Gyalwang Karmapa Presides over Five-Day Vinaya Conference

December 13, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

At His Holiness’ request, this year’s Winter Debate Session includes a five-day conference entirely devoted to the vinaya, or monastic discipline. In preparation for the event, in the fall of this year, each of the Kagyu monasteries had sent delegates to Dharamsala for a period of intense vinaya study under His Holiness’ direct guidance. Today and over the next four days, those khenpos will be taking turns making presentations and leading question-and-answer sessions devoted to particular issues related to the vinaya.

His Holiness attended each of the day’s four sessions, taking an active role in fielding questions and monitoring the lively discussions. Thrangu Rinpoche was also in attendance, lending his voice to clarify a number of complex questions that arose.

The first day was devoted to the topic of how monastic ordination is conferred. Tomorrow’s discussions will be entirely devoted to the question of bhikshuni ordination, or full ordination for women.

Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on “How to Handle Conflicts Among the Different Vows”

December 8, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Five:

Following yesterday’s debate-style discussion of the various schools’ views on the three vows, His Holiness began by commenting that it is crucial that we have a clear understanding as to what our own position is and what that of others is. When we sketch out a range of positions, Gyalwang Karmapa noted that sometimes people get confused and begin mixing the view of our school with that of others. The great scholars of the past composed treatises that explore crucial points, refuting others’ views and establishing their own, in order to make clear for us the reasoning behind their position. He observed that such texts often begin by defeating the views of others, and may do so using what can strike us as harsh speech.

If we find ourselves put off by the strong language scholars use in negating the views of others, as we study these texts it is important that we bear in mind what their purpose was. When we read the compositions of the Eighth Karmapa, for example, when he argues powerfully against others, we need to keep in mind that the point is to cut through wrong views, rather than to find fault with others. Such debates were waged among great scholar-yogis who stated their positions strongly with the motivation of spreading the teachings, for the benefit of all sentient beings. Sentient beings have various attitudes and aptitudes, and so we need different presentations, and thus it is appropriate and in fact necessary that the Dharma offers a range of views.

His Holiness cited the example of Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school, who argued that the monastic discipline in the Sakya school had degenerated. This resulted in heated debates between the Sakya scholars, Gorampa and Shakya Chogden, and Lama Tsongkhapa and his followers. Yet it is utterly mistaken to conclude that these discussions were driven by competitiveness and pride, for these are great lamas who are free of the influence of such afflictions and who have high realizations of the Dharma. Indeed, Lama Tsongkhapa’s comments sparked a revival of interest in vinaya study and practice. As such, Gyalwang Karmapa said, we can see that these vigorous debates injected vigor into the Dharma and thus helped it to remain fresh and to spread in Tibet. Therefore it is most appropriate that we view those who initiated and participated in such debates with respect.

Returning to the discussion of vows, His Holiness went on to comment that both those who hold the upasaka, or genyen vows of lay practitioners and those who hold higher monastic vows are sustaining the teachings of the Buddha. Just as a well-constructed house needs four pillars, the teachings of the Buddha are built around the four pillars of upasakas, upasikas, (male and female holders of lay precepts) and bhikshus and bhikshunis (in Tibetan, gelongs and gelongmas, or fully ordained monks and nuns). Among the monastics, the two communities that are considered senior or supreme are the bhikshus and bhikshunis. Among the lay followers, the highest are the male and female holders of lay precepts. When all four are present, the house becomes stable. His Holiness stressed that the presence of all four is indispensable in order for the Buddha’s teachings to remain long and flourish. He added that such topics would be discussed further in the upcoming vinaya colloquium that also forms part of this year’s winter debate session.

Continuing the topic of various communities that contribute to the Dharma, His Holiness turned his attention to lay followers, and addressed a wide number of ways that lay Buddhists can deepen their commitment by taking precepts to become upasaka, or genyen. In doing so, lay Buddhists will find there are many benefits, and they may also consider that they are receiving vows that come from the Buddha and are maintaining the discipline that is the foundation of the Dharma. Gyalwang Karmapa described 100 different types of upasakas, ranging from those who observe only one vow for a limited time up to those who vow to a life of celibacy and abstention from the ten non-virtuous actions. With such a variety of options, he noted, we can see that the Dharma offers many opportunities for people to proceed gradually, committing only to what they can actually maintain.

His Holiness further broached the issue of conflicts among types of vow. For example, in a situation where our bodhisattva vows require us to engage in certain actions to benefit others that are prohibited by our pratimoksha vows, the higher vows take precedence. Throughout the discussion, His Holiness re-affirmed that we still need to hold all our vows as strictly as possible, but that this counsel applies in those cases where direct conflicts among vows arise. At the same time, Gyalwang Karmapa pointed out that if, for example, a bhikshu is in a situation where his higher vows will lead him to engage in actions that might harm the faith of laypeople if they were to see a bhikshu acting in that way, he must first offer back his lower vows, and only after that, engage in the action — as a layperson rather than as a monastic.

In general, His Holiness said, we may be more flexible in our application of the bodhisattva vows than we are with our pratimoksha vows. This is in part because when we take bodhisattva vows, we agree to hold them until we are enlightened, whereas the pratimoksha vows do not continue after this present life. Moreover, the pratimoksha vows are primarily concerned with actions of body and speech, whereas the bodhisattvas vows ask us to discipline our mind itself. It is far easier to restrict our actions of body and speech than it is our mind. Thus to ensure we will have the courage to take and then actually hold the bodhisattva vows all the way until our enlightenment, more leeway is granted. However, in the case of the pratimoksha vows, taken only for this life and aimed at subduing our bodies and speech, we are required to observe them strictly.

In any case, His Holiness said, the advice that we should act in ways that contravene our pratimoksha vows in order to uphold our bodhisattva vows only applies to actual bodhisattvas, who truly know what is most beneficial for others. It does not apply to ordinary beings like us, who just happen to have taken bodhisattva vows. Gyalwang Karmapa proceeded to paint in vivid terms just what qualities bodhisattvas possess. First, he said, bodhisattvas are in no way controlled by their afflictions, but act purely out of an unbearable sense of compassion for others. If it will serve the aim of benefiting beings, bodhisattvas will descend into the most painful hells as happily as if they were plunging into a lake, but only if it contributes to the well-being of others. A bodhisattva holds the different vows deep within his or her being and acts within the vows to benefit others. A bodhisattva has skill in deploying different means to benefit beings. A bodhisattva is able to anticipate how people will respond to his or her actions. A bodhisattva understands who will benefit from which action, and does not engage in actions that benefit a few but are detrimental to a larger number. A bodhisattva needs great courage, His Holiness said, adding that bodhisattvas are rightly referred to in the texts as ‘heroes.’

Gyalwang Karmapa concluded the day’s teachings by reading from one of Milarepa’s songs that stresses the importance of knowing what we need to put into practice and what we need to give up. His Holiness added that we also need a clear sense of what we want to accomplish with our practice. Otherwise, we may study for twenty years but, when it comes to knowing what to apply in our actual practice and what to avoid, we find ourselves at a loss. It’s as if having spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about food, we arrive in a restaurant and can’t figure out what to order. In the end, the purpose of our Dharma practice, His Holiness stated, is to pacify our mind. It is what we do on the inside that counts. The point is not to wear our Dharma practice on the outside, like an actor putting on a new costume, but to actually transform our own minds.

Gyalwang Karmapa Explores Differing Philosophical Positions of “The Nature of Vows”

December 7, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Four:

In today’s teaching, His Holiness moved deep into philosophical territory, exploring a range of positions on the nature of vows. The main question raised was whether the three types of vow are one in nature or distinct. His Holiness’ skills in debate were much in evidence as he pitted the positions of the Vaibhasika school, who identify vows as a particular type of physical form, against that of Shantideva, who describes vows as the resolve to abstain. Gyalwang Karmapa further surveyed the views of major Indian scholars as to precisely how the vows co-exist within a single person at the same time. Turning next to presentations by Tibetan scholars, he decisively refuted the stance of the great Sakya scholar Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen, who holds that the three vows are one in nature but the lower vows transform when the higher vow is taken. His Holiness further tackled a second Tibetan view that maintains that the lower vows become parts, or aspects, of the higher vow. Adopting the position staked out by the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso, he demonstrated the fallacy of this view, on the basis that if lower vows were parts of higher vows, then actions damaging the lower vows would render the higher vows incomplete. After establishing that these opposing views are untenable, His Holiness clarified that the Kagyu tradition follows Gampopa in understanding that the three types of vow are separate in nature, and that the lower vows do not transform when the higher are taken. Rather, he emphasized, when we have taken all three types of vow, we remain responsible for observing and guarding all three of them.

Gyalwang Karmapa spoke of three types of discipline, each based on a different motivation. One form of discipline is grounded in fear, and His Holiness noted that the vinaya contains many accounts of people in India seeking monastic ordination out of a wish to escape punishment by the king. A second type of discipline is motivated by the hope or wish to be reborn in higher realms in the future, and the third is a discipline based on renunciation of cyclic existence itself. Not only is the third form of discipline superior to the other two, His Holiness said, it is the only authentic basis for holding the vows.

Illustrating this point, he related the story of the Kadam geshe, Geshe Potowa, who had already taken monastic ordination before he met the layman Dromtonpa, heart disciple of the founder of the Tibetan Kadam tradition, the great Indian pandit Jowo Atisha. Upon seeing Dromtonpa and receiving instruction from him, Geshe Potowa underwent an intense experience of renunciation, and, consequently, although he had already received his monastic ordination from another teacher, Geshe Potowa declared that Dromtonpa the layteacher was his abbot—that is, the preceptor who had granted him his monastic vows—because it was from Dromtonpa that he had received his first genuine experience of renunciation. It was this renunciation that transformed his monastic discipline into the third type of discipline—pure discipline that is based on renunciation. In that sense, Dromtonpa merited the title of abbot even if he did not preside over the actual ceremony conferring the vows.

Gyalwang KarmapA Teaches On “A Dharma Vast Enough to Include the Whole World”

December 6, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Three:

His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa today tackled a number of complex debate issues, clearing the way for the examination of the main topic of this year’s winter debate teachings—how one person can keep all three types of vow. At the same time, he emphasized that the optimal Buddhist practitioner is one that does hold and preserve all three types of vow—pratimoksha, bodhisattva and tantric.

First, Gyalwang Karmapa explored the major points of contention that arise in defining and classifying pratimoksha and bodhisattva vows. Some texts mention traditions of conferring pratimoksha vows according to the Mahayana textual tradition, and His Holiness, who is fluent in Chinese and conversant with the Chinese Buddhist canon, noted that the Chinese canon preserves a number of texts that describe how to do so. By contrast, he pointed out, the Tibetan canon contains only scattered references and instances of such ritual texts, an example of which would be the Mahayana sojong vows offered each morning during the Kagyu Monlam.

Following the text, His Holiness moved on to a discussion of the ways the different types of vow are conferred, and how they are cancelled, or lost. He stressed that taking a higher type of vow by no means cancels the lower vows. After receiving higher vows, we still need to observe and guard the lower vows as part of the discipline that is the foundation of all our practice as Buddhists. The teachings this week have as their aim to clarify the relationships among the vows and to help us understand how to proceed when conflicts arise among them.

Tibet became a place where all three of the major forms of Dharma—the foundational Buddhism of the pratimoksha vows, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana—were transmitted and preserved, His Holiness observed. They were maintained in Tibet not merely in their outer appearances, but were actually implemented through serious inner practice, and thus were able to flourish in Tibet.

Nowadays, this is so not only in Tibet, but wherever there are people practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Since the Dharma that flourished in Tibet has now spread throughout the world, it can rightly be called a worldwide Buddhism, Gyalwang Karmapa stated. Because of the richness that comes from preserving all three vehicles and offering teachings suited to people at a wide variety of capacities, this Dharma is highly inclusive. In this way, a wide range of people are able to practice the Dharma that flourished in Tibet.

Ethical discipline offers us a common foundation on which we can all base our practice. We should avail ourselves of the various types of vow that the Dharma offers us, the Gyalwang Karmapa urged, not simply taking those vows but also guarding them fully, from refuge vows onwards. To become a Buddhist implies much more than just getting a new name, or in the case of monastics, new clothes and a new name. We need to know what it means to be Buddhists and we then need to implement that in our behavior and in our very beings, he said.

For example, among the refuge vows, we have the precept that stipulates that once we have gone for refuge in the Dharma, we should abandon harming others. This vow to cease harming others is not limited to beating them physically or abusing them verbally. It includes the inner aggression or hostile thoughts we may harbor towards others. If we do not work to abandon such thoughts and attitudes, they simply fester within us and at a certain point, they will overwhelm us and lead us to act harmfully. If we think that we are not aggressive simply because we do not act out aggressively toward others, we should look at what is in our heart, to see how our thoughts are oriented and to ask ourselves whether we are nurturing hostility and aggression towards others. It is crucial that we do so, and that we continually work to correct whatever faults we find within us, so that all our thoughts may become wholesome and beneficial.

When we speak of ‘practicing’ the Dharma, His Holiness explained, the term ‘practice’ in Tibetan has two components, one indicating ‘experience’ and the other indicating ‘taking.’ When we gain some experience in our lives, we should take that into our hearts and into our practice. Gyalwang Karmapa gave the example of the people begging at the stupa in Bodhgaya, many of whom are desperately hungry, some lacking limbs, lacking their faculties and others unable even to speak out to ask for help. When a feeling of compassion arises upon seeing them, we should not leave this as a momentary experience, but should actively take this experience into our practice, he advised.

His Holiness observed that we may feel that we simply have an aggressive personality, and console ourselves with the thought that we were just born that way. But if we resign ourselves to having such faults, we will never take the steps needed to change. On the contrary, by familiarizing ourselves with the reasons that we do need to change, many more possibilities for transforming ourselves do open up, starting by taking the refuge vows and training within them, and later taking up the other forms of discipline. We cannot expect the Dharma to work if we simply say at the very outset that, ““I am going to be enlightened quickly and become a Buddha,” and then go about collecting tantric initiations. Rather, we need to begin by eliminating our non-virtuous actions. This can happen only when we ourselves make efforts, and take the responsibility to work with the afflictions in our own minds. It is for this reason that we first take pratimoksha vows, and only afterwards the bodhisattva and then tantric vows.

If we do not thus proceed in stages and in the right order, His Holiness said, it is like attempting to lift a huge boulder without first training ourselves gradually in preparation. If we are not careful, the boulder could end up landing right on top of us. Among all that Buddha taught, His Holiness said emphatically, there is nothing that we are not capable of achieving. We just need to look within ourselves to determine what our capacity is at the moment, asking ourselves what vows we are actually capable of holding and observing, and taking only those. If you do not do so, there is no other way to reach enlightenment. We should know that we do have all the basic capacities we need; we just have to proceed step by step in the practices suited to our abilities.



Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on “Going for Refuge with Eyes Wide Open”

December 5, 2009 – Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya

Teachings, Day Two:

The second session of the winter debate teachings opened today with His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa himself leading the chanting in Sanskrit of refuge and other prayers. His Holiness noted the intimate connections between the Sanskrit language and the Mahayana teachings preserved in Tibet, commenting that he himself had undertaken some study of Sanskrit. His Holiness then turned to the text, Brief Notes on Difficult Points of the Three Vows by the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso. This text opens with an homage to the three jewels—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—and His Holiness devoted the day’s session to the topic of refuge. In a style that is becoming the hallmark of his winter debate teachings, His Holiness’ wove deeply moving personal advice into a scholarly presentation of refuge.

Emphasizing the importance of understanding what our sources of refuge are, His Holiness provided concise explanations of the various ways that each of the three jewels is identified in the Listener-Disciples’ Vehicle, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. Moving on to the topic of fear and faith as causes that lead us to generate refuge in the three jewels, His Holiness commented that while the fear that motivates us to seek refuge is basically fear of suffering, nevertheless there are different understandings of suffering, and different forms of suffering that might be feared. He then deftly mapped out the sorts of fear that induce practitioners in different vehicles and of different capacities to take refuge in the three jewels. For example, lam rim teachings following divide practitioners into three types, according to capacity, the lowest of which is moved to seek refuge out of fear of suffering in future lives, and especially the fear of falling into the three lower realms, of animal, preta and hell beings. At the very least, His Holiness said, to generate sincere refuge in the three jewels, we should have a concern for the sufferings that await us in the lower realms.

Yet nowadays, His Holiness pointed out, there are many who have adopted the Buddhist path but still harbor serious doubts about the existence of past and future lives. With no conviction in future lives, naturally there is no genuine concern about falling into the lower realms. Indeed there are many who lack conviction in the very existence of these lower realms. If our fear of suffering does not extend to future lives, but is merely limited to the sufferings of this life, all our actions are inevitably bound up with the concern for this life. Our practice of the Dharma itself is likely to be motivated by the eight worldly concerns, and if that is the case, it becomes doubtful whether our practice actually qualifies as a Dharma practice. As His Holiness indicated, the first of the eight benefits of taking refuge is that this makes one a Buddhist. This raises the question whether those who lack the minimal concern for future lives that serves as a cause for refuge for the lowest capacity practitioners can actually be considered Buddhists.

Thus at an absolute minimum, our practice of refuge must look beyond this life and be based in a concern for the suffering of future lives. It is up to each of us to sincerely search within ourselves to see whether we have the minimal conviction in future lives and fear of sufferings in the lower realms to produce sincere refuge in the three jewels. As he made these comments, His Holiness’ gaze frequently scanned the section where his foreign disciples were seated, and many among them took these words as personal advice addressed directly to them.

Nevertheless, His Holiness added, even if not all who consider themselves Buddhists are yet at the level of this lowest scope of being, the Dharma itself is able to address people at whatever level they are when they encounter it, and offers a path to support us all in our wish to progress from there.

His Holiness further discussed the way to take refuge, underscoring that refuge is not something we simply receive from the outside, as if we could go to a lama and he could hand us refuge. Rather, we need to make the determination within ourselves to strive for our own liberation and omniscience.

Describing the way to receive Dharma teachings, His Holiness took up the image of a vessel free of the three faults—of having holes in it, being dirty or being placed upside down. He managed to take this analogy, well known to many Dharma practitioners, and make it come suddenly alive and replete with new meaning—another characteristic feature of his teaching style. His Holiness assigned the audience the task of examining for themselves whether their minds were worthy recipients for the pure Dharma. We ourselves must take steps to ensure that our minds are suitable vessels to hold the Dharma, he said. We must actively work to remove any stains in our minds, and see to it that our minds are sound, and held upright to receive and retain the Dharma offered.

Going to attend the teachings of a high lama casually, as if we were going to an ordinary, everyday event, is a sign we are not properly valuing the Dharma. Nor is it adequate to simply sit, nonchalantly extending our plate for whatever might be dished onto it, His Holiness said. Instead, we should go to teachings with a deep hunger, and eagerly hold up the empty bowl of our minds to receive the nectar of the pure Dharma.

Turning to the topic of the study of philosophical views, His Holiness cautioned against allowing a partisan or bigoted attitude to develop for the particular school we each follow. For the Dharma to truly serve as a source of benefit and happiness for sentient beings, it is essential that we maintain a sense of the inner harmony among the different Buddhist schools. His Holiness commented that since he himself had been given the name of Karmapa he had a particular responsibility for sustaining one particular lineage. Yet he stated that he thinks it important to study the views of other schools and compare them. In general, His Holiness urged those present to study the views of their own and at least one other school, to have a comparative understanding of two schools.

In general, His Holiness commented, our aim in engaging in activities of study, contemplation and meditation should be for the benefit and happiness of others, not to become scholars ourselves or to gain a reputation as learned. The knowledge we develop should not be a sort of ornament that beautifies us and earns us the admiration of others, while others remain with comparatively less. When we gain a jewel, our wish should be to offer that jewel to others, so that it may beautify them. Thus the purpose of our study should be to share what we have gained with others.

Speaking directly to the hearts of those present, His Holiness said that his thinking of late is that in essence refuge entails opening our eyes. We need to open our eyes to reality, and to look around us and see the suffering and the happiness of others directly. Opening our eyes of wisdom as well as our physical eyes, we need to see clearly how that suffering arises. With faith and confidence and eyes wide open, once we see that suffering and are moved to do something about it, then we can fully go for refuge. If we are simply closing our eyes and repeating the words of the refuge formula, we may just be going from one ignorance to another, from one form of darkness to another.