The Four Reliances


Guidelines for learning the Dharma:

1) Rely on the Dharma, rather than on the person teaching the Dharma.

2) Rely on the meaning or point (artha), rather than on the literal words.

3) Rely on sutras (texts) that are definitive (nitartha), rather than those that are provisional (neyartha) and require further interpretation.

4) Rely on gnosis (jñana ), rather than on discursive, everyday awareness (vijñana ).

Karma, Part 1

Endless Knot

“Kamma should be known. The cause by which kamma comes into play should be known. The diversity in kamma should be known. The result of kamma should be known. The cessation of kamma should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of kamma should be known.”

[From the Nibbedhika Sutta – Penetrative Insight. AN 6.63]

Despite its popularity as a term in contemporary language and conversation, our understating of karma is often misinformed, or lacking profundity.

There is the thought “If you squash a bug, in your next life you will be reborn as a bug and get squashed.”

There is the thought “My life sucks; it is full of obstacles and disappointments. I must have some really bad karma.”

There is the thought “Those evil guys will get what’s coming to them. Karma’s a bitch.”

From a Buddhist perspective karma is more nuanced, complex, and intricate than what is typically being expressed in the above examples. Additionally, karma is not an intelligent being, like some Lawgiver in the sky who is tallying up all of our good and bad behaviors in a cosmic account ledger, and deciding upon our death if we will go to the good place or the bad place. Karma is not about retribution, punishment, or vindication. Karma is not about guilt and the possibility of salvation. These are ideas that have been grafted onto the concept of karma held in some societies, especially stemming from (but not limited to) Western cultural influence, traditions, and worldviews.

The past is over, and the future is uncertain. What we have to work with is the present. It is ALWAYS the present. Ten days ago it was the present for me then. If I am around tomorrow, “tomorrow” will be “today”, and it will be the present. This is the way our consciousness works–moment to moment, each moment being a moment of now. Even if we are reflecting on the past, or contemplating the future, we are doing so now, not some other time. This is obvious, yet we somehow often miss it.

Karma, in a Buddhist sense, refers to action, its causes, conditions, and results. Karma is indubitably linked to our intentions. Buddhist ethics is rooted in this understanding of karma, which in turn is rooted in the understanding of the interdependence of all things (Skt. Pratītyasamutpāda).

In future posts I hope to expand upon these ideas, and unpack them a bit for further exploration.

Diversity in the Dharma

“There is a Tibetan saying that just as every valley has its own language so every teacher has his own doctrine. This is an exaggeration on both counts, but it does indicate the diversity to be found within Buddhism and the important role of a teacher in mediating a received tradition and adapting it to the needs, the personal transformation, of the pupil. This diversity prevents, or strongly hinders, generalization about Buddhism as a whole. Nevertheless it is a diversity which Mahayana Buddhists have rather gloried in, seen not as a scandal but as something to be proud of, indicating a richness and multifaceted ability to aid the spiritual quest of all sentient, and not just human, beings.”


“From earliest times in Buddhism there was a strong tendency to portray the Doctrine not as a series of tenets to be accepted or rejected, but rather as a medicine for curing quite specific spiritual ills. Mahayanists in particular see adaptation, and perhaps even syncretism, as a virtue in the Dharma, enabling the teachings to be adapted to the needs of hearers, and thereby indicating the wisdom and compassion of the Omniscient Buddha.”

[Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition. Paul Williams. 2009]

The Noble Eightfold Path


The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes represented symbolically as the eight spokes of the Dharma Wheel. And just like each spoke of a wheel does not work on its own, completely independently and in isolation from the rest, but rather they all act together as a support for the entire wheel, so too, each step on the Noble Eightfold Path acts in conjunction with the rest as a support in ones life for the Dharma. Remove one spoke and the wheel is not as strong. Remove several spokes and the wheel may even collapse. They are all equally important. To follow the Noble Eightfold Path means to be mindful of each of these ‘spokes’ or steps, to put them into practice, day in and day out. Gradually, over time, if we persist, each area of our lives will become more in line with the Dharma until ultimately we are free of suffering and liberated from the unsatisfactory nature of samsara.

The Noble Eightfold Path has been further grouped into three sections, sometimes called the Three Higher Trainings. These are Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Meditation. Right View and Right Intention are part of Wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are part of Ethical Conduct. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are part of Meditation.  Continue reading

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha Shakyamuni

Buddha Shakyamuni

It was Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince of the Shakya clan, child of King Shuddhodana and Queen Mayadevi, who became the Buddha, the Awakened One. There were many spiritual teachers before him and there have been many spiritual teachers that have come since. So what makes Gautama special? What makes him the Awakened One? To know this, one can examine the nature of the Buddha’s claims and see if there is any truth to them. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings, what he realized while meditating at the Bodhi Tree, is contained in the Four Noble Truths. These Four Noble Truths are:

The Truth of Suffering
This realization is easy to see, yet we attempt to mask it from ourselves all the time. That is part of the problem. The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering – the pain of birth, aging, sickness, death, association with the unpleasant, losing or not getting what we desire – all these are forms of suffering. This is part of everyday life.

The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
Suffering has a cause, an origin. The cause of all suffering is craving. This means desire to hold on to pleasurable things or experiences and to be rid of unpleasant things or experiences. This is further elucidated by the Three Poisons, which are ignorance, attachment and aversion.

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering and its causes can cease. There is a way out of this mess. There is a possibility of complete and total liberation, an end to suffering.

The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to the end of suffering. This is called the Noble Eightfold Path.



Renunciation is the root of liberation. It is the decision to be free from the repeating cycles of rebirth, sickness, old-age and death, to be free from the uncontrollably spinning wheel, to be free from samsara. Liberation becomes possible when renunciation has arisen in your awareness.

I learned from my teachers that one possible translation into English of the Tibetan word for renunciation is “definite emergence”. There is a sense of great urgency about renunciation. A metaphor that is sometimes used is that your renunciation—your decision to be free from samsara—should be as strong as if you were standing in a fire and wanted to get out of it. There is no debating (Do I want to get out? Maybe I will get out tomorrow?), it is direct, immediate, and determined. Sometimes this immediacy is described as being a ‘”spontaneous” motivation, meaning that it arises naturally and without obstruction. More often, renunciation is something that requires cultivation.

Deeply and carefully reflecting on the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward the Dharma—the precious human rebirth, impermanence and death, the nature of suffering, and karma—aids in the cultivation of renunciation. Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is only possible with renunciation, because you must first be determined to be free of suffering before you can actively and meaningfully embrace the Three Jewels as reliable supports for liberation. In addition, we need renunciation to be able to generate Bodhicitta, the Mind of Enlightenment, or the Great Compassion.

Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward Dharma

Illuminated Mind

Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward Dharma

1) Precious Human Life
2) Death and Impermanence
3) Karma (Cause and Effect)
4) Suffering (Unsatisfactory Nature of Samsara)

In Buddhist terms, a “precious human life” signifies specific freedoms and endowments, such as a reflective mind (the ability to reason, contemplate, analyze, etc.), having all the human sense faculties, having access to Dharma teachings (living in a time and place where the teachings are available), and cultivating an interest in those teachings.

Death is certain. All beings who are born will experience death. We may try to put it out of our minds, trivialize it, or exaggerate it, yet you and everyone you have ever known will die. Honestly embracing this reality can transform your perspective of life itself.

Karma means “action”. Actions arise due to causes, and actions give rise to their attendant effects. This applies to deeds, but also to speech, and thoughts – what Buddhists call “body, speech, and mind” (i.e. what you do, what you say, and what you think). Actions of the body, speech, and mind can be skillful (positive), unskillful (negative), or indifferent (neutral). The motivation and intent behind ones actions is an important factor. With wisdom we can discern between skillful and unskillful actions, cultivating the former, and diminishing the latter.

Life is pervaded with many types of suffering. There are obvious examples (such as physical pain, sickness, mental anguish and so forth) which are all referred to as “suffering of suffering”. These are apparent to everyone.

There are also more subtle forms of suffering. For example, things that bring you happiness. This may seem counter-intuitive, yet consider for a moment anything that you take great pleasure in – money, sex, status. It could be anything really, even people or other beings – like a loved one, a family member, friends, or a pet. Let’s say it is a loved one (a partner, spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend). This more subtle form of suffering is due to the nature of impermanence. This means that any pleasure or happiness you might feel in regards to your loved one is ultimately tinged by the fact that nothing remains, nothing endures and there are no guarantees. Your partner might change or you might change. There might be infidelity, irreconcilable differences, breaking up, divorce, death, etc. These types of things happen all the time. This is called “suffering of change”. What this means is that anything in which you find great pleasure or happiness in, anything you hold onto, grasp after, cling to, will ultimately cause suffering because it changes, ceases or passes away.

There is also another type of suffering that is even more subtle than this. It is called “all pervasive suffering”. This third type of suffering means that all experiences within conditioned existence – whether painful, pleasurable, or neutral – are ultimately pervaded by suffering due to ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

From a Buddhist perspective this whole cycle happens again and again and again. Over and over since beginningless time our mindstreams experience birth, life, death, and rebirth. Once reborn, we again face old age, sickness, and death, as well as all the other types and forms of suffering. This recurring cycle is called samsara. It is often depicted as a wheel, spinning round and round unceasingly. Liberation, in a Buddhist sense, means liberation from suffering.

For further information, consider investigating the Four Noble Truths.

I offer this writing to my venerable Dharma teachers, known and unknown, for the kindness they have shown me and countless others. All mistakes and errors are my own. I also offer this to those who are interested in Buddhadharma, yet may not know where to begin to navigate this wonderful Path.

May all beings be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering.

A humble householder striving in the Way, Namgyal Dorje (aka Bill Z).

Emptiness and Existence

H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama

“When training to develop wisdom, you are seeking through analysis to find the inherent existence of whatever object you are considering—yourself, another person, your body, your mind, or anything else. You are analyzing not the mere appearance but the inherent nature of the object. Thus it is not that you come to understand that the object does not exist; rather, you find that its inherent existence is unfounded. Analysis does not contradict the mere existence of the object. Phenomena do indeed exist, but not in the way we think they do.”

[H.H the 14th Dalai Lama]

Pabbatopama Sutta


Just as a mighty mountain range,
Scraping the sky with rocky crags,
Might advance from four directions,
Crushing everything before it —

So also do old age and death
Roll over all living beings.
Nobles, brahmans and working folk,
Peasants, outcastes and garbage men —
None of them can escape [this end]:
Everybody surely gets crushed.

Nothing on earth can defeat them:
Not elephants, chariots or troops;
Nor the use of a magic spell;
Nor [can you buy safety] with gold.

So the person who’s firm and wise,
Seeing what is best for themselves,
Will place their faith in the Buddha,
The Dhamma and the Sangha too.

One who practices the teaching,
With body and speech and with mind —
That one is praised here in this world,
And after enjoys the pure realms.

SN 3.25