Lama Yeshe Jinpa
Four Noble Truth Series
March 11, 2013
Lama Jinpa: Good evening! Welcome guests, welcome bodhisattvas, welcome arhats, and welcome tantrikas, welcome all sentient beings…
My voice is a little hoarse tonight; I’m getting over a cold, so I might speak a little quietly.
This evening I’m continuing the talk I was giving on the fourth noble truth, the Truth of the Path. On page fifty-four of our prayer book, you’ll see it – Marga Satya.
Right above that on the same page we have the Noble Eightfold Path. In the middle of that list you see ‘right action’.
Tonight we’re going to talk about right action; eventually I’d like to talk about each of these, the entire Noble Eightfold Path.
But let’s begin here.
Looking at this list, it looks very simple, but each item you see here has outer, inner and secret interpretations.
With Right Action, what we really need to talk about is activity. What are right activities?
When we recited opening prayers earlier, it says in Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha, “Do not engage in non-virtuous actions.” What does that mean?
Well, we have the outer level precepts, the ones we commit to when we take refuge – not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying and not drinking intoxicants. So we could say that with those we’re restraining outer action, outer activities.
But what about our inner activities? How can those be restrained?
It’s funny in a way even to talk about the nature of mindful awareness, isn’t it?
But the nature of self is Buddha’s most basic teaching, and in order to understand it, in order to uncover and manifest it, we have to start with outer behavior, then go deeper.
So we develop renunciation. We do not want to harm – neither ourselves nor others.
And we recognize that something is off, something has to change. This is what leads us to taking Refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha.
Now, when someone initially wants to change their actions, even following through with a relatively mundane behavior like eating less or getting up five minutes earlier is difficult, let alone stopping a really harmful action. But we need an awareness that our actions are out of sync. Things aren’t working together.
As we engage in the path, we have to make some changes – it’s inevitable. The old habits won’t work, don’t work. Sometimes I criticize Western Dzogchen practitioners, because often people will mistakenly think, “I don’t have to change my lifestyle to do these meditations.” But that just isn’t true.
Sometimes it’s impossible for people to say they have to change – they can’t acknowledge it. Sometimes change is so deep inside, it isn’t immediately apparent – eventually it will be. Sometimes people really have to change their outer actions, just stop overtly harmful behaviors before they can even think about anything else.
Generally, I know someone is entering the path when they’re willing to change their actions.
Where do we begin?
Well to begin with, I strongly suggest that you develop reading motivation as a warm up to changing more actions. Read dharma for just fifteen minutes a day. That’s a small change – a positive habit – that will have many beneficial effects.
Of course, we have to do the entire Eight- fold Path. But our actions – those first steps – is how that happens. Sometimes it will happen inside. Sometimes a person will have a change in their behavior. Often one leads to the other.
When I first started reading dharma, I didn’t want to change my actions. I was fifteen years old, and reading the dharma books that were available at the time. I was also reading some of the Western writers who had a different style. So, for example, I enjoyed Alan Watts. Do any of you remember Alan Watts?
Student: I do. I go way back.
Lama Jinpa: Coming from an uptight Presbyterian family, it was refreshing to read Allen Watts in 1968. The message was just basically, ‘Be who you are.’ It was really very congruent with the times.
Now probably, if when I was reading back then there had been a lot of discussion of behavior – of changing your behavior – if it had been restrictive, I might not have started. It would have sounded too much like church.
But I was immature, and that was an immature view.
We do have to change our behavior, including both outer and inner level.
Our outer behavior is something we can see, like on a video. It’s external, observable.
The inner level – our inner behaviors – is our mind and emotions.
The secret level is awareness.
And the very secret level is emptiness, which of course we can’t see. (Laughter)
What’s interesting on a very practical level is what actions do we say no to, and what actions will we say yes to? This is important.
We can read about precepts, but what’s actually interesting is what we do. Are we applying those precepts? What actions are we doing? What actions are we not doing?
Not only on the outer level, but also on the inner level. It’s quite concrete. It should be definable. What are we doing?
Probably, when I first began studying Buddhism when I was fifteen, I thought maybe dharma will get me a girlfriend. (laughter)
Later, I just wanted to be nice. However, for the right action part, that isn’t specific enough. It isn’t enough just to want to be nice.
When students say that – “I just want to be nice.” – we teachers should ask, “How would you know you’re being nice? How would I know you’re being nice?”
When I worked at hospitals, with patients suffering from mental illness, we would have to make progress notes. For many of those patients, a good indication of progress was the note, “Patient learned to be kind.”
We’d know a patient was being kind by observing them, and by documenting very specifically, what exact behaviors were observed?
If we can’t observe kindness outwardly – it doesn’t exist. Kindness has to be observable and on the spot.
Interestingly, in doing sangha practice, just being kind can be a good starting point; before we can really practice in private, and fully develop Buddha’s motivation we can at least say, “I will be nice. I’ll use nice words, perform kind acts.”
Sometimes we think, ‘When I’m enlightened, then I’ll be accountable,’ or ‘When I’m perfect, then I can be kind to others.’ In the actual path, we’re willing to engage in virtuous actions for beings right now, which is enormously difficult practice.
So tonight, let’s all think of one harmful action we’re not going to do anymore. Maybe make it a little challenging or difficult, but just one thing, or even better maybe do two together, like, “I’m doing this positive action till full realization and I’m not doing this harmful action till full realization, so like, ‘Until I become enlightened, I’ll meditate every single day. I’ll mark an x on the calendar,’ and also one day don’t burn the house down. Simple.
Don’t make an impossible precept action your goal, like ‘I’m never going to get mad again.’ Make it attainable. (laughter) That way you can be accountable.
You can hold me accountable, and I’ll try to hold myself accountable. I do believe that incredible beings like Shantideva have done this, and we can too.
So even when you’re doing something fairly trivial, make it an intentional action. From now on, I will do this action and not do this action. I will squeeze out the sponge after each washing and put it in a little thing next to the sink so it doesn’t get moldy. I won’t leave it in the sink.
Many Vinaya describe line by line rules like that – do this, don’t do that.
Actually, it’s a great place to start; I’m going to start doing positive activities. I’m going to make an ethical living.
In general, we don’t discuss precepts for monks and nuns – in the past that was really the case. Now they’re posted on the Web and everyone can see them, things like ‘Don’t spit on the ground.’ Actually, I saw lots of people spitting on the ground in India. (laughter)
So start with just one little habit. Notice how you’re resistant to change.
The breaking of a precept is an indicator of practice – how else will you see mind?
Sometimes students think that they’ll suddenly just wake up, like it will be a global phenomenon. But waking up to true emptiness is always in a very specific context. There’s secret, inner and outer behavior.
So, let’s talk inner level. We’re not suddenly, globally, Awake. Again, this takes place within a certain context. We can begin to recognize behavior, recognize action, not just on the outer, gross level, but also on an inner level. We begin to notice on a very deep level.
Initially when we begin doing dharma, rituals and protocols look trivial, maybe nitpicky, with too much attention on getting things correct. But the idea is to be able to notice details of behavior, of attention, but not in a judgmental way.
This can only come about when we decide to only do certain things this way or that way. When it’s clear, we can notice if things are out of balance.
That’s interesting. In our practice, we think about right action, not reaction.
We think, who is doing the action?
I’ve never been to England myself, but I watch movies made in England.
(Picks up a bowl from his puja table, moves it to a different spot.)
This was here, now it’s here.
Student: Right, got it.
Lama Jinpa: So, there it is. I notice – it was there, now it’s here. If the gong just… migrated, would you notice?
Lama Jinpa: There’s something really wonderful about noticing, about being accountable, to actually have that awareness.
(Picks up the bowl again)
Right now, this bowl is here, not there. Eventually it will be here, and never was there.
If you don’t see this, you’ll have a hard time realizing emptiness – it was never here, it’s empty, non-affirming. Self was never there.
So much of dharma is like a blinding flash of the obvious. The problem was never there.
It requires an appreciation of shunyata. It was not there and left – it never really was. It requires not a one-time appreciation, but rather an ongoing appreciation.
It has not been and is still not.
On an inner level, an emotional level, you’re not damaged. You’re not screwed up.
You’ve never been that. You don’t have anything to get rid of.
We had a misperception – we misperceived that the Earth was flat. But that doesn’t make you a bad, stupid, wrong, useless, person. You’ve never been that. It’s impossible. Your true nature is otherwise.
You might have a delusion that you’re bad, stupid and worthless. You may have had that delusion for a long time. But in actuality, you’ve never been bad, stupid and wrong. You never had low self esteem – your Self was never been there.
That’s why it’s important to notice action – what does someone do, not what do they feel. So much of liberation is noticing what isn’t there. If we don’t notice actions, we don’t have a benchmark – we need a benchmark as a measurement. And we need the ability to use it to see where we’re at.
Before realization, we have a sense of self – so we need to use that to make an effort to notice harmful actions. We do want to not harm others, so we need the ability to identify when we’re not being a good scout.
Lama Jinpa: Okay; maybe we have students here tonight with some questions (laughter) Who wants to play Stump the Lama?
Question: I keep thinking about this, could you tell me how I’m wrong? If I kill someone and feel terrible, is it a delusion because the person doesn’t exist? Sometimes I feel bad because of my outer actions or I feel bad about what I think about people – but is that a delusion?
Lama Jinpa: Well actually, we need to have remorse about killing – we need that accountability. We do not want to harm.
We have to notice. I’m not talking good vs bad noticing. Just noticing.
We notice if we have a cup of tea, if we’re driving, if we increase this activity or decrease this activity. We always have to notice.
But before you begin to try and work with strong karmic actions, strong emotions, it’s best to start out with neutral actions. Start with placing your shoes neatly in line before entering the shrine. Start with things without big emotional components that complicate things.
And remember, in dharma, we’re not referring back to a person so much as an activity. There is harmful activity.
Question: I’m struggling with what you mean when you talk about the emptiness of actions.
Lama Jinpa: In Dharma, we want the direct experience of things as they really are.
The Buddha said things are empty of their own being, empty of existing from their own side – if we see things as they really are, we see they’re open and interdependent. It doesn’t appear I’m in here (touches chest) and you’re out there.
Even if not we’re not very sure of ourselves, our opinions are solid. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. It seems very real from our side.
It’s difficult for us when we have delusions. A delusion doesn’t exist with something else – it’s internally generated and self-reinforcing. It’s hard to for that to be liberated, because mind wants a positive thing as a reference.
I’ve worked for many years in hospital settings, psychiatric hospitals. People would sometimes come in who had strong delusions, like that the police are after them. Sometimes when I was meeting with someone, they’d be crouching in a corner, and the conversation would be like,
“What’s going on?”
“The police are after me.”
Now, it would be normal in that situation to say, “I don’t see any police here, they haven’t called, and they haven’t checked on you; the police aren’t after you. You’re safe.”
And generally what happens is, the other person says you’re lying, or you’re obviously just not looking hard enough. Or let’s say that they do believe you – often what happens then with the delusion is they’ll say, “Okay, I agree the police aren’t after me – but the doctors are after me.” The delusion isn’t gone, it just shifts.
It’s very difficult to say to someone who’s scared, “There’s nothing to fear,” and have them really believe you.
We’ve all experienced fear. When someone’s having a panic attack, it’s physiological. The person can’t breathe. They want to run out of the building, they’re in flight mode. What if someone said to that person that there’s nothing to fear? Would it help?
If they really trusted the person who told them that, it might deescalate the attack a little. They may have to go through a process – breathe, get out of the building, go for a walk. Maybe they need a Xanax.
But the more that we train, the more that we work on ourselves, at some point we understand, there’s nothing to fear – and it sometimes takes a long time. We have to understand it’s there – but not. Most of us have to train progressively.
Shariputra was a highly realized Bodhisattva. But at the beginning, because Shariputra was a Brahmin, from the upper class, he didn’t really want to go to a lower-class teacher – like Shakyamuni Buddha. Sometimes he’d go, get close and then leave the lecture before sutra was over.
One time, Shariputra missed a lecture – he just didn’t go. But he asked someone who had gone, what was that day’s teaching, and that person told him the Buddha said, “Everything is a result of cause and effect.”
Shariputra had realization on the spot.
Question: So panic is in the body?
Lama Jinpa: Panic is in the body and the mind.
Student: Almost like you get it in the mind, but the body is still reacting.
Lama Jinpa: It means you still have training to do. When the mind is calm, the body calms.
Student: When you talked about waking up in a specific context, could you give an example?
Lama Jinpa: Well, Buddha sat under a bodhi tree, and after sitting for a while, he looks up, and sees a star.
Question: So is that context both external and internal?
Lama Jinpa: All the sutras begin, “Thus have I heard”, but no matter where Buddha was teaching, whether at Vulture Peak Mountain or somewhere else, it was always the same mandala.
The context is big because first you must have context established before you can remove the context.
Question: Is understanding attained in one context transferable to another?
Question: Could you talk about hindrances to right actions?
Lama Jinpa: Well, hindrances can be things like believing you’re doing something when you’re not. Persevorating in your head but never really doing anything, only dreaming you’re doing something, having lots of ideas about doing things but not actually doing them. Or if the body and mind are disconnected.
Question: That’s a hindrance?
Lama Jinpa: Yes; if your attention is one place and your body is in another place, you’re not doing the action fully, with intention. So, not paying attention when you’re doing, or thinking and not doing.
Student: When we’re more attentive, we make better decisions.
Question: Does that apply to meditation? Is the mind off the object?
Lama Jinpa: Could you repeat the second part of the question?
Student: I’m confused about how you know if, when you have to make a decision, if it’s right action, like making a decision whether to walk or ride to the store, what’s the better choice.
Lama Jinpa: Let’s back up. For now, the point is that we’re paying attention to the action. Usually we begin with ‘right’ with a small ‘r’, like lining up shoes or cleaning the sponge, before we get to ‘Right’ with a big ‘R’.
We have to learn what to do, create positive habits, practice with little things before we can fully engage our wisdom mind, our clear discrimination, our prajna wisdom.
Question: Is that similar to intuition, prajna?
Lama Jinpa: What idea of intuition?
Student: Like a gut feeling of right and wrong?
Lama Jinpa: That’s not prajna. That’s a gut feeling. (laughter)
Sometimes gut feelings don’t work. Prajna gives kind of a distinction between thought and feeling. Prajna works.
Question: I feel I’m aware that my self is not separate, that we are part of everything and the actions I’m taking stem from delusion. If we get rid of self, that seems to me… where does self go? I’d be in a state of purity?
Lama Jinpa: We have to have prajna to put our shoes on correctly. I’m hoping when you leave, you put your shoes on correctly.
Question: Is it true Buddha could have sat forever?
Lama Jinpa: Well, there are other factors like Bodhicitta, so Buddha stepped up.
Some schools of thought are that with enlightenment there’s non action. But actually, the more realization there is, the more bodhicitta there is, the more action increases and activities increase. So we have to start with action.
Question: If I was fully conscious, I would do a lot?
Lama Jinpa: Most delusion is internal. It’s less cognitive versus dissonance. Some people live a simple life, or some live a life benefiting many beings.
We have to be honest with ourselves, honest about where we are at. Can I maintain right action where I am at?
Question: Is it contextual?
Lama Jinpa: Of course, it’s contextual. There have been many, many great teachers. How do they do it all? Lama Tsong Khapa was not watching television. (laughter)
Student: I was listening to a Theravadin teaching; it said that when you’re a beginner like us, we have to apply mindfulness, but once we’re an Arhat, then all of our actions become moment to moment. Like breathing.
Lama Jinpa: Many actions would be like that, I agree with that to a point.
The more practice we do, certain actions will come to a baseline, like your heart and breath are in sync. But, the more responsibility we take, the bigger the problems.
I say in recovery, when we start on the Path we get a new set of problems. Bodhisattvas have many problems helping beings. Bodhisattvas stretch themselves many times, and it can be very difficult. And we can’t toss intellect out in favor of instinct – we need it for work, social interactions, business.
Question: At what level are all actions right actions?
Lama Jinpa: Only at Buddha level are all actions right.
Eventually, practically speaking, we have to interact with society. We have to be around other people. Every Lama has difficulties – a Bodhisattva is willing to have difficulties.
It would be la la land to suggest that a Lama should not stressed – a Lama is willing to be stressed. Willing to take on tough students. Willing to do impossible things – trying to have every action right. Whenever they’re dealing with karma, bodhisattvas are willing.
Many teachers tell us about trying to move forward even among great difficulties, stories of Buddhas and bodhisattvas that inspire us. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book about Buddha’s life, and we see how Buddha experienced the result of karma. At one point, Buddha’s cousin was trying to kill him!
As a teacher grows, they’re willing to take on tough challenges. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell, is this person creating trouble or positive conditions? Even great teachers can find it hard to discern every karma.
Question: Can you talk about the difference, is it a delusion that there’s right and wrong? How do you know whether something is good, bad, or helpful?
Lama Jinpa: I’m not saying good and bad don’t exist. What I am saying is notice what is not there – a self that’s existing from its own side. There is definite harmful and beneficial karma there. This doesn’t mean non skillful and skillful.
When we’re talking about emptiness, we mean the nature of self, empty of existing from its own side. That’s why actions are important.
Denying the effects of actions is not Buddhist
Belief in an independent self is not Buddhist
Believing that conditioned phenomena can lead to happiness is not Buddhist.
Noticing who is doing it. That is Buddhist.
The best Dharma practice is just conventional right and wrong. Don’t kill, steal, lie, no sexual misconduct, no intoxicants. But then, gradually we begin to notice finer details – much more subtle levels of killing, stealing, lying. We have to increase mindfulness.
Question: Can we get enlightened in other places, not in this particular body?
Lama Jinpa: Yes, it’s possible, there’s the bardo body, or a pure land, even another planet; otherwise it’s abstract.
But right now we have this planet, the people in this room. We have interest in this room.
Do not waste this precious life. That’s the hard part. Sometimes people think, “I’ll just get reincarnated. I’ll try next time,” but there are no guarantees. You do not know if you’ll have favorable conditions in the next life.
In our school, we emphasize this life.
Maybe this talk was helpful. I apologize if it was confusing to some of you.