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The Two Truths

Please prepare this session by generating a mind of enlightenment, bodhicitta, to benefit the limitless number of sentient beings. I rejoice to have the opportunity to come here and teach the holy teaching of the Lord Buddha. Most of the participants in this audience know me, and this gives me an especially good feeling.

An important term in Tibetan Buddhism is nang, which means “inner” or “interior.” Happiness and misery shall not be understood as coming from external objects. To attain ultimate and unchanging happiness, one needs to realize one’s innermost being. One must strive to study the workings of the mind. When we realize our innermost being, we will realize the meaning of life and the meaning of the happiness that we experience in our life. In Buddhist teachings, the term “happiness” refers to authentic happiness.

In the beginning is it important to study the teachings of the Buddha. The ancient Indian master, called Digniga, said, “Initially one should exert oneself in studying, followed by a phase of reflection, which should be followed a phase of meditation practice.” By engaging oneself in the study of the Buddha’s teachings, one will achieve peace of mind.

By gleaning wisdom from listening and studying, one can cut through the doubt about the ultimate truth and acquire a very determined mind. When one has gained a certainty of the ultimate truth through listening and studying, as well as reflection and contemplation, one needs to implement this certainty by uniting it with the phase of meditation. By relying on the wisdom that comes from meditation, one will be able to uproot the disturbing emotions.

The Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism places a great deal of emphasis on analytical contemplation, which is the initial process of listening and studying. If one initially does not acquire the wisdom that comes from profound analysis, it is impossible to gain wisdom from meditation. If concentrative meditation is not united with the analytical contemplation, by for example only favoring analytical meditation, the Tibetan expression “idiot meditator” may be applicable. No benefit will come from such meditation. So, one should unite analytical contemplation with concentrative meditation. Then, one should only do concentrative meditation. I brought up this to underline the importance of the processes of listening, contemplating and meditating. I studied the teaching of the Buddha for ten years, and then meditation came quite easily.

As sentient beings, we are extroverted. We tend to perceive external objective phenomena through our senses. Therefore, we are not able to turn our mind inwards and look at ourselves. It is easy for you to see the stain on somebody else’s face, but it takes an effort to see the stain on one’s own. The same goes for the sense of hearing. Our bodies make numerous sounds that we seldom hear, although we easily hear noises from outside.

Because of the function of the five senses of sentient beings, we are capable of developing a lot of discursive thoughts. The mind that is occupied with rambling thoughts is a deluded mind that tries to establish what is pure and what is impure, what is right and what is wrong, what is deluded and what is not deluded.

The deluded mind tries to decide what we see and hear by using our senses. But the mind of the Buddha perceives external phenomena in a completely different way: as lacking true existence and characteristics. Phenomena that have no characteristics do not exist. To quote the heart sutra: “The ’I’ does not have any true characteristics; the ear does not have any true characteristics; the tongue does have any true characteristics.” This can be applied to all sensory organs, to the sensory consciousnesses, and to the mind – they all lack true existence. If all these things lack true existence, then what is the truth? According to the teaching of the Buddha, there are two levels of truth.

The first truth is the relative truth; the second truth is the absolute truth. The Tibetan word for relative truth implies “all” and “without essence.” All samsaric phenomena are impermanent. Such phenomena can be very deceptive. It is easy to observe that all phenomena are impermanent; one can see an infant born and gradually grow into a toddler, adolescent, and adult. Also, our e feelings change. Sometimes we experience joy; sometimes misery. Impermanence applies equally to the external element of nature.

It is difficult to find ultimate fulfillment. One can aspire to become wealthy and think that one will be happy by the time one has a certain amount of money in the bank. However, as soon as this happens, one wants to have even more. It is therefore difficult for a samsaric being to attain ultimate fulfillment.

The Buddha said that lacking something is an illusion, and so is not lacking something. When we lack something that we want we are miserable. This situation changes when we obtain something that we want, but cannot guarantee our happiness because new miseries will accompany the possession of new things.

All discursive thoughts can be traced to the three disturbing emotions: attachment, anger, and ignorance. The presence of rambling thoughts in a mind that is filled with these emotions makes it very difficult for us to attain the omniscient state of the Buddha.

To realize the relative truth, one must understand impermanence. Impermanence should be understood considering birth. Birth is followed by destruction. If you, as a meditator, realize the meaning of the relative truth in this way, you will receive the immense benefit even if you lack the realization of the ultimate truth. However, if you believe in the permanence of the relative truth with regard to your beloved, with regard to your spouse, with regard to your friends and family, or material objects, you will suffer. But again, if you realize the impermanence of relative truth with regards to all those things, you will be at peace.

If one observes the physical existence of Buddha Shakyamuni, one would see the nature of impermanence affecting his body, but the mind of Buddha Shakyamuni is enlightened and don’t know the miseries of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

The view that holds onto the permanence, the true existence, and the singularity of the external phenomena, is a perverted view. In contrast, if you realize the impermanent, selfless, empty, and suffering nature of the external phenomena, particularly with regard to your physical existence, your mind will not be perverted.

To understand the meaning of relative truth, it is essential to realize the meaning of impermanence. Instead of trusting the objective phenomena, one should realize that the external phenomena do not hold absolute happiness. They are tainted by misery and suffering. If we realize the impermanent nature of the objective reality of the objective phenomena, such a realization corresponds to the universal truth. If this understanding develops into the realization of the emptiness of the true existence of objective phenomena, this is the realization of emptiness, the absolute truth.

The ultimate truth lies beyond the domain of expression and description. Absolute truth cannot be expressed because our mind is powerless to do so. Our mind knows only two things: the extreme of existence and the extreme of non-existence. Our mind cannot go beyond these two extremes. For example, if you cannot see something, you will not believe that it exists. The same applies to our sense organs. For example, the ear is rather small, with a small hole, and there is an infinite number of sounds that we cannot hear. We believe the sounds we can listen to, we do not believe the sounds we cannot hear. The same applies to the nose, tongue, and the skin; their capacity to discern is very weak. Because of this, we are not able to understand all phenomena.

Earlier I said that the sense organs lack characteristics. Because of this, our sense organs are incapable of perceiving the whole spectrum of reality. This is why the Buddha said that the sense organs lack characteristics or true existence. One of the Tibetan scholars said that if our eyes were placed in a different position, for example vertical, then our reality would be completely changed. When the Buddha said that the three realms are only in the mind, it means that the actual determining factor is one’s own mind. The objective reality does not determine the phenomena. They are determined by how our minds perceive them.

If we close our eyes and prevent our sense organs from being distracted, this is a kind of meditation. In the sutra, the Buddha talks about the threefold meditation or samadhi meditation (Sanskrit: to make firm, one-pointed concentration). The Buddha talks about the samadhi that is associated with the three gates of the body, speech, and mind. For example, if you open the gates of your mind or sense organs, then many discursive thoughts will come through. But if you shut the gates, then the discursive thought will be blocked from your mind. The Buddha instructed how to practice closing the gates of one’s body, speech, and mind. He said that one should sit still, remain silent, and concentrate. If you could practice this simple meditation technique of in a quiet place for seven days, then you will undoubtedly be able to suppress your conflicting emotions, at least while you are meditating. If you cannot do this for one week, then you probably will not be able to gain control over your disturbing emotions.

Our many past lives have made us very familiar with our disturbing emotions. Therefore, it is crucial for the meditator to use mindfulness to look within the mind. This is meditation. In this way, one can practice meditation in formal sessions and implement whatever meditative experience one has gained in the informal period, into one’s daily life. When the formal meditation session is supplemented with post-meditation practice, then one is not only able to suppress and gain control over one’s disturbing emotions, but one will be capable of eradicating the root of the disturbing thoughts and feelings. It is therefore essential to combine the actual meditation session with the post-meditation session.

This has been a very brief presentation of the relative truth and the ultimate truth. Do you have questions?

Question: Is analytical meditation an absolute necessity for a real meditation experience?

The Buddha teaches about the emptiness of self. One should not accept the teaching of the Buddha at face value; one should thoroughly analyze the teachings. There is a reason the Buddha gave the teaching on the emptiness of the self, and one needs to realize the validity of this reason. To do this one must analyze and use one’s investigative powers. For example, in the practice of being mindful of one’s body, one should observe one’s body and try to determine whether there exists a self within the body or not. The Indian Buddhist master Chandrakirti laid out the seven-fold reasoning of no-self of the chariot. If you meditate upon this seven-fold reasoning, then you are doing analytical meditation.

Since infinite time we have accustomed to thinking that ego exists. Whatever we do is based on the true existence of a self. We put a tremendous amount of trust into the notion. We trust what the “I” think is true, what the “I” state is true. Whatever the self does, we think it is right. If we build the ego in this manner, then this self will become so huge that it makes it difficult for us to see others.

Because of the law of interdependence, it is impossible to experience happiness for oneself without experiencing happiness for other sentient beings. This implies that our experience is intimately connected with that of our fellow beings. Therefore, the Buddha claims that the existence of the self is responsible for suffering. The Buddha has also said that the altruistic mind brings about benefit for all living beings. To trust the teachings of the Buddha, one needs to study, listen, reflect and meditate. Then one can become convinced of the validity of these teachings. This is the foundation of the teaching of the Buddha. Everybody knows this, but it bears repeating.

I believe that many of you are quite knowledgeable on this topic and that many of you have been practicing for many years. You are therefore a most receptive audience. It is crucial for a teacher to share his understanding with such an audience.

Question: But you can study for a lifetime without being finished. When does one know that one should stop learning and go into retreat instead?

When you gain a profound certainty about the emptiness of self, you can drop your studies and apply this understanding to your meditation practice. But until you develop this profound certainty, you should continue your study. But if you still pursue your academic study through listening and reading after you have realized the meaning of the view, this is no point, because you have found your lost elephant. During the time of the Buddha, the elephant was a very special and beloved animal. That is why the elephant is used as a symbol in the Buddhist texts.

Question: I am a bit confused about the term “study” in this context because the way it is being presented it seems to imply more than an intellectual understanding – that there is an insight as well, that must be gained by meditation. Can you explain a little bit more about the meaning of study in this context?

If you are capable of digesting the teaching, when you hear instructions from a meditation master, this teaching will create peace in your mind, and this peace will permeate your body and your speech. Therefore the sign of having studied and heard teachings is the experience of peace. And the sign of whether you have meditated is the absence of discursive thoughts.

By relying on the phase of studying and listening you are likely to experience shamatha. But such a process alone will not guarantee the realization of the vipashyana or insight meditation. Giving rise to the experience of shamatha meditation will bring your closer to the successive meditation experiences that will lead you to the experience of vipashyana meditation.

For example, while you are studying and listening, instead of letting your mind become distracted, focus on what you are studying and hearing; this constitutes the practice of one-pointed concentration. Also, because the objective focus of your meditation is a virtuous object because you are studying dharma, your mind will be protected from non-virtuous objects, at least while you are studying. This type of practice will constitute the practice of both the Dharma and meditation.

Buddhist practice should not be understood only as escaping to an isolated retreat and staying within a small cell. Any method that will lessen one’s discursive thoughts or conflicting emotions constitutes Buddhist meditation practice. If the phase of study and listening allows you to exclude rambling thoughts, then this also constitutes a practice. To use an example, compounds that cure illness are called “medicine.” But if these compounds cannot eliminate illness, you cannot call it “medicine.” If you can lessen or prevent your discursive thoughts from occurring, whether from listening or contemplation or meditation, then this is the practice of meditation.

Before we enter into the gates of Dharma, our minds entertain many polarities and extremes such as existence, non-existence, good and evil, and so on ad infinitum. When we enter the Dharma, the creation of polarities stops, and one will not look upon study and listening as not being meditation. We often think that one particular aspect of Dharma is not meditation, whereas another is genuinely linked with meditation practice. Creating polarities within the Dharma will interfere with the practice, but if you understand the meaning of Dharma through the process of study and listening, it is possible to unite all the trivial acts that one performs in one’s daily life - such as waking up, walking around, sitting or sleeping – within the practice of Dharma. Everyday actions can be transformed into virtuous actions. This transformation can happen because we know how to do so.

Sometimes we think that we can only meditate by separating ourselves from society, but it is possible to meditate within a society. One does not need to distance oneself from regular life. For example, eating is an ordinary activity. The act of eating can be united with meditation, and if you are eating with your totality, with your whole being, then the act becomes whole and total. Then you know the meditative art of eating. By eating in this way, the food becomes tastier and more nutritious. For example, if the Buddha were to eat bad food, even the grass that horses eat, he would be able to extract nutrition from that food as if he were eating very wholesome food. That is because his body, speech, and mind are taking part in the process of eating. Also, if we implement our meditation practice with walking, eating, sitting and so on, then our mind will calm down.

Question: Sometimes I feel vipashyana is like going through lists, like the sevenfold reasoning of emptiness. In a way, it becomes so familiar that the vitality is lost. The process seems to become mechanical and boring. How should I avoid that?

To avoid experiencing boredom one needs to alternate analytical meditation with concentrative meditation. Most of the people of Tibet spend their lives high up in the mountains. They are eager to see these big cities, and one day maybe they find themselves in such a city, but after having been there they want to go back to the pure mountains. It is similar to this. One goes in circles; this is samsara.

When we develop a sense of weariness of the discursive mind, our mind will not be so interested in producing thoughts. Therefore, a certain amount of tiredness is desirable. However, the conceptual mind does possess certain qualities, and therefore one should not condemn it. The conceptual mind allows us to make the journey from the discursive mind to the non-discursive mind. In this way, the discursive mind forms a ground. Also, we should not condemn individuals who are entertaining rambling thoughts by thinking that “I have fewer discursive thoughts than that person.”

Chinese Buddhists, especially monks and nuns living in monasteries, are strictly vegetarian. When you meet such practitioners, some will brag about their vegetarianism and look down upon those who are not vegetarians. If one’s vegetarianism gives rise to such arrogant thoughts, then this practice has not done much good, apart for not eating flesh. These vegetarians should develop compassion towards the non-vegetarians, because of their craving for meat.

In the same way, practicing humility for all sentient beings is crucial. If I, as a Buddhist, think that I have a philosophy that is more profound than that of others, or hold that my religion is more genuine than theirs, this will increase ego and arrogance, which will lead to the condemnation of others. If this is the case, then my engagement in Buddhist practice does not serve any real purpose.

As we practice, a gradual shift will take place in our mind, helping us to generate a sense of love and compassion even towards our enemy. This shift occurs because of a transformation of attitude. If we think we have somebody as an enemy, in reality, the external enemy is neither our friend nor our enemy. The actual nature of the so-called enemy eludes both friend and enemy. If you study the Dharma through listening and hearing, reflection and meditation, and acquire the corresponding wisdom, this wisdom will have the power to change your mind to perceive the reality as it is, not in a limited way. Also, in a reality medicine is neither medicine nor poison. It depends on how the drug is taken.

Whether you perceive the phenomenal world as pure or impure depends solely on your perceiving mind. We cannot describe the external world as pure or impure. The external world escapes both purity and impurity because, in the final analysis, the perceiving mind decides whether it is pure or impure.

This world can be a paradise or a hell. As the Buddha said, “I have shown you the path to liberation. Now, whether you gain the enlightenment of liberation or not is your responsibility.” This means that your attitude and perspective are the most crucial elements. As we said earlier, the phenomenal world of the three realms is nothing more than a creation of one’s mind.

If one understands these teachings, then this place can be paradise wherever one is. If one does not realize this, one will go through hell on earth. If one lacks this understanding, then even if one were to meet Amitabha, the Buddha of boundless light, one will not be able to recognize him. But if one realizes this meaning, then the next person transfigures into the Buddha of Boundless Light.

In the sutras, the Buddha says that the nature of all living being is sugatagarbha, Buddha-nature. In the tantric teaching, the Buddha says that all phenomenal experience and appearance, in reality, is infinite purity.

Oslo, June 2005

Translated by Lama Changchub at Karma Tashi Ling Buddhist Centre, Norway