Freedom Through Understanding

By Lama Thubten Yeshe, By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
UK September 1975 (Archive #169)

In Lama Yeshe’s and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s first trip to Europe in 1975 they offered a seminar based on their Kopan meditation courses. Preceded by Lama Yeshe’s lecture on meditation, these teachings encompass the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.

These historic teachings are also available on DVD. Watch video excerpts in Chapter Three and Chapter Five, or go to our YouTube channel. Several chapters of this book are also now available as a multimedia series.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Royal Holloway College, England, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.
2. An Introduction to the Path to Enlightenment (Lama Zopa Rinpoche)

Weekend Seminar
Royal Holloway College, Surrey
19–21 September 1975

Because of my broken English you might find it difficult to understand what I’m saying, but it’s important to try to focus not on the language itself but on the meaning of my words; and, if possible, to feel it.

All human beings and even the tiniest of creatures desire happiness and freedom from suffering. But our biggest problem is that although we desire happiness, we don’t know what actually causes it; although we don’t want suffering, we don’t know what causes that either. That’s our biggest problem.

Most living beings, no matter how much they wish for happiness, spend most of their time destroying the cause of happiness; and no matter how much they do not want suffering, they constantly rush to create its cause. All this comes about because sentient beings lack method and wisdom.

Earth’s original human inhabitants did not have minds as negative and cruel as those of today. As a result, the actions of their speech and body were not as violent and harmful as those of the people we see around us now, and life was much more peaceful then. But gradually, as their delusions of anger, attachment, pride and jealousy arose more frequently and strongly, their minds became increasingly cruel, negative and harmful, and the actions of their speech and body became more violent and destructive. And no matter how much we have progressed in external development since those times, life has simply become busier and more dangerous; no matter how many material things, such as nuclear weapons have been developed, instead of bringing true peace, all they have brought is more danger.

However, we can’t blame external things for all these problems; the actual cause is the internal factor - the unhealthy, dissatisfied mind, attachment, hatred and so forth. Even though people have undertaken external development with the expectation that it will bring happiness, that’s a wrong conception. Happiness does not arise principally from external things but from the internal factor, the mind.

For example, people who have all the material things they need and desire - gourmet food, beautiful clothing, a luxurious apartment and so forth - are not necessarily happy. They get unhappy and depressed because they feel dissatisfied and don’t know why; and since they also don’t understand the meaning of human life, some of them think there’s nothing left to enjoy, get completely despondent and kill themselves.

All such problems come from the mind, the internal factor, attachment. Instead of bringing satisfaction and happiness, all these desirable external things bring only more dissatisfaction.

Similarly, with respect to the suffering that arises from problems caused by other people - enemies, family members, countrymen - even if we were to kill all the other human beings on earth, even all other living beings, and remain here alone, still we would not experience happiness or peace. Stopping suffering and receiving happiness does not depend on making all other humans, all other living beings on earth, non-existent. Since doing so would not bring peace or happiness to the mind it shows that this is not the right method, not the way to receive happiness. By being alone with no other people, friends or other living beings around, we would feel lonely and very unhappy. Those problems also arise from within, from the internal factor, attachment.

Even when we get the material objects or close friends we desire, after a while we get bored and lose interest. That also comes from the internal factor, the dissatisfied mind, attachment.

Our physical body dying, becoming non-existent, does not mean that our suffering is over; the mind does not stop when the body does. Even though our body no longer exists, our mind is still in suffering - as long as our mind is under the control of the delusions of ignorance, attachment and anger, it is not free from suffering. The delusions themselves are the worst suffering, the root of every problem people and animals experience; The delusions are like the root of a tree - if there were no root there’d be no branches, leaves or fruit, which produce more seeds. So if there were no root of the delusions - ignorance, attachment and hatred - there wouldn’t be any of the problems that we and other living beings experience, such as sickness, old age, death and so forth.

Body and mind are completely different
The first thing we need to understand is that the causes of our present life’s mind and our present life’s body are different. Our present life’s mind came from its own cause, continued from its own cause, our previous life’s mind. And our present life’s body came from the union of our parents’ sperm and egg - our mind did not come from these atoms, these physical things. Also, our mind did not come from our parents’ mind.

If the principal cause of our present life’s mind were our parents’ sperm and egg, then all the problems and sufferings we experience in our life would have been caused by our parents and they would be their root cause. In that way our parents would become our enemy - if they had not given birth to us we would not have had to experience this suffering.

But it is not like this. Our parents are never the source of our problems. No matter what problems we experience - ugly body, deformity, handicap, whatever - it is not our parents’ fault; it’s our own fault. There’s nothing to blame our parents for.

Also, the mind and the body are two completely different things: the mind is a formless phenomenon; the body has form. The body is composed of atoms; the mind is not. Their natures are completely different.

Just as space, whose nature is empty, does not become the nature of earth, form, the nature of earth, form, cannot become the nature of space, emptiness. In that way, the physical body never causes the mind, never becomes mind. The nature of the mind is clarity and it has the ability to see, or perceive, objects.

In addition, as soon as they’ve been born, baby humans and animals know how to drink milk without having to be taught by their parents; they automatically know how to suckle. And even little puppies know how to engage in sexual intercourse without needing to be shown. All this is because of habits created in previous lives. Because of habitual actions in previous lives, the newborn do such actions spontaneously without being taught.

Also, some children, without being trained or taught, are naturally very compassionate and don’t want to harm other people or insects. Even if they see insects fighting or people in trouble, they have a strong, intuitive wish to help relieve that problem; they have intuitive compassion. But other children are automatically very impatient and cruel; whenever they see insects crawling around they immediately want to kill them. They have a very cruel personality.

Why do these children have different personalities? Why are they born with them? It’s because in their previous lives, one child’s mind was trained in patience and compassion while the other used to be very impatient, angry and cruel, giving much harm to others. So when they were born in this life, those personality traits, compassionate or cruel, carried over.

Another way of saying this is that children born with different personalities or different types of body are experiencing the result of previous lives’ actions. So whatever qualities the child is born with - good personality, instinctive knowledge, great intelligence, perfect, beautiful body and senses - they are the result of actions created in previous lives with a virtuous, positive mind. And a child born with a cruel or harmful personality and physical handicaps is experiencing the results of actions done in previous lives with a cruel, negative mind, such as ignorance, attachment and hatred.

Furthermore, even in the West in modern times, many children can remember previous lives. Similarly, in the East, there are many people who also remember previous lives: where they lived, how they lived, their families and other people and places. Likewise, many meditators, as their mind develops through meditation practice and they reach a certain level of realization, can remember past lives and see future ones: where they will be born, in which country, in which family. And, according to their level of realization, they can make preparations before they die and choose where they want to be born and into which family.

In our case, just because we don’t remember our past lives and our minds are incapable of seeing our future ones doesn’t mean that our past and future lives don’t exist. Arguments such as “I don’t remember” or “I don’t see the future” do not disprove past and future lives’ existence. If such reasoning were sufficient we could assert “I was never in my mother’s womb” because we don’t remember it - the experiences we had, how we lived, how we entered it, how our mind was conceived there. If we search our mind with respect to these points it’s completely dark; there’s no clarity.

So forget about remembering previous lives or seeing future ones, we don’t even remember how we came out of our mother’s womb, what happened when we were a small baby, how our mother took care of us. We don’t even recall any of that, so there’s no way we can say we were never in our mother’s womb just because we don’t remember. That’s no proof.

If the reasoning “I don’t know” were valid then we’d have to say we don’t exist. Why? Because we don’t know what we are. If we check, “Who am I? What am I?” we can’t see anything. But just because we don’t see who or what we are doesn’t prove that we don’t exist. “I don’t know what I am so I don’t exist” is a silly reason and cannot prove that we don’t exist.

And besides there being people who remember their own previous lives and see their future ones, there are also people who can see other people’s past and future lives, even in the West.

Thus the mind does not cease when the body ceases; the mind continues. Our present mind’s life continued from our previous life’s mind; that previous life’s mind continued from its previous life’s mind; that came from its previous life; that again came from its previous life and in this way the continuity of mind has no beginning. Similarly, the continuity of mind has no end.

So even though this present life’s physical body disappears, the mind still continues. And as long as the mind is under the control of the delusions - ignorance, attachment and hatred - it is not free from suffering; the mind is in suffering. As long as our mind is not free from suffering, no matter how many different bodies we take, we always encounter problems. Whether we take an animal body or a human one, no matter what kind of rebirth we take, as long as our mind is not free from suffering we can never experience true peace or real happiness.

Why is our present body not free from suffering? It’s because our mind is not free from suffering. So just like this, as long as our mind is not free of the delusions, no matter what kind of body we take, whatever rebirth, it is always in suffering, always involved in various problems. Since this is the actual evolution of suffering, nothing external, even thousands of atomic bombs, can stop it because nothing external can destroy the delusions, the root of all suffering.

Putting an end to suffering
What can really cease, completely destroy, the root of suffering, the delusions? That’s the practice of Dharma. So that’s the purpose of religion, why it exists. Why do we need to follow religion, practice meditation or Dharma, whatever we choose to call it? The actual reason is that there’s nothing other than Dharma, or meditation, practice that can destroy the root of suffering, the delusions.

However, the meditation we practice should serve to destroy our delusions, our unsubdued mind. If it does not, it’s the wrong meditation; it’s useless. In the same way, the purpose of following religion is to completely destroy the root of suffering, the delusions; the unhealthy, unsubdued mind. If the path or religion we’re following does not do that, does not serve to decrease our delusions, then the path we’re following is imperfect; there’s something wrong with it. What we’re practicing is wrong.

The purpose of practicing Dharma is also to destroy these delusions. However, practicing Dharma does not mean just doing ritual things; practicing Dharma does not mean just reciting mantras; practicing Dharma does not mean just worshipping, making offerings and so forth. Just doing these things does not mean we’re practicing Dharma. Simply wearing robes is not practicing Dharma; nor does reading texts of Lord Buddha’s teachings, the Buddhadharma, mean we’re practicing Dharma.

There’s a story about the great Tibetan yogi Dromtönpa meeting an old man who was trying to practice Dharma. The old man was circumambulating a temple thinking he was practicing Dharma but the great yogi Dromtönpa said to him, “Your going around the temple is good but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?”

The old man thought by practicing Dharma the yogi must mean reading Dharma texts, so he stopped going around the temple and instead started reading texts. When Dromtönpa saw him next he said, “Reading texts is good but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?”

So the old man thought if circumambulating and reading texts aren’t practicing Dharma, the yogi must mean he should meditate and started doing that. When, after some time, Dromtönpa saw him sitting cross-legged he said, “Meditation is very good but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?”

At this point the old man was somewhat confused and irritated and exclaimed to Dromtönpa, “Practice Dharma! Practice Dharma! What do you mean, ‘practice Dharma’?”

“Renounce this life,” the yogi replied.

What did the great yogi Dromtönpa mean by “renounce this life”? He meant we should renounce suffering, which means renouncing the worst of all sufferings, the delusions - ignorance, attachment, anger, pride, jealousy and so forth - all the negative minds that are the root of all suffering. This is what practicing Dharma really means: facing the root of suffering, the delusions.

So no matter what religion people follow - Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism or any other - as long as their practice diminishes and destroys the root of suffering, that is the real Dharma, that is the actual path, the real path that brings true happiness, everlasting happiness. So it’s extremely important that whatever we do, whatever meditation we practice, whatever religious actions we engage in, we use it to destroy the root of unhappiness, suffering. That’s the most important thing to concentrate on.

But releasing only oneself from suffering by practicing Dharma is insufficient. Seeking release from suffering and everlasting happiness for oneself alone is selfish because all the happiness and perfections of our past, present and future lives have been received dependent upon the kindness of other sentient beings. Also, even if we have freed ourself alone from all delusions we still haven’t received all the realizations and complete knowledge of a buddha; we still have the subtle obscurations of the dualistic mind to purify.

For example, say there’s a family where the parents are starving and their son has found some food and his stomach is full for today but there’s no food for tomorrow. So, just being fed today with nothing for tomorrow doesn’t mean he’s self-sufficient and should not make arrangements not to starve in future. Also, he should help others avoid similar problems too. Similarly, since all our happiness and resources have been received through the kindness of all sentient beings and we still have not received all realizations and have subtle obscurations to purify, we must attain enlightenment for the sake of other sentient beings.

If we attain enlightenment, the highest goal, the most sublime happiness, even each ray of light that emanates from our holy body has the power to release other sentient beings and lead them on the path to enlightenment. As a buddha, we can manifest billions of bodies and show different methods according to sentient beings’ level of mind to release them from suffering and lead them to enlightenment.

Also, with his holy speech a buddha can explain the Dharma in different languages according to each sentient being’s need and therefore enlighten numberless sentient beings. And with his holy omniscient mind a buddha can see all the numberless sentient beings’ different thoughts, different levels of mind, different personalities, different desires; the omniscient mind sees every single thing that exists, all past, present and future, and in this way can enlighten numberless sentient beings by showing different methods.

An enlightened being has that much power and knowledge - all knowledge, complete; there’s nothing missing - and no ignorance whatsoever - not a single self-cherishing thought, not a single dualistic mind, not one single defect. The enlightened mind is completely pure.

By attaining enlightenment we can release other sentient beings from suffering and enlighten them very quickly, and this is the highest goal of practicing Dharma, especially the Mahayana: to attain enlightenment for the sake of other sentient beings. The way we attain enlightenment is by following the graduated path, which includes all the teachings of the Buddhadharma.

How can we attain enlightenment through the graduated path? That is because the nature of our mind is not one with the delusions or the dualistic mind, which are the main hindrances to enlightenment, or buddhahood, which has all knowledge and complete purity. The nature of our mind is only temporarily obscured by these hindrances, so when we follow the graduated path the temporal obscurations - the delusions and the dualistic mind - gradually diminish. When they have been finally removed, our mind becomes completely pure. When the mind becomes completely pure, it becomes omniscient.

Why is our present mind not an omniscient, fully knowing mind? That is because of the hindrances, the obscurations, the dualistic mind. When they have been completely purified, our present mind becomes omniscient. When our mind becomes omniscient, we become a buddha, an enlightened being.

Another reason is that the graduated path explains absolute nature, the right view of the nature of the mind, the nature of the self, the nature of all existence. Ignorance, the main obscuration, is ignorant of the right view, the absolute nature; ignorance does not understand absolute nature. That is the worst obscuration, the biggest delusion - ignorance, not knowing the absolute nature of the self or any other existence.

So by following the graduated path we receive the wisdom realizing absolute nature, or shunyata. When we realize the wisdom of shunyata, ignorance, the false mind that does not see the absolute nature, dissolves, finishes. That’s one basic reason why the graduated path diminishes, or purifies, the obscurations and the dualistic mind.

The path to enlightenment
This graduated path to enlightenment is not something that nobody has experienced, traversed. It’s the path that all the past, present and future buddhas have traveled on their way to completing all the realizations of the path to enlightenment. Guru Shakyamuni Buddha himself experienced it and on that basis showed it to his followers, handing the teachings down to Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, and Maitreya, the next buddha to come. And then these buddhas handed it down to their own followers, such as the great philosopher and pundit Nagarjuna, who received enlightenment, Asanga and many other eminent pundits. They attained all the realizations of the graduated path and in turn handed the teachings down to their own followers. In this way the teachings passed down to other fully realized pundits such as Shantideva, Atisha and others who had complete control over their mind, eventually reaching great Tibetan pundits and yogis such as Lama Tsongkhapa and many other followers of the great Atisha. From them, the teachings of the graduated path to enlightenment have been handed down to the high lamas of the present, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his tutors (Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang) and many other high lamas, and we have received the lineage of these teachings from them.

So the subject matter - the meditation, or the teaching - of this seminar is the graduated path to enlightenment, the lineage of which we have received from the abovementioned present-day great lamas, who themselves received it from the previous Tibetan and Indian pundits, and which originally came from Guru Shakyamuni Buddha.

If you follow and practice this path, it definitely works. Gradually, your mind becomes more and more free of delusions. As your delusions diminish you get closer to enlightenment. When you reach the end of the path you become a buddha.

If you have any questions or doubts, if anything is unclear, you don’t have to feel depressed. It’s good to have questions and doubts. They help you to develop your knowledge. You should think about them, discuss them with older students or ask your teacher.

Meditation on the continuity of mind
In the next session, meditate on mental continuity. The way to do this is to first cultivate a pure motivation for doing the meditation. The mind that starts the meditation should be as pure as possible and totally uninvolved in ignorance, attachment or anger. So start by generating bodhicitta by thinking, “I am going to do this meditation in order to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.”

Next meditate on your breath for a few minutes and then move into an analytical meditation on the continuity of life.

Check your mind, starting with your present mind, thinking that this year’s mind came from last year’s mind, last year’s mind came from the previous year’s mind and so on, going further and further back until the time you were a baby. From there go back to the time you were in your mother’s womb. Then go back from that to the time of your conception and when you reach that point, try to go even further back to see where your mind came from, what kind of previous life. Then think that that previous life’s mind came from its own previous life, and that from another and so on, back and back.

This is an analytical meditation that helps you realize reincarnation. Also, it gradually helps you realize the absolute nature of your mind.