Lesson 1: The Spiritual Life of Tsong Khapa

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In this lesson, Robert Thurman shares with us how Tsong Khapa was not just the amazing scholar we know him to be—but also restored the Vinaya in fourteenth-century Tibet and founded tantric colleges. We also hear about the four great deeds of Tsongkhapa, his awakening experiences, and his connection with the bodhisattva Manjushri.

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      In this reading from Robert Thurman’s The Life and Teachings of Tsongkhapa, learn more about the life history of this great teacher.

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      Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit and follow along as Prof. Thurman leads us in a practice that helps us cultivate our connection to an outer Mañjuśrī and to our sense of closeness to our own inner Mañjuśrī.

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      So, get yourself into meditative mode, meaning, sit up straight, cross your legs, have your butt a little higher than your ankles or knees if you have a proper meditation cushion, and fold your hands in your lap in whatever way you’re comfortable, or if you’re sitting in a chair cross your ankles with your hands folded in your lap. Have your eyes partially closed, with a sort of light focus on the tip of your nose or in front of the tip of your nose, where your not really paying attention to your visual field. And in a way your third eye in your forehead is looking out into the sky of your imagination. And breathe through the nostrils with the lips closed in a relaxed way, tongue on the palate behind the upper teeth, again in a relaxed way. Chin a little bit tucked as if a string were pulling you up by the crown of your head, and the shoulders relaxed and down, spine straight. Breathe normally.

      Now in your mind’s eye, you see Mañjuśrī, as a youth, with a crown, with a jeweled crown, a slightly orange complexion, sixteen years of age with a smile on his handsome face, holding in his right hand sort of aloft, with the blade going up on a 45 degree angle, a sword with a golden handle and deep steel-blue blade, and flame-tipped, flames on the tip, however you want to imagine, quite a bright flame, like a laser flame, or you can make it a candle flame—whatever you’re comfortable with. His left hand, held with three finger, three small fingers up and the forefinger touching the thumb, in a sort-of “it’s all right”—in the West we think of that as an “it’s all right” gesture—and pinched between the forefinger and the thumb is the stalk of a lotus, that goes over and reaches a lotus that is hovering over his left shoulder, and on that lotus there is a book of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra.

      And he is in a blue background, like a halo around him that is blue. He sits on a lotus throne—just a lotus, and behind him is a blue background, deep blue color, kind of navy blue, with golden rays of light coming from his body, sort of threaded through that blue, shining out. And he’s looking down at you, and he’s smiling, with a joyful smile. And he’s also delighted specifically at seeing you. He has a third eye in the center of his forehead and he’s looking at you with all three eyes, and he’s looking at you because you are meditating. And you are meditating as part of studying and learning, and thinking clearly about the deep nature of reality—about what is real, which means you’re learning and thinking and meditating with the intent to try and discover what is the reality of yourself and the world. And so he’s very pleased to see that.

      And he himself is actually a buddha, fully enlightened, omniscient about that nature of reality himself, and as a buddha out of compassion he made a vow: when I am a buddha, although in one embodiment I’ll stay in my buddha land and teach my disciples who are in my buddhaland, I will also emanate endlessly in all universes, in all buddha lands, wherever there are people seeking reality, wherever there is a buddha teaching those people about reality, I will appear among them as a bodhisattva and I will ask them the deep, tough questions. What is the nature of reality, what is this, what is that, what is the ultimate nature of it, always pushing them to give answers, to give discourses, that will stimulate wisdom in their students, in their audience.

      So therefore he is delighted that you are a student, and light rays shine down from him to you. And they enter through the crown of your head, or even anywhere, through your skin, and they permeate you with a positive energy. They are golden light-rays, but they can split like a refraction in a crystal into rainbow colors; if you need a little more red, a little more emerald, a little more ruby, a little more sapphire, a little more diamond, whatever color you need of energy, they also simultaneously split into that. And any worries and doubts and anxieties, self-deprecations that are circulating in your thought-system, appear to you in the form of shadow, darkness, and these light rays wash them away, dispel them. And those darknesses and doubts drain down from you into the earth, where relative to the beings deep in the underworld, they are like a light to them, and they nourish them.

      Then around you in a field there are all beings. And including all animals, angels, deities, hell-dwelling beings, pretas, titans, any kind of being, a huge host—you can’t really see them all individually. But you imagine even the animals and every other one are in human form in the great host around you, and in the front rows of the host are beings that you know. And along the left in the front rows of on the left are the beings that you love, and who you consider are loving toward you. And you’re very happy to think of them, imagine them sitting there looking at you. And then the front rows dead ahead are the beings you are acquainted with, you don’t really know them, you neither love them or hate them or fear them, they’re just beings you’re acquainted with, and they’re looking at you. And along the front rows on the right are beings who you very much dislike and who you imagine dislike you—enemies, rivals, people who put you down, people who fear you and despise you. And they all see you beginning to shine with a light like the light from Mañjuśrī that you see above you, because Mañjuśrī’s light reflects from you. And the ones who love are very happy to see that, and it’s like a blessing for them. The ones who are acquainted with you are happy for that, because it’s like something intriguing for them and it’s also an energy and it blesses them. And the ones who hate you are also happy with that. They’re a little jealous in one way, but in another they’re happy because the light is also shining on them and then they’re thinking they’re getting it away from you, and they’re getting the light or something. Whatever other attitudes they have they’re still feeling the blessing of your light reflecting Mañjuśrī’s light to them and they’re happy to have that. Although they’re still maybe not happy with you. But from your perspective they’re equal to you. You realize that they only seem to be enemies because of bad past interactions, and really they are the same kind of being—they are nice to other people—they might even like, have liked you in the past and may like you again in the future. The ones who love you now, maybe they’ve been angry with you in the past, they’ve been enemies, they’ve harmed you, you’ve been mean to them possibly, but at the moment they love you. So the neutral ones just don’t know you. So really they’re all potentially your loved ones, and so you should shine equally upon them.

      So just meditate that you’re bathing this field of the light of Mañjuśrī, which is the light of pure intelligence, of pure wisdom, which is the consummation, the perfection of intelligence, knowing the exact nature of everything that it focuses upon.

      And so you’re delighted to receive that light, and, you know, you’ve heard the teaching that your own intelligence, whatever you normally think of it, is also Mañjuśrī, and another reason Mañjuśrī is so happy with you is that Mañjuśrī sees that your own intellect and intelligence and you, and also experiential intelligence not just intellectual intelligence, is just that same as his. And you have every level even of enlightenment within you, but he is also aware that you’re not aware of deeper levels of it.

      So, reflect that these deeper levels of awareness are in your mind. And be critical about thinking, “Oh, I don’t know everything, I can’t understand this and that, oh I have only very limited intelligence, or I have no book learning, I don’t know Sanskrit, Tibetan, I haven’t studied that much Buddhism, what do I know…” all these kind of self-deprecating ideas that you have, or even you have ideas, “Human beings can’t really understand anything, they just have to follow some sort of authority.” Any kind of ideas that are in your mind, and they are all probably in your mind, be critical of those, and you work with the kind of conundrum, that indeed if you your mind is somewhat covered with a veil of ignorance—your sense of knowing that you don’t know, you could be wrong. So sort of pry open your mind that you might know more than you’re letting yourself think that you know. You might even have an inner Mañjuśrī, of a clear critical intelligence, that sees through all kind of superficial ideas and objects, and drills down to try and find the deeper reality.

      So, try to develop a sense of confidence and a sense of enthusiasm. “If I might be more deeply mindful of the state of my intelligence, I might find I have insights and intuitions that I just normally don’t pay any attention to, and I cover over with the concept, ‘Oh I can’t, I’m not that smart, I can’t understand anything, oh I don’t want to be enlightened I just want to feel better, I don’t think of enlightenment as some kind of intelligence, and so I just want to feel more groovy or something.’” So don’t indulge in those kind of ideas, and indulge in a confidence that whatever I turn my mind to, whatever I hear, whatever I learn, given time, given critical effort, given focus I can understand it. I am an amazing human being, I have a precious intelligence, Mañjuśrī blesses me to urge me to recognize that.

      Just enjoy this light, this golden light of intelligence; enjoy the presence of the all-knowing Mañjuśrī; enjoy that perhaps at some deep nature in your mind there is an intuition that you can also know what you need to know to be happy, to be free of suffering, to be helpful to the ones you love, to not to cause trouble for them.

      You can quietly murmur the mantra of Mañjuśrī also. And don’t worry if you can’t hold stably and vividly in your mind the image of Mañjuśrī, you can get a picture of Mañjuśrī eventually when you want to practice this meditation and then you can imagine that he’s actually there as a presence, in the subtle plane, like an Obi Wan Kenobi kind of luminous body, and he’s this shining light filling up your mind and body. And then you can murmur very gently and softly:

      Om arapacana dhīḥ

      Om arapacana dhīḥ

      Ara is short for “sarva,” it means “all,” “all beings.” Pacana means ripening, developing. Dhīḥ, dh long i means “genius” or “intelligence.”

      Om, may all beings develop intelligence, the Mañjuśrī Buddha intelligence.

      But mantras don’t necessarily have a meaning, they evoke the light of intelligence in this case, they evoke whatever they are the seed syllable of. So:

      Om arapacana dhīḥ

      [Repeat several times, aloud and silently.]

      Om arapacana dhīḥ dhīḥ dhīḥ dhīḥ dhīḥ

      You can repeat the dhīḥ many times, and they say if you can concentrate well enough to repeat the dhīḥ 108 times, your intelligence will markedly improve, if you practice that.

      Om arapacana dhīḥ dhīḥ dhīḥ dhīḥ dhīḥ

      This is a very important meditation for this course, because Tsong Khapa himself was so devoted to the lama Mañjuśrī, the guru Mañjuśrī, the guru Manjughosa, sometimes, the “Gentle Voice One.” And then you can sometimes, if you enjoy doing that with the Mañjuśrī in front of you, when you close the meditation, you can imagine that Mañjuśrī is so pleased that you’re doing this meditation, and that you’re repeating the Om arapacana dhīḥ and you’re motivated to increase your own intelligence not just to be cleverer than the next person, but to be clever to understand reality to be of help to the next person, and you can skillfully understand reality and how to convey that to others. And so you have the altruistic motivation, motivating your Mañjuśrī genius. So he’s very very happy, Mañjuśrī, like an angel in the sky in front of you, and he gets so happy that instead of just shining golden light on you he himself melts into a kind of orange gold, and then he dissolves into pure light himself, and then he flows down in the form of light into the crown of your head, and he then goes down your central channel into your central nervous system, and he takes up abode in the vast miracle space in the center of your heart chakra, so that his intelligence is one with your intelligence, and this is called your inner Mañjuśrī. And when you recite the Om arapacana dhīḥ you think of it as offering to him, and when you get an insight into something in the process of meditating on Om arapacana dhīḥ you offer that to the Manjsuri in your heart.

      Om arapacana dhīḥ…

      So then you can end the meditation and you can go about the business, but you subliminally have a sense of the supreme intelligence of the Buddha and the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, as being somehow deep in the core of your intelligence, so you start feeling more confident about your intelligence, and when you study something or learn something, you imagine that it will come more easily. And actually if you do this meditation it will come more easily, and you will gain more insight, and outer Mañjuśrī and inner Mañjuśrī will help you overcome any sort of self-deprecating ideas that you can’t understand this or that, and help you overcome any false teachings that you may have heard that your critical understanding, your intellectual understanding is of no use or no help in your experiential insight. And of course there is a final meditative insight where you become one-pointed on some topic, some subject, or some reality, and you no longer need to think about it because you had an insight about it. But you need to get the insight to focus on, first. That’s where your thought, your intelligence, your discernment comes into play.

      So you should try to cultivate your connection to the outer Mañjuśrī and your sense of closeness to your own inner Mañjuśrī. Okay?

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