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Virtuous and nonvirtuous paths of action

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.

  • The four factors which complete a karmic action
  • The ten virtuous and the ten nonvirtuous paths of actions

MTRS 13: Preliminaries—Karma (download)

Cultivating motivation

So let’s cultivate our motivation and be thankful that we are still alive in this precious human life, that we still have the opportunities hear, contemplate and meditate on the teachings; that there’s still the possibility to create the causes for a good rebirth and liberation and enlightenment and practice to the Dharma in each moment. And by remembering our fortune, let’s feel enthusiastic about practicing and, of course, when we have that enthusiasm and apply effort then we begin to see the results of the practice; if we have an open and relaxed mind without a lot of expectations, that is. And as we start to experience some results from our practice, then our mind becomes more enthusiastic about practicing. So it becomes a revolving wheel. But all along in this we have to have that awareness of our fortune and a commitment to benefit sentient beings through progressing on the path to full enlightenment as a way of making best use of the fortune that we have. Let’s generate that as our motivation for sharing the evening together.

Questions and answers

Okay, so some people wrote in some questions that I thought I would reply to first.

Question: Why would we dedicate for somebody else’s health if they can only experience the effects of the karma they have created?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Because one of the facts about karma is that we only experience the effects of the causes that we have created. So what use is it to dedicate for somebody else’s good health or good benefits? Well, it’s true, we only experience result of causes that we create, but to make causes ripen depends on a lot of conditions. It’s not just that you have the cause and it ripens by itself. You need a whole field of conditions to make certain causes ripen. And when we dedicate for the well being of others, or for their good health, or their good rebirth, we are sending out some good energy towards them and communicating on a more subtle level; and that can create the conditions so that that persons’ own good karma ripens. So although we can’t transfer karma to them, like I was saying last week, it’s not like money in a bank account, you plug in another number and it transfers to their account. But we can create the good conditions around that person so that the positive seeds of their own mind can ripen. And so that’s what we’re doing when we’re dedicating for others or when people request us to do pujas for them, and then dedicate for them and so on. So that’s what’s happening there. And interestingly enough the scientists have done some experiments and found out that people who are being prayed for do recover faster. Isn’t that interesting? But I think also, it helps us to make dedications for other people because it pulls us out of ourselves. Instead of just thinking, “Oh me, I have these problems,” we think about others. And so it’s actually a privilege when other people ask us to do pujas or dedications on their behalf.

Question: If we have karma ripen from past lives, how are we to learn from it?

VTC: Because remember last time I was saying that when we experience unpleasant results then we should recognize that it’s a result of actions that we’ve done in previous times that were motivated by our self-centeredness. And therefore think, “Well, if I don’t like this result I should stop creating the cause.” So this person is saying, “How do you know what the cause was?”

If I get sick because of actions I did eons ago, how do I know or discover what karma created the conditions for my sickness? So, that’s true, we don’t have omniscient mind, we don’t have psychic powers that can recall previous lives so we don’t know exactly what the action was that is bringing a particular unpleasant result that we are experiencing now. However, although we don’t know the particular action we can get an idea of the general kind of action that we did. So we may not know the particular circumstances: “I was born as Steve von Patrick 500,000 eons ago and I swore at somebody and that’s why my boss is getting on my case now.” We might not see the specifics like that. But if we have certain experiences, like people getting on our case, then we can assume it’s from our having caused similar experiences to other people: that we’ve spoken unpleasantly to them, or we have gotten quite critical about them, and haven’t been very forthcoming in aiding them when they needed help in completing a task. So we don’t know the exact action, but we can get some idea of the approximate one.

So you get that idea when you study about karma and we’ll be going into some of the topics about the results of different actions. From that you can get ideas about the kind of actions that you’ve done. And also, in books like The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, that book is very, very good for talking about karma and it enumerates a number of situations, i.e., if you’re experiencing this and that it’s the boomerang effect from actions that we’ve done our self. And then it spells out what those kind of actions were. So it is very, very helpful. But even if we can’t remember what we’ve learned when we’ve studied about the results of karma, for sure we know that when we experience misery it’s because of a detrimental and harmful action that we’ve caused. It’s never because of a virtuous action. And when we experience happiness it’s always because of a virtuous action, it’s never because of a harmful one. So we know that much. And then if we can learn about karma we can learn about the kinds of things, the types of actions, we could have done in the past that bring the results.

I think it’s equally as important to do this not just when we have suffering, but also when we have happiness. Because we always say, “What did I do to do deserve this?” when we’re suffering. But we need to say, “What did I do to deserve this?” when we have happiness and good fortune. And so, for those of you who are on retreat now, have you spent any time thinking: “What did I do to create the cause to be on retreat?” So what did I do this life, what choices did I make this life that made that karma ripen? What kinds of things did I do in previous lives to create the principal cause of the karma so that I could even come? And we all have meals today. What did we do that created the cause for us to have food today? Do we ever think about that? We always think, “Well, the food comes out of nowhere” or “The most I do is go to the store and buy it.” But usually, “It just appears on the table out of nowhere.” But that’s not true. I mean, we did a lot of things in previous lives to create cause to have food. Do we ever stop and think what kind of things we might have done that created this cause? Because if we do, if we think of these kinds of things, then we will invigorate our practice so that we’ll create more of those kinds of causes. So in that way instead of taking things for granted we’ll really go out of our way to try and create the causes for a repeat of the kind of good circumstances that we have now. And that leads to another question, which is what somebody wrote to me, which is:

Question: Isn’t it selfish to do actions with some kind of expectation to experience certain results?

VTC: Shouldn’t we just do our actions without any kind of expectation of results? And just do what is right and do what is our duty without hoping: “Okay, I’m going to give a gift so I’ll be rich next life.” You see what I mean? Hoping for those kinds of results. Or, “I’ll be nice to somebody now so they’ll be nice to me in a future life.” So isn’t that kind of selfish and shouldn’t we abandon those kinds of intentions?

Well, even if we have that kind of intention, or we want that kind of result, it’s still seeking a result that is in accord with the Dharma. So if we’re thinking like, “In a future life I want to be able to practice the Dharma. And I’m going to need food to be able to practice then. So I’m going to give food now and hope that I will receive food in the future life so then I’ll have the food to be able to practice the Dharma.” That’s still a good cause. Sure, we’re limiting ourselves when we have that motivation because the motivation is simply for our own benefit in a future life. It’s not for enlightenment, it’s not for liberation, so in that way we’re shortchanging ourselves. But still compared to the usual motivations we have which are: “I’ll give a gift so that people will like me.” Giving a gift with delaying the result into a future life is something virtuous compared to the usual motivation we have which is only for the pleasure of this lifetime.

So when we are baby Buddhists our motivation is not so grand. Our motivation is…. we’re normal people, it’s like, “I want my happiness now,” happiness of this life, the eight worldly concerns. So the first step for us is to begin to change that motivation. And at least make it my happiness in future lives. So at least stretch the motivations some and then make it, “My happiness in future lives” so I’ll have good conditions to practice Dharma in future lives. And then, “I’ll do the action in order to attain liberation.” And then finally, “In order to attain full enlightenment.” So we have to stretch our mind and stretch our motivation as we progress. So it’s not bad to do something with the aim for receiving some benefit in a future life. It is limited compared to the benefit of thinking about the benefit of all sentient beings. But still it’s a definite improvement over our usual motivation, which is some kind of immediate happiness, or praise, or something like that. So we continue to work on our motivation.

Question: If we’re coming into this life with karma from previous lives, how is that any different from original sin?

VTC: So, I’m not a Christian theologian—so some of you may be able to help me, may have had more of the theology than me, but the basic differences I see is that doctrine of original sin stems from Adam and Eve making a mistake and then somehow it being passed down genetically to us. Or, I don’t think they talked about genes in the Bible, but somehow their sin was passed down to us. Whereas in Buddhism, we don’t have any negative karma that was created by other people outside of our own previous lives and the people that we were in the past. So there’s always a link if we have good karmic seeds or bad karmic seeds in our mind with actions that we ourselves did, not with the actions that our ancestors did. So that’s one difference.

The second difference is that in Buddhism there’s no deity who is governing this process so there’s no deity who created commandments, who created good and bad. The Buddha simply described the natural functioning of what kind of karmic causes create what kind of effects. So he just described it. And the Buddha is not dishing out punishments and rewards. He’s simply described a mechanism so that we can be aware of it; and then through our own wisdom learn to act in a way that brings benefits to self and others by doing so.

Those of you who were brought up with the idea of original sin who know more about it than I do, what are other differences?

Audience: One big difference is that the only way we eradicate it, at least in the Protestant view, is through the sacrifice of Jesus himself; whereas our own negative karma we’re the ones who are responsible for purifying.

VTC: Okay, so the difference on how to purify it and how to get rid of this sin (that word drives me nuts, by the way) is through Jesus’ sacrifice. So again it’s the behavior of somebody else outside of ourselves, whereas in Buddhism we ourselves are responsible for purifying our own negative karma. Any other differences?

Audience: Well, I think it goes to the very inherent nature of the person; in that the original sin doctrine is you’re born with this evil rather than you have this inherent good Buddha-nature. So they’re very contrasted. The central constituent of the person is this original sin and it’s a negative.

VTC: So it’s the viewpoint on the person. So original sin is something that is the nature of the person, something deformed, or evil, or rotten that is the nature of the person. Whereas in Buddhism when we talk about karmic seeds, those are just the seeds of actions that we have created, they are not our nature. And the basic nature of the mind is something pure. That’s another big difference.

Anything else? If you think of more differences can bring them up.

This is reminding me of the article that you read to us. It’s a very sweet article. For those who are listening, she wrote an article. How old were you when you wrote it? It was before you became a Buddhist?

Audience: When I wrote that story? Yes. Oh, I wrote that story as an adult, but it was looking back at being six years old, learning about…

VTC: So she wrote a story when she was an adult but before becoming a Buddhist, about the effects of growing up with the idea of eternal hell and damnation and how she dealt with that as a child. Very beautiful story.

Okay, so those were the questions form the last week.

The 10 nonvirtues are paths of action

In our book we came to the end of the section on karma and what our author has written about. But, I decided to talk a little more about karma because I think it’s a very important topic. So, we talked about the general characteristics of karma last time.

So the specific characteristics—there we’re getting into talking about the ten nonvirtues and the ten virtues. And so sometimes we say the ten negative actions—it’s not ten negative actions, it’s ten nonvirtues. And these ten are all paths of action but they’re not all actions.

You might remember when Khensur Rinpoche was here there was some confusion about it. They’re called paths of action because they’re conduits leading to future lives. So in other words, it becomes a path of action when you have all four parts of the action complete (and I’ll get into the four parts in a minute). Because when all four parts are complete, if the karma’s strong enough, it results in a future rebirth. So it becomes a pathway to a future rebirth.

Not all of these [ten nonvirtues] are actions though. The seven of body and speech are karma but the three mental ones are actually afflictions. So if we go through the ten, let’s start with the three physical ones, what are they? Killing, stealing, unwise and unkind sexual behavior. Four verbal ones? Lying, disharmonious speech, harsh speech, idle talk. Three mental ones? Coveting, malice, and wrong views or distorted views.

If you look at those last three: covetousness, maliciousness and distorted or wrong views, those three are afflictions; mental factors that are afflictions. They are not karmas; because karma, when we’re talking mentally, karma is the mental factor of intention. So the mental factor of intention is one mental factor. Coveting is a form of greed or attachment, maliciousness is a form of anger and hatred, distorted views are a form of confusion. So those are other mental factors. When they arise in the mind we might have a mind that’s full of greed. Well, that mind also has a mental factor of intention. That mental factor of intention is the karma. The mental factor of greed is something that makes that nonvirtuous. Or if you have a mental factor of love. You also have in that consciousness, besides your primary mind, you have an intention; and the mental factor of love makes that whole consciousness and that intention virtuous.

Now, while coveting is a form of greed, not all greed and attachment is coveting. Covetousness is only when the greed, the attachment, has gotten strong enough that you really have a very firm wish and you’re really starting to plan how to get somebody else’s possessions. When it’s just a random thought of attachment, that’s not necessarily coveting. So coveting is an attachment that has built up over some time, so that you really want it. Similarly maliciousness or ill will is not just a random thought of anger or a flash of hatred. It’s something that’s built up over time so you really have a very clear mind that wants others to experience misery. Same way with distorted views, it’s not just any mental factor of confusion. It’s when confusion has built up to a point that we’re really holding distorted views and thinking that they’re true.

So those three are actually afflictions. If they’re in the mindstream with an intention, then that intention becomes the karma. That’s why we don’t say the “ten non virtuous actions” because those three aren’t actions; they’re just the mental factors that color the intention. Whereas when we act physically, when we act verbally, those are actions. The body and the speech are the instruments that the mind is using to express. And so while that intention is the action then, at least from the Prasangika Vaibashika system, the physical and verbal activities are also karma or actions. So you’re clear about that? All ten can be pathways of action, all ten are nonvirtues; but only the first seven are karmas, are actions.

Four factors for a complete karma

Now each karma, if we’re talking about karma, to have a complete karma, one that’s going to be strong enough to bring a future rebirth, it has to have four factors. Sometimes we talk about three factors: preparation, actual action, and completion of the action. But sometimes we talk about it in terms of four factors: the first one is the object, the second is the intention, the third one is the action, and the fourth one is the completion of the action.

So the object is, for example in killing, it’s the living being that we desire to kill. In stealing, it’s the object that we intend to steal. So you have to have an object.

Then when we talk about the attitude or the intention, the second factor, it has three parts itself. So the first part in that is discrimination, which means that we must identify the object properly. So if you intend to kill one person, but you kill somebody else, it’s not going to be a complete action. If you intend to steal one thing, but you steal something else, it’s not going to be a complete action. If you intend to lie to one person, but you lie to somebody else accidentally (you didn’t discriminate the people correctly), then it’s not a full action. So we have to have the correct discrimination or identification of the object. Then the second part of that is that there has to be a mental affliction present. Because without the mental affliction present that isn’t going to color the intention to be something negative. And third is that we have to have the motivation to do the action. So we must have the wish to do it. So something that’s done accidentally, again, isn’t going to be a complete action. Or something that’s done without an affliction being present isn’t going to be a complete action. So those three parts are all branches of the second factor.

Then the third one [or factor] is doing the action, so speaking the disharmonious words, lying, speaking harsh words, whatever it is.

And then the fourth [factor] is the completion of the action, which is that whatever we intended to be the result of the action, that’s what happened: the person died, we claimed the stuff, the other person believes what we said.

Making examples

I won’t go through all the details for each of the ten like this, but your homework assignment is to think about this in your meditation and make examples. And the best way to make examples is from your own life. So if you haven’t done any of the ten [nonvirtues] then you’re going to have some problems doing this homework assignment. But it you’re somebody like me who’s done all of the ten, you won’t have any problem finding some examples.

It’s very good to take out those examples and say, “Okay, I lied to somebody.” And we don’t like to think of ourselves as liars. If anything, liar is very harsh, “I’m not a liar. I just sometimes lie, but I’m not a liar. But actually, my lies aren’t really lies, they’re little white lies.” To the tune that we’re so embarrassed and ashamed of them that we don’t want to ever admit to anybody we said them. But still they’re just little white lies. So take out some of those little white lies. You can take out some of the big ones too, if you want. And look at them and say, “Okay, well, what was the object who was I lying to? What was I intending to say?”

Then you move on to the second part, your attitude or your intention. So, “Did I identify the object correctly? Was there a negative mental factor present?” And here’s where we’ll sometimes go, “Well, it wasn’t really a negative mental factor. I mean if I told my husband I slept with someone else he would just get upset. So I didn’t tell him. Not only did I not tell him, I told him that I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So it was really out of compassion.” So look at all those mental factors we have that motivated the action and then see if there was a motivation to do the action, a wish to do it. So those are the three branches of the second factor.

Then remember what the words we said were; and remember how it affected somebody else. And actually the other person doesn’t necessarily even have to believe it for it to be a lie, so even if they kind of believe it.

So take out some examples. Harsh speech is another great one. Anybody who doesn’t have any examples of harsh speech to rely on for this meditation? If you don’t have any examples I can tell you some—meditate on mine! But go through it, and go through these different points because this is how you will understand about karma. If you don’t go through and make these examples it’ll just remain very, very intellectual for you; and you won’t feel like this teaching’s talking about you. So go through and do this.

The 10 virtuous paths of action

Then the ten virtues, or the ten virtuous paths of action, we can say that, because we’ve just talked about the ten paths of action. Those are just the abstention of the ten negative ones, i.e., being in a situation where you can kill and deciding not to. And here is where we have the advantage that accrues from taking precepts. Because if we’ve taken a precept not to do a certain action and we’re not doing it, we are accumulating virtue just by the fact of not doing it; because the abstention from the nonvirtues is in fact virtuous. In addition, doing the opposite of the ten nonvirtues becomes something virtuous: so instead of killing, preserving life; instead of stealing, guarding others’ possessions or respecting their possessions; instead of unwise and unkind sexual behavior, wise and kind sexual behavior or celibacy; instead of lying, telling the truth; and so on.

So those are the ten virtues. So again, go back and think about when we’ve done any of the ten virtuous paths of action. And go through the four things: what was my object, how about my attitude or intention, did it have the three factors under it, what was the action itself, what was the completion of the action. So go through and make examples in your life of doing that. And then pat yourself on the back because we should definitely rejoice when we’ve done something virtuous. It’s not being arrogant, it’s being practical. We should definitely rejoice.

Transforming neutral actions into virtuous actions

Then there are some actions that are neutral, that we do with no particular motivation, no particular virtuous or nonvirtuous mental factor: like sweeping the floor, or doing the dishes, or walking down the road, or whatever. So these don’t bring either favorable results or unfavorable results. And it’s the thought training practice which gives us the opportunity to transform a lot of these neutral actions into virtuous ones. So when we’ve been doing the 41 Prayers of Bodhisattvas—those are all teachings on how to transform neutral ones actions, i.e., when you enter a building—“I’m entering the citadel of liberation.” You’re going up the stairs—“I’m leading sentient beings to upper rebirth.” On seeing a full container—“May all sentient beings be filled with good qualities.” All these different kinds of things are ways of transforming neutral actions.

This is the same thing… I was telling J yesterday about my experience doing 100,000 water bowls and how I was so bored at one point doing them; standing there going, “Why in the world am I filling these cups full of water and dumping the water out? This doesn’t make any sense.” That’s because when I was doing it, it was a completely neutral action. I mean, I kind of generated bodhicitta at the beginning but then I forgot about my bodhicitta; and I was just filling cups with water and emptying the water out, which is a neutral action. And that’s the power of trying to get your mind to focus on what you should be thinking about when you‘re doing things like that, because that’s what transforms it into a virtuous action. So, you’re thinking that you’re filling the Buddhas with bliss, or filling the sentient beings with purifying nectar, or you’re meditating on emptiness, or thinking on something like that, meditating and making offerings and imagining beautiful offerings. So it’s the mind that transforms those actions into something virtuous.

This is also, by the way, why we often do these practices in front of a Buddha statue. Because just the fact of having the Buddha statue, the imprint of that, by the power of the holy object, even if our mind is neutral we’re still doing something virtuous. We started out with some good intention: we’re sitting in front of a Buddha statue it’s putting good imprints in the mind. So there’s some virtue there. But it’s really what’s going on in our minds while we’re doing it that’s going to transform it from a neutral action into something where we really create some good karma.

This same thing applies to mandala offerings, prostrations, saying your mantra, whatever—there’s some virtue in there because you got yourself there to do it. But if you really want to make it virtuous and not let it just drift off into some neutral action, then try and be aware of what your intention is, your thought is, and keep your mind in the Dharma while you’re doing it.

As we know this is not easy. The mind very happily gets distracted to all sorts of other things when it should be thinking about the prostration, or the mandala offering, or the mantra. But this is the whole thing about continually bringing the mind back again and again and again and again.

Working with strong afflictions during meditation

Of course, if when you’re doing some practice like this and you have a distraction, that is, really some strong affliction comes up in your mind. And your mind is like really going off in left field so that whenever you bring it back it just keeps going back there. Then what you need to do is, for a temporary period of time, leave your present object of meditation and deal with that affliction. So there are a number of ways that you can deal with that affliction. Or maybe it’s a memory coming up in your mind but there’s always affliction accompanying it—which is why the mind keeps going back to it. Because we don’t go back to just any memory, there’s usually some juicy affliction involved in it that keeps our interest: some ill will, or some resentment, or some craving for past pleasure, or who knows what it is; but the mind keeps going back to it.

So if you’re having that happen in your meditation then a few ways to deal with [this]. Number one is: know what the antidote to that particular affliction is, and meditate on that antidote. So if you’re having a lot of anger and resentment—meditate on patience, meditate on loving kindness. So there you have to choose one of the meditations of patience to do. If you’re having a lot of attachment coming in your mind, then depending upon what kind of attachment it is: if it’s sexual attachment then do the meditation of parts of the body; if it’s attachment to having possessions then think of how those things are impermanent and how many more problems you have when you have them. So, all these different antidotes – we’ve gone over this many, many times before. If you can’t remember what the antidotes are to a particular affliction, go look it up. Don’t just sit there and say, “Well, I can’t remember so I’ll just sit here and enjoy my affliction,” because you’re usually pretty miserable when the mind is afflicted.

Another way to deal with afflictions is to train your mindfulness on the affliction and then examine the affliction itself. You might have some resentment. You’re remembering a fight you had with somebody who knows how many years ago. Somebody who betrayed your trust how many years ago, so some resentment’s coming up. So then focus your mindfulness on the resentment and then examine: “Well, what is resentment? How do I know that I’m feeling resentment? On what basis am I calling this resentment? What does resentment feel like? What does it feel like in my body? What flavor is there in my mind? What kinds of thoughts are going on with this resentment? Do I have resentment often? Is this a very familiar emotion? And if so, what’s the pattern that I have that my mind goes so easily to this emotion?” So what you’re doing is you’re turning your mindfulness and your wisdom onto the affliction itself, becoming familiar with it, dissecting it, understanding what it is. Because a lot of times we say, “I’m angry.” But we’ve never stopped to feel what does anger feel like, “How do I know I’m angry?”

And I remember one person telling me that when she was first learning a lot of this stuff she knew she had emotions but she didn’t know what words to put to identify different emotions. Because depending on how we were raised, some of us may have been raised where people were giving us the vocabulary to identify what we were feeling. And some people were raised where our parents, or teachers, or whomever didn’t give us the vocabulary to be able to identify the emotions. And so then we need to sit and think. And then we might go to the mind mental factors and learn the definition of different things. And then see if that definition describes any of the things that we’re feeling; so that we can learn the words to put on the different emotions that we’re having. That can be very, very helpful. And then it also helps us differentiate between different emotions. Because sometimes we put the wrong label on an emotion and then we get very very confused. And we’ll think that something virtuous is non virtuous because we’ve put the wrong label on it; or we’ll think something nonvirtuous is virtuous because we’ve put the wrong label on it.

So this is all a way to use the factors of mindfulness and also this clear comprehension or sampajanna (I still don’t have a good translation for this) for helping us to understand how our mind is operating.

So, transforming neutral actions into virtuous actions.

The 10 virtuous actions in the Pali tradition

I thought that I would mention in the Pali tradition they also have a list beyond the ten virtues (that are the abstention of the ten nonvirtues). That is, they have a list of ten virtuous actions which I thought I would go through. Which again, this gives us ideas of things to cultivate.

The first one is generosity. So just think about whenever we’re generous, we’re doing a virtuous action. Of course our generosity has to be of the right kind of thing. If we’re giving arms to a drug dealer, that’s not generosity. If we’re giving booze to a drunk, that’s not generosity. So don’t just think it’s giving, there are certain qualifications in there.

The second one is ethical conduct.

Third is meditation, trying to focus the mind.

Fourth is cultivating humility and reverence. Oh, Americans don’t like that one! But actually that’s what we need more as a country, don’t we? I mean just as a country if we had more humility and reverence for things that are worthy of reverence, that as a country we’d be much much better off.

I was reading, there was one editorial…. I’m going on a tangent here. One editorial recently in the New York Times and the guy who wrote it said we’re kind of in bad shape…. I mean with all this financial crisis and consumer debt and everything. And saying we really need to look at our policies in many ways, and our domestic policies, and really reform things; and then put our intelligence in infrastructure, on green development and so forth. And I was thinking he had many good suggestions, I agreed with all of them, different things that we can do as a nation. But I was also thinking that it’s not just what we need to do as a nation, it’s something about our attitude as a nation.

Our attitude has gotten too much into immediate pleasure. And that’s what has lead to this whole thing of consumer debt. It’s gotten too much into greed; and money being the standard for personal success. And that’s what’s lead to this whole financial mess with the automobile agencies, and the insurance, and Wall Street. That we need to come back to our basic values and really renovate those. So it’s not just where we put our talent in developing new things, but a shift. And I think patriotism isn’t just going out and going rah-rah for your troops, because I think that’s rah-rah, “Go kill somebody.” I think patriotism is working for the common good of everybody in this nation. So if you want to be patriotic you have to be altruistic. And we have to move beyond just taking care of ourselves and our immediate situation.

So that’s where this thing of humility and reverence comes in there, doesn’t it? Looking beyond our own nose. Because we can do all the research we want into green energy and into building more infrastructure, but if we don’t change our attitude and we remain so self-centered and focused on immediate pleasure, we’re not going to be able to pull out of the mess we’re in.

I was thinking that I should write some reaction to that guy’s editorial, but I never got around to it. But I was thinking, you know? Of course, they’d never print me in the New York Times. “I would be printed in the New York Times!!” [Laughter] Oh, humility and reverence?—Oops! Anyway, they aren’t my ideas, they’re the Buddha’s. So I can’t even take credit for it!

Okay, then the fifth is offering service. So that’s something very good, offering service to other sentient beings. That’s what we’re doing here.

Sixth is rejoicing at virtue, our own and others.

Seventh is dedicating merit.

Eighth is listening to Dharma teachings.

Ninth is teaching the Dharma, (leading discussion groups, leading meditations).

Tenth is straightening out our views. In other words, cultivating correct views.

Correct views

And correct views are really, really important. When we think of the three principle aspects of the path, correct view is the last one. But when you look at the eightfold noble path, correct view is the first one. And it cycles around and also becomes the last one. The correct view is important at the beginning of our practice so that we have a correct understanding of a correct world view. We have the view that mind and body are different continuums. We have the view of rebirth, of karma, of the fact that our mental actions create our happiness and suffering, and our physical and verbal actions do too. So this whole world view of what is samsara, what is nirvana, how do we get out of samsara and enter nirvana, what is enlightenment. So this whole thing is something quite important because if we don’t have this world view, then we may try and create virtuous actions, but we’re going to be bumping up against all of our wrong views. Because we’re full of wrong views, aren’t we?

And we can multiply our wrong views very easily. We have multiplying mantras; we have the mind that multiplies its wrong views. The mind of confusion, especially when our confusion has been influenced by attachment and anger; we can manufacture all sorts of wrong views, like killing the enemy will can give you a good rebirth. Out of hatred you’re manufacturing a wrong view. Or how we manufacture our world view out of our attachment also, like: “Oh, drinking and drugging isn’t anything that’s harmful. Selling alcohol to other people isn’t anything that’s harmful, it’s giving them pleasure.” It’s a wrong view, isn’t it? But it’s a wrong view backed by our attachment.

So what I’m getting at is that developing a correct view at the beginning is very very helpful and very important. Because it steers the rest of the practice we’re going to do. And then of course, we come around, that that’s one level of correct view that deals with the conventional functioning of things. And then, of course, later on in our practice we come around to correct view again, this time thinking about ultimate truths and what is the real nature of reality. And that’s the ultimate correct view that we come around to when we’re meditating on emptiness. But also correct view at the beginning of the practice is also very important.

Questions and answers

VTC: Do you have any questions?

Audience: I have some questions. Sometimes we’ve heard that rejoicing is a part of the completing karma, of the completion of the action. Does that come under completion or is there a different list where it goes in at the end?

VTC: [Rewording the question] So sometimes we hear that rejoicing is the factor of the completion of the action.

It’s not necessarily that. Rejoicing is an extra-added oomph we give to the weight of the karma. But if we intend to [and do] kill some being and it dies before we do, whether we rejoice at that point or not, it’s the completion of the action. Of course, if we have regret at that point, it’s going to make the karma much lighter. And if we rejoice at that point, it’s going to make the karma much heavier.

Audience: Can you talk about the notion of collective karma?

VTC: So we have collective and individual karma. Collective karma is what? The karma that we create as part of a group. So right now there’s a group doing retreat. We are creating collective karma. Now the karma we create—whether it’s virtuous, nonvirtuous, or neutral—is going to depend upon what was the reason why this group formed. In our case, the reason why our group formed was to do Dharma practice to benefit sentient beings, to attain enlightenment. So therefore, we create some virtuous collective karma by being part of this group. And all the people who are doing retreat from afar, they’re also creating virtuous karma by choosing to be part of this group which is coming together for a virtuous reason. Some groups come together for a nonvirtuous reason. Like a gang, we’re going to come together to protect our turf and chase away the enemies. So then when you join that kind of group for that kind of reason, then you’re sharing in the karma of the group. And you’re creating karma together that you often experience together.

There are a few things here. One is that we often create karma in a group that we will then experience the result of in a group. So why are the 16 of us here together, plus, how many people do we have from afar? 103. We need five more to make it 108! Any volunteers? So all these people, we’re creating karma together and we could experience the result together in a future time. Or we could look at it as why are we all together now doing this retreat? Because we’ve done some virtuous action together in the past; that’s allowing us to meet together for these kinds of situations. When I go to teachings by His Holiness, and there are thousands of people there coming together, I really feel this power of joining in with other people who have some kind of virtuous intentions somewhere along the line.

But you also have to agree with the intention of the group to collect the karma from it. Because some groups we find ourselves being part of without our consent. For example, Washington State executes the capital punishment. Well, I don’t agree with that. So when the state does capital punishment? I am not a resident of Washington State because I agree with that particular law and favor it. So I don’t create the karma of killing when the state executes somebody. But people who agree with that and support that? That’s the thing of rejoicing at nonvirtue or rejoicing at virtue is—you accumulate the karma from rejoicing in that.

Now within our collective karma, there’s also individual karma. There are 16 of us here, human beings for the retreat; there are two cats; and how many turkeys, Venerable?

Audience: There are 21 right now.

VTC: Twenty-one turkeys—very auspicious number. Twenty-one turkeys. We hope it doubles by the end of the retreat. She will collect more disciples because she feeds them. So here we have some collective karma, and we have some individual karma. Why were the kitties born as kitties and not as humans? They clearly have some karma to meet the Dharma, but not as human beings. In the monasteries they usually say it’s the monastics who don’t keep their vows well who get born as animals. So that means we need to be careful. Otherwise we’ll have more animals at the Abbey instead of more monastics! We don’t want it that way, okay? So there we are talking about the results of the karma.

But also in the creation of the karma, we’re all here together, so we’re creating some collective karma, some group karma, but we all have our own individual thoughts too. And in one meditation session, one person’s mind can be very, very virtuous; and another person’s mind—they’d be just sitting there, just being kind of angry and upset, and criticizing and dah, dah, dah. So within this thing of creating group karma, we also create individual karma. And we also experience the result of our individual karma too, don’t we? Because you can see that in the meditation hall, how one day one person’s very happy, another person is miserable. Nothing has changed. Then the next day, that miserable person is very happy and the first person is miserable. Again nothing has changed, except the mind of course. So the moods change according to karma, according to the way we’re thinking. How we deal with the ripening of karma will influence the moods that we experience.


We have to stop now. So people are welcome to write in questions. And please do the homework. So make some examples of the ten virtues and the ten nonvirtues through the four points from your own lives. And then we’ll continue talking some more about karma in the upcoming weeks. Because it’s an important topic and I think that it’s good to hear about it again and again and again. Because it makes us much more conscientious, much more careful with our actions, it gives us much better understanding of why things are the way they are. And it gives us much more energy to take responsibility for our experience so that we don’t take our good circumstances for granted, or whine about our bad circumstances.

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.