Rinpoche's Online Advice Book: Crushed by Depression and Loss of Faith in Dharma

Rinpoche's Online Advice Book: Crushed by Depression and Loss of Faith in Dharma

Date of Advice:
July 2021
Date Posted:
July 2022

A student wrote that they had been practicing Dharma for over twenty years, and were inspired by Rinpoche’s book Dear Lama Zopa, but they felt unable to continue, especially with the practice of guru devotion. Read Rinpoche’s response below, along with an excerpt from the student’s letter.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Deer Park 2008. Photo: Kalleen Mortensen.
Student's Letter

Dear Lama Zopa Rinpoche,
I am turning to you for your blessing and guidance as I feel I am losing faith in the Dharma. What should I do and study? Is there any special purification I can do to regain faith in the Dharma? I once had aspiration to study lamrim well, and I have even tried to practice shamatha meditation for some time, but these days I feel crushed by depression and lack of drive to do any practice. Can you please bless me with your compassion and bless me to be able to continue to practice Dharma.

Rinpoche's Response

My most dear, most kind, most precious, wish-fulfilling one,
Thank you very much for the clear information about what’s happening to you. Yes, I’m here in the world to listen to sentient beings’ suffering and problems, and to do whatever I can to help.

Having depression and losing faith in Buddhadharma can happen, even after some time. Even someone who has become learned in Dharma, logic, and so forth, when their karma is strong they may lose faith in Buddhadharma and start to follow Christianity or another religion, or no religion. Yes, this can happen. This can happen for some people, even though they had faith totally and believed before. It’s not common, but it can happen for some people.

Even if we become expert, when our negative karma is very strong, yes, we need to purify the negative karma when we lose faith in this way or become depressed and so forth. It comes from negative karma. So we need strong, continual purification and positive prayers all the time, and to collect merits in order to continue with that faith, that Dharma practice.

There are people who, after many years as Buddhists, change totally and start to follow another religion. They lose faith because their past karma, the negative karma, is stronger than their practice, or the practice didn’t get done much.

Also regarding depression, there’s depression which comes from certain reasons, and there’s depression that happens and we don’t know the reasons. It just happens at night or during the day. For example, I saw in the teachings that there’s depression that comes in the morning. Whenever morning happens, depression happens and we don’t know the reason. It comes in the quickest time, and that’s from the karma of sexual misconduct from past lives. Also, depression in the evening time. So there is depression like this where we can’t tell the reasons.

And for some types of depression there are reasons, like when our attachment wants something, but didn’t get it. Or the selfish mind wants something but didn’t get it. It’s like that.

Even though it’s just the basis, I’m talking about the basis of faith. There are three ways to know phenomena. The first is direct perception, for example, from a distance we see smoke coming from a house, which means there’s fire inside the house. That’s direct perception; we discover that by direct perception.

Then there’s phenomena that we have to realize through logic, for example, how life is impermanent; how its nature is not permanent and it changes every second due to causes and conditions. There’s gross impermanence and subtle impermanence. We are changing year by year, getting older and older month by month, week by week, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, and split-second by split-second. That’s subtle impermanence, and there’s no gross impermanence without subtle impermanence. So we can see the logic. We go through the logic and then we realize that life is impermanent. Any causative phenomena are like that, as well as the mind, I, and so forth.

Also, phenomena are empty, they don’t exist from their own side, they are not truly existent, not existing by nature from their own side. There’s no real phenomena existing, except that which exists in mere name, merely labeled by the mind due to a valid base and a valid label on the base. For example, if we cut lots of newspaper up into strips and call it a billion dollars or a million dollars, we can say that, but no one will accept that; they’ll think we’re crazy and we’ll have to go to prison.

So we have to have a valid base. All the figures and designs on the money are exactly the same, and are made by the government, not by private people. They are made by the government, they have to be, then we label a billion dollars, a thousand dollars or a hundred dollars or whatever. It’s all merely labeled by mind. So that thousand dollar or million dollar or one hundred dollar note exists in mere name, like that, and also, the base exists in mere name.

Everything appears to exist as a real one from there, but it is a hallucination, it’s not there. So in reality, I want to tell you, not that I have emptiness, but what appears as a real one from there is not there. I want to tell you about the ultimate reality of phenomena in a simple way.

Everything, including I, action, object, samsara, nirvana, enlightenment, hell, happiness, problems, enemy, friend, stranger, bad and good, everything [exists in mere name.] So then, for example, knowing the age of the person in the house is more difficult to perceive, and the most difficult thing is knowing what the person is thinking now.

Regarding karma, all the wealth and enjoyment of this life comes from the dharma of charity in the past, in this life and the past life.

There is the practice of the six perfections, so there’s charity and then getting a good rebirth, a human rebirth, the body of a happy transmigrator being as a deva or human, which comes from morality. This comes from the past practice of morality, so it’s a virtuous action, only coming from morality.

And then just from charity there are nagas who are unbelievably wealthy, with wish-granting jewels; unbelievably wealthy nagas. So we can get born like that without receiving the body of a happy transmigrator being.

Then there’s only morality without charity and we are devoid of a means of wealth; so we need both. The result of happiness comes from past good karma; the result of suffering comes from past negative karma. All these things we have to realize through quotations of the Buddha.

How much faith we have in this depends on how much luck or merit we have. For example, in the meditation courses we do at Kopan, and have done for so many years, for more than forty years—in the very early times it was just for three days—there is so much talk, like bubbling water boiled by fire, talking about the mind, which is formless, colorless, shapeless. The mind creates everything—samsara and nirvana, enlightenment and hell, everyday suffering and happiness, everyday problems, happiness and pleasure, good and bad. Everything comes from the mind.

The karma to understand all this comes from quotations. Buddha said that with a great compassionate mind embracing all sentient beings, never giving up for even one split second on sentient beings, the six-realm beings, and omniscience directly perceiving all past, present and future phenomena, there’s nothing not known by the Omniscient One.

So we can cut [wood] from many trees, which come from hundreds of different places. We can cut them into very small pieces and then put them in the ocean and stir for a hundred years, and then every single piece, by asking the Buddha, the Buddha can predict extremely clearly, without the slightest mistake, each tree, each place and each part of the tree, everything.

It happened in the past during Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s time that there was a wrong belief held by other religions. They thought that a spirit entered into people saying, “I’m the dead person,” and told them all kinds of things, and then people believed that. There are still people in Chinese countries who believe this. In the West I didn’t hear about this, but in the East, in those Chinese countries, a lot of people believe this. So people believe they’re real, then they give so much money and materials, and lose so much. Anyway, it’s not true what those people believe; they’ve made a mistake.

So the Buddha told them to wrap wood or stones, different things inside cloth, to wrap things in cloth, and then pile them up on the ground, and the Buddha would predict what was inside. The Buddha did that and it proved what the Buddha said was right, was true, and what the spirit said was wrong; it was not the person who died and was reborn there. So then because they believed in that, and also the spirits, but the spirit could not do it well, so [it turned out] exactly as the Buddha had predicted. What Buddha could read was proven, thus dispelling all the wrong beliefs.

There are numberless beings in each realm, and Buddha can read each being’s mind in the hell realm, and at the same time, Buddha can read all the numberless animals’ minds. There are tiny animals that we can’t see without machine and in the ocean there are big ones like mountains, all kinds. Some look like flowers and some look like rocks, all kinds. Buddha can read everyone’s mind at the same time. There are animals in the ground and in the bushes, the tiniest flies, worms in the trees and outside, and birds in the sky. Even within the bodies of animals and humans there are tiny creatures.

So Buddha can read everyone’s mind at the same time without the slightest mistake—numberless humans, numberless suras and asuras, and numberless intermediate state beings. This is the mind of omniscience.

Our mind has this power, but it is obscured. Our mind has the power to be like that, to be enlightened, to have that quality, but it is obscured now. If we do more and more purification, collect merit and purify negativities, and actualize the path, then the mind becomes more and more clear, more and more clairvoyant. We have a deeper and deeper understanding of the past and future lives; it becomes deeper and deeper.

The Mahayana path has ten bhumis. When a bodhisattva achieves the first bhumi, they see hundreds of their past and future lives. And when they achieve the second bhumi, they can see thousands of lives—thousands in the past and in the future, more and more. It goes on like that.

Then later, in the eighth, ninth, and tenth bhumis—wow, wow, we can’t imagine—those bodhisattvas can see every atom of this earth; they can see however many atoms there are. Still, maybe not the omniscient mind, but bodhisattvas, like on the eighth, ninth and tenth bhumis, around those paths, I’m not sure exactly, but they have unbelievable, most unbelievable qualities. For them, it’s like already being enlightened. It’s unbelievable, unbelievable, what they can do and how they can benefit sentient beings. The knowledge they have and what they can manifest for the sentient beings is unbelievable, unbelievable.

And then Buddha’s omniscient mind has perfect power to guide sentient beings and to free us from suffering gradually by revealing various methods, whatever fits our mind.

In the sutra Meeting the Father and Son, the Buddha says that with a manifestation like the Hindu gods Indra and Brahma, and sometimes even Mara, the evil being, they do work for sentient beings, but worldly beings cannot realize or recognize that. They even engage in manifestations as a woman.

There’s even the form of an animal in the animal realm showing attachment, but without attachment; showing fear without having fear; showing ignorance without having ignorance; showing craziness without being crazy; showing difficulty walking but without that difficulty; with the various transformed aspects subduing the minds of sentient beings. That means freeing them from suffering gradually and bringing them to enlightenment. Buddha is extremely, most unbelievably skillful.

Chungawa, the Buddha’s younger brother, was so attached to his wife that he couldn’t go out; he couldn’t separate from her. One day, the Buddha came for alms at the right time, to subdue his mind. So the Buddha came [to Chungawa’s house] to beg for food, but when Chungawa got the food and was going to offer in the Buddha’s begging bowl, the Buddha turned back, and Chungawa wasn’t able to put the food in the Buddha’s begging bowl. The Buddha walked away slowly and Chungawa followed him on and on, trying to offer the food. The Buddha then asked Chungawa to become a monk and asked Ananda to cut his hair, but after half his hair was cut, he didn’t want to have the rest cut.

Anyway, he stayed in the monastery and when the Buddha went out one day for alms, at that time Chungawa tried to escape. He closed the door of the monastery to escape, but when he closed that door, another door opened. Again he tried to close the door and another door opened. It went on and on like that. Eventually when he came out of the monastery he saw the Buddha coming up the road, so he hid under a tree, but due to the Buddha’s power, all of the tree branches went up and he was totally exposed under that tree. [Rinpoche laughs] There are many stories like that, but I only know a few. So, the Buddha knew exactly the right time to subdue Chungawa him and how to subdue each sentient being exactly, due to his perfect power. The best politician is Buddha.

A long time ago we had a center in England called Manjushri Institute. It belonged to the FPMT but then there was an invited geshe who made some kind of problem and took the center away. At that time I had my teacher who started the organization of the FPMT and I told him, “Yes, the one knowing the best politics is the Buddha.”

The whole motivation is to bring sentient beings to enlightenment, but of course political people in the governments in the world, unless they are buddhas or bodhisattvas they will be motivated by the self-cherishing thought, attachment, like that.

It’s like how President Putin was trying to make all the countries be like Russia. The one before him, Gorbachev, gave the people everything that they wanted; he gave freedom and independence to everybody, so there were some geshes who regarded him as a bodhisattva. Last time I was in Russia I wanted to meet Gorbachev , to thank him for his incredible effort benefiting sentient beings, but I heard he was in America. If many leaders were like him, wow, there would be no wars in the world and there would be incredible peace and happiness. I really wish the leader of China was like Gorbachev, then there would be unbelievable peace.

So the Buddha has perfect power, and not only that, he has compassion embracing all sentient beings—compassion which never gives up on us for even a split second and gradually guides us to enlightenment. Also, from our side, we need to follow what the Buddha has shown as the path, so we need to bring the two together.

It is said by Lama Atisha in The Heart Advice of the Kadam Scriptures: A Fine Vase of Nectar:

From our own side, if we don’t go for refuge, even if all the buddhas and bodhisattvas use all their power, they cannot guide us; they cannot protect us from the precipice of the lower realms.

Therefore we need to check [our actions of body, speech and mind], because whatever happiness or suffering there is in samsara comes from our own karma. So all the time, we need to always examine our body, speech, and mind, our three doors, and put effort into abandoning negative karma and practicing virtue. We need to put effort into these two: abandoning negative karma and practicing virtue. That is what Lama Atisha said.

It doesn’t happen as the Christians, Muslims or Hindus believe—that our life is up to God, our world is up to God. We don’t have to do anything; God will do everything. It is not like that.

In Buddhism, from our side we need to go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We have to put effort, we have to create the karma, we have to purify the ignorance and obscurations and we have to collect merit on the basis of refuge, then together we can gradually become free from samsara and we can achieve enlightenment.

So now we can see there are numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas, but there are still numberless beings in each realm suffering from beginningless rebirths. If we don’t practice Dharma, if we don’t accept Dharma, if we don’t practice renunciation, bodhicitta and the right view, we will suffer endlessly in samsara.

If we carry a huge load of medicine but we never take it, that’s like having so much intellectual knowledge of Dharma but never practicing. We never recover from the disease, even though we are carrying a whole load of medicine. Like that, even if we have intellectual understanding, we also need to practice.

Of course, those who don’t have the medicine, the knowledge of Buddhism, the intellectual knowledge of Buddhism, of course they suffer. For example, those who have fallen into the hole of fire, even though ropes are sent for them to catch, to hold onto and to be released, to come out of that fire, from their side they don’t believe or they don’t see the ropes. Even though we send the rope to them, they don’t have the karma to see the rope, they don’t catch the rope, they don’t trust that the rope will pull them up. Or they trust the wrong rope—they may be holding the rope, but they are holding the wrong rope, which is like following the wrong religion, or a wrong path other than Buddhism. So they can’t get out of the fire. There are many examples like that.

So now we can see there are numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas existing, but we’ve been suffering from beginningless samsara until now. Why? Big question. Even though there are numberless sentient beings who have already become enlightened in the past, are being enlightened in the present and will be enlightened in the future, including Shakyamuni Buddha and many others.

The buddhas and bodhisattvas changed their mind into bodhicitta, from the self-cherishing thought to cherishing others, so that’s how it happened. But we didn’t do that, and that’s why we are still suffering in samsara. We are not free from samsara because we didn’t change our mind. So basically, we didn’t practice Dharma—we didn’t have the karma to meet Dharma or even if we understood Dharma, we didn’t practice. So now we can understand.

The third one is understanding the three levels of phenomena. The subject is karma, so through quotations we can realize the subject of karma and things like that. The way to attain realizations is through quotations of the Omniscient One, not by anyone’s prediction. It has to be an enlightened being’s prediction that doesn’t get conflicted or refuted by other omniscient ones, by opposite or negating views.

When we become a buddha, at that time we become numberless buddhas, we become the guru, so like that, we achieve the guru. The proof is like that, the mind has all the potential, buddha nature, but it doesn’t exist from its own side. It doesn’t truly exist, it doesn’t exist by itself from its own side.

There is no real mind that exists, there’s no real mind from there, only what exists in mere name, merely labeled by mind, unbelievably subtle, but it’s like it doesn’t exist, and that’s with the I and all phenomena. That’s buddha nature, and that’s why we can be free from the oceans of samsaric suffering, delusion and karma. Our ultimate nature of mind is not mixed with delusions, with attachment, anger, self-cherishing thought, ignorance, all the hallucinations. It’s temporarily obscured by them.

The cup itself is not oneness with the dirt; it’s temporarily obscured by the dirt, so we can clean it. Similarly, the cloth is not oneness with the dirt, kaka. We can clean it because it is temporarily obscured on the outside and that’s why we can clean it with water, with soap, with many things.

It’s the same thing with our mind, with the correct method, what Buddha taught is the correct method—sutra and tantra. Tantra is the quick way to achieve enlightenment, so like that. It’s the same thing with the mind—we can become enlightened like that. We are suffering now, but we can become enlightened.

If our mind was oneness with the delusions—attachment, anger, ignorance, self-cherishing, all the hallucinations—then we could not become enlightened, at all. Also, not only could we not become enlightened, we could not become free from all the delusions. Generally we couldn’t achieve that, because whatever suffering we have, we couldn’t even be free of that. Logically these things would happen.

If we’re suffering, we would have that suffering forever, kind of like that, we couldn’t make it better, and we couldn’t make free from that, for example, we couldn’t be free from diarrhoea forever or free from headache forever. Even with medicine we couldn’t recover from a headache or diarrhoea, so the example is like that.

If we’re able to totally cease the cause of suffering, delusion and karma, by actualizing the four noble truths, the true path, the wisdom directly realizing emptiness; if we can achieve totally cessation of delusion and karma, then we’re free from the oceans of suffering forever and we achieve nirvana.

There are numberless arhats who have unbelievable clairvoyance and psychic powers, unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable, but still they can’t do perfect work for sentient beings. There are four types of unknowing mind [that arhats and higher bodhisattvas have.] The first is not seeing something that existed an unbelievably, unbelievably, unbelievably, unbelievably long time ago. The second is not seeing the subtle karma of sentient beings, for example, the cause of a peacock’s feathers being different colors, or the cause of a butterfly’s different colors. What are the causes of each color? Also, human beings’ bodies have different spots, markings or colors. What are the causes of these? Similarly, they can’t see those because they’re subtle karmas.

Only the Buddha sees this, only the omniscient mind knows this, not the others, because they don’t have omniscient mind. Also, only the Buddha’s omniscient mind sees the secret actions of a buddha. Even arya bodhisattvas cannot see that, so there’s no way arhats can see it. And they can’t see places which are unbelievably, unbelievably, unbelievably, unbelievably far away. Only the omniscient mind can see long distances. Even the arhats can’t see that. This is called the four unknowing minds, which even arhats and higher bodhisattvas have.

Only when we complete the path and cease all the obscurations, the subtle obscurations; only then do we become a buddha. When we have removed these subtle obscurations, then we become a buddha, an omniscient one.

So that’s why we generate bodhicitta and say, “I must free the sentient beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to enlightenment, therefore I must achieve enlightenment.” That’s the reason why we say we need to achieve enlightenment. Otherwise, we can’t do perfect work for sentient beings, even though we may have incredible clairvoyance and unbelievable other qualities. Not only the arhats, but also higher bodhisattvas, like eighth, ninth or tenth ground bodhisattvas, have unbelievable, unbelievable, incredible qualities—we wouldn’t believe it, we can’t believe it. It would blow our mind; we would fall down and faint if we heard about their qualities, and maybe we would never wake up.

Let me know what you think about what I’ve said, then in the next letter I’ll advise what practice and what to do. First, I want you to understand this part.

Probably, I’m not sure, but my thinking is that one way you lost faith is because maybe you studied Dharma intellectually, you studied the scriptures intellectually, but never practiced. Maybe that’s why, then you kind of lost faith, besides the reasons I explained at the beginning about karma. It’s mainly due to karma, whichever karma is stronger—which karma ripened then and which has ripened now.

Thank you very, very, very much for opening your mind, wanting to look for guidance. This is so worthy while you’re a human being to do that and to not give up. Lama Tsongkhapa said this human rebirth is found just one time and is most precious. We can achieve enlightenment with this human rebirth, therefore it is most precious and it’s the most rare, wish-fulfilling jewel.

Thank you very much.

With much love and prayers ...