From broad questions about Buddhist practice to specific inquiries on how its tenets can relieve suffering in your life, Rinpoche can help guide you. No question is too simple; none too complex. Where possible we share the answers so that everyone may benefit from them; we believe you will find this section to be a rich resource. We encourage you to read through it—and then, should you have questions of your own, to submit them here.
Do we need to take Buddhist teachings literally?
Buddha gave intended teachings and definitive teachings. You need to take definitive teachings literally—these are the straightforward ones, like the points of the eightfold path.
I live in fear that my thoughts—over which I have no control—will have direct negative consequences on me and the people around me. Are these fears baseless?
There are two kinds of thinking: intentional and unintentional. Intentionally thinking negative thoughts will create negative karma—though more to oneself than to others. If you unintentionally think bad things and then they come true, it could be that you have a more naturally meditative mind that is attuned to the universe, and so you sense things that are happening anyway. But your thoughts are not causing them to happen.
When it is said, 'take everything as it is' does that mean we should not try to improve life around us?
Of course we should try to improve life around us—we have to try. However, improvement takes time and requires great patience. Moreover, many conditions make things difficult to improve, and there is much we cannot control. So we do our best to improve things, while understanding that that we must also do our best to accept the reality of what cannot change.
I realize that sometimes I do a good deed to get a good name, or good karma; is the deed more important or the intention behind it??
In general, your intention is more important than your actual actions. If you start with good intentions, even if the results aren’t what you hoped, they are still not actually bad, whereas anything started with a negative intention will be negative. However, a desire for fame/recognition/praise isn’t actually bad, it just limits the capacity of the good deed. Even if you are not thinking solely of the greater good, if the deed itself is good, then the result is good, too.
If I work in a grocery store, am I encouraging others to engage in wrong actions?
It is impossible to live a karma-free life; there is only a question of whether it is good karma or bad karma, and, if bad, how bad it is and how we compensate for it. Working at a grocery store seems like a good option, as meat is not the main reason for the store, and in fact it sells many things that are good for people.
Why should we work hard to ensure a favorable rebirth, when one is reborn as a new person, unaware of his previous lives and experiences?
From a micro view, rebirth happens at every instant. From childhood to old age, we change completely; in fact, every few months all the molecules in our body change. Our minds also change moment to moment. We definitely experience the change, whether or not we remember it. And so the answer to your question lies in preparing now for something we absolutely will experience, even if, when we get there, we don’t remember this preparation. It is no different from saving money for retirement or watching our cholesterol now to avoid heart problems later.
The word 'dharma' seems to be used in so many ways: as the teaching, as 'dharmas', as the truth of things. Can you explain the difference?
To see Rinpoche explain Dharma, please click here.
The word dharma has ten different meanings, some more important than others. Of these, it is used most frequently in three senses: (1) the word of Buddha; (2) absolute reality; and (3) all phenomena, like the word “things” in English.
When a young person dies in an accident or commits suicide, it changes the destiny of all the others who were meant to have close relationships and evolve with him/her. Will their karmic pattern be lived through in the next life?
Destiny always evolves and changes within a larger destiny; many variations are possible, depending on the causes and conditions that arise. One person’s death is not the cause of another person’s karma, but a condition that may effect their life—and their karma. It may cause them to realize the impermanence of life. It may cause them to become more compassionate. It may cause them to become angry and bitter. Karma itself only comes from an intended action or emotion. So, an accident does not create karma, but if it is the result of negative emotions, those emotions will cause karma. Similarly, the act and intention behind suicide creates negative karma.
Why would work be a form of purification, and how can it purify past negatives?
The easiest path is not always the fastest way to learn. When negative karma comes to us, it brings pain and suffering—and eventually that suffering exhausts the negative karma. Spiritual work can purify negative karma when you do it from your heart with great joy and willingness and acceptance of the difficulties you face physically, mentally and emotionally. At the same time, such work can help you grow spiritually. Because intention is very important for purification, regular work (to earn a living) does not purify—but it still exhausts previous karma, just as your emotional reactions to it are creating new karma.
If the Buddhist ideal is to liberate all beings from rebirth, does it mean that the goal is that there will be no beings on earth?
There are two types of rebirth: rebirth by force of karma, created by greed, hatred and ignorance. And rebirth chosen by enlightened beings who, from compassion, want to stay on earth to help others. The goal is to liberate all beings from karmic rebirth.
What is the meaning of the absence of inherent existence of the body?
The body itself is a collection—of organs, of cells, of molecules—and exists only in interdependency; no part of the body exists in independent isolation.
Isn’t Buddha nature always active and the most powerful force in bringing all beings to enlightenment?
Buddha Nature is enormous, complete and full. In our view, sentient beings who are not enlightened need to have their Buddha Natures awakened. While Buddha Nature is not separate from the sentient beings themselves, until they are enlightened they can only experience the basic, core quality of awareness. The rest of Buddha’s qualities—his wisdom, his clairvoyance, his power to benefit sentient beings—are not activated. Only through the practice of compassion and the development of wisdom through learning and meditation can we awaken our entire Buddha Nature and achieve enlightenment.
At the deepest spiritual level, is the essential message of Buddha, Christ and Krishna the same?
They all are helping us find a world with less suffering and more wisdom—so their purpose and often their language is the same, although their methods of achieving it may be different.
Buddhist teaching says not to look for a god. And yet there are so many figures, like 'Pure Land Buddha' or 'Green Tara', or 'dharma protectors' that seem 'other-worldly' or are comparable to gods or saints, that it feels very confusing. Can you please explain?
The understanding of the word god is the main issue. When Buddhist teachings say don’t look for God, they mean a universal creator god, an all-powerful being. In Sanskrit the word deva, which means god, is used to describe three types of beings: Kings, who were considered godlike; non-human deities, who had not yet achieved enlightenment, but belonged to a different realm; and, rarely, enlightened beings. None of these is a universal creator. But as figures they remind us of qualities we hope to gain.
Why are there three different yanas (Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana) and what are their aims?
Yana means vehicle, something that carries you to your destination or lifts you to a higher ground. (Sometimes it is translated as a “path,” but technically that is not right; it’s like not being able to differentiate between a vehicle and a road. Yana is the vehicle, the carrier.)Hinayana and Mahayana live within the Sutra tradition. Hinayana means “lesser vehicle.” Its practitioners seek to free themselves from the “five poisons” of samsara: greed, anger, arrogance, jealousy and ignorance (meaning ego).Those who practice Mahayana, the “greater vehicle,” seek the great enlightenment, free from both samsara (the cyclic existence of confusion and suffering) and nirvana (peace). Why not achieve nirvana? Because the goal is to free not only themselves, but countless other beings from the state of confusion—and they cannot accomplish this while resting.Vajrayana stems from the Tantric teachings. Its goals are the same as Mahayana; the vehicle is simply different.See the History of the Teachings to learn more.
What is a tulka?
In Tibetan, tul is an emanation, created intentionally; ku is a physical body. Tulku refers to a systematic rebirth, in which someone intentionally chooses the circumstances of their next life.Tibetan Buddhists believe that in general, everyone is reborn, moving from one life to another. For most people, it is not intentional; it simply happens. But some very powerful practitioners have a strong desire to help others; knowing they cannot accomplish enough in any single lifetime, they wish to be reborn under specific conditions that will help them move further in the next life. Guided by these powerful wishes, they become tulkus.
What is the difference between the mind, consciousness and the soul?
According to Buddhism, the soul is merely the object of our egos; it doesn’t exist. Consciousness is an awareness in which there is an object. There is a duality in which we are separate from the object. This consciousness is where our habits reside, where our characters form. The mind is broader; it has a quality of clarity and awareness, and does not necessarily experience duality.
How are emotions related to the mind?
Emotions are the actions of the mind; they are connected to thought processes.
Buddhists believe in rebirth—what is it that gets reborn?
Our minds—containing our egos, our habits and our experiences—get reborn. The confused mind believes in one’s own existence; this creates thoughts and habits, which in turn dictate experience. Our karma moves from life to life, containing our character; it is the lens through which we see or experience life.
How does karma manifest in our lives? Is it like fate where we have no control over what happens to us?
You have control; the question is how much. The answer depends on three factors: your spiritual level, how heavy the karma is and how long the karma has been at work.Think of throwing an apple seed in your garden. Initially, it is easy to destroy; you can remove it with one hand. But progressively it becomes a small tree, a big tree, a really big tree. And the bigger it gets, the harder it is to get rid of. Similarly, along the continuum from the time you create the karma to the time it manifests fully, the closer you are to the cause, the easier it is to change. This means you have great control over future karma. Even if bad karma from the past causes a negative experience, careful practitioners can accept that experience, watch their minds and still have complete control over the next karma.
I would like to know the stages we go through when we are dying. Where does our mind go?
The stages of dying relate to the steps wherein the mind separates from the physical elements of the body. The five senses die with the body and therefore so do the five sensory consciousnesses that are connected to the five physical senses. But the underlying mind consciousness continues on—it is just not connected to the body. Just as your body recycles, becoming part of the earth, your mind finds a new form in a new body. Where it goes depends on your karma and mental imprints.
Is meditation the same as being mindful of all your actions?
There are many types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation. You apply that in the post-meditation state, not when you are doing traditional sitting meditation. You need to practice mindfulness consistently. Every time there is a change in your physical action you need to be aware of exactly what you are doing. Then, you need to be aware of the state of your mind, what you are feeling. That’s being mindful.
How do you know that you are mindful enough of your actions? How can this be applied in our fast-paced world?
Ultimately, if you can consider your actions without any regret, that is the sign that you are applying enough mindfulness.
I have received teachings from many lamas; how do I know which one is my guru?
You should focus not on the guru as a person, but on the wisdom he carries; that wisdom is inseparable as it is passed from one master to another. It is always good to have a primary teacher—just as one has a primary doctor—someone who has systematic guidelines for your progress, who can answer your questions. Otherwise you can be overwhelmed by different answers and instructions, and you will waste energy being confused (and maybe even have doubts). Your guru is the one who opens your mind. But ultimately, the truth itself is the teacher, and thus all teachers are inseparable.
What if I accidentally break a precept in the moment due to past energy?
You cannot break a precept without intention. You may cause harm or pain unintentionally, but you are not breaking a precept. For instance, if someone dies during an operation, we don’t accuse the doctor of murder; we believe his intentions were positive. Conversely, if you notice that you are happy or satisfied after you do something and that action breaks a precept, it creates much heavier negative karma.
My parents don't realize that they are doing harm, but they often demand that I do things that are against the precepts. How should I respond?
Obedience to your parents is very, very important. So is compassion. If your parents are making mistakes, summon all your compassion. Realize that they are acting out of ignorance. With that ignorance, they are in danger of creating very much negative karma—but they are also still your parents. Your most important obedience is not to anger them. However, blindly obeying something that is wrong is also not right. For instance, if your mother asked you to put eye drops in her eye, but the bottle she handed you was acid, you would be right to refuse—but you would probably also look for the right eye drops. Apply the same principle here.
My cat is sick with worms, but if I give him medicine it will kill the worms; what should I do?
In many areas of life, there is no perfect way. The critical thing is your intention, and whether it is to care and protect. Taking medicine for a disease and illness is encouraged in many sutras. As long as your intention is for the good (as opposed to your intention being to kill worms) you should do what is best for your cat and not worry.
When I meditate on my breath, should I allow virtuous thoughts to remain?
Virtuous thought is good in general, but not when you intend to place your mind on a single object such as your breath, in which case it is an obstacle. Consistency of prolonged mental stability is very important; if thoughts arise, go back to your breath, not to the thoughts.
My mind wanders easily. How do I keep my focus on the tip of my nose?
Simply be aware. Notice that your mind has wandered and refocus your attention on the point of meditation. Do it as often as necessary.
How do I reduce or stop mind chatter?
You cannot stop it, but there are ways to mitigate it. First, your mind can only think about one thing at a time, so if you are focused on something else the chattering will stop. Whenever you notice your mind chattering, don’t make a big deal of it. Simply acknowledge it, then turn your mind to something else. Meditation. Work. A project.
Second, the chatter is likely to be rooted in something you can change. If it stems from insecurity, work on your self-confidence. If it is grounded in a negative outlook, cultivate a more positive point of view. Over time, the chatter will significantly diminish.
Second, the chatter is likely to be rooted in something you can change. If it stems from insecurity, work on your self-confidence. If it is grounded in a negative outlook, cultivate a more positive point of view. Over time, the chatter will significantly diminish.
Is there a difference between Dharma-worthy merit and ordinary merit?
Merit, or “good karma” can be achieved a number of ways. If the actions also bring material benefit, comfort, or happiness, then they achieve ordinary merit; if they do not bring worldly benefit but they do bring wisdom, weaken ego or liberate suffering then the related merit is Dharma-worthy.
I have taken refuge from more than one teacher. Is that a problem?
It is fine to take refuge more than once; your vow is to the triple gem, not the teacher.
I have practiced meditation for three years now. The first year I had many experiences in which I felt oneness; I could even see energy sometimes and I could feel my progress. But then I began to doubt what I was doing, and now I can't recapture that feeling. Please help me.
The energy experience usually happens at the beginning; even when you don’t have doubts it disappears after awhile. It is just like driving a car: You feel the motion when you first start, but once you have constant momentum you don’t really feel it. So you should not expect to recapture the feeling, yet you should know the progress is still there.
If Buddhism is not a religion and Buddha not a god, why do Buddhists seem to have shrines everywhere—even at work?
People are so visual that a physical object is the most powerful memory aid. Shrines remind us of the teachings; of the beneficial qualities associated with a specific enlightened being, such as Buddha; and of the need to be good, to think positively, to be mindful. Most of all, they remind us that we all have the potential to improve, if we make the effort.
Having been raised as a Christian, it is very difficult for me to bow to a figure of Buddha; it surfaces the commandment: “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or bow down to them or serve them.” Am I wrong? And, if so, how?
For exactly that reason, a Buddhist will never encourage someone to bow down to a stone or copper figure; you bow to the qualities that figure represents. These spiritual benefactors, such as Buddha, are teachers of the universal truth; bowing is a physical demonstration of the respect in which you hold their wisdom.
Is there a special way to sit while meditating?
Traditionally, you sit cross-legged on a cushion. However, you may sit or stand; the key point is to be balanced. Your shoulders should be horizontal, your head level, your back straight and your hips higher than your knees. (For this reason a straight-backed chair is preferable to a sofa or sunken chair.) You need to feel safe, to be grounded and relaxed.
I have meditation beads made from the seed of a Bodhi tree. The seeds look like little brains—or minds. Is that intentional?
The Bodhi tree is considered auspicious; that is why those beads are chosen. That they look like brains is purely co-incidental.
My understanding of meditation is that one sits and does nothing – how does this achieve something?
Everything positive exists within you—but you need to realize it for yourself, by observing your mind. Activity—even the rote activity of daily life—prevents you from observing yourself, whereas “not doing” frees you to see.
How do different practices achieve specific results, ie, how does Chenrezig (aka Avalokiteshvara) practice generate compassion?
Each practice gives us specific results due to the qualities associated with the specific deity. Your interest in cultivating certain qualities is like a ring, and the bodhisattva’s wish is like a hook, pulling you forward. For instance, Avalokiteshvara dedicated innumerable prayers to the thought of merit; those prayers hold great power. If, through practice, you also understand and admire his qualities and aspire to have them, your aspirations combined with his prayers become a powerful force.
The great reverence for the wisdom of one’s teacher is manifested by a respect that feels hierarchical—yet the teachings say we are all inherently equal. How can the two co-exist?
The key word in this question is “inherently.” Yes, we are all inherently equal—but our inner qualities need to be activated. It is like the difference between pure gold and gold stone; the gold itself is equally valuable, but equal amounts of the two substances aren’t. Because a teacher is more fully realized, we revere his wisdom, and offer him the according respect.
I thought meditation was about clearing your mind from words and thoughts, but lots of the meditations have ideas you repeat or questions you examine, so there is a constant voice in your head. Sometimes there is even a teacher, talking the whole time. I find that distracting.
When you get water in your ear, you can’t hear; counter-intuitively, by adding more water and shaking your head, the original water comes out too. This is a similar concept. To get rid of random intrusive thoughts, we use systematic, targeted thoughts that allow us to concentrate on one, intentional topic.
Do I really need a teacher to meditate and do yoga? I’ve taken classes.
Yes, if you really want to learn, you need a teacher. While you can do some simple practices on your own, to progress you need personal guidance. You are unique. You can’t find your answers in a general book or from a general class; you need someone who understands you deeply. If you are sick, you can buy over-the-counter medicine, and it may help; but to really get well, you need to see your doctor, who knows and understands your specific physiognomy. Your spiritual health is exactly the same.
If I am a spiritual person, why do I have trouble with relationships?
Being spiritual doesn’t mean being problem-free; it simply means you are on a spiritual path because of your interests and karmic connections. Other karmic connections may cause you to have relationship problems—especially if the other person is not spiritual. However, being spiritual should make it easier for you to deal with these problems.
When my father asked if I've had alcohol, I replied 'no,' because to admit it would just cause arguments and disappointment. But I feel guilty for lying.
Your mind has to be the judge of what is right and wrong, what brings more harm or help. The most important thing is to be honest in your mind and in your heart; don’t use the excuse that it would upset your father if the reality is that his anger would upset you. (If the reality is that he would beat you or disown you, then perhaps the truth is more harmful; you have to decide.) Of course, timing is also important. If you find the right moment, you can tell your father the truth, that you did drink alcohol, but that you have changed in your heart and you can promise that you won’t anymore. It is likely that your father will be happier rather than unhappy.
Why do repetitive situations happen? Are the karmic? I keep having relationships with men who love and care for me, but cheat on me, even though we are great friends and never quarrel.
From a purely Buddhist point of view, this is a perfect example of how people become victims of negative emotions, such as greed, lust, anger. Even though they care for you, these men may be victims of past habitual patterns. Of course, there are also human factors on both your part and theirs. Both sides have to overlook problems and understand and support each other, to forgive and focus on the positives. This is how we learn to live perfectly in an imperfect world.
How can one give inner warmth, peace and love to family members who are cold and indifferent?
Understand that the person who is cold is the victim of negative emotions; it is not their choice, but due to their ignorance. Don’t expect any reward or warmth in return for your inner warmth and compassion; instead, be more compassionate and forgiving.
My work is not balanced with time for my family or myself, which is causing me to suffer and creating problems in my marriage.
As we grow older and have increasing responsibility—marriage, children, work—difficulties arise. It is important to set priorities, and establish work/life balance. Use minutes, not hours, in order to get everything done.
I have difficulty letting go of past negativity by family and others. Help!
It is increasingly important to learn how to let things go. Remembering past trauma is not useful. The real past no longer exists—it is an image in your mind—and dwelling on it only hurts you; the pain is self-inflicted.
Compassion is really important; I understand that. But I have someone in my life who makes me really angry and treats me really badly. In fact, I might say they represent the worst of human nature. How can I possibly be compassionate toward this person? This doesn't feel possible.
Real compassion has nothing to do with yourself. Real compassion only considers the other person’s situation, not their relationship to you. If they represent the worst of human nature, it is out of ignorance; they are a victim, angry and unhappy, creating lots of negative karma. If someone who is drunk says something mean, you tend to be more forgiving, because you know it was the alcohol talking, not them. Try to consider this person as you would a drunk, understanding that they are under the influence of poisonous emotions. Then you can forgive them, and compassion becomes possible.
If I cling to someone who hurts me, this will help the person be more effective in hurting me, right? I am an avid fan of a Korean singing competition that airs every Tuesday at 11.50 pm. But my father has been telling me not to watch television so late, and to study instead. He says if I fail my exams, college will be a waste of time and money. This makes me really angry; I am very interested in the show.
Certainly, you can be hurt by someone who has no ill intentions, but the lesson refers to someone who intentionally hurts you. Your father probably has no intention of hurting you—and in clinging to your anger you only hurt yourself. It is very important that you make sure to do well on your exams; that is your priority. You only have one opportunity to do this, whereas you will have many opportunities for entertainment throughout your life.
I lived in harmony with a woman for six years, but then she wanted more and left. Now, two years later, she has returned as a good friend. How can I understand such weird behavior?
We know as an absolute truth that things change, and you need to be flexible and open to shifting circumstances. Over time, the way people think can change due to many things; she is the same person, but she exists in different conditions, so her expectations and her outlook are different too. It’s good if you can both be content with friendship.
My mother is narcissistic, mean, manipulative and a liar; to be honest, I don’t like her very much. I care for her out of duty, not true loving-kindness. Is that wrong? She is aging and she needs help.
It is fine to help out of duty; to me this sounds like compassion at work. It may also be possible to generate loving kindness by focusing not on her present state, but on good things she may have done in the past—maybe even before your memories start.
How can I practice true forgiveness and letting go, while still holding someone accountable for bad behavior?
All beings have innate goodness, but may be influenced by negative things. You need to understand the person and the act as two separate things, then help him protect himself from further bad behavior. Don’t take revenge; take precautions so that it doesn’t happen again.
When you see someone you love (who professes to be an ardent Buddhist) consistently breaking the Five Precepts, is it possible to help them return to the path? If so, how?
Sometimes it is important not to set expectations too high; simply expect that the person can improve, and then be very patient. Focus on yourself; if this person is very close to you, improving yourself will help them improve, too.
I have been cheated, put down and hurt by certain people. How do I get closure? I would like to move on.
There are many ways to avoid suffering. You can ignore those who hurt you, forget them, forgive them or understand them. Forgiving is better than forgetting; actively embracing is better than ignoring. But all methods are temporary, and the greater method isn’t always best for you at this moment. Ignoring may work now, and later you may come to understanding. Recognize that the other person is a victim of their own ignorance and emotion, yet that your existence in that specific time and place contributed to the conditions that enabled their actions. See this as an exhaustion of a karmic result—and do not suffer over it.
My wife of 33 years died of aggressive cancer, going from full health to death in under 60 Days despite the best care available. What lesson is learned from this sorrow and how can I cope with my loneliness, sadness, confusion and occasional anger?
Your wife can teach you the most important lesson of all: that of impermanence. While death is certain, its timing is uncertain. There is a Tibetan proverb which states that in the time it takes one sick person to die, 100 “healthy” young people may have died. Only a breath separates life and death; it is a very thin line. If we really understand this—the fragility of life—and if that understanding really touches our hearts, then it will affect the way we deal with many things. We naturally become a more compassionate, forgiving person. We don’t dwell on things that bother us. And we will have an easier time coping with suffering, pain and loss.
Will I be able to find a job that makes me really happy?
Jobs have nothing to do with happiness. If you have a job that makes you happy, that happiness won’t last. It is far better to search for your happiness from within.
Why am I my own worst enemy?
You feel like your own enemy because you are most vulnerable to yourself. You can protect yourself from others, but you cannot hide from the negative emotions you use to harm yourself. Be aware of them, and try to treat yourself kindly.
Although life is an illusion and all the conditions change, sometimes it takes years and years for a difficult situation to change (disability, madness of a family member, poverty). How can one find inner joy and peace, knowing that in next years the conditions will not improve?
Any experience exists on two levels. There is the experience itself—disability, madness, poverty—which may be completely out of your control. The second—and far more powerful—level is how you understand that experience. Whether you find happiness or unhappiness, satisfaction or dissatisfaction in any given situation is within your control. With a more positive outlook, a situation may not seem so bleak, or you may have new ideas on how to improve it. One key is recognizing the causes and conditions—and karmic influences—behind the situation.
How can I eliminate my current negative circumstances and bring forth positive changes for myself and others?
How can I arrive at a consistent, peaceful state of mind, knowing that humans and animals around the world are experiencing pain and suffering at every moment?
A truly peaceful state of mind is beyond conceptual thinking; in it, these thoughts will not occur to you, because you are beyond duality. However, it is a good question in a normal “peaceful” state of mind, and it is good to try to help others as fully as possible. Also, you learn through practice that while suffering exists, freedom exists too; this knowledge can make you happier.
If the world does not truly exist, then work is not real; it only exists in our minds. So why should we work, much less work hard and compete for better positions?
In ultimate truth, the world does not exist. But in relative truth the world you experience on a daily basis has laws of cause and effect. When you are threatened by something in a dream, you try to survive; when you succeed, you feel better. The same is true in life. Even though you know that your “experiences” are all coming from your mind, that’s not enough. Until you are enlightened, it is still important to work.
I understand that the way to ease suffering is to live in and accept the present and let go of past hurts and desires for things to be different, but what if the present is itself painful?
There is a difference between suffering and pain. Pain is real, but conditional; it depends on actual circumstances. Suffering is optional; it is created by your mind. Even in the present, you can make a mountain of suffering out of a molehill of pain. If you simply accept the pain, it just will be pain without suffering, and you will find immediate relief.
I don't understand how it is possible not to respond to emotions. It feels like the teaching is leading me to not feel my emotions—to somehow get rid of my emotions—and that makes me think it wants me to lose what I think of as a core part of my humanity. This doesn't seem right and I can't get past it. Help.
Through practice you gain control over your mind, including your emotions. You don’t eliminate your emotions—you learn to control them, instead of them controlling you.
If intention lays the foundation for karma, is it enough to know and understand the teachings and honestly intend to practice daily (even if you only get around to it once a week or so)?
Well, it is better than nothing. Use it as a starting point and try to build from there.
Our fast-paced western lifestyles demand much of our effort be directed towards livelihood and relationships; in this context how should we incorporate the teachings into our daily lives?
Practice is not just through meditation. You can use the teachings in your daily life through the actions of your body, your speech and your mind. All of these are practice, and they are the only way to progress.
If life is just an illusion and we don’t really exist, what difference does it make whether we conduct ourselves in virtuous or non-virtuous ways?
If you dream that a robber is chasing you, but in your dream you can get into a house and lock the door and be safe, then that eases your suffering. Even though neither the robber nor the door exists, without the door you are vulnerable, with it you are safe. In the same way, even if everything is an illusion, how you conduct yourself matters both to you and to others.
Is it possible to divest suffering but still hang on to joy?
Yes. If there is no attachment, then it is possible.