Two Senses of the term, Karma
People may say or have heard others refer to the "ripening of
karma." This phrase can sometimes cover confused notions of what
karma is. The word karma in that context is certainly a vague one,
and it may mean the entire complex of consequences that is born of a person or
even a group's imperfections or "obscurations." Or attachments and
attractions, along with the learning that goes into the improvement in, or the
deterioration of, behavior that contributes to an individual's
T. G. to Yahoo! Kagyu email list, July 16/07:
Karma is merely the inseparability of an action, its cause and its
result. But you can't calculate karma based on appearances.
Suppose you miss your flight. "Oh my bad karma". But the plane
crashes, so suddenly your bad karma was your good karma. But it
crashed into your house, so suddenly your good karma is your bad karma.
But it didn't kill you, so suddenly your bad karma is good karma again.
You see? In the ordinary way of seeing things it is impossible to
calculate; it makes no sense. Back and forth, back and forth.
So disbelief is logical.
There is also the moral thing: If you kill a mouse you will be reborn
as a mouse and be killed? Then logically, if you kill a lama you will
be reborn as a lama . . . a tulku! Even this makes no sense.
The balance of karma (and after all, it is really a balance rather
than a 'law' ) is difficult for ordinary people to understand, so
most people maintain this very simplistic method. But if you have a
toothache there had to be causes and because you have a toothache
pain is the result. Same with cancer.
If you want to understand karma, then ask "Why does an apple fall
from a tree at the very second it does, and not one second earlier or
one second later?" It is because all of the conditions which allow it
to fall have come at the same time. It is that apple's karma.
sun, the wind, the weight of the apple full of rain water. Suddenly
it falls. In this way, you understand the term "karma ripening".
The thing is, there is no "my' karma. "me" IS karma. It is the coming
together of events. You are not a thing existing in space. You are a
series of events occurring in time. Space just happens to be a by-
product of time.
The fact is, karma involves multiples of billions of events coming
together. Someone asked Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche if it is Tibet's
Karma to be invaded by China. He said yes, it was, but that the seeds of
that karma were planted ages before either Tibet or China even existed. So
you see, when you talk about karma, you are talking about really Big Time (kalpas).
Finally, thinking does not start and stop. thought is a continuum . . .
an ongoing flow. Inanimate objects do not suddenly begin
to think. Yet you are made up of 100% inanimate objects -- carbon,
water, acids etc. and when that body was only two cells, did thought
spontaneously begin? How unscientific. There is nothing in the body, not
even in the brain, that produces thought. The brain provides a suitable
environment for the appearance of the causes of cognitive awareness to
manifest as a flow of events we label "thinking" but that is the extent of
it. So the flow of thinking, the flow of causes of thought must exist prior
to the formation of the body.
So, karma is real but most people's understanding of it is wrong.
Hindu scripture focuses mainly on the inevitability
of karma, but according to Buddha- dharma, karma in the context of "Right View"
refers to the result of acts with a component of intent. A Theravadin monk
comments, "So what karma is it that ripens? Be
very careful not to mix Hindu notions of karma with Right View as taught by the
Blessed One," and he offered the selections of scripture on this page to help
clear up what he saw as misconception.
However, Mahayana Buddhism generally does not disentangle one person's
actions from the actions and consequences of others. Add to that the fact that
accidents and coincidences do happen in this universe, and we can see how karma
can be understood to mean an extremely complex interplay.
Consider: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in
ourselves . . . ." ~ Cassius' words in Shakespeare,
Julius Caesar, (I, ii, 140-141.) Presented in this way, as it
frequently is, we can be misled into thinking Shakespeare was referring to
individual flaws creating unpleasant outcomes -- a kind of Hinayana perspective
of karma. However, the essential concluding phrase [where
the dieresis, or 3 dots] is: "that we are underlings." So
what appears to be a reference to personal error is actually a reference to the
conditions and circumstances that led to the domination by one man (Caesar) of a
number of friends who had formerly been equal in status.
Karma in the Buddhist Sense
The Sanskrit word karma (Pali: kamma) derives from the root
"kri" meaning "to do." Thus karma means of action.
The usual connotation is "what comes from what someone does," but Theravada
scripture shows the Buddha used it in the specific sense of
"results of intentional activity."
"Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma
by way of body, speech, and intellect." -- AN. VI.63
He also said that we are responsible for our actions, and they define who we
"I am the owner of my actions [kamma,] heir to my actions, born
of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my
arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall
heir ... .
"[This is a fact that] one should reflect on often, whether one is a
woman or a man, a layperson or ordained ... .
"Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect ... that
'I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related
through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator; whatever I do, for
good or for evil, to that will I fall heir'?"
- See also, Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche on the
And Buddha explained that by being mindful, we can alter karma:
"There are beings who conduct themselves in a bad way in body ... in
speech ... and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that bad
conduct in body, speech, and mind will either be entirely abandoned or grow
"A disciple of the noble ones considers this: 'I am not the only one who
is owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related
through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator; who -- whatever I
do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir. To the extent that there
are beings -- past and future, passing away and re-arising -- all beings are
the owner of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions,
related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever
they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.'
When he/she often reflects on this, the [factors of the] path take birth.
He/she sticks with that path, develops it, cultivates it. As he/she sticks
with that path, develops it and cultivates it, the fetters are abandoned, the
obsessions destroyed." -- AN V.57
Also, If we know how it functions we will not continue to suffer its
"Kamma should be known. The cause by which kamma comes into play
should be known. The diversity in kamma should be known. The result of kamma
should be known. The cessation of kamma should be known. The path of practice
for the cessation of kamma should be known," thus it has been said.
In reference to what was it said? Intention, I tell you, is
kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect.
What is the agent by which karma creates consequences including further
"And what is the cause by which kamma comes into play? Contact is the
cause by which kamma comes into play.
Are there any beings exempt from karmic consequences?
"And what is the diversity in kamma? There is kamma to be experienced
in hell, kamma to be experienced in the realm of common animals, kamma to be
experienced in the realm of the hungry shades, kamma to be experienced in the
human world, kamma to be experienced in the world of the devas. This is called
the diversity in kamma."
What are the consequences of karma? More karma:
"And what is the result of kamma? The result of kamma is of three
sorts, I tell you: that which arises right here and now, that which arises
later [in this lifetime], and that which arises following that. This is called
the result of kamma.
How can this vicious circle be broken?
"And what is the cessation of kamma? From the cessation of contact is
the cessation of kamma; and just this noble eightfold path
-- right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood,
right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration -- is the path of
practice leading to the cessation of kamma.
"Now when a disciple of the noble ones discerns kamma in this way, the
cause by which kamma comes into play in this way, the diversity of kamma in
this way, the result of kamma in this way, the cessation of kamma in this way,
and the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma in this way, then
he discerns this penetrative holy life as the cessation of kamma.
" 'Kamma should be known. The cause by which kamma comes into play... The
diversity in kamma ... . The result of kamma ... . The cessation of kamma ...
. The path of practice for the cessation of kamma should be known.' Thus it
has been said, and in reference to this was it said." ~ AN VI.63
Teaching his son, Rahula
The Buddha did not abandon his son, but patiently taught him what he himself had
learned. Once, he asked Rahula what he thought was the use of
[Rahula:] "For reflection, sir."
"In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts are
to be done with repeated reflection. Whenever you want to perform a
bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily act I want to perform --
would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is
it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful
"If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to
the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily act
with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily act of that sort
is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it
would not cause affliction ... it would be a skillful bodily action with happy
consequences, happy results, then any bodily act of that sort is fit for you
"While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This
bodily act I am doing -- is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction
of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful
consequences, painful results?'
"If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to
affliction of others, or both ... you should give it up. But if on
reflection you know that it is not ... you may continue with it.
"Having performed a bodily act, you should reflect on it ... . If, on
reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of
others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences,
painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the
Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having
confessed it ... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on
reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction ... it was a skillful
bodily action with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay
mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental
He said the same applied for verbal and for mental actions, and that was the
way it was done in the past, and it would also be done in the future, for that
is the effective way:
"Rahula, all the priests and contemplatives in the course of the past
who purified their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, did it through
repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just
"All the priests and contemplatives in the course of the future ...
. All the priests and contemplatives at present who purify their bodily
acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, do it through repeated reflection on their
bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.
"Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself: 'I will purify my bodily
acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through
repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated
reflection.' Thus you should train yourself." -- MN 61
Benefits of Mindful Action
There are immediate benefits to acting wisely, or skillfully: five
"These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to
obtain in the world. Which five? Long life ... beauty ... pleasure ... status
... rebirth in heaven ... . Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be
obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. [For] If they were to be
obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them?
It's not fitting for the disciple of the noble ones who desires long life
to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple of the
noble ones who desires long life should follow the path of practice leading to
long life. In so doing, he will attain long life, either human or divine
(Similarly re: beauty, pleasure, status, rebirth in heaven) ~ AN V.43
There was a master who did not recommend fasting, vows of silence, or
avoiding contact with others. He said, 'We [Tibetan Buddhists] practice with our
eyes open. If avoiding people and sense-contact were the way to enlightenment,
the blind and deaf should be enlightened.'
Wisdom is to be found in the realm of sense-contact. The world is transcended
by knowing the world, not by avoiding it. Living at close quarters with others
in the same routines day after day, which is the way of life in his monasteries,
can reveal a lot about one's habits and the way one creates suffering for
oneself. He often said, 'If it's hot and difficult, that's it; that's the place
The point is though, that one does not have to pick up a burning log with bare
hands, nor does one have to jump into a furnace of raging flames. Practice
is difficult enough. Defilements and obscurations have to be faced but a
good master, lama, guru or what have you helps one to avoid getting burned and
will help one learn all by themselves to put out the raging flames of dukkha
Weigh the experience of the retreat. What good was there and what good left with
you? What bad was there? Did you take home with you any embers that could start
a serious fire?
THE MIRROR OF MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is the root of the Dharma.
Mindfulness is the body of practice.
Mindfulness is the fortress of the mind.
Lack of mindfulness will allow negative forces to overcome you.
Without mindfulness you will be swept away by laziness.
Lack of mindfulness is the creator of evil deeds.
Without mindfulness and presence of mind, Nothing can be accomplished.
Lack of mindfulness piles up shit.
Without mindfulness you sleep in an ocean of piss.
Without mindfulness you are like a heartless zombie, a walking corpse.
~ Khenpo Nyoshyul Rinpoche, a Gelugpa (Tibetan Mahayana monastic teacher of the
same denomination as the Dalai Lama.)
~ scripture contributed by Ven. Dhammapiyo to The
Kagyu Mailing List
No. According to Buddha's dharma, there are no little beings whose job
it is to apportion blame and convert it into consequences.
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