Ego, Attachment and Liberation

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Melbourne, Australia 1975 (Archive #329)

In 1975, Lama Yeshe undertook his most extensive international teaching tour, being on the road for nearly nine months. This book contains the teachings and meditations Lama gave at a five-day retreat he led near Melbourne, Australia, in March 1975. In line with Lama’s intentions, this book is dedicated to the awakening of inner freedom within the minds of its readers and all other sentient beings.

See the Related Links for each chapter to access the audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts.

Chapter Four: Your Mental Bureaucracy

In a way, you people are intellectually very strong. That’s good, because Buddhism is also very strong. It’s like a knife in your ego— when you meditate, your ego comes out. Therefore, many people feel that Lama’s approach to the mind is not a simple thing. I agree; it can be quite difficult. I make you work hard, don’t I? But when you work, when you deal with your own problems and recognize the way your ego reacts, it’s really most worthwhile.

I don’t have to do it this way. I could easily present Buddhism to you very diplomatically; I could explain it with very sweet words. We could run this five-day course like a nightclub with a lot of nice words, dancing and fun. That’s possible, but it’s not the point. You’ve come here for the meditation, not the floor show. In fact, you’ve come here precisely because you already know all there is to know about the kind of fun you find in nightclubs.

Also, I don’t want to joke around with you. We’re all sick of the joking trip. For countless lives and from the time you were born until now all you’ve done is play games and joke around. What, then, is the point of coming to a retreat to joke around again, this time with a lama? It’s a waste of your time and mine. Therefore, it’s most worthwhile that you work. This is your course, not mine. If you feel, “This is my meditation course; I’m working; I’m alert, not sleeping,” that’s really worthwhile.

What makes your being here highly meaningful is if, through knowing the nature of the external nightclub—which only exhausts, conflicts and agitates you—you’re here seeking the inner nightclub of everlasting joy. That’s the perfect motivation for coming to this course—you’re here trying to familiarize yourself with your mental attitude, with what’s going on in your internal world, instead of ignoring what your ego is up to; you’re trying to learn how to examine your own mind. In other words, you’re studying to become your own psychologist, your own lama.

Not only are you people intellectually strong, you’re also skeptical. That’s good; Lord Buddha’s teaching is skeptical too. This meeting of skeptics is excellent. Do you understand what I mean by skeptical? I mean you don’t easily believe or accept anything; you check and experiment to see if something works or not. If it doesn’t, you keep checking, checking, checking, using your brain, your wisdom. In that way, you grow. This is all part of the path of inner freedom, liberation and enlightenment. Believing emotionally, without understanding, what some-body teaches you has nothing to do with any religion, even though you might pretend, “I’m a such and such.” It’s just a label and still an ego trip.

Ego, attachment and impermanence

The two departments of ego and attachment work together in your mind, and as long as they do, whatever sense pleasure you enjoy, wherever you go, whatever friends you have, nothing lasts. Your ego makes a wrong projection on an object and your attachment follows without hesitation and gets completely stuck on, or tied to, that object. This splits and severely agitates your mind.

I’m sure you can philosophize intellectually that things are impermanent but if you check more deeply into how your ego interprets objects, what it projects onto them, you will find that it’s expecting them to last, perceiving them as permanent.

When two people get married, their egos’ interpretation is that they should be together forever, in life and even after death. It’s so exaggerated. There’s no way people can make that kind of decision. It’s not up to them; it’s up to karma. Uncontrollably, karmic energy decides which partner lives and which dies. And when one finally does, the other misses him or her badly and experiences tremendous suffering.

All that worry and weeping, missing and memory, comes from the two mental departments of ego and attachment. Not understanding the impermanent nature of phenomena and expecting to live happily ever after, as ego and attachment wish, brings the reaction of misery. That is a karmic result, or effect. If you understand impermanence there’s no upset, no misery; you accept death as a natural thing. In fact, you expect it to happen. With understanding, there’s no worry. You know separation is natural.

Therefore, instead of blindly following the grasping and attachment that result from the way your ego interprets things, it’s better to renounce. Perhaps you think that when I say renounce I mean that you should get rid of all your possessions, but true renunciation isn’t physical, it’s mental. It doesn’t refer to what things are worth monetarily but to how your mind values them. Your mind makes things seem very important because it does not see their reality and grossly overestimates their nature.

When you know that phenomena are changeable, transitory and impermanent by nature you expect things to disappear. Of course, as I just said, everybody knows this intellectually, but when you meditate on the sensations of your body and mind you experience their automatically-changing nature. That’s not intellectual philosophy but personal experience. Other objects, such as your family and friends, material possessions, or whatever else may be your biggest object of attachment, are the same in nature. Everything is transitory, momentary; nothing lasts. We cling to these things because we think that they’re helpful, but try to ascertain whether they really help or harm your mind. Perhaps instead of inducing peace of mind they prevent it. You check up.

Of course, it depends on your own mind. Generally speaking, the greater the number of objects of attachment around you the more your mind is split, agitated and disordered. That’s natural; you check up. As long as the association of these two departments of ego and attachment occupies the mind, who can be happy? Even the richest man on Earth will be miserable if these two departments occupy his mind. Therefore, don’t grasp too much at the future, imagining, “If only I had this, that and the other, I’d be happy. Oh, how I wish I had those things in my life.” It’s not true.

You can never be sure. To your ego’s interpretation, a friend, husband or wife can only be of help. Your ego grasps, “My life would be so much better if only I had somebody.” But think of a couple that stays together for, say, ten years, through countless ups and downs, pretending to be happy; maybe happy half the time and unhappy the rest. Even after all that, there’s still much attachment. Then the husband dies and for the next ten years the wife is miserable. She suffers; she’s lonely; she can’t get him out of her mind. So what was actually worthwhile? She’s spent ten years of her life building, building, building attachment, her ego pre-tending to be happy, happy, happy, and then, when her great object of attachment disappears, she gets another ten years of misery and worry. For ten years she’s had the idea, “My husband helps my life,” but did he really? Perhaps the only help she got from him was another ten years of misery.

Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m not talking about the outer reality but the psychological aspect—the way the two departments of ego and attachment function in the mind. That’s what makes life difficult.

Renunciation

When you realize how absolutely unrealistic and silly these two departments are you’ll see how silly you are to keep following that association. It’s a psychological thing, not a matter of saying, “I have attachment to this object; I’d better get rid of it.” That’s not what I mean by renunciation. It’s mind, not matter. Therefore, don’t feel threatened that when I say “renounce” you’re going to lose all your material possessions. You have to understand that Lord Buddha’s renunciation is psychological.

In his Mahayana teachings Lord Buddha himself said, “If you have dedicated your body, speech and mind to the happiness of other sen¬tient beings and have no attachment to your possessions, then even if you’re a monk, you can own a thousand houses.” If you are free of attachment you have no feeling that anything really belongs to you. But remember, this is psychological. After you get home from this medita¬tion course don’t throw all your furniture into the street: “Lama said I have too much attachment. I’d better get rid of all my stuff.” If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, it can be dangerous. Therefore, try to understand your own psychology—how the two departments of ego and attachment occupy your mind—as best you can.

If you gain this understanding, then even if you’re surrounded by your family and friends, you won’t grasp at them too much. It’s natural. If I cling too strongly to a flower I’ll crush it and destroy its beauty. Similarly, if a husband clings to and squeezes his wife she’ll freak out and won’t be able to stand it. Because of his great attachment—perhaps he’s so jealous that he won’t even let her walk down the street alone— she’ll no longer see him as attractive. A husband or wife who doesn’t cling and is natural, relaxed and free appears more beautiful to his or her spouse.

Therefore, be natural. Husbands and wives who love each other should not grasp at or squeeze their spouse with attachment but try to better understand the up and down nature of each other’s mind and, on that basis, help and support each other. That’s the way to bring beautiful, warm feelings into a relationship, which, as a result, will last longer.

Superstition

Under the control of completely unrealistic craving, grasping and attachment, from the time we were born until now we have totally dedicated the energy of our body, speech and mind to the pursuit of material possessions and sense pleasures and have no idea of how our mind reacts to these conceptions. We see only the façade; our limited mind cannot see below the surface. Attachment and ego are narrow, limited minds that don’t see the entirety, only part.

Perhaps even now one of you is sitting here thinking, “I’m stuck here listening to this silly lama while perhaps back home somebody is stealing my wife” or “Maybe my boss is planning to fire me.” Our minds create such worries. All this comes from attachment. We have so many fears, so many fantasies. Perhaps your fantasy becomes so real that when you get back home you beat your wife: “I’m sure you cheated on me.” We’re so unrealistic; we fantasize and worry, “Perhaps this will happen; maybe I’ll lose that.” All this expectation and superstition is very strong, causes much mental suffering and remains in our mind for a long time.

If somebody beats you up you get really upset but a beating lasts only a short time. The worrying mind beats you up day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and lifetime after lifetime. Even now you’re completely under its control. You think you’re free, but you’re not.

Therefore you have to determine, “Dharma wisdom is the only solution to my problems; the only vehicle that can carry me to everlasting happiness. Only Dharma can truly save me from danger. Any minute, I could lose my mind and go mad. It’s possible; I’ve already created the cause for this to happen. Dharma wisdom, understanding the nature of the mind, is my only protection. It can accompany me all the time.” You cannot rely on material things.

For example, when husbands and wives are apart they worry about each other and feel agitated and insecure. Dharma wisdom, however, is always with you and makes you happy. Material things, the things you think your life depends on, are unreliable—sometimes with you, sometimes not. Also, psychologically, material possessions can become your worst enemy. When you’re dying and have to leave them, you feel miserable. The more you have, the worse you feel. Check up right now. You can see that your mind is drawn towards whatever your attachment has labeled “good.” Check up in meditation. Therefore, at the time of death, when you know that you’re losing forever everything that you possess, all these things simply serve to make you more agitated. That worried mind itself almost kills you. Your elements are already completely out of balance; the mental shock of losing all your possessions delivers the final blow.

Dying without attachment

When Tibetan lamas knew they were going to die they’d give away all their possessions. In the months or years preceding their death they’d donate all their books to the monastery, their money to the poor and so forth because they knew that if their mind were to get stuck on an object of attachment at the time of death it would only cause suffering and prevent them from dying freely.

As I mentioned before, attachment has nothing to do with the material value of an object. It’s not like the more expensive something is the greater your attachment to it and the cheaper it is the less your attachment. It’s not like that. You can be strongly attached to even a piece of paper. It doesn’t depend on its outer valuation. Ego and attachment are what give things their value.

Why am I telling you this? Because you might think that poor people don’t have attachment; that Himalayan peasants who own nothing but a cow have less attachment than wealthy Westerners, which is not true. Attachment doesn’t depend on what others think something is worth; it depends on the mind. For example, chickens have strong attachment to where they live; a chicken thinks its coop is the best place in the world. That’s the way its ego works. It’s the mind.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Remember, ego and attachment don’t work at the intellectual level. If you ask a chicken on its roost if it’s happy it’s not going to reply, but intuitively, a chicken feels happy in familiar surroundings. If something intrudes it gets angry and tries to drive the trespasser away. If we behave in the same way we’re no better than chickens; nevertheless, if somebody invades our space we get just as upset as they do. What’s the difference?

Also, under the power of its ego, a chicken eats hundreds of insects every day. We, too, use the power of our ego to try to control or take advantage of others. All this comes from attachment, not from our basic human nature, which is pure and can be developed infinitely.

Satisfaction

Remember this when you meditate. Concentrate on the feelings in your body and mind and when you get distracted, observe the role attachment plays. This method will show you the true nature of your own mind. Because of the way in which your attachment reacts to how your ego interprets things, you’re not happy when trying to attain perfect concentration and get agitated and distracted when you meditate.

You think rich people are very lucky and wish you had their wealth, but if you understood human psychology, the nature of the mind and how attachment works, you wouldn’t care. Who cares about external wealth? In my opinion, the truly rich person is the one who has a satisfied mind. Satisfaction is real wealth and you can keep it forever. The affluence of satisfaction comes from understanding knowledge-wisdom, not from external things.

For example, we can eat and drink the most expensive things but still feel dissatisfied while a chicken can eat the most terrible garbage and go to sleep content. Satisfaction comes from the mind. We can’t believe how a chicken could possibly sleep after eating dirt so horrible that it would make us sick, but the chicken fills its stomach and goes to sleep satisfied. Satisfaction comes from the mind, not from food or any other material object.

Otherwise, where does super-satisfaction come from? Where on Earth can you find super-satisfactory beauty or pleasure? Sydney? New York? Paris? Where? It’s nowhere, non-existent. There is no external shape, color or form on Earth that itself can produce super-satisfaction. Just because there are supermarkets doesn’t mean you can find super-satisfaction in them. Sometimes all you’ll find there is more dissatisfaction.

Therefore, when you meditate, take a serious look at what causes satisfaction. Check deeply and come to a firm conclusion. Don’t be wishy-washy, “Maybe, maybe, maybe….” Check thoroughly, again and again; analyze, investigate and bring every thought to a logical conclusion. Finally, make a determination, integrating all your trains of thought into one definite conclusion. That’s the way to do analytical meditation. The vacillating mind is split. You need to integrate your mind by coming to a definite conclusion.

What you need to decide once and for all is: “I’m tired of being a servant to my ego. My ego rules my mind and even though it continuously gives me nothing but trouble and no time for rest, I still spend my entire life as its servant. My mind is constantly in turmoil only because of my ego. I’m not going to be a slave to my ego any longer!”

All the worry we experience comes from the two departments of ego and attachment. For example, we all want a beautiful body but at the same time our sneaky, grasping attachment makes us eat more than our body requires and we get fat. This is just a simple example but it’s one to which most of us can relate.

Check it out for yourself. You need little food but your attachment to over-eating makes you heavy and uncomfortable. At the same time, you want to be attractive. These two things are in conflict. Which do you choose—your ego’s wish for a beautiful body or your attachment to eating food? Look into your mind; find the one to which you cling the most. One mind is there, grasping at beauty; the other is there too, knowing that if you eat too much you’ll get fat and destroy whatever beauty you have. Still, you can’t stop eating. These two minds agitate you. Psychologically, they beat you up, but despite their constant mashing, you still keep saying “Yes, yes, yes….”

It’s very funny. The human mind is so weird…and very silly, if you really check. The idea that thin is beautiful and fat is ugly comes from the mind. Of course, I agree that if you are too fat it can be unhealthy; that’s OK. But the idea, the picture, created by attachment and desire of what is beautiful and what is ugly is so silly, isn’t it? It’s not the reality of the fat that bothers you but the idea that it’s unattractive. Why? Because you cling to reputation; you’re worried what other people will think of you.

I tell you, mother sentient beings on this Earth are so silly. People in one country think something is pretty; people in another country think the same thing is ugly. Here, this is bad; there, it is good. To some, this is beautiful; to others something else is beautiful. It’s all made up; they’re just different ideas.

Beautiful and ugly

Otherwise, where is that external, permanent, absolute beauty? It is only the way our ego mind interprets objects that makes them beautiful or ugly. You check up; it’s so simple. When you do the body-sweeping meditation—where your mind examines every part of your body—try to find the beauty. Check up: what’s beautiful? Which part are you clinging to as beautiful? Check up. Your interpretation of what’s beautiful and what’s ugly is extremely superficial. It’s just your ego’s projection but it makes you very confused. You’re confused even now. You no longer know what is good and what is bad. Really!

When you go to the bathroom you don’t stand there admiring what you’ve just deposited into the toilet bowl, do you? Similarly, when you gaze into the mirror at your beautiful body or face, when you get stuck on the aspects of yourself that your ego’s projection has deemed attractive, let your mind travel into your body from the inside of your nose all the way down, trying to determine exactly where your beauty is. You’ll find that in essence, every part of your body is identical to what you’ve just excreted. This is scientific reality, not a matter of belief. The object of beauty that you cling to seems attractive simply because of an extremely superficial judgment made by your fickle mind.

Look at the confused young women of today. They run from one man to another, to another, to another; another man, another man, another man…they experience much trouble, more trouble, trouble on top of trouble, but at the same time they’re expecting, “Maybe this is the one, maybe this is the one….” These are such superficial experiences, all mental projections painted by their egos. “Maybe this, maybe this,” with expectation; “Maybe this, maybe this, maybe this….” No satisfaction at all; always trouble.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh, Lama’s putting women down too much.” Men are the same; they’re so deluded. One changes his wife, superficially discriminating the new one as “Good, good, good….” Then after a while “good” turns to “bad,” so he changes again. Then good, then bad, then change; then good, then bad, then change. His judgment—good and bad, beautiful and ugly—is completely superficial and has nothing whatsoever to do with reality, either inner or outer. There’s no understanding, no communication, only fear and insecurity—all because of ego and attachment.

All this comes from the mind. We’re totally preoccupied with our ego’s superficial projections and turn our backs on reality. No wonder we’re completely confused and unable to communicate properly with any living being. All this comes from our big ego.

Dedicate yourself to others

Therefore, it is highly worthwhile to switch your mental attitude from the attachment that always says “I, I, I” to purely dedicating your life to the welfare of others, as we tried to do at the beginning of this course. Recognize that for years and years you have been building attachment but still have nothing to show for it. It’s really important to be aware of this. When you dedicate your life to others you acknowledge that true human beauty is not on the outside, not the view projected by your ego onto another person’s skin, but rather others’ inner potential. When you realize that, you will respect other sentient beings and try to help them, instead of respecting only yourself and spending all your time developing your two inner departments of ego and attachment.

Wherever you go—East, West, sky, earth, beneath the earth—there are other sentient beings. If, through having recognized the false con¬ceptions of ego and attachment, you develop pure motivation and dedicate your life to others, your life will become truly worthwhile. You will give real meaning to being alive and your relationships with those around you will be much better.

You don’t have to change anything external; the only change you have to make is within your mind. As soon as you change your projection, the outside world changes too; it changes automatically because your basic view becomes positive.

When Lord Buddha spoke of heaven and hell he was not referring to some place up in the sky or under the ground sitting there waiting for you. Such things do not exist. There is no permanent hell waiting some-where for you to come and burn in; nor is there some permanent heaven waiting for you either. Whatever you see comes only from your mind. That’s why Lord Buddha always emphasized the impermanent nature of suffering phenomena. Even if you personally killed everybody on Earth, there’s no permanently existing hell waiting for you to come and suffer in forever. There’s no such thing, even if you kill all sentient beings. There’s no permanent suffering.

But there is such a thing as an impermanent mental reaction. When your knees hurt, they don’t hurt forever but they do hurt for a while. Even though it’s impermanent, you do feel pain. That, too, is in your mind; the pain in your knee comes from your mind. Check up. If you send a powerful blissful feeling into your knee, the pain will disappear. Of course, I can’t say it has nothing to do with the conditions. Actually, it’s a combination of the conditions and the mind, but your ego makes the pain hurt too much. If you change your attitude, the pain will go away. Therefore, it’s an impermanent phenomenon.