Knowledge-Wisdom

By Lama Thubten Yeshe

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You can read selected chapters from Knowledge-Wisdom online. This book includes new material and complete discourses edited by Nicholas Ribush and published for the first time.

Lama Yeshe gardening in Berkeley, California, 1980. Photo: Jon Landaw
9. Anxiety in the Nuclear Age (1)

University of California, Berkeley, 13 July 19836 

I’ve been asked to say a few words on the topic of anxiety in the nuclear age. The first thing to observe is that it is the people who created nuclear energy who are now afraid that it will destroy them. Is this realistic or not? First we create a situation, then we’re scared of it. We know that nuclear energy exists and is destructive by nature but that it can also be beneficial and enhance human pleasure. Nevertheless, we’re still anxious and afraid of the harm it might do to us and the following generations.

However, there’s no need for fear, worry or anxiety because, first of all, nuclear energy is a reality, and secondly, our opinion of what’s going to happen is just that—an opinion. It’s not yet a reality; it’s simply a presumption.

Perhaps you’ll argue that even though it’s only a presumption, we should still worry. If that’s the case, we should worry about everything. We should be anxious today about what might happen tomorrow. Every day since the world began, somewhere on earth, there has been some kind of natural disaster—flood, electrical storm, forest fire, earthquake, volcanic eruption and death and destruction in general. It’s natural. Nature itself is destructive by nature and has the capacity to do violence. Still, I don’t think you should lose sleep over it; there’s no need for fear, worry or anxiety.

I’m not saying that people who are against nuclear energy are bad guys. I, too, feel it is dangerous. But we have to educate the world about its dangers in a peaceful way—one that doesn’t produce emotional reaction and hatred. I’ve seen many people demonstrating peacefully on TV. Even though they felt strongly about the issues, they were very easygoing. I thought that was wonderful; they understood the importance of getting their message about nuclear danger across peacefully. I was very impressed. But I’m still concerned.

My concern is that if we allow ourselves to be anxious and afraid, emotionally disturbed, we’ll only produce more confusion within ourselves. When we’re confused, we spread confused energy to others and the environment. Bringing peace to the world is no small task. We have to take upon ourselves universal responsibility. As individuals, our first responsibility is to guarantee that we ourselves will never harm anybody else’s life; to generate the indestructible resolve that irrespective of the circumstances, “I’m never going to touch weapons or kill other human beings.” We must have that kind of determination. If you don’t feel that way yourself, how can you make a big show of telling others to be like that. It’s not realistic. In order to educate others about how harmful and cruel nuclear energy can be, we first have to educate ourselves.

So, we shouldn’t worry about the nuclear age because it’s already here. We’re human beings; we created this situation. We lit this fire a long time ago. Of course, the earth has contained nuclear energy since it began, but it has taken human intelligence to make it as dangerous as it has become. In Buddhism, we call this karma. Once a situation has manifested, the best thing to do is to accept the fact and deal with it.

Now, there’s no reason for us to hate each other, but anxiety breeds hatred. Therefore, we have to check our motivation for demonstrating for disarmament and against nuclear energy. Why are we doing this? Perhaps our reasons are selfish—what we’re really anxious about is our own destruction. Instead, we should have concern for the whole of humanity. That’s the right motivation. Then there’s no emotion. Even though you’re concerned, occasionally fearful, your fear does not come from an underlying, ever-present, emotional disturbance.

What’s the good of worrying about things twenty-four hours a day, disturbing your mind and preventing yourself from having a peaceful and joyful life? It’s a waste of time. Nothing’s going to change just because you’re worrying about it. If something’s already broken, it’s broken. Worrying won’t fix it. This earth has always been inherently destructive, nuclear age or not. There’s always blood flowing someplace or another. Look at world history. It’s always been like this. Buddhism calls this interdependent origination, and that’s how the human mind works.

Take America’s war in Vietnam, for example. That brought people together in a movement for peace. That’s also interdependent. Some people saw the horrible suffering, confusion, misery and destruction wrought by others, so they went the other way, thinking, “That’s not right,” and despite the difficulties, created a movement of peace and love.

But the right way to eliminate harm from this earth is to first free your mind from the emotional disturbances that cause irrational fear of destruction, and then educate yourself and others in how to bring peace to the world. The first thing you must do is control your own mind and commit yourself: “From now on, no matter what happens, I’m never going to use weapons to kill any human being.” That’s where world peace begins.

Human beings can control their minds and actions such that they will never kill others; people can learn to see that harming others destroys not only others’ pleasure and happiness but their own as well. Through this kind of education, we can prevent nuclear energy from destroying the world.

We can’t just campaign for the complete abolition of nuclear energy. Like electricity, nuclear energy is useful if employed the right way. If you’re careless with electricity, it can kill you too, can’t it? With right knowledge and method, we should campaign to ensure that everybody on earth determines, “I will never use nuclear weapons to kill human beings.” If that happened, a nuclear conflagration could never occur.

Not that it matters, but personally, I don’t believe that nuclear energy is going to destroy the earth. I do believe, however, that human beings are capable of making a program to ensure that people everywhere, irrespective of whether they live in communist or capitalist societies, determine not to use nuclear weapons to kill other human beings. If we were to undertake such an effort to educate people, I think we could achieve our aim within ten years.

Here, I’m not talking from the Buddhist point of view; I’m not talking from any religion’s point of view. I’m talking from a humanist point of view, a realistic point of view. If people’s minds are out of control, they’re going to use nuclear weapons. But irrespective of whether people are religious or nonreligious, communist or noncommunist, believers or nonbelievers, I believe every human being is capable of understanding the difference between harmful and non-harmful actions and the benefit of everybody’s being peaceful and happy. Since it’s a universal reality, we can educate people to see it.

With respect to fear and worry, the Buddha’s solution is to analyze the object of fear and worry. If you do this correctly, you’ll be able to recognize that you’re seeing the object as fundamentally permanent, which has nothing to do with its reality. Look at it and ask yourself, “Is this really worth worrying about? Is worry a solution or not?” Analyze the object: is it permanent or changeable? As the great saints have said, “If it’s changeable, why worry? If it’s not, what’s the use of worrying?” When you’re afraid, analyze the object of your fears.

Particularly when you’re emotionally disturbed and anxious, you’ll find that there’s a concept of concreteness in your mind, which causes you to project a concrete object externally. Neither concept has anything to do with reality. Buddhism asserts that the mind of fear and worry always either overestimates or underestimates its object and never sees its reality. If you can perceive the fundamental, universal reality of your object of fear and worry, it will become like a cloud—it comes; it goes. When you are overcome with worry, you sometimes say, “It’s always like this.” That’s not true. Things never stay the same; they always come and go—that’s the reality.

Also, when you’re occupied by anxiety and fear, you might mean well, but you automatically have a tendency to generate hatred. Hatred has nothing to do with peace and happiness, does it? Buddhist psychology teaches that fear and anxiety tend to produce anger, aversion and hatred. You say you want peace and happiness but your very mental state causes hatred. It’s contradictory. People who demonstrate for peace and other causes have to watch out for this, but you have to judge for yourself how far you can go without generating hatred. Everybody’s different.

Let’s say we’re out there campaigning for peace but then the president says something with which we disagree. Should we get angry? Should we hate the president? I don’t believe so; that would be a mistake. If our concern for peace and happiness makes us angry, there’s something wrong. The president is a human being. He, too, wants peace and happiness. At the bottom of his heart, he wants to be happy; he doesn’t want to be miserable. This is the universal reality. Therefore, all of us in the peace movement should make sure that we don’t hate any human being. This is the most important thing. When we demonstrate, we should be true to our word.

Being a politician is not easy. Even being a wife or a husband is not easy. Most situations come with responsibilities and obligations. We can look outside and blindly criticize people who work as administrators and so forth, but realistically, their positions can be very difficult.

To be successful, the peace movement should be selfless. If we who campaign for peace are coming from a place of selfishness, a basic concern for, “me, me, me,” we have little chance of success. If, instead, we have a broad view based on concern for all human beings—understanding that everybody wants happiness and nobody wants to be miserable—and can educate others to see this, if we work toward this goal continuously, ultimately we’ll achieve it.
There are many meditations you can do to eliminate anxiety. But meditation doesn’t mean going off to the mountains. You have the key to change your mind at any time, wherever you are. You can learn to switch your mind from emotion to peace and, each time you get distracted, gently bring it back to peace again. Practice this over and over again. You can do it; it’s human nature. You have to realize what you’re capable of.

Check your own life, from the time you were born up to now—how many times have you changed your mind? Who changed it for you? Buddha didn’t change it. Jesus didn’t change it. Who changed your mind? Analyze this for yourself.

That is the beauty of being human. We have the capacity for liberation within us; we come with that ability. If we utilize our energy and intelligence correctly, we can discover that liberation and happiness are already there, within us.

The fundamental principle of Buddhism is not to kill. As Buddhists, this is our main obligation. I think most of you could promise never to kill another human being. That makes me very happy. We all have the same aim; we think alike. Even though I’m a Tibetan monk, an uneducated mountain man, and you’re educated people from industrialized, capitalist societies, we have the same understanding. We don’t know each other, but we can still work together. That’s the most beautiful thing about being human. We can communicate with others.

We should try to educate people all over the world to the point where everybody says, “For the rest of my life, I will never kill another human being.” If every human being on earth could agree to that, what would there be to worry about? Who could possibly be paranoid?

In one way, the peace movement is beautiful, and if we act according to its ideas, there’ll be no more racism, no more nationalism. We’ll be equally concerned for all people. There’ll be no more fanatical religious concerns; we won’t even care if people are religious or not. Our only concern will be peace. All that will matter will be that people everywhere love and take care of each other. Who cares who’s communist or noncommunist? What’s in the human heart is what’s important, not whether people are communist or capitalist. If we talk to each other, we can change the human heart.

At present we might live in a noncommunist country, but we shouldn’t project that communists want to kill people who aren’t. That’s not true. People in communist countries are ladies and gentlemen, too. Like us, they want to be happy and don’t want to be miserable. Therefore, together we can reach conclusions without involving the dogma of philosophy, the dogma of religion, the dogma of nationality, the dogma of racism; we can come together without any kind of dogma. That is beautiful. That is the beauty of the human being—to bring human unity and understanding without being blinded by categories.

If you go to Russia and ask people, “Do you want to be killed by nuclear missiles?” they’re going to say “No!” For sure, they don’t want that to happen. Therefore, we have to educate people to understand the difference between what is beneficial for humanity and what is destructive—for the individual and for all. It’s simply a matter of education.

Lord Buddha stressed the importance of generating loving kindness for all people irrespective of race, nationality, creed or anything else; he taught that all human beings and even animals were the object of loving kindness. This is the best guarantee against nuclear war, because each individual has to maintain control and take personal responsibility for the welfare of all beings in the universe. Taking universal responsibility is the guarantee. If each individual doesn’t take personal responsibility for the welfare of all, it won’t work.

To bring happiness and peace to earth, we have to eliminate every situation leading to hatred and anger. That means totally eradicating our own hatred and anger. We have to make our own lives peaceful and happy. This is the way to work for peace twenty-four hours a day. If our minds harbor destructive, angry thoughts, any talk of peace is just a joke. It’s merely artificial; there’s no guarantee. The only guarantee is to fertilize our minds with peace and loving kindness toward all; that’s the way we should do it.

The question remains, is it possible to spread these ideas throughout the whole world? Can we get everybody in the world to agree to abandon the use of nuclear arms and not to kill any human being? Can you make that determination yourself? Can we spread this philosophy or not? What do you think? We’re not using religion in this; we’re not using Buddha, we’re not using Christ, we’re not using religion or non-religion—we’re just concerned for the welfare of all human beings. What do you think? Do you think it’s possible to make this kind of program and reach that point or not? I’m not talking nationalistically or making any philosophic argument; I’m just talking about feeling secure, taking care of each other, loving each other, bringing peace and happiness to each other. It’s a very simple thing.

Therefore, in our daily lives, each of us should dedicate ourselves to bringing peace and happiness to all beings, and this determination itself is a powerful way of bringing peace and success into our own lives. But this doesn’t mean not to act, either; to just think good thoughts but be passive. But when you do act, act with wisdom and without selfishness, hatred or emotional fear. In that way, you will educate yourself and others.

Don’t worry. Any talk of nuclear destruction of the earth is still speculation. It’s just a mental projection; it’s not yet reality. Therefore, relax and enjoy the rest of your life as much as possible. Be happy and peaceful, and don’t waste your time with pessimistic thoughts, fear or worry. Thank you so much.

Now, before we finish, maybe I can answer some questions, if you have any.

Q. If people don’t want misery and unhappiness, like Ronald Reagan, for example, where does their unhappiness come from and how does it resolve? What’s the best way to resolve unhappiness, the unhappy mind?

Lama. Even though people don’t want to be miserable, they’re constantly creating the cause of their own misery through their attitude toward society and the environment. Basically, however, it’s the human ego, the artificial ego, that’s the problem. The ego projects an artificial appearance of themselves and others that doesn’t come close to touching the fundamental nature of the human being, the human heart. In Buddhist terms we can say we don’t touch the fundamental reality of the human mind, the human consciousness. The superficial ego builds up a thick blanket of ignorance that obscures the reality of our society and our life. That is the cause of misery. People want happiness but do things that create the cause of suffering.

Q. But is peaceful thinking enough? What about compassionate action and political change?

Lama. I say yes, you can act skillfully, with loving kindness and wisdom, to change politics, to manipulate politics and to change the human mind. But trying to do these things with unskillful emotions, through fear and destruction, is extremely unwise.

Q. But when is anger appropriate? When is it correct to display anger or to be angry?

Lama. Well, with my Buddhist way of thinking, I’m not sure I’m oriented to this kind of question. It sounds as if you’re asking when it is a good time to be angry, but there’s no good time to be angry. Anger is your worst enemy. It destroys your good qualities, your relationships, your peace of mind, your loving kindness. It pollutes whatever wisdom you possess. It creates darkness in your mind. According to Buddhism, getting angry is the worst thing you can do in life. This is not my interpretation; it’s what Buddhism teaches. Therefore, you should not get angry.

In fact, you should generate the determination not to get angry as much as you possibly can: “I am never going to get angry, even though I might have to demonstrate anger.” Sometimes you have to manifest an angry aspect, “Grr, I’m going to beat you,” but that doesn’t mean that you’re angry. There’s no time or space in which you can allow yourself to get angry. It’s a mistake to get angry.

In Buddhism, there’s no exception to that rule. With desire, there are exceptions. Desire can be utilized in a positive way; it can be positive or negative. Anger is always negative. So, I give you permission to generate attachment and desire. But anger? Never!

Q. What is the way we change our mind from anxiety to peace?

Lama. There are many different ways. One is by explaining to yourself with skillful wisdom what reality is in the context of the situation and how it can be changed. This is an intellectual, analytical approach where you talk to your own mind and explain to yourself how to change it. Another is through meditation. Switch your mind to a different dimension and contemplate within that. Put your mind into a different atmosphere and reverse your way of thinking. Those are two ways. Don’t think, don’t worry, become a great meditator!

Q. Can you give us a small example of a method for relieving anxiety?

Lama. Well, in Buddhism there are many meditations for releasing anxiety. A simple thing you can do is to just leave your mind in its natural state and watch your breath come and go. Don’t concern yourself with bad, good, beautiful, ugly. Don’t obsess, thinking, “She did this, he did that. . . .” Instead of criticizing and winding yourself up, just let go and listen to the rhythm of your breath. Just be aware of the movement of your breath; just be aware of the nature of your own body, speech and mind. Don’t get preoccupied by thoughts like, “Am I good? Am I bad?” Sometimes that’s not productive. You get too intense. The moment you think, “Am I good enough?” all kinds of negative thoughts will arise and create conflict within you. Don’t think about those things. It’s not a big deal. Anyway, whether you’re good or bad has already manifested.

Also, from a higher point of view, bad and good are only opinions; other people’s opinions. Beauty and ugliness are merely people’s opinions. They are such conventional views. There’s no everlasting, unchangeable beauty; there’s no everlasting, unchangeable ugliness. According to Buddhism, such things are totally nonexistent.

You see, every day of our lives, we think about, we repeat like a mantra, “Good, bad, good, bad, good, bad . . . pleasant, unpleasant, pleasant, unpleasant, pleasant, unpleasant. . . .” We’re so oriented to this kind of intellectualization that, since the time of our birth up until the present, we’ve built up the tremendous energy to keep thinking like this—rolling, rolling, rolling twenty-four hours a day. We have to find a way to stop it, but it’s not as easy as putting your foot on the brake and stopping a rolling car. We have to develop the skill to put an end to this torrent of thought.

Q. Would you talk more about what our obligations are to each other?

Lama. The realistic point of view is that we need to take care of each other as much as we can according to our physical and mental capacity. That’s all. As much as we can without exceeding our capacity to do so. Otherwise, we burn out. We run out of fuel. Some people are very ambitious: “From now on I want to spend all my time helping others.” Then they put in a huge amount of effort and after two or three days run out of energy: “I’m burnt out.”

So we need to help others in a skillful way. Remember what the Buddha taught? The middle way. Avoid extremes. To help others, we need to survive, so the first thing we need to do is to take care of ourselves. Then, when we reach the point where we have enough physical and mental energy to share with others, we do so. With wisdom; with love. So always take the middle way; don’t try to push too much.

Normally, in our attachment relationships, we don’t take the middle way. We try to help each other too much and then we crash. It’s not realistic. So even though you love your human object of affection so much, take care as to how much energy you put into the relationship.

Q. How can we deal with feelings of isolation from other human beings, such as husbands, wives, friends, family, co-workers and so forth?

Lama. In this American community we seem to be so isolated from each other. We are so individualistic; so scared of being taken advantage of by others. Unfortunately. In order for us to take care of each other, this paranoia has to be eliminated.

But I don’t necessarily agree with the premise. In this country, husbands and wives are always together. They can’t separate from each other until they do! Then they want to be completely separate. I think husbands should give their wives more space and vice versa. Then they’d have time to think about and appreciate each other. If they are stuck together twenty-four hours a day, the wife can’t see how her husband is helping her; the husband can’t see how his wife is helping him.

We do need to be together, but at the same time we need to give each other the space to let the other do what he or she finds interesting as an individual. This is quite a big subject. It would take a lot of time and space to address it properly. But as you know, it’s a big problem in this country.

Generally speaking, Americans have built up a highly intellectual life, and this intellectual life has, somehow, become rather concrete. In that way it seems so indivisible; impossible to change. And we’ve built up an individual, self-existent, permanent view of each other. That makes it difficult to humanize each other; to contact each other as human beings. The minute we meet someone, it’s “When are you coming to see me? What business are you going to give me? How are you going to do that? What do you expect of me?” It’s so intense, so intellectual, that it’s difficult to relax with each other; to be together without either of us trying to feel important. When people in this country are together, they have to feel important. They have to talk about important issues. It becomes unnatural. Human relationships become tense and unnatural. That results in our feeling lonely and disconnected from each other. Unfortunately, we do have such feelings. What to do? I think you people can answer that question better than I can, so I’m not going to try!

Q. This is a kind of a Berkeley question, here. (A Berkeley question! Wow!) What do you think about using drugs to relieve anxiety, especially if a chemical imbalance has caused the anxiety?

Lama. Well, I think it’s a good idea. Look, here I am, eating raisins to eliminate my anxiety! But first I have to say that I have neither the experience nor the education to really assess the issue of medication with drugs. Personally, I don’t know. Nevertheless, I can offer my opinion.

First of all, I’m going to say that it depends on your state of mind. If your mind is already disturbed, then it might be a good idea to use medication to bring it back to a softer, more gentle state and to diminish its concrete conceptions. We have psychiatric hospitals in this country and they employ drug treatment all the time, so it’s not that big of a deal. Of course, if patients get habituated or addicted to any of the drugs with which they’re being treated and lose control of their mind, that’s very dangerous. I’d disagree with the use of any drug that might result in that.

Now, we always talk about peace and control of the mind. If your mind is uncontrolled, how can you bring peace to others? You’re not acting responsibly. It’s foolish to take drugs that destabilize your mind. You’re just destroying yourself. You should be able to judge what is good for you and what is bad. Human beings are capable as individuals of making that kind of discrimination.

Maybe you could repeat the question. I’m not sure whether I’ve answered it or not!

Q. What do you feel about using drugs to relieve anxiety, especially if a chemical imbalance has caused the anxiety?

Lama. Well, as I said, doctors and hospitals are already using prescription drugs to treat that kind of thing, so don’t worry. It’s legal.

Q. Many people make bombs and weapons because it’s their job and it’s all they know how to do, to work and make money to support their families. So how do we change this?

Lama. I think they should be allowed to manufacture bombs in order to make money. Let go; let go. Making bombs and other weapons has a long history. What’s the big deal? If a manufacturer has already produced a thousand bombs, what’s the use of telling them not to produce say ten more. It’s useless. Just let go. It’s not worth making a fuss: “OK, this year you should only produce ten.” What’s the use? What’s the big deal? They’ve already made a hundred, so ten means what? Let go. I don’t care. They’re going to do it anyway, I tell you.

Honestly, my own experience is that if you stop it here, they will move there. Weapons manufacturers are like mushrooms. They can pop up anywhere. There’s no point in trying to totally stop the production of weapons on this earth. There’s no way that will happen. If one country stops, another will start in order to get an advantage. That’s all. It’s just the grasping, egotistic mind, the unbelievably political mind that’s behind all this. They’re playing games; they’re going to do it anyway. It’s a waste of time trying to stop it. We should let go, relax and enjoy ourselves.

Q. I understand the notion of individual responsibility, but the means to end hostility has to be a cooperative act. How does one commit oneself to nonviolence against surprise hostility such as a personal attack?

Lama. If someone is trying to beat you, you can raise your fists to defend yourself. That’s all right. But you should never have the thought of killing that person. You should protect yourself without killing.

Q. It seems that oppression in politics and therefore economics does kill. How can we change that?

Lama. Then vote for me to become president of America! Unfortunately, this Himalayan monk is so ambitious!

I think you can manipulate political people to some extent and change their mind. It’s possible. But you have to roll with them, act with them, play along with them. If you’re alone way up in some Himalayan cave railing against politicians, “You are wrong, blah, blah, blah,” that’s ineffective. You have to play along with them, act with them with compassion. In that way I think it’s possible to change and manipulate their mind. I mean, politicians are people. They have spouses and children. They want happiness and comfort, so it’s possible for them to change.

And especially this: if the majority of the world community were to decide not to touch weapons, if we determined and vowed never to touch weapons to kill human beings, politicians could not do too much. That’s why in my lectures I try to promote educating people in a reasonable way, without invoking nationality or any other kind of organization. I think it’s possible.

Q. What are your feelings toward the system and the people that forced you to leave Tibet and to this day keep you from returning?

Lama. My feeling toward the people who kicked me out of my country is one of gratitude. I’m very happy. I have no criticism of Chairman Mao, who is already dead, and I have great sympathy for his life and his wife. The Chinese politicians mean well, but they have to go through . . . look, I tell you, personally, I was kicked out of my country . . . well, not kicked out, exactly; I just left. We weren’t kicked out; we just went. I myself left, escaped from that situation. But when you look at the Chinese population, they’re experiencing great suffering. Mine was nothing compared to that. But that huge Chinese population suffered incredible misery for many years.

So concerning all that, I have nothing to say against anything. I have great sympathy for the entire Chinese nation. They suffered; their lives were destroyed; their parents were killed. There was incredible destruction. When you compare the size of the Tibetan population with that of the Chinese—now I’m just talking from the scientific point of view—Tibetans are very few, compared to the huge number of Chinese. So the amount of Tibetan suffering is very small compared to that of the Chinese. So I have nothing to say. They were very kind, they kicked me out and I came to America, where I met all of you. I consider it a success that I could see all of you.

And I think that’s all, thank you, thank you. I’m very happy, thank you.


Notes 

6 This public lecture is available as a DVD and on the LYWA YouTube channel.  [Return to text]