A multi-volume collection presenting the Dalai Lama’s comprehensive explanation of the Buddhist path

By Joanne Clark

Last week, the third volume of a multi-volume series on the entire Buddhist path, co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron, was released. This series is a compilation of decades of teachings given by the Dalai Lama—its culmination, however, is something greater than a mere compilation, in my opinion—more like an historic vision of Dharma for the modern world during a critical time.

Here is what is written on the jacket of Volume One to this series, Approaching the Buddhist Path:

The Buddha wanted his students to investigate, to see for themselves whether what he said was true. As a student of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama promotes the same spirit of investigation and as the rich tradition of the Buddha makes its way into new lands and cultures, His Holiness has recognized that new approaches are needed to allow seekers in the West to experience the relevance of the liberating message in their own lives. Such an approach cannot assume listeners are free from doubt and already have faith in Buddhism’s basic tenets. The Library of Wisdom and Compassion series, therefore, starts from the universal human wish for happiness and presents the dynamic nature of the mind.

Ostensibly, the series is intended for Westerners, specifically English-speaking individuals who have been born into non-Buddhist cultures. However, in the preface to the first volume, Thubten Chodron recounts:

His Holiness also clarified that this series was not meant solely for Westerners, but for all who have an interest in Buddhism—particularly the Nalanda tradition—and are keen to study and practice but need a new approach to it. Here he included Tibetans born in the Tibetan diaspora who have a modern education, as well as Asians from Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and so forth who are attending his teachings in Dharamsala, India with increasing frequency and interest.

This series chiefly contains the teachings of the Nalanda tradition, the classical Indian Buddhist tradition stemming from the great monastic universities such as Nalanda, Odantapuri and Vikramalashila. This is the Buddhist tradition the Tibetans and to some extent East Asians inherited from classical India. However, His Holiness clearly stated that this series must be unique—it must not be limited to the Nalanda tradition, but must also include information about and teachings from other Buddhist traditions. It was time, he said, that followers of Tibetan Buddhism learned more about the diverse Buddhist traditions and their teachings …
—Approaching the Buddhist Path, p. xix

So the series is broad in its scope, fearlessly addressing problems, sensitive issues and doubts, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of current modern approaches and tightening and refining English translations in powerful ways. This is thanks both to the deep understanding His Holiness has of the modern mind and the wise editing of Thubten Chodron, who is a long-time student of the Dharma and a teacher in her own right.

For example, in the first volume, there is a large section written by Thubten Chodron on the history of Buddhism. I personally found this powerful because it placed the difficulties we are now experiencing in the West in a context of a 2600-year old history. Seeing the ways that different cultures interpreted the Dharma, finding out that the Dharma was recorded orally for hundreds of years before being preserved in written script, seeing that some Theravada sects contained a bodhisattva tradition for example, seeing how Dharma adapted to different cultures broadened my view and gave me a sense of ownership I had not experienced before. I believe that the West will cultivate its own flavour and style to the Dharma in the end, influenced, but not owned, by the lineages who have settled here and kindly shared their wisdom.

Here is a quote from the section on Buddhist history:

Knowing the history of the Buddhadharma is important to avoid absorbing sectarian biases that have been passed down for centuries. It also aids us in understanding why Buddhism developed the way it did in different places. This, in turn, stimulates us to discern the actual Buddhadharma from cultural overlays, so that we can practice the true Dharma without confusing it with cultural traditions.

Learning about the history of Buddhism helps us to see Buddhism as a living tradition that influences various societies and is influenced by them. We come to differentiate the Three Jewels that are perfect objects of refuge from religious institutions established by limited human beings. While the Dharma Jewel goes beyond space and time, Buddhist institutions are not refuge objects, although they do their best to serve the Dharma.
—Approaching the Buddhist Path; pp. 75-76

Good teachings are not necessarily always what students need. Sometimes I suspect that problems in the West these days are partly due to the attachment some teachers have to their own traditions and their inability to assess the appropriateness of teachings for the needs of students. Being able to identify the approaches and practices most needed in this critical time of Buddhist history is a skill that His Holiness has honed over decades. Here is Thubten Chodron again:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama understood this [that approaches to Lamrim appropriate to Tibetans were not appropriate to Westerners] and adjusted his teachings in the West accordingly. Instead of beginning with reliance upon a spiritual mentor elevated to the status of a buddha, he started with the two truths—how things appear to exist and how they actually exist. Rather than tell us that reciting a certain mantra a few times would protect us from rebirth in the hells, he explained the four truths of the aryas—those who nonconceptually perceive ultimate reality. Instead of saying that drinking blessed water would purify eons of destructive karma, he taught us about the nature of the mind, the workings of mental afflictions, and the possibility of attaining liberation. Diving into the philosophy that underlies the Buddhist worldview, he asked us to think deeply about it. He challenged us to doubt our anger and to open our hearts with compassion for all sentient beings. His was a no-nonsense approach, and when he learned that, contrary to Buddhist scriptures, the earth was not flat and revolved around the sun, he was quick to say that if science conclusively proves something, we should accept it and not adhere to scriptural pronouncements to the contrary.
—Approaching the Buddhist Path; p. xvii-xviii

Special attention is paid in this series to translation—the first and most critical ground for any transmission of Dharma to a new culture. For example, consider the English in this statement from the second volume, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice, page 12:

As soon as that person eliminates ignorance, she no longer creates polluted actions that propel cyclic existence. Her cyclic existence ceases, and that person—the mere I—attains liberation. Gradually, she can also remove the cognitive obscurations that prevent omniscience, and when this is done, the mere I attains Buddhahood, the state of full awakening or nonabiding nirvana, in which the person abides neither in cyclic existence nor in the personal peace of an arhat’s nirvana.

I wager that this is the first time that the feminine gender pronoun has been used like this in a major Buddhist text. Consider the power of that feminine gender pronoun in a sentence describing her attainment of enlightenment. Throughout the series, distinct and conscious liberties have been taken with gender pronouns (liberties that might have had editors pulling their hair) in which pronoun usage continually shifts between the masculine and feminine. Tara has spoken, this marks a small but significant step towards gender equality in the Buddhist world.

Also, with terms such as “mere I” and “veiled truth”, I have found some of the terminology used in these volumes to be illuminating and thought provoking and more consistently exact than in previous translations.

And here is another small example of English being used in powerful ways, from the third volume, Samsara, Nirvana and Buddha Nature location 522 on kindle:

Ignorance narrows the mind, obscuring it from seeing the multifarious factors involved in existence.

The phrase “narrows the mind” provides a perspective on ignorance that is immediate and relevant even within a non-Buddhist setting. The term “seeing the multifarious factors” in this context describes dependent origination also in a very direct way.

Also in this series, His Holiness addresses difficulties unique to the Westerner mind. Here is an example, from the second volume, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice, p. 187:

I have found in my discussions with people that many suffer from low self-esteem and self-hatred. When we reflect on our spectacular good fortune in having a precious human life, these distorted conceptions vanish.

And here, also in the second volume:

It is important to avoid superimposing concepts from theistic religions on the Buddhadharma. The Buddha is not a creator. Karma and its effects are not a system of reward and punishment. It is simply a natural law: happiness is a result of virtue; suffering is the result of nonvirtue.
— p. 233

As he has done consistently over decades, in these volumes, His Holiness emphasizes the need for faith to be cultivated on the basis of reason and full understanding—an approach intrinsic to the Nalanda approach. Every topic in this series is presented in the context of reason—from karma to rebirth to guru devotion, students are advised to swallow nothing out of faith alone—to swallow nothing whole. Every subject is parsed and reasoned out and viewed from many different angles. Sometimes readers are even advised to put aside an obscure subject if it requires too much faith, as in this example regarding the existence of other realms of existence, something that can only be verified through scriptural authority:

If you have difficulty accepting scriptural quotations, I recommend remaining undecided yet open-minded. Continue to study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, implementing what is useful in your life and leaving the rest aside for the time being. However, if you say, “I don’t believe that other realms exist,” consider the I that states this. Is that I omniscient? Is whatever that I thinks always accurate?

Personally speaking, although I do not take the descriptions of the hellish states in the Treasury of Knowledge literally, I believe the possibility that such states exist is real. From my own experience, I know that when the mind is disciplined and its positive qualities enhanced, having special experiences is possible. Similarly, when the mind is undisciplined and obscured by negative tendencies, suffering and problems occur. By seeing the interrelationship of the mind and our experiences, I have an inkling that other life forms—those in both pure lands and hellish states—exist.”
—The Foundation of Buddhist Practice, p. 214

And also this from the second volume, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice:

Even if you cannot ascertain the existence of future lives, you can tentatively accept it without any harm. Wishing to create the causes for fortunate future lives, you will endeavour to subdue your afflictions and cultivate your good qualities. This, in turn, will help you to be happier in the present because you will experience things freshly, without the confusion of attachment and anger. If you find it difficult to accept past and future lives, set the topic aside and focus on being a good person in this life. Do not create trouble for others and use your life to bring calm and peace in your own mind and in the world. This is more important. If, at the time of death, you find there is no future life, nothing has been lost. But if you find there is, at least you have prepared for it by living a good life now. This is better than someone who accepts future lives but does not behave properly in his daily life and thus makes problems for himself and others.
—PP. 173-174

And here is an example of working productively with doubt, and avoiding faith-based approaches, taken from the third volume Samsara, Nirvana and Buddha Nature:

If you have doubts regarding the possibility of eradicating dukkha [suffering] forever and if you wonder if nirvana exists and if it is possible to attain it, contemplation on the sixteen attributes of the four truths will be very helpful. As we reflect on them, we may discover that we hold some of the misconceptions that are refuted. Making effort to understand the sixteen attributes will help us to dispel there, clearing the way for wisdom to arise.
—Kindle Loc674

This emphasis on critical investigation is also evident in the fifty-page section in the second volume devoted to proper reliance on a guru. His Holiness balances the traditional Lamrim approach of appreciating the qualities of the guru and their generosity and kindness etc. with a frank discussion of guru abuses. He speaks about the limitations to what he can do to stop these abuses as well as some suggestions of how Western societies can move forward and insure some safe guards against abuse. He concludes by returning to his central theme, urging students to become better informed and rely on critical investigation over faith-based approaches:

Nowadays we need to introduce people to the Dharma by teaching the two truths and the four truths of aryas so that people will understand the real teachings of the Buddha. Contemplating those topics gives people confidence; they will understand the Dharma and appreciate their precious human lives. With faith based on reasoning and understanding they can later learn the ten powers of a buddha based on understanding the tathagatagarbha, the potential to become a buddha. Otherwise it seems that the teacher is imposing beliefs on disciples and threatening them with a hellish rebirth should they have doubts. It also appears that some teachers impose the notion that the guru is the Buddha on disciples who do not understand the true Dharma, and in this way manipulate disciples …

In short, we need to be twenty-first century Buddhists. Following tradition and believing with blind faith is the old way. To be Buddhists now, we must have fuller knowledge of Buddhism, especially the Nalanda tradition, which presents the Dharma in a systematic fashion. Nalanda masters refute wrong views, establish their own views and then clarify any remaining questions. We must read, study and hear teachings on the texts by these great Indian masters and then use our human intelligence to the maximum to investigate their meanings.

For forty years now, I have urged monasteries that principally perform rituals to do more study. I’ve made sure that the nuns have access to higher studies and have encouraged lay Buddhists to study as well. When you learn the Dharma, don’t limit yourself to what is said in the textbooks of your own monastery. Study broadly.
—pp. 128-129

Here is what he has to say about steps students can take to address abusive behaviours from lamas, advice he has given many times before:

In 1993 at a conference with Western Buddhist teachers in Dharamsala, Western teachers told me of a few Buddhist spiritual mentors whose behaviour regarding finances, sexual relationships and so on deeply disturbed people and gave the wrong impression of Buddhism. I told them that these ‘teachers’ do not follow the Buddha’s teachings. I encouraged them to speak frankly with these teachers, and if they do not listen, then they should make their behaviour public. Although these teachers do not care about the Buddha’s teaching, perhaps they will care about their reputation and change their ways. Some people ask me to speak to these teachers, but that has little effect. If they do not listen when I give teachings and if they do not respect the Buddha’s teachings, they will not listen if I give them personal advice.
—p. 126

And another example, in the context of “crazy wisdom”:

Some past Buddhist siddhas behaved in unconventional ways—they drank alcohol and had consorts. These siddhas were fully realized lay practitioners who could discern what was of long-term benefit to self and others, and their actions were in accord with training on the completion stage of highest yoga tantra. They could demonstrate miraculous abilities, which allayed the public’s concerns about their level of realization. For example, they could cause an apple to fall from a tree a distance away and then make the apple go up and reattach to the tree, and Bhiksuni Laksmi is said to have cut off her head and then reattached it.

Nowadays there are very few people who are qualified to practice in this way, and because of the difference in society, such conduct is harmful to the Dharma. Nevertheless, some people act in an unconventional manner and proclaim realizations, but do not have any demonstrable exceptional qualities to display in order to confirm their spiritual attainments. Even if they did, I wonder if it would be wise in today’s society to show them. The siddhas of old generally displayed their miraculous powers to small select groups of people who had the karma to benefit from seeing them. Today such an event would be flashed around the world by modern telecommunications. Reporters would want to interview the siddhas and companies would ask them to promote their products. I doubt such attention would be beneficial to either the Buddhadharma, the siddha or society. Even if our realizations are equal to those of divine beings, our behaviour should conform to convention.
—page 120

Another aspect of the second volume that is clearly relevant today is the direct presentation of sensitive, contemporary issues. A section is devoted to issues such as homosexuality, abortion, invitro-fertilization, euthanasia, scientific research etc. Over years, I have searched in Buddhist texts for a definitive explanation of sexual misconduct—nowhere have I found this. In my mind, this left the door open for abuse. His Holiness finally gives that explanation here in the second volume, defining sexual misconduct clearly as “unwise and unkind sexual behaviour” and revising his own previously held ideas on homosexuality in the process:

Gay and Lesbians are widely accepted in Western societies and there is increasing support of their equal rights in housing, employment, marriage, military service, participation in religion and so on. In these societies, homosexuality would not be considered unwise and unkind sexual behaviour when practiced in a respectful relationship and with protection against sexually transmitted disease. The main point, whether one is straight or gay, is not to hurt others either emotionally or physically through one’s sexuality. Everyone is advised to avoid sexual relations that are manipulative, inconsiderate or that could be emotionally or physically damaging to one or both parties. Safe sex with the use of condoms is a priority in upholding the Buddhist principle of non-harming.
—p. 267

Also, in the second volume, there is a section on Lorig, which is the study of objects and their cognizers, not something you would find in any Tibetan Lamrim text, though it is studied in all Gelug monasteries. There is also a chapter on mind and mental factors. I have attempted to study these through the FPMT study program without a lot of success—but I found HH’s explanations clear and succinct.

Once at a teaching to a Western audience many years ago, someone asked the Dalai Lama, “What is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to become enlightened?”

The audience laughed, but His Holiness was serious. He told the story of Milarepa saying good-bye to Gampopa at the bridge. Milarepa called Gampopa back for one last instruction before their final farewell. He called this last instruction his most profound, showing Gampopa his bared buttocks, thick with callouses from years of hard work meditating.

His Holiness wept in the middle of telling this story. Then he finished, blew his nose and said clearly, in English, “So don’t think quickest, easiest—think eons, eons!”

I’m not sure that this perspective is common amongst Tibetan Buddhist lamas teaching in the West these days. My experience with five different lamas was that they frequently advertised their teachings as being the “quickest” and the “highest”. However, if we end up disillusioned and traumatized, as I did, there is nothing quick or high or easy about the practices that brought us there. So for myself, this approach from His Holiness, which lays a firm foundation of deep understanding is certainly best.

I think there is a tendency for students who have been practicing advanced Vajrayana for decades to believe that they don’t need further teachings on the Two Truths, the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, Lorig or karma etc.—they don’t need an overview of the entire Buddhist path. They don’t need to understand something of the Theravada tradition. However, some students who were practicing the Vajrayana have now turned away from the Dharma altogether because of recent abuses and corruption. While this is totally understandable, I wonder if students would turn away if they had cultivated a foundation of faith based on reason—instead of faith based on a teacher? Our reason and conscience won’t abuse us or dissert us—they are ours.

There will be future volumes to come in this series—which will cover the Six Perfections, Vajrayana, Madyamaka and other advanced subjects, but the volumes so far are far-reaching. There is also a prelude to the series entitled Buddhism: One Teacher Many Traditions, a rich text which compares and contrasts all the major Buddhist traditions extent today. It is my opinion that this series is an invaluable resource for serious Western Buddhist students and might well mark an historic marker in the history of Buddhism in the modern world.