Making Life Meaningful

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Various locations, 1999 (Archive #1055)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche gives us the answer to the perennial question of how to integrate Dharma into our daily lives and explains the purpose of life in general and the practice of guru devotion.

This title is out of stock, but you can find links here to ebook and print-on-demand versions.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter One: The Purpose of Life


For those of us who have been able to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Kamalashila’s Gom-rim these past few days, this is a most precious, unbelievably fortunate time.2 It is just incredible that we have the karma to be able to see the Buddha of Compassion in human form. Thus, not only can we communicate with this living manifestation of the enlightened mind but we can also receive teachings on a path that without doubt, without any question, liberates us from both the ocean of samsaric suffering and its cause—karma, which are actions motivated by delusion, and the delusions themselves, the disturbing, obscuring thoughts whose continuity has no beginning. Even if we cannot practice every single thing that His Holiness has taught these past few days, just hearing his teachings leaves positive imprints on our mental continua, and sooner or later, these imprints will definitely liberate us from the ocean of samsaric suffering and its cause and bring us to full enlightenment, the peerless happiness of buddhahood. In these teachings, His Holiness has been talking about compassion. What is the purpose of our lives? Why do we live?

Why do we exert so much effort to survive every day, every hour, every minute, every second? Why do we spend so much money taking care of this body, checking our health every year to see if there’s anything wrong and, if there is, undergoing expensive treatment? Why do we spend so much money on food, clothing and shelter—on the many things we need to survive and be healthy? Why do we do all those billions of exercises to keep our bodies healthy?

All these expenses and activities have meaning only if we have compassion within us. Compassion for others makes everything we do—spending money, studying, working, exercising, looking after our health—meaningful.

If, on the other hand, our hearts lack compassion, our lives become empty. All those expenses, all that effort, all those long hours on the job are totally devoid of meaning and we find no fulfillment in our everyday lives. Without compassion, the thought of benefiting others, our hearts remain unfulfilled and it is very difficult for us to find satisfaction in whatever we do. No matter how much external wealth we have, if our hearts lack compassion, they are always empty; hollow inside.

If you check carefully, you will see that no matter how many things you have or how hard you try to achieve them, if there’s no compassion in your heart, you never feel quite right. There’s no peace in your heart, and deep within, you always feel that there’s something missing.

The best way to give meaning to your life is to make it beneficial for others by having compassion for them. That’s also the best way to find peace, happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction in your own life. But compassion for others does not only bring you peace and happiness right now, every moment of your present life. Living your life for others also offers you the best possible future. And even at that most critical juncture, the end of your life, when your consciousness separates from your body, compassion makes your death happy, peaceful and satisfying. Moreover, your peaceful, happy death makes others happy too. Your friends and family can rejoice. You become an inspiration, an example of hope and courage. They see that their own deaths could also be happy.

Even if you have realized the wisdom directly perceiving the very nature of phenomena—the ultimate nature of the I and mind—if you have no compassion, no good heart, the most you can achieve is simply the nirvana of the Lesser Vehicle path, the sorrowless state for yourself alone; you cannot achieve full enlightenment. You still have the hallucination of the dualistic view. There are still subtle negative imprints on your mental continuum that prevent you from seeing directly all existence, the emptiness of all phenomena—all absolute and conventional truths together.

The purifying power of compassion

With compassion for others, leading your life for the benefit of others, you collect incredible merit. As the great bodhisattva pandit Shantideva said in the first chapter of his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara), when describing the benefits of bodhicitta, “Bodhicitta is the most powerful purifier of defilements, negative karma.” There are a few stanzas where Shantideva explains how powerful bodhicitta is in purifying negative karma.

He continues, “Like relying on a very powerful person when you want to be saved from danger, relying on bodhicitta, practicing bodhicitta, the good heart, for just a minute, even a second, purifies very powerful, inexhaustible, negative karma. Why, then, would the conscientious not entrust themselves to bodhicitta?” 3

If you have compassion in your everyday life, you collect the most extensive merit and purify much negative karma in a very short time. Many lifetimes, many eons, of negative karma get purified. That helps you to realize emptiness. How? To realize emptiness, you need much merit and great purification. For example, to realize a million dollar project, you need a million dollars. Similarly, to realize emptiness, you need a vast accumulation of merit. By practicing compassion, benefiting others, you accumulate great merit, and the realization of emptiness comes by the way.

Longdrol Lama Rinpoche, a great yogi from Sera-je Monastery who often saw Tara, the embodiment of all the buddhas’ holy actions, said that she advised him to practice tong-len. This practice involves your taking other sentient beings’ suffering and its cause onto yourself, destroying your ego, and giving your body, happiness, merit and everything else to other sentient beings, dedicating everything to others, causing them to receive whatever they need, as a result of which they actualize the path of method and wisdom and become enlightened. Tara told Longdrol Lama Rinpoche, “If you practice tong-len, taking and giving, the realization of emptiness will come by the way.”

But that’s not all. Through compassion, you not only realize emptiness; you also achieve full enlightenment, the total cessation of all mistakes of mind, all defilements, and the complete achievement of all realizations.

Universal responsibility

If you don’t have compassion, all you have is a self-centered mind. Due to that, anger, jealousy, desire and other such emotional thoughts arise. These negative thoughts then make you harm other sentient beings directly or indirectly, from life to life. You, one per- son with a negative attitude, inflict harm on all sentient beings. That’s very dangerous. By comparison, even if all sentient beings get angry at, harm or even kill you, that’s nothing. You are just one person; your importance is nothing. You are just one living being.

Therefore, it is essential, extremely important, that you, this one person, change your negative attitude and transform your mind into compassion, bodhicitta, in this life, immediately—now. Why? Because this life gives you every opportunity to do so. From beginningless rebirths up to now, you have not changed your attitude of self-cherishing—the source of all the problems and suffering that you yourself experience, and the source of your giving many problems and much harm to numberless other living beings—into the attitude of cherishing and benefiting others—the source of all peace and happiness for both yourself and numberless other living beings. You have not changed your ego, your self-centered mind, the thought of seeking happiness for only yourself, into the loving compassionate thought of bodhicitta. In this life, however, you can.

From your own side you have received the precious human body that has eight freedoms and ten richnesses. Furthermore, you have met not only a qualified virtuous friend who shows you virtue—the unmistaken cause of the happiness of future lives and the unmistaken path to liberation, freedom forever from samsara—but you have also met a qualified Mahayana virtuous friend, who reveals the complete, unmistaken path to full enlightenment, the non-abiding sorrowless state. You have met not only Buddhadharma but the Mahayana teaching. Even if you haven’t met such a teacher yet, you have every opportunity to do so. Especially now, you have the opportunity of meeting the virtuous friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is proven by historical quotations of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha to be the Buddha of Compassion. This is like a dream come true; it is so difficult to express.

If you, one living being, develop compassion in your heart, you no longer give harm to numberless other living beings. You stop harming others. The absence of harm that your compassion brings numberless other sentient beings is peace and happiness. That is what they receive from you.

Not only that. As well as not receiving harm from you, others also receive benefit. Out of compassion, you help them. Thus, numberless other sentient beings receive much peace and happiness from you. All that is in your hands, because it is completely up to what you do with your own mind—whether you generate compassion for others or whether you don’t. Numberless other sentient beings receiving harm or peace and happiness all depends on what you do with your own mind. It’s all up to you. Therefore, each one of us here has complete responsibility for the peace and happiness of every single sentient being. Each of us has universal responsibility.

Therefore, twenty-four hours a day, from morning till night, as much as you can, you should put all your effort into generating the thought of universal responsibility: “I’m responsible for the peace and happiness of numberless other living beings; the purpose of my life is to bring happiness to other sentient beings.” Get up in the morning with this attitude; get dressed with this attitude, this feeling of responsibility: “I’m responsible for all sentient beings’ happiness; their peace and happiness is up to me.” Know that this truly is the meaning of your life. Get dressed with this attitude, bathe with this attitude, eat breakfast with this attitude, go to work with this attitude.

Working with bodhicitta

Also, during the day, while you are working, keep checking your attitude. It’s not enough simply to leave home in the morning with this attitude. At work, check your motivation again and again, and repeatedly transform your attitude in this way. Keep generating the good heart; keep feeling responsible for all sentient beings’ happiness, that it’s up to you to cause it. Maintain a constant attitude of compassion, bodhicitta.

Examine your motivation again and again: “For whom am I doing this job? Am I doing it for myself or others?” If deep in your heart there’s no continuity of the feeling that you are doing your job for others, if your attitude has changed, if you find that you’re doing it for your own happiness, for yourself, then discard this attitude and replace it with the attitude that you are doing your job for the benefit of others, with compassion, the good heart, bodhicitta. Put as much effort as you possibly can into generating and maintaining the feeling that you’re doing your job for the benefit others, not only for yourself.

Just because you’re working for money doesn’t mean that you’re not benefiting others. If you use the money you earn to help others—for example, to help the sick or the poor, to spread Dharma or to help sentient beings in any other way—that’s certainly for the benefit of others. If you are doing your job to save money so that you can do retreat or practice or study Dharma for the benefit of other sentient beings, that’s the right attitude; that’s the attitude you should have. If you work and study so that you can live, but you live your life for the benefit of others; if you take care of yourself so that you can serve other sentient beings; if you feel, “I’m the servant of all sentient beings, serving to free them from suffering and bring them all happiness,” you might be working in a regular job, but the work that you do is for others.

Sleeping with bodhicitta

When you go to bed, you should also sleep with a feeling of responsibility for the happiness of all sentient beings: “To free numberless other living beings from all their suffering and lead them to the great happiness of full enlightenment, I must first achieve enlightenment myself. In order to do so, I need to practice Dharma. To practice effectively, I need a long life and good health. Longevity and good health depend on sleep. Therefore, I’m now going to sleep.”

The two things we spend most of our time doing are working and sleeping. Therefore, we need a good motivation for each, otherwise we are going to waste more than half of our lives. As the lamrim teachings mention, we can spend almost half our lives sleeping. Therefore, it’s very important to know not only how to make sleep virtuous, the cause of happiness, and not non-virtuous, the cause of suffering, but also how to make it the cause of numberless other living beings’ happiness.

If you sleep with compassion, bodhicitta, the thought of benefiting others, your sleep becomes the cause of enlightenment, the cause of happiness of numberless other living beings. This is because anything you do with bodhicitta only benefits others, even before you become enlightened. As soon as you enter in the Mahayana path by developing bodhicitta, you begin to offer deep benefit to other sentient beings, and after you complete the path and achieve enlightenment, you bring numberless other sentient beings into full enlightenment.

Therefore, make sure that you put great effort into generating not only virtuous motivation but the very best Dharma attitude of compassion, bodhicitta, not only when you go to work but also when you go to sleep. In that way, your sleep becomes the best Dharma because it is unstained by the self-cherishing thought. So, that is the sutra way of sleeping, but there are also tantric meditations for both when you go to sleep and when you wake up, so that you awaken with that continuity. If you have received commentaries on the lower tantras or Highest Yoga Tantra, you should practice whatever you can remember.

Take refuge in bodhicitta

Our lives are so busy; we are preoccupied by many family and other obligations. When your life is so busy, there is no other refuge than your good heart. Your good heart is the most important thing in which to take refuge. Even though you might want to do long practices, sitting meditation, many prayers or retreat, your life is usually so busy that you don’t have time. You have too many other obligations; you can’t do everything that you’d like. If this is the case, your only refuge is your good heart, your compassion, the thought of benefiting others, bodhicitta. If you take refuge in that, if you can practice that, no matter how busy you are—even if you cannot do many hours of sitting meditation, prayers, preliminary practices and so forth, you will have no regrets over lost opportunities, now or in the future. In this life and in all future lives, you will go from happiness to happiness to enlightenment.

There are so many practices you can do—what’s the most important? What’s the most important thing to practice in life? I would say that it’s the good heart, your very precious thought of loving kindness, compassion; the thought of benefiting others, bodhicitta. That is the best meditation, the best Dharma practice. As Shantideva also said when talking about the benefits of bodhicitta in the Bodhicaryavatara, “After checking for many eons, the buddhas discovered that bodhicitta is the most beneficial thing for sentient beings.” 4

This quotation explains what’s best for you. That means that bodhicitta is the best thing for you too. What’s the best way to take care of yourself? What’s the best thing for your own well-being? It’s bodhicitta. The buddhas’ discovery applies equally to you. There are so many problems in life—cancer, AIDS, relationship problems, being in debt, not having enough money, job problems such as other people being jealous of you or interfering with your work or being unable to find a job. There are so many problems. But the one answer that takes care of everything, the one solution to all your life’s problems, the one thing that fulfills all your wishes, is again your mind, your good heart, your bodhicitta.

If you have a good heart, you don’t give harm to others; you always help others with their problems, whatever they are. That causes you to have a long and healthy life. The lamrim teachings talk about the eight ripened qualities of a good rebirth.5 One of these is a long life, the cause of which is explained as saving or sparing the lives of others, animal or human; for example, giving them food, medicine, clothing or helping them in various other ways.6

Therefore, in your everyday life, try with a good heart to benefit others as much as possible. If you can do this, whether you are offering others great service or small, you’re continuously creating the cause of your own success—wealth, long life, good health, everything. Your actions are harmonious with such results. Thus, your good heart fulfills all your wishes for any happiness, including the highest, peerless happiness of full enlightenment. Actions done with a good heart are never non-virtuous, only virtuous. Actions done with a good heart only benefit and never harm others. Therefore, when you act with a good heart, you never create the cause for sicknesses, only health. Your wish to benefit others is a healthy mind. That healthy mind makes your body healthy.

Overcoming illness with bodhicitta 7

Nowadays, many highly intelligent Western doctors, psychologists and scientists have checked and proven with their wisdom that diseases such as cancer come from the individual’s own negative attitude. Cancer comes from the negative mind. Therefore, the way to heal cancer is to have a positive attitude, a pure mind.

For example, in Singapore, there was a Chinese Dharma student who had AIDS. He informed his guru, a very high lama called Ratö Rinpoche, who lived in Dharamsala. Rinpoche sent instructions to this student on how to do the special bodhicitta practice that I mentioned before, tong-len, as a remedy, a method for him to practice. So, he practiced for four days and then went to the hospital for a check-up, where the doctors told him, “You no longer have AIDS.” After four days they found no trace of AIDS. When I heard this, I thought he must have spent many hours a day practicing tong-len, so I asked him, “How much did you practice?” “Four minutes a day,” he said!

He practiced only four minutes a day, but during that time his compassion was unbelievably strong. There was no space in his mind for his own AIDS. His only concern was for the many other people who have AIDS. During those four minutes a day he felt so much compassion that tears poured down his cheeks. He felt it was unbearable that other sentient beings should suffer from AIDS. Why could the doctors find no trace of AIDS after he had practiced for only four days? Because even though he had practiced meditation for only a few minutes a day, the meditation that he did practice had the power of an atomic bomb. His compassion for others was so powerful that it purified his mind of vast amounts of negative karma.

Do you remember the quote from Shantideva that I mentioned before, how bodhicitta purifies inexhaustible heavy negative karma? That’s what happened here. The principal cause of AIDS is negative imprints left on the mental continuum by past negative actions. This student’s compassion was so powerful that it neutralized the karmic cause of his disease.

In the same way, meditation can also cure cancer. The same reasoning applies. In my own experience, five or six people with terminal cancer completely recovered by reciting the mantras of various buddhas with whom they had a connection. They had been told by their doctors that they were going to die, that they had only two or three months to live, but by purifying the principal cause of their cancer, which was in their mind, they completely overcame their disease. Mantra recitation can also heal other sicknesses, such as heart disease.

I heard about a person in Spain who had a very serious heart disease. His heart was enlarged and the doctors gave him only a short time to live. The geshe at our Nagarjuna Center in Barcelona advised him to recite Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s mantra, TADYATHA OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNAYÉ SOHA, 300,000 times. Geshe-la gave him a big number to do! Anyway, he followed Geshe-la’s advice, and his heart decreased in size until it became normal. I was also told by a famous Spanish musician about someone else who had recovered from AIDS through meditation, but I don’t know the details of that case.

However, what I’m trying to emphasize here is that generating a good heart is the best way of taking care of your health. Nowadays, there are many new diseases occurring, many new dangers to life. The best way to avoid experiencing those sicknesses is not to create their cause. Thus, a good heart is the best protection from disease. And, should you contract any disease, developing a good heart is also the best way to overcome it.

Eating with bodhicitta

Before eating breakfast, lunch or dinner, remember to feel, “I am responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings; this is the purpose of my life. In order to fulfill this purpose, I need to be healthy and live a long life. Therefore, I’m going to eat this food.” In this way, every time you eat or drink, it becomes service for all sentient beings. When you eat and drink with bodhicitta, it becomes the cause of happiness for all sentient beings. At the beginning, when you generate bodhicitta, you collect skies of good luck, merit, good karma, and after that, every single mouthful of food and drink you take also becomes the cause of your enlightenment and the happiness of all sentient beings.

If you eat with the thought of benefiting all sentient beings, the more food there is on your plate, the bigger the pile of food you eat, the more good karma you collect. With every mouthful, you collect skies of merit. The more hours you eat, that much richer, more meaningful, your life becomes.

Everything you do can become Dharma

Similarly, as I mentioned before, if you do your job with bodhicitta, the more hours you work, the more causes of liberation and enlightenment you create. Incidentally, your job becomes a means for achieving happiness in future lives and liberation from samsara. You find peace and happiness in the present moment and, more importantly, you create the best possible future for yourself and others. In this way, everything you do becomes Dharma; your daily life and Dharma become one. Twenty-four hours a day, your life is integrated with the best kind of meditation, integrated with Dharma.

Even if you know by heart all 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, all the sutras and tantras, the hundreds of volumes of the Buddhist canon, and can explain and teach it all, if in your daily life you don’t protect your mind from the delusions, the disturbing, obscuring thoughts, you’re not practicing Dharma. Why? Because the definition of Dharma is that which is a remedy for delusion, like medicine is a remedy for sickness. For your actions to become Dharma, they have to be an antidote to your delusions. Therefore, if you don’t protect your mind from delusion, if you constantly allow your mind to be controlled by delusion, to be overwhelmed by delusion, if you become a slave to your delusions, to your real enemy—ignorance, anger, attachment and so forth—if you don’t practice controlling your delusions, protecting your mind from them, freeing your mind from delusions, nothing you do becomes Dharma; you never create the cause of happiness.

On the other hand, whenever in your everyday life there’s the danger of delusion arising and you protect yourself from it, at that time you are practicing Dharma. Whenever you free your mind from delusion, prevent even one delusion from arising and controlling or overwhelming you, at that time you are practicing actual Dharma.

Therefore, if you can use whatever education you have had—Dharma or any other kind—to protect yourself, to keep your mind free from delusion, and to benefit others as well, to bring true peace and happiness to others, then all of it, not only the Dharma that you have studied, will have become extremely meaningful. All those years that you put into educating yourself will have really paid off.

The four ways of benefiting others

I mentioned before that benefiting others, making your body, speech and mind beneficial for others, is the purpose of life. However, there are different levels of benefit that you can offer. The first is bringing others the happiness of this life. More important than that is causing them to have happiness in all their future lives. Then, even more important than that, is leading other sentient beings to complete liberation, freedom forever from the entire round of suffering, the cycle of death and rebirth and the three kinds of suffering. The three sufferings are the suffering of pain; the suffering of change, temporary samsaric pleasure; and the suffering that is the basis of the other two, pervasive compounding suffering, the aggregates that are under the control of karma and delusion, and the contaminated seed of disturbing thoughts, which is both the container of this life’s suffering and the basis of future lives’ suffering. The benefit of bringing others to total liberation is much more important than the first two.

However, the highest, most important benefit that you can possibly offer other sentient beings is causing them to achieve full enlightenment, complete attainment of all the qualities of cessation and realization.

In order to do this work for all sentient beings perfectly, with no mistake, first you need to achieve full enlightenment yourself. Enlightenment doesn’t occur without cause. You need to actualize the three levels of the path to enlightenment—the graduated path of the being of greatest capability, which depends on actualizing the graduated path traveled in common with the being of intermediate capability, which depends on the actualizing the preliminary graduated path traveled in common with the being of least capability. Success in all this—from the beginning of the lamrim, realization of the perfect human rebirth, up to enlightenment—depends completely on the root of the path, guru devotion.

Guru devotion

Proper guru devotion means seeing that your guru is buddha. Based on quotations of Buddha Vajradhara or Shakyamuni Buddha, logical reasoning and your personal experiences with your guru, the special qualities you have seen, you train your mind to look at your guru as buddha, free of all mistakes and complete in all qualities.

You must see as buddha all the teachers with whom you have established a Dharma connection. A Dharma connection is established when from your side you recognize the teacher as guru and yourself as disciple—even if all you have received from this teacher is the oral transmission of just one mantra or one verse of teaching—supporting this view with quotations of the Buddha, logical reasoning and your experience of the particular qualities you have seen within that teacher. In this way, then, you see your guru as buddha, as pure. Proper guru devotion, correct devotion to your virtuous friends, allows you to actualize successfully all the realizations of the steps of the path to enlightenment, from the perfect human rebirth up to buddhahood itself.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama mentioned analysis of the guru’s qualifications. The qualification needed to teach the Lesser Vehicle path is accomplishment in the three higher trainings—morality, concentration and wisdom. In order to teach the Mahayana, the teacher needs more than that; he or she should have the ten qualities mentioned in Maitreya Buddha’s teaching Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras (Tib: Do-de-gyän; Skt: Mahayanasutralamkarakarika). I’m not going to translate these word-for-word but will just mention their meaning.8

First [1-3], a Mahayana guru should also be accomplished in the three higher trainings. Moreover, since we are talking about practicing Dharma, [4] the teacher should have more good qualities than you do and greater knowledge of Dharma. [5] He should have perseverance and [6] his holy mind should be enriched with scriptural understanding, having received the lineage of the teachings.

Also, [7] your teacher should have realized emptiness. Now, I have already mentioned that the guru should be accomplished in the three higher trainings, one of which is the training in higher wisdom, so why is the realization of emptiness mentioned again here? The difference is that here, the realization of emptiness refers to the Prasangika Madhyamaka view—the view of emptiness according to the higher of the two Madhyamaka schools, the Prasangika school. That particular view of emptiness is the only one that can eradicate the actual root of samsara, the specific ignorance that causes all the other delusions and karma and the suffering that sentient beings experience. There’s only one root of samsara—that specific ignorance can be cut only by the Prasangika view of emptiness and not by the view of any other school. That is the seventh quality your teacher should possess.

The final three qualities are [8] skill in explaining Dharma, [9] compassion for the students, and [10] not being lazy when it comes to giving teachings and guiding disciples. A guru should not have the attitude, “It’s too difficult” or “I can’t be bothered teaching.” Even if the teacher doesn’t have all ten qualities, he should have as many as possible.

The qualities of a guru are also mentioned in the Fifty Verses of the Guru Devotion 9 and the Guru Puja, in the section praising the qualities of the guru—having a well-disciplined body, speech and mind; great wisdom and tolerance; a sincere, straight mind, without the cunning of hiding one’s own mistakes; and the ten inner qualities required to teach Highest Yoga Tantra and the ten outer qualities required to teach the lower tantras.10

Your teacher must emphasize morality

However, whether you can see all those qualities or not, the essence is to have a teacher who emphasizes morality. The one basic, important, fundamental quality to look for is the teacher’s emphasis on morality—pratimoksha, bodhisattva and, for those who practice tantra, tantric vows. A teacher who does not stress moral conduct cannot even lead disciples to good rebirths in their next lives, let alone to liberation from samsara and enlightenment.

These are very essential, fundamental practices. Without the practice of morality, there’s no enlightenment, no liberation from samsara, not even good rebirths in future lives. I’m not saying that in order to receive a good rebirth you have to take all three levels of vow, but in order to receive a good rebirth you must at least keep the pratimoksha vows.

Death can come at any time; any minute, you can die. Therefore, if you are going to die today, at least you must be sure of getting a good rebirth; you must be completely sure that you are not going to fall into the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms, where you will be completely overwhelmed by suffering. Even when we’re sick or the weather is hot, we human beings can’t meditate. If we compare our lives to those of sentient beings in the lower realms, we have incredible freedom, incredibly luxurious lives. Nevertheless, when we experience problems, we cannot practice Dharma. Beings in the lower realms are totally overwhelmed by suffering and have no opportunity to practice.

Therefore, you have to guarantee that when you die—this year, this month, this week or even today—you will not be reborn in the lower realms. You must make sure you receive a good rebirth. For this, you have to prepare right now.

The best preparation, the main cause for receiving a good rebirth, is practicing morality. That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a monk or nun. There are lay vows. You can take the eight precepts, the five precepts or even fewer than five. Of the five, you can take one, two, three or four; whatever you feel you can manage. However, if you keep purely whatever vows you take and die with them intact, the immediate benefit is that you will definitely receive a good rebirth in your next life. Then, in that life, you can practice Dharma again, and in that way, from life to life, go from happiness to happiness, all the way to enlightenment.

Therefore, emphasis on morality to inspire morality in the disciple is a very important quality to look for in a teacher. It gives you incredible freedom. If you take precepts and live in them purely, you are giving yourself freedom—liberation from samsaric suffering, and enlightenment.

It is also extremely important for your guru to have maintained pure samaya, a good connection, with his or her own gurus, because the extent to which a teacher can benefit his disciples and cause them to have realizations depends on his own samaya with his gurus. If you devote yourself correctly to a virtuous friend whose samaya is good, even if he gives you only a few words of instruction, because of the purity and power of his samaya, those words can have an incredible effect on your mind.

They can generate strong feelings of compassion, renunciation, impermanence and death, or even precipitate a realization of emptiness. If your guru does not have pure samaya, there’s always the danger that you will receive mental pollution or make the same mistakes with your gurus as he did.

The nine attitudes of guru devotion 11

Now I’d like to read the nine attitudes of guru devotion that Lama Tsongkhapa explained in the Lamrim Chenmo, 12 which I translated during the Vajrasattva retreat at Land of Medicine Buddha in early 1999. I’m not going to give much explanation here; I just want to read through it. Those of you who have studied this subject will understand it; those who haven’t will get some idea of it. Reading this teaching is very helpful, especially if your mind is experiencing difficulties with your guru. It’s like an atomic bomb; it makes all those difficult thoughts vanish completely.

What follows is not from the Lamrim Chenmo itself, but these nine attitudes are mentioned there. The text, Practicing Guru Devotion with the Nine Attitudes, was actually written by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, a Nyingma lama who received teachings from Gelug lamas who taught the lamrim in the way that Lama Tsongkhapa did.13 Shabkar’s presentation is so effective that I translated it.

I am requesting the kind lord root guru,
Who is more extraordinary than all the buddhas:
Please bless me to be able to devote myself to the qualified lord guru,
With great respect in all my future lifetimes.

By realizing that correctly devoting myself to the kind lord guru—
Who is the foundation of all good qualities—
Is the root of happiness and goodness,
I shall devote myself to him with great respect,
Not forsaking him even at the cost of my life.

Thinking of the importance of the qualified guru,
May I allow myself to enter under his control.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to talk, but sorry, it says “control,” so I think I have to say something, because nobody likes to be controlled! Especially in the West. Nobody wants to be controlled by anybody. Not even by mosquitoes! Anyway, I’m joking. But if you don’t understand what this verse means, you might take it the wrong way when you hear that you should put yourself under your guru’s control. However, a simple example will clarify this.

If you put yourself under the control of a good friend and follow that person’s advice, you too can become good person, but if you let yourself be controlled by a bad friend, you might become a bad person yourself. If you do what a good friend says, you don’t create problems for yourself or others; you only make others happy. In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo talks about two people, one of whom was an alcoholic, the other who didn’t drink. The drinker went to Reting Monastery and became a teetotaler. The non-drinker went to Lhasa, where, influenced by others, he began drinking and became an alcoholic. Each man became the complete opposite of what he was before, due to the influence of the type of friend he followed. If you listen to the advice of the Buddha—who has only compassion for sentient beings and no trace of self-centered mind; who is perfect in power, wisdom and compassion; whose holy mind is omniscient—all you get is benefit. Putting yourself under the control of the Buddha brings you every happiness up to that of enlightenment. You get happiness now and every possible future happiness. Similarly, if you put yourself under the control of a virtuous friend, you get the same benefits as you do from putting yourself under the control of the Buddha. There’s only benefit and not the slightest harm.

Now, relating this teaching to those of us who met the Dharma a long time ago, if we had been under the control of our gurus from that time forth, we would have achieved many realizations by now. We could have realized guru devotion, renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness; we could have received realizations of tantra; we could have been totally liberated from samsara. We might even have become enlightened. At the very least, we would have received some lamrim realizations. But none of this has happened because we have not opened our hearts to our guru; we have not put ourselves under the control of our virtuous friend. Because of this mistake, our minds are totally devoid of any realization whatsoever.

The first two attitudes are:

1. May I be like an obedient son,
Acting exactly in accordance with the guru’s advice.

2. Even when maras, evil friends and the like
Try to split me from the guru,
May I be like a vajra, inseparable forever.

The yogi Drogön Tsangpa Gyare, a Kagyu lama, said, “If something goes wrong in your relationship with your guru, even if all sentient beings become your friend, what’s the use?” In other words, if something damages your connection with your guru—the auspiciousness of the relationship or your samaya—then even if all living beings become your friend, what’s the use? What can they do? What can you do? Since something has gone wrong in your relationship with your guru, until you repair that relationship, until you do something to restore it, even if everybody becomes your friend, you cannot achieve liberation from samsara, enlightenment, or even realizations of the path.

I don’t remember the next verse of this lama’s teaching word for word, but the meaning is that if you maintain a good connection with your guru, if nothing goes wrong with it, then even if all living beings desert you or become your enemy, it doesn’t matter.

Ordinary people would think that everybody becoming your friend or enemy is a big thing, but in Dharma practice, once you have made a connection with a guru and not made any mistakes in the relationship, that’s all that matters. Even if everybody becomes your enemy, it’s of no consequence, because from the foundation of that good relationship you can attain all realizations and enjoy every success up to enlightenment, and after that, you can benefit all sentient beings by enlightening them too. That’s the meaning of this great yogi’s teaching.

3. When the guru gives me work, whatever the burden,
May I be like the earth, carrying all.

4. When I devote myself to the guru,
Whatever suffering occurs,
May I be like a mountain, immovable.

Here, suffering means hardship or problems, and when this happens, your mind should remain immovable and not be upset or discouraged.

5. Even if I have to perform all the unpleasant tasks,
May I be like a servant of the king,
With a mind undisturbed.

6. May I abandon pride.
Holding myself lower than the guru,
May I be like a sweeper.

I’m not sure how this comes across in the West, but in the East, a sweeper is the lowest of the low. In the West, people like to think that everybody’s equal, but in the East, a sweeper is regarded as very low.

7. May I be like a rope, joyfully holding the guru’s work,
No matter how difficult or heavy a burden.

8. Even when the guru criticizes, provokes or ignores me,
May I be like a dog without anger,
Never responding with anger.

No matter how much a dog gets beaten by its master, it always shows respect and never gets angry. When it sees its master coming, it starts wagging its tail and runs to lick him, showing much happiness.

9. May I be like a (ferry) boat,
Never upset at any time to come or go for the guru.

O glorious and precious root guru,
Please bless me to be able to practice in this way.
From now on, in all my future lifetimes,
May I be able to devote myself to the guru in this way.

By reciting these words aloud and reflecting on their meaning in your mind, you will have the good fortune to be able to devote yourself correctly to the precious guru, from life to life in all your future lifetimes.

If you offer service and respect and make offerings to the precious guru with these nine attitudes, even if you do not practice intentionally, you will develop many good qualities, collect extensive merit and quickly achieve full enlightenment.

This last verse explains that even if you don’t study or do any particular practices, like preliminaries, retreats and so forth—in other words, you don’t practice intentionally—if you devote yourself to your virtuous friend correctly with thought and action, you will naturally develop many good qualities, constantly collect extensive merit and quickly achieve full enlightenment.

Therefore, each time you do even one thing your guru told you, you take a step closer to enlightenment. Whenever you do something that your guru has advised, it becomes great purification. Many lifetimes’ heavy negative karma gets purified, you collect inconceivable merit and you get closer and closer to enlightenment.

For example, even cleaning your guru’s room. Each time you clean it, you get closer and closer to enlightenment. This is because, of all the powerful objects, your guru is the most powerful; more powerful than the numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas. This power comes into being the moment that person becomes your guru. The moment you make a Dharma connection with the recognition of another person as guru and yourself as disciple—whether from their side the other person is enlightened or not, a bodhisattva or not a bodhisattva—that person becomes the most powerful person in your life; more powerful than all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Therefore, whatever service you offer, even one cleaning of your guru’s room, purifies much negative karma and brings you closer to enlightenment. Therefore, you should remember that each time you offer service to your guru, whatever it is, you are purifying your mind and getting closer to enlightenment.

Towards the end of his life, Lama Atisha showed the aspect of sickness and incontinence and made pipi and kaka in his bed because he was unable to get up and go to the toilet. His translator, Dromtönpa, with no thought of dirtiness, offered service by bathing Lama Atisha and cleaning his bed. As a result, Dromtönpa purified so many karmic obscurations that he developed the clairvoyance of being able to read the minds of even tiny creatures, such as ants and worms, that were as far away as an eagle can fly in eighteen days.

By serving your guru, realizations just come. The potential of all realizations is there within your mind. You just need purification to reveal them. The more you purify, the more realizations you receive.

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, the author of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, had a disciple who couldn’t read. I think his name was Jamyang. He didn’t even know the alphabet. Before Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo passed away, he told this attendant that eventually he would be able to read the entire Guru Puja by himself, without being taught. And that’s exactly what happened. After going into exile from Tibet, Jamyang finished up at the refugee camp at Buxa, where I lived for eight years and received philosophical teachings from my three gurus, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe and another lama, also called Gen Yeshe.

During the British rule of India, Buxa was the concentration camp where Mahatma Gandhi-ji and Prime Minister Nehru were imprisoned. Nehru-ji’s place of imprisonment became the Sera Monastery prayer hall and Gandhi-ji’s, a nunnery.

At Buxa, the incarnate lamas lived on a mountain high above the rest of the camp. The abbot and main teacher at Kopan Monastery, Lama Lhundrup, who supervises the education and discipline of the three hundred Kopan monks, used to live up there in the same building as Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo’s incarnation, where the attendant Jamyang also lived. When Jamyang first arrived at Buxa, he couldn’t read a thing, but suddenly one day he was able to read the entire Guru Puja. He himself told Lama Lhundrup that Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo had predicted that this would happen.

If you purify your mind, realizations will come. What you need is purification and the most powerful purification is correct devotion to your virtuous friend; obeying your guru’s advice. The best way to devote yourself to your virtuous friend is through practicing his teachings, the second is by offering service and respect—cleaning your guru’s place, cooking for him and so forth—and the third is by offering material things, if you have them to offer.14

The story goes that Lama Atisha’s cook, who spent all his time cooking for Lama Atisha and never had time to meditate, had much greater realizations than the Kadampa geshe Gönpawa, another of Lama Atisha’s disciples, who spent all his time meditating in a cave. So that’s how it is, and now it’s time to finish.


I would like to thank you all very much for giving me this opportunity to share something with you. I hope that there’s been at least some small benefit from my mumbling.

The opportunity we have to learn Dharma in this life is great; we can’t be sure that we will get such a good opportunity again in future lifetimes. Those who are able to receive realizations of what the Dharma texts talk about are those who have proper guru devotion; they’re the ones who can achieve enlightenment in one life. Those who have realized guru devotion, who have correctly devoted themselves to their virtuous friend, can become enlightened in one brief lifetime of this degenerate age. It’s the same thing as regards all the realizations of the path to enlightenment. Without guru devotion, no matter how many Dharma words you learn, they’re all dry.


Dedicate the merits collected tonight by listening to and explaining the Dharma, and all the past, present and future merit collected by yourselves and others as well, for the Buddha of Compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and all other holy beings to have stable lives, for all their holy wishes to succeed immediately and for the Sangha—the Sangha in general and the Western Sangha in particular—to be able to complete their scriptural understanding and realizations of the whole path in this very lifetime by receiving all the conditions necessary to do so.

Please dedicate for the five-hundred-foot Maitreya Buddha statue in Kushinagar to be completed without any obstacles and to be most beneficial for all sentient beings by causing them to generate bodhicitta in their minds and achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible.

According to Vajrayana, statues are normally filled with mantras. But this statue is five-hundred-feet high—it would be like filling the whole sky with mantras, it’s so huge. Therefore, our idea is to make different temples inside the statue. There will be a Twenty-one Taras temple, a Medicine Buddha temple, a Sixteen Arhats temple and so forth. There will be various temples dedicated exclusively in that way. At the heart of the statue will be a temple containing Buddha’s and many other relics, so that people can prostrate, circumambulate and make offerings to them. I would like there to be another temple containing all Lord Buddha’s Prajnaparamita teachings, written with gold ink on special paper. I have already started writing The Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses using gold from Nepal.

Even while traveling, I keep writing. At the rate I’m going, it’s going to take me a few more years to finish. This temple will also contain other texts, such as the Heart Sutra, written in gold and silver and decorated with coral, pearls and other precious stones, for people to prostrate to, circumambulate, make light and water bowl offerings to and rejoice over.

Anyway, I don’t want to keep on talking, but there is just one more thing I want to say. The sutra text Condensed Precious Qualities says—and I’m not going to quote it verbatim but just explain the meaning—that if you fill world systems equal in number to the grains of sand in the Ganges, that huge long Indian river, with stupas made not of bricks and mortar but of the seven types of precious substances and containing Buddha’s relics, and then all the sentient beings living in that vast number of world systems make offerings to those precious stupas, the great merit thus generated is still inferior to that created by writing even in black ink just one Prajnaparamita text.

Whenever I write another bit of this Prajnaparamita text, I try my best to dedicate the merit to world peace, and pray, “Wherever this text may be—in whatever universe, world or area—may there be no war, disease or natural disaster such as fire, flood, earthquake and so forth, and may everybody there realize bodhicitta, the good heart, enjoy perfect peace and happiness, and as quickly as possible realize the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, cease all their defilements and achieve enlightenment.”

Due to the past, present and future merit collected by ourselves and all the buddhas, bodhisattvas and other sentient beings, which are totally nonexistent from their own side, may the I, which is totally nonexistent from its own side, achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, which is also totally nonexistent from its own side, and lead all sentient beings, who are also totally nonexistent from their own side, to that enlightenment, which is also totally nonexistent from its own side, by myself alone, who is also totally nonexistent from its own side.

Finally, please dedicate that you, your family members and all other sentient beings may completely actualize Lama Tsongkhapa’s stainless path of unified sutra and tantra in this very lifetime and be able to meet this teaching in all lifetimes and cause it to flourish and spread in all directions.

This teaching was given in the East Village, New York City, on 13 August 1999, on the auspicious occasion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to New York.


2. Published in An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. Another teaching on this text by His Holiness can be found in Stages of Meditation. [Return to text]

3. Chapter 1, verse 13. [Return to text]

4. Chapter 1, verse 7. [Return to text]

5. See Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 414–19 (revised edition, 2006). [Return to text]

6. Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, p. 416. [Return to text]

7. See also Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion. [Return to text]

8. See also Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 237–8, and Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment, pp. 53–57. [Return to text]

9. Verses 7–9; see also Lama Tsongkhapa’s commentary to this text, The Fulfillment of All Hopes, pp. 40–48, and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s commentary on the LYWA Web site, The root text may be found with both these commentaries. [Return to text]

10. Guru Puja, Verse 45. [Return to text]

11. See Appendix 1. [Return to text]

12. See the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Vol. 1, pp. 78–80. Lama Tsongkhapa is actually quoting the Array of Stalks Sutra. [Return to text]

13. See The Life of Shabkar. [Return to text]

14. See Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, p. 263 ff. [Return to text]