I have the fantasy that there is a perfect book out there for my next spiritual step. A book like The Bliss of Inner Fire by Lama Thubten Yeshe complicates things. It’s the kind of book that spawns a list of other books to read: First off, Tsongkhapa’s Having Three Convictions, or The Six Practices of Yoga by Naropa, which Lama Thubten Yeshe refers to quite a lot because they are his root texts.
The Bliss of Inner Fire by is based on Lama Yeshe’s talks on the last two intensive retreats that he gave before he died in 1984 at the age of 49. He chose to talk about tummo, one of the six yogas of Naropa, which is explored in Tsongkhapa’s Having the Three Convictions. Tummo is the practice of inner fire. It’s the practice where you can sit outside in the winter and not feel cold — but that’s the exciting magical explanation. Lama Yeshe isn’t into these exotic claims, he’s a real Buddhist. It turns out that it’s like every other practice — it’s designed to move you towards enlightenment. The sense of concentration and insight of deep meditation has a kind of convergent tendency.
Lama Yeshe is from the Gelugpa school, but appreciates the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu schools, which are the four main schools of the Tibetan Tradition. You probably know this but it’s worth repeating: while the Dali Lama is a world spiritual leader, he is also from the Gelugpa school.
Lama Thubten Yeshe was born in Tibet in 1935. At the age of six, he entered Sera Monastic University in Tibet where he studied until 1959, when he was 24. He had to flee the Chinese invasion. His main teacher was Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. When he finally got to the Tibetan community in exile in India, he resumed his studies. These studies are rigorous and involve much debate, study and even all night sessions. He’s a favorite of the Gelugpa tradition perhaps because of his young death; he’s a kind of James Dean of the Gelugpa tradition.
One theme of the book is the importance of practice over “book Buddhism” — a kind of dilettante Buddhism. Lama Yeshe says, “These days we have no shortage of intellectual information, but I truly believe there is a shortage of fertilization. We collect so much information, but we do very little with it. This is why we have so little success in our spiritual practice.” The dharma lives in people, not just in books. Books represent people in a way, but they are not fully embodied, not interactive. A book is circumstantial speech; it just goes on and on regardless of the reader and the reader’s needs.
Lama Yeshe has encouraging advice for people who regret the time it took to finally find Buddhism, “Try to be reasonable in the way you grow, and don’t ever think it is too late. It’s never too late. Even if you are going to die tomorrow, keep yourself straight and clear and be a happy human being today. If you keep your situation happy day by day, you will eventually reach the greatest happiness of enlightenment.”
The book is based on talks, and so once you get past the three introductions, it reads like smooth encouraging advice for the most part. Then it gets into more complicated visualization practices, where it seems like it would be better to see these teachings live, and be able to seek clarification for yourself.
Lama Yeshe makes some interesting distinctions about western thinking. Lama Yeshe says, “In the West, desire seems to refer to sense gratification. However, in the Buddhist view, desire is not a craving of the senses but the mental concepts and projections that we build up on an object, thereby bring us problems.” And, “If you know the nature of desire, you can really control your mind because you are able to question and to understand your own view of desire’s object. Otherwise, you cannot see the mind’s trick. With it’s constant “I feel, I want,” desire plays tricks on you, leading you to a constant restlessness that can mess up your life.”
He seems to be saying that desire as we know it, wanting the latest electronic gadget, or a new DVD or whatever, isn’t how to think about desire. Noticing how we add on to the story of our desires, is his point. Like “I need to maintain my status,” or, “My life is so difficult I deserve some pleasure and a DVD is the most efficient route to pleasure,” on top of the whole pleasure story. Having pleasure itself is not problematic; it’s our relationship with the pleasures. It’s not the gratification itself, but the story about it. “Ah, now I can relax now that I have a whirlpool bath.” Or, “Now that I am married, I can get on with the business of life” as if these projects truly make us happy. Not that you shouldn’t get a whirlpool bath or get married — just don’t center your story on stories of gratification so superficially.
He also says, “Even though it is sometimes said that something is nonexistent because it is like an illusion, a dream, or a reflection in a mirror, this is not philosophically correct. It is speaking loosely to say, ‘This phenomenon does not exist because it is an illusion. It is just one of my projections.’ In fact, the reverse is true. The phenomenon exists precisely because it exists as an illusion, which is independent. A reflection in a mirror is also interdependent; it exists because of the mirror.”
What he seems to be saying here, is that these illusions we build up are part of our life, you can’t just do an “illusion extraction,” because they are based intimately on your life. In a way it’s our whole world view that’s needs the liberating reorientation of a deeper understanding in Buddhism, the cultivation of insight.
At times he makes intriguing statements without explaining, like “ordinary exercise increases superstition”. Perhaps what he’s saying is that exercise is likely to distract one into the cult of the beautiful body — but we’ll never know because he didn’t expand on it.
For me, this book has too much talk of practices I don’t do, so it was difficult for me to read. Nonetheless, it’s a book worthy of a Buddhist library, for the contemporary section of one’s Tibetan Buddhism section, an informal but useful commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Having Three Convictions, which is itself a commentary on The Six Practices of Yoga by Naropa. If The Six Practices of Yoga is your root text, or you are interested in the Gelugpa tradition, you shouldn’t ignore this book.
Steve Bell is a 40 year old father of two small children, who’s been meditating for five years. He lives in New York City and works as a psychotherapist at an agency for people with HIV/Aids. Steve is currently studying at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. His wife of 10 years is a middle school teacher.
Thank you for your book review. Just a couple things. Lama Zopa was Lama Yeshe’s student. Geshe Sopa was Lama Yeshe’s teacher. I knew Lama Yeshe very well and I am 90% sure he was 56 when he passed.
Ther are different tradition and/or ways to practice, different approaches and ways. What I feel is most important is to find a way that suits one, one’s philosophy of life which may be affected to a large extent by one’s background and/ or culture. However there is the starting point of ones journey.
1935-1984=49. Maybe his birthday had not passed, so it is possible he was 48. Maybe Wikipedia is wrong about his birth and death dates. That’s where I got the info from.
Thank you for the correction about teacher and student names.
How did he die so young?