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A teaching on the meditative practice of calm abiding (shi-nä)

Concentration is important in both Dharma practice and ordinary life. The Tibetan word for the practice of concentration is shi-nä (zhi-gNas). Shi means peace and means to dwell; shi-nä, then, is dwelling in peace or being without busyness.

If we do not carefully watch the mind it may seem that it is peaceful. However, when we really look inside we see that this is not so. Mind does not rest on the same object for even a single second. It flutters around like a banner flapping in the wind. No sooner does mind settle on one object than it is carried away by another. Even if we live in a cave on a high mountain the mind moves incessantly. When we are on the top of a tall city building we can look down and see how busy the city is, but when we are walking on the streets we are aware of only a fraction of the busyness. Similarly, if we do not investigate correctly we will never be aware of how busy the mind really is.

Primary consciousness itself is pure and stainless, but gathered around it are fifty-one secondary mental elements, some of which are positive, some negative and some neutral. Of these secondary elements, in ordinary beings, the negative ones are stronger than the positive. Most people never attempt to gain control of these secondary mental elements; if they did they would be amazed at how difficult such a task is. Because the negative elements have dominated the mind for countless lifetimes, overcoming them will require tremendous effort. Yet shi-nä cannot be experienced until they have been totally subdued.

Thus the busyness of the mind is mind-produced. This means that a mental rather than a physical effort is required to eliminate it. Nonetheless, when engaging in an intensive effort to develop shi-nä it is important to make use of certain secondary factors of a physical nature. For example, the place where one practises should be clean, quiet, close to nature and pleasing to the mind. And friends that visit should be peaceful and virtuous. One's body should be strong and free from disease.

The practice of concentration requires sitting in y proper posture, to which there are seven points:

  1. Legs crossed and feet resting on the thighs, with soles turned upward. If this causes too much pain, it distracts from concentration. In which case, sit with the left foot tucked under the right thigh and the right foot resting on the left thigh.
  2. The trunk set as straight and erect as possible.
  3. Arms formed into a bow-shape, with elbows neither resting against the sides of the body nor protruding outward. The right hand rests in the left palm, with the thumbs touching lightly to form an oval.
  4. The neck straight but slightly hooked, with the chin drawn in.
  5. Eyes focused downward at the same angle as the line of the nose.
  6. Mouth and lips relaxed, neither drooping nor shut tightly.
  7. Tongue lightly held against the palate.

These are the seven points of the correct meditational posture. Each is symbolic of a different stage of the path. Also, there is a practical purpose in each of the seven:

  1. Having the feet crossed keeps the body in a locked position. One may eventually sit for a long period of time in meditation, even weeks or months in a single sitting. With legs locked, one will not fall over.
  2. Holding the trunk straight allows maximum functioning of the channels carrying the vital energies throughout the body. The mind rides on these energy currents, so keeping the channels working well is very important to successful meditation.
  3. The position of the arms also contributes to the flow of the energy currents.
  4. The position of the neck keeps open the energy channels going to the head and prevents the neck from developing cramps.
  5. If the eyes are cast at too high an angle the mind easily becomes agitated, if at too low an angle the mind quickly becomes drowsy.
  6. The mouth and lips are held like this to stabilize the breath. If the mouth is held too tightly shut, breathing is obstructed whenever the nose congests. If the mouth is help open too widely, breathing becomes too strong, increasing the fire element and raising the blood pressure.
  7. Holding tongue against the palate avoids an excessive build-up of saliva and keeps the throat from parching. Also, insects will not be able to enter the mouth or throat.

These are only the most obvious reasons for the seven points of the meditational posture. The secondary reasons are far too numerous to be dealt with here. It should be noted that the nature of the energy currents of some people does not permit them to use this position and they must be given an alternative. But this is very rare.

Although merely sitting in the vajra posture produces a good frame of mind, this is not enough. The main work, that done by the mind, has not yet even begun. The way to remove a thief who has entered a room is to go inside the house and throw him out, not to sit outside and shout at him. If we sit on top of a mountain and our mind constantly wanders down to the village below, little is achieved.

Concentration has two enemies, mental agitation, or busyness, and mental torpor, or numbness.

Generally, agitation arises from desire. An attractive object appears in the mind and the mind leaves the object of meditation to follow it.

Torpor arises from subtle apathy developing within the mind.

In order to have firm concentration these two obstacles must be eliminated. A man needs a candle in order to see a painting which is on the wall of a dark room. If there is a draught of wind the candle will flicker too much for the man to be able to see properly and if the candle is too small its flame will be too weak. When the flame of the mind is not obstructed by the wind of mental agitation and not weakened by the smallness of torpor it can concentrate properly upon the picture of the meditation object.

In the early stages of the practice of concentration mental agitation is more of a hindrance than torpor. The mind is continually flying away from the object of concentration. This can be seen by trying to keep the mind fixed on the memory of a face. The image of the face is soon replaced by something else.

Halting this process is difficult, for we have built the habit of succumbing to it over a long period of time and are not accustomed to concentration. To take up the new and leave behind the old is always hard. Yet, because concentration is fundamental to all forms of higher meditation and to all higher mental activity, one should make the effort.

Mental agitation is overcome principally by the force of mindfulness and torpor by attentive application. In the diagram representing the development of shi-nä there is an elephant. The elephant symbolizes the meditator's mind. Once an elephant is tamed, he never refuses to obey his master and he becomes capable of many kinds of work. The same applies to the mind. Furthermore, a wild and untamed elephant is dangerous, often causing terrible destruction. Just so, the untamed mind can cause any of the sufferings of the six realms.

At the bottom of the diagram depicting the development of concentration the elephant is totally black. This is because at the primary stage of the development of shi-nä mental torpor pervades the mind.

In front of the elephant is a monkey representing mental agitation. A monkey cannot keep still for a moment but is always chattering and fiddling with something, being attracted to everything.

The monkey is leading the elephant. At this stage of practice mental agitation leads the mind everywhere.

Behind the elephant trails the meditator, who is trying to gain control of the mind. In one hand he holds a rope, symbolic of mindfulness, and in the other he holds a hook, symbolic of alertness.

At this level the meditator has no control whatsoever over his mind. The elephant follows the monkey without paying the slightest attention to the meditator. In the second stage the meditator has almost caught up with the elephant.

In the third stage the meditator throws the rope over the elephant's neck. The elephant looks back, symbolizing that here the mind can be somewhat restrained by the power of mindfulness. At this stage a rabbit appears on the elephant's back. This is the rabbit of subtle mental torpor, which previously was too fine to be recognized but which now is obvious to the meditator.

In these early stages we have to apply the force of mindfulness more than the force of mental attentive application for agitation must be eliminated before torpor can be dealt with.

In the fourth stage the elephant is far more obedient. Only rarely does he have to be given the rope of mindfulness.

In the fifth stage the monkey follows behind the elephant, who submissively follows the rope and hook of the meditator. Mental agitation no longer heavily disturbs the mind.

In the sixth stage the elephant and monkey both follow meekly behind the meditator. The meditator no longer needs even to look back at them. He no longer has to focus his attention in order to control the mind. The rabbit has now disappeared.

In the seventh stage the elephant is left to follow of its own accord. The meditator does not have to give it either the rope of mindfulness or the hook of attentive application. The monkey of agitation has completely left the scene. Agitation and torpor never again occur in gross forms and even subtly only occasionally.

In the eighth stage the elephant has turned completely white. He follows behind the man for the mind is now fully obedient. Nonetheless, some energy is still required in order to sustain concentration.

In the ninth stage the meditator sits in meditation and the elephant sleeps at his feet. The mind can now indulge in effortless concentration for long periods of time, even days, weeks or months.

These are the nine stages of the development of shi-nä. The tenth stage is the attainment of real shi-nä represented by the meditator calmly riding on the elephant's back.

Beyond this is an eleventh stage, in which the meditator is depicted as riding on the elephant, who is now walking in a different direction. The meditator holds a flaming sword. He has now entered into a new kind of meditation called vipasyana, or higher insight: (Tibetan: Lhag-mthong). This meditation is symbolized by his flaming sword, the sharp and penetrative implement that cuts through to realization of Voidness.

At various points in the diagram there is a fire. This fire represents the effort necessary to the practice of shi-nä. Each time the fire appears it is smaller than the previous time. Eventually it disappears. At each successive stage of development less energy is needed to sustain concentration and eventually no effort is required. The fire reappears at the eleventh stage, where the meditator has taken up meditation on voidness.

Also on the diagram are the images of food, cloth, musical instruments, perfume and a mirror. They symbolize the five sources of mental agitation, i.e. the five sensual objects: those of taste, touch, sound, smell and sight, respectively.

Most people take the mental image of a Buddha-form their object of concentration in order to develop shi-nä. First one must become thoroughly familiar with the object that one will focus on. This is done by sitting in front of a statue or drawing of the object for a few sessions and gazing at it. Then try sitting in meditation, holding the image of the form in mind without the aid of the statue or drawing. At first your visualization of it will not be very clear nor will you be able to hold if for more than a few seconds. Nonetheless, try to hold the image as clearly and for as long a period as possible. By persisting you will soon be able to retain the image for a minute, then two minutes and so forth. Each time the mind leaves the object apply mindfulness and bring it back. Meanwhile, continually maintain attentive application to see if unnoticed disturbances are arising.

Just as a man carrying a bowl full of water down a rough road has to keep one part of his mind on the water and another part on the road, in shi-nä practice one part of the mind must apply mindfulness to maintain steady concentration and another part must use attentive application to guard against disturbances. Later, when mental agitation has somewhat subsided, mindfulness will not have to be used very often. However, then the mind is fatigued from having fought agitation for so long and consequently torpor sets in.

Eventually, a stage comes when the meditator feels tremendous bliss and peace. This is actually only extremely subtle torpor but it is often mistakenly taken to be real shi-nä. With persistence, this too disappears. The mind gradually becomes more clear and fresh and the length of each meditation session correspondingly increases. At this point the body can be sustained entirely by the mind. One no longer craves food or drink. The meditator can now meditate for months without a break. Eventually he attains the ninth stage of shi-nä, at which level, the scriptures say, the meditator is not disturbed even if a wall collapses beside him. He continues to practice and feels a mental and physical pleasure totally beyond description, depicted in the diagram by a man flying. Here his body is inexhaustible and amazingly supple. His mind, deeply peaceful, can be turned to any object of meditation, just as a thin copper wire can be turned in any direction without breaking. The tenth stage of shi-nä—or actual shi-nä, is attained. When he meditates it is as though the mind and the object of meditation become one.

Now the meditator can look deeply into the nature of his object of meditation while holding all details of the object in his mind. This gives him extraordinary joy.

Here, looking into the nature of his object of meditation means that he examines it to see whether or not it is pure, whether or not it is permanent, what is its highest truth, etc. This is the meditation known as vipasyana, or higher insight. Through it the mind gains a deeper perception of the object than it could through concentration alone.

Merely having shi-nä gives tremendous spiritual satisfaction; but not going on to better things is like having built an aeroplane and then never flying it. Once concentration has been attained, the mind should he applied to higher practices. On the one hand it has to be used to overcome karma and mental distortion, and on the other hand to cultivate the qualities of a Buddha. In order to ultimately accomplish these goals, the object of meditation that it takes up must be voidness itself. Other forms of meditation are only to prepare the mind for approaching voidness. If you have a torch with the capacity to illuminate anything you should use it to find something important. The torch of shi-nä should be directed at realization of voidness for it is only a direct experience of voidness which pulls out the root of all suffering.

In the eleventh stage on the diagram two black lines flow out of the meditator's heart. One of these represents klesavarana, the obscurations of karma and mental distortion. The other represents jneyavarana, the obscurations of the instincts of mental distortion. The meditator holds the wisdom-sword of vipasyana meditation, with which he plans to sever these two lines.

Once a practitioner has come close to understanding voidness he is on his way to the perfection of wisdom. Prajna-paramita, the ultimate goal of the development of concentration.

Lama Thubten Yeshe clarifies dharma practice and the role of the mind, New Delhi, India, October 31, 1979.
This teaching was given at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, New Delhi, on October 31, 1979. First published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. Now appears in the 2005 LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.

Making Dharma practice effective

The antidote to delusion, ego and every other problem we face is the wisdom of Dharma; Dharma wisdom provides the deepest solution to every human problem. Whoever has problems needs Dharma; Dharma wisdom is the light that eliminates the dark shadow of ignorance, the main source of all human afflictions.

Dharma philosophy is not Dharma; doctrine is not Dharma; religious art is not Dharma. Dharma is not that statue of Lord Buddha on your altar. Dharma is the inner understanding of reality that leads us beyond the dark shadow of ignorance, beyond dissatisfaction.

It is not enough merely to accept Dharma as being true. We must also understand our individual reality, our specific needs and the purpose of Dharma as it relates to us as individuals. If we accept Dharma for reasons of custom or culture alone, it does not become properly effective for our minds. For example, it’s wrong for me to think, “I’m Tibetan, therefore, I’m a Mahayanist.” Perhaps I can talk about Mahayana philosophy, but being a Mahayanist, having Mahayana Dharma in my heart, is something else.

You may have been born in a Dharma country, in an environment where religion is accepted, but if you do not use that religion to gain an understanding of the reality of your own mind, there is little sense in being a believer. Dharma cannot solve your problems if you do not approach it pragmatically. You should seek Dharma knowledge in order to stop your problems, to make yourself spiritually healthy—in religious terms, to discover eternal happiness, peace and bliss.

We ourselves are responsible for discovering our own peace and liberation. We cannot say that some other power, like God, is responsible—if we do, we are weak and not taking responsibility for the actions of our own body, speech and mind. Buddhists understand that they are personally responsible for everything they do: it’s in their own hands whether their actions are positive or negative. Therefore, although we might find ourselves in a religious environment—in India, Tibet or even the West—becoming religious is something else.

External cultural aspects do not indicate the presence of Dharma. Dharma is that which leads us beyond delusion, beyond ego, beyond the usual human problems. If we use it for such purposes we can say, “I’m practicing Dharma,” but if we don’t, there’s little benefit in reciting even the most powerful mantras.

One of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings is to renounce samsara. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drink water when we’re thirsty. It means that we must understand samsara such that even when we’re caught in a samsaric situation, no karmic reaction ensues. The application of skillful method and wisdom is the real renunciation; as long as we have grasping and hatred in our mind, we have not renounced samsara.

You can change your clothes and shave your head, but when you ask yourself, “What have I really renounced?” you may find that your mind is exactly the same as it was before your external transformation—you have not stopped your problems.

That’s why we call samsara a cycle; cyclic existence. We do things—we change, change, change, change—we enjoy the novelty of every change, but actually, all we’re doing is creating more karma. Every time we do something, there’s a reaction that makes our bondage in cyclic existence even tighter than it was before. That’s samsara. To loosen this tightness we need the wisdom that illuminates the darkness of ignorance. It’s not enough to think, “I am Buddhist; Buddha will take care of me”; “I am Christian; God will take care of me.” Belief is not enough; we have to understand the reality of our own mind.

To this end, Lord Buddha taught many meditation techniques to wake us up from ignorance. First we have to understand our needs as individuals; according to Lord Buddha’s teachings each of us has different needs. Usually we ignore these and, without discriminating wisdom, just accept whatever comes along. As a result, we end up in a situation from which we cannot escape. That is samsara.

Understanding ourselves

Moreover, it is important for us to recognize that even if right now some of our habits and attitudes are wrong, it’s possible to change and transform them. Grasping at permanence makes us think that we’re unchanging. This negative thought pattern is very strong and prevents us from developing or acting in a Dharma way. To help us overcome our wrong conceptions, Lord Buddha taught the four noble truths. [See His Holiness the Dalai Lama's teaching on the four noble truths.] As the first characteristic of the noble truth of suffering, he taught impermanence.

It is very important to understand impermanence. When we understand the impermanent nature of things, their non-stop change, we give ourselves the time and space to accept whatever situation comes along. Then, even if we are in a suffering situation, we can take care of ourselves; we can look at it without getting upset. Otherwise, our upset or guilty mind prevents us from waking from confusion, from seeing our own clarity.

Clarity always exists within us. The nature of our consciousness is clear. It is merely a question of seeing it. If you always feel dirty, negative and hopeless, as if you’re somebody who could never possibly discover inner peace and liberation, you’re reacting to a deluded, negative mind, a fixed conception. You’re thinking beyond reality, beyond the nature of phenomena; you’re not in touch with reality. You have to eradicate such preconceived ideas before you can cultivate tranquility and peace, before your intelligence can touch reality.

Check up right now. Ask yourself, “What am I?” “Who am I?” Even on the relative plane, when you ask yourself this you find that you’re holding a permanent conception of your self of yesterday, the day before yesterday, last week, last month, last year…. This idea of the self is not correct. It’s a preconception that must be broken down and recognized as unreasonable. Then you can understand the possibility of ceaseless, infinite development and spiritual growth.

The beauty of being human is that you can continuously develop inner qualities such as peace, the energy of the enlightenment experience and bliss and eventually transcend your dualistic mind. When you come to understand this inner beauty, you’ll stop grasping at external objects, which can never bring eternal satisfaction. This is an important sign of spiritual progress. You cannot simultaneously be religious and grasp at material things; the two are incompatible.

We see people getting more and more confused and dissatisfied the more possessions they get until finally they commit suicide. Sometimes the poor don’t understand this; they think that materially wealthy people must be happy. They are not happy. They are dissatisfied, emotionally disturbed, confused and immersed in suffering. Suicide rates are much higher in affluent societies than in economically undeveloped ones. This is not Dharma philosophy—this is present-day reality, our twentieth century situation; it’s happening right now. I am not suggesting that you give up your material comfort; Lord Buddha never said that we have to give up our enjoyments. Rather, he taught that we should avoid confusing ourselves by grasping at worldly pleasures.

The underlying attitude that forces us to chase after unworthy objects is the delusion that causes us to think, “This object will give me satisfaction; without it life would be hopeless.” These preconceptions make us incapable of dealing with the new situations that inevitably arise from day to day. We expect things to happen in a certain way and when they don’t, we can’t cope with them properly. Instead of handling unexpected situations effectively we become tense, frustrated and psychologically disturbed.

Developing our Dharma experience

Most of us are emotionally unstable, sometimes up and sometimes down. When life is going well we put on a very religious aspect but when things go bad we lose it completely. This shows that we have no inner conviction, that our understanding of Dharma is very limited and fickle.

People say, “I’ve been practicing Dharma for years but I’ve still got all these problems. I don’t think Buddhism helps.” My question to them is, “Have you developed single-pointed concentration or penetrative insight?” That’s the problem. Simply saying, “Oh yes, I understand; I pray every day; I’m a good person” is not enough. Dharma is a total way of life. It’s not just for breakfast, Sundays, or the temple. If you’re subdued and controlled in the temple but aggressive and uncontrolled outside of it, your understanding of Dharma is neither continuous nor indestructible.

Are you satisfied with your present state of mind? Probably not, and that’s why you need meditation, why you need Dharma. Worldly possessions do not give you satisfaction; you can’t depend on transitory objects for your happiness.

When we refugees fled Tibet we left behind our beautiful environment and way of life. If my mind had been fixed in its belief that my happiness and pleasure depended solely upon being in the country of my birth, I could never have been happy in India. I would have thought, “There are no snow mountains here; I can’t be happy.” Mental attitude is the main problem; physical problems are secondary. Therefore, avoid grasping at material objects and seek instead an indestructible understanding of the ultimate nature of the mind.

Developing concentration and insight

Dharma practice does not depend on cultural conditions. Whether we travel by train, plane or automobile we can still practice Dharma. However, in order to completely destroy the root of the dualistic mind, a partial understanding of the reality of our own mind is not sufficient. Dharma practice requires continual, sustained effort; just a few flashes of understanding are not enough. To fully penetrate to the ultimate reality of our own mind, we have to develop single-pointed concentration. When we have done so, our understanding will be continuous and indestructible.

Lord Buddha’s teachings on single-pointed concentration are very important because they show us how to transcend worldly conceptions. However, single-pointed concentration alone is not enough. We have to combine it with penetrative insight. What’s the difference between the two? First we develop single-pointed concentration, which leads us beyond worldly emotional problems and gives us a degree of higher satisfaction. But a certain amount of darkness remains in our mind. In order to reach the depths of human consciousness we also have to cultivate penetrative insight, which is the only thing that can lead us totally beyond the dualistic view of all existence. From the Buddhist point of view, the dualistic way of thinking is the real conflict. Meditative concentration can bring us a certain degree of peace, but if the dualistic view remains, we still have conflict in our mind.

The object of insight meditation, the experience of emptiness, is realization of non-duality, where the flashing of sense objects and images disappears and we experience the total unity of absolute reality. There’s a difference between the experience of emptiness and its philosophy. Philosophically speaking, sense objects exist, sense pleasures exist, and there’s a relationship between the senses and the external world. But in the experience itself, there is no awareness of a duality, no perception of the sense world, and no sense of conflict to irritate the mind. Normally, whenever we perceive objects in the sense world, we see two things: we perceive the thing itself and immediately compare it with something else. Society is built on the dualistic mind. Eventually it comes down to, if my next door neighbor gets a car I’m going to want one, too. Two forces are at work, and one becomes the reason for the other.

From the Buddhist point of view, any information received through the five sense consciousnesses is always distorted by dualistic grasping. It’s like an optical illusion. It registers in our consciousness and we believe that what we’re seeing is true. Actually, it’s an unreal distortion and it gives birth to every other delusion.

Consequently, the Buddhist attitude towards data received through the five sense consciousnesses is one of mistrust. You cannot rely on the judgments of good and bad that come through your senses—they always give you a dualistic, distorted impression. You’re be better off going around with your eyes closed!

Anyway, always question and be critical of the information that comes in through your senses. That’s the way to eventually transcend ordinariness, karmically-created actions and the inevitable reactions of dissatisfaction.

Q. Are you saying that we are able to fully realize emptiness?
Lama. Definitely! How? By examining the nature of your own mind, repeatedly asking yourself, “What am I?” “Who am I?” Eventually, you’ll come to see the falseness of your instinctive ego-model and how it projects itself into your life, causing you to misinterpret every experience you have. When you discover this wrong view, you’re close to understanding emptiness. Until you discover how ego-grasping works within you, realization of emptiness is a long way off.

Q. What is the relationship between emptiness and consciousness?
Lama. Consciousness is not emptiness. But when you understand the nature of consciousness, the clarity of mind, you have an experience very similar to that of the perception of emptiness. Therefore, in the Tibetan tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, we emphasize contemplating your own consciousness as a preliminary leading to the experience of absolute emptiness.

Q. You spoke of sensory awareness disappearing in the experience of emptiness. How can we perceive the world without the five sense consciousnesses?
Lama. Well, there are both absolute and relative worlds. In the beginning, you meditate on the nature of the relative world and this then becomes the method by which the absolute is discovered. Look at the sense world but don’t be entranced by it. Be constantly analytical, always checking to see that your perception is clear and free from ego-based exaggeration. Relative reality is not the problem; the problem is that in your perception of things, you exaggerate and distort the various aspects of an object. Therefore, you must continually question your experience. You can’t simply say, “It’s right because I saw it and wrong because I didn’t.” You have to go deeper than that.

Q. When you put a question to your mind, to whom do you put the question?
Lama. When you question your own consciousness, you question your wrong conceptions, your belief in nonexistent entities. When you see a red glass, you recognize it as a red glass, but inside you raise doubts: “Maybe it’s red, maybe it’s white.” Whenever you question, answers come. Usually we just accept whatever happens without question. As a result, we’re deluded and polluted. To question is to seek, and the answer lies within you. We feel that our consciousness is small, but it is like a mighty ocean in which everything can be found. When I talk you may think, “Maybe this lama will give me some realization,” but there is no realization to give. To talk about Dharma is to throw switches here and there, hoping to wake people up. Belief in Buddha, Krishna or whomever is not enough; you must take responsibility for your own body, speech and mind. We all have a certain degree of wisdom; this must be cultivated. All religions use bells—Buddhism and Hinduism included. The bell symbolizes wisdom. At the moment, the bell of wisdom is lying unused within us. The ring of the ritual bell is a reminder: “Use your wisdom!”

Q. Admittedly we should not be overly passive in our responsibilities, but sometimes taking karmic responsibility seems to heighten our sense of ego. There seems to be a choice between responsibility and outward energy as opposed to passive, inner wisdom.
Lama. Intellectually, we understand that there are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is positive. Buddha is OK; Dharma is OK; Sangha is OK. But what is Buddha to me? When I totally develop myself, I become buddha; that is my buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha is his buddha, not mine. He’s gone. My total awakening is my buddha. How do you awaken to your own buddha? The first step is simply to be aware of the actions of your body, speech and mind. Of course, you should not be egotistical about it, thinking, “Buddha and Dharma are OK, but I don’t care about them—I am responsible.” And also you should not have pride: “I am a meditator.” The whole point is to eradicate the ego—don’t worry about whether you are a meditator or not. Just put your mind in the right channel, don’t intellectualize, and let go. Your question is very good: we have to know how to deal with that mind. Thank you.

Q. You said that suicide rates are higher in the West than in the East. But it is also true that death from starvation is commoner in the East than in the West. It seems to be instinctive for the Easterner to renounce whereas materialism appears to be natural for Westerners. So may I suggest, skeptically, that renunciation has led the East to poverty while materialism has brought the West to affluence?
Lama. That’s also a very good question. But remember what I said before: renouncing this glass does not mean throwing it away, breaking it or giving it to somebody else. You can eat your rice and dhal with a renounced mind. It’s very important for you to know that.

It’s true that most Eastern people are culturally influenced by their religious tenets. For example, even when we are three or four years old, we accept the law of karma. Then again, most Eastern people also misunderstand karma. Somebody thinks, “Oh, I’m a poor person, my father is a sweeper—I too have to be a sweeper.” “Why?” “Because it’s my karma—it has to be that way.”

This is a total misconception and has nothing to do with the teachings of either Hinduism or Buddhism; it’s a fixed idea totally opposite to the nature of reality. We should understand, “I’m a human being—my nature is impermanent. Maybe I’m unhappy now, but I’m changeable—I can develop within myself the mind of eternal peace and joy.” This is the attitude we should have.

The incredible changes we see in the world today come from the human mind, not from the world itself; the affluence of the materialistic West comes from the Western mind. If we Easterners want our standard of living to equal that of the West, we can do it. At the same time, however, we can have renunciation of samsara.

In order to develop renunciation, you have to understand the actual value of material goods and their relationship to happiness. Most Westerners grossly exaggerate the value of material things. They are bombarded with advertisements: “This [object] gives you satisfaction”; “That gives you satisfaction”; “The other gives you satisfaction.” So they become psychologically convinced, “I must buy this, I must buy that, otherwise I won’t be happy.” This conviction leads them to the extreme of materialism—and ultimately to suicide. Similarly, Easterners misconceive the teachings of religion and fall into the extreme of passivity, laziness and apathy: “Karma—it’s my karma.”

Q. What is the difference between moksha and nirvana?
Lama. There are several levels of moksha, or liberation. One of these is nirvana, which is beyond ego and is endowed with everlasting peace and bliss. Higher than nirvana is enlightenment, which is sometimes called the “great nirvana” and is the fruition of bodhicitta, the determination to reach enlightenment for the sole purpose of enlightening all the infinite sentient beings. You can lose interest in samsara, undergo spiritual training and attain nirvana, but you have yet to develop bodhicitta and realize full enlightenment.

Q. You spoke about non-duality. Do love and hate still exist in that state?
Lama. The experience of non-duality itself is in the nature of love. The emotional tone of love is lower during meditative absorption on non-duality but its nature is essentially present. Most people’s love is biased and dualistic. Love characterized by non-duality feels no partiality. The lam-rim teaches us to meditate on how every single sentient being—including animals, birds, fish and insects—has repeatedly been a mother to us in our infinite previous lives. Moreover, without exception, they all want happiness and seek to avoid suffering. If we meditate and expand our objects of knowledge, we’ll come to know the nature of other beings and our love will become vast.

Q. Nirvana seems to be a duality because it implies non-nirvana.
Lama. Linguistically, this is true. If we label something “nirvana,” we create an entrance for the label “non-nirvana.” But in the minds of those perceiving non-duality, there are no labels. They just experience nirvana and let themselves go into it.

Q. I always visualize nirvana as the LSD experience.
Lama. Then I guess there’s not much nirvana, here in the East.