Karma and compassion: Part 1 of 2

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The first of two talks on karma given at the Unity Church of North Idaho, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in June of 2009. (Part 2)

Let’s start with just sitting quietly for a few minutes. So you can put your hands on your lap, the right on the left, the thumbs touching. Begin by just feeling yourself sitting here on the cushion, and let go of any tension that there might be in your body. Then breathing normally and naturally just turn you mind to your breath, observing your breath. Not analyzing it, not giving a commentary on your breath, not worrying about whether you’re doing right or wrong; but simply paying attention to the breath. If your mind gets distracted by a sound, a thought, something else, bring it back home to the breath. In this way, let your mind relax and become calmer by focusing on simply one object—in this case your breath.

You can focus either at your belly—watch the rise and fall of your belly; or at the nostrils—feel the sensation of the air as it enters and leaves there. But whichever place you choose to focus just keep your focus there. Experience your breath and let your mind settle down. Do this for a couple of minutes.


Before we actually begin, let’s take a moment and cultivate our motivation and think that we’ll listen and share together this evening so that we can learn new skills and improve the quality of our life. Let’s do this not simply for our own benefit. But seeing how we are interdependent with others: related to them and depending upon them to stay alive, then let’s have an attitude that wants to repay their kindness, to contribute something to the welfare of others, and thus to develop ourselves spiritually—as a way to gain the wisdom, compassion, and power to best be of benefit. Let’s aim for full enlightenment where we’ll have completed those qualities. With a mind that is situated, is dwelling in love and compassion for others, then let’s listen and share together this evening.

Now slowly open your eyes and come out of your meditation.


Tonight we’re talking about karma which means action. Yes, that’s all karma means. It’s translated as action. You know, nothing mystical or magical—it’s just action. What we’re doing with the body is physical action; what we’re saying is verbal action; and what we’re thinking is mental action. Here we have some quotes from the Buddha about this that I thought to share with you.

First is one of the quite well known quotes from the scriptures. The Buddha said,

Beings are the owners of their karma, heirs of their karma. They originate from their karma, are bound to their karma, have karma as their refuge. It is karma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.

Statue of golden Thai Buddha.

It is karma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior. (Photo by goldquest / stock.adobe.com)

Karma: Beings are owners of their karma

Let me unpack that a little bit. So, “Beings are the owners of their karma.” So we’re the ones who create our actions, right? Nobody else does. We’re the ones who are responsible for what we say and think and do and feel. We’re the owner of our mental, physical, and verbal actions—our karma of body, speech, and mind. We can’t transfer it to somebody else. It’s not like a bank account. It’s not, “Okay, I’ll transfer some karma to you, you’ll transfer some back, with interest, to me.” It’s not like that. We’re all responsible for our own actions.

Karma: Beings are heirs of their karma

“Beings are heirs of their karma.” So when you’re an heir you inherit something. Who we are today depends on our previous actions. And from a Buddhist viewpoint we have infinite previous lifetimes, all of it during which we were creating actions. Those karmic actions, or what remains of them—the karmic seeds, we are heir to. They pass down. The continuity of consciousness, or the mere I, carries these karmic seeds—which are not physical—from one life to the next life. So even though in one way we’re a different person than we were in a previous life, in another way we’re the heir of the actions that we did in a previous life.

We don’t come into this life as completely fresh slates—everybody all the same. I think those of you who are parents probably know that. How many of you are parents? Are all your kids the same? Did they all come out of the womb the same? No way! Did they have personalities from day one? You bet they did. Well, why? Why are they different? From a Buddhist viewpoint we would explain it as because they have different karma, different habitual tendencies, different seeds of various actions that they’ve done in previous lives. These came along with the flow of their consciousness and are manifesting in this particular lifetime.

So we’re heirs of our karma. Our karma determines why we are born and who we are born as. Did you ever wonder that? Why am I born me? Why wasn’t I born the child of other parents? Why wasn’t I born in another country? Why didn’t I look different? Why didn’t I have different habits, different ways of thinking? Why do I have the ones I have? Well, this is all depending on causes that we created in a prior time. So we are heirs to the causes, the karma, that we created previously.

Karma: Beings originate from their karma

Then the next line says, “They originate from their karma.” We originate from it. The karma is why this life happened in the way it did. Why were we born as human beings in the situation we’re born from? Why do we experience the things that we experience in our life? All of this doesn’t happen by chance. It happens due to causes; and so these causes are the ones that we ourselves created—our own actions.

The fact that who we are and what happens to us depends on our previous actions, this doesn’t mean that everything is predetermined. Why? It’s because we did many different actions in the past. It depends which of those karmic seeds happens to manifest now. And that depends on which conditions are present that make different tendencies manifest in our life. So things depend on causes and conditions. They aren’t predestined because within conditionality there’s lots of room for different things to happen. However, things don’t happen without causes. They don’t happen, what’s the word, chaotically or randomly. Rather there was cause that we created that somehow got us involved in the various situations that we’re involved in. So we originate from our karma.

Karma: We beings are bound to our karma

The verse reads that we “are bound to our karma.” That means that depending upon what we did in the past, we will experience the results of it. We are bound to that. If we created destructive actions in the past and those ripen this lifetime, we have to experience the results of them. So we’re bound to our karma. If we don’t do purification then any negative imprints or karmic seeds of negative actions that we created in the past, they don’t just vanish from our mindstream. They remain there until they ripen. So unless we purify them, they’re there—and then they eventually ripen. The result is ours. We created the cause, we experience the result.

You know how sometimes when things happen that we don’t like we always go, “Why me?” I remember when I was little whenever I was naughty my mother would go, “What did I do to deserve this?” Well, little did she know I was going to learn why. Of course she didn’t want to hear. But you know whenever something bad happens we say, “What did I do to deserve this?” Well, we did something—maybe not in this life but in a previous life. Of course when I was a good kid she never said, “What did I do to deserve this?” She should have. So we’re bound to our karma.

Karma: We sentient beings have karma as our refuge

We “have karma as our refuge,”—which means that if we want to change our situation we have to do it by means of changing our actions. So our karma, our constructive karma, is our refuge against suffering. If we’re too busy to create constructive karma then that’s our choice and we’ll experience that result. But if we want to change our situation, then changing the actions we do—by changing our mind which motivates those actions—is the way to do it.

Karma distinguishes beings as inferior and superior

Next the Buddha says,

It is karma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.

What that means is that there are a variety of different realms that we can be reborn into. Some of them are unfortunate realms. They’re called inferior in the sense that there’s not much happiness there. Then there are other realms that are fortunate. They’re called superior because there’s a greater degree of happiness there. So it’s our previous actions that determine where we’re born as and what we experience—whether it’s a fortunate rebirth or an unfortunate rebirth. This means that we’re responsible for what we experience.

Now that flies right in the face of our tendency to blame everybody else for our problems, doesn’t it? Somebody cheats you and you go, “It’s not fair! What did I do?” Well, if we could see our karma we would see what we did. It might be several eons ago in some lifetime, but somehow the result we’re experiencing is related to the actions that we did. So we can’t go through life just saying, “I’m unhappy because of somebody else, because of what they did.” If we’re unhappy we have to say, “I’m unhappy because I created the cause to be in distressful situations.” And if we’re happy then we need to realize, “I’m happy because I created the causes to be in these pleasant situations. Therefore, I shouldn’t just take my happiness for granted. I should try and do more constructive actions which create the cause for the kinds of rebirth and the kinds of experiences that I want to have” Okay are you with me? Yes?

The next time our mouth opens to say, “You did this and this and this; and I didn’t like it,” then we should remember that the you is not the other person. It’s our own self-centered mind in a previous life. This is because if we’re in an unpleasant situation it’s due to the actions, the negative actions that we did. Under what kind of mental state did we create those negative actions? Under a very self-centered mental state. So if we’re going to blame anything for our problems, we should blame that mental state. That doesn’t mean blame ourselves—but the self- centered mental state. We should say to that self-centeredness, “You’re the troublemaker here. Why am I unhappy? Oh, you made me act negatively. That’s why.” So don’t blame other people because they just happen to be there. The unhappiness is coming due to our own actions. Similarly, the happiness—we shouldn’t just take things for granted, but really try and create more constructive karma.

Results of unwholesome and wholesome mental states

Here’s another quote here and this is from the Pali canon. In it the Buddha is talking about virtuous or wholesome karma and then nonvirtuous or unwholesome karma. And he said,

If, friends, one who enters and dwells in this unwholesome states could dwell happily in this very life, without vexation, despair, and fever, and if, with the breakup of the body after death he could expect a good destination, then the Blessed One would not praise the abandoning of unwholesome states.

In other words if we could have an unwholesome mental state and it brought happiness now and at the time of death it brought a peaceful death and it brought a good rebirth—so if having unwholesome mental states could do all of that—then there would be no reason for the Buddha to praise abandoning unwholesome mental states and unwholesome actions. But he says,

Because one who enters and dwell amidst unwholesome mental states dwells in suffering in this very life with vexation, despair, and fever, and because he can expect a bad destination with the breakup of the body after death the Blessed One praises the abandoning of unwholesome states.

Is it true when our mind is overwhelmed by an unwholesome mental state—anger, resentment, confusion, pride, jealousy, greed—are we happy now? No. Are the actions that we do motivated by those mental states ones that benefit ourselves and others? They might bring some benefit in the short term, but not in the long term. And they usually are very harmful for others. Then at the time of death when this body breaks up and our consciousness goes on, then what kind of rebirth do they bring? Not a pleasant one. It’s because of all of that the Buddha taught that it’s good to abandon these unwholesome mental states and the actions that are produced by them.

Next the Buddha said—he put it in the opposite way too. He said,

If friends, one who enters and dwells amidst wholesome states would dwell in suffering in this very life with vexation, despair, and fever, and if with the breakup of the body after death he could expect a bad destination then the Blessed One would not praise the acquisition of wholesome states.

If having wholesome mental states, doing wholesome actions, brought suffering the Buddha wouldn’t tell you to do it. He’d say abandon them. But wholesome mental states bring wholesome actions which bring pleasant results.

But because one who enters and dwells amidst wholesome states dwells happily in this very life without vexation, despair, and fever, and because he can expect a good destination with the breakup of the body after death, the Blessed One praises the acquisition of wholesome states.

By the Buddha just saying this we really see the Buddha’s compassion. In telling us why he is going to teach about the mind and the actions that our mind motivates. It’s because he’s concerned with the results that we experience.

When you think about it many people in our life are concerned with the results that we experience. But if they don’t understand karma they may give us advice on how to be happy, but that advice leads to suffering. You know what I mean? But the Buddha had the ability to see long term. He had clairvoyant powers so he could see which actions brought what kind of effects. Therefore, he could accurately describe to us: If you want this kind of result do this kind of action, and if you don’t want that kind of result don’t do that kind of action.

Four main qualities of karma

  1. The certainty of karma
    This brings us to talking about four main qualities of karma. The first one is that happiness comes from virtuous actions or wholesome actions; and unhappiness from nonvirtuous ones. This is not because Buddha made up the law. It’s simply because the Buddha in looking at the situations that we living beings experience, when he saw us experiencing different kinds of happiness he could trace back through his powers what kind of action that we did. And because there was a happy result, he called the causes of those actions virtuous or wholesome karma. When there were unhappy results, he called the causes of those actions negative or unwholesome or nonvirtuous karma.

    Nothing is virtuous or nonvirtuous because the Buddha said so, or because it’s cast in stone, or because it inherently exists in that way. But something becomes virtuous and nonvirtuous simply in relationship to the kind of result that it brings. I personally found that very helpful. I say this because, I don’t know about you, but in the theistic way—kind of the rules of the game—I always felt like there was reward and punishment going on. But in Buddhism and the description of karma you can see there’s no reward and there’s no punishment. It’s just Buddha described what seeds bring what kind of flowers; what kind of actions bring what kind of results. So there’s no reward, no punishment. But if we’re a wise gardener, if we want to grow cauliflower then we’ll plant cauliflower seeds, we won’t plant knapweed. So you know, it’s something that gives us some choice in the matter here. That’s the first characteristic of karma.

  2. The magnification of karma
    The second quality of karma is that karma multiplies. The actions that we do leave seeds, or you could say like the trace of the energy of the action, in our mindstream. Unless there’s something that counteracts this then one small seed can kind of grow and manifest in terms of many, many results. Knapweed unfortunately is a very good example. The field next door to the church has knapweed. If any of you are on the church board I would take care of that now rather than later. It’s just like creating negative karma. It sits there and gestates and a small seed can bring a big result. When we understand that then we’ll know to be careful even with small actions that we do. In other words if there’s opportunity to do a small constructive action we won’t be lazy about it. We’ll do it even if it’s small. Similarly, with even a small negative action we won’t be lazy about it but we’ll abandon it right away, instead of saying, “Well, it’s only a small one.”

    You know how we go, “Oh it’s just a little white lie.” You know that kind of mind? “Just a little white lie.” There are lots of politicians that say that and think that: “Just a little white lie.” Well actually it becomes quite a big lie, doesn’t it? The ramifications become many. So we need to watch out for that kind of thing.

  3. If an action is not performed, its results will not be met
    Then the third quality of karma is if we haven’t created the cause we don’t experience the result.

    If we want a certain result, then we have to create the causes for it. If we don’t want that result then we have to abandon the causes for it. This is a very interesting one because it explains why, For example, there might a situation where you think, “Oh, a bunch of people are doing the same thing so they should all have the same result. But they have different results, and why is that?”

    It isn’t so much the case here, but in India if you want automotive services you go to one street and all the automobile services are on one street. They aren’t scattered everywhere. They’re all on one street. If you want publishing they’re all on one street. So why does one business excel and the other one doesn’t? They’re all on the same street. They all basically have the same policies. A lot of this may have to do with the actions that the various owners created in previous lives. Like whether those actions were constructive ones that ripen in their having a lot of clients and business this life, or destructive ones that ripen in their business not going so well.

    It also explains, have you ever been in situations where it’s like you could have been there and something small happened so you didn’t go. But the people who were there had some kind of big result? I keep thinking of how sometimes airplanes that have trouble and crash. And somebody was supposed to be on it. But for whatever reason they missed the plane, or they changed their mind the day before, or something else happened and they weren’t on that plane. Yet somebody else who wasn’t planning to be on that plane, that morning said, “Oh, I think I’ll go on it.” Well, why do those kinds of things happen? It’s because the group of people there has created some karma together to experience a collective result. And the people who didn’t create that karma aren’t going to be there to experience that result. So if you create the cause, you experience the result. If you don’t create the cause, you don’t experience the result.

    This goes for unhappy events as well as for happy events. In Buddhism you can’t just sit around and pray, “Buddha Buddha Buddha. Please I want to be rich. I want my son to marry a nice girl. I want my daughter to go to graduate school. Please Buddha make everything in my life wonderful.” And in the meantime I’m going to take a nap in the hammock and have a cup of tea and relax a little bit because I made my prayers. In Buddhism it doesn’t work like that because we have to create the actions. If we don’t create the actions we can pray all we want but those results won’t come. On the other hand if we create the cause, even if we don’t make prayers, those results are going to come. Of course if you make prayers it kind of makes the energy around easier for certain karma to ripen.

  4. Actions that are done do not perish
    The last quality or factor of karma is that it doesn’t get lost. It’s not like your credit card. It’s not like your computer files. It’s not like things that just disappear out of nowhere and you don’t know where they went. So unless we do something that counteracts those actions they will definitely bear a result—maybe not immediately. It might be after some time but the karma doesn’t get lost. We’ve all done negative actions. We can counteract those and impede the karma from ripening and that’s done by a purification practice that we do. On the other hand positive karma will definitely ripen unless we impede its ripening by getting angry or having a lot of wrong views.

    This is something to really think about when we’re getting angry. Like, “Oh, I’m getting angry—this is going to impede the ripening of my virtuous actions. This person I’m mad at—are they worth my impeding the ripening results of my own positive actions?” I don’t think so. So let’s drop getting mad at them. They’re not worth getting mad at. Because my anger only hurts me. It’s a very useful thing to think when you’re on the verge of getting mad at somebody; it’s like—it’s not worth it.

Ten paths of destructive action

Then I thought to read a few more quotations because the Buddha talked about how do we discriminate a constructive action from a destructive action. He gave a list of ten paths of actions or ten nonvirtues that lead to unhappy results and then he spoke about these. There are three physical ones—killing, stealing, and unwise or unkind sexual behavior. Then there are four verbal ones—lying, creating disharmony, harsh words, and idle talk. And then three mental ones—coveting, maliciousness, and wrong views.

Three physical nonvirtues

  1. Killing
    About the three physical nonvirtues of killing, stealing, and unwise and unkind sexual behavior the Buddha says,

    There is a person who destroys life. He is cruel and his hands are bloodstained. He is bent on slaying and murdering, having no compassion for any living being.

    That’s the extreme case. I don’t think many of you here are like that. But you know, have you ever killed an animal? Yes? How about mosquitoes? Cockroaches? Ants? We’ve kind of done our share, haven’t we? Haven’t we? So maybe not human beings, but other kinds of life you know. We’ve taken life. Okay it’s not as bad as killing a human being, but it’s not good either.

  2. Stealing
    Talking about this person who acts destructively,

    He takes what is not given to him, appropriates with thievish intent the property of others be it in village or the forest.

    So somebody who steals, who’s a thief, again you know, probably not many of you have broken into houses, but there are lots of other ways to steal. We can steal from our employers by taking things that are meant for the company and using them for our own personal use. We can steal by not being honest on our income tax. We can steal by going into theaters and different places and not paying the fees that we’re supposed to pay. There are lots of different ways. By borrowing things and then not returning them and thinking they’re ours. So we may not consider ourselves a thief, yes but it’s interesting. Can you think of anything that you have at home that you borrowed from somebody and didn’t return? Or some money you borrowed from somebody and haven’t returned? Library books. Abbey books. We lose so many books at the Abbey. I don’t know what happened to them. People? Hmm? Anyway…

  3. Sexual misconduct

    He conducts himself wrongly in matters of sex. He has intercourse with those under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister, relatives or clan, or of their religious community. Or with those engaged to a fiancé protected by law, or even with those betrothed with a garland.

    That means engaged. So basically here unwise sexual conduct is adultery. But I think brought into a more modern context it’s using sexuality so that it causes either physical or emotional pain. This includes unprotected sex that could spread disease, and using people as objects instead of treating them as human beings. It’s really a call for us to reflect on how we use our sexuality.

So killing and stealing—you can create those by asking somebody else to do them for you. You don’t get the full karma of unwise sexual behavior if you ask somebody else to do it for you. That one you have to do yourself to get the whole karma of it. But the killing and stealing, yes, if you ask somebody else to do it for you they create the harmful karma and we do as well. Similarly, if we do the opposite like whenever we encourage people to do virtuous actions. Then if they do them we also receive karma from requesting or arranging for them to do that.

Four verbal nonvirtues

  1. Lying
    Then there are four verbal actions. So the Buddha says,

    There’s one who tells lies. When he is in the council of his community or in another assembly, or among his relatives guild in the royal court,” [okay we can update this] “or when he has been summoned as a witness and is asked to tell what he knows though he does not know he says, ‘I know’ and though he does know he says, ‘I do not know’.

    So that’s lying. You say the exact opposite of what you know. “Though he has not seen he says, ‘I have seen’, and though he has seen he says, ‘I have not seen’. In that way he utters deliberate lies be it for his own sake, for the sake of others or for some material advantage.”

    Even if we’re lying for some worldly reason to get other’s benefit, that’s considered a lie. Now the question people always ask: if a hunter comes and says, “I want to kill that deer. Where did the deer go?” Do you say, “Right down that path.”? Well, no. You don’t. You have to use your wisdom here. If somebody wants to do something harmful to somebody else you don’t have to give them the full information, truthful information for him to do the harmful action. There are lots of different things you can do. You can act stupid, for example. “Deer? What deer?” You know?

    The example I always give is: say Aunt Ethel invites you over to eat and she cooks exactly the kind of thing that you don’t like. And then she says, “How do you like it?” So do you, if you’re going to abandon lying, say, “Aunt Ethel this is horrible,”—and make her cry? No, you don’t. What’s her real question? Her real question is, “I care about you so I made you dinner. Are you getting the fact that I care about you?” That’s what her real question is about. What you can say is this. Don’t comment on the food at all. Just say, “It was so kind of you to ask me over for dinner and I really appreciate all the effort you did into preparing something. I’m enjoying speeding the time with you.” Okay? So you don’t have to lie to get around the situation. Okay? Communicating?

    But you know it’s interesting for us to look at all those little white lies that we tell. I mean I’m just fascinated by the kinds of things people lie about. I say this because there have been occasions when I’ve discovered that somebody has lied to me and I’m always so shocked! Why would they lie to me? Usually the things that they lied over I wouldn’t have had a problem with if they had told me the truth. It’s like they could have told me that and I wouldn’t have gotten angry and upset and bent out of shape. But when they lie to me then I don’t trust them anymore.

    It’s quite interesting to watch our speech. Why do we distort the truth? Why do we not say things clearly in response to a direct question? Why do we cover things up? Well, it’s somehow for our own self-protection. What are we trying to protect? What do we feel is getting threatened? And what is more important” Is it what we feel is getting threatened that causes us to lie? Or is it the risk of destroying the relationship when the other person finds out that we didn’t tell them the truth? Very interesting for us to think about that. My hunch is that often we don’t think about it. The impetus is there, it’s like, “Well, I don’t want somebody to have this information so…Mmmmmm…” You know, I create a different story. But what’s wrong with somebody having that information? It’s an interesting question for us to ask. If we did something that we’re ashamed of, well, then we need to look at: Why am I doing things that I don’t want other people to know about that I’m ashamed of?

    If we think like this then we’re going to have a lot of stuff to clean up. But that’s good because if we clean up our life, we’re going to have less regret. But then other things—there are all sorts of other things where it’s not an issue of being ashamed of something or feeling bad about something. Yet still we hold onto something and don’t tell the truth and cover it up and even somebody asks us we deny it. “Oh, no. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. Ah. Mm. Ah. Mmmm.” You know? But why? Why? Why do we do that? So very interesting to look in our own mind. Do a little bit of research about why we deliberately distort the truth.

  2. Divisive speech
    Then the second one of the four verbal ones,

    He utters divisive speech, what he hears here he reports elsewhere to foment conflict there, and what he hears elsewhere he reports here to foment conflict here.

    So he hears something here, he tells it to those people to stir them up; what he hears there, he tells to these people to stir them up. We might do this sometimes when we’re jealous. Two people are good friends, we’re jealous. Or we’re jealous, we’re thinking that the boss is going to promote a colleague and we don’t want them to do that. So, we tell stories to each of them so that they don’t like each other and they are suspicious of each other. It can happen between people, between groups, between countries. I mean this goes on in the international scene all the time, in the business world—I’m sure they’re all telling this and that. Politics too—all this kind of thing happens.

    Here he creates discord among those who are united and he incites still more those who are in discord.

    So people who are united, we cause them to separate. People who are already separate, you make them hate each other even more. This can happen in divorces. You know? You don’t like your ex-husband, you don’t like your ex-wife—so you speak about them in an unkind way to the children so that the children think better of you and don’t think so well of the other parent. But what’s that doing to the child? Not so good.

    He is fond of dissension, he delights and rejoices in it and he utters words that cause dissension.

    There are some people who love to cause problems. You know? It’s like, maybe they grew up in a family where there was always lots of stuff going on. It was never peaceful so they feel quite normal and natural like that. When nobody is stirred up and upset they feel ill at ease; and so they stir somebody up, create some kind of discord. We just have to be careful that we don’t do that.

  3. Harsh speech
    Then the third one of speech:

    He speaks harshly using speech that is rough, coarse, bitter, and abusive and that makes others angry and causes distraction of mind.

    So somebody who makes fun of other people, who insults them, who ridicules them, who criticizes them and speaks abusively, who tells them off, who loses their temper, who says cruel words or even says cruel words with a nice, sweet smile, you know, but with a bad intention. All that is considered harsh speech. Anybody here done that?

  4. Idle talk
    Then the fourth one:

    He indulges in frivolous chatter, he speaks what is untimely, unreasonable and unbeneficial, having no connection with Dharma or the monastic discipline. His talk is not worth treasuring, it is inopportune, in advisable, unrestrained, and harmful.

    In other words, somebody who can actually be very entertaining, but they don’t really say anything that’s worth hearing. They’re talking about this and they’re talking about that, and, “Blah blah” here and, “Blah blah” there and, “Da da da” and, “This is what this person did, what that person did, where you can get this on sale, where you can that on sale, what the army is doing”—all this kind of stuff. And people who can spend a whole lot of time talking—have you ever met people like that? Are you one of them? We’ve all met people like that. But we don’t think we’re one of them, do we? No. We just meet all those other people who just can’t stop talking about ridiculous things. It’s so interesting in this world that we all meet those people, but nobody is that kind of person. Quite curious, huh?

So if you do these four, even if you don’t do them verbally by speaking, if you do them writing, by signaling it, by nodding your head, over email, and who didn’t say that, but…I think it’s okay to say that you know over email…hmm? So even though it’s the physical action of typing, it involves communication and speech of some sort. Okay? So we can create a lot of negative karma over email, can’t we? I don’t know about you but I had to assign myself a new policy, which is when I was a little bit irritated write the email and put it in the draft box. Don’t send it. I say this because if you come back an hour or two later you’re going to be really glad you didn’t send it. Why? It’s because your mind will be thinking completely differently.

We have so many new technological ways to create negative karma—including text messaging. I don’t know how to do this. I just watch all these people with their thumbs going like this, you know, I mean you can do it so quickly and create so much negative karma so quickly. You could use it to create positive karma too. I don’t really understand Twitter, I’m kind an out of it person. But, you know, could you ever send out messages encouraging people to create virtue? I never get junk mail that’s encouraging virtue. I mean why don’t we get junk mail with people saying, “Be kind to the people that you see today.”? Why don’t we get junk mail that says, “Be respectful to other sentient beings.”? Why is junk mail about all this garbage? They should at least make it interesting junk mail. Beneficial junk mail. We should write them that, don’t you think? Let’s wage a campaign on the junk mailers and flood their inboxes with virtuous emails.

Three nonvirtues of mind

Then there are three of mind: coveting, maliciousness, and wrong views. These three of mind—coveting, maliciousness and wrong views—they are mental factors. They aren’t actually actions. They’re called “pathways of actions,” as are all ten of these nonvirtues because they can be a pathway to another rebirth. But coveting, maliciousness, and wrong views are all mental factors. They’re states of mind. And just having, let’s say, greed or anger or confusion in the mind, that is not necessarily coveting or maliciousness or wrong views.

  1. Coveting
    For example, you have a greedy thought coming through the mind. That’s greed. But then you dwell on it, “Oh, I really would like that. Hmm. I wonder how I can get it. It belongs to that person. I wonder…if I flatter them in this way maybe they would give it me.” For it to become actual coveting we need to have some kind of development of the greed. It’s not just a thought of greed, but it’s a development of it to the point where we’re getting ready to act on it. Yet still, that coveting is a form of greed. The mental factor of intention that accompanies that coveting? That mental factor of intention is karma (for those of you who like to learn the technicalities of abhidharma.)
  2. Maliciousness
    Similarly, an angry thought is an angry thought, but it doesn’t become this harmful pathway of maliciousness unless we dwell on it and develop it. Like, “Oh, somebody insulted me. Why are they doing that? I need to get even. They keep doing this to me. What can I do to really, like, get them? ” So you’re planning it in your mind; it’s really developing it into maliciousness.
  3. Wrong views
    It’s the same thing with wrong views. It isn’t just one thought of ignorance or confusion, but it’s actually sitting down and generating a wrong view. And here specifically it’s wrong views that concern, for example, thinking that our actions don’t have any kind of ethical dimension, thinking that you can do whatever you want and it doesn’t bring any results; or thinking that what is a harmful action creates a happy result. It’s some kind of confusion like that. So we have those ten nonvirtues.

Pathways of constructive (positive) action and taking precepts

On the other hand, then the positive actions are just not doing those ten nonvirtues. That’s kind of nice, isn’t it? You know? Just being in a situation where you could do those nonvirtues and deciding not to—that in itself is constructive karma. This is the whole idea behind taking precepts. It’s that you make a strong determination not to do certain negative actions; and then every moment that you’re not doing them you’re getting some good karma from not doing them. So that’s one form of creating the ten virtues; it’s just not doing the ten nonvirtues.

Another way to create virtue is to do the opposite. So instead of killing, you protect life. You go to the animal shelter and you get a dog or a cat and take it home and raise it. You rescue bugs that are drowning, or whatever. One of my teachers likes to buy animals that are about to be slaughtered. So one time I walked into the Dharma center in Delhi and there was a chicken walking around. He had bought this chicken that somebody was about to slaughter.

Actually, you know, we did that at the Abbey a couple of years ago. Our freezer was getting full because we were harvesting apples or something. We called our neighbor and said, “Can we put some of the applesauce in your freezer?” And they said, “Well, we’re about to kill our sheep and that’s going to fill up our freezer.” Next we replied, “No, you can’t kill your sheep.” There was a mama and two babies. We bought the sheep. We didn’t take them up to Abbey because we didn’t have the fences to keep them, we kept them at our neighbors. Later we found somebody who we gave them to who would shear them and take good care of them and use them for the wool—but not kill them. This is an example of doing things to protect life.

For stealing then the opposite is to protect others’ possessions. The opposite of using sexuality unwisely and unkindly is to use it wisely and kindly or to be celibate. The opposite of lying is telling the truth. The opposite of divisive words is to use your speech to help people reconcile, yes, help people to become friends. If people don’t know each other help them to meet and become friends. If they’re estranged from each other, help them to forgive so that they can become friendly again. The opposite of harsh speech is to speak kindly to others. Speak in ways that encourage other beings and praise them and point out their good qualities. And then the opposite of idle talk is to speak about appropriate subjects at appropriate times. In other words, to be careful of what we’re saying, to who we’re saying, when we’re saying, and why we’re saying.

Then the opposite of covetousness is to create an attitude of generosity that likes to give. The opposite of maliciousness is to create a mind of love. And the opposite of wrong views is to create a mind with right views.

So you can see if we practice the ten virtues we’re going to get along a whole lot better with other people, aren’t we? We’re also going to be a lot happier inside of our own minds. Instead of having thoughts of greed and covetousness, if we have a mind that’s generous we’re going to be a lot happier. Instead of going along with all of our judgmental thoughts, if we really train our mind in loving kindness (which I’ll speak about tomorrow) then we’re going to be a lot happier. Okay?

Questions and answers

Let’s see. There’s lots more to say here, but maybe I should open up for questions and answers and have a little bit of dialogue now.

How about dealing with environmentally noxious plants?

Audience: So then you would say instead of damaging or getting rid of the knapweed [an invasive destructive weed], you would respect it and say the flowers are beautiful. It’s actually cultivating the soil…
Ven. Chodron: Well, the knapweed isn’t a living being. It’s biologically alive, yes, but it destroys the habitat. So yes, you get rid of it. It doesn’t mean you hate it.

Audience: No, it doesn’t mean you hate it.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It’s just not good for the environment.

Is this coveting?

Audience: So say, I’ll give you an example—somebody’s taking a trip that you would like to take and you’re happy that they’re going, but you’re also wishing that you had the good karma to be going as well. Is that coveting, or is that just…?

VTC: The question is: Somebody is going on a trip and you’re happy that they’re going; but you kind of wish you had the karma to be able to go too. So is that coveting? If you sit there and you’re kind of looking and saying, “Well, what can I do to talk them into taking me along with them?” Yes, [that’s coveting]. But if you use that kind of thought in a positive way of like, “Okay, if I want to go on that kind of trip I have to create the causes. So what do I have to do? Well, I need to be careful of what I spend my money on. If I want to spend it on the trip then I can’t spend it on lattés.” Okay? So you go about creating the causes.

Burning up old karma, creating new karma

Audience: How do you know when you’re burning up old karma or when you’re making new karma? Or are they interdependent and you’re always doing both?

VTC: How do you know when you’re burning up old karma and when you’re making new karma? Or are you often doing both? We’re often doing both. For example, we’re sitting here this evening. Well, we must have had some kind of collective karma that we created in the past to be sitting together. And I think it must have been some good karma because we’re here this evening. We could be doing a whole lot of other things on Friday night that weren’t nearly as beneficial for our mind. So we’re experiencing the result of some good karma that we created. Hopefully by thinking about what we’re talking about we’re also creating some good karma. Now of course if somebody’s sitting here going, “What in the world is this lady talking about? This is total nonsense. It’s hogwash.” And they’re thinking, “I’m out of here.” And they have a really negative mind. Then they are creating negative karma.

But there could be situations where we’re experiencing a good result but then we have a negative state of mind and so we create negative karma. There’s also a situation where we could be experiencing the result of detrimental karma that we created in the past, but because of the way we transform our mind now—we don’t react with ignorance, hatred, or attachment, and instead we transform the event and use it to increase our virtuous actions.

Prayer and our actions

Audience: Could you elaborate, please, on something you said earlier? About if I want to have a particular result then of course I put into effect a particular action. But yet at the same time my prayers, the energy of those, will support that action. If you could elaborate maybe on the blending of prayer and action.

VTC: So to elaborate on how do prayers and action fit together to create the causes and circumstances for something. So things happen due to causes and conditions. Well, I have to tell this joke. It was a Christian joke but we made it into a Buddhist one. It’s about this guy who is praying to the Buddha, “Buddha Buddha Buddha, please I want to win the lottery. Now tell me the right, you know, I want to win the lottery, oh please.” And very diligently praying to win the lottery. And then one day he hears the voice that says, “Buy a ticket.”

So you need the main cause and you need some prayers. We may create virtuous karma. And at a certain time, for example, if somebody’s ill it’s a ripening of nonvirtue at that particular moment. But you don’t know what karma that person has. They may have the karma to receive some excellent medicine and meet an excellent doctor. You might make prayers for their recovery and that prayer helps the, kind of, atmosphere around the person—so that their own good karma can ripen.

Cyclic existence

Audience: That makes me think about ripening karma, and the karma that comes from a previous life and causes suffering—and this suffering that takes place throughout the current life. I mean, when does it end?

VTC: This is a very good question. Yes, we created negative karma. It ripens in this life, yes. Meanwhile, during this life we create more negative karma so when does the whole thing end? This is the cycle—what we call samsara or cyclic existence. This is precisely the reason why we want to attain liberation from cyclic existence. Liberation is when we have cut off the ignorance, clinging attachment, and anger that make us create so much negative karma that causes us to stay in the cycle. Okay? Or that just even makes us create tainted virtuous karma—virtue that is influenced by ignorance. We have to practice the path to change our minds to cut the causes for the cycle of rebirth. That’s one of our reasons for practicing the Dharma.

Audience: Bit by bit. Not going into a specific example, but it just seems like it’s one after the next. You think that you’ve resolved something and then the anger or the clinging attachment is gone and then something else rears its ugly head and then you know…

VTC: Exactly. And that happens because the seeds of these defiled mental states are still in our mind even though we may have resolved one problem. Somebody cheated us and we’re angry—and then we contemplate, we resolve it, we calm down. But the seed of anger is still in us. So the next time somebody insults us we get angry again. That’s the whole process of cleansing the mind even of these mental afflictions. But what we want to do, if we keep meeting problematic situations one after the other—which happens all the time in life, doesn’t it? You know? That’s why it’s called the cycle of constantly recurring problems—because it’s one problem after another. What we want to do is to face each one of these situations as an opportunity to practice the Dharma and an opportunity to transform our mind. So when something bad happens instead of wailing and saying, “Why me? Woe is me! This isn’t fair,”— to say, “Okay, in the past I would react to this situation by freaking out. Now I’m really going to try and be present and be kind and not just get into all my old habits.” Then you really use your Dharma practice, your spiritual practice to work with your mind to keep your mind balanced; so that you can handle the situation in a wise and kind way. That way you don’t just create more and more and more of the above.

There’s a whole set of teachings called the thought training teachings or thought transformation [Tibetan is lojong] teachings. This is what I’m teaching on Thursday night and we stream it from the Abbey. So you can listen to it in your own home. Or you can come to the Abbey for the teachings. But with the text [Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun] that I’m teaching now is precisely about doing this.

Prayer is an aspiration

Audience: Could you explain to me a little the concept of prayer in Buddhism as opposed to a monotheistic religion and Christianity? You’ve used the term a couple times; I’m not sure if you were just joking or you meant it literally where you said, “Pray to Buddha.” Maybe you could elaborate on that.

VTC: Right. This question it comes because in Buddhism, Buddha is not a god figure who is in control of everything that happens. So the question comes in Buddhism: Who do you pray to? Or what is prayer in Buddhism? Actually, the Tibetan term, I use the English word prayer but it’s not a good translation. It’s more of making a positive aspiration. Prayer is more like asking somebody to do something. But here what we’re really doing is making a positive wish or a positive aspiration. It is possible if a person has certain karma, sometimes—because there are plenty of holy beings in this universe—for the holy beings to sometimes intercede. Not like miracle, well, there are interesting things that happen. But I’m not trying to put this in a Judaic-Christian framework because it’s not like that at all. Yet if somebody has some very good karma they can receive inspiration or blessing or something like that—that changes their own internal dynamic in the face of a difficult situation.

Lots of times prayer is more of a virtuous aspiration. We’re not praying to Buddha as people would pray to God. It’s not, “Buddha please do this, and please do that.” Buddha is already helping us as much as he can. If the Buddha had the power to eliminate our suffering, he already would have. The thing is, from the side of the Buddhas there’s no limitations in terms of what the Buddhas can do to help us. But our minds are obscured and so we can’t always receive the help that they give. So when we’re praying, when we’re making these positive aspirations, that’s also helping us to remove the obscuration on our mind—especially if we do purification practice where we’re actively regretting and repairing the negativities that we’ve done. Then that enables us to receive the Buddha’s inspiration and transformative effect easier.

They often give the example of a container that’s upside down. The sunlight shines everywhere. So that’s kind of like the Buddha’s enlightening activity, the Buddha’s inspiration—it’s like the sunlight. But if this cup is upside down there’s no way that the light can get in it no matter how brilliant the light is. When our mind is just cluttered with all sorts of rubbish, it’s like the upside-down cup. As we start to purify our mind and do purification practice and work with our mind so that we transform some of the negative mental states into positive ones, then what we’re doing is we’re starting to make this cup go like this. [She demonstrates an upside-down cup tilting up a bit.] The more we can start the cup on turning upright, the more the sunlight can come in. You see, it’s our doing some work to make the cup come upright.

Audience: So if you’re saying a prayer for another being, like I pray to Tara all the time to protect like my kids. Does it work that way?

VTC: So does it work to say prayers for the benefit of other beings. You’re saying that you ask Tara. Tara is one of the female manifestations of the enlightened mind. Is that okay? You’re asking Tara to protect a person or your cat or whoever it is. Yes, that’s fine. That’s fine. There is this whole practice within Buddhism in the case—like when people are ill, when things are not going well in their life—then they’ll request prayers. Or they’ll request offering ceremonies from the monastic communities to do that. And so these things can be effective, yes.

Merit and karma

Audience: I have a question about karma and merit. Merit doesn’t cancel our negative karma?

VTC: Merit is a form of constructive karma. This evening we created a lot of positive energy together. That’s called merit. It brings good results. So her question is does it cancel out negative karma? It can impede the ripening of some negative karma, but it’s also a different kind of seed that you’re planting in your mind at the same time.

The four opponent powers: regret, restore the relationship, determination, remedial action

The purification practice I should maybe explain because this is something quite important. It’s a four-step practice and so the first step is to have regret, but not guilt. In Buddhism guilt is something to be abandoned, it’s not something to be cultivated. If you feel guilty for doing something, you’re doing it wrong. Then you can feel guilty for feeling guilty. And feel guilty for feeling guilty for feeling guilty for…Okay, so regret is different. Regret is just, “I made a mistake and I wish I hadn’t done that because it damages myself, it damages others.”

Then, to restore the relationship in some way by generating the opposite kind of mental state that was present in our mind when we did the harmful action. So in the case of—if the object of our action was another living being then to cultivate love and compassion and an altruistic intention towards them. If the object our action was the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, our refuge objects, then we take refuge in them. So it’s a way of transforming the negative attitude toward whoever we harmed into having a positive attitude.

Then the third step is to make a determination to avoid the action again. So if you can’t say, “I’m going to avoid it forever and ever,” then at least do it for a small period of time so that you get some self-confidence in avoiding it.

The fourth step is to do some kind of remedial action. So in Buddhist practice we might do prostrations or offerings or meditation. You can do community service. Any kind of virtuous action that you do with a positive mental state. It could be helping a charity or doing volunteer work in the community. Anything like this. If you’re a Buddhist you do mantras and different Buddhist practices and so on. But it’s something where you’re applying an actual antidote to the negative action that you did.

Depending upon our sincerity when we’re doing this then it can impede the ripening of that karma to a greater or lesser degree. And it’s also—the purification practice—is also very helpful psychologically for lightening our heart and our mind; so that we don’t just go around feeling like, “Oh, I made this mistake and aaaaahh…” But you do something in your spiritual practice and so it’s also a way of forgiving yourself.

It takes time to uproot negative karmic seeds and plant positive ones

Audience: When you said that merit can impede negative karma, impede is not the same as attenuate or reduce?

VTC: Because the negative karma has its own force, it’s like a seed. If you take away the water, if you take away a little bit of water the seed might still sprout but it impedes the seed growing into a big plant. Or the seed also needs heat to germinate. If you take away the heat then the seed it isn’t going to sprout so soon. It might sprout later. Okay? So like that.

What about my karma from past lives?

Audience: I’m having a difficult time understanding my path. I’ve got a full time job in this life with my karma. I’m not going to worry about my past life, but okay, am I to assume that today what we talked about it—is making more positive karma for whatever might be coming from the past life, or …

VTC: Okay, so you’re kind of saying: Is it good to create more positive karma because we don’t know what seeds are on our mindstream that might be ripening from the past? Yes. Yes, definitely. And it’s also good to do purification to try and pacify that karma so that it doesn’t ripen and whammo. In the process of doing that we’re also creating the causes for happiness in future lives.

Audience: If all these bad karmic seeds that we’ve accumulated over many lifetimes were all to manifest themselves in one lifetime, it would be a rather overwhelming chore. So then from what I can understand, it’s going to take some multiple lifetimes of concentration and intention in creating good karma to wipe out all those bad seeds that could potentially show up later on.

VTC: You’re saying, considering we have a whole pile of negative karma from previous lives, it’s going to take some time to reduce that. Yes. But the thing is that there are ways to strengthen and enhance the power of our virtuous karma and the power of our purification. So for example, remember at the beginning I had us all create an altruistic intention to work for the benefit of others? If we have that intention no matter what action we do, virtuous action that’s motivated by that kind of altruistic intention to become a Buddha for the benefit of others. Because we’re aiming for the highest spiritual result—to be able to benefit others by leading them out of the cycle of existence; and we have love and compassion for all living beings. Then anything we do is going to be a very powerful virtuous karma. And if we’re doing purification it’s going to have a very strong purifying effect. So that’s why the more you learn about this whole topic, then the more you learn how to make the virtuous karma and the merit that you create stronger. How to make your purification stronger. And if you happen to be in a situation where your mind is getting out of control and you’re going to do something negative—then how to reduce the negative, the force of that karma. So the more you learn, then you learn how to work with these things. And, yes, it’s going to take some time. But the power of the altruistic intention is very strong.

Karma of inmates

Audience: When he was talking about this overwhelming negative karma, I went right to a prisoner who’s in jail for a violent crime that may be there for twenty years, so how would you respond to someone in jail to that question? That’s thinking that my karma, the results of my actions, whether it’s previous or now, have put me in this place where I’m incarcerated for …

VTC: …a long time.

Audience: Eighteen years, twenty years…and you know, what am I going to do?

VTC: Okay, so you’re saying how, for somebody who’s incarcerated because of a negative action they did, who starts thinking, “My negative karma is so great. What am I going to do?” Well, what do you tell a person in that situation? I do a lot of prison work. And I find that, first of all, the guys who write to me are interested in changing. And one of the first things, I think, that changes in them is they begin to see that their actions have results. You know? That somehow when they were growing up they never thought of their actions as having results—either for themselves or for others. They just did stuff because of the impulse of the moment. As they begin to see that their actions have results, and their present experience is one of the results of their actions, then they really develop the wish to change and to practice the Dharma. So that can actually be a strong force pushing somebody in a virtuous way. Because they’re realizing that they have to change. They don’t want to go on the way they have been.

Different factors affecting one’s karma

Audience: You touched upon it just now, and I’m not trying to use the Judeo-Christian application of, “Oh, they’re just children so if they don’t get baptized until a certain age or it’s just a venial sin and not a mortal sin,” but when we’re children we may do these actions, nonvirtuous actions without realizing the ramifications. And I know karma is a law of the universe. It’s not subjective. But part of me wants to say karma is a little bit easier on kids.

VTC: Okay, so is karma easier on kids? Or is karma easier on people who don’t know better? One part of the talk that I didn’t get to was talking about what factors make karma heavy and what factors make karma light. Clearly, as a child if you don’t know and you haven’t been taught, that’s going to be a very different situation than somebody who knows that it’s something that’s damaging and yet they want to go ahead and do it anyway. But still we do experience the results of actions that we’ve done as a child. I don’t know about you, but I was very—my speech when I was a kid, you know? Oh, you know, forming cliques and then saying bad things about people behind their back and gossiping and decisive speech and harsh speech and all that kind of stuff. I have to take responsibility for it. So yes, in some ways there are things that can be mitigating factors. But then other things that we do, I mean even as a child, you know it’s not good to do such and such. Or even if you don’t know or not know, it’s not so much that but there’s a negative intention in the mind. Kids get angry. Adults get angry. So anger is anger. It creates harmful imprints on our own mind.

Audience: You brought up something that we used to work with developmentally disabled adults and you made me think what about the mentally disabled that act out because of their frustration.

VTC: Okay. So what about the mentally disabled who are frustrated and act out because of that? They also do kind actions, though too, don’t they? They can be incredibly loving. So everybody can create some good karma, everybody can create some bad karma. We all get frustrated. We all have the ability to be kind. It just depends on what we can nourish in our mind at any particular time.

Let’s just sit quietly for a couple of minutes and so use this time to think about what we talked about. Just a couple minutes to absorb and digest.


And let’s dedicate the merit or the positive energy that we created as individuals and as a group. And you can imagine it as like light at your heart that you then radiate out into the universe thinking that through the virtue that we’ve created this evening may all beings be happy, may all beings be free of suffering, and may all beings eventually attain liberation from cyclic existence and become fully enlightened Buddhas. Okay. Thank you.

The second talk in this series of two can be found here: Karma and compassion, Part 2 of 2

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