The Simple Art of Meditation

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Bloomington, Indiana (Archive #447)

This was a public lecture delivered by Lama Thubten Yeshe in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, on July 25, 1975. Transcribed by Ann Ogburn. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. The first part of this teaching was published in Mandala magazine, September 2002. This discourse is now published in full in the LYWA book Knowledge-Wisdom: The Peaceful Path to Liberation.

Lama Yeshe at the end of the first Kopan meditation course, Nepal, 1971. Photo: Fred von Allmen.

Meditation is very simple. When hearing about meditation for the first time, you might think, “That must be very special; meditation couldn’t be for me but only for special people.” This just creates a gap between you and meditation.

Actually, watching television, which we all do, is a bit like meditating. When you watch television, you watch what’s happening on the screen; when you meditate, you watch what’s happening on the inner screen of your mind—where you can see all your good qualities, but all your inner garbage as well. That’s why meditation is simple.

The difference, however, is that through meditation you learn about the nature of your mind rather than the sense world of desire and attachment. Why is this important? We think that worldly things are very useful, but the enjoyment they bring is minimal and transient. Meditation, on the other hand, has so much more to offer—joy, understanding, higher communication and control. Control here does not mean that you are controlled by somebody else but rather by your own understanding knowledge-wisdom, which is a totally peaceful and joyful experience. Thus, meditation is very useful.

Also, if you exaggerate the value of external objects, thinking that they are the most important things in life, you ignore your inner beauty and internal joyful energy; if you look only outside of yourself, you neglect your most precious human qualities—your intellect and your potential to communicate in higher ways. Thus, meditation shows you clean clear which objects of attachment confuse you and with which kinds of mind you relate to them.

Furthermore, meditation is a very quick method of discovering the nature of reality. It’s just like a computer. Computers can check many things extremely quickly, put them together and all of a sudden, pam!—we’re on the moon. Similarly, meditation can quickly make things clean clear, but we don’t have to go to the trouble of learning by trial and error through laboratory experiments. Many people seem to think that making mistakes is a very important part of learning. My point of view is that this is a misconception. “To learn the reality of misery, you have miserable experiences”? I say that this is not so. Through meditation we can learn things clean clear, without having to experience them.

Thus, meditation does not mean the study of Buddhism philosophy and doctrine. It is learning about our own nature: what we are and how we exist.

Some books say that the purpose of meditation is to make us conscious, but despite the usual Western connotation, the terms “awareness” and “consciousness” are not necessarily positive. They can be selfish functions of the ego. Awareness and consciousness do not mean the fully awakened state of knowledge-wisdom. Awareness can be simply an ego-trip. I mean, many times we’re aware and conscious, but since we possess neither wisdom nor understanding, our minds are still polluted. We think that we’re conscious, but our minds are foggy and unclear. Therefore, awareness and consciousness are not exclusively the result of meditation. What has to happen is that through meditation, awareness and consciousness must become knowledge-wisdom.

Another idea that many people have is that meditation is beautiful because it produces calm and relaxation. But calm and relaxation are not necessarily the result of meditation. For example, when we are asleep and our mind has sunk to an unconscious level, we are relaxed. Of course, this is not the same relaxation that meditation brings.

Meditation releases us from the uncontrolled, polluted mind. Automatically, we become joyful and can see meaning in our life. Hence, we can direct the energy of our body, speech and mind in beneficial directions instead of wasting it through not knowing what we want.

In fact, most of the time we don’t know what we want. We try something, but then, “Oh, I don’t want this.” So we try something else, but again, “I don’t want this either.” Our life is constantly changing, changing, changing; again and again, our energies are sublimated into one thing, then another, and we reach nowhere—doesn’t this sound familiar?

We should make sure we understand our behavior. We put ourselves on so many different trips and into so many life situations with no understanding of what direction is really worth going in, thus wasting enormous amounts of time. Meditation purifies and clarifies our view, enabling us to understand the different lifestyles and beliefs of basically every sentient being in the universe. Thus we can see which are worthwhile and which are not. A human being, sitting at one place in meditation, can see all this. It is definitely possible.

When our minds are clean clear, we can choose a beneficial way of life.

Most of the time we’re confused and don’t know what we want out of life. As I said, sometimes we think that we have to make mistakes to learn. No, this is not necessary. If, through meditation, our mind is clean and clear, we can see all the different trips, ways of life and actions of the universal living beings. A human being sitting in one place in meditation can see all this. It is definitely possible.

From one point of view, meditation is easy; from another, it is not. Why do I say this? Take, for example, the question: “What is water?” How can one know what water is? An easy way to tell someone what water is would be to reply, “That’s so simple—go over there and drink some.” The complicated way to determine the essence of water would be to undertake a variety of analyses in a scientific laboratory. Similarly, meditation can be easy or difficult.

If we really want to know what meditation is and put it into action, we should first check with someone who has already had some meditational experience and then try it for ourselves. That’s more worthwhile than getting a book on meditation from the library and trying to practice from that, because words are merely a picture of reality and the reality of personal experience cannot easily be expressed in writing. Furthermore, our limited minds often distort what words say. Of course, we use words to train our mind, but there is often a big gap between words and reality.

Our parents always told us to be good, advising us against such things as getting angry and smoking. But why didn’t we change? Intellectually, we knew our parents were right, that such actions were bad, but we didn’t change. We should check up. In the same way, books might say, “This is good, this is bad,” but we still don’t change and remain as uncontrolled as ever. Why is that? It’s because we lack the experience. We’ve knocked here, we’ve knocked there, but we’ve never knocked on the essential door. Therefore, the lamas have found that it is most useful to learn from people who themselves have had real experience.

But still, we are funny. Although we have an experienced teacher of meditation or philosophy or whatever, we get attached to that teacher, meditation or philosophy. Then when somebody tells us that our teacher, meditation or philosophy is no good, we completely freak out and almost become violent. We react in this way because of misconception; we regard our spiritual path or meditation as we do material things in a supermarket. We sublimate our attachment to supermarket goodies into attachment to religion or meditation. Instead of benefiting by releasing ourselves from emotional attachment, we only produce more. This point is extremely important to understand. No matter what our religion, what our philosophy, what our highest goal, we should not be attached to it.

When we want to cross a bridge over a river, we recognize that the bridge is very useful. But we are most unwise if we get attached to it and think, “Oh, fantastic! I want to stay on this wonderful bridge. Before I came to it, my life was so complicated and I couldn’t get anywhere. Now I’m so attached to this bridge.” That way of thinking is very mistaken indeed.

So, being attached to the Dharma is just another trip, albeit a spiritual trip, and not in the least worthwhile. Instead of solving our problems, we only create more. What I’m saying is this: whether our meditation practice and religious life are worthwhile or not depends on how we interpret what we have learned.

Unfortunately, our minds are limited and we paint our own pictures of what meditation and religion really are. With limited minds, we make limited pictures: “Meditation means this,” “religion means that,” “this is religion,” “this is meditation,” “this is that.” Therefore, it is very, very important that no matter what we are doing, we use correctly whatever wisdom and method we have. We should use them correctly and not be attached to them. If somebody tells us our philosophy or meditation is bad and we get upset, it means that there is something wrong with our practice.

This is the trouble with the world nowadays—the biggest trouble. Although we think that society, politicians or the economy are the cause of all the troubles we face, in fact, our troubles come from our own mind. Our mind is the creator of all problems. We should not blame society; we should not blame other people: “He makes problems for me.” The problems come from us; mostly we make our own problems. We apply so much paint to cover things up that we prevent ourselves from seeing the reality of any existence, inner or outer.

Anyway, no matter what we say, “Religion is this, religion is that”—as long as we don’t put our religion into action, we are merely being hypocritical. Moreover, there will be no useful results, although superficially we might say, “Oh, it’s good, it’s good.” Why do I say this? Religion has nothing to do with such fixed things out there. Whatever our religion, as soon as we put it into action and experience it through the action of our own knowledge-wisdom, the result will be there immediately. We shouldn’t get hung up wondering what the future results will be. Instead, we should put all our effort into the right path.

All the energy of this earth and its human beings is included in two divisions: mental and physical. Whatever exists, all is included completely within these divisions, internal and external. Most subjects of meditation concern mental rather than physical energy. But our problem is that we are always interested in and overestimating the value of physical energy and ignoring mental energy. That is the problem. Meditation, however, can clarify our mental energy and reveal the reality of the mind. Through meditation, we can discover that the joyful life does not come from the outside world but from within ourselves.

Good human relationships and mutual respect come from each of us. The way we usually decide whom to respect comes from such ways of thinking as, “If he respects me, I’ll respect him. If he doesn’t respect me, then I’m not going to respect him.” That is a completely ill-conceived way of thinking and totally unrealistic. Reality is something else; that’s why I say these ways of thinking are unrealistic. Our mind just fabricates such philosophies—philosophies of attachment—emotional philosophies rather than scientific ones.

If we perceive the reality of the mind of attachment and how it functions within our consciousness, we can transcend yet enjoy the sense world at the same time. Our present enjoyment of the sense world comes from grasping it tightly. As long as we continue in this way, instead of experiencing good results, the sense world will continue to hurt us. In other words, the way attachment works is to disturb our mental peace.

Now, many spiritually inclined people have good hearts and want to help everywhere. But unless their mind is clean and clear, they cannot really help other people. It is impossible to help others with confusion, attachment and emotion. Instead of trying to help our partner, motivated by emotional confusion, we should first make our own mind clean clear. Once we have achieved a strong, clean-clear mind, trying to help others is reasonable. But until then we only create more and more confusion, and saying that we are trying to help is just words. Although we always say it is good to have a good heart, if we lack wisdom and understanding, it doesn’t work and we can’t solve our problems. So, if we really want to solve society’s problems and not just create more confusion, first we have to get ourselves together.

Meditation is medicine for the sick mind. The only way to solve mental problems is through mental energy. It is impossible to stop mental problems through the physical energy of drugstore medications. Of course, for temporal problems such as headaches, instead of saying, “Oh, that doesn’t help” and rejecting drug treatment, we can try to destroy the cooperative conditions with drugs, and it might help the actual problem. But the basic problem is in the mind and all physical sickness is a manifestation of the sick mind. Sickness comes from the mind.

We always think sickness comes from outside. But, for instance, if there’s tuberculosis in the room and it is likely to spread to all the people in it, if one’s mind is strong, it will control the energy of the infection. The weak, however, will not be able to resist disease in this way. Thus, physical illness originates from the mind. This we should know well. Mental energy is much more powerful than physical energy.