“Buddhism is not meant to make people Buddhist”—Geshe Tenzin Namdak
Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. It’s my great pleasure today to share an interview with Geshe Tenzin Namdak who spoke with me at length about the mind, how to counter disturbing emotions, and on the ultimate nature of reality, called emptiness.
Geshe Namdak is one of the few Westerners to complete the rigorous Geshe degree, a 20-year course of study in Tibetan Buddhism, where one masters the Mahayana Buddhist compendium of texts and reasonings.
For a time during his studies, Geshe Namdak went through a phase attending all-night raves with his friends. He talks about this in our interview as one of his life experiences in the Netherlands, where he began studying Buddhism at Maitreya Institute.
Geshe Namdak became a Buddhist monk in 1993, taking ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Geshe-la’s course of study in Buddhism at Sera Jey Monastery in India lasted 20 years from 1997 to 2017, followed by a traditional one year of Vajrayana study at Gyume Tantric College where he was the first Westerner to complete its program.
Geshe Namdak was a founding teacher of Sera Jey’s Translators Program and a member of Sera Jey’s Educational Department. He is one of the founding trustees and teachers of CKSL in Bangalore, part of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition that teaches the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism. Geshe Namdak was also the first director of Shedrup Sungdrel Ling, a house for Western monk studying at Sera Jey Monastery.
Geshe Namdak has received many teachings directly from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and from many other highly respected Buddhist teachers and lineage masters. Geshe-la has completed numerous meditation retreats and is an experienced teacher in the practical and philosophical aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, which he teaches with clarity and humor.
Geshe Namdak has used his background in science and engineering to regularly engage in dialogues with scientists. He and I will be participating in one of these dialogues next week on November 11th, called Science and Wisdom Live. You can get free tickets to that event at sciwizlive.com or find the link on our podcast’s website at skepticspath.org. After the broadcast, the dialogue will be archived and available at that website as well.
Currently, Geshe Namdak, is the resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London, where I spoke with him last week through a video connection.
Scott Snibbe: Geshe Tenzin Namdak, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Really pleased to have you here speaking from London.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Very happy to be a part of your project as well. I’m happy to help out in whatever way possible.
Scott Snibbe: I wanted to just start a little bit with your personal story, if you don’t mind, how you came to Buddhism. We talked the other day and I thought it was interesting that you weren’t spiritually inclined as a young person, if I’m not mistaken. So, I wonder if you could just share what in your life turned you toward life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: When I was a teenager, I was not really looking for some spirituality whatsoever. That only came much later in life. I think I was around maybe 17, 18, and I started to read a little bit of philosophy from Eastern aspects of thought. Because I was into martial arts and I went from hardcore Tae Kwon Do to Kung Fu, and then there was a little bit more philosophy behind it. And then ended up with Tai Chi.
I was quite active in house parties in the big cities. But when I reached about 20, I stopped going to these kind of parties in the weekends. Then I started to study Chinese medicine next to my studies of hydrology at the university.
That brought me to a more kind of spiritual path, you can say, or a path with more philosophy, more about the meaning of life. I had those questions in my mind. You know, what is the purpose of life? Who I am? Some people suffering more than others. I had many of those questions.
Then I ended up at a conference with different forms of faith. And one of the speakers was Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, the teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. I hadn’t read much before about Tibetan Buddhism in particular, but I went to that weekend course and something changed. I didn’t really know that I was looking for something, but I found it before really looking!
From there onwards, my life changed quite a bit. I wanted to become a monk soon after my first encounter with the teachings. And then a few months later I was already walking around with this idea of becoming a monk.
But Geshe-la said, “No, no, no, no. You take your time. You first study a year and then we talk again.” So that’s what I did. I lived at the center, finished my university degree in hydrology, and did research for the government in a nearby city so I could live at the center.
I was more into to study aspect initially, and the practical aspects of meditation and Buddhism. And then that took me to India and studying Tibetan language and entering Sera Jey Monastic University in South India.
Scott Snibbe: There aren’t that many Westerners who have gone through the Geshe program yet. And you’re one of them. You recently graduated. Could you explain for our audience what a Geshe is and how you become one?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: I mean, what it is, it is just a title. It’s very similar to probably a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy and psychology. But the thing is, it is a 20-year program. So compared to my studies at university where you specialize in one field—right, that’s how we do it in Western education.
Well, this tradition is set up that you try to specialize in everything, meaning psychology philosophy, epistemology, mind science. It’s a very intense program compared to the university. It’s much more intense than any university I can imagine in the West. And it’s a very, in-depth six times a week program with debates and also gatherings of the monastics and prayers.
It’s a guide or a way of life as well. But the main emphasis is on this in-depth aspect of Buddhist philosophy and mind science. That’s why it takes quite some time because to understand the mind is, you know, not easy. And to put it into practice and to get a kind of subjective experience from it as well, it takes a long time.
That’s maybe also one of the reasons why the program is quite long. It’s a busy life, but very inspiring.
In South India we were quite remote: 50 minutes from a national reserve with elephants and tigers. And then this incredible rich monastic village with thousands of monks. It was a very fortunate period as well: 20 years of in-depth studies and practices.
Scott Snibbe: My understanding is part of that education is very much about debate and critical analysis. And the Dalai Lama also in his public teachings, he encourages a skeptical approach to Buddhist teachings. So, I wonder if you could explain how skepticism fits into the Buddhist path, particularly this Indian tradition of Buddhism?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: The first moment I encountered the Buddhist teachings, already I saw this openness of questioning and the openness of self-research and don’t believe what’s been taught, or what’s been said. You have to examine if that’s reality or not.
You can call it a skeptical approach, but actually it’s kind of more being not biased or being impartial. Right? So that’s one of the qualifications also of a student is to not be biased and to have a neutral perspective and analyze if something exists or doesn’t exist. What are the reasons for it to exist and what are the reasons for it not to exist?
And then you draw your conclusions. It’s a very open approach. That’s also in a monastic system where if you see the amount of time that is spent in analytical debates versus attending teachings, you might have sometimes only three or four hours of teaching the whole week. And then everyday you spend hours and hours on the debate courtyard, examining these teachings and using reasoning. Because His Holiness said often that scripture reference is one, but the main analytical approach is using reasoning.
There’s a very in-depth system of sophisticated reasoning in the fields of epistemology that we then use to analyze certain aspects of the text, which describes things about our mind, describes things about reality. And we have the complete freedom to take it apart if we want to explore it in different ways of logic.
Scott Snibbe: I heard from some of the more ancient stories that, in the old days, if you lost a debate, you had to take on the side of the person that won. What happens when you lose a debate in the monastery?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: It’s very similar. I mean, that comes from a tradition of Nalanda. The Tibetan system, or the Tibetan tradition is based on the monastic institutions of old India. Like Nalanda, Vikramashila, Taxila. This kind of openness. If you lose a debate, you take the view of the opponent. That openness was there.
So, in debate it’s very similar. Because you uphold the particular view within particular classification or Buddhist philosophy. And somebody else upholds another view of Buddhist philosophy: either higher or lower. And then you debate with each other.
You start to understand much more the view you are actually defending, though you don’t completely agree with it. But you try to understand it with the best reasoning you can put forward.
Then the other opponent or debater is challenging you, if that is correct view or not. Sometimes you see more convincing reasoning in this particular view or in the view of the opponent. And that gives you a lot of insights in how things actually really exist to a certain extent.
Scott Snibbe: I think if our political system worked that way, we might have quite a great political system.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah. It’s that neutral perspective. Like a scientist, observing something without being biased. Completely fresh. Sometimes they compare it to a child who walks in a room for the first time and looks around and observes everything in that new room.
So that approach, we should always have this openness to whatever appears. And then analyze the way it appears as well as the philosophy and reality behind it.
Scott Snibbe: Yes, that openness. Do you think that openness relates to the Zen idea of beginner’s mind, that freshness to experience?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: In certain ways, probably. Though in the Nalanda tradition, there’s a little bit more emphasis, as you know, in this in-depth research of using more reasoning. So we put a lot of emphasis on analytical meditation as well, rather than just mere awareness meditation on abiding in a particular state.
Scott Snibbe: Not just openness, but also a lot of research and learning and then the debate and critical analysis.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah, exactly. It’s a very important aspect of the studies and the practice as well.
Scott Snibbe: Could you talk a little bit about what the mind is?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Normally we describe the mind as clear and knowing. That’s one kind of definition we can give. There are also these other definitions in relation to the ultimate nature of conventional aspect of clear light mind. So there’s kind of a clarity that has the capacity to understand, and that has the capacity to experience things: that things can appear to your mind and you can experience them.
That’s just a definition, right? So another aspect of mind or consciousness is that it’s not matter. It’s not physical. It’s not things we can examine in empirical kind of research.
That’s quite different from certain aspects of neuroscience: the neuroscience that only believes in the aspect of a physical brain. But there are also neuroscientists, especially in the fields of neurophenomenology. There, there is probably something, what we call consciousness that has an interaction with this physical brain whose correlation we can study.
But what consciousness is, is still very difficult to define. Within Buddhism we talk a lot about what consciousness is, how it has been divided. But it’s always been very clear that consciousness itself is not matter. It’s not something physical, although it has this interaction with the physical brain, of course, for us as human beings. But by itself it is kind of an experience or a clear knowing aspect that can know things and things can appear to it.
Scott Snibbe: Do you think this way of being immaterial is in any way at odds with science? Does science today accept things that have no material basis? It it open to them?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yes. I mean, be open to them. There is a lot of research that has been done already in the fields with meditators and the effect on brain activity and the whole field of neuroplasticity: how we can change our behaviors, how we can change the brain.
There’s a lot of very interesting research to be done in the fields of this aspect of neuroscience. I’ve seen a few very interesting cases or studies for obsessive compulsive disorder; that there is a possibility to influence those kinds of brain aspects that causes a person to be forced to a particular act.
But mental training, the possibility of changing that brain activity, you become more or less in control and you can animate a kind of free will with regard to thoughts that comes to mind.
Scott Snibbe: You’re participating in a dialogue with scientists next week with Science and Wisdom Live on “Dealing with Disturbing Emotions.” Could you talk about some of the ways that we can productively deal with disturbing emotions like anger and craving through meditation?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Disturbing emotions or destructive emotions—it depends how you label them—in the Buddhist context, we call them afflictions, that which afflicts the mind. That means the destructive emotions like anger, attachment, jealousy, pride, and also modern kind of things like anxiety and fear and depression, for example.
So those kinds of disturbance of mind, we can see that they disturb. And we can see it causes a kind of suffering. First of all, mental suffering and then destructive emotions like anger can also even lead to physical or verbal harm. So it’s kind of a motivator for our physical and verbal behaviors as well.
That means it’s essential to understand what are the destructive emotions and what are they doing? Not only on a personal level, but also in our relationships with others, and even on social and global levels. It can cause a lot of disturbance. So these destructive emotions, so to say, they disturbed the mind.
And there’s even more to say about it because another aspect of it is that we lose the clarity to analyze. Problem-solving is very difficult when these kinds of destructive emotions come up.
Another aspect is that they not in accordance with reality. And that’s why it causes a huge problem. For example, if you get angry at a person or situation, what happens?
You overestimate or you over-impute, as we say, the faults or its object of what you are angry at, or the person or situation. You create this kind of mental image with what we call conceptual consciousness. There’s a mental image that’s been generated. You believe that’s actually the person or that’s actually the situation. But it’s not, it’s just a mental fabrication.
If you close your eyes, you think about a person, that mental image that comes up to your conceptual consciousness; when you close your eyes, it’s not an actual person, right? But you think it is the person. And then you walk out of the room and then you take the mental image and then you build all these faults on top of that.
If you close your eyes, you think about a person, that mental image that comes up to your conceptual consciousness; when you close your eyes, it’s not an actual person, right? But you think it is the person. And then you walk out of the room and then you take the mental image and then you build all these faults on top of that.—Geshe Tenzin Namdak
And that creates a kind of incorrect understanding of reality. That generates more and more kind of aversion or anger as individuals.
One aspect of these destructive emotions is that they create a kind of reality that’s not really present. And the same is true with fear. People don’t like to go out because this of that will happen. But that’s based on what we call ignorance: not really understanding the reality out there. And that’s also one of the reasons, exactly that’s one of the reasons why they can be taken away.
Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways that you can counteract these disturbing emotions? You say they’re exaggerated, they’re not in accordance with reality. And they block our ability to reason and to even deal with those situations productively.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: First of all, we have to generate what we call self-awareness. Without self-awareness it is very difficult. People on this planet and, in particular, criminals, for example, people who commit crimes over and over again. They don’t have this kind of awareness of their feelings. Their emotional intelligence is completely lacking.
That means they get in these emotional hijacks. When anger takes over they make a mistake, right? And some don’t even recognize that is a mistake. So the first step is kind of self-awareness. And also for us, as individuals on a personal basis, without really knowing what’s going on inside in your mind, you just act what comes to mind. So that means before we know it, we’re in this rage of anger. And we just stuck and we cannot do anything anymore.
That has to be prevented. And we can prevent that by generating more self-awareness. If you do some techniques, concentration meditation on the breath, for example, to count your breathing pattern: every in-breath is one, out-breath is two, and you count from one to 10.
You learn to focus your mind on one particular object: in this case, the counting of the breath. You cut off all the forms of thoughts of past and future. Or you try, right? In that learning process you become much more aware of the present. Because mostly our mind is occupied by future or past. We are never really in the present.
The more you are in the present, the more quietness of mind comes. And then things reflect. It’s like a still lake in a mountainous region where there is no wind, everything reflects. Everything’s clear. And its clarity is there. Then we can see things and then we can learn from the mind. There’s a first step kind of self-awareness.
And then the next step is to use reasoning. What is actually happening? From a neutral perspective, like an scientists observing a particular phenomenon. Or you observe from a distance, you recall the event that happened. And then see what did it do to me and how did I react? And then you can start to see drawbacks or faults of these destructive emotions.
And then you contemplate in a similar way, by using reasoning about the benefits of keeping your mind more at peace and practicing patience, for example, and seeing that as very constructive. This reasoning is going to do the job.
Because as an example, if we have a nasty dream or you wake up in the middle of the night from an unpleasant dream, then the only thing that works to stop that feeling—because we still believe when we wake up, we still believe it’s reality. So then we wash our face, we sit down and say, come on, I’m here. Nothing happened, it’s just a dream. That’s the whole reasoning that eliminates this wrong view.
In a similar way, destructive emotions can be dealt with in a very simple approach; with awareness, first of all. And then to reason that these states of minds are not constructive, and should be avoided, and can be avoided.
Scott Snibbe: So you described these two steps: the first of coming into the present and gaining self-awareness, and the second using reasoning. Would you say those correspond to the two types of meditation: stabilizing and analytical meditation?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Exactly. I mean, first of all, we need to concentrate mind and that’s even true in day-to-day life. When our mind is not concentrated, a person might talk to us and we say, Oh, what did he say again? Or we might read a book and we say, Oh, I must read it again. So that means we need concentration.
If you are concentrated and have this awareness, you’ll be in the present. You know what you’re reading, or you know what a person is saying to you.
That’s very important in our whole life: to be attentive and to be with people. And knowing that you are in the present and that you can observe so much more and absorb more and more information and have a clarity of the mind to think about.
So that’s the first step.
And then, based on that kind of quietness of mind, then we need to deal with the problem. We analyze it. And then we have to deal with it. Meaning, focusing upon the faults of these destructive emotions and analyzing why, from a neutral perspective. And see the benefits of the antidote: practicing patience versus getting angry.
So we have those two meditations for that purpose, to work with these problems: concentration meditation versus analytical meditation.
Scott Snibbe: And the first type of meditation, the concentration meditation, would you say that corresponds or relates to the popular mindfulness form of meditation today?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Actually the real meaning of mindfulness, if it’s in the Pali tradition or in the Sanskrit tradition, means actually remembrance. Right? So remembering what, that’s the question?
For example, in day-to-day life it is remembering your intention: intending to be good today, or try to help others, or at least not to harm others, try not to get too much irritated. That’s your intention for the day.
And then, throughout the day, after this awareness of seeing your mind coming and going in particular directions, with mindfulness you always remember this instruction. That’s a very powerful aspect of the mind that helps us.
If we do this analytical meditation on a regular basis, and we generate some awareness with concentration meditation, and we do these analytical meditations on a daily basis, then throughout the day, we will remember. And that’s actually the real mindfulness throughout the day. That will bring a very constructive way of practice in our daily lives.
Scott Snibbe: I’m familiar with that definition, of course, of mindfulness; that it’s just the remembering, keeping the object in mind. I keep working to try to understand how that maps to the popular definition of mindfulness. Because it seems to vary between different teachers.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah, it talks a little bit about awareness building, right? Which is important even in business.
That’s why it’s quite a popular technique because it works. It works in the sense that, if you’re more mindful from the point of view of being aware of your surroundings and your own mind and your own emotional life, you become more emotionally intelligent, as we say. So the more emotionally intelligent you are, the more successful you are. It’s not only to have a high IQ. That’s not the main focus, right?
We’re dealing with people all the time. Whether it’s family life, or it’s in the office or in schools or whatever, we deal with people. So if you understand your own mind, then you understand the minds around us much better. That means if you have this kind of emotional intelligence, you’re very good in your social life and relationship building. And that’s essential for us social human beings.
Scott Snibbe: That’s very nice and very practical, a good preview of the dialogue that’s coming up.
Something else I wanted to ask you about the Science and Wisdom dialogue coming up is that one of the participants is Father Laurence Freeman, who’s a Catholic priest and a Benedictine monk. Could you talk about the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity and how the two communities relate to each other?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Of course, it’s not only Christianity, but I think many forms of faith or world religions. They have a lot of things in common. Right? Like we all are working for the same purpose in life: to achieve more happiness.
And also in the different forms of faiths, we also see the need to understand our interconnectedness with other human beings on this planet. And based on that understanding that we all like happiness, we don’t like suffering, then these kinds of constructive ways of mind like compassion training and loving kindness, we all aspire to.
That we also see in a Christian tradition. Even once, His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentioned when he met one of the monks from this particular Christian tradition, we did a lot of meditation on compassion. And the moment they started talking about it, His Holiness saw there was something in their eyes that he recognized as being something very similar to what he sees with Buddhist practitioners who spend a lot of time on these kinds of meditations on compassion. So it is very inspiring to see.
Scott Snibbe: Very nice. The practical goals in terms of living a meaningful life and being happier are common to Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths; and the morality.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yes. I mean there are many aspects of course. Morality is also one. But yes, the main concern of all sentient beings wanting to be happy—because we all strive for this. We have this innate wish for happiness and don’t like suffering. So how can we walk toward this direction?
And Christianity, we see a lot of good things happening with education and hospitals. Especially in the poor countries, right? This kind of outreach is essential and very important. The motivation behind all these kind of projects is very common to what we talk about in Buddhism, in the loving-kindness and compassion aspects of mind training.
Scott Snibbe: I’ve heard the Dalai Lama several times praise the Christian approach to compassion because it’s so actively engaged in the world. And, even kind of gently nudging the Buddhist practitioners to go more outside of the mind and out into the world.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: It’s true. It is definitely true. And luckily also in certain Buddhist organizations, there are a lot of projects going on, right? Not only education of the mind, but also helping in India. There’s are a few organizations also helping society on different levels with hospitals, schools.
I was also involved in a project with the blind schools in Bangalore, South India from this Buddhist center. And we did a lot of things with the central prison in Bangalore as well: talks, helping the inmates basically to train the mind. An important, very important project as well.
Scott Snibbe: There’s a lot of Buddhist work with prisoners. Venerable Robina Courtin, that’s one of the major projects of her life, but I didn’t realize that it was also in India.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yeah, we did quite a bit. I mean, we gave just regular meditations and classes with the inmates there. And just meet with them and talk with them. Also, for me it was a very educational process to see all these people you normally don’t meet; to see their lives. And to try to help them to get more meaning in their life. That’s very worthwhile because they were so happy when we came. Otherwise they don’t get that many visitors, of course.
And then we talk about mind training. For them, of course, they come from a background of the rich Indian culture of mind training. So it’s very easy to communicate with them on that level as well. It was a very worthwhile project.
Scott Snibbe: Recently in our podcast series, we’ve been focusing on the Buddhist view of the nature of reality. Of course, it’s a very deep topic. But I’m wondering if you’d be willing to explain this idea for someone who’s inexperienced with Buddhism. And why it’s of practical use to contemplate this ultimate nature of reality compared to the way things appear to us.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Ultimate reality, it’s a very complex aspect of Buddhist philosophy, but a very essential one. And that’s why it’s been studied so in-depth. Because the Buddha himself was questioning things of the mind: these kind of destructive emotions, how do they come about? And how do they abide and how do they disintegrate? Those aspects are essential to understand.
If you analyze well, then you can see that all these destructive emotions are actually rooted in a very concrete concept of I and mine: to see an I and mine that exist without any dependents.
Very interestingly, lately I have been asked to talk in a dialogue about the life and ideas of David Bohm. And I also gave a presentation about correlation between the view of reality in Buddhist philosophy in relationship with his view of “wholeness.”
It’s very interesting. I came across a few statements of Bohm that are very similar, almost the same as Buddhist philosophy about the self. He calls it the self-deceptive thought, or self-deception or present ego identity. And he says this kind of program—to cling on to this ego or this I and mine—this program is a cause for many problems.
Actually the program is nonsense, he said. But we can’t stop it.
And he said, Because of this program we are conditioned by this program. And then we want money. We want power. We want security. So this concrete concept of I and mine—also in the Buddhist philosophy—causes us to get angry. How dare this person say this to me? I’m not like that. This is mine! I need this. I need that. So a lot of problems surround this ego that seems to exist as a very concrete, independent entity.
But the question is, does it exist in that way or not?
David Bohm also says this ego identity we have, that we identify ourself with: our thoughts, our actions, everything. But actually it is just a show. It’s not really there. But it’s a very convincing show and that’s why people feel comfortable with it. And not only feel comfortable with it, then people act as if it’s there and it gives us a kind of apparent reality.
It’s a very interesting point he is making, because it is true. If you really analyze our body and mind with its momentary changing, is a very dynamic process of constant causes and conditions. There is nothing concrete that exists all by itself, right? So that’s true for our ego identity and it’s true for our problems.
People think my problem is the biggest problem on this planet. And it’s not going to change. I have to experience this. So that by itself causes a problem, right? It means whatever problem you’re facing doesn’t exist from its own side. It’s momentary. It comes, abides and disintegrates. All negative thoughts end that way. Same thing.
So if you understand this aspect of this constant flux or dynamic aspect of what David Bohm called wholeness or this interconnectedness, then you lose this grasping at this concrete world that doesn’t actually exist the way it appears.
We think things are very concrete: my house, my computer, my phone, my car. But actually, it’s just a matter of cause and effect, conditions that cause it all to exist. That helps us to understand this kind of interdependence of everything around us, including our own body and mind. And that proves that nothing can exist from its own side.
David Bohm also says fragmentation is a problem in society, and global problems. We don’t live coherent with nature. That’s why we have environmental problems. His Holiness always says, My country, my faith, my religion, that’s past tense. We are all human beings of the same household on this planet. So we should help each other to prevent problems and to solve problems.
That’s a very interesting approach, not only on a personal level of seeing that these destructive emotions are rooted in a concrete “I” and “mine” that actually doesn’t exist the way it appears; as well as this fragmentation on the global level that causes problems. And it can be prevented by seeing this kind of view of wholeness or this view of interconnectedness or interdependence.
Scott Snibbe: So it’s this exaggerated, concrete, separate sense of self and also of other objects, things, and problems in the world that’s inaccurate. And through this view of emptiness—seeing things as impermanent, changing, having causes—that serves as a strong antidote to these disturbing emotions and the ego grasping at the root of them.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Emptiness means empty of something. It’s not just mere nothingness, but the lack, or the absence of this concrete aspect of reality, that appears.
So that’s not really there. That’s where the Bohm says. It’s just a show. But if you analyze well, you can see it as just a dynamic process of causes and conditions that we are a part of.
Scott Snibbe: To continue with this view from physics, I’m curious if you can talk about what role the mind plays in shaping reality. Because if you look at certain interpretations of quantum physics, there are some theories that even say your mind affects or collapses reality in some way, as you observe reality. What’s your view on that from the Buddhist perspective? What is the role of the mind in shaping reality?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: This is very important. We have one school of Buddhist philosophy that’s called “mind only.” And that school of Buddhist philosophy also says that objects, they appear “distant and cut off,” meaning distant and cut off from consciousness. They appear completely separate.
But actually, what appears to your mind and what appears to my mind—though the object in front of us might be the same: a computer or a screen or whatsoever—but how it appears to your mind and how it appears to my mind is completely different.
You take what appears to your mind as reality. What appears to my mind I take as reality. And it’s two different things. But the object out there is not existing all by itself. It is just the way it appears to our mind, we see it in a particular way.
So that’s one aspect of Buddhist philosophy: how we see that nothing can exist without dependence on the observer. That’s one aspect.
Another aspect is what you just talked about: how with destructive emotions we believe things to exist, but a lot of it is just fabricated by the mind. It’s not reality.
These mental images we talked about of destructive emotions: that the person or the situation we get angry at, maybe the person let’s say has 50% false and 50% neutral qualities, right?
So when we get angry at a person we see 80 to 90% false, fabricated. Aaron Beck, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, he came to very similar conclusions. He says in a rage of anger a person, what appears to the mind is 80 to 90% mentally fabricated.
So that means that what appears to the mind we take for granted to be reality, but it’s not. And that causes a problem. Because then we say, I believe this, you believe that. And then you hold on strongly to your beliefs and then there’s of course disagreement. That openness is lacking in understanding or discussing or having a dialogue about different things.
Scott Snibbe: So again, the subjectivity of the mind: that people see things differently from different perspectives, and then also the illusory nature of our projections, especially negative projections, as you mentioned; when we’re upset at somebody or something, we don’t see the wholeness.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yes. That’s very true. Also by the power of particular habituations, right? The stronger our inclinations or habituations are to negative thinking. Then we see the world as negative.
When you walk on a beautiful sunny day with your friend, and your friend is maybe a bit down, what you see and what the other person perceives is completely different. But the outer world is sunshine. Right? We see the sunshine. But this person sees it as darkness. So that means there’s a very subjective aspect there.
Scott Snibbe: If you think about emptiness in your daily life or on the cushion, I think to somebody who’s unfamiliar with it, it’s a bit questionable how or why it works, right?
Because it’s almost like school, learning how things are broken down and how they’re made and particle physics and chemistry and biology. And then somehow thinking that all those bundles of things will serve as an antidote to our disturbing emotions. Could you talk a little bit more about how that connection gets made?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Ultimate reality or what David Bohm calls the implicate order: It’s not exactly the same, but it’s a kind of reality for us that’s very difficult to understand initially. Because our habituation to that reality is not present. That means we have to say what it’s not: it’s not this, it’s not that.
For example, if I tell you there’s this amazing strawberry jam somewhere they made in the Southern part of France. You don’t really know it until you taste it yourself. Right? But I can tell you it’s not peanut butter or it’s not this kind of jam. So it gets closer and closer to the reality.
That’s what we try to do with this analytical meditation. You come closer and closer to reality. And then at one particular point of time, when all the causes and conditions are present—of reasoning and clarity of the mind and stableness of the mind—then there’s a possibility you get these insights.
These insights are by itself not everything. It’s a matter of of going deeper and deeper and deeper. And then, eventually, you will understand reality much better.
Then, when you come out of that meditation on emptiness you see that the world out there is different than before. Because things ordinarily appear very concrete and existing from their own side. But now having understood a little bit more about things lacking this kind of concrete existence, you see the world in a slightly different kind of picture, right?
Scott Snibbe: Yes. And you’re saying it’s through this process of exclusion, of searching for the thing and not finding it: that it’s not this it’s not that. That’s what you’re saying.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: That’s the main kind of logic we use: if this concrete I exists the way it appears, then you should be able to find it. Oh, it’s in the body? Where is it in the body? And check all the parts in the body, for example. And you say, Oh no, it’s in the mind. And then you check the levels of the mind or the different moments of consciousness. And then you cannot really find it.
So you refute. You say what it’s not, of different aspects. And then you’re left with nothing. Right? Because you examined everything and you cannot find it. And then you come to this conclusion, Okay, it doesn’t exist the way it appears. And that’s the final conclusion of understanding a little bit more about this kind of ego identity or this kind of self.
Scott Snibbe: But that final conclusion maybe is something that then transcends the logic a little bit. Because you analyze all the things that it isn’t. But then something happens where you realize what it is?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Because this kind of logic is our tool, our method, right? At the moment at the present time of our science, the language is mathematics and statistics, right? So for us in epistemology, we use it as a language to come to a conclusion. But that’s not the goal, that’s just a method, right?
That helps us to move in a particular direction. And then what great masters say, even when you don’t realize emptiness, it’s still different than just from excellent conceptualizations of it.
But in order to come to that process, we need to start somewhere. And that’s why we use reasoning. Because we cannot see emptiness with our eyes or hear emptiness when our ears, we need a mental approach.
And the same reasoning is being applied as we have destructive emotions, or the dream example. To solve the problem comes by facing the problem, analyzing what the problem is, and then applying different kinds of reasonings to see actually that this problem doesn’t really exist the way it appears.
Scott Snibbe: This is a very elaborate topic, obviously in Tibetan Buddhism, but there are relatively straightforward entrances. There are sometimes also warnings and sometimes even a hesitance to discuss the topic. Would you share any warnings with people that it is something that’s not for everybody or is there a healthy low-level?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: His Holiness said in early days, we didn’t talk too much about emptiness. But in modern times, people are very intelligent. And His Holiness, in almost every teaching talks about emptiness, mainly with the reasons of dependent origination.
If you use the reasoning of dependent origination, there’s no danger to fall in what we call the wrong views of nihilism or extremism, right? Because all things are dependent, things cannot exist from their own side. Because they conventionally originate on a conventional level, there’s a desk according to conventional reality.
That means if you use this reasoning of dependent origination, which is called the “king of reasonings” by Nagarjuna, that prevents you from falling into either of the two extremes. And it gives you an incredible insight into not only the ultimate reality, but also the conventional reality as well.
Scott Snibbe: So taking this approach of dependent origination or interdependence, that reasoning is a safe and fruitful and healthy one for exploring this idea.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Yes. And not only just exploring yourself, but read books. There’s one very good book by His Holiness, How to See Yourself as You Really Are.
Scott Snibbe: Yes, that’s right.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: That’s a perfect kind of guidebook about the emptiness of the self of person. And then classes and then discuss things. It’s not something you can just get out of a book. It’s kind of later on from an experience point of view, to get instructions from a teacher and then slowly go deeper and deeper.
And it’s a long, it’s a lifetime commitment.
Scott Snibbe: Thanks for going into that topic with us. I think people will really benefit from the education and experience you have with it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for our audience of people who are looking for practical science-based ways to make their lives happier and more meaningful? You’ve gone into several very powerful topics already in terms of dealing with disturbing emotions, what the mind is, the two types of meditation, emptiness.
We actually really covered a lot! But is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: In Buddhist philosophy and psychology, there’s a lot of things that can be offered and can be studied depending on the interest. But also from a non-Buddhist point of view, like David Bohm’s interpretation of wholeness is very interesting material; and not only interesting material from the point of view of philosophy or nature of reality, but also to build peace on this planet. It’s a very interesting aspect of reality.
When I started to give talks in different places in India—also to non-Buddhist organizations, of course—I was always quite inspired by books by Daniel Goleman, you know, Emotional Intelligence. And that’s very interesting material to see.
Because if you read those books, Emotional Intelligence, Social & Emotional Learning, the main conclusion is that if you subdue your mind, there is happiness, right? And that’s a very Buddhist principle as well. And that you don’t have to call it Buddhism as such. If it benefits, whatever method you use from that point of view, then that’s fine. Right?
Buddhism is not meant to make people Buddhist. I was giving a few introduction courses in Tushita Dharamsala in North of India. And we have mainly youngsters who are traveling the world and want to do a 10 day course. So then a few people from different backgrounds attend.
And then some people come up to me after and they say, “Oh, After these 10 days I started to understand my own religion now much better.”
I thought, Oh, that’s good, that’s good, my job is done. You know? That they understand their own faith or religion much better after contemplating similar things, but then using different types of reasoning. And that’s this openness. If that’s there, then where we started with the talk today, it’s very important to have this kind of impartial unbiased kind of openness. And analyze and check. Then there’s great opportunities.
Scott Snibbe: Buddhism is not meant to make people Buddhist. I think that’s a very nice place to end. Quite a deep statement, I think.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: I translated a few times for His Holiness, for Westerners who got ordained. And His Holiness always made a very strong statement to always follow the religion of your forefathers. You know, culturally it’s related and that’s much more healthy.
But of course there are individuals who are more inclined to a particular religion or form of faith. And then they can take that step, you know, people we see like myself. Then, if there’s really interest, if you want to take that step, then you can do that. Generally speaking it is always better to examine well. And then based on those kinds of statements of His Holiness, also is very clear.
Buddhism is not meant to make more Buddhists, but to help society, right? To generate happy minds.
“Buddhism is not meant to make more Buddhists, but to help society, right? To generate happy minds.”—Geshe Tenzin Namdak
Scott Snibbe: Very nice. Well, I think that’s a great place to end. Thank you so much, Geshe-la. I really appreciate you making the time to speak with us. I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you.
Geshe Tenzin Namdak: Thank you very much for inviting me and good luck and success with the project.
Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for this deep and fascinating interview with Geshe Tenzin Namdak.
On November 11, Geshe Namdak and I will be part of a dialogue between scientists and meditators called Science and Wisdom Live. The conversation includes two highly regarded scientists, Dr. Elena Antonova and Dr. Wendy Hassenkamp, as well as renowned Catholic priest and Benedictine monk, Father Laurence Freeman, who is famous for reintroducing meditation to Christian communities.
You can sign up for free tickets at sciwizlive.com, or find the links at our website: skepticspath.org.
We welcome your feedback about this episode on our website or our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages. You can also join a private meditation discussion group that’s linked from our website as well.
Thanks to Stephen Butler, my partner in Skeptic’s Path, for conceiving and producing this interview series.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio