Then and Now 14
In-depth series of teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and how practitioners in today’s world might approach traditional texts written hundreds of years ago.





Karma, pt. 1

Three analogies for karma: God’s will, gravity, and evolution; God’s will as explanation of mystery; gravity as absence of justice, etc.; evolution as contrast to cause and effect; karma’s function in spiritual life; karma is conditioning through intention and action; the three types of karma. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 6.




Section 1

I’m not sure where I saw this or heard about this, or if I saw this as some video on the web, but my friend and colleague, Stephen Bachelor, was asked about Karma. He said, “In the east karma explains everything, which means that it explains nothing.”

I think it is good to keep that in mind as we look into this. In our culture—not in our little Buddhist subset of this culture—but in our culture as a whole, what is the traditional explanation—or characterization might be a better word—when things happen and we don’t know why?

Student: Shit happens? [laughter]

Ken: Well, I was thinking of a more traditional one than that.

Students: Fate? Punishment? It’s God’s will?

Ken: Yeah, fate, punishment, luck, all of these things. Well, it used to be said, it’s God’s will.

So, there’s both a significant difference and an important similarity that I want to take note of.

First, one of the perspectives we’ve been using in this series of classes, and where the name for the class comes from, is a contrast between traditional perspectives and contemporary frameworks.

In a traditional society, one of the characteristics of a traditional culture or society, is that there is one over-arching world view that is accepted by everybody. And one of the characteristics of a modern society, is that there is not one over-arching world view that is accepted by everybody. I actually suppose we get into post-modernism here. In a modern society, the over-arching world view, is the scientific-rational one.

And these two expressions, it’s God’s Will or it’s karma—I remember a teacher that I used to translate for in Vancouver, his way of saying it, “When karma come, what can do?” which was was often used as an abdication of personal responsibility in a difficult situation. Both of these are expressions of an overarching world view. And they aren’t really explanations.

One of the significant influences on my approach to translation is the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who is arguably one of the pivotal philosophers of the first half of the 20th century. He paid extremely close attention to the way words were used. He felt that many philosophical problems were generated by using words in ways that they weren’t ordinarily used or used in ordinary language. So they seemed to be questions, but there weren’t any questions there.

I’m going to use the one that is more familiar in our culture, when one uses the phrase, it’s God’s will. Is that an explanation? Let’s take a very different case.

When you look at something and say, “That’s beautiful,” is that a description of a quality that is inherent in the thing you are looking at, or is it an expression of your own state of mind?

When we say that something is beautiful, most of the time it is just an expression of your state of mind. That’s how we relate to it. This has not stopped people arguing about what is beauty for three of four thousand years. And it still rages today just as inconclusively as it’s always been.


Section 2

What state of mind is it’s God’s will an expression of? When would that phrase be used?… Raquel.

Raquel: When you’re sort of relinquishing control?

Ken: Okay, when you’re relinquishing control. Want to go a little further?

Raquel: That could go in a couple different directions. It could be because you can’t explain it or because you don’t want to take responsibility for it, or…

Randi: It seems to me it is often used as an expression of acceptance.

Ken: Or trying to move in that direction.

Randi: Making an effort there.

Ken: Anybody else? Art.


Section 3

Art: I was going to say basically the same thing, sort of resignation.

Ken: There is resignation. There is acceptance. Yeah, they’re not quite the same thing. Okay.

Let’s take that one a little further. Why resignation? What are you resigning to? It’s interesting, in that case we say “what are we resigning to,” and not “what are we resigning from.” Sometimes I think at those times we’d like to resign from something as well. [laughter]

Art: [pause] It’s interesting. What is popping into mind, just flashes of things: control, responsibility, engagement, responding. All of those things. To phrase it differently, it’s just a very passive state of mind. Almost like… kind of like hitting the snooze button on an alarm.

Ken: [laughter]

Art: Here’s a bad situation or whatever, and it’s God’s will; hit the button, go back to sleep, and don’t think about it any more.

Ken: That’s a little cynical, I think, but… Chuck? (I will come back to that a little later).

Chuck: I think it more of a way of attempting to explain something that can’t be explained very well. Like something bad happened to somebody good, and you’re trying to say, “Well, there really isn’t any explanation, so it must be God’s will.”

Ken: What do you think, Art? That’s interesting. Would you ever use that when something good happened to a really bad person? [laughter]

Chuck: You might think it at least! [laughing] Yes, that gives you sort of a warm and fuzzy feeling! [laughing]

Ken: We tend to associate it more with tragic or difficult events but it can also be applied to positive events.



Section 4

Cara: You said that, and the first thing that comes to mind is like when somebody goes on to accept an award or something on television, and the first person they thank is Jesus, like…

Ken: They score a touchdown in football.

Cara: Jesus somehow has a deeply entrenched investment in the Grammys. [laughing]

Ken: Yeah, we do run into that which is a kind of naïve religion.

Cara: Doesn’t have anything else to do.

Ken: Yes. We say, or we would use the phrase, it’s God’s will when we encounter a situation which we have to meet, we can’t do anything about, and we don’t understand.



Section 5

Lynea: I feel like there’s the possibility and I feel like I’ve heard that phrase used before to indicate that there are forces bigger than I moving things. Which isn’t the same as “I have to meet it”, “I don’t understand it.” It can be, but I feel that it shades it in a way that’s not necessary.

Ken: Well, when it’s actually used, something is happening, one has to meet it in some way, we don’t really understand it, and you can’t do much about it.

Now, from there one can attribute that situation to there being forces, but now you’re moving into “the story.” So, I see that as a second step. And so it’s Gods will, yes there’s this big force out there which is somehow associated with God and what have you, but I am trying to move to the actual situation where it comes up. You follow?

Lynea: Yes.

Ken: Okay. And, what I want to suggest here is: it’s an expression of encountering mystery.

Raquel: Can I say something?

Ken: Why would I stop you, Raquel? [laughing] Go for it.


Section 6

Raquel: I hear that and it resonates. And so therefore, if it is that moment of encountering mystery, I guess when you said ’naïve approach’, I thought that sounded a little harsh. Can it just be cultural?

Ken: I wasn’t talking about naïve there, I was talking about naïve when people thank Jesus for the Grammy, that’s what I mean by naïve.

Raquel: But it’s the same thing. I mean, they’re there and in that moment they’re, like..

Ken: But they’re into a story.

Raquel: So it’s from the mystery to the story…

Ken, Yes, because, what do we do when we encounter mystery?

Students: [laughter]

Ken: We tell stories! And this is why Art goes to why we become passive, we don’t know what to do, etc… all the things you were saying. At the moment, it is encountering mystery. Just in that moment.

Why is that so uncomfortable?


Section 7

There has been a very, very long tradition in human history of coming up with stories to explain what is happening, whether its forces, or God, or karma, or whatever… why do we… Why do you do this, Cara? [laughing]

Cara: I don’t believe in that!

Ken: You don’t believe in God? You don’t believe in forces? You don’t believe in karma, All of the above?

Cara: No, I believe in karma. I just wasn’t raised in a Judaeo-Christian tradition and so I never had this “all-powerful bearded man who hit the smite button” standing over my head. That’s always how I pictured it. My friends obsessed somebody who literally sat at a control screen with a bless and smite [button]; thinking it was that black and white. Um… I lost my train of thought, what was the question?

Ken: Why do we go to stories? What so uncomfortable about the mystery?

Cara: Because no one wants to believe they are not in control of their own destiny, their future, or their own life. Their decisions.

Ken: Why not? Why is that so terrifying? ’Cause it’s evidently true. [laughter]

Cara: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have that fear.

Ken: Perry?


Section 8

Perry: It feels wide open.

Ken: And, so?

Perry: And… unfixed, and… there’s no me there.

Ken: Okay. What’s so terrifying about that?

Perry: Not necessarily terrifying, but there are many moments where it feels terrifying.

Ken: Yeah. Why?

Perry: [long pause] Because I want to be somebody, I want to live forever, I want to get my emotional needs met. [laughter]

Ken: the usual suspects in other words. Steve.


Section 9

Steve: It means I’m going to die.

Ken: That’s a little bit of a jump for me. Bridge the gap there?

Steve: The essence of a lot of the distractions, and I think—and a lot of control—is to do anything but realize that I’m going to die.

Ken: Cease to exist.

Steve: Cease to exist. And control when it is boiled down, is a way that I know that I exist. And I don’t have to deal with or think about that. When you start to let go of that, you start to be closer to “I’m actually dying” or “I am going to die.”

Ken: There’s something very deep here and you can feel.

On the one hand, we have the sense of existing. And then, periodically in our lives, we encounter the fragility of our existence—that the world can function in a way in which we cease to exist very quickly. There’s a storm, or a tree falls on us, or we can be bitten by a snake. Yes, that happened to somebody recently out in Corona.

There’s also the sense of wanting somehow to control or have a say in this experience we call life, and then encountering the situations where we realize, well we don’t actually have a say – there’s a situation we can do absolutely nothing about.



Section 10

Cara: Is that a “choose your own ending” book you’ve got next to you?

Ken: No.

Cara: It’s not ?

Ken: This One?

Cara: Uh Huh.

Ken: No.

Cara: That’s how I explain karma to my friends. Sorry!

Ken: Oh, you choose your own ending? Well, you’re going exactly where I was just about to go. That’s okay.


Section 11

Ken: In theistic religions, one ascribes the mystery to a supreme being and the workings of his, her, or its wisdom/compassion/whatever—will. In Buddhism, and actually in Hinduism—in Eastern religions—it wasn’t ascribed to a supreme being. The mystery was ascribed to the world itself, to the functioning of the world, to the way the world functions. And it’s fairly helpful in understanding this to consider that an analogy in our culture for the the law of karma is the law of gravity.

A lot of people project human values onto the universe. This is also part of the mystery, of course. A lot of people feel that Karma is the force in the universe that makes the universe “just”.

So, if you do bad you get punished and if you do good you get rewarded. This again is a naïve view of the world because it immediately supposes there is good, and there is bad, and you end up like a child in this one. That’s why I called it naïve. And morality that’s based on such ideas as if I do good then I’ll be rewarded and if I do bad then I’ll be punished. This is a child’s approach to morality.

Is there any notion of good or bad connected with gravity? You know, I hold something up, I let it go, it falls. Exactly the same force is responsible for the earth going around the sun, for the formation of galaxies, etc. So it works on all scales except when you get really, really small, when you get into the nuclear forces and so forth. But it works and explains a lot of things. Now can you ignore gravity?

Student: At your own peril.

Ken: At your peril. There is one series of cartoons in which gravity is regularly ignored: the Road Runner cartoons.

You will always notice that Wiley Coyote can ignore gravity until he “realizes” he is ignoring gravity, then it catches up with him really quickly. I think this also applies to karma. [laughing]

So that’s one important analogy. It isn’t a force or a law which “provides balance to the universe” that “renders justice.” These are all human projections of things that we value in human society. But it doesn’t pertain out there.


Section 12

There’s another analogy which is also very important and that’s the notion of Evolution.

We usually think of karma as cause and effect. That’s how it’s translated. But our notion of cause and effect, the popular notion that we’re all familiar with is: if I put my foot on the accelerator I cause the car to go faster, and if I put my foot on the brake I cause the car to slow down. And so a cause is a specific action, and there is a specific effect. And there’s a connection between cause and effect.

I have a friend who works at one of the big pharmaceutical companies, the ones that are into in bioengineering. One of the most difficult things to prove, particularly in this arena, is cause and effect.

The standard saying in here is, correlation is not causation. So you may have two things which occur together, or when this occurs, this one occurs. But to establish that this actually causes that is very, very difficult research. And you have to construct quite careful experiments to do that.

And from the scientific point of view, if you can establish causation, that’s really useful because then know the circumstances from which you can predict that certain things are going to happen. And so that’s very helpful.

But this is not what karma refers to at all. I’ve taught karma a number of times and I’ve always been troubled by this translation of cause and effect because it just didn’t correlate very well with the explanations that I received about it, which I am going to go into in a moment.

But the interpretation of it as cause and effect allows another form of naïve interpretation to arise. And you get this you know: a bus full of young kids goes over a cliff and everybody is killed.

Why did that happen? Because “in a last life, all of those kids were murderers.”

How many of you have read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? It’s a great book. He comes to the conclusion at the end, or somewhere in the book, that Catholicism is inhumanly cruel. It’s inhumanly cruel because it says you are born into this world “eternally damned,” and you didn’t have any choice about it. This is just crazy.


Section 13

I have a similar view of this explanation of why those kids died.

It presupposes that they did something in a previous life. There is a whole judgement there and it’s unknowable.

But that kind of “they did this, therefore they experienced this,” cause and effect, again is a way to try and get out of the mystery of things. You know, parents lost their children, it’s a great tragedy, that’s one of those events which we have to meet, but cannot understand, and then there’s a tendency to ascribe it to forces, or the operation of beings, or some kind of process which is a way of understanding it, other than it just happened.


Section 14

So, karma was one of the favorite talks of Kalu Rinpoche (my teacher), and he would just talk about it over and over again. He almost always talked about it the same way.

He always drew a diagram of a tree in which there is a seed which grew into a shoot, which grew into a tree, which produced leaves and fruit, which then became the seeds for other trees. That’s not a cause and effect process.

When you look at that process, that’s an evolutionary process because as the seed grows, the seed disappears. The seed doesn’t cause the tree, it grows into the tree. And then the leaves, they’re different from the wood, and the flowers are different from the leaves, and the fruit is different. It’s one thing evolving into another.

So one of the best ways I’ve found to get a sense of what is being conveyed here is to use the analogy of evolution. This is something I studied, read quite a few years ago, and if you want to get into the technical side of it, you can look up “complex adaptive systems”, which are completely inanimate systems which exhibit the process of evolution in absolutely fascinating ways and, as a result, give rise to what is now called artificial life.

In the early days of personal computers, one guy was on vacation in Costa Rica, and he programmed a bunch of very simple programs into his computer memory. They interacted and if they interacted in certain ways that got more memory. That was the food. Somehow it hit upon it right and he had this whole apparently living thing going on. There was absolutely no life in it at all, but it looked alive. That’s been much more highly developed now.

I’m going to come back to the analogy of evolution as we go further into karma.


Section 15

Karma is a way of understanding the world.

And then we have to question: well, what’s its role in spiritual practice? Its role in spiritual practice, from my point of view, is that when you look at the world this way you come to appreciate the potential significance of every thought and action which you have or do.

Now, how many of you have experienced doing something that seemed innocuous at the time and turned into a complete disaster? Or, opened up totally new possibilities for you that you never dreamed of? I think we’ve all experienced that.

So in the spiritual domain, how we act is regarded as having a very important, or very high degree of influence on how we experience things.

If you are mean and angry with people, how much peace do you experience? If you are open and generous with people, how much peace do you experience? That’s just a very simple example.


Section 16

And we have to come back to our original intention here: the purpose of practice is to end suffering. So, a study of how our experience evolves from our actions might be a good idea. And that’s really what is going on in this chapter.

Now, as we’ve noted before, much of the language here is mythic and it’s using the mythic framework of past and future lives. But its not so hard to decipher the code here and come to appreciate how actions that we do, motivations that we have deeply shape and influence our subsequent experience of things. And because we are conditioned in that way, then in those situations, we are more likely to act in certain ways than others.

And when we put it all together, as is said in another tradition, “we have as much room to maneuver as a violin in a violin case.” It’s a pretty snug fit, you know they don’t want the violin rattling around too much. Very little room, but it’s enough.

Because—again we get into other themes here of pre-determinism and so forth— from the traditional explanation of karma, karma determines what we experience, and it predisposes us to experience it in a certain way, which of course powerfully influences the way that we are likely to act.

But it doesn’t determine that completely. So there’s always this opening, and it doesn’t determine it completely because—and this goes back to what we’ve studied earlier—of Buddha nature. Things are fundamentally groundless, so nothing is actually fixed. There is always the possibility of some openness.


Section 17

Now, how do we know this through our own experience? And this is very important. Because it’s one thing to talk about this because unless this is something we can actually know through our own experience, its just words, it’s just speculative philosophy. It doesn’t have any power.

So I want you to take any situation. Take a challenging one, or a difficult one. Right now. And open to the experience of it. So let mind, heart and body settle.

Now usually when we recall a specific situation and we start opening to the experience of it, we immediately remember the situation, and we start telling a story about it: this happened, then this happened, and I did this, and we can get quite elaborate stories.

But, I just want you to recall the situation, and instead of starting with the stories, call the situation in mind and note what arises in your body. And let yourself experience, to the extent that you’re able to, what arises in your body.

Don’t try to change it, or manipulate it, or control it. If it’s very uncomfortable, just let it in a little bit, just to the degree that you can actually stay with it.

That’s one aspect of the experience of that particular situation. So just breathe, resting in that experience, just the physical reaction if you wish, the physical sensations that arise in your body associated with that experience. It’s not necessary to do any body scanning or anything like that, just open to the whole body see what’s there. And let yourself experience it.

And then, include the emotions that arose at that time. Now what arises in the body, and what arises in the emotions are only echoes of what arose, but that’s good enough for our purposes right now.

You may find that stories start to run in your head. As soon as you note that, come back to your body. Be clear about the physical reactions, the physical sensations, and then include the emotions, so that you are resting in both the physical sensations and the emotional sensations.

Now quite often, by this time, one’s whole sense of the situation has already shifted, which means the stories have shifted. So include the stories now, along with the other two. Maybe they are the same stories that arose, maybe they’re different ones, just include all of them, just like leaves swirling in the wind, but stay in touch with the sensations in the body.

[long pause]


Section 18

Okay, so you do all of this. And what happens? [pause] Anybody? What happens? Raquel?

Raquel: Well, I needed more time, and I didn’t have a “shift” but I could at least tell what stories… I could kinda see through some of the stories as baloney, and then others as… not sure, without having a look at them a little closer.

Ken: So your relationship with your previous experience began to shift?

Raquel: Yeah.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else?

Student: Energy started to disperse, break up, diffuse.

Ken: The emotional charge?

Student: Mm-hm.

Ken: Yeah. And what was the result of that?

Student: More attention. Little more freedom I guess…

Ken: Okay, more freedom. Anybody else?

Lynea: Spaces that I wasn’t aware of before, opened up.

Ken: So we have heard from three people—What’s the common theme? “There’s a shift”. Okay. I said before, we have as much room to move as a violin in a violin case.

What I was pointing you to was you always have that ability to open to the experience, and then all kinds of possibilities. Now, how likely are you to do that in any given situation? On a rating between one and hundred? How likely are you to do that in a given situation?

Student: Two.

Ken: Two percent. Yes, something like that, pretty accurate.

98 percent of the time, if we take the two figure, we “run,” you know, we don’t move at all. But the possibility, the potential is always there, and that’s what I wanted to point out. It’s always there. It may seem like a very little thing—to start bringing attention—but as soon as we do, all kinds of other possibilities arise.

What karma determines is the 98%.

That’s conditioning—that’s what we are most likely to do, unless we reach for the other two percent. Karma is about the 98 percent. Or let’s say the karma of samsara is about the 98 percent.

What we are doing, in Buddhist practice, in general, is building a capacity of attention, so that we can reach for the two percent a little more frequently, and maybe move is up to three. If you get it up over five, you will generally be regarded as a saint. [laughter] So it’s not that big a deal to become a saint, you see! [laughter]


Section 19

Student: Is it just my imagination, or does karma ripen more quickly the more you practice?

Ken: It’s a way of describing one’s experience. Let’s use our analogies. The heavier the ball, does gravity operate any faster? Does anything change the rate at which things evolve? Like a seed… you put fertilizer, sunlight, and things like that. So I don’t think we can say that karma speeds up the ripening.

However, if you put it a different way, have you ever been on the TGV in France? That’s this train that moves at 150-200 miles an hour. You have no sense that you’re moving that fast, it’s so smooth.

Ordinarily, that is how we are, we are moving really, really fast. Try opening a window and sticking your hand out, and you suddenly become aware it. What practice does is that you become aware of what is happening and now you begin to see things. And so there is the subjective experience that speeds things up, but actually you are just seeing things evolving in you. And it’s pretty terrifying. [laughter] Right?



Section 20

Cara: But what if you are really working in the direction of change? You know, like you could have spent those three years you were in retreat, working at the Jiffy Lube and not working in the direction of change.

Ken: That’s true—and so what are you asking? Yes, if you don’t cultivate attention, things just become more and more solidified.

Cara: Like in Hinduism, there’s this idea of tapas, of spiritual fire, of… like the more practice you do, the more heat you build up so to speak, and the more heat you build up, the faster you are burning your karma, so to speak.

Ken: Again, I think that is an interpretation of experience. The more heat you build up, the more energy you have available for attention, the more energy you have available for attention, the more clearly you see things. The notion that you are actually “burning stuff up”…

Cara: Ah well I don’t really concur with that, but I mean that it also would seem like the more, it seems, things get thrown at you.

Ken: Well, yes… Sit on a sidewalk cafe, on Sunset Boulevard, have a cup of coffee. You don’t feel like cars are coming at you, do you?

Cara: No.

Ken: But walk into the street, and how do you feel? That’s all the difference is.

The cars were going by you, but most of the time, we’re just ignoring it. But when you actually open up, “Ah! this is what is going on.”

So again, the tendency is to say, “Well I am doing this—it’s causing this to happen.” No, all we’re doing is becoming more aware of what is actually going on all the time.


Section 21

This is why Gunaratana, in his book Mindfulness in Plain English has this to say about Meditation

Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barrelling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You’re not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed.

And this is what more or less what everybody experiences, when they first practice meditation. It’s insane in here!

Student: Shut up!

Ken: Yes, that goes on, too. I have so many people who come after they come to me, and they practise a little meditation, and they get the meditation instruction, and they come and sometimes they called me two days later, sometimes they come back after two weeks, often they will call me up just before the [unintelligible] two weeks with, “I don’t think there is any point in coming to see you because I wasn’t able to have a quiet mind at all. And I just don’t think I am cut out for this at all.”

So many people have said that, and I just say “yes, it sounds like you’ve just had the first experience of meditation.”


“Yes, that is the first experience of meditation—your mind is completely crazy.”

“Yeah, so I don’t think I am suitable.”

“No, that is just the first experience of meditation.”

But one tends to project it, and make it into something other than it is. So, “Burning things up,” “accelerating karma”… etc., etc. all of this. These are just stories we tell ourselves to explain what we are experiencing. It just means that we are a little more aware of what is going on.



Section 22

Randi: For a lot of years, philosophers have debated determinism versus free will. And for reasons that sounded good at the time, but I can’t quite recall, I seem to remember that the general consensus was that they were mutually exclusive. It’s a one or the other.

Ken: Aristotelian logic.

Randi: Yeah, and now we have evolution, or gravity which are completely, 100% deterministic.

Ken: Oooh!…

Randi: But we have a little bit of wriggle room around the violin. And I am trying to figure out how they can be compatible? Let me bring in one more idea, the idea of making meaning and the illusion of free will in the exercise of making meaning.

Ken: Well first, I want to remind you that these were analogies. They weren’t equivalences.

I think it is highly arguable that evolution is completely deterministic. Because even in systems in which there is no life is present, chance plays a huge role. And so this is what gives rise to chaos theory. And from chaos theory, the complex adaptive systems theory.

Randi: But uncertainty isn’t free will.

Ken: Ooooh! [pause]

The whole discussion of free will versus determinism is a form of reductionism.

There is a quotation I came across in a book—I can’t remember the author’s name—John Burdett or something like that. Bangkok Haunts this one is his third one about Bangkok—they are completely over the top, but the quotation I rather liked was, “The revelation that A is not A, does not come naturally to undivided minds.”

So, we have free will and determinism. Well in Buddhism we are quite happy with this kind of thing. We have Form and Emptiness. Is there a problem here? [laughing]

Buddhism doesn’t actually follow Aristotelian logic, because Aristotelian logic doesn’t present an accurate picture of our world. We experience form and emptiness, and we experience them simultaneously. In everything. We experience free will and determinism. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

This goes right back to the discussion or interjection of Wittgenstein. Free will doesn’t exist as a principle; it describes an experience we have.

Determinism doesn’t exist in principle; it describes another experience we have. We have both of those experiences. So trying to say ‘there is one or the other,’ this is making things out of experiences and there aren’t any things out there. And so now you’re arguing about these things you made up, well, you can play that game if you want. But it doesn’t edify or move anything forward.

From the Buddhist point of view we are only interested in being able to know our experience completely. And we have free will sometimes and we have determinism other times and sometimes we have both together. That’s how it is.

Cara, and then Steve… you sure, Steve?


Section 23

Steve: When I was sitting in the hall, I had an experience which happens a lot in meditation after about 15 minutes: all of a sudden I realized a woman had been talking on the phone the whole time. There was a shift and all of a sudden it was like “Wow, she has been talking on the phone of all time and I had no idea.”

So relating that to this discussion of karma, is the karma what is fueling the distraction for those 15 minutes when I don’t even hear someone who is 25 feet away from me, and the shift when the forces of karma aren’t as much at play? Is that…?

Ken: I think one is reaching here, a bit.

Another analogy is conditioning. And so you’ve trained yourself so you practice and that’s a form of conditioning, and then we have all the other forms of conditioning.

One is training so that there is more awareness, more attention operating. And other forms of conditioning so there is less and less attention operating. So there you are, sitting in meditation and you become aware of something that you weren’t aware of before.

That may be a distraction, or it may be an increase in attention. I don’t know actually. It depends on your experience of it, and it depends on… did you get involved in the conversation? Or was it just something that was there, and you continued to rest? That would the differentiation.

So I don’t think we need to try and figure out whether this was karma or not. Karma is simply a term which is talking about the way experience evolves, or we can say the way conditioning evolves into experience. And that’s what we are going to go into. Did I answer your question ?

Steve: I’m sort of getting a little bit at there’s a concept of—Cara said, “burning karma”—using it as a metaphor of being able to not be at the mercy of the cycle of it. And I’m wondering if the [unintelligible]

Ken: Okay, from the traditional point of view—and I’ll give a traditional description because it’s easier at this point—when the experience arises, let’s say when I get sick, that’s the pain, that’s the end of the karmic process. How I experience that determines whether the conditioning continues or not.

If I then go out and do things which make me increase the likelihood that I will fall into ill health or I get really angry with people and things like that, then it’s conditioning on conditioning and things get more and more solidified.

If I allow myself to experience the illness or the disturbance as completely as possible in just the way we were touching into earlier, then I experience it. But because I’m experiencing it in attention, I am not being conditioned and I am not setting in motion another conditioning process. Do you follow? And so that’s what ends the karmic cycle.


Section 24

Now, this brings us to: what is karma?

Well, Konchog Gyaltsen and Guenther translate this in two very different ways.

Konchog Gyaltsen translates this: “what is Karma? It is the karma of mind and karma of thought. Karma is created by the mind, and by its force. All karma from the mind and its thought.

Student: What page is that on?

Ken: That’s on Page 111 in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation. Now, how helpful is that?

Student: Not at all.

Ken: [laughter] Doesn’t say much, does it?

Gunther tries to be more a little more helpful: ”What is karma? It is motivation and motivatedness.“ A good German/English word: motivatedness. You see, in German you take any word and you can just add on syllables and they all effect the meanings, and you can make words arbitrarily long. Motivatedness, of course, is not an English word, but we have an idea…

So, does that help? Karma is motivation and motivatedness. Well, a little bit. The words in Tibetan are sem and sum. Sem is the word that is usually translated as mind. Can also be translated as heart. You have awakening mind—it’s the same word. It’s not being used in quite the same way, perhaps. So when we say, ”Awakening mind is precious,“ in Tibetan that is sem.

And then the word for Motivatedness is sum.

In Tibetan there is often not a clear distinction—depending on the word—between the word being used as a verb, or noun, or an adjective, or even an adverb. So, we can say… one way to understand this is that karma is—and we can translate this in a number of ways—and say that: Karma is thinking.

We could also say that Karma is intending. And the other part of that would be Karma is thought, because that is the result of thinking. Or Karma is the action that comes from intention, that’s what sum would refer to.

So this is very interesting, because what is being said here is that karma is this— to put it in very simple terms—it’s moving in a certain direction and doing it. Well, that describes everything. Now if we go back to where we were at the beginning of this evening’s discussion, the whole notion of karma and God’s will is to try to give some kind of way of relating to mystery.

And so what Buddhism is saying here is: what arises in our experience… it seems to be a mystery, but it is the result of our own intention.

Now in ”New Age,“ which a good friend of mine said should always be pronounced to rhyme with sewage, [laughter], the idea is that you make your life and you have control of her life, and again there’s a great deal of naïveté here, you should just be able to think your way out of cancer, just to take the right attitude, and this is just nonsense.

But the principle or the idea that our intention or how we approach things and what we do shapes our experience, well, yeah, this is very true. This is very true and very profoundly true. And it gives us a way of relating to situations when they seem incomprehensible.

That is, ”oh! Somehow or other, this has come about and it’s my energy coming back to me in a way, and what is really important now is how I meet this. In other words, do I continue with the cycle of conditioning or do I stop it here?“

So in this sense karma is about a way of giving us agency in this world which seems beyond explanation, and mystery. So it’s very much about being an active agent in this. That is, we can shape our experience. How? By being paying attention to what we actually intend and do.

That’s very powerful, but it shouldn’t be understood in the naïve way or the childish way, like, ”I just have to think good thoughts that everything will be fine.“ It doesn’t work quite that simply.

And why? Because of the process of evolution. There is a great deal of stuff that’s accumulated, there is a great deal of momentum, and you can’t just ignore that. It’s like climbing onto a sixteen-foot wave and thinking ”well this is just like a paddle” and things like that. No, right now you’re on a sixteen-foot wave.

I’m thinking of that right now because I met with somebody yesterday—old student of mine whose a surfer—and was nursing what he thinks is a broken rib because he came down on his board rather hard on a very large wave that he was surfing while there were the fires and the winds were so high at that point, surfing was very good.

So there is this sense of agency here, that we can actually shape our experience. But we also have to keep in mind there is the accumulated momentum of all of the conditioning, which is our previous intention. And that’s why things don’t turn around overnight, unfortunately! That’s why we only have as much room to wiggle as a violin in a violin case.


Section 25

Student: The accumulation of previous momentum, from our previous what?

Ken: Intentions, conditions, intentions and things like that. Because every time we act, there is energy that goes into that. And that energy solidifies into conditioning. And now, whereas we had this amount of movement before, now we may only have this amount of movement.

And if we don’t exercise any attention in our lives then you know very well what happens—because you can see it in the people around—we get smaller and smaller, and narrower and narrower, and more and more fixed.

I remember going to a concert at UCLA. A friend of mine had tickets and we were in the Founder’s Circle. So there were all of these people there, who were in the latter stages of their life and many of the men had been very successful professionals or business people.

And what astounded me is the rigidity in their bodies. They walked around like this. Everything had solidified. This was the price they had paid for their lives. There was no movement, no fluidity, nothing in their bodies. It was really strange to watch them because almost all of them walked round like the Tin Man, they were like this, that’s all they could move, and you could just see how much had solidified.

And we see this in the course of growing older—things get more and more solid, and we get less and less flexible. There are many factors, but one of the things that you’re doing in practice is cultivating attention, so you’re undoing a lot of that conditioning, and creating the possibility of openness, freedom, creativity, and what have you.


Section 26

Let’s look briefly at the classification of the discussion. And maybe we will start on the discussion too.

He is going to discuss it under six topics.

“Classification of karma.” I am not sure what he means by ascription here. [checks the book] Primary characteristics…[reading] Just to put this in plain English: [more reading] Aah!, interesting choice of words there.

“What are the different types of karma?” “What are a primary characteristics?” “What does each one look like?” This term ascription refers to what owns the karma, roughly, and what are the results?

And then the next two are very much about the evolutionary characteristics: “increase from the small” means that small grows into large results, and “inevitability,” you can’t escape it.

Now it’s easy to talk about this in terms of this force which acts on you, but how I want to look at this is as just stuff that happens and that makes perfect common sense and it’s not something that’s being done to us but a process that we set in motion.

So let me talk a little about the three classifications here: non-meritorious karma and result, meritorious karma and result, karma and result of unshakeable meditative concentration. And actually there are a couple more.

One of the key things—and we discussed this back at the beginning of this course—any description of spiritual practice has to answer several key questions:


  • Why are things the way they are?
  • Why this is a problem
  • What you can do about this problem? Or what a solution to this problem looks like, and
  • and How you can put this solution into effect


That’s basically the Four Noble Truths.

If you look at karma in terms of conditioning and in terms of agency as I’ve been talking about, then it puts our fate in our own hands. Because our fate, what happens to us, and what we experience is dependent on our own actions. And that, to me, is the real import of karma.

Then when it goes into non-meritorious karma and its result, what it’s describing is, when you act this way it’s going to evolve into these kinds experiences.

And when it describes meritorious karma, and its results, when you act these ways (like being generous and helping people and so forth) this will evolve into these kinds of experiences. And then the one for meditative concentration: if you meditate, and develop these kinds of states, then you have these kind of experiences.

In addition to all of that, there are ways of acting, which we call practice and so forth, which sets in their very different process which is not one of the conditioning becoming more and more solidified, but becoming freer and freer of conditioning.

This is also a form of karma, but it’s one in which more and more possibilities are being created, because one is not continuing or initiating the conditioning process. That’s what’s going to be discussed when we get into the discussion of how to generate awakening mind, bodhicitta, that particular path.

Right now what Gampopa’s concern is, is to show that any form of functioning under the usual subject-object dualism—i.e. the way we experience things in samsara—inevitably leads to a solidification of conditioning. And with that, the denial or the negating of the possibility of freedom.


Section 27

Next week we’ll go through the ten non-virtuous and ten virtuous actions.

In the Facebook assignment, I suggested you look at these, and I’d like you to look at these over the next couple of weeks and really observe what happens in you when you do something unwholesome or non-meritorious, versus something that happens in you when you do something meritorious.

So you might, for instance, intentionally lie to somebody over the next week. It doesn’t have to be a big lie, it doesn’t have to be damaging or anything like that. Just say something that isn’t true.

And the point here is to observe very, very closely what happens in you. What I am particularly interested in is can you stay completely present in that process? And if you can, then what’s that like? and if you can’t, at what point do you check out? Where exactly do you check out? What’s going on there?

Do the same for meritorious actions, virtuous actions. Can you stay completely present when you give something to somebody? Do you stay completely present when you do that? If not, where do you check out in that?

I also want you to look at not only the literal interpretation of these actions, but also the figurative interpretation. So for instance: taking of life. How many times in the course of the conversation have you killed somebody else’s idea?

Stealing. We have a wonderful expression in English, “She stole his affection.” Have you ever done that? What else have you stolen? Somebody’s trust? So, what I am suggesting is that you look at this in figurative ways too.

In the area of speech, harsh language, slander and so forth. Ordinarily this is interpreted in terms of our interaction with other people. How do you talk with yourself? Do you always tell the truth to yourself? Maybe you don’t have to tell somebody a lie, maybe you just have to observe yourself lying to yourself? Can you stay present in that? That should be an interesting exercise.

So I’d like you to look at this, both the virtuous and the non-virtuous.

As I say, this is one of Rinpoche’s favorite topics, not, I believe, because he liked to lecture on morality. But I think it is because paying attention to our actions is the very foundation of the path. There is a famous verse from the Dhammapada:

Cease to do evil.
Learn to do good.
Train your mind.
These are the Buddha’s teachings.

Very simple: [repeating]

Cease to do evil.
Learn to do good.
Train your mind.
These are the Buddha’s teachings.


So, one of the easiest ways to change a system, is to institute a different feedback mechanism in the system. There’s all this stuff about, how do you change this, and how do you change that, but basically it all comes down to changing the feedback mechanisms.

It’s one way of looking at this chapter. All of this information is to lead you to reappraise how you view the way that you’re acting in your life. And if you change the view of that, then you change the feedback mechanism. And then everything else can change.

So people sometimes think they have to exert great efforts to change. No! Most of the time all you just have to change one little bit there, and an awful lot of other things will just follow from that.

The difficulty may be in finding that one little bit to change, but we will talk about as we go forward. Okay? So I think that’s probably enough for this evening.