Nam-tok: The hallucinatory bubble
“I remember, back in the ’60s, my lama telling me all the time: ‘You have too much nam-tok,’” recalls Massimo Corona, FPMT’s executive director. “ Nam-tok is a Tibetan word that even contemporary lamas who speak English well do not attempt to translate. Why is this? Because we simply don’t have a corresponding word in English.”
Nam-tok could be translated as “the hallucinatory mind,” “superstition,” “mental projections” – or, as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche of The Cup fame calls it in his article in this issue, “taboos and inhibitions,” or non-conceptual thought.
The fundamental nam-tok is the wrong apprehension of reality as being truly existent. On the basis of that, we create what is commonly called “ego,” – that is, we are in a cocoon of self-centered distorted emotions such as fear, insecurity, lack of self-esteem, self-pity mind, conceitedness, inflated opinion of ourselves, and so on.
As Lama Thubten Yeshe says in this issue, “We feel insecure, we have so much fear. This comes from our lack of understanding, our ignorance, which means not understanding right view, reality.”
He was once asked, “Is it true that when a human is born his or her mind is pure and innocent?” This was his answer:
As we all know, when you are born, your mind is not too occupied by intellectual complications. But as you get older and start to think, it begins to fill up with so much information, philosophy, “that-this,” this is good, that is bad, I should have this, I shouldn’t have that … You intellectualize too much, filling your mind with garbage. That certainly makes your mind much worse. Still, that doesn’t mean that you were born absolutely pure and that only after the arrival of the intellect did you become negative. It doesn’t mean that. Why not? Because if at birth you were fundamentally free of ignorance and attachment, any garbage coming at you would not be able to get in. Unfortunately, we are not like that. Fundamentally, not only are we wide open to whatever intellectual garbage comes our way, but we’ve got a big welcome sign out. So moment by moment, more and more garbage is piling up in our minds. Therefore, you can’t say that children are born with absolutely pure minds. It’s wrong. Babies cry because they have feelings. When an unpleasant feeling arises – perhaps they are craving their mother’s milk – they cry.
Massimo recalls that when the lamas met the truth-seeking Westerners who were traveling the world in the late ’60s, they soon realized that the amount of nam-tok that Westerners carried around was far greater than they had ever seen in Tibet. They could not find the words that would explain this extremely broad spectrum of painful emotions manifested by their eager new students. In Tibet people might be suffering from lack of food, not having a wife, poor accommodation, etc., but here were crowds of people who were suffering from feelings about how they looked, how they acted, how others perceived them. This really mystified the lamas.
Even today, what do they think of us and our hallucinatory bubble? In preparing this feature for Mandala, we gathered viewpoints from Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe Sopa Rinpoche, Yangsi Rinpoche, and to cap it off we have included an interview with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a Bhutanese rinpoche (the living heir to the Khyentse lineage) and renowned filmmaker. Their different approaches, which help us to resolve this great cause of mental suffering (our ego mind), make very interesting reading.