Why do bad things happen to good people?

8.5 mins read.

Often when things go wrong in our lives, we cast about for someone to blame and/or conclude that life is unconscionably unfair. Maybe we think there is some arbiter of our fate, some supernatural law-giver who is punishing us, and we feel guilty.

We ask, “Why me?” There are actually two questions we can ask: (1) Why is this happening? (2) Why is this happening to me?

For example, I just had my second COVID vaccination. I am very grateful, especially given what is happening in India and Brazil, and wish everyone could be safe from this seemingly endless pandemic. But I am also waiting for the well known side effects to start kicking in … some people have none, others are laid up for a few days. Although monumentally better than catching (and spreading) COVID itself, nonetheless, like I said, I am waiting ….

If I do start feeling fatigued and feverish, by understanding karma I can accept (1) that this is happening because causes were created, and (2) it is happening to me (as opposed to somebody else who got the same shot but is getting off symptom-free) because I was the one who created these causes.

Following on from this article.

A natural law

Just to reiterate the basic teaching on karma: Buddha observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by an intention that is out of whack with reality, aka deluded, it is the substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences, such as wondering what work shirt to wear today above our sweatpants.

Karma is a natural law that governs us, like the law of gravity. It is not the same as fate or predestination because we can change our karma by understanding how it works. That wisdom gives us free will.

Buddha didn’t invent karma any more than Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity. At some point in our life we learn about the earth’s gravitational pull — big things like this planet attract small things like me. And from then on, to protect ourselves from unwanted suffering, ideally we act in accordance with this natural law, such as by not jumping off the top of the Empire State Building.

Nor is there any capricious supernatural lawgiver. Everything depends upon our own minds and intentions. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Mirror of Dharma:

No-one has the power or authority to say to living beings, ‘You should go to the human realm, the animal realm, the hell realm, or the god realm.’ Because of our previous different actions, or karma, accumulated since beginningless time we all take different rebirths and experience different sufferings.

Just as there is no one who is casting us off the Empire State Building, so according to Buddhism there is no one who is punishing us for our transgressions or rewarding us for our good behavior.

Suffering is created by our own actions or karma – it is not given to us as a punishment. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Therefore, there is no need to feel guilty. However, there is a need to understand. 

Why do bad things happen to good people?

When talking with other people about karma, it is important to do so sensitively. This is because when explained skillfully, it is very empowering and releases people; but when it is not, it can do the opposite — although logical, it can sound brutally unfair. For why do bad things happen to good people?

At a day course on karma recently a friend noticed a participant with his head in his heads and, asking him if he was ok, saw that he was crying. He told her he had a disabled son and was very upset by the teaching for suggesting that it was his son’s fault. His son is gentle and kind and he couldn’t bear to hear people suggesting that he somehow deserved this suffering. It was heartbreaking.

What would you have replied?

My friend said that we needed to take past lives into account — that it was not his son but a perfect stranger, really, in his son’s mental continuum who had created the causes for disabilities in this life. She also tried to explain how precious it is to have a human life and the story of the turtle and the golden yoke, meaning that someone in his son’s continuum must also have done many wonderful things, even more so to be born to such a loving father.

Other suggestions in response to my friend’s post on Facebook were to understand that all our negative actions are caused by our enemies, the delusions, and we are not our delusions, meaning that no intrinsically bad person created the karma. It was not his fault but the fault of delusions.

Moreover, there is no judgment – not just because it is our delusions that are to blame, but because all of us samsaric beings are in the same boat and have created a long history of similar deluded actions. They just haven’t ripened for us yet.

Far from feeling that this man’s son is inherently bad or deserving of his disability, taking karma into account can deepen our compassion (and our renunciation). This is because we develop a wish for ourselves and others to be freed not just from whatever is ripening to hurt us now, but from the causes of our suffering, delusions and karma. These are the chains that will bind all of us in all realms to suffering perpetually until we learn how to dismantle them.

Internal locus of control

Another person replied that on the other hand it can be a relief to understand about karma being created in previous lives as an explanation for their suffering now. Otherwise if we suffer a trauma or continuous ill health we just think we’re unlucky or being punished. We now have a ‘scientific’ explanation for it, which can be healing to hear and allow us to do something practical.

Some social scientists say that one thing we can do to ensure success is to take responsibility for everything that comes our way—big and small. To take the reins of our life, they believe it’s important to maintain an “internal locus of control.” This refers to the belief that our own ability and efforts contribute directly to our success. Conversely, when something doesn’t go our way or we encounter adversity, we don’t hold factors beyond our control as responsible.

In an article from Inc. titled “Here’s How Highly Successful People Make Little Choices Different From the Rest of Us,” Christina DesMarais explains:

When you believe you alone are responsible for your circumstances [ie, an internal locus of control], you’ll make necessary changes in your life to achieve success. If you sit around blaming everyone else for your problems an—’external locus of control’—your situation will remain as it is.

This makes sense to me, but it may not work so effectively if we evaluate our actions in only a short-term way when effects seem far more random, such as good things happening to bad people and vice versa. But it is very effective to take ownership of our intentions and actions by taking karma into account, if we are ready to do that.

This isn’t fair!

Bad things happening to good people and vice versa leads a lot of people to shrug that it doesn’t matter what we do, what is the point of going out of our way to be kind? Don’t we live in some kind of a haphazard world where things happen accidentally, meaninglessly?

Truth is, nothing happens accidentally and there’s no such thing as co-incidence. Events happen systematically according to the definite albeit illusion-like laws of cause and effect, including certain laws of nature; and one such ubiquitous law is the law of karma. Because it has such a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives, we are very much kept in the dark by trying to live without an in-depth understanding of its workings. We end up floundering in this life too, not understanding “Why is this happening!”, just as we have been blundering around in all our previous lives.

As I talk about in these articles,  this is not our first much less our only life – we have had countless lives, repeating the same mistakes that come from not understanding this natural law. By keeping an open mind to Buddha’s explanations, we can finally break free and create the future we want.

It’s karma so I won’t do anything about it

If misunderstood, observing the law of karma can even provide a false excuse to preserve the status quo, such as in the caste system in India. Or it can lead to a general lack of motivation to do anything practical to help ourselves and others because we think, “Oh it’s our karma, there’s nothing I can do.”

Related to this, earlier in the pandemic I heard some people say, “I’m not going to wear a mask because it is my karma whether or not I get COVID. I will take my chances.” More recently I have heard people say they won’t receive a shot for the same reason. Is this true?! What do you think?

This is what I think: understanding karma does NOT mean that we do nothing practical to help ourselves or others. I would argue the exact opposite — that it becomes even more compelling to work to end suffering, injustice, disease, cruelty, and so on, preferably motivated by wisdom and positivity and without attachment to results.

Moreover I think it’s just common sense to observe the valid conventions of our world, including its laws of cause and effect, because we are part and parcel of this world, not immune to pandemics or anything else. I could be wrong – happy to discuss — but to me it’s a bit fatalist, like someone smoking cigarettes saying they don’t need to quit because it’s their karma whether or not they die of lung cancer.

(At the very beginning of the pandemic, even before we all knew it was that serious, the person who seemed to be encouraging us the most to observe the COVID protocols was Geshe Kelsang himself.)

Over to you: would love to discuss this all with you. Per my earlier question, how would you explain to yourself or others how good things can happen to “bad” people and vice versa?

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Precious human life  

How to hit the jackpot

8.5 mins read.

I do like this time of year – sitting in the Spring sunshine watching those moist bright green buds pop out hopefully from the skeleton trees. The seeds were clearly there all along, but now the conditions have come together for them to burgeon into the most beautiful flowers and leaves.

Carrying on from this article, Unlocking the power of intention.

These seeds remain dormant in our mind until the conditions for them to ripen occur, and then they produce their effect. In some cases, this can happen many lifetimes after the original action was performed. ~ Geshe Kelsang

Seeds ripen as sprouts sooner or later, with the assistance of some external conditions such as sunlight and moisture. Similarly, every time we intentionally do anything, we sow a seed in our field-like consciousness that later ripens as a crop-like experience when various conditions come together. If we have a kind intention, for example, this will ripen as a positive experience for us, such as receiving help. If we have an unkind intention, this will ripen as a suffering experience, such as receiving hostility.

We can sow the seeds for whatever beautiful healthy plants we want to ripen in our minds. We can also dig out the poisonous seeds with a bit of mental gardening – nothing is fixed.

(Those green buds also remind me of the ripening of everyone’s potential – most people just don’t realize yet what they have inside of them, how extraordinary they can be.)

Striking it lucky

It’s a good idea to nurture and feel happy about all the seeds you have sown already in this life and in previous lives – you did a lot of pretty awesome things just to be sitting here in this rare precious human life, for a start. You already hit the karmic jackpot.

And ever since you were born in this life, every moment of love where you have wished others to be happy, for example, has created the causes for so much happiness. As a matter of fact, our mental actions are hundreds of times more powerful than our physical and verbal actions. As an illustration of this, it is said that generating real love for all living beings for one moment creates more merit, or good karma, than feeding all living beings three meals a day. (Nothing to stop us loving people and feeding them, by the way.)

Or how many seeds of faith have we already sown in the Field of Merit (focusing on the vast assembly of enlightened beings), including just requesting their help? This opened our mind to blessings at the time and sowed the seeds for whatever it is we asked for.

Or those times we’ve thought about emptiness, the mere absence of all the things we normally see – just doubting inherent existence causes samsara to shake! Not to mention any time we may have done a Tantric sadhana, creating potent causes for the Pure Land.

Everything is continually growing and evolving, so who knows when all those good seeds we have already planted will ripen? Far from being fatalistic, understanding karma gives us agency. It gives us hope.

Life after life after life

Buddha gave detailed explanations through which we can understand the connection between our actions performed in previous lives, either virtuous or non-virtuous, and our experiences in this life, either happiness or suffering. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

If we understand this natural law we can use it to our advantage and gain full control of our actions and lives. If we don’t, we keep being swept along by the winds of karma as helplessly as a leaf in a typhoon.

Buddha understood and explained how our intentions and their resultant experiences don’t just play out over one lifetime and in one world. This body you are sitting in is not the only body you have ever had or will have, nor is this the only life. We’ve already had countless dreamlike bodies and lives and will be having countless more. As Voltaire put it:

It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.

(Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a bit so far but you might find it interesting.)

Yesterday has gone. Tomorrow has not yet been born. Today, moment by moment, is appearing from the ripening of potentials in my mind. We are not moving around in a real or permanent world — nothing is actually out there or static, instead life is momentarily unfurling like a dream. What comes up for me today has less to do with what I do today than what I did in the past. What I do today, meantime, is creating the causes for all manner of future experiences.

A few days ago, I, in Denver, was chatting to a Brazilian friend in the UK, when another American friend just happened to walk past and I just happened on a whim to introduce them — maybe because they sort of remind me of each other and are both passionate about animals. One of them enquired about the other’s last name, the same as her mother’s unusual maiden name; and it turns out that their families come from the same small village of Ganci in Sicily. What are the chances?! It is no coincidence — simply the ripening of collective karma to be in the right place at the right time to meet a long-lost cousin.

All living beings have been our mothers, for that matter. Below the surface where we usually hang out, there is an infinite web of karmic relationships. We often deny ourselves that depth, richness, and connection in our lives, but it’s there.

Everyone is unique

Most humans already have a general sense of karma; it makes intuitive sense that what we put out there should come back to us sooner or later. Buddhists believe that our karma plays itself out over many lifetimes, but we can also see instances of karma operating within one lifetime.

The law of karma explains why each individual has a unique mental disposition, a unique physical appearance, and unique experiences. These are the various effects of the countless actions that each individual has performed in the past. We cannot find any two people who have created exactly the same history of actions throughout their past lives, and so we cannot find two people with identical states of mind, identical experiences, or identical physical appearances. ~ How to Transform Your Life 

Each of us is unique, like snowflakes. Even identical twins who have the same nature and moreorless the same nurture still have their own experiences, personalities, tendencies, and life spans — a unique and complex summation of their individual and collective karma. Despite all the same caregivers, genes, education, toys, parental love, etc — ie, even with all else being equal — they can and generally do end up being completely different. Karma also goes deeper and explains why two people are born as twins in the first place.

Geshe Kelsang gives the example of two siblings going into business. They have the same education and resources and do the same things, but one becomes wealthy and the other goes bankrupt. What accounts for this? Nothing external.

Luck and bad luck are descriptions, not explanations. The explanation is that one sibling previously created the causes of wealth—giving—and the other created the causes of poverty—stealing or miserliness. They created a different set of actions, so they had different karmic effects.

(This doesn’t mean that the bankrupt sibling hasn’t also planted the seeds for wealth and vice versa – they may well have, it’s just that these have not yet ripened.)

We know things are not really handed to us on a plate for no reason, so what is that reason?! What we believe it is will determine what we do with our lives. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar:

If our enjoyments were the result of this life’s endeavors alone, anyone who strove to became rich would succeed; yet there are many people who work hard at business with no success, while there are others who seem to accumulate wealth with almost no effort. This is because wealth is the result of giving in former lives.

We read this and maybe we even think we believe it, but the proof is in the pudding – do we act according to it? How much time do we (do I) spend putting effort into gathering external conditions for success compared with the internal conditions for success, such as giving? Today, for example – did I just push on through trying to fix everything on the outside with uncertain results, or was I mindful of my intentions and where these were certainly leading me?

Each person has a different individual karma. Some people enjoy good health while others are constantly ill. Some people are seen as very beautiful while others are seen as very ugly. Some people have a happy disposition that is easily pleased while others have a sour disposition and are rarely delighted by anything. Some people easily understand the meaning of spiritual teachings while others find them difficult and obscure. ~ How to Transform Your Life

I’ve heard people say things like, “I had a karmic thing happen once! I stole a lollipop and …” Or “It was karma, meeting that love of my life!” Yes, it was. But so is everything else. Karma affects every part of our life all the time.

Just so you know, I am laying some groundwork in these first few articles on karma, and then I intend to apply this basic understanding to different areas in our life and spiritual practice, and answer some common questions. That’s the plan, anyway!

Meantime, over to you ~ I would love to have your comments and questions in the box below 🙂

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Unlock the power of intention

6.5 mins read + a video. 

Where did COVID-19 spring from? This surprising catastrophe hasn’t actually appeared out of nowhere, of course – it has been a long time in the making. It has arisen in dependence upon numerous physical causes — whatever those may be, and opinion differs — and also in dependence upon numerous mental causes – to wit, our individual and collective intentions and actions.

A little while back I wrote an article called Quantum Buddhism, which was inspired by this video:

 

This video gives a glimpse into how essential our minds are in creating our reality — in fact, our intentions do create our reality. Buddha talked about this many, many centuries ago, he called it “karma”.

What exactly is karma?

The Sanskrit word “karma” means “action.” It refers specifically to our mental actions, or intentions; and more generally to the law of cause and effect, or actions and their effects, as applied to the world of our mind.

The law of karma is a special instance of the law of cause and effect, according to which all our actions of body, speech, and mind are causes and all our experiences are their effects. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Everything we are experiencing right now, good or bad, is a result of the decisions and intentions we created in the past – not just the immediate past but over many lifetimes. And everything we decide or intend to do now is setting us up for future experiences. We are creating innumerable causes for stuff to happen every single day, designing the landscapes of our mind.

Where do all our good and bad experiences come from? According to Buddhism they are the result of the positive and negative karma we created in the past. As a result of positive karma, attractive and agreeable people appear in our life, pleasant material conditions arise, and we live in a beautiful environment; but as a result of negative karma, unpleasant people and things appear. This world is the effect of the collective karma created by the beings who inhabit it. Because karma originates in the mind—specifically in our mental intentions—we can see that all worlds arise from the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Taking karma into account

Life doesn’t arise from blind chance nor merely physical causes. To get a handle on our life and the direction it takes, it’s hugely helpful to think about karma.

We know from Science 101, or from plain old observation, that nothing comes from nothing.  Everything in the physical world has causes; and depending on the causes you get a different effect. If something exists, we have to say there is a definite cause of that thing. If something is a product, we have to say it is the effect of a cause.

Every phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. For example, our human body comes from the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm. A wooden table comes from wood. Wool carpets come from sheep, not from Daddy Long Legs.

Scientists and others have spent generations analyzing causes and effects. As a result, humankind has gained enormous control over and advances in the physical world.

Buddha is a scientist of the mind. The law of karma is just this immutable law of cause and effect as applied to the internal world of our mind, where our mental actions (or intentions) are the substantial causes and our experiences their effects. Understanding this will lead to enormous control over and advances in our mind.

Whenever we do anything intentional, it’s like throwing a boomerang in our mind. Or, as the old saying goes, what goes around comes around. Our lives are divided into good experiences, bad experiences, and neutral experiences and, if we could trace them back, we would see that our good experiences come from our good actions, our bad experiences from our bad actions, and our neutral experiences from our neutral actions. That, in a nutshell, is karma.

The world we “inhabit” or experience therefore depends not just on our current thoughts, moods, perceptions, and so on, but also on our previous thoughts or, specifically, our previous intentions, which are the substantial causes of our experiences. Venerable Geshe Kelsang explained in his 2000 Mahamudra teachings how all subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from karmic potentialities in the root mind, like waves arising from an ocean, as explained more here.

Take today for example. What happened today and where did it come from?

Your experience of today has been ripening from potentials in your mind left by previous intentions or karma. Moreover, we cannot point to a “today” that is other than our experience of today — try pointing at today and see! …….

This shows that there is no objective “today.” There is no “today” out there, outside the mind. Today has just been the moment by moment unfurling of karmic appearances, like a dream unfurling within our mind. It’ll be the same tomorrow. It’s been like this every day.

Can’t judge others

We can’t necessarily tell from people’s outward actions what their intensions are, which means we can’t necessarily tell what karma others are creating with their mental, bodily, and verbal actions.

For example, if I’m standing by road next to Jocelyn and I lash out and knock her over, is that good karma, bad karma, or no karma?!

It might seem pretty bad on the surface of things, and would be if I had pushed her over out of hatred. But what if I wanted to push her out of the way of a passing truck? Or what if I just had a nervous tic and knocked her over unintentionally?

We can only tell about our own actions. Buddha used to say we shouldn’t use his teachings as a magnifying glass to judge other people: “Ooh, look at him, he’s so bad!” Buddhism or Dharma is meant as a mirror to hold up to our OWN thoughts and actions. If we can do this, enormous positive benefits can come to us and we are increasingly able to create a world that is happy, including all the causes for the things that we want. But the only stance to take with respect to others, according to Buddha, is “How can I help you?”

We need to know

Geshe Kelsang says that there are immense contradictions between our wishes and the actions we are performing to fulfill those wishes. Maybe in the short term our actions sometimes seem to work out to fulfil our wishes – if we shoot someone an angry email they may shut up for a while, for example — but in the long run our actions can set us up for disaster. This is because we are not taking karma into account.

If everything depends upon intention, as all Buddhas and some quantum physicists are saying, then, per the video above:

The truth is that no amount of fighting and protesting and campaigning will create real, lasting change as long as there’s anger and hatred and resistance in our hearts. We’ve been down this futile path for endless centuries. One problem solved, and a new one springs in its place, necessitated by the negative energy that solved the first one.

Everything begins and ends in our minds. There is no world outside of our mind, everything is dream-like karmic appearance of mind, created by our intentions. Whatever we intend comes back to us sooner or later. If we keep putting negativity into the world, that’s all we’re going to keep getting back out of it.

What kind of field?

Over 2600 years ago, when Buddha explained karma — the power of our intentions to create our reality — he used the analogy of sowing seeds in a field of soil:

Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potentiality, on our very subtle mind, and each imprint eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Virtuous actions sow seeds of future happiness and non-virtuous actions sow seeds of future suffering. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Back in the day, Buddha probably used the analogy of a field because there were a lot of farmers around (and modern science was not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye). But I reckon we could also talk about planting intentions in the quantum field that later show up as our experiences. Every time we intend something — that is, think, say, or do something deliberately — then its result shows up in our life, sooner or later.

Karma has so many implications for our life! The more we know about it, the better. So over to you. What do you make of karma? I would love to see your comments below.

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Matters of life and death

 

Matters of life and death

11 mins read.

The law of entropy shows that despite all our best efforts to hold things together somehow, everything is being flung apart all the time – our relationships, our families, our friendships, our jobs, our figures, our skin, our peace, our comfort, our safety, our favorite hobbies, our passions, our life itself. None of these last.

I read this striking article on climate change the other day, and enjoyed the wisdom the author Roy Scranton has gained from his lived experience. 

“I’d been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous they’d barely survive a hard wind.”

The fact of impermanence may be more obvious in war zones, refugee camps, and so on, but the texture of the everyday is being ripped apart all the time in more subtle ways as well. Things everywhere are changing fast all the time due to numerous causes and conditions, including, and especially, our intentions or karma. Everything is in fact coming in and out of existence every moment, nothing lasts for even a moment

Yikes!

When changes are so small that we cannot detect them, we call that subtle impermanence; and when changes are big enough to become apparent, that is gross impermanence. We are all subject to both. According to this article, for example, climate change is happening faster than the models predicted:

“Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war. Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it.”

We may be extinct soon. Or we may not. I know a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change, and that is their freedom. But one way or another — climate change or no climate change — every single one of us is still going to die. The whole of samsara is a hoax.

The biggest hoax of all

“This world is definitely done, for sure,” a young friend said tonight in reply to me half-jokingly wondering if the human race would be extinct by the time he got to my age. Samsara is always done. We keep trying to make it work, but it can’t. It has never worked out for anyone. All our dreams are broken in the end. If pondering climate change gives us pause to ponder our impermanence and vulnerable position, and even develop a little healthy fear, that’s not a bad thing. It is better than pretending that everything is fine when in actual fact it is not. We all have to get our acts together.

“But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently.”

The point is that we have an enormous part to play in creating our entire reality. Things change not only in dependence upon physical or external causes, such as recycling, but more significantly in dependence upon the internal causes of our karma. The intentions or mental actions we perform every minute of every day are continuously sowing the seeds for future experiences. You can read in Joyful Path of Good Fortune how our karma is responsible for our tendencies, our environments, our experiences, and even which world we are born into in the first place.

We can see how in our nightly dreams there seems to be an external causality — I say something to them, they say something back to me, and so on. Trees grow and people are born. But the substantial causes of the entire dream, including ourselves in the dream, are the karmic potentialities in the mind – our mind is the projector, the movie reel our karma. And this is just as true when we are awake – ripening karma results in our entire dream-like world.

Every change we experience, both individually and collectively, takes place in dependence on our karma. Until we realize this, and are in the process of mastering our minds and our actions, we remain intensely vulnerable. Our karma changes just like that. At any point we can be thrown into an entirely different situation in this life or into an entirely different life altogether. This is happening to us all the time and has been happening since beginningless time.

The fragility and transience of our collective existence

Although when we pause to think about it we can gather that things are changing all the time, our normal default is to grasp at everything as static and fixed. This is unless something like a pandemic or an article about accelerated climate change shocks us out of our comfort zone (which by the way is not that comfortable because living in denial never is.)

We live our lives as if everything is going to go on forever, instead of changing literally moment by moment in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, including our karma. We cling onto this life as if it is our only life. We cling onto our friends as if they are our forever friends. We cling onto this body as if it is our real body. This is called permanent grasping, and we have a lot of it. Especially the sense that we are not going to die — that at some point this life will not be as over as last night’s dream, that this day could not possibly be our last! 

Larry King died last week, aged 87. Where is he now? Where did he go?! He gave 50,000 interviews in his career, which, at the time, probably felt like they were really happening. From Larry King’s point of view, where is all that now? Where has his very full life gone? If he was like anyone else, he was probably very invested in that life and believed it was the be-all and end-all of his existence: “I am Larry King and this is my life.” But now that sentient being is somewhere else entirely with zero recollection of this past life, unless he happens to have high spiritual realizations, who knows. But if he didn’t, he will have taken an uncontrolled death and now be in the intermediate state, waiting to take rebirth in a whole different life. He (or she) will have a different body, personality, job, and name. Everything that he spent 87 years building went away forever in just the time it took for him to die. All that has travelled with this sentient being is his mental continuum and the karma he created in this and previous lives, whether good or bad. 

Larry King felt like a solid person who was around for a long time, yet now he has disappeared. This is happening every day and eventually to every one. None of us can slow down the change. Within a few hundred months at most we will be dead – forced to leave this life and go to the next. The entire infrastructure of this life on which we have fully depended will dissolve away like a dream, or like virtual reality when the power is switched off. This could even happen this week, or tonight. We may feel right now like this world is the only world we have ever known, but in fact we have known countless worlds and had relationships with every single living being.

Fragile as kittens.

It is not just Larry King of course – this last year has been a massive shock for everyone:

“In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence.”

It does seem that we generally have a bit more awareness of our fragility and transience than usual. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing — it is in fact the dawning of spiritual awareness. Buddha said that of all animals it is the elephant who leaves the deepest footprint and, in a similar way, of all meditations it is meditation on death that leaves the deepest impression on our minds. Deep awareness (as opposed to a shallow intellectual understanding) of our impermanence and mortality changes us. It changes us for the better. As the author puts it:

“How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

Making meaningful choices

I looked at another article this author had written, and was even more inspired with how he dealt with this constant change and threat of dissolution while soldiering in Iraq:

“I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.” I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end.” 

Being aware of impermanence and especially the inevitable disappearance of this world can in fact give us the freedom to change things the way we want to and become the person we want to be, including an enlightened being. I do something similar when I look back at this life from the point of view of being in my next life, as I explain here. What are the benefits of imagining that I have already died from this life and am in my next life?:

It makes me feel free to take each day as it comes, as if each day is a bonus, yet I have nothing to prove or gain because I’m already over it. I find less need to buy into each dream-like appearance or invest in the day-to-day drama because I have already left this life – the only reason for doing anything now is to keep journeying toward enlightenment and help others. There is naturally less attachment, aversion, and worldly concerns. Instead of being an avatar in a virtual reality who believes they are a real person in a real world, wandering around bumping into people and things with no real clue as to what is going on or what is around the corner, I can instead feel that the entire world is not outside my mind and therefore I can do whatever I want with it. Maybe that is what Tsunetomo means by, “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body gains freedom in the Way.”

I’m not guaranteeing this works for everyone, but right now it’s working for me!

Tantric precedent

And most significantly, to me at least, is that there is a powerful precedent in Buddhism for living as if we have already died from this life. It is taught in Tantra. We do a practice called bringing the result into the path where we imagine dying from ordinary samsaric life and being born as a pure enlightened being. We imagine that all our gross and subtle minds dissolve away into emptiness, just as they do during the death process, and with them all the appearances of this life. This leaves us absorbed in the deepest level of awareness, the clear light mind, from which we go on to transform the intermediate state and rebirth.

We don’t need to come back to this life after the first bringing. There is nowhere in our self-generation sadhana that says, “Now you reappear as an ordinary being.” Also, as I explain in this article, once we have died from this life and arisen as a Buddha in a Pure Land, we have always been a Buddha. And providing we don’t forget that we engaged in the three bringings, we can live our life from that blissful place – in the world but not of it.

This is just to pique your curiosity. To learn the techniques for this profound practice of self-generation as a Buddha we need Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments and commentary – coming up in both this Summer and Fall Kadampa International Festivals

Okay, I am out of space but would love to hear your comments in the box below.

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What’s karma got to do with it?

An existential wake-up call

What is purification practice?

Vajrasattva.png
See p. 87-88 of Oral Instructions for a Vajrasattva purification practice — short & sweet, but powerful.

For the inner demons who do not come out into the open, or at least only in such shadowy ways that we cannot properly identify them, purification is immensely helpful. It is also very helpful when we are overwhelmed by appearances and need extra help in overcoming them.

Lay down that burden

A lot of people are laboring under a heavy burden of unresolved sadness, which may be why they don’t like being left alone with their own thoughts for even 12 minutes.

Stubborn recurrent sadness is still no match for purification practice – and we can feel that we are purifying not just that karmic appearance or karmic tendency but ALL similar versions since beginningless time. For example, if you have been suffering from attachment, you can use that as an example, and purify all your attachment since karma 4beginningless time. If you have been getting irritated with the sweet people around you despite your best intentions, you can purify your needless irritation since beginningless time. If you are feeling depressed because “things just aren’t what they used to be!”, you can even purify all that despondency since beginningless time.

Magnet for misfortune

Bad karma is a magnet for misfortune. And it ripens in different ways, for example irritation or anger we have had in the past can ripen as an experience (eg, someone does something we find really annoying) or in the tendencies we have to react in a certain way (eg, we get really annoyed.) Karma also ripens in the way our environment in general appears to us (eg, not quite right, uncomfortable), and even in the type of rebirth we have taken. You can read all about these four fascinating effects of karma in that chapter in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. They explain a lot.

karma 3So if we don’t like something that is happening to us or how we feel about it or indeed how we are reacting, this is a perfect reminder to us to purify this karma. Taking responsibility for our karma can turn our lives around, as Gen-la Khyenrab said the other day.

The power of promise

The power of promise is one of the four opponent powers of good purification practice, and it purifies our heavy tendencies to negativity that we lug around with us from familiarity with these in the past. So after a good purification practice, we promise not to do that thing, whatever it is, again. But, as a friend of mine was saying yesterday, sometimes it’s hard to know what exactly to promise. For example, declaring “I will never get angry again!” and a host of other big promises is unrealistic – we are likely to forget them sooner or later and blow it. So we then get discouraged that we are not keeping our promises, wondering if we’ll ever remember them for longer than ten minutes, and whether there is even any point in making any more promises when we are so useless at keeping them.

What I like to do to make effective promises, I told her, is tie in my purification practice to whatever is coming up in my life – as part of my mind-training, transforming difficulties. For example, in her case, she has been feeling despondent because something she really wanted to happen didn’t happen, and she also blames herself because that is her tendency. Soooo, what I would do in that situation, having recognized karmathat tendency in me, is purify that situation, and while I am at it to purify all my tendencies to feeling despondent and lacking self-worth since beginningless time. Then, once my mind felt all cleaned up from this tendency due to a good purification practice, I’d promise to not feel despondent again in similar circumstances. I am likely to remember that promise as it ties into what I am up against and I therefore have a vested interest in remembering it, in incorporating it into my mind-training. And it is powerful because I want it; it is not a vague open-ended promise, but one stemming from my everyday wishes to stay happy despite this thing or that thing not working out.

Phew! I can get rid of all of it!

35-Confession-BuddhasEven when we are a bit vaguer about all the negative actions we need to purify and the kinds of effects these are specifically wreaking on our day-to-day lives, it still works very well to do a general spring-clean of our mind. I really enjoy doing prostrations to the 35 Confession Buddhas first thing in the morning (and before you get impressed, it takes less than 10 minutes), purifying basically everything I could possibly ever have done. There are some great words in that Mahayana Sutra (written by Buddha Shakyamuni himself), such as “I confess without concealing or hiding anything.” The Buddhas know exactly what we need to purify even if we don’t; that’s an advantage of omniscience. So we praise them: “Who have become witnesses, who have become valid, who see with their wisdom.”

Dry rot creeps up on us without us noticing, until the fabric of our house is destroyed. We’ve forgotten the vast majority of our negative minds and actions, which is why we contemplate these when we purify – not to feel bad but because we want all the mold, visible or not, to be gone as it is affecting our minds and our lives. We purify our greatest delusion first, whatever keeps coming up; but at the same time we want to purify the whole lot, and we can. Our negativity is mere imputation and literally no match for omniscient wisdom.

Turn on the lights for goodness sake!

You know how horror movies always take place at night in the pitch black and you just wish someone would turn on all the lights? And you know the darkness of our ignorance? The Confession Buddhas and Buddha Vajrasattva throw open the shutters to broad cosmic daylight and the sunshine streams in everywhere.karma 1

The ultimate purification is mixing with the mind of bliss and emptiness so that we destroy our ordinary appearances and conceptions – that is what will tear the whole samsaric moldy structure down so we can build ourselves and others a celestial mansion of delight. So we request Vajrasattva:

Please permanently purify my non-virtues, downfalls, and ordinary appearances and conceptions.

And then let him enter through our crown, dissolving into our “inner darkness”, vanquishing it instantly and permanently.

Whether we are doing Vajrasattva purification or the 35 Confession Buddhas practice, we feel their purity flooding into us, we don’t hold back. Our negativity doesn’t exist from its own side – like everything else, it is mere aspect of mind. Purify the mind by mixing it with the extraordinary bliss and wisdom of enlightened beings and where’s that negativity going to go? Nowhere, is where — it disappears, because it is only appearance to mind.

karma 2Build some purification practice into our daily lives, therefore, and we can relax — as Gen-la Khyenrab also said the other day. And it doesn’t have to take long, especially if you are convinced it is working. How long does it take to switch the lights on?

I believe there is nothing that a well-aimed Vajrasattva mantra cannot purify.

We don’t talk about the subconscious in Buddhism but we do talk about subtle and very subtle levels of mind and, even if we can’t yet reach these directly ourselves, the Buddhas certainly can as, in fact, this is their abode, their being. It’s where they hang out. Kind of fun to hang out with them, don’t you think?!

Good purification is like having a massive spring clean of the mind, it feels amazing, uplifting. We feel that we can do anything now, for the slate is clear, today is a brand new day.

Over to you! Comments and queries on purification practice are welcome.

Everything we need is inside us

I seem to be here again at the Denver DMV. I thought I’d left this grimy place forever, but here I am back all over again. “Weren’t you here just the other day”? asked the man who failed me in my first test and whom I’d never felt the great urge to see again. But our karma was clearly not done. At any rate, he was a good deal more friendly this time (so I discover he is not in fact an inherently nerve-wracking smile-less robot). He was curious as to all the details of the theft of the spanking new Colorado driving license (amongst theft of iphoneother things) that was bringing me to his desk.

I have learned many lessons from this, as it happens, which all goes to show that difficulties can be our best spiritual teachers, as explained in the Lojong teachings. I thought I’d divide this into Sutra and Tantra lessons learned. It’s a long post, sorry in advance!

Sutra lessons learned
Karmic mirror

I must have stolen in the past, and this is not even the first theft I’ve had. There were some curious incidents growing up where thieves would break into my parents’ house but only steal MY stuff. They broke in in Guyana and stole only my treasured radio. They broke in in Singapore and took a stereo my parents had literally just given me. They broke in in London and took just my relatively worthless jewelry. And when I was a supposedly innocent five-year-old, they stole the shipment of my toys alone when we were moving from Sri Lanka back to England. Yikes. This may be a good sign that my parents are as honest as the day is long, but me?!? This karmic mirror reminds me to check whether I am still being dishonest in any areas of my life.

Never safe in samsara

Another lesson bought home is that while I am in samsara, I am not safe. A good friend shared his experience of being robbed (he managed to have not just one but two MacBook Airs stolen in 1 day):

I don’t know how you are experiencing this, but for me it was very unsettling. I felt extremely vulnerable, exposed, and violated, while simultaneously holding compassion for the perpetrator, and praying for his delusions to be removed.

Nothing is truly mine, certainly not lastingly mine. In samsara, the end of collection is dispersion, and our karma to have stuff comes to an end. This samsaric entropy is also the second law of thermodynamics, I discovered the other day:

There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.

My appearances of a shiny new iPhone 5S, driver’s license, and handy credit cards, all iphone casecontained in a beautiful new turquoise wallet, came to an abrupt dissolution on Sunday morning. All our karmic projections come to an end whether we want them to or not. And then other karmic projections come up, ones we don’t want, eg, having to sort out things we thought were already sorted rather than doing the other more fun things we had planned.

We only have so many appearances to mind left before we die.

Self-grasping

And due to self-grasping we feel the loss, we feel vulnerable and violated as my friend pointed out. I’ll not deny that I had some attachment to my phone (not least as my mother had given it to me at Xmas). So my first reaction was some numbness – things seemed to slow down as I searched the pockets of everything I was wearing and looked in every room, and then did the same again, just in case. That sinking feeling, “It’s gone, it’s really gone.”

As Chandrakirti puts it:

I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving ‘I’ with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well. ~ Ocean of Nectar, page 25

This feeling of discombobulation was useful for showing my permanent-grasping at myself and my infrastructure, instead of recognizing at all times that it is as insubstantial and fleeting as last night’s dream.

Compassion

Find-My-iPhone
Always been unfindable.

I could not help but feel compassion though because I got into my nice borrowed car and went to my nice house and was able to have some nice lunch and call everyone I needed to, while meantime the perpetrator rather pathetically managed to spend all of $10.12 just getting something to eat at a 7/11 at 1.20pm EST before I closed my cards down. I may not be very rich, but I do have more than $10.12 in my account, so he could at least have treated himself to a swanky restaurant. He also got a $4 drink at Starbucks at 6.30pm with my Starbucks card, and there was a little cash in there too. (This knowledge courtesy of Find my iPhone.) It is doubtful that he (or she) has anywhere great to live, if anywhere at all; and he is clearly hungry and/or desperate enough to sneak into an unknown basement and grab what he can and get out before he is caught. And I am not oblivious to the utter privilege of having these things to lose in the first place, so lucky even compared with most human beings, including him.

The police detective called me today, two days later, offered to meet me in the parking lot if my phone shows up online again, for a “civil standby”. But I have already given the phone away, though it is useless to the thief because it is locked – not even the FBI could break in, not even with a law suit against Apple.

(Last year, J, in Florida at the time, had her iPhone stolen and F and I, in New York, watched the dot zooming down I275, reporting coordinates to J and her sister, who were in hot pursuit. Forty miles later, the phone ended up in a theater parking lot, beeping away inside a black jalopy; and they waited until the thieves came out of their movie and were obliged by the police to open their car and hand over the phone. Not sure what the moral of that tale is, but it was surprisingly exciting at the time, like an OJ Simpson redux. (OK, orange juicenow I have to tell you my true OJ Simpson story for I can’t imagine getting another chance. I was at Miami airport with N. early one morning, who asked if I would go over and “get us a couple of OJs” while he watched the luggage. And guess who was standing next to me at the same counter. No, I’m not kidding. Mere name, eh. And he had a beautiful blonde with him, for whom I felt a little nervous.)

I gave the stuff away so that the thief would not get the complete action of stealing. He (or she) will still incur some negative karma if he had a deluded intention, but I thought I could offset it. It can’t be offset completely as not even Buddhas can do that – if they could, it’d be impossible to create negative karma with respect to Buddhas.

After the theft, I came back to the 2 cats I am babysitting who, for some reason, were in a very demanding mood, jumping all over me and making a lot of noise while I was trying to call the bank etc. It crossed my mind to get irritated with them, but then I remembered that although they may not give a monkeys about my human problems, in fact the cat problems they have are far, far, far worse.

So I feel luckier than the perpetrator for many reasons, but mainly because he may well not have access to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, whereas I do. As another good friend JS messaged me yesterday, after her camera equipment worth 10,000 quid was stolen from right inside her own house:

There is a huge back story to people’s crime. I want to ask him questions like when did he decide this was the route to take, does he still want to carry on, what did he want to be when he was a kid … does he think it’s possible to change his life …. That’s what I will be putting in my “victim’s” statement, but who is the real victim? I have Geshe-la in my life and the Dharma, I gave up any thoughts of my possessions being important … the victim to me seems like the burglar, he has no Dharma to help him.

My theft is not really different to a theft in a dream. Overall, this has made me more determined than ever to bring an end to my own and others’ samsaric hallucinations while deathI still have the chance. The compassion that wants to overcome this root cause of suffering is called compassion observing the unobservable, you can read about it in Ocean of Nectar. Samsara sucks, samsara sucks for everyone, but luckily samsara is not real.

Death is on its way

It can be useful to imagine losing one thing at a time to get our heads and hearts around the fact that the entire infrastructure of our life is going to collapse. This includes the people we adore, not just our shiny gadgets. As this inevitability could be just around the corner, this is, as JS put it:

Good practice for death, when I won’t be able to take anything with me. It’s always good to see where one is at with our possessions so I thank him for that.

The kindness of others

I feel almost fraudulent to be writing this, this theft was such a small fry incident in the grand scheme of things, yet people have been astonishingly generous.

A Bodhisattva immediately, and I mean immediately, the moment he saw my stuff had been stolen, said, “Oh, this iPhone I have is spare, you can have it!” Then he wiped his phone clean and gave it to me, along with his phone number, before I had a chance to protest. And he did this utterly convincingly, not even with the slightest hesitation like the one I had when I gave my actually totally spare iPhone 4 away just last week. He reminds me of that quote from Ocean of Nectar:

If from hearing and contemplating the word ‘Give’,
The Conquerors’ Son develops a bliss
The like of which is not aroused in the Able Ones through experiencing peace,
What can be said about giving everything? ~ Ocean of Nectar page 69

Giving does feel pretty good when we manage to pull it off without any regret – the day before this theft I had given a jacket (left here by a Buddhist monk) to a homeless man in Cheesman Park. Long story, but it felt great to see Michael pull it over his skinny shoulders on a freezing day.cheesman park.JPG

But the person who helped me is in a class of his own – he even went so far as to thank me for allowing him to help me. As if he meant it! Which I do believe he did. And I have to add that this same nameless (for his own sake) person said the other day just after I passed my test, “Oh, this car I have is spare, you can borrow it indefinitely!” (Naturally I am now waiting for his spare house and his spare cash.)

There are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in our midst whatever we want to call them – angels, saints, or just very kind people. Maybe they don’t appear so often to a very cynical mind, but they are still there, trying to help, waiting for the first moment they can dive in there. They may appear as the regular folks around us – nurses, neighbors, co-workers, homeless people, family members, strangers at bus stops – but as a Buddha’s job description is to emanate whatever people need, it’s cool not to succumb to ordinary appearances.

Tantric lessons learned
all you need is inside youEmptiness

When we realize that we are completely empty of inherent existence, our possessions are completely empty, and our relationship with our possessions is completely empty (the so-called “three spheres”), we can see that we already have everything we need inside us. Why? Because everything is merely projection of our own minds.

I’m going to get a bit philosophical and Tantric for a moment …

Nothing is inherently anything. If we understand this, we can say “This is not that”, about everything, and this truth frees us up. For example, “This is not Denver” frees me up to think “This is Heruka’s Pure Land”. “This is not an annoying co-worker” frees me up to think “This is an emanation of Buddha.” “These are not my possessions” frees me up to give my iPhone away happily.

Bounty of the Dharmakaya

I find myself comparing this “loss” to what I like to call “the bounty of the Dharmakaya“. Within the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya (or Truth Body), everything exists and everything is possible. The divinity is there as you are mixed with the Truth Body of every Buddha. You can manifest anything out of that.Vajrayogini 1

Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini, for example, are simply the bounty and infinite good qualities of the Dharmakaya appearing – their symbolism includes absolutely everything good about Buddhahood. So when we focus on them, our bliss and good qualities and so on increase – we are able to itemize, focus on, and identify with them, and gain a greater understanding and experience of the Dharmakaya. And vice versa.

This is why these meditative practices of pure appearance, introduced by enlightened beings, are so important; and why focusing on bliss and emptiness alone, though it is the essence and truth, make it harder or perhaps even impossible to manifest the creative elements of the Dharmakaya and gain full enlightenment for the sake of all other beings.

Bliss and emptiness can appear in any form whatsoever, of course, but we may as well embrace the blissful forms of the Buddhas and their Pure Lands. Why go to the trouble of inventing the appearance of infinite good qualities, imagining how they might show themselves, when generations of enlightened beings have already shown them to us?! Why wish for mundane or ordinary good things to happen when we can set our squirrelimaginations free to have the glorious body, enjoyments, environments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini?! Their reality, as evinced in everything about the way they appear, is wild and free and blissful and compassionate already. It is a blessed and powerful expression of the completely pure mind of bliss and emptiness.

Point here being that I can and already do have anything I want within the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini, so why bother about the loss of a few ordinary appearances to an ordinary mind? Why not just stay in the Pure Land full time instead?

A similar point could be made about making mandala offerings, the offerings of entire pure universes. I can offer countless iPhones appearing from the pure mind of bliss and emptiness on behalf of me and everyone else. And these offerings will result in the appearances of bliss-inducing iPhones sooner or later …

Okay, enough of that for now, I can see my Dad shaking his head. Your comments are most welcome in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mere karmic appearance of mind

There are two complementary ways to approach this subject of emptiness (carrying on from here). One is understanding that things don’t exist from their own side. Things lack inherent existence. Things lack thingyness. Mere absence of inherent existence is emptiness.

nature of realitySo, then, the complementary point to this is, if things don’t exist from their own side, if things don’t exist independent of our mind, yet they appear, how do they exist? What is that appearance?

Mere appearance

It is mere appearance to mind, it depends entirely upon perception. Geshe Kelsang uses “appearance” and “perception” interchangeably – he has gone so far as to say we perceive things or we appear things. There is nothing out there to perceive; our mind appears things. (Even itself.)

Emptiness and appearance are like two sides of the same coin. They are in fact the same truth.

Karmic appearance

So why do things appear to us in the way that they do, and so differently for everyone? Our appearances or perceptions come from our karma and from our conceptual imputations or discriminations.

I can take my current city, say, which is Denver. The appearance of Denver to my mind is arising as a result of my previous karmic intentions; I am experiencing the results of previous thoughts that sowed karmic potentials or seeds on my mental continuum which are now ripening. (Quite nice seeds ripening today in fact — I must have done something good to be enjoying 79 degree sunshine in March and an array of half-naked people throwing Frisbees in Cheesman Park…) Cheesman Park

Denver is also the nature of my mind – arising simultaneously with the awareness apprehending it from the same karmic seed, like a wave arising from the ocean of my root mind. It doesn’t exist outside my mind any more than a dream of Denver. (Dream minds and their objects also arise simultaneously from the same karmic seeds.)

In so far as me and my fellow Denverites have created similar karma in the past, we are experiencing a collective appearance or perception of Denver and can agree that it is Denver. It’s like a shared dream. However, it doesn’t exist outside our minds – we cannot point at any objective Denver outside of our experiences of it. Some of those experiences we have in common, eg, “Look, there are mountains!”, “Look, it is sunny (again!)” — but if we were all questioned on what exactly Denver was or how it appeared, we would all come up with our own answers. None of us have identical karma so none of us have identical Denver.

Imputation of mind

cat looking at Denver
What is she actually looking at?

Denver also depends on mere imputation by mind. Denver is Denver because we came to an agreement that it was. Why do I hold this city to be “beautiful Denver” as opposed to “ugly Denver”, or even “Denver” at all? There is nothing from its own side that I can point to and say, “This is Denver”. Without me labeling or conceptually imputing “Denver” on its parts, it would not appear to my mind, not even to my eye awareness. Both my foster cats live in Denver as far as I’m concerned, but not as far as they are concerned — they discriminate it entirely differently, they don’t even know its name, and they are having an entirely different experience as a result.

Forest example

For example, let’s say someone says, “Come and see my forest!” But you get there and there are only 10 trees – “You can’t call that a forest!” you might protest. So then our friend adds a tree, and then another, asking, “Got a forest?” Maybe we have some interested onlookers joining us. “Yes”, someone says after, say, 15 trees, “Now there is a forest!” Others agree, others are not so sure. More trees are added, and one by one, or group by group, people agree there is a forest, until everyone is agreed, “Yes, there is a forest!” (Except for the squirrels, who couldn’t care less about the concept of the forest, though might agree amongst themselves that they’ve discovered a useful food store.) squirrel

So where did that forest come from?! Which tree made the forest!? The very existence of the forest came about only through agreement, through convention; and that is why it is conventional reality, rather than ultimate truth. Where do agreements occur? In the mind. So the forest depends on the mind. Likewise, which house or road made Denver?

The point of all this is that we are constantly creating our own reality with our intentions and with our thoughts, so we may as well create the best one.

Conclusions

If we understand how everything is mere karmic appearance of mind, we know the importance of creating the best intentions or karma possible to bring about the lives we want.

If we understand that everything is the nature of the mind, we know the importance of purifying and transforming the mind.

If we understand that everything is mere imputation, we can also understand that in any given moment we can choose how we discriminate or impute our world to the most beneficial effect — denver capitol building lit up whether we discriminate others as annoying or as our kind mothers, for example, or whether Denver is an ordinary city or the Pure Land of a Buddha. Even though things appear and exist due to karma, we can change our imputation of them. Nothing is fixed.

(This is a profound subject, I am only touching on it in passing here. More coming soon. But hopefully, if your curiosity is piqued, you’ll check out that chapter on emptiness in Modern Buddhism that I was telling you about.)

How are you feeling? Musings on karma continued…

(You may want to read this article first to get up to scratch. I’ve divided the article up into two parts to make it easier to read in a coffee break.)

Feelings

Going back to the discussion in the last article, as there are three types of object, there are three types of feeling that experience these objects – pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings.

“It is impossible to cognize an object without experiencing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” ~ Understanding the Mind

photo 3Feeling that things are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is part and parcel of living beings’ subjective experience, whether we are a baby, an old person, an animal… Right now my cat is pursuing pleasant feelings by trying to get real comfy on the sofa next to me, with a choice view of the birds outside — birds who luckily are safe right now from experiencing unpleasant feelings to do with his murderous paws, the “same” paws that give me the warm fuzzies.

Again, if you check your own feelings or experiences, have you ever had a feeling that is not pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad) or neutral? Even during your dreams?!

So why, if my friend and I are both given a bowl of Haagen Daaz’s vanilla ice cream, does he experience it to be yummy whereas I would have preferred chips? It is mainly due to our karma. Understanding the Mind says:

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma.

Karma gives rise to all our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Feelings and experiences are the same. In other words, all our feelings or experiences come from karma, which are the intentions or mental actions we created in the past. Pleasant feelings come from positive actions, unpleasant feelings from negative actions, and neutral feelings from neutral actions. Pleasantness and unpleasantness do not exist from the side of the object, but depend entirely on our karma. Therefore, as it says in Understanding the Mind:

Two people might eat the same food and one find it delicious while the other thinks it is revolting. 

Milarepa

Have you heard of Milarepa? He was one of the most beloved Tibetan saints or yogis because he gained incredible, deep realizations, in fact actual enlightenment, and then sang beautiful songs of realization that became known and sung throughout Tibet. There were no CD players back then, let alone MP3s or Spotify, so these songs passed down orally through the ages and he became very famous. He lived many years ago (1452-1507).

Milarepa's caveMilarepa spent many years in retreat as an ascetic living in caves and isolated places. Wherever he went, it seemed there would be an abundance of nettles. (These are a green plant with stingy bits on their leaves, and there are, arguably, way too many of them in the English countryside.) One famous fact about Milarepa is that he ate these nettles. He was miles away from anywhere and so he’d have nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle sandwiches… (maybe not, no bread). For him, nettles utterly nourished his body and sustained his spiritual practice. He ate so many nettles that he turned green. But he was perfectly healthy.

So Geshe Kelsang once asked how anyone living on nettles could be healthy? It would appear to be impossible. Frankly, even though, as mentioned, there are plenty of nettles in England, if I had to live on them I would not be healthy. I would be complaining vociferously; this would not be a 5-star hotel in my opinion. Milarepa was living in a 5-star hotel because everything he needed was in those nettles. Geshe Kelsang explained that this was the ripened karma of his practice of generosity, which meant that he had everything he needed to sustain his life and spiritual practice.

We can share a similar set of external conditions and yet have radically different experiences. Our karma does not ripen, therefore, as external conditions, so much as our experiences of those conditions. Whether those experiences are good or bad depends on whether our karma is good or bad. For Milarepa, eating nettles was good karma ripening – he was nourished by them and able to gain profound spiritual attainments, and even being green proved to be no problem. For me, having to eat nettles would be horrible karma ripening as I haven’t created that same karma of generosity. This is one example Geshe Kelsang uses to show how the quality of our experience doesn’t depend on the object but on our previous karma.

We can do something, everything, about causes, but once an effect is ripening it is too late to change it. Therefore, it is futile to run after pleasant feelings with attachment or to try to avoid unpleasant feelings through aversion. We need either to enjoy the pleasant feeling without attachment, or be patient with the unpleasant feeling. If we want to create the life we want, we have to pay more attention to improving the numerous intentions or karmic causes we are creating on a daily basis than to our ripened feelings.

(Funnily enough, just after writing that last paragraph I went to a nearby greengrocer to buy some fruit. On the way back I overheard a young man advise his girlfriend: “You should do the right thing, even if it seems a bit inconvenient and doesn’t immediately deliver you results.” Apropos, I thought.)

Back to the case in point, the blue bike …. 

karma paintingWas it F’s karma, as technically the bike had been given to him by N, or was it N’s karma? And if so, what kind of karma – good, bad, or neutral? My guess is that N won’t give a hoot, unless he gives into nostalgia for the fun in the sun he used to have with that bike when he lived here (and that in turn would depend on him finding out about his old bike, which may never happen). Some might argue that it was no longer even his bike, so all his karma related to that bike has gone. I don’t know if that is true or not. For example, if I give my cat away and then something happens to the cat, will I or will I not be experiencing the ripening of karma?

Also, F probably won’t give a hoot because (1) he never gives much of a hoot about anything; and (2) it is not directly affecting him as he has moved to New York. But any neutral feelings he may have are still the result of neutral karma ripening.

Was it my other friend’s karma, then, the person who always used the bike? He professed to feeling a “little disappointed” and, although he quickly got over it, one could argue that the unpleasant feeling was a result of some negative karma ripening, even if he didn’t own the bike. Or else, as he managed quickly to overcome his disappointment and be very positive again, was it good karma ripening overall?!

Or was it my karma, as the custodian and lender of the bikes? And if so, given my relative calm on discovering its theft, was it neutral, good, or bad karma ripening!? And what exactly did I or the others all do for this to happen? And did we do it at the same or at different times?!

As for the person who stole the bike, well, I can’t judge his karma because I have no idea of his intention, and karma depends entirely on intention. He might have needed the bike to go visit his mother on her deathbed, for all I know. We figured he probably needed it a lot more than we did, so we mentally gave it to him, which protected him from incurring the full karma of stealing and created good karma for more bikes to come our way later. In fact, the very next day we sold our old car for a couple hundred more dollars than we were expecting, and were able to go ahead and buy another bike!

See, karma is a curious thing! It is far from being fatalistic or simplistic but is a constantly changing, complex play of causes and effects. The immensely mind-boggling interdependence of all conventional appearances hinges on karma, individual and collective. Karma is the other side of the coin from ultimate truth, the emptiness (lack of inherent existence) of all phenomena.

Keep it simple

karma 5Still, however much fun we can have discussing whose karma and what kind of karma it all is, when it comes to actually observing the law of karma on a daily basis it helps to keep it simple. When I want to put good into the world, that’s what I’ll get out, one way or another. Same for my bad and neutral intentions. We can understand the general principles of karma (such as explained in Joyful Path) and leave most of the detailed, subtle stuff for once we’ve fully realized the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth. At that point we’ll be omniscient and can see exactly which actions lead to which effects while simultaneously seeing their emptiness.

I learned a couple more interesting things from this bike situation, which I might as well share now.

No bike 

When we first came off the beach, we both saw it, a rather significant absence, a space where the bike had been. “No bike!” In the meditation on emptiness, we are also seeking a significant absence — lack of inherent existence. That absence is filled with rather cosmic meaning. It means that nothing exists from its own side, so nothing is fixed, and everything depends entirely on the mind. As the great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.

Perspective = reality

While I was using the restroom before our long walk home, my friend happened upon a police aide and mentioned the theft of the bike. He was a jovial elderly Mid-Westerner with a moustache, who drove his blue and white cart up and down the beach all day, just waiting to help people like us, so he took it more seriously than we expected and called it in. Another police aide, his boss, a young friendly Latino turned up, and we chatted about all sorts of things while we waited the hour for the actual police officer to show.

Why didn’t they show sooner? Because they had things like murder and home break-ins to deal with – it seems fair enough. In fact, just as I was wondering whether I should perhaps be a bit more upset about the theft of this fine $700 bike, a crackling message came over the first police aide’s radio: “Woman distressed, male intruder in her house, over.” Yikes. Then this police aide told us that just the previous day his son, a police officer, had been called to a homicide – the victim had been shot in the back of the head for the $400 drug money he had just collected from the shooter.

The theft of our bike and the prospect of the long walk back home were becoming less and less significant the longer we hung out with our friends in blue, and indeed we were beginning to feel really rather lucky! If perspective can change in the light of other thoughts and/or events, it shows there is no “real” situation out there to begin with.

The kindness of strangers

Yet despite our trifling complaint, the police were still attentive and courteous to us, as if they had nothing better to do, and this in turn reminded me of the kindness of strangers and increased my love. So, all in all, a good day’s meditation work …

Postscript: I wrote this article months ago, and, apart from the Buddhism in it, pretty much all my personal circumstances have changed since then, showing the unpredictable nature of karma and how you never know what karma is going to ripen next.

Over to you: Have you been in any situations recently that particularly reminded you of karma and/or emptiness?

Karma and us

Some of you may remember the inappropriate attention I paid to the supposed theft of two bikes two summers ago… bikes that turned out not to be stolen at all.

clear sky cafeWell, some months ago, the big blue bike was stolen “for real”! Someone really wanted that bike. We’d locked them to a palm tree on a relatively busy pathway near the Clear Sky Café, and whoever it was must have pretended to be busily opening the lock whilst actually sawing through it. We figured he must have needed it for himself, rather than for sale, as he left the other bike standing there.

It is good I’d had the rehearsal earlier! And it would have been way too much of an indictment on my progress as a meditator if I had gone through all those mental acrobatics again… So this time, when we returned from two hours on the beach to the sight of no bike, I was prepared, and stayed totally calm. Imagine that!

(The cynical amongst you might say that I stayed calm because it wasn’t actually the bike that I ride that was stolen – my red bike was still next to the palm tree … Or you might ask who doesn’t feel relaxed after 2 hours on the beach?! You’d have a point. But I still claim a small victory.) stolen bike

A few conclusions from this latest bike saga:

Everything has a cause

As we started to walk with the remaining bike on the long journey back home by foot, we wondered whose karma it was and what kind of karma it was.

Everything has a cause. Nothing arises from nothing – a phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. Physical things must arise from physical causes. The cause of an oak tree is an acorn seed, the cause of a flood is rain, and the cause of our human body is the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm.

Buddha was a scientist of the mind who penetrated the actual causes of our mental experiences. He observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience or feeling of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by delusion, such as anger, it is the actual substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences. Buddha talked in detail about actions that cause negative effects and those that cause positive effects. He helpfully listed ten negative actions to avoid: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle chatter, ill will, covetousness and wrong view. By abstaining from these, we avoid having to experience their painful results. By practicing positive actions, such as generosity, kindness, patience, cherishing, love, compassion and wisdom, we create the causes for happiness. In this way, we can gain control over the experiences of our life and make it successful.

Bill Meyer put it this way:

Every thought is a seed.  If you plant crab apples, don’t count on harvesting Golden Delicious.

Purification and accepting what is

VajrasattvaIt is worth remembering the teachings on karma often, and especially when we are really suffering deeply– that way we can assume some responsibility and feel less like a hopeless, hard-done-by victim. We can start getting the control back over our lives by purifying all the crud causing this kind of suffering since beginningless time so we don’t have to go through it ever again. Vajrasattva purification is immensely helpful for this, makes you feel lighter again inside, optimistic for the future. The complete blissful purity of all enlightened beings appearing as Buddha Vajrasattva obliterates the heavy karmic load we are bearing, which has been weighing us down year after year and life after life without our even realizing it. If we let our suffering remind us to purify what is actually causing it, this suffering itself leads us straightaway to far less suffering now and in the future! Therefore, suffering is not inherently bad and we can accept it.

We can also accept patiently if we understand this is all karmic appearance to mind — deceptive appearances with no existence from their own side. Our unbearable situation is the reflection of our own delusions and the karma they spawn, no one else’s fault, which means, very fortunately, that to be happy again we don’t actually have to wait helplessly in the (often futile) hope that others might improve. A good friend once said:

“Leave the object alone. Change the mind.”

Real deep, inner refuge and peace comes from doing this, rather than from struggling with the external situation that seems so inherently painful but in fact is not.

Whatever we think and feel depends on our karma

In this very useful manual explaining everything you need to know about your mind and how it works, it says:  

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma. ~ How to Understand the Mind

Feeling is defined as a mental factor (or state of mind) that functions to experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral objects. Feeling accompanies every fleeting moment of mind – there is never a time when we are not feeling or experiencing something.

Have you ever come across an object that doesn’t feel pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad), or neutral? I can’t think of any; if you can, please let me know in the comments.

In truth, objects are not good, bad, or neutral from their own side – what they are depends on our minds apprehending them, and specifically on the mental factors of feeling and discrimination. Discrimination distinguishes one object from another and, when associated with conceptual minds, functions to impute, label, or name objects. As Geshe Kelsang says:

The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them.

How we discriminate and experience things depends entirely on our states of mind and our karma. This is rather a significant observation by Buddha.

What are your thoughts on ice cream?

Ice cream makes you happy
Nice try, Wall’s!

Do you like ice cream? And don’t you think it’s funny how if we like something we assume it is nice from its own side? We project or label niceness onto the object and then think that niceness inheres in it. We do this all the time. “Ice cream is great!” you may say, really believing that. However, if ice cream was really great, everyone would think so, yet I for one am more likely to say “Ice cream is okay, sometimes,” which is a fair enough comment from my point of view, and some Eastern cultures just as validly (from their point of view) say “Ice cream is disgusting, it is like eating snot.”

If the people who think ice cream is inherently great just because they like it insist that everyone else thinks that too, then we are in for trouble. And we do this kind of thing all the time, getting into conflict by assuming that the world is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and therefore people must have a screw loose not to feel good about the things and the ideas we like, such as our politics, our religion, our country, our friends, and so on.

The same goes of course for thinking things are bad just because we personally discriminate them as such.

Buddha’s observation that everything depends on how we are discriminating and feeling it, both of which are states of mind, might seem obvious once it is pointed out, but we would behave quite differently if we were to live by it. We over-trust our highly subjective and fleeting discriminatory labels and feelings, believing that they are telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the way things actually are. Then we generalize the way we think and feel out to everyone else, often with disastrous consequences.

More on the bikes in part 2 later … meantime, do you believe in karma? Have you got any karma stories you’d like to share?

 

What’s karma got to do with it?

This morning I felt mildly irritated at an “official” person because they have a different idea about something than I do, and naturally that means their idea is daft, but they are the ones in charge. Sound familiar? (I know it’s not just me).

Angry Birds

Blame the right thing!

People play Angry Birds, so they tell me, because of the fun they have in beating each level. When two fantastically bright Millenials admitted to playing Angry Birds for two whole hours in one sitting — catapulting the poor birds at the long-suffering pigs or monkeys with a swipe of their finger — this was the only reason they could give me, even though I tried for at least half an hour to squeeze more psychology out of them. I have unhelpful habits of my own, but I confess I don’t really get the attraction (should I say mass addiction) of video games like Angry Birds. It was so clearly pre-programmed by nerds in an office who are having a laugh at your behalf and rubbing their hands in glee at the money 200 million people have purportedly parted with to “beat” a machine.

But this morning I actually got a glimpse of what my friends were saying. I’m not a fan of negative minds or so-called delusions, but I do find small ones quite helpful, as you can immediately look at your mind and see what you’re doing, where you’re focusing, and how it feels. And I have grown to enjoy the challenge of overcoming my negative minds with their opponents, beating them at each level, starting from the big and working your way up/down to the most subtle.

A couple of people recently asked me to do an article on karma. It is a vast subject and covered beautifully in my teacher’s books, but I’ll say how I smashed this morning’s particular monkey/pig by remembering the teachings on karma.

When irritation arose, I blamed it on its source… that b****y annoying person. I externalized it and as a result I felt powerless. If we hold the source of our aversion to be something out there, independent of the mind, there is precious little we can do other than get more defensive and angry as we try to push that seemingly harmful object away from us. (Alternatively, I could work for years to get into a position of power and then fire them, but that doesn’t seem quite practical either.)

It is always more enjoyable and peaceful to be centered in the heart-mind, feeling connected to everyone and everything, than to be adrift and cut off, relating to an apparently inherently existent world outside our mind. But delusions force us to live dualistically, sensing an unsettling gulf between us and the world about us – e.g. I am here and you, annoying person, are over there. This gulf is a figment of our ignorance and yawns wider when our delusions are strong.

Where does the world come from?

Luckily, the actual source of the irritation is nothing outside our mind. We can see from Buddha’s teachings that the world we experience depends on the world we are paying attention to or focusing on. There is no world other than the world we experience. No need to take Buddha’s word for it — try to inhabit, or even point to, a world outside of your experience of it!

The world we create for ourselves also depends entirely on our mind. If the only world we inhabit is the world we experience, and experience is mind, the causes of our world must also lie within our mind.

Specifically the world we live in depends on our intentions, or mental actions. “Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs — or is it the other way round?! Either way, everything must arise from something in the same continuum as itself, so an apple tree cannot arise from an unrelated peach seed, for example, as Master Oogway pointed out to Master Shifu, nor mental experience arise from a physical cause.

Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the soil of our mind. Mental intentions are those seeds, experience is their effect. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

Mladic would never have escaped

We cannot escape our negative karma unless we purify it. I read a story in the press today about the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic who has now finally been delivered to the Hague. Even without being tried for the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes against humanity, he will reap their ghastly results sooner or later in this or future lives. It seems to me that his bad karma already began to ripen when his beloved daughter Ana allegedly shot herself with his favorite gun because she was so distressed by his atrocities. He was granted permission to visit her grave before he was exiled. He has had strokes, heart attacks and cancer, but that loss must hurt him more than anything else.

How to gain more conviction in karma

There is no world independent of our mind. The world we experience depends on our current states of mind — if our mind is peaceful, the world seems like a pleasant place; if dark, we live in a dark world. As mentioned, the world we experience also depends on our previous thoughts and actions.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang advises that to gain more conviction in how we create our world with our intentions or karma, it is most helpful to consider how things do not exist from their own side but are projections of our mind. They are rather like a movie. We know a movie on a cinema screen is not out there coming at me, as it appears to be, but is projected by a projector. Similarly, the world appears to be out there coming at me, but it is in fact projected by my mind.

If my world is merely a projection of my mind, with no existence “out there” from its own side, then why does it appear in one way and not another? How do we become involved in one movie and not another?

How the world appears depends on which of my karmic potentials are ripening; these are rather like the movie reel being run through the projector. For this reason, everything is said to be mere karmic appearance of mind.

When we dream, where do all those appearances come from? They come from karmic seeds planted in our mind; where else could they come from? We experience a dream world that is projected by our own karma. Our waking world is also projected by our karma.

Looking in the mirror

So, going back to this morning… I thought about these things and how the only reason I was irritated was because I had irritated someone else in the past. If you look in a mirror and don’t like what you see, what do you do? Do you get out a paper towel and some Windex and try and rub that dirt away? Or do you realize it is just a reflection and use the mirror to clean your face instead? In the same way, if I don’t like what is appearing to my mind do I tire myself out by fixing the person out there with frustrating results? Or do I purify the causes for unpleasant appearances and make sure not to create more karmic causes for the things I don’t like?

If you don’t like a movie, change the movie reel.

Believing in karma is said to be like looking in a mirror that shows us what to abandon and what to practice. If you’re a Buddhist, you may think you believe in karma, yet the proof is in the pudding – if we do believe it we will want to engage in positive actions and abandon negative ones. We also won’t keep blaming the wrong things for our suffering or chasing the wrong things for our happiness — fiddling with the projected rather than the projector. As Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism (now available as a free eBook!).

“We should judge whether or not we believe that the main cause of suffering is our non-virtuous actions and the main cause of happiness is our virtuous actions. If we do not believe this, we will never apply effort to accumulating virtuous actions, or merit, and we will never purify our non-virtuous actions, and because of this we will experience suffering and difficulties continually, in life after life without end.”

The driver’s seat

Observing the natural law of karma puts us in the driver’s seat of our own destiny. If we don’t know about karma, we can’t do much about our future. Even if we try day in and day out to shape our world, we will rarely receive the results we wish for, because we are putting all our energy into creating external causes whilst ignoring the internal and actual causes of our experiences.

Buddha said that until we have gained a realization of ultimate truth, emptiness, observing karma is the most important thing for us to do in the pursuit of happiness and freedom. Why? Because karma entirely shapes what happens to us and how we experience life. If we want to be a conscious architect of our reality, choosing our own experiences, we need to fall in with this natural law. If we do not, we remain stuck and powerless; and, however hard we try to change our future, it never goes the way we want it to. With the wisdom understanding karma, we seize control and change our karma as we like. Without it, we are to all intents and purposes pre-determined by our karma. Buddhists don’t believe in fate, but if we blindly ignore the law of internal cause and effect, it looks like we are dooming ourselves to a future beyond our control!

I look forward to your comments, and please share this article if it’s helpful.