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.
Samsaric Methods Can Never Satisfy

The Buddha explained in a sutra that we can never achieve satisfaction as long as we follow desire. Furthermore, Lama Tsongkhapa said in the Lam-rim Chen-mo that following desire opens the door to many problems. Just as many branches grow from the root of a plant, most of the disturbing emotions and problems we face in life grow out of desire.

The great yogi Sharawa said that with clinging comes dissatisfaction. Even though we might have more than enough material possessions, clothes, money and so forth to last our whole life, we still feel we don’t have enough, we still crave more. Following desire doesn’t fill the empty heart. No matter how many objects of desire we manage to obtain, we still don’t experience satisfaction and that is our major suffering. There’s never an end. Whether we experience a little pleasure or a lot, we never find real satisfaction so we just want it again and again and again and again and again. We’re always craving for better and more but it just doesn’t happen. Desire is by nature hungry; it can never be satiated.

Desire is like a chronic disease. There are chronic diseases of the body; this is a chronic disease of the mind. Following the dissatisfied mind is like drinking salt water . . . or eating Indian popcorn. The popcorn in India is very salty. Because of that you have to drink tea with it. After a glass of tea you crave more popcorn, which makes you thirsty, which makes you drink more tea, which makes you want more popcorn, and so forth, on and on. Until you actively determine to stop, you just keep on eating and drinking endlessly.

What the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger sang is very true: “I can’t get no satisfaction.” In his heart, no matter how many friends he has, no matter how many people say they love him, no matter how famous he has become, no matter how much wealth he has, he’s still not satisfied. The song expresses what’s in his heart—he has all these external things but his heart, his inner life, is empty. In singing this he shows us the shortcomings of desire and proves what the Buddha said: samsaric pleasure never gives satisfaction. No matter how much we get, no matter how much we experience, we’re never satisfied.

The hunger of dissatisfaction leads to countless problems. Life becomes very expensive. We need this, we need that, we need this, we need that—so many things, billions of things. And because of that we run up many debts. Then we can’t pay them back and the court cases start. We try to start a business, but the business fails.

And talking of business, even if it works and we make a thousand dollars, we want one hundred thousand; after one hundred thousand, we want a million; then a million’s not enough, we want a billion. After we make a billion, we want a trillion, then a zillion. It never ends. Satisfaction always eludes us. It’s always just around the corner; it tells us it’s in the next purchase or the next salary increase. Life continues with the same worry, the same fear of losing our wealth, the same fear of being unable to do better than others.

We can travel around the world for months or even years trying to find a desirable object, trying to find a friend. Our mind is so upset, so lonely, so worried we won’t get what we want. One country doesn’t give us what we need and so we go to another. Maybe we spend some time hanging around in Greece, but not finding the object to satisfy our desires there, we go to California.

We spend all our money like this. We cling to the dream of finding the perfect partner but, unable to meet him or her in one place, our attachment takes us to another part of the world. We experience a difficult life, full of problems, all caused by the evil thought of eight worldly dharmas.

There are many people like this, totally out of control, blindly following attachment. Some end up going crazy or killing themselves because they can’t control their lives. They’re always searching for happiness but finding only suffering.

There’s no end to the wanting; there’s no end to the work. Like hundreds of branches spreading from one single trunk, countless problems start from the fundamental dissatisfaction that the thought of the eight worldly dharmas brings us. Problems come like ripples on a lake; they never finish—one comes, then another, then another, without end. Forever. From beginningless rebirths we’ve been following desire and still it hasn’t ended.

Life becomes so heavy and difficult, bringing depression, worry, fear. Chasing satisfaction in things, we have no chance to enjoy what life can offer. Even if we’re living in a jeweled palace full of luxuries, even if we have billions of cars—Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Rolls—even if we have billions of swimming pools, we still can’t really enjoy life. We might have an army of servants working for us but we’re still completely miserable. Look at the very rich beyond their glossy exteriors and ask yourself whether they’re truly happy. Many of them look thoroughly worn down and miserable.

When we don’t get what our attachment wants, we feel hopeless. This is one of the fundamental sufferings in our life. This is what makes people crazy. Whatever we’re attached to that we lose—our business, our friend, whatever—makes us think that our life has no meaning. Then, due to anger, jealousy and so forth, we create negative actions such as killing or stealing. We cause so much harm to ourselves and others. It brings much unhappiness not only to ourselves but also to many others and is the cause of rebirth in the lower realms.

We need to let go by practicing mindfulness, by watching the mind. Then, when attachment to the eight worldly dharmas arises, like the missiles that America used on Iraq that pinpointed their target even after traveling hundreds of miles, we need to see attachment for what it is and launch our nuclear missile of mindfulness right at it to destroy it.

The highly realized Tibetan yogi Drogön Tsangpa Gyare said,

In the door of the house of the practitioner, a happy person is peacefully lying down, but the person who seeks delicious food can’t feel this.
In the door of the house of one who practices the remedy, the eight worldly dharmas are lying down, but those who have attachment can’t feel this.
In the door of the house of one who has cut off the root, there is a happy mind lying there, but those who have doubts can’t feel this.
In the door of the house of the person who has satisfaction, there is a really rich person lying there, but the desirous, the dissatisfied ones can’t feel this.

“Door,” of course, refers to the mind. This is where we can find real peace and happiness but the person who still clings to external sense pleasures can never know this. If we still crave delicious food, beautiful clothes and comfortable places, we can never know the peace and happiness that a renounced person does. Drogön Tsangpa Gyare says that only by subduing the thought of the eight worldly dharmas can there be peace. Those who follow this evil thought will never know it.

He goes on to say that if a practitioner completely cuts off the root of delusion, the evil thought of the eight worldly dharmas and the ignorance that grasps a truly-existent I, real happiness can be found. Finally, he says that whether a person has possessions or not—he might be materially poor without enough food for even one meal—if that person is satisfied, he has great wealth, whereas somebody who is full of desire and feels he never has enough is poorer than the poorest beggar, even though he might have untold riches.

As we have seen, satisfaction is not the product of material objects but is a state of mind, an experience of the mind. Not understanding where real satisfaction comes from, people trapped by desire are frightened by the thought of giving up the external things that they wrongly see as the source of their happiness. They can’t see that there can be satisfaction without material possessions. They can’t see that the greatest wealth, the real gift that brings happiness and freedom from an uptight mind, is freedom from desire.

Living in the confusion of desire, no amount of possessions can cure the problem. But the simplest person, without material possessions but also without the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, has the most valuable possession, the most valuable method of making life happy. Even trillions of dollars cannot bring this gift.

I remember when I first went to the West I found it a bit strange how people always asked dinner guests what they wanted to eat. In the East the food is just served and everybody accepts what is there, but it seems that Westerners have to have a choice. Lama Tsongkhapa advises us to train by not letting attraction to samsaric perfections—samsaric happiness, reputation, power, wealth, all these things—arise for even one second, so accepting what is given is part of our practice. If we can hold this thought in our mental continuum continuously, then we have generated the realization of renunciation, the determination to be free from samsara.