Rebirth, karma and emptiness

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Part of a series of talks given during the annual Young Adult Week program at Sravasti Abbey in 2006.

Rebirth and karma

  • Understanding rebirth and karma
  • Differences between the body and mind
  • Continuity of body and mind

Young adults 04: Rebirth and karma (download)

Dependent arising and emptiness

  • Continuity of the material universe and the logical flaws in believing in a “beginning”
  • The meaning of selflessness or emptiness

Young adults 04: Dependent arising and emptiness (download)

Questions and answers

  • Learning more about the nature of mind
  • Emptiness and an uneasy ego
  • Existing in dependence
  • Reciting mantras in Sanskrit

Young adults 04: Q&A (download)

Excerpt: Ensure our views are coherent

You know, we can talk a lot and come up with many theories, but when it comes down to actually looking at how our own minds work, we may find that it actually contradicts our own theories. Unless we work this out, our view on life is going to be kind of a mush.

It’s important to have a view of life that is coherent and that applies not only in our intellectual life, but also in our emotional life, that applies not only in our professional life, but also in our personal life.

I remember at one of the science conferences, I was having a discussion with one of the scientists. He was doing all this research about how our brain chemicals are our moods. He has this view that the mind was just an emergent property of the body, that the mind is dependent on the brain chemicals and the electrical processes going on at the brain synapses.

And so I asked him, “When you’re angry and you’re upset, do you just think, ‘Oh it’s my brain synapses. It’s the chemicals in my brain, so there’s no reason to be upset?’” [Laughter]

What do you think? Do you think that’s what a scientist thinks when he’s angry and upset? No way!

Intellectually, he’s holding on to the view of, “The emotions are just the chemicals and the electrical processes in the brain.” But that’s completely unrelated to how he sees his own experience. So you can see that this kind of world view is mush! It’s not something coherent.

…The mind is formless in nature. It’s clear and aware in nature, while the body is form. It’s molecular in nature. Body, unlike the mind, can be measured by scientific instruments. You can measure the serotonin, you can measure the behavior of a person, you can measure the electrical impulses, but none of those things are experience.

If those things were experience, then in a petri dish, if you had certain chemicals, you could say there’s anger. Would you ever look at the chemicals in a petri dish and say there’s anger? [Laughter] You never would, would you?

As I was saying, one time His Holiness asked a scientist, “If there’s a brain on the table, would you look at it and say, ‘I love you’?” If there’s a brain on the table, would you say, “There’s the seeing of color?” No. All these functions of the consciousness or mind can only be done by the mind. The fact of the body or the brain being there doesn’t mean that that’s the experience.

So what’s going on in the brain or the body may correlate with what’s going on in the mind, but that doesn’t mean it is what is going on in the mind.

Excerpt: The power of our conception

When we start to investigate things, we’ll see that they exist in dependence upon parts, in dependence upon the causes and conditions, in dependence upon our concept and our label that put these parts together. Our mind is what puts something together and makes it what it is.

Does a baby see a flower?

If a baby were in this room, it wouldn’t necessarily pick out the flowers, statues, water bowls and altar. To the baby, they’re just all these colors. They haven’t learned depth perception. Does a baby see a flower? Well, I don’t know.

When does that mush become a flower? That happens when our mind picks out, “Oh, those colors belong together. That shape belongs together.” It becomes a flower.

Like the blind men describing what an elephant looks like

When we’re describing a situation, we will talk about similar yet different things, because we will each pick out different details. A good example of this is the famous story of the blind men describing what an elephant looks like.

All these things happen through the power of conception and labeling—we pull out certain things and give them a label.

Labeling in the schools

Most of our education in school is learning labels—how do you label something? How do you conceive of something?

Labeling in the law courts

What is going on at law courts all day? Trying to decide what label to give to something. In a civil court, when one party sues another over a piece of land, they’re actually arguing about the label—is this land mine or yours? In a criminal court, they’re also arguing about what label to give—is this first-degree murder or is it innocence? And it all depends on how you conceptualize it. That’s why different jurors may have different opinions about what’s going on in a criminal case.

Countries quarrelling over concepts and labels that they have created

So much of what’s going on in our world and what we have tension and conflict about is quarrelling over concepts and labels that we’ve created. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it.

I remember being in Israel one time leading a retreat. The kibbutz was right on the border with Jordan. There’s desert, and in the middle of the desert sand was a fence … I stood by that fence one day and I thought, “People kill each other arguing where that fence should be.” Arguing whether that grain of sand is called “my sand” or “your sand”; “my dirt” or “your dirt.” That’s all they’re doing when they’re fighting those kinds of wars.

So you can see how we human beings create so many problems for ourselves by the power of our wrong conceptions.

Excerpt: Thought training using the concept of dependent arising

“Somebody hurts my feelings!”—this has happened to all of us before. Somebody says something harsh to me, and we give it the label, “They criticize me; they hurt my feelings.” We feel miserable about it.

But when you’re practicing thought training and the same thing happens, you give it the label, “That’s my negative karma ripening. My negative karma created in the past—it’s ripening, it’s finishing, it’s over now!” When you give it that label, do you get all depressed? No. You feel good. You rejoice. You’ve gotten rid of that karma.

The situation or the basis of the label is the same—the harsh words that the other person said. But depending upon what we call it—“They criticize me!” or “That’s karma ripening”—we either feel depressed and miserable, or we feel okay and even happy.

Why is it possible to change how we’re looking at situations? Because there’s no actual reality in that situation; it’s empty of its own inherent reality. Depending on how we conceptualize it, we could feel miserable and carry around that hurt and pain our whole life, or we can make it into something that becomes the path to enlightenment for us. It’s all up to us.

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