Bad and Good Depend on the Individual Person's Interpretation

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Boulder Creek, California, 1997 (Archive #1061)

This advice is excerpted from a teaching given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche during a Most Secret Hayagriva retreat held at Vajrapani Institute, USA, in September–October 1997. This excerpt is lightly edited, editor unknown. The teaching can also be found in Chapter Five of Advice for Monks and Nuns, edited by Nicholas Ribush.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Taos, New Mexico, 1999. Photo: Lenny Foster.

Bad and good depend on the individual person's interpretation. In general, if you are able to spend your life collecting more virtue and less negative karma, that's a good life. Even spending half the life this way is quite good. Spending even one quarter of the day creating good karma is better than spending the whole twenty-four hours creating only negative karma. So today, if you are able to create more virtue than negative karma, that's a good life. Even though you might be exhausted, even though you might have almost died from practicing Dharma, you had a good life today.

Naropa, for example, had to experience the twelve great hardships and the twelve small hardships under the advice of Tilopa. And Marpa would not allow Milarepa to come to teachings and initiations; he received scoldings and beatings only, no sweet words like "you are such a good disciple" or "you have done excellent practice"; he only received Marpa's wrathful aspect. Then Milarepa had to build a nine-story tower by himself, alone, and not just once; he had to tear it down and build it three times. Because of doing these intensive preliminary practices and following exactly his guru Marpa's advice without having any negative thoughts towards him, Milarepa became enlightened in that life.

That's the best life, you see, the best life. The definition of a bad life and a good life is very important, because if you don't know you will be very confused; if your connotation is wrong you will go in the wrong direction. The result of this will be no attainment, no realization. The result will be that the mind is empty.

There is an interpretation of bad and good life according to attachment, according to ego. Then there is an interpretation of bad and good life according to the point of view of Dharma wisdom, the wisdom understanding karma, understanding lam-rim. Of course, they are totally opposite.

The common thing in the world is to follow the interpretation according to attachment. So if one has more success, more wealth, more external development, then that's regarded as a good life: more and more things, more friends, more children, then grandchildren, then their children—the more there is happening, the more successful the life. So that's one view.

Of course, everyone is looking for peace of mind and satisfaction in the heart, but they have no idea how to get it. Their methods are through external development only. Even though they really want peace and satisfaction, because of lack of spiritual education, Dharma education, they don't have methods, they don't have knowledge of practice. So they end up just as the Rolling Stones sang: "I can't get no satisfaction."

So from my point of view, unless you have renounced attachment you will not find satisfaction. You could be living in life-time retreat, or in the monastery or nunnery following the moral disciplines, having sacrificed a lot of the pleasures of this life, a lot of comfort, in order to live in pure morality, but if the mind is still suffering, it's because it didn't renounce attachment, it is not separated from attachment clinging to this life. You didn't make the mind free, so the mind becomes friends with attachment clinging to this life, the mind associates with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas.

Therefore, even if the body is in retreat or in the monastery, the mind cannot enjoy following the moral discipline or the meditation practices. There's no peace, no happiness in the heart. As the mind has become friends with attachment, you cannot give up this life's comfort to practice Dharma. Then it gets difficult to follow the advice of the virtuous friend, it gets difficult to do service for the monastery, for the monks and nuns, and it's difficult to serve other sentient beings.

Even though there is not yet any happiness in the mind because you have the attitude of attachment clinging to this life—you're stuck with that, not with Dharma—nevertheless, your mind is protected from obstacles because you are trying, you are practicing morality. Then you can have great peace and can practice Dharma without obstacles. It's the same with somebody doing long retreat, or someone who's serving the virtuous friend or other sentient beings. What I am saying is that even though your motivation is more stuck with attachment and even though you mightn't experience any happiness in your heart yet, it is still a good life because your practice of morality brings good results, a good rebirth in the next life. Even though your mind is not completely pure, even though the mind is not completely renounced, it is still a good life.

Of course, it takes time for this to happen. You need very intense and continuous meditation, especially on impermanence and death related to karma and the lower realms, and the general suffering of samsara, particularly the lower realms, and the preliminary meditation, the perfect human body, how it is highly useful and difficult to achieve again.

Or you could do the opposite: give up this life and think, "Oh, it didn't make me happy." After many years of practicing and studying Dharma—philosophy, highest tantra, anything that can be explained by qualified teachers—after all that I didn't find happiness, so I'd better try something else." You give up everything, and what you tried to abandon before, for all those years, now you have all of them. You are without rule, without discipline—you become a free guy.

So now you have a lot of physical comfort, wealth, friends and so on and you believe you have enjoyment; in fact it is a hallucination because the uncontrolled mind is the motivation. When you don't think of the motivation and the future karmic result, this new life appears as pleasure. But if you think of the motivation and karmic result, then you realize it is not really a happy life.

What I am saying is that, according to my interpretation, a happy life is when you have a good motivation and your actions bring good results. As I mentioned before, Naropa and Milarepa had so much hardship but it brought a fantastic future, the best future. So that is the best life.

But in the West the interpretation of a good life is whether or not it makes me happy now. Now! This moment. Today. One is involved in the psychology of cherishing oneself, which gives you so much inspiration that you are important. But practicing Dharma is not rejecting yourself, it's actually the best way to take care of yourself.

Practicing renunciation helps you become liberated from samsara, so that's what you need, otherwise you experience suffering again and again, without end. And practicing the right view, emptiness: that's the best way of taking care of yourself because it cuts the root of suffering. And what else do you need? What is better than this? What else is there that is better than this?

Therefore we must rejoice that we have met the precious Buddhadharma, especially lam-rim, the integration of the entire 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, and that without any confusion we can practice and achieve enlightenment.

Besides all this, we are able to do so much service for other sentient beings. Without talking about meditating on the stages of the path, practicing purifying negative karma, collecting merits, without that. Therefore we should rejoice.