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Buddhist scholar shares insights on path to enlightenment

Joshua W.C. Cutler talks at Linderman Tuesday.

The ancient text the Dalai Lama will draw on during his historic week of teachings at Lehigh University in July 2008 makes Buddhist teachings easy to comprehend and put into practice, scholar and translator Joshua W.C. Cutler told a packed house at Linderman Library Tuesday.

“People have been asking me, (when His Holiness comes to teach at Lehigh in 2008) ‘Will it be too advanced for me?’ And the answer is no,” Cutler said. “It is a great opportunity to understand what Buddhism is all about from the beginning right to the end. It is a very rare opportunity.”

As Editor-in-Chief of the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, Cutler spent 12 years overseeing a team of a dozen scholars in editing and translating The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, the early 15th-century work by Tsong-kha-pa. Along with his wife, Diana, Cutler serves as co-director of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC) in Washington, N.J.

The Cutlers were instrumental in arranging the upcoming visit by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

In his talk, “Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: An Overview of The Great Treatise,” Cutler called the 813-page sacred text one of the most important of the Buddhist teachings.

“Buddhism is a living tradition where the experience of the founders’ enlightenment is handed down both orally and in written form from teacher to disciple,” he said.

But how have these teachings been kept alive for such a long period of time, 2,550 years after the founder of Buddhism passed away?

“The short answer is that unusually talented people come along periodically, and Tsong-kha-pa was one such person,” Cutler said.

The circular path to enlightenment

Tsong-kha-pa wrote The Great Treatise to combine the three types of persons (people of small capacity, medium capacity, and great capacity) with the three principles of the path of enlightenment (the determination to be free, the spirit of enlightenment, and the correct view of reality).

“For persons of small capacity, Buddha taught the discipline of not harming others; through practicing nonharm, they could attain a good rebirth in the next lifetime,” Cutler said. “For persons of medium capacity, he taught the discipline of even-mindedness—a kind of sensitive and balanced state of mind that is free of hostility and attachment. And for persons of great capacity, he taught the discipline of altruism—through this, to obtain the goal of complete enlightenment, becoming Buddhas.”

Eventually, Cutler said, you can reach a point where while practicing the lower levels, you are eager to practice the higher levels and while practicing the higher levels, you are eager to practice the lower levels. “So there is a circle,” he said.

While he was editing the text of The Great Treatise, Cutler said, he became immersed in it.

“I thought about it and breathed the text the whole time for 12 years, and I have to say that it is captivating in its presentation” he said. “You feel like you are in the presence of a very unusual human being of incisive and vast intelligence who has a deep concern for others’ welfare.”

This concern for others’ welfare—an altruistic attitude based on love and compassion for all beings called “the spirit of enlightenment”—is a central part of becoming an enlightened Buddha, Cutler said.

“The person of great capacity who develops this attitude is dedicated to freeing all beings from their suffering and thinks only of others,” he said.

In order to free others from suffering, Cutler pointed out that you must be sensitive to your own suffering.

“Otherwise, it would be like a doctor who had never been sick trying to help others and cure themselves—the empathy just wouldn’t be there, and empathy is what love and compassion are based upon,” he said.

The final of the three principles—the correct view of reality—is explained by nearly one third of The Great Treatise.

“It is basically Buddhist philosophy,” Cutler explained. “It is what a person of great capacity practices in order to get free of ignorance. In our ignorance, we see ourselves as well as everyone around us as having an independent existence, and this misconception forms the basis of our negative emotions and cognitive states, such as hatred and thinking we are right. If we were instead to look carefully, we would see that we and everything else is dependent on something else for existence.”

A great flexibility of mind

Overall, Cutler pointed out that the Buddhist tradition in Tibet—a rigorous intellectual training—is not too far off from our own educational system in that it teaches people how to think, not what to think.

“It develops a great flexibility of mind so you can analyze most anything and look at all different sides of an issue,” he said. “That is what is most captivating about His Holiness the Dalai Lama—his ability to take an issue and look at it from so many different perspectives. He is a good example of someone who benefited from this type of training.”

Although it served to whet the appetites of many, Cutler’s overview of The Great Treatise only scratched the surface of what the Dalai Lama will teach when he comes to Lehigh in July. During His Holiness’s five-and-a-half days of teaching from July 10-15, 2008, the Lehigh community will get the rare opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama’s instructions for the stages of spiritual evolution presented in The Great Treatise, a milestone in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

There will be a session each morning and a session each afternoon except for Sunday, July 13, when the Dalai Lama will give a public talk that afternoon at Stabler on “Generating a Good Heart.”

Cutler’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism started in the late 1960s when he was at Harvard University, where he studied with Dr. M. Nagatomi and then-graduate student Dr. Robert Thurman, now of Columbia University.

Two weeks after graduating in 1970 with a B.A. in English, he moved to New Jersey to live at TBLC and study with its founder, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. After the founder's death in 1983, Cutler has continued to study, teach, and translate Tibetan Buddhist scriptures with the many Tibetan monk-scholars and American Buddhist scholars who have resided at TBLC over the years.

--Elizabeth Shimer Bowers

Photo by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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