Khenpo Chökyi Gyaltsen
Instructions on “The Heart Sutra”
Presented at Karma Chang Chub Choephel Ling, Heidelberg, in June 2011.
This article of teachings that Venerable Khenpo Chökey Gyaltsen generously imparted
is dedicated in memory of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third,
Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge (1954-1992),
to the long life of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Fourth,
Karma Lodrö Chökyi Nyima,
of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje,
of all prestigious Khenpos and Lamas of the Karma Kagyü Lineage,
and to the preservation of the pure legacy of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye.
Venerable Khenpo Chökey Gyaltsen graduated from Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies at Rumtek, Sikkim, in 1991. After his graduation, he was appointed Khenpo at the Institute along with Drupon Khenpo Lodrö Namgyal and seven others from the same graduating class that year. He taught at Nalanda Insitute for one and a half years. To serve the projects and activities of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, in 1992 he joined Pullahari Monastery, which is the Main Seat of His Eminence in Nepal. Today he resides at Lava Kagyü Tekchen Ling Monastery and Retreat Center, which is the Main Seat of His Eminence in India. Khenpo also travels to help guide and teach at His Eminence's centers in S.E. Asia, Africa, Europe, and Canada.
This is my second visit to Karma Chang Chub Choephel Ling . I am very happy to be here and greet everyone kindly. Let us first recite “The Dorje Chang Lineage Prayer” that was composed by Bengar Jampäl Zangpo.
It is taught in the Kagyü tradition and also in this prayer that devotion (mös-güs in Tibetan) is the head of meditation. No matter how much one studies and meditates, one won’t receive the blessings of the lineage and will not accomplish much in one’s Dharma practice as long as one does not have devotion. If one wants to practice well, it is very important to have devotion and to receive the blessings of the lineage. There are many ways to awaken devotion in one’s mind. The best way to cultivate sincere devotion is to call, with one-pointed attentiveness, all Lamas of the unbroken transmission lineage and to request their blessings. We recite “The Dorje Chang Lineage Prayer” together for this reason.
Before receiving the sacred teachings, it is necessary to give rise to the mind of awakening. bodhicitta in Sanskrit, byang-chub-kyi-sems in Tibetan. Bodhicitta is the wish to attain perfect enlightenment to be able to help all sentient beings, who are as innumerable as space is vast in extent and who, at one time or another, were all our kind mothers. We aspire to help them attain what we think is best for them - perfect enlightenment. Knowing that this is the only way to really help them, please receive the instructions and contemplate the profound meaning of “The Prajnaparamita Sutra - The Sutra of Transcendent Wisdom.” It is called “The Heart Sutra” in its condensed version.
The correct view is crucial for any Buddhist practice. The main point of the correct view is dependent origination, rten-‘brel in Tibetan, which is also referred to as rten-byung, ‘dependent appearance.’ The main point of practice is not to harm others, which is based upon love and compassion. One aspires never to hurt anyone and practices this. If one integrates the view and practice in one’s life, one will be engaging in the path of Dharma quite well.
Integrating the view of dependent appearance in union with practicing not to harm others is dbu-ma, the Tibetan term that means ‘the middle way.’ The practice of the middle way consists of gaining freedom from all complexities and extremes, which is synonymous with the term “emptiness,” shunyata in Sanskrit, stong-pa-nyid in Tibetan. We can read many texts and can easily understand and speak about emptiness, but it’s quite difficult when it comes to our behaviour and actions. To progress along the path of practice, we need to understand why all things are empty of inherent existence and we need to realize that the true nature of all things is emptiness.
Since all things arise and appear in dependence upon other things, they are devoid of independent existence and thus are empty of inherent existence. All phenomena are merely temporary, dependent manifestations that appear when causes and conditions prevail. It is possible and we can experience phenomena in this way when they manifest. And so, all phenomena are empty due to dependent origination, and phenomena can arise and appear because they lack inherent existence, i.e., due to emptiness. It is important to understand the view, which is the basis of meditation, and it is important to meditate. Then one’s practice will be very good.
In his description of Mahamudra, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye taught that without the view, one is anything but all-knowing and in that case one is like a blind person. Furthermore, one will not benefit oneself or anybody else if one has understood the view but doesn’t meditate. Then one is like a stingy rich person who benefits no one. It’s important to gain certainty of the view and at the same time to practice meditation.
Again, the view is realizing that dependent origination and emptiness are not exclusive but are mutually inclusive, i.e., all phenomena are empty because they depend upon many factors to be what they are. This is the middle view and it pertains to the way all things really are. One’s realization of the middle view and meditation will be very good and beneficial if one understands this. The view of emptiness is the basis for one’s practice and is explained in great detail in “The Prajnaparamita Sutra,” which we will look at in its condensed version during this seminar.
It is very important to gain an understanding of dependent appearance and emptiness in union with practicing non-violence. Yet, it can happen that one has a false idea of emptiness and thinks that it means nothing-ness. If one thinks like this, one would see no reason to acknowledge the law of karma, the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as läs and means that all results have causes and every cause leads to a result. Then one thinks that there is no reason to give up negativities and to diminish and overcome one’s obscurations; or one blames emptiness when things go wrong and thinks one doesn’t have to do anything to change unsatisfactory situations. This happens when one has the extreme view of nihilism. We need to gain an understanding of emptiness in connection with dependent origination and, at the same time, cultivate love and compassion. Simply talking about emptiness and failing to develop love and compassion help no one. One’s life becomes meaningful when one learns about and realizes emptiness while, at the same time, caring for others. Uniting the view of emptiness in connection with gaining an understanding of dependent origination and not harming others are very important practices of Buddhism.
The great yogi Jetsün Milarepa taught: “Know that all phenomena are like a dream. Meditate uncontrived love and compassion.” He furthermore taught that we need to develop more and more compassion for those beings that are not able to realize that all things are like a dream.
His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Fourth, Karma Lodrö Chökyi Nyima,
at Vulture Peak, Rajagriha.
“The Heart Sutra”
The original sutra is entitled, “The Prajnaparamita Sutra” and literally means ‘The Sutra of the Great Mother.’ There are several versions, a long, a medium-long, and a short one. The long version consists of 100,000 verses in 12 volumes, the medium-long version consists of 25,000 verses in 3 volumes, and the short one consists of 8,000 verses in one volume, making 16 volumes in all. It would be very difficult to study all of them. This is why they are kept on monastery shrines and are objects of our offerings and prayers. Since it would be difficult to study all of them, there is the shorter, condensed version, known as “The Heart Sutra.” Just as the heart is the most important organ in the body, “The Heart Sutra” is the essence of the 16 volumes of “The Prajnaparamita Sutra.” Because it is a summary of the entire volumes and condenses the contents into a very concise point, “The Heart Sutra” is the essence, i.e., ‘the heart of wisdom-awareness,’ shes-rab-snying-po.
A Short Historical Account
The sacred root text of the condensed version of “The Prajnaparamita Sutra” commences with the line, ‘di-skad-bdag-gis-thös-pa-düs-gcig-na:
“At one time I heard this discussion.”
This line was written by Bodhisattva Vajrapani, who compiled the sutra after the event on Vulture Peak had ended. What did he hear? That the Buddha, a noble assembly of realized and ordinary bodhisattvas, shravakas, gods, humans, and many other beings had met on Vulture Peak, which is situated outside the small town of Rajagriha in the Indian state of Bihar. They were all present while the Buddha was in meditation, and they received his blessing. For most of them, it seemed as if the Buddha had entered meditation specifically on this occasion, but - because of always being in meditation - for the Buddha there is no difference between the meditative and post-meditative state. Vajrapani tells us that the Buddha had entered the meditative state called “profound illumination.” Due to the power of Lord Buddha’s meditative absorption, Venerable Shariputra was able to ask Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara profound questions about prajnaparamita, ‘transcendent wisdom-awareness,’ and to receive most significant answers from him. Avalokiteshvara is the Sanskrit name of sPyan-räs-gzigs (pronounced Chenrezig), who is the Lord of Compassion.
While being a compendium of questions that Venerable Shariputra asked about the paramita of wisdom-awareness (prajnaparamita in Sanskrit, shes-rab-kyi-pa-rol-tu-byin-pa in Tibetan) and answers that Bodhisattva Chenrezig gave, the designation “sutra” in the title means that “The Heart Sutra” contains words spoken by the Buddha. There are three criteria for the designation “sutra.” One criterion is words actually spoken by the Buddha; the second criterion is words spoken or written down through the Buddha’s blessing, and the third is texts that the Buddha authorized. “The Heart Sutra” was written down through the Buddha’s blessing, was authorized by him, and records words that he spoke.
When the question and answer session that took place in the presence of the enlightened Buddha had come to a close, Bodhisattva Vajrapani compiled the text and entrusted it to the nagas. Vajrapani is Phyag-na-rdo-rje in Tibetan and means ‘vajra bearer.’ Nagas (klu) are powerful long-lived, serpent-like beings who inhabit bodies of water and guard what we call “archives.” When times were right, the great Indian master Noble Nagarjuna retrieved this sacred text from the realm of the nagas and transmitted it to worthy disciples.
To understand what can be called “an archive system” in modern terms, let us recall that in the 8th century Padmasambhava travelled to Tibet and imparted many profound teachings to the Tibetans. But at that time there weren’t many people who appreciated them. For this reason and for the benefit of future generations, Padmasambhava’s teachings were hidden in the earth as gter-ma, ‘treasure texts.’ When times are ripe, termas are discovered and revealed by gter-stön, ‘treasure revealers.’ In the same way, the nagas have archives of treasure texts. They had kept and guarded “The Prajnaparamita Sutra” and “The Heart Sutra” in their archives.
Due to the blessing of the Buddha, Venerable Shariputra and Bodhisattva Chenrezig were able to engage in a dialogue on Vulture Peak at Rajagriha. It wasn’t yet possible for most attendees of the gathering to appreciate and practice the profound teachings on emptiness that were presented on that occasion. For this reason, the text was hidden as a terma and kept in the archives of the nagas. The Buddha had prophesied that 400 years after his passing into parinirvana a tertön would retrieve this text from the realm of the nagas and would disclose it to disciples who were capable of understanding the instructions and would benefit by practicing them. This tertön was Arya Nagarjuna. Based on the prajnaparamita texts, his disciples were able to practice mahayana. And so, there is a similarity regarding the concealment of Guru Rinpoche’s sacred texts in Tibet and the retrieval of “The Heart Sutra” by Noble Nagarjuna.
The Instructions of “The Heart Sutra”
As said, “The Heart Sutra” is the written document of the dialogue between Bodhisattva Chenrezig and Venerable Shariputra. The first verse is:
“Once the Blessed Victor was dwelling on Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajagriha, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas. The Blessed One was in the samadhi that expresses the Dharma and is called ‘profound illumination.’ At that time Noble Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.”
While never separate from samadhi, “at that time” refers to the time that the Buddha manifested to the assembly. This magnificent event enabled Bodhisattva Chenrezig and Venerable Shariputra to engage in a dialog about prajnaparamita and for Chenrezig to perfectly explain its meaning and the practices to realize it fully. As stated in the first verse, to begin with, it is necessary to understand that the five skandhas are by nature empty, i.e., devoid of inherent existence. Because Shariputra asked, Chenrezig taught how to train to fully realize transcendent wisdom-awareness.
In “The Heart Sutra” it is written:
“Then, through the power of the Buddha, Venerable Shariputra said to Noble Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva:
‘How should a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita train?’
“Addressed in this way, Noble Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva, said to Venerable Shariputra:
‘O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature.’”
Bodhisattva Chenrezig answered Shariputra’s question by stating that practitioners who aspire to realize prajnaparamita need to have the right view by understanding that the five skandhas are empty of inherent existence and they need to ascertain emptiness by meditating on the instructions.
The Five Skandhas
Skandha is the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as phung-po and means ‘aggregates.’ The skandhas are the five aspects that comprise the physical and mental constituents of a sentient being. The five skandhas (phung-po-lnga) are: form, feeling, distinguishing perception, mental formation, and consciousness.
We need to know that – like the roots of a plant - the five skandhas are the bases of samsaric existence. We have accumulated negative karma throughout all our past lives because of our conflicting emotions and thus we created the skandhas and the suffering that we experience in this life, in all its variations and different kinds. In the past, we created the skandhas for this life due to not knowing that emptiness is the basis of all appearances and experiences. We are overwhelmed by the five skandhas and thus cling to them as real, which is what clinging to phenomena means. We purport the existence of appearances that we apperceive and believe they stand in opposition to the personal self that we believe in and cling to as real. So, there are two aspects of clinging: clinging to phenomena that we think truly exist and are other than the self that we think is a true entity and cling to as real. In short: Due to having accumulated the causes in our past lives, in this life we experience the unsatisfactory and painful consequences that we created by clinging to a self and to what we refer to as “others.” In that manner, we pave the way for unending suffering in our present and next lives.
To overcome clinging to others, it is necessary to understand and realize the teachings of “The Heart Sutra,” which tell us that all skandhas lack true existence and are by nature empty of reality. As a result, we will surmount our belief in a personal self and thus will stop clinging to it as real. The text explains in detail and step-by-step that each and every skandha is empty of an own essence. By understanding that phenomena have no true essence and are therefore not real, we are able to overcome clinging to the belief that the self truly exists. We will look at this after you have asked any questions that you might have.
Question: “You mentioned that there are three criteria for the definition ‘sutra.’ I didn’t understand the difference between the second and third.”
Khenpo: The teachings of “The Heart Sutra” were heard and composed due to the blessing of the Buddha. It is written that the Buddha was abiding in profound samadhi and that even though he did not speak the text as we know it, through the power of his meditation and blessing those individuals who heard him heard the truth. The third criterion is a teaching that he authorized to be conveyed after his parinirvana. “The Gyulama” by Maitreya is an example for the third kind. While in Tushita, the Buddha appointed Maitreya as his regent. So, Lord Buddha had permitted and had blessed the sacred texts by Maitreya. We can regard “The Heart Sutra” as both. The Buddha blessed this flawless text through the power of his samadhi, he authorized the text through his spoken words that are recorded in the last lines.
Same student: “So there’s no difference between the two? Do the shastras (‘the commentaries’) also belong to the third category?”
Khenpo: “The Heart Sutra” fulfils both criteria. It isn’t a commentary. It’s a sutra. Commentaries are always written by others.
Next question: “I understand that the consciousness is also an aggregate. I also understand that clarity is inseparable from the mind. If consciousness is an illusion, is emptiness, and at the same time is clarity, then this seems to be a contradiction. How is this solved?”
Khenpo: So, how can it be an aggregate-o?
Same student: “It’s an illusion. How do I deal with this?”
Khenpo: Aggregate doesn’t only refer to form or matter. Aggregate means ‘a collection,’ and we have five main aggregates that each consists of many parts. The term “consciousness” is general, but the consciousness or mind also has many parts. If it were a singular entity, we might not call it an aggregate. There are countless consciousnesses. We just have to think about how many concepts we develop from moment to moment. How many concepts have we developed during the two hours we have been together now? Basically, we have six primary consciousnesses. The mind consciousness constantly develops many thoughts. Put together, we call them “aggregate of consciousness.”
* * *
It is recorded in “The Heart Sutra” that Shariputra asked Chenrezig: “How should a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita train?” Chenrezig answered: “O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature.” This means to say that no phenomenon is a solid, static entity, rather, all things are empty of inherent existence. It is necessary to understand and meditate on this.
The central topic of “The Heart Sutra” is emptiness, stong-pa-nyid. There are various ways to study and understand emptiness, step-by-step. One way is to understand that, for example, as long as milk hasn’t turned into yoghurt, it is empty of being yoghurt. A second way is to understand and acknowledge that yoghurt isn’t milk. A third way is to know that objects are empty of each other, e.g., a cow is empty of being a horse and a horse is empty of being a cow. A fourth way is to consider impossibilities, e.g., that flowers cannot grow in the sky. These are examples for the four ways to understand that all phenomena are empty, but they do not suffice to realize the meaning of emptiness.
Perfect emptiness (yang-dag-pa’i-stong-pa-nyid) as taught in “The Heart Sutra” is understood fully by realizing that because no phenomenon is established by itself and things merely appear as relative realities, all phenomena are by nature empty. If we carefully examine phenomena (chös in Tibetan), we will discover that every appearance and experience by nature has no inherent existence. We understand emptiness correctly and have the right view if we understand that the five skandhas are not established from their own side, are aggregates that appear on the relative level of existence, and are like appearances in a dream.
What is the purpose of seeing that the five skandhas are empty of a true nature? Because there is suffering in cyclic existence. We don’t experience manifold kinds of suffering haphazardly or without a cause. We created and accumulated the causes for the suffering that we presently experience because, in all our past lives, we acted in reliance upon our conflicting emotions and thus engaged in negative activities. Conflicting emotions and negative karma give rise to the five stained skandhas (zag-bcäs in Tibetan, which is also translated as ‘contaminated outflows’). In this regard, we speak of a self that experiences suffering. We call any appearance and experience “mine,” and thus we cling to both “I” and “mine,” i.e., self and others. Clinging to a self and others causes us to accept what we like, to reject what we don’t like, or to be indifferent about many things that we perceive.
The great variety of conflicting emotions (klesha in Sanskrit, nyon-mongs in Tibetan) cause us to accumulate negative karma and thus to remain bound in samsara. Samsara is the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as ‘khor-ba and means ‘vicious round of birth and death and rebirth within the realms of conditioned existence.’ To become free from samsara, we need to examine the five skandhas and realize that they are empty of a real nature.
Continuing with the root text, Noble Chenrezig presented four arguments showing that the first skandha of form is empty by nature. He taught:
“Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.”
What are forms? Forms are objects that can be seen with the eye organ and apperceived with the eye consciousness. What is the abiding condition or mode (gnäs-tshül) of a form (gzugs)? The Buddha said in a sutra: “Form is just filled-out air.” He taught that forms can be compared to balloons or water bubbles. The more air one blows into a balloon, the larger it becomes; then its form and color also change, and finally it busts. This shows that balloons aren’t stable but are subject to change. Why is this so? Because each and every object that has a form is a mere appearance that isn’t established (ma-‘grub-pa) and therefore is devoid of truth (bden-pa-med-pa). As it is, we are deluded about the true nature and mode of the objects that we see and think that they are true existents. The objects that we see and look at seem to be solid and real but aren’t. If we investigate thoroughly, we will discover that everything that we see is empty of an own nature, i.e., every form is emptiness, gzugs-stong-pa’o.
Objects that are perceived with the eye organ and apperceived with the eye consciousness are forms that have a shape and color; we can touch and identify them. We might ask, how can an object that we are able to touch and see be empty? Objects consist of many parts. If we investigate tangible objects of perception, we would realize that they consist of many parts and that they change. As long as we don’t investigate, we remain stuck in wishful-thinking and believe that perceptible and tangible objects are solid entities that exist of their own accord and that last. Every phenomenon is composed of many small parts, and each small part consists of many smaller parts. No matter how long or how much we search, we will never find a form that doesn’t consist of smaller parts that, in turn, also aren’t subject to change. This is about coarse objects that can be perceived and are emptiness.
The second instruction that deals with the first skandha is that emptiness is form, stong-pa-nyid-gzugs-so. We haven’t understood emptiness and ask ourselves, what is the natural mode of forms? The natural mode of every form is emptiness (stong-pa-nyid-red). As long as we haven’t understood this but remain deluded about the real mode of forms, we experience emptiness as an aspect of appearances and thus merely impute that emptiness is form.
The third instruction is that emptiness is no other than form, gzugs-läs-stong-pa-nyid-gzhän-ma-yin. Objects are forms that we can perceive with our eye organ and that we deludedly apperceive with our eye consciousness as truly existing, solid entities. Other than that, there are no forms. The abiding nature of each and every form is chös-kyi-dbyings, which means ‘suchness.’ There is no form outside suchness.
The fourth very important instruction that Chenrezig gave to Shariputra about the first skandha is that form is no other than emptiness, stong-pa-nyid-läs-kyang-gzugs-gzhän-ma-yin-no. The true nature of all forms is emptiness. There is no form that is separate from emptiness. Should there be a form that is separate from emptiness, it would be an entity that never changes. It is difficult for us to believe that emptiness appears as a form because we think that a form cannot be empty. On the relative level, forms are mere appearances. On the absolute level, forms are suchness, i.e., emptiness and dependent appearances inseparable. There is a story that I want to tell. Maybe it fits with this situation.
Once there was a farmer who had many cows. They were very happy to eat green grass and only ate green grass. One day the farmer ran out of green grass and only had straw. He had to find a way to convince the cows to eat the straw. Does anyone have a suggestion on how to convince cows who only eat green grass to eat straw?
Student: “Wait until they are very hungry.”
Next student: “Maybe the farmer found a way to dye the straw green or gave the cows green-tainted glasses to look through.”
Khenpo: Actually, the story goes with the green glasses. So, the farmer made green-tainted glasses for the cows to look through. Everything appeared green to them when they looked through the glasses, and then they ate the straw. Actually, the straw was empty of being green (i.e., form is emptiness). It appeared green to the cows (i.e., emptiness is form). Staying with the story, the green color is not separate from the straw, and the straw is not separate from the green color -- for the cows, not for us. Actually, when cows are hungry, they eat anything they are fed, and they are good cows. My example is about silly cows. In terms of understanding reality, we are just as silly as the cows that had to have green glasses.
The four points about form apply to all skandhas. They are: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.” We need to meditate these instructions. Whether we sit on a cushion or chair, it is important to sit straight while meditating. If you have any questions now, please ask.
Question: “We laugh about the silly cows because we think that we are better and more intelligent than they are. In the same way, I can imagine that somebody who is wiser than we are laughs about us. How can we communicate with individuals who are wiser than we are?”
Khenpo: It will be like laughing while playing with silly cows. Why will we be laughing? Because we know that the straw is not green grass and that we tricked the cows into believing it is. So, the cows are the objects of our compassion, snying-rje-kyi-yül. It is the same with us. Realized individuals see our illusions and faults. They teach us antidotes that we can apply. Lord Buddha realized the true nature of all things. He saw that beings were deluded about the true nature of things and that they therefore experienced a great variety of suffering. He taught the Dharma to help beings become free from the never-ending cycle of suffering. Let us take the example of a mother and child sleeping in one room. The child will be very frightened if it sees a vampire in its dream. It won’t help the child if the mother whispers, “Don’t worry. It’s just a nightmare.” The only way to free her child from fear is to wake it up. Then the child will see that there is no vampire in the room. So, waking the child up is the best solution. In this case, the mother sees that the nightmare is nothing-ness, that her child is deluded while dreaming, and is therefore experiencing so much suffering. In the same way, the Buddha saw that the best way to help the many deluded beings become free of the suffering they were experiencing was to teach them the Dharma.
Question: “It is clear that it is possible to intellectually understand emptiness. But what emphasis is the teacher’s blessing, which is like the relationship between a mother and her child?”
Khenpo: Not everyone has the same capacity. Some disciples have a very clear and sharp mind and can understand easily and quickly, which doesn’t mean that they have realized emptiness. Based upon knowing the meaning of emptiness, one meditates more and more and gradually realizes shes-rab-chen-po, ‘great wisdom-awareness.’ This is one way. Another way is to call to the Lama with sincere devotion and to request his blessing so that one quickly understands emptiness, accumulates merit, and dispels one’s obscurations. If we diminish the many obscurations that we have, then one day we will realize the meaning of emptiness. These are the two methods, and both lead to realization of emptiness.
* * *
Before continuing with the instructions on the profound prajnaparamita, I want to remind you to give rise to the pure motivation of bodhicitta, which is the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
In the great vehicle of mahayana, there are three categories of giving rise to the awakened mind. The first is the motivation (kun-slong) to be like a shepherd who sees to it that none of the sheep in the flock he is guarding go astray, that every one is nourished well, and that all of them are safe in the barn before he goes to rest; this is the simile for the wish to help others become free from the realms of painful existences by attaining enlightenment before one does. The second motivation is the wish to be like a boatman who reaches the opposite shore of the river together with everyone in his boat; this is the simile for aspiring to attain enlightenment together with everyone else. The third motivation is the wish to be like a mighty ruler who has the best means to guarantee that every subject in his kingdom obeys his commands, is safe, and has a good and successful life; this is the simile for aspiring to attain enlightenment first in order to be able to help everybody else attain the same high state.
We saw that the first skandha is not solid and real, has no true nature, and is emptiness. The second skandha is feeling, tshor-ba. Like the skandha of form, feelings have no own nature (rang-bzhin-med-pa), lack truth (bden-pa-med-pa), and are emptiness (stong-pa-nyid-yin).
What is a feeling? The definition of a feeling is simply to experience something. How can one experience things? Happily, painfully, or indifferently. Who or what simply experiences things? Only the mind, sems-tsam.
Feelings are unstable and fleeting. They change from moment to moment and are like water bubbles that arise when water is splashed and bust again real fast. If we recall the pain and happiness that we have experienced in our life, we could think that it is the same pain or joy that we might presently be experiencing. Upon investigation, we will discover that past feelings were transitory and, other than in our memory, didn’t last. We will find that feelings don’t truly exist and are emptiness. Concerning momentary feelings, for example, one immediately suffers when one learns that a close friend had a bad accident and feels relieved when learning that it was a false alarm. This shows that feelings such as happiness and suffering (bde-ba and sdug-bsngäl) are merely momentary, impermanent experiences of the mind. They arise, change, and cease, therefore they lack true existence and are by nature emptiness.
How do feelings arise? Through one of the six gates (khams-drug, ‘six interactional sense fields’). The first gate is the eye consciousness, mig-gi-rnam-par-shes-pa’i-khams. An eye consciousness arises when our eye organ has come into contact with and perceives an object (i.e., a form that has a color and shape). This means to say that a feeling about an object arises through the interaction of a perceived object and the respective sense consciousness. This feeling can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We cling to the pleasant things that we see and like. We reject unpleasant things we see and even feel annoyed or become angry about them, and we are indifferent about objects that we don’t perceive as pleasant or unpleasant. So, one of the three kinds of feelings of the eye consciousness arises when the eye organ has come into contact with an object that can be seen. The Tibetan term for “coming into contact with” is reg and means ‘to touch.’
In the same way, we have a pleasant, an unpleasant, or an indifferent feeling about a sound (sgra) after our ear organ has come into contact with that sound. Then we apperceived that sound with our ear consciousness, rna-ba’i-rnam-par-shes-pa. For example, we feel very happy if we think that an opera performance we experienced was good or we are unhappy if we think that it wasn’t good. In fact, we can be very unhappy about a performance and even become angry when feeling that we didn’t get what we expected. Maybe we feel that the performance wasn’t that good, wasn’t that bad either, and conclude that it was okay. So, these three kinds of feelings can arise through the ear consciousness.
The third sense consciousness is the nose consciousness, sna-ba’i-rnam-par-shes-pa. Depending on our nose organ, we apperceive smells, odors, scents with our nose consciousness. A scent (dri-ma) can be experienced as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We accept and cling to scents that we feel are pleasant and reject those that we feel are unpleasant. Feeling indifferent about something we smelled is also an interaction. The fourth sense consciousness is the tongue consciousness, lce-ba’i-rnam-par-shes-pa. We apperceive something that can be tasted (ro) with our tongue organ and feel that it tasted delicious, unpleasant, or neutral. The same with the fifth sense consciousness, which is the body consciousness, lüs-kyi-rnam-par-shes-pa; it apperceives an object that can be touched (reg-bya) and experiences it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Such an object can be soft, smooth, coarse, and so forth. For example, we don’t feel good when somebody slaps us, and we feel good when we rub oil on our skin. We can also feel indifferent about many things that we touch. The sixth consciousness is the mind consciousness, yid-kyi-shes-pa. Phenomena (chös) are objects (yül) that the mind consciousness apperceives and experiences as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
So, we have six sense consciousnesses with which we apperceive an object that the respective sense organ comes into contact with. The ensuing feeling of each interaction can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, so there are eighteen ways that feelings can arise and be. This is all right, as long as we don’t have sympathy or antipathy, i.e., as long as we do not accept or reject feelings that we have about things that we perceived. Should we cling to our feelings in one way or another, we would be creating suffering, which nobody wants to experience. By paying too much attention to our feelings, we become very sensitive and emotional. In such cases, we care about our feelings too much. We cannot deal with our emotions and sensitivities as long as we think that feelings truly exist and consequently we create suffering.
As it is, we have feelings that are temporary and do not last long. Depending upon what we learn or experience, we have countless pleasant and unpleasant feelings, from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep at night, each and every day. None of them last long. The Buddha said that because they have no true existence, feelings are like water bubbles that bust real fast. Feelings are impermanent and change from one moment to the next.
We saw that it is written in “The Heart Sutra”: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.” Although it is not written in the root text, it is also the case that feeling is emptiness, and emptiness is feeling. Emptiness is no other than feeling, and feeling is no other than emptiness.
If we investigate well, we will find that every feeling is devoid of an own essence, i.e., is empty of a true nature. Why? There are two reasons (rgyu-msthän-gnyis), which are good to know. One reason why feelings are emptiness is because every feeling arises and passes from moment to moment, i.e., every feeling is impermanent, mi-rtag-pa. The second reason is that every feeling is a collection of causes and conditions (rgyu-dang-rkyen), i.e., feelings are not created, ma-skyes-pa. These are the two reasons why every feeling is emptiness.
There are two principles of reality that are subsumed in the two truths, bden-pa-gnyis. Ordinary beings do not realize that every feeling is emptiness, which is the ultimate truth, dön-dam-bden-pa. The argument that emptiness is feeling is the relative truth, kun-rdzob-bden-pa. We experience feelings and, due to being deluded about their true nature, we think that they are real. But they are mere experiences of relative realities, i.e., they seem to be independent existents but aren’t. The arguments that emptiness is no other than feeling and feeling is no other than emptiness are the same as in the discussion of form. If we examine the skandha of feeling as we did form, we will attain the perfect view, which is that emptiness and all appearances are inseparable, byer-ba-med-pa.
In Buddhism, it is taught that on the relative level of existence, all phenomena are only appearances, chös-thams-ce-snang-ba-tsam. If we understand and realize this, we won’t be bound to samsara, won’t have any problems, and won’t experience suffering. As long as we think appearances and experiences are real and cling to them, we will experience continuous suffering, will not be able to become free, but will remain in the vicious rounds of samsara.
Because he had attained enlightenment, the Buddha saw how the many phenomena in the world of relative reality appear and are; he was not attached to them and did not cling to them as true existents. We have not realized the inseparability of emptiness and appearances, i.e., that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, or feeling is emptiness and emptiness is feeling, and thus we cling to phenomena as real. This causes the various kinds of suffering. We need to realize the inseparability of appearance and emptiness in order to become free of suffering and to attain lasting happiness.
The third skandha is distinguishing perception, ‘du-shes. Just like form and feeling, distinguishing perception is emptiness; emptiness is distinguishing perception. Emptiness is no other than distinguishing perception, and distinguishing perception is no other than emptiness.
Distinguishing perception is defined as clinging to characteristics, i.e., marks (mtshän-ma in Tibetan). Every phenomenon has particular characteristics, and our distinguishing perception is deluded about them. Apperceiving a mirage (mig-rgyu) as water exemplifies deluded perception. For example, thinking it is possible to quench one’s thirst by clinging to the thought that a mirage is water is what deluded distinguishing perception entails. Has anybody seen a mirage in Germany? Where?
Student: “On the street in the hot summer.”
Khenpo: Seeing a mirage is not a mistaken perception and doesn’t mean that you are deluded because you simply see the movement of the color with the eye organ, whereas thinking it is water is what being mistaken means. For example, thinking they can quench their thirst, animals living in the desert often run and run towards a mirage that they see, but it always remains in the distance, and they never reach it. They are deluded by the color.
Translator: “What kind of animal?”
Khenpo: It doesn’t matter. Any animal.
Khenpo: Yes, antilope.
We label an object according to its marks that we perceive. Let’s imagine that we have two computers, one is a black Macintosh and the other one is a white Apple. Our eye organ perceives the black and white items and does not differentiate their brand names, which are simply mental imputations. We are not aware of the fact that labels are just labels and think that the perceived objects that we label with our mind consciousness (the Macintosh and Apple in our example) really exist. If we examine, we will discover that a brand name is not a color, not a sound, not a taste, not a scent, and cannot be touched, rather, it is merely an imputation of our mind consciousness. We are not aware of the fact that we simply label the things we perceive. We take them to be real, which is what mistaken distinguishing perception means. This is why the third skandha is of the nature of delusion, sprul-pa’i-rang-bzhin. For example, we can say, “Okay, I don’t see the label of a computer, but I see its color,” or we can say, “I see its shape.” We could argue that the color is one computer and the shape is another computer. In truth, the object that we call “computer” consists of many parts that function in a specific way and that can be used for a specific purpose. If we tell people that we only apperceive the marks of a computer with our eye consciousness, most of them will disagree. It won’t be possible to convince all of them, so we have to just sit down and be quiet. Let me tell a story to illustrate this.
Once a king’s personal astrologer predicted that acid rain would fall from the sky in a week’s time and would drive anybody who drank that water crazy. The king was the only one in the kingdom who was able to store safe drinking water for his personal use. After the acid rain had fallen, everybody in the kingdom – except the king - drank the water and went crazy. They spoke the same words and acted in agreement with each other. The king didn’t. The people pointed their fingers at him and said to each other, “Our king is crazy.” The king had no means to convince them that he was all right. Do you know what the king did? He drank the contaminated water, became crazy, and then everybody in the kingdom had the same attitude, acted alike, and nobody blamed anyone of being crazy anymore because they were all crazy.
The fourth skandha is mental formation, ‘du-byed. Just like the first three, mental formation is emptiness; emptiness is mental formation. Emptiness is no other than mental formation, and mental formation is no other than emptiness. It can be compared with the stem of a banana tree; if one peels away its layers, one will find that it is hollow. The description of a mental formation is that it arises, abides for a moment, and ceases.
There are 51 mental factors of mental formation, which I will not discuss here. One category of mental formation that I want to speak about is non-associated formation. For example, seeing mudras made with the hands is a non-associated formation. These movements aren’t perceived as mind or matter, i.e., we don’t perceive a hand when we see it move. Another example for a non-associated formation is a ring of red fire that is made by quickly spinning a lit stick of incense around in a circle. We don’t see the burning tip of the incense stick but a ring of fire, so that is a non-associated formation. Because it is based on the five skandhas, the designation “person” is simply an imputation and is therefore also a non-associated formation.
The fifth skandha is consciousness, rnam-par-shes-pa. Consciousness is by nature empty of an essence. Like the other four skandhas, consciousness is emptiness; emptiness is consciousness. Emptiness is no other than consciousness, and consciousness is no other than emptiness. This applies to all six consciousnesses of the fifth skandha. The six consciousnesses of the skandha of consciousness are: the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the mind consciousnesses. Specific causes and conditions have to prevail and come together for a consciousness to arise.
There need to be three conditions so that a consciousness can arise. The first is the focal condition. This means that there has to be an object that is fit to be perceived with a sense organ, e,g., there has to be an object that has a form and color and that can be seen. The second condition is the dominant condition, which means that the sense organ that makes it possible to perceive an object has to be intact, e.g., the eye organ has to be intact so that an object can be seen. The third condition is the main causal condition. This means that there has to have been a previous moment of a specific consciousness for a next moment of that consciousness to arise. Each of the six sense consciousnesses arises when these conditions prevail, e.g., an eye consciousness arises when the intact eye organ perceives an object that can be seen and there was a previous moment of eye consciousness so that, in the next moment, the eye consciousness can apperceive a form.
It is the same with the ear consciousness, which arises when the right causes and conditions prevail. This means that there has to be a sound that is fit to be heard, the ear organ has to be intact, and there has to have been a previous moment of ear consciousness so that, in the next moment, the ear consciousness can apperceive a sound. It is the same for the nose consciousness. The focal condition is that there is a scent that can be perceived. The dominant condition is that the nose nose organ is intact. The causal condition is that there has to have been a previous moment of nose consciousness so that, in the next moment, the nose consciousness can apperceive a scent. The focal condition for the tongue consciousness is that there is something that can be tasted. The dominant condition is that the tongue organ is intact, and the causal condition is that there was a previous moment of tongue consciousness so that, in the next moment, the tongue consciousness can apperceive a taste. As for the body consciousness, there needs to be something that can be touched, the touch organ of the body has to be intact, and there has to have been a foregoing moment of body consciousness so that a following moment of body consciousness can occur.
The focal condition for the mind consciousness is chös, ‘phenomena.’ The dominant condition for the mind consciousness is the mind faculty, yid-kyi-dbang-po. The causal condition for the mind consciousness is that there was a previous moment of mind consciousness for the next moment to arise. Since the six categories of the mind consciousness consist of different causes and conditions, the mind consciousness has no essence and does not truly exist. Therefore it is emptiness, rnam-par-shes-pa-rnams-stong-pa’o. If you have any questions, please ask.
Question: “Do the skandhas arise in that order, one after the other, or next to each other? My second question concerns the foregoing consciousness. Does this mean that the consciousness has already arisen and is active before we create another moment of consciousness?”
Khenpo: The skandhas are categorized in a way that is easy to understand. Form is the easiest, so it is presented first. Feelings are more subtle; perception is even more subtle, and so forth. The six consciousnesses are also taught in the order that is easiest to understand. The first one is easier to understand and the following ones becoming more subtle and more difficult to understand.
Regarding your second question, if you want to grow chilli, you have to plant a chilli seed. You won’t get the chilli you want to grow if you plant a tomato seed. So, the chilli seed is the primary cause, but it isn’t enough to get chilli. You need other conditions, like good soil, moisture, the right temperature, and so forth. In the same way, the causal condition of the eye consciousness is a previous moment of eye consciousness. A form does not create an eye consciousness. We need the eye organ (which is the dominant condition), a form (which is the focal condition), and the causal condition, which is a previous moment of eye consciousness. So the present moment of an eye consciousness develops from the previous moment of the eye consciousness; it cannot arise from an object of form or from the ear, nose, tongue, or body consciousnesses. The eye consciousness changes from moment to moment, so the previous moment is the causal condition of the present moment, and the present moment becomes the causal condition for the next. It is like that for all consciousnesses.
Next question: “Since feelings are impermanent, how can I be mindful of the ten virtuous and ten non-virtuous actions? How do I bring the two together?”
Khenpo: Wholesome and unwholesome actions aren’t permanent but change from one moment to the next. Actions leave imprints and are habitual tendencies that are stored in one’s all-basis consciousness (kun-gzhi’i-rnams-shes-pa). An imprint is like a photo of one’s body that was taken with a digital camera. Although there is a photo of the body, the body has changed. In the same way, wholesome and unwholesome actions that change from moment to moment are gone, but the habitual tendency, i.e., reactive pattern, is stored in one’s all-basis consciousness. Another example is having spent all the money that one borrowed from a bank and still having to pay back the loan. The money is gone, but, unless the bank declares bankruptcy, one still has to pay off one’s debts. Like that, unless through practice we have purified an unwholesome action we committed, we will experience the result of that action. The imprint of every action we carried out remains in our all-basis consciousness until we have purified it or until it has been exhausted. The all-basis consciousness is not like a storage house for garbage that we can get rid of by setting the building on fire. Rather, every action is like a bank loan that must be purified or returned.
Next question: “Is the skandha of distinguishing perception, which is also translated as ‘discriminating perception,’ related to discriminating wisdom?”
Khenpo: Discriminating wisdom means recognizing the reality of each and every phenomenon. “The Heart Sutra” does not deal with the transformation of the consciousness into wisdom, rather, it presents the teachings on how every consciousness develops and is, thus enabling us to understand and eventually realize the true nature of appearances and experiences. It is difficult to see the essence of the consciousnesses if we don’t know how they arise and are.
Eight Descriptions of Ultimate Reality
Continuing with “The Heart Sutra,” Chenrezig described ultimate reality in eight points. Concerning the first two, he taught, Shaa-ri’i-bu/de-ltar-chös-thams-cäd-stong-pa-nyid-de/mtshän-nyid-med-pa:
“Shariputra, like that, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics.”
We saw that the five skandhas are emptiness. There is no phenomenon that is not part of the five skandhas. And so, we understand the first description of ultimate reality, “all dharmas are emptiness.”
The second description, “There are no characteristics,” means that on the relative level we apperceive the characteristics of phenomena, give them a name, and can speak about them. For example, we say that fire is hot and burns and call anything that has those characteristics “fire.” Although an apperceived phenomenon is empty of inherent existence, devoid of characteristics, and merely imputed, all phenomena function and can serve a purpose.
Every definition of a phenomenon consists of three aspects. They are: its general characteristic (mtshän-nyid), its particularities (mtshän-ma), and specific examples (mtshän-gzhi). Water isn’t defined when it is said that water is wet because this is a description of water. Smoke indicates that there is fire. Illustrative examples for water are rivers and lakes. Terms like “water” and “fire” are mere imputations (mtshän-rtag) that clearly and concisely point to the general characteristics and particularities of a phenomenon that is referred to on the relative level. Other than in the mind, dharmas that we apperceive, define, describe, and name ultimately have no inherent existence and no characteristics.
The third and fourth descriptions of ultimate reality are, ma-skyes-pa/ma-‘gags-pa:
“There is no birth. There is no cessation.”
It seems as if phenomena arise, abide, and cease, which is a deluded way of seeing them. All phenomena are by nature empty of true existence, so they are unborn, i.e., they are not born and do not cease.
Appearances arise on a relative level, and it seems as though they are born and cease. If we want to develop a keen understanding, we can study the commentaries of the middle way school and discover that things are not born and do not cease as they seem but that we apperceive them delusively. If we don’t develop a clear understanding and insight (rig-pa), we might find ourselves believing that, for example, a plant just happens to exist. But it is evident that a plant can only grow after a seed has been planted in the earth and is provided with the necessary conditions.
Investigating the process of cause and result (rgyu-dang-‘bräs-bu), we ask, does the cause exist or has it perished when the result has appeared? There can only be these two possibilities. What do you think?
Student: “The cause must be gone when the result appears.”
Khenpo: It is normal to say that the cause has perished when the result appears. Cause and result must have a connection, though; there has to be a relationship. If a cause has perished when its result appears, it means that the cause is non-existent. Investigating further, we ask, how can there be a relationship between a result that is an existent and a cause that is a non-existent? In that case, it would be impossible for a resultant existent to be connected to its causal non-existent. That is why some people argue that the cause still exists when its result has appeared. But a cause and its result cannot exist simultaneously. If somebody argues that it’s not a problem, that a cause and its result can co-exist, then it would be conclusive that a flower exists in its seed and no effort is needed to grow a flower, i.e., there is no purpose in exerting any effort to get a result. Thinking that a cause and its result co-exist is very contradictory.
To better understand similar arguments about cause and result, we can study the elaborate explanations that are presented in the commentaries on the middle way school, madhyamika in Sanskrit, dbu-ma in Tibetan. These commentaries expound in great detail that there is no true birth and no true cessation. On the relative level, phenomena appear to arise and cease but they are perceived wrongly. On the absolute level, phenomena that seem to arise, abide, and cease are empty of independent existence. The thoroughly established, ultimate truth (yong-‘grub-dön-dam-bden-pa) is that phenomena are free of being created, free of abiding, and free of cessation. Since appearances are not established (ma-‘grub-pa), they are not born (ma-skyes-pa) and therefore do not cease (ma-‘gags-pa).
The fifth and sixth descriptions of ultimate reality are, dri-ma-med-pa and dri-ma-dang-bräl-ba:
“There is no impurity (and) no freedom from impurity.”
The ultimate truth of how things really are (gnäs-lugs) is that since phenomena are simply mental imputations, they are not impure and not free of impurity, i.e., they are neither obscured nor free of obscurations. What are impurities and obscurations? Due to actions that are based on conflicting emotions (läs-dang-nyön-mong-pa-la-rten-de), a great variety of suffering arises. Afflictive actions are the cause of all suffering in samsara, and suffering is the characteristic of samsara. Our essence is not obscured and deluded by our emotions, though.
By dispelling our obscurations (sgrib-pa) through meditating the path (lam) while practicing the Dharma (chös), we will be diminishing our obscurations and thus will be traversing the grounds of a bodhisattva. In the end, we will realize the true nature of our mind and will have attained the state of a buddha. That is how it is explained in relation to the relative truth. But relative realities, the path as well as emotions and ensuing actions, are empty of inherent existence and ultimately do not truly exist. Nevertheless, by eliminating our negativities while practicing the path, we will be purifying our obscurations, and when we have completely done so, we will have realized the true nature of our mind. But if we purify obscurations that don’t truly exist while practicing a path that is empty of a true nature, then freedom from obscurations is also an illusion. For example, there is no medicine for a sickness that doesn’t exist.
The seventh and eighth descriptions for the way things are (gnäs-tshül) are, bri-ba-med-pa/gang-ba-med-pa’o:
“There is no decrease. There is no increase.”
The statements that there is no decrease and no increase pertain to sems-kyi-gnäs-lugs, ‘the way the mind abides, its mode.’ The mind’s mode is bde-bar-gshegs-pa’i-snying-po, which is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit term tathagatagarbha. Mind’s authentic mode is the heart (snying-po) of One Gone Thus (bde-bar-gshes-pa). In Standard English, tathagatagarbha is translated as ‘buddha nature.’
All sentient beings have buddha nature. As long as we have not realized our buddha nature that is replete with the same excellent qualities (yön-tän) that a nirmanakaya manifestation has and that is not different from the enlightened Buddha, we will continue wandering in samsara. For this reason, we need to practice the path. Nirmanakaya (sprul-pa'i-sku) is the aspect of buddhahood that manifests out of compassion to help other beings. While practicing the path to perfect buddhahood, our conflicting emotions and obscurations decrease. As they become exhausted, the excellent qualities of the buddha nature unfold and manifest. But, as stated, ultimately nothing is diminished or removed and nothing is increased or attained. Nevertheless, we practice the path on the relative level in order to realize and manifest our innate buddha nature.
While bound in samsara, we are filled up with many defects and faults (khyong). When they have been completely dispelled and we have attained perfect buddhahood, i.e., nirvana, then all qualities of a buddha (sang-rgyäs-kyi-yön-tän-thams-ce) will have spontaneously become manifest. Yet, all faults as well as all qualities are empty of true existence, so, while practicing the path, we have no faults that characterize samsara and decrease and no qualities that characterize nirvana and increase. Rather, since beginningless time, all qualities of the buddha nature are always and already present within each and every one. Let me give an example for both descriptions. We are frightened when we think that a rope we see in a dark room is a snake. When the light is switched on, we immediately see that the rope is a rope and not a snake. We then realize that we were deluded and in that way spontaneously become free of our fear. Since the rope was never a snake to begin with, a snake was not removed when we realized that we were deluded. Our fear was due to our deluded apperception of a snake that didn’t exist. The rope did not change or become better when the light was turned on, rather, the rope was “as it is.”
Every sentient being has the buddha nature, so every one has all enlightened qualities. While in samsara, we don’t realize the nature of our mind and therefore haven’t been able to achieve enlightenment, yet we never spoiled and will never spoil the enlightened qualities of our buddha nature. Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t improve the excellent qualities that he always and already had when he achieved enlightenment because the buddha nature never becomes better or worse. The difference between ordinary beings and the Buddha is that he realized the buddha nature and thus achieved enlightenment and beings bound to samsara haven’t. Whether one is in samsara or has achieved liberation from samsara, the enlightened qualities of the buddha nature can never be changed and will always be the same. This is the meaning of the seventh and eighth descriptions, “There is no decrease. There is no increase.”
Six Points of Training
Following, Bodhisattva Chenrezig taught six points of training to realize prajnaparamita. The first point is becoming expert in the five skandhas. It is written in the root text:
“Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no distinguishing perception, no mental formation, no consciousness.”
The five skandhas are merely momentary, adventitious stains (blo-bur-gyi-dri-ma) that conceal our buddha nature, but because they lack inherent existence and thus are empty, ultimately can’t. By engaging in analytical meditation, we understand that the skandhas are empty of inherent existence and, at the same time, are relative realities. We also understand that because we apperceive them wrongly, we experience and cling to them as real. By training and thus ascertaining the ultimate truth, i.e., how the skandhas really are, we will be able to realize in which way the skandhas are momentarily stained and in which way our true nature is obscured and concealed. By sharpening our cognitive awareness (rig-pa), we will gradually overcome our faulty apperception of each skandha. When we fully and perfectly realize that the five skandhas are empty, then the stains that conceal our buddha nature will instantaneously be relinquished. If you have any questions, please ask.
Question: “It seems that these teachings relate to scientific investigations of time and space. I think of timeless-ness when I hear these teachings. Can time and space be removed by studying ‘The Heart Sutra’?”
Khenpo: If time and space truly exist, they can’t be removed. If they don’t truly exist, why would you want to remove them?
Same student: “Physicists have been investigating phenomena like time and space for centuries. It’s quite disturbing for them to hear Buddhists say that all the things that they are investigating don’t exist.”
Khenpo: You can look at it in a simple way. Relatively, time is divided into past, present, and future. Actually, we only live in the present moment. The past can only be counted; it doesn’t exist because it is gone. The future doesn’t exist because it hasn’t come yet, so the truth is that we are simply living in the present moment. We study history, talk about the past, and wonder what will happen in the future. We do all this timing with the present consciousness. If we look deeply, we will find that the past doesn’t exist, but we count objects and events and say, “Oh yes, this and that happened.” We make plans for the future and hope that something we want to happen will occur, but it is uncertain whether it will or won’t. We can look deeper at the present moment that we live in. Sometimes we think that the present refers to today and that the day lasts from 6 in the morning until 8 in the evening. We only have to trace the hand of our watch to see how time passes from moment to moment. The single minute we live in is very, very subtle. Generally, we say “Yesterday, today, tomorrow” and count what took place in the past and what might happen in the future. If we really analyze, we will only see the present, and it is very, very subtle.
I think you misunderstand what is meant by beginningless time, that samsara has no beginning. We can’t pinpoint exactly when samsara began. Generally, we say that samsara has no beginning and no end. There is no beginning of samsara for an individual, but it can end for that person. Samsara ends for the person who achieves enlightenment. When tracing a life back in time, it is impossible to find an exact beginning.
Next question: “Recently I read that a famous physicist stated that reality is not matter but relationships. He wrote that it is not feasible to speak about an objective reality that truly exists. Is western science beginning to discover emptiness? Would investigating emptiness through a scientific approach help practitioners understand emptiness or would it only be confusing?”
Khenpo: Not all scientific investigations are confusing; some are very useful. It depends on how accurate scientific discoveries are. Some scientific analyses are very helpful to understand Buddhist philosophy. It would be good for Buddhist students to have knowledge of science so that they can understand more easily. For example, we say that no form exists but that every form consists of a collection of particles and that every particle has a shape and color. Scientists also find that tiniest particles have a form and color and that different groups of particles have different shapes and colors, but it is very difficult for them to find solid, smallest particles that don’t consist of smaller parts. Even a tip of hair that our naked eye sees as red or black doesn’t exist as it seems. When placed under a powerful microscope or photographed with a micro camera, that same tip of hair is so colorful and has a different shape. This shows that the things we perceive do not exist the way we see and believe. I’m not against scientific studies and sometimes read about latest research work. I didn’t study science, but friends sometimes share what they read or pictures with me. I think that it will definitely be helpful to know about scientific discoveries.
* * *
We saw that if we want to realize prajnaparamita, it is first necessary to learn about the five skandhas and then to meditate. There are two meditation practices, analytical meditation and resting meditation. We first engage in analytical practice by examining in which way every phenomenon that can be apperceived arises and is empty of an own essence (ngo-bo). When we have gained certainty that each and every apperceived form, feeling, etc. is simply a momentary experience that lacks true reality, we practice resting meditation.
The second practice is realizing that
“There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, no dharmas.”
The Sanskrit term for the twelve sense fields that are listed in this line is ayatana, which is skye-mche in Tibetan. Each sense field is the basis of a perception that makes it possible for a respective consciousness to arise. We saw that an eye consciousness arises when the eye organ perceives a form that is fit to be seen. It is the same for the other consciousnesses. Ultimately, the twelve sense fields are not established and are emptiness.
We saw that feelings arise through one of the six gates of perception (dhatu in Sanskrit, khams in Tibetan). The third practice is becoming expert in the twelve ayatanas and six dhatus. The twelve ayatanas and six dhatus make eighteen potentials or constituents (khams-bco-brgyäd), which can be compared to seeds.
The constituents or potentials can be subsumed in three sets, each consisting of six. The first set is the six sense objects, i.e., a form or color, a sound, a smell, a taste, a tangible object, and a phenomenon. The second set of constituents is the six sense faculties of the sense organs, i.e., the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the mind. The third set of constituents is the six consciousnesses that arise in dependence on the corresponding factors listed in the previous two sets. So, the third set of constituents is the eye consciousness, the ear consciousness, the nose consciousness, the tongue consciousness, the body consciousness, and the mind consciousness. Ultimately, no constituent has an own essence and therefore all of them are emptiness. The short verse in the root text is:
“There is no eye constituent up to no mind constituent; nothing exists up to mind consciousness constituent.”
We have dealt with emptiness in great detail. It is important to not only talk and read about emptiness but to correctly study and understand each point in the order presented here and step-by-step. To practice correctly, it is necessary to gain certainty that the five skandhas, twelve ayatanas, six dhatus, and eighteen constituents have no inherent existence and are emptiness. Merely gaining certainty is of little benefit, though. We need to practice so that we experience and realize the meaning of prajnaparamita.
The fourth practice is becoming proficient in the truth of dependent origination, rten-‘brel. The verse in the root text tells us:
“There is no ignorance. When there is no exhaustion of ignorance, there is no old age and death. There is nothing up to the exhaustion of old age and death.”
The twelve links of dependent origination can be examined in two ways. One way is to begin with ignorance and to go through the links up to and including old age and death. They can be studied the other way around, namely, from the link of old age and death to that of ignorance. The entire process of dependent origination can be seen in the twelve images that are depicted in the outer circle of what is called “The Wheel of Twelve Links of Dependent Origination,” rten-'brel-yan-lag-bcu-gnyis-kyi-'khor-lo, in short srid-pa’i-‘khor-lo, ‘The Wheel of Life.’ The picture of The Wheel of Life as we know it dates back to the times of Buddha Shakyamuni. Let me tell the story.
During the times of Buddha Shakyamuni there was a king of Oddiyana who was friends with a great master. As was the custom, friends gave each other presents. The king of Oddiyana offered an invaluable present and his friend had great problems thinking of a present in return that would be just as precious. He asked the Buddha, who advised him to draw a picture of The Wheel of Life and to give it to the king. The great master drew the picture and gave it to the king, who was extremely happy and grateful to see the law of cause and result illustrated in such a clear and accessible way.
At the hub of The Wheel of Life are three animals, a bird, a pig, and a snake. They symbolize the three main mind poisons (dug-gsum) that determine our behaviour. The bird symbolizes greed and desire (‘död-chags), the pig symbolizes anger (zhe-sdang), and the snake symbolizes delusion (gti-mug). There is a ring around most depictions of the hub; the lower part is black, symbolizing unvirtuous activities that lead to lower rebirths in samsara, and the upper part is white, symbolizing virtuous activities that lead to higher rebirths in samsara. There is a next ring that is divided into six sections; they branch out to larger and elaborate illustrations of the six realms of existence. The six classes of beings (‘gro-ba-rigs-drug) experience a rebirth in one of the six realms of existence due to their actions. The lower class of beings are hell beings (dmyäl-ba), tormented hungry ghosts (yi-dvags), and animals (düd-‘gro); the higher class of beings are humans (mi), demi-gods (lha-ma-ying), and celestial beings or gods (lha). The outer ring is divided into twelve sections and each section has a picture that illustrates each link quite poignantly.
Starting with the upper right image in the outer circle, tell me, what do you see?
Student: “Somebody wearing a long skirt and using a cane.”
Another participant: “It’s a woman.”
Khenpo: It’s a hunched, older person who needs a cane to get where he is going. This image symbolizes ma-rig-pa, ‘not knowing,’ which is the first link of dependent origination. Other translations of ma-rig-pa are ‘unawareness, non-recognition of intrinsic awareness, ignoring intelligence, ignorance.’ Based on ma-rig-pa, we accumulate a great amount of karma, which is the second link and is called ‘du-byed, ‘karmic creation’; the image in The Wheel of Life is a potter who is making a pot. The third link, which is based on the second and first links, is rnam-shes, ‘consciousness’; it is symbolized by the icon of a monkey. Due to not knowing and karmic creation, consciousness has been arising since time without a beginning. The fourth link, ming-dang-gzugs, ‘name and form,’ is usually illustrated by a picture of five people in a boat and rowing across a great river; they represent the nominal skandhas. We can imagine that the link of name and form is like a fetus in the body of a woman. The fifth link, skye-mched-drug, ‘the six perceptual entrances,’ is symbolized by the icon of a house with six windows. They represent the six faculties (dbang-po-drug) of the sense organs that are the bases of perception and apperception. The six sense faculties and sense organs develop further, until an object can be perceived by a respective sense faculty of a sense organ. The sixth link is reg-ba, ‘contact,’ which is illustrated by a man and woman embracing each other. At this stage, the sense faculties and organs are fully developed and therefore it is possible to come into contact with an object that is fit to be perceived. When this interaction occurs, feeling, tshor-ba, the seventh link, takes place; the icon is a person who has been struck in the eye by an arrow. Based upon a feeling that is experienced through having come into contact with an object, the eighth link arises. It is sred-pa, which means ‘thirst, craving.’ The icon is a man drinking beer. We can supplement this icon by adding a picture of a woman eating chocolate ice cream. Grasping, len-pa, the ninth link, arises due to craving. The icon shows a monkey picking fruits from a tree. Due to craving and grasping, the tenth link arises, which is becoming, srid-pa; it is depicted by a pregnant woman. It follows that the eleventh link, kye-ba, shows a woman giving birth to a baby. Where there is birth, there is ageing and death, rga-shi, which is the twelfth link in The Wheel of Life. The icon shows a corpse wrapped in cloth and being disposed. Those are the twelve pictures (ri-mo) that illustrate dependent origination.
The figure clutching The Wheel of Life in its teeth is Yama, the Sanskrit name for gshin-rje, ‘The Lord of Death.’ Due to the three main mind poisons, living beings create and accumulate the karma that drives them to be reborn in one of the six realms of existence (gnäs-ris-drug). Yama will continue clutching samsara as long as we have not realized the ultimate nature of our mind, which is not different than the mind of the Buddha. The Buddha is seen outside the wheel. This means that, because he attained liberation, he is not in samsara. He is pointing to the moon (zla-ba, pronounced “da-wa”).
Since it is very beneficial to reflect the meaning of karma and the resultant rebirths in one of the six realms of samsara, a painting of The Wheel of Life can always be seen at the entrance to monasteries. The picture is very precise, so it makes it easy to bring to mind and reflect karma and its results. Receiving teachings or reading Dharma books that consist of a thousand words aren’t as effective as directly seeing the defects of samsara and the infallible law of karma in this picture or painting. One immediately sees that benevolent actions lead to positive results and malevolent actions lead to painful results. The Buddha had instructed his disciples that a painting of The Wheel of Life should be at the entrance to every monastery and that somebody who is knowledgeable should always be available to explain its meaning to visitors.
In summary, the twelve links, which are aspects of chös-nyid (dharmata in Sanskrit, ‘the reality of existence’), are: (1) not knowing (ma-rig-pa), (2) karmic creation (‘du-byed), (3) consciousness (rnam-shes), (4) name and form (ming-dang-gzugs), (5) the perceptual entrances (skye-mched), (6) contact (reg-ba), (7) feeling (tshor-ba), (8) thirst and craving (sred-pa), (9) grasping (len-pa), (10) becoming (srid-pa), (11) birth (kye-ba), and (12) ageing and death (rga-shi).
To eliminate three doubts that one can have, the twelve links are explained in reverse order. The three doubts are: doubting that there were past lives, doubting that there are future lives, and doubts regarding how this life came about. It is obvious that due to not knowing we have accumulated karma through karmic creation and, based upon the mind consciousness, have taken birth as a human being in samsara. In the same way, the mind of every living being that has died takes birth in one of the realms of existence. Because we were conceived, we have paved the way to name and form. When we were born and as we grew up, our sense organs developed, enabling us to come into contact with objects. Depending upon how we feel about an object that we came into contact with, we grasp and cling to things we apperceive, and that’s how we live. We know that we were born and wander through life. In this life, we accumulate karma and after we have died, we enter the intermediate state of srid-pa-bar-do, ‘becoming.’ Following, we are born in a realm of conditioned existence due to dependent origination and again become old and die. So, based on the first link, in our past lives we created the karma that determined our situation and experiences in this life. In the same way, all living beings create the conditions and circumstances for their next life. This is how, starting from the first link, the twelve links function.
We read in “The Heart Sutra” that Chenrezig taught: “There is no ignorance. When there is no exhaustion of ignorance, there is no old age and death. There is nothing up to the exhaustion of old age and death.” This pertains to the exhaustion of the twelve links, namely, when not knowing has been dispelled and liberation has been attained, then we are not involved in karmic creation and therefore do not create and accumulate karma. When the twelve links of conditionality are exhausted for us, we no longer wander around and then are not reborn in samsara. As a result, we do not experience old age and death.
“Like that, there is no suffering, no origin (of suffering), no cessation (of suffering), and no path.”
These instructions pertain to the four noble truths, 'phags-pa'i-bden-pa-bzhi. They are: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path that is practiced to relinquish suffering.
We saw that the five skandhas, six gates of perception, twelve sense fields, dependent origination, and so forth are ultimately not established and that all appearances and experiences are in truth emptiness. It is the same for the four noble truths. The ultimate truth of suffering (bdug-bsngäl-bden-pa) is that it is emptiness, so there is no suffering. The ultimate truth of the cessation of suffering (‘gog-pa’i-bden-pa) is that since there is no suffering, there is no suffering that is relinquished. Therefore, the ultimate truth of the path (lam-kyi-bden-pa) is that there is no path.
It is very important to differentiate the relative and ultimate truths (kun-rdzob-bden-pa and dön-dam-bden-pa). On the relative level of worldly life, we cannot avoid experiencing the first noble truth, the truth of suffering (sdug-bsngäl-gyi-bden-pa). We create the karma that leads to a congruent result; this is the second noble truth, the truth of the cause (kun-‘byung-gi-bden-pa). It is possible to become free from samsara that is marked by suffering; this is the third noble truth, the truth of cessation (‘gog-pa’i-bden-pa). But it is necessary to practice the path that leads to cessation of suffering, which is the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path (lam-gyi-bden-pa). On the relative level, the four noble truths are valid and feasible. On the ultimate level and just like everything else, the four noble truths are emptiness. If we do not differentiate between relative and ultimate realities, we will be very confused when we learn that the four noble truths that the Buddha taught aren’t valid.
The next practice instruction is realizing that
“There is no primordial wisdom, no attainment, (and) no non-attainment.”
The statement that there is no primordial wisdom (ye-shes) is an ultimate truth and pertains to the five paths that lead to excellent realization of prajnaparamita. The five paths (lam-lnga) are: the path of accumulation (tshogs-lam), the path of practice or unification (sbyor-lam), the path of seeing (mthong-lam), the path of meditation (sgom-lam), and the path of no-more-learning (mi-slob-pa’i-lam). To develop primordial wisdom (ye-shes), we engage in all five paths and, by applying the antidotes so that we give up what needs to be given up at a specific stage on each path, the wisdom that is attained on that path naturally unfolds. Since the defilements that we strive to remove ultimately do not exist and are empty, it is not necessary to develop wisdom when on the fifth path of no-more learning. For example, it would be senseless to continue rowing the boat when one has arrived at the other shore of a river that one tried to reach. In the same way, it would be senseless applying antidotes to remove faults and defects that do not exist. And so, when the ultimate result has been attained, there is no primordial wisdom.
No attainment in the above line refers to unity (zung-jug), i.e., not staying in differences by grasping and clinging. Ye-shes is non-dual wisdom that is not newly attained because it always was and already is the innate wisdom that each and every living being has. No non-attainment pertains to liberation. Having reached the ultimate state, the adventitious stains (blo-bur) that momentarily concealed our true nature have been dispelled, so primordial wisdom does not need to be uncovered. No attainment implies that there is attainment. But ultimately there is no attainment, so there is no non-attainment.
The Benefits of Practicing
“Therefore, Shariputra, bodhisattvas have no attainment because they abide by means of the prajnaparamita. Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. By completely transcending falsity, (they) arrive at liberation of nirvana.”
In these lines, Chenrezig spoke about the excellent benefits of practicing the path. He taught that when all fleeting, adventitious stains have been removed, then there is no fear, and when all delusions have been dispelled, liberation will have been attained.
By practicing each path, more and more obscurations are relinquished and as a result, further stages are attained. The ten stages of a bodhisattva’s development into a fully enlightened buddha are called bhumi in Sanskrit, sa-bcu in Tibetan. The ten bhumis are: the joyous, the stainless, the radiant, the brilliant, the hard to conquer, the realized, the far-reaching, the unshakable, the good intelligence, and the cloud of Dharma.
Many coarse adventitious stains that conceal the true nature of our mind are dispelled by practicing the first two paths, which are the path of accumulation and the path of practice or unification (tshogs-lam and sbyor-lam). These paths are practiced by placing the mind in the samadhi that is like a magical illusion (sgyu-‘phrul-gyi-ting-nge-‘dzin). The Sanskrit term samadhi means ‘the state of deep concentration’ (ting-nge-‘dzin in Tibetan). Having relinquished coarse obscurations by having practiced the first two paths, more subtle stains still need to be relinquished to realize the true nature of all things, chös-nyid (‘suchness, the ultimate nature of phenomena,’ dharmata in Sanskrit).
During the post-meditation period and while involved with daily activities, we do not cling to what is called ‘khor-gsum in Tibetan, ‘the three spheres.’ They are the three focal points, i.e., subject, object, and activities. We see that the three spheres are just as illusory as persons and events in a movie.
Let me explain the meaning of the statement that there is no fear (skrag-pa-med-pa). By engaging in the practices of the third path of seeing, more subtle obscurations are relinquished and as a result primordial wisdom manifests more clearly. By perfecting the practices of the third path, a bodhisattva attains the first bhumi. Then he or she practices the fourth and fifth paths, the path of meditation and the path of no-more-learning. In that way, a bodhisattva traverses the other nine bhumis, until reaching the tenth. This is the way of a bodhisattva who, without ever being discouraged, abides in pa-bo’i-ting-nge-‘dzin, ‘the samadhi of a hero.’
When – at all times – a bodhisattva abides in rdo-rje-lta-bu’i-ting-nge-‘dzin (‘vajra-like samadhi’), he or she has dispelled all conflicting emotions and subtlest cognitive obscurations and thus has attained omniscient buddhahood, sangs-rgyäs-kyi-sgo-‘phang.
“By means of prajnaparamita, all the Buddhas of the three times fully awaken to unsurpassable, perfect, complete enlightenment.”
Just as the Buddhas of past aeons and Buddha Shakyamuni of the present aeon realized enlightenment by relying on prajnaparamita, all future Buddhas will attain enlightenment by directly realizing the view, i.e., the eight profound statements about reality. All Buddhas gained certainty of the view, whole-heartedly engaged in the practices of the path, and attained enlightenment.
Every living being aspires to become free and attain liberation, particularly disciples who have embarked on the path of Dharma. This is the reason we study and practice the instructions that are given to us in “The Heart Sutra.” To realize the perfection of wisdom, prajnaparamita, various disciplines are taught in the three vehicles of Buddhism. The three vehicles (theg-pa-gsum) are the hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana; the latter is also called “mantrayana.”
Practitioners of the different vehicles achieve a different result (bräs-bu, ‘fruit’). Shravaka disciples of sutrayana practice to conquer pride by realizing that there is no independent self; the result is becoming an arhat (dgra-bcom-pa, ‘foe destroyer’). Like shravakas (nyän-thös, ‘hearer’), pratyekabuddhas are also followers of hinayana (theg-pa-dmän, literally ‘lesser vehicle’). By meditating the twelve links of dependent arising, pratyekabuddhas achieve enlightenment for themselves, which is why they are called “solitary enlightened ones” (rang-sangs-rgyäs). By accomplishing the bodhisattva stages, a practitioner of mahayana (theg-pa-chen-po, ‘great vehicle’) achieves enlightenment for the benefit of others. Practitioners achieve the result of the specific vehicle they follow and practice by understanding and meditating the instructions that are given in “The Heart Sutra.” This is why “The Prajnaparamita” is called “The Great Mother,” yum-chen-mo, a-ma-chen-mo.
Repeating the prajnaparamita mantra that is given to us in “The Heart Sutra” is just as beneficial as the practices presented in this text. The next verse describes the mantra.
The Benefits and Results of Repeating the Mantra
“Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita is the mantra of great awareness, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra that equals the unequalled, the mantra that pacifies all suffering. Since it is non-deceptive, know that it is true.”
“Therefore” at the beginning of this verse refers to the foregoing passage which states that due to having understood and practiced prajnaparamita, all Buddhas of the past had manifested the final result. When noble practitioners understand the teachings well and realize the meaning of prajnaparamita, then they fully manifest primordial wisdom for the benefit of all living beings. This is to say that they manifest an appearance that really and truly helps others.
The prajnaparamita mantra (sngags) has an innate power that enables the true essence of the practitioner who repeats it to manifest. The true essence is the dharmakaya (chös-sku, ‘truth body’). The dharmakaya is the first of the three perfect bodies of a buddha that ordinary beings cannot see. Rig-pa’i-ye-shes (‘primordial wisdom of cognitive awareness’) is one of the main results that unfolds by repeating the mantra.
Since primordial wisdom freely manifests when last traces of ignorance (ma-rig-pa) have been dispelled, the prajnaparamita mantra is called rig-pa-chen-po’i-sngags, ‘the mantra of great cognitive awareness.’ It is also called “the mantra that fulfills all wishes” because the aspiration prayers of disciples who repeat it will come true. It is furthermore called “the unsurpassed mantra” (bla-na-med-pa’i-sngags) because it enables practitioners who repeat it to realize chös-nyid, ‘suchness of all things.’ It is also called “unsurpassed” because it is the mantra that is beyond all worldly propositions and ways (‘jig-rten-gyi-theg-pa) as well as beyond the hinayana vehicles of shravakas and pratyekabuddhas. It is also called “the mantra that equals the unequalled” (mi-mnyam-pa-dang-mnyam-par-byed-pa’i-sngags) because it enables practitioners who repeat it to realize those aspects of wisdom that manifest to not only benefit oneself, as is the case for the dharmakaya, but to manifest for the benefit all living beings. The manifestations that benefit all living beings are the sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya of perfect buddhahood. Sambhogakaya is the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as long-spyod-rdzog-pa’i-sku, which means ‘the body of enjoyment’; it can only be experienced by bodhisattvas. Nirmanakaya is sprul-sku in Tibetan and means ‘emanation body’; it is the third body of enlightenment that can be met and experienced by ordinary beings. Thus, the prajnaparamita mantra is unequalled, i.e., incomparable, because it embodies the inseparability of the three kayas of a buddha and the inseparability of samsara and nirvana, i.e., conditioned existence that is marked by suffering and the state of utter peace. For that reason it is called “the mantra that pacifies all suffering” (sdug-bsngäl-tham-ce-rab-tu-zhi-war-byed-pa’i-sngags). How does suffering arise? Based upon conflicting emotions that determine each action, living beings accumulate karma and, as a result, experience suffering. By repeating the prajnaparamita mantra, the roots of all suffering and pain, which are the negative emotions, are completely overcome and removed.
The last description in the above verse states that the prajnaparamita mantra is non-deceptive and is true (mi-tshun-ba-dang-bden-pa). This refers to the dharmakaya that manifests for the benefit of others through the two form kayas, the sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. The dharmakaya is free of all adventitious stains (blo-bur-‘bräl-ba); it is not created and does not cease, therefore it is changeless (mi-‘gyur-ba).
Like that, the prajnaparamita mantra is non-deceptive (mi-tshung-ba, i.e., mi-slu-ba) and true (bden-pa). Therefore Chenrezig taught: bden-par-shes-par-bya, ‘Know that it is true.’
Having learned about the benefits and results of repeating the prajnaparamita mantra, we will now look at the mantra. Chenrezig instructed:
“The prajnaparamita mantra is spoken in this way:
/ Tayatha / Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha //
The mantra is in Sanskrit. Tayatha means ‘like this.’ Gate, which is translated as ‘gone,’ means traversed the paths. The second Gate refers to having traversed the paths and having realized the relative and absolute truths, i.e., how things appear and how they really are. Para is pha-rol in Tibetan and means ‘the supreme other side,’ so Paragate means ‘gone to the supreme other side.’ What is the supreme other side? It is the other side of the ocean (rgya-mtsho), i.e., the ocean of samsara, the other side being nirvana. Paragate means having realized how samsara really is. Parasamgate refers to nirvana and means realization of the irreversible true state that is free of faults and thus is flawless. The term Bodhi is byang-chub in Tibetan (‘enlightenment’) and means perfect realization of the two truths. Svaha is an expression of the wish, “May it be so!”
By speaking to Shariputra, Chenrezig addressed bodhisattvas who had attained high levels of realization, nevertheless, his words should be understood by everybody who wishes to practice and realize the deep instructions. He said:
“Shariputra, that is how the Bodhisattva Mahasattva should train in the profound prajnaparamita.
“Then the Blessed Victor arose from that samadhi and praised Noble Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva, saying, ‘Good, good. Son of noble family, thus it is. Thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught. Then all the tathagatas will rejoice.’”
Due to the blessing of the Buddha, who was always in deep meditative absorption, Shariputra asked Chenrezig decisive questions, and due to the blessing of the Buddha, Chenrezig offered profound answers. When they had finished the dialogue, the Buddha rose and said to Chenrezig: “Good, good.” Because the Buddha was very pleased with the answers that Chenrezig gave, he said: “Thus it is. Thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught. Then all the tathagatas will rejoice.” Tathagata (de-bzhin-gshegs-pa in Tibetan, ‘One gone thus’) is synonymous with a fully enlightened buddha. We now see that “The Heart Sutra” contains words of the Buddha and was blessed by him in that he said: “Thus it is. Thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught.”
“When the Blessed Victor had said this, Venerable Shariputra and Noble Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva Mahasattva, the whole assembly, and the world with its gods, humans, demi-gods, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the Blessed Victor.”
This verse tells us that after the Buddha had approved of everything that was taught, everyone who was gathered at Vulture Peak on that occasion rejoiced about how well Shariputra asked and how comprehensibly Chenrezig had explained the meaning of prajnaparamita. The assembly consisted of a great variety of beings. They had different appearances, came from different countries, spoke different languages, had different jobs, enjoyed different things, and so forth, nevertheless, they were all very happy and in the same language and with one voice, they praised the words of the Buddha. The line in “The Heart Sutra” is, bcom-ldän-‘däs-kyis-gsungs-pa-la-mngön-par-btöd-do:
“(They) praised the words of the Blessed Victor.
“This concludes ‘The Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.’”
If one has understood the meaning of “The Heart Sutra” and wishes to practice the instructions, it would be very good for oneself and beneficial for others to dedicate the practice for the welfare of others by reciting the root text and repeating the mantra one hundred times; if one doesn’t have time, less often. If you have any questions, please ask.
Student: “Do we need a transmission or initiation to practice these teachings?”
Khenpo: You have received the reading transmission in this course. It would be very good to be reminded of the meaning by asking teachers you meet to offer explanations and the reading transmission. The teachings I presented here have awakened the potential. Your knowledge will increase and you will be able to gain more certainty by receiving the teachings a second or third time. Regarding study and practice, we should never be content with what we have learned or achieved.
Next question: “If I want to meditate the five skandhas, would it be advisable to meditate in a group or alone and to use an object to visualize the skandha of form? My second question is that I didn’t understand why the Buddha is pointing to the moon in picture of The Wheel of Life.”
Khenpo: You can meditate alone or in a group and relate with the situation. Meditating in a group is helpful so that you encourage each other. But it isn’t always possible, so sometimes you meditate alone. You can do analytical meditation and alternately practice placing the mind in meditation. If you investigate and it is easy for you to understand that forms, sounds, etc. don’t truly exist, then just feel that although all these things appear on a relative level, they don’t have an inherent nature, therefore don’t truly exist and are just emptiness. This is how to gain certainty. When your mind is overly agitated by different emotions, then do placement meditation or just close your eyes. If a vision isn’t clear anymore and you are starting to fall asleep, return to analytical meditation. You don’t just believe that forms, feelings, and so forth don’t truly exist because the Buddha said so, but you gain certainty for yourself by analyzing. When you gain certainty that things don’t truly exist, you rest as long as you are able to place the mind evenly.
Concerning the Buddha pointing to the moon, he taught that we wander in samsara. The image of the Buddha pointing to the moon in The Wheel of Life means that the Buddha said we should try to become liberated from samsara and achieve enlightenment, which is like the moon.
Since the thoughts of our conceptual mind have no end, there will also be no end to questions. So we will stop here. I hope you enjoyed this short teaching. I also hope to return to Karma Chang Chub Choephel Ling in the future, to meet again, and to engage in a further discussion about the precious Dharma.
Through this goodness, may omniscience be attained
and thereby may every enemy (mental defilement) be overcome.
May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara
that is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
By this virtue may I quickly attain the state of Guru Buddha, and then
lead every being without exception to that very state!
May precious and supreme bodhicitta that has not been generated now be so,
and may precious bodhicitta that has already been never decline but continuously increase!
May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.
May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless in number as space is vast in its extent.
Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings, without exceptions,
swiftly establish the levels and grounds of buddhahood.
(Photos in the order in which they appear:) Photo of Ven. Khenpo Chökey Gyaltsen courtesy of the Rigpe Dorje Center in France. The photo of H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche at Rajagriha on January 3, 2010 was taken and generously offered by Hella Lohmann from Frankfurt, who we will always remember and hold in high esteem. Wonderful thanks to Dechen Chen from Taiwan for the beautiful photo of the lily that she took and offered with sincere faith and devotion.
Many thanks to Lama Dorothea Nett for having organized this meaningful event, and thanks to Martin Weyers from Ludwigshafen for having provided the recording of the teachings. Huge thanks to Ven. Khenpo Karma Namgyal from Karme Lekshey Ling Institute in Nepal for the original Tibetan script of “The Heart Sutra” so that words and phrases of the original could be transliterated according to Whiley. In reliance on the excellent simultaneous translation of Tibetan into German by Hannelore Wenderoth, the teachings were translated into English, edited, and arranged in this form by Gaby Hollmann from Munich, who is responsible for inadequacies and any mistakes. Copyright Ven. Khenpo Chökey Gyaltsen, Kagyü Lava Tekchen Ling Monastery and Retreat Center, District Darjeeling, India.
May the precious teachings spread throughout the world and bring peace and happiness to all living beings!