The results of karma

The results of karma

Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.

  • The three mental pathways of action: coveting, malice and wrong views
  • The results of karma, looking at the ten non-virtues
  • Propelling and completing karma
  • Individual and collective karma
  • What determines the strength of karmic actions

Easy Path 17: Results of karma (download)

Last week we started talking about the 10 pathways of non virtue. We did the seven of body and speech. So, we talked about killing, stealing, unwise and unkind sexual behavior—the three of body—and then lying, divisive speech, harsh words and idle talk which are the verbal ones.  And we said that to be a complete action that can have the power to bring a rebirth then it has to have all four parts of that action complete: the object, the intention, the action itself and the conclusion of the action. If something is missing—any of those parts—then the action may not result in a rebirth. But it can still have other results like what happens to us in the different rebirths.

Now we’re going to start with the three mental ones: coveting, malice and wrong views. Mental karma is the mental factor of intention that occurs simultaneously with the mental factors of coveting, malice and distorted views. Remember that the mental factor of intention is one of the five omnipresent mental factors and that other mental factors can also be present in any kind of mental state. So, if you have the intention plus coveting then it becomes this mental action of coveting.  If you have the intention plus malice, it becomes this mental action of malice.


For coveting the object, the first of the four parts of it is an external possession which may be movable or not or an internal quality that belongs to another person. We can covet either some physical thing that somebody has or some kind of mental quality. The worst is desiring the offerings made to holy beings and to the sangha. We need to be careful of that. Then the second part, the intention, has three subsections. So, we have to recognize the object as being that thing wished for and hope to possess it and then it’s with the the mental factor of coveting, so pretty much attachment.  

Here, we don’t have to say or do anything but rather inside of the mind we’re developing an intention: “If only this were mine. I will make it mine. I think I’m going to do something so I can get it.” This is the kind of mental state that is going to precede, let’s say, the physical action of stealing. It’s something where we’re going to try and make something ours. We have it all the time; our society encourages us to have this mental state of coveting because it’s good for the economy. “You should covet as much as possible, buy as many useless things that you don’t need. Use more than your share of the world’s resources and be a good American citizen by doing that!” [laughter]

Then the action of coveting is about planning again and again how we’re going to get this thing. It could be property in your own family, other people’s property, or it could even be things that aren’t owned by anybody. And you’re sitting there thinking: “May it be mine. I want it to be mine. What can I do to get this to be mine?” This could be also the mental state that lies behind hinting.

When we talk about the the five wrong livelihoods that the Sangha can engage in to get material things, one is hinting. We might say, “Oh, that dried fruit or that fresh fruit that you offered to the Abbey last time was so delicious! Thank you so much.”  And we’re hinting to give us some more. So, it could be it’s the mental state that’s going to motivate that kind of verbal action. It’s the mental state that can motivate flattery: “Oh, you’re one of the best Dharma practitioners that’s ever come here. You’re really a very special person to the Abbey.” It’s flattering them so they will give something. 

Or it could be the mental state behind giving a small gift to get a bigger one: “I’m giving you my packs of tissues because I care so much about you and you’re going to give me something back worth more than a package of tissues, aren’t you?”  People do this at Christmas, too . They give somebody a gift and then that other person feels obliged to give something, too. So, this thing of making people feel obliged can also come from coveting. 

And certainly hypocrisy comes from coveting. We act one way when the benefactors are around, and we act another way when they aren’t around.  When they’re around we are pious and sweet and holy, and then when they leave all hell breaks loose! [laughter] Coveting can be very dangerous because you can see all the different kind of actions that it can precede. So, although it’s a mental action and it’s not as bad as expressing it verbally or physically, still it’s what motivates those other things. 

And then the conclusion of this mental action of coveting is you abandon all your sense of integrity, all sense of embarrassment in front of others and you make the decision: “I’m going to do what I can to get it.”  So, the coveting in this mental action isn’t just wishing to possess something, but it’s really thinking about how to make it ours and deciding to try and get it. Do you ever do any of that?


Then malice is the second mental one, and the object is usually sentient beings. I guess your object could be your computer if it breaks down or your car when it breaks down. It doesn’t say that here; it just says sentient beings. Then the second part is the intention. You recognize that sentient being as someone who could be hurt if you harm them. You have the wish to harm. You want to take revenge because that person has hurt you or they’ve hurt people you’re attached to. It’s going to be anger principally here that’s going to want to inflict harm on somebody else. So, it’s the intention to inflict harm and the decision to do it . 

It’s like: “I am so fed up with what this person is doing that out of compassion for their well being I’m going to punch him in the nose so that he’ll learn not to behave this way to somebody else.” Or if you don’t want to be so gross and punch them in the nose, you speak badly about them behind their back and turn everybody in the workplace against them. We don’t do nasty things like that, do we? But we know other people who do. We hope those other people are listening to this teaching so that they can abandon all their malice—especially the unjust, unfair malice that they have for us, those idiots. But we’re very forgiving and benevolent towards them. [laughter]

Then the action of malice is putting more effort into it and the conclusion is deciding to harm somebody. It’s deciding to get even, teach them a lesson, put them in their place—whatever. So, this is going to be the motivation that is behind stealing. It could be the motivation actually behind any of the seven verbal and physical ones. We can do any of those with anger.

Wrong view

Then wrong view is the third one, and here the object is something that is true, that exists—for example, the law of karma and its effects or the existence of the three jewels or something that isn’t true that you’re asserting is true. So, it’s either something that exists that you assert is non existent or something that is non existent that you assert is existent. Here, it’s applying to views that have to do with spiritual practice; it’s not talking about political views.  Even though my political views are right, so everybody should vote yes on 594 to stop the loopholes for getting guns in Washington state. Normally I don’t say that, but I was reading an article that said churches should give guidance about how to vote, which I don’t think personally is correct. But I’m not saying that as part of a church. [laughter] I’m not part of a church; I’m just a citizen who doesn’t like to see other people get hurt.

Wrong view is stubbornly repudiating or denying something. So, for example, it could deny a cause, like saying there’s no such thing as virtuous and non virtuous actions. Or we might deny an effect—for example, saying that our actions have no effects, saying there’s no ethical dimension to our actions so we can do what we want. Or we might deny a functioning thing—for example, the existence of past and future lives. Or we might say things happen without causes or deny an existent phenomena—for example, saying there’s no such thing as enlightened beings; that’s all just a bunch of made up nonsense. That’s the object.

Then when we think about intention, we usually think of it as you know clearly what you disbelieve, and you intend to deny it. But with wrong views, you don’t necessarily know that the view is wrong. In other words, you think the view is right because the mental factor of  ignorance is so strong. You are determined to support that view, thinking that it’s something very good.

The action is thinking this wrong view again and again.  It’s thinking “this is my philosophy. This is what I believe,” and then deciding that your view is absolutely correct. It’s not doubt over view or it’s not “I’m not sure what I believe.” Instead, it’s thinking “My view is correct, and this is it, and I’m going to act accordingly.” These kind of wrong views are really, really dangerous because they become the basis for doing whatever non virtuous action we want to because we think, for example, that cause and effect or karma and its effects don’t exist. “There’s no ethical dimension in my actions, so I can do whatever I want. As long as I don’t get caught there’s no problem with it. I can criticize the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha all I want because they don’t exist.”

There’s some kind of really entrenched, stubborn wrong view there. Although it’s just a mental action, it’s considered the worst of all of the ten non virtues because under its influence we’ll do the other nine thinking that it’s okay to do them. We do it not even realizing that they’re negative actions. That becomes really, really dangerous because then you get people doing all sorts of horrible actions thinking that they’re creating virtue—like killing others. I bring up what’s happening now and also in the Crusades when they thought that killing others or being a martyr will get you closer to God. That’s totally a wrong view, but it gives you permission to do who knows what.

Virtuous and non virtuous pathways

So, that’s the ten non virtuous pathways. Remember that we also have ten virtuous pathways. Actually, we have two sets of ten virtuous ones. One set is just abandoning the negative ones: you have the opportunity to do them but you don’t. This is the one that relates to when you take precepts and key precepts, because you’ve made that intention not to do those non virtuous actions. So, every moment you’re not doing it—any of them or whichever ones you’ve taken the precepts about—then you are accumulating good karma of abstaining from non virtue. Even when you’re sleeping, even if you’re just sitting there, you’re creating good karma, because you have the intention not to do those actions and you are actively not doing them. This is the importance of taking precepts and why precepts help us purify and accumulate good karma.

So, one set of the ten virtuous pathways is just not doing—deliberately, consciously not doing—the other ones. Then another set is doing the opposite: instead of killing, protecting life; instead of stealing, protecting others property; instead of unwise and unkind sexual behavior, using sexuality wisely and kindly—or better yet is being celibate; instead of lying, telling the truth; instead of using our speech to create disharmony among people, using our speech to bring people together and repair divisions or prevent them from quarreling. 

It’s also the opposite of harsh words—speaking kindly and in encouraging ways to people. The opposite of idle talk is really speaking at appropriate times and appropriate amounts about appropriate topics and not just blah blah all over the place. Instead of coveting, it’s generosity: thinking of how to give. Instead of malice, it’s kindness: thinking of how to help. Instead of wrong views, it’s cultivating right views

You can see when you’re doing the lamrim meditation you’re really involved in cultivating right views. You’re doing the opposite of this non virtue of wrong views because you’re cultivating right ones. When you’re practicing generosity, you’re doing the opposite of coveting. So, that’s the ten non-virtuous pathways and the ten virtuous pathways.

Questions about karma

Now we’re going to talk about the results of karma. Remember, karma means action, so karma isn’t some airy fairy kind of thing. It’s just actions and their results. His Holiness sometimes teases people about this. Now so many people don’t really know what karma means. It’s just something happens and we say, “Well, that’s their karma.”  We say, “Oh, that’s my karma; that’s their karma.” His Holiness says that really means “I don’t know.” Someone asks, “Why did that happen?” We answer, “That’s their karma,” but we really mean “I don’t know.” If we think like that, it becomes almost meaningless. But what it does mean is that for whatever happiness or suffering we experience, we created the causes for it. 

There are two questions that somebody sent in here regarding this, so before I go on to the result I want to address those. Somebody is asking, “With actions where you don’t have an intention to do something, is the karma still accrued?” The example is that this person is taking medication that makes it difficult for them to stay focused, so they’re wondering if their inability to stay focused under the influence of this medication is due to past karma or if it’s some habit that’s being enhanced by past karma. Is the medication enhancing some past habit that they had? And they’re also wondering if it could ripen as a continued habit to be spaced out or even ripen in an animal realm.   

If you are ill and you’re taking medicine and the medicine makes you spaced out, the cause of being spaced out is the medicine. If you feel that it’s a disadvantage to be spaced out, then you could think “Oh, this is a ripening of some negative karma that maybe I created in the past”—let’s say stepping over dharma books or something.  But basically, it’s still caused by the medicine. Even if one or two people don’t have that reaction to the medicine, if your doctor says this is caused by the medicine, I think you can pretty well believe that. 

You can still think “Oh, this is an obstacle to my Dharma practice, so I want to purify whatever causes I may have created to have obstacles like this in my Dharma practice,” but you’re certainly not creating the karma for an animal rebirth unless you really start liking taking the medicine because it makes you spaced out. This is just a biological thing that’s happening with your body; it’s really not karma involved so much—unless, like I said, you’re taking oxycodone and you’re taking it for pain and then you start thinking “Oh, this is pretty good stuff. I wonder how I can get my doctor to give me more prescriptions even though I don’t need it.” That is non virtue. That’s going to be creating karma maybe for an animal rebirth, but if you’re just taking the medicine for whatever purpose that your doctor prescribed it to help you feel better, don’t worry about creating non virtue.

Then the second question was: “At the end of the Vajrasattva practice it says all your negativities have been completely purified. Does that really mean that they’ve all been completely purified or does that mean that their ability to expand—the second quality of karma, that a small action can become a big one—is what is purified? Or what does that mean?”

So actually, when Vajrasattva says all your negativities have been completely purified, that is part of a skillful way for us to think when we’re doing purification practice. It doesn’t mean that all of our karmas are completely purified, because if they were we would be Buddha! But it’s very helpful for us to think they’ve all been purified because in that way we put things down and we stop tormenting ourselves. Because as we all know, when we’ve done something non virtuous, we have the tendency of think “Oh, I’m so bad. I’m so guilty. Oh, this is awful; this is never going to get purified. Woe is me!” And that mentality itself prevents us from purifying the karma because we can’t let go. 

I want you all to repeat that so you remember: “That mentality itself prevents us from purifying the karma because we can’t let go.” 

So, that mentality of torturing yourself and thinking the more guilty I feel, the more I’m purifying, don’t think that is right. That is not right. The whole thing here is you really thinking it’s gone, and in that way you put it down and you have a strong determination not to do that again. You have strong regret, and a strong determination not to do it again. You’ve created a different kind of attitude towards whomever you harm by taking refuge in the Holy Beings, generating bodhichitta regarding the sentient beings. You’re going up and forward in a good direction. So, you think it’s all been purified—even though it hasn’t—because that way of thinking helps you get on with your life.

Next time you do Vajrasattva or 35 Buddhas or whatever, you can still purify the same thing. In fact, it’s good to do so because we need to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve purified, and we’ve put it down. That keeps building up the intention not to do it again.

The results of karma

Now we’ll go on to the results of karma. We usually talk about three results of karma. One of them has two parts to it, so sometimes it talks about four. But the three results are: first of all, the ripening result; the causally concordant result—the old translation for that was “results similar to the cause” but we say “causally concordant result”; and the third is the environmental result. The fourth is the maturation result which is also translated as the ripening result or sometimes fruitional result. 

So, there are four factors that are required for something to be that kind of result. One is that its cause is either virtuous or non virtuous, so it’s not a neutral action. The result is conducted with the continuum of sentient beings as the second quality. The third is the result comes after the cause; I don’t know how it couldn’t. And fourth is the result itself is neutral. The result is not virtuous or non virtuous. This came up last night when we were talking about it. 

An example of a ripening result or a maturation result are our body and mind that we take when we have a rebirth. That’s it’s something shows the cause is either virtuous or non virtuous; the results are connected with the continuum of sentient beings; the results come after the cause; and that result—the body and mind—is neither virtuous nor non virtuous. So, the ripening result is basically that body and mind that you take in the realm that you’re reborn into. 

Then there are two kinds of the causally concordant result, the second kind of result. First is the causally concordant experiential result, and that means that we will experience something similar to what we caused others to experience. For example, if we lie to somebody there’s the tendency for other people to lie to us. Then there’s the causally concordant behavioral result, and that’s the tendency to behave in the same way again and again, to do that action again and again. So, with respect to lying, there’s the tendency to lie again. This causally concordant result is actually the most dangerous result, because through it you create more and more and more non virtue or more and more virtue depending upon what the action is, because these three results function for both virtuous and non virtuous karma.

Then the environmental result is the environment we live in. So, let’s talk about specific things,  and we’ll go through this in terms of the the ten non virtues and then the opposite will be the ten virtues you can think about on your own. In general, in terms of the ripening result, a major negative action usually brings rebirth as a hell being. This is something that you’ve done with a strong intention, with a lot of effort—one of the actions that by nature is more powerful than the others which I’ll talk about that in a minute—that brings rebirth as a hell being. A middle strength one is as a hungry ghost and a minor one is as an animal.

Within the three physical actions, the strongest one by the nature of the action is killing, and the next one stealing, and then the least is unwise and unkind sexual behavior. Of the four non virtues, lying is the most damaging then divisive speech then harsh speech, and the least one is idle talk. Among the three mental ones, it’s wrong views then malice and then coveting. It’s the opposite direction there. 

I won’t go through the ripening result for each of those because I just explained it very generally there, and I also won’t go through the causally concordant behavioral result because for all of them it’s the tendency to do the action again. So, we’ll just go through the causally concordant experiential result and the environmental result because here’s where the differences lie.

The causally concordant experiential result

For killing, the causally concordant experiential result is you have a short life or poor health. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If we hurt others physically then it ripens in terms of our body being weak or having a short life or something like that. The environmental result of killing is to live in a place where there’s a lot of war and strife, where there’s no peace. This makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s where the food and the drink and the medicine that you use to keep your body alive is not very potent. The food in the place is not nourishing; the medicine is old and it doesn’t work very well.  That’s part of the environmental result of killing. Can you see how these results would be related to killing?

With stealing, the causally concordant experiential result is poverty. Because we stole, we deprived others of their things, so as a result we experience poverty. Our things are stolen or we don’t have the power to use them. We have things but we can’t access them and use them. It’s like having a trust that you have no control over. That’s the result of stealing, interfering with other people’s wealth. This also goes in the positive one. This is why generosity is the cause of wealth. It’s the causally concordant experiential result. You experience wealth when you’ve been generous.  Then the environmental result of stealing is you live in a place that is very dangerous; there’s poverty. You stole, so you live in a place that’s poor. There are droughts; there are floods; there are poor harvests and many natural disasters. So, it’s an environment that really brings about poverty. The natural disasters destroy your crops; the seeds don’t grow well; the the soil isn’t fertile; there’s not enough rain. It ripens in terms of the environment. 

The causally concordant experiential result of unwise and unkind sexual behavior is you will have a disagreeable or unfaithful spouse and marital disharmony. You don’t even have to wait for the next life for this one to ripen. It happens in this life, doesn’t it? You’re unfaithful and then there is marital disharmony and then your partner goes off with somebody else. They’re fed up, or they’re mad at you, and you don’t have a very nice marriage. It happens in this life and future lives. Then the environmental result is that you live in a dirty place with poor sanitation and a lot of misery.

The causally concordant experiential result of lying is that other people will lie to you. People will slander you. You’ll be deceived by others. So, it’s other people deceiving you, lying to you, slandering you, saying false things about you. Also, other people won’t believe you or trust you. Sometimes we wonder, “Why doesn’t somebody believe me?” Have you ever noticed with some people that you don’t know what it is about them, but you don’t believe them and other people don’t believe them either? That person may be telling the truth but somehow people just don’t trust that person. It’s a result of lying in a previous life. Or another one of these results is other people accuse us of lying even when we’re telling the truth. 

We’ve seen that kind of thing happen, too. You get accused of of doing something that you haven’t done. You try and explain but nobody believes you. The environmental result is you live in a place with a foul odor where people are deceitful. There’s much fear, and there’s a lot of corruption in society. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You lie, so you’re born in a place where everybody lies, where there’s so much corruption in business and government and whatever. The people around you are all deceitful; everybody’s trying to just look out for their own selves.

Then the causally concordant experiential result of divisive speech—creating disharmony with our speech—guess what? It happens in this life, too! People don’t like to be with us. We don’t have any friends. We’re separated from spiritual masters and Dharma friends, and we also have a bad reputation. So, if we use our speech to create disharmony, guess what happens to us?  People find out about it. In this life even, they don’t like us. We don’t have friends. They don’t want to be with us because we’re always trashing somebody. We’re separated from spiritual mentors and Dharma friends because we just create so much disharmony with others that we can’t have good relationships—even with the people who are important to us. And we have a bad reputation because with our divisive speech we’ve made other people have bad reputations.  

And in terms of the environment, you’re living in a rocky, uneven place. Disharmonious speech is rocky and uneven, so it results in a rocky, uneven place where travel is difficult and dangerous. There’s a lot of uneven land, with many cliffs. It kind of makes sense—travel is dangerous over uneven, rocky land with cliffs. it’s just like the result of our speech. 

The causally concordant experiential result of harsh speech is, guess what? We’re going to be insulted, blamed, criticized, ridiculed, made fun of—exactly what we did to somebody else. So, whenever somebody blames or criticizes us, our practice is to say, “I created the cause.” Why is this person criticizing me? I may have made the mistake. I may not have made a mistake. But I created the cause to be criticized through having harsh speech at a previous time. 

People criticize us and we have to hear harsh speech even when we have good intentions. Also, others misunderstand us very easily. Sometimes other people misunderstand us and we feel so frustrated. Well, it’s a result of harsh speech.  The environmental result is a barren, dry place that is inhabited by uncooperative people. [laughter] It makes sense, doesn’t it?  It’s a place with thorns, sharp stones, scorpions and dangerous animals. It’s a physical manifestation of harsh speech, isn’t it?  It’s bare and dry, inhabited by uncooperative people, thorns, sharp stones, scorpions dangerous animals.

The causally concordant experiential result of idle talk is that other people will not listen to or value our words and others will laugh at us. Again, this happens in this life, too, doesn’t it? “Oh, here comes so and so who’s always chattering about blah blah that has no importance. I think I’m really busy. I can’t stop and talk to them.” People don’t want to listen to us. They avoid us, and they laugh at us.  The environmental result is a drab place with an unbalanced climate where fruit does not ripen at the proper time, wells go dry, flowers and trees don’t blossom.  

Then the causally concordant experiential result of coveting is that we have intense desires and craving. Our ventures fail. We can’t complete projects or fulfill our wishes and hopes. That’s the result of coveting. It’s good when you’re thinking about these to think of people you know, including yourself, who have experienced these kinds of things. Because these kind of results don’t have to be throughout your whole lifetime; they may happen at one part or another of your life or somebody else’s life. And this is the karmic cause of that. So, when we meet people with intense desires and craving, we see it’s the result of coveting. It makes sense, doesn’t it?  Their ventures fail. They can’t complete projects. Their wishes and hopes are unfulfilled because craving, craving, wanting, wanting. The environmental result is small crops. Our property, belongings and the environment constantly deteriorate, and we live in an isolated and poor place.

The causally concordant experiential result of malice is that we have great hatred, fear, suspicion, guilt, paranoia, and we get scared for no obvious reason. Sometimes we know people that have a preponderance of these kind of mental states. Sometimes we experience them, just for a short time in our life. But for some people, they experience them quite often. They have great hatred, fear, suspicion, guilt, paranoia and a lot of fear even though there’s no reason for the fear. They’re very easily frightened. That goes with malice. The mind is so busy planning how to harm others that, of course, we think others are planning to harm us, too. The environmental result is a place with epidemics, disputes, dangerous animals, poisonous snakes. You’re caught in the middle of wars and calamities, and the food is very unpleasant.

Then the causally concordant experiential result of wrong views is being deeply ignorant. Your mind is very dull. It’s hard to understand the Dharma, and it takes a long time to gain realizations. So, somebody might be very intelligent in a worldly way with PHDs and a high IQ, but because of holding many wrong views in previous lives, from a Dharma viewpoint they can’t understand the Dharma. Their mind gets dull. It takes a long time to gain realizations, and they aren’t even interested. Then the environmental result of wrong views is having few crops, having a lack of a home and any kind of protector. Natural resources are exhausted. Think of what’s happening to the world now. Natural resources are exhausted; springs go dry. The environment is polluted and society is chaotic as a result of wrong views.

Nagarjuna on karmic results

There’s a nice quotation in Precious Garland by Nagarjuna. He says:

A short life comes through killing; there’s much suffering through harming [so if we physically harm others then we wind up with a lot of suffering]; poor resources through stealing; enemies through adultery; from lying arises slander; from divisiveness a parting of friends; from harshness [harsh speech] hearing the unpleasant, and from senselessness [senseless chatter] one’s speech is not respected. Covetedness [coveting] destroys one’s wishes; harmful intent yields fright; wrong views lead again to bad views, and intoxicants lead to mental confusion; through not giving comes poverty; through wrong livelihood deception; through arrogance a bad family; through jealousy little beauty and unattractive complexion comes from anger; stupidity from not questioning [the whys]. These are effects for humans but prior to all is a bad migration. Opposite to the well-known fruits of these non virtues is the arising of effects caused by all the virtues.

So again, we should not just think about this in terms of non virtue but also in terms of virtue.

Propelling and completing karma

I can’t teach everything about karma because first of all they don’t know everything about it, and second of all it just gets too long. We talk sometimes about propelling and completing karma. Propelling karma is the karma that will propel us into a rebirth that will ripen in the maturation result of a body and mind of another living being in the future. So, it’s the karma that propels a rebirth and then completing karma. The propelling karma usually has all four parts of it intact. The completing karma usually doesn’t. I say “usually” and “generally” because these aren’t hard and fast rules. 

Completing karma means the conditions and the experiences that you have once you take that rebirth. So, if I can take our dear, beloved Abbey cat, Princess Maha Karuna, for example: Princess Maha Karuna [laughter] got that rebirth through a non virtuous propelling karma because it’s a lower rebirth. It’s an unfortunate realm. She got that through some kind of non virtuous action. However she lives in luxury—how else did she get the name Princess Maha Karuna? [laughter] Look at that blanket she’s lying on. I don’t even have a blanket that nice;  none of us at this abby have a blanket that nice!  [laughter] Downstairs in her condo she has the nicest softest blanket. This is one of the nicest blankets; it’s better than what we have!  There’s no renunciation! Maybe I should say spoiled rotten. [laughter] 

So, her completing karma is fantastic. She lives in an Abbey. She lives with nice people. She has more than enough food. She has people who put up with her antics. She has nice, comfortable places to sit and listen to the Dharma teachings and take a bath [laughter] at the same time. So, it’s very good completing karma but lousy propelling karma. On the other hand, you could say somebody who is a human being living in abject poverty has good propelling karma because they have a human birth that comes from keeping ethical conduct. But they have very bad completing karma because they live in poverty or perhaps there’s a broken home or something like that or they live in a place with a lot of warfare. So, the completing karma was non virtuous. Those are two ways of talking about karma: propelling and completing.

Individual and collective karma

We can also talk about individual and collective karma. Individual karma is what we create as an individual and what we’ve been talking about so far mostly is individual karma. However, collective karma is when we do those actions together with a number of people. So, war is a great example of the collective karma of killing because everybody’s there wanting to kill, enacting killing and rejoicing at the killing that’s going on. They’re accumulating each other’s negative karma. Or when a group of people form a charity organization, that would be an example of collective karma where the people are all creating the action of being of benefit. 

For example, many of us have been to the the meetings of youth emergency services, our local group where we’re trying to help the the homeless teens. We we do this as a group, and we do it together with the other people in the community, so we’re creating very virtuous collective karma together. Collective karma will ripen in our finding ourselves in specific groups of people.  Bcause the karma was created together, as a result the group experiences the result together.  For example, if there’s a plane crash, all those people dying together is the result of some kind of collective karma that they created together. Or if a number of people win awards together that could be the result of a collective karma that they got through doing a certain action—working together as a team to achieve something. 

It’s very important for us to be aware of what groups we’re joining and why we’re joining those groups. If we’re a member of a group and we agree with the purpose for which that group was formed, then every time somebody in the group does one of those actions that is the purpose for which the group is formed, then we accumulate some karma—even though we aren’t the one who did it. It’s because we’re part of that group. We joined it for a reason, for that purpose, and we’re obviously rejoicing at what the other people in the group did. For example, you know an army is a very good example and a monastery is another good example. When you practice the Dharma together with others, we rejoice at each other’s virtue. We create that good karma together. We can experience the good result together. That’s why they always say that it’s good to practice together with groups because our virtue becomes stronger. The analogy they give is if you go to sweep something you can’t sweep with a just one thread. You don’t accomplish very much with one thing, but if you have a whole broom made of many straws, it is then that you can sweep a whole floor.  

It’s really nice when we do pujas together, when we meditate together. We all came here for the purpose of doing virtuous actions.  We rejoice in each other’s good karma and good actions, and it enhances our own karma. But it also creates the karma for us to be together in the future in a happy situation. Hopefully, if we dedicate it to be together in a Dharma situation, it will ripen in that way. Whereas if you’re part of a gang of some sort or part of an army or you’re part of a corporation where a lot of people know each other and are doing shady business deals together knowingly with everybody else’s consent and help, then you’re creating that collective karma and chances are will experience the result together. It seems to me that the result of that kind of thing would clearly be poverty.

What about a situation like we live in Washington state, so we’re part of the group of citizens of Washington state.  Washington state has capital punishment. Does that mean that every time somebody is executed in Washington, we accumulate the karma of killing? We do not agree with that action. We did not come to live in Washington state because they have capital punishment, and in fact we do whatever we can to speak against capital punishment. So, when the government kills somebody, we don’t accumulate the karma of killing even though we’re citizens of that state. You have to have an agreement for which the group was formed. Like if you’re part of an army, and they tell you to to do something that you think is really really unwise, then you don’t accumulate that karma because you’re not endorsing the motivation for which it’s done.

The strength of karma

Let’s go back to the strength of karma because it’s in the visualization we had of the four things. Actually, I have different translations for those four which I think are better translations. One is the recipient. This is how you determine the strength or the power of a karma—in regards to who the action is done to. If you do an action in relationship to the Three Jewels or to your spiritual mentor, it’s going to be stronger. If you lie to your spiritual mentor, that’s stronger than lying to the cat. Or if you lied to the Three Jewels, or if you conceal an offense but say you’re not concealing it, that’s heavier. On the other hand, you make offerings, you create more virtue. This is true both regarding the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—let’s say when we make offerings on the altar—and regarding our spiritual mentors. That’s why they say that this is the field of merit, because through them, through doing virtuous actions, the power of the virtue is much stronger. 

The reason for that is because these are beings who are helping us along the dharma path which is an extraordinary kindness to us. Our parents are also strong recipients because of their kindness and giving us this body in this life. So, taking care of our parents and helping them is more virtuous than just doing it in relationship to somebody else.  On the other hand, lying to our parents and getting mad at them is also heavier non virtue.

Another group that is a strong group of recipients can be the impoverished and the ill because of their suffering. Helping them creates stronger virtue—like giving a donation to help somebody who’s sick is going to be stronger virtue than giving your best friend a present. Because probably you’re giving your best friend a present out of attachment whereas when you’re helping somebody who’s sick or whatever, they have great need and we’re having a motivation that corresponds to that.

So, the recipient—sometimes called the basis or the field—is the person the action is done towards. The support is the person doing the action. That’s us, doing the action. Non virtuous actions are lighter for wise people who regret their actions, restrain themselves from doing it again and don’t conceal it. When we think abpit it, if you’re a monastic and you have precepts not to do something, in one way to overcome your precept and to do a negative action is going to take more energy than for an ordinary person to do it. On the other hand if you’re a monastic with any sense, you will know that you need to purify and you’ll do that purification. You’ll have regret. You won’t conceal what you did and you’ll restrain yourself and because of that, non virtuous action becomes lighter. So, non virtuous actions are weighty for the ignorant who don’t do any purification and yet who consciously do non virtuous actions.

Then what they call the nature is sometimes also sometimes called the object. I think nature is a better translation. It’s talking about the action itself. Here, for example, sharing the Dharma with somebody is superior than sharing material things. In fact, they say giving the Dharma is the highest gift. Offering our practice is superior to material offerings. When they talk about the the way to create merit with respect to your spiritual mentor by offering material things, service, and your practice, offering practice is the superior one where you really put into practice what you’re learning. That doesn’t mean you don’t do the other two, but if you don’t have a lot of material things or you can’t offer service, it’s really your practice that counts. 

Then in terms of the nature we just discussed, we already discussed the order in which the three physical, four verbal and three mental ones go from heavy to light.

The fourth quality is the attitude or the motivation.  If our focus is on happiness—“I’m doing this action to have the happiness of this life or because I want a good rebirth or I want liberation or I want to to become a Buddha”—then according to our motivation, an action is going to be heavier or lighter. It’s also going to be heavier or lighter in terms of whether we’re doing it for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. It will also be heavier or lighter due to the strength, the intensity, of our motivation and the length of time we really hold that motivation. Those are other factors that make an action heavy or light. 

For an example of non virtue: killing would be the action. Somebody who thinks killing is good, so the support, is somebody very ignorant. Killing their spiritual mentor, the Buddha, their parents or somebody like this, and really having incredible anger when they’re doing it and just relishing doing that action would be very, very heavy in terms of all four of these factors that make something heavy.

What would be an example of a virtuous action with these four factors being very heavy?

Audience: Protecting the life of your spiritual teachers or a Dharma friend or a poor person or your parents—saving them from some sort of harm or danger. Doing it out of love and concern for them and compassion, and doing it for the long-term benefit of themselves first of all and then all beings.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes and also I would say sharing the Dharma would be one of those, too, because sharing the Dharma is much more virtuous by nature than even protecting life. That may initially sound funny, but when you share the Dharma you teach people about karma which enables them to stop creating the cause for their own suffering. So, they don’t wind up being in danger so much and so on.

Questions & Answers

Audience: Somebody who stutters, what action do you think that provoked that?

VTC: I have no idea. I don’t know. It might have to do with with lying or not being able to get something out. I don’t really know. They say that karma is the most subtle topic and only the Buddha knows all these kinds of details.

Audience: So, most of the completing karmas are karmas that do not have all four parts intact?

VTC: Or completing karmas could have all four parts, but it’s not a strong action.

Audience: So, for someone like Karuna who has such a horrible rebirth that came from a particular series of negativities, all the virtuous things that have happened simultaneously could have come from totally different lifetimes?

VTC:  Exactly, we have beginningless lives, so Karuna being born as a cat due to keeping bad ethical conduct could be in one lifetime but in another lifetime maybe she was a great philanthropist and so created the cause to have such a cushy life now. We’ve had beginningless lifetimes; who knows what we’ve done.

Audience: So, that’s the importance of dedicating because it protects those virtues so that they don’t ripen like this?

VTC: Yes, or if it’s something virtuous, a virtuous action is never going to ripen as being reborn as a cat.

Audience: No, but I mean the completing karma.

VTC: If we dedicate, we are protecting the karma from being destroyed. We’re not necessarily protecting it from ripening now because it is nice that the cat has a very comfortable rebirth. When you go to India and you see how much the animals suffer there, you wish they all had good completing karma. But the dedication prevents the karma, inhibits the karma, from getting destroyed.

Audience: But if she had dedicated to awakening this wouldn’t be the end of that, right?

VTC: Right. Let’s say Karuna in a previous life was a Dharma practitioner who was very generous. She dedicated to full awakening but also in a life before that she stole from a lot of people and was really obnoxious. So, the rebirth as a cat is from being obnoxious and stealing. She may have dedicated her virtue for full awakening; it will ripen in that.  But while she’s a cat she has a comfortable life. Or she may have just dedicated, “May I always have comfortable lives.” She may not have even dedicated for full awakening, but she may have been a philanthropist and said, “May I always sleep on the best blankets around.” [laughter]

Audience: So, becoming a monastic and dedicating one’s life to practicing the path—is that considered an offering to the Three Jewels?

VTC:  It could be because if you practice well, whatever you practice as a monastic or whatever you practice as a layperson, you offer your practice. So that is an offering to the Three Jewels. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a monastic or lay practitioner. But if you’re a monastic, you keep more precepts; you have more time.

Audience: Can an animal be a bodhisattva?

VTC: I think it’s better to say a bodhisattva can be an animal. Or a bodhisattva can appear as an animal.

Audience: Does it mean anything if you really like rocky, barren places, like the desert? [laughter]

VTC:  It means you like rocky, barren places.  There are a lot of people living in Arizona.

Audience: If you experience that as a positive thing it’s not a negative karma, right?

VTC: It’s not a negative karma ripening if you experience that as a nice environment.

Audience: How do we keep creating the causes to learn the right view of emptiness and eventually realize it.

VTC: In this life, study the right view of emptiness, contemplate it and think about it. That’s how you do it. It’s not by going to the disco that you’re going to learn the right view of emptiness. And it’s not just by praying, “Please may I realize emptiness,” but meanwhile feeding your mind with cartoon books or something.

Audience: I did want to comment that after looking at the the results as far as the environmental and the causally concordant, in the course of any given day if you look at it through the eyes of karma, these things are ripening all the time. The way that people relate to you sometimes with your divisive speech. Sometimes you have an upset stomach. Sometimes the weather is trashy. The whole day long you can see this stuff just ripening.

VTC: Exactly, these completing karmas are ripening all day long. Different completing karmas are ripening, if we look.  Because in one day we experience so many different things, don’t we? So, it’s all the ripening of previously created karma.

Audience: If we continuously face some circumstances—for example, harsh speech from others—that is also an indicator of where I am at, what is my potential or where is my focus to practice because where do I have a lot of negativity.

VTC: So, you’re saying if I constantly hear a lot of harsh speech, maybe it’s telling me that I need to focus on my harsh speech so that I don’t continually create the karma to hear this? When you read a book like Wheel of Sharp Weapons it’s really emphasizing that.

Audience: I know from history that Hitler, in regard to malice, had paranoia and got scared for no reason.  He couldn’t eat food without having somebody test it.

VTC: And that you can see it fits in very well.  She was saying Hitler was very paranoid and couldn’t eat any food unless somebody else tasted it, but it fits in so well with his actions. When you’re harming others you have every reason to believe that somebody’s going to try and stop you. 

Audience: How do you know if it’s your own karma ripening or the ripening karma of others?

VTC: Because your karma ripens on you. How do you know it’s your karma ripening and not other people’s karma ripening,? Because your karma ripens in your happiness and suffering. Other people’s karma ripens in their happiness and suffering. We do not experience the result of other people’s karma, and they do not experience the result of our karma. We all experience the result of our own karma.

Audience: It kind of puts a total termination on blaming.

VTC: Yes, you can’t blame anybody when you really believe in karma. You have to forget about blaming other people. Somebody may say, “But if I’m in a family and my parent does illegal actions and gets arrested and I’m a child and I suffer because of that, then am I experiencing the result of my parents’ karma?”  No, your parents did that action; they’re experiencing the result. You’re experiencing the result of being a child whose parents are now in prison. But that karma to be that child at that moment was created by you, not by your parents.

Audience: Is it the propelling karma that is happening once you start dying?

VTC: Propelling karma is the karma that ripens during the death process, that’s going to throw us into the next rebirth. That’s why it’s good to create as much virtue as we can and to train our mind to have positive mental states so that at the time of death we can take refuge or think about bodhichitta, because that will help some good karma ripen. But we have to have created the good karmic actions to have something like that ripen at the time of death, too. 

Audience: That’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s like there are so many zillions and zillions and zillions of little karmic seeds, so anything can happen. Until you get in a situation where you’re more clear about the conditions that you put yourself in, it’s like you’re just rolling the dice.

VTC: But it’s not really a roll of dice because rolling dice implies causeless. But when you aren’t aware of what situations you put yourself in, when you don’t have well-formed ethical beliefs, when you don’t think about who your friends are and who you’re hanging out with and what you’re doing, then you just follow whatever idea comes in your mind. You think “Oh, this sounds good,” so you do that, or “Oh, this sounds good,” so you do that. Then you wind up creating karma in those situations, and you wind up providing the condition for other karmas to ripen in those situations. Whereas when you learn about karma and you become more intentional in your life then you don’t put yourself so often in situations where negative karma can ripen, and in the meantime you do a lot of purification that will stop it from ripening.

Audience: It seems to me that the mental habits that we’re creating really last. Well, I guess I find that because we wake up every morning with making these motivations that it seems like it’s there even before I wake up.  And so I have some sense that when you’re dying with something that you really habituated yourself to—like when Mary Grace had that surgery and she did the Medicine Buddha mantra going into this brain surgery and she came out of it doing the Medicine Buddha mantras—it carries through. It seems to be there.

VTC: That’s why they say before we go to sleep at night, try and generate a positive intention. You can see if you go to bed angry you usually wake up angry and in a bad mood. So, try and go to bed with a good mental state.

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.