Day 1: Remembering Our Good Fortune and the Purpose of Liberation Stories

Day 1: Remembering Our Good Fortune and the Purpose of Liberation Stories

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings: 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on the 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje's Autobiographical Verses

March 19, 2022 

The session began with the crystal clear voices of Karma Drubdey Palmo Choskyi Dingkhang choir singing The Praise 'He Searched thoroughly', followed by recitation of the opening prayers. 

The Gyalwang Karmapa greeted everyone—"all the lamas, tulkus, and spiritual friends; the monks and nuns from the monasteries and nunneries, and in particular the nuns participating in the Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings; all of our dharma friends from all parts of the world, and all my fellow Tibetans at home and abroad." He then wished everyone a healthy New Year in which they would be able to accomplish all their wishes according to the dharma.

The Karmapa began by establishing the correct motivation for all those watching.

It was our good fortune to be able to continue last year's teaching on Gyalwang Mikyö Dorje's liberation story, he asserted. At a time when the whole world was affected by epidemic, famine, and war, we should rejoice that we have the leisure to practise the Dharma. The Karmapa swiftly put things into perspective. In Ukraine, people are reeling under the terrors and sufferings of war, night and day, without respite. In Afghanistan, millions of people have nothing to eat. In many countries, conflict and disputes have forced people to leave their lands and go as refugees to other countries. In Syria, conflict and fighting is creating many refugees. Though we hear this on the news, we need to repeatedly remind ourselves what is happening to others. Instead of appreciating our good fortune, we waste the opportunity. We spend our time voicing minor resentments, speaking about people behind their backs, and inciting conflict. Such behaviour is "more insane than insane!" and we need to recognise that. We should be using whatever little leisure and freedom we have for a great purpose —we must not let it go to waste. 

It was crucial to discard any self-centred motivation too. We should not be motivated in an abstract way by thoughts of personally achieving the state of buddhahood. Our motivation to achieve the state of buddhahood should be grounded in an awareness of the vast suffering of all other sentient beings. The Karmapa warned that trying to arouse the motivation by thinking abstractly of attaining buddhahood would have little effect.

He then moved on to the main topic of the teachings, the life of the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje, and began by reviewing what he had taught the previous year. Karmapa Mikyö Dorje is renowned as a great scholar not only in the Karma Kamtsang or Kagyu lineages but in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Sakya, Geluk, Kagyu, and Nyingma. Of all the successive Karmapas, he has had the greatest influence through his commentaries on the Middle Way, Prajnaparamita, Vinaya, and Abhidharma. Thus reading and studying his liberation story is essential, no matter how you view it. 

The shedra curriculum does not include specific courses on history, and, as a consequence, many students do not even know the liberation stories of the great teachers who composed the textbooks that they study. The Karmapa quoted from the Langi Poti Seru:

People who do not know their ancestry are like monkeys in the jungle. 

People who do not know their maternal lineage are like the phoney turquoise dragon

Those who do not know their forebears' heritage are like Mönpa children who have left their homeland.

The Karmapa elaborated that though we are born in this human body, we are like wild monkeys if we do not know the history of previous generations. If we have no knowledge of our maternal lineage or clan, but regard ourselves as something special, whether we become well-known or not, we are like a phoney turquoise dragon. It makes a big noise but actually there's not much to it, and there's little point to it. Likewise, we need to know and understand our ancestry and origins, our heritage. 

As to Mikyö Dorje, there are two different types of liberation stories (Tib. namthar) those that he wrote himself and those written by his students. The majority of those he wrote himself are in verse form, and amongst them, the most well-known is The Praise "He Searched Thoroughly…" His Holiness suggested that this is primarily because it is included in the Karma Kamtsang prayer books. The words are quite difficult and it is challenging to memorise. He admitted that he also had some difficulty memorising it when he was little. However, the things that were difficult to memorise when you were small are the ones you can never forget, because you worked so hard at them and were beaten by the teacher. Memorising when young, however, the teachers do not explain the meaning much, and the young students are often focused on memorising and have no interest in the meaning. 

"The Praise "He Searched Thoroughly…" has an incredibly vast and profound meaning, as witnessed, for example, by  Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa, who used it as the framework for his biography of Mikyö Dorje in the Feast for Scholars. He cites all of the lines of "He Searched Thoroughly" from beginning to end, connecting it with a detailed discussion of Mikyö Dorje's life story. 

Of the biographies of Mikyö Dorje that still exist, the one written by Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa is the longest and most complete. It is over 33 folios or 67 pages long. Within the Feast for Scholars it takes up 10% of the history of the Karma Kagyu lineage. The Praise is only nine stanzas long, but it covers a lot of subject matter that requires interest, study and research. 

Similarly, the Autobiographical Verses "Good Deeds" discusses the good deeds that Mikyö Dorje performed during his lifetime. As followers and students, we need to reflect on what a "good deed" is. This text not only summarises the life of Mikyö Dorje but is something we, as his disciples, should take as an important example for our own lives, something to aim for. 

At this point, His Holiness explained the importance of studying namthar; anyone who regarded study of them as pointless was missing the point entirely. 

In theistic religions, the relationship between God and sentient beings was very different from the Buddhist view. God's word was communicated by a prophet or messenger. As God transcends humans and is ineffable, humans can never attain that state. In contrast, in the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha Shakyamuni came in a human form. He ate human food and wore human clothes. He lived a human life and performed the twelve great deeds and other actions. His reason and purpose was to demonstrate that we ordinary, worldly people can also become individuals with wisdom, love and power like a buddha. The message was not conveyed by anyone else. The Buddha clearly showed us visibly, right in front of people's eyes, how to put his teachings into practice. If we think about this, the Karmapa stated, we can get an idea of how vital the deeds of our Teacher and the lives of the gurus are for Buddhists. If, instead, the Four Noble Truths and the three baskets (piṭaka) had come down to us from a voice in the vast and empty sky, we would have no one to actually show us the path or give us experiential instructions, and it would be hard for us to know how to practice. 

The basis of Buddhist practice is meditation, turning inwards and transforming the mind, and we are dependent on the kindness of our root gurus and spiritual friends. In order to do meditation practice, it is impossible to separate yourself from the guru or spiritual friend who teaches the path. The story of their lives is like living,  breathing dharma, and so it is essential to study them and put them into practice. For this reason, in Tibetan, the biographies of great masters are called by the specific term 'nampartharpa', shortened to 'namthar', which means "liberation". The term "liberation" comes from the Sanskrit word vimokṣa. When translated directly into Tibetan, it means liberation or emancipation. 

What is liberation? In the Kadampa presentation,  individuals are categorised into three capacities, and, consequently, all Buddhist practices are also divided into three separate sections, each section appropriate to one of the three capacities: the stages of the path of the lesser individual; the stages of the path of the middling individual; and the stages of the path of the greater individual. Likewise, there are three different levels of liberation.   Through having the pure faith believing in karmic cause and effect, the lesser type of individual achieves liberation from rebirth in the three lower realms. Through the pure wish for emancipation from the ocean of samsara, the middling type of individual achieves liberation from the ocean of samsara. For greater individuals, through having the pure altruistic intention to benefit others, they attain liberation from both extremes of existence and peace. Hence, there are three types of liberation.

Liberation stories can include the previous lives of a great being or be about their current life. Among the twelve types of scripture, there are the Jataka tales, a genre that recounts the Buddha's previous lives while he was a bodhisattva and the hardships he underwent as he travelled the path. 

Why are they called namthar, and how do these "liberation stories" differ from biographies? The Karmapa explained that, in general the greatest difference is that a namthar is not about the life, activities and thoughts of an ordinary being. A namthar is always about a great being whose qualities of listening, contemplating, and meditating are superior to that of others. In particular, the namthar describes how they engaged in listening, contemplation and meditation on the Buddha's teaching and how, as a result, they developed certain qualities. These are the scholarly qualities of teaching, debate, and composition; the venerable qualities of not transgressing the precepts of the three types of vows; the qualities of practice – developing an extraordinary, clear realisation of the path in their being; and the qualities of goodness shown in their vast activity for the benefit of all sentient beings. Relating these orally and recording them in writing can increase the uncontrived faith and devotion in the mind streams of those who see or hear them. Because of this, for their followers, the ways that these great beings were liberated becomes at the very least something to aspire to: "May I become like that.". 

Druk Gyalwang Kunga Paljor’s definition of namthar says: 

It must, through the form of its topic and language, become a cause for students who see and hear it to reach liberation and omniscience. 

Thus, when teaching the liberation stories of great beings, teacher and students must understand the reason why the namthar should be taught, and then they can develop in their mind streams either one or all of the three types of faith: sincere faith, the faith of longing, and the faith of conviction. If they are able to develop any of these three, it is called "awakening the potential of the family" or "planting the seed of liberation". Developing faith within one's own being is the key point. In summary, a namthar must have three characteristics: the subject must be a great being; the topic must be directly connected to the true dharma; it must be able to instil longing and inspiration in people of all levels. 

Whenever we read the sutras, they always begin with the words, "Thus have I heard. At one time…" This phrase is repeated again and again. Mention of this phrase seemed to spark the Karmapa's memory of an amusing traditional Tibetan story, so he digressed to share it with everyone.

In the old days, he explained, Mongolian monks would come to Lhasa to study at the three great Gelukpa monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Gaden. One such group of seven set out one day from a remote village. They were poorly educated and illiterate. Before they left, they were given advice for the journey: you need to protect each other, help each other, and particularly, so you don't lose anyone, always count how many people are there.

On the road, they followed the advice and repeatedly counted each other. But whenever a member of the group counted, they could only count six. It seemed that someone was missing.

Once in Lhasa, they decided it would be best to ask for a divination from the omniscient Dalai Lama to help them find the missing person. But they were mostly illiterate, so had great difficulty composing the request letter. One of the group had some education, so he had an idea. He opened up the Kangyur and began copying the Tibetan: "The Bhagawan spake thus.." and instead wrote "We Mongolians…spake to the Fifth Dalai Lama…" and then explained their problem. Seven monks had left their homeland, and now there were only six. They had lost someone, and they didn't understand how.

In the audience with the Fifth Dalai Lama, they presented the letter. He read it, looked at them, immediately understood the situation, told them to sit down, and ordered his attendant to bring tea for everyone. Then he instructed the monks to put their tea bowls down on the ground in front of them. "How many tea bowls are there?" he asked. When the monks counted the number of bowls, there were precisely seven. "There are seven bowls. You haven't lost anyone," the Dalai Lama reassured them. The monks were amazed by the Dalai Lama's omniscience and how he had found the missing person.

Resuming his discourse, the Karmapa returned to the word "thus". It can be explained in many different ways, but one important explanation is that saying "thus" or "in this way" evokes faith. The very words "The Buddha spoke thus" or "The Buddha spoke in this way" instil confidence and faith in us, and encourage us to practise the dharma.  

Faith is incredibly important, the Karmapa emphasised. To support this, he paraphrased two sections from Nagarjuna's commentary on the Prajnaparamita in One Hundred Thousand Lines, translated into Chinese by the great translator Kumārajīva.

The first quotation compares faith to our two hands. If an individual has hands, when they go to an island of jewels such as diamonds and so forth, they can pick up whichever jewels they like. Similarly, faith is like hands. In Buddhism there are the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, the paths, and dhyanas— these dharma teachings are like jewels. When you have faith, you can practice whichever you want. But if you don't have faith, it's as if you don't have hands. Even if they go to an island full of jewels, a person with no hands cannot pick up any of them. Lacking faith is similar; you cannot enter the dharma. You may try but you are unable to do anything.

The second quotation states that any individual who has faith will be able to enter the ocean of dharma and achieve the results of the spiritual path: shaving their head and wearing dharma robes will be meaningful. However, if they lack faith, they will be unable to enter the ocean of the dharma, they will not achieve any of the results of the spiritual way. They may shave the hair on their head, dye their robes, read many sutras, and become skilled at questions and answers, but they will not gain anything from the Buddhadharma. 

Faith is the most important condition for entering the gate of dharma. 

That same commentary on the Prajnaparamita says that the Buddhadharma is so incredibly profound and vast ordinary people cannot understand it completely. Only the Tathagata can understand it. But through the power of faith, even if they have not awakened to buddhahood, they will have confidence in the Buddhadharma and be able to enter the path the Buddha taught. Through the power of faith, they will believe that the Buddhadharma is meaningful and valuable, study it, engage in it, and gradually develop realisation of its meaning. For this reason, faith is absolutely crucial for beginners. 

According to Nagarjuna's commentary, when the Buddha became enlightened in Bodhgaya, he did not teach the dharma immediately. Several weeks passed, and then the god Brahma asked him to "turn the wheel of dharma". The first time Brahma made the request, the Buddha responded that as the dharma is so profound and very difficult to find,  no one would be able to understand its meaning exactly. Then Brahma made the request a second time, and the Buddha thought: "All the buddhas of the three times have turned the wheel of dharma, and in the future, there will also be many buddhas who will turn the wheel of dharma. Even at this time, many buddhas in other universes are teaching the dharma. All the buddhas of the three times are teaching the dharma, so I also should do the same."

At that point, the Buddha told Brahma: 

Today I shall teach the flavour of this nectar.
Those with faith should rejoice.
Today I shall teach them this true dharma. 

So, this says that those who have faith should rejoice. The true dharma is for those who have faith and believe.  

A different commentary explains the reason why the Buddha did not say "Those who are generous should rejoice" or "Those who keep discipline, rejoice" or "People who practice patience, rejoice" or, "Those who are diligent", "Those who practise dhyana..", or "Those who have great prajna should rejoice". He said "those who have faith" because the true dharma is profound, subtle, uncountable, and inconceivable. Even the highly intelligent cannot understand. Those with prajna do not realise it; it is only realised by the omniscient. The Buddha is going to teach the true dharma to those who have faith because they will be able to enter the dharma. Faith is like the seed of liberation or the gate to the dharma.  

These days many people emphasise analysis through logic and reasoning, the Karmapa observed. "You need to examine it," they say, and think they will realise the entire nature of the Buddhadharma through using an incomplete pseudo-logic, but that seems somewhat overconfident and too audacious, he commented. 

The autobiographical verses Good Deeds and He Searched Thoroughly were written by Mikyö Dorje himself, not by someone else. This gives them a special quality. A student of Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Gyalwa Yungtönpa, wrote: 

Most liberation stories written by students
Praise him so highly they turn the guru into a charlatan…

When followers of a guru write their namthar, His Holiness explained, they go overboard in their praises and turn the guru into a fake. Most namthar written by students have this fault. 

Gyalwa Yungtönpa said:

As I know my own experience best, I shall write a bit.

So the guru is the best source for their own liberation story. They know their own life experiences, thoughts, deeds and activities best.

The yogi and mahasiddha Drukpa Kunlek said:

Though they may deserve praise as one's guru,
These multitudinous stories of doing what they did not
May give fools faith, but they embarrass the wise. 
This is Kunlek's liberation, told naturally. 

Drukpa Kunlek says that gurus are worthy of praise, but if you claim the guru did things that they didn't do, you might fool simple people, but others with wisdom and intelligence will laugh and dismiss them as fanciful. 

Some of the namthar of Drukpa Kunlek are doubtful, but in his own writings he explained all his qualities and faults without hiding any, so these are authoritative.

Similarly, Je Barawa said: 

It is inappropriate for me to write my own liberation story, but if someone else did, there would be many meaningless, stained words.

The Karmapa commented that it could be very difficult to write an autobiographical namthar. On the one hand, people feel uncomfortable writing good things about themselves, and on the other, if they write bad things, people might be disappointed. You have to say all your qualities, both good and bad, or the result could easily seem phoney. However, an autobiographical namthar would be the most complete.

As the Tibetan saying goes, "Criticism from someone who does not know how to criticise is better than praise from someone who does not know how to praise." 

This does not mean that liberation stories are pointless. Ancient Tibetan histories say that Tibetan history began with stories, riddles, and bön. Likewise, the great world religions, such as Christianity and Islam, include many stories in their most important scriptures. Similarly, one of twelve types of Buddhist scripture is the Jataka stories, which is an important category of Buddhist literature. It contains many stories of the previous lifetimes of the Buddha. 

Another important point in teaching the true dharma through stories is that everyone, young and old, enjoys listening to stories, and they are easier to understand. We have to use various different ways and means to help people understand the Buddhadharma. If you only teach philosophy, using terms and words that ordinary people do not understand, they can become bored and lose interest. Moreover, Buddhism is not just philosophy; it is primarily a way of turning inwards and taming one's own mindstream. This practice is necessary for everyone, whether or not they are educated, and it is beneficial and has a practical application in our human life.  

The namthar of the great masters of the past are more than mere stories; they are examples. They describe how these great teachers practised the dharma during their lifetimes and provide examples of how we can practise. They are like instructions based on experience: living pith instructions. If we see them as just stories, it is a sign that we are only at the level of listening to stories and that we ourselves have not developed any qualities. It does not mean that these liberation stories are pointless.

The Karmapa rounded off the session with an overview of what had been covered last year and where he would resume this year in the two texts.

The Autobiographical Verses "Good Deeds" has three main sections: 

I. Homage and pledge to compose, II. The nature of the biography, and III. The Conclusion. 

Section II The nature of the biography has two main parts: 

A. The preliminaries: how to enter the dharma and 

B. The main part: how Karmapa Mikyo Dorje practised the paths of the three types of individuals. This is divided into three parts, corresponding to the three different paths: the paths of the lesser, middling, and greater individuals. 

By the end of last year's teaching, we had reached the third of these– how he practised the path of the greater individual. This has three parts and we have reached the third part. This also has three sections:

a) The intention: rousing bodhichitta;

b) The action: meditating on the two types of bodhichitta;

c) How he trained in the precepts of the two types of bodhichitta (v. 22–33)

This is covered by the ninth good deed, which the Karmapa had already gone through:

All beings, without distinction, are the same as my parents.
It is illogical to group them into factions of friend and foe.
With uncontrived love for beings in intolerable states,
I thought, when can I bring them the benefit of true enlightenment?
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (9)

The next session would begin with the tenth deed.

In The Praise He Searched Thoroughly,  the teaching so far had covered the first five stanzas, so the teaching would resume from the sixth stanza.

In conclusion, the Karmapa raised the question once more of the celebration of the anniversaries of the Kagyu forefathers, Marpa Milarepa and Gampopa. He suggested that more research was needed to establish the exact dates for the anniversaries, followed by discussion. Once there was a consensus, it would be possible for all the Kagyupa to celebrate the anniversaries of the forefathers together on the same day.