Practicing Lam-rim as a Householder

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #350)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche explained how to generate the realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment at the Twelfth Kopan Course held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 1979.

This teaching is an excerpt from Lecture 9 of the course. Lightly edited by Sandra Smith.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Kopan Monastery, Nepal 1974. Photo: Wendy Finster.

There are three ways of giving commentary. The first one is the guru explaining the commentary with practice; from his own experience of the practice. As it fits, the disciple can practice it. I think nowadays this is done in Dharamsala, India, and the Tibetan lamas also do it in Tibet.

First the lama gives the teaching on meditation to the disciples, then they go back to their rooms and sleep until the gong. I’m joking. They go back to their hermitage near the lama and try to complete the effortless experience of the meditation subject, such as perfect human rebirth, the eight freedoms and ten richnesses. Then they come back to check with the guru. If the disciple has generated the realization, the guru teaches the next meditation, then after having received the complete advice on that, he goes back to the retreat place, and so on.

The second way of giving commentary is called commentary with experience. After the disciples have the experience they check with the guru, they live close around him and all day they retreat on lam-rim. Then they check with the guru, who himself has the experience of the steps of the path to enlightenment and he sees whether they have generated the subject. If the disciple is making a mistake in the meditation, the guru clarifies this mistake and corrects the disciple’s understanding. So much happens for those who are making lifetime retreat on the lam-rim in Tibet.

When I went to Tibet I didn’t see much of the whole country, but on the way through the mountains, almost every mountain had a monastery on top. Some were large and some were small, and there were holes everywhere, like ants’ nests. When I was going to Tibet from Solu Khumbu, many mountains were like that. I went there just before Tibet was taken over by the Chinese, and I saw many of the mountains were like this. I saw all those hermitages on very incredibly high mountains. I don’t know how they managed. From far away, I saw a lot of empty holes, ruined.

There are still a lot of these hermitages in India, especially in Dharamsala. Disciples stay around the lama and complete the effortless experience on the graduated path of lam-rim and also the graduated path of Secret Mantra. There are many lamas, many monks and many other people who are on their way to achieving enlightenment. They are on the road. Maybe some go by bus, some by jet, some by car, some walk, depending on their understanding, their skill.

Then the third way—actually this way, we don’t have to live in a hermitage in order to generate the realizations of the steps of the path. Even if we are living in the West, in the city, there is a way to have the same experience, the effortless experience of meditation on the stages of the path to enlightenment. Generating the realizations of the steps of the path to enlightenment is not a physical activity; it is just mind work. It is not so much physical work, whether we are in the Himalayan mountains or in New York. It doesn’t matter physically where we are. The whole thing is mind, so whether we are in the city or in the country, or while we are working, there is a way to gradually generate the realizations of the steps of the path to enlightenment.

There is a way to gradually generate the realization of bodhicitta mind, shunyata and also the teachings of Secret Mantra. Each day, while we are working, living with our family, living in the city, we can leave impressions of the stages of the path to enlightenment in our mind, by making sessions of one hour or half an hour each day, similar to those who live in the hermitage. First we try to receive the effortless experience in meditation, we put more effort in that. After we have received this we check with the guru about what we have received, then when it’s proven that we have the realization of the meditation, we put more effort into the second meditation until we get the effortless experience of that one.

Do some sessions in the morning or evening, then in the daytime, in the break times, be aware—constantly watch the mind; watch the actions of the body, speech and mind. As much as possible practice lam-rim in the break times, and by watching the mind we know what action the body is doing, what action the speech is doing, what action the mind is doing, we are able to recognize. Then also we find out when delusion is arising or not arising; we recognize whatever the delusion is and when it is about to arise. While it is arising, remember the teachings and the different meditations, and apply them. By applying the teachings, the delusion goes away. Each of the delusions is stopped.

As much as possible during the break time always watch the mind and try to have a good heart. On the other hand, try to remember bodhicitta and practice bodhicitta in our own experience. Whatever activity we are doing, try to relate it to the practice of bodhicitta. If our daily activities are not possessed by attachment, clinging to the happiness of this life; if we watch the mind and control the unsubdued mind with the meditation techniques, then the motivation is not possessed by the attachment clinging to the happiness of this life and all our actions become Dharma, the cause of happiness.

Then as we remember bodhicitta, as we relate with the practice of bodhicitta, any activity that we do with the practice of bodhicitta—all our work in the factories, on the ships or in business—becomes the cause to achieve enlightenment. If our activities are done with the motivation of bodhicitta, they become the bodhisattva’s practice.

So even if we live far away from the guru—in the city or with our family—there is a possibility of doing this. In order to generate the realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment, it is just a matter of whether we put effort or not, from our own side. If we are going to climb the peak of the mountain, we prepare for several years— collecting money and spending much effort and time and energy on that, making all the arrangements, spending thousands of dollars in order to get to the top of the mountain, just to get the reputation. If we are able to climb the mountain, we get the direct name “Sir” from London—we get one extra name, besides the normal one, Richard or Bob or George. So at least if we are able to climb the mountain, what we receive is the direct name, “Sir blah blah,” like this, then maybe we might get some dollars. Then again we have a big worry about having all those dollars, what to do with the money. How to have the best enjoyment, but with great fear of losing it, and then even if we start to do business or something like that, it will not become successful.

Maybe right after we receive the reputation, before the money gets in our hands, without having the chance to even receive the money in our hands, we have left the body. Death came before we received the money, so we didn’t have the chance to use it, we didn’t have the chance to enjoy it. At death time, when death occurs, the reputation into which we put much effort—so many years and so much energy, time and material expense—is of no benefit for us. When death occurs, there is not one single benefit for us; there is no way to receive happiness in the mind from it. The material possessions that we have received, that we gained, have to be completely left behind. We do not have the freedom to carry even one paisa with us. Only the consciousness, the bare consciousness, has to go to the intermediate stage, by leaving even this body born from the mother. The bare consciousness alone has to go to the intermediate stage, so there is not one single benefit from the works done for this life, no matter what sweet, interesting name we have. There’s not one single benefit to our future lives from the material possessions we have; it doesn’t matter how rich we are.

The conclusion is that we put incredible time, energy and effort into make preparation to climb one mountain, just to get our feet on top of that. We put incredible time and energy, the whole life is spent on that, so it is the cause of much worry and fear about whether we are going to be successful or not, collecting money for so many years. The day of the death, when death occurs, even if we have material possessions, all this is like last night’s dream. We made big preparation, we climbed the mountain, we received the reputation, so many people are coming to see us and waving their hands, just like last night’s dream. Receiving millions of dollars, we put it in the bank right away without delay and then we wake up this morning—nothing! We find there is not one paisa left from that on our table, we can’t find one paisa, it is completely empty. Just like last night’s dream our lives are completely empty, not one single benefit done for the life came after that, not one preparation was made. So that is how the works of this life are meaningless.

If we put effort into the work of generating the gradual path to enlightenment, this not only frees us and makes this present life happy, it brings happiness in all our future lives. Not only that, it frees us completely from all the delusions of suffering, ignorance. Not only that, by achieving enlightenment we are able to do perfect work for each sentient being, to free them from suffering and bring them to enlightenment. This is great work. Following the holy Dharma, the stages of the path to enlightenment, of course, even if it takes three countless great eons, many billions of lifetimes, to accomplish this work, it is great work. Nothing, no time, is wasted.

So the conclusion is that from our own side it is just a matter of having an understanding of the teachings, it's just a matter of putting effort into that. Then even while we are living with our family or in the city, there is a way to achieve enlightenment.