It’s difficult to say “Buddhism is this, therefore it should be like that” or to summarize it in a simplistic way because people have a wide variety of views of what Buddhism is. However, I can say that Buddhism is not what most people consider to be a religion.
First of all, when we study Buddhism we’re studying ourselves—the nature of our body, speech and mind—the main emphasis being on the nature of our mind and how it works in everyday life. The main topic is not something else, like what is Buddha, what is the nature of God or things like that.
Why is it so important to know the nature of our own mind? It’s because we all want happiness, enjoyment, peace and satisfaction and these experiences do not come from ice cream but from wisdom and the mind. Therefore we have to understand what the mind is and how it works.
One thing about Buddhism is that it’s very simple and practical in that it explains logically how satisfaction comes from the mind and not from some kind of supernatural being in whom we have to believe.
I understand that this idea can be difficult to accept because in the West, from the moment you’re born, there’s extreme emphasis on the belief that the source of happiness resides outside of yourself in external objects. Therefore your sense perception and consciousness have an almost fanatical orientation toward the sense world and you come to value external objects above all else, even your life. This extreme view that over-values material things is a misconception, the result of unreasonable, illogical thought.
Therefore, if you want true peace, happiness and joy, you need to realize that happiness and satisfaction come from within you and stop searching so obsessively outside. You can never find real happiness out there. Whoever has?
From the moment they evolved, humans have never found true happiness in the external world, even though modern scientific technology seems to think that that’s where the solution to human happiness lies. That’s a totally wrong conception. Of course, technology is necessary and good, but it has to be used skillfully. Religion is not against technology nor is external development contrary to the practice of religion, even though we do find religious extremists who oppose material development and scientific advancement and non-believers pitted against those who believe. All such fanatics are wrong.
First, however, let me ask a question. Where in the world can we find somebody who doesn’t believe? Who among us is a true non-believer? In asking this I’m not necessarily referring to conceptual belief. The person who says “I don’t believe” thinks he’s intellectually superior but all you have to do to puncture his pride is ask a couple of simple questions: “What do you like? What don’t you like?” He’ll come up with a hundred likes and dislikes. “Why do you like those things? Why don’t you like the others?” Questions like those immediately expose all of us to be believers.
Anyway, to live in harmony we have to balance external and internal development; failure to do so simply leads to mental conflict and restless states of mind.
So Buddhism finds no contradiction in advocating external scientific and inner mental development; both are correct but, depending on mental attitude, each can be positive or negative as well. There’s no such thing as absolute, eternally existent, total positivity or absolute, eternally existent, total negativity. Positive and negative actions are defined mainly by the motivation that gives rise to them not by the actions themselves.
Therefore it’s very important to avoid extreme views; extreme emotional attachment to sense objects—“This is good; this makes me happy”—only leads to mental illness. What we need to learn instead is how to remain in the middle, between the extremes of exaggeration and underestimation.
That doesn’t mean giving everything up. You don’t have to get rid of all your possessions. It’s extreme emotional attachment to any object— external or internal—that makes you mentally ill; that’s what you have to abandon. Western medicine has few answers to that kind of sickness. There’s nothing you can take; it’s very hard to cure. Psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists…I doubt that they can solve the problems of attachment. Most of you have probably experienced that. Attachment and the lack of knowledge-wisdom that underlies it are the actual problem.
The reason that Western health professionals can’t treat attachment effectively is that they don’t know how to investigate the reality of the mind. The function of attachment is to bring frustration and misery. We all know this; it’s not that difficult to grasp—in fact, it’s rather simple. But Buddhism has a method of revealing the psychology of attachment and how it works in everyday life. That method is meditation.
Excessive concern for your own comfort and pleasure driven by the exaggerations of attachment automatically leads to feelings of hatred for others. These two incompatible feelings—attachment and hatred—naturally clash in your mind. From the Buddhist point of view, a mind in this kind of conflict is sick and unbalanced.
Going to church or temple once a week is not enough to deal with this—you have to examine your mind all day long every day and maintain constant awareness of the way you speak and act. We usually hurt others unconsciously. In order to observe the actions of our unconscious mind we need to develop powerful wisdom energy, but that’s easier said than done; it takes work to be constantly aware of what’s going on in the mind.
Most religious and non-religious people agree that loving kindness for others is important. How do we develop loving kindness? First we have to understand how and why others suffer, what the best kind of happiness for them to have is, and how they can get it. That’s what we have to investigate. But our emotions get the better of us. We project our attachments onto others. We think that others like the same things we do, that people’s main problems are hunger and thirst and that food and water are the solution. The human problem is not hunger and thirst; it’s misconception and mental pollution.
Therefore it’s very important that you make your mind clear. If you can, the ups and downs of the external world won’t bother you; no matter what happens out there, your mind will remain peaceful and joyous. If you get too caught up in watching the up and down world you finish up going up and down yourself: “Oh, that’s so good! Oh, that’s so bad!” If the outer world is your only source of happiness, its natural fluctuations constantly disturb your peace of mind and you can never be happy, no matter how long you live. It’s impossible.
But if you understand that the world is up and down by nature and expect things to fluctuate, you won’t get upset when they do and as a result your mind will be balanced and peaceful. Whenever your mind is balanced and peaceful you have wisdom and control.
Perhaps you think, “Oh, control! Buddhism is all about control. Who wants control? That’s a Himalayan trip, not a Western one.” But in our experience, control is natural. When you have the wisdom that knows how the uncontrolled mind functions and where it comes from, control comes naturally.
All people have equal potential to control and develop their mind. There’s no distinction according to race, color or nationality. Equally, all can experience mental peace and joy. Human ability is great—if you use it with wisdom, it’s worthwhile; if you use it with ignorance and emotional attachment, you waste your life. Therefore, be careful. Lord Buddha’s teaching strongly emphasizes understanding over the hallucinated fantasies of the ordinary mind. The emotional projections and hallucinations that arise from unrealistic perceptions are wrong conceptions and as long as your mind is polluted by wrong conceptions you will always be frustrated.
The clean clear mind is simultaneously joyful. That’s simple to see. When your mind is under the control of extreme attachment on one side and extreme hatred on the other, you have to examine it to see why you grasp at happiness and why you hate. When you check your objects of attachment and hatred logically, you’ll see that the fundamental reason for these contrary emotions is basically the same thing: emotional attachment projects a hallucinatory object; emotional hatred projects a hallucinatory object. And either way, you believe in the hallucination.
As I said before, it’s not an intellectual, “Oh, yes, I believe.” And by the way, just saying you believe in something doesn’t actually mean you do. However, belief has deep roots in your subconscious and as long as you’re under the influence of attachment, you’re a believer. Belief doesn’t necessarily have to be in something supernatural or beyond logic. There are many ways to believe.
From the standpoint of Buddhist psychology, in order to have love and compassion for all living beings you first have to develop equilibrium—a feeling that all beings are equal. This is not a radical sort of “I have a piece of candy; I need to cut it up and share it with everybody else” but rather something you have to work with in your mind. A mind out of balance is an unhealthy mind.
So equalizing sentient beings is not something we do externally; that’s impossible. The equality advocated by Buddhists is completely different from that which the communists talk about; ours is the inner balance derived from training the mind.
When your mind is even and balanced you can generate loving kindness for all beings in the universe without discrimination. At the same time, emotional attachment automatically decreases. If you have the right method, it’s not difficult; when right method and right wisdom come together, solving problems is easy.
But we humans suffer from a shortage of intensive knowledge-wisdom. We search for happiness where it doesn’t exist; it’s here, but we’re looking over there. It’s actually very simple. True peace, happiness and joy lie within you and if you meditate correctly and investigate the nature of your mind you can discover the everlasting happiness and joy within. They’re always with you; they’re mental energy, not external material energy, which always fizzles out. Mental energy coupled with right method and right wisdom is unlimited and always with you. That’s incredible! And it explains why human beings are so powerful.
Materialists think that people are powerful because of the amazing buildings and so forth that they construct but all that actually comes from the human mind. Without the skill of the human mind there’s no external supermarket. Therefore, instead of placing extreme value on regular supermarkets we should try to discover our own internal supermarket. That’s much more useful and leads to a balanced, even mind.
As I mentioned before, it can sound as if Buddhism is telling you to renounce all your possessions because attachment is bad, but renunciation isn’t a physical giving up. You go to the toilet every day but that doesn’t mean you’re attached to it—you’re not attached to your toilet, are you? We should have the same attitude to all the material things we use—give them a reasonable value according to their usefulness for human existence, not an extreme one.
If a kid runs crazily over dangerous ground to get an apple, trips, falls and breaks his leg, we think he’s foolish, exaggerating the value of the apple and putting his wellbeing at risk for the sake of achieving a tiny goal. But actually, we’re the same. We exaggerate the beauty of objects of desire and generate extreme attachment toward them, which blinds us to our true potential. This is dangerous; we’re just like the boy who risks his safety for an apple. By looking at objects with emotional attachment and chasing that hallucinated vision we definitely destroy our pure potential.
Human potential is great but we have to use our energy skillfully; we have to know how to put our lives in the right direction. This is extremely important.
Now, instead of just talking, let me try to answer any questions you might have.
Q. How can I make my mind aware so that I have equilibrium of mind and skillfulness of action?
Lama. The first thing you need to do is to recognize how your unbalanced mind works—how it arises, what causes it to do so, what it reacts to and so forth—and how your false conceptions create the view you perceive. This recognition allows you to put your mind into a clearer atmosphere. Once you understand your unbalanced mind, it becomes clear.
The Buddhist approach to negativity is not to avoid it but to confront it head-on and check why it’s there, what its reality is and so forth. We think that this is the best foundation for destroying the negative mind and is much more logical and scientific than just avoiding it—like running away to some other place or trying to think only positive things. That’s not enough. So, when problems arise, instead of turning away stare them right in the face. That’s very useful; that’s the Buddhist way.
If you run from problems you can never really ascertain their root. Putting your head in the sand doesn’t help. You have to determine where the problem comes from and how it arises. The way to discover the clean clear mind is to understand the nature of the unclear mind, especially its cause. If there’s a thorn bush growing at your door, scratching you every time you go in or out, pruning it won’t be enough to solve the problem once and for all—you have to pull it out by the root. Then it will never bother you again.
Q. You mentioned going beyond thought. Could you please talk about that experience?
Lama. It’s possible. When you suddenly realize that the hallucinated self-imagination projected by your ego does not exist as it appears, you can be left with an automatic experience of emptiness, a vision of shunyata. But as long as your self-imagination—“I’m Thubten Yeshe, I’m this, I’m that, therefore I should have this, I should do that”—continues to run amok, it’s impossible to go beyond thought. You need to investigate such thoughts with skillful, analytic knowledge-wisdom. Scrutinize your mind’s self-imagination as interpreted by your ego: what am I? What is it? Is it form? Does it have color? No. Then what is it? The only conclusion you can eventually arrive at is that it does not exist anywhere, either externally or internally, and the vision that automatically accompanies that experience is one of emptiness; at that time you reach beyond thought. Before that, your mind was full of “I’m this, therefore I need a house; I’m that, therefore I need a car; I’m the other, therefore I need to go to the supermarket.” All your “I’m that-this” comes from conflicted emotional thought that completely destroys your inner peace….
Q. So then you’re beyond thought and there’s the void, emptiness?
Lama. Yes, that’s emptiness or, in Sanskrit terminology, shunyata. But emptiness does not mean nothingness. It refers to an absence of ego conceptualization—“I am Thubten Yeshe”—which is bigger than Los Angeles but a complete hallucination. When we realize that it’s totally non-existent, that it’s only projected by the mind, by the ego, the experience of shunyata suddenly arises; at that time there’s an absence of thought.
Now, “no thought” does not mean that you become somehow unconscious. Many people think that that’s what it means but that’s dangerous. Reaching beyond thought means eliminating the usual conflict-producing, dualistic, “that-this” type of thought, not lapsing into unconsciousness.
Q. Does Buddhism have physical exercises similar to tai chi or yoga, to tone the body as well as the mind? Are there physical exercises that are a part of Buddhism?
Lama. Physical exercise is good but mental exercise is better; it’s more powerful. Nevertheless, we do have certain exercises but they’re mainly to facilitate sitting meditation. Sometimes we do retreat in a small room for months at a time; on such occasions we also do some physical yoga. However, we normally emphasize that, no matter what actions we engage in with our body, speech and mind, mental attitude is the most important thing. Buddhism always stresses the importance of understanding the nature of the mind.
Q. How do we get rid of mental pollution?
Lama. By realizing how the mind is polluted, where the pollution comes from and that it has a deep root. If you know that, you can get rid of it; if you don’t, you can’t. Thus Lord Buddha always emphasized understanding as the only path to liberation, that the only way to attain liberation is through understanding.
Q. If everything is so simple and God is so perfect, why did he create all the negativity and suffering we see in the world today?
Lama. Perhaps it’s you who created all the bad things you say God did. Our own mind creates our own uncontrolled situation. All the suffering we see in the world today was not created by God but by the negative mind.
Q. How can I escape the cycle of death and rebirth?
Lama. By recognizing and destroying that which causes you to cycle. Basically, if you’re free of emotional attachment there’s no cycle of death and rebirth. Once you cut emotional attachment, the cause, there’s no reason to ever again have to experience an uncontrolled situation, the result. The short answer: cut attachment.
Q. When I read Zen and other Eastern philosophies, they all seem to be saying the same thing.
Lama. Yes, if you examine the different religions more deeply with right understanding, you’ll find the same qualities, but if you just check them superficially you’re more likely to be judgmental: “This religion’s good; that one’s bad.” That’s a poor assessment. What you need to look at is the purpose of each religion—every religion has a purpose—and how that purpose can be realized in experience.
The question is, however, do followers of a given religion know how to put its ideas into action? This is often the problem. People might think a religion’s ideas are good but they don’t have the key of method; they don’t know how to put those ideas into experience.
Q. Then are you saying that your way of putting ideas into action is better than the others?
Lama. No, I’m not saying that my way is the best and that the others are wrong. I’m saying that most of us lack that knowledge. For example, you might say, “I’m a Buddhist,” but if you check how much you understand your religion, how much you act in accordance with its principles, perhaps even though you say, “I’m a Buddhist,” you’re not.
I’m not talking about any specific person; I’m talking about all of us. So the most important thing to know is the method: how to bring lofty ideas down to the practical level, into our life.
Q. Lama, do you have anything to say regarding the interpersonal problems married people face?
Lama. Yes, I certainly have something to say! The main thing is that the two married people don’t understand each other and this lack of understanding leads to poor communication and problems. Also, many times young people get married for very superficial and temporal reasons: “I like the way he looks, I like the way she looks, let’s get married.” There’s no examination of the other person’s inner personality or how life together will be. Because we can’t see another’s inner beauty we judge them by the way they appear; because we lack knowledge-wisdom we don’t understand our spouse’s essential inner qualities. Then, when the relative world moves on and things don’t work out as we planned, it is very easy to disrespect our partner. Of course, most relationships and marriages are ego-based and so it’s no surprise that they often don’t work out.
It’s important, therefore, that a married couple bases their marriage on mental rather than physical communication and that the two people really try sincerely to understand and help each other. A marriage based on superficialities will nearly always break down. Small things: the husband says, “Put this here,” his wife says, “No, I want it there,” and a huge fight ensues…over nothing! It’s so foolish. Put it here; put it there—what difference does it make? It’s so narrow-minded, yet we break up over these foolish things.
Q. Some people in our culture say that Jesus is God. How do you see Jesus Christ?
Lama. I see Jesus as a holy man. If you understand beyond words what he taught, fantastic. But we don’t even understand what he said literally. Even though holy Jesus told us that we should love everybody, we still choose one atom to love and hate the rest. That’s contrary to what he said. If you truly understand what Jesus taught, it’s very useful, and especially helpful for mental sickness.
Q. Jesus also said, “I am the only way. Only through me can you reach God.”
Lama. He did say that and that’s right but you can’t interpret it to mean that only his teachings are correct and that all other religions are wrong. That’s not what he meant. “Only way” means that the only way to reach inner freedom is through the reality he taught. That’s my interpretation, anyway. Jesus saying “only my way” doesn’t mean he was propounding some dogmatic view. He was talking about absolute reality as being the only way to God. If you realize that, you can reach inner freedom; if you follow your hallucinated, polluted, wrong-conception mind, you can’t. That’s how I interpret Jesus’s words. I think that’s perfect. Many people interpret what he said very dogmatically but that’s just their polluted mind. So we have to be careful when we think we understand the views of other religions. Many times a religion’s view might be perfect but our limited mind will think, “This means this, that means that,” and all we’re doing is bringing something profound down to our own mundane level.
Q. Is trying to plan and organize my life versus just letting things happen an expression of attachment?
Lama. Not necessarily. You can organize your life with wisdom. How? One way is by trying to make it beneficial to others rather than by living it simply for your own enjoyment. When your life is integrated and you’re a wise, knowledgeable person giving a beautiful, peaceful vibration to others, it’s so worthwhile. That’s not attachment. Buddhism says that we can use our life and sense objects without attachment by giving them a reasonable value and using them to benefit humankind. We need both method and wisdom. You can eat ice cream without confusion or attachment; there’s a way to transform worldly pleasures into the path to inner peace and joy.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about reincarnation?
Lama. Reincarnation is very simple; it’s mental energy. Your physical energy is exhausted at the time of death and the energy of your consciousness separates from your body and goes into another form, that’s all. That’s the simple explanation. Mental energy and physical energy are different. Modern science has some difficulty with this. It does accept that there’s a difference between mental and physical energy but Buddhism explains it more clearly.