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Dalai Lama's Heart Sutra Lecture
an account of His Holiness's teachings
by Dave Evans
May 2001
Day 2
Day 3

Today I was fortunate enough to sneak out of work for a few hours to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama began a lecture on the Heart Sutra. This is a three day class and I'm going to sneak out of some work tomorrow and Attend Saturday during the day as well. I thought I'd share some of what he said (as interpreted through my notes) with everyone.

Please forgive my spelling, my crutch... er, spell checker is not working currently.

Tickets for the three day class were $150. He also taught a class Saturday at 5:30 pm called "Peace through Inner Peace" and a "Medicine Buddha" class on Sunday 9am at Shoreline in Mountain View. Tickets were available through for the Shorelines event. Tickets for Sunday are $45 for lawn seats.

His Holiness started this morning talking about the diversity of religions and then even the diversity of views within buddhism. This set a backdrop for his history of the sutras, and how we end up with the Heart Sutra and where it fits into the greater picture of Buddhist scriptures. By the end of today, he had begun going through the Heart Sutra line by line.

I want to point out that these are just my notes of H.H.'s lecture as seen through me. All omissions and errors are most definitely mine.

I missed some of the afternoon session, couldn't sneak out of work for the whole thing, but I'll summarize as much detail as I have.

His Holiness Does Shoreline...
The shoreline stage was decorated with a large backdrop picture of the palace in Lhasa, with a small decorated throne like chair in front for the fourteenth Dalai Lama to sit on. Thulka paintings hung on either side of the stage, but it was a simple display. His Holiness sat on his seat, with about 160 monks in crimson and orange robes seated facing him to either side; they were there to hear his teachings too. I had a seat assignment but found it more comfortable sitting in the shade on the lawn. The sun was beating down on us painfully.

He started his lecture in English. He has a charming voice. He later switched to Tibetan with the help of a translator so he would have the strength to teach for all four days. The Secret Service mulled in and out of the crowd, some in plain clothes but still with little ear microphones and cords descending into their shirts. Some disguised as TV camera men setup and appeared to be taping His Holiness but they were really taping the audience. I generally feel threatened by such security, but this time I felt more thankful for their presence. They were protecting him. No pagers, cell phones, cameras, or binoculars were allowed. Metal detectors lined the entrance for more security. In a way this was really nice, we had to "let go" of these possessions before coming to class.

The majority of people, His Holiness believes, are not part of a faith religion currently. Yet there are positive qualities which faith religion has helped us promote in ourselves. We must consider new ways to promote those same positive qualities, for so many which are not part of a religious tradition.

Many faith religions have complicated and evolved philosophical bases, some have deep ethical bases, but all seem to have a dimension that is metaphysical or philosophical explaining "why" or "what is." They also typically have a second dimension that is ethical derived from the first dimension. The many religions have much diversity in the first dimension, but most arrive at a similar ethical endpoint in some way encompassing love and compassion, etc.

Why is there diversity between many religion's philosophical bases? The Buddha's teachings are diverse. The Buddha believed that there was an appropriateness to each teaching to the recipient. He taught differently to different people, what was suitable for each. By judging the effectiveness of a teaching to a recipient, one can be effective. It is like in medicine, picking the right remedy and strength for an individual patient. Although a specific medicine may be a good medicine and potent, it may not be appropriate for that patient and may do harm instead of good. With this understanding it is easy to see how different religions serve different recipients. Having many religions is important given the diversity of peoples. With this understanding, the appreciation for diversity is increased. It is important to realize that other religious traditions serve millions of people.

Each religion has a unique perspective and strengths. A Christian brother pointed out that the growth of monasteries in Nepal over the last thirty or forty years. But there has not been an increase in schools or hospitals, which is a shame. If those were Christian monasteries, there would be many more schools and hospitals. A Buddhist can only respond that "yes, that is true."

Many Christians are interested in the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. H.H. warns that this is somewhat of a Buddhist business and perhaps they should not go deeply into it.

Many people here today may be pursuing a path that is grounded both in Christianity and Buddhism, but at a certain point we must specialize in one or the other. Like in teaching, one after a certain point must dive in deep into a specialty.

We've talked about the diversity of religions being a valid viewpoint, but how is this reconciled with the idea that there is only one truth or one valid religion. H.H. does not see a problem here. one truth/one religion is valid from the perspective of the individual, many truths/faiths is valid in the context of the greater society.

Buddhist Perspective
There are two world camps. One is theistic - with a creator - and one is non-theistic - without a creator. Buddhism, Jainism, and one branch of Samkia fall into the latter. In this second branch, there are two camps. One accepts that there is an eternal principle, a unitary, unchanging principle of self or "atma" or soul. The other camp is Buddhism, which rejects this concept of soul. Also there is a distinction around reincarnation, which Buddhism believes. And there is a distinction of salvation being in the physical plane or not - and Buddhism believes that salvation is from the point of view of a state of mind, on the physical plane.

These teachings this weekend, are from the Buddhist perspective.

There are three camps on the chronology of Buddhism, when did the first Buddha give his teachings and live. One camp says 2500 years ago, another over 3000 years, and a third says 2900 years. H.H. believes this is somewhat of a heresy that we do not really know when Buddha came to the world. He has suggested that we use modern techniques to test relics and conclude this. <the audience laughs...>

The Buddha Sukyamuni endured many hardships and lived for six years as an ascetic. All leaders of religions pursued the spiritual path through hardship. There is a lesson here. If people follow the spiritual path of their faith, they should expect hardship too. There is often a belief among Buddhist monks that although the Buddha went through these hardships, that they will not need to. This is wrong.

His Holiness then spent time talking about Buddha's first teaching, about the four noble truths and the 37 aspects of the path to enlightenment. I couldn't write down all the details on the 37 aspects, but I did catch that there are two major categories of this approach:

  • single point of mind
  • penetrative insight
The principle obstacles for attaining these two qualities are an excitement or laxity of the mind. The practices and traditions in Buddhism aim at overcoming these obstacles, of stripping the mind of the distracting objects. The 37 aspects are grouped as a progression, the first developing a foundation of mindfulness, which leads to an enthusiasm allowing development of the next aspects: reducing harmful acts and encouraging positive actions. Then comes skill development to enhance your focus and capacity to concentrate on a single object - which helps develop faculties and spiritual strengths... leading to the ability to apply the eight practices of enlightenment.

The Scriptures
His Holiness spent a fair amount of time describing the different scriptures, including the first turning of the wheel of dharma: the direct teachings of Buddha, the second turning of the wheel of dharma: the sanskrit sutras for perfection wisdom, and the third turning of the wheel of dharma: the later teachings of perfection wisdom. These later teachings were for students of the mahayana path, who were not suitable for hearing the earlier teachings of Emptiness, for they were at risk for falling into Nihilism. The first set of sutras from this third turning of the wheel were for them. The second set of sutras were about clarity of mind plus arguments about the authenticity of the mahayana scriptures in general. There must have been doubts about their authenticity because they were not well known.

H.H. spent more time explaining the arguments for the authenticity of the mahayana teachings. The chief argument was this: there were only a few years in which time the Buddha attained wisdom and then enlightenment. There are two aspects involved that are separate. The continuum of consciousness which attains enlightenment and the negative aspects of mind which must be reduced through wisdom. The latter has an antidote in the teachings and attainment of wisdom, which is only a matter of time. The former is not something attained through accumulation of wisdom, so it is unreasonable that Buddha developed enlightened consciousness in six years -- there must be a continuum of consciousness which preexists and continues. Therefore, later scripts written can have the same validity as the original instruction.

How we as practitioners validate the teachings however the reverse of this. First came the authentic scriptures - directly from the Buddha. Then came the authentic commentary about the scriptures, then came the authentic teachers - actualized / realized teachers. Then spiritual experiences grew in the practitioners. This is the progression of Buddhism. But in validating these teachings the reverse is true. Practitioners need a degree of authentic experience first. For example, as we practice Bodhicitta [Ed: open or loving heart] we can feel in our heart the ordinary spiritual experience. It has an impact. It leaves a change. It gives us a taste - and we can develop a sense of validity for the teachings of the Lamas and develop a conviction for that validity. This is the only way open for us. Inference is blind, and can only touch tangible objects through some direct experience.

Heart Sutra
H.H. then spoke more specifically about the sutras, their translation from sanskrit to tibetan and the validity of that translations. Their structure and organization.

He then began talking about the sutra, in what appeared to be a line by line fashion. Here are some random scribbling of notes, I couldn't quite follow it line by line like that:

In the sutra, Buddha is described as someone who has "conquered" the four mayas or obstructive forces. He entered into the "profound" - the emptiness or way that things really are - because of his wisdom and its focus on attaining enlightenment. He was a bodhisattva which translates to "enlightened hero" and in tibetan has another word for bodhisattva translates into two different terms than "enlightened" and "hero", but into "realization of knowledge" and "overcoming negativity". The term itself implies the key qualities: always with compassion, always with an eye to all sentient beings with compassion.

This endeavor is the engagement of the perfection of wisdom.

There are three kinds of scriptures, those spoken by the Buddha, those approved by the Buddha, and those inspired by the Buddha. The Heart Sutra is the third kind. It is written as a commentary between two monks, one the direct disciple of Buddha (or those using his name), inspired by the Buddha.

"Any noble son or daughter who wishes to engage in the perfection of wisdom should train in this way."

H.H. then took a minute to talk about gender. He feels that the original principles, and then later the monastic principles, do not include any distinction of gender. In fact, the monastic tradition has ordination for both men and for women. But there is differences in the position of fully ordained men and women. This is not a bias based on the fundamental principles, but on the current monastic tradition based on the culture which it is based in. Perhaps this tradition should be looked at carefully now. <applause from the audience>

Some have asked, "Why don't you - the Dalai Lama - decree that women be equal." But our tradition is one of consensus of the entire monastic tradition and not decree.

Heart Sutra (continued)
"Noble son" implies an inclination or motivation to pursuit of attainment of enlightenment. This includes some qualities of the individual like a modest desire, a sense of contentment, etc.

The pollutants which obscure our vision of reality are separable. And they are based on an erroneous view that there is a basis of substance. It is this erroneous view that leads us to attach, cause emotional affliction, and so on. Focusing on recognizing the natural emptiness of the mind, practicing the natural nirvana, begins to unravel the erroneous views. That leads to the true nirvanas, including the final Buddha nirvana where the duality between samsara and nirvana also drops away.

"They should seek incessantly, repeatedly, that even the five aggregates are devoid of substance".

There is an emphasis on "even". So too that a person made up of the five aggregates are devoid of substance. So too the "I" reading this is devoid of substance, and all the elements of the "I" including the mind are devoid of intrinsic existence. Even the emptiness itself is devoid of intrinsic existence. So too are the Buddhas who have attained nirvana devoid of substance.

"So... have we arrived at the point where nothing exists?", His Holiness chuckled. "Even I who is experiencing this hot sun am not here? Yet we still feel that something is there, that can be felt, that we can hold."

Because of the difficulty of these concepts of emptiness and what we experience, we see the diversity of thought even in the non-theistic traditions. There are those that believe in soul or atma and even in Buddhism those that believe in no-self in reference to phenomenon, and so on.

Closing Day 1
At this point the day was at an end, and His Holiness thanked us and said we would continue tomorrow morning. And when he stood the entire audience stood in respect, as we had done at lunch so he could leave first out of respect. But instead of walking out with his handlers, he walked to the front of the stage and raised his hands together and he bowed to us.

Read Day 2
Read Day 3