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The Four Dhar mas

Gam popa
by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

Teaching at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, Summer 1984.

Translated by Chojor Radha.
Densal Vol. 6 No. 1.

T he Four Dharmas of Gampopa show how the mind follows the

Dharma, how the Dharma follows the path, how the path
eliminates confusion, and how out of confusion wisdom arises.

First Dharma:
May My Mind Follow the Dharma

T he first of the four teachings points to the understanding that we

practice Dharma in order to truly benefit ourselves and others in
this and future births. Whatever teachings we hear, contemplate,
and put into practice should be motivated by this intention. If we
practice to obtain material gain, then our minds are not following
Dharma. We work in the mundane world to support our physical
needs, but we practice Dharma to develop our inner understanding
of this life and attain those realizations that will also benefit us in
future births. The nature of samsara is constant change, and from
this viewpoint, using Dharma to gain fame, wealth, or other
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temporary rewards is turning the teaching to the wrong purpose.

Using Dharma properly, we generate benefits through meditation.
When we receive teachings, we should put them into practice
immediately. Our life is very uncertain and the time of death unpre-
dictable, no matter what our health or age. To obtain this precious
human birth and the opportunity to practice is most rare, and we
may not find it in the future. Knowing this, we should immediately
engage in practice that is meaningful and relevant to us, and then
practice consistently. Such practice is like taking medicine. You are
the patient and, until the disease is cured, you must take medicine
regularly. Likewise, until our confusion is removed, we should prac-
tice Dharma regularly.

Second Dharma:
May the Dharma Follow the Path

W e have seen that the nature of samsara is nothing but

suffering, yet every living being wants happiness, peace, and
comfort. Not knowing how to obtain these, their actions only
compound suffering, and they are thus constantly confused and
drawn into the realm of samsara. Some people, for example, think
happiness can be obtained by robbing a bank and becoming rich.
The result of stealing, of course, is negative karma and its attendant
suffering. If we consider our situation, there are many instances in
which we think some activity will produce happiness, but it actually
yields negative karma.
Birds, insects, and humans are all equally busy trying to obtain
that state called happiness. From birth to death, we look for wealth,
fame, and other forms of worldly success, not realizing that the root
of happiness is in the virtuous actions of body, speech, and mind, and
that the root of suffering is in the negative actions of these three. In
this ignorance, we continue in constant busyness, vaguely hoping for
something good, yet creating more problems.
When we can understand that all beings share a desire for hap-
piness and yet are closed into the darkness and confusion of samsara,
then with this awareness we can begin to help others. Loving-kind-
ness is developed through the motivation of not only wanting to
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help others in material ways, but also wanting to liberate them from
the cycle of samsara.
In order to develop this strong loving-kindness, it helps in the
beginning to focus on the person you love the most, such as your
mother, brother, or sister, and imagine them suffering in great pain.
If you did not come to help them, and merely tried to maintain your
own happiness, you would not be very comfortable. The only thing
to do, of course, would be to find out how to help them. Suppose
that the one you love the most was in the hell realm, burning with
fire, boiled in water, and forced to drink scalding liquids, and was
constantly crying out, “Someone please help me!” At that point you
could not just sit there and work for your own happiness. At the
sound of the word “help!” immediately your tears would flow.
Likewise, if they were in the hungry ghost realm suffering from
thirst, hunger and want of shelter, with their body burning at night,
you would have difficulty ignoring their cries for help. Suppose this
person you love has taken birth as a fish with no home, no protec-
tion in the water, and constantly searching for food simply to stay
alive and stop the pangs of hunger. When they came up from the
water and pleaded for help, you could not turn a deaf ear.
In such ways, we use the example of the one we love most and
imagine what we would do if that person cried for help from the
depths of suffering. When we can freely express loving-kindness for
those we love, then this loving-kindness can be expanded by know-
ing that not only the person we love is suffering and wants happi-
ness, but that every living being equally wants such happiness. This
realization brings forth greater generosity and loving-kindness,
which eventually includes limitless numbers of living beings.
Developing loving-kindness by itself, however, is not enough for
effective practice; in addition, we need to develop aspiration bodhi-
chitta. In this context aspiration bodhichitta means a deep commit-
ment from your heart with the feeling, “From now on, I will never
harm any living being, but try to help as much as I can, and not just
for a short time, but until all are liberated from samsara.” Once we
make this commitment we think, “If I ever break this vow, may my
body be scattered into a thousand pieces.”
With this commitment, we practice according to our intention.
Since all practices will not go easily and smoothly, we will have to
work through and overcome many difficulties, troubles and hard-
ships, both mental and physical. When such problems arise, we
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should again reflect on the suffering of the hell realm, the hungry
ghost realm and the animal realm. Compared to these, our hardships
and pain are minimal. We should also see that in the past, we have
worked with great energy to obtain temporary happiness—posses-
sions, wealth, fame, and so forth. Now that we are truly working for
our real benefit and that of all sentient beings, are we not willing to
make at least the same effort to persevere through difficult times?
When you are practicing with such a focus, no matter what happens,
nothing can interfere with you. This kind of practice is called “per-
severance bodhichitta,” for you are following your intentions and
actually practicing them.
Another way of dealing with problems that arise during practice
is to concentrate on the goal of obtaining a better rebirth in order to
give happiness to ourselves and others. That happiness is not tem-
porary, but eternal wealth, and could be considered your pay or salary
for working through difficulties in the same way that a job in the
mundane world would reward you for your labors.
Generating this perseverance bodhichitta, the great yogi
Milarepa was able to meditate for years through tremendous adversi-
ty, even though he was a human being like us, who experienced
pain, hunger, and thirst. Since he had confidence in his guru’s teach-
ing about the eternal benefit that arises through practice, he was
able to put himself into meditation and for long years overcome
numerous difficulties with his practice.
To summarize this discussion of the Second Dharma of
Gampopa, we can see that, just as we obtain material rewards in the
ordinary world for working hard, for taking risks and responsibility,
in that same way we take the responsibility of liberating ourselves
and all sentient beings. Here, too, it is clear that we have to face
numerous hardships and resolve many problems. Just as we know
that in the world we will not find well-paid jobs without having to
put forth effort and take responsibility, we have to understand that
on the spiritual path as well we have to undergo difficulties in order
to help ourselves. When we follow this path, bodhichitta will devel-
op and the bodhisattva’s conduct will grow.
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Third Dharma:
May the Path Eliminate Confusion

I n addition to relating to loving-kindness and compassion, we can

also surmount hardships by developing awareness and wisdom. We
know that everything is temporary and a projection of our own
mind. Every sound we hear is a projection of our mind and is
interdependent with our hearing. Likewise, all visible form is
interdependent, and what we consider concrete is actually like a
If we can come to understand that all phenomena are not real,
then there is no hardship, no difficulty to meet. If an enemy is
approaching, we can take this enemy for real, allow fear to arise, and
try to run away. On the other hand, if we know that this enemy is
unreal, nothing but magic, then we do not generate fear and run
away, but just stay there watching. The more we come to understand
that all phenomena are devoid of identity, the more we can feel
compassion for all living beings who are drawn into a world of con-
fusion. In pursuing our desire to help all beings, we develop pure
compassion; in applying wisdom, we understand that all phenomena
are devoid of self or a fixed identity. When we reach this level of
understanding, the path is eliminating confusion.
When we think about benefiting all living beings, we automati-
cally understand that to benefit them we have to work for them, to
serve them, to nurse them if they are sick, to give food, shelter, and
so forth. This kind of physical assistance, of course, is necessary, but
it provides only temporary aid. If we offer Dharma, however, and
teach them how to remove conflicting emotions and defilements,
then they can attain eternal happiness—that is why Dharmic help is
far more beneficial.
Opening or helping to run a center is certainly a great gift we
can offer to living beings, because they learn Dharma from true
teachers who will show them how to remove their defilements. If we
give people worldly possessions, then as long as they are involved
with them, they are accumulating negative karma. We have actual-
ly prolonged their negative karma rather than teaching them how to
remove it. If we teach Dharma or help to make it available, that
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activity creates endless benefits, because whoever hears will eventu-

ally remove all defilements, and will be of great help to all living
beings. If we are spending our energy in the ordinary world, our
activity resembles giving a piece of gold to a king; he already has an
abundance of wealth and so this gold does not change his life in the
least. In fact, the king could easily obtain much more gold than what
we have given him. With Dharmic intention, we act so that people
can be liberated from their confusion.
During the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, there were people who
took 253 vows that they kept pure and unbroken. It is said that in
our present age, if we could offer just four words of Dharma to bene-
fit the minds of sentient beings, this would bring an even greater
accumulation of merit than keeping 253 vows did in ancient times.
As Dharma practitioners, we can understand that the result of
our practice leads to the removal of confusion, and eventually to
complete liberation from samsara. We obtain both eternal happiness
and the ability to help all living beings spontaneously. Material
progress or technical development may provide some leisure or com-
fort for us in this world, but they do not really help to eliminate our
confusion—even medical advances do not. The only thing that can
actually remove defilements or neuroses is the skillful and diligent
application of Dharma. For that reason, establishing and working at
a center are extremely helpful for others, because we are making the
Dharma available and inviting many spiritual masters who can teach
Dharma in different ways depending on each individual’s capacity.
Of course, we would probably not attain enlightenment the day right
after a teaching, but from among those attending, there will be a few
who will practice seriously and regularly. All the rest who came,
even though they are not interested in the practice, have been
helped, for they have heard the profound words of Dharma, and the
seed of enlightenment has been planted within them. Dharmic gen-
erosity is extremely important and we should always be helpful in
this way. Material generosity is only temporary and cannot remove
our deep-seated problems.
The three year, three month, retreat can be extremely beneficial
if we can practice thoroughly and come out a teacher able to spread
the Dharma. But if this does not happen, then really working for a
Dharma center can be a greater benefit and provide a greater accu-
mulation of merit than going on a three year retreat, because in
working at a center you are constantly benefiting others and thus
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accumulating merit every moment. A three year retreat has to be

accomplished by a person of many qualities: completely devoted to
the Dharma, enthusiastic, tolerant, wise, and persevering. Having
become realized ourselves, if we then teach others, that, of course, is
the best way to apply the Dharma and make it available.
When I was young, I wanted to go into retreat for my whole life
and never leave, but my teacher asked me to come out of retreat and
give teachings. Whether the teachings have helped living beings in
this lifetime or in future births, I do not know, but leaving retreat
undoubtedly saved my life. If I had stayed in retreat, I would have
certainly been killed by the communists. In retrospect, I can under-
stand why my teacher refused my request.
Through overcoming hardships and developing loving-kindness
and compassion for all sentient beings, we gradually become less self-
centered, and our motivation places others first with the wish to
benefit them. When this altruistic attitude arises within us and we
always follow it, we enjoy the work of helping others, for we under-
stand why they undergo such difficulties. This clearer understanding
is enjoyable and enables us to work harder. As we bring others
greater benefit, our own defilements gradually decrease, and eventu-
ally ego-clinging disappears. That is why it is said that the path leads
to the removal of confusion.

Fourth Dharma:
May Confusion be
Transformed into Wisdom

T here are two ways of looking at transforming confusion into

wisdom. First, you can think logically that all sentient beings
have the ability to attain enlightenment—the same ability as the
Buddha, who has already become enlightened. Although this ability
resides in all living beings, because they do not know how to remove
obscurations, they are unable to realize their buddhahood. In
quantity and quality, there is not the least difference between the
enlightenment that is within the Buddha and the enlightenment or
buddha nature that is within all sentient beings. The difference
between an enlightened being and ordinary beings is that the
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buddha nature of ordinary beings is covered, and the Buddha’s

buddha nature is exposed—it has come out while ours is hidden
The wisdom of enlightened beings and the wisdom of ordinary
beings is equal in quality. A simple example will illustrate this.
Suppose you fill two identical basins with pure water, and one of
them has some mud in it, while the other is clean. Now it is the
nature of water to be clear, but because one basin has mud in it this
water is not as clear as that in the clean basin. The quality and quan-
tity of the water are the same, however. The more mud you can take
out or let settle, the clearer the water becomes; finally, it becomes as
clear as the water in the basin without mud. So the qualities of puri-
ty and clarity were always there—they were not obtained after the
removal of the mud—but they needed the proper conditions to
become manifest.
The only way to keep this water clear after the silt has settled is
by not moving it at all. In terms of our mind, sitting meditation, or
shamata practice settles our mind and helps us maintain a clarity
within ourselves. That does not mean, however, that we have com-
pletely removed our defilements, but that our mind is settled and our
clarity has become manifest.
The second way to transform confusion into wisdom is to prac-
tice the developing and accomplishing stages of meditation in the
vajrayana. In this way, we come to the realization that everything is
void and that there is no separation of projector and projection—
that is the ultimate level. We also come to the understanding that
everything is interdependent. For example, deep realization is
dependent on the blessings of enlightened beings and is also depen-
dent on our inner wisdom, which is constantly there and equal to
that of the Buddha. Interdependence can also be illustrated by
observing how we perceive objects with our eyes. If we did not have
the ability to see, then even if we had eyes, we would not be able to
see an object. For the object to appear, we must have the faculty of
vision. Clear vision helps our eyes to see objects distinctly, just as the
sun makes it easier to see objects clearly. These elements are all
interdependent—they arise together and help each other. Likewise,
with the blessings of realized and enlightened beings, and with our
own inner wisdom, we can come to the final stages of realization. At
that point, our wisdom fully emerges; we have removed the obscura-
tions covering it so that it can shine forth completely. During all
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stages of practice it is important to remember that this wisdom was

there all the time. Thus the Fourth Dharma is: may the path lead to
the realization of wisdom; may confusion be transformed into wis-