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Purifying non-virtue: Killing and stealing

Part of a series of teachings given at the Winter Retreat from December 2011 to March 2012 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • The importance of being specific when purifying non-virtue
  • What constitutes a complete action
  • The four karmic branches of killing
  • The four karmic branches of stealing

Vajrasattva 20: Purification of the body, part 1 (download)

Purification of body

Today I’m going to be talking about purification of body. As Geshe Sopa points out the Buddha was very kind to us. He condensed all of the non-virtues that we can do into 10—not 21, not 108, not our favorite number 111, but 10. I think that is so that we can feel that we can have some sort of success with purification by thinking that there are 10 and not many more.

Let’s see what it says in the sadhana about this part of the practice:

Your disturbing attitudes and negativities in general, and particularly those of the body, take the form of black ink. Sickness takes the form of pus and blood and afflictions caused by spirits appear in the form of scorpions, snakes, frogs, and crabs. Flushed out by the light and nectar, they all leave your body through the lower openings, like filthy liquid flowing from a drain-pipe. Feel completely empty of these problems and negativities: they no longer exist anywhere.

As Venerable Chodron reminded us—it was the very first talk of the retreat—when we are thinking of this visualization, let’s not think of those things being inside us (like the scorpions and all of that). When I first heard this practice, and was learning it at Cloud Mountain [Retreat Center], this is what I thought was visualized inside of me. I thought, “Gross! This is a really gross practice. I don’t want to do it.” So don’t think that. We are just visualizing those things coming out like that, not that they are in us. Then they are going into the Lord of Death who has his mouth wide open and he’s taking them in. At the end of that purification session his mouth closes and it’s sealed shut with a double dorje—and he goes away with our negativities. He doesn’t leave them underneath us somewhere. Let’s keep that in mind. This is just a technique reminder.

These ten non-virtues are divided into three groups, and the three I am talking about today are those of the body. They are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. When Geshe Wangdak was here a number of years ago he was talking about purification. He made the point over and over again that when we are thinking of what we want to purify be very specific. Bring to mind who was there, try to remember the exact words that were said, what we did, where it took place, everything.

As I went back and reviewed what was going on, and when we do these things, I see how excellent that advice is. To be more specific, it is really good to check up in the lamrim about what is involved with each one of these actions. Lama Tsongkhapa says:

…that for any action to be complete, [and for it to] bring the heaviest karmic results, there must be four elements or branches present. The object, the complete intention which is divided into three (and that includes the correct recognition of the object, the intention to do the action, an affliction), and then the actual action, and the completion of the action.

If any of these are missing when we do a negativity, the karmic weight is not as heavy.

Now when I first heard this I thought, “Oh, so Buddhists have a way of getting off lighter.” I thought this wasn’t so good—but that’s not the point of this. The point of this is knowing what is going on in our mind when we do these destructive actions. If we don’t hear the teachings on the destructive actions of the body for example, we may think (and I have thought this way in the past), “Well, I’m a pretty good person. I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t stolen anything—at least, not where the law would be involved. And I haven’t done anything with my sexual conduct that, again, would involve charges being pressed. So I think that I am going to skip over these and get to the negativities of speech and mind, etc.” When you look further into the lamrim it’s not like that, not at all.

The non-virtue of killing and its four karmic branches

I’m going to start with killing. The first branch in killing is the object, and in killing it must be another living sentient being. From the Buddhist point of view, as we all know, killing any sentient being, even the tiniest insect, is killing.

I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent for a moment. We all grew up in households that contained weapons of mass destruction. (I think when we say those words on the World Wide Web, we may get the CIA listening in, as well as the FBI, and that is a good thing if they listen to a Dharma talk today.) The weapon of mass destruction that I’m thinking of is this. [Holds up a picture of a fly swatter] Did anyone else who grew up in a household have this? I am going to say what it is because I know for the people who are transcribing these talks the visuals don’t work. So en Espanola it is matamoscas, in German it is fliegenklatshe, and in English, at least in Canada, it is fly swatter. Do you call it something else here in the States?

Fly swatter—there is a big problem with these words right off the bat. At least the Spanish people and the Germans are honest about it. Mata means kill: this is for killing flies. Fliegenklatshe: this is for killing flies. In English, fly swatter. What are we doing to them? Tickling them? Giving them a little blessing? So now we are in denial about what we are actually doing. This is a weapon of mass destruction that I grew up with—we are killing them. At least that is what I was taught to do. There are some things to purify here.

The second branch is the complete intention. One must recognize the sentient being that you want to kill. For example, if I want to kill a spider with the broom because I’m irritated (and I am not a Buddhist at this point, of course), but I see the spider and I have aversion and I go to smack it. Just when I come down on the floor with the broom, I hit a fly instead. This is an incomplete action. Yes, I killed something, but I didn’t kill a spider. We have to actually kill the sentient being that we had in mind to kill. Then the motivation or the intention is to actually do it. There has to be a motivation present, this is always there obviously with using a fly swatter. If we kill a living being by accident, for example, there is no intention to do the killing, so that motivation is missing.

The cause of motivation that propels us to kill can be due to one of the following afflicted states. In the case of us wanting to eat meat or fish, it’s likely desire. If we want to harm somebody, then the motivation is anger. If we are involved in doing an animal sacrifice, then the afflicted state is ignorance. Venerable Chodron also has taught that usually what is present in killing is the afflicted state of anger. There is the wish to destroy. Often it can start off with ignorance or attachment.

The actual action in killing is killing a sentient being, either with poison, or mantras, or weapons or something. It doesn’t matter if you do the action of killing or if you have someone else do it, both of these constitute complete karma.

For example, one of my dad’s friends in Alberta is a guide and outfitter. He has done this for decades. Every year he takes people into the mountains, into these very gorgeous places. People from all over the world know about this guy and they pay him a lot of money. They go out looking for trophy animals. The hunters have to buy special licenses; they pay a huge amount to get to Rocky Mountain House. That’s where they start off and they head into the mountains. They look for these rams, or big horned sheep, or a grizzly bear. If they are successful and the killing happens, my Dad’s friend also gets the karmic result of that killing. Interestingly enough this friend of my dad’s is already experiencing the results. He is having very serious health issues that the doctors actually can’t diagnose. This is something to keep in mind.

The completion of the action happens when the sentient being dies before us. For example, if I go to swat the fly with the weapon of mass destruction, and I hit it but it doesn’t die immediately. Then I have a heart attack and die before the fly does, that’s not a complete action. Again, if I hit it and the fly is injured but doesn’t die, it’s not a complete action. I may have intended to kill it but it didn’t die. Killing someone accidently is not a complete action of killing. Also if we are coerced to kill it’s not a complete action.

Let’s go back to my experience of killing insects. I grew up in a household where the fly swatter was just a tool that was around the house. We did it all the time. I don’t remember enjoying it and I have been thinking about that a lot. Some of us might say, “It’s not my fault. It’s my parents’ fault because they taught me to do it.” Let’s give our parents a break. We were born into that household because of our karmic actions in the past, and they are just doing their best. It’s the same with them—they grew up in households where they were taught to do that. So let’s take responsibility where it is due and really take it to heart.

Here’s another example of killing in my lifetime. I grew up in a household where this didn’t happen a lot, fortunately, but my godmother really liked fishing. We were a whole bunch of Catholics going fishing on Fridays. That’s what Catholics do, they eat fish on Fridays. So I saw nothing wrong with this. We would go to this very beautiful creek called Prairie Creek. What I loved about it was that it was always a beautiful day. You cannot catch fish when the wind is blowing—they don’t bite. It was warm, it was beautiful, we would go for a picnic, and we would take the family dog. Everyone was peaceful because you are not supposed to shout around fish. So it was just idyllic—except we are all out killing fish. (I always handed off the fish to someone else to kill.)

In my mind as a kid I thought, “This is virtuous.” My family didn’t have much money, and I thought, “Here we are, as kids, helping our parents put food on the table.” Isn’t that a good thing? There you go, with ignorance, right? Also, I was enamored of the North American Indians; the fact that they would go out and fish and just take what they needed and they would feed their family. I saw it all as virtuous at that time. I didn’t have a clue.

The non-virtue of stealing and its four karmic branches

Stealing: the object of stealing is an object that is owned by others, and this includes taxes, toll fares, anything that we are supposed to pay for and we don’t. It includes taking something that has not been given to us or offered. As Venerable Chodron says, which makes this very clear, “… something that has not been offered.” It can also be something that somebody has lost. This is interesting. If they have given up on the object and we find it, apparently the karmic result for us is not as great. But if they are still very attached to that object and we find it and we take it, and we don’t try and turn it in or find the owner, then the karmic result is heavier.

The second branch of stealing is the complete intention. The thought or the perception at the time of stealing must be unmistaken. For example, if I go out into the yard and I intend to steal “Haroldina, the old truck” and by accident I take the “Meinhoffer [a different vehicle],” I haven’t completed the complete action of stealing from the Abbey.

The next part is the intention. We intend to steal the object. Sometimes our motivation can be anger when we are stealing. I remember hearing about a number of my friends who were suddenly fired at their job. In a fit of rage on the way out the door, (they might have had an hour to leave, clean their desk, and give back their keys) they would take things. They were so enraged. You can see how the mind can shift. These are people who would normally not steal, not at all.

Here’s a favorite one. I know all kinds of people who would say to me, “I’m a middle income-class earner and I pay all these taxes that the rich do not pay, so I am cheating on my income tax. The government is ripping me off left, right, and center. I’m not going to claim all these things.” That is stealing. Here’s another favorite one that I hear about. It’s happened to me too. I have been honest—except for one time. So the cashier hands back change and it is inaccurate, she has given us too much money. There was one time I didn’t point it out. I have worked on that one in purification, I can tell you. Some people rejoice, which makes it worse.

The third branch is doing the actual action. Again, it doesn’t matter if we do the act of stealing or we have someone else do it, we are still creating the karma. Another more subtle form of stealing is borrowing money from someone with no intention of ever returning it.

The completion of the action of stealing is the thought, “Now I have it.” Or if you have someone else steal it for you then the moment that the thief thinks, “Now I have it,” the karmic action is complete.

This is getting kind of lengthy. I will stop here and continue the next time. You can think about what we’ve talked about today.

Well, maybe I’ll just tell one quick story. This story is quite frightening actually because it is an example of me stealing when I was four years old. This can show us the example of how karmic seeds are not lost. They are carried on into future lives and they propel us into things and we have no control. I remember this clearly. I was four years old and this was a premeditated act of stealing. I had planned it out, and in fact, I had started planning it the day before. It’s just so clear in my mind.

I knew that I was going to tell my mum that I was going to go play with my friend Theresa— who lived two doors down. I had this all planned out. The day of the crime, I got up early and I went to my mum’s purse. I dug in her wallet and I got out a quarter, 25 cents. As usual, we had breakfast and she gets me get ready to go and play with Theresa. She’s combing my hair, and she says, “So what are you going to do with Theresa today?” I say, “Oh, I don’t know, we’re probably going to play in the yard.” Off I go. But I don’t go to Theresa’s. I continue to downtown Rocky and I am about four years old. It is about 8:30 in the morning, and so I am headed to a Chinese cafe on Main St with this quarter. I know I want to buy an “Eight More” candy bar. The route I take is really not a good route because on the way down there, I go past my grandparents’ house.

It’s really interesting. At four years old I wasn’t very tall, so I thought, “Oh, they’re not going to see me anyway when they look out the window.” So, I’m going down the street, and lo and behold, who pulls up on the other side of the street but my grandfather. I’m alone, its 8:30 in the morning. He just waved to me and I waved back, and I just kept going. So, I think, “The first hurdle has been passed.” (For some reason he didn’t phone my parents and ask, “Did you know that your daughter is heading downtown?”) I continue on and I make my way to the Chinese café, except I have to jaywalk because my father’s business is two doors down from the Chinese café. I know that my dad isn’t there yet, so no problem.

I get into the Chinese café and there is this huge display case. I don’t intend to steal the candy bar because I’ve got the money. I just remember spotting it and I say to the guy, “I want that.” I give him the money and he gives me the change and I am so happy. Now I’m on my way home and I’m walking up the block. I think that I’m up the corner by this big hotel. All of a sudden I see this car zoom in and come to a screeching stop. Out comes the public health nurse. Her name is Velma, an old family friend. I think, “Okay, it is over, I’m busted.”

Sure enough, the whole town by this time is looking for me. Now it is not the era where people need to worry about kidnapping kids. It was a town of less than 3,000, but everybody knows everyone. By this time my mom was on the phone and learns that I’m not at Theresa’s house playing with Theresa. Where is this kid? The town is out looking and it is the public health nurse who finds me. She’s very nice. She doesn’t say anything to me, but I know it is over. She says, “Hi, would you like a ride home?” I say, “No thanks, I would rather walk.” She says, “I think it would be good if you came with me.” Then I thought, “Um hum, it probably is.”

Anyway, she takes me home. By this time my mum is not home, but Theresa’s mom is in my house and she is enraged. She even spanks me. I go and hide underneath my bed and I vow to myself that never again will I steal or do anything that is in this realm. I learned a big lesson: the power of ripening karma and stealing. We need to think about a lot when we are purifying.

Venerable Thubten Samten

Venerable Samten met Venerable Chodron in 1996 when the future Venerable Chonyi took the future Ven. Samten to a Dharma talk at Dharma Friendship Foundation. The talk on the kindness of others and the way it was presented is deeply etched in her mind. Four Cloud Mountain retreats with Ven. Chodron, eight months in India and Nepal studying the Dharma, one month of offering service at Sravasti Abbey, and a two month retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2008, fueled the fire to ordain. This took place August 26, 2010 (see photos). This was followed by full ordination in Taiwan in March, 2012 (see photos), becoming Sravasti Abbey's sixth bhikshuni. Right after finishing a Bachelor of Music degree, Ven. Samten moved to Edmonton to pursue training as a corporeal mime artist. Five years later, a return to university to obtain Bachelor of Education degree opened the door to teaching for the Edmonton Public School board as a music teacher. Concurrently, Ven. Samten became a founding member and performer with Kita No Taiko, Alberta's first Japanese drum group. Ven. Samten is responsible for thanking donors who make offerings online; assisting Venerable Tarpa with developing and facilitating the SAFE online learning courses; assisting with the forest thinning project; tracking down knapweed; maintaining the Abbey database and answering email questions; and photographing the amazing moments that are constantly happening at the Abbey.

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