Infallible effects of karma
Verse 4 (continued)
Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Missouri.
Today we will continue talking about karma. This is applying to the fourth verse and the second sentence,
There are many purposes for talking about karma. The purpose here that Je Rinpoche mentioned is to reverse the clinging to future lives. In other words, when we see how we’re bound by our karma, how we have done actions and those actions have results. They don’t just vanish. How the results are definite to the experience if they’re not purified. How the results can be bigger than the cause. Things like this. Then we see how serious this whole affair of having a deluded mind that creates karma is because we see that karma binds us into a cycle of suffering. It’s to generate that determination to be free from that cycle that we talk about karma.
Another purpose is to help us just basically clean up our lives. As I explained it to somebody once, it’s “to stop being a jerk.” When we do unethical actions, when we’re engaged in the ten paths of destructive actions, our life becomes the life of a jerk basically—to put it in slang. We’re not really using our human potential. Instead we’re just using our precious human body and our time to create the cause of suffering for ourselves and suffering for other beings. So to help us clean this up in our lives is one of the purposes of talking about karma.
Last time we talked about the four basic qualities of karma. That karma is definite in the sense that happiness comes only from what is called constructive or positive karma. It never comes from negative karma. Suffering only comes from what we call negative karma, never from positive karma. Second quality is that karma is expandable. A small action can bring a big result, in the same way that we plant a small seed and can get a big tree. Third, if we don’t create the cause, we don’t experience the result. So we need to be careful of what causes we create and also be careful not to create certain causes. If we want enlightenment, we have to create the causes for it, not just hang around and hope somebody enlightens us. Then the fourth is that the imprints of the karma don’t get lost, they don’t just disappear. They will inevitably ripen into the experiences that we have unless in the case of negative actions we purify them, or in the case of positive actions we destroy them by getting angry or having wrong views.
Ten pathways of destructive actions
The next topic is the ten pathways of destructive actions. I just want to review these. There’s a lot of detailed teachings of what constitutes a complete action, what doesn’t, but let’s not go into that at this time. Let’s just review the three destructive physical ones. What are they? What’s the first one?
Audience: Killing .
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Second?
Audience: Stealing. Unwise sexual conduct.
VTC: Okay, and then the four of speech? Somebody else? Yes, do them in order.
Audience: Lying. False speech.
VTC: False speech is lying. Creating disharmony. Yes, the second one, and then the third one? What’s the third one?
VTC: That’s the fourth one. Harsh speech is the third. And then idle talk is the fourth. Okay. Then the three mental ones? The first one?
VTC: Coveting, then?
Audience: Ill will.
VTC: And then wrong views.
It’s important that we at least learn the list because we tend to engage in these quite often. If we can’t remember what the ones to abandon are, then if we can’t remember the list, then it becomes hard to identify them when we’re actually doing them in our lives.
Audience: The list isn’t so tough because the first three are the first three precepts, and then the fourth precept is wrong speech and so these are the same four as when we describe the Noble Eightfold Path. So the only three you have to put any effort into is the last.
VTC: Try and remember them.
It’s very helpful in the evening to do a little review and see which ones we engaged in. From doing an evening review we then try during the day to be aware if our actions and thoughts are going in any of those directions and to apply the antidote if they are. There are several antidotes to these different ones. Part of the antidote is thinking about the remedies to the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions that caused them. If we see that we are doing harsh speech out of anger, then to do some meditation on patience to counteract the anger. Or if we’re lying out of attachment and greed, then to meditate on impermanence as an antidote to the attachment and greed. Things like that.
Four results of karma
Another way that will help us avoid the destructive action is by thinking about their results. They talk about four results of destructive actions, and again I just want to go through these rather quickly. There’s a lot of detailed explanation on them. Sometimes they talk about three results of the karmas and one of them is divided into two—so that’s why sometimes they talk about four.
The first one is called the maturation result or it can also be translated as the ripening result. This is the realm, the body and mind that we are born into. Right now we are experiencing the maturation result of previous actions that we did. Our human body and human mind are that maturation result.
The second type of result is the causally concordant result. This can be causally concordant in terms of our experience or causally concordant in terms of our action. Causally concordant in terms of our experience is the “What goes around comes around” idea. In other words, if we criticize others we find ourselves being criticized. If we lie to others, we find others deceiving us. If we take things that haven’t been given to us, we lose our own property. So it’s in terms of the experience that we have caused others to have then we experience something similar to it. It’s not an exact. It’s not “I killed you so in the next life you kill me” thing. If we cause suffering, we experience suffering. If we cause happiness, we experience happiness. That’s the causally concordant experiential result.
Then the causally concordant behavioral result is that it means we have the tendency to do the action again. This is kind of like habit. In other words, if I use my speech to create disharmonies, then I create the habit or the tendency. There’s the seed on my mindstream to do that action again. Our mental energy very easily goes into doing that same destructive action again. In our lives sometimes we can see that of the ten there are some that we might find very difficult to avoid. We see we have a real tendency to do them. Part of that depends on the disturbing attitudes in our mind and part of it depends on the habit that we are experiencing the karmic result of having done this action in the past. It becomes very easy for us to do it again in the future. This result is actually the most serious of the four results.
We might think that the maturation result as the most serious because it determines the body and life you are born into. But actually this one of having the tendency in our behaviors to do it again is most serious. This is because if we have a lot of karma built up in a very specific negative habit, then because of that we have the tendency to do it again and again. We create tons and tons of more negative karma.
One of the purifying effects for that particular result is taking precepts. This is because when we take precepts we are beginning to stop that habit of doing the action again and again. That’s one of the reasons why taking precepts is so valuable. It stops that kind of karma from ripening in terms of us doing the action again—and again creating more and more difficulties. So that’s the causally concordant result.
Audience: Does that mean keeping the precepts?
VTC: Yes, not just taking them, but keeping them.
The fourth is the environmental result. This is in terms of the environment that we find ourselves living in. We see people born into all sorts of different environments. Why weren’t we born in Gaza Strip? Or why weren’t we born in Afghanistan? Or why weren’t we born living in Beverly Hills in California? The environment that we are born into is also influenced by our previous actions.
They say if we’ve created the action of killing, for example, then it’s easy to live in an environment where there’s a lot of violence, killing, and warfare. If we’ve done a lot of stealing then we find ourselves living in an environment where property gets destroyed. It could get destroyed by hurricanes or tornadoes, whatever, but we live in that kind of environment where things get destroyed easily. It’s a very interesting thing to think about. If we look at the results of what we’re living in now and then think, “What kind of actions have I created in the past to experience the various results?” It gives us some idea of karma and what we might have done in the past that created the cause for this situation. The body experiences, our habitual behavior, our environment—we get an idea that the kinds of things we did in the past created the causes for this.
Similarly, if we look at what we are doing now, we get an idea of the kinds of things that lie in the future. This is because when you plant seeds, when they eventually grow, you get the fruit of them. This can be a very good incentive to try and become more aware of our actions and to restrain ourselves from destructive actions. When we think of the results and imagine having them and thinking, “Hey wow, I don’t want to have those,” that gives us more energy to restrain. We need all the energy we can possibly have to restrain ourselves.
Sometimes if we think of the suffering we cause others and imagine other people suffering as a result of our action, we feel bad and that helps us stop our negative behavior. Sometimes we kind of skip over that, we don’t think so much the effect on others, we don’t even notice it. If we do some contemplation and think, “If I do this kind of action, what am I creating the cause for myself to experience?” then sometimes that can be a strong motivator for restraint. Or in the case of positive action, it can be something that strongly encourages us to do the positive action. Of course the worldly results aren’t the ultimate goal and reason that we want to act in constructive ways. But since we tend to be selfish sentient beings, if we can’t do it out of compassion for others, then at least let’s try to create positive actions and restrain from negative ones out of compassion for ourselves.
VTC: … inhabits.
Constructive actions: We can speak of ten of those and they can be seen in two ways. One is simply stopping doing a negative action is a constructive one. So if we are on the verge of lying to somebody and we restrain, that’s positive karma. Again, here we see why it’s said that keeping precepts helps us to create so much positive karma. It’s because every moment that we are keeping the precept we are in the act of consciously not doing a particular negative action—that’s a constant creation of positive karma. There might be two people sitting in a room. Let’s say neither of them is killing at this moment. One has the precept not to kill and the other one doesn’t. The person who has the precept not to kill is creating the good karma of not killing because when they took the precept. They made the conscious intention, “I will not kill, I will engage in the action of not killing.” As they are sitting here in this room, even though they’re not thinking, “I’m not killing,” by the force of that previous intention they are living by it—so they are creating the positive karma of not killing. Whereas the other person who doesn’t have the precept to avoid killing, they are also sitting in the room not killing at this moment. But they are not creating that good karma of not killing because they don’t have the intention to not kill. It just happens to be something they’re not doing at the moment but they haven’t made that conscious intention. That’s another purpose and value karmically of taking and then keeping the precepts.
Audience: What about somebody who is not a Buddhist or not even religious, but believes in nonviolence? They have that belief and they have that commitment. Does that still counts as positive?
Audience: So it’s the inner commitment.
VTC: Right. If somebody goes to take a vow and if they are spaced out during the time they take it, they haven’t really taken it. They haven’t generated that intention.
Another way of talking about constructive actions is not just the restraining of the negative ones, but the acting of the opposite. Instead of killing, it would be deliberately protecting life—saving bugs, or what we were doing when we sent in the petition for Chris Simmons to avoid the death penalty. Doing what we can to save life. Or instead of stealing, then we consciously respect other people’s property. Instead of speaking harsh words, we consciously try to speak in kind ways. So the flip side, that are not just actions of restraint, but that are doing a constructive action also fall into that thing of constructive actions.
The masters recommend that in the evening we do a little review and examine our actions during the day. They tell of one great master who had a pile of stones and the stones were two different colors. When he reviewed the day for negative actions he put one stone for this color. When he thought of a positive action, he put another pile of stone of that color. It’s a simplistic thing but it’s very interesting. Sometimes we think, “Well, that’s such a stupid, simplistic thing for kids,” so we don’t do it. But actually if we stop and do it and think about it, we might become more aware of the amount of destructive actions we do daily and the amount of positive actions we do daily. It might be an interesting little exercise. We could do little marks, we don’t have to go out and get stones or beans or anything.
Audience: In kindergarten we had stars.
Naturally negative versus prohibited actions
There are other teachings about different kinds of karma. One is actions that are naturally negative versus actions that are prohibited by the Buddha—that may or may not be naturally negative. Naturally negative actions are things like killing, stealing, unwise sexual contact, lying. Generally, unless one is a bodhisattva or a Buddha with an especially pure motivation, the rest of us when we do these we have a negative motivation. So those actions are said to be naturally negative. In other words, by their nature when we engage in them we create harm.
There are other actions, like in the precepts, and these actions are not naturally negative—like singing, dancing, wearing cosmetics, things like this. It isn’t a naturally negative action whereby meaning anybody who does it creates negative karma. But it’s something that becomes negative or to be avoided because it was prohibited by the Buddha. It’s very interesting in our precepts to review them. Try and see which of these precepts are naturally negative actions, and which are things that the Buddha advised the monks and nuns not to do generally—because it caused difficulty to the lay people or it made some other kind of problem. Yet these actions in and of themselves are not negative. Thinking like that about our precepts can help us understand the precepts a lot better too; as well as the reason for making different precepts. It’s very interesting to go through them.
Factors that make actions or karma heavy or light
There are other ways in talking about karma in terms of the factors that make an action heavy or make an action light. There are different ways of talking about this. There are different lists of the factors that make an action heavy or make an action light. One of these lists has six in them. The first is the nature of the action. Here we are just talking in general categories. Because things are dependent arising, dependent on many factors, we are just talking in very general sense here. We’re not talking about an action I did today at one o’clock. But if you look at the three physical destructive actions: killing, stealing, and unwise sexual behavior; killing is the most heavy by nature, then stealing, then unwise sexual behavior. Just by the nature of the action, killing is heavier. In the case of the four verbal ones, lying in general is heavier than divisive speech, which is heavier than harsh speech, which is heavier than idle talk. So there they go in order. That’s why I wanted you to list them in order when we were listing them earlier. When you remember the order then you can see how they go from heavy to light. In the case of the three mental ones, wrong views is the heaviest, then maliciousness or ill will is slightly less heavy, and then coveting is the least heavy of the three mental ones.
Audience: Where does that come from?
VTC: That comes from, I think, Asanga. Asanga’s commentary or Je Rinpoche.
VTC: That comes in the Indian commentaries or in Abhidharma.
The second condition that makes something heavy or light is the object with which we do the action. For example, doing either positive or negative actions in terms of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha or our spiritual teacher, that’s much heavier than doing positive or negative action in terms of Joe Blow who does not have that Dharma relationship with us and isn’t a being of exceptional qualities. That’s why they often say we do not know who is an arhat and who is a bodhisattva so treat everybody as if they were. Don’t create negative karma with them because the negative karma we create with beings who have realizations is much heavier—as is the positive karma that we create. This is one reason that making offerings to the temple and to the Sangha—it’s something that is said benefits us, as well as benefits the object to which we give. Those are heavy objects in terms of their spiritual qualities or in terms of their Dharma relationship with us. Especially our spiritual teacher here, positive or negative actions are very strong.
The second field that creates strong karma is those who are poor and needy and those who are sick. That’s called the field of compassion. Again, any karma that we create with the poor, the needy, the ill, the suffering, is stronger than with just Joe Blow who’s out there. That is again a reason why we make offerings to the poor and hospitals and things to benefit those people; it also becomes a strong karmic action for us. Similarly the way we give an offering to the poor and needy creates strong karma too. Some people think, “Oh, there’s a homeless guy sitting on the street. I’ll give him some money,” or “I’ll give him something to eat,” and you just kind of go and throw it in the bowl and walk on as fast as you can. That’s not a very respectful way of giving and making offering.
In the Tibetan tradition, this is a cultural thing, but it has a certain effect on the mind. The Tibetans teach you when you give something, when you make offering, to give it with both hands. Even if you are giving something to a homeless person on the street, give it in a respectful way. Watch; it’s a very interesting experiment in your mind. The difference between when you give a gift to somebody with both hands versus when you just give it to them like this. Try that and watch your own mind and see the difference in your own mind that that physical action can have. It creates an entirely different dynamic. We can see it too when we are the recipient of the action. If somebody just kind of walks by us and says, “Here, I am giving you a gift,” versus holding it like this and saying, “Here, I want to give this to you.”
So we should take care especially with beings who are in need of compassion. How we act towards them—that karma is strong. It has a powerful influence on them, especially on people who are often denigrated in society. To be shown a little bit of respect is often more important than the actual offering we give. I really see this in terms of the work in the prisons. For these guys just sometimes being able to have a normal conversation with somebody, something that we just take for granted. Just a normal conversation with respect is something that for them is priceless because they aren’t able to have these kinds of conversations very often. So how we do these things, who we’re doing them to, is important.
Audience: I think the same is true for children and teenagers. We often don’t have access … [inaudible]
VTC: I think that’s a very good point—how we treat children and teenagers. Again, we tend to just dismiss them basically. You know, give them whatever they want and let them go off into their room and play with it and don’t bug us—and we call that “loving kids,” but I don’t think so.
Audience: The way it is with old people. The way we just try and pretend they’re not there because they’re a little slow or forgetful or just old.
VTC: Yes. I think it is definitely part of our practice to really be conscientious about this. It makes a big difference to those people.
The third thing that makes something heavy or light is the strength of our intention. If we have a very strong intention, if our motivation is strong, the action is going to be much stronger than if our intention is weak. For example, saying harsh words when we’re really upset and angry and we really want to lay into somebody and hurt them. This is going to be a much stronger karma than with a weak intention of anger and just kind of making a small comment or something. The strength of our intention matters. Similarly with killing, if there’s a lot of anger involved versus if there is a small amount. So watch the strength of our intention.
Similarly when we are doing positive actions, really take the time to cultivate a good intention. That’s why at the beginning of our Dharma classes I led you through a little meditation to create an intention. The stronger that intention for enlightenment is, then the more powerful is the karma from our sharing the Dharma together. Whereas if we just come in the room and sit down, and we don’t have any strong intention one way or the other, “Oh, its one-thirty, I go to Dharma class.” We might sit here and have a good discussion or an interesting talk, but we have not really had the intention, a strong virtuous intention behind it, so the karma isn’t so strong. Whereas if we create a strong intention and do the same action for the same amount of time, then the karma becomes much more powerful. We can see this very directly in our own lives.
The fourth criterion which makes a karma strong is how the action was done. For example, in terms of killing, if you torture somebody for a long time before actually killing them, it’s much heavier than just killing somebody quickly. If we guilt trip somebody and do a whole lot of guilt tripping then it becomes very heavy. How we do the action matters. Similarly, with harsh words, if we say something that we know is going to definitely be a button for that person and we say it. That is going to be much heavier than, you know, saying something which isn’t a button for that person.
The fifth criterion that makes it heavy is the frequency, so something that we do often. That is the whole idea of habit. If we do something often, we are putting that energy in our mind again and again. I think this is why the masters recommend that we look at what our habitual actions are and work with those. We do all sorts of negative actions but we choose the ones that are most habitual or most problematic for us and really put our energy on those. If we try and work on everything about us at the same time, it becomes too much, so the ones that we do often and the ones that create the most problems, focus on those.
A sixth factor for whether something is heavy or light is whether we have applied an opponent power to it or not. Let’s say if we have used our speech in a divisive way to create disharmony, and at the end we feel really good about it. Like, “Okay, I got my enemies to quarrel between themselves. These two people, they’re a little bit disharmonious. This benefits me because now one of them will be on my side since they aren’t getting along so well themselves.” If we rejoice in that it becomes much heavier versus if afterwards we realize what we have done and we say, “Wow, I have created disharmony and I really regret it.” So we do some purification. Even if while we are doing the action we come to regret what we are doing, then it lightens the karma. This is because we are generating the opponent force of regret.
It’s very helpful in our lives to look at and to make specific examples. I really encourage us to do this in our practice. Look at specific positive actions we have done and specific negative actions we have done, and analyze them in terms of these six. It will give us some idea of what’s heavy and what’s light for what we do frequently. We’ll see if we actually generate the four opponent powers in a strong way or if we just regret our negative actions in a very casual way. Is it, “Oh yes, I hurt somebody’s feelings. Well, I am sorry about it. What’s next?” Or is it, “Wow, I hurt somebody’s feelings. I need to really be more careful about how I am using my speech. I really regret doing that for the harm it causes them and the harm it causes me.”
The same with killing or any destructive action we’ve done. It is very helpful for us, I think, to do a bit of a life review using the framework of the ten destructive actions and the ten constructive ones. See which ones we have done—which ones to rejoice about in terms of the constructive ones, which ones to purify in terms of the destructive ones. Do a little bit of analysis about what things have been heavier or lighter in our life. Through this we get some understanding of our habits and we get some understanding of how our mind works. Generate some regret for the negative actions. Generate a sense of rejoicing and happiness about the positive actions. Make some determination about the way we want to behave in the future. Again, the stronger that determination, the easier it is going to be to carry it out in the future.
There’s a lot in these teachings. These are not just lists that we memorize and we say, “Well, that’s interesting,”—and then use as some kind of intellectual thing to analyze what Ariel Sharon has done sending tanks into the West Bank. We actually use these things as a way to understand our own mind and our own actions and how they operate. When we do it, it can really wake us up and make us much more conscientious.
Throwing karma and completing karma
Some other interesting things come up in terms of karma. They often talk about “throwing karma” and “completing karma.” Throwing karma is the karma that is spoken about in the twelve links. It’s the second link when we talk about the twelve links in terms of the process of rebirth—which is different than talking about the twelve links in terms of ego rebirth. Then the second link of karma is the throwing karma. It causes the maturation result, the ripening result of what we’re born as—that’s the throwing karma.
The completing karma are the actions that we have done that create the cause for the different circumstances into which we are born—so whether we are poor or rich, intelligent or not so intelligent, whether we are well liked or have difficulty, things like this. That’s more completing karma rather than throwing karma.
They talk about four points—the Tibetans love to do this—I think it came from ancient India. What is something that is both positive throwing karma and positive completing karma? Okay, what’s an example of something that is both?
Audience: What’s completing karma again?
VTC: The circumstances in which or the events that happen to that person; the actions that cause those results. Let’s say us as human beings who are living here right now. I would say we have both good throwing karma and good completing karma because the actions we did in the past created the cause. We have a good rebirth—that’s because of good throwing karma. We have food, we have access to the Dharma—that’s because of good completing karma. Then you can say, “Okay, what’s an example of somebody who has good …”
VTC: Yes, here I am talking about karma. It is referring to the actions but we are talking about it in terms of the results that it brings. To be more specific, what is an example of somebody who is experiencing a good result from throwing karma and a good result from completing karma? Okay, so that would be like somebody like you; sitting here having had lunch and having access to the Dharma and the situation you are in.
How about somebody who is experiencing the result of a good throwing karma but a bad completing karma? Completing karma: we have many, many different completing karmas that may ripen during our life. So at one moment we may have a good completing karma ripen and another moment we may have a bad one. If we talk about somebody who is living in a war zone, they are experiencing the result of a good throwing karma because they’re a human being. But they’re experiencing the result of a harmful completing karma because they are living in a war zone where there is a lot of fear and danger and stuff like that.
If you talk about, “What’s the example of someone who is experiencing the result of an unfortunate throwing karma and a fortunate or a good completing karma?” Then you could talk about the dogs and the cats here. They are experiencing the results of a harmful throwing karma because they are born in an animal body. But these animals here live better than a lot of human beings on this planet, so that’s the result of positive completing karma. Get what I’m saying?
Then if you do the fourth alternative, someone who is experiencing the result of a harmful throwing karma and a harmful completing karma. An example of that would be the dogs in India. Most of the dogs in India, not all the dogs, but most of them are treated poorly. A dog rebirth is the result of a harmful throwing karma. And then these dogs, they have mange and they are starving and people throw things at them and kick them. They are treated horribly and that is the result of harmful completing karma. Okay? So this little thing, we call it the four points, it comes a lot when we are trying to understand topics. It makes your mind think about things.
Audience: Like concentration.
VTC: You mean our ability to concentrate?
Audience: In terms of how you’re talking about throwing karma.
VTC: Are you talking about somebody who is born into one of the form or formless concentrations where that’s a rebirth? Or are you talking about it in terms of our ability to concentrate right now in a human body?
VTC: Well, concentration is a mental factor; and concentration can be employed in a way that creates positive karma and it can be employed in a way that creates negative karma. It depends upon the action that we are doing when we’re using concentration.
Audience: I remember being taught that in meditation you are subject to distraction through attachment or excitement or whatever it is that has pulled you from concentration —that is a result of karma. Usually it is a negative karma because it’s pulling you away from focusing on a virtuous object.
VTC: The distractions we experience can be a karmic result but they are also what our mind is doing right now which is also creating karma. So if I’m sitting here daydreaming about my boyfriend, the habitual tendency to daydream about my boyfriend is maybe influenced by past actions—because in the past I daydreamed about him or was with him or whatever. But if I am sitting here trying to meditate yet daydreaming about my boyfriend, spending my time daydreaming about my boyfriend and creating all sorts of fantasies and stuff, this is creating some kind of mental karma there.
Audience: The habit is setting you up to make it easy to distract. We all have our favorite distractions and then by indulging in that distraction that’s new karma which deepens the habit so that it continues in the future. Right?
Audience: Can I back up? You link throwing and completing karma with the twelve links. So if throwing is associated in your framework with the second link then completing would be associated with bhava.
VTC: No. I’m not talking in terms of the twelve links here because the tenth link is the throwing karma when it is in the process of ripening and coming to fruition in terms of the next rebirth. The completing karma, as far as I understand it, isn’t really included in the traditional explanation of the twelve links.
A completing karma could be a karma, let’s say, without all four branches. When we talk about a complete karma that is going to be a throwing karma, it has to have four branches: the object, the motivation, the action, and the completion of the action. If you have done all four of those, if you have all four of them … there’s an object, you are going to kill, I don’t know, whatever it is, a grasshopper. And then your motivation to kill the grasshopper, you step on it, then it dies, okay? Then if you have all four of those it becomes a throwing karma. Let’s say you only had three of those branches, or you only had two of the branches. Let’s say you had the motivation to kill the grasshopper, then you say, “Hey wait a minute, I don’t want to deprive that being of its life,” and you restrain yourself. You still have that negative motivation. Or maybe you tried to kill it and you didn’t kill it, you just injured it, so it wasn’t a complete action of killing.
Audience: Okay, now why is it called “throwing karma”?
VTC: Because it throws us into the next rebirth.
Audience: Okay, so an action that is complete in these four factors has the power to throw results …
VTC: In terms of the future rebirth.
Audience: Just that one action will cause another rebirth?
VTC: You cannot say that specifically because sometimes, in other words, there is so much flexibility and stuff going on with karma. It’s not necessarily one action that creates a specific rebirth, it might be a combination of different throwing karmas that does.
Audience: I am aware of that. I am just trying to clarify what it meant.
VTC: In general they say an action that has all four complete has the potential to become a throwing karma. Now if some of the branches are very weak, there is a chance that maybe it won’t, or if it gets purified, there’s a chance that it won’t.
Audience: Or intervened in some way. And then a completing karma, what does it mean that it is completing?
VTC: A completing karma completes the circumstances of that rebirth. Completing karma will be whether you have food or don’t have food, whether you live in a peaceful place or not a peaceful place, whether you have a friend at a certain time or don’t have a friend at a certain time. We’re experiencing the results of a lot of completing karmas all the time because there are different situations we find ourselves in.
Audience: Are those completing karmas believed to have been from past lives or can they also be from the current life?
VTC: Both. Past lives and present existence.
Audience: Okay, so throwing karma is leading to rebirth.
Audience: Or contributing in some cases to rebirth. Completing is sort of working out the specifics within that rebirth.
Audience: Okay. I would like to suggest because you were speaking in terms of the fruits … so then it’s kind of speculating what the causes of those fruits would be. It would be easier for me if we talked about the karma itself and not the possible consequences.
VTC: The thing is, when we talk about the four results of karma, the maturation result is the result of the throwing karma. The other three, or two depending how you count them, are actually completing karmas because they complete the circumstances and the things. They are the results of the completing karma. So the environment we are born into is the result of a completing karma. The experiences that we have like somebody deceiving us or somebody being kind to us—that is the result of a completing karma. We can see by this that one action can, in some cases, be a throwing karma depending upon its result, and in some cases it can be a completing karma. This is because one action can cause multiple results, just as one result can be caused by multiple actions.
Actions that are done, actions that are accumulated
There are a few other things, I’ll just try and go quickly. But it came up last time, this thing about an action that has been done and an action that has been accumulated. You asked about that. There are these two things: actions that are done and actions that are accumulated. An action that is done is an action that we do. Sometimes they translate it as performed or committed. It just means an action that you have done. Then accumulated— sometimes they translate this as an intended action. What it means is an action that is done with intention. Here again we can talk about these four points.
First is something, let’s say, that is both an action done and an action that was intended or accumulated. This would be like me deliberately deciding to tell the truth about something. There was the intention and then I actually said the words.
Second is an action that was done that was not intended or not accumulated. This would be like stepping on an ant accidentally. Or somebody forcing you to do something—like soldiers getting drafted in the army and they don’t want to go. They are forced to do something. Or somebody being tortured and they are forced to do something. They’ve done an action but it wasn’t an intended action that they chose to do.
The third point you can say, what is an example of an action that wasn’t done but was intended? There it could be like you have the thought to give somebody a gift but you don’t do it. You change your mind and you keep it for yourself. So the act of giving a gift was intended but it was not done.
Or fourth, you could say an action that was neither done nor intended. This would be, for example, if you dream that you rob a bank and you wake up in the morning and you regret that. Then you have not done the action and you also did not intend to.
This thing about the four points, I’ve given two examples at this time, at first it seems confusing. But if you just think of it as we do charts. You know, you might have performed and intended here, and performed and intended here, and then you know how you have the little box, and then so you go down from performed here …
Audience: Intended, not intended. It’s called a matrix.
VTC: Right. I did not describe how it was done properly but I think you get the idea.
Collective karma and individual karma
There’s also talk of collective karma and individual karma. Individual karma is karma that we create ourselves as an individual. Collective karma is karma we create together. For example, we’re sitting here in Dharma class together. That is a collective action that we’re doing. So we’re creating some sort of karmic link together. Hopefully, it is a virtuous one. We have come together for a virtuous purpose. So there is a chance that we will experience a result of this action together because we created the action together.
Now also with being here, everybody is still creating their own individual karma. One person could be sitting here saying, “Oh, this is so interesting.” Another person can be sitting here saying, “Oh, this is so boring, I hate it.” Depending upon what we are thinking about and our mental action, what’s motivating us when we speak, we could be creating our own individual karma within the situation of being here together. So you see lots of times results that people experience in a group together—and sometimes they’re positive results, happy results, sometimes they are painful results. Those things they are experiencing, a whole group of people together, are said to be a result of some collective karma of an action they did in the past.
You still have individual actions that we do when we are alone but also individual actions that we do when we are with a group. You can look at what happened at the World Trade Center. There are all these people in the building when the planes hit. That is a result of some kind of collective karma that they had to experience being in the building when the planes hit together. But within that, a lot of those people escaped and a lot of the people lived. So that was a result of some kind of good karma or it was a result maybe of not having done a bad karma.
Audience: Or a result of not working on an upper floor.
VTC: Yes, but then why does somebody work on an upper floor?
Audience: Because that is the company you got a job with.
VTC: Yes, but there could be some karma involved with what company you got a job with.
We can see that people within that situation can have very different results. In the same way, within a certain situation people can be generally doing the thing together but create their own individual karmas, too—by in terms of what they are thinking about and saying during that time.
Audience: It sounds like individuals are doing individual karmas and reaping individual fruits all along but sometimes, individual karmas get linked together because things are done …
VTC: … together.
Audience: … together. And so some of the fruits will also be linked, so collective karmas are made up of individual karmas that get linked up. So individual karmas are kind of bottom line. But often we can find, I would say much of the time we find linkages—like in a marriage, a friendship, you know even if it is a group of two or three individual karmas are getting linked up somehow. You can see that just in this life, in future lives as well.
Audience: I heard someone say just recently that one way to counteract would be to live in the present. The more you can be in the present and not influenced by your own thoughts and reactions that’s one way to deal with karma. Would you agree with that?
VTC: Well, let’s say somebody has said something that is very painful to me. If I am able to just consciously say, “I am being in the present. I am experiencing the pain,” and I don’t let my mind start going “argh.” Then I am just experiencing the result of my past negative karma without creating any more new karma by planning on how to get revenge on that person for hurting me.
Audience: But if you are really aware of the present moment as much as possible you’re probably not being influenced by past.
VTC: Past karma is ripening all the time. Now certain things that we think can make past karma ripen or not. I mean, if we are in a really bad mood, it becomes very easy for even karma that we have done that will bring a result in terms of mental suffering. If we are in a bad mood it becomes very easy for that karma to ripen and bring us a ton of mental suffering.
Audience: A lot of that would be conditioned too. So the more you can be free of that.
VTC: Oh yes.
VTC: Yes. As I was saying, we have to be careful that we understand what being in the present moment means. A lot of people think it means “Oh, you know, here’s this good ice cream, I’m in the present moment, you know, eating up this good ice cream, really enjoying it.” That’s attachment. That’s not what it means to be in the present moment. But being in the present moment, you are mindfully eating the ice cream. At the same time as you are being in the present moment eating the ice cream, you can be aware that that ice cream depends on the kindness of a lot of sentient beings. You can be aware in the present moment of all the conditioning that led up to you receiving that ice cream. But being in the present moment does not mean that we do not think about the past or future—because there are healthy and unhealthy ways of thinking about the past and the future.
Audience: Can I insert a point that I forgot to say in my talk? When we talk about karma and the ripening of karma, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that karma is just one aspect of causality. Whether talk about the World Trade Center or other things, not everything that happens is happening just because of karma. In the Pali there’s a word niyama which means law or order. It is usually used in terms of causality. That is kind of the lawfulness, the orderliness of how things happen. Ajahn Buddhadhasa calls it the law of nature, the Pali word is dhammaniyama. In the commentaries this is broken up into five kinds of causality. The first, I forgot to look these up, but the first is a kind of material causality, like physics and chemistry. It’s usually called utu which means heat or more broadly means weather; just the workings of the physical world. So something has happened where that’s major or maybe predominant component. The second is a biological causality, so something has happened because that is the way living beings work, so that’s their biology. The third is citta niyama. There are processes of the mind, how it works, like when we talked about mental factors. Some are not necessarily karma creating, but they are just present, and so something has happened because that is how the mind works. Fourth, is karma. So ethical causality where there are ethical choices and consequences. What’s the fifth? The fifth must be something like the path. I will have to go look it up. Sorry, I forgot the last one. But the point is, not all causality is karma. Personally I think Buddhists get carried away attributing everything to karma and forgetting not everything happens because of karma. But again the point is to look at our actions in this life.
VTC: Remember karma is talking about the human experience of happiness and suffering: “What causes happiness? What causes suffering?”
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.