Some people assume that Buddhism is probably a nice religion that always talks diplomatically and sweetly about holy things.
When we start teaching Buddhism to beginners, we don’t begin by talking about holy things.
The first thing we explain is the basic nature of your present mind—what’s going on down here, right now—not Buddha up there.
Some people think they know all about Buddhism and Buddhists just because they’ve read a couple of books. They pick one up, “Hmm. Let’s see what this book says. Well, according to this it seems that Buddhists are really extreme. They believe in all sorts of strange stuff.” They pick up another: “My goodness, Buddhists are completely nihilistic.” They draw all sorts of wrong conclusions based on extremely limited information; they don’t see anything like the whole picture. This is dangerous.
Perhaps they read something from the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy, which is known for its rigorous intellectual approach to the subject of emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, and can be difficult to understand. This can lead them to think, “Oh, Buddhists aren’t religious; they’re atheists. They don’t believe anything; they think that nothing exists. How can they consider themselves religious?” This too can be dangerous.
Other people might conclude, “Wow! Buddhists believe in three Gods. They say Buddha is one God; Dharma is another; Sangha a third. They must be super-believers. That’s too much. In the West, we’ve never heard of such a thing as three Gods; only one. We’re religious, but we only have one God. We can’t even agree with the Buddhists on how many Gods there are.”
If you look at just one tiny aspect of Buddhism, of course it might appear too much for you. But Buddhism is not just about one or two small things; it is not some tiny philosophy. Lord Buddha explained the nature of every single phenomenon in the universe.
At this stage, I have had about nine or 10 years’ experience teaching Buddhist philosophy to Westerners and experimenting with how it fits their minds, mainly in the one-month meditation courses we hold each year at Kopan Monastery in Nepal.
In these courses, we try to explain everything, but I have found that if we talk too much about the negative side of things, students completely freak out. Not all of them, but many do. They say, “These lamas emphasize the negative too much. Why don’t they talk more about the positive? Buddhism isn’t only about delusion and suffering. Why do they teach us this negative stuff day after day?”
But the thing about Buddhism is that before you can put yourself into the positive path to liberation, enlightenment or God—whatever you want to call it, the name doesn’t matter—you have to know how your negative mind works.
If you don’t understand how the two extreme negative views of overestimation and underestimation function within you, how can you correct your actions and put yourself into the right path? Therefore, it is crucial to know the negative aspects of your nature.
Actually, if you comprehend the evolution of your negative mind from beginning to end, you’ll feel very comfortable. Conversely, if you don’t know how it works, you’ll finish up thinking that negative actions are positive.
Moreover, if you try to practice the path to liberation without a solid grounding in what is positive and what is negative, a simple question from someone challenging what you are doing can completely derail you. You might get confused and give up. That’s the sign of a weak mind. You have to see the totality of the evolution of both the negative and the positive mind.
However, at this point, I would like to say one thing about the nature of Buddha.
As I mentioned before, some people with a limited knowledge of Buddhism think that while Christianity and other religions say that God is only one, Buddhists worship three Gods. Actually, if you understand the true nature of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, you’ll know that there’s no separation between them.
Buddha is Buddha; Buddha is Dharma; Buddha is Sangha. Accepting Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the ultimate refuge does not contradict the unity of God.
There are those who think that Buddhism is simply an intellectual philosophy and includes no religious practice. That’s not true either. Buddhism contains both intellectual philosophy and religious practice.
When Lord Buddha was teaching, he taught his students as individuals, giving each whatever they needed. When offering solutions to the negative mind, he would reveal different methods, because each person’s negative mind is different.
Sometimes he would explain, “Yes, this exists,” but at others he would say, “No, this doesn’t exist,” drawing upon the Buddhist school of thought appropriate for each person’s level of mind.
Seeing this, people whose minds are limited might think that Lord Buddha was confused, that his explanations were contradictory. But Lord Buddha was not confused. He was a wise teacher who could see that different minds experienced different problems and, therefore, different solutions were required.
For example, a skillful doctor might advise a patient with a fever to fast for a couple of days but then tell the patient to eat. The small-minded person might observe, “This doctor is silly. One day he says don’t eat, the next day he says eat. He’s really confused.” But actually, the doctor is wise. He understands the evolution of the patient’s disease, so he prescribes different treatments at different times.
Lord Buddha, the supreme physician, treated his disciples the same way. He taught sentient beings according to their level of mind. You can’t all of a sudden start talking about the intellectual intricacies of the enlightened view to people whose minds are completely confused. They have a long way to go; they have to be taught what their limited minds can digest.
If even Lord Buddha were to teach you things your mind could not digest, you’d freak out. Instead of gaining benefit, you’d go berserk. You have to know this.
Even before Buddhism came to Tibet, there were already many different Buddhist schools, doctrines and philosophies in existence. There still are. But basically, they are in no way contradictory. They are all there for the gradual development of the human mind. Actually, all those various doctrines and philosophies exist for the gradual development of the individual person’s mind.
In the lowest school of Buddhist philosophy, Lord Buddha teaches that phenomena are self-existent. In the next, he teaches that they are not completely self-existent; that something comes from the side of the object and something from the side of the mind. Finally, he explains that in reality, nothing at all comes from the side of the object; it exists only in name.
You’ll find that some religions don’t have these different levels of view; don’t have a variety of approaches for the gradual development of the human mind. In Buddhism, when your mind is at the initial level you are given certain practices to do.
When, through those practices, your mind has developed a little, you are taught the methods of the next level. When you have accomplished those, you go on to more advanced techniques. In this way, by degrees, your understanding and perception change and you progress along the path. Thus, Buddhism is extremely precise.
Whoever you are, you can find specific philosophical explanations and methods of practice to suit your individual level of mind.
In the West, we pick up a book and say: “Oh, this sounds good. I like this book. I think I’ll practice this meditation.” But even though the words sound nice and you like the ideas, if you’re not ready for a certain practice, there’s no way you can integrate it with your mind, and if you try, you might end up thinking, “Oh, this method doesn’t work.”
But the problem is not with the method; it’s with your trying to implement something for which you are not ready. You don’t know how to integrate that idea with your mind or put it into your experience. That’s the problem.
You can find nice ideas in every book in the world, but how do these nice ideas relate to your mind? How do you put them into everyday experience? If you can, it makes sense for you to practice them. Your mind will become soft and gentle, calm and peaceful, and your life will be happier. You will begin to taste the honey of Dharma. Otherwise, no honey, just Coca-Cola. Too much Coke, too much gas. No sleep and all running to the bathroom. I’m joking! I’m not talking about the physical here; these are just examples for the mind.
Whatever you find in Buddhist philosophy and practice is there solely for the psychological treatment of the human mind.
Lord Buddha never propounded any abstruse philosophy just so that he could proudly proclaim, “This is my doctrine.” He never propounded a single philosophical point that wasn’t related to the human mind or meant to be integrated with it. Never.
Buddhism is a way of living your life that is related to your own mind, your own view, your own experience. Therefore, be careful when you evaluate Buddhism as “this, this or that.”
For example, after reading this article, you might tell people, “Buddhism is this, Buddhism is that, because this Tibetan lama said so.” But please don’t think that I’ve told you all about Buddhism. I’ve barely scratched the surface. What I’m saying here is by no means the measure of Buddhism.
Since the different schools of Buddhist philosophy and their views are graduated—different schools for different minds—how do you know that when you pick up a particular book, what it contains will fit your mind?
Of course, in Lord Buddha’s teachings there are methods for each of us. If you are wise, you can certainly select a book that suits you. In Buddhism, there’s something for everybody—something anybody can understand and actualize—and nothing that is too difficult for anybody, that no human mind can understand. Lord Buddha gave precise teachings that can be understood by any individual according to their level of mind—different methods, different views, different philosophies, different doctrines.
For example, Lord Buddha gave a general explanation of how karma functions in everyday life that you don’t need a sophisticated intellect to understand.
In his very first teaching, on the four noble truths, he explained karma very simply. First, he explained true suffering. Isn’t that sensible? If someone describes your own agitated mind—how it comes, how it goes, what sort of effects it has—how can you reject that? “Oh, that’s too much for me.” Impossible.
How can you reject somebody’s telling you correctly and in detail how your mind is agitated; how it’s in conflict every day of your life because it is split, not integrated? If someone gives you a perfect explanation of this, how can you say it’s too difficult to understand?
We don’t try to teach beginners the intricacies of Madhyamaka philosophy. We can tell immediately who’s ready to listen to teachings on emptiness and who isn’t. But we can teach them about the problems they face every day of their lives and the nature of true suffering in such a way that they can understand the evolution of their everyday reality.
Actually, Lord Buddha taught about human suffering and the agitated mind in many different ways.
To some people, he gave very simple explanations; to others, who were more intellectually advanced, he gave more subtle, technical explanations. Even the way he taught about the nature of suffering is fantastic—he had so many different approaches to introduce this subject to the human mind. Isn’t it amazing? How can you deny your agitated mind? “I don’t believe I have an agitated mind. I don’t want to hear about that.” How can you deny it? Every day of your life you are trapped in your physical body and have to put up with it. When somebody explains its nature to you, how can you reject it?
Perhaps you’re going to argue that you don’t have an agitated mind. In that case, I’m going to say, check how you are when you get up in the morning. Be aware for just a day, then you’ll see. Or not even a day. Just try sitting still for an hour in a cross-legged position. Your ego will completely freak out: “Oh, my knees hurt.” Pain in the knees is so transient; your agitated mind keeps going and going and going—all day and all night; for months, for years.
It never stops.
In Sanskrit, the word for Lord Buddha’s teaching is Dharma.
Dharma is medicine.
Just as every physical illness has its own medicine, Lord Buddha has prescribed a specific method for each mental disease. That’s what he taught. He didn’t just hand out the same teaching to everybody, irrespective of who they were or what their problem was. Therefore, you can’t simply say, “Buddhism is this.” Dharma is not just one thing.
As I mentioned before, there are various schools of Buddhist thought. The two main ones are the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Mahayana, in turn, is divided into Paramitayana and Vajrayana, or Tantrayana. Tantrayana, or tantra, also contains a variety of schools.
Basically, there are four, each of which contains its own specific techniques, but I can’t go into that here. Nevertheless, it’s important for you to know that there exists such a well-organized, step-by-step path, by which you can gradually develop your mind to enlightenment. Since Tibetan Buddhism is not yet perfectly established in this part of the world, I’m just mentioning this for your information.
For example, these days we have advanced modes of transport, like fast cars and jet planes, but that doesn’t mean there’s no longer any place for the bicycle. In the evolution of human transport, we started off with simple carts, then came cars, then planes and now we have moon rockets and so forth. Soon there’ll be something to top even the rockets of today; don’t think that they’re the ultimate human invention.
There’s no limit to how far the human mind can develop.
Like today, everybody has television, but a few decades ago, if you’d described a television set to somebody, they would not have believed such a thing possible. Or nowadays, in developed countries at least, many people have a car. Perhaps in time, all these people will have their own jet. You’re going to tell me that that’s not possible, but why not?
These things are material phenomena and if the human mind puts effort in that direction, such things can develop. It’s nothing supernatural; it just hasn’t happened yet.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that just as here, with these material things, there are degrees of development and the earlier versions don’t conflict with the later ones, so too the philosophies, doctrines, views and methods contained in Lord Buddha’s profound teaching are all there for the gradual spiritual development of any one individual and do not conflict with or contradict each other.
Of course, if you think that the material sense world that you perceive is all that exists and that there’s no possibility of accomplishing that which you can imagine, that it’s all purely mental speculation, that’s ridiculous. Even the inventor of the rocket had to picture it in his mind before he could create it. First he dreamed it up; then he put together the material elements necessary to manufacture it; then the rocket appeared. There’s no way he could have made a rocket without first creating it in his mind.
So you can see, all these different modern inventions result from the power of the human mind. Therefore, don’t think that dreams never become reality. It’s possible.
Basically, Mahayana Buddhism contains many methods and techniques and every single one is necessary for the development of each human mind. I’m not going to go into the specifics here, but if you have any questions I’d be glad to try to answer them.
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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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: copyright Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive (courtesy of the author)