Kagyu Gunchoe Winter Teachings 2023 • Day 5
25 January 2023
On the last day of the teaching, His Holiness Karmapa explained the essential point of texts and commentaries in general, using Kuiji’s sub-commentary on the Treatise Proving Mind Only [also known as the Treatise Proving Consciousness Only] in particular. The treatise is actually a commentary, he said, on the original words of the Thirty Verses, by Master Vasubandhu. As the Chinese text is also a commentary, the commentary on it by Kuiji then becomes a sub-commentary, or we could call it a commentary and explanation. It’s a commentary from the notes Kuiji took when he heard the explanation from his master Xuanzang. The Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only is called a commentary to distinguish it from a new text or an invention. It indicates that Kuiji himself did not compose a new text.
There are two different styles of explanation. The first is notes taken on the meaning of each word. The second style is more cursory, like notes jotted down so as not to forget the meaning
The Japanese master Zenshu from the 8th century, wrote a commentary on just the introduction to Kuiji’s text, in which he said that there are seven parts, or seven topics, covered in the introduction.
The first part describes how the nature that the Buddha revealed is profound and difficult to fathom. The second states that the reason why Vasubandhu wrote the Thirty Verses is to explain the meaning of Mind Only as it appears in the scriptures. The third describes how Dharmapāla and other bodhisattvas (panditas) wrote commentaries to clarify the meaning of the Thirty Verses.The fourth points out how there were errors in the translations of the scriptures prior to Xuanzang. The fifth verifies the correctness of Xuanzang’s translation. The sixth explains the meaning of the title Treatise Proving Mind Only. The seventh is an expression of Master Kuiji’s personal modesty.
The first passage
“The middle way of the Mahayana is ineffable and needs to be illuminated.’’
The main thing in this first passage is that the nature revealed by the Buddha is extremely profound and difficult to fathom. For example, the Book of Changes, or I Ching, an ancient book of divination, is also profound and subtle, and its meaning is clarified by the Ten Wings or the ten commentaries on the I Ching by Confucius. Ordinary people cannot realize the meaning of the I Ching on their own.
What characterises the Buddha's dharma? The phrase: neither existent nor non-existent is integral to the Buddha's teachings. The Tang dynasty master, Ling Tai, writes that generally both the Mahayana foundation vehicles teach that phenomena are neither existent nor non-existent. Ling Tai writes: Imaginary phenomena are not existent, but the dependent and absolute are also not nonexistent. Another scholar, Luó shí xiàn, writes that “neither existent nor nonexistent” indicates the ultimate truth. In brief, the words of this passage imply that it is only through the commentaries by Confucius, Zhongzi, and Laozi’s Dao De Jing, etc. that we can understand the meaning of the Book of Changes.
Following on from this, the Buddha’s teachings are particularly hard to understand. The profound meaning of the Mahayana dharma is beyond words and the suchness of dharma-nature completely transcends any object of words or thought. To clarify: existent yet empty refer to the objects of words but the ultimate is not the object of a word, so it is neither existent nor nonexistent. It is beyond all extremes of conceptual elaborations. Similarly, “non-arising” and “unceasing” indicate the state of suchness. One cannot pinpoint where it begins,so it is ‘’non-arising.’’ That being so, there is no end. Thus, it is called ‘’unceasing.’’
If the I Ching is profound, then how much greater is the need to delve deeply into the Buddha dharma. The ultimate truth of this superior dharma is far more profound and subtle. The words of the text cannot convey the natural face of suchness; it transcends words, thought, and description. In order to make such a dharma manifest, one must rely on the extensive commentaries based on the treatises by innumerable bodhisattvas.
The Buddha realized the nature of Mind Only and awakened. The bodhisattvas illuminated the profound meaning of the exalted dharma, worthy of reverence. Jiāng shèng is similar in meaning to noble. The Buddha is called superior, and the Bodhisattvas are called Jiāng shèng “becoming noble.” The treatises written by the bodhisattvas, expressing the inexpressible, help the teachings flourish, just as great ministers help the king govern the kingdom.
In fact, the nature of all phenomena transcends words and expressions. Thus the bodhisattvas wrote the treatises to illustrate its meaning, using words to point to it. That is how to express the inexpressible.
In the edition from the China Buddhist Institute, the word jīng or wind appears. The bodhisattvas’ treatises are analogous to the cool wind that awakens people from sleep. The words of the Buddha and the treatises by the great masters are like a breeze, which cools all sentient beings and wakes them from sleep. The words and treatises are superior in terms of their literary qualities, like the breeze that clears away clouds and fog to expose the moon in the sky. Likewise, the Buddha’s words and the treatises lead us to realize the depth of Buddha-nature, the hidden meaning of the profound dharma.
“Neither existent nor nonexistent” refers to the two truths - relative and ultimate. All phenomena do not inherently exist by nature as people apprehend them, but they are not completely nonexistent like flowers growing in the sky or rabbit horns. Saying that they are categorically existent or that they are categorically nonexistent is a view that falls into the extremes. Therefore, “existent” yet “empty” taught in the Buddha’s sutras and the treatises, must be understood as existing while not existent and non-existent while not non-existent.
The great masters of the treatises wrote commentaries on the nature of suchness, according to their level of realization. Their words are like the swells in the ocean. If we see very large waves in the ocean, we can know that the ocean is very deep. If the waves are not large, we can determine that the ocean is not all that deep. As in that analogy, when we read the treatises that explain the Mind Only, we understand how profound are the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of suchness. The meaning is in there among its subtle and profound words, but invisibly. Like the deep ocean, it is difficult to fathom. If we do not read the commentaries and explanations by the commentators, we cannot realize the nature of suchness, As It Is.
Similarly, if we do not take refuge in superior individuals and if they had not proclaimed, explained and disseminated the most wondrous teachings of the Buddha, no one would be able to realize the profound meaning of Mind Only and the definitive dharma of emptiness would be close to extinction.
First of all, we must understand what is meant by the term superior individuals. According to Lingtai’s Notes on the Treatise Proving Mind Only, the first two characters juti refer to the Buddha. Lin zhi refers to the bodhisattvas, like Vasubandu and the noble Asanga. According to Ling Tai's notes, zhu ji refers to Buddha, because Buddha is the very nature of all qualities. But according to Luo Shijian, zhu ji means Sangha, and ling ji refers to Vasubandhu.
What does Jīhū xī yǐ mean? According to Lingtai’s Notes, jī means a crux or secret, yī means the place where one rests in the mind essence. Thus Jīhū xī yǐ is the middle way of the Mahayana, the secret and crux of the Mind Only, the place of resting in the mind essence.
When we combine these two positions, it means that the Mahayana instructions on consciousness only are the most sacred and important dharma, a place where one can rest in the mind essence.
A Summary of the first passage from the Introduction to Mind Only
The main thing this first passage says is that the nature revealed by the Buddha is extremely profound and difficult to fathom.
Both the Book of Changes (I Ching) or the Dao De Jing are similarly difficult to understand, without the explanations of Confucius and others.
The dharma nature suchness that is neither existent nor nonexistent, non-arising and unceasing completely transcends the sphere of words, description, attributes, language, and thought. Thus innumerable bodhisattvas and scholars wrote treatises and commentaries. The Mahayana treatises are like the wind. When the clouds and mist are cleared away, the obscured points of the true dharma can shine like the moon in the clear sky. All beings are illuminated and wakened from the sleep of ignorance.
In particular, the two truths are as deep and unfathomable as the ocean, and the treatises that explain them are like the swells on the ocean. Without engaging the explanations taught by the authors of the treatises, we would be unable to realize the nature. They have all appeared because of the kindness of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. The place where we can rest in the nature of mind, is the crux of all Mahayana dharma enabling the definitive meaning of the emptiness of Mind Only to spread in this world. Had it been otherwise, the definitive meaning of emptiness would be close to extinction.