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.
Turning Away from Worldly Concern

Happiness Comes When We Renounce the Eight Worldly Dharmas

In the West, the main emphasis is on external appearances and whether something makes us happy right now. The main goal seems to be happiness now. It has to be now. Now! At this moment! That’s what the main thing in life is. That’s old style psychology, cherishing ourselves. However, the best way to love ourselves, the best way to take care of ourselves, is to practice Dharma. That doesn’t mean denying ourselves but practicing renunciation so that we can become liberated from samsara. That’s what we all need, otherwise we’ll experience suffering again and again, continuously, without end.

Attachment to the eight worldly dharmas makes us anxious that we’ll be unable to fulfill our desire. Renunciation means the cessation of such worry. If we want to worry, there are more important things to worry about, such as creating bad karma or the suffering of the three lower realms. As long as the thought of the eight worldly dharmas is not renounced, life is full of problems. The moment we start to renounce this evil thought is the moment real happiness begins.

The peace of renunciation is inexpensive and doesn’t depend on factories, rockets, weapons, armies or presidents. Such peace continues until enlightenment, growing stronger and stronger. Renouncing the eight worldly dharmas is like opening a door—a simple step that requires an understanding mind. We need to know the evolution of such an action, understanding its causes and expected results. Unlike most actions done ignorant of their results, such as taking drugs, which make us progressively crazier, renunciation makes us progressively saner. It’s like a saw, cutting through problems and confusion.

Many people who have no experience of Dharma are shocked by those who follow a spiritual path and give up temporal things. This is especially true of the parents of Western Dharma students. They see renunciation as a great suffering and something only a limited mind would engage in. They think that those who renounce worldly concerns are foolish, that they’re leading a nonsensical life that will lead to more problems. However, all this is judged with ignorance, without understanding the true benefits of renunciation. Since they have not been through the experience they cannot know. Rather than being just the causes of misery, as they seem to think, in reality such actions bring both future benefits and immediate help by releasing us from our confusion.

Any problems we might have with our Dharma practice come from our attitude to the practice, not from the practice itself. If we feel we were happier before we started practicing Dharma, we need to look at where this thought comes from and sort it out. Such thoughts are dangerous because they can destroy the merit of positive actions.

If we live in pure Dharma practice we simply won’t have the common problems of people who lead a mundane life. A recent lam-rim lineage lama said,

One who has renounced this life does not return anger when somebody is angry with him. When somebody insults him, he doesn’t return the insult. When somebody beats him, he doesn’t retaliate with a beating in return. The person who is able to practice like this is renounced.

As we practice Dharma and see the truth that all problems come from attachment to this life, we discover great calmness and peace, as opposed to the clinging, dissatisfied mind that never has enough. Freed from our desires, there’s no painful mind, no stuck mind; it’s like being released from prison. We feel incredibly happy when we’re finally released from the painful emotional mind of desire.

In the absence of desire, we no longer have all the other problems that we normally experience: the suffering that lack of comfort brings, the pain of being criticized and so forth. There’s only peace. This is the renunciation that is defined in the graduated path of the middle capable being, as clearly explained by Lama Tsongkhapa in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path

With the great stability that renouncing this life brings, there is very little difference between meeting the four desirable objects and the four undesirable objects. If there’s praise, we’re happy; if there’s criticism, we’re happy. If we receive material things, we’re happy; if we don’t, we’re happy. Neither good reputation nor bad reputation can disturb our mind; we have equalized them. However the conditions of life change, our mind remains undisturbed, so we experience great peace, great relaxation and freedom from anxiety.

Actually, this is the best way to stay healthy. With the relaxation and lack of worry that come with freedom from attachment, we’re unlikely to have a sudden heart attack in the street and lie there, surrounded by people, our family upset and crying, waiting to get rushed off to the hospital in an ambulance with sirens blaring, this noise we hear all the time. Dharma saves us from all this. It not only protects us, it protects others and saves them from problems too.

With renunciation, any action, mundane or spiritual, becomes a pure Dharma action. While devoting all our energy to achieving enlightenment, we still need food, clothing and shelter to survive, but obtaining them is no longer the prime motivation for our actions. Moreover, living in the pure, essential practice of Dharma, the necessities of life come to us by the way, without too much effort on our part. They are like the many things we see on the way as we are traveling to a distant country that are enjoyable but not the purpose of our journey.

Understanding how only Dharma has the power to diminish and finally eliminate all delusions, we can see that there’s no method other than Dharma if we want to be truly happy. We can practice Dharma anywhere, not just in Tibetan monasteries but in the West, in the East, in space, under the earth, wherever. It doesn’t require sitting cross-legged with our eyes closed, saying prayers; it doesn’t necessarily mean giving our possessions away. There’s no specific form of action. Whatever we do, the power of our mind, a correct motivation, can make the actions of our daily life the remedy to our delusions.

There’s great benefit if we can renounce our attachment to this life for even a second, so if we can do it for longer—a minute, an hour, twenty- four hours—then our life can really have great meaning. The benefit we can be to other sentient beings is unbelievable. There’s so much we can do, especially by meditating on the lam-rim. Even if we don’t achieve the actual realizations in this life, at least we’ll be that much closer and well prepared to achieve realizations in our next life, which will happen without much hardship.

The higher the realizations we can actualize, the greater the benefit we can be to other sentient beings, who equal the limitless sky; those most precious sentient beings, from whom we have received all our past, present and future happiness and every single comfort.

Developing Determination

This life is not long. In fact, it is very short. We might have only a few days left, a few months, at the most a few years. So what’s the big deal with all these objects of attachment? Why should we care so much? Why should we be so concerned? With so much attachment and aversion we make ourselves crazy, so crazy, all the time thinking bad, bad, bad; these things are bad, bad, bad. Every day labeling bad, bad, bad, believing they are bad, bad, bad. We label them bad, bad, bad and they appear to our consciousness as bad, bad, bad. Like this, we make ourselves completely neurotic and paranoid.

And life is constantly changing around us. Every day, every hour, every minute, every second there are new good things and bad things to experience. We open our eyes and we see so many things around us: beautiful objects, ugly objects, indifferent objects. We are not deaf and so our ears are always hearing sounds: good sounds, bad sounds, indifferent sounds. As long as our nose consciousness is functioning, then again we smell good smells, bad smells, indifferent smells; and as long as our tactile consciousness is functioning, we are surrounded by objects that feel good to touch, or bad, or indifferent.

Whatever happens, whatever we experience, whichever of the four desirable objects or the four undesirable objects we encounter, we should be very aware of how short life is. The appearance of life is like a dream, like a finger-snap. So there’s absolutely no point in caring about any of these things. There’s no point in clinging to these ephemeral experiences. Otherwise it’s like we’re staying in a house for only a couple of days but spending all our time and effort making extensive improvements—renovating, decorating, furnishing—and not making any preparations for the onward journey. Knowing that we’re leaving today, there’s no point in trying to fix it up as if we were going to live there for many years. We don’t paint the hotel or dormitory rooms we stay in.

The whole thing is a question of determination. Without determination there’s no development. My first alphabet teacher, whose holy name was Aku Ngawang Lekshe50, used to tell me that the whole problem is being unable to make the determination to practice Dharma. He explained this to me the very first time he taught me the alphabet and he was still saying it the last time I saw him, not long before he passed away.

The inability to make this determination is the source of all our problems and obstacles. Our own mind creates the difficulty. Our own mind makes it difficult to practice and generate the realizations of the path. If we make the determination to practice, we won’t have any difficulties; if we don’t, we will. There are no difficulties from the side of the Dharma. There are no external difficulties. The difficulties in practicing Dharma come from our own mind, from our own inability to make the necessary determination. And what makes us unable to make that determination is the thought of the eight worldly dharmas.

The very moment we make the determination to not follow desire and to practice Dharma, we find peace. On this very seat, at this very second, there’s peace. Really, there’s no other choice; there’s no other solution.

Renouncing the Eight Worldly Dharmas Is Not Only a Buddhist Practice

Everybody wants satisfaction, so everybody needs to renounce the eight worldly dharmas, whether they’re a religious practitioner or not. It’s the one route out of suffering to happiness, so there’s no other choice. This is psychology, not religion.

When somebody has a headache, a painkiller will stop it. It doesn’t depend on that person’s race or religion. There isn’t an analgesic just for Buddhists. Similarly, the practice of renouncing the eight worldly dharmas is the psychological remedy to the suffering of attachment. Therefore this teaching is universal education. Everybody, Buddhist or not, needs this practice.

When we first come across Buddhism we might think that Dharma is easy; it’s just a matter of sitting cross-legged with eyes closed and imitating that person over there. But the real Dharma is to create actions that are undefiled by the eight worldly dharmas and free of greed, hatred and ignorance. Those actions don’t need the label “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” “Christian” or “Muslim.” People might even call us “evil,” but if our actions arise from a pure motivation and have the power to destroy the negative mind and create positive karma, such actions are called Dharma because they allow us to escape from ignorance and reach enlightenment.

Dharma is not a prescribed set of actions only for Buddhists but something that everybody can do if their mind is open enough. It has nothing to do with class, caste, occupation, title, religion or skin color. But we sentient beings block the ability to help ourselves. Our ignorance alone stops us from creating positive karma. If we feel that the Dharma teachings we read are too deep and profound to be relevant to us, it’s only our mind that has labeled them such. The Buddha didn’t deliberately make them hard to follow. The level of Dharma that we can practice depends on our level of wisdom.

You might be worried about becoming a Buddhist because of what you think you have to do. If you are scared of the word, you don’t have to be called “Buddhist.” It’s just a name. Scientists experiment on external phenomena, trying to improve the world, but experimenting with your mind is much more worthwhile. Instead of going around with a confused mind spending a lot of money rearranging material things, it’s much more beneficial to experiment on your mind—hundreds, thousands, billions of times more beneficial—and much more interesting, too.

Check to see whether the scientists who work with external phenomena have discovered any methods that will completely cut off greed, hatred and ignorance. Have they ever discovered a method that will definitely destroy the cause of all mental and physical problems, such as old age and death? Of course, these people themselves, as wise as they are in science or whatever their field is, are afraid of aging and death. That’s because there’s something missing in the way they do their experiments; they can’t recognize the root cause of these problems. If they had already discovered the cause of old age, which nobody wants, they would have developed a cure for it and there wouldn’t be any old people any more; everybody would be young and eternally youthful looking. But there’s no choice—everybody, no matter what religion or belief, has to go through old age, death and all these other sufferings.

Give Up the Clinging, Not the Object

Many people think that the Buddhist teachings on renunciation mean that we have to deny ourselves what we like, that Buddhism says we’re not allowed to enjoy ourselves any more and therefore think that Dharma practitioners must be miserable people, always denying themselves pleasure.

From the practitioner’s side, however, the limited-minded person who says such things is only an object of derision, because the experience of renunciation is not at all like that. Such a concept is completely wrong, completely opposite to the logical experience gained from this practice. Rather than bringing misery, renouncing attachment to worldly comfort brings great happiness in this and future lives.

Renunciation doesn’t mean giving up all physical things and running away from life. We shouldn’t eat, we shouldn’t drink, we shouldn’t wear clothes, we shouldn’t live in our house, we need to give up our body . . . of course it doesn’t mean that. If it did, how could we exist? How could we practice Dharma? Impossible! How is it possible to practice without relying on immediate needs? Perhaps it’s possible if we’re practicing Dharma in a dream; perhaps it would be easier to renounce the eight worldly dharmas while asleep.

Having money is not the problem, but clinging to money is. Having friends is not the problem, but attachment to them is. Whenever we cling to something, that mind of desire becomes very dangerous. The object isn’t dangerous, but, like a contagious disease, the mind of desire is.

Without worldly concern, having the four desirable objects is not a problem. Not receiving gifts becomes a problem when there’s the desire to receive them. Discomfort becomes a problem when there’s desire for comfort. The problem isn’t having a friend but having the need for friendship.

Perhaps we’ve had a friend for years and always thought that she loves us but suddenly find out that she’s never really loved us at all. While we thought that our friend loved us we were happy, but now, suddenly, it has all changed and we’re miserable. The object hasn’t changed—our friend’s love was never there in the first place—but the mind perceiving it has. Our friend’s love (or lack of it) is not the problem. When our mind interprets a situation as “bad,” then the problem starts, then there’s unhappiness in our life. It’s not just finding out that the person doesn’t love us; it’s our interpretation of that fact and our labeling it “bad” and “negative.” Then we feel as if an arrow has been shot into our heart.

This shows clearly that the suffering has been brought on not by the external object, the friend, but our own mind. Not practicing Dharma but following the self-cherishing thought instead, we interpret the situation as negative and our own mind makes this external object the condition upon which we base our suffering. It could equally be a condition for happiness, but our mind makes it the opposite.


50 Aku is a honorific, meaning “uncle.” See The Lawudo Lama, pp. 140–42. [Return to text]

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