Eight Verses on Training the Mind:
The Dalai Lama's Commentary in Central Park
Report by Lawrence Waldron
On Sunday August 15 the Dalai Lama spoke to thousands of people gathered in Central Park on Eight Verses on Training the Mind by Gesge Lang-ri Tang-pa.
Early on a cloudy, Sunday morning, my fiancee and I got aboard a somewhat crowded number 7 train, bound for Manhattan. Could so many people be going to work on a Sunday? Riders of the 7 train are notorious for their strange working hours. It is one of the most populous trains, even in the dead of night. But many of these people aboard this morning's train were dressed far too festively to be going to work. In fact, they were decked in full ethnic finery of a sort that convinced me they were going where I was going. These were Tibetans and they were on their way to see the Dalai Lama in Central Park. Each time the train stopped, more Tibetans got on. Some knew each other. Some did not. Tibetans are scattered all over the world, so wherever they settle, they tend to be a very mixed and slightly disparate group. The train filled with the complex syllabary of their Himalayan language, a bit strange, even on the #7, New York's most diverse train route. Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian passengers knitted their brows and cocked their ears, not sure what to make of this colorful Asian minority. I smiled and my heart brimmed with a warm feeling of solidarity. We were very much so, pilgrims. Immigrants from very different places, but Buddhists all the same and for a few hours today, we would be joined by our aspirations to a state of compassion and the desire to be bathed in the effulgent presence of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
We all took the same route there. Tibetan prayers and mantras became more audible as we got off the train and made our way through the Upper East Side towards Central Park. Really, I have never felt so part of a pilgrimage as I did that day. We all stopped at the stores on the way to buy bottled water, bagels, pretzels. Many of the Tibetans had brought home-cooked meals, though. It was now becoming apparent that some of the other passengers in the subway were also on their way to see the Dalai Lama. I could not have told for sure by the malas on their wrists because Buddhist rosaries have become quite fashionable these days and are sold as jewelry at every little gift table in the city. But as we entered the park and joined the line that snaked through the maple trees, I knew that many of these Westerners were also among the faithful.
It was still before 9AM, the official time for seating (His Holiness would not speak till 11). But there were already droves of people settled in Central Park's East Meadow. In fact, those of us who came early managed only to stake out a spot on the very rim of the sunken meadow. We were perhaps the last row of people who would be able to see His Holiness directly. Others behind us would have to look at the large monitor set up at the south end of the meadow.
Everyone seemed at peace or at least, in good spirits. Most of the audience was not Buddhist. I could tell because people stared as I bowed towards the stage where His Holiness would speak. Despite their different origins, a certain spirit of tolerance and compassion seemed to settle over the crowd. It was actually possible to meditate in the midst of all these people because they were not nearly as loud and restless as I had expected. However it was no longer possible to sit, as late-comers began filling every spot, beside you, in front of you, behind you. Evidence of the Dalai Lama's mass appeal.
I watched the sky, still cloudy. It would never rain that day, despite weather predictions on all news programs.
it was time for the Dalai Lama to speak. Cymbals and bone trumpets had cleared
the air of inauspicious influences. The crowd was at peace, though a little expectant.
The Parks Commissioner had sung the praises of His Holiness, Richard Gere had
received a standing ovation for his involvement in bringing the religious leader
to New York and then hearts leaped with joy as His Holiness came onto the platform.
The crowd was on its feet, faces a little flushed, hands clasped, eyes glued to
the stage or to the giant TV monitor. It is true that on this day New Yorkers
were positively miraculous in their patience and tolerance, even as late-comers
jostled for space, stepped on people's blankets and so on. But in their ignorance
of Buddhist tradition, the mostly non-Buddhist crowd sat down quickly and became
impatient with those of us who remained standing till His Holiness had taken his
Never had I heard His Holiness talk on so many matters nor in so short a time. He spoke about things I had never heard him tackle before. I suspected it was because of the approaching millennium that he found it necessary to cover all these sociopolitical issues. It turned out that some of these are topics of his latest book (which, with typical humility, he did not even mention at this talk). He spoke of economic inequality. He spoke of the abstract and illusory nature of borders and political boundaries. Ownership too was an illusory concept, just what I needed to hear as one of my cramped neighbors was accidentally using my shoulder bag as a footstool. His Holiness spent no less than 10 minutes on the topic of racism, in America, South Africa and, of course, in India and Tibet. This I found particularly interesting and heartening, not only as a black immigrant to the United States but also having heard some unduly harsh criticisms of His Holiness that he has an increasing number of black followers but has never really spoken on "black issues."
Such criticisms were vanquished that glorious Sunday as he told a tear-jerking story of a black school teacher he had met in Soweto, South Africa. His Holiness had told this gentleman that a world of new possibilities had opened up with the ending of apartheid, that there was much work to do, but that secure in the knowledge that blacks in South-Africa were now on equal social footing with whites, there was no obstacle that could not be overcome. But the school teacher seemed insecure and it came out that he did not truly believe that blacks were equal to whites after all. The Dalai Lama was shocked that the teacher could say or think such a thing. "With this" said His Holiness "I had to argue!" His Holiness told the unfortunate man that South Africans, like Tibetans could not afford to let oppressive circumstances convince them that they were inferior, that they should never lose sight of the fact that all people are equal and to approach this equality with self-confidence and ambition. In tears, the teacher found His Holiness' words to be true and was deeply moved to a healthier outlook.
Self-confidence was the chord running through most of the talk. His Holiness counseled that those who were fortunate should develop the self-confidence to render aid to the less fortunate, to not despair in the face of too many suffering people, to never check one's compassion out of cynicism or any sense of futility. Conversely, the unfortunate should not wallow in their suffering but generate a hearty resolution to work hard and remove themselves from their adverse circumstances ethically, lawfully, truthfully.
The teaching followed the Eight Verses on Training the Mind by Langri Tangpa, so many of His Holiness' analogies and anecdotes were used to illustrate the following verses:
Eight Verses on Training the Mind
By Geshe Lang-ri Tang-pa
Determined to accomplish
The highest welfare of all sentient beings
Who are more precious than wish-fulfilling jewels,
I will practice holding them supremely dear.
Whomever I accompany,
I will practice seeing myself as the lowest amongst them,
And sincerely cherish others supreme.
In all my actions,
I shall examine my mind,
And the moment a wild thought arises,
endangering myself and others,
I shall face it and prevail.
When I encounter those overwhelmed
By strong misdeeds and sufferings,
I shall hold them near as if I had discovered
A precious treasure difficult to find.
When, out of jealousy, others treat me badly
With abuse, slander and the like,
I will practice taking all loss
And offer the victory to them.
When someone I had benefited in great hope
Unreasonably hurts me badly,
I will practice regarding that person
As my most excellent and holy guru.
In short, I will learn to offer help and happiness
Directly and indirectly to all my mothers,
And secretly take upon myself,
All their harmful actions and suffering.
I will keep all these practices
Undefiled by the superstitions of the eight worldly concerns,
And by understanding all the dharmas as like illusions,
I will practice, without grasping,
To release all sentient beings from bondage.
In the first two verses, humility is stressed in dealing with sentient beings and in seeing them as a most precious opportunity, "more valuable than a wish-fulfilling jewel."
And yet, His Holiness reminded the audience, that humility too, must be cultivated with self-confidence. So placing others above oneself is not done out of low self esteem (as in the case of the South-African anecdote) but out of a deep understanding that others are as much a part of you as your organs or your limbs. 'Taking care of others is taking care of yourself.' My own understanding was that if one develops, say, liver disease, then one's liver becomes one's chief concern above all other organs and so, the sentient being in need of our assistance is the sentient being we are to hold chief, above even ourselves. Treating your enemy as if he were a "treasure, difficult to find" sent ripples of uneasy laughter through the sea of young bodhisattvas. No doubt, this is easier said than done, we thought. But His Holiness explained that our enemies are, in fact, our greatest gurus. They supply us with the most strenuous practice, the best exercise for our method. "Offering the victory to them" comes naturally from seeing them as oppressed creatures in need of our generosity. Being treated badly by people after doing good deeds for them, liberates us from the selfish expectation of rewards.
The last verses implore us to willingly take on the suffering of others and that of our "mothers." I was unsure whether the reference to our mothers was pluralized because the verse had always been meant to be recited by a group of people or if it referred to the common Buddhist belief that all sentient beings were at one time, our parents. This was the only part of Thubten Jinpa's always splendid translation that was left a bit unclear.
In the very last verse, is a vow to always keep these aspirations undefiled by selfish considerations. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of discipline in holding to one's compassionate vows and aspirations. He jovially pointed to the weather as a perfect example of self discipline in that it had prevented itself from raining on this wonderful occasion. A brief initiation followed in which a compassionate, ecumenical prayer was said three times, wishing "wealth for the poor, power for the weak, courage for those afraid..."
The Dalai Lama bowed to us, told us happily to go home, we bowed to him and dispersed.
As we left the park, I thought what a rare occasion this was. This many people from so many walks of life have not come to hear a Buddhist teacher, perhaps since the Buddha himself spoke at Vulture Peak and Jetavana Grove some 2,500 years ago. I was assured of the continuing power of Buddha-Dharma to transcend the barriers of the mundane world. It was truly a miraculous day!