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.
How Worldly Dharma and Holy Dharma Differ

Even if we understand nothing else, if, by recognizing the eight worldly dharmas, we can clearly differentiate between what is Dharma and what is not Dharma, we’re very fortunate. This knowledge alone gives us a great chance to really put Dharma practice into our daily life and create an incredible amount of merit.

Buddhism is a house full of treasures—practices for the happiness of future lives, for attaining liberation, for the supreme happiness of enlightenment—but this is the key that will open the door to those treasures. No matter how much we know about shunyata 1, the chakras or kundalini yoga 2, it is all pointless without this crucial understanding of how to practice Dharma, how to correct our actions. There are many people who spend much time thinking that they are practicing Dharma at a very high level, practicing tantra and other great subjects. They spend many lives like that but really never know the border between Dharma and non-Dharma.

It is very easy to do Dharma activities, such as reciting mantras, saying prayers, making offerings and things like that, with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. This happens. But in reality, the holy Dharma, which includes all these activities, actually means renouncing this life, and therefore doing holy Dharma and doing worldly dharma can never happen together. Nobody can do these two things at the same time—renounce this life and seek the happiness of this life with the eight worldly dharmas. We can do one and then the other, but never together in one mind at the same time.

It’s Better To Practice Dharma

Whenever different benefactors wrote to Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo asking for advice, it seems that he always advised them to persuade other sentient beings to practice Dharma, especially lam-rim, as much as possible, by giving the very heart instructions on how to make their life most meaningful.

The eight worldly dharmas are the source of the whole of life’s problems, so therefore if Dharma practice means renouncing the source of the whole of life’s problems it means renouncing the eight worldly dharmas. “I’m practicing Dharma” really means “I’m renouncing all the suffering of this life and all the future lives, I’m renouncing the thought of the eight worldly dharmas .”

In previous times, Dromtönpa, Atisha’s close disciple and translator, saw an old man walking around the temple at Reting monastery. The old man thought he was practicing Dharma. So Dromtönpa said, “Circumambulating the temple is good, but isn’t it better to practice Dharma.” After hearing this, the old man gave up going around the temple and started reading the scriptures, thinking that was what practicing Dharma meant. Again Dromtönpa met him and, seeing the old man reading scriptures, mentioned, “Reading the scriptures is good, but isn’t it better to practice Dharma?” So, at that the old man gave up reading Dharma texts, and thinking maybe meditation was practicing Dharma, he sat down cross-legged and closed his eyes to meditate. As he was sitting like that, again the Dromtönpa came to him and said, “Sir, your meditating is good, but wouldn’t it be better to practice Dharma?”

The old man was confused. He couldn’t think of any other way to practice Dharma if it wasn’t circumambulating or reading scriptures or meditating, and so he asked Dromtönpa, “What do you mean by practicing Dharma?” Then Dromtönpa answered, “Renounce this life. Renounce it now, for if you do not renounce attachment to this life, whatever you do will not be the practice of Dharma, as you have not passed beyond the eight worldly concerns. Once you have renounced this life’s habitual thoughts and are no longer distracted by the eight worldly dharmas, whatever you do will advance you on the path of liberation.”

Dromtönpa advised the old man to renounce this life because without renouncing this life nobody can practice pure Dharma. With renunciation, however, there is pure Dharma practice, which brings happiness in this life and in all future lives. Renouncing this life doesn’t mean running away from home or from material possessions, it means running away from the cause of the suffering. That alone will cut our suffering. As long as we follow the eight worldly dharmas, whether we separate from this physical body or not, without question we will still suffer.

In a similar vein, when Lama Atisha 3  was about to pass away, one of his followers, a yogi called Naljor Chaktri Chok, (which means Yogi Meditator), who was Milarepa in a previous life, said to him, “After you have passed away I will dedicate myself to meditation.” Lama Atisha answered, “Give up anything that is a bad action!” Atisha did not say that it was good to meditate; he did not say, “Oh yes, that is very good!” Instead he said, “Give up anything that is a bad action!”

Naljor Chaktri Chok then said to Atisha, “In that case, sometimes I will explain Dharma and sometimes I will meditate.” Again Atisha gave the same answer. Naljor Chaktri Chok thought some more, then gave another suggestion. But no matter what he said, Atisha just kept on giving the same answer. Finally, Naljor Chaktri Chok asked, “Well, what should I do?” Lama Atisha answered, “Give up this life in your mind!”

Keeping this advice in his heart, Naljor Chaktri Chok lived in a juniper forest rear Reting monastery, no different from the way animals live in a forest. (This is not talking about his mind—just his body.) Living alone, not seeing even one other human face, he passed his life there.

Giving up this life—renouncing this life, as Dromtönpa says—doesn’t mean leaving everything behind and escaping from this world, this entire planet, and going somewhere else. Giving away all our possessions—even all the possessions that exist in the world—is not giving up this life. Taking our body away from our home or our country is not giving up this life. Even living in a cave with no possessions at all, with only the body, this is not giving up this life. Even separating from our body—as we do every time we die—is not giving up this worldly life. Giving up this life does not depend on physical things; it is a mental change.

The Difference Between the Eight Worldly Dharmas and Dharma 

Without renouncing the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, any action—going round a stupa, meditating, reading Dharma books—is a negative action, a worldly action. It is not spiritual, it is not Dharma; it is the opposite of Dharma. So the action itself does not determine whether something is Dharma. Dromtönpa shows us clearly that practicing Dharma is nothing more than renouncing the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas.

We need to be very clear about what defines Dharma and non-Dharma. We know that anger is negative, of course, but we aren’t angry all the time. What really wastes our precious life isn’t anger but attachment, being attached to the eight worldly dharmas.

If we don’t know the distinction between Dharma and non-Dharma, even though we try to practice Dharma our whole life, nothing becomes Dharma, because we are still doing things with the wrong motivation. It can happen. So the definition of non-Dharma is simply anything that is done for the happiness of this life alone. It is whatever we do motivated by the attachment to the eight worldly dharmas. The definition of Dharma is exactly the opposite; it is anything that is done for the happiness of beyond this life, whatever is unstained by attachment to the eight worldly dharmas. I repeat: whatever action we do with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas is not Dharma; whatever we do unstained by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas is Dharma. Every action we do from morning to night is either Dharma or non-Dharma depending on this.

When we see clearly the borderline between Dharma and non-Dharma, between a Dharma action and a worldly action, we are so fortunate. Until that point, despite all the suffering we’ve endured and all our attempts to stop it, we haven’t had any way to be really happy, but now we can start to do something about it. We have probably wanted to do many good things in the past, such as meditating, but from lack of this fundamental understanding, we’ve made so many mistakes. Even if we don’t come to understand any other Dharma subjects, just knowing this one thing is like opening a big eye.

Pure Dharma is any action that is a remedy for our delusions. Basically, practicing Dharma benefits future lives, unlike the meaningless activities of this life which might possibly bring some temporary happiness in this life. Achieving the happiness of this life is nothing special. Even animals or insects as tiny as ants can achieve the happiness of this life, and therefore being able to gain sense pleasures doesn’t make our life more special than that of an animal. No matter how expert we are, we aren’t fulfilling the potential we have as humans, especially with this perfect human rebirth, qualified by eight freedoms and ten richnesses.4 The special purposes of having a perfect human rebirth are to achieve the happiness of future lives, to achieve liberation from samsara and to achieve full enlightenment, and this is something we can do because we can create the causes even in each second.

Virtue and nonvirtue are defined on this basis. Every action done renouncing attachment to this life is virtue; every action done with attachment to this life is nonvirtue. If we renounce the attachment that clings to this life’s pleasure, our attitude becomes pure, and everything we do becomes Dharma. Nothing we do is done for this life.

As soon as we renounce the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas there is peace. There is no need to wait until tomorrow or the day after. It is not as if we renounce the eight worldly dharmas today but we need to wait for a few years or the next life to receive happiness.

When we live with the pure thought that is not mixed with the thought of the worldly dharmas, then each single action becomes Dharma, our mind is living purely in the Dharma. The deeper we see the cause of our suffering, the more our wisdom grows and the more we can put Dharma into our everyday life. Then there is so much energy to make any action we do a Dharma action. Even if we live in a big family, with twenty children and many possessions, every action we do becomes the remedy to the delusions, and we are living in the renunciation of this life.

Nobody can tell from external appearances who has renounced this life and who hasn’t. Renunciation is a state of mind, and whether or not a person has lots of possessions is no indication at all. Even though someone is a king, with many servants, with stores of jewels and possessions and many rich apartments, that does not mean his mind is not living in renunciation. Renouncing this life is a mental action, not a physical action.

If it were only a question of not having anything, all the animals and insects who have no possessions, living in holes, without food to eat, should be regarded as highly renounced beings. At Lawudo retreat center near Everest there are many caves that used to be the homes of great yogis. When I went to see them, they had been used by yaks for sleeping, probably because they are warm, and they were full of kaka. If the definition of a yogi is someone who lives in a cave, perhaps we should consider the yaks great yogis!

Another way of defining Dharma is anything that does not accord with the actions of worldly people. If we do something that normal people don’t do, then it’s Dharma. If we do something that normal people do, then it’s not Dharma. This is how the great teacher Dromtönpa explained it to Potowa:

It is Dharma if it becomes an antidote to delusions; it is not Dharma if it does not. If all worldly people disagree with it, it is Dharma; if they agree with it, it is not Dharma.5

Most worldly people have an interpretation of what constitutes a good life based on attachment and filtered through the ego. And so more wealth, more success, more friends, more children, more cars—such things are seen as part of a good life. We measure our happiness by how many possessions we have, by our external development. Children, and then grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren, the more of everything we have the happier we are.

This is entirely the opposite of what a good life is in the view of Dharma wisdom, based on the fundamental understanding of karma and the lam-rim. What attachment doesn’t consider important in its view of a good life is having peace in the heart, having real satisfaction. Actually, this is what we are all looking for, but very few people, lacking Dharma education, know this and so very few people actually know how to achieve it.

The Importance of Motivation 

When I once asked an abbot about the meaning of “worldly dharma”, he replied that it means gambling, working in the fields and so on—these are worldly activities. It is very common to think of worldly actions in this way, relating just to the action and not to the motivation, the attitude. If done with a pure motivation, however, such actions can become pure Dharma.

Dromtönpa’s example above is extremely important to keep in mind because it shows so clearly the border between Dharma and non-Dharma. It is easy to think of worldly actions as playing football, smoking, drinking, having sex or these kinds of things, but that’s not what defines a worldly action. We therefore need to become very aware of the motivation for all the actions we do in daily life to see what is and what is not Dharma.

If our motivation is worldly concern then the action becomes a worldly activity. It can’t be Dharma, even if the action is reciting prayers, meditating and so on. It can be like Dharma but not Dharma. And a person who “practices” Dharma but with a motivation of worldly concern is like a Dharma practitioner but not a real Dharma practitioner. There’s a big difference.

One time, someone gave me plastic ice cream. It looked exactly like ice cream and it even ran down the spoon like melting ice cream does. When Ueli, the director of the FPMT Mongolian projects, came to lunch I offered it to him and he was completely fooled. It was so well made. But of course it was completely inedible. And it’s the same thing with the person who practices Dharma but pollutes it with the mind clinging to this life. His activities might look exactly like Dharma—listening to teachings, reflecting, meditating, going on retreat, even teaching Dharma—but in fact they are not Dharma. He might look like a Dharma practitioner but in fact he is not a Dharma practitioner.

Since we are seeking liberation, this is the most important point to know. It’s like the dial of the radio that has the power to tune into all the different stations. Without this understanding of the distinction between Dharma and non-Dharma, no matter how many different spiritual actions we do, no matter how long we do things such as building monasteries, making prostrations and so on—even if we do them until we die—there is a real danger that our whole life will become filled with negative actions and cause us to be trapped in samsara, that they will be the causes of the bondage to suffering. Without this knowledge there is a great danger we will cheat ourselves.

By itself, no action can be defined as a worldly action. It can be either holy Dharma or worldly dharma, virtuous or nonvirtuous. It all depends on the motivation. Enjoying sense pleasures can be positive or negative; having wealth can be positive of negative. Two people can do exactly the same thing and one can be positive and the other negative.

So it all depends on our attitude. A politician with a good motivation can do a lot of good but if his motivation is the thought of the eight worldly dharmas—the wish for power, reputation, wealth and so on—then his politics become black politics that harm both himself and the people around him. Without the worldly mind, his politics become Dharma. And if the motivation is unstained by self-cherishing and is one of bodhicitta then those politics become pure Mahayana Dharma. It becomes only pure service for other sentient beings, and that becomes the cause to achieve enlightenment.

No matter how it looks on the surface, any action done without involvement in the eight worldly dharmas is a Dharma action. Whatever method we use to renounce the thought of the eight worldly dharmas is the method to stop the continuity of bad karma, which leads to escape from suffering and to enlightenment. This is the perfect, true method.

And so before we can start any Dharma practice, the most important thing is to cultivate a pure motivation. Just understanding this crucial point is so important. It opens our wisdom eye; it is the first thing we need to do to follow the path. Even if we can’t have pure motivation from the very beginning, just understanding what Dharma means and how it makes life meaningful is very beneficial. As we practice more, we can develop a better and purer motivation based on this understanding. Then we have the chance to do a correct action without mistake.

We can’t become like those great yogis of the past within a few days, or even a few months, but it is very beneficial just knowing how they made their life free and peaceful by practicing Dharma. This gives us some insight into how we can start to lead our life. We can watch that all our actions are as pure as possible, that they are not controlled by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. 


Skt: emptiness. [Return to text]

The completion stage practice in Highest Yoga Tantra for of bringing the vital energy (Skt: prana, Tib: lung) into the central channel. It is also a common yoga found in non-Tibetan traditions. [Return to text]

The first part of this section is also found in The Door to Satisfaction, p. 30. [Return to text]

The eight freedoms are freedom from: 1. being born in the hells (narak), 2. as a hungry spirit (preta), 3. as an animal, 4. as a long-life god (asura), 5. as a barbarian in an irreligious country, 6. deaf, a heretic, 8. born during a time when Buddha has not descended.

The ten richnesses are: 1. being born as a human being, 2. being born in the centre of a religious country, 3. being born with perfect organs, 4. avoidance of the five extreme negative actions (killing your mother, your father, an arhat, wounding a tathagata or causing disunity amongst the Sangha), 5. belief in the practice of Dharma, 6. being born during a non-dark period, 7. being shown the teachings of the Buddha or his followers, 8. the existence of experienced teachings, 9. following the path of the Buddha’s teaching. 10. receiving the kindness and compassion of others. Taken from The Wish-fulfilling Golden Sun. See also Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 308-311. [Return to text]

5 Quoted in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, p. 337. [Return to text]