Make Your Mind an Ocean

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

This introductory booklet covers the general topic of the mind through public talks, lunchtime lectures at two universities, and an evening lecture given to the general public. It is published in conjunction with Becoming Your Own Therapist.

See the Related Links for Chapter Four to access the audio recording and read along with the unedited transcript for that teaching.

Lama Yeshe teaching in 1975 at Lake Arrowhead, California. Photo by Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Four: Make Your Mind an Ocean

Look into your mind. If you fervently believe that all your enjoyment comes from the material objects and dedicate your entire life to their pursuit, you’re under the control of a serious misconception. This attitude is not simply an intellectual thing. When you first hear this, you might think, “Oh, I don’t have that kind of mind; I don’t have complete faith that external objects will bring me happiness.” But check more deeply in the mirror of your mind. You will find that beyond the intellect, such an attitude is indeed there and that your everyday actions show that deep within, you really do believe this misconception. Take a moment now to check within yourself to see whether or not you really are under the influence of such an inferior mind.

A mind that has such strong faith in the material world is narrow, limited; it has no space. Its nature is sick, unhealthy, or, in Buddhist terminology, dualistic.

In many countries people are afraid of those who act out of the ordinary, such as those who use drugs. They make laws against the use of drugs and set up elaborate customs controls to catch people smuggling them into the country. Examine this more closely. Drug taking doesn’t come from the drug itself but from the person’s mind. It would be more sensible to be afraid of the psychological attitude—the polluted mind—that makes people take drugs or engage in other self-destructive behavior, but instead, we make a lot of fuss about the drugs themselves, completely ignoring the role of the mind. This, too, is a serious misconception, much worse than the drugs a few people take.

Misconceptions are much more dangerous than just a few drugs. Drugs themselves don’t spread too far, but misconceptions can spread everywhere and cause difficulty and unrest throughout an entire country. All this comes from the mind. The problem is that we don’t understand the psychological nature of the mind. We pay attention to only the physical substances that people take; we’re totally unaware of the stupid ideas and polluted misconceptions that are crossing borders all the time.

All mental problems come from the mind. We have to treat the mind rather than tell people, “Oh, you’re unhappy because you’re feeling weak. What you need is a powerful new car...” or some other kind of material possessions. Telling people to go buy something to be happy is not wise advice. The person’s basic problem is mental dissatisfaction, not a lack of material possessions. When it comes to the approach to mental problems and how to treat patients, there’s a big difference between Lord Buddha’s psychology and that which is practiced in the West.

When the patient returns and says, “Well, I bought the car you recommended but I’m still unhappy,” perhaps the doctor will say, “You should have bought a more expensive one” or “You should have chosen a better color.” Even if he goes away and does that, he’s still going to come back unhappy. No matter how many superficial changes are made to a person’s environment, his problems won’t stop. Buddhist psychology recommends that, instead of constantly substituting one agitated condition for another—thereby simply changing one problem into another and then another and then another without end—give up cars completely for a while and see what happens. Sublimating one problem into another solves nothing; it’s merely change. Though change may often be enough to fool people into thinking they’re getting better, they’re not. Basically they’re still experiencing the same thing. Of course, I don’t mean all this literally. I’m simply trying to illustrate how people try to solve mental problems through physical means.

Recognize the nature of your mind. As human beings, we always seek satisfaction. By knowing the nature of the mind, we can satisfy ourselves internally; perhaps even eternally. But you must realize the nature of your own mind. We see the sense world so clearly, but we’re completely blind to our internal world, where the constant functioning of misconceptions keep us under the control of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is what we must discover.

It is crucial, therefore, to make sure that you are not laboring under the misconception that only external objects can give you satisfaction or make your life worthwhile. As I said before, this belief is not simply intellectual—the long root of this delusion reaches deep into your mind. Many of your strongest desires are buried far below your intellect; that which lies beneath the intellect is usually much stronger than the intellect itself.

Some people might think, “My basic psychology is sound. I don’t have faith in materials; I’m a student of religion.” Simply having learned some religious philosophy or doctrine doesn’t make you a spiritual person. Many university professors can give clear intellectual explanations of Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, but that alone doesn’t make them spiritual people. They’re more like tourist guides for the spiritually curious. If you can’t put your words into experience, your learning helps neither yourselves nor others. There’s a big difference between being able to explain religion intellectually and transforming that knowledge into spiritual experience.

You have to put what you’ve learned into your own experience and understand the results that various actions bring. A cup of tea is probably of more use than learned scholarship of a philosophy that cannot support your mind because you don’t have the key—at least it quenches your thirst. Studying a philosophy that doesn’t function is a waste of time and energy.

I hope that you understand what the word “spiritual” really means. It means to search for, to investigate, the true nature of the mind. There’s nothing spiritual outside. My rosary isn’t spiritual; my robes aren’t spiritual. Spiritual means the mind, and spiritual people are those who seek its nature. Through this, they come to understand the effects of their behavior, the actions of their body, speech and mind. If you don’t understand the karmic results of what you think and do, there’s no way for you to become a spiritual person. Just knowing some religious philosophy isn’t enough to make you spiritual.

To enter the spiritual path, you must begin to understand your own mental attitude and how your mind perceives things. If you’re all caught up in attachment to tiny atoms, your limited, craving mind will make it impossible for you to enjoy life’s pleasures. External energy is so incredibly limited that if you allow yourself to be bound by it, your mind itself will become just as limited. When your mind is narrow, small things agitate you very easily. Make your mind an ocean.

We hear religious people talk a lot about morality. What is morality? Morality is the wisdom that understands the nature of the mind. The mind that understands its own nature automatically becomes moral, or positive; and the actions motivated by such a mind also become positive. That’s what we call morality. The basic nature of the narrow mind is ignorance; therefore the narrow mind is negative.

If you know the psychological nature of your own mind, depression is spontaneously dispelled; instead of being enemies and strangers, all living beings become your friends. The narrow mind rejects; wisdom accepts. Check your own mind to see whether or not this is true. Even if you were to get every possible sense pleasure that the universe could offer, you would still not be satisfied. That shows that satisfaction comes from within, not from anything external.

Sometimes we marvel at the modern world: “What fantastic advances scientific technology has made; how wonderful! We never had these things before.” But step back and take another look. Many of the things we thought fantastic not so long ago are now rising up against us. Things we developed to help our lives are now hurting us. Don’t just look at your immediate surroundings, but check as widely as possible; you’ll see the truth of what I’m saying. When we first create material things we think, “Oh, this is useful.” But gradually this external energy turns inward and destroys itself. Such is the nature of the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. This is what Buddhist science teaches us.

Your body is no exception to this rule. As long as your elements are cooperating with each other, your body grows beautifully. But after a while the elements turn against themselves and finish up destroying your life. Why does this happen? Because of the limited nature of material phenomena: when their power is exhausted, they collapse, like the old and crumbling buildings we see around us. When our bodies become sick and decrepit it’s a sign that our internal energies are in conflict, out of balance. This is the nature of the material world; it has nothing to do with faith. As long as we keep being born into the meat, blood and bone of the human body, we’re going to experience bad conditions, whether we believe it or not. This is the natural evolution of the worldly body.

The human mind, however, is completely different. The human mind has the potential for infinite development. If you can discover, even in a small way, that true satisfaction comes from your mind, you will realize that you can extend this experience without limit and that it is possible to discover everlasting satisfaction.

It’s actually very simple. You can check for yourself right now. Where do you experience the feeling of satisfaction? In your nose? Your eye? Your head? Your lung? Your heart? Your stomach? Where is that feeling of satisfaction? In your leg? Your hand? Your brain? No! It’s in your mind. If you say it’s in your brain, why can’t you say it’s in your nose or your leg? Why do you differentiate? If your leg hurts, you feel it down there, not inside your head. Anyway, whatever pain, pleasure or other feeling you experience, it’s all an expression of mind.

When you say, “I had a good day today,” it shows that you’re holding in your mind the memory of a bad day. Without the mind creating labels, there’s neither good experience nor bad. When you say that tonight’s dinner was good, it means that you’re holding the experience of a bad dinner in mind. Without the experience of a bad dinner it’s impossible for you to call tonight’s good.

Similarly, “I’m a good husband,” “I’m a bad wife,” are also merely expressions of mind. Someone who says, “I am bad” is not necessarily bad; someone who says, “I am good” is not necessarily good. Perhaps the man who says, “I’m such a good husband” does so because his mind is full of the disturbing negative mind of pride. His narrow mind, stuck in the deluded, concrete belief that he’s good, actually causes much difficulty for his wife. How, then, is he a good husband? Even if he does provide food and clothing for his wife, how can he be a good husband, when day after day she has to live with his arrogance?

If you can understand the psychological aspects of human problems, you can really generate true loving kindness towards others. Just talking about loving kindness doesn’t help you develop it. Some people may have read about loving kindness hundreds of times but their minds are the very opposite. It’s not just philosophy, not just words; it’s knowing how the mind functions. Only then can you develop loving kindness; only then can you become a spiritual person. Otherwise, though you might be convinced you’re a spiritual person, it’s just intellectual, like the arrogant man who believes he’s a good husband. It’s a fiction; your mind just makes it up.

It is so worthwhile that you devote your precious human life to controlling your mad elephant mind and giving direction to your powerful mental energy. If you don’t harness your mental energy, confusion will continue to rage through your mind and your life will be completely wasted. Be as wise with your own mind as you possibly can. That makes your life worthwhile.

I don’t have much else to tell you, but if you have any questions, please ask.

Q: I understand what you said about knowing the nature of your own mind bringing you happiness, but you used the term “everlasting,” which implies that if you understand your mind completely, you can transcend death of the physical body. Is this correct?

Lama: Yes, that’s right. But that’s not all. If you know how, when negative physical energy arises, you can convert it into wisdom. In this way your negative energy digests itself and doesn’t end up blocking your psychic nervous system. That’s possible.

Q: Is the mind body, or is the body mind?

Lama: What do you mean?

Q: Because I perceive the body.

Lama: Because you perceive it? Do you perceive this rosary [holding it up]?

Q: Yes.

Lama: Does that make it mind? Because you perceive it?

Q: That’s what I’m asking you.

Lama: Well, that’s a good question. Your body and mind are very strongly connected; when something affects your body it also affects your mind. But that doesn’t mean that the relative nature of your physical body, its meat and bone, is mind. You can’t say that.

Q: What are the aims of Buddhism: enlightenment, brotherhood, universal love, super consciousness, realization of the truth, the attainment of nirvana?

Lama: All of the above: super consciousness, the fully awakened state of mind, universal love, and an absence of partiality or bias based on the realization that all living beings throughout the universe are equal in wanting to be happy and to avoid feeling unhappy. At the moment, our dualistic, wrong-conception minds discriminate: “This is my close friend, I want to keep her for myself and not share her with others.” One of Buddhism’s aims is to attain the opposite of this, universal love. Of course, the ultimate goal is enlightenment. In short, the aim of Lord Buddha’s teachings on the nature of the mind is for us to gain all those realizations you mentioned.

Q: But which is considered to be the highest or most important aim?

Lama: The highest aims are enlightenment and the development of universal love. The narrow mind finds it difficult to experience such realizations.

Q: In Tibetan paintings, how do colors correspond with states of meditation or different psychological states?

Lama: Different kinds of mind perceive different colors. We say that when we are angry we see red. That’s a good example. Other states of mind visualize their own respective colors. In some cases, where people are emotionally disturbed and unable to function in their daily lives, surrounding them with certain colors can help settle them down. If you think about this you will discover that color really comes from the mind. When you get angry and see red, is that color internal or external? Think about it.

Q: What are the practical, daily life implications of your saying that in order to have the idea that something is good you must also have in your mind the idea of bad?

Lama: I was saying that when you interpret things as good or bad it’s your own mind’s interpretation. What’s bad for you is not necessarily bad for me.

Q: But my bad is still my bad.

Lama: Your bad is bad for you because your mind calls it bad.

Q: Can I go beyond that?

Lama: Yes, you can go beyond that. You have to ask and answer the question, “Why do I call this bad?” You have to question both the object and the subject, both the external and the internal situations. In that way you can realize that the reality is somewhere in between, that in the space between the two there’s a unified mind. That’s wisdom.

Q: How old were you when you entered the monastery?

Lama: I was six.

Q: What is nirvana?

Lama: When you transcend the wrong-conception, agitated mind and attain fully integrated, everlastingly satisfied wisdom, you have reached nirvana.

Q: Every religion says that it is the one way to enlightenment. Does Buddhism recognize all religions as coming from the same source?

Lama: There are two ways of answering that question, the absolute and the relative. Religions that emphasize the attainment of enlightenment are probably talking about the same thing, but where they differ is in their approach, in their methods. I think this is helpful. But it’s also true that some religions may be based on misconceptions. Nevertheless, I don’t repudiate them. For example, a couple of thousand years ago there were some ancient Hindu traditions that believed the sun and moon to be gods; some of them still exist. From my point of view, those conceptions are wrong, but I still say that they’re good. Why? Because even though philosophically they’re incorrect, they still teach the basic morality of being a good human being and not harming others. That gives their followers the possibility of reaching the point where they discover for themselves, “Oh, I used to believe that the sun was a god but now I see I was wrong.” Therefore, there’s good in every religion and we should not judge, “This is totally right; that is totally wrong.”

Q: As far as you know, what is life like for people in Tibet these days? Are they free to pursue their Buddhist religion as before?

Lama: They are not free and are completely prohibited from any religious practice. The Chinese authorities are totally against anything to do with religion. Monasteries have been destroyed and sacred scriptures burned.

Q: But even though their books have been burned, do the older people still keep the Dharma in their hearts and minds, or have they forgotten everything?

Lama: It’s impossible to forget, to separate their minds from such powerful wisdom. So the Dharma remains in their hearts.

Q: All religions, for example, Hinduism, teach their adherents to avoid evil actions and to practice good ones and that good karmic results will ensue. How, according to Buddhism, does this accumulation of positive karma help one attain enlightenment?

Lama: Mental development does not happen through radical change. Defilements are eliminated, or purified, slowly, slowly. There’s a gradual evolution. It takes time. Some people, for instance, cannot accept what Buddhism teaches about universal love, that you should want others to have the happiness that you want for yourself. They feel, “It’s impossible for me to love all others as I love myself.” It takes time for them to realize universal love or enlightenment because their minds are preoccupied by misconceptions and there’s no space for wisdom. But slowly, slowly, through practicing their religion, people can be lead to perfect wisdom. That’s why I say that a variety of religions is necessary for the human race. Physical change is easy, but mental development takes time. For example, a doctor might tell a sick person, “Your temperature is very high, so please avoid meat and eat only dry biscuits for a few days.” Then, as the person starts to recover, the doctor slowly reintroduces heavy food into his diet. In that way the doctor gradually leads the person back to perfect health.

Q: When Tibetan monks and nuns die, do their bodies disappear, do they take their bodies with them?

Lama: Yes, they carry them to their next lives in their jola [monk’s shoulder bag]...I’m joking! No, that’s impossible. Still, there are certain practitioners whose bodies are digested into wisdom and actually disappear. That’s possible. But they don’t take their bodies with them physically.

Q: Since our minds can deceive us, and without a teacher we can’t discover the truth, are Buddhist monasteries designed so that each monk pulls his colleagues up to the next step of knowledge, in a sort of chain? Is that what you’re doing now, and do you teach in order to learn?

Lama: Yes, monasteries are something like that, and it’s also true that I learn as I teach. But why we need teachers is because book knowledge is just dry information and if left as such can be as relevant as the wind whistling through the trees. We need a key to put it into experience, to unify that knowledge with our minds. Then know-ledge becomes wisdom and the perfect solution to problems. For example, the Bible is an excellent book that contains all kinds of great methods, but if you don’t have the key, the knowledge that’s in the Bible doesn’t enter your heart. Just because a book is excellent doesn’t necessarily mean that by reading it you’ll gain the knowledge it contains. The only way that can happen is for your mind to first develop wisdom.

Q: You said that getting enlightened is a gradual process, but surely you can’t be both enlightened and unenlightened at the same time. Wouldn’t that mean, therefore, that enlightenment is sudden?

Lama: Of course, you’re right. You can’t be enlightened and ignorant together. Approaching enlightenment is a gradual process, but once you attain it, there’s no going back; when you reach the fully awakened state of mind, the moment you experience that, you remain enlightened forever. It’s not like some hallucinatory drug experience—when you’re high you’re having a good time, and when the effect of the drug wears off you’re back down to your usual depressed self.

Q: And we can experience that in this life, permanent enlightenment, while we’re still alive, before we die?

Lama: Yes, that’s possible. In this life...if you have enough wisdom.

Q: Oh...if you have enough wisdom?

Lama: Yes...that’s the catch: if you have enough wisdom.

Q: Why do we need a teacher?

Lama: Why do you need an English teacher? For communication. It’s the same thing with enlightenment. Enlightenment is also communication. Even for mundane activities like shopping we need to learn the language so that we can communicate with the shopkeepers. If we need teachers for that, of course we need someone to guide us along a path that deals with so many unknowns like past and future lives and deep levels of consciousness. These are entirely new experiences; you don’t know where you’re going or what’s happening. You need someone to make sure you’re on the right track and not hallucinating.

Q: Who taught the first teacher?

Lama: Wisdom. The first teacher was wisdom.

Q: Well, if the first teacher didn’t have a human teacher, why do any of us need one?

Lama: Because there’s no beginning, and there’s no end. Wisdom is universal wisdom, wisdom is universal consciousness.

Q: Does generating universal love bring you to enlightenment or do you first have to reach enlightenment and then generate universal love?

Lama: First you generate universal love. Then your mind attains the realization of equilibrium, where you emphasize neither this nor that. Your mind attains a state of balance. In Buddhist terminology, you reach beyond the dualistic mind.

Q: Is it true that the mind can only take you so far on the spiritual path and that at some point, in order to go further, you have to give up your mind?

Lama: How can you give up your mind? I’m joking. No, it’s impossible for you to abandon your mind. While you’re a human, living what we call an ordinary life, you have mind; when you reach enlightenment, you still have mind. Your mind is always with you. You can’t get rid of it simply by saying, “I don’t want to have a mind.” Karmically, your mind and body are stuck together. It’s impossible to relinquish your mind intellectually. If your mind were a material phenomenon, perhaps you could, but it’s not.

Q: Do lamas ever become physically ill, and if so, what method do you use to overcome the illness? Do you use healing power?

Lama: Yes, sometimes we use healing power; sometimes we use the power of mantra; sometimes we meditate. At certain other times we do puja. Do you know what that is? Some people think it’s just ritual chanting and bell ringing, but it’s much more than that. Puja is a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is “offering”; but its interpretive meaning is wisdom, an awakened state of mind. So, if your wisdom is ringing, “ting, ting, ting,” that’s good, but if your wisdom isn’t ringing and the only ting, ting, ting you hear is the external one, then that’s no puja.

Q: What you’re saying is not that far removed from Western materialist philosophy. Our problems are not so much with objects as with our attitude towards them.

Lama: When you say attitude, are you referring to the mental tendency to grasp or not to grasp at material objects?

Q: Well, external objects do exist, but they exist outside of ourselves, and our consciousness perceives them on the same plane. I believe that when we die, the objects remain, but not for us, not for the individual.

Lama: I agree with you. When we die, the external objects are still there, but our interpretation of them, our projection, disappears. Yes, that’s right.

Q: So how is that so radically opposed to materialistic philosophy? Why do you say that the external world is illusory when after our consciousness departs, the material world remains?

Lama: I say that the material world is illusory because the objects you perceive exist only in the view of your own mind. Look at this table: the problem is that you think that when you disappear, your view of this table still exists, that this table continues to exist just the way you saw it. That’s not true. Your view of the table disappears, but another view of the table continues to exist.

Q: How can we recognize the right teacher?

Lama: You can recognize your teacher through using your own wisdom and not just following someone blindly. Investigate potential teachers as much as you possibly can. “Is this the right teacher for me or not?” Check deeply before you follow any teacher’s advice. In Tibetan we have an admonition not to take a teacher like a dog seizes a piece of meat. If you give a hungry dog a piece of meat he’ll just gobble it up without hesitation. It is crucial that you examine possible spiritual leaders, teachers, gurus or whatever you call them very, very carefully before accepting their guidance. Remember what I said before about misconceptions and polluted doctrines being more dangerous than drugs? If you follow the misconceptions of a false spiritual guide it can have a disastrous effect on you and cause you to waste not only this life but many others as well. Instead of helping you, it can bring you great harm. Please, be very wise in choosing your spiritual teacher.

Q: Since you are a Buddhist monk from Tibet, I’m wondering if you’ve heard of Lobsang Rampa, who has written many detailed books about Tibet despite having never been there himself? He’s dead now, but he said that the spirit of a Tibetan lama entered him and that’s how he could write what he did. Is that possible, and if not, how could he have written those books?

Lama: I don’t think that this kind of possession is possible. Also, you should check what he wrote more carefully; there are many mistakes in his books. For example, when he talks about lamas opening the wisdom eye he says it’s done surgically. That’s not right. The wisdom eye is a metaphor for spiritual insight and it’s opened by lamas who have the key of wisdom. Also, those who have realizations don’t talk about them, and those who talk about their realizations don’t have them.

Q: Lama, what do you mean by dualistic mind, and what do you mean by “checking up”?

Lama: From the time you were born up to the present, two things have always complicated your mind; there are always two things, never just one. That’s what we mean by the dualistic mind. Whenever you see one thing, your mind automatically, instinctively, compares it to something else: “What about that?” Those two things upset your equilibrium. That’s the dualistic mind at work. Now, your other question. When I say check up, I mean that you should investigate your own mind to see if it’s healthy or not. Every morning, check your mental state to make sure that during the day you don’t freak out. That’s all I mean by “check up.”

Q: If everything is karmically determined, how do we know if our motivation is correct, or do we have a chance of unconditioned choice?

Lama: Pure motivation is not determined by karma. Pure motivation comes from understanding-knowledge-wisdom. If there’s no understanding in your mind it’s difficult for your motivation to be pure. For example, if I don’t understand my own selfish nature, I can’t help others. As long as I don’t recognize my selfish behavior, I always blame others for my problems. When I know my own mind, my motivation becomes pure and I can sincerely dedicate the actions of my body, speech and mind to the welfare of others. Thank you, that was a wonderful question, and I think that pure motivation is a good place to stop.

Thank you so much. If we have pure motivation, we sleep well, dream well and enjoy well, so thank you very much.

Assembly Hall, Melbourne, Australia, 27 March 1975

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