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Can We Attain Liberation In This World?

In his Lojong teachings Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that we can see this world as a Pure Land of Buddha, because for a Lojong practitioner every situation provides a perfect training opportunity. However in his Mahamudra teachings Geshe Kelsang emphasizes the impurity of this world.

During his Mahamudra teachings in the summer of 2007 Geshe Kelsang taught about sleep. He said that sleep is a subtle mind which causes sense awareness to cease. While awake we use our five sense awarenesses but

“these sense awarenesses, normally, for ordinary beings, always perceive inherently existent forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects”.

These are the five objects of desire.

“We are like flies, always wanting, seeking these objects.”

Our mind is always grasping at these objects, therefore we have no opportunity to experience inner peace during waking, instead we experience unpleasant feelings such as worry, attachment, anger and dissatisfaction.

“We are like a negative person during waking.”

When we sleep our gross minds such as our sense awarenesses cease. All the problems we experience during waking cease. Deep sleep activates our very subtle mind, which functions to perceive emptiness (shunyata), but we cannot recognize it because we have insufficient mindfulness. Therefore we need to train in Mahamudra meditation to activate our very subtle mind during waking. This involves trying to replicate the sleep process by causing our sense awarenesses and other gross minds to cease. (Please see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books Mahamudra Tantra or Clear Light of Bliss for a detailed explanation.)

Geshe Kelsang says that the path to liberation taught in Mahamudra Tantra is different from that taught in Sutra, because in his Sutra teachings the Buddha never mentions subtle or very subtle minds. In fact, in the Sutras the Buddha teaches that liberation (nirvana) can be attained by working with our normal (i.e. gross) perceptions. For example, in the Rohitassa Sutta (Samyutta-Nikaya (I, ii, 3.6)) Rohitassa, the some of a god (deva) asks the Buddha if there is some place

“where, lord, does one not get born, nor grow old, nor die, nor leave one’s sphere for another, nor get reborn? Now is one able, lord, by walking to come to know the end of the world, or to see it, or to get there?”. The Buddha replies that there is no such place, but that “it is in this fathom-long carcass [i.e. the human body], friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.”

In the Sutras the Buddha therefore recommends, as a path to liberation, meditative practices which work with our normal sense perceptions and mental awarenesses, such as the four ‘close-placements of mindfulness’. (For more information on these close-placements please read the book Satipatthana – The Direct Path to Realization by Ven. Analayo.)

The idea that this body is a suitable basis for achieving liberation is in accordance with the Abrahamic religions. At the core of all of these religions is God’s creation of Adam and Eve in His own image or form. According to Muslim tradition God fashioned man from clay and then breathed life into him. Muslims believe that man has a privileged place in creation because God taught man “all the names” (Qur’an:2:31).

“To say that God created man in his own form implies that man’s meaning is designated by God’s all-comprehensive name, which denotes both the Essence and all the divine attributes. When the Qur’an says God taught Adam “all the names,” this means that he taught him all the names of God and creation. These names designate God as the One/Many, the single Essence that comprehends all reality, what Ibn ‘Arabi commonly calls “the Divine Presence”.” (from Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld 2005, p74).

It is because God taught man “all the names” that man has the potential to achieve perfection (i.e. liberation).

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Fantastic and Crap

A Buddhist monk once asked me to comment on a particular retreat center in Spain. I said that in my opinion it was “fantastic and crap”, which made him laugh. It was fantastic because there was a palpable, magical spirituality about it. it was crap because it had many of the tedious problems associated with human communities such as poor communication, wasted effort and resources, project delays etc. Little did I know at the time that I was later going to build my joke into a whole philosophy — but here goes!

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is the truth of suffering, the unsatisfactory nature of life. The entire realm of existence is said to be pervaded by unsatisfactoriness. Even our moments of pleasure and happiness have an unsatisfactory quality about them. The third Noble Truth is the truth of cessation. It is possible to achieve a True Cessation of suffering. This True Cessation is Nirvana, and only Nirvana is peace. This fundamental teaching of Buddhism describes a yawning chasm between our current state of suffering – samsara – and the holy state of Nirvana. The fourth Noble Truth is the path to get from samsara to Nirvana.

In his deconstruction of all conceptual categories, including the four Noble Truths themselves, the 2nd century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna showed how neither samsara nor Nirvana exist inherently, from their own side. They are both empty of inherent existence, which means that they are dependent-related phenomena. They both depend upon mental imputation.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on the Tibetan Lojong tradition imply a way in which we can see this world as both faulty and perfect. At the heart of the Lojong tradition is the teaching on Exchanging Self with Others, which is described in detail in the article A Place Where We Cannot Be Harmed. If we fully exchange self with others then, although there continues to be suffering, we are no longer be harmed by it. From this point of view we have achieved Nirvana while remaining in the world.

In his oral teachings in 2008 Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explicitly stated that even for the trainee Lojong practitioner this world is like a Buddha’s Pure Land, because it enables us to experience the perfect conditions we need in order to advance on the path (to generate renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom realizing emptiness). From the point of view of the Lojong practitioner the world is both perfect and faulty at the same time. It is faulty because there is suffering in it, but it is perfect because if we exchange self with others then we are able to transform suffering into the path to enlightenment. For Lojong practitioners whatever conditions we encounter are perfect for our practice. As Geshe Chekhawa says:

“Do not rely upon other conditions. Apply the principal practice at this time.” (quoted in ‘Universal Compassion’ by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).

In theistic religion there is a similar gulf between the perfect state of the Creator and the faulty, suffering state of the creatures. Because of this gulf many mainstream Muslim scholars insist on God’s transcendence rather than immanence with regard to the created world. They say that to argue that God is immanent in the created world is to deny both God’s unity and perfection.

On the other hand, the great Sufi Muslim scholar Ibn ‘Arabi argued that we need to investigate reality with two eyes: reason and imagination. With reason we will, as the other scholars say, discover God’s incomparability (Arabic: tanzih) with his creation and therefore we will understand the truth of transcendence. But if we explore with imagination we will discover God’s similarity (Arabic: tasbih) to his creation, and so we will understand the truth of immanence.

“Ibn ‘Arabi’s contribution was to stress the need to maintain a proper balance between the two ways of understanding God.” (Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld Publications, 2005, p19).

By viewing the world with the eye of reason we see that it is crap! By viewing the world with the eye of imagination we see that it is fantastic! But we don’t want to suffer from double vision. We want to develop a unified vision which is able to handle conventional and ultimate reality at the same time.