It is important for us to reflect on how we got to where we are today and how we can change in the future. Let me illustrate how our thoughts and feelings can change the quality and direction of our life. Unfortunately, if I use a negative story, it might be easier for us to get the point, as we are all personally well versed in such things.

So, say that we have an unpleasant exchange with a co-worker one day. It isn’t significant, but we keep thinking about it and feeling dislike for that person. Soon, whatever this person says or does, whether it actually touches us or not, annoys us. Every exchange, whether smiling or frowning, triggers harsh feelings in us toward them. After some time, even seeing this person’s e-mail in our inbox can make our heart skip a beat. Then, merely thinking about this person makes us feel frustrated and miserable. It doesn’t matter if they are miles away. It consumes us. We constantly bring their annoying demeanour vividly to mind and keep hearing their irritating voice loudly — as if they were right in our face.

Obviously, real harmful actions and harsh words will fly back and forth when you actually meet. We may force ourselves to smile, but whatever we say or do relating to this person will become harmful. Our forced nice gestures won’t charm anyone, as they came from an agitated state of mind. This illustration is probably familiar to many of us.

But it is ourselves that we harm most. We accumulate poisonous emotions that hurt the elements and energy systems of our body and can lead to sickness and disease.

— Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche 42.

Seeing through wisdom that all defects of defiling emotions arise from the view of substantiality, and knowing the ‘ I’ to be its object, the yogis negate the ‘I’ .

— Chandrakirti

Chandrakīrti (月称菩萨) 11.

The Spirit of All Traditions
by Kalu Rinpoche

Westerners have achieved an astonishingly high level of technological sophistication. Mass-produced machines allow us to travel through the air at great speed, explore the depths of the ocean, and witness instantly whatever is happening in any corner of the world and even beyond our own planet. Yet our own mind, which is so close to us, remains impenetrable: we do not understand what our own mind really is. This is a paradox because, even though we have extremely refined telescopes to see light-years away and microscopes powerful enough to distinguish the atomic details of matter, the mind, which is the most basic and intimate aspect of our being, remains the most unrecognised, mysterious, and unknown.

Scientific developments and control over our material conditions have brought us a relatively high level of comfort and physical well-being. This is certainly wonderful, but even so, progress in science and technology does not prevent the mind from remaining in ignorance about itself and therefore conditioned and afflicted by suffering, frustration, and anguish. To alleviate these problems, it is crucial to discover and understand the actual nature of our own minds.


The main point here is to understand our real nature, or what we actually are. Many of you know many things; you are educated. Try to use your capacities to study the mind.

You mustn’t think this kind of investigation applies only to a small elite. Each of us has a mind whose nature is the same as everyone else’s. We are all alike; we all have the feeling of existing with an ego which is subjected to all kinds of hardships and suffering, anxieties and fears. All of this results from ignorance about our basic nature. If we can reach the understanding of what we actually are, there is no better remedy for eliminating all suffering. This is the heart of all spiritual practices.

All spiritual traditions, whether Christian, Hindu, Judaic, Islamic, or Buddhist, teach that the understanding of what we are at the deepest level is the main point. This understanding of the nature of mind sheds light from within and illuminates the teachings of all traditions. In every tradition, whoever gains first hand, experiential understanding of mind and retains that kind of awareness is led to a worldview that would not have been possible prior to this direct experience. Knowledge of the nature of mind is the key that yields an understanding of all teachings; it sheds light on what we are, the nature of all our experiences, and reveals the deepest form of love and compassion. The actual realisation of the nature of mind opens onto a complete understanding of Dharma and all the traditions. To have a good theoretical knowledge of Dharma or any other spiritual tradition and to effectively realise the ultimate nature of mind, however, are profoundly different. Even a realised being who is not involved in a particular spiritual tradition would have while living in the ordinary world, an extremely beneficial influence.

I would like to emphasise that this is true regardless of the spiritual tradition Every tradition is illuminated by this awareness. But it is especially the case in the Buddha’s teachings, in which this knowledge constitutes the heart and goal of all his instruction.

Kalu Rinpoche 31.

The ego prevents us from helping ourselves by presenting a false notion of what it really means to help ourselves.

— Gelek Rimpoche

Gelek Rinpoche 7.

Healing the Body and Mind
by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

To find true well-being, the best place to look is close to home. We could travel around the globe a hundred times, turning over every stone on earth in the quest for happiness. Yet this would not necessarily give us what we seek. Money does not necessarily grant well-being either, nor does a youthful or healthy body. Health and money can help us, of course. But the real source of peace and joy is our minds.

The mind wants to be peaceful; this is really its natural state. But there are so many distractions and cravings that can obscure our peaceful nature. A characteristic of our time is the speed of our daily lives, especially in the West. Everything is a rush. Meditation can slow us down so that we touch our true nature. Any meditation can help us. The object of our contemplation could be a flower, a religious image, or a positive feeling. Or it could be our own bodies.

One especially rich way to develop a peaceful mind is to meditate upon the body. By doing this, we promote the welfare of our whole being.

Through meditation, we can learn how to encourage our minds to create a feeling of peace in the body. This can be as simple as relaxing and saying to ourselves, “Let my body be calm and peaceful now,” and really feeling that this is happening. It is the beginning of meditation — and of wisdom, too.

This approach is a kind of homecoming. We are reintroducing ourselves to our bodies and establishing a positive connection between mind and body. Quite often, we have a rather strained and distant relationship to our own bodies. We think of the body as unattractive or ugly, or maybe our health is poor. Or else we like the body, cherish it, and foster cravings around it. But even if we cherish the body, we worry that it could be better than it is or that it will get sick or grow old. So we are conflicted and ambivalent. The body is an object of anxiety.

The meditations in this book will help us approach the body with a realistic attitude, accepting it as it is. Then we will practice how to see the body as very peaceful, a body filled with light and warmth. So many mental and physical afflictions are associated with the body, and meditation can help to heal them.

Mind and body are intimately connected, and die relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So although the body is the object to be healed, it also becomes the means of healing the mind — which is the ultimate goal of meditation.

When our minds are peaceful in meditation, there is no other mind. Even if the peaceful feeling goes away, we are developing the habit of a peaceful mind. Our minds are becoming accustomed to their true nature. Really, it all comes back to the mind. This is where our true happiness is. The Buddha said:

Mind is the main factor and forerunner of all actions.
Whoever acts or speaks
With a pure thought
Will enjoy happiness as the result.

Like a physician treating a patient, Buddhism deals with mental, emotional, and physical afflictions by diagnosing the cause and treating it.

In this world of ceaseless change, the mind tends to develop a grasping quality and gets attached to all kinds of illusory wants and desires. This is at the root of our suffering. We heal ourselves to the extent that we can release that grasping.

As it was first practised in the ninth century, Tibetan medicine viewed the body as composed of four elements — namely, earth, water, fire, and air — and as having hot and cold temperatures. Western medicine has given us a wonderfully detailed and up-to-date knowledge of the body and how it works, and we can take advantage of this. Yet even today, the ancient Tibetan picture of the body is very useful, both as an aid to meditation and as a way to understand the various qualities of the mind.

According to this view, when the four elements are in balance, we are in our natural healthy state, but when there is disharmony, emotional or physical disease can take root and flourish. The third Dodrupchen writes:

The ancient masters said that if you do not foster dislike and unhappy thoughts, your mind will not be in turmoil. If your mind is not in turmoil, the air [or energy of your body] will not be disturbed. If the air is not disturbed, other physical elements of your body will not experience disharmony. Harmonious elements [in turn] will help the mind stay free from turmoil. Then the wheel of joy will keep revolving.

The mind is the source of true well-being. So before we get to the guided meditations upon the body later on, we would do well to consider the qualities of the mind and how we can improve our lives.

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche 16.

You should approach things with an open heart-mind that gives you a wider, more spacious environment where you feel less fear and have greater focus.

— Dza Kilung Rinpoche

Dza Kilung Rinpoche 13.

Treasures of Tibetan Buddhism
by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

I think that, briefly speaking, there is within Tibetan Buddhism the complete practice of all of Buddhism. As all of you know, within Buddhism there are the designations of the Vehicle of Hearers and the Vehicle of Bodhisattvas. Within the latter, there is a division into the Vehicle of the Perfections and the Vehicle of Secret Mantra, or Tantra. In Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand, the type of Buddhism that is practised is Theravada. It is one of the four main divisions of the Great Exposition School (vaibhasika, bye brag smra ba) school of tenets — Mahasamghika, Sarvastivada, Sammitiya, and Sthaviravada or Theravada.

Among Tibetans, the transmission of the monks’ vows stems from one of these divisions of the Great Exposition School, the Sarvastivada. Due to the fact that there are these different sub schools, the Theravadins follow a system of discipline in which there are two hundred twenty-seven vows, whereas we who follow the Sarvastivada discipline have two hundred fifty-three.

Except for these slight differences, both are the same in being Hearer Vehicle systems. Therefore, we Tibetans are practising the Hearer Vehicle form of discipline, this covering the full range of activities related with discipline, from the time of taking the vows, to the precepts that are kept, to the rites that are used in the maintenance of these vows.

Similarly, we also practice the modes of generating meditative stabilisation as they are set forth in Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Manifest Knowledge (abhidharmakosa, chos mngon pa’i mdzod), a Hearer Vehicle compendium, as well as the thirty-seven harmonies with enlightenment [a central part of Hearer Vehicle path structure]. Therefore, in Tibetan Buddhism we engage in practices that are completely in accord with Theravada modes of practice.

The doctrines of the Great Vehicle spread widely to countries such as China, Japan, Korea, and some parts of Indochina. These doctrines, embodying the Bodhisattva Vehicle, are based on specific sutras such as the Heart Sutra or Lotus Sutra. In the Great Vehicle scriptural collections, the basis or root is the generation of the altruistic aspiration to Buddhahood and its attendant practices, these being the six perfections. In terms of the view of emptiness, there are two different schools of tenets within the Great Vehicle — the Mind-Only School (cittamatra, sems tsam pa) and the Middle Way School (madhyamika, dbu ma pa). These Great Vehicle modes of practice of compassion and wisdom are also present in complete form within Tibetan Buddhism.

With respect to the Mantra or Tantra Vehicle, it is clear that its doctrines spread to China and Japan. However, within the division of the Tantra Vehicle into the four sets of tantra — Action, Performance, Yoga, and Highest Yoga Tantra, only the first three — Action, Performance, and Yoga — spread there. It appears that Highest Yoga Tantra did not reach China and Japan, although there might have been cases of its secret practice. However, with respect to the tantras brought into Tibet, in addition to the three lower tantric systems, Action, Performance, and Yoga, there are many tantras of the Highest Yoga class.

Thus, the practice of Buddhism in Tibet includes a complete form of practice of all systems within Buddhism — Hearer Vehicle, Sutra Great Vehicle, and Mantra Great Vehicle. The mode of practising a union of sutra and tantra in complete form spread from Tibet to the Mongol areas — including Inner Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, the Kalmyk peoples, and so forth. It also spread to the Himalayan regions including Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Thus, the Tibetan form of Buddhism is complete. I say this not to show off but in hope that you will gradually look into the matter and discover it yourself.

There are four schools or orders of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk. Each of these, in turn, has many divisions. Nyingma, for instance, presents nine vehicles — three sutra systems and six tantra systems. Also, within Nyingma there are systems derived from discovered texts. Despite the fact that one can make such differences among even the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, each is a system of complete practice of a unification of sutra and tantra. This is because in terms of their view of the way things are in reality, each of these systems holds the view of the Middle Way Consequence School (prasangika-madhyamika, dbu ma thal ’gyur pa), and in terms of motivation and altruistic deeds, all follow the system of generating the altruistic intention to become enlightened and practising the six perfections.

What is the mode of practice by which one person can simultaneously engage in the practice of the union of sutra and tantra?

It is said that externally, one should abide within the behaviour that accords with the Hearer Vehicle discipline. For instance, even Tibetan yogis who practice tantra as laypersons assume the vows of a Hearer Vehicle layperson and externally maintain a lifestyle that accords with that discipline. Then, internally, one needs to train in and develop the mind of the altruistic intention to gain enlightenment which has as its roots love and compassion. Then secretly, through the practice of deity yoga, one engages in concentration on the channels, essential drops, and winds, in order to enhance progress on the path.

In Tibet, we see all these aspects of practice as compatible; we do not view sutra and tantra as contradictory, like hot and cold; we do not consider that the practice of the view of emptiness and the practice of altruistic deeds are contradictory at all. As a result of this, we are able to combine all of the systems into a single unified practice.

To summarise, the altruistic intention to become enlightened is the root, or basis, of the vast series of compassionate practices. The doctrine of emptiness is the root of the practices of the profound view. In order to develop the mind that realises the suchness of phenomena higher and higher, it is necessary to engage in meditation. In order to achieve meditative stabilisation and bring great force to these practices, there is the special practise of deity yoga, for in dependence on deity yoga, it is possible to achieve easily a meditative stabilisation that is a union of calm abiding and special insight. As the basis for such practice, it is necessary to keep good ethics. Thus, the complete system of practice in Tibet is explained as externally maintaining a Hearer Vehicle system of ethics, internally maintaining the Sutra Great Vehicle generation of altruism, love, compassion, and secretly maintaining the practice of the Mantra Vehicle.

Having explained a little about the general outline of the type of practice, I will now say a bit about the practice itself. The root of all the Buddhist and non-Buddhist systems which appeared in India is that people were seeking happiness, and within the division of the phenomena of the world into objects that are used and the user of those objects, the Indians put particular emphasis on the self which uses objects. Most of the non-Buddhist systems, based on the fact that it often appears to our minds that the self is the controller of mind and body or that the self is undergoing pleasure and pain which in some sense appear to be separate from it, came to the conclusion that there is a separate self, a different entity from mind and body, which is the factor that goes from lifetime to lifetime and takes rebirth.

However, Buddhists do not assert that there is a self that is completely separate, or a different entity, from mind and body. Thus, they do not assert a permanent, single, independent self. This is because the four seals that testify to a doctrine as being Buddhist
are that (1) all products are impermanent, (2) all contaminated things are miserable, (3) all phenomena are empty of self, and (4) nirvana is peace.

Since within the Buddhist systems there is no self completely separate from mind and body, there come to be different assertions within those systems on how the self is found within the mental and physical aggregates. In the systems of the Middle Way Autonomy School (svatantrika-madhyamika, dbu ma rang rgyud pa), Mind-Only School, Sutra School (sautrantika, mdo sde pa), and Great Exposition School, a factor from within the mental and physical aggregates is posited as that which is the self. However, in the highest system of tenets, the Middle Way Consequence School, nothing from within the mental and physical aggregates is posited as the illustration of, or that which is, the self.

In this highest of systems, as in the others, there is an assertion of selflessness, but this does not mean that there is no self at all. In the Middle Way Consequence School it means that when we search to find the kind of self that appears to our minds so concretely, we cannot find it. Such a self is analytically unfindable.

Analytical findability is called “inherent existence”; thus, when the Middle Way Consequence School speaks of selflessness, they are referring to this lack of inherent existence. However, they do assert that there is a self, or “I,” or person that is designated in dependence upon mind and body.

All Buddhist systems assert pratıtya-samutpada, dependent-arising. One meaning of the doctrine of dependent-arising is that all impermanent things — products, or things that are made — arise in dependence upon an aggregation of causes and conditions; therefore, they arise dependently. The second meaning of dependent arising, however, is that phenomena are designated, or come into being, in dependence upon the collection of their own parts. The breaking down of phenomena by scientists into extremely small particles serves to support this doctrine that phenomena are designated in dependence upon a collection of parts, these parts being their minute particles. A third meaning of dependent-arising is that phenomena only nominally exist. This means that phenomena do not exist in and of themselves objectively but depend upon subjective designation for their existence. When it is said that phenomena exist or are designated in dependence upon a conceptual consciousness — which designates them as this or that — we are not saying that there are no objects external to the consciousnesses perceiving them as is asserted in the Mind-Only system. There it is said that phenomena are only mental appearances, but again not that forms and so forth do not exist, rather that they do not exist as external objects — objects external in entity to the mind. In this way, the meaning of dependent-arising becomes deeper and deeper in these three descriptions.

Because the self, which is the user or enjoyer of objects, exists in dependence upon other factors, that self is not independent, but dependent. Since it is impossible for the self to be independent, it is completely devoid of independence. This lack of independence of the self that undergoes pleasure and pain and so forth is its reality, its emptiness of inherent existence. This is what emptiness is getting at. Through understanding and feeling the meaning of this doctrine you can begin to gain control over your emotions in daily life.

Unfavourable emotions arise from superimposing upon objects a goodness or badness beyond that which they actually have. We are putting on something extra, and in reaction to this, unfavourable emotions arise. For instance, when we generate desire or hatred, at that time we are seeing something very attractive or very unattractive strongly in front of us, objectively. But then if we look at it later, it just makes us laugh; the same feeling is not there. Therefore, the objects of desire and hatred involve a superimposition beyond what actually exists; something else has become mixed in. This is how understanding the actual mode of being of objects without such super impositions helps us to control our minds.

This is the factor of wisdom, but there is also a factor of method. For what purpose are we striving to generate wisdom? If it is for your own selfish purposes, then it cannot become very powerful. Therefore, wisdom must be accompanied by a motivation of love, of compassion, of mercy for others, such that it is put to the use of others. In this way, there comes to be a union of method and wisdom. Love, when it is not mixed with false conceptuality, is reasonable, logical, sensible.

Loving-kindness and compassion, without emotional feelings and with the realisation of ultimate reality, can reach even your enemy. This love is even stronger for your enemies. The other kind of love, without realisation of reality, is very close to attachment; it cannot reach enemies — only friends, your wife, husband, children, parents, and so forth. Such love and kindness are biased. Realisation of the ultimate nature assists in making love or kindness become principled and pure.

Such a union of wisdom and method is to be brought into daily life. One can assume externally the behaviour and discipline of the Hearer Vehicle; one can have the six perfections as explained in the Great Vehicle texts; then if in addition, one has the tantric practice of deity yoga, meditative stabilisation (samadhi, ting nge ’dzin) will be achieved quickly and will become stable. Since this is the way Tibetans practice in daily life, I call these practices the “Treasures of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Dalai Lama 209.

The Dalai Lama at Rutgers, Sept. 25, 2005 Photo by Nick Romanenko, Rutgers Photo Services

Simply put, the Buddha’s message in the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma is that anyone with a dualistic frame of mind suffers. The dualistic mind entertains selfish emotions, creates karma, has worries, hope, fear and pain. Dualistic mind seems to have built-in suffering. There is an immense variety of suffering, but all of these can be included within three types: the suffering of change, the double suffering of unpleasantness piled on unpleasantness, and the all-pervasive suffering of being conditioned. This is not a matter of mere philosophy; it is very real. We can and do experience suffering, discomfort, distress, and worry throughout our lives. Dualistic mind is always ready to be upset, to feel uneasy. An input from the senses, a memory or anticipation that is either a little pleasant or a little unpleasant always has the power to disturb us. In addition, there is one suffering which we can never ultimately sidestep: death.

— Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche


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.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche 37.

As you begin to understand this predicament, you may start entertaining various solutions to it in your mind, thinking that perhaps you should retreat to a secluded place where you would be free of the objects that arouse aggressive and jealous tendencies. But this would not solve the problem. These conflicting emotions are mental patterns, and even if we go to a place of seclusion, we are going to take these habits with us. And just as we usually do, we will then open up a world of speculation (What went wrong in the past? What good or bad things might happen in the future?) and create a mental world that will become the basis for further intensification and amplification of these conflicting emotions.

— Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche 8.