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Contemplating impermanence

Contemplating impermanence

Part of a series of teachings from a three-day retreat on the four seals of Buddhism and the Heart Sutra held at Sravasti Abbey from September 5-7, 2009.

  • Understanding change
  • How attachment influences the view of ourselves
  • Gross and subtle impermanence
  • Understanding the meaning of causes and karma

The four seals of Buddhism 01 (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation and really cherish this opportunity that we have for the next hour to learn the Buddha’s teachings. These are teachings that show us the truth, that show us methods to tame and subdue our mind, and that help us and show us the way to develop and increase our good qualities. Let’s rejoice at this opportunity and have a strong intention to take advantage of it. But in taking advantage of it, let’s not do this only for our own benefit. Really feeling ourselves as one part of the entire interwoven net of sentient life, let’s do this with the motivation of repaying the kindness of others. By transforming our minds we progress along the path and have ever-increasing ability to be of genuine benefit to other living beings so that they can attain full enlightenment as well. Let’s make that our long-term motivation for sharing the Dharma this weekend, and especially this morning.

This weekend we’re going to be exploring the Heart Sutra, which is one of the foremost Mahayana sutras. Mahayana is one of the Buddhist traditions. This is one of the foremost sutras. There are several versions of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. The longest has 100,000 lines or stanzas; there are other versions with 25,000 stanzas, 8,000 stanzas, and also shorter versions. This one is the heart or the essence of them all. It’s the abbreviated form. We Americans like things quick and short and abbreviated. But the thing is that the meaning is actually explained in the 100,000 stanzas. So in this abbreviation we have a lot to unpack to really understand it. It’s a journey of many lifetimes actually to understand the real meaning of this sutra and to be able to put it into practice. We’re starting on that today and we will certainly progress doing it.

The four seals of Buddhism

Before we get into the sutra itself, I thought I would explain the four seals. This is the way His Holiness the Dalai Lama often begins the teaching as a way of introducing people to what are four principles, or four seals, that ascertain a certain teaching as the Buddha’s teaching. The four seals, I will list them and then go back and explain them. They very much touch on this topic of the Heart Sutra, so they serve as an introduction and also will get us into the material.

  • The first one is that all composite or all composed phenomena—composed phenomena are things that are produced, that are conditioned—all these kinds of phenomena are impermanent or transient.1
  • The second is that, “All polluted phenomena are in the nature of dukkha.” Dukkha is a Sanskrit/Pali word that is often translated as “suffering,” but that’s not a good translation. A better translation is “unsatisfactory.” But when you use it as a noun then you get “unsatisfactoriness,” which is quite long: the truth of unsatisfactoriness. I just prefer to say dukkha and hope that people remember that’s what we’re talking about. (Your first Sanskrit word, well actually, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha are Sanskrit so you have some Sanskrit already.)
  • The third is that all phenomena lack a self, lack a substantial essence of some sort.2
  • The fourth is that, “Nirvana is true peace.”

We’ll go through these four seals because they really outline the philosophical stands of the Buddhadharma. But within them there are also a variety of viewpoints. In other words, not everybody who is a Buddhist has the same exact take on the nature of reality and so forth. There was a lot of debate about this in ancient times and there continues to be debate about it now. In fact the debate is the part of creative energy in the Buddhadharma because we’re taught to think and explore—not to just learn something and say, “Yes, it’s true,” and accept it and stuff down our questions.

The first seal: All conditioned phenomena are impermanent

Let’s look at the first of the four seals: all composite phenomena are impermanent. Like I said, composite phenomena are those that are produced, those that are composed or compounded, those that are conditioned. If something is produced it’s clearly produced by causes, isn’t it? Things don’t get produced out of nowhere. Now some people might say that things arise without causes. But that becomes a little bit problematic because when it comes to just our daily life we have this awareness of the cause and effect that is operating all the time in our daily life. We’re always doing certain things to get a certain effect. You cook lunch so that you can eat; you go to work so that you can buy the food; you smile at people so that you can have friends. We do things, we do certain actions knowing that they bring specific results. That’s in our daily life.

Then on a philosophical level, would it make any sense to say things are produced out of nowhere? It wouldn’t, would it? That goes against just our day-to-day experience. We see that you plant a seed and it grows—and yes, there are results that come from causes. If things have causes then what are their causes? You have some philosophical traditions that say that there’s an absolute permanent cause. In other words, there’s something like an absolute creator, a creator who was not created in reference to itself, and who does not change at all but who has the ability to create. Now here, if we investigate: can things arise out of an absolute, static creator that doesn’t change? Let’s come back to our daily experience. When you create a cause, do you change in the process of creating that cause? When a seed is in the ground, and it sprouts up, does the seed change? So we see that causes are always changing. They have to change in order to produce the result. Something that doesn’t change can’t influence and create anything.

If there is an absolute creator that wasn’t caused, himself or herself, that means they’re permanent, they don’t change. Could something that is permanent and doesn’t change create anything—if creation involves changing oneself? You see what I’m getting at? Spend some time thinking about that. If it feels funny because you have some belief that there’s an absolute creator, then really sit with it. How can the creator create if it doesn’t change? Do I know anything that can produce a result without changing itself? Really use your intelligence to examine that.

We see that all causes change to produce results and that results are produced by causes that change. The results, because they themselves are produced, are themselves impermanent—and they become causes for other things in the future. The seed becomes the sprout, which becomes the tree, which becomes the firewood, which becomes the ash, which gets recycled. Things are constantly in flux, changing all the time.

Gross and subtle impermanence

There are different levels of change. When we say all conditioned phenomena are impermanent and transient—there are different levels of impermanence. There’s a gross level of impermanence and a subtle level of impermanence. The gross level of impermanence is something that we see with our eyes—something ceases. In its present form it just ceases. Subtle impermanence, in general and superficially it looks the same, but it actually is changing moment to moment.

Let’s go back and look at this gross or coarse level of impermanence. That is, for example, when a tree falls down, or when a building collapses, when somebody dies, when the food gets rotten. There’s always this level of change that we see with our eyes: the sun sets, the moon rises—there’s this gross change. In spite of there being this gross change, because all these things are conditioned and produced by causes, sometimes we’re very surprised at the gross changes, aren’t we? Our mind rebels about them. When somebody dies we’re very shocked, aren’t we? We’re so surprised, “How is it that this person died?” Yet we all know that everybody’s going to die, don’t we? Throughout history everybody has died, nobody has remained alive indefinitely. All the great religious leaders have passed away. We know this and yet, even when it happens, we’re so surprised.

The economy is a conditioned phenomenon. It’s produced by causes. Are the causes always going to go up, and up, and up? No. We all know the economy is going to go in cycles, and it’s going to go up and down, and up and down, and up and down. But when it goes down we’re all so surprised, “How did this happen? The economy is always supposed to go up!” Yet we know that because it’s a compounded, conditioned phenomenon that it’s not always going to go up. So even this gross kind of impermanence—the more attached we are to something, the more our mind rebels against even gross impermanence. When we’re not so attached to something, say somebody else’s house in Siberia falls down, that doesn’t mean anything to us. Our house falls down? It means a lot—just because of what you happen to label “I” or “mine,” isn’t it?

With all these conditioned phenomena there’s the gross impermanence. Then there’s the subtle impermanence which means that everything that arises does not need any other factor to influence it to make it cease. In other words, just its arising is already the cause of its ceasing because things change moment to moment. They don’t remain static for even the next moment. If we go back to our science classes, this is what’s taught in science class when we study the nature of the atom. Are the electrons all in the same place all the time? Is the nucleus always remaining the same? No. Even on this tiny level which we can’t see with our eyes, everything is changing moment by moment by moment. Even if the electron moves to another place, it’s not exactly the same electron, is it? It is not that the electron is static and unchanging but just the place it’s in, the place around the atom changes. It’s not like that. Because to change places it itself is changing. It becomes new. The old electron is disintegrating at the same split second that the new one is arising. That new one, it isn’t like it arises and then stays permanent for a while and then ceases. How can it remain permanent for a while? Just in the process of arising it is already it the process of ceasing. This momentary impermanence, it means that in the smallest split second (which we can never quite get to—the smallest) things are arising and disintegrating.

Now there’s a relationship between the gross impermanence and the subtle impermanence. We see the gross impermanence when the sun sets, “Oh, the sun is setting! How did it get to be late already?” We’re surprised, aren’t we? “Oh, I thought I have two hours to do something else, but the sun’s setting already.” If we think about it from the time the sun starts coming over the horizon, for it to get from the east to the west, it’s changing every split second. Its position is moving, it’s changing, the world is changing, the whole thing. Split second, moment by moment, nothing’s remaining the same. It’s because you have this momentary impermanence that eventually you just come to one moment where there’s the grand finale—and the sun sets.

Looking at the impermanence of life and mind

It’s the same way in our life. When a baby is born we’re all very happy. But actually from the moment the baby is born, the baby is in the process of aging and getting closer to disintegration and death because the baby is changing moment by moment. It’s that moment to moment change that enables the baby to grow up and become a toddler, and a teenager (wouldn’t it be nice if we could skip that stage?), and a young adult, and so on and so forth. It’s that momentary change that eventually leads to death. It’s no surprise. But then death, too, it isn’t like after death nothing exists. We can see that the body, which is the result of sperm and egg and food that we’ve eaten, at the time of death the body becomes a cause for what comes afterwards. If the body is buried then it gets recycled in nature and the worms have a good lunch. If the body is burned then we have the ashes, we have the carbon dioxide that goes off. (Actually, I learned that it’s very bad for the environment to cremate. I didn’t know that before but it is very bad for the environment.) Anyway, the body gets recycled like that. If you cremate then you have the ashes and the ashes also dissolve back into the earth. So that’s all changing, changing, changing—not remaining the same. There’s no permanent cessation of the material of the body. It just changes form in some way.

With the mind at the time of death, what happens? The body and the consciousness of the person have different natures and different continuums. The body gets recycled in nature. The consciousness (or the mind) is not form. It’s not made of atoms and molecules so it doesn’t get physically recycled. Rather you have one moment of mind producing the next moment of mind—the same way we do when we’re alive. When we’re alive, one moment of our life produces the next moment.

Is your mind the same now as it was when you walked in at the beginning of this session? No, it’s different, isn’t it? This momentary change with one moment of mind acting as the substantial cause for the next moment of mind, this process continues at the time of death with one moment of mind acting as the substantial cause for another moment of mind. So you have this mental continuum that in the case of ordinary beings gets recycled by being reborn in another body. In the case of holy beings with great compassion, then they have the ability to choose their rebirth. In the case of Buddhas, their mindstream also continues but they just send out many emanations to benefit sentient beings all over the place. The Buddha’s mind is also changing moment by moment. That change doesn’t mean that somebody once they are a Buddha can lose their Buddhahood. That doesn’t happen because your mind is free of defilements and only defilements can make you fall down. Once the defilements are eliminated once and for all then there’s no way to gain them again. But we still have this moment to moment change and that’s going on even when we speak of the Buddha’s mind.

Intellectual knowing vs. experiential realization of impermanence

All these conditioned phenomena are changing all the time. Here already in talking about this we can see how we understand it on an intellectual level. But then something prevents us from really getting it on an emotional level. We’ve got it up here [pointing to the head]. Down here [pointing to the heart]? It’s like we still want things to be stable and permanent. Yes? We’re surprised when things end, we’re surprised when people die, we’re surprised when the stock market changes. All these things are big surprises and that’s gross impermanence—let alone subtle impermanence. So you see that while we have an intellectual understanding, innately how we approach life doesn’t match our intellectual understanding.

What is it that causes this gap between what we know up here [pointing to the head], and what we actually know down here [pointing to the heart]? That’s called ignorance. You can see that there’s some ignorance obscuring our mind so that just even on a day-to-day level we don’t see things—even in the way intellectually we know they exist. Even in this thing of impermanence we’re confused by ignorance. The more we familiarize ourselves with an understanding of ignorance, this understanding can be very helpful for us for calming our gross attachment. When we have a lot of gross attachment to things—and what I mean by attachment is a mind that is exaggerating the good qualities of someone or something, or projecting good qualities that aren’t there. And then clinging, holding, “I want! I need!” You know those two mantras we say a lot? “I want, I need, I’ve got to have, I can’t live without.” (We have a lot of mantras we say daily.) If we have an understanding of impermanence, gross impermanence and especially subtle impermanence, it helps reduce that clinging attachment.

We see that whatever it is that we’re clinging to is in the process of changing moment by moment. It’s not remaining the same. Yet when we’re attached to something, or someone, we want it to remain the same, don’t we? When you first meet somebody and you fall in love, we’ve all done that, right? Then your idea is that it’s going to remain the same, isn’t it? Your feelings about that person, their feelings about you, the relationship, it’s going to remain the same. Is a relationship a caused phenomenon? Yes. Things that are produced by causes, do they remain the same? No. [Laughter] Is our mind a little bit out of touch with reality when we expect things to remain the same? Yes. You can see that the more we contemplate impermanence then it can help us settle our mind from this attachment. When we understand that things change then we don’t grab so much onto them. We don’t expect so much from them. We aren’t so bummed out when they do change. If we look, it’s an interesting thing to do, look at the things in your life that you you’ve been the most unhappy about. Just think for a moment about something that you’ve been very unhappy about. Didn’t that thing come about as a result of a change that you didn’t want and didn’t expect because there was something else that you expected and wanted to continue? It could have been your job. It could have been your reputation. It could have been your status. It could have been some possession or relationship. If we look, so often our greatest sufferings in life are because something changed that we didn’t want to change, that we didn’t expect to change. So we can see that the more we’re ignorant and don’t see impermanence, then the more we attach to things and cling to them—expecting them always to be there. The more we’re attached, the more we experience pain when the natural process of change occurs.

If we understand that things change and don’t remain the same then the mind has more space. When they change we’re not so surprised and startled. It also, in a funny way, enables us to enjoy what we have more when we have it—instead of worrying about losing it. We can see that when we’re very attached to something, and we have an intellectual idea that, “Oh, this person is going to die,” or “My bank account is going to go down,” or whatever. Then, what do we do? Instead of releasing the attachment with wisdom, we develop anxiety and worry—because we know it’s going to change but we don’t want it to. What do you think? Is that way of thinking behind a lot of the worry? You have something but you can’t really enjoy it, because in the back of your mind you know it’s going to change and go away. So you’re going to do your best to make it permanent and stable, so it won’t change and go away! Does that cause mental grief and pain? Boy, oh boy, doesn’t it!

Whereas if we really understand impermanence then rather than trying to make something permanent that is impermanent, in order to keep our attachment to it, we become wiser and we release the attachment and the clinging. Thereby we release the worry and the anxiety about losing it. When we’re free from worry and anxiety then our mind is so much more open to enjoy what is there, when it’s there. It’s a funny experience that we’re not really good at enjoying things when they’re there. We’re usually not very present in our life. We’re usually in the past and the future. Just enjoying it when it’s there, knowing it’s going to change—that actually is much nicer, isn’t it? Both when it’s there and when it goes there’s no clinging, and so there’s no grief, there’s no worry.

I heard somebody once say, “When you have a nice cup, you think the cup is already broken.” If I look and this is my dear beautiful cup I can think, “But my cup is already broken because it has the nature of change in it.” It’s going to break. For sure this cup will break, don’t you agree? For sure, this cup is going to break. Undeniably this cup is going to break whether I drop it, or somebody else knocks it over, or something falls from the sky. This cup is not going to stand forever. In one way the cup is already broken, so there’s nothing to try to latch on to, expecting it to always be here and always be the same. If I have that awareness and I let go of trying to make it permanent, because I know that’s impossible, then for as long as the cup is here I enjoy having the cup. When I drop the cup and it breaks, then I knew that was going to happen and it’s okay—the world’s not going to end.

Contemplating impermanence properly

This understanding of the first of the four seals is very effective in our mind. But like I said we’ve got to use it properly. If we don’t use it properly then intellectually we know something’s going to change, but then our mind grabs on harder trying to make it stay the same. That’s when we get full of worry and anxiety. That is not the way to meditate on impermanence. Sometimes when we meditate on impermanence and we really think like, “Okay, the cup is already broken.” “This thing is already over.” “This is not going to last forever.” “Even my life, my life is already over. It’s going to end sometime, it’s impossible to keep it forever.” Then, if we really accept that, not just intellectual “blah, blah” chatter, but really accept, “Okay, I’m going to die.” Then that’s going to influence how we live in a very powerful way. It’s going to influence how we make decisions, and what decisions we make, and what we consider important.

It’s a very important meditation, this one on impermanence. It actually was in fact the Buddha’s first teaching when he turned the Wheel of Dharma. It was his last teaching which he demonstrated by leaving his body and he himself dying. It’s a very important teaching. We must really contemplate it and at a deep level.

At first when we think, “I’m going to die,” or “My loved one is going to die,” or “I’m going to go broke,” or any of these things—at first the mind goes, “Uh-uh-uh! I don’t want to think about this!” Then we turn on the television set, don’t we? We go to the refrigerator. We go look up something on internet. We go walk the dog. We turn on some music. We plug in. We do something else to distract ourself because our mind gets frightened at first by understanding impermanence. But if you’ve really thought about beforehand the benefits of understanding impermanence, and you’re really sure that this understanding is going to help you to be more smooth, more accepting, less up and down and nutty in your life. If you’ve really thought about the benefits of understanding impermanence, and really imagined how it would be to live with an understanding of impermanence, then when you start to get that understanding instead of going, “Uh-uh-uh, it’s all changing!” You go, “Oh good. I’m getting somewhere in my practice.” Yes, it’s a little scary to think, “I’m going to die and everything’s changing.” Yes, it’s scary, but that’s okay because, “I’m getting somewhere in my practice. Eventually this understanding is going to really benefit me and make my life so much better.” Are you getting what I’m saying?

Controlling change

Audience: When you were talking I realized where my mind goes is, “Okay, I can accept it’s going to change.” Then I fantasize how it’s going to change. If it doesn’t change that way I’m just as distraught as if I hadn’t given it any thought at all.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): We know it’s going to change, but then we want to control how it’s going to change. And so then your mind is, again, fantasizing into the future of how it’s going to change and how you’re going to be the director of how it changes. It’s not going to change any other way than how we want it to. This is actually going to get us into the third of the four seals. We’re still at the first one. But this idea of a “self” that’s in control—that one comes in the third seal. It’s a very good point that she made of, “Oh yes, it’s going to change and here’s how it’s going to change.” “Yes, my wealth is going to change and it’s going to increase!”

Recalling impermanence to dispel suffering

Audience: I have found, even on an intellectual level thinking about impermanence, that it also works with aversion and suffering. That suffering things come and I want to make them as permanent as I do with attachment. So if I start looking at suffering and recall, “This too will change.” It helps me to lift my mind out of that kind of behavior.

VTC: Another good point here. Sometimes when we’re in the experience of the moment, just how we expect the good thing not to change, we expect the painful thing not to change. When our mind is stuck in that painful thing, “I’m experiencing pain and it’s not going to change.” We get in that state, don’t we? It’s what we call depression: “I’m experiencing pain and it’s not going to change.” Or we lose somebody: “I’m experiencing grief and it’s not going to change.” Are pain and grief caused phenomena? Are they permanent or impermanent? Impermanent. So when your body hurts, is it always going to hurt? When your mind is unhappy, is it always going to be unhappy? This, you hesitated there [laughter].

When my body hurts, it’s always going to hurt? This is a very interesting thing to examine in your meditation. When your body hurts, watch the pain in the body and see if it changes. Watch if it stays exactly the same. Does it get stronger and weaker? Then it’s changing, isn’t it? Is it always in exactly the same area? Or does it go more to one area and then another one? So watch the painful sensation and see if it’s permanent or impermanent. One of my friends was meditating. He told me he had an incredible pain in one shoulder and he was watching the pain and then all of a sudden it jumped to the other shoulder. That’s just how our mind creates things.

You can see this too with mental pain. When we’re feeling really down, a lot of grief or depression or a bad mood or whatever, it’s a caused phenomenon. It’s going to change. Watch that mental pain. Is it exactly the same every single instant? Can you maintain an equal state of depression for half an hour without it changing at all? It actually becomes hard. If you say, “I’m going to have this depression, or this mental pain, this grief, this sorrow, it’s going to be the same and it’s not going to change.” Can you make it like that? No. We find that even when we’re feeling down, there are moments when our mind is thinking about other things or seeing other things, and we have a totally different experience. It’s very interesting to really watch this experience of ours and see, not only does the pleasant feeling change, but the painful feeling does too. Like Venerable Semkye said, “Your pain changes, it doesn’t remain constant.” It’s not going to be the same. Even when we’re sick or feeling down, just even having that intellectual awareness can be very helpful for us: “How I’m feeling is not going to remain the same. It’s a caused phenomenon.” All you do is tweak a cause a little bit and the whole thing changes.

You could be very down and you look at one of these flowers, for the moment you’re looking at the flower, has your mind changed? It’s changed, hasn’t it? Or you visualize the Buddha, or you develop an instant of loving-kindness, or whatever. We can understand that when we get ourselves into this framework of, “Whatever I’m feeling is not going to change,” that we’re really not in sync with the reality, are we? It’s another form of our ignorance.

More on causality

There’s another thing we can say about causality. We were talking about how things that change must have causes and therefore there’s no chaos or randomness. Then also, the causes themselves must change to produce the result. So that leaves aside permanent causes. Another thing about causes is for something to be a cause of something else, it has to have the potential or the ability to produce that thing. In other words, not everything can produce anything else, and not anything can be produced by any cause. There’s a correspondence between the cause and the effect. When you plant daisy seeds you get daisies, you don’t get tulips. The daisy seed is a cause, it’s impermanent, it’s changing. But that doesn’t mean it has the ability to grow a tulip. The results that come from a certain cause correspond to the potential of the cause. There’s a causal relationship.

This also is something quite important to understand because there are causes of happiness and there are causes of suffering. It’s important for us to understand what causes happiness and what causes suffering, so that then we can create the causes for them. But if we misidentify the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering, then we might engage in creating causes that lead us to the result we don’t want to experience. It’s as if we’re thinking that tulips come from daisies, and that daisies come from tomato seeds. Looking at our life, have you done things that you thought were creating the cause of happiness for yourself but you didn’t get the happiness you wanted? Somehow we didn’t understand at that time exactly what the cause of happiness was.

When we talked about causality, there’s what we call the substantial cause—the actual thing that becomes the next moment of the other things. For example, the seed is the substantial cause of the sprout. But then there are the cooperative conditions. The seed doesn’t grow into the sprout until it’s springtime, and it’s warm enough, until there’s water, until there’s fertilizer. There are certain cooperative conditions that are necessary for that seed to grow into the daisy. If you lack the substantial cause, the seed, you’re not going to get a daisy. If you have the substantial cause but you lack even one of the cooperative conditions, you’re not going to get a daisy at that particular moment, are you? You’re going to have to wait until another time when all the cooperative conditions come together before you get that daisy.

It’s the same thing in our life, many times we create causes which we think will be the cause of happiness but we experience suffering instead. A few different things could be going on here. First of all, maybe what we think is the cause of happiness isn’t—and it’s the cause of suffering. Second of all, maybe what we’re doing is a cooperative cause for happiness, but it’s not the principal cause for happiness. It’s like you want to grow daisies and there’s no daisy seed there, but you keep watering and watering and watering. Then you wind up with mud instead of a daisy. The water could bring you a daisy, but you don’t have the seed. It might be spring, you might water it, but no daisies.

Bringing karma into the picture

When we talk about the experience of happiness, one of the principal causes, or should I say the principal cause is our previous actions. Action is the English word for karma. Our previous actions are the principal causes for the feelings of pleasure, pain, and neutrality—or the feelings of happiness, suffering, and equal feeling. (These are both the same way of saying the same thing, it doesn’t matter if you say pleasure or happiness; pain or suffering. It means the same thing.) We may be busy gathering the external conditions to get a result, but we haven’t created the principal one yet. That’s why understanding karma is really important. If we understand karma then we can focus very much on creating the principal conditions for what we want to experience. And then the cooperative conditions come along or we could influence them sometimes too—but again, not always. Sometimes we may have the principal cause, the karma, but the cooperative condition isn’t there.

Causality is a complex thing—but there always has to be a correspondence between the cause and the result. In terms of ethical dimension, there is an ethical dimension to our actions. The Buddha described this, he didn’t create it, he only described it. When he saw sentient beings experiencing happiness, he looked at the principal causes of that happiness and he called that virtuous karma. When he saw sentient beings experiencing suffering, he looked at the principal cause of that and he called it nonvirtuous, or destructive, or negative, or unwholesome karma. There are many ways to translate it. So there’s a correspondence between what we do and what we experience, and between what we experience and what we did in the past.

The bigger picture

This functioning of causality spans from one lifetime to the next lifetime. Not all the causes for our present lifetime experiences were created in this lifetime. Many of them were created in previous lifetimes. Similarly, many of the causes we create in this lifetime are not going to ripen in this lifetime. They will ripen in future lifetimes. This means we have to expand our understanding of causality and see that the result doesn’t necessarily follow immediately after the cause.

When you go to school, let’s say you’re going to school so that you can get your degrees so that you can earn some money. After you pass each exam in each course do you earn some money? No. You’re creating the cause but you’re not getting the result immediately, are you? But you’re taking that course, then you take the next course, then you take the next course. Why? Because you know eventually you’re going to get enough courses, you’ll get enough knowledge, you’ll get that piece of paper. And then, if you go out and look for the job, you’ll get the money. You’re content to do one course at a time, or three or four courses depending how heavy your load is. You’re content to create that principal cause of gaining the knowledge because later you know you’ll get the result. You’re content even though the result doesn’t happen immediately.

In the same way, we may do constructive actions or destructive actions now, but the result doesn’t follow immediately. It’s like planting the seed in the autumn. You get all the daisy seeds but daisies don’t grow in the autumn. You have to wait until springtime. We may create some causes in this life, but those causes don’t bear their results until a future lifetime.

Again, even when you have the cause you need the cooperative condition. There’s the old joke, actually it’s a Christian joke we changed it into Buddhist, of people praying to the Buddha. “Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, please can I win the lottery?” The guy prays, and prays, and prays, and he still doesn’t win the lottery. Finally he says, “Buddha, why I haven’t won the lottery?” And Buddha says, “Buy a ticket.” The guy may have the karma to win the lottery, but if he doesn’t have the cooperative condition of getting the ticket, he’s not going to win the lottery.

Investing wisely in our practice

It’s the same thing in our life, we create the principal cause but sometimes the cooperative conditions aren’t there yet. When we are intent on practicing virtue and making our mind virtuous, we want to create as many of the principal causes as we can, knowing that the cooperative conditions will come later. Just as we may need to take many courses to get our degree, we may need a whole compilation of many virtuous actions in order to get a specific good result that we want. But we’re patient and we’re happy in just creating those causes for the result.

In the same way, we may create destructive karma and do harmful actions tIn the same way, we may create destructive karma and do harmful actions that may not ripen immediately because the external causes aren’t there, the cooperative conditions aren’t there. That gives us the opportunity to purify the karma. That’s why it’s really important to do purification practices like the  prostrations to the 35 Buddhas, Vajrasattva, and so on. When you do purification you are injecting another cause in there that is counteracting your principal cause. Or it’s preventing the cooperative conditions from coming there to make that principal cause ripen. That’s the importance of doing purification.

Who causes whom to suffer?

Audience: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about family and cause and effect. I get really confused as far as who has caused what. Sometimes it looks like I’ve caused my children some grief from my immediate action, but they had to have some kind of cause to be there in the first place. It just gets to be really confusing. I don’t want it to be confusing, but when I’m trying to sort all of that out, it just gets more complicated.

VTC: You’ve been saying you’ve been thinking about family (and this pertains to things beyond family too). You see that sometimes your children are unhappy, and you think that maybe something you’ve said or done was a cause for that unhappiness. It gets confusing. Did you cause their unhappiness, or did they have some kind of karmic cause for their unhappiness, and who causes what?

Whenever we experience suffering or happiness, the principal cause is our own actions. When we say, “So and so made me unhappy,” sorry folks, that’s a lie. We lie a lot, don’t we? “So and so made me so unhappy. They made me mad. It’s their fault. They’re the cause of it!” That’s not true. The principal cause of our unhappiness is our own harmful actions created in the past. The cooperative condition for that ripening may be what somebody else said or did. Regarding what somebody else said or did: they may have had a good intention, they may have had a bad intention. We don’t know and it doesn’t matter.

We always think, “Okay, if it’s a misunderstanding, then I don’t have a right to be angry. But if they really want to get me, then I have a right to be angry.” Why do you have a right to be angry? The principal cause, whether they want you to suffer or don’t want you to suffer, the principal cause is always our own actions—not necessarily this life. It could have been previous lifetimes, a long time ago. That daisy or, what do you call it, knapweed seed? It was planted a long time ago, but it was lying there ready for this one event to happen.

Taking responsibility

In a situation like when you were talking about family, our responsibility is our actions. Our responsibility is not controlling other people’s results. Our responsibility is our actions. That doesn’t mean that we can say, “Oh, I talked rudely to somebody because I was really mad at them. Their feelings got hurt and it’s all their fault. Now I am a Buddhist and I see that actually I was just the cooperative condition. It was their own negative karma. That’s why their feelings got hurt when I said these words. My saying these words doesn’t matter. See, it’s your own negative karma. I told you so.” That’s not true! We’re responsible for our actions. If we do something for harmful result, we’re the one planting the destructive karmic seed in our own mindstream.

Actually when we harm somebody else, who’s deriving the most harm from it? We are. In that kind of family thing, say we said something with the compassionate motivation that we knew the other person wasn’t going to like to hear. But we knew that they have to hear so that they can think about it and grow. Even if they experience pain, since we didn’t act with a bad motivation we didn’t create negative karma. But if we had the intention to hurt their feelings or we knew that what we were going to say would be like, “I have my chance to get back. It looks like I am offering advice, but…” So even if we construe it like, “Oh, I’m being compassionate,” but actually our motivation is, “I want to get you,” that’s still negative karma.

We have to accept responsibility for our own actions. If we acted with a good motivation and with an attempt to help somebody else and they experience suffering—because they’ve misunderstood or because they are very sensitive about something—there’s not much we can do. Just accept that situation that happened that way. I did not have harmful intentions so I didn’t create anything unwholesome through my actions. My intention was not to cause suffering yet the person is suffering. If there’s a way in which I can help them, then I’ll help them. Sometimes I’m not the person who can help them.

Have you ever been in situations where somebody is suffering and you love that person dearly and want them not to suffer, but you know you’re not the person who can help them? Then you just accept, “I’m not the person who can help them. Maybe I can help somebody who can help them or get them together or something.”

Creating the cause for happiness

Audience: Is it possible that somebody who has a very miserable depressed life, maybe mentally ill for many years and so forth, even though in their current lifetime throughout this lifetime they haven’t done anything wrong or bad and their karma might be totally the result of all their previous lives—and they cannot in their current lifetime, purify?

VTC: Yes. The question is: Somebody has a fairly continuous depressed state throughout this lifetime. Is that the result of this life’s karma or previous life’s karma? When you look at this life, they haven’t done anything extremely negative at all. Yes, then that can definitely be a result of previous life karma.

How you react to the suffering in this life is creating more karma. Say we react with, “Oh, I feel depressed.” Then if we do the taking and giving meditation and we say, “May this suffice for the unhappiness and the suffering of all living beings.” You do that, taking on the suffering, giving your happiness. Then even if you feel bad, you’re generating virtue—a virtuous mind. That virtuous mind is going to create the cause for happiness. You might, lo and behold, find that it actually changes your mood right now too. But that’s kind of a byproduct because you’re really creating the cause for future life happiness. Or maybe you do a lot of purification. You do a lot of Vajrasattva practice or the 35 Buddhas practice, and you are really thinking, “Whatever is causing this depression that I suffer from—I don’t know exactly what I did in previous lives—but whatever it is, I confess it.” Maybe in previous life I caused other people mental pain, and so now it’s ripening in the experience of mental pain. So you do the four opponent powers and you purify. You imagine all that light from the Buddha coming into you, filling you up, and you think that all that negative karma is just being released and purified. That can often help a great deal too. In many things, we have to work at the level of karma and we have to work at the level of the cooperative conditions.

Using our practice to benefit others who suffer

Audience: Can you do this for others? How would it affect them? Let’s say the person is depressed, and they’re not a Buddhist and they don’t know about purification, but you bring them in. What affect does that have?

VTC: The other person is somebody you know, who’s not a Buddhist, who’s suffering from depression or even physical pain, whatever.

We each create our own karma. We each have to purify our own karma. But we can still do the taking and giving meditation, imagining we’re taking their suffering and the karma that causes that. That actually benefits us a lot in our practice, because we are developing that strong compassion. It sets up, I think, some kind of energy field whereby the other person’s good karma may have a better chance of ripening. They’ve done all these studies that when people pray for a particular person, very often that person does become better. I think with the force of our meditation or our prayer that we’re the chief beneficiary, but it can also affect the cooperative conditions around the other person that gives the chance of their good karma ripening. That’s why after somebody dies we may make offerings and do pujas and different things like that to create that extra karma that we dedicate for that benefit, because that can act just like a fertilizer for their own good karma to ripen. But then they have to have that good karma that has the power to ripen at that point too.

Audience: If someone is mentally ill in this life and does actions that hurt people and is just a destructive sort of person, are they just doomed in the next life?

VTC: If somebody is mentally ill in this life and does a lot of harmful actions, are they just going to have a lot of suffering in their future lives?

There’s some kind of thing that when you aren’t in your right senses, the karma is not quite as heavy. The karma is not as heavy if the mind is really ill. If you are hallucinating things that aren’t there, the karma is not as heavy. In our monastic vows, in terms of let’s say our root vows, if you are mentally ill at the time you do an action, that doesn’t constitute a full break of the precept because you were completely out of your senses, so the karma is different.

  1. Latest translation is “All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.” 

  2. Latest translation is, “All phenomena are empty and selfless.” 

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.