Understanding the three wisdoms and the three lineages

I am adding this post to the “about this blog” page because I think it helps clarify its nature and purpose.

Some people confuse reliance upon the spiritual guide with fundamentalism.  Venerable Geshe-la explains in Clear Light of Bliss that we should not rely on just the words of Dharma, but rather their meaning.  If we rely on just the words of Dharma, there is a danger that we can become fundamentalist in our understanding of the Dharma.  Fundamentalism arises when we become attached to the literal words of the Dharma at the expense of its meaning.  The literal meaning of the scriptures are correct when interpreted through the lens of how those words are understood by the people who live at the time they were written.  But as cultures change with the flow of time, those same words in a different cultural context produce different meanings.  Our job as practitioners who wish to carry the lineage forward is to gain an understanding of the meaning of the Dharma and carry that forward.  The words that express that meaning will vary from culture to culture and time to time, but the meaning itself is universal and timeless.  Understanding this distinction protects us against the extreme of fundamentalism.

Those who authorize themselves to contemplate and meditate on the Dharma, meaning they test the Dharma they have heard (or read) against their own experience and who develop their own examples, analogies and wordings of the meaning of Dharma, can sometimes be accused by those who remain tightly attached to the literal words of scripture of causing the Dharma to degenerate.  I respectfully disagree.  In fact, I would argue that such a literalist approach in effect causes the degeneration of Dharma because it stunts the growth of the Dharma in the minds of living beings.

To understand this, we must make a distinction between the definitive Dharma and interpretative Dharma.  The definitive Dharma is the inner meaning of the Dharma as understood validly by the minds of superior beings.  It is universal and timeless.  The interpretative Dharma is how the definitive Dharma is expressed in a given cultural-temporal context.  The meaning of the Dharma in ancient Tibet and modern New York City is exactly the same.  But its interpretative presentation can be quite different.  If we fail to make this distinction, there is a risk that we can reject and criticise a perfectly valid interpretative presentation because it doesn’t correspond with our own culturally literalist understanding of the Dharma.  In my view, Venerable Geshe-la’s greatest contribution is he has perfectly transmitted the definitive meaning of the Kadam Dharma into a completely new cultural-temporal context (the modern world).  The book Modern Buddhism is, in my view, the culmination of his efforts.  It is the crown jewel of all of his works.  This doesn’t mean all of the other books are not the transmission of the timeless wisdom of the Kadampa into the modern world, rather it means we can fruitfully interpret all of the other books through the lens of and following the presentation of Modern Buddhism.

This logic also applies at the level of an individual practitioner.  Just as there are those who criticise a modern presentation of the Dharma, there are others who accept the modern presentation of the Dharma but then make the same mistake as the literalists within the context of their own tradition.  These people misinterpret reliance upon the spiritual guide alone as meaning they are not authorized to contemplate and meditate on the Dharma.  When confronted with an insight that is not explicitly in Venerable Geshe-la’s teachings they say, “I don’t remember Venerable Geshe-la ever saying that” and they reject the insight on those grounds alone.  Likewise when they come up with their own insights through their own practice they fail to do anything with them because they are not certain they are reliable because they never heard Geshe-la explicitly say the given idea.  Such an approach to our Dharma practice is safe and good, but it is not good enough.  Taken to an extreme, such an approach can make our Dharma understanding quite rigid, and we develop within ourselves a “parrot like Dharma” not a “heart-felt Dharma.”  A parrot like Dharma is good, but it is not good enough.

To understand this, it is useful to understand the three wisdom and the three lineages.  The three wisdoms are the wisdom arising from listening, the wisdom arising from contemplation and the wisdom arising from meditation.  These three can be understood as follows.  First we listen to (or read) the Dharma and gain an understanding of the wisdom of others.  For example, when we listen to Venerable Geshe-la teach or read his books, we can become very familiar with all that he says and that understanding will give rise to a certain level of wisdom within our mind.  This is very good, but it is not good enough.  We shouldn’t stop there.

Just as there are different cultures and temporal contexts, so too each individual practitioner has a different personal mental context and experience set.  Somebody who has spent their whole life in modern America has a different mental context and experience set than somebody who has spent their whole life in modern Brazil or modern China.  Even two people who both spent their whole life in modern America will have two very different mental contexts and experience sets.  Every individual in fact has a unique mental context and experience set.  Just as the great lineage holders like Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa and (I would argue) Venerable Geshe-la took the definitive meaning of the Dharma and expressed it interpretatively in different cultural-temporal contexts, so too each individual practitioner must take (their understanding of) the definitive meaning of the Dharma and make it their own as understood through their own individual mental context and experience set.  We do this through our own contemplation of and meditation on the Dharma.

When we contemplate the Dharma we take the wisdom we have gained through listening and we test its validity in the context of our own life experience and understanding.  For example, I am an early middle-aged American economist diplomat father of five.  This is the context of my life experience, so I test the validity of the Dharma in the context of my world and experience.  When I do this, the Dharma becomes true for me.  I will develop my own examples, analogies and interpretative expressions (wordings) which generate within my own mind the actual meaning of the Dharma in my own mind.  I will have transferred what was the wisdom of somebody else (my teachers) into my own wisdom.  The Dharma will be true for me.  This is the wisdom arisen from contemplation.  Venerable Tharchin says that our own examples, analogies and reasonings developed through our contemplation of the Dharma are actually more powerful for us because they make the Dharma true for us.  This does not mean they are more powerful for others, though.  Each practitioner must develop their own understandings through contemplating the Dharma they have heard (or read).

The insights we gain from our own contemplation of the Dharma, these insights that make the meaning of the Dharma come alive in our own mind, are our actual objects of placement meditation.  Just as contemplation functions to transform the wisdom arisen from listening into the wisdom arisen from contemplation, so too placement meditation on the wisdom arisen from contemplation transforms the wisdom arisen from contemplation into the wisdom arisen from meditation.  Put in more practical terms when we listen (or read) we gain an understanding of the wisdom of others.  When we contemplate we transform this wisdom into our own personal wisdom.  When we meditate we make this personal wisdom, as Venerable Tharchin describes it, “an acquisition of our personality.”  For example, first we generate an undertanding of what is compassion.  Then we generate compassion in our own mind.  Then we become a compassionate person.

Understanding the three wisdoms helps us understand the three lineages of Kadam Dharma.  The true lineage is not the words written on paper or uttered by the guru, rather the true lineage is the continuum of direct realization of the definitive meaning of Dharma from teacher to disciple.  There is probably a technical name for it, but I call the three lineages the outer lineage, the inner lineage and the secret lineage.  The outer lineage is the wisdom arisen from listening (or reading).  I call it the outer lineage because its basis is a manifest object, namely the words on paper or the words of or examples set by our lineage gurus.  The inner lineage is the wisdom arisen from contemplation.  I call it the inner lineage because its basis is a hidden object, namely the personal examples, analogies and experiences within the mind of an individual practitioner.  The secret lineage is the wisdom arisen from meditation.  I call it the secret lineage because it is only open to those who gain personal experience of the Dharma and make the realization of it an acquisition of their personality.  The definitive secret lineage is the Dharma as directly realized with our own very subtle mind of great bliss.  This lineage only arises in the minds of qualified highest yoga tantra practitioners.

How do we know whether our understandings or insights gained through contemplation or meditation are reliable?  There is of course the danger when we contemplate or meditate on the Dharma that we can generate wrong understandings and mistake them for being definitive meanings.  So how do we protect ourselves against that?  Like a good scientist testing their hypotheses, there are several tests we can perform.  First, we can ask ourselves, “does this insight or understanding contradict any known instruction?”  If yes, try again.  If no, we can apply the second test, “is this insight or understanding the natural consequence of all known instructions?”  If no, try again.  If yes, we can apply the third test, “Dorje Shugden, if this understanding is reliable may it flourish within my mind, if it is not please reveal to me how it is wrong and what is in fact correct.”  Dorje Shugden is a Dharma protector.  He does not only protect the outer pure lineage of Je Tsongkhapa, but also the inner and secret lineages.  We request him to confirm correct understandings and to sabotage incorrect understandings.  If we replace our own attachment to our own views with a faith in Dorje Shugden, he will ensure we always stay on the correct inner and secret paths.

How does all of this relate to this blog?  This blog can be understood as me putting into my own words my understanding of the Dharma.  It is my interpretative expression of the inner universal meanings I have understood.  It should NEVER be misinterpreted as me attempting to poffer definitive meanings of the Dharma.  The only truly reliable Dharma texts are those provided to us by our lineage gurus.  The meanings gained from contemplating and meditating on those are reliable.  In the spirit of Shantideva, this blog is my putting into my own words what I have understood.  For me, putting the meaning of Dharma into my own words is a method for clarifying, deepening and consolidating my own understandings.  If other people receive some benefit from it, then all the better.  But no reader should ever confuse the words written in this blog as being intended to be offered as definitive, qualified Dharma.  Rather, it is a sharing of my own experience and understanding.

My hope is simple:  If what I write in this blog is wrong, I hope others will help point out the errors of my thinking so that I can improve my understanding.  If other Kadampa practitioners are coming to similar conclusions through their own listening to, contemplating of and meditating on the Dharma, then the blog can provide a platform for the sharing of such experience.

4 thoughts on “Understanding the three wisdoms and the three lineages

  1. I have enjoyed reading your blog for some time now. Your ideas and thoughts have helped me in my practice.

    This blog in particular,”Understanding the three Wisdoms and the three lineages”, speaks to my heart in a very deep way.
    Your three methods of testing are valid in my opinion, and I especially agree with your thoughts on how Dorje Shugden can protect us from generating wrong understandings if we replace attachments to our understandings with reliance upon him. Whether we can accept this or not depends upon whether we really believe that Buddhas can directly influence and direct our minds and that Dorje Shugden has the ability to directly guide us along the path.

    In the sadhana WFJ it says
    “Through your skillful deeds of preventing and nurturing
    Please lead all living beings into the good path to ultimate happiness.”

    This is a direct reference to Dorje Shugden’s ability to prevent practitioners who rely upon him from following wrong inner paths, and to nurture correct understandings of Dharma in our minds.

    Of course it will only work if we truly do have faith in Dorje Shugden, but we must not fall into the trap of looking at those who have this faith as somehow being more “special” or “advanced” than the rest of us. We can all develop this type of faith, and we all need to. This is exactly why VG made sure to pass on to us the WFJ sadhana. The daily use of this sadhana with an open heart is the correct tool for developing such faith.

    Our guru is “living Dorje Shugden”, and true reliance upon him does not mean just being able to parrot his words correctly, but to also know that he can make Dharma come alive in our hearts and minds by giving us our own correct understandings.
    How wonderful that we can all develop such a deep and living relationship with Dharma!

  2. KR:
    I just wanted to thank, for every minute of you time to share with us your interpretative expression of the inner universal meanings you have understood,This blog in particular,”Understanding the three Wisdoms and the three lineages”, had been a very special gift , that i always will keep in mind…
    since i read your blogs i feel a special karma connection that help me very deep in my own undrestanding and practice. I really hope you keep going on it,it is so refreshing and practical the way you offer it,and yet so meaningful and natural, i really enjoy it.i had just received benefits from it.once again thank you very much !

  3. Oftentimes, just before doing a guided meditation, I let the students know its purpose: to give them an example of how to do their own contemplative meditations. I let them know that–as far as the words coming out of my mouth are concerned–this is ‘contemplating’ for me but merely ‘listening’ for them.

  4. This post/blog should be praised. Excellent. I actually think the most important thing a practitioner can learn is how to practice rather than knowing what to practice.

    Buddha was the ultimate inner scientist, extremely lateral in his thinking, innovative and creative. Multi-viewed and precise. The logic of Dharma can only take one so far. There needs to e leaps beyond possibility, curiousity, faith. I am no expert but i’m gonna write a post on this soon looking at alternatives in perception, logic, assumptions and so on giving my interpretation.

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