The Heart of the Buddhist View
By Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche

Rinpoche asks everyone to engender the enlightened attitude, the wish and effort to attain the perfect state of Buddhahood in order to benefit beings in numbers vast as space. Toward that end one resolves to listen to, reflect upon, and meditate on the teachings energetically. One who has realized selflessness and perfected love and compassion for others is a buddha. The reason it is possible for everyone to attain Buddhahood is that within the minds of all sentient beings is potentially present the Buddhanature which is the seed of enlightenment. This Buddhanature is the union of clarity and emptiness. The difference between a buddha and a sentient being is that in a sentient being, the Buddhanature is obscured by accidental stains, while in a buddha the accidental stains have been purified or removed. The purpose of Dharma practice is to purify these stains so that the Buddhanature will manifest and one will attain enlightenment.
There are three aspects of the Buddhanature: basis, path and fruition. The basis aspect is the presence of the Buddhanature in the minds of all sentient beings, which is comparable to gold present in ore, butter potentially present in milk, or sesame oil potentially present in the seed. If the gold ore is not refined one will not obtain the pure gold, if the milk is not churned one will not obtain butter, and if the sesame seed is not pounded one will not produce sesame oil. In the same way, even though the Buddhanature is present in the minds of all beings, if the accidental stains are not removed, Buddhahood will not be attained. Therefore one should make an effort to purify the accidental stains. Since we all possess the Buddhanature, there is no need to doubt that one can attain Buddhahood.
The path aspect of the Buddhanature is the situation in which one has removed gross obscurations and is gradually refining one's realization and purifying more subtle stains. The moment one directly realizes the Buddhanature, the basis aspect turns into the path. This is comparable to the process of refining the ore, churning the milk, or pounding the sesame seed. The fruition aspect of the Buddhanature is the situation in which all accidental stains along with predispositions have been removed. This corresponds to having obtained the pure gold, the butter, and the sesame oil.
There are signs that the Buddhanature is potentially present within the minds of all. Maitreya, in a text called The Changeless Nature (Skt. Uttaratantra. Tib; Gyu Lama) has said that the fact that we become wearied with conditioned existence and desire to liberate ourselves from suffering is an indication that the Buddhanature is potentially present within us. This very desire arises because of the Buddhanature. Everyone should make a personal investigation and obtain a personal conviction about this statement.
Within Buddhism there are three main approaches, one in which knowledge or wisdom is emphasized, another in which devotion is emphasized, and a third in which both are practiced together. The Mahayana tradition emphasized the development of wisdom. A follower of this tradition should gain a personal knowledge of the teachings given by the Buddha and by great followers of the Buddha, great scholars, and then should arrive at a personal understanding through analysis and investigation. A wise person wishing to buy either gold or diamonds would first examine their quality and test whether they are real. In the same way someone desiring to follow the Buddha's teachings should investigate the teachings and follow them based upon personal conviction and knowledge.
In Buddhism it is taught that reality has two levels, a conventional and an absolute level. The absolute level is the true nature of things. The conventional level refers to the way in which the world or phenomena manifest. Confused sentient beings conceive of phenomena as truly existent. By virtue of such conceptualization, they are prevented from experiencing the true nature of these manifestations. This is comparable to the dream state. Whatever one dreams about, whether it is attractive or repulsive, as long as one does not recognize that one is dreaming, one believes in it and experiences it as real, and the true state of affairs is obscured by this process of conceptualization. Likewise the true nature of existence is not realized because we conceive of the world as real. In order to understand the conventional and the absolute levels, it is necessary to investigate. Still we cannot realize the two levels by means of our personal knowledge alone, but we must rely on the teachings of the Buddha who realized them directly. Some of the methods for investigating the two levels are similar to scientific research, but analysis of the true nature of mind is something particular to the Buddhist tradition.
In the second approach, in which devotion is emphasized, the student exclusively follows the instructions of his or her teacher, without analyzing. This mainly applies to an individual who had meditated extensively in former lives, and therefore can very easily apply himself or herself with devotion, has very few doubts about the teachings given, and does not need to investigate. An example is the close disciples of Milarepa, who were prophesied by Dorje Palmo. There are many great Kagyu siddhas of the past who followed this devotional approach, which is particularly important at the Vajrayana level.
But ultimately the approaches of knowledge and devotion must be unified. A follower of the approach of knowledge will gain through investigation a very firm conviction regarding the conventional and absolute levels, and will see that the teachings of the Buddha are correct and valid, and then faith and devotion will naturally arise. The great Indian scholar Dharmakirti put forth various reasons why the Buddha is a perfect being in a text dealing with valid cognition. He began by establishing that the teachings of the Buddha act as a remedy for disturbing emotions and suffering, and for that reason the one who gave those teachings, namely the Buddha, must be a perfect teacher. Then a follower of the devotional approach, because of great devotion toward the Buddha and his teachings, can easily practice meditation, and therefore realization will arise, leading naturally to wisdom. So on a temporary level we have persons following the approach of either knowledge or devotion, but ultimately the two must be unified, in order to realize the true nature of the mind and attain Buddhahood.
A person wishing to follow the Buddhist tradition, in Rinpoche's opinion, should begin with the approach of knowledge, then proceed to the approach of devotion, and finally unify the two. Following the approach of wisdom, one should first gain knowledge of the Buddhist view, then develop a firm conviction of the validity of this view, after which one practices meditation. Through the practice of meditation one comes to realize the true nature of mind.
Another quality needed in the practice of Dharma is skillful means. If one possesses skillful means, then what ever one does, one is able to apply meditation to the activity, and therefore will have no difficulties in one's practice. Milarepa said in one of his songs that any activity is meditation--eating, sleeping, walking around, and so forth. The ability to apply meditation in any activity depends on developing knowledge.
Regarding the ultimate level of existence, there are different philosophical tenets, the main ones being the Mind Only school and the Madhyamaka or Middle Way school. The Buddha stated when teaching the view of the Mind Only (or Cittamatra) school, addressing his students the bodhisattvas, that the three world spheres are only a projection of the mind. These three spheres are the realm of desire, of form, and of no form. The Buddha then said that there is no external creator of these realms, and they have not arisen from no cause at all, and he thus refuted two misconceptions about phenomena. The three realms constitute samsara or conditioned existence, and since they themselves are only projections of the mind, the suffering experienced in samsara is also nothing but a mental projection. Because of our attaching great importance to these sufferings, or our believing them to be real and solid, the suffering itself increases. For example, if we dream that we are in a vast forest full of poisonous snakes, by not being aware that we are only dreaming, the suffering from this event would greatly increase because we believe that what we dream of is real and solid. There is a gradual increase of the suffering as one concept after another is developed. First there is only the visual perception of the snakes, then one creates the concept, "Oh, there is a poisonous snake in front of me, " then one develops fear of being bitten, and on top of this, one is in a deep forest and can see no way to escape. This everyone can relate to personally.
In the waking state, just as in the dream, one's suffering increases owing to the tendency to conceptualize what is experienced. In the dream there are no truly existent external conditions that can cause the suffering one experiences; it is exclusively produced by one's mind. The same applies to the waking state. There are no truly existent external causes and conditions that can induce suffering, it is induced only by our minds.
Suffering is nothing but a feeling, a conceptual creation, void of inherent existence, not true or real. Concepts, when their true nature is experienced, are nothing but an open, relaxed, and spacious state of mind. The true nature of mind being inseparable from emptiness and clarity, feeling or concepts such as suffering do not apply. It is because of conceptual clinging that we experience suffering in the dream as well as in the waking state. Various types of sufferings have been described in the Buddhist tradition, such as the hell realms, the hungry ghost realms, and so forth. All these types of suffering are nothing but deceptive appearances created by a confused mind.
In Buddhism the usual process is to introduce a beginner to the idea that conditioned existence is suffering in order to help that person develop the desire to free himself or herself from conditioned existence. At that level of the teachings, suffering is taught as though truly existent. Once the student has developed the desire to free himself or herself from samsara, the view is presented that suffering is nothing but a mental creation.
In the second school, the Madhyamaka tradition, it is taught that mind itself is not truly existent; it is empty or void. The two main subdivisions of the Madhyamaka tradition are called rang-tong, and shen-tong, which are translated as "void of self" and "void of other." In the void-of self or rang-tong approach, the main teaching is that all internal and external phenomena are void of an essence of a self-entity, and thus it is called void of self. In the void of-other or shen-tong tradition it is taught that the true nature of mind is synonymous with the Buddhanature, and is empty of accidental stains only; it is not empty of enlightening qualities, so it is empty of something foreign to or other than itself. The tenets of these two schools are extensive, and much debate had gone on between the scholars of these two schools.
Then in the Vajrayana tradition suffering itself is said to be bliss. The reason for this statement is that in this tradition the true nature of mind, spoken of as the union of bliss and emptiness, so that when the true nature of mind has been realized, suffering will be experienced as bliss. The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa expressed this in a song to his students which he gave in a place called Yolmo Kangra in Nepal, saying, "I am happy and at ease since I experienced suffering as bliss."
We can relate these different explanations of suffering to the example of the dream state. If we dream that we are bitten by a poisonous snake, then not recognizing that it is only a dream, we experience great suffering. If one recognizes that one is dreaming, at that point one realizes that what is taking place is nothing but a mental creation. If one is able to apply analysis in the dream when being bitten by the snake, then one analyzes the nature of oneself, the snake, and the event, and realizes that all three elements lack inherent existence, are void or empty of reality, and as a result one will realize emptiness as presented in the Madhyamaka school. Then in Vajrayana, a yogi or yogini skilled in dream yoga is able to transform the appearance of his or her body in the dream into the form of a meditational deity, and as a result, suffering will be transformed into bliss .
We have begun with the Sutrayana and then proceeded to the Tantrayana, and in Rinpoche's opinion this approach facilitates a proper development. This concludes the teaching in which Rinpoche has explained the Buddhanature, then the three approaches (of knowledge, of devotion, and the two together), and then the different ways of viewing suffering. We will now meditate a little together. You should think about the meaning of the teaching given. By means of such analytical meditation as one reflects upon the different enumerations given, one gradually develops wisdom. In addition one develops samadhi as one concentrates on the different parts of the teaching.

This article was transcribed and edited from a talk by Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in Albany. It was translated by Ann Elizabeth Eselius and edited by Laura Roth.