The following article is from the Summer, 1994 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Gyeltsap on Aryadeva's Four Hundred


According to Gyel-tsap Darma-rin-chen, Aryadeva's Four Hundred Stanzas was written to explain how, according to Nagarjuna, the practice of the stages of yogic deeds enables those with a Mahayana motivation to attain Buddhahood. Both Nagarjuna and Aryadeva urge those who want to understand reality to induce direct experience of ultimate truth through philosophic enquiry and reasoning. Aryadeva's text is more than a commentary on Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way, for it explains the extensive paths associated with conventional truths. The Four Hundred Stanzas is one of the fundamental works of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, and Gyel-tsap's commentary is arguably the most complete and important of the Tibetan commentaries on it.

Mahayana practitioners must eliminate not only obstructions to liberation but also obstructions to the perfect knowledge of all phenomena. This requires a powerful understanding of selflessness coupled with a vast accumulation of merit or positive energy resulting from the kind of love, compassion and altruistic intention cultivated by bodhisattvas. The first half of the text focuses on the development of merit by showing how to transform disturbing attitudes and master the practices of bodhisattvas. The second half explains the nature of emptiness.

Gyeltsap's commentary on Aiyadeva's text takes the form of a lively dialogue that uses the words of Aryadeva to answer hypothetical and actual assertions, questions and objections. Geshe Sonam Rinchen has provided a commentary to the section on bodhisattva paths elucidating their relevance for contemporary life.

Geshe Sonam Rinchen was born in Tibet in 1933. He studied at Sera Je Monastery and in 1980 received the Lharampa Geshe degree. He is currently resident scholar at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India where he regularly teaches extensive courses on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Ruth Sonam was raised in Ireland and graduated from Oxford University with an M.A. in Modern Languages. She began study with Geshe Sonam Rinchen in 1978 and has worked as his interpreter since 1983.

The following excerpts are from Chapter 6, Abandoning Disturbing Emotions.

Having understood how the disturbing attitudes function one must get rid of them.

127. Desire's activity is acquisition;

Anger's activity is conflict.

As wind is to all the elements,

Confusion's activity is nurture.

Desire's activity is to acquire both the animate and inanimate. Its antidote is to meditate on re-pulsiveness and to give up one's circle of friends and one's possessions. Anger's activity is strife and conflict Cultivating love and using houses and so forth that one likes are its antidote. Just as wind increases the strength of fire and the other elements, confusion's activity is to nurture both desire and anger. Its antidote is meditation on dependent arising and so forth. It is like killing a sea monster with fire. A sea monster cannot be intimidated by impartiality, hostility or by generous gifts but only by punishment Since its flesh is very sensitive, fire alone is effective. Similarly desire, anger and confusion cannot be stopped by acquisition, conflict and indifference but only by the fire of wisdom. Swimming around in the water, a sea monster got what he needed for survival. Then one day two fishermen arrived. The sea monster turned himself into a human and asked them who they were and what they wanted. They told him they were fishermen and had come to fish. He said, One of you make the fire and the other can do the cooking. I'll provide the fish, and that way we'll have a good meal without any bother. They agreed and each did his work enthusiastically. Just as the sea monster's task was to catch the fish, desire's activity is to acquire things. One man's task was to cook; similarly anger creates conflict and when there is conflict, unpleasant and abusive words make others boil. Just as the third person's task was to stoke the fire, confusion's function is to feed desire and anger.

Assertion: Though there are antidotes to the three poisons, why should one get rid of them? Answer Because they produce suffering.

128. Desire is painful because of not getting;

Anger is painful through lack of might.

And confusion through not understanding.

Because of this, these are not recognized.

Desire produces suffering when one does not encounter what one badly wants. Anger produces suffering when one lacks might to crush the strong. Confusion induces suffering when one fails to understand a subtle matter thoroughly. The inability to recognize these forms of suffering when one is overwhelmed by desire and so forth is great suffering indeed. Therefore persevere in getting rid of the disturbing emotions. It is like a poor man's son who suffered because he wanted a queen. A certain poor man wanted a queen, but kings keep their queens heavily guarded, and because he could not get her, his desire made him suffer. He felt anger toward the king for guarding his queens well, and since he could not do the slightest harm to the king, he suffered acutely on account of his anger. Blinded by desire and anger his confusion grew, and unable to understand the situation properly, he was tormented by the suffering it caused him.

130. Desire should be driven like a slave

Because severity is its cure, And anger looked upon as a lord

Because indulgence is its cure.

Understanding the characteristics of desire and anger and how they function, a spiritual teacher engaged in forming students makes those with desire work like slaves. This is because severity and lack of deference cure desire. The angry should be looked upon as lords. By treating them with indulgence and serving them re-spectfully their anger will not arise; thus indulgence cures it It is like the order in which a washerman trains his donkey. A washerman curbs his donkey's spirit and keeps him busy. Anything capricious the donkey does he considers a fault and beats him hard. Similarly, the wise deliberately keep those habituated to desire busy, and when they do something wrong, make them go on working. When the washerman takes his donkey home, he treats him like a lord and gives him a nose-bag of fodder and other things, one after another. Likewise, spiritual guides should treat those habituated to anger like lords.

Since consciousness is produced in dependence on causes, it is a product. Since products change from moment to moment, they do not have inherent duration. Their production and disintegration are therefore not inherently existent either.

150. Disturbing emotions will never

Remain in the mind of one

Who understands the reality of

The abiding and so forth of consciousness.

One must abandon all disturbing emotions, understanding that the three realms are like an illusion, since production, disintegration, abiding and so forth do not have inherent existence. Disturbing emotions will never remain in the mind of any adept who understands that the production, disintegration, abiding and so forth of consciousness do not have even an atom of real or inherent existence and who gains familiarity with this. It is like uprooting a poisonous tree. Thus by first gaining familiarity with the antidotes that overcome manifest disturbing emotions, and eventually understanding dependent arising as devoid of inherent existence, one should rid oneself of all the seeds of disturbing emotions.

Further Commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen

Disturbing emotions make the mind unruly. When it is turbulent, perception is unclear, distortion occurs, and all kinds of problems follow. When water is disturbed, nothing is reflected in it clearly and only a distorted image appears. All disturbing emotions can be subsumed under the three poisons, which cover a diversity of feeling tones: desire/attachment, hostility/anger, and confusion/ignorance. Unless we can free ourselves of even their latencies, they may arise again at any time even though they appear to be under control and are temporarily dormant. Thus we must seek the means to eradicate them completely. This is like distilling water and removing all impurities. No matter how clear the water looks, if a sediment of mud remains, it will make the water cloudy as soon as it is disturbed.

Meanwhile, however, we must become skilled at recognizing different disturbing states and at counteracting them. Anger and hostility are easy to identify as negative since they are accompanied by unpleasant feelings, but attachment and desire are initially often accompanied by pleasurable feelings and do not seem harmful. When trying to counteract them we need to consider the unattractive aspects of the object on which they focus, but we feel reluctant to do this. We should begin working with whichever disturbing attitude we find predominates. By watching the kind of stimulus required, whether weak or strong, and the strength and duration of our response, we can determine how habitual a disturbing attitude is. If a small stimulus creates a disproportionate reaction, we may infer prolonged familiarity with this response in past lives.

When we recognize the detrimental effects of these emotions, we will want to control them instead of allowing them to control us. Just as there are many forms of attachment and desire, there are many antidotes. We must discover what is effective in our own case. Where attachment to our body is concerned, we may find thinking about its unclean nature useful. We may also try a meditation which begins by imagining a small spot in the center of the forehead which is bare to the bone. Gradually we enlarge this, stripping away skin, flesh, muscle, sinew, etc., baring our bones until our whole skeleton is exposed. We then imagine this growing larger and larger until it fills the whole world and nothing but our skeleton remains. The process is then reversed.

Thinking about the imminence of death and its unpredictability is one of the most effective ways to loosen the grip of attachment and desire. Enjoyment and pleasure are not in themselves harmful, but we must be alert to the craving and discontent that tend to follow. Cultivating a sense of contentment and considering the instability and dissatisfactoriness of the things for which our greed and desire reach out are valuable as antidotes.

Anger is like a fire that first makes us burn inside. Then our palms and armpits turn damp and beads of sweat appear. No matter how fine our clothes and jewelry, no one finds us attractive when our face is contorted with rage. Anger destroys our own physical and mental peace and upsets others, inciting them to respond aggressively, which makes the fire grow. Even animals feel uncomfortable in our presence and try to escape when we are in a bad temper.

Realizing how disturbing anger is and how good it feels to remain calm, we will want to prevent anger rather than suppress it. The aim is not to hold anger inside but to stop it arising. When we feel unhappy and anxious, either for specific reasons or for no specific cause, irritation and anger arise easily. Therefore we must attempt to relieve the unhappipess and anxiety which are characterized by tightness. If there are specific causes, we should direct our energy toward trying to resolve the problem. If it is not possible to do so, letting go and accepting the difficulties is a more positive approach than dwelling on the seeming irijustice of the situation which reinforces the unhappiness and helplessness. It is useful to think of the experience as a maturation and ending of past negative actions, allowing it to show us the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence.

There are many situations in which we already know we are vulnerable to anger. This knowledge gives us the opportunity to remain calm and apply antidotes effectively to prevent anger altogether. If it does arise we should ensure it is short-lived and does not breed aggression, resentment, spite and other negative feelings. When the mind is under the influence of anger it is hard to arouse feelings of love and compassion for the other or to consider how one has set oneself up as a target through past actions or through present intentional or unintentional provocative behavior. Since it is essential to train ourselves to think in these ways and gain familiarity with them, meditation on these themes when we are calm is encouraged. It is also valuable to imagine provocative circumstances and rehearse an appropriate and constructive response.

We should not confuse anger which is based on a wish to harm with the need to act sternly at certain times arising from a positive beneficial intention. When positive states of mind are operating the negative ones cannot assume an overt form. Thus, the cultivation of constructive states of mind provides us with a way to deal with difficult circumstances.

Only our eventual understanding of reality, of how everything arises dependency without inherent existence, will enable us to deal with the confusion and ignorance that lie at the root of all other disturbing attitudes and emotions. However, even without a full understanding of this, thinking how we, our emotions, situations and others do not exist as they appear and how our hard delineation of them is a superimposition which does not correspond to reality, may help to decrease the intensity and duration of feelings which disturb and trouble us.