Shunyata has many names
From 1979: Even your enemy who tries to kill you is your best friend. by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:
Lama Yeshe’s third teaching on Maitreya’s text Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes (Tib. U ta nam che) began in the big tent. There was still no electricity in there, so people took notes by kerosene lamps. Jan Willis was present, as was Margaret Castles, an Australian who then moved down to Tushita-Delhi.
“Every night when Lama taught U ta nam che he had a different aspect,” Margaret recalled. “Some nights he was incredibly attractive and other nights he was very sick, puffy and uncomfortable. Some nights he was just blissful. At the beginning of the teaching we always said a Maitreya prayer and then chanted the mantra of the wisdom gone beyond—Ta ya taa gaté gaté para gaté parasamgaté bodhi soha—to a particularly slow and beautiful tune that gave us goosebumps. I loved Lama’s language. ‘Overestimated phenomena’ was his term for the apprehended objects of deluded materialistic views. A more common translation is ‘imaginary’ or ‘imputed’ phenomena. Emptiness was ‘total truth phenomena.’ His teachings were so experiential and his pronunciation difficult, but he made his language reach right across to us all, connecting our own range of languages.”
Jimi Neal was Lama’s assistant this year. “It was great. There were no Tibetan scholars around so I got to go up to his room every day. We went through each stanza and wrote them out in English. But it wasn’t easy. Lama would often scold me, saying, ‘We already did that verse!’”
The focus this time was on chapter three. As before, Lama followed the text closely, translating many individual Tibetan terms. The text begins with a summary outlining the three categories of things: “overestimated phenomena,” “causational phenomena,” and “total truth phenomena.”
From Lama Yeshe’s teachings on chapter three of U ta nam che, December 1979–January 1980:
These three are the root of the subject. All existence—whether samsara or nirvana—is contained in these three categories. In Buddhism every existence has its own unique significant characteristic. Maybe you people think that Buddhism is not concerned with external existence, but only with the mind. That is not true. Shunyata has many names, you know. Each different name gives a different comprehension of what shunyata is. Each term means essentially the same thing, but each one gives a different feeling. This term, total truth phenomenon, brings a certain kind of blessing, as it is saying that shunyata is the only truth and that overestimated phenomena and causational phenomena are false. They are all false appearance, producing delusion. They are like the banana tree, in that they do not have any solid essence. All the Prajnaparamita commentaries and texts explain reality in this way. And this is why Shantideva—you remember Shantideva, who wrote A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life?—wrote that every single tiny word of the Buddha’s teachings were for the purpose of helping sentient beings to gain direct wisdom of shunyata. Every single teaching. Also, in Chandrakirti’s Madhyamaka text, he states that when the Buddha taught relative truth, this was his method to lead sentient beings to absolute wisdom.
The teaching was complex and filled with many new terms. It was a classic philosophical teaching illustrated by Lama’s many insights into the Western mind, together with his indomitable humor. There were frequent outbreaks of laughter. The students needed the jokes as it was a demanding teaching.
Thubten Chodron arrived from Italy and helped Jimi and Sylvia Wetzel with the translation. “We spent a lot of time going through the work with Lama,” recalled Chodron. “There were constant interruptions. People were always coming in to ask Lama this or that. I watched as he mirrored their personalities every time, showing them themselves. The new students always fell for his jokes and humor. They were utterly charmed and warmed by him, but the older students often didn’t laugh as hard. They had learned there was a deeper level beneath Lama’s jokes they needed to pay attention to.”
Ken Liberman, an academic, just loved the U ta nam che teachings. “My field of expertise is European epistemology, upon which existentialism as an ethical system is based. It looks at how reality is projected by our own concepts. Lama Yeshe’s teachings on the Chittamatrin Maitreya text U ta nam che was brilliant stuff. I was stunned by how similar it was to my own work. I told Lama and he asked me to teach him Western philosophy. So for six weeks I went up to his room every day after his nap with Edmund Husserl’s Introduction to Pure Phenomenology tucked under my arm. I’d raise a topic from Husserl and he’d get out a text and we’d discuss both interpretations. I read the whole book to Lama, who happily collected terminology to use in his teachings. Afterward I decided to learn the Tibetan language because they have been at the game hundreds of years longer than Westerners and obviously have more to say.”