Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up

1. Dharma and the Rituals of Happiness

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Dharma and the Rituals of Happiness

Tibetan Buddhism is one of the many spiritual traditions that has evolved from the words taught by the historical Buddha some 2,500 years ago. Dharma, a Sanskrit word for which there is no adequate English equivalent, refers to the understanding and behavior that lead to the elimination of suffering and its source and to the experience of a lasting state of happiness and fulfillment. The Dharma taught by the Buddha is known as the Buddhadharma. Thus, we can describe Dharma as a way of life, a practice that can be relevant and useful to everyone, to so-called religious people and nonreligious people alike. Why? Because it tells us how to satisfy a longing we have always had, that is, the fundamental desire to experience a lasting state of happiness and to be completely free of suffering and discontent. In short, the practice of Dharma provides a means to the attainment of this goal.

Śāntideva, a seventh-century Indian Buddhist sage, writes:

Although we wish to cast off grief,
We hasten after misery;
And though we long for happiness,
Out of ignorance we crush our joy,
as if it were our enemy.1

We wish for happiness, yet frequently we fail to identify its source. We wish to be free of suffering, frustration, and grief, but we do not correctly identify the sources of our unhappiness. So, although we wish to be free of misery we hasten after it, all the while destroying the causes of the happiness we could have.


How then do we go about practicing Dharma correctly? First we must clearly understand what is not Dharma, so we can eliminate all those activities of our lives that create the causes contrary to our happiness.


Only Dharma, and a motivation appropriate to the practice of Dharma, effectively leads to fulfillment. All other activities are included in what Buddhists call the eight worldly concerns. These concerns dominate a life without Dharma and prevent us from entering a way of life that leads to the cessation of discontent. These eight worldly concerns are: gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, and fame and disgrace.

These are the concerns that pervade most people's daily lives. They are pervasive precisely because they are mistaken for effective means to attain happiness and to avoid suffering. For example, many of us, driven by the concerns of gain and loss, work to acquire an income so that we can buy the things that money can buy, some of them necessities but often many of them unnecessary things that we believe will bring us happiness. We also earn money so that we can avoid the misery and humiliation of poverty.

Again, experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain are the primary motivations for a majority of our activities. We engage in many actions — some of which may seem spiritual — for the sake of immediate satisfaction or relief. For example, if we have a headache we may take aspirin, or sit and meditate hoping the headache will go away. These remedies may lead to temporary relief from discomfort, but that is where their effectiveness ends.

Praise and blame is the next pair of worldly concerns, and even a little reflection reveals the great extent to which our behavior is influenced by desire for praise and fear of blame. The final pair, fame and disgrace, includes seeking others' approval, affection, 3 acknowledgment, respect, and appreciation, and avoiding the corresponding disapproval, rejection, and so on.

The reason for drawing attention to these eight worldly concerns is not to show that they are inherently bad. It is not bad to buy a car, enjoy a fine meal, to be praised for one's work, or be respected by others. Rather, the reason for pointing them out is to reveal their essentially transient nature and their impotence as means to lasting happiness.

Let us take the example of going on vacation. First of all, in order to perform the ritual of going on vacation, we have to save the money to pay for it. While saving our money, we begin our research and may buy a glossy guidebook, of Hawaii let's say. We look at photographs of beautiful people basking on a beach looking like they're having a wonderful time. Attracted to this formula of happiness, we pay for a facsimile of the advertised experience, and very soon we find ourselves on our way to Hawaii.

Our vacation lasts one week, and in fact we do enjoy ourselves, but naturally we must return to our homes, our jobs, and our responsibilities. The vacation is over. We want to re-live its pleasurable events, so we tell our friends about it. If we prolong this ritual, subjecting our friends to photos or videos, we may find their appetite wanes.

Then we realize it is time to stop juicing the memory of the vacation. The memory gradually fades and the relaxation vanishes as well. The vacation is over, so we settle back into the routine of our ordinary lives, until it is time to plan for the next vacation.

That is when things go well. Often, though, our plans go awry. We perform the ritual of some activity that was intended to bring us pleasure, and it fails. While our plans were meant to give us happiness, instead in the end they yield aggravation.

Finally, we find that our efforts to acquire material gain, status, praise, and fame are futile, and can lead to greater unhappiness than we started with. Depression may set in, and if we can find someone to blame for our lack of success, we may do so. This ultimately leads to 4 conflict and turmoil with those around us. In short, dedication to the eight worldly concerns holds no promise of giving us any lasting satisfaction, and guarantees unrelenting discontent and frustration.

As we come to recognize this condition more and more clearly, it becomes natural to begin seeking alternatives, a search that may lead us to Dharma. This does not mean only applying oneself to certain spiritual exercises, but begins with a fundamental transformation of one's thinking and consequently one's way of life — avoiding unwholesome behavior and activities, and adopting those that are wholesome.

The foundation and initial goal of this transformation is avoiding doing harm to others. Whether alone or with others, we must strive to avoid doing harm either directly with our words or deeds or indirectly with our thoughts and intentions. We may injure others with abuse, slander, sarcasm, and deceit, or by acts of omission due to insensitivity and thoughtlessness. The most subtle way of harming others is indirectly by means of our thoughts, judgments, and attitudes. When the mind is dominated by hostility, we may be viciously attacking others with our thoughts. Although no apparent injury may be inflicted, these thoughts affect us internally and influence our way of interacting with others, and the long-term effect is invariably harmful. So the initial theme of Dharma practice is a nonviolent approach to our own lives, to other living beings, and to our environment. This is a foundation for spiritual practice, and can provide well-being for both ourselves and others.

On this basis of nonviolence we can look for ways to serve others keeping in mind that any work will be altruistic if our motivation is one of kindness and friendliness.


Let us focus now on other rituals that are widely regarded as spiritual practices, or Dharma: meditation, prayer, yoga, and so on. As we 5 engage in such actions it is essential to repeatedly ask ourselves, “Are these practices motivated by the eight worldly concerns?” This point is illustrated by a well-known Tibetan story.

A man living about a thousand years ago felt dissatisfied with his life, and so he decided to practice Dharma. Tibetans on the whole are a very pious, devout people, so it was quite natural for him to apply himself to a devotional practice. A common Tibetan custom is to chant mantras, or prayers, while walking around a reliquary, counting the mantras with a rosary held in the left hand, and rotating a prayer wheel in the right.

While our devotee was doing this, a sage named Drom Tönpa2 noted his behavior and commented to him, “It is very good to circumambulate a reliquary, but it is even better to practice Dharma.”

We can imagine this fellow being a bit ruffled at the teacher's remark, for he clearly thought that he was practicing Dharma. But then he may have thought to himself, “A simple act of piety is apparently not enough. I'd better practice Dharma by studying the scriptures.” Later on while he was pursuing this new ritual, Drom Tönpa came upon him and remarked, “It is very good to read the scriptures, but it is even better to practice Dharma.”

Knowing that such studies were a commonly respected practice in Tibet, our seeker was probably more perplexed than before. But he gave the matter further thought and came upon the bright idea that he hoped would resolve the problem — Meditate! Certainly many Buddhist sages assert that meditation is the essence of Dharma, so here was a sure track. But when Drom Tönpa saw him meditating, he gently rebuked him saying, “It is very good to meditate, but it is even better to practice Dharma.”

At this point our devotee-turned-scholar-turned-meditator felt exasperated. What were his options now? What did this renowned teacher have in mind? So finally he asked him, and the teacher replied, “Give up attachment to this life and let your mind become Dharma.”


Devotion, scholarship, and meditation can all be empty rituals, and whether these devotional acts or any other practices are in fact Dharma depends solely upon one's motivation. What did Drom Tönpa mean when he said, “Give up attachment to this life”? He meant, give up attachment to the eight worldly concerns; let them no longer govern the way you live your life.

“Let your mind become Dharma,” encouraged Drom Tönpa. Our initial attempts at spiritual practice tend to be very self-conscious. We want to overcome the distortions of our minds and cultivate such wholesome qualities as kindness, insight, mindfulness, and concentration; but as we engage in practices designed to cultivate these, at first they appear to be only mental exercises. Dharma seems separate, something adopted from outside. But as we go deeper into the practice, this sense of separation begins to disappear; our minds become the very Dharma we seek to cultivate.

It is quite easy to understand the eight worldly concerns on an intellectual level, but it is far more difficult to identify them in the course of our spiritual practice. I recall a striking comment made by a Tibetan contemplative friend. He became a monk at age seven, received sound, extensive training in Dharma from superb teachers while in his twenties, and subsequently went into solitary retreat in a small hut in the mountains above Dharamsala, India. For years he devoted himself to meditation, leading a life of simplicity and poverty for the sake of his spiritual practice. However, after almost twenty years of such efforts, he commented to me that his first several years in retreat were actually an embodiment of the eight worldly concerns, something he was totally oblivious to at the time. The infiltration of these concerns, which makes a mockery of Dharma, is subtle indeed!

Cultivating the mind is very much like cultivating a crop. A farmer must know the proper way to prepare the soil, sow the seed, tend to the growth of the crop, and finally harvest it. If all these tasks 7 are done properly, the farmer will reap the best harvest that nature allows. If they're done improperly, an inferior harvest will be produced, regardless of the farmer's hopes and anxieties.

Similarly, in terms of meditation it is crucial to be thoroughly versed in the proper method of our chosen technique. While engaged in the practice, we must frequently check up to see whether we are implementing the instructions we have heard and conceptually understood. Like a good crop, good meditation cannot be forced, and requires cultivation over time.

Let me illustrate this subtle domination of the eight worldly concerns by an example from my own experience. During the early 1970s, I was a young student of Buddhism living in Dharamsala. This mountain village in northern India is the headquarters of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans, and is also home to several thousand Tibetan refugees, many of them monks, nuns, and lamas. Because I had begun my studies of the Tibetan language and Buddhism in a Western university and quickly found excellent opportunities for further training in Dharamsala, I soon came to be regarded as one of the more knowledgeable Western students — even after I had been there only several months. At times this reputation led me to a sense of personal superiority or specialness. I noted this deluded attitude, and it concerned me: If after just a little training I was already feeling self-righteous, was I doomed to increasing arrogance in proportion to my expanding knowledge and experience?

It was while I was concerned with this problem that I was granted my first audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom I asked for advice. His Holiness responded with an analogy: “Imagine that you are very hungry and you are given a full plate of delicious, nourishing food. After satisfying your hunger, would you congratulate yourself on your prowess at eating? Would you feel self-righteous?” “Surely not,” I answered. And he continued: “It's the same with Dharma. You've come here with a yearning to be free 8 of discontent and to find true satisfaction. You've come seeking Dharma, and your desire is being fulfilled. There's no more reason to feel self-righteous about this experience than about the accomplishment of eating a good meal.”

His Holiness went on to speak of his own situation. He referred to himself simply as Tenzin Gyatso, a Buddhist monk who has been well educated in the long-term consequences of ethically wholesome and unwholesome actions.

“Now think of the behavior of a housefly,” he said. “It is simply concerned with such things as getting food, and it acts with selfish desire which easily turns to aggression when it must compete with others. Is it appropriate for me to feel contemptuous of the fly for its behavior? Surely not, for it doesn't know any better. Likewise, it is inappropriate to disdain other people for their harmful behavior, especially if they have not learned the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome actions. However, if I, who have been well taught in this regard, should act like those who have not, this would be shameful. Greater understanding properly leads to an increasing sense of responsibility, and not to arrogance.”


As we enter the practice of Dharma, we may be in for some disappointing surprises. We learn how to identify the arising of mental distortions in daily life and the unwholesome behavior that ensues from them. In this learning process we may find that our minds, and our way of life, are far less wholesome than we had previously thought. Many beginning Dharma students remark that before they began practicing Buddhism they had thought of themselves as fairly wise and friendly people, but after examining their own behavior more carefully, they were dismayed at the unwholesome quality of their lives. This discovery may seriously threaten our self-esteem. Finding it difficult to accept certain traits in our own makeup, we 9 may find ourselves compulsively seeking out and dwelling on these same faults in others. For example, if we especially abhor our own tendency to self-righteousness, we may be scathing in our contempt of others whom we perceive as exhibiting this quality. For this reason, quite frequently people in the early stages of Dharma practice find the company of others very painful, because they see their own faults mirrored in the behavior of others and, of course, this all appears quite disagreeable. A little understanding can be a painful thing, but this discomfort is eased not by withdrawing from Dharma practice, but by persevering in it and cultivating deeper insight and compassion.

What are the signs that we are properly cultivating Dharma in our lives? Serenity and good cheer are qualities to look for. These characteristics reflect a type of awareness that maintains equilibrium through good and bad times alike. In the face of adversity the Dharma practitioner does not fall into despair, nor does he respond with elation or anxious clinging when he meets with good fortune. Instead, he accepts them both with equanimity.

This equanimity is not a sign of apathy or passivity. On the contrary, it is an attitude of calm cheerfulness that is as prepared for action as it is for repose. It is a sense of well-being that is neither produced by pleasurable external stimuli, nor is it diminished by adversity. Its source is the increasing sanity of our own minds brought forth by the practice of Dharma.

The core of Dharma practice is freeing oneself from the attachments of this life. It focuses on the deeper issue of gaining complete release from discontent by means of freeing our minds from the afflictions of confusion, attachment, and anger. In a broader sense, Dharma practice is concerned with serving others, in terms of both their temporary and ultimate needs.

Does this mean that one who is committed to Dharma suddenly renounces all worldly enjoyments — no more vacations, no entertainment, no sensory pleasures? No. If one tries that approach it usually 10 results in spiritual burnout; and the common rebound is equally extreme sensual indulgence.

For this reason, the practice of Buddhist Dharma is often called the Middle Way because it seeks to avoid the extremes of sensual indulgence and severe asceticism. The former leads to perpetual dissatisfaction and the latter damages one's physical and mental health. Both are foreign to Dharma. To deny ourselves such enjoyments will most likely retard our spiritual growth, for our practice will take on a flavor of deprivation and frustration.

The Middle Way is a sensitive exertion of effort that is neither lax nor aggressive, and from this practice there ultimately arises an increasing satisfaction and delight in virtuous activity that is a result of our spiritual transformation.

As we grow in Dharma, the need for such external sources of pleasure is bound to recede, for we become nourished by a sense of well-being arising from the depths of our own minds. This transition is gradual and cannot be forced. The path of Dharma is meant to be a joyful one, of increasing inner satisfaction, and decreasing need for pleasurable external stimulation.

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