The Gyalwang Karmapa Teaches on Two Traditions of Taking Bodhisattva Vows and How We Actually Receive Them
January 21, 2016- Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
[The Gyalwang Karmapa’s recent talks have been detailed and extensively researched, so it was decided to make a version available that resembles a lightly edited transcript for those who wish to read the longer report, which follows this summary for those who prefer brevity.]
The Gyalwang Karmapa continued his explanation of the rituals for rousing bodhichitta in the two lineages, one stemming from Manjushri and the other from Maitreya. Some scholars, the Karmapa noted, say that the traditions differ not only in their rituals but also in actuality, because they understand Manjushri’s lineage to belong to the Middle Way school and Maitreya’s to the Mind Only school. Other scholars do not agree with these attributions.
After a long discussion of the pros and cons, the Karmapa summarized the view of his Karma Kamtsang tradition that the ritual for generating bodhichitta. There is a danger, he cautioned, in labelling the two traditions as “Middle Way” and “Mind Only,” because the Middle Way view is usually considered superior to the Mind Only view, so automatically, the ritual of the Middle Way would become superior to the Mind Only ritual. Further, this labelling would also disparage Asanga by putting him into the lower level of the Mind Only school. Therefore, instead of these two terms, the Karmapa explained, we speak of the lineages of the profound view (Nagarjuna) and the vast action (Asanga).
The Karmapa then turned to the question of what an authentic ritual is. He quoted Drukpa Kunlek who said that ultimate bodhichitta arises from the very essence of the ritual. What is it? The blessing of the lama. The Karmapa added that a real ritual is a means to understand the profound meaning. Though there is a debate about whether ultimate bodhichitta can come about through a ritual, the Karmapa advised that what is more important for us is the question of whether relative bodhichitta arises or not. If we do not make efforts and train our minds with skillful means and wisdom, even relative bodhichitta will not arise.
The Karmapa then made a surprising statement. Actually, he said, it is more important to generate compassion for oneself than it is to generate it for others. Usually our compassion is turned outward s, but we should have the courage to turn inward and investigate how we ourselves suffer. The pain we personally experience, he explained, is the basis for developing real compassion, which then extends from ourselves out to others and enables us to truly understand their situation: “They suffer as I do. How great it would be if they were released from it.” In sum, just as we see our suffering and have compassion for ourselves, so we develop it for others, based on our own experience. This way of generating compassion is very important.
The Extensive Version of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s Discussion of Relative and Ultimate Bodhichitta
The Gyalwang Karmapa has been teaching about two traditions or lineages for the bodhisattva vow. In The Ornament of Precious Liberation, Gampopa describes one lineage as stemming from noble Manjushri and passing down through Master Nagarjuna and Master Shantideva, and the other lineage as coming from noble Maitreya and descending through Master Asanga and Master Serlingpa. The Karmapa said that he will take these two traditions as his starting point.
In his commentary on Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva, Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa (1504–1566) writes about the differences in the two traditions concerning how the vows are taken. The Karmapa first explained the tradition of Shantideva, which entails six stages of preparation: (1) making offerings, (2) confessing, (3) rejoicing in virtue, (4) requesting the buddhas to teach, (5) requesting them not to pass into nirvana, and (6) dedication. The actual ceremony has two parts: generating the resolve and taking the vow. The concluding ritual has two parts: celebrating oneself and praising others, or in other words, rejoicing for oneself and rejoicing for others.
In the ritual from Maitreya’s lineage, the Karmapa explained, the preparation has three aspects: supplicating, gathering the accumulation of merit, and going for refuge. The actual taking of the vows has a single aspect, rousing bodhicitta, and the conclusion has two parts, rejoicing and the commitment to uphold the vows. These explanations of the rituals in the two traditions pertain to aspirational bodhicitta.
The ritual for engaged bodhicitta, he continued, has different preparations, seven in all, which include supplication, asking about common and uncommon obstacles, and so forth. The actual ceremony has only one part, rousing engaged bodhicitta. The concluding ritual has five aspects, including the benefits of the vow, the precepts, and so forth. With this, the Karmapa concluded his discussion of the order, or framework, for taking the bodhisattva vow in Maitreya’s tradition.
The Karmapa noted that there are some slight differences in the two rituals, and he has taken the commentary of Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa as the basis for his discussion.
Now there are some scholars, the Karmapa continued, who claim that the two traditions are different, not only in ritual but also in actuality, because they say that the tradition of Manjushri belongs to the Middle Way school and the tradition of Asanga belongs to the Mind Only school. Other scholars, however, state that the two traditions are not separate. The prime promoter of the view of separate traditions is Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), who states in his Differentiating the Three Vows: “There are two ways to generate bodhichitta in the Mahayana—according to the Middle Way (Madhyamika) or according to the Mind Only (Chittamatra). Their views are different and so are their rituals.” Other scholars do not agree with him and state the rituals are not different.
The second Karma Trinleypa wrote a text known as The Chariot of the Karmapa, which is a general explanation of the sutra and tantra. Here he mentioned a text, composed by Parkhang Lotsawa, which stated clearly that the Middle Way and the Mind Only schools have different traditions; they are separate and the former is superior to the latter. There are differences in who takes and who gives the vow, the ritual and the precepts. Since the view of the Middle Way is more profound and open, and the skill in means is also different, its ritual is more spacious. In relation to the Middle Way, the view of the Mind Only is traditionally considered somewhat lower, so the ritual is a little more narrow or restricted. This stance resembles Sakya Pandita’s: since the Middle Way view is slightly better than the Mind Only, there is also a difference in their skill in means, and so the rituals also diverge.
Contrary to these positions, Atisha Dipankara has written that the two traditions of Manjushri and Maitreya are not separate, but accord one with the other. He saw that the intentions, or ways of thought, belonging to Nagarjuna and Asanga (lineages that Atisha had received) were in harmony—they are all Buddhist rituals. Atisha himself composed a ritual for generating bodhicitta that encompassed both traditions.
In The Path to Enlightenment, Je Tsongkhapa writes that between Asanga and Nagarjuna’s traditions, there is a difference in the words of the ritual for generating aspirational bodhichitta, but not in the meaning. Those who say that these two traditions correspond to the Middle Way and the Mind Only schools and, therefore, have different recipients, rituals, precepts and so forth, have simply not analyzed well.
Again referring to Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa’s commentary on Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva, the Karmapa explained that the view of this text resembled that of Je Tsongkhapa in that both masters say there is no difference in the actual meaning of the two rituals. Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa wrote that the two rituals are based on two types of disciples: one type prefers things short and simple so Nagarjuna’s ritual is for them; others like elaborate rituals—with stages of preparation, the main part, and various concluding practices—so the tradition from Asanga’s Bodhisattva Levels is for them. But the essence of the two is the same; they do not contradict each other in any way.
The Karmapa then summarized the Karma Kamtsang view on the ritual for generating bodhichitta. There are two problems with the terms Middle Way and Mind Only. First of all, labelling the two traditions as “Middle Way” and “Mind Only” and then claiming that they are separate is quite open to refutation, he said. The danger is that the Middle Way view is usually considered superior to the Mind Only view, so automatically, the ritual of the Middle Way would become superior to the Mind Only ritual. Further, this labelling would also disparage Asanga by putting him into the lower level of the Mind Only school. It is better then not to use the terms Middle Way and Mind Only.
In brief, within the Kagyu tradition, and especially within the Karma Kamtsang tradition, we do no use these two terms are not used; rather, the tradition speaks of the lineages of the profound view (Nagarjuna) and the vast action (Asanga). The Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje’s collected writings contain a ritual for generating bodhichitta, in which he writes, “Talking of the Middle Way and Mind Only traditions is popular these days.” So he described the terms as being in vogue, the Karmapa noted, but he himself did not use them, preferring to call the two traditions “the profound view” and “the vast action.” This approach minimizes the contradictions that could arise through using terminology that distorts the actual situation.
The Karmapa then turned to some difficult or debatable points. The earliest translation of the Buddha’s words into Tibetan was a text known in Tibetan as Phangthung Chagyapa. Two traditions tell of how it arrived: one speaks of a text falling from the sky during the reign of King Lha Thothori Nyantsen (fifth cen., 28th king of Tibet), and the other relates that it was brought to Tibet by an Indian scholar. Whatever the case may be, the Seven-Branch Offering Prayer taken from this text was used by the early Tibetan kings when they were building temples. Further, the exact words of this prayer can also be found in volumes from the Dunhuang caves, indicating that the text was highly valued in those times. This early text, the Karmapa continued, talks of both relative and ultimate bodhichitta.
Further, the One Hundred Short Dharma Teachings, Collected by Jowo Atisha, contains a ritual for generating bodhichitta, which speaks of ultimate bodhicitta. Then turning to the mediations in the lower tantras, the Karmapa mentioned the well-known creation phase meditation, in which a practitioner focuses on a full moon disk as embodying relative bodhicitta and on the vajra standing in its middle as ultimate bodhichitta.
In considering whether or not ultimate bodhicitta can arise based on a ritual, the problem comes with the sutra tradition. Some say this is possible and others, not. Those who deny the possibility are Sakya Pandita and his follows, for he writes in his Exposition of the Three Vows: “Ultimate bodhicitta only comes about through meditation; it does not arise through a ritual.” On the other hand, the great Nyingma scholar Ngari Panchen Pema Wangyal (1487–1542) wrote in his Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows (the most important Nyingma text on the topic) that in the Secret Mantrayana, ultimate bodhichitta can arise through ritual. In the sutra tradition, however, one only makes the commitment to generate it, and then later engages in practice to bring it about.
Turning to the traditions of those who say it is possible to generate ultimate bodhichitta through a ritual, the Karmapa spoke of a statement Gampopa made in his collected works, affirming that there are rituals in connection with aspirational, engaged, and ultimate bodhicitta. This implies that ultimate bodhichitta can arise through a ritual. In his long treatment of the three vows, Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527–1592) writes that in Nagarjuna’s ritual for generating bodhichitta, one finds both relative and ultimate bodhichitta and also that these vows should be taken successively.
Further, in his Treasury of Knowledge, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye states that one cannot say categorically that ultimate bodhichitta does not arise through a ritual. Lodro Thaye gives a logical argument for why it could happen by referring to the fourth or word empowerment in the Secret Mantrayana. Here, wisdom arises through the power of words, and since this is true, one cannot say that ultimate bodhichitta could not also arise through the words of a ritual. If we accept that the word empowerment can generate wisdom, we have to also accept the power of the ritual to generate ultimate bodhichitta.
In sum, the Karmapa said that in terms of ultimate bodhichitta being generated through a ritual, there are the two scriptural proofs—the earliest text translated into Tibetan and Nagarjuna’s ritual for generating bodhichitta—and also the logical proof established by Jamgon Kongtrul.
The Karmapa then paused to relate a story from Tibetan history concerning a meeting of the Seventh Karmapa Chodrak Gyatso (1454–1506) and the famous yogi Drukpa Kunlek (1455–1529). Drukpa Kunlek had traveled to Kongpo, a region in southern Tibet, to meet with the Seventh Karmapa Chodrak Gyatso. The Karmapa gave him commentary on two texts, The Profound Inner Meaning and The Indivisibility of the Winds and Mind, as well as bestowing Dharma articles so they had made a good connection.
One time, the Karmapa was discussing the Dharma and asked the scholars around him, “Can a ritual give rise to ultimate bodhichitta?” The scholar Powo (his region of Tibet) Kachuwa (meaning that he had mastered ten major texts) replied, “The Sakya tradition states that you cannot but for we teachers and students, it doesn’t make any different. Whichever way is fine.”
At this time, Drukpa Kunlek was sitting off to the side as he was not considered a scholar. He offered, however, the comment that ultimate bodhichitta has to be generated from a ritual and actually arises from the very essence of a ritual. Otherwise, it would be difficult for ultimate bodhichitta to appear. What is this essence of the ritual? It is the blessing of the lama—from this ultimate bodhichitta arises. If this blessing is not present, Drukpa Kunlek said, the ritual cannot be considered a real one. To support his position, he cited a verse from the Hevajra Tantra, which he had fully memorized. The verse stated that co-emergent wisdom, beyond expression, does not arise from anywhere else but the instruction of the lama, their skill in timing and means, and the merit of the disciple.
Drukpa Kunlek commented that a ritual is not the ding! ding! of a bell nor the dung! dung! of a drum. A ritual is the means to understand the profound meaning. If a ritual is just the words and music, it loses its very basis and thus could not be found anywhere. The day afterward this discussion, people looked at Drukpa Kunlek in a different light, seeing him as one who knew texts.
The Karmapa commented that there’s a lot to be understood here. We have no choice but to speak of two types of rituals: the meaning, or true ritual, and the verbal ritual. We have seen that many say ultimate bodhichitta does not just come from a ritual. What about relative bodhichitta? Can it arise from a ritual? Usually we assume it can, but just reciting the words that were memorized and saying “This is the method,” will not make it happen. What is said about ultimate bodhichitta could also be said about relative bodhichitta: It does not come from a ritual, but from meditation. We need to cultivate relative bodhichitta by training in the key instructions of the tantras, by meditating on the equality of self and other, and so forth. Mere words are not enough.
Especially these days, the Karmapa noted, we recite the texts at great speed, but often do not know what we are saying or understand that words that pass from our lips. It would be difficult for even relative bodhichitta to arise this way. The texts say, “Imagine you have realized this,” but how is that possible without a real connection?
The Karmapa related a story about the great Kadampa master Potowa (1027–1105), who took monastic vows with an abbot, but stated that it was only later that he actually felt he had received them when he was in the presence of the lay master Dromtonpa Gyalwai Jungne (1004/5 to 1164). Potowa related, “I was attending a Dharma talk by this old layman from Reting Monastery (Dromtonpa), and at that time I could give rise to true renunciation so the actual vows arose within.” The Karmapa noted that this is similar to what Drukpa Kunlek said—actual experience has to be at the basis of the vows or rituals.
Here, Potowa is explaining that without real renunciation it is not possible to have the discipline of the vows. Just because the lama recites, “This is the method,” does not mean that the discipline of renunciation has arisen. We need to train, to analyze and make efforts to give rise to authentic renunciation. (The Karmapa mentioned in passing that true renunciation can also arise on the basis of a key instruction.) Therefore, when we develop the real wish for liberation, this is what should be known as the actual ritual of taking the vow.
The Karmapa advised that though there is a debate about whether ultimate bodhichitta can come about through a ritual, what is more important for us is the question of relative bodhichitta. If we do not make efforts and train our minds with skillful means and wisdom, even relative bodhichitta will not arise.
Actual relative bodhichitta does not come from words passing through us and slipping out. We should reflect that giving rise to bodhichitta is difficult even for the arhats of the Listeners and Solitary Realizers who belong to the Foundational Vehicle and have the five special type of vision and five types of precognition. How could it be easy for us who are at a much lower level and lack their abilities? When the lama repeats “This is the method,” it is not really a method for us because bodhichitta does not arise. So we must intensively train our minds and accumulate an immense amount of merit.
There is also the story of Shariputra, the Karmapa continued, who was the Buddha’s main disciple and foremost in wisdom. He had a hard time developing relative bodhichitta, so how could it not be difficult for us? We should not be lulled into thinking that everything is all right, that things are going well. We must analyze and see if we actually have true bodhichitta or not.
Someone might ask us, “Are you a Buddhist?” and we reply, “Of course.” And to the questions of being a follower of the Mahayana or the Secret Mantrayana, we give the same glib reply. But what about this question: “Are you a good person?” This will give us pause. Sometimes we are and at others, well, not exactly. Is there not a contradiction here? How could we be a Buddhist, to say nothing of belonging to the Mahayana, without being a good or moral person in worldly terms? We are caught in this lazy assumption and do not reflect on the actual situation.
If we really look at things as they are, it is not easy, for example, to embody the Four Immeasurables, love, compassion, and so forth. We might observe that someone was crying when they saw another person’s suffering, and just think, “Well, even non-Buddhists can have compassion.” But to have true compassion is not easy. This kind of thinking shows that we do not really understand ourselves, that we have not deeply investigated our mind. It is extremely important to delve into our mindstream and understand what is happening.
Actually, the Karmapa said, it is more important to generate compassion for oneself than it is to generate it for others. Usually our compassion is turned outward and expressed toward others but we need to know how we ourselves suffer. In the teachings, it is said that turning to look outward at others, we generate compassion for them, and turning inward to look at ourselves, we generate renunciation, wishing to be liberated from samsara. We should be courageous in knowing the nature of our own suffering, and develop compassion based on that experience.
So first we turn inward to understand how we suffer and develop compassion through the pain we personally know. As the texts say, “Take your own body as an example.” We start from our experience and extend our knowing from there to other people, thinking, “They suffer as I do. How great it would be if they were released from it.” We can recall that other beings are in our same situation: they do not want to suffer and wish to be happy. Just as we see our suffering and have compassion for ourselves, so we develop it for others, based on our own experience. This way of generating compassion is very important.