Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
Note 1: This is an edited transcript of a live teaching, and should not be taken as Rinpoche’s final word. Every effort has been made to ensure that this transcript is accurate both in terms of words and meaning, however all errors and misunderstandings are the responsibility of the editors of madhyamaka.com. Please see note.
Note 2: This transcript includes footnotes with clarifications and more information about Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist terms used in the teaching. Please click on the superscript number to read the footnote. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s name is abbreviated to “DJKR” throughout.
Karma [is a] subject that has been repeated billions of times, and [a] subject that has been continuously misunderstood billions of times. I would say, arguably, the subject of karma is probably the most difficult subject to teach and to understand.
At a glance, when we talk about karma in the context of cause and effect, to a certain extent it’s acceptable [i.e. something that we can accept]. I mean, it’s chewable, so to speak. It’s even quite scientific. Probably the philosophy of karma is actually what many Buddhists are kind of proud of. We are believers in karma
Isn’t there an expression “God fearing nation”? I don’t think you can really have that kind of expression, “karma fearing nation”. I don’t think you can have that. But people do. You know sometimes as we talk about karma, we can pick up that Buddhists talk as if they’re afraid of karma. So then we have to be careful here.
When we talk about the gross level of karma — such as if you plant rice, then rice will grow. if you plant marigold, then marigold [will grow] — I think generally people can sort of accept that level of karma. But once karma embarks more on the subtle and more refined [level], then karma gets really deep and vast.
Buddhists would say something like this, “God did not create us. We are created by karma”. So sometimes this expression indicates that our fate or destiny is in our hands, so to speak. Karma. We are a byproduct of our karma. We are not controlled by God.
Karma is difficult to talk about
But it’s not that straightforward too:
• We have choice, but only to an extent: It’s a bit like before [an] egg is [fully] cooked, you can control how much [you would like to cook it]. Soft boiled, hard boiled, you can do all of that. But once the egg is 99.99% cooked, then karma does not mean that “It’s in your hands”. So sometimes karma can be very tyrannical. Basically, what I’m saying is that you [might] get this sense when Buddhists say, “We believe in karma. We don’t believe in a God who dictates our life”, that they sort of exude this “It’s in our hands”. But just be careful when you say this.
• Time is vague: Another reason why karma is so difficult is [that] when you talk about karma, you have to talk about time. Obviously, right? The time when you eat so many chillis affects the time you go to the toilet. So you have to talk about some sort of time [for example], “Oh, I must have had a bad karma in my past life. That’s why I’m here like this, like that”. So you are talking about time. And this makes it difficult, because time is one of the vaguest things. It’s one of the most vague phenomena, but [it is nevertheless] one of the forces that makes things so real. How frustrating. It’s the most ridiculous thing, yet it is the thing that makes things so real and painful and exciting. So this is why it’s difficult.
• Logic is vague: Another reason why karma is difficult to talk [about is that] when you talk about karma [in terms of] cause, condition and effect, it’s very logical. [However], logic is another vaguest thing that we have that traps us. I know many of you love reasoning and logic, I’m sure those who have been to Yale and Harvard and the British people here, the Cambridge people. The age of reason. Renaissance. The philosopher Voltaire. You guys, listen. I’m talking to Richard Dixey, by the way. So you love reason, you love logic — but hear this. It’s the vaguest, [most] ridiculous thing that makes you trapped the most. Because it’s logical. It’s sensible.
• Ideas of good and bad are vague: I can actually go on more, but just one more reason why karma is difficult. Karma is difficult especially when we begin to talk about bad karma and good karma. Because bad and good are like the king and the queen of vagueness. Oh my goodness, they are [so] vague. Wow, good, bad.
• There are no ultimate causes: I have to tell you this. Another reason why karma is difficult. Basically, the philosophy of karma is the teachings on chicken and egg. Which one came first, chicken or egg? I’m going to come back to this one. This one is important. You see, when we use words such as “cause” and “effect”, not even for a moment [do] we think that the very cause that we are talking [about] is actually a result of another cause. This is one of the causes of fundamental misunderstanding and mistakes.
• Karma is taught for the sake of understanding shunyata: One last thing, why karma is difficult [to] teach and understand. Karma is difficult to understand, especially in Buddhism because actually the real reason why there is a teaching called karma is that Buddhists want you to understand shunyata1shunyata (shunyata (Sanskrit: शून्यता, IAST: śūnyatā) = emptiness; lack of true existence; illusory nature (of all worldly phenomena) – see shunyata.. That’s the only reason why there is a teaching [on] karma. Nothing else.
So, this should tell you that karma is not destiny. Karma is not fate. But karma also has nothing to do with free will. Destiny, no. Free will, no. Because when we talk about destiny and free will in the ordinary world, it seems that people are talking about a conclusion after an analysis2rikpé nyépé nyédön (Tibetan: རིགས་པའི་རྙེད་པའི་རྙེད་དོན་) = an object found through reasoning and analysis, a conclusion established through logical reasoning and analysis – see rikpé nyépé nyédön.. I’m sorry to speak very academically, but this is the only way for now. Because karma is actually relative. It’s not absolute.
Karma is an illusion
There are a lot of people who think, “Oh, you are Buddhist. You must be one of those guys who are trying to collect good karma and trying to get rid of bad karma”. Wrong. That’s a wrong way of putting it. Buddhists want to go beyond karma, bad or good. [They want to go] beyond karma. Because from the Buddhist point of view, karma is an illusion. But [it’s] still very powerful. The word “illusion” should not make you sort of downgrade karma. No, it’s very powerful. Illusion is actually very powerful.
If I am dreaming [about] a glass of water [DJKR picks up his glass of water], in my dream that dream-glass can hold dream-water [DJKR drinks some water from the glass]. And in my dream when I drink, there’s even [the experience of] time. Water. Beginning of the sipping, slowly slowly going down the throat and arrival at the stomach. Even time exists in the dream.
And what? Suddenly you realize you have been drinking bleach. That’s called “nightmare”. Yes, and in that dream you could call 9-1-1. And then the ambulance can arrive and you can go to the hospital. All of that you can do. Arrival at the hospital. About to die. Somebody saves you. All of that you can do.
In reality, not a moment [has passed]. Maybe you only napped for two minutes after a heavy lunch. And you have not moved from your sofa, even one centimetre. But the logic, the game [of karma] — even though it’s not really happening, it has all the impact. Bad karma, good karma. Please think [about good and bad karma] in that context.
You see, when we talk about predestination or free will, then [we] are not talking about the dream. The glass in the dream, the water in the dream, the bleach in the dream, the 9-1-1. [If you are talking about predestination] you are talking about true reality, [which is] something that cannot be changed, isn’t it? Destiny. Something that you cannot avoid.
Okay, so I think we have talked enough [about] the overall understanding of so-called karma [in] Buddhism generally, and perhaps the way I’m explaining it may have a little bit of a Mahayana sort of flavour.
Q & A
There are a lot of questions here. Probably I will not be able to finish all the answering all the questions, but I think many of the statements I’m making here are hopefully dealing with the questions that you have come up with. Okay. So, now, to be more specific.
[Q]: How do you apply the understanding of karma as a Buddhist?
[DJKR]: I have already told you that ultimately, the goal of a Buddhist has got nothing to do with collecting lots and lots of good karma and getting rid of lots and lots of bad karma. Our aim is to be free from the nightmare, free from the illusion of karma. That is the ultimate goal.
But in the meantime, for those who have no clue about the illusory aspect of karma [we need a path]. They may have a little clue, but their habit of thinking [that the] illusion is real is so strong that their intellectual understanding is not enough [to allow them to overcome hope and fear].
[So for] those who have the wish to untangle or liberate ourselves from this kind of entanglement and bondage of karma, what do we do? We apply three kinds of what we call “discipline”. In Buddhism, we talk about three disciplines3The 3-fold training of (1) shila (Sanskrit: शील) = ethical discipline/virtue, (2) samadhi (Sanskrit: समाधि) = meditative concentration/one-pointedness, and (3) prajña (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञा) = discriminative awareness/wisdom – see trishiksha.:
- Ethical discipline (shila): A discipline of ethics. We will come back to that.
- Meditative concentration/one-pointedness (samadhi): And then a discipline to make your mind malleable or focused.
- Wisdom (prajña): And lastly, most importantly, a discipline to become acquainted [with] and actually realize the truth. Prajña. Basically, wisdom.
Out of these three — ethics, one pointedness or concentration or samadhi, and prajña — the third, prajña or wisdom is the most important. Without prajña or wisdom, ethics and one-pointedness or concentration is not [really] qualified as the Buddhist path, let’s say.
Because [in Buddhism, any kind of] discipline, whatever discipline you’re applying, must help you get at least closer to the truth4Ed.: DJKR presumably did not say “must take you to the truth” because not all methods will take you all the way to the truth. The path has many stages and methods that build successively upon one another. All of these methods should at least take you closer to the truth, even if any given method does not take you all the way there.. So, let’s say one of the disciplines in the so-called Buddhist practice is sitting. Well, that’s just one very small one. If that discipline of sitting straight is not taking you closer to the truth [by] any means, this discipline is not working5Ed.: as DJKR has noted in his recent teachings on vipassana, a method like sitting straight and watching the breath could take you closer to the truth, but it could also merely be a means for relaxation and stress relief. The latter application would not be considered a Buddhist path or discipline. Since the outer form of the method is the same in both cases, the distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist methods is therefore to be found in the intention and view..
[Q]: [What is the truth that we wish to realize as Buddhists?] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: In case there are people who are new, let’s say [the truth that we wish to understand includes] the truth of impermanence. The fact that we are going to die. [The truth that] we are dying actually. This truth needs to be realized. Not only intellectually, but practically. And [we also wish to realize the truth that] things are not truly existing [in the way that] they appear. This truth needs to be understood or realized. Not just intellectually, but practically.
If a change of season or a sunset makes you realize the changing nature of our life better than sitting in a temple, that method of gazing at a sunset is considered a discipline of ethics, and a discipline of samadhi or concentration.
[Q]: [How is karma related to motivation?] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: Many times when we talk about karma, people seem to only talk about karma related to the body. And maybe some seem to talk about karma that’s related to the speech. But hardly [any] people talk [or] think [about] karma related to the mind. When, in fact, karma created by the mind is the most important and most powerful. And this is also probably a big differentiation between the Buddhist idea of karma and the so-called Hindu idea of karma.
So mind’s karma — in other words, motivation — a right motivation, especially motivation such as bodhichitta, wishing to enlighten [and] awaken all sentient beings. With that kind of motivation, basically, every action you engage [in] becomes what we call good karma. But this is not the end [i.e. our aim or goal]. You create so-called good karma — again, just to remind you, good karma is something that takes you closer to the truth — but this so-called good karma has to also exhaust.
Okay, we’ll take a short break because I need to read the questions.
[END OF TALK 1]
Q & A (contd.)
Okay, now I’ll try to be more specific. But as I said earlier, karma is quite vast and it’s not so easy.
[Q]: [How should we understand good karma and bad karma?] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: For instance, when we talk about bad karma and good karma. Yes, broadly speaking, [as] a big generalization, you can [say that] things like killing, stealing, lying are bad karma. Also, when we talk about karmic consequences, broadly you can say [that for things] like, sickness, sadness, a dysfunctional life, you can sort of broadly say “It is my bad karma”. Very broadly.
Because we human beings tend to think like that, “Oh, he’s very lucky. He has a lot of money”. In that kind of sense. [But] that’s very subjective. From what point of view are we deciding that somebody is lucky just because they have a lot of money? Some people say, “Oh, he must have a lot of merit because he lived long”. We human beings think stuff like that is good, like living long. Wealthy. Stuff like that. But that’s a very big generalization.
And based on this kind of generalization, there are also many specific generalizations. Like some Buddhists would think if you are sick, this may be because your Dharma practice is sort of gathering up all your bad karma and making it happen now so that you will not go through the consequences later. There’s that kind of generalization. We really don’t know this.
As I’ve said in the past on one occasion, some of you may remember this [example]. Since I’m in California, I think it’s safe to say this. One could almost say that it is marijuana, that phenomenon of this grass, [which] has brought a lot of people to places like Nepal, and then subsequently they ended up meeting some great masters. So, for some people the appearance of marijuana may be due to [their] good karma. Pease don’t share this with other people.
There are guys like Jigme Lingpa6Jigme Lingpa (Tibetan: འཇིགས་མེད་གླིང་པ།) (1730-1798) = 18th century Dzogchen master, one of the most important figures in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism – see Jigme Lingpa. who would look at some people on earth who have everything, all material things that a human being can dream of, but not a moment of the sound of Dharma [in their lives]. From Jigme Lingpa’s point of view, this guy has no good karma.
So, to specifically say that a certain [particular] consequence is the result of bad karma is very difficult to decide.
[Q]: [Please can you explain the logic of cause, condition and effect] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: Earlier, I was telling you about [how] cause and effect has a sense of logic. In the dream, the glass in the dream does hold water, but that does not make that dream-glass real in the waking time [Ed.: the dream-glass functions during the dream, which might make us think that it’s real]. Now, we are talking quite philosophically. So, those who are not used to this, please bear [with] this.
Many times cause and effect is used as a tool to validate something. In your passport, which is like the proof of your existence, a big part of the passport is the birth date. When you were born. [A passport also] used to [include] even the father’s name and mother’s name [as validation], but not anymore, You understand?
Okay, let me put it another way. If you plant a tomato [seed], only a tomato [plant] grows. If you plant an orange [seed], only an orange [tree] grows. This logic then makes us forget that this is illusion [Ed.: i.e. none of tomato seed, tomato plant, orange seed or orange tree are truly existent]. Because today we plant orange [and] tomorrow only orange comes, not banana. If banana comes then we will think “Okay . . .?” There will be confusion.
So [there is] this kind of legitimation and validation through the logic of cause, condition and effect. In fact, there’s another thing that the Buddhists usually add — cause, condition, no obstacle, [then the] result is guaranteed:
- Cause: Plant a tomato seed — cause.
- Conditions: Such as fertilizer, water, space . . . there are so many. We will talk about conditions a little later, because that’s important.
- No obstacle: Meaning no insects eating the seed or no birds eating the seed.
- Result: Then even if you pray [for] no tomato, it won’t work. Tomato will still grow.
While we are at this, let’s talk about the definition [of cause]. Let’s scrutinize cause and condition. This is very tricky, [and] I think this tricky thing has really caused lots of misunderstanding.
As I said earlier, remember this. Buddhists don’t have a thesis that says “This is THE cause, the only cause”. Buddhists don’t have that. So it’s because of this that Buddhists don’t talk about Genesis. Buddhists really don’t like talking about things like “the beginning”. They scratch their heads the moment you use words like “beginning” and “end”. Then they just don’t know what to do with you. So Buddhists don’t accept [things like] an original cause.
Now conditions are myriad. Incredibly, just so vast. And this is where things get so difficult, because you cannot [account for all the conditions that influence how cause and effect function]. On a very gross level, as I’ve already told you, you can talk about the tomato seed as the real cause, [and the] fertilizer and watering as conditions, but this is only on the gross level.
On a [more] subtle level, [let’s say] you are planting a tomato in India, and let’s say you have [as] a condition some cow dung as fertilizer. And let’s say this cow ate some plastic just that morning. Can you understand now? This condition has an impact on this tomato that you are about to eat. But even this is [on] a very gross level. There are so many [other conditions]. We don’t know the great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother of this cow. We don’t know where that cow came from. Maybe Jersey? You know, there are a lot of Jersey cows in India.
And the motivation [for farmers to use] Jersey cows is because they give more milk. See? The motivation. There are people in East Bhutan — I’m sure there are some Bhutanese listening to this — there are people in East Bhutan who prefer to drink [the milk from a special Bhutanese breed of cow]. What’s the name of this special cow? Sorry, I forgot [the name]. Anyway, it’s a very special cow [which produces] very little milk, but it’s supposedly really precious and nutritious and a gold class level of milk7Ed.: DJKR is likely referring to the Nublang cattle breed. According to a survey of indigenous Bhutanese livestock by Dr. Lham Tshering and Dr. D. B. Rai:
“Nublang is the traditional cattle breed of Bhutan since its presence dates back to time immemorial. It is a Bos indicus breed of cattle which is believed to have originated from the Sangbay geog of Haa.”
They recount the traditional origin story of the Nublang as follows:
“The origin of Nublang is linked to the legendary lake – Nub Tshonapata, located on the western mountain ranges of Haa and above Nakha village in Sangbay geog. The legend resonates over many generations that the first breeding bull was gifted by the Tshomoen of Nub Tshonapata to a cow herder who generously provided food and shelter to the Tshomoen. According to the elders of Sangbeykha, the gifted bull actually appeared, heading towards the herd of the herder, after a few days of the departure of the Tshomoen. The herder took good care of the bull and crossbred it with his herd. Soon the Nublang breed became popular and spread widely in the region. Thus Sangbey geog came to be known for the best Nublang breed in the kingdom”.. Now I’m talking about human attitude and human motivation. These are all conditions.
[Q]: [What is the relationship between motivation and karma?] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: There are people who are like myself and I can sometimes be very kind of religious fanatic, you know. So there are people like me who go to India and try to drink Indian cow milk because I have this idea that maybe the Indians cow’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother may have [had] a glance of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. Wow, what a connection. You understand what I’m saying? So, that’s how the motivation plays here. That would be so good, right?
This is why people like very religious Buddhist devotees go to places like Nepal, for instance. Because somewhere in Kathmandu, around that place, a long time ago, many hundreds and thousands of years and lifetimes ago, Shakyamuni Buddha was just a bodhisattva [who was] just beginning to practice Dharma, so to speak. He was a handsome young man with long hair, all of that.
And one day as he was roaming around in the streets, he bumped into Dipankara Buddha8Dipankara (Pāli & Sanskrit: दीपंकर) = Dipankara Buddha, one of the buddhas of the past, the 25th predecessor of Shakyamuni, who was born on an island with a light show and is considered protector of mariners. He is said to have lived on Earth one hundred thousand aeons ago – see Dipankara. coming towards him. The moment he saw Dipankara Buddha, he had goosebumps. He had just an amazing feeling towards this Buddha.
And he saw [there was a pothole ahead of] Dipankara Buddha [as he] was walking on the road. Kathmandu. A muddy pothole. And he didn’t know what to do. So he quickly [cut] off his hair and placed it on the pothole, to [allow] Dipankara Buddha to walk. Dipankara Buddha walked on that, and Dipankara Buddha told him that “Many aeons later, you will become Siddhartha, Shakyamuni, Gautama”. He prophesied that.
So, many years later, there are people like us [who might have devotion towards the Buddhadharma]. Not all the time. My devotion [only comes] once in a blue moon. Not all the time. When I’m in good mood, so to speak. When I go to Kathmandu I sometimes [think] “Oh, maybe this pothole is where Shakyamuni Buddha put his hair”. So you feel [that it’s] so precious, each and every inch of Kathmandu — [even though it’s] dusty, dirty, shit everywhere, urine everywhere. You feel that anywhere could be the place where Dipankara walked and prophesied Shakyamuni Buddha. So this is what we call motivation.
[Q]: [Can a cooked egg be un-cooked?] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: Now quickly I will answer this. Because [as] I said earlier, if you cook an egg, you have a sort of a choice [about whether to cook it] soft or hard or whatever. But if you have cooked it 99.99%, or even actually fully cooked, then what? If you want to not cook [it], if you want to un-cook a totally cooked egg, what do you do? Do we now have a chance?
Yes, we do have [a chance]. And this path is called Tantrayana. Because the tantric path is not really codependent to the philosophy of cause and effect.
Again, I have used this example before so some of you are quite familiar [with it]. For a tantric [practitioner], it’s like giving a gold expert a kilo of ore — unpolished, dirty, rocky, not at all shiny. [But if you give] a kilo of [gold] ore to a goldsmith, a gold expert – this person is equally happy to gain [this kilo of gold ore as to obtain] a kilo of gold. He will not [say], “No this is not shiny”. For the goldsmith or the gold expert, this is just gold. He doesn’t see the dirt at all.
Another example is a very experienced chef. A cook. When he or she cooks an omelette, even though [the omelette includes all the ingredients such as] onion, mushroom, tomato, and oil all put together, this chef does not see them separately. The [chef] already [has the] vision of the mushroom omelette. This is how the tantric [people] see oneself and others — already as the Buddha. But anyway, let’s not go there too much.
So that’s why [something that is] 100% cooked can be uncooked. Actually, it doesn’t end there. Tantric people will not even bother [to un-cook it]. Cooking, un-cooking — all this is exhausting. Leave it as it is.
Okay, as I said, karma is very big. I’m jumping everywhere, because we need to try to have at least some kind of meaningful conversation.
[Q]: [What is the relationship between karma and rebirth?] [Ed.: question reconstructed]
[DJKR]: Karma is [related to time]. Maybe the word “related” is not the right word. [Karma is] almost synonymous to time. And therefore, whoever talks about karma, they have to talk about reincarnation. But I just want to give you a warning here that the English word “reincarnation” may not be doing justice [as a translation of] the actual word yangsi9yangsi (Tibetan: ཡང་སྲིད་) = reincarnation, rebirth; new / transmigrating existence – see yangsi., or this kind of continuity.
I already gave you the example of how in the dream, if you’re drinking a glass of water, or poison, or milk — depending on the kind of causes and conditions, not only can the glass hold the milk, [but] there’s also seemingly time. Long time and short time is very relative. If you are somebody who loves ice cream, and in the dream you are eating your favourite ice cream, time might go fast. And if you hate ice cream, and in the dream somebody forces you to eat ice cream, then time might last so long.
And this seeming continuation is the quintessential aspect of the idea of reincarnation. This is important to know.
I know [that for] many people, the moment the word “reincarnation” is used, then they think in terms of “Okay, I’m a human being right now. Maybe next life, I will be become a horse and trot” or stuff like that. That’s fine. That’s a very gross level of understanding reincarnation. But it’s actually much more than that. This morning, we were very happy, some of us. And this afternoon, maybe we are not happy. And this evening, maybe we will be happy. Colours, manifestation, outfit, attitude — [all these are] changing. At the same time, there’s a continuation.
[Q]: [Please can you explain karmic connection and karmic debt] [Ed.: question reconstructed]10Ed.: During the teaching, DJKR answered this question as part of his answer to the next question “Why should we understand karma?” They have been separated for clarity.
[DJKR]: I think people are also interested to know about karmic connection and karmic debt, which are very related. Yes. Just as I talked about invisible causes and conditions. Remember, I was talking about the cow and all that? This applies here.
And you may think I’m being very romantic here. It is possible that right this very moment, somewhere in Bolivia, [there is] a person who is karmically connected to me. [And] because I’m using my hand too much here like this [DJKR waves his left hand from side to side in large motions], he’s feeling it. It’s possible.
And by the time we go into this, then people say “Oh, now he’s talking about myth. And now he’s talking religion”, but okay. So be it. It doesn’t matter. You can think like that. But remember the logic of the great, great, great, great, great grandmother of the cow? If you apply that, I think you will then understand this a little.
Because it’s happening right now. [Between] me and some of you. I mean, for some of you we have never met. But here you are sacrificing two or three good hours of a Sunday [during] which you could have done so many other things like swimming or barbecue or whatever. But you are here listening to me. So [that’s] karmic debt. Maybe you are paying me? Or I’m paying you? We don’t know.
I’m a Buddhist. I’m surrounded by Buddhist texts. Yet sometimes I choose to read books like “Kafka on the shore” by Murakami. I’m reading ten pages, twenty pages. Somebody is making a sandwich but I’m still reading. [This is] karmic debt. I’m paying to him [i.e. Murakami] or he’s paying to me, whatever.
[Q]: Why should we understand karma? Why should we really even bother about it?
[DJKR]: This is important. Understanding karma is important because we all want freedom. If you want freedom, you need to understand how the game of cause and condition and effect is played. The rules of the game. How it is being played. Of course, ultimately, as Buddhists, [we] don’t want to be involved with the game. Of course, that’s the ultimate aim. But since we have already started to play the game now, [while] aiming not to play the game, we need to finish the game so to speak.
What does this mean? This means all systems that we believe will work [like] socialism, democracy, elections, this, that — we don’t really know. We think they’re working, but it’s bit like the milk in the dream or the bleach in the dream.
Okay. Lastly, by understanding karma, you will realize that nothing is independently [or] truly existing in an isolated way. And this will help you to have a bigger picture of your life. So, do you want to be a good manager, a good leader, boyfriend, girlfriend, father, mother, parent? [For] all these, understanding karma — how the game is played and the rules of the game — I think it can help.
This is basically a very rough attempt to explain karma [from] a few different angles. Of course, this is a very difficult subject and I hope I have answered some of your questions. Maybe I will also take three live questions.
[Q]: Can you talk about collective karma. Is there such a term? Does that exist?
[DJKR]: Very good. Yes. This is another big one. So bear in mind first that “collective” is very broad language. First just keep this in your head. There are about twenty people here and we’re all looking at a tree. And most of these people in front of me are human beings, I think. Which means that something like this with leaves and branches that has root growing, going inside the earth is being taught [to us] as a “tree”. I’m talking about “collective”. This very big generalization. Some of you here may be allergic to this tree. So they have a specific thing going on.
And lots of people here right now, you’re not looking at this tree. So I’m sorry, [but then] you and I don’t have a collective karma to have the experience of seeing [this] tree. But I think we have a collective karma to hear about the tree. That’s just an example.
And I think a very big one is the virus that’s happening right now [i.e. COVID-19]. That may be a very big collective karmic experience that we are having. Is it bad or good? Wow. That’s so difficult to say. between human beings, I guess we should say it’s bad. But I heard that a lot of animals are having a good time. You see? Again, good and bad are very subjective here.
And for us followers of the Buddha, it is our collective karma that Shakyamuni Buddha came on this earth, and his teachings are still alive. Okay, next question.
[Q]: What is the relationship between good karma and merit? Is there a difference between the two?
[DJKR]: Merit, again, is a tricky word. I think this English word may not be doing the justice to translate the Sanskrit word punya11punya (Sanskrit: पुण्य) = merit, virtue, meritorious karma – see punya.. This is an important question, so I’m going to explain this a little bit. I think this is a fundamental question about ethics, isn’t it?
First, please keep in your head that morality, ethics, all these are secondary in Buddhism. If wisdom, compassion and morality are going for a drive, wisdom will be the driver. Compassion sits [beside] on the front seat. Morality is on the back seat, sometimes maybe in the trunk. I’m just sort of exaggerating a little bit to promote wisdom and compassion.
[When it comes to] ethics and morality, ultimately the quintessence [of the Buddhadharma is] nonduality. [Whereas], ethics is so dualistic. You understand? There’s the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. So wisdom has to basically overtake this [duality].
There are many reasons for that, but one is this. How do you define what is [ethically] right? How do you decide? Well, [you use] some very relative logic. What you don’t like, you don’t do to others. I think there’s an expression like this [in Tibetan]. Use your own body and existence as an example. And what you don’t like, don’t do to others. That’s about all. It’s relative.
I don’t like getting punched by somebody. So therefore, I also don’t punch others. Because I’m assuming that the other person, [who is also a] human being, doesn’t like being punched. Let’s say I’ve been migrated to Mars. And there the most intimate thing to do is to punch [someone else]. And let’s say, I have been there for ten years now. Okay, after [only] one year I’m excused because I don’t know the culture or the habit. But I’ve been there for ten years, and I know they love being punched. And if I don’t punch them, I don’t know whether it’s good karma or bad karma. Something to think about. You guys should think about this.
[Q]: Can anyone bear (i.e. take on) the karmic consequences of sentient beings?
[DJKR]: I will try to explain this one. But please bear in mind, I don’t want you to hear it in a sort of a theistic way. Buddha himself said that Buddha cannot wipe away your suffering. He can only teach you the way to liberate yourself from suffering and the causes of suffering12From Dhammapada, Dhp. XX.4:
It’s for you to strive ardently.
Tathagatas simply point out the way
(trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) – see Dhammapada..
But bodhisattvas pray “May all beings’ suffering come to me”. For the beginner bodhisattvas, this is a quintessential practice. But this one serves [as a skillful means] on many different levels. On one level, bodhisattvas are trying to really crush self cherishing. So, [they practice this] on that level. On another level, bodhisattvas are trying to put their feet in others’ shoes. [So they practice on] that level.
And ultimately Bodhisattvas are learning to actualize that there is no self and other. Nonduality. So in order to get accustomed to that kind of attitude of nonduality, they use the [method of thinking] the opposite of our usual thinking. For instance, usually when we suffer, the first thing we think about is ourselves. But bodhisattvas train themselves to not think this way.
Yes, so the real answer [is that due to] the power of the bodhisattvas’ aspiration and bodhichitta [they are able to take on the suffering of all sentient beings]. They not only practice to [bring] all others’ suffering to themselves — [the next part] is tricky. You may hear this in a wrong way, so I’m bit worried — this can [alleviate] others’ suffering, but by the time it [i.e. the suffering of others] reaches the bodhisattva himself, it’s no longer suffering. Shantideva said this very clearly13Ed.: This idea is found in several places in Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (The way of the bodhisattva), for example VIII.92-97:
This pain of mine does not afflict
Or cause discomfort to another’s body,
And yet this pain is hard for me to bear
Because I cling and take it for my own.
And other beings’ pain
I do not feel, and yet,
Because I take them for myself,
Their suffering is mine and therefore hard to bear.
And therefore I’ll dispel the pain of others,
For it is simply pain, just like my own.
And others I will aid and benefit,
For they are living beings, like my body.
Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?
Since I and other beings both,
In fleeing suffering, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should save myself and not the others?
Since the pain of others does no harm to me,
I do not shield myself from it.
So why to guard against “my” future pain,
Which does no harm to this, my present “me”?
(trans. Padmakara Translation Group) – see Bodhicharyavatara..
I think for most of our ears, it may not fit in. A statement such as “For a bodhisattva it is a joy when the suffering of others comes to them. So it’s no more suffering”14Ed.: This idea is found in several places in Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (The way of the bodhisattva), for example VIII.107:
“Those whose minds are practiced in this way,
Whose joy it is to soothe another’s ills,
Will venture into hell of Unrelenting Pain
As swans sweep down upon a lotus lake.”
(trans. Padmakara Translation Group) – see Bodhicharyavatara.. Can you understand the logic? So, don’t think that a bodhisattva is a masochist or something.
And it’s doable. There’s a whole training on this. Even if you are the most stingy person [you can learn to be generous]. First you learn to give with your left hand to your right hand. I’m serious, there’s actually [a practice of] giving with the left hand to the right hand 100,000 times, like this. Then maybe [you can give other people some] chewing gum. I made this up. Shantideva said vegetable15Ed.: From Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (The way of the bodhisattva), VII.25:
“Our guide instructs us to begin
By giving vegetable greens or other little things,
That later, step-by-step, the habit once acquired,
We may be able to donate our very flesh.”
(trans. Padmakara Translation Group) – see Bodhicharyavatara.. You train and train. Then one day, somebody wants your left arm? No problem. [You will give it to them in just the same way] that you have no problem to give up your chewing gum.
I don’t think the common people can understand this. But it’s not that difficult to understand actually, if you apply a bit of analysis. If you have too many stuffed animals [or] dolls in your house, in your Iiving room, [and they] are taking up too much of your space, then you have no qualms in giving them away, right? Because you have realized this is just a stuffed animal. It’s not a real bear.
That’s it. Thank you so much. I hope this works as the beginning of discussing karma. Karma is very big. There is a sutra called the Rice Seedling Sutra16The Rice Seedling Sutra or Śālistamba-sūtra is available at 84000, where the sutra is summarized as follows:
“In this sūtra, at the request of venerable Śāriputra, the bodhisattva mahāsattva Maitreya elucidates a very brief teaching on dependent arising that the Buddha had given earlier that day while gazing at a rice seedling. The text discusses outer and inner causation and its conditions, describes in detail the twelvefold cycle by which inner dependent arising gives rise to successive lives, and explains how understanding the very nature of that process can lead to freedom from it”.. If you are interested, you can look into that. You can begin [as] a karma-fearing person. But hopefully, you [will] transcend from karma-fearing to karma understanding. And then hopefully, [you will] shrug off all kinds of karma, of course the bad karma, but even the good.
Okay, thank you.
[END OF TALK 2]
Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers
Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio