Kopan Course No. 36 (2003)

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #1441)

These teachings were given by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche at the 36th Kopan Meditation Course, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 2003. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Rinpoche teaches on a range of lamrim topics, including refuge, motivation, Medicine Buddha and seven-limb practice, the purpose of our life, emptiness and much more. The edited transcript is freely available for download as a PDF file.

Lecture 4: The Shortcomings of Desire
How happy we are depends on our level of motivation


People can wonder why there is a need to understand reincarnation or karma. Why not just do the meditation, why not just meditate? Why bother with reincarnation or karma, all that stuff? Why bother to listen to all these things? What is the need to understand all these things?

Now, actually, all these things are important because without them you would feel lonely! In this life, you have nothing to do, so you can fill your life up with all this information. I’m just joking, I am joking.

Anyway, it depends on your wishes, it depends on what kind of happiness you want. The question is that. Do you want long-term happiness or do you want short-term happiness? It’s a question of that. It’s basically up to the individual person—whether you want to be free from suffering and what kind of suffering you want to be free from. Do you want to be free from all suffering or just from a little pain? Just free from a little pain? And if you were free from all suffering, would you feel lonely? Would you miss the suffering? Without suffering in life, there is nothing to experience. Well, you see, if you don’t have realizations, without a pure mind, you can’t experience that level of peace or happiness. Then what’s left is only suffering in life. What you experience, what is left is only suffering. But, then again, maybe your life would be boring without suffering, without problems. Anyway, so you have to think.

Suffering: Pervasive compounding suffering

I think we have gone through all the suffering of samsara: the suffering of pain and the suffering of changes, which is temporary samsaric pleasure, because the feeling we label “pleasure” is suffering. That’s why pleasure does not increase, and not only does it not increase but even when we start to experience it, it decreases. Even that, even what we experience, stops—that is the suffering of changes.

The very important one to understand is pervasive compounding suffering. This is extremely important. Without understanding this level of suffering, we have no idea where suffering comes from. We have no idea where our problems come from—our own problems, global problems, universal problems, we have no idea where they come from. Our mind is totally dark, totally dark. There is no light. There is no wisdom understanding where suffering comes from. With no idea at all, our idea of liberation is “free from pain,” just that, not even liberation from the suffering of changes. If we don’t know that is suffering, our concept of what suffering is will just be freedom from experiencing pain.

If we don’t know about pervasive compounding suffering, we have no idea of how our body and mind, our aggregates, are in the nature of suffering. We don’t know why the mind experiences depression, why the mind experiences unhappiness, loneliness, all the ups and downs, all that mental unhappiness, and the negative emotional thoughts. There are so many of these sicknesses of the mind, all those negative emotional thoughts—ignorance, anger, attachment, all those things. There is body sickness and there is mind sickness, chronic diseases of mind. It is chronic because not only are we born with it, but it has been with us from beginningless rebirths. Its continuation has been there from beginningless rebirths and it hasn’t been healed. It hasn’t been healed because we haven’t actualized the path, that which removes all these negative emotional thoughts, and the seeds that caused them, as I mentioned yesterday. We haven’t had that new experience, actualizing the path and removing all those. Therefore this chronic sickness, this sickness of mind whose continuation has no beginning, we have been suffering with that from beginningless rebirth.

Suffering: Dissatisfaction is the result of desire

Whenever we have taken another body, those aggregates are also in the nature of suffering—experiencing rebirth, old age, sicknesses and death, worry, fears, not receiving desirable objects and so forth. Even after putting so much effort into that, we are still unable to find a desirable object, or even if we do find one, there is another problem, we still can’t find satisfaction. We can’t find satisfaction, our mind is still empty, our heart is still empty. We are still crying, there is unhappiness inside. There is a hole in our heart, always wanting more and better, always. There is no end to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is the biggest problem in our life. The major sickness of our mind is dissatisfaction.

We can say that the major problem, the greatest sickness of the mind, is dissatisfaction, or we can say our major problem is desire. They are two ways of putting it. For some people, maybe, it’s possible maybe to have more anger than desire, I don’t know, maybe not, but I think more anger. Desire will be there all the time, but on top of that there is more anger. It is more suffering, being more impatient or angry. So much of the problem is desire; it is really the whole world’s problem.

When there is stronger desire, then there is also anger. When somebody interferes with that desire, anger will arise very easily. I think it’s kind of related. Whenever somebody interferes with our desire then anger arises. Desire doesn’t get what it wants because somebody interferes with that, then anger arises.

Even many of our health problems come from desire. That has been discovered by a number of scientists who studied it. Among people who have a more angry character, a more impatient nature, among those people, there are more heart attacks. Through scientific analysis, there have been studies showing that there are more heart attacks among people who are impatient. And that is due to desire, basically it is due to desire. Immediately, when there is anger, why? Because of desire, we didn’t get what we want, so anger rises.

[Desire causes] so much of the sickness we experience, no question about AIDS, cancer. For so much of disease, the main cause is related to desire. If we analyze the action created out of desire, we harm others but we first harm ourselves. First there are those delusions of desire and then karma, those actions, and then we experience the result, all those many sicknesses.

In the case of business, business problems come from desire. For example, the more profit a businessman makes, by following desire, it is never enough and he always wants more and more. If he makes a thousand dollars profit, then he wants ten thousand dollars profit; if he is able to make ten thousand dollars profit, he wants to make one hundred thousand dollars profit and then a million dollars profit. If he succeeds in making a million dollars profit, then he is not happy until he makes a hundred million dollars profit. If he gets one hundred million, then he has to make a billion dollars profit. If he is able to get a billion dollars, then he wants to get a zillion dollars profit. If he gets a zillion dollars profit, then it’s a trillion dollars profit. Then I am not sure. [Group laughs]

Of course after some time, because life is not permanent, death ends his business. Not that death ceases the desire, but his life is ended by death. Otherwise, there would be no end to it. No matter how much profit he made, no matter how much he was able to gain, he would always want more and more. This is how it happens if we just follow desire. If we live life only with desire, this is how life goes. Of course, after some time, there is no choice. Life is in the nature of impermanence, so it’s ended by death.

By following desire, we will also want more and more. Because of desire, by following desire, we will also want more and more, more than others. And more than others, we have worries and fears—worry and fear that others might become richer than us—and jealousy and all that. So when we become wealthy there is a different kind of suffering.

First, when we are poor we have suffering, the suffering of poverty, but when we become wealthy there is different suffering. As long as we are in samsara life is like this, only in the nature of suffering, whether we are poor or whether we are rich.

Living life only with desire, not practicing contentment, satisfaction, we try so many ways to make more money, to have more wealth. Then we get involved in illegal things in order to get more. Then, after some time we end with a bad reputation in the world, and after some time, we get exposed. Somebody exposes our mistake and at the end of our life we have a bad reputation, and we end up in the jail, in prison. After all that, our life ends in prison. That’s how life ends, turning out like that. From being famous, the end of life is something very bad.

So all those things—including bad reputation in the world and worries, fears for the family and all those—are shortcomings of desire, all those are shortcomings of following desire.

When the karma runs out

Even if we do manage to make a lot of profit, and then more and more, and more and more, after some time, one day because we don’t have the good karma to have success all the time, it finishes. Because we have succeeded in the past doesn’t mean we will succeed every year. Because we don’t have enough merit, good karma, every year we might have success but we don’t create more merit, we are just living on past good karma. Our success is from a little past good karma, like having worked and saved hard, and then living on the money we saved without earning any more, never realizing there will come a time when it will run out

Especially with no understanding of Dharma, no understanding of karma, that we can purify negative karma and create good karma, that all obstacles, all failures can be purified, that we always create good karma, the cause of success, all the time, twenty-four hours a day—without that understanding, there is no wisdom and so no freedom to purify past negative karma, the cause of obstacles, of failures and all the undesirable things and no way to create only the cause of success.

If we don’t understand reincarnation and karma but we have a good heart, compassion for others, we will still create good karma. Here, now, is our only chance to create good karma without an understanding of karma: to have compassion for others. That’s it. That is the only chance: a good heart, a sincere mind, one that gives us the opportunity to create good karma by doing sincere service for others. Being generous to others with a sincere heart, with some compassion, there is the opportunity to create good karma, otherwise not. Besides that, if the good heart, the sincere heart to help others, is not there in our daily life, then there is no chance at all, everything we do is only negative karma. It will only be the cause of problems, only the cause of failure, not the cause of all happiness and success, only the cause of problems in this life and in future lives, for life after life, only creating the cause for undesirable things to happen.

We haven’t attempted to collect merit, and our success, the little success we are having is only the result of some past good karma we created, so we are able to make some profit, we are just living on that. And then one day, the result, the enjoyment we are experiencing, finishes, the little good karma runs out. And what’s left is only negative karma.

This is because there is no practice of purification, purifying past negative karma, there is no practice of collecting extensive merit. Making more merit than negative karma is not happening. So then one day everything collapses. The whole business collapses. On that day, even paying rent on our own house, even paying for daily expenses like food and rent—things we have never worried about in the past—now become a very big concern. Even survival becomes a worry, even our means of earning a living. With no knowledge of karma we were—our desire was—always expecting more and more, then one day it completely collapses.

It happens like this. Especially in recent years, so many banks that were supposed to be very stable and safe went bankrupt. Then, so many people in the world totally changed their life. They didn’t control their desire, and continued until everything collapsed, in business and in life. This is the shortcoming of desire in business life.

Then there is bad reputation and the concern over bad reputation. I am not sure in the West, but in the East, there is lot of question of saving face. Saving the face! Saving the small face! [Laughter] There is lots of saving face. In order to hold the reputation, the wealth and all that, people spend a lot of money for that, for the face. To keep the reputation. Even if they don’t have enough, they borrow money, just to protect their reputation. There is so much concern about what society will think.

These are all the sufferings of desire. You can see now how the whole of life is the suffering of desire, working for desire. The whole of life is working for desire and suffering, working for desire and suffering. We work to achieve more and more happiness, more and more peace—that’s what needed—but it doesn’t happen. We work so hard but it doesn’t happen, so that’s a contradiction. What we experience is completely contradictory, the opposite to what we want.

Here I want to mention something. It is completely different for a businessperson who is not just following their own desire but living life with a good heart, in order to benefit others. Doing work, living a life like that, with that thought, with the thought of benefiting others, is a totally different motivation, you see—not following desire but following the thought of benefiting others, with a good heart. Or obeying the guru’s advice, not following our desire but following our guru’s advice or wishes with a good heart, to benefit others.

I am just explaining another line now, a different one. In business, even if we lose everything, even if we don’t succeed, even if we don’t have material success, we still haven’t lost the real profit, the merit. Because of the good heart, benefiting others, because of obeying the guru’s advice, we always collect merit, we always collect the cause for success all the time. So, even if our business itself doesn’t succeed, even if the company collapses, we have all the merit in the merit bank, in our mental continuum. There is all the merit collected, the cause of success. Just this once, part of our life didn’t succeed but that doesn’t mean our whole life is a failure, that in this life or in a future life we won’t have success. The little merit, the good karma we collected in the past that we have been living on has finished, but we are collecting merit all the time.

Without a good heart, if we are not a genuine person, everything we do is only negative karma, and the little wealth we have is due to some past good karma. That’s constantly finishing, as I mentioned, like the little money we saved from many years of doing a job and we are now just living on that, without collecting more—every day it runs out. Like that, life is very sad. It is a very sad life.

So now here, the other person’s life, having a different attitude, not following their desire but having the good heart, the thought of benefiting others, so they are always collect merits, good karma, so much merit. The person is earning all the time, gaining all the time, receiving merit all the time. Even if something failed due to some other past negative karma or whatever, experiencing that, there is so much merit there to have success. This is coming in the future of this life, in this life, later and in the future life’s happiness—to enjoy happiness, a good rebirth; to have a good rebirth, happiness, for thousands, so many thousands, thousands, billions of lifetimes, you see, like that, to have incredible success. So like that.

This other businessperson who failed externally, even though there was some success before due to past good karma but now it has completely collapsed, the merit has run out, and they don’t create extra [merit]. Here, there is failure—external failure and internal failure. That is very sad. There is nothing there. It is a very sad life.

Anyway, this is a side talk.

There was a student who had to take care of his family. His whole family, who were very wealthy before, relied on him. He was advised by my guru, Lama Yeshe, who is kinder than the three times’ buddhas, to take care of his family, doing whatever business he needed to in order to care for them. He continued to follow this advice for some time, keeping it in his heart, helping the business of the family, one worth millions and millions of dollars. Then the whole business collapsed. The whole family complained, criticizing him, saying he was incapable. He became an object of criticism.

Externally this is what was happening, but maybe because he was following his guru’s advice, what was happening in his heart, his devotion increased more and more and his realization of renunciation of samsara increased more and more. His inner life developed, progressed, with more devotion to the guru, more devotion to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and more detachment to samsara, to samsaric enjoyments. His renunciation grew and the lamrim grew in his heart, despite what was happening externally.

Here I am talking about another [kind of] life, not achieving material gain but achieving spiritual gain, all the time collecting so much merit, changing what’s happening in his heart, changing his heart for the enlightenment. From these experiences, what he achieves is liberation from samsara and full enlightenment, the completion of all the realizations and being able to enlighten numberless sentient beings. That’s what is going on, what is happening in his heart. So, that is the best achievement. That is the real achievement in the life, the real success of life. Because he didn’t achieve material gain, in the view of common people in the world he is a failure, but in the view of the buddhas, in the view of the bodhisattvas, in the view of Dharma wisdom, in the view of holy beings, he is having a real success. In the view of ignorance maybe he didn’t have material success, he lost that, but in the view of Dharma wisdom, he is gaining real success.

The disadvantages of desire: Desire feeds desire

Another shortcoming of desire is, for example, those people who become alcoholics. They suffer from the shortcomings of desire, they are unable to limit, to control, their drinking, so then they become addicted to it and they become alcoholic. For them, it becomes so difficult to live life without alcohol. Then for most of that person’s life, there is no mindfulness—it is like they have no mind at all, and because of that, violence comes and they beat their children or [partner]. Then they have a car accident. In all this, they lose so much and wastes so much money they have saved.

All the years of study are wasted. As a child, first they go to kindergarten to learn the alphabet, then primary school, then—you know the procedure—high school or college, whatever it is, then university where they get a degree. They do so many years of study to finally get a job. But it doesn’t mean anyone who gets a degree finds a job easily. They finally get a job and then earn money. But because they can’t control their desire, their attachment to the pleasure of drinking, they follow desire continuously. Then all those many years of study, all that hard work to get the degree, all the work to earn money, is all wasted on drinking. All that money is used for bottles, in order to make themselves into something not like a human being, to make themselves mindless.

Not only can’t they meditate, not only can’t they practice Dharma but they can’t even live in society. They can’t even do their job. The drinking becomes an obstacle for that. Then what happens, sooner or later, they are on the street, homeless. It becomes very difficult for their [partner] or whoever is the family, very difficult to take care of them. So they are on the street, alone. Their precious human rebirth is completely destroyed.

Even if we don’t meditate to develop the mind on the path, at least we can use our life, we can use our healthy body and mind to offer service to others. At least in our daily life we can use our healthy body and mind to offer service to others, to cause others to have happiness. Still it is something for the life, something useful in life. Our mind and body are still useful, even that little usefulness for others. But even that they can’t do, so you see, they totally destroyed or wasted that. Then they have so many unnecessary problems in the family, for their partner, their children or parents; so many problems for themselves and others. Their life finishes like this. It is very, very sad. All these are the shortcomings of following desire.

When somebody is drunk, they beat their children, they beat their family members or break things. They destroy things in the house that have been collected. And they harm others, becoming very violent. When some people become drunk they go to sleep. That one is better. [Laughter] I heard whenever some people get drunk, they go to sleep. That is a better thing than making themselves violent, harming the family and harming the people outside, in the office and everywhere. Compared to that, the person who goes to bed is good. At least they don’t harm others.

Then the other thing is because by following desire, not just experimenting with drugs once, but then following desire—when we follow desire, we want more and more and more and more. Then after that, we made our life so difficult. Life becomes unbearable without buddha grass. [Laughter] Without that thing, without that injection, we can’t bear it. We can’t stand to be without it. We make our life so unnecessarily difficult and expensive.

Then, we have no money so we have to steal from our friends or our parents, from the cupboard, from their purse, from their bank. We have no other way to buy the buddha grass or to buy the injection or this stuff. Then, we engage in another negative karma, stealing. Then also killing. So we make our life unnecessarily painful, so painful. So uncontrolled.

Alcohol makes life unfunctional. With such a precious human body we can do so much, develop our mind on the path, be of so much benefit to others. We have so much opportunity, so much potential, so to then make life completely unfunctional, that is another great shortcoming of desire. And to be unable to complete our education, whatever it is, all those things. Whether it is Dharma education or even ordinary learning, we can’t do it; we can’t practice because our mind is so uncontrolled.

Then we end our life by going to prison. Not one time but even after we come out of prison, because we don’t control the desire, we do the same thing, then again we get into the same problem. We repeat this over and over in life. Our life goes like that.

The other shortcoming of desire is relationship problems. That is the biggest thing. That’s the most painful one. I think we'd better to have tea. [Laughter] Better to relax.