By Lama Thubten Yeshe

Lama Yeshe was a pioneer in bringing Dharma to the West, and the collected teachings in this book demonstrate his understanding of the Western psyche and his ability to express profound truths in simple terms.

Knowledge-Wisdom includes new material and complete discourses edited by Nicholas Ribush and published for the first time. Go to the Contents page to find links to all the teachings published in this book and now available online.

Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, New Zealand, June 1975.
7. The Experiential Nature of Lord Buddha’s Teachings

Christchurch, New Zealand, 14 June 1975

[Lama makes prostrations.]

The nature of emotional pride is such that you go around with your nose in the air. You never want to see what’s in front of you or look down. The antidote is to do prostrations.

When I talk about prostrations, I don’t mean that you prostrate to only the Buddha. As Shantideva said, we can also prostrate to all mother sentient beings by remembering that the basic, fundamental nature of their minds is as equally pure as that of an enlightened being.4

Furthermore, doing prostrations doesn’t necessarily mean doing either the full-length or five-point physical ones. If you’re out on a busy city street and suddenly go down on the sidewalk people are going to freak out. Instead of doing that you can simply make mental prostrations. Remember, there are three ways of prostrating: with body, speech and mind.

The Buddha was so skillful. He gave us methods for every situation. So even if you’re on a crowded street and want to make prostrations, instead of putting on a big show and doing them physically, where everybody’s going to think, “What on earth is that?” you can just prostrate mentally.

If you do things with understanding, it’s so worthwhile. If you do them without understanding and then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” you’ll conclude that you’re regressing instead of advancing. Practicing with understanding is helpful in treating your uncontrolled mind. If you practice like that, everything will become worthwhile.

The same applies to making offerings. We don’t offer food to the Buddha because he’s hungry. We do it as part of training our mind to release emotional miserliness. The way we should look at charity is that no matter what the material value of what we give, the real value of generosity is in what we gain: knowledge-wisdom. Of course, it depends on your attitude. Even if you offer only one dollar you can still gain a lot. Basically, you have to understand the psychology of the various Dharma practices you do, especially those that initially make you uncomfortable.

But everything has meaning. For example, incense symbolizes the pure energy of body, speech and mind, especially pure thoughts. The real essence of incense is within you and the sticks we burn are external symbols of that. The real incense is in your mind. You have to know that, otherwise, when you offer incense you’re just imitating other people you’ve seen doing it, just copying Easterners. That’s not right. The real incense is your pure thought that gives pure vibrations to others.

It’s the same when you’re offering light. External lights have the function of destroying darkness, of making things clear. But the real candlelight is within you—it’s your wisdom. So whenever you offer incense or light you should do so with a dedication like, “May my mind and those of all mother sentient beings be filled with the light of knowledge-wisdom and completely purified of the darkness shadow that makes us totally unconscious and is the cause of all suffering.”

In other words, everything we do that might look like ritual is actually training our mind and freeing us from agitated states and negative impulses. It’s very useful.

Then why do we have all these physical objects on our altars? Buddhists are supposed to renounce material things, but then we put all these statues and paintings up there? That’s kind of strange. Well, we think it’s far preferable to have pictures of holy objects in front of us rather than pictures of fashion models and rock stars on our walls. Those things automatically grab our attention and stimulate attachment. It’s like when we’re in the supermarket and see all these desirable foods and think, “Fantastic! How much money do I have? Oh, not enough, how can I get some?” and then we go, “Mom, Dad, can I have some money please?” “No, you can’t!” and we’re so disappointed.

That’s all visualization. Expert marketers know how to display products in order to trigger our attachment and make us want to buy them. They understand people’s basic psychological energy and what the combination of appealing object and craving desire results in. That association makes us go pam! There’s contact and we go berserk. We lose wisdom and become unconscious.

We have to know this. We think we’re conscious and aware but we’re not. When we’re overwhelmed by attraction and attachment, we actually become unconscious. If you check carefully at such times you’ll find that perhaps at first your mind is very clear, but as attachment takes over, something dark seems to envelop it. Check up. That’s experience. You see, Lord Buddha’s psychology is not about what you believe but what you experience. Go into town right now and see what happens! That’s reality.

And that’s why I always say that Lord Buddha’s teachings are so scientific. They’re very different from Western modes of religious expression. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that Buddhist psychology and teachings may be different from what you were brought up with. They’re not about believing certain things and then going to heaven when you die; they’re not about doing something now and waiting for a long time to experience the result. No! If you act correctly with wisdom right now you can see the result in the next second. It’s so simple.

For example, after you’ve meditated for just half an hour, it’s incredible: you can see other people in a whole different light. And a short morning meditation can make your whole day so peaceful. This is our experience. You don’t need to wait a long time to see results: “I’ve been waiting for realizations and enlightenment for such a long time.” Don’t think like that. Don’t grasp at enlightenment. Just act in your daily life as much as you can. The result will be right there. The result of half an hour’s morning meditation can last all day. Isn’t that beautiful? And you expend almost no energy.

How much do you have to pay to enjoy samsaric pleasures? And they come with much conflict and other complications. You have to know that. While actually, real happiness lies within you. And through meditation you discover that.
That’s why I always say that Lord Buddha’s teaching, Buddhadharma, is so simple. Trying to be happy the materialistic way takes so much energy. In Europe, for example, there’s so much material wealth, but how much effort do you need to expend for it to make you happy? It can be difficult to get a job; earning a decent salary can also be difficult. It’s not easy, even amongst all this material plenty.

It’s really incredible if you compare the benefits of material pleasures to those of meditation. You work at a difficult job and make money, but it can often get complicated, even though your polluted mind thinks, “Oh, I’m happy. I get paid today!” And in between paydays your mind remains in that expectant condition, which really agitates you. On the other hand, if one morning you spend an hour in meditation, you can make your entire day peaceful. How can you buy that? That sort of happiness is beyond material. It’s so simple. Don’t you think that’s simple? Really think about it.

Take, for example, a couple living together. Most of the time their arguments are in their home. These are just ego games. They have no understanding. They want to be happy, they want to live together, but, “Yesterday he hurt me; today I want to hurt him,” and then they just bump heads all day. It’s incredible. So ignorant. They mean well, but the psychology is, “If you hurt me, I have to hurt you back, otherwise you’ll just keep hurting me.” That’s such silly psychology. You know what I mean.

If they understood that real happiness comes from within, from understanding their own true nature, from understanding their partner’s nature, that wouldn’t happen. But they don’t look within; they just look externally. If they understood this, besides seeing the external appearance they would also see each other’s powerful inner beauty and potential purity, and in that way come to respect one another. This would lead to a much better relationship in everyday life.

So, forgetting about the realization of enlightenment for the moment, simply understand that daily meditation can at least bring good vibrations to your family and your home. The better we understand each other, the better we understand human nature, the better our lives will be. All problems, all ego games, come from a lack of understanding. OK, I think I’ve gone off on a tangent!

The material objects you see on the altar and hanging on the walls of this meditation hall, these statues and thangkas, are symbolic. What do they symbolize? Wisdom, or understanding. Tibetan Buddhist psychology would say that these physical objects are talking to you beyond words.

Take my dorje and bell, for example. The person who created them had pure motivation, so they have a certain energy, what we might call “good vibrations.” This energy too communicates with us beyond words.

Similarly with pictorial representations of buddhas, bodhisattvas, realized lamas, yogis and yoginis. Yoginis are sometimes shown as dancing—if you want to dance, realized dancing is OK! Anyway, such art also automatically transmits informational energy to your mind. Spiritual art gives you wisdom vibrations rather than the emotionally ignorant energy that ordinary art conveys.

You can see this even here. I think Westerners find this kind of thing easy to experience. For example, at this seminar you’re all sitting in the meditation posture for long periods of time, whereas at home you might find it difficult to sit like this for even five minutes. You’re surprising yourself: “In my life, I never thought I’d be able to sit this way!” Don’t you think that people new to this tradition might think like that? “I can’t believe I’m sitting cross-legged. I never dreamed I’d be able to do that. But here I am at this meditation course doing it.”

This is partly because of the influence of the Buddha statue on the altar and the thangkas on the walls. You think, “He’s a human being; I’m a human being. He’s sitting like that; I can sit like that.”

Then there’s the female buddha, Tara. She’s an enlightened being with perfect power and perfect knowledge-wisdom in female aspect, in a female body. She’s completely controlled; a female who has attained realizations equal to any male. So when women see her they think, “Wow, if she can become a buddha, so can I.”

Look, I can’t generalize, but I’ve heard many women say, “I can’t control my body; my energy’s too strong.” We always devalue ourselves like that. It’s a weak mind that does so and many women feel their mind is weak. They feel that they need somebody else to depend upon. Without grasping at another person, they feel lonely and lost. This is symptomatic of the weak mind. As long as you’re on this earth, there’s no way to be lonely. You’re surrounded by all living beings. But when people—both men and women—are depressed, they do feel lonely because the lonely mind is unrealistic and emotional. So archetypal images of perfection are part of Lord Buddha’s psychology and are really very helpful.

Tourists come to the East and see Buddha statues and so forth in the temples and think that we believe that these material objects are God: “Buddhists worship graven images.” You can even read this in books. Isn’t that silly? We don’t believe that those material images are Buddha. They’re symbolic. You have to know this, otherwise you’ll get yourself into trouble. Mahayana art is not Buddha, Dharma or Sangha. When we place light, incense, flowers and so forth on the altar we’re not making offerings to the material objects there, we’re making offerings to the Buddha’s mind, his wisdom consciousness.

So it’s very good that you keep images of enlightened beings in your room. Just looking at them can give you control and everlasting peace. They leave positive imprints in your mind; they impart knowledge; they give you teachings. They’re like a fulltime meditation course. So it’s very helpful for you to have holy objects in your room rather than ridiculous samsaric pictures polluting your mind.

Actually, when you go to your friends’ houses you can see what their interests are by the art on their walls and the way they decorate their rooms, because what they do is a projection of their minds. You can see what trip they’re currently on, no matter what they say. People can talk all they want but what they actually do speaks louder than any words.

The way people put their lives together demonstrates whether they’re living with delusion or wisdom because it’s symbolic of their state of mind. You can see what’s going on in their mind because its vibration manifests externally.

However, the characteristic nature of all of Lord Buddha’s teachings and methods is psychology and knowledge-wisdom. And what he taught was not just theoretical but practical and based on experience.

In general, theories and ideas are inadequate if they lack the key of understanding. We need to know how to put them into practice. Because of this, the Tibetan tradition has always emphasized the importance of passing the experiential lineage, not just the theories, from guru to disciple, and in this way the living teachings of the Buddha have come down to us today.

There are four different schools of Tibetan Buddhism but their similarities are far greater than their differences. They all contain the complete methods for reaching enlightenment, from beginning to end, and all practice tantric yoga, the Vajrayana. But while they all have the same methods, some emphasize certain meditation techniques over others. That’s the main difference. But they’re all equally Mahayana and all practice both Paramitayana and Vajrayana.

While the Hinayana, the Southern School of Buddhism, contains neither the practices of the Paramitayana nor those of the Vajrayana, it in no way contradicts the Northern, or Mahayana, schools. Lord Buddha sometimes said “yes” and sometimes said “no.”

We can understand what he meant by looking at how a skilled physician treats a patient. When somebody is sick the treatment can vary during the course of the illness. For example, at first the doctor may recommend fasting, but later, as the person recovers, the doctor may recommend meat or other heavy foods. When that happens, you don’t get angry with the doctor for contradicting himself: “First you said no, now you’re saying yes! Do you know what you’re doing?” No—rather you think how kind and wise he is.

It’s the same thing with Lord Buddha’s teachings. Different people need different methods. For example, I’m a monk. I took my vows on the basis of my own decision. Strictly interpreted, according to the Vinaya rules I’m not supposed to look at women’s faces. I can look at men but not women. The Mahayana view qualifies this. For monks, just looking at women isn’t the problem; it’s looking at them with an attached, grasping mind; with craving, emotional desire. That’s what disturbs you. You can’t say that just looking automatically means that you’re sick. It depends on your mind.

Similarly, Lord Buddha never said that monks can’t touch women, just like that. He never proscribed any actions without explaining why and under what conditions. Lord Buddha’s Vinaya psychology is incredible. He explained in minute detail with what kind of mind, what kind of attitude, you should avoid doing this or that. He never, ever said, “You can’t do that because I said so.” There’s a profound psychology behind all his teachings.

So, monks cannot touch women with craving desire and nuns can’t touch men with craving desire. Doing so makes you lose conscious awareness. That’s the danger. If you have the power to stop your finger from burning, you can stick it into a fire. But if you don’t and your finger will burn, why stick it into a fire? That’s all Lord Buddha is saying. Anyway, whether or not something will burn when it’s put into a fire depends on what kind of material it is. It’s not automatic that whatever’s put into a fire will burn.

So you can see that there’s no contradiction between the Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. And with respect to the four Tibetan schools, there’s no such thing as “this one takes this kind of precept, that one takes a different kind.” All four schools take the same precepts.

Also, it’s not necessary that everybody who wants to practice Buddhism takes ordination as a monk or nun. The Mahayana offers people many different ways of practicing Dharma. In particular, the Mahayana does not emphasize external signs of practice; those are not important. What matters is mental attitude. On the other hand, the Hinayana, or Theravada, school does emphasize physical actions—how you act and so forth. Some of their rules are very strict and definitely needed. But none of this is contradictory.

Much of the time our mind is running amok, like a mad elephant, so sometimes we need rules to keep it in check. Rules can be incredibly helpful. Since this is just a weekend seminar, don’t worry! We don’t have time for too many rules. Normally, when we conduct a one-month course, the students take the eight Mahayana precepts ordination daily for the last two weeks. They find the experience very helpful. I’m not just saying this; it’s what they’ve told me. We’ve been doing this for the past few years and I’ve been watching how the students react, and that’s what they say. It’s an incredible experience.

One of the eight precepts is to not eat after the midday meal until the next day. At the one-month course we just did in Australia, one woman unconsciously ate an apple in the evening. Then, after she had eaten it she remembered that she had taken that precept and kind of freaked out: “Oh, no! I took a vow not to eat and now I’ve broken it,” and came to me crying to confess. Normally she’s very conscious, but if you don’t test your mind, sometimes you don’t really know how aware you are. You think you are aware but you actually do all these unconscious actions. When you take a vow, you watch your mind and increase your awareness of what you’re thinking, saying and doing. You notice how many polluted things you unconsciously do. Often we don’t even notice what we’re doing. Most of the time we eat, drink and talk unconsciously. So the precepts help us notice.

Some people think that vows are just something you promise: “I promise not to do that.” It’s not that simple. Lord Buddha said that his vows should be given only to people who really want to take them. They should not be given to people who don’t understand what the vows are, how they work or why they’re given. Lord Buddha’s psychology is that the wish for the vow must come from the person who’s taking it, not from someone who says, “I want to give you these vows.”

These vows, whichever ones you’re taking, are part of the method of Buddhism. We sentient beings are psychologically sick, and precepts are Buddhism’s mental hospital [Lama holds his outstretched fingers to his head, suggesting a cage]. We can see that when we voluntarily put our unconscious mind into this situation, it’s a great test for our mind. But it’s not going to work if it’s done forcefully, if someone compels us to take ordination.

Otherwise, if we’re not tested, it’s difficult to control our mind. Our unconscious energy sort of becomes universal, bigger than the whole world. Of course, it’s only mental, not physical, so we can’t see it. Anyway, you have to understand what Lord Buddha taught and why you want to learn it. I’m not saying you have to do this. I’m just suggesting you try to understand how Buddhist psychology works, how Lord Buddha’s teachings elevate the human mind into enlightenment.

If you know the whole scope of his teachings—study, reading of the sutras, meditation and so forth—your understanding grows so comfortably. Even if you don’t practice, everything you read can bring you to, “Oh, this is fantastic. This really speaks to me.” You can see how all the teachings relate to you rather than, “Oh, this is ridiculous. This is not for me; it’s for somebody else.” In that way you end up with nothingness.

And you can’t take everything the Buddha said literally. For example, as I mentioned, the Vinaya rules state that a monk cannot touch a woman’s body. So what happens if a monk’s mother falls down. Can he not help her up? Or like in the story I told before, when the monk carried that female leper over the river. Even though he wanted to help her, if he’d thought, “No, I can’t touch a woman” and left her there, would that have been the right thing to do? That would have been silly.

If you study the teachings correctly, you’ll see how they relate with your own mind. That is really fantastic. That is extremely helpful.


4 A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, 6:113. “A buddha’s qualities are gained from the sentient beings and the conquerors alike, so why do I not respect them in the same way as I respect the conquerors?” [Return to text]