The Dalai Lama on Enlightenment

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.

Next: No Independent Existence

WIE: The doctrine of “emptiness” is one of the pivotal teachings of the Buddha, and understanding what “emptiness” truly means is said to be critical for those on the Buddhist path. Some Buddhist schools say that “emptiness” refers to nothingness, while others say that “emptiness” implies the existence of something transcendent. Would you tell us simply what you feel “emptiness” refers to?

HHDL: Buddha himself taught different levels of emptiness. But generally, emptiness means the lack of true existence of the “object of negation.” To begin with we have to ask: What is that object of negation? There are different modes and processes of identifying the object of negation. These include processes for identifying the selflessness of the person, the selflessness of phenomena and so forth. And there are different interpretations and different concepts about emptiness according to different schools of thought.

Now according to Madhyamika [the philosophy of the "middle way"], generally, emptiness is the absence of independent existence. So this means that something exists, and emptiness is one of the qualifications and characteristics of that which exists. We cannot talk about these qualities in reference to a nonexistent object; there is some base. The absence of independent existence is nature–it is the way of existence–and the absence of independent existence is possible only because there is something that exists. So therefore, the mere unfindability of the object of designation is not what “emptiness” refers to. If we search for a totally nonexistent object and we do not find it, that is not emptiness. For example, there is no flower on this table. If we look, we see that there is no flower on the table. That “absence” of flower is not emptiness. But now, let us take the example of the tape recorder, and investigate: What is the actual nature of the tape recorder? If you look at the shape, material and color of the tape recorder separately, there is no longer the existence of “tape recorder.” So you see, although there is a tape recorder, if we investigate its individual qualities and characteristics, we can’t find it. Then you can see that “tape recorder” is a mere designation. But, again, the mere “absence” of flower is not emptiness.

Beyond Good and Evil?

WIE: Some people say that if one is enlightened, then that individual’s actions would have to express goodness. But there are other views, and even entire schools of thought, which hold that one who is enlightened is beyond good and evil, and that the actions of such an individual therefore cannot be judged by others. What is your view on this?

HHDL: In the nature of emptiness, in the nature of the absence of independent existence, in that nature, both bad and good are equal. So when someone meditates on the ultimate reality, in that reality there are no differences between bad and good. From the perspective of Buddha, who is in a state of total absorption, there are no differences between good and bad. But even at other levels of practice, when you gain some experience of shunya–of the ultimate reality–then in that moment, when your mind is fully absorbed in that reality, there is no feeling of good and bad; then everything is equal.

When you deeply experience the ultimate reality, it is so powerful that the understanding of a conventional, objective reality will be very different. For example, if the absorption of one’s mind in emptiness is really powerful–totally absorbed in the state of ultimate reality or emptiness–the influence and appearance of conventional reality will be almost negligible.

But this does not mean that on the conventional level there are also no differences between bad and good. That’s simply not the case. There is good and there is bad. That’s why Buddha himself followed self-discipline. If there were no good and bad, then Buddha could have led a very casual life. So in order to achieve the training of wisdom, we need to practice the training of concentration and meditative stabilization; and in order to do that, we need to have a solid foundation in the practice of morality and ethical discipline.

WIE: Can you explain more about the value–or the necessity–of having a spiritual teacher?

HHDL: Without Buddha, I think it is very difficult for a Buddhist practitioner to understand the ultimate reality. These things are difficult. Once Buddha opens our eyes, then of course we have to make effort and investigate. But there should be someone who opens our mind or shows us the direction. Therefore Buddha is very important. It is difficult to understand what is Buddha without knowing dharma. Once you have genuine faith that comes from an investigation of dharma, then naturally there will be a feeling of great closeness and respect for Buddha. It will automatically come. And the same will occur with sangha, because sangha includes all the great teachers and great practitioners, like Nagarjuna [a revered second-century Buddhist philosopher], all extraordinary human beings. Of course, all these beings were not extraordinary right from the beginning, no. They were ordinary human beings, ordinary sentient beings. Then, through the practice of Buddha Dharma they became very extraordinary.

But as to whether one really needs their own teacher or not–generally, books can be the teacher. When one Tibetan lama was about to die, he said to his disciple, “Now you should no longer rely on a human teacher, but you should rely on books to be your teacher.” I think that’s very wise. Without investigation and without knowing a person properly you may hurriedly take someone as your guru or teacher, and there is too much involved in guru devotion or guru yoga. So it could land you in trouble. The thorough investigation of a teacher is very, very important.

WIE: You have spoken about your own spiritual practice and your wish that you could devote more time to it, and I certainly hope that some day circumstances allow that. Many of our readers probably wonder, given your intensive travel schedule and your many responsibilities, how you manage to find the time to do your spiritual practice.

HHDL: Well, usually my work or program starts at seven or eight in the morning. So I get up at four and then I have at least a few hours to do some meditation, some recitation or some prayers. And then I do what I can whenever I have the time–when I travel by car or train for a long time, it’s a very good opportunity to do my recitations. So, like that!

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LMj Sunshine
James Merit5 years ago

Thank you for article.

Nancy Anderson
Nancy Anderson7 years ago

I appreciate the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Thanks for the article.

Karthik R.
Karthik R.7 years ago

Thanks for karthik reddy from india.......there is only one GOD in this world...the Creater.....some call him jesus,some call him as allah.som call him as krishna.......that's it.......some people unknowingly misinterpret their sayings.

Christine C.

I love him! Thanks, so calming!

C. G.
C. G7 years ago


Angel Sch
Past Member 7 years ago

I've noted, thanks :).

Lawrence Ellrick
Lawrence Ellrick8 years ago

Very good and true.

Thank you!

Gaias Son Aiki
Gaias Son Aiki8 years ago

There are in my view many paths to enlightenment, some more direct than others. Thank you for the informative article on Buddhism. I hope we can all find that which we look for whether through paganism, christianity, buddhism, islam, animism, atheism, or whatever one chooses. Where you are on your path is where you should be. Move forward and be generous enough to realize that other people choose their own paths and hardships. We are all moving in the right direction, and we will all eventually get there. Be content with that.

Mark Sparshott
Mark Sparshott8 years ago

and this fighting about religion is why i choose paganism.
cmon guys its about being 1, all of us, us and nature we must learn to love each other not fight, fighting is for fools which nobody wins.

Rezi D.
Past Member 8 years ago

And DANIEL, i'd love to hear your journey to faith.