We meditate to experience how our mind works, not to change our ideas and philosophy or to try out some Eastern trip. We meditate to investigate the basic energy we already have, the energy of our body, speech and mind: what is it, where does it come from, why does it do what it does? This is not an external search; it’s a search of our own mind and is so worthwhile.
Investigating our own inner nature, the reality of our own mind and life, is not just a religious undertaking. We can’t deny that we possess body, speech and mind—we experience them all the time; we live within their energy field. So investigating our own energy to understand its true nature is really most worthwhile.
Furthermore, seeking the nature of the mind is not something that’s necessary for young people but not the old; old people can’t deny the existence of their own body, speech and mind either. Since the undisciplined, uncontrolled mind is common to both young and old, both need to investigate it. In fact, anybody whose mind is uncontrolled and produces agitation, conflict and frustration needs to look very carefully at what’s going on. Such research is incredibly useful for young and old alike.
Investigating the mind doesn’t demand an extreme change in habits, in the way we work, eat or sleep. However, the uncontrolled mind is intimately associated with the activities of our everyday life and causes the conflicts we experience all the time. Therefore it’s essential that we understand the reality of our mind and the nature of our mental attitudes; this is most necessary.
The mind is like the central generator that provides electricity to the entirety of a big city; it’s mental energy that determines whether the actions of our body, speech and mind are positive or negative, the cause of happiness or suffering. All the energy of our body, speech and mind comes from the mind. That’s why Buddhism always stresses the importance of knowing its essential nature and how it produces both controlled and uncontrolled behavior.
How does Buddhism recommend we investigate the mind? The method is meditation. We receive teachings on the nature of the mind in general and on that basis experiment on our own mind; we investigate its nature through our own experience.
To our surprise, perhaps, we discover that meditation allows us to control small things that we could not control before. This encourages us to go further. We realize that far from being weak, we have fantastic abilities and potential. We stop thinking, “I’m hopeless, I can’t do anything,” and no longer rely on others to do everything for us. From the Buddhist point of view, the mind that relies on others is weak.
So what Buddhism is really trying to get us to do through philosophy, psychology and meditation is to become our own psychologist so that when problems arise we can diagnose and solve them for ourselves. This really is the essence of what the Buddha taught. Everything he taught was aimed at getting us to gain the knowledge-wisdom we need to understand our everyday life through knowing how our own mind functions.
Western psychologists also try to solve their patients’ problems but not by making them their own psychologist. Patients who have mental problems need to realize the nature of their illness; then they can apply the right solution. If the actual cause of their problems remains hidden there’s no way they can solve them. We have to realize the nature of our own problems.
Also, meditation doesn’t mean sitting alone in some corner doing nothing; you can meditate while physically active. Your body can be moving but simultaneously you can be totally conscious and aware, observing how your mind communicates with the sense world, how it interprets the objects it perceives and so forth. That, too, is meditation.
Usually when we walk in the street, communicate with others, or do anything else we unconsciously leave imprints on our mind, imprints that will later ripen into problems. We call that karma. Most of the time we’re unaware of what we’re doing; that’s the main problem. Meditation can wake us up and prevent us from sleeping our way through life. We think that when we’re working, interacting with others and so forth we’re awake, but at a certain level, we’re still asleep. If you look below the surface, you’ll see.
Thus you can see how worthwhile it is to understand the way your uncontrolled mind functions and discipline yourself with right wisdom, and to see that this is exactly what you need, no matter how old you are. With understanding, control comes easily and naturally.
The uncontrolled, undisciplined mind is, by nature, the opposite of knowledge-wisdom and happiness. Its nature is dissatisfaction. When you control your mind with wisdom you create the space you need to discover peace and joy. Your life then becomes peaceful and joyful and somewhat protected from the ups and downs of the external world. You enjoy life and stop blaming external factors when things go wrong: “I’m unhappy because society is up and down; I’m unhappy because of my circumstances.”
Actually you have many reasons to be happy but your weak mind doesn’t see that it’s possible for you to be happy. Knowledge-wisdom is an antidote to the weak mind; it alleviates your depression and gives you the answer to all your problems. Knowledge-wisdom is the path to inner freedom, liberation and enlightenment.
Thus, through meditation you can discover how the selfish mind of attachment is the cause of all mental disease and frustration and how changing your attitude can make your mind healthy and give purpose and meaning to your life. The attitude you need to change is that of excessive worry and self-concern—“Maybe I’m going to get sick, maybe this, maybe that”—to one where through mind training you totally dedicate your life to the benefit of others. Attachment and self-concern are obsessed minds. The obsessed mind is automatically narrow. The narrow mind always leads to problems.
In the Mahayana teachings there’s a mind we call bodhicitta, which means changing our attitude from obsessed concern for self-pleasure— “I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m this, I’m that”—to compassionate concern for other living beings’ pleasure, and dedicating everything we do to the highest benefit of other sentient beings. That kind of attitude automatically brings relaxation and joy into our mind; everything we do becomes joyful and we see a much greater purpose to it.
Otherwise all we see are our imagined self’s objects of obsession. When that’s our view we very easily get unhappy and depressed. Depression and happiness don’t come from outside but from how we direct our mind; not from changing our life but from changing our motivation. The motivation behind an action is much more important than the action itself.
With respect to actions, we can’t say, “Doing this is totally bad; doing that is totally good.” What determines whether an action is bad or good is our motivation for doing it.
Therefore we shouldn’t ask others “How am I doing?” but look within to see what kind of mind impels our daily actions. Acting with attachment to our own happiness on the basis of an imaginary self always brings frustration and conflict into our mind whereas totally dedicating everything we do to the benefit of others automatically brings relaxation, joy and much energy into our mind.
Westerners over-emphasize physical action. For example, many people think that they’re being religious when they give money to the poor or to worthy causes but often what they’re doing is just an ego trip. Instead of their giving becoming an antidote to dissatisfaction and attachment it simply causes increased dissatisfaction and egocentricity and therefore has nothing to do with religion. Such people are just taking the religious idea that it’s good to give and believe that they’re giving, but from the Buddhist point of view charity is not what you give but why and how. True charity depends on motivation—giving without attachment or the expectation of anything in return. Such giving automatically frees the mind. Giving with the hope of getting something back is in the nature of conflict.
Therefore we have to carefully check our supposedly religious actions to make sure that they do in fact bring benefit and don’t cause more confusion for others or ourselves. In order to make sure that our actions become positive, while doing them we meditate on the ultimate nature of reality or what’s sometimes called the “circle of the three”: subject, object and action. This is how to make whatever we do a true cause of freedom from suffering.
Investigating the nature of our mental attitude is most worthwhile, especially if we do it with the intention of changing attachment to the welfare of our imagined self into thoughts of benefiting others. In order to benefit others we don’t necessarily have to do anything physical, we just have to turn our mind in that direction. This brings great joy into our mind, a warm feeling to our heart and clarifies the purpose of our life. We always think that the source of warm feelings is outside of ourselves but it can never be found out there. Warm feelings and satisfaction come from our own mind; that’s where we should seek them.
Now I think I’ve said enough. Do you have any questions?
Q. You spoke of turning the mind around, changing the way we look at things. If I’m experiencing sadness or some other negative mind state that I don’t like, how do I do that?
Lama. When there’s a problem in your mind it’s because of something you did in the past. For example, yesterday your friend might have said something that hurts your reputation and when you think about it today you get upset. That kind of problem is easily stopped. One thing is that your attachment clings very strongly to your reputation and worse, you believe that your being good or bad depends upon what others say. But the responsibility for being good or bad is actually yours. Somebody else’s saying that you’re good or bad doesn’t make you good or bad. You’re responsible. Also, whatever was said yesterday has already gone, so why worry about it? Anyway, this is just an example. You should know that whenever anything bothers you it’s because of attachment, aversion or ignorance, a lack of intensive knowledge-wisdom, and that therefore there’s a solution. There are antidotes to each of these three poisonous minds.
Q. Was tantra Shakyamuni Buddha’s highest teaching?
Lama. Yes, definitely, but the main practitioners for whom he gave his tantric teachings were those who had the skill, intelligence and knowledge-wisdom to transform poison into medicine. If you don’t have such wisdom, tantra can be dangerous, so please be careful. However, there’s a way to develop your mind gradually so that eventually you’ll be qualified to practice tantra; it’s just not something you can jump into right away.
Q. I’ve seen Tibetan monks chanting. How does that affect the mind?
Lama. Chanting is a form of training in awareness of sense objects. Often our senses are totally unaware of what sense objects actually are. An object is there, our mind sees it, but then we project something extra onto it, something that’s not actually there. Then we say, “That’s good” or “That’s bad.” With chanting, our ordinary sense perception is transformed into blissful wisdom energy with total consciousness of the sense object, sound. So it’s a form of mind training.
Q. It opens your consciousness more and more?
Lama. Yes, that’s right. It allows you to see the reality of the sense objects you observe rather than the hallucinations projected by your ego. Actually, when you see monks doing puja and chanting, it might look like empty ritual but their external actions are just symbolic; internally, they’re meditating. We all need to learn how to do that. Also, these practices usually come from the Buddhist tantric tradition. What’s that? Normally, ordinary people might consider certain things to be negative, bad for their mind, but as I just mentioned, those with powerful, skillful, intelligent knowledge-wisdom and access to the methods of tantra can transform potentially negative things into positive. It’s a kind of alchemy that turns poison into medicine.
Q. Would you say something about the role of women seeking enlightenment, please?
Lama. Men and women seeking enlightenment are the same. Women have the same potential for enlightenment as do men and equal ability to train their mind. The ability to develop powerful control over the mind and to reach enlightenment is equal. There’s no way we can say that women are lower than men and can’t do anything. Also, in Tibet there were many female lamas.
Q. What do you mean by control over the mind and how do we get it?
Lama. It comes through understanding the nature of the mind and practicing meditation. But control comes gradually, not all at once. You start off with a day’s experience of control. When you find that as a result you’re happier and more easy-going, you think, why not two days? Then a week, two weeks and so on. Developing control slowly-slowly is the way to go. You can’t expect to gain lofty goals just by thinking about and grasping at them while you still have a low level of mind. It doesn’t work that way. Progressing slowly and steadily is the way to reach spiritual goals.
The thing is, whether you’re religious or not, it’s important not simply to grasp at idealistic goals but to consider if what you want is achievable and by what means; ask yourself what you can do to achieve your aims. That is much more practical.
Sometimes we find that when things don’t work out for them in the material world, people turn to philosophy or meditation but bring worldly grasping to their spiritual pursuits. Of course, that doesn’t work either.
So I always get people to meditate in a step-by-step fashion. That’s the comfortable way to proceed. You’re sure of what you’re doing, you gain experience and everything comes together for you in an integrated way.
Of course, we have many specific methods. Sometimes we use concentration on mantra and listening to our inner sound. However, in general, rather than getting involved in too much physical action, it’s better to sit, relax and check your motivation. That’s very powerful—much more powerful than watching TV.
Q. We’re told to control our senses. Does that mean if I have a rose in my hand I mustn’t smell it? What do you mean by changing or controlling our senses?
Lama. You don’t have to throw the rose away to gain control; you can simply enjoy the scent of the rose in a reasonable way and not over-value it. For example, if you pick up a flower and think, “As long as I have this flower, my life has meaning. If I lose it, I’m dead,” that’s unreasonable; that’s an exaggeration of the value of the flower based on a hallucinated view of it. The reasonable view would be to recognize that it’s impermanent; its nature is to come and go. When the time comes for it to disappear, you’re OK with that. You’re not fretting, “My flower is dead; my life is over.” This shows how we create problems in our own mind. It’s very interesting. Of course, we don’t think consciously, “I like this. As long as I have it, life’s worth living.” But beyond words, deeply rooted within, we actually do have such a philosophy of life. There’s a lot going on in our mind beneath the conscious level. That’s what we need to check and observe through meditation. But getting back to the rose, you can smell and enjoy it; what you need to avoid is exaggerating its importance and getting attached to it.
Q. Lama, what’s the best defense against worldly pain inflicted by other people when you’re searching for wisdom and it makes you vulnerable to that pain? For example, if somebody tries to take financial advantage of you in business, should you fight back or be passive?
Lama. It depends on the situation. If you’re well off and somebody cheats you out of a few dollars, instead of making a big fuss about it perhaps you can just let it go or even feel glad that he got some extra money. If it’s a bigger amount, again it depends on how much it hurts you. One way you can assess the damage is to think how much longer you have to live. Of course, this is something we can never know, but say you give yourself five years—do you have enough for that? If so, then a few thousand dollars isn’t going to make much difference. And you might not even live that long, so is a couple of thousand dollars worth hassling over? If you check, you’ll see that you can never be sure how much longer you have to live.
Sometimes people forget what’s of real value. They make millions of dollars—far more money than they could spend even if they lived a hundred years—and then finish up dying young, worried about the money they’re leaving behind. If you’re going to worry make sure you worry about something worthwhile. There are more important things than money.
Q. What I understand is that there are positive and negative worlds within us and we have to realize the positive rather than the negative.
Lama. What I’m saying is that we can make our mind positive, enjoy life and avoid putting ourselves into bad situations and conflict. That’s the realistic way to live. We need to use the energy of our body, speech and mind to maintain what meets our human need, be content and avoid chasing excess. The “I need this, I need that” mind has no limit.
Q. Is bodhicitta the most beautiful or important aspect of Buddhism?
Lama. Yes, you could say that. Those who have realized the meditation on bodhicitta see all living beings as equal in the sense that none appear as close objects of attachment or distant objects of hatred. They have an equal feeling toward all beings—human, animal, insect, whatever. It’s very important to train our mind in this.
Normally we always choose one person—which is like choosing one out of all the atoms in the universe—and cling to him or her, “Oh, you’re my best friend, I can’t live without you,” with great attachment, over- estimation and grasping. When you grasp at one atom in this extreme manner you automatically discriminate other atoms as objects of hatred or indifference. This kind of unbalanced mind inevitably brings conflict and frustration.
So, in order to develop universal love and compassion, you need to feel equanimity with all living beings. This makes your mind very healthy. Lord Buddha himself said that you should not be attached to anything, not even the realization of enlightenment. If you are, then when somebody says there’s no such thing as enlightenment, you freak out. That’s your problem.
Often when you’re attracted to a certain religion or spiritual philosophy you immediately exaggerate its good qualities and grasp at it, thinking, “Oh, this is fantastic; this is so good….” This can be very dangerous, because when somebody says that your religion’s no good, you freak out. That’s the unhealthy mind at work. Irrespective of the religion, philosophy, psychology or whatever else you follow, if somebody says it’s no good and you get upset, that’s your problem.
Therefore Lord Buddha said that we should not be attached to even the concept of higher realizations and enlightenment, let alone sense objects. He also said that we should not believe what he taught just because he taught it but scrutinize his words carefully with our own knowledge-wisdom to see if his teachings suit us or not. That responsibility is ours; we should not be Buddhists through blind belief.
Q. Could you please say more about the circle of the three, which you mentioned before?
Lama. I was saying that when we practice charity, for example, it’s mostly in the mind; charity is wisdom. In Buddhism, charity doesn’t mean just handing something over to somebody else. What often happens is that we hear that it’s important to give but don’t know how to do it correctly, so we make charity in the wrong way. Then, instead of becoming a solution to our attachment and dissatisfaction, our giving becomes just another source of conflict. We give and regret: “Oh, I shouldn’t have given that away; now I need it.” That’s not charity. Perfect charity is made with the right motivation and awareness of the ultimate nature, or emptiness, of three things: you, the donor; the recipient of the gift; and the action of giving.
Q. Do you also have to check to see whether what you’re giving is appropriate?
Lama. Yes, that’s a good point too. For example, if you give money to somebody who then goes and gets drunk, instead of helping that person, you’ve given harm. That’s just a simple example; there are many more.
Q. Would it then be charity not to give that person money?
Lama. Yes, that’s right. Lord Buddha’s charity is a psychological method of eradicating attachment and bringing the realization of inner peace. You can see how it works. If you give with an understanding of the ultimate reality of the object you’re giving and the circle of the three— donor, recipient and action—there’s no danger of a negative reaction. Our problem is that we always give with the expectation of getting something in return. Psychologically, that’s a great problem. Therefore give with care.
Q. What do you think of the teachings of Christ?
Lama. His teachings were excellent. He taught what true love means, the shortcomings of selfishness and many other positive things. He meditated, too. Don’t think that meditation is just an Eastern trip. By meditating on Christ’s love we can transcend attachment and selfishness. He also emphasized forgetting oneself and focusing more on others’ benefit. He was a great example to all of us.
Q. Did Jesus and the Buddha teach the same thing?
Lama. No, their teachings were different because they were teaching different people. Each person needs to be taught according to his or her own level of mind; the same teaching will not fit everybody. Therefore you can’t state dogmatically that Jesus’s teachings are all we need and that Lord Buddha’s are unnecessary or that only Lord Buddha’s teachings are correct and Jesus’s are wrong. It all depends on the students’ level of development—some who are not ready for one type of philosophy might be ready for another and only a skilled teacher can tell which is suitable for whom. Even within Buddhism, Lord Buddha taught thousands of different methods. You can’t say that this one is right and the others are wrong, unnecessary. They’re all necessary for certain people. That’s why there are hundreds of different flavors of ice cream; people’s minds are different. You can’t say that vanilla is right and all the others are wrong.
Q. Does Buddhism not relate to an outside God, an outside savior?
Lama. Buddhism emphasizes that your main savior is yourself. Neither God nor Buddha is responsible for your positive and negative actions— you are. So you have to check your mind and motivation for doing an action before you engage in it; once it’s finished it’s too late.
Q. Is it possible to experience an inner teacher or guide?
Lama. Yes. If you’re able to be intensively aware, you can get guidance or answers to your questions, but at the moment, how much of the day are you fully conscious and aware? An hour? Even less? So although you can make a little progress at times like that, most of the time you’re unconscious. However, that leaves a lot of room for improvement. As you know, it’s possible to be fully conscious day and night, so instead of worrying, do what needs to be done to develop such awareness. If you can be fully aware and act correctly on the basis of wisdom, everything you do will be perfect.
Q. Then what is the role of an external teacher?
Lama. It depends on the individual. An external teacher may not be necessary. If you’re already advanced through many previous lives’ practice, perhaps you don’t need an external teacher in this life. That’s a question you have to ask yourself. If you have the inner wisdom to direct all your energy into the right channel, fine. But if you don’t and always find yourself doubtful and hesitant, those are negative minds and should not be followed. In that case you need an experienced external guide. But of course, you have to check your potential guide’s credentials very carefully before deciding to rely on his or her advice, and even analyze carefully check whatever you are told. If you think your own advice is better, then follow that. This is a path of personal responsibility.