How to Practice Dharma

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Excerpts from Lama Zopa Rinpoche's How to Practice Dharma: Teachings on the Eight Worldly Dharmas, edited by Gordon McDougall. This book deals with the eight worldly dharmas, essentially how craving desire and attachment cause us to create problems and suffering and how to abandon these negative minds in order to find perfect peace and happiness.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
The Dissatisfied Mind of Desire

Whether we are a Dharma practitioner or not, every problem in life comes from our own mind, as does every happiness. The cause of suffering is not external; the cause of happiness is not external. The cause of what we experience is within us, in our mind.

And what is that particular thing that creates every problem we experience in life? It is the dissatisfied mind of desire, the mind clinging to this life. We try to obtain the immediate happiness of this life through what are called the eight worldly dharmas: desire for comfort, material things (such as gifts, friends and so forth), a good reputation and praise, and aversion to lack of comfort and material things, a bad reputation and criticism, or blame.

Wealth is not a problem; the problem is having desire for wealth. Friends are not a problem; attachment to our friends is. Objects become a problem for us because of the emotional mind of desire. When desire, the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, is there, not only does a lack of wealth cause us problems but so too does having wealth. When we are controlled by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, we’re miserable and lonely without friends but having friends does not give us complete satisfaction either. When our mind is controlled by desire, neither having nor not having an object can't bring anything but dissatisfaction.

It might seem that we know the distinction between happiness and suffering but in fact, when we see how we so constantly and diligently work toward bringing ourselves suffering, it is very clear that we really don’t know at all.

Because of our attachment, we feel elated when we meet the four desirable objects and mistake this excitation for happiness. We fail to see that meeting these objects brings no calmness or peace in our heart. Instead, because we have not eradicated the dissatisfied mind of desire, we subject ourselves to constant mood swings and instability. Clinging is an uptight mind where we’re painfully stuck to an object, unable to separate ourselves from it.

When our mind is overcome with desire, not only is the reality of the object obscured but we’re also unable to see the shortcomings of desire itself. Seeing a friend in the distance, we’re immediately lifted up by attachment as our mind labels and exaggerates the good qualities of the object: “How wonderful he1 is! How gorgeous! How lucky I am to meet him on the street like this!” We grasp at objects of attachment as if they truly exist, adorning them and blocking our understanding of their true nature. We project all these exaggerated qualities onto that object walking toward us and hold the unrealistic expectation that he can make us truly happy.

When we first see our friend in the distance we see the body alone. Only after that do we recognize and then label that body “my friend.” First we see the base; then we apply the label “friend” to that base; then we see the friend. But this is not how it appears. To us, the “friend” and the body walking toward us are inseparable, but in fact, “friend” is just a projection of our mind. Although it was our own mind that imputed the label “friend” onto the object, we believe what’s merely a label to be reality and see the object as being more than an imputed friend; it seems to us to be a real friend. Then we say, “This is my friend.”

To us that friend, rather than being a mere imputation of our mind, is something totally the opposite, totally contradictory. Walking toward us is a friend who intrinsically exists, completely independent of our mind. There is someone there, but that truly-existing friend is nothing more than a decoration, a projection, labeled on the base, the aggregates of the merely-imputed friend, caused by the negative imprint left on the mental continuum by past ignorance.

This is our fundamental confusion, and all the delusions that plague us and rob us of happiness—minds such as anger, jealousy and pride—grow from that. Misreading the object, we get stuck. As if intoxicated by a drug, we hallucinate a real, independent object where there is none. Under the control of the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, we see that merely-imputed friend as permanent and unchanging, as the true cause of our true happiness. This is our friend and he will never change. But change is natural and inevitable, and when something happens and he does change, we get shocked.

Confused about the nature of reality, we see impermanent things as permanent and so we suffer. Nobody gives us trouble but ourselves. We torture ourselves by not having realized reality, by not seeing things the way they really are. We perceive them in a way that is completely contradictory to reality and grasp onto these false appearances. In this way we become the creator of our own suffering.

Something that is only suffering in nature appears to us as happiness; something that is impermanent appears as permanent; something that is impure appears as pure; something that is not truly existent appears as truly existent. While we’re clinging to these appearances, enjoying these objects with desire, they look good, but sooner or later they will cheat us. The final result of our relationship with them is only suffering. This is samsara. It seems good to have samsaric perfections, but since we have not renounced clinging to this life, we’re bound to be deceived. Even after we’ve found our object of desire, it’s never perfect; there’s always something missing in our heart. The dissatisfied mind of desire robs us of our happiness.2

For most of us, success in life means success in obtaining the four desirable objects, but actually this is only success in achieving suffering, because desire by its very nature disturbs our mental continuum and causes dissatisfaction. Whether we’re born as a human being or even a deva, whose sensual enjoyments are millions of times greater than those of the human realm, in reality there’s only dissatisfaction.

When we’re told that we have to give up desire, we feel as if we’re being asked to sacrifice our happiness, that without desire there’s no possibility of happiness and we’re left with nothing, just ourselves, completely empty, like a deflated balloon. We feel as if we no longer have a heart in our body, as if we’ve lost our life.

This is because we have not realized the shortcomings of desire. We have not recognized that the nature of desire is suffering. Desire itself is a suffering, unhealthy mind. Because of desire, our mind hallucinates and we’re unable to see that there is another kind of happiness, a real happiness.

If obtaining an object of desire were real happiness, the more we had of it the happier we’d be, whereas in fact the opposite happens. Our pleasure in the object decreases until it becomes discernable suffering, such when we eat something: at first we enjoy it but if we just keep on eating, it soon turns to discomfort and then outright suffering.

The conditions come together and we encounter favorable objects, so we call it happiness, but under the surface there’s a pain in our heart, a tightness in our chest. This mind is bound up tight, like a prisoner with his hands and legs tied with rope. There’s no real peace even when we manage to meet an object of desire—our mind is still in the nature of suffering.

That’s why it is vital that we understand the eight worldly dharmas. The more we recognize what’s really going on in our mind, the more we understand the source of our problems. When we go to the East, there are problems; when we go back to the West, there are problems. Wherever we go there are problems and dissatisfaction. When we see this, we see the root of life’s problems, the core delusion that creates them—for the individual, for society, for countries, for the world. Thinking that happiness comes from sense objects, worldly people are robbed of real happiness and satisfaction. The great pandit Aryadeva said,

Worldly beings find it very difficult to see that happiness comes from renouncing this life. In that, they are extremely deceived.

We might achieve all the things that people commonly regard as signs of a successful life. We might have hundreds of thousands, millions or billions of dollars, which we consider success. We might receive praise, which we consider success. We might have comfort, food, clothing, shelter and so forth, which we consider success. We may have everything that people commonly call success. However, even achieving all these things is still suffering because we’re clinging to them.

All the negative actions we do through pride, attachment and so forth, harming and even killing others, all the suffering and worry we have, is caused by the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas. If we check up— like watching a movie—checking back and back to really find the cause of our problems, we’ll find that they all stem from the attachment concerned with only the happiness of this life. This is a revelation, because we can at last see that all suffering (and happiness) comes from the mind, not from external phenomena.

In his Lam-rim Chen-mo, Lama Tsongkhapa said,

We follow desire in the hope of getting satisfaction, but following desire leads only to dissatisfaction.

In reality, the result of following desire is only dissatisfaction. We try again and again and again, but true satisfaction is impossible.

Following desire is the major problem of samsara. It ties us to the cycle of death and rebirth continuously, causing us to experience the sufferings of the six realms over and over again, endlessly, never finding real satisfaction or peace. Having cancer or AIDS is nothing compared to being trapped forever in samsara by desire. The suffering caused by disease will end, but if, while we have this perfect human rebirth, we don’t overcome desire, the suffering it causes will continue forever.

We should be terrified of the future rebirths that desire will bring, such as rebirth in the unbearable suffering of the lower realms or the endless dissatisfaction of the upper realms. But instead of that, most of us only worry about the small transient sufferings of our present life and put all our effort into stopping them alone. However, working to obtain the happiness and avoid the suffering of just this life is negative, because the methods we use are negative. Whatever we do for just this life is done with the self-cherishing thought, the wish for samsaric pleasure, for the comfort of this life.

Because we’re attached to pleasure, when we get sick we treat our sickness motivated only by the wish for the relief of our discomfort, nothing higher, so taking medicine becomes a negative action. When we feel hungry, we eat with self-cherishing, so that too becomes a negative action. If we get hot or cold, we turn on a fan or a heater with the same negative mind.

From morning to night we do everything with the self-cherishing mind. Inside the house, outside the house, getting dressed, walking around, talking to people, working, eating, seeing things, shopping, going to bed—we do everything with self-cherishing.

Even though everything we do is motivated by the wish to obtain temporal happiness and avoid temporal problems, in fact, everything we do creates the cause of greater, continual suffering in the future. For countless previous lifetimes we’ve been carrying on like this, perpetuating the cycle of suffering, living fulltime with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas.

Unless we can break this cycle we will continue like this, doing the same thing on and on endlessly, because we’re using entirely the wrong methods to deal with our immediate worldly problems. We’re forever creating the causes for much greater suffering for ourselves. Really, we are crazy; completely crazy.

When lam-rim practitioners—those who have renounced the thought of the eight worldly dharmas and live in pure practice—look at us clinging to samsaric happiness, they see us as children playing, as completely hallucinated.

Look at children playing in the sand. They make piles of sand and give them labels, calling one pile “my house” and another “my car.” They believe in their labels and grasp on to them, and when challenged, they argue and fight, as attachment, hatred and anger arise. Clinging to the eight worldly dharmas, we’re just like children. In fact, we’re completely childish. We cling to actions as if they have meaning, whereas they don’t at all. We chase the meaningless in search of happiness; we believe the essenceless to have essence.

Perhaps we might think that even though it’s not real happiness, as long as we’re enjoying ourselves it doesn’t matter; we’re causing no harm. That’s like seeing poison and labeling it medicine. We take it and get sick, mentally and physically. The result of clinging to temporary pleasures is agitation and lack of peace, lack of freedom. That’s the nature of negative mind.

When we truly understand that all of life’s problems are caused by the evil thought of the worldly dharmas, then, as we’re all looking for happiness, it’s only natural to renounce this one main cause of all our suffering. Doing so really brings peace into our mind and life. If we check, this becomes utterly apparent.

When we step on a thorn we recognize that the pain we feel comes from the thorn and that removing it will stop the pain. Similarly, as the eight worldly dharmas are the source of all our problems, renouncing them is the essential method, the root from which both this life’s happiness and real peace come.

Any action we do is either Dharma, the cause of true happiness, or non-Dharma, the cause of suffering, and the distinction between the two is based solely on whether that action is motivated by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas or not. Thus, if we want to be happy, renouncing the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas is the very first step we need to take.  


1 Or she. A design fault with the English language is the third person singular indefinite. Historically, “he” has been taken as the default gender, and more recently “they” (with the ensuing confusion of plural verb for singular subject) has become fashionable. We, the editors, will simply swap the pronouns back and forth between genders. Return to text]

2 See Rinpoche’s teachings on “Four Wrong Concepts” in Bodhisattva Attitude for more details on all this. [Return to text]

Next Chapter:

The Nature of Samsara »