Dirty Window: A Reflection on the Uttaratantra-śāstra
During the Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 semesters, a group of Rangjung Yeshe’s students had the good fortune to meet every day, during one and a half hours, to study the Uttaratantra-śāstra by Arya Maitreya with Khenpo Karma Gyurme (also known as Tokpa Tulku). Approaching canonical Buddhist texts under the guidance of the ordained sangha is definitely one of the highlights of studying at RYI. Below, I wish to share a reflection on the subject of Buddhahood as ultimately uncreated, which is one of the core teachings explained in the Uttaratantra-śāstra. The idea of Buddhahood as uncreated means that enlightenment is unconditioned, it is not a state produced by the path; and, accordingly, the path is not the cause of enlightenment. Such statement, however, seems to contradict the interpretation of a spiritual path leading to the state of awakening. In other words, can a path that has a conditioned, progressive nature and its supposed outcome (Buddhahood) that is unconditioned be reconciled? In answering this question, Maitreya explains that, even though ultimately Buddhahood is not the result of the path, the paradox is that the path is indispensable for Buddhahood to manifest. Said differently, the path does not produce Buddhahood (Buddhahood is not newly created) yet the path is crucial for Buddhahood to be recognized. Through this writing, it is my intent to reflect on how the path works and why it is necessary for the purpose of eliminating our confusion.
Affirming Buddhahood as uncreated signifies that Buddhahood is not engendered by causes and conditions and is therefore free from the three aspects of beginning, middle and end – what actually define compounded phenomena. If the path created Buddhahood, Buddhahood would have the qualities of coming into existence, abiding, and then being destroyed. This would entail that the state of awakening would have a changing nature; one could be a Buddha in the morning and may not be in the afternoon any more. Since Buddhahood is of a nature that is free of these properties, Buddhahood is not something newly created from scratch; meaning, the ultimate Buddha is beyond the extreme of creation.
Given that Buddhahood is not a creation, it follows that between sentient beings and Buddhas there is a continuation of something that never changes. In fact, in the Hevajra Tantra it is said, “sentient beings are simply buddhas… hindered by adventitious stains. After these are removed, there is [no uncertainty that sentient beings are] simply Buddhas.”Correspondingly, the Dharmadhātu-stotrastates, “when covered by the net of defilements, it is called sentient being; the very same thing is called Buddha when freed from defilements.”These passages indicate that the only distinction between sentient beings and Buddhas is the presence or absence of defilements that can be removed. Awakening is not a future, foreign production; instead, it is something already present that is waiting to be recognized.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, in his commentary to the Uttaratantra-śāstra, explains the relationship between the path and enlightenment through the analogy of cleaning a dirty window. The aim of the path is like longing for a clean glass. The desired result implies the need to eliminate something – dirt – though, in reality, the glass itself was never dirty. Even though we might say, “we are cleaning the window,” in fact, the amount of dirt determines ‘cleanliness’; glass itself is devoid of ‘cleanliness’ or ‘dirtiness.’ In the process of becoming clean – getting rid of dirt – the glass itself remains the same as before. The path, much like the act of washing, does not produce the glass, but produces cleanliness (being devoid of dirt) thereby, illuminating the natural state of the glass bare. The path is what actually shows us (sentient beings) that there is a reality beyond the dirt; the path does not cause the reality beyond.
Through the path, we loosen the habitual tendency to rectify appearances; for example, mistaking the dirt for the clear glass. The Buddha established a direct relationship between confusion (not knowing the essential truth that lies beyond appearances; the clear window), and rectifying the relative truth (confusing appearance or the dirt, in our example, as the essence). This confusion and rectification lead to the experience of suffering. On a practical level, when caught up in the drama of life, it is helpful to repeat to oneself “the affliction (the dirt) feels real, but it is not true.” Though the path or the act of cleaning does not produce Buddhahood as we discussed above, this de-identification of our affliction or dirt as our nature helps us to clearly see that the dirt on the glass is fleeting, too worthless to be attached, and only a stain to overcome. In order to take this de-identification to heart and gain familiarization, we need a path.
Additionally, the path is indispensable because it develops trust. Since Buddhahood is inconceivable for our current state, trust in our primordially pure nature is what keeps us motivated to continue and, thus, not get discouraged that Buddhahood is unreachable. Specifically, the path can illuminate to us 1) that there is a way to free our minds from conceptual grasping, in other words, that the dirt is removable, 2) that confusion and suffering can permanently cease, 3) that our essence is that of a Buddha, and 4) that there are beings who have actualized Buddhahood by following the path taught by the Buddha. All these knowledge fuels our trust in practice and attainment. Returning to our analogy, trust motivates us that even the dirtiest window can indeed be cleaned, propelling us to take action in buying all kinds of equipment to wash out the temporary dirt. The path cannot generate Buddhahood, but it generates trust that puts the teachings into practice. Awakening could occur in our next moment of consciousness, or happen after incalculable eons. But simply having trust in the possibility to experience a level of non-conceptual truth and to end suffering by eliminating confusion is inspiring enough to appreciate the significance of the path and to engage in it.
The fact that Buddhahood has neither birth, nor dwelling, nor cessation, signifies that we cannot talk of achieving Buddhahood as if it were a time-related matter. In other words, there is no path causing Buddhahood. Nevertheless, there is no reaching of Buddhahood without a path. The path is indispensable because it gives us the familiarity in the idea that, just like the dirt is not a permanent characteristic of the glass, defilements are temporal, removable obscurations. Furthermore, the path strengthens trust in our natural state of purity, leading us to take concrete actions and efforts into cultivating ourselves not to create this purity, but to see the nature of ourselves for what it truly is. Seeing that the path and Buddhahood is not in the causal relationship, while fully acknowledging the constructive role of the path, allows us to see that grasping to the path is a foolish thing to do. The path is necessary for the emergence of enlightenment yet is something that we will have to abandon, just like a boat needs to be abandoned when one reaches the other shore.
~ Cecilia Pla
~ Cecilia Pla
Arya Maitreya. Buddha-Nature: Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Sastra. Commentary by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. Canada: Khyentse Foundation, 2007.
Arya Maitreya. Buddha-Nature: Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Shastra. Commentary by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé. The Unassailable Lion’s Roar. Explanations by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. Translated by Rosemarie Fuchs. New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.
Duckworth, Douglas. Mipam on Buddha-Nature: The Ground of the Nyingma Tradition. New York: State University of New York Press, 2008.
Mathes, Klaus-Dieter. A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsāwa’s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.