What is Dharma?
by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

“In sports and in worldly activities, people are always chasing the best and trying to be first in whatever they do. But winning at the Olympics, climbing Mount Everest, whatever people consider to be a great achievement, is really nothing. We have all done this kind of thing innumerable times, in past lives if not in this one, and it certainly hasn’t made us any happier.”

In fact, in our countless previous lives we have enjoyed every kind of pleasure innumerable times. We have achieved states we can’t even imagine. There is no new pleasure or experience that we have never had. We have been born in god realms where there is no overt suffering at all. We have achieved great powers of concentration, a concentration so profound that as the great master Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo explains in his commentary on “The Three Principal Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment”, even a big drum beating right next to our ear could not disturb us. And we have even attained high psychic powers such as clairvoyance and the ability to fly. None of this is new. Such things seem special only because we don’t understand reincarnation and therefore don’t realise that in our beginningless previous lives we have done it all over and over again.”

“None of these samsaric things can even last. That is their very nature. To achieve them we undergo much hardship, have them for a short while and then they’re gone, leaving us discontented again. Furthermore, everything of this nature is achieved through a motivation that longs for the mundane pleasures of this life, which, as we will see, is a nonvirtuous motivation and the cause of future suffering.”

“Right now, with this precious human body, we have the perfect conditions to see beyond this external confusion — we can understand what suffering is and how to overcome it and what true happiness is and how to attain it. We have the Dharma.”

The Dharma is whatever leads us towards happiness and away from suffering; it is whatever destroys the root of suffering — delusion and karma. It is the path we all must take, whether we consider ourselves Buddhist or not. Only by renouncing the causes of suffering, such as attachment, and developing compassion and a correct understanding of the nature of reality can we truly liberate ourselves. This is the new experience we should strive for, not clairvoyance or flying; this is what we have never achieved in the past.

The Dharma is anything that can do that, but it is often specifically used to mean the teachings of the Buddha. It is said that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, gave 84,000 teachings in the forty years between his enlightenment in India 2,600 years ago and his death. In Tibetan Buddhism these incredible teachings have been classified into a system that makes them easy to study and actualise — the graduated path to enlightenment, the lam-rim.

Here, the three main areas we need to develop — renunciation of samsara; bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to become enlightened in order to benefit all sentient beings; and right view, the understanding of emptiness — are set out in a progressive series of teachings, from the need for a spiritual guide at the very beginning to the most subtle minds needed for enlightenment at the very end. The lam-rim contains everything we need to take us all the way to the ultimate state of enlightenment.

In fact, I can definitely say that the lam-rim is the very essence of the Dharma. When the great Indian teacher Atisha went to Tibet from the Buddhist university of Vikramashila in India in the tenth century, he condensed everything the Buddha taught into this graduated path, with nothing missing. After that, Tibetan teachers such as Lama Tsong Khapa wrote commentaries on the lam-rim, and to study these commentaries is to see just how the lam-rim presents the whole picture.

The comparison is made to butter. Milk is very nutritious but the very essence of milk is butter. We can use milk to make other things but still, butter is its ultimate essence. The great philosophers and yogis like Lama Tsong Khapa gave incredible teachings based on their own experience. They had a knowledge and an understanding so deep that we can’t even begin to fathom it. From that profound understanding they were able to distil the essence — the butter — and clearly show us the path we must take from where are now all the way to enlightenment.

Just now we have incredible freedom. We have enough intelligence and leisure and we have the interest to learn. I think if you investigate a little you will see that this is true. Traditional teachings on the perfect human rebirth explain the eight freedoms and ten richnesses. These teachings show us very clearly just how fortunate we are and how rare it is to be in the position in which we now find ourselves. At this moment we have in our hand the means to attain anything we want; we have the means to create the causes for perfect happiness. It is crucial that we don’t waste this precious opportunity.

Without studying the lam-rim it is very difficult to appreciate how rare this chance is and how to make best use of it. Perhaps we try to meditate, perhaps we pray or read sutras; perhaps we even call ourselves a Buddhist, but without a good background in the lam-rim it is very difficult to see how crucial it is not only to practise Dharma but to do nothing else. Dharma practice is the most important thing in life.

First we should know that without the Dharma there is no happiness at all. No happiness at all. The very definition of Dharma is that which brings happiness. Any tiny happiness that we experience today comes directly from having acted virtuously in the past, and that act was Dharma, whether it was generosity or kindness, patience or right understanding. And all the happiness we will experience in the future is entirely dependent on our creating only virtuous actions from now on, and that is Dharma as well.

To make our life meaningful, we have to do meaningful actions. That means recognising how fortunate we are to have this precious opportunity and determining never to squander it. This is the main thing that allows us to generate the energy we need to undertake the long path ahead of us. This is going to be a long, hard journey and we will need to develop many skills—like a major expedition requires many porters. It will be hard because we have never made it before and because it is a solely mental trip with many obscurations and hindrances blocking the way. To attain complete freedom from suffering, liberation and enlightenment, we have to destroy all our self-created mental hindrances. Destroying the earth would be easier.

But, this is a great journey we must undertake and the lam-rim is the road map that will take us all the way on the shortest route without getting lost, and it starts from understanding the perfect human rebirth. Therefore, it is very good, at this initial stage of our journey, to have a very clear understanding of what the perfect human rebirth is, its incredible rarity, its fragility and the wonderful benefits it can bring.

Traditionally, in texts such as Lama Tsong Khapa’s “Great Treatise” and Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo’s “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand”, after an explanation of the lineage of the great teachers that have expounded the lam-rim and their direct link to Shakyamuni Buddha and the importance of the spiritual teacher, the guru, the main body of the lam-rim teachings is divided into two:

  • persuading your mind to take the essence from your perfect human rebirth
  • how to extract the essence from your perfect human rebirth — the actual method

The actual method is the rest of the entire path to enlightenment, so you can see that in this great store of teachings, the perfect human rebirth is at its very core; it is the foundation. The meaning of the Sanskrit word Dharma is “that which saves.” Dharma is whatever saves sentient beings from all forms of suffering and the causes of suffering. This is completely inclusive. A sentient being is any unenlightened being that has sentience — a mind that can function and therefore naturally wants to have happiness and avoid suffering — and suffering is anything undesirable, from the worst suffering of the hot hells to the most subtle pervasive suffering a god experiences.

Say we are slipping down a steep cliff face, with the rocks way down below waiting to smash us to pieces. The only thing that can save us is a rope at the edge of the cliff. Holding onto that rope is the most important thing we can do; that is what can save our life. That is what the Dharma is. It is that which saves us from falling into suffering. Thus we can say that Dharma is whatever leads us to happiness and allows us to eliminate suffering. The analogy of the rope is a good one because it also shows that we are the ones who need to make the effort. The rope is there to help us but we ourselves must hold on to it and pull ourselves out of danger.

Once, Lama Atisha’s disciple Dromtönpa asked him to explain the results of actions done with what Buddhism calls the three poisons — ignorance, anger and attachment — and of actions done without these attitudes. Lama Atisha answered,

Actions done with ignorance, anger and attachment bring rebirth in the lower realms as a suffering transmigratory being. Greed causes rebirth in the hungry ghost realm, hatred causes rebirth in the hell realm, ignorance causes rebirth in the animal realm and so forth. Actions done with an attitude not possessed by the three poisonous minds bring the result of rebirth as a happy transmigratory being [in one of the three upper realms].

Here, Lama Atisha clearly delineates between what is Dharma and what is not Dharma, what is a worldly action. Just as actions that arise from delusions result in suffering, actions that arise from a virtuous mind, Dharma actions, are the source of all happiness.

If we want to be happy, the very first thing we need to know is what actions will make us happy and cultivate those, and what actions will bring us suffering and avoid those. This is the very essence of Dharma practice. When we investigate, we will see that any action stained with the deluded minds of ignorance, anger and attachment and the many, many other delusions that derive from these three will create suffering, and any action done with a virtuous motivation, one of love, kindness, generosity and so forth, will bring a happy result. This is definite. In fact, this is the fundamental fact about karma.

We can easily see that hatred, jealousy and so forth are negative and bring all sorts of problems, but so too does attachment. Simple actions like eating, reading and walking, when stained by attachment, are non-virtuous and the cause of future suffering. Any action motivated by self-interest and attachment is non-virtuous. We can say prayers for hours every day, we can meditate or make offerings, we can read countless Dharma books — but if those actions are motivated by attachment, such as the wish for a good reputation, then those seemingly good actions are in fact non-virtuous. They may look like Dharma but they are not Dharma; we may look like a Dharma practitioner but we are not a Dharma practitioner.

We need to be very clear about this. It is not the action but the mind behind the action, the motivation that creates it, that determines whether it is positive or negative, whether it is Dharma or non-Dharma. Eating, sleeping or working can just as easily be unstained by the mind clinging to the happiness of this life, and hence be virtuous Dharma actions, as reciting mantras can be non-virtuous when done with greed or anger. The action might seem similar, but the difference in the result of happiness or suffering it brings is like that between earth and sky.

“Whether the motivation is virtuous or non-virtuous determines whether the action that results is virtuous or non-virtuous.”


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