Working With Karma
by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
Karma is a very complicated topic in one sense, as we have seen, and yet we do not wish to become more confused than we already are. We need to appreciate its workings at a relatively simple and pragmatic level as well. In terms of prioritising our actions, should we decide to work with our karma, we first focus on reducing negative karma. We refrain from certain actions, the actions we have identified as most harmful. We pay no attention to trying to do positive things; we forget about trying to “save lives”; we just try not to do our worst. The avoidance of negative actions is enough initially, before moving on to more positive initiatives. We need to feel clear of not having to actively avoid bad acts. The idea, simply enough, is that it is more helpful to focus on what we can achieve rather than struggle unprofitably with a problem that overwhelms us and will in itself become more burdensome if handled incorrectly. Approaching things with a very punitive attitude might be an example of such an unskillful approach, where castigating ourselves continually, thinking “I should be doing this, and I can’t; why can’t I do this?” just gets us more and more upset. Instead, we put aside the more ambitious projects and focus on what can be done, and in undertaking things this way, we see much more clearly the various things that we can do to continue to improve the situation. Letting go of the things we cannot immediately attain itself creates very positive karma. Immediately there is a cumulative response, as we are no longer simply thinking about avoiding acts that result in negative karma but are generating good karma, which has the power to further diminish the negative karma, almost automatically.
When we start to think about things in a positive light, the habits we attract at this point are not habit-forming in the strict sense of the word. Bad habits, however, become habits in a very precise sense — they narrow the scope of perspective and are extremely predictable. Good habits, in contrast, do not lead us to do the same thing over and over. When we are helpful to people, for example, we suddenly become ingenious about the ways we go about things, from a spontaneous verbal encouragement to someone in despair, to giving some financial assistance. Negative frames of mind, though, produce the opposite — very predictable results. The same words are used the same expressions and gestures. Everyone knows what will be said. When we are in a positive mood and a positive way of being, we want to interact, and so we engage and pick up on what it is that needs doing. In this way, we become increasingly free.
This is why it is said in Buddhism that by creating good karma we can actually stop creating karma altogether. This notion is very poorly understood at present. People fail to appreciate the different qualities of bad and good karma, thinking that if we habituate ourselves to good karma, in preference to bad, it nevertheless still amounts to habituation. We are still going to get “stuck” doing good karma, and how are we to free ourselves from that? The fundamental reason why this can be done is that because good karma, done properly, created properly, is not habit-forming. It is not habit-forming because it is spontaneous, rising from a mentality where ego is not central. Habit-forming activities issue from ego-obsession, so when we rest the ego a little and bypass the “me, me, me” thinking, we become more outwardly directed and more outwardly engaged. A richness flows into this type of environment on many levels. All this relates back to Buddhism’s basic core, which is the problem of ego. It suggests that we are wearing an armour of egotism that holds us back from connecting with others, and likewise with ourselves. On a worldwide scale, then, bad karma is generated aplenty, and there is the tremendous difficulty associated with generating good karma — for example, being engaged, being helpful, displaying our potentialities.
Buddhist ethics and morality are based on our human nature. Our nature is one of tremendous potentiality, but a potentiality seldom explored. Due to our habits, we have done almost every conceivable thing except take full advantage of our potentiality. In fact, we have achieved the opposite, firmly putting a lid on our potential. The further we traverse this path, the more we suppress the near primal urge for awakening. Mahayana Buddhism presents this aspect in the idea of buddha nature. In the Mahayanottaratantra, where the notion is introduced, it states, “We have an urge to become awakened.” In that text, Asanga and Maitreya (Maitreya is supposed to be the author, but it is definitely Asanga who wrote the text) make it plain that even our vexation or suffering is a warning signal alerting us to our complacency. Therefore, if we are feeling mental or spiritual pain, we should heed that warning, as we heed our body when it is not doing very well. When we have bodily pain, here and there, we do not simply ignore it, thinking, “Oh, I can handle it.” By paying attention to such things, we will see that they are communicating to us that we should not be so comfortable with where we are at and that we are capable of much more. We can get more out of life than we are getting right now. That is the message of the Mahayanottaratantra.
In describing this tremendous potentiality available to us, the metaphor of wealth is commonly employed in Mahayana teachings. Wealth is described in a variety of ways, including material wealth, which is not discouraged at all, if one looks closely at Mahayana texts. More importantly, though, wealth is related to internal wealth, which comes from the cultivation of positive thoughts, positive emotions, positive feelings, and from engaging in wholesome activities and in doing things that bring us genuine satisfaction. A life led with real satisfaction is far more pleasurable and enjoyable than one lived without such a feeling. A life lived without satisfaction and pleasure lacks enrichment.
Hence, Buddhist iconography — the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the thangkas, for example — is laden with jewels, ornaments, bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. Male and female Bodhisattvas wear jewellery and come in all shapes and forms. We are meant to view this display with a sense of enrichment. Curiously, the more enriched we feel, the less attached to things we are. The more poverty-stricken we feel, the more that clinginess and neediness gnaw away at us. The more enriched we feel, the less needy and grasping our outlook, because we already feel rich. This approach to our lives will carry into the next life and will continue to enrich subsequent lives. In fact, if we feel enriched, we invariably attract richness at a multitude of levels. Even at a mundane level, we attract friends and success, and some wealth, and so on. The Mahayana Buddhist teachings actually go further and state that if we are able to be properly patient in this life, in the next we will be born as a very attractive person, or if we practice generosity, we will be born very wealthy in a subsequent life. Whether we take such information completely literally or not is not all that important. The rudimentary logic of karma and Buddhist practice remains.
Buddha’s idea of karma was infinitely complex, and he strove to avoid any type of mechanical interpretation. Whenever we have a new thought or feeling, it latches on to a preexisting pattern in a number of diverse systems, sending a ripple effect throughout. There are many kinds of networks operating simultaneously in our psychophysical system at any given time. This is really the Buddhist view. In our normal fragmented state, these things are operating at cross-purposes. So when we learn about creating positive and wholesome karma and so forth, we begin to learn how to bring all these different networks together into a harmonious operation. However, doing this is difficult for most people since according to Buddhist teachings, we generally have very little willpower, which is why karma is created, especially negative karma, due to weakness in our character. We act mostly out of ignorance, and therefore, most of what we do is done without knowing the full implications of our acts. This is a sign of moral failure rather than moral wrongness.
If we had full cognisance of what we are doing and we still went ahead, that would be a very different matter than acting without knowing any better. Normally, we are fumbling about in this sense, groping in the dark. The proper cultivation of karma is to clear out some of the cobwebs and reconnect with the highly complex network of karmic imprints and effects, and in doing so, discover a more unified perspective on our life. Until then, we will be pulled this way and that, which is actually called le lung in Tibetan, “the blowing of karma.” It is as if someone or something was pushing us. There is nothing wrong with thoughts, emotions, and feelings, but particular varieties have the capacity to disrupt our balance and confuse our minds, rendering us incapable of fully appreciating what is going on. The Buddha stated that when we think very clearly, there is no disruption of the mind. Cultivating ourselves karmically is thus synonymous with strengthening our character and building ourselves up. On the surface of things, it seems ironical that Buddhism, which teaches a selfless agent, should recommend learning to be strong, resolute, and almost wilful, but it is a matter of establishing balance, a counter to our habit of fixation. It is lack of will, according to the Buddha, that leaves us vulnerable to all manner of things, both inner conflicts and outer negative influences.
Fixation on the self leads to all manner of undesirable behaviours and outcomes. It leads to the path of self-destruction because we choose to think things that are clearly unhelpful, harbour feelings we should not, and arrange activities that are clearly misguided. Fixation breaks us down and does not in fact make us stronger at all. In Buddhist literature, there is the image of the weary traveller in samsara. When we come into this world, we have no fixed abode — samsara is not a place where we can just settle in and hang up our hat, calling it home and taking it easy. Rather, as soon as we come into this world, we are compelled to keep moving. There is no stopping, which is why the term “migrating sentient creatures” is used. All sentient beings are migrating in this way, travelling on and on, getting beaten down as life experiences accumulate and the burdens they carry get heavier — but we must go on, though it gets harder the longer it goes on. Eventually, as the Buddha said, we are completely exhausted and weakened through all the fighting and conflict. In this panoramic context of weariness, it is ethical cultivation that allows us to rejuvenate, to replenish our depleted resources. In our negative state of being, we are continually spending — spending and spending, running into debt — whereas when engaged in karmic cultivation, we are accumulating and accumulating. Mahayana Buddhism stipulates that there are two accumulations: the accumulation of merit and the accumulation of wisdom. When we are accumulating, we are not spending. When we are not cultivating ourselves, we are over-spending, going into deficit, and there is a penalty involved in this, unfortunately.
When we enrich ourselves, our sense of selfhood blossoms. In other words, we have to become what we want to become. We have the opportunity and the ability to become what we want to become. This is what the accumulation of wisdom and merit amounts to. If we have a good thought, that is meritorious. If we have a good feeling, that is meritorious. If we use our limbs for a good purpose, that too is meritorious. We open doors with a sense of conscientiousness and wash the dishes with a sense of care and respect — not just clanging them around, cursing our partner for leaving them. If we have a good thought, even about ourselves, thinking, “I’m not a bad person after all,” and if someone does us a little favour, however meagre, we are appreciative. All this is meritorious.
By paying attention to all the things that we can pay attention to straight away, we come to know what it is that we need to do to become the kind of person we want to become. If we can think the kind of things we should be thinking, feel the kind of things we should be feeling, and if we have the emotional repertoire we need to flourish and live well, to lead the good life in the true sense of the word, then what more is needed? If we feel satisfied and fulfilled, then we don’t need anything more. That is the aim of life. We can even secure nirvana, enlightenment, liberation, through these means. Contrary to what many people believe, the Buddha was not really interested in dispelling all illusions or stripping away all we are familiar with, in order to make contact with some indescribable mysterious reality. Rather, he advised us to jettison certain aspects of ourselves that weigh us down. We should unburden ourselves. On the other hand, we should acquire things worth accumulating. An analogy might be emptying our house of junk and replacing it with a few nice pieces of furniture, which allows us to enjoy our surroundings in peace, with a sense of harmony. Instead of accumulating the clutter of a hoarder, a house with all sorts of rubbish that we refuse to relinquish, clinging to the most ludicrous things, like an empty can, as a treasure we sincerely cherish, we learn to prioritise. In our normal mode of creating negative karma, we are in fact accumulating junk, both literal and figurative, and we are finding refuge in the midst of a rubbish heap. Ethical cultivation is akin to embarking on a big cleanup job, getting rid of all this stuff, and then selectively acquiring some choice things worth keeping, rather than any odd thing.
Similarly, we try to let go of unnecessary thoughts, excessive thoughts. We try to calm down a little and reduce the extent to which we indulge in things. We encourage feelings that are comforting and wholesome and try not to dwell too much on negative feelings. Of course, being sentient creatures, living in ignorance, it cannot be expected that we will not indulge in any kind of negative thoughts or sentiment, but nevertheless, we try to minimise and let them go as quickly as possible. We don’t “harp” on it, or talk too much about it, which only reinforces the conviction, waters the seed: “Oh, I can’t handle this; it’s just too much; my life is a mess.” In this fashion, we only make sure of the mess we live in. Beating ourselves down like this only reinforces our negative karmic patterns, which have rippling effects in every quarter of our lives — personal, professional, interpersonal, and so on.
Therefore karma is not to be thought of as a burden we carry around, or as a kind of moralism where things are clear-cut, with good people here and bad people over there, and where good and bad actions are absolutely distinct and separate. This is definitely not the way to think of karma since what is wholesome is cultivated in relation to what is unwholesome, and vice versa. Good karma and bad karma are thereby in intimate relationship, and it is not the case that good karma can be cultivated independently of bad karma. One cannot have good thoughts without also having bad thoughts. It has been said many times in the Buddhist teachings that sunlight cannot dispel the darkness if there is no darkness. What we have to become is no different to what we are becoming. We cannot say, “I don’t want to be such and such a person,” if we are already acting like that person. Conversely, we cannot say, “I want to be such and such a person,” if we are doing nothing to become that kind of person. We have to make a start now, and then we begin to become that person. No one suddenly becomes a guitarist; we have to pick up the guitar, take some lessons, and start learning to play it.