Said the Dalai Lama in 2018…

Rob Hogendoorn
Written by Rob Hogendoorn

On September 17, 2018, the fourteenth Dalai Lama spoke to an audience of thousands in Rotterdam, commenting on Geshe Langri Thangpa’s ‘Eight Verses for Training the Mind.’ Below you will find a verbatim transcript of what the Dalai Lama had to say on the (de)merits of the common practice of ‘guru devotion.’ The Dalai Lama’s words were translated by Thupten Jinpa. A few days before this teaching, after his meeting with survivors of sexual abuse by Tibetan lamas, the Dalai Lama admitted to reporter Nicole Le Fever (NOS) that he had known about the abuses by Sogyal Lakar (also known as Sogyal Rinpoché) for twenty-five years. His comments on his meeting with survivors were broadcast by the Dutch Eight O’Clock News on September 15, 2018.1

‘So, the point Buddha is making is that even emptiness is something that is contingent upon a thing that we attribute emptiness to. You cannot have a notion of an emptiness that is somehow existing on its own. So, emptiness does not have, again, an objective existence. So, form and emptiness are in some sense the same thing. They are not two separate things somehow entering into a relationship. So, that point is being made in the final two parts of the formula [in the Heart Sutra].

Once we understand this, then we come to recognize the point that Nāgārjuna is making, which is that the Mind Only school rejects external reality, but then they ended up according objective reality or intrinsic reality to the mental world. So, what Nāgārjuna is saying is that just as the external world of matter cannot be found when you subject it to analysis, in the same way, if we apply the same reasoning, that also applies to the mental world as well. Our subjective world of experiences also, if you analyze them, cannot be found as well. So, you cannot accord a hierarchy of existence to the matter and mind. They are both devoid of intrinsic existence, but they do both exist on the basis of designation and causes and conditions. So, they have dependent origination, but they don’t have intrinsic existence.

So, this is a point Buddhapālita also brings up very powerfully. He says that the only way in which we can understand the existence of things is only in terms of dependent designation. And, therefore, if things possessed intrinsic existence, what is the point of even teaching dependent origination? Because they would have their own objective intrinsic existence by themselves. You don’t need to attribute any notion of dependence on them. Therefore, Nāgārjuna explains, similarly, in the Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way, that which is dependently originated, has been taught by the Buddha to be empty, and therefore it is dependently designated, and this is the true middle way. So, here what we see is an equation between dependent origination, emptiness, dependent designation, and the middle way. And, therefore, in the sutras themselves, the Buddha often talks about ‘mere words’, ‘mere names’, and ‘mere designation.’

This is an important point, because what it is pointing out is not that nothing exists, but existence can only be understood in terms of designations and in terms of their words and names, and so on. This is also eleborated further in Candrakīrti’s Entry into the Middle Way, where he presents the reasoning for understanding no-self by means of sevenfold analysis: of identity, difference, shapes, collections, combinations, and so on. There, at the end of that analysis, when something like a person or a carriage is nowhere to be found, Candrakīrti goes on to say that therefore the existence can only be understood on the level of designation by convention and so on.

In this way, Nāgārjuna, Candrakīrti, and Buddhapālita really unpack the Buddha’s phrase ‘mere words,’ ‘mere designations,’ and explain them in terms of the understanding of dependent origination. So, I think that if you understand this, then you will clearly appreciate the importance of the teachings on two truths. What we’re talking about here is that there are two levels of reality. One is the ultimate level of reality, which is the emptiness, where nothing can be found. But there’s also another level of reality, which is the conventional, relative level, on which causes and effects and everything function. And this ability to distinguish between two levels of reality and two truths, and understanding existence in terms of these two, becomes very important.

Generally, the whole basic idea of two truths is not just unique to Buddhism. We see also see that in other ancient Indian traditions. For example in Samkya philosophy, which is an older philosophy, there is a taxonomy of reality of twentyfive basic units of reality, within which the true prākṛt, which is the nature, and the puruṣa, which is the self, these two are understood to be ultimately real, and all the remaining twenty-three factors of existence are understood to be manifestations coming out of it. So, there is a notion of two levels of reality, even in non-Buddhist philosophy. However, in Buddhism the two truths are explained in terms of emptiness and conventional reality. Therefore, Nāgārjuna says that all the teachings of the Buddha have been really presented from the point of view of the two truths. And he who does not understand the two truths, cannot understand the intention of the Buddha’s teaching.

We also see similar statements in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and, similarly, in Nāgārjuna’s text. Particularly, Nāgārjuna really responds to Buddhist realists, who couldn’t understand the teaching on emptiness and then critiqued the Madhyamaka school for falling into nihilism. Because emptiness suggests nothing exists, if nothing exists these consequences will follow. Nāgārjuna responds to this by saying that those who critique or raise objections to the teaching on emptiness for being nihilistic, are doing so because they haven’t fully understood the purpose of the teaching on emptiness and what is the meaning of emptiness, and what is the nature of emptiness. So, he responds by explaining each of these three.

It is by understanding this larger context, and also the relationship between the four noble truths and the two truths, particularly as explained by masters like Nāgārjuna, Candrakīrti, and so on, we will really appreciate the bigger picture of the Buddha’s teaching and also the importance of the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, in particular the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures, the Prajñapāramitā Sutras. In the Prajñapāramitā Sutras, traditionally, a distinction is drawn between the explicit subject matter, which is emptiness, that is presented systematically by Nāgārjuna, and also the implicit subject matter of thes Perfection of Wisdom scriptures. And the implicit subject matter relates to the stages of the path that one cultivates.

That particular aspect of the subject matter is taught and developed more explicitly and comprehensively in Asaṅga’s writing inspired by Maitreya. The most important text belonging to that genre of literature is really the Ornament of Clear Realization or Abhisamayāalaṅkāra. In the Abhisamayāalaṅkāra, the stages of the path are explained very clearly and also in the sequence where one starts with understanding the nature of the two truths first. And then based on that understanding, the four truths are explained. Once you have a deeper understanding of the four truths, particularly cessation and path, then you can also begin to have an understanding of what the three jewels are. How can there be a Dharma? And how can there be Sanghas that embody that? And how can there be a Buddha who has fully accomplished the Dharma? In this way, in the Abhisamayāalaṅkāra, clear explanations are given.

So, then there is a third turning of the wheel of Dharma. There are two categories of sutras belonging to that: one category of sutras that belong to the third turning has to do with the Buddha making a concession to his followers, who may not be ready yet to receive the radical teaching of emptiness as presented in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, where the notion of objective intrinsic existence is denied across the board, in relation to the entire phenomena. So, for some of the disciples who are not ready to be receptive to such teachings, Buddha explained the teaching on emptiness contextually, in terms of different shading between three categories of phenomena: the dependent phenomena of the conditioned world; then the imputed phenomena, the attributes that we impose on reality, and then the perfected phenomena. And he explained emptiness in terms of what is known as the three types of absence of identity, or identitylessness. So, this is essentially the main sutra that is the basis for the emergence of the Mind Only school. And then the second category of the third turning are the Buddha nature teachings which I already touched upon. So, it is by understanding the large picture that we can really appreciate the depth of the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhism.

It reminds me that once I was invited to a local school nearby Dharamsala, and they had staged an exhibition, supposedly an introduction to Buddhism. And the exhibition involved starting right from the beginning the guru devotion practice. And I told them: “This is wrong.” I said: “If you’re going to present an introduction to Buddhism, you can’t start with the relationship with a guru, you have to start by presenting the two truths and then the four noble truths, and so on.” Part of the problem with emphasizing of guru devotion too much is that the guru gets spoiled. So, I told them that this is incorrect. If you’re going to an introduction of Buddhism, you have to start from the two truths and the four noble truths, and so on.

But I can understand where they were coming from: they were probably basing their understanding on the Lam Rim teachings, the Stages of the Path literature, which begins with the relationship with the guru. Lam Rim texts are inspired by an important seminal work, written by Master Atiśa. And I don’t mean to show disrespect to him, but if you look at the origin of that text—the Bodhipathapradīpa or Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment—in the colophon itself it says that the Guge kingdom, the Guge ruler at the time, Jangchub Ö, when Atiśa arrived in Western Tibet, requested a teaching.

Now you have to understand the historical context: Tibet used to be a great empire, a large nation, which then became splintered into different smaller kingdoms. So, we have to remember the historical context in which that particular text was written and taught. Here, we’re talking about early eleventh century. By that time the great empire of Tibet has become splintered into smaller kingdoms. We are now in Western Tibet, it’s a very small kingdom, where the rulers of those kingdoms are already feeling pretty discouraged and demoralized, because they’ve shrunk. And so when the request was made for a teaching, Jangchub Ö asked Atiśa: “I don’t want you to teach something that is profound and extensive. I want you to teach something that is very simple and easily practicable.” So, that was the request he made.

Now compare that to the three books on the stages of meditation: Bhāvanākrama, which was written in the eighth century by Kamalaśīla at the request of the then Tibetan emperor of the unified the empire, Triden Songtsen. If you look at the Bhāvanākrama, the text is very grand, it is very comprehensive in its approach and perspective. Strong.

According to a Chinese history book, seventh century, eighth century, ninth century, at that time there were three empires: Chinese empire, Mongol empire, and Tibetan empire. Very powerful. So then, in the later part of the ninth century, they collapsed. Then Atiśa [received] an invitation sent by a small Tibetan kingdom, in the Western part of Tibet.

So, this was the request made, and Atiśa actually wrote that text for that particular audience, for that particular request. So, His Holiness was saying: “Here’s a situation where both the ruler, who’s requesting the text, and the master who’s writing the text, were both playing it very safe and [were] very humble at the time.” The point is that Lam Rim cannot be assumed to be the introduction to the Buddhadharma. Lam Rim presupposes that you already have an introduction. So, if you’re really cultivating the knowledge and you really want an introduction to the Dharma, then you have to first begin by understanding the two truths, the four noble truths, and so on. Then Lam Rim can be used as a practice, as a practical manual based upon that. That I think is an important point that has to be understood.

And even within Lam Rim, there is in the Kadampa tradition a particular lineage of Lam Rim, known as the Lam Rim lineage of the treatises. In that particular tradition coming from Potowa they emphasized the study and practice of six texts: the Jākatamālā or Jātaka Tales, and Udānavarga, which is a collection of sayings by the Buddha. So, these two texts are not that profound, nor that extensive. And then you have the Bodhisattvabhūmi and the Mahāyāna Sūtrālamkāra: those two texts present the stages of the path in quite an extensive way. And then the final two tracts are by Shantideva: the Bodhicaryāvatāra or Entering the Bodhisattva Way and the Śikṣāsamuccaya or Compendium of Training. Both of these texts take the teaching of emptiness and present it quite extensively. So, for example, if you look at Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim Chen Moor Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, he’s following that lineage of Lam Rim, which emphasizes the study of the treatises. Particularly, if you look at the insight section of the Great Treatise, the text on emptiness, you can see how extensive it is. So, one should not assume that all Lam Rim texts really follow that very limited kind of instructional model. You can also emphasize the study of the treatises as well.

To sum up, His Holiness was saying that one thing that becomes very clear is that although for the followers of Dharma, one can approach the Dharma—and the tradition recognizes this—from the path of the approach of faith or devotion. But that is not really the ideal practitioner of Dharma. The ideal practitioner of Dharma is the one who approaches the Dharma from the approach of the intelligent one: by emphasizing understanding the nature of reality. And this is an important point that is made in the Buddhist texts. I often tell people that now, in our day and age, we should really emphasize the approach of the intelligent practitioner, with its emphasis on investigation, reasoning, and understanding. Because if we rely too much on the approach of the faith and devotion, it is doubtful whether the Buddhadharma can last for long in this day and age. But if we emphasize the approach of the intelligent using investigation and reasoning and understanding, then there’s a real chance that the Buddhadharma will last for a long time.’

  1. Mees, Anna & Bas de Vries. (2018). Dalai lama over misbruik: ik weet het al sinds de jaren 90. Retrieved February 21, 2020.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.