Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
The Lotus Sutra’s key message is that Buddhanature is inherent in all sentient beings and all have the potential to achieve Buddhahood. The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential Mahayana Sutras, most popular in east Asia where it is considered to be the culmination of the Buddha’s teachings. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha expounds the nature of ultimate reality through many stories and parables. In the words of the great Zen Master Hakuin, “The ancient teachings illumine the mind, and the mind illumines the ancient teachings”.
Note 1: This transcript is not an official publication of Siddhartha's Intent. Every effort has been made to ensure that this transcript is accurate both in terms of words and meaning, however all errors and misunderstandings are the responsibility of the editors of madhyamaka.com. Please also see the note on Siddhartha's Intent transcripts.
Note 2: This transcript includes footnotes with clarifications and more information about Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist terms used in the teaching. Please click on the superscript number to read the footnote. Also, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche's name is abbreviated to "DJKR" throughout.
1. Introduction: the need for a base in the spiritual path
Sutras cannot be expounded by ordinary beings
I consider myself so fortunate to have this opportunity to introduce the sutra1sutra (सूत्र) (literally "string, thread") = canonical Buddhist scriptures, regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha - see sutra. known as the Lotus Sutra. Traditionally it’s believed that sutras cannot be expounded by ordinary beings. They can only be explained by sublime aryas2arya (आर्य) = noble being or sublime being, i.e. no longer an ordinary samsaric being. Refers to a being that has attained the path of seeing, whether as a shravaka, pratyekabuddha or bodhisattva - see arya.. So therefore in the tradition in which I was brought up, we studied the commentaries3शास्त्र = shastra, a treatise or commentary on the words of the Buddha - see shastra. on the sutras quite extensively, but not so much the sutras themselves.
Of course, we have the sutras on our shrine. We read them sometimes. We even have the tradition or habit of sometimes carrying the sutra [through] town with a lot of procession. Even today, in places like Sikkim and in many parts of the Himalayas, like Bhutan, when there is shortage of rain, when there are calamities like earthquakes, when there are disputes within the family or obstacles more generally, there's a tradition of carrying the sutra with a procession, going around different valleys.
We also have the tradition of what we call zheljé4zheljé (ཞལ་འབྱེད་) = to open - see zheljé., which means just opening the sutra. You don’t even read it. Just open it. It’s almost as if you are pretending to read it. Then of course there are also those who are well to do, like the kings and queens of the past, who have actually offered especially this sutra and other sutras like this, such as the Prajñaparamita Hridaya Sutra, engraved with gold and silver. I’ve actually seen this particular sutra inlaid with many precious jewels at the Musée Guimet in Paris5Ed.: Other examples of the Lotus Sutra in museum collections include a 17th century (c. 1667) Japanese copy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and a 17th century (c. 1636) Japanese copy at the British Library in London. . It’s amazing.
So what I want to say is that an ignorant defiled ordinary being like me has no capacity to teach or explain this sutra. But at the same time, I have to express my joy at being given this chance to introduce to you even to the mere existence of this sutra.
The influence of the Lotus Sutra
As some of you know, this sutra has become a very important and influential sutra. Because India is so rich with wisdom and tradition and culture, probably this sutra has been forgotten in India, the birthplace of this sutra. But elsewhere the sutra has had a very big influence. For example, in China, the sutra has even influenced their folklore. The stories that are told by mothers to their children are influenced by this sutra. And this is one of the most popular sutras in China, Japan and Korea. In Sanskrit it is known as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra6Pundarika Sutra (सद्धर्मपुण्डरीक सूत्र) - for the names of the Lotus Sutra in Sanskrit and other languages, see Pundarika Sutra.. My pronunciation is not good so please excuse me. I think in Chinese it’s called Fahua jing, Myoho Renge Kyo in Japanese, and Myobeomnyeonhwagyeong in Korean. There's also a Vietnamese translation, but I'm not going [to attempt to pronounce that]. Reciting [the mantra] Namu Myoho Renge Kyo7Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (南無妙法蓮華經) = "Glory to the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra", a mantra chanted within Nichiren Buddhism. Myoho Renge Kyo is the Japanese name of the Lotus Sutra - see Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. has become quite an important [tradition], and I heard it’s now coming back to India.
I want to tell you that this sutra has had a very big influence not just on the spiritual dimension, but on every level. And rightfully so. I think a lot of people forget that sutras such as this contain so much wisdom and skilful means. Especially talking about skilful means, because this is one of the ingredients of the Lotus Sutra. So this sutra is very relevant. It’s absolutely not outdated literature, if you are thinking like that. It’s very much up to date. It’s very progressive. Actually I would say it’s avant-garde.
Is it relevant to our day to day life? Absolutely. For parenting, for relationships, for management, for leadership, for business. If we have time, we will talk [about this] later because I have heard that some people who follow the Lotus Sutra also chant this recitation. And some of them are just aiming to have [things like] a good car, a Ferrari, or a good coffee machine or something like this. I would not completely dismiss this outright. There is a place for that. But the important thing is that it is much much more than that. It’s like if you plant rice, then the hay [from the rice stalks] is included. But farmers don’t put [their] full attention on the hay. Their attention is to the rice. But sometimes farmers that are not wise may be distracted by the hay instead of the rice. This could happen, of course. This happens always, in all spiritual traditions.
The Mahayana tradition
[The Pundarika Sutra is a very important sutra] for Buddhists and especially in the Mahayana8Mahayana (महायान) = the great or universal vehicle; one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravada) and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice - see Mahayana.. Let me give you a brief introduction. What is Mahayana? I think people sort of generalise thinking that Mahayana is what is practiced in China, Japan, Korea, Bhutan, and mostly in the Himalayan region. Whereas the Shravakayana9Shravakayana (श्रावकयान) = "the vehicle of the shravakas (listeners)", one of the three yanas known to Indian Buddhism (along with the Pratyekabuddhayana and Mahayana). The Shravakayana path leads to the goals of an arhat, an individual who achieves liberation as a result of listening to the teachings (or lineage) of a Samyaksambuddha (i.e. fully enlightened Buddha, such as Shakyamuni Buddha) - see Shravakayana. is practiced in places like Burma, Sri Lanka, etc. [Sometimes the Shravakayana is] called “Hinayana"10Hinayana (हीनयान) = the lesser vehicle - see Hinayana., which is by the way a derogatory term. It’s a Mahayana chauvinist term, so we don’t want to use this term “Hinayana”. And sometimes people even think that the Mahayana is greater as in hierarchy, but this is not really a proper understanding, I would say. The word “maha” has something to do with view and attitude and therefore behaviour. So if we manage to cover some of the important points here, we will discuss the Mahayana attitude towards life, towards everything. The Mahayana school of Buddhism, on which this sutra is based, has a different way of looking at things. [However] we are not merely or necessarily talking about hierarchy. This is something I want to put first.
So, in the Mahayana tradition, the Pundarika Sutra is a very important sutra. Now why is it important? As a human being - and not just as a human being, but generally as a sentient being - we have something called hope. We always have hope and fear. And in our life, hope is important. And another important factor for life and for living beings in general, but especially for human beings, is confidence. Confidence not just as a human, but simply as a being. Confidence is very important. If you look at it, the majority of our suffering comes because we are suffering with [a lack of] confidence. There’s no good confidence. No healthy confidence. And therefore the majority of the people don’t feel hopeful. Instead they feel more fearful. They feel hopeless. They feel low.
The base for hope and confidence
I’m just tapping [into] one aspect of the Lotus Sutra, so please don’t think that I’m covering everything. Now even from the hope and confidence point of view, the Lotus Sutra really gives us the base for hope. When we talk about hope, when we talk about confidence, there should be a base for our hope. For instance, if you’re washing charcoal, and you think that one day the charcoal will become white [rather than] black, there is no base. [Whereas] if you are washing a dirty cup, there is a base. There is a non-deceiving, undeceiving base for the hope that the cup will become clean. This is what the Lotus Sutra really essentialises, and I think it is so important. As I was saying earlier, for parenting, schooling, relationships, everything - you need hope and you need confidence.
As I was saying, even though I have made some sort of notes and I have the sutra itself right in front of me, because of the shortage of time I can’t cover everything. So I’m just going to say whatever comes into my mind, which means it’s not going to be too cohesive or orderly, so you will have to excuse this.
The perils of trying to change people
I was talking about school and education. For instance, education is very important. Now, [when it comes to] educating a kid, let’s say that from the Lotus Sutra’s point of view - I’m playing with the words a bit - from the Lotus Sutra’s point of view, the way we look at and approach education is fundamentally wrong. Giving an education to a kid is the most precarious and the worst thing you could do. But you have no choice. You need to educate your kid [that] when there’s a red light, you stop. When there’s a green light, you go. Otherwise in the conventional world, you [will] suffer. But from the Lotus Sutra’s point of view, a child is perfect as it is. Actually, on the fundamental level everybody is perfect. And they have forgotten this, because they are so entangled with [ideas like] “We are not perfect, we need education, we need a lot of this sort of shaping up [and] alteration.” And this is where things go wrong.
I think this information is quite important. Even as a Buddhist teacher myself, my teacher used to tell me, “When I teach, you should always think that I’m doing something very precarious here”. Basically brainwashing. Basically making somebody a little not normal. And usually it’s your point of view, which you have studied from books, and from the culture that you were brought up in. So I don’t know whether you are contributing [anything helpful if you are a teacher]. Are you really contributing? From the Lotus Sutra’s point of view, so to speak, not really. But we know that we need to do this out of skilful means, like [the example of] the red light and the green light. But the thing is, if the teacher has that [understanding] as a base, the teacher is already a humble person. Then the teacher already knows, “Okay, I’m doing something that is not really the best thing, but out of necessity I’m doing this”. And in a very ironic or twisted way, that is hope. It’s like a base for confidence.
[And it’s] just like that [for] relationships. If we have time we can talk about that, because that’s important. Relationships. Human relationships. Have you ever wondered why there’s one particular being [with whom] we can stay together, and we love this being more and more? [Whereas] when two human beings are together, we begin to see faults, and we begin to have conflict. But this particular being that you like more and more is a dog. You like dogs more and more. Partly because the dogs don’t talk. Well, we say that they talk and we have all sorts of assumptions and interpretations [about what’s they’re communicating]. Who knows whether it’s a sign of their joy when they’re wagging their tail? But we have these kind of assumptions.
And again, here we’re not really saying [there should be] no education and no relationships. We’re not saying that. [Rather], we’re talking about having a genuine confidence and genuine hope. And genuine humility also. This [genuine] confidence is very much [related to] humility. And this is one of the main the main subjects, the backbone or the spine of the Lotus Sutra, the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra.
Let me elaborate on this a little bit. If we move to the [topic of the] spiritual path, we talk about virtue. All spiritual paths talk about virtue, “This is the right thing to do. This is not the right thing. This is the wrong thing to do". But when we talk about virtue, it also has to have a base, [in order for us to be able] to decide what is virtuous.
Why is not virtuous to wash charcoal with the hope that it will become white? Because I will lead you to disappointment. [The charcoal is] never going to become white. And if you think it’s going to become white, you’re [setting yourself] up for suffering. [Whereas even if] the cup is so stained with sauce and all sorts of dirt, and it looks so dirty, [we have confidence that we can clean it]. So when we wash it, why do have confidence that it will become clean? And also, for many of us - I don’t know if this makes sense - there’s a joy in dishwashing. Why? It’s like you can claim [credit for] the result of it [becoming] pristine and clean, but actually it’s not you who made it clean. The cup is inherently clean. But you can claim the credit, "I used the soap, I used the dishwashing machine, I used this and that, and here [is the clean cup].” And then people also get so happy with you.
You can claim [that you cleaned the cup], but the real pristine and clean [nature] exists within the cup itself. So [there is] a base. When you wash a cup, it has a base. It will become clean. You know that no cup is going to deceive you, [for example there is no cup where] you wash and wash [the cup] and it never becomes clean. You can trust. You can take refuge.
This is what the Lotus Sutra will say. There is a point in the Lotus Sutra where we talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And what it really means is - coming back to the example - that you can refuge in the fact that the cup will become [clean]. It will not deceive you. It will be clean. If you clean it, it will become clean. It will never deceive you. That is important. So yes, in Buddhism we talk about virtue and non-virtue. I’m sure that many other religions also talk about virtue and non-virtue. But in Buddhism, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, we talk about virtue and non-virtue based on this - the Lotus Sutra’s point that we are all fundamentally pure and clean. If we lose that, then the Buddhist interpretation of virtue and non-virtue would become so theistic, so religious, so dogmatic and so extreme. Then we [would] have to believe in inherently existing non-virtue, sin, and so forth.
Another thing is discipline. Every religion or spiritual system has discipline. Buddhists also have many kinds of discipline. And what is [held to be] good discipline in one school of Buddhism is not necessarily good discipline in another. As we discussed yesterday, the gentleman [Ed.: a monk] sitting right in front of me is busy shaving his hair, as if growing hair is not the right thing. You understand? Monks do this. Do we have yogis here? There are yogis who keep their hair. That’s their discipline11Ed.: Even for something as simple as cutting hair, different Buddhist schools have completely different views on what is considered good discipline. Monks shave their heads, whereas some yogis never cut their hair. In both cases, they are practicing according to the discipline of their path.. [Similarly, to] eat meat or not eat meat. All kinds of discipline. There are so many [kinds of discipline].
[More] fundamentally, sitting straight when you meditate. Buddhists would prefer you to sit straight when you meditate rather than lying down on a hammock, even though Buddhists would never say this won’t do. It can. But they prefer that you sit straight and all this. Why have discipline? Again, let’s go back to the base. If there is no base, then discipline has no foundation. It’s like going back to the cup and the washing. Even washing requires discipline, and that discipline works. The discipline is undeceiving and necessary, all because the base is pure and clean.
Maybe just one more. Mindfulness. Meditation. This is also really important to know. Many people think that Buddhists meditate [in order] to be less stressed. [But] you know, Mahayana people don’t care a bit about whether you are stressed or not. Actually, many [contemporary] meditators and mindfulness people, they are more stressed [because they are worried that they are] not being mindful. If you have lost the wisdom of this Pundarika Sutra, [then] mindfulness is really a cause for constipation. Because you’re always worried “Am I mindful? Is my mind all right?” And so forth.
So mindfulness - why be mindful? You know, within Buddhism itself there are sutras after sutras, shastras after shastras, that make mockery of the technique of mindfulness. If you read some of the higher tantric texts, you know what they call mindfulness? Gompé trang12gompé trang (སྒོམ་པའི་འཕྲང་) = the ravine of meditation - see gompé trang.. Trang13trang (འཕྲང་) = narrow dangerous path (on a cliff or in a ravine); narrow defile; perilous journey; ambush - see trang. is - how should I describe it? It's like an edge. So maybe imagine [something] like this [DJKR holds up his text cover with the narrow edge on top]. So you are walking [along] this [narrow path], and on both sides is an abyss or cliff. This is what meditation is. It is a treacherous journey. All meditation is, actually.
This is why in the tantras they actually sort of laugh at meditation. The so-called technique of meditation has so many booby traps. Some are specially designed, deliberately designed. Others you design along the way. As you progress, your own mind creates booby traps. And there are also railings that you can hold onto. You know, you are walking on this very precarious journey, walking on this path. And then you have these railings and hinges that you can hold onto, [but] they’re all made out of Lego. [You know,] the toy [with the pieces that] don’t stick [together]? All of these meditation references and railings are there to make you feel secure and [give you] some sort of direction, but all of them can easily collapse. All are easily dismantled.
So again, when we talk about mindfulness or meditation, we need a base. By doing meditation, do we go somewhere? Do we reach somewhere? What’s the difference between being mindful and not being mindful? Is there a base or foundation, so that by doing so-called mindfulness we actually gain something? This is what is being covered in the Pundarika Sutra.
2. What is the base? Tathagatagarbha / Buddhanature
So now, I guess, the main question is what is this base that I’ve been talking about? I think this is covered in chapters one, two and four of the text. I think it depends a little on different editions also. So what is this base that I’ve been talking about? First, I will just throw out the term: Tathagatagarbha, Buddhanature, the basic goodness of beings. That’s what we are talking about. Tathagatagarbha. Buddhanature.
This is what Mahayana people think: everybody is Buddha.
Not just human beings. Insects, every being is Buddha. That’s it. Fundamentally, that’s it. One [might] think, “Oh, that’s not only encouraging and simple, but why [then do we need] all these Buddhist teachings? You know, the 84000 teachings? Why this meditation? Why didn’t Buddha just say “Everybody is Buddha”, and then that’s it, the job is done. [Surely] all this penance and practice is not necessary?” It doesn’t work like this. As the Tibetan masters have said, [it’s] like your eyelashes: they’re too close. You don’t see them.
The Buddha is very much within [you]. It’s much closer than your own nose. But because it’s so close, you don’t see it. And also not only is it close, but it’s also so simple. The moment the word “Buddha” is mentioned, most of the time people think in terms of halos, third eyes and gently walking with a begging bowl. Golden colour and all that. Siddhartha, the Prince of the Shakyas. But we are not talking about this kind of Buddha. In fact, in another Mahayana sutra, the Vajracchedika Sutra, Buddha strongly condemned [this way of thinking about the Buddha]. He said if you see Buddha as a form, like a beautiful looking man with a halo and all that, you have the wrong idea. And this was followed by a great Zen master who said, ”If you see the Buddha on the road, you should kill him”14Ed.: attributed to the 9th-century master Linji Yixuan (simplified Chinese: 临济义玄; traditional Chinese: 臨濟義玄), the founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism in China during the Tang Dynasty.. [That is also] very much based on this teaching.
Why did Buddha teach shunyata?
One question is: why did Buddha teach shunyata, emptiness? Why didn’t Buddha [just] say, “You are Buddha. That’s it. Job done?” In another similar sutra, this is what Buddha said. Let’s say a mother has a new-born baby, and for the baby’s survival, the mother's milk is very important, absolutely important. But the baby is not well for the time being, and the doctor finds that maybe for ten or twenty days the baby should refrain from drinking the mother’s milk. So then what [should the mother] do? The mother should apply something very bitter on her nipple, and so forth. Like shooing away, discouraging the baby from drinking the mother’s milk.
Likewise, Buddha said that actually it’s so important for beings to know that they are Buddha. This is why in one of the chapters, the Lotus Sutra says, “This is the absolute sutra. This is so important. Only this sutra, this is the king of the sutras. Merely reciting even the title of this sutra will do”. I guess this is where the practices such as Namo Saddharma Pundarika Sutra - prostration to the Lotus Sutra and so forth - must have come [from]. I totally believe that. And yes, [people] should do that. And this is expressed in part of the sutra. And not only that. Buddha said, “As long as on this earth there is somebody talking about Buddhanature and Tathagatagarbha, as long as there is the concept that within us we are the Buddha, as long as this teaching is alive, then Buddhism is still alive”. If you lose that concept, then shunyata, this paramita, that paramita, this tantra, that tantra - [none of that will] work.
Even now, I’m just as ordinary as you. But the only confidence I have [that allows me] to sit higher than you and get all this attention is again [because of] the sutra. Buddha said, “In the future, in the denigrated times, if the words of Tathagatagarbha, of Buddhanature, come out - even from a hunter or a prostitute - you should revere and pay homage to that person, as [you would to] the Buddha”. Because this is the most important message that people should hear: the innate Buddha.
I’m losing my thread. You need to help me rewind this! Yes, so I was talking about the baby and the milk. Why teach shunyata? According to the Buddha, he said that shunyata is like applying this bitter substance on the mother’s nipple. To shoo away the baby for the time being. Because for ten or twenty days, maybe the baby should not drink the mother’s milk. That’s why shunyata is taught. This should actually be kind of shocking for some of the madhyamaka students, because we always praise shunyata as the most important teaching. But actually this is what Buddha said. For the time being, the baby should be discouraged from the milk, [although] the baby can’t stay away too long from the mother’s milk. Why? Because the baby could get sick.
Just like that, for the time being, some of the students should hear the teachings on shunyata15shunyata (शून्यता) = emptiness; lack of true existence; illusory nature (of all worldly phenomena); the ultimate nature of phenomena, namely their lack of inherent existence - see shunyata., [namely that] things do not truly exist. Why? There’s a good reason. We, as human beings, as defiled beings, we have so much clinging to something called “self”, “me”, “I”, or ego. Maybe the soul is along those lines [also]. You know, Buddhists don’t have the concept of soul.
This ego, the self, is actually an illusion. But sometimes students can mix up this Buddhanature / Tathagatagarbha, and the self or ego. And [when you do] that, you don’t gain confidence. The ego and self do not produce confidence. It’s actually the opposite. Selfishness produces insecurity. It’s very evident, from the printing of business cards to getting a promotion. Everything. When you cherish yourself, it only leads you to insecurity, [whereas] understanding Buddhanature and this fundamental purity gives you confidence. So it’s for this reason that shunyata is taught.
And then eventually everybody must hear [the teachings on Buddhanature], and this is the only way16Ed.: The Lotus Sutra reveals that all the skilful means of the three vehicles are part of the One Vehicle (Ekayāna), which is also the Bodhisattva path.. And it’s sometimes called “Buddha’s Vehicle”, and there’s a whole chapter about all these different vehicles, yanas, schools and stages. They’re actually all there as skilful means, but eventually you all have to come to the conclusion that we are all pure. And only that can give us confidence and clarity.
How do we cultivate Buddhanature?
Now, it’s all very well that we have Buddhanature. How do we cultivate it? How do we recognise it? How do we have a taste of it at least? A glimpse of it? There are so many, many methods. So many. The simpler and higher the method, of course, the easier [it is] to miss and to misinterpret also. This is taught, basically, in what we call the tantrayana, where [it could be something] as simple as when someone gets frightened or falls a few steps. And right at that very moment, if there happens to be a very skilled master, a very accomplished master, and if you also trust this master, [then] this master could point out, “There. That clear, uncontaminated, uncontrived, unfabricated, naked mind. Watch that”. [And if the] student, the disciple, [is] also without any bias, without any preconception, without any reference, [then] looking at that naked mind [they might] either have a glimpse of it, or have a full awakening. And [then they might] totally get liberated from all kinds of entanglements. That is possible. But this is more taught in the section of the Mahayana called Vajrayana or tantrayana.
Now in the Mahayana, which is what this sutra is about, there are many levels, and I will share maybe one or two. One is deductive. I always give this example. If you have never tasted salt in your life, and my job is to introduce you to the taste of salt, that’s a challenge because you don’t know what salt is in the first place. So how am I supposed to explain this to you? A skilled master would then give the student sugar, chilis, coriander, I don’t know, radish, whatever. All [kinds of] different tastes. And then [the master will] let the student [taste] them. And then one by one the master will say, “That’s not it. The salt that I’m talking about doesn’t taste like this”. There is a rich tradition of introducing things that are not Buddhanature, and then slowly, slowly guiding the student into the experience of Tathagatagarbha. That’s one.
Another one is using analogy. This is maybe a little bit complicated, but maybe it’s also something that you can relate to. Let’s say you have everything. You’re not so sick. Your phone is working. Your car is working. Your family is all fine. Everything is sort of working. But [despite this] you always have some sort of awkward feeling that something is missing. This is very beautifully explained by the commentator bodhisattva Maitreya in his book Uttaratantra-shastra. It’s so beautiful. Basically, “depression” is maybe not the right word, but something along those lines. Feeling empty, “Is this all there is to this life? Breakfast, lunch, dinner, people, parties, job?” [You feel] some sort of calling from inside. And that is because the Buddhanature, the Tathagatagarbha, is knocking, saying, “Hey, you have something that you are ignoring all the time. You are distracted. You are not knowing me. This is the real you”.
And this is where you need to have [the following] picture. Buddhists talk about renunciation. Teachings such as suffering. Buddhists are somehow known for talking about suffering all the time. It’s not a good branding of Buddhism, I think. But there is a reason why Buddhists talk about suffering a lot. This is what Buddhists think. For instance, none of you are carrying your Barbie doll or water gun [right now]. What happened? When you were a [child], these were priceless things. If somebody snatched your Barbie doll, you would cry bitterly. But you renounced it, because you grew up. The Barbie doll doesn't talk or change clothes or blink. And as you grow up then you begin to have other stuff, I don’t know, like Ferrari cars. Fridge. Phone. Computer. Other stuff. But then [eventually] you also renounce all that, because [you realise that] it’s futile.
It’s like an app in your phone. [When you download a] new app you get excited, but then [after a while] you hardly even remember that you have downloaded that app. You automatically renounce it. And when you reach 90 years old, of course no more Barbie doll, no more Ferrari, but then maybe [you get excited about] tablecloths, salt shakers, I don’t know. Whatever it is. What the Pundarika sutra would say is: okay, since you’re going to get rid of all of this, can you do it more quickly? Why take all this time [before you] realise that it’s futile? Because by [the time you’re] 99 [years old] you’ll realise, “Oh, all of this is kind of pointless”. So why can’t you speed it up a little bit? For example, get done with it within ten years, and then do something more meaningful. Like exploration. Go to Machu Picchu. Or go under a tree and watch your own show, which is called mindfulness I guess. And stuff like this.
We avoid facing the awkwardness, boredom and loneliness of our lives
Why don’t you do something meaningful? And when we say “meaningful” we are talking about looking inward, really trying to come back to this base called Tathagatagarbha. Why don’t you do that? This one is really important, but it’s kind of difficult for us to understand. The reason why it’s difficult is because we’re so in love with a certain box that we are in. And as much as you [might] claim that you’re special, meaning that [unlike everyone else you think] you are supposedly outside the box, but you are not. Okay, probably sometimes you are outside, but then you have already made another box there. So you are still in the box.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say - and I’m trying to interpret this here - [is that] when you’re inside this box of worldly life, you have a lot of praise, you have a lot of attention, and you have a lot of friends. But you feel awkward. You feel something is not right. And that is the warmth [of Tathagatagarbha]. It’s like before you actually get burned by the fire, you can already feel the warmth of the fire. Likewise this occasional [awkwardness] is the warmth of the Tathagatagarbha within you, but usually what happens is as soon as you [experience] that warmth, you panic. You take Panadol. You throw parties. You text somebody, to numb yourself. Entertainment is basically numbing yourself so that you don’t have to [face this awkwardness].
Boredom. Boredom and loneliness. Why do you feel bored? Have you ever wondered? It's because you have Buddhanature, that’s why. Actually. I don’t know whether you’re understanding this correctly. But if you didn’t have Buddhanature, you wouldn’t feel bored or lonely. I mean [you might think it’s] about time you don’t feel lonely, after all this [entertainment] that we have. How many channels do we have on TV now? But we feel loneliness. Boredom. This is because the real thing is kicking. This is sort of tricky to understand. It needs more explanation I guess, but it’s something that you should think about.
Cultivating longing and aspiration for Tathagatagarbha
And then the standard classic way to approach this Tathagatagarbha is through longing for it. This is important, and this is very much covered in the Lotus Sutra. Longing for Buddhanature. Longing for the Tathagatagarbha. Longing. Because right now we are longing for the other ones [i.e. samsaric goals]. Longing for this innate nature, Tathagatagarbha. Longing for this.
And in order to long for it, you need to hear about it. You need to read about it. And this I guess is where reading the name of the sutra again and again comes from. But as I said, things get a little derailed [in our lives]. Instead of longing for the innate Tathagatagarbha, maybe people are longing for better homes, better relationships, success in their job, and so forth. Because if you do that, then fundamentally you are going away from the base.
But if you have not forgotten the base, then all these [other things] are like a bonus. And yes of course, you should [accept them]. Why not? If there’s a bonus, by all means you should accept it. But I think your attention should be focussed not on the bonus, but on the real profit. Should we take a break? I think so. It’s too long I think. And when we come back, I will say a few more words and then if you want [you can] ask some questions.
[Q]: Rinpoche, I have a question about animals, about dogs. Sometimes we see a lot of dogs suffering, and we don’t know what to do with them. Would it be all right to apply a dog euthanasia to some of them if we can’t really help them?
[DJKR]: Of course. All beings have Buddhanature. [DJKR misheard “euthanasia” as “Buddhanature”]. And in fact, recently someone even asked me, how about robots? Because now in this century, supposedly there will be AI, artificial intelligence, that is coming up. And someone asked me, “How about AI? Do they have Buddhanature?” If the AI has fear and hope, yes. And if the AI gets bored and lonely, absolutely. But I have to define this a little bit. If the boredom and loneliness is uncontrollable. So this is why to be a Buddhist, all you need is cognisance. It doesn’t matter what you look like. You can look like a box. It doesn’t matter. If you have cognisance then you have Buddhanature. And yes I agree with you, and actually I’ll make a note of what you said. I wanted to talk about compassion. The base of compassion.
[Someone off-mic explains that the question was about euthanising animals]
[DJKR]: Oh euthanise? I didn’t hear. You mean [should we] end [a dog's] life? Ah, that’s different. Because as human beings, we are deciding [on behalf of the dog]. As I said, you can’t really talk to a dog and say, “Hello, do you want [me] to end your life now because you are in pain?” More likely we living beings, no matter what, I think the majority of us would like to live even one minute longer if we had a choice. So that’s a very difficult question, because you don’t know [what your dog wants]. And moreover, according to Buddhism, whatever you do becomes a cause for habits. You get habituated. For instance, like smoking. If you smoke, it is possible that it can become a habit. So killing oneself or taking someone else’s life through whatever means, gently or not gently, it could become a habit.
And then we don’t know. Our mind is very convoluted and defiled. And many times [we're] like a crazy psychiatrist helping a normal person. Most psychiatrists are themselves crazy, and they’re trying to "help" this normal person until they reach the psychiatrist’s point of view of [what] normal person [should be like]. It’s similar to [the idea of] education that I was talking about earlier, kids’ education, and what we are teaching them. I think fundamentally, [it’s having] this knowledge that whatever we do [in trying to help others], yes it’s with a good intention of course, but basically it’s not [always with] humility.
[Q]: you may be planning to cover this but I was wondering if you are going to be touching on the context of the Lotus Sutra and who are the players and what the sutra per se is.
[DJKR]: That’s a really big one. Rajgir is the place. Is that good enough? That’s saying a lot. Do you know that the whole of China and Japan and Korea has been influenced by some place called Rajgir in Bihar? You should be quite amazed. Look at the state of Bihar now. There was so much influence - in the courts, paintings, folklore, songs, music, wow - so much influence from this tiny village called Rajgir. Maybe in those days it was slightly bigger. That’s quite an important thing, especially for Indians to know.
[Q]: You mentioned about charcoal and the cup. That the charcoal cannot be cleansed and a cup can be ...
[DJKR]: The thinking that it will become white ...
[Q]: Are there humans who are like charcoal, and no matter what you do they cannot be cleansed? And are there humans who can be cleansed?
[DJKR]: This is actually a classic technical question.
[Q]: Are there manufacturing defects? That’s what I’m asking.
[DJKR]: No. Especially the madhyamaka school, they don’t believe [that]. All beings, not only human beings, they are by nature pure. Buddha. That’s the whole thing. But according to some schools, they say that even though their nature is pure, there are beings who may have difficult in accepting it. That’s for sure.
[Q]: Are there people who get happiness from being impure and evil?
[DJKR]: Okay, I will tell you something. And this [is] classic Indian philosophy by the way. We Bhutanese and Tibetans have learned from the Indians. I’m teasing you guys a little bit. Indians have all this twisted logic, and we have learned this. I myself have learned this twisted logic for over 20 years. This is what the Mahayana people will say. If you are evil … how do you define evil? Let’s say you punch somebody [with the intention to] create pain. Using very twisted [logic], the Mahayana people say that this alone is proof enough that you can learn compassion. Can you see the logic? Because you know what is pain. If you don’t know what is pain, then no matter what I teach you, nothing will work. Let’s say a branch falls on your head. It doesn’t think, “Oh, I want to create pain on his head.” So I can’t teach compassion to a branch. But when you beat somebody, you know what is pain, because you have been beaten up by someone and you learned. You have that education. And you are now using that knowledge [with] someone else. So this means you have empathy. And this is really good material to work on.
How do bodhisattvas view sentient beings?
And on that note, I’m going to continue with the earlier question [about the dog], and this is quite an important question. Because we are talking about compassion and bodhisattva activity. For those of you who are new to Buddhist teachings, bodhisattvas are people who have taken a vow to liberate sentient beings, to put it very simply. So the practice of the bodhisattva is compassion, love, and bodhichitta, which is the mind to enlighten all sentient beings. All sentient beings, not like one village or one country or your friends or family. All.
Now, how is that possible? Is that just being poetic? Is it just an arbitrary concept such as world peace, that we have been talking about for centuries but never really materialising? Is it just wishful thinking? No. Why not? Back to the base of the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra. Because when the bodhisattva looks at sentient beings, they see them as already [being] the Buddha. So that is the base that gives the bodhisattva the confidence to work with sentient beings. In the commentary, one of the examples, a very good example, is of a very smart gold merchant looking at gold ore - unpolished, unrefined gold that just looks like a piece of dirt. If you are a good gold merchant, you are as happy [with unrefined gold ore] as with getting polished gold, a nicely refined gold chain or gold earring. You’re as happy as that. Why? Because you know that gold ore is just gold. You don’t see the dirt. The merchants go beyond that dirt. They don’t even see it. They only see the gold.
This is how the bodhisattva looks at sentient beings. They don’t see anger, evil, jealousy, and pride. That’s the unpolished part. The bodhisattva sees the potential. The word is “potential”, I guess, especially in the Pundarika Sutra. There’s a very big chapter. [DJKR asks audience member] Do you remember? [DJKR has off-mic conversation, in which chapters 6, 8 and 12 are suggested as covering "potential"]. Okay. I’ll try to find it.
How do prayer and blessings work?
On a similar context, on a similar subject. Prayer. Buddhists also do prayers. The question is: does prayer really work? Really? To whom do we pray? Does prayer really work, or is it just more arbitrary wishful thinking? Mahayana Buddhists will say no [it’s not just wishful thinking]. Why? Because of Buddhanature. It is not wrong for me to wish that my dirty cup will become clean, because [the cup] is undeceiving. Even though [the cup] looks dirty when you are not washing it, you know that actually the dirt is not [inherently] there as its nature. It’s temporary. It’s removable. That’s the pillar and the heart of prayer.
Okay, let’s move on to blessing. How does blessing work? Is there really somebody giving a blessing, and a receiver of this blessing? Yes, you can [say this] on the relative level. But the real blessing is this: you are Buddha already. This is the real blessing. And this is quite an important element of Mahayana Buddhism. I think that many religions have some sort of dualism, where there’s [a hierarchy] for example, there’s God and mortal human beings. And gods are gods, they are perfect beings, whereas mortals are not perfect. But what is their [means of] communication? How do [we] communicate from “pure” to “not pure”? I guess many religions come up with answers like a half-god, half-human communicator, a sort of broadband between the gods and the mortals. What is the Mahayana Buddhist broadband? Buddhanature. You have the Buddha. Your Buddhanature is the broadband, so to speak. You [already] have it. You don’t have to buy it or download it.
You can roll inside the mud of samsara, this impure world, for millions of lifetimes. Your Buddhanature is not going to reduce or decrease one little bit. You could spend time in a pure monastery or nunnery for thousands of years. Your Buddhanature is not going to grow or become better. It is perfect as is it. And there are so many examples given in the shastras. One example is of a destitute poor being sleeping on his bed, and under the bed there’s a treasure mine, but he hasn’t realised this. For so many years after years, he’s sleeping right on top of the treasure mine. [This] needs to be understood.
Like a seed. Like a mango seed, a mango and a mango tree. The seed doesn’t remotely look like a mango or a mango tree. It looks so small and nothing. But with the right cause and conditions, [it becomes] tree and fruit and flower. You and I don’t remotely look like the Buddha, but like the mango seed, we have that [potential]. All we need is water and fertiliser and all of those causes and conditions. There are so many examples.
The outer Buddha is the reflection of our innate Buddhanature
Let’s go back to the blessing. Okay, this is quite an important one. How does blessing work? So you are suffering, you are in pain. I don’t know, perhaps you want a Ferrari or something like this. So you pray to the Buddha. [Maybe] you have an outer Buddha like a statue or a shrine. And in a Buddhist mind, Buddha is a perfect being. He’s a prince who renounced his palace life, who has 32 major marks, 80 minor marks, golden colour, shining, halo, all that paraphernalia of the Buddha. And you think he’s holy, he’s divine, all of this. This is your projection. This is your mind making it. And what [is this] mind? Again, we come back to the Tathagatagarbha. So it is actually like looking at the mirror. When you look at the mirror, your face appears there. So the Buddha that the Buddhists are talking about is actually the reflection of your innate Buddha. [It’s the] innate Buddhanature that you’re reflecting there [as the outer Buddha].
By the way, the thief, the burglar, the bad guy is also your mind’s projection. But because of karmic conditions, you don’t have the capacity to pay homage to the thief when he comes to your house. You don’t think, “Ah, the Buddha arrives”. Because of your karmic conditions you think “Oh, this is a thief”. Even though it is just another of your reflections. But for those who are following the Buddha, the reflection of the Buddha is just the reflection of your true nature. And if you pray, basically what you are doing is praying to your own reflection, and then that slowly, slowly uncovers the innate Buddhanature. And realising, actualising this innate Buddhanature is what we call the blessing. So it’s not really coming down from somewhere. This is how the Pundarika Sutra will put it.
You have been hearing this again and again, [something] very intellectual, very academic, very theoretical. Some of you might want to go home with some sort of a technique to get closer to this basic goodness of human beings, so what we will do is we will do a so-called meditation aiming to touch the base of the Buddhanature. Just briefly. But please, if there are more questions.
[Q]: Do you think humans are all hypocrites, like how we are always searching for happiness but if there is someone kind in front of us helping other people they’re called dumb? Do you think they’re all hypocrites?
[DJKR]: Yes, but human beings also have a lot of nice qualities. And many so-called nice qualities are also not so nice at times. Many so-called not so nice qualities can also take you somewhere. They can awaken you. It’s too complicated. It’s really, really complicated. Maybe we are talking about something separate. We’re talking about morality here. In Buddhism morality always takes second place. Wisdom is the most important. Morality without wisdom is a source of righteousness. It’s puritanical. It’s not going to liberate you or others. It will just create more pride and hypocrisy.
[Q]: Rinpoche, with the strong cultural and wisdom traditions we have in our country, most of us have grown up with some or a lot of exposure to the various facets and schools of what I guess is now called Hinduism. Many of us also have exposure to Sikhism and Sikh culture. Many of us have also been exposed to Islam, especially Sufi culture or the Sufi way of thought. Unfortunately we’ve not had as much exposure to the Buddha’s teachings. To the extent that for some people it almost feels foreign. So how can we in some way respect or continue to have or practice our cultural traditions, but yet be able to study and learn from and contemplate on the Buddha’s teachings?
[DJKR]: Well, first I think Buddhism generally and probably Jainism also, is not so useful from the human social point of view. I always say this. Buddhists don’t even have a proper, good marriage ceremony in the sutras. They don’t think about these things. Buddhists only talk about the truth stuff. So I always say this, how do you have a Buddhist marriage? After the wedding ceremony you say, “Okay, everything is impermanent. You might get divorced tonight”. So it doesn’t have these kinds of socially [oriented customs] directly. Indirectly, as I said, in schools, in our education policy, in our management policy, in our environment, commerce, whatever, if we have some understanding of this Buddhanature for instance, I think it will make a big difference. The world will become more compassionate and more understanding. [There will be] more appreciation towards something called dependent arising and so forth.
I think Buddhism in general is declining a bit everywhere. Buddhism has always been adopted really strongly in China and still today, it is quite amazing that after some thirty, forty of fifty years of Cultural Revolution and all that, Buddhism just sprang up again, almost overnight. But I was saying this recently in Europe, I just came back a few days ago, that Buddhism talks about nonduality a lot. That’s like the quintessence [of Buddhism]. If there’s any species on this earth that will feel at home with nonduality, it’ll be Indians. I really think so. So based on that, I think there’s still a lot of chance. Because in India, whatever is supposedly bad today, tomorrow it’s good. Everything. There aren’t so many clear distinctions between what is bad [and what is good] and these are really good ingredients for Buddhist study. I think even from the social point of view, it would be really good if India can embrace Buddhism a little bit more.
Probably I’m going to annoy my Indian friends here. I always say this: India really hasn’t produced anything that is impressive as an export good so far. Is there? Is there an Indian good that is being exported that has an important impact? I don’t think so, not so much. Maybe Bollywood a little bit. Yoga a little bit. Cotton maybe. Not so much, I don’t think so. You can argue with me. But Buddhism. That’s a big export, and it’s a very important soft power I think, if people wake up to this. And it's now taking root even in the West. In academic, intellectual [circles]. And you know, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, you can’t claim that they’re Indian, because they’re gods, they don’t have citizenship. But Buddha, he was - at the risk of annoying the Nepalis - you can say he was an Indian prince, and Buddhists say he was a human being.
And if Buddhist philosophy had nothing much to offer, then that [would be] another thing. But values such as dependent arising and the basic goodness of human beings, these are really important, especially for now. More than ever. I really strongly believe this. If three American senators were to believe in the basic goodness of human beings, I think it would change how the world works. I think fundamentally on the education level. So India should pay some attention to Buddhism. And tantric Buddhism. Wow. What a gift from India to the world. It's so amazing. It’s the most magical, and it’s still alive and vibrant. It would do good [for India to pay some attention to this].
[Q]: Rinpoche, you just said we are all seeds, and the mango tree lies latent within us. So what are the fertiliser, water and sunlight that will make us grow into the tree?
[DJKR]: Oh, [there are] so many. And [the appropriate fertiliser] depends on different beings. For instance, feeling lonely and feeling bored, even that is a fertiliser. Instead of numbing it, which is what we usually do - by entertaining ourselves, getting distracted, trying to get distracted - maybe [we could] take advantage of that. That’s actually one of the best fertilisers. But it’s kind of hard to do, because nobody wants to “suffer”, you know. Then longing for the true nature, searching, questioning. That’s a big one. The Buddha said this. Question, question, question. Not for the sake of answers. Question for the sake of questioning. Again and again. Stuff like this. Also contemplation, which will we do very soon, after a few more questions.
[Q]: You were talking about potential. Can you elaborate a little bit further, what it means? Its description?
[DJKR]: I think the Tibetan word kham is a translation of the Sanskrit word dhatu17dhatu (धातु) = element, factor, primitive matter - see dhatu., which means “element”. It’s like this. To make tea, there are some elements that you need. Some really important elements. The cup is not the most important element. I guess you can even drink tea with your hands if necessary, if you have no choice. But nowadays, [many contemporary] Buddhists worry more about the cup. That’s a problem, but let’s not talk about this now.
For tea, well, a very big element is the tea leaf itself. And then I guess the water. Without the tea leaves, there is no tea. So that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about dhatu or element. Like fire and the fire’s heat. Or water and moisture. The moisture is the element of the water. So when Mahayana [Buddhists] look at a sentient being, [for them] the cognisance or cognising - like hearing, getting bored, getting agitated, feeling like scratching, whatever - this cognisance is the element of the Buddha.
But when the tea leaf is not inside the water, it doesn’t look like [the cup of tea] that you drink. It doesn’t look like that at all. Especially when it is in a bag now. Similarly, right now you and me don’t look like a Buddha. We don’t function like a Buddha, don’t think like a Buddha, don’t talk like a Buddha, and don’t dress like a Buddha. I don’t mean that you need to shave your head and all of that. But that kham, dhatu, the element or ingredient is there. Intact. Nothing missing. That’s what the Lotus Sutra says. And by the way, even the title of the Lotus Sutra is significant. The lotus is born in the mud, [but] it's never stained by the mud. Likewise, our Buddhanature [may be] surrounded or wrapped with negative defilements, whatever, but it is always clean and pure and pristine.
[Q]: Rinpoche, are our basic instincts like the Buddhanature? Or or they close to the Buddhanature?
[DJKR]: Basic instincts? That may be a little bit different. I don’t know what you are talking about. Instinct. What is instinct? “Basic” is fine. But instinct, as in reflex? Probably that’s not Buddhanature. This is important and we will end it here. If you ask me, “Prove to me that there is Buddhanature.” How come? Day by day all I feel is negative. I’m filled with negative emotions. How do I know that there is Buddhanature? Minute by minute, moment by moment, I’m filled with all this dirt. How do I know there is Buddhanature? The Mahayana answer is: because your dirt and your defilements are all temporary. They can all be purified and removed. This is one of the main reasons. And you should accept that. For instance, when you get angry, how long do you get angry? I mean, one week? One month? Two months? One year? Your emotions come and go. They are all temporary. And this is good proof. Another example is the clouds covering the sun. The clouds go, and you think the sun arises. But it’s not true. The sun is always there [behind the clouds].
We have talked about Buddhanature a little bit, so [here is something] practical we can do.
Setting the right intention
Now, this is important. [We should do this] with the motivation and intention of experiencing, tapping [into], getting acquainted [with], and recognising this basic goodness of human beings / Buddhanature / Tathagatagarbha. Whatever you want to call it. That should be the motivation. That’s important. Not for a good life, not for a good car, not for success. Remember the hay and the rice? You should look for rice, not for hay. That is important.
The practice itself
With this motivation, we will apply a few disciplines. Very simple. Such as sitting straight. So please sit straight.
And as you sit straight, just watch your thoughts.
And as thoughts arise, do not judge. If the thoughts are not good thoughts, don’t condemn them. Just watch. If they are good thoughts, don’t get excited.
And as you are aware of one thought, the next thought will come. Just watch that next thought. You don’t have to finish with the first thought.
And maybe you don’t even have thoughts. If you don’t have thoughts, just be aware of that.
And don’t look for something special. Because we are calling it “Buddhanature” maybe you are looking for a special sensation, or special realisation, or some kind of light or experience. The mundane is very beautiful. The mundane is sacred. If you are thinking about a car honking, then just be aware of that.
If you realise you have been following a thought then come back to just knowing the thought.
Dedicating the merit
Okay now please think the following. May this attempt to face the Buddhanature, the Tathagatagarbha, the basic goodness of human beings, may the merit of this enlighten all sentient beings.
Okay, thank you.
Once again, I’m going to express my joy for having this opportunity to create merit by discussing the Tathagatagarbha. I must thank Niluji and the whole family for letting us make havoc in your place here, but I hope that discussing the Buddhanature will benefit some of you as much as possible. And I also thank all the staff here who have been working so hard and so tirelessly.
Have a lot of fun. Because actually enlightenment is something to do with fun. And stay out of trouble, if you can.
Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers
Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio