Ego, Attachment and Liberation

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Melbourne, Australia 1975 (Archive #329)

In 1975, Lama Yeshe undertook his most extensive international teaching tour, being on the road for nearly nine months. This book contains the teachings and meditations Lama gave at a five-day retreat he led near Melbourne, Australia, in March 1975. In line with Lama’s intentions, this book is dedicated to the awakening of inner freedom within the minds of its readers and all other sentient beings.

See the Related Links for each chapter to access the audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts.

Lama Yeshe teaching at Vajrapani Institute, California, 1983. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Five: Questions and Answers

When you investigate your mind, questions automatically arise. Instead of reacting negatively—“Oh, I have too many questions”— think, “How lucky I am to have questions. For such a long time I have accepted being under the control of ego and attachment without question. For once I am trying to understand and control my own internal world; therefore it’s good to have questions.”

When you ask questions, you get answers. Those answers become wisdom; questions produce understanding knowledge-wisdom.

Sometimes our weird mind thinks, “Normally, I have no questions; I’m happy. Now that I’ve been listening to Lama carrying on, I’m confused. I have so many questions. All I get from listening to Lama is questions.” That’s possible. When you’re under the control of wrong conceptions and the superficial view, you have no questions, but when you begin to understand how your false conceptions and projections work, serious questions arise. That’s worthwhile.

In America, there’s some kind of telephone hot-line you can call if you have a question and need an answer right away, even if it’s the middle of the night. Somebody showed it to me in New York. Other people can listen in. So I listened for a while; it was really funny. The answers the man on the end of the line gave were so silly. It was incredible; the things people asked and the answers they got were for me a completely new culture. But I enjoyed it very much. Afterwards I thought a lot about the questions and the answers. I kept asking myself, “What kind of mind is that?”

Anyway, during this retreat I should be giving each of you personal interviews, but you are too many and we don’t have enough time. Therefore, if my talks have created any confusion or difficulty, now is the time to ask any questions that you might have.

Q. I find it very difficult to concentrate on only one thing. I have many distractions, both inner and outer, which are difficult to ignore, and I can’t keep my meditation focused on the object of concentration.
Lama. I’ve addressed that already. Whenever distraction arises, whether it be a dog barking or the memory of some old experience, instead of reacting negatively and trying to force it out of your consciousness, just watch the thought—how it comes and goes. When you watch your thoughts with wisdom they disappear of their own accord. If you don’t watch with wisdom, thoughts appear; if you watch with wisdom, they disappear. That’s their nature. Once the distraction has gone you automatically revert to single-pointed attention on your object of concentration.

Another technique you can use with distracting thoughts is to see how you feel when they arise. Instead of looking at them like an outside observer, “Oh, what is that?” concentrate on feeling; pay more attention to how you feel. Examine how sense perception registers in your consciousness, how you interpret it and how you feel.

Q. How long do we hold our breath when we do the vase breathing exercise?
Lama. Start with what’s comfortable, but do try to extend the period. At first you’ll find it difficult to control your breath but it becomes easier with time. On inhalation, hold it for as long as you can but on exhalation, don’t hold it out too long. Exhale naturally, slowly and completely, and once you have, again inhale naturally, slowly and completely—with strong concentration. If you do this properly, your mind and nervous system will automatically relax. They’ll be calm and quiet. If your concentration is strong, you’ll feel as if you’ve almost stopped breathing. That’s the experience, although it takes time to reach that stage. But if you have excellent concentration, your breathing will be completely silent.

The first time new students meditate their breathing can be really noisy but with experience it gets quieter and more peaceful. The breathing meditation is a very useful technique to master because in our busy society, with work and everything else, it’s very simple to take a moment and focus on your breath. Whether you’re at work, in a restaurant or wherever, you can concentrate on the movement of your breath and your sensations. You don’t need any other object of concentration. This is very helpful for integrating your mind.4

Q. I’m more distracted by shapes and colors than by discursive thought. I like to watch them. Are these really distractions?
Lama. It depends. If you remain concentrated on feeling but at the same time get an impression of different shapes and colors passing by, that’s not distraction. But if your mind moves away from the object of concentration and pays more attention to the shape or color, then at that time, yes, you’re distracted. Just having an impression of something else in your mind is not necessarily a distraction.

Q. If my meditation is going well and I’m not getting distracted for long periods I get quite pleased with myself, but then I feel guilty about being pleased with myself. Is this just my ego?
Lama. Definitely. But you don’t have to feel guilty about recognizing that your meditation is going well. Instead of feeling egocentric pride, dedicate your meditation to others. Then your ego won’t arise. Think, “This meditation is for others. I’m not doing it because I’m obsessed with my own problems. I have dedicated my life to the welfare of others. Should I feel happy and joyful as a result, may my good behavior and positive actions make others feel good. This is my practice of charity.” Offering your friends good instead of selfish behavior is most worthwhile; it helps other sentient beings. There’s no pride involved in this. You want to create a positive environment for others; you want to give them a good visualization by improving yourself and becoming a good example. If you dedicate your meditation and other actions in that way there’ll be no room for pride or ego. It’s most necessary to do this.

Remember what I said at the beginning of the course: don’t expect me to give you any big realizations in these five short days. I asked you to think, “Whatever happens during this course, I don’t care. Recognizing how selfish I have been for countless lives, I dedicate the next five days to benefiting others.” If you do that, no matter what I say, no mat- ter what happens during the course, everything you do during these five days becomes powerfully positive. Thus you can see that whether your meditation becomes positive or negative depends on your own mind. I’m saying this for all of you, not just in reply to that question.

Q. If I enjoy things like food and music, is that the same as being attached to them, and if so, how do I stop the attachment?
Lama. You stop attachment by understanding what it is and how it works. When, for example, you realize how attachment grasps at more food than you need, it will stop naturally. You can’t stop it by generating some kind of radical, rejecting mind. Understanding brings natural change; when you understand attachment to food, it will automatically change into detachment. Satisfaction has to do with the mind, not the amount of food you eat.

Also, listening to music isn’t necessarily negative. That, too, depends on your mind. When you listen to music, analyze how the sound is produced, how it comes through your sense of ear and registers in your consciousness and how attachment clings to it. In that way, listening to music becomes analytical meditation and a form of wisdom.

Q. But if I hear some music that I like and just think that it’s nice, is that different from attachment?
Lama.Yes, that can be different. But as I said, you have to know the basic nature of how the sound is generated, what kind of mind produces music and how your interest in it arises. If you understand the total nature of the music, it’s impossible to be attached to it. Our problem is that we cling to it, wanting more, more, more. We don’t understand the true nature of music, therefore we crave it. When we understand the nature of music our attitude becomes, when it’s there, it’s there; when it’s not there, it’s not there and we don’t miss it terribly. It’s the same with any other object of desire. When we understand the nature of the object and the nature of the subject—the mind of attachment—and the way they function, our attachment automatically falls away. If we don’t have this understanding, attachment only makes us miserable.

Q. We’re told that if we create negative karma we’ll be reborn as some lower being. How can we really check up on this? You tell us not to simply believe what we are told, but how do we analyze this point?
Lama. It’s not necessary to simply believe—through your own experience you can see the possibility of this happening. For example, you see people in human form whose minds and behavior are worse than those of animals. The result of such thoughts and actions is rebirth as an animal. If you generate an animal mind, an animal mind results, although not necessarily an animal body. As I mentioned, some people have animal- like minds. Either can result: rebirth as an animal or as another kind of being with an animal-like mind.

Q. To survive in Western civilization, we have to earn money. To earn money for food, clothing and the like for ourselves and our family, we have to have a job. In other words, we have to voluntarily put ourselves into some form of suffering. Please could you offer some thoughts on that?
Lama. Yes, I understand that in the West, to preserve your life you have to work and make money. Now, most people work for somebody else. Therefore, instead of simply craving for money, instead of thinking only about the money, sincerely offer your services to your boss; offer your life to that other sentient being. Whether you work for the government or some private company, you’re still working for some other sentient being. So instead of thinking, “I want money, therefore I work,” instead of having that logic in your mind, think that you are working for others; dedicate your work to others.

Also, we need to preserve our precious human body to use it intelligently for inner growth. Our body is sort of on loan, like a rented house. We have to look after it so that we can practice Dharma properly. Therefore attachment isn’t the only reason to work; we can work with pure motivation and the highly respectable aim of benefiting society and other sentient beings. Therefore, if you are wise, working for money is not necessarily negative.

The most important thing is to dedicate whatever you do to others. That is of prime importance. Not emotionally—“Oh, I’m on Lama’s Tibetan Buddhist trip”—but by recognizing that attachment is the root of every problem that you have ever experienced, from the time you were born up till now. Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of the pure thought of bodhicitta above all else and complains bitterly about how attachment is the worst problem of all, but there’s a vast amount of psychological explanation behind these statements. I can’t explain it all to you in just five days. Nevertheless, you have to know that Mahayana Buddhism does contain such wonderful teachings on human psychology.

Q. Does Buddhism recognize a higher being than the Buddha?
Lama. No, but that’s a good question. There’s no higher being than the Buddha but you have to understand what “buddha” means. Buddha doesn’t mean a person in a yellow robe sitting somewhere holding a begging bowl. It means a mind that has reached beyond attachment, beyond the dualistic mind. The nature of such a mind is what we call buddha. Therefore buddha is neither form nor color; it has nothing whatsoever to do with material substantiality. The characteristic nature of buddha is exclusively mental—universal knowledge-wisdom. That is what we call buddha, and when you reach that level you too become buddha; there is no difference in attainment between you, Lord Buddha or any other fully enlightened being.

Q. Do you create negative karma if you do a good action but you’re not sure if you’re doing it for yourself or others?
Lama. First of all, if you’re not sure why you’re doing something, better not do it. Be wise. Before you go ahead and do something, check up. For example, if you want to give somebody a piece of fruit, first check your motivation. Is this act of giving simply an ego trip? Will it benefit the other person? Can you give without miserliness? You don’t want to find yourself in the situation where you give somebody an apple and a couple of hours later think, “I wish I hadn’t given him that apple; now I have nothing to eat.” That’s not right giving.

Q. What if after you give, you think, “Aren’t I good for giving him that apple”? Is that ego? Is that negative?
Lama. If you overemphasize how good you are, that’s mistaken, but if you think that it was good that you gave it to him because it helped purify your miserliness, that’s OK. That works. You have to know what effect your actions have as well as what your motivation is for doing them.

Q. When you open your head chakra, do you get psychic powers?
Lama. I think I understand what you’re asking. If you approach opening your head chakra, raising your kundalini—or whatever other terminology you use—with wisdom and a perfect method, you can transform the negative aspect of your inner nervous system into blissful wisdom. Instead of your nervous system being blocked, you’ve opened the door to wisdom. But if you are unwise, practicing such techniques can be very dangerous. Mahayana Buddhism does contain methods for activating your kundalini energy but you need to have reached a certain level of spiritual development before you’re qualified to practice them. If you try them with a mind possessed by lower, sensual desire, if you practice those techniques with attachment, for sense pleasure, as an ego trip, instead of having a positive effect they can affect you negatively. Therefore, you have to be very careful.

Q. Do people who reincarnate as animals have any choice in the matter?
Lama. They have no choice. If they did, there’s no way they’d choose to be reborn as an animal. Remember the two departments I’ve been talking so much about? The association of ego and attachment are in control. We ourselves have no freedom. Even though we’re human beings with this powerful, precious, human body, look at our minds—we have almost no freedom whatsoever. Look back through your entire life, at what has happened to you from the time you were born until now. Have you freely chosen everything that has happened to you or not—where you live, for example? Mostly you’ve had no choice; it’s karma. You think that you chose to come to this meditation course but perhaps there’s more to it than that. There’s a deeper, karmic reason that you’re here. Wherever you go, there’s a karmic reason.

Q. Surely it’s true that the more you evolve spiritually the less chance there is to be reborn an animal?
Lama. That’s very true. The more you progress, the less reason there is to receive an animal rebirth. What happens is that as you develop in a positive direction, your negative imprints get burnt. It’s like when you burn seeds, they lose their power to grow. Therefore, even though your past non-virtuous actions have left negative karmic imprints in your mind, when you make spiritual progress, they automatically get burnt and can no longer bring their suffering result. As you continue to evolve, your positive mind develops, you start to get more control over your mind, your wisdom increases and automatically the two departments of ego and attachment decrease. Then there’s less space for the animal mind to function and less chance that you’ll be reborn in that form. But as I mentioned before, just because you have been born human this time doesn’t mean that you can never again be reborn as an animal. Also, some humans have the mind of an animal; some people have more suffering than birds. Therefore don’t think that after receiving this excellent human body it’s impossible to go back to such a horrible form.

Q. I disagree that you can be reborn an animal once you have reached the human level.
Lama. Then why are some humans more miserable than animals and why are some people’s minds worse than those of animals? Some people may be outwardly human but inwardly worse than animals. What’s the difference? You cannot say that human beings are so highly developed that they will never regress. It’s the mind. I’m not saying that the body is higher; it’s the mind. If they have a human body but the mental functions of an animal, what’s the difference?

Q. I’m saying that you don’t get to be happy until you’ve gone through some kind of miserable suffering. Until you learn from your lower situation, you can’t advance to a higher one. Since you have to start somewhere in the human kingdom, it’s more logical that you’re going to start with a suffering human incarnation and then slowly work up to a better, more fully realized one rather than be thrown out of the ranks of humans altogether just because you didn’t have enough wisdom to make it.
Lama. How can you prove that? How can you prove that life has to always get better and better? You’re assuming that modern scientific evolutionary theory is correct—that lower forms evolve into better and better ones and never regress. But science simply looks at life as physical matter.

Q. I’m not referring to that. I’m saying that you might sometimes waste an incarnation because you didn’t learn the lessons you were supposed to, but in that case you remain at the same level. You don’t go back.
Lama. Really? You can remain as a ten-year-old child? Impossible. You can’t even keep your mind at the same level for an hour. How can you remain the same for years? That’s a wrong conception that completely disregards impermanence.

Q. What I’m saying is that you come into this lifetime to learn certain lessons. You have a small amount of free will, but if you choose the wrong path, unwittingly or fully aware, then obviously you have not learnt the lessons you came to learn. Therefore, next time around you have to go through the whole trip again.
Lama. I understand your point but I’m saying that it’s impossible for anything physical or mental to stay the same. Everything always changes. You can’t remain on the same level. Nor is it true that you always have to progress. It’s possible for the mind to degenerate.

Q. Can a human who is reborn as an animal learn something from that experience so that it doesn’t have to be repeated? Can you realize at the time that it’s a bad state of existence?
Lama. It’s possible that as a person is passing into rebirth as an animal there’ll be an instant of recognition of what’s happening, but that moment passes immediately and the person then has to live out the karma of having an animal mind. Before a karmic result ripens there’s always the possibility of changing it completely but once it has ripened there’s nothing you can do. You are stuck in that particular bodily form until the karma to experience it has finished.

Note, by the way, that some animals’ possessing certain abilities— for example, vultures can telepathically perceive dead meat at great distances—doesn’t mean that they are intelligent. Such karmicallydetermined abilities aren’t wisdom.

Q. When bodhisattvas reincarnate for the purpose of enlightening other sentient beings can they choose the form they take?
Lama. Yes, higher bodhisattvas have complete freedom to choose. They check up to see what’s most beneficial—East or West, male or female and so forth—and take rebirth in an appropriate body. Their only purpose is to benefit others; there’s no thought of their own welfare.

Q. How do you deal with negative energy that arises in the mind during meditation?
Lama. If the negative energy is purely mental it will disappear simply by your recognizing it, as I described before. If there’s a physical component, like pain, you can try to transform it into bliss. You can also try the breathing exercise.

Breathe in deeply as I described before, push your diaphragm down, pull your inner pelvic muscles up, compress the two energies just below the level of your navel and concentrate at that point—you’ll automatically feel a blissful, physical sensation. When that happens, concentrate on that feeling as strongly as you can and automatically your negative energy will be transmuted into understanding wisdom. That’s a good way to get rid of negative energy and ignorance but there are many other methods as well.

Q. How do you avoid falling asleep during meditation?
Lama. First you have to know the process by which sluggishness arises so that you can recognize it from the start. Sleepiness in meditation doesn’t come openly; it sneaks up on you. If you’re aware you can observe your mind begin to go from light to dark. A foggy darkness begins to descend; then it gradually gets darker and darker, your gross sense perception slowly disappears and finally you’re asleep. That’s how sleep comes; not all of a sudden. We think we fall asleep straight away because we’re unconscious. If you check up wisely you will see that it happens gradually.

We call the early part of that process sluggishness—a small impression of darkness. As soon as you notice it starting you should apply the antidote, which is to clarify and brighten your object of concentration. If you do this the fogginess will disappear and you won’t fall asleep. At the first sign of sluggishness, visualize light. In meditation, strong, clear light prevents you from falling asleep just as it does when you’re in bed at night.

Q. If you are reborn in a pure land do you have to reincarnate back on Earth?
Lama. It’s up to you. If you’re selfish, you can stay there; if you care about others you’ll come back down to the human realm.

Q. Can one be reborn in a pure land with a selfish mind?
Lama. Yes, it’s possible. There are many degrees of selfish mind. We actually classify them into nine different levels—the gross, intermediate and small levels of selfish mind, each of which is divided into great, medium and small. As you begin to purify selfishness, you start with the great gross level, then the medium gross level and so on down to the small level of the small. But it takes time to purify the selfish mind all the way down to its most subtle level.

The problem is that when we’re happy we tend to forget other sentient beings’ suffering. Take, for example, the arhat. Someone who is incredibly concerned with his own ego problems practices meditation until he reaches perfect, single-pointed concentration. He then focuses on the ultimate nature of his own mind until he realizes emptiness and discovers the everlasting blissful peace of liberation, or nirvana. He has worked for this experience so hard for so long that once he attains it he forgets other sentient beings and just wants to stay there forever, enjoying his concentration on everlasting bliss. It’s no doubt a great achievement but selfish from the Mahayana point of view.

The Meditation Course

Thank you so much for your interesting questions but now we have to stop. Five days is a very short time to understand this subject. It takes time. If you ask the more experienced students, they’ll tell you that even our usual one-month meditation course is nothing.5 At those courses we have teachings, books, discussion groups, debate and much meditation, but it’s still a very short time.

Therefore, at this course I’m more interested in having you gain some meditational experience by putting a few techniques into action than I am in giving you a huge amount of factual information. If I were to try to teach you too much intellectual philosophy you’d freak out. I’d rather you come away thinking, “Yes, this meditation course really helped me. Something in my mind has changed.” Of course, intellectual information is necessary but five days is too short for me to impart much.

Therefore just put your mind into action as much as you possibly can. Don’t expect to receive realizations; just act. If you do, perhaps even in this short period you’ll experience the sweet taste of the honey of Dharma wisdom. That experience can help solve all your psychological problems. It’s possible. If you just get intellectual information, there’s no action, no experience, no change in your mind and no interest in the subject. Anyway, if intellectual information is all you want you can study Buddhism at university. You can ask, “What is karma, dear professor?” I tell you, if you compare what a college professor tells you about karma with what we are doing here, you’ll see a big difference. But don’t just believe me; check it out for yourself. Ours is a very different kind of school.

My approach is to expose your ego so that you can see it for what it is. Therefore, I try to provoke your ego. There’s nothing diplomatic about this tactic. We’ve been diplomatic for countless lives, always trying to avoid confrontation, never meeting our problems face to face. That’s not my style. I like to meet problems head on and that’s what I want you to do, too. The experience of an atom of honey on your tongue is much more powerful than years of listening to explanations of how sweet it is. No matter how much I tell you about the wonderful sweetness of honey, you’re still going to be thinking, “Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.”

Anyway, if you dedicate the five days of this meditation course to other sentient beings, with nothing for yourself, that takes care of everything. That kind of motivation is most worthwhile.

I’ve seen many young Westerners who’ve been into all kinds of trips. They love to talk about their experiences: “I went to a meditation course. This Tibetan lama taught some amazing stuff….” But even though you did that course, nothing in your basic nature changed. You got nothing out of it to make you happy. Taking Dharma teachings as just another trip is a waste of time.

However—forget about realizing enlightenment—if the teachings you take help you see things more clearly, make your life easier, improve your communication with others and make you friendlier toward other sentient beings, taking them has been most worthwhile. You have gotten more out of them than simply dry, intellectual knowledge.

And when your ego does arise, when you suffer, when difficult minds plague you, instead of feeling as if a nail had been driven into your body, think, “I’m not the only one that has to go through this. Even now, countless other sentient beings are experiencing the same kind of thing.”

Look at yourself right now. Look at your own agitated, uncontrolled mind. When you begin to perceive your own nature you start to have compassion for yourself. When you start to have compassion for yourself you start to have genuine compassion for others. Compassion for others starts with yourself; the realization of true compassion comes from you. First understand your own situation, then you’ll feel kinship with and compassion for the countless other living beings. Otherwise your compassion is mixed with attachment. Love and compassion for others come from understanding their nature and situation.

Normally we say, “I love you, I love you.” Check up if that’s really love. Perhaps you should be saying, “I’m attached to you, I’m attached to you.” Love and attachment are completely different in nature.

Therefore, when problems arise, instead of getting overly concerned, “I have a problem with this meditation course; I have a problem,” instead of getting too emotional, “I have a problem,” instead of focusing too much on “I,” when a problem arises, observe closely how your ego interprets it and don’t just blindly follow that interpretation. Wait. Check up.

Even when you get back home, keep checking. Don’t think that checking in this way has nothing to do with concentration. It takes a lot of concentration. If your mind is preoccupied with too many mundane things, this kind of checking does not come easily. It’s not like the checking you apply to your business affairs. It requires strong introspection, wisdom and an alert state of mind.

That’s all for now. Thank you very much. Thank you.


4. For more teachings on vase breathing, see Lama Yeshe’s Becoming Vajrasattva, p.40ff., and Bliss of Inner Fire. [Return to text]

5. Here Lama is referring to the annual meditation course taught each fall at Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. [Return to text]