Letter to a Friend – Nagarjuna
The shrine room at Tergar Monastery in Bodh Gaya was packed with 1500 people from 52 countries. The seating was organised deftly to give every group a chance to sit at the front and gaze at the powerfully expressive face of the Karmapa. The throne, the shrine, the gigantic Buddha, the face of Karmapa – all seemed washed with gold. Chyamsin-la, the Karmapa’s sister, offered the mandala to request the teachings.
From my notes which have been edited.
The reason we chose this text, His Holiness Karmapa informed the international assembly, is that it is primarily an instruction for householders on how to practise the dharma. Nagarjuna wrote it to his friend, the King of South India. It includes the five vows and the practice of the 6 paramitas.
Nagarjuna was responsible for discovering the Prajnaparamita Sutras. According to the Chinese texts it was said that Nagarjuna had a vision where he met a great Naga who showed him many caskets with texts. He looked through them and understood everything. When he re-entered the human realm he wrote down the Prajnaparamita Sutras.
It’s worthwhile to listen to the teachings of Nagarjuna because they are the words of the Buddha and when taught again they become ever more beautiful, just like chalk lit by moonlight becomes even whiter.
It is important to understand what has not been understood, to understand the meaning not just the words and to experience it.
The difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist is not so clear but if one understands and practises Refuge, one can be called a genuine Buddhist. There are three motivations for going for Refuge: I don’t want to suffer from the 3 lower realms; I understand the nature of samsara and want to be free from samsara; I want others to be fully enlightened out of great compassion.
The prevalent feeling of samsara is that I am not getting things right. Sometimes there’s joy, sometimes unhappiness. It’s a collection of all sorts of things. It’s important to understand that in samsara things don’t always go well. It’s natural just like burning one’s hand if we put it into hot water. When you accept that, you will get some stability because you know there is no other way.
It’s very important to look at our state of mind and start from there. We don’t have to force a motivation. We start where we are and slowly progress. We should not fight within ourselves.
The first source of refuge is the Buddha. What is Buddha? We generally think of the historical Buddha but the word itself has two meanings. To awaken from the slumber of negative veils; and to blossom like a flower. Sang is to awaken, and gye is blossom.
In Hindi the word buddhu means ignorance or an idiot, so it’s possible to become a Buddha from a buddhu, to awaken from ignorance. When the Buddha taught the first five disciples they got the true experience of the dharma, the experience of liberation. Cessation refers to the exhaustion of karma and kleshas. When the mind poisons are extinguished we experience joyful sensations. It is an experience of well-ness, the joy of being free.
If anybody gets the experience of dharma – cessation and path – that person is sangha.
There are two kinds of motivation to follow the path: fear and devotion. Fear comes from seeing the suffering of samsara, not fear of the object of refuge. The Buddha is not punishing us for not doing the right thing. The teacher is supposed to be our best friend, who will help us in every situation. The refuge should not become a source of fear. The other motivation is devotion. We understand clearly what samsara is and we have faith. If we have emotional faith without understanding there are many problems. We have to understand how Buddha, Dharma and Sangha can help us. The Buddha does not wash away negativity and put wisdom into us. The Buddha said, ‘I show you the way. It’s up to you whether you attain enlightenment or not’.The path is what we try to inculcate into our experience. When we practise it leads to cessation.
The first vow is to give up violence and aggression to beings. There are three non virtuous actions of body, four of speech and three of mind. The root of all these actions is the mind poisons, negative emotions.
The negative actions of body and speech are considered to make karma whereas negative mind is considered to be the path to karma. For example killing starts with the intention to kill. If stopped at this stage, the negative action doesn’t get completed and after some time the negative thought becomes less conscious.
Between the intention and the actual deed, there are 1000 steps. We need to be mindful and careful and in that way many harmful actions can be avoided.
The difficulty for householders is the view. We think we can do divinations, sponsor pujas and everything can change; but karma is the main thing. This is not utterly wrong view but it’s going in that direction.
If one is wise and thinks properly it isn’t necessary to take vows. Vows are a last resort showing we have an inclination to do negative things. However if we take the vow there is a conscious awareness and we cut off the possibility of doing the negative deed.
Wrong livelihood involves selling intoxicants, weapons, poisons, living beings and meat.
His Holiness then continued with Nagarjuna’s instructions for householders.
Possessions are ephemeral and senseless. Give them away to Brahmins, monks and your friends. Give to the sangha, to people who have been helpful like one’s parents; and to the poor and destitute. The reason we should give is that wealth and possessions are impermanent so the best way of using what we have is to offer it. If we share it we will develop a strong habitual tendency for our next life and create rebirth in a more prosperous and higher realm.
Shamatha meditation is founded on discipline and good conduct. If we cannot control the gross level of body and speech, then we cannot control the more subtle levels. In order to study, investigate and meditate we need a concentrated disciplined mind. Therefore good conduct is the basis for all three qualities. It’s like the earth.
If good conduct increases, the other paramitas will manifest. We think a bodhisattva is a person with a good heart who helps others. But he/she also has to be skilful, compassionate and wise. For that to happen one needs good conduct.
‘Some people I’ve met have difficulty loving and respecting their parents’, His Holiness said. ‘In my case there is nothing that prevents me from loving and respecting my parents so it may be difficult for me to give advice about it. For those who have this problem they can use the instruction not to have hatred or anger towards anyone, to have patience.
It’s very important to think over our personal history and forgive ourselves and others and get rid of negative experiences. It’s important to let go.’
The next instruction for householders is to observe the genyen vows for one day: abstain from killing, lying stealing, sexual activity, drinking, greed for food, high beds, singing and dancing and adornments. If this is observed regularly it will result in attaining the level of an Arhat.
A question about Root Guru.
‘I must explain this because it’s in my mind and bothering me. When we talk about root guru we are talking about the vajrayana master from whom we receive pith instructions, empowerments ad transmissions. In Vinaya it’s called kalyanamitra, spiritual friend, the one who shows us what to take on and what to discard.
My personal point of view is that I do not have all the qualities to be the root guru to anyone at this moment but I’m working on it. But since many people have trust and confidence in me I try to encourage them and accept to become their root master. I do not have the qualities but because of my connection with the lineage and with an effort from both sides, something good can come of it. So when I accept someone I don’t think it’s me but I see all the masters everywhere and I take inspiration from them. So the point is the lineage is the most important thing we have to work on.
There is a Tibetan saying: even if someone has lots of faults, it doesn’t make the instruction bad. So it’s not that I am great but the instructions and teachings are great. So take the instructions and teachings as the main guru and there will be no problem.’ Another question: are there one or many root gurus? ‘Tsa means root. One root many branches. There must be something stable.’
‘I have a story to tell from my own experience.
There is a tradition in India and Tibet that masters show humility saying I don’t know. But when a Lama says I don’t know in the West they think he really doesn’t know. He is really expressing his humility not saying he doesn’t know. A good student will know the Lama is expressing humility; then it becomes an inspiration to the student. Some Lamas make it a kind of style but in their body language they show their pride.
Those who practise loving kindness and compassion don’t have the space to be arrogant. Unless you can work on arrogance you cannot work for sentient beings.
Making yourself too small brings a sense of hopelessness. We should not lose self confidence. The kind of humility we mean is knowing that what we know is like a small pond compared to a vast ocean.
It is very important to examine oneself to see whether one is practising the dharma or not.
Purifying negative deeds in front of the Buddha, dharma or sangha is good but what is more important is our own way of looking at negative deeds. If we see it’s not good for me or for others, we have to give them up. Also I forgive myself – I just let go. We need to cultivate joy from doing this practise. We have to be excited about doing it.
Sometimes people hang onto wrongs they did. It’s good to recognize negative deeds but not good to feel we can do nothing about them. Let go, forgive yourself.
The actual meaning of purification is to separate the negative side of yourself and let it go because you know it’s something bad. Milarepa didn’t sit there crying, feeling hopeless and doomed; he practised dharma and overcame it. It is important to understand this.’
Resentment is the continuous feeling of someone doing something to deprive me. When I get angry, it comes and then goes away. Resentment is holding on. It hurts us more than the person we want to hurt. What we are doing by feeling anger is helping the enemy to harm us. Those who learn martial arts know if you get angry you cannot be effective . You have to look carefully when you want to strike.
Negative emotions should be like figures drawn on water: they should go away quickly. But positive emotions like bodhicitta, should be like figures drawn in stone.
In terms of speech there is speech like honey, beneficial and sweet; speech which is truthful like a flower and foul speech which is like filth.
It’s important to have a balanced way of being. If you can be content with whatever happens there will be no problems. If we can develop that kind of balanced contentment life becomes easy. Equanimity is the point here.
‘I have lots of activities. Before I go to sleep I think, what have I done today? Usually I find there isn’t anything I can say that has made my life more meaningful. It’s important to let our mind settle down and focus. We have to cultivate and use one pointedness as part of our daily life.’
At an earlier break in the teaching there was a request to teach on the nature of mind. His Holiness joked, ‘I’m too busy to look at the nature of mind. I’m looking at the nature of busy.’ The audience laughed appreciatively. Bodh Gaya is the holiest place in the Buddhist world in the midst of chaos, pollution and deafening traffic. And with the 27th Kagyu Monlam approaching and the Dalai Lama’s teaching in early January, it gets busier by the day.
To continue: Usually we say that we are wasting our life – going to the toilet, sleeping, getting into a traffic jam… so I feel I am wasting time. But is making our life purposeful something inside or outside? It’s up to us how we spend our time.
If you don’t allow your mind to be distracted and make it do something useful, then time is not wasted. Happiness does not come from getting something I didn’t have before. Happiness depends on my state of mind. I can use whatever is happening to make my time meaningful. It depends on how I experience what is going on around me, how my mind works to use time in a meaningful way.
Impermanence and Interdependence
If one looks carefully changes are happening all the time. We think there is one birth and one death, but if we look more deeply birth and death are happening all the time. If we understand this, death is not so frightening. If we see every day, every moment as a new life, a new birth, then every moment is something special. When we see that every moment is a next birth, we can use that momentary life and make our life into an ocean of happiness. Each moment is a seed of happiness.
‘My own experience is that when we look deeply, everything that we are is dependent on other things. I am a part of everything around me. The more I understand this the more I understand how important others are to me and that working for others is important.
Those who do not understand this have a lot of suffering. Understanding this goes together with compassion and emptiness. If others don’t exist, I will not exist; instead of, if I am not there, others are not there. The more we understand this the better it will be.’
‘The opportunity to discuss Letter to a Friend happened because of you, ‘His Holiness concluded, ‘ so I would like to thank all of you. I am very happy that this new connection of love and friendship has happened again, as it did when Nagarjuna wrote the letter to his friend, the King. His Holiness recited stanza 55.
With all its many risks this life endures
No more than windblown bubbles in a stream.
How marvelous to breathe in and out again,
To fall asleep and then awake refreshed.
I will make all efforts that our connection will continue and deepen.
Lama Choekyi from France offered his thanks from all of us, with genuine humility and respect.
‘Thank you for being such a wonderful gardener, for nurturing us with your nectar. We are just seeds, nothing special. We offer you our hearts, please accept them.’
With one heart we bowed and clapped to express our deepest gratitude.