Khenchen Thrangu: Essential Practice

The following article is from the Summer, 2002 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


"Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is among the wisest and most compassionate Buddhist masters alive today."—PEMA CHODRON

"In presenting the very first meditation instruction crafted for Tibetans by the master Kamalashila, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche distills the wisdom of India in an intimate, personal instruction, as true for the contemporary western practitioner as it was in eighth century Tibet. This text is a must for every serious Buddhist meditator."—Judith Simmer-Brown, Professor of Buddhist Studies, Naropa University

"Centuries ago, the Indian master Kamalashila taught Tibetans the essential points of Mahayana practice in a clear, step-by-step, and easy-to- follow way. Now, the great scholar and meditation master Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche makes these profound teachings readily accessible to Western students. I encourage all those interested in beginning or deepening their practice of the Mahayana path of wisdom and compassion which leads to the highest enlightenment for the benefit of all beings to read this book."—Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche

Teaching on Kamalashila's treatises outlining the stages of meditation, Thrangu Rinpoche explains the need for compassion and the way to develop it, the necessity for a bodhisattva's vast and durable altruism, as well as the means to generate, stabilize, and fortify it, and the elements key to the meditative practices of calm abiding and insight.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter The Selflessness of Phenomena from Essential Practice.

In our study of the master Kamalashila's The Stages of Meditation, we are considering his presentation of the mind turned toward supreme awakening. That mind has two aspects: conventional and ultimate, We are now considering the ultimate mind of awakening. Generally, that consists in the way to meditate upon the selflessness of persons and the way to meditate upon the selflessness of phenomena. Yesterday, I spoke about the selflessness of persons. Today, I will talk about the selflessness of phenomena.

As for the selflessness of phenomena, it is said that all phenomena are not inherently established and are emptiness. Generally, those who do not hold the tenets of Buddhists see the Buddhadharma as depressing. They feel that the Buddhadharma does not strengthen the hearts of human beings. Rather, by speaking of the impermanent, the selfless, and the empty, it saddens human beings and thus weakens their hearts. They cannot find in the Buddhadharma any capacity to strengthen the hearts or increase the good qualities of human beings. Thus, they will regard this teaching of the selflessness of phenomena as a dreary matter.

They are mistaken because the recognition of selflessness does not diminish the strength of our heart. We need peace and gentleness in our lives. In the absence of mental afflictions such as extraordinarily strong desire and hatred, our lives naturally become peaceful and gentle. If we meditate that all phenomena naturally lack an essence and are empty, then attachment and aversion naturally dissipate. In dependence upon that, we naturally enjoy a sense of peace and leisure.

Those of you who have heard many of the Buddha's teachings and have practiced a lot understand the meaning of emptiness quite well. Nevertheless, beginners will be shocked upon first hearing of emptiness. When told that all phenomena are emptiness, they will think that such is probably not the case. For instance, when I was young and began to study texts, I read about selflessness and thought, "No, it is not so, I am pretty sure that there is a self." Then I studied the Treasury of Higher Knowledge, composed by the master Vasubandhu, and I decided, "Okay, probably there is no self, but as for emptiness, no way! That is just not possible." That is how I saw it. Later, the reasonings of the Middle Way School were taught to me, and I came to feel differently. Probably these phenomena are emptiness. Yes, most likely they are emptiness. That is how it goes when you begin to consider these teachings.

I will be talking about emptiness today, and when we talk about emptiness, we find ourselves speaking about elevated reasonings and high views. However, many beginners have come here today, and for that reason I want to make the meaning accessible and the reasonings less forbidding. Those of you who have studied extensively and practiced a lot may find this explanation to be weak and pathetic. You may feel that, I have not explained the depth and the height of this view. You may wonder, with some dismay, why I have given such a low and easy presentation of emptiness. Please do not look at it that way. If I explain the height and the depth, beginners will not understand. I will tune this explanation of emptiness to beginners. and I will explain it in a simple way that is relatively easy to understand. It is said that dharmas have no self. This means that individual dharmas have no essence and are not inherently established, What, then, are "dharmas"? This Sanskrit term, "dharma," has ten meanings. Sometimes, dharma refers to the dharma that we practice. Sometimes dharma refers to meditative stabilization. Sometimes, dharma refers to all things. In the statement, "A self of dharmas does not exist," dharma refers to all things. Thus, that statement is to be understood as meaning that all phenomena have no essence.

The Selflessness of Phenomena

How is way in which phenomena lack a selflessness taught in Kamalashila's The Stages of Meditation in the Middle Way School? First, external things, which are composed of particles and have form, are not inherently established. Nevertheless, appearances do dawn for us. If they are not established by way of their own nature, then how do they dawn? They dawn as appearances for the internal mind; they dawn in dependence upon the internal mind. Here, Kamalashila presents a view that accords with that of the Mind Only School, which is one of the four schools of Buddhist tenets. After that, Kamalashila demonstrates that the internal, mere mind, is also not inherently established. Mind has no true establishment whatsoever; it is Emptiness. Here, Kamalashila settles the lack of inherent establishment in all phenomena—external, apprehended objects and internal, apprehending minds—in a manner that accords with the tenets of the Middle Way School.

Science has progressed remarkably in its ability to investigate external things. That has enabled all of us to understand that external things are not truly established. Scientists have already settled that, and we are already familiar with their findings: where they look with reasoning and with instruments, they see that all phenomena are not inherently established. Still, they do not come right out and say that phenomena are emptiness, and who would blame them for that? From time without beginning they have grown accustomed to believing in the existence of things. The force of that leads them to feel that they need those things, and they cannot say that things are emptiness despite seeing that things are emptiness. We tend to think, "For some time, I have seen these things, and it will not do to say that they are emptiness." Even these brilliant scientists cannot quite relinquish their grip upon things. After all, they say, "There may not be things, but there is energy." That seems to be where they wind up. Apparently, they are not able to toss away the predispositions to which they have become accustomed from time without beginning. They are held back by the nagging doubt that, if they say that things are emptiness, that will not agree with what they experience. "We're not sure what, but something exists." Buddhists teach that things do not exist. Rather, things are emptiness. In general, that much difference divides the two points of view.

To us, all these appearances look like they exist. I'll use a simple example to challenge that appearance and our agreement with it. Take a look at the pieces of paper that I'm holding. This piece of paper is large, and this one is small. It really does look that way. Ask anyone. "Is this one large?" "No, no, not at all, it is small." "Is this one small?" "No, no, not at all, it is large." Show these pieces of paper to anyone and they will agree: this one is large, and this one is small. When I look at them, that is what I see, and when other people look at them, that is what they see.

Things do appear that way, but what happens when I change the mix? If I ask, "Is this one large?", I will be told, "No, it is small." It does not matter who looks at it. Anybody would say that this one is large and this one is small, and that is the way it looks, to me too. So why does our sense of the sizes of things change? Because things are neither large nor small. Neither of those properties abides with the thing in question.

Someone may respond that, even though large and small do not abide with things, nevertheless other properties do. For instance, how about long and short? If I were to ask, "Is this long?", everyone would say that it is long, and no one would say that it is short. If I then add another stick to the group, then everyone will say that this one is long and that the other one, which seemed long a moment ago, is short. If we extend this line of reasoning, we can understand that all things are like this. Large, small, long, short, good, bad, and other qualities that appear to reside in objects do not really dwell there.

Furthermore, even though I consider myself to be I, no one else does. If I ask someone "Do you think of me as 'I'" then that person will reply, "Of course not. I think of you as 'you.'" Suppose I ask about a third person. "No, that's him." From my point of view, another person "you," but from that person's point of view, he or she is "I." I, you, he—they all lack stability. Sometimes my mind thinks "I," sometimes "you," sometimes "he"—not much stays put.

Places are like that too. For instance, when I stay here, I call this place "here" and that place "there." When I go there, I call it "here" and refer to this place as "there." "Here" does not always remain here. Similarly, standing here, we say "that mountain" and "this mountain." Then we go to the far mountain and look back from there: "this mountain" has become "that mountain" and "that mountain" has become "this mountain." They really seem to be that way, but it is my mind that makes them so. There is no far mountain or near mountain, here or there, I, you, he, or she. Mind makes all of these to suit the occasion.

The master Nagarjuna applied the reasoning of dependent relationship to these properties. All things arise individually in dependence upon other things. When we investigate and analyze with reasoning, such properties disappear. Therefore, ultimately, they are emptiness. Nevertheless as mere conventions, they are present. In what manner are they present? Through the power of dependent relationship. In dependence upon something large, some other thing is small. In dependence upon something small, some other thing is large. For instance, in relation to one another, this stick of incense is large, and this one is small. In dependence upon one another, is one of them large? Yes. Is the other one small? Yes. As mere conventions and for the perspective of my mind, some things are large and other's are small. Are they actually and ultimately large a small? No. Ultimately, nothing is either large or small.

For that reason, external appearances are internal mind. Externally there is neither large nor small. Large and small are made in the internal mind. Internal mind declares that this is large and that, in relation to it, that is small. Internal mind makes that. Who makes good and bad, I and you, and all the other categories? They are not external. Those properties are not present with things. Internal mind makes them. Therefore, all appearances are mind. They are not appearances of an external; they are the mind that is internal. Therefore, there are no external things; they are internal mind. Kamalashila explains the matter that way; in the view of the Mind Only School, it settled that way also.

Having shown external things to be emptiness, Kamalashila then demonstrates that internal mind is emptiness also. When we investigate and analyze with reasoning, we see that external things do not exist. However, we may think that internal mind really does exist. In fact, internal mind is not established inherently. When we actually investigate and analyze, it is not present. How is the internal mind's lack of establishment demonstrated? Kamalashila cites a passage from the Heap of Jewels Sutra. In this passage, the Buddha addresses Mahakashyapa.

Kasliyapa, when mind is sought thoroughly, it is not found.

Looking for the mind and asking "Where is it?", there is nothing to be found. When we do not investigate and analyze, we think that mind does exist. However, if we look for the mind and a Where is it?, it is not present. Similarly, in his Ornament for Precious Liberation, Gampopa writes that mind does not exist. Why not? 'I have not seen mind. Others have not seen mind. In fact, no one has seen mind. Therefore, mind does not exist.'

How is it that no one has seen mind? Generally, we have six collections of consciousnesses. Consider the eye consciousness, which is one of the six. An eye consciousness sees forms. What happens when we look for the eye consciousness and ask "Where is it?" Is it in the eye? No. There are various things in the eye, but consciousness is not one of them. Suppose that I see a glass; is my eye consciousness with the glass? No. Is my eye consciousness somewhere in between my eye and the glass? No. Nothing at all. Through the power of dependent relationship, an eye consciousness sees a glass. However, if we look for the consciousness that sees, nothing turns tip.

The same holds for the other sense consciousnesses—those of the ear, nose, tongue, and body. What about the mental consciousness? Sometimes the mental consciousness generates coarse thoughts. For instance, sometimes hatred accompanies the mental consciousness. At other times, compassion accompanies the mental consciousness. At still other times, pride accompanies the mental consciousness. In that manner, the mental consciousness generates coarse thoughts. How does that come about? Other causes and conditions play their roles, but ignorance lies at the root of the matter. From the start, our consciousnesses face outwards. What is the internal mind? We have never looked there. Have we ever seen it? I do have a mind! We think so; after all, our minds generate our thoughts, right? But have we ever looked for our minds? Where are they? Where are our thoughts born? Suppose we become really angry. Now we have a chance to inquire—"Now I'm furious! Okay, what is that hatred? Where is that hatred born?" We look, but we do not find anything. We may imagine that hatred is born in a particular place and travels along a certain path to some other place. Except for knowing that it has vanished as suddenly and inexplicably as it arose, we cannot find it anywhere. We are sure that we feel hatred, but no matter where we look—outside, inside, or somewhere in between—we do not find anything at all. Desire and other thoughts, whatever they may be, are like that too. Look wherever we will, nothing turns up.

If I were to ask someone, "Do you ever feel hatred?", he or she would certainly respond, "I have felt hatred many times." If I were then to ask, "When you feel hatred, what is it like?", he or she would probably answer, "I don't really know." Why would someone not understand his or her own feeling of hatred? Because the very entity of hatred itself, like the entity of other consciousnesses, is not established. To realize the emptiness of external things, we have to analyze with reasoning. To realize the internal mind's lack of inherent establishment, we can dispense with reasoning and took directly. There is nothing to be seen; and nothing will be found. Therefore, the noble Gampopa wrote, "Because no one has seen mind. Mind is not present." Why not? Because no one has seen it. We have not seen our own minds, and we have not seen others' minds.

In that way, we ascertain that both internal mind and external things are not inherently established. Then we must familiarize with what we have ascertained. When we investigate and analyze with knowledge, ascertain that all phenomena are not inherently established, and then meditate upon, which is to say, familiarize with, what we have understood, we are practicing the analytical meditation of the sutras, which is called the analytical meditation of learned persons.

When we meditate, investigating and analyzing in stages, flaws may assail our practice. What flaws? Many thoughts will dawn. On one occasion, we meditate well, and on another occasion, many thoughts will dawn. What should we do when many thoughts dawn? First, we investigate and analyze. That is to say, we ask ourselves, "What thoughts are dawning for me?" Sometimes, the mental affliction of hatred will arise. That may begin as it barely noticeable thought. If we follow thoughts of hatred, more of them will arise. We may discard them repeatedly, and yet they may continue to arise. In that fashion, such thoughts interrupt meditative stabilization, At other times, a barely noticeable thought of desire will arise. We attempt to meditate, but such thoughts return again and again, interrupting meditative stabilization. At still other times, we do not enjoy meditative stabilization and we have no wish to meditate; we feel lazy. The first step toward stability in meditation will be to identify the thoughts that are interrupting our practice of meditative stabilization during a particular session of practice. That identification will spur us to recognize the good qualities of meditative stabilization, which will enable us remedy the flaw.

Having finished the session of cultivating meditative stabilization, we allow our minds rise from meditative stabilization but hold our bodies upon the cushion in the posture of meditation. Then, we must consider our own situation and the situations of others in the following I understand how to meditate, and I am able to meditate well. Other sentient beings do not realize the abiding nature of phenomena, and they are not able to meditate well or generate meditative stabilization. Therefore, having meditated well, in the future I must enable all sentient beings to realize the abiding nature of phenomena, to bring the excellent dharma into their experience, to achieve the rank of a buddha. Having made that resolution and established that motivation slowly unfold our legs, stand up, prostrate to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions, make offerings to them, and conclude with a good prayer of aspiration.

Kamalashila's treatise on the stages of meditation contains three sections. In the first of those three, he discusses compassion. In the second, he considers the mind of awakening, in particular he presents the methods for cultivating a conventional mind of awakening and an ultimate mind of awakening. We have now heard the explanations of those two sections. In third and final section, Kamalashila writes about skill in method. This morning, I will stop here this afternoon and again tomorrow morning, I will speak about skill in method. If you have questions, please ask them.

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