was a great scholar. There is also the lord Dusum Khyenpa who perfected all of the fields of knowledge – including Valid-Cognition, Madhyamika and the treatises of Maitreya – and also attained full meditative accomplishment. In the same way, many other Kagyu masters, such as Drikung Jigten Sumgon, attained perfection in the fields of scholastic learning. It was through their perfection of learning that they eventually gained perfection in meditation. They did not become perfect in the latter regard through simply being ignorant fools. They were both learned scholastically and accomplished meditatively.
Therefore, we can first prove the importance of education and study through scriptures. Then we can prove it through reasoning. Further, we can see through looking at the life stories of the previous masters that there are many important reasons for studying and learning. Some people may wonder about how much I personally study. They may think, “Well, he’s talking a lot about studying, but he’s the Karmapa. He probably has nice food, probably has a nice place to stay, he probably just takes it easy!” Well, even though I don’t have much talent when it comes to excelling in studies, I do try to abide by a daily schedule that includes studying. Nevertheless, my daily schedule is always changing due to various situations, and so I may not always get to study for twenty-four hours a day. Still, despite the frequent busyness in my day-today schedule, I try to maintain diligence and put a lot of energy into my studies, and I always have the wish in mind that I will be able to study in accordance with my abilities. It wouldn’t be helpful for me to provide elaborate details of my daily schedule, but in general it is like that.
So, in brief, whether you go by the scriptures, by reasoning, by the life examples of the previous masters, or by my own opinion, study and education is very important. In terms of what is important to study, this has particular significance for those of us who are Tibetan. This is so because in this world there is only one language in which the entirety of the sutra and mantra teachings of the excellent and precious buddhadharma is completely preserved. That language is Tibetan. Therefore it is extremely important for us all as Tibetans to study our Tibetan language. As a support for our language study, we should study the fields of learning (Tib: Rig.ne). But what is the purpose or goal behind learning Tibetan and the fields of knowledge that accompany it? This is none other than the study of the dharma.
It will be very difficult for us to be relaxed, happy and have favourable conditions for a good livelihood if we do not study the dharma. In the same way, in the long term, if we want to lead a positive, happy life, it is necessary for us to study the dharma. Also, for the happiness of our future lives, as well as the ultimate goal of the abundant state of Buddhahood, it is only the dharma that will bring these results about. Liberation and buddhahood will not come about due to one’s knowledge of the general fields of learning, nor will knowledge of language help in attaining enlightenment. It won’t help to know about science, which these days is accepted by everyone as valid. One will be able to attain buddhahood only through studying the dharma.
The buddhadharma is comprised of the works of the Buddha and the treatises that comment on his teachings. In terms of the words of the Buddha, these are preserved in over one hundred volumes of scriptures that were translated into Tibetan. In the Tengyur, the collection of commentarial works, there are over two hundred volumes. Because of the immensity of these bodies of scripture, it is extremely difficult to study all of these texts. Therefore, one should approach these two categories of teaching in a way that accords with one’s own inclinations and abilities. It is not necessary to study these texts in an elaborate way, but it is also not okay to forgo them altogether. One must study the teachings that accord with one’s own ability and availability, and gain familiarity with the meaning of the teachings in that way. For example, the Buddha taught the 84 000 classes of dharma to students in a way that accords with their propensities and abilities. And so, if from all of these teachings we can understand even one word, this is very excellent. If your intellectual faculties are poor, and you do not have many favourable conditions to study the dharma, you can still learn the teachings about the ten non-virtuous actions and how to abandon them, and the ten virtuous actions and how to practise them. Starting from there, all the way up to the unsurpassable secret mantrayana, it is very important to be diligent in learning and in putting what you have learned into practice, even if you only manage to understand one word.
In terms of learning the dharma, in the Tibetan tradition this learning is done in the most extensive way in the shedras, or monastic colleges. In relation to this, as was said before, all of the previous great Kagyu masters were endowed with both the quality of scholastic learning and the quality of meditative accomplishment. However, in recent times, the qualities of scholasticism and meditative accomplishment have slightly declined in the Kagyu tradition. In particular, the quality of scholasticism has declined, and those possessed of this quality have become very rare. Situ Changchub Gyaltsen, in a letter he wrote shortly before he passed away, said that although previously the great Kagyus were both learned and accomplished, in recent times this has become unbalanced, and because of that the dharma is not fulfilling the objectives of humans. Therefore, Changchub Gyaltsen said that in light of this situation he built the great shedra of Tsegong. Although the dharma of the Kagyu lineage is very profound, it is not acceptable to leave hearing and contemplation behind, because without those one will not be able to approach the teachings with a correct understanding.
Thus if one does not study and contemplate, the dharma will not be fulfilling the objectives of the dharma, and since the people who practise it will be devoid of the qualities of learning, humans will not fulfil the objects of humans. Recently, there has been renewed interest in improving the area of scholasticism in Tibetan Buddhism, and this has been the case for us as Kagyus as well. Therefore, the situation has improved somewhat. There are shedras in some of the monasteries and the students studying in those shedras are exerting themselves well. Nevertheless, these activities are merely a seed for future harvests. We have not arrived at the point where we can be content with what has been established. I feel it is very important for us to continue to improve the area of scholasticism in our lineage.
This emphasis on learning and study also applies to the monastics who specialise in ritual arts. There are many details involved in the ritual arts, such as music, that one must train in. Although monastics who specialise in ritual do not have time to study the great texts of the shedra, still they must be learned with respect to the stages of the rituals they perform: bodhichitta, invitation, creation stage, completion stage, making tormas, and so on. They need to know the meaning of the tormas and their defining characteristics, so that they will be able to explain them to others. It is important for them to be educated about all of these aspects of ritual, especially because they will need to teach these things to Westerners who are studying Buddhism.
In the Kagyu tradition, there are many students who take meditation practice as foremost and there are many who choose to do the traditional three-year retreat. All of these people need to learn the various aspects of their particular practices. In terms of the path of practice in the Kagyu tradition, we mainly have the Six Dharmas of Naropa, the Path of Method, and Mahamudra meditation, the path of liberation. In the context of the Mahamudra path of liberation, emphasis is placed on clarity and emptiness inseparable. The main textual source that teaches on the clarity aspect is the ‘Treatise on Buddha Nature’, or Uttaratantra (Tib: ‘Gyu.lam.ma). It is said that if one is able to realise the intended meaning of Uttaratantra, one will have no choice but to realise the reality of mahamudra.
This is echoed by Gampopa, when he said, “As for our mahamudra, its intention is expressed in the Treatise on Buddha Nature.” Therefore, for this reason, it is very important for us to study this treatise. Then in terms of the emptiness aspect, this is expressed in the texts of the Middle Way, which we also must study. The text that is in very common use these days is the ‘Entrance to the Middle Way’, which I feel is important for us to study. If we do not learn the ‘Treatise on Buddha Nature’, if we do not learn the ‘Entrance to the Middle Way’, then unless we are of very high faculties it will be difficult for us to practise correctly. We definitely must study these texts.
As for the ‘Six Dharmas of Naropa’, which compose the path of method, they are said to be the essence of all of the classes of tantra taught by the perfect Buddha. It is important for us to know the tantras, but if we are not capable of doing that, then still there is the ‘Profound Inner Reality’ of the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, which clearly presents the topics of the prana and nadi practices of the completion stage. This text is absolutely indispensable. Whether we are practising the path of method, the Six Dharmas of Naropa, or the path of liberation – Mahamudra, we need to do so through relying on the creation stage. In the Kagyu tradition, the creation stage is studied using the Hevajra Tantra, which is a teaching of the Buddha himself.
Thus, no matter whether we are practising the path of means of the path of liberation, we must engage in the process of learning. If we do not study, then we may go ahead and sit in the same room for three years, but I wonder how much benefit will come of that? It would be brazen of me to say there would be no benefit, but I wonder if it would be really possible to produce a very strong benefit through meditation without having studied.
All of what I have said today also applies to lay people, not just monastics. After all, aside from clothing and the length of hair, there is really not that much difference between monastics and lay people. From the perspective of the desire for happiness and freedom from suffering, everyone is the same. Therefore, if we want to enjoy happiness and freedom from suffering, everyone is the same. Therefore, if we want to enjoy happiness and be free from suffering, we need to learn the presentations of what to adopt and what to reject. If we think that we want happiness but do not want to learn what positive and negative actions to adopt or reject, this is a misunderstanding of the principle of karma. There is not too much hope that such an approach will actually lead to happiness.
We need to proceed in the proper order. Since the cause comes before the result, we need to practise the proper causes in order to bring about the results we desire. Therefore, we need to accumulate virtue and relinquish negative actions as much as we can. In general, everyone works hard in order to bring about the result of happiness. But it is a distinguishing feature of Buddhism that we work primarily from the side of the cause. We concentrate on the cause in order to bring about the result of happiness. If one proceeds otherwise, simply saying, “I want happiness”, then this will be an aspiration, but it in itself will not actually become a direct cause to bring about the happiness we desire.
Although things are changing slightly these days, we Tibetans often used to talk about the dharma as something that is reserved for lamas and monks, and people were sceptical of lay people – particularly women and also of nuns – if they tried to learn dharma. This of course is a very mistaken attitude. Our teacher – the perfect Buddha – taught the dharma to all beings without bias so that they all could attain liberation and omniscience and cross over the great ocean of samsaric suffering. The Buddha never said that the dharma was something only for lamas and monks.
So therefore, if we come across someone who is trying to refute the validity of anyone’s studying of the dharma, we should know that it is he or she who is mistaken. Whether we are lamas and monks and nuns, or whether we are male or female lay practitioners, we can study the dharma if we are able to study it. If we are not able to study it, then that is a different situation, but in terms of permission, we are always permitted to study the dharma.
This completes an explanation of why it is important to gain knowledge in the fields of learning, speaking from the three perspectives: the way of study, the topics to be studied and the individuals who study.