Virtue and Reality

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Decatur, IL, August 1997 (Archive #1082)

This book contains methods for transforming everyday actions into the cause of enlightenment, anger into patience, and the ordinary view of phenomena as inherently existent into the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Listen to the original recordings of these teachings by clicking on the audio icon for each chapter.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche after the first US course in California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter One: Fulfilling Life’s Purpose

How can we make best use of this perfect human rebirth, the precious human body that we have received just this once? How can we make it most beneficial, not only for ourselves but for those other, most precious, extremely important living beings? Just like us, numberless other living beings, each of whom is as equally precious as we feel ourselves to be, seek only happiness and dislike any suffering. How can we make our lives productive for their sake? This is the main thing we should be asking ourselves.

If we take care of others, work for their happiness, we are automatically taking care of ourselves. Trying to make others happy is the best way of loving ourselves. Similarly, if we harm others, we harm ourselves. Harming others does not bring us peace and happiness, only misery and grief, now and in the future. Bringing happiness to others is the best way of bringing happiness to ourselves; it follows naturally. It happens by the way. Things we do that bring happiness to others have a beneficial effect on our own minds.

Conversely, if we act toward others with negative motivation and give them harm, such actions leave negative imprints on our mental continuum. These imprints later manifest as undesirable appearances. When our senses come into contact with these, unpleasant feelings arise. This is the evolution of our life’s problems; this is how they start. Their origin is in our own minds, with our negative thoughts. The end result is the suffering we experience, in this life or in future ones.

Healthy actions—positive actions, actions that benefit others, actions done with compassion, with sincerity, which bring happiness to others—leave positive imprints on our mental continuum. These manifest as desirable appearances. When our senses contact these, pleasant feelings, comfort, success—all the enjoyable experiences we wish for and desire—result. This is the evolution of happiness, all the way up to enlightenment. Happy daily lives, pleasure and enjoyment—from now until enlightenment—result from positive thinking, positive intention, positive actions.

That’s why the Buddha of Compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, often says that cherishing others is the best way of cherishing ourselves. His Holiness calls this wise, or intelligent, selfishness because, as I mentioned above, by cherishing others, refraining from giving them harm, offering them all benefit, all our wishes for happiness, both now and in the future, will be fulfilled. Experience has proven that not only temporary happiness, but even enlightenment, the ultimate state of everlasting happiness, the highest, complete attainment of peace and bliss, results from serving others. In fact, the more we dedicate ourselves to others, the quicker and easier our own happiness arises. This is the natural evolution of happiness.

This means living a life of compassion. Therefore, the answer to the question of how to make best use of our life is by living with compassion and wisdom. Compassion alone is not enough. We also need to develop wisdom. How do we develop wisdom? We don’t get wisdom from pills or a special diet or by transplanting somebody else’s brain into our head or someone’s heart into our chest. We can develop wisdom only through our own effort, our own meditation practice. Wisdom comes from listening to the right teachings and reflecting and meditating on them.

Therefore, we need to receive unmistaken teachings, gain unmistaken understanding, perform unmistaken practice and thus attain unmistaken realizations. This is extremely important. In this way we do not waste our lives, don’t get led along the wrong path, and can realize the potential of our lives, which is as limitless as the sky. All living beings wish only happiness and complete freedom from suffering. The purpose of our lives is to benefit them all, as extensively as possible.

Furthermore, we must learn how to analyze and meditate. As simply reading a prescription cannot cure a disease—one needs to take the medicine—mere intellectual understanding of the teachings is not enough. We have to practice.

In order to put an end to all our suffering, the cycle of old age, sickness, death and rebirth and the problems of the intermediate state as well, we need to cure our sick minds, to make a complete recovery from the mental illness—the disturbing emotional thoughts, the delusions—that causes all these unwanted experiences. For our own ultimate peace, let alone that of others, we have to do this.

We have enjoyed temporary happiness numberless times. There’s not a single new temporary happiness left for us to experience. What is new, what we have never before experienced, is the great peace that results from cessation of all suffering, death and rebirth; the ultimate happiness that arises through complete cessation of the true cause of suffering—ignorance, the disturbing, emotional thoughts and the actions motivated by these unhealthy minds. We have never experienced this before.

Since beginningless time we have been forced to circle through the realms of death and rebirth again and again, repeatedly experiencing the whole samsaric package of life problems, the entire collection, over and over again. We have never experienced the end of this, ultimate, everlasting happiness, the complete cessation of all problems and their cause, our own disturbing thoughts and the actions that they motivate, karma.

And achieving this great result, which we attain by actualizing the steps of the path, is just a one-time job. Once we realize everlasting happiness, the cessation of all suffering, we can never suffer again, because the seed of life’s problems, which we have planted in our mental continuum, has been totally eradicated, completely purified. Therefore, it’s impossible to ever suffer again—there’s no reason, no cause. Once we have followed the path to its end, we won’t ever have to do it again, we won’t have to keep on practicing. Once we attain the goal, it lasts for ever. Consequently, dedicating your life to this is extremely important. It is the most worthwhile thing you can do with your life.

There’s a Tibetan text, The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, written by the great teacher Lama Tsongkhapa, which encapsulates the three essential aspects of the path to enlightenment as taught by the Buddha—renunciation, bodhicitta and right view. These paths lead to liberation, everlasting happiness, complete freedom from the suffering realms of cyclic existence, samsara. Their practice cuts the root of all suffering, ignorance, the unknowing mind, and brings the peerless bliss of enlightenment.

Lama Tsongkhapa was a great enlightened being, a manifestation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, the embodiment of the wisdom of all buddhas. His ocean of good qualities was as limitless as the sky, his holy mind was complete in all realizations—perfect understanding, compassion and power—and he offered infinite benefit to all sentient beings and to the teachings of the Buddha.

Oral transmission

It is good to receive the oral transmission of texts such as The Three Principal Aspects, which contains the quintessential teachings of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. When you do, you receive the blessings of an unbroken lineage of teachings that reaches back to the great Lama Tsongkhapa himself, and imprint your mind with the steps of the entire path to enlightenment. I myself have received it from many of my own gurus, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his own teachers, who themselves are enlightened beings, accomplished scholars, and, even to the ordinary view, great yogis. Because of these blessings, when you read, study and meditate on texts whose oral transmission you have received, these activities become much more effective, much more beneficial for your mind. Also, when you teach them to others, your teachings are more beneficial for their minds.

For example, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha once gave teachings to 500 swans in a field. As a result of just hearing the words, they were all reborn human in their next life, became fully ordained sangha and attained superior status as arya beings. They actualized the transcendent path that directly realizes the ultimate nature, thereby ceasing all delusions, all emotional thoughts, and brought to an end all suffering and its cause. Thus, simply hearing Dharma teachings can have an extremely beneficial effect on the mental continuum, even that of an animal, such that one is not only reborn human, but is able to achieve high realizations of the path, such as those of the right-seeing path.

The great Indian pundit, Vasubandhu, who composed the important text, the Abhidharmakosha, would recite it aloud every day. A pigeon that nested on the roof of his house used to hear him, and when it died, Vasubandhu used his clairvoyance to see where the pigeon was reborn. He discovered that it had taken rebirth as a baby boy to a family down the road, and they agreed to put their son in the highly respected pundit’s care. The child—later known as Lobpön Loden (Acharya Sthiramati; Lodrö Denpa)—took ordination as a monk, became a great expert in the Abhidharmakosha, which he had heard so many times in his previous life as a pigeon, and wrote several commentaries on it. This is another example of the great benefit that simply hearing Dharma teachings can bring.

One of my gurus told me another story about Lobpön Loden. Just as Christians pray to the Virgin Mary, so too do many Buddhist have great faith in Tara, a female emanation of the enlightened mind. When Lobpön Loden was a child he used to try to make food offerings to a Tara statue that was kept in a glass-fronted cabinet, but every time he pushed the food up against the glass, it would fall down and he’d cry. Undaunted, because of his great devotion, he kept trying, but the food would always fall. Eventually, Tara, moved by his sincerity, caused his offerings to remain suspended, defying gravity, on the glass.

Universal responsibility

The purpose of our life is not simply to solve our own problems, to gain happiness for ourselves. The purpose of our life is to be of use to others, to benefit other sentient beings, whether it be one or many. However, the real reason we’re alive is to free the numberless other sentient beings from suffering and lead them to the unsurpassed happiness of full enlightenment. That is the meaning of our life. Each of us has this universal responsibility to bring the greatest happiness to all sentient beings.

How is it that we have this responsibility? If you generate compassion in your mind, you will not harm others. Peace and happiness is the absence of harm. By not harming others, you are offering them happiness and peace. Not only that, but by having compassion, you also benefit them in a more active way. The greater your compassion, the more you help other sentient beings. So all this peace and happiness that others experience as a result of your compassion has come from you, depends upon you. It is in your hands, because it is up to you whether or not you generate compassion towards others. If you do not, they do not receive the peace and happiness you have to offer; if you do, they receive all this peace and happiness from you. Therefore, you have the universal responsibility of bringing peace and happiness to each and every sentient being.

Pause here for a moment, stop reading, and meditate on the feeling of universal responsibility as I’ve just explained it—that if you have compassion for all living beings, each one receives great peace and happiness from you; each one receives no harm. Think, “All this peace and happiness that they experience and enjoy depends upon me.” Think of the reasons for this and keep them in mind as you try to feel universal responsibility for all sentient beings’ peace and happiness.

Meditate on the thought, “I am responsible for all sentient beings’ peace and happiness.”

It would be wonderful if you could practice mindfulness of this in your everyday life. Even if you cannot do many other practices—mantra recitation, sadhanas of deities, various other preliminary practices—if you can just keep in mind that the purpose of life is to bring happiness to all sentient beings and feel responsible for this, if you can maintain this attitude, remembering it again and again, you will give your life great meaning and naturally, automatically, benefit others in this way.

If you can maintain mindfulness of universal responsibility, everything you do—walking, sitting, sleeping, working, talking, eating, whatever actions you engage in—will be transformed by this positive attitude. Every action of your body, speech and mind will immediately become service for other sentient beings. When you sleep, you sleep for others; when you eat, you eat for others; when you work, you work for others; when you talk, you are talking to benefit others, to bring them happiness. The moment your attitude changes in this way, whatever you do becomes an action that benefits others.

An hour, a minute before you changed, you were acting out of ego and self-centeredness, and whatever you were doing was impure and not a cause of achieving enlightenment. Because you were motivated by ego, attachment ruled your mind and your actions did not become a cause for everlasting happiness, liberation from samsara—the six realms of suffering and their cause. They did not even become a cause for a good rebirth or happiness beyond this life. Since your actions were done out of ego and attachment, clinging to this life, they became only the cause of suffering.

But as soon as you generate the thought, “I’m responsible for all sentient beings’ happiness; this is what my life’s about,” and feel this universal responsibility, suddenly, whatever you’re doing completely transforms. It becomes work for others. It becomes healthy. It becomes a pure action unstained by ego. It becomes Dharma. Your actions become Dharma; this is the best meditation you can do. While you are working, you are meditating. While you are studying, you are meditating. No matter what you are doing, you are meditating. There’s no separation between your life and meditation; your whole life becomes your practice of meditation.

If you can just keep your mind focused in this way, even though you cannot do many other practices, this positive attitude, the thought of benefiting others, converts everything you do into the best kind of Dharma, the best cause of happiness. Everything you do becomes a cause for happiness and enlightenment. Your entire daily life brings you closer and closer to the ultimate freedom of buddhahood.

If there’s no compassion in your heart, what you’re left with is ego, the self-centered mind. That means your entire life is dedicated to your own happiness. But what about others? They also want to be happy. You’re not the only one who needs happiness; others also need happiness. Therefore, when you’re under the influence of ego, it’s very easy to clash with others in your daily life. You can see how the self-centered mind causes problems, difficulty getting along with others, disharmony and so forth. The stronger your ego, the more problems in your life. Other people find it difficult to be with you. Even if you find a friend, sooner or later—as your ego generates attachment and that causes anger to arise—your ego and those other emotions will make your friend an enemy.

As long as you act out of ego, you harm others, because your ego is intent on achieving happiness for yourself at the expense of others. Because of ego, other discriminating thoughts, such as anger and jealousy, arise. They produce negative actions, which cause you to harm other sentient beings. As you go from life to life with ego and the other emotional discriminating thoughts, you continually hurt others, and all sentient beings receive harm from the one person, you.

But if you generate compassion, all sentient beings receive peace and happiness from the same one person, you. If all sentient beings get angry at you and harm or even kill you, you are just one person. But if that one person, you, doesn’t practice compassion, the good heart, numberless other sentient beings are at risk of being harmed by you—there’s the great risk that the one person, you, will harm numberless others. Therefore, whether other people practice compassion or not, first you should do so. Develop the good heart.