Lama Yeshe on Buddhist psychology
Dr. Stan Gold Interviews Lama Yeshe, 25 March 1975
I was born near Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and educated at Sera Monastic University,
one of the three great monasteries in Lhasa. There they taught us how to bring
an end to human problems not so much the problems people face in their relationship
to the external environment, but the internal, mental problems we all face. That
was what I studied Buddhist psychology; how to treat mental illness.
past ten years I have been working with Westerners, experimenting to see if Buddhist
psychology also works for the Western mind. In my experience, it has been extremely
effective. Recently, some of these students invited me to the West to give lectures
and meditation courses, so here I am.
We lamas think that the main point is
that human problems arise primarily from the mind, not from the external environment.
But rather than my talking about things that you might find irrelevant, perhaps
it would be better for you to ask specific questions so that I can address directly
the issues that are of most interest to you.
Dr. Stan Gold: Lama, thank you
very much for coming. Could I start by asking what you mean by "mental illness"?
Yeshe: By mental illness I mean the kind of mind that does not see reality; a
mind that tends to either exaggerate or underestimate the qualities of the person
or object it perceives, which always causes problems to arise. In the West, you
wouldn't consider this to be mental illness, but Western psychology's interpretation
is too narrow. If someone is obviously emotionally disturbed, you consider that
to be a problem, but if someone has a fundamental inability to see reality, to
understand his or her own true nature, you don't. Not knowing your own basic mental
attitude is a huge problem.
Human problems are more than just emotional distress
or disturbed relationships. In fact, those are tiny problems. It's as if there's
this huge ocean of problems below, but all we see are the small waves on the surface.
We focus on those "Oh, yes, that's a big problem" while ignoring the
actual cause, the dissatisfied nature of the human mind. It's difficult to see,
but we consider people who are unaware of the nature of their dissatisfied mind
to be mentally ill; their minds are not healthy.
Dr. Stan Gold: Lama Yeshe,
how do you go about treating mental illness? How do you help people with mental
Lama Yeshe: Yes, good, wonderful. My way of treating mental illness
is to try to have the person analyze the basic nature of his own problem. I try
to show him the true nature of his mind so that with his own mind he can understand
his own problems. If he can do that, he can solve his own problems himself. I
don't believe that I can solve his problems by simply talking to him a little.
That might make him feel a bit better, but it's very transient relief. The root
of his problems reaches deep into his mind; as long as it's there, changing circumstances
will cause more problems to emerge.
My method is to have him check his own
mind in order to gradually see its true nature. I've had the experience of giving
someone a little advice and having him think, "Oh, great, my problem's gone;
Lama solved it with just a few words," but that's a fabrication. He's just
making it up. There's no way you can understand your own mental problems without
your becoming your own psychologist. It's impossible.
Dr. Stan Gold: How do
you help people understand their problems? How do you go about it?
I try to show them the psychological aspect of their nature, how to check their
own minds. Once they know this, they can check and solve their own problems. I
try to teach them an approach.
Dr. Stan Gold: What, precisely, is the method
that you teach for looking at our mind's true nature?
Lama Yeshe: Basically
it's a form of checking, or analytical, knowledge-wisdom.
Dr. Stan Gold: Is
it a kind of meditation?
Lama Yeshe: Yes, analytical, or checking, meditation.
Stan Gold: How do you do that? How do you teach somebody to check?
Let me give you an example. Say I have a good feeling about somebody. I have to
ask myself, "Why do I feel good about this person? What makes me feel this
way?" By investigating this I might find that it's just because he was nice
to me once, or that there's some other similar small, illogical reason. "I
love him because he did this or that." It's the same thing if I feel bad
about someone; I don't like him because he did such and such. But if you look
more deeply to see if those good or bad qualities really exist within the person
you may see that your discrimination of friend or enemy is based on very superficial,
illogical reasoning. You're basing your judgment on insignificant qualities, not
on the totality of the other person's being. You see some quality you label as
good or bad, perhaps something the person said or did, and then exaggerate it
out of all proportion. Then you become agitated by what you perceive.
checking you can see that there's no reason to discriminate in the way that you
do; it only keeps you fettered, uptight and in suffering. This kind of checking
analyzes not the other person but your own mind, in order to see how you feel
and to determine what kind of discriminating mind makes you feel that way. This
is a fundamentally different approach to analysis from the Western one, which
focuses excessively on external factors and not enough on the part played by the
mind in people's experience.
Dr. Stan Gold: So you say that the problem lies
more within the person and don't agree with the point of view that it is society
that makes people sick?
Lama Yeshe: Yes. For example, I have met many Western
people who've had problems with society. They're angry with society, with their
parents, with everything. When they understand the psychology I teach, they think,
"Ridiculous! I've always blamed society, but actually the real problem has
been inside of me all along." Then they become courteous human beings, respectful
of society, their parents, their teachers and all other people. You can't blame
society for our problems.
Dr. Stan Gold: How does it happen that people mix
things up in this way?
Lama Yeshe: It's because they don't know their own true
nature. The environment, ideas and philosophies can be contributory causes, but
primarily, problems come from one's own mind. Of course, the way society is organized
can agitate some people, but the issues are usually small. Unfortunately, people
tend to exaggerate them and get upset. This is how it is with society, but anyone
who thinks the world can exist without it is dreaming.
Dr. Stan Gold: Lama,
what do you find in the ocean of a person's nature?
Lama Yeshe: When I use
that expression I'm saying that people's problems are like an ocean, but we see
only the superficial waves. We don't see what lies beneath them. "Oh, I have
a problem with him. If I get rid of him I'll solve my problems." It's like
looking at electrical appliances without understanding that it's the underlying
electricity that makes them function.
Dr. Stan Gold: What kind of problems
do we find below the waves?
Lama Yeshe: Dissatisfaction. The dissatisfied mind
is the fundamental element of human nature. We're dissatisfied with ourselves;
we're dissatisfied with the outside world. That dissatisfaction is like an ocean.
Stan Gold: Do you ask the other person questions about himself or how he feels
to help him understand himself?
Lama Yeshe: Sometimes we do, but usually we
don't. Some people have quite specific problems; in such cases it can help to
know exactly what those problems are so that we can offer precise solutions. But
it's not usually necessary because basically, everybody's problems are the same.
Stan Gold: How much time do you spend talking with that person to find out about
his problem and how to deal with it? As you know, in Western psychiatry, we spend
a great deal of time with patients to help them discover the nature of their problems
for themselves. Do you do the same thing or do you do it differently?
Yeshe: Our methods don't require us to spend much time with people individually.
We explain the fundamental nature of problems and the possibility of transcending
them; then we teach basic techniques of working with problems. They practice these
techniques; after a while we check to see what their experience has been.
Stan Gold: You're saying that basically, everybody has the same problems?
Yeshe: Yes, right. East, West, it's basically the same thing. But in the West,
people have to be clinically ill before you'll say that they're sick. That's too
superficial for us. According to Lord Buddha's psychology and lamas' experience,
sickness runs deeper than just the overt expression of clinical symptoms. As long
as the ocean of dissatisfaction remains within you, the slightest change in the
environment can be enough to bring out a problem. As far as we're concerned, even
being susceptible to future problems means that your mind is not healthy.
of us here are basically the same, in that our minds are dissatisfied. As a result,
a tiny change in our external circumstances can make us sick. Why? Because the
basic problem is within our minds. It's much more important to eradicate the basic
problem than to spend all our time trying to deal with superficial, emotional
ones. This approach doesn't cease our continual experience of problems; it merely
substitutes a new problem for the one we believe we've just solved.
Gold: Is my basic problem the same as his basic problem?
Lama Yeshe: Yes, everybody's
basic problem is what we call ignorance not understanding the nature of the dissatisfied
mind. As long you have this kind of mind, you're in the same boat as everybody
else. This inability to see reality is not an exclusively Western problem or an
exclusively Eastern problem. It's a human problem.
Dr. Stan Gold: The basic
problem is not knowing the nature of your mind?
Lama Yeshe: Right, yes.
Stan Gold: And everybody's mind has the same nature?
Lama Yeshe: Yes, the same
Dr. Stan Gold: Each person has the same basic problem?
Yes, but there are differences. For example, a hundred years ago, people in the
West had certain kinds of problems. Largely through technological development,
they solved many of them, but now different problems have arisen in their stead.
That's what I'm saying. New problems replace the old ones, but they're still problems,
because the basic problem remains. The basic problem is like an ocean; the ones
we try to solve are just the waves. It's the same in the East. In India, problems
people experience in the villages are different from those experienced by people
who live in the capital, New Delhi, but they're still problems. East, West, the
basic problem is the same.
Dr. Stan Gold: Lama, as I understand it, you said
that the basic problem is that individuals lose touch with their own nature. How
do we lose touch with our own nature? Why does it happen?
Lama Yeshe: One reason
is that we are preoccupied with what's going on outside of ourselves. We are so
interested in what's going on in the sense world that we do not take the time
to examine what's going on in our minds. We never ask ourselves why the sense
world is so interesting, why things appear as they do, why we respond to them
as we do. I'm not saying we should ignore the outside world, but we should expend
at least an equal amount of energy analyzing our relationship with it.
can comprehend the nature of both the subject and the object, then we can really
put an end to our problems. You might feel that materially your life is perfect,
but you can still ask yourself, "Does this really satisfy me? Is this all
there is?" You can check your mind, "Where does satisfaction really
come from?" If you understand that satisfaction does not depend only on external
things, you can enjoy both material possessions and peace of mind.
Gold: Is the nature of each person's satisfaction different or is it the same
for people in general?
Lama Yeshe: Relatively speaking, each individual has
his or her own way of thinking, feeling and discriminating; therefore each person's
enjoyment is an individual thing. Relatively. But if you check more deeply, if
you look into the profound, unchangeable, more lasting levels of feeling, happiness
and joy, you will see that everybody can attain identical levels of enjoyment.
In the relative, mundane world we think, "My interests and pleasures are
such and such, therefore I have to have this, this and this. If I find myself
in so and so circumstances, I'll be miserable." Relatively, our experiences
are individual; each of us discriminates in our own way. But absolutely, we can
experience an identical level of happiness.
Dr. Stan Gold: Lama, do you solve
people's problems by getting them to withdraw into meditation or cut themselves
off from the outside world? Is this the way you treat people?
Lama Yeshe: Not
necessarily. People should be totally aware of both what's going on in their own
minds and how their minds are relating to the outside world, what effect the environment
is having on their minds. You can't close your life off from the world; you have
to face it; you have to be open to everything.
Dr. Stan Gold: Is your treatment
Lama Yeshe: No. Not necessarily.
Dr. Stan Gold: What
makes it unsuccessful in certain cases?
Lama Yeshe: Sometimes there's a problem
in communication; people misunderstand what I'm saying. Perhaps people don't have
the patience to put the methods I recommend into action. It takes time to treat
the dissatisfied mind. Changing the mind isn't like painting a house. You can
change the color of a house in an hour. It takes a lot longer than that to transform
an attitude of mind.
Dr. Stan Gold: What sort of time are you talking about?
Lama Yeshe: It depends on the individual and the kind of problem
we're talking about. If you're having a problem with your parents, maybe you can
solve it in a month. But changing and overcoming the fundamental dissatisfied
mind can take many, many years. The waves are easy; the ocean is more difficult.
Stan Gold: Do you have any process by which you select the people that you might
try to help?
Lama Yeshe: No, we have no process of selection.
Dr. Stan Gold:
People just come to you?
Lama Yeshe: Yes. Anybody can come. Irrespective of
color, race, class or gender, all human beings have the same potential to solve
their problems. There's no problem that cannot be solved by human wisdom. If you
are wise, you can solve them all.
Dr. Stan Gold: What about people who are
not so wise?
Lama Yeshe: Then you have to teach people how to be wise. Wisdom
isn't intuitive; you have to open people's minds to it.
Dr. Stan Gold: Can
you help children to solve problems in this way?
Lama Yeshe: That's definitely
possible. But with children you can't always intellectualize. Sometimes you have
to show them things through art or by your actions. Sometimes it's not so wise
to tell them to do this or do that.
Dr. Stan Gold: Lama, what sort of advice
would you give parents to help their children know their inner nature?
Yeshe: First I'd probably say it's better not to intellectualize verbally. Acting
correctly and creating a peaceful environment are much more likely to be effective.
If you do, children will learn automatically. Even tiny children pick up on vibrations.
I remember that when I was a small child, when my parents argued, I felt terrible;
it was painful. You don't need to tell children too much but rather behave properly,
peacefully and gently, and create a good environment. That's all; especially when
they're too small to understand language.
Dr. Stan Gold: How important is the
body in human happiness?
Lama Yeshe: If you want to be happy, it's very important
for your body to be healthy, because of the close link between your physical nervous
system and your mind. A disturbance in your nervous system will cause a disturbance
in your mind; changes in your body cause changes in your mind. There's a strong
connection between the two.
Dr. Stan Gold: Do you have any advice with respect
to diet or sexual behavior in keeping the body healthy?
Lama Yeshe: Both can
be important. Of course, we're all different, so you can't say that the same diet
will suit everybody. As individuals, our bodies are habituated to particular diets,
so radical dietary changes can shock our systems. Also, too much sexual activity
can weaken our bodies, which in turn can weaken our minds, our power of concentration
or penetrative wisdom.
Dr. Stan Gold: What is too much?
Lama Yeshe: Again,
that depends on the individual. It's not the same for everybody. Each person's
power of body varies; check through your own experience.
Dr. Stan Gold: Why
are we here? What is our reason for living?
Lama Yeshe: As long as we're attached
to the sense world, we're attached to our bodies, so we have to live in them.
Stan Gold: But where am I going? Do I have to go anywhere?
Lama Yeshe: Yes,
of course, you have no choice. You're impermanent, therefore you have to go. Your
body is made up of the four ever-changing elements of earth, water, fire and air.
When they're in balance, you grow properly and remain healthy. But if one of them
gets out of balance with the rest, it can cause chaos in your body and end your
Dr. Stan Gold: What happens then? Do we reincarnate?
Lama Yeshe: Yes,
we do. Your mind, or consciousness, is different from your physical body, your
flesh and blood. When you die, you leave your body behind and your mind goes into
a new one. Since beginningless time we've been dying and being reborn into one
different body after another. That's what we understand. Lord Buddha's psychology
teaches that at the relative level, the characteristic nature of the mind is quite
different from that of the physical body.
Dr. Stan Gold: Do we live in order
to continually improve ourselves? When you're an old man, will you be better than
you are now?
Lama Yeshe: You can never be sure of that. Sometimes old men are
worse than children. It depends on how much wisdom you have. Some children are
wiser than adults. You need wisdom to make that kind of progress during your life.
Stan Gold: If you understand yourself better in this life, do you improve in the
Lama Yeshe: Definitely. The better you understand the nature of your
mind in this life, the better your next life will be. Even in this life, if you
understand your own nature well today, next month your experiences will be better.
Stan Gold: Lama, what does nirvana mean?
Lama Yeshe: Nirvana is a Sanskrit
word that means freedom, or liberation. Inner liberation. It means that your heart
is no longer bound by the uncontrolled, unsubdued, dissatisfied mind, not tied
by attachment. When you realize the absolute nature of your mind, you free yourself
from bondage and are able to find enjoyment without dependence upon sense objects.
Our minds are bound because of the conception of ego; to loosen these bonds we
have to lose our ego. This might seem strange to you, that you should lose your
ego. It's certainly not something we talk about in the West. On the contrary,
here we are taught to build our egos; if you don't have a strong ego, you're lost,
you're not human, you're weak. This seems to be society's view.
the point of view of Buddhist psychology, the conception of ego is our biggest
problem, the king of problems; other emotions are like ministers, ego is king.
When you reach beyond ego, the cabinet of other delusions disappears, the agitated,
fettered mind vanishes, and you attain an everlasting blissful state of mind.
That's what we call nirvana, inner freedom. Your mind is no longer conditioned,
tied to something else, like it is at the moment. Presently, because our mind
is dependent upon other phenomena, when those other phenomena move, they take
our mind with them. We have no control; our mind is led like an animal with a
rope through its nose. We are not free; we have no independence. Of course, we
think we're free, we think we're independent, but we're not; we're not free inside.
Every time the uncontrolled mind arises, we suffer.
Therefore, liberation means
freedom from dependence upon other conditions and the experience of stable, everlasting
bliss, instead of the up and down of our normal lives. That's nirvana. Of course,
this is just a brief explanation; we could talk about it for hours, but not now.
However, if you understand the nature of inner freedom, you realize that transient
sense pleasures are nowhere near enough, that they're not the most important thing.
You realize that as a human being you have the ability and the methods to reach
a permanent state of everlasting, unconditional joy. That gives you a new perspective
Dr. Stan Gold: Why do you think that the methods of Buddhist psychology
offer an individual a better chance of success in achieving everlasting happiness
whereas other methods may have great difficulty in doing this and sometimes never
Lama Yeshe: I'm not saying that because Buddhist methods work we don't
need any others. People are different; individual problems require individual
solutions. One method won't work for everybody. In the West, you can't say that
Christianity offers a solution to all human problems, therefore we don't need
psychology or Hinduism or any other philosophy. That's wrong. We need a variety
of methods because different people have different personalities and different
But the real question we have to ask of any method is can
it really put a complete stop to human problems forever? Actually, Lord Buddha
himself taught an amazing variety of psychological remedies to a vast range of
problems. Some people think that Buddhism is a rather small subject. In fact,
Lord Buddha offered billions of solutions to the countless problems people face.
It's almost as if a personalized solution has been given to each individual. Buddhism
never says there's just one solution to every problem, that "This is the
only way." Lord Buddha gave an incredible variety of solutions to cover every
imaginable human problem. Nor is any particular problem necessarily solved all
at once. Some problems have to be overcome gradually, by degrees. Buddhist methods
also take this into account. That's why we need many approaches.
Dr. Stan Gold:
Sometimes we see patients who are so grossly disturbed that they need large doses
of various drugs or just a lot of time before you can even communicate with them.
How do you approach someone with whom you can't even communicate intellectually?
Yeshe: First we try slowly, slowly to become friends in order to earn their trust.
Then, when they improve, we start to communicate. Of course, it doesn't always
work. The environment is also important a quiet house in the country; a peaceful
place, appropriate pictures, therapeutic colors, that kind of thing. It's difficult.
Stan Gold: Some Western psychologists believe that aggression is an important
and necessary part of human nature, that anger is a kind of positive driving force,
even though it sometimes gets people into trouble. What is your view of anger
Lama Yeshe: I encourage people not to express their anger,
not to let it out. Instead, I have people try to understand why they get angry,
what causes it and how it arises. When you realize these things, instead of manifesting
externally, your anger digests itself. In the West, some people believe that you
get rid of anger by expressing it, that you finish it by letting it out. Actually,
in this case what happens is that you leave an imprint in your mind to get angry
again. The effect is just the opposite of what they believe. It looks like your
has anger escaped, but in fact you're just collecting more anger in your mind.
The imprints that anger leaves on your consciousness simply reinforce your tendency
to respond to situations with more anger.
But not allowing it to come out doesn't
mean you are suppressing it, bottling it up. That's also dangerous. You have to
learn to investigate the deeper nature of anger, aggression, anxiety or whatever
it is that troubles you. When you look into the deeper nature of negative energy
you'll see that it's really quite insubstantial, that it's only mind. As your
mental expression changes, the negative energy disappears, digested by the wisdom
that understands the nature of hatred, anger, aggression and so forth.
Stan Gold: Where did the very first moment of anger come from? The anger that
left imprint after imprint after imprint?
Lama Yeshe: Anger comes from attachment
to sense pleasure. Check it out. This is wonderful psychology, but it can be difficult
to understand. When someone touches something to which you are very attached,
you freak out. Attachment is the source of anger.
Dr. Stan Gold: Well, Lama,
thank you very much for coming and visiting with us. It's been very, very interesting.
Yeshe: Thank you so much, I'm very happy to have met you all.
Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, 25 March 1975
"Be wise. Treat yourself,
your mind, sympathetically, with loving kindness. If you are gentle with yourself,
you will become gentle with others."
Lama Yeshe Experience
May any merit generated by the presentation of these
contents be shared among all beings.