What is Buddhism?
A short explanation of the Four Seals and some Dzogchen implications
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A transcript of a talk given by lama Ivo, 27 September 2016
Ivo: Hi there, how are you?
Ivo: What are we going to do today? Do you have any questions? I would rather prefer for this not to turn into lectures from my side, although to a certain extent it might be unavoidable. But it would be good if there is feedback. Are there any doubts, questions, hesitations in regards to what we discussed last time?
H.: I have.
Ivo: Great, tell me.
H.: We talked about the dismantling of the world. My main fear is about this dismantling. If you can elaborate a little… what is left after the dissolution of the world? OK, say we manage to dismantle it, what then?
Ivo: Are we recording?
Ivo: If we follow the natural order of things, it is best if at first we talk about the courage to dismantle, and not about what is left after the dissolution, because if there is anything left, then we have not really dismantled anything. And that is a difficult topic. Difficult, because all theoretical explanations about the result of this path automatically become an obstacle to the achievement of the result of the path, as the result is entirely in the field of experience, entirely outside the realm of concepts…. OK, let’s start that way. The answer to your question will come in due course. But in order for it to come, at first we should define what “Dharma” and “Buddhism” mean.
There is something very crucial which distinguishes Buddhism from the other doctrines, or paths. It is the fact that Buddhism does not define itself through the sources of the teaching, but defines itself by certain characteristics of the teaching. This is a crucial point, it is very important for you to understand this if you want to have a good foundation. Other spiritual traditions, for example Christianity, Islam, and almost all others, define themselves through their respective sources. The authority comes from the source. For example, depending on the Christian denomination, we can trace it back to the New Testament, or the Old Testament – the origin is linked to a specific initial source or a person and it is very specific and universally accepted. With Islam we have Mohammed and the Quran, etc. The same goes for many Hindu traditions. In contrast to this, in the traditional Buddhist texts we see that in order to define a teaching as “Buddhist” it should have certain characteristics. And this is a huge difference! I will try to explain these characteristics in a moment, but just don’t try to think of Buddhism as something linked to a specific source. Buddhism defines itself only as a teaching leading to a specific result. The result is what makes a teaching Buddhist, not the source. And for this reason in Buddhism, in the Tibetan tradition and also in the other living traditions of Buddhism, there are teachings coming from different sources. What unifies them is the notion that they are leading to the same result. This is such a crucial point. If you really think it through, you will understand that this in itself is of utmost importance. Because if we follow this definition of the Dharma, we would see that in fact any lineage, any stream of methods could be a Buddhist teaching, as long as it meets certain criteria. Now, what are these criteria?
Traditionally it is said that there are four characteristics which make a certain teaching Buddhist. We have a great problem with translations here, because many of the initial trend setting translations have been done very long time ago and the words used were not always the most adequate. They are not precise as literal translations, and they are also not precise in their connotation, but some of you may have heard about the “four seals”. “Seal” here is not the best translation of ‘uddana’, “boundaries”, or “constraints” is better. But in any case these are four main characteristics by which we can judge if a teaching is Buddhist or not. In this regard we should understand – the fact that in the word Buddhism we find “Buddha”, does not mean that the historical Buddha – Buddha Shakyamuni is in some way the ultimate source of this doctrine. According to the Buddhist tradition itself Buddha Shakyamuni was just one of countless teachers who have taught this path. He is crucial to this time period, but that’s about it. Now, what are these four characteristics and why are they called “seals”? Basically, if a doctrine or method is “sealed” with these four characteristics – it is regarded as a Buddhist teaching.
The first characteristic is the understanding that all compounded phenomena are defined by impermanence. That they are completely mutable and unstable. If a doctrine or method is in line with the fact that any object of perception is impermanent, this doctrine is in accordance with the first characteristic of a truly Buddhist teaching. And by this criteria alone maybe 95% of the existing spiritual doctrines in the world have just been disqualified.
The recognition of impermanence in everything is by itself a very brave act. Because this includes the impossibility of a stable condition we can define as an ultimate goal. By this characteristic alone Christianity does not qualify as a Buddhist teaching, as it postulates eternal things.
The second characteristic is even harder still, as it states that all emotional states are problematic. In fact literally it says that all formations are suffering, but this is too deep to discuss, so we will stick to ’emotional states’ for now. If a teaching or method recognizes the fact that all emotional states are by themselves problematic, it is in line with this second aspect of the Buddhist teachings. And by now we maybe reach a 99% disqualification rate of other doctrines. Because if you really scrutinize the so called “spiritual” teachings which are currently in circulation you will find that almost all of them define their goal as some kind of an emotional state, which is portrayed as ideal, perfect and so on. In Buddhism however we recognize the fact that any emotional state is by it’s very nature an extreme, and as an extreme state each one is unstable and is also a compounded phenomenon, being a product of causes and conditions. Everything which is a product of causes and conditions is dependent on these causes and conditions and is thus impermanent – which brings us back to the first point.
The third characteristic, which is even harder still is that all phenomena lack intrinsic existence, that all phenomena lack true inherent existence. How do we define something as intrinsically existent? We define it as something which is enough by itself, as something which is not in dependence to anything else, which can exist totally by itself. In other words it is by it’s very nature eternal and unchanging. A doctrine which accepts that there exist such things is not in accord with the Buddhist teaching, and from the point of view of Buddhism we would say that such a doctrine is in fact not in accord with reality.
The fourth point is that enlightenment, or the ultimate aim so to say of the Buddhist teaching can not be described. Another way to put this is to say that enlightenment is beyond extremes. In other words, true freedom is not a conceptual phenomenon whatsoever. These are hard things to talk about as they need a lot of additional explanations in order to be correctly understood, and we can talk for a long time about any of these points. But briefly, the correspondence of a teaching to these four points makes it a Buddhist teaching. If we have a method or doctrine which recognizes these four tenets it can be considered Dharma. It doesn’t matter where the doctrine comes from and it may use any kind of methods, but if these methods are in line with these four points this is a Dharma teaching. And this makes Buddhism something very interesting. This separates Buddhism from the framework of a particular lineage and defines it as something quite universal. In the traditional texts it is said that everything which is in line with the four characteristics is Dharma. I will repeat them again: the recognition that everything is impermanent, the recognition that emotions are problematic, the recognition of the lack of inherent existence of phenomena and the understanding that the ultimate aim is beyond extremes. Enlightenment is not an object of thought but is entirely in the realm of experience. This is the indispensable foundation.
The correct understanding of these four things, the real integration of these points is the absolute foundation for the understanding of any part of the Buddhist teachings. If we lack this understanding we will automatically integrate with Buddhism things which should not be there, things which contradict the intent of the teachings. For example we have the tendency to think of enlightenment as some kind of an amazing state. The path is something which will remove our problems and will bring a change in our emotional landscape. But very few people have the real courage to seek something which is beyond these things. And when from the very beginning we approach Buddhism without understanding these four points we begin to accumulate errors – error upon error upon error in our interpretation. And these errors later shape our meditation practice and make the achievement of results impossible. This is what we see now in many so called practitioners. Years and years of practice without even the courage to admit that this path is perhaps something quite different from the other paths, something quite radical, I would say something absolutely radical.
Even the conceptual understanding of these things requires a great deal of courage. For someone to become really engaged in something like this he/she needs to be totally tired of everything. Do not regard Buddhism as a sweet path – it is nothing of the sort. Buddhism is very raw and I must say that very few teachers nowadays are brave enough to teach Buddhism the way it is, especially in the West. I am not saying that the Tibetan masters for example do not understand these things and do not teach them because of that. No, many of them in fact do not teach them precisely because they understand them quite well. They are part of a culture which has this type of knowledge and those of them who are well educated and knowledgeable see very well the stark contrast between these doctrines and the Western culture and thought. Because Western culture is based on extremes and if you say to someone that all emotional states are problems, that there is nothing permanent, that nothing really exists and that it is impossible for you to explain the ultimate aim of the Path this person will either tell you to go f*ck yourself or will interpret this as a nihilistic doctrine. He will say… OK, now, we remove everything nice form the world, all the emotions, we remove all great things and on top of that we even remove enlightenment itself, as we can not describe it – so we disappear, there is nothing left! This is the typical reaction coming from our type of thinking. And this reaction has absolutely nothing to do with what is implied by these four seals. Because these four points remove things – they say this is not there, this is not there, this too is not there, but they make no statement whatsoever about what is there. They do not say that there is something there, but they do not say that there is nothing there either. They just do not touch this topic. And there is a reason why this topic is left undiscussed, because the moment we start to discuss it, it automatically… becomes part of the inventory we use all the time. That’s why this is the real foundation of the Buddhist teaching, not how to use mantras or how to meditate. THIS is the real foundation – the correct understanding.
In Buddhism we say that we have three things which define the path: view, meditation and application. It is often translated as view, meditation and action, but I do not find “action” to be a good translation. “Application”, or even better, “integration” is more accurate.
So.. the view is the correct understanding of the path, and there is no problem for this to be an intellectual understanding, but we have correct and incorrect intellectual understanding. Right now I am talking entirely about things which are square in the realm of intellectual understanding but they can still be in harmony with the Path, or, can also be understood incorrectly. So, we have a view, which in the beginning is the correct intellectual understanding, we have a method – meditation practices which transform this intellectual understanding into a living experience and we have the practical application, or integration – the mingling of the experiences acquired in meditation with the everyday world in which we function outside of formal practice. These three things make someone a Buddhist practitioner. And, I have to repeat again – a Buddhist practitioner is someone who is really seeking a state of freedom, not someone who is a “follower” of Buddha Shakyamuni or any such thing. But in order for us to have correct meditation we need a correct view. In order to have correct application we need correct meditation. In other words the true basis is the view – everything else we build upon it.
I think that if in the West Buddhism was presented the way it truly is, there would be very few Buddhists. But those who would have gotten involved would have achieved real results. Now we have Buddhists everywhere, but there is almost no one – it has already been fifty years – there are no truly realized practitioners. The Tibetan tradition exists in the West 50 years already and we just have a handful of Western teachers. This is the truth. I don’t know exactly how a generation is defined, but this is almost two generations – we have three or four genuine western teachers in Dzogchen, there may be someone I don’t know about.
So, this basic foundation – it is very important! The fact that I am saying these things now is something good, but it is not enough. Try to think about that and try to find in yourselves the courage to imagine what is a “Buddhism” defined that way. It is not necessary to be afraid or to wonder if you have or don’t have the strength. If some fear creeps in, this is a very good indication that you are starting to grasp what this is all about. It is not needed to get involved, it is enough just to have the courage to catch a glimpse of the way things are. This by itself will be more than what most people do with Buddhism.
Buddhism in it’s essence is just a very radical teaching. It disintegrates all the things we call “values”, including moral values. Because Buddhism is not… many of us think that we are not too indoctrinated by theistic teachings like Christianity, but the truth is that it is in our blood. Totally. The way we interpret the world, our understanding of moral values, all these things are entirely in the realm of the theistic doctrines. For example in Buddhism there is no concept of “good” and “bad”. There is no such thing! The Buddhist teachings explain causal relationships and desirable and undesirable actions – a lot. But these actions are defined only in relationship to their respective results and are not to be understood as absolute in regards to some universal moral reference point. These desirable and undesirable actions are also very different at the different levels of development of a Buddhist practitioner. If someone has a specific perception of things, he/she will be given explanations about certain desirable and undesirable courses of action. If someone else has a more relaxed mind many of these things would not be applicable and in general in Buddhism we don’t have the notion of rules, there is just the notion of advice. This is also a very big difference. Because when we see for example an enumeration of precepts we automatically assume “this is what I should do and this is what I should refrain from”. There are no such notions in Buddhism. Buddhism just says: If you want this kind of result – that is the shortest way to it. But Buddhism does not criticize Samsara. Not at all. Buddhism does not say that ordinary life, the deluded state is something bad. This is not the intent of the teachings of the Buddhas. The Buddhist teaching just presents an alternative and a choice, and we project on it all these things… When we see “samsara” and “nirvana” we immediately assume that we have to fight with one and achieve the other, one is bad the other is good; if there are so many methods for achieving enlightenment then enlightenment is what we should fight for in order to save our soul and all of that. This all clicks in us. There is nothing like that in true Buddhadharma, Buddhism is not truly biased towards one or the other, it just presents a picture and describes ways leading to different results. These are fine points but they are crucial for the correct understanding of the Buddhist teachings. We always think that we do not project things, while in fact we saturate Buddhism with our own bullshit all the time. And that’s why it never, never works. The point about the absence of moral judgment and the absence of good and bad – it is very important that you understand that. There are no such notions in Buddhism, not at the level of the intent of the Buddhadharma. There are some in the textual tradition, but they are later additions. From the ultimate point of the Dzogchen teachings being Hitler or not is inconsequential. This is what no lama would dare say, but this is also the reason why we rarely hear the authentic Dharma taught.
Basically this is what I wanted to say in this regard. Do not project moral values on Buddhism, treat it just like a description of alternatives and methods to achieve different experiential states. Buddhism is not biased towards the path and in fact it regards samsara, the confused states of existence, as an entirely valid choice of the beings who are experiencing them. Buddhadharma in it’s pure form does not criticize, it just presents a path for beings who are tired of this. It says – here is how things are, if you feel disappointed, you can do this instead.
There is no fanaticism in the original Buddhist teaching. It crept there through the ages because of the fallible human nature. And especially recently it started to appear a lot because the Dharma is taught and understood in a very fanatic way in the West – the clash between Buddhism and Western culture twisted many things. Because let’s take some of the great Tibetan teachers, for example the Dalai Lama, who usually teaches to thousands of people at a time in the West. Whatever he says, even if he can present things in the best possible way, you still have ten thousand people in the audience who hear these things in the most crooked way possible, the majority of them. What remains when the situation is over? The Dalai Lama goes back to Dharamsala in India and there remain ten thousand people who have received the teaching directly from him. And they are the ones who define Buddhism in the West. At this moment Buddhism in the West is already defined by at least two generations of quite deluded western practitioners – it definitely has not been defined by the teachers. There have been some brave teachers, like Trungpa Rinpoche, who tried to disrupt this pattern, but they are gone now and their teachings too are in the hands of their students and virtually none of them has reached their level. So, please, think sober. Even when you listen to what I say please think critically and do not try to conceptualize everything as “Buddhist”. As I said last time, it is much better if you just listen as someone who is merely interested, as an outsider. To take just the things you understand and to regard yourself as someone who is making a first contact with something. It is much better to make a first contact with something than to be a participant. When we are an active participant, we take too many habits with us. When we are impartial observers who are still not committed, then there is more freedom, there is more space.
K.: Why is this happening? Why is it that there is more freedom when you keep your distance than when you get fully involved?
Ivo: Because deep within ourselves we are total fanatics. And why are we fanatics? Because we have much fear. We have a lot of fear. Intuitively everyone knows that something is not right and when we hear something logical and inspiring enough it is not that we spread our wings and fly to freedom. Not at all! What happens is that we franticly grasp at the thing which sounded so good and we ruin everything. This is the simple explanation. If we ask which is the one thing at the core of all our problems – it is the fear. It is not, for example, the incorrect understanding or anything like that. Even the word delusion is more of a description of a symptom rather than a cause. If we talk about the cause, it is the primal fear. Fear makes us grasp and fear twists everything. Maybe one day we can talk about where this fear comes from, but this is one very, very, very deep topic. A very serious one. But this is the reason why when we are still uninvolved, when we are still spectators – this is the moment before we grasp, before our fear identifies something as the ultimate salvation. And of course this is a very delicate point, because this position of an outsider is extremely precious, but we can not really use it to engage in practice, we can not walk the path from it. And for someone to keep the balance between being an outsider and actively walking the path – this is so hard, so hard. In most cases we are not that strong, there comes a time when we slip and we start to regard ourselves as someone who is practicing the righteous path. And the moment this happens – it is the end! Everything is lost at this point.
That’s why, if there is a way to do it… I told you yesterday – sense of humor. The sense of humor is what can save us, maybe the only thing which can save us. Even if we are the greatest meditators in the world, we should not take ourselves seriously. We have to keep the sense of theater, of being in a movie, because practicing the Dharma is also a movie. You know… until we reach absolute freedom everything is just a movie, there is no such thing like the movies are over there but here we are true meditators. This is nonsense. We are totally in the movie. You should keep in mind that from a true Buddhist point of view the idea of someone who is trying to achieve enlightenment is utterly absurd. This is utterly absurd. But at the same time if we ask ourselves if we are right now in the state of freedom, the answer would be “No”. And here we are in a paradox where we need to take some actions, which are all part of the movie, and are all utterly meaningless from an ultimate point of view, but at the same time nothing will happen if we do not engage. We need to use the notion of time in a world in which time does not exist.
K: That’s it! That is what has always driven me mad. Time – exactly!
Ivo: Yes. And we can call this realism. There is no real problem, these paradoxes are not a real problem, they are a problem only if we think about them as a problem. If we see them clearly, they are not a problem. It is not a problem to pretend that we are practitioners, to engage fully, without taking ourselves seriously and without even believing in what we are doing. This is not a problem at all. This is the right way.
Everything else just perpetuates the movie. We just continue to watch it, knowing that we are watching a movie, and knowing that at this moment we can not really disconnect. And like that, little by little, little by little things happen, but they do not happen because we do something really, the objects of perception somehow start to disintegrate by themselves just because of the fact that we are pretending. In a sense we can say that the Buddhist path, as a Path, is a very skillful way of distracting our attention while things are happening.
Sv.: How is that?
Ivo: It is just how it is. It is just how it is because the moment you try to achieve something and this something is a result of your effort, it is entirely conditioned by the limitations of your effort. In other words… I will say it in another way and it is a more difficult way to understand. If enlightenment is the result of a path this means that enlightenment is a compounded phenomenon. This would mean that it depends on causes and conditions, on the path as it’s cause. This means that there is something which gives rise to it, and it thus becomes an object of impermanence and in fact becomes an ordinary state – part of the inventory of samsara.
K.: It starts to contradict the four seals.
Ivo: Exactly, right away. If there is a good way to say this at all, I would say that we meditate in order to achieve enlightenment and enlightenment happens despite our meditation.
[Quite a long silence]
K.: OK, is it possible not to have this attitude? I mean…
Ivo: I do not think that is possible. I don’t think it is possible, everyone has it and I think that what I am explaining right now seems like it may actually expose the whole game of meditation and remove it’s strength, but at the same time it doesn’t remove it’s strength at all. Let’s say that the game is so strong, that these explanations are in fact making it even stronger. Someone might say, “OK, but now when I know how it works it won’t work for me any more.” On the contrary, when you know how it works it works even better. Everything is totally crazy. We are just accustomed to using linear logic, but nothing related to the true Dharma achievements is based on linear logic. When someone knows these things this helps him not to take himself seriously as a meditator. It helps us not to take ourselves seriously as explorers of Buddhism, and this is the best way to walk the path. If we decide that we are Buddhists, we are lost. At the same time if we regard Buddhism with a lack of trust and if we check things too much we are lost too. That’s why Buddha Shakyamuni has taught the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not…. the true middle is not defined by the extremes at all. The middle way is a state which has no relation to the extremes – this is a very special instruction. Because we are always defining things through extremes. Our whole perception, our whole conceptual framework uses comparisons. But what is meant by the Middle Way, the true way of practicing, is the total lack of grasping and at the same time, from one moment on, you need trust. Genuine trust. But trust which comes from freedom, which is connected to freedom, not to grasping. In other words, I will say it another way as it is so important – we do not trust the teaching, we trust ourselves. If we trust ourselves everything is OK. If we just trust the teaching, it doesn’t work.
K.: Then it becomes blind faith.
Ivo: Yes. If we just trust the teaching there will inevitably come a time when we will make a compromise with our inner feeling, while if we trust ourselves we can truly chose to follow a certain method and everything will be OK, as our trust will be in the right place. I think that maybe it would be good if this audio recording is preserved.
K.: Fine, this brings us back to these same processes, which are pretty important for me right now – the feeling of trust, the fear… intellectually I can understand certain things but the process of letting go, of finding freedom, of relaxation – How can this work? How to transform? What to do?
Ivo: Here we come to the second step which is meditation, practicing, the use of methods. Because none of these three – view, meditation and application – is not enough by itself. The right understanding of the path is super important, but the next step is what to do with it, and this leads to the meditation methods. The meditation practice is the bridge between the good intellectual understanding and the internalized experience, and the catalyst which transforms the experiential into actual change. Because we say that meditation transforms the intellectual understanding into experience, but perhaps “experience” is still not the right word. Meditation transforms intellectual understanding into real change. Into real change – the world becomes different. Without it we can not do anything, and here we have a vast array of methods designed for people with different dispositions. In order to make so that our feeling transforms the world we need to engage in practice. And meditation practice is something quite intimate. Real, good meditation practice is quite beyond the conceptual framework. We will talk about this some other time. If we continue these talks I want to be 100% sure that the foundation has been well laid, that we are talking about one and the same thing and then, little by little, there is no problem for me to explain how the Path itself works. But if we lack the basis, everything will be wasted, and I have already seen big groups of people, including groups I have attempted to guide myself, which were wasted. So we absolutely need this basis.
So far I have never placed enough emphasis on this. I have never regarded myself as a teacher despite being forced into this role several times, including with big groups of people… At one point there were 50 or 60 people in Bulgaria who regarded me as their personal teacher, but the truth is that I never really took that seriously. I like to work with just a few people who have always been around and are here with me in Mexico. And all the big group teachings I have given, I acknowledge that I have always made the mistake of not emphasizing enough these basic things, because for me, for my own reasons, they have always been somewhat by default. And for many years I had the idea that it was not really necessary to talk about all this, that people somehow have figured this out by themselves before they came to seek Buddhism, but in fact it was not like that at all. I was so very wrong. My own case was a little bit different and I now realize this as a very big mistake. That’s why if I am to start again, I will not make this mistake once more. Because here in Mexico, I am in constant contact with the group of practitioners, it rubs by convection so to speak, one does not have to talk too much. But when teachings are done formally, I can not allow myself now to dive into the deep topics if these crucial points are not crystal clear. For example today I was asked to explain the practice of Vajrasattva, but I will not do that. There is no point for you to try formal meditation practice before all this is clearly understood. I would definitely encourage all of you to listen to this recording again, if it is successfully recorded. All that I talked about is of key importance. Then, if we continue, we will get to other things. That’s it, I have nothing else to say, that was quite enough. Be well and happy and if you want to meet again, we will. If someone thinks that it is too much, he/she is kindly asked to not come again.
K.: Thanks for kindly asking us :)
Ivo.: No problem. Be well!