It is always wonderful to see people coming to Buddhism, but it’s just as sad to see how many lose their way, become disillusioned, and abandon it. My own lamas have frequently mentioned to me how surprised they are by the number of Western students who fall away. Of course, one must acknowledge that the supportive social environment that exists in Asian Buddhist cultures is not present here in North America or Europe, where there is no prevailing consensus or expectation that will keep people within the Buddhist fold.

The causes for disillusionment, however, may go deeper than this and derive from the set of motivations operating when people engage with Buddhism in the first place. Renowned Buddhist masters have always recognized the need to instruct would-be practitioners about the importance of cultivating the appropriate motivation to ground their study and practice of the dharma.

One can see this point stressed again and again both by Indian masters such as Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Atisha, and by their successors in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It is made succinctly in the famous cycle of teachings known as Parting from the Four Attachments, spoken by the bodhisattva Manjushri to Sakya master Sachen Kunga Nyingpo back in the 12th century CE, when he declared:

If you have attachment to this life, you are not a practitioner of dharma.
If you have attachment to the realm of samsara, you don’t have renunciation.

The point is simple but radical, and one we must not evade if we are to benefit from our involvement with Buddhism. It means that we can buy thousands of Buddhist books, join countless organizations, receive initiations, attend retreats, and still not be practicing the dharma.

As Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” What prevents a performance of dharma from being dharma practice is precisely that our intention or motivation for practicing is contaminated by the eight worldly concerns, the ephemeral goals that render impossible any glimpse of the transcendental freedom that is the proper goal of Buddhist practice. In this sense, the eight worldly dharmas, as they are also known, are the very opposite of buddhadharma. Distinct from it, they comprise four pairs of motivating factors: determination to acquire pleasure and not pain, gain and not loss, fame and not notoriety, and praise and not blame.

The pull of the eight worldly concerns drives us to attempt to manipulate our experience of the world, to seek worldly pleasures and avoid pain, pushing our continually discontented mind forward. It should be no surprise that when we first encounter Buddhism, the eight worldly concerns simply shift their focus from gross objects such as acquisition of property to the more subtle worldly rewards to be gained through Buddhism, like the apparent mastery over emotional unsteadiness and enhanced powers of concentration.

It is for this reason that another great Sakya master, Drakpa Gyaltsen, declared, “When one is attached to this life, even his ethical discipline is contaminated by the eight worldly concerns.” He also said, “The meditator who is focused on this life is still busy even when he is in retreat.” In this respect, to understand the Buddha’s teaching as merely a method for improving our samsaric situation, whether in this life or the next, still falls far short of the freedom to which the dharma summons us.

The remedy to the eight worldly concerns, taught in Parting from the Four Attachments and similar cycles of instructions, is to “turn the mind to dharma” by systematic contemplations of the preciousness of our human life, impermanence and death, action (cause and effect), and the defects of samsara. Without the transformation in our values brought about by these four contemplations, any engagement in dharma activities will only serve to strengthen our self-centeredness.

The first contemplation exhorts us not to squander the precious opportunity we have been given. Right now, poised between birth and death, we possess a freedom to reflect that is characteristic of human life and also the fortune to have met the dharma. We thus possess an indispensable working basis by which our potential for Buddhahood can be fulfilled. Yet the inspiration generated by attentiveness to this precious moment of our human life must be tempered and simultaneously strengthened by acknowledging the fact of impermanence, the second contemplation. This is not the casual acceptance of impermanence of externalities so useful to a consumption-driven society where everything is disposable, but an acknowledgment in our very bones that there is no conditioned thing, including and especially our present existence, that escapes death. To know this through deep contemplation is to awaken to the possibilities inherent in this very life, in this very moment, and to not get lost in pursuit of the ephemera of the eight worldly concerns.

At this point, although we may have engaged to some extent with dharma, we may still be mistaking it as a means to some temporary improvement, whether a more refined state of consciousness or a higher rebirth. To overcome such a dilution of the dharma and its purpose requires that we analyze all states of samsara available to us. From top (the realm of the gods) to bottom (the hell realms) and everywhere in between, samsara is suffering. And what brings about its various forms of suffering are our choices and consequent actions, the third contemplation. The final two contemplations that turn the mind to dharma focus on the defects of samsara (the fourth) and the causes of samsara, that is to say, our actions (the third).

As long as our intentions of dharma practice remain untransformed, we only settle for more of the suffering of samsara, for life in the same old cage. Through attention to these themes we come to understand that to practice the dharma with a mind that is not imbued with dharma values is to sell the dharma short, and to settle for less than freedom.

Watch Lama Jampa Thaye’s retreat “Parting from the Four Attachments