No Coffee in the Bardo

May 27, 2024 | 3 comments

By: Thubten Jangsem, The Buddhist Center- Thubten Norbu Ling contributing author

Attachment is not just a poison. It’s what brings us to life… and back again.

The search to satisfy our cravings is the unfaltering mechanism that keeps us bound to the suffering world we inhabit. Last month, Venerable René Feusi reminded The Buddhist Center- Thubten Norbu Ling community of this fact during a weekend retreat on lamrim realizations,[1] using the amusing example of a coffee-loving consciousness’s futile search for those bourbon, vanilla, and slightly spice-filled notes in the intermediate state between death and the next life. As Ven. René said, “There’s no coffee in the bardo,” which can be the only logical reason I find myself at Iconik Coffee Roasters in Santa Fe almost every morning; everyone knows mental continua don’t have taste buds.

The Wheel of Life presented in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination makes this perfectly clear: in the Buddha’s view, “[Our bodies are] are li-ter-all-eee the manifestation of attachment.”

Well, this is how New York-based Venerable Robina Courtin phrased it—Australian accent and emphasis Venerable’s own—as she delivered one of a slew of daily teachings during a two-week-long visit to our center here in Santa Fe. The subjects of the teachings ranged widely from dependent arising to introductory tantra to mahamudra meditation.[2]

A common thread, however, throughout it all has been the subject of attachment, embodied, at times, as the struggle between an unhappy, hungry “I” and chocolate cake. But that attachment is nothing, she told me during our recent chat, in comparison with the terrible attachment to harming others, expressed so vividly in a story she often tells of a young man who spent his life as a professional fisherman and died while scuba-diving.

“He saw these fish flapping in his boat for 25 years of his life and never saw suffering.” Ven. Robina recounted. “Because attachment painted a divine picture, because it triggered pleasant feelings in him. This is the tragedy that is explained in the Twelve Links.”

He was introduced to fishing as a child, she said. “There he is, a little boy who’s never thought of fishing. Someone introduces it to him and that’s Contact.” Ven. Robina’s hands came together in a soft clap as she announced the sixth link. “The contact is there, then instantaneously Feeling, the seventh link arises: either pleasant or unpleasant, and in his case, very pleasant. Why pleasant?”

The answer lies with karma: the humble observation that effects do not appear without causes. In the context of Buddhist philosophy, it provides an explanation for why we do the things we do, on the basis of tendencies built up from previous thoughts and actions. In the example of the young man, there was a strong tendency to kill from past lives.

In fact, the intensity of his pleasure equals the intensity of his past habit to kill, Ven. Robina says. “And the next millisecond Craving, or attachment, kicks in: because of the pleasure, the attachment paints a totally delicious picture of fishing. Just naturally, he assumes fishing is the cause of his happy feelings, so, of course, he proceeds to fish for the rest of his life.

“The tragedy is that, although he was born as a human being, he hadn’t purified all aspects of the killing karma. So he was born in this life with the tendency to kill. And because of the pleasure it brings him and his attachment to it, he simply cannot see the suffering he causes the fish and, of course, the suffering he eventually causes himself: at the time of death, his killing karma (the second link) was instantly triggered by Grasping, the ninth link. And, as Geshe Lama Konchog told the young fisherman’s mother when she asked Lama where her son was reborn, ‘First he was born in the animal realms, and now he’s in the hell realms.’”

Naturally, if we stop the Wheel of Life from spinning at the first link—the root delusion of ignorance—we can avoid attachment altogether, along with its tendency to exaggerate the qualities of the things we love by placing them in relation to an intrinsic self. At that point, however, we’ve directly realized emptiness.

Understanding the experience of attachment is “incredibly subtle,” according to Ven. Robina, though not nearly as subtle as the concept of emptiness. So it is far more helpful, in a practical sense, for those of us still chasing our tails in the Desire Realm to think about the different ways attachment operates in our lives, such as, in Ven. Robina’s words: emotional hunger (“That’s not enough. Have another piece.”), love pollution (“As soon as he doesn’t do what my attachment wants, I get upset.”), dissatisfaction and self-loathing (“Not only do I not have enough, but even I am not enough.”)….

Ven. Robina—who is so grateful to have learned about all this, said, when she studied Mind and Awareness with her philosophy teacher Geshe Jampa Tegchok, in my opinion, one of the most effective teachers on Buddhist psychology[3]recognizes the subtle levels of attachment and implores us never to forget:

“It’s a lie.”

[1] Lamrim Meditation Retreat

[2] Synopses of Ven. Robina’s most recent teachings at The Buddhist Center-Thubten Norbu Ling can be found here.

[3] For readers interested to learn more on this subject, Ven. Robina recommends reading Buddhist Psychology by Geshe Tashi Tsering, published by Wisdom.


  1. Jane Birkbeck

    Thank you so much for sending this important teaching from Ven. Robina. I’ve heard her teach many times, and could almost ‘hear’ her words as I read her teaching on the, Twelve Links.

    With gratitude,
    Jane Birkbeck
    Victoria BC Canada

  2. Lynne Sonenberg

    Can you please clarify your sentence, “And, as Geshe Lama Konchog told his mother when she asked him where he was reborn, ‘First he was born in the animal realms, and now he’s in the hell realms.’”?

    This seems to imply Geshe Konchog was explaining to his mother that his life — as Geshe Lama Konchog — was being in the hell realms. Am I misreading?

    Thanks. Appreciate your reports on Ven René and Ven Robina!!!

    • Benjamin Bowles

      Thanks for pointing out the ambiguity. As it is now corrected in the text, the “he” in “where he was reborn” refers to the mother’s son, the young fisherman, not Geshe Lama Konchog. (By the way, if you haven’t watched it… there is a movie featuring Geshe Tenzin Zopa called “Unmistaken Child” that documents the search for Geshe Lama Konchog’s present reincarnation.)


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