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Lama Zopa Rinpoche's Online Advice Book
Emotions : Depression

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche (Last Updated May 21, 2014)
Advice on Transforming Depression 
Rinpoche offered the following advice on how to use depression on the path to enlightenment. 

Depression can be a good thing, because it is a sign of purification, of having practiced Dharma.

There are different levels of how negative karma is purified. With the first level, you never experience the suffering results of your actions. With the second level, you experience these results, but rather than experiencing the suffering result of the negative action for many eons in the lower realms—the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms—instead, the result manifests in this life in the form of some problem, such as depression, a toothache or headache, or being criticized by people and so forth. Unbelievably negative karma manifests as just this problem or even as bad dreams or nightmares; often in the form of sickness, failure in business, or some disaster in your family or in your relationships—other people treating you badly or abusing you; and also in the form of depression.

This way you never have to experience the heavy suffering for an incredible length of time, therefore, experiencing this depression is a positive thing. This can be related to whatever problems you have, so you feel positive and happy about them. You should understand all the rest of your problems, whatever you have, in this same way.

Then there's the next level of purifying karma. By experiencing this [suffering result] now, you don’t have to be reborn in the lower realms, or maybe for a very short time and the suffering is very light. For example, when you throw a stone on a rock, it hits in one second, like snapping your fingers. Similarly, in that way, all those heavy sufferings for a great length of time are finished instead, by experiencing this suffering now. If you compare that to the experience of heavy suffering for an incredible length of time, it's very positive, very good. It's fantastic!

There's no question that the problems experienced in the human realm are an incredibly great comfort, even a pleasure, compared to those extremely heavy sufferings in the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms. So now that negative karma that we don't have to experience is really fantastic. It’s gorgeous! This can also be related to AIDS or cancer or whatever problems we have.

As an example, when we wash a cloth with water and soap, the dirt comes out. At first, there is very black dirt and we don't immediately see that the shirt has been cleaned. But that black dirt coming out is not at all negative; it's a very good sign. If the dirt doesn't come out, that's not good. We want the cloth clean, so the dirt must come out. It appears very dark, black, but it's a positive thing to be able to clean it.

It's the same when we practice Dharma. At that time, negative karmas manifest and we can get sick. When we practice Dharma, negative karma comes out and finishes very quickly, therefore, we should rejoice in depression.

The same thing applies to this situation. The karma manifests and finishes by experiencing this depression or other problem. What makes it come out is our Dharma practice, which is like soap and water. That's why many Dharma practitioners encounter a lot of obstacles, sicknesses and many other things, when they engage in strong practice.

Those who don't do any practice or purification—butchers and so forth, who kill so many thousands of beings and are killing every day—people who engage in activities like that can have a very healthy body and live for many years, but that is not a good sign. All their negative karma is stored up, to be experienced in the future for an incredible length of time. Even when it is not experienced in the lower realms, it will be experienced in the human realm from life to life, for many thousands of lifetimes. This is besides suffering in the lower realms.

People may engage in many negative actions in this life, such as killing and so forth, without doing any practice to purify and without engaging in any of the virtuous activities. These people may be physically well and have a healthy body, however, this life is very short; it's like one second. Compared to all the future lives and the length of even one lifetime in the hell realms, this life is nothing.

You can see this in what happened to one yogi. He and four other monks were invited by a family to do a puja and while they were there, the family offered them food which had been bought with money collected by selling the Prajnaparamita scriptures. When the yogi ate the food, he immediately felt so much pain in his body and then he saw the letter AH going through his body. He requested the Compassion Buddha to explain this to him.

The Compassion Buddha told him, “You are having so much pain because you ate food obtained from a wrong livelihood. That money came from the family's selling Dharma texts, the Prajnaparamita teachings. Because you have thin obscurations, the karmic result ripens for you right now, but nothing happened to the other monks. (The others felt no pain, nothing.) Their karmic result is to be experienced after this life, after death, so they will be reborn in the hell realms and experience the suffering results there.” So compared to those four other monks, although the yogi had such pain now, it was a very good thing that he did.

The first thing is to look at your situation positively. Think, “How good to have this depression.” This also gives you inner strength.

The Guru Puja [v. 96] says,

“Should even the environment and the beings therein be filled
With the fruits of their karmic debts
And unwished for sufferings pour down like rain
We seek your blessing to take those miserable conditions as a path
By seeing them as causes to exhaust the results of our negative karma.”

Here, the way to think effectively is that the whole place where you are, what appears to you, is only disaster and unpleasant suffering. Everything is unpleasant—even the place is ugly and unpleasant. Everything is harmful to you and everybody is angry at you, dislikes you and criticizes you. They even harm you physically, beating you, disrespecting you and making fun of you. Everybody in the country and even in the whole world is negative towards you. Look at these experiences as the cause of finishing the results of past heavy negative karma collected from beginningless rebirths.

In this way, you are utilizing your bad experiences on the path, so these bad circumstances and experiences on the path are made positive. You are turning them into good circumstances. With this way of looking at the situation you can always keep your mental state happy. This is the correct way of thinking, the way of Buddhist psychology.

You can understand why it is important to always keep the mind in a state of happiness and why this is emphasized in the teachings. If the mind is unhappy, first of all this makes your family and any other people surrounding you unhappy. You are caught up so much with yourself that your mind is not open to others. You cannot love others, help them or make them happy, because your mind is closed and tied up with your own problems, such as depression, for example. You cannot even smile at others; you cannot even give that small pleasure to them, so your unhappy mental state makes other people unhappy.

When you enjoy life, when your mental state is happy, you have so much space in your mind to think of others, to cherish and love them. You have room to help others and to have compassion towards them, and you can even give some pleasure to others by smiling. You are more relaxed, so you can do your job better. If you are practicing Dharma, you are able to continue doing your meditation practices, commitments and prayers. Otherwise, if your mind is not happy due to depression, even that practice gets stopped and you cannot recite even one OM MANI PADME HUM. There's no courage even for that. Therefore, when life is miserable, it is very important to keep the mind happy by utilizing the path to enlightenment and thinking in this way. This is one example of thought transformation.

Similarly, when you have success or gain some achievement, there's a lot of excitement at that time and again your life becomes unstable. The mind that is not stable and you cannot practice—you can't do your meditation, your Dharma practice, and that can become a distraction.

Therefore, so that the miserable life and the happy life do not become an obstacle to achieving the path to enlightenment—being able to liberate the numberless sentient beings from suffering and its causes and bring them to enlightenment—you need to practice Dharma continually. Neither of these experiences becomes an obstacle if you practice thought transformation, keeping the mind happy and positive. This keeps the mind healthy and from that comes a healthy body.

Every morning when you begin the day, make a strong determination in your mind, like this: “Whatever problem I encounter today, I won't allow my mind to be disturbed by it. I'm not going to allow myself to be weak. I'm going to challenge it.” Make this strong determination in the morning. Think, “I am going to be strong,” and also make a strong determination to transform your problems into happiness.

As it says in the Guru Puja by Panchen Lama Chökyi Gyaltsen (v. 97),

In short, no matter what appearances may arise, be they good or bad,
We seek your blessings to transform them into a path ever-enhancing the two bodhicittas, Through the practice of the five forces—the quintessence of the entire Dharma—
And thus to attune ourselves solely to the bliss of the mind.

What this means is that we should keep the mind only happy, with the method of meditation that transforms the mind into happiness all the time.

Another practice is the five powers. The first of these is the power of the white seed. The merit that we collect is like the power of a seed, from which we experience happiness in this life and future lives. Then comes the power of the attitude, which means the attitude we have every morning towards how we are going to live our life. Then there is the power of prayer, the power of putting all the blame on one point, and the power of training. These are just the titles of those powers.

Depression is so good because it becomes very powerful for killing our enemy. It's like a very sharp weapon—an atomic bomb. Depression is very effective in destroying one's own devil, the deluded enemy, [the ego].

Think, “Even though the continuation of my mind has no beginning, what has prevented me from achieving enlightenment up to now is ego. I have not achieved even the confidence within myself that, if death comes, I will definitely have a good rebirth. Because I allow myself to be under the control of self-cherishing thought, I don't have even that confidence.

“This ego is the one that never gives me freedom to practice Dharma; it gives me no peace and happiness; it’s always disturbing me and not allowing me to liberate others from the lower realms and from samsara. It doesn't allow me to do that and it doesn't even allow others to help me. What makes me harm others and what makes others harm me is this ego.

“Any undesirable thing that happens in my life is caused by ego: criticism from others, bad reputation, abuse, anything that I believe to be bad. What makes the friends I have now become my enemies is ego. Those who are harmonious with me become disharmonious because of my ego.

“Even though I know the Dharma, I am constantly unable to practice, meditate or even recite mantras, sadhanas or prayers. What prevents this is ego. Ego doesn't allow me to listen, reflect or meditate on Dharma, or do retreat—the self-cherishing thought doesn't allow that. Due to ego, I only find time to do meaningless actions and never have time to practice Dharma.

“When I practice, many obstacles arise due to my ego. The ego forces me to break the samaya with my guru, disregard advice, arise negative thoughts, criticize or give up the guru. The self-cherishing thought creates obstacles for realizations on the path to enlightenment, and even for the happiness of day-to-day life and success in this life. This ego obliges me to harm numberless living beings from life to life.

“Without this ego, there is only loving compassion and thoughts of bodhicitta. That means I will only benefit all living beings from life to life. Beside the fact that this ego has been harming me up to now, it will harm me continuously in the future, as long as I keep it in my heart.

“Ego is what obliged me to experience this depression. Like this, all 424 diseases are the same; they are only due to ego. The depression experienced in this life is due to this life's self-cherishing thought. Not only that, experiencing problems in this life is due to the self-cherishing thought of past lives, because that thought led me to perform actions such as the ten non-virtuous actions, which are done out of delusion. These actions create the negative karma that I experience in this life. So the problems of this life are due to this life's ego, or self-cherishing thought, and the last life's ego, or self-cherishing thought.”

Therefore the meditation for this depression is to destroy the ego. In your mind, give your depression to the ego by thinking, “Let the ego have it. Why do I need to experience it? Let it have the depression.”

Use the depression like an atomic bomb to destroy your enemy, the ego. Smash it. Make the ego completely non-existent. If there's no ego, then there's space for bodhicitta to develop.

Depression becomes better than medicine for the chronic disease of the mind. We can use our depression in this way for the best healing—the healing of our chronic disease, the self-cherishing thought. The continuation of this is beginningless and the harm we receive from it is also beginningless.

Here, depression becomes unbelievably useful, especially for having realization of bodhicitta. It is extremely beneficial for ceasing all the defilements and completing the realizations, to achieve full enlightenment and to liberate numberless sentient beings, who are the source of our past, present and future happiness—to liberate them from the suffering of the lower realms and the whole entire samsaric sufferings, and bring them to enlightenment. So, depression becomes extremely precious.

The conclusion is that depression is extremely precious and wish-fulfilling. It is something that we really need.

Another Advice

There are different kinds of depression. We can go to sleep and the next morning when we get up, the depression is there. In that case, it is best to sit still at that moment or just go back to sleep. That's the best thing. If we can't solve it with meditation, just go to bed or go somewhere to rest. Otherwise we will get upset and then other people will get upset. When we’re angry, bad thoughts can come and we have no control, so the best thing is just to go somewhere else to rest, or drive to the beach or something.

In the case of depression due to some condition or situation, such as our relationships with others or whatever, we can apply certain meditations according to the reasons for the depression. Apply the meditation that relates to the situation. As there are no particular reasons in this case, the best thing is to use this depression for our practice; use it to develop bodhicitta. That is the best.

Reciting the Guru Puja is very good. It says [v. 91],

This chronic disease of cherishing ourselves
Is the cause giving rise to our unsought suffering.
Perceiving this, we seek your blessings to blame, begrudge
And destroy the monstrous demon of selfishness.

The chronic disease of cherishing the I is the cause which gives rise to the undesirable sufferings. We put the blame on that by having it destroy the great demon, the self-cherishing thought.

After reciting that, the next stanza [v. 92] says,

The mind that cherishes all mother beings and would secure
Them in bliss is the gateway leading to infinite virtue.
Seeing this, we seek your blessing to cherish these beings
More than our lives, even should they rise up as our enemies.

Using this and reciting it in daily life, especially during the time of depression, is very, very good. So using depression for our practice is the meaning of these two stanzas. The Guru Puja says cherishing the I is the door to all sufferings and all problems. All this come from the I, therefore the I is to be renounced, given up forever. From bodhicitta, cherishing others, comes all happiness for ourselves and others. That means all happiness and perfections come from bodhicitta, from cherishing others. All those good things, every single one including enlightenment, come from others, and all the realizations we receive come from others, therefore, other sentient beings are only objects to be cherished forever.

Since we receive all happiness, realizations and good things from other sentient beings, now we have to repay their kindness by helping them. So how can we best repay their kindness? They've been millionaires and wheel-turning kings who owned the whole continent countless times, but although they've had that much wealth numberless times, they still didn't free themselves from the sufferings of samsara. Therefore, the best way to repay their kindness is to practice lam-rim, to practice Dharma. This means transforming our mind into positive thoughts, pure thoughts, free from attachment to samsara, free from ignorance, free from ego. By actualizing in ourselves the path to enlightenment, we can liberate others without any difficulties.

Then think, for those reasons, the best way to repay their kindness is to meditate on bodhicitta, to try to develop bodhicitta. All past, present and future happiness comes from others, therefore meditate on the basis of this compassion. Then take all sentient beings’ sufferings onto your own mind. By generating compassion, you take all sentient beings' sufferings within your heart and in this way you destroy the ego.

After the ego has been destroyed, do a little meditation on emptiness, just for a few seconds. By generating loving-kindness, you give your own happiness, merit and all good things to all sentient beings. By giving your body, wealth, money, there is so much unbelievable merit. Think that by giving your own body, as with a wish-granting jewel, all the wishes of all sentient beings are fulfilled and all the merits are given to them. They receive everything they need and want from their point of view. Maybe they don't know what they need. They need to meet Dharma, but they may not have any thoughts of Dharma.

While you recite mantras, think you are giving them whatever they want, whatever they need. People don't think of Dharma, but this is really what they need. What they want is something else. It depends on how much their mind understands Dharma. Think that having all these enjoyments that you are offering them causes them to actualize the spiritual path; it ceases the two obscurations so they become enlightened and receive the rupakaya.

The conclusion is: “How wonderful! So far I've died working for my own happiness, but nothing happened. I'm still in samsara. Dying while working for others has never happened.” Then think, “Even if I have to die for the benefit of others, to stop creating negative karma, to not be reborn in the lower realms, so the mind will become dharmakaya and the body will become rupakaya, I must become enlightened.”

Generate compassion for others, taking upon yourself all their suffering and its causes, delusion and karma. Not only do you take their negative thoughts and problems, but even their unhealthy places, the ugly, polluted, rough, unpeaceful and unpleasant places, for example, the hell beings’ places—the hot hells where there's fire, like lava, and the cold hells, where there is ice. Take human beings’ filthy, dirty places that are muddy or rough, with a lot of thorn bushes. Take those undesirable places to destroy the ego, the self-cherishing thought. Think, “I've died numberless times while working for myself, but I have never died working for other sentient beings.”

So now, since every sentient being is the source of your happiness, that's one important reason [for experiencing depression]. You can experience your depression on behalf of all sentient beings. In other words, think the depression is not your depression, but the depression of numberless beings and by experiencing it for them, you let them have all the happiness, especially becoming free from all samsara and all the sufferings, and most especially attaining highest enlightenment. How fantastic this is, that you can cause this for other sentient beings. How fantastic! This is incredible, so feel joy.

Think, “Even the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha come from my prayers all the time, purifying my negative karma, so that I can actualize the realizations and achieve enlightenment. All this comes from sentient beings, so every single sentient being is the most precious one in my life, and the source of all my past, present and future happiness. Therefore, in my life there's nobody to cherish except sentient beings. In my life there's nobody to work for other than sentient beings. Other than that, everything is totally meaningless. Totally meaningless.”

If you think like this, you can experience the depression for others. So too does thinking that you’ve been praying in the past, during Guru Puja, for the sufferings of others to ripen on you. This is others’ depression. Therefore, think that this is the most exciting, the most pleasurable thing in your life, to work for others by experiencing their suffering for them, and leaving them all the freedom and happiness. Think that there's no other way.

The next thing is to rejoice that you have the opportunity to experience these sufferings. Do the taking-and-giving meditation in the morning, afternoon and evening. Most of the time you should think, “How lucky I am to experience this sickness or depression which I made prayers to receive on me! How fantastic! This makes my life so rich, so meaningful. I think this is very good. How fortunate I am. How fantastic that I am experiencing the depression on behalf of all sentient beings. This is very good. How fortunate I am to experience all this sickness on behalf of all sentient beings. It is very good.”

After meditating on the extensive kindness of sentient beings, think how all your past, present and future happiness is received from them. Also think that this is the meaning of your life. This is very good. It makes a huge difference.

This is basic psychology. It makes a big difference because so much of our experience comes from our concept of pain. Suffering is exaggerated by our concepts, so we can cut down the pain or eliminate it from the mind. The purpose of our life is not just to be healthy, wealthy, have a good reputation and people surrounding us, and other such things. Even if we have all these things, this is not the real purpose of our life. For example, without a good heart life is meaningless, even if we live for a thousand years. Being perfectly healthy for eons is just useless if there is no benefit for others.

Similarly with good reputation and whatever other things we have—without a good heart, these things are meaningless. Life is empty, even if we live for eons with a perfectly healthy body. Therefore the meaning of life, no matter what happens—whether we are healthy or not healthy, depressed or not depressed, or whatever happens—the main meaning and real purpose of life is that at the time of death our life becomes beneficial for others.

So even if we have cancer, to make the experience of cancer beneficial for all sentient beings, we can use it to develop bodhicitta for the sake of others. We can use the situation to achieve realizations of the path. We can use the experience of depression or cancer to develop bodhicitta, which means the path to achieve enlightenment. This means the depression becomes the cause of happiness. The depression is used, like turning snake venom into medicine. When we use depression to achieve enlightenment, this becomes the cause of happiness for all sentient beings experiencing depression.

The main purpose of life is to be beneficial to all other sentient beings, to free them from suffering and obtain happiness for them. To be beneficial for others means causing happiness in this life, but not only that, it also means causing happiness for others in future lives. Even if there is cancer, AIDS or depression, the purpose of life is to cause happiness for all sentient beings by experiencing those things on behalf of all sentient beings so that we accomplish work for others. In this way, the depression becomes a cause to achieve enlightenment. It is the quick path, a quick means to achieve enlightenment. The same thing applies to cancer, which can be used in the path to quickly achieve enlightenment. Experiencing cancer for the benefit of other sentient beings becomes a quick path to enlightenment, because experiencing the suffering for others is an incredible purification. It's very, very good.

There was yogi who came to a place, it may have been in Bengal, to practice. On the way, he passed a big river where there was a lady filled with leprosy, with pus coming out. She asked the yogi to take her on his back, to help her across the river. Later his disciple came by and saw how the yogi felt unbelievable compassion. Without hesitation, the yogi grabbed her and took her on his back, even though she had this leprosy disease and was full of pus. He was a monk, not allowed to touch women, but he had such unbearable compassion that he took her on his back without hesitation. When he reached the middle of the river, the woman transformed into Vajrayogini and with the same body, she took him to the pure land of Vajrayogini. That means he is already enlightened. Anyone who is born in the pure land of Vajrayogini or goes there in the same body becomes enlightened in that very life. That's the quickest way to achieve enlightenment, if one doesn't achieve it in this life.

What happened was, before transforming into Vajrayogini, she appeared as an ordinary woman filled with leprosy disease, greatly suffering, very pitiful. The yogi had unbelievable compassion; it was completely developed. Because of the great unbearable compassion he felt towards her, all the negative karma that blocked him from seeing Vajrayogini was purified. By the unbearable compassion he had for the lady, so much negative karma was purified during that short time. That's why in the case of Milarepa, the negative karma that blocked him from seeing Vajrayogini was purified by serving Marpa.

The same incredible, unbelievable benefit that this monk received is also available for us. If we experience strong compassion for all sentient beings, we can generate the thought of experiencing that depression on behalf of all sentient beings—for ourselves as well as for others. Meditating with this thought of taking others' sufferings and experiencing suffering for others is the quick path to enlightenment, like the example of the monk and Vajrayogini.

The other thing is, it's good to have depression because then we can see other sentient beings' sufferings easily. We can understand how they're suffering —the numberless beings who are experiencing depression and those who are creating negative karma that they will experience later. There are so many! In this way, experiencing depression and problems becomes a really quick way to enlightenment.

I think it may be even better than tantra, in one sense, because tantra does not become a quick path to enlightenment if it's not done well with the three principal paths; if lam-rim is missing from tantra.

Here our own personal experience of having depression gives us the ability to see so clearly how it's unbearable to suffer the effects of negative karma. Depression really becomes a support for us to feel compassion for others having depression.

When the depression comes, think, “The past negative karma collected from beginningless rebirths is finishing. The karma of this depression is finishing. When the depression comes, I'm finishing my negative karma.” Then rejoice very, very much. Think that this is purifying our negative karma, then rejoice, be happy instead of regarding it as harmful.

The third thing about this depression is to think about how it happened. First of all, in past lives there has been ego, attachment or anger, and broken samayas, that have caused the depression. Rather than taking it yourself, give the depression back to the ego. The depression happened due to broken samayas in the past, or you disturbed the holy beings’ or the virtuous friends’ minds. This is the cause of depression; it came from ego. What caused the depression is the ego, so use this depression like an atomic bomb to destroy the ego. Give it back to the ego and destroy the ego, so it becomes non-inherently existent. Then meditate on emptiness.

These are three basic ideas. These are very, very important techniques for transforming suffering into happiness, peace. The same thing goes for any other problems. Use the depression on the path to enlightenment. Use it to develop bodhicitta, so it is used on the path to enlightenment as a cause for the happiness of all sentient beings.

How are you using the depression to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible? By using the depression to develop bodhicitta for sentient beings. You collect merit like limitless sky and you purify unbelievably negative karma, so this is most powerful.

The third one is using the depression like an atomic bomb to destroy the ego, because it was given to you by the ego. You are destroying the demon that doesn't allow enlightenment, that doesn't allow you to become enlightened, that doesn't even allow you to achieve liberation from samsara, that doesn't allow any realizations. This is the door of all the problems, all the harms you receive.

Basically that's it. The other thing is to do some practice, some preliminary practice, some strong practice to purify negative karma.

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