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The shaper of our life and death

The shaper of our life and death

A series of commentaries on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun by Nam-kha Pel, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, given between September 2008 and July 2010.

  • Explanation regarding how to reflect and meditate upon the way we think about karma and its effect on our lives, our death, and our rebirth
  • How the concept of karma is often misinterpreted and can lead to wrong views
  • Discussion of free will, predetermination, and dependent arising

MTRS 11: Preliminaries—Karma (download)


Let’s begin by cultivating our motivation and especially thinking of the purpose and meaning of our lives. It’s not just pleasure, because pleasure comes and pleasure goes, in every single moment. And, with this seeking for pleasure we create karma; out of greed and attachment and out of anger when others interfere with our happiness. And that karma comes with us into the next life. So, while pleasure is nice, it’s not the long-term meaning and purpose of our lives. When we understand what cyclic existence is, the clear-light nature of the mind and the potential that we have to free ourselves from cyclic existence, the potential to cultivate compassion and wisdom and to perceive the conventional ultimate nature of phenomena, the potential to attain full enlightenment, then we really see that this life has great meaning and great purpose. It’s not something insignificant. It’s not something to be taken for granted. And so we appreciate our lives, we respect that spiritual aspiration that we have, and we make a very strong determination to live our lives from that spiritual aspiration. And the heart of doing that is creating the mind of love and compassion that cherishes others; that seeks full buddhahood in order to be able to lead them on the path to buddhahood as well. And so let’s generate that altruistic intention for full enlightenment for the benefit of sentient beings as a way to take the essence of our life and make our life very meaningful.

Exchanging self and others

Today is Thanksgiving Day. It’s not the day that the turkeys look forward to. For turkeys Thanksgiving is a bad day. They don’t give thanks on Thanksgiving. They run away in fear from us because we want to kill them and eat them. So just think for a minute how you would feel, knowing somebody wanted to kill you and eat you, and that they were going to serve you as the big centerpiece in their family dinner. And everybody was going to have a good time, peeling the flesh off your body and eating you. It doesn’t sound very nice, huh? So when we think about our precious human life and the meaning of our life, is it to cause other beings pain and suffering so that we can have a good time? Is it worth the misery that the turkeys go through for us to have a nice meal? So it’s just a simple thing, we talk about exchanging self and others, so we just exchange self and others. How do I feel offering my body for someone else’s dinner? If you feel okay about it, okay. Most of us, on the other hand, I don’t think, would sign up for that. So in many things in our life if we just practice this thing of exchanging self for others in a very simple way; it’s what our parent’s told us when we were little, “put yourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” Remember that? Pretend you are in their shoes and see how it looks from there. So that thing we learned when we were little kids it’s kind of the principal of the equalizing and exchanging self for others meditation. It’s like, don’t think that you are YOU all the time. Don’t think that how things appear to you right now is how they are all the time, but switch perspectives and look at the situation from the viewpoint of others. We can do it from the viewpoint of the turkeys.

When you go into work, if you are not getting along with someone, switch places with them and see how the situation looks from their point of view. Or with a family member, or your spouse, or whoever it is, switch places and try to be them and think, “If I were them, how would I see this situation? What would be my needs and concerns?” And it’s so helpful! This is also a very basic skill if you are training in mediation and conflict resolution to try and switch places and see how the situation looks from the viewpoint of others. It’s really very helpful for pulling us out of our own self-centered view and realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around us. It’s a little bit humbling, but very effective. When we are able to do this, then we evaluate our actions in a different way.

Until now we have been talking about precious human life, last week we talked about death and impermanence. So this is showing us the value of our human life and its preciousness and how it disappears. We want to make sure that we make good use of it over time and don’t just get stuck in our own take on things, thinking that what our own mind sees is reality. What our own mind sees isn’t reality, and the very proof of that is that other people don’t see things the same way we do. So we think that’s proof of how stupid they are, but actually that’s proof of how stupid we are! It’s true isn’t it? When somebody doesn’t see things the same way that we do, we think that they are just dumb, but actually it’s showing us that there is no objective reality out there. If there were objective reality, then everybody should see exactly the same thing, but people don’t. Sometimes we feel very comforted when other people agree with our views on a situation. “Oh, you think that person is rotten? Oh good! It’s not only me. It’s not just my projection. If you agree with me then they must really be bad!” But that is just the projection of two; it’s not the objective reality. So it can be very helpful to broaden our mind that way and look at things from the viewpoint of others.

In the winter all the turkeys come to Sravasti Abbey because they know that we will take care of them. And they all become Venerable Semkye’s disciples. Whenever she walks out in the yard, all the turkeys run behind her—they’re real groupies—because she gives them food. That’s actually one of the first ways to gather disciples, by being generous. So you just have to make the prayer that in future lives they are born as humans and so are you, so that you can benefit them in that way too. But I think that it would work. We’d have so many more people at Dharma courses if we gave away presents and food.

The initial level practices of lamrim and rebirth

So, we have been talking about the four preparatory practices in the thought training teachings. What are the four? (1) Precious human life, (2) death and impermanence, (3) karma, and (4) the sufferings of cyclic existence. If you compare that to the lamrim teachings, the first three are in the initial level of practitioner. In the initial level, the practitioner sees the precious human life and that it’s difficult to obtain. They see its impermanence and that our lives are mortal. What is not mentioned here, but is implied, is that after death there is the chance that we will be born in an unfortunate realm. So I’m sure you are all very happy that the teachings on the lower realms aren’t in the thought training teachings. People don’t like to hear those teachings very much. I actually find them quite useful sometimes. They wake up my mind when I’m getting a bit lazy, when I’m getting slack, or when I take things for granted. Then I find thinking about the possibility of having a lower rebirth is actually something that makes me wake up, be more vital and not take my life for granted.

So just imagine, for example, being born as a turkey due to some kind of negative karma, not keeping good ethical discipline and then being born as a turkey. That is a negative propelling karma, as it propels the rebirth. But you are born as a turkey at Sravasti Abbey so you have some good completing karma because the environment that you are living in is good. But what can you do as a turkey at Sravasti Abbey in terms of bettering your situation on the path to enlightenment, very little. If Venerable Semkye feels like saying some mantra, which I hope she does, then you hear some mantra as a turkey but you have no idea what she is saying. All you are doing is following her because you want that cracked corn. That is the state of your mind. Think about that for a minute. What would it be like to have that mind that is just obsessed about cracked corn? If that is all you saw as nirvana was cracked corn? Sometimes as human beings we are like that aren’t we? We fixate our mind on something and think, “I’ve got to have this!” Then we become like the turkeys. Anybody who has whatever it is that we decide that we absolutely need, we are clucking after them, hoping that they will toss it to us. We’re really kind of foolish aren’t we? But just think about that.

What would you think about all day as a turkey? Here you are, so close to the Dharma. You’re even walking around the Buddha statue in our garden. You see monastics, but you have no understanding at all. The mind is so immersed in ignorance. I don’t know about you, but I actually find it quite scary. So when I think that I could be born in that way, then it’s like, “Whoa! I’d better take care to watch the actions I do and make sure I don’t create the causes for that kind of rebirth and make sure I purify any causes I may have already created and instead create other causes, for example: keeping good ethical conduct that would bring about a different kind of rebirth.” So what we are reborn as is in our own hands right now. We are the ones who create the causes. Nobody else sends us to the lower realms. Nobody else causes us to have another rebirth. We are the ones who bring it on. There is no Creator in Buddhism except, of course, our own mind. That is why we have to take care of our mind.

And then also, in the initial level teaching, after you meditate on precious human life, death and impermanence and the lower realms, that gives you the burning aspiration to have a good rebirth. You don’t want a bad one and you realize that this is really serious business. So that is the aspiration of somebody at the initial scope of practice. And what does that person do in order to actualize that aspiration? They take refuge in the Three Jewels. We trust our spiritual guidance to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And what is the first instruction that the Buddha gives us? Observe karma and its effects. That’s the chapter we are on now. But in the lamrim between death and impermanence and the chapter on karma, you have the chapter on the lower realms and the chapter on taking refuge. So taking refuge is quite important. Really settling on the path that we are following, so that we can go deeper and feeling that sense of support that comes from having checked the Buddha’s teaching out and having faith in them that is based on your wisdom and on your understanding of the teachings and therefore feeling that you can rely on the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to guide you. That brings a lot of stability to your spiritual practice and a lot of stability to your life in general.

Meditation on certainty of death and karma; How we make decisions

So, we were on the top of page 33, [Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun] at the last paragraph of the meditation on impermanence and death. It says,

Contemplating in this way how ultimately death is certain, its time is uncertain, and at that time nothing is of any help except the doctrine. Resolve to practice it now.

And not just to practice it now, but practice it purely. Don’t mix it with the eight worldly concerns because if you mix it with the eight worldly concerns, then what we take with us to the next rebirth is a hodgepodge of different kinds of karma. So,

Within the holy doctrine, meditation on the awakening mind, in other words, bodhicitta, is the primary practice. Having ascertained this, everything will become a factor of the training in the awakening mind.

So what this is saying is that when we see our precious human life and our death, and that death is definite, then we ask ourselves, since we want to practice the Dharma, what is the most important thing to practice. What is the thing that we really want to put our energy into? And so here it says that within the holy doctrine, meditation on the bodhicitta is the primary practice. So that clarifies for us that we want to put a lot of energy into meditating on bodhicitta. But we can’t go directly into generating bodhicitta because there are a lot of causes that we have to create first before we can create the causes for bodhicitta. It’s like when you are in kindergarten and you say that you want to be a doctor and go to medical school, but you can’t go directly to medical school. You have to go to kindergarten and first grade, and everything after that. So similarly we may hold bodhicitta very precious, but in order to generate it we need to start at the beginning of the path, and especially with this meditation on karma. And the topic of karma is really a very, very important one. Because if we have a deep sense in our heart about karma and that karma exists and that it brings effects, this has a very profound impact on how we live our lives. Whereas, if we don’t have that conviction and we just have the mouth level of knowledge of karma, then we talk a lot about karma but when it comes to making decisions about what to do and what not to do, our mind uses the eight worldly concerns as the criteria for making our decisions.

So instead of thinking, “What is the karmic effect of this action in the long term?” we think, “How can I get money and material possessions and how can I avoid losing them? How can I have praise and avoid blame? How can I have a good reputation and avoid a bad one? How can I have sense pleasures and not have painful experiences?” So, those eight, the eight worldly concerns, are the usual criteria that we use for deciding what to do. Those criteria are what keep us locked in cyclic existence, because through them we create a ton of negative karma. Whereas, when we really believe that our actions, intentions and our karma bring results then, when we have a decision to make, we think about what kind of karma will be created by making one decision versus making another. You have the opportunity to go to Dharma class and you have the opportunity to go to a party. Your party is with a lot of friends that you really like and you haven’t seen them in a long time. Your friends are saying, “We like you so much, we haven’t seen you in a long time, please come to the party, we want to see you.” And from your side you are saying, “Yeah, I should go and I’ll have a good time and we’ll talk about all sorts of things and we’ll drink a little bit and we’ll feel good and we’ll go out on the town afterwards. And my friends want it, and I’m practicing compassion, so shouldn’t I go to the party for their benefit? And otherwise, going to Dharma class, well it’s there every Thursday night and this party isn’t there every Thursday night. Shouldn’t I take advantage of the party and then I can listen to the Dharma class teaching on the web later on, while I put up my feet up and drink a coke. I can do that later.”

So, do you see what the criteria are on which decision we are going to make? The criterion is basically that I’m going to have a good time. And then, of course, you say that you’ll listen to the teaching later. Well, how often does that really happen? So when we have the opportunity to really learn Dharma, and if we think long-term, “If I go to the party, I’ll drink and drive and create a lot of negative karma from idle gossip. I might create some karma from lying. I might create some karma from creating disharmony, talking bad behind somebody’s back. Since I am with my friends, we’ll all gang up and talk bad about somebody else. So I might create some negative verbal karma there. I might have some malice; I might have some covetousness going on in my mind so there is so much negative karma I might create there.

And will I create any love and compassion at the party? I might have some good feelings from my friends, but that’s more because they are nice to me, than because I really care about them. Because if somebody at the party insults me, then I don’t have those good feelings for them any more. Okay, so that is the kind of mental state I have if I go to the party.

If I go to Dharma class what is going to happen? Oh, my back is going to hurt, my knees are going to hurt. I’m going to have to sit and meditate and my mind is so distracted. But I am also hearing the Buddha’s teachings, and when I’ve gone and heard those teachings before, it’s really woken me up. Because the Buddha is pointing out my behavior to me, and the Buddha is pointing out how my mind is thinking, and the Buddha is going to talk about the effects of my actions in the long-term, beyond this lifetime. And if I am able to learn about that and able to learn about how to have genuine love and compassion for others that isn’t going to depend on whether they speak kindly to me and give me presents. Well, isn’t that more valuable to me in the long-term? What kind of karma will I take with me if I go to the Dharma class? I’ll have the imprints of all these teachings on my mind; set a good motivation before I go, so I have some good karma created just by the force of that good intention. I’m not doing any idle talk. I’m not drinking and drugging.”

So if you look in the long term isn’t it more valuable to go to Dharma class than to go to the party, even though you have to say to your friends, “Oh, thank you very much for inviting me to the party, but I have other plans.” And even if they say, “What other plans?” and then you go, “Well I’m studying Buddhism.” And they say, “Buddhism! Why don’t you get a life?” And then you say, “Well have you seen the Dalai Lama on television?” And they say, “Yeah, when he was on Larry King. He was talking about some nice things. He was talking about compassion, he was talking about peace and he was talking about forgiveness.” And you say, “I’m going to hear the teachings. The same kind of things the Dalai Lama was teaching. Do you want to come with me?” And then lo and behold, maybe your friend does. It’s just something to think about. What the criteria are that we use for the decisions that we make. So even this one decision of what we do on one Thursday night can affect many, many lifetimes. It seems like one small action, but it can affect so many lifetimes and so many things that are going on.

I had a friend who went to a party in Bangkok and met this guy who asked her out to lunch, and the next day they found her body in a Bangkok canal. She had gone out with this French guy who was a serial murderer. This was back in 1975. So, it can seem like one little party is no big deal, but sometimes you do something like that and some karma ripens that has very traumatic effects. Maybe you go to Dharma class, they teach something that really touches your heart and you say, “Whoa, I really need to look at this aspect of myself because this is something that has been causing me problems for a long time, and I have a lot of potential and I don’t want to waste my potential.” So sometimes just one Dharma teaching can change your mind and how you are focusing your life. You don’t know, do you? We really don’t know. So, in this whole thing of karma, we shouldn’t just poo-poo things by saying, “This is really small, it doesn’t make a difference,” because small actions, in the long term can really make huge differences.

Karma and intention

Okay, so let’s read this chapter on karma. Well, first of all, karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action.” It’s very simple; it just means “action.” There is nothing mystical, magical or supernatural about it. It just means “action.” So we are acting all the time. We do physical actions. We do verbal actions when we speak. And, we do mental actions. And all of our actions are done with intention. All these kinds of mental, physical, and verbal actions are done with intention. There’s one mental factor that is called intention. Intention is what directs our mind to the object and helps us create a motivation to do something. Our intentions are very, very important. In fact, many of the tenet systems say that the mental factor of intention is karma. This mental factor itself is action. Why, because this mental factor, this mental action, is what motivates the body and the speech. Our mouth doesn’t move unless there is some mental intention. Unless it’s a reflex action, like hitting your knee, our body doesn’t move, unless there is some mental intention. Now, much of the time we aren’t even aware of our intentions; we live so much on automatic that it seems like we don’t have intentions. But if we slow down and begin to watch our minds, we’ll find that there are constantly different intentions going on. There are different intentions and other mental factors in the mind, together with that mental factor of intention that colors it.

If we are angry, that colors the mental factor of intention and we begin to direct our mind towards saying harsh words, being defensive, or blaming somebody else before they can blame us. If our mind is influenced by a mind of tolerance, then the mental factor of intention has a clearer mind and we have the intention just to accept, to be present and non-judgmental. There are other mental factors that color the mental factor of intention, but that mental factor of intention is really the chief thing to be aware of. When we start to be mindful of our actions we start on the gross level with our physical and verbal actions, and then we work up to looking at the mind and the subtle mental factor of intention. Because it’s hard to start directly looking at the mind, we start by working with the very gross things. Physical actions are the gross ones; because first you have to have the mental factor of intention that builds up, and then your body does something. So the physical actions are the grossest ones. The verbal actions are a little more moderate. The mental actions are the most difficult to be aware of. So we work at the beginning with the verbal and physical ones, trying to be aware of what we are doing and trying to not get involved in harmful actions. Why? It’s because they not only harm others, but they also harm us.

We harm ourselves when we harm others

I realize that a lot of us grew up with the idea, “Don’t do bad things to others because it hurts them.” So when we do bad things to others we often feel guilty about it afterwards because we hurt them. We somehow think that if we feel guilty, that purifies our negative intention. It doesn’t at all. But we get very stuck on the idea that, “I hurt somebody, therefore I’m a bad person.” It’s not very logical, is it? If you make a syllogism out of that, “I am a bad person because I hurt somebody.” Is that a valid syllogism? Why not? What is not true about it?

Behavior does not make a person bad. If you do a harmful action, it does not necessarily mean that you are a bad person by nature. So we need to drop that kind of guilt—that does not work at all. But then you might say, “Well, if I’m not a bad person and I already hurt somebody, and the action is done with, then—so what? Shouldn’t I just move on?” Well, we also have to look at the effect that doing an action has on ourselves. This isn’t what we grew up with. We grew up with learning about “Don’t harm somebody else. That’s not nice.” But we haven’t necessarily understood that when we harm others we are really harming ourselves.

How do we harm ourselves when we harm others; because, as the adage goes, “What goes around comes around.” If I put negative energy out, it’s going to boomerang and come back at me. When I do something with a harmful intention toward somebody else, that harmful intention is in my mind. It leaves a seed in my mind. It establishes a habit pattern in my mind. So that’s how my negative actions harm me: because that intention came from me, it influences my own mind.

We can see this as we begin to meditate and become more aware of our actions. We can see that when we say something that’s not really very nice, afterwards, our mind feels kind of restless. There is not a feeling of comfort in our heart. And when there is that feeling of discomfort, what we often do (if you’re anything like me) is we revert to our lawyer mode of proving how our action was actually good because the other person was bad. And then we go on our court case, “Well, I said that to that person, and they misunderstood me, and my point of view is really correct, and why are they talking to me that way, and they think that I’m an idiot.” We have all of these reasons why what we said to them is perfectly all right, and we do all of that in an attempt to get rid of the bad feeling in our mind that we have left over from having said something to somebody. But does all of our court case actually solve that bad feeling in the mind? It doesn’t, does it? We just go around and around and around. And eventually, you get so confused; you go toward the bar and drink. “I can’t get rid of it through my court case, so let’s just … glug, glug.” Or you take a few extra meds (your prescription medications.) You take more than you really should be taking, or you smoke a joint, or you go to the refrigerator, or you do something—but you aren’t dealing with the uncomfortable feeling that’s in your mind.

If we stop and look at that, “Okay, there is an uncomfortable feeling in my mind. Where did that come from? Well, it’s because I just said something real nasty to somebody, and basically, I don’t feel happy with myself. I might have all these reasons why I’m right and they’re wrong, but the bottom line is I don’t feel happy about myself.” I think that if we are able to look at and clear up this kind of thing then so much more peace comes to our minds in this lifetime. We create so much less negative karma that we take with us to future lifetimes. Because we are the ones who have to live with ourselves, aren’t we? And, other people may say, “Oh, you had a good intention . . . ,” but we know how we feel in our own hearts. So really the value of doing purification and confession practice is to learn to be honest with ourselves, to admit to ourselves what we did. Then we can actually clear it up and let it go, because we are not wasting so much energy trying to justify it to ourselves. Do you see what I mean? Do you see how that factor of intention leaves seeds on our mind? You can kind of feel it in that way, in your own life.

Karma, death, rebirth and the problems of misunderstanding what the Buddha taught

Okay, so lets look at some of the qualities of karma now. So our author says,

After death, we do not cease to exist, but have to take rebirth.

That’s already a big one. How many of us think that after death, we do not cease to exist but have to take rebirth? Do we really believe that we have to take rebirth? It was very interesting being with my family last week when my mom died, because my family believes that when you die, that’s it. There is no such thing as rebirth. There is kind of, “Well, we hope there’s heaven,” but there’s not even a strong belief in that. And, so we grew up like that. Do we really think that there is rebirth? Or do we think that when we die that’s it? This is actually an important question. This is a very important question. Because, if when we die, that’s it, then, we might as well enjoy. As long as you don’t get caught, just enjoy, because when you die, that’s it.

But if there is a future life, then it means that we have to take care of what we do in this life, because this life is going to act as a cause for future lives. The actions of this life are going to act as causes for what kind of rebirth we take in the next life, and the life after that, and the life after that. So this whole question of whether rebirth exists or not is actually quite an important one.

There are some people who say, “Oh, the Buddha didn’t teach rebirth.” Well, I don’t think that they read the sutras. Because it is very clear that the Buddha taught rebirth. Now does that mean that we just get stuck in thinking about future lives, and we don’t try to do anything in this life? No, it doesn’t mean that either. I think sometimes you hear people say, “Oh, there’s no rebirth,” because what they are doing is going against the tendency of some people that say, “Well, it’s only the next life that’s important. So, you know, you don’t need to worry about social equality now. Just create the cause to have a better rebirth next time.” “You’re suffering now, you’re impoverished now? Hmm, it’s because of your negative karma; too bad. Just create the good causes and you’ll have a good life next rebirth.” So, if people misunderstand karma, it can be used as a tool of social oppression. That is a misunderstanding of karma. Although I can’t really speak for people who say the Buddha didn’t teach rebirth; I think that it is because they’re not thinking correctly about future rebirth, and so they’re not being compassionate, and correcting social injustice issues in this rebirth.

In actual fact, yes, future rebirths are important, and at the same time, we have to correct social injustice issues in this rebirth, so that more people have the opportunity to create good karma. And so that we create good karma by being compassionate to others and helping them have a better life—and not just misunderstanding karma and using it as a tool of oppression against people who are less fortunate. But it’s an interesting question to ask ourselves: Do I really think that I am going to be reborn, or do I think that when I die that’s it? Because that’s going to influence a lot how we act, isn’t it? And if we think, when I die that’s it, then before we were born was there something? If there was something before I was born—if there was some causal energy that made me come into this life—then there should be effects of this life afterwards. So then maybe you go “there’s no causal energy.” Well then, what’s life all about? And what is the person? And what is the consciousness—what does it mean to be conscious?

And then of course you have some scientists saying, “Well, the mind is just a by-product of the brain.” Can you prove that? Can scientists prove that? When you’re unhappy, do you say, “Oh, my unhappiness is just a by-product of the brain?” When people have prejudiced or judgmental attitudes toward others, do you think, “Oh, that’s just a by-product of their brain?”

I think sometimes, our society has gone way too far toward the materialistic view that everything depends on the brain. And I think we use it actually, sometimes, to avoid social responsibility or personal responsibility. I’m an alcoholic. Why? Well, it’s in my genes. That means, I don’t have any responsibility for it. That’s a dangerous way of thinking, isn’t it? It can also be a dangerous way of thinking in a legal sense, because if you have people (lets say who commit negative actions) and you say, “They have no responsibility. It’s just their genes. It’s just their brain and there is nothing there after death anyway.” Well, then, why not exterminate these people? It’s not causing them any suffering after death. They don’t exist anymore. And it’s just their brain that is doing these negative actions. There is no human being there that really feels happiness or suffering, because happiness and suffering are just by-products of the brain, so it all doesn’t really matter, because after you’re dead it is over. So we can exterminate them; it’s a pretty dangerous viewpoint that can come out of that thinking—isn’t it?

I read an article once in the New York Times, a fascinating article about this. What we think about—what the mind is and the brain—can really influence our whole legal system. Are we really going to hold people accountable for their actions if we think that it’s just because of their genes and their brain chemistry that they do certain actions? It’s an interesting thing to think about, isn’t it? Is the mind the same thing as the brain? How we look at this can influence so much of our take on life and how we relate to other people.

Anyway, that’s the first sentence, “After death, we do not cease to exist, but have to take rebirth.” I won’t go into a whole discussion about rebirth and the proofs for it. I would suggest you read: Open Heart Clear Mind. There is a chapter there about rebirth that’s very, very helpful for understanding the different reasons that prove rebirth.

Free will, predetermination, dependent arising

Our place of birth will either be happy or miserable, according to our actions rather than our free will.

Now, I don’t think that is a correct translation, this term “free will.” I’ve never heard of a Tibetan word that translates as “free will.” I would think that maybe “choice” is a better word because we do have free will. From a Buddhist viewpoint we do have free will. But because of the way that this sentence has been translated, “Our place of birth will either be happy or miserable, according to our actions, rather than our free will,” we usually think if there’s no free will then there is predetermination. So karma must mean predetermination. That’s wrong. Karma doesn’t mean predetermination. But, also, karma doesn’t mean free will either, because in Buddhism, what we talk about is conditioning, dependence, dependent arising.

His Holiness said that if you could sum up the Buddha’s teachings, the Buddha’s slogan would be “dependent arising”, because things arise dependently. “Free will” has the connotation that things arise without being dependent. In other words, with free will, you can just decide at the spur of the moment, and do anything that you want. That means that there’s independence. Well, no, because things are dependent: they’re dependent on other factors to arise. If you don’t have the cause, the result won’t come. And if you have the cause for one thing, another result isn’t going to come because the result has to be concordant with the cause.

So things arise dependently but they’re not predetermined. Things arise dependently, but there’s not total free will to do whatever we want. In fact I think both of those are extremes, predetermination and free will. I think that both of those rely on the view of inherent existence, and are extremes. If you look at free will, it means that you can do anything that you want to, without having to create the causes. So if I had total free will, I should be able to start talking Chinese right now, even though I’ve never studied it. Do I have that free will to start talking Chinese right now? No, because I haven’t created the causes for it. But are things predetermined? Is it predetermined that I will never be able to speak Chinese? No, because if I am able to create the causes, then I can learn and speak Chinese. So things are not predetermined either. So don’t think of karma as predetermination.

Sometimes I think karma is explained in a very simplistic way for people who are beginners: “If you kill a goat, you will be born as a goat,” that kind of thing. But actually, karma is very complicated. If you look at anything in life, there are so many causes and conditions that have to come together for something to arise. It’s not just one cause. There’s a principal cause, but there are many, many, many conditions that have to be there as well.

The point here is that where we will be reborn, and how we will be reborn isn’t just a thing that we choose. It isn’t that you die and then you’re sitting up on some cloud, kind of looking down saying, “Well, lets see, I’m a little bored, where shall I take rebirth?” “I need a mother and father, you know, send in your applications right now, I’ll screen you, and choose where I’m going to be reborn.” No, it doesn’t work like that because we are conditioned beings. At the time we die, depending on what kind of thought is in our mind and depending upon what kind of karma is ripening at the time we die, our mind stream becomes attracted to a different kind of rebirth. And we are just blown there by the winds of karma. In the same way that we live so much of our lives on automatic, at the time of death we die on automatic. So that’s why we really have to learn to be much more aware now, when we are alive, in order to have any hope for the time of death.

Therefore, it is reasonable to try to cultivate good actions properly and to avoid bad ones.

If our rebirth is going to depend on our actions, we should create the cause for happiness and avoid the cause for suffering. And so there are four chief characteristics of karma that are gone over in this section:

  • The first one is the certainty of actions and their results.
  • The second is the multiplying nature of actions.
  • The third is not having to face the consequences of actions that you have not done.
  • And the fourth is once committed actions do not fade away.

So we will go into those four characteristics next time. But maybe you have some questions now?

Questions and answers:

Audience: Karma isn’t predetermination because we can change karma.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): How can we change it? By purifying harmful actions and creating good actions and also by dedicating and making prayers and aspirations, because that can steer how the karma ripens. And also we can influence how our karma ripens by looking at the cooperative conditions. Because, like I was saying, “it’s not just one cause that creates the result.” For instance, in the example of my friend in Bangkok, she had some heavy negative karma there. But if she hadn’t gone to that party, that karma wouldn’t have ripened then. Or, if she had gone to that party, but not accepted that guy’s invitation to go out, that karma could not have ripened at that moment. Or, if instead of being in Bangkok, she was somewhere else, it would have turned out differently. So there are many conditions, in this lifetime as well, that can influence how karma ripens. Similarly, when somebody dies we make special prayers and dedications for them every seven days, because if they haven’t found a rebirth at that time they go through a little mini-death in the intermediate stage, and at that time, our prayers and practices can influence their mind, and help another kind of karma to ripen that might be more advantageous for them. Today is the second week from my mom’s death, so I’m going to do special dedications and prayers for her. Because if she hasn’t been reborn, there’s a chance that she would do this mini kind of change of body, and her karma could be affected in a positive way, by the force of our prayers, intentions and dedications, that would help her in the next life

Audience: What’s the difference between intention and motivation?

VTC: Intention is one part of motivation. With motivation there’s an object, an emotion, and an intention. There are lots of different things going on to have a whole motivation.

Audience: What’s the cause of intention?

VTC: The cause of intention is the previous moment of intention. Because intention is one of the omnipresent mental factors, it’s always there. But then, what the mind has intention for is influenced by the other mental factors: love, hate, resentment, benevolence, and all these kind of things.

Audience: If a person is an alcoholic or a drug addict can they do specific things to help that karma?

VTC: I would say yes. And I would say about their being an alcoholic or drug addict, that there may be an element of karma influencing it. But there’s also a big element of what they are thinking about in this life and what their motivations and intentions are in this life. So, being an alcoholic isn’t just a result of previous karma. It’s also a result of what you’re thinking about and where you’re putting your energy in this life. And so that’s why it’s important to look at where we are steering our minds even in this life, where we are putting them.

It’s too easy to say, “I have this problem and it’s just because of karma.” Kind of like saying, “Well, you know, what am I going to do? It’s just a karmic problem.” Well, that’s giving away our power, because, while we might have a substance abuse problem, we can do something about it. Because we all have problems, don’t we? We all have our own obsessions, our own kinds of addictions, our own objects of attachments that are “not negotiable”, things that, “I’ve got to have or else I can’t survive.” But we work with those in this life and try to subdue the attachment and redirect our attention toward other things.

But, at the same time we can also do purification practice and say, “Whatever negative karma I may have created in the past that is bringing on this particular problem I’m experiencing right now. I want to confess and purify it.” If karma was created in the past, and it’s already ripened, we can’t stop it from ripening because it’s already ripened. But if we are in the middle of a situation there may still be some karma that can ripen tomorrow, the next day and the day after. So when we are purifying, we are trying to stop that negative karma from ripening.

Audience: Does anger nullify undedicated merit?

VTC: So you did some kind of virtuous action, but then you didn’t dedicate the merit, and then you got angry. And so, did that nullify all the merit, the whole thing? It depends. It depends on who you got angry at, how strong your anger was, how long you were angry and what you were angry about. So, you can’t say in any particular situation, but, definitely, if we haven’t dedicated that, anger will damage the merit that we have created.

Audience: Is it always good to dedicate?

VTC: Yes. It’s always good to dedicate. You can have a business mind. When you get your paycheck on Friday, do you leave it on the coffee table or do you put it in the bank? You put it in the bank. You don’t leave it on the coffee table. It is the same, when you create merit, you dedicate. You don’t just leave it kind of hanging out there. So think about it. Really reflect on these topics and on what we have talked about in the previous classes. Really think about it and do some reading in the different texts about rebirth about karma. Think, “If I really believe in rebirth, how is that going to change how I live my life? If I really believe in karma, how is that going to change how I live my life?”

This teaching ends with the mandala offering after teachings and dedication prayers.

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.