Demystifying ideas around karma, questions on whether karma from previous lives impact this life, karma and the death of children, and is there such a thing as burning off bad karma.
Speaker 1 (00:34):
Unfettered mind: the nuts and bolts of karma.
OK. What I tried to do in the section on karma was to demystify some of the ideas around karma. And if I were to…the organization of the chapter, isn’t ideal because it’s really still synthesizing. And I had a … this was probably the most difficult chapter of the book to write for me. And I started into it several times. And at one point I realized I was trying to write a theory of everything and then I knew I was in trouble . And Ken Wilber can write a theory of everything, but I was like, okay, if you’re trying to write a theory of everything, then you really are in trouble. So if I were to rewrite it I’d make the central theme the ninth meditation. So that’s where we’re going to start. The ninth meditation is entitled habituation or enslavement. What is discussed here are the four results which come from an action. Now this is utterly traditional material. There are four conditions which have to be met for an action to initiate a process of evolution. And there are four results that come from out of that process. The four conditions that have to be met are:
:You have to intend the action. This is why there’s a distinction in the legal system, between a manslaughter and premeditated murder. You have to do the action or you have to cause the action to be done. There has to be an actual object on which the action is acted. An object in your experience, and you have to experience the completion of the action. So let’s take these one by one. If I say something that isn’t true and I didn’t know it isn’t true there isn’t the karma of lying. I have to intend to deceive. I can think about deceiving somebody all that I want but if I don’t actually do it that doesn’t go into my speech patterns. It may have gone into my thinking patterns, but that’s another thing. It doesn’t go into my speech patterns. So there’s a … it hasn’t been translated into action. So it hasn’t acted out in my world. If I’m in a dream and I lie with the intention of deceiving someone, no karma, there’s no object. There has to be someone that we actually do this with. And then the fourth one is a kind of thing that monks who have nothing to do but debate just love.
And the idea is the one that was explained to me of a move to killing, you know. If I shoot you and you shoot me and I die before you die, I don’t experience the result of having killed you. Some really fine tuning here, but it’s actually important because you actually experience the result of your action. But now when those four things, four conditions are met, something in your world changes. Let’s take lying for instance. You intended to deceive a person. You told them something that wasn’t true, knowing it wasn’t true. It was a person in front of you. So it was an actual object in your experience and you experience, “ah. They believe me. Good.” When those four conditions are met, something happens in you. And one of the exercises is that …I want you actually to try this: What it’s like, what happens in you when you actually do something and you can do something good and you can do something bad. You do both with as much attention as you can bring to bear. So you actually feel what happens in you. This is very important. Because once those things, those conditions have been met,
that action now starts a process or becomes the seed of a process. And yesterday I talked about the acorn and the oak tree. Now it’s not that lying or stealing or any of these things causes bad things to happen. When I lie, (and I’m just using lying as the example here) the way that I see the world, the way that I experience the world begins to shift. Now, why do we lie?
It’s usually out of either because we want to get something or we want to avoid something, right? So protection on the one hand, fear, as you said, but also we can lie because we want to get something. So it’s either desire or attraction or aversion. Most of the time –some variations –we want to get something.
audience speaker (09:11):
But that’s the only thing, but that’s, that’s a desire for power. And if you ‘re doing it for that, it’s already quite nicely instilled in you. You’re well along on the evolutionary processor. So the first result is the solidification of the projection, of the emotional, reactive emotion, that motivated the lying. That’s a lot of big words. What does this mean? Well, when you act out of desire, you’re in the human realm. When you act out of anger, you’re in the hell realm, greed preta realm and so forth.
So whenever you act, and the example that we’re using here, lying, out of greed, for instance, which happens all the time, you’re solidifying that way of looking at things in your own experience. Now, how do you look at things in terms of greed? There isn’t enough to go around. So I’m justified in doing anything I can to get whatever I need. That is the outlook of a hungry ghost. And every time you act, you’re reinforcing that way of looking at the world. That’s the evolution. So that’s what I mean about the solidification of the projection. That’s the realm of the reactive emotion that motivated the deception. Yes.
Speaker 3 (11:19):
Every time you lie, every time you think of a lie or think of doing it, or actually for a full process …
What I’m talking about is actual lying. So there’s those four conditions to be met.
Now, there’s also thinking things and holding onto thoughts .That sets in that sets another evolutionary process. It’s not as peful because it hasn’t been translated into full action, but the fact that you’ve held those thoughts does start something going. But when you act, act in the world, it makes everything that much more solid. Why? Because when we think of these things, we’re creating habits in ourselves, which may well lead to those actions in the future. But when you act, you begin to affect … you affect the actual world you do experience. And that leads us into the second and third results.
Speaker 4 (12:26):
A lot of this is about intent. Intent is to rely on you. However if one’s perspective is that you are undermining everything that I reify, and therefore my relying to you, that’s clearly a belief.
Run that by me again,
Speaker 4 (12:53):
Ok. I was thinking about the Nazis, for example. The people will follow something, if they have a perspective and a belief and therefore do things [inaudible] that they would, not normally do because they have a belief . In their intention. They’re not saying well I’m going out and killing people, or I’m going out and lying to people, they’re saying, I need to do this. I’m liberating that.
Yes. Does it change anything? No. That may be too strong a statement. They’re still acting, they’re still going to experience the results of that. It may be attenuated somewhat because there’s fundamental delusion but the acts still stand and the …this is the problem of subscription to beliefs is that they can be used to justify all sorts of well, any action. I mean, one of my main arguments against the interpretation of karma as belief is that it has been used for centuries to justify the caste system.
Speaker 1 (14:22):
This is from Linda, in Laguna beach, California: The role of merit and karma, especially within the context of rebirth troubles me and I struggle to reconcile various Tibetan Buddhist teachings about them. For example, one traditional teacher writes that innocent children are killed in war due to karma from a past lifetime. Another traditional teacher writes that merit in this lifetime is due to our past actions and the kindness we’ve received from others. So that’s why we win a lottery ticket. And then you write that a belief in rebirth isn’t necessary to practice Buddhism. That’s what’s important to know is that the essence of karma is that actions determine experience, whether they arise from reactivity or attention. I appreciate your perspective on karma, especially your willingness to let go of a mandatory belief in rebirth. This is comforting to me personally, but if one doesn’t believe in rebirth, then how can the death of a child in war be explained in any other way than via the notion that sometimes bad things just happen and might good things sometimes just happen, like winning the lottery.
First, let me say that I encourage people to let go of any form of belief because beliefs are set ideas about the world, about the universe which give rise to the effort to interpret experience in such a way that it confirms the belief itself. So it becomes a self-sustaining cycle of conditioning. There are many, many people who disagree with me, I think it’s important to note, who regard past lives and future lives as a necessary attitude or belief or whatever you want to call it to practice Buddhism. That’s just, this is just my own personal opinion. And I don’t want you to think that I’m speaking for Buddhism as a whole there. The problem is belief. Like you, I find that the explanation of why innocent children die, or innocent people have bad things happen to them as due to past lives inhumanly cruel. You ask, is it possible that bad things just happen and good things just happen?
Yeah, I think that’s quite possible. Not everything has to be explained because the way that you’re talking about karma here, it’s primarily an explanation. And we seek explanations when we do not want to confront the mystery. We seek explanations when we’re trying to control our experience, or at least have the illusion of control of our experience so that if I do this, then this will happen. And we want to weigh an understanding of life that gives us that sense that explanations really remove us from the mystery or, or keep the mystery at bay. And for me, the practice of Buddhism is all about relating to the mystery. Why does this happen and why does that not happen? I don’t know. That it happened. The question now is how do I relate to it? How do I relate to it? Can I relate? Do I have to resort to reactive emotions and separate from the experience? Or can I be truly present in it and respond as the situation calls for? That, to me, is the question
Speaker 6 (18:20):
This question was submitted by Dana in Los Angeles: What’s your perspective on the notion of karma? People talk about burning off bad karma. Is there such a thing?
Karma is an Eastern paradigm, which in its broadest form refers to how things evolve from some form, some genesis ,into results. In the spiritual context, it’s used to refer to the way that actions that we do become the genesis or a genesis for future experiences. So for instance, if we steal then that action evolves into experiencing people not trusting us and experiencing a world in which we can’t get what we need. So it reinforces, it creates an environment which actually reinforces the action of stealing and we spiral down deeper and deeper into confusion.
When people talk about burning off bad karma I think probably what they’re referring to is experiencing the results of processes that were set in motion a long time ago, in the same way that when you…the fruit of an apple tree is the end result of the growth from the apple seed, the experience of pain and suffering is the end result of a karmic process of negative karma or bad karma. So when you experience that pain, it signifies that that process has now reached its fruition. If you just experience it and don’t react to it, then you don’t set anything more further in motion. If on the other hand, you react to it, then you’re planting new seeds and you have to go through the whole thing again,
Speaker 3 (21:01):
This question is from David in Santa Barbara, California: Your book “Wake up to Your Life” has the best explanation of karma that I’ve heard. I quote, “The essence of karma is that actions determine experience. Actions based on reactive patterns reinforce patterns, and lead to suffering. Actions based on attention and presence dismantle patterns, and lead to opening. When we understand how behavior affects experience, we understand karma.” My question is, are reactive patterns that reinforce patterns, the result of previous karma, i.e. previous lives or my current life. I can understand how my current behavior affects experience thereby resulting in current karma. But I do not understand patterns from some other life being a factor in my current life. Perhaps this is yet another mystery of being. As the Dharma suggests many experiences cannot be explained.
Thanks for your question, David. When I wrote this chapter, I was trying to present a way of appreciating the teaching on karma without requiring a belief in past and future lives. I think the best way for us to look at karma is as a process of evolution and in the course of our lives, experiences arise, and some of them we can absorb and assimilate and some of them we can’t and we become defensive around those and our personality, our way of viewing things, our way of acting in situations evolves through a very complex interaction of all of the tendencies and propensities set up by different experiences we’ve had. People often appeal to karma to explain the unexplainable. Why are some people rich, some people poor, some people beautiful, some people ugly, some people that’s wonderful, musical talent. Other people tone deaf. For all of these variations. And humans have always looked to explain things, to make up a story, which allows them to be at peace, but their experience for centuries, some teachings such as karma was used to explain why these differences arose by referring to what happened in previous lives.
But from our point of view, that’s a belief system. It’s a way of looking at our experience and coming up with an explanation. In modern times, our principle method of explaining everything is through science, which is better in some ways and not so good in others, but all of this is simply a way of understanding our experience. From a practice point of view we aren’t so concerned with understanding our experience, where it comes from, going back to first causes and all of that kind of thing. In spiritual practice what we’re concerned with is how to be present in our lives and the fact how to be at peace in our lives and how to be free from the compulsions and limitations of all of that conditioning. For that, understanding that it is conditioning and how it arose is only effective up to a point.
What really brings us freedom is developing a level of attention so that when things arise, we actually know what they are. When a thought arises we know it as a thought, when a sensation arises, we know it as a sensation in the body, when an emotion arises, we know it as an emotion. Most of the time, things move so quickly, so fast and so powerfully that when somebody says something insulting to us, the body sensation of tightening up, the emotional sensation of anger and the thought sensation of how could he say that to me, just run so quickly that we get angry right back. We take all of those things to be facts, to be actual things. And we act on them and in acting on them that way we lay down in ourselves the propensity to react that way in the future. That’s the evolutionary process that I think karma refers to. If on the other hand, through our practice, we come to know thought as thought, an emotion as emotion, sensation as sensation, when somebody insults us, we might say, oh, this is an interesting experience. We can feel it all happening. And we aren’t as likely just to react to it. And our response, if we choose to respond to the insult will come from, won’t be dictated by our emotional reactions, but will come from a place of openness, awareness, compassion, and so forth, and it will be more appropriate and less likely to produce suffering for ourselves or for others