Lam-rim Talk

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Deer Park, Madison, Wisconsin, 1999 (Archive #1072)

An edited teaching on how to use depression and other problems to develop the good heart, by Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Deer Park, Madison in July, 1999. Click here to listen to this teaching and read the unedited transcript.

Good morning everyone. Again Mickey Mouse is going to do some chatting.

I would like to begin with what I mentioned last time. The purpose of our living is nothing other than to benefit others, to eliminate their sufferings and to bring them happiness. The purpose of our living is nothing other than this. Anything other than this is meaningless; anything other than this is a complicated life, a confused life. Nothing other than this gives you fulfillment in your heart. No activity that you can think of other than this is really worthwhile; nothing other than this is worth doing. This also brings the best satisfaction.

Now, every one of us has responsibility for the happiness of every single living being, who wants happiness and does not want problems, or sufferings. As I often mention, if you have a good heart, your compassion does not produce actions that harm others; you only stop giving harm to others and benefit them. How to do these two things—stop giving harm to others and bring benefit to them—encapsulate the entire philosophy of Buddhism. The three Dharma wheels—all the teachings of the Lesser Vehicle and the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana Paramitayana, the Mahayana Vajrayana, or secret mantra—come in these two instructions of Buddha, not to harm other sentient beings and to benefit them.

The 84,000 teachings taught by Buddha are integrated into the lam-rim, the graduated paths of the lower capable being in general, of the middle capable being in general, and of the higher capable being. The whole lam-rim, which is the heart of the entire Buddhadharma, is also condensed into these two instructions given by Buddha. These two main instructions contain the whole of Buddhism, the whole lam-rim. The graduated path of the lower capable being in general, as well as the graduated path of the middle capable being in general, comes in the section of not harming others and the graduated path of the higher capable being comes in the section of benefiting others. So, the whole lam-rim comes in these two instructions.

Compassion does not produce harm to others. What it does is stop giving harm to others and benefit them, freeing others from suffering. Not only does it free others from suffering, but even from the cause of suffering, the defilements. The responsibility that compassion takes is enormous, like the sky. Even for one sentient being, compassion liberates that being from oceans of samsaric sufferings: from the oceans of problems of the hell beings, of the hungry ghosts, of the animals, of the human beings, of the asuras, and of the suras. What compassion does is liberate that sentient being from all those skies of sufferings, the continuation of which has no beginning. Compassion helps to end that one sentient being’s oceans of samsaric suffering, the continuation of which has no end. That is unbelievable. So here we are talking about your compassion benefiting numberless other sentient beings. It’s really unbelievable. Therefore, compassion is the most precious thing to have in life; it fulfills all your wishes for happiness and it fulfills the wishes for happiness of every single other living being. It is the most precious thing.

Many people are interested in high tantric realizations, such as those of the Six Yogas of Naropa, meditating on the chakras and winds, generating heat in the body from tummo meditation, bringing the blissful kundalini up and down. Even the Hindus can do these things; they are nothing special. If these meditations are done without compassion and with attachment clinging to this life, they can become not only the cause of samsara, but even the cause of the lower realms. Even if you do have some powerful experiences that could be classified as part of the graduated completion path, they are nothing special without compassion. Tibetans always use the example of a food in which dried cheese is mixed with lots of butter. The real taste comes from the butter. What makes ice cream delicious? Cream or sugar?

[Student: Both!]

Compassion, like the butter or sugar that gives a cake its interesting flavor, makes everything worthwhile and rich. It makes all those meditation experiences rich and meaningful, and the cause of enlightenment. It also protects you from those practices becoming the cause to fall into the lower nirvana, to reincarnate again in samsara, in particular in the lower realms.

Also, last time I gave a few examples of how bodhicitta, the good heart, is the answer to everything, to every problem that you have in life. Bodhicitta is the solution to everything.

As I normally explain to people who suffer from depression, the best way to make the depression beneficial, to transform the depression into happiness, is to use it to the loving, compassionate thought of bodhicitta. There are numberless sentient beings who have depression and numberless others who have the karma to experience depression. Think, “I am just one person, others are numberless. I am just one living being. No matter how much I suffer, no matter how much happiness I achieve, even total liberation, which means freedom forever from all sufferings, including the cycle of death and rebirth, it is nothing.” If possible, when you say “sufferings,” think in your mind of the suffering of pain; the suffering of change, the temporary samsaric pleasures; and pervasive compounding suffering. In this way, it becomes very profound because you get the whole idea of the sufferings of samsara. You are not just thinking of just pain or poverty, of a toothache, a stomach ache, or diarrhea.

Think, “Even if I achieve total liberation from all suffering and its causes, it is nothing. I’m just one person, so it’s nothing. There are numberless others. How wonderful it would be is they could all be free from all suffering and have all happiness. How wonderful it would be if they could all just be free from the suffering of depression. How wonderful it would be if I could take their suffering upon myself, if I could experience all their suffering of depression and they could have all happiness. If I could do that, how wonderful it be. This would be the greatest achievement in my life. So, how wonderful!”

This reasoning here is that others are more important because of their greater number. However, between you and one other sentient being, who is more important? The number of beings is the same. Even here that one other sentient being is more important, more precious, than you because all your sufferings, your problems, come from your ego. What has kept you in samsara and obliged you to experience the problems of samsara again and again? What has obliged you to experience these problems numberless times in past lives and to experience the same problems again and again in this life? The self-cherishing thought.

Is there any relationship between self-cherishing thought and the concept of an inherently existent I, the root of samsara? Are they friends? What is the connection between these two?

Student: One depends on the other. Self-cherishing depends on self-grasping.

You can also connect the self-cherishing thought to this concept of inherent existence. The self-cherishing thought interferes with the realization of emptiness, which means that it allows the concept of inherent existence to continue.

Think in this way. “All the problems, all the obstacles, came from my self-cherishing thought, the self-centered mind cherishing the I. This means that all the problems, all the undesirable things, came from the I, from me. And all my past, present, and future happiness came from bodhicitta, the root of which is great compassion. All my past, present, and future happiness came from great compassion, and great compassion is generated in dependence upon the existence of suffering sentient beings. Therefore, this one sentient being—whether a person or a non-human being, such as an animal—is the source of all my past, present, and future happiness. This means that even between me and this one sentient being, this other sentient being is more precious. Therefore, the I is the object to abandon forever and even this one sentient being is the object to be cherished forever. If I cherish this one sentient being, there is enlightenment; if I don’t cherish this one sentient being, there is no enlightenment. I cannot achieve all the realizations of the Mahayana path, which is based on bodhicitta; I cannot achieve the five paths, the ten bhumis, or all the tantric realizations. I cannot achieve the infinite qualities of a Buddha, whose holy body, holy speech, and holy mind each has infinite qualities, or the many qualities of an arya bodhisattva or a bodhisattva. But if I cherish this one sentient being, I can achieve all these qualities.

“Therefore, even this one sentient being is the most precious one in my life, especially if they hate me and act only to harm me.” Why especially this one? Why are they the kindest, most precious one? Because you have no opportunity to practice patience with all the others, with all the friends and strangers. With the buddhas and bodhisattvas, you have no opportunity to practice patience because they feel only loving kindness and compassion for you. You have no opportunity to practice patience with your friends, while they are friends, nor with other sentient beings while they are strangers. This person is the only one with whom you have the opportunity to practice patience. You can now see how this person becomes the kindest, dearest, most precious one. Among all the numberless other living beings, including the buddhas, this is the only person left who can help you to develop your mind in patience.

So, think, “If I don’t cherish this one sentient being, I cannot achieve any realizations of the Mahayana path, including tantra, which are achieved on the basis of this. This means that I cannot achieve full enlightenment, which means that I cannot work perfectly to liberate the numberless sentient beings from all suffering and its causes and to bring them to full enlightenment. Without cherishing this one sentient being, I won’t be able to offer these skies of benefit to the numberless other sentient beings. However, if I cherish this one sentient being, the advantage this sentient being offers me is inexpressible. There is no way to finish explaining all the kindness and benefits that this person gives me. (After you become enlightened, you then continuously, spontaneously work to liberate others from suffering and to bring them from happiness to happiness to enlightenment.) Even Buddha cannot finish explaining the benefits that I get from this person. Therefore, this person is the most precious one in my life.”

One of the verses of the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation mentions, “If somebody, motivated by jealousy, criticizes, insults, or blames me, I will practice taking the loss on myself and offering the victory to others.” I think this is why His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that if the Tibetan people in Tibet were happy and had freedom, there would be no need to work for the independence of Tibet. That they are not happy and don’t have freedom is the main reason to work for independence. There is a way of applying thought transformation practice in the case of an individual and a way of applying it to a country. There is a different way of this if you are the leader of a country, because the base is very wide. You can understand from His Holiness’s explanation that he is still applying the Mahayana teaching to the situation in Tibet, which involves the happiness of many millions of people. It is for the happiness of many millions of people that His Holiness wishes to get independence or freedom. It is not for His Holiness’s personal benefit; it is for the benefit of other.

The basic reason we are advised to do this practice of offering the victory to others and taking the loss upon ourselves is that all the sufferings came from the ego, from the I, and all the happiness, all the good things, came from others, as I mentioned before. In addition, it naturally becomes creating good karma, making arrangements for your happiness in future lives. Even if you don’t think about preventing loss in the future, it helps to prevent loss in the future and to have victory. Without thinking about that, offering the victory to others and taking the loss upon yourself just out of good heart naturally takes care of your future happiness and security. It is a preparation for your future happiness and security. Simply talking in the sense of karma, doing this practice fulfills many aims. Of course, the basic practice advised by Buddha is not to harm others and to benefit them. That other sentient being is precious and important, and what they want is happiness and what they do not want is suffering.

Anyway, to return to the point. Think, “Even one sentient being is so kind and precious. In the same way, every sentient being is also the most precious one in my life.” You now consider all the rest of the sentient beings in the same way. Try to extend your feeling to cover everyone. “How wonderful it would be if I could experience all their suffering, all their depression, and that of the sentient beings with the karma to experience depression in the future. How wonderful it would be if I, the one person, could experience all this and allow them to have all the happiness, up to enlightenment.”

I gave the reasons in the introduction, so by thinking of these essential reasons, do the meditation of taking other sentient beings’ sufferings, particularly their depression, upon yourself. What is normally explained is that you breathe in through your nostrils all this suffering in the form of smoke or pollution, which then absorbs into the ego. You give it to the ego and use it as a weapon to destroy the ego, the real demon, the real enemy. This demon abiding in your own heart, your real enemy, is completely destroyed; it becomes non-existent.

Sometimes you can also meditate on emptiness at this point. As the self-cherishing thought is totally destroyed so is the I that the self-cherishing thought has been cherishing so strongly, thinking, “I am the most important, most precious one.“ As the self-cherishing thought has become non-existent so also has its object, the real I, the emotional I. In the texts, according to the Prasangika view, rang zhin gyi drub pa (inherent existence), rang gi sen nyi kyi drub pa (existence by way of its own characteristics) and many other terms are used for the object to be refuted. However, in Western psychological terms we can say “the emotional I.” So, the emotional I, which appears to you as a real I from there, or from its own side, also becomes totally non-existent. So then you can meditate on emptiness.

Sometimes during tong-len meditation, you can use meditation on emptiness. You can concentrate a little while on the state of emptiness, on the absence of that emotional I, that inherently existent I, which exists nowhere, neither on the base nor anywhere else. The benefit from this meditation depends on how effectively each individual can think of emptiness. It can be very beneficial for depression, but it depends on how effectively you can meditate. It depends on how near you come to emptiness when you meditate. For some people meditating on emptiness can be very powerful medicine.

After this you do the meditation of giving to others your body, in the form of a wish-fulfilling jewel; all your merits, or good karma, the cause of all your happiness; and all your happiness up to enlightenment. However, if the particular problem that you have is depression, do more the practice of taking other sentient beings’ sufferings.

As I mentioned last time, during the rest of the day, while you’re driving a car, eating, and doing other activities, whenever the thought of your depression comes into your mind, immediately apply the antidote. As soon as you think, “Oh, I feel depressed” or “I have this problem,” immediately, try to think, “Oh, I am experiencing this depression on behalf of all sentient beings” or “I am experiencing this depression for all sentient beings.” It is the same. In your mind you can think that this depression is not yours but sentient beings’ depression. This can also be very helpful. Rather than thinking that it is your own sickness, think that it is the sickness of all sentient beings. It might be very good to have this idea in your mind. The same applies to AIDS, cancer, or any other sickness.

It is essential to think this again and again during the rest of the day. Living with this thought is essential, because it is what keeps your mind always in a state of peace and happiness. It keeps you in a non-negative emotional state. When you practice this in your daily life, you then see enjoyment in life, you see purpose in living. You can see worth in living because with this attitude you are doing something for others, you are living your life for others.

This is how to enjoy life problems, such as depression. You have to think of the benefits of depression or whatever problem you have, and the greatest benefit is that you can use your problem to develop the good heart. You can use depression and other problems in your life to train your mind in bodhicitta. You have to understand that you are using your depression to achieve enlightenment; you are using your problem as a path to enlightenment. How? Using your problem to develop great compassion for other sentient beings and bodhicitta purifies an unimaginable number of negative karmas, many hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, many eons of negative karma. As mentioned in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by the great bodhisattva Shantideva, bodhicitta is the most powerful one for purification. So as it is mentioned there. Other than the guru yoga practice of serving the guru by following his advice and fulfilling his wishes, the good heart, the altruistic mind to achieve enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, brings the most powerful purification. (You shouldn’t think that guru yoga practice means simply reciting prayers, such as Six-Session Guru Yoga or Guru Puja; it means obeying the guru’s advice and fulfilling his holy wishes. It means offering service.) Using your depression to practice bodhicitta brings unbelievable purification and collects merit like the sky. Each time you think, “I’m experiencing this depression, this unhappiness, on behalf of all sentient beings,” you collect merit like the sky; you collect good karma, good luck, like the sky. Generating bodhicitta brings extremely powerful purification and collects extensive merit.

The question of achieving enlightenment depends on these two factors: purifying obstacles and completing the two types of merit, the merit of wisdom and the merit of virtue. The more you are able to practice bodhicitta, the more merit you collect, which then helps you to realize emptiness. By doing more tong-len, this bodhicitta practice of taking others’ suffering and giving them your own happiness and merit, you collect more merit, which helps you to realize emptiness more easily and quickly. You need a lot of merit to realize emptiness. This is how bodhicitta helps you to complete the two types of merit.

When you have problems in your daily life, it is good to look at them as a retreat. You are not in a physical retreat by keeping your body in a room, but in a real retreat by keeping your mind always in bodhicitta. Having the problem helps to keep your mind always in bodhicitta; it helps you to practice always the good heart. Your experience of the problem persuades your mind to always practice bodhicitta. You then experience very powerful purification and collect the most extensive merit all day long. No matter how many weeks, months, or years you have the depression, it is like doing a Vajrasattva retreat. I think also I mentioned this last time. This retreat becomes the best retreat, the purest retreat, because you are putting your effort into developing the good heart, bodhicitta. Every hour, every minute, every second you do this makes your life beneficial for all sentient beings.

Since I brought up this subject, I would like conclude by telling you the story of Asanga. Asanga did retreat for twelve years to achieve Maitreya Buddha, to see Maitreya Buddha, but during the retreat nothing happened. Even after twelve years of retreat, nothing had happened. Something happened only after he had left the retreat, when he saw a wounded dog in the road. This story is nothing new to you. I’m not telling you the story as a new thing; I’m telling you the story as an inspiration to practice bodhicitta when you have depression, relationship problems, or any other problem. You have heard and read this story numberless times—it’s nothing new. You probably heard it also in past lives.

So, Asanga saw a wounded dog in the road. It was actually Maitreya Buddha, but Asanga did not see the being in the aspect of Buddha. Asanga saw just an ordinary being, and not even a human being, but an animal, a dog. Asanga felt unbearable compassion for the dog because the lower part of its body was one large wound filled with maggots. Out of his compassion he cut flesh from his leg and spread it out on the ground as he wanted to remove the maggots from the wound and they would need something to live on. When he closed his eyes and went to pick up the maggots with his tongue, he could not touch anything. When he then opened his eyes, he saw Maitreya Buddha. It was only at that time that he saw Maitreya Buddha.

What had happened was that the many years of retreat he had done had not purified the karmic obscurations that blocked his seeing Maitreya Buddha. Only when he generated unbearable compassion and was willing to sacrifice his own life to help this sentient being were these karmic obscurations purified. In that moment the karmic obscurations that hadn’t been purified by twelve years of retreat were purified. Only at that time was Asanga able to see Maitreya Buddha. Previously Asanga had been unable to see Maitreya Buddha in the aspect of a Buddha; he had not even seen him as an ordinary human being, but as an animal—and even that a wounded one full of maggots. The karmic obscurations that projected that aspect were purified by his sacrificing his life for that sentient being, and in the next moment he was able to see Maitreya Buddha.

To keep the story short, Maitreya Buddha took Asanga to Tushita Pure Land, and, at Asanga’s request, there taught him the five divisions of Maitreya Buddha’s teachings. When Asanga then returned from Tushita, he wrote down these five divisions of teachings. These texts by Maitreya Buddha, such as Abhisamayalamkara, and the commentaries to them are studied in the monasteries for many years. After spending their life studying Maitreya Buddha’s and Asanga’s teachings, and the lam-rim, which comes from them, and meditating on the path, numberless beings have become enlightened. The lam-rim, which we meditate on and which makes our daily life so meaningful, enabling us to achieve the three great meanings in every hour, every minute, every second, also came from Maitreya Buddha’s and Asanga’s teachings. My emphasis here is that all this benefit that we get in our everyday life by understanding and practicing lam-rim, as well as the benefit gained by the numberless beings who have actualized the lam-rim path and become enlightened, came from Maitreya Buddha’s teaching, so all this benefit comes from Asanga, who generated unbearable compassion and sacrificed his life for a dog. All this benefit came from Asanga’s bodhicitta, from renouncing himself and cherishing others. This is what I am trying to emphasize. All this happened to Asanga through practicing bodhicitta. So, it is the same for us: using our problems to practice bodhicitta becomes the quick path to enlightenment. Like tantra, our problems become the quick path to enlightenment.

As I mentioned last time, one solution that stops the experience of all these problems, including depression, is to do very strong practice of purification in our daily life. This is mentioned in the teachings of the Kadampa geshes, and it was also the advice of Gen Jampa Wangdu, one of the most experienced meditators in Dharamsala in recent times. Gen Jampa Wangdu had great realization, realization of the three principles of the path and realization of the two stages of tantra, including the high tantric realizations of clear light and the illusory body. Speaking from his own experience, Gen Jampa Wangdu advised that we should do more purification in daily life. By purifying the cause of the problems, we don’t experience the problems. One solution to our problems is to do strong purification in daily life, and as I mentioned before, bodhicitta practice brings very powerful purification. There are also other powerful practices of purification, such as reciting the names of the Thirty-five Buddhas.

Also, sometimes give the depression or whatever other problem you have to the ego. This is similar to taking on the depression of other sentient beings. Here, rather than taking the depression on yourself, give it to the ego—and I’m not talking about other people’s ego. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I have this problem,” give the problem to the ego, and completely destroy it. Use the problem as an atomic bomb to destroy the ego. This is another extremely powerful technique. It is also very helpful if you have paranoia. Applying this method in your daily life helps to reduce paranoia. This is another extremely powerful technique. Rather than taking the problem upon yourself, you give it to your ego; you use it as an atomic bomb to destroy your ego. When you encounter your enemy, you immediately crush them to pieces with whatever weapon you have. Here you give your depression to your ego and crush it, destroy it.

Also, in one of the sutras in the Kangyur, when Buddha talks about the shortcomings of not keeping the five lay vows, he mentions that depression that arises without any particular cause is the result of past negative karma of sexual misconduct. It refers there to the mind suddenly becoming unhappy in the evening time. It just happens; you don’t know why, but you suddenly feel depressed. It is the same when you wake up in the morning feeling depressed, but you don't know why. I guess it comes from the negative karma of having caused the minds of others to become unhappy. This is why we are advised to do the practice of purification.

As I have mentioned at other times, such a depression can also be a sign of purification. For those people who are offering service to others or to the guru, such a problem can be a sign of purification. By experiencing the depression, they don't need to experience the result of their heavy negative karma by experiencing many eons of heavy suffering in the lower realms. They are free from all those heavy sufferings. In this case, the depression becomes very enjoyable. It is fantastic, a sign of great success.