This little book captures a dialogue between the 14th Dalai Lama and Chan Master Sheng-Yen on the topic of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. This is a recount of a seminar/lecture on Buddhism that took place in New York City, about a decade or so ago. How did I ever get my hands on this book? By some strange coincidence, the book and I met serendipitously this morning while I was going through an abandoned closet. It perhaps belonged to some ex-resident. I took it as a sign that I needed to read more on Buddhism ;).
Since the dialogues took place between two venerable Buddhist practitioners, there is promise for the book to hold some deep and authentic principles. The book starts with an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, by Dalai Lama himself. He gives a brief outline of the history and propagation of Buddhism, and on the different versions of the tradition currently being practiced; chiefly Himayana and Mahayana. The crux of Buddhism rests on the Four Noble Truths - Knowing the nature of suffering, Giving up the causes for suffering, Attaining the cessation of suffering and Following the true path. The Philosophy of Middle Way preaches that the true causes for suffering stem from "Karma" or retribution and "delusion" or Ignorance. Through meditative practices that demand intense absorption and concentration of the mind, one is supposed to gain insight and clarity to rid themselves of delusion/ignorance, and develop the spirit of altruism to care for, help and love others, so that one may be detached from the needs of the self. From my understanding there are two kinds of meditative practices - one being gradual and the other being more instantaneous or "sudden". Both require discipline of the mind, but the "gradual" practice goes through a stage-wise incremental progression of disciplining the mind, with clearly demarcated stages of learning, finally leading to the state of "emptiness". In the instantaneous practice, a disciplined mind can get a leap of sudden insight and peace. However as the Dalai Lama says, the leap of insight might be instantaneous, but it is due to the accumulation of experiences, knowledge, thoughts, and above all discipline, playing in after years of training. The true state of emptiness is in realizing the absolute nature of everything around us, as opposed to realizing the relative (empirical) nature of things. The venerates also lay open the strong potential for a developed and trained consciousness to be able to attain a keen sense of intuition or pre-cognition. Rather than discuss this phenomenon in the light of clairvoyance, the Dalai Lama attributes this to a keen sense of memory and mindfulness. If the mind is cleared, burnished and focused, a person can perceive and understand things much better... similar to a person being able to see the road clearly due to proper visual acumen, as against a person whose vision is clouded with dust.
One particular aspect that appealed to me was Dalai Lama's definition of "religion".
"The perfection of Buddhist practice is achieved not merely through superficial changes, such as leading a monastic life, or reciting sacred texts. Whether these activities in themselves should even be called religious is open to question, for religion should be practiced in the mind. If one has the right mental attitude, all activities, bodily action and speech can be religious. But if one lacks the right attitude - that is, if one doesn't know how to think properly - one will achieve nothing, even if one's whole life is spent in monasteries and reading scriptures."
The focus laid on the need to think is impressive. He also goes on to clarify the misconception that the need for deep thinking implies that one has to be esoteric and intelligent. Both the Dalai Lama and Chan Master Sheng-Yen emphasize that bookish or "brainy" intelligence is of little use, unless one can assimilate knowledge to gain deep insights. In order to do this, one doesn't have to be esoteric or literate.
The Dalai Lama also defines Dharma as being applicable to people who lead non-monastic lives. For ordinary people, ruling out immoral acts and acting on anything that is useful and productive in promoting the happiness of others is in consonance with the spirit of Dharma. Of course, it leads to questions on what really is moral and immoral and what are the right ways of promoting happiness in others.
I do realize that these deep questions can't be answered within a morning's worth of perusal on the principles. But this is a start and I am glad I found this book.