How to Use Sickness on the Path

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Chokyi Gyaltsen Center, Penang, Malaysia (Archive #2015)

In this teaching excerpt, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises how to experience disease and other problems for all sentient beings. This teaching was given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Chokyi Gyaltsen Center, Penang, Malaysia, on March 25, 2016. The transcript was typed simultaneously with the teachings by Ven. Joan Nicell and lightly edited by Ven. Holly Ansett. Second edit by Sandra Smith.

You can find videos of Rinpoche's 2016 teachings in Malaysia on the FPMT Video Resources page and download the unedited transcript here. Refer to pp. 70–74 of the transcript to find this excerpt.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Rinchen Jangsem Ling, Triang, Malaysia, April 2016. Photo: Bill Kane.

It seems that the main practice of the great Kagyu lama, Choje Gotsangpa, the enlightened being, was the six equanimities.1 He was not interested in having a monastery or organization because it could cause attachment, anger, pride, miserliness, self-cherishing and so forth to develop instead of being reduced. Of course, many other holy beings start monasteries to really establish the Vinaya teachings of the Buddha, to spread the teachings in the world and there is so much benefit from that. But Choje Gotsangpa had this particular practice to not have an organization because if you are not practicing, then it develops the ego so much. Instead of achieving enlightenment it interferes with achieving enlightenment.

His thought transformation advice is that if we have any problems, such as cancer or a life-threatening problem that we are very scared of, to think in this way:

May my experience of this [disease] cause numberless sentient beings to be free from disease.

We can think of our particular disease and of the numberless sentient beings who have that disease. Spirit harm is the condition and the cause is negative karma and obscurations. We can think of our particular problem, our sickness, like this:

By my experiencing this disease, may numberless sentient beings who have the same disease or problem, the cause of which is negative karma, be free from all this and may they achieve sang gye, the total elimination of all obscurations and completion of all the realizations.

That is his advice, how to practice.

Before, we were suffering and worried so much with the self-cherishing thought, with the motivation of the self-cherishing thought. What made us worried was our self-cherishing thought, but now we can use this problem so that all sentient beings may become free from all the sickness and spirit harm, free from the oceans of suffering and their cause, negative karma, and free from the obscurations, totally free from all this.

We use our sickness or problem for all sentient beings; we make it most meaningful for all sentient beings. Wow, wow, wow. We use it to free every sentient being from all the sufferings. All sentient beings have obscurations—and even those who are free like arhats and arya bodhisattvas don't have gross obscurations but they have subtle obscurations—so we can use our disease, such as cancer, to be beneficial and helpful for every sentient being and to free them from all the suffering, and then to achieve buddhahood, peerless happiness. Wow, wow, wow. Amazing, amazing, amazing.

Here our life is used to achieve happiness for all sentient beings, not only ultimate happiness [of liberation] but peerless happiness, full enlightenment. In this way our life becomes of the best use, the happiest, the best use; by having cancer or whatever problem, we make our life most happy.

Before, we made our life suffering with the self-cherishing thought but now, thinking of cherishing others, we make our life the best, happiest life. If we die with this thought it is the happiest way of dying. That is the best cause to be reborn in a pure land, if we want that, or to have a higher rebirth and be able to again meet Dharma and learn, develop, practice and actualize the path, and to be able to benefit sentient beings in a much greater way than in this life. Then like that we go to enlightenment.

Before, with the self-cherishing thought, we used our life in a most unhappy way, but now with this good heart—dedicating our cancer or problem and ourselves for others, for the numberless sentient beings—we make it the best life.

Having this sickness or any problem and experiencing it with the self-cherishing thought, there is no need to have it, but now, when we change our mind and experience it with a good heart toward others there is great need for it. This sickness is what is needed for us to achieve enlightenment in the quickest way and to free others from the oceans of samsaric sufferings and bring them to enlightenment in the quickest way. Those who are terrified of their sickness have incredible, great profit in their life if they think of bodhicitta, if they experience the sickness with bodhicitta, the good heart.

There is this verse from Lama Chöpa, [v. 91]:

This chronic disease of cherishing myself
Is the cause giving rise to my unsought suffering.
Perceiving this, I seek your blessings to blame, begrudge,
And destroy the monstrous demon of selfishness.

Also, you can add “Please grant me blessings to destroy the great demon of grasping or holding the I.”

So we give back the sickness, the relationship problem, the business problem or whatever problem to the self-cherishing thought. It came from the self-cherishing thought so now we give it back to the self-cherishing thought. We use it as an atomic bomb to destroy the ego, the self-cherishing thought. We give it back to that to destroy the self-cherishing thought, so it doesn’t exist at all.

It’s like a missile that is well-focused and hits exactly at the right point. We don’t harm the most precious sentient beings from whom we get all our past, present, and future happiness and who have been our mother numberless times and have been kind. We get all our happiness from sentient beings, but we are destroying that. Even Buddha, Dharma and Sangha come from sentient beings, but we destroy that and follow the inner enemy, the self-cherishing thought, the demon.

We become a disciple of that inner enemy. Our guru is the self-cherishing thought; our protector, our guide is the self-cherishing thought. However, for meditators who practice Dharma, other sentient beings are the most precious, most kind, most dear, wish-fulfilling ones.

This self-cherishing thought is the great demon who has harmed us from beginningless rebirths in samsara, who harms us now and will harm us without end. Also, this self-cherishing thought harmed numberless sentient beings in the past, harms numberless sentient beings now and will harm numberless sentient beings in the future as long as we don't change the mind from the self-cherishing thought into cherishing others, into bodhicitta. That is extremely frightening.

We give our sickness to the self-cherishing thought, we give whatever we don't like to the self-cherishing thought, to destroy the enemy, which becomes nonexistent. Also, the real I, the emotional I, is happy or unhappy on the basis of believing there is a real I. This real I has appeared from beginningless rebirths to the hallucinated mind. It is a projection of our ignorance, which left a negative imprint on the mind. The ignorance holding the I and the aggregates to be truly existent, holding things as truly existent, leaves a negative imprint on the mind and then it projects true existence. Because the base, the aggregates, are there, then our mind which is a valid mind merely imputes I.

Just the mere name “I,” the mere name, is imputed by the mind in the first second. It is something extremely, extremely, extremely subtle, unbelievably subtle. The first thing, it is merely labeled by the mind; it exists, but it exists in mere name, so fine and subtle. Now, in the next second, the I—which came from the mind and was merely imputed in the first second—has to appear back to our mind. If it appears back merely labeled by the mind it is correct. That is correct according to reality. That is what happens in the first second.

For a buddha it appears as merely labeled, but for us sentient beings—especially for us, like me—when it appears back it doesn’t appear merely labeled by the mind because the mind is a hallucinated mind, a dualistic mind. It appears back not merely labeled by the mind, totally opposite, not merely labeled by the mind. This gag cha, the object to be refuted, is so subtle, unbelievably subtle.

So in the first second the I is merely imputed, but in the next second the ignorance that left a negative imprint on the mind immediately projects true existence, a truly existent view. In the next second, it projects the truly existent view, the truly existent I—the I truly existing by itself, existing from its own side—or in ordinary language a real I. “Real” means appearing from there, not from the mind. We don’t see the I appearing from the mind; we see the I appearing from there. It came from our mind—just a second before it was merely imputed by the mind, but we are totally unaware of that. It exists from our own side; it came from our mind. It came from the negative imprint left on the mind, our wrong projection. That is how we made a false I.

The real I appears and we believe in this one hundred percent, we trust that it is a hundred percent true. This wrong concept is ignorance, the root of samsara. What creates samsara is this concept. This concept is something very subtle, it is a very subtle thought. We believe that the I exists not merely labeled by the mind, something very subtle. That is the ignorance that is the root of samsara. It is where cancer came from, where diabetes came from, where heart attacks came from. Whatever incredible disease in the world that we have, all the diseases, all the 424 diseases came from that. This is where the sufferings of rebirth, old age and death and all the rest of the sufferings came from. All the suffering of pain comes from that.

All the samsaric pleasures—of music, food, clothing, sex and so on, depending on what different sentient beings consider to be pleasure—are the suffering of change and they all came from this ignorance. They came from this wrong concept, trusting in this real I. Pervasive compounding suffering and the two other sufferings all came from that. This is how our mind is the creator of our suffering, our mind is the creator of our hell, our mind is the creator of our nirvana, of our enlightenment. If we don't take care of our mind, we experience all the sufferings, but if we take care of our mind we experience all happiness up to enlightenment.

So taking care of our life has a great meaning. Taking care of our life is living with renunciation. That is the way of taking care of this life and especially future lives. We are taking care of our life with attachment, with a painful mind, but if we live our life with bodhicitta, the ultimate good heart, then we are taking care of our life in happiness. That is the best way of taking care of our life. Then everything becomes the cause of enlightenment, whatever we do—not only doing prayers and meditation, but also eating, walking, sitting, sleeping or doing business—if we have bodhicitta. Even if we don't have actual realization but have effortful bodhicitta; even if we generate that motivation and do actions with that, it becomes the cause of enlightenment; it becomes the cause of happiness—not temporary but ultimate happiness—for all sentient beings.

Living our life with the awareness of emptiness, meditation on emptiness, of course, the realization is the best, but even with effortful meditation, we are taking care of our life, we are protecting our life from the enemy that is ignorance. So whatever we do—eating, walking, sitting, sleeping, doing our job or whatever—becomes an antidote to samsara. It doesn’t become a cause of samsara, it becomes an antidote to samsara, it ceases the root of samsara. Our meditation, prayers, eating, walking, sitting, sleeping, doing our job, everything we do ceases [the cause of samsara], it becomes the antidote to the ignorance that is the root of samsara. That is taking care of our life.

Taking care of our life is not so much about how much exercise we do in our life, going up and down, however we do it. This is physical exercise, but there is no mental exercise, so we must take care of our life with lamrim, with the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment. That is what we need. Then our life is really happy. No delusions overpower us. We overpower delusions; delusions don't overpower us.


1 Tib: ro nyom kor drug; Wyl: ro snyonyms skor drug. The six equanimities are defined in The Great Gomde Dictionary as a tradition of Mahamudra practice advice coming from the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Tsangpa Gyarey (1161-1211) and so forth. The six are: taking discursive thoughts onto the path (rnam rtog lam 'khyer), taking afflictions onto the path (nyon mongs lam 'khyer), taking sickness onto the path (na tsha lam 'khyer), taking deities and demons onto the path (lha 'dre lam 'khyer), taking suffering onto the path (sdug bsngal lam 'khyer), and taking death onto the path ('chi ba lam 'khyer). This practice was concealed as a terma by Jetsun Rechungpa and revealed by Drogon Tsangpa Gyarey. [Return to text]