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Discourse on the Main Points of Dharma, Based on the First Panchen Lama’s Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche I
Barnet, Vermont, USA, August 1982
Translated by Alexander Berzin
Edited by Lucy Costa and Alexander Berzin

Part I: The Lam-rim Graded Stages as Preparation Shared in Common by Sutra and Tantra Mahamudra

Session Two: The Ten Destructive Actions

Introductory Words

Serkong Rinpoche: If I explain like I have been doing, is this something that you find beneficial? I ask because there are many different ways the Dharma can be taught.

Alex: Rinpoche is asking for some feedback. Is this a suitable manner to present this material for you?

Serkong Rinpoche: If you find this a good way of proceeding, then I’ll continue like this because the whole point is to explain something that is going to be of benefit to you, and make this a beneficial experience. Whatever type of teachings you hear, whatever you learn about these preventive measures, it is something that you first listen to and then, based on that, you know about them. Knowing about them, you should try to put them all into practice – what we are involved with here.

Just knowing about these preventive measures without taking up any of them, without putting them into any practice, is no great accomplishment. Even if you want to take preventive measures and practice, if you don’t know what measures to take, then you can’t take them. Therefore, it is important to both learn and also put things into practice. You have to listen to the teachings, listen to the explanation of these measures, learn about them and practice them. All of this has to go together: it is one process.

The Three Destructive Actions of the Body (Continued)

Review of Avoiding Killing

Now I have explained to you what is involved in this destructive action of taking the life of any creature, and now you know about this based on having heard this explanation from me. So, what have you heard? You have heard about all the disadvantages and shortcomings that follow from killing, and you have heard about all the advantages and benefits that follow from refraining from taking the life of any creature. So now you know, and now that you know about it, then to put it into practice would mean to make a very strong promise or vow that from now on “I’m not going to take the life of any living creature, even that of a tiny insect.”

To refrain or restrain yourself from doing this type of destructive action would be actually practicing. But in your daily life, you walk around, and walking around you inevitably step on small insects on the ground. In this instance, you are doing it by accident, without a clear recognition of what you’re doing. There’s no motivation to go out and stomp on these insects. It is something unintentional and all the factors involved in making the action complete are not there. So it is a different case.

Once there was a slaughterer of animals who lived at the time of the arya or highly realized being, Katyayana. When he met with Katyayana, he took a vow of restraint. He said, “I can’t stop slaughtering animals during the day, but I can vow to refrain myself from slaughtering animals at night.” So he took that vow that during the day he would continue, but at night he would stop and never kill an animal after dark. As a result of that, in his next rebirth, during the night, corresponding to the time when he had refrained from killing animals, everything went extremely well. He had enough to eat and drink and everything was comfortable and nice. But during the day, all the animals around would attack him, and everything was absolutely horrible as all the wild creatures and animals around would try to gore him and attack him.

If you think of an example in which it is reversed, with killing at night and refraining from killing during the day, then in such a case it would be very pleasant during the day. You would have a great deal of food and drink; everything would be comfortable and everyone around you would be harmonious. There was a monk who came across someone who was experienced this type situation, of having everything go nicely during the day, but at night having all the animals attack. He asked Buddha what was the cause for this and the Buddha explained that it was the result of this person having been a slaughterer in his previous life and had refrained from killing animals during the day, but had slaughtered all the creatures at night.


The next type of destructive action of the body is stealing, taking things that are not given to you. This refers to any object that does not belong to you. Taking what’s not given to you not only includes actual stealing but also, for instance, driving through a toll booth on a toll road without paying. That also is taking what is not given: it is stealing.

As for the types of result that will ripen from that in terms of a rebirth, then of course as with the other destructive actions, it would be a rebirth in one of the worst states as a hell creature or a hungry ghost or an animal. If and when you are reborn as a human again, the result would be that during that lifetime you will be extremely poor and you won’t have anything. That would be the result that corresponds to its cause in terms of your experience: you would be very poor. As the result that corresponds to its cause in terms of your instinctive behavior, then, no matter how rich you might be, or how learned or skilled you might be, you would be instinctively drawn to steal. In terms of a comprehensive result, you would be reborn in a very poor place, where the rains do not fall at proper times and things like food and drink are very scarce.

For instance, America is a very rich country with plentiful food and drink and that would be a result of the people here not having stolen in the past. Therefore, if you want to continue being reborn in rich countries, in rich places, then you need to refrain from stealing, from taking anything that belongs to someone else, anything that doesn’t belong to you. As a result that ripens from refraining from stealing, you would be reborn in a rich place like this. In terms of a result corresponding to its cause in terms of your experience, you would be very wealthy and have everything you wanted. The comprehensive result would be that the area where you are reborn would be prosperous and wealthy. Therefore, you should consider the disadvantages and drawbacks of stealing, of being a thief, and think about the beneficial results of refraining from so doing. Then, if you take a vow of restraint and promise never to steal again, this will be very constructive and there will be very positive results from it.

The Dharma is a spiritual practice concerned with taking preventive measures for future lives, from you next life onwards. Therefore, it would be, for instance, thinking that in my future life I want to have a long and healthy life and, to that end, I will take the preventive measure of refraining from killing. In my future lives I want to be wealthy and prosperous and, therefore, I will take the preventive measure of refraining from ever stealing, from ever taking what’s not given to me. This is what is actually involved when we talk about taking the preventive measures of Dharma.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

The next destructive action of body is inappropriate sexual behavior. What is involved in inappropriate sexual behavior is adultery, for instance, which is having sexual relations with someone other than your partner. The result that follows from such types of sexual misconduct in terms of a rebirth that will ripen would be, for instance, to be reborn as a lower creature in an extremely filthy place. For example, you can see all these insects and flies living in cesspools and in absolutely horrible polluted swamps. That would be a ripening result from inappropriate sexual behavior. A result corresponding to its cause in terms of your experience would be, when you are reborn as a human being later on, that your own partner is unfaithful to you, you will be unable to hold or keep any marriage partner, and your body will give off very bad odors. On the other hand, as a result of refraining from inappropriate sexual behavior, your body will be very fragrant and radiant, and you will enjoy harmony with your partner.

When we were speaking about stealing, taking what is not given to you, remember in the analysis of these actions there are four things that need to be complete. The completion of stealing is to develop the attitude or feeling that what you’ve taken now belongs to you. The necessary completion in an act of inappropriate sexual behavior would be actually achieving the bliss of orgasm.

These are the three destructive actions of body.

The Four Destructive Actions of Speech


The fourth destructive action brings us into the category of destructive actions of speech. There are four of these and the first of them is lying. The basis involved, about which you would lie, is one of these four things: something that you’ve heard or seen, that you’ve met with, or that you know about. Likewise, it could be the four opposites or the four reverses of these: something that you haven’t seen, or you haven’t heard, or you haven’t met with or experienced, or something that you haven’t known about.

The recognition involved must be the opposite of what you have experienced. In other words, you must recognize that you have seen something but then have said that you had not, or that you had heard something but then have said you hadn’t heard it; or the opposite of these: recognize that you hadn’t seen something but then you said that you did see it. It should be that type of recognition.

Any types of motivation can be involved for lying and these could be within the categories of either desire or anger or ignorance. The same applies to any of the destructive actions; they can come from any of these three poisonous attitudes, attachment, anger or ignorance.

The motivating factor that brings about your lying would be your continual habit of lying. In other words, if you are always deceiving others, if you are always making up things, then the force of that causes your lying to arise automatically as a compulsive liar. As for the action involved in making this lie, it could be saying something. But you don’t even have to say anything, it could be by gesture of your body or by the way that you are holding yourself or some type of indication either verbal or physical of a lie. The finale is when the other person actually understands your lie, whether it is with words, gesture or expression, or not, they understand it and are aware of what you are trying to communicate, then the action is completed.

When I say that the other person understands what you’ve lied about, it doesn’t mean they understand that you lied. It means that they understand what you said and believe you, in the sense that you said you had seen something when you hadn’t, and they understand what you meant, and they now understand that you actually saw the thing when, in fact, you didn’t. It doesn’t mean that they recognize that you lied, but merely that you’ve communicated to them and they understand what you were trying to communicate.

Alex: Now Rinpoche wants to ask you what did he just say? What is the finale of a lie, how is it completed?

Participant: When someone understands you, if you duped them?

Serkong Rinpoche: What does it mean “to understand”?

Participant: If they understand the meaning you intended to convey to them?

Serkong Rinpoche: It doesn’t mean that the other person understands that you lied. It just means that they understood what you said or the gesture that you made. If they don’t understand that you lied, that implies that they understand what you said or gestured as being true.

Divisive Language

The next destructive action, the fifth of the ten, or the second of the four verbally destructive or nonvirtuous actions, is to use divisive language, to cause division by what you say. The basis involved must be parties who are harmonious with each other or who are not in harmony with each other; it could be either of these two cases. As before, the intention must involve both a recognition of the parties and also a motivation. The recognition, for instance, would be that you see two persons and you recognize that these are the ones between whom you want to cause a split. You want to make them unfriendly toward each other. So you recognize the two parties between whom you want to cause some split. Then the motivation must be either one of two cases: if they are friends, to create a rift between the two and make them become enemies, or if they are enemies, to make it worse.

The action involved could be saying something, it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not, just saying anything. Whether you have heard about it or you haven’t heard about it, it doesn’t matter; but saying something that will cause the two persons either to split apart or, if they are already apart, to split them further apart. The finale is when the parties understand what you said, those words that you said that would cause them to lose any type of harmony between them – that is the finale of the action. Again, it doesn’t mean that they understand that you said what you did just to cause disharmony between them.

In terms of the action involved, in addition to you making the statement, using divisive language, it has to involve at least two parties other than yourself that you are splitting apart. It could be anything beyond just two persons. It could be, for instance, trying to cause division within a whole country, or a whole area, to cause everybody to be disharmonious.

Harsh and Abusive Language

The next type of destructive action is the sixth out of the ten, or within the four of speech, the third of four, and this is to use harsh and abusive language. The party involved for your action of harsh and abusive language would be any individual or being other than yourself – an enemy, a friend or a relative – who in the past or in the present or in the future might cause you or someone else harm, or who simply annoys you. The motivation and the recognition involved are similar to the previous destructive actions, and the intention involved would be to yell or say something harsh and abusive to this person or creature.

Then the actual action involved would be to yell something, to say something harsh and abusive, whether it’s true or not, about the other persons’ social class, or something about their wealth or their physical body, or about their morality, or whatever: to say something very harsh and cruel to them about some aspect of themselves.

In terms of the first of these, to call somebody by a nasty name concerning their caste or social position, in English it could be, for instance, calling someone a bastard or something like that. In India, a transvestite eunuch who beats a drum at certain festivals, or is a sweeper or a janitor or something like that, is a very low caste; therefore to call someone a sweeper or janitor is very bad. Or in Tibet, someone who is, for instance, a blacksmith or a slaughterer of animals, or someone who is an undertaker, who takes care of the bodies of the dead, is a of very low caste. So it would be calling someone any of these types of names, like calling someone a bastard.

In terms of a physical aspect, it could be something like calling someone a cripple, or “you’re blind,” or “you’re deaf,” or “you’re ugly,” this type of thing in terms of their physical condition. Likewise, you can abuse someone with reference to their behavior, like calling them an idiot, or a jackass, or a dog, or anything like that. In sum, it is any type of verbal abuse that you say to someone. And the finale would be that the other person understands what you said.

Idle Chatter

The next destructive action is the seventh of the ten, the fourth of the four verbally destructive actions and that is to engage in idle chatter. The basis must be to talk about something completely meaningless, trivial. You must recognize and consider that this meaningless thing that you are talking about is meaningful. The motivation must be the wish to actually say these idle, trivial things, to express them. The action would be actually expressing out loud these idle meaningless things. The finale doesn’t actually require anybody else to understand what you said, but just expressing it yourself, like mumbling to yourself is sufficient for the action to be complete.

Participant: Do I understand this to include, for instance, discursive thought while you are meditating?

Serkong Rinpoche: No. To express aloud the discursive thoughts involved in meditation, like when you are looking to find the “me,” and is the “me” in your head or your foot, that kind of thing is not idle chatter. In idle chatter, the basis involved has to be something completely meaningless and trivial. Even expressing discursive thoughts aloud that come up in meditation is not idle chatter, because the process of meditation is not meaningless and stupid, even if the discursive thoughts involved are something stupid and meaningless.

Participant: Did you mean things like random thoughts that might pop in the meditation?

Alex: What I meant was random thoughts.

Participant: What I think of as idle chatter when I find my mind wandering?

Alex: Like?

Participant: Anything that comes up.

Participant 2: Like what we are going to do after the meditation.

Alex: Saying that out loud?

Participant 2: No, just thinking.

Alex: Well this is an action of speech, but I’ll ask Rinpoche in terms of saying it aloud.

Serkong Rinpoche: First of all, it has to be expressed aloud for it to be idle chatter; mental idle chatter is something else. What is being discussed here is an actual verbal act and, in terms of that, it has to be something completely meaningless and stupid. If you are meditating and you are hungry and you say out loud, “I’m hungry. What should I make myself for lunch?” That’s not idle chatter because it has some meaning to it. But saying something that is completely stupid and meaningless, something that has no purpose, would be.

The Three Destructive Actions of Mind

Covetous Thinking

The next is the eighth of the destructive actions, and this starts the three destructive actions of mind, the first of which is to think covetous thoughts, thoughts of desiring things belonging to others. The basis for this would be the wealth or possessions of someone else. The motivation involved requires a recognition of what is it that you covet and you want for yourself. For instance, if you see somebody else’s house, the house would be the object involved, and the thought “Oh, I wish I had that” would be the recognition involved, recognizing exactly what it is that you are coveting. The motivation involved is this continual habit of wanting and wanting and wanting, coveting things. The actual action involved is this thought of wanting to have this thing and deciding to do something in order to get this thing that you covet. So the action is thinking that you are going to do something about getting it, and then the finale would be actually making the decision that you are going to try to get this thing that you covet.

Thinking with Malice

The next destructive action of mind is thinking thoughts of malice or ill will toward others. The basis for this is similar to that for using cruel and harsh abusive language. It could be, for instance, an enemy or someone you don’t like who harmed you in the past, or is hurting you now, or might hurt you in the future. Likewise, it could be a friend or a relative, who has done something to harm you or annoy you in the past, or is doing that at present, or might do that in the future. So, any type of being could be the object of a malicious thought. The motivation involved, the intention, would be to think about that person and wish to punch them or hit them or do something nasty to them. The motivating thought should be one of thinking to act with continuity, for instance to actually go out and punch the person. Then the action involved would be actually thinking to go and enact your thought of malice, and not only having the malicious thought of hurting someone, but actually striving to put that into practice, to actually do it. The finale is when you actually make the firm decision, for instance, “I’m going to get that big stick over there and I’m going to clout somebody with it.” It’s when you make the firm decision to do it that the thought of malice is complete.

Distorted, Antagonistic Thinking

As for distorted, antagonistic thinking, the basis involved has to be something that is so. The recognition would be to believe what is untrue to be true; and the motivation or intention would be to deny it is true. The action would be to think to tell others what you think, for instance, that there are no future lives when it is the case that there are future lives, or that there is no such thing as a relation between cause and effect, or that happiness does not follow from acting positively and constructively. The finale is when you decide definitely to spread your distorted beliefs.


It is very important to know about these things; not only to know about these various destructive actions, but to actually put these teachings into practice by refraining from acting destructively. This is really the most important point that we can talk about. When the great Atisha was invited to Tibet, the king who invited him said, “Please tell us first about karma; tell us about the laws of behavior and its results. Don’t speak to us immediately about the high practices of tantra.” When Atisha heard this request, he was very happy.

The various teachings on lojong, which is the training or cleansing of our attitudes, and the various teachings on mahamudra, which is the great seal of reality – all of them include these points about karma, about behavior and its results, as their preliminary. There is no proper way of getting into those teachings without understanding this, since it is the background and context.

So now we come back to the point where this discussion took off, to the original question, what is Dharma, what is a preventive measure or spiritual practice? At the first level, a spiritual practice of Dharma involves taking preventive measures to prevent a very horrible rebirth. In other words, it concerns working for your future lives. Therefore, when you examine your behavior and reflect on what will be the result of such behavior in future lives, and then you refrain from doing the destructive actions that would cause your future lives to be miserable and horrible, then this is a spiritual practice of Dharma.

The Four Laws of Karma

For instance, you could be very ignorant and think that making a blood sacrifice, sacrificing an animal, is going to bring you happiness in the future. People who do such things are mistaken, because by acting destructively in killing other creatures, there’s no way that as a result things can go well for them in the future. The only result that can follow from killing in a blood sacrifice is unhappiness and suffering. That is the first law of karma, that if you are experiencing unhappiness, this is definitely the result of previously committed destructive actions.

The next aspect of the laws of behavior and its results is the increase factor. This can be understood on an external level, if you plant a peach pit, what will grow from it is a very large peach tree; if you plant a small apple seed, the apple tree that grows from it is very big. Likewise, if you plant a small positive action as a cause, the results that will follow from it, the happiness, can be very great and inexhaustible.

For instance, if you really have an extremely proper and positive thought and make a full body length prostration with that extremely positive intention, then you can build up the potential for being reborn as a cosmic emperor as many times as there are grains of earth beneath your outstretched body. The same is true with respect to acting destructively: the problems and sufferings that follow from even a small destructive action can be very great. There is the example of someone who abused a monk, saying “Your voice is like that of a dog,” and as a result this person was reborn as a dog five hundred times. So there is a great danger in using abusive language and yelling at someone. If you yell at someone and call him a dog, that doesn’t have the power to change that person into a dog, but there is a great danger that you yourself will be reborn as one.

Among the direct disciples of the Buddha, the one who was noted as being the greatest in wisdom was Shariputra. Among all the disciples, he had the greatest clarity of mind and discrimination. The reason for this was that in a previous lifetime he had been a letter carrier, a postman. Once, he was traveling on the road delivering messages and letters and he stopped for the night in an old abandoned temple. In this temple, there were murals with many pictures representing the body, speech and mind of the Buddhas. When Shariputra was in this temple that night, he lit a lamp to fix his shoes and this lamp illuminated all those pictures representing the qualities of the Buddha. As a result of having made clear and illuminated these pictures, he himself had the greatest clarity of mind and the greatest amount of discrimination. So in whatever room you might have where there are pictures of enlightened beings, Buddhas and so forth, if you illuminate them, if you make offerings of candles or an offering of turning on the lights and illuminate them with electric lights, the benefits are very great. Of course you have to be very careful and use common sense, because when you offer candles and light incense sticks, there’s a danger that you might burn the house down. So you should be careful in the way you offer these things.

As for the third law of karma, among the Buddha’s elder disciples there was a group of sixteen, sometimes called the sixteen arhats, one of whom was called Kanakavatsa. In a previous life, this person had lived at the time of the first Buddha of this era. That Buddha used to ride around on a very magnificent elephant as his mount, and this person made an offering of gold leaf ornament to the elephant with great faith and respect. As a result, when he was reborn in a household at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, a golden elephant whose droppings were solid gold also came by the household at the same time as he was reborn there. The king in the land where he was reborn, the powerful king Ajatashatru, ordered that this magnificent golden elephant be brought to the palace. However, every time the officials tried to take the elephant away from this house to bring it to the king’s quarters, the elephant disappeared under the ground and miraculously reappeared at this house. They tried to take the elephant away three times, but each time the elephant disappeared and reappeared in this household, and that was because the king had not built up any positive potential to own this elephant, whereas this child in that household had. This is an example of how, if you haven’t built up the potential from a certain action, you will not experience its results.

As for the fourth law, if you have committed an action, the potential will never be in vain or a waste, but in fact it will ripen as it did with this child having the potential for a golden elephant. The youth eventually turned away from family life to take robes with the Buddha, and the Buddha said, “Now there is no need for you to have this golden elephant,” and by his power the golden elephant disappeared. This person worked very hard and achieved the state of an arhat, a liberated being, and was known as the elder, the arhat Kanakavatsa.