Parting From the Four Desires: A Basic Teaching

The History of the Teaching

We begin with a brief history of this teaching. When the great yogi, the Lama Sakyapa, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, was twelve years old, one of his Gurus, Bari Lotsawa, advised him, "Since you are the son of a great spiritual teacher, it is necessary to study the Dharma, and to study the Dharma requires wisdom. The best way of acquiring wisdom is to practice Manjushri." So, Bari Lotsawa gave Sachen Kunga Nyingpo the empowerment of Manjushri with all the necessary "lungs." Then Sachen Kunga Nyingpo undertook a six-month retreat on Manjushri. At the beginning, there were some signs of obstacles, which he managed to purify through the practice of the wrathful Deity, Achala. He continued his meditation and at one time, in his pure vision, he saw Arya Manjushri in the preaching mudra, sitting on a jewelled throne with two other attendants. He received immense insight-wisdom at that moment and Manjushri bestowed this four-line teaching directly to Sachen Kunga Nyingpo:

If you desire the worldly aims of this life,

you are not a spiritual person;

If you desire further worldly existence,

you haven't the spirit of renunciation;

If you desire liberation for the sake of yourself,

you haven't the enlightened attitude;

If you grasp at the view of ultimate reality,

you haven't got the right view.

This four-line teaching includes the whole path of the Mahayana. After receiving this teaching, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo received a tremendous amount of insight-wisdom. He had no need to study everything that came to him. He became a really great yogi. Later in life, he bestowed this teaching on his sons, Sonam Tsemo and Dagpa Gyaltsen, and they bestowed it on Sakya Pandita and so on. Even to this day, its transmission has never been broken, so therefore, it bears special blessings. Jetsun Dagpa Gyaltsen, the son of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, wrote a commentary in verses to these four lines, and today this text serves as the root text of all these teachings.

"Parting from the Four Desires" is very similar to the preliminary teachings of the other Tibetan Buddhist traditions. For example, the Nyingma and the Kagyu traditions have a teaching on "Turning the Mind," which also explains these four lines. By meditating on this precious human life and impermanence, you will be liberated from the sufferings inherent in this life. The suffering of samsara and the law of karma will turn you away from clinging to the round of existence. Love, compassion, and Bodhicitta will turn you away from clinging to this life as real. We Sakyapas call it "The Parting from the Four Desires," and Kagyu and Nyingma traditions call it "Turning the Mind Away from Clinging." The name is different, but the teaching is the same. According to the Gelugpa tradition, the preliminary teaching is divided into "The Paths of the Three Persons." The first line explains the "small" person's path, - a person who realizes the lower realms are full of suffering and wishes to be born in the higher realms, such as that of the devas or humans. The middle person's path is one that seeks self-liberation. This person is described in the second verse - they realize that the whole realm of existence is full of suffering, and therefore naturally seeks self-liberation. The third line explains the great person's path. This person realizes that every sentient being has the same goal, and that instead of working for oneself, one should work for the sake of all sentient beings to attain ultimate enlightenment. While the wording is different, the Gelugpa teaching is, nevertheless, the same as this four-line teaching of "Parting from the Four Desires."


All Buddhist practices begin with taking refuge. In this teaching, one takes the Mahayana refuge. Mahayana refuge has some special characteristics. There are four reasons that Mahayana refuge is somewhat different from general refuge - in terms of the object, the time, the person and the purpose.

1. The Object

Common to all kinds of Buddhist refuge are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. However, the explanation of these three, differs between Mahayana and general Buddhism. In Mahayana, the Buddha is the one who has unimaginable qualities and who has departed from all the faults. He is the one who possesses the three kayas ,or the three bodies: the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya, and the Nirmanakaya. Dharmakaya means that his mind, which is completely purified, has become one with the ultimate truth. Where subject and the object become one is "Dharmakaya." The Sambhogakaya comes from accumulating enormous amounts of merit while still on the Path. That produces the highest form of physical body, which has all the qualities, and remains permanently in the highest Buddha field, known as Akanishtha, and bestows teachings to the great Bodhisattvas. In order to help ordinary sentient beings, whenever and wherever needed, the Buddhas appear in whatever form is required. These forms are the Nirmanakaya, or in other words, emanations. The historical Shakyamuni Buddha is among the Nirmanakayas. He is called "The Excellent Nirmanakaya" because even ordinary beings can see him as a Buddha. All the Buddhas who appear in the world are Nirmanakaya forms. In this practice we take refuge in the Buddha who possesses the three kayas. This is the particular Mahayana explanation of refuge.

The Dharma, or Teaching, is the great experience that the Buddha and all the higher Bodhisattvas have achieved. Their great realization is the Dharma. When what the Buddhas have achieved is put into words to benefit ordinary sentient beings, this is also called the Dharma.

The ones who are following the enlightenment path and who have already reached the irreversible state are the true Sangha. This Sangha consists of the Bodhisattvas, according to the Mahayana. The true Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the "Triple Gem" are the Buddhas who possess the three bodies, the Dharma which expresses their realizations and teaching, and the Sangha of Bodhisattvas. The Triple Gem is symbolically represented in the images of the Buddhas, all the books of teachings, and the ordinary Sangha of monks. Although the names of the objects of refuge are the same in the Mahayana and General refuge, their qualities are explained somewhat differently in the Mahayana.

2. The Time

The second distinction between the General and the Mahayana refuge has to do with the time. In the General refuge, one takes the refuge for the immediate future. In the Mahayana refuge, one takes refuge from the present, extending up until the attainment of ultimate enlightenment.

3. The Person

In the General refuge, one takes refuge for oneself. In the Mahayana refuge, one takes refuge both for oneself and for all sentient beings. One imagines that all sentient beings have at one time, in previous lifetimes, been your own parents or very dear ones. One seeks refuge for the benefit of limitless sentient beings.

4. The Purpose

In the General refuge, one takes refuge to gain self-liberation. In the Mahayana, one takes refuge to attain enlightenment both for oneself and for the sake of all sentient beings.

If one understands the object, time, person, and purpose as we have described, they accomplish the Mahayana refuge. With these qualities in mind, one should recite the refuge prayer as well as the request to the objects of refuge to bestow their blessings.

In addition, when actually practicing the teachings, the great Acharya Vasubandu has said that if one wants to practice Dharma, there are four requisites. The four are: moral conduct, study, contemplation and meditation. An more detailed explanation of these requisites will be reserved for another teaching.

Line One of the Text

Line 1 of the text is: "If you desire the worldly aims of this life, you are not a spiritual person."

The great Jetsun Dagpa Gyaltsen explained the first line in the following way. Whatever practice you do, if your aim is for the sake of this life, it is not religion; it is not Dharma. No matter what vows you receive, no matter how much you study, no matter how much you do meditation, if it's all for the sake of this life, it is not Dharma. If one wishes to practice Dharma, one must begin by lessening attachment to this life. This life is temporal, it is like a mirage. Even if you think that a mirage is real water, it still will not slake your thirst. Whatever sorts of moral conduct or study or meditation that you undertake, if it is for the sake of this life, it will not ultimately benefit you.

To change your intention from not practicing Dharma to practicing Dharma, you should begin by meditating on the difficulty of obtaining this precious human life. Human life is rare compared to other forms of sentient beings, because one human being's body can contain millions of other sentient beings. This rareness is explained in many different ways - for example from the point of view of "cause," "numbers," "example" and "nature."

The Cause.

To receive a human life at all, and especially to receive a human life, which appears in a favorable place and with the right conditions, one must have a good cause. Such a cause must be an exceptionally virtuous one in order to lead to human birth with all the right conditions. In the three worlds, there are very few that practice the virtuous things, while there are enormous numbers of sentient beings who indulge in non-virtuous acts. So therefore, from the cause point-of-view, human life that has all the right conditions and is free from all the wrong places of birth, is very rare.


From the point-of-view of numbers, sentient beings in the hells, in the hungry-ghost realm, and in the animal kingdom are countless. Beings in the lower realms are as numerous as all the atoms and dust particles of this world. Compared to these, human lives are very few, especially those that have the right conditions.


The example of point-of-view is explained in the Sutras with the following illustration. Suppose the whole world is a great ocean and over this ocean floats a golden yoke, which has a small hole in it. Underneath the ocean is a blind tortoise that comes up to the surface only once every hundred years. The golden yoke floats on the surface, going wherever the wind blows it. When the wind comes from the east, it goes to the west. When the wind comes from the west it goes to the east. It clearly would be very difficult for the neck of the blind tortoise to enter the hole in the yoke under these circumstances. The chance of this happening is very rare. Human life, especially one free of all the wrong places of birth and which has all the right conditions is even more rare than this example. So from the example of point-of-view, human life is very rare.


The human birth in which one can hear and practice the teachings requires a number of particular conditions. The "nature" of this human rebirth is explained in terms of avoiding rebirth in the "eight wrong places" and being born with the "five conditions." The "eight wrong places" in which it is unfavorable to be reborn are the states of the hells, pretas, animals and long-life gods, as well as existence among the barbarians, or persons with wrong views. Likewise one cannot be born where the Buddhist teachings have not been given, or with impaired faculties -- such as being dumb, or mentally retarded. There are five favorable conditions for rebirth. They are, to be born in a place where the teachings have been given, and where monks and lay-precept holders are still living, not to have indulged in the five limitless sins, and to live where there is full faith in the teaching in general, and the Vinaya in particular.

One also has to be born in a time in which a Buddha has come and in which he has turned the Wheel of Dharma. The teaching must still be going on, and where there are still many people following the path, and where there are people who are readily helping you to find your right livelihood. These circumstances all depend on and must be obtained from others. So altogether, to be free from the eight unfavorable conditions and to obtain these ten favorable circumstances is extremely rare by nature. This is not only rare, but also very precious, because through such a life -- not an ordinary life, but a human life that has all the right conditions -- one must be able to be free from all the sufferings of samsara. Not only that, even the most difficult and the highest aim we could aspire to, ultimate enlightenment, is also achieved through human life. Therefore, human life is extremely precious. Not only is human life rare and precious, but even this is not enough! We have to practice. Without pra ctice, just obtaining this very precious opportunity will not be enough. In our past lives, it is likely that we had many, many such opportunities to practice, but which we wasted and did not reach any significant states. So, from now on, unless we practice, we will still remain in samsara. Therefore, when we have such a good opportunity and a precious life, it is very important to practice Dharma.

The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. The whole three worlds are like a cloud in autumn and the birth and death of sentient beings is like a dancer's movement. A person's life is like a light in the sky, or like a steep waterfall, which isn't still for a single moment, but is constantly rushing down. Even the Buddhas who have attained a permanent body in order to show impermanence to sentient beings must also leave their bodies. Therefore, there is not a single place where death will not occur. There are many more causes for death than causes to live. It is a common wish that death will leave us alone, but of course, all beings eventually have to face death. Everything is changing. Lives in this particular realm (our lives on the continent of "Jambudvipa") have no fixed length. Some people die even before they are born, some die as soon as they are born, some die as babies, some die at a very young age. Although we may have no major problems today, you never know what will happe n, even after an hour or so. Anything can happen. Unless you practice now, if you think, "For the time being I will work on some other things, then when I get older I will practice Dharma," one will never know whether one will get this opportunity or not. Therefore, it is very important to practice now! At the time of death, nothing can help you, no matter how powerful one is, no matter how clever, no matter how rich one is, no matter how brave you are, nothing can help you. Even one's body, which we have had with us right from the day we were conceived, and which we have looked after as a very precious thing, and we take great care of, and for whose sake we do all kinds of things -- even this we have to leave behind. Our own continuity of mind then has to go without any choice of freedom. The only thing that can help you at the moment of death is the Dharma practices you have learned. If you practice Dharma, the best thing is that at the time of death, you will know the path and without any h esitation and as a matter of fact, with full confidence, you will leave your body. The person who practices Dharma has no hesitation to die, because they will have no regret of not having practiced. This precious human body and this precious human life are impermanent. The first line, "If you desire for the worldly aims of this life, you are not a spiritual person," explains directly that whatever spiritual practice you do, if it is aimed for this life, then it is not Dharma and it will not benefit you. That's the direct explanation. Indirectly, it explains about the difficulties of obtaining the precious human life and impermanence. When you have the clear understanding from inside of these two things, then you will be firmly set on the path. In this sense, even if someone attempts to keep you from practicing Dharma, it will not be possible for you to stop.

Line Two of the Text

Line two is: "If you desire further worldly existence, you haven't the spirit of renunciation."

If one continues to desire to be born in the human or deva realms (of course, no one wants to be born in the lower realms because the lower realms are full of suffering), the second line cuts that out. It explains that not only should the teaching that you practice not involve attachment to this present life, but also to be free from the desire for future births in the round of existence. Not only are the lower realms full of suffering; in the higher realms also, it's all suffering. In the three lower realms (which are the hells, hungry ghosts, and the animal kingdom), what they have is called "the suffering of suffering." The hells have many divisions, like the hot hells, the semi-hot hells, etc. Whenever one is born among the hells, one has an unimaginable amount of suffering. Thus, what the hell beings experience is called "the suffering of suffering." In the hungry-ghost realm, also the beings have a tremendous amount of suffering in not finding food. They have great hunger and thirst f or hundreds and hundreds of years. Even if they should find food, instead of helping their bodies, it creates more suffering. In the animal kingdom, as we all see, animals have to suffer many things. Most animals have not a single moment of relaxation because they have so many enemies among the animals themselves. In addition, human beings are hunting and fishing and bringing all kinds of suffering to them. Generally, all animals suffer great ignorance because they don't have any way of knowing Dharma. It is very easy for us to realize that the three lower realms are full of suffering.

The three higher realms are sometimes understood as having a mixture of happiness and suffering. However, when we carefully think about it, we can see that there is not any real happiness in the higher realms. Even in the Deva's realm, where it appears that these beings have a wonderful life, everything is impermanent. The Devas have so much luxury in their lives that they don't even think of practicing the Dharma. All their lives are spent in enjoyment of worldly pleasures, so when they near the time of their death, they experience a particular king of suffering. For example, they have enough intelligence to be able to see where they will be reborn. And, as they have spent all their lives in enjoyment, many of them will be reborn in the lower realms. Since they can know these things, the Devas experience mental suffering greater than the physical suffering of the lower realms. Even the very great Devas, like Indra, the lord of the Devas, may be reborn as a very ordinary servant. And even t he great Devas whose bodies can illuminate the whole world, after death, will be reborn in complete darkness in which they won't be able to see their own hand before their face. In the human realm, as we have seen, everything is changing. Great emperors become very ordinary people and the very rich find themselves very poor. Generally, everyone is bound to encounter the four great mountains of suffering: death, old age, sickness, and birth. There are many, many sufferings, like always having fear of meeting enemies and always the fear of departing from your friends. Things you wish not to happen come true and things you don't want come to you. There are unimaginable amounts of suffering which are mostly of the kind called "the suffering of change." We suffer for the very reason that everything is constantly changing. In the asuras or demi-gods' realm, since they experience great hate and jealously towards the heaven realm, they meet with great suffering in their life. So the devas, the humans, and the asuras all experience the suffering of change.

Next is "the suffering of aggregates," which covers the whole universe. Each of us will undertake work that we will never finish. Our lives are full of continuous effort. Our actions are never finished. In this great, busy, worldly life of activities, one day we have to die without finishing this work. Everybody has to die in the midst of life. Therefore, no matter where one is reborn, whether in the lower realms or in the higher realms, both are full of suffering. For example, if poison is mixed with food -- whether it is good food or bad food makes no difference -- one cannot eat it. In the same way, no matter where one is born, either in the higher realms or in the lower realms, as long as it is within the round of existence, one will experience suffering.

Related to this is the explanation of the law of karma. We are forced to ask why the sufferings we experience happen in the first place. Each thing must have an associated cause. All kinds of suffering are created by non-virtuous actions. A non-virtuous action is any action that is created by desire, hatred, or ignorance. Killing, sexual misconduct, and stealing are the three bodily actions which are non-virtuous. Then also, there are lying, schism, harsh words, and idle talk, which are the four non-virtuous actions of voice. One commits these non-virtuous deeds through one's own speech. Envy, hatred, and wrong view are the three non-virtuous actions of mind. Roughly speaking, all the non-virtuous actions are included in these ten actions. When one indulges in the ten non-virtuous actions, not only will one have to face terrible consequences, but even after facing the consequences, one will have continuous bad results. In other words, all the bad things that are happening in this life are a lso created by our own non-virtuous actions, which we have committed in our previous lives. The ten virtuous actions [freedom from hatred, desire, and ignorance] are the opposite of the ten non-virtuous deeds. Not only do the ten virtuous actions give wonderful results temporarily, they do so as well for many future lifetimes. In other words, all the good things that are happening in our life are created by our own virtuous deeds that we have committed in our previous lives. Finally, by practicing continuous virtuous deeds, self-liberation, or even the ultimate enlightenment, may be attained.

There are also indifferent or neutral actions, such as walking and sleeping. Although neutral actions do not produce any suffering (and from that point-of-view they are very good), since they do not produce any virtuous result, they are a sort of waste. It is important to transform these indifferent actions into virtuous deeds. For example, when you are walking you should think, "May all gain from the path of liberation." When you meet people, you should think, "May all sentient beings meet virtuous friends." And when you are eating, you should have the intent of feeding the enormous amount of germs that live in the body. All the indifferent action should thus be transformed into virtuous deeds.

The sufferings of samsara and the suffering of the round of existence and the law or karma, or law of cause and effect, is explained by the second line of this teaching, "If you desire further worldly existence, you haven't the spirit of renunciation."

By meditating on two things -- concentrating on the suffering of the round of existence and the law of karma - you will both turn away from clinging to the round of existence, and come to the realization that the round of existence is full of suffering. In order to be free from suffering, one must consider this world as if it were a great fire, or like a nest of poisonous snakes.

As we meditate on this teaching we will begin to develop a real inner urge to put these principles into practice. For example, many yogis concentrate on the sufferings of samsara until they have the same feeling as a prisoner has. Namely, they develop the single thought: "When can I escape?" Until you have developed this attitude, you should meditate on the suffering of samsara. Unless we really understand the sufferings of samsara, one will not practice Dharma. In this sense, suffering is a great help in the practice of the path. When Lord Buddha first turned the wheel of Dharma in Sarnath, one of the first things he said was that one must know the sufferings. The first Noble Truth is that one must know the sufferings. If you think carefully about this, you won't be able to waste time for very long. This concludes the explanation of the sufferings of samsara and the law of karma.

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