Rock Climbing Without Arms

By Nicholas Ribush

Written for the Middle Way, 1985

One often hears the criticism that the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is merely “intellectual” whereas the other traditions are “practice” and therefore much superior. Such views are mistaken. All the pure traditions of the Buddha’s teachings are precious, and each is valid for the practitioners for whom it was intended. The Buddha taught for the benefit of all, and since sentient beings’ minds are so different from each other, naturally he gave a huge variety of teachings. Therefore, it is silly to hold that one Dharma tradition is better or worse than another. There are people for whom study is the best means of transforming their minds, and for a while at least should be their main form of practice.

The Gelug tradition stems from the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa, a highly realized Tibetan practitioner of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. On the basis of teachings he had received from great masters of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools of his time - the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu - and especially the graduated path (lam-rim) tradition of Atisha, Tsongkhapa wrote many books on various sutra and tantra subjects, the most famous of which were his clear expositions of the doctrine of emptiness, the heart of Buddhist wisdom. Furthermore, his life-style was exemplary for practitioners: he kept immaculate his three sets of vows - full monk (bhikshu), bodhicitta, and tantric- and spent much time in meditational retreats that emphasized preliminary practices such as prostrations (he did three-and-a-half million), mandala offerings (he wore the skin off his forearm polishing his mandala base), refuge recitation, Vajrasattva meditation, repetition of the guru mantra, water-bowl offerings, fire pujas, making clay Buddha images (tsa-tsas) and so forth. Thus the founder of the Gelug tradition led the life of a pure monk, bodhisattva, scholar and tantric yogi and was rightly given the epithet “the Second Buddha.” His integration of scholarship and meditation practice serves as an example to us all.

Out of love and compassion for all sentient beings, the Buddha taught the path to enlightenment, the state he himself had attained. Seeing that all beings sought only happiness and freedom from suffering and that the root of their suffering and lack of happiness was ignorance, his aim was to show others how to eradicate ignorance completely. What is ignorance? It is not seeing what exists as it really exists: the conventional and ultimate reality of all that is. By completely freeing ourselves from ignorance, we reach enlightenment and, like the Buddha himself, become fully equipped to help others reach it too. We possess an omniscient mind, which simultaneously knows everything that there is to be known - all physical and mental phenomena, relative and absolute, of the past, present and future - and experience the greatest possible blissful happiness, which lasts forever.

Enlightenment is not reached all of a sudden but by degrees, through gaining progressively the series of realizations shown in the teachings on the graduated path to enlightenment. Realizations are gained by meditating on the path, but our minds have to be fertilized by prayer, purification and the accumulation of merit. Without these practices, our meditations will not bear fruit and be just like seeds cast on a freeway.

So, keeping in mind the indispensability of the auxiliary practices (such as the preliminaries performed by Lama Tsongkhapa), let us consider the root of realizations, meditation on the path.

On the one hand, the Sakya Pandit said,

The person who meditates without first studying is like an armless rock-climber.

On the other, the great Naropa, while still a learned academic at the famous Indian monastery of Nalanda, was admonished,

You know the words, but do you know the meaning?

What is all this about? Simply that learning is essential for steady, logical progress along the path of spiritual development to buddhahood, but there is a danger of getting attached to intellectual knowledge and failing to use the teachings one knows as they are supposed to be used, to subdue and transform the mind.

Study is the first step on the path to enlightenment, a path on which we eliminate ignorance and gain wisdom. There are three levels of wisdom. The first is the knowledge that comes from hearing or reading; something new is learned, thus dispelling a certain degree of ignorance. The next level of wisdom is that gained through contemplation - subjecting what one has heard or read to critical scrutiny, analyzing whether or not it is worthwhile, suited to one’s own needs, internally consistent, in line with one’s own experience and so forth. The Buddha himself always exhorted his listeners not to accept his words just because he had said them but to consider them carefully, as one assays gold, and only when they were convinced of the truth of his teachings to put them into practice. Thus, when we are satisfied that what we have heard is correct, we can proceed to develop the third level of wisdom - that gained through meditation.

Meditation is the process whereby the mind becomes thoroughly acquainted with the object it is considering, and there are two kinds of meditation: analytic and stabilizing. The former refers to the process of gaining the second type of wisdom - the logical analysis of concepts and so forth. (It also includes analysis of visualized images.) Stabilizing meditation is that done to develop single-pointed concentration. Stabilizing meditation is used to develop the wisdom of meditation when, through analysis, one has become intellectually certain of the truth of a certain teaching and wants to make that knowledge a realization.

When meditating on emptiness, for example, one first employs analysis to ascertain the utter lack of inherent existence of an object. When convinced of the truth that there is none, one then meditates single-pointedly on that emptiness of inherent existence for as long as possible, to make that understanding inseparably one with the mind. When concentration on the object, emptiness, weakens and the object is lost, one again analyzes as before to reach the point where stabilizing meditation can again be employed. This process is repeated over and over again - along with the indispensable purifying and merit-accumulating methods mentioned before - not only until one has attained a non-conceptual realization of emptiness, but all the way up to enlightenment. All the truths on the graduated path - the perfect human rebirth, impermanence and death, karma, refuge, samsaric suffering, interdependent origination, bodhicitta, one-pointed concentration, and so on - are realized through a similar process of first analytic and then stabilizing meditation, practiced on the basis of prayer, purification and accumulation of merit.

Generally, all the Buddha’s teachings can be divided into two categories: wisdom and method. The main wisdom to be realized is that of emptiness, and the lineage of these teachings passed from Buddha Shakyamuni to Manjushri, Nagarjuna and, eventually, the great Indian pandit Atisha, who brought it to Tibet. Similarly, the lineage of extensive method, bodhicitta, passed from Shakyamuni through Maitreya, Asanga and many other teachers, again to Atisha. Because the Tibetans of his time needed a very simple presentation, Atisha arranged the vastly complex teachings of the Buddha into a clear, logical progression, making them easy to understand and practice. His seminal text, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, is the source of most of the lam-rim texts that exist in all the main Tibetan traditions and served as the inspiration for Tsongkhapa’s classic Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path. Here, in great detail, Tsongkhapa presented the entire path to enlightenment in a series of steps, each to be studied, understood, meditated upon and realized in the given order. In a way, it is as simple as that: the map of the mind of a sentient being is clearly laid out and the route to spiritual perfection and ultimate happiness, as experienced by countless meditators, plainly marked.

Thus, it is easy for us to understand intellectually the entire path to enlightenment, and this has many advantages. We can readily assess our present spiritual level and know what to do next; it is easy to gauge our progress; and, whenever we hear any teachings, we know to which part of the path they belong and thus their relevance to other teachings and our own needs. We can also see the logical nature of the path - how each step leads naturally to the next.

This demystification of spiritual practice is especially important for those of us who have received a Western “scientific” education and been brought up to believe that things spiritual or religious are matters of blind faith inaccessible to logical analysis. It engenders great confidence in the path and the conviction necessary to practice. Such faith, based on sound reasoning, is especially helpful when we experience difficulties in meditation or have doubts about our ability to progress or the path itself. Through having studied well, we can explain to ourselves the benefits of practicing Dharma and the shortcomings of not. Also, should others try to convince us of the benefits of another spiritual path or attempt to make us abandon our spiritual practice altogether, being crystal clear as to what we are trying to do and why, we cannot easily be swayed. Similarly, when others are confused about the best way to lead their lives or which path to follow or are experiencing difficulties with their practice, by having gained sound intellectual understanding through study and reflection, we can be of great help to them.

However, at any given time, study may not be for everyone. On the other hand, at some stage in our spiritual career, which spans eons of time and countless lifetimes of existence, we shall certainly have to study. Those for whom study may not be the most appropriate method in this life can be sure that it was in the past or will be in the future. The exceptional Tibetan yogi Milarepa, who reached enlightenment “in a single lifetime,” had been a learned scholar in an immediately preceding one. To disparage any of the teachings or traditions of the Buddha is a serious mistake with disastrous karmic consequences. The resultant negative imprints ensure that in many future lifetimes, not only shall we not meet the methods we have belittled but also we shall not find any Dharma teachings whatsoever. Dharma methods and teachings are like medicine - antidotes to certain mental defilements and obscurations; at some time or other, each sentient being will need them all.

The main danger of study is that it can become a means by which we build our ego and increase our delusions. However, this danger is inherent in any object, mundane or spiritual, that we encounter, and the fault never lies in the object but in the way we relate to it. Our grasping, distorted minds cling to anything - our particular religion, our own teacher, our image of ourselves as a meditator, a true practitioner, an erudite Buddhist - and transform that which is potentially beneficial into yet another cause of suffering and confusion. Whether or not the things we do become positive, growth-producing Dharma actions depends on our motivation for and the effects of what we do, not on the things we do themselves. Selfish actions motivated by the desire for the benefit of this life alone are negative, non-Dharma actions that lead only to suffering.

Thus, studying even Dharma teachings with the aim of accumulating facts with which to defeat others in debate or become famous only increases our pride, jealousy, anger and attachment and is in no way spiritual. Those who study in this way while professing to be Dharma practitioners deserve all the criticism they get. But studying - or doing anything else - motivated by the desire to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, to escape from cyclic existence, or simply to benefit one’s own future lives in samsara is positive and brings the result of freedom and happiness.

Thus, to know if we ourselves or others are truly practicing Dharma or not we have to see what motivates our minds. We should look within before casting the first stone.

Having neither pure motivation nor the slightest scholarship, I am sure to have made many errors in the above and would like to be corrected.