Suffering is ‘ready and waiting to happen’: The three types of suffering, being a Dharma practitioner and ‘Dharma going on the Path’. ‘Four Dharmas of Gampopa’ by 17th Karmapa (Day VII)

 “For the ‘Dharma to go along with Dharma’, month by month, and year by year, as you practice, your mental continuum will become softer and softer, your afflictions will get smaller and smaller. Not just from your thinking, but from your very depths, you will be able to accept defeat again and again. Your character will become more and more excellent. Your desires for this life will get less and less. Your pride and haughty arrogance will decrease. You will feel this yourself, and your guru and companions will feel it too. The yidams and Dharma protectors will also feel it. The deities of space will feel it. Your mind will become cleaner and cleaner, and intellect will become happier and happier. Whichever angle or side you look at, you will feel no regrets. If you do not tame the mind it will wander in samsara.
Thus, if something does not become an antidote for the afflictions, or does not tame your being, then what can it be used for? What has been the benefit of practicing Dharma by listening, contemplating, meditating and so forth? From your heart, you need to implant this in your mind.”
–Lama Zhang in ‘Introduction to the Four Dharmas of Gampopa’

Yesterday, on Day 7 of HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa’s teachings on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa (video here), he continued with the Gampopa text. First, the Karmapa continued with the teaching on the first Dharma (Dharma going along with Dharma) in terms of the second method for doing that, meditating on the defects of samsara and how it is endless suffering, regardless of whether we currently see it like that or not.The Karmapa explained how most people think of suffering in ordinary, physical and mental ways and trying to avoid the adverse conditions that ‘are just ready and waiting to happen’. However, most beings don’t recognize or see the much more pervasive type of suffering that continues from life to life, based on the very fact of our being born and dying and so on. He compared samsara to being like a huge prison, from which we don’t really have any freedom or control, even if we think we have. We are completely dominated and controlled by karma and afflictions that arise in the mind. Karmapa then explained that samsara is not a place at all, which if we escaped would lead to us being liberated and having control over our circumstances. Samsara is in our mind, and it is only by liberating ourselves from karma and afflictions that we can be genuinely free. If samsara were based on external factors or places, then beings would be happy when they achieve those things, but they are not.

This was followed by an explanation of the ‘measure’ on ‘Dharma having gone along with Dharma’. Using a citation from a text on the Four Dharmas, by siddha and founder of the Tsalpa Kagyu, Lama Zhang Dragpa, the Karmapa explained that it is when karma and afflictions decrease and love, compassion and wisdom increase. When that happens not only ourselves and our friends will notice and feel this, but the yidam deities and protectors will feel it too.The Karmapa finished the teaching with a brief explanation of the second Dharma, ‘Dharma going along with the Path’ by citing from Je Gampopa and Lho Lhayagpa. At the end of the teaching, Karmapa announced how he would extend the teaching on the last day for an extra hour (two sessions with a break), so that he could complete the whole teaching on all the Dharmas.

Below is an edited transcript of the whole Day 7 teaching, based on the original Tibetan and English translation. May it be of benefit!



“For the past couple of days, I have spoken about how to make ‘Dharma go along with Dharma’, the first being meditation on death and impermanence, the second being meditation on karma, cause and effect. I have explained these briefly. So the third way is meditation on the defects of samsara and I will talk about this now.

The defects of samsara- there is not even a pinprick of happiness

When we talk about the defects (or drawbacks) of samsara, this is primarily for that of a medium level individual, and when we talk about ‘Dharma going along with Dharma’, we are primarily talking about small level individuals. So why are we trying to put all the levels together in this one? When we think about the teachings in general, the order of the four Dharmas follow the progression of the small, medium and great level individuals, but when we emphasise the interests of individual students, even  the first Dharma can be combined for all the levels of individuals. Not just in this text, but in other texts by Gampopa, he spoke about these two ways of ‘Dharma going along with Dharma’, the worldly way and the nirvana way. When we talk about Dharma going towards worldly Dharma. This means having the correct worldly view of karma, cause and effect and not accumulating misdeeds for the sake of this life only and accumulating virtue for the sake of the next. That is how we should understand it. 

Sachen Kunga Nyingpo sa chen kun dga’ snying po) (1092-1158) — a great Sakya master to whom Manjushri revealed the teaching known as “Parting from the Four Attachments”.

As it says in the glorious Sakya tradition, Parting from the Four Attachments:  “If you are attached to this life you are not a practitioner.” So, being a practitioner means someone who practices the Dharma, which at the very least means practicing it with an aim for the next life and beyond. Someone who has that view and aim, is what we call a Dharma practitioner; practicing the Dharma for the sake of future lives not just for this life. To sum up, no matter how much Dharma you practice, if it is only for this life, that is not actually Dharma practice. If we continue to remain in samsara, we will have no power or control in samsara, but if we achieve liberation we will have control. Understanding this, we have the wish to achieve liberation from samsara and we put efforts into the methods for doing so.

The primary reason we will have no control if we remain in samsara, is because we remain under the control of karma and afflictions. It is not easy to see this though. It’s easier to see and understand the faults of those, which is suffering. That is why meditating on the defects of samsara is mainly meditating on the suffering of samsara. So, in Gampopa’s texts on the four Dharmas, yesterday I read the passage once on how to meditate on the faults of samsara but I will read it again now. The text, ‘The four Dharmas: an excellent summary’ reads: ‘The best is the human and god realms, but even there is the suffering of birth, aging, death…”

Gross types of suffering – Suffering of suffering

“So at this point, I thought I would explain some of my own opinions about the faults of samsara. We often say, there is not even a pinprick worth of happiness in samsara.  So why isn’t there any happiness? Many people don’t get this at all. Many people think ‘oh, everything is fine for me now, I don’t have any suffering, and if I could be reborn in the heavenly and divine realms, that would be great, wouldn’t it?’ Why are we saying that there is nothing but suffering? It is actually kind of strange or even crazy to think that. Normally, when we talk about suffering, we usually understand it to be when our bodies are not feeling good, or we have stomach ache, or sensations in our body and mind that are unpleasant.  Among the types of suffering we speak about, it is the suffering of suffering. However, if we only understand suffering in that way, that is too limited. Suffering in samsara is even more subtle, vaster and deeper than that. If we go a little more deeper than the suffering of suffering, then there is the suffering of change.

The suffering of change – many adverse conditions ‘just ready and waiting to happen’

As for the suffering of change, there are many ways to identify it, but if we think about it in terms of experience in this life, then at any time in our daily lives, many adverse things that cause suffering are just ‘ready and waiting to happen’ [Translator’s note: here Karmapa uses the Tibetan phrase verb +chog chog, which has the sense of something being ‘just ready and waiting to happen’] which cause suffering. For example, getting sick is just ready and waiting to happen, losing our job is ready and waiting to happen, losing  property and investments is ready and waiting to happen, losing or being separated from our relatives and loved ones is ready and waiting to happen, being dumped [yug] by lovers or spouses is ready and waiting to happen.  There are also natural disasters, wars, and this year, the Corona virus pandemic and so forth, and they can also happen at any time.

One situation in particular, is ‘just ready and waiting to happen’ and that is death. We could die at any time and do not know when. When we die, we are separated from everything  and cannot stop it, and that is suffering. For that reason, in this lifetime there are many situations over which we have no control, and we have many situations in which we cannot do anything. Our life is filled with such situations. Often they are just not evident to us right now. If we were actually to relax and think about it carefully, then if we had control over our lives then always thinking we need to save money, or take care of our body, or make good connections with people and try to mollify or pacify people would not be necessary. If our life was just as we wished it to be, then we wouldn’t need to feel fear or apprehension, or hide things so other people wouldn’t find out about them; or regret things we shouldn’t have done, but did; or be depressed over things we wanted to do but, couldn’t; or feel sad about being left alone without friends, or various other feelings. There would be no reason to feel or worry about these things at all.

Imprisoned with no control over our circumstances or death – all-pervasive suffering

The third type of suffering is all-pervasive conditioned suffering (‘du byad).  This is deeper than the suffering of change, and something we cannot ordinarily see or feel with our senses. We don’t know about it. It is not just our circumstances, it is our actual nature. For example, if someone was put in prison, even if they didn’t have much physical suffering of illness, hunger and thirst, being in that prison environment would be suffering, its nature is suffering. That type of suffering is what we mean when we say there is not a pinprick of happiness in samsara. We can experience it at any moment.

So, the way we should try and understand it when we say the nature of samsara is suffering, is do we have any actual real control? We don’t have  self-control (rang dbang )at all. For example, there is what we wish and what we want to do, but actually can we do everything we want to do? We cannot. We always think we might lose something, or miss an opportunity, or someone will leave us, or we need to  mollify and make others happy. Or think if we had a bit more money and saved money, or we tried to get a better education or work harder to inspire our family members. Likewise, in our lifetime, there are situations where we run out of things to do. Even if you don’t like the people in your hometown, for the sake of others you stay in your hometown, in a job you don’t like, as if you don’t have any choice. So this shows we don’t have any real control.  We don’t have anything we can do to escape the suffering, so because of such situations, for that reason, it is very similar to being thrown in prison.

What is different about our samsaric situation  is that a prison is a small, confined area. However, this entire planet is like our prison. So, other than spatial differences, it is the same as being imprisoned, we are like prisoners. There are many rules about what is permissible and not. There is lots of evalution and judgments about our conduct and what a good person and a bad person does; about what we do and how we do it. There are the aims for what we want to do and the activities we need to do, there are many situations and we wait for them (27) so we cannot take a day off and enjoy ourselves and we have to do a lot of work and study. If we need a helper or companion, we get married but then when you get married, afterwards even staying in that domestic situation can also then feel like a prison. Thus, generally, we think we are pretty well off but as we have a level we are used to, we think we have control, but in actuality we don’t have any at all. Why do we need to keep circling in samsara? Is there any way to get out? Whose control are we under? What is controlling, dominating and stalking us? It is our karma and afflictions. Since we have lost our freedom, we have to go where they take us. It’s like when you take a dog for a walk on a leash, the dog has to go where you take it. It has no control at all where the owner takes them. Similarly, in our lives, some people do see they are in a situation over which they have no control and cannot do anything and have to accept it. So, some people start drinking and smoking, and  worse, taking drugs and do various things to try and relax and feel good. Yet, this does not work at all. It is like going ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ [HH uses the Tibetan expression ‘leaving behind  the trunk and taking hold of the branches’]. When you sober up, then the same desperate feelings come back again. For that reason, what’s the real method to gain freedom from samsara and suffering?

Is samsara a place? It is not. Even if we travelled from this planet into outer space, we would not leave samsara. Samsara is related to our mind. If Samsara was a place, then all these noble Arya individuals who attained awakening, would not have stayed on earth with us, would they? Samsara is in our minds, and that which controls us and keeps us there, is karma and afflictions. We need to understand suffering from all perspectives, from a deep and profound level. It does not mean the suffering of having a stomach ache, or the disappointment of not getting an Iphone 12 this year. If you think that is suffering, that is not correct.

 It is very difficult for us to understand when we say that all of samsara is suffering. The reason for that is we have never been free from the bondage of karma and afflictions samsara and what binds us to it. So we do not understand and forget about it. We don’t know how to think about it. Usually, we compare suffering to a worse type of suffering. You compare being unhappy with happy. So if you have nothing to compare it with, then you don’t know. We think there is nothing wrong if you don’t have anything to compare it to. So the freedom and bliss of noble Arya beings and their experience of the pleasure of liberation, is something we have no idea about.

Similarly, we also aren’t even able to think about or understand that we could have that same level of control and bliss, like the noble Arya individuals. So now, in our lifetime, when we get very busy with working and our life gets kind of hectic, then we have to take a break and relax. Can we liberate ourselves from suffering or not? When we plan to go to place, we have to think can we go there or not? We think it is like place that if we get to, we will attain happiness, is that really how it is? That depends on whether or not you can get to some other place. Yet, it doesn’t depend on going someplace else. If it depended on going to another place, then all the noble individuals in India and Tibet, who have achieved liberation, would have already gone to Sukhavati (Dewachen pure realm). The main point comes down to our mind. No matter how excellent the external resources we have, you cannot remove the fundamental problem and difficulty. It is not about having excellent external things. You need to train and improve your mind, only then can you dispel and eliminate the actual problem. It depends on whether you improve your mind or not; whether you have trained your mind or not, that is what it depends on.

The measure of ‘Dharma having gone along with Dharma’the advice of Lama Zhang

So in brief, for ‘Dharma to go along with Dharma’, as I explained yesterday, we have to understand first, what is it to go along with Dharma, second, how does it do that and now, third, what is the measure or threshold of knowing it has become Dharma?

Je Gampopa’s nephew Gompa Tsultrim Nyingpo (sgom pa tshul khrims snying po, 1116-1169), had a direct disciple, Zhang Dragpa (1123-1193) who was an undisputed siddha and founder of (tshal pa bka’ brgyud) Tsalpa Kagyu[i] [Zhang Yudragpa Tsondru Dragpa (zhang g.yu brag pa brtson ’grus grags pa) aka Zhang Rinpoche (zhang rin po che)]. There is a quote from him, which is a summary of the Dharma becoming the Dharma ( HH added, If I don’t conclude this on the first Dharma, there  is a danger this teaching will be only on the first and not all four Dharmas!) Zhang Dragpa’s quote[ii] in brief is:

 “For the Dharma to go along with Dharma, month by month, and year by year, as you practice your mental continuum will become softer and softer (‘bol), your afflictions will get smaller and smaller. Not just from your thinking, but from your depths, you will be able to accept defeat again and again. Your character will become more and more excellent. Your desires for this life will get less and less. Your pride and arrogance will decrease. You will feel this yourself, and your guru and companions will feel it too. The yidams and Dharma protectors will also feel it. The deities of space will feel it. Your mind will become cleaner and cleaner, and intellect will become happier and happier. Whichever angle or side you look at, you will feel no regrets. If you do not tame the mind it will wander in samsara. Thus, if something does not become an antidote for the afflictions, or does not tame your being, then what can it be used for? What has been the benefit of practicing Dharma by listening, contemplating, meditating and so forth? From your heart, you need to implant it in your mind.”

Section of Lama Zhang’s ‘Introduction to the Four Dharmas of Gampopa’ on the measure of Dharma having gone to Dharma

So, we need to get better day by day. Next month it needs to be better, and next year and so on. Our mind needs to improve. Pride needs to decrease, afflictions need to decrease, our compassion needs to get vaster and pure perception needs to get stronger and stronger. You need to know this for yourself. Your friends and guru will also see this.  Not only that, but all the yidams and dharma protectors in the realm of wisdom will see it. That is what needs to happen. Otherwise, you could spend years practicing and it is of no real help at all.  If that does not happen, that is a sign there is problem with your practice. If it’s the opposite and you are getting worse and worse and more proud and arrogant, then it’s finished. There is no question that you are not a genuine Dharma practitioner.”

The second Dharma: ‘May Dharma go on the Path

To speak about the Dharma becoming the path in brief, is that our practice of giving up negative actions and practicing virtue go along with the path. Gampopa said: even if Dharma goes along with Dharma, the Dharma must go along the path. If you turn away from this life, but still seek a pleasant result of gods and humans, the Dharma has not become the path.’

So it seems the Dharma going along with the path is joined with the path of  medium individuals. However, that is not necessarily so, for example in Gampopa’s Tsog Dzo Chenmo (Great Collection of Treasures) when he  talks about the ‘Dharma going along the path’ he talks about it going as the basis of the path and the actual path. Dharma becoming the basis of the path means by understanding the faults of the foundational vehicles, and all the stages of accumulating and purification, motivated by loving-kindness, compassion and bodhicitta in order to bring all sentient beings throughout space to unexcelled enlightenment, you practice the Dharma with the wish to develop and realize the omniscient Buddhahood, of three kayas and five wisdoms. This is the basis for the path.

Dharma going on the actual path, means recalling that the relative level is like dreams and illusions. All the practice Dharma activity you do, are done as if all is a dream and illusion, with loving kindness and compassion, and with method and wisdom inseparable. In this way, the Dharma becomes the path through these two. So here, Gampopa is teaching how Dharma becomes the Mahayana path by way of the union of emptiness and compassion.

Likewise, as  Lho Lhayagpa wrote in his Commentary on the four Dharmas, he says: ‘now in order to explain the Dharma going along with the path in particular, it says the path and so forth. The path is classified into two types: the provisional and ultimate.’ So, he is saying there is the provisional way it becomes the path (of Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas) and the ultimate way of Mahayana. 

In this text on the four Dharmas, as Gampopa has already explained the practice of the medium-level individual in the passage on ‘Dharma going along with Dharma’, he says: ‘for the Dharma to go along with the path, you must have loving kindness and compassion, cherish others more than yourself and develop relative bodhicitta. In addition, you should develop the realization that all appearances are conditioned and like dreams and illusions. Only then will Dharma go along with the path.’

The understanding of the ‘Dharma going on the path’ can be explained in a vast and extensive way, but we don’t have much time. So, tomorrow, I will speak more about ‘Dharma going on the path’, ‘confusion on the path being clarified’. and the final Dharma, ‘confusion dawning as wisdom’.

So talking about all these three in one day could be quite difficult.  There is not much point in extending for another day. It’s like making tsampa,  you put more tea, then more tsampa, more tea, then more tsampa, and then by the end you end up so much with so much tsampa you have too much and can’t eat it all [laughs]. Anyway,  even if we can’t do that, we will have one session from 7 until 8 pm, then another session from 8.30 to 9.30 pm. For the shedras, if that is difficult let me know. For me it’s also a little bit difficult, as I spend the entire day thinking about and working on it, but I think it is such a great opportunity to teach the Dharma that I am very fortunate and so feel enthusiastic to do it. We should have a little break and relax a bit otherwise will start feeling a bit unwell.”


[i] In the Treasury of Lives bio for Lama Zhang it says: “The most decisive event in his religious career occurred in 1154 when he met Gonpo Tsultrim Nyingpo (sgom pa tshul khrims snying po, 1116-1169), known as Gontsul, a nephew of Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nam rin chen 1079-1153). At the time Gomtsul held the abbacy at Densatil (gdan sa mthil), making him the most important leader of the Kagyu, even if the Kagyupas were, at best, loosely organized in those days. Still, this was the time before people started being aware of any Kagyu sub-lineages, which meant there was a real sense of unity. During Lama Zhang’s time with Gomtsul he had numerous meditative experiences and received the full Kagyu lineage and teaching authorization. This is when he composed what would prove to be his most widely read literary work, The Path of Ultimate Profundity (phyag chen lam mchog mthar thug).” See: Zhang Yudrakpa Tsondru Drakpa – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region

[ii] There is a text in the Collected Works of Lama Zhang called An Introduction to the Four Dharmas of Dagpo’ See:  brtson ‘grus grags pa. “dwags po’i chos bzhi’i ngo sprod.” In gsung ‘bum/_brtson ‘grus grags pa/. TBRC W26673. 3: 570 – 580. kathmandu, nepal: gam-po-pa library, 2004.

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