Until we attain the state of the All-Pervading Lord Samantabhadra,
I and all sentient beings without exception, equaling the limitless sky,
Take refuge in the Three Jewels, the essence of rare sublimity,
And in the entire assembly of mandala deities.
From beginningless samsara right up to this very second, my kind mother sentient beings and I have been under the control of the three poisonous minds. Motivated by the three poisonous minds, we have created various karmas. As a result, we have been taking various bodies from the peak of samsara down to the lowest realm, the vajra hell, and have been experiencing constantly the unbearable sufferings of samsara in general, and those of the three lower realms in particular. Who has the power to save me and my kind suffering mother sentient beings from all this? Only the Guru Triple Gem, now abiding before me. Please, Guru Triple Gem, right now, protect me and my kind mother sentient beings from the extremely terrifying sufferings of samsara, particularly those of the three lower realms. From this moment on, until I see the face of Buddha Samantabhadra, I will never abandon my object of refuge, the precious and sublime Triple Gem, no matter what happens in my life—good or bad, happiness or suffering
The Tibetan terms used here in the commentary, zang-ngän, can be interpreted in different ways. Generally, zang means good and ngän means bad, but they can also mean pure and impure, or happiness and suffering. Broadly, when related to our lives, good can mean having an easy life, where things go smoothly, and bad can mean a difficult life, where we encounter many obstacles and problems. However, what is good or what is bad depends upon the individual’s interpretation.
From the Dharma point of view, if you spend your life creating more virtue than non-virtue, that’s a good life. If last year you created more positive than negative karma, that was a good year; if yesterday you created more merit than negativity, that was a good day. Even if you spend only half your time in virtue, that’s still pretty good. It just depends on how you look at it. If you compare yourself with someone who creates negative karma 24 hours a day, relatively, creating a few hours’ virtue every day is a good life. A quarter of a day’s virtue is obviously better than none at all.
So that’s the general definition of the good life and the bad: the relative proportion of positive karma to negative. If, during a 24-hour stretch, you are able to collect more virtue than non-virtue, then, even though you might feel exhausted, even though you might have almost died practicing Dharma, your life that day was good.
Look at Naropa, for example. He had to undergo twelve great and twelve lesser hardships in order to fulfill the instructions of his guru, Tilopa. Nevertheless, his was the best of all possible lives. Milarepa, too, had to face many difficulties. Under the orders of his guru Marpa, three times he had to construct and then immediately tear down that nine-story tower, all by himself. He was never allowed to come to teachings or initiations with the other students, was always beaten and scolded, and never heard any praise, such as, “Oh, you are such a good disciple,” or, “You have done excellent practice.” Despite accomplishing whatever task he was set, all he ever saw was the wrathful aspect of his teacher. However, by following Marpa’s advice to the letter and never allowing the slightest negative thought about him to arise, Milarepa attained enlightenment in that very lifetime. When you think about what constitutes a good life and what constitutes a bad, Milarepa’s was the very best.
It’s very important to know clearly the difference between a good life and a bad one. If your connotation is incorrect, if you have your own hallucinated opinion about it, you’ll get very confused. You’ll go in the wrong direction, and as a result your mind will finish up empty of attainments, empty of realizations—completely empty of anything worthwhile.
Thus, you can interpret good and bad according to Dharma wisdom, the right understanding of the lam-rim and karma, or according to the view of attachment, ego, and self-cherishing. Naturally, these two interpretations are completely opposite. Attachment’s connotation of good and bad in particular is diametrically opposed to that of wisdom. This is where the confusion lies. If your faith in and understanding of Dharma are too weak, you’ll find it easier to believe attachment’s interpretation; if your faith and understanding are strong, you won’t find it so difficult to follow wisdom’s definition of good and bad.
Generally speaking, common people in the world at large follow attachment. To them, a good life is one where success is measured by external development—the accumulation of more, more, more: wealth, possessions, cars, friends, family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth—external, visible signs of prosperity. According to attachment, this is the best kind of life to lead. But what’s behind this quest?
Actually, what everybody wants is peace, happiness, and satisfaction in their hearts and minds. That’s what everybody is looking for. The trouble is, most people don’t know how to find it. The only method they have for finding fulfillment is external development. That’s all they know because they lack a Dharma education. So, even though they want peace of mind and satisfaction, they have no method other than the external one. No matter what they do, they always finish up, as the Rolling Stones so aptly put it: “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Say you spend years, perhaps your entire life, in retreat, or living in a monastery or nunnery—adhering to moral disciplines, keeping precepts, sacrificing a great deal of comfort and the pleasures of this life in order to lead a pure life. If you haven’t renounced attachment, your mind will suffer a lot. From my point of view, that’s still a good life. Because you have not freed your mind from the attachment clinging to this life, not separated it from worldly concerns, not made your mind healthy, you don’t enjoy your practices or enjoy engaging in discipline. If, rather than associating with virtuous friends and good practitioners, you choose instead to stick to attachment and be friends with the eight worldly dharmas, then, even though physically your body may be in retreat or in a monastery, you won’t experience peace or happiness in your heart.
As long as your mind is friendly with the attachment clinging to this life and the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, you will not be able to give up this life’s pleasures and comfort in order to practice Dharma, follow morality and the advice of your virtuous friend, or offer service to the monastery or to the other monks and nuns. It is difficult for you to serve any sentient being when your mind is stuck in attachment instead of Dharma.
However, even though your mind makes it hard for you to enjoy your life or find happiness in your heart, if you still try to practice morality and follow monastic discipline, which supports and guides your mind and protects it from obstacles, it’s still a good life. Similarly, when you have trouble staying in retreat, offering service to your virtuous friend, or working for sentient beings, if you persevere, you are again ensuring that your life will be good. Why? Because the merit you create will always bring good results.
If you are motivated more by attachment than by wisdom, you may not find happiness or satisfaction in your heart and mind when you do your practices or keep your vows. Nevertheless, you are still leading a good life because what you are doing will bring the result of a good rebirth in your next life. Even if your mind is not completely pure, not completely renounced, not completely free of the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, the attachment clinging to this life, not completely ascetic, the result of your practice will definitely be good. Therefore, your life is a good one.
Of course, it takes time to develop a fully renounced mind. It takes strong, continual, intensive meditation, especially on impermanence and death as related to karma and the sufferings of samsara, particularly those of the lower realms, and on the preceding lam-rim meditations on the perfect human rebirth: the eight freedoms, the ten richnesses, the difficulty of receiving it, how it is highly useful, and how it is difficult to find again. But the more strongly renounced your mind is, the further behind you leave the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas, the attachment clinging to this life, the greater the peace, happiness, and satisfaction you will find in your heart.
Similarly, the extent to which the eight worldly dharmas—praise and criticism, good reputation or bad, receiving material things or not, finding happiness and comfort or problems and discomfort—disturb you depends on to what extent your mind is following attachment. For example, the more you cling to being liked or well thought of, the more painful you will find being criticized; the stronger your wish to feel comfortable, the more you will hate discomfort. When things happen that attachment doesn’t like—the opposites of the four desirable situations—the more disturbed you get, the greater the pain in your heart, the bigger your problems appear.
But even though you have not completely renounced the attachment clinging to this life, even though your heart is not completely detached from the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas, even though you don’t enjoy being in the monastery or nunnery or living in your ordination, as long as you try to maintain your practice, you are still living a good life; your efforts will yield the excellent fruit of a good rebirth in your next life. That’s what I call a good life.
If you don’t see it that way, you might decide to give it all up: “Oh, Dharma practice hasn’t made me happy. After all these years of studying Tibetan Buddhism, taking teachings from the most qualified lamas, living in the monastery, and keeping my ordination, I still haven’t found satisfaction or happiness in my heart. Perhaps I should go to a mosque and try Islam.” Then you abandon everything you’ve been doing and try living without rules or discipline, a completely free young guy or gal. You go from trying to free yourself from attachment to doing the opposite—living by delusion.
Of course, I’m generalizing. I’m not referring to everybody who has disrobed. Yet this is what commonly happens when people change their life. Still, it doesn’t matter how excited you are, how much happiness you think you’ve found in external pleasures, you have to ask yourself: is this happiness from the Dharma point of view or from the point of view of attachment? You should analyze what you experience as happiness in this way.
So, even though you are excited to be free or to have physical comfort, great wealth, and many friends, your life is motivated by an uncontrolled mind, and you must consider the karmic result. If you don’t analyze your life according to motivation and result but instead simply look at what’s going on in your immediate surroundings, it may appear all right; it may look like you’re enjoying yourself. But no matter how firmly you believe that you are happy and enjoying a good life, it’s a complete hallucination. Even the happiness is a hallucination.
It is only if you don’t think of your motivation or future karmic results that your life seems to be happy. A truly happy life is one that has a positive motivation and a positive result. From my point of view, from the Dharma point of view, that’s a happy life. Naropa and Milarepa, who underwent such great hardships following their gurus’ orders, had fantastic futures, the best futures. Theirs were the best of all possible lives, even though they had to bear so many difficulties.
Nevertheless, you can’t purify your mind in just one day. You can’t all of a sudden detach yourself from the attachment clinging to this life simply by living in a monastery or a nunnery or by becoming a monk or nun. It takes time. So until that happens, you too might have to bear many hardships. But if you don’t meditate continuously and intensively on the graduated path of the practitioner of lower capacity, especially on impermanence and death and the perfect human rebirth, you will never be free from attachment.
In the meantime, you should enjoy living in morality, keeping your ordination, adhering to the monastic disciplines. All this protects your own mind and brings great benefit to others. Of course, the discipline you follow ought to be of benefit to your mind; it was created for that purpose. Thus, it is completely different from, for example, military discipline. The disciplines followed in the great monasteries of Sera, Ganden and Drepung and in the Upper and Lower Tantric Colleges were devised by incredibly learned holy beings in order to benefit the minds of those who adhered to those disciplines in order to develop their minds on the path to enlightenment. Other sentient beings benefit, too, because while you are practicing morality, you are abstaining from harming them. These are the aims of monastic discipline.
Therefore, while you are living under such conditions, even though part of your mind might be telling you that this style of life brings you no happiness or satisfaction, you should recollect the results that your practice will bring. Since you are abiding in the morality of not killing, not stealing, and so forth, you know that there will be a good karmic result, that you will experience happiness in the future. Therefore, even though you don’t feel happiness in your heart right now, you can be sure that you will in the future. That’s the main point I am trying to emphasize.
These days, however, especially in the West, the only goal seems to be, “Does this make me happy right now?” That’s the main goal: me, happy, now. It has to be right now, this very moment, today. Then on top of that comes the old-style psychology of cherishing yourself, pumping yourself up to feel important, the daily affirmation, and so forth. However, the best way of taking care of yourself, the best way of loving yourself, is to practice Dharma.
When you practice Dharma, you are not rejecting yourself but rather looking after yourself in the best possible way. As you develop renunciation, you are liberating yourself from samsara. That’s exactly what you need: without liberation, you will experience suffering continuously, again and again, without end. Meditating on emptiness is also the best way of taking care of yourself: developing the right view, you cut the root of samsara. What need, then, to mention generating bodhicitta, which leads you to the ultimate happiness of enlightenment. Beyond the three principal aspects of the path, what else do you need? What better than this is left for you to do? What higher goals can you achieve? What could possibly be better than liberation from samsara and enlightenment? What better way is there of taking care of yourself?
Whenever we practice Dharma in our daily lives, we’re taking care of ourselves in the best possible way. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says, if you’re going to be selfish, be smart about it. That means if you want to be happy, you should serve others, benefit others, avoid giving them harm. That’s the best way of ensuring your own happiness and of making your life successful. This is what His Holiness means when he talks about “wise selfishness.”
What I’m saying is similar. Without the practice of Dharma, there is no happiness; without the practice of Dharma, you will never be happy. Therefore, the best way to find happiness, the best way to take care of yourself, the best way to look after yourself is to practice Dharma. Whenever you practice Dharma, you collect virtue; the infallible result of virtue is happiness—not only this life’s happiness, but happiness in many lives to come. Karma is certain; good karma definitely brings happiness. Methods for happiness other than Dharma are unreliable.
Actually, other than Dharma, there are no methods for happiness. You can never achieve happiness from a method that is not Dharma. If it’s not Dharma, it’s non-virtue, and the only possible result of that is suffering. Therefore, whenever we practice Dharma in our daily lives, we are really taking care of ourselves in the best possible way, really loving ourselves. The only possible result of that is happiness.
Even if your attitude is simply that of seeking happiness for yourself—better future lives or your own liberation from samsara—you are still taking care of yourself and leading a good life. And if you are offering service to other sentient beings but finding no happiness in your life because your mind is impure, because you have not yet conquered ego and attachment, not yet renounced samsara, at least you are working for others. As long as you are working for the happiness of other sentient beings, you are still leading a good life.
Still, as above, you might feel, “I’m not enjoying this life; my heart isn’t happy,” or “My motivation is so impure,” and as a result, stop working for others. If you then go and do something else, something which benefits neither yourself nor others, you will lose even the small benefit you were offering others through the efforts of your body, speech, and mind, and your life becomes a complete waste of time.
Compare these two: totally wasting your life, and doing something beneficial for others even with an impure motivation. If what you do becomes useful for others, you’re still living a good life; others receive happiness from what you do. If you stop doing that and instead do something that has no benefit whatsoever, you completely waste the energy of your body, speech, and mind. Everything you have spent on food, shelter, medicine, and clothing from the time you were born up until the present is rendered completely useless; it didn’t benefit you, it didn’t benefit others.
Not only do you waste everything that you yourself have done, but you also waste everything that your parents did. For all those years, from the time of your conception up to the present, they sacrificed their lives to look after you. They worked so hard, to the point of exhaustion, with great concern, fear, and worry for your welfare. If you now spend your life doing something that brings no benefit to yourself or others, all your parents’ efforts will be completely wasted.
Therefore, we should rejoice that we have met the precious Buddhadharma, especially the lam-rim, which integrates the entire collection of the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha into a coherent whole that allows us to practice without confusion and to attain the supreme goal of enlightenment. Through practicing the lam-rim, by purifying our negative karma and obscurations and accumulating merit through, for example, reciting the Vajrasattva mantra or the names of powerful deities, we can eradicate all our wrong conceptions, complete all the realizations of the path, especially bodhicitta, and work perfectly for all sentient beings. Every day, by listening to and reflecting and meditating on the lam-rim we benefit our lives enormously. By reading the lam-rim teachings for even a few minutes, a few seconds, we plant the seed of enlightenment in our minds. In those few moments of reading, we are also bringing great benefit to other sentient beings. And apart from meditating on the path, we can also offer service to sentient beings in many other ways. There is no question, therefore, that we should rejoice.
So, going back to the commentary, “…no matter what happens in my life, pure or impure” means that you must take refuge at all times. If you have broken your vows, or even if you are not a precept-holder but have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions or other negative karma, you still need to take refuge. In fact, at those times you should take refuge even more. You can’t think, “I’ve created negative karma, I’m hopeless,” and just give up, stop practicing Dharma. You still want happiness; you still don’t want suffering. Therefore, at such times, you should take refuge more strongly than ever.
So whatever happens in your life, pure or evil, good or bad, happiness or suffering, take refuge—not just by mouth, not merely by words, but from the very bottom of your heart, beseech the Guru Triple Gem, “Please guide me, right now.” Then, with this thought in mind, recite, “I and all sentient beings without exception equaling the limitless sky…” and so forth. This verse shows us how to take strong refuge. When you pray, the words that come out of your mouth and what you feel in your heart should be in harmony. What you say and what you feel should be identical; you must abide in the meaning of the words.
The main point of what I’ve been trying to say is that as long as you are living in your ordination or in a monastery or nunnery, even though you may not find happiness or satisfaction in your heart, your life is still worthwhile; it is still a good life, because the result of the good karma you are creating will be happiness in future lives. Not in just one life, but in many future lives. So even though you find life difficult and feel that you have sacrificed a lot of comfort and pleasure, your Dharma practice will definitely ensure a good future for you. In the long run, you will receive much happiness, good rebirths, liberation, and enlightenment. Therefore, even if you find it difficult to practice and do not enjoy it, please do not become discouraged.