For those of you who prefer not to read:
Many of us have times in our lives when nothing seems to be going well. In spite of our every intention, hope, attempt, effort, vision and assistance from others, things just don’t go to plan. Occasionally, this will cause us to ask, “What is it about what I’m doing that isn’t working, while I see others doing the same or similar things, yet it’s working for them?”. As just one example, a couple might raise their two children in largely the same way, yet those two kids turn out very different from each other. Or, we drive to work the same way every single day at the same time, taking the same route, yet one day we spill our coffee on our shirt, catch our clothes in the door, get pulled over for speeding and get to work late.
Also, notice that you can have the *exact same* situation viewed by two observers, and, asked to describe what they’ve just seen, you will commonly get two very different descriptions. I have even watched the exact same movie twice and seen it very differently.
What is it that causes objectively the same experience to be viewed and experienced so differently? Karma.
The word karma gets a pretty interesting interpretation in this society. Something happens which appears to be highly coincidental, and someone might say, “oh, I must have had some karma around that”. Or, we watch shows like “My Name is Earl” and they say things like, “karma wanted me to see that person”. I think this sorta misses the mark. Saying that karma wanted you to run into someone is like saying that gravity wanted a cup to fall on the floor! It’s not anthropomorphic like that.
It is said that countless karmic seeds (roughly 60) ripen every single second of every day. For every object that our sense perception encounters, we experience form, feeling, consciousness, perception and intellect, all in a split-second. What causes this to occur? Our karma. We have vast, vast pools of karma, both virtuous and non-virtuous, or “helpful and not-helpful”. These seeds are flowering and at profoundly fast speeds. So, to say that a coincidental event that occurred was driven by karma is correct, but it sorta misses the mark that *everything* that we experience is also karma. From running into the friend coincidentally to the recognition of a mug as something that you like to drink coffee out of and that you like, it’s all karma.
Lest this appear too abstract, let’s consider an example albeit a somewhat difficult one. I have an acquaintance who murdered a handful of people this past January. The murders appear to have been premeditated. Within a couple of hours, his life changed drastically. He was taken and put behind bars and he’s awaiting trial where it’s very likely that he will receive the death penalty. From the standpoint of karma, he created in a moment, a vast amount of the very worst kind of karma and in no-time, he began to experience the worst effects: he’s living like a caged animal in the midst of aggressive people, society wants him punished and killed (the editorial pages and blogs have been rife with people delighting in the punishment to come via the end of his life). In a couple of hours he went from being someone that many people liked, enjoyed and respected, to being someone that most people say terrible things about and want to kill.
Perhaps that example was too extreme. Consider people you know who are bullies. Generally, people don’t like to be around them. Consider the highly jealous people you may have met. Again, people are pushed away. How about those people who only think of themselves and are petty? Their friends are few. These are a few tangible examples of karma playing itself out in our lives.
I think of karma like this: Imagine a lottery machine but instead of 36 or 48 lottery balls, there are billions of them and, instead of having numbers on them, they are merely black or white. Now, approximately 60 times per second those balls come up the little shoot. Every time these balls come up the shoot, a karmic seed ripens or “flowers”. It would stand to reason that black ones coming up the shoot make for experiences we dislike and white ones make for experiences that we like.
Through our view, intention and conduct, we can either add lots of positive or negative karmic seeds to our reservoir and those seeds will flower eventually. When my acquaintance committed those murders, he effectively dumped MASSIVE, MASSIVE amounts of negative karma into his mindstream and as such, he’s sure to experience the effects of his actions.
According to the book “Words of My Perfect Teacher“, there are 4 components to the creation of new karma. They are:
For instance, with my acquaintance, he had: 1. Basis in that he established that the objects of his aggression were separate from himself. 2. He had the intention to kill them. 3. He pointed the gun at them and fired the gun. 4. 4 of the 6 people that he shot did, in fact, die.
So, in regards to those 4 people who did die, he got the worst possible karma. In regards to the other 2 of the 6 who did not die, he still got very bad karma because the first 3 components were there, basis, intention and execution.
We see this ethic in our court system. If you have strong motive, you’re likely to get a worse punishment. If you are convicted of attempted homicide, you still get a bad penalty, but it’s not as severe as homicide itself.
So, while positive karma can give us pleasurable experiences, once it flowers, we’ll not have the experience again unless we create the causes for more beneficial effects. If you give a large donation away, you will experience something positive (perhaps someone will say nice things about you, you may have a dinner in your name, etc…) but at some point, the karmic effects will be exhausted and new positive things won’t occur, unless you dedicate that merit to the enlightenment of all beings. Dedicating merit is a very profound topic, but better-left for a future day.
As Buddhists, we believe that one can attain enlightenment by purifying all of our karma and transcending cause-and-effect. As such, the logic becomes very interesting. Notice this: If the point is to purify our minds of negative causes, we *want* our negativities to be purified. This reminds me of a wonderful story: Ribur Rinpoche was a dear, dear teacher. Here’s a picture of his dear, sweet face:
He was captured by the Chinese and was tortured mercilessly in a Chinese Gulag for approximately 25 years. The Chinese would ritually and repeatedly electrocute his genitals and force him to smear his excrement on his face. They beat him and tortured him in the way I just described on a daily basis. After 25 years, Ribur Rinpoche was released and he had a meeting with the Dalai Lama. During this meeting, the Dalai Lama asked him what his experience was like. At this point, Ribur Rinpoche said, “I was almost in danger at one point.” Concerned, the Dalai Lama asked him, “What happened?”. Ribur Rinpoche answered, “I was almost in danger of losing my compassion for my Chinese captors.”
Imagine that! Upon further discussion, it turned out that Ribur Rinpoche was grateful for his Chinese captors because, in torturing him, they were exhausting his negative karma. However, in so-doing they were incurring the causes for future negative effects themselves. As such, he was getting steps closer toward enlightenment and they were creating massive future suffering for themselves. Through this logic, Ribur Rinpoche saw himself as the aggressor and his captors as the victims!! As such, he felt immense compassion for his captors.
I, for one, am known to lose my cool when there’s an aggressive driver behind me on our little mountain road. If only I were to bring my view, actions and intentions in-line with Ribur Rinpoche! Imagine what that degree of love and compassion might do to transform the situations we encounter throughout our lives!
The trick is that we’re all good people. Our inherent essence is Buddhanature. We are all primordially enlightened. However, through the cumulative effects of our karma (in Buddhism, we believe that karma carries from past-lives, which might explain why two sibling newborns have such distinct personalities even fresh-from-the-womb), we obscure that very nature in the way that clouds might obscure the sun from our line-of-sight.
So, why do bad things happen to good people? Well, we’re *all* good people in our nature yet we have created karmic conditions for ourselves in the past that create future suffering.
While there are multitudes of ways of skillfully working with and changing our karma (this is most of what the entirety of the Buddhist path is about), there are 5 things you can do to profoundly prevent negative karma:
1: Don’t kill. Instead, protect the lives of others.
2: Don’t steal. Instead, guard the property of others.
3: Don’t cause sexual difficulties by cheating on your spouse or significant other. Instead, honor your commitments.
4: Don’t lie. Instead, be truthful.
5: Don’t get drunk and wild. Instead, be clear of mind.
(the fifth one is a support to the first four: if you get drunk, there’s a much greater chance you’ll kill, steal, cheat and lie!)
Allow me to close with a quote from my teacher, the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, “Don’t blame other for your negative karma.”
Much love to you and yours,
– Gelong Tashi
PS. one of the greatest Buddhist teachers in the world will be coming to the United States for the first time in August of 2010. For information, please go to www.khyentsevisit2010.org.