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.
7. Lama Zopa Rinpoche Answers Questions

If you have any questions, please ask.

Q. When we do the purifying breath meditation, do we start by exhaling our negativities and so forth in the form of black smoke or by inhaling the qualities of enlightenment in the form of white light?

Rinpoche. I think it’s more comfortable if first you visualize that all your delusions and wrong conceptions leave in the form of smoke or fog as you breathe out. In other words, purifying first seems more comfortable to me. It’s similar to when you want to put delicious food into a pot. If the pot is dirty you’re not going to feel comfortable putting food into it; it’s obviously much better if the pot is clean. So just as you first clean a pot before putting something into it, purify yourself before inhaling the enlightened qualities.

Sometimes when you do breathing meditation you don’t have enough time to visualize because your breaths are too shallow. Therefore it might help you to concentrate if you inhale slowly and build up some air inside and then when you breathe out you can exhale more slowly and get a better visualization. This gives you time to make your concentration stronger and longer lasting.

Q. When I’m meditating on one topic my mind sometimes goes to other Dharma topics. Since they are still Dharma, are they considered to be distractions?

Rinpoche. Actually, when you’re meditating on one topic and then think of others, you have to stop doing that. If, for example, you’re analyzing the nature of the mind and trying to concentrate on that and then think of something else, something that’s not the object of your meditation, that’s definitely a distraction. When you’re concentrating on the nature of the mind and other thoughts arise, you have to stop them.

However, there are certain levels of mind that you reach after realizing emptiness where in meditation you don’t have thoughts that differentiate between subject and object as you do now. That doesn’t mean you’re unconscious; it doesn’t mean that you have no thoughts whatsoever arising in your mind. It’s not like you’re asleep - there are certain stages of meditation in which the thought discriminating between subject and object stops, but in general it depends upon what meditation you practice. Not all meditation techniques are the same; there are different ways of meditating. Basically, all meditation is divided into analytical meditation and singlepointed concentration. In certain practices you use any thought that arises as the actual topic of meditation; whatever picture comes into your mind, instead of becoming a distraction it becomes your object of meditation.

Q. When the mind travels from life to life, what actually goes on and what is left behind? What propensities, such as memories or knowledge and wisdom, go into the next life?

Rinpoche. What actually goes on is the mind carrying the imprints that have been left upon it by actions of the body, speech and mind. Imprints are actions’ latent potential; they’re like seeds planted in the ground. So actions leave imprints on the mind and they are carried from life to life. That’s why we see different children, even those of the same parents, having different levels of intelligence and different interests and abilities and so forth - it’s because they have brought different propensities from previous lives.

For example, when people study Dharma, some find certain topics easier to understand than others. This is because they have studied and understood that topic well in previous lives. For instance, because of the imprints left on his or her mind, a person who has trained in the teachings on ultimate reality in previous lives can find it much easier to understand emptiness in this life than somebody who has not undergone such training. Those imprints come out in experience, like seeds planted in the ground sprout when the conditions are right. Some people might even be able to understand difficult teachings simply by reading them and not need a teacher to explain them; the understanding just comes from their mind.

In Tibet there were many high lamas who were reborn with Dharma knowledge in their mind as a result of their previous training. Even as children, they could read or recite prayers without being taught, explain teachings without studying them and so forth, not having lost their knowledge between death and rebirth.

Such people have more control and less pollution of ignorance in their mind than ordinary people, and since they are born with pre-existing knowledge they don’t have much need of a teacher. Because they don’t have the deep ignorance of ordinary people, they can remember their past life, despite the time interval and passage through their mother’s birth canal, which cause ordinary, ignorant people to forget their previous life all together, let alone what they learnt during it. Also, rather than having the instinctual knowledge that incarnate lamas do, what comes naturally to ordinary people without being taught are anger, pride, jealousy, attachment and other delusions, which can manifest even in infancy.

Q. I thought Buddhism teaches that there’s no permanent self, but from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a permanent self or soul that doesn’t stop at death but continues from life to life.

Rinpoche. It’s true that since the continuity of mind has no beginning the continuity of the self has no beginning. After the death of our previous life, as the continuity of our mind continued into this life, so did the continuity of our self. The self, or I, does not cease at death; as the mind continues, the I continues - into the intermediate state and then into the next life. If the mind were to cease there’d be no way for the self to exist. But the mind never ceases; it always continues.

Q. So doesn’t that mean that the self, or I, is self-existent?

Rinpoche. Oh, I see what you’re asking. You’re thinking that because, when I described the analytical meditation of checking the mind back into the mother’s womb and then back into the previous life, I mentioned the continuity of the self, that it’s permanent and even self-existent, and that that’s contradictory because Dharma texts usually talk about non-self or no self. Well, the first thing to understand is what the words in the books actually mean. You have to go beyond the words and understand the reasons behind those words being used in the way that they are.

So, when you read no self, it can sound as if the self doesn’t exist but that’s not what it means; it does not mean that the self does not exist. If the teachings said that the self did not exist, there’d be no reason to practice Dharma or to meditate because if there were no self there’d be no person; no person experiencing suffering; no person in the bondage of suffering; no person to follow the path; no person to gain liberation, complete freedom from suffering; no person to attain enlightenment.

So if the Dharma were saying that there’s no self, and therefore no person to meditate, what would be the need for meditation? The Dharma would be saying not to practice Dharma, not to meditate. But it’s not like that.

There are many other teachings that talk about no form, no nose, no tongue, no five senses and so forth. However, even though the negative word “no” is used, what it means is that there’s no self-existent I, no self-existent person, no self-existent sense or object. Also, when the Dharma teachings talk about non-self-existence, they are not saying that you don’t exist while in fact you do. It’s not like any of that.

When the Dharma teachings say something does not exist they are referring to something that we think is there but in reality is not; something that we see, or view, to exist but does not exist as we conceive. We view objects of our senses - the things we see, hear and feel - as self-existent but we are not seeing their actual nature, their real nature.

For example, when we’re watching TV, people act in a certain way and we respond emotionally as if those are real situations... as if we believed what we were looking at was true. Or when we’re at the movies and there’s a landslide on screen and we get scared and move in our seats as if trying to dodge it; as if there were actual danger. Actually, there’s no reason to be frightened - it’s just a movie, just a picture on the screen - but something in us believes it’s real so we try to move out of the way. This is an example of the way we view objects of the senses. The sliding mountain, the huge wave coming toward us in the theater isn’t really there... there are no rocks or water on the screen, there’s no danger, but we still react is if there were. What appears to us, what we believe, does not exist at all; what we view as self-existent, independent, is completely opposite to the reality of the nature of the object.

Q. How can the study of astrology help us in our Dharma practice?

Rinpoche. It depends on how you study astrology. If you study in a Dharma way, it becomes Dharma; if you don’t, it doesn’t. If your study helps you subdue or control your delusions rather than strengthen them, it becomes Dharma. So that depends mainly on your motivation; it’s your motivation that determines whether your actions become beneficial or not. In other words, it depends on your mind.

Q. What causes bodhicitta to arise?

Rinpoche. Drink as much coffee as possible... I’m joking! One of the most important things you need to have in order to develop bodhicitta is renunciation based on an understanding of the nature of samsara and its shortcomings - impermanence, death and the three levels of suffering, which I was talking about before. If you understand how your own samsara is in the nature of suffering and have renunciation of that, then because of your deep understanding of the evolution of your own samsara, you can easily understand other sentient beings’ suffering; how others are trapped in samsara and suffering.

For example, if you’ve had a really bad toothache, when you see somebody else with a toothache, based on a recognition of your own suffering, you know how the other person feels, how unbearable that pain is; you can feel it. In the same way, when you understand the shortcomings of your own samsara you can easily understand the suffering of others. Then that, coupled with an understanding of how other sentient beings have been extremely kind in the past, present and future, how precious they are, like the parents who took care of us - gave us our body, food, clothing, education, everything - gives rise to great love and compassion, the wish to help them to be happy and free of suffering. And on that basis, bodhicitta arises. So just like a fruit tree grows in dependence upon water and earth, bodhicitta grows by depending on love and compassion, which themselves depend upon an understanding of impermanence, death, the shortcomings of samsara, the sufferings others are experiencing in samsara and their great kindness.

Q. Are statues and ritual necessary to practice Dharma, and if not, why have them?

Rinpoche. Just because some atoms are collected together into a particular shape or somebody is doing a certain chant doesn’t make that object or ritual Dharma. Something additional is required. Likewise with certain actions - actions themselves aren’t Dharma; the performance of an action is not enough to make it Dharma. Like the example of astrology above, it mainly depends upon the person’s mind, upon the motivation with which the action is done.

If the mind of the person meditating, performing a ritual or making offerings is Dharma, one with the Dharma, the action becomes Dharma; it depends upon the person’s motivation, the mind that produces the action.

Another way of saying this, of making it clear, is to say that if an action is done with a mind that renounces the three poisonous delusions - ignorance, attachment and hatred - if an action is done with the mind that opposes the delusions, that action becomes Dharma; it’s a pure action. Such actions don’t have to look religious either. Sweeping the floor, cooking food, doing business or working in a hospital - in fact any kind of action - can become Dharma. Even telling lies or other actions that appear negative can in fact be positive, Dharma actions. As long as such actions are done with the wisdom understanding karma and the knowledge that they will definitely benefit others, bring good results to oneself and others, done with a mind that is one with the Dharma, renouncing attachment to the pleasures of just this life, renouncing the mind that has no concern for the benefit of future lives and is totally focused on just this one, then such actions are Dharma. Even though they look like worldly, everyday actions - like, partying, drinking, watching movies - or even negative - like telling lies and so forth - if they are done with the wisdom that truly knows they are of benefit to oneself and others, the mind renouncing attachment, then they definitely become Dharma, pure and free of danger.

Now, if you want to know if the specific statues that have been arranged here on the altar are necessary for the practice of Dharma, you’ll have to ask whoever put them here what his or her motivation was!

Q. If I have, for example, intestinal worms, is it better for me not to kill them and die myself or to take medicine and kill them?

Rinpoche. If the worms aren’t that dangerous to your health, it’s better to give them as little harm as possible but it really depends on the individual. If they are a threat to your life and you have a very strong mind, great compassion for those sentient beings, wanting them to be free from suffering as quickly as possible, and no self-cherishing thought, thinking, “My happiness is more important then theirs,” and it’s more beneficial that you continue to live, then perhaps it’s better that you take the medicine. However, it’s very hard for your mind to be really pure in this way.

Q. Can you please say more about wisdom and motivation?

Rinpoche. Wisdom is the mind that understands the importance of motivation in determining whether an action is positive or negative and knows the results of positive and negative actions; the mind that can clearly tell the difference between negative motivation, the cause of suffering, and positive motivation, the cause of happiness.

There are many hindrances to the attainment of enlightenment but there are two basic things we have to do: purify obscurations and accumulate merit. So by completely purifying all delusions and their imprints and completing the accumulation of all merit, we can attain enlightenment. Without accomplishing both these tasks there’s no way to become enlightened because there are still hindrances, or blocks. So all the various practices we do - saying prayers, reciting mantras, listening to Dharma teachings, making offerings, practicing charity, adhering to moral discipline and so forth - are included in these two activities of purification and accumulation of merit.

So even though you have the understanding wisdom that sees that a certain action, or karma, will bring benefit, a good result, happiness, and help one receive realizations and enlightenment, that is not enough. These methods, or forms of Dharma practice, that purify obscurations and accumulate merit have to be done until you attain enlightenment. When you’re enlightened, you don’t need to meditate any more; your work has finished. You don’t have to meditate to purify, create merit and gain realizations any longer; that work has finished.

However, the practice of purification and creation of merit has to be continued until it’s finished, all the way up to enlightenment. Until then we have to continuously do prostrations, offer mandalas - where with certain prayers we offer the entire universe, all objects of the senses, including those that cause ignorance, attachment and anger to arise within us, thereby renouncing these delusions - and so forth. So there are various kinds of method that we need to practice in order to attain enlightenment.

Q. What is the quickest single way of collecting merit and cleansing negativities?

Rinpoche. Cleansing negativities? Taking a shower could be good... I’m joking! However, to purify in a short time the billions and billions of negative karmas collected over many previous lifetimes and to quickly accumulate extensive merit, the best, the essential method is to meditate on, or train the mind in, bodhicitta. If your concern is to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, that depends upon how quickly you purify negativities and how extensively you accumulate merit, and the best way of accomplishing both these aims is the practice of bodhicitta. Then any action you do, no matter how small, like offering just one stick of incense or one flower, if it’s done with bodhicitta, the sincere thought wanting to attain enlightenment for the sole purpose of releasing other sentient beings from suffering and leading them to enlightenment, creates merit as infinite as space itself. In the short time it takes to perform such small actions with bodhicitta, you purify incredible amounts of negative karma and accumulate merit as infinite as space. Such are the benefits of the pure thought of bodhicitta.

Q. Is dedicating our enlightenment to the benefit of all beings the best meditation we can do?

Rinpoche. Of course, that is a very good thing to do. Even though you’re not enlightened now, dedicating your future enlightenment to other sentient beings is very beneficial. There are many meditations like this, where we dedicate the realizations, happiness and pleasure that we have at the moment and our future realizations, happiness and pleasure to others, without miserliness, without attachment. Such meditations are extremely helpful in loosening attachment and such dedication is a practice of charity - as many sentient beings to whom we dedicate, that much charity we make.

Charity is not simply giving material things to others. There are different kinds of charity. Mainly it’s mental, an action of the mind, the mind that dedicates to others. It doesn’t imply sharing physical objects with all other sentient beings - we can make charity of even one cup of tea or one piece of candy to all sentient beings. This is the power of bodhicitta. If you dedicate one small cup of tea to all sentient beings and as you drink it think that all their sufferings and delusions are completely purified and they receive all realizations up to enlightenment, it is especially powerful and you gain much merit in this way.