Tibetan Buddhism

A transcript from The Reasoning Show podcasts

Copyright © April 2007 David Quinn

 

Guest:   Alexander Berzin
Hosts:   David Quinn, Kevin Solway

 


 

David Quinn: Hello everyone, and welcome to podcast number three of The Reasoning Show series. Today we are going to be talking about Buddhism - or in particular, Tibetan Buddhism. We are going to be looking at issues like the nature of enlightenment, the student-teacher relationship, karma, and if we have time, maybe a few other things as well. My name is David Quinn, and joining me is long-time philosopher and practitioner of wisdom, Kevin Solway. Are you there Kevin?

Kevin Solway: Yes. How do you do? Good to be here.

David: Pretty good. Good to have you on board.

Also joining us is Dr. Alexander Berzin, who is an author and translator of Tibetan Buddhist works. He is the director of Berzin Archives and an international lecturer on Buddhist philosophy. He received a Phd in 1972 from Harvard University in the departments of far-eastern languages and Sanskrit and Indian studies. He has worked for 29 years in Dharamsala in India, as a founding member of the translation bureau of the Library of Tibetan works and Archives, and has served as an occasional interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He is currently living in Berlin, and nowadays prepares his collected works for online publication at berzinarchives.com. He has published seventeen books, mostly on Tibetan Buddhism, and his works have been translated into eighteen languages. Welcome Dr. Berzin. . . . or should I say, Alex?

Alexander Berzin: Please call me Alex.

David: I want to talk about the core purpose of Buddhism to begin with. We have handed down to us the legend of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, who, after six years of fasting and engaging in extreme ascetic disciplines, finally decided to sit down underneath the bodhi tree and vowed never to rise again until he had resolved all the core issues and reached enlightenment. And out of this enlightenment came the original Buddhist teachings. So I'm wondering, Alex, if you see this as the essential purpose of modern Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism? Is it to help people reach this same enlightenment that the Buddha reached?

Alex: Well I believe that it does. You know I believe there's a big difference between what I call "Dharma-lite" and the "real thing" Dharma - which is modeled on "Coca-Cola Lite" and the "real thing" Coca-Cola - and if we look at the "real thing" Buddhism - the "real thing" Dharma - that is talking about how to achieve liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth - or what we call in sanksrit, "samsara". So, how to gain liberation from that and all the problems that that entails, and then how to go further, beyond that, to reach enlightenment, for being able to help everybody else to reach this same type of state. So the "real thing" Dharma is based, like almost all Indian philosophies, on the idea, the belief, or the fact, depending on which point of view you want to look at it, of rebirth . . .  rebirth going on and on and on, and within the context of that rebirth in any type of realm or any type of life form, then we experience ordinary suffering, pain, and so on. And likewise with what's called the suffering of change - which is our ordinary happiness, but that ordinary happiness soon changes into unhappiness. If eating our favourite food were true happiness then the more we ate the more happy we would be. But after you eat a certain amount it turns into suffering, and the more you eat the more pain it gives you. So ordinary religions, and even animals, are into overcoming suffering of pain, and most religions teach you how to overcome this sort of unsatisfactory wordly happiness. But Buddhism goes further - the "real thing" Buddhism - and what you want to do is to get rid of the basis for this up-and-down of these two unsatisfactory situations. So you want to get rid of this whole process of rebirth with this body and mind that is going to be the basis or foundation for that. So that's "real thing" Dharma, or "real thing" Buddhism. 

Now, Buddhism-lite, or "Dharma-lite" is just - well, within this lifetime, follow basic ethical principles and certain meditational methods - based on an understanding of how disturbing emotions work, and how we cause problems for ourselves and others, and basically improve the situation of this lifetime - in a sense that reduces Buddhism to a form of therapy - and many people nowadays in the West look at Buddhism in this way - as a form of therapy. And although it can be very helpful and useful as such, it is a grave injustice and trivialization of Buddhism - and unfair to Buddhism - to just reduce Buddhism to a form of therapy - it's not. . . . That's the "Dharma-lite" version.

David: Okay, we've got a lot of territory there that we can explore over the coming hour. Now you're a teacher of the Dharma . . .

Alex: Yes I am.

David: Would you say that you're enlightened yourself?

Alex: Certainly not. . . . Certainly, certainly not! Enlightenment is a state in which one is, first of all, omniscient, where one has removed all disturbing emotions, and traces of that, and not only that, but one has removed the obscurations of the mind that cause the mind to make things appear in a way that doesn't accord with reality. You see, just to gain "liberation", basically you have to stop believing in these deceptive appearances that do refer to reality - as if, let's say, things were encapsulated, independent, existing on their own . . . somehow "out there" - and so to overcome that belief that that corresponds to reality - that things correspond to the boxes that words imply that they do - that's "liberation". Of course, based on that you've got all your disturbing emotions. But to become a Buddha you have to get your mind to stop producing these deceptive appearances. And when your mind stops producing these deceptive appearances, then you see the interconnection and interdependence of absolutely everything, everywhere, that has ever existed or ever will exist - the whole causal nexus of this entire thing - involving both the Universe and every being in it. And on that basis one has equal love and compassion and concern for everybody, and one knows exactly every single possible cause that has influenced the present situation of somebody, and one would know, for absolutely every being, what exactly would be the best thing to teach them, and what the consequences of that would be - in order to help them reach liberation and enlightenment. . . . And not only the effect of what you teach to that person, but the effect that it will have on every other individual that this person ever will interact with in the future. So that would be enlightenment, and I am certainly not an enlightened being.

David: I would define enlightenment as having no delusions anymore - having a clear perception of the way things are.

Alex: That's "liberation" . . . not "enlightenment".

David: Okay, we're having a semantic argument - okay, "liberation" then.  To the degree that a person isn't liberated from his delusions his perceptions, his views will carry distortion. So I'm wondering how you have come to accepting Tibetan Buddhism to be the right path, if, as you say, your mind is still harbouring delusions?

Alex: Well, one sees the example of great teachers, great masters, like, for instance, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his late teachers, and you see the example of those - whether they're enlightened or not - there's certainly no way of telling that as an ordinary person - but who certainly are far more developed than I am. And you look at the teachings of Buddhism in terms of how the mind works . . . and it all made sense to me . . . whereas other philosophies that I had studied really didn't explain to that extent, and one realizes that these people became like they did by following these teachings. And so based on that I was certainly drawn to be able to accept these things. In my University studied most of the Asian philosophies - both Indian and Tibetan, and Chinese - and travelled around and saw the various people that such philosophies produce - and the ones that I found the most appealing me - (I can't say that the other traditions are not authentic) - the one that seemed most suited to me was Tibetan Buddhism.

David: What do you think Kevin? How does a person decide if he's ignorant? How does he decide what is the wise path to take?

Kevin: Well I think the answer Alex gave just there was basically that you just do your best. I think that's all anyone can do. If you're harbouring delusions, as everybody is . . . everybody who's not a perfectly enlightened Buddha . . . , then I think you just have to do your best at deciding what the right path is. If you take the step to become a teacher, then obviously you're claiming that you have less delusions than your students, and I guess that's just a responsibility you have to take on your own shoulders.

David: Aren't you turning it into a kind of a lottery there. Isn't it a case of, if you're blind, it's just a matter of pure luck whether you choose a good teacher or not?

Kevin: You're talking about guru-yoga now are you?

David: Choosing the right path.

Kevin: Yes, I think that if your harbouring delusions, and you're deciding who is a better teacher than yourself, then I think it's a bit of a lottery, because you can only judge up to your own level, and then you can guess that somebody else knows more than you do - especially if they've taught you something - but beyond that I think it's a lottery.

Alex: I wouldn't agree that it's a lottery. One certainly uses various criteria for choosing a teacher. You have to first of all see . . . does this person have the qualifications for being a teacher. So do they know the subject matter - specifically, do they know more than I know. And have they put it into practice. So does the person have ethical discipline? You find out about them. You ask other people about them. You see what has been going on with them. Does this person have patience? Is the person willing to teach. Are they only interested in money? Are they only interested in power? What is their relationship with their own teachers? You investigate. It's very important to investigate. The Buddhist scriptures say that the teacher needs to investigate the student. And so mutual investigation could go on for twelve years, sometimes, they say - in order to be sure that this is really the proper teacher. Now, there are various levels of teacher. One can go to a Buddhist teacher just for information - like going to a professor - and for that there are certain qualifications. One can go to someone who is a more senior practitioner than ourselves, with some experience on the path, and so can explain from experience how you apply it in life. And then there's someone, like a ritual trainer, who can teach one how to do rituals, how to sit in meditation, how to set up an alter - these sort of things. And then there's an actual spiritual mentor with whom we take various vows and who actually inspires us. The main role of a teacher in Buddhism is to inspire us by his or her example - that gives you the energy to go on - that gives you some sort of role model that is helpful. But in any case it's very important for the teacher to be totally honest in terms of his or her level of attainment, and not be pretentious in the slightest, and to admit when they don't know something, and likewise for the student to be totally honest about his or her level, motive, and so on. So the process of finding a teacher is very much involved with a testing procedure. Tibetans also speak about various auspicious signs: if, when you go to the teacher's house, the teacher is actually home, or are they away all the time? These sort of things. You know, what is your natural instinct of emotional feeling when you meet this person. Are you, in a sense, drawn to this person? Or are you somehow turned-off by this person? They have to inspire you. This is very important. You don't go to a teacher just because they're popular or they have a big name, or they're entertaining or they're charismatic. . . . Hitler was charismatic.

Kevin: I think most of those things you're saying come naturally. The problem is, when people's minds are full of delusions, then when they trust their own instincts they very often end up with the worst kind of teachers, because the teachers they are choosing are appealing to, shall we say their lower instincts.

Alex: Well that's why in the Buddhist texts they outline very carefully the guidelines for examining the teacher - not just basing yourself on a non-thorough investigation.

Kevin: I think, for me at least, everything comes down to the individual. The individual has to decide who is going to be their teacher - if any. The individual has to decide what is true and what is false for every stage along the way. When an individual decides that he himself is going to become a teacher, that individual has to decide to do that on their own account, with the responsibility fully on their own shoulders. I don't believe it's right for a person to be ordained by somebody else, or confirmed as a teacher. A person has to do it, I believe, on their own account and taking full responsibility - and for that of course reason has to play the major part in doing so.

David: Yes. One of the problems I have with Tibetan Buddhism is that it is very geared towards worshipping the lamas, and the Dalai Lama, and the teachers and so forth. For example, Kevin and I used to go to a local Buddhist retreat here in Queensland, and we'd be sitting around at lunchtime, and the visiting guru from Tibet would come down into the lunch area and everybody would stand up and start bowing to them. And it's very top-heavy between student and teacher. I can't see how that is healthy towards encouraging students to open up their minds and become more rational.

Alex: I would disagree with that, in terms of the description being one of "worship". When the Queen of England walks into the room - or the president or the prime minister of a country walks into a room - the people stand up out of respect. It's just natural.

Kevin: If I might just put an interesting idea in here. Many of the Tibetan Buddhists that I've met regard the Dalai Lama . . . or they believe they know the Dalai Lama is . . . if not a Buddha, close to it - that he's at least a very great bodhisattva or a saint. Now these judgements are coming from people who are themselves not very high on the spiritual ladder, and who are totally unqualified to judge whether the Dalai Lama is close to Buddhahood or not. So the fact that so many Tibetan Buddhists will claim certainty that the Dalai Lama is close to Buddhahood - if not being an actual Buddha - I think is an example of what David was talking about - this kind of, shall we say, blind worship.

Alex: Again I would take exception to the word "worship" here. To go back to what I was saying . . . In terms of reasoning; how did the Dalai Lama become the way that he is? And you look at, for instance, having 1.3 billion people on this planet consider you public enemy number one - how has he responded to that? How has he trained? What has influenced the way that he is now? And then you also look at functionality, to see what has he done? What does he do? What effect does he have on people, and so on. Based on that you develop great respect for the man.

Kevin: Do you think it's rational though, for Tibetan Buddhists to go from that - having respect for the man - to saying that he's either a Buddha or very close to Buddhahood. Do you think it's a rational manoeuvre?

Alex: Well, I think that all that one could say is that he is the most highly developed person - I think this is what I would say - that certainly he is the most highly developed person that I've ever met. And whether he's a Buddha or not is irrelevant. He certainly would never claim that he's a Buddha. And so if I could become like that I would be very happy. And it's irrelevant what stage he's at.

David: I wonder how much of it is ceremonial. A lot of Catholics and Christians worship the Pope, and it doesn't really matter who's up there . . . a lot of people reckon John Paul II was a great Pope, and that the current Pope is not a patch on the previous Pope, but they will still worship him because he occupies a ceremonial position. So I'm wondering how much of that is also applied to the Dalai Lama.

Alex: Well the position of the Pope is very different. The Pope has a special relationship with "God". And His Holiness the Dalai Lama certainly has no special relationship with Buddha - and the position of God and Buddha are very different. So I don't think you can really compare the two.

David: But don't the Tibetan Buddhists, and don't you believe, that the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a previous Lama, and there was a lineage - like an enlightened lineage - going way back. Isn't that a similar kind of thing there?

Alex: Well I think it's quite different. I don't think it's very fruitful to compare it with His Holiness the Pope. But if we look within its own context then everybody is a reincarnation - we are all the present lifetime of beginingless mental continuums - individual beginingless mental continuums. Now if you look at the mental continuum of the Dalai Lamas then there is a certain line. They have had a certain position - maybe because of certain factors that make them responsible for affairs Tibetan and so on. Now whether or not they are incarnations, or representations of Avalokiteshavara - the representation of the compassion of all the Buddhas - that also one can look at from a historical point of view - from a sociological point of view, and so on. But if you just look at it from a phenomenological point of view, that Avalokiteshavara is the one with the compassion, looking after the welfare of Tibet. And this is certainly the task which the Dala Lamas have been performing.

David: Actually I wonder about his dual-role with the Dalai Lama. Jesus once said that you cannot serve two masters, and I'm wondering whether the political role of the Dalai Lama - he's the head of the political state of Tibet - compromises his ability to speak truthfully, and to attend fully to the spiritual, wisdom side of things. For example, I get the impression that he tries to be all things to all people, and this is because he's being compromised. For example, he came out to Australia a few years ago, and he was asked by journalists what the purpose of life was. And he said, "To be happy". Now that is what I would call a very wishy-washy, diplomatic kind of answer that doesn't really inspire anybody. If he had said something like, "The purpose is to pursue ultimate truth" then that might have some kind of meaning and power, but to say "be happy", then that's the sort of message you would get from rock starts - a crude message for a crude audience if you like.

Alex: I don't think so. First of all you ask what is the purpose of life. The Dalai Lama is not thinking "what is the purpose of human life?", he's thinking, what is the purpose of life in general. So we're talking about chickens and insects and so on and the purpose of people's life  . . ..  "Purpose" - we have to understand what that word means as well - which means the "aim". And the aim which everybody is following is that they want to be happy. And so a chicken or a worm eats in order to satisfy hunger, so it wants to be happy. So it's a very profound answer if you delve into it.

David: Well if he was purely focussed on being a bodhisattva and encouraging people to wisdom then I'm sure he would give a different answer.

Alex: Well, as I say, if he were asked "What's the purpose of being a human being?", then the most outstanding and unique feature of being a human being is human intelligence. So this is true of almost all Asian cultures that I've encountered. The real issue here is how to ask the question.

David: I was interested to hear you saying about how we're all reincarnated and how we're all on a mental continuum. What do you think of that idea Kevin?

Kevin: Well I'm a firm believer in cause and effect. It's the thing that gives me the most joy, so I'm glad we've finally got onto the subject of cause and effect. I believe that there are infinite causes to what we are now, and also there will be infinite effects of what we are now. Now when I look at the way cause and effect works, not just in human beings but in every single thing in the Universe, the effects of our life go in all directions. For example, the effect of my life right now is in all directions. There are many effects affecting many different things. So when I look for the current or the stream of my existence I don't see it going in a narrow line. For example, the Tibetans believe there is a line of reincarnations of the Dalai Lama, one after the other in a linear fashion. But when I look at cause and effect, cause and effect doesn't happen like that in my experience. Cause and effect fans-out in many directions. So if you want to use the word "reincarnate" in a poetic way to describe the way that a person changes through time, and the current of effects that a person has, I see that fanning-out like the branches of a tree. One person can have many reincarnations simultaneously. I don't see a linear reincarnation that's like a river with banks confining it. So would you see that as a major departure from what the Tibetan Buddhists believe Alex?

Alex: Well I think that two issues are being confused here. One is the effects that one has on others or on the environment, and, certainly, that goes in many different directions. But when we speak about rebirth in Buddhism, what we're talking about is a mental continuum, and a mental continuum here is an individual subjective continuum of the experiencing of things. We can get into a more technical description of that . . . but maybe that's not so necessary if we leave it just as individual subjective experiencing of things based on causality - like in the most simple instance you walk into a room, and in the next moment you see what's in the room; or you bang your foot against the table and the next moment you experience pain - so it's the individual subjective experiencing of things onto which one could label, or refer to it as "me". Now this has a continuity which is in a sense linear, because time is linear in that sense, but if we speak in terms of the effects that I have on everybody else, we couldn't label that as my individual subjective experiencing of the effect that I have on generations in the future. They're different things.

Kevin: There are two different arguments used for reincarnation. One of them is the empirical one: evidence, physical evidence perhaps that scientists can measure for reincarnation - I'm talking about the kind of reincarnation of one Dalai Lama to the next. And then there's a logical argument, which is based on a simple understanding of cause and effect. Now personally I would dismiss the empirical evidence, because, to me at least, it's very unconvincing. I can't think of any reason why reincarnation would happen. Put it this way - I can think of other reasons why a person is like they are - for example a young child can be like they are because of, not only their genetic inheritance and the way they were brought up by their parents, but also the infinite causes of the Universe around them have made them the way they are. I don't see any need to bring in a possibility of there being past lives in the sense that a Dalai Lama has past lives. But if we go to the logical reasons for reincarnation, what would you say they are Alex?

Alex: Well let's be quite clear, what are we talking about here? . . . individual subjective mental continuums, and we're talking about whether a continuum of individual experiencing of things can have an absolute beginning or an absolute end . . . at conception, or birth, whatever you want to call it - and at death. That's one thing. Can it just arise from nothing and can it just, within its continuity, each moment generates the next moment, but that first moment starts from nothing - so can nothing become something? And can something, which is generating a sequence of moments all of a sudden stop doing that, and all of a sudden go to a nothing. That's one aspect - which is illogical . . .

Kevin: I agree that things are beginningless and endless - so you don't have to convince me of that, but what . . .

Alex: So now the question is, what could be the previous cause of a moment of individual subjective experiencing of things. Now if you say that it is the physical basis - well the physical basis is a support, but there are many different things that are differentiated in the process of causality - something can be a basis for something else, something can be a condition for something else - that's not a problem. But if we talk about a succession of moments of continuity then in a succession of continuity, something which is a completely different class of phenomenon, namely some sort of physical basis, can't all of a sudden transform into an individual subjective experiencing of things . . . . That's something which is completely different. A plant can transform into a tree, a tree into wood, and wood into a table, a table into ashes. But a table can't transform into anger, or into love - that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Then you say, does it come from the parents? That doesn't make any sense either - that the individual subjective experiencing of a baby comes from the individual subjective experiencing of the parent - it's not a continuity - their subjective experiencing of things is very different. My mother eats - that doesn't fill my stomach - that satisfy my hunger - so the only logical conclusion is that the first moment of individual subjective experiencing in one lifetime has as its previous moment in the same category of the individual subjective experiencing in a previous lifetime.

Kevin: Yes, I agree that there's a continuity of cause and effect. What I don't agree with is that it can be confined to a linear path - a narrowly linear path - like the line of Dalai Lamas. You mentioned, for example, that a tree might die, and might be burned and might become ash, well this is what I see happening basically with human beings - with conscious beings. We follow a path of cause and effect where we die, perhaps we're buried, we rot away, perhaps we're turned into soil, which might then become trees and so on. . . .

Alex: That's the physical body.

Kevin: Yes, that's the physical body. As far as our thoughts and mind go, we might give teachings, and those teachings will affect other people, or we may have children, and all those people will take on something . . .

Alex: Yes, but that's not the individual subjective experiencing of things.

Kevin: Yes, but I believe the intellectual subjective experiencing is something that dissipates at death in the same way that a fountain, that has water continually flowing through it, . . . once you turn the pump off, ceases to be. Cause and effect continues on, because cause and effect doesn't come to an end, but the fountain ceases to be. And so I believe that our consciousness is like that fountain. And when our heart ceases to pump, and oxygen is no longer being delivered to the brain, our consciousness disappears in the same way that a fountain disappears when you turn the pump off.

David: Well yes, that raises the question, if consciousness can continue forever in a string, then why not any other thing, like . . .

Kevin: Like a fountain.

David: Yes . . . or a cloud. Why do we just confine this idea to consciousness?

Alex: Well we do have the idea in Western science that energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only transformed.

Kevin: Do you agree Alex, that a fountain reincarnates in the same way pretty much that we do, through cause and effect?

Alex: Are you talking about the actual matter that composes the physical fountain, or are you talking about the water?  What are you talking about?

Kevin: Whatever a fountain is.

Alex: I would say the matter and energy is neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. So the material that went into the fountain certainly had prior moments of its continuity. It did not stay the same of course - we're not talking about some solid thing that now is in this phase and that phase - it's certainly not that.

Kevin: So it's not just sentient beings that reincarnate - we're talking about everything in the Universe.

Alex: Well let's not use the word "reincarnate", we're talking about continuities. And there are certainly continuities of matter, energy, and Buddhism would add, individual subjective experiencing of things. . . . It's more like scenes of a movie - we're not talking about the actual plastic film, but what is appearing. There's nothing solid that continues, nevertheless there is a continuity.

Kevin: Okay. In the case of a fountain, when I turn the pump of and the fountain disappears - to our eyes at least . . .

Alex: Can you clarify what you mean by "fountain". Do you mean the water? . . .

Kevin: Yes. When we see the water pluming into the air we give it a name, and we call it a "fountain". But when we turn the pump off, and the water supply is cut off, then the fountain no longer appears.

Alex: Well that's not a problem. The physical physical body will deteriorate and no longer be a basis for for individual subjective experiencing of things . . .

Kevin: That's right. So it's exactly the same.

Alex: But the individual subjective experiencing of things will have further moments of continuity, just as the water, the specific water that came out of that fountain will have continuity in terms of going somewhere, and changing with heat into vapour and so on. So it's the same thing.

Kevin: It is.

Alex: We're not talking about. Continuity of individual subjective experience will have different physical bases - the physical basis is going to be changing constantly. If you think of the body - every cell in the body is changing all the time. There aren't any cells the same as we had when we were babies.

Kevin: Yes, we are exactly like a fountain really, just as a fountain is changing from moment to moment - really it's not the same fountain from one moment to the next, because the water is in different shapes - we're exactly the same - but the point I want to make is that when a fountain is turned off, that fountain doesn't necessarily reappear somewhere else as another fountain. The water from that fountain might be channeled off down some water pipes - it might come out of the tap in your kitchen and you might drink it - but it doesn't necessarily appear as another fountain somewhere else. So that's what I can't believe in Tibetan Buddhism - the idea that a person can die and then all of a sudden arises, through cause and effect, as another single person . . . that doesn't make any sense to me. I don't see the causal connections between the two.

Alex: I think you are confusing things here. You're confusing a body - the matter of a body will decompose and it will form soil and stuff like that. It's not necessarily going to become another body. That's one thing. But it will be a form of matter, or a form of energy, depending on what happens to it. But when we talk about individual subjective experiencing of things, the content, or the form of that will be different - you know, what you experience. We're not talking about some "thing" that is separate and experiencing something else which is a "thing". We're not talking about that. We're talking about experiencing itself. And the experiencing is going to have continuity. The physical basis of it is going to be different, the content of it is going to be different, but it will be a continuity within the same class of phenomena.

Kevin: Well that's what I disagree with because in the case of a fountain, when the water is channelled off, and you turn off the fountain, and you channel the water off for some other use, then it appears in a different category. It might appear in the category of "drinking water", or it might appear as a "cloud".

Alex: Yes, but now you're getting into specifics. Now that would be similar to whether it is the individual subjective experiencing on the basis of a human body or on the basis of an insect body or on the basis of a bird body - that's different. However the water stays in the same category in terms of being a form of matter and energy - that doesn't change.

Kevin: That's right. Now, some people believe that all the different realms of existence that are spoken of in Tibetan Buddhism . . .  I'm talking about the hell-realms, the animal realms, the hungry-ghost realms and the god realms . . . some people believe that they're all psychological states of existence, rather than places that you actually go when you die - they're states of mind that we experience here and now as we're living.

Alex: As human beings you mean.

Kevin: Yes. Right now people are experiencing hell realms, or existence as an animal and so on. Do you go along with that interpretation, or do you believe in the more literal idea that we actually go to those places when we die - that we have a continuum in those existences after we die?

Alex: Well I don't think it is either of these - in that way. To reduce these types of experiences - again it's a type of individual subjective experiencing of things - into just the human experience - that's "Dharma-lite". Buddhism would say that there is an aftermath of these experiences that one could experience as a human being, but it's not the actual thing. Now, if we look from the other point of view - is it to be taken in a sort of a materialistic literal way - that I don't think either is the case. The way I usually explain it to my students is that if you look at any particular sense field - let's say vision, or hearing, or smelling, or things like that, the human apparatus is capable of experiencing just a certain width in the large band, or spectrum, of each of these types of sense information. So we're not able to see in the dark, we're not able to see ultra-violet, infra-red, and so-on. Various animals can see in the dark - we can't, on the basis of a different type of hardware, a different physical body. Dogs can hear sounds that humans can't hear. A dog body can smell much more subtle smells than one could experience on the basis of a human apparatus. So if you take that logically to the area of tactile sensations - particularly pleasure and pain, and the associated happiness and unhappiness that might go with it. . . Let's just speak about pleasure and pain: the human apparatus is only capable of experiencing a certain part of that spectrum. So, for instance, when the pain reaches a certain level then the mind goes unconscious and you can't even experience it further. Or if, in terms of pleasure, if you think of most people . . . take the example of an itch . . .you have to classify that as pleasure, actually, but it is such an intense pleasure that automatically we destroy it by feeling compelled to scratch, in order to end it. Or if you think of the bliss of orgasm, you want to reach that as soon as possible - there's a very strong compulsion to experience it, which is actually to destroy it. And so the human mechanism, on the basis of a human body, shuts down at once side or the other side of a boundary - which of course will be slightly different with each individual. But there's no reason, theoretically, why individual subjective experiencing couldn't - with a different type of hardware - experience further on the spectrum of pain or pleasure. So I think understanding like that opens the mind to the possibility of our individual mental continuum experiencing things beyond what the human apparatus can experience. Now, are the hell realms actually a certain number of kilometres below central North India? And does it look like this or like that - that I think is not to be taken absolutely literally.

David: Didn't the Buddha, or one of his successors, talk about how only one in ten thousand people are in the "human realm". So that particular Buddha was talking about realms of existence as psychological entities. And if we look at Shantideva's writings he talks about having a human body - and I think he means that if you're in the human realm mentally then it's important not to lose it. Don't you think this is a far more apt way of interpreting these realms in the context of promoting wisdom?

Alex: I think that's "Dharma-lite". As I said, I think "Dharma-lite" has its benefits, but that's not the "real thing" Dharma. And please don't confuse having a "precious" human rebirth with just being reborn as a human. "Precious" human rebirth is what is always praised and emphasised in the Buddhist teachings as the basis for being able to make spiritual practise. So that means not being closed-minded to the Dharma, being in a place where the teachings are present, and being in a place where it is possible to practice, and not being totally handicapped mentally so that couldn't possibly understand anything, and so on. It's very, very rare within the human realm to have a "precious" human rebirth. This is what we need to take advantage of. Just to be reborn as a human is already quite something - if you compare it to the number of insects - to the number of mental continuums which are at this moment are existing on the basis of an insect body. So there's far less human beings. But within human beings there's far less of those who have a precious human rebirth, and this is what Shantideva was talking about.

Kevin: I think the point David was making was that within the group of people that we call human, most of those are in the lower realms - they're not really human at all. They're people but they're beasts of burden. Many of them are suffering so much it's like their head's on fire - they're in the hell realms - they're hungry ghosts - no matter how much material wealth they have they're never satisfied. The one in ten-thousand people who actually think about what is true is the truly human person - I think that's what you're calling the "precious human rebirth". But I think of most people as actually not being truly human at all. They're actually in the animal realms, and actually in the hell realms.

David: Well Kevin, you've experienced quite a bit of Buddhism and gone to various Buddhist communities. How many humans would you say are in the temples and practicing the Buddhist meditations and so forth?

Kevin: Well, in my personal experience, I'd say about the same proportion that you'd find in the general community - to tell you the truth.

David: Really, that's generous. I mean wouldn't you think that if a person had a human mind, and he valued rationality, and he valued truth, wouldn't you think he'd be repulsed by what goes on under the name of Buddhism nowadays?

Kevin: I think you find people who do have potential, and who do seek the truth - they do go to Buddhist communities - and I was one of them. But you're right, I was actually repulsed by a lot of it. For example, I mentioned earlier how a lot of the Buddhists would judge the Dalai Lama to be near-on Buddhahood, even though I knew they weren't qualified to make those judgements. They were claiming knowledge of all kinds of things which they had no real knowledge of, and which they were just repeating on hearsay. Many of the teachings that were given in the temples, by whoever, were not properly questioned by the students. And any teacher worth his salt would not put up with that. A good teacher wants his students to question everything - especially the things that are highly questionable - but I didn't experience that at all in my many years going to the Buddhist communities. So, on the whole, I don't like being in that environment any more. I prefer the open-minded, questioning, reasoning community.

Alex: I think that's very unfair to evaluate Buddhism just on the basis of what you see just in Western Buddhist centres. If you look at Buddhism in terms of how it is practiced in its traditional form, then, within the Tibetan monestaries, they certainly don't blindly accept everything. Every single point is something you take out on the debating ground and debate until you understand it, and look at it exhaustively with logic. Just because most of the Western Buddhist centres don't do that - and usually because of language problems - that is no reason to judge all of Buddhism to be like that. What you're saying is a statement about the way that Western Buddhist centres are developing - that's valid - but let's be clear what we're talking about.

David: Are you quite disappointed then, in the way that Western Buddhist centres are developing?

Alex: Well, I wouldn't say disappointment. That isn't the word I would use. I would say it's realistic. My attitude towards it is to try to accept the situation that very few people are able to devote their entire lives to spiritual practice. Usually in these Buddhist centres we're talking about people who have to make a living, they are raising a family, or involved with relationships with others - they have a life besides their Buddhist practice. And they can only spare one, or maybe two evenings a week. They come, they're tired from work, and so on. So on that basis, and in addition, given the language limitations of how much is available in translation, or what is the competency of the teacher to speak in the language of the listeners, then of course it's going to be very limited. So it's not that I'm disappointed, as that implies a great expectation. This is just the reality of the situation.

David: Yes, well like Kevin I'm personally disappointed with modern Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism . . .

Alex: Tibetan Buddhism in the West . . .

David: Yes, Tibetan Buddhism in the West, as that is the only knowledge I have of it . . .

Alex: Well, as I say, that is Tibetan Buddhism in the West. That's not Tibetan Buddhism as practiced by the Tibetans in the Tibetan monestaries in India and Nepal.

David: Well I'm also disappointed in the Dalai Lama too - but in regards to the West, I just wonder about the lamas the the geshes and whatnot, who encourage their Western students to practice the sort of things they practice. I mean, if I were a lama or a geshe and I saw the calibre of people in a Western Buddhist temple or whatever, I'd just throw the lot out. I mean, it's a very, very low quality crowd. Most of them are broken adults, they're escaping from . . .

Alex: Oh come on, one of the main qualifications of a teacher are patience with the students, no matter what their level of intelligence might be, and compassion. If the people are sincere, then one tries to help them - even if you have to repeat the same thing a hundred times.

David: I guess what's missing for me when I go there is the hunger for enlightenment, hunger for a real understanding of things. That's what I really see is lacking. And I see that that's kind of fostered by the Tibetan thought-system. For example, this idea that we have endless lifetimes, and we don't have to get enlightened in this lifetime - we can do it in a thousand lifetimes.

Alex: Well that's just being realistic. It's very important to practice without expectations - because then you aren't disappointed. The chances of becoming enlightened in this particular lifetime, considering the level of spiritual attainment that we're at now, is highly, highly, highly, highly, improbable. Therefore it is more realistic to develop patience, the long-term view, and to work within that framework. We are strongly, still, under the influence of unawareness, confusion, anger, greed, and so on. We have a long, long way to go. It's possible to reach it, but there's a long way to go, and motivation is something that's developed in stages. Bodhicitta is the deepest, strongest motivation to reach enlightenment, your own individual future enlightenment, in order to be able to benefit others as strongly as possible. This is emphasized by all the teachers. But just because, on a realistic level, that is not a person's sincere motivation right now, that's no reason to say that that's not encouraged. People develop slowly. Most people's motivation is to make a lot of money, to get loved, to get affection - these sorts of things, in this lifetime. Don't judge Buddhism by what certain people in a Western Buddhist Dharma centre, who go a couple of times a week, say about Buddhism. Ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama if you want to find out what Buddhism says.

Kevin: We would like to ask the Dalai Lama these questions - he doesn't have Skype does he? We could talk to him next week maybe.

Alex: He has tons and tons of books and recordings.

Kevin: We'd like to ask him these questions though.

Alex: Well, when he teaches . . . he's coming to Australia quite soon, and in every teaching session he always makes room for questions. So you write down a question, you hand it in, and if there's time he answers it. Ask, he's open.

David: You see, I think that if you have the hunger, and as long as you've got average intelligence, and your general faculties, then you can reach enlightenment very quickly. I really dislike this procrastive mentality that a lot of Buddhism . . .

Alex: And you're thinking of enlightenment in the way I described the Buddhist explanation of enlightenment? . . .  begin omniscient, and knowing absolutely every single effect of anything you could possibly say or do to anybody, and the interconnection of everything that has ever existed and ever will exist, and absolute equal love and compassion for every single individual being in the Universe? You're saying that you think that that is such an easy thing to attain? Please . . .

David: If you're hungry enough, yes, absolutely.

Alex: You have a strong motivation, but then you have to follow the method, and the method is not easy.

Kevin: There's another kind of enlightenment - it might have been what you were calling "liberation" earlier, which is perhaps the first stage of the bodhisattva stages, or the early stages of the bodhisattva, where the person comes to a complete understanding of the nature of reality. That is an enlightenment for practical purposes, because it qualifies a person to know everything about the way to enlightenment, to perfect enlightenment. So that's a kind of enlightenment which I'd be happy if all Buddhists would aspire to. The world would be a better place if everyone aspired to reach even that level, where they actually knew what they were talking about. Do you see what I'm saying?

Alex: Well as I say, in the Buddhist pattern of it the stages of it are quite complex, and very detailed. There are various aspects; one is having the absolute pure motivation, that based on total equal love and compassion everybody - and now we're talking about all the beings that currently are insects and animals, and whatever - absolutely everybody - an equal concern for their welfare and equal concern help them, every individual one, overcome their suffering and pain and uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And you realize that the only way to do that is not only to gain liberation for oneself, but to get the mind to stop making these deceptive appearances, or in other words reach enlightenment, so you know how best to help everybody. That is an unbelievable accomplishment to have that - that's not enlightenment, certainly not - it's a development of bodhicitta. But then in terms of seeing that . . . what's called "voidness" - the total absence of impossible ways of existing - our mind makes things appear to exist in impossible ways, as though they were encapsulated in plastic, sitting all by themselves, in these boxes that the words would imply, and that we believe in that, and voidness is talking about the fact that there is no such thing, never was and never will be. This is totally absent. And so if one could see that, and not just understand that conceptually, but have a non-conceptual cognition of that which is very, very difficult to even imagine what in the world that's talking about, then that would overcome the first level of disturbing emotions. It's a very, very long, difficult process. One must not trivialize it, and in order to not trivialize it you need a very thorough Buddhist education in order to understand and know all the stages of the path, and what are all the things we have to get rid of. And most Western people do not have the time or the language background to be able to study all of this in detail. In some places there are some programs - whether they are available in your area or not, I don't know, but look at Buddhism as a whole and particularly in terms of those who are following it sincerely. And in any case one doesn't look to the individual practitioners, but one looks to the teachings themselves in order to evaluate what Buddha taught. Buddha himself said that.

David: Okay then, time's running out so I suppose we should wrap-up the show. Thank you Alex.

Alex: Thank you very much for inviting me.

David: No worries, and thank you Kevin.

Kevin: Thank you.

David: Alright, and we'll be back next time. See you later.

 

 

 


 

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