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 Seven: Developing Equilibrium

When you get your first taste of equilibrium, even if it’s a small one, it’s an extremely powerful experience. With that small experience, your realizations have begun; you have started to realize the peaceful mind. Realizations come slowly. They start slowly, develop gradually, and finally become eternal, or everlasting. You probably think that the results of analytical meditation are a long way off: “If I do a five-day meditation course, maybe next year I’ll get some peace of mind.” Don’t think like that; it’s a misconception. If you put wisdom into action you’ll experience the effects right now; the results will be immediate.

Perhaps you think, “Oh, how can that happen? This is Buddhism; what about karma? If I start creating karma now, surely I’ll have to wait for the results. Cause precedes result. How can I meditate for five days and experience the result the next day; meditate for an hour and get the result immediately? That’s impossible.” If that’s how you think, you’re wrong. The karma Buddhism talks about is moment to moment reaction, a minute by minute phenomenon. It doesn’t necessarily take hours or more to bring a result.

You know how a watch runs. Second by second, an energy force is exerted and the watch reacts immediately. It’s the same with the results of meditation practice. You can experience them right away. The effect is right there.

Of course, if you gain an actual experience of equilibrium, nobody else can tell. Realizations can’t be seen from the outside. They’re not sense objects. But if they were to appear in material form, they would be enormous.

You can see for yourself, even during this short, five-day course, that meditation has an immediate effect. It is very powerful. And you can figure out what will happen if you continue to meditate: “If I keep acting correctly with right understanding and right effort, there’s no question that I’ll be able to attain everlasting, peaceful realizations and experience eternal joy. When I first heard that kind of talk I was full of doubt. I couldn’t believe there was such a state. But now, through my own small actions and with my minimal understanding of the psycho-logical nature of the mind, even though I haven’t yet attained any lasting realizations, I can see that if I put my mind in the right direction, I will eventually gain those deep experiences.”

This is perfectly true and completely logical. Why shouldn’t you be able to develop enlightened realizations? There’s not the slightest doubt that you can develop yourself to perfection.

If I were just to hassle you, “Yes, you should have love, you should have love. Yes, you should have compassion, you should have compassion,” if I were to keep at you all day, “You should have this, you should have that, you should, you should, you should…,” you’d think I was crazy. But there’s a method. It’s here, right now. All you have to do is use it. It’s such a simple thing.

Feeling equilibrium with all living beings without discrimination is not something that you just make up. You’re not trying to equalize something that’s inherently unequal. What you’re trying to do is to realize as equal that which is already equal. You’re trying to overcome the distortion of inequality projected by your two departments that causes you to experience the two extremes of craving desire and intense dislike.

Just look around. Who among us doesn’t want happiness and enjoyment? We all do. And who among us wants to suffer? None of us does. In both wanting happiness and wanting to be free of suffering and attachment, we’re all equal. Thus we can see how unbalanced our minds are in being so extreme and how much conflict we experience as a result. If we see this clearly, we’ll scarcely believe how ridiculous we’ve been.

Recognizing the actual enemy

You know how angry you get if you’re looking forward to a good time and your friend stands you up. You feel cheated: “That’s it. I never want to see him again.” But he’s only cheated you once. The two departments of ego and attachment have been cheating you longer than you can imagine—days, nights, weeks, months, years; all your life; countless lives—and you still want to be friends with them. That’s like locking your house with a thief inside.

You must recognize that your real enemy, the thief who steals your happiness, is the inner thief, the one inside your mind—the one you have cherished since beginningless time. Therefore, make the strong determination to throw him out and never let him back in. But be careful how you approach this analysis. Don’t feel emotional or guilty; simply recognize your situation with wisdom.

If somebody was to beat you up every day and you never did anything about it your friends would think you were crazy. “Are you stupid? Why don’t you hit back,” they’d ask. But that’s what we’re like. Our two departments, especially attachment, beat us up day and night, month after month, year after year, and we completely ignore them. If we check deeply, we’ll feel really silly. It’s so true, however, that running after your ego’s illusory projections and following attachment is really, really silly; much sillier than running after yet another man or woman. That’s nothing.

The biggest cheater is inside, not out. Isn’t there an expression, “Nobody cheats you but yourself”? It’s not a Dharma teaching but nevertheless, it’s very true. However, if you interpret it psychologically, it’s actually quite tasty. You see? If you have wisdom, even common expressions can have a strong impact on you. Normally you interpret such sayings very superficially and don’t give them much thought, but when you begin to investigate your internal world, even things that ordinary people say can have deep meaning. Whatever you hear can become a teaching. Instead of bringing you down, even negative experiences can produce wisdom. Why? Because you understand where everything comes from and why it arises.

You probably think things are pretty good in your country and when I come along and say that this is wrong and that is wrong, you feel, “What’s this silly lama talking about? We don’t have any problems. He must be talking about his own problems. Don’t bring the problems of India and Nepal over here.” You’re definitely going to think something like that. But if you’re honest, when I explain what problems really are and how they arise, you won’t be able to contradict me. Of course, anybody can argue anything. In Tibet, we have an expression: “The son who kills his father always has a reason.” He can give you a reason for why he killed his father but that doesn’t make it right.

The samsaric gods of the formless realm have no gross suffering. Their situation is completely different from ours. They have no gross body, only mind, and their enjoyments are purely mental. They don’t have problems like getting a job, going to work, shopping at the supermarket, cooking food and so forth. Therefore it’s impossible to teach them Dharma; they have no comprehension of suffering and agitation. While they’re in that state, they can’t be helped. Similarly, some people in the West think that their lives are perfect and feel extremely proud that they have everything. But it’s not true; they don’t have perfect enjoyments. They have no real control over their conditions and no true freedom.

Therefore you should decide once and for all to stop bowing down before attachment. “Although I think I’m very intelligent, I recognize now that I have always blindly followed attachment to objects as seen by my ego. I’m not intelligent; I’m silly. I’ll never again be ruled by attach¬ment or bow to that destructive mind.” It’s as if somebody was threatening to kill you with a knife and you were prostrating to that person in gratitude. Just as that would be silly, so is being nice to your attachment.

Do you understand? When you experience the feeling of equilibrium you experience an incredibly universal spaciousness. Your tight, narrow mind becomes completely open because it has come in from the extremes of thought to the middle way. Your mind feels very comfortable and, for the first time, you become truly mentally healthy. This is not just some theory; it’s living experience.

Attachment to ideas

Otherwise we know how we are, don’t we? We’re full of prejudices: “I’m this; I’m that. This religion is good; that religion is bad.” We grasp at and cling to our ideas, which only causes us a great deal of conflict. This is so unrealistic. Attachment to ideas only causes problems. Even so-called practitioners of religion fight each other because they’re clinging to ideas. This is completely silly and has nothing whatsoever to do with truth, peace, love or religion itself. Religious conflict is based solely upon misconception.

However, we’re all guilty of this. For example, after this course, you’ll go home and your friend will ask, “Where have you been for the last five days?”

“I went to a meditation course.”

“You did what?”

“There was this Tibetan lama. I did a course with him.”

“Are you nuts? You’re a Westerner; he’s from the Himalayas. You don’t think you can do a mountain trip, do you? Anyway, Buddhism is silly. We have plenty of everything here in the West; I bet he told you to renounce. I hope you don’t believe what he told you.”

This is what your friends will tell you and you’ll be hurt inside; your ego will be bruised. You’re going to think, “I thought I’d had a good time at that course but now my friend’s putting me down for having done it.” Depending on the situation, you might feel anger, guilt or some other negative emotion, which means there’s something wrong with you. If, instead, you can stay relaxed and watch your mind when you’re being criticized, that’s wonderful and much more realistic.

Anyway, don’t be attached to any ideas, even those of Buddhism or whatever else you’re doing. Just put your Dharma into action; practice as much as you can. If you can do that, it will be wonderful. If somebody tells you they’re following another religion and you feel negative or insecure, that’s a mistake. Instead, be glad that that person is seeking inner truth and can see the possibility of developing his or her mind. Instead of feeling jealous or insecure, respect that person and rejoice. If you hurt inside or feel insecure because somebody’s following a religion different from yours it means that there’s something wrong with your practice, that you haven’t recognized the true source of problems and are caught up with ideas of good and bad. Beware of that.

If you practice properly, the result is peace in your mind. Then when somebody says, “That practice is no good,” it doesn’t affect you. They’re only words; how can they change the truth? It’s impossible. Words are nothing. But if you’re all caught up in your narrow mind, clinging with attachment to ideas and reputation, empty words become huge; for you, an atom of empty words fills the universe. They hurt you badly. All such experiences actually come from your own mind. The words “good” and “bad” cannot change reality.

True love wants others to be happy

When you try to help your parents, friends or anybody else, it might look like you’re helping but if you’re acting out of attachment in a partisan way you’ll see, if you check more deeply, that instead of helping you might actually be giving harm. You’ve probably tried to help others many times over the course of your life but how often have you actually helped? How often have you made things worse? How many times has your so-called help produced attachment in another person’s mind? Check up on that.

When you choose to help others out of attachment it often results in their generating attachment to you. This can only disturb their minds and cause them conflict. It’s as if you’d sent a thief to steal their peace of mind. This kind of thief is much worse than the kind who simply steals your furniture. Losing a bit of furniture doesn’t hurt too much, does it? Today you have no furniture; tomorrow you can buy some more. Peace of mind is much harder to replace than a few chairs. You can’t buy peace of mind in a store no matter how rich you are. Therefore, check up whether your assistance really helps or not. Does it solve problems or create more? That’s what you have to determine.

You can see for yourself that the way attachment works is silly. Say we’re in a room and a friend comes in with a delicious cake and gives it to only one person, who then sits there eating it without sharing it with the rest of us. We’re going to freak out, aren’t we? We’re going to be completely jealous. That’s how our minds are. Instead of rejoicing—“Isn’t he kind? He brought a delicious cake all this way for her. I really hope she enjoys it”—we feel hurt and jealous that we missed out. That’s how ridiculous our mind is. Check the psychology here. On the surface it looks as if our reaction is all about the cake but if we go into it more deeply we’ll find that our minds are really thinking, “What I want is for me to be happy. I don’t want her to be happy.”

This is not an intellectual thing. Don’t object to what I’m saying: “That’s not what I think.” I know you don’t think consciously that you don’t want her to be happy, but if you ask the attachment deeply rooted in your mind what it wants, it’s going to answer, “I want to be happy. I want the whole cake. I don’t want her to have a single piece.” If you check deeply, that will be the conclusion you’ll come to, even though superficially, you’re thinking, “What are you talking about, Lama? I’ve never thought that.” I’m sure you’re thinking, “Lama’s really raving on. He’s bringing his Eastern hungry ghost mind here to the West, where we have plenty of everything. He doesn’t know about supermarkets; we have plenty of cake.”

Anyway, attachment is attachment. In India, people crave dal, curry and rice; in the West, cake. What’s the difference? The craving is the same; it’s just the object that varies. Remember what I said before? Attachment doesn’t depend so much on the price of something as on the value placed on it by the mind, by attachment. Attachment is really such a silly mind.

Everybody has parents. We all come from parents and we all have problems with them. If there are two sisters and the parents give a present to one but not the other, the ego of the sister who missed out gets hurt: “Why didn’t I get a present? They’re discriminating.” If she were a good friend, if she really loved her sister, she’d feel sincerely, “I’m so happy they gave my sister a present. I want my sister to be happy.” But there’s no sincerity. Attachment is so sensitive. Something small happens and you freak out. That’s all attachment; that’s the attachment trip.

Understanding attachment

Perhaps you think I’m talking about attachment too much but you have to know the attachment trip in and out—its nature and how it functions. Understanding attachment is much more worthwhile than all your grasping with attachment at the pleasure of sense objects and far more valuable than all the education you’ve ever had, which has only taught you how to develop more attachment. If you make yourself clean-clear familiar with the attitude of attachment, the attachment trip and how the mind of attachment interprets things, you’ll gain much pleasure. It will make your life much easier and better. You won’t need to exert yourself strenuously to develop loving kindness and compassion; it’s sufficient just to search for and investigate the way in which all faults come from attachment. Right action, loving kindness and compassion will automatically ensue.

When you recognize the energy force of attachment, pure thought follows automatically. You don’t have to strain yourself: “I want pure thought! I must have pure thought!” You don’t have to cling to having pure thought. Just understand the motivation of attachment; pure thought will come of its own accord. When pure thoughts come, your life naturally becomes positive. You don’t have to generate conscious thoughts of “I should be good; I must be good.” You don’t need to intellectualize.

As long as you direct your energy into the channel of peace and wisdom it will spontaneously flow that way. You don’t need to think too much. Just act in the right way and do your best to gain realizations; that’s enough. We always evaluate actions by their appearance: “He did this; that’s bad. She did that; that’s good.” We think that actions are fixed as good or bad. There’s no such thing as an action that’s always good or bad; actions can’t be categorized in that way. It all depends on the mind.

For example, if you do things that are normally considered religious with attachment, they’re negative. Outside observers will think that you’re doing something good but they’ll be wrong. The actual way to judge whether an action is good or bad is by the motivation behind it, not the action itself. You can’t predetermine, “This action is always good; that one is always bad.” It’s up to the motivation. If you are motivated by concern for others and not self-attachment, the action becomes pure, or positive. If you are motivated by attachment, it becomes impure, or negative.

Compassion overcomes attachment

A story from the previous lives of Lord Buddha, the Jataka Tales, illustrates this point. In one of his lives as a bodhisattva he was leading a celi¬bate life, meditating in an isolated place, when he encountered a young woman who was so distraught with uncontrolled physical desire that she was suicidal. He felt such genuine compassion for her that he abandoned his celibate life, married her and stayed with her for twelve years. Lord Buddha himself said that this was a wonderful experience; it very powerfully helped destroy his ego and moved him to a plane of higher realizations. Observing his actions judgmentally we’d say that his taking up with the girl was a negative, samsaric action. But actions aren’t negative in and of themselves; it depends on the mind. Since he acted out of compassion, it was positive. Lord Buddha himself said that spiritually, giving up his cherished life as a monk in order to save that woman helped him a lot.

We always think “I want” instead of thinking what others want and then acting to help them. That’s why all our actions are mistaken. If you are motivated by pure thoughts, even though to ordinary people, whose minds are fixed, your actions might look negative, they are in fact totally positive. You can never tell from the outside. You can only tell if you can see whether they’re done with a positive or a negative mind.

Actualizing the purest thought of benefiting all mother sentient beings, Lord Buddha attained perfect enlightenment. Therefore you should think, “I can do the same thing. There’s no doubt that this is my path to enlightenment. I, too, should actualize this pure thought as much as I possibly can.” Why can’t you? It’s very simple; there’s no obstacle. Don’t think that by trying to follow this path you’ll be making trouble for yourself. Why should there be trouble? “It’s not part of my culture.” That’s not true. It has nothing to do with what we normally think of as culture. What is culture? Attachment? Projections of ego? If anything is culture, perhaps they are. Otherwise, what is culture?

Trying to release attachment and being concerned for the welfare of other sentient beings are not at all Tibetan culture; they are no particular people’s culture. What ordinary people consider culture is that which has been developed by attachment to sense pleasure, and this has nothing whatsoever to do with Dharma knowledge-wisdom. Dharma knowledge-wisdom is nobody’s culture. It is only wisdom culture; universal wisdom culture.

Exchanging self and others

Concern for the welfare of all other sentient beings is based on equalizing self and others but, remember, equalizing others does not mean trying to radically alter their external circumstances. That’s a wrong conception. You make others equal in your mind and on the basis of equilibrium, practice exchange of self and others.8

For countless lives, you have built up attachment based on a polluted hallucination of the object “I,” which you have made important above all else. Recognize that this is a false conception that has resulted in mistaken actions. Instead of being attached to your own welfare, transfer that attachment to the welfare of others. Put their happiness first and your ego’s happiness last.

Before going to sleep tonight, sit on your bed and do a short meditation on exchanging yourself and others. Switch your attachment from your conception of “I” to others. If you can develop this kind of wisdom, instead of being completely overwhelmed and mashed by any problems that arise, you’ll be awakened. Problems will cause you to generate wisdom and will give you added strength and energy to follow the path to enlightenment. Also, the practice of exchanging self and others helps you eliminate fear. All fear and insecurity comes from attachment. Whenever you feel fear, ask yourself where it comes from. Now you have the answer. It comes from too much concern for self, the hallucination projected by the concept of ego.

That’s enough for now but you can see how, starting with the breathing exercise, the meditations we’ve been doing over the course of these past few days support rather than oppose each other.

Today you took the eight Mahayana precepts9 so tonight you get no dinner. Actually, it’s not you who doesn’t get dinner; it’s your mind of attachment that misses out. This reminds me of a story from old Tibet. When monks were served food in the monasteries, they’d sit in long straight lines and the servers would pass up and down the line doling out the food. They’d start with the senior monks and gradually move on down to the junior ones. On one occasion some delicious yogurt had been offered to the monastery and Geshe Ben, who I mentioned earlier, was there, sitting down the line a bit. As the yogurt was being sloshed loudly into the bowls of the monks up ahead of him he was sitting there worrying, “They’re giving those monks too much. There won’t be any left for me.” Suddenly he became aware of what was going on in his mind so he meditated on how powerful attachment is and how it creates fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. Then he turned his bowl upside down. When the server reached his place, Geshe Ben said, “No thanks; I’ve already had mine.” In this way he punished his selfish ego and attachment for obsessing over the food that was being served. This is a good example of how to practice an antidote to attachment. It’s certainly relevant for us.

Anyway, I can guarantee that skipping the occasional dinner will not make you weak or sick, but just to make sure, tonight I’m going to give you a special psychic energy pill. It’s made of natural earth and other special substances and in Tibetan is called chu-len, which means “taking the essence.” So, without too much expectation of getting some psychic energy, instead of an evening meal just take this pill with your tea.10

Thank you very much. Thank you and good night.


8. See Geshe Jampa Tegchok’s The Kindness of Others for a teaching on this practice. [Return to text]

9. See Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s The Direct and Unmistaken Method. [Return to text]

10. See Lama Yeshe’s Taking the Essence.