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Karma is not cast in concrete

Karma is not cast in concrete

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 importance of following the law of karma and its effects
  • Our lifespan is not predetermined by karma
  • Doing virtuous actions and dedicating for those who have died
  • The importance and role of purification

The Essence of a Human Life: Karma is not cast in concrete (download)

I hope to finish up about karma today. I’ve been going into more detail about this because this text (The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for the Lay Practitioner) are for lay practitioners and for monastics, and following the law of karma and its effects, making it to our advantage, is very important for everybody.

It’s really important for people to understand that karma is not cast in concrete. I received an email from someone today saying that she thought our death was already predetermined by the karma that we’ve created, then that makes her feel really strange. But it’s not like that. It’s like when we’re born (according to previous karma) we have a certain karmic potential to live, but it can be extended and it can be shortened.

It’s shortened if we create the conditions so that a very heavy negative karma that we created in the past ripens, that can cut short the karmic predisposition to live a certain length.

But also, if we practice well, if we create a lot of merit so that we can have good food, we can receive the medicine that we need and so on, then that can also be lengthened. If we do the White Tara practice, the Medicine Buddha practice, it can lengthen our lifespan.

So we shouldn’t think of our lifespan as cast in concrete. And we shouldn’t think of karma in general as cast in concrete.

Karma is just an action that leaves an energy trace that bears a result, but what result it bears is dependent (and limited by) the kind of action that was done, in the sense that happiness always comes from virtue and unhappiness from nonvirtue. However, there are many other conditions that need to be present to make that karma ripen, and depending what those conditions are the result can vary considerably.

That’s why, for example, when somebody dies and is in the bardo we do prayers for them, we do virtuous actions and dedicate for them. Maybe they had the karma to be reborn as a person in an impoverished place, but by dedicating the merit to them we’re able to transform that karma somehow so that instead of being born in an impoverished place they’re born in a place where they have enough to eat. And this could be due to some other…. Not a change in the maturation result (they’d still be born in the same realm) but it would be a change in the cooperative conditions of that life.

There’s a lot of flexibility in things that go on with karma. They say only the Buddha can explain this in great detail. I cannot. But I do know that things change, and you can look at it in any kind of life situation, that we may have a very strong energy going in a certain direction, but at a certain point if we change the way we’re thinking, that can change the momentum of the direction we were going in. That’s why we should constantly try to purify and to create merit, because it influences the present life and it influences future lives.

We have too much this idea from Christianity that things are predetermined, and it’s not like that.

What I really wanted to talk about today was purification, which everybody’s heard me talk about before, probably, but to the extent that you do it? Hmmm. I don’t know.

It’s important to purify with the four opponent powers. We create negative karma every day so we should do some purification every day.

  1. Chief of the four is to have regret for what we’ve done. We don’t need to wait until the evening to regret nonvirtues that we’ve seen ourselves do during the day, in the same way that we don’t need to wait until posadah to tell somebody else of a precept where there’s been an infraction. We can tell somebody right away. It’s better to. But as soon as you have some regret, as soon as you’ve noticed that, generate that kind of regret for it.

    And as I have said so many times, regret is not guilt. So banish guilt, because guilt only keeps us trapped in a cycle of “I’m so awful,” and does nothing whatsoever to purify the karma. Even though we have this very strange sense that if we feel guilty and miserable that somehow our misery atones for the negative karma we’ve created. It does not. Feeling miserable due to guilt, and berating ourselves, is of absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

  2. It’s better to regret the negativity, change our attitude towards whoever it was that we created the negativity with respect to. We do that by taking refuge in the holy beings and generating bodhicitta, which wants to benefit the ordinary beings.

  3. We have some determination not to repeat the action again. This is the one…. Sometimes we regret doing the action but we don’t really have so much determination not to do it again. So to try and create more determination not to do it again, or to think of a certain time frame that we can practice in where we can truthfully say “I won’t do it in that particular period of time,” that helps us gain some confidence.

  4. And then to do some kind of remedial practice, which could be prostrations, making offerings, reciting the names of the buddhas, meditating on bodhicitta, meditating on emptiness, offering service, doing volunteer work in the community, any kind of virtuous action is also a remedial method.

Sometimes people do the remedial methods—they love to chant mantras, or they love to do prostrations—but they forget to have the regret, the refuge and bodhicitta, and the determination not to do it again, and they just like doing the rituals.

Other people, like I said, have the regret but not the determination not to do it again. And other people like to restore the relationship, but they don’t really have so much regret or determination not to repeat it. We have to try and get all four together.

For the negativities we’ve created since beginningless time we don’t have to remember each one specifically to purify it. We can also do them in groups. “Whatever harsh words I have used … Whatever lies I have told … Whatever ways I have distorted the Dharma to other people…” We can do whole categories of things like that, and regret them, and have a determination not to repeat them.

Then of course things that we do in this life that we can vividly remember, doing the four opponent powers is very good psychologically to help free us from that, so that we don’t just sit there and feel heavy, and fall into some kind of guilt trip, which is really useless.

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Accidents are usually untimely deaths, because it’s usually your body wears out. That’s usually it. Even if somebody dies young…. It’s hard to tell from these kinds of things, predict exactly, but usually accidents are presented as an untimely death.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: That’s what I meant, it’s a general time. And so you have this general time, if a negative karma ripens, or you create a very heavy negative karma that cuts short the life in this lifetime, there still may be some karma to be born as a human being, so you may be born as a human being but then die at birth, or die before birth, or die as a baby, something like that. Now how to tell whether that baby died because it was just a little bit of karma remaining, or because it was the ripening of some heavy negative karma, that’s the kind of thing you have to ask the Buddha. But it usually seems like just when, if a child is born with a lot of illness, and in a certain way where you know they’re not going to live for long from the beginning, that’s a different situation than the child’s healthy and then some accident kills them.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Okay, sometimes people get this idea that most of their actions are negative, so where do we get that idea from?

It could be in two things. Sometimes the way they teach about karma is they speak really strongly about negative actions and how difficult it is to create positive actions to have a precious human life, so that sometimes gives you the feeling…. Because they say a precious human life attained this once. Of course, it’s not this once, but they say “this once” as a way to emphasize that it’s difficult to create all the karma to have that. So this may give some people the idea that most of their actions are negative. But that’s said in the context of precious human life in order to emphasize to us that this is a precious opportunity and not take it for granted. And it’s also said to us so that we don’t become complacent and relax, but really exert ourselves to learn about karma and to follow the observation of karma and its effects.

Another reason somebody may think all their actions are negative is because that is their habitual train of mind, is to put themselves down consistently and never allow themselves to rejoice at their own merit, to rejoice at their talents. Their self-image, they’re stuck in some negative self-image that “Oh, everything I do is negative,” which is totally completely rubbish. So that person has to break through and discard that negative self-image in order to understand karma in a correct way, not in a way that just conforms to “Well yeah, sure, everything I do is wrong.”

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: That’s another thing. People who grew up in another faith, let’s say, and learned about original sin when they were kids, they import that into Buddhism and have this feeling that “I have original sin, all this negativity is stacked up since beginningless time, and so again I’m just acting out and embellishing on the sins I’ve already created.” That all feeds into this whole negative self-image, which does not come from Buddhism. And I’ve seen time and time again, this is such a huge impediment for people from the West. It’s very important that people deal with this in their practice.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes, and this fits into the whole thing of when they’re explaining certain topics they’re really pointing out how strong afflictions arise, how often they arise, and they do this to warn us against the afflictions, but some people take it to mean “everything I do is afflictions and there’s no hope.”

This is also a point that’s quite important in the Dharma, is you have to understand the teachings correctly, and that different things are said in different contexts to emphasize certain points. We have to see those things in those contexts. For example, just even saying “precious human life is received but once….” That’s not true. We’ve had beginningless lives, we’re going to have more precious human lives. But within the context of telling somebody that it’s very difficult to create the causes, and it really is like a turtle coming up from the bottom of the sea, saying it’s attained only once makes an impact on that person’s mind.

There are many things like this. When they say to see your teacher is the Buddha it’s the same kind of thing. It doesn’t mean that your teacher is the Buddha. It means that this is a practical way—when you’re practicing tantra—to prevent your mind from creating negativities.

Or—even in the context of tantra—when it says everyone around you is a deity, it doesn’t mean everybody around you is a deity. It’s a skillful means to keep you from generating lots of afflicted thoughts towards them.

We have to understand things in a proper way.

One of the meditations on establishing mindfulness of the body is to imagine the universe filled with bones. And you can develop samadhi on that, and you have a form for mental consciousness, but that doesn’t mean the universe is really filled with bones. It’s a way to train your mind to help you generate renunciation for samsara.

There are many things like this, not only on those kind of negative things, but when they say, “Say this mantra one time and you’ll never be born in the lower realms….” That’s not true, because if it were true there would be no need for the Buddha to have given 84,000 other teachings. All he would have taught is this one mantra and that’s it. But it’s something that encourages people to recite the mantra, and to develop faith and confidence by imagining that particular deity, and so forth. We just have the tendency to take everything literally. That’s how we were taught in our culture. Tibetan culture, Asian culture in many ways, things are not taken so literally.

I even noticed this… My simple example of when I first went to Singapore. I was in my mode of taking everything literally, and I was walking down one side of the street with somebody, and my friend, this other nun, said, “Shall we go to the other side of the street?” And I took it as a question, that I could say yes or no to. But for her, she was already crossing over. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. This is the way it is. “Shall we cross the street?” means, “Let’s go across the street.” So it’s just different ways of understanding things according to cultures.

Also, the definition of what “lying” is in Tibetan culture and Chinese culture is very different than a Western definition of lying. Very different. In Asian culture you can do all the excuses you want, all the little white lies you want, they’re not considered lies. They’re considered saving face and being kind to the other person. To us they’re considered lies. So we have to understand things differently according to the context.

I had a Tibetan friend told me (because Westerners take things literally). Tibetans, for example, if you go to someone’s house in Tibet, if they say, “Do you want some tea?” you should say “No,” and then they have to ask you a few times, and then you accept the tea or you accept the food. In our culture if someone says, “Do you want tea or dinner” and you say “No,” that’s it. They don’t offer again. So my Tibetan friend told me that he was warned by other Tibetans that if you’re hungry and they offer you dinner, say “yes,” because if you say no in a Tibetan way (which is polite), you’re going to go hungry. [laughter]

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.