Classifications of karma
Classifications of karma
Part of a series of teachings based on the The Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, from 1991-1994.
Free will and karma
- Is there free will or are things predetermined?
- Contaminated karma, uncontaminated karma, and karma which is neither
Questions and answers
- Does inherent existence mean non-existence?
- Are things predetermined or fated?
- How does a person who is free of contaminated karma act?
Contaminated karma, uncontaminated karma, and karma which is neither (continued)
- Karma which is neither
- Questions and answers
We were talking about karma meaning actions. Remember that Buddha did not create the law of karma, just as Newton did not create gravity. But rather, karma is just something that describes a natural functioning. And here it’s the functioning of cause and effect. Karma links what we do now with what we experience in the future.
Sometimes we have difficulty with the idea of karma. It sounds Eastern and weird and yet we live our lives as a cause and effect. You go to school to get an education so that you can make money later. That is because you believe that causes create certain effects.
What karma implies is causes create effects, but we are looking beyond just the span of being in this one body. In other words, it is based on the understanding that although our life seems very real, concrete and solid now, as though this were the only thing that is going on, in actual fact, “who we are” is something that came from before, exists now and goes on to the future. Sometimes they say this life is like a dream because it seems very real and solid like in a dream. Everything seems real and solid in a dream. But when you wake up in the morning, last night’s dream is very clearly last night’s dream. And yet, what you dreamt last night affects how you get up in the morning.
Similarly, our life now seems very real and solid. But we could die very easily and get reborn. Then what seems real and solid now very quickly becomes like last night’s dream. And yet what we do now will influence what happens to us in the future. In the same way that what we dream influences us when we wake up. There’s a continuity of mind. The whole idea is things influence one another. What we are experiencing now depends a lot on what we did prior to this, just as what you dream about at night often depends on what you did during the day. There’s a mental stream that is going on.
Is there free will or are things predetermined?
Although things do not happen by accident, they don’t happen in a pre-planned, predetermined way either. This is something hard for us to understand because our Western paradigm often sees things as, “It’s either this or that”. And we think that “this” and “that” include all that there is. Then we ask the question, “Is there free will or is it predetermined?” The answer we get back is that it is neither. But, we go, “But it has got to be one of it!” Well, that is only because of our conceptual process. We’ve made black and white, we thought that’s all there is. There are actually many other things that could exist too.
We can see by our lives that there is free will but, ironically, there isn’t free will. We can do absolutely anything we want to do. I know they say there is freedom in a democracy. You can do whatever you want. But I mean, let’s face it, I can’t flap my arms and fly. I have limitations. It’s not like we can do anything we want to do. We’re limited by causes and conditions. We’re limited by things in the past. I didn’t grow up with wings, so I can’t fly. I can’t speak Russian right now. It’s not like we can do absolutely anything we want. What things we can do depends on us having created the cause. If I had studied Russian and kept it up, then I would be able to speak Russian now. But if the cause isn’t created, the result will not happen. Therefore I can’t speak Russian. There’s no absolute free will.
But on the other hand, we can’t say that things are predetermined. You can’t say that it’s fated and predetermined that I can’t speak Russian, because I could have. I did study it for a year. I could have kept it up and then I could have been fluent. You can’t say it’s predetermined that I don’t speak Russian, because definitely I could have taken that route in my life. There was the free choice to do that.
This paradigm of either this or that—we get stuck in that and it prevents us from understanding. It’s interesting. The deeper I get into the Dharma, the more I see that often what makes us confused is how we’re thinking to start with. We ask questions in a particular way, and then we don’t understand the answer we get because it isn’t said in a way that accords with our thinking. There were fourteen questions that different people asked the Buddha but the Buddha didn’t answer them. Some people began to say the Buddha didn’t know what he was talking about. They say he didn’t know the answers to the fourteen questions. He just faked it saying, “I’m not going to answer those questions.”
But that’s not the case at all. It’s because of the way the questions were asked. It’s like, “Is this table made of marble or concrete?” How do you answer that question? All they can conceive of is marble and concrete. The table is made of wood, but if you say it is made of wood, they can’t handle that because they can’t conceive of that. The reason the Buddha did not directly answer many of these questions is because of the conceptual processes of the people who are asking the questions.
In discussing karma, we have to look at our preconceptions and examine them. I see this, again and again, even in my own practice. We have lots of preconceptions that we don’t recognize as preconceptions. We think that’s just the way things are. And then we come to Dharma teachings and our mind gets knocked around a bit. We come out feeling completely confused. It’s like our mind has a square hole and we’re blaming the round peg for not fitting in.
Only a buddha could understand karma completely
The subject of karma is quite a difficult one. They say that to understand karma completely, down to the last detail, you have to be a Buddha. They say a full, complete understanding of karma is more difficult than one of emptiness. If you understand karma completely, perfectly, that means knowing, for example, how everybody who’s sitting here in this room created the cause to be here right now, at this moment. There are many different causes, the specific individual causes that each person created in previous life when they were born as this and that, in this realm and that realm, what they thought and everything, which went into creating the causes to be here right now at this moment. To be able to have that kind of clarity of mind and clairvoyant powers, to be able to see all the different individual causes perfectly, one needs to be fully enlightened. One’s mind becomes like a mirror that can reflect everything that exists.
What we’re studying now are the general principles. We’re not studying the individual specific thing of what each person did, because that’s quite difficult for us to know. But if we can get an idea of the general workings of karma, then we can get some idea of where we’re going. Based on what we’ve done, we know generally what we can expect in the future. We can make some very firm determination about how we want to be and how we don’t want to be. It becomes very valuable in understanding our lives. You read in the new age newspaper about past life therapy and karma therapy and things like these. From a Buddhist viewpoint, it’s not so important to know exactly what you were in your previous life because it’s over. It’s more important how we’re living now for our future lives.
Do we need fortune-tellers?
They say that if you are interested in what you were in your previous life, look at your present body. And if you’re interested in what your future life’s going to be, look at your present mind. Looking at our present body, we see that we are human. That indicates something about our previous life. It indicates that we’ve kept a very good ethical conduct in our previous life. To have a human body, to have this kind of rebirth requires certain causal things to be created, specifically abandoning the ten destructive actions. We can infer that some time in our previous life, we practiced our ethics quite well. This created the cause for us to have this present body. Or we look at the wealth we have around us and the actual material ease with which we live, compared to so much of the world’s population, and we can infer that we were generous in previous lives. We are experiencing the result of this generosity now. By looking at our present body, we can see what kinds of things we must have done in the past.
If you’re interested in your future life, look at what your mind is doing—you look at your present mind. If the mind is motivated all the time by anger, attachment and ignorance, then we can infer that is the causal energy motivating most of our actions, therefore we’re going to get unfortunate results in the future. On the other hand, if most of our actions were motivated by non-attachment, compassion and wisdom, a balanced mind, a sympathetic, kind mind towards others, then we can infer that we are going to get a different kind of result; one which is happy in the future lives.
Many people get excited about going to fortune tellers. Not so much here, but in Singapore they do. They say that if you go to a fortune teller and the fortune teller tells you that you must have killed somebody in the past life and you’d better do some purification practice, you’d believe him. You get scared, “Oh dear, I must have killed somebody, I’d better do some purification practice. The fortune teller said something awful is going to befall me if I don’t do this”. Then we get busy doing purification practices. But if we come to Buddhist teachings and Buddha said if you kill sentient beings, you put negative impression on your mind and it brings suffering in the future, we don’t believe that. That doesn’t influence our lives at all [laughter]. Isn’t it interesting how we are?
The Buddha gave ethical guidelines as descriptions of how this creates the causes for that. We go, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about! How could this be?” But when we go to a clairvoyant fortune teller and they tell us something, we take it so seriously. Really. I have seen this happen many times. [laughter].
One man called me up one time. He was so distraught because he had gone to the fortune teller and the fortune teller had told him about awful things that were going to happen to him. But the fortune teller had a special amulet that cost S$400 (about US$250), and if this man bought one then that would help. This man was also having some problems with his marriage, so he brought the fortune teller home. The fortune teller looked at his wife’s palm and said, “Oh, something will happen to your father because I can see it in the lines of your palm. Something’s going to happen to your mother because I can see …” The poor woman became hysterical. Of course, the fortune teller had another amulet that would help … [laughter].
So this man called me up and you know what he wanted from me? He wanted me to tell him if what the fortune teller said was true—that all these horrible things were going to happen to him. And I kept saying, “I don’t know. I don’t read palms. I don’t read fortunes.” I was trying to tell him to try to have a good heart and act kindly towards other people and avoid acting negatively. He didn’t want to hear that. I probably could have gotten $500 if I could tell him what he wanted to hear—the poor guy [laughter]. He didn’t want to hear anything about the Buddha’s teachings. It’s really quite sad—quite sad because this encounter with the fortune teller made his mind more confused and made him poorer—and yet he still has great faith in fortune tellers.
Contaminated karma, uncontaminated karma, and karma which is neither
Contaminated karma is karma that is created under the influence of afflictions. Whenever there is the grasping at true existence in the mind, there’s some kind of contaminated karma being created. When we have anger, attachment, greed, jealousy etc. manifested, a negative kind of contaminated karma is being created. We might have very virtuous minds. We might even have a mind of love and compassion or a mind of great confidence in the Triple Gem or a mind that takes great delight in practicing Dharma, but if our mind is tainted by this grasping at true existence, that karma is still considered contaminated karma even though it is positive. It’s contaminated by the grasping at true existence.
This grasping, this ignorance that grasps at true existence is the fundamental cause of our problems. It’s the ignorance that believes that things are inherently and independently existing in the way they appear to us. This is a grasping; it’s a belief. It’s one of these preconceptions that we’ve never questioned. We accept that things exist in exactly the way they appear to our senses. We never question that. And yet if we begin to question that, we might discover that the way in which things appear to us to exist and the way in which we think they exist are not how they actually exist. They aren’t independent, individual entities that exist in and of themselves. Rather, they’re interdependent, inter-related things. But we don’t always see that. We see them only as solid entities external to us.
That fundamental grasping at inherent or independent or true existence is what contaminates all the actions we do. We say ‘contaminated’, because ignorance is a wrong view. It’s a wrong perception, so that everything that’s done, even though it might be virtuous (e.g. the attitude of loving kindness), it’s not completely clear and perfect because something’s tainting it. It’s like having a dirty mirror. The mirror reflect things in it, but in a dirty, tainted way. You might reflect a beautiful chocolate cake in the mirror but the cake is tainted because the mirror is quite dirty. Ignorance is kind of like that.
This contaminated karma is what causes rebirth in cyclic existence. One is born within cyclic existence due to this contaminated karma which is created under the influence of the grasping at inherent existence. This is the kind of karma that ordinary beings create. And I think it exists also in some of the mindstreams of the beings who have understood emptiness—some of their previous karma might be contaminated and hasn’t been completely purified.
Uncontaminated karma isn’t created with this strong solid grasping at true existence. There may still be the appearance of true existence. When you get to a certain level of the path where you could see emptiness directly in meditation, you don’t perceive any false appearances. You are seeing reality, you are seeing the lack of independent existence. When you come out of your meditation, things still appear to you to be independently existing, but you don’t believe it anymore. It’s analogous to dreaming and knowing you’re dreaming. You still have the appearances but you know they are only dream things and they’re not real things.
When somebody has this kind of ability, and especially when they’ve been able to later on cut the grasping at true existence from their mindstream completely, they still may create some kind of karma (because karma means intentional action), but it’s uncontaminated karma because this karma isn’t contaminated by this strong grasping at inherent existence and also because this karma does not create the cause for rebirth in cyclic existence. This karma becomes the cause for liberation and enlightenment.
The high level bodhisattvas take rebirth in cyclic existence out of compassion. They don’t take rebirth out of the force of their ignorance and their grasping at true existence. They’re not taking rebirth out of their ignorance and contaminated karma. They have full compassion and wisdom. By their choice and by the force of their compassion, they choose their rebirth. This is not a rebirth within cyclic existence, even though those bodhisattvas may appear in the midst of us. Do you understand this?
Audience: When you say things are not inherently existent, does that mean non-existence?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It means that they don’t exist independent of causes and conditions. They don’t exist independent of the parts that compose them, and they don’t exist independent of minds that conceive and label them. We may look at a clock and it looks like this is a clock there. It is a clock. It has always been a clock, totally unrelated to anything else in the universe. It’s one single, solid, identifiable object. And yet, when we start analyzing it, it’s not one single object because it has many parts. And it isn’t something that has always been a clock—the atoms and molecules have been many other things. And also this wouldn’t be a clock unless we as a society had a certain conception and definition of a function that a certain object would perform and gave the name “clock” to any object that performs that function.
Audience: Are things predetermined or fated?
VTC: Things have causes but they are not fated or predetermined. They’re influenced by the past but there’s still a certain amount of flexibility within us. Like right now, you can choose to ask a question. You can choose to keep quiet. You can see that there are both those abilities within you. Also, if everything were completely fated, if everything were predetermined, then we’d have to assume there was somebody with a grand lesson plan. This would be quite difficult to logically prove. Also, that’s like giving up our responsibility, isn’t it? “Everything’s fated, so we can’t do anything.”
[In response to audience:] Like I said, things are influenced by the past, but they aren’t predetermined by the past. You see, we’re slipping into that paradigm again—there’s either absolute freedom or there’s predetermination. We can’t look at things through this frame and have it make sense. There’s influence from the past, but at any given moment, there’s also some mental space within which we can make decisions.
Now, if we don’t have any kind of mindfulness and awareness, and we just let the choice, let each moment flow by, then it is as if we had no choice, because we’re operating completely on automatic. We’re just letting whatever energy (from previous actions) completely push us. We’re not focused on what’s happening now and how we want to steer our energy. When we’re like that, the preconditioning is very strong at that moment. But the opportunity for choice still exists. It’s just we’re not taking it because somehow, we’re just spaced out and letting the previous energy again and again do its merry- go-round.
You become really aware of this when somebody’s sitting there criticizing you, and all of a sudden you become aware, “Actually, I have a choice. I could either choose to get angry or I can choose not to get angry.” You realize that you actually have some control! It’s not that there is only this one option, that you have to follow the old patterns and act in the same old way. If we aren’t mindful, if we aren’t in tune with what’s going on in our own experience, then the energy from the past, like Niagara Falls, just pushes us along. But actually, that choice is still there.
Audience: How do I learn to not be pushed by this energy?
VTC: Well, I think as you start to understand your own mind through meditation, as you start to observe what’s happening in your mind, then it becomes a little bit clearer. Our mind, as His Holiness says, is our laboratory. We live with our mind and our emotions day and night. But we’re so out of touch with what’s going on. It’s amazing. It’s totally amazing. What did you think about in the car ride over here? Do you remember everything you thought about in the car? Were you sitting there completely blank when you were riding in the car? Something’s going on, wasn’t it? But you can’t remember what it was and it’s like we’re out of touch with our experience.
Audience: Does that mean we can be pushed by our past karma into things before we know it?
VTC: Karma is very powerful … VERY POWERFUL. It’s like if you have a car going 90 miles an hour, it’s difficult to stop right away. If somebody’s mind is really habituated in thinking in a certain way or somebody’s done an action in the previous life that is just really strong, it’s very difficult to stop that. There’s still always some possibility of modification but it’s not easy to do that.
Audience: How does a person who is free of contaminated karma act?
VTC: Their intention is directed more by compassion and wisdom. They aren’t pushed by the force of previous contaminated karma, karma created with the grasping at inherent existence. But they are still influenced by their previous actions. For example, they say that Chenrezig is bound to sentient beings by compassion—talk about that, bound by compassion—it’s like the compassion is so strong that it just permeates the intention.
Audience: Do you know what are the causes of schizophrenia?
VTC: Well, you have to realize that I’m giving you answers to a lot of these questions based on my current level of ability, okay? Don’t take any of my answers on any of these things as the final word. Ask the Buddha! He knows better. [laughter] And ask my teachers. They know more than me. I’m giving you my understanding.
Schizophrenia, that is definitely something karmic. You hear stories of the Chinese torturing some of the Tibetans, or the way the Nazis treated the prisoners during World War II. Now think of somebody whose mind is consumed with torturing other human beings—there’re definitely people who do this, they even receive medals for it. They spend much of their time and energy thinking of how to torture somebody cleverly. They get perverse pleasure out of creating stress, pain and distress on other people. It seems to me, that that kind of action would be a karmic cause for insanity in the future life.
So I think that something like schizophrenia is a combination of the ripening of previous karma, plus the mental factors that are arising at the present. There’re definitely mental factors arising in the present that are coloring the way the person is perceiving something. I would say it’s a combination of the two things.
It’s very interesting. From the psychological viewpoint, this person doesn’t have a good sense of self. From a Buddhist viewpoint, however, you would say that they have incredible self-grasping. Like a magnet, everything is drawn into an I, me, mine experience. It’s like there’s no space in the mind for anything besides this incredible strong sense of I, which then goes on to generate all this pain and misery. You can see quite directly how this indulgence causes pain.
When we say that something like schizophrenia has some karmic influence, that doesn’t mean that schizophrenics are bad people. When you look at it, in all of our infinite lifetimes in samsara, we have all done horrible things—not once, but many times. It’s just that we aren’t experiencing those results right now. But we wouldn’t say we’re bad people. It’s just according to what’s ripening at the moment, so it’s not as though somebody was bad, so they deserve to suffer now. Everybody makes mistakes. These people made mistakes. We make mistakes when we’re overwhelmed by this ignorance, we make lots of mistakes. It has nothing to do with being a bad person or being sinful or evil. It just means that our ignorance overwhelmed us and made us make mistakes. Karma will turn around and we will experience that energy ourselves later. There is no need to start putting value judgments on ourselves and others.
This is another one of our Western things—we encounter somebody and we immediately want to judge if they’re a good or bad person. From the Buddhist point of view, that’s a completely useless categorization. There’s no such thing as a good person or a bad person; everybody has Buddha nature. Everybody has that basic clarity of mind. It’s just that the mind gets clouded over, like the Seattle sky gets clouded over. Doesn’t mean the sky is bad. The sky is still the sky.
Also, our whole Western idea of punishment and getting what you deserve. Again, from the Buddhist viewpoint, it’s not ‘you get what you deserve’. There’s nobody sitting there saying “You did this, you deserve this. You get rewarded. You get punished.” It’s not that. It’s just you plant poppies, and poppies grow; you plant roses and roses grow. That’s it.
We have to rethink a lot of our very stubborn concepts [laughter]. Also, our whole Western idea of blame. Have you ever thought about how much time in one day we spend blaming? I don’t know about you, but a lot of my energy goes into blaming. It’s like anything that happens that I don’t like, I have to blame somebody for it. I either blame myself and then you get into the whole thing of low self-esteem, or you blame others, in which case I’m the morally self-righteous, indignant perfect one blaming somebody else. And again from the Buddhist viewpoint …
[Teachings lost due to change of tape]
… I mean there’s nothing to blame. There’s nobody to blame. It’s just if causes get created, results come. What’s the use of putting all this mental energy into this judgmental attitude of “I’m bad” or “They are bad”? It’s just “I’ve created certain causes; they’ve created certain causes; everything comes together, you get a result. When you bake a cake, you put in the whole wheat flour and you put in organic oil and the egg substitute and some cinnamon and stuff like that, and when everything’s baked, you get a cake. You don’t blame the cake on the flour; you don’t blame the cake on the egg substitute; you don’t blame the cake on the oil. All these different things came together—lots of different causes, conditions, energies came together—and you got a cake.
VTC: But that’s thinking free choice. They’re free beings, completely independent. They have no ignorance, they have no attachment, they have no anger. They have complete control of their mind. See how we’re getting back into that extreme again? Ordinary beings are pushed and influenced by their ignorance. Very often, they’re totally out of control. What’s there to blame?
It’s like somebody is completely crazy, and they come in and start shouting and screaming and insulting you. If you know this person is totally flipped out, you won’t get angry at them. You won’t blame them because you know they don’t have any control over their mind. They’re flipped out; they don’t have that control.
Similarly, your boss might come in, start yelling and carrying on at you. Again, it’s like your boss is getting pushed by their viewpoint, by their karma, by a whole bunch of different things coming together. They aren’t truly present and mindful there at the moment to know what’s going on. Their past energy is just over-taking them. They’re completely overwhelmed by their ignorance, so why get angry at them? We’re completely overwhelmed by our ignorance most of the time. What’s there to blame? Why blame other people when they make mistakes?
Audience: I seem to notice physical sensations before I notice the mental ones. Is there a way for me to work with this?
VTC: You’re saying you notice the physical symptoms before you notice the mental ones. The mental ones may actually be there first, but you’re not noticing them until you get the physical thing. This causes you to say “Oh! I’d better look at what’s going on inside me.” Often, an uncomfortable physical sensation is a good trigger for us to say, “Hold on! I’ve got to check up what’s going on inside”. But if we get into the habit of checking up more often what’s going on inside, we may find that we can notice the irritation or whatever it is when it’s quite small before the physical manifestation gets really big. It’s like before the adrenaline gets pumping, you might notice that, “Oh gee! I’m getting irritated.”
Karma which is neither
And then, the karma which is neither is when aryas (beings who have realized emptiness directly) are meditating on emptiness. At that point when they’re meditating on emptiness, they’re only perceiving emptiness.
Audience: Could you tell us more about the aryas?
VTC: Aryas or noble ones are those who have direct non-conceptual realization of emptiness. When you get to that level of the path, you haven’t eliminated ignorance completely, but you’ve seen through how it’s a complete wrong conception. And then, by the force of your realization, you’re no longer propelled by the force of the contaminated karma. There’s some space in your mind at this point.
Audience: What would an arya need to do to become a Buddha?
VTC: They need to create more positive potential and do more meditation on emptiness, so that they can completely remove the wrong conceptions from their mind.
When you reach the stage of an arya, when you have direct perception of emptiness in your meditation, that’s spectacular, that’s great. No pollution in your mind at that time. But, when you come out of meditation, the appearances are there, they’re like really strong again. Everything looks solid and independent again, but you don’t believe it because you’ve had an experience and you know that it isn’t solid and independent. You see, just that first moment of perceiving emptiness doesn’t cut all the grasping at true existence forever. It’s still there. You’re not going to believe in it as much, but it’s kind of still hanging in there. And not only is the grasping hanging in there, but the appearance of things as truly existent is also there.
As you progress on the path, by meditating and perceiving emptiness directly again and again and again, you get to the point where you completely cut the grasping at the true existence, that wrong conception.
I’m telling you the theory. I’ve no experience of this. This is what they say in the books.
Audience: This seems like a two-stage process?
VTC: There’re two things: there’s things appearing as inherently existent, and there’s our grasping on to that appearance as true. When you realize emptiness, you’re realizing that the appearance is false. At the moment when you’re in meditation on emptiness, you’re not grasping at the things. When you come out of that meditation, you still have some residual of both the appearance and the grasping. As you meditate more and more and more, you eliminate all the grasping, but you still have the appearance. When you’re able to eliminate the false appearance as well, then you become a Buddha and you perceive things as they are, as interdependent things. You perceive that directly, not conceptually.
Audience: At what point can one direct one’s own rebirth?
VTC: Before you have the direct perception of emptiness, your understanding of emptiness is so strong that you no longer get reborn in the lower realms. After you perceive emptiness directly, you can still be reborn within cyclic existence, but you have some kind of influence about what’s going on although not a complete and total influence. When you’ve reached a certain point on the path called the eighth bhumi, then you can choose your rebirth out of compassion.
Audience: In the next birth, would you lose your realization of direct perception of emptiness?
VTC: At that point on the path, when you’ve direct realization; that’s not lost from one rebirth to the next.
VTC: Because a soul is something permanent, concrete and unchanging. A realization is a continuity of ever changing moments of a similar thing.
It’s like if you look at this, this is actually something that is changing. The scientist will tell you that the electrons and everything are changing. Something is changing all the time. It never remains static. But the idea of a soul is something that remains static and fixed and never changes.
[In response to audience:] Well, the definition of “soul” I’m using is some concrete, findable entity that you can point at and say that is me, that always has been me, that always will be me. There’s something there—findable, solid, concrete, indestructible—that is me. And then at death, that thing that is me leaves one body (like in “Ghosts”), and goes ‘boi-ing’ into another body. That’s the idea of a soul. But when you start thinking about change and what change means, and you think deeply about it, you’ll realize nothing has any findable essence that you can point to.
VTC: But everything’s changing all the time. Karma is not a concrete lump that clumps, clumps, into the next life. Memory isn’t a solid concrete clump. Everything’s changing, changing, changing, changing. Look at your mind—all day, changing, changing, changing, changing. Anything that functions, that causes effects, is constantly changing. It’s just we don’t perceive it. We think this thing never changes because we can’t perceive it with our eyes. But if we start to examine closer and you listen to scientists, this thing is changing all the time. Similarly, we might have this idea of here I am, one fixed and independent person, this is me, I’m going through the world. I’m in control. I get reborn. This is a solid me that gets into this life. But then, you try and find that solid you, that something with an essence, and you can’t find it.
VTC: You have the Columbia River and you have the Mississippi River. They are two different rivers. A leaf that falls into the Mississippi doesn’t fall in the Columbia. But if you look at either one of the rivers—they are constantly changing. When you analyze the Columbia River, you cannot find something specifically that is the Columbia River. But, when you don’t analyze, you just kind of look in a general way, “Oh yeah, that’s the Columbia”.
The Columbia isn’t the Mississippi. A leaf in the Columbia is different from a leaf in the Mississippi. The Mississippi is not one solid unchanging, permanent thing and neither is the Columbia. The leaves that are floating in them aren’t solid and unchanging either. They’re changing all the time.
Audience: What is mind then?
VTC: It is a phenomena. It does exist. Our mindstream exists but it does not exist as a solid thing with a permanent essence. It exists but it exists only in the sense that it’s been labeled on top of a composition of things that are always changing. Our problem is that as soon as we give a label to something, we think that that something has some essence inside it that makes it, it. This is the source of the problem.
Audience: What do you mean by ‘phenomena’?
VTC: I’m using the word phenomenon differently from how Western psychology is using it. I’m using phenomenon as anything which exists. And anything which exists has no concrete essence. So maybe, for the moment, don’t give the Western philosophical definition to the word “phenomenon”. I’m saying that phenomenon is just anything that exists. And, anything that exists does not have a concrete essence.
Audience: What are the causes of clairvoyance?
VTC: Clairvoyance can come about from different causes. Some people, through the force of karma, have some limited kind of clairvoyance. Some people, through the force of spiritual realizations—let’s say they have single-pointed concentration—may get some kind of clairvoyance.
Audience: How does clairvoyance manifest?
VTC: Clairvoyance—one has super sensory ability, like the ability to see past and future lives; the ability to see things at a greater distance than one’s eyes can, the ability to hear things at further distance than one can.
Oracles, mediums and clairvoyance
[In response to audience:] No, they have oracles. There’s an oracle that gives a lot of advice to the Tibetan Government. What’s the difference between clairvoyance, an oracle and a medium? A medium is the person who goes into trance. The oracle is the spirit or the god or whatever it is that suppresses that person’s consciousness so that the oracle’s consciousness can speak through the medium of that person’s body. The person, the human being is the medium. The spirit that occupies it is the oracle. You have this in many cultures. And there are some oracles that are reliable and some that are not reliable, just like some human beings are reliable and some human beings aren’t. [laughter]
The Tibetan Government has this one oracle that they consult for a lot of their decisions. This particular spirit was one that was subdued by Guru Rinpoche when he came to Tibet in the eighth century. This spirit vowed to Guru Rinpoche that he’ll protect the Tibetan Government and the practitioners of Dharma. He does that and he’s fairly reliable in what he says. They’ve relied on him through many centuries.
Then, there are other spirits that occupy other kind of mediums. Some of them might be true and some of them might not be true.
Audience: Why would a spirit want to remain as a spirit for so many centuries?
Audience: If this spirit has existed over this many centuries, does it mean that different persons have been reincarnated as this one spirit?
VTC: No, he hasn’t died. He just has a long life [laughter]. But, eventually, probably he will.
Clairvoyance, on the other hand, is a clarity of mind that gives you extra sensory perception. As I said, clairvoyance comes from different causes: some people have it because of previous lives’ karma, in which case those people may not have any samadhi or concentration. They may not have any spiritual realizations. They may have some ability to see things. That doesn’t mean that everything they say they see is necessarily correct because they can make mistakes. It’s like we know how to read but we make mistakes.
Then, there are other people who get clairvoyant power through the force of single-pointed concentration. You can also get clairvoyant powers through the practice of tantra, as you begin to realize emptiness and start to purify the mind more and more.
If your clairvoyance comes through spiritual realizations and not because of karma, it’s going to be more accurate. To make clairvoyance beneficial, it’s very important that one has a good motivation. If you have some kind of clairvoyant powers but you have a bad motivation, then you will use the powers to hurt other people. It’s like money. Money can be used with a good motivation or a bad motivation. It can hurt others and oneself, or it can help others and oneself. The same thing applies to clairvoyant powers.
People can get really fascinated about clairvoyant powers. You see many people like that—they don’t want to learn about Buddhist teachings on karma; they just want clairvoyant powers. It’s the mind that is seeking something exceptional, a peak experience, a thrill, something so that other people will think that they’re special. This is done basically out of egotism, self interest and so on. People can develop powers like this, but those powers may actually harm them when they have the wrong motivation.
Whereas with a real spiritual practitioner, the analogy they use is when you buy rice from the store, the rice is the principal thing, but the bag it comes in is what you get along with it. For real practitioners, they’re going to be aiming for spiritual realizations. They want to realize emptiness. They want to meditate on compassion. They want to gain concentration. They want to purify the mind. The extra added thing that comes out of those realizations is clairvoyance.
Now, if one has strong compassion for others, then one will want to develop clairvoyance. Because if you have strong compassion and you want to help others, you need to know more than what your five senses can tell you at the present. Out of compassion for others, you want to do the mediations that lead to the development of clairvoyance. You can then use those things to help others.
I get very emphatic when I talk about this because when I lived in Singapore, I had people coming who were unbelievable. They just wanted some kind of clairvoyance or magical powers. That’s what impresses them. Somebody who might have incredible loving kindness and patience; that person is just ignored. But somebody who has a little bit of flamboyant, clairvoyant power, they really respect. That’s missing the point. If you look at His Holiness’ teachings, what’s the main thing he’s talking over and over again? Loving kindness and compassion. He doesn’t give a talk on clairvoyant power every time [laughter]. He seldom mentions it, in fact. What does he always highlight? Loving kindness towards others, patient attitude, open-minded acceptance towards others and towards ourselves too, compassion—I think that’s the real miracle. What’s more valuable to you? What’s going to make you happier? Being able to have a heart that can just accept others as they are, or being able to read auras or predict the future? What’s going to make you happy? What’s going to make other beings happy?
Audience: Is clairvoyance important if you are guiding others?
VTC: If you’re in a role of guiding people, motivated by compassion, then you want to develop clairvoyant powers to help people better; it’s not for your own ego pleasure. If you could know the things somebody has done in a previous life, you could tell much better how to guide them in this life because you could see what kind of potential they have. This would be helpful.
Audience: Since you said that the cause of being born a human being is positive actions, and that schizophrenia might be a result of having tortured others in the past, how can some human beings be schizophrenic?
VTC: Well, actually we have many, many previous lives and those karmas could have been created in other life times. They could also have been created in the same life. Maybe somebody tortured people in the earlier part of their life and in the latter part of their life; they started to do some spiritual practice.
Audience: I heard that there’s some kind of Buddhist tradition that says rebirth is an upward thing, i.e. once you get to a certain level, you can’t fall into the lower realms. Have you heard of that?
VTC: I’ve never heard that.
Audience: But what if one is born in a pure land?
VTC: Once you’re born in the pure land, then you don’t fall back. But in terms of being a human being or a worldly god, you can always regress.
VTC: It’s not as though things are pre-planned, that there’s a right body for you to take rebirth in, “OK. So and so is going to be born in such and such a body now, where is your karma to get that body?” You pay up your karma to get that body, just like you pay up for your goods at the department store before they put the things into the package. No, it’s not exactly like that! [laughter]
VTC: I always come back to the analogy of a plant, and it sounds simple. You have a seed and this seed has certain potency. But how the seed actually grows depends on the soil, the water, the sunshine. The soil has certain things that influence it. The water has certain things that influence it. The sunshine has things that influence it. Everything is interconnected. When we get some kind of thing happening to us, it’s generally a lot of different things coming together at that moment, that makes that moment the very special experience that it is.
Audience: Is it ever possible for one to perceive the complex cause and effect of things?
VTC: When you’re a Buddha, then you have the ability to look at all the different strands. Actually, once you get some clairvoyant power, you can start looking at the strands but you won’t be able to see all of them completely until you become a Buddha.
Let’s sit quietly for a few moments.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.