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Working with karma

Working with karma

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An interview by Wong Lai Ngee in Malaysia

Wong Lai Ngee (WLN): This morning we will speak about karma, a topic that arises in a lot of conversations among Buddhists. The term “karma” is used in many different ways. Please define what karma is.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Karma is action, volitional action; that is, action which is done with intention. In philosophical terms, some Buddhist schools define karma as the mental factor of intention. Others say that karma is intention but it is also the actions done with that intention—what we say or what we do (our physical and verbal actions).

WLN: How is karma created?

VTC: Karma is created through the three doors: body, speech, and mind. It’s what we intentionally do, say, and think. If we act without an intention then there is no karma created. Whether the action is virtuous (skillful), non-virtuous (unskillful), or neutral is primarily dependent upon the intention. There may be other mitigating factors, but the primary value of the action and the effect it is going to produce are dependent upon our motivation.

The back view of a woman stretch her hand trying to catch light in front of her.

Karma is created through the three doors: body, speech, and mind. (Photo by Sodanie Chea)

Some people believe in karma, but what they see as skillful, unskillful, or neutral actions may be different. For example, some people believe animal sacrifice is good karma because it pleases a deity, but from the Buddha’s view, it’s negative karma, in this case because it’s motivated by ignorance. Some people believe that people create more and more good karma, so automatically one rebirth will be better than the previous one. But according to Buddhism, if we create negative karma and one of those seeds ripens at the time of death, people can be born in an unfortunate rebirth. In cyclic existence, we may go up and down considerably, depending on what karma we create and what ripens at the time of death. Even within one day, we create so many actions. What rebirth comes about is not a sum-total of all our karma, but depends on which particular karmic seeds ripen at the time of death.

WLN: It is said in the Majjhima Nikaya that all of us are heirs of our own karma. What does that mean?

VTC: We experience the results of what we have created. In other words, there’s not an external being, creator, or manager of the universe who determines our experiences. For example, what we get reborn as, what we experience while alive, where we are born, and what kinds of habits we have are all due to karma. Our mind is the creator. Our intentions motivate our actions, which bear effects. Hence, we are the heirs of our own karma.

Because we create the causes for our own future, we have responsibility. If we want happiness, we must create the causes of happiness; no one else can do it for us. Since we don’t want suffering, it’s up to us to abandon the causes of suffering. So this places the responsibility for our lives directly upon us. We do not propitiate a deity to grant us boons and good fortune. It is dependent on us to create the causes of what we want to experience.

I consider this a great blessing. If our happiness and suffering depended upon an external being, we would be entirely at the mercy of that being. But since the law of cause and effect is a reality, we can influence our future by being aware of the causes we create now.

WLN: Sometimes people think of karma as fate. If our present life is totally conditioned or wholly controlled by our past actions, then karma is regarded as fatalistic and our experiences are seen as predetermined. Is this correct?

VTC: Karma does not imply predetermination. In fact, the law of karma indicates the opposite. The Buddha taught dependent arising or dependent origination, in which he explained that all functioning things depend on a multiplicity of causes and conditions.

It may happen that if people think of karma in a simplistic way, they misunderstand it as predetermination; but karma is not that simple. In fact, it is said that only the omniscient mind of a Buddha can completely explain all the different causes of any particular event. The Buddha said trying to understand the full workings of karma is quite impossible as he called it one of the “four unthinkables” (catu acintayani).

When people are initially taught about karma, it may be explained in a very simple way: if you kill, you will be killed and if you steal, people will steal from you. A simple explanation like this is given because it corresponds with the level of understanding of a beginner. But that’s not the full understanding of karma.

Any action has many components. For example, there are the motivation, the object, the way the action is done, whether it is done repeatedly, and whether it is purified or not. All these conditions affect the strength or weakness of a karma. In addition, within our mindstream, there are many different karmic seeds because we have done many different actions. For these karmic seeds to ripen, it depends upon the cooperative conditions and what’s going on in the particular lifetime in which they ripen.

If we kill or harm someone, we create the causes for our own suffering. That’s definitely true. But exactly how that karmic imprint ripens depends on many conditions. For instance, if we do purification practices, it may not ripen at all or it may ripen in a very weak way. So its result is not predetermined.

Aside from the functioning of cause and result in terms of karma and its effects, there is the functioning of cause and effect in the physical world. Here, too, a simple explanation of causality may be given, but if we look deeper, things are much more complex. For example, we say wood is a cause of this table. But when we look closer, there are also nails and other elements. In addition, the end product of the table depends on the person who designed it, where it was made, who made it, where the wood grew, and many other factors. If we look closely, there’s lots going on there. Similarly, karmic causality is not a simple topic.

WLN: If someone is born in an unfortunate situation, for instance into a very poor family, we explain it as due to past bad karma. We try to do more good karma this life in order to ensure we have a better rebirth. Is this chasing after happiness in life after life correct?

VTC: Some people say, “Those people are poor because of their bad actions; therefore they are morally inferior. We shouldn’t try to improve their situation because that would interfere with their karma. Rather, they should accept being in a lower class and try to create positive actions so they will be rich in future lives.”

This is a misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teachings that is used to keep unwholesome regimes in power and suppress lower classes. This is not a proper understanding of Buddhism. First of all, nobody deserves to suffer. We cannot say that people are morally inferior because they suffer. It’s true that people create the causes of what they experience, but that does not mean that they deserve to suffer. In Buddhism, we do not judge or criticize people when they suffer. Suffering is not a punishment for what we did; it is simply a result. Happiness is not a reward; it’s a result of our good karma. It’s just a result. Whether we experience happiness or suffering has nothing to do with being punished or rewarded or with being morally inferior or superior.

WLN: Then suffering is something we can learn from, and if we can transform it through how we view it, the scenario changes. Is this right?

VTC: Right. When we experience the results of our negative karma, we train ourselves to think, “It’s good I’m having this problem because my negative karma is being consumed. This karma could have resulted in horrible suffering that lasted a long time in a miserable rebirth. I’m glad it’s ripening now as a comparatively lesser suffering which I can manage. Because this karma is finishing, it will now be easier for me to progress on the path.” We habituate ourselves to this way of thinking, and with it, we build up strength of character to endure suffering. This way of thinking works for Buddhists, but I wouldn’t advise telling people who don’t understand karma to practice like this. They could easily misunderstand.

Similarly, when we experience happiness, we should not get puffed up and think that we are morally superior and deserve to be happy. Happiness is the result of our own good karma, so we should create more good karma if we want to continue to receive favorable results. Our happiness should be used as an inspiration for us to act in constructive ways.

Some people say that when someone is suffering, we should not interfere or help because we are “interfering with their karma.” That’s totally wrong. For instance, if someone gets hit by a car and is lying in the middle of the street bleeding, do you walk by and say, “That’s too bad. This is the result of your bad karma. If I take you to the emergency room, I’d be interfering with your karma. So I’m going to just let you sit there and bleed.” That’s absurd, isn’t it?

Whenever there’s a chance to help someone, we should definitely help. After all, that person may also have created the karma to receive help! When we help others, we create the karma to receive help ourselves. I would think that selfishly ignoring others’ plight when there is the opportunity to directly help is the karma (action) causing us to experience suffering in the future.

We should not tell poor people that they are poor because of their karma; hence they shouldn’t ask for or expect fair wages. That’s a distortion that the rich use to oppress the poor. If a poor person works, they deserve to get as much money as anybody else.

WLN: Normally we don’t reflect on karma unless something unfortunate happens to us or our loved ones. How should we reflect on this important law in our daily lives?

VTC: Everything we experience is influenced by our karma, our previous physical, verbal, and mental actions. When we’re unhappy we always ask, “Why me?” But when we are happy, we never say, “Why me?”! We never questioned what we did to receive fortunate circumstances. Instead, we remain stuck in selfishness and think, “I want more!” We don’t think that we have to create causes for happiness.

When we integrate this doctrine of karma into our life, we will think, “What kind of actions did I do in the past to bring forth this happiness and benefit?” For example, in Malaysia there is enough to eat and society is prosperous. But have you ever wondered what did you do to create the cause to live in a place like this? Things do not happen without cause. You created the cause for wealth by being generous in the past—by offering requisites to live to monastics, by offering food to the poor. Through the practice of generosity, we create the cause to be born in a place where we have wealth and enough to eat.

That understanding should make us aware that the good fortune we have did not come out of nowhere. It came through our own generosity and if we want to continue to experience such good results, we should continue to be generous. We use that to motivate ourselves to do virtuous actions instead of taking our good fortune for granted and selfishly thinking that others should serve us and give us more. Similarly when we have problems, instead of getting angry or blaming someone else for our misfortune, we understand, “In the past, my own self-centeredness caused me to harm or neglect others. Now, I’m experiencing the result of my own actions.”

Another example is when we’ve been criticized. If we look closely, we must admit that we all have criticized other people, so why are we so surprised when we are criticized? And, we have talked behind other people’s back, so why are we so outraged when they talk behind our back? When we are hurt or inconvenienced by someone’s malicious gossip, we should remind ourselves, “I created the principal cause for this. It’s senseless to blame others. I’m going to patiently bear this suffering. In addition, since I don’t like this result, I have to be careful not to create the cause for it in the future. Therefore, I will be very careful about how I use my speech. I will try to avoid malicious gossip that hurts others or ruins their reputation.”

WLN: Yes, that makes understanding the law of karma very practical.

VTC: Right. Then, whatever we’re doing, whatever situation we are in, we recognize that this is the time we are creating karma. For example, right now during this interview, we are creating karma. When you go to work, you create karma. When you are with your family, you create karma. When we have this awareness, we are careful about what we say or do. We are mindful of what we think and feel. If we are aware that we have a negative emotion, a malicious attitude, or a greedy thought, we take time out to correct our way of thinking. We apply the antidote to the disturbing emotion because we know that if we don’t, the disturbing emotion and attitude will motivate negative action. This process of being aware and monitoring our mind, applying the antidote to negative emotions, enhancing our beneficial emotions and realistic attitudes—this is the practice of Dharma. We train ourselves to do this every single moment of our life, not just when we kneel in front of a Buddha image, not just when we’re near a monastic, but we do it all the time. We are the ones responsible for what we experience. We create the causes for it.

On a slightly different note, I’d like to point out that there are different degrees of relating to the law of karma and its effect. At the beginning, a person tends to be rather self-preoccupied and look at karma from a self-centered viewpoint. In other words, “I am generous so that in future lives, I will be wealthy.” This person’s attitude is like doing business for their future lives.

This is quite prevalent in many Buddhist rituals. For instance, I noticed at Danas, everyone is wishing that their food will be chosen by the monk or nun because they want good karma.

I have noticed this attitude during the food offering to the sangha, and it makes me sad. Some people push, “Eat my food because I want the merit.” They think that if the monastic eats their food, they get merit, but if he or she doesn’t, they don’t get merit. This is mistaken. It’s the act of generosity itself that creates merit. It doesn’t matter if the monastic eats a big bowl of the food you offered, one bite, or none. Your delight in giving, your act of generosity is the skillful karma.

It’s nice that people offer with respect for karma. That creates the cause for wealth in their future lives. Although this reflects an elementary understanding of karma, it’s still good that they offer. It’s better than offering with a motive to get a good reputation or special favors. At least these people have faith in karma; they have some good motivation. But we should try to go beyond grasping at our own spiritual merit. That is, we want to be generous because generosity is part of our practice; because we take delight in being generous and generosity helps other beings. We are generous because we aspire for liberation and enlightenment. So, let’s cultivate that motivation rather than just aiming for wealth in future rebirths.

Although the act of generosity may be the same, when it is motivated by the wish for nirvana, it will result in nirvana. If it is motivated by the aspiration for full enlightenment, that same action will result in full enlightenment. That’s why I stressed that our motivation is the key element in creating karma. That’s why we want to continually improve the quality of our motivation. We are not seeking just good future lives but for liberation and enlightenment.

WLN: We create karma every moment in our life. How do we ensure we create only the good ones?

VTC: The main thing is to be aware of what we are thinking and feeling. That’s going to determine whether our mental, verbal, and physical actions are skillful or unskillful, virtuous or non-virtuous. We have to be aware, “What’s motivating me to do this?” What’s the thought or feeling in my mind?” For example, why do you go to work? You work so many hours every day, but what is your motivation? Why are you doing this?

WLN: Maybe for the money.

VTC: Ok, if that’s your thought—”I’m going to work to get money”—then those hours you spend at work are under the control of the self-centered attitude, aren’t they? All the hard work you do is done only for the happiness of this life—just to get money for yourself and your dear ones. It’s done with greed.

That doesn’t mean you should not go to work. Rather, you should change your motivation for going to work. Instead of going to work with a greedy attitude that makes your work become negative karma, you change the way you think. You think, “True, I need to go to work because I need to make a living and survive in society and support my family. But I’m also going to work to offer service to others. I want my work to benefit society and the individuals whose lives are made better through my efforts at work.” If you work in a factory, think, “We make things that are of use to people. I wish these people well. I’m working so that their lives will be happier.” If you work in a service profession, think, “My work benefits other people. I want to contribute to society and the well being of the planet and that’s why I’m going to work.” Also think, “I’m going to work to benefit the people at my work place. I want my colleagues, boss or employees to be happy. By being cheerful, cooperative, and responsible, I will make their lives easier and more pleasant.” If you expand the scope of your motivation, then the time you spend at work becomes Dharma practice.

WLN: Then our work puts positive mental imprints in our minds.

VTC: Yes. If you discover that you ignore the potential benefit of your work for others and instead just focus on getting your pay check and a big bonus at the end of the year, then you try to change your way of thinking. Every time we fall back to our old ways, we have to catch ourselves and change our attitude. A beneficial practice to do is everyday before going to work, take a minute or two and think, “I’m working to serve others—clients, consumers, patients. I’m working to benefit society, to help people, including those in my workplace. I want to create a good atmosphere in my workplace because that’s important.” If you do this, you will be happier and feel more satisfied at the end of the day. You will be more pleasant to work with, and you will get along better with others. You will create positive karma that will result in happiness.

You work with other living beings, so be concerned about their welfare and generate the motivation to help them. If you consciously think in this way every morning, soon it will become your genuine motivation. If you constantly create this imprint, “I’m here to benefit my colleagues, my clients, and society,” then you will be nicer to people at work. You will treat them respectfully and communicate well with them. You will be honest and reliable because you value other sentient beings. This actually makes us more prosperous in this lifetime. But our motivation isn’t simply for our own prosperity this lifetime. Our motivation is really a higher motivation—the benefit of others.

WLN: After attending retreats, I feel so inspired to practice, but after going to work a few months, my attitude starts to change and the joy that was there during the retreat dissipates.

VTC: That’s why it’s so important when you return from a retreat to continue to practice on a daily basis. Continue to consciously generate good motivations, to meditate on metta (loving-kindness), to work with your mind. That’s the whole key in keeping the benefits of the retreat alive in your daily life. Everyday be aware of your motivations and deliberately generate motivations of love, compassion, and the altruistic intention to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings. That makes your retreat experience and the Dharma very alive in your daily life.

WLN: What should we do about the negative karma that we have created in the past?

VTC: We have all made mistakes and created negative karma, so it’s very good to purify these. In the Tibetan tradition, we talk of the four opponent powers. The first one is generating regret for our mistakes. Regret is different from guilt. Regret is with a wisdom mind that realizes we have made a mistake, but we don’t harp or dwell on it. We don’t get stuck in telling ourselves how awful we are. Instead, we realize clearly that we have made a mistake and with remorse, we regret it.

The second opponent power is to restore the relationship in our mind. When we act destructively, it’s usually in relationship to either sentient beings or holy beings—the Three Jewels or our spiritual mentors. Our harmful motivations and actions impinged on our relationship with them, so we restore this by generating constructive attitudes towards them. In relationship to the Three Jewels, we take refuge in them. If our negative action was created in relation to other sentient beings, we restore the relationship by generating love, compassion and bodhicitta for them. If possible, it’s also good to apologize to those we have harmed. But if the person is no longer alive, if contacting them would cause them more pain, or if they are not ready to see us, it’s okay The important thing is that in our mind we have repaired the relationship and now wish them well.

The third opponent power is the determination not to do it again. This is a strong resolution to avoid the action in the future. We may determine to abandon the action forever if we can truthfully say that. Or we may commit to being very attentive to not doing it during a certain time period that is realistic for us.

The fourth is to perform some kind of remedial behavior. This includes making offerings to the Three Jewels; printing Dharma books; offering service at a temple, monastery, or Dharma center; offering charity to the poor and needy; doing volunteer work in society; meditating; bowing; chanting the name of Buddha, and any other kind of virtuous action.

Doing the four opponent powers cuts the force of our negative karma. If we attain nirvana soon, it won’t ripen at all. If we don’t, it will ripen in a minor suffering that lasts only a short time.

WLN: Is it something that you do systematically for every negative action?

VTC: We can do the four opponent powers for each negative action or we can do them for all our negative actions in general. At the end of each day, it’s good to review how we acted during the day. We regret each negative action individually, take refuge, and generate love and compassion for anyone we might have harmed. Then we make a determination to avoid these actions in the future and do some kind of virtuous practice. If we do this practice daily, we will sleep well at night and will wake up happy the next morning, instead of full of regrets or malaise.

WLN: Can we change other people’s karmic imprints or divert them to a certain extent?

VTC: We can’t change another person’s karma as if it were a thorn we pull out of their foot. However, we can influence other people, guide, and teach them. Then they will be able to purify their own negative karma. If someone else could eliminate our negative karma, the Buddha would have done that already because he has so much compassion. However, no one—not even the Buddha—can take away our karma, either our constructive or our destructive actions. This is because karma is created through the power of our own mind. The Buddha teaches and guides us so that we will know how to abandon negative actions and create positive ones. But we’re the ones who have to do that.

There’s an expression in the U. S., “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” For example, our teachers instruct us about karma all the time. They explain how to abandon negative karma and create positive ones. But they can’t control whether we listen to the teachings, remember them, or put them into practice. That’s totally up to us.

WLN: Can we create the conditions for someone’s karmic imprints to ripen or not ripen? For example, when someone is ill, we do prayers and meditate on metta.

VTC: Yes, when we meditate on metta for somebody who’s ill or make offerings to on their behalf, we create the conditions for another person’s own good karma to ripen. Here we work on the level of the cooperative conditions—the water and the fertilizer. But it’s up to those people to plant the seeds.

WLN: You said we can go beyond karma. What do you mean?

VTC: This refers to getting out of our cyclic existence and attaining liberation. The second of the four noble truths is the origin of suffering. This refers to being under the control of ignorance, anger, and attachment and the karma we create under their influence. So going beyond karma involves going beyond the three poisonous attitudes of ignorance, anger and attachment. To do this, we must realize emptiness (selflessness), for this wisdom understanding the actual mode of existence cuts the misconception of ignorance. When ignorance has been overcome, attachment, anger, and other afflictions, which arise in dependence upon ignorance no longer exist in our mind. Thus we are free from creating the karma that keeps us bound in cyclic existence. Going beyond karma involves developing the determination to attain nirvana or enlightenment and the energy to practice and bring that about.

WLN: Can we do it within one lifetime?

VTC: If we practice consistently and diligently, nirvana is possible to attain within this lifetime. It may also take many lifetimes. Aim to attain enlightenment in this lifetime, but don’t expect to! This means we aspire for enlightenment in one lifetime and generate the joyous effort to create the causes for that. But we aren’t selfishly fixated on that goal. That is, we don’t impatiently ask, “How come I’m not enlightened yet?” or “How close am I to enlightenment?” Instead, we take joy in the process of going towards enlightenment.

WLN: You said that the Buddha mentioned karma as one of the four unthinkables. Should we even bother to think about it then?

VTC: We should definitely think about it! We can understand the workings of karma to some extent, but only the Buddha can fully understand all the intricacies. For example, you and I are sitting here talking together. Only a Buddha clearly knows each and every specific cause in both of our previous lives that are ripening in our meeting today. Many people’s karma are involved in what’s happening right now: yours, mine, the people who could benefit from this interview. Only a Buddha knows very clearly all these details.

Nevertheless, we limited beings can understand something about karma, and it’s worthwhile for us to think about karma and its results. For example, just the fact that we are sitting here discussing the Dharma indicates that sometime in the past we accumulated positive karma. Our human rebirths result from keeping ethical discipline in previous lives. The fact that we had breakfast this morning indicates that we did some generous actions. We’re choosing to talk about the Dharma because we’ve cultivated faith in the Three Jewels in the past. We can understand in a general way some of the karmic causes that have brought about the event that is happening right now, but we don’t know all the details of which lifetime each of us accumulated these causes, how we did that, and how the cooperative conditions came together for these causes to ripen at this moment. Only the Buddha can know these details. But we know the general principles, and it benefits us to think about them.

WLN: Is this enough for us to be closer to enlightenment?

VTC: Knowing the general principles is very important because it enables us to start to discern what is a skillful thought or emotion and what is an unwise one. Then we can choose our actions with more awareness instead of living on automatic. However, observing the law of karma and its effects is not sufficient to become enlightened. It is a necessary and valuable component upon which we can cultivate other virtues and wisdom that bring about full enlightenment.

WLN: Do we create karma when we are dreaming?

VTC: It depends on how we look at our dreams when we wake up. For instance, you dreamt you harmed somebody, but when you wake up, you don’t feel good about even dreaming of doing this and feel regret. In this case, no negative karma was created from the dream. But if you wake up and think, “Hmm, I got revenge and feel good about this dream. I wish I could really harm this person,” then you create negative karma.

Or let’s say you dreamt you made beautiful offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and upon awaking, you thought, “What’s the use of that? I should have kept them for myself in the dream!” Then no good karma is created in the dream. But if you wake up thinking what a wonderful dream it was and you aspire to make offerings like this—then positive karma is created.

WLN: Sometimes I find myself chanting in a nightmare. Am I creating karma?

VTC: When you have a nightmare and take refuge while you’re dreaming, that’s very good. It indicates that the force of the Dharma has gone into your mind at a subtle level. In addition, there are no lingering unpleasant feelings when you wake up.

WLN: Any final thoughts on how we could start working with our karma?

Since the principal factor determining the value of an action is motivation, it’s good to train our minds in the following. Every morning when we wake up, think, “The most important thing today is that I don’t harm anyone by what I say, think or do.” We generate that as a positive motivation for that day. Secondly, we think, “The most important thing to do is to benefit sentient beings whenever I can.” Then we think, “I’m going to cultivate bodhicitta—the aspiration for full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings—and hold my spiritual goals dear in my heart.”

Generating those three thoughts in the morning will put our mind in a positive state. Then try to remember them periodically throughout the day. For example, every time you stop at a red light, come back to those three thoughts. The more we remember those thoughts, the more they become a part of us and will transform our actions. When we have those motivations, we will become more mindful throughout the day of acting from that space in our heart. We will become more conscientious of the karma we create and will be able to stop our negative actions sooner and overcome the laziness that keeps us from creating positive actions.

WLN: Thank you very much Venerable for sharing such practical Dhamma for us to apply in our daily practice.

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.