Lama Thubten Yeshe: Making the Most of Your Life

This weekend we are very fortunate in that we have the opportunity to cultivate bodhicitta and put the actions of our body, speech and mind into the path to liberation, the path of control. This is so worthwhile.

Despite having had many previous lives and having lived many years in this one, if we really check, from the time we were born up to now, we’ll find that we haven’t acted seriously for even one day because most of the time our mind has been completely occupied by uncontrolled thoughts and superstition. So we are very fortunate to have generated the enthusiastic feeling of wanting to help others and ourselves in the highest way possible.

Since we were born we’ve wasted practically every moment of every day, month and year. Instead of making our time worthwhile and using it to bring happiness, we’ve engaged in only useless actions and used our precious life for nothing. At the time, we’ve thought that what we’ve been doing is useful but if we check we’ll see that it really has not been.

Perhaps you’ll disagree; you think that what you’ve done has been worthwhile because you’ve taken care of your life, preserved yourself and made money. But is that fulfilling your human potential? Is that all you can do? If that’s all you can do you’re no better than a cat or a rabbit. Having profound human potential but using your life as an animal does is such a waste of time. You have to realize how incredibly tragic that is.

If you check up deeply to see if, since you were born until now, you’ve done anything that was really worthwhile in bringing you true happiness and a joyful life, do you think you’ll find anything? Check up. Don’t look at others; check yourself. It’s not complicated: you have your body, speech and mind; just these three. Which of their actions have been worthwhile?

I’m going to suggest that most of time your actions of body, speech and mind have produced only frustration and confusion. Check up: how many hours are there in one day? During how much of each of these hours have you been aware? How much of each hour has been positive? Check that way; it’s very simple. The Buddhist way of checking is very scientific. Anybody can do it; we’re not trying to be exclusive. It’s realistic. Check for yourself.

Even though you might say that you’re following a spiritual path or leading a meditator’s life, you’re not serious. It doesn’t matter if you sit in meditation, go to church on Sundays, visit the temple regularly or do any other kind of customary religious activity; that doesn’t mean anything. The actions that you need to do are those that actually lead you to everlasting, peaceful happiness, the truly joyful state, not those that simply bring up and down transitory pleasure. Actions that bounce you up and down are not true Dharma, not true meditation, not true religion – here I can make a definitive statement. Check up: you might think you’re doing something spiritual but is your polluted mind simply dreaming?

Relative and absolute

Here I’m talking about what Buddhism calls your relative nature. You might think, “How can you describe my nature just like that? My nature has many different aspects.” That might be the Western idea of it but the Buddhist idea is much simpler: we say your nature has two aspects, relative and absolute.

So when I describe how you are, I’m talking about your relative nature. Sometimes we talk about higher ideas, something absolute. Perhaps you’ve read books that talk about the absolute nature. Forget about the absolute – first you have to know the way your relative body, speech and mind function in everyday life. That’s very important. You can’t just jump straight into inner freedom.

When Western science talks about evolution it describes a process of gradual development. Even I know that and I’m somewhat stupid and uneducated; I haven’t even been to school. Nevertheless, when I hear Western scientists talk about mind control, to me it sounds rather primitive. Of course, I’m sure they would say that I’m the primitive one!

However, ever since you could talk you’ve been saying, “My mind is this; my mind is that,” but actually, you have no idea what your mind is. The nature of the mind is not some Eastern custom. You’ve had a mind from the moment you were born – you can’t say that it’s an Eastern custom. Also, Buddhism doesn’t talk about customs; customs aren’t important. So describing the mind isn’t an Eastern custom. Anyway, here I’m talking about your relative nature.

It’s your relative mind that functions in your everyday life. For example, whenever things go wrong in your interactions with people – family, friends or society in general – you always blame somebody else. Check your mind – you do. That’s a misconception. In fact, all your problems, both physical and mental, come from ignorance – a lack of intensive knowledge-wisdom – and attachment. These two mental factors are the biggest root of any problem, social or individual. Check up, but this time check up on your own mind.

Think about when you cheat others through lying or when you kill, taking another’s life. Check up: why do you do such things? The root is ignorance; the motivation is attachment, involvement in your own pleasure. The energy of ignorance, a lack of intensive knowledge-wisdom, is like a king or queen and attachment is like a director. It’s the mind; it’s your mind. I’m not talking about something else. And your mind contains the association of these two things: ignorance and attachment.

These two factors are the principal cause of all problems, physical and mental. If you do not realize this you’ll never be able to solve your problems because you’ll continue thinking that their cause lies outside: “I’m not happy, I’m not going to see him again; I’m not happy, I need a bigger house; I’m not happy, I need a better car.” You can never put an end to problems that way. Especially in the West, we always think that money is the solution to all problems. It’s not true; that’s a complete misconception.

Don’t think, “Lama’s putting me down … that’s not how I think.” I’m not talking about intellectual thought; I’m talking about something much more deeply rooted in your mind. Human problems don’t originate from intellectual thought. Actually, if you could see what goes on in your mind, you wouldn’t believe it. Even though you’re not consciously aware of this materialistic way of thinking, deep in your subconscious there are forces leading you in a circle from one trip to another to another to another, constantly changing. This is what we mean by cyclic existence. We go round and round but never reach beyond the circle. Our entire way of living is a joke. We give children toys to play with . . . we’re the same; it’s just a different game.

We like to boast, “This modern generation is so well educated, we know so much. We’re well versed in social theory, economics, inflation and so forth.” But it’s not that the current generation is more intelligent and older ones were foolish. Why? Because the external world itself is changing automatically and all you’re doing is observing natural occurrence. So don’t think that you’re so much smarter than previous generations.

However, some of you do see that it’s worthwhile to seek something beyond mere material comfort, but if you don’t seek with the right attitude you’re still going to circle in samsara. Even if you try to meditate, do yoga or follow some other spiritual trip, you’re still going to go round and round. So make sure you have the right mental attitude and the right view and that you’re on the right path by recognizing how the wrong mental attitude leads you down the wrong path to the wrong goal.

Often Western people say, “Don’t be negative; be positive.” They like to talk about the positive but not the negative. But negativity exists; why not talk about it? You don’t have to talk about it angrily but it’s important to demonstrate and know how the negative mind functions. From the Buddhist point of view, that’s very important.

That’s why I always say that Buddhism isn’t a diplomatic religion, always saying nice things. We like to call things as they are, without hesitation. So don’t be shocked; you should expect me to say things that are not particularly nice. Don’t worry.

Of course, we do have nice qualities, beautiful qualities. Equally, so do all other living beings, even fish and chickens. We all possess good qualities of mind. But at the same time we all possess a negative nature that can bring us down. So we need to be shown and know both the good and the bad within us. Then we can let go of fear. Otherwise, our every move can make us fearful.

As long as you don’t have the inner understanding or knowledge-wisdom of what constitutes real happiness and a truly joyful life and just sit around expecting the world to somehow get better, you’re dreaming. How can the world possibly get better by itself?

Take inflation, for example. How’s that going to improve? Inflation comes from attachment. It does – but I’m sure that political economists don’t know that! Month by month, year by year, they go on, “This, this, this, that, that, that,” but they don’t know that inflation is actually due to attachment. Why is that?

You check up. It’s not that the economy is strong and suddenly worsens for no reason. It’s due to selfishness and attachment. Some people have too much but worry about not having enough. So they hoard and then the economy inflates. It’s not that there are insufficient material goods; there’s plenty of food, plenty of goods. It’s the selfish mind that causes inflation.

Anyway, check this for yourselves; it’s not true just because I say so. Still, if you investigate you’ll see how attachment, the selfish mind, creates problems for both the individual and society and destroys everybody’s inner peace and joyful life.

Look at religious wars. There’s one going on right now; 2 and not only now – throughout history. Religious wars come from attachment. I’m talking about how attachment functions. Two small children fighting over a piece of candy comes from attachment; two huge countries fighting each other also comes from attachment; and religious people fighting each other comes from attachment, as well.

Actually, those religious people fighting each other all think that religion is wonderful but fighting is not a religious action, is it? For them, religion is just an idea, that’s all. Those who fight religious wars are not religious people. Religion is about compassion and universal love. How can killing become a religious action? It’s impossible. It comes from attachment.

So you can understand how attachment is the biggest problem in the world. “My religion is good, therefore I’m going to kill you.” That’s ridiculous. People who think like that are simply destroying themselves.

If I were to do that I’d be turning religion into poison. What I was doing would have nothing to do with religion. But even though my actions were the opposite of religion, I’d be thinking, “My religion is good.” Instead of being medicine to solve my psychological problems, because of my distorted mental attitude, my religion would be poison. Even though I’m thinking, “This is my religion,” not a minute of my actions would be religious.

For example, I have the idea that my thangka is my religion. Then if somebody tries to burn my thangka I get upset because I think he’s destroying my religion. That’s a misconception. A painting isn’t religion. People who think material things are religion misunderstand the meaning of religion. Religion is not external; Dharma is not external. It’s only in the mind.

The Bible says the same thing. The New Testament contains wonderful teachings by Jesus but many people don’t understand what they mean. For example, he said that people who worship idols are not following him. That’s very true; that’s a fantastic teaching. We have to understand how to integrate religion with our everyday life, put it into action and solve our problems, not think that material things like church and property are religion. That’s ridiculous.

In other words, people who worship idols thinking that the material atoms are their religion and don’t realize the nature of their own consciousness or spirit have no idea of what religion really is. Jesus gave perfect teachings explaining this; we just don’t realize.

Ego and attachment

Attachment and ignorance produce many misconceptions in our life. How? For example, we often think, “This is good; this makes me happy,” but if we investigate a little further we’ll find that such thoughts are misconceptions; that the things we think make us happy actually cause suffering.

Evel Knievel is a good example of this. He believes his death-defying, daredevil stunts to be pleasure. Even when he nearly kills himself, after he recovers, even though he’s decided to quit, his ego and attachment tell him, “This is your profession, your job; you have to do it again.” So he does and nearly dies once more. Why does he put himself through all this?

Well, we ourselves do the same thing. I mean, in one way what we do is completely different but from another point of view it’s exactly the same. Why? Through misconception. We do things that bring us suffering but cling to them as wonderful causes of happiness. Check up on the things you do, physically and mentally – you’ll see that what I’m saying is true.

Perhaps it will be clearer if I give an example from our own experience. We’re always attached to food, aren’t we? As a result, we eat with greed and our stomach is often upset. This comes from attachment; it’s common.

Actually, people think that food should preserve body and life, but eating with ignorance turns nourishment into poison and kills us. Everybody knows this; check up. Why do most people die? It’s because they eat things that finish up killing them. If you really look into it you’ll nearly always find that the person made some mistake or other.

What I’m saying is simple but you have to realize it more deeply; it’s not just an idea. If the meditation you do is just an idea, if you’re simply on some kind of trip, then it’s not worthwhile. Proper meditation scientifically demonstrates the reality of your nature, your relative nature. This is well worth knowing. When you know the nature of your own mind – how your mind torments you, how it brings you suffering – your mind can then cooperate with your life. Most of the time our mind does not cooperate with our life. As a result, we don’t know what’s going on in our life.

Look at the Western world in particular. We’re too involved in objects of sense gravitation attachment5; we over-exaggerate the importance of the sense world such that it’s constantly exploding in front of us. The way we’re brought up, we automatically believe that the external world brings us happiness. It’s true; check up. Perhaps we don’t assent to this intellectually, but if we look more deeply into our mind we’ll see that that’s what we believe. That misconception is deeply rooted in our consciousness.

I’m not talking about something intellectual. Forget about the intellectual. Just penetrate more deeply into your own mind and investigate your lifelong beliefs, what you think is best for you and what you think is not. Everybody holds to such beliefs. Don’t think, “I’m not like that. I just go with the flow.” That’s not true. Don’t think, “I have no fixed ideas.” The nature of attachment is such that you always have fixed ideas of what is best for you: “This is me, therefore that is best.” Check up on your “this is me.”

So attachment to “this is best for me” based on ego’s conceptualization of “I’m Thubten Yeshe, this is me,” the conception of I, my mind’s fixed idea of who and what I am, this association of ego and attachment, has nothing whatsoever to do with my reality, relative or absolute.

While I’m saying this you should be meditating, checking up on whether or not what I’m saying is exaggerated or exactly right. Check up on this right now. What I’m talking about is how the ego and attachment are associated, how they relate to each other.

What I’m saying is that the fundamental cause of attachment is the conceptualization of ego, and in reality this ego does not exist within you, either relatively or absolutely. But the ego mind projects and paints “I am this,” you get a fixed idea of what you are, and then you start worrying, “I am this, therefore I should have that; I am this, so I need to maintain my reputation; because I’m this, I need that.” You check up.

Such fixed ideas of what you are, how you should be, which are completely mental projections, hallucinated, polluted projections, have nothing whatsoever to do with reality, either relative or absolute.

A meditation on how you exist

Why don’t you take a couple of minutes right now to check up on what you are, how you exist. When you ask, “What am I?” a concrete, substantial idea of “this is me” will reveal itself.

Your color is not you, your I. Your form is not I. Your nose is not I. Your leg is not I. Your heart is not I. So where is that idea, your conceptual idea of ego? Where is it?

Your imaginary I, your hallucinated ego, was not created by God, Krishna, Buddha or anybody else. It was created only by your own mind, your own misconceptions.

When you realize that your imaginary, conceptualized I is non-existent, suddenly something substantial and concrete disappears from within your heart. Your heart becomes restful rather than restless; your heart’s restless energy is released. It’s incredible; it’s so powerful. As a result, your body becomes less intense and tight.

There is no self-existent, concrete I, ego. All transitory phenomena, your physical body and all that appears is totally non-self-existent. However, you – your superficial mind – have always thought that within your five aggregates,6 you truly exist. Your mind, your conceptualization of I, ego, always feels that within your body, within your five aggregates, an “I am” really exists. You have always thought, and also felt, that something exists within you. If you check up carefully you will find that this is simply a projection of your hallucinating mind.

From the Hinayana point of view, your self and the entire sense world are non-self-existent; only inner reality is self-existent. But from the point of view of the Madhyamaka, a Mahayana school, even inner reality is also non-self-existent; nothing at all is self-existent, concrete, as the ego perceives. It’s impossible for anything to be self-existent.

In other words, to keep it simple, when you feel miserable, it’s because of misconception. Misconception produces miserable conditions; misconception holds a misconceived object that has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of either your inner world or the outer sense world.

That’s why Lord Buddha said that all your frustration and confusion results from your own actions and is not created by God. God doesn’t create evil actions, does he? The Bible doesn’t say that God created evil. Nevertheless, many people have the misconception that because God created everything, God created evil. Philosophically, that’s a dubious position, but philosophy’s not important here. You just have to know what the Bible’s saying.

Many people think that the Bible is mistaken. The Bible’s not mistaken; you’re mistaken because you interpret the Bible with a lack of knowledge-wisdom.

Negative comes from the mind

So it’s really worthwhile if you can discover that all your false conceptions and miserable experiences come from attachment and the polluted I, the conceptualization of ego; if you can realize this you will release the tremendously uptight energy of bondage.

Also, it’s not just a matter of your believing something. Through experimentation comes experience; through experience comes realization. We don’t call mere intellectual understanding realization; without experience, knowledge is dry. From the day we were born until now, we’ve all been dry, and if we don’t actualize the teachings, don’t gain experience, we’ll remain dry until the day we die. Dry, like dry wood.

However, as I talk about the relative nature of your own mind, don’t think, “Oh, my mind is garbage; I’m the worst person on earth.” Instead of thinking in that way, realize that “It’s incredible. I’m not the only one with such problems. All other living beings in the universe have them too.”

Now I’m sure that there have been times in your life when you’ve thought, crying emotionally, “I want to make my life worthwhile; I want to help others.” That’s ridiculous; it’s so emotional. If you really want to help others, the way to think is, “First I need to realize the nature of my own mind and how to stop human problems. Then I’ll really know how to help others.”

If you don’t understand your own problems and know how to help yourself, how can you possibly think you can help others? You’re just being emotional: no wisdom, no method; you’re just joking.

First realize your own situation: “It’s not just me; countless beings on this earth are in the same situation, full of misconceptions, and, as a result, are greatly conflicted both physically and mentally.” Our minds are full of conflict and when that mental energy transmutes into the physical level, our bodies also get sick. In that way, all sickness comes from a diseased mind; the sick mind manifests as a sick body.

So the way to expand love and compassion is to first understand yourself; then you can relate to all other living beings. That’s good. The problem is that much of the time we don’t even have compassion for ourselves, we don’t comprehend ourselves, so how can we then have love and compassion for others? It’s impossible. Even if we say we love others, it’s just words, emotion. We say, “I love you,” but true love first has to be for you. You have to know your own situation, what you are. This leads to sincere love for yourself, and from that, sincere love for others. Without doing it that way, you’re joking.

Most of the time what you call love is selfish; it’s purely attachment. Also, although sometimes your meditation might not be attachment, most of the time it is also selfish, attachment. Check up; really check up. I’m not joking; I haven’t come here to joke. It’s true. As long as you grasp at something concrete and cling tightly to your own comfort, it’s still selfish, even though you think you’re a meditator on a spiritual trip. It’s still selfish.

Why am I talking about this, emphasizing this? Because even if you’re a meditator, as long as you’re seeking something concrete for yourself, it has the psychological effect of making you easily frustrated. Even if you’re on a spiritual trip, it’s still self-cherishing. In other words, you still have the conceptualization, ego’s fixed idea, “I’m this, my realization is that,” which has nothing whatsoever to do with true realization.

So it’s worthwhile for you to realize your own situation and the way you live. This is not just some philosophical point of view. Check how your life is, how you think, what sort of mistakes you make and how your misconceptions are related to what you experience. Analyze how all that happens and how it’s related to attachment. By realizing that, instead of then worrying about your own problems you can see that all universal living beings are in the same situation. Then automatically, intuitively, love and compassion ensue. With such understanding, even your greatest enemy can become a good friend – yesterday you didn’t even want to see him but today he appears beautiful to you. It’s true, because it’s all your projection.

Actually, when you look at other people and think, “She’s ugly, she’s good; he’s ugly, he’s bad,” it’s totally your own mental projection. Who on this earth is absolutely good? Who? Please tell me. Who, in London, is absolutely beautiful? Who is absolutely ugly? There’s nobody you can point to, for sure. You check up on that. It’s interesting, isn’t it?

I’m talking about scientific fact, not something you have to believe in. If you really believe that there’s something in London that’s absolutely beautiful, please prove it to me scientifically. You can’t. The thing is, we always accept things too easily; we never check. We call that kind of attitude sluggishness; its nature is absence of intensive knowledge-wisdom.

Transcript from the 1975 teaching at Royal Holloway College


~Lama Thubten Yeshe was born in Tibet in 1935. At the age of six, he entered the great Sera Monastic University, Lhasa, where he studied until 1959, when the Chinese invasion of Tibet forced him into exile in India. Lama Yeshe continued to study and meditate in India until 1967, when, with his chief disciple, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, he went to Nepal. Two years later he established Kopan Monastery, near Kathmandu, in order to teach Buddhism to Westerners.

In 1974, the Lamas began making annual teaching tours to the West, and as a result of these travels a worldwide network of Buddhist teaching and meditation centers—the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)—began to develop.

Excellence Reporter 2020

Categories: Buddhism

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