Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
It’s the first time I meditate. Could you please explain some techniques or give us some instructions?
There are certainly many veteran meditators present here, but even for them, it won’t hurt to be reminded.
As a background, there are many different kinds of meditation in the Theravada, Mahayana as well as Vajrayana schools, but all of them can be categorized into two types:
1. the Shamatha meditation, which is about making our mind calm and clear, getting a greater control on our mind, making it more manoeuvrable, and developing a greater peace of mind, more clarity, stability and joy;
2. the Vipassyana meditation, which is about getting insight into the nature of our mind and, thereby, into the nature of all phenomena, all things. This corresponds to wisdom.
When we begin to meditate, the starting point is the shamatha meditation.
The main technique of the shamatha meditation is illustrated by the following story. One day, the Buddha was sitting with his students and he sent one of them to fetch water in the nearby Ganges. When he came back with the pot of water, the Buddha asked his students: “Is this water clear?” The students looked and answered: “No”, because the water was all muddy, full of impurities, specks of dust, sand, etc. The Buddha then instructed his student to put the jug of water in a corner. “Put it there, just leave it as it is and don’t touch it!” Then he went on telling stories, jataka1 stories, for some time. After two or three hours, the Buddha asked a student: “Take a look at the water. Is it still muddy?” “No, it is clear now, all the dust and impurities have fallen down at the bottom.” “Well, said the Buddha, this is what you should do with your mind.”
Our minds are very mixed up, full of so many thoughts, emotions and all kinds of things. We should try to let it cool down, just relax and get to a more natural state, more peaceful, more tranquil. The main technique of the shamatha meditation is therefore to learn how to relax physically and mentally. Our body and mind are very much related. If the one is not relaxed, the other can’t be either. If our body is tense, our mind cannot be relaxed and peaceful. So the first thing is to relax our body.
In Buddhism, we always introduce meditation by talking about the ‘three solitudes’ of body, speech and mind.
1. The solitude of the body means that we should try to find a quiet place to meditate, a place where there are not too many things going on, not too many sources of distraction, a nice place where we feel comfortable, not too hot, not too cold, with no too bright colours, not too many noises, etc. In Buddhist meditation, great emphasis is also given to the sitting posture. First of all, let’s stress that your sitting posture should feel comfortable to you. If sitting cross-legged is too painful for you, you can sit in a chair also, as long as you keep your back straight. Meditation is about relaxing, you can’t relax if your posture is too uncomfortable. However, it is important to sit straight. As body and mind are interdependent, the posture of the body affects the mind and if you lean to the right or to the left, forward or backward, it will have an influence on your state of mind in many ways. You should sit with the chest wide open. As to the head – the head is very heavy, so you should be careful to place it so that there is not too much stress in the neck. It should be well balanced so that the weight is evenly distributed. Actually, the right posture is the Buddha’s posture. The Buddha images are of course a source of inspiration but not only. One of the main reasons why the Buddha is represented in paintings and sculpture is to show us how we should sit in meditation.
2. The solitude of the speech means we should not talk to ourselves or to others, not have all kinds of thoughts and discussions in our head but keep our speech quiet.
3. The solitude of the mind means we should let our thoughts relax. This is not to say that we should have no thoughts, no emotions or no reactions at all. This is impossible anyway. We should keep all senses open but relax and try not to be distracted by thoughts, feelings or emotions. When they come, we acknowledge their presence but we don’t follow them. If we are sitting here but suddenly our mind is no longer here but chasing girls in Brussels or anything, that means we are distracted, we have hooked on a thought and followed it. We should be aware of these thoughts and emotions arising but without holding on to them. There is a sound, we hear the sound but we don’t follow it. We think of something, we are aware of that thought, but we don’t follow it. We let it come and relax. Relaxing is not fighting for or against anything, not running away or after anything. We let things come and we let them go. That’s the starting point.
But our mind is used to be very active and so it is easily distracted. We sit and try to relax, but then our mind goes in all directions, sometimes even without our realizing it. Distraction is one of the two main obstacles to meditation. Therefore, we have to find a way to bring the mind back. To start with, we have to choose a certain point as a reference to bring our mind back to it. We focus on it without too much concentration, just lightly focused, without too much tension. This reference point can be anything: any object, like a flower, a painting, a flame or anything, an imaginary object like a letter, a ball of light or colour, any visualisation. It can be an object that is for us a source of inspiration and faith. It can be our breathing – which is very popular because our breathing is always with us. If we don’t breathe for some time then… we are dead!
The object itself doesn’t matter. What matters is how we focus on it. We have to balance the concentration and the relaxation. We can also change our focus from one object to another. For instance, if we focus on our breathing, we should be slightly aware that we’re breathing in and out, very relaxed, without tension. We should be aware enough so that our mind is not going everywhere, but not too concentrated so that we get stressed.
If we can do that, then everything can come through our senses but we won’t be disturbed by what happens around us. That’s the meditation.
And then, of course, we’ll often get distracted, but we don’t have to feel unhappy or frustrated about it. When we find out that we are distracted, no need to worry, no need to feel guilty or to fight – OK, we had a nice moment of distraction – but we’re not here to daydream, so we just remember the point of reference we focus on and bring back the awareness.
The second main obstacle to meditation is drowsiness. Our mind is so busy that whenever we let it relax a little, it falls into drowsiness. There’s nothing wrong with sleep, it’s even very nice, but it is not meditation. So we have to keep ourselves awake. We can do this by different means: look upward, look toward a source of light, make ourselves more alert, even stretch our arms and legs or stand up and do some walking meditation. When the room is too hot, or when we wear warm clothes, we are easily sleepy, so we can turn down the temperature a little or take off some clothes. We can also avoid eating too much before we meditate, as a full stomach also makes us sleepy. We can sprinkle some fresh water on our faces or make breaks. If our meditation is too short, we won’t even be able to relax, but if it is too long, we will get tired. It’s very good, especially as beginners, to regularly interrupt our meditation by short breaks. We don’t need to stand up and do something else, which would disturb whatever peace of mind we might have gained, but we can stretch our arms, legs and neck. In the past, everybody was doing lots of physical work but nowadays, we are sitting too much. We work with our mind – and sometimes a little with our fingers – so it’s very good, very much advised, to do some regular physical exercise, some stretching. In the traditional way, we would do prostrations.
The purpose of meditation is to have a calm and clear mind. So therefore, the main thing we have to do is to learn how we can ‘be’, without being disturbed, without our mind being carried away. We sit in meditation and we relax, then a sound comes. OK, we hear the sound and let it be. But sometimes, it is a more continuous sound, like people talking. We should not let that sound disturb us, not start thinking, “Oh, why are these people talking all the time? This is annoying. I can’t meditate because of them. This is terrible!” – and so on. No, we let it come, we hear it, but don’t hook on, we focus on our meditation and don’t let the noise disturb us. We let it come and let it go. And we do the same with our thoughts and emotions, be it worries, fears or desires. We just let it be.
We can assess the results of our meditation by how much we can do that, how much we can let external disturbances come without being overpowered by them, without fighting against them.
In the teaching you gave yesterday2, you said that our mind creates our reality. Do we have to consider that mind actually creates the outer phenomena, or is it creating our subjective relationship to an external reality, which is of course quite different?
Even within Buddhism, there are different ways of describing this. One school, the Cittamatrins (and within that school there are also different approaches according to different sub-schools) say that reality is created by the mind. But I find it easier to understand in that way. What is reality for me? It’s the way I experience, see and feel things. The way my mind functions has a strong influence on my experience. This is very much the basic Buddhist philosophy: everything is arising in dependence, as we talked about interdependent origination in the course of last week. This actually means that there is no sustainable material basis which is totally real and independent. Everything in the universe arises interdependently, so therefore the entire universe is made almost of nothing! This has of course to be explained, but it is long and difficult. What we have to understand is that there is not one thing here totally existing and then one thing there totally existing, and then they ‘depend’ on each other (Rinpoche makes a gesture, his two fingers leaning on or supporting each other). That’s not interdependence. Interdependence means that things totally depend on each other for their existence: if one is not there, the other cannot be there either. We can illustrate this with the notions of right and left. We say ‘right’ in reference to ‘left’ and vice-versa. Right only exists in relation to left. Without right, there’s no left and without left, there’s no right. This is true of everything. All phenomena exist in this way.
Therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, if we look more deeply into the matter, there is not one thing that is totally independently existing. If things were independent, they would not be affected by one another, they would not react with each other, they would not change. But this chemistry exists, so things are interdependent.
The nature of reality is a little bit like magic, like a miracle: things are very much there, they seem very solid, but at the same time they are illusory, they constantly change, appear and disappear.
Our mind is also like that. The way I feel is not based on a completely true reality out there that I would see or not, but it’s an interdependent product. For instance, when we see something, our visual consciousness depends on our eyes and on the object. If we are blind, we won’t be able to see. Our visual experience also depends on whether our eyes function properly or not. Some people have eye problems and see things in a distorted way, or cannot see colours. Some can’t see certain colours, some see everything in shades of grey. I even know someone who sees colours everywhere. He has no need of wallpaper or painting walls. Even if the walls are just white, he will see them full of colours. The eye consciousness, vision, arises as an interdependent product. It does not totally depend on the eye or on the object or on the consciousness, it’s a little of all that together. And then the mind consciousness is yet another thing. So the visual impression reflects on my mind and when I say “I see”, or “This is a nice thing I see”, it completely happens within my mind. For instance, if I say, “I see a nice flower”, do I only see the flower? And do I really see a flower? There are many other things in the room : the carpet, the table, many statues, but I select only the flower although my eyes see all the other things in the room. And then did I really see a ‘flower’? I saw petals, green and yellow, but where is the ‘flower’? It’s only a name I give to many different things that happen to come together. It’s a concept for a compounded thing. My mind created a certain reality.
It’s like when we say, “I walk in a forest”. There’s no forest, there are only trees. We give the name ‘forest’ to many trees. The same is true for ‘Brussels’. When I say, “I’ve seen Brussels”, maybe I saw some streets, many houses, but did I see ‘Brussels’? Brussels is just a concept, but we can’t find Brussels anywhere: there are only streets and houses.
The way I experience things is only how I, myself, experience things. This we should well understand. The same situation can be experienced differently by different persons.
You were just talking about colours. We say ‘these flowers are yellow’, but how can we be sure that we all see them as yellow, that we all agree about what is yellow and that we see that colour in the same way?
Colours are also an interdependent thing. When are the right causes and conditions are present, we see this as yellow, and we all see it the same, except if we have some eye defect. Some people can’t see yellow or are colour-blind, so they don’t know what that colour is. But then how we feel about a certain colour is a very personal and subjective thing: some people like yellow because it is bright and luminous but some people just can’t stand it.
I understand that we all have our own vision of things, our personal experience, but we can’t deny that there is a collective experience, a consensus on reality around us that allows each of us to know what we are talking about when we say ‘Brussels’, to find our way in the city and to communicate. I find this a little strange. Could you explain how this is possible?
In Buddhism, we call this ‘collective karma’. We sit here together, can see each other, understand each other and see our environment in the same way because we all have a similar karma. Of course, each individual situation, each subjective experience is different because we all have our individual karma, but as human beings living in a particular environment, we share a collective karma. Otherwise we would not be able to communicate with each other.
If this is the case, don’t you feel the need to posit the existence of some superior intelligence who has induced this collective karma?
From the Buddhist point of view, we are not talking about one thing that is given to everybody. Karma is not something given by anybody else, it’s the way we, ourselves, develop. Karma is the product of our own actions of body, speech and mind. It is our views, our attitudes, our habitual tendencies. If a group of beings do similar things, develop in a similar way, reach a similar level of development, then they share a ‘collective karma’. It’s not that something or someone out there gives it to them. In the Buddhist approach, there is no need of a separate ‘intelligence’ that controls everything. It is based on our own intelligence, through which we function, and the play of interdependence. These together create new things. But then, karma being an interdependent thing, it is just as unreal as the rest. This we shouldn’t forget.
You were saying that when we see colours, we all see them the same, but I noticed that Asian people can distinguish between many different shades of black hair, whereas they make no distinction between blond, light brown, dark brown colours of European hair.
It’s true that I never remember someone by the colour of his/her hair. Sometimes people tell me, “You know, that person, with this or that colour of hair…”, and I don’t know who it is because I never pay attention to someone’s hair colour. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see it. It’s true that maybe we don’t have a name for all the different shades of colours that you Europeans have, because in Asia we are all black-haired and so hair colour is not that important.
I think this is similar to language. We only pay attention to what is significant as distinctive features in our own environment, culture or language. When a child is born, he has the capacity to learn and speak any language. But if he only learns one language and grows up in an environment where only that language is used, he will only pay attention to the sounds, the distinctive phonemes used in that particular language. After a while, his ears will be so trained in this way that he will lose the capacity to hear sounds that may be significant in other languages but not in his/her own.
This is true. There are words in French I can’t pronounce because I don’t hear the difference. You say, “no, it’s like this”, but I can’t hear the difference. And then, for you, it’s very difficult to pronounce Tibetan. If I say “Ka, Kha, Ga”, for me it’s very different, but you hear it all the same!
We see reality in a different way because of the relationship between our body and mind, I think. People who are ‘only in the mind’ see it in a dual way as out there. But the more we go into the body, the more we feel our body, then we can reach higher levels of experience, as is stated in Dzogchen. Can we say this, and that it is all about the way we are in relation with ourselves and open our heart? (Ndt. this question was very long and not very clear, this is a simplified summary.)
It’s true that there are different ways of seeing reality at different levels of meditation and meditative experience, but I’m not sure that it is stated that this is “because of the relationship of body and mind”. It is true that it is possible to gain a deeper, higher level of seeing reality by using certain mental and physical techniques, but not in the way you present things.
I mean, nowadays, many people are ‘only in the mind’. They are not connected to what they feel, their emotions, what goes on deep down, and so they are not grounded. (Ndt: idem)
Yes, but from a Buddhist point of view, all this is part of the mind. What you refer to as ‘mind’ is only one part of the mind for Buddhists, namely the intellect. In a Buddhist perspective, the body is bones, flesh and blood. Feelings and emotions, even sensations, are part of the mind. In Buddhism, mind is considered as the ‘king’ and given more importance than the body which is seen as the ‘servant’. The body moves and acts by following the orders of the mind. If the mind is happy, the body is usually well, whereas if the mind is disturbed, the body is uncomfortable and can even fall sick. Yogis who are highly trained can even transform their body in many ways: some can leave their body and do many things, fly in the air, pass through rocks, etc… The more control we have on our mind, the more control we have on our body.
We live here as Buddhists in a non-buddhist society and environment. When somebody dies here, the body is immediately moved and refrigerated. What can we do as Buddhists for relatives or friends who die? Of course, there’s not much we can do at a physical level, but what is the best way? Develop positive thoughts? Pray?
From a Buddhist point of view, after one is dead, the dead body is not too important. The body is made of the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire. When one dies, the body goes back to these four elements and it doesn’t matter in which element it is dissolved. Personally, I wouldn’t mind what is done with my body after I’m dead: you can throw it in the sea, burn it, bury it or give it to the birds and wild animals to eat. I think you shouldn’t bother too much about that.
From the Buddhist point of view, the main thing is the mind, the consciousness – you can call it ‘soul’ if you wish. That’s what we should concern ourselves about. Of course, it is mainly the person who is dying who has to go through the process of death. But there can be outer help. At any time, whether during life or in death, help is always possible. How effective this help is depends on ourselves.
In the Tibetan tradition, we have the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol or Liberation in the bardo through hearing) that is read to the dying person or beside the dead body. This is a book of instructions to the dead. It describes the different stages of the bardo. It says, after you die, this experience will happen, don’t be afraid, there’s nothing to fear, recognize what happens, see it in this way and you can be liberated at this stage. But if you miss this opportunity of liberation, then you will go to the next, which is like this, don’t be afraid, …and so on, describing all the stages until the next rebirth. So this is read, silently or aloud, near the dead body or not, while the body is still there and after its disposal. It’s not absolutely necessary to be close to the dead. You can do this even if you are far away, by thinking of the dead person. You can also say prayers and do practices for the dead. There is not one specific practice for the dead, you can do any practice that you are familiar with. You can also ask other people to do practices and say prayers, like monks and lamas, the higher, the more, the best! That’s how Tibetans do: they ask all the lamas they know, from the higher to the smallest. For instance, when my aunt died, I sent letters and donations to the Dalai Lama, to Karmapa and downwards to all the lamas I know, in all the monasteries all over the world, the whole sangha. Because you never know who is who. Sometimes low-rank lamas or yogis can do more than renowned lamas of high rank. This story is told in Tibet. There was a retreatant in a cave, in a remote place. Through his meditation, he had developed a very clear mind and could see what was going on in other people’s minds. A family settled in the valley below and after a while, the grand father died. They went to fetch a high lama who came with many monks, riding on a horse with a golden saddle and in great magnificence. Instead of concentrating on the rituals and prayers, this high lama was thinking: “This family is quite rich, I wonder what they will give me as a reward when it’s finished.” So he couldn’t do anything for the dead, who was very unhappy about this. This high lama was given a beautiful horse. His attendant was a young monk who was feeling real compassion for the dead and prayed with great sincerity. His sincere prayers helped the dead a little. The family gave him a sheep. A yogi happened to come by and the family asked him to say some prayers too. He was a very realized yogi who did the phowa for the dead and sent his consciousness to Dewachen. The family only gave him a bowl of yoghurt. The retreatant in his cave was aware of all this and sang, laughing, “To the greedy lama, they offer a horse. To the compassionate monk, they offer a sheep. To the liberated yogi, they offer a bowl of yoghurt!” You never know who is who.
So that’s the Tibetan way.
But rituals are not very important. You can do rituals if you have enough time and space, but most important are prayers and dedications.
Sometimes it is said that the dead body should not be touched or moved, but this only concerns people who have a high spiritual level and who can go into meditation, into samadhi, at the moment of death. They shouldn’t be disturbed because, in a way, they are not yet dead, they are in meditation. A friend of mine suddenly died some time before Losar. We prepared everything to organize his funerals four days after his death, but after three days, there was still some warmth in the heart region and his skin was still supple. So we had to cancel and postpone his funerals. Only after seven days did the liquids come out and he was really dead. He had come out of samadhi. But for most of us, when we die, we’re dead, so we shouldn’t bother too much.
We can do a lot of things for the dead. We can make it very elaborate or very simple. The main thing is to pray, ask other people to pray, and then be careful to have only positive thoughts. We should be very careful as to how we behave and how we think about someone who just died. We can’t see it, but the dead person’s consciousness is often very present and very much aware of what’s going on, of what we do and what we think. If we run to take the dead person’s belongings and start fighting about who will get what, or say and think negative things about the dead, this will make him/her very unhappy and frustrated, which may have a very negative effect. We should be particularly careful not to do, say or think anything that might disturb the consciousness of the dead.
When Buddhists talk about reincarnation, I thought it is the same person taking a new life, but I’ve been told that this is not how Buddhists understand it, that it is a Western approach. Could you please explain the Buddhist view of reincarnation?
It is all based on the concept of self. In Buddhism, what we call ‘self’ is not one independent thing. And this is not only how we see the self but how we see everything. Nothing is one independent entity. Everything is interdependent and changes all the time. So this moment of me creates the next moment of me. It is not only true when we die: even in this life, we are not a stable, unchanging thing. We were first babies, then children, young adults, grown-ups and finally we grow old and die. Each moment of our life, we are different. It is the same process when we die. We are a continuum. Life, change and death are a continuing process. I am what I am now because of what I was yesterday and the days and years before. And what I will be tomorrow is the continuum of what I am now. It’s at the same time never exactly the same, nor completely different. Our next life takes place in this continuing process and what we will be in this next life will not be the same as what we are now, but it will not be totally different. It will be you, in a way, but not exactly.
In the Abhidharmakosha, five examples are given to illustrate this:
1) the milk and the yoghurt: the milk turns into yoghurt in certain circumstances. There would be no yoghurt without the milk, but once the yoghurt is there, there is no more milk and the yoghurt is not the milk;
2) the seal and the paper: the seal leaves its mark on the paper, there would be no mark without the seal but the one is not the other;
3) the flame of a candle: when a candle burns, is the flame at the beginning the same as the one that still burns when the candle is almost completely melted? And when one lights another candle with that flame, is that second flame same or different from the initial flame?
4) a face reflected in a mirror: the reflection in the mirror would not appear if we were not standing in front of the mirror. Our face did not go into the mirror, yet it is identical to our face, although it is not our face.
(Ndt: Rinpoche did not give the 5th example initially mentioned.)
Could we then say that our next life is a reflection of what we are now?
In Buddhism, we don’t talk about a reflection but about a continuum. What we are is changing all the time but in a continuum. This moment causes the next, and so on. The succession of our lives is not like one and the same thread passing through all the beads of our different lives like a rosary. From a Buddhist point of view, there’s no thread, one bead gives rise to the next – although sometimes the example of the rosary is given as a first approach to explain reincarnation, but it is only a provisory explanation.
The Christians pray to God in order to be united to this absolute principle of a stable reality. I understand that Buddhists pray as well, but what is the prayer in the Buddhist context? Do you also pray to someone or something?
Oh, yes, in the Buddhist context, we pray a lot. There are many, many prayers. Sometimes we pray day and night for weeks on end. Of course, it’s not only prayers but prayers and meditation together. We pray ‘for’ and we pray ‘to’. Buddhists also pray ‘to’, to all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and there’s nothing exclusive in that, it includes all the beings who have some wisdom and realization throughout time and space. We pray to them in the sense of getting inspiration through their example. Of course, we also ask for their blessings and help, but maybe more in the sense that we try to connect with them and realize the absolute as they did, become one with the Buddhas. For instance, when we take refuge, we make a decision to ‘connect’ – although we don’t use this word. We make a decision to rediscover, to realize or awaken the buddhahood within us. This buddhahood is our basic nature. The basic nature of everybody is pure. You can call it ‘God’ in Christian terms if you wish. It is this pure potential within ourselves that we want to realize, to ‘connect with’, and when that happens, all our ignorance, all the confusion, is cleared and we are liberated from the samsaric state of mind.
Buddhists don’t only pray ‘to’, they mainly pray ‘for’. They pray, “May all sentient beings be happy, may they have the highest form of happiness, may they be free of all sufferings, may they realize buddhahood and until then, may they have all they wish for, etc.” Buddhist prayers are mainly for the benefit of all sentient beings. Very seldom do we pray just for ourselves. And even when we pray for ourselves or some person in particular - like a relative or friend who is sick - first we pray for the wellbeing and health of all sentient beings and then only for that person in particular.
But from the Buddhist point of view, just praying is not enough. Prayers have to be supported by deeds. If we do something negative and then pray, it may have the opposite result. The prayer has to be supported by positive deeds. It can be loving, compassionate thoughts or words, or actually helping somebody, feeding animals, doing welfare activities, or paying homage and praising the enlightened beings. The more we do positive things the better.
Someone I know died a few years ago, I would like to help that person but I don’t know where he is now, who he is. I still remember him as he was when I knew him. How can I direct my prayers to him then?
What we usually do as Buddhists is dedicate. We do something positive, whatever, and then we dedicate the positive result of that positive deed we have just done, together with the positive results of all we have done in the past and all the positive deeds we’ll do in the future. When somebody dies, usually we do positive practices and deeds and then we dedicate the merits in that way for all beings and for that person in particular. If the consciousness of this person is still in the bardo, maybe we can help more because his consciousness is more in contact with what we are doing. But even if he has already reincarnated, still we can help a little. Even Milarepa said that it was possible to help others through our practice. Milarepa used to go in very high mountains to meditate. He only wore a cotton cloth but he was never cold because he had mastered the tummo (inner heat) technique. Once he was trapped in a cave by very heavy snowfalls for a whole winter. His disciples were sure he had died because, even if he didn’t fear the cold, he had not enough to eat for so many months. When spring came and the snow melted, they went in the mountain to bring back his dead body. They were very surprised to find Milarepa alive and well. He asked them what they had done at such and such a period and his disciples told him that they had performed tsog (offering ritual) for him, thinking that he was dead. “Well”, said Milarepa, “before, I had doubts as to the efficiency of such offering ceremonies, but now I know it really works because these were the times when I felt particularly well and satisfied!”
The theme of this weekend was ‘Meditation at every instant’, and although these questions and answers are very interesting, I came here for a weekend of meditation retreat. So it would be very nice if you could maybe explain us how we could integrate meditation in our everyday life.
Oh! Was this the subject? I was not informed of this. Usually there is no specific theme for these weekends and I think this is also good because we then have the time to discuss questions that are really close to your heart and you don’t have to listen to things that you don’t want to hear. But this is a very good subject.
As I may have mentioned earlier, meditation is a training on how to live our lives, how to deal with our daily lives. Meditation should not and cannot be separated from life. Nevertheless, it is important to have some training in meditation, otherwise it will be difficult to apply it in our everyday life. This is why we should take the time to sit and meditate regularly and do short or longer retreats from time to time. But we should not forget that the main objective of this training is to be able to use our progress in meditation in our daily life.
The first purpose of meditating is to reduce our sufferings, pains and problems as much as possible, and simultaneously increase our joy and happiness, learn how to react in a more positive way. Buddhism is not only about doing meditation, it’s about three things: View, Meditation and Action.
1. The View is the attitude we have, the way we view things, the way we understand them. This is more or less the Buddhist philosophy, and this is very important because how we react to things (with anger, fear, pleasure, etc…) depends very much on how we approach things. The view means that we try to analyze how we see things, whether it is contradictory to the facts or not, whether there are discrepancies between our understanding and reactions and the actual facts. We proceed to a thorough analysis, we examine things deeply.
2. Once we have the right view, the right understanding, it will be the guide for our Actions. We know how we should use our body, speech and mind in order to benefit ourselves and others and avoid doing what might be harmful to ourselves and to others. However, when we try to act in this way, we encounter problems. We have all experienced this: we know very well that we shouldn’t do or say something, but still we do it! Or we know perfectly what we should do and are incapable of doing it. That’s because of our lack of awareness and our habitual tendencies.
3. That’s where the Meditation comes in. We have to develop the capacity to be vigilant and act according to what we understand is right. In order to do that, we need the meditation so as to get free from the habits and tendencies that overpower us. We have to work on our mind so as not to be the slaves of our habits, patterns and emotions. That’s the meditation. Meditation teaches us how not to react with anger or attachment when anything happens, how not to get upset, sad, depressed or overexcited. We learn how not to be disturbed by what happens around us. Meditation is a practical learning process. It’s not intellectual. It’s experiential. We learn at an experiential level how not to let emotions and events take over us, how to let them come and let them go.
As I explained earlier, there are two types of meditation, shamatha and vipassyana, and I didn’t go through vipassyana so far because, before we start with vipassyana, we have to stabilize our mind. For both types of meditation, it is important to learn how not to let things disturb us, whether they are emotions within our mind or outer circumstances, not to be put down by what happens. And we should use this capacity in our daily life. The first thing we learn when we start meditating is to relax. Relaxation is very important because it makes our mind more spacious. It gives us enough space to let things come and go, it places them in a broader perspective. We no longer feel restricted, narrow and limited as if caught in a dead-end. Space gives us more freedom. When somebody says or does something nasty, we relax and don’t react with a nasty remark or gesture. When we relax, our mind is cleared, we don’t panic and therefore we are more efficient to deal with our problems. So it’s not that we become blind to problems, we see the problems and see them as problems to be solved, not escaped, but we are not overpowered by small problems, we place them in a broader perspective and we have a quiet and clear mind to deal with them. We are not stressed and tense, we don’t overreact and therefore we can take the problems along with us. We are mindful of where we are, what we think and feel, what is happening around us, and we don’t panic. That’s the Buddhist way of dealing with life.
I would like to know what you consider as the most basic and important thing in Buddhism. What is the essence of Buddhism?
I would summarize the essence of Buddhism with two words: Compassion and Wisdom. First comes compassion. From the Buddhist point of view, compassion is wishing well for myself and for everybody. I wish the best, the greatest happiness to myself and everybody else, without excluding anybody. Even if someone is particularly evil, I only wish him well. I understand that everybody has problems, that everybody is more or less like myself because, like me, everybody wants happiness and good things, nobody wants problems and suffering. So whatever I wish for myself, I wish for them all. And I also understand that nobody’s perfect, that we all make mistakes because although we only want happiness, we don’t know how to proceed, what to do to be happy. So even if somebody has done something awful, really terrible – of course we don’t approve of it and we wish it had not happened and will never happen again – but we don’t need to hate that person. We understand he acted as he did out of ignorance and deserves our pity and compassion rather than our hatred. So that’s the general attitude of compassion.
And then wisdom. Wisdom is understanding, being able to see, to experience things as they really are. It’s becoming clear, getting rid of all illusions, all confusion, all distortions and not only conceptually but practically. When we understand ourselves completely, we have no problem to relate with others. Once rid of all misunderstandings, we ourselves have no more problem. We have complete freedom and so all we are concerned about is helping others get rid of their own confusion. Compassion and wisdom are the main thing in Buddhism. All the texts and all the great masters stress that we should try to develop both compassion and wisdom. With compassion combined with wisdom, we can do a lot of good things for ourselves and for others. If we only have compassion but no wisdom, we may act with good intentions but in a misguided way.
To develop compassion and wisdom is something we can do because we all already have some level of compassion and wisdom. All sentient beings, however wicked, have at least a small seed of compassion, a soft spot for at least one other being. This we need to develop. The same is true for wisdom. All beings, however dull, have some awareness, some knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. From the Buddhist point of view, a Buddha is precisely that: a being who has developed compassion and wisdom to their ultimate level.
Wisdom and compassion can be seen as a means but also as an end. In order to develop them, there are different techniques and in particular many tantric techniques. I’ve recently heard about techniques used in Africa. I think it’s an old Gabonese tradition. People drink a particular substance that alters theirs state of mind and gives them a very clear awareness. It seems to be particularly effective for people who have developed some form of addiction. Through the use of this substance, they seem to be able to develop positive qualities very quickly. So I wonder, is there something ‘chemical’ in the development of spiritual experiences?
There are many substances like that and there are many people who have come to Buddhism through the use of drugs. Some have had experiences of non-duality generated by these chemicals but it is only for a short period. Such experiences can be useful to some extend, because those who go through them discover that other states of mind are possible and that the way we usually perceive things and experience the world around us is not the only possible way. But Buddhism doesn’t encourage such experiments because they are short-term, they don’t last and do not really change our basic attitude. Our main objective is not to have some strange or wonderful experiences but to learn how to take all experiences. We have to learn to take in a positive way whatever experience comes our way. Otherwise we may get very nice experiences with drugs, but what do we do when we get back to our regular life with its usual problems? Do drugs and nice experiences help us to face these problems? And this is what matters! We can also have all kinds of experiences through meditation, but whether these are positive and useful or become hindrances depends on how we take them. If we get attached to them, if they become a source of pride leading to arrogance, or if we develop aversion to them, then they are nothing but an obstacle.
I took refuge with Akong Rinpoche earlier this year and among the vows taken is the one not to kill any living beings. However, we also take the vow to reduce the suffering of beings and these two vows sometimes seem contradictory to me. Recently, a pigeon flew into my room and when I wanted to push him away, I realized that it couldn’t fly properly. Thinking that it would lead a miserable life with this handicap in the street, I was about to kill it, but then I thought of my vow and no longer knew what to do. As I was thus hesitating, the pigeon flew away.
I would say that when you are in such a situation, you should place yourself in the shoes of that other being. If you were that being, what would you like to happen to you? How would you like to be treated? Would you like to be killed? I think that if you treat another being as you would like yourself to be treated in the same situation, then it’s OK. But don’t forget that what you see can be only a momentary situation. We ourselves can also get confused for a while, but it doesn’t mean that other people should kill us! There are no fixed rules in Buddhism, no recipe. Every situation is unique and we can’t apply the same set of rules in all cases. Situations vary from time to time. And I would also like to stress the following: sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s their own karma, they have to go through it, we shouldn’t interfere.’ Of course we all have to go through our own karma, but it’s not right to say that we shouldn’t even try to help others out of the problems they encounter. If this were true, then there would be no business for Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We should try to help as much as possible. To let others suffer is not the right attitude. Just by suffering, beings do not necessarily get rid of their bad karma. If you take your problems and sufferings in the right way, then you may purify your bad karma, but if you don’t know how to take these sufferings and problems in a positive way and react with frustration, revolt and anger, then it might have the opposite effect and actually add to your bad karma! So if we can do something to reduce other beings’ problems and suffering, and bring them more peace and well-being, we should definitely help them. If someone is sick and in pain, first try medicines to reduce the pain. Most of the time, people don’t really want to die, they just want to have less pain. If pain-killers bring no relief and the suffering is unbearable, then one might think of ending that person’s life as painlessly as possible, but only as a last resort. Ending somebody’s life is not always a solution. Everybody is afraid of death and panics when they face it. It’s good to let people die in a more natural way while taking care of them and reducing their pain, but if their suffering is very bad and nothing can be done to improve their state, then putting an end to their misery is acceptable.
My grandmother is quite old and for the past four years, she’s been in a hospital bed on heavy medication. She can’t move, has no autonomy, doesn’t know what’s going on and no longer recognizes anybody. We still pay her regular visits, but she doesn’t seem to know who we are and has no memory of our visits. For me, it’s a long time I’ve said goodbye to her, a long time she’s not there any more. How does Buddhism considers such a life? For me it’s clear that there is no progress and no benefit, it’s not worth living such a life.
I know many cases of this kind and some even very young. I know someone who was only in her twenties when she suddenly became incapable to speak or know anything. She was alive but no longer reacted to anything. For the last four, five years, she’s been like that. Such a state can last very long and it is very difficult for their families. There are more and more people like that, and this is maybe because of our modern medication system that unnecessarily prolongs people’s lives. There have always been people who lived very long but not as many as nowadays. And therefore there were less senile people, although there were senile people in the past also. Sometimes being senile is not too bad: some become like children again, they are very jolly and playful. But others become very depressed and unhappy. Of course, all of us wish to live long, in good health and to remain in a good mental state, able to do things in an autonomous way to the end but, unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some become sick when they are still young, others when they grow old, and some become indeed senile. Most of the time, life doesn’t happen as we want. This is samsara. Of course, this is not pleasant, especially when it happens to our relatives and loved ones, but we should know and understand that samasara is like that and try to take it the best we can. I think we should also try to be as helpful as possible. I believe that even senile people sometimes still understand a little. I know a Tibetan lady who lives in Norway and works as a nurse in a ward for senile people. She brings them hot chocolate and sweets every day and, although they don’t know her name or understand anything she says, still when they hear her footsteps, they brighten up and get more active. So, maybe, they can still register and appreciate what we do for them, so we should try to treat them as kindly as we can.
This seems important to me at different levels. My elder brother is now 76. He used to be someone with a brilliant intellect, who had easy social relationships, was the strong man of the family, a good father and husband, an active, sportive and successful type. After a severe illness, he became the very example of human decay. He no longer recognizes his wife and daughter, cannot communicate coherently and doesn’t know who he is. So this makes me wonder what personality is. What is the self? We know that the self is illusory, yet it is also real in respect of something functioning within society, having memories and so on.
Nowadays, many people suffer from problems that are due not to physical but to psychological decay. Some are even very young, 6 or 8 years old. There seems to be evidence that certain types of mental troubles are linked to family relationships. In the US, systemic analysis has been popular for quite some time now. It was discovered that in some families, one person somehow crystallizes the communication problems within that family. If that person, who presents psychic troubles, is cured, another member of the family takes his/her place and starts presenting the same pathology. I’ve heard that in other cultures, as in Africa, there are traditional methods close to group therapy devised to help people who suffer from psychic troubles.
This all seems relevant to me because we all may sooner or later face problems to adapt to our environment. I’ve heard that even in Buddhist countries, there are certain types of unintelligible behaviour like suicide epidemics. I would like to know whether in Tibet, before the Chinese invasion, there were any young people suffering from serious mental illnesses like for instance schizophrenia.
I’m sure there were such cases, although, of course, we didn’t call it schizophrenia. But generally speaking, there were maybe less people with psychological problems in Tibet than elsewhere. I think this is due mainly to the Tibetans’ attitude of accepting karma. Accepting one’s karma helps people. Even if everything is going wrong, turning from bad to worse, people then think that, OK, there’s nothing much to be done in this life, but that’s not the end of it all, next life may be better.
When we left Tibet for India, there was not one single family that had not lost at least one person. And then, of course, they had left everything behind and lost all their possessions. When we arrived in India, we had nothing, most of us got sick because of the different climate and food. Nevertheless, almost nobody had mental problems. People might get delirious, but that was because they were sick and had high fever. Otherwise nobody suffered from psychological troubles. But we have this saying in Tibetan: “Big trouble, no tears; little unhappiness, lots of tears” – and this is also true. If you encounter very big problems, you very rarely have psychological problems. All your energy is channeled to solve the problem, you have no time to devote to psychological details. It’s when you have enough time that you can concentrate on little things and develop mental disturbances. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but mental troubles are, in a way, a luxury. This is probably why the suicide rate is highest in the most affluent and developed societies. In less developed countries, people are too preoccupied with their simple survival to pay attention to psychological problems.
But of course there have always been people suffering from mental illnesses everywhere, and also in Tibet. In Tibet, mental problems were classified in different categories:
- those caused by a physical imbalance, that were usually treated with medicines;
- those caused by a shock, a trauma, a painful family problem, some hurtful event. They were treated with kindness and compassion;
- those supposed to be caused by hindrances, negative influences, spells and black magic, possession by evil spirits and the like. For those, there were exorcisms and different ways of getting rid of the obstacles. A popular method was also pilgrimages, especially to treat paranoia. In our settlement, there was a girl who suffered from severe paranoia. She couldn’t face anybody, never got out of her room, she was incapable of any social contact. Then one lama told her parents that they should take her on a pilgrimage. She was forcefully taken out of her room and after two days, she had become well, totally normal. Suicide rates were very low in Tibet, except during the Cultural Revolution, but that was another matter altogether: people committed suicide not because of mental problems but as a conscious and deliberate decision. In my monastery, some twenty monks committed suicide. Chinese would hammer big nails in their ears and things like that, so they choose to take their own lives instead of suffering torture.
You said that we are currently unable to see reality as it is because of our conditionings, fears and anxieties. How can we get rid of these conditionings? Does meditation allow us to recognize and see these conditionings and then to overcome them, or is it another process at work? Could you explain what is the vipassyana meditation?
Meditation is the way to see reality clearly. In Buddhism, we usually talk about three stages: study, reflection and meditation. The first stage, study, is also sometimes called ‘listening’. We gather as much information as we can from many different sources. We listen to what the teachers say, we read books and try to understand what the realized beings have to say on the subject. Then we reflect on it. We reason and try to analyze all this information and put it in order to see whether there is anything contradictory. That’s the second stage. These first two stages are intellectual. Of course there is already a certain level of experience involved, but it is more on the surface. Meditation goes deeper. First we should strive toward a clear intellectual understanding, but this alone won’t transform us because our delusions and wrong views are at a deeper, emotional level. Meditation is the only way to work at that level. Meditation is a practical learning to be natural, to be free from the different patterns, habits and tendencies that cover our mind. In a way we could describe meditation as a ‘peeling off’ process. We are gradually peeling off our habitual ways of reacting. It is a purifying process that allows us to go deeply into our experience and see the essence of our being. The shamatha meditation is the first step or stage because, unless our mind is calm and clear, it will be impossible to go deeper, but vipassyana is the main meditation. The word vipassyana encompasses many different techniques. Some schools of Buddhism define vipassyana as only mindfulness meditation but this does not include all that the term vipassyana encompasses for us.
These two stages are the main way to get to the bottom of ourselves, but there are no real boundaries between the two. At some point, shamatha and vipassyana merge and become one. The calm and clarity of the mind is indeed very much part of vipassyana.
Is it advisable to give teachings on egolessness and meditation instructions to people who have a personality problem, who are not grounded and have no structured ego?
Generally speaking, when we talk about meditation in Buddhism, we don’t begin with establishing the self because it is assumed that those who come to receive teachings and follow the path have that sense of self. The teachings are constructed for people who don’t have that kind of problem. There weren’t probably many people with such a problem in the Buddha’s time. I think this feeling of not being connected to oneself is new. This may be because people in this modern world have less contact with nature. In the past, everybody had many contacts with nature. Most people were working in fields or with animals. Nowadays, children only see milk in bottles and don’t even know where it comes from. People have less contact with the realities of life and less contact with their bodies also.
According to the Buddha’s instructions, one always has to start from where one stands and from that starting point, one develops whatever positive qualities one needs: more stability, more awareness, more compassion, … When someone doesn’t have a sense of self, it is not good to start with meditations on emptiness. Even the Buddha didn’t talk lightly and to all indiscriminately about emptiness. He knew that it could be a great shock for people who are not ready to take it and that it is then of no use. This is why the Buddha first taught interdependence. It is only later, and to a selected audience, that he turned the wheel of dharma for the second time and taught about shunyata, emptiness. We have to meditate step by step. The shamatha meditation is very good and important. To start with, we learn how to relax, how to let our mind settle down. Our ‘doctor from the North’ (a Flemish doctor in the audience) told me that he introduces meditation to people who have an unsettled mind. He instructs them to feel as if they were inside themselves, inside their heart. After a week or two, these people feel more grounded, more centred. Of course, this is not a traditional Buddhist instruction but if it works, it is OK. The Buddha’s instructions have been transmitted through many, many generations, but they are never completely fixed, black and white. If they were totally rigid, there would be no need of lineage holders, we could just read the texts and books and apply instruction one, then instruction two, then instruction three and so on, as we follow a recipe. But the pith instructions come from someone who has truly understood, experienced and actualized the teachings. When such a person encounters someone who needs his help, he will impart the teachings according to the real needs of his student at this particular time, in a particular historical and sociological context, and according to the level of his student. It doesn’t matter whether it has never been done before. The teacher keeps the essence of the teaching while adapting it to a particular situation. This is why having a teacher, having a guide, is so important. Sometimes one person has to do the same thing for ten years or more, whereas another person can skip some steps; and new techniques should be tried with a third person.
As to the teachings on emptiness… When I first came to Europe, I met some people who related to me their experience of emptiness. “I experienced emptiness, I felt that there was no ‘I’, that everything is illusory, etc.” They described it very much in the same terms as if they had had a real experience of emptiness and I didn’t understand at first that it was not the real thing. But when they concluded with “…and I felt so bad!”, then they gave themselves away, because if you have a genuine experience of emptiness, you feel a great joy, everything’s OK, there’s nothing left to be feared! Sometimes, such people become proud and arrogant because they think they have achieved something, but actually they are unable to communicate with other people or to function smoothly in society. They forget that love and compassion are the main thing. Actually, the more we experience emptiness, the more we see the nature of things, the more compassionate we should be. We can judge whether our experience is growing well by the simultaneous growth of our compassion. If we become kinder, more caring for others, then our practice goes in the right direction. If not, we are misguided, even if we have clairvoyance and all kinds of extraordinary powers, can predict the future or perform miracles. All these are not necessarily good signs. They can arise because of many other things.
I’ve heard that mindfulness is the essence of the vipassyana meditation. Is it through mindfulness that we get real insight into the nature of what we are?
The vipassyana meditation starts with what we call the Four Mindfulnesses: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of the mind and mindfulness of the dharmas. ‘Dharma’ has many different meanings, here it means everything that we can think of, all entities and non-entities that we can conceive. Sometimes it is translated as all phenomena. The main thing in mindfulness is being aware and being connected with that awareness. These four mindfulnesses were taught by the Buddha and are the subject of a sutra, the Sattipatana Sutra. Mindfulness of the body starts with breathing. The sutra says: ‘I breathe in and I am aware that I breathe in. I breathe out and I am aware that I breathe out.’ It goes on with being aware that we stand up, that we sit down, that we move forward as we walk and so on. Whatever we do, we try to be aware of it. We know what we do and we know what is going on around us. We are aware, present, together with the present, grounded in the present moment and not lost in our thoughts and emotions. This is both shamatha and vipassyana, moment by moment. Sometimes we also look at what is going on in our body, which is a little more analytical. When we are in the present like this, we are not carrying the weight of the past, we allow ourselves to be free of memories and all the emotions linked to them. We don’t anticipate the future either. So, in a way, we are free, more aware of ourselves, more connected with ourselves. We are not in an imaginary, conceptual world of our own creation. We learn how to simply ‘be’.
Then comes the awareness of feelings, of sensations. If for instance you feel pain somewhere, your awareness goes straight to where it hurts and tries to really pinpoint the place of this pain. You will discover that you can’t localize that sore spot, that there is not one place where you can pinpoint the pain. Very often, this makes the pain disappear, which is why this method has been used as a healing technique. There was a rich Indian businessman, Mr. S.N. Gwenka, who was suffering from severe headaches. He had seen doctors everywhere and used all kinds of medicines and therapies with no results when he visited a monastery where a monk taught him this vipassyana meditation. He tried it for some time and, to his great surprise, it worked. His headaches would go away. He was so happy and relieved that he asked the permission to share this teaching with others. He elaborated a system that is now taught everywhere in India, even in jails in Delhi.
When we try to pinpoint the pain and find out it is nowhere, we learn in an experiential way about emptiness. It’s no longer just an idea, just a concept, something that others or books talk about: it’s a direct experience gained by directly, honestly watching what is going on.
Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist meditation are essentially about being true and honest with oneself. Buddhism is definitely not about believing anything because the Buddha or other great masters said so. Just believing on the sole authority of a great being is of no use because it has no effect on the way we see things, it doesn’t change the way we react with aversion, attachment or ignorance. It is only when we adhere to a truth because we have fully understood and experienced it that it can really help. No Buddhist teaching should ever be taken as gospel truth. The Buddha himself told his disciples: “Don’t believe what I say only because I say it. Examine my words as a goldsmith would examine gold, by cutting, rubbing and melting. And only when you have seen by yourself that it is the truth, then accept it.” A goldsmith first rubs a golden jewel to see whether the gold is not a superficial coating. Then he cuts it to see whether it is a hundred percent gold or whether there is some other metal at the core. Then he melts it to see whether it has not been mixed with other metals. This is how we should proceed when we receive teachings.
You are talking about wisdom and you say that it is possible to realize it ourselves, but it seems to me so far away. I have no idea of what the nature of my being might be, so it is very difficult for me to understand what exactly you are talking about. To me, it seems impossible that ordinary beings like us might understand the meaning of life and death. It seems impossible to me to get rid of ignorance. Reincarnation and karma are also very obscure concepts for me. You say that Buddhism is based on experience, but if beings don’t have this experience, what can they do? For me, it is impossible to explain things without reverting to faith in something, a higher intelligence that governs all and that we can’t explain.
I think that even beliefs and faith are all based on experiences, otherwise what would validate them? There would be no basis for such faith. Of course, when we talk about wisdom, it is based on the experience of the Buddha. This doesn’t mean that the Buddha is the only person who had that experience: he explained his experience, showed the way and other people followed that way and experienced it too. The first step on our side is the learning stage and understanding that there is a possibility for us to develop that wisdom. Of course, we don’t have that wisdom yet, but through study and reflection, we can already get some intellectual understanding of how things are and of the validity of the path. We shouldn’t forget that wisdom is nothing else than the truth, than the experience of the way things really are, of what we really are. All the beings cannot possibly be fooled all the time and forever. There must be a moment when I will be able to experience the truth. It may take a long time, it may be difficult, but there is no reason why we should not be able to see the way things are. Talking about wisdom is just talking about our own experience, not about a totally different thing. It may not be easy to grasp but there is no mystery in it. Actually, to experience wisdom is difficult precisely because it is not grasping. We usually understand everything by grasping, by holding on to things, by identifying things as this or that, good or bad, black or white, yes or no. Experiencing wisdom is a different way of experiencing, it’s not about making judgements, assertions, remarks or descriptions. It’s being directly aware: you just BE!
“Just be!”, it’s very easy to say, it seems very simple, but it’s difficult because we don’t know how to ‘just be’. But right now, we are just at the first stage and we shouldn’t worry too much about wisdom. Let’s start where we are, let’s be more centred, more relaxed, more natural – and also kinder and more compassionate. It’s very important to work on that. It’s not important to be too much in the head, too much involved in high philosophy. Most important is to have a kind heart. As H.H. the Dalai Lama always says, “My religion is loving kindness.” By saying this, he is not creating a new religion, he states what is really the essence of Buddhism. All the great masters have in a way said the same: the heart of Buddhism is bodhicitta. All the teachings revolve around it in one way or another: some explain what it is, others how to generate and develop it, how to apply it and what are its fruits. Even wisdom is judged by the level of development of our compassion, by whether it is growing or not.
As to rebirth and reincarnation, in one way it is important, but in another, it is not. It is difficult to understand because although it does happen, if we understand more deeply, there’s nobody to reincarnate. Buddhism says there is a continuum, cause and effect, but when we look more deeply, it’s only arising in interdependence, and therefore, it’s not real, in a way it’s an illusion. It’s a fact, but there’s nothing much in it. Reincarnation can be proved, although I’ve come to understand that one can’t prove anything to somebody who doesn’t want to be convinced. When I was young, I believed that one only needed the right arguments and sound reasoning to convince others. I believed in the impact of debates. But I’ve found out that human beings are only reasonable to a certain point. They will believe something even if there is no real logic behind and will not accept even reasonable and logic arguments if they don’t want to be convinced. So it’s not easy to prove anything to anyone. There are countless cases of people who remember their past lives and their memories have been verified. In the eighties, a child was born in India. As soon as he could speak, he said he wanted to go home. “But you are home”, said his parents. “No, this is not my home, my home is at such and such a place.” As the child insisted for many months, the parents finally took it close to that village, which was quite far away. They left him at a crossroad, to see whether he could find his way alone to his ‘home’. The child had no problem to find his way through all the small paths, arrived at the village and went straight to his former house. He knew the names of his former parents, of all the family members and of the people in the village. He related the circumstances of his death and his former parents confirmed that their child had died in exactly the circumstances he had described.
I have myself met a lady who clearly remembered the circumstances of her death. She had been strangled by a man and remembered how her spirit had wanted so much to take revenge for some time. She still felt pain round her neck and couldn’t wear clothes with a high collar. There are also many near death experiences: people relate how they left their dead body, which they could see lying in the room, with everything that was going on. These are all evidence that life doesn’t end with our physical death.
But all this doesn’t matter too much. What matters is what we do now. If we take good care of ourselves in the present moment, try to bring out and develop our positive qualities and alleviate all sufferings, we take naturally good care of our future.
In Buddhism, we don’t need to revert to belief in a higher form of intelligence, a God who governs our life. We explain everything through interdependent arising. Faith and belief do play a certain role in Buddhism – as an inspiration, an incentive to emulate our models and do positive things – but belief has not much merit in itself. If you believe in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, in karma and reincarnation but have no compassion, you may call yourself a Buddhist, but you are not a good Buddhist. On the contrary, if you are kind, good-hearted, compassionate and always trying to benefit others, even if you don’t believe in the Buddha and the Buddhist notions, it doesn’t matter, you are on the right path.
As to karma, it is not based on beliefs but on actions.
I think we should stop here. We will now dedicate the good results of whatever positive things we did during this weekend to the greatest happiness of all the beings, so that there may be more peace on this earth, no famine, no wars and that all the beings may be enlightened, develop their compassion and wisdom to the highest point, and in the meantime, that they may live in happiness, harmony, good health and prosperity.
© Dr. Ringu Tulku
1 Stories relating anecdotes from the Buddha’s previous lives.
2 Teaching on the Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination given in Samye Dzong Brussels