Integrating Dharma into Our Lives

Alexander Berzin
Bok, Poland, December 13, 2002

Dharma Is for Dealing with Problems in Life

This evening, I’d like to speak about the practice of Dharma in daily life. The word Dharma means a preventive measure. It’s something that we do in order to avoid problems. The first thing that we need to do in order to involve ourselves with Dharma practice is to recognize the various types of problems or difficulties we have in life. The next is to realize that Dharma practice is aimed at helping us to get rid of these problems.

The practice of Dharma is not just to feel good, or to have a nice hobby, or to be trendy, or anything like that. The practice of Dharma is intended to help us get rid of our problems. That means that in order to practice Dharma realistically, we need to realize that it’s not going to be a pleasant process. We have to look at and actually face the unpleasant things in our lives, the difficulties we’re having -- not run away from them, but rather face them with the attitude that now we’re going to try to deal with them.

Our problems can take many forms. We are all familiar with most of them -- we’re insecure; we have difficulties in our relationships with others; we feel alienated; we have difficulties with our emotions and feelings -- the usual stuff we all have. We have difficulties dealing with our families and with our parents; they get sick and old. We have difficulties dealing with our own sicknesses and old age. And if we’re a young person, we have difficulties in figuring out what we’re going to do with our lives, how to make a living, which direction to go in, and so on. We need to look at all such things.


One of the most important points in Buddhism is to realize that these problems we all experience arise from causes. It’s not that they’re there because of no cause at all. The source of these problems is within ourselves. This is a big insight and not easy for most people to accept. This is because most of us tend to place the blame for our problems on other people or on external situations. We feel, “I’m unhappy because of what you did -- you didn’t call me; you abandoned me; you don’t love me. It’s all your fault.” Or we put the blame on our parents -- on what our parents did or didn’t do to us when we were little children. Or we place the blame on the economic situation or the political situation, social situation, and so on. Now of course, all these factors play a role in our experience of life. Buddhism doesn’t deny that. But the main cause, the deeper cause of our problems, is within ourselves -- it’s our own attitudes, especially our confusion.

If we want to find one factor that clearly defines the Buddhist attitude concerning what it means to practice Buddhism in daily life, I would say it is this. When we’re having difficulties, we look within ourselves to try to find the source and, once we identify it, we try to change the situation from within. When we talk about looking within and finding the source of our problems, it’s not based on having made a moral judgment that I’m a bad person and I have to change and be good. Buddhism does not make moral judgments. We try to locate the source of our problems inside simply because we suffer and want to get rid of our problems and unhappiness, and the main source of them is our own attitudes. Specifically, Buddha said the deepest cause of our problems and suffering is our confusion. So, what we need to do is to discover how we’re confused about what’s going on and how we can correct that by gaining correct understanding.

What is our confusion about? It’s about several things. One is behavioral cause and effect. We think that if we act in a certain way that it's going to have no effect at all. For example, we think, “I can be late, ignore you, and so on, and it doesn’t matter.” That’s wrong; that’s confused. Or we think that something we do or how we behave is going to have a certain effect that is absurd and couldn’t possibly happen. For instance, “I was nice to you and so you’ll love me in return. I bought you a nice present, so why don’t you love me now?” With thoughts like these, we imagine that our actions and behavior are going to have an impossible effect or we inflate them, thinking that they’re going to produce more of an effect than they possibly could. Also, we might think that certain things are going to bring about one type of effect; whereas, in fact, they bring about the exact opposite. For instance, we want to be happy and so we think that the way to become happy is to get drunk all the time. But this just produces more problems than happiness.

The other thing that we are confused about is how we exist, how others exist, and how the world exists. For example, we suffer and become unhappy at growing old and getting sick. But what else do we expect as human beings? Human beings get sick and human beings grow old, unless we die young -- these things are no big surprise. When we start seeing gray hair in the mirror and we’re unhappy and shocked about it, this is being unrealistic and confused about how the world exists, about how we exist.

Let’s say we have a problem with growing older. Because of our confusion about that -- our not accepting the reality of it -- we act in destructive ways under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes. For example, compulsively trying to look young and attractive, we act with longing desire to try to get things that we hope will make us secure -- like the attention and love of others, especially of younger people whom we find attractive. Behind this syndrome usually lies the confusion that I am the most important person in the world; I’m the center of the universe. So everybody should pay attention to me. Regardless of what I look like, everybody should find me attractive and like me. It drives us crazy if someone doesn’t find us attractive or they don’t like us. It drives us even more crazy if they ignore us -- if they don’t pay attention to us when we would like them to find us attractive, if not physically, at least in some way. But, not everybody liked Shakyamuni Buddha; so what hope is there that everyone is going to like us!

Our wish to be liked by everyone is an unrealistic expectation. It’s not reality. It’s based on confusion, longing desire, and attachment that everybody should find us attractive and pay attention to us. Underlying it is the disturbing attitude of naivety. We think that we are so important and loveable that everybody should like us, so there must be something wrong with this person if he or she doesn’t like me. Or worse, we start doubting ourselves: “There’s something wrong with me that’s causing this person not to like me,” and so we feel bad or guilty. This is all naivety.

The main thing, then, is working on ourselves. This is what Dharma practice is all about. No matter what the situation is -- if we are having difficulties, feeling insecure, or whatever, we need to look in ourselves to see what’s going on. Where is the confusion behind these disturbing emotions I’m feeling? However, if we’re looking at a relationship we’re in that’s developed problems, we also need to realize that we’re not the only one with confusion. Obviously, the other person has confusion as well. The point is that we don’t just say, “You have to change; everything I’m doing is fine and perfect; you are the one who has to change.” On the other hand, we don’t say that I’m the only one that has to change either, because that can degenerate into a martyr complex. We try to discuss things openly with the other person -- although, of course, the person needs to be receptive to this. We need to acknowledge that both of us are confused. There’s a problem in both of us in terms of how we’re understanding what’s going on in our relationship, so let’s try to clear up the confusion in both of us. This is the most realistic and Dharmic way in which to proceed.

Understanding the Dharma before Putting It into Practice

There are many different types of Buddhist practice. It’s not sufficient merely to get instructions on how to perform them like learning how to perform some trick. It’s very important to understand, with any practice, how is it going to help us in overcoming difficulties. We need to learn not only when and how to apply the practice, but also the assumptions behind it. This means that we don’t start with advanced practices. We start from the beginning and build up a foundation, so that we know, from the sequence of how the Dharma teachings build up, what’s going on with any practice.

Now, it’s true that we do read teachings that say, “If you’re given a medicine, don’t ask questions about how it works, just take the medicine!” Although this is a good piece of advice, we need to understand that it’s warning against an extreme. The extreme is just to study and try to understand the teachings, but never to put anything we learn into practice. We want to avoid that extreme. There is also the other extreme, however, which we equally need to avoid. That is when we hear some Dharma instructions concerning some practice, then, with blind faith, just doing it without having any understanding of what we’re doing or why. The main problem that comes from that extreme is that we never really understand how to apply the practice to daily life. If we understand the point behind any practice -- if we understand how it works and what its intention is -- then we don’t need someone else to tell us how to apply it in daily life. We understand and we know how to apply it ourselves.

When we talk about eliminating our problems, we’re talking not only about eliminating just our own personal problems, we’re also talking about getting rid of the difficulties we have in helping others. “I have problems helping others because of laziness or selfishness, or because of being too busy.” Or, “I just don’t understand what your problem is and I have no idea of what to do to help you.” That’s the big difficulty we have, isn’t it? All of these difficulties in helping others are also because of our confusion. For instance, the confusion that I should be like Almighty God and all I have to do is one thing and that’s going to solve all your problems; and if it didn’t solve all your problems, there’s something wrong with you. You didn’t do it right, so you’re guilty. Or I’m guilty, because I should have been able to solve your problems and I didn’t, so I’m no good. Again, it’s confusion about cause and effect.

Conviction in the Dharma

Another point is that to be able to apply the Dharma effectively in daily life in a non-neurotic way, we also need to have the conviction that it is possible actually to get rid of our problems. We must be convinced that it is possible to get rid of our confusion by following the basic Buddhist approach: to get rid of something, we need to eliminate the causes that make it occur. But, of course, it’s very difficult to gain deep, firm conviction that it is possible to eliminate all our confusion so that it never recurs, and also firm conviction that it is possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. This is especially difficult when we don’t even understand what liberation and enlightenment really are. So how can we really consider whether it’s possible or not to achieve them? If we don’t think they’re possible, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to aim to achieve something that we don’t think even exists? Then it becomes some sort of crazy game that we’re playing; our Dharma practice is not for real.

We have to be really convinced, and this requires a lot of study and understanding, as well as deep thought and meditation. We must be convinced that not only are liberation and enlightenment possible; but also that it’s possible for me to achieve them. Not that it was possible only for Shakyamuni to achieve them, but I can’t do it. But rather, it’s possible for me to achieve them, and it’s possible for everybody to achieve them as well. We must understand what it is that we have to do to get rid of our confusion. What is it that will really rid us of it? What will really rid us of confusion is correct understanding; and so we have to understand how correct understanding can overpower confusion and eliminate it so that it never returns. As the result of all of this, we see that the actual working place of Dharma practice is daily life; it’s dealing with our problems, our confusion, and our difficulties in life from moment to moment.

Dharma Practice Requires Introspection

Dharma practice is not simply time out from life, going to a nice, quiet meditation cave, or even just to our room, and sitting on a cushion to escape having to deal with our lives. Escaping is not the focus of Dharma practice. When we go to a quiet place to meditate, we do so in order to build up the skills we need to deal with our problems in life. The main focus is life. The focus is not on winning the Olympic medal in sitting and meditating! Dharma practice is all about applying Dharma in life.

Moreover, Dharma practice is introspective. With it, we try to be attentive of our emotional states, our motivations, our attitudes, our compulsive patterns of behavior. We especially need to look out for disturbing emotions. The defining characteristic of a disturbing emotion or attitude is that when it arises, it makes us and/or others feel uncomfortable. We lose our peace of mind and become out of control. This is a very helpful definition, because knowing it helps us to recognize when we’re acting under the influence of one. We can know that there’s something disturbing going on in our minds if we feel uncomfortable. At such times, we need to check what’s going on inside and apply the antidotes to correct it.

This requires becoming very sensitive to what’s going on inside us. And to do anything about changing our emotional state, if we find it disturbing, requires the realization that if we act in a disturbed and disturbing way, it’s going to create a lot of unhappiness both for us and for others. We don’t want that; we’ve had enough of that. And if we’re upset, how can we be of help to anybody?


Dharma practice also requires familiarity with many different opponent forces, not just one or two. Our lives are very complex and one particular antidote is not always going to work. One particular practice is not going to be the most effective in every single situation. To really be able to apply things in daily life requires a great deal of flexibility and many different methods. If this doesn’t work, then we do that; if that doesn’t work, then we try this.

My teacher Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche used to say that when you’re trying to do something in life, always have two or three alternative plans. Then, if plan A doesn’t work, you won’t just give up. That’s because you have a backup plan, B or C. One of them will eventually work. This I found to be very helpful advice. It’s the same thing with the Dharma: if method A doesn’t work in some particular situation, we always have a backup plan. There are other things we can turn to. All this is obviously based on study, on learning various methods and meditations, which we then practice in preparation, like we do with physical training. We work to train ourselves to be familiar with these methods so that we can actually apply them in daily life when we need them. This requires looking at Dharma practice not as a hobby, but as a full-time commitment.

Avoiding Extremes

We apply Dharma practice in our families. We apply it in dealing with our parents, with our children, and in dealing with the people at work. In doing this, we need to avoid various extremes. We mentioned a little bit of this already. We have to avoid the extreme of putting the blame for our problems on others or the blame wholly on ourselves -- both of us contribute. We can try to get other people to change, but it is easiest to change ourselves.

Self-improvement, then, is the focus; but in doing this, we have to try to avoid the extreme of narcissistic self-preoccupation. With self-preoccupation, we are always looking at just ourselves and don’t pay attention to anybody else. This can reinforce the feeling that we’re the center of the universe and our problems are the most important ones in the world. No one else’s problems are important or hurt.

Another extreme is thinking that we’re all bad or we’re all good. It’s true that we need to recognize our difficult sides, the sides we need to work on. But we also need to recognize our positive sides, our positive qualities, so that we can develop them more and more. Many of us Westerners have low self-esteem. If we focus too much on our problems and confusion, this can easily reinforce that low self-esteem. This is not the point at all.

At the same time as keeping watch on our disturbing emotions, we need to balance this with remembering our good qualities. Even the cruelest people do have some experience of good qualities. Undoubtedly they’ve had the experience of holding a puppy or kitten in their laps, petting it, and feeling a little warmth toward it. Almost everyone has at least had that experience. So we recognize that we are capable of giving some warmth like this and, in this way, we see our positive sides as well. Dharma practice is not just working on our negative sides; it must be balanced. We need to work on reinforcing our positive sides too.

In doing this, in trying to sustain a balance between looking at our shortcomings and at our good qualities, we need to avoid another set of extremes. One extreme is guilt, “I’m bad. I should practice and since I’m not practicing, I’m even worse.” This word should needs to be eliminated from our way of looking at Dharma practice. It is never a matter of “should.” If we want to rid ourselves of the problems we have and avoid further ones in the future, the healthiest attitude is to think, simply, “If I want to get rid of my problem, this practice will do that.” Now, whether or not we do the practice, that’s our own choice. Nobody is saying, “You should do this and, if you don’t do it, you’re bad.”

But, we also need to avoid the other extreme, which is the extreme of, “We are all perfect; just see your Buddha-nature and everything is perfect.” This is a very dangerous extreme because it can lead to the attitude that we don’t need to change; we don’t need to stop or give up any of our negative ways because we are already perfect. We need to avoid both these extremes -- feeling we’re bad or feeling we’re perfect. Basically, we need to take responsibility for ourselves. That’s the main key for integrating the Dharma in our daily lives. We take responsibility for ourselves, to do something about the quality of our lives.


While working on ourselves, we can gain inspiration from spiritual teachers, as well as from the community of other people who are practicing with us. However, for most people, fantastic stories about masters many centuries ago being able to fly through the air is not a stable source of inspiration from teachers. That’s because such things are really difficult to relate to and they tend to lead us into the whole magic trip. Best are living examples whom we actually have some contact with, even if that contact is minimal.

Buddhas or truly qualified teachers are not trying to impress us, nor are they trying to inspire us. The example is that they are like the sun. The sun doesn’t try to warm people; just the way the sun is naturally warms others. The same thing is true with great spiritual teachers. They inspire us spontaneously and naturally from the way that they are in life, their character, and their ways of dealing with things. It’s not the magic tricks. What’s the most inspiring is more realistic and down to earth.

I remember Dudjom Rinpoche. He died many years ago. He was the head of the Nyingma lineage and was one of my teachers. He had terrible asthma. I have asthma too and so I know what it’s like to have difficulty breathing. I know how difficult it is to teach when you can’t breathe normally, because all your energy has to be directed inwards to get enough air. It’s very difficult for your energy to go out in that situation. Yet, I would see Dudjom Rinpoche having terrible asthma and still going up on stage and teaching. He wasn’t the slightest bit disturbed by the asthma and dealt with it in an incredible way while giving amazing teachings. This was unbelievably inspiring, very down to earth, no big magic trick. It’s dealing with real life situations and that’s inspiring.

As we go along the spiritual path and make progress, we can also get inspiration from ourselves. This, too, is an important source of inspiration. We gain inspiration from our own progress. But, we have to be very delicate in doing this. Most people can’t handle this factor emotionally, because the tendency is to get arrogant and proud if we make some progress. So, we have to define carefully what we mean by progress.

Progress on the Path

First of all, we have to realize that progress is never linear; it goes up and down and up and down. This is one of the main characteristics of samsara, and it’s not just talking about higher and lower rebirths. Going up and down also refers to everyday life. Now I feel happy; now I feel unhappy. Our moods go up and down. Now, I feel like practicing, now I don’t feel like practicing -- that goes up and down all the time, so don’t be surprised. In fact, it’s going to continue like that until we become an arhat, a liberated being, free from samsara. Up until that point, which is unbelievably advanced, samsara is going to continue going up and down. So don’t get discouraged when, after having been practicing a very long time, all of sudden we get into difficulty in a personal romantic relationship. Suddenly, we’re emotionally upset -- this happens! It doesn’t mean that we’ve been a terrible practitioner. It’s just natural, given the reality of our samsaric condition.

Miracles don’t usually happen in Dharma practice. If we want to apply Dharma to daily life, don’t expect miracles, especially not in our progress. How do we measure progress realistically? His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, don’t just look in terms of a year or two of Dharma practice. Look in terms of five or ten years of practice to check, “Am I a calmer person than I was five or ten years ago? Am I able to handle more difficult situations and not get so upset or thrown by them?” If we are, we’ve made some progress and that’s inspiring. We still have problems, but this gives us strength to go on. We don’t get so upset in difficult situations when things go badly. We’re able to recover more quickly.

When we talk about ourselves as a source of inspiration, the main point is that this inspiration gives us the strength to continue on the path. This is because we’re convinced that we’re going in the right direction. And we are only convinced that we’re going in the right direction if we have a realistic idea of what it means to go in that direction -- namely that, while going in that general direction, we’ll continually be going up and down.

These are some general ideas of how to integrate the practice of Dharma into daily life. I hope they are helpful. Thank you.