Following Dharma and Avoiding Suffering

The Sanskrit word Dharma, chö (chos) in Tibetan, means to hold or to uphold. What is upheld or maintained? The elimination of suffering and the attainment of happiness. Dharma does this not only for us, but for all beings.

Recognizing Suffering

The sufferings we experience are of two types: those immediately visible to us as humans and those we cannot see without extrasensory powers. The former include the pain involved in the birth process, the unpleasantness of occasionally becoming sick, the misery experienced with growing old and aging, and the terror of death.

The sufferings that come after death are not visible to an ordinary person. We might think that after we die, we will probably be reborn as a human being. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is no logical reason for us to assume that such an evolution will occur. Nor is it the case that after we die we will not take rebirth at all.

As for the particular type of rebirth we will take, this is something very difficult to know, something not presently within our sphere of knowledge. If we generate positive karma during this life, it will naturally follow that we will take happy forms of rebirth in the future. Conversely, if we create mostly negative karma, we will not take a happy rebirth, but will experience great difficulties in lower states of being. This is certain. Rebirth functions that way. If we plant a seed of wheat, what grows is a wheat plant. If we plant a seed of rice, a rice plant is produced. Similarly, by creating negative karma we plant seeds of rebirth in one of the three lower states as a hell creature, a hungry ghost, or an animal.

There are four different states or realms of hells (joyless realms): hot, cold, neighboring and occasional hells. To further subdivide these, there are eight different hot hells. The first of these is known as the Reviving Hell. This is the one of least suffering, relatively speaking. To understand the extent of the misery experienced here, the pain of a person caught in a great fire would be very slight in comparison with that of beings in the first hot hell. Each hell below the Reviving Hell has an increasingly intense degree of misery.

Although the sufferings of hell creatures and hungry ghosts may not be visible to us, those of the animals can be seen with our eyes. If we wonder what would happen if we ourselves were to be reborn as animals, we can just look at the street animals and beasts of burden around us here in India and think what it would be like to have their conditions. Dharma is what holds us back and protects us from experiencing the suffering of these lower rebirths.

The entire wheel of rebirth, the whole of uncontrollably recurring existence (samsara), has the nature of suffering. Dharma is what safeguards us from all samsaric suffering. Moreover, the Mahayana Dharma, the teachings of the Great Vehicle, brings protection not only to us, but to all limited beings (sentient beings).

Taking the Safe Direction of Refuge

In Buddhism, we hear a lot about the Three Jewels of Refuge – Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The first of these includes all the fully enlightened beings, who teach the Dharma. Buddha Shakyamuni, who first turned the wheel of Dharma at Varanasi by teaching the four noble truths, is most significant to us. The last of these four truths – true paths – is the Dharma to be practiced in order to achieve liberation. This is the refuge object of safe direction called the Dharma Gem.

Dharma practice entails two things: recognizing the root of samsaric suffering and eradicating this root. What is the root of recurring existence? It is the grasping for a truly existent self and for the true existence of phenomena. We need to develop a repulsion for this grasping which brings us all our sufferings. We must develop an understanding of the antidote to grasping at true existence. This antidote is the wisdom (discriminating awareness) of selflessness or identitylessness. It is this understanding of selflessness that will bring us liberation from suffering.

The sufferings we experience in samsara do not occur without a cause. They are caused by the disturbing emotions and attitudes (delusions) and by the karma created by them. The root of all disturbing emotions and attitudes and of karma is the grasping for a self. When we understand this, we aspire to obtain the antidote to this grasping for a self. Why have we not yet developed the antidote in our mental continuums? Why don’t we understand selflessness? One reason is that we are not sufficiently aware of death and impermanence.

Death and Impermanence

The only possible outcome of birth is death. We are inevitably going to die. There is no living being whose life did not end with death. People try many methods to prevent death’s occurrence, but it is impossible. No medicine can cure us of death.

Just to think, “I’m going to die,” isn’t really the correct way to contemplate death. Of course, everyone is going to die, but merely thinking about this fact is not very powerful. It is not the proper method. In the same way, just thinking of the fact that we are going to disintegrate and degenerate, that our bodies are going to decompose, is not enough. What we have to think about is how to prevent our downfall.

If we think about the fear that comes at the time of death and about how to eliminate that fear, then our meditation on death will be effective. People who have accumulated a great deal of negative karma during their lives become very frightened at the time of death. They cry, tears run down their cheeks, their mouths dribble, they excrete in their clothing, and are completely overwhelmed. These are clear signs of the suffering that occurs at the time of death because of fear caused by negative actions performed during life.

Alternatively, if during our lifetimes we refrain from committing negative actions, the time of death is very easy for us to face. The experience is one of joy, like that of a child going home to its parents. If we have purified ourselves, we can die happily. By refraining from the ten negative ways and cultivating their opposites, the ten constructive actions, our deaths will be easy and as a result we won’t have to experience rebirth in a condition of suffering. We can be assured of rebirth in more fortunate states. By planting the seeds of medicinal plants we obtain trees with medicinal powers, by planting the seeds of poisonous trees we produce only harmful fruits. If we plant the seeds of constructive actions on our consciousness, we will experience happiness in future rebirths. We will have fortunate situations both mentally and physically. This basic teaching of the Dharma – avoid destructive deeds and cultivate constructive ones – is given not only in Buddhism, but also in many other religions, including Christianity.

How do we contemplate death and impermanence? As mentioned previously, just thinking, “I’m going to die,” is not very beneficial. We need to think, “If I have committed any of the ten destructive actions, at death I will have a great deal of fear and suffering to face, and as a result I will devolve to a rebirth of intense misfortune. On the other hand, if during my life I have created positive force (merit), at death I will not experience fear or suffering and will be reborn in a more fortunate state.” That is the correct way to contemplate death.

This meditation need not be merely the gloomy, pessimistic thought, “I’m going to die and there is nothing I can do about it.” Rather, we need to think in terms of what will happen when we die. “Where will I go after death? What sort of causes have I created? Can I make my death a happy one? How? Can I make my future rebirths happy? How?”

When contemplating future rebirths, we need to remember that there is no place in samsara that is reliable. No matter what body we take, it must eventually pass away. We read in history of people who have lived for a hundred or even a thousand years. Yet, no matter how fantastic these accounts are, there is no case of a person who did not eventually have to die. Any type of samsaric body that we gain is subject to death.

Nor is there a place to where we can go in order to escape death. No matter where we are, when the time comes, we will have to die. Then no amount of medicine, mantras, or practice will help. Surgical operations may cure certain types of diseases within our bodies, but there are none that can prevent death.

No matter what type of rebirth we gain, it will be subject to death. The process is ongoing. Contemplating the long-range effects of our actions and how the process of birth, life, death, and rebirth is continuous will help us generate much positive karma.

Although we sometimes plan to practice the Dharma, we usually plan to do so tomorrow, or the day after. However, none of us can tell when we will die. If we had a guarantee that we definitely had one hundred years left to live, we would have free space in which to arrange our practice. But there is not the slightest certainty when we will die. To put off our practice is very foolish. Some humans die in the womb even before they are born, others die as small babies before they learn to walk. It doesn’t follow that we are going to live a long life.

Our bodies are very fragile. If they were made of stone or iron, perhaps they might give some feeling of stability. But if we investigate, we will see that the human body is very weak. It is very easy for something to go wrong with it. It is like a delicate wristwatch made from countless tiny fragile parts. It is not something to be trusted. There are many circumstances that can cause our death: food poisoning, the bite of a tiny insect, or even the prick of a poisonous thorn. Such small conditions can kill us. The food and liquid that we use to extend our lives can become the circumstances that end it. There is no certainty at all as to when we will die, or what circumstances will cause our death.

Even if we feel certain that we will live for a hundred years, many years of that span have passed already and we haven’t accomplished much. We approach death like a man sleeping in a railway carriage, constantly getting closer and closer to the destination, yet unaware of the process. There is little we can do to stop this process. We just constantly come ever-closer to death.

No matter how much money, jewelry, houses or clothes we have accumulated during our lives, it will make no difference whatsoever at the time of our deaths. When we die, we will have to go empty-handed. Not even the tiniest material object can be taken with us. The body itself must be left behind. The body and the mind separate and the mind-stream continues by itself. Not only is it impossible to take a possession with us, we cannot even take our bodies.


What accompanies the consciousness after death? If we have to leave our bodies, our friends, and all our possessions, is there any helper or anything that accompanies our consciousness to a future life?

There is something that follows the consciousness after death: the karmic legacies (seeds) that we have built up during this lifetime. If we have committed any of the ten negative karmic actions, a negative karmic legacy or karmic debt will accompany our mental continuums as they go on into our future rebirths. By killing other beings, stealing others’ possessions, or indulging in sexual misconduct, negative karmic legacies from these destructive actions of the body are placed on the mind-stream. By lying, slandering others and causing disunity among people, harming others with words, or speaking meaninglessly, the negative karmic debts of these negative actions of speech will travel with us at the time of death. If we have had many covetous thoughts, often wishing to have the possessions of others; if we have had ill-will toward others, wishing that they be harmed or that something bad would happen to them; or if we have thought in a distorted antagonistic manner, such as “there are no past or future lives,” “there is no such thing as cause and effect,” “there’s no such thing as the safe direction of refuge,” these destructive actions of mind will generate negative karmic legacies that travel with and direct our minds into future rebirths.

The reverse is also true. If we have performed positive actions and turned away from creating negativity, the karmic legacies of such positive energy will travel on our mind-streams and produce better circumstances in our future lives.

When we really think about the situation we are in, we will resolve to try in every way to generate positive karma and eliminate its opposite. We need to try to cleanse ourselves of as much negativity as possible, not leaving even the smallest karmic debt to be repaid in our future lives.

We need to look at what type of reactions can happen within the law of cause and effect. There is the account of a person who had very many good qualities, but was harsh in his speech. He abused another, saying, “You talk like a dog.” As a result, he himself was reborn as a dog five hundred times. A seemingly small action can have a very large result.

Similarly, a very small positive action can produce a great result. There is the account of a young child who made a humble offering to the Buddha and, as a result, was reborn as the great king Ashoka, who built thousands of Buddhist monuments and performed countless sublime activities.

Renunciation and Compassion

Contemplating the various types of destructive actions that we have committed and their results is a very effective way of ensuring our welfare and happiness. If we think of the suffering we ourselves will have to experience as a result of our negativity and thus give birth to a very strong wish not to have to experience this type of misery, we have developed what is called “renunciation.”

Acquainting ourselves with this type of thinking in itself is a form of meditation. First, we need to develop mindfulness of our own suffering; then we need to extend this mindfulness to all living beings. Consider how all beings do not wish to have any suffering, yet are caught in a suffering predicament. This type of thinking leads us to compassion. If we do not develop the wish to be free from all our own suffering, how can we develop the wish for other beings to be free from theirs? We can put an end to all our own suffering, yet this is not ultimately beneficial. We need to extend this wish to all living beings, who also desire happiness. We can train our minds and develop the wish for everyone to be completely parted from their sufferings. This is a much wider and more beneficial way of thinking.

Why do we need to be concerned with other living beings? Because we receive so much from others. For instance, the milk that we drink comes from the kindness of the cows and the buffaloes, the warm clothing that protects us from the cold and wind comes from the wool of sheep and goats, and so forth. These are just a few examples of why we need to try to find a method that can eliminate their sufferings.

No matter what type of practice we do – the recitation of mantra or any kind of meditation – we need always to retain the thought, “May this benefit all limited beings.” This will naturally bring benefit to us as well. Our ordinary life situations can give us an appreciation of this. For example, if someone is very selfish and always works for his own gain, he will not really be liked by others. On the other hand, someone who is kind and always thinks of helping others is usually liked by everybody.

The thought to be developed in our mental continuums is, “May everybody be happy and may nobody suffer.” We must try to incorporate this into our own thinking through recollecting it again and again. This can be extremely beneficial. Beings who in the past have developed this type of thinking are now great Buddhas, bodhisattvas, or saints; all the truly great men and women of the world based themselves on it. How wonderful if we could try to generate it ourselves!

The Karma of Harming Others to Protect Our Loved Ones

Are we advised not to defend ourselves when somebody tries to harm us?

This question introduces a very extensive subject. If someone hits you over the head with a club or stick, the best response is to meditate that you are experiencing this because of your own past negative actions. Think how this person is allowing this particular karmic legacy to ripen now, rather than sometime in the future. You need to feel gratitude that he has eliminated this negative karmic debt from your mind-stream.

What if someone attacks my wife or child, who are under my protection? Do I defend them? Would it be a negative action to do so?

As it is your duty and responsibility protect your wife and child, you must try to do so in as skillful a manner as possible. You need to be clever. Best is to protect them without harming the attacker. In other words, you need to find a method of protecting them whereby you do not inflict any harm.

He can harm my children, but I cannot harm him? Isn’t it our duty to defend our children against barbarous and cruel acts? Shall we just lay down our lives?

In order to handle this situation skillfully you need a great deal of courage. There is an account about a previous life of the Buddha, in which he was a navigator who went to sea with a group of five hundred people in search of a buried treasure. There was one man in this party who had very greedy thoughts and, in order to steal all the jewels for himself, was plotting to murder the five hundred. The bodhisattva (Shakyamuni Buddha in a previous life) was aware of this and thought that to let the situation develop was incorrect, as one man would kill five hundred. Therefore, he developed the very courageous thought to save the five hundred by killing this one man, willingly accepting upon himself the full responsibility of killing. If you are willing to accept having to be reborn in a hell in order to save others, you have a greatly courageous thought. Then you can engage in these acts, just as the Buddha himself did.

Under such circumstances is killing still considered a negative action?

Nagarjuna wrote in his Letter to a Friend that if one commits negativity in the name of protecting one’s parents, children, Buddhism, or the Three Jewels of Refuge, one will have to experience the consequences. The difference is in whether or not you are aware of the consequences and are willing to take them upon yourself in order selflessly to protect your wife and child. If you harm the enemy, you are going to experience a suffering rebirth. However, you need to be willing to face this by thinking, “I will take that suffering on myself and then my wife and child won't suffer.”

Then according to Buddhism, it would still be a negative act?

To protect your wife and child is a positive constructive act, but to harm the enemy is negative and destructive. You have to be willing to accept the consequences of both.

You said that if one creates negative karma, one will suffer in the future, but if one does good, happiness will follow. Can these good actions lead to complete salvation, in the sense of not having to experience rebirth?

If you wish to achieve salvation, you have to follow the teachings completely and precisely. For instance, if you are following the Christian path, you must follow the teachings of Christ perfectly. Then Christian salvation is possible. Jesus alone cannot save us from our sins; we ourselves have to do something. Otherwise, why would Jesus have said not to sin? If we ourselves follow correctly what Jesus taught, I think that Christian salvation is possible. If we follow correctly the teachings of Buddha, Buddhist “salvation” – liberation – is possible.