Karma, samsara, and dukkha
Karma, samsara, and dukkha
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.
- Reflection on how our attachments to samsaric pleasures and aversion to dukkha (the truth of suffering) continually create an environment within our mind that creates destructive karmic consequences.
- How is karma created within the teacher-student relationship?
- How to listen to teachings when they are expressed through stories
- Discerning whether the results of karmic actions are virtuous, nonvirtuous or neutral
- An introductory overview about how to meditate using the four elements
- The order of karma’s ripening results and a short overview of the progressive process of destroying negative karmic seeds so that there is no ripening.
- Includes several miscellaneous answers to audience questions regarding purification, dedication, rebirth and the twelve links of dependent origination
Let’s cultivate our motivation. Again, feeling really joyful that we have this opportunity to hear the Dharma because not so many people have that opportunity and so it’s rare. It’s even rare for us to have the opportunity. And it’s an opportunity that’s so beneficial. It has ramifications not just for ourselves, but for others. And not just on this life, but for all future lives. And so let’s approach what we’re about to do with a sense of joy and gratitude and a determination to use this fortune for the highest purpose—to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Renunciation and bodhicitta
So we have this life and there are so many exciting things we can do in it, can’t we? We can go here, we can go there, we can study this topic, we can study that topic. We can meet all sorts of interesting people, and see all sorts of movies, and learn all sorts of jazzy things, and listen to all kinds of music, and travel around the world; and it all seems terribly exciting and wonderful, doesn’t it? And does any of it have any essence? Does doing any of that produce anything of long-term value? Only if we have a bodhicitta motivation, and a genuine bodhicitta motivation, not a fake one that’s rationalizing what we’re doing. So it’s real important for us to think about what has meaning and essence in our life and what doesn’t. Because if we don’t think about this, and we’re just pulled here and there, attracted by this and that, off to see this, off to do that. Then pretty soon we’re dying—which is the great adventure of our life—and we haven’t even packed our suitcase for that one; because we’ve been too busy packing our suitcase for all the other fancy things we’re going off to do.
So it’s very important that no matter what we’re doing we have an attitude of bodhicitta. And to have bodhicitta in the mind we have to have some renunciation. It’s absolutely imperative. Because if we don’t wish ourselves to be free of samsara, how in the world are we going to wish anybody else? If we can’t understand that everything we have contact with is the truth of suffering—if we can’t understand that—how are we going to understand that in relationship to everybody else and wish them to be free of it? So this is quite powerful when we really look around and think: Everything I have contact with, my whole body, my whole mind, every external object, every person I meet—except if we happen to know some buddhas or bodhisattvas or arhats but aside from that—everything else is the first noble truth, or the second noble truth: truth of dukkha, truth of the origin of dukkha.
Where is the truth of dukkha?
So somehow we feel that dukkha (suffering), and the origin of dukkha (the origin of suffering), that there’s something out there. It’s like, “I’m here, and I’m not suffering, I’m not the first noble truth, I’m kind of here, protected, because after all I’m me. And the first noble truth is something out there that’s afflicting me. But my body, my mind, they aren’t the first noble truth.” That’s actually one of the definitions of the first noble truth: the five aggregates subject to clinging.
So the things that we cling on to, that’s why they’re called subject to clinging; and also because: how did our body and mind come about? They came about through clinging, through grasping, through craving. That’s how we got this body and mind. But we never look at it that way. It’s like, “How did we get this body and mind? Well, my parents did something.” Well that was craving wasn’t it? But that was their craving, that’s not my craving. But how was it that this consciousness was born in this body? It’s because the mind was overwhelmed by craving and we had done karma. We had created karma that was pushed on by craving in some way: so the craving from the karma, the craving at the moment of death, craving for a new life? Here we are.
And this very body and mind that we’re trying to use to get free of suffering and the causes of suffering: Are suffering and the causes of suffering!
So samsara isn’t somewhere out there. This [slapping her body] is samsara. So if we don’t have an understanding of that and we’re somehow thinking, “Well, I’m just okay. There’s samsara. And yes, we want to be free of it and all that. And I want other people to be free of it because they’re all really mighty confused. And I get confused once in a while too, but I’m not nearly as bad as those other people. They’re really confused. I’m just superficially confused.”
So if we have that kind of attitude, how are we going to have genuine bodhicitta? Because we’re not even wanting ourselves to be free. And we can’t want ourselves to be free because we can’t even see what samsara is to want to be free of it. So this is a really serious situation and we just kind of like, “Well, Dharma is kind of a nice hobby, but gee, if I can find something better, I’ll go for it.” It’s just something really to keep in mind: the relationship between real renunciation and the determination to be free and bodhicitta. And how all that ties in with really being able to be honest with ourselves and see what samsara is. And actually admit what it is because it’s scary when you think about it. It’s really scary. And it cuts through the ignorance that just feels that, “Well, I’m safe, and I’m protected, and everything’s going along, and other people die, and other people get sick, and other people get in accidents, but not me!” So it really cuts through that, doesn’t it? It really cuts it.
And it’s so interesting because no matter how much suffering we’ve experienced, as soon as we go through it and pull out of it, we’re back stuck in our ignorance feeling like it’s never going to happen to me again. It only happens to other people. You mentioned that before and it really struck me. Sometimes when we’re really in pain, “Oh yes, samsara sucks.” And then we feel better: “Samsara’s fun! There are all sorts of new exciting things to do!” It’s really kind of amazing. This is ignorance. This is ignorance. When we talk about ignorance preventing us from seeing clearly, this is it. We can’t even see what ignorance is because we’re so hindered by the ignorance. And it’s not only us, it’s everybody. So it’s all these beings who have been our mother in previous lives and who have been kind to us. And it’s all of them, as well as us. So there’s no reason to hold ourselves as being any different than anybody else. No reason for it at all because we’re all totally 100% in the same boat.
But we’ve had the fortune to meet the Dharma, so we have a responsibility. We have an extra joy and with that extra joy comes an extra responsibility. I remember His Holiness, one time he was saying when he was talking about nuns. That, “Nuns should have equal privilege in the Dharma, and that means you also have equal responsibility.” So with privilege comes responsibility. So if we have the privilege of having met the Dharma, we have the responsibility to be able to benefit others through it.
Questions and answers
We have some questions this time.
Audience: K asked, “Is there is any difference between negativities such as the ones we purify with doing the Dorje Khadro fire puja at the end of retreat and the seeds of negative, unwholesome, un-virtuous actions for which we do purification practices like the Vajrasattva and the 35 Buddhas—or are they the same thing?”
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So I wasn’t sure in her question if she’s talking about the difference between negativities and the seeds of nonvirtuous karma; or if she’s talking about the difference of what you purify doing Dorje Khadro, and what you purify doing Vajrasattva, and what you purify doing 35 Buddhas. So I will answer both. The difference between negativities and seeds of negative karma: negativities include unwholesome or nonvirtuous mental factors; whereas the seeds of negative karma are the seeds of karma. There are also seeds of the afflictions, but they’re different than the seeds of karma—because karma are actions. Afflictions are mental factors. So when we use the word negativity it includes the unwholesome karmas and it includes the nonvirtuous mental factors.
Audience: The manifest unwholesome mental factors?
VTC: The manifest and the seeds, the whole thing is included in negativity. But negative karmic seed is a subcategory. Then in terms of what we purify by doing different purification practices: it’s said that 35 Buddhas is especially good for purifying the bodhisattva vows and other negativities. And Vajrasattva is especially good for purifying transgression of the tantric vows as well as other negativities. And then of course we do other purification practices like Dorje Khadro or any of the visualizations; we do the four opponent powers. So it’s important to remember in this that it isn’t just doing a sadhana that’s the purification, it’s applying the four opponent powers to the mind that’s doing the purification. Because otherwise you just recite a sadhana, “Blah, blah, blah,” but if the mind doesn’t change and we’re not actually going through the four opponent powers: regret, making a determination not to do it again, taking refuge and generating bodhicitta, and then the remedial action. If we’re not doing that then we don’t have the complete four opponent powers. So that’s real important to remember.
Now some texts have the four opponent powers in them. If you look at the 35 Buddhas the four opponent powers are right there. It’s the same in Vajrasattva. But we may do other things as the remedial action like making offerings, offering service, doing things like this, so that’s the remedial action. But we need to make sure that the other three parts are there as well for it to be purification. Okay?
Audience: C had some questions too. I’ll just read what she said because it is quite interesting; she had a comment first. She said, “I’ve been meditating and thinking about the teachings on karma and many questions continue to arise. The teachings have been very useful for me to further examine my own habitual behaviors, particularly in thinking about anger, karma, and impermanence—as I could be out of here at any moment and in what state of mind do I want to die?”
VTC: Good reflection.
Audience: [continued] “It just brings it home even more that there’s no time to waste for me or anyone else; and that it is good reason to really consider how my actions may influence someone else to get angry or engage in any of the other destructive actions or thoughts.”
VTC: So really thinking not only how she creates negative karma, but how her actions and behavior can trigger afflictions in other people that cause them to create negative karma. So that’s the development of compassion within her that she is caring about the karma that other people may create. Okay, then her questions.
Audience: [continued] “I was thinking about the karmic results for students in their actions towards their own teachers, so the question arose, what about the weight and results of the teachers reactions towards their student?”
Audience: [continued] “Would it be heavier—the teacher’s karma be heavier—because of the responsibilities to which a teacher has committed and would it be heavier for Buddhist teachers because of the multiple lifetimes view as opposed to teachers from other spiritual traditions that are only thinking of this one life, or for a teacher of worldly subjects.”
VTC: So it’s much more interesting to think about the karma other people would create in relationship to me, because they better create only virtuous karma in relationship to me! [laughter] But us thinking about the karma we create in relationship to our teachers? We don’t want to think about that one. But anyway, to answer her question, in the teachings it always emphasizes our relationship with our teachers. And why that is important is because they’re the people who lead us on the path. And so if we create negative karma in relationship to the people who lead us on the path, it’s like we’re pushing them away, aren’t we? Because what’s negative karma coming from? It’s coming from a deluded mind. It’s coming from anger, and ignorance, and greed. It’s coming from self-centeredness. So when we create negative karma in relationship with our teachers, we’re pushing them away. And so that becomes like pushing away the path to enlightenment. And that’s why that karma is so heavy. Well, that’s why that karma is so damaging for us, okay?
Now in terms of teachers, spiritual teachers, of course you have responsibility to somebody else. And actually any of us who are Dharma practitioners and especially monastics, we’re visible as Dharma practitioners. Then we have a responsibility to the people who see us. Because people look at us and, fairly or unfairly, we become symbols of hope for them. And if we misbehave, it breaks that trust and it could cause them to lose faith in the Dharma and that’s very bad for them; and therefore very bad for us because our poor behavior caused them to loose faith in the Dharma. So it’s a similar thing if somebody is a spiritual leader and other people are looking up to them as something they want to become—as some symbol of hope in this world. And then that spiritual leader just creates all sorts of negative karma and does all sorts of negative things. Then we’ve had enough scandals in this country, haven’t we, to know how that effects people and how it really makes people lose faith, lose hope. It’s a really very sad situation. So I think people really have a responsibility—when you’re in that position. It’s what His Holiness said, “Along with the privilege comes the responsibility.”
I would think teachers in schools also: they have responsibility towards their students too, especially if their students are kids. Little kids don’t know so well between virtue and nonvirtue. But adults sure do and so they have a responsibility there. But of course nobody’s perfect, are they? Except the Buddha; as for the rest of us we’re hobbling along there.
Audience: One of the factors in the ripening of karma is the conducive circumstances, right? Because you were talking about: that for a seed to ripen you need water and fertilizer, so for karma to ripen we need the circumstances around us in our life. So are those circumstances themselves that we find ourselves in due to ripening karma; as well as our experience we have in that circumstance? Consider the example here of being in a bar, which is the circumstance. Is that a result of our karma? And that we get mugged in the bar—that is the result of karma. But does being in the bar which set the stage for being mugged, is that also a result of karma?
VTC: So karma will play a factor in that, in the conditions. But the conditions also depend on our state of mind because we were the ones who chose to go to the bar, okay? So that intention to go to the bar is our intention. And whatever afflictive mind was motivating it, that’s our affliction; and so having those mental thoughts. And then of course we must have had some karma that made it possible for us to get to the bar, because if we didn’t the car would have broken down or something would have happened. We would not have been able to get to the bar. But then once having gotten to the bar; and then the mind that starts drinking, that mind is not karma, that mind is our mind, it is the afflicted mind. And so doing that behavior, with that kind of mind, puts us in a circumstance where it’s very easy for negative karma to ripen. So yes, karma is involved, but a lot of the thing has to do with the mental state we’re in and the choices we’re making at that very moment.
Audience: When something big happens to someone, I’ve heard people say things like, “That was just their karma.” But aren’t we experiencing karmic results every moment?
VTC: You bet we are. Yes, we’re experiencing karmic results almost every moment here. But people sometimes only realize it when there’s some big event, you know? But then you can’t just dismiss the big event by saying, “Well, that’s their karma.” His Holiness sometimes says that you hear people say a lot, “Oh, that’s their karma. That’s their karma. Why did that happen? Oh, that’s karma.” He says when we say that it is as if we mean, “I don’t know.” “Why did that happen?” “Oh, I don’t know, it’s their karma.” So he says you can’t just brush things off saying, “It’s their karma. It’s their karma.” But you have to really look at: what was the mind involved in that action? And what were actions done in previous lives—motivated by the mind that people are experiencing the results of? So things are very complex situations. We tend to want to make things extremely simple like there’s one karma that’s ripening and that’s it; or one cause for something. It’s not. Even in science: you study biology, or chemistry, or any of the sciences they always talk about multiple causes and conditions and interplays of many factors. And so when we talk about karma ripening, it’s the same kind of thing. It’s the interplay of many, many factors and conditions there.
And we are experiencing the result of karma all the time. We’re here listening to teachings tonight. Well, that’s the result of karma. We created the karma to be able to come to the teachings. But it’s also the result of what we were thinking today, or what we thought a year ago that made that decision to come live at the Abbey. And then when you’re here at the Abbey you don’t sometimes even generate the motivation to go to teaching, you just find yourself here. So that’s why we always start with creating our motivation, because sometimes we just are a bunch of sheep and follow the schedule. [laughter] “Why am I at the teachings? Well, I don’t know. It’s what everybody else is doing.” So we have to generate our motivation. But we did create a virtuous motivation that wanted to move to the Abbey; so that got us here to start with, which is good. It’s really very important because sometimes when you live and breathe Dharma like this sometimes you just take everything for granted and your motivation? You stop having a strong motivation because you’re just surrounded by it all the time. So you don’t feel like it is anything special; or that you have to do anything special with your mind while you are enjoying the Dharma.
Reading stories about karmic results
So those are the questions, let’s go back to our section on karma here.
One thing to say is that sometimes in different sutras or different texts, we’ll read stories about karma and some of them may seem really extreme in our mind. And we have to realize that sometimes the way these stories are told, they’re told as moral injunctions. So they’re told in a certain way to get a fairly big point across to people and not all the subtleties are brought in. We sometimes hear these stories, and westerners—we take things very literally, and we go, “How’s that possible?” I was just reading a story recently, and I can never get the details right, but I think it was that at the time of the Buddha one monk went with the other monks to bathe. And he couldn’t swim so he didn’t go in the water, but the other monks went in the water. And they were enjoying themselves as they were bathing. So he thought, “Oh, they’re having such a good time like a bunch of ducks.” And just because of thinking that, comparing the monastics to ducks, it’s said that he was born 500 times as a duck. So you hear things like that. Then we go, “Wait a minute. That seems rather strange that just making a comment like that in jest can cost 500 rebirths as a duck?” I think that the point here is: don’t call people names, and don’t compare people to things that are lower states.
But if you look, can that one action alone without any other karma cause somebody to be born as a duck 500 times? I don’t think so. Because I think there also has to be an action with the four parts complete; a negative karma with the four parts complete. And so that has to be there. And then you add this negative karma on top of it; okay, then you get that rebirth. But just that kind of offhand karma alone, without any other factors, I think is not quite accurate. So when we hear stories like this we have to realize that it’s said for a particular purpose. And we should definitely understand: yes, we don’t call people names, and we don’t compare them to things like that. But we don’t have to take all of that 100% literally.
Similarly sometimes you hear in the sutras: if you recite this mantra one time, you’ll never be born in the lower realm. Well hey, you know, then none of us should have any fear of being born in the lower realm. Which means: if we have no fear of being born in the lower realm, we must have obtained the patience part of the path of preparation—which means we’re pretty far advanced already. Well, no. It’s just a way of encouraging us to recite that mantra saying that it’s something very virtuous, and if you have a bunch of other factors together you won’t be born in the lower realms. But just saying that mantra once with our ordinary spaced out mind doesn’t mean you’ll never be born in the lower realms. Okay? So, just to have that clear in the mind.
Results of karma: are they virtuous, nonvirtuous, neither?
Then another thing about it: is that the results of negative karma with the exception of the habitual corresponding result (so the habitual tendency to do the action again), with the exception of that, the other three results? The results themselves are neither virtuous nor nonvirtuous. Because taking rebirth: whether you’re born in a higher realm or a lower realm, the body-mind you take as a result of karma is neither virtuous nor nonvirtuous. But is this body virtuous or nonvirtuous? The human body is the result of tainted virtue, but the body itself is not nonvirtuous. This is important because otherwise we can really get into some kind of screwy way of thinking. Similarly, last time we were talking about the environmental results that we were born into. If you’re born into a place with a lot of stones and rocks and thorns, is that place nonvirtuous? No. It’s just a place. So the cause to be born there might have been nonvirtuous, but the result itself isn’t. Okay? So the same thing with the body that we take; the body, the rebirth, is not virtuous and not nonvirtuous, but it could be the result of virtue or nonvirtue.
And then similarly, the corresponding result in terms of the experience, for example receiving praise or receiving criticism. Those words and hearing those sounds, that’s neither virtuous nor nonvirtuous. It’s a result of virtue or nonvirtue; but it itself—is that sound virtuous or nonvirtuous? When you hear praise and those sounds are coming in your ear, are those sounds virtuous? No, they’re just sounds. Are they nonvirtuous when you’re getting criticized? No. The person saying them may have a virtuous or nonvirtuous mind. We may have created virtue or nonvirtue that’s causing us to hear them. But the sounds themselves are neither virtuous nor nonvirtuous. Are you getting what I’m saying? Yes? So that’s why this is very un-Catholic. I know you’re struggling with it! [Audience commenting—inaudible.] I saw that as soon as I said that, your face went like, “What are you talking about? This body is evil. The body is bad.” No, it’s just a body. You can use it for virtue or nonvirtue.
Audience: It helps thinking about it [the body] like an environment. Then I can see clearly.
VTC: Exactly. So it is just a body. And what’s the difference between your body and that external place? They’re both made of atoms and molecules, aren’t they? In fact, they’re both made of the same atoms and molecules. They have different organic substances arranged in different ways, but those organic substances aren’t virtue and they aren’t nonvirtue.
The four elements and selflessness—a Pali sutta meditation
Actually today, in the thing that I was going over today—I’m going to go off on a tangent but it’s very interesting and I really liked it. I was reading in one of the Pali suttas and about how you meditate on the four elements to realize selflessness. So one of the ways to meditate is to take like the earth element, for example; so the earth element: we’re not talking about particles of earth. We’re talking about the quality of being hard or being resistant. Okay? So, there’s earth element in our body. There are some of the organs in our body where the earth element is prominent: like skin, and bones, and teeth, and muscles, and anything that’s hard and solid and resistant in our body. So that’s called the internal earth element. Then there’s the external earth element: the quality of being hard and resistant in the rocks, in the ice, the bricks, the stones, everything there. Now the question comes: why, when the earth element is in relationship to this body do we generate so much clinging and attachment to it? And why do we consider the earth element in this body: I, and mine, and myself? Why? Because it’s no different from the earth element that is outside our body.
And in fact, the earth element in our body used to be the element outside of our body because in the plants and the vegetables? I mean, everyday we pull some vegetables out of the refrigerator. So there’s the earth element, that aspect of being hard and so on, in the vegetables and the tofu. So there’s the earth element there. When there’s the earth element in the vegetables and tofu we don’t cling onto it as I and mine. But after we eat it and it gets integrated in our body, then we hold onto it as I and mine. But then when the earth element gets excreted the next morning, then it’s no longer I and mine. Isn’t that very peculiar the way our mind thinks about the earth element? Because it’s all just the earth element—whether it’s internal or external—so there’s nothing about it that is I or mine.
So when you go through each element in your body: earth, water, fire, air. And remember we’re not talking about particles here; we’re talking about properties or qualities. We’ll see that none of these things are I and mine and they’re always interchanging with the outer ones, which we definitely don’t take as ourselves. So why do we take the inner ones as ourselves? Why do we think of this body sometimes as I or sometimes as mine? And then so much clinging, and craving, and grasping to it! It’s really ridiculous, isn’t it? Because it’s just earth element, fire element, water element, air element, same as the elements outside the body. So all of those elements, they’re not virtuous, they’re not nonvirtuous; and they’re not I and mine either. So generating all these kinds of opinions and emotions based on our body, you can see it’s all just wrong conception mind. All just totally just wrong conception mind.
The order of karma’s ripening results
Actions cause fruition in cyclic existence. First the heavy, then the proximate, then the accustomed, and then what was done before.
So actions cause fruition in cyclic existence. Then, so first the heavy actions will ripen. So especially at the time of death, if there’s a heavy karma that we have in our mindstream, it’s very easy for that one to ripen first because it is a very weighty karma. Then if there are two karmas that are equally as weighty, then the one that was created closest to the time of death will be the one that will ripen. That’s the meaning of “then the proximate.” So, “First the heavy, then the proximate.” So first the heavy karma. If there are two that are equal, then the one that was created most recently. Then, if there’s no especially heavy karma or if the proximity is the same, then whatever karma we’re most accustomed to; so whatever action has been done most repetitively.
So here’s where we see that having a daily schedule and doing the same thing every day—that includes certain virtuous things—here you really see the advantage of it because you’re creating that habitual energy. And that will make that karma ripen faster if you’re doing something virtuous. If you habitually get angry, and lose your temper, and shout at people, then very easy for that to ripen soon because you’re familiar with it. And then the last line, “then what was done before.” We’re not totally clear on the meaning of that line. That might mean what was done earlier, but it’s something I want to check on.
The progressive process of destroying karma so it won’t ripen
And then, we have the whole topic of karma getting destroyed or not being able to ripen. And so this applies to both positive karma and negative karma. Negative karma can be purified by means of the four opponent powers. And so at first when we purify, we just diminish the force of the negative karma. And then as we purify more and more, we impede the ability of that karma to be able to ripen. So, diminish means the result becomes less and the duration is shorter. Here let me talk in terms of positive karma because sometimes we say that the negative karma is destroyed by purification practice. Positive karma is destroyed by anger, and wrong views or distorted views. The Questions of Upali Sutra speaks of a case in which “a monastic with pure behavior holds ill will for another monastic with pure conduct.” So both of them have pure conduct but one doesn’t like the other one. And so this text says that,
The one who holds ill will: his great roots of virtue are diminished, thoroughly reduced, and completely consumed.
So there are three levels there. Diminished means the result of the virtue becomes less, so it’s not as strong; the duration of the happy result is shorter, but not all the good effects are destroyed. Reduced, the second term, means that it can only bring a small pleasant result. So it’s really getting incapacitated. And then if the anger, or the ill will in this case, was very strong—then the virtue is consumed, which means that the result can’t ripen at all. So it’s going to be the same for positive karma that we destroy with anger and distorted views, and nonvirtuous karma that we destroy by purification: we can diminish it, then reduce it, and then consume the effect. Depending on if we’re doing purification: how strong our purification is. And then if it’s the case of virtuous karma that’s getting diminished, reduced, or consumed—how strong our anger was, how much we are stuck in our distorted views—that will influence it as well. So we have to be careful of these things. Because otherwise, we work really hard to create virtue, and then we get angry or we generate wrong views—and we’re just self-sabotaging our self. This is where it is really helpful to see the detrimental effects of anger. Because the anger doesn’t hurt the other person, the anger destroys our own virtue, so it hurts us. So when we see that very clearly then when anger starts to arise, we just say to ourselves, “It’s not worth it! I’ve worked too hard to create my virtue. Getting mad right now—it’s just not worth it. I am not going to destroy my virtue by ruminating on this, by harping on this, by making a big deal about this. It’s just not worth it!” So that can become a very helpful way to think when the mind starts having a lot of afflictions.
Anything else? Other questions about anger?
Karma and purification, dedication, rebirth, the twelve links:
[In response to audience] Your question is, “So you’re saying when we’re doing purification we’re often confessing specific actions and so our antidote is directed against specific things?” The antidote also hits all the karma. We need to think when we’re doing purification, “All my negative karma, and especially these.” Don’t just think, “These few.” Think, “All of them, and especially these.” It’s like when you’re spraying knapweed, “All the knapweed; but especially that big one that happened to grow right here where it shouldn’t of.” So like that. So then your question is, “But with distorted views and anger, that you’re not consciously targeting them against a specific positive karma, so is everything up for grabs?” Kind of, yes, so … you have to ask the Buddha how it gets decided, which one gets destroyed, because they say that that level of detail is beyond the capacity of us limited beings. So when you become a Buddha then you tell us, okay?
[In response to audience] Your question is, “So if we get into the habit of dedicating our virtue numerous times, does that safeguard the virtue from anger and wrong views?” Now there’s some discussion about this. And I have yet to get it clarified. And I hear different things from different people. And I hear different things in different situations. Because whenever they’re teaching the seven limb prayer and they teach about dedicating, they always teach about that if you dedicate, your virtue won’t get destroyed by anger and wrong views. But when they teach Shantideva chapter six, when they’re talking about the mathematics of destroying virtue—because there’s a whole discussion about how many eons of virtue get destroyed by how many moments of anger. In that, it seems like having dedicated doesn’t matter. Now there’s one sutra that says that if you dedicate your virtue for full enlightenment, it won’t be exhausted until all sentient beings attain enlightenment. So if you dedicate it like that, then it doesn’t get exhausted. But then, one geshe told me, “But that doesn’t mean that it won’t get destroyed beforehand by your anger.” But then I’m thinking, “But if it won’t get exhausted, how can it get destroyed?” So this is one of the things that I don’t have a lot of clarity about. But in any case, dedicating repeatedly is something that’s very good and it certainly won’t hurt because it generates a lot of positive aspiration and it really steers the karma to ripen in a good way. So it certainly can’t hurt. Now whether it can protect the positive karma from ever getting destroyed by anger or wrong views? That I can’t say. I don’t know.
[In response to audience] Your question is, “So when I was talking about which karma ripens first, was it in general, or was it in terms of rebirth?” That is usually spoken of in terms of rebirth. But you can see that it might happen in general too. One thing about talking about karma is sometimes the ripening of one karma impedes the ripening of another one. So for example, we may have many seeds in our mindstream to be born as animals or to be born as devas, but because now we’re experiencing the ripening of the karma to be born as human beings, those other karmas can not ripen right now as long as this life is happening. They’re kind of on hold. They’re not destroyed; at the time this life ends one of them could ripen. But temporarily they can’t. So there are all these nuances in karma: factors that can encourage things to ripen or discourage things from ripening.
Audience: I remember in Pennsylvania Bhikkhu Bodhi’s talk and he spoke very specifically about karma often being used too widely. And that karma was more specifically the karma of the twelve links. Could you elaborate on the difference in the way it’s being talked about in our tradition?
VTC: Okay. Let’s clear up what he was saying. The meditation on karma and its effects, and karma just means action. And when we’re talking about the virtuous or nonvirtuous actions, we have four parts to them. Right? The object, the intention, the action, and the completion. For one of these karmas to cause a rebirth, all four of those parts have to be intact. But it is possible to create karma where only one factor is present, or two, or three are present. Sometimes we might even have all four factors present, but still the intention was weak, the action wasn’t very much, it still doesn’t have the power to propel a rebirth. When we talk about karma in the context of the twelve links, which is what his talk was about, then the second link—karma—is referring specifically to the karma that has the power to propel rebirth. So that doesn’t mean all karma in general. That karma that’s the twelve links, actually the term is sankhara which means conditioning factor. So that conditioning factor, or sometimes they call it formative action, or volitional formations; there are all sorts of different translations for it. That refers to a karma that has the power to propel a rebirth. But not all karma has to be that karma of the second link. There are many, many other kinds of karma. So karma is very broad, but when you’re talking about that link it’s referring to something specific.
Audience: Geshe Jampa Tegchok when he was here was talking about when you practice sincerely and you practice purely then things can speed up; things can happen in your life that have to do with purifying. What’s happening with karma there?
VTC: So sometimes when you’re practicing the Dharma because you’re purifying a lot then it can speed things up—in the sense that sometimes negative karma might ripen quickly and be done with. So it’s kind of like, you know how sometimes if you take ayurvedic medicine or some of the natural medicines, when you take it, it’s medicine, but often you get worse before you get better because it’s making all the junk in your system come out. But then once that junk comes out, then you recover. So I think it’s a similar kind of thing here. Sometimes when we’re practicing the Dharma, it’s making seeds of negativity ripen; but then once they’re ripened—they’re done with, they’re finished, they’re over. That’s actually another thing I should mention is the seeds of the karma themselves are neither virtuous nor nonvirtuous. There’s the seed of a virtuous karma and there’s a seed of a nonvirtuous karma, but the seed itself is neither.
Looking for happiness versus craving happiness
VTC: So I was talking about craving pleasure and you’re asking, “How is pleasure different from happiness, different from contentment?” The sanskrit word there is sukkha. Sukkha can be translated as pleasure, as happiness, as joy, as bliss. So the word sukkha covers a vast range of feelings that are all on the plus side. So it’s our English words where we have to think about what’s the difference between them. So I could have as easily said, “Craving for happiness” as “Craving for pleasure.”
You thought you were beyond attachment to pleasure? Pleasure is what all these other people who are into sense objects do, but “happiness” is different? [laughter]
Audience: No. All teachers talk about it’s just normal to want happiness; and so a Buddha is happy.
VTC: Right. A Buddha is happy. There’s nothing wrong with happiness, and there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. The problem is craving for it. You see? Where we get stuck is not the experience of pleasure and happiness. We can’t control that anyway. Something happens—and the interaction of our consciousness, and our sense organs, and the object—and the contact of those three and then pleasure comes. That’s something we can’t control. That’s something that’s a product of previous karma. How we react to the happy or unhappy feeling, how we react to the pleasure and pain, that’s the thing that’s important. So when we’re craving for pleasure, the craving is what gets us messed up. Not the pleasure, not the happiness. Everybody wants to be happy. Looking for happiness? [There’s] nothing wrong with looking for happiness. We’re practicing the Dharma because we’re looking for happiness, aren’t we? What’s the difference between looking for happiness and craving happiness? There’s a big difference. Because craving is completely deluded; craving thinks the happiness means it’s in the object, and I have to get that object to be happy.
But we can be looking for happiness; and what we’re looking for is: ‘What are the causes of happiness?’ And then we go about creating them by engaging in wholesome activities. So looking for happiness in the sense of: ‘What are the causes of happiness?’ ‘How can I create those causes?’ Whether it’s the happiness of a good future rebirth, or the happiness of liberation, or the happiness of enlightenment, looking for those kinds of causes for happiness—fine. Looking for happiness in external things is craving happiness. And that comes from a distorted mind that is grasping at inherent existence and that’s totally mis-perceiving the object.
So happiness is not the problem; it’s the craving. And wanting to be happy is not the problem. We all want to be happy. But we often, in our attempt to be happy because we’re ignorant, we create the causes of suffering instead of the causes of happiness. And that’s because we start craving happiness, craving pleasure. Craving makes us miserable right now, doesn’t it? Because when your mind’s in a very intense state of craving, it’s so painful, isn’t it? It’s really awful. And then when we act on the state of craving—we act on the craving, and we try and satisfy the craving, then we wind up doing all sorts of negative actions out of an incredibly self-centered motivation. So that’s where the problem comes.
So don’t go thinking that happiness is a problem or that happiness is nonvirtue. It’s very interesting how our mind works. We project moral significance onto things that have no moral significance. And things that do have moral significance? We totally space out on and we don’t even think about it. So we’ll think pleasure is bad; we’ll think our body is bad. Neither one of them are bad; neither one of them are nonvirtuous. Okay? But lying and talking behind other people’s backs—do we ever consider that bad or nonvirtuous? No, that’s just pragmatic. That’s how we look out for ourselves. You’ve got to do that to do good business.
Before we stop [talking about] karma, I wanted to tell you one story because it was such a good illustration of karma. So there was something in the news about this guy, he was thirty-something. He was having all sorts of financial problems and his business was having a lot of trouble. He had marital problems and everything else. And so what he did is, he was a pilot so he had a little plane. So he got in his plane and he flew. And then when he was over Alabama, he sent out an SOS. He radioed down and said that, “The cockpit window blew in and it cut me.” So then the air traffic controllers said, “Well, just try and land the plane.” But he didn’t. What he did was he parachuted out and then the plane went and it crashed somewhere in Florida. And then they couldn’t find this guy. They finally found him somewhere. What he had done? The whole SOS thing was a total ruse. What he was trying to do was; it was like there was the ripening of karma in terms of the bad business and marital problems and everything. And rather than deal with the situation, he was attempting to exit by just getting lost in the country somewhere. Because he had hid a motorcycle in some storage unit in Alabama that he was going to get; and he was just going to disappear and then not deal with the situation.
So the reason I thought to tell you this, aside from it being a situation that requires compassion, but this is such an example of how we deal with the ripening of our negative karma. We don’t like it, do we? We created the causes, whether it’s in a previous life or whether it’s earlier this life from doing bad actions. And now it ripens on us. We’re making stupid decisions and it’s ripening. Instead of facing it and dealing with it and then letting it go, then we try and avoid the whole thing; and in the process we create a ton more negative karma. Because now he not only has the lawsuits about his failing business, but he has a federal lawsuit about this whole ruse that he projected; and then also the damage he caused to other people’s property by crashing his plane there. Plus he’s injured too. And his mind is super-confused.
So I heard this story and [thought], “Boy, what an illustration of how we deal with suffering, and how we deal with the ripening of negative karma. And how we just try and avoid our responsibility, instead of saying, ‘I’m having this problem because of my own bad decisions this life and because of negative karma I’ve created in a previous life. And so now I’m going to deal with it honestly, and fairly, and clean it up, and not get angry, and not be greedy.’” And if we do that, then the whole thing finishes, doesn’t it? But when we’re in our reactive mode and we don’t want to see anything that talks of pain, then we create the cause for more pain. And it’s sad, isn’t it? It’s very sad.
So, I thought to use that as an example of karma. A good one, isn’t it?
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.