Lama Yeshe: Karma and Emptiness

Lama Yesce: The ego’s misconceptions about reality keep us in bondage.

Lama Yesce: The ego’s misconceptions about reality keep us in bondage.

Lama Thubten Yeshe: Karma and Emptiness

You are all interested in Dharma and meditation. But what is Dharma, and how do we meditate? Basically, Dharma is anything that causes our delusions, our disturbing thoughts, to subside; it is anything that brings us peace of mind and liberation from confusion and suffering.

Buddhadharma teaches methods to purify the mind of negativities and to develop our human potential to the fullest. Some of these methods, such as not harming others, generating compassion, and practicing generosity, are shared by other philosophical and religious traditions. Other methods are uniquely Buddhist. Two of these, karma and emptiness, are the heart of Dharma. Karma is the law of cause and effect, and emptiness is the ultimate nature of reality, devoid of all misconceptions.

Let us begin with karma. Every single action performed by body, speech, or mind eventually produces a specific reaction. For example, an unwholesome attitude will definitely culminate in problems and suffering, while a wholesome, clean, clear mind always brings happiness. We have all noticed that when our mind is full of confusion everything we say comes out in a confused way. This illustrates the evolutionary link existing between all actions and their consequences. Although this link seems obvious when analyzed, it is not always apparent. When we catch ourselves saying something senseless or nasty we are apt to say, “Oh, I don’t know why I said that; it just came out that way.” To assume that there is no particular reason for our uncontrolled actions is a mistake. Not one word has ever been uttered that was not motivated by either a positive or a negative attitude.

Understanding the karmic connection between causes and effects will give us the energy to change ourselves. Nevertheless, it is essential to approach our practice with patience and wisdom. Changing our habitual behavior is not easy. It is not like making instant coffee; it takes time. Change occurs gradually because the various negative attitudes and delusions have different degrees of strength. Therefore each mental problem must be treated according to its particular nature, be it extremely subtle and deeply embedded in our consciousness, or quite evident and within reach. The logical approach is to concentrate first on purifying gross negativities before attempting to root out the deeper subtle ones. The important point is that removing the more obvious faults is something we can do now. It is much wiser to work in an area where success is possible rather than to reach for the impossible.

For example, when washing a dirty rag it is impossible to remove the stains and odors from it immediately. The initial washing takes care of the first layer of dirt but only after it is washed and wrung out two or three times are all the stains finally removed. The root delusions—attachment, anger and ignorance—are the stains polluting our mind, and, of these, ignorance of reality is the most deeply ingrained and difficult to remove. Cleansing the mind is an evolutionary process and the only way to ensure positive change is to work on the gross delusions now and tackle the more subtle ones later.

Throughout your Dharma practice you must never push yourself, but on the contrary you should try to be at ease and to do only what is possible at the moment. If you push yourself beyond your capacity you may shock your entire nervous system, thus producing an extremely negative reaction; you may even give up trying to deal with your delusions altogether.

Even though we are adults we have the minds of children. A child’s mind requires especially tender care; we need great skill and patience to deal with it. It cannot endure being squeezed, or pushed beyond its limits. Yet many spiritual seekers are perfectionists whose egos impel them to try and advance too quickly. They are severe and ruthless toward themselves, and end up in a state of tension. They become frustrated and angry with themselves and everyone around them. Of course it is good to strive for perfection, but we must be practical. It is best to go by degrees, step by step. Otherwise you are likely to jump in too quickly and break your leg. To succeed in your Dharma practice it is best to be at ease, relaxed and down-to-earth, to adjust the intensity of your practice day by day according to your situation.

Being practical includes being open to adapting your practice to external conditions. For instance in this meditation hall we are sitting together cross-legged on oriental rugs, surrounded by beautiful statues and paintings of the buddhas; incense smoke fills the air and candles burn on the altar. Naturally it is easy to meditate in such a positive atmosphere.

However, if you find yourself in another environment, such as in a train or on a plane, this does not give you an excuse for abandoning your practice. Just because there are no visible images of the buddhas you feel that Buddha is not there. The whole place seems to lack spirituality and you feel as if you are drowning in samsara. Or perhaps at home your family will not allow you to have an altar, or images of enlightened beings visibly displayed. And because you know how much it would upset them you refrain from saying your prayers out loud. Then thinking back nostalgically to that peaceful meditation hall, you think, “Now it seems as though I’m in a different world. No pictures of the spiritual teachers or buddhas, no candles or incense, and I can’t chant my prayers. How can I possibly practice Dharma?”

Such dissatisfied thoughts are examples of the dualistic mind at work. You have managed to rationalize your way out of doing your meditations, not realizing that the beauty of the graduated path to enlightenment is that is explains how to meditate in any environment—whether eating, drinking, talking, traveling or whatever. Religious paraphernalia are useful of course, but not absolutely essential to the practice. By the way, I find the bathroom an excellent place to have a quiet, undisturbed meditation away from noise and confusion. It is a good place for taking refuge.

Actually it is possible to find a Dharma teaching in everything we see—television, films, newspapers, the wind blowing, the movements of the ocean or the changing of the seasons. If we observe the world from the Dharma viewpoint we can gain a profound understanding of reality, including impermanence and the law of cause and effect. “All of these things are changing, just as I am.” We usually walk about in a dream, unaware of the changes and movements going on around us. Either that, or we take them for granted. It is easy to dismiss what television and movies are trying to show as mere fantasies. Such prejudices only increase our ignorance and close the door to wisdom. If, on the other hand, we open our wisdom eye and let the universe reveal its reality, we can increase our knowledge and practice Dharma any time and anywhere.

By allowing everything we see to remind us that the law of cause and effect governs all change, that each transformation has a definite reason, we shall gradually understand karma. We will stop assuming that our experiences come to us ready-made, like instant coffee. Sensitivity to our nervous system’s constant state of flux will become more acute as we watch how our mind and body change again and again.

Once a deep understanding of cause and effect arises within us, and we see that every single action has a definite consequence, we shall realize how important it is to be conscientious about everything we do. Awareness of karma brings spontaneous awareness of our own behavior. By realizing that positive actions lead inevitably to happiness and negative actions to suffering, we become more discriminating and more conscious of the nature of our own activity. If the law of cause and effect does not guide our life, however, there is no Dharma practice, and without such practice only ignorance and suffering remain.

Sustained conscious awareness of our physical, verbal and mental actions from the moment of waking to the moment of falling asleep at night is more profound and penetrating than one hour’s meditation every morning. This makes sense; an hour’s meditation is nothing compared to a day’s practice. And of we consider the enormous benefits of even one day’s awareness of karma we can guard against the apathy and depression that often infect our practice.

One reason for stressing the value of watching our karma is that westerners are always so interested in meditation. They love meditation, but are not so happy when they are offered teachings on karma. They complain that karma is too heavy. But we must not give way to anxiety. Our body, speech, and mind are already heavy; it does not take teachings to make them heavy; we are heavy.

I am not implying that meditation is unimportant, but even if we have trouble doing formal meditation, we can still practice Dharma perfectly well. Meditation then means always being watchful of our actions and cultivating an attitude of loving-kindness rather than one of exploitation. This is meditation. In fact, in view of our present level of spiritual development, this sort of approach to our practice can be even more precise and realistic than meditation on profound tantric subjects.

If we can awaken to the immediate moment we have achieved something important. Take the present moment. We are all physically here in this room, but our minds are somewhere else, most likely thinking about the future. “After this meditation course I’ll…” We are dreaming about something else while the present moment is slipping by. Even as I am talking to you my mind is thinking of Tibet. I am not really with you.

There is a powerful Dharma method for bringing the mind into the present. Each morning, as soon as you wake up, you should think in this way: “How fortunate I am to be still alive, and a human being rather than a dog or a chicken. With this human body and mind I have the power to understand my mind and to practice Dharma. This is something that animals cannot possibly do. So I dedicate this day to the attainment of enlightenment. In order to reach that goal quickly I must avoid impure actions, and emanate a positive vibration toward others.” The power of this dedication will help to keep your awareness and control at peak level throughout the day.

Most people spend their time thinking about what they want to do tomorrow, in twenty-five years, or for the rest of their lives. This is foolish. The events that will happen in twenty-five years’ time are nothing but the result of a process of transformation going on from moment to moment—even now. The present moment evolves into the following one, which changes into the next one. Today changes into tomorrow, tomorrow into next week, next year and so on. If the process of evolution did not depend on events taking place at this very moment, there would be nothing happening twenty-five years from now.

Although the future depends on the present, it is the human ego’s nature to worry about the future instead of how to act now. When you meditate, meditate. When you eat, eat. When you cook, cook. Try to replace your fantasies about the future with awareness of the present moment. Only then are you being realistic. It is ridiculous to be overly concerned with what is going to happen in the future, since your projections about it are merely a product of your hallucinating mind. Unfortunately, however, it is a common pastime to make concrete plans for the future. “I must be sure to have enough of this and plenty of that for the next few years.” Perhaps you will die before the week is out. Worrying about the future is simply a waste of time and energy.

There are many people who do not believe in enlightenment because they have never met or seen an enlightened being. I would ask them, “Can you see tomorrow?” If not, where do all the concrete conceptions that form the basis for all their future plans come from? They worry about what will happen in a future they cannot see, yet they do not accept enlightenment on the grounds that they cannot perceive it.

From the karmic viewpoint we should be concerned about the future, but our present concern is wrongly associated. The general confusion in relation to the future comes out in the kinds of questions often posed to lamas and priests: “When I die will I go to heaven or hell?” “Do you think I’ll be happy next year?” With Dharma wisdom bringing to mind the law of cause and effect, it is easy to predict what the future will bring. A positive, wholesome attitude today bodes well for tomorrow. If the mind-stream is clean and clear today, then it is certain to be clean and clear tomorrow. So we do have the ability to predict the future: by using our own wisdom. We can see that living and dying happily or miserably depends on maintaining a positive or negative attitude from now on. It is needless to run to our spiritual teachers to ask them what is going to happen. We have the choice between dying the miserable death of a cow or experiencing the blissful death of a meditator. It depends on our karma. If the causes and conditions—milk, heat and so on—come together in the evening, the result will be a bowlful of yogurt the next morning.

It is silly to ask exalted beings and clairvoyants if there is going to be world-wide disaster during the next few years. Disasters are happening all the time. By understanding karma we can see that as this solar system is the product of delusion, it is naturally besieged by wars and catastrophes. Therefore it is a waste of energy to fret and worry about it. What we should worry about is keeping ourselves as peaceful, positive and aware as possible. This is all we can do.

Let us now turn to the other essential aspect of the Dharma, that of analyzing the ego. The ego is the mind that misunderstands the nature of the I, the self. We generally feel that the I exists somewhere vaguely within the body but our ordinary superficial mind never attempts to pinpoint it precisely. To gain a correct picture of reality, it is necessary to investigate deeply and try to find out exactly where this I resides. Otherwise we shall continue to be deluded, fooled by a view that, although superficial in some ways, still clings to a deep and concrete sense of self. When we make a thorough search for our self, looking throughout our entire body and nervous system, we can never find it. Sometimes we may think we have located it, but upon closer examination we can see that we have been deceived.

Although there is a specific technique for trying to locate the I, each one of us must approach our investigation in terms of the highly individual and instinctive way we habitually refer to ourselves. Some people have a vague sense that the I is in their chest; others feel it is in their head or stomach. When someone is troubled and holds his head between his hands, or slaps his forehead and clutches at his heart, this indicates where he most strongly feels his I at that moment. Each of these gestures is a symptom of the person’s ego projecting a particular sense of self. My symptom, for instance, is to hide behind my monk’s robes. The fact that we each have our own set of symptoms shows that the intuitive feeling of I is merely an interpretation of the ego. If the I were something substantial, there would be much more agreement as to what and where it is.

The self imagined by the ego has a mysterious, inaccessible nature. This is because there is no general agreement about its qualities or location: we each have our own feelings about it. This is precisely why each person must see his imagined I himself. No one can do it for him. Yet even with the most precise introspective wisdom, seeking the I in every cell of the body, it remains impossible to locate. It is like a thief who sneaks up on us when we are not looking and hides when we turn around. When we are relaxed and not on guard, he advances on tiptoe like a demon ready to attack, but if we chase him he suddenly disappears as if swallowed up by the earth. This is exactly how our devious mind deceives us. The ego’s hallucination of a concrete, self-existent I is like the thief. We are certain it is there but as soon as we look for it, it disappears.

Our mind will go on cheating us until we finally catch it in the act! Meanwhile we shall continue to carry around a strong intuitive feeling of I, and a vague notion that it exists somewhere, probably in the body. The only way to arrest this fantasy is to observe the object of our hallucination, in this case our own self; examine it carefully and see what it really is. As the imagined I is like a sneak-thief, it is necessary to use a special trick in order to capture it. We must somehow bring the object in question into clear view for close inspection. Because the imagined I comes up most strongly in highly emotional states, we should take advantage of those situations, look at the obvious feeling of I that has arisen, and try to locate and identify it. Another effective technique is deliberately to evoke during meditation an emotional crisis in order to bring this feeling of I to the surface. In either case, the meditator must be extremely alert if he is to capture this image before it disappears. Through this practice he will eventually discover that the self he has always believed to exist has no basis at all. It was, and is, nothing more than a fantasy.

All our suffering and fears exist only because of our passive acceptance of the ego-projected illusory self. Because this self appears to exist concretely, it seems to be deeply involved in experiences of gain and loss and the accompanying feelings of depression and elation. This is, in fact, the basis of all our suffering.

At some point in his contemplations the practitioner clearly realizes that all his misery springs from an image projected by his own distorting mind, an image that has no basis in reality. At this point he has reached an indestructible state of mind, beyond all fear. When Tibetan meditators reached this level of realization they used a skillful technique for putting their new experience to the test. They imagines themselves in an extremely frightening or emotional situation and then watched their reactions. If no great sense of I fearing loss or pain arose in their minds, they could be certain of their inner achievements. This sort of experimentation is similar to the way ideas are tested in scientific studies. Here, however, the experiment is internal and very personal.

According to the philosophy of the great Indian teacher, Nagarjuna, the self that appears intuitively to our minds does not exist anywhere within the entire atomic structure of the body. This view is not to be confused with nihilism, which asserts that nothing exists at all. What, then, does exist? The answer lies in Nagarjuna’s philosophy of the middle way which denies the existence of the self fantasized by the ego, while asserting the dependently arising, relative self.

This is not simply some philosophical concept; I am not interested here in talking about philosophy. This is a practical method for discovering what is real and what is not. And if you look into this for yourselves you will see how your own ego imagines the existence of something that does not exist at all.

When a baby is born, the parents arbitrarily give a name to the little bubble that has suddenly appeared. They have no logical reason for choosing that specific name for that particular bubble. “Do you like the name Christina?” “Yes, I like it.” “Good, then let’s call her Christina.” It is not as if the mother and father can see that the baby’s innermost self or consciousness belongs, by its very own nature, to a category that is always called “Christina.” Or that something within that baby is just waiting to be called by its real name, “Christina.” In light of Nagarjuna’s philosophy, it is just a matter of a bubble appearing and then being called by a name. The combination of word and bubble is Christina.

But the ego is not satisfied with being just a bubble with a name. Therefore it confuses the issue by imagining that something else exists. “I am more than just a bubble; I have my own experience apart from that.” The nature of the ego is to be dissatisfied, and it cleverly improves and beautifies its identity by fashioning it into shapes and colors of its own imagination. Just as it is never satisfied with any amount of wealth or beauty, neither is it happy with being merely a name and a bubble. It cannot accept simple reality: the way things actually are. For instance, now that I am in Spain I no longer like being Tibetan. I would rather be a handsome Spaniard with a nice mustache. Wherever I go I want to be something different. I cannot admit or accept who or what I am. It is incredible how unrealistic the ego is! Its world is like plastic: pure imitation.

In reference to the ego’s fantasy world, Buddha said, “All is illusion.” To understand the true meaning of this statement, let us first see what us meant by the ego’s world. Your world is all that you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, and think; in other words it is made up of all your sense perceptions. Each person’s ego creates its own personal world. You are not living in my world; you are living in your own ego’s illusory world. Yet when some people hear that all is illusion they misinterpret it to mean that nothing matters. “Fantastic! I can steal, drink, take drugs, and hallucinate on LSD to my heart’s content. Who cares? It’s only an illusion anyway.”

There are various terms used in referring to the ultimate nature of reality. Sometimes it is called emptiness, since the true nature of all phenomena is empty, as opposed to the ego’s imagination, which is full. Full of what? Full of concepts, expectations, anxieties and projections that have nothing to do with reality. Ultimately, all things are empty. Reality is also called voidness, voidness being the opposite of the solid, concrete world imagined by the ego. All phenomena, both samsaric and spiritual, are void by their very nature.

It is essential to eliminate the ego’s basic misconception about reality, because this is the root of all suffering. The ego’s view is debased and unrealistic, and produces a low opinion of oneself and others. It underestimates our true potentialities and qualities, thereby creating a feeling of insecurity and defensiveness. Furthermore, with this sort of negative attitude we easily get involved in arguments and fights with one another. The ego is political by nature. If there were no ego, there would be no reason to quarrel.

The ego’s misconceptions about reality also keep us in bondage, whether it be the iron bondage of worldly existence or the golden bondage of a spiritual way of life. The iron bondage is our continual mental and physical suffering in the cycle of dissatisfied existence known as samsara, while the golden bondage is that of being enslaved to misconceptions and false philosophies.

Many philosophies have a good appearance, an attractive golden façade. However, no matter how respectable they might seem, these incorrect views still bind us to ignorance and suffering. The highest goal is to be free of all bondage. But I do not mean being free in a revolutionary sense. Maybe you think that this lama is trying to start another Spanish revolution! No, I am just trying to provoke a revolution in your minds.

Lama Yeshe gave this teaching at Nagarjuna Institute, Ibiza, Spain, in 1978. Edited by Ven. Thubten Wangmo. First published in Wisdom Energy 2, Publications for Wisdom Culture, Ulverston, England, 1979.