Not for Happiness
DZONGSAR JAMYANG KHYENTSE is one of the truth-tellers of modern Buddhism. The
truth he tells us is that if it feels too good, it’s probably not
Buddhism. But if you want real transformation, if you want painful
honesty and deep, uncomfortable change, then read on.
Buddhist practices are techniques we use to tackle our habitual self-cherishing.
Each one is designed to attack individual habits until the compulsion
to cling to “self ” is entirely eradicated. So although a practice may
look Buddhist, if it rein- forces self-clinging, it is actually far more
dangerous than any overtly non-Buddhist practice.
aim of far too many teachings these days is to make people “feel good,”
and even some Buddhist masters are beginning to sound like New Age
apostles. Their talks are entirely devoted to validating the
manifestation of ego and endorsing the “rightness” of our feelings,
neither of which have anything to do with the teachings we find in the
pith instructions. So if you are only concerned about feeling good, you
are far better off having a full-body massage or listening to some
uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings, which
were definitely not designed to cheer you up. On the contrary, the
dharma was devised specifically to expose your failings and make you
Try reading The Words of My Perfect Teacher.
If you find it depressing, if Patrul Rinpoche’s disconcerting truths
rattle your worldly self-confidence, be happy. It is a sign that at long
last you are beginning to understand something about the dharma. And by
the way, to feel depressed is not always a bad thing. It is completely
understandable for someone to feel depressed and deflated when their
most humiliating failing is exposed. Who wouldn’t feel a bit raw in such
a situation? But isn’t it better to be painfully aware of a failing
rather than utterly oblivious to it? If a flaw in your character remains
hidden, how can you do anything about it? So although pith instructions
might temporarily depress you, they will also help uproot your
shortcomings by dragging them into the open. This is what is meant by
the phrase “dharma penetrating your mind,” or, as the great Jamgon
Kongtrul Lodro Taye put it, “the practice of dharma bearing fruit,”
rather than the so-called good experiences too many of us hope for, such
as good dreams, blissful sensations, ecstasy, clairvoyance, or the
enhancement of intuition.
Rinpoche said there is no such thing as a person who has perfected both
dharma practice and worldly life, and if we ever meet someone who
appears to be good at both, the likelihood is that his or her skills are
grounded in worldly values.
is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm
down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the
truth. Dharma is not a therapy. Quite the opposite, in fact; dharma is
tailored specifically to turn your life upside down—it’s what you sign
up for. So when your life goes pear-shaped, why do you complain? If you
practice and your life fails to capsize, it is a sign that what you are
doing is not working. This is what distinguishes the dharma from New Age
methods involving auras, relationships, communication, well-being, the
Inner Child, being one with the universe, and tree hugging. From the
point of view of dharma, such interests are the toys of samsaric
beings—toys that quickly bore us senseless.
The Heart of Sadness
Rinpoche suggested we pray to the guru, buddhas, and bodhisattvas and
ask them to grant their blessings, “So I may give birth to the heart of
sadness.” But what is a “heart of sadness”? Imagine one night you have a
dream. Although it is a good dream, deep down you know that eventually
you will have to wake up and it will be over. In life, too, sooner or
later, whatever the state of our relationships, our health, our jobs,
and every aspect of our lives, everything, absolutely everything, will
change. And the little bell ringing in the back of your head to remind
you of this inevitability is what is called the “heart of sadness.”
Life, you realize, is a race against time, and you should never put off
dharma practice until next year, next month, or tomorrow—because the
future may never happen.
race-against-time kind of attitude is so important, especially when it
comes to practice. My own experience has shown me that promising myself I
will start to practice next week more or less guarantees that I will
never get around to it. And I don’t think I am alone. So once you
understand that real dharma practice is not just about formal sitting
meditation but a never-ending confrontation with and opposition to pride
and ego, as well as a lesson in how to accept change, you will be able
to start practicing right away. For example, imagine you are sitting on a
beach admiring the sunset. Nothing terrible has happened and you are
content, even happy. Then suddenly that little bell starts to ring in
your head, reminding you that this could be the last sunset you ever
see. You realize that, were you to die, you might not be reborn with the
ability to appreciate a sunset, let alone the capacity to understand
what a sunset is, and this thought alone helps you focus your mind on
Go Beyond Concept
sincere wish to practice the dharma is not born of a desire for
personal happiness or to be perceived as a “good” person, but neither do
we practice because we want to be unhappy or become “bad” people. A
genuine aspiration to practice dharma arises from the longing to attain
and large, human beings tend to prefer to fit into society by following
accepted rules of etiquette and being gentle, polite, and respectful.
The irony is that this is also how most people imagine a spiritual
person should behave. When a so-called dharma practitioner is seen to
behave badly, we shake our heads over her audacity at presenting herself
as a follower of the Buddha. Yet such judgments are better avoided,
because to “fit in” is not what a genuine dharma practitioner strives
for. Think of the great mahasiddha Tilopa, for example. He looked so
outlandish that if he turned up on your doorstep today, odds are you
would refuse to let him in. And you would have a point. He would most
probably be almost completely naked; if you were lucky, he might be
sporting some kind of G-string; his hair would never have been
introduced to shampoo; and protruding from his mouth would quiver the
tail of a live fish. What would your moral judgment be of such a being?
“Him! A Buddhist? But he’s tormenting that poor creature by eating it
alive!” This is how our theistic, moralistic, and judgmental minds work.
In fact, they work in a very similar way to those of the world’s more
puritanical and destructive religions. Of course, there is nothing
necessarily wrong with morality, but the point of spiritual practice,
according to the Vajrayana teachings, is to go beyond all our concepts,
including those of morality.
now the majority of us can only afford to be slightly nonconformist,
yet we should aspire to be like Tilopa. We should pray that one day we
will have the courage to be just as crazy by daring to go beyond the
eight worldly dharmas—happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance,
praise and blame, gain and loss—and care not one jot about whether or
not we are praised or criticized. In today’s world, such an attitude is
the ultimate craziness. More than ever, people expect to be happy when
they are admired and praised, and unhappy when derided and criticized.
So it is unlikely that those who want the world to perceive them as sane
will risk flying from the nest of the eight worldly dharmas. Sublime
beings, though, couldn’t care less either way, and that is why, from our
mundane point of view, they are considered crazy.
Develop Renunciation Mind
worldly happiness is not the goal of dharma, then what is it that
prompts a person to want to practice? Chances are that stepping onto a
spiritual path would not even occur to a person who is rich, enjoys
their life, and has a strong sense of personal security. Of course all
of us, even the rich, experience moments of sadness and hopelessness,
and we may even momentarily feel the urge to turn our backs on all this
world has to offer. But this is not a genuine experience of renunciation
mind, as it has far more to do with weariness and boredom than
renunciation; it is often a sign that, like a spoiled child tired of his
toys, we are in desperate need of a change.
Kongtrul Lodro Taye said that if deep down you continue to believe a
tiny corner of samsara could be useful or that it might even offer the
ultimate solution to all your worldly problems, it will be extremely
difficult to become a genuine spiritual seeker. To believe that life’s
problems will somehow work themselves out, that everything bad is
fixable, and that something about samsara has to be worth fighting for,
makes it virtually impossible to nurture a genuine, all-consuming desire
to practice the dharma. The only view that truly works for a dharma
practitioner is that there are no solutions to the sufferings of samsara
and it cannot be fixed.
is vital to understand that however positive this worldly life, or even
a small part of it, may appear to be, ultimately it will fail because
absolutely nothing genuinely works in samsara. This is a very difficult
attitude to adopt, but if we can at least accept it on an intellectual
level, it will provide us with just the incentive we need to step onto
the spiritual path. (Other incentives include making fools of ourselves
or becoming entangled in worldly systems by trying to fix them.) The
bottom line, though, is that only when a beginner truly appreciates just
how hopeless and purposeless samsara really is will a genuine
aspiration to follow a spiritual path arise in his or her mind.
Shakyamuni Buddha, compassionately and with great courage, explained to
an autocratic king, there are four inescapable realities that
eventually destroy all sentient beings:
1. We will all become old and frail.
2. It is absolutely certain that everything will constantly change.
3. Everything we achieve or accumulate will eventually fall apart and scatter.
4. We are all bound to die.
Yet our emotions and habits are so strong that even when the truth is staring us in the face, we are unable to see it.
addition to recognizing the futility of samsara, the point of dharma
practice is that it penetrates our minds and diminishes our affection
for our ego and worldly life by pressing us to detach ourselves from the
eight worldly dharmas. However beneficial a practice appears to be,
however politically correct or exciting, if it does not contradict your
habit of grasping at permanence, or looks harmless but insidiously
encourages you to forget the truth of impermanence and the illusory
nature of phenomena, it will inevitably take you in the opposite
direction of dharma.
Develop the Willingness to Face the Truth
of us tend to resent being confronted with the truth, and from
resentment springs denial. The most obvious example is that we feel
annoyed when we are forced to acknowledge the illusory nature of our
lives and the reality of death. We also take exception to contemplating
it, even though death is an irrefutable universal truth. Our habitual
reaction is to pretend it will never happen—which is how we deal with
most of the other inconvenient truths we find difficult to stomach.
of becoming resentful, though, it is important for any- one who
sincerely wishes to become a dharma practitioner to develop a
willingness and openness to embrace the truth, because the dharma is the
truth. The Buddha himself made no bones about it. He never once
provided his students with rose-tinted glasses to take the edge off the
horror of the truth of impermanence, the agonies that are “emotion,” the
illusory nature of our world, and, above all, the vast and profound
truth of shunyata, emptiness. None of these truths is easy to
understand, or even to aspire to understand, particularly for minds
programmed by habit to long for emotional satisfaction and aim for
ordinary bliss. So if someone is able to hear teachings about emptiness
and tolerate them intellectually as well as practically and emotionally,
it is an indication that they have a real affinity for the dharma.
Overcome Poverty Mentality
of us feel spiritually impoverished. Kongtrul Rinpoche said this is
because we never stop desiring comfort and happiness. Until that kind of
poverty mentality is overcome, a large portion of our mind will always
be busy trying to secure personal comfort and happiness, making letting
go of anything at all extremely difficult. Even those who present
themselves as spiritual practitioners will find it impossible to make
the superhuman effort necessary.
problem here is that on a superficial, worldly level, everything
spiritual, especially the buddhadharma, appears to be utterly useless
and a complete waste of time. We are practical beings who like to build
houses so we can be comfortable and happy, and to put our resources into
erecting a stupa with no bedroom or toilet or anything functional in it
strikes us as being wasteful. But as Kongtrul Rinpoche pointed out,
clinging to the merest hint of an idea that worldly values and ideals
might somehow be useful makes it extremely hard for anyone to tackle
something as apparently futile as spiritual practice. And cutting the
ties of the habits that bind us to worldly values, especially when it
comes to material wealth, is virtually impossible. “Wealth,” from an
authentic dharma perspective, is understood entirely differently. For a
dharma practitioner, wealth is not gold, silver, or a healthy bank
account; wealth is contentment—the feeling that you have enough and
need nothing more.
Liberation from Illusion and Delusion
As the Buddha said in the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra
(Diamond Sutra), “Like a star, hallucination, candle, magical illusion,
dewdrop, bubble, dream, lightning, or a cloud—know all compounded
phenomena to be like this.”
a Buddhist point of view, each aspect and moment of our lives is an
illusion. According to the Buddha, it’s like seeing a black spot in the
sky that you are unable to make sense of, then concentrating on it
intensely until finally you are able to make out a flock of birds. It is
like hearing a perfect echo that sounds exactly like a real person
shouting back at you. Life is nothing more than a continuous stream of
sensory illusions, from the obvious ones, like fame and power, to those
less easy to discern, like death, nosebleeds, and headaches.
Tragically, though, most human beings believe in what they see, and so
the truth Buddha exposed about the illusory nature of life can be a
little hard to swallow.
happens once we know that everything we see and experience is an
illusion? And what is left once those illusions have been liberated? To
be liberated from illusion is to dispel all the limitations that false
perception brings and entirely transform our attitude. So “liberate”
means to be released from the delusion of imagining illusions to be
real. But crucially, we have to want to be liberated; we have to want to
become enlightened. And it is only once we develop a genuine longing
for enlightenment that, almost automatically, we start to learn how not
to want to be ambitious in a worldly sense. Such a longing is not easy
to generate, but without it, to step aimlessly onto the spiritual path
would be utterly pointless.
of people in this world are interested in some version of meditation,
or yoga, or one of the many so-called spiritual activities that are now
so widely marketed. A closer look at why people engage in these
practices reveals an aim that has little to do with liberation from
delusion and has everything do to with their desperation to escape busy,
unhappy lives, and heartfelt longing for a healthy, stress-free, happy
of which are romantic illusions.
So where do we find the roots of these
illusions? Mainly in our habitual patterns and their related actions.
Of course, no one of sound mind imagines any of us would willingly live
an illusion. But we are contrary beings, and even though we are
convinced we would shun a life built on self-deception, we continue to
maintain a strong grip on the habits that are the cause of count- less
delusions. Small wonder the great masters of the past have said that
although everyone longs to be free from suffering, most of us simply
won’t let go of it; although no one wants to suffer,
we find it almost impossible not to be attracted to samsara.
of us know that aggression is a problem, as are pride and jealousy, but
the truth is that all emotions cause problems one way or another and
each has a distinctive character. “Passion,” for example, is starkly
different from “aggression.” Fundamentally, though, all emotions spring
from one basic source, distraction.
is “distraction”? Clearly, it is not merely the sound of a chainsaw
firing up or blaring Bollywood music that interrupts our meditation
practice. On a more profound level, distraction is any of the emotional
responses we are sidetracked by—for example, hope for praise and fear of
blame, as well as its more subtle manifestations, like being
spaced-out, distracted, lost in thought, or worked up.
our fundamental problem is distraction, its fundamental solution is to
be mindful. There are an infinite number of methods for developing
mindfulness that all fall into one of two categories: shamatha or vipashyana. The point of shamatha
practice is to make mind malleable. But a pliant mind alone will not
uproot samsara completely; we also need to see the truth, which is why vipashyana, or insight, practice is so crucial.
though, mindfulness is difficult, mostly because we lack the enthusiasm
to develop it but also because our habit of longing for distraction is
both deeply ingrained and extremely tenacious. It is therefore vital for
a dharma practitioner to develop renunciation mind and to recognize the
defects of samsara, both of which lie at the core of the Buddhist
approach to training the mind.
masters of the past suggest we should constantly remind ourselves
about: the imminence of death; the futility of our worldly activities;
and the worst news of all, that there is no end to samsara’s sufferings.
Just look around you and you will see that the world never ceases to
churn out more and more of the same thing, and that the result is
unremitting pain and unbearable suffering. It’s no surprise, then, as
the great masters have pointed out, that to maintain mindfulness for as
long as it takes to drink a cup of tea accumulates more merit than years
of practicing generosity, discipline, and asceticism.
from Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices,
by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. © 2012 by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.
Published with permission of Shambhala Publications.
a young age, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse has been active in preserving
Buddhist teachings, establishing centers of learning and practice,
publishing books, and teaching all over the world. He’s the founder of
Lotus Outreach, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the education,
health, and safety of at-risk and exploited women and children in the
developing world. He’s also the director of the films The Cup and Travellers & Magicians.