The Essence of Dharma Practice

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Bodhgaya, India (Archive #1405)

A talk about Dharma practice in daily life, given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche to a group of Russian students at Root Institute, Bodhgaya, India on January 19, 2003. Rinpoche says that the very essence of our practice is correctly devoting to the virtuous friend and living our life with the good heart. In this teaching, Rinpoche also gives advice on how to study and meditate on the lamrim, the path to enlightenment. Transcribed and edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Root Institute, Bodhgaya, 2000. Photo: Brian Halterman.

Even though you have had to come from far away and incur a lot of expense, you have put effort into dedicating your life to Buddhadharma to benefit sentient beings and the teachings of the Buddha. You have taken this most precious opportunity to come here to meet the Buddha of Compassion manifested to us in human form, with whom we can communicate and from whom we can directly receive teachings, initiations and vows.

We have had the opportunity to hear not only unmistaken pure teachings of the Buddha, but Mahayana teachings, and in particular the Mahayana tantric teachings, the quick path to achieve enlightenment. And among the tantric teachings, we were able to hear teachings of Maha-anuttara Yoga Tantra, the quickest path to enlightenment; we were able to receive the Kalachakra initiation, which enables us to practice the Kalachakra path, and we were able to receive it from the actual Kalachakra deity, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We will not always have such an opportunity; to have such an opportunity is like a dream.

I’m very happy that you have had the unbelievable fortune to be able to come to Bodhgaya, this special place where a thousand buddhas will place their holy feet. From the one thousand buddhas, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is the fourth buddha to have already placed his holy feet in Bodhgaya, and the rest of the one thousand buddhas will also place their holy feet here. Bodhgaya is especially blessed; it is the most important pilgrimage place in the world.

We have received this most precious opportunity because in the past we created the cause and conditions through collecting a lot of merit and making special prayers.

The essence of Dharma Practice

In regard to how to practice Dharma, the very essence that fulfills all our wishes and  makes our Dharma practice most successful, enabling us to have realizations and be able to benefit other sentient beings, is devoting ourselves correctly to the virtuous friend and living our life with the good heart, the thought of benefiting other sentient beings. I advise students that these two are what make everything most successful, enabling us to achieve temporary and ultimate happiness—liberation from samsara and enlightenment—and to bring all happiness, temporary and ultimate, to other sentient beings. These two enable us to bring others not only the happiness of this life but the happiness of future lives, liberation from samsara and the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment. To be able to bring others all this happiness, we need to put all our effort into these two.

And from these two, I would say that if we are able to correctly devote ourselves to the virtuous friend, the practice of the good heart also comes along with that, because it is the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. What differentiates Buddhism from all other religions is compassion toward all living beings without discrimination. As the practice of the good heart is one of the fundamental instructions from the virtuous friend, when we correctly devote ourselves to the virtuous friend, this practice comes by the way.

Strong devotion is what makes it easy to correctly devote ourselves to the virtuous friend. The stronger our devotion, the more we are able to dedicate our life to serving and following the advice of the virtuous friend. And the more we follow the advice of the virtuous friend, the easier it is for us to achieve realizations of the path to enlightenment. Therefore, we have to train our mind in guru devotion, transforming our mind into the pure thought of devotion, which means looking at the guru as a buddha. Whether from the guru’s side he is a sentient being or a buddha, from our side we have to transform our mind into the pure devotional thought that sees the guru as an actual buddha by looking at him as a buddha. To do this we use logical reasoning and the quotations from lamrim and from the sutras and tantras, such as when Shakyamuni Buddha, in the aspect of Vajradhara, said, “In the future I will manifest in the form of the spiritual master.” With reasoning and quotations, we can transform our mind into the pure thought of devotion, seeing the guru as a buddha.

With strong, stable guru devotion, we will also be able to live in morality, which is the fundamental practice of Dharma. If we are lay people, we will be able to live in the lay vows, and if we are ordained, we will be able to live in ordination. The stronger our guru devotion, the easier it will be for us to follow the guru’s advice, which means it will be very easy for us to live in morality. Guru devotion helps us in many ways.

Generally speaking, in any village or city, there is always somebody who has more knowledge than the other people in that place. Using that as a basis, we can then say that there is somebody who has the most knowledge in the world, who has knowledge that most people don’t have. Like that, there is somebody who has completed all understanding; there is somebody with the clearest mind, who has no ignorance, no obstruction to directly seeing all past, present and future phenomena, no defilements, gross or subtle. The only mind that has completed all understanding is the omniscient mind, the enlightened mind.

When you have omniscient mind, you have also completed training your mind in compassion for all sentient beings. That mind has compassion for every sentient being without any discrimination. This quality is there. At that time you also have perfect power to reveal the methods to guide sentient beings. This quality is also complete. A being who has these three qualities is a buddha, an enlightened being.

If you feel compassion for some being, whether a sick person or an animal, it makes you do something to help that person or animal. Even in your own case, even though your compassion is very limited, very small, your compassion still persuades you to help others. So, somebody who has completed training their mind in compassion for all the numberless sentient beings, which includes you, will definitely guide you. For sure they are working for you. Such an enlightened being will definitely be guiding you. Think, “Enlightened beings manifest in the form of animals in oceans and in forests to guide even animals. Since I’m a human being with the capacity to communicate and to understand the meaning of Dharma, these enlightened beings, these buddhas, who have completed training their mind in compassion, are definitely guiding me. There is no doubt that they are working for me.” First make the strong determination in your own heart that there are such enlightened beings.

Buddha Vajradhara said, “I, who am called Vajrasattva, will take the form of the spiritual master. In order to benefit sentient beings I will abide in ordinary forms.” Buddha Vajradhara has already explained that he is going to work for us sentient beings by manifesting in the form of the virtuous friend and in whatever other forms are beneficial for us.

Also, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha vowed to guide us. Our time is a degenerate time, known as “the quarreling time,” when the human lifespan is a hundred years and sentient beings are very difficult to subdue. All the rest of the one thousand buddhas of the fortunate eon made prayers to guide sentient beings in good times in this world, so we were left out by all the other buddhas. However, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha chose to guide sentient beings in this particular time, the quarreling time; he made five hundred prayers to be able to guide us sentient beings. This is just one example of how the Buddha promised that he would manifest and work for us sentient beings. There are many others.

Therefore, since Buddha Vajradhara, or Shakyamuni Buddha, said that he would manifest in various forms, including that of the virtuous friend, and guide sentient beings, who else can that be but your present virtuous friends, with whom you have established actual Dharma connection? Therefore, these virtuous friends are definitely buddhas.

This is how you meditate to reach this conclusion. You then keep your mind in that state, looking at them as buddhas, for a little while. After you prove to your mind that they are buddhas, keep your mind in that state of guru devotion for a little while.

Then think, “Everything these gurus do for me—giving me Dharma advice, giving me refuge, pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, giving me oral transmissions and initiations—protects me from delusions and karma, the cause of suffering. In that way it protects me from suffering. It also plants seeds of the realizations of the path to enlightenment, which causes me to achieve realizations of the path, which definitely brings me to full enlightenment. By planting the seeds in my mind, they definitely bring me to enlightenment. So, if these actions are not a buddha’s actions and if they are not buddhas, who else is the buddha that brings me to enlightenment? Therefore, I can conclude that they are buddhas.” This makes even stronger your determination that they are buddhas, so transform your mind into that guru devotion.

“Every single thing that these virtuous friends do, even scolding me, eliminates obstacles to my Dharma practice, to my purification of negative karma. Everything they do for me definitely brings me to enlightenment. If they are not buddhas, who is?”

Following the Mistaken Thought

However, if you follow your impure mind, your mistaken thought, how the virtuous friend appears to you is a projection of your impure, mistaken thought. If you follow this impure mind, you see mistakes in everyone; in some you see small mistakes, in others you see big mistakes. You then see no one as a buddha. As I mentioned before, you know that the actions of your virtuous friends definitely bring you to enlightenment. It then comes to the point that you think that the buddhas, who have all those qualities, don’t have omniscient mind, don’t have compassion for you or don’t have the power to guide you, or you think that there is no such thing as Buddha. That is not true.

There is such a thing as Buddha, and Buddha has all these qualities and is definitely working for sentient beings. As I mentioned at the beginning, if you yourself feel some small compassion for a person or an animal, you help that person or animal. Therefore, there is no doubt that Buddha, who has all these qualities, who is bound by infinite compassion to us sentient beings, is definitely working for us. For this reason, the virtuous friends are definitely buddhas. Again make this strong determination then stay in that state of devotion.

Also, as The Essence of Nectar says:

Until we are free from defilements and evil karma, even if all the buddhas descended directly in front of us, we would have no opportunity to see the supreme holy body adorned with the holy signs and exemplifications, but only our present appearance.

This means that we would have no opportunity to see a buddha in the aspect of a buddha; we would see only our present appearance, which is the projection of our obscured mind, which is obscured by evil karma. Our present appearance means in ordinary aspect. The definition of “ordinary” is having faults, delusions and a contaminated suffering samsaric body, and making mistakes in the actions. That is what appears to our mistaken ordinary mind, a mind obscured by negative karma. Believing in this appearance blocks our seeing that the virtuous friends are buddhas, even though they are buddhas.

Take the example of Gelong Lekpai Garma. He served Guru Shakyamuni Buddha as his attendant for twenty-two years, but never saw him as a buddha, even though he had become enlightened an inconceivable time before. During those twenty-two years he saw the Buddha only as a liar. When people made offerings to the Buddha when he went for alms, Buddha would then predict, “From this merit you will become such-and-such Buddha.” Lekpai Garma didn’t believe the Buddha’s predictions.

During twenty-two years of service, Gelong Lekpai Garma never saw the Buddha as an enlightened being, but only as a liar. From his side Lekpai Garma didn’t look at Guru Shakyamuni Buddha as a buddha, even though from Shakyamuni Buddha’s side he was an enlightened being, enlightened an inconceivable time ago. Lekpai Garma always looked at the Buddha with an impure mind, and believing his view of Buddha as ordinary to be true blocked his realization that Shakyamuni Buddha was a buddha.

Lama Tsongkhapa's Advice for Practice

Lama Tsongkhapa gives two techniques that enable us to use mistakes that we see in the actions of the guru to develop our devotion, to bring stronger devotion in our heart, instead of heresy, anger and non-devotional thoughts. These are powerful ways, no matter what happens, to be able to keep our mind in the devotion that sees the guru as a buddha by looking at him as a buddha.

One technique is to think that the guru purposely made the mistake as a specific method to benefit us, to bring us to liberation and enlightenment. When we think this, seeing mistakes in the guru’s actions causes devotion to arise; it doesn’t become a problem for our mind.

The other technique is to think that any mistake we see in the actions of the guru is, as I mentioned before, the appearance of our impure mind. We see mistakes in the guru just as a person with faulty vision sees hair falling down or two moons or suns, when there is only one. If we look through red glass, we see everything as red. If we look through blue glass, we see everything as blue, even white things. What color we see depends on the color of the glass we look through. In a similar way, if our mind is pure, we see things as pure; if our mind is impure, we see things as impure. This second technique involves thinking that the appearance of mistakes comes from our own impure mind, our own impure karma. When we think that, seeing mistakes in the guru doesn’t disturb our mind or make us lose our devotion. By thinking that the appearance of a mistake comes from our impure karma, we are able to keep our mind in steady devotion, looking at the guru as a buddha.

After we have proved to our mind that does not see the guru as a buddha that the guru is a buddha, after we have established that guru devotion, we can then think in the following way. “As mentioned in the quotation from The Essence of Nectar, at the moment my mind is obscured by evil karma, so I see the guru as having delusions and a contaminated, suffering body and as making mistakes in his actions. This is the present state of my mind. If the guru manifested to me in a lower form, such as an animal, it would be difficult for me to communicate with him and to receive teachings. If the guru manifested in a purer form than this, I wouldn’t have the karma to see it. Therefore, these gurus have manifested exactly according to my present obscured mind, my mistaken thoughts, and in that way, they can guide me.”

Then think, “How unbelievably kind the virtuous friend is!” Keep on repeating, “How unbelievably kind the virtuous friend is! How unbelievably kind the virtuous friend is!” for as many virtuous friends as you have, especially to see purely anyone toward whom you find it difficult to generate devotion.

Next think, “This ordinary aspect that shows having delusions and a suffering body and making mistakes in his actions is the only one that can directly guide me. It’s the only one that can liberate me from samsara and bring me to enlightenment. How unbelievably kind it is! How unbelievably kind it is!” Keep on repeating this as you meditate on the kindness. You can repeat this ten, fifteen, twenty times or for half a mala or one mala.

After that, think, “With these ordinary aspects the virtuous friends are guiding me to liberation and to enlightenment by revealing various methods. How unbelievably kind they are!” Again, keep your mind in devotion and meditate on the kindness.

Next, think, “All the buddhas guide me through this guru, who has manifested to me in this ordinary form. All the numberless buddhas, including Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, guide me through the aspect of this ordinary form. Manjushri guides me through this. Maitreya Buddha guides me through this. Tara guides me through this. All the buddhas guide me through this ordinary aspect, this form of the guru. How precious this aspect is! How precious each of these ordinary aspects is! This ordinary aspect of the guru is the most precious one in my life.”

This is just a brief meditation on guru devotion, because I happened to mention guru devotion. There are many more details in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand and other lamrim texts. This is just a condensed explanation of how to meditate on guru devotion, of how to generate guru devotion and, in particular, of how to use your seeing mistakes in the actions of the guru to develop strong guru devotion rather than to destroy yourself and all your merit through creating negative karma by giving rise to heresy and anger. These techniques enable you to make your guru devotion stable, and by having stable realization, you then receive the blessing of the guru in your heart. The blessing that you receive from the guru then causes you to achieve realizations.

This is the very essence of guru devotion meditation, which in the lamrim comes under the general titles of devoting to the guru with thought and with action.

Practicing Dharma in Daily Life

In regard to how to practice Dharma in daily life, first you should study at least one lamrim text, such as Lama Tsongkhapa’s lamrim commentary, from beginning to end. After you have studied the text, if possible, read over it two or three times. Generally, it’s good to read such texts many times, because each time you read the text, you understand something more, even though you have read it before.

Then every day do a little meditation on guru yoga, by either following the lamrim outlines or doing something short as I have just done, to transform your mind from the ordinary mind that sees mistakes into the pure mind of devotion that sees the guru as a buddha. Do a little guru devotion meditation every day until you have stable realization. Even after you have the realization, you still need to continue the meditation a little to stabilize the realization so that you don’t lose it.

You can make a general plan of meditation in the following way. Your project of meditation for the first year is to work mainly on the graduated path of the lower capable being in general. You can spend one year on that, meditating step by step from perfect human rebirth up to karma. In order to have realization, you meditate every day for one year on the lower path. The next year you meditate mainly on the path of the middle capable being, basically to develop some feeling of renunciation. The following year you can meditate mainly on bodhicitta. And the next year you can spend your time meditating mainly on emptiness. However, you could also meditate on emptiness every day.

This is one way to meditate on the lamrim in order to achieve realization of the three principles of the path. It doesn’t mean that you can’t meditate on bodhicitta while you are meditating on the lower path, but your main focus during that first year could be the lower path. The main thing is that after you achieve realization of the lower path, you need to put time and effort into achieving realization of the renunciation of the whole of samsara. First you develop renunciation toward this life, then second, renunciation toward the whole of samsara. To develop the first level of renunciation, you meditate on the lower path, especially on impermanence and death, the sufferings of the lower realms and karma. Your heart will then totally change.

At the moment the happiness of this life is more important and the happiness of future lives is secondary. After you do these meditations, there will be a total change in your heart. Achieving the happiness of future lives will become the most important thing and whether or not you achieve the happiness of this life will become unimportant. You will see work for the happiness of this life as totally meaningless. In your heart achieving the happiness of future lives will become the most important thing. Your attitude will totally change. So, until you have stable realization of renunciation of this life, you meditate on the lower path. This means until you have the realization that sees the whole of samsara—including the human realm and even the deva realms—only in the nature of suffering, like being in the center of a fire. You have the realization of renunciation of samsara when you are like a prisoner who feels it is so unbearable to be in prison that the thought to get out arises day and night without effort.

Once you have that realization, you then put your main effort into the graduated path of the higher capable being, into generating bodhicitta. When you achieve one realization, you then put your effort into the next meditation. I mentioned before spending one year on the lower path, then one year on the middle path, then one year on bodhicitta, but although you can do that, the time is not the main point. The main point is that when you achieve the realization, you then go to the next level of meditation.

Also, in your daily life, you should do lamrim meditation on the basis of a guru yoga practice, whether Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga, Guru Puja or another guru yoga practice.

You also need to do the practices of purification and of collecting merit. For example, you can do the practice of purification by doing prostrations with recitation of the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas in the morning and in the evening you can do Vajrasattva practice, either with prostrations or in sitting meditation. And the most powerful purification and collection of the most extensive merit come through guru devotion, through following the guru’s advice and offering service to the guru.

In the break-times, when you are not doing sitting meditation but are just living your life, try to live with a continuation of the feeling you generated during your session of lamrim meditation. For example, if you are meditating on impermanence and death during your morning session, continue that thought in your break-times. Because this won’t allow anger, attachment and other delusions to arise, your actions in the break-times will naturally become virtuous. Eating, walking, doing your job—whatever you do will naturally become virtue, or Dharma. In the same way, if your morning meditation is guru devotion, you should continue that guru devotion in your break-times; again, everything you do with that thought will become Dharma. And it is the same with bodhicitta, the good heart. That is how to integrate lamrim with your break-times.

If you have already studied a lamrim commentary, such as Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, you can follow that meditation outline. Memorizing the outline and meditating on it is one way to meditate on lamrim in your daily life. Once you have studied a lamrim commentary, you can use a short lamrim text, such as The Essential Nectar, as the basis for your lamrim meditation in daily life. The Essential Nectar, which has a commentary by one of my teachers, Geshe Rabten, is one book that I suggest you use for daily meditation on lamrim. It goes straight through the outlines, without many stories or much commentary.

Those who are highly intelligent can use Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, memorizing the outlines and meditating on them. This is what meditators do: they memorize the lamrim outlines in Lamrim Chenmo, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand or one of the short lamrims, then meditate on the outlines.

In daily life everything you do—eating, walking, sitting, sleeping—should become an antidote to the ego, the self-cherishing thought. Instead of allowing the things you do to become work for the self-cherishing thought, try to make them antidotes to self-cherishing thought. That means doing your daily activities with bodhicitta, with the thought of benefiting others, of cherishing others. When you do activities with that thought, everything you do becomes an antidote to self-cherishing thought; it then becomes the best Dharma, the purest Dharma.

There is one other thing I would like to mention about the guru. If the guru tells you to do something that is against the Dharma, against Buddha’s teachings, such as engaging in killing, stealing, and so forth, that will become heavy negative karma for you, Buddha explains in various teachings, including the vinaya, that ordinary beings like us can humbly request permission not to do the action. This should be done with devotion, not with irritation or anger toward the guru, thinking, “This is stupid.” We should continuously keep our mind in devotion, as I mentioned before, by thinking that this is the view of our own negative mind. Then, without losing our devotion, we should humbly and skillfully try to get permission not to do the action. It is like this for ordinary people like us. However, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, when a special guru and a special disciple meet, the disciple does every single thing that the guru says.

Due to all the merits of the three times collected by me and by others, which exist but do not exist from their own side, which are empty, may the I, who exists but does not exist from its own side, which is totally empty, achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, which exists but doesn’t exist from its own side, which is empty, and lead all sentient beings, who exist but do not exist from their own side, who are totally empty, to that enlightenment, which exists but doesn’t exist from its own side, which is totally empty, by myself alone, who exists but does not exist from its own side, who is totally empty.

May the general teaching of Buddha and, in particular, the teaching of Lama Tsongkhapa flourish forever, especially in Russia, and spread in all directions. May it be actualized within our heart, the members of our family, everyone in Russia and everyone in this world.