Shedra Study – A Practitioner's Backbone

“One who is in harmony with emptiness is in harmony with all things.” – Nagarjuna

I never really thought I had intellectual prowess, something I assumed was needed to study things like calculus, physics, and Madhyamika. But, when I first studied the ninth chapter of the Way of the Bodhisattva with Rinpoche at Naropa, a remarkable change started to occur in my mind; the experience was like remembering something long ago forgotten. While I did my best to follow the lines of reasoning Rinpoche was leading us through and the arguments of the different philosophical schools, I kept exclaiming to myself, “Oh, my goodness, of course! This is how it is!” It all felt so marvelously familiar, a little like going back to the old house where you grew up.

For a while after that my more or less conventional life proceeded on, and in seeking some deeper meaning to life at that point, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I proceeded headlong into all that was required, including calculus. I bring up this decision because I attribute my ability even to attempt such an endeavor to the ninth chapter of the The Bodhisattva's Way of Life and to Rinpoche’s teachings. Studying those teachings, even for a short time had a deep and transformative effect on my mind and my confidence as a whole. Wow, right? I felt a deep conviction that if I could do it, if I had gained so much from studying these powerful teachings, then anyone at all would be able to do it and they, too, could gain such confidence in their mind. I know I am just one of many who have gone through this transformation by studying Madhyamika.

Madhyamika, or the Middle Way, is about discovering who we really are and what is really going on around us. You don't need to be a Buddhist to understand this body of the Buddha’s teachings, but if you come to fully understand and realize the Middle Way, you would be no different than the Buddha. That statement is not a sneaky way to convince people to take up Buddhism; it’s just that once you come to see for yourself what the mind is, or how phenomena arise, what the so-called “self” is, or how perception occurs, how confusion forms, and what the nature of the mind and all things is, that is the same understanding of the Buddha.

The ultimate aim of Madhyamika is to develop our prajna, or supreme intelligence. What is that? On the relative, everyday level, this intelligence brings increasing awareness to the causes of our suffering and happiness and how we can make our actions meet our intentions. On the ultimate level, it uncovers an understanding of the true nature of our mind and all things.

This might sound a bit daunting or abstract, especially considering how long we have been wandering in the fog of confusion and samsara, but Rinpoche says this:

“Knowing that the tatagathas started just like you, just a regular person in samsara with the same potential, and that through applying the Buddha’s teachings have attained complete liberation, you must take heart and have full confidence that you can do the same. You may not know how to do it all at once right now, but you must have confidence in yourself, that the path will unfold if you apply yourself in the same way as the bodhisattvas of the past and those who are here with us today. It is by doing what they did that we attain the same result as them.”

This is true with anything we attempt, right?

Studying Madhyamika sharpens our discerning mind and our thought process. It gives us the tools we need to work with whatever might come our way. It builds a conceptual backbone in our mind that helps us understand and gives us a set of tools to face our habitual reactions with, and work through our overwhelming emotions. It is a curious thing about the dharma that when we work with one teaching and one area of our mind -- when we work with our temper through loving-kindness, for instance, or our jealousy through rejoicing practice -- it has an effect on the whole of our being. Likewise, in Madhyamika, when we think through the logic of the Svatantrikas step by step, or come to understand what the Prasangikas are refuting when they debate with the other schools, that process also reveals and clarifies hazy areas in our own mind and life.

The Madhyamika philosophy refutes Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical schools which existed many years ago in India and Tibet. But it is surprising and kind of delicious to discover how we all hold these same beliefs, though in a mostly unseen way.  For instance, we all cling to ourselves as a single person -- me. We all feel we are the same person who existed 10, 30, or 50 years ago, or even yesterday. And we feel that we exist independent of all other things -- that we just are. We feel that we are real and that everyone else around us is also real and separate from us. We all assume that cause and effect happen in a more or less linear way. And we all feel some level of curiosity and perhaps anxiety when we wonder how everything in the universe hangs together and works. This must be what propels the field of quantum physics and irked so many Western philosophers in the past. Our assumptions about all these things are collectively our so-called beliefs.

I find it so exhilarating when Rinpoche speaks about our beliefs in this context. We do not hold these beliefs conceptually, or even consciously, he explains, but they nonetheless influence everything we do; we might even say they control us. Rinpoche describes them as emotional habits, which have worn such a pathway in our being that they feel like instinct. But, he reminds us, just because something feels like instinct does not guarantee it as truth, or in accord with the way things actually are. We all instinctively feel the floor under us is solid, real, and one thing, but any recently published science book will tell you it is made up of trillions of atoms or particles that never touch and that the floor is, in fact, 99.9999% space. We may think that when we die and our body is cremated, we simply disappear. But our bodies, and all matter in the universe, is actually made up of continually re-formed collections of atoms. I read somewhere that we even have atoms in our bodies that once made up the Buddha and Genghis Khan!

Madhyamika is fun because the remarkable situation of things being very different in reality from how they appear to us in our unexamined assumptions begins to reveal itself. Our assumptions tend to lump things together; we lump four pieces of wood together with a flat top and call it a table. And we do this with everything! We lump things that are made up of countless parts into one, and call it a house, or a horse, or a hologram. Such “lump sums” appear to be distinct entities due to their parts’ close proximity to one another. But the idea or belief that those lump sums are one real unchanging thing is precisely the misperception which Madhyamika targets.

Now here it is very important to remember that this realization does not undermine the functioning of all things in the world – it really does not change anything at all; Madhyamika never refutes, even in the slightest, the interdependent functioning and seeming appearance of everything around us. Rather, it is the unexamined emotional/non-conceptual belief that these interdependent functions or lump sums are real which Madhyamika aims to uncover or break down.

And why seek to do that? Because it is our emotional/ non-conceptual belief in the existence of these lump sums, in something that is not really there -- in self and other as real and separate -- that serves as the foundation stone of all our suffering and pain. And it is interdependent origination, the idea that things only exist dependent on other things -- i.e., causes only exist in relation to effects, and effects only exist in relation to causes -- that is the foundation stone of Madhyamika. Interdependence is not a “belief,” it is simply the way things arise and function, seemingly.

The Madhyamika teachings are the best backbone for practice because, even if we meditate everyday, even all-day, many thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and judgments arise, often unbidden, and usually unchecked. These continually passing states of mind may arise and dissolve as circumstances change, but each leaves a residue in our mind or being. When we purposely and conceptually put our mind through the reasoning of the Middle Way and examine our experience in light of the questions which Madhyamika poses, it has a huge effect on our mind and on how we process our reactions, habits, emotions and subtle attitudes. We begin to gain a tangible strength of mind and a new habit of constructive thinking which affects how we process everything we encounter, both inwardly and outwardly. This is what I mean by a backbone. We gain a real structure which every thing can hang from. It allows us to stand up straight and tall and face our life fully.

Rinpoche has a great passion for the Madhyamika teachings. Being a deep thinker and genuine practitioner, he brings these teachings to us in a way that is relatable and applicable, sharing so much of his own experiences and thought processes. In each Madhyamika teaching Rinpoche gives, whether in the MSB Shedra or in one of the many places he has brought these teachings, he creates a container in each listener’s mind into which he pours this wisdom. He then tirelessly and effortlessly returns to the same points from different angles showing us the breadth and depth of the Madhyamika reasoning.

I marvel at how many people Rinpoche has touched with these teachings. I imagine them in their own countries, going to their cushions, or even just driving or drifting off to sleep, and contemplating the notion of all phenomena being mind, or mulling over the fact that atoms don't touch, or trying to find a singular self. This gives me a thrill; where would we be without this wisdom, without this backbone? Even as diligent meditators?

Rinpoche just finished his fifth year of shedra teachings in Brazil and is in the fifteenth year in Japan. In England, he is in the middle of Shantideva’s ninth chapter, and he completed six consecutive years of the Bodhicaryavatara in Taiwan. At Lotus Garden he is almost finished with the complete set of classical shedra texts that he has given in MSB, and in France he continually supports students with she-tri (shedra-based) teachings. At Gomde in California, Rinpoche finished the Bodhicaryavatara and is in the sixth year of the Uttaratantra-shastra, and at Guna Institute, he taught five classical shedra texts, spending five months on each.

Though Rinpoche teaches like this throughout the world, he makes a special effort to bring the shedra teachings to MSB students in September at Phuntsok Choling. Anyone who has been in the room or streamed these teachings will say, Rinpoche gives us his all. The teachings are intimate and deeply engaging, leaving no stone unturned. It is a precious time, and perhaps most precious of all is the opportunity to witness many of the older students conversing with greater confidence and command in the Madhyamika logic and reasoning.

Rinpoche opened the first official MSB Shedra at Phuntsok Choling in 2000 with the Bodhicaryavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva). He then continued with the Uttaratantra Shastra (Buddha Nature) for two years, the Abhisamayalankara (Ornament of Clear Realization) for three, then the Madhyamika-avatara (Introduction to the Middle Way) for two years, and the Madhyamika-karika (Root Verse on the Middle Way) also for two. We concluded four years of the Madhyamika-alankara (Adornment of the Middle Way), and now Rinpoche has taken us back to the beginning with the first chapters of the Bodhicaryavatara. So, if you have ever considered studying the Madhyamika teachings, this is your chance! This is a great opportunity for all practitioners, new and seasoned, to delve deeply into our hidden assumptions about our mind and phenomena and test the clarity and density of our Dharma backbone.

We all start from a place of not knowing, and even if we know things we all have powerful habits. But we must also have confidence that we lack nothing in our basic being necessary to pursue such learning and unravel the habitual beliefs that have bound us for so long. As Rinpoche says, “There is no greater challenge in life than to challenge our ignorance.” So don't be shy; attending the Shedra teachings will give you strength and clarity in all aspects of your life, assets which will never leave you.

A longtime shedra student says, “We realize that the entirety of Madhyamika is about precisely how we experience each moment of consciousness. Liberation through study becomes a tangible experience, and our appreciation of the beauty and precision of this philosophy grows year to year. In Rinpoche’s presentation of classical Buddhist texts, he combines his deep scholarly knowledge, his ability to communicate subtle meaning, and his skill in connecting what may seem obscure to the day-to-day life and practice of his audience. Join us for this remarkably penetrating discovery into how we can awaken from the foundation of our delusion.”