Words from the Mouths of Our Masters

Over the last three years Lama Jampa has been teaching texts from the ‘Great Collection of Mind Training Teachings’ (Lojong Gyatsa in Tibetan) compiled by the masters Shonu Gyalchok and Konchok Gyaltsen in the 15th Century. In this collection are found so-called ‘whispered teachings’: meditation instructions passed orally from master to student. The texts span many centuries, starting from great Indian teachers such as Dharmakirti, Dharmaraksita and Atisha to later Tibetan masters. The most recent of these texts, which Lama Jampa taught in London last October, is a particularly pithy and subtle teaching that was given to Atisha by his own guru Dharmakirti. Its first instruction says that

“It is essential to level out conceptualisation at the very place it originates”.

There is no doubt that one needs an accomplished master to explain these pith instructions. To get a workable understanding of how to put this instruction of ‘levelling’ into practice properly, one must hear the full explanation of the text. It is only through listening attentively and reflecting on the Lama’s full explanation that one will be able to get the meaning of the term levelling so that one’s meditation is not just ‘taking time out to think’, as Karmapa Thaye Dorje has put it.

For the whole point of these mind training teachings is that they are practical guides that one must apply in one’s meditation and everyday life in order to achieve their purpose. The Lama emphasised that their sole function is to enable us to develop our aspiration of bodhichitta. In relation to the question of conceptualisation in that regard, he made reference to the seminal work on Madhyamaka, ‘Entering the Middle Way’ by the Indian master Chandrakirti:

‘Ordinary beings are chained by their conceptualisation. Yogins, who are free of conceptualisation, gain liberation from the suffering of samsara. That which reveals the falsity of conceptualisation, the learned ones taught, is the fruit of thorough analysis.’

The Lama expanded on this:

‘If one were to ask, “Do thoughts, concepts, arise for a yogin or just for ordinary beings?”; well, of course, the yogin’s mind is lively. It is full of awareness. The yogin is not unconscious or insensible. For the yogin, the intelligence of mind, its clarity, arises, but he or she does not get caught up in it. Whereas for us, conceptualisation arises and we become caught up in it. So, the difference between the yogin and the ordinary person is that the yogin does not get caught up in his or her thoughts whereas we do.

So, this teaching on levelling is exactly how to transition from the experience of an ordinary person to that of a yogin.’

Now, when it comes to the actual instructions within this text, we see that the term levelling is one of those terms whose meaning only emerges through the development of its usage throughout the text. For that reason one needs to have heard the Lama’s explanation in its entirety to get its meaning and practical application. Who amongst those present at the teachings in London last October could say that they had an immediate understanding of that first line of the text before hearing the Lama’s full explanation of how this levelling is to be done; and where this ‘place’ is that conceptualisation originates; how it originates and is to be levelled.

Hence, it would be folly to try to give any kind of resumé of the contents of the text or to pick out bits which many seem interesting. To make such an attempt would be to diminish the meaning and power of its pith instructions, to be given only by a qualified Lama.

The observation that the word levelling takes on a particular usage prompts a reflection on how various English words find new and extended usage in explanation of Lord Buddha’s teachings. Usage of language sets up an interplay between word and meaning. For example, when we first hear the word refuge in the context of Dharma, we will attribute a meaning to the word that will depend upon how we heard it used before. However, as we hear more teachings, we soon recognise that the usage of the word has been extended to point to a specific meaning in its new context. From then on, we work with refining our own understanding of the term in order to gain a clear understanding of its intended meaning.      

Refuge, path, precept, virtue, merit, suffering, realm, impermanence, mind, confidence, faith, loving kindness, equanimity, patience, meditation, awareness, wisdom, realisation, enlightenment; each one is an English word whose usage has been extended to introduce a particular concept to play its part in the body of the teachings. On first hearing these words used in teachings, we are bound to hear meanings based on their common usage. But as we reflect and meditate on what we heard, the words start to take on special significance for us within the context of our Dharma practice and understanding. A change has taken place; these words now have a significance for us far greater than before we encountered the Dharma.

Middle way, relative truth, ultimate truth, mind only, emptiness, dependent origination: these are more complex terms which will gain meaning for us, as we work with and increase our

understanding of them over our years of Dharma study and practice. On reflection we can subsequently be amused at the way we have sometimes misinterpreted these terms, loading them with meanings they do not actually have in Dharma practice. Hearing our teachers use them repeatedly in different teachings helps to move this process forward, along our own path of understanding.   

We are reminded by our teachers that these are just words that carry no ultimate truth in themselves. They are just part of the tool-set of language being used skilfully to direct us towards an ultimately ineffable understanding: one beyond the concepts that the words may have seemed, to us, to formulate. In the end, after all the effort we expend building them up, all those concepts are just puffed away into thin air!    

So we can appreciate how a language, previously unknown in Buddhist cultures, can effectively be used to explain Buddha’s teachings. From their side, words, in this case English ones, adopt fresh usage to point to differently nuanced meanings.

Their Holinesses Sakya Trichen and Sakya Trizin as well as His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje demonstrate the effectiveness of our western language through their exemplary use of it. His Holiness Sakya Trichen, who commenced his learning of English in 1959, is notable for his precise command of the language as is his son Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, the 42nd Sakya Trizin.

His Holiness Karmapa Thaye Dorje is also fluent and clearly very comfortable teaching Dharma in English. He even shares his thoughts via his website in the English language (karmapa/my-thoughts), sometimes discussing the meanings of words and terms in Dharma. In his preface to Lama Jampa’s ‘Patterns in Emptiness’, he says

‘It requires rare skill to utilise the means of the English language to convey the subject of dependent origination in an authentic manner, and at the same time engender enthusiasm in the readers by presenting it in a well-structured, approachable way. Lama Jampa Thaye excels in this regard’.

What good fortune we have that this element of juncture of precious human birth exists for us: the fact that Buddha’s teaching is available to us in our own language, here in this land.

Finally, those sorry they missed these particular teachings, as well as those who did receive them, will be pleased to know that the Lama will teach a further text from the Great Collection of Mind Training Teachings’ in London later this year. See https://dechen.london for details.

Please note that posts in this blog are not intended to represent full accounts of teachings given by the Lama. They focus on particular aspects of teachings that the authors think may be of interest to people coming new to the Dharma, and other fellow students. They represent the understanding of the authors who bear responsibility for the content. Please address any comments to blog@dechen.org.