Practicing Dharma in the West: Q&A with Lama Yeshe

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal (Archive #395)

In this question-and-answer session Lama Yeshe discusses the essence of Buddhism and other religions, and advises students how to integrate Dharma when they return to the West. Lama gave this teaching on December 8, 1983, during the Sixteenth Kopan Meditation Course held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal. Edited by Uldis Balodis.

The immeasurably kind Lama Yeshe gave three teachings at this meditation course, available as an ebook, The Enlightened Experience: Collected Teachings, Vol. 3 and now published in the book Knowledge-Wisdom: The Peaceful Path the Liberation.

Lama Yeshe arriving for final teaching at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, 1983. Photo: Wendy Finster.

Lama: If you have any questions—and you should have—you are welcome to ask. We will try, OK. Thank you.

Dharma in Daily Life

Student: How do we practice Dharma in the West while working full-time and living in the city with many personal and professional commitments? How can we adapt the teachings of the Buddha and integrate them fully into daily life? In what can we take sincere refuge?

Lama: How to answer that? Now, first of all, what is Dharma? What is Buddhism all about? It looks like so many subjects, so many philosophies, so many meditations, so much psychology. You feel there are so many things going on in Buddhism.

Being really practical, do whatever you can according to your level. I think it’s a gradual path to enlightenment, isn’t it? I cannot say, “This is the way to do it.” If I say, “This is the way it should be,” it’s a joke, it’s not true. It is according to your life, according to your consciousness, your way of developing, your existence.

In Buddhism we say we are not suddenly born from our mama like a mushroom; we have a long history of many, many, many lifetimes. Each of us is different and we have different realizations according to our life experiences, our own consciousness or the way we have developed. Do you understand? We are all on different levels.

When we reach enlightenment, buddhahood, we will be at the same level—one universal consciousness—then there is no distinction between you and me, him and her. But at this moment, as long as we are tied up in dualistic, superficial concepts, worldly concepts, we cannot break out of where we are. We are suffocated, full of concepts, full of relative interpretations, full of relative mind. This is our suffocation. There are different degrees of suffocation, that’s why each person should do what they can according to their own level.

In practical terms what Buddhism really teaches us is to have sympathetic loving kindness toward others and to ourselves too. The second thing Buddhism teaches us is about our ignorance: that we are repeatedly mistaken, repeatedly uncontrolled. It doesn’t matter that we are intelligent, we are repeatedly mistaken, again and again. Sometimes we know something intellectually, but our intellectual understanding is not sufficient; it is just some kind of weak mind and weak life. That doesn’t bring indestructible protection. It takes time. I don’t know what I’m talking about!

Buddhism teaches two things: loving kindness for others, which eliminates self-cherishing concepts, and wisdom eliminating ignorant wrong conceptions in order to realize universal reality. I’m sure you’ve heard of shunyata or wisdom; this is the most important thing for human beings, for all of us. Without wisdom we are already mistaken, we can’t see. Check out how our lifestyle has been. When we choose certain things for our life, sometimes they bring us satisfaction but many times they bring misery and dissatisfaction. So, from all these things we can see how we make mistakes too many times. We have already made mistakes up to now, we are making mistakes now, today, and we will make mistakes continuously. We will, we will; there’s no choice! It’s not something intellectual. It’s just what we are, unfortunately.

We know intellectually that loving kindness and dedication for others is the only way to really bring satisfaction. We have no doubt, we know that. Maybe we have had some experience through the intellect. We can see that without having kindness for others, without dedication for others, there is no way to have satisfaction. It’s the same thing for wisdom.

Wisdom also has many levels. I’m sure you have heard about this. We say “shunyata” but that is just a word. If I ask you people, if I interview each person, asking, “What is shunyata?”—if I pick one person each hour and ask this, everybody will have a different idea. Sometimes shunyata is something to do with experience; sometimes there are no words. Buddha said it is not words. It’s true, the experience of real shunyata is without concepts, without interpretation—we totally lose dualistic concepts. Describing that experience without words is not possible, but when we use words we are not opened, we are full of concepts. That’s typical; I’m sure all of you have also had some experience of shunyata, but when you describe it in words, somehow it doesn’t come out exactly. I think it never, ever comes. No way!

The essence of Buddhism is true compassion, loving kindness for others, and gaining intensive awareness and wisdom—our totality nature. That is Buddhism’s business. So, to do this business, to integrate this into society you don’t need anything; you don’t need to wear this robe. You don’t need to actually say Tibetan words; you can do it in your own language. You don’t need to do Tibetan-style prostrations; you can do Western prostrations. You can transform Tibetan prostrations into a Western way. What I mean is you don’t need to do all those Tibetan rituals—the prostrations, the prayers, those things. In my opinion you don’t need to do any of these at all.

What you should do is the essence: really learn true love and how to technically practice it, and how to practice true wisdom. Don’t think about wisdom. Wisdom is awareness or comprehension and knowing what’s going on in your mind. That’s the only business—you should not worry about what’s going on in other peoples’ minds, your friends’ minds. That’s difficult. First you should concern yourself with what’s going on in your own mind and try to know your own condition of consciousness; how to operate daily and how to go into the universal reality of your own consciousness. That’s the way to integrate, I think.

You should not worry about rituals. Buddhism went to many different cultures—India, Tibet, China, Korea, Thailand and Burma. Everybody does it differently. Everybody makes different prostrations. Anyway, Buddha taught different prostrations to different disciples. It’s never the same. So, as Buddhism goes to the West it is taking another shape, a Western shape. It’s the only thing to do, so I don’t think you should worry.

If you are thinking, “Only the words, the prayers and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism are true, and this is the only way I can practice, by using Tibetan Buddhism,” then you cannot integrate it. For sure! So, I think your business is to take the essence, the real nucleus of Buddhism. Do you understand? Don’t take something which you cannot understand, thinking, “This Himalayan mountain way is good.” We are dealing with sea level! Sea level—always playing with fish, whales, swimming. We like to fish. Alright!

Buddhism teaches us how to develop loving kindness and I think this way may be the simplest. Buddhism does not merely say, “You should love everyone.” Why should we have love? How do we generate this energy? We should do this meditation. Besides meditation, if we want to develop loving kindness there are a lot of things to do in the Western world, like helping poor people or sick people. In the West we have everything, and we have a complicated life. We should use our life to serve others and not just space out with thinking meditation. Act physically to help others as much as you can—that is your sadhana. I think that’s all. I can’t see any complication.

In the Western world, meditation is part of the international language now. I don’t think that if you’re not doing meditation you’re very bad. Meditation is not only sitting. Meditation is also thinking about something. For example, let’s say you have to work until four or five o’clock and when you come back you are already tired, exhausted. So you come back and maybe lie down, then you think about that day—your work, how people reacted, how your mind worked, how many times you became angry, how many times disturbances happened. That’s a kind of meditation, thinking, “Is it worthwhile or not?” I think that’s good enough.

That’s why Buddhism is really simple. That’s why I say you don’t need rituals. Maybe lying down is a ritual. I think so! It’s really so simple. It’s a very, very simple way without involving rituals or any kind of trip. Be yourself. Who can tell you, “Don’t think!” Maybe your friend doesn’t like you to lie down; maybe they want attention. Then, what to do? You can say, “Please give me a little time.” That’s what you have to do. You have to be open in that way. I think that’s all; what else can I say? I think that’s good enough.

For example, visualization may be the biggest problem for you—going back to the West and trying to visualize an Eastern Buddha. When you visualize Buddha your visualization becomes a Western visualization, don’t you think? Yes! I tell you, it’s my observation. Many Western students now study Tibetan painting. We teach Tibetan-style thangka painting but when students draw the Buddha they make it exactly Western. When Western artists paint the Buddha, they can never make an Eastern face; they always make a Western-style face. Its shows what is here, inside. Visualization is very important. Anyway, in the West we do have visualization. Look at television—that is visualization.

[Tape ends]

In the West everything is directed toward sensory pleasure. Normally visualization is grasping at objects, grasping uptight images. We identify with something about which we fantasize. We work on our self-image, showing our face this way, putting our hair this way. The face should be shown this way, not that old face! We have a fantasy. We can see how it works in the incredible Western fashions and those things. We can see how deluded people are. They’re all doing something different, being happy or proud of their life and showing that, “I’m wonderful, beautiful, good.” Alright, alright—but all this energy! The motivation, the energy, is unbelievable. My god, really! I’m scared of all this energy. They have so much suffering. They do! They are not really physically suffering but are mentally suffering so much.

We do have visualization. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Buddhism we have archetypal images of the enlightened state of realization—compassion, wisdom and power. Avalokiteshvara is the archetypal image of universal compassion. Manjushri is the archetypal image of universal wisdom and Vajrapani is universal power. These are the archetypes represented by the deities. I think in Tibet this was common sense. We have descriptions of what Avalokiteshvara is, what Manjushri is and what Vajrapani is, and we already have these three qualities now. We have Avalokiteshvara quality; we all have loving kindness to some extent. If somebody loves us, we try to love them, don’t we? We do have love and we do have some wisdom—knowing how to take care of ourselves and how to be happy. We have this now. And we have some power, don’t we? We have some power to move, to resist our miserable situation and to bring pleasurable things close to us. We make a good house, we eat good food, we try to look for good friends. That is our own power.

But the compassion we have is so limited, so limited. It’s very, very narrow. For example, English people love the English and they like only English customs. They think the English are respectable and other nations are disasters. Anyway, to really love—to love our nation, to love other nations, to love African people—is so complicated. The problem is we can’t see. We only see our image; we can’t see that black people, African people, are the same as us. It’s a problem. We have the distinctions of nation, color and religion.

When we become a Buddhist, I’m sure it’s the same—we look down a little bit on Muslims or Hindus. It’s almost impossible, I tell you. That’s why I say it’s completely to do with individual development, individual understanding. We all try, but whatever we try to do just becomes some kind of ego trip. Not totally an ego trip—we mean well—but there’s always something sneakily coming. We try to meditate, thinking, “Buddhism is good,” then suddenly we have distinctions and we think non-Buddhists are second class. It’s unbelievable! Then because we are so discriminating, we have no love for Muslim people. Terrible, isn’t it? Then we don’t have love for Hindu people or we don’t have love for Christian people. That’s the way it is. It’s so complicated. Our mind is so narrow.

We should definitely admit our false conceptions, our true experience, our discrimination, but we do not admit it. We think, “I’m alright, I’m good enough!” That’s complete garbage! We do have compassion, but it’s always limited. That’s why having some kind of being, an archetypal image, is very powerful. We need some way to enhance our loving kindness into universal love. We’re not ready for this totality; we need some kind of sublimation, some kind of archetypal divine quality which does not bring the miserable reaction of discrimination.

Avalokiteshvara is not like a human being—he is our pure energy of loving kindness manifesting as radiant light.

This method is so powerful. Instead of going to have a haircut and paying—how much do you have to pay for a hair cut? It must be twenty dollars in the West in order to have that image. If you emanate yourself everyday as Avalokiteshvara you can save your money. You are beautiful. Beauty is always there. Anyway, I am joking! I’m not going to tell you in a detailed way.

Normally we identify ourselves in a dualistic, deluded way, a wrong conception way. We make a bubble image of ourselves and we believe we are that bubble image, but it is a false image. In order to eliminate this false image, we can emanate as a deity. So, visualization is extremely powerful. You can see how Western visualization is so powerful. When you see something on television, you have no choice: you have to go and buy it, don’t you? That is the power of visualization. So, visualization is very important. That’s why, when you go back [to the West] you should put the Buddha’s image in your room instead of a disaster image, instead of—what is it that young Eastern people like?

Student: Bruce Lee, kung fu.

Lama: This one! What is this one? Pictures everywhere! Even my boys keep this one. Instead of keeping these kinds of things to give us anger energy and nonsense, keep a buddha image. It is so peaceful; always looking very peaceful and compassionate. When we look at a buddha we can feel something. It’s useful, because we are not yet beyond form and color. We are dependent on form and color, and that’s why visualization is very useful. Alright, I don’t want to talk too much.

Respect for Other Religions

Student: I have been brought up as a Christian, but I have unfortunately forgotten it. I would like to take refuge again in wisdom and compassion, and take the Chenrezig and Vajrasattva initiations, and do the retreats to purify and tame my mind and be able to go back to Christianity if I eventually feel like it. Is this possible?

Lama: Possible? Yes!

Student: Could I just add a bit more because another question is similar—about taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Does that imply one can’t practice other religions?

Lama: No, that’s wrong. You can. First you take refuge in loving kindness and wisdom. Anyway, if you’re Christian, you have to take that. When you become Christian you don’t take refuge in the sun and the moon, do you? Love is emphasized as a quality of God, isn’t it? If you are Christian, you are taking refuge in love and wisdom. In Buddhism you are also taking that refuge, so it’s no problem. Then, after that, when you see that the value of Christianity is great, you can go back to Christianity. You don’t need Buddhism again. That’s right! Definitely, absolutely!

Buddhism—I’ll tell you our history. Many of our students come here with no religion. They have a bad feeling for Christianity but many times, after they have practiced Buddhism, they go back to it. They feel Christianity has much to offer, so they go back to their own religion. It’s our own history. It’s very worthwhile, so if you feel that, do it!

Christianity also has meditation; don’t think Christianity has no meditation, but maybe for you, certain technical methods of Buddhism, such as the way to approach loving kindness, are suitable. You can go into the church and meditate instead of just singing songs. That is very good, very worthwhile. Then, concerning wisdom—it’s very important. My observation is—maybe I’m wrong—that normally Christians do not emphasize wisdom but there is much emphasis on loving kindness. This is only my superficial observation of Christianity. Therefore, the wisdom aspect of Buddhism is very useful. For some reason Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on intensive awareness of our own conscious reality and I think this is unique. I think you can still keep those aspects while being a Christian. That doesn’t break any vow.

Unfortunately, when we talk about religion or religious faith, we have to use concepts again—Christian concepts, Buddhist concepts. When we’re dealing with concepts of philosophy, they sound very strange, don’t they? It’s a very strange way of thinking and the structure or framework of philosophy and religion confuses people. If I explain the confusion maybe you people will get angry. We and most religious people are confused. It’s not that we want to be confused, but because we have limits, we can’t see beyond the system or the structure of religion. We don’t see beyond that and this is our problem.

When religious people learn their own philosophy and their own system, they feel comfortable, superficially comfortable, but I think this comfort is a wrong conception. This comfort is like a Nepalese family living in a  comfortable house and thinking, “There’s no more comfortable house in the world.” That’s not true, actually. They haven’t seen American luxury houses, Western-style houses, therefore, they think they are right. They think that is the right way to live their life. Anyway, they’re lucky if they think that way, aren’t they? But even so, it’s a wrong conception, isn’t it? Even though it is purely a wrong conception, maybe it’s right for them. This is only my observation, that religious people make some kind of comfortable house and they feel, “God is there, Jesus is there and the Holy Spirit is there,” whereas Buddhists believe, “Buddha is there; this is my Buddha. This is the Tibetan buddha and the Tibetan buddha is the only buddha.”

We make some kind of comfortable house—our spiritual house—and then we live inside that. When we leave our religious house and look at other things, we find them very strange. We feel scared or paranoid, and we don’t understand and then it is too much; we have no tolerance. We are completely bound by our relative, limited concept of our own religious orientation, our own religious philosophical bondage, and we can’t see beyond that. So, that’s a good example for us.

When Tibetan Buddhism talks about—I don’t know—about Tibetan buddhas or Tibetan thangkas, for us it is very strange, isn’t it? Don’t you think it’s strange? I agree! We almost cannot accept that there is a Tibetan buddha. There is no room for this idea. I think for us it is not possible that there is a Tibetan bodhisattva, and we think there is no Buddha, no Dharma. Or, when we accept Tibetan Buddhism, we think, “This is the only thing.”

This is an extreme concept. First there is difficulty in accepting it, then having accepted it we think it is the only way. It is very difficult when we are so ignorant, because when we are a little bit open we have terrible misconceptions. What can I say? It’s so complicated. It’s silly and I can see some problems with that. So, when we accept any religion or any trip, we accept it somehow in a narrow way and then we have no room for other things.

For example, for Tibetan Buddhist people is there any Inji refuge object? They never draw Injis. And in the refuge tree, is there an Inji, a Westerner? There is no Westerner, unfortunately. Are there Japanese men? There are no Japanese men. Is there a Chinese buddha?  Actually, there is no Chinese buddha, is there?  There is no Korean buddha, there is no Ceylonese buddha. Now we’re not sure. How can we say there is no Chinese buddha, no Japanese buddha? How can we say there is no English buddha or bodhisattva? Can we say that? How can we say there is no bodhisattva in the Christian religion? Can we say it? I cannot say it—maybe you can say it! Sure, in the Christian religion there must be bodhisattvas. In the Muslim religion there must be bodhisattvas. I truly believe this. In the Hindu religion there must be bodhisattvas, there must be buddhas. There must be. Can you see that or not?

Tibetan intellectual people have an exact answer, but [Christians] are going to say the first stage bodhisattva is not possible because their philosophy holds that there is a self-existent soul. As long as someone keeps the philosophy of a self-existent soul they have no room for realization of the universal understanding of shunyata. Have you heard this philosophy? Intellectual people are going to say “Pham!” They have an intellectual answer. Yes, but we cannot say that all Christians are philosophers. Can we say all Christians are philosophers? No, it’s not true! All Buddhist people are not philosophers anyway, are they? I mean, generally speaking, for example, the Tibetan saint Milarepa  was not an intellectual philosopher; he just meditated and passed completely through, cut through [delusion.] So, it can be that a Christian has no Christian philosophy. In the beginning they hold or learn it, but then they give it up, thinking, “This philosophy is too narrow.” Maybe they give it up and they are not concerned with philosophy and just go completely into some kind of universal love and compassion, or something like a Christian way of shunyata.

When we were in Spain with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we went to a Christian monastery where there are many monks. His Holiness asked somebody, “What is shunyata?” or “What is your point of view of shunyata?” A Christian monk answered, “Not having attachment is shunyata.”  I was very impressed. From the Eastern philosophical point of view, it is the wrong answer. What is shunyata? It is non-attachment! Eastern philosophical people would think, “Oh, how foolish!” That’s from a philosophical point of view or framework, but if we look beyond that, he did answer. If we are not concerned with words, he did answer. If somebody does not have attachment, that’s incredible.

Without understanding shunyata there is no way to release attachment. Attachment is the concept which holds as dear our concrete concept of “I,” isn’t it? This is the fundamental thing, and then comes grasping and attachment. I was very happy with the Christian monk’s answer, “Non-attachment is the Christian view of shunyata.” I think that is wonderful; I was very happy. I’m sure you people don’t think Christian people develop non-attachment. Do you people think that way? I think Christianity has unbelievable teachings, but very few are practicing it nowadays. Not so many people are practicing true Christianity. I don’t think so.

So, what am I talking about? Now I have to make my point. I have talked about so many things and didn’t make my point. My point is, when we accept one religious framework this can make us blocked if we can’t see goodness in people of other religions. I think that is terrible; we destroy humanity. I think that is very bad, I tell you. At least Buddhism teaches respect for all human beings and all religions. All religions have good things. I think that is true.

Now I will tell you my opinion: in Buddhism’s framework we have Christianity and Hinduism and so on. This is my thinking, my observation. In Buddhism’s framework, in the Buddha’s teaching, there is Christianity, there is Hinduism, there is Islam, there are all religions. I feel that way—it is true! Sometimes the Buddha teaches exactly in a Christian way and sometimes the Buddha teaches exactly in an Islamic way. That’s why Buddhism has so many views. The Buddha himself said, “I taught that the self-existent soul exists.” He taught something like a Christian point of view. Then at a certain point he taught that the self-existence of the soul is a completely wrong conception, that it is not possible and so on. He taught everything. We have the words in the sutras; we have everything to show you. Before the Buddha died, he said, “I kept so many things—wrong views, right views. I taught wrong views to lead these people to pure morality.”

For example, suppose I give you people a meditation course and the first thing I say is, “Western philosophy and the way you people think is all wrong.” If I tell you this at the very beginning of the meditation course, you are going to say, “Goodbye,” aren’t you? You are going to say, “That’s not your business,” aren’t you? You are going to say, “You teach this way, but I thought you were going to teach loving kindness. You are going to teach us anger, so goodbye, we’re leaving.”

Well, the Buddha knows; it doesn’t matter if the people have a completely wrong philosophy or wrong view, he teaches them. He makes their philosophy better and does not say that anything is wrong. He teaches other things that are beneficial for them, in order for them to grow. When they grow, then they can see that their own view is wrong, can’t they? Like us; sometimes we hold wrong conceptions for a long time, but suddenly we get a realization, “Ah! Incredible! What kind of person am I to hold such terrible concepts?” We do have that kind of experience. I’m sure all of you have experienced that kind of thing and have grown in that way. So, the Buddha teaches many different kinds of teachings. He said, “Whatever I say is not necessarily true.” He made an announcement. He doesn’t want us to have devotion based on thinking, “Buddha said this, so I accept it,” or to completely reject it because it is too dangerous. He said, “From whatever I told you, be aware of things that are suitable for you. If they are not suitable, give them up. My teachings are completely personal and unique. I teach each person in a different way, showing them a method for growth.”

So, without making your own observation and taking responsibility, never accept anything. Buddha’s announcement was completely clean clear. I’m sure that sometimes you think it is just like Christianity, don’t you? Some people say lamrim is just like Christianity, whereas some people say Buddhism is not a religion. There are a lot of interpretations: Buddhism is this, Buddhism is that. The reason is that Buddhism has a religious aspect—like Christianity—and a philosophical aspect. So many subjects are contained in Buddhism. Buddhism is like having fish, chicken and everything! Everything can be contained in Buddhism.

When we look at Buddhism and it talks about heavy, negative subjects, it’s almost similar to Christianity, isn’t it? Heavy this way and that way! Except that Buddhism says we can get out. We can change our situation. That’s the lucky thing, isn’t it? Christianity says if we do something [evil] we are finished—we go [to hell] forever. That is different. So, that’s why we shouldn’t worry. Buddhism contains satisfaction—religious aspects, philosophical aspects and many different psychological aspects. We cannot say Buddhism is that or this.

Therefore, when we take refuge, we take refuge in the ten directions’ buddhas and bodhisattvas. You’ve heard this? When we take refuge in the ten directions’ buddhas and bodhisattvas, it means nothing is left out. A bodhisattva can be anywhere in the world. Therefore, in my opinion a bodhisattva can be Muslim; a bodhisattva can be Christian; a bodhisattva can be Hindu; a bodhisattva can be Judaist. Jewish is difficult, you know. My joke! Really, I believe all these people can be bodhisattvas. If we have enough room, if we open our hearts, those are refuge objects.

However, from the practical point of view, until we have some kind of loving kindness we cannot be a bodhisattva. It’s not possible. Have you heard in Buddhism that the appearance of pure or impure objects is a reflection of our own mind? You have or have not heard this? Alright! In order to see something as pure, to see the selflessness of things outside, we must have something in our consciousness to project. Then we can see the outside as pure. This Buddhist way of thinking is very important. I think Western people should know this.

Western people expect to have a concrete bodhisattva outside. If they cannot prove that there is a bodhisattva, too bad! In the West there is so much materialistic expectation, and they want to see a bodhisattva as something outside, something solid, but that’s not possible. Buddhism believes that when we have developed some qualities we can see bodhisattvas everywhere. Do you understand? When we don’t have some qualities, we can’t see bodhisattvas. When we don’t have love, we can’t see love in others. It is not possible. Therefore, it is important that first we try to generate the qualities ourselves, then taking refuge in the ten directions’ bodhisattvas becomes meaningful.

Normally, taking refuge is quite difficult, isn’t it? We can see how misconceptions start. It’s the same thing in Christianity. Christians take refuge in Jesus; Catholics take refuge in Jesus. But the level of Jesus can be found in the Hindu religion, in the Muslim religion and in the Buddhist religion. But for Christians, if you are Hindu or Muslim it is the wrong path to God or whatever it is. So, what can I say? What can I say? Maybe not all Christians are thinking that way, but the human mind works that way, unfortunately.

I think that’s enough. Is what I’m saying communicating? Alright. I want you to watch, to rethink, [to free] your limited mind. When we are religious people, we should be open, we should respect all humanity, we should rejoice in the Christian priests’ teachings. I rejoice. Definitely I rejoice if a Christian priest teaches us. Instead of rejoicing, we have hatred. It’s so sad!

[Tape ends]

…..[If Buddhism helps us become] more respectful, more free from our own narrow mind, then I agree it is helpful for us. If Buddhism closes us more tightly, if it makes us more uptight, then it’s better that we give up Buddhism. I think that’s all.

Relationships and the Spiritual path

Student: How do we turn a man-woman worldly relationship that inevitably involves a degree of attachment and self-cherishing into a spiritual thing?

Lama: Into a spiritual thing? What does that mean? Who is it? He never asks any questions, so I am surprised. Repeat it again.

Course Leader: I’ll read it again. How to turn a man-woman worldly relationship that always inevitably involves attachment and self-cherishing into a spiritual thing? How to use this in the path?

Lama: Right! I think that also depends on understanding. Again, it’s the same thing. My answer is always the same: it depends on their level of consciousness. It’s true; it’s always like that. When a man and woman come together, if the man has some kind of higher level of consciousness—if he has some kind of power to bring her to his level, or she has some higher level and she brings the man to a higher level—then it’s a good thing. When a man and woman come together, if it’s only a fantasy of physical sensation, then that’s a wrong motivation at the beginning and it will end up as a disaster, won’t it? That’s its nature, unless some transformation happens—sometimes in the beginning it is only sensation and the motivation is only attachment, a negative vibration, but then when they come together, they can transform themselves. It’s possible.

That’s why, according to Tibetan tantra, both men and women—yogis and yoginis—find some kind of interesting consciousness level, the same level of consciousness. Then they work together spiritually and they are helpful to each other. Then, if the man is down or the woman is down, they don’t bring the other person down. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a lot of conversation about that. However, try somehow, whatever you can do; then a man and woman coming together is something [worthwhile.] We all need to help each other in many different ways—psychologically, spiritually, materially. We all need each other, so being together as a couple should come from a sincere wish to help the other person, rather than taking advantage of them. I think that is the best way, a simple way to transform a couple’s life. That’s all.

A man and woman coming together is not only for beauty or the sensation; it’s something deeper than that, to help each other grow. I think that way is very good. Anyway, it’s nature, isn’t it? Man helps woman, woman helps man—it’s a natural thing. It’s a kind of understandable, universal law. It’s nothing to worry about; it’s not unusual but something very usual. But in some way destructiveness is usual too. So, what can I say? Tibetan Buddhism never said that men and women being together is necessarily negative; it depends, doesn’t it? You know, at a certain point a man and a woman coming together gives the yogi and yogini complete, total realization, it opens the chakra. Tibetan Buddhism has an explanation. We cannot say; we cannot judge. I think it is a completely individual thing, that’s all. That’s good enough, isn’t it? Shall we finish? Are you tired? No? Let’s go! I’m alright!

I think it is important that we do not look at a man and woman coming together as bad. It’s not true. Again, that is a double delusion; we should not create this kind of atmosphere. A man and woman coming together is a natural thing and whether it’s beneficial or not is completely individual. What can I say? We can judge with our own experience. I cannot judge. So, we cannot project that it’s good or bad—just better to leave it alone—let them go, whatever they want to do. That’s the way it is.

Bodhicitta is the Real Essential  

Student: Sometimes, in especially difficult situations, I feel the Dharma outside of me, more as a good concept that I agree with intellectually but it doesn’t come from my heart. Especially, all these merit-collecting practices seem very foreign to me. How do I handle these feelings? Is it good to go on with the practice, to get used to it, or should I leave it if there’s no feeling in the heart? And if I leave it, how do I collect merit?

Lama: This problem is a very common one. All religious people have this experience. I’m sure all Christians have this difficulty; all Muslims have this experience; all Buddhist people have this experience. It depends: if the mind is a psychological tornado, so much up and down, shaking the entire mandala of our conscious realm, at that moment it is very difficult. At that moment when we are completely a tornado, shaking, to bring wisdom and love is very difficult. It takes time. Allow space and time; don’t push. All of us have this experience, so don’t think this is only your problem.

And regarding the feeling “Dharma is not in my heart,” sometimes it’s true. How can Dharma be in our heart? Dharma is wisdom and intensive awareness of nature. We are polluted and full of fantasy, so having Dharma in the heart is a very difficult thing. Dharma concerns reality and intensive awareness of our own fundamental nature, doesn’t it? If we are full of fantasy, it is very difficult. This problem is not only yours; everybody has that kind of problem. I think what you have to investigate is whether Dharma is in your heart or not. What kind of Dharma? When you feel you have Dharma in your heart, what is the Dharma in your heart? What kind of Dharma? Maybe red color Dharma or yellow color Dharma or chocolate color Dharma? We’re not sure! Firstly, we’re not sure about that question. Maybe Tibetan ritual Dharma, but ritual is not really Dharma, is it? A Dharma heart is understanding or comprehending something.

Then, regarding your question, “If Dharma is not in my heart, do I give up?” Well, what are you gaining? You are gaining being full of attachment, full of misconceptions. I’ll tell you again, that is not understanding the real Dharma. In my opinion, if people say, “If I give up Dharma then I’ll be happy,” it means their Dharma must be something artificial, a suffocating structure. Do you understand? Dharma is an open heart. It makes you peaceful, it makes you happy, doesn’t it?

What is Dharma? Come on! That is the question. “Dharma in your heart”—what do you mean by “Dharma”? When you give up Dharma, what do you gain? Do you mean you give up the philosophy of Dharma? Maybe you mean that. When you give up Dharma, it means you give up the philosophy of Dharma. If you have true Dharma, what do you give up? I am telling you, Dharma is part of your realization, part of your consciousness. Do you give up your consciousness? Do you cut your neck? My goodness!

I’ll tell you one story. I have an American student who wanted to see some other guru. I’m not going to mention his name. During an interview, the student told me, “I wanted to see this guru and I requested an interview.” Then he was asked, “Where do you come from?” He replied, “I’m Lama Yeshe’s student,” or something like that. He was told, “Ah, you are Gelugpa. If you want to see our guru, you must give up refuge in your guru.” My student was shocked and said, “If I give up refuge in my guru, I don’t exist! I don’t want to see your guru.” It’s a good answer, isn’t it? Actually, it is part of his existence, so if he gives up his existence he doesn’t need to see the other guru, does he?

So, the thing is, I want to know what you mean by giving up Dharma. I’m surprised! There’s no such thing as giving up Dharma, unfortunately. You can give up philosophy, you can give up ritual customs, but the concept of giving up Dharma is very strange, foreign.

Course leader: I think she meant the merit-collecting practices. She says, “Is it good to go on with the practices, the merit-collecting practices?”

Lama: Yes, yes, I’m coming to that! You’re right! So, what I mean is that giving up Dharma is very strange, very foreign. The Dharma is in your heart, so it is truly difficult [to give it up] and therefore it is better to practice collecting merit. Definitely, yes.

You should not worry, because merit is a proportion of energy. It is building up energy in your consciousness. Let’s say you want to go in the Olympic Games—you want to go, you want to go, you want to go, you want to go, you want to go. You think, “I will train, I want to do training,” and then you train for one month, two months, three months, four months, for years and years. You train every month. This is energy, and energy is merit. Similarly, you collect merit when you generate loving kindness for others, when you see the false conception of attachment. You generate merit with the pure thought having a dedicated attitude for others. You increase the energy; when collecting merit you increase, increase, increase, increase. That’s all.

However, whether we are being positive or negative, each thought has a build-up of energy, either positive energy—merit—or negative energy. “Negative merits,” maybe! That’s all. It’s so simple. What you do mean by “merit”? What kind of merit? I want to know! Some concept of merit, or what?

Student: Positive energy.

Lama: Positive energy, that’s very good! You know, there’s no way you can give up positive energy. Now you’re stuck! Bodhicitta itself makes us so completely peaceful, so happy. The self-cherishing thought is like putting a sword or knife into our heart; our heart is really hurt, relatively and absolutely! But bodhicitta is something which makes us completely relaxed. I think bodhicitta is unbelievable; it’s the most important thing we can practice in our entire life. It makes us really happy and there’s no room for others to disturb us. Otherwise, everybody is our enemy. The opposite of bodhicitta is feeling that everybody is an enemy.

In the West, people sometimes think, “She is taking advantage; he is taking advantage; you are taking advantage.” People think that everybody takes advantage of them, but it’s not true. I know many people who think human beings take advantage of each other. Do you feel that way? I don’t know. It’s not true! Human beings have always been kind to each other, helping each other. Always. It’s our fundamental nature. So, bodhicitta helps us to relax even when we’re not meditating. Really, bodhicitta makes us content, satisfied. If somebody hits us, if somebody beats us, it’s still OK. If somebody’s criticizing us, it’s still OK. If somebody’s stealing our money, it’s still OK. If somebody does bad things to us, it’s still OK. The mind makes it OK; that’s all it is. And it’s the mind that makes it not OK, isn’t it?

So, I think bodhicitta is the best. In my opinion we all need bodhicitta, especially in Western society. If we have to integrate our practice into Western society’s working life, I think bodhicitta is the best way. Bodhicitta is definitely the best way to integrate our practice. In Western society people have very strong, concrete relationships with each other, for example, “I’m working for you,” or “You and me,” becomes so concrete. You say, “I want you to do this,” and I say, “Yes, I can do this much.” Do you know what I mean? In the beginning we have to talk to make such an incredible relationship, therefore bodhicitta is really, really important.

For me it seems like bodhicitta is the real essential. Western people can easily help others, but when we try to teach them indestructible samadhi meditation it is very difficult, because Western life is not made for that, unfortunately. Of course, we still have time. But we can practice bodhicitta so easily; we can see other people suffering, we can see our boss suffering, we can see the workers suffering, we can see so much suffering. Oh, my goodness, Western people have so much suffering, so much conflict. I really have compassion when I go to America. Californian people are sweet, they’re hardworking and physically they’re comfortable, but in their mind they’re going on an incredible trip. The more I stay, the more I have compassion for them. Really, they have so much suffering mentally. I don’t know, maybe it’s my projection, but I’m telling you my experience. I feel that those people have so much mental suffering.

So, in my opinion, bodhicitta is the best way. Bodhicitta makes our heart completely relaxed. In our life we have to deal with other peoples’ difficulties, so this helps. When people give us problems but at the same time we can be satisfied and can help them, this comes from bodhicitta. We should have bodhicitta; it is the best!

Even in a man-woman relationship, bodhicitta is very useful. A man can see the woman is suffering or the woman can see her partner is suffering—when you can see that, how can you add more suffering? Normally in relationships people hurt each other, don’t they? “I’m dissatisfied with him so I will hurt him.” Or he hurts her because he’s dissatisfied. Can you imagine? That’s the way it is. All these relationships are a disaster because they are not getting enough. You definitely decide, “I’m not getting enough from him (or her).” That is selfish—completely, purely selfish. I think that is clean-clear. You hurt your partner because you are dissatisfied, because you are not getting pleasure.  “I’m not getting pleasure, so I’m leaving!” That’s California style! It’s easy, isn’t it? It’s very easy. “I’m leaving. I’m dissatisfied, I’m not happy, therefore I’m leaving.” I think it’s completely selfish; it’s unbelievable! How can we always be happy with each other? We have so much garbage, so many trips inside.

How can I expect to always be happy with you? I cannot! I cannot guarantee that you people will be happy. It’s true! Therefore, you should accept it: “How can my selfish mind think it’s unfair this way? It’s not true. I should be reasonable. It’s natural that sometimes I get pleasure and sometimes I do not. I’m not happy but still I will try, and I will analyze what is wrong and why.”

Anyway, I don’t know what is going on; I don’t know what I’m saying. Read on, I don’t know what I’m saying!

The Power of Holy Objects

Student: Do the deities and holy objects possess an external power from their side, or is their power derived solely from the working of our mind? Is there an outside Buddha?

Lama: Yes, there is also outside power. When I sit this way and you look at me, you can see outside power, can’t you? Then, when I wear nice hair like that, you can see some kind of power, can’t you? The image itself has some kind of power. Definitely, yes. When I sit this way there’s different power; when I sit that way, again there’s different power. The different images in different positions make a different impact on your mind. It’s true! Especially the way the Buddha is sitting always gives you a feeling of a middle way. You can see that the Buddha’s face, the Buddha’s eyes and Lama Tsongkhapa’s face are always like this. My eyes are always like this. [Lama demonstrates with eyes wide open.] The Buddha’s face and eyes looking like this are symbolic of his having reached beyond dualistic thought.

One way of looking is a symptom of dualistic conception. It’s true, isn’t it? If you are a psychologist, you can see what sickness people have and what is going on in their mind by looking into their eyes; you can see a vibration. In one way our twentieth century world is good and in one way it’s bad. We are so sensitive, we can see people’s faces and vibrations and we can see what’s going on in their mind, can’t we? Don’t you think nowadays we check vibrations? It’s true! Maybe in ancient times they didn’t check vibrations. I definitely believe that the way we sit, the way we set up an image and the image itself has vibration and power; that’s why I say if we put up our buddha image and look at his way of sitting and his body control, it’s unbelievable.

In most Western cultures, number one is that we do not control our body energy. Do we control our body or not? We do not control our body; this is my observation. Our mind forgets our body. We cannot control our body because in the West we are so involved with sensations or feelings and we just let go with whatever feeling or sensation comes. All of life’s decisions come from the sensations of the body. Do you disagree? I’m sure you disagree with me! The body is so delicate, it is the most important thing in our life. In the West it is everything: in the morning when we get up after sleep, everything is done for the body. To my wrong conception, my feeling, it seems like that, and I think the body is very much out of control.

The Buddha controls his body. I think definitely this position of control will automatically bring some change in us, to our hormones and structure of the nervous system. I definitely feel that way of sitting makes us a little bit more controlled. The sensation or feeling which is out of control will become more controlled and this helps to control the mind. Therefore, I think the Buddha’s image itself has external power and a positive vibration.

Of course, you have to understand that the Buddha’s qualities are not something external, they are something selfless and universal—loving kindness and bodhicitta. So, if somebody cuts the Buddha with a knife, piece by piece, and somebody else puts perfume, the Buddha has no discrimination. Remember when he was in Bodhgaya, when he became enlightened and somebody tried to harm him, he never paid any attention. If somebody gives him perfumes and nice things and love, he doesn’t pay any attention. Buddha has that kind of understanding and inner realization, and he does not pay attention to all the sensations, good or bad. Whether somebody does something good or somebody does something bad, he doesn’t care. Buddha gave up all this discrimination. For him it is the same, because he has equilibrium.

So, understanding the Buddha’s image and putting it somewhere is so powerful, so powerful. It is a reminder and restores us when we’ve degenerated. It is true! In Tibet when we were degenerated, we went to a temple, to our favorite buddha; it gave us so much strength and energy. It’s the same thing in a Western church—many people go to see Jesus Christ and they get so much powerful energy, or they see Mary and get a lot of energy from that image. So, the image itself has power, and when we understand the qualities of the Buddha we get more power. Does that answer your question?

One last question? Yes, it’s five minutes before eleven; we can stop at eleven o’clock.

Student: I can understand how I could develop equanimity, love and compassion when someone is torturing me, but how should we train our mind to develop equanimity, love and compassion when we see someone torturing another person and we cannot stop it?

Course Leader: Do you understand?

Lama: Understand? Yes, I understand! Firstly, congratulations! Anyone who can have a feeling of equilibrium when somebody tortures you, completely congratulations! We rejoice and collect merit. It’s true! That’s why in Buddhism, merit collection is very important; we can just watch people doing things and enjoy it and rejoice, without doing anything. It’s very powerful. We cannot stop other people doing things. What can I say? We just send our loving kindness energy to them. I think that’s all. I think that so many bloody things are happening in the world. Like, for example, in Saudi Arabia a princess was persecuted by her grandfather, who said that she misbehaved because she had sexual contact with a non-religious person, therefore she was a bad example and he should kill her. So, she was killed. Many people in the world know about it and somebody made a film. What can we say? We cannot stop the Saudi Arabian government. Do you remember the movie? It was so sad, incredible; it broke my heart. She was a very beautiful girl and very kind-looking in the movie. Anyway, what can we say? This is a good example, isn’t it?1

What is it we are talking about? Repeat the question. Oh, yes, it’s clear!

So, what can we do? It’s just karma, that’s all. We can stop certain karmic things coming; we can change it if it’s not already ripening. But karma which has already ripened, what to do—it just comes. If I become a monkey in my next life, then you people will say, “Oh, my lama has become a monkey! Oh, how awful; I wish I could help you!” Maybe you can give good food and say OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM, but you cannot suddenly change my body into a human body. Impossible, isn’t it? That is the karma. You cannot change certain karma which has manifested, but you can change the karma which will be the future result.

Maybe we stop now. Tomorrow would you like to continue the question and answer, or would you like to choose one subject? You people have the choice. For me, I don’t mind. I can continue question and answer, or I can give an introduction to refuge and precepts and bodhicitta. So, you have the choice. I don’t care. Whatever you people feel. Thank you so much. We will do whatever is beneficial.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

Now maybe we can do dedication.

Ge wa di yi


1 “Death of a Princess” is a controversial British 1980 drama-documentary based on the true story of Princess Mishaal, a young Saudi Arabian woman who was publicly executed for adultery. [Return to text]