The Dharma of Dancing

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Chenrezig Institute, Australia (Archive #072)

After an intensive meditation course taught by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, there was a one-day festival on September 15, 1979, where the students picnicked, sang, danced in the gompa, played music and hung around eating. Lama Yeshe also gave the following talk. Edited from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive by Nicholas Ribush. Published in the December 2001 issue of Mandala magazine. This discourse is now published in the LYWA book Knowledge-Wisdom: The Peaceful Path the Liberation.

Lama Yeshe, Kopan Monastery, Nepal 1982. Photo: Dan Laine.

From the Buddhist point of view, the human consciousness, or mind, is the source of all human activity. Therefore, human beings can do all sorts of things, internal and external; human power is such that we can do anything. We can put our energy into any direction we choose. That’s the power that humans have.

The human mind is the source of all people’s happiness and unhappiness, and the Buddha’s teaching emphasizes the gaining of discriminating wisdom so that you can see the reality of your mental attitude and thereby direct your life and energy in the right direction toward tranquility and peace.

Buddhism also asserts that the basic human nature is beautiful, profound and clear. This is how you exist; it’s simply a matter of recognizing your own profound qualities and seeing that you have the potential for limitless development. Meditation on the four immeasurables—limitless love, limitless compassion, limitless joy and limitless equilibrium—indicate this.

The reason that these four attitudes are called limitless is that, fundamentally, we do have love, compassion, joy and equilibrium, but they are limited. We have love but it is limited love; we have compassion, but it is limited compassion; we have joyful appreciation of each other’s lives, but that joy is limited; we have a certain degree of equilibrium, but it too is limited. What prevents us from realizing the four immeasurables is our ego, the ego mind. The view perceived by the ego mind is wrong, partial. Therefore, our loving kindness is very narrow. First, we have to recognize this in order to expand it.

Look at how we limit our enjoyment. Intellectually, our minds create the fabrication, “This object is my object of joy; I cannot enjoy any other object.” Such preconceptions cement our minds into fixed positions and are the result of our ego mind making mistaken judgments and placing limitations on our thought: “Only this object can bring me joy.”

The purpose of practicing meditation on the four limitless qualities is to free ourselves from extreme, neurotic ego games. But don’t think, “Oh, now I understand that this is just an ego game—tomorrow I am going to give up ego games forever,” under the illusion that you can change radically overnight and that the next day your entire perspective on life will be completely different. That sort of change is impossible. Powered by your ego mind, you have constantly been generating deluded energy since beginningless time. You can’t suddenly transform overnight simply by changing your intellectual ideas. The way to overcome negative energy is to act with understanding and awareness day by day, every day. That’s what makes it possible to change and transform your life.

The reason we need meditation is that our ego’s games are extremely subtle and function at the unconscious level. Detecting the activity of our ego’s games at the unconscious level is very difficult. We need great energy and strong penetrative insight to counteract the accumulated ego energy that has come from eons of repeated ego games. To reverse this energy force, we have to balance it. Therefore, it is not enough to merely think, “Now I understand that the ego is the problem; now I have understood,” as a brief flash of insight. “Now I am liberated. Today I have discovered my problem. This Buddhist philosopher monk has told me all about my ego. Now I’m liberated.” You can’t do that; you’re dreaming. What you have to do every day is to develop comprehension of your own attitude, your own mental activity, as much as you possibly can. This is a very important point.

Today, for example, you’ve been playing and dancing. If you have inner awareness, you’ll see that your ego has been reacting in a certain way. One song is a favorite, another song you dislike; I am sure each of you has had this experience. When you dance, there are certain moves you like. You think they’re good; they make you happy. There are other dance moves that you feel are stupid, no good. That’s the way you feel, and every time you dance, your mind is reacting. What Buddhist meditation allows you to do is to see that good dancing has value but so does bad. There’s nothing to react to emotionally. Also, the main reason I agreed to this festival, with its dancing, fun and games, was that I thought you could learn something, test and examine yourselves after doing the meditation course.

Each of you should check up: you’ve done many things today—have any of them really made you happy? Ask yourself this question, right now: do you feel that what you’ve done today constitutes a really happy life? Exhausting yourself through singing and dancing—is the exhausted life a happy one? This is very simple: your mind interprets, “Today is festival day; we’re happy. Today we’re going to get cake. We can give up morning meditation; nobody’s pushing us to meditate.” So you simply hang about, wandering aimlessly here and there, looking around. Do you think that’s happy?

Some people will learn, “Dancing and cake are good, but they’re not the purpose of life.” In other words, you should not feel that being allowed to dance and do whatever you like is the definition of a really happy life. That’s a wrong attitude. However, you don’t have to be miserable, either. If you interpret dancing as misery, similarly, you’ll think that sitting in meditation must also be miserable.

Buddhist philosophy teaches you to think logically; the Buddhist religion is a philosophical religion, a logical religion. Let’s say that you’ve been dancing for a while and suddenly stop. Your ego reacts, “Oh, now my pleasure has gone.” Many people’s ego will react like this, casting them into the same old darkness. They’re up, full of energy; suddenly the party finishes and they come back down. This up and down comes from ego, not understanding what real happiness is, not understanding the reality of life.

All such activity has to change; nothing lasts. Somehow you have to learn to let your pleasures go without grasping at them neurotically. This is very important. That’s why Buddhist philosophy teaches that the whole world is like an illusion—you cannot hold an illusion permanently; there is no solidity. What you enjoy from moment to moment cannot be held permanently. Its nature is impermanent, transitory; it passes, passes, goes, goes, finishes, finishes. That’s the whole reality of life.

Therefore, it is very important to be aware of and accept that kind of reality, as it is. You can do it. The Western ego suffers greatly because of the quickly changing nature of society. When you find you cannot function because society is moving so quickly, you blame society. The nature of society is such that it is going to change; it is your own nature to change; it’s the nature of weather to change. Therefore, it is very important that your attitude is such that you follow the middle path and avoid extremes. But doing that is not an easy job; you need penetrative wisdom.

That’s why we say meditation is worthwhile. Meditation does not mean going into a cave. Just contemplate the movement of your own actions—your breath, thoughts and everything else. That’s enough. Also, don’t think that you are irreversibly confused and unclear. That, too, is wrong. Your mind has clarity; clarity is your mind’s ability to receive reflections of good and bad. Everybody has that, even children. When children play, they have some kind of discrimination. That is the beauty of their consciousness. You can contemplate on your ability to discriminate; that is the clarity of your mind. Contemplate on that. If you believe that you are confused all the time, of course, you’ll be confused.

Now, instead of my going on any longer, are there any questions?

Q. Lama, today we were dancing in the gompa and I had a good experience. It combined what you talked about in meditation. There was the action but there was stillness as well. I was exhausted, but I also got energy from it. I think organized dancing is a good check-­up meditation, and I was wondering if that sort of thing could be continued here?

Lama. Well, that’s beautiful; I’m very happy. That was my idea in having a festival, for people to relax and enjoy themselves. We should not think that we are meditators, exclusive, special people, and that the rest of society is dirty, sinful and negative. That’s wrong, isn’t it? We are down to earth and understand and can relate to people. That’s good. Anyway, the purpose of Chenrezig Institute is to serve the people in society. We all come from society and therefore we need to help the society.

Q. I’m still not sure what you are suggesting is the most suitable social life for the Western mind. You seem to be suggesting that dancing and such activities are bad.

Lama. No, I’m not saying that they are bad. Dancing is normal; it is good. But I want you to understand. My point is that if in dancing today your ego identifies that now, after suffering for ten or fifteen days in the prison of a meditation course, today is the happy life, if your ego interprets it in that way, that is a wrong conception. The reason I am using this example is that it is fresh from our experience today. So our experiences are our resource from which we see what is reality. Normally I use whatever is close as an example. If I see a flower somewhere, I hold that flower up to make a point. So, we were dancing today, and I use that energy as an example to demonstrate reality.

Q. I think you mean the mental attitude, Lama—the way you approach meditation as two weeks in prison; the attitude you dance with.

Lama. That’s right, if the attitude is the ego game, it produces the reaction of dissatisfaction and confusion.

Q. I was wondering how to acquire self-­discipline?

Lama. If you recognize how your mad elephant mind functions, you’ll automatically become disciplined. When you finally recognize your own mad elephant, undisciplined mind, you feel that you cannot go on like this any longer, always leading yourself on the wrong path and always finishing up miserable. So you question and examine your own mind, and then put some limits on the wrong attitude. When you find the right attitude coming, let go. From the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, discipline comes from wisdom; it is not something imposed upon you by lamas or priests. For example, I have to make my own discipline; nobody can force me to stay here. If I want to go to Brisbane tonight and enjoy myself in a nightclub I can choose to do so. So, we need to discipline the mad elephant mind; everybody has to. But once you reach beyond the mad elephant ego, you don’t need discipline; you are already disciplined.

Q. Lama, I’ve found that dancing complements meditation and is not necessarily a temporal pleasure; that dancing can have lasting benefit.

Lama. I’m very happy that you’ve had that good experience. I am not saying that dancing itself is simply a fleeting pleasure; it depends on mental attitude. Your experience of dancing has value. If you contemplate on and remember your experiences continuously, that continued memory can keep you from depression. The thing is that if we cannot recollect good experiences, cannot maintain their value, later we can get depressed. Just as you have had that experience, so too has everybody else had some level of clear, blissful experience. The thing is that we can’t maintain the continuity of the memory of that good experience, the clarity. Therefore, one minute we are clear, the next, polluted. That’s why we need some kind of balance—so that we can hold the memory of the good experience instead of thinking garbage all the time. That’s what makes us up and down. However, every human being has such clear, happy, blissful experiences. The problem is that we haven’t contemplated on them in a penetrative way or remembered those experiences continuously.

Q. Lama, how can Westerners approach sex in a more positive, unattached way?

Lama. Well, the simple way is to have a giving attitude instead of a grasping one; to be more concerned with giving or sharing pleasure with another than with “I want pleasure.”

Q. But often that is interpreted as feeding the other person’s ego.

Lama. No, not necessarily. Anyway, your responsibility is to develop a giving attitude. The other person may be self-­cherishing, but that is his or her responsibility. Your responsibility is to abandon your uptight, grasping game. To do that, you need to develop giving. Most of the time, I tell you, the ego game between Western couples is that neither of them is satisfied by sense pleasure and then they say, “Oh, you’re no good; I don’t like you.” They blame each other. If you are not concerned with fulfilling your own sense-­gravitation attachment, it’s okay. Are we communicating or not?

Q. It’s a difficult one, though.

Lama. Yes, of course! That’s why you came to the meditation course. It is difficult, but you can definitely learn. The thing is that Mahayana Buddhism teaches that you can touch this flower without having the neurotic, grasping mind. If you can see the possibility with this flower, ask yourself why. Then, slowly, slowly you can relate this experience to other relationships as well. First of all, the Western mind strongly believes, “I should derive satisfaction from this.” Let’s say that I’m a Westerner and you are my girlfriend. I have the attitude that you should make me satisfied, otherwise you are the failure. Can you imagine that? Completely egotistical mind. From the Buddhist point of view, that is completely wrong. That is a completely wrong attitude: you are my girlfriend, so you should give me complete satisfaction; if you don’t, you are a bad person. It’s the same thing in reverse with women, too. Basically, this is wrong.

First of all, I should recognize that my satisfaction comes from me myself, not from you, my girlfriend. If I believe that basically my happiness depends on my girlfriend, “As long as she exists, I’ll be happy; if she no longer exists, my happiness will be lost,” that is a very dangerous, deluded thought. There are many things in the Western attitude that need to be changed. The Western attitude is so concrete. Scientific education teaches you wrong conceptions and beliefs: “This should make me happy. If this doesn’t make me happy, I’m lost.”

Q. Could you please give me some advice on how to relate to people who have not had Dharma teachings when I get home?

Lama. First of all, when you get back home, I think it is better if you relax and be natural, simple and spontaneous. Act according to Dharma as much as you can, but do not talk philosophically as we have been doing here. If you push the intellectual side too much, people will treat you as some kind of outcast; it will be strange for them. But if you are happy, relaxed, logical and reasonable, they will feel, “I don’t know this man now. How come? Something is going on in his mind; he’s changed so much for the better.” Perhaps one day they will ask, “What are you doing? Tell me what you’re into.” At that time you have to be ready with sharp wisdom and give just the right reply. Until then, relax; be simple.

I also understand that you can’t do the things we do here. Here we do early morning meditation, prostrations, prayer and these things. You can’t do those things too much socially. But still, you can meditate without involving the ritual aspects. You can do internal rituals; external ones are not necessary. I think that’s simple. You have to learn how to use each environment, how to actualize, how to utilize that energy in the path to enlightenment. I think that is necessary. Otherwise, you might feel, “Now I cannot meditate because I have no temple.” Perhaps you thought that for meditation you needed a temple or some kind of material Buddha. “Now there is no Buddha, no lama, no temple, I cannot meditate.” That’s not realistic, but I understand.

Many people, after they have learned meditation and philosophy, go back home with the ambition of planting this small baby buddha into their family and friends, which they really resent. That’s not so good. I think first we need to grow our baby buddha bigger and bigger. He should be at least middle-­aged in order for us to push that energy onto others. The first important thing is that we get ourselves together. After that, we can teach.

I think that’s all. Excuse me, I would like to talk more, but time is running. What to do? Thank you very much.