How to Practice Dharma

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Excerpts from Lama Zopa Rinpoche's How to Practice Dharma: Teachings on the Eight Worldly Dharmas, edited by Gordon McDougall. This book deals with the eight worldly dharmas, essentially how craving desire and attachment cause us to create problems and suffering and how to abandon these negative minds in order to find perfect peace and happiness.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.
Happiness Starts When We Renounce This Life

Any action done free from the three poisonous minds of greed, hatred and ignorance is the cause of happiness. Renouncing suffering is the field of all happiness which includes the ultimate happiness of enlightenment and even happiness in this life.

“Renouncing this life” or “renouncing suffering”, these terms both mean renouncing the mind that is the cause of the problems, the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. Therefore “Dharma” includes even temporal techniques to stop attachment from rising. This is the actual Dharma, the method that immediately solves our confusion and mental illness. Bringing clarity and lack of confusion to the mind is the best way of bringing us happiness in this life.

Renouncing suffering doesn’t mean we’ll never have a stomach or knee pain, a headache or a cold. It doesn’t mean wishing to be free of all pain, but wishing to be free from the very cause of all suffering.

It has been the experience of these great yogis that we don’t have to wait until our future lives to experience this happiness. As soon as we stop the dissatisfied mind, immediately—immediately—there is the result, happiness.

At first we might be nervous about letting go of desire because it’s normal for us to equate desire with happiness. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. As soon as we let go of desire, we achieve inner peace, satisfaction and happiness. We become independent. Before we were dictated to, controlled by desire, but now we have achieve real independence, real freedom.

We can see in the biographies of the great yogis, Tilopa, Marpa, Milarepa, Lama Tsongkhapa and many of those highly realized beings, whose holy minds passed into enlightenment, how even without material possessions they generated great tranquility, great peace, and through that were able to realize the great achievements of the path. They didn’t even have the smell of the eight worldly dharmas but by completely renouncing the desires of this life, they received everything. They had the best reputation, perfect surroundings and sufficient material comfort.

In Milarepa’s autobiography The Hundred Thousand Songs he often says how, by renouncing this life’s worldly activities, great blissfulness comes and all the thousands of other problems associated with the worldly life are automatically cut off.

He had no possessions at all, and led an ascetic life in solitary places like caves. Although he lived like an animal his life was passed in great happiness, his mind always peaceful, without confusion or problems. He didn’t even have one sack of tsampa, the barley flour that is the most popular food in Tibet, but lived on nettles alone. Living without food, clothing, and reputation didn’t cause him any problems because of his Dharma practice. He achieved all the higher realizations and then enlightenment in that one lifetime all due to the power of his pure Dharma, renouncing suffering, renouncing this life. His mind was happier than that of the king who has great power, who has many bodyguards, many armies, many weapons. There is nothing to compare.

So it is completely wrong to think that Dharma only brings happiness in future lifetimes but not in this one. Dharma brings peace and happiness to the mind the very moment we practice and live in the Dharma. We feel its effects immediately.

If we want a beautiful apartment, before we can enjoy it we first have to work and collect lots of money, then put so much time and effort into renovating and decorating it. A worldly action needs so much energy and yet it’s still not sure whether it will bring us any pleasure. But whenever we do a Dharma action, there is immediate peace in our life; there is real happiness.

Seeing how the whole situation is created by ourselves, how things like praise and criticism are just words and yet one can make us happy and the other miserable, we determine none of the eight worldly dharmas will disturb us, and there is immediate peace.

It’s so silly to allow ourselves to be upset when we don’t get what we want, to be angry when someone criticizes us, or happy when someone praises us. It’s so silly to worry about what others think, to discriminate, deciding one thing is good and another bad. We see this, and see how all this is the mind projecting and believing its own projections.

Perhaps we feel dissatisfied with our partner and think we can’t be happy until we get another one. When such a dissatisfied unrealistic expectation like this arises, we recognize this uncomfortable, uptight mind, and think, “Oh, what’s the point in accumulating another negative karma for myself, besides those I have been collecting from past time. What’s the point in making another deposit into my negative karma savings account, another suffering for myself.”

With that inner peace, the subtle wind, which is the vehicle of the mind, no longer gets disturbed, and so the four elements in the body—fire, water, earth and air—are in balance. When that happens, we don’t suffer from illnesses and we enjoy a healthy body. First there’s the healthy mind, then the healthy body comes as a side effect.

There was once a lay yogi, Kharag Gomchen, who contracted leprosy. He was sick with it for a long time and his family became scared of him and banished him, so his mind was terribly upset. With no family and no one to look after him, he thought since he was banished, he should use this in a beneficial way. He made a strong determination to live by a roadside and just recite Chenrezig mantras and beg for food. He thought he would do this no matter what happened. He came to a village called Gemo Trong (Trong means “village”) where there was a cave in a rock, where he slept that first night. There, he had a dream of a man, completely in white, putting him on the rock and heavy rain falling, making everything wet. When he woke up, all the pus had come out of his wounds and everywhere was wet with it, and from that time his leprosy was cured, without depending on any medicine.

Afterwards he become a great yogi. By the power of his mind alone, living in Dharma, renouncing suffering, he was cured and he attained happiness in his life. Even his disease was cured by the power of the Dharma.

All our worldly problems, the problems we are facing this minute, come not from not having what we want but from the dissatisfied mind of craving. The thought of the eight worldly dharmas denies us our present happiness and keeps us locked in this cycle of mundane activities, circling around and around.

We Always Have What We Need

When we renounce attachment we are never without what we need. Renouncing attachment to friends, we have friends; renouncing attachment to a comfortable environment, we have a comfortable environment. Without making any effort from our own side, when we need something or someone, it just naturally happens, due to the power of practicing Dharma.

Kadampa Geshe Shabogayppa says:

As the desires of this life cause all the misery of this and future lives, we must not seek fulfillment of our desires. When we try to fulfill our desires we are not happy. We become unsure of the direction of our life, and wrong speech, wrong mind and wrong actions all surface at once.
Therefore, we must turn away from our many desires. When we are able to do this, we establish the beginning of happiness and pleasure. The best sign of happiness in this and all future lives is not desiring or accumulating anything at all.
When we do not desire gain, we have the greatest gain.
When we do not desire reputation, we have the best reputation.
When we do not desire fame, we have the greatest fame.
When we do not desire companions, we have the best companions.
When you do not seek to receive materials, that is the best receiving. 1

Not being attached to gain is the greatest gain. When we are attached to material pleasure, it is very hard to get. However, when we have renounced attachment to it, it seems to come naturally without need for much effort. The “greatest gain”, however, isn’t a lot of material possessions but enlightenment, ultimate happiness.

Not desiring reputation is the best reputation. For instance, although all the great pandits, like Milarepa, Lama Tsongkhapa and Shakyamuni Buddha, had completely renounced the desire for a good reputation, they still to this day have such amazing reputations that all sentient beings who even just hear their names prostrate and make offerings.

We worldly people spend so much energy and money trying to get a good reputation. If we want a high position, like a president or something, we have to spend millions and millions of dollars. It’s so difficult to become successful.

The great Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, who achieved the state of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom, said that in order to obtain the happiness of this life, we must work for the happiness of future lives by practicing Dharma, and along the way the happiness of this life comes naturally. When we check up, this is quite obvious. If the worldly dharmas are the source of the whole life’s problems, then by renouncing them, of course we will achieve happiness at the moment we renounce them. He says:

If you wish to obtain the happiness of this life, practice the holy Dharma. Look at the difference in the perfections of the holy beings and the thieves.

There is the story of the Kadampa lama, Geshe Benkungyel.2 Before he started practicing Dharma, he had a field, big enough that he could get many sacks of barley from it and he had enough to live on. But he was never satisfied, so he used to be robber in the daytime and a thief at night, going into other people’s houses and taking away things by force. He had many weapons—knives, arrows and all kinds of different weapons—which he carried all on his body, in a belt, like thorns. Despite the rich harvest of forty sacks of barley a year, he felt he never had enough, that he was still too poor. People called him “forty evil.”3

Then he gave up all that, completely renouncing the eight worldly dharmas and living in the practice of Dharma. He lived in a hermitage with no material possessions and no fields. Before, when he had everything it was never enough, but when he lived in the hermitage, by renouncing the eight worldly dharmas, he received so much food, and never wanted for temporal needs, due to offerings from people. So he said, “Before I practiced Dharma my mouth had trouble finding food, but now food has trouble finding my mouth.” He meant that before his mouth was never satisfied with what it received, but since he renounced the eight worldly dharmas there was more food than he could ever eat. This is what Sakya Pandita means by the difference between holy beings and thieves. The holy being is always satisfied but the thief never has enough.

At the time Geshe Benkungyel lived in Pembo, in Tibet, there was some trouble. Robbers and thieves were everywhere, taking things by force and everyone was busy trying to hide their possessions under the ground or take them to the mountains. People were running from the robbers, full of fear. Benkungyel, on the other hand, had no fear. The robes he wore and a clay pot for water were his only possessions, so even if he encountered robbers they wouldn’t bother him because he had nothing to steal. So, he walked in the streets in a very calm, relaxed way and he was surprised that everyone around him was so afraid. He said, “This is the way that worldly people hide their possessions; this is the way that I hide my possessions.” What he actually means by “hiding his possessions” is renouncing the thought of the eight worldly dharmas and so there is no danger of people bothering him.

Thieves are never satisfied. Even if they get things by honest work, it is never enough and so they think they have to steal, but no matter how much they steal, it is still never enough. And stealing is negative karma and brings all sorts of problems.

Holy beings are completely the opposite. Every action of body, speech and mind is purely to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of mother sentient beings, never for temporal needs. They have no use for temporal pleasures, and so, without needing to steal anything, just by the power of the pure Dharma practice, whatever temporal things they need they can easily receive.


1 Quoted in Door of Liberation, p. 119. [Return to text]

This story is also quoted in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, p. 336, and Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Three Principle Aspects of the Path: An Oral Teaching by Geshe Sonam Rinchen on Tsongkhapa’s Lam Gri Gtso Bo Rham Gsum, (Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1999) p. 46. [Return to text]

Translated in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand as “Half-ton Bandit”, p. 336. [Return to text]