Working at the Dharma Center: Bearing Hardship with a Happy Mind

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Pomaia, Italy (Archive #2060)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche advised how to avoid burnout and maintain a happy mind in this talk at a Foundation Service Seminar in Pomaia, Italy, where facilitators met with Rinpoche to offer a presentation and request advice, October 31, 2017. Transcribed and edited by Claire Isitt, November 2017. Second edit by Sandra Smith, April 2024.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Italy.  Photo by Piero Sirianni.

When the mind becomes more pure, thinking more of others, then our stress will go away and bearing hardship for others is pleasant. Bearing hardship for ourselves is uncomfortable, suffering, but bearing hardship for others in order to free them from suffering, to bring them happiness up to enlightenment, gives us real pleasure, no matter how difficult it is. This is the big difference, by changing the mind.

So even though your job is hard, changing the mind into bodhicitta is a happy mind, a pleasant mind. The other self-cherishing mind is a suffering mind. You have to understand this.

For example, Milarepa and his mother—after Milarepa’s father died, his aunt and uncle treated them badly and took all their possessions, so Milarepa’s mother advised him to go and learn black magic and then kill them. He went to the mountains earlier and dug a hole, then he did seven days’ retreat there, making preparation to do black magic. Then all the stones from the mountain fell down and destroyed the house. The animals were downstairs and people were upstairs dancing and enjoying a wedding, but then the house collapsed and killed thirty people or more.

Milarepa was very sad, so the black magic lama said if he wanted to practice Dharma he should go and see Marpa. So then Milarepa went along to see Marpa and asked him to give teachings and the means of living. He offered his body, speech and mind to Marpa, requesting him to be his guru, but for years Marpa didn’t give him any teachings. He only scolded and beat him.

One day Milarepa went with the other students for teachings but Marpa saw him and kicked him out. He never gave Milarepa teachings. So Milarepa built a tower alone, but after he built the tower he tore it down and put the stones back where he got them. Then he built it again, and again tore it down. He did this three times and his skin became thick from carrying so many stones.

Marpa said he wanted Milarepa to bear more hardship so that he could become enlightened more quickly. Marpa would still not give teachings to Milarepa, but Marpa’s wisdom mother pushed him to give teachings and initiations. Of course, Marpa is an enlightened being, so he manifested the mandala and granted initiation to Milarepa.

After that, Marpa explained the holy places where he should go to meditate, like Lapchi, Mount Kailash and Tsari (Heruka’s three holy places). These are the different places where Marpa advised him to go to meditate, so he went there and totally bore hardship to meditate on the path. Then he achieved the whole path and achieved enlightenment in that brief lifetime of degenerate times.

If Marpa didn’t do that, if he didn’t treat Milarepa that way, then maybe all that negative karma collected which needed to be purified quickly wouldn’t have happened, and he wouldn’t have become enlightened in that lifetime. Depending on that, it could take many lifetimes. Marpa was such a perfect guru, a buddha, and Milarepa was a perfect disciple who never arose heresy or anger, not even for one day, not even for one hour. He was the perfect disciple who perfectly followed the advice of the guru, and he became enlightened very quickly in that life.

Working hard at the centers, we should know and relate to Milarepa or Naropa’s life story, the great practitioners. We must remember them and relate to those examples. What made them enlightened so fast? What? It was following the guru’s advice exactly, without arising heresy or anger. They followed the advice perfectly and as a result they received realizations and became enlightened in a brief lifetime of this degenerate time. Similarly, however hard it is working for the center, we must relate to that example, and see the unbelievable benefits, like the limitless sky. So then it becomes the most enjoyable work in our life, the happiest thing to do in the life.

That is thinking just of ourselves, but now, thinking of numberless sentient beings, we must help them—the numberless hell beings, hungry ghosts and so forth. The center is for them, to benefit them, to free them from the oceans of samsaric suffering and bring them to enlightenment. The center is for that.

People come to the center to receive Mahayana teachings particularly, not just Buddhist teachings. Buddhism is differentiated from other religions by compassion for everyone, not only for those who worship Buddha, but compassion for every single sentient being, whether they like Buddha or not. Compassion for everyone—every single ant, every single mosquito, every single fish, every single sentient being—wishing them to be free from suffering and its causes. Great compassion is when we take responsibility for doing it by ourselves alone.

Buddhism is differentiated from other religions by compassion; no other religion emphasizes that or has that. For example, Christianity talks a little about it, but only for poor people. They don’t say compassion for the rich—the billionaires, millionaires, zillionaires—only poor people! So it’s very limited. They don’t talk about compassion for all the animals. It seems that a long time ago they said pigs and other animals were given by God for people to eat.

Buddhism in general, but especially the Mahayana teachings, is to not cause harm. When we go for refuge, we pledge we will not harm other sentient beings. Now particularly Mahayana Buddhism, which Buddha taught in India and which went to Tibet and is now spread across the world, is to benefit other sentient beings, to benefit every single sentient being who wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.

When people come to study Dharma at the center, they listen, meditate, reflect and practice with bodhicitta. They learn about bodhicitta, about having the responsibility to free all beings from suffering and its causes and bring them to enlightenment, to bring them happiness. To do that perfectly we need to achieve the state of omniscience.

Those people who come to study Dharma at the center, to practice with bodhicitta, to do meditation and so forth, whatever activities they do, they learn to do that with bodhicitta, so they benefit all sentient beings, not only in their meditation but in their activities for all sentient beings. Therefore the centers benefit every single sentient being.

The FPMT organization benefits every single sentient being, every single ant, mosquito, fly, every single being who wants happiness and does not want suffering. The FPMT organization and the centers benefit every single being. So that’s the most happy, most pleasant, the happiest thing to do in our life. The happiest thing to do in our life.

How to prevent burnout at the center

Not everyone is the same; it depends very much on each individual, how much deep understanding you have of Dharma. How much you stress out depends on that. Generally, burnout affects those with less understanding. They accept the teachings, which is good, but they have less feeling, less deep understanding, then it seems they feel easily stressed and they burn out. But someone who has deeper understanding doesn’t burn out or burns out less.

You need a little bit of skill, according to your state of mind. If you are burning out or you are tired, then you do this much. So that you don’t get totally burnt out, you do what you can according to the level of your mind. Some people can go through hardship and bear so much because they understand [Dharma] and feel that more deeply. Or, you can [work for the center] at certain times, so you don’t get completely burnt out. Then you can’t do anything at all. So try to do it skilfully. If you burn out, then sometimes you can’t work for a long time, or you go away and then you die!

It is good to think about this and good to consult [with other students]. It’s always good to consult if there are some things you don’t know. Some other students may know, so it’s good to consult with them. The more you know, then you can deal with your mind, so you don’t let yourself completely burn out or give up. That doesn’t happen.

Also the mind is like doctor and patient, so we treat the mind like a patient, or like guru and disciple, or like parent and child. Treat the mind like that. It’s always good to consult. Some people have different ideas on how to do things and that can help, knowing the different ways to think. That makes the stress go away, by doing things differently, so ask others and discuss with them.

Correct Rejoicing

Rejoicing in our practice is very, very important, so important. If we are working for a company, not particularly benefiting sentient beings, it’s more to do with the power and wealth of the company’s owner. But here we are a religious Buddhist organization, a Mahayana organization, so FPMT is benefiting every single sentient being, every single tiny fly—when we walk in the grass or drive [in a car] we see so many. We are here to benefit every single sentient being, therefore rejoice, correct rejoicing.

There is wrong compassion, for example, if someone living in a cave has nothing, Western tourists think, “Oh dear, this person has nothing; they are suffering with nothing.” The tourists don’t understand that the meditator has total satisfaction, even realizations, renouncing attachment. The tourists don’t know that, so they think, “Oh, the poor person.” That’s wrong compassion.

There’s wrong compassion, wrong patience, wrong rejoicing. When we compare working for another company with FPMT, even if we are making a million, billion dollars every day in that other company, the FPMT, Mahayana Buddhism, is helping every single sentient being, so it’s much different. That’s correct rejoicing! It’s unbelievable. In other companies, even if we get one hundred million dollars each day, it is worthless.

Even having a million dollars is nothing. Everybody has been born numberless times as a universal king, Indra, Brahma. We have had all the wealth, so a million dollars is nothing. We have had wealth numberless times, but that didn’t free us from samsara. Now here, with Buddhadharma, the Buddha taught the four noble truths and the Mahayana teachings, so not only can we become free from suffering, but we can attain enlightenment. We are working for this. It’s unbelievable.

Overall, in the FPMT, learning Dharma, sutra and tantra, has been happening very much, and now we have so much study. We have 46 geshes, from Nepal, mainly from Sera; we have learned geshes who have studied and practiced all their lives. Of course they are learned, because all the geshes learn the extensive sutra and tantra for their whole lives. Also, nowadays many lay Tibetans are studying, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked them to. Young people and older people are studying debate. This is happening so much in Tibet and also in Dharamsala.

Sometimes we also need to organize retreats to actualize the path—not just mantra recitations, millions of mantras, but actualizing the path, the three principal aspects of the path and the two stages of tantra—to have in the heart what was said by Buddha and Lama Tsongkhapa.

We should also put effort into retreat, in order to actualize the path. We have been trying that, like at the Washington retreat place; we are thinking to build a few houses there. It didn’t happen yet but we want to invite one monk from Sera who went to do retreat in Tibet. We’re thinking to invite him for two to three months, not to live there, but to come from time to time for that. So students can dedicate their lives in the path.

Generally, what I want to see in FPMT is more training, becoming habituated, trained in a positive way, in the good heart, bodhicitta. That’s how I want to see FPMT students, for them to have that characteristic, the good heart. With more good heart, more peace and happiness in our lives, then we are able to cause more peace and happiness to sentient beings and this world. So education, learning texts, has been happening over the last few years, which is good. It’s very, very fortunate to be guided by learned geshes. We are very fortunate to have them; we are a very fortunate organization.