Attitude is More Important than Action. ~ Lama Thubten Yeshe

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These days, even though many people realize the limitations of material comfort and are interested in following a spiritual path, few really appreciate the true value of practicing Dharma.

For most, the practice of Dharma, religion, meditation, yoga, or whatever they call it, is still superficial: they simply change what they wear, what they eat, the way they walk and so forth. None of this has anything to do with the practice of Dharma.

Before you start practicing Dharma, you have to investigate deeply why you are doing it. You have to know exactly what problem you’re trying to solve. Adopting a religion or practicing meditation just because your friend is doing it is not a good enough reason.

Changing religions is not like dyeing cloth, like instantly making something white into red. Spiritual life is mental, not physical; it demands a change of mental attitude. If you approach your spiritual practice the way you do material things, you’ll never develop wisdom; it will just be an act.

Before setting out on a long journey, you have to plan your course carefully by studying a map; otherwise, you’ll get lost. Similarly, blindly following any religion is also very dangerous. In fact, mistakes on the spiritual path are much worse than those made in the material world. If you do not understand the nature of the path to liberation and practice incorrectly, you’ll not only get nowhere but will finish up going in the opposite direction.

Therefore, before you start practicing Dharma, you have to know where you are, your present situation, the characteristic nature of your body, speech and mind. Then you can see the necessity for practicing Dharma, the logical reason for doing it; you can see your goal more clearly, with your own experience. If you set out without a clear vision of what you are doing and where you’re trying to go, how can you tell if you’re on the right path? How can you tell if you’ve gone wrong? It’s a mistake to act blindly, thinking, “Well, let me do something and see what happens.” That’s a recipe for disaster.

Buddhism is less interested in what you do than why you do it—your motivation. The mental attitude behind an action is much more important than the action itself. You might appear to outside observers as humble, spiritual and sincere, but if what’s pushing you from within is an impure mind, if you’re acting out of ignorance of the nature of the path, all your so-called spiritual efforts will lead you nowhere and will be a complete waste of time.

There’s a Tibetan story that illustrates this point. Once, a famous yogi called Dromtönpa saw a man circumambulating a stupa, and said to him, “Circumambulating stupas is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?” and walked off.

The man was a little puzzled and thought, “Perhaps he means that circumambulating stupas is too simple a practice for me and that I’d be better off studying texts.”

Some time later, Dromtönpa saw him reading holy books very intently and said, “Studying texts is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?” and again walked off.

The man was a little more puzzled and thought, “What, again? There must be something wrong with me.” So he asked around, “What kind of practice does the yogi Dromtönpa do?” Then he realized, “He meditates. He must mean I should meditate.”

Some time later, Dromtönpa ran into him again, and asked, “What are you up to these days?” The man said, “I’ve been doing a lot of meditation.”

Then Dromtönpa said to him, “Meditation is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced Dharma?”

Now the man was completely exasperated and snapped, “Practice Dharma! Practice Dharma! What do you mean, ‘Practice Dharma’?”

Then the great yogi Dromtönpa replied, Turn your mind away from attachment to the worldly life.”

You can circumambulate holy objects, go to churches, monasteries and temples, meditate in some corner doing nothing, but, Dromtönpa was saying, if you don’t change your mental attitude, your old habits of attachment and grasping at objects of the senses, no matter what you do, you won’t find peace of mind; your practices will be ineffective. If you don’t change your mind, no matter how many external changes you make, you’ll never progress along the spiritual path; the causes of agitation will remain within you.

These days, many people are interested in meditation, and, of course, many people benefit from their practice. Nevertheless, if you don’t change the basic agitated nature of your mind and just think, arrogantly, “I’m meditating,” there’ll always be something wrong with your meditation. Don’t think that meditation is always right, no matter how you do it. It’s an individual thing, and whether it benefits you or not depends upon what you understand and the way in which you practice.

However, if besides just knowing the theory, the dry ideas, of your spiritual path, you put what you know into action in your daily life as sincerely as you can, your practice of Dharma, religion, meditation or whatever you want to call it will be fantastically useful; very powerful. If, on the other hand, you have some kind of fixed idea that has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth—“This is religion”—you’ll be running as fast as you can in the opposite direction, your mind still polluted by thoughts of “I am this, I am that.” You must check up. It’s very dangerous.

Therefore, Lord Buddha said that weak-minded people who lack the confidence to face life and turn to religion grasping for a way to make their lives easier are disqualified from becoming monks or nuns. He was very clear about this; he pointed directly at the mind. It’s the same for us: if we join a religious community in order to earn a living, enhance our reputation or find other material benefits, we’re dreaming; it’s completely unrealistic.

This is never the way to satisfaction. If we have that kind of inferior, spiritually primitive mind, we’ll never solve our problems or gain higher realizations. It’s impossible.

Therefore, as I said at the outset, Buddhism isn’t interested in the actions you perform or your external aspect but in your state of mind. It’s your psychological mental attitude that determines whether your actions become the path to inner realization and liberation or the cause of suffering and confusion.

Lord Buddha said:

“Don’t be attached to my philosophy and doctrine. Attachment to any religion is simply another form of mental illness.”

We see people all over Earth fighting each other in the name of religion, waging war, seizing territory and killing each other. All such actions are so totally misconceived. Religion is not land; religion is not property. People are so ignorant. How can any of this help? Religion is supposed to bring inner peace and a better life, but instead, people use it to create only more confusion and anger. None of this has anything to do with any religion, not only Buddhism.

Dharma practice is a method for totally releasing attachment. But be careful.

You may say, “I’m not interested in material development any more; it’s wrong” but then sublimate all your materialistic desires into your religion. Instead of eradicating your deeply rooted attachment, you channel it into something more acceptable. But it’s still the same old trip. You see that possessions don’t bring happiness but then grasp at your religion instead. Then, when somebody says, “Your religion is rubbish,” you freak out.

Another Tibetan story shows the lack of connection between intellectual knowledge and ingrained habit. A monk once asked one of his friends, “What are you up to these days?” and the friend replied, “I’ve been doing a lot of meditation on patience.”

Then the monk said, “Well, big patience meditator, eat shit!”

His friend immediately got upset and retorted angrily, “You eat shit yourself!”

This shows how we are. Meditation on patience is supposed to stop anger, but when the monk tested his friend, the meditator got upset at the slightest provocation. He hadn’t integrated the idea of patience with his mind. Then, what’s the point? It’s like you spend your whole life making warm clothes; more and more clothes. Then one day you’re out, get caught in a blizzard and freeze to death. This kind of thing is common. We’ve all heard of millionaires who die of hunger. So, in that last story, the meditator put all his energy into his practice in order to release anger and attachment, but when confronted with a real life situation, he could not control his mind.

If you really, sincerely practice religion with understanding, you will find complete freedom, and when you encounter problems, you’ll have no trouble at all. This sort of experience shows that you’ve reached your goal; that you have really put your knowledge-wisdom into action.

Therefore, my conclusion is that right mental attitude is much more important than action.

Don’t bring your materialistic way of life to your Dharma practice. It doesn’t work. Before meditating, check and correct your motivation. If you do this, your meditation will become much easier and more worthwhile, and your right action will bring realizations. You don’t need to be hungry for realizations, grasping, “Oh, if I do this, will I get some fantastic realizations?” You don’t need expectation; realizations will come automatically. Once you’ve set your mind on the right path, realizations will come of their own accord.

Nor should you grasp at your faith such that if somebody says, “You’re religion is bad,” you angrily turn upon that person. That is totally unrealistic. The purpose of religion is to free you from the agitated, uncontrolled mind. Therefore, if somebody says your religion is bad, why get angry? You should be trying to let go of that kind of mind as much as you possibly can. When you release the deluded mind, inner peace, realizations, nirvana, God, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—whatever you want to call it, there are so many names—will automatically be there. It’s a natural thing.

Some people think, “I love religion. It has so many wonderful ideas.” You love the ideas but if you never relate your religion’s teachings to your mind, never put them into action, what’s the point? You’d be better off with fewer ideas. Too many ideas create conflict within your mind and give you a headache.

If all you’re interested in is religious ideas, if you’re all hung up on ideas up there while your life’s going on down here, there’s a big gap between your body, speech and mind down here on Earth and your big ideas up in the sky. Then, because of the gap, the two things start to bother you:

“Oh, now religion’s not so good. My head hurts. I thought religion was fantastic, but now it’s causing me more trouble.”

All you can do is complain. But the problem comes from you. Instead of putting two things together, religion and your life, you’ve created a split.

That’s why Lord Buddha called the dualistic mind negative; it always causes mental disturbance. It makes you fight yourself. The mind that reaches beyond duality becomes the Buddha mind, ultimate wisdom, absolute consciousness, perfect peace, universal consciousness—there are many things that you can call it.

You can see how your dualistic mind functions in your daily life. Whenever you find something you like, you automatically start looking around to see if there’s anything better. There’s always conflict in your mind: “This is nice, but what about that?” The advertising industry is built on exploiting this universal human tendency and the world of material development has grown exponentially because one mind is always competing with another.

From Lama Yeshe’s The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind, a series of lectures given in Australia in 1975. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. Freely available from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.



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Assist: Lacy Rae Ramunno/Ed: Kate Bartolotta



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anonymous May 23, 2013 8:29pm

We need to understand exactly what attachment and detachment are. Here are some amazing teachings by Lama Yeshe on these topics:

anonymous May 23, 2013 7:52am

I don't believe that detachment and activism can't co-exist. I do believe that we could focus more on what we can do in the places in which we find ourselves (everyone has a neighbor)… give what we can without sacrificing our own health and stability and without taking away from the personal choices of others to decide to be healed or not in their journey. Too often we give of our own energy to the point we are exhausted in an effort to force others to change their lives and end up needy and unhealthy ourselves as well. More often we teach others to find health and happiness by our example when we live mindfully. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't fight for the right of others and that being a channel of loving energy for a collective cause such as human rights or environmentalism. I just choose not to make myself sick worrying about the state of the world that I have very little individual power to change directly.

anonymous May 23, 2013 7:52am

Also, to deal with the sadness of suffering all over the world: There is plenty of suffering, hunger, homelessness, and abuse right outside my front door. If I can take those same opportunities to offer assistance as I can while not overstepping the boundaries I've set for my own health, then I am doing some good. I've been taught that healing can only be done by the individual who needs it. I an offer myself as a channel for healing but the other soul has to accept it for themselves. They are in their own journey and pain/suffering are their lessons to learn. As they choose to lift themselves up with the help and resources that they seek for themselves or is offered to them, they will heal.

anonymous May 23, 2013 7:51am

As a chronic worrier, it's been presented to me that I could work upon interacting within the material world but not attached to or OF the material world. It was taught to me as that we are of the Spiritual but within the Physical for a time. So doing compassionate works as we have opportunity to do so is a good thing but not to become so impassioned that we lose sight of ourselves and become filled with anger and other energy-sucking, chaotic, unproductive states of being. I'm not Buddhist so I'm no expert by any means, just sharing what I've read and heard.

anonymous May 21, 2013 3:15pm

The bringing up of children requires attachment to the material world. I am tired of religions that have no family life, with all of the miracles and mistakes, of earthly life incorporated into their highest levels of practice.

anonymous May 20, 2013 9:17am

Mark, mate…don't mix up the relative (conventional) with the absolute (ultimate)… Ultimately samsara might be illusory but we have to live in the conventional world, where we're under the control of delusion and karma and really, truly experience suffering. When the dentist is drilling your teeth you don't say, "no local thanks, the pain is illusory." Or do you?

anonymous May 19, 2013 6:08pm

(Hey, compassionate Dudes, why don't you DO something!?)

Thanks for the laugh, Ameliegnom.

Westerners, maybe, can be pretty Christian about their Buddhism, what with saving the world and all. My understanding is this, Buddhism is about escaping the world of illusion, not saving the world of illusion. The world of illusion is… illusion.

    anonymous May 20, 2013 12:51am

    "(Hey, compassionate Dudes, why do not you DO something?)"

    who says that I don´t do? This is exactly why I asked, because I do, I'm activists.
    My question was: is the activist compatible with the Dharma teachings? And not vice versa.
    If you believe Buddhism is naive and illusion then that's OK for me, you can think what you want. It´s your Karma.

      anonymous May 20, 2013 1:50am

      Sorry, Amelie, my mistake! And therefore a series of misunderstandings. I put up the "compassionate dudes" quote just to show what made me laugh. I thought it was your quote. That was careless. I see now it was Judy's. Anyway, I didn't intend that as a question for anyone, just a great image which I wanted to repeat.

      But, now that you ask… My feeling is that western Buddhism is just that, western. I.e., Christian. I.e., activist in the world. Personally, I think the world is an illusion, a dream which (IMO) lines up with Buddhist thought. It would certainly make Buddhists less activist in terms of saving the world if they believed the world was an illusion.

      I am a minority here at elephantjournal on this. Be assured that most people here are like you, activist in terms of saving this world, and they DON'T see this world as an illusion!

      It's not like I DON'T do anything for the world. But, I admit, I don't get as upset as some when it looks like the world is going down the tubes, or spend as much time or effort on the saving of it.

      Well, like you say, it's my karma. G' day to you!

        anonymous May 20, 2013 10:32am

        Hi Mark! Thanks for taking time to apologize to Amelie, as I have typed enough for today but would have wanted to explain to her that you hadn't meant to address her with your comment. Be seeing you around! 🙂

        anonymous May 21, 2013 12:09am

        It's OK Mark, it's true, many people want change, and many are looking for a religion. This they do extremely. This is not the right way. The way is not in the religion, the way is in myself The Buddha in me.
        The world is an illusion? May be, who knows? It is quite clear our thoughts are an illusion, they are only imaginary.
        The world we can not save it we are too tiny.
        But we can reduce the suffering. A destroyed environment creates much suffering.

anonymous May 19, 2013 1:51pm

Wow, Love this site. Anything I do will be motivated by 'something'. Some kind of intent is driving us. And no matter what that intent/motivation is, I will get results. And the results that I get will be a direct indication of what I need to work on.

anonymous May 19, 2013 9:10am

Lama Yeshe didn't say action was not important. He said that attitude is more important than action. From the Buddhist point of view, your motivation for doing something is the most important thing. If you try to save the environment out of anger, that's no good. If you do the same thing out of compassion, that's very good. So, like that.

In fact, if you research Lama Yeshe's teachings you'll often find him saying how important it is to do things to benefit others. And that is how he lived his life. Look at the results.

anonymous May 19, 2013 6:07am

Ameliegnom–I wonder if he wouldn't have phrased this differently for people in 2013. He was speaking to people in 1975 here, giving good advice about how important it is to actually become a more mindful, compassionate person, not just pick admirable qualities to wish you had. I like the example about the monk meditating on patience being so quick to become angry and defensive–I so saw myself in that flaw!! I think Anne is right that the message is that until you are really in a mindful mode, your solutions to problems and your actions have a great risk of backfiring. I can see that, and probably you can too. I also have asked the question you ask — as problems have risen to a planetary level. I think…yes, I can be loving in my community…be a better friend …but… What about the freaking End of the World *panic scream*??!! Don't I need to do something? I saw a beautiful picture of a thousand monks sitting in meditation and I wanted to say "Hey, You Compassionate Dudes, get up off your asses and DO SOMETHING!!" One of my friends told me that their consciousness was acting in the spiritual realm to bring peace somehow. He even had some explanation to do with quantum physics. It was over my head. Then I tried to think about what I COULD do, realistically. And I was back to my community and being a loving person. But (as you can tell from this rambling and confused comment!!) I really could use some help for someone with more clarity on these issues, so I hope somebody like that reads this and helps me. Since coming to the elephant recently, I have received a lot of help, so I'm hopeful!

    anonymous May 19, 2013 7:57am

    @Judy (sorry if my English ist not too good)
    " One of my friends told me that their consciousness was acting in the spiritual realm to bring peace somehow"
    yes exactly I am convinced of this. Your friend is right.
    I also love what the monk says. It sounds so peaceful. But if I live a life that accepts everything as it is and aspire to nothing more, then I feel selfish because I am not rebelling against the injustice in the world.
    And how about compassion? How do I live compassion if I retire completely in my inner being and not wanting?
    Maybe monks can live like this but can I live like this too?
    Don´t I have responsibility for Mother Earth?
    (I do not know if I am using good in English I hope you understand what I mean)

      anonymous May 19, 2013 2:17pm

      Your English is very good! I think desire and attachment are so difficult to talk about, because there is a paradox from one perspective. The desire to eliminate suffering, the desire to have a way to exercise your compassion so that it is useful to your fellow beings and Mother Earth is one that you wouldn't want to eliminate. Can we be attached to the results? I think we have to grieve losses, extinctions of beautiful species, for example. I am attached to that. Clearly it would be wrong to look at that and be at peace with it. I know there are subtle ways to understand this, to be properly attached and properly detached, but I am not capable of expressing it. It is a struggle for me to understand. I am glad you are convinced the the monks are helping move toward peace with their sitting discipline! I trust the friend who told me this, as he has guided me to many improvements and his life is so admirable and helpful to others. I just don't understand it myself. I think I probably need to accept that there are many teachers who are helping by inspiring others, and then the others help more directly with the medical professions and social services and environmental activism, etc. Everyone can't do everything, and the urgency of our global situation can lead to being overwhelmed and the feeling that you must determine what is the most important thing to be doing. I have found, personally, that this leads to less action on my part, just more worrying! So I try to take up the opportunities to be helpful to others that arise naturally in my life. I find that–if I am honest–there are obvious ways I could be helping someone in need. It is not really a mystery. So then I just try to do better, because the direction of "better" is clear and I just need to head that way. Good luck to you!

        anonymous May 20, 2013 12:39am

        thank you a lot for your attention and your help 🙂
        Recently a friend asked me "do I have the right to feel happy if so many people are suffering around me?" that's a good question. (I even think I should be happy enough to have the power to help)

          anonymous May 20, 2013 9:04am

          Hi again! I like talking to you! I must apologize for being so wordy. My daughter and I call what I do "blabbertyping" haha (there is an English word blabbermouth for someone who talks excessively!) The questions you ask are exactly the ones I work on. I'll tell you my solution I've come up with so far, and hope it helps. I think you point at it when you say "I should be happy enough to have the power to help," for obviously, collapsing in a weeping heap will not help anyone, although it seems like a pretty natural response to a lot of things going on in the world today. Also, I believe it is proper to look at human life as a gift given by divine forces. If it is true, then it would be very ungrateful not to appreciate the gift, for life is potentially so full of great pleasure and happiness. The things needed for life, the things natural for us to do, are all so wonderfully enjoyable: eating delicious fruits and vegetables, meeting a mate and loving them, having babies who laugh so naturally, flowers, music, rain, fire…the list of beautiful things that are also necessary is mind-boggling. And so, in a spirit of cheerful gratitude, we should love and enjoy the good things in our lives, in case this divinity is saddened because the gift has fallen into unappreciative hands. Humans are such a mixed up species, and I fear we may be on our way out. I hope that life on other planets moves into consciousness without making as many mistakes as we have. Sometimes I really do hope that there is some way that this world is an illusion, but it seems a cruel thing for a lucky person like me to believe. Perhaps I am wrong in my beliefs about a higher divinity and life on other planets, and I am aware that is a possibility. However, since these beliefs lead me to want to decrease ingratitude, and to give to others as much as I can, and to be worthy of having been given the opportunity to live, I don't really see how people who might know better than me would have much cause to complain about my mistake. So I just go with it as best I can.

            anonymous May 21, 2013 12:37am

            Hi Judy
            In German we say to blabbermouth Plappermund, which is almost the same lol
            Just as you describe it, it is important to experience the joy in myself, who will not rest in itself can not change anything to the outside.
            How does it help the world if I suffer because others are suffering? Nothing! It will not change anything if I suffer.
            Compassion should be an active help. It should not be empathy. Empathy is a feeling. Although a feeling of sorrow (empathy) is often followed by an active help what we call compassion.
            Complicated? Now I'm back too much in my thoughts, sorry
            What I want to say, actions speak louder than words. That's why I'm Activist.
            Thank you for your time and interest in my thoughts, it's nice to talk to you

anonymous May 19, 2013 12:49am

But is this not very selfish? If I let everything be as it is? How about environmental destruction and injustice in the world? May I sit there quietly and I only care about my spirituality? Do nothing and let it be because it's Ok?
You say „Therefore, my conclusion is that right mental attitude is much more important than action."
And we watch in silence as the world is being exploited and destroyed?

    anonymous May 19, 2013 4:43am

    Action always comes (even when you decide not doing something, you ARE acting in a certain way). Don't take it so literary. But "right" action always comes from the peaceful mind. And when you don't attach to your actions. At least I see it that way. So, observe and – TAKE ACTION 🙂

    anonymous May 20, 2013 7:27am

    If you are genuinely compassionate and well developed your wisdom then whatever action you take would be FANTASTIC. Someone who is meditates tries to develop their compassion and wisdom.

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Lama Yeshe

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. In 1984, after an intense decade of imparting a wide variety of incredible teachings and establishing one FPMT activity after another, at the age of forty-nine, Lama Yeshe passed away. You can read more of Lama Yeshe’s teachings here and read excerpts from Adele Hulse’s forthcoming biography of Lama, Big Love.