Perfect Freedom: The Great Value of Being Human

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Dharamsala, India September 1984 (Archive #017)

A lightly edited transcript of teachings given in September 1984 at Tushita Retreat Centre, Dharamsala, India. Edited by Ailsa Cameron. Originally published as a transcript by Wisdom Publications.

Download a Chinese version (pdf) translated by Lobsang Dhargyey.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching outdoors at Manjushri London (currently Jamyang Buddhist Centre), 1983. Photo by Robin Bath.
Chapter 1: Generating Bodhicitta

The people doing the Vajrasattva retreat asked me to speak on something. Not being a Dharma practitioner, I have nothing to teach, but one or two of my words may help persuade some people to continue their practice or to make their practice purer.

Your present action of listening to this teaching should become the cause of happiness. However, to have an attitude seeking just the happiness of future lives is not sufficient. Even to listen to this Mahayana thought-training teaching with an attitude seeking self-liberation, the cessation of suffering, is not sufficient. Your aim should be to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings; your action then becomes a cause to achieve enlightenment. Simply listening to a Mahayana teaching is not a sufficient cause to achieve enlightenment. For your present action of listening to this teaching to become a cause of enlightenment, you should have the attitude of a Mahayanist: "At any rate I must achieve the state of omniscient mind for the benefit of all sentient beings; therefore, I am going to listen to this teaching."

Bodhicitta: the heart practice

Training your mind in bodhicitta, the thought renouncing yourself and cherishing others, is extremely important at all times, under all circumstances. Keep this as your heart practice. Even for a Dharma practitioner in retreat (whether you are reciting mantras, meditating on a deity or training your mind in lam-rim), all obstacles - your wishes not being fulfilled, no success in your practice, nothing happening as you planned - come from the selfish attitude, which is the opposite to bodhicitta. The selfish attitude always interferes, not allowing space in your mind for bodhicitta. Even though you may be in retreat, not even one session is done purely for other sentient beings, with a pure attitude of bodhicitta, cherishing only others. There is not one session you can feel satisfied was done purely for others.

Not only during the motivation, but even during the meditation time, hundreds of thoughts arise. More time is spent in the other retreat, the cause of samsara: the retreat from pure view, from bodhicitta, from awareness of emptiness, from one-pointed concentration, from the Vajrasattva mantra. Your meditations become a retreat from seeing all forms as the deity, all sounds as the deity's mantra and all thoughts as the nature of the deity's holy mind. Since most of your time is spent in non- virtue, the session becomes a retreat from virtue. Doing Vajrasattva retreat in this way, you do not receive any signs of purification, not even in your dreams.

If you check your everyday life, you find that all obstacles, all undesirable experiences and failures, come from the selfish attitude. Even for people not trying to train their minds in lam-rim or practice holy Dharma, all unhappiness and confusion come from each person's selfish attitude. If the selfish attitude is strong, bigger and bigger problems come, one after another. For everyone - those who practice Dharma and those who do not, but do everyday jobs such as working in an office, running a business or farming - the selfish attitude is the greatest interference. It is very clear that with less selfishness, there is more success.

Even if a person does not know what virtue is and how to accumulate it or what non-virtue is and how to avoid it, if he has less selfishness, he automatically has more good heart. Even if he has not met Buddhadharma, through having a good heart, his actions become virtue. Although he has never heard any teaching on karma or refuge, such a person has less selfishness and more thought of cherishing others. His actions of helping others with his body, speech and mind come from a sincere heart, a pure attitude, with no expectation for himself. In return he does not expect to receive a good reputation, or material help such as food or clothing from that person in the future. All his actions to help others are pure virtue because they come from a sincere heart, with no expectations or selfish motives.

The actions of the generous, good-hearted Western people who are called "hippies" may be much purer than those of people with faith in karma and refuge who expect something in return for their help. Such a person may help others, but with the expectation of a good rebirth in their next life: "If I practice charity, I will be wealthy and happy in my next life." This person does have faith in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but his action of offering charity to others is done with the selfish attitude of wanting happiness for himself. This action does become virtue, but it is not as pure as that of someone who has not met Dharma but helps others with a pure, sincere heart, without any expectation or selfish attitude.

Whether you practice Dharma or not, whether you are renounced or not, unless there is some change to this selfish attitude, there is no peace. Selfishness doesn't allow any space in the mind for realizations, and is the greatest interference to harmony in the family and in society. It is the greatest obstacle to success in this life and beyond this life, up to enlightenment.

To develop a pure attitude of bodhicitta, you need to practice Mahayana teachings. You should train your mind in bodhicitta all the time. Through the practice of bodhicitta, you will one day become enlightened and be able to guide other sentient beings, like fully enlightened beings such as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, Manjushri, Maitreya Buddha, Tara, Vajrapani and Vajrasattva, the objects of refuge to whom you now pray for the fulfillment of your temporal and ultimate wishes. As the great pandit Chandrakirti says in Madhyamakavatara:

The Hearer-Listeners and the Self-Conquerors are born from the mighty one, Shakyamuni Buddha. The fully purified and developed Buddha is born from bodhicitta, and bodhicitta is born from compassion.

The Hearer-Listeners and Self-Conquerors are the arhats of the Lesser Vehicle path. Buddha is born from bodhicitta and non-dual transcendental wisdom. Bodhicitta is born from the compassion that finds it unbearable that sentient beings are obscured, ignorantly thinking that things are permanent and exist from their own side, even though they are impermanent in nature.

Lama Tsongkapa explains the different levels of practice in his short, middle and great commentaries on the lam-rim. (The condensed lam-rim prayer The Hymns of Experience of the Graduated Path to Enlightenment is for those of lower intelligence.) Lama Tsongkapa explains that bodhicitta is the main part of the Mahayana path. Without the main trunk of a tree, branches cannot grow and there can be no flowers or fruit. Foundation of the Mahayana, bodhicitta is the base for the great bodhisattva actions of the six paramitas and the four methods of gathering sentient beings. Bodhicitta is the base for doing extensive works for all sentient beings.

If you have the main trunk of bodhicitta, you can accomplish all the rest of the realizations up to enlightenment, which are like the branches, flowers and fruit. You can accomplish the immeasurable qualities of Buddha's holy body, holy speech and holy mind. Without bodhicitta, there is no way to have the rest of the Mahayana realizations, just as you cannot expect to have branches bringing forth fruit without the main trunk of a tree. If you have bodhicitta, you can achieve all the other great bodhisattva actions.

Bodhicitta is like the alchemy that transforms iron into gold. (There is a meditation technique to transform iron into gold, but it is very dangerous. The great pandit Nagarjuna performed this meditation and used the gold he created to support the monks in many monasteries.) By achieving the ultimate good heart of bodhicitta, not only are you able to transform indifferent actions into virtue, but can even transform non-virtuous actions into virtue. You are able to transform even actions such as killing, stealing, telling lies, gossiping, harsh speech and so forth, which are by nature non-virtuous. You cannot transform these actions into virtue now, but you will be able to later, when you have achieved the ultimate good heart of bodhicitta, and you will be able to do the various great bodhisattva actions to guide other sentient beings.

If you have bodhicitta, you can accumulate the two types of merit: the merit of fortune and of wisdom. By meditating on emptiness, you accumulate the merit of transcendental wisdom. For example, when meditating on either the self-generation or front generation of a deity, if you are aware of the nature of the deity, that it does not exist from its own side except as merely labelled, that it is a dependent arising, you accumulate the merit of transcendental wisdom. Focusing on the pure view of the deity accumulates the merit of fortune, or method.

If you are aware, you can accumulate the two types of merit when giving one rupee to a beggar. If you are only lending one rupee to the person, however, you are not a worthy base to be labelled "giver," since this is not the function performed by your aggregates; there is no thought or action of giving. The act of giving has to have a subject, an action and an object of charity.

The giver, the action of giving and the object of charity are all three dependent on each other. You should be aware that of these three, nothing exists from its own side except what is labelled on each of the bases. If you generate bodhicitta, wishing enlightenment for yourself and all sentient beings, and give one rupee (or even ten paise) to a beggar, with awareness also of the true nature of the self, action and object, you accumulate both merits: the merit of fortune and of wisdom, as you are aware of emptiness.

Lama Tsongkapa advises that with the ultimate mind of bodhicitta, any merit you accumulate, whether of transcendental wisdom or fortune, becomes the cause of enlightenment. Like alchemy, bodhicitta transforms all the merit you accumulate into the cause of enlightenment. Otherwise, even though you may have realized emptiness, practicing charity without bodhicitta becomes the cause only of liberation from samsara. If you seal your action with emptiness, it becomes a remedy to cut just the root of samsara; it does not become the cause of enlightenment. Bodhicitta makes a huge difference: without it, the merit you accumulate is like one handful of dust; with it, the merit is like the whole earth.

With bodhicitta, every merit you accumulate, whether of transcendental wisdom or of fortune, brings infinite, incredible results. This is why Lama Tsongkapa says:

Bodhicitta is the treasure bringing infinite merit. By understanding this, the brave sons of the Victors keep bodhicitta as their heart practice. I, the venerable guru, practiced like this. I am requesting you, the seeker of liberation, also to practice in this way.

This implies that those seeking happiness should keep bodhicitta as their heart practice. Actually the greatest obstacle to happiness, for worldly people and Dharma practitioners, is self- cherishing thought; and the best method to achieve happiness is bodhicitta. Even without thinking about enlightenment, since sentient beings want happiness and success, the most fruitful way to achieve these is through practicing bodhicitta.

The graduated paths of the three scopes

Why bodhicitta should be the heart practice is shown in the graduated paths of the three scopes. The graduated path of the being of small scope includes perfect human rebirth (its usefulness and the difficulty of receiving it again), impermanence and death, the sufferings of the three lower realms, refuge and karma. The Four Noble Truths are revealed in the path of the being of intermediate scope. However, these paths are the preliminaries; the actual body of the path is the essential practice of bodhicitta - and the six paramitas based on that - revealed in the path of the being of great scope.

By training your mind in the graduated paths of the small and intermediate scopes, you generate renunciation of samsara, the cause of liberation. By training your mind in the graduated path of great scope, you generate bodhicitta, the cause of full enlightenment. By practicing lam-rim, the graduated paths of these three scopes, you can accomplish all your wishes. If you wish to achieve the body of a god or human being, you can accomplish this by training your mind in the path of small scope. If you wish to be liberated from samsara, you can accomplish this by training your mind in the path of intermediate scope. If you wish to achieve the state of omniscient mind, you can accomplish this by training your mind in the path of great scope, which means training in the six paramitas to complete the practice of bodhicitta.

These three great successes are accomplished by training the mind in lam-rim - and other temporal happiness comes by the way. There is nothing missing from the lam-rim, the graduated path of the three scopes, as taught by the past lineage lamas and the present qualified Tibetan lamas. It is the complete, reliable path to enlightenment. If the lam-rim had something missing, you could not accomplish the three great successes. If you cannot attain these by training your mind in the lam-rim, there is something wrong with the lam-rim teachings of Lama Tsongkapa. If the teachings of Lama Tsongkapa are imperfect or unreliable, there is something wrong with Lama Atisha's lam-rim teachings. (Lama Atisha re-established the practice of Buddhadharma in Tibet after there had been a period of corruption.)

To trace the teachings back to Guru Shakyamuni Buddha in this way, showing them to be imperfect and not the complete path to enlightenment, would be a mistake and contradict reality. There is no mistake: the teachings of Buddha are perfect and reliable. After being shown the complete path to enlightenment by his guru, Buddha practiced extensive listening, reflection and meditation. Through these he generated the complete path, ceasing all defilements and completing all realizations, and thus achieved the state of omniscient mind. From his complete experience, Buddha then revealed the entire path to enlightenment, giving the teachings of the three vehicles to his followers. Uncountable numbers of yogis analyzed the teachings to see whether there were any mistakes and whether they would lead them to the goal of enlightenment. By listening to, reflecting on and putting the teachings into practice, these yogis then achieved the same state as Buddha.

Nothing is missing from the lam-rim teachings of the three scopes (this comprises not only the Paramitayana, but also the four types of tantra). They include everything necessary for the achievement of temporal and ultimate happiness. Unless you dedicate your life to training your mind in the graduated paths of the three scopes, no matter what other path you try, you cannot generate renunciation of samsara, so you cannot achieve even the nirvana of the Hinayana, let alone that of the Mahayana.

Scientists examine tiny organisms through microscopes, but Kadampa Geshes check the development of the mind through their progress in lam-rim. They check whether their selfishness, anger, attachment, ignorance and so forth this year are less than last year. The development of the mind is checked through the lam-rim, not through the ability to perform accurate divination or generate certain experiences of heat in the body, which even Hindus can do. The Kadampa Geshes do not regard such clairvoyance and physical experiences as actual proof of development of the mind.

Facing the lam-rim and simply questioning what it is about is regarded as more important than such experiences. Kadampa Geshe Puchungwa asked Geshe Chen-ngawa: "Which would you prefer to have - the eight general siddhis (this includes such attainments as "quick legs" and the ability to fly) and the five psychic powers, or experiences of the graduated path to enlightenment?" Geshe Chen-ngawa answered: "I would much rather face the lam-rim and just question what it is like than have all the eight siddhis and five psychic powers. We have achieved these powers numberless times in the past, but we have never achieved the graduated path to enlightenment through generating renunciation, bodhicitta and right view." By practicing bodhicitta, we are able to take the highest essence and make our life the most beneficial for all sentient beings.

The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation

Even though I don't know very much, I thought to explain a little about The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation. The little I do know is by the kindness of my gurus. Many thought training practices are condensed in The Eight Verses, written by Kadampa Geshe Langri Tangpa Dorje Sengye. These thought-training teachings have not been made up by Tibetan lamas; their reference is the Indian pandit, Nagarjuna:

Whatever sufferings sentient beings have,
May I experience them all.
Whatever happiness and merit I have accumulated,
May all these be experienced by other sentient beings.

The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation is an incredible practice. It is a very skillful psychological method that can make being happy or unhappy, wealthy or poor, healthy or sick, beneficial for all sentient beings. The Eight Verses can even make dying beneficial for all sentient beings - and living!

All the undesirable, miserable conditions in our life can be utilized in the path to enlightenment, even disturbing thoughts of ignorance, anger and attachment. Practicing thought training can make all our undesirable experiences desirable; or if not desirable, at least make them not matter. Even if we cannot develop our mind to the point where we are happy to have problems, through practicing thought transformation, we can at least reach a point where the problems don't matter to us. Whether you are healthy or sick, whether you have possessions or lose them, whether you have friends or not, it doesn't matter; both conditions are beneficial. Nothing disturbs your efforts to achieve enlightenment.

When somebody, out of jealousy,
Blames and criticizes me,
I will take the loss upon myself
And offer the victory to them.

One Kadampa Geshe found the words of this verse extremely beneficial when he was on pilgrimage and was treated badly by some people who would not give him a place to stay for the night. He later wrote a commentary on The Eight Verses.

The main subject of The Eight Verses is developing the two types of bodhicitta: conventional, or all-obscuring, bodhicitta and absolute bodhicitta. Conventional bodhicitta is the altruistic mind wishing to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings and absolute bodhicitta is right view. To generate conventional bodhicitta, one needs to generate the root: compassion for all sentient beings. Simply having a generous mind is not the complete realization of bodhicitta. Even though it is extremely important to have a generous mind with thought to benefit others, you should not be satisfied just with that. In order to generate conventional bodhicitta, one needs the realization of renunciation as a preliminary; one needs to feel that being in samsara is like being in the very center of a fire. Like a spear through your heart, you need to feel it is unbearable that other sentient beings are obscured and experiencing samsaric sufferings.

You cannot generate bodhicitta, the ultimate good heart, simply by repeating prayers over and over. Unless you train your mind in the preliminary realizations of the graduated paths of small and intermediate scope (guru devotion, perfect human rebirth, renunciation), you cannot develop bodhicitta complete with all its characteristics. To see all samsaric perfections as essenceless, feel that your being in samsara is unbearable and also feel unbearable compassion for others, you need to generate strong renunciation, the wish to be liberated from samsara.