Ask the Lamas
Lama Yeshe's and Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teachings contain replies to hundreds of questions on all manner of topics. Quite possibly the answer to your question can be found within one or more of the published — or even unpublished — teachings in the Archive. You are encouraged to use the search function of our website (see the sidebar on the right) to see if your questioned has already been addressed somewhere in our current online and print publications.
Answers to some of the more "frequently asked questions" are below. E-mails that we receive through this page are answered by our staff, and where we are able to link you to answers given by the Lamas, we do so. Please browse through the questions below before sending us your question, in case it has already been answered.
Many people ask if they can contact the lamas directly. Lama Yeshe passed away in 1984, and unfortunately we are unable to forward questions directly to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. But there are many resources available with advice from Rinpoche. You can find advice on a variety of topics in Rinpoche's Online Advice Book. On the FPMT website you can refer to Rinpoche's "Advice" page, and read through an FAQ for Discovering Buddhism at Home students. If you still feel you want to try to contact Rinpoche, refer to Rinpoche's contact page also on the FPMT website.
For those wishing to submit a question to the Archive, send an email to info@LamaYeshe.com, with your name and your question, and one of our staff members will respond as soon as possible.
1. What should I be doing as daily practice?
This is a question you’ll want to ask your own teacher, if you have one, as it varies. Otherwise, you can start by referring to Rinpoche's advice for establishing a daily practice.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche often recommends a daily meditation practice on Shakyamuni Buddha, such as the one found in the practice booklet shown on the left. This booklet and others like it can be purchased through the FPMT Foundation Store. The Archive has also published a small booklet by Rinpoche with a recommended daily practice titled Daily Purification: A Short Vajrasattva Practice.
Also, as the foundation of Buddhism is the Lam-rim or the path to enlightenment, consisting of a series of topics to be studied and meditated upon, everyone needs to understand it. You can’t go wrong by studying it as well. In fact advanced meditators have sometimes spent a year or more meditating on just a single topic. Lama Zopa Rinpoche wrote a basic Lam-rim text for westerners. It combines study and practice, showing you how this is done, and is titled Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment provides a detailed explanation of the Path to Enlightenment. For a brief overview of the Lam-rim read the words of our venerable director Dr. Nick Ribush in Outline of the Path to Enlightenment.
2. [Editor's Note: In some recent e-letters from late 2005, we included teachings on po-wa, the transference of consciousness at the time of death. One of our readers wrote questioning why one would focus on the teachings about death when it seems much more helpful to focus on teachings which help us change the way we live. He asks:]
In the humble view of this practitioner, what we need most in these times is not only the sense that "we" (whatever that might be in the mind of the reader) will go on past our personal death—and perhaps all that does give comfort to many of us—but what what we need most, perhaps, at least equally as much is to discover how, while we are here in this lifetime, we can act in a way that is compassionate and in which the suffering of other sentient beings is lessened by our actions.
[Director Nick Ribush replies:]
Teaching reality isn't to give comfort, it's to explain the way things are. What goes on is not the gross or subtle mind but the most subtle level of consciousness...as explained by many lamas and, indeed, by the Buddha himself. So, if that's what happens to everybody and nobody gets out of here alive and there is something we can do to direct our mind in the right direction at the time of death, I kind of see it as a duty to make all that known.
Neither is that contradictory to making this life as compassionate and helpful to others as possible. In fact, that's the secret to having a good death. The two totally go together.
I think if you look at the teachings we have published and put on our Web site you'll find that the great preponderance is towards making this life meaningful by living with compassion, not on transferring the consciousness at the time of death.
We try to make available a wide range of teachings, not all of which will resonate with everybody. Still, I hope that most will resonate with most. And if we put out the same message every time, that's not going to be good either, nor would it reflect the incredible variety of teachings that Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche imparted.
Thank you so much for your interest and feedback...keep it coming.
3. When we talk about study from a Buddhist point of view, how does one actually really "study"? We can meditate as much as possible, we can also read a lot of books etc, but if one wants to really study Dharma properly, how does one go about doing it??
Reading books and contemplating their meaning is a form of study. From books, transcripts, oral teachings we learn the details of Lam-rim and Mind Transformation. We must revisit them every day to ensure that our familiarity with them grows and our understanding deepens. As we reflect on aspects of the path and check to see how we are progressing, we are engaging in the form of meditation known as Vipassana. In all Buddhist traditions, beginning with the Theravadin, reflection on our meditative experiences is part of the path.
Our tradition, the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, especially emphasizes the need for study. In Rock Climbing Without Arms: Study as the Basis of Meditation our director, Dr. Nick Ribush explains the importance of study in our religious practice.
Thus you can should a short period of time every day in analytical meditation on Dharma topics, such as Lam-rim. Lam-rim is the path to enlightenment, so all topics are contained within it. If we just sit “like a vegetable”, as one lama put it, without analyzing our experiences to determine how well they reflect the details of the path, then we can easily ‘fall off’ the Buddhist path by failing to correct faults. We can think we are enlightened when we are not. The criticality of studying – analyzing the results of your meditation – was certainly understood in the Buddha’s time as well as you find the injunction to pause and reflect before moving onto the next stage of attainment in the early Abhidharma scriptures.
4. I want to request a practice from a teacher, eg. Lama Zopa Rinpoche. How do I know when I am ready to, and how do I go about requesting such a practice?
First of all you need to meet the Lama to request teachings from him or her. You can usually contact lamas through their organizations, by attending teachings, for example. Often the Dharma centers can facilitate requesting teachings. These centers often have websites with schedules. In the case of Lama Zopa Rinpoche or one of his centers, see the FPMT website.
If you feel a particular attraction to certain teachings, either ask the lama before or after class or during a private interview with the teacher. If the lama feels you and his other students are not ready for a teaching, then the lama may delay or offer prerequisite teachings. It is up to the lama to decide if you are ready for a teaching. You don’t determine when you are ready for a teaching – the lama decides that.
5. What do you think I would gain from attending a pilgrimage? Are there more important things to do as a Buddhist?
The most important thing to do as a Buddhist is to transform your mind. Buddhism is rich in the means to do this — for example pilgrimages and other activities. Study and meditation, however are very important because it’s what is in your mind that makes the pilgrimage a pilgrimage. If this were not so, then the bacteria on your skin and in your body would also be making pilgrimage, along with horses, flies and dogs who go along too. So if you don’t understand how to use your mind to transform your mundane trip into a pilgrimage, then you aren’t going on a pilgrimage even if you do go. If you don’t know how to transform suffering to the path, and have no love and compassion for all beings, then the amount of benefit you can get from a pilgrimage, as a Buddhist, is minimal. Perhaps some study first would be best since the benefits of a pilgrimage depend on your mind. The more you can apply the principles of the path to your pilgrimage the greater the benefit.
If you do want to go on a pilgrimage, our article The Eight Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage by Jeremy Russell can offer some suggestions.
6. I have heard that some Lamas practice a kind of protector practice called Dorje Shugden which is not approved by HH The Dalai Lama. Is it true? And what is Dorje Shugden?
Shugden is a spirit or mundane Dharma protector that some believe is a fully enlightened being. He has become a rallying cry for some who wish to return Tibet to a theocracy (the Dalai Lama wants democracy) with one school or sect as the official ‘church’. No FPMT center does this practice and all fully support His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lama Zopa Rinpoche gives extensive advice regarding this practice in his Online Advice Book. See also the FPMT collection of advice regarding Shugden.
7. I have been practicing within another school of Buddhism for about a year, but when I first got into Tibetan Buddhism, I spontaneously put up pictures of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche and put offerings before them. My question is that I don’t want to break any vows by studying with a teacher other than my root guru, which I am seriously contemplating as I FEEL that your lineage is the one.
All authentic Buddhist schools descend from the Buddha Shakyamuni, whose teachings manifest in many ways to train different types of students. Authentic teachings exhibit the four traditional ‘marks’ of Buddhism that distinguish it from Hinduism, Jainism, and other ‘isms’. They are: all conditioned existence is impermanent, all deluded experiences are suffering, all phenomena are empty and lack self-identity, and nirvana/liberation is true peace. If the teachings of your school show these marks, they are Buddhist teachings. However there’s great variety to be found in various schools of Buddhism. As it traveled to various countries it took on some of the characteristics of that country. It is definitely wrong to think that only one teacher is right and that the others are wrong or that one school is right and the others wrong. The others exist to help students appropriate to each. The great Atisha had something like 158 gurus and respected them all as Buddha.
You should continue to see your teacher as a Buddha but you can also make connections with a Tibetan lama. You may find Alexander Berzin’s book Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship (published by Snow Lion, 2000) and available free, on-line at http://www.berzinarchives.com/e-books/index.html. It explains the traditional relationship that students in Tibet had with their teachers as well as cultural differences in the west that lead to confusion. It also may assist you in determining if a given teacher is the right teacher for you.
8. What can I do if I have problem in my practice but I have no guru to ask. I am a new beginner. I know nothing but I have no place to ask.
Though it’s possible to study Buddhism without a personal teacher, it is difficult to get an answer when you have a problem. One thing you can do is take on-line or correspondence courses offered through the FPMT. These courses are designed to help newcomers who are isolated. You can address your problems to the teacher of the class. Or check the same website to see if there is a center near you. Most centers have a resident teacher – and you can ask him/her.
You can still progress until a teacher appears in person. In Illuminating the Path by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he was asked a similar question:
Question: Do we need a guru to get enlightened or is it sufficient just to study Dharma, live a moral life, attend teachings and practice meditation?
His Holiness: Of course it is possible to practice, study and lead a moral life without actually seeking a guru. However, you must understand that when you talk about enlightenment, you are not talking about something that can be attained within the next few years but about a spiritual aspiration that may, in some cases, take many lifetimes and eons. If you do not find a qualified teacher to whom you can entrust your spiritual well-being then, of course, it is more effective to entrust yourself to the actual Dharma teachings and practice on that basis.
I can tell you a story related to this. Dromtönpa was a great spiritual master who truly embodied the altruistic teachings of exchanging self and others. In fact, in the latter part of his life, he dedicated himself to serving people who suffered from leprosy. He lived with them and eventually lost his own life to this disease, which damaged his chin in particular. As Dromtönpa lay dying, his head rested on the lap of one of his chief disciples, Potowa, and he noticed that Potowa was crying. Then Potowa said, “After you pass away, in whom can we entrust our spiritual well-being? Who can we take as our teacher?” Dromtönpa replied, “Don’t worry. You’ll still have a teacher after I’m gone—the tripitaka, the threefold collection of the teachings of the Buddha. Entrust yourself to the tripitaka; take the tripitaka as your teacher.” However, as we progress along the spiritual path, at some point we will definitely meet an appropriate and suitable teacher.
Thus whether your guru has not yet appeared or has passed away, take the teachings as your teacher.
9. Can you give me advice on how to live with a mentally unsound person? My partner also has a disease but doesn’t take care of himself.
This sounds like a very painful situation for you. Because you live with this person and love him, you also suffer because you can’t cure his mental problems or even get him to stop acting destructively. It’s also, alas, all too common. Actually, this is how the Buddhas see us all! We are all mentally unsound and so create our own misery and we all act destructively. The Buddhas do their best to help us but we are even better at ignoring them.
It may help to read Lama Zopa's advice on cherishing others and his short teaching on making each moment of our lives meaningful. The Archive publication Making Life Meaningful covers this topic in much greater detail. You may also find benefit in doing some of Lama Zopa's recommended practices.
10. I wonder if there is any chance you could re-print Lama Zopa's "The Healing Buddha: A Practice for the Prevention and Healing of Disease" (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1994). Wisdom has not carried this for some years.
This book is now available through the FPMT Foundation Store as are (or will be) most of the other prayers, practices and sadhanas that Wisdom used to publish. Be sure to search the site for other things in which you might be interested.
11. How do we know for certain that there is a future life after death? Do we have to accept on faith that there is a future life, or is there a way to know?
The Buddha said most emphatically that we should not accept anything He said because He said it. Instead we should investigate and determine if it was true or helpful. He said there are three kinds of faith. The most inferior type is ‘blind faith’. Then you have faith that is the result of study; and then there is faith that is based on knowing. It’s difficult to know for certain that there are future lives until we reach the point where we can remember our past lives and then deduce that we will have future ones. We can use the teachings of Lam-rim to convince ourselves of the truth of this teaching. One way to proceed is to accept the Buddha’s teaching on future lives as a possible hypothesis until you do have greater insight. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says in his book Illuminating the Path: "This faith is not developed from the words of the Buddha alone but, as we have seen, on the basis of your own critical analysis" (page 7). So Buddhists actually ‘work at’ developing faith by engaging in critical analysis of the teachings.
Tsenshab Serkong Rinpoche's teaching titled Renunciation contains some advice on how to consider things about which we have no direct knowledge. You may also benefit from reading Dr. Alex Berzin’s explanation of karma and future lives.
12. I would like to know whether Vajrasattva practice is enough to keep one away from lower rebirths. How can lower rebirths or unfortunate life situations be avoided?
We avoid lower rebirths and unfortunate life situations by eliminating their causes. The causes are elimination of the ten non-virtuous actions and cultivation of their opposites, the virtuous actions. The Dalai Lama says in his book Illuminating the Path: "If you engage in such an ethical discipline, you will establish the conditions for attaining a favorable existence in your next life" (page 68).
As Dr. Ribush says in the beginning of our publication Daily Purification: A Short Vajrasattva Practice: "Atisha practiced purification in this way because of his deep realization of the psycho-mechanics of negative karma, especially its four fundamentals: negative karma is certain to bring suffering; it multiplies exponentially; if eradicated, it cannot bring its suffering result; and once created, it never simply disappears."
Practicing Vajrasattva will purify your negative karma and keep it from multiplying. This will produce beneficial results right away if combined with virtuous living, however your practice will be of minimal benefit unless you combine it with mental transformation.
13. What is the value of prayer in Buddhism?
As Mahayanists we do not believe that the Buddha passed away beyond reach. We believe He and other Buddhas are ever-present. In Tibet they often revealed themselves in spontaneous manifestation. It is by supplicating them that we request their blessing and create a connection between them and us. Since we ourselves have little ability to help ourselves, we rely on the blessings of the Buddhas that come to us through prayer. In fact the different Buddhas are specialists in different kinds of aid. For example Tara is of great benefit at protecting women and children and other helpless beings from terror and fear. Praying to Tara does work. In the same way, you can pray to Medicine Buddha for healing.
For more information on the benefits of praying to Tara see Tara the Liberator, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
14. Please can you advise me how to find a qualified spiritual teacher? I feel urgent need of a Master and specific personal guidance. How do you find own guru as soon as possible? What´s the practice that will bring my teacher to met?
In Tibet you would have gone to the local monastery. The head of that monastery would naturally have been your spiritual advisor. Some people of course sought out other teachers but it didn’t need to be so complicated. For most it wasn’t. So perhaps you can research a local center. See the FPMT website for a list of centers associated with FPMT. Another important method is to pray to the Buddha to meet your spiritual teacher. You might speed things up by using online directories—such as the one on the Shambhala Sun website—to look for Buddhist centers nearby. There’s no specific practice for finding your guru. By praying to the Buddha you will activate karma you have formed in past lives with teachers and they will come.
You may also find this book beneficial: Relating to a Spiritual Teacher: Building a Healthy Relationship by Dr. Alexander Berzin. You can purchase it from Snow Lion Publications or download it free. Because Buddhism is not a part of our cultural heritage, we do not really understand how it should ‘work’. We sometimes expect a guru to function as a therapist, for example. We may expect a far more personal relationship than the role entails. This book makes it clear what a guru is and is not and how we relate to him/her when we’ve found our guru.
15. Can you please tell me what is the diet of a Buddhist?
The diet of a Buddhist varies with the Buddhist. Because a Buddhist attempts to not harm others, many Buddhists are vegetarian. In some countries ordained monks and nuns are vegetarian but other people eat meat. Often even the laity will refrain from meat on certain days. The Tibetan climate made it very difficult to grow vegetables, so many Tibetan monks and nuns ate meat from necessity. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that when possible, people should become vegetarian, but he himself, for health reasons, eats some meat. What is important is that you do the best you can to avoid harming others, improving as you can day by day.
On this page in our book Teachings from a Vajrasattva Retreat, Lama Zopa says: "If you are not a vegetarian, if you do eat meat, reciting these mantras is unbelievably beneficial for the sentient being whose body you are eating. Otherwise, your eating the meat can become heavy negative karma." The referenced page provides the mantras to say. Our booklet The Yoga of Offering Food provides additional information on how to transform eating into a spiritually beneficial act.
16. Does your site provide free audio where it guides the listener towards chanting the mantras etc?
17. My family has had to put down our beloved family dog because off serious health problems. We could not bear to see him suffer anymore. I have since been thinking of the karmic consequences. Was it the right or wrong decision?
The Buddha said “Do not kill”, but he also realized that life is complicated. What really matters is your motivation. If your motivation was to relieve or avoid the suffering of your beloved pet, then the act becomes a bit like the time in a previous life when the Buddha realized that a person would kill many people on a boat. He chose to kill the person out of compassion to avoid not only the sufferings of the people he would murder but also the terrible consequences that would result to the would-be murderer himself. Some bad karma no doubt happened, but the Buddha was able to purify it and his compassion greatly lessened it. In any case you can purify any negative karma that was incurred and do practices to benefit your beloved pet right now.
You might find the following teaching, entitled Bad and Good Depend on the Individual Person's Interpretation by Lama Zopa Rinpoche helpful. Also, Lama Zopa offers advice on specific ways to benefit animals including at the time of their death in Advice on Benefiting Animals.
18. I'm just an average westerner: a father, worker and husband with two kids and two dogs. Even though I´m interested in Buddhist methods and teachings, they take most of my time and it´s impossible for me to practice hours every day. So I'd be very thankful if you could give me some advice on how could I practice buddhism daily given my circumstances.
When Buddhism was only in countries in the east, like Tibet, people wanting to study the Dharma went to a monastery. Many lay people were devout Buddhists, and like you and me they had jobs, children, and dogs. There were practices that they could do too such as making offerings, reciting mantras, studying, transforming their minds and helping others. Since in the west, there are no rich monasteries to go 'retire' to to devote all our time to practice we are almost all working for a living, even monks and nuns. So we integrate Dharma into our very busy daily lives. The good news is we can do this.
The benefits of Dharma really come from watching your mind and slowly changing what you don't like about it. So we can develop (slowly) improved mindfulness of our actions, our speech, and our mental state and then slowly change. Everyday life is very good for this because we are constantly interacting with people and things we like or hate.
We can also read books and study the Dharma to learn how to transform our minds. As we do this we not only improve our own situation but we also impact those around us and ultimately the whole world. We can learn to see our jobs as an opportunity to help others, for example. We will make our own lives more meaningful. Lama Zopa talks about this in In Search of a Meaningful Life and the Archive publication Making Life Meaningful.
We can do other practices besides meditation that are of benefit. Lama Zopa explains in The Benefits of the Existence of Statues and of Making Statues how we can gain merit. We must do this even if we do spend hours meditating or else our meditations will not ripen. So we can daily make offerings at our shrine, bless and dedicate our food, etc.