October 18, 2013

Wouldn’t it be better if you practiced the dharma?

The sayings of Kadam master DromtönpaThupten Jinpa

Again, an elder was once circumambulating the outer perimeter at Radreng Monastery. Dromtönpa asked him, “O elder, performing circumambulation may be satisfying, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced the Dharma?”

The elder felt that, instead of performing circumambulations, perhaps it would be more effective if he were to read Mahayana sutras, so he began to read sutras on the temple veranda. Dromtönpa then asked him, “Reading sutras might also be satisfying, but wouldn’t it be better if you practiced the Dharma?”

The elder took this as a sign that, when contrasted with reading sutras, engaging in meditative absorption is more profitable, so he abandoned reading sutras and sat down with his eyes closed. Again, Dromtönpa asked, “Meditating might also be satisfying, but wouldn’t it be better to practice the Dharma instead?”

Failing to think of any other method, the elder asked, “O spiritual mentor, then what kind of Dharma practice would you have me undertake?”

It is said that Drom replied, “O elder, give up this life; give up this life.”

In this way Dromtönpa stated that so long as we fail to forsake attachment to this life, whatever we undertake does not become Dharma practice, for such an act remains within the bounds of the eight mundane concerns. By contrast, if we let go of attachment to this life, we will remain untainted by the eight mundane concerns. Only then will whatever we do become a path to liberation.

Once Potowa asked the spiritual mentor Dromtönpa, “What is the demarcation between Dharma and non-Dharma?”

Dromtönpa replied, “If it is a remedy against affliction, it is Dharma; if not, it is not Dharma. If it is at variance with all worldly people, it is Dharma; if it is in accord with the worldly, it is not Dharma. If its trace is positive, it is Dharma; if not, it is not Dharma.”

From Wisdom of the Kadam Masters, edited by Thupten Jinpa, © 2013. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., Somerville, MA. www.wisdompubs.org.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Wonderlane.

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deanp's picture

Giving up this life.. letting go of attachment to this life.. sounds great, except it will necessarily be done by an individual personality, walking around believing that they have given up attachment to life. It seems this would be a by-product of an authentic practice or realization, rather than yet another task to perform. Stories like this are sometimes impediments to practice themselves.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Giving up this life, letting go of attachment to this life...aka nihilism.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I can’t say that I have entirely renounced the eight worldly dharmas. Yet I feel I am on the path towards their renunciation. I believe being on the path IS the practice of the dharma. The path IS the goal. I see the verbal contrast of “Dharma” and “not Dharma” in the story as somewhat rhetorical. In real life, if any person I met claimed they had fully renounced the eight worldly dharmas, I would wonder if they were deceiving themselves.

I think the Dharma is for everybody who suffers, not a status symbol for those who think they have have ceased to suffer.

beesley.gary's picture

There are many 'versions', all of which vary on the theme of renouncing this life. Perhaps one of the best examples is the expression in the Sakya Zhenpa Zhidral, which states 'If there is attachment to this life, you are not a Dharma practitioner' A closer reading of Kadampa texts (thats the tradition, not the cult) identifies attachment to this life as following the mind of the 8 worldly dharmas:attachment to pleasure, praise, gain and fame, and aversion to their opposites. Any such mind is considered contrary to the Dharma.
Its easy to pretend to be spacious or compassionate but these qualities according to the Kadampas are not what identify a true practitioner-renouncing the 8 worldly dharmas is the dividing line.
In such a case, it s not so difficult to understand why Dharma struggles to take root in the West-Playing the love and peace card and the 'I love everybody' game are easy ( and can easily be an expression of deep seated spiritual arrogance) Who though, can say they have renounced the 8 worldly dharmas? This is going to take strength and time. Stand by...........

zhiwa.woodbury's picture

The version I always have heard was "give up this life in your mind", which he repeated 3X. It's one of my favorite stories, but somehow loses something for me by dropping "in your mind". Curious. I've always found the 3X interesting as well, as you can find different meanings by emphasizing different words/phrases (i.e., "this life" "life in your mind" and "in your mind"). On the dharma criteria, Lama Zopa proposes something even more challenging: following desire is not practicing the dharma; not following desire is practicing the dharma. Thanks, Thubten Jinpa, for translating so beautifully His Holiness' teachings this weekend. So blessed...

Dominic Gomez's picture

'Give up this life >in your mind<', not in reality. This life becomes the place of enlightenment when effort is made to practice sincerely. Why give that up?

mahakala's picture

In one who
has gone the full distance,
is free from sorrow,
is fully released
in all respects,
has abandoned all bonds:
no fever is found.

The mindful keep active,
don't delight in settling back.
They renounce every home,
every home,
like swans taking off from a lake.

Not hoarding,
having comprehended food,
their pasture — emptiness
& freedom without sign:
their trail,
like that of birds through space,
can't be traced.

Effluents ended,
independent of nutriment,
their pasture — emptiness
& freedom without sign:
their trail,
like that of birds through space,
can't be traced.

He whose senses are steadied
like stallions
well-trained by the charioteer,
his conceit abandoned,
Free of effluent,
As is:
even devas adore him.

Like the earth, he doesn't react —
As is,
like Indra's pillar,
like a lake free of mud.
For him
— As is —
there's no traveling on.

Calm is his mind,
calm his speech
& his deed:
one who's released through right knowing,
As is.

The man
faithless / beyond conviction
ungrateful / knowing the Unmade
a burglar / who has severed connections
who's destroyed
his chances / conditions
who eats vomit: / has disgorged expectations:
the ultimate person.

In village or wilds,
valley, plateau:
that place is delightful
where arahants dwell.

Delightful wilds
where the crowds don't delight,
those free from cravings
for they're not searching
for fleeting sensations.

- Dhammapada

milesgordon's picture

Buddhism is not New Ageism, its a lot more precise, deep, honest, clear and skillful than that. Many people nowadays try again and again to turn it into something it isn't.

zumacraig's picture

See below.

beesley.gary's picture

Since Jinpa-la highlights probably the most important teaching there is for those who wish to enter the door of the dharma, and since this is the good ol US of A, I am not surprised that the only comments here have nothing to with the post-America does not want to change itself to fit the dharma-American dharma is about changing the dharma to fit the ego. Great post Thubten Jinpa ( who used to visit Gen Jampa wangdu when he was a child) will anybody listen? I doubt it

Dominic Gomez's picture

Forsaking attachment to this life is anathema to the time-honored American spirit of making hay while the sun shines.

celticpassage's picture

I don't think so.
It's always a good idea to do what needs doing now and not later...this is in perfect alignment with the Dao.
Dogen's old Tenshin was working hard in the heat of the sun

beesley.gary's picture

And that time honored spirit. Is, unfortunately, anathema to the dharma. Who ya gonna call?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Call your congressman. America is undergoing her spiritual revolution even as we text.

mahakala's picture

The conditions of a solitary bird are five:
The first, that it flies to the highest point;
The second, that it does not suffer for company,
not even of its own kind;
The third, that it aims its beak to the skies;
The fourth, that it does not have a definite color;
The fifth, that it sings very softly.

- San Juan de la Cruz

zumacraig's picture

Yet there is no solitary bird. There is no solitary human or thing, obviously. There is no soul or self to be solitary. This is delusion and completely opposite of any faithful buddhist thinking. There is not a transcendent enlightened, solitary state. Especially not when the masses still suffer and are blamed for their suffering. This is only negative freedom. We've got to find new practices that take seriously the truth of anatman. Rather than conditions of the solitary bird, what about creating conditions for the end of oppression, hunger, violence, denial of death, lazy thinking? The anti-buddhist path of solitary sitting has obviously failed in ending suffering and has made us, ironically, more complacent in the suffering of ourselves and others to where we assume the current myth of exchange value and self are natural. And we allow these myths to be perpetuated as wisdom, as exemplified by the poem above.

trishaenglish's picture


This poem by San Juan de la Cruz was delightful.
Thank you.

Hugo1041's picture

Yes, Mahakala, thank you for sharing this.

David Raphael Israel's picture

The solitary bird envisaged by the poet-saint here seems reminiscent of the legendary Hamsa in South Asian mythology.

and relatedly:
-- though these references don't really expand on the Hamsa's legend and attributes in enough detail to make the connection very clear. (I'm partly relying on things read in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, in noting the sense of kinship or ground of comparison here.) The feeling of the Hamsa is also brought forward by the wonderful Indian classical raaga Hamsadhvani.

Dromtönpa's words and St. John of the Cross's words are each challenging and provocative in their own way & style. Nice to read the story as well as the poem.