The Eight Worldly Dharmas

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The eight worldly dharmas is a Buddhist concept that so speaks to our current global situation in a macros sense, and our individual struggles in a micro one. Unlike the juicy good Dharma which is us finding our jam and delivering our gifts to the world, the eight worldly dharmas are in that perfect paradox of so many philosophical concepts, the coupling of shame, fear and desires that keep us stuck in suffering and ego. They are practically the blueprint to the base note of addictions, and drive that painful cycle in so many subtle ways.  

The eight worldly dharmas are laid out in pairs and are as follows: the craving or attachment to something, and the craving to be free from craving for it; the craving for physical comfort and the aversion to discomfort; the craving for a good reputation and the aversion to having your reputation trashed; and the craving for positive praise and the aversion to criticism.

 Attachment to Things/Craving to be Free from Craving

The first two are pretty common, and what we would generally recognise a attachment: craving for stuff and craving to be free from a lack of stuff. Along with possessions, I’d also add in food and other sensory consumables here – a massive issue for many of us (including me). The craving for stuff is a serious problem for folks from the West to the East, from developing to very developed nations. This is the stuff of stuffering and we can’t get enough of it. Literally. We know all the stages of stuff—wanting it, getting it, keeping it, disposing of it, sharing it, not sharing it, comparing it, being disappointed with it—and we know stuff doesn’t make us happy. Even if we are adopting a sincere attitude of having a light footprint and divesting ourselves of stuff, there is the reverse suffering of being attached to not getting attached, and doing without, which is being seen in the minimalism movement and eating disorders like Orthorexia where you only eat ‘healthy’ foods. But these are good things you say – well, they are sometimes, but often include the pride and judgement that attaches to being righteous about how good we are at saying no to stuff or holding our choices as better than others. Which is simply another form of having an attachment. It’s a tricky space to navigate, and it does sometimes feel impossible to get the balance right.

            The point about attachment and the eight worldly dharmas, as I understand it, is not that we can’t have the objects, it is the subtlety of both not attaching to having them or to not having them. As soon as we love them, or want them, or need them, or have pride about having them (or not having them), then we are captive to them and are attached. If we instead celebrate the comfort or pleasure they bring in the moment, but sincerely can release that desire instantly (not to go to a new attachment), then we are simply flowing with what is, in the moment. Lama Zopa Rinpoche reiterates this view. He says that wealth is not the problem, the problem is having desire for wealth. Friends are not the problem; attachment to our friends is. Objects become a problem for us because of the emotional mind of desire.

 Craving Comfort/Aversion to Discomfort

The next pairing of the eight worldly dharmas comes with the same inherent dilemmas. Crving for happiness and comfort, which is a strong signifier of success in our lives, is equalled in force with craving to be free from unhappiness and discomfort. There is also within these cravings another bridge of attachment, which is a fear of losing the comfort and happiness you have already attained. You’re trapped coming or going. Happiness and its pursuit is the locus for so much suffering, and the problem lies not in any of the things of the external world, it lies within our mind. When we equate happiness with any of the eight worldly dharmas, which are what constitutes our Western understandings of happiness, not one of them is linked to our internal state of being, or our capacity for connection to others and our own divinity. The achievement of this state, gained by releasing our minds from illusions through yoga, meditation, living in dharma, and offering ourselves in service and love is where happiness lies. This is not what we are told about happiness and comfort from our earliest arrival into the world.

We’re still referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to understand what the basic elements of survival and thrival are for humans. Maslow has created a pyramid that is a neat summation of the eight worldly dharmas: all of his prescriptions for happiness are provided by external sources. In this context, it is completely understandable how and why everything we do and see is predicated on happiness and comfort being given to us, and therefore at constant risk of being taken away. It is all in our mindset and approach to the encounters we have with what we believe is happiness and comfort, and our reaction to it.

The Buddhist teachings on attachment say that we react to everything. We hop from a brief moment of what we think is happiness to the next, with a chasm of despair and craving between each pleasurable encounter. Lama Zopa Rinpoche in How To Practice Dharma says: ‘For most of us, success in life means success in obtaining the four desirable objects, but actually this is only success in achieving suffering, because desire by its very nature disturbs our mental continuum and causes dissatisfaction.’

Reaction is choice, and like the thoughts that plague us during meditation, we can simply choose to observe our reactions to sensation impassively, and not become a player in our own mini-drama as we react and try to reach the sensation that we equate with happiness. I know this is hard to hear, and hard to apply. Happiness is etched onto stone in our minds as a result of collecting over our lives the ingredients we are taught create the recipe for a perfect life: love (which comes from another); shelter (which is external to us); wealth (which is never enough); respect and admiration from our community (which is terrifyingly transient). Consider the time it takes to actually achieve and maintain these states across a lifetime. No wonder it is such a struggle for us to find time to meditate and look for our own inner happiness.

Craving a Good Reputation and Praise/Aversion to Criticism

When I first read the teachings on the eight worldly dharmas and understood the full extent of my attachment to things, I was deeply shocked. It seemed that everything I wanted and aspired to was one of the eight worldly dharmas. Biggest and most disturbing on the eight worldly dharma hit list for me were the pairings around praise and reputation. I had never considered these as an attachment I suffered from. But even more than craving endless stuff or happiness and comfort, I realised how much of my suffering was linked to recognition and praise for what I did. The flipside of this was the fear of what would happen if I lost my status or worse was publically criticised and shamed.

Craving for a good reputation and its inverse craving to be free from a bad reputation, and craving for praise or craving to be free from criticism are the final four worldly dharmas to renounce. Nailing these ones are perhaps trickier than those based on finding happiness in tangible objects. When our happiness and identity is so strongly built on inputs that are external to us, our foundations are understandably shaky at best. The façade that is constructed over a lifetime of who we are, linked to what others think and how they reflect their favourable perceptions to us, can be decimated in a matter of minutes. If so much time is spent second-guessing others’ reactions to us, then doing nothing is a pretty good way of ensuring that our reputations stay intact.

I think reputational considerations are particularly relevant when you are in the struggle with self-awareness and self-awakening. A lot of the conflict that arises within ourselves at this time when our true nature of self emerges is in the wonderings of what people are going to think of us. Remember earlier the quote from the palliative care nurse about the greatest regrets of the dying being that they hadn’t spent more time doing what they felt was a true expression of who they were? I hazard a guess that if you had asked why these people hadn’t acted, the answer would have been at its root a fear of judgement and reputational damage, of criticism from loved ones or strangers about their choices. When we hand over control to external forces, real or imagined, this is what we get. Sri Aurobindo said, ‘The spiritual journey is one of continually falling on your face, getting up, brushing yourself off … and taking another step.’

You must find courage to undertake the good hustle. In the sage words of author and spiritual teacher Ram Dass: ‘I have made a public ass of myself, and what I do is the minute I fall on my face I publicly claim it because I realize that it helps other people and it encourages them to have a willingness to risk in their spiritual work.’

Just sit with that, and imagine the freedom of being an ass and owning it, rather than taking the perpetual airbrush to our lives.

Many things about undertaking a spiritual path take what is often described as ‘courage’. It sits unchallenged in our language that we need to have extreme levels of bravery to follow our dharma or our paths to our true selves. It would be more helpful if we equally commonly used the expression that it takes fear and cowardice to be tethered to the views and thoughts of other people who themselves are drowning in fear and attachment. But we don’t say this, we look nervously instead to a stadium full of imagined future judgement and approbation and modify our behaviour.

Brene Brown writes about this so eloquently, the need to be face down in the arena, how hard it is to get up from that place, and the incredible weight of shame that denies so many of us our path to delivering out gifts. Shame is instilled and internalised early on, and becomes another form of mental suffering that is used to shut down our yearnings for the life we are drawn to live. Think back across your life to the moments you remember letting go of a dream or aspiration because it didn’t fit in with the scheme of things laid out for you, or because someone made you feel that you weren’t worthy or could never get there – often a parent or teacher. It is well worth revisiting early moments in your life where you had clear moments of happiness and contentment, where you believed you were without limitation. I’m not talking about desire here, I’m talking about the clarity we have as children to somehow see our paths and our truths more clearly, without modifying or second-guessing why we can’t do things. I’m not suggesting our parents and teachers redirect us because they want us to live a life of suffering away from our true selves. They do it because it was done to them, and because they want to stop us from suffering through early interventions, and because they are terribly afraid of reputational damage for us and for them by proxy, and for a whole host of reasons. This is the cycle of the eight worldly dharmas that has to be broken in order to achieve happiness, the happiness or contentment that comes from trying, failing, being real to that process and not reacting with attachment to any particular outcome, knowing that whatever is, is right where you need to be, even if you can’t see it from the dust in your eyes right now.

Polly McGee