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 One: Making Space for Wisdom


[Lama Yeshe makes three prostrations.]

Why do we make prostrations at the beginning of teaching and meditation sessions? It’s to beat our ego down a bit. Ego-centric pride looks at things very superficially and never sees the nature of reality.

When we prostrate, we’re not prostrating to the material objects on the altar but paying homage to true, understanding wisdom. People who have taken Dharma teachings before know this well; I mention it mainly for new students.

Prostration isn’t just a Buddhist custom. To make sure that giving teachings does not become an ego-trip, even great teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama will prostrate before they get up on the throne. In fact, to diminish pride and become more grounded in reality, both teacher and student should prostrate before a teaching. Otherwise, there’s no space for understanding wisdom. The proud mind is like a desert; nothing can grow in a mind full of pride. That’s why we prostrate toward the altar prior to giving and taking teachings.

In our everyday lives we prostrate to things that are not worthwhile. Of course, we don’t say that we’re prostrating, but in fact we constantly pay homage to our pride and ego. Instead of prostrating to pride and ego we should prostrate to understanding wisdom.

The Tibetan term for prostration is chag-tsäl. In Sanskrit, chag is mudra. The interpretive meaning of mudra is wisdom; understanding knowledge-wisdom is the actual mudra. Tsäl means to bow down before or pay homage or obeisance to something. Therefore, chag-tsäl means to bow down to wisdom, and when we prostrate our mental attitude should be one that recognizes the harmful nature of egocentric pride and understands that knowledge-wisdom is the only worthwhile guide.

If you don’t have this respectful attitude you might as well not bow down. If you’re not prostrating with your mind there’s no need to prostrate physically simply for the sake of show or custom. Tradition is not that important. But if you recognize how your pride functions and prostrate to wisdom instead, that is very effective, and doing so makes prostrating a means of training your mind.

This five-day course

Whether or not this five-day meditation course becomes beneficial is up to you; it depends on your own mind. It’s not a lama thing; I’m not going to bring you to enlightenment in this short time. Instead of having too many expectations of the lama, it’s better that you generate a pure motivation for being here. Expectations cause mental problems; instead of being positive, they become negative. Instead of expecting something, dedicate in the following way:

“Over the next five days, I am going to investigate and try to discover and understand my own nature and recognize my own false conceptions and mistaken actions. From the time of my birth up till now, I have been under the control of my conditioned, dissatisfied mind. Even though my only desire is for lasting happiness and enjoyment, I am constantly tossed up and down by external conditions. I am completely oppressed by my uncontrolled, dissatisfied mind. I have no freedom whatsoever, even though my fickle, arrogant mind always pretends, ‘I’m happy; I’m free.’ Any happiness I do experience is fleeting. If another person were to persecute or oppress me, I couldn’t stand it for even a day, but if I check more deeply I will see that from the moment of my birth, my uncontrolled mind has not given me the slightest chance to be freely joyful. It has been completely enslaved by external conditions.”

If over the next five days you can begin to recognize the reality of your own nature, this meditation course will have been worthwhile. Therefore, dedicate your actions during this time to discovering inner freedom through recognizing the negative characteristics of your own uncontrolled mind.

Think, “I completely dedicate the next five days of my life to discovering inner peace—not only for myself but for all living beings through-out the universe. From the moment of my birth, I have been utterly under the control of the totally unrealistic and ridiculous philosophy of attachment and always put myself first, wanting victory for myself and defeat for others. Therefore, the most meaningful thing I can do is to completely donate the next five days of my life to others, with no expectation of receiving anything myself.”

Pure motivation is a function of the wise and open mind, which is the total opposite of the narrow, psychologically defiled, obsessed mind that is overly concerned for one’s own benefit and welfare. Completely donating your life to others has a great effect on your internal world. But this is not an emotional gesture—dedicating yourself to others doesn’t mean stripping naked and giving them all your clothes. Dedicating yourself to others is an act of wisdom, not emotion, and derives from discovering how harmful the mind of attachment is; how for countless lives attachment has accumulated in your mind, occupying and polluting it completely.

Thus, the purpose of this meditation course is not simply for receiving information. It’s a school for training your mind. If during this course you can learn how to act out of wisdom instead of ignorance, out of universal consciousness instead of narrow conceptions, it will have been extremely worthwhile.

If your mind is possessed by expectation, grasping at higher realizations and spiritual power, you cannot remain calm and relaxed. Therefore, you cannot grow; you cannot discover universal wisdom. So don’t expect something big to happen; don’t expect to receive spiritual realizations. Instead, try to generate simultaneously as much wisdom and pure motivation as you can and the enthusiastic feeling, “This is so worthwhile. Here I am, twenty, thirty, forty years old, and so far my entire life has been completely dedicated to attachment, to myself, to my I, but for the next five days, like a flash of lightning on a pitch black night, I have the chance to totally dedicate my life to others, with no expectation of anything for myself. I am so lucky.” Be satisfied with that. “I’m surprised at myself. After all those decades in total darkness, possessed by attachment, not dedicating even one day of my life to all sentient beings, here I am suddenly dedicating the next five days of my life to others. It’s like a flash of lightning, but it’s enough for me. I’m satisfied. This is my meditation; this is my meditation course.” Dwell in this enthusiastic feeling.

“At the same time, I’m observing intently the way attachment comes into my mind. Like an alert sentry, rifle at the ready, watching for the enemy, my wisdom sentry, totally conscious every moment, is observing intently and investigating how attachment arises.”

Our normal, discriminating mind, our gross-level conception, or perception, is split. It is not an integrated mind. We have a way to treat that mind, a method to release it—a breathing exercise that makes space for wisdom and gets rid of the mundane, gross-level thinking that preoccupies your mind and makes it impossible for you to relax.

Meditation on the breath

First sit cross-legged, in the lotus or half-lotus position if you can, or just comfortably. Make sure your mind is here with your body. It’s no good if your body is here but your mind’s at home. You can’t take a meditation course with your body alone. Meditation is done by the mind. Therefore, your mind should be with you in the present, not obsessed with another time, place, person or some other object. The method we use to bring attention totally to the here and now is concentration on the breath— focusing on how your breath moves through your nervous system.

This is not all that this method is helpful for; it has many other benefits. It can even help you recover from physical illness. For example, if your nervous system has been damaged by a stroke, intensive concentration on the movement of your breath through your nervous system can restore its function. This is experience, not just empty talk.

If you are unfamiliar with the following meditation, you might find it easier to concentrate by occluding the nostril you are not focusing on with your index finger.

As you breathe out through your left nostril, use your finger to block the right. Exhale slowly; don’t rush it. Breathe normally, but make sure to exhale completely. Then, move your finger to block the left nostril as you inhale slowly and deeply through your right. Then, for a second time, block your right nostril while you exhale slowly, gently, naturally and completely through the left, and then block your left nostril as you again inhale slowly and completely through the right. Repeat all this for a third time. Thus, you exhale through the left and inhale through the right three times.

Then reverse the procedure, breathing out through the right and in through the left three times. While doing this, sit up straight. This keeps your nervous system straight and allows the air you inhale to pervade your whole body, your entire nervous system. If you don’t keep your spine straight when you meditate, it is difficult for the breath energy to spread throughout your nervous system. Nevertheless, do this practice very naturally. Don’t force it.

When you inhale, feel that the air completely fills your body, and when you exhale, feel that it completely leaves. But while you’re doing this, don’t sit there thinking, “Now I’m doing the breathing exercise.” That’s not necessary. Just do it, concentrating on the movement of the breath energy through your nervous system as much as you possibly can.

Also, don’t think that this meditation is ridiculously simple. If you are aware, you will notice that people who are emotionally or mentally disturbed—for example, those who are depressed—breathe differently from normal people. This shows that the way the breath energy moves through the nervous system is very closely connected with the mind. You know from your own experience that when you are angry you don’t breathe normally. Sometimes anger can even make you physically sick.

You can measure scientifically how many times a day you breathe in and out. Buddhism has also calculated this. If you train yourself in the breathing meditation and practice breathing in and out slowly every day, you can prolong your life. If air enters your nervous system in a disturbed way it can disturb your mind. You should breathe slowly, steadily, naturally and completely, like a reliable old clock ticking away. Your breath is like an internal clock.

After you have breathed out through the left and in through the right three times, and out through the right and in through the left three times, breathe in and out through both nostrils together. Again, bring the air in slowly, gently, naturally and completely, allowing it to fill your nervous system, and slowly, gently and completely send it out again. If your belt is too tight, loosen it. You should be comfortable when you do this practice. Again, don’t think, “I am doing the breathing exercise…right nostril…left nostril….” Just let your mind dwell in the concentration. Breathe in and out through both nostrils together about twenty times.

After this, change your object of concentration from the breath to the feelings in your body. As the breath travels down through your nose and throat and into your heart and lungs, be aware of your bodily sensations. With each breath, your bodily sensations change. Be aware of those changes but don’t intellectualize; just feel the nature of those sensations. In this way you can realize that changes in sensation and feeling are not a matter of intellect or belief but come automatically.

If your knees hurt, instead of allowing your gross mind to be preoccupied with the pain, seek out and observe its nature. You can try sending joy from your heart into your knees; perhaps the pain will disappear. Anyway, you should know that whenever pain or any other uncomfortable feeling arises, it is not permanent—it’s there one minute, gone the next. Such feelings come and go minute by minute. Physical feelings are transitory; they never last. Just relax, watching how your body reacts to physical feelings and how your mind reacts when they arise. Don’t intellectualize. Relax and let go. Be conscious and aware. How does the feeling arise? When does it come?

Between sessions

This is what you do during the meditation session; you integrate your energy. But when the session finishes and you go outside, don’t squander all this effort by allowing your old, unconscious, preoccupied-bysense-objects mind to arise. That’s really a waste of time.

In the breaks between meditation sessions, Tibetan lamas try to maintain a session-like level of awareness. No matter what they are doing—eating, drinking, talking—they try to be totally conscious of what they are thinking, doing and saying. Of course, during a retreat it’s much better to maintain silence. That makes it easier to observe and be aware of the nature of your sensations, which is the purpose of this exercise. This discipline is not easy but really most worthwhile.

For example, when you drink tea, drink consciously. Be totally aware of the feeling of the tea as it touches your tongue and passes down your throat, through your chest and into your stomach.

So keep as silent as possible, except for discussion groups, when you can share your experiences with others. Group discussion is serious investigation; an important part of this course. You help yourself and others—your Dharma friends. Totally dedicate yourselves to helping each other. This, too, is part of training the mind.

Whatever you discuss, do it with much compassion and with the intention of discovering your inner nature and human potential. Employ skillful wisdom and clear logic. This kind of conversation is much more worthwhile than our usual gossip, where we discuss pleasures of the senses and other trivial matters. Such conversations are use-less. They lack substance and not only have no lasting benefit but also cause future confusion. Dharma discussions, on the other hand, are really worthwhile.

That’s enough from me for today. Now let’s take a break. In the next session, practice the breathing meditation I have just described. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Thank you.