Dear Lama Zopa - Preface
How to Use the Advice in This Book
This is a book of letters to people all over the world from Lama Zopa Rinpoche in response to requests for advice about their problems (all except four, which are letters Rinpoche wrote in response to various events). Every word of advice Rinpoche gives is based on the teachings of the Buddha. In order to know how to use the advice in this book, therefore, it’s necessary to understand the Buddha’s views. In many cases, these views are radically different from those we commonly hold as unquestioned assumptions, both religious and materialist. In particular, it is useful to understand:
1. What is the mind?
2. Why good and bad things happen: karma
3. How to welcome the bad things: transforming problems into happiness
4. Compassion: working for others
5. Prayers and mantras
A Buddhist monk since his childhood in the mountains of Nepal, Rinpoche’s expertise is the mind—the human heart and how to heal it. He is a master of the techniques that enable us to achieve what Buddha asserts is our innate potential for perfection, enlightenment.
- The development of the mind in this way is not a mystical process, a hit-and-miss affair,
which is often the way spiritual development is depicted. According to Buddha,
- It is a logical, rigorous, step-by-step procedure,
- Doable by everyone,
- That brings genuine, stable results: huge affection and empathy for others and the yearning to benefit them, and the unfailing ability to do so.
Rinpoche is the spiritual director of a worldwide network of Buddhist centers and activities devoted to helping others in this way, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). He travels throughout the year, teaching at his centers and overseeing his projects, such as the building of the five-hundred-foot statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, in northern India or the revitalizing of Mongolia’s native Buddhist culture following its decay under decades of Communist rule. He also spends several months a year in meditation retreat. Rinpoche receives more than three thousand letters a year at his office in Aptos, California, according to one of his secretaries, Australian nun Venerable Holly Ansett. A third of the letters are requests from the directors of his centers and projects; the rest are personal, from his students, requesting advice about their spiritual practice, their lives, their health, their families—and their problems. “Rinpoche often doesn’t start dictating until after midnight,” Ven. Holly says. (Remarkably, Rinpoche does not seem to need sleep. When he is not traveling or teaching or dealing with his students and centers, he is meditating.) Rinpoche takes the folder of correspondence, which contains at least two hundred letters at any one time, and chooses the letters to reply to that evening. The letters that are urgent, such as those about the person’s health, always go to the top of the pile. Like many great masters, Rinpoche is skilled at recommending appropriate Tibetan herbal medicine. He often illustrates his letters with smiling faces or animals or sayings, or he may spend a long time writing out mantras in immaculate calligraphy, reproductions of some of which are included in these pages. Along with the appropriate practices and advice, Rinpoche often sends a book, blessed pills, a calendar, a Buddhist image, or other gift as well. Letters rarely take less than two hours to answer, and sometimes they can be as long as thirty pages, written over several days. “We’ll often leave the folder downstairs in the living room or in Rinpoche’s room at night,” says Ven. Holly. “Next day we’ll find handwritten notes attached to letters, which I’ll then transcribe.” Rinpoche is always moved by the kindness of others. “On flights, Rinpoche often remarks how kind the crew are,” Ven. Holly says. “He thanks them, offers them gifts, writes out mantras for them and explains their meaning. In restaurants, he may offer the waitress a gift. They are always charmed by him!” “When Rinpoche starts to answer a letter, it doesn’t matter whether he has ever met the person, he will take their letter so seriously, never rushing it,” says Ven. Holly. “He can spend hours deciding which practice is best, what advice to give, which flower postcard to send”— selected from hundreds of postcards that Rinpoche buys during his travels, mainly of flowers and nature, but also silly ones. “It is as if that person at that moment is the most special person in the world.”
1. What Is the Mind?
For Buddha, the word “mind” refers to
- The entire spectrum of our inner experiences: thoughts, feelings, tendencies, personality traits, perceptions, intuitions, and dreams.
It functions in dependence upon the brain, but is itself
- Not the brain, not physical.
Not only that, our mind
- Didn’t come from our parents,
- Nor from a superior being.
Our mind, or consciousness, is our own. It’s not created by anybody else; it is its own entity. A river of mental moments, we can track it back and back to the first moment in our mother’s womb, and back before that into countless past lives. The job of a Buddhist is to delve into this mind of ours—“the workshop is in the mind,” as Rinpoche puts it—and
- Unravel the complex web of our innermost feelings by using Buddha’s sophisticated psychological techniques, known as meditation.
First we need to identify what’s there, then understand it, and finally— this is the crux of the matter—change it. In fact, Buddha says,
- We can change our mind to the point where we have rid it entirely of the neurotic emotions, the delusions, such as attachment, anger, self-hate, and jealousy, and
- Filled it full of the positive qualities, such as kindness, intelligence, and altruism.
For most of us, the pursuit of this perfection, this buddhahood, does not come easily. But, as with the cultivation of any skill, we necessarily get better with practice. We all know that “practice makes perfect,” or, as the Tibetans would say, “nothing becomes more difficult with familiarity.” We usually give equal status to our neuroses and positive qualities and assume that the delusions are innate, that we’re stuck with who we are. Buddha disagrees fundamentally. He says we can change, and this is because
- Our neuroses are like additives, pollution: they simply don’t belong in the mind, and thus can be removed.
On the other hand,
- The positive qualities are at the core of our being; they define us; they are who we really are.
As we rid the mind of the delusions, the positive emotions naturally arise and grow. This is a natural, psychological process. But merely believing this, Buddha says, won’t help. We need to verify it for ourselves by engaging in the practices. What practice is, in fact, is the investigating of these assertions of the Buddha and making them our own experience, thus proving them to ourselves.
2. Why Good and Bad Things Happen: Karma
The power that propels the mind isn’t outside it. Buddha calls this power karma. It occurs naturally. It wasn’t revealed to him, nor did he make it up; like a scientist, he observed it to be so.
- Karma is the natural process of cause and effect occurring in the minds and lives of all living beings.
Every thought and feeling we have, along with what we do with our bodies and say with our speech as a result, is a karma, an “action,” that necessarily brings a reaction in the future. Just naturally, like seeds,
- All positive actions ripen later as happiness (pleasing feelings and experiences), and
- All negative actions ripen as suffering (painful feelings and experiences).
Karma is a natural law. There is no other person involved in this process, punishing and rewarding us; there is no such concept in Buddhism. Contrary to our deeply held assumption that people and events outside us are the main source of our experiences, that whatever happens to us is someone else’s doing—God created us, our friends create our happiness, our enemies create our suffering—Buddha is saying, in effect, that
- We are the creators of our own experiences, our own very selves.
Our mind comes into this life fully programmed by our past actions, which, like seeds, ripen as our tendencies and experiences. We are propelled by the force of our own past karma, from moment to moment, from life to life.
- From moment to moment, we create ourselves.
A common mistake is to think that karma relates only to the bad things and to use it as a big stick to beat ourselves with. But all the good things—our human life itself, our health, our friends, our ability to get a job, our good qualities—are the result of our past actions as well.
- There is nothing we experience, good or bad, that isn’t the result of our own past actions.
We’d be amazed and delighted if we realized just how hard we must have worked in past lives simply to be who we are now. All of Rinpoche’s advice is based on these assumptions about karma.
- So, how do I apply karma, cause and effect, in my life?
By remembering that my suffering and happiness are the result of my own past actions, I become empowered:
- If I’m the main cause of who I am, then it follows I’m the main cause of what I can become. My life is in my own hands.
- It’s up to me. I’m the boss.
Given that I don’t want suffering and do want happiness in the future, it follows that I must sow the seeds now: I need to abide by the law of karma:
- Don’t harm others,
- Try to help them, and
- Remove the delusions from my mind.
This is the practice of the Buddha.
3. How to Welcome the Bad Things: Transforming Problems into Happiness
Rinpoche’s advice is also based on the advanced practice called “transforming problems into happiness.” Suffering happens to all of us. It seems to come without warning, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. We assume it is bad, that it’s not fair, and do everything we can to push it away, and when we can’t we suffer even more. What we need to do is interpret suffering in a different way.
- First, by understanding that everything we experience is the fruit of our past actions, that we are the creators of our own reality, we can greet the problem without panic, without self-pity or blame.
If we can change it, we do so; if not, we accept it. Just this changes our experience of it, lessens the suffering, calms the mind, and gives courage. Not only that.
- Second, we can even feel good about the problem, be glad it’s there.
As Rinpoche says, “The thought of liking problems should arise naturally, like the thought of liking ice cream!” We realize that the mere experiencing of the problem finishes the karma we created in the past that caused it; when a fruit ripens, the seed is finished.
- Third, if we welcome our problem as a challenge, we can actually use it to our advantage. Having problems then becomes a method for developing our amazing potential.
When it comes to achieving our ordinary life goals, we are full of admiration for the athletes, the businesspeople, and the artists who never give up in the face of incredible obstacles. We understand that their courage and perseverance in conquering the obstacles is what actually helps them accomplish their goals; it’s a method in itself. But when it comes to emotional problems, we don’t have such courage. The moment the problem comes—the unkind word, the illness, the abuse—we feel victimized, angry, anxious, depressed.
- It seems almost perverse to think that these problems could be good.
- But with karma in mind and never losing sight of the goal, it’s an approach that develops our own qualities and hugely opens our hearts to others.
- This approach is at the heart of the practice of the Buddhists of Tibet for the past thousand years.
The view of karma and responsibility for their own experiences is deep in their hearts; it’s natural to them. It’s exactly why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his people have been able to deal so well with their suffering at the hands of the Chinese Communists since 1950.
- They are not angry at their oppressors,
- They don’t wage war,
- They even have compassion for them.
When we’re clear about our goal—the fulfillment of our own marvelous potential and the capacity to benefit others—welcoming our problems and transforming them into happiness is without doubt the quickest path to success.
- It’s the most difficult practice, the most radical, but the most rewarding.
4. Compassion: Working for Others Practicing in this way, it’s inevitable that we open our hearts to others.
- We realize that we’re all in the same boat: everyone is experiencing the fruits of their past actions and creating the causes for their future experiences.
And this includes the people who harm us.
- Many of the letters in this book are about the suffering that people experience at the hands of others.
It’s almost shocking to think that we can have compassion in response to this harm, but that is what Rinpoche repeatedly advises. As we are suffering now because of our own past actions, so too will they suffer in the future as a result of their present actions. How could we not have compassion?
- Like a mother for her destructive child, we can see that they are harming themselves.
5. Prayers and Mantras
Countless minds have achieved the perfection of enlightenment as Buddha describes it. Just naturally, these minds pervade the universe. How could it be any other way? When mind, which is not physical, is finally unencumbered by the delusions, how can it be confined by space or time or matter? It’s not possible.
- These enlightened minds, which manifest in countless forms, constantly work for the sake of others.
Invoking these buddhas, reciting their mantras, and making prayers and requests to them are main methods for success in fulfilling our wishes, developing our qualities, and overcoming our problems.
- These practices give a rocket boost to our day-to-day job of developing our own minds, of becoming our own buddhas.
Tibetan Buddhism has a vast tradition of practices relating to the buddhas, which can be traced back to India and the time of Shakyamuni Buddha himself.
- Rinpoche recommends many of these practices to his students.
Does the Advice Apply to Me?
Read superficially, some of the instructions in the letters here may seem contradictory. But just as a medicine may be life-saving for one person and not helpful for another, Rinpoche customizes his advice depending on who is requesting it. To find out whether it is relevant to us, as with all the advice of the Buddha, we should
- Read it carefully,
- Think about it, and
- If it seems appropriate, apply it in our lives.
Keep in Mind
- As students of Rinpoche, most letter writers actually used more honorific ways of addressing him than “Dear Lama Zopa.” Also, their names and locations have been changed and the letters themselves summarized.
- There are two lists at the end of this book: a Glossary of various Buddhist terms and Mantras and Practices, brief explanations of all the practices mentioned by Rinpoche, as well as many of the actual mantras. All terms and practices have been italicized in the text wherever they first occur.
- The full prayers, practices, and mantras can be found online at fpmt.org/DLZ.
- Teachings of Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, and other lamas can be found at lamayeshe.com.
In Dear Lama Zopa, you hold in your hands a precious manual that shows us how to bravely go beyond the limits of our fearful sense of self and expand our hearts to encompass others. Robina Courtin San Francisco, March 2007