The Joy of Compassion

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Soquel, CA USA 1999 (Archive #1055)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaches on one of his favorite topics—compassion. Rinpoche also explains emptiness, karma and many other essential Buddhist subjects. As ever, his teachings are clear, relevant, humorous and direct—a perfect guide to making our lives meaningful.

Free audiobook on Google Play.

Chapter One: Living with Compassion

What is it that makes your life easy and free of confusion and problems? What is the source of all happiness and peace? What brings happiness and peace into your daily life and all happiness up to enlightenment, allowing you to bring happiness and peace to numberless sentient beings? It’s your attitude—the unmistaken attitude with which you live your life, the attitude by which you live your life according to its meaning, fulfilling your purpose of having been born human.

What is that best attitude that gives the most meaning to your life? It is living with compassion, for the benefit of others.

When your attitude is that of simply seeking your own happiness, the attitude itself attracts many difficulties and creates obstacles to your own success. Even if you are trying to serve others, when your basic motivation is that of seeking your own happiness, you experience many ego clashes and personality problems in trying to work with other people. Whether you are working in a meditation center or an office, if you are self-centered, you will bring all kinds of useless garbage into your life, especially when associating or dealing with others. All kinds of emotional problems will arise.

So even though the work you are doing—working for the welfare of others—is good, your self-centered mind generates all sorts of harmful, unnecessary emotional thoughts—thoughts that are totally useless as far as your job is concerned; thoughts that make others unhappy and angry and disturb their minds. Thoughts such as anger and jealousy create much disharmony between yourself and others. These harmful emotions impede the success of your work, bring no peace, happiness or harmony, interfere with your work and your health, and can even create obstacles to your life, to your very survival. By leading you to suicide, such thoughts can even cause your death—you’re not killed by someone else; you’re killed by your own emotional mind.

The moment you begin to cherish yourself is the moment you have created an obstacle to success in working for others. Self-cherishing brings constant problems. Broadly speaking, if you have self-cherishing, you cannot develop bodhicitta. As long as you do not renounce self-cherishing, you cannot develop the holy mind of cherishing others. That means you cannot attain enlightenment, cannot work perfectly for the sake of all the numberless sentient beings.

Thus you can see how the self-centered mind is the main obstacle that prevents you from benefiting others. It is from the self-centered mind that desire, anger and all other negative, emotional thoughts arise, obscuring your mind, blocking your wisdom. Even though there may exist many methods for solving a particular problem and you have the potential to apply them, your self-cherishing attitude totally obstructs your wisdom and prevents you from either seeing or applying them. These emotional thoughts obscure your mind and cause it to hallucinate. Therefore, you cannot perceive the methods that would bring happiness, peace and harmony. Even though, simply by changing your attitude—something that your mind is quite capable of doing—you could apply those methods and solve your problems very easily, somehow you never see it or are unable to do it.

Also, when you are not clear about the purpose of life, you are never clear when it comes to making decisions that affect your life. You always hesitate and are always in danger of making the wrong decision. When your only purpose for living is the benefit of others, it is very easy to make the right decision. It is easy because you are very clear about why you are alive.

If there is compassion in your heart, you do not harm others. All other sentient beings receive no harm from you, the one, individual person. Instead of receiving harm from you, they receive peace and happiness. Not only do you not harm them but, out of compassion and according to your ability, you benefit them as much as you can. On the basis of not harming, you benefit. Therefore, numberless sentient beings receive much peace and happiness from your compassion.

So, whether or not numberless sentient beings receive that great peace and happiness is entirely up to you. Giving great peace and happiness to others is completely up to you because it depends upon what you do with your mind, whether or not you practice compassion towards others. Your own mind makes the decision—either you keep going from life to life harming sentient beings directly or indirectly, or you change your attitude from ego to compassion and offer sentient beings all peace and happiness up to enlightenment. All this depends completely on what you do with your own mind.

Therefore, each of us is responsible for the peace and happiness of all sentient beings, of each sentient being—all happiness up to that of enlightenment.

The purpose of our lives is, on the basis of abstaining from harm, to bring happiness to others, to be useful for others, to free them from all suffering and bring them all happiness. One kind of happiness is the happiness of this life, but long-term happiness—happiness in all future lives—is much more important than that. And, while causing others to experience happiness in all future lives is highly meaningful, it is even more important to lead them to the everlasting happiness of total liberation—cessation of the entire round of suffering and its causes, delusion and karma. This is more important than simply the long-term happiness of future lives because the happiness of future lives is still contaminated happiness while the happiness of liberation never diminishes or degenerates. It is the complete cessation of suffering and its causes. Once the seed, or imprint, of delusion has been eradicated, there is no cause for delusion, and therefore suffering, to ever arise again.

However, as important as leading all sentient beings to everlasting happiness might be, the most important thing you can do is to bring them all into the peerless happiness of full enlightenment—the cessation of even the subtle defilements of mind, and the completion of all realizations. However, saying that bringing others to enlightenment is the most important thing does not mean that you should not try to give others the happiness of this life. It means that starting from the intention of enlightening all sentient beings, according to your own ability, you should offer whatever service you possibly can to all other sentient beings. In other words, on the basis of bringing the happiness of this life to others, you lead them to the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment. Or, on the basis of offering others the greatest benefit possible, that of bringing them to enlightenment, you also offer whatever you can of those previous services.

How to attain enlightenment

In order to be able to do perfect work for the numberless other sentient beings, eliminate all their sufferings and lead them from happiness to happiness to full enlightenment, first you have to achieve the omniscient mind of enlightenment yourself. How do you achieve enlightenment? It doesn’t happen without cause or by practicing the wrong cause, by following the wrong path. Nor does it happen if you practice an unmistaken method incompletely, for example, spending your entire life—twenty, thirty, forty, fifty . . . eighty, ninety years of life—just doing breathing meditation. Even though breathing meditation is recommended as a tool to calm your mind and might be useful for developing single-pointed concentration and making your mind peaceful, that alone does not get you anywhere, does not transform your mind into virtue or diminish or eradicate delusions.

To terminate delusions, you need to realize emptiness; to eradicate ignorance, the root, or cause, of all the delusions, you have to realize emptiness. So how can you do that just by practicing breathing meditation? How can you escape from samsara by spending your whole life watching your breath? There’s no way. Spending your entire life practicing mindfulness of the body, watching your abdomen rise and fall—after you’ve eaten a big meal or when your belly is empty! Anyway, I’m joking.

Spending your whole life developing awareness of your bodily sensations might help you prevent strong anger or strong desire from arising at the time, but even if you spend your whole life with your mind watching your mind, your mind meditating on your mind, if you meditate on only the conventional nature of mind and not its ultimate nature, if you simply practice single-pointed concentration on the conventional nature of mind, how can that stop ignorance? How can that cut the root of samsara? There’s no way.

Spending your time doing that is like trying to stop a poisonous plant from growing by planting another one next to it. It’s like trying to destroy a poisonous plant by putting cotton wool alongside it. Even if you spend your whole life practicing mind concentrating on mind, how can that eradicate the root of samsara, the concept of the inherently-existent I, the inherently-existent aggregates? It’s impossible. It would not affect that one bit; it would not do anything.

The root of samsara is the perverted mind [Tib. log-she]. Although there is no I on the aggregates—not even a merely labeled I on the base, the aggregates—as soon as the I is merely labeled by the mind, it appears to our hallucinating mind as if it is, in fact, on the aggregates—like a brocade tablecloth covering a table or a book lying on a table. You see that it is there on the aggregates, which is the same as saying that the I appears from its own side; the merely labeled I , the I that is merely labeled by your mind, appears back to your mind, your hallucinating mind, as if it exists from its own side. Then you allow your mind to believe that it is true; you allow your mind to hold on to that inherently-existent I. That concept is log-she, the totally perverted mind, the totally wrong concept, the totally hallucinating mind, and the only way to eliminate it is to recognize what it is that the concept is holding on to, to recognize the way this concept apprehends the I.

When you don’t investigate, it looks like it’s there, but when you examine it more closely you see that it is not there. While your mind is unaware, not analyzing, it looks as if it’s there, but when your mind investigates, it cannot be found either on the aggregates or anywhere else. It is totally non-existent.

Even though you cannot find the merely labeled I on the base, on the aggregates, you can find it where the aggregates are. Where there is the base, there you will find the merely labeled I. You just can’t find it on the base.

The object that this ignorance, the root of samsara, the concept of inherent existence, apprehends, what it holds onto, cannot be found either on the aggregates or anywhere else. It is totally non-existent; it has never existed since beginningless time. From beginningless rebirths, the inherently existent I has never existed; it doesn’t exist now and it has never existed.

All buddhas realize that there is no inherently existent I, even though the merely labeled I, merely labeled actions, merely labeled objects, merely labeled hell, merely labeled enlightenment, merely labeled path, merely labeled samsara, merely labeled nirvana, merely labeled happiness, merely labeled suffering, merely labeled virtue, merely labeled non-virtue—which in reality exist merely in name and are completely empty of inherent existence—are covered by our hallucinating view with the appearance of inherent existence.

Our hallucinating view covers everything—the merely labeled I, merely labeled actions, merely labeled objects, merely labeled enemies, merely labeled friends, merely labeled money, merely labeled jobs, the whole thing—all phenomena, which exist in mere name and are empty of inherent existence, with the appearance of inherent existence. This is how it is; this is our world. But what the numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas who have realized emptiness see is that all these appearances are completely non-existent; that there is not the slightest atom of inherent existence anywhere.

So, to go back to what I was saying before, even if you spend your entire life watching your mind, single-pointedly concentrating on your mind, that alone will not have the slightest effect on the root of samsara. It will give no harm to your ignorance; your ignorance will remain very comfortable, with its entourage of delusions very well established. That kind of meditation alone can never help liberate you from samsara; it does nothing.

To make it impossible for delusions to arise, you have to eradicate their seed. To prevent the cause of samsara, delusion and karma, from ever arising, to make sure that ignorance, attachment and anger never arise at all, ever again, you have to eradicate the seed of delusion, which is in the nature of imprints on the continuity of your consciousness, according to the Prasangika school of Buddhist philosophy, the merely labeled I. Only by realizing emptiness, by developing the wisdom that directly perceives emptiness, can you eradicate the seed of delusion. Nothing else can directly do this.

Therefore, if you spend your entire life just doing breathing meditation—or even “mind concentrating on mind” meditation, which has nothing to do with the ultimate nature of mind—you cannot remove the seed of delusion or put a final end to the delusions, and you certainly can’t reach enlightenment. That’s totally out of the question.

In order to attain enlightenment, you have to practice all the methods without exception. Not only that, you have to practice these methods in the right order, without mixing them up. If you practice them out of order you cannot attain enlightenment. To reach full enlightenment, to actualize the lam-rim, the steps of the path to enlightenment, you have to actualize the graduated path of the practitioner of highest capability. Doing that depends upon your having actualized as a foundation the graduated path of the practitioner of intermediate capability. That in turn depends upon your having prepared by actualizing the graduated path of the practitioner of least capability.

Guru devotion

In order to actualize the graduated path of the practitioner of least capability, you need—as Lama Tsongkhapa mentions in his short lam-rim text, The Foundation of All Good Qualities—to see that correct devotion to the kind guru, who is the foundation of all good qualities, is the root of the path.1 That is the foundation of all realizations, from that of the perfect human rebirth and the graduated path of the practitioner of least capability all the way up to enlightenment. It is not only the foundation of all realizations—it is also the foundation of every good thing that ever happens in your life, of any happiness that you ever experience: in past lives, in this life, and in all future lives up to enlightenment. Every good thing, every single happiness, comes from that field that is the guru. Therefore, correct devotion to your guru is the root of the path.

The text continues: “By clearly seeing this and applying great effort, please bless me to rely upon him with great respect.”

The words “great effort” have deep significance. What Lama Tsongkhapa is saying here is that seeing your virtuous friend as pure, as buddha, has to come with much effort from your own side. Seeing your guru as buddha doesn’t come from his side, independently. It has to come from your own side, and with much effort. Seeing him as pure takes much, continual effort. Seeing him as pure, as having eradicated all the errors of mind and possessing all good qualities, takes not just a few days, not just an hour’s meditation, not just two or three months of meditation, but year upon year, life upon life, of effort. This is how much effort it takes to be able to practice guru devotion correctly with thought and action. That’s what this teaching means. Not just a few minutes’ practice, then stop; an hour’s practice, then stop; a year’s practice, then stop. Not like that.

In the Lam-rim Chen-mo, Lama Tsongkhapa explains nine attitudes of guru devotion; nine attitudes to have when correctly devoting yourself to your guru.2 If you read those you can get an idea of the right way to practice guru devotion, the root of the path.

The perfect human rebirth

In the second verse of The Foundation of All Good Qualities, Lama Tsongkhapa mentions that on the basis of correct guru devotion, you should understand that this time not only have you found a precious human body, which in itself is extremely rare, but one that is qualified by eight freedoms and ten richnesses, which is much more rare. And specifically, at this time you have met the precious Buddhadharma and a virtuous friend revealing not only the unmistaken path but also the complete path, with nothing missing. Therefore, you have every opportunity to practice all the steps of the entire path to enlightenment. This is what you have received, just this once.

When you are born in the hell realm, you encounter every possible obstacle. This time, you have received every opportunity to practice Dharma. Whatever happiness you want—any great meaning of this life, the happiness of future lives, liberation from samsara, the full enlightenment of buddhahood—whichever of these you want, you can achieve with this present perfect human body. What you want is happiness; what you don’t want is suffering. With this highly meaningful perfect human body, you can abandon all the causes of suffering and create all the causes of happiness, because all suffering comes only from non-virtue and all happiness comes only from virtue, only from Dharma. As Nagarjuna explained, actions born from attachment, anger and ignorance are non-virtuous—from those, all suffering transmigrators arise—whereas actions born from non-attachment, non-anger and non-ignorance are virtuous—from those, all happy transmigrators arise.

Therefore, what you should do is practice only Dharma, nothing else, because happiness is all you want. Since that is your wish, you should create only virtue, you should practice only Dharma. Not only that, but you must practice Dharma in this life. You cannot leave it for future lives because it will be extremely difficult to find such an opportunity again. After this life it will be almost impossible to receive as perfect a human body as the one you have now, with which you can achieve all the different levels of happiness beyond this life—the happiness of future lives, liberation from samsara and full enlightenment. With this body, you can achieve whatever you want, but you have found it only this once and such a body will be extremely difficult to find again in the future.

Impermanence and death

Not only should you practice Dharma in this life but you should also practice it right now. Not only is death certain but it can also come at any time, even today, even at this very moment. Therefore you should practice Dharma right now. Moreover, you should practice only Dharma, because at the time of death nothing else will help. You have to leave behind your entire family and even your own body, which, of all sentient beings’ bodies, is the one you have cherished the most. No matter how many friends or how much wealth you have, nothing can be carried into your future lives. Naked, your consciousness goes alone into your next life. As many lamas have mentioned in their lam-rim teachings, when you pull a hair from butter, it slips out with no butter attached. Like that, your bare consciousness will go alone into the next life. Therefore, at the time of death, nothing other than Buddhadharma can be of benefit. Furthermore, only Dharma can benefit your next life and those beyond. Therefore, practice Dharma and only Dharma.

In his teachings, Lama Tsongkhapa says that at the time of death, nothing other than the holy Dharma can be of benefit. There are three things to think. When you see you have to go to the next life, away from this life, away from this world, even if at the time of death you are surrounded by your relatives and friends, no matter how much they love you, how much affection they have for you, none of them can go with you. And no matter how much wealth you possess, how many piles of beautiful objects you have, you can’t take even an atom with you. Finally, you have to leave behind even the flesh and bone with which you were born. If you have to leave even your flesh and bones, there’s no question that you will also have to leave behind the other perfections of this life. Therefore, you should think, “It is certain that I will pass to another world and when that happens I will have to leave all this behind.” Moreover, you should think that this will happen today and that at death, only the Dharma will be your savior, refuge and guide.

Lama Tsongkhapa refers to a quotation from the writings of Karni-karnika, who says, “When the view of the ripening aspect result of previous karma arises and the Lord of Death invites migratory beings to follow their new karma, they have to leave behind everything but their negative karma and virtue; nobody comes along with them. Understand this and practice well.”

Thus Lama Tsongkhapa emphasizes that leisure has great significance, is extremely difficult to find and decays very easily, so remember death. He says if you don’t try to achieve happiness beyond this life, even though you have received a human rebirth, it’s as if you have not and your life has no more meaning than that of an animal. As far as achieving happiness and avoiding suffering up until the time of death are concerned—in other words, attaining the happiness of this life and solving this life’s problems—Lama Tsongkhapa says that animals are even better at it than humans. However, we should conduct ourselves better than animals do. Since being born human is special, our conduct should surpass that of animals. Otherwise, Lama Tsongkhapa says, even though you have achieved the body of a happy transmigrator, it’s as if you have not.

If you lead your life no better than an animal, if your attitude is simply that of seeking your own happiness of this life, no matter how successful you might be in achieving it, your life is no more special than that of an animal. No matter how powerful or famous you become—or whatever other happiness of this life you seek—your attitude and conduct is no better than that of an animal. If this is how you live your life, your having achieved this human body has no meaning.

In his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says, “It is not rare for animals to engage in meaningless activities, but freedom and richness, which are extremely difficult to find, are destroyed by those tormented by karma.”3 I’m not one hundred percent sure, but my guess is that he means that insignificant or meaningless activities are not hard to create; even animals can do those well. But if we use our perfect human rebirth, which will be so difficult to find again, for creating negative karma by engaging in meaningless activity instead of using it to achieve the happiness beyond this life all the way up to enlightenment, we are destroying the rare and precious opportunity we have. If, instead of creating good karma, the cause of all happiness, we use our perfect human body to create negative karma, all these good results—good rebirths, liberation from samsara, enlightenment—are destroyed and we will have to experience rebirth in the lower realms.

I think this is what Shantideva means by “destroy.” For example, when you get angry, the anger destroys your liberation. How? By destroying your merits. Because anger destroys your merits, anger destroys your liberation. Shantideva’s meaning might be similar to that. If, with this perfect human rebirth and that kind of attitude you create negative karma, you will experience only suffering rebirths and will not achieve all those good rebirths, from better future lives all the way up to enlightenment. It’s like the negative karma destroyed all those good results. I think that’s what it means.

From the holy mouth of the Kadampa Geshe Potowa: “Your main practice should be meditation on impermanence in order to eliminate the appearance of this life. Eliminate the appearance of this life, your family, relatives, possessions and so forth, knowing that you yourself must go from this life unaccompanied, alone, and that nothing but Dharma can help you at that time. Thinking in this way, live without attachment to this life. Until this thought arises in your mind, your entire Dharma path is blocked.”

Geshe Potowa is saying that until the thought of impermanence and death arises in your mind—the thought that death can come at any moment and that at the time of death none of the perfections or activities of this life can be of benefit and you have to go alone into the next life—and you have developed detachment from this life, the entire path of Dharma is blocked.

In other words, the concept of permanence, the attachment clinging to this life, the thought, “I am going to live for a long time,” which is opposite to the thought of impermanence and death, blocks the path of the entire Dharma. First of all, it prevents your mind from becoming Dharma; it does not allow your daily attitude to become Dharma. This prevents all your actions from becoming Dharma; therefore, they all become non-virtuous. That is the immediate obstacle—your attitude of mind in daily life not becoming Dharma and as a result, all your actions not becoming Dharma actions.

Therefore you cannot gain the realizations of the graduated path of the practitioner of least capability, those of the graduated path of the practitioner of intermediate capability or those of the graduated path of the practitioner of highest capability. Since you have no renunciation of this life, no renunciation of future lives in samsara, you cannot achieve the graduated path of the practitioner of intermediate capability, which is the foundation. Similarly, you cannot achieve the graduated path of the practitioner of highest capability, bodhicitta or the rest of the Mahayana path. Therefore, you cannot receive enlightenment. That’s the meaning of the entire Dharma path being blocked.

Kadampa Geshe Torwa said, “If, by the way, you practice precisely, try to collect merits and purify your defilements with effort and zeal, and make requests to the guru and the deity, even though you think you won’t attain any realizations for a hundred years, since causative phenomena cannot remain static, realizations will come.”

What he is saying is that if you practice whole-heartedly, correctly, with effort and precision; if, while you are meditating on the path, you also constantly, from the bottom of your heart, pray, make single-pointed requests to the guru-deity; if you continue to practice like this, even though you might think that you will never gain any realizations, such as those of emptiness, bodhicitta, renunciation or tantra, even though you think, “Oh, how could it possibly happen? Poor me! I’m this and that . . . how could someone like me attain realizations? It will take ages, a hundred years,” even though that’s what you believe about your gaining realizations, because of all the practices you do and because your mind is a causative phenomenon—it exists through dependence upon causes and conditions—without choice, your mind has to change. It cannot stay as it is. Your mind cannot remain in its old, hard state; it has to change. That’s what Geshe Torwa is saying—realizations can happen very easily, without taking a hundred years.

In the quotation above, “by the way” could mean while you are meditating on the path, training your mind in the lam-rim, or it could mean trying to use even your daily activities—eating, sleeping, washing and so forth—as a means of collecting extensive merits and purifying defilements. “By the way” could mean either of those things.

Lam-rim and retreat

I just want to make a few points about the place of lam-rim practice in deity retreat. To help any retreat we are doing become a stronger, more powerful purification, to increase our determination to practice Dharma so that we can defeat the delusions, overcome the obstacles that prevent us from achieving enlightenment—the self-cherishing thought and so forth—and to strengthen our minds so that we can overcome our inner obstacles, which prevent us from freeing ourselves from samsara, we should always remember and meditate on the teachings of the lam-rim, the graduated path to enlightenment.

Getting free from samsara or remaining trapped within it depends entirely on which is stronger, the delusions or the mind. It’s a question of this. If our mind becomes stronger than our delusions, we’ll get free from samsara. If we allow our mind to be weak and our delusions to be strong, if we give freedom to our delusions instead of ourselves, we will not find liberation, only more samsaric suffering.

The conclusion is this. Not all of us can live ascetic lives in isolated places, but we all have to practice Dharma as much as possible. There’s no choice. Therefore, we have to remember impermanence and death as much as we possibly can, since this is the mind that serves as a remedy to the attachment clinging to this life. This attachment is what brings us all our problems, confusion and obstacles to Dharma practice. It prevents our attitude and actions from becoming Dharma and prevents the Dharma that we do practice from becoming pure. Meditation on impermanence and death must become our fundamental weapon, our main remedy, or antidote, to the delusions.

The incredible power of bodhicitta

On the basis of this, we should generate the good heart, bodhicitta, the thought of benefiting others. This is our best refuge, especially for those of us whose lives are very busy, who don’t have much time for sitting or other traditional forms of practice. On the basis of reflecting on impermanence and death, we should make the good heart the main object of refuge in our lives. This allows all our actions to become Dharma, the cause of enlightenment and the cause of happiness for all sentient beings. Therefore, we should lead our lives with this attitude, the thought of benefiting all sentient beings.

If you recite a Vajrasattva mantra once with bodhicitta you get the same benefit as you do from reciting 100,000 without it. If you make one light offering with bodhicitta, you get the same amount of merit as you do from making 100,000 light offerings without it. If you make charity of one dollar to a sentient being—a beggar or a homeless person—with bodhicitta, you get the same amount of merit as you do from making charity of $100,000 without it.

It is said in the scriptures that if the sentient beings of three galaxies—the Tibetan term is tong-sum, but I’m not exactly sure how best to translate it, you should check for yourselves—all build stupas of the seven precious substances, such as gold, diamonds and so forth, and fill the whole world with these stupas, the merit of that is far less than that created by just one person offering a tiny flower to the Buddha with bodhicitta motivation. The person making this small offering with bodhicitta motivation creates far more merit than three galaxies of sentient beings covering the world with stupas made of the seven precious substances without it.

Try to imagine this. If you build just one stupa you create unbelievable merit. It directs your life to enlightenment and is an amazing purification. So here we have three galaxies’ worth of sentient beings, each one building a stupa of the seven precious substances—not with bricks and mortar but with precious jewels—and covering the world with these. Nevertheless, the merit of one person offering a tiny flower to the Buddha with bodhicitta motivation creates far more merit than that.

Thinking about this should inspire you to make bodhicitta your heart practice. It transforms your life like iron into gold or kaka into diamonds. Bodhicitta motivation gives your life its greatest possible meaning and makes every single action of your daily life as beneficial as it can possibly be. You should remember bodhicitta from morning to night, twenty-four hours a day. Hold it as your most precious possession, as your wish-fulfilling jewel. You should cherish your bodhicitta motivation above all else; remember it constantly and practice it at every moment.

If you do one prostration with bodhicitta, it’s as if you did 100,000 prostrations. In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo explains that if you recite the “Praises to the Twenty-one Taras” once with bodhicitta you get the benefit of having recited it 100,000 times. Hence, if you do pujas or recite prayers for others with bodhicitta they become much more powerful and create far more merit.

Therefore the amount of purification you get from a Vajrasattva retreat doesn’t depend upon how many mantras you recite but on their quality. Of course, the number has power, but the quality of your recitation is much more important. So even if you recite just one Vajrasattva mantra, how much negative karma gets purified depends on how you recite it. Therefore, when you do your motivation you should meditate very precisely on the lam-rim, especially bodhicitta, and generate regret.

The power of regret

Ordinary people might think that regretting mistaken actions is negative thinking but people who are practitioners, who have faith in the Buddha’s teachings and the lam-rim and have been practicing deeply, see it as positive. Beginners, too, might think that generating the thought of regret is negative. But if you understand the Dharma—especially Mahayana practices such as the Thirty-five Buddhas practice, where you recite the names of those extremely powerful buddhas, and, in particular, the skillful methods of Highest Yoga Tantra, such as the practice of the Highest Yoga Tantra aspect of Vajrasattva—your regret serves as medicine; it heals you.

The lam-rim teachings cite six methods of purification. Practicing Vajrasattva, for example, with your knowledge of Buddhadharma, especially the powerful purification methods of the skillful means of tantra, your regret becomes a technique of healing. It purifies your negative karma so that you avoid obstacles and don’t have to experience its suffering result, and even if you do, the experience is either very light or delayed for a long time; many lifetimes, even eons. Thus, the generation of regret heals, purifies negative karma, and brings happiness and peace, not only in this life but in all lives, from now to enlightenment.

Even if you don’t do these methods of purification—Vajrasattva, prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas while reciting their names, making tsa-tsas and statues of buddhas and so forth—just feeling regret for the negative karmas you have created or for the harm you have given others lightens that negative karma. The stronger the regret, the lighter the negative karma becomes. Therefore, feeling regret is positive—it’s healing; it’s purification. Generating regret is the path to happiness, even though at the time it might feel unpleasant. Never mind; it has a good future! When you tally your negative karmas, count them one by one, make an account of them, you might not feel so good, but that feeling of regret has a good future because it purifies them; at least, it makes them lighter and shorter. Thus, it is positive.

Therefore, it is wrong to think that just because at the moment something feels unpleasant it must be negative. That kind of thinking becomes an obstacle to purifying your negative karma, to avoiding your future suffering, to freeing yourself from samsara, to attaining enlightenment, to achieving realizations. Instead of focusing on the incredible benefits you’ll gain, all that future peace and happiness, interpreting the whole thing as negative becomes a huge block to all those good results.

A similar thing can happen when you don’t know how to think about impermanence and death properly. If you don’t know Dharma or don’t practice, thinking about impermanence and death can be like torturing yourself because you don’t have a solution to the problem. But if you know Dharma, and especially if you practice, then instead of becoming unpleasant, thinking about impermanence and death can become incredibly beneficial. You can overcome all your delusions, you can begin to practice Dharma without obstacles, you can continue to practice without obstacles, and you can complete your practice without obstacles and attain enlightenment. These are some of the benefits, as mentioned in the lam-rim teachings. If you practice Dharma, you receive these benefits, but if you don’t, then thinking of death just makes you unhappy.

If you practice Dharma, thinking about impermanence and death allows you to overcome death itself. When you start to meditate on impermanence and death, you are afraid of death, but this fear makes you practice Dharma. Then, through practicing Dharma, you gain the realizations of renunciation of samsara, bodhicitta and emptiness, and in that way gradually overcome your fear of death. Eventually, you become free of even death itself. As Milarepa said, “Afraid of death, I fled to the mountains, where I realized the ultimate nature of the primordial mind. Now, even should I die, I’ll be unafraid.”

In that way, Dharma practitioners think about impermanence and death, which spurs them on to develop their practice until they have overcome not only the fear of death, but death itself.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching 13 February 1999.

1. See Appendix 1 [Return to text]

2. See Appendix 2 [Return to text]

3. Chapter 8, verse 81 [Return to text]