How Things Exist

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
New York, NY 1990 (Archive #655)

In this book Lama Zopa Rinpoche covers the importance of compassion and universal responsibility and how to make life meaningful, and offers an amazing and extensive explanation of emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, and teaching how to meditate on emptiness. Within these teachings, Rinpoche also touches on several of the other main points of the path to enlightenment, such as bodhicitta, the three scopes and impermanence.

See the Related Links for each chapter to access the audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts.

(06712_ng-2.psd) Lama Zopa Rinpoche portraits taken in 1975 in Tarzana, California, after the first American course with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche held at Lake Arrowhead, CA. Photos by Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter One: Universal Responsibility

First I would like to say thank you very much. I’m very happy to meet all of you, my brothers and sisters.

At this time we are meeting each other to share something about our precious human qualities with respect to obtaining the real peace of mind and happiness that we need.

Because I haven’t studied properly, I don’t know much about Buddhism—what I know is like a drop of water from an ocean. But during this time that we have with each other, I’m happy to speak about and share the little that I have learned and tried to practice. However, before the actual discourse, I’m going to recite the mantra of the kind, compassionate Shakyamuni Buddha.

[Rinpoche recites the Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha’s mantra, TADYATHA OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNAYÉ SOHA.]

The power of compassion

All beings, from humans down to the tiniest creatures that can be seen only through a microscope, are exactly the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, or problems. It doesn’t matter whether we are from the East, the West or another planet - we are exactly the same in this. It is for this reason that practice of the good heart, compassion, is the most important thing in our everyday life.

First of all, no matter how many friends we have - hundreds, or even thousands - if we don’t have a warm, kind heart, we’ll have no satisfaction or peace of mind in our everyday life. Since we need friends, we also need to develop our mind, especially our compassion. Compassion, which is the essence of the right path, brings the greatest benefit to all other beings and ourselves.

Without compassion, even if we find a friend, that friend can become our enemy. It depends on our attitude in everyday life, on whether our mind is compassionate in nature or self-centered, thinking about nothing but ourselves and our own happiness day and night.

If we have compassion, we have better, more harmonious relationships and more peace. With compassion, everyone becomes our friend. Wherever we go and whoever we live with, everyone becomes our friend. We find friends everywhere. If we have compassion, even someone who is normally cruel and selfish is kind to us. That’s a result of our compassion. It is a common experience that even someone who is normally mean to others is kind to a person who is warm-hearted, who is kind, loving, and compassionate, with much concern for others.

Take my teacher, Lama Yeshe, for example. Many people here knew or know about Lama Yeshe. Those of you who didn’t meet him might have heard about him. Lama Yeshe saw everyone as very kind.

From my observation, because of Lama’s own good heart, other people also became kind and good-hearted. The other person’s mind was also transformed or, in other words, blessed. Blessed means their mind was transformed from a negative attitude into a positive one, from a selfish, cruel mind into a kind mind. Another example is the famous Italian saint, St. Francis of Assisi. I think St. Francis lived at the same time as the great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who achieved full enlightenment within a few years by meditating in hermitages in the Himalayas following the instructions of his guru, Marpa.

In a forest in Italy there lived a dangerous wolf that had harmed and killed many people. St. Francis told the local people, “Don’t worry about this wolf. I’ll go into the forest and ask him not to harm anyone.”

The people begged St. Francis not to go into the forest because the wolf would attack him, but he went anyway. When the wolf saw St. Francis, it immediately became subdued. It was completely transformed, or blessed. Instead of attacking St. Francis, the wolf licked his feet. It behaved the way a dog does with its master, showing humility and affection.

St. Francis then told the wolf, “Don’t harm people. I’ll beg for food in the city and give it to you.” From that day on, the wolf stopped attacking people. St. Francis begged for food in the streets and fed the wolf.

There are many other such stories of human beings who were exactly the same as we are, with all the problems that we have, but who put effort into developing their mind and were able to train their mind in compassion for all beings. Shakyamuni Buddha and all the buddhas of the three times, as well as all the great saints in the various religions, were originally like us. They had ignorance, anger, desire, jealousy, pride, ill will and all the other mental faults, as well as all the other problems in life, but they didn’t just leave their life immersed in problems. They became different from us by putting effort into developing their inner qualities, the qualities of their mind. They reduced the faults of the mind and put effort into developing its good qualities, the essence of which is compassion for all beings.

If we have compassion in our heart, everyone becomes our friend—even someone who is cruel to other beings, and even poisonous snakes, tigers and other wild animals. No matter how wild or violent such beings are, they cannot harm us because of the power of the positive attitude of our compassion. Because of our vibration, the blessing of our positive mind, even their attitude changes for the better and they stop giving harm to others as well.

In Lhasa, there were three great monasteries—Sera, Ganden, and Drepung3 —which were like universities, except they didn’t have the vast range of subjects that Western universities have but concentrated on the study and practice of the whole of Buddha’s teachings. While study of the philosophy of other religions, particularly Indian ones, was included, the monks studied mainly the teachings of the Buddha. Furthermore, study was combined with practice, for the development of the mind.

Sera Monastery has two colleges: Sera-je, to which I belong, and Sera-me. One of the abbots of Sera-je, who was very learned and well known in Tibet, was able to escape from Tibet to India. He had a cat. Now usually, when a cat sees a mouse, it will immediately attack it. That’s how cats normally act. Even though this cat was killing mice before, once it came to stay with the abbot and he started taking care of it, its mind changed. Even when a mouse would run around the room, the cat would never chase it but just stayed where it was, relaxed.

This happens because a person’s mental development can affect and transform the environment. It can stop negativities; it can transform a negative environment into a positive one and others’ negative thoughts into compassionate ones. To understand how this can happen it’s important to understand that the negativity or positivity of an environment doesn’t come from its own side; it comes from the mind. Whether a place is negative or positive, harmful or beneficial to one’s health, depends on the minds of the people who live there.

The mind is like a baby

The mind of most of us ordinary beings is like a child, a baby, and needs to be taken care of like a baby. We can’t listen to and do everything that our mind says, just as we can’t listen to and do everything that a child says. Before acting on what a child says we have to analyze whether or not it’s worthwhile. If it is, we can do it; if it’s not, we don’t. Since our mind is like a child, it’s dangerous to do everything it says—doing so can destroy our life; instead of bringing peace and happiness, it can bring great harm to us and others. Therefore, using our own wisdom, we need to analyze the validity of what our mind tells us to see whether it’s beneficial or harmful. With that wisdom we can then direct, or guide, our mind. In other words, we can then guide and protect ourselves.

Therefore, it’s essential that we develop wisdom. If we don’t develop wisdom, our life becomes confused because we can’t discriminate between what is wrong and to be abandoned and what is right—beneficial for us and others—and to be practiced. So compassion is one thing that’s very important in life; wisdom is another.

With respect to the different kinds of wisdom, developing that which understands the mind is the most important. Without this, there’s no way that we can escape from problems and the causes of problems, which are not outside our mind but within it. In other words, of all the different types of education, education about the mind is the most important.

Compassion is the very essence

Another point I’d like to make is that no matter how wealthy we are, if we lack compassion, there’s no peace or satisfaction in our life. Even if we came to own everything on earth, we’d still not be satisfied. Without developing our mind and practicing compassion, there’s no way to find peace and satisfaction in our life. Just as we need wealth and other material things, we also need mental development.

Similarly, no matter how much fame or worldly power we have, without transforming our mind, without practicing compassion, again there’s no peace or happiness in our daily life.

Also, no matter how much education we have, if the inner factor of developing our mind is missing, if the practice of compassion is missing, again there’s no peace in our life. Even if we have learned every language and have every other kind of knowledge that exists in the world, even if we have memorized and can explain all the Buddha’s teachings, all the sutras and tantras, if we have not transformed our mind, if we have not developed compassion for other beings, once more our life will be full of problems. We will still have anger and the dissatisfied minds of desire, pride, jealousy and all the other delusions; with more education, our inner problems can become even bigger than they were before.

Therefore we have to study our mind, its faults and its qualities, and develop it in a positive direction. However, even though there are many realizations that we can achieve, compassion is the most important one. Compassion is the very essence.

With compassion in our daily life, we experience much happiness. We get up with great joy and go to work with a happy mind. We live with our family with a happy, satisfied mind. We go to bed with a happy, satisfied mind. Our mind is stable all the time. And not only is there peace in our own everyday life, but there is peace for everybody else as well. Others receive peace from us.

Practicing the good heart is more important than having friends, more important than money, much more important than fame and power. Practicing the good heart is more important than every other form of education.

Without practicing the good heart, there’s neither peace nor satisfaction in our life. It isn’t grounded; it has no stability. Compassion should be the first thing we think of when we get up in the morning. Compassion, which is our own mind, is a wish-granting jewel; compassion fulfills all our wishes. There’s nothing more important in life than transforming our mind into compassion and then developing it. That’s why meditation is so important. Meditation is the essential means by which we transform our mind into compassion and then develop it. And meditation is also the way we develop wisdom; true wisdom also has to be developed through meditation.

If we have compassion in our heart, everything we do will be done out of that attitude and we will therefore not harm others but only benefit them. Even if our husband, wife or the person with whom we live does not meditate or practice the good heart but has a selfish, cruel attitude and constantly criticizes us, since we don’t harm that person, he or she has peace, the peace of not receiving harm from us. That absence of harm is peace.

If we ourselves don’t have compassion but act out of anger, desire, jealousy and so forth, we’ll retaliate to that person’s negative actions and therefore they’ll receive more harm and experience more suffering. But even if that person doesn’t practice at all, doesn’t do anything with their mind, if we practice the good heart, that person receives much benefit.

If our mind is strong and stable in the practice of the good heart, we can also gradually cause that other person’s mind to become stable. The way our companion’s life turns out depends on us, on our example; whether that person’s life turns out to be peaceful or dissatisfied depends on our attitude. If our mind is stable and compassionate in nature we will put all our energy into developing the good heart, not only for our own peace and happiness but especially for the peace and happiness of other sentient beings. Even though our companion might have an unstable mind, one minute up, the next minute down, or might be very impatient or self-centered, if our own mind is stable in the practice of the good heart, with our example the other person’s life can become better. They can develop a better attitude and better behavior and experience more peace in their life. They will cause less harm to themselves and others and bring more benefit to others. We can cause their life to become better—happier and more peaceful.

For example, there were two people in Tibet—one was an alcoholic, the other didn’t drink. They both went to Lhasa, the largest city in Tibet. The alcoholic met a friend who didn’t drink and eventually stopped drinking himself. The other, who didn’t drink before, met a friend who was an alcoholic and finished up becoming an alcoholic.

Each of us definitely has responsibility for our environment. For example, you are responsible for the peace and happiness of your family, for how their lives are going to turn out. There are infinite sentient beings but here I am talking about a small number, just the few people in your immediate family. You are completely responsible for their lives, for their attitudes and the way they live, whether it’s with a good heart or with a harmful mind. You definitely have this responsibility. If you have compassion you won’t give harm to the rest of your family, so even if they don’t practice from their side, there’s peace. If there are ten other people in your family, even if you are the only one practicing compassion, since those ten people don’t receive harm from you, you give them peace.

Now, there are millions of people in your

Now, there are millions of people in your country. If you, the one person, have compassion, since all those millions of people don’t receive harm from you, you are giving them peace. This is your contribution to the peace of your country.

It’s the same for the rest of the world. If you have compassion, all the billions of human beings in this world and all the other sentient beings in the ocean, on the ground and in the air don’t receive harm from you. Their bodies and minds not receiving harm from you is peace that they’re receiving from you. This is your contribution to world peace. This is a real, practical contribution to world peace that you can make at any time, day or night.

Benefiting others

When we have compassion, not only do we stop harming others but we try to help them as well. We try to free others from their problems.

For example, someone with cancer knows how much people who have cancer are suffering. Because they are aware of this, they have much compassion for other people with cancer. Similarly, a person with AIDS has much compassion for other people who have AIDS because they know what their lives are like. Someone who has cancer or AIDS, because of compassion, always wants to do something to help others with the same problem; they put special effort into counseling or helping in other ways. They especially concentrate on that. Their efforts are dedicated particularly to helping people with cancer or AIDS.

Besides not giving harm to others, someone with compassion wants to help them. If someone has compassion, they not only stop giving harm to others, but in addition they help to free them from suffering. They think, “How can I help? What can I do to pacify this person’s physical or mental sufferings?” They put effort into helping the person have physical comfort and happiness and peace of mind. Someone with compassion does something to benefit others, physically and mentally.

One person with compassion brings peace and happiness to the person they live with or the members of their family and to the many millions of people in their country. Millions of people receive happiness from this one person who has compassion. Not only that, but all sentient beings, all human beings and all other beings, who want happiness and do not want suffering, receive help and happiness from this one person who has compassion. So, when you have compassion, everyone receives help, or benefit, from you.

If you, the one person, don’t practice compassion, starting with the person you live with, all the rest of the sentient beings don’t receive peace, which is the absence of harm, and don’t receive help. Therefore, starting with your family, the happiness of all the human beings on this earth, as well as that of all other sentient beings, is dependent on you. Each of us is completely responsible for the happiness of every sentient being. It is completely in our own hands. Starting with the people in our family and extending to all the rest of the sentient beings, it is completely in our hands whether they have peace and happiness in their lives. Whether they receive benefit or harm is completely up to us.

Again, we can see from this that each of us has this universal responsibility.

Therefore, compassion becomes even more important. Before I was talking about only your happiness, but here I’m talking about the happiness of all human beings and all other living beings. For the numberless human beings, the numberless animals, and all the numberless other living beings not to receive harm and to receive peace and happiness, it becomes crucial that you, one person, develop your mind and practice compassion. Compassion is so important and so precious. Why is it so precious? Because not only will you have happiness and success, but every other being will also benefit. They will not receive harm, which is benefit. Therefore, the compassion that you, one person, generate is very precious.

Universal responsibility in daily life

Another point is that even in daily life, when our mind is loving and compassionate and we are happy, it also makes our environment happy. Our family is happy. There is a smile on our face, and we have a loving, compassionate vibration. Our conversation is also loving and compassionate in nature. When we talk, our words are sweet and good to hear. Since our words are loving and compassionate, they don’t cause harm. Even our conversation helps others, causing them happiness and freeing them from problems. Even by smiling out of our positive attitude, we make the people around us at our office or home happy. The environment and the people around us are influenced by how we behave.

Whenever we’re very impatient, self-centered or dissatisfied and thinking about nothing but our own problems, our mind is very tight and our external appearance also reflects that. We have a kind of dark, sad appearance and this makes our environment sad. It upsets the people around us and makes them unhappy as well. When our mind is like that we also talk differently. Our conversation doesn’t make others happy or free them from problems; it’s not loving or compassionate.

The conclusion is that the way we behave in our everyday life affects not only the people around us but even the dogs, birds and other animals as well. Their happiness and suffering depends on us. We are completely responsible for the happiness of the people and animals around us in our daily life.

This is the first point: we are responsible for the happiness of other sentient beings. It’s very important to meditate on this again and again and to feel it in our everyday life. We have to bring it to mind over and over again. At home, at the office or in the street, if our mind follows the self-cherishing thought and thinks only about “me, me, me, I, I, I, my happiness, my problems,” our heart is very tight. When we follow our selfish mind, we put ourselves in prison—not a physical prison but a mental one. At such times, our heart is tight. Even if we try to relax physically, our mind is neither relaxed nor tranquil.

With this selfish attitude, even if we’re eating food that costs thousands of dollars, we don’t enjoy its taste. Even if we’re wearing clothes that cost thousands of dollars, our mind is very dissatisfied, and we don’t enjoy them. Even if we live in a palace built of gold, diamonds and other jewels, with every comfort available on this earth, since our mind is under the control of the self-cherishing thought, we have no peace or happiness. When our mind is under the control of egoism, there’s no peace, happiness or enjoyment.

The stronger our selfish mind, the easier it is for us to get angry; our anger arises more strongly and quickly. Our dissatisfied mind of desire is also much stronger; jealousy arises more easily and strongly; all other problems arise more easily and strongly. The self-cherishing thought constantly tortures us and allows us no peace whatsoever.

However, when we live our life with the positive attitude of loving compassion, caring for and cherishing others, even if there’s only water to drink, we’re happy and enjoy it. Even if we live in just a simple stone house or a grass hut, there’s much peace and enjoyment in our life. At work, at home with our family or simply walking down the street, when we change our attitude and think, “My life is not for me but for other sentient beings; my life is for other people, to pacify their sufferings and bring them happiness; this is the purpose of my life,” we’re immediately released from tension. When we change our attitude from self-cherishing to cherishing others, we immediately feel a big release from the tension in our heart. We’re suddenly freed from the prison of self-cherishing. Suddenly there’s relaxation and freedom in our life. Suddenly we find enjoyment and satisfaction. We see meaning in life, a purpose in living. With this attitude, we have much enjoyment. We enjoy looking at people. Nothing upsets or hurts us. With this attitude, we can look at people and feel close to them. Even if we don’t know them, mentally, this is what happens. They become close to our heart. There’s a positive feeling and a positive environment at home and at work. We see that happiness and suffering don’t come from outside but from our own mind.

The second point I want to emphasize is the importance of remembering universal responsibility in daily life. When you get up in the morning, think, “I’m responsible for bringing happiness to all sentient beings and for pacifying all their sufferings and causes of suffering, which are in their mind.” Even though there are many meditations, practices and other things you can do in our life, the most important thing you can do is to practice compassion. Practicing compassion is the most beneficial thing you can do for the happiness of other sentient beings, not to mention your own.

Then think, “My life is not for my own happiness. My life is for other sentient beings, to pacify all their sufferings and bring them all happiness. This is the purpose of my life. This is the reason that I have this precious human body.”

Then, as you dress, think, “To do this work for other sentient beings, I need to be healthy and have a long life. Therefore, I’m putting on these clothes.” It’s as if you are taking care of a servant, the servant of all sentient beings, and this becomes taking care of the masters for whom the servant works. This servant is taking care of all sentient beings, pacifying their suffering and bringing them happiness. Since, for their happiness and success, the people who own a company or factory need people to work for them, taking care of the employees is like taking care of the owners. By thinking in this way, you put on clothes not just for your own sake but also for the sake of all sentient beings.

When you eat, again remember, “I’m responsible for bringing happiness to all sentient beings and pacifying all their suffering. This is the purpose of my life. Again, to do this I need to be healthy and have a long life, so I’m eating this food in order to be able to serve other sentient beings.” Eating the food then becomes work for the happiness of all sentient beings.

When you then go to work, again remember your universal responsibility, and especially remember the people who employ you. If they didn’t employ you, you wouldn’t have your present comfort. If nobody employed you, you couldn’t even survive as a human being. Your present enjoyments derive from the kindness of the people who have given you a job.

First remember your universal responsibility: “I’m responsible for all sentient beings, for bringing them happiness and for pacifying all their suffering.” Then, remembering the kindness of the people who have employed you, think, “I’m going to serve all sentient beings, in particular my employers and the people who use these products. All those people and animals need this food (clothing or whatever the product is).” By doing your work, you help bring comfort to many human beings and even dogs, cats and other animals. Remember how your work benefits many sentient beings, bringing them comfort and enjoyment. This is logical—it doesn’t require you to have any particular faith.

Remember, “I’m offering this service because they need me for their happiness and enjoyment.” In this way you can go to work with much happiness and satisfaction. If you leave your home thinking only about your own happiness and problems, there’s no enjoyment in your life. You then go to work with an unhappy mind and are unhappy while you work. Your mind is unhappy all day. If your mind is under the control of self-cherishing, it makes your life boring and exhausting.

When you go to bed, again remember, “I’m responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings. Since the purpose of my life is to serve them, I need to be healthy and have a long life. For that reason I’m going to sleep.” You thus sleep for the benefit of all sentient beings.

If you live your life from morning until night with this attitude of universal responsibility, all your actions—eating, drinking, sitting, sleeping, working, talking and so forth—become virtue, pure virtue. Why is this so? Since your actions are unstained by self-cherishing, they become not only virtue but pure virtue. With this attitude everything you do from morning to night becomes the unmistaken cause of happiness. It results only in happiness. This happiness comes from your own mind. By transforming your mind into the cause of happiness, you create happiness, the happiness of this life and the lives after this, and even the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. Everything comes from your mind. You create everything from your own mind.

Making parties meaningful

When we give a party, we usually do it with attachment clinging to this life, to our own happiness and good reputation. That attitude is one of worldly concern, or worldly desire. When we give a party with that attitude, since our motivation is non-virtuous, all our actions become non-virtuous.

How do we transform the action of giving a party into something positive? How do we make it a true cause of happiness? Again, by remembering universal responsibility: “I’m responsible for pacifying the sufferings of all sentient beings and bringing them happiness. For that reason, I need to develop my mind in the path, especially in compassion and altruism. To develop my mind for the benefit of sentient beings, I need to create the necessary condition of merit, or good karma. Therefore, I’m going to make charity of this food and drink to my kind mother sentient beings, from whom I receive all my past, present, and future happiness.” Giving a party in this way becomes Dharma.

With an attitude of universal responsibility, from morning to night our actions become Dharma. They are virtuous, or positive, the unmistaken causes of happiness. Since everything—happiness and suffering—comes from our own mind, we have great freedom to stop suffering and to find happiness.

Columbia University, New York
6 September 1990

3. These three great Tibetan monasteries have now been reestablished in south India, where the monks continue to concentrate on the study and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. [Return to text]