THE FOUR PILLARS OF BUDDHISM
DZONGSAR KHYENTSE RINPOCHE
In the last issue of the Gentle Voice we featured the first half of a teaching by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, entitled "What is Buddhism? And What is Not?" Here is the concluding half of that wonderful teaching.
Now the third view. This one is much more difficult now. And this is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. All phenomena do not have inherently existing essence, truly existing essence…All phenomena do not have an inherently existing self. We’re talking about shunyata, emptiness. Let’s study this word by word. All phenomena do not have inherently existing essence… First of all, let’s talk about "all". Everything! It does not exclude Buddha! It does not exclude enlightenment! It does not exclude the path! It includes everything, everything. It includes, for instance, just an example, all compounded things. It includes all the emotions. And then the second word is "phenomena"… Basically, what you need to hear is that as long as there is involvement of subject and object, function of subject and object, then that is what we call phenomena. So what does subject do? Subject sees things. Subject sees the object. Subject looks at the object. And when the subject looks at the object and separates the object as something external, something independent from the subject, this is what Buddhists call ignorance. What does this ignorance do? This ignorance makes you not see the truth of phenomena. And the truth of phenomena is what is called shunyata. But when this deluded subject sees things, looks at something, this object is interpreted by this subject as something truly existent…
Okay, you have heard the Buddha’s life story? The twelve deeds? Some of you have. He taught three sermons, right? The first Wheel of the Dharma, the second and the third. Actually, the deeds of the Buddha are a very, very interesting study. They’re actually a very, very profound study that you should explore because normally when we talk about the first sermon, the second sermon, we only talk about the historical story. But, in fact, these so-called three sermons are very metaphorical. Actually, a phrase of the Buddha has all these three sermons in it, the first, the second and the third. Just in one phrase. Someone asked him the question, "What is the definition of the mind?" He said the definition of the mind was, "Mind, there is no mind, mind is luminous."
"Mind, there is no mind, mind is luminous." The first sermon, the second sermon and the third sermon. It’s a very interesting approach. The first sermon – one word, "Mind". See, Buddha is not a nihilistic guy. He accepts mind. That’s the first word, "Mind". That’s the first sermon. And that is a very important sermon because it denies all nihilistic approaches. All the things like, "There’s no heaven, there’s no hell, there’s no karma, there’s no cause, there’s no effect." All these are dispelled by one word, "Mind". He said that, "Yes, there is mind. Yes, there is karma. Yes, there’s cause and condition. Yes, there’s love and devotion. Yes, there’s lust and anger. Yes, there’s all of that."
Now in the second sermon he says, "There is no mind." Now he’s talking about a higher level because a mind is just a concept. There is no such thing as truly existing mind. This is what he’s saying. This is the second sermon. And he was saying this to a much more accomplished group of people. The first sermon on the word "mind" he taught to only some thick, ordinary people. But the second one he said to much more accomplished people. "There is no mind." It does not have inherently existing essence. The third… Now there’s a debate about that one. Many, many scholars in Tibet say the third is the highest teaching. He just said, "Mind, there’s no mind, mind is luminous." Now he’s saying, "Mind is luminous." He’s talking about Buddha nature now. Clarity. Luminosity is maybe not the best word. Undeluded, spontaneously arising, primordially existing wisdom. Now he’s talking about Buddha nature.
Now let me support these three again with a different explanation. This is actually a remark made by Nagarjuna, a great commentator. He’s incredible. He asked, "What is the purpose of the first sermon of the Buddha, when he said, ‘Mind’?" What was the purpose? The purpose was to dispel everything that is non-virtuous. Where does non-virtue come from? When you become eternalist or nihilist. Then you become non-virtuous. So in order to stop these non-virtuous deeds and thoughts he gave the first sermon. The second sermon… What is the purpose of the second sermon? In order to dispel self. Self. Ego. I. Self. Anyway, like table, chair, house, the self, himself, this self. The second sermon is to dispel this clinging or this very self. That’s where he taught emptiness. The third sermon… Actually, all his sermons are to dispel something, never to get something, always to clear something away, to wash something away. The first one was to wash away non-virtuous thoughts and actions, the second one was to dispel self, self-clinging, ego. The third, a very, very profound teaching, was to dispel all views, including the view of no self. Even things like, "Oh, there’s nothing that exists." Even that has to be dispelled. That’s where he brought back this idea of Buddha nature.
A few more words on this third view. This is actually the main, the ultimate view of Buddhism, as you must have noticed… See, we talk about all compounded things being impermanent. By understanding that, what does it do? It makes us see the truth that every compounded thing is impermanent. So when you actually go through this experience of losing something, you are already prepared to accept this fact that since everything is impermanent this happens, since it’s a compounded thing this is what is already expected. So that benefits. It has a benefit. And then, when we talk about the second one, that every emotion is pain, by understanding that, we get motivation to control our emotion or to transform it or make it more workable. For that we do shamatha meditation, vipashyana meditation and all sorts of meditation. But it benefits. There’s the benefit of losing the grip, the fixation… When we have a fixation, a very tight fixation, a tight grip, by understanding this second view, we loosen up a little bit of that grip. So there’s a little bit of benefit.
Now the third one… The benefit of understanding that everything is emptiness… It’s slightly unimaginable for the time being, I think. How does it benefit? Why does it benefit? What does it do to you? Okay, all phenomena do not have inherently existing essence. What does it do when you hear this and when you contemplate it? Not many of us know the value of the actual realisation of this emptiness. Even if we do have a little inspiration towards this understanding of emptiness, it’s usually very limited. So the Buddhist concept of emptiness is very limited, very narrow for most of us. I can tell you some of the signs or indications of lack of understanding of emptiness. Of course, generally speaking, when there’s no understanding of emptiness, you either become eternalist or you become nihilist. Of course, that’s the standard, classic Buddhist approach… They always say that if you do not understand emptiness, you will fall into these extremes. But this is such a big, philosophical language. We do not know what that means, falling into eternalism. This is where I’d like to expand this a little bit because this is quite important.
The devotion that we have, for instance, like guru devotion… If you’re not careful, if you don’t have this third view, it can fall into eternalism. And after ten years, when things go wrong, it can throw you back to nihilism. So there’s a grave danger there… His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says a word which means "the downfall of not understanding emptiness". For instance, as a Buddhist we practise compassion, love. When you have a lack of understanding of emptiness, a lack of understanding of this third view, this compassion can become goal-oriented compassion. Then this compassion will backfire on you, I think. This compassion will destroy your confidence instead of developing confidence. This kind of compassion can make you sick. This kind of compassion can make you hopeless, or co-dependant if you will.
As a Buddhist you have to be a good boy or girl, so what does that mean? Have compassion! And because you don’t have an understanding of emptiness, what does that mean? It means you are very attached to the goal. The goal of compassion is usually that you look at beings who have a problem, like family problems, alcohol problems, depression problems. And as a good Buddhist boy or girl, you try to solve this problem. And because you do not have an understanding of emptiness, you’re attached to the goal. The goal is your interpretation! You think of your interpretation of managing to solve the problem. And that then becomes your ultimate aim. Oh, oh. You are a victim of hope, which will bring fear, which will then bring disappointment. Or you become a good Mahayana practitioner. Once, twice, you try to help sentient beings, but because you have a lack of understanding of the third view, you can get tired, tired of benefiting sentient beings. Why? Lack of understanding of emptiness. This is one kind of major problem.
Now there’s another kind of problem which also arises from lack of understanding of emptiness, from lack of understanding this view, which happens more to jaded Buddhists. Somehow, because they happen to be receiving teachings from great masters like the Dalai Lama again and again about emptiness and they read books about emptiness, they think about emptiness and somehow… You know, this is what they call a trendy thing. I guess young people they do that. Like when you are sixteen or fifteen, you go to a party and when everybody is having drugs, if you don’t, you feel you don’t belong to this group. And this happens among Buddhists a lot. If you don’t accept emptiness, you are not a good person there. So somehow we pretend that we love this emptiness. We also sort of practise this emptiness. But there’s a bad side-effect when you do not understand it properly. You violate a lot of karmic details! You say, "Everything is emptiness. We can do what we like." You violate the karmic details and you become completely unelegant. You will become the source of loss of inspiration for a lot of people!
The third view, as I was saying, is a very important subject. I can say, actually, the three other views are grounded on this third view. The third view is actually like the quintessence of all the views. We can talk in a very simple way about this emptiness – which is what you think is not what it is. How it appears is not what it is. That’s it. That’s it very simply expressed. You may think he is a very good man, but that’s only your idea. This good man, this white, black, pink or whatever man, this is only your idea. This is not what he is. That’s a simple way of approaching emptiness…
What is emptiness? Emptiness is understanding that what you think is not what it is. That’s very simplified. It will not do for the long run, but it will do for a while. It will lead you somewhere. Okay, are you happy with the third view now? This is indispensable and this is unique. Very unique because no one talks about this now. In almost all philosophies or religions they might say that things are an illusion, like the world is a maya or an illusion. But always there are one or two things left out as something truly existent like god, cosmic energy or whatever. They always leave one or two entities as something supreme. Not Buddhists. Everything, from samsara to nirvana, from the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread, everything is emptiness. Everything! Nothing is how you imagine, how you think, how it appears. That is not the ultimate truth. Whatever you see, however it appears, that’s not the ultimate truth. This is the view…
Now, the last one… Nirvana is beyond extremes. Now having heard all this emptiness business, you will understand this more easily. But even after we talk about everything being emptiness, we still stress the last view, the fourth view, that nirvana is beyond extremes because it is a unique thing about Buddhism. In many other philosophies or religions your final goal is not beyond extremes. Your final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. But the final goal of Buddhism, enlightenment, is also beyond all kinds of fabrications, all kind of extremes. When I say "extremes", it’s fabrication. Fabrication, as I was saying earlier, like a good shower system, a comfortable life. That’s what we imagine. Whatever you imagine, it is not that enlightenment. So enlightenment is, again, back to "not what you think". This way of thinking of enlightenment, it’s not that! Again, that makes the Buddhist path unique because another philosophy or religious system would say heaven or whatever, the final goal, is the only true thing that exists. It sounds like a pointless thing to do from the emotional point of view. So these four, whoever holds these four in their heart, in their head, contemplates on them… This person is a Buddhist and he or she doesn’t have to be referred to as a Buddhist, but he or she is a follower of the Buddha. Someone who goes beyond that, outside these Four Pillars of Buddhism, then they are not a Buddhist. They have not taken refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha.
The three-tape set of this teaching, "What is Buddhism? And What is Not?", is now available from Siddhartha’s Intent, P.O. Box 1114, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2012, Australia. Please refer to the audio tape catalogue page for details.