Talk Categories Happiness | Talk Locations Shanghai Jiao Tong University

The Key to Happiness Is the Mind

In Modern society, we usually seek happiness in material wealth, social status, and relationships; but when we finally do obtain them, they eventually become the source of further dissatisfaction and suffering. From the perspective of the Buddhist teachings, it is only through working with our mental attitude, cultivating contentment, and through spiritual wealth that we can actually give meaning to our lives and find the happiness we seek.

Speech by Khenpo Sodargye

Wealth and Happiness

Opening Speech

The Host:

Respected Khenpo Sodargye, dear alumni and guests, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to attend the Advanced Lecture Series on Traditional Chinese Culture, organized by the Traditional Chinese Culture Class of the Overseas Education College, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Since its beginning, the Traditional Chinese Culture Class has been trying to provide the best faculty, and the best cultural and spiritual food for its students. As the society becomes more materialistic, competitive and changeable, people are getting increasingly restless, anxious and stressed. Our courses, which focus on the study of traditional Chinese cultures, aim at passing along the positive energy of peace, ease and freedom, so that people can achieve spiritual detachment in this restless society. To study classic texts is to learn to look beneath the surface of things with a detached attitude so as to perfect our lives, enhancing the quality of life and achieving the feeling of happiness.

We have provided a number of high-quality, non-profit extracurricular lectures for our students, alumni, and other friends. Previously, we have invited many renowned scholars to give lectures, such as Mr. Yi Zhongtian, Professor Yu Dan, Professor Qian Wenzhong, and Mr. Zhou Guoping. Today is the 30th lecture of the series and it is our honor to have invited Khenpo Sodargye, a distinguished and renowned spiritual teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, to give us a lecture. Next, let’s welcome Mr. Zhang Guangyi, Director of Overseas Education College’s Project Center, to give us the welcome speech. Please!


Mr. Zhang Guangyi:

Respected Khenpo Sodargye, students of the Traditional Chinese Culture Class, dear friends, good morning!

Last week, the CCTV News broadcasted a news about four brothers from Guilin, Guangxi, looking for their mother. It made a splash and confirmed the saying: “Among all virtues, filial devotion is the foremost.”

Why do we need to learn traditional Chinese culture? Because it shapes our values and helps us distinguish between the good and the evil. In this materially abundant society, the question is not about how to survive, but how to lead a meaningful life. So, it is necessary to shape our own values through the education of traditional Chinese culture, which plays an important role in helping us find a meaningful life. By such education, social problems such as gutter oil and poisonous capsules which result from lack of morality will reduce.

Buddhism, as one of the traditional aspects of Chinese culture, has many ideas that are quite popular and well-known, like “Giving is receiving”, “The law of cause and effect is infallible”, etc. The year before last, I had the honor to attend Mr. Nan Huai-Chin’s course of Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government at Taihu Great Learning Center. Mr. Nan said that there are two subjects in the vast and profound traditional Chinese culture that are especially hard to learn: The Book of Changes and Buddhism. Mr. Nan also studied Tibetan Buddhism in his life.

It is a great honor for us to have invited Khenpo Sodargye today. I am sure his lecture will lead us to happiness. Thank you!


The Host:

Thank you, Director Zhang.

In an online interactive session, many Weibo (equivalent to Twitter) users asked Khenpo: “What is the goal of life?” Khenpo answered: “To seek peace, ease and freedom.” I hope all of us will listen attentively so that the peace and freedom that Khenpo will bring us in the lecture can take root in our mind. Let us welcome Khenpo to start his lecture on “The Key to Happiness Is the Mind”.

The Key to Happiness

Today, together we will discuss on the topic “The Key to Happiness Is the Mind”. Each one of you has your own view and understanding on what brings happiness in life. Therefore, I would like to share my views and ideas from a Buddhist perspective, which might inspire you to see happiness from a different, long-lasting perspective.

Lately, a CCTV program conducted an interview by asking randomly selected people: “Are you happy?” The answers varied. From my perspective as a Buddhist, the answers show that some people have found the key to happiness, while some are pursuing happiness in the wrong way.

Recently, Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When a reporter asked him, “Are you happy?”, he replied frankly, “I don’t know.” The reporter was surprised to hear that. Then Mo Yan explained that, it would have been dishonest from his side to say that he is happy, because he is under much more pressure now in comparison with the past. On the other hand, if he said that he is not happy, he would appear hypocritical in people’s eyes because he won such a huge prize.

It is true that winning the Nobel Prize in Literature brings Mo Yan a fortune of 8 million SEK, which is supposed to bring happiness to the winner. In addition, Nobel Prize winners draw the attention of the whole world, because they are chosen from a great number of nominees globally. This means that besides wealth, they receive fame, too. So, in the eyes of ordinary people, Mo Yan must be very happy. However, the sudden fortune and fame have subjected him to great and varied kinds of pressure, and made him unable to focus simply and freely on reading and writing as he used to. Therefore, upon suddenly receiving the huge prize, Mo Yan seemed not happy.

This somehow illustrates the idea in Buddhism that the key to happiness is the mind. Here, “the key is the mind” does not mean that happiness depends 100% on the mind, but that happiness has a lot to do with the mind.

Wealth and Happiness

Many people believe that wealth is the key to happiness. But is this true?

When you are penniless, without food or clothing, you would probably think that money will solve all your problems and make you happy. But when you really become wealthy, you will find that’s not what you thought. If you are not satisfied with what you have, even if you are rich, you will not feel happy as you will always be afflicted by the desire of wanting more. For example, even when you own a house as you wished, you may want to have the second one and more. When you have one property in your own country, you may want to have properties in other countries. Also, the more and better things you have, the more you will be bothered by maintaining them. For example, when we change our house or car for a fancier one, we may feel more comfortable and really enjoy it in the beginning. However, as the expenditure of maintenance occurs and the upkeep grows, the affliction of owning it follows as well. So, for possessions, it is not always “more is better.”

If wealth does bring happiness, one should feel happy when one is rich, but that is not necessarily the case. As the famous actress Elizabeth Taylor said, “Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything, but I’ve paid for that luck with disasters.” Her words make sense from the Buddhist perspective: if one’s attitude is not properly tuned, fortune alone may not bring true happiness.

Buddhism teaches clearly about the affliction caused by wealth: Gathering wealth, watching over it and making it grow will wear you out; and you will worry day and night that it might be exhausted or snatched away by authorities, thieves, ungrateful children, by fire or flood. There was a rich Austrian who donated all his assets and properties to charity. When he owned the assets, he always worried a lot about them, and after he donated them all, he felt very happy and his stress was reduced. That’s probably why many people in the world agree that a lot of suffering comes from money, while a lot of happiness has nothing to do with money.

The Buddha taught 2,500 years ago that one should live a moderate life, be content with fewer desires. The point is to live a normal life, not lacking any of the necessities for living, but the desire for more possessions must be kept within certain limit. It is true that it is hard to live a life where our basic needs are not satisfied; but too much wealth also becomes a source of “boredom”. For example, when you live in a five-star or six-star hotel, at first you may feel it is very nice and comfortable. Yet as the novelty wears off, you may feel that it is not too much different from living in an adobe house. So it is important to be content and control our desires when enjoying wealth, as otherwise you may go astray in the pursuit of happiness.

People today blindly seek after wealth, thinking more is better, unaware that such an attitude may lead them to be totally lost in life. So far, the philosophy of contentment, although very important for finding happiness and the meaning of life, has been uncommon and not widely promoted. Therefore, it is commendable to organize events related to spiritual education, like courses on traditional Chinese culture. Such learning can truly bring some transformation to one’s mind. Consequently, it will bring positive effect to one’s career, family and children. Thus, one’s life and career will enjoy a virtuous circle of development.

Speaking of development, it should not be limited to the accumulation of wealth. If we only regard the accumulation of wealth as the biggest and most beneficial breakthrough in human history, then humanity would deteriorate, morality would be in decline, and people’s compassion would decrease. If precious values and culture inherited from ancient times are not treasured and widely applied in society, our society is not really developing. Therefore, it is very important for everyone to enhance their spirituality and wisdom. That’s why we should hold gratitude toward the teachers, who pass along spiritual wealth which is exactly what people now lack the most, both in the East and the West.

Ancient and modern people differ in their attitudes toward material possessions. While ancient people lacked material resources, they felt spiritually abundant. In contrast, although modern people are materially abundant, we don’t feel satisfied nor do we have satisfactory idea about how to live a meaningful life. Life should be with purpose, not just a way of survival. Otherwise, what makes us different from animals? Animals also wake up in the morning, seek for food and drink in the daytime, and sleep at night. If we just live in such a way without passing on values like loving-kindness and compassion, then imagine how our humanity and morality will decline!

If wealth does bring happiness, one should feel happy when one is rich, but that is not necessarily the case. As the famous actress Elizabeth Taylor said, “Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything, but I’ve paid for that luck with disasters.” Her words make sense from the Buddhist perspective: if one’s attitude is not properly tuned, fortune alone may not bring true happiness.

Why We Are Not Happy

Status and Happiness

Does high social status bring about happiness?

Looking back in history, we see that for any important figure, with high status in the circle of politics or business, none were able to retain their positions for an unlimited time. When they are in power, with great wealth, fame and high social status, relatives and friends revolve around them and visit them all the time. However, once they lose their status, their relatives and friends lose their interest to stay around them. This is also true for ordinary people. It is like when a tree is full of leaves and flowers, flocks of birds perch on it, singing out melodiously; however, when the leaves and blossoms wither in the winter, the flocks are gone, too. So, social status is impermanent and it is not wise to build happiness on it.

There was a Chinese emperor called Shunzhi, known for giving up his throne for being a monk. In his Poem of being A Monk, he wrote:


    For eighteen years I have not been free.

    I led battles in South and North. When will it ever end?


He also mentioned that in his previous life, he was a monk, but because of just one grasping thought, he was reborn in the royal family and became the emperor. For eighteen years, he had been busy fighting up and down the country. Not until the time he was ordained did he realize the true meaning of life. He didn’t see the throne as something beneficial.

There was a Chinese philosopher called Zhuangzi, a very wise man who lived a very simple life. Once he went to visit his friend Hui Shi who was a prime minister of the state of Liang. Hui Shi worried that Zhuangzi might take over his position in the government. Therefore, he ordered people to find Zhuangzi in the state for three days and nights. Zhuangzi saw his worries and came to him, saying that he would never grab his position because it is undesirable to him as rotten rats.

People today are busy from morning till night, working with all their strength for attaining higher status, without feeling content with the one they already have. But we know now how impermanent social status is. Life is short and we don’t know when it will end, so it is not wise to build our happiness on social status.

The great Buddhist master Aryadeva, in his renowned treatise Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way, wrote:


    The high have mental suffering;

    For the common it comes from the body.

    Day by day, both kinds of suffering.

    Overwhelm people in the world.


It means that people of higher social classes who have fame, position and wealth won’t worry about basic necessities of life, like food and clothing. Their suffering mainly comes from the mind. For example, they may have worries and fears like “Will my company function well?” “Will my career work out?”, etc. With such worries, they probably have to rely on sleeping pills to get some sleep at night. Many people today really suffer a lot from stress.

In contrast, people of lower status or people with less money, worry more about how to survive than about their social status. Nowadays, over 50 million people around the world are suffering from famine. Among them there are refugees in Africa and people in some Asian countries. As we can see in the media, some of them experience suffering which is somehow like that of the hungry ghosts described in Buddhism—they are so emaciated that their limbs are extremely thin and bony. Some of them are so hungry that they have to eat tree leaves, mud, cattle dung, and other things that are usually considered inedible.

To sum it up, it is necessary to reflect on the nature of status, and clearly see that status may not necessarily bring meaning to our life. Many very capable people constantly suffer from anxiety over their social status. In whatever circle or community, few people can reach the mental state as depicted in Buddhism:


    Win or lose, just let it be;

    Keep the mind stable without change.


If we don’t cling to our gain or loss, the mind will not be affected by the happiness of gains or the pain of losses. However, few people achieve such mental freedom, which is exactly why when elections are running at the end of the year, many people feel anxious and deeply afflicted especially when losing the election.

Romantic Relationships and Happiness

Does happiness depend on relationships?

The happiness of most young people depends on their relationship with their partners. People, in general, tend to base their happiness on external factors such as persons or objects, which is not wise, because if they lose them one day, they will not be able to go through that change. It is important to have a strong mind and be self-motivated, with a determination that: “Even if I have nothing to rely on in this world, neither a person nor a pet, I can still carry on by myself.”

However, many young people are so attached to their girlfriends or boyfriends.  Actually, the more they are attached, the more suffering they experience. Just as it is said in the Nirvana Sutra,


    From craving one gains apprehension;

    From craving one gains fear.

    If craving is done away with,

    Then how can there be apprehension or fears?


It means that craving brings about fear and worry. Without craving, you will not have fear, worry, or sadness, nor will you suffer from problems such as suicidal intentions.

Affected by the media’s propaganda, quite a lot of people today seem to regard relationships as the first and foremost thing in the world. When their relationships don’t work out, some young people, such as college students, cannot pull themselves together but commit suicide. The situation is getting worse. Media like TV shows and movies propagates the romance of love relationships, so young people are exposed to such propaganda even from an early age. With such influence, they tend to believe that relationships are the most important part of life. But that may not be true. Many people who have realized the true purposes of life, such as spiritual practitioners, regard relationships as part rather than the complete story of their life.

So, it is necessary to reconsider whether it’s wise to cling so much to our relationships. If we build our happiness entirely on others, we will feel hurt and unhappy when they change even slightly. This is not worthwhile.

Why We Are Not Happy

One main reason why people suffer today is their attachment to external objects. In addition to this, they don’t know how to adjust their mindset in life. Therefore, many people are under enormous pressure. According to the results of a survey on workplace stress published recently by international business service provider Regus, China ranks as the most stressful country in the world. Some news comment that the pressure results largely from people’s strong cravings for wealth. According to a British news report, one out of ten Chinese, or 10% of the entire population, are suffering from some form of mental disorder, and 61 million Chinese are suffering from depression. Each year, around 600 thousand Chinese die from overwork. Statistics also show that over 100 thousand or 200 thousand cases of suicide occur each year in China. These are mainly because people grasp onto their life too tightly. If they had been taught to live a moderate life in school or through extensive education in traditional culture or religion, they might not have been under so much pressure.

The biggest cause of our stress and pressure is our discontentment, which makes us compare and compete with others. We buy many things not because we need them but because we want to surpass others. However, whether we can top others or not is determined by many factors, like our merit accumulated in the past, what we do, and how much ability we have. When we try to achieve what is far beyond our capacity, we definitely feel stressed. Instead, if we appreciate our life as it is and we feel content with a moderate life that is always within our ability, we will not be distressed even if we live in a shabby house.

Having been living in the mountains for over twenty years, perhaps my value in life is a little different from people living in the cities. Every time when I’m in a big city, to be frank, it really reminds me of anthills because there is the same hustle and bustle there. It’s hard to understand why people choose to live in that way. Many people focus mostly on their own interests, while fewer and fewer people truly intend to help others, do good things for society, and give back to the public. Everyone works hard for self-interest, hoping to be the best, the happiest, the most successful one. However, as self-centeredness is never the source of happiness, they will end up unhappy.

So what is the fundamental source of our stress? It is our greed. With it, one can never enjoy the happiness of contentment. Elvis Presley once said sadly that he had everything, but still he was not satisfied. Schopenhauer also said, “Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become.” Today, it seems hard to be satisfied with what we have; we just want more all the time. If our desire grows and can’t be satisfied, we end up in pain, as the Buddhist scriptures teach, “When desire is not fulfilled, agitating afflictions occur.” If nothing in the world can bring us satisfaction, we will suffer for sure. Some people long for so many things. With that mindset, they would not feel happy or delighted either in daily life or at work.

So, we can see that, pressure and pain are rooted in our greed.


The biggest cause of our stress and pressure is our discontentment, which makes us compare and compete with others. We buy many things not because we need them but because we want to surpass others. However, whether we can top others or not is determined by many factors, like our merit accumulated in the past, what we do, and how much ability we have. When we try to achieve what is far beyond our capacity, we definitely feel stressed. Instead, if we appreciate our life as it is and we feel content with a moderate life that is always within our ability, we will not be distressed even if we live in a shabby house.

How to Find True Happiness

How to Find True Happiness

Buddhist scriptures teach that sufferings increase as greed grows. Realizing this, it is necessary to find a way to cope with our greed, because true happiness doesn’t come if we only talk about it. Once, a field survey about happiness was conducted. The question was: “Are you happy?” Some people replied “No”, some “Yes”, and some evaded the topic. However, just a survey won’t lead people to the answer to finding true happiness. The most important thing is to let people know that the way to obtain happiness is to adjust their mindsets, and then teach them how to adjust. As it is not enough for a patient only to acknowledge the disease, one has to see a doctor to find the cause of the illness, and take the prescribed medication by following the doctor’s instructions. We need to make an effort in order to change our mentality about happiness. Listening to just one lecture or merely talking about it is not enough; it is necessary to read relevant books over and over, gain more relevant knowledge and reflect on what we learn.

Deeper learning will help us see the light of truth. When we know more of the truth, we will see that many people pursue happiness in the wrong way—they seek happiness from external objects, but happiness is not rooted there. If happiness depends 100% on external objects, then people’s happiness should be in proportion to their wealth. But some wealthy people are not as happy as they should be. Therefore, we see that happiness does not depend on wealth but on the mind, on our attitude, on our sense of contentment.

A while ago, a reporter from CCTV asked me on Weibo, “Are you happy?”

I replied, “Yes.”

He asked, “Why do you feel happy?”

I answered, “I have a sense of contentment and satisfaction.”

To me, the key to happiness lies in the mind. And the most crucial mindset for achieving happiness is contentment. As long as one has a sense of contentment, even if one lives a poor life or is in a difficult condition, one still feels happy.

The American deaf-blind author Helen Keller in her touching piece of writing “Three days to see” describes the things she would do if she had three days of sight. We have the power of sight every day; but we don’t appreciate it, we are still not satisfied. If we suddenly become blind, our biggest wish would probably be to regain our sight, even at the cost of giving up all the material possessions we now have. Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Prize Laureate and the former President of South Africa, served 27 years in jail for his anti-apartheid work. All these 27 years, he stayed in a pitch-black cell. He said that the happiest moment for him was that half an hour every day when he was allowed to get out in the sun. In contrast, we are free to bask in the sun as much as we like, not only half an hour a day, but we haven’t probably realized this happiness yet.

If we were diagnosed with a severe disease in the hospital, we would probably think: “How happy I would be if I can be healthy again, even if I have nothing else.” Especially when we are bedridden, we will recall the happiness when we were healthy. Or only when some of our family members die do we realize how happy it was to have the family gatherings with everyone present. But we didn’t cherish that at the time. People try to gain so many things, believing that they will bring them happiness; they fail to appreciate the happiness of having what they have without losing it.

Another important factor for happiness is having a relaxed mind. I once read a small booklet called Tasha Tudor’s Seasons of Delight. Tasha Tudor was a famous American illustrator and writer of children’s books. She lived in the mountains, enjoying the company of small animals, planting herbs and flowers, enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air. Her life was simple, natural, pure and free; such life is probably more meaningful than any high-end lifestyle in the cities.

In my hometown, many Buddhist practitioners have been living a very simple life for over two decades. They never lock their doors, because they do not possess anything valuable at home. I have a monk friend who is like this. He is a very good practitioner who spends all his life in a small shed in the woods on a mountain. Every day, he eats very simple food and focuses only on spiritual practice. When he goes out, he never shuts the door, because he has nothing but a bit of food and a few articles of clothing for different seasons, which no one wants to steal. Once I went to his shed, and I really rejoiced over his simple happiness. How beautiful his place is: a babbling brook flows right past his shed, birds are singing, fragrant flowers are blooming, and white clouds are floating overhead against the blue sky. When I was there, my mind was settled in a wonderful state. It’s amazing! Actually, people are closely connected to nature. Once in nature, we will easily feel content and all our afflictions and pains would be left behind. Master Lian Chi said: “When you learn to be content in life, your afflictions are solved in that instant.”

Also, it is taught in Buddhist scriptures that, “Without desire and longing, you will enjoy total freedom, physically and mentally.” I think, if we do not ask for too much, we will feel content with what we have, which comes from our own merit and hard work. Some people are too competitive and eager to keep up with others, and this negatively affects their mentality and life. Therefore, I believe having a sense of contentment does have something to do with our happiness.

Faith and Happiness

To cultivate contentment, one can learn worldly knowledge. But I would suggest looking to religion, because having faith brings greater contentment. Around February 16th this year, Gallup published a report of a well-being index survey it conducted two years ago. It was a detailed survey starting from January 2010 until December 2011. Via telephone, they interviewed over 676,000 people in the fifty states of the US and Washington DC. Among those respondents, 41% were very religious, 28.3% moderately religious and 30.7% nonreligious. The result shows that the very religious ones have higher overall well-being than those who are moderately religious or nonreligious. This confirms the strong positive relationship between religiosity and well-being.

Bhutan, known as the happiest country in the world, is probably a good example for this. In the “New York Times” bestseller The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner, a former foreign correspondent for NPR, recorded his travel to ten of the world’s most contented countries, including India, Britain, and Bhutan, in search of the happiest places and what we can learn from them. In the part about Bhutan, he wrote, “happiness is a policy.” Although he doesn’t say directly how religious Bhutanese are and how their happiness is related to their faith, I still believe that their high index of happiness is connected with their faith.

In fact, I’ve been in Bhutan with my teacher about twenty-two years ago. In 1990, my teacher, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was invited to visit the country by the Bhutan King and the Imperial Preceptor Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. We took an airplane from south India directly to the capital of Bhutan and stayed there for about half a month.

In my impression, all Bhutanese are followers of Mahayana Buddhism, or more specifically Tibetan Buddhism. At that time, the country was not very developed; there were not many cars and only a few airplanes were available in the entire country. Even now, from the material perspective, the country is still not developed. However, everyone had a feeling of contentment. Everyone, including the King, the Queen, and people in the Palace, held prayer beads in their hands. Their philosophy of living totally corresponds to the Mahayana Buddhist teaching on contentment. They have a sense of altruism, gratitude, and a mood of delight. As such positive mindsets are the causes for happiness, it is natural that people there are often in a happy mood.

In Bhutan, you can find inspirational slogans and short poems written on different places, including hotels. I remember one of the poems written in Tibetan, which says:


    Only after the last tree is cut down,

    The last river is exhausted,

    And the last fish is caught,

    Will Man find that money cannot be eaten.


This simple poem not only contains the Bhutanese concern for lives and the environment, but also shows their objection toward the destruction of nature by humans. Bhutanese strongly object deforestation and exploitation of resources. This is the reason why the country is still not completely open, with a high tourist fee to control its tourism. It is quite different from the idea of many people, that the more a country opens and gets connected to the world, the better. Focusing too much on material development, we tend to ignore the side effects and problems that come with this development and openness. So, we really need to settle down to reflect on our way of pursuing happiness, and contemplate on where and how we can seek true happiness in life. 

How to Adjust the Mind and Be Happier

Whether you are religious or not, have a look at Tibetan Buddhism. If you discern it with your own wisdom, you’ll find that Tibetan Buddhism has many ways to tame the mind and lead you to happiness. In regions of Qinghai Province and Lhasa, where Tibetan Buddhism is being practiced, there are quite a few places where the happiness index is probably similar to Bhutan. People in these regions have a very peaceful mind. Whether in mountains or other remote areas, big and bright smiles can often be seen on the faces of elders, young people, and children living there. Unlike inhabitants in big cities, they truly have a feeling of contentment in their mind.

People in our society are very anxious and feel confused about the underlying reasons. These anxieties may bring us trouble in many aspects of life. So, my suggestion is to study Buddhism or traditional Chinese cultures and find ways to adjust the mind. In the meanwhile, go and visit some temples to find out how the monastics live and reflect on your way of life. Sometimes it is very meaningful to see life from a different perspective; otherwise, if you live a routine life, commuting between home and work every day, someday you might be worn out and feel miserable.

To adjust the mind, the best way is to meditate. To put it simply, when you get up in the morning, meditate for at least twenty minutes. Quiet yourself down, empty your mind and abide in such calmness. Do the same at night before sleep for about ten minutes to half an hour. This will make a big difference in your longevity, health, mentality and your discernment.

Hundreds of thousands of people have ameliorated their life with the help of meditation. Now, many institutes of higher education of the US and Europe offer meditation sessions, because meditation can help us adjust our body and mind. There is abundant knowledge on meditation in Buddhism and I would suggest you to find a way to adjust your life. Otherwise, you may fall sick easily especially if you exhaust yourself every day. It is inevitable to be over-worked in cities, but you can find ways to adjust yourself. One possible way is to turn off your smartphone for about an hour every day and enjoy some quiet time.

However, even if we turn off the smartphone, we may worry about missing some messages. Life now is very much different from life in ancient times. Ancient people wasted little energy on distractions. When they ate, they just ate. When they rested, they just rested. It is all different now; an hour after the smartphone is turned off, our mind will still be on it. We have so much information that is probably dispensable and useless. When we open our eyes in the morning, our smartphones are also turned on. Then we and the smartphones both work hectically. When we tire out in the afternoon, the smartphones are also out of power. Then we and our smartphones both have to take a rest. The next day, it starts all over again. That’s why we call samsara cyclic existence. It is like the ever-turning wheel of fire; what we did yesterday, we repeat it today and tomorrow, up until the day we die. Then some people may feel relieved, thinking it’s finally the end.

However, that is not true; spirituality exists even if the body dies. It is important to recognize this point. If we are just the assembly of material objects and there is nothing left after death, we humans would probably be as lifeless as stone, or even less meaningful than the existence of stone as stone may exist longer than humans. Thus, it’s more sensible to admit the afterlife than to deny it. There are many scientific researches which prove the existence of the reincarnation, and convincing reasonings can also be found in Buddhist texts.

To recognize the existence of reincarnation is quite important for seekers of happiness, because only after we see this truth, will we be responsible for the long-term happiness throughout all our lives. Or else, our happiness would not last long, because we would care only about the “happiness” in a few decades of time.

It is important for us humans to learn more about valuable ancient knowledge. In this way, we will realize that the meaning of our lives lies in our loving-kindness to people around us, animals and to other sentient beings.

Question & Answer Session

The Nature of Samsara and the Mind

Diamond Sutra and the Karmic Law

Question #1:

When someone who has developed “a mind which alights upon nothing whatsoever” breaks up the precepts, will he or she suffer its consequences?

Khenpo Sodargye:

“A bodhisattva should develop a mind that alights upon nothing whatsoever” is a sentence from the Diamond Sutra. H.H. the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng was enlightened when he heard it for the first time. It means that, all phenomena are empty without inherent existence, and in this state the luminous mind manifests. The luminous mind — which all sentient beings inherently possess — is a Buddhist terminology that may be foreign to many people; it has to be understood after carefully learning Buddhism for a long time.

This sentence suggests that our mind has different characteristics: it is empty and also luminous. This luminous mind arises uninterruptedly, but at the same time the law of cause and effect is active, too. This is why our actions should follow the law of causality, performing more good deeds while refraining from negative actions. If we are not careful, a lot of negative seeds will be planted on our Alaya consciousnesses that will ripen either in this life or in our future lives. We will inevitably experience the suffering as a result of our negative deeds. This is exactly why some people suffer from incurable diseases or cannot get rid of the difficulties in their life. So, please be careful with what you do and don’t do. Although everything is empty in its essence, on conventional level everything has a form and purpose. The same as our dreams — although they are only dreams, while dreaming, we experience pain and joy vividly.

Are Wealth and Positions Real Fortune?

Question #2:

People who possess wealth and high social status are blessed with good fortune. However, most of them feel unhappy whereas many people from lower classes feel happy easily. Does that mean that wealth and high social status are not the real fortune, i.e. not the real rewards of merit?

Khenpo Sodargye:

They are rewards of one’s own merit, but they are not everlasting fortune. They come from one’s merit, but not necessarily merit that will lead to happy reward; how you use your wealth and high social status will determine what value or merit they possess. If you use them for doing good deeds you will have great accomplishment that people in the lower class can never achieve. For example, a good use of one’s wealth and position is to help the sentient beings in need. Such an action will bring happiness and welfare to more sentient beings, sometimes even to the whole societies. This is good for everybody, and makes your fortune a deserving and meaningful reward of your past merit. However, if one misuses one’s own fortune, unfavorable situations may happen to him or her. For example, some people, after obtaining high social status, start doing bad deeds and abuse their power. There are people who used to have happy families but after getting rich or famous, their families experience lots of tension, conflicts, and with time, they become dysfunctional and fall apart.

Therefore, we need to see the results in order to determine if something is really good or bad in someone’s life. If you do not use your fortune well, then the wealth that you love and feel good about actually will bring much harm instead of goodness. On the other side, the problems you dislike may turn out to be great opportunities that bring truth and wisdom in your life.

The Existence of Previous and Future lives

Question #3:

How to make sentient beings of this Saha world believe in the existence of reincarnation and samsara?

Khenpo Sodargye:

I did discuss about this subject on various occasions already and you may find my addresses on this subject in other colleges for more detailed information.

To believe those concepts or not is a personal choice. Those who believe have good reasons. Whereas many people just blindly reject reincarnation without studying and contemplating it. But what if previous and future lives do exist? What will they do then? If our life is truly nothing but a pile of ashes left after we pass away, then it matters little whether we experience happiness or suffering in this life, because all that will vanish one day; which is not the case. The existence of reincarnation is not only a Buddhist belief. All major religions, including Christianity and Catholicism, believe in the existence of afterlife, hell and heaven. Therefore, it is better to hold an objective attitude towards this.

In addition, there is a scientific evidence of people, from the West and the East, who remember their previous lives, including those with no religious background. Also, there are educational books about the existence of previous and after lives, written by both religious and non-religious authors from the East and the West, with real stories of people who had relevant experiences. By reading these books, one will have an objective judgment on this issue.

Then, why everybody can’t remember their previous lives? According to the sutras, when consciousness enters a womb, memories of past lives get concealed. Only very few ones can retain their memories. In fact, we forget even the events that happened in our early childhood, not to mention those in our previous lives.

Generally speaking, one needs to find reliable proofs in order to deny the existence of past and future lives. Throughout my long years of Buddhist studies, I’ve had an opportunity to read many books with reliable scientific evidence that proves the existence of reincarnation.  Believe it or not, the truth is out there. Reincarnation is the secret of life that needs professional knowledge, dedicated time and energy to be discovered.

The Nature of Samsara and the Mind

Question #4:

What is the difference and similarity between the nature of samsara and our mind or soul? What does the nature of samsara have to do with the most subtle luminosity of consciousness?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Samsara consists of six realms of cyclic existence: the three higher realms of heavenly beings (gods), asuras (demi-gods) and humans; and the three lower realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals. Samsara means, for example, that we are humans in this life but if we commit evil deeds, we might be reborn in one of the lower realms in our future lives. If we do many good deeds, we might be reborn as gods; but if we practice Dharma and accumulate enough merit, we may be liberated from samsara—be reborn in the Pure Land or attain enlightenment. This is how this cyclic existence works, which is extensively explained in Buddhism.

Since the beginning-less time, our consciousness has been reincarnated as different types of beings, like animals, humans, etc., and now become what we are today.  According to Buddhism, this is the reason why we are born with different habitual tendencies. We keep the habits from  our past lives to the point that even two identical twins born and raised together, by same parents, in the same environment, could  have different mindsets, behavior, habits, hobbies, talents and capabilities.

According to the Buddhist theory of the Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel, which mainly talks about the Buddha-nature, our mind has the quality of luminosity, clarity. When we attain Buddhahood, our ordinary state of mind is transformed, its innate luminosity revealed as Buddha’s wisdom. Before that, our minds are in different states; they are stained and we are ordinary beings. It is like the gold and the ore that lives within it. When the metal is refined and the impurities removed, we perceive the gold in its pure form. Similarly, when our mind is purified, our Buddha-nature reveals itself. Realizing our true nature is very important. Sometimes when people say “see through the illusion and let it go”, they are just saying it. In fact, before one masters the secret of the mind, one is unlikely to really “let it go”. If you investigate Buddhism, you will learn a lot about the true nature of the mind. When you truly realize it and see clearly how it works, you will be quite clear of both the truth of this phenomenal world and the ultimate truth, and thus know how to behave in every situation.

Reviving Traditional Chinese Culture in Mainland China

Question #5:

Youth is a crucial time for a person to form one’s values, but schools in mainland China seldom offer core courses of traditional culture like Di Zi Gui and Three Character Classic, so most college students nowadays lack the education of morality and beliefs. How can we change that and let the schools here in mainland China establish courses of traditional culture?

Khenpo Sodargye:

As Tibetan, I have studied the traditional Tibetan Buddhist texts and teachings. While I was little, I haven’t studied classics or teachings of the traditional Chinese culture. Later in my life, I came across different books on this subject, such as Di Zi Gui, which made me impressed. In my opinion, these traditional Chinese teachings should be part of our formal education, which will bring hope to our society. If not, then no matter how developed our society is and how much economic development we have, people’s morality will be on a low level. I sincerely hope that people, including students of this Traditional Chinese Culture Class, will study the classics such as Di Zi Gui, Three Character Classic, Thousand Character Classic, Doctrine of the Mean, Great Learning, Analects, Mencius, Xunzi and Tao Te Ching.

We all know that due to the Cultural Revolution, old traditions were destroyed and many people never received such teachings. How can we revive our traditional culture?  One way might be to appeal to the national education system to bring about a reform in the teaching methodology: in order to include those literary classics that might uplift the society and restore the values. On the other hand, all of you in this institute of higher education, in addition to fulfilling your responsibility in your work and family, should try to promote, to those around you, these traditional classics like Di Zi Gui, Three Character Classic, etc. In this way, gradually, these traditional philosophies will permeate and blossom in our society and by then, our society may change for the better. Otherwise, if you have not imparted traditional values such as the concept of filial piety, love and compassion to the youths today, such precious values might be lost, and twenty years from now, when you become old and have to rely on walking sticks, your offspring might fail to take enough care of you, nor give you enough support. We should try to preserve our traditional culture and promote the education of it as much as we can. Even if you can’t share its spirit or explain its teachings to others, at least, you can try promoting it to your family members or friends. Slowly, slowly, the spirit of our traditional culture will expand.

Buddhism in the Modern Society of Commercialism

Question #6:

Due to commercialism, the society stimulates the human desire, thus spurs expenditures and economic growth. The system of commercialism has powerful cultural tools, such as TV shows, Internet, movies, and works of arts, to sustain its development. Now that commercialism prevails, how can Buddhism help more people be aware of the defect of the system?  Is it true that Buddhism has limited influence on the modern society?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Given our commercial-oriented and dominated culture, the media and other news industries try to instill desires and many other improper unwholesome values in the people for various purposes. Caught in such a situation, it is always advised to look at it from different viewpoints. Just as it is necessary for those parents to point out the unruly behavior of their mischievous young boy, or those helpful friends or colleagues to point out our mistakes and provide feedback on our work at our workplace, or a driving instructor to possess an extra pair of breaks in order to save us from our driving mishaps, in the same way, Buddhism is an alarm bell that sounds a note of caution and functions to stop us from sinking in the quicksand of desire, because otherwise, we may not get ourselves out of it. It is not a severe form of asceticism that tries to suppress and control all our desire, such as the pursuit for wealth and romantic relationships.

As a Buddhist, I’m really glad to have an opportunity to share the philosophy of Buddhism with everyone interested to study it, like giving this lecture today. Our society is in a dire need of Buddhist values because more and more people feel empty, trying to fill their emptiness with material things, which brings even more desires and suffering as a result. If nobody reminds them to stop, their desires might become too strong, bringing nothing but great suffering and pain in the end. This doesn’t mean that Buddhism forbids people to work and make money, while pushing everyone to get ordained and cut off all social connections. Even Buddha Shakyamuni never said so. In the sutras, he taught the right conduct and right livelihood respectively for lay and monastic practitioners. Therefore, the function of Buddhism is to offer good spiritual instructions and guidance so we can live a happy and meaningful life.

The Preciousness of All lives & Freeing Lives

Question #7:

I follow Buddhist guidelines and I don’t eat eggs and meat; but my kids like eating them. When I prepare this kind of food for them, I feel like committing the karma of killing. What should I do?

In addition to this, I know that freeing lives accumulates merit whereas killing brings karmic retributions. I wonder what is the karma of killing flies and mosquitoes?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Buddhism encourages vegetarianism. Also, it is better for our health. Some may worry that they will lack certain essential nutrients if they stop eating meat, but human nutriology and medical science reveal that our human digestive system is not created to process meat. This is also the reason why various bacteria and viruses carried by the animals humans eat may infect our bodies. In addition to this, high consumption of meat may increase the risk of cancer.

If being a vegetarian is too much to ask, then please try not to order live animals to eat in restaurants. It definitely results in unwanted karmic retributions. Due to the education and environment in which one grows up, many think that animals exist for humans to consume. This is not true because the essence of humans and animals is the same. We might be born in a human body in this life, but if we kill other living beings to nourish our bodies, then in our future lives we will reverse our roles: the beings who were killed by us or because of us may be reborn as humans and we, because of our negative actions may reborn as animals who will be slaughtered and eaten by the beings we eat in this life. This is the law of causality, although you might find it ridiculous. If you don’t obey the karmic law, when the retribution finds you, you won’t see it ridiculous anymore. Please ponder on this issue.

If we study the value of life through Buddhism or other reliable knowledges, we will realize that animals’ lives are as precious as our own. We are equal and there is no difference at all. Those who believe that animals are born to be their food may find this idea absurd, which is a totally imprudent attitude. Why do we free lives? Freeing lives means saving and liberating poor sentient beings who are about to be killed, bringing them joy. Imagine that you have to be executed today, but someone comes and sets you free. Imagine this and you will understand the significance of freeing lives. We must learn to respect the life of all living beings and try to free those captured animals. If we commit a wrongdoing, we should confess it through the Vajrasattva Heart Mantra — “Om Vajrasattva Hum”. By chanting this mantra, our negative karma will be reduced.

About Fortune Telling and Feng Shui

Amitabha Mantra — Finding a Spiritual Haven

Question #8:

Many Dharma friends feel that chanting the Amitabha Buddha Mantra ‘Om Amideva Ayu Siddhi Hum Hrih’ is a bit too long and difficult to practice. They find its shorter version ‘Om Amideva Hrih’ and feel it’s easier to recite. Dear Rinpoche, what is the difference between these two, and which one should be recited for the quota of 300,000 times of recitation in the Dharma Gathering of Sukhavati?

Khenpo Sodargye:

In a few days, from Nov. 1st to 8th, our Buddhist Academy will hold the Dharma Gathering of Sukhavati and many people will participate with a wish to be reborn in the Pure Land. We will chant the longer one ‘Om Amideva Ayu Siddhi Hum Hrih’. If you chant this version, you will get greater merits and blessings because it contains the complete name of the Buddha Amitabha. Of course, you can also chant the shorter one. The Pure Land practitioners in Han region can recite ‘Namo Amitabha’ as a replacement.

Praying to Amitabha is very important because it gives us comfort, especially when we get old. Remember this because everyone gets old. Now you are young and promising, engrossed in making money and developing your careers, you may have no time or desire to pray to Amitabha. However, in about twenty years, your lives may no longer be the same. By then, your bodies will wither; you might be full of wrinkles, with lost teeth and silver hair. Your family and friends might turn indifferent and become cold because you are no longer useful and helpful as you used to be. They may not take enough care of you even while dying. At that time, praying to Buddha Amitabha or chanting the Mani mantra will help you.

In our Tibetan region, old people always practice this and they really enjoy it because it makes them feel free and happy, even if their families do not phone or visit them. However, the situation here, in the Han region is different. A reporter asked old people what do they care the most and many of them answered: “Phone calls from my children.” Old people in the Han region tend to feel lonely, especially if their families don’t have too much time to visit and take care of them, quite different from those old aged Tibetan Buddhists who are always very happy and never feel lonely. So, practicing Buddhism will make one feel settled spiritually, especially in one’s later years, which can hardly be obtained through external things like money or high positions. Humans need spiritual food at all times. It is indispensable.

Do You Believe in Love

Question #9:

Do you believe in romantic love?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Buddhists believe in the existence of love. It’s a common human experience. However, as I mentioned in the lecture earlier today, love is not happiness and it is unreasonable if one builds one’s happiness on a love relationship. This is not refuting the beauty and meaning that romantic love relationships bring to people. Buddhism does not object to relationships and family life. Actually, with a high level of realization, whatever we experience in our ordinary life, including a love relationship, can lead us to enlightenment; as the Sixth Patriarch said:

The kingdom of buddha is in this world

Within which enlightenment is to be sought.

Some people see love as the most beautiful and romantic thing in life and they sacrifice everything else for a love relationship. Because they take it too hard, it brings suffering to them. In fact, romantic love is a type of attachment, like the attachment to money, high positions, fame etc. It is a collective effect of our desire or lust and our karmic connection with the person we are now in love with from our previous lives. If you have realized the ultimate truth, you will find that this type of attachment, in its essence, is empty of existence. Before you realize that truth, you do experience romantic love, which however is illusive and dream-like even from the perspective of conventional truth.

About Fortune Telling and Feng Shui

Question #10:

When many people encounter difficulties in their lives and do not see any solution, they consult I Ching or fortune tellers. Foreseeing one’s fate through the Four Pillars of Destiny, Five Elements, changing one’s name, etc. is very popular nowadays. How do you see on such a phenomenon?

Khenpo Sodargye:

In fact, Buddhism also has some form of fortune-telling, Feng Shui consulting, etc. So does the ancient Chinese culture of Taoism. Among these popular fortune-telling methods, some are fabricated by later generations; while others are based on the traditional methods using the law of nature and the connection among natural elements, human bodies and the mind. So, it all depends on the books or theories people follow. If the source is authentic, Buddhism acknowledges it. So, it is necessary to use our wisdom to distinguish among different activities or types of fortune-telling and avoid the false ones. Buddhism neither arbitrarily rejects any kind of fortune telling, nor encourages people to indulge in it. Some people today become fully absorbed in these things; which is unreasonable. The best is to focus on seeking the truth and cultivating the inner qualities of wisdom, compassion, faith and courage. That is what we should pursue.

About Master Nan Huai-Chin

Question #11:

Master Nan passed away on September 29th this year at the age of 95. As a proponent of Tibetan Buddhism, how do you see Mr. Nan’s role in spreading the Dharma?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Mr. Nan spread the Buddha Dharma by applying the ancient knowledge of Confucianism and Taoism. This is where I respect and rejoice. Although he is gone, he left many valuable works that are still available. His books show that he had insights into many old and new, foreign and local philosophies. He used to receive and teach disciples even at his nineties, being careful while spreading the theories and practices of different cultural traditions. Such a master is rare to be found today.

Some individuals criticize his ideas and his way of spreading the Dharma. This is normal. Since ancient times, whoever is in the spotlight, either a great master or an accomplished scholar, is a subject of people’s different opinions. This is natural. I have read just a few Master Nan’s books. One of them is What Does Diamond Sutra Tell Us which introduced many young people to Buddhism after the ban on religious activities was lifted. I really wanted to visit him before. I had few opportunities, but I’ve missed them. On the day Mr. Nan passed away, I arranged a small chanting ritual and we prayed together for him.

Heart Sutra and the Steps of Practicing the Middle Way

Question #12:

“Avalokiteshvara, as he engaged the profound perfection of wisdom, clearly perceived that the five aggregates are empty of inherent existence, and transcended all suffering.” Is this part of the Middle Way? I would like to study and practice the Middle Way; could you tell me the steps? Where to start and what should I pay attention to?

Khenpo Sodargye:

That sentence is from the Heart Sutra, a scripture spoken by Avalokitesvara after he remained absorbed in samadhi of prajnaparamita, blessed by Buddha Shakyamuni himself. This is different from the Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom and others, spoken directly by the Buddha. And yes, it belongs to the philosophy of the Middle Way, or emptiness.

To learn and practice the Middle Way, you may start by reading its three major works emphasized in Tibetan region, i.e. Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Introduction to the Middle Way and the Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle Way. Then, you can continue practicing the four steps of Madhyamaka realization:

First, perceive all phenomena as emptiness;

Second, realize the union of emptiness and appearance;

Third, achieve freedom from conceptual constructs;

Fourth, attain inconceivable realization of the equality of all phenomena.

But before engaging in this practice, you need to learn theoretically and understand the Middle Way.

In the Middle Way School, there is a way of direct abiding in emptiness, just like what is taught in The Platform Sutra. Another way of realizing emptiness is to study, analyze and contemplate on the relevant theories repeatedly, and finally you’ll realize the truth of emptiness.

Does Believing in Buddhism Lead to Good Fortune?

Question #13:

I have a friend, who had deep affinity for Buddhism. He used to be a devout Buddhist. But in the first half of his life, hardships struck him one after another, almost breaking him down. Now he is not as faithful as before, and yet his life became easier. Could you please tell us why? What can he do?

Khenpo Sodargye:

His faith in Buddhism didn’t bring him those hardships. Generally, when someone has faith in Buddhism and does well in the practice of virtue, his karmic retributions may ripen prematurely but in a less severe way. Yet when his faith collapses, although his life appears to be easy from the outside, the negative karma he has created will manifest in the future.

Sometimes, people do bad deeds and their life seems easy and happy while others do good deeds and their life seems full of obstacles. That is not the fault of positive actions. Any seed we plant won’t ripen immediately. The misfortune and hardship we come across today are the fruits of our negative actions in our previous lives; the good deeds we do today and our faith in the Three Jewels will lead to positive payback in our future lives.

If you study systematically the law of karma, you’ll gain a clear understanding of it. Otherwise, you may feel puzzled, as many happenings seem to refute the karmic law. But in fact this is not true. It is complicated.

The Mission of Life

Question #14:

What is the mission of your life? How do we find ours?

Khenpo Sodargye:

I used to think that my mission is reading books. I love books. I read books always; while I was in the elementary school, in the middle school, in the Garzê Normal School and after. So I thought that my mission is to study and understand what is written in the books. Later, I thought that as long as I have a competence and courage, my mission is to pass on to others the wisdom and insight I have gained through the years of reading books, learning and practicing Buddhism. Actually, ‘Khenpo’ in Tibetan Buddhism means “to pass on one’s knowledge to others”. I got this title when I was studying at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy. At that time, it was not so demanding to earn this degree as it is today. So I got my Khenpo title faster than the usual course. Then I thought, now that I am Khenpo, as long as I am alive, I should pass onto others the teachings of the Buddha or the truth of love I have learned. Even if only one person listens my teaching, I will exert all my efforts till my last breath.

What should be your mission in life? My suggestion for everyone is: avoid harming sentient beings while trying to benefit those around you. Your life becomes meaningful even if you help just one sentient being, do one good deed per day or even per year. This is my heart advice for everyone.

Transmission of Wangdu — A Prayer That Brings You Happiness and Freedom

Question #15:

Not long ago, I‘ve found on the Internet your teaching on The Great Cloud of Blessings. It benefited me a lot. Since today’s topic is happiness, could you please bless us with this prayer so that everyone here gains happiness and freedom?

Khenpo Sodargye:

This year, I went to Mount Wutai and spent my 50th birthday in a cave there. I’ve celebrated my birthday by making an aspiration to finish reciting The Great Cloud of Blessings 10,000 times within one year.

Wangdu prayer was written by a great Tibetan master Mipham Rinpoche, the emanation of Manjushri. Chanting it brings comfort and ease, both physically and mentally. In my twenty years of practice, I experience the great blessing of it.

Since you’ve made this request, I’ll read it out to you and let it be the perfect ending for this morning’s session; all right?

(Khenpo reciting The Great Cloud of Blessings to the audience.)

To me, the key to happiness lies in the mind. And the most crucial mindset for achieving happiness is contentment. As long as one has a sense of contentment, even if one lives a poor life or is in a difficult condition, one still feels happy.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University