Working with karma

Category: Mahayana

Lecture given by Jigme Rinpoche at Bodhi Path Buddhist Center,
Washington D.C. in 2002


We begin every teaching with prayers to the Refuge, to the Bodhisattva commitment, and to the Guru-masters.Refuge in Tibetan means protection, in the Buddhist context, it means to be protected by all the completely enlightened beings who are the Buddhas. We are also protected by the truth of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddhas. In addition, we follow the Sangha who act as our guides on the Path of Dharma. These are beings who have already achieved a certain level of enlightened wisdom through their own Dharma practice. They are therefore qualified guides for us. We seek to be connected to these three aspects of Refuge to avert our deviating into the wrong direction. We wish to stay on the right path.

The second prayer reflects the importance to develop the Bodhicitta attitude. When we go to receive the Dharma, or when we practise the Dharma, we are not doing it to solely benefit ourselves. It is natural that we initially seek out the Dharma for our own sake. But we must at the same time, start to learn to be concerned for other beings as well. We learn to adopt an attitude, or an aspiration that we may become useful to others. We try to share always with others whatever knowledge we may acquire. This open, and genuine altruistic care and concern for others is Bodhicitta.

When we pray to the Guru as in Guru Yoga, we seek to receive the essence of the knowledge and capacity of our Buddha nature mind. This is accomplished through our connection to the qualities of the Guru which will lead us to realize the essential meaning of the Dharma thereby we become liberated from our suffering and our illusions. This is just what the Buddha had taught us, to begin to step away from samsara and towards nirvana through a process of our own awakening to the truth.

As we say the prayers, we try to keep our understanding in mind concerning Refuge, Bodhicitta, and our connection to the realized masters.

The term, Buddha, in Tibetan, means someone who is totally enlightened, San Gye. He is someone whose knowledge is complete, or all knowing. In Indian, the term is Bhagavan. A little more than 2500 years ago, the Buddha explained that all beings could improve their conditions by connecting to the truth. We should first try to understand and then to act according to the truth. This will inevitably bring about better and beneficial results for oneself as well as for others.

The Buddha explained that each and every being has an innate and basic potential. This potential is wisdom, and it can be developed. Just as he himself developed his wisdom and reached enlightenment, similarly, we can also achieve this same result. The Buddha then taught extensively and exclusively to reach this one goal. He explained in great details the obstacles preventing us from developing our inner potential. He elucidated the methods, the practices as remedies to help us overcome our obstacles. He taught the path of meditation as the means to develop our innate wisdom.

The Buddha’s teachings are very vast and profound. The translations in Tibetan alone total 103 volumes. These are massive volumes of the Buddha’s original teachings. Then there are the numerous commentaries and explanations given by the Buddha’s disciples, great Indian scholars, and panditas that serve to further clarify and to make more precise the very profound meanings of the teachings. These make up additional volumes numbering almost 200. Add to these the numerous Tibetan commentaries that have been passed down through the generations to the present day, the existing volumes of Buddhist teachings have reached well into the thousands! Numerous commentaries given by the different scholars and yogis accompany every original teaching. This is important so as to present a complete view which would otherwise be difficult for one person alone to give. Of course, the commentators from the past were themselves high-realized masters. Through rigorous debates among themselves, they were able to make the explanations ever clearer and more precise for the followers at large. Each generation of realized masters contributes towards improving the explanations. This work continues today. The result is anyone who takes the time to look for an explanation to a subject will no doubt find a very clearly presented one.

Despite the vast volumes of teachings that are available to us, I feel that the Dharma can be followed in a very simple way without studying all of them. In our centers in France, we try to follow in a very simple way. People do not have so much time to study and learn. From the very large commentaries, the realized masters have neatly extracted the precise meanings and incorporated them into what we’d call, essential practices. These are then introduced to the people so they could easily follow the Dharma. If you can understand and can get the basic meanings, then everything becomes very simple for you. There may be intellectuals, or practitioners, or scholars who wish to study and to do research in the Dharma. They can study the detailed proofs of the different theories which can be very complicated. They can rely on the extensive volumes of explanations which are there to validate and to clarify them.

What is karma?

Karma can be translated from the Sanskrit or Tibetan term as cause and effect, or action and result. Very simply, the Buddha explained that we are human beings and as such, we have to go through birth, aging, and then death. Some of us think that death marks the end of living. Others among us believe that there is continuity after death. Some people think in terms of existence versus non-existence. The Buddha’s answer is that we are here now as human beings but when we die, our mind continues.

There is a term, reincarnation, which is a Christian term. The Christian explanation is somewhat different than the Buddhist’s concept. I discovered this during an inter-faith dialogue with a Catholic priest. By karma in the Buddhist context, we are simply saying that since we exist, then at the end of life, we have to go somewhere. This is all we mean by reincarnation. It is easier to understand if you do not have a preconceived notion of reincarnation which might confuse you. The Buddha told us that it is the mind that reincarnates.

Each human being has a mind. Each human being has a body. Each human being has a name. The mind identifies with the body with a name and thinks that there is a self, “I am so and so.” The Dharma explains that it is due to our habitual tendencies that we feel that there is a “self”. Some realized lamas have described the mind as being like energy, like air, without any form whatsoever. There are many terms used to label it, such as soul, thoughts, or consciousness. These terms can be confusing. For simplicity’s sake, I always refer to it as the mind.

When one dies, the mind does not stay with the body. The mind actually separates from the physical form. Reincarnation in the Buddhist context means that my mind continues while my body changes into another form. My mind continues into another form of being. The Buddha explained that there are six “form” realms of beings as well as some formless states of beings. The basic point is that the mind can take on any form or any state of being. Which form you end up with depends on your own knowledge and ability which is your karma. Your reincarnation is directly based on your karma. If I go into the city, I will choose according to what I feel like. For example, I can choose to go to a park, or to a restaurant, to a shop, etc. How I choose will depend on my own inclinations and feelings. Our rebirth after the present life is similarly based on our inner conditions. Since our inner conditions are based on our karma the Buddha said that our own basic individual karma would “choose” or “influence”, or “determine” the form of rebirth. With the passing of one life form, the mind without a body is like air, transparent. The mind can feel without an “I” and it can perceive any condition, or any form of life. Having taken rebirth, we will again go through the life cycle creating more karma until its end marked by death. This is a fundamental truth that the Buddha discovered, and he called this endless cycle of rebirths samsara. The crux of his teachings is that if we live in tuned to only how we feel, or we simply follow whatever and wherever we are connected, then we will always act akin to the same influences and conditions which bind us. We will never get free. We will inevitably continue to accumulate causes of like karma, and experience like results.

To think more carefully in order to change

It might therefore be worthwhile for each of us to take a step back and try to listen and introspect more carefully. The Dharma tells us that karma is ever present and samsara is continuing. Everything is nice, yet everything is also difficult, so we have to think more carefully. The Buddha taught us many different paths and results but they all lead to the final destination called beyond samsara. In ancient times, they coined the term, nirvana, to signify this liberation when our consciousness becomes totally clear. I am not saying that we are in complete darkness right now. We are who we are right now. This is fine. We can of course continue to follow what we have been doing so far with all our ups and our downs. But we can do better. There is a better way.

Try not to follow the ignorance

The Buddha introduced us to the basic state of ignorance, or marigpa, in Tibetan. He explained that we are always in marigpa, which means we are not seeing properly. Ignorance, or marigpa, does not mean stupid. It means that while you may be clever, and you have wisdom, nevertheless you don’t see your wisdom. Not seeing clearly, you could therefore act wrongly. Everything is linked or interdependent. This is how karma works. If you act positively, the result will be good. If you do wrong, the results will not be good. Your positive actions can create benefit for others, and vice versa, your negative actions will hurt others and you, too.

The teachings tell us not to follow the ignorance. The question is how to clear oneself of this fundamental ignorance. The answer is meditation. After the Buddha was enlightened, he gave teachings to his followers on a personal level. Many people went to him for help and for guidance. The Buddha gave them teachings fitting their individual propensities and personal capacities. First, he emphasized teachings that are aimed to help the person. These are generally referred to as the Hinayana teachings. The Buddha himself did not make any kind of categorizing such as Hinayana versus Mahayana. Some Buddhist followers arbitrarily created these terms in later generations since the Buddha passed away. Second, the Buddha taught how not to be caught up in self-centeredness but to always think for others’ benefit as well. These teachings are more commonly referred to as the Mahayana. Actually, nowadays, all these teachings are combined so the man-made categorizations such as Hinayana, Mahayana, or Vajrayana. have not as much significance they did in earlier times. The terms of differentiation still exist today. However, when we explain, teach, or apply the meaning of the Dharma, no such distinctions are made.

The Buddha first taught about the self. He expounded the truth of individual karma, and its result which underlies the cycle of rebirths in samsara. He taught about the different sufferings in samsara due to the mistaken identification with a self under the influence of ignorance in the mind. This is the reason why we should try to get free of the ignorance. We will then understand more clearly and we will fare much better. The Buddha gave teachings on the two truths – the relative and the absolute truths. His teachings on the relative truth bring results that pertain to our human existence in the here and now. His teachings on the absolute truth bring us to Buddhahood. We all have the potential to achieve this absolute result. To be free from ignorance applies both in our relative existence at this present time as well as when enlightenment is achieved. We now turn to the methods taught by the Buddha which form the Path of Practice, which will lead us to liberation.

One of the main emphases of the Hinayana teachings is that we should not suffer. It is possible to be free from suffering. We are human beings and at the end of this life we will continue to live many more lives. Our future is filled with uncertainties. If we want to ensure a better future then we need to live by proper ethics now. While we are relatively free. We should act morally grounded in a genuine wish to benefit others. In order to act positively, all our ideas and concepts have to become clear to us. We try to engage in positive thoughts and avoid all connections to negative thoughts. Our speech and actions would then follow our positive inner inclinations and intent naturally.

…to be continued….

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