EnlightenNext (WIE) speaks with Buddhist monk Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.
WIE: The goal of Buddhist practice is said to be enlightenment. While the word “enlightenment” is now commonly used in the West, there are many vastly different definitions of what enlightenment is. In your approach to your own practice, when you think about enlightenment, what are you striving to achieve? What does the goal of enlightenment mean to you personally?
H.H. THE DALAI LAMA: So, enlightenment! “Consciousness” or “mind” has cognitive ability–there is something through which we know. Usually, we say: “I see, I learn, I know, I remember.” There is one single element that acts as a medium for viewing all objects. At our level, the power or ability to know is very limited, but we have the potential to increase this ability to know. “Buddhahood” or “Buddhahood enlightenment” is when the potential of this ability to know has been fully developed. Merely increasing that capacity of knowing is also a level of enlightenment. So, the term “enlightenment” could refer to knowing something that you did not know or realizing something that you had not realized. But when we speak about enlightenment at the state of Buddhahood, we are speaking about a fully awakened state.
That is why, according to Buddhism, all our efforts ultimately should go to training or shaping our minds. Emotions such as hatred or strong attachment are destructive and harmful–we call them “negative emotions.” So how can we reduce these negative emotions? Not through prayer, not through physical exercise, but through training of mind. Through training of mind we try to increase the opposite qualities. When genuine compassion, infinite compassion, or unbiased compassion is increased, hatred is reduced. When equanimity is increased, attachment is reduced. All of these destructive emotions are based on ignorance, and the opposite, or antidote, of ignorance is enlightenment. This is why it is very important to analyze the world of the mind and find out what its basic nature is. What are the different categories of mind? Which minds are destructive? Which minds are constructive? and so on. Once we have analyzed all these questions, then we should try to control our minds by adding more good and removing the bad. Some modern scholars describe Buddhism as a “science of mind” for this very reason.
WIE: Many people have become interested in Buddhist practice these days as a means of cultivating peace of mind, relaxation or mindful awareness, rather than specifically as a means for reaching enlightenment. In your view, what is the difference between engaging in Buddhist practice for the purpose of gaining relative benefits such as these and practicing with the sincere intention of attaining enlightenment?
HHDL: Some ideas that come from Buddhism can be implemented without the individual needing to become a Buddhist or even to be a believer in Buddhism–there is no problem with that. Someone who has complete trust and belief in Buddha may try to be a good human being, and they could be considered Buddhist even if they have no particular interest in the next life or in attaining nirvana. But in order to make your practice a real Buddhist practice, it is important to have genuine aspiration for the achievement of nirvana or enlightenment.
WIE: Can you explain why this aspiration is essential?
HHDL: The definition of Buddhism, I think, is in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Once you know and accept that these are the basic teachings of reality, and you follow and implement these teachings, that is Buddhism. Now, you could still be a Buddhist without that kind of practice. It is not necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of the in-depth meaning of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths to be a simple, ordinary Buddhist. One could simply take refuge in Buddha, dharma [teaching] and sangha [community of practitioners], do simple practices, and be categorized as a simple Buddhist practitioner. But to become a genuine Buddhist practitioner in the true sense, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the teachings of the Four Noble Truths. And for that pursuit, it is important to have a clear idea of nirvana and enlightenment.
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