Balancing the Intellect, Emotions and Devotion

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Three Approaches to the Dharma

Okay, so this evening I’ve been asked to speak a little bit about the different types of approaches to the Dharma, specifically the intellectual, emotional, and devotional approaches. When we look at approaches to the Dharma, this implies again our motivation or aim. What is it that we want to get from the Dharma? What brings us here?

  • Well, if we look in the West, a lot of people come to the Dharma because they have some sort of wish for exotica. They’ve heard strange, mysterious things about Buddhism, particularly about the Tibetans, and they’ve come to satisfy this need for something exotic in their lives. As you added, we want some sort of magic.
  • Other people come because they’re desperate. They’re really suffering from all sorts of different types of problems, whether it’s emotional, whether it’s physical. They’ve tried lots of things which haven’t really helped satisfactorily, and they’re looking for a miracle cure. A miracle cure – that implies again an association with magic, doesn’t it? “Just give me the special magic mantra to say or the special practice to do. I’ll do it, and hopefully a miracle will happen.”
  • Other people come to the center because it’s trendy, it’s fashionable, their friends come, other people come – they want to sort of be in with the in-crowd. So they come for that – they want to be seen with the right people in the right place – especially when we hear of certain movie stars who practice the Dharma, so then of course other people think that’s really cool to do, chic.
  • Other people come because they are what I call Dharma junkies – this is a Dharma-center addict – who need to come to the center to get their high from an entertaining charismatic teacher. It makes them feel good. So they’re a junkie, basically.

So although a lot of people come to centers in that way, there are also others who come with a very sincere interest to see what Dharma has to offer in a more realistic way. And even if people come for the earlier reasons that I mentioned, very often they may find that they don’t get what they’re looking for – there are no miracle cures and so on – and then they turn to a much more realistic attitude.

So okay, with a realistic attitude we come and we learn information about the Dharma. And then we can have different approaches about how we deal with this information, what we do. (So now we get to the topic of the talk.) The approach that we can take with this information, what the center actually offers us, can be either intellectual, emotional, or devotional. There’s probably more as well, but these are the three I was asked to talk about, and I think they are the three most typical approaches.

Now, of course a lot depends on how the teacher presents the material. That’s going to influence the way that we approach it. And a lot will also depend on our cultural backgrounds. Some of us come from very devotional or emotional backgrounds. Others come from very intellectual cultural backgrounds. And in addition to the cultural influences, we all have our own individual inclinations.

So now, regardless of which approach we take, I think it’s very important to see that each approach can be either followed in a mature way or an immature way from the point of view of Dharma. So let’s look at all three, at each of the three.


The intellectual approach first. An immature approach to it is one in which we become fascinated with the beauty of the Dharma system. If you look at the explanations of the way the mind works, the view of reality, and so on, it is incredibly intricate, elegant, and I think beautiful is a very apt word here. And so we want to learn as many facts as we can and all the intricacies of the details. This is the type of person that likes to have their house incredibly neat and everything in its right place, and so on, so they approach the Dharma in the same way. And here there’s a tremendous amount of material, and it’s very satisfying to try to fit it all together into nice systems.

The problem with this type of approach, what I’m calling here an immature intellectual approach, is that in following that and just that alone, you don’t tend to integrate or feel anything in terms of what one is learning. So in terms of sensitivity parameters – this is what we’ll be speaking about at the weekend – this is someone who has difficulty with feelings and tends to be on the more insensitive side. They just sort of go into their own mental intellectual world and get caught up in the beauty of that, and they’re fairly insensitive to other people or to themselves actually. So although they can be very, very enthusiastic to study and learn, and so on, things don’t really sink in. These things don’t make very much of an effect on their approach to life.

Now, if our approach is intellectual and we want to do this in a mature way, then we learn all the intricacies – I mean, that’s not the problem (that’s very helpful to learn) – but we learn them so that we can understand the teachings, integrate them into our lives, and apply them. Also, the more that we understand, the more that we have firm conviction in the validity of the teachings, and so we’re able to apply them without doubts or hesitancy.

So that’s an intellectual type of approach.


The second type of approach would be an emotional approach. So what would be the immature variety of this? It would be doing meditation, for example, simply to feel good:

  • For instance, you meditate on love and compassion because it’s so nice, everything feels so good, and we want to be happy and think of pure lands, like that. So it’s going into fairyland and so on, and one gets carried away with the good feeling, good emotional feeling, that you get from wishing love to all beings and feeling something like that.
  • Or it could be not so dramatic. It could be also just to be able to calm down that one meditates. A very emotional person would approach Dharma meditation with the wish to be able to get a little bit of calm if their emotions are really very turbulent. So still that’s an emotional approach, but again that’s just a less dramatic form of practicing the Dharma in order to feel good.

Those who tend in this direction, especially the ones that “Everything is so beautiful and lovely” and love everybody, tend to be the overemotional type, the oversensitive type. They don’t want to hear about suffering. They don’t want to hear about the lower realms. They don’t want to hear about any of that stuff, just the nice parts. The problem with this type of approach is that it really doesn’t address the disturbing emotions – they don’t want to look at these things in themselves; they just want to feel good. And also they don’t really understand anything in the Dharma, and they don’t really try to understand anything in themselves.

Whereas a mature emotional approach would be someone who wants to work with their emotions. They feel very strong emotions, but they want to work with them in order to get rid of the disturbing ones and to develop the positive ones. They want to look at the whole spectrum of emotions, not just the nice ones, and learn to deal with them. Okay.


Now, what about the third type of typical approach, the devotional approach? The immature devotional approach is based on this feeling of looking at the Buddhas and the various Buddha-figures (Chenrezig, Manjushri, and so on) and teachers and to think “Oh, how wonderful. They’re all gods. I’m so lowly and incompetent compared to them.” “They’re gods, and I’m a sinner, a terrible, lowly, incompetent person compared to them.” And so we look up to them as gods and approach them like approaching a saint: “Help me.” And so we do all sorts of devotional practices (what we call pujas in the Buddhist sphere), chant mantras, and do all sorts of devotional ritual practices like that with the aim of asking for help from the saints, the Buddhist saints – praising them and so on.

The problem with that type of approach is that we don’t really take responsibility ourselves to work on ourselves. We want external solutions to our problem. We want other people, other beings, to solve our problems for us.

The mature devotional approach would be that we turn to these Buddha-figures, we turn to the Buddhas and the teachers, and we do rituals, and so on, in order to get inspiration – to be uplifted, to get energy from this – to be able to work on ourselves. Participating in ritual can be a very, very uplifting, energizing thing to do. It’s very helpful on the path.

Balancing the Three

So what would be ideal would be to balance all three approaches and obviously to balance them in their mature forms. Although we may tend to be the intellectual type or emotional type or devotional type, it is not really a very complete path of spiritual development to just do one in exclusion of the others. In other words, we need to understand, we need to feel things on an emotional level, and we also need to get inspiration.

So for an emotional type of person, it’s very helpful to learn the intellectual approach because sometimes, although you’re an emotional type, you just don’t feel like loving others. I mean, obviously samsara, as I often explain, goes up and down. That’s the characteristic of samsara. So sometimes you feel very loving, and other times you just don’t feel it – you’re tired or whatever. And so in those situations it’s very helpful to know some sort of line of reasoning of “Well, why should I feel love and compassion to others?” – so to have this more intellectual type of approach that they can rely on or turn to when they just don’t feel like being very loving. Also, in trying to overcome their disturbing emotions, it’s very helpful to understand where they’re coming from.

And for somebody who’s very intellectual, it’s also important to learn the emotional approach because one observes that if someone has this intellectual approach and their mind is very tight and rigid in an intellectual type of way, it leaves them very cold emotionally. And so what they need to do, what’s helpful here, is to learn to meditate in this more emotional, intuitive approach (if we can use Western terminology), which means to quiet down and gain access to the natural warmth of the mind and the heart.

And for somebody who is a non-devotional type – this type of person needs very much to be able to follow the devotional approach because often their energy is very low. And where do you get inspiration? How do you uplift yourself? That actually is a very big problem for a lot of people. Where do you get your energy from and inspiration from to go forward in your Dharma practice?

  • Well, if you turn to friends in order to get this energy, even if it’s Dharma friends – well, Dharma friends are in samsara, just like we are, and they’re going to let you down inevitably (because sometimes they’re not going to feel very positive either, and they have their own problems, and they’re busy).
  • And if we turn to the Dharma center for our energy and inspiration – well, Dharma centers, as you know, have all sorts of Dharma political problems, and so we can get very discouraged, and rather than our energy being uplifted, it comes down; it goes down even further. So that’s not a stable source of positive energy.
  • Whereas if we’re able to do some ritual practice in a mature type of way, a way that actually moves us, not an immature type of way, this is a much more stable source of inspiration and energy.

On the other side, somebody who is very devotional sometimes can’t understand what’s happening to them in life. I mean, look at people who are overwhelmed by the disasters with the World Trade Center and so on. Although they’re very devotional, they can’t really understand what’s happening in the world, and they need more than just comfort and some uplifting; they need some explanations. And so the devotional type also needs to develop some understanding, some more stable emotional approach, rather than just being uplifted.

For an emotional type, ritual is very, very helpful because it gives some sort of expression and form to their feelings. Sometimes somebody is just filled with emotion and filled with love, and so on, and it just sort of spills all over the place, and it can be a bit overwhelming. Whereas if you have a ritual form of expressing it, then it becomes much easier to channel that positive emotional energy. I mean, if you think of it: You feel tremendous respect for a teacher. Well, how do you show that respect? It’s very nice to be able to show it, even if it’s just holding your hands up in a respectful position – that’s a ritual, isn’t it – by standing up when they come into the room, or just setting up a very nice place for meditation or for class with flowers and so on. This is a ritual. It’s a way of giving form to our feelings. So that’s very helpful rather than just the feeling by itself.

And for an intellectual type, ritual is also very useful because it gives regularity; it gives a sense of continuity. If you have a certain practice, a ritual practice, every day, that adds a certain stability in your life. For emotional types as well: if your emotions are going up and down all the time, if you have a certain period that is going to be the same thing that you do every day with regularity, even if it’s for only a short time, that’s a very stabilizing thing. And especially if our life is very fragmented with doing many, many things each day – many telephone calls, many emails, many appointments and tasks, and so on, to do – that also makes life very… it’s too fragmented. Whereas if we have one activity that is repeated each day as a type of ritual – and that’s more than just the ritual of brushing your teeth and flossing, dental flossing – this, as I said, also adds a certain stability to one’s life. And very often in our Dharma training, we engage in various rituals before we understand them. And for an intellectual type, this is also very helpful because it tends to help to lower arrogance. The arrogance is “I’m not going to do this unless I know what it means.”

So we see, like this, regardless of which may be our predominant type, our predominant approach to the Dharma, it really is very, very helpful to balance it with at least a little bit of the other approaches.

In Relating to a Spiritual Teacher

Now, for very mature people who have a very mature spiritual teacher – you need both – then the healthy relationship with the spiritual teacher can also help us to develop all three approaches. Again there’s the immature or mature.

Immature intellectual would be that you’re just intellectually dueling with and arguing with the teacher. Anything the teacher says – well, you challenge them, just to show how smart you are. Or emotionally immature would be that you fall in love with the teacher, and that happens very often. And if you don’t fall in love, you see the teacher as a father substitute or a mother substitute. An immature devotional approach would be to be mindlessly devotional – “Oh Guru, Guru, tell me what to do. Tell me what to think. I’m so helpless without you” – and you give up all responsibility for decisions in your life.

Whereas if we work with these three approaches on a mature level with a spiritual teacher, then the relationship is intellectually challenging. The teacher is always stimulating us in a very healthy way, not putting us down. We’re not putting ourselves down. We’re not arguing. They’re always pointing out different ways to understand things, different ways to look at things. And this is true not only when the teacher is actually teaching us something in terms of a text or a formal teaching but also informally. If we are able to be with the teacher and see how they deal with things that come up in life, this also is very intellectually stimulating because it shows us different ways of behaving and working with people.

Also on a mature level, the relation with the teacher is very emotionally moving. It really touches us very, very deeply in our hearts, but not in this immature way of being in love with the teacher. Like, for instance, because we have so much respect for our teacher, we wouldn’t act in stupid, irresponsible, destructive ways, because it reflects badly on our teacher. And on a deep emotional level, we really appreciate what our teacher is doing and what our teacher has done. This is very emotionally moving. And thinking of our teacher’s good qualities – which are not just something that we’re fantasizing and romanticizing about, but from experience we actually know that the teacher has these qualities and we have firm conviction in that – this gives a tremendous sense of stability, a tremendous sense of strength. Here is somebody that really has done it in terms of working on themselves. And one really feels in very safe, strong hands in terms of our guidance. It’s very emotionally moving in a very mature type of way.

Also with a mature relationship with a teacher, from the devotional aspect it’s incredibly inspiring but not in a way that puts us down and we’re elevating them that they’re so wonderful. I’ll give an example:

Before I came here to Mexico, I was in India for a month with the reincarnation of my teacher Serkong Rinpoche, who’s now seventeen years old. I was there at the time when the attack on New York and Washington took place and I received some emails from people asking Rinpoche to say some prayers.

Now, this was the occasion when Rinpoche was preparing for a certain… there’s a certain stage in the monastic education at which you literally demonstrate your debating skills in front of all the assembled monks of the monastery. So you demonstrate that now you are an intellectually full member of the community, that you can debate with everyone. So there’s a certain stage in the education. That meant that he was preparing for a very big debate in front of… one of them was in front of two and a half thousand monks, and one was in front of one thousand three hundred monks.

What I found incredibly inspiring was that in this situation, Rinpoche stayed up more than half the night saying various prayers and rituals for peace and for the people who had suffered, and so on. And he could have very easily – I mean, nobody would have known – he could have just said a prayer for five minutes and then gone to sleep, but he didn’t. This was very, very inspiring.

So, like this, a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher can help us to develop all these three aspects – the intellectual, the emotional, and the devotional.

Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma

Now, also in terms of these three approaches, I think another dimension has to be introduced – which I’ve spoken about many times in the past but I think is a very important aspect to repeat – and that is that one can follow these three types of approaches, or even a balanced form of these three types of approaches, in the manner of Dharma-lite or the Real Thing, as with the analogy of Coca-Cola Light and the Real Thing.

Dharma-lite is practicing Dharma in any of these three types of ways (or a balanced way) merely to improve this lifetime – to have healthy relationships, to have less psychological problems, and so on. And of course the Dharma can be very beneficial in this regard. If you like Coca-Cola Light, it’s refreshing; it’s very fine. But that’s not the actual Dharma. Psychotherapy does the same thing, and Dharma is not just another form of psychotherapy, although one could study and approach Dharma as a type of therapy and gain the benefits of a therapy from it. That’s Dharma-lite. Even if one follows it in the form of a therapy, it’s still very different from a therapy. In a therapy, basically as a client you go to a therapist in order for you to be heard, to tell your story. Whereas when you go to a Dharma class, it’s not to tell your story and to be heard; it’s to listen to teachings and apply them yourself.

A slightly stronger version of Dharma-lite would be to practice the Dharma in order to achieve better future rebirths or go to some Buddha-field, to a Buddha-land. But if one sees that as the entire scope of why one’s practicing Dharma, then that is also not exclusively Buddhist. There are many world religions where one practices in order to go to a paradise, go to heaven.

So if one wants to follow the Dharma (whether intellectual, emotional, or devotional) as the Real Thing, then this is done with the aim of either:

  • Liberation from rebirth – not just from problems in this lifetime but from rebirth – which means you have to understand rebirth, understand what Buddhism says about it, be convinced of it, and therefore want to get rid of it and all the problems that are inherent to it.
  • Or enlightenment, which would be the ability to help others to get rid of that type of uncontrollable rebirth.

That’s the actual Dharma – liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, not just liberation from problems of this lifetime. “Mahayana-lite” is helping people to be free from their problems in this lifetime. That’s being a good therapist. That’s not what you’re aiming for.

For most of us in the West, this is very difficult, to actually take the Real Thing, because most of us have very little understanding of the Buddhist teachings on rebirth. Actually the Buddhist teachings on rebirth are totally dependent on the Buddhist teachings of there being no solid self, so if you don’t understand that, you can’t understand really the Buddhist teachings on rebirth. And so of course if we don’t really understand the Buddhist teachings on rebirth, how could we possibly have conviction in them, and how could we possibly want to get rid of that type of rebirth?

And so even while we’re working just to improve this lifetime, let’s say – a Dharma-lite type of approach – what will help to make it a Buddhist approach in general, in a more general type of way, is to see this as a stepping-stone. It’s a stepping-stone on the way: “I acknowledge the importance of rebirth, and that it is only possible to understand the Buddhist explanation of it if I understand that it is not a solid self that is reborn, and therefore I want to learn about it. But now I don’t really understand, so I’m working for this lifetime.” So if we work for this lifetime as a stepping-stone in that direction, towards liberation and enlightenment – whatever in the world that means (let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we know what liberation and enlightenment mean) – then this becomes a Dharma path, not just a therapy or a religion to be reborn in heaven.

But no matter what level we’re following Buddhism at – whether it’s a Dharma-lite level of just for this lifetime, or to go to heaven, or whether we’re following it as the Real Thing – in any of these situations, having a balance of a mature intellectual, emotional, and devotional approach is the most effective.


I have a very scientific, objective approach to life. That’s always been my approach to life. And I’ve always refused the devotional approach – that’s why I haven’t been in touch with any religion whatsoever – I don’t like that. As I have consciously refused to be devotional all along my life, the best way to rule my life has been according to ethics. Ethics has been my rule instead of devotion. But recently in my contact with Dharma and with these things that I don’t understand or believe – like rebirth and so forth – I’ve caught myself thinking, “Hey, what about if karma is for real? And what about if rebirth is for real and what I’m doing takes me to a bad rebirth?” and so forth. This I feel is very superstitious – my reaction I feel is very superstitious – and I have not been in the past a superstitious person, so that worries me. So that’s what I want to ask you.

Having some questions about whether or not karma or rebirth might be true – this is not a manifestation of superstition. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a manifestation of superstition. I suppose it could be. It’s simply learning about a new theory to explain things in a scientific way, and we hadn’t heard this theory before, so now we are questioning it and investigating whether or not it might not be true. So one could follow a scientific method and approach here.

I mean, at the moment I’m reading a book on superstring theory, and so this is in physics. Before this there was particle physics, relativity, and quantum mechanics, and now there’s this superstring theory. You could say, “Well, this is superstition, to think that everything is made up of tiny vibrating strings.” But one could also investigate it quite scientifically, as the physicists now are, and see maybe this is true or not. You could I suppose see it as a superstition: “Ooh, they’re imagining these weird little strings that are making up everything.”

Now, devotion I wasn’t explaining here as blind faith in something. That wasn’t what I was talking about in terms of devotion. I was talking about devotion in a healthy way, in terms of following a certain ritual that gives a certain type of structure to our emotions, to our feelings, and also is a way of getting inspiration.

So when one is approaching rebirth or karma, I don’t think it’s a question of devotion (I mean, even in a healthy manner). Basically what one is trying to do with rebirth and karma is to understand it – so first an intellectual approach to it – and then once we are convinced logically of its validity, to try to feel on a gut level that this is actually true. Buddhism never calls for blind, unquestioning faith, although of course many immature people approach Buddhism with blind faith.

My motivation all my life up to today has been ethics, and now I find these aspects of superstition. I want to do the things that I do in life because they feel right according to ethics, not according to superstition. So that’s my worry.

Yes, but all the teachings on karma and rebirth are totally, integrally involved with the teachings on ethics, because karma is saying that basically – as in physics – if you stick your finger in fire, it’s going to get burned; it’s going to hurt. So it’s saying if you act destructively, it causes problems, and if you act constructively, it causes happiness, and it also affects one’s rebirths. So the whole discussion of karma and rebirth is a discussion of ethics.

You have to examine what do you understand by the word superstition? Superstition means to believe something based on no reason at all or just out of fear, but certainly that’s not Buddhism.

Are you saying that to come to the Dharma, the first way is the intellectual way?

I’m not saying that. I’m saying you could come either an intellectual way first or an emotional way or a devotional way – it doesn’t matter.

An intellectual way is limited. The language is limited to the experience. Right? Our ability to understand and to know about karma and rebirth is limited, and maybe we can’t say about that in words. That’s right, my perception?

Well, just to have an intellectual understanding or just to have – an experiential experience, that’s not good English – or just to have an experience, both of those could be very incomplete and limited. You can have an intellectual understanding and yet it doesn’t translate into feelings; you don’t really know what it’s talking about in terms of life. On the other hand, you can have an experience and have no idea what you just experienced, and so it’s just confusing; it’s not at all something that you can digest. So you need both.

I believe the path I have is the devotional approach, but I have evolved the intellectual and the emotional approach. From my own experience of being in contact with the Dharma, there’s two sides: On the one side, there’s the receiving part – when I attend classes and I’m receiving information and Dharma instructions and so forth. And then there is the second part, which is taking that into my life and seeing a difference in the relationship with my family, my daughters, with other relationships, and so forth.
I’ve found it’s very important not only to have a balance, a sane or mature balance, of the different possible approaches toward the teachings but also to be able to respond to situations in life in a balanced way (not only emotionally, not only intellectually, and so forth). For example, I used to respond mostly emotionally with my daughters, but now I have discovered the importance of balancing different approaches and adding the understanding part of it.

The point I’m making is about the importance of balancing these different aspects not only in our approach to learning the teachings but also in our response in daily life when we try to apply those teachings.

I agree completely with that.

You mentioned that you have a very weak devotional side, and this is something that I think really, as I said, needs to be balanced into the equation as well, particularly in terms of recharging your batteries. You’re working in life, you’re working at home with your daughters, and so on, and sometimes your energy gets really, really low. So how do you recharge your batteries?

Now, doing a ritual – there are two ways of doing a ritual, a ritual practice:

  • One is doing it in a group of people.
  • And the other’s doing it by yourself.

From a karma point of view, if you do something constructive with a large group of people, the force is much stronger than if you do it by yourself. However, for some of us, doing things in a group, a ritual in a group, just brings up disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, which will then weaken the karmic force. So one has to see within oneself, at one’s present point of development, which is going to outweigh the other – the positive aspect of being in a group or the negative attitudes and emotions that come up from being in a group?

Like if you’re just thinking of it as “Well, this is like singing in church,” and if you have a negative attitude toward church, then that just comes up when you’re doing a ritual in a group. Right? Or anger could come up when you do it in a group, because people are either chanting too slowly and it’s driving you crazy – you have no patience, because you like to do it more quickly – or the other extreme is that they’re doing it too quickly and this is driving you crazy because you want to do it more slowly. So in those cases, perhaps it’s better to do ritual practice by oneself.

Again one has to avoid ritual practice becoming just mechanical and so on, but it does offer a vehicle, as I say, for recharging your batteries, for getting some sort of inspiration – if it’s done properly – and it adds a certain stability and regularity to your life that is very helpful when you’re dealing with all the daily problems that come up with raising children. So even when doing a daily ritual practice by oneself and finding that there’s no feeling in it and you’re not getting terribly inspired from it, the regularity and the habit of doing it is very beneficial for adding a certain stability and continuity in life.

And as I cannot stress enough, samsara goes up and down. That is the characteristic of samsara all the way until you become a liberated being, an arhat. So naturally your daily ritual practice some days is going to be meaningful, other days it’s going to be mechanical; some days you’re going to have mental wandering, other days it’s going to be more concentrated. That’s the nature of samsara, so one develops this perseverance to just go on anyway: “It doesn’t matter. Of course it’s going to go up and down. No big surprise.” I really sincerely feel that that’s one of the keys to being able to practice the Dharma, is to realize that it’s going to go up and down. If you have this fantasy that it’s going to better every day, forget it.

Original Audio from the Seminar