His Holiness the 17th Karmapa’s Teachings on Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation
Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, India
February 15, 2020
His Holiness resumed his exposition of Chapter 11 by reading the opening section on the precepts of engaged bodhichitta:
The precepts related to engaged bodhicitta are threefold: (1) superior training in discipline, (2) superior training in mind and (3) superior training in prajna. Thus the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment says:
Keeping the vow of engaged bodhicitta, practising the three trainings, having correctly trained in the three aspects of discipline, respect for the three trainings will be great.
He explained that distinguishing between the three trainings, also throws light on the Tripitaka [the three baskets of the Buddha’s teachings—the Vinaya, the Sutras and the Abhidharma]:
When we teach the meanings of the three trainings in different ways that gives us the tripitaka… the scriptures which primarily teach the superior training in discipline are the Vinaya; the scriptures which primarily teach the superior training in samadhi are the Sutras; and the scriptures which primarily teach the superior training in prajna are the Abhidharma.
He pointed out that non-Buddhists have trainings in discipline, samadhi and prajna, either partially or wholly, and they also exist in secular life. A person who makes a promise or vow to give up eating meat is training in discipline. These days, people who have no faith in dharma or even religion, meditate. Research scientists in all fields are involved in deeper and deeper analysis of phenomena. Hindus have fasting vows, Jains uphold a very strict discipline of ahimsa [non-harm] and even during the time of the Buddha there were Brahmanic religions in India that taught dhyana. Before his enlightenment, Shakyamuni learned how to practise dhyana and meditation in the Brahmanic tradition with Ārāḍa Kālāpa and Udraka Rāmaputra. It’s necessary, therefore, to establish what is distinctive or ‘superior’ about the Buddhist trainings in discipline, samadhi and prajna.
First, their order is according to the relationship of cause and effect.
The first training is necessarily in discipline, because, as Nagarjuna said in his Letter to a Friend, “Like the ground for all that moves and does not move, discipline is the basis for all qualities.” Because of discipline, His Holiness explained, we can develop the samadhi of our mind resting in equipoise, and because of samadhi, we can develop the prajna that liberates our mind.
A. The Bodhisattva’s Training in Discipline
Training in discipline is often defined as developing the intention to abstain from harming other beings and from the bases of harming others, but this is primarily in terms of the discipline of the sravakas. The training in discipline of the bodhisattvas has three divisions: the discipline of refraining from harmful acts; the discipline of gathering virtuous qualities; and the discipline of benefitting sentient beings. His Holiness detailed these:
1. The discipline of refraining from harmful acts
When a householder has the pratimoksha vows, or a monastic holds the bhikshu or sramana vows, these are the actual discipline of refraining from harmful acts. We then have to consider what counts as discipline. The essential factor is not necessarily the vow but the intention. The intentional wish to give up killing is discipline but merely not killing is not discipline. Cows, for example, do not eat meat but they are vegetarian naturally so that is not discipline. Discipline generally means something that we are specifically keeping. So laypeople that have taken refuge and keep the refuge precepts are observing discipline, even though they do not hold pratimoksha vows. The essence of non-harm is to give up the ten non-virtuous actions, the essence of which is giving up the seven non-virtues of body and speech. Then again there are people who have given up taking life, even though they do not hold any vows. His Holiness suggested this might count as the discipline of giving up harming others, but needed further investigation.
2. The discipline of gathering virtuous qualities
This is the virtue of not giving up the six transcendences [perfections], His Holiness elaborated, but rather stabilising your practice of them and increasing them. We need to be committed to all types of virtuous action—listening to the scriptures, reciting texts, circumambulation, prostrations, meditation—whether they are large or small, a gram or a kilogram of virtue, each one counts. We gather virtue according to our own capabilities. The Karmapa cited the Geluk practice of reciting a puja before teachings in order that no internal or external obstacles or adversities would arise. If you do not do this your studies will not go well. Study is a dharmic activity and many adverse conditions can affect its efficacy, he warned. Some we recognise, but some we only recognise once they occur, when it’s too late.
3. The discipline of benefitting others
Refers to benefitting sentient beings in 11 different ways: a)helping others in need; b)showing a method or way; c) benefitting; d) benefitting those distressed by fear; e) benefitting those who are overcome by grief; f) benefitting those deprived of things; g) benefitting those who are settling in a place; h) benefitting those who wish harmony of mind; I) benefitting those who are acting properly; j) benefitting those who are acting improperly; and k) benefitting through miracles.
Bodhisattvas are committed to work for the benefit of others as strongly as if their hair were on fire. It’s their job. This is extremely important. When we talk about the work of a bodhisattva we often think in terms of the 18 primary downfalls of the Bodhisattva Vows. However, this list details their work exactly.
a) Helping others in need
If others are in need, when they need help, or there is an opportunity to help them, if you do not help them or you postpone helping them, or you help them in a way not concordant with dharma, this is a fault. On the other hand, if helping them would harm others or harm dharma practice, and you do not help for this reason, you do not incur a fault. If there is no difficulty or no extenuating circumstances, failure to help is an infringement of the discipline.
His Holiness cross-referenced this to Chandragomin’s Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vow. When helping others you should not pressure them to accept your help. You must also act in a way which accords with the dharma. However, if you do not help them because you hold a grudge or resentment, or if you are lazy and slothful, all of these incur faults.
b) Showing a method or way
Sometimes people are in situations when they don’t know what to do and they ask for advice, so it is important to advise them in a heartfelt way with a wish to help.
When someone has made a wrong decision or would be doing something which would be harmful in future lifetimes, unless there are extenuating circumstances, giving them advice is important. If you refuse to give advice out of laziness or a negative attitude towards them, you have broken the discipline. If you do not know how to advise them, there is no fault. But in such a situation you should direct them towards someone who can help. Further, if you refrain because you know that the advice you give would not be beneficial, because of a particular reason, there is no fault.
His Holiness suggested that this is probably the same as ‘not helping in response to someone’s action’, in Chandragomin’s Twenty Verses. It refers to repaying kindness shown to you. If you have made the commitment to be a bodhisattva, and another has helped or benefitted you in the past, if you fail to repay that kindness, out of malice or anger, laziness, or sloth, it is an infraction of the discipline. If you would like to help but you are prevented from helping by circumstances such as lack of time, there is no infraction.
d) Benefitting those distressed by fear
e) Benefitting those distressed by grief
These two overlap. In Chandragomin’s text they are covered by ‘not dispelling another’s sorrow’. If we abide by the bodhisattva vow, we need to help those who have great fear or mental suffering. It may be after the death of a close relative, or it may be mundane such as a great loss in business, perhaps bankruptcy. If we do nothing out of anger, resentment, sloth and so forth, it’s a fault. It is not an offence when the intention is there but you lack the ability or the skill to help.
f) Benefitting those deprived of things
This refers to those who are in need, without food, clothing, shelter, and so on. If we hold the bodhisattva vow, we should give whatever we can. If there are extenuating circumstances, if it is inappropriate to give or if giving would cause great difficulties for them or us, there is no offence.
His Holiness postponed commenting on the remaining five.
In summary, he concluded: Bodhisattvas only have one responsibility — to accomplish the benefit of sentient beings, and so they engage in the three aspects of the training in discipline. The differences between these are primarily in function only – in essence they are the same and are all contained in the Bodhisattva Vow.
His Holiness then explored the role of these in the Vajrayana:
The three types of discipline are not only important in the causal vehicle of the Mahayana, but they are also important within the secret mantra Vajrayana. As it says in the tantra of the Tip of the Vajra: ‘Steadfastly uphold the three disciplines; the precepts of moral discipline, the gathering of virtuous qualities, and benefitting beings’.
Within the three lower classes of tantra, the primary vow is the Bodhisattva Vow. If you hold the pratimoksha vows and the Bodhisattva Vow there is no particular tantric vow to keep. But in the unexcelled tantra —Anuttarayoga (bla-med rnal-'byor rgyud)—there are vows. Although there are different ways in which this described and explained in different Vajrayana traditions, this is how it is described in Kagyu and Geluk, and particularly in the presentations of Karmapa Mikyö Dorje, and the Great Karma Thinley’s Karmashingta [The Chariot of the Karma Kamtsang]. These three types of discipline are important to practice in the resultant vehicle of the secret mantrayana.
B. The Superior Training in Samadhi
His Holiness then moved his focus to the second training – the superior training in samadhi—and the difference between samadhi and shamatha.
Samadhi is one of the five mental factors, it refers to the ability to rest one-pointedly on an object, and the superior training in samadhi aims to develop a one-pointed volition that focuses one-pointedly on a focus. At this stage, samadhi can be short or long.
The second stage is being able to rest one-pointedly on a virtuous object for as long as you wish. Being able to rest in equipoise on a focus for as long as you wish is known as the one-pointed mind.
The third stage is developing samadhi with the pleasure of pliability of body and mind in preparation for the first dhyana.
The fourth stage is when you achieve samadhi with the pleasure of pliability, on the level of the first dhyana, which is shamatha. That is the shamatha of the higher realms. Though the nine methods for resting the mind are called shamatha, “true shamatha means the pleasure of pliability”, His Holiness clarified. “Achieving the pleasure of pliability means your body feels as light as a tuft of cotton. It is said that Gampopa achieved this and was able to live without eating food for many days, and was able to breathe extremely slowly, inhaling and exhaling infrequently.”
These are signs that he had achieved the pleasure of pliability.
If we describe samadhi in term of function: there is the samadhi of the body and mind resting comfortably; the samadhi of developing qualities such as achieving the clairvoyances; and the samadhi of benefitting sentient beings.
The Karmapa then briefly touched on the relationship between shamatha and insight meditation. Developing actual shamatha and insight meditation is difficult. The precursor, being able to direct our attention one-pointedly without distraction on a virtuous focus, is what we call ‘shamatha. The prajna that can truly analyse the meaning and words of the scriptures is insight meditation. There are different definitions used by the various Tibetan traditions, but generally shamatha is resting meditation and insight is analytic meditation. However, during Mahamudra and Dzogchen there can be points where resting meditation is insight.
Using the analogy of surgery, the Karmapa illustrated their interwoven function. A surgeon needs steady hands and the medical instruments used need to be very sharp. Shamatha is like the surgeon’s steady hands, a stability of mind and focus. Insight is like the razor-sharp scalpel, however difficult or profound, it can cut through.
When we first start training in resting meditation, we might focus on neutral objects such as sticks and pebbles. Samadhi is a mind resting one-pointedly on a virtuous focus, so, though this is an effective method, we cannot call it samadhi.
C. The Superior Training in Prajna
The third training is the training in prajna, and its essence is the prajna that is able to fully examine mental projections.
There is the prajna that realises the ultimate: the prajna that realises subtle selflessness and emptiness.
There is the prajna that realises the relative: the ability to become learned in all areas of knowledge such as healing crafts, logic, grammar and Buddhist philosophy. Non-Buddhists are able to study these areas too, and although theirs is a type of prajna, it is not the training in prajna meant here, because it is not embraced by true refuge or the wish for liberation. When we study areas of knowledge, it becomes a cause for achieving buddhahood only if it is embraced by true refuge, the wish for liberation, and bodhichitta, and then dedicated to enlightenment. If you build thousands of monasteries it may look like a definite cause for achieving buddhahood, but this would depend on your motivation and whether the action is dedicated to enlightenment or not, His Holiness observed. When listening and contemplation are embraced by this distinct intention, it becomes training in prajna. Otherwise, it is just study.
There is the prajna that benefits sentient beings: knowing how to help sentient beings. We want to help but we don’t know how. Not knowing how to help, some people try to help and then create problems as big as a mountain. There are limitless sentient beings and each has distinctive thoughts and predilections. If we are to benefit them we need this type of prajna. Otherwise we create difficulties for ourselves, and become exhausted.
In conclusion, His Holiness summed up the function of these three trainings: discipline sets boundaries to the actions of body and mind and turns us away from distractions; samadhi focuses our mind one-pointedly on virtuous phenomena; and prajna examines the nature of things as they are so we can understand them.
He then emphasised the great chance that the nuns possessed.
We have met gurus, we have clear minds, intelligence and opportunity. Until we achieve buddhahood, we have the opportunity to achieve buddhahood. The main thing is we need to make effort and see what we can achieve in this lifetime, and make the aspiration for it to happen in future life times. It is important that we have enthusiasm and are not discouraged. It can’t be achieved in a day or two…even worldly things such as preparing for Losar take time.
Supported by the strength and resolve of our bodhichitta we should be prepared to direct our minds towards buddhahood and not give up, though it take three uncountable aeons.