Overcoming Laziness



Lama Zopa Rinpoche was one of the most internationally renowned masters of Tibetan Buddhism, working and teaching ceaselessly on almost every continent. He was the spiritual director and cofounder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Lama Zopa passed away on April 13, 2023.

The following is an excerpt from his book Perseverance.



Laziness, the antithesis of perseverance, is the devil that most interferes with transforming the mind and, therefore, it is the greatest obstacle to happiness. There are three types of laziness:

1. The laziness of procrastination
2. The laziness of being attached to worldly affairs
3. The laziness of discouragement

Of this Shantideva says,

7.2b And what are the adversaries of fortitude?
         They are indolence, a fondness for evil, and despondency and self-deprecation.

The first laziness, the laziness of procrastination or indolence, blocks our energy for Dharma practice and causes us to waste time with distractions. This kind of laziness comes about as a result of lacking the understanding of the nature of samsara, the cause of suffering, and the evolution of karma. The second type, being attached to worldly affairs, is the worst form of laziness, the laziness that draws us to engage in negative actions of greed, ignorance, and hatred—actions that are the opposite of Dharma practice. The third type of laziness, discouragement or despondency, causes us to not do positive things with the excuse that we are unable to do them. This is the mind that thinks, “It’s beyond my capabilities.” The less lazy we are, the fewer hindrances to meditation we will experience.

Spending all day and all night working for samsaric comforts is considered laziness from the Dharma point of view. Because we don’t remember our past sufferings or know those that lie ahead, we work hard for ignorance and greed; we are lazy in that way.

Milarepa said that by having generated impermanence, he was able to conquer “the devil, laziness,” and then whatever action he did became the Dharma. Highly realized beings, such as Lama Tsongkhapa, are utterly without laziness. Without talking about all the other unimaginable great actions they do, because of their bodhichitta, even just breathing becomes great work for other sentient beings.

"Laziness, the antithesis of perseverance, is the devil that most interferes with transforming the mind and, therefore, it is the greatest obstacle to happiness."


Working for Delusions There Is No Time to Meditate

7.3   Indolence develops when, out of inertia,
         or due to a taste for pleasure, or due to mental torpor,
         or because one craves for the comforts of a soft pillow,
         one is not sensitive to the sufferings of transmigration.

The first form of laziness, the laziness of procrastination, means relaxing from virtue, relaxing from practicing Dharma. It can mean relaxing from Dharma practice in general or relaxing from a particular Dharma practice. Because Dharma practice, practicing virtue, seems hard work for us, we see not doing it as a pleasure and we become attached to that. That’s laziness.

This laziness makes the body and mind unable to function to practice the Dharma and to actualize the path to enlightenment. It stops us from continuing whatever we are doing, sitting in meditation or doing prostrations or whatever. This type of laziness can manifest in many ways, as doubts about what we are trying to do, as dullness or indecision. In the first verse of Bodhisattva’s Jewel Garland, Lord Atisha says,

Discard all lingering doubts,
And strive with dedication in your practice.
Thoroughly relinquish sloth, mental dullness, and laziness,
And strive always with joyful perseverance.

In one way, it’s good to have doubts, especially at the beginning, because our doubts can help us clarify things and discover what is right. However, doubts can be a huge obstacle to developing our mind. We can compare it to traveling. If we have doubts about taking a particular road, our doubts could stop us from taking that road. If it’s the wrong road, that’s okay; but if it’s the correct one that leads to the place we want to go, our doubts could lead us in the completely wrong direction. Here, having doubts about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha stops us from entering the path to liberation and enlightenment. Therefore, to engage in the path, we have to abandon those doubts, because they are great obstacles.

It is common that more doubts arise when we become more involved with a Buddhist practice. This is not due to some imperfection in the Dharma but because negative karmas arise that we need to purify. This is natural. Negative karmas hinder us from having a clear understanding while we are learning and cause us to have many doubts, many questions. However, through the practice of purification, experience comes, the realization of the path comes. Then, as we develop, doubts recede.

When we achieve the path of seeing, the third of the five Mahayana paths, and we directly perceive emptiness, we cease all disturbing-thought obscurations. With the fourth path, the path of meditation, we also cease the obscurations to knowledge, the subtle defilements. When we complete the fifth path, the path of no more learning, and have become a buddha, having ceased all gross and subtle defilements, there is not one single doubt left.

At that stage, we have removed even the four unknowing minds, which even tenth-bhumi bodhisattvas haven’t completely eliminated. So, developing along the path is the real way to discard all doubts.

Atisha’s verse tells us to abandon all doubts and cherish the practice. Another way of saying we must cherish the practice, according to Lama Tsongkhapa, is that whatever we see as our main practice, we should cherish that, seeing its great worth. So, a layperson living in the lay vows cherishes those as the heart practice; those living in higher ordination cherish their vows as the heart practice. There are many preliminary practices such as prostrations, recitation of mantras, and so forth in other traditions, but in Lama Tsongkhapa’s tradition, according to Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo, the main emphasis is not the preliminaries but abiding in the pratimoksha vows. If we cherish the pratimoksha vows as our main practice, our essential practice, we won’t create much negative karma and therefore we won’t need to do many preliminary practices because our life is pure. That is the meaning behind this.

Atisha advises us to “thoroughly relinquish sloth, mental dullness, and laziness.” Sloth or drowsiness means that when we meditate, our mind becomes dark, like a dark house. Why do we have to abandon sloth? Because it wastes our most precious human life with which we can achieve the three great meanings. We will achieve nothing unless we abandon sloth, dullness, and laziness.

The wish to sleep can be a form of sloth. Although there are some meditators who don’t sleep, in the lamrim teachings it usually says that the first part of the night is not for sleeping; it is the time to practice. The last part of the night is also time to get up to practice. Only the middle part of the night is the time for sleeping. I don’t know how to find this middle part. My sleeping happens at all the wrong times.

Atisha’s advice is very important. We have an unbelievable opportunity to achieve incredible things for ourselves and for other sentient beings. Through our Dharma practice we can bring happiness to so many sentient beings: the happiness of all their future lives, liberation from samsara, and enlightenment. If we allow sloth, dullness, and laziness to become obstacles, we lose all these things. We have this perfect human rebirth almost only this once. It doesn’t last long and can be stopped at any time. Therefore, if we spend the little time that we have in mental torpor, just attached to the pleasures of this life, we can’t achieve any realization. We not only can’t achieve enlightenment but also liberation from samsara or even the happiness of future lives is beyond us.

7.4   You have been captured by these hunters, the afflictions,
         and you are now trapped in the net of rebirth.
         Are you still unaware
         that you are in the jaws of death?

7.5   Don’t you see how your friends and acquaintances,
         one after another, fall to death?
         Still you give yourself to sleep,
         like a pariah’s the water buffalo.

7.6   How can you enjoy eating, sleeping, and sensual pleasures
         while you are being closely watched
         by Yama, the king of death,
         and all your exits are closed?

7.7   Once death has everything prepared for you,
         it will come swiftly.
         If you should then abandon your sloth, it would be too late.
         What will you do then?

We need to abandon sloth, dullness, and laziness and always keep the attitude of perseverance, keeping the mind happy in our Dharma practice. The easiest and most powerful way to do this, especially for us beginners, is to think of impermanence and death. Seeing how this human body is so precious, how with it we can achieve the three great meanings, but how it is so rare and so difficult to find again, we reflect on how death can happen at any time.

Then we can reflect on negative karma and its result, which is rebirth in the lower realms, remembering again and again the most unimaginable sufferings of the hell beings, the hungry ghosts, and the animals. If we remember the hot and cold hells every day, as Nagarjuna advises, there is no space in the mind for attachment and anger, these negative emotional thoughts that function to disturb and obscure our mind.

We need to see that as long as our actions of body, speech, and mind are dictated by the contaminated seeds of delusion, we will always make mistakes, create nonvirtue, and cause suffering for ourselves and others. This is the “compounding” of pervasive compounding suffering, and this is what we must fear.

Just as a cancer cell, which might be microscopic and seemingly insignificant, has the potential to kill us in terrible agony, so even in the great bliss at the very tip of samsara, that cancer cell of pervasive compounding suffering is there. Until we can eliminate even this subtlest type of suffering, we will continue to circle endlessly. This is what we must fear. We must fear it like we would fear being on the lip of an erupting volcano and about to fall in.

Perhaps it seems strange that I am telling you to be afraid, to have aversion. Surely the purpose of studying Buddhism is to be happy, to not be afraid, to overcome our aversion. What I’m asking you to do here, however, is to have a healthy, useful fear, one that will give you energy to do only positive things, and the aversion I ask you to have is aversion to all that is negative. This is a healthy aversion.

This kind of fear is not debilitating. When they are told that that have cancer, many people are so afraid that they can do nothing. Their fear paralyzes them. Many, however, use this as a wake-up call and start to do really useful things with their life, realizing how they have wasted it until now. This is the kind of fear we need.

The great meditator Milarepa says,

Now be afraid of the eight restless states and remember impermanence and samsaric suffering. Rely completely on the perfect guides, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and be careful in the creation of karma.

The eight restless states are the opposite of the eight freedoms we learn about in the teachings on the perfect human rebirth, so just as we have freedom from birth as a hell being, a god, a barbarian, and so forth, with the eight restless states we are trapped in rebirths such as being a hell being, a god, a barbarian, and so forth.

Without relying on the perfect guides, there is no way we can escape these states, and so we are right to be terrified of them. In a few words, Milarepa shows us the whole path out of samsara; there is no other way to escape. To find perfect peace we must rely on the perfect method and that means relying on the founder, his method, and the spiritual community that can show us the way.

We might know the pain we have signifies a dangerous illness but fail to get it treated because we have no faith in the doctor. To be terrified of the illness but not try to cure it is tragic and stupid. This kind of fear is useless fear. We need to face the truth of the situation, to be afraid, and to use that fear to give us the energy to do whatever we must do to overcome that suffering.

If we weren’t in samsara, of course there would be no need to fear anything. If we didn’t even have the seeds of ignorance on our mindstream, then of course there would be no fear. But having ignorance, and hence having attachment and aversion, means having fear. We are afraid of not getting what we want or losing what we have; we are afraid of what we don’t want, of the harm our enemies can inflict on us. Every day we live with fear, but unless that fear wakes us up to what we must do in order to transcend all our suffering, it is useless fear.

For most of us, the greatest fear is the fear of death. This fear is so great that we either suppress it completely or we are debilitated by it. When we are young, we never think about death, subconsciously thinking we will live forever, but when we get older and we see our parents and their friends dying, we are shocked by a sudden realization of our own mortality. For many people, the thought of death is frightening, but they simply don’t know what to do about it.

However, those of us who are lucky enough to have a spiritual path do have a way to deal with death. Remembering impermanence and death, Milarepa’s second point in the quote above, is a vital step in ensuring we have a happy death and a happy rebirth. This is the start of our whole Dharma practice. I have talked about this often. However, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of meditating on this subject again and again.

Reflecting on death and the consequences of nonvirtue and the fear that it can generate is the spur to start our whole spiritual quest. In fact, we need something like this to break us free from the deadening inactivity of habit. It was this skillful fear that led Milarepa into the mountains to meditate and allowed him to become enlightened in one lifetime. He says,

I fled to the mountains through fear of death,
And once there, I realized the absolute true nature of the mind.
Now, even if death comes to me, I won’t be afraid.

It took incredible courage and determination to live alone in the mountains and face his own delusions—he was a murderer before he started meditating—and it was the initial fear of what he faced that gave him this determination. Because of that, Milarepa was able to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime by realizing the nature of the mind, which is empty of inherent existence.

The purpose of remembering death and impermanence is to deeply understand how meaningless this worldly, mundane life is and to work diligently to subdue our mind in order to have a good death and a better rebirth, which we can do only when we understand karma and the other lamrim topics. The fear we need now is the fear of what will happen to us if we don’t stop creating nonvirtuous actions. At present that is very difficult because we are habituated to them. Therefore, we need this jolt of fear to wake us up from the sleep of selfishness we are now in. Seeing clearly what will happen if we don’t transform our mind, we have boundless energy to do whatever is needed.

We have everything that Milarepa has. In fact we have a strong, healthy body—very fat and strong and shiny, like it is polished—whereas his was skinny and emaciated, like it could be blown away in the lightest breeze, from living on nothing but nettles. When other people saw his holy body, they were not impressed. Except for a torn rag, it was naked; and it was a kind of green color through his nettle diet. All he had in his cave was a cushion made of grass, to aid his meditation posture, and a pot to cook the nettles. Outwardly he was not very impressive, so we can’t argue that he had the right body for enlightenment but we haven’t.

Nor can we argue that he had a wonderful pure mind when he started but we have not. He had killed many people with black magic, and so he had very heavy negative karma on his mindstream. No wonder he was scared of death. His advantage over us was not his body and mind but his determination and courage. Those qualities sent him to the cave and kept him there through incredible austerity, until he had purified his mind completely. Whereas before, death had controlled him, afterward he controlled death, and so he felt no fear at all about dying.

Perhaps, unlike Milarepa, we won’t be able to realize emptiness in this lifetime and thereby lose all fear of death, but we can advance enough on the path of the lower capable being to feel fully confident that we will have a better rebirth.

In fact, meditating on impermanence and death is extremely important not just for when we die but for now. Even if we want to have peace in this life, away from confusion and frustration, this is the most skillful method to attain that. From a mind tormented with anguish and confusion, we remember impermanence and death and immediately we feel lighter. All the problems that were making us miserable seem suddenly so trivial, and we realize what is important in life.

Reflecting on impermanence and death gives us courage. This is not the courage to get angry and harm an enemy or to develop attachment to desirable objects, not the courage to do samsaric activities, but real courage—courage to joyfully do what is virtuous.

I have heard many students say that it took a car accident or a life-threatening illness to scare them into changing their lives. When we are faced with a very real chance of dying, it is easy to see how our whole life has been wasted on trivial things. We seem to be endlessly distracted, thinking that maybe it would be good to meditate or study Buddhism, but we are somehow always too busy to actually do it. But when an accident or illness shows us we are not immortal, then we see so clearly what we must do.

If we could have a real fear of death, then we would see how only with the assurance of dying with a virtuous mind will we have happiness now and in the future. If there were nothing we could do about our negative mind, then we would be right to block all thoughts of death, but we can transform our mind into one of virtue, and so that is what we must endeavor to do every day for the rest of our life—in fact, every second from now on.

The meaning of perseverance is that the mind is happy to practice virtue, so the object has to be one of virtue. Reflecting on impermanence and death stops negative emotional thoughts that give us wrong courage to do negative things. We have the courage instead to stop creating negative karma and transform our mind into a virtuous one, where all our actions are virtuous. Because it immediately cuts ignorance, anger, and attachment, reflecting on impermanence and death immediately stops the action from becoming nonvirtuous, the cause of the lower realms. Walking, sitting, sleeping, working, meditating, or saying prayers—whatever actions we do immediately become virtuous, which results only in happiness.

The Fallacy We Won’t Die Today

7.8   “This I have not accomplished; that I have just begun; this is half done.
         Now death has come without warning.
         Alas, I am lost”—
         these will be your thoughts

7.9   As you see, appearing before you at the same time,
         on your deathbed, the faces of the messengers of death,
         and your helpless relatives.
         With the pain of grief their faces have become swollen, the eyes tearful and red.

7.10  Then as you are tormented by the memory of your sins,
          and you hear the cries of hell,
          delirious, from sheer fright your body smeared with feces,
what will you do then?

7.11 “I am like a fish kept alive in a tank.”
         It is only reasonable then
         that you should fear death,
         and much more the fearful pains of hell.

7.12 When you touch hot water you get burned, my delicate friend.
         How can you be so indifferent
         when you have committed acts
         that will surely lead to hell?

7.13 Without effort you expect to accomplish something, though you are so delicate,
         you submit yourself to the tortures of hell.
         Even when you are in the jaws of death you imagine yourself immortal.
         You poor wretch, everything you do is for your own harm!

We are running toward the lord of death like a condemned criminal being taken to the gallows. We are in a police car being taken to where we will be executed for our crimes. Nothing can stop the police car. Outside, the streets might be lined with friends and loved ones, all begging the police, but nothing can change our fate. They are weeping, crying, pleading with us not to die, but there is nothing they can do and nothing we can do. Nothing can help.

Perhaps if we could repent our crime the police would let us go, but we are too habituated to the mind of desire; and now that we are losing our most precious object, our body, we cling to it even more tightly. The thought of the eight worldly dharmas has us firmly in its hold. Now it is too late. Because we have not renounced that mind in our life, we cannot turn our mind around now, even though it means a terrible, suffering death and a terrible, suffering next life.

In reality, however, although it is very late, it is hopefully not too late. If we can see where we will be led by the mind entrapped in this deceit and develop a strong determination not to follow this mind, we can start to practice Dharma purely and transform our mind from one of self-cherishing to one that cherishes others. This is why it is so beneficial to think like this.

If we were on a rowing boat on a beautiful lake, with all the time in the world, we wouldn’t have the energy to do what we must do. But we’re not; we’re in a police car on our way to our execution, and things are urgent. They couldn’t be more urgent. There are no actual police, but the ripening of our karma at death is our sentence being carried out.

We can also think of ourselves as an animal being led to be slaughtered. It is a common sight in Asia. I remember during the second pilgrimage I made to Tibet, just near the birthplace of Lama Yeshe, we came across a truck filled with thornbushes with a calf stuffed in one corner. It had terrified big eyes, and we all knew it was on its way to the butcher. Knowing this was the calf’s fate, we stopped the driver and bought it.

Animals are terrified as they are being taken to be killed, their eyes huge with fear. A goat is tethered and pulled out of the yard where it has lived with its family and pulled down the road toward the butcher’s place. Each step is a step closer to the cleaver that is waiting for it. Each second is a second less of this precious life that it cherishes. Until that moment, it had no idea it was condemned to this fate. It thought it would live forever. When we see an animal like this, it really looks as if it knows what is going to happen. It looks terrified. The closer to the butcher it gets, the more its terror increases. Finally it is there, and the assistant holds it while the butcher raises the cleaver and cuts into the goat’s neck. Perhaps it takes a few blows to sever the head, and the goat screams with pain.

We are that goat, being pulled down the road to the butcher. Caught by the wrong concept of permanence, we had no idea that this would happen, and now we are bound by the rope of karma. There is no escaping unless we can cut that rope and be free from karma and delusions. This is possible, but only if we become aware at this very moment of how dangerous our situation is. What are we going to do about it?

We celebrate our birthday each year as some kind of prize, proof we have made it this far. While we are happy to have come this far, we never think about the other side, that that means we have only that far to go to the end. This really is how we should think all the time.

Every step we take is a step closer to the grave. As we walk, we should meditate on impermanence and death, otherwise that it will be a walk toward misery. Each step we take away from our room, that much of our life is gone. With the first step, that much of our life is gone; with the second step, that much more of our life is gone; and with the third . . .and so forth. By practicing mindfulness of impermanence like this, a walk can be so helpful.

It is the same when we are talking. With each word we say, that much of our life has gone. This is especially good to remember when we gossip, when we talk about meaningless things that cause delusions to arise. With that many words spoken, words that could have been highly meaningful for us and others, that much of our life has been wasted.

When we read a book, every word we read is one word closer to death; every page is one page closer to death. When we finish that book, it is one less book we will read in this life. When we eat a plate of rice, each time the spoon goes to our mouth, a spoonful of life has finished.

For every mantra we recite, think that life has become that much shorter; and after each mala, that our life is shortened by that much, that we are that much closer to death.

This is an especially effective meditation to do when we are driving, because we are traveling at speed and so we can really feel how we are racing toward death. The faster we drive, the quicker we reach the hells. We might be driving to work or to a restaurant, but we are really driving to our place of execution.

The nature of impermanence is that we are all dying every moment. In a hospital there are doctors, nurses, and staff who are labeled “not dying” and terminally ill patients who are labeled “dying,” but in reality there is no such difference. We are all dying. Some of us have only a few hours left, some a few days, some a few years. And who is to say that the doctor treating the person in the last stages of cancer will outlive the patient? We all have a terminal condition called life. The difference between our illness and that of the cancer patient is just a matter of degrees. Ours will probably take a little longer to take effect.

All this is morbid and depressing unless we can see the truth in it and how this is the big wake-up call to get us to stop wasting our life. Seeing how we are racing toward death, we should think, “I must not waste my life. I must practice the Dharma purely. I must make my life highly beneficial by practicing bodhichitta. I will do whatever is of greatest benefit to sentient beings.” By thinking in all these different ways about impermanence and death, we should reach this conclusion.

We can’t fix a life that has been wasted. A good car mechanic can fix a car, even if it has been badly damaged, but there are no good mechanics for a wasted life. Once life is finished, that’s it. If we have spent it meaningfully, then there is no need for fear or concern. We will have a good death and a good rebirth. If we have wasted it by attachment to the affairs of this life, then it will be too late at death. There is nothing we can do about the life that is behind us. It is pointless to wait until that moment to realize that life is precious, but if we can realize it now, there is great benefit because we can do something about it now. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.

In the verses above, Shantideva paints the picture of our relatives helpless with grief as we die. All our lives we have lived with other people and relied on them to give us a sense of happiness, but unless they are very skilled at Dharma, whoever is around us as we die will be a great hindrance to our death. Our partner and children we love and who love us dearly are helpless in the face of our death. Unable to let us go, they wail and scream and beg us not to die, but it has no effect. Their attachment to us just makes it more difficult for us to die peacefully. And our attachment to them is one of the greatest hindrances to our easy death. We see the faces of our loved ones and, knowing we will never see them again, tears pour down our face and we howl in misery. Just as we can’t let go of our life, we can’t let go of the attachment to the people of our life, and that hold makes death incredibly difficult.

Unless other people can actually help us, by saying mantras or reminding us of the disadvantages of attachment, it is better not to have them around. It is very important to have a quiet atmosphere at death; the sense of loss of seeing loved ones who will soon cease to exist for us does not allow us to die well. Knowing this, isn’t it better to start cutting our attachment to people right now? That does not mean that we stop loving people but that we break the attachment that is so often a key element in the relationships we have with others.

It is so easy to become complacent. At this moment we are experiencing so much comfort and ease. Our life is easy and our troubles are few. Like the lazy feeling we can get on a sunny day when we are picnicking by a river, it seems that life has always been like this and will always be like this. How foolish we are! We are a breath away from unimaginable torment, and yet we deny it because it is unpleasant to think about. It will be way too late when we have breathed the last breath of this life and the tortures of the hell realm are there for us to see, a living reality we must now endure. We are lying on a soft bed one moment and the next we are stretched out on a glowing red-hot iron ground, our body burning up in agony. At that time there is nothing we can do. Only now, while we have the space to change our way of thinking, can we do what is necessary to avoid such a future.

Here is the great tragedy. Now, in a human body with all the opportunities we have, if we don’t do whatever we can to avoid the lower realms, then when we find ourselves there, there is absolutely nothing we can do.

This will happen, whether we want it or not. At present our live body sleeps in its bed, comfortable and warm, but there will come a time when the blanket becomes a shroud. Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo Rinpoche describes our body as falling like a dead tree. That’s how it will seem to others who find us there. Even though they tug and pull at the sheets and blankets, our corpse will not respond.

As the elements absorb, first the heat of the body leaves the head and goes to the heart, and then the heat travels from the feet to the heart. The person is no longer able to speak; and after a while the eyes roll up, showing the whites. Then the body becomes very cold and stiff. When somebody touches the head, it is like touching solid wood; it seems like there is a wooden statue of that person in the bed rather than the person who was there before.

Shantideva compares the pain we feel when we touch hot water to what we will feel should we end up in the hell realm. We can imagine a large pot of fiercely boiling water, like the ones lobsters are thrown into alive in big hotels. We can’t even bear to put a finger in it, and yet we put a living animal in it. If we were to die now, can we be assured we wouldn’t be reborn in a place that would make that pot of boiling water seem like a cool swimming pool?

Because of the belief that we definitely won’t die today, that we will definitely live today and for many years, even though we might have met the teachings and understood the meditation techniques, our mind becomes lazy. With this misconception that we will live long, the wish to indulge in worldly activities becomes foremost and any Dharma practice is delayed. We put off the practice until tomorrow and then when tomorrow comes, we further postpone it. In this way, we never have time to practice the Dharma before death.

Due to past negative actions, if we are going to be reborn in the lower realms, we experience terrifying hallucinations before we die. This happened in Tibet to a leader who had tortured many people. All the people he had tormented came to him as he was dying, attacking him and pressing down on him. He screamed to his friends and servants that he was being attacked, and he flayed his arms in the air in terror, but they could neither see what he was seeing nor help him. His past victims—not actual people but projections of his own mind—were taking revenge for the terrible things he had done to them.

Once, the great meditator Geshe Jampa Wangdu helped a dying neighbor who lived near his meditation cave near Dharamsala. The man was screaming and opening his mouth as if he was drowning. His face was distorted and terrified, and he kept trying to ward off invisible enemies. The man was being attacked by a great many sheep; they were digging into his body with their sharp horns, attacking him and trying to gore him to death. It seems that he had been a butcher and these were the kind of sheep that he had regularly killed. He had never thought there was anything wrong with his occupation and so he had no thoughts of needing to purify his mind. But now, as he was dying, these visions were manifesting. Even before his consciousness left that human body, it was already creating the hell realm it was going to inhabit for eons.

These visions of their next rebirth are more than just fantasies of a deluded mind; they are karmically created visions of what the future will definitely be. If we study people who are dying like this, it can be such an important lesson for us. This can clearly show us how negative actions are never lost but are carried as imprints on our mindstream until such moments when they manifest in this way. When we carry such heavy negative karma, of course we will die with such suffering.

Not remembering impermanence and death constantly, we forget and become complacent, and we inadvertently create negative karma and somehow think that it doesn’t matter. We don’t bother to purify it and so it sits on our mindstream, increasing in strength and ready to create such suffering for us in the future. We see the small enjoyments in our everyday life as the reason for living and so we become blind to the harmful effects we receive from chasing them. Realizing this as we die is much too late.

You Fool, This Is No Time for Sleep

7.14 You have obtained this human condition, which is like a raft—
         cross then the river of suffering.
         You fool, this is no time for sleep,
         you will not find this craft easily again.

Only now, only when we have this “raft” of a perfect human rebirth, can we cross the river of suffering to reach the shore of liberation. This is the whole reason we have this human body. This is the meaning of our life. Because we can never be sure of having this opportunity again, Shantideva warns us strongly that we must use this unique chance while we have it. To waste this chance—to sleep this time away—is utterly foolish.

Imagine we are in a terrible place and across a wide and dangerous river is a wonderful land, if only we can reach it. But we have this raft, and so we must push it out into the water and row it across the river, despite any difficulties we might face. How amazing that we have this chance to save ourselves! We should feel so fortunate. We cannot delay even a second, because if we do, this precious opportunity could be snatched from us. In the same way, our perfect human rebirth could end at any moment, so there is definitely no time to sleep, to remain trapped in ignorance.

Ignorance is a dark, heavy mind. In many ways it is like sleep. We are unconscious of what is happening around us, even if there is danger. If we don’t make the effort to wake the mind from ignorance, to gain wisdom, and instead expend our energy only for the comfort of this worldly existence, all of our actions only create more ignorance. As long as we work for greed, hatred, pride, jealousy, and the many other negative minds, we are working for ignorance.

It is good to memorize the Buddha’s advice from the Dhammapada:

Delight in heedfulness! Guard well your thoughts. Draw yourself out of this bog of evil, even as an elephant draws himself out of the mud.

“Even as an elephant draws himself out of the mud” refers to overcoming attachment. If we follow attachment, we tie ourselves to samsara, continuously circling in the suffering cycle of death and rebirth. The great Nyingma teacher Gyelwa Longchenpa says that just trying to achieve happiness in this life, getting completely caught in worldly activities, is like an elephant stuck in a quagmire, trapped, unable to escape. That is a very good example. In that way, our family, relatives, and friends we are attached to are like prison guards, keeping us trapped in the prison of samsara.

When we are attached to somebody, it is painful when we can’t see them. But even when we are with them, there is still the pain of attachment. This shows us how an attached mind is not an enlightened one; it is a heavy, suffering, deluded mind. It obscures us in many ways. It obscures us from seeing the nature of the object of our attachment, which is impermanent, changing by causes and conditions every second—and even within a second. Despite its impermanence being the truth of the object, it appears permanent, and we grasp at it as permanent, causing attachment to arise.

Attachment obscures us from seeing how the object doesn’t exist from its own side, by its nature, how it is empty of true existence. When we check, we can see how the nature of attachment is delusional. Because of attachment and the delusions that arise because of it, such as anger, we are like an elephant sunk in the quagmire, unable to get out.

To the great yogi Luipa, one of the lineage lamas of the Heruka Chakrasamvara teachings, Heruka says,

Give up stretching the legs;
Give up entering samsara.

“Give up stretching the legs” means not being lazy. We give up laziness by giving up attachment. That is the essence of what he is saying.

We will either be reborn in the upper realms or the lower realms; there is no third alternative. If we are reborn in the lower realms, we must endure the most unimaginable sufferings and there is almost no chance of creating even the slightest virtue. As Shantideva says,

By conduct such as mine
I will not reach again the human condition.
If I do not attain again human birth,
I shall only meet sin, whence would arise then what is meritorious?

If I do not practice good
while I have the capacity to do so,
what shall I do when the torments
of evil destinies blind me?

When we honestly consider our conduct, creating more negativities than virtues, it is very unlikely we will attain another human body after we die. Then once we are a being of the lower realms, the chance to create any virtue becomes almost impossible. Therefore, while we have this unique opportunity, we must seize it. We must abandon “stretching our legs,” abandon any laziness that blocks us from practicing the Dharma.

Milarepa said that by remembering impermanence and death we become victorious over the mara of laziness, and whatever we do with our body, speech, and mind becomes the Dharma. Eating, walking, sitting, sleeping, doing our job, meditating, saying prayers—everything becomes the Dharma.

One of my teachers, Geshe Jampa Wangdu, used to say that although normally we hear that it is so difficult to practice the Dharma, if we actualize impermanence and death, if we realize that death can happen at any time, nothing is easier. Although he didn’t say it, I think this also means that it becomes difficult to do worldly activities once we have realized impermanence and death. Seeing how worldly activities harm ourselves and others, practicing the Dharma becomes the easiest thing in our life. There is nothing easier.

This is so important. Even if we are an expert in Buddhist philosophy, if we don’t think of death, our mind doesn’t change; it doesn’t become the Dharma. Because we live with the concept of permanence, many actions become negative karma, and when we are close to death, we become terrified of what will happen after death, of our next life in the lower realms. On the other hand, for somebody who doesn’t know that much but who often thinks of their own death, their attachment to this life is controlled. Even though they know very little Dharma, because they understand this basic point, because they are used to the thought of death, there is nothing to be scared of at the time of death.

Every day we should remember that the results of negative karma, such as the ten nonvirtues, are the sufferings of the hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals. Nagarjuna explained that this is the way to always keep our mind in virtue, in Dharma.

"We will achieve nothing unless we abandon sloth, dullness, and laziness."


7.15 In the higher pleasure of Dharma you will find an infinite series of joys.
         How can you abandon this
         for the sake of the pleasure of sensual excitement, laughter, and the rest,
         which will be the cause of your suffering?

The second sort of laziness we must overcome is the laziness of being attached to worldly affairs. Laziness, in this context, is not what we would usually associate with the word. We can work hard chasing worldly pleasures in order to have what we want—we can be incredibly busy—but that is considered laziness because it distracts us from our Dharma practice. It is the love of nonvirtuous acts and the reluctance to do virtuous ones.

When we have an interest in worldly activities, such as gaining luxury, power, reputation, and so forth—when the mind is attracted to the happiness of this life—we are very busy. Intent on getting the happines of this life, we are unable to practice the Dharma. The texts talk about being influenced by bad friends who have strong delusions as well as bad conduct. Depending on such distractions, delusions arise.

The Tibetan word that is used here, duzi, can be interpreted as either “enjoyment” or “distraction.” To give a simple example, even though we might have a full-time job, there is still a lot of time to meditate. However, if we take great pleasure in the comfort of sleeping, if we are too attached to that, we sleep in until the last minute in the morning. So attracted by that enjoyment, we leave ourselves no time to do our meditation. That is duzi.

There might be time to meditate, time to do something like the mind-training practice, but somehow it doesn’t happen. Because we are attracted to gossip, during the time we should be meditating, we end up chatting with a friend. Whether we think of happiness as gossiping or doing some other mundane activity rather than meditating, we will always find something to distract us, even if we live alone without a computer or a television.

We have plenty of time to do other things to the exclusion of our Dharma practice. This is because we are attached to the meaningless affairs of this life. For instance, on the weekend when there is no work and we are completely free, we look for something to make us happy, and it is usually a worldly distraction. Even with plenty of spare time, we still seem unable to practice the Dharma. In that way, a week goes by, a month goes by, a year goes by and still there seems to be no time to practice the Dharma. Then, after more years of distraction, our life finishes. There is a real danger of this. On the other hand, if we didn’t follow worldly concern, even working full-time, there would be plenty of time to practice the Dharma.

This second laziness, being attracted to worldly activities, to what is harmful, is like an addiction, such as being addicted to alcohol or drugs. Even though we might know the harm it does, we seem powerless to stop. Just as a smoker finds it very difficult to quit smoking, no matter how convinced they are that cigarettes will kill them, we can see how much any of the ten nonvirtues can make us suffer terribly but we still continue to do them.

The six shortcomings of not remembering death are often listed as:

1. We do not remember to practice the Dharma.
2. We remember but we postpone our practice.
3. We practice but we do it impurely.
4. We do it purely but not continuously.
5. We create nonvirtue through anger, attachment, and ignorance.
6. We die with much worry and fear.

The first shortcoming of not remembering death is not remembering to practice Dharma. Even if we have the thought to practice, we somehow always delay it, thinking we will do it next month or next year. And even if we try to practice the Dharma, because we are still caught up in the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, our Dharma practice does not become pure. Because it is not pure, we are unable to protect our karma, unable to live in morality. Then we create nonvirtue. Again, this is because we are controlled by mundane concerns, the attachment of clinging to this life.

This thought of the eight worldly dharmas is the enemy that abides in our heart, constantly harming us, constantly blocking us from practicing the Dharma. It is the major cause of every problem, of every disease. There might be an external condition, but if we check we will see that the main cause is internal; it comes from the mind, from the attachment of clinging to this life. Therefore, the most powerful solution to overcome all our problems is to overcome this attachment. Then whatever action we do in our daily life—eating, walking, sleeping, listening, reflecting, meditating, and so forth—everything becomes pure Dharma.

Understanding this, now becomes a very important time, an opportunity to practice the Dharma, not just to recite mantras or chant prayers but to totally transform our mind into the Dharma. Now, we can transform our mind from the painful mind of desire into a peaceful, satisfied mind, a mind of renunciation.

This is a time of great challenge, a time for us to become a real champion. There are many people in the world who are given the title “champion.” There are champions of soccer, champions of athletics; there are even eating champions—champions who can eat the most food the fastest! I haven’t yet seen a “fattest champion.” I don’t know why not. I think there should be. These are the times when we, too, have to become a champion. But by this I mean a truly worthwhile champion: a champion over the maras, the demons, the real enemies abiding in our heart. These are the delusions that bring all the disturbances, all the obstacles, all the problems that don’t allow us to practice the Dharma. These are the delusions that make us spend so much time working for this life that we have no time for Dharma practice. This thought of the eight worldly dharmas, this desire clinging to this life, is the mind that doesn’t even give us time to recite one mala of OM MANI PADME HUM but gives us plenty of time to do things for the happiness and comfort of this life.

Therefore, the realizations of the graduated path of the lower capable being, such as the perfect human rebirth and impermanence and death, are crucial. Even with the first realization, that of the perfect human rebirth, we feel an unbelievable loss, like losing a great mountain of gold, if we waste even a minute of this precious life. Because of that, all our actions naturally become Dharma. The stronger the realization of these meditations, the more difficult it is for the thought of worldly concern to arise; and in that way, the easier it is for our normal actions to become Dharma. There is no time for meaningless actions, only time for Dharma practice.

"There might be time to meditate, time to do something like the mind-training practice, but somehow it doesn’t happen."


The last of the three sorts of laziness, the laziness of discouragement, can be overcome by understanding how practicing the Dharma is the infallible cure for all our problems. With physical illnesses, although medicine might be able to cure them, there is no guarantee they will never recur. The Dharma is the medicine that cures the delusions, and once we have eliminated all our delusions, it is impossible to ever experience them again.

Seeing there is the chance to finally completely remove even the seed of delusions, no matter how long it takes, should give us great determination to practice as purely as we can and not be discouraged when difficulties arise. When we find it hard to protect our karma and not commit nonvirtuous actions, instead of becoming discouraged, we should think about how long we have been sick in samsara because of these countless delusions, and how once we have destroyed them, they can never return. This will strengthen our will and make us even more determined to persevere in our Dharma practice.

Overcoming Self-Contempt

The laziness of discouragement means being weighed down with low self-worth, with despondency, even despising ourselves. It’s the laziness where we feel we are incapable of doing something. It is the mind of “I cannot do this.” We feel we cannot do a retreat, we cannot meditate on the lamrim, we cannot do prostrations. We put ourselves down, thinking we are unable to practice the Dharma.

In the sixth chapter of his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says,

Some attack with even greater valor
at the sight of their own blood,
others faint by the mere sight
of the blood of others.

This is due respectively to the valor
and cowardice of their spirits.
Therefore, he who does not let himself be conquered by sorrow
will vanquish all afflictions.

When they are wounded in a battle and see their own blood, some brave people become even fiercer. They use the wound as a decoration to show their bravery. Trained in bearing suffering, that person can not only withstand pain, even if badly wounded, but also use the pain to increase their determination. Somebody who is not trained, on the other hand, will not be able to bear it.

Shantideva’s point is not that we should endure difficulties in order to be successful in worldly pursuits. People all over the world work incredibly hard, but not to develop realizations. No matter how many hundreds of eons it takes, it is worthwhile always to work at transforming our mind into the holy Dharma. There might be times when we become despondent, thinking that we are hopeless, that we can’t practice the Dharma; times when our delusions seem too strong, attacking us from all sides, back and front, and almost completely overwhelming us. At such times, it is very important to remember this.

Just as putting a few drops of honey on a tree that tastes of acid will not sweeten its taste, hearing Dharma a few times and occasionally practicing it cannot completely cure a mind full of disturbing thoughts. The mind has been under the control of delusions from the beginningless previous lifetimes.

Perhaps we have been meditating for many years but still feel our mind hasn’t changed at all. We might have spent half an hour or an hour each day sitting on a meditation cushion, trying to meditate, but if nothing much has changed, that is a sure sign we have been doing something wrong. To transform the mind and gain realizations requires more than just sitting still for hours. It depends on many factors, such as purification and gaining merit. Without these, meditation alone will produce little.

However, now all the right conditions exist. It is only a question of whether we put the effort into it or not. If we attempt it from our own side, there is no reason we cannot attain enlightenment even in one brief lifetime. Therefore, it is extremely important to have the confidence that we can do such a thing and to not allow ourselves to become despondent. Instead of being discouraged, we should be encouraging ourselves.

We have the same potential as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha and the numberless great yogis who have progressed through the entire path and have achieved enlightenment. We can attain enlightenment, even if it means bearing great hardships. Bearing hardships is nothing new. Over countless lifetimes we have borne hardships of heat and cold, hunger and thirst, and so forth to create the cause of suffering. We have given up our life numberless times for attachment, for self-cherishing; we have sacrificed ourselves to create the cause of samsara. We have killed others and been killed ourselves numberless times. No matter what difficulty we might face in practicing the Dharma, it is nothing compared to the suffering we have experienced numberless times to create negative karma.

Bearing hardships to practice the Dharma is just short term. Whenever we face a difficulty, this could be the last time we have to bear that particular hardship to practice the Dharma, for our future lives’ happiness, for liberation, and for enlightenment. We just don’t know.

Whatever hardships we have to bear to practice the Dharma is nothing compared with the hardships others have borne for us. We must do whatever we can to repay their great kindness. It is incredibly worthwhile to liberate even one hell being from the most unimaginable suffering. That hell being suffered for us, for our happiness, from beginningless rebirths. When they were our mother, they bore incredible hardships for us, suffering from exhaustion as they raised us, working tirelessly to give us an education. They created so much negative karma with their body, speech, and mind for our happiness, not once but numberless times when they were our mother. And then, because of those negative karmas, they were born in the lower realms numberless times and suffered for many eons. This is just this one hell being, who is suffering now the most unimaginable suffering in samsara.

All the extensive happiness we have experienced in the past, we are experiencing now, and we will experience in the future, that is all due to the kindness of every single sentient being, including that sentient being who is suffering in the hell realm now. What we get from them is utterly unimaginable. Any difficulty we encounter in trying to repay their kindness is nothing in comparison.

No matter what they must endure, a bodhisattva does not become discouraged. Sentient beings may insult, scold, beat, or even kill a bodhisattva, but they are not in the least disturbed. They return the harm with benefit, using that harm to complete their perfection of patience. And with the perfection of perseverance, they willingly allow themselves to remain in the very lowest hell for the sake of even one sentient being. A bodhisattva does the most incredibly difficult work for other sentient beings, and they do it with an incredibly happy mind.

No matter how hard it is to work for other sentient beings or how many eons it takes, they are extremely happy to have the opportunity to bear these hardships.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, we need to relate the brave actions of the bodhisattvas to our everyday life. When we get up in the morning, we can generate the motivation to practice the Dharma for the sake of other sentient beings, no matter how hard it is. At the beginning of our Dharma practice, we should try to generate the bodhichitta motivation in this way.

Sometimes, no matter how much we meditate, we seem to get nowhere. For example, no matter how much we try to understand emptiness by studying and meditating, nothing seems to happen, even after years. We should not get depressed. When we remember that we are studying the Dharma for the sake of other sentient beings and we find it hard, we should remember the bodhisattva’s brave attitude of voluntarily doing the most difficult work with an incredibly happy mind. That should inspire us and keep us from being discouraged.

"The Dharma is the medicine that cures the delusions, and once we have eliminated all our delusions, it is impossible to ever experience them again."

Dive deep into perseverance, one of the core practices of the bodhisattvas, with beloved teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche as a guide.

Awakening depends on fortitude;
because, without fortitude there is no merit,
as there is no movement without wind.
—Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Perseverance, or virya, is also translated as “energy,” “fortitude,” or “vigor.” One of the six perfections, or paramitas, it is one of the trainings of the bodhisattvas and a deeply necessary quality for the Buddhist path. But it’s far from the kind of head-down, stubborn determination the name could imply; instead, it’s joyful energy that enables us to practice.

Rinpoche’s commentary is structured around the fifth and seventh chapters of the beloved Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by the eighth-century philosopher-poet Shantideva. Interweaving his teaching with Shantideva’s verses, Rinpoche elucidates this prerequisite for enlightenment, explaining what it is and how to cultivate it: guard your mind, gather virtue, work for others—and find incredible joy in these things.

“When we have perseverance, we will have no obstacles, which means obstacles to any happiness, especially to ultimate happiness, the freedom from the oceans of samsaric suffering, and most importantly to peerless happiness, the state of the omniscience that is enlightenment.”
—Lama Zopa Rinpoche



Perseverance is part of the Wisdom Culture Series, published under the guidance of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, features translations of key works by masters of the Geluk tradition. Also available in the series are Tsongkhapa’s Middle-Length Treatise on the Stages of the Path to EnlightenmentThe Power of Mantra, andThe Swift Path.

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