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The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhismby Robert Thurman
This is what we'll aim to practice on this retreat, on this quest for enlightenment in book form. You'll start wherever you are in your life, today. We'll retreat into one of the greatest sacred wisdom texts of Tibetan knowledge of the soul, called The Devotion to the Mentor, in which a glorious wish-fulfilling gem tree is used to focus our minds. We're on a quest to contemplate this great text line by line, so that we come to understand its full, rich meaning, the brilliant reflections of its many facets guiding us, lighting up our awareness. And we'll take this awareness with us, out into the world, into our lives. It is a powerful text, just the reading of which has the capacity to lift you out of your individual self and into a perspective of unity, refreshing your individuality immeasurably. It will help you cultivate the sensitivity and appreciation to love more fully, feel compassion more intensely, and become a fountain of cheerfulness for all you meet and know.
The steps on the path of enlightenment in this text are a distillation of the vast profusion of healing techniques dispensed by the Shakyamuni Buddha — the historical Buddha — to his many thousands of disciples, two thousand five hundred years ago. I first encountered The Devotion to the Mentor and the jewel tree, in this life, forty-two years ago, when I met the Very Venerable Geshe Wangyal at his monastery in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, which was in a little pink tract house on East Third Street in Freewood Acres. He read to me a version of this same enlightenment path, the way to a higher quality of being, that had been written by the great south Indian philosopher sage Nagarjuna in the second century c.e. Nagarjuna had written it as Letter from a Spiritual Friend to his friend and disciple the south Indian King Udayibhadra, whose name means "King Happily Good."
My teacher read this text aloud in a Tibetan translation, accompanying it with a commentary written by a great fourteenth-century Tibetan lama, and as he read he would translate and explain in English to me and my friend Chris. The three of us would sit together in the chapel room or out in the yard of the little pink house that served as a monastery in New Jersey, under the spell of the great wish-fulfilling jewel tree of Tibet. Then, in the evening and late into the night, I would memorize the Tibetan, learn the text's meaning, and meditate on the steps and themes — incorporating it all into my mind and psyche and spirit.
The fresh and reasonable vision of life, the deep meaning of existence, the imminence of freedom, the vast horizon of my human potential — all this leapt out at me from these words in the lovely Tibetan script, block-printed on beautiful, long, fibrous pages. I loved Nagarjuna and his friend the king. I loved the Tibetan alphabet, so logical and elegant. I felt totally at home in it.
At that time, I was in the middle of a long pilgrimage that had led me to drop out of college and had taken me across Europe on a motorcycle and across Asia on foot, all the way to India. There, I had met the Tibetans and begun to learn from them and work with them when the death of my father brought me back to New York City for a month of family sadness and mourning, as well as a reimmersion into the hypocrisy and anxiety of the world that I was eager to transcend. Yet there I also met my teacher and went to work with him in the Jersey Pine Barrens, in a Russian Mongolian refugee community. Through him, I met the path of enlightenment. I met a true mentor. I had come home — to myself and my soul — through this great teacher and the jewel tree text he revealed to me.
And it was not just the text and the teachings that affected me so deeply. It was the special context in which Tibetans meditate and use their teachings. I learned to look up with my inner eye, the third eye of imagination, which lies in the middle of our foreheads and opens a channel of vision into a subtle realm of reality. In this inner sky revealed by my third eye, I discovered mystical beings, buddhas, bodhisattvas (persons who strive for enlightenment in order to help others on their quest for their highest development), historical lama mentors, angels, deities mild and fierce, and all the saints and teachers and philosophers from all the world's spiritual traditions. I beheld the shining tree of jewels, decked with living jewel beings.
I recognized the jewel tree as the world tree, Yggdrasil, the great ash tree extending over the entire earth, growing from the well of wisdom, where Odin, the highest god, had to cast one eye as sacrifice in order to receive the eye of wisdom from the goddess of the tree. The jewel tree is the tree of life, the tree of wisdom, and it is also the giant fig tree under which the Buddha attained perfect enlightenment, the bodhi tree. It grows from earth to heaven and is filled with the wish-granting jewels that make up the family of living mentors who have reached immortal life and can share their bliss with you, protect you, bless you, and help you open up your own inner doorway to peace and fulfillment. The jewel tree opens its loving embrace to everyone and promotes happiness — which is our natural state and birthright.
Since that time when I began to enjoy the luminous shelter of the jewel tree of Tibet, I have studied and meditated year after year. I went on to become a monk; I learned more and more advanced teachings, tried to put them into practice, and seemed to succeed with insight after insight. But then I began to realize that last week's insight was superseded by the next one. For a while, all I wanted was to stay in my Buddhist community of seekers of enlightenment, to be embraced as a monk. My inner life was rich, full of insights and delightful visions, with a sense of luck and privilege at having access to such great teachers and teachings and the time to study and try to realize them. Eventually, I realized that there was more I needed to learn from the world, from engagement with others, from developing compassion in my interactions rather than the solitary quest of wisdom. So I resigned as a monk and reentered the university, determined to find a way to continue to study while engaging more actively with others.
As I have grown older and become less sure about everything — and even confused and discouraged when my inherited negative personality traits reemerge in the heat of relationships — I have repeatedly turned back to the beginning of my studies of the jewel tree. I regularly rest under the jewel tree and reflect on the steps it provides us to enlightenment, freedom, and happiness. A golden ladder from earth to heaven, the great jewel tree is an inner space for a retreat, a spiritual vacation, a refreshment and recharging that comes from stepping back from our emotions and habitual perspectives — even for a few moments. You can spend minutes under the jewel tree or you can spend entire days or weeks, depending on the time you can afford to take. Sometimes it helps to meditate with others on the jewel tree, since your thoughts will become amplified and intensified by the resonance of one living mind with another.
Whenever I conduct a retreat, I try to remember that the main person who needs the retreat is myself. The person who most needs to learn what I say, even though I may be saying it, is me. So, therefore, I'm very thankful that you're joining me in your reading of this text and on this quest. I don't pretend to be a great teacher, but I do claim that this, the wish-granting jewel tree of Tibet, is a great teaching.
We love and admire Tibet because Tibet is the guardian, custodian, preserver, developer, and utilizer of these great enlightenment teachings. Originally, all the teachings came from what the Tibetans call the Noble Country, Aryavarta, the country of the noble beings. These beings followed the Buddhist tradition and achieved nobility in the spiritual sense, they were selfless beings — beings who did not live enclosed within their own personal, egocentric perspective but lived within a multiperspectival world. The perspectives of the others were to them as important as, or more important than, the perspective of the self. The noble beings realized the meaning and the reality of selflessness. A noble person is defined by the Buddha not in terms of social class or race or nationality or sex or religion but by whether you perceive things only from your own perspective or whether you perceive them simultaneously from all others' perspectives.
So, what we're going to try to do on this quest together is to go from the beginning of the Tibetan path of enlightenment to its end. And we're going to rehearse various short meditations that will help us get deeper along the path. And we're going to learn about what that path is so that we understand it, so that you can do this retreat yourself again and again, and I can do this retreat myself again and again, each time learning something new. We're aiming to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a greater subtlety of consciousness. You don't want to get all fascinated or obsessed or entranced with one particular thing that you experience as you go along, but keep moving and learning, seeing things freshly again and again.
Even if you are not a Tibetan Buddhist or any kind of Buddhist, I hope you will be able to follow along with this teaching and gain something from it. I follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He's my main teacher, my mentor. I follow his view that, in the world today, we don't want millions and millions and millions of new Buddhists. We're not competing with the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus. We're not competing for market share, for a population explosion. But we are looking to the quality of people's lives, hoping that people will become more enlightened, whatever their religious affiliation or secular humanist beliefs. Conversion is not the goal here. Therefore, in teaching a teaching like this, which we hope the public will use widely, we want to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
However, if we teach a spiritual practice in a completely bland, watered down way, then no one will really have much inspiration to use it. I love the Buddha, and I love the Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddha, and I love the Tibetan versions of it. And I particularly love the version that was perfected by Tsong Khapa, who lived in the fifteenth century. It is the core teaching that the Dalai Lamas have practiced since then, including the current Dalai Lama, the Fourteenth, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso. So, I want to share my love for their vision and wisdom with you through the ancient text that inspires this retreat in book form.
In this book, I will draw from those teachings and focus on the particularly vivid teaching about the wish-fulfilling jewel tree by the Fourth Panchen Lama, called the Guru Puja, or the Devotion to the Mentor. A mentor is not considered merely a teacher but is seen rather as an exemplar of the teaching, a model to follow. So, in each lesson or subject or verse, I will veer away from my own narrow understanding and Tibetan images, and I will encourage you to meditate, whether you are Sufi, Christian, or another kind of Buddhist, and to draw in your own images and ideas to enhance your own understanding. This retreat is divided into six chapters that can serve as retreats in themselves, with different meditations and a regular review of the principles that form the steps on the path to enlightenment. I want you to figure out how to enter a kind of jewel space of awareness, to populate and retreat to that jewel space in your own way. There you will be energized to discover your own feeling of insight into your own soul — and into the soul of the entire universe. The wish-fulfilling jewel tree will restore you to yourself and illuminate your path through life...and illuminate your spirit into the next life.
Copyright © 2005 by Bob Thurman, Inc.
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