One of the first times I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche was when he visited Hong Kong in 1985. He was scheduled to teach lam-rim for five evenings but the group there asked him to also do a Highest Yoga Tantra initiation, which he agreed to do after the first evening. As a beginner, I left when the initiation was about to begin. The next day I was told that there had been no initiation, only more lam-rim teachings. And so it went, all week, with the initiates leaving the center in time to grab a quick breakfast and get to work, only to return in the evening for more of the same. On the final day, at the very end, he gave the initiation. Before he did, he apologized. “Your job is initiations,” he said. “My job is lam-rim.”
Lam-rim, the Tibetan term meaning the graduated path to enlightenment, is the very foundation of Buddhism. It is the systematic assembling of the Buddha’s teachings and those of later great masters into a coherent and easily followed whole. The beauty of the lam-rim is its logic. We all want to be completely and perfectly happy, whether we label that enlightenment or not, but we are blocked. The lam-rim shows us exactly what we must do, laying out a step-by-step guide for taking us from where we are now to where we want to be.
In the eleventh century, King Jangchub Oe invited the renowned Indian scholar and yogi Atisha from the great monastic university of Vikramashila to Tibet to help revive Buddhism there. When he arrived the king explained that in Tibet the teachings had completely degenerated and begged Atisha not to give advanced teachings but basic ones instead; teachings that encompassed the entire path to enlightenment and would be easy for “uncivilized” Tibetans to practice. Consequently Atisha wrote Lamp for the Path, a short text that summarized all the Buddha’s teachings on the steps to be taken to achieve buddhahood.
From that, the many other important lam-rim texts grew, in particular the fourteenth-century master Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lam-rim Chen-mo (The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment), which remains the seminal work on the lam-rim. In 1921, Pabongka Rinpoche taught what was to become Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, another important lam-rim text. When these two great texts were finally translated into English, I was struck with just how familiar they seemed. I then realized that I had been listening to them for years, in the teachings of Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
The vastness and the depth of his knowledge is staggering. Recently, while editing this book, I watched a live streaming of Rinpoche from Paris, where he talked briefly about the eight worldly dharmas. What he was saying was word for word with what I had been just editing from a Kopan course he had taught thirty years before. That he never tires of telling us what we need to hear suggests to me that this is something we really need to hear.
Within the lam-rim structure, however, the teachings on the eight worldly dharmas barely rate, which is surprising, considering how important the subject is. Lama Tsongkhapa hardly mentions it and Pabongka Rinpoche gives it just three pages. My feeling is that it is a given, something so basic and known that it can just be glossed over in traditional teachings. (We can see this, too, with the four noble truths, the first and most fundamental discourse of the Buddha, which is just there in the background of traditional Tibetan Buddhist texts.)
When Lama Zopa Rinpoche started teaching Westerners he saw that this was a subject that we needed. Badly. He says that teaching the eight worldly dharmas was his “main hobby” during the early one-month Kopan meditation courses. That he is still teaching it today seems to show that we need it as much today as we did then.
Whereas Pabongka Rinpoche mentions the eight worldly dharmas in the context of his teachings on death, Lama Zopa Rinpoche usually talks about them in his teachings on the perfect human rebirth, specifically in the subsection of how this precious rebirth is useful and how following these worldly dharmas is such an incredible waste of our life.
Quite early in the piece the students at Kopan recognized the importance of recording Lama Yeshe’s and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings in full, and over the decades we have collected almost 2,000 teachings—ranging from a single evening’s discourse to a full three-month teaching retreat. This collection was formalized in 1996, when Lama Zopa Rinpoche established the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. In 2007, Publishing the FPMT Lineage commenced, a project to make all Lama Zopa’s lam-rim teachings available. The aim is to extract the individual lam-rim topics from all the teachings recorded, assemble, edit and publish them in a series of books. Until now the Archive has generally published edited teachings of one course, but with Heart of the Path, this book and the ones to follow, we will offer a comprehensive presentation of everything Rinpoche has said on each lam-rim topic.
How to Practice Dharma was created in this fashion. Having collected as many of Rinpoche’s teachings on the eight worldly dharmas as possible, I assembled them into topics. While most of the FPMT Lineage Series books will follow the outline in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, an outline Rinpoche himself used in the very first Kopan courses, since Pabongka Rinpoche said very little about the eight worldly dharmas, I had to devise a logical structure to the book without it.
Because Rinpoche gave his most extensive teachings on the eight worldly dharmas at the sixth Kopan course in the spring of 1974, I made that the template and added to it teachings from the other Kopan courses. I then “trawled” the entire Archive to find whatever else Rinpoche had said on the topic and built that into the template course, like a sculptor adding layer and layer of clay to make a well-shaped statue.
The whole text was then edited. I have tried to maintain the informal, experiential style that Rinpoche uses and have included many of the anecdotal and almost parable-like stories that often pepper his discourses.
The edited text comes from verbatim transcripts that have been checked for accuracy, so we can be confident that what is here is exactly what Rinpoche taught. Mistakes and confusions belong one hundred per cent to the editor. When Rinpoche offers textual quotations, however, they should be regarded more as paraphrases than word-for-word translations. When he cites a text, I have listed its title in English only, the one exception being Lam-rim Chen-mo, which is better known to many people than the much longer English title. For the Sanskrit or Tibetan title, please see the bibliography.
When I first started working on this project I familiarized myself with the Archive’s vast collection of teachings by going on a virtual tour around it. It looked a little bit like the Matrix at first, but there is a way to translate it and when accessed we find file after file after file, both audio and transcript, stacked up like skyscrapers, each one representing many hours of painstaking time by a transcriber and a checker, not to mention the time and effort put in by the center hosting the teaching and the people recording it. The work done by the LYWA team and its supporters over the decades is truly staggering.
I worked from over two hundred Archive documents, using excerpts from about sixty for the final edit.1 How many hours of labor does that represent for all the many people involved? And how many people have actually been involved in the creation of this book? I can’t start to name names; there are just too many. All I can do is offer each and every one of you who have given so much a huge thank you.
But most of all, I wish to thank from the bottom of my heart Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the inspiration for all this, the source of all this incredible knowledge. To me he is a living example of how one person can make a huge difference and how everything is possible when one’s mind has compassion and wisdom. May whatever small merit gained from the creation of this book be dedicated to his continued long life, health and the attainment of all his holy wishes.
1 From the 1972 second Kopan course to the 2009 Mani retreat at Institut Vajra Yogini, the Archive numbers used for the final edit are: 005, 017, 022, 027, 028, 029, 081, 091, 092, 107, 111, 144, 158, 163, 170, 181, 266, 280, 328, 333, 335, 350, 394, 395, 436, 476, 488, 511, 513, 514, 576, 582, 634, 758 , 823, 855, 856, 872, 946, 1047, 1055, 1061, 1067, 1159, 1227, 1229, 1240, 1331, 1344, 1372, 1379, 1391, 1420, 1443, 1472, 1580, 1604, 1605, 1606, 1700, 1783. (Get more information about the teachings these numbers denote by using the “Search the Archive Database” function on the LamaYeshe.com homepage.)