Virtue and Reality

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Decatur, IL, August 1997 (Archive #1082)

This book contains methods for transforming everyday actions into the cause of enlightenment, anger into patience, and the ordinary view of phenomena as inherently existent into the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Free audiobook on Google Play. You can also listen to the original recordings of these teachings by clicking on the audio icon for each chapter.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Tarzana, California, in 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter Three: Patience and the Compassionate Heart

Guru Shakyamuni Buddha said,

Do not engage in any harmful actions;
Perform only those that are good;
Subdue your own mind—
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

What did he mean? The above verse encapsulates the entire teaching of the kind, compassionate Buddha. In it, he is telling us sentient beings, who want only happiness and do not want suffering, how to achieve our aims.

Where do happiness and suffering come from?

Happiness and suffering do not come from outside but from actions motivated by our own minds, our own thoughts. Happiness comes from positive actions. Problems come from mistaken, or unskillful, actions. Positive actions, pure actions, are motivated by a positive, virtuous attitude, the pure mind, the healthy mind, the peaceful mind.

All happiness—the transient happiness of our everyday lives, and ultimate happiness, both liberation and enlightenment—comes from each being’s positive attitude and virtuous actions; from the pure mind. Liberation is the complete cessation of all suffering, including rebirth, aging, sickness and death, and its cause. Enlightenment, the great liberation, which is even higher than this, is the cessation of even the subtle defilements of mind and the completion of all realizations. Each and every sentient being has the potential to experience all this. It comes from positive motivation and good karma. All suffering comes from each being’s negative attitude and non-virtuous actions.

In your life, until your mind labels something as a problem, before you have the concept of problem, you don’t have any problems. Before your mind fabricates the label, “problem,” you don’t see problems in your life. What do I mean by concept here? It’s where your thought interprets a certain situation as a problem. In other words, your mind creates the designation “problem” for this particular situation. Before that happens, you don’t see any problem with the situation, but the moment your mind creates the label, “problem,” and believes in it, that is the moment that the concept of problem has been created. You have created the concept of life problem.

This is just a simple example of how problems come from your own mind, how problems depend upon your own concepts, how problems depend upon the very concept of problem. The problems in your life depend upon your having the concept of problem—having the thought, creating the label and believing in it. This is just a very simple example of how your problems depend upon your own mind. It shows how your problems depend upon the thought, or concept, you have at that moment—that hour, that minute, that second—how this hour’s problem, this minute’s problem is related to, or comes from, the way you are thinking at the time. The present moment’s problem comes from the present moment’s thought, or concept, which creates the label and believes in it.

Anger is another example of this. If you don’t create the mental factor, or thought, of anger, there are no enemies in your life; you can’t find any enemies. If you don’t form the thought of anger, wherever you go, wherever in the world you travel, wherever you live, whoever you’re with, you never see a single enemy. If you don’t create anger within, you have no enemy outside.

Don’t be yourself

If you do not practice compassion, loving kindness and patience towards others, if you do not cultivate these healthy minds, these positive, beneficial thoughts for the sake of yourself and all other sentient beings, if you don’t make an effort to develop these positive attitudes, you are just being yourself; you are allowing yourself to be your old self. Your old self follows your ego and self-centered mind and thinks only of your own happiness and nothing else. From beginningless time, in every rebirth, your old self has been under the influence of ego and self-centeredness, the unhealthy, uptight, unpeaceful mind. Your old self’s heart is closed, not open. Your old self works only for your own happiness and cares nothing for the needs of others. Your old self does not think that you are responsible for the happiness of others, that your happiness comes from others and that their happiness depends upon you. Your old, self-centered mind thinks only of your own happiness and nothing other than that.

So “being yourself” means just this—being your old self. Instead of practicing those positive minds, you do just the opposite. You follow disturbing thoughts such as attachment and anger, which offer your mind no peace, no rest, no realization—only agitation, trouble and unhappiness. There’s no holiday for your mind. Even if you take your body on vacation, there’s no vacation for your mind, no rest and relaxation for your mental continuum. The result of continually following your old self—ego, attachment and anger—is that you never find satisfaction. These thoughts can never bring you satisfaction, no matter for how many eons you follow them. This is simply the nature of attachment.

As Guru Shakyamuni Buddha said, “As long as you follow desire you will never be satisfied.” It’s like sitting in a fire. As long as you sit in a fire you will never experience the pleasure of not being burnt. If you long to be comfortable and cool, you have to get out. In just the same way, as that is logical, so is it logical that as long as you follow attachment you will not find inner peace, true satisfaction, real rest. There’s no vacation for your heart. That’s the old self at work. When the Rolling Stones sang, “Well, I tried and I tried, I tried and I tried—I can’t get no, satisfaction,” they were actually giving a lam-rim teaching; a lam-rim teaching with guitar accompaniment. They were teaching meditation.

If you don’t have a good heart, if you have no satisfaction—which can be experienced only by not following the painful minds of desire and attachment—if you don’t develop loving kindness and compassion, then even if you do take a break from your job and take your body to the beach, there’s no rest for your mind. There’s no peace within your mental continuum because you have taken with you your attachment and anger and the constant problems they create. Because you lack a good heart and cannot dedicate yourself to others, there’s no fulfillment in your heart. Because of the disturbing emotional thoughts of attachment and anger, you get no satisfaction and experience constant problems.

Your emotional thoughts are the foundation of all problems. They themselves are the main problem. Because of them, you have no inner peace and cannot enjoy your life. Even though externally it might look as if you’re enjoying yourself, as if you’re experiencing excitement and pleasure, when you look into your heart, you know that there’s always something missing. Only by giving up— cutting, freeing yourself from—disturbing emotional thoughts, such as the painful mind of attachment, can you find satisfaction in your heart, in your inner life.

If you can stop being your old self, if you can stop following the beginningless discriminating thoughts of attachment and anger, stop forming the thought of anger, stop transforming the mind that was not angry into one that wants to harm others, you will never have enemies. Wherever you go, you will never find an enemy trying to harm you.

Eliminating enemies

What do you do when you encounter someone who doesn’t love you, who’s angry at you? You practice patience. Instead of interpreting that person’s actions as negative, or harmful, you interpret them as positive, or beneficial. Instead of thinking how harmful it is that the person is angry at you, doesn’t love you, think how beneficial, how necessary, how useful it is. Just as you feel it important to have in your life someone who loves you, feel it just as necessary to have someone who doesn’t love you. Think how much you need the person who is angry at you. Feel that the person who dislikes you is just as precious as the one who has compassion for you. Instead of seeing it as negative, see it as positive, beneficial.

If right at that moment, instead of telling yourself how harmful it is, you practice patience by thinking how useful it is, if instead of thinking how useless it is, you think how necessary it is, you will immediately experience peace and tranquillity in your mind. Instead of being troubled, you’ll be happy, then and there. Moreover, you won’t be impelled to retaliate and will therefore refrain from harming others. In this way you will avoid creating the negative karma of injuring others with body, speech and mind.

If out of anger you give harm to others, you leave negative imprints on your own mental continuum. These then manifest as problems in this life, future lives or both—problems such as sickness, ill-treatment at the hands of others, premature death and so forth. These are called “karmic results similar to the cause in experience,” and we create them ourselves by responding negatively to those who are angry at us.

Therefore, by practicing patience, you don’t harm others and thus don’t harm yourself. If you don’t practice patience, you do harm others and therefore harm yourself. Furthermore, when you practice patience and refrain from harming others, you protect them from retaliating in response to your harm, thereby saving them from creating extra negative karma, the cause of suffering—you protect others from having to experience the karmic results of giving you harm. Thus, by practicing patience, besides creating the cause of happiness for yourself in this and future lives, you help others to experience happiness in this and future lives.

As a result of your practicing patience and not harming the person who’s angry at you, that other person doesn’t give you further harm. Not only is there peace and happiness for yourself and the other person in this and future lives, but you are also training your mind to be patient with others. This person is helping you do that. You are learning to be patient with the rest of your family, the rest of your colleagues, all other human beings and all sentient beings in general. The person who is angry with you is helping you train your mind to be patient and positive instead of angry and negative.

As you eradicate anger from your mental continuum and replace it with patience, the rest of the sentient beings receive no harm from you, the individual whose mind has been transformed into patience. The absence of harm, their not receiving harm from you, is peace. What they receive from you is happiness.

The benefits of patience

Historically, you can see how, at different times and in different places in the world, one influential person who did not practice patience caused millions of people to die. As a result, many millions of people underwent extraordinary suffering by being imprisoned, tortured and killed—during the Hitler era, in China, in Tibet, in Cambodia, in the West and in many other countries as well. Even now, because they do not practice patience, certain individuals are killing many people. They lack the qualities that make a person good.

Now, consider yourself in light of the above. As an individual practicing patience, learning to be patient, by freeing your mind of anger, you can offer great peace and happiness to numberless other sentient beings, not only in this life, but in many future lives to come. Since there’s no anger, you don’t harm others. Therefore, many people, animals, fish and insects, for example, receive much peace and happiness from you. Thus, life to life, with patience towards all sentient beings, you bring significant peace and happiness to the world. By practicing patience you give peace to the world—to your parents, the rest of your family, your friends, the people you work with and, on the grand scale, all sentient beings.

Leaving aside other realizations of the path, if those powerful people had only been educated in, possessed and practiced the good human quality of patience, the good heart, each could have given so much happiness to the world. Many millions of people would have had happiness, enjoyment and long lives instead of just the opposite. One person could have made so much difference had he only been patient instead of angry. Put yourself into this situation. This could happen to you. If you don’t practice patience in this or future lives, you, too, could be reborn as someone who harms millions of people. Therefore, you definitely need to practice patience. You should consider it a responsibility. It is extremely important that you educate yourself in patience and practice it. It is perhaps the most important meditation you can do.

If you practice patience, you eliminate anger. That means there’s no enemy to bodhicitta in your mind. In other words, it makes it much easier to achieve bodhicitta, the ultimate good heart, the altruistic mind set on attaining enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Bodhicitta is the gateway to the Mahayana path, the root of the path to enlightenment and the source of all happiness for both yourself and others.

By actualizing the perfection of patience, you can attain full enlightenment, the great liberation, the cessation of all mental errors and the completion of all realizations. Once you have attained enlightenment, you are free to work perfectly for the welfare of all sentient beings in order to liberate them from all suffering and its cause and bring them to buddhahood as well. This is the long term benefit of practicing patience in your daily life right now, a benefit as measureless as space itself.

Practicing patience today will allow you to become the perfect guide and bring all happiness to numberless sentient beings. Therefore, when somebody treats you badly or when someone gets angry at you, these are the benefits of not getting upset. You can look at it differently. You can see how responding with patience is the source of all happiness—not only your own immediate happiness but also that of your future lives; not only your own happiness, but that of numberless others. You can make it all happen. It comes from your patience.

Patience has many other benefits as well. For example, practicing patience is the cause of receiving a beautiful body in future lives—a beautiful human body or the divine body of a deva. If your body is attractive, it is easier to benefit others. It is also the cause of many of the special qualities of a buddha’s holy body. There are many more benefits of patience.

If you do not practice patience, you will get angry. One of the results of anger is to receive ugly bodies in future lives. If you look ugly, people won’t want to see or hear you, won’t want to help you and won’t pay attention to what you say. Worse than that, you will have to experience the unbearably heavy sufferings of rebirth in hell. And even when, after that, you’re reborn human, there will be many other problems as a result of anger. Anger has many, many drawbacks, but by practicing patience you can avoid them all.

In short, practicing patience on a daily basis has infinite benefit. It brings peace, happiness and success for yourself and others in this and many future lives. Ultimately, you attain enlightenment, and bring all happiness to all sentient beings as you lead them to enlightenment.

How to practice patience

Where does your daily practice of patience that brings all this benefit come from? How did you learn to be patient?

Ask yourself, “Where did I learn this patience that I practice? I learned it from those who have been angry at me. By depending on the angry person I have been able to practice, to realize patience. Therefore, all the peace and happiness that I enjoy in this and future lives as a result of my practice of patience has come from the angry person. It is through the kindness of the angry person, who gave me the opportunity to practice patience, that I am able to offer peace and happiness to all sentient beings as a result. Because of this person I am able to accomplish the perfection of patience, the other perfections, and thereby complete the bodhisattva’s path and attain full enlightenment. Through this person’s kindness I can eradicate all errors of mind and gain all realizations. It is the angry person who has given me this opportunity. This person is actually giving me enlightenment. Through the kindness of this person I can also offer all peace and happiness to all sentient beings. How kind this person is! How much benefit this person has given me! This is the most precious person in my life! Even if someone were to give me billions and trillions of dollars, I could never buy the peace of mind that I get through the practice of patience. Therefore, the angry person who gives me the opportunity to practice patience is of much greater value than trillions of dollars, mountains of diamonds, acres of gold.”

The angry person is even more precious than trillions of wish- fulfilling jewels. The most precious material object we can think of in these examples is the wish-fulfilling jewel. Legend has it that by praying to this mythical gem, you get whatever sense enjoyment you desire. Nevertheless, the angry person with whom you practice patience is far more valuable than trillions of these wish-granting gems. No amount of material wealth can bring you the inner peace that you can achieve by practicing patience with an angry person. That’s why such people are so precious.

The only reason the person is so kind and precious is because he is angry at you. There’s no reason other than that. This is what makes this person so unbelievably kind. Therefore, even though his anger is so destructive for him, for you it is invaluable. It is of the utmost need in your life. Having somebody angry at you is very, very important.

Say there were a cure for cancer or AIDS. We would regard that medicine as incredibly precious, extremely important, especially if we were suffering from one of those diseases. But even though such remedies could cure those fatal illnesses, it doesn’t mean that they could purify your negative karma. They couldn’t stop you from being reborn in the suffering lower realms—the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms. Practicing patience, however, does offer that kind of benefit. For example, the practice of patience makes for a happy, peaceful death, a death free from fear and worry. Practicing patience purifies, or counteracts, negative karma. When you practice patience, you don’t create negative karma. That means you are not creating the cause for a lower rebirth—patience protects you from that. In fact, the practice of patience creates only positive karma, the cause of good rebirths.

Anyway, in order to practice patience, you need an angry person. As the great bodhisattva Shantideva pointed out in his teaching, the Bodhicaryavatara, the Buddha isn’t angry with you, so you can’t practice patience with him. And a doctor’s only thought is to help you, so there’s no opportunity there either. Similarly, your friends aren’t angry with you, so there’s no chance to practice patience with them. Therefore, if there’s nobody angry at you, there’s no opportunity to put into practice the teachings you’ve received from the Buddha and your gurus. That’s why the angry person is most kind, precious and indispensable in your life, and much more important than medicine for cancer or AIDS. We think those medicines are so valuable, but when you think about it this way, you can see how much more precious the angry person is. The benefits of practicing patience are infinite.

We always want in our life someone who loves us. We feel that this is important for our happiness. But you can see now that it’s much more important to have in our life someone who doesn’t love us, who’s angry at us, so that we can practice training our minds. As I mentioned before, if you don’t have such a person, if you don’t train your mind, then even if you do find a friend, there’s the danger that through lack of patience, you’ll turn your friend into an enemy.

Therefore, to maintain harmonious relationships with others, to keep your friends, you have to practice patience. To lead a happy and successful life, you almost have to train yourself like a soldier preparing for battle. Soldiers train before marching off to war. You need to do the same. Training your mind by practicing meditation on patience is the way to prepare yourself for the battles of daily life. Leaving aside the happiness of future lives or that of other sentient beings, even for the happiness of this life, you have to practice patience.

The power of positive thinking

So now, going back to what I was saying before, look at the indescribable benefits of seeing in a positive light those who don’t love you, those who are angry at you. Look at the profits you can reap—every happiness all the way up to enlightenment and the ability to bring every happiness to all sentient beings. The more clearly you understand this, the easier it will be to look positively at someone who is angry with you. In this way, your own anger does not arise and you generate a happy, peaceful, patient mind instead.

No matter how angry at you the other person gets, no matter how much the other person whines and complains, your patient mind never sees that person as an enemy, as someone to avoid, as someone to get away from, as irritating. Rather, you see that person as kind, precious. You feel, “She’s purifying my negative karma. All this criticism of me helps purify my negative karma of having criticized and harmed others. How kind she is to help me in this way.”

By transforming your mind into patience like this, you get this immediate peace and happiness—that day, that minute, that second—and the long-term benefits as well. All this is due to the kindness of that angry person. If you do not practice patience, if you interpret what the angry person is doing with her body, speech and mind as negative, as harmful to yourself—your mind applies a negative label to the situation and you believe in that—your own anger will arise. That anger will make you see the angry person as negative, undesirable, someone you want to neither see nor help, someone you want to lash out at and hurt. When your mind is angry you see the other person in a completely different light, opposite to the way in which your patience perceives that person. Your anger makes her look repulsive.

The happiness and difficulties we experience every day come from our mind. Whatever we’re experiencing at any given moment is dependent upon the way we think, our concepts, our attitude. Our attitude determines how we feel.

For example, once in Tibet there were a couple of monks who returned to their monastery after a long and tiring journey. To welcome them back, their teacher offered them cold tea. One of the disciples thought, “How kind our teacher is. He knew we were hot and thirsty so he intentionally gave us tea that was cold.” The other thought, “How mean and lazy. He couldn’t even give us hot tea,” and got upset and angry. So, he destroyed himself. There was no benefit from the way he thought to either himself or his teacher. But, by having a positive view, the first student made himself and his teacher happy, made his mind peaceful and, since the tea had been offered by his guru, created much merit. The action—offering cold tea—was the same. What was different was the students’ interpretation of that action. One labeled it positive and was happy. The other labeled it negative and created a problem for himself.

I started this talk with a quotation from Guru Shakyamuni Buddha:


Do not engage in any harmful actions;
Perform only those that are good;
Subdue your own mind—
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

The first line refers to the cause of suffering, the second the cause of happiness. The discussion of the importance and benefits of patience evolved from that. Everything comes from your mind, everything depends upon the way you think, your moment to moment concepts. Do you label things negatively or positively? The heaviest suffering, what we call hell, comes from your own mind; the greatest happiness, what we call enlightenment, comes from your own mind.

Therefore, the Buddha is saying that the way to never have negative thoughts, the cause of suffering, and to have only a positive mind, which results in only happiness, is to subdue, or take care of, your own mind. Watch your mind all the time. Practice mindfulness. Guard your mind, protect it from disturbing thoughts and eradicate your delusions. How is all that done? Through actualizing the five paths. In the case of the Mahayana, by actualizing bodhicitta and developing the wisdom realizing emptiness. Through the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, you can completely remove the two types of defilement and attain full enlightenment.

Therefore, subduing the mind is the teaching of the Buddha. That’s the key. Your own mind is the door to happiness; your own mind is the door to suffering. It all depends upon how you use it. It’s like the remote control that controls the channels on your TV. Click it this way, it goes up; click it that way, it goes down. The way you think determines whether you’ll experience happiness or suffering.

What creates the labels?

Before I finish, I’ll make one more point. Like the monks in the story above, our minds are constantly making up labels that affect our lives. Depending upon the label, we experience different feelings—pleasant, unpleasant or neutral—and that’s how our life goes, twenty-four hours a day. So, what is it that causes our mind to create these different labels? People who apply positive labels experience happiness. People who apply negative labels experience suffering. What is it, then, that causes us to label things positive or negative? What’s the force behind all this?

It’s karma. Because of past karma, some people are able to label things positively while others have to label them negatively. The underlying cause is karma. Therefore, you can see how crucial it is to purify past negative karma and not to create any more—in other words, how essential it is to practice Dharma. Only the practice of Dharma can remove or prevent the negative karma that forces us to label things negatively, thereby creating our own suffering. Dharma is the solution to all life’s problems, whatever they are, and, more importantly, the sole means of preventing them from arising in the first place.

By practicing Dharma now we can avoid creating the causes for the heaviest sufferings of samsara, those of the lower realms—the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms—and the sufferings we go through in the upper realms, even as humans—illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, aging, death, everything—and thus avoid having to experience them. By practicing Dharma now we can purify the already created karma of such results. Here is where the whole answer to our problems lies—purify the negative karma already created; do not create any more. This is the reason we take precepts such as the refuge vow, the five lay precepts, not to mention the ordination vows taken by monks and nuns. You don’t even have to take all five precepts. You can take one, two, three or four—whatever you can manage. Of course, there are countless negative karmas, but at least you can vow not to create certain kinds.

By practicing Dharma today we also create the causes for our own happiness—the happiness of this life, future lives, liberation and enlightenment. This is something we can do right now. Therefore, it is essential to create as much good karma as possible, while we have the chance. We should take every opportunity to create even the tiniest merit. Since we want even smallest comfort, we have to create its cause. Similarly, since we don’t want to experience even the smallest suffering or inconvenience, we have to avoid creating even the tiniest non-virtue. As it says in the Vinaya teaching, Dulwa lung, “Small drops fill a big pot.” Therefore, we shouldn’t think that small merits are useless. Try to collect as many as possible. It also says, “A tiny spark can ignite a huge forest.” Therefore, don’t think that small negative karmas won’t bring results. Avoid them too. Here is where we must direct all our effort. This is the Buddha’s fundamental advice.