What is Dharma?

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

Lama Yeshe discusses the real meaning of Dharma and the nature of the mind in this discourse given at Chenrezig Institute, Eudlo, Australia, on September 8, 1979. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. This discourse is now published in the LYWA book Knowledge-Wisdom: The Peaceful Path the Liberation.

Portrait of Lama Yeshe during the month-long course at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, 1975.

Supposedly, all of us, including myself, should be Dharma practitioners, and here, the important things to know are what Dharma really is and how it should be practiced.

Generally, the word Dharma has many meanings, many different connotations. For example, there are various philosophical explanations, but we don’t need to get involved in those. Practically, now, what we are involved in is practicing Dharma.

First of all, it is very difficult to understand exactly what Dharma really means for each of us as individuals. The reason is that we have to understand to some extent the relationship between the Dharma and our mind, or consciousness. In order to understand that, we need to understand that the mind, or consciousness, has two characteristics.

I am sure you have heard the philosophy of relative nature, or character, and absolute nature, or character. The relative nature of the mind, or psyche, or consciousness, is clarity and perception: the clear energy that has the ability to perceive reality, to allow the reflection of the reality of all existence. That is what we call the mind. People who have studied Buddhist teachings on the primary consciousnesses and the fifty-one mental factors will have some understanding; for them this will be easy.

But what I want you to understand is that our mind is the clarity and clear perception that can reflect the reality of existence, that’s all. If you understand it in that way, the advantage is that when we talk about buddha potentiality, you can say, “Yes, we have buddha potential and can reach the same level as the Buddha.” We understand the relationship between the Buddha and ourselves.

Otherwise, most of the time, sentient beings have the tendency, or dualistic attitude, to think, “I am completely dirty and unclean, totally deluded and hopeless—sinful, negative, wrong, worthless.” Whether we are believers or nonbelievers, we human beings always have the tendency to identify ourselves in such a negative way. In other words, we are limited, like a passport identity. Our ego projects for each of us a very limited identity. The fact that we believe in and identify with such narrow, limited energy already begins to suffocate us. We are suffocating because we have a suffocating attitude.

You cannot make me limited; you cannot make me suffocate. My suffocation comes from my own limited neurotic thought. For that reason, each of us is responsible for ourselves. I am responsible for my confusion; I am responsible for my happiness or liberation or whatever I think are good things. I am responsible. Kangaroos cannot make me satisfied.

Then maybe the question arises that if the mind is clean-clear perception, how do we become confused, mixed up? Why are we neurotic? It’s because our way of thinking is wrong and we do not comprehend our own view, or perception. So the perception of consciousness is here on your side, reality is over there on the other side, and the view is somewhere between the reality and the consciousness—the perception view is somewhere in between.

We are too extreme. We are too obsessed with objects and grasp them in such a tight way; our conception is so tight. That is what we call confusion—not the perception itself; perception itself has the clarity to perceive garbage also. Its good side, its natural clarity, perceives the garbage view, but we don’t look at that clarity perception, we can’t see it. What we see is only unclear. So forget about the absolute—at the moment we don’t even touch the relative nature of the mind.

Thinking that human beings are hopeless is wrong. My thinking that I am hopeless, always beset by problems, is not true. From the Buddhist point of view, that is not true. Thinking that my consciousness, my mind, is absolutely hopeless is wrong. It is making a limitation that has nothing whatsoever to do with my own reality. Or sometimes we think that we are clever, but the true fact is that we make ourselves confused; we make ourselves dull by grasping at the hallucinated wrong view. The object of that view could also be Dharma, the philosophy of Dharma, the doctrine of Dharma.

Let’s say I ask each of you the question, what does Dharma mean, what are you doing, practicing? If you answer what you feel in a really open way, each of you will answer differently. I bet you. That shows that each of you has a different view of what Dharma is and what it isn’t. Even just Dharma philosophy itself creates confusion, makes some kind of thinking, trying to say what is Dharma, what isn’t Dharma: “This is not Dharma, that is not Dharma, this way yes, that way yes, this way is Dharma, you should not do things that way because my lama says, because the Buddha says.” Before you contacted Dharma you were already complicated; now that you have taken on the Dharma you’ve become even more so.

Of course, first, in the beginning, you see it as good, fascinating: “Dharma, wow!” It is kind of new, a new adventure, a new discovery in this Australian kangaroo land. But in fact, if you don’t understand the relationship between your own mind and the Dharma, Dharma also becomes the source of confusion. We do know. I have experienced with my students that many times they come crying, crying. Every place I go, they have the fantasy, the idea, “OK, Lama Yeshe’s coming, now I will tell him all my problems,” or “Oh, I am so happy to see you,” and they cry, cry, cry, cry: “I broke these vows; that makes me upset. I told you when I met you a couple of years ago that I will be a good meditator and now I am not meditating, therefore I am completely upset.” You see—what good is Dharma? Their meeting Dharma becomes the source of guilt and confusion, so what good is Dharma? I would like to know, what good is Dharma? Is that worthwhile or not worthwhile?

Actually, in truth, the Buddhist teaching is very simple, very simple. Mostly we emphasize knowing the two levels of truth of your own consciousness—the relative and the absolute—and then gradually making that understanding more and more clear. Making it more clear sounds like it was first totally dirty, but it’s not necessary to think that way. Also, it is not necessary to think that at first it was perfect either. What we should understand clean clear is that our conceptualization, which daily interprets things as good or bad, is exaggerating and neurotic, and by thinking in that way we build up a fantasy. This means we are never in touch with any reality—inner or outer. Nor do we leave it as it is.

Good example, when you grow up in Western society and are like fifteen or between fifteen and twenty, or twenty-five or thirty or something in that area, confusion starts; more confusion, more neurosis. I want you to understand why. Check it out. Buddhist teachings show you what life is, what your lifestyle is. Check out how you were confused at the various stages of your life; check out why you were confused. It was because you had the fantasy attitude of grasping a certain reality. You thought that that was real reality, solid; you had some kind of notion of indestructibility. Even now you think, or believe, that way, which is unrealistic.

Especially check out your up and down. Each day, how many times are you up and down, each day how many times do you say good or bad? It’s like you believe that you can bring a piece of ice to Queensland, here, and sit on it, saying, “I want to stay here for a whole year.” How can you stay there? It’s too warm; the ice is going to melt. But still you believe, you hang on as if that can happen. Such a polluted ambition. Yet that’s the same as what we have now. I definitely say that Western life, the confused Western life, is unbelievably up and down, up and down; even more so than life in primitive countries like Nepal and India. You can see why this up and down disturbs your whole life, makes you unstable. Why? Because you hang on to the unrealistic ideas that you hold on to in such a concrete way. There is no way you can hold, no way you can hold.

It’s the same thing with relationships that human beings have with each other in the West. Human relationships are a good example of what I’m saying: they’re also like the ice fantasy. You put a piece of ice here and say, “This is fantastic, I want it permanently.” But the nature of ice is to melt, so disappointment is certain. That is why there is one time disappointment, broken heart; two times disappointment, broken heart. You know what broken heart means? I am not sure what broken heart means; I need an interpreter! Broken heart, broken heart, shaking your heart, crying. Each time you cry, cry, down, down, dissatisfaction each time. So you build up, build up disappointment, and each time your heart is broken you get more insecure, more insecure, more insecure. That is the source of the confusion. And also, we do not rely on each other. Each time you break with another person, “He did this, she did that,” you distrust this, you distrust that, you distrust everything.

Perhaps you think, “People from primitive countries hang on and get some satisfaction, but here in the West we often change, so we become advanced.” That is not true. That is garbage thinking. The point is that in your mind, first you think that something is concrete, it is lasting, you determine that, and the next second it disappears. That is the point of suffering. I am not saying that you necessarily do this, that it’s wrong, but the conception, always thinking this way, this way, this way—that is painful; that is really painful. It has nothing to do with advanced modern ways of thinking. That makes you more split rather than a complete modern person.

Now, the point is that, remember, the human consciousness, the human mind, has a relative nature, which is clean--clear energy and has the ability to reflect all existence. Therefore, if we contemplate on the clean-clear energy of our own relative consciousness, we automatically eliminate the concepts that make us irritated, that trouble us. For that reason, we say that human beings are profound. I am sure that Lama Zopa Rinpoche has explained the perfect human rebirth to you. It is precious because it has profound potential, a profound quality. You can even say its quality is pure. The sense of this is that the relative character of the human consciousness is not inextricably mixed with negativity or sin. That’s all I’m saying: thinking that the human being is fundamentally negative and sinful is wrong.

In one of Maitreya’s texts, he gives the example of how the nature of human consciousness is clean clear; how it has never been negative in character and never will be. It is like the nature of the sky—the sky’s nature is always clear; it hasn’t got the character of clouds and never will have. This example is so clear. Cloud character and space character are different. It’s the same thing that our consciousness has clean-clear nature. But when we are caught by the ego’s wrong conception way of thinking, the concepts that identify “that-this,” that is what is wrong. But I am not saying that that is always wrong, the that-this thinking. But most of the time our thinking that-this has nothing to do with reality; it’s only a superficial fantasy.

My point is that any time, no matter how much you are confused or fearful or in a suffering situation, you look into the clarity of your consciousness, your mind—it is always there, always there. This is the human beauty: human beings have the ability, human consciousness has the ability, to perceive things—good or bad, whatever it is—and also to use wisdom to discriminate between what is worthwhile and what is not. Good or bad, impure or pure, we can discriminate—that is the human beauty. Don’t think that human beings are hopeless; that’s not true. You are not a good meditator, therefore, “I am hopeless”—that is also wrong. “I cannot sit like this for one hour, therefore I am not a meditator.” Again, that’s your limited judgment. We do that, don’t we? Who in Buddhism said that you can only sit this way to become enlightened? Who said that? Where is that person? That’s why human beauty, human profundity, is always existent. Even though intellectually you make yourself too limited, it is always existent.

You should not think, “Buddhism makes me good or bad. Now I have many ways to assess what is good, what is bad.” As long as the relative mind is moving, day and night, twenty-four hours, karma, or good-bad, is existent. It is like, if I ask you Western people when we produced television, “Is television a fantastic vehicle?” When it first came out everybody said, “Wow, yes, fantastic.” But now maybe some hippies say television is horrible, because there are too many garbage reflections. Similarly with our consciousness; it is like a clean-clear screen: it has the ability to reflect phenomena. So look at that. Here we have the real television; our consciousness is television, so we should look at it, we should contemplate on that clarity, and penetrate. In that way we can discover tranquility and peace.

When we say “Dharma,” Dharma is our consciousness, part of our mind. A Dharma book is not Dharma. A Dharma teacher is not necessarily Dharma. Dharma philosophy is not Dharma. Dharma doctrine is not Dharma. Dharma is the action of that part of our wisdom energy that has the power to eliminate one thing in particular: the concepts of delusion. In other words, it becomes the antidote or solution to particular delusions and dissatisfaction. Then it is worthwhile; that is the reason the Dharma is worthwhile. That’s the reason that we say that Dharma is holy, Dharma is worthwhile. Otherwise, if you understand it incorrectly, Dharma is not worthwhile; Dharma becomes a problem. You know—we already talked before how Dharma becomes a problem. So, developing comprehension of the relative mind or relative consciousness is the source of developing comprehension of the absolute character of the mind.

Also, that relative mind is an interdependent, composite gathering; an interdependent gathering of energy; not one absolute thing. When we say, “I am deluded,” you cannot blame this side, “The perception side is bad, I want to smash it.” Also, you cannot blame the object side, “That is bad, I want to smash it.” Let’s say, when you have some dirt on your face, you look in the mirror: “Wow! I am dirty, ugly. Ooh!” You cannot blame the mirror, nor can you blame your face. It’s the gathering of parts that creates this phenomenon.

Similarly, no matter how much we think “I am bad” or “I am terrible,” if we examine the conception that thinks these things, you’ll find it’s a composite gathering. Many factors gather and then we say, “That is this, that and the other.” If you know all these things—each part gathers to make the relative phenomena—you can understand that there is no concrete, relative phenomenon inherently existent. Then you can see. All relative phenomena are superficial, impermanent, momentary, set up in such a way; then we say, “That, this, that, this, that, this,” including ourselves.

You see, actually, it has never occurred to our conception of ego, even in dreams, that the entire relative character of the I, the self, is composite energy; many parts of energy have gathered to become a bubble, or some kind of cloud. As a matter of fact, our body is like a cloud—one bunch of clouds come, one bunch of energy comes—this is the body. Each day when you wash, some part of the energy goes from the skin; each time you breathe, some kind of energy goes out with the breath. Then you eat and some kind of energy enters you. You probably know this kind of thing better than I do.

Therefore, the ego mind, the conception of ego, has never understood this relative notion of what I am, who I am; this relative way of constructing reality. It seems sort of indestructible. Actually, when you say, “I am good,” and try to prove it, it means you believe you are bad. I tell you, psychologically, inside you believe you are bad. Superficially you try to prove the opposite by saying, “I am good, I am good, I am good,” but that’s wrong—your mind is psychologically sick. You don’t accept the relative truth.

When you begin questioning the view and concepts of your ego mind, the possibility of opening, of understanding the absolute quality or characteristic of consciousness, begins. If you just leave it, if you never question—in other words if you believe that your concepts and your concrete view are true—then there is no way for you to begin to discover the absolute quality of consciousness, or mind.

It seems that Western scientific education has very much developed the idea that the whole thing—myself and everything else, the object—has some kind of concrete existence. That is wrong. I want you to understand that the Western scientific way of thinking, Western philosophy, has basically built up the concrete dualistic entity. I want you to understand that, instead of being proud of Western thought. Education gives us the tendency to hang on to this basic way of existence, to hold the world as concrete: concrete Australia, concrete Australian beings. So, we suffocate easily. Maybe this freaks you out: “This man is making a revolution for us! Wait a minute!”