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.

This title is out of stock but is you can find links here to ebook and print-on-demand versions. 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 Yeshe teaching at Royal Holloway College, UK, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.
1. What is Meditation? (Lama Yeshe)

Kensington Town Hall, London
18 September 975

Meditation is the way we realize the nature of the mind. Therefore it’s something that we absolutely have to do. Since Western education does not explain how the mind functions in everyday life, many Westerners these days are seeking out meditation because they are not satisfied with what they’ve been taught about the mind.

Buddhism always talks about suffering. This turns some Westerners off: “We’re happy; we’re not suffering; what’s our problem? Why should we listen to teachings on suffering?”

Well, you can think in that way if you like, but in fact, if you check more deeply into how your mind functions in everyday life, you’ll realize how dissatisfied you are and how up and down your uncontrolled mind actually is. That up and down itself is suffering, that’s all. It’s very simple. When Lord Buddha talked about suffering he didn’t mean simply physical pain, like toothaches, headaches and so forth. Those kinds of suffering are very temporary; they’re nothing. But if you check within yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, famous or unknown, you’ll always find dissatisfaction, a kind of uncontrollable, ever-changing energy of dislike. That energy too is suffering.

From the beginning of human evolution on this earth up to now, people have constantly sought something worthwhile, pleasure and happiness, in many different ways, but most of their methods have been completely wrong. They’ve sought happiness here while all the time it’s been over there, in exactly the opposite direction. You’re educated - check historically what people have believed through the ages and how they’ve sought fulfillment in different ways. You can see. Most times they’ve gone in totally the wrong direction.

So now people are finally beginning to realize that happiness is not dependent upon external development or material wealth. These days you don’t even need a lama to explain it to you because the manifest world itself demonstrates the up and down nature of mundane reality - socially, economically and in many other ways. That makes it easy to realize that material things aren’t everything. As a result, people are now beginning to investigate better ways of achieving a happy and joyful life. Meditation is one of the ways.

Mental attitude
In the West, meditation has recently gained some popularity. Most people have heard of it and many have tried it, but if you check why these people are meditating, the reason they’re trying it out, a question arises. Actually, you can ask the same question in relation to why people are practicing religion. In general, people are meditating or following a spiritual path because they want to be happy, but from the Mahayana Buddhist point of view, whether or not you get the desired result from your meditation practice depends mainly on your mental attitude, or motivation. For meditation or any other implemented spiritual philosophy to bring happiness, it has to be done for the right reason.

Many people think that meditation means sitting someplace doing nothing while your mind toys with an object. That’s a misconception. Your mind playing with an object, trying to concentrate, is not enough. Of course, I understand that way of thinking. Your mind is tired; you’ve heard so many things, so many philosophies, so much this, that and the other that all you want is a bit of peace and quiet and you think that single-pointed concentration will give it to you. But that’s not enough.

Meditation is a tool. The most important thing is your motivation for using that tool, for practicing meditation; the way you are using it. That’s what matters. Otherwise there’s a danger that your meditation will simply become some kind of mindless routine, the way some people go to church on Sunday. They don’t check their motivation; they just go. And not just in the West; Eastern people do the same thing. They go to the temple just because everybody else is going, because it’s the local custom. Meditating or practicing religion for that kind of reason is a total misconception.

Also, practicing meditation just to experience temporal happiness, just to make this life happy, is also mistaken. That’s a tiny goal; it’s selfish and it’s wrong. If all you’re trying to do is make this life comfortable, your goal is really not worthwhile.

Ordinary people think that the purpose of meditation is to make the mind calm and peaceful, but that’s not enough. Of course, when you create a calm, peaceful environment, you can integrate your mind and make it calm and peaceful, but that’s not liberation. Liberation is complete freedom from the uncontrolled, up and down, selfish mind. When you reach beyond that kind of mind you’ve reached a worthwhile goal.

Meditation isn’t just a mental game where you sublimate one mundane state into another. When we meditate, we’re not joking, playing with hallucinations. The purpose of meditation is to gain joyful inner freedom and everlasting peace - in Buddhist terminology, nirvana or enlightenment. But the words don’t matter that much - what you do have to know is what kind of goal you’re aiming to achieve.

So the mental attitude I’m talking about, the best kind of motivation, is what Mahayana Buddhism calls bodhicitta, the enlightenment attitude: total dedication of your body, speech and mind to the benefit of others. If you meditate with that kind of mind, your mind automatically slips into the vehicle that will carry you to your desired destination - enlightenment - without delay. If you don’t, if your subconscious motivation is selfish, then even if you think intellectually, “I’m doing this meditation in order to realize enlightenment,” you’re dreaming. That’s not bodhicitta.

Also, some people think that the only kind of meditation is singlepointed concentration and strive for years to attain it, but because they are motivated by self-attachment, even if they do achieve this level of concentration, their mind is still agitated. That can happen because they’re meditating with the wrong kind of motivation - selfishness. Bodhicitta is where you totally sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others.

When I say “sacrifice” I don’t mean in the Hindu sense of blood sacrifice - human or animal - such as we often see in Nepal. It’s not like that. I’m talking about your sacrificing the actions of your own body, speech and mind with knowledge-wisdom, totally dedicating them to the benefit of others.

As long as you have that dedicated enlightenment attitude, the pure, innermost thought of bodhicitta, no matter what your everyday actions, they’re automatically beneficial. Similarly, your meditation practice is also successful and free of frustration.

Often you meditate with much superstition, with the expectation of easily attaining the highest goal of enlightenment. That’s a misconception; you’re psychologically sick from the very beginning. When you begin with a sick mind you can only finish up sick.

Of course, dedicating every day of your life, your entire body, speech and mind, to others, is one of the most difficult things you can do, but if you can do it, your life automatically has purpose. When your life has purpose, you naturally experience satisfaction and enjoyment. True enjoyment comes from within, from your mental attitude, not from without or from single-pointed concentration.

You can’t concentrate in the busy confusion of your workplace; you can’t sit cross-legged in the supermarket. You have to deal with people. But when you do deal with people, if you have the pure thought dedicated to others, they automatically give you good vibrations - because of the projection of your own mind.

If, however, your mind is clouded with thoughts such as “These people are no good,” you automatically have a negative projection of others. That leads you to always blame them for how you feel: “He hurt me; she hurt me.” Actually, nobody else hurts you. You hurt yourself because you lack the knowledge-wisdom to understand yourself; you haven’t integrated wisdom into your everyday life.

In the terminology of Buddhism, self-cherishing is schizophrenic. I know that Western psychology thinks schizophrenia is something else, interprets it differently, but Buddhism thinks selfish motivation itself is schizophrenic and the cause of mental illness.

Experiment for yourself; I’m not saying you have to accept what I’m telling you just because I said it. When you get up in the morning, instead of thinking how difficult your mundane life is, generate the strong motivation, “Today I’m going to totally devote the energy of my body, speech and mind to others.” If you really dedicate yourself in that way, your day will go very smoothly. Try it out.

The human problem is that people have to interact with each other and when problems arise, as they inevitably do, they blame others for them. This is a misconception. So bodhicitta isn’t just an idea - it's a psychological method for treating the sick mind.

Also, physical actions aren’t necessarily the best way of benefiting others. You need to investigate for yourself what the best way of helping others is. Actually, hunger or physical suffering are not the main human problem. To help others in the most effective way, you have to discover human potential. And not just human potential: even every insect has a mind and therefore the potential to be led into everlasting, peaceful enlightenment. You need to see that, instead of suffocating yourself emotionally with thoughts like, "I want to help others; they need help, I can see that they’re suffering, but I can’t see that I can do anything about it."

When you can see the potential of the human mind, the innate beauty of human beings and humans’ infinite possibilities, you begin to see the solution to any problem that might arise. To the Mahayana Buddhist way of thinking, every human problem has a solution. For a start, every human problem has a cause; problems don’t arise without cause. And if you eradicate a cause, its effect also disappears, doesn’t it? That’s scientifically verifiable.

Knowledge is the path to liberation
Buddhism isn’t some fanatical religious trip. It’s a philosophical way of living life. And also, to study Buddhism you don’t need to believe in something extreme. It’s a matter of investigating, examining and experimenting on yourself. It’s not just belief. Without understanding, belief can be very dangerous. So what Lord Buddha emphasized was that understanding is the path to liberation, knowledge is the path to liberation.

Thus Buddhism emphasizes understanding; understanding is the path: no understanding, no path to liberation. Perhaps you’re not sure about that. Ordinarily, people think, “This is religion, this is Buddhism,” and paint their own picture of Buddhism and religion. For example, there are more than a hundred of us here - I can almost guarantee that each of us has a different understanding of what constitutes the path to liberation. Check up. Although we all might say, “Liberation is this, this, this,” using the same words, at the same time our limited mind will be painting its own unique picture of our personal interpretation of the path to liberation. In fact, in our practice we may not be doing anything positive; our life may have nothing to do with the path to liberation.

So you have to check carefully to see if you’re on the right path or the wrong. You should not proceed along your chosen path blindly. It’s much more important that you investigate your spiritual path than the goods you buy, for example. When you go to the supermarket you spend much time checking products - “Should I buy this? Maybe this? Maybe that?” - but when it comes to choosing which path to the highest goal of enlightenment is best for you, which path is right, which is wrong, you check nothing. Checking is never a mistake; checking is most important.

Checking is meditation; observing is meditation. As I said, meditation doesn’t mean just sitting in some corner doing nothing. You can meditate when you are walking down the street, checking, investigating your mind’s view of things. That’s meditation. Are you perceiving reality or a hallucination? When you analyze your mind like this, you’re meditating.

We often talk about positive and negative actions. Everybody says things like, “Today you’re so positive; today you’re too negative.” It’s common. But how do you know which actions are positive and which are negative? You need to know how to check. How do you ensure that your meditation is positive and a vehicle leading to enlightenment? How do you know?

It doesn’t depend on the meditation itself - it’s your motivation for doing it that directs your mind into the right channel.

So how do you tell if you’re on the wrong path? How do you discriminate? You need discriminating knowledge-wisdom. That’s the path of meditation, the path to liberation. You have to be able to discriminate right from wrong. If you mix everything together, all you get is soup.

Method and wisdom
I’m not being judgmental, saying you’re this or that; I’m just explaining how to go about meditating. We all need happiness; how do we check that the path we’re on will bring us to that goal, that it’s the most effective way of leading us to happiness? That’s what we need to know.

Also, Mahayana Buddhism strongly emphasizes the simultaneous actualization of method and wisdom. Wisdom without method cannot produce enlightened realizations. That’s very true: many religious people and meditators have wonderful ideas but lack the method for putting those ideas into action. Then their great ideas become useless.

Similarly, in the West, many people have great intellectual wisdom but not too much method. This is a problem. As Lord Buddha said, intellectual knowledge alone is not enough to gain realizations.

I don’t have much more to say right now but I hope you all will actualize the method and wisdom that constitute the path to liberation and find everlasting peace as soon as possible. And now, if you have any questions, please ask anything you like. There’s nothing wrong with our discussing all this. Tibetan Buddhism is very open. If you like, you can even tell me everything I’ve said is wrong. No problem. In that way I learn as well. I’m not enlightened, so discussion is most worthwhile.

Q. Lama, you were forced out of Tibet. How have you made exile work?
Lama. Well, as long as people know how to put their life together, it doesn’t matter if they lose their home and country, they can still have a good life. For me, every country on earth is my home. Having to leave Tibet hasn’t made me worried or miserable. I’m OK. Here I am meeting English people, eating English food, enjoying it very much. But it’s a good question. It’s true that when some people are forced to leave their home they are psychologically damaged and get sick as a result. But in general, Tibetan people understand cause and effect - the law of karma - and when they find themselves in a foreign country they’re able to accept that their past actions have put them into that situation and thus find it easier to accept. Denying reality can make you want to kill yourself.

Q. You said that we should check within ourselves as to whether what we’re doing is right or wrong according to our motivation. But isn’t there the danger of over-analyzing everything and getting so tangled up that not only do we gain nothing from it but end up worse than when we started? Or would you say that that’s a good state to be in?
Lama. You’re right; it can be dangerous if you check too much using the wrong method. But if you check the everyday actions of your body, speech and mind with skillful method and wisdom, there’s no danger; the more you check the more conscious and aware you become. Most of the time in our relationships with family and friends we act unconsciously and finish up hurting those closest to us. I agree; if you check your mind in a confused way you won’t find anything and it can in fact be dangerous. Therefore I say that if you are seeking everlasting, peaceful inner liberation, you need perfect method and perfect wisdom. So it’s not an easy job. Even if you have single-pointed concentration, that’s not enough.

Q. Do external factors such as diet, sleep habits and livelihood affect the quality of one’s meditation? In particular, is the food you eat important? For example, I’m a vegetarian but many people aren’t and meat is considered to make people more aggressive and bloodthirsty. This is not something that can be easily proved, but many people, including me, tend to believe it. What is your view of this point especially?
Lama. We do have some dietary restrictions when doing certain meditations where there are some foods that we should eat and others that we shouldn’t, such as meat, eggs, garlic, onion and radish. But when doing certain other kinds of meditation, those foods can be taken. Now, while in general ordinary people shouldn’t eat too much meat, eggs or garlic, if you’re used to a diet containing them, because of this conditioning, suddenly stopping eating them can shock your body. Also, even if you don’t eat such foods, sometimes you might need to do so for health reasons. So it’s better to take the middle path and not be too extreme. In Tibet, we would sometimes eat meat but we were forbidden from eating meat of animals that we had killed ourselves or ordered killed or that had been killed especially for us. Those three kinds of meat have tremendous negative vibrations associated with them and can make your meditation foggy rather than clear.

Q. I’ve heard of Tibetan lamas exorcising demons. What are demons?
Lama. Sometimes it can be possible that superstitious, primitive people believe that they’re controlled by a spirit and get sick as a result, so lamas have certain methods of healing such people. But in general, by “demon” we mean the energy of the ego. There’s no external demon, lying somewhere in wait for you. The Buddhist connotation is that the demon, devil or whatever you call it is within you.

There are thousands of different kinds of mind, some of them positive, others negative. Some of those negative minds are demonic and when they manifest they completely occupy your mind. At such times you become a kind of demon. When the demon mind takes over, wisdom, or your positive mind, has no room to function. However, by developing your meditation practice, perfecting your motivation and gradually purifying your mind, you can automatically control that negative energy. So that’s the reason that meditation is worthwhile.

When Westerners feel psychologically unwell they tend to seek a therapist for help. The Buddhist point of view is all living beings have both positive and negative energy simultaneously existent in their mind. By meditating we can gradually increase the positive, decrease the negative and continuously develop until all the negative energy has been completely eliminated.

Therefore the Tibetan Buddhist approach to training the student is gradual; we guide students along the graduated path to liberation. These days Zen is very popular in the West; some Zen practitioners talk about instant enlightenment, like instant coffee. We think that’s impossible. We think the mind has to evolve, or develop, gradually, just as modern science talks about gradual evolution. Accordingly, we have degrees of meditation from the beginning of the path up to the end. Some people have just one favorite meditation that they always do, from when they start meditating up to the end of their lives. The Tibetan tradition says that that’s wrong: instead, you should do one meditation; when you reach a certain point, go on to the next, then the next and so forth, in a logical order. This is what we mean by the gradual, or graduated, path to liberation.

Q. When we meditate, do we concentrate on our breath or do we just let our mind go free?
Lama. If you’re a beginner, it’s better just to focus on your breath rather than let your mind become occupied by mundane thoughts. It’s very useful. Actually, Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t consider focusing on your breath to be real meditation; we call it preparation for meditation. Why? If your mind is emotionally bothered, totally occupied by strong attachment or strong hatred, it’s impossible to meditate. What you can do at such times to create a good foundation for meditation is to manipulate your mind by concentrating on your breath and feeling sensations. If you do that, your mind will automatically calm down: the object with which your hatred is obsessed goes away, the object with which your attachment is obsessed goes away, and you are then free to direct your mind into any meditation that you choose.

Q. When you are doing checking meditation, what do you think about?
Lama. Many things can be the focus of analytical meditation; there are many different topics upon which you can meditate. You can’t simply specify this or that. Also, Buddhist meditation depends a lot upon the individual meditator, what each person needs at any given time.

Q. In Western medicine there’s a growing interest in the benefits that meditation can bring to people suffering from stress, both physical and mental. I wonder if in your trips to the West you have been in contact with doctors who are beginning to take an interest in this particular practice. Have you been able to talk to them and point out the deeper meaning of meditation?
Lama. A few months ago I met a group of psychiatrists in Melbourne, Australia, and we had a very interesting discussion about patients with mental problems.1 I’ve also spoken with American doctors on similar topics. I think they’re still seeking and growing, experimenting scientifically, and as a result their theories are also constantly changing and growing. I think they’re doing good work. Also, Tibetan Buddhism has more in common with science, logic and philosophy than with what the average person considers religion.

That’s all we have time for tonight. Thank you very much for coming. If I’ve made any mistakes, please excuse me.

1 See “ A Buddhist Approach to Mental Illness” in Lama Yeshe’s Becoming Your Own Therapist, free from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. [Return to text]