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.
The Nature of Samsara

The Cow on the Precipice

The great pandit Chandragomin uses a very effective example to explain the nature of worldly beings who work only for this life. A cow sees a small bunch of grass growing near a precipice and runs to it thinking that if she can eat it she will be happy. Because of attachment to that grass, she tries to reach it and falls over into the precipice, killing herself. Her attachment brings her suffering instead of the happiness she expected. Chandragomin says that a worldly being seeking only happiness in this life is just like the cow. He is so attached to pleasure, he runs to it without seeing the danger, and he falls down and dies.

This example is incredible. When we are solely seeking the happiness of this life, when we are attached to only that, whatever action we do only becomes nonvirtue. Like the cow falling over the precipice while attempting to achieve the happiness of the bunch of grass, we are totally cheated by attachment. Even though we are looking for happiness, the result of our action is only rebirth in the lower realms.

Lama Atisha, the bodhisattva1 and embodiment of Chenrezig, the compassionate buddha, was invited from India to reestablish Buddhadharma in Tibet. While there, Dromtönpa offered service to this great meditator and was his translator. Once he asked Atisha, “What is the result of actions done with ignorance, anger and attachment? And of actions not done with ignorance, anger and attachment?” Lama Atisha answered:

 Actions done with ignorance, anger and attachment bring rebirth in the lower realms as a suffering transmigratory being. Greed causes rebirth in the preta 2 realm, hatred causes rebirth in the hell realm, ignorance causes rebirth in the animal realm, and so forth. Actions done with an attitude not possessed by the three poisonous minds bring the result of rebirth as a happy transmigratory being.

To understand Lama Atisha’s answer, look at human beings who have no understanding of Dharma at all, no faith in refuge or karma. Simply think back to the people from your own city or town. Day and night they think of nothing more than this life. They are concerned about nothing more than the happiness of the next few years, or even a few months. They keep themselves constantly busy with this motive of worldly concern. It is easy to see that this is all nonvirtue. Lama Atisha explains that the result of all activities of body, speech and mind done with an attitude of worldly concern result in rebirth in the lower realms as a suffering transmigratory being.

 Because there is no understanding of karma and also no faith in refuge, such people have no opportunity to purify the obscurations and negative karma accumulated in the past, and no opportunity to practice holy Dharma. We can see this very clearly in the example above of the cow wishing to get the grass at the edge of the precipice. The result is that she falls down the precipice. Like this, the result of all work done for the happiness of this life, since the method is nonvirtue, is to fall down into the lower realms. Even if worldly people are shown the teachings on karma and refuge, or given purification methods such as Vajrasattva 3, they cannot understand or accept them. Therefore, they have no opportunity to practice Dharma.

If we have met the holy Dharma we should feel so fortunate. Even though we might still create negative karma, we have the opportunity to purify it. With an understanding of karma and refuge, we have the opportunity to practice Dharma, and so we know there is a solution. This is Dharma wisdom; it gives us the opportunity to practice so that we can accomplish our wish for happiness.

One of Atisha’s followers, the great meditator and Kadampa master Sharawa, states that all negative actions arise from the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. As long as this is not renounced but remains in the mind, all suffering will arise.

He makes it clear that it doesn’t matter who we are, all the problems of our life are caused by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. This is as true for someone on a spiritual path trying practice Dharma as it is for someone who doesn’t follow any religion. If we don’t renounce the thought of the eight worldly dharmas we will always experience so many problems and be unable to develop our mind.

Whatever problems we experience—from not sleeping to thoughts of suicide—arise from attachment. This is simple Buddhist psychology, clearly showing both the source of all our problems and of all our happiness. This psychology of the mind is so logical, and it can make our mind peaceful by understanding how all our problems are rooted in the mind.

If we thoroughly investigate we will see that every problem we have ever faced, and every problem that everybody has ever experienced, comes from this thought clinging to the happiness of this life, this desire for temporal pleasures.

We will see this clearly if we remember the problems we’ve had recently, last year, the year before that and so on, back as far as we can remember, analyzing the cause of those problems. If we honestly investigate we won’t be able to see any problems that weren’t caused by the thought of the worldly dharmas. 

We can take our investigation beyond our own problems to the problems that others face—our family and friends, the people we work with and so on—checking whether their problems also stem from the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. In doing so we can become so much more aware of the very nature of mind. (See the meditations on this in chapter 6.)

The thought of the eight worldly dharmas also blocks us from receiving happiness in future lives and ultimate happiness, nirvana, or enlightenment.

Humans, Animals: the Only Difference Is the Shape

There is very little difference in the lives of any being who is ruled by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. To a beggar, a businessman looks rich, but even though they lead different lives on the surface, they are the same. Both are still only working for the happiness of this life. Both ways of living are negative; both are worldly work. There is no real difference.

In some ways a beggar’s work is preferable. A businessman takes care of his life by cheating others, and cheating others means cheating himself because to do that takes cunning, treachery, and telling lies. A beggar’s work doesn’t involve cheating and so is not so negative.

A student is no better. He studies so hard, from childhood to a top degree at university, but it’s just to take care of this life. He might think that he is working for the country, or for peace in the world, but in the depths of his heart his main goal is only to gain comfort in this life. For that reason, even if he spends thirty, forty, or fifty years to receive his degree, it’s all only done in the service of the eight worldly dharmas.

When he finds a job after graduating, he is still only taking care of the comfort of this life, working for the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. And maybe he dies three or four years after graduation. From studying so much and working so hard, what does he have left to carry with him? Nothing! The money that he has earned that sits in his bank account can’t be carried with him after death. Since he was born until death, his entire life was spent working for the thought of the worldly dharmas and so everything becomes a negative action, the cause of samsara, the cause of suffering. He has worked all his life to create the cause of suffering, and his life finished in that way. If we really check up, this is the huge tragedy of life. 

In that way, the student is no different from an animal. A cow stays near her home, eating grass and sleeping. She can’t talk and knows nothing the student knows—she hasn’t even studied the ABC! She certainly hasn’t gained a degree. Her whole life of thirty of forty years is working to find out where the best grass and water is. From birth until death, her whole life has been working for the comfort of this life, exactly the same as the student.

We can easily see that everything animals do is with the motivation of attachment, clinging to this life. Going out to the fields, coming back, eating, drinking—everything they do—is with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. I haven’t heard whether they watch television or whether they go to the movies, but it’s possible.

I heard they have animal schools in the United States, training them how to live in the house—where to sleep, where to eat, which chairs to sit on, where not to make smells. In the East, people teach dogs to make prostrations but that doesn’t make their minds understand Dharma; it is only a physical action. They make prostrations when there is meat, when they are hungry. At night, when it’s time to sleep, they go to bed with no virtuous thought or pure motivation.

If we analyze the student and the cow, they are basically living the same life. Just as the cow’s life is negative, so is the student’s. The cow’s life is not higher than the student’s; the student’s life is not higher than the cow’s. At death time, the student dies without having done any higher work than the cow’s, even though he was born as a human being.

However smart he is, however great his reputation, whether he goes under the Pacific or to the moon, since his life’s work is done for the thought that is attached to the comfort of this life, it is all negative, all the cause of suffering. His way of looking for happiness might seem a little bit different from the cow’s but it’s certainly no higher. Everything both of them do keeps them trapped in the samsaric prison.

They are exactly the same sort of actions done for exactly the same motivation, for comfort in this life, and both are motivated by the impure thoughts of greed, hatred and ignorance. Despite the fact that animals have no possessions whereas humans might have houses, cars, clothes, riches—everything they could ever want—really there is no difference. There is nothing that the humans do that is in any way higher or better than what the dumb animals do.

The only difference is the shape. If the being has one shape we call it a human; if it has another we call it an animal. The actions are basically the same; the mind is the same. We might think with pride that we are so much more competent than animals and that animals are so low and uneducated, but if we really check whether our life is in any way more meaningful than that of an animal, I think we might have a shock.

How many animals are there in this world? How many people? Check up on the numbers and think about how every one of them is creating the causes of suffering in this way.

First of all, think about all the billions of creatures in the ocean, and what their minds are doing. All those different types of fish, all those different creatures, so busy swimming back and forth, round and round, and in the depth of their hearts, seeking only the pleasure of this life. They keep themselves so busy, swimming back and forth, seeking food, seeking a safe comfortable place. 

All the other creatures, too, the birds flying around in the air, the animals on the ground, the creatures crawling on the ground—what they have in the very depths of their hearts is exactly the same thing, only the comfort of this life.

Now think about human beings. Take one city, like New York, and observe. Watch every person in that city; watch their minds. With the exception of only a few, almost all of them are doing the same thing with the same motivation as the creatures that fly and walk and crawl. They are only concerned with the comfort of this life. Those who are flying in spaceships, in airplanes, traveling in cars, going on the water, they are all doing the same thing. They all have the same way of thinking. Their only concern is the comfort of this life, the pleasures of this life. Look closely at all the people and all the creatures and you won’t find any difference. Everybody is so busy with attachment, seeking only the pleasures of this life.

Look at the people shopping, the people driving their cars, up and down, back and forth, always busy, day and night, day and night. What is everyone doing? Why are they all working so hard? What is in all their hearts? It’s all the same thing, trying to obtain the pleasures of this life.

Observe them. Everybody everywhere, so busy doing worldly work, being under the control of attachment, seeking the pleasures this life. They are too busy to think about Dharma, but never too busy to do all this nonvirtuous work. Such an incredible number of suffering transmigratory beings!

We worldly people look down on animals, thinking they are stupid and low, but to someone who understands Dharma and knows about karma, we are no different from animals. To the meditator, we seem totally tied up in worldly concerns and so whatever we do is suffering. We live in complete darkness, obscured from Dharma wisdom, completely unconscious of our actions.

We would probably argue that we aren’t unconscious, we’re very conscious of what we are doing. We know where to eat good food, we know how to make lots of money, we know how to work, how to make business, how to make profit, how to bargain, what the best consumer items are. Many people, who pride themselves on their intelligence, even think that animals don’t have a mind! To the meditator, however, human or animal, we lead our lives stumbling unconsciously into suffering, controlled by delusions. Seeing this, we worldly beings become the objects of the meditator’s compassion.

Slaves of the Eight Worldly Dharmas

When we follow the thought of the eight worldly dharmas we are just like a dog following its master. The man can cause the dog danger, even kill it, but the dog will always follow him because he expects to receive some food, something for his happiness, no matter how uncertain that is. When we follow the mind of worldly concern then we too will chase the stick whenever the master throws it. So we must be careful.

For most of our life, we give freedom to desire, the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas, and we happily become its slave. In return, it constantly abuses us and tortures us, bringing us so many problems, one after another.

As slaves to our attachment, we are never satisfied with what we have. We are always looking for more and better. It creates so much unhappiness in our life and in other people’s lives. It causes us to engage in so much negative karma with the body—when we fight with others—or our speech—when we say hurtful words, and so on. We can even become suicidal because our desire didn’t get what it wanted. Desire tells us kill ourselves and we listen.

Relationships can be like addictions. Without control, relationship problems can go on and on and on. Life becomes hell. Before going to hell, we experience hell with a human body. We feel completely trapped, suffocated. We cannot even breathe.

When we first meet a person we are extremely happy, so attached, almost like becoming one with that person. But after a few days we are not even talking, we see the person as the greatest monster, as an enemy. The whole situation—first the attachment, then the aversion—is created by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. If you check up, it’s true, very true. I’m not telling any stories. I’m talking about what happens to all of us. The second situation, the aversion, is clearly confusion; but so is the initial attachment, even though we don’t see it as such.

Addictions come from being slaves to desire. Think of alcoholics and drug addicts. Their lives become so unhappy, so uncontrolled, that they cannot even do their jobs. The more drugs they take, the more they damage their lives. In particular, they damage their awareness and memory.

An alcoholic finds it very hard to stop drinking. That is mainly a disease of the mind. He can see all things that are happening, all the dangers, but he doesn’t pay much attention.

He spends all the money he earns on drink, without sharing it with the family. He loses it all and becomes drunk and fights with somebody and shouts. Then he comes home drunk at night and causes a huge scene with his family, accusing his wife of things she didn’t do. He breaks things in the house, destroying their expensive possessions. He drives the car recklessly backwards, breaking all the traffic rules, and has a very bad crash and his brain is damaged, or he’s completely killed. Or he’s taken to prison by the police. This whole disaster comes from the mind controlled by the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. 

This evil mind makes it impossible for him to stop drinking, even if he sees how dangerous it is. He thinks maybe two or three spoonfuls won’t hurt, but somehow after that he needs more. Then it’s the same as before, and again his mind becomes more and more uncontrolled. He wants to break the habit, but that mind is weak. The mind of desire is too strong.

It’s the same story with cigarettes. Through smoking, the nails turn yellow, the face becomes very strained and the lungs become black with the smoke. Smoking pollutes the mind; it pollutes the body. Then the person has a heart attack or gets cancer, or many of those other diseases that are difficult to recover from. These problems are caused by the dissatisfactory mind, the thought of the eight worldly dharmas.

It is said in the teachings that the evolution of things like ganga 4 and tobacco is due to the wrong prayers of the maras, the evildoers who want to stop the Dharma teachings developing in the world, to disturb Dharma practitioners and destroy any peace and happiness there is in the world. Smoking disturbs the mind by polluting the vehicle, the body. It blocks the chakras 5 , not allowing virtuous thought to arise, and disturbs the quick development of the realizations of the meditations. For the practice of Vajrayana6  , it’s a very big disturbance.

Besides making the smoker unhealthy, wherever the smoke goes it makes other sentient beings around him unhealthy and pollutes their minds. There are other sentient beings we don’t see, the white protectors, who come to protect meditators. When the place is polluted it makes them leave. Also sentient beings such as nagas7 , usually need a very clean place. The smell of tobacco smoke completely destroys the whole environment, like poison spread from an airplane on the city.

The first time I went to America on PanAm, it was full of smoke. For the whole journey it was like sleeping. Also around the monastery, when somebody smoked down in the road, the smell was taken by the wind and came up to my room. When you smell it, right away it goes inside the heart with the breath, bringing a sense of pain.

What’s so special about smoking? Check this out. It’s like making fire in the mouth, with the smoke coming through the nose.

If we remain under the control of the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, we are suffering; even if at present it doesn’t seem like that. Allowing ourselves to remain under its control is worse than losing a billion dollars, more terrible than a parent dying, neither of which can cause us to be continuously reborn in samsara, in the lower realms. Being so servile, so obedient to evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas is the most dangerous thing, the one thing that will keep us dying and being reborn, circling always like this in the six different realms of samsara.

We never recognize this internal enemy, this devil inside. In fact, we serve our attachment as much as possible. When attachment is hungry, we feed it with delicious food; when it gets cold, we give it good clothes. When attachment gets hot we give it nice, thin clothes. Whatever orders it gives we obediently follow. It is like a king.

 Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo8 compares the eight worldly dharmas to a female cannibal. A female cannibal is very sweet at the beginning, saying very nice words, telling us she loves us and that she wants to take care of us. But if we trust her, we will be controlled by her and afterwards she will eat us. This is exactly the same as samsaric perfections.

We worldly people watch our external enemies closely, but watching this mental enemy is many million times more important. When this inner enemy arises, without following it or letting it control us, without becoming a slave to it, we should always be conscious of it, and then use all our understanding to destroy it. Because if we can’t do that, no matter how much Dharma we know, how much meditation we do, we are always creating negative karma. It is our most dangerous enemy, not just because it brings us confusion and suffering in this life, but more because it is the main cause for rebirth in the lower realms, causing us to suffer there for many eons.


1 Someone who has attained bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment. [Return to text]

2 Skt: hungry ghost. [Return to text]

3 The tantric deity used especially for purification. [Return to text]

4 Marijuana, usually Indian. [Return to text]

5 Skt: literally, wheels. Concentrations of energy within a body. Formed by the branching of channels of energy at various points along a central channel, the six main ones are at the brow, crown, throat, heart, navel and sex organ. [Return to text]

6 Skt. Also known as tantra, the quickest vehicle in Buddhism, capable of leading a practitioner to enlightenment in one lifetime. [Return to text]

7 Snake-like beings of the animal realm, often protectors of religion. [Return to text]

8 Pabongka Rinpoche was one of the great lamas of the twentieth century, hugely influential and the author of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, a commentary on Tsongkhapa’s seminal Lam-rim Chen-mo. [Return to text]