Basically Good

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on good heart, awakened mind, the causes of happiness and other basic principles of Buddhism. I believe that all human beings are of the same nature. At the mental and emotional levels we are the same. We all have the potential to become happy and nice people and we also…

The Dalai Lama
29 May 2016
The Dalai Lama Basic Goodness Teaching Lion's Roar Buddhism
Photo by Individuell Manniskohjälp.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on good heart, awakened mind, the causes of happiness and other basic principles of Buddhism.

I believe that all human beings are of the same nature. At the mental and emotional levels we are the same. We all have the potential to become happy and nice people and we also have the potential to become very bad and harmful people. The same potential for these things is present within all of us; the important thing is to try to promote the positive and useful sides and try to reduce the negative sides.

Inevitably, the negative side will bring miserable experience. In the short term you may get some kind of satisfaction, but in the long run the negative will always bring some unpleasant experience. On the other hand, positive things always bring us inner strength. With inner strength, there is less fear and more self-confidence. With this inner strength, it is much easier to extend our sense of caring to others without any barriers, whether religious, cultural or so on. Therefore, it is very important to realize this potential for good and bad and to analyze it carefully.

This is what I call the promotion of deeper human value. This deeper human value is compassion—a sense of caring and commitment to others. These basic human good qualities are essential, and without them you can’t be a happy person. This is something very important, whether you are a believer or nonbeliever in any religious faith.

Among humanity there are some who have a mental disposition that suits religious faith, and utilizing religious faith to promote these basic human values is something very positive. The different major world religions basically have the same message, the message of love, compassion and forgiveness. The methods to promote these things can be different, but as these traditions more or less aim at the same goal—which is a happier life, becoming a more compassionate person and a more compassionate humanity—the different methods do not present a problem. The ultimate achievement is what is important.

Implementing the Teachings

Once you accept a religious tradition, it should become part of your daily life. In this way, you may have some experiences, and with these experiences we will come to know the deeper value. The practice is very essential.

If we do not appreciate the importance of implementing the teachings into one’s own life through practice, there is the danger of following a cliché or popular impression. For example, when someone talks about Christianity, the first image one thinks of is a big cross inside a church or chapel. Perhaps when someone talks about Buddhism, the image you get is of a serene Buddha inside the huge hall of a temple. Specifically, when people talk about Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps you get the impression of a monk holding a drum and cymbal; maybe people think of a monk wearing a weird-looking mask. This is what I mean by popular impression or cliché. There is a sort of danger in this.

When someone mentions Buddhism, in particular Tibetan Buddhism, you should have the feeling of altruism, infinite altruism, and an understanding of sunya—emptiness or ultimate reality. We should cultivate our perception so that when we think about Tibetan Buddhism, the first images in our mind are concepts like altruism, universal compassion, and the understanding of the deeper nature of reality. This is the kind of perception that we must cultivate.

The Four Noble Truths

As you might be aware, the core teachings of the Buddha are grounded in the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of the Buddhist teaching. These are the truths of suffering, its origin, the possibility of cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

The teachings on the Four Noble Truths are grounded in our human experience. Underlying our existence as human beings is the basic aspiration to seek happiness and to avoid suffering. The happiness that we desire and the suffering that we shun come about as a result of causes and conditions. Understanding this causal mechanism of suffering and happiness is what the Four Noble Truths are about.

To understand this mechanism, Buddhism analyzes the various possibilities of causation. For example, one could argue that our experiences of suffering and happiness occur for no reason, without a cause. That is one possibility that has been rejected in the Buddhist teachings. There is also the possibility that our experiences are created or caused by some transcendent being. This possibility is also rejected in Buddhism. There is also the possibility of postulating some kind of primal substance that could be the root of all origination of things and events. This has also been rejected in Buddhism.

Having rejected all these metaphysical possibilities, Buddhist teaching presents an understanding of the causal process in terms of interdependent origination. That is to say, our experiences of suffering and happiness do not come about by themselves or by some other independently existing cause, nor by some combination of these. The Buddhist standpoint is that all things and events, including our experience of suffering and happiness, come about as a result of a process of interdependent origination—the coming together of a multiplicity of causes and conditions.

The Primary Role of Mind

If we look at the teaching of the Four Noble Truths carefully, the principal point we find is the primary importance that consciousness, or mind, plays in determining our experiences of suffering and happiness.

When Buddhism talks about the nature of suffering, there are different levels of suffering. For example, there is the suffering that is very obvious to all of us, such as painful experiences. This we all can recognize as suffering. And there is a second level of suffering, which in ordinary terms we define as pleasurable sensations. In reality, however, these pleasurable sensations are suffering because they have the seed of dissatisfaction within them.

There is also a third level of suffering, which in Buddhist terminology is called the pervasive suffering of conditioning. In a sense, one can say that this third level of suffering is the mere fact of our existence as unenlightened beings who are subject to negative emotions, thoughts and karmic actions. The very existence of being bonded to negative emotions and karma is in fact suffering and a source of dissatisfaction.

If you look at these types of suffering we find that all of them are ultimately grounded in our state of mind. When we talk about the delusions that propel one into acting in negative ways, these are states of mind, undisciplined states of mind. Therefore, when Buddhism refers to the truth of the origin of suffering, we are talking about an undisciplined and untamed state of mind that gives rise to a state of unenlightenment and suffering. Ultimately, the origin of suffering, the cause of suffering, and suffering itself can be understood only in terms of a state of mind.

Buddhist teachings describe the cessation of suffering as the highest state of happiness. This should not be understood in terms of pleasurable sensation; we are not talking about happiness at the level of feeling or sensation. Rather, we are referring to the highest level of happiness, which is marked by total freedom from suffering and delusion. Again, this is a quality of mind, a state of mind. Therefore, we have to understand the nature of mind.

And when we talk about the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering, we are also talking about various levels of mind, various levels of realizations. So in order to understand the Four Noble Truths, one has to understand the primary role that mind, or consciousness, plays in determining our experience of suffering and pain.

Samsara and Nirvana

The actual process by which mind creates our unenlightened existence and the suffering we experience is described by Candrakirti in his Guide to the Middle Way, where he states, “An undisciplined state of mind gives rise to delusions which propel an individual into negative action which then creates the negative environment in which the person lives.”

When trying to understand the nature of freedom from suffering (nirvana) that Buddhism talks about, we can look at a passage in Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way, where he in some sense equates unenlightened existence (samsara) and enlightened existence, or nirvana. The point Nagarjuna is making in equating unenlightened and enlightened existence is that we should not have the impression that there is any kind of intrinsic nature or intrinsic being to our existence, be it enlightened or unenlightened.

From the point of view of emptiness, samsara and nirvana are equally devoid of any intrinsic reality or intrinsic being. What differentiates an unenlightened state from the enlightened state is the knowledge and experience of emptiness. The knowledge and experience of the emptiness of samsara is what can be called nirvana. Again, we see that it is a state of mind—an understanding or knowledge of emptiness—that differentiates samsara and nirvana.

Given these premises, it is very fair to raise the question: is Buddhism suggesting that everything is nothing but projection of our mind?

This is a critical question and one that has elicited different responses from Buddhist teachers. In one camp, great masters have argued that in the final analysis, yes, everything, including our experience of suffering and happiness, is nothing but the projection of our mind.

The potential for enlightenment exists naturally in all of us.

But there is also another camp, which has vehemently argued against that form of extreme subjectivism. This second camp maintains that although one can, in some sense, understand everything as creations of mind, this does not mean that everything is nothing but the mind. They argue that one must maintain a degree of objectivity that things do exist. Although the consciousness, the mind, plays a role in creating our experience and the world at the same time, they maintain there is an objective world that is accessible to all subjects, all experiences.

There is another point that I think one should understand with regard to the Buddhist concept of freedom, or nirvana. Nagabuddhi, who was a student of Nagarjuna, states that, “Enlightenment or spiritual freedom is not a gift that someone can give to you, nor is the seed for enlightenment something that is owned by someone else.” The implication here is that the potential for enlightenment exists naturally in all of us.

Nagabuddhi goes on to ask, “What is nirvana, what is enlightenment, what is spiritual freedom?” He answers, “True enlightenment is nothing but when the nature of one’s own self is fully realized.” When Nagabuddhi talks about the nature of one’s own self, he is referring to what Buddhists call the ultimate clear light, or inner radiant nature of the mind. He says when this is fully actualized, that is enlightenment, that is true buddhahood.

When we talk about enlightenment, buddhahood or nirvana, which is the fruit of one’s spiritual endeavor, we are speaking about a quality of mind, a state of mind. Similarly, when we talk about the delusions and the factors that obstruct our realization of that enlightened state, we are also talking about states of mind, the deluded states of mind. Particularly, we are referring to the deluded states that are grounded in a distorted way of perceiving one’s own self and the world. The only means by which one can eliminate that mis-knowing, or distorted way of perceiving the self and the world, is through cultivating the right insight into the true nature of mind, and the true nature of self and the world.

In summary, the essential point in the teachings of the Buddha is on the one hand, equating an undisciplined state of mind with suffering and unenlightened existence, and on the other hand, a disciplined state of mind with happiness, enlightenment or spiritual freedom. This is the essential point.

Valid and Invalid Thought

From our own ordinary life experience, we know that there are types of thoughts which can be classified as valid and then there are others which are invalid. For example, if one’s particular thought corresponds to reality, then one can call that a valid thought or valid experience. On the other hand, we also experience thoughts and emotions that are completely contrary to the way things are.

In Buddhist texts, the attainment of highest spiritual liberation is said to be the fruit of valid thoughts and emotions. For example, according to Buddhist teachings, the principal factors that are the cause for attaining enlightenment are said to be true insights into the nature of reality. True insight into the nature of reality is a valid way of knowing things, such as the nature of the world and so on.

Furthermore, if we look at the many complementary factors, such as compassion, altruism and the aspiration to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, these factors are also based on valid thought. Although altruism and compassion are more of an emotion than a cognitive thought, the process which leads to the realization of universal compassion involves comparing truths and falsehoods.

Therefore, we can say that buddhahood itself is a consequence of valid thoughts and emotions. In contrast, we can see unenlightened experience (samsara) as the product of invalid ways of experiencing and seeing things.

According to Buddhism, the fundamental root of our unenlightened existence is said to be ignorance (avidya). The primary characteristic of this ignorance is a distorted way of perceiving the world and ourselves. The root of our suffering and our unenlightened existence is based on this fundamental distortion. Once again, invalid thought and emotions—invalid ways of seeing and experiencing things—are ultimately the source of our suffering and unenlightenment. The main point in the final analysis is the correlation between valid forms of thoughts and emotions with happiness and spiritual freedom, and invalid forms of thoughts and emotions with suffering and unenlightenment.

In the Buddhist practice of training the mind, the emphasis is to engage in a process whereby valid forms of thoughts and emotions can be developed, enhanced and perfected, and where invalid forms of thoughts and emotions are counteracted, undermined and eventually eliminated.

Something we must appreciate when approaching a technique like the Buddhist training of the mind is the complexity of the task we are engaging in. Buddhist scriptures mention 84,000 types of negative and destructive thoughts, which correspond to 84,000 different antidotes. It is important not to have the unrealistic expectation that somehow, somewhere, we will find that magic key that will help us get rid of everything.

Therefore, we need more determination and more patience. It is wrong to have the expectation that once you start practice of dharma, within a short period, like in one week, you’ll become enlightened. This is impossible and unrealistic.

Cultivating Wisdom and Skillful Means

If we are to categorize the complex, multiple approaches to training the mind and bringing about a mental discipline, we can identify two principal aspects. One is the aspect of developing insight or wisdom. The second is the method, or “skillful means,” aspect. The dimension of insight, or wisdom, is primarily focused on procedures for developing, cultivating and enhancing valid ways of knowing and valid forms of thought.

The Eight Verses of Training the Mind summarize the key teachings on both wisdom and skillful means. The central focus is the antidotes that enable the practitioner to counter two principal factors.

The first factor is our self-cherishing thoughts and the sense of selfishness that they are grounded in. The antidotes for this principally involve cultivating altruism, compassion and bodhicitta—the altruistic aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. These antidotes are directly aimed at counteracting this self-centeredness and self-cherishing thought.

The second factor is grasping at some kind of enduring, permanently existing self. The antidote to this is contained in the wisdom teachings in these Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Therefore, it could be said that these Eight Verses of Training the Mind contain within them the entire essence of the Buddha’s teachings in a distinct form.

The Two Truths

This way of looking at the essence of the teaching of the Buddha in terms of wisdom and method also correspond wonderfully to a point Nagarjuna makes. He says that the entire teachings of the Buddha must be understood within the framework of the two truths—the conventional truth and the ultimate truth.


The last two lines of the Eight Verses of Training the Mind state, “Aware that all things are illusory,/ May they, ungrasping, be free from bondage.” These lines present the need to encompass one’s practice within an understanding of emptiness. They speak about the need to engage in one’s training of the mind with the full understanding of the ultimate truth, emptiness. This means that one should develop the awareness that all things are illusory and, without grasping, one should free oneself from bondage.

What is required before one can cultivate the understanding of everything in terms of illusion-like nature is to negate the substantial reality of everything, including one’s own “self.” Without negating that substantial reality of existence, there is no possibility of developing the perception of the illusory nature of everything.

How do we develop this understanding of the non-substantiality or emptiness of everything? It is not enough just to imagine that everything is empty and devoid of substantial existence. It is not enough to simply keep repeating this verse in one’s mind, almost like a formula; that is also not adequate. What is required is to develop a genuine insight into emptiness through a rational process of analysis and through a process of reflection.

One of the most effective ways to understand everything as empty of substantial reality is to understand the interdependent nature of reality. What is unique about dependent origination is that within this understanding there is a possibility to find a middle way between total nothingness on the one hand, and substantial or independent existence on the other. So by finding that true middle way, one can arrive at a genuine understanding and insight into emptiness.

Once this kind of insight into emptiness is found in one’s meditation through a rational process and deep contemplation, then there is a kind of new-quality when you interact with the world and the objects around you. There is a new quality to your engagement with the world because there is this awareness of the illusion-like nature of reality. The text suggests that practitioners should engage in mind training with this awareness of the illusory nature of reality.

Concluding Remarks

Although even now that I’m getting older, it seems my physical well-being is quite okay. Therefore, as long as this body can manage, my whole life I dedicate to others. Even with small contributions, I’m always ready to serve you as much as I can. Thank you.

This teaching was sponsored by the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture, a non-profit organization committed to preserving Tibet’s unique cultural heritage. To obtain a complete transcript of these teachings, contact CTAC or Wisdom Publications. An audiotape of this teaching is available from Snow Lion.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Congressional Gold Medal. Unique in the world today, he is a statesman, national leader, spiritual teacher, and deeply learned theologian. He advocates a universal “religion of human kindness” that transcends sectarian differences. The Dalai Lama is universally respected as a spokesman for the peaceful and compassionate resolution of conflict. He has also been actively involved in bringing together Western scientists and Buddhist meditators, and is a founder of the Mind & Life Institute where such meetings of the minds can take place.