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Overcoming ignorance

Overcoming ignorance

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • The general aspects of karma
  • The importance of really stopping and reflecting on the results of our actions
  • Being content to create the causes for happiness

The Essence of a Human Life: Overcoming ignorance (download)

“From bad will come the long and unbearable pain
of the three lower realms;
from good the higher, happier realms
from which to swiftly enter the echelons of awakening.”
Know this and think upon it day after day.

We’ve talked about karma a bit. The kind of results that karma causes. We’ve talked about the 10 nonvirtues. There are four principal aspects of karma that it’s good to remember in this, that this verse is talking about.

The principal aspects of karma

  1. First is that happiness always comes from virtue, it never comes from nonvirtue. Pain always comes from nonvirtue, never from virtue. Similarly, virtue always produces happiness (never suffering), and nonvirtue always produces suffering (never happiness).

    We hear this and we say, “Yes, yes, it makes a lot of sense.” But when we’re about to do something nonvirtuous do we think about this? No. If attachment is in our mind we’re just thinking about how to get what we want. If we’re upset or angry about something we’re just thinking about how to eliminate our stress and our anger. We’re not thinking about the long-term results. And very often we don’t even think about the short-term results.

  2. We have to really train ourselves to slow down and think about the results of our actions, because the things is that once karma is created it doesn’t just kind of vanish. It leaves an energy trace in our mind–a karmic seed or a “having happened” in our mindstream–that influences our future lives, and our future even in this life. It doesn’t just disappear. If we purify it, yes, negative karma will diminish. If we get angry and have wrong views then our virtuous karma will also diminish in power. But things don’t just vanish. That was another of the four qualities of karma.

  3. A third quality is, if anything, the results increase, just like from a small seed you can get a big tree, from a small action we can get a big result.

  4. The fourth one is if you don’t create the cause you don’t get the result. We want lots of stuff, and we’re willing to pray “may this come about, may that come about,” but to actually create the karma for it to happen? We don’t think about that so much. We’re happy to benefact pujas, and we’re happy to do prayers, and aspire for things, but to actually do Dharma practice and create virtue and abandon nonvirtue? It’s like, come on, can’t things just happen without causes? Somehow our intellectual understanding of how karma works doesn’t match our actions, and we get very (kind of) sloppy. Like I was saying before, we’re creating nonvirtue, we never think, “Oh, this is going to lead me to a horrible rebirth,” or, “This is going to interfere with my being able to practice Dharma,” or, “This is going to obscure my mind more so I’m going to find it harder to realize emptiness.” We don’t think like that. We just go ahead and do whatever action we want to do, nonvirtue, oh it doesn’t matter, it’s only small. We forget all about the whole thing.

    Similarly with creating virtue, like, “Well, I’ll just pray and I’ll offer money for people to do prayers and pujas, and that’s good enough, isn’t it?” But to actually restrain ourselves from the 10 nonvirtues, and to actually put our energy into creating the 10 virtuous pathways of action, we kind of, there’s a disconnect in our mind. Have you noticed that?

    Even people who’ve been in the Dharma a long, long time, there’s this kind of disconnect because somehow we don’t really think that our actions are going to bring results. We somehow think we just do what we want, at most maybe a result this lifetime, but even not this lifetime. So when we do and say nasty things to other people we’re even surprised in this lifetime that they get a bit upset with us. We steal people’s stuff, why are they getting upset? Somebody’s sleeping around, why is my spouse upset? I don’t understand. Somehow we’re not connecting causes and results, even though in many instances, when you teach your children: “You have to go to school, so you can get a good education, which will result in your getting a good job, which will result in your making a good living and having happiness.” You say this to your kids, and we believe in cause and effect—for the kids. But for us? And especially thinking about the effects beyond this life, we’re really space-cases, aren’t we? It’s kind of pathetic when you think about it how long we’ve been in the Dharma, how much we talk about karma. Like people do all sorts of things and we go, “Oh well, I guess they didn’t have the karma to meet the Dharma. They didn’t have the karma for this good thing to happen. Their good karma ran out. They were in an accident because the ripening of some bad karma.” So we say that about other people, but do we relate it to ourselves? Do we think that with what we’re doing right now we’re creating the cause for our future? And do we put the time into sincerely purifying negativities to cut that rush of energy? No. Don’t you think it’s strange?

One of the inmates that I wrote to, in reflecting on how he wound up with a 20-year sentence for drug dealing, he said (because he had to go back through his whole life and kind of do a little bit of introspection about how he got to this point) and he said he made all these decisions in his life without thinking about the results that would come. This is just even this life, let alone future lives. And he said you make such small choices that later on have big results, and you’re not aware that you’re doing it when you’re doing it. And then somehow surprised when the result comes.

We really have to do a lot of meditation, I think, on karma and its effects, and really gain some conviction in it. Not just some intellectual something. But really use it so that we start monitoring our actions, and when we need to restrain then we happily restrain, saying, “Good, I’m glad I caught myself before i did this negative action and wound up with some suffering.” And also to nudge ourselves along to create some more virtue, knowing that it is the cause of happiness, and that we don’t need to worry about when the happiness is going to come, to just be content with creating that cause, and be happy about that, and then let the good causes bring good results.

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.