View & Virtue

Oct 06, 2020

One of Tsongkhapa's big critiques is that you cannot arrive at enlightenment without a good start. Don't throw out your conceptual knowledge. Don't throw out your ability to reason your way to enlightenment.

Go back for a second to the image of meditation in our culture. What does it look like? It's a beautiful bikini and it's the sun is setting. She's in full lotus, closed her eyes and she's in samadhi. She's in bliss and there's this idea that in that state of bliss there's also the absence of thoughts.

If you go out into the street, many of you are yoga teachers, meditation teachers and therapists. You teach mindfulness. You know mindfulness. The popular view of meditation is that it is thought-less. It's about clearing your mind. It's about postponing your thoughts. It's about getting between the thoughts, suspending thoughts, emptying your mind.

According to the Gelugpa approach that is central and articulated by Tsongkhapa, one of his main critiques is that you need good critical understanding as your basis. Through hearing and listening, a better understanding is arrived by a better conceptual understanding. You need that. You need classes where you're trained in view. If you go out into a hermitage too early with no training and try to discover view there is the occasional spontaneous enlightenment that may happen to a protege like Krishnamurti. In his autobiographies he was very young and walking on the beach in Maharashtra somewhere and he had a samadhi and a deep recognition of the nature reality. It happens, but it happens so rarely.

What happened with Tsongkhapa in his later reformation is he devised a curriculum where a vast majority of people could replicate the experience by way of a heavy set training. It involved, and was critically hinged upon people having a firm conceptual understanding that they then debated and refined through reflection and then they went to meditate on it.

If you look at the history of Tibetan Buddhism it starts around the 8th century with Santaraksita, Kamalashila and Padmasambhava. There is a series of great debates at the outset of the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. The king at the time, Trisong Detsen was patronizing and organizing a set of very intensive debates that some of the scholarly literature says lasted three years. A long debate between the Chinese, East Asian school with a proponent named Moheyan and Kamalashila from India. They brought the chief exponent, the greatest scholar from each of these opposing schools. From India, the gradual path, the gradual approach, and from China, East Asia comes the spontaneous enlightenment tradition.

You're all familiar with what they were saying. In a way, it's kind of true. It says that ultimate reality cannot be achieved by way of conceptuality. The final breakthrough is non-conceptual. We would all agree with it. But how does one arrive there? The proponents of the Eastern schools are basically saying that your training should be of non-conceptually at the very beginning. Don't worry about your scholarship. Just meditate. What do you meditate on? Meditate on no mind. Don't entertain conceptual thoughts. Buddha nature is right there. It's immediate. Enlightenment is right there. It's very present, just don't think about it.

In other words, your thoughts themselves are obscurations or hindrances to the achievement of awakening that's already available. You can't argue with that. But Tsongkhapa does argue with it. I'm just presenting this so you know the point of view that he's taking and the rationale and tradition that is borne from him.

It's not to say that the others are wrong. It's just to say the possible pitfalls of suspending all these other trainings, and going for no-mind is that you can linger in a kind of numbness. You can linger in the numbness in Costa Rica thinking that you're having a breakthrough. Breathing in and breathing out. How many of us have been on a nice retreat where you're breathing in and breathing out? Maybe you're not in your bikini but you're breathing in, breathing out. .

Let's say you have racism in your heart. Let's say you have bigotry in your heart. Let's say you have some perspective about reality in your heart but then you go on one of these breathing out and breathing in meditations. What do you feel when you're breathing in and breathing out around the third or fourth or fifth day? It takes a life of its own and you go into the flow. Are you thinking about your dinner and your breakfast and your boyfriend and your girlfriend in the flow? No, you're in the flow which means subject and object, collapse.

What's the subject and the object? The subject is you thinking and the object is what you're thinking of. In the flow there is no subject and object. Tsongkhapa says that could be a mistaken enlightenment. Not only can it be a mistaken enlightenment but it gives a false sense of security that you have arrived at a hallmark where really you have taken a vacation. The imprints, the vasanas, the samskaras, the karmas, the bigotry and the hatred and the attachment and the fixation, they have just temporarily been suspended.

What happens when you come home from Costa Rica? What happens when you get off your meditation cushion? What happens when you are out of the flow? BOOM. All your mistaken views are reactivated. One of the reasons I think it's important to study the biography of Tsongkhapa and to make this jump through history to it's relevance is in our contemporary times, we see two hallmarks that Tsongkhapa was facing. One is a preponderance of mistaken view, and the other one is the degradation of ethics.

What we're facing on the planet, every pitfall that we see, every shortcoming, every unbelievable obstacle that comes across the news and terrifies us about where we are in the planet; the fires in Australia, the uprisings, the insurgences, the mass migrations, the banking cartels, the lack of justice, if you look at them carefully and parse them out, they are coming from mistaken views.

One of the big mistaken views that influences each and every one of them is something very deadly called nihilism. Nihilism essentially is suggesting that nothing really exists and therefore nothing really matters. Therefore let yourself be assailed by your greed and your avarice and your hatred. Get yours now and don't worry about anyone else. If they get in your way, you have some sort of obligation to destroy them. Have a think about it and start thinking about all the problems that we're facing right now. If we do not address the underlying view that bears them, then we'll just be trying to bully or police people to stop certain actions. We might as well send them on a temporary meditation journey to Costa Rica because at some point, they come home from the journey and their bigotry, hatred, greed and their sense that nothing matters and in their sense of desperation, of let me get mine now, let me cut the horns off the last rhino on the planet, will still be intact.

It's not just view. At the time, there was an emergence that stems back from these great debates at the outset of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. At that point, Kamalisha was made the victor and the gradual path took took its stronghold. The gradual path continues for a long time but then there's a degradation of the Dharma and there's a resurgence in this kind of lazy attitude about the quest for perfect view. With it, there's also a lazy attitude about virtue and ethics because they come together. View and ethics, they come together.

As I mentioned, you cannot have perfect view without without virtue. Those of us that have taken the precepts, when you go to a monastery or you do a ten day vipassana course or you take refuge, you are taking a series of ethical recommendations to heart. Those ethical recommendations are do's and do-nots that curtail your instincts and protect your mind from the result of those instincts. As long as you abide by them, something happens in your mind. When you go to the monastery, take five precepts for ten days or a one month retreat, something happens to your mind. Some stability is achieved, because you're saying I can't do certain things that would aggravate and afflict my mind. If I'm allowed to be nasty and unkind and greedy and hurtful, it's not like you do those things and have no repercussions on your mind. Never mind the repercussions on others. When you say I'm going to restrain those for a period of time, they have a natural tendency to calm the mind.

Is that the end result to calm the mind? No. The end result is to use that stability of mind for what? For deep analytical reflection. If your quest is to see the nature of reality, now you see that first you subdue your instincts so that you can gain faculty of mind, so that can be applied to a deep critical introspection that can lead to a deeper intuitive understanding.
That's the lam rim. That's the process. That's the gradual path training. That's how virtue, meditation and wisdom all have to be present. That's why it's so important to take refuge and to keep your vows. Then you also have to learn something.

Most people just go on retreat. Meditation in our culture is the only game in town. It's not a bad game. It's just not the game for enlightenment.
That's probably the problem. We don't believe in enlightenment. We only believe in stress reduction. It's okay. Everybody loves mindfulness because it does its job if the point is stress reduction. We've got eight billion people that are really stressed out right now so I'm not going be here saying don't practice mindfulness, but also don't confuse it with what the tradition was trying to do. The tradition set itself up to liberate human beings, complete liberation. We could debate for months, as practitioners sitting in this room doing a program like this, fully committed to your studies, if you believe that liberation is possible.

Excerpted from  Find True Refuge.


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