What is Buddhism?

Lama Yeshe gave this public talk in Plummer Park, Los Angeles, CA in June 1975. Originally published in Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.

Although different people have different views of what Buddhism is, I think it’s difficult to say, “Buddhism is this, therefore it should be like that.” It’s difficult to summarize Buddhism in a simplistic way. However, I can say that Buddhism is different from what most Westerners consider to be religion.

First of all, when you study Buddhism you’re studying yourself—the nature of your body, speech and mind—the main emphasis being on the nature of your mind and how it works in everyday life. The main topic is not something else, like what is Buddha? What is the nature of God? Things like that.

Why is it so important to know the nature of our own mind? Since we all want happiness, enjoyment, peace and satisfaction and these things do not come from ice-cream but from wisdom and the mind, we have to understand what our mind is and how it works.

One thing about Buddhism is that it’s very simple and practical in that it explains logically how satisfaction comes from the mind, not from some kind of supernatural being in whom you have to believe.

I understand that this idea can be difficult to accept because, in the West, from the moment you’re born, extreme emphasis is placed on the belief that the source of happiness lies outside of yourself in external objects. Therefore your sense perception and consciousness have an extreme orientation toward the sense world and you come to value external objects above all else, even your life. This extreme view that over-values material things is a misconception, the result of unreasonable, illogical thought.

Therefore, if you want true peace, happiness and joy, you need to realize that happiness and satisfaction come from within you and stop searching so fanatically outside. You can never find real happiness out there. Whoever has?

Ever since people came into existence they have never found true happiness in the external world, even though modern scientific technology seems to think that that’s where the solution to human happiness lies. That’s a totally wrong conception. It’s impossible. Of course, technology is necessary and good, as long as it’s used skillfully. Religion is not against technology; nor is external development contrary to the practice of religion—although in the West there are religious extremists who oppose external development and scientific advancement, and we also find non-believers pitted against religious believers. It’s all misconception.

First let me raise a question. Where in the world can we find somebody who doesn’t believe? Who among us is a true non-believer? In asking this I’m not suggesting some kind of conceptual belief. The person who says “I don’t believe” thinks he’s intellectually superior but all you have to do to puncture his pride is ask two or three of the right questions: “What do you like? What don’t you like?” He’ll come up with a hundred things he likes. “Why do you like them?” Questions like that immediately expose everybody as a believer.

Anyway, in order to live in harmony we need to balance external and internal development; failure to do so leads to mental conflict.

So Buddhism finds no contradiction in advocating both external scientific and inner mental development. Both are correct. But each can be either positive or negative as well. That depends on mental attitude—there’s no such thing as absolute, eternally existent total positivity or absolute, eternally existent, total negativity. Positive and negative depend on the background from which they arise.

Therefore it’s very important to avoid extreme views because extreme emotional attachment to sense objects—“This is good; this makes me happy”—only causes mental illness. What we need to learn instead is how to remain in the middle, between the extremes of exaggeration and underestimation.

But that doesn’t mean giving everything up. I’m not asking you to get rid of all your possessions. It’s extreme emotional attachment to any object—external or internal—that makes you mentally ill. And Western medicine has few answers to that kind of sickness. There’s nothing you can take; it’s very hard to cure. Psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists…I doubt that they can solve the problems of attachment. Most of you probably have experience of that. That’s the actual problem.

The reason that Western health professionals can’t treat attachment effectively is that they don’t investigate the reality of the mind. The function of attachment is to bring frustration and misery. We all know this. It’s not that difficult to grasp; in fact it’s rather simple. But Buddhism has ways of revealing the psychology of attachment and how it functions in everyday life. The method is meditation. The real culprit, however, is a lack of knowledge-wisdom.

Too much concern for your own comfort and pleasure driven by the exaggerations of attachment automatically leads to feelings of hatred for others. Those two incompatible feelings—attachment and hatred—naturally clash in your mind and, from the Buddhist point of view, a mind in this kind of conflict is sick and unbalanced in nature.

Going to church or temple once a week is not enough to deal with this. You have to examine your mind all day long, maintaining constant awareness of the way you speak and act. We usually hurt others unconsciously. In order to observe the actions of our unconscious mind we need to develop powerful wisdom energy, but that’s easier said than done; it takes work to be constantly aware of what’s going on in our mind all the time.

Most religious and non-religious people agree that loving kindness for others is important. How do we acquire loving kindness? It comes from understanding how and why others suffer, what’s the best kind of happiness for them to have, and how they can get it. That’s what we have to check. But our emotions get the better of us. We project our attachments onto others. We think that others like the same things we do; that people’s main problems are hunger and thirst and that food and water will solve them. The human problem is not hunger and thirst; it’s misconception and mental pollution.

Therefore it’s very important that you make your mind clear. When it is, the ups and downs of the external world don’t bother you; whatever happens out there, your mind remains peaceful and joyous. If you get too caught up in watching the up and down world you finish up going up and down yourself: “Oh, that’s so good! Oh, that’s so bad!” If that world is your only source of happiness and its natural fluctuations disturb your peace of mind, you’ll never be happy, no matter how long you live. It’s impossible.

But if you understand that the world is up and down by nature—sometimes up, sometimes down—you expect it to happen and when it does you don’t get upset. Whenever your mind is balanced and peaceful, there’s wisdom and control.

Perhaps you think, “Oh, control! Buddhism is all about control. Who wants control? That’s a Himalayan trip, not a Western one.” But in our experience, control is natural. As long as you have the wisdom that knows how the uncontrolled mind functions and where it comes from, control is natural.

All people have equal potential to control and develop their mind. There’s no distinction according to race, color or nationality. Equally, all can experience mental peace and joy. Our human ability is great—if we use it with wisdom, it’s worthwhile; if we use it with ignorance and emotional attachment, we waste your life. Therefore be careful. Lord Buddha’s teaching greatly emphasizes understanding over the hallucinated fantasies of our ordinary mind. Emotional projections and hallucinations due to unrealistic perceptions are wrong conceptions. As long as our mind is polluted by wrong conceptions it’s impossible to avoid frustration.

The clean clear mind is simultaneously joyful. That’s simple to see. When your mind is under the control of extreme attachment on one side and extreme hatred on the other, you have to examine it to see why you grasp at happiness and why you hate. When you check your objects of attachment and hatred logically, you’ll see that the fundamental reason for these opposite emotions is basically the same thing: emotional attachment projects a hallucinatory object; emotional hatred projects a hallucinatory object. And either way, you believe in the hallucination.

As I said before, it’s not an intellectual, “Oh, yes, I believe.” And by the way, just saying you believe in something doesn’t actually mean you do. However, belief has deep roots in your subconscious, and as long as you’re under the influence of attachment, you’re a believer. Belief doesn’t necessarily have to be in the supernatural, in something beyond logic. There are many ways to believe.

From the standpoint of Buddhist psychology, in order to have love or compassion for all living beings, first you have to develop equilibrium—a feeling that all beings are equal. This is not a radical sort of, “I have a piece of candy; I need to cut it up and share it with everybody else,” but rather something you have to work with in your mind. An unbalanced mind is an unhealthy mind.

So equalizing sentient beings is not something we do externally; that’s impossible. The equality advocated by Buddhists is completely different from that which communists talk about; ours is the inner balance derived from training the mind.

When your mind is even and balanced you can generate loving kindness for all beings in the universe without discrimination. At the same time, emotional attachment automatically decreases. If you have the right method, it’s not difficult; when right method and right wisdom come together, solving problems is easy.

But we humans suffer from a shortage of intensive knowledge-wisdom. We search for happiness where it doesn’t exist; it’s here, but we look over there. It’s actually very simple. True peace, happiness and joy lie within you; therefore, if you meditate correctly and investigate the nature of your mind you can discover the everlasting happiness and joy within. It’s always with you; it’s mental, not external material energy, which always fizzles out. Mental energy coupled with right method and right wisdom is unlimited and always with you. That’s incredible! And explains why human beings are so powerful.

Materialists think that people are powerful because of their amazing external constructions, but all that actually comes from the human mind. Without the skill of the human mind there’s no external supermarket, therefore, instead of placing extreme value on the normal supermarket we should try to discover our own internal supermarket. That’s much more useful and leads to a balanced, even mind.

As I mentioned before, it sounds as if Buddhism is telling you to renounce all your possessions because extreme attachment is bad for you emotionally, but renunciation doesn’t mean physically giving up. You go to the toilet every day but that doesn’t mean you’re tied to it; you’re not too attached to your toilet, are you? We should have the same attitude to all the material things we use—give them a reasonable value according to their usefulness for human existence, not an extreme one.

If a boy runs crazily over dangerous ground to get an apple, trips, falls and breaks his leg, we think he’s foolish, exaggerating the value of the apple and putting his wellbeing at risk for the sake of achieving his goal. But we’re the same. We project extreme attachment onto objects of desire, exaggerating their beauty, which blinds us to our true potential. This is dangerous; it’s the same as the boy risking his life for an apple. Looking at objects with emotional attachment and chasing that hallucinated vision definitely destroys our own nature.

Human potential is great but we have to use our energy skillfully; we have to know how to put our lives in the right direction. This is extremely important.

Now, instead of my talking too much, perhaps it would be better if we had a little discussion. If you have some questions, please ask.

Q: What is the way to make our mind aware so that we have equilibrium of mind and skillfulness in action?

Lama: Good. You need to recognize the view of your false conceptions, which allows you to put your mental energy into a clearer atmosphere. Is that clear?

Q: No.

Lama: What was his question? Wongmo: How do you make the mind equal?

Lama: You have to recognize the way your unbalanced mind works: how it comes, what causes it to come, what causes it to react and so forth. If you understand your unbalanced mind, it becomes clear.

The Buddhist approach to destroying negativity is not to avoid it but to confront it face-on and check how come it’s there, what its reality is and so forth. That’s much more logical and scientific than just avoiding it—like running away to some other place or only thinking positive things. That’s not enough. So when problems arise, instead of looking away, look them right in the face. That’s very useful; that’s the Buddhist way.

If you run from problems you can never really ascertain their root. Putting your head in the sand doesn’t help. You have to determine where the problem comes from and how it arises. The way to discover the clean clear mind is to understand the nature of the unclear mind, especially its cause. For example, if there’s a thorn bush growing at your door, scratching you every time you go in or out, to solve the problem once and for all, it’s not enough to prune it. You have to pull it out by the root. Then it will never bother you again.

Q: You mentioned going beyond thought. Could you please talk about that experience?

Lama: It’s possible. When you suddenly realize that the hallucinated self-imagination projected by your ego does not exist as it appears, you can be left with an automatic experience of emptiness, a vision of shunyata. But as long as your self-imagination—“I’m Thubten Yeshe, I’m this, I’m that, therefore I should have this, I should do that”—continues to run amok, it’s impossible to go beyond thought. You need to investigate such thoughts with skillful, analytic knowledge-wisdom. Scrutinize your mind’s self-imagination as interpreted by your ego: what am I? What is it? Is it form? Does it have color? No. Then what is it? The only conclusion you can eventually arrive at is that it does not exist anywhere, either externally or internally, and the vision that automatically accompanies that experience is one of emptiness. At that time you reach beyond thought, but before then your mind was full of “I’m this, therefore I need a house; I’m that, therefore I need a car; I’m the other, therefore I need to go to the supermarket.” All your “I’m that-this” comes from conflicted emotional thought that completely destroys your inner peace.

Q: So then you’re beyond thought and there’s the void, emptiness?

Lama: Yes, that’s emptiness or, in Sanskrit terminology, shunyata. But emptiness does not mean nothingness. It refers to an absence of ego conceptualization—“I am Thubten Yeshe”—which is bigger than Los Angeles but is a complete hallucination. When we realize that it’s totally non-existent, that it’s only projected by the mind, by the ego, suddenly the experience of shunyata arises; at that time, there’s an absence of thought.

Now, “no thought” does not mean that you become somehow unconscious. Many people think like that but that’s dangerous. Reaching beyond thought means eliminating our usual, conflict-producing, dualistic, “that-this” type of thought, not lapsing into unconsciousness.

Q: Does Buddhism have physical exercises similar to tai chi or yoga, to tone the body as well as the mind?

Lama: Physical exercise is good but mental exercise is better; it’s more powerful.

Q: I agree, but are there physical exercises that are a part of Buddhism?

Lama: Yes, there are, but they’re mainly to facilitate sitting meditation. There are times that we retreat in a small room for months at a time; at such times we also do physical yoga. However, we normally emphasize that mental attitude is the most important thing, whatever actions we engage in with our body, speech and mind. So Buddhism very much stresses the importance of understanding the nature of the mind.

Q: How do we get rid of mental pollution?

Lama: By realizing how the mind is polluted; where the pollution comes from; that it has a deep root. If you know that, you can get rid of it; if you don’t, you can’t. therefore Lord Buddha always emphasized that understanding is the only path to liberation, that the only way to attain liberation is through understanding. And that goes for women’s liberation too!

Q: Lama, if everything is so simple and God is so perfect, why did he create all this?

Lama: Perhaps you yourself created the bad whose creation you ascribe to God; your own mind created your uncontrolled situation. God did not create all these bad things; they were created by the negative mind.

Q: How do I escape the cycle of death and rebirth?

Lama: By recognizing and then cutting what it is that causes you to cycle. Basically, if you’re free of emotional attachment there’s no cycle of death and rebirth. The short answer: cut attachment.

Q: In one life time?

Lama: Yes. Once you cut emotional attachment, the cause, there’s no reason to ever again have to experience an uncontrolled situation, the result.

Q: When I read Zen and other Eastern philosophies, they all seem to be saying the same thing.

Lama: Yes, if you examine the different religions more deeply with right understanding, you’ll find the same qualities, but if you just check them superficially you’re more likely to be judgmental: “This religion’s good; that one’s bad.” That’s a poor assessment. What you need to look at is what each religion’s purpose is—every religion has a purpose—and how that purpose can be realized in experience.

The question is, however, do followers of a given religion know how to put its ideas into action? This is often the problem. People might think a religion’s ideas are good but they don’t have the key of method; they don’t know how to put those ideas into experience.

Q: Then are you saying that your way putting ideas into action is better than the others?

Lama: No, I’m not saying that my way is the best and that the others are wrong. I’m saying that most of us lack that knowledge. For example, you might say, “I’m a Buddhist,” but if you check how much you understand your religion, how much you act in accordance with its principles, perhaps even though you say, “I’m a Buddhist,” you’re not.

I’m not talking about any specific person; I’m talking about all of us. So the most important thing is to know the method: how to bring lofty ideas down to the practical level, into our life.

Q: Do you have a future vision of society? Like, do you see in the future there being many separate countries and cultures, like we have now only more so, or do you see some kind of unity, with a breaking down of separation?

Lama: It all depends on time; things are always changing. Sometimes the world comes together, sometimes it splits apart. There’s no absolute separation; there’s no absolute linkage. It’s all relative and therefore always changing. Just look at how relationships between countries have changed during our lifetime. They’re always changing. That’s the nature of the relative political mind; that’s the way the world of conventionalities goes.

Q: Lama, do you have anything to say regarding the interpersonal problems married people face?

Lama: Yes, I certainly have something to say! The main thing is that the two married people don’t understand each other and this lack of understanding leads to poor communication and problems. Also, many times young people get married for very superficial and temporal reasons: “I like the way he looks, I like the way she looks, let’s get married.” There’s no examination of the other person’s inner personality or how life together will be. Because we can’t see another’s inner beauty we judge them by the way they appear; because we lack knowledge-wisdom we don’t understand our spouse’s essential inner qualities. Then, when the relative world moves on and things don’t work out as we planned, we easily disrespect our partner. Of course, most relationships and marriages are ego-based and it’s therefore no surprise that they often don’t work out.

It’s important, therefore, that a married couple bases their marriage on mental rather than physical communication and really tries sincerely to understand and help each other. A marriage based on superficialities will nearly always break down. Small things: the husband says, “Put this here,” his wife says, “No, I want it here,” and a huge fight ensues…over nothing! It’s so foolish. Put it here; put it there—what difference does it make? It’s so narrow-minded, yet we break up over these foolish things.

Q: You said at the beginning that God is an illusion. Do you feel that inner light or inner God is also an illusion?

Lama: Illusion? I didn’t say that God is an illusion. I said that the self-imagination of the “What I am” built up by your ego’s conceptualization has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of your true nature and when you realize that, you reach beyond thought. I did not say that God is a hallucination, nor can we.

Q: I said illusion.

Lama: We also cannot say that God is an illusion. What I’m trying to say is that the way we discern our internal and external worlds is wrong; we don’t ascertain them correctly, reasonably, in accordance with reality. Our judgments are only relative, based on hallucinations projected by our mind. I did not say that God is a hallucination or an illusion.

Q: So you feel that there is an inner light or an inner God within each individual?

Lama: I’m talking about reality. God, or inner nature, is reality. But we don’t see reality; we see only superficialities. We say, “This is that.” Check up, for example, what you feel you are. You’re going say, “I’m this, this, this, this.” If you really check up, what you describe has nothing whatsoever to do with your reality—it’s only something you’ve built up in your mind. That’s a hallucination.

Q: Is our real nature God?

Lama: Well, you can say that true human nature has God potential. If I had to say something I’d say the absolute reality or nature of the human mind is one with the nature of God. But we’re completely under the control of our relative, polluted mind, which never sees unity, only separation.

Q: What is music? How does music fit in?

Lama: Music is sound! But it depends on what you’re the music you play represents. If, for example, you present your music in a fantastic way and it explains reality and benefits others, it’s good. But if you play only for your own pleasure and your music simply serves to build your ego, then perhaps it will cause you problems. It depends on your mental attitude and the impression your music gives to others. So you can’t say that music is totally bad.

Q: Some people in our culture say that Jesus is God. How do you see Jesus Christ?

Lama: I see Jesus as a holy man. If you understand beyond words what he taught, fantastic. But we don’t even understand what he said literally. Even though holy Jesus told us that we should love everybody, we still choose one atom to love and hate the rest. That’s contrary to what he said. If you truly understand what Jesus taught, that’s very useful and especially helpful for mental sickness.

Q: Jesus also said, “I am the only way. Only through me can you reach God.”

Lama: He did say that and that’s also right. But you can’t interpret that to mean that only what he taught is correct and all other religions are wrong. It’s not like that. “Only way” means that the only way to reach inner freedom is through the reality he taught. That’s my interpretation, anyway. Jesus saying “Only my way” doesn’t mean he was propounding some dogmatic view. He was talking about absolute reality as being the only way to God. If you realize that, you can reach inner freedom; if you follow your hallucinated, polluted, wrong-conception mind, you can’t. That’s how I interpret Jesus’s words. I think that’s perfect. But many people interpret what he said very dogmatically and that’s just their polluted mind. That’s why we have to be careful when we think we understand religions’ views. Many times a religion’s view might be perfect but our limited mind thinks, “This mean this, that means that,” and all we do is bring it down to our mundane level.

Q: You said that Christ was a holy man; how do you compare him with Lord Buddha?

Lama: We don’t need compare them.

Q: Were they both holy men?

Lama: Yes, they were both holy men.

Q: Then why do you always say “Lord” Buddha?

Lama: I say Lord Buddha; I say Lord Jesus as well. They were both holy. They both realized the true nature of reality and tried to show it to us. The problem is that we find it difficult to understand.

Q: Is it attachment to try to plan and organize your life and the things in it versus just letting things happen in an unplanned or even chaotic way?

Lama: Attachment doesn’t have to be the only motivation with which you try to organize your life. You can organize your life with wisdom. How? You can organize your life with the aim of making it beneficial to others rather than for your own enjoyment. When your life is integrated and you’re a wise, knowledgeable person giving a beautiful, peaceful vibration to others, it’s so worthwhile. That’s not attachment. Buddhism says that it’s possible to use our life and things in the sense world without attachment, giving them a reasonable value and using them to benefit humankind. We have both method and wisdom. Eating ice-cream is not always out of attachment. You can use such worldly pleasures without attachment or confusion to discover inner joy.

Q: Eastern philosophy often talks about the healing aspects of spirituality but is it correct that, because of karma, we should never attempt to heal others with our mind?

Lama: Well, healing isn’t just in Eastern religion; Christianity talks about it too. It simply means using the power of the mind to heal disease. For example, say we’re healthy but suddenly get some terrible news that causes pain in our heart. That’s simply the sick mind manifesting physically, and powerful wisdom can cure that kind of illness in others. Tibetans often use the power of meditation to heal others; instead of always giving people pills we use psychic power.

Q: But doesn’t that interfere with the other person’s karma?

Lama: That’s not necessarily interrupting his karma. Karma isn’t fixed; it’s impermanent and a kind of energy, something that another kind of energy can cut and release. That doesn’t mean you’re destroying something.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about reincarnation?

Lama: Reincarnation is very simple; it’s mental energy. Your physical energy is exhausted at the time of death and the energy of your consciousness separates from your body and goes into another form, that’s all. That’s the simple explanation. Mental energy and physical energy are different. Modern science has some difficulty with this. They do explain some difference between mental and physical energy but Buddhism explains it more clearly.