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Environmental results of positive actions

And the factors affecting the intensity 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.

Review and looking at positive actions

  • A story to illustrate “result similar to the cause in terms of instinctual behavior”
  • The environmental result of positive actions

LR 039: Karma 01 (download)

The intensity of karma

  • Intention
  • Field of action

LR 039: Karma 02 (download)

The intensity of karma (continued)

  • Basis
  • Manner, what is involved in the action

LR 039: Karma 03 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Review
  • An explanation of vows
  • The effect vows have on the mind

LR 039: Karma 04 (download)


We were talking last time about positive karma and the different results that come from positive actions—maturation result, result similar to the cause in terms of our experiences and our behavior, and the environmental result.

We have finished talking about the result similar to the cause in terms of our instinctive behavior. But it’s helpful to point out that if somebody has trained well in the path, done a lot of meditation and put energy into developing the positive attitudes and qualities, then in the next lifetime, these positive actions manifest karmically as those thoughts, feelings and inclinations with no great effort. When you hear about the incarnations of very high masters (who are not necessarily Buddhas or high-level bodhisattvas) having special mental qualities from a young age, this is a result of this kind of karma—the result that’s similar to the cause in terms of your instinctual behavior.

The same applies to us too. If we develop a patterned way of thinking well and the Dharma becomes more spontaneous in our mind, that carries over to the next life and then it doesn’t become as difficult to generate the understanding of the Dharma. Sometimes we get stuck and it seems hard to understand the Dharma. Or even if we understand it, we can’t figure it out in our heart. One of the reasons for these is because of the lack of this kind of karma, the lack of this habitual action.

A story to illustrate “result similar to the cause in terms of instinctual behavior”

I want to tell you the story of the incarnation of one of my teachers. I saw the result similar to the cause in terms of instinctual behavior manifesting in this case. His name is Serkong Rinpoche. His previous rebirth is my root teacher. He was an incredible master.

I met the incarnation a few years ago in Dharamsala, when he was five years old. We went on some picnics with him. It was incredible to watch the way he acted. You know how most kids behave. They’ll usually find one adult they feel the most comfortable with and latch on to that one and basically, stay near him or her. In Rinpoche’s case, it would probably be to stay near Ngawang, who is his attendant. But when Rinpoche is with a group of people, he would pay attention to everybody. It was remarkable. He knew some of the people in the group well, and there were some he didn’t know well. He would have the sensitivity to know that everybody in the group needs some attention. I really picked up on it because this is something special.

Then we sat down to eat. Most five-year-old kids, when they’re eating, would mess up the table, cry and shriek and jump around the table. But Rinpoche just sat there, led us in the offering prayer (he knew the offering prayer), and then he sat and ate like an adult. It was incredible to watch. These are small things, but they made an impression on my mind. I thought this is an example of the result of mental cultivation from previous lives.

And then one time he completely blew our minds. We had taken on the picnic a bottle of water, and we were sitting around. All of a sudden he took the water and he started holding it up like they hold the vase up during initiations, and he started pretending to chant and pour us each water like they do in initiations. He’d never seen that. It’s like, “Where did he get this?” Again, he is displaying the instinctual behavior of acting like a master even though he’s five years old and he’s playing as a child. That’s the example with him but the same kind of thing applies to us. If we cultivate a lot this lifetime, then definitely the practice comes easier next lifetime.

The environmental results of positive actions

Positive karmas also affect the environment that we’re born into. Our previous positive karmas not only affect what body and mind we take and what happens to us in that life in terms of our experiences and our instinctual behavior, but they also affect the place we’re born into, the whole environment that surrounds us.

In the case of abandoning killing, we’re born into a place that’s peaceful, with good food that’s nourishing, and where the medicine works. You’re born in an environment where it is easy to live a long time. There aren’t so many epidemics. The medicine works. You can get healthcare and things like that.

From abandoning stealing, you get born into a very prosperous place. From not taking others’ possessions, deliberately abandoning that through seeing its disadvantages, then our mind is attracted to rebirth in a place that has enough material wherewithal. Somehow here we are, living in Seattle, a very prosperous place, even though everybody here mourns and groans about the economy. Try going to a Third World country. Then you realize that actually this place is quite prosperous compared to the way a lot of people live.

From abandoning unwise sexual behavior, we’re born in very clean and beautiful surroundings, and also a place that’s very safe where there is no danger of sexual abuse or rape taking place.

If we abandon lying, we’re born into a place with honest people. You don’t have to go around giving bribes to this person and that person. Other people don’t give you the runaround, lying right, left and center. It is a place where it’s easy to get things done and people are honest and treat each other fairly.

If we abandon divisive words, we’re born in a place where the land is even, with none of these incredible dangerous cliffs and bumpy things. You can see the correlation. If we abandon divisive speech, our speech becomes even. We treat people equally. We don’t try and break up the relationships. Right speech manifests in the environment as an even place, a place that’s safe and comfortable.

From abandoning harsh words, we’re born in a place where there’s enough water. The land is very fertile and there are no dangerous animals. There is nothing harmful outside, because again, we have abandoned speech that harms others.

If we abandon idle talk, then we’re definitely born in a place where there’s enough water. As you can see, in idle talk, everything is wasted. If you abandon that, you’re born in a place where things aren’t wasted, where there’s enough stuff. Your plants endure. In other words, the growing season is long. They actually bear fruit when they’re supposed to. The parks, the forests and the natural places aren’t over-crowded and aren’t polluted. You can see the relationship here. When we idle talk, we pollute the environment. We over-crowd everything talking gibberish. By abandoning that, it shows up karmically in the environment being quite pleasant, not polluted and over-crowded.

When you travel to different places, think of the karma of the people who were born in that place, the karma of the people who live in that place repeatedly. It is interesting to think about this, especially when you go to places where the environment is very uncomfortable, and people don’t seem to be able to get out of it. Or people trying to leave places which are very comfortable but are prevented from doing so by their good karma. It’s interesting.

If we abandon coveting, we’re born in a place where the property and our belongings endure. In other words, things last a long time. You get a car, and it lasts a long time. It is not like you buy something, and the second time you use it, it falls apart and it breaks. This is a place where there are enough things for everybody, where there are abundant material resources. When coveting we’re always wanting something for ourselves. This kind of wanting creates an imbalance, creates shortages. By abandoning that, then you are born in a place where there aren’t shortages, where there’s enough for everybody to live in the environment.

By abandoning maliciousness, we’re born in a place where it’s peaceful and harmonious, where people get along, where the food tastes good, where there’s not very much illness. It’s a place that’s safe. No danger.

By abandoning wrong views, we’re born in a place that’s very rich in natural resources. This one is interesting because we can see when there are wrong views, it’s like the mind is completely infertile. The mind is just hard like a rock. It can’t listen to anything. It can’t think about anything because it’s so stuck in its own stubborn misconceptions. It won’t let anything else in. You can see how that mental state will create a corresponding environment. Then you can also see that by having correct conceptions, abandoning the wrong conceptions, one’s born in a place where there are natural resources. There is water. The land is rich. The mines work. The crops grow. It isn’t polluted. A place where the people value ethics. The people you live among are ethical people, people you can trust, people you can rely on. There’s a real sense of community and belonging, and people take care of each other.

Those are the kind of environments that come about by doing the ten constructive actions, which are consciously making a determination to abandon the ten destructive ones. By understanding this, it gives us a little bit more energy to abandon the destructive actions and do the constructive ones. We also have a better understanding of the situation we’re living in and the world we see around us. We begin to understand how our karma relates to our environment, how things are really inter-related. We aren’t born in places by accident.

When you were a kid, did you ever wonder why you were born you and in the place you were born in? I did. Why wasn’t I born in Mexico? Why was I not born somewhere else? Why was I born growing up in California? It’s our karma. It’s a result of the kinds of things we did before that makes the mind attracted towards rebirth in certain places.

Audience: If somebody is born into a horrible environment it’s either that or no rebirth at all?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): No. No rebirth at all would be really nice. [laughter] That would be nirvana. That would be a really nice thing. One will get a rebirth as long as one is under the influence of ignorance. If it happens to be a negative karma ripening, the mind will be attracted to that kind of place. You can see there’s a big difference, for example, in the environment and the living situation of a dog born in India, and a dog born in a nice, cushy Seattle home. Huge difference in the lifestyle. This is due to karma. Similarly, when they talk about life forms of incredible suffering, where the whole environment is unendurable, it is due to our karma of the environment.

Summarizing and indicating parameters affecting the strength of the results an action will bring (The Intensity of Karma)

The next topic on the outline is again about the intensity of karma. We have talked previously about six different conditions that affected whether an action was heavy or light, and we’re kind of coming around to this again, except this time, they talk about four conditions. Why they listed them in two different sections, I’ve never understood. But we’re going to be talking again about the intensity of our karma.

1. Intention

The first factor that makes karma intense is our intention. Here we come back to motivation again, folks! One of our favorite subjects. What our motivation is and how intense it is will affect the karma and the imprint that we’re putting on our mind. Some actions are neutral. By their nature, they’re neither positive nor negative. Examples are sweeping your room or vacuuming your room. Cleaning your house. Driving down the road. Reading a newspaper. Taking a bathe. There’re lots of things that we do that have no special reason; they are done out of habit. These actions, by their nature, aren’t positive or negative. What makes them positive or negative is the motivation that is pushing us to do them. This is why we try and take so much care and are always checking what our motivation is, why we’re doing something.

Audience: Are all actions neutral?

VTC: Well no. By their nature, some actions are negative, like killing, stealing or unwise sexual conduct. But many actions in our life are neither by their nature positive or negative. You read the newspaper. You read a book. You walk down the street. You buy something at the grocery store. The nature of the action isn’t one way or the other, but the motivation—why we do it—is going to determine whether it’s positive or negative. You could go to the store and buy food with a lot of attachment. Or you could buy it with a neutral mind. Or you could buy it with a positive mind, to offer to others. Our motivation influences greatly whether an action becomes virtuous or non-virtuous.

Take, for example, cleaning or vacuuming the room. You could do it with an angry mind, like “I wish my roommate would do this. Why is this job always left to me?!” In this case, vacuuming the room becomes the direct cause of rebirth in the lower realms. The mind that’s doing it is completely full of hate: “My roommate never does this. I always get dumped with all the blah blah blah.”

Or you can just vacuum the room with no special motivation. That’s neutral karma. That’s kind of like wasting the opportunity. It’s better than to create negative karma, but still it’s a waste of your time or life.

Or you could vacuum the room with a positive motivation, and this is where the thought training process comes in. You think, “OK, I’m taking the dirt off the sentient beings’ minds.” What’s the dirt on sentient beings’ minds? It’s the attachment, anger and ignorance, the contaminated karma. And what is it that cleans away that dirt? It’s the wisdom realizing emptiness. Your vacuum cleaner becomes the wisdom realizing emptiness. And you are cleaning the dirt off the sentient beings’ minds. You can think like this while you’re doing the vacuuming. By thinking compassionately when you’re vacuuming, by thinking about the welfare of others, then even in the simple act of vacuuming the room, you have this feeling of connection and concern for everybody. Vacuuming the room becomes a positive action.

This is why I would like to encourage everybody to do the following: in the morning when we wake up, make the first thought, “Today I’m not going to harm others. Today I’m going to benefit them. And today I want to do all my actions with the motivation to become enlightened for the benefit of others.” You’re cultivating that motivation as the underlying motivation for all of your other actions that day. In this way, at least the causal motivation for the day is a pure one. During the day, we might get into certain situations and the negative mind takes over. But at least you had initially set some kind of pure causal motivation.

Also, by doing that, then when you do come to specific situations, you’re much more likely to be aware of what your actual motivation is at that time and try and transform it. You could be cooking your lunch out of attachment. Or you’re cooking it without any specific reason. Or you’re cooking lunch to offer to other people, or to offer it to the Buddha at your heart. That’s why we offer our food before we eat. It transforms what would otherwise be neutral actions into positive actions by the force of our motivation.

Also the strength of our motivation is going to influence whether our karma is heavy or light. For example, when you make an offering to the Buddha, you can do so with an attitude, “Hm, well yeah, for the benefit of all sentient beings,” plonk the offering down. Or, you can try to cultivate an open heart when you’re doing it. Try to generate that motivation and make it more intense in the mind, and then you make the offering. Even though the object you’re offering is the same, the intensity or quality of the motivation is different, and therefore the karma that we create on our mindstream is going to be different.

Similarly, you may do a meditation thinking, “Well, I’m doing this meditation because I want to feel good. I’m tense. I’m stressed out. So I’m going to meditate just to feel good and to lower my blood pressure.” Or you can meditate thinking, “I’m going to prepare for future lives.” Or you can meditate motivated by “I want this meditation to be a cause of my liberation from cyclic existence.” Or you can do the exact same meditation thinking, “I want this to be a cause of my becoming a fully enlightened Buddha for the benefit of others.” Depending upon what your motivation is when you’re doing the meditation, they’re going to reap completely different results. You will get completely different results for the same meditation. Again, this is why cultivating our motivation is so important at the beginning of things.

And that’s why it is good to take the time to offer our food before we eat, something we do so often. We try to transform it by thinking, “I’m not eating for my own beauty and health. I’m eating to keep my body alive so that I can practice the Dharma, so that I can do things of service for others.” Then you offer your food. That’s very different from just diving into your food. You’re eating in both instances, but the mind that’s eating is very, very different. That makes a big difference in what karma is created.

Also, before going to sleep, you may just fall into bed at night thinking, “Oh, thank goodness this day is over! I can’t wait to drop into oblivion!” That’s one motivation, and you’ll see how it affects the quality of your sleep. It affects how you wake up the next morning. Whereas if you go to sleep thinking, “I rejoice at the constructive actions I did during this day. I need to rest my body and my mind so that tomorrow I can continue in this practice.” And then you go to sleep with that attitude. Your eight or ten or twelve hours of sleep becomes constructive karma. Still, it’s better to sleep six hours.

Audience: Why is it better to sleep six hours?

VTC: Because then you can use your time more in active practice.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. You’re asleep, so you can’t even enjoy it. I think the thing is, you sleep according to what your body needs, not with a mind that just indulges in sleep. Not like a cat. Any opportunity they get… [laughter]

The karma is less powerful if you do something because you have been ordered to. If you come to teachings simply because you feel obliged or because somebody ordered you to do so, then it becomes less strong than if you have a good motivation and go out of your own free will. Similarly, negative actions are less strong if you are forced to do them than if you’re choosing voluntarily to do them.

Here we come down to the importance of bodhicitta, why we keep trying to cultivate bodhicitta or the altruistic intention as much as possible. This is because it is what makes an action strongly virtuous. Doing one prostration, offering one stick of incense or writing out a twenty-five-dollar-check to the Red Cross with the motivation of bodhicitta is much more intense karmically than doing the exact same action 100,000 times without the altruism. Offering the Red Cross one twenty-five-dollar-check with altruism is more powerful than offering them 100,000 checks of twenty-five dollars. You see, bodhicitta is
very economical. [laughter] It is again emphasizing the importance, the value, the strength of this altruism; why it’s so important. Think about it. You’re doing one simple action, but when you’re doing it, in your mind you’re related to every sentient being in the entire universe. That’s a very different mental state than when you’re doing an action just completely caught in me, I, my and mine. Just by the power of the mind. Our mind is very, very powerful. This really illustrates it.

Now, let’s say you are in a situation where you know an action is negative but you can’t control yourself. You don’t really want to do this, but by the force of previous habit, you are getting into it again. Though you do the action, you have a sense of regret. And as soon as you have done it, you purify. You don’t feel so good about it even though it is beyond your control. That’s not going to be as heavy as somebody who just went ahead and did it without any regret and purification. This is important to remember. If you know you don’t want to be doing something, but your body and mind are going in that direction anyway because they are beyond your control, then at least have a sense of regret and do some purification afterwards. It’s not going to be as heavy.

On the other hand, if we know that something is negative, but we get arrogant and we say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter. That’s just a small thing. It doesn’t really matter if I do this.” We rationalize and justify our action, and we don’t purify it. Then it becomes heavier.

This is important because sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we’re acting negatively, we’re kind of out of control, we’re following our negative habits. There’s one part of our mind that wants to whitewash the action and rationalize, “This isn’t really negative. I’m really doing this for the benefit of sentient beings.” Or “This isn’t really negative, Buddha kind of made that rule but he didn’t know what he was talking about.” That rationalizing, justifying mind makes the karma much, much heavier than if we were just honest and say, “Actually, this is a destructive action. But I’m just out of control and I wish I weren’t doing this. I regret doing this and I’m going to purify.” To admit that we’re out of control and to be honest about our ethics require a sense of humility.

2. Field of action

Another thing that makes our karma intense is the field of our action. In other words, who we are doing the action towards. If you do a positive action or a negative action to your Dharma teacher, to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, to your parents, to the poor and needy, these become much more powerful than if you do it to just anybody else. Doing it to our teacher or the Triple Gem is powerful because of their qualities. Doing actions towards our parents, or towards those who took care of us or helped us a lot in our lives, is powerful because of their kindness towards us. What we do towards the poor, the ill and the needy is powerful because of their condition; the field of compassion. If you create karma with a powerful object like the above, this kind of karma ripens very quickly. It ripens more quickly than that created towards any other person, because the karma is much heavier.

Here is where what they say in the teachings about our not knowing who is a bodhisattva and who isn’t, comes in very important. If we give a dirty look to a bodhisattva, it’s much more powerful than imprisoning and taking the sight from all sentient beings. Shocking, isn’t it? The reason why it is so powerful is because a bodhisattva is working for the benefit of all living beings. The bodhisattva from their side, isn’t harmed. From their side, they couldn’t care less. But from our side, because we’re disparaging somebody who is working for the benefit of others, we’re disparaging somebody who has an altruistic intention, then our action becomes quite heavy.

Similarly, praising people who are bodhisattvas, or even showing them a little bit of respect, or doing some small favor for them becomes much more powerful than giving all visually impaired sentient beings their eyesight back, because one bodhisattva is working for the enlightenment of all these beings. And because we don’t know who is a bodhisattva and who isn’t, we should be careful who we give dirty looks to, and who we get angry at.

Audience: Would a bodhisattva be engaged in non-virtuous actions?

VTC: The lower level bodhisattvas may slip up once in a while. But in general, from the side of their intention, they would never be doing anything that’s negative. However, we may not understand what their real motivation is and criticize them. When the Buddha was a bodhisattva in one of his previous lives, he killed a man who was going to kill 499 others [out of compassion for all of them]. What would happen if we had thought, “Well, I don’t care. He’s still a murderer.” And we became negative towards him simply because we didn’t know his motivation. “He didn’t kill that guy out of compassion. He killed him because that guy was rich and he was going to take all the money away…” We impute our own false reasons on the action of a bodhisattva and criticize.

Bodhisattvas may do things that are very confusing to us that we absolutely do not understand. I know this very directly. My teachers, I’m sure, are quite holy beings, but sometimes they do things that I just do not understand. And then after some time, I can very clearly see that it’s my negative motivation that’s getting projected outwards. I look at what they’re doing, and I say if I were doing that, I would be doing it because of x, y and z motivation. Of course my motivation is impure, and I impute my impure motivation onto my teachers’ actions. Actually I have no idea at all why they’re doing that. No idea. With time, I’ve noticed that I could actually begin to see why they might be doing it for a very good reason. But if I get locked into my own negative conceptions, all I see is negativity.

Especially when your teacher tells you to do something you don’t want to do, then you’re quite sure that they’re acting out of a negative motivation. [laughter] “They’re being inconsiderate. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just being manipulative.” Basically, they’re telling you to do something your ego doesn’t want you to do. Your ego fights back and of course imputes all these negative motivations onto your teacher. But then, with some space, we begin to see that our teachers are actually doing these for our benefit and our welfare. We can’t see it, so we blame them and get angry. You will begin to see we can project so much outwardly. It is important to be aware of this.

Also, if we kill a human being, it’s going to be much heavier than if we kill an animal. Similarly, if we save the life of a human being, the karma is going to be more intense than saving the life of an animal. If we commit harsh talk or idle talk towards somebody who is practicing the Dharma, which wastes their time or distracts them from their Dharma practice, it is much, much heavier than committing harsh speech or idle talk towards somebody who doesn’t practice. Similarly, if you help people who are doing Dharma practice, or you help a group or a temple or center, that becomes more weighty than doing the same thing for somebody who isn’t.

I remember when I was in Singapore putting out the prayer books, Pearl of Wisdom, there was one woman in the group who was working for a publishing house. She helped to edit the books. She was a very skilled editor. She could edit Mrs. Wong’s Chinese Cookbook and she could also edit Pearl of Wisdom, but by the power of the object, the karma is going to be very different between just putting another cookbook on the market versus making Dharma prayer books available to others. Any kind of action that we do to help to spread the Dharma by helping the center’s practitioners, by helping each other in the group, becomes much heavier than doing the same thing towards somebody who’s not practicing.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: OK, so somebody took something belonging to you but you don’t know who took it. The mind’s inclination is to think that it is probably done by the person whom we think doesn’t like us. What can we do about that? Basically, you can see that comes from a lot of grasping. We grasp at the thing that is missing. We also grasp at our sense of ‘I’. “They did it to me! I’m offended.” Not only am I attached to that thing, but my pride is wounded. I’m offended.

I find what’s very helpful in that situation is to say to myself, “Oh, it’s very good this happened. It’s very good that this thing I am attached to got taken away, because it’s showing me how attached I was to it. Actually, if I think about it, I could probably learn to live without this, so this is a good chance for me to experiment, to see if I could learn to live without this. It’s very good that my pride is offended, because I usually go around with my nose in the air and I think I’m such hot stuff. It’s good that I get put in my place, that I’m shown that I’m not Queen of the world.” Instead of saying, “Oh, this is really bad…” I say, “Oh, it’s good this happened because this is my practice. This is showing me where my buttons are. It is giving me an opportunity to work with them.”

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC:If you’re doing that with a sugary sweet, “Well yes, they can offend me, but I’m above all of that. They can push my buttons. It’s good.” then you’re just being proud and arrogant. That’s not applying the Dharma technique. In your heart, you don’t truly feel it’s good this has happened. You’re ticked off about it and you don’t want this to happen again. If you say it is good this happened, then you’re actually lying to yourself.

When we apply these techniques and say it is good they are doing it to me, it’s not like you feel it right away. When we get negative, our energy is like a river going in one direction. When we apply those techniques and say it is good they do that to me, it is kind of intellectual; we don’t really feel that way. What we’re trying to do is to divert this heavy stream of negative energy and at least try to get it to flow somewhere else. At the beginning, you’re kind of saying intellectually, “Yes, it’s good this is happening.” But underneath you’re saying, “Oh, but I can’t stand it!” But you keep meditating. It’s not like you apply this technique and five minutes later, your anger will be all gone. You need some work with this, OK? [laughter] With my own experiences, sometimes it’s taken me a year to do it. And then when I can finally get to the point where in my heart I really feel…

[Teachings lost due to change of tape.]

All these techniques, when we start out saying them to ourselves, we don’t really feel them. But the more we do them… It’s like molding clay, it’s a little bit hard, we need to put more effort into it. But eventually, we will be able to do it. We will be able to make our mind into the shape we want.

3. Basis

The next thing that makes a karma heavy or light is what you would call the basis. In other words, the person who’s doing the action. It makes a big difference whether the person who does the action is somebody with vows or somebody without vows. If it’s somebody who has vows, whether it is the five lay precepts, the monks’ and nuns’ precepts, the bodhisattva precepts, or the tantric precepts, whatever they do becomes heavier. If you do a positive action, it becomes very weighty. If you do a negative action, it also becomes very weighty. This is so by the power of the basis, by oneself having taken vows.

Also, if you’ve taken the bodhisattva vows, then what you do is going to be much weightier than if you’ve just taken the five lay precepts. If you’ve taken tantric vows, whatever you do is going to be much weightier than if you’ve taken the bodhisattva vows and the five lay precepts. Having different levels of precepts also affect the potency of one’s actions, both positive actions and negative actions.

Even if you’re just doing a simple thing, for example, if you have the five lay precepts and you make a prostration or meditate, it’s going to be much heavier than if you don’t have any precepts and you do the exact same action.

Sometimes, people take what they call non-vows, that is, a non-virtuous vow. For example, they say, “I’m going to kill every mosquito I can find.” It’s a vow of sorts. When people make a strong determination or a vow to themselves on the negative side, then whatever they do is going to become more negative. Whether they are doing that action that they vowed to do or some other action, it is going to be heavier in a negative way. If somebody says, “I’m going to kill every mosquito I can get my hands on,” every time they kill a mosquito, it’s going to be much heavier than Joe Blow doing it. Also, every time they say harsh words or some other negative action, it’s going to be heavier too. This is because they have made themselves into a basis, a person who has a negative vow. That makes the karma quite heavy.

In the same way, if somebody, for example, has signed a contract to be a butcher, they’re making a vow to kill animals. If a butcher kills one animal, that’s much more negative than anybody else killing an animal, or somebody who’s killing an animal because they’re starving. The butcher has taken the vow to kill animals, therefore the karma becomes heavier.

4. Manner, what is involved in the action

The next thing that makes something heavy is the manner in which it was done. How we did something. What was involved in the action. For example generosity of the Dharma is much stronger than material generosity, because of the action itself. The gift of the Dharma excels all other gifts. You might think, “What’s so special about the Dharma? I’d much rather receive a hundred million dollars than one Dharma book. Why is giving the Dharma more valuable than giving a hundred million dollars?”

I got a letter in the mail that says I’m the winner of a million dollars or something, with my name “Thubten Chodron” in big letters on the envelope: “Thubten Chodron is the undisputed winner of a million dollars.” Two days later, they sent me another one. Of course I opened it up and one part of my mind is saying, “My mother always said throw away junk mail. Why are you looking at this?” [laughter] Another part of my mind is saying, “Hmm … but maybe you can get something for nothing. A hundred million dollars, hmm.” [laughter] It was interesting. I had to look at my mind. Why am I opening this envelope if I know that it’s a hoax. And then I sat there and I thought, “Well, even if I won a hundred million dollars, even if these people were telling me the truth, is that really what I want? Do I want a hundred million dollars?” And then I decided actually, I don’t. It would be much more of a hassle than just being the way I am now. So after that, I throw the letters directly in the recycling bin. I didn’t open it anymore. But it was very interesting to look at the mind that wants something.

Giving a hundred million dollars is not as powerful as giving the Dharma, because a hundred million dollars may or may not alleviate somebody’s problems. It may actually give them more problems, like I was thinking. But if you give somebody the Dharma, even if you don’t use high and fancy Buddhist words, you’re just talking simple language, encouraging people to keep ethics or to generate a loving-kindness attitude, this is powerful, because you’re encouraging people to create constructive karma. For the people who are receptive and whom you can teach, then you’re actually able to give them tools that they can use to free themselves from cyclic existence altogether. Giving Dharma is very powerful.

Audience: [inaudible]

You’re going to have to look at this. First of all, I’m not saying to give them “Pearl of Wisdom” and not give them medicine. I’m not saying that. Better to give them both. This is going to need a lot of skills. If you can give them some medicine, get them well, and then give them the Dharma, that’s the best. But then also, giving people the Dharma—even if it’s just seeing a picture of the Buddha which puts an incredibly good imprint on the person’s mind—is in some way more powerful than giving them food. Because it’s creating very, very powerful karma for them to actually meet the Dharma in a future life. But I’m not saying to not give them food and medicine. You should give them those things. But don’t think, “Oh, this person needs medicine. There’s no sense exposing them to the Dharma.”

Also, you have to be tactful. You don’t have to push the Dharma on anybody. But giving people the opportunity to see pictures of the Buddha or your teachers, Dharma books, and things like that, is very, very powerful. They talk about the power from the side of the object. A Dharma object is very, very powerful.

Here’s a story that will illustrate this. At the time of the Buddha, there’s an old man who wanted to get ordained. Shariputra and Moggallâna [the Buddha’s disciples] wouldn’t ordain him because with their clairvoyant powers, they couldn’t see that he had created the karma to be ordained. That’s because they had limited clairvoyance. The Buddha came along and he saw this old man crying because he wanted to become a monk but nobody would ordain him. The Buddha who had complete, total clairvoyance, saw that actually once before, this man had been a fly that had landed on a piece of cow-dung. That cow-dung had gone around a stupa, a Buddha’s monument. By the power of the stupa, he created enough good karma circumambulating the stupa as a fly on a piece of cow-dung, to be able to become a monk.

Now, it sounds like completely… But it shows that there’s some power in the object. I remember even before I was a Buddhist, going to art galleries and museums and seeing figures of the Buddha. There’s some special energy there. There is something. I didn’t believe in any of this then but something came across; there was some influence on the mindstream. That’s also why it is good to say lots of mantra to your animals or to insects that are dying. I was sitting here this afternoon reading a Dharma book, with the kitten curled up on my lap. There’s the Dharma book and there’s the kitten, and it really hit me how precious a human life is. The kitten is here with Dharma objects, Dharma books and Dharma class (everything!), and yet he can’t benefit from it.

I thought “Wow!” It’s just amazing what we can do as human beings that an animal can’t do, even if the animal has very, very good karma to come in close association with the Dharma and to be born in a place where it has enough to eat and everything. I was thinking as much as possible, I’ve got to do my prayers and mantras out loud. If nothing else, this kitten can at least get a lot of imprint. This is important. Even though they can’t study the Dharma, some imprint of the mantras, the Buddha’s words, the path of the Dharma is very good, by the power of the holy object. I told the kitten to take a perfect human rebirth in the next life and practice the Dharma. He listened. I hope he’ll do it.

Anyway, in response to your question, that has to do with the power of the holy object. Very powerful.

If you give a lot, it’s going to be more positive karma than giving a little. If you give things of good quality, it’s going to be more positive karma than giving things of bad quality. Some people go to the store, “OK, I’m going to get enough apples for the Buddha and for me. The apples that aren’t so good, we’ll leave on the altar, and we’ll eat the good ones.” This isn’t the way it should be. We should offer the things of good quality and leave the things of lesser quality for ourselves. When we give to friends, when we give to other people, giving things of good quality is much better than giving things of inferior quality. Giving Dharma is much better than giving material things.

Acting in accordance with our teachers’ instructions is much more powerful than giving our teachers material things. Acting in accordance with our teachers’ instructions means practicing the Dharma. It doesn’t mean an instruction like, “Bring me a glass of water.” The instructions refer to the teachings. We should try and act in accordance with those, then that becomes much more powerful than just a simple action of generosity done without trying to cultivate a good motivation.


What we’ve covered today was the environmental results of positive actions. Meditate on this. Think of the environments that you’ve been in and what are the karmic causes of those. Also, think of the different actions that you’ve done and what kind of environment would these actions cause you to be born in. If you meditate like this, it will give you much more inspiration to put energy into doing positive actions and abandoning negative actions.

We also talked about the things that make an action intense.

  1. The motivation. This is why the altruism is so important. This is why developing an intense Dharma motivation makes something more powerful than just a haphazard, lazy Dharma motivation.
  2. The field, the person that we do the action towards. The karma of doing an action towards our teacher, the Triple Gem or our parents is heavier than if we do it towards anybody else.
  3. The basis, whether we have taken vows or not taken vows. If we have vows, then whatever we do becomes heavier. Also, according to the level of the vows, what you do becomes heavier. Having the lay precepts is not as heavy as having the monks’ and nuns’ precepts. That’s not as heavy as the bodhisattva’s precepts. That’s not as heavy as the tantric precepts. That’s why the more levels of precepts you take, the more it gives you the opportunity to create good karma very quickly. If you keep the precepts, everything you do becomes very, very weighty.
  4. The manner in which it was done or what the action actually was. Giving Dharma is heavier than giving material things. Giving a little of better quality is better than giving a lot of poor quality.

Another thing that influences whether something is intense or not is whether we apply an antidote to it. If we apply an antidote and we generate a sense of regret, then the negative action becomes less intense. If we rejoice at it, it becomes more intense. Similarly, with our positive actions, if we regret our positive actions, then we lessen the good karma we’ve created. If we rejoice at our positive actions, we increase the good karma that we’ve created. This doesn’t mean getting proud of our positive actions. “Oh look at me! I gave a tomato to the temple.” It’s not a sense of pride. It is being able to rejoice at what we do well, and at our own good karma. If we can do that, it increases the good karma. Similarly, if we can rejoice at the good karma that other people create, it increases the weight of that.

Questions and Answers

Audience: What exactly is a vow?

VTC: A vow is a very, very strong determination that you make. We take constructive vows while visualizing the Buddhas in front or in the presence of a spiritual community or in front of our teacher. Even if a person doesn’t take a vow formally in a ceremony (if one does it formally in a ceremony, one gets the energy of the whole lineage), it becomes a vow of sorts, for example, a person makes a very, very strong New Year’s resolution. It increases the heaviness of what they do. In the same way, somebody who takes an ‘anti-vow’, for example, one takes a negative vow to kill mosquitoes or to beat up anybody who gets in one’s way, then that makes one’s actions heavier.

Also, the intensity with which you take the vow is going to influence how strong it is on your mind too.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. In the case of the lineage, there’s something coming from the other side too. For example, the first time you take the eight precepts, you get the transmission from a teacher. After that, you take it in front of your shrine with the statue of the Buddha, and you imagine all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in front of you. The Buddhas and bodhisattvas are there. You’re getting something from them. What’s really important is to know that you’re not taking the vows from a statue or from a piece of bronze or clay. You think, “I’m taking the vows from a Buddha.” You’re imagining that the Buddha is there, and the statue is helping you to connect with that. They say that the Buddha’s mind is everywhere and anywhere. By visualizing, we’re trying to tune into that.

[In response to audience:] There is a difference between just seeing the image as a statue versus thinking, “From this person, I’m getting the energy of the lineage going back to the time of the Buddha.” But if you’ve reached that level on the path where you look at the statue and you see the Nirmanakaya Buddha, then there’s probably not going to be a huge difference.

Audience: What’s being transmitted?

VTC: Here, I’m giving you my opinion. As far as I understand it, there is a definite power to the transmission of the lineage that is coming from the Buddha, in the sense that when you think of the Buddha having a certain practice or a vow, and then somebody else taking that from the Buddha and that person keeping it well, and then passing that energy down to their disciple, and down to their disciple and down to their disciple, there’s definitely some energy that’s coming. It’s not made of atoms and molecules, or electrons, or protons, but there’s something there, by the power of a transmission of virtue from one person to the other.

Whether your mind is tuned into receiving that or not, is a whole different ballgame. It’s like taking an initiation. You can sit in an initiation and not take it at all because your mind is like a piece of concrete. There’s an incredible transmission coming from the lama, but your mind is just distracted and is like concrete. You’d much rather be at home eating chocolate. In this case, you did not receive the transmission. But at other occasions when you take an initiation, you’re really concentrated and meditating, then an energy is definitely coming into you. From the side of the person giving you the initiation, that energy is going out to everybody in the room. But different people have different capabilities to take that in, depending upon their level of mind and depending upon what’s happening in their mind at that particular moment. Is that making sense?

I remember the time I took my bhikshuni vows—that’s the full ordination for women. In the Tibetan tradition, they only have the novice ordination. The lineage for the full ordination didn’t go to Tibet, so the transmission isn’t available in the Tibetan tradition. I went to Taiwan to take it. It was incredibly powerful. Incredibly powerful. There was definitely an incredible power from the lineage of people practicing over twenty-five hundred years. What it was, I think it’s one of those things that you can’t put under a microscope. But I’m sure that everybody who was there at the time of the ordination experienced it quite differently.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: That is why it depends a lot on whether you realize that they’re empty or not. If you realize that both of them are empty of inherent existence, then you could probably get the same energy from the statue and from the person. What I’m getting at, is that there is something coming through the power of the object, but there’s also something coming from our mental state that makes us either open to it or closed off. Whatever we receive is a combination of the two things.

They say that for somebody with higher realizations, this is a pure land. For that kind of person, everything they deal with here is generating the wisdom of bliss and voidness in their mental continuum. For me, everything I deal with generates anger and attachment. That’s due to my mind. This is inter-dependence here between the giver, the receiver, and the whole process. When you get to high realizations on the path, you can take teachings from the Buddha’s statue. The statue talks to you, explains the Dharma to you. Try it. [laughter]

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.