The Shortcomings of Harmful Thoughts

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #092)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching on recognizing and renouncing harmful thoughts at the Tenth Kopan Course held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 1977.

This teaching is an edited excerpt from Lecture 11 of the course.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Manjushri Institute, England, 1976.

The whole purpose of whatever we do is to make ourselves better; to have a better life and to become better people. We can become better people by changing our mind. Only by changing our mind can we become good people and have a good life. If we don’t change our mind by trying to recognize which thoughts give harm and which bring only peace—if we keep the same mind as we had before, we can never improve ourselves.

If we do not try to change; if we constantly keep the same harmful thoughts all the time, then our mind doesn’t change and our life doesn’t change. We can never become better people, even if we have received the whole teachings, the whole Buddhadharma.

Only transforming the mind—changing the mind from one full of harmful thoughts into a good mind—only that brings peace to ourselves and to other sentient beings. By changing this, our negative personality changes. Renouncing the mind of the harmful thoughts, we no longer have a bad personality—we have a good personality. That’s how we become good people and have a happy life, free from confusion. Then we have a meaningful life. This is what the teaching on meditation does.

Therefore, the first thing we need to do is to recognize what makes us harm ourselves and others. We need to recognize the bad thoughts that give us a bad personality. We need to see the mistakes of this; how it makes our life so complicated and unhappy. If we only look at the good things, we won’t see the cause of our unhappiness and we won’t be able to distinguish wrong actions from right ones. By recognizing wrong thoughts and wrong actions, we can recognize the opposite; positive thoughts and positive actions.

So, the teachings begin by explaining harmful thoughts and actions, and the shortcomings of harmful thoughts and actions. In this way, the teachings become like a mirror to our mind, to our life. When the teachings explain the shortcomings of wrong thoughts and actions, it is necessary to recognize and be aware of this happening in our own mind. To see, “Yes! these delusions really do bring these problems! If I follow disturbing negative thoughts like this, of course I’ll have these kinds of problems.” We should be aware of the shortcomings of the delusions like this.

Instead of thinking, “Oh, I am oneness with the delusions. The delusions are me and I am the delusions,” we should recognize that delusions happen, but they are not an integral part of us. They are not oneness with our mind, therefore we are able to renounce them. If we associate ourselves with our delusions, when the teachings say we must renounce or destroy the delusions, we might think we are being told to destroy ourselves. Thinking like that is a completely wrong way of understanding the teachings. Therefore, if we don’t know how to listen the teachings, it can be a great hindrance. When the teachings talk about the shortcomings of delusions, we shouldn’t think this means that is how we are and will always be. The teachings describe the shortcomings to help us understand why we suffer and to show us how to renounce the delusions.

It is extremely important that the teachings act as medicine and the person who gives the teachings acts as a doctor. The listeners—we, ourselves—are the patients, suffering from the disease of having disturbing negative thoughts such as anger, ignorance and attachment. These are the principal diseases, the worst diseases that we have. It is necessary to think of ourselves as a patient.

Listening to the teachings is not like gobbling food down quickly, making kaka and then that’s it, finished—we hear the teachings once and we don’t have to think about them anymore. It is not like that. The teachings are something we have to try to understand, and this takes time, because we have a difficult mind and it takes time to understand what is being said. So, we should have patience with the teachings. As I explained before, our understanding of the meditations happens step-by-step. It is not as if we first attain enlightenment, and then we practice Dharma. It is not like that at all.

With machines, things happen very quickly. We put clothes in a washing machine and we expect to have clean clothes, but even that takes some time. We can’t expect perfectly clean clothes instantly. In the same way, meditating on the lamrim subjects takes time. This is the graduated path to enlightenment, so there is a gradual process in how we develop.