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When different Buddhist groups form an association, e.g. in a counry, the question of a common definition of Buddhism is sometimes raised. The idea of that is obviously to come up with a kind of essence that is something like the least common denominator, which includes all and doesn’t reject anyone. I find this difficult, not only because “essentialism” has such a bad name these days.

Someone who tries to give an answer that is based on the teachings is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He says (Lions Roar, January 12, 2017):

Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or ‘seals.’ If all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.

What are these four seals? They are, as he summarizes:

– All compounded things are impermanent.
– All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”
– All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence. This is actually the ultimate view of Buddhism; the other three are grounded on this third seal.
– The fourth seal is that nirvana is beyond extremes.

I have no problem with any of the four seals, and also not with putting them together.  But I am uncomfortable with the idea that when any of these are not “found in a path or a philosophy,” it cannot be “considered a path of the Buddha.” Does he really mean to exclude people who do not follow the teaching of emptiness? And isn’t “nirvana is beyond extremes” very Mahayana? Moreover, is someone, like me, who has not fully grasped that “emotions are painful” and that “phenomena are empty” not a Buddhist, or not a complete Buddhist?

The more I think about it, the more I become aware that one perhaps should not try to define what Buddhism is, but rather talk about what people, who consider themselves followers of the Buddha, do.

What would that be?

All Buddhists seem to be striving—although to different degrees—in three fields: meditative practice, cognition, and conduct. With “cognition” I mean that we try to train our consciousness to recognize errors and understand how these errors function. The most basic error, according to the Buddha, is that we ignore something that actually causes suffering and often even hold it to be joyful (most prominently: the self). Through training cognition in many ways, Buddhists try to identify that error and to stop its proliferation in our mind. As soon as one has even only a little understanding of that, one can start to change one’s conduct and to integrate that understanding in meditative practice, applying antidotes against that error and habitualizing our improved understanding of reality. In that way, conduct and meditative practice become aids for an improved cognition until awakening is attained.

Okay, let’s test this against my own criticism above.

Does this formulate a philosophical position that is not shared by all Buddhists? Is this perhaps a position that ordinary people like me are far from understanding properly? The only position formulated above is that Buddhists try to recognize errors and seek to abandon them. If that would not be the case, one would not do anything.—That is why I try to describe Buddhism as something one does rather than what philosophical position one holds. Does this exclude people from being recognized as Buddhists? I hope not. Even the most humble persons who “only” practice by making offerings to the Sangha do that because they perceive a fault in this life, hope for improvement, and actually do something about it: They make an offering and put themselves in a humble state of mind.

Is this perhaps over-inclusive? Not if we agree on one point, namely that Buddhists are unique in perceiving existence—at least to some degree—as suffering and seek to end that suffering. As Khyentse Rinpoche says:

All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”

I wouldn’t narrow it down so much on emotion alone, but I do agree that it is unique in the world of religions that the Buddha has described existence—including in heavenly realms—as ultimately only suffering. But here we have the problem again that this is an ideal view that most people have not yet fully realized. Yet Buddhists do seem to be attracted to the view of the entire existence as suffering. That is a strange attraction since from the point of view of its competetive ability in the market of religions it seems to be a huge disadvantage—it seems so negative. Yet it still appeals to people. Perhaps, if we now also look through the lense of what is, we could say that Buddhism is about existence as suffering and that people are, for whichever reason, somehow attracted to that idea. To me, this attraction is one of the big misterys about Buddhism.

Jigten Sumgön explains in the Single Intention that this is so because of Buddha nature: Everyone possesses it, and because it is pure, all beings have at least the capacity to recognize the huge gap between that purity within them and existence as it actually is. The rest of this blog entry will now be devoted to how the Single Intention explains the fact that people are drawn to a teaching that speaks so extensively about suffering.

The early commenator of the Single Intention, Doré Sherab, explains this point in the context of vajra statement 6.13. Here, Buddha nature, the nature of mind, and mahamudra are treated as synonymous terms. He explains that since every sentient being posesses the Buddha nature, which is the mahamudra of the ground, they gradually understand more and more about the nature of suffering and thereby are more and more attracted to taking up disciplined conduct in all of its forms until Buddhahood is attained. He thereby draws our attention to the analogy between Buddha nature/mahamudra on the one hand, and disciplined conduct on the other: Because of the purity of the first we are disgusted by samsara and strive with the help of the purity of the other, i.e., disciplined conduct, for awakening and Buddhahood. The passage reads in the Dosherma (section 6.13):

“[Discipined conduct and mahamudra] are one by being analoguous. In general, the sentient beings who revolve in samsara have not realized true reality. Therefore, based on grasping a self, they accumulate karma, through which, as a result, they revolve in the three realms. But if they realize their mind, they are free from grasping a self, and thereby they are also without an object of desire or hatred that could arise. Since this freedom from desire and hatred is pure disciplined conduct, [discipined conduct and mahamudra] are one by being analoguous. For ordinary sentient beings too, even though they have not realized their mind, discipined conduct and mahamudra are one, as expressed in the Uttaratantra (1.40):

If there were no buddha element,
there would be no aversion to suffering,
and there would be neither a desire to pass beyond sorrow,
nor an effort and the aspiration toward it.

“From the perspective of the gradual path, having understood that the lower realms are suffering, there arises the striving for the higher realms. Even guarding merely the approximation vows is the power of mahamudra. Similarly, understanding that everything below the peak of existence is suffering, a mind arises that strives for what is higher than that. Thus, guarding the disciplined conduct up to the vows of full ordination too is the power of mahamudra. Understanding that all of samsara is suffering one sets one’s mind on the two lower awakenings,♦ 1 and that too is the power of mahamudra. Seeing all sentient beings as one’s kind mothers one has the urge to obtain Buddhahood. That too is the power of mahamudra. For instance, when the sun rises, by the rising of the first light blue dawn, the whitish dawn, and then the reddish dawn, it becomes ever so slightly more radiant, and then gradually, up to daybreak, it becomes very bright. This is all due to the power of the sun.”

1. [] Shravaka and pratyekabuddhahood.

In one of the public teachings recorded by Sherab Jungné, Jigten Sumgön quoted the Buddha, saying:♦ 1

Do not cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump,
and, because desire cannot be satisfied, abandon sense pleasures!

These two lines summarize all the Buddha’s teachings about “the thing-to-be-abandoned,” namely aversion and attachment. Similar statements can be found in the Vinaya and many sūtras such as the Vinayakṣudrakavastu:♦ 2

If one should not have bad thoughts even about a burnt stump, there is no need to mention a body endowed with consciousness! Monks, train yourself like that!

The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra too says:♦ 3

Monks, do not cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump! Why? All sentient beings fall into the hell of beings due to their cultivation of bad thoughts!

Moreover, the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna says:♦ 4

Those who crave will not be satisfied by desire
like fire not by firewood
and the ocean not by rivers.
Therefore, desire cannot be soothed.

We usually categorize such statements as the Buddha’s teaching on disciplined conduct (Skt. śīla). In the Single Intention teachings of Jigten Sumgön, however, an instruction like “do not cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump” also has other and, perhaps, unexpected dimensions.

In his teachings on the 37 Bodhisattva Trainings, Garchen Rinpoche, too, often reminds us in the context of training five, which teaches us to avoid bad friends, that it is one thing to stay away from people who destroy our love and compassion when our spiritual capacity is low, but quite another to see faults in the spiritual teacher when we want to practice the Dharma.♦ 5 Moreover, in the context of Mahāmudrā teachings, he often says that we must view all lamas as buddhas. “When you see a fault in the lama, that is only your own fault!”

This instruction goes back to a teaching in the Single Intention, where Jigten Sumgön’s commentator, Dorjé Sherab, says that oneʼs supreme, medium, or lower accumulation of merit determines the guruʼs good, medium, or inferior qualities. If one perceives a guru who is lacking characteristics, that is only due to oneʼs inferior roots of virtue. Thus, qualities cannot arise if the guru lacks qualities since that is a sign of oneʼs own lack of accumulations.

Due to the lack of accumulations, we do not perceive our world as a pure land and its beings, including ourself, as buddhas and bodhisattvas. Therefore, we have to gather merit, and this is not done by seeing faults, but by perceiving qualities, even in inferior spiritual friends. Dorjé Sherab quotes Jigten Sumgön:

We do not follow the opinion that a contamination arises through devotion to an inferior guru. We do not follow the opinion that harm arises from making offerings to such a guru. And we also do not follow the opinion that looking at the bad as something good is a wrong view.

In other words, by perceiving good qualities even in inferior spiritual friends, no harm arises. One may not develop the qualities in his presence, but that devotion, through which the pledges remain intact, will be the cause for meeting a perfect guru in whose presence the qualities arise without impediment. That is also Garchen Rinpoche’s instruction for disciples who want to practice Mahāmudrā.

There is also a further dimension with regard to the instruction not to cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump. It is also connected to the Mahāmudrā instructions found in the Single Intention (vajra statement 6.13): “That Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct (śīla) are one is an unsurpassed special teaching of Jigten Sumgön.” There are several reasons provided in the commentaries why Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct are one, but here I want to focus only on one, namely that in both teachings—Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct—one is advised not to cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump.

Generally, Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct are both practiced to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation, the grasping of the self must be abandoned. How is the self being grasped? It is constantly grasped through our conceptions of aversion and attachment. Therefore, both Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct abandon the conceptions of aversion and attachment. Someone who cultivates bad thoughts even towards a burnt stump and who has the hopes that his actions of desire will satisfy his desire can neither be successful in the practice of Mahāmudrā nor of disciplined conduct.

Most importantly, however, when the Mahāmudrā trainee, having mastered calm abiding and superior insight, trains to realize all stirrings of the mind as dharmakāya, whatever thought arises is watched in its essence without following after it. “Without following after it” refers to any subsequent thought activity or any other activity of body and speech that engages in the manner of aversion or attachment because one hopes to destroy the object of aversion or satisfy one’s desire. To stay clear from that is “not to cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump” and to “abandon sense pleasures” on the level of Mahāmudrā.

*   *   *

I would like to add a few personal thoughts. To say like Dorjé Sherab that “oneʼs supreme, medium, or lower accumulation of merit determines the guruʼs good, medium, or inferior qualities” should not be misconstrued as a free ticket for teachers to abuse students. At this time, when some spiritual teachers have caused scandals in the West by sexually or otherwise abusing their students, we need to be very clear of what is possible and what not.

Both Jigten Sumgön and his guru Phagmodrupa have strongly repudiated the possibility of sexual relations between teacher and student. It has never been Jigten Sumgön’s intention to make the disciple responsible for sexual (or any other) assaults by the teacher in the sense that the disciple would have an impure view if he or she perceives the guru’s conduct as sexual abuse. There is no place for sex in the guru-disciple relation. Abuse should be made public and not be hidden under the blanket of “pure view.”

When Dorjé Sherab points out the correlation between seeing faults in others (including the teacher) and one’s own lack of qualities, this has in mind that we generally lack the ability to see qualities and focus instead on the faults of others. We tend to divide the world into good and bad, friend and foe, Buddhist and not Buddhist. In that way, we are focusing on other people’s faults instead of learning from their qualities. We are strengthening the notion of “I” and “others.” Moreover, we are robbing ourselves of the possibility to learn from others, no matter who they are. Jigten Sumgön says in the Single Intention (1.19): “We maintain that there exists much that is virtuous by its fundamental nature to be practiced in the systems of the Non-Buddhists too.” Are we not encouraged to see the quality of loving kindness even in animals?

Thus, when we see faults in others, but not their qualities, that is a sure sign that we lack wisdom. By condemning others (including teachers) for their faults, we deepen our tendency to only see faults in others and to overlook their qualities. With such a deepened tendency, we are reinforcing attachment and aversion and the grasping of a self, and we make it less likely to create in the future the conditions for meeting a perfect teacher.

But, again, that does not mean that we should not protect ourselves and others from abuse. To protect ourselves and others, we should speak up when we see abuse, but we should not do that with an attitude of self-righteousness and hatred, but out of love and compassion. Then, nothing can go wrong.

1. [] Collected Works, vol. 12, p. 251: de bas sdong dum mes tshig la’ang // ngan sems bskyed par mi bya zhing // ‘dod la ngoms pa yod med pas// de bas ‘dod yon spang bar gsungs//

2. []Vinayakṣudrakavastu, vol. 10, fol. 95r: gang mgal dum la yang ngan sems mi bya na rnam par shes pa dang bcas pa’i lus la lta smos kyang ci dgos/ dge slong dag khyed kyis de lta bur bslab par bya’o//

3. []Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, D vol. 52, fol. 256r: dge slong dag mgal dum la yang ngan sems ma skyed cig /de ci’i phyir zhe na/ sems can thams cad ni ngan sems bskyed pa’i rgyus sems can dmyal bar ltung bar ‘gyur ro zhes gsungs so//

4. []Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna, D vol. 71, fol. 205v: me la bud shing rnams dang ni// rgya mtsho la ni chu bo ltar// sred ldan ‘dod pas ngoms pa med// de phyir ‘dod pa zhi ba min//

5. []I thank Ven. Yeshe Metog for allowing me to read her translation of Garchchen Rinpoche’s teachings on the 37 Bodhisattva Trainings.