The weight of karmic actions
The weight of karmic actions
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 five factors determining the heaviness of our karmic actions
- A detailed look at the results arising from our nonvirtuous actions helps us learn to restrain our thoughts and deeds
Good evening everybody. Let’s begin by taking a moment and generate our motivation. And again, feeling very fortunate that we have this opportunity to hear the Dharma and to make every effort to really listen with attention and to think about what we hear. To really examine it and think about it clearly and apply it in our lives so that we get the right understanding and the Dharma becomes useful for us. Especially, let’s remember our bodhicitta motivation; that we want to repay the kindness of all mother sentient beings and the best way to do that is to become a Buddha ourselves. Therefore, we’re listening to and practicing the Dharma this evening.
Karma and audience reflections on homework
Okay, so we’re going to continue with the teachings on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun. A couple of weeks ago I had gotten as far as the section on karma. We finished that because it was a very brief section. I wanted to cover a few more points about karma that aren’t listed in the text so you can have that as some background—because karma is an incredibly important topic.
When we look, what’s the first thing we have to do when we decide to follow the Buddha’s path? We take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And the first advice the Buddha gives us is to stop harming others. In order to stop harming others we have to understand what actions cause harm and what actions cause benefit to both ourselves and others. That involves the whole topic about karma. Last week you had some homework, remember? To think about the ten nonvirtues and to go through them one by one, thinking about them in terms of the four parts for each one. Did you do that? Yes? And what did you come to through doing that? What did you understand?
Audience: There are many more ramifications to each action. Each has more parts to it than I was aware of. For example, on the topic of unwise sexual behavior, I felt I’d purified before. But as I went through the four things, I discovered the lies that went along with that particular action. That was not something I’d ever really thought of in relation to that action. By looking at all the pieces, the motivation, the affliction, and so forth, I found that there was much more depth to one single negative action.
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So when you examined one more closely you saw that it wasn’t just one negative action but it was tied in with other negative actions. You saw this because you were looking more closely at each one through looking at the four parts. Good. Good. You mentioned that lying accompanied the unwise sexual behavior. I think that if we look at most of the other negativities that we’ve done, lying accompanies them because we want to keep it a secret. We don’t want anybody to know what we did, or what we’re doing, how we’re manipulating them to get what we want, or whatever our trip is. What did other people learn from that exercise?
Audience: One of the things that became very apparent is that the things I’m working on at 53 years of age: attachment to reputation, praise, jealousy, anger, are things that I started when I was about three and a half or four years old; and have been going on pretty much since then. I realized the habituation of certain types of thinking patterns, and how I negotiate myself in the world, started at a very young age. So I’m assuredly thinking that it came in with me and I’m still working on it after all these years.
VTC: You saw that by dissecting each of the actions into the four parts, then you were able to see again more closely everything that’s going on within each action. And to see that there were definitely habit patterns set up from the time that you were very little. And that you have probably been doing similar negative actions all along; and maybe similar positive ones too (give yourself some credit). But that there are certain patterns in there that really need to be looked at closely because if we don’t, then we keep doing the same thing, not even realizing that it’s something that causes suffering in the short and the long term. Anybody else? You’re all saying, who me? I didn’t do any negative actions. (L)
Audience: I was thinking about how every one of the ten nonvirtues is always committed in reference to another person, and in connection to another person. And then in thinking about that I realized that also not only are they an object of the action, but also most of the mental states created are concerned about what those people think or how they are going to react. So it’s all very much based on other people. And so I can also see the benefit to withdrawing from a lot of interaction with people in order to work with your mind.
VTC: You saw when you were especially looking at the object of each action, seeing that there was another sentient being involved, who was also, probably the recipient of part of the effects of your actions. Specifically how attachment to reputation and what other people thought of you influenced or promoted doing some of those harmful actions. Is that right? You know how much attachment to reputation influences what we do and gets us involved in harmful actions that put the negative imprints on our mind. And so therefore seeing how it can be valuable to kind of hold back a little bit. And maybe be more careful in how we relate to people, and in how many people we relate to, and who we relate to; so that we can get a better handle on our attachment to reputation that acts as an impulse for doing some of the harmful actions. Okay?
I really encourage you to keep doing this kind of reflection because these are very good insights that the three of you have had. The rest of you who didn’t speak this week, who are attached to your reputation because you have patterns set up from when you were three and a half. Maybe next week we’ll have to get you over the lies of acting so innocently and get you to talk some. (L).
Okay, so we’ve had a couple of questions, C wrote us some questions. She asked,
Question: If a particular karma is incomplete with only three out of the four factors present, isn’t there still some kind of imprint left on our mental continuum, which if it was negative, needs to be purified?”
VTC: Yes, by all means. When we’re talking about the four factors, those four factors all need to be complete for a complete action, be it virtuous or nonvirtuous. The complete actions are the ones that have the power to cause rebirth when they ripen at the time of death. But, if you had an action with only one, or two, or three of the branches done, still that creates some negativity. And it leaves imprints on our mind and it needs to be purified. It’s not as heavy as if we had all four, but yes, definitely there’s something that needs to be purified there.
Negative thoughts and actions
Question: And then her second question was, “If the seven nonvirtuous actions are paths to suffering results, could we also say that the three mental afflictions can be a path to the seven actions; and so therefore it’s good to confess even our negative thoughts?”
VTC: Now if we look back at the ten nonvirtues, the last three are mental afflictions: covetousness is related to attachment, maliciousness is related to anger, and wrong views is related to confusion. And so those last three of the ten nonvirtues, those are those mental factors. When they’ve been percolating, to the point where they’ve gotten strong enough, where there’s a plan to act on them…. They don’t just come into our mind as being that strong. They start out let’s say, with a little bit of attachment. If we don’t watch our attachment, before long, we’re in to coveting something. Or there might be an angry thought in our mind, but if we don’t watch it, before long we’re doing our single pointed meditation on how to retaliate and get even for what somebody did to us. Similarly with confusion, there might be one confused thought, but if we don’t take care of it and we ruminate on it, it develops into a full blown distorted view.
If we can catch things at the point where it’s just the affliction starting to enter, before that affliction has gotten strong enough to become those three mental nonvirtues of covetousness, maliciousness and distorted views; if we can do that, it’s very good. Purify the afflictions. And then purify those three mental nonvirtues. And then purify the seven verbal and physical nonvirtuous actions that were produced by the three mental nonvirtues. All those things are tied in together. If we look at something like harsh speech, it’s not like harsh speech comes out of no where. It seems that way sometimes, but that’s because our mindfulness isn’t very clear. But if we are more astute and take better care and keep better track of what’s going on in our mind, we’ll see that okay, there’s a moment of anger that arises. And then it’s like, “Gee, this person’s really bugging me. I want to inflict harm on them so they stop.” So there’s maliciousness and then the next moment boom, there’s the harsh speech. It all can happen very quickly and the whole thing needs some purification in there.
Of course the grossest expressions are the physical and verbal ones. The next most subtle ones are the three mental nonvirtues. And then the afflictions: to catch those, it’s even more subtle and takes more care. That’s why we usually start with our pratimoksha vows, our monks and nuns vows and the five lay precepts. They all have to do with the physical and verbal nonvirtues because those are the gross ones. So they’re easier to stop than the more subtle ones.
The weight of karma: strength of intention, method of action, lack of antidote, distorted views, and the object
Let’s talk a little bit about the weight of karma. Sometimes when we learn about karma we get a very rigid view, a very limited view like,” I swear at you, you swear at me.” And everything’s very simple like that. But it’s not. We’re talking about dependent arising here. We’re talking about many causes and conditions and how things affect one another. And so we have to look at the different factors which can make an action weightier or lighter. This is also very, very helpful to think about, and it’s going to be your homework for this week. When you think about the different virtuous and nonvirtuous actions you’ve done, really apply this criteria to see which ones are heavier, which ones are lighter. Then it gives us some idea about which ones to emphasize the purification of more. And also by knowing the factors that make something heavy or light, it gives us more ability (at least if we’re in the middle of something) to try and minimize the damage and make it lighter rather than heavier negativity; or if we’re doing something that’s constructive, to try and maximize it, to make it weightier.
The strength of our intention is one of the things that influences whether an action is heavy or light. If we have a very strong intention it makes it heavier. Remember that mental factor of intention is karma, so how strong that factor is, is going to influence whether something is light or heavy. If we gossip and are doing idle talk: if we’re doing it with so much enthusiasm and a really strong intention of, “I just want to hang out and jabber about this because it’s so entertaining and it’s so great. And I want to hear about what everybody’s doing and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” Then that makes it so much stronger than if you have a passing intention that, “I’ll just chat for a minute and I’ll go on.” The same thing too, if you kill an animal, an insect, a human being, whatever it is. If there’s a strong intention, like really strong anger, or really strong ignorance, or really strong attachment, then that makes it much, much heavier. Similarly with the virtuous actions, in the morning when we’re setting up our altar: if we have a strong feeling of bodhicitta, it makes the action of making offerings much weightier on our mind than if we just go, “Oh yes, for the benefit of sentient beings I’m offering this water,” (emphasizing a tired, unenthused voice). If we try and put some oomph in our meditation it makes the karma stronger.
The second thing is the method of doing the action, how we do the action. This has to do with whether we do the action repeatedly. If we do the action repeatedly its going be stronger, isn’t it? If it’s something that we do ourselves with all of our energy, versus doing it with a group of people where it’s only part of our energy; that’s going to make a difference. Whether we encourage other people to do it; because doing something ourselves is always going to be heavier than asking somebody else to do it for us. If we take delight in doing it, that makes it heavier. If we plan and prepare for it over a long time, it makes it heavier. Then afterwards if we really relish having done it, like, “Oh boy, that’s great!” Then that too makes it heavier.
In terms of positive actions: those of you who came on the retreat, you’ve been planning this for a long time. You’ve been making preparations for a long time. Everything you did to plan the retreat and make it happen is virtuous. It makes you appreciate the retreat more, makes your virtue while you’re here stronger, because you’ve been planning on it. Those of you who’ve been doing a meditation practice for a period of time; you’ve done the sadhana repeatedly, that makes it stronger. In the same way that if we lie and we’re in the habit of lying that also makes each individual lie much stronger. Really think about that.
The third factor is the lack of an antidote. Oh, let me just go back to the method of doing the action, the second one. That can also include how you do it. For example, you’ll see in different political prisoners, sometimes they’re tortured and then they’re killed. Or sometimes as little kids you torture a bug before you squish it. That makes the action much heavier because of the way the action was done. Similarly, if you’re going to make an offering, giving it with your own hands, giving it in a respectful way, is going to be much weightier than just saying to somebody else offhandedly, “Please give this for me.”
The third one is the lack of an antidote. If a negative action is done, it’s heavier when we don’t apply any kind of antidote to it. Or, in the case of negative actions: if we don’t do any other constructive actions or many constructive actions during our life, then the negative actions that we do—they become weightier on our mind stream because that’s all that’s sitting there. If we don’t do any purification they become weightier. On the other hand, if we try and live an ethical life and create positive actions, if sometimes we slip up and do some negativities, it won’t be so heavy. And then when we do virtuous actions it will be heavier.
The fourth one is whether we hold distorted views while we’re doing the action. So if we have very strong, distorted views that in addition to having, let’s say, attachment or anger, resentment or jealousy as a motivation, we really think that this action is virtuous. The situation that’s happening in the Middle East on both sides, both the Israelis and the Palestinians sides say, “Oh, our bombing the other side? This is something that is very good. It’s really important. It’s going to bring us a heavenly rebirth. Or it’s going to make our country exist and make our people exist and please God,” so that kind of distorted view. And then on top of it you have attachment to the land, you have an animosity to the other side. Of course the attachment and the animosity can’t be in the mind at the same time, but one or the other could come in to the planning stages too. All of that makes negative actions heavier.
And then the object of the actions is also something to be taken into consideration. For example, whether we create virtue or nonvirtue in relationship to our parents is very important—because our parents are a field of merit. Why? Because they’re the ones who gave us this body in dependence upon which we can practice the Dharma. The karma that we create with respect to our spiritual masters and the Three Jewels is also very heavy—because of the role that they play in guiding us to enlightenment. The karma we create in relationship to people who are in need or who are ill, is also heavy because they’re the field of compassion—because they really need help. So it’s very helpful to look at the actions that we do and see how we can maximize the virtuous karma that we create. And take good care of our relationship with our parents, with our spiritual mentors and the Three Jewels, with the poor and the ill. And make sure we don’t do negative karma in relationship to them; and when we do constructive karma, then to really do it well and to realize that we’re creating strong karma.
That’s why, for example when the lights went out that we can’t just go to the altar and take all the candles that were going to be offered to the Buddha; and just because the lights are out, put them all around the house, so we can see things. Those were things that mentally have been designated for the Buddha. If we take them we’re stealing from the Buddha. That’s why we have all these other thick candles around that haven’t been mentally offered to the Buddha; we take out and use those. If we’re stealing from the Triple Gem, that karma is quite heavy. We don’t want to do that.
So there are all sorts of things like this. When we’re making offerings at the end of the year and everybody is going to get a tax deduction, then it’s good if you make offerings to whoever you want but also some to the fields that are weighty—it really makes the karma weightier because of the role those people play in your life. Those are factors that make karma heavy, so again this week, your homework is to think about them. Make examples in your life. Go through and analyze the various actions you’ve done in your life. Remember something you did. Then see which of these five factors were present or absent to make the karma heavy. Do it for destructive as well as constructive actions.
There’s something else to mention about karma. If somebody is totally ignorant, let’s say as a child, you haven’t learned right and wrong. If you’re totally ignorant like that, then the karma is not going to be as heavy. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing something karma-free if we’ve squished bugs as kids. I think I told you my horrendous dealings; what I used to do. Those things are heavy. But maybe not as heavy as if you knew it was something negative. It doesn’t mean that ignorance is an excuse, because there’s still karma involved. Similarly, if somebody is mentally ill and they do a negative action, it’s not as heavy as if somebody is in their fully aware state of mind and can make a rational decision. You see that even in the law. The law discriminates between somebody who is mentally ill and somebody who has all their faculties when they do a negative action.
Karma and precepts
Then a question comes for those who have precepts: when you break them, are you creating more or less negative karma than somebody who doesn’t have the precepts? So you can look at this from two different view points. From the view point of the strength of your motivation that you needed to do the negative action, it would probably be more negative for somebody who has a precept—because they’ve already determined not to do it, and they’re going ahead and doing it. In that way it might be more negative. But people who have precepts are much more likely to purify their negative actions. And so because they have the precepts and they’re aware of karma and they will probably engage in purification: then from that view point, it’s probably going to be the case that their negativities will be lighter than somebody who doesn’t have precepts—who doesn’t even think about purifying, and who doesn’t develop any kind of regret for the action.
The results of karma
We’re going to move into talking a little bit about the results of karma. Remember last week I was saying it can be very helpful when negativities happen to us to think, “This is a result of my own negative karma.” How we can’t remember specific things in previous lives, but we can get general ideas of the kinds of things that we must have done before—that bring the results of things we’re experiencing now. I thought to go through some of these things, because it’s helpful when we have negative experiences in this life to get an idea of what we did in previous lives—so that we can develop a strong intention to not do that action ever again. Also, right now, when we’re thinking about what to do, if we learn what the ramifications of our actions are and what kind of results come from our actions, it might also help us restrain ourselves from getting involved in certain negativities. It’s very good, this whole thing of really seeing the relationship between cause and effect, in terms of our actions and the results of our actions.
I’m going to read some things from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland where he’s talking about karma and some of the results. And then I’ll go through some of the explanations in the lamrim about the different kinds of results and go through some of the examples. Nagarjuna said,
A short life comes through killing.
Make sense? If you’ve killed others in a previous life, it creates that karma to have a short life one’s self.
Much suffering comes through harming.
Even if we don’t kill somebody physically, if we harm them physically, much suffering is going to come, physical suffering to us.
Poor resources come through stealing.
If we deprive others of their belongings and make it difficult for them to live, then we’ll be born in a situation where we have poor resources.
Enemies come through adultery.
That happens even in this life, doesn’t it?
From lying arises slander.
When we lie, it creates the cause for others to slander us and speak untruths about us, ruining our reputation.
Through divisiveness, comes a parting of friends.
When we use our speech to create divisiveness or disharmony, it results in our having difficulty in having friends in another life time.
From harsh speech comes hearing the unpleasant.
So when we dish out insults and abuse and criticism, then, that’s the cause for us, ourselves hearing the unpleasant. And we hear the unpleasant so often, don’t we? Even when other people from their side aren’t intending to speak unpleasantly to us, we still hear it as criticism. That comes from our own harsh words.
From senselessness, [in other words, senseless speech, idle talk, what comes is that] our own speech is not respected.
You know how sometimes you say things and it’s like you’re invisible and nobody listens to you. You give instructions and people do the opposite, or they say yes and they don’t do it at all. Your speech is not respected, what’s the cause of this? It’s idle talk. You can see how it works, can’t you? When we just go, Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” then even in this life people are not going to listen to us. Of course, if that seed’s been in our mind for some time and then we find ourselves in a situation where people just shine us on; it’s a result of our idle talk.
Covetousness destroys one’s wishes.
When we covet things, it destroys our being able to realize our wishes. Because when we spend all our time coveting, creating that negativity: grasping, grasping, grasping, grasping, it pushes away through karma the good things we want to have. We see that happens in this life too, doesn’t it? When we become possessive, when we’re coveting, when we’re stingy, when we don’t share, then it destroys our fulfilling our own wishes in terms of the things we have.
Harmful intent yields fright.
This one I find very interesting. You know how some people tend to be very frightened all the time? Or easily frightened? Or they’re always kind of suspicious. And they think people are going to harm them or that people are going to criticize them. They’re just mistrustful and frightened of other people. And to think that comes as a karmic result of our own malicious thought—our own harmful intent. So you think about it, because when we’ve had malicious thought, harmful intent, vengefulness; when we’ve thought about how to cause harm to others. Psychologically it just puts the imprint in our own mind of, “Well, I’m certainly not being a trustworthy person to somebody else. So I’m not going to trust them either. What I’m doing to somebody else, they could easily do to me.” So we become suspicious and frightened and always seeing harm whether there is harm or no harm. These things are very helpful to meditate on. You can really see psychologically how they connect.
If we spend our time thinking about distorted views, we’ll wind up being born in a situation as a person who’s just chock-a-block full of wrong views to the extent that when we even hear the Buddha’s teaching we run the other way. You can see this sometimes, how people come to a Dharma talk and they hear what the Buddha’s teaching and they run away. Or they hear teachings on selflessness and they think, “Oh, the Buddha’s a nihilist? He’s saying there’s no self? My eternal self—the Buddha says it doesn’t exist. What is he talking about?” So they run the other way. You can really see how if we cultivate distorted views now and don’t clear things up in our own minds, they become really reified and strong in future live to the extent that we could just walk away from the Dharma, which would be a tragedy. And you see it so often, don’t you? Haven’t you? At Dharma centers, people come in and they’re smart, intelligent people, but they have some karmic hindrance. Because they hear a teaching and it’s like instantly, “Nope, this isn’t for me.” Very interesting. It comes because of some kind of distorted views in a previous life.
Taking intoxicants leads to confusion.
Mental confusion. If we’re a person and we’re confused all the time; it’s like, “Do I do this? Do I do that? What’s going on here? I can’t tell what to do.” You know how you meet people who are like that. You might even be one of them from time to time. There’s just massive confusion in the mind, lack of clarity, we’re scattered. It’s like, “Oh I start this. No, maybe I should do that. No, that’s not good enough. I should do the other.” And there’s no clarity in the mind about what to do. That confusion comes from taking intoxicants in a previous life—not to mention this life.
Through not giving [in other words through having the ability to give but being stingy, by being miserly] comes poverty.
You can see it. When we’re stingy, when we’re miserly, our mental state is poor, isn’t it? So it manifests in future rebirth as physical poverty.
Through wrong livelihood, comes deception.
We’ve talked about wrong livelihood before so especially for monastics—how we procure our resources. If we hint for other people to give us things, if we cajole them and put them in a position where they can’t say no, if we flatter them so that they’ll give us something, if we give them a small gift so that they’ll give us a bigger gift, if we put on a big show of being very holy so they’ll give us something. All that is deception, isn’t it? We’re not being straightforward. We’re manipulating. We’re being deceptive. That kind of wrong livelihood creates the cause for deception. This means in this lifetime we continue the deception, but it also means that other people will deceive us. Just as we’ve deceived others with our shenanigans, of wrong livelihood in the past, then other people will deceive us in this lifetime.
Through arrogance, a bad lineage.
What bad lineage means is being born in a lower social class. Being born in the caste system, in a lower caste, or somewhere where you’re persecuted, where you’re not respected, something like that. That comes from arrogance. Now, when you look at what goes on, sometimes in situations where people are oppressed. You have the oppressor and the people who are oppressed; the oppressor is usually very arrogant. You read about the people in the concentration camps in World War II. You read about the situations in the south in the U.S. during the times of slavery or whatever. People who have the power are being arrogant. It creates the cause in the future where they become the oppressed person; so that they become the one who’s born in the lower class, who has more difficulty. So you look at situations, so many situations where you have the oppressor and the oppressed; and then you wonder, “In the last life, who was who? In the future life, who’s going to be who? How much are people switching rolls in this?” When you really look at this then you realize there’s no reason to ever get arrogant about anything. In the last life we could have easily been the person we’re being all arrogant over. And in the future life, if we keep being arrogant, we’ll be in that lower position again.
Through jealousy comes little beauty.
Interesting, isn’t it? We’re often jealous over people’s good fortune, their beauty, their high status, and their abilities. When we’re jealous, is our face beautiful? When our mind is overwhelmed with jealousy, is our face beautiful? No! So even this life, we’re having little beauty, let alone in next life. “Through jealousy comes little beauty.”
An unattractive complexion comes from anger.
So similarly, when we’re angry, we hardly are attractive, are we? Our face is red, we’re snarling, we’re in a bad mood, there’s a frown on our face. And so we we’re not very pleasant to look at when we’re angry. It creates the cause to be born very unattractive in the future. People who are ugly, other people look at them and go, “Ugh!” So that comes from anger.
Stupidity comes from not questioning the wise.
So when we have the opportunity to learn and to ask questions yet we don’t, it creates the cause for us to be stupid. So that happens in this life too. We might be intelligent, but if we don’t ask questions, then our knowledge won’t increase and our insights won’t increase.
These are effects for humans.
But prior to all is a bad transmigration.
So the above that we’ve just talked about, is when you’re born as a human. These are the kind of results that you get from those kinds of actions. But before you even experience these results as a human being, these actions themselves, if they were complete actions—with all four parts; they will ripen in a bad transmigration, in other words, in an unfortunate rebirth. Because our actions have multiple effects, it’s not just what happens to us when we’re humans, they can also influence what we’re born as.
Karmic effects of virtue
Opposite to the well known fruits of these nonvirtues is the arising of effects caused by all the virtues.
So it’s very helpful to go through the same passage, but do it in the opposite way. Because Nagarjuna is saying here that opposite to the well known fruits of these nonvirtues—so they’re well known fruits because he’s just explained them—is the arising of effects caused by all the virtues. So from doing virtuous actions we’re going to get the opposite effects than we do from these nonvirtues. So it’s very important in our meditation to go through and also think about the effects of virtuous actions. So when we do virtuous actions, think of the effects it will bring us: having a good rebirth, having these different qualities. For example, having a long life through abstaining from taking life in this lifetime; not being harmed by abstaining from harming others and by taking care of them; having good resources through not stealing and through sharing. So go through this whole thing, but see it in the opposite way. And then doing that gives us more encouragement to create virtuous actions.
And also what’s helpful to do is to look at the good things that we have going for us in this lifetime, not to just moan and groan about our problems. Instead to say, “Well, where did these opportunities that I have come from? What did I do to deserve the good opportunities that I have?” So we all ate today. So when it says, “Through not giving comes poverty:” we have enough wealth that we ate, so that comes through being generous. If people trust our words and listen to us, (sometimes they do!), it comes from speaking kindly and at appropriate times. If we’re born in the middle class and have the opportunity to go to school, or even born in a lower class but had the opportunity to get an education and improve our situation that comes through not being arrogant, but being kind to others, seeing them as equals. If you have a beautiful appearance, it comes from rejoicing, the opposite of jealousy. So go through and think of these different things in terms of yourself and the people you know. And really it is very very helpful for understanding karma.
Questions and answers
So, that’s that section. Now we can go on, or if you have a few questions we could start on questions. Yes?
The exhaustion of negative karma
Audience: I have a question about the exhaustion of karma. Just from that one thing that you said about, not that you haven’t said it before, but these results, the bad rebirths. How much can one act of killing cause? How long can that go on, and on, and on, and on?
VTC: Okay, so your question is, if prior to getting the results of let’s say one nonvirtuous action in this life, it also brings a bad rebirth; then for how long do we have to experience the result of one harmful action before it completely exhausts itself? Well, that is going to depend on some different circumstances. Part of it will depend on the weight of the karma: if it’s an action that we’ve done repeatedly, if it’s an action with a strong intention, if we did the action with a lot of preparation and forethought, or if the action was done toward a powerful object. So all these things will factor in to make something heavy. Something that’s heavy, something that hasn’t been purified, if we don’t create much other virtue in our mind, that’s going to have a much longer ramification that if it was a lighter action or if we did some purification and so on. So that’s where the heaviness and lightness come in.
Karma is very complicated because sometimes one karma can bring a result, sometime several karmas together bring a result. So all these details are things really that only a Buddha can know. Especially when we talk about the results of karma—what we’re going to be getting into—for the complete actions, the ones with the four factors. Then they also bring four kinds of result. One is the rebirth that we have. One is that we experience what we made other people experience. The third one is the tendency to do the action again. And the fourth is the environment that we’re born into. So with complete actions, we have those four, at least. And then of course, if it’s something done repeatedly, done with a strong intention, we collect interest on the karma; similarly for virtuous karma.
Actions and paths of action
Audience: I’m confused about last week when you talked about karma being intention and then something about relating to the three mental acts of the ten disturbing actions. I’m confused because karma is action, karma is intention, but there’s some kind of difference when it relates to the mental process?
VTC: So you’re a little bit confused about what I went over last week, about how the three mental nonvirtues are paths of action, but they are not actions; they’re not karma but they are paths of action. They aren’t actions. Because action is that mental factor of intention; and those three are afflictions. It’s ignorance, anger, and attachment—in their more developed forms—those three mental nonvirtues. So those are afflictions.
When we have any state of mind, we have many different mental factors that can accompany that state of mind. There are five mental factors that accomplish any state of mind; and intention is one of them. Something like anger, or confusion, or distorted views, or coveting, those don’t accompany every mind. But when they do—when that mental factor is manifest in the mind—then the mental factor of intention, that’s also in that mind moment, becomes something that is nonvirtuous by the power of the affliction being in the mind. And so that intention is the action. But the affliction is not the action. The affliction makes the intention virtuous or nonvirtuous. So the mental factor of intention is the karma. And then when we act verbally and physically that action also becomes karma. And we can get into a whole lot of philosophy about this but I’ll just spare you for right now.
How karma gets heavier—the five factors and multiplying factor
Audience: So not only are we dealing with these criteria—the weight of the karma—but then we also have this second point of the characteristics of karma, which is that all karma multiplies. So even things that are considered heavy karma, due to the object, the intention, they also exponentially increase unless they’re purified or until there’s an antidote in the process.
VTC: Right, right. So that thing becomes weighty because of the five factors of weightiness. But also if they gestate in the mind and in the of case nonvirtues, if they aren’t purified, and in the case of virtues, if they aren’t destroyed by wrong views and anger; then those things will also get heavier on their own because of the multiplying effect of karma.
Change in circumstances while karma is ripening
Audience: What if the conditions are there for a karma to ripen and something intervenes. Is that karma then kind of dissipated? Like in the garden we have seeds and we might have water, but then it might not be enough water, so the seed starts. Once that karma starts, does it have to enforce that particular cause?
VTC: Okay, so once a karma may start to ripen, does it have to completely bring its whole result? Or can something intervene in the meantime to make it so that it doesn’t ripen completely? Is that your question?
VTC: If nothing intervenes, if karma is ripening and nothing intervenes, yes it’s going to keep on bringing its result. In the same way if something sprouts and it has all the conditions in the garden to sprout, and none of those conditions go away, the plant’s going to grow. If one of those conditions goes away, then you can stop something.
So for example it’s like let’s say you have some karma ripen for you to get the flu. So you’ve got the flu. If you start to purify, in the middle of having the flu, is that going to make that karma that caused you to have the flu not ripen? No, it’s already ripened and it’s there. And you’re in the middle of the flu and you’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to go through it. Or if you created the karma to break your leg and you broke your leg. Then you have to wait for your leg to heal, you can’t purify the karma for breaking the leg in the hope that your leg will magically heal, “Like that!” So of course, once something starts to ripen, there’s force and momentum there, and energy behind it. So that’s why it’s very good to do the purification before something ripens. Of course if some negativity starts to ripen, there may be the potential for more negative karmas to ripen. So it’s good to do purification too, because at least maybe you can stop these other negative ones.
Audience: Is it also when you’re experiencing a karma ripening and then you get angry or have a nonvirtuous response, then that’s what kind of compounds it?
VTC: So when you have a negative karma ripening and you get angry, you get upset, you have a pity party, you blame others, you have a temper tantrum, you strike out. Yes, that compounds your suffering, doesn’t it, right now? And it also sets the stage and makes it easier for more negative karma to ripen. And we can see when our mind’s in a virtuous state, it makes it easier for a virtuous karma to ripen. That’s not always what happens, but it just makes it easier.
So we have to stop now. Please write your questions down and then I’ll get to them next week.
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.