Understanding Karma

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Our Publishing the FPMT Lineage project is in full swing, where we are editing all Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings to produce comprehensive volumes by lam-rim topic. Currently in progress are Rinpoche's teachings on the perfect human rebirth, the three lower realms, the eight worldly dharmas and karma. What follows is an excerpt from the Karma teachings, which are being edited by Gordon McDougall.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching outdoors at Manjushri London (currently Jamyang Buddhist Centre), 1983. Photo by Robin Bath.
The Four Outlines

The traditional lam-rim texts start the subject of karma with the need to generate a strong faith in karma and then discuss it using various different guidelines. The first way karma is analyzed is by looking at the four outlines, showing how karma operates. They are:  

1. karma is definite

2. karma is expandable

3. we cannot meet the result unless we have created the cause

4. once the cause has been created the result cannot be lost

It is so important we understand these points fully. Knowing that when we create the cause for something it must give a result and that that result could be much bigger than the action creating makes us determined to only create positive actions and always avoid negative ones.

Karma Is Definite

It’s incredible how the mind tries to dodge karma. We want happiness and yet we can’t see anything so wrong in doing an action that will result in suffering. Knowing at a very deep level that once we have created the cause for suffering we are going to meet it is a strong spur to stop this foolish thinking.

Otherwise it is like putting yoghurt, sugar, raisins, chilies, salt and all sorts of weird things into a pot and wondering why it doesn’t taste sweet. The raisins can never become spicy; the salt and chilies can never become sweet.

When we plant a chili, even if we then plant bananas and mangoes and all sorts of sweet plants around, even of we pour honey and sugar on the ground every day, the thing we get at the end is a chili; it’s hot not sweet. And we can’t expect our mangoes to have the fiery taste of chili just because we planted chili plants all around the mango tree. By planting beans in the field you can’t get papaya. If we plant papaya seeds we get papaya. If we plant beans we get beans. These are so many billions and billions and billions of karmic imprints on our mindstream and their results can never get mixed.

When the right conditions come together—water, sun, soil and so on—a seed will definitely become a plant, unless it is eaten by worms or taken by birds. In the same way, karma is definite, but it can be destroyed. There are ways of purifying negative karma that mean we won’t have to experience their result and strong negative minds such as anger or heresy can destroy positive karma we have created.

Positive karma is the cause of happiness; negative karma is the cause of suffering. It is not possible for positive karma to result in suffering nor negative karma in happiness, just as a lethal, poisonous plant cannot bear life-saving fruit. Mountains may crumble, oceans run dry, moons, suns and stars can fall, whole galaxies come and go, but the results of karma never change. In the sutras the Buddha says:

Whatever karma is created, the result will be received.

There is no such thing as creating negative karma and receiving happiness just as there is no such thing as creating positive karma and receiving suffering.

We create karma every second. How many seconds have we been on this planet in this life? How many lives have we had? That means that there are billions and billions of imprints on our mindstream. Karma is also ripening so there are karmic imprints that have ripened into happiness or suffering and so are finished, but there are also billions of eons worth of karmic imprints that have not yet ripened.

Could there be among all those one or two that somehow get mixed up, like water poured into milk? We are talking billions of eons of lifetimes of karma. Surely just one or two tiny ones got mixed and we don’t have to experience their result. They got lost, or the negative became positive. In which case we have very interesting karma! In fact, that is completely impossible.

In the same way that in nature cause-and-effect is unfailing, so with karma, with the inner cause-and-effect as it has to do with the mind, one particular cause must produce one particular result. When each karmic imprint meets the right conditions one result will happen, and only one. Whatever the cause is, it is definite that it will bring its own result.

From beginningless lifetimes until now we have created uncountable karmic imprints, both positive and negative. Many of those imprints have ripened but numberless have yet to ripen. Our basket is full of things, good things and garbage—the imprints of everything we have ever done—just waiting for us to experience them. One day we create the cause to be born in the god realm, the next day we create the cause to be born as an animal, then a few moments later we create the cause to be born in the hells. So many imprints being created at every moment.

Which karma ripens first depends on a number of factors. Whichever is the most habitual is most likely to ripen before something that we have not become habituated to. If the potential imprints are of equal strength then whichever is closest will ripen first.

When something happens that is right out of the blue, it is never without reason. Say someone is driving a car when suddenly from the side of the road, for no apparent reason, someone shoots her. There must be a reason. Sometime in the past she has harmed that person in a similar way, and because karma is definite, somehow conditions have come together and that karma has ripened. In the same way, if we get mugged in a park it seems random, but karma is there, making us suffering because of some negative action we did in the past. Karma ripens in the snap of the fingers. We rarely have a warning of it. This is happening all over the world at every moment.

Normally a tree seems something stable and unmovable and we would never consider it a threat but, if someone has the karma, a tree can topple over and kill her just as she is walking past it. The karma was created in a previous life and now it has arranged this strange accident. God didn’t arrange it, the person didn’t arrange it, the tree didn’t arrange it, her karma did.

In the same way, some relationships last and some don’t. A man might have a strong desire to be in a stable relationship, but through his life he gets married five, six, even seven times and somehow it never lasts. There is always divorce at the end. He is experiencing the result of his previous karma and until that has finished, unless he purifies it, there is nothing he can do about it. There are many things like this.

A fisherman is only looking for happiness when he catches fish, but because he is killing he will only experience suffering. He might know he is harming the worm he uses for bait and of course the fish, but he probably doesn’t think that the worm and the fish want happiness just as much as he does, and if he did he would no doubt feel that his happiness was more important. The other beings can’t speak and are powerless not to be harmed, so it all comes down to who is the more powerful.

However, the fisherman doesn’t realize that he is creating the cause, not just of suffering in general, but to be reborn as a fish. Not that particular fish, of course, that’s impossible, but as a fish that will be caught and killed. Or as a worm. Unless he purifies the act of killing this will happen, because karma is definite. He has caused that suffering in the past and now it is his turn. To be a worm with the hook being pushed through its body, or to be a fish, wriggling on the end of the line with the hook driven through its mouth. This happens numberless times. Karma is definite. Whether it is positive or negative actions we have done, we will always experience the result.

Watching how flies continually fly into lights is a vivid illustration of how karma is definite. A fly is attracted to an electric light and flies to it, but it is so hot that the fly can’t land for more than a second. You would think that because it has suffered it wouldn’t try again, but it does, over and over. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel the heat. It does. And it burns its legs and makes escape more difficult, but that doesn’t stop it from repeatedly trying to land on the light. Karma is so powerful. Through some action in the past, that fly has such a strong attraction to the light and once it had ripened nothing could stop it. Sometimes the poor flies get stuck on the light.

Nothing forces the fly to land on the light. No other being is making it do something against its will. It wants to land, and despite the suffering it just keeps trying.

There were many Tibetans, after they endured such hardships escaping the Chinese occupation, crossing the Himalayas by foot in unbelievable conditions, who just turned around and went back to Tibet, knowing the terrible suffering that was waiting for them. This is all to do with karma.

What forced the people to go back to Tibet without choice was karma. That shows that karma is definite. When the conditions come together, if the karma is there, it will ripen and that person has to experience it.

This is like the story of the women in the time of the Buddha who had realized emptiness and with their psychic powers could fly. One time it happened they were trapped in a burning house and only one escaped, but she immediately returned because she could see that it was her karma to die there. Another woman in the house, a Brahmin with no psychic powers, escaped through a drain. She didn’t have the karma to die there.

Knowing that karma is definite, we can more easily make the link between result and cause. We know the happiness we are experiencing now is due to previous good actions. More specifically, if we have a beautiful body at the moment, that is the direct result of having practiced patience in the past, or if we have everything we need, then that is the result of a previous life’s generosity. Similarly we can see why we are facing particular problems at this moment.

Even though we can’t directly see the link due to our obscured mind, by understanding how karma is definite, we know that link is there and that strengthens our resolve to only create positive karma. As our mind develops, however, and obscurations are purified, when we get to the higher stages of the path and we gain powers of clear perception, we will be able to see clearly what cause we created to have whatever result we are experiencing, like remembering what happened yesterday.

It is possible if a person has the karma to be reborn in the lower realms that by doing prayers a guru can change his next rebirth so he can be born in the upper realms or even a pure land. This is possible. It is not that the negative karma to experience the lower realms has been purified by the guru, but sometimes the guru can create the conditions where some positive karma ripens for that person at the time of death. The positive imprints on the person’s mental continuum become much more dominant, allowing for a happy rebirth. If the person is reborn as a human he has to purify that negative karma in that life, otherwise he will sooner or later end up in the lower realms.

It’s not that gurus or buddhas or bodhisattvas have the power to change our karma. If that were the case then because all they want is for sentient beings not to suffer, they would have done that eons ago and we would all be enlightened. It all depends on the person’s karma and his connection with his guru.

When we understand that karma is definite we can see that there is nothing to do at all except practice holy Dharma. We all want happiness and don’t want suffering, and to get that we must create only positive karma. Following mundane concerns, the eight worldly dharmas, will only bring future suffering—that is in their very nature—whereas practicing Dharma, by its very definition, is the cause for future happiness. People often cannot distinguish between holy Dharma and worldly dharma and as a result do what seems a spiritual action but with a worldly mind and so only create the cause for suffering instead of happiness. An action that becomes holy Dharma, which results in happiness beyond this life, is an action that is a remedy to delusion, especially to attachment to this life. This holy Dharma can never result in suffering, only in happiness.

Therefore, even if we live for eons, there’s nothing to do with our life except to practice holy Dharma. Even if we have only five minutes or a few seconds left to live, there’s nothing else to do except to practice Dharma. No matter how happy we are, the only worthwhile thing to do is to practice Dharma. And no matter how depressed we are, the only worthwhile thing to do is to practice Dharma, which is especially important at such times.

Karma Can Be Experienced in this Life

Some people don’t experience the results because it is simply not time for them to ripen. The conditions are not there. It’s like the seed has been planted, but it’s too young and there hasn’t been enough water and sunshine.

Perhaps that is because the action, positive or negative, was not done strongly enough. An action of killing where all four factors are not present such as strong intention and strong rejoicing at the completion might not ripen as quickly as one where all the factors are present. Actions concerning our parents, for instance, are much heavier than actions with strangers, because our karmic connection with them is so strong. Therefore it is more likely they will ripen sooner. If we beat our mother, the karma is very strong. And the same with holy objects. There are many examples of people who have badly mistreated their parents and suffering terrible problems later in life, such as going blind.

We can sometimes immediately experience the result, such as at that very moment when we feel strong anger or jealousy there is an unpleasant tight feeling in our mind. The emotion itself is very unpleasant, without considering the suffering it will bring at some time in the future.

The results of powerful actions can also be experienced in this life, particularly actions which are powerful due to their object, such as harming our parents badly, holy objects, bodhisattvas, buddhas or the Sangha, or especially with the guru with whom we have made a Dharma contact. Negative and positive actions done with these holy objects are very powerful.

Similarly, by repeatedly doing the same actions we can experience the result in this life, without need to wait for future lives. This time the object is ordinary but the action becomes powerful because of the repetition.

Karma and Free Will

Free will is a term used much in Western psychology but I’m not sure what it means. If we decide to commit suicide is that free will or are we controlled totally by other factors, specifically negative karma ripening telling us we need to do this thing? We have will, we have the mind that chooses this or that, but it is not a free agent. It is arisen out of ignorance. The ignorance produced the karma, the karma produces the imprint and when that ripens it determines the way we decide.

We have no real choice in the time we die, if we die a natural death. Our karma from a previous life has determined the lifespan for having this human body and when that period, that karma, finishes we die without choice. Under the control of karma, no matter how much we hate the thought of leaving our body, we have no choice because we haven’t created the cause to live longer.

On the other hand, within every separate experience we have of karma ripening, the mind has some ability to determine how it responds. This is not free will as perhaps you might think of it; it’s not an independent thing, unconnected to the event. Free will, like everything else is a dependent arising, something that comes about due to causes and conditions. An independently existing free will is like getting milk from a cow’s horn, or trying to drink the water of a mirage, impossible. There is however a dependently arising free will.

At present we have very little choice, because we are bound by karma and delusion. Our needs force us into doing things, and so I would say we have almost no free will. However, as we develop Dharma wisdom our choices become broader and clearer. Then we can see what needs to be adopted and what needs to be abandoned and so we naturally make the choice to do the positive thing. Before we didn’t know and so unwittingly were forced to do the negative action, thinking that was the way to happiness. For most of us, what we should do and what our ignorance is telling us we must do are two opposite things. Can you see how wisdom gives us that choice whereas ignorance restricts us to one action, no matter how much we feel we are choosing?

We interpret that as free will, our freedom to choose what we do, but that is an interpretation created by our ignorance. Only when there is wisdom is there the chance to really choose which course of action we should take.

We can experience dependent arising free will. We are experiencing it every moment. Whether we have the understanding to see this and act on it is another matter. At every moment we have the choice between creating the cause for happiness or suffering, if we can just see this. We can purify the negative imprints on our mind and give ourselves more opportunity to choose the correct action, which will result in the happiness we are looking for.

The Butterfly, the Twelve Links and Free Will

Perhaps I am destined to be a butterfly in my next life. Out of the billions and billions of karmic imprints on my mental consciousness, that is the strongest and the one that will manifest at the moment of my death. Of all the series of twelve links of dependent origination that are continually ripening the one that links this life to the next is the karma to be a butterfly and so that is what I will be. No other positive karmic imprints are stronger than that. However, it is possible to change that.

In this life I can purify my obscurations and observe karma as much as possible, by taking precepts and other means, and through that diminish the chances of that negative karma ripening to be reborn as a butterfly and increasing the strength of the positive karma and hence the possibility of a perfect human rebirth.

People often see karma as some sort of predetermination like the concept of fate, something that is fixed and can’t be changed in any way. People say, “It’s my karma” as if there is nothing they can do about it; whatever comes along they have to experience it. This is very depressing because it would mean that there is no method at all to escape from suffering. It would mean that if we planted a seed, whether it died or grew strong and tall would be determined by this unchanging karma regardless of whether we tended it or not, watering it, feeding it, taking care of it. But that is clearly not so. We do have an influence on the seeds we plant. In the same way, like external seeds, where the strongest will grow the fastest and biggest, our karma works in the same way. And like external seeds where how we tend them makes a huge difference in the outcome, how we tend our karma can determine which ripens and which doesn’t. And like weeding, we can purify the negative imprints on our mental continuum.

Perhaps at present the negative imprints overwhelm the positive ones and we are destined for a rebirth in the lower suffering realms, but that is not preordained. By purifying and by accumulating merit we can reverse that. Definitely! We have the free will to determine our next rebirth.

With the twelve links of dependent origination, the first link is ignorance. That fundamental ignorance that misunderstands how things exists, mistakenly seeing things as truly existent and independent then creates the second link, karma, the action that acts on that first misunderstanding. From that all the other links follow, especially craving and grasping. We see something as pleasurable and we crave it, mistakenly thinking this will be the cause of our happiness, and then we grasp onto that thing. Attached to that pleasure, we create the negative energy to grasp after that object again and again. For instance, first of all we taste one candy and from that there is the desire which makes us want more. That is grasping. Grasping is caused by craving. This is what is operating at death time and what we crave is continued existence. If our karma at that time is strongly negative and if we have created the causes to be reborn as a butterfly, then that is what will happen. It is definite we will take rebirth as butterfly.

Ignorance is beginningless, but our karma to be born as a butterfly was created at some time in the past, although that might have been billions and billions of eons ago. Craving and grasping are the greatest dangers because while there might be the chance to purify the karma before we die, at death time there is almost no chance and whatever is the strongest karma determines our next life. And so to determine the strongest karma at the time of death is the most important thing. Even though we might have created a lot of negative karma in this life, even killing another human being, there is the possibility through observing our karma and doing purification to make sure only positive karma will ripen at death time.

Therefore, it is very important to be really very careful especially at the death time. By repeated purification and creating as much merit as we can, through meditating on impermanence and death and subjects like that, we can strengthen our positive potential and weaken our negative potential and, with a strongly renounced mind, we can bring about a perfect human rebirth or even transfer our consciousness to a buddha’s pure land where no strong delusions can arise and where the Buddha’s teachings can be received without distractions.

Karma and Luck

Many of us play the lottery or bet on the races because we think we might be lucky. If we win some money we think we are lucky; if we pass an examination because the questions were ones we knew we think they were lucky. We use the term “luck” but actually what we are talking about is karma. Luck is no more than positive karma ripening in a way that we can’t comprehend.

Most people feel that good luck and bad luck are independent of the mind; that they just happen and we have nothing to do with it. We can’t create luck, it just happens causelessly. That, of course, is completely not true! We create our luck all the time, whether it is good or bad. By our attitude, virtuous or nonvirtuous, we determine what sort of luck we will have. If we are plagued with bad luck, we can reverse that and have nothing but good luck, simply by changing our attitude.

It is all a matter of merit. Say we work hard and amass a lot of money in the bank, and then stop working and just have a good time, buying expensive things and going on expensive holidays. Why should we then be surprised when our money runs out and we are poor and miserable? In the same way, if we are successful now, if we have everything we need and feel we are happy, but at the same time we don’t create any merit, any positive karma, then there will come a time when the positive karmic imprints that are ripening will run out and we’ll start experiencing the results of the negative karma we have done in the past.

Perhaps we can’t see this. It seems to us that we are very successful at our business and people from all over the world want what we can offer. We have a big house and lots of possessions and it seems like the rest of our life will be filled with luxuries. Then, suddenly, our luck runs out for no reason. Our business collapses and we can no longer pay our rent. It seems that no matter what we do nothing goes right.

Of course there is a reason and that reason is our positive karma has finished and our negative karma is ripening. Even though we might still be creating some positive karma it is weak compared to the negative karmic imprints that are ripening. On the surface it seems that our “good luck” has changed to “bad luck” without reason, but if we look deeper we will see it all has to do with our attitude.

Determine to Purify

Understanding that karma is definite, that whatever karma we have created will definitely bring results, we can see that if there are no obscurations to the ripening of the positive karma we have created we will definitely experience happiness and conversely if there is no purification of the ripening of the negative karma we have created we will definitely experience suffering. If karma were not definite it would be more difficult to have a happy mind because then even if we tried to be pure, we could not be sure of the result. There would be nothing to trust. That would only make us more depressed and hopeless. However, by understanding that karma is definite we are inspired to do something about the negative karma was have accumulated in the past and accumulate only positive karma from now on.

From this, all the aspects of our Dharma practice take on a renewed relevance and importance. We can see the essential nature of our lam-rim meditations and see how everything we do brings us closer to realizations. We can see how this also helps us deal with our mundane existence as well, and to find ways to benefit other sentient beings and protect them as much as possible.

Before we experience the suffering results, we have the freedom to purify their causes. Before experiencing rebirth in the hell, hungry ghost, or animal realm or before experiencing poverty, diseases such as cancer and AIDS, failure in business, relationship problems and all the other problems in this life, we have the freedom to purify the causes. If we generate the remedy of the path, which removes all the imprints, we will never have to experience suffering, including death and rebirth. A solution that stops the experience of problems is perfect purification with the remedy of the four powers. This is so powerful we can purify all the causes of problems.

Therefore, after meditating on the fact that karma is definite, we should make a strong determination, otherwise it doesn’t make much sense, but just something to keep us afraid. Knowing virtuous actions bring happiness we should make the strong determination only to commit virtuous actions; knowing nonvirtuous actions bring suffering we should make the strong determination never to commit nonvirtuous actions and furthermore to do everything we can to purify those nonvirtuous actions we have committed in the past before their imprints ripen on our mental continuum.

Karma Is Expandable

The second outline of karma is that karma is expandable. It is also sometimes translated as “karma shows great increase”. We can see this in nature where one grain of rice can in time become a whole field of rice. For example, the result from killing an insect, if we don’t purify it, becomes as big after fifteen days as the result of killing a human being. Without purifying, the potential for suffering increases hour by hour, day by day.

It doubles, then triples, then just keeps multiplying. It is like planting a seed that becomes a shoot, that becomes a tree, with a trunk and branches and leaves, that drop seeds that creates more trees. A whole forest has started from one small seed.

Karma, cause and effect as it applies to volitional action of the mind, is much more expandable that the natural cause and effect of things such as plants. Unless it is purified, it multiplies and multiplies so even one tiny negative karma becomes as big as the earth or as vast as the Pacific Ocean. Then when the death comes, with such a weight of negative karma the suffering is very heavy.

In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo gives the following example.3 Once a lady offered a handful of sweetmeats made of sesame to the Buddha when he was in the city of Nyagrodhiki. Because of this Buddha predicted that she will be born as the buddha called Susvasti but her husband didn’t believe him thinking he was just complimenting her, that the Buddha was lying in order to receive offerings. The Buddha asked him about a famous tree in India, a pipal tree, which was so huge five hundred chariots could fit under it without touching. This tree grew from one tiny seed. The Buddha asked the husband whether this could be possible, thus illustrating how karma can increase to such a degree.

In fact karma is more expandable than the cause and effect we see in nature: from one cause we can experience so much happiness or suffering.

For example, the King Ngalaenue, the Wheel-turning King, has power over the four continents and the deva realm called Thirty-three. All his power and wealth came from the good karma of making one small offering: he made an offering to Buddha by throwing some grains, four of which fell into the Buddha’s alms bowl, and one fell on the Buddha’s crown. The karma from that offering was small, but the result was unbelievable, and here we are just considering the temporal result and not the main result, which is liberation and enlightenment.

Probably we avoid the gross negativities that are generally considered wrong. We don’t kill or steal, well at least not steal big things! It’s therefore quite easy to feel we are a decent person and so we don’t have to worry about future suffering. Maybe we think that all that very subtle karma we are creating is so tiny that as long as we try to be nice it will just naturally disappear. As it is said in The Sayings of the Buddha:

Do not think that a small sin
Will not return in your future lives
Just as falling drops of water
Will fill a large container,
The little sins
A child accumulates
Will completely overwhelm him.4 

He refers to we worldly beings as children because our actions of body, speech and mind are childish. Buddhas and bodhisattvas looking at us see us completely crazy. Not knowing the importance of creating positive karma and purifying negative karma we fill our days with nonsense, with petty negativities and big ones, and so we get “filled”, not with bliss and happiness but with the seeds of negativity, just waiting to ripen.

The smallest negative karmic imprints multiply and become huge, like atoms piling up to create mountains. Therefore by understanding this, we should be so careful of whatever karma we create.

It is also said in the teachings:

To the wise man, even a great negativity becomes small;
To the fool, even a small negativity becomes huge.

Wise means wise in Dharma, not wise in worldly politics, or wise in fighting wars, or wise in writing books or speaking languages. Here it especially wise in karma—what is to be practiced and what is to be renounced. The wise are wise in the profound methods of purification and renunciation, wise in practicing bodhicitta, wise in meditating on emptiness. For such a person, even if she has created much heavy negative karma, it becomes weak and small because it gets completely purified.

On the other hand, even though the foolish person might not create many very negative actions, because he has no means of purifying it, its karmic results becomes bigger and bigger.

It is like a small amount of poison that has gone inside the stomach. Or it is like a small flame, the flame of candle, which can destroy a city, a forest or a whole mountainside. Even though the negative karma was so small, the harm is great.

Perhaps we haven’t done anything strongly negative in this life—we haven’t killed anybody, or robbed a bank—but still all the petty negativities we have done are accumulating and multiplying on our mental continuum, becoming so huge, blocking us from happiness and from achieving our goal of attaining enlightenment.

Without actively trying to reverse this, the mind just gets more and more habituated to negativity. Any action done with ignorance, and especially attachment clinging to this life, creates the energy to become more ignorant and more clinging. When we don’t apply the antidotes by meditating on lam-rim and purifying we become addicted to negativity. Left to itself the mind will just run this way.

There is so much karma we have created in this one day the results of which we are yet to experience. And in the same way we are yet to experience the karma we created last week, last year, from beginningless lifetimes. And all these karmic imprints are constantly expanding. This is why achieving realizations is so difficult. Doing a retreat for a week or a month won’t have a major impact on our mind, unless, as occasionally happens, our mind is on the verge of a major change due to positive imprints also ripening. For most of us there is just so much to purify.

How easy or difficult it is to generate the realization of the lam-rim depends on how many and how heavy the obscurations are on our mental continuum. This is why purification practices such as Vajrasattva are so emphasized in Tibetan Buddhism.

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo says that every single negative karma we have created from the beginningless rebirth until now is like the store room of a wheel turning king. I think we could use the example of a department store now, with all the different departments full of every possible thing we could ever need. What he means is that every negative karma has the potential to expand to bring every possible suffering we could ever imagine. The results of one action of something like killing will never be exhausted. We will never finish experiencing them. They are like the atoms of this earth. They are like a continuous downpouring of water from a waterfall.

The invention of the atomic bomb is an example of how karma is expandable. The inventor’s motive was no doubt mixed, wanting to advance science but also to achieve fame. However, greed and hatred took over and when the bomb was exploded hundreds of thousands of people suffered horribly. All those who contributed to the bomb’s creation will suffer for eons, and yet the original hope was for peace and happiness. This shows how any external development cannot bring peace when the motivation is temporal.

We wish to avoid even the smallest discomfort like bland food, so therefore, not even considering how karma expands, we should take care of the small negativities in order to not experience petty annoyances.

Karma is just mental action, and negative karma is very simple to create and it can become unbelievably heavy without us even thinking. For instance, rejoicing at a negative action someone else has done can carry the same weight as if we’d done it ourselves. Perhaps we are meditating on loving kindness and someone tells us that our country has invaded the enemy and we’ve had an incredible victory. We rejoice at the news, but what we’re rejoicing at is thousands of people being killed and tens of thousands and being made to suffer. By rejoicing we are getting the same negative karma as if we had killed them.

Aryadeva in his Four Hundred Verses (Skt: Catuhsataka; Tib: Shi-gya-pa) says that if we cheat one sentient being then we will experience being cheated by other sentient beings for one thousand lifetimes.

If someone treats us badly over a very long period, tormenting us for no apparent reason, it is hard to bear. But we should remember what happens if we retaliate. We create negative karma—even if it is just a small action—that will expand, and that torment we are facing will be nothing in comparison to the result of that action. If we can’t bear a few days, months, or years of this person treating us badly, how could we bear to be harmed by others for many lifetimes or many thousands or millions of lifetimes? There is no way we could bear it. It’s very important not to get caught up so much in this life. If someone harms us, we need to think about long-term harm and happiness, not of just this life but of all our future lives. In this way, we can act skillfully. By refraining from the one negative karma of harming someone, we don’t then receive harm from others, and we receive much happiness in many thousands of future lives.

Positive Karma Is Expandable

In the same way that negative karma is expandable, so too is positive karma. Therefore, the karmic imprints left on our mind from any positive action we do will multiply unless destroyed by anger or heresy. When we practice Dharma we are not just doing it for this life, so it is comforting to know that the seeds of our practice will be carried through to our next life, increasing in power, and we will be more and more able to create virtue.

This cumulative process is like the life of a fruit tree. In its first year its growth is small and it doesn’t yield any fruit, but after several years of careful attention the fruit starts to come and then becomes more and more. Only as a human being can we practice Dharma and so we must ensure we continue to be reborn a human so we can build on this precious potential we now have.

An example of how to skillfully accumulate extensive merit, even if we are offering just a few cents, we should visualize skies filled with gold or diamonds. We can even visualize this offering as filling the whole universe. If we are throwing rice or sand grains to a holy object, an actual living holy object or even a statue or stupa, we can visualize each of the grains as a wish-granting jewel, the whole space filled up with wish-granting jewels and we can think that they are granting the essence of the path, from guru devotion up to enlightenment. That creates the cause to rapidly generate the realization of the path to enlightenment. It is similar to how we do the mandala offering practice. If we understand lam-rim, even if we are penniless, there are so many skillful ways to create extensive merit.

A small virtue has a great result of happiness for a long time, therefore we should renounce even small nonvirtues and practice every single small virtue that we have the opportunity to practice. Even if we are only offering a tiny bit of help to someone else, we can do it with a pure motivation and make sure that she is not confused or unintentionally hurt by our help. We can try to create virtue while walking, sitting, eating and so on. We can use any opportunity to make offerings to the merit field. Whatever we do, it is always possible to practice even a small virtue and accumulate virtue.

The more we understand how karma is expandable, the more we will naturally feel that even small virtuous action like generosity—even giving one small piece of food to an ant—is very important, as is saving the life of an insect that has fallen in some water. Such actions are as important as great virtuous actions. Making offerings to the Triple Gem is important. Even to make a gesture of prostration upon seeing a holy object is incredibly important. Reciting a mantra in the ear of an animal to benefit it by planting an impression of the path to enlightenment is so unbelievably important.

The more we understand and have faith in the four aspects of karma, the more careful we are to practice even very small virtues and renounce even the small nonvirtues.

Not Purifying One Small Action, Karma Expands So Much

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo explains that if we accumulate the negative karma of killing and do not purify it, the negative karma multiplies day by day. For example, if we kill one louse and do not confess and purify it, after ten days it becomes the same as having killed 512 lice. After fifteen days, the negative karma is the same as having killed 131, 072 lice.

That karma of killing the louse has multiplied and multiplied and is now as heavy as killing a human being. It’s like one atom multiplying to become a whole mountain and then increasing more to become the whole earth.

According to what Pabongka Rinpoche says, if we killed an insect when we were very young and didn’t purify it, and then if we killed a human being at the very end of our life, the karma of killing the insect would be heavier than the karma of killing the human, because of the great length of time that the imprints have been on our mindstream.

It is also said in the teachings by the Buddha, that the action of killing one sentient being, even an insect, results in experiencing the result of being killed for five hundred lifetimes. Here we are just talking about killing, but we have to relate in the same way to all the other nonvirtues.

Therefore we complacently think we are okay because we haven’t murdered anybody, our life is completely hallucinated. When death comes all this heavy negative karma that we have unwittingly accumulated can ripen, sending us to the unbearable suffering of the lower realms.

Perhaps we need another example for the West, rather than lice. There are many lice in Tibet as people do not wash their bodies much because of the very cold climate. Whatever the conditions for the lice are, the cause, of course, is the negative karma of the person who gets the lice. In the past the person, either as an animal or a human, received their means of living from those sentient beings. Because the person did not practice Dharma well or did not purify, there is a karmic debt, so those lice are born on and bite the person’s body. That is the main cause.

It is common for lay people to kill the lice between their thumbnails or between their teeth. Squashing the lice between the nails makes the sound “Tock!”, and people rejoice when they hear this sound “Tock!” because it means that the louse that has been biting them has been killed.

I don’t have any particular memory of killing lice when I was very small in Solu Khumbu, but I remember killing nits. Of course, I got lice later because I have a lot of karmic debts. When I was small, four or five years old, I remember that the inside of my clothing was always full of lice. I used to wear a one-piece woolen suit that combined pants and shirt, and the inside of it was filled with lice. I don’t remember killing the lice, but I do remember taking the white eggs, the nits, out and biting them. There were a lot of these eggs in the seam where the pants joined the shirt. If those tiny white eggs have consciousness, I created much negative karma.

And when I was a small boy in Tibet, I don’t know why, but one day the thought just came to throw a stone. And when I threw it, it actually hit a bird on the leg. The bird fell down, and when I went to look at it, it couldn’t fly. Later it wasn’t there, so perhaps it was eaten by an animal. I don’t know what happened to it. So, I think there are many results of karma still to be experienced. There is so much karma piled up just waiting for the right time to be experienced. It is just a matter of time. It is simply that at the moment we are experiencing the good karma of being a human being, but all the other karmas are there waiting. Everything that is yet to be experienced is laid out one after another in an endless line. If we think only of our life today, everything looks okay, but we cannot be sure how things will turn out tomorrow. By the time tomorrow comes, our life could be something else all together.

By this time tomorrow, we might not have a human body and might not be in this beautiful place. We could be somewhere else completely. It is not up to our wish, but up to our karma. The whole point is that if consider our long-term future by thinking of all our past karma and of all of the things that are going to happen to us one after another because of these past karmas, there is no time to do anything except practice Dharma. In each moment there is nothing to do except to practice Dharma. Everything other than practicing Dharma is suffering. 

We Cannot Meet the Result Unless We Have Created the Cause

Karma is definite in that if we plant a rice seed we will get rice, not corn. The other side of that is that if we want corn and we plant rice we won’t get it. This is the third outline of karma that it is impossible to experience the result without having creating the cause. If you are hungry and I eat all the food, that won’t relieve your hunger. You cannot receive my pleasure and I can’t receive yours, and the same for suffering.

Happiness and suffering are both results of previous actions, positive and negative respectively, so if we haven’t done any positive actions we can’t expect any happiness and if we haven’t created any negative actions we can’t expect to suffer. And specifically, if we are unable to experience one particular thing, such as great wealth, we haven’t created the particular cause to have that thing. Even if we stay with a person who has a contagious disease, we won’t get it if we haven’t created the cause.

For instance, perhaps we have a possession we have had for a very long time, like a car. It has never given us any trouble. But then one day we lend it to a friend and within a mile the car has broken down. This is because we have created the cause to enjoy that car but our friend hasn’t.

When we read about the samsaric gods and the incredible pleasures they experience, it might seem like they must be very virtuous to have such pleasure, but in fact they are not creating any causes for virtue at all in that life. In previous lifetimes they have amassed a great store of virtue, and now it is being squandered in luxuries and sense pleasures. When their good karma finishes, however, they will again experience suffering. Then, it is said the suffering of losing what they had will be worse than being in a hell. No matter how much they want to cling on to their life and pleasures, they haven’t created the causes to keep it and so they can’t continue. Similarly, nagas are said to have great stores of jewels and incredible riches, but these have only come from previous lives’ generosity and that karma will finish.

Many Dharma students have experienced this third outline themselves very forcibly. In the early days, and even now, they would come to India and Nepal to study Dharma, only to find a policeman at their door saying that they had to leave the country immediately. Everybody else could stay for the whole course, but although they had created the karma to get to Asia and start the course they hadn’t created the karma to complete it. Maybe this is the result of avoiding Dharma in the past, of hearing a teaching was happening but being too lazy to go to it.

Say somebody has dropped a gold ring in the street and her ten friends are looking for it. The other nine people actually step over the ring but don’t see it, whereas the tenth person finds it. It might be because she had sharper eyes and was more diligent than the others, but that’s not the main reason. The main reason is that the others simply didn’t have the karma to find the ring where she did.

In the same way, one person might really want something such as going to see a play starring a famous actor, but he forgets to book one day and the next day it is sold out. His friend, however, who also wants to see it but not so much, happens to be walking past the theatre and gets a ticket without any trouble. One person fails, the other succeeds. We can say that the first person was forgetful or lazy or really mustn’t have wanted it that badly, but really the cause is that he had not created the cause.

Without the inner cause, no external factor can help. If we haven’t created the cause, we can’t manipulate our environment to have what we want. As we have seen, even though we have a common illness with medicine readily available, even though we have paid a lot of money for the best doctors, we also need the karmic cause to actually get better.

Disease—lack of health—comes from nonvirtuous actions and so if we don’t create the karma to be healthy, we will be sick. We might go to a good hospital but somehow we are given the wrong medicine. We might go from doctor to doctor and each one misdiagnoses us. Or we might be completely healthy, and very fit, and pride ourselves that we’ve never had a day’s illness in our life, and then one day our karma to be healthy finishes and we are struck down by a terrible illness, such as a stroke or heart attack. Our beautiful body completely changes, our color becomes white and horrible, our face becomes unrecognizable. Unwittingly, we had been enjoying the good karma created in a previous life but not creating any more good karma to ensure remaining healthy.

In the same way, we can have a very good relationship with our family and then one day it completely turns. Our partner becomes very bitter and negative, and we find out our children don’t like us. This happens.

Perhaps a bright young executive has an amazing idea to make a lot of money. He gets a loan to start a business and markets his incredible, unique product, one that nobody else has thought of and one that will definitely be a huge success. But despite all the factors being right, somehow he fails. It seems impossible, and he can’t understand how something so perfect could fail to make a profit. With all his sophisticated market analysis he has failed to realize that he just hasn’t created the cause to succeed.

In fact this is a very good example of all four outlines of karma. Because of miserliness, covetousness or stealing in the past, he has definitely created the cause to be poor in this life, and so he is proving to us that karma is definite. Perhaps his miserliness wasn’t so bad, but now he has lost everything and he has a huge debt. He will probably end up in jail if he doesn’t commit suicide first, showing us karma expands. And he definitely hasn’t created the cause to be wealthy, so he is not. Neither has he done anything to alleviate the suffering that is certain due to his previous negative karma, and so now he is experiencing, proving that karma can’t be lost and will be experienced when the conditions come together.

We cannot enjoy happiness if we haven’t created the cause, but in the same way, we cannot suffer if we haven’t created negative actions. We cannot experience the karmic punishment of a thief if we have never stolen.

When someone tries to harm us, even if they perform black magic on us, if we don’t have the karma to experience that harm—if we haven’t created the cause—then there is no way we can. If we are being harmed, then we can’t blame the harmer. The suffering we are experiencing comes solely from our own mind.

The best example of Shakyamuni Buddha just before he was about to achieve enlightenment. Millions of maras attacked him with weapons and tempted him with beautiful women but because he was completely free from all the delusions and karma, free from all the obstacles—even the most subtle obscurations—there was no cause from his side to receive harm. Despite the terrible attack, the Buddha’s holy mind didn’t waver a fraction from loving kindness. The thunderbolts the maras hurled at the Buddha turned into flowers.

Nobody can harm us. Only our previous karma ripening can. Nobody can cheat us, but our karma of stealing and cheating in the past can ripen now and we can be cheated. And it’s the same with all the other problems we face.

If we could experience the result without creating the cause then we could all share in the Buddha’s enlightenment without having to work for it ourselves. He wants us to have infinite bliss so he could just give it to us, whether we had the cause for it or not. And because he wants every living being to be enlightened and because every living being wants the greatest possible happiness and that’s what enlightenment is, then every living being would be enlightened, but that is clearly not the case. And so it doesn’t just depend on the Buddha; it also depends on us. Somebody can help me escape from a well I have fallen in by sending down a rope I can climb up, but I have to do the climbing. Escaping depends on both of us.

There is a very definite evolution in our spiritual practice. The more we know about karma the more determined we are to practice and to purify. The more we do that the clearer our understanding of karma becomes and that strengthens our determination even more. So, it’s at this early stage where we are not sure and can’t really see the point in meditation that we are at great risk. 

Once Created the Cause, the Results of Karma will not Disappear

If negative karma is not destroyed by generating the remedy of the path within our mind through purification, we will definitely experience its result. Similarly, if it is good karma and there is no interference we will definitely experience its result.

Just as when we don’t create the cause we won’t experience the result, so when we create the cause we will definitely experience the result, so this last outline is another way of saying that: once we have created the cause, the results will never be lost. Even if it takes hundreds of eons, the imprint will remain on the mental continuum until conditions come together for it to ripen.

No matter how subtle or gross, no matter how insignificant or powerful, the imprints from the action never disappear. And as we have seen, karma expands, so even one tiny good deed, such as giving some food to an animal, will ripen at some time in the future—possibly in eons time—and we will experience its result, and it could be huge.

The Vinaya Teaching Discourse on Discipline (Skt. Vinayagamottaravisesagamaprasnavrtti; Tib. Dul-wa-lung) says:

The accumulated karmas of even one hundred eons are never lost.
If the aggregates [cause and conditions] and proper times coincide,
Those responsible receive the result.

When conditions such as water and good soil come together, as long as it is not eaten by a bird, a seed will definitely become a plant. The result cannot get lost. In the same way, when conditions come together, unless it is destroyed by anger or heresy, the karmic imprint of a virtuous action will definitely ripen as happiness, and unless it is purified, the karmic imprint of a nonvirtuous action will definitely ripen as suffering. Perhaps we can say that the obstacles to nonvirtuous karma ripening are bodhicitta and emptiness!

When we think about something we’ve done wrong we can justify it and make it seem small to ourselves, but that doesn’t make the potential for future suffering any less. Unless we purify it, we will have to experience the result.

Realizing this, we understand how important it is to purify our negative imprints so we don’t experience the results. Looking at what we must have created in countless previous lives we’ll realize we must be heading towards a rebirth in the lower realms, and as we could die at any moment, we must do whatever we can to avert this.

The only way to ensure the results of a positive action don’t get lost is by dedicating. As soon as we do a positive action, we should dedicate that it will be the cause for us to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings. Then that is like locking it into our mindstream. Otherwise it is so easy for a negative mind to destroy the potential brought about by that positive action.

In the same way, the results of nonvirtuous actions cannot be lost, unless we do something about it, by purifying. Even though numberless negative imprints have been collected from beginningless time, which will result in all kinds of different sufferings, it is possible to destroy them all. We are so fortunate to have the chance to practice purification techniques, techniques shown to us by the Buddha and the holy beings that have come after the Buddha. Death might happen at any moment, so we need to start purifying right away. If we can do it quickly enough and well enough there is not one single negative karma, no matter how heavy, that can’t be purified.

3Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp.434-35 [Return to text]

4 Quoted in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, p. 436 [Return to text]