Four-point contemplation of karma
Four-point contemplation of karma
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.
- Review of the six preliminary (or preparatory) practices
- Benefits of purification and accumulation of merit
- Explanation of the four-point contemplation of karma and its consequences
MTRS 12: Preliminaries—Karma (download)
As we discovered in our previous contemplation of the precious human life, it’s hard to have the opportunity to hear the Dharma. It’s something rare and difficult. And we had to create a lot of good karma for a long period of time to have this opportunity. So now when we have it, we shouldn’t squander it, but take advantage of it. And really listen attentively, with the intention to put what we hear into practice.
And so let’s remember that we’re listening for the benefit of all living beings, so that we can progress on the path, gaining the various attainments and spiritual powers, freeing our selves from the bondage of ignorance, afflictions and karma, so that we can be of the greatest benefit to all others. So let’s really have that intention in our hearts as we listen this evening.
Preliminaries or preparatory practices
So we’ve been doing Mind Training like Rays of the Sun and we are on the first point where it is divided into seven points, which is to focus on the preliminaries. So what are the preliminaries in this context?
Audience: Precious human life, impermanence and death, karma and its effects and the disadvantages of cyclic existence.
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Now, we hear the term “preliminaries,” or “preparatory practices,” in other contexts as well. So for example before doing a meditation session, there are the “six preparatory practices.” Are they the same as these four? No. Dare I ask you what those six are? Last time I did, it was a disaster. Let’s try again. [laughter] What’s the first one?
Audience: Cleaning the room!
VTC: Second one?
Audience: Setting up the altar, and making offerings.
VTC: And third?
Audience: Doing the breathing and setting our motivation.
Audience: Refuge and bodhicitta.
Audience: Seven-limb prayer.
VTC: And sixth?
Audience: Making requests.
VTC: So those are the preliminaries before you do a meditation session on the lamrim. They’re the preparatory practices before you do the meditation session on the lamrim. For example, if you were going to meditate on “precious human life,” or “death,” or “impermanence,” or “karma,” or “disadvantages of cyclic existence,” you would do those six beforehand and then proceed to your lamrim meditation.
Now we also have the topic of preliminaries come up in another situation, when we talk about preliminaries to doing a three-year deity retreat. Now, what are those preliminaries?
VTC: Okay, doing prostrations is one of them.
Audience: Vajrasattva, refuge, the mandala offering.
VTC: Okay, and sometimes we talk about four, in which case it’s those four. If we talk about five, what is the fifth one?
Audience: Guru yoga.
VTC: So it’s those five, if we talk about five preliminaries, if we talk about nine, then what are the other four that we add?
Audience: Water bowls.
Audience: Dorje Khadro.
VTC: Fire offerings and then Samayavajra or Damtsig Dorje. So those are the four, the five, or the nine preliminaries, if we are speaking of preliminaries or preparatory practices, for doing a three-year tantric retreat and those practices are very good for purifying and accumulating merit. You don’t have to necessarily have the intention to do a three-year retreat to do those four, five, or nine, but they’re very good to do in any case, because even if you’re meditating on lamrim, you need to purify and accumulate positive potential before doing so. The four that we are talking about in this book, “precious human life” and so on, what are they preliminary to?
Audience: Mind training and developing bodhicitta.
VTC: Since they [online audience] weren’t able to hear that let me just recap it. The term preliminary or preparatory can come in different situations. Right now, in this book, Mind Training like Rays of the Sun, we have the four preparatory/preliminary practices. So, it’s meditating on precious human life, impermanence and death, karma and its effects, and the disadvantages of cyclic existence; and those are preliminary to generating bodhicitta, and doing the other mind training practices.
Then we also have the six preliminaries, or preparatory practices, before you do a lamrim meditation session. So those are?
Audience: Cleaning the room, setting up the altar and making offerings, doing the breathing meditation and setting our motivation, taking refuge and developing bodhicitta, the seven limb prayer and making requests to the gurus.
VTC: Good, you’ve got it. Then, we also talk about the preliminaries to doing a three-year tantric retreat, which are good practices to do even if you don’t have the intention of doing a three-year tantric retreat, because they are very good for purification and accumulation of merit and so they help in your lamrim meditation too. If we talk about four of those preliminaries (the Tibetan term is ngondro), they are: prostrations, Vajrasattva mantra, mandalas, and refuge. Sometimes, some schools do prostrations and refuge together, or refuge and bodhicitta together. Actually, when we do mandala offerings, we’re doing the bodhicitta prayer as well during that.
If you talk about five preliminaries, then you add the “guru yoga”. Then if you talk about nine, you add water bowls, tsa-tsas, Damtsig Dorje or Samayavajra and Dorje Khadro, the burning offering. So those make nine.
So just to know, the word preliminary/preparatory is used in different situations. Now, another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes we hear preliminary and preparatory, and we say, “That’s what you do at the beginning, in kindergarten. I want the good stuff. I want the high stuff, so let’s forget this baby stuff, and just give me the really high practice, because you know, I’m a very qualified, sharp aptitude practitioner;” we think! But all you have to do is start doing any of these preparatory practices, and you realize that they’re not that simple. They take a lot of concentration. You have to have faith, and understanding. You have to have the right motivation, and make them a Buddhist practice by having refuge in the Three Jewels. There is actually a lot that has to be brought into doing the preparatory or preliminary practices. So, don’t think that they’re easy things you can skip over; but rather if you do them and you take the time and do them well, then it really pays off when you’re doing the other practices.
Benefits of purification and gaining merit
So for example, we come into the Dharma, and we are full of negative karma, chock-a-block full. So, whether we intend to do tantric retreat or not, doing purification with prostrations, and Vajrasattva is very, very helpful. And then also, if we are going to have realizations, we need a lot of merit. So we need to do the seven limb prayer and the mandala offerings. And we need to have stable faith so that we’re sure of what our spiritual path is. So we need very strong refuge.
So, all these things fit together. I remember one of my teachers saying that, sometimes we do lamrim meditation and we know all the points but it’s kind of like reciting something, because we are not getting much feeling from it. So what is lacking in that time is purification and creation of merit. So, if your mind is just feeling very dry and like concrete, then it’s good to do more of the purification, creation of merit practices, because they soften the mind.
Remember purification is like taking out the rocks and the junk from the field, and creating merit is like adding the fertilizer and the water, softening and preparing the field of the mind. So, that’s why we often do these practices before a lamrim meditation session, because they really soften the mind. So keep that in mind, in case you find your practice becoming kind of blah.
If your lamrim practice is blah, Geshe Tegchok had a name for it: “Becoming immune to the Dharma.” The Tibetans have this great example, but you really have to appreciate it in a Tibetan cultural context. When they have butter, (because they love butter in their tea), if you’re transporting butter, (they don’t have it in nice little cubes, or tubs, or whatever), you transport it in a bag of leather. Now, if the leather that is holding the butter becomes tough, then you’ve really had it because the butter is supposed to soften the leather, but if it makes it really tough, then it’s like, “What to do?” That’s this idea of your mind: you have a lot of information, but not a lot of faith, or inspiration— so your mind has become like that bag of leather, with the butter inside. The butter is like all of the Dharma teachings. But your mind is like the leather that’s become hard. So you want to prevent your mind from becoming like that.
And, so it’s a nice balance of cultivating faith, confidence, and trust in the Dharma (and in the Three Jewels) and cultivating wisdom. We need to balance those and cultivate both of them. If we go too much to, I don’t want to say wisdom side here, but more the intelligent side, we might become a little bit intellectual; and then we become like that tough piece of leather. If we go too much to the faith side, we might get a little bit too ushy-gushy in undiscriminating faith, like melted butter. So we need something in the middle, where we have faith and confidence in the teaching, but also wisdom and knowledge so that we can practice well. So it’s always making some sort of balance. And you’ll see this as you’re doing the retreat.
Death and impermanence
Okay, so let’s move on; we’ve talked about the first two of the preliminaries. Precious human life: which means identifying it, knowing its purpose and meaning, and knowing its rarity and difficulty to attain. And then we’ve also completed the second preliminary about death. And death here is gross impermanence. So we’re not even talking here about the subtle impermanence of things arising and ceasing in every moment, but just the gross impermanence of death is already shocking enough to us; and we’re totally tuned out and walled off to it, aren’t we?
I kept remembering your comment, about how you did what I had suggested; making a list of all the people you knew who had died. And then you said, “All these people….” There were how many?
VTC: Sixty-four, some number, and in spite of knowing every single one of them who have died, you said you still feel that you’re not going to die? And it’s like, that’s the way that all of us are. And this is gross impermanence. So the mind is really fogged over by ignorance. And recognizing the gross impermanence of death is very, very helpful to our practice.
In fact, they say that, “If we don’t remember death in the morning, we waste the morning. If we don’t remember it in the afternoon, we waste the afternoon. And if we don’t remember it in the evening, we waste the evening.” Because the thing about death is, it’s right in our face. The question of, “Am I prepared to die? Am I prepared to navigate, death, the bardo, and take a good rebirth? Do I know how to do that?” I mean, that’s the question that the meditation on death is asking us. And so we check, do I know what to do at the time of death? Am I able to control my mind when unexpected things happen, or even expected things happen? How do I usually react? And, do I know what to do at the time of death? Do I know what to do after I’ve died? Do I know what to do when I’m reborn, besides scream at the top of my lungs if I’m born as a human being?
You know one of the reasons we generate our motivation right away when we wake up in the morning is because someday we’ll wake up in a next life, and maybe there will be the habit of generating a good motivation. So meditating on death is very, very important, to wake us up to the importance of doing Dharma practice. Otherwise, Dharma just becomes a nice hobby, something you do on Thursday night, listen to the internet on Thursday night, on Dharma. But Friday night you go to the movies and Saturday night you’re out drinking and drugging and over-eating. And Sunday night you’re playing checkers (or chess if you’re sophisticated). And Monday night, then there’s something else. So, we meditate on death!
Karma and its consequences
Then, the next one is: meditating on karma and its consequences. And so here our author says:
After death we do not cease to exist, but we have to take rebirth. Our place of rebirth will either be happy or miserable, according to our actions, rather than our free will. Therefore, it is reasonable to try to cultivate good actions properly and avoid bad ones. This contemplation has four parts:
(1) The certainty of actions and their results
(2) The multiplying nature of actions or karma
(3) Not having to face the consequences of actions you have not done
(4) Once committed, actions do not fade away
So, I hope you’ve heard these before in lamrim teachings. Whether you remember them or not, I’m not sure, but it’s good to remember them, because this is the basic foundation for understanding karma. When I studied in Italy, with Geshe Yeshe Topten, he loved talking about these four and he loved talking about karma. We were a residential community and he would talk to us about karma, but if we had one visitor that afternoon, no matter what topic he had gone on to after karma, he would talk about karma again! And then we would get beyond karma you know, the next few sessions, and then somebody else new would come, and again, he would talk about karma. And I remember thinking one time, “Geshe-la we’ve heard this so many times.” But after some time, I’ve become really grateful to him, for having repeated the teachings on karma again, and again, and again because I saw that they really made an imprint in my mind.
In the same way, Lama Zopa, in my first meditation course, taught the eight worldly concerns, again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. And, I meet other people nowadays, who have never even heard of the eight worldly concerns. But I had them drilled into my head from the beginning. And I’m very grateful for that, because they’re really the line of differentiation between Dharma practice and worldly practice. But a lot of people don’t even know them; they’re skipped over.
The way the Kopan courses were structured then, is that they were a month long, and the last two weeks, we took precepts every day. So we would get up early, in the cold, in the dark, and go sit in this tent. It was us and the fleas and Rinpoche. And, you know how you kneel down in that very uncomfortable position? So we would kneel down like that, and then Rinpoche would give the motivation. Or sometimes he’d give the motivation before and we’d kneel down, and then he would think of something else he wanted to add to the motivation. It was always five o’clock in the morning; and it was the disadvantages of cyclic existence, the three kinds of suffering, the six kinds of suffering, the eight kinds of suffering; how rotten cyclic existence was, at five o’clock in the morning when you were half asleep; day, after day, after day, trying to balance yourself so you didn’t fall over because this position is so uncomfortable. And, you know, a couple of years ago, I went and thanked Rinpoche for that, because I really see, because I heard so much, about the disadvantages of cyclic existence, again, and again, and again. It made a very strong imprint in my mind; it wasn’t something that you just kind of fluff over, but we’re talking business here.
So, there are lots of these things, and I think, this teaching on karma is similar: that if you have it firm in your mind, it really influences your world-view. Where as if it is not firm in your mind, then when it comes to action, we act as if we don’t believe in karma. Remember I say a lot, that we talk a lot about karma, but when it comes to action, whether we believe in karma or not, is up for grabs. Well that’s because we haven’t really put it into our world view. So these four points are very important!
The first point about karma: certainty of results
Okay, so the first point: the certainty of actions and their results.
All instances of happiness or suffering, whether coarse or subtle, are the results of specific wholesome and unwholesome action. The “Precious Garland” says….
And who wrote the “Precious Garland?”
The “Precious Garland” says,
“All sufferings are the result of unwholesome actions,
So likewise, are all bad rebirths.
The pleasure and joy throughout our lives
And all happy rebirths, are the result of virtue.”
The idea here is that, things are not called positive or negative karma, destructive or constructive karma because they’re inherently good or bad, but because of the results that they bring. So the Buddha looked at when sentient beings had results that were called happiness; the causes of those were called constructive actions. When he saw that sentient beings were miserable, then the karmic causes of those were called destructive actions. So things are called constructive or destructive not because of some commandment of the Buddha or some laws that the Buddha made up. But just because of the way dependent arising works in our own minds, the way causes produce effects in our own minds. The Buddha described these. And so gave the label constructive or destructive actions. So when we experience happiness, it’s always a result of constructive actions, it’s never a result of destructive ones. Whenever we experience misery, it’s always the result of destructive actions, never the result of constructive ones. That’s important to remember when we’re on the verge of doing a negative action; when we say, “Well, this won’t hurt.” Well, if the results of destructive actions are always suffering, never happiness, then what do we mean it won’t hurt?
The second point about karma: the results multiply
Then the second one is that karma multiplies. So we do an action, it leaves seeds in our mind stream, these seeds intensify in strength.
A small wholesome or unwholesome…. [Meaning virtuous or non-virtuous, just different translations.]1 A small wholesome or unwholesome cause can give rise to a much greater happiness or miserable result.
“Special Verses Collected by Topic” says,
“Performing even the smallest misdeed
Will lead to great fear
And trouble in future lives,
Like poison that has entered the body.
“Creating even a small meritorious act
Will bring forth great joy in future lives
And fulfill the great purpose,
Like grain ripening into a bumper crop.”
So the idea is that small things can bring big results, in the same way as in nature you have a small thing and it brings a big result. And this is why I’m very picky about getting every knap-weed plant at the Abbey. Because if you leave one knap-weed plant, after a few years you have a whole field of knap-weed; whereas, if you take that little extra effort and pull out that one remaining plant, you cut it. So in the same way with negative actions, they kind of ferment in our mind and increase in strength. And positive, even small meritorious, virtuous actions likewise gestate in our mind and they can produce big results.
So the idea is that we shouldn’t be lazy about creating small virtuous actions, because if we remember that they can bring big results then we have more energy to do them. And similarly we shouldn’t “pooh-pooh” small non-virtuous actions, thinking they won’t bring any result because they too multiply. So this is good to remember like when you get up in the morning and you feel like, “Oh, I don’t feel like setting up my altar this morning. I’d rather sleep in an extra ten minutes. I’ll be fresher during meditation if I do. I just won’t set up the water bowls this morning.” But it’s a small virtuous action and if we do it, it can bring a big result. Especially if we do it, thinking about bodhicitta and dedicating it for the benefit of sentient beings and meditating on emptiness while we do it. Similarly, when there’s a situation and we think, “Well, it’s just a little white lie,” or, “It’s just a little bit of malicious talk. Just a little bit, nobody else will know about it.” But that too increases in our mind and can bring big results.
The same text further says,
“Just as the shadow of the bird
Accompanies it in the sky
So beings follow after
Wholesome and unwholesome actions.”
Actually, usually it says that wholesome and unwholesome actions follow after the beings. Like in the Foundation of all Good Qualities (in the blue Pearl of Wisdom I prayer book), so I’m not sure how the translation is in this one. But it does make sense, in the sense that we follow our karma. In other words if we have a lot of positive karma we’ll follow that, or negative karma, that will determine our next rebirth so in that way, that way of phrasing it makes sense.
“Just as a traveler with few provisions
Will suffer on the road,
So sentient beings who do not do good
Will come to a bad end.”
So you die and your knap-sack has no good karma. When we go travelling, we pack well, don’t we? When we travel we have a big suitcase, we have our vitamins, our protein powder, our soap that’s special for our skin, the hand cream that we like, our shampoo which is again a special variety, just the exact socks that we like, the kind of clothes that are appropriate for this situation, our favorite toothbrush and the kind of toothpaste, the kind that good Buddhists always use, because you don’t want to be caught using the kind of toothpaste that regular old people use – that’s just not in. Have you ever noticed that? There’s big status thing about what kind of toothpaste you have, it creates part of your image. So we take great care when we pack. We pack lots of things with us for every situation. P, you’re listening in, can I tell the story about you going to Mexico?
Audience: He’s not online.
VTC: He’s not on? Oh, then I’ll definitely tell the story. [laughter] Why isn’t he on watching this? So P’s going to Mexico for a few months. He’s a journalist and so he doesn’t have any leads or any jobs or anything, but just in case he got sent somewhere across the world, he took clothes for every season.
He had six enormous suitcases, and I mean enormous, because K saw them and she’ll say I’m not exaggerating, remember? I mean enormous suitcases with summer clothes and winter clothes and spring clothes and fall clothes and all the computer gadgets you could ever imagine and all sorts of other things that you might need in case of an emergency. And I think, did somebody else have to take some of his suitcases? Yes, she carried two of them to Mexico. Anyway, he got all six of them there and then we were driving from Mexico City to Xalapa in this van and P. had so much luggage! He had to put a suitcase on his lap. And it wasn’t a short ride. But the point is that when we go traveling in a physical way, we are willing to endure the suffering of a huge suitcase on our lap for a six-hour or a five-hour trip. Because we see the benefits of covering all the possible things that could possibly happen on our three-month trip, when we’re basically staying in a tropical climate.
Okay, but we go to great lengths; but when we think of the trip from this life to the next life, do we make any preparation? Do we think, “I’ve got to start packing away some good karma now? And I’ve got to empty my suitcase of all the negative karma?” Do we ever think like that? No. But that’s what this verse is talking about. That we should really start thinking about what we’re taking with us in our future lives. The only thing is our karma and the habitual mental states that we’ve cultivated, so we’d better take care of that. And if we spend hours going out shopping for every small thing we could possibly need, then surely we should exert some effort to create even small constructive actions.
“Just as the traveler with plentiful provisions
Will have an enjoyable journey,
So sentient beings who have done good
Will go to a happy rebirth,”
So those are the ones who have packed away a lot of good karma. Packed away, meaning, don’t take it literally, it’s figuratively.
“We should not do even the smallest wrong
Thinking it will do no harm,
For the accumulation of drops of water
Will gradually fill a large vessel,”
So we all know that, especially when you try to sleep: drip, drip, drip, drip…. And you come in the morning and the bucket’s full. So even small actions create something.
“Don’t think, ‘The little wrongs I’ve done
Will make no difference later.’
For just as single water drops
Gradually fill a large vessel,
So ordinary beings become filled with wrongs
Collected little by little.”
So we accumulate this little white lie, taking this pencil that doesn’t belong to me, saying just this one small ridicule sentence, just deliberately getting rid of one bug; kind of little by little we create it.
“Don’t think, ‘The little virtues I’ve done
Will make no difference later.’
For just as single water drops
Gradually fill a large vessel,
So the steadfast are filled with virtue
Collected little by little.”
So similarly, why when we live here in the Abbey do we offer our food before every meal? Why? It’s a small thing, doesn’t take very long, you can skip it. Why do we do it? Because it’s a practice of making offerings to the Three Jewels; and so we eat often, so we accumulate the virtue from having made offerings, little by little, daily as we offer our meals. So if you think of these things, you know you go in the meditation hall every time, you make three prostrations. You can either make spaced out prostrations or you can make focused prostrations. It’s just a small action, but if you make focused ones, you’re accumulating merit little by little by little and it can really bring a big result. Similar to just before we go to bed, generating our motivation for sleeping, or when we get dressed in the morning, thinking that we’re offering fine raiments to the Buddha. Small actions, but they create positive karma.
The third point about karma: we only face consequences of actions we have done
Then the third point is not having to face the consequences of actions you have not done. We don’t experience the results of actions that we haven’t done.
If you have not accumulated an action, whether it would give rise to pleasure or pain, you will not experience its consequences. Those who enjoy the fruits of infinite merits accumulated by the guru, [meaning the Buddha], by the Teacher, do not have to collect all their causes, but they at least must do their part.
Let’s take the first sentence: we won’t experience the results of causes that we haven’t created. That’s why it’s very important to be meticulous about the karma we create. If we don’t create the causes for happiness, we won’t experience happiness. No matter how much we pray to the Buddha, “Please, may I have this? Please, may this. Please, this. Please, that.” If we don’t create the causes, then we won’t receive the results.
When we do the lamrim prayers, sometimes we say, “Buddha, please bless me to generate bodhicitta,” or, “Please bless me to cherish others more than myself.” That’s good to say in that it does put some good imprint on the mind. But if we don’t do the meditations that talk about the disadvantages of self-centeredness and the benefits of cherishing others, and exchanging self and others; if we don’t do those meditations, then no matter how much we pray to the Buddha, “May we be able to cherish others more than ourselves,” our mind’s not going to change. Why? Because we haven’t created the principle cause by doing those meditations that actually change the mind.
Similarly, if we haven’t created the causes of certain sufferings, we’re not going to receive the results of those sufferings. You see this sometimes in very peculiar ways. It doesn’t happen so much in the States, but in India, all the same types of business are on one street. So if you want auto repairs, all the auto repair shops are on one street. In our country they’re dotted around the city, but there they tend to accumulate in one area. And you’ll see one shop will do really good business and somebody else won’t. They’re on the same street, selling the same stuff. And there might be small differences in the service you receive, but basically it’s the same. Why do people go to one store and not the other? Well, this would have to do with the karma that the people in both of those stores had created before. One had created the cause to receive business and thus wealth. The other had not created that cause to receive others’ business and therefore wealth that comes from doing business. So you experience the result of what you’ve created but not the result of what you haven’t created. So it’s in mundane affairs, it’s in spiritual matters too. So really thinking about what the causes are for certain things and then creating the results.
I remember one time when I lived in France, at the monastery, the one that was the horse stables, remember? It was freezing cold and I had almost no money and we had to pay for our own heat individually. And we had to pay to stay at the monastery. I was cold and “Na, na, na,” and my mind’s complaining. And I remember in one meditation session I just said, “This is a result of your own miserliness, Chodron, so stop complaining and if you don’t like this result then you’ve got to be more generous.” So I had a little talk with myself in my meditation session and then I started pushing myself to really start being more generous; because I was seeing living there, the effects of my stinginess very clearly. It was amazing because as I started trying to be more generous, it didn’t happen instantly, but over time the situation improved. I was very curious about that. It’s just things to think about. And if we understand what things bring what kind of results, then really make sure that we create the causes for those kinds of results and don’t create the causes for the opposite ones.
It was the same thing when I got hepatitis A, or when I recently got shingles. It was like, “Well, this is the result of your karma, so don’t complain, if you don’t create the cause you don’t get the result. You’ve got shingles kiddo. You created the cause.” That’s actually at the point where you can start to alter things, because you can get shingles or you can get hepatitis, or you can get whatever you get. Then you can sit there and moan and groan and create a whole ton of negative karma. That way, it only creates more cause for sickness and discomfort. Or you can say, “This is the result of my own karma. I’m experiencing the result of what I myself have created and if I don’t like this result, then I’ve got to stop creating the cause. I’m going to learn from this experience and not belly ache about it, because it’s a really good lesson for me, to look at my mind and how I’m acting.” And then you start acting different and you start training your mind in a different way; and that is taking advantage of the situation. That’s one of the thought training practices: to transform adversity into the path.
The fourth point about karma: once committed, actions do not fade away
The fourth point,
Once committed, actions do not fade away.
I always like to use the computer for this example. You save a file and then it vanishes. Have you ever had that happen? You work on it so hard. You forget to save it as you’re going along. It actually happened to me today, the computer suddenly decided to re-boot itself even though I didn’t ask it to and so what I was working on, you know how that happens. So I lost part of what I was working on, thank goodness not too much. With computers you can lose your stuff like that. With karma it’s not that easy. It doesn’t vanish like our computer files. It doesn’t vanish like our car keys.
The “Especially Exalted Praise” says,
“The Brahmins say that virtues and misdeeds
Can be given away and transferred,
But you teach that actions done do not fade away
And actions not done have no consequences.”
So this is an important thing, that we can not transfer our karma to somebody else. Now sometimes in some Buddhist traditions you’ll hear them use the term, “Now at the end we’re going to transfer our merits.” Actually, it’s “Dedicate our merits.” I don’t know how it got translated into English as: “Transfer our merits” because karma isn’t like money in a bank account that you can wire over to somebody else’s account. So we dedicate the merit for all sentient beings. We can dedicate for somebody’s welfare, but we can’t transfer our good karma to them. Otherwise, wouldn’t we have all transferred our negative karma to somebody else by now? If the Buddha could’ve taken all that—if Buddha was the master banker—he would’ve transferred all the negative karma into his account, because he doesn’t want us to suffer. But it doesn’t work that way.
The “King of Meditative Stabilization Sutra” also says,
“It is impossible not to encounter the results of your deeds,
But you won’t feel the results of those done by others.”
There was one sentence I skipped up here. [In section three, above]. It says that those who enjoy the fruits of the infinite merits accumulated by the Buddha do not have to collect all of their causes, but they must at least do their part.
What that means is, we receive some of the benefit of the merits that the Buddha accumulated, don’t we? The Buddha accumulated so much infinite merit and that’s why he became a Buddha. And that’s what gave him the ability to be of great benefit to us. So the fact that we’re able to benefit from the Buddha’s teachings and so on is because he accumulated that merit that enabled him to become a Buddha.
It’s saying that to receive the benefit of hearing the Buddha’s teachings, we don’t have to create the same merit that the Buddha did, but we must have done our part to be able to hear the teachings. In other words, we must have created the karma to be able to hear the teachings because that doesn’t happen without cause. That’s why in the Seven-Limb Prayer, there are the lines requesting the Buddha to turn the Dharma wheel. It helps to create the cause to receive teachings and coming to teachings creates the cause to come to more teachings.
The “Transmission of Discipline” says,
“Even after hundreds of eons actions are not exhausted,
If they meet with their assembled conditions
Then embodied beings
Will meet with their results.”
We may have done an action gazillions of eons ago, but it just doesn’t get lost, as soon as we meet with the cooperative conditions in this lifetime, even that seed that was created so long ago can ripen and we experience the results.
So remembering the certainty and multiplying nature of karma, that an action not done will yield no result, and that once done an action will not fade away…,
Okay, so what it means is: remembering all those four points will obstruct all that gives rise to the path of destructive actions. So in other words, it will stop us from doing destructive actions.
You must earnestly engage in wholesome virtuous actions and since training in the precious awakening mind is considered to be the principal and supreme virtue, all of them should be part of that training.
What it’s saying there is that the principal virtue is bodhicitta and so we should do all of our practices motivated by bodhicitta because it will enable us to increase our virtue which will bring other good results along with it.
Questions and answers
We have a few minutes for questions.
[In response to audience] So you’re saying, if you have the wish to generate bodhicitta, is the practice of doing prostrations and meditating on lamrim, is that sufficient of a cause to generate bodhicitta? Yes and no. Because if we do all these things, really with great attention and concentration, then it’s very good. But you want not just prostrations; you want the other purification practices too. You want a lot of accumulation of merit; and then a lot of listening to teachings and meditating on the teachings. And since cultivating renunciation is a big help to cultivating bodhicitta, you want to create the cause by meditating on the causes of renunciation, and the determination to be free. Then you want to do the specific meditations that are the cause of bodhicitta, so either the seven point cause and effect instruction, or equalizing exchanging self and others. You want to do some emptiness meditation in there because that helps generate bodhicitta. Then you want to make requests to the Guru Buddha to inspire the mind because that helps us really put our intention out there in a very strong way. Then of course developing concentration so we can stay on the meditation subjects when we’re meditating, that’s a huge help.
Audience: So pretty much, whichever realization you’re heart seems to want to move towards, you’ve got some general prerequisites for whatever and then there’s the specific which can then get interlaced.
VTC: Right, yes.
[In response to audience] So you’re saying when you’re doing purification practices, you don’t feel real sure if purification practices actually stop the continuity of the negative karma but you do have some faith and belief that they do create the causes to create virtue. Well, they do mitigate the effects of the negative karma. So you just have to get over some of that good old fashioned guilt. You just can’t stay hanging in that guilt, original sin kind of rubbish. You’ve got to put that one down and you’ve got to forgive yourself. And really trust that when the Buddha talks about subduing the effects of the negative actions, that it makes sense. Because yes, of course it says that once created we’ll experience the result of our actions, unless, there is a caveat, we do something that counteracts that. If you’re doing purification practice, if you’re meditating on bodhicitta, meditating on emptiness, you are counteracting the effects of the negative karma. In the same way that if you develop strong wrong views or if you get angry, you’re inhibiting the ripening of the positive karma. So it goes both ways here.
So you said that you can’t imagine the slate getting wiped clean, but you can imagine cleaning the counter in the kitchen, so it may not be totally disinfected, but when you’re doing purification practice you’re taking some of the rubbish off; and that is what enables you to understand the teachings better later on. What enables you to start chipping away at some of those old entrenched habits is that you’ve done purification of them and so you’ve started to counteract them.
Commentary by Venerable Thubten Chodron appears in square brackets [ ] within the root text. ↩
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.