People have many different ideas about the nature of religion in general and Buddhism in particular.
Those who consider religion and Buddhism at only an intellectual level will never understand the true significance of either. Those whose view of religion is superficial may not even consider Buddhism to be a religion at all.
In Buddhism, we’re not that interested in talking about the Buddha himself, and nor was he.
He wasn’t interested in people believing in him, which is why to this day Buddhism has never encouraged its followers to believe in the Buddha as a deity the way that (other) religions do.
Buddhists have always been more interested in understanding human psychology, or the nature of the mind. Thus, Buddhist practitioners always try to understand their own mental attitudes, concepts, perceptions and consciousness. To Buddhists, these are the things that really matter.
If you forget about yourself and your delusions and focus instead on some lofty idea—like “What is Buddha?”—your spiritual journey becomes a dream-like hallucination. In your mind there’s no connection between Buddha (or God) and yourself. This way they become completely separate things, where you’re completely down here and Buddha, or God, is completely up there. There’s no connection whatsoever.
It’s not realistic to think that way. It’s too extreme. You’re putting one thing down at the lower extreme and the other way up at the upper. In Buddhism, we call that kind of mind dualistic.
Ideas are not the same things as realizations. People always want to know all about the highest attainments or the nature of God, but the pursuit of such intellectual knowledge has little to do with their lives or their minds.
True religion should be the pursuit of self-realization, not an exercise in the accumulation of facts.
In Buddhism, we are not particularly interested in the quest for intellectual knowledge alone. We are much more interested in understanding what’s happening here and now, in comprehending our present experiences, what we are at this very moment, our fundamental nature. We want to know how to find satisfaction, how to find happiness and joy instead of depression and misery, how to overcome the feeling that our nature is totally negative.
Lord Buddha himself taught that basically, human nature is pure, egoless, just as the sky is by nature clear, not cloudy.
Clouds come and go, but the blue sky is always there; clouds don’t alter the fundamental nature of the sky. Similarly, the human mind is fundamentally pure, not one with the ego. Whether one is a religious person or not, if we can’t separate ourselves from the ego, we are completely misguided; we’ve created a totally unrealistic philosophy of life that has nothing whatsoever to do with reality.
Instead of grasping at intellectual knowledge, wanting to know what’s the highest thing going, you’d be much better off trying to gain an understanding of the basic nature of your own mind and how to deal with it right now. It is so important to know how to act effectively: method is the key to any religion, the most important thing to learn.
Say you hear about an amazing treasure house containing jewels for the taking but don’t have the key to the door: all your fantasies about how you’ll spend your new-found wealth are a complete hallucination.
Similarly, fantasizing about wonderful religious ideas and peak experiences but having no interest in immediate action or the methods of attainment is totally unrealistic. If you have no method, no key, no way to bring your religion into your everyday life, you’d be better off with Coca-Cola. At least that quenches your thirst. If your religion is simply an idea, it’s as insubstantial as air.
We need to be very careful to understand exactly what religion is and how it should be practiced.
Lord Buddha himself said, “Belief is not important. Don’t believe what I say just because I said it.” These were his dying words. “I have taught many different methods because there are many different individuals. Before you embrace any of them, use your wisdom to check that they fit your psychological make-up, your own mind. If my methods seem to make sense and work for you, by all means adopt them. But if you don’t relate to them, even though they might sound wonderful, leave them be. They were taught for somebody else.”
These days, we can’t tell most people that they ‘should’ believe something just because Buddha said, because God said. It’s not enough for them. They’ll reject it unless they have proof.
But those who cannot understand that the nature of their mind is pure will be unable to see the possibility of discovering their innate purity and will lose whatever chance they had to do so. When we believe that our mind is fundamentally negative, we can lose all hope.
Of course, the human mind has both positive and negative sides. But the negative is transient, very temporary. Our up and down emotions are like clouds in the sky; beyond them, the real, basic human nature is clear and pure.
Many people misunderstand Buddhism. Even some professors of Buddhist studies look at just the words and interpret what the Buddha taught very literally. They don’t understand his methods, which are the real essence of his teachings.
In my opinion, the most important aspect of any religion is it’s methods: how to put that religion into your own experience. The better you understand how to do that, the more effective your religion becomes.
When this happens, our practice becomes so natural, so realistic; we come to understand our own nature, our own mind, and we don’t get surprised by whatever we find in it. When we understand the nature of our own mind, we will be able to control it naturally.
We won’t have to push so hard—understanding naturally brings control.
Many people will imagine that control of the mind is some kind of tight, restrictive bondage. Actually, control is a natural state.
But you’re not going to say that, are you? You’re going to say that it is natural for the mind to be uncontrolled. But it’s not. When you realize the nature of your uncontrolled mind, control comes as naturally as your present uncontrolled state arises. Moreover, the only way to gain control over your mind is to understand its nature. You can never force your mind, your internal world, to change. Nor can you purify your mind by punishing yourself physically, by beating your body. That’s totally impossible.
Impurity, sin, negativity or whatever else you want to call it is psychological, a mental phenomenon, so you can’t stop it physically. Purification requires a skilful combination of method and wisdom.
To purify your mind, you don’t have to believe in something special up there—God, or Buddha. Don’t worry about that. When you truly realize the up and down nature of your everyday life, the characteristic nature of your own mental attitude, you’ll automatically want to implement a solution.
These days, many people are disillusioned with religion; they seem to think it doesn’t work.
Religion can offer fantastic solutions to all your problems. The problem is that people don’t understand the characteristic nature of religion, so they don’t have the will to implement its methods.
Consider the materialistic life: it’s a state of complete agitation and conflict. We can never really fix things to be exactly the way we want. We can’t just wake up in the morning and decide exactly how we want your day to unfold. Forget about weeks, months, or years—we can’t even predetermine one day!
If I were to ask you right now if you can get up in the morning and set exactly how your day was going to go, how you were going to feel each moment, what would you say? There’s no way you can do that, is there?
No matter how much you make yourself materially comfortable, no matter how you arrange your house, you can never manipulate your mind in the same way. You can never determine the way you’re going to feel all day. How can you fix your mind like that? How can you say, “Today I’m going to be like this”? I can tell you with absolute certainty, as long as your mind is uncontrolled, agitated and dualistic, there’s no way; it’s impossible.
When I say this, I’m just talking about the way the mind works. What all this goes to show is that no matter how you make yourself materially comfortable, no matter how much you tell yourself, “Oh, this makes me happy, today I’m going to be happy all day long,” it’s impossible to predetermine your life like that. Automatically, your feelings keep changing, changing, changing. This shows that the materialistic life doesn’t work.
I don’t mean that you should renounce the worldly life and become ascetics. What I’m saying is that if you understand spiritual principles correctly and act accordingly, you will find much greater satisfaction and meaning in your life than you will by relying on the sense world alone. The sense world alone cannot satisfy the human mind.
The only purpose for the existence of what we call religion is for us to understand the nature of our own psyche, our own mind, our own feelings. Whatever name we give to our spiritual path, the most important thing is that we get to know our own experiences and feelings.
The lamas’ experience of Buddhism is that instead of emphasizing belief, it places prime importance on personal experimentation, putting Dharma methods into action and assessing the effect they have on our minds: do these methods help? Have our minds changed or are they just as uncontrolled as they ever were? This is Buddhism, and this method of checking the mind is called meditation.
It’s an individual thing. It all comes down to personal understanding, personal experience. If your path is not providing solutions to your problems, answers to your questions, satisfaction to your mind, you must check up.
Perhaps there’s something wrong with your point of view, your understanding. You can’t necessarily conclude that there’s something wrong with your religion just because you tried it and it didn’t work. Different individuals have their own ideas, views, and understanding of religion, and can make mistakes. Therefore, make sure that the way you understand your religion’s ideas and methods is correct. If you make the right effort on the basis of right understanding, you will experience deep inner satisfaction. Thus, you’ll prove to yourself that satisfaction does not depend on anything external. True satisfaction comes from the mind.
We often feel miserable and our world seems upside-down because we believe that external things will work exactly as we plan and expect them to. We expect things that are changeable by nature not to change, impermanent things to last forever. Then, when they do change, we get upset.
Getting upset when something in your house breaks shows that you didn’t really understand its impermanent nature. When it’s time for something to break, it’s going to break, no matter what you expect.
We still expect material things to last, but nothing material lasts; it’s impossible. Therefore, to find lasting satisfaction, we should put more effort into your spiritual practice and meditation than into manipulating the world around us. Lasting satisfaction comes from our minds, from within us.
Our main problem is your uncontrolled, dissatisfied mind, whose nature is suffering.
Knowing this, when any problem arises, instead of getting upset because of your unfulfilled expectations and busily distracting yourself with some external activity, relax, sit down and examine the situation with your own mind. That is a much more constructive way of dealing with problems and pacifying your mind. Moreover, when you do this, you are allowing your innate knowledge-wisdom to grow. Wisdom can never grow in an agitated, confused and restless mind.
Agitated mental states are a major obstacle to the gaining of wisdom. So too is the misconception that ego and mind’s nature are one and the same. If that’s what we believe, we’ll never be able to separate them and reach beyond ego.
As long as you believe that you are totally in the nature of sin and negativity you will never be able to transcend them. What you believe is very important and very effectively perpetuates your wrong views. In the West, people seem to think that if you aren’t one with your ego, you can’t have a life, get a job or do anything. That’s a dangerous delusion—you can’t separate ego from mind, ego from life.
That’s the big problem, thinking that if we lose our ego we’ll lose our personality, our mind, our human nature.
That’s simply not true and not worth worrying about. If you lose your ego you should be happy. But of course, this raises the question, what is the ego? In the West, people seem to have so many words for the ego, but do they know what the ego really is?
It doesn’t matter how perfect your English is, the ego is not really a word—the word is more like a symbol. The actual ego is within you: it’s the wrong conception that your self is independent, permanent and inherently existent. In reality, what you believe to be “I” doesn’t exist.
If I were to ask everybody here to check deeply, beyond words, what they thought the ego was, each person would have a different idea. I’m not joking; this is my experience. We always say, very superficially, “That’s your ego,” but we have no idea of what the ego really is. Sometimes we even use the term pejoratively: “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just your ego,” or something like that, but if you check up more deeply, you’ll see that the average person thinks that the ego is his personality, his life.
Men in particular can feel that if they were to lose their ego, they’d lose their personalities, they’d no longer be men; women feel that were they to lose their ego they’d lose their female qualities. That’s not true at all. Still, based on Westerners’ interpretation of life and ego, that’s pretty much what it comes down to. They think the ego is something positive in the sense that it’s essential for living in society; that if you don’t have an ego, you can’t mix in society. You check up more deeply—on the mental level, not the physical. It’s interesting.
Many psychologists describe the ego at such a superficial level that you’d think it was a physical entity. From the Buddhist point of view, the ego is a mental concept, not a physical thing. Of course, symptoms of ego activity can manifest externally, such as when, for example, someone’s angry and his face and body reflect that angry vibration. But that’s not anger itself; it’s a symptom of anger.
Similarly, ego is not its external manifestations but a mental factor, a psychological attitude. You can’t see it from the outside.
When you meditate, you can see why today you’re up, tomorrow you’re down: mood swings are caused by your mind. People who don’t check within themselves come up with very superficial reasons like, “I’m unhappy today because the sun’s not shining,” but most of the time our ups and downs are due to primarily psychological factors.
When a strong wind blows, the clouds vanish and blue sky appears. Similarly, when the powerful wisdom that understands the nature of the mind arises, the dark clouds of ego disappear.
Beyond the ego—the agitated, uncontrolled mind—lies everlasting peace and satisfaction. That’s why Lord Buddha prescribed penetrative analysis of both your positive and your negative sides. In particular, when your negative mind arises, instead of being afraid, you should examine it more closely.
You see, Buddhism is not at all a tactful religion; it addresses precisely what you are and what your mind is doing in the here and now. That’s what makes it so interesting. We can’t expect to hear only positive things. Sure we all have a positive side, but what about the negative aspects of our nature? To gain an equal understanding of both, an understanding of the totality of our true being, we have to look at our negative characteristics as well as the positive ones, and not try to cover them up.
*From Lama Yeshe’s Becoming Your Own Therapist, a series of lectures given in Australia and New Zealand. Edited by Nicholas Ribush. Freely available from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: courtesy Lama Thubten Yeshe