Sun of Devotion, Stream of Blessings

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Leeds and London, UK (Archive #1963)

Sun of Devotion, Stream of Blessings is the record of a remarkable series of powerful and clear Dharma teachings given by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche to students in Leeds and London, United Kingdom, in 2014. This book is now available in print and digital formats.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching in Singapore, 2010. Photo: Tan Seow Kheng.
Chapter 4. The Need for Ethics and Refuge
We have met these eight freedoms and ten richnesses

Lama Tsongkhapa mentioned,

Because at this time we have received the eight freedoms and ten richnesses and are free from being hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals and so forth, we have the freedom to practice the Dharma.

At this time we have attained the perfect human rebirth with the eight freedoms and ten richnesses.21 The eight freedoms are:


1. The freedom of not being born as a hell being

2. The freedom of not being born as a hungry ghost

3. The freedom of not being born as an animal

4. The freedom of not being born as a long-life god

5. The freedom of not being born where no buddha has descended

6. The freedom of not being born as a barbarian

7. The freedom of not being born as a fool

8. The freedom of not being born as a heretic

The ten richnesses are:

1. Being born as a human being

2. Being born in a religious country

3. Being born with perfect organs

4. Being free of the five immediate negativities

5. Having devotion to the teachings

6. Being born when a buddha has descended

7. Being born when the teachings have been revealed

8. Being born when the complete teachings exist

9. Being born when the teachings are being followed

10. Having the necessary conditions to practice Dharma

Because we have been born as human beings rather than in the lower realms, as hell beings, hungry ghosts or animals, we have the freedom to practice Dharma.

We have not been born as long-life gods. They have awareness at the beginning and the end of their life but for its entire duration—which can last thousands or millions of human years—it’s as if they’re in a deep sleep. Because of that, these gods have no freedom to practice Dharma. We, however, have not been born as long-life gods and so we have that freedom.

We have not been born in a place where the buddha has not descended, where there’s no chance to meet the Dharma. Since we have not been born in such a place, we have the freedom to practice Dharma.

We have also not been born as barbarians, living in an irreligious country, where there is no chance to practice the Dharma.

We are neither mutes nor fools. If we were, we would be unable to learn and practice the Dharma, but we are free from being born in that state, so we have freedom to practice Dharma.

Finally, we have not been born as heretics. Heretics have very closed minds. Without an open mind, there is no freedom to understand the inner science—knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful—no freedom to attain even temporal happiness, let alone ultimate happiness. Heretics believe there is no Buddha, Dharma or Sangha, no four noble truths. We are not heretics, nonbelievers, so we should feel happy that we have the freedom to practice Dharma.

It is unbelievable that we have all these eight freedoms, which are so precious. We should feel incredible happiness just thinking about it.

We also have the ten richnesses, the first of which is being human. In Tibetan, the normal definition of a human being is one who is able to communicate and understand. Having this richness means we have an incredible opportunity to practice Dharma. As I have already explained, nonhuman beings such as spirits or gods and demigods, as well as other lower realm beings whose suffering is unbelievable, have no freedom to practice Dharma. Even in the god realms, their lives are full of unbelievable distractions caused by attachment. Always chasing pleasure, they have no interest in the Dharma. Our life is not like that. Being born human, we have the richness to practice Dharma, and that is unbelievably precious.

We have the richness of being born in a religious country. That has two meanings. One is by place, which means in a religious center, such as where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. But I think the main thing is where there is the lineage of the vows of fully ordained monks and nuns. There are also the novice monk and nun lineages of thirty-six vows. Even if the gelongma lineage no longer exists, the other three lineages do.22

If we live where the lineage of the vows exists we can consider ourselves to be in the center of a religious country because those vow holders help us achieve liberation from samsaric suffering and achieve the blissful state of peace ourselves. It also means that there are the right conditions and freedom from obstacles that make it easier to attain enlightenment.

The next richness is having perfect organs, which also makes it much easier to practice Dharma. Then there is the richness of not falling into any of the five extreme actions: killing one’s father, mother or an arhat, causing disunity among the Sangha or maliciously causing blood to flow from a buddha. We have not engaged in these heavy negative karmas, which result in having to experience rebirth in the hottest hell right after death. If we had done any of these actions we’d be disqualified from taking vows, but not having done them gives us the opportunity to practice Dharma.

We live in a place where there are the teachings. Traditional texts say Vinaya teachings, but it is more than that. In particular, it means where there are lam-rim teachings, the graduated path to enlightenment. The way that Lama Atisha presented the lam-rim is that all the teachings are set up to subdue the mind because, as I often mention, all our happiness and suffering come from our mind. Therefore, to attain happiness we have to subdue the negative mind, our disturbing thoughts. That is what the lam-rim helps us do, leading us from the wrong thinking that causes suffering to the right thinking that causes happiness—every happiness up to enlightenment.

The next richness is having devotion to the lam-rim. This gives us an incredible opportunity to practice Dharma. The next is being alive at a time the Buddha has descended on earth. Because the Buddha descended we now have the teachings, the Dharma, that he left for us. Once, the Buddha was an ordinary person like us, with just as many problems, but then he was able to transform his mind, generating bodhicitta, letting go of the I and cherishing others. In that way he attained the complete Mahayana path and achieved enlightenment.

We have this opportunity because the Buddha generated great compassion for all sentient beings including us. For three countless great eons he collected the merits of wisdom—the cause of the dharmakaya, the holy mind of a buddha—and the merits of virtue—the cause of the rupakaya, the holy body of a buddha. He gave his cherished limbs and his life to sentient beings, not only to the tiger mother in Nepal,23 but to numberless other sentient beings, practicing charity, morality, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration and wisdom—the six perfections and the ten perfections. Then he achieved the purification of all obscurations and completion all realizations and became a buddha. He did this for us.

And then, for us, the Buddha revealed the 84,000 teachings, the Hinayana and the Mahayana, and, of the Mahayana, the Mahayana sutra and the Mahayana tantra, the different levels of teachings that are needed as our mind develops more and more. He left the teachings for all sentient beings, and that includes us.

That means we must learn and practice as much as we possibly can in order to not harm others and ourselves but to benefit ourselves and others, other sentient beings who are numberless, who want happiness and who do not want suffering, like ourselves.

The way to do that is not by following the ways of the worldly beings but through following what the Omniscient One taught. He has shown us the path, what is right and what is wrong in life. That is the real education, the whole thing condensed into compassion and wisdom. The way the lam-rim is set up serves the mind in this way, so we definitely need to study and practice the lam-rim.

The next richness is that, not only has the Buddha descended and revealed the teachings, but that the complete teachings still exist. We don’t live in a time after the teachings have finished. We are here now, just before the end of the teachings, like the sun just before it sets. Because of that, we have this incredible opportunity to learn and practice Dharma and to actualize realizations.

Finally, from our side, we follow the teachings with an open mind; gurus such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, having great compassion, reveal the Dharma to us; and we have benefactors who support our study and practice. This gives us such an unbelievable, incredible opportunity to enjoy the Dharma, to learn and practice the Dharma.

The perfect human rebirth is so rare and so fragile

These eight freedoms and ten richnesses we have give us the opportunity to develop our mind from where we are now, taking us step by step on the path all the way to enlightenment. The first step is to develop guru devotion, the root of the whole path to enlightenment, which leads to the other practices that comprise the graduated path of the lower capable being.

By not creating negative karma and by purifying that which has already been created, we purify the causes of the lower realms. Then, by practicing morality on the basis of taking refuge and protecting our karma, we are reborn in the upper realms as a human or god.

Then we can meet the Dharma again, practice it and actualize the path. By actualizing the practice of the graduated path of the middle capable being we are able to be free from the oceans of samsaric suffering and achieve nirvana, the blissful state of peace for ourselves.

We can even practice the Mahayana, where we can become free from even lower nirvana, peace, and achieve the full state of the omniscient mind for sentient beings. This is the graduated path of the higher capable being, where the focus is actualizing bodhicitta, the mind that wishes to attain enlightenment in order to free the numberless sentient beings from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to peerless happiness, the full state of the omniscient mind. We can then free numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, numberless gods, numberless demigods and numberless intermediate state beings.

Therefore, this perfect human body we have achieved is so precious, more precious than a wish-granting jewel. It requires an incredible amount of merit to be able to find a wish-granting jewel, which is much more precious than diamonds, sapphires or gold. If we ever found one, whatever we wished for in this life—material needs, comfort, all the helicopters, Rolls Royces, elephants or diamond palaces we could ever want—would be effortlessly obtained.

However, with a wish-granting jewel alone we cannot purify past negative karma and we cannot be assured of a higher rebirth as a god or human being, because a human rebirth comes only from pure morality—not just morality but morality kept purely. Even the most miserable human existence, such as a porter on an Indian train, doesn’t come from broken morality but from pure morality. Therefore, a human body is extremely rare and a perfect human rebirth is even more rare. It’s like a dream, like some impossible thing has somehow happened. It’s inexpressible.

With a wish-granting jewel we cannot get a higher rebirth but, by taking refuge and practicing morality using this perfect human body we now have, we can. Then, by practicing the higher training of morality, the higher training of concentration and the higher training of wisdom, we can free ourselves from the oceans of samsaric suffering and attain nirvana, the blissful state of peace.

We have already received this perfect human rebirth, so we can generate compassion for all sentient beings, attain bodhicitta and go on to achieve full enlightenment. Therefore this precious human body is much, much more precious than a wish-granting jewel or a whole sky filled with wish-granting jewels. Even if we owned that amount, its value would be nothing by comparison; it could meet only the material needs of this life. All those wish-granting jewels could not bring us all the different levels of happiness up to enlightenment, but this perfect human rebirth can.

For example, Milarepa didn’t have even one rupee, even one dollar. He ate nothing but nettles. One day, when a thief came to rob him, Milarepa invited him to eat but there were only nettles. The thief asked for some chili to spice up the nettles, so Milarepa put in some more nettles and said, “This is the chili.” Then the thief wanted some salt, so Milarepa added more nettles and said, “And this is the salt.” He had nothing else. Before he met his guru Marpa he had practiced black magic and killed many people and animals by making a house collapse on them. However, because he had received a perfect human rebirth he was able to transform his mind and attain enlightenment in that very lifetime.

 If Milarepa could do that after killing so many living beings, we too should be able to achieve lam-rim realizations. In his Hymns of Experience, Lama Tsongkhapa said,

This life of leisure is even more precious than a wish-granting jewel.
Only this once have I found such an existence,
Which is so hard to find and yet, like a flash of lightning, can so easily vanish.24

This precious human life is not only much more precious than skies of wish-granting jewels but it can also end at any moment. Therefore we must not waste it by using it to create negative karma, thus ensuring ourselves of rebirth in the lower realms.

Whatever we do must be a Dharma action. That does not mean we should simply close our eyes and sit cross-legged all the time, never eating or sleeping. It means whatever we do, whether it is Dharma practice or any other action—eating, walking, sitting, sleeping or working at our job—we must make everything as virtuous as possible. In that way everything we do becomes a Dharma action.

So far we have not died. We have been most fortunate to be able to stay alive each day, each hour, each minute, each second. We are extremely fortunate to have obtained a perfect human rebirth, to have met the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, and to be learning and trying to understand them. These teachings lead us to free ourselves from the oceans of samsaric suffering. They show us the path and prepare our mind so that even if we don’t have realizations in this life, by learning and meditating, in future lives we will quickly gain a good understanding of the Dharma and attain realizations and then, sooner or later, achieve enlightenment.

This incredibly precious human body we have does not last. It can end at any time. We can’t say we are assured of this body lasting for a hundred years, that during that period death won’t happen. We can’t even say that we are assured of having this body for fifty years or that we will still have it in another year. We can’t say, “Tomorrow I won’t die.” We can’t even sign a guarantee that we won’t die today.

We normally don’t think like this. We think that we will always be alive; we have a kind of belief in permanence. We really believe that we will live for a long time. Five minutes before somebody dies in a car crash or has a heart attack he has the concept that he is going to live for a long time. We all live with this concept of permanence.

At this moment there are numberless people dying, even while they are still in their mother’s womb. There are those who have just been born who are dying and those dying in their early childhood, as well as people of all ages—teenagers, adults, old people—who are dying at this very moment. There are people dying in so many ways: in accidents, in natural disasters, through disease and so forth.

There are many people who have already died today even without having cancer. Usually it’s only when somebody has cancer that we think that because of the disease that that person is dying. We consider those without terminal diseases to not be dying, but, in reality, we are the same, those of us with cancer and those of us without. There are many healthy people who will die before those who have cancer.

I heard that the parents of one of the older FPMT students, Tubten Pende, a former Nalanda monk, were talking in their kitchen and, while they were talking, Pende’s father turned his head a little to look somewhere and just then, while he was looking away, still talking, his wife suddenly died, collapsed on the floor.

I heard about another student who was walking along a road one day, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, when she suddenly collapsed and died.

We cannot guarantee we will live much longer at all. Death can happen at any time. Even now, being born in the upper realms as human beings, it is as if we are prisoners who have been allowed outside for a short time—an hour or something—and very soon we will have to return home to the lower realms. An hour’s respite and then we have to go back inside again to live in the prison we came from. Our permanent residence is the lower realms. That is where we came from.

Our life is getting shorter, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. We have a certain number of breaths from now until death, so the number of remaining breaths is constantly decreasing. With every in-breath we take, every out-breath we make, our life becomes that much shorter. In reality, we are constantly dying. 

When we die, our body stops but our mind continues. There is always the continuation of consciousness, migrating between the various realms. There are only two ways our consciousness can go at death: with nonvirtue, to the lower realms, or with virtue, to the upper realms.

Taking refuge and protecting our karma is what saves us from rebirth in the lower realms. This is the foundation of all realizations, the basis of all happiness up to enlightenment. For that reason we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Believer or nonbeliever, we must still lead an ethical life

The very essence is that we all want happiness and we don’t want suffering. Therefore, whatever we do, whether or not we believe in karma, reincarnation and so forth, we must still practice an ethical life. No matter what feelings we have about karma, not thinking there is a need for ethics will naturally lead to unethical conduct and that will lead to suffering and could even end up with us in prison. This has nothing to do with our philosophies about karma or future lives but with our conduct in this life. Of course, if we really like being in prison—if that’s what we enjoy the most—then that’s OK!

As I have mentioned, even nonbelievers need to practice patience and compassion. Similarly, nonbelievers also need to practice ethics, not harming others. That is the very basic practice. Even in this life, without considering the results that will happen in future lives, if we harm others we will have to face terrible consequences, such as getting a bad name, being treated badly by others, being prosecuted and jailed and many other negative things. We see this all the time with people who have so much wealth—billionaires and zillionaires whose lies are exposed and end up in prison, despite their great wealth.

All of us, believers or nonbelievers, need to practice an ethical life, not harming others: not killing, not lying, not stealing and so forth. That is the basis. In that way, we don’t suffer and others don’t suffer. Not being harmed by others, we have happiness and then, in turn, we can benefit others more and more. As a result, we become happier and happier and so too do others. We can bring great happiness to those around us, to our family, our country and the world.

We will be able to do all that, even without believing in karma and reincarnation. People who do not necessarily have such beliefs but have a very good heart bring much happiness to others and, because of that, gain everybody’s respect. In that way they can benefit others more and bring more happiness to themselves, their families and the world.

If ethics is important for the happiness of just this life, it becomes a much more important issue when we consider more than one life. The conclusion is this. The suffering we experience in this life might look like it comes from others, from external sources, but it does not; it comes from our own mind. It is the result of our own past karma, the intention to harm others, which left a negative imprint on the continuity of our consciousness. We then experience the result in this life. 

Similarly, all the good things we experience in this life are due to our past good intentions, our good karma, the help we have given others, which left a positive imprint on the continuity of our consciousness, resulting in our experience of happiness, joy and success in our wishes.

Others are not the main cause, they are just a condition; therefore there is nothing to blame others for. It has all come from our mind, from our past lives. Because we want to be successful in this life, we can see that what we need to do is not harm others. Whether or not we believe in karma and reincarnation, we need to not harm others and to bring them happiness, to use our life to fulfill their wishes. We must bring happiness to everyone—people, animals, even insects, whatever size they are. Because it is a dependent arising, if we do that, it will become the cause of our own success and happiness—using our life to bring happiness to others, to making others’ wishes succeed, is the best cause.

Karma is definite. If we create the cause we will definitely experience the result, happiness. The result of nonvirtue is suffering; the result of virtue is happiness. And karma is expandable. One karmic action results in many lifetimes of results. From one act of good karma we can experience many lifetimes’ happiness. To be able to fulfill somebody’s wishes of happiness, which is one time, we can then experience five hundred or a thousand lifetimes of happiness and success for ourselves—from just one good karmic act. You should understand that and keep it in mind.

Conversely, if we harm somebody once, cheating or harming them, we experience the suffering results for five hundred or a thousand lifetimes, depending on how harmful the action is. In his Four Hundred Verses, the Nalanda pandit Aryadeva said that if we cheat one sentient being we will be cheated by others for a thousand lifetimes. If we kill an insect with a negative mind then, because karma is expandable, the result will be to be killed for five hundred lifetimes. Keeping this in the mind, we should dare not give even a small harm, even once, to anybody.

This is the way to make our wishes, our life, successful. Without understanding Dharma, without understanding karma, the rest of the world believes something else. They think the cause is totally something else, but that doesn’t work because what they think of as a main cause is only a condition. Dharma practice is the main cause.

I mentioned before how in America it is common to have a gun and how even small children sometimes kill many people. If the gun victims had met the Buddhadharma, if they had purified—especially with the four opponent powers—if they had accepted karma and reincarnation and because of that purified the negative karma beforehand, they wouldn’t have had to experience being killed like that. Similarly, if the killer could have purified his past lives’ negative karma of killing, he wouldn’t have had to kill those people. But neither the victims nor the killer had met the Dharma and purified their negative karma. The karma for all of them becomes very powerful to have this experience at this time and so it happens, where one person kills and others are killed.

Therefore, in our life, whether we believe in karma, reincarnation and so forth, we need to help others as much as possible. As my guru, Kyabje Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche, says, we need to try to help even an insect that is suffering from having fallen into water by taking it out and freeing it. And if two insects are fighting, killing each other, we need to separate them. Even if we just offer to carry an older person’s heavy luggage or offer somebody a seat on the bus or train, even if it is just a small benefit in our everyday life, we should do whatever we can to help free others from suffering, to benefit them.

Once we have an understanding of the Dharma, especially the lam-rim, we will have many skillful ways to help those with psychological problems. If we see somebody with suicidal thoughts, we will have the tools to talk to her and bring her around from killing herself and thus cause her to have a long life. Normally, we liberate lots of animals that are going to be killed and, saving them in that way we cause them to have a long life. But there are many human beings who want to kill themselves, so by giving them advice and guiding them, doing whatever we can do, we give them a long life. That creates the karma for us to live long ourselves, in this and future lives, and for all our wishes to succeed. That happens, and we are able to help others more and more. 

To practice Dharma, the real thing is to serve others, to benefit others. Sentient beings are the objects most cherished by the buddhas. Not only Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, but the numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas also cherish them. This tiny ant, this mosquito, this human—whether a rich man or a beggar—is the object most cherished by the numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas.

In whatever way we can care for them, through our education, our wealth or whatever, that is the best offering to the numberless bodhisattvas and the numberless buddhas. That is really the best service we can offer to the bodhisattvas and buddhas. That is the best Dharma.

What is life? However many years, months, days and hours we have left, we must make the most of it. We must do the best. For whom? For others. And then the best for us just naturally happens.

The need for refuge in our life

Pervasive compounding suffering, the third kind of suffering, gives rise to the other two kinds of suffering: the suffering of pain and the suffering of change. Because our aggregates are under the control of karma and delusion, they are pervaded by suffering, which is why this type of suffering is called pervasive.

When we pinch our skin, it hurts. We feel pain because our aggregates are pervaded by suffering. That itself is an explanation about reincarnation, about the continuity of the consciousness from life to life. That is why it is suffering. If this life were the first one, why should there be suffering? What is the cause of that first moment of suffering? It doesn’t make any sense.

However, our aggregates are contaminated by the seed of disturbing thoughts, and because of that they are pervaded by suffering. And that is compounding suffering because there is the continuation of consciousness from life to life. Our consciousness carries negative imprints from past lives. That compounds this life’s and future lives’ suffering.

From the fundamental ignorance of reality arises the ignorance of not knowing karma, not knowing Dharma, what is right and wrong. And then, from that, attachment and anger arise toward desirable and dislikeable objects respectively. That itself is suffering but, motivated by that, we create karma. Then that karma leaves negative imprints on our mind and they produce future lives’ rebirth and suffering. Therefore, these aggregates not only compound this life’s suffering but future lives’ suffering as well. This is how pervasive compounding suffering is the foundation of the two other sufferings.

That is why taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is vital. The purpose of taking refuge is to be free from the third level of suffering, pervasive compounding suffering. If we can be free from this we will never ever have to experience the other two sufferings again. We are totally liberated, forever—not just for a few days, a few months, a few years, then we have to come back again. It’s not like we have a brief holiday from suffering and then have to return to it again.

If we have refuge in our heart, that is the basis for the various sets of vows we can take: the pratimoksha vows, the bodhisattva vows and the tantric vows. These are the means that can lead us to not just attaining liberation but attaining enlightenment for sentient beings, to free them from the oceans of samsaric suffering and to bring them to enlightenment. Becoming a bodhisattva and achieving enlightenment are based on the three sets of vows.

With refuge in our mind we are no longer outer beings but inner beings. With refuge in our mind, all the negative karma we have collected in the past from beginningless rebirths becomes purified and we immediately collect skies of extensive merit any time we want. Every time we have the opportunity, every day, we can do this.

By taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha we do not receive harm from either human beings or nonhuman beings—spirits and so forth. All our wishes are successful no matter what they are: our own freedom from samsara or enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. We will not be reborn in the lower realms and we will quickly become enlightened, achieving the omniscient mind.

We need all three objects of refuge: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. To be free from the lower realms we need just one object of refuge, for example, we can take refuge in the Buddha alone or simply chant mantras, recite holy names or remember Dharma texts such as the Heart Sutra. If we have devotion for even one monk or nun and remember that person when we’re dying or if we take refuge in the Buddha at the time of death, we will be saved from rebirth in the lower realms. But to be free from pervasive compounding suffering, to be free from samsara completely, we need all three.

The Dharma is the actual refuge, the medicine that cures our samsaric suffering. The Buddha, the founder of the refuge, is like the doctor who gives the medicine and the Sangha, who help us actualize the Dharma, are like the nurses who help us take what the doctor has prescribed, giving us the medicine and helping in all those things. The Sangha lead us by example, showing us how to practice Dharma.

Relying on all three, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, is a hundred thousand times more effectual than relying on external doctors, medicines and nurses. They might be able to cure physical illness, but, without eliminating karma and delusion, that can only be temporary. That is why taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is vital.

We take refuge in the Buddha by remembering the meaning of “buddha,” one who has totally ceased all obscurations and completed all realizations. The qualities of a buddha are unbelievable. A buddha can see all past, present and future phenomena directly at the same time. By taking refuge in the historical Buddha we are taking refuge in all the buddhas, and they all know we have taken refuge in them. Every one of the numberless buddhas has that quality—sang-gyä—so we can be assured that we will receive guidance from them. That is a reason for great joy.

Taking refuge in the Dharma means taking refuge in both the absolute Dharma and the conventional Dharma. The absolute Dharma is both the cessation of all obscurations—the cessation of all suffering—and the true path that leads to that cessation, the absolute wisdom directly perceiving emptiness. That is the medicine that eliminates the cause of suffering, karma and delusion, and allows us to achieve nirvana and enlightenment. Conventional Dharma is the Tripitaka—the three divisions of the Buddha’s teachings: the Vinaya, the Sutra, and the philosophical texts, the Abhidharma. These are condensed into the lam-rim texts.

Again, when we take refuge in the Sangha we do so in the absolute Sangha and the conventional Sangha. The absolute Sangha is anybody, lay or ordained, male or female, who has the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, realization of the absolute Dharma. The conventional Sangha refers to four fully ordained monks or nuns who are living purely in the vows.

Very often when a lama gives refuge, the disciples can also choose to take lay vows. If you can, it is very good to do this. There are five lay vows:

▶ abstaining from killing

▶ abstaining from sexual misconduct

▶ abstaining from stealing

▶ abstaining from telling lies

▶ abstaining from taking alcohol

Generally, you are given the choice of taking all five or some or none when you take refuge. The Buddha is so kind, so compassionate, giving us incredible freedom like this.

You can think of sexual misconduct as having sex with a person who doesn’t belong to you, who is committed to somebody else. However, Lama Atisha is stricter than that. He said that even having sex with your own wife or husband in the daytime is also regarded as sexual misconduct.

From a long time ago in Kopan, we also included taking recreational drugs in the vow of abstaining from alcohol, because they make you kind of hallucinated, crazy, and cause you to harm yourself and others. But the texts mainly refer to alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol is important. It creates so many problems within the family, causing whole families to break up and forcing the drinkers onto the streets, turning them into beggars. This seems to happen at lot in the West, and with alcohol there are many other dangers as well. It is easy to see how drinking alcohol interferes with Dharma development, but abstaining from it is important for normal life as well.  

When we take these five lay vows we do so for more than our own temporary happiness. The main purpose is to be free from the oceans of samsaric suffering and, not only that, to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings, to free them from the oceans of samsaric suffering. We take the vows to free all sentient beings from cancer, from AIDS, from all sickness, and from all the sufferings of rebirth, old age and death. We take the vows so that all sentient beings can be free from the suffering of change and from pervasive compounding suffering. We take vows to bring every sentient being to full enlightenment by becoming enlightened ourselves. Taking the five lay vows is not just a small thing.

The importance of the Namgyälma mantra

When I give refuge and lay vows, I often give the students a Namgyälma mantra amulet to wear, as well as a blessing string and a picture of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. These things are incredible because just having them constantly purifies negative karma.

Putting the Namgyälma mantra up somewhere in your house or flat brings protection and makes it a holy place. Then, whatever sentient beings are inside—dogs, cats, mosquitoes etc.—always have their negative karma and defilements purified and they obtain a higher rebirth. If even the shadow of the house touches any being, like insects or people, their negative karma is purified and they get a higher rebirth. If the Namgyälma mantra is on top of a mountain, the whole mountain become holy and the negative karma of any being who climbs or touches the mountain is purified and they obtain a higher rebirth.

I often tell people in the West that having a Namgyälma mantra card in the car is vital, because not only the sentient beings inside but also all beings who touch the car have their negative karma purified and they obtain a higher rebirth. When you drive, many insects and ants are killed, especially at nighttime when so many insects fly into your windscreen or are crushed under the wheels of the car. With a Namgyälma mantra inside [or a decal on the window], the negative karma of all those small insects is purified. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should drive over rabbits or dogs or children! As a policeman drags you to prison you can’t really tell him you did it because you have a mantra in the car! I suspect that would be inadmissible in a court case.

One of the most important things to do when a person or animal dies is to put the Namgyälma mantra on the body for little while. Then, definitely, a hundred percent, their consciousness will not go to the lower realms but will have a higher rebirth instead. This is very important to keep in mind when a person or animal dies. Even when you yourself die, you can ask your friends to do that. That is very beneficial.

At the Aptos house in America25 we have a big, well-decorated board with different size mantras carved on it that we place in the ocean. We put a tent on the beach and have lunch or tea while the board is in the water. In that way we bless the Pacific Ocean. When we place it in the ocean and recite OM MANI PADME HUM it not only blesses the water but it purifies all the numberless sentient beings living in the water, the ones as large as a mountain, like the whales, and the ones so small that you can only see them through a microscope. Likewise, all the people playing in the waves, riding surfboards, get the same benefit. All their negative karma and defilements are purified and they get a higher rebirth and the possibility to meet the Dharma again and, because of that, to develop their minds and achieve enlightenment. Before we only did this occasionally but now we try to do it at least once a week.

We also liberate fish that are caught for supermarkets. The people at the Aptos house and in Washington26 do that quite often. They have probably liberated over a thousand already. We also buy worms that are sold live as bait for fishermen and liberate them. There are several hundred in one container, waiting for a hook to be pushed through them and to be then thrown in the water to catch the fish. So in Washington and Aptos every two weeks we buy several containers and take them around the stupa. We don’t have a large stupa in Washington yet so we take them around the small stupas and relics and statues. There are many pictures of deities, statues and tsa-tsas. In Aptos we have a stupa behind the house, so we take them around that and recite mantras, as I have advised.

After I saw two ants’ nests near the house in Washington we made charity to them using a text I have, and we also did sur practice for them every night. I recited the Namgyälma and many other mantras and sprinkled a little bit of almost-dry tsampa powder over the ants’ nests and they came to eat it. In that way we made charity to the ants.

We found only two nests while I was there, but after I left, Venerable Tharchin from Nalanda Monastery in France found seven besides mine. He was studying philosophy but had a lot of lung, wind disease, so he went to Washington to make many water, light and flower offerings. I told him to recite mantras and bless the tsampa and put it on the nests. He does this every week. Even in such small ways we try to help sentient beings as much as we can. This is not only to fill their stomachs but also to purify their minds. That is the whole point, and it gives them the possibility of meeting the Dharma in future lives.

It’s very interesting about ants. I have found that if we put honey or sugar down especially for them, which they would normally eat, if the karma is not there, they don’t come. Otherwise they come into the kitchen and get involved in taking honey and many other things. But if we actually give it to them, they don’t come. I think that is because we don’t have the fortune, the good karma, for them to take it.

As I mentioned, besides the Namgyälma mantra, I often give students a blessing string. This is not just a Tibetan custom. Many mantras and prayers have been recited and blown on it to purify the wearers’ obscurations and for them not to be reborn in the lower realms. The mantra used is unbelievably powerful. Touching the body, the string purifies our negative karma and obscurations, decreasing problems we might otherwise have to face, so in that way it becomes a great protection. But it is also there to remind us to have a good heart, to benefit other sentient beings.

Finally, there is the picture of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. Ksitigarbha is in the Guru Puja merit field but he is not as popular in Tibet as in China, where he is considered very important for success in business and for healing. There is a one-volume text where the Buddha explained the unbelievable qualities of Ksitigarbha. Praying to him whenever you make offerings is a hundred million times more powerful for success than praying to other bodhisattvas. 


21 See Rinpoche’s The Perfect Human Rebirth for extensive teachings on this topic. [Return to text]

22 The Sangha consists of different levels of ordination: entering, rabjung (pravrajya) or rabjungma (pravrajyi), with eight vows; novice, getsul (sramanera) or getsulma (sramaneri), with thirty-six vows; and fully ordained, with 253 vows for monks and 364 vows for nuns. The tradition of fully ordained nuns has been lost in Tibet, where the only nuns’ vows are the rabjungma and getsulma. At present, Western nuns in the Tibetan tradition wishing to take full ordination do so in other traditions, such as the Chinese or Vietnamese, but the International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha, supported by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is investigating how full ordination in Tibetan Buddhism can be reinstated. See also Mandala, April 1988, “Focus on Full Ordination for Buddhist Women,” at [Return to text]

23 Rinpoche is referring to the famous Jataka tale of the Buddha, who, in a life when he was a bodhisattva prince, came across a starving tigress and her dying cubs and sacrificed his body so that she and her cubs could live. [Return to text]

24 V. 13. (In the bibliography as Songs of Spiritual Experience.) [Return to text]

25 Lama Zopa’s residence in California, near Santa Cruz. [Return to text]

26 This is Buddha Amitabha Pure Land in Washington State, where Rinpoche has a retreat house. [Return to text]