Tenzin Palmo on escaping the prison of the ego

This week I saw Tenzin Palmo speak at the Rigpa centre in London. She’s a remarkable woman, the daughter of a fishmonger from East London, who left Bethnal Green at the age of 20 to learn about the dharma in northern India. She became a Tibetan Buddhist nun – the second Western woman ever to do that – and then spent 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She now runs a  Buddhist nunnery in northern India. She has devoted her life to breaking through the 'glass ceiling' of the male-dominated sangha and making the dharma available to everyone, especially women. As an exercise in remembering, I’ve written down what I remember of her talk. What follows is paraphrasing from memory, not direct quotes. For direct teachings I suggest you watch one of her video talks or read one of her books

The good news is that our nature is basically sane.

Our basic nature is Buddha nature – luminous lucid wise and flexible mind-heart.

The bad news is we have forgotten our true nature. We don’t know who we are. We identify with the ego – with the ‘monkey-mind’.

Anyone who has been to India knows what monkeys are like in the wild. They are always restless, never still or content. They jump onto a fruit tree, and take one bite of a fruit before dropping it and reaching for the next one. They spend most of their time fighting, eating or copulating. Sound familiar?

Our monkey mind is like that - restless, grasping, filled with likes and dislikes.

The Buddha’s great insight was to realize egolessness. He realized the ego is an illusion and it’s this illusion which causes us suffering.

So we don’t know our own nature, our own minds. We put a lot of effort in taking care of our homes and making them nice and comfortable. We put a lot of effort into taking care of our bodies, eating well, going to the gym and so on. But we don’t take care of our minds.

And it’s crucial to take care of our minds, because we always live in our minds. Our mental state determines our entire reality.

We don't know how to take care of our minds, and are pretty messed up. There's so much depression in our culture. We blame all our problems on the external world and on other people.

But the Buddha taught that our suffering and our happiness comes from within, from our own minds. And we can change our minds. Rather than trying to change everyone else, which is impossible.

Sometimes we get glimpses of our true limitless nature, it’s quite common to have such glimpses. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened.  You have to stabilize that insight.

There are steps you need to take to stabilize that insight. Sometimes, after an early realization, people skip the steps, and then they get in trouble.

It’s like if you put a cake in the oven, and when the cake begins to rise you say ‘it’s ready!’ and take it out. The cake then collapses in on itself and tastes disgusting.

So how can we practice to realize our true nature? How can we practice in daily life, not just in a cave on a mountain?

First, meditation. We can practice to stabilize our focus. The Buddha taught a very simple method – mindfulness of breathing. Breathe in and be aware. Breathe out and be aware. How wonderfully simple.

The word for mindfulness in Pali and Sanskrit literally means  ‘remembering’. We remember what is happening here and now, rather than being drawn into the ego’s movies about the past and the future. In the present moment the ego does not exist. There is just knowing, just lucidity.

We also develop discrimination. When pleasant feelings arise, we just observe it. When difficult thoughts or feelings arise, we just observe it. Without judgement, but with compassion. One monk has introduced the word ‘kindfulness’ – isn’t that a great word?

Secondly, in our daily life, we can strive to cultivate wholesome qualities within us – the paramitas – generosity, loving-kindness, persistence and so on. And we can strive to weed out the unwholesome qualities – craving, anger, and pride.

When we meet difficult people, can we practice to resist anger and intolerance? It is easy to be loving towards loveable people, but that’s not helping you grow.

I was once in the queue at the visa office in India. In front of me was a western monk, trying to get his visa renewed. And the visa official was very rude to him – he shouted that he’d filled in the form wrong, and had to fill out a new one, and he ripped it up and threw it in the monk’s face. And the monk just said ‘I see, thank you very much!’ As he turned around, he winked at me. And I thought, ‘well done!’

Obnoxious people are wonderful teachers.

As for pride, that is really ignorance, thinking the ego is real, ignorance of who we really are. When we’re ignorant of who we really are and identify with the ego, we’re in a prison of our own making.

We can escape that prison through a shift in consciousness. You stop identifying with your thoughts, or your likes and dislikes, or your body, or your gender, or your nationality, or anything.

But first you need to make friends with your ego. You can’t just say ‘the ego doesn’t exist’, because the ego comes along with you on your spiritual journey. It thinks ‘how great to be egoless!’. You need to know yourself, make friends with your ego. You need a healthy and happy ego to come on the spiritual journey with you, like a good, quiet monkey. The ego is a vehicle. There is a sort of good pride you need as well – a feeling of ‘I can do this! I can become realized.’

So the first step is meditation, the second step is cultivating wholesome qualities and weeding out unwholesome qualities. Then, when the mind has started to become transformed, you can go deeper, and look at the nature of mind itself. What is mind?  What is a thought? What is this camera projecting out the world? Really look. When you look, initially there is a cascade of thoughts. But that raging torrent gradually slows and thins into a river. And then into a stream. And then a trickle. And then there is just vast empty awareness.

You can reach a state of the mind meditating on mind, like an eagle soaring on air currents.

We need to make the best use of this auspicious circumstance – a human incarnation, and an awareness of the dharma. We must practice diligently, no excuses!

That’s what I remember of her talk. It was simple and clear, but I was struck by the depth of the illusion of ego within me and within our culture. For the last 40 years I have identified with ‘me’ , and put basically all my energy into trying to further the project of ‘me’ as best I could – trying to find pleasure, trying to find success, trying to find love and happiness and security. Everyone else I know is involved in the same constant struggle. And we’re all commenting on each other’s progress. And it’s an illusion? It’s the source of all our suffering? Truly, what a prison of our own making! What a mad-house we're in! How tragic, how absurd. We think we understand egolessness but if we do we understand it intellectually and still live the same old life devoted to 'project me'. How would we live if we really understood the depth of the illusion we're stuck in?

There were then some questions from the audience. What struck me about them was that they were mainly about healing negative emotions. Westerners very much approach Buddhism as a form of psychotherapy – the risk of that is it becomes another way of bolstering the ego I guess. One person asked about coping with persistent negative thoughts, another about overcoming trauma.

If it’s really bad you should go and see a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Meditation is not the same as psychotherapy, it requires a healthy happy ego to go far on the journey. But you can try and look at your thoughts, really look at them, and see they’re not solid or permanent. They’re like clouds, that can totally cover the sky but only briefly. The sky is always there. Don’t identify with the thoughts, don’t say ‘me’ or ‘mine’. You can make friends with difficult thoughts, without identifying with them, like Milarepa befriending the demons who came to pester him when he was meditating in a cave. When he welcomed them and offered them tea, they transformed into local deities and became his allies and helpers. We transform negative thoughts and energies when we observe them with compassionate attention.

At the same time, if you’re constantly being dragged back into the movie of past traumas, you can choose simply not to go there. Don’t constantly watch those old re-runs of misery. Stay in the present. The ego loves you to go over your miserable past. It loves to be miserable. It’s like a cat licking up cream. Poor poor me.

With skilful practice, we can soften and see through that which seems very solid and permanent.

She was also asked what is consciousness in Buddhist philosophy. She said it was different to the materialist conception of consciousness. Buddhism thinks all matter actually emerges from mind, that mind is the foundation of all things – all things have intelligence within them, the universe itself is intelligent. Humans have [if I remember right] six or eight types of consciousness, depending on different schools of thought. Each sensory awareness is a type of consciousness, and then there is ‘storehouse consciousness’ – a sort of subconscious where memories and karma are stored, and then there’s an intermediate consciousness between the store consciousness and ordinary consciousness, which is the ego – the ego stretches between the subconscious and the conscious, and is a bridge. When we die, our body dies, but some basic awareness survives and is reincarnated, along with the traces of our past karma.  

I left the talk feeling joyful and optimistic. There is a path to freedom. How lucky to have come across this path. And look - that lady has got a long way down that path, that daughter of a fishmonger from Bethnal Green. If she can, maybe I can too!