Go beyond, Go further beyond

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā – the Heart Sutra, which the Dalai Lama
translated as ‘Go, go, go beyond, go further beyond, establish Buddhahood’, could be seen
as a core message that emerged from his teachings in Delhi recently. The implication is
to practise, constantly and diligently, ways of transforming oneself until Buddhahood is
achieved. It is an enlightenment that is not just for oneself, though, and is accompanied by
vow to work for all sentient beings.

Organised by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
the teachings were centred on the ‘Four Noble Truths’. Given the Dalai Lama’s facility
and skill as a teacher, they went far beyond, and knitted complex concepts of Buddhist
philosophy about the nature of reality with latest research in quantum physics, and
detailed explanations of mind and emotions in Buddhism’s ‘science of mind’ with everyday
experiences.

The Four Noble Truths have usually been translated as: the truth of suffering, its cause in
grasping and desire, the possibility and the path to its eradication. ‘All phenomena are born
from causes and conditions and these have been taught and also their cessation by the
Buddha,’ explained the Dalai Lama. He went on to connect the changeability of phenomena
with impermanence and interconnectedness – everything changes and is impermanent, and every result is conditioned by its causes, making for an interconnected reality.

Speaking to an audience of 300, the Dalai Lama often employed his legendary wit to liven
his discourse and the ensuing conversations. His jokes were at times about others – the
solemnity of the Queen of England and a head priest of a Korean tradition, for instance –
but he laughed the hardest while poking fun at himself. His own example cropped up time
and again, like how he was made aware of his own attachment to his tradition when a
scientist remarked that he was practising detachment from his tradition, science.

While talking about the importance of rational thought in spiritual practice, the Dalai Lama
recounted how he had given up the scriptural notion that Mount Meru held up the centre
of the universe because his aeroplane journeys had shown him otherwise. Yet, he says his
scientific temperament was doubted by a friend who said it could not co-exist with his belief in the state oracle. The Dalai Lama countered it with an explanation of different levels of reality, many of which cannot be explained or measured in scientific terms. These instances revealed his openness to interrogating tradition, while not losing sight of the wisdom that is transmitted through it, which in the case of Tibetan Buddhism includes insights into the nature of mind and reality that are now being validated and valued by modern science.

His humour transformed many a moment. With a twinkle in his eye, he recounted how he
followed the Christian tradition and kissed his friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ring, and
how the latter would praise him and add in jest, ‘He is a wonderful man, but what a pity he
is not Christian!’

The Dalai Lama’s ability to exude a lightness of being at a time when he has spent most of
his life in exile from his homeland, where the situation continues to be tense, is a testimony
to the equanimity that is a result of intense spiritual practice. The poignancy was not lost
on the audience, and one of the questions asked was, ‘How can we share your pain?’ The
Dalai Lama’s response was that he needed to deal with his pain through his own effort. This
was in keeping with what he had asked us to do – because suffering arises from ignorance of reality, it is possible to eradicate it through knowledge and practice.

The Dalai Lama ended by reminding the largely Indian audience that India, who he refers to as the guru of Tibet, having taught it the dharma, should now not forget its chela.

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This article was published in The Speaking Tree paper on April 1st, 2012.

The Last Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama
His Holiness blesses a copy of my book, 'Dharamsala Diaries' in 2007.

In a recent statement, the Dalai Lama has attempted to demystify the seemingly esoteric system of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. Here is a look at the system’s spiritual roots, and why the Dalai Lamas of Tibet might soon become a part of history.

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“I am held to be the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet, who are in turn considered to be manifestations of…the Bodhisattva of Compassion… I am often asked whether I truly believe this…when I consider my experiences during this present life, and given my Buddhist beliefs, I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas…and to the Buddha himself.”

– Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama ofTibet

Reincarnation inTibetis not only a matter of religious belief. It has struck deep roots in its lived culture and led to a unique system of spiritual leadership most popularly exemplified by the Dalai Lama. Eminent teachers of Tibetan Buddhism are believed to re-enter the world upon death, in fresh bodies, to carry on their work. In a statement released on 24 September 2011, the Dalai Lama explains this phenomenon, “There are two ways in which someone can take rebirth: under the sway of karma and destructive emotions, and rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer.”

Conscious Rebirth

The ‘conscious reincarnations’, called tulkus, are identified through an elaborate process that includes clues left by the predecessor, divination, a search among plausible children taking into account auspicious events at birth, and an examination of selected candidates through signs such as familiarity with the deceased’s belongings and attendants.

The recognised child, usually three or four at this time, is installed in his predecessor’s position with much celebration. Then begins a rigorous course of study – training in spiritual disciplines, scriptures, philosophy and practices particular to the lineage. Once the tulku matures in age and understanding, he takes over the responsibilities of his predecessor.

It might be argued that any child put through a couple of decades of concentrated spiritual training will grow into a wiser human being. While this may be so, little tulkus usually display a keen aptitude for scriptural study, metaphysics and meditation, as also equanimity, balance and quality of concentration not common in other children of their age.

The Dalai Lama, who has an abiding interest in modern science, has said that he is willing to consider scientific proof that debunks reincarnation but that until then he would continue to believe in it. He has talked about his tutor, Ling Rinpoche’s reincarnation, who, at age two, crawled to the Dalai Lama’s room on his own and laid a ceremonial scarf on the bed!

Bodhisattva’s Vow

The key to understanding conscious rebirth is a word the Dalai Lama uses in the opening quote – ‘bodhisattva’. In his words, “Superiorbodhisattvas, who have attained the path of seeing, are reborn…due to the power of their compassion for sentient beings and based on their prayers to benefit others.”

The Buddhism ofTibet– Vajrayana – itself a branch of Mahayana, is essentially the way of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the Buddha-to-be, who has chosen to delay his release from samsara for the sake of everybody else. Nirvana for oneself is unthinkable when countless others continue to suffer, and the bodhisattva in his deep compassion, chooses to return with only one motivation – to help as many beings, in as many ways, as he can.

For the young tulkus, it is an inspiring focus to develop in life. Where one’s raison d’etre, reason for being, has nothing to do with personal ambition, high-flying careers, or even families and children, like most of us. Every practitioner of Vajrayana, in fact, attempts to cultivate this attitude of compassion and dedicates his spiritual practice for the welfare of all beings.

Uncertain Future

Recognising the potential for manipulation in the tulku system, suitable checks and balances were put in place. These, along with everything else in the matrix ofTibet’s culture, were dealt a massive blow with the invasion ofTibet and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama out ofTibet in 1959.

One reason that has prompted the Dalai Lama’s recent statement is his concern about the politics that will be played with his reincarnation. His concern at the imminent subversion of a spiritual ideal that lies at the very heart of Tibetan Buddhism has prompted him to consider ending the institution of the Dalai Lama.

“When I am about ninety I will consult the high lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism,” he says in the statement, “and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.” Because a bodhisattva operates from a motivation of concern and service to the other, the Dalai Lama seems to have handed over the choice of his reincarnation to the other as well.

In one of the last decisions of his present life, he once again evinces what has been a lifelong commitment – pointing to the need to innovate with tradition, let go of aspects that are no longer tenable, and keep an open mind to the endless possibilities of life.

The Dalai Lamas of Tibet face an uncertain future. But they carry a valuable message for us in this age of materialistic greed, encapsulated in this prayer the Dalai Lama recites every day:

For as long as space endures,

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide,

To dispel the misery of the world.

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This article appeared as cover story in the October 16, 2011, edition of The Speaking Tree newspaper.