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.

The Four Suffering Results

The lam-rim texts discuss negative actions and their results through analysis of the ten nonvirtues of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, harsh words, divisive speech, gossip, covetousness, ill will and heresy. Each of these nonvirtues is further shown to have four types of suffering results. They are:

1. the ripening result

2. the possessed result

3. experiencing the result similar to the cause

4. creating the result similar to the cause

Here we will specifically look at the four results of negative karma created, but it is perfectly easy to reverse whatever is said to apply to any positive karma created. And so if the result of the nonvirtuous action of killing is birth in the hell realm, the result of the virtuous result of saving a life is birth in the upper realms. In the same way, whatever the negative result is, the positive is completely the opposite.

The ripening result is the likely result of a complete negative action. Unlike the other three results, which happen when we for some reason manage to obtain another human rebirth, this is the result that determines which realm we will be born in. Almost invariably, for a strong negative action this means the suffering lower realms.

It is called “ripening” because the karmic seed which has been dormant for however long, like the seed of a plant, ripens when conditions come together and comes to fruition, just as the plant grows from the seed.

The other three results refer to what we experience if we should be able to be reborn in the human realm. The possessed result has to do with the place where we are born. Committing any of the ten nonvirtues creates the cause to be reborn in an unpleasant environment, full of obstacles. Each nonvirtue brings its own specific possessed or environmental result, as we will see. There are extensive explanations in the lam-rim teachings, in particular, Lama Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Path to Enlightenment, (Tib: Lam-rim Chen-mo) as well as such sutras as The Sutra of the Ten Bhumis (Skt: Dashabhumikasutra)5 and The Chapter of the Truthful One.

For instance, if we killed in a previous life, then where we are born will experience famine and drought. Crops won’t grow and we will never be able to have enough to eat. Disease is everywhere and we can easily get sick. Where we live is dangerous and difficult, and what food is there has very little nutritional value. It’s almost impossible to have enjoyment. Sexual misconduct results in being reborn in a filthy environment.

Understanding this is so useful. When we experience a particular difficulty with no apparent reason, we can trace it back to where its cause must be. Realizing that this suffering comes from this cause makes us determined not to repeat that negative action again in order to not experience that suffering result.

We talk a lot these days about pollution and global warming. These are clear examples of the possessed result, where our environment is affected by our own nonvirtue.

Experiencing the result similar to the cause, as the name suggests, means we experience the same harm as we have previously done to others. It explains why we suffer in the way we do. In a previous life, or even this life, we have done a specific negative action which has left a specific imprint on our mindstream. These gradually manifest as suffering, and it is a specific suffering formed by the nature of the imprint. Just as we have harmed sentient beings in one particular way, so we will be harmed by them in that same particular way.

For instance, if we have killed somebody in a previous life, thereby shortening their life, when in a future life we manage to have a human existence, our life will be short, possibly by being killed or by even by killing ourselves.

Creating the result similar to the cause, as opposed to experiencing it, means the habit we had in a previous life continues in this life. It is the habitual pattern we have set up in our mind through having done the same action in the past.

If it was one of sexual misconduct, even though the likely result is birth in the lower realms, if we manage to attain a human existence again, we will have a strong tendency to commit sexual misconduct again, due to the influence of the past habits. If in a previous existence we had strong attachment to material possessions, that will carry through to this life and so the tendency to steal to get what we want will be there. If someone was a murderer in a previous life, it is far more likely he will be a murderer in this life. The action will come naturally to him.

The torturer harms his victims terribly and so in the very unlikely event he achieves a human rebirth, he is more than likely to be a torture victim in that life. The stronger the karma the more likely it is to recur. Overwhelmed by disturbing thoughts, unable to stop creating negative karma, they are making the most perfect preparation for them to experience extreme torture themselves in the future.

Some babies seem to intuitively want to kill insects whereas others don’t. Where does that tendency come from? It comes from a previous life’s habit of the taking others’ lives. In so many ways what scientists would call instinct or intuition is this deep-seated habituation we have built up over lifetimes. Kittens know about where to get fed immediately; puppies have an intuitive understanding of sexual intercourse even when they are only a few days old. This comes from previous karma.

Creating the result similar to the cause of breaking vows means that when we are born as a human, because of our past habit of breaking vows, we do the same thing again. Even if we take the vows again, they degenerate and we lose them. Because of mistakes in devoting ourselves to our guru, such as criticizing him, if we meet our guru again in this life these same mistakes will recur.

We can see experiencing the result and creating the result active together in so many ways in our daily life, for instance, with somebody who always criticizes or judges other people. That person is never happy. This need to criticize has been built up from actions done in the past and so it is creating the result similar to the cause. He has criticized in the past so he will continue to criticize in the future. However, it is so often the case that that sort of person becomes the enemy of the people he criticizes and they naturally find fault with him, criticizing him in return. He is experiencing the result similar to the cause. This can so easily set up a vicious circle where the more he criticizes the more he is criticized, which leads him to criticize more.

This type of karmic result is the crucial factor in why we suffer. We suffer because we create negative actions and we create negative actions because we are habituated to doing them because we have done them in the past again and again. Here is the whole chain of cause and effect we set up that is called cyclic existence or samsara. Because of the delusion we have created from a previous time, we suffer which causes us to create a negative action, which imprints a delusion on our mind, which causes us in the future to suffer and so create another negative action. And so on, again and again and again, forever. As long as we follow delusion there is no end.

Without an appreciation of reincarnation or how karma works, we are unable to see why we suffer. We think it’s just unfair, as if we are not in any way responsible for it. We might look for answers in the genes or in the DNA, we might talk about instinct, but we can’t come to any clear conclusion about the cause of our suffering. Only when we start to see the reasons will we be able to see what minds we need to avoid and what minds we need to cultivate. We will see that we are suffering because we did this action in the past so if we want to stop our suffering we must stop repeating that action and perpetuating our suffering.

Psychologists in the West have been struggling with this third result for so long but without a concept of karma they can never really get to the bottom. They can see how states such as the need to kill become pathological, and they can describe these states in extreme detail, but they can’t say why such stated occurred in the first place.

A child’s instinctive cruelty, the way he can’t stop killing insects and takes great delight in doing it will lead to that person being a hunter or even a murderer in his adult life. There negative patterns are there and being reinforced all the time by the repeated actions he does. To break that pattern, he needs to see the main cause, the delusion that is driving the actions, and do whatever is necessary to destroy that delusion.

Of course, it is also perfectly true for positive traits. Some children seem to be born with an abundance of compassion. This has been built up from lifetimes of developing that compassionate mind. When such a young child seeing animals suffering, being attacked by other animals, or a person being hurt or bullied, that child finds it unbearable and cries with compassion for the suffering of the other being.

In some way, this is the life’s work for each of us, to destroy the nonvirtuous habitual tendencies and to develop the virtuous habitual tendencies.

This habituating aspect of karma has been happening for beginningless lifetimes and it will continue for endless lifetimes unless we can break the habit. The wonderful news is that we can break it. By understanding karma we have the choice to follow old habits or to create positive karma instead. We can break from “the tight bonds of karma and delusion” and be free.

Creating the Result Similar to the Cause Ties Us Forever to Suffering 

Creating the result similar to the cause is the most dangerous suffering, because this is the aspect of our karma that makes us circle continuously in samsara and experience suffering again and again and again. It is the reason that we create and experience obstacles all the time. Through creating and experiencing obstacles, we are creating the cause to receive obstacles now and in the future.

We are driven by needs and impulses. This is what this third result of karma is all about. When an impulse, such as to smoke or to commit adultery, arises in our mindstream we need to understand its deceptive nature and its terrible consequences, otherwise we will never be able to overcome it.

We must consider the habitual desire to commit any of the ten nonvirtuous actions as more harmful than having a poisonous snake coiled in our lap. If the snake bites us the worst that could happen is that we die in pain, but it does not have the power to propel our consciousness in to the suffering lower realms. Compared to the suffering of the hell realm we are heading towards by following our negative mind, the most excruciating death is nothing.

It’s much more worse than drinking poison. Once the poison is in our system we experience so much pain and if it is very strong we die and go on to the next existence. That is all that poison can do to us. It can’t cause us to be born in the lower realms. It can’t cause us to repeat our nonvirtuous actions over and over again.

However insignificant the nonvirtue is that we commit, we need to understand this aspect of karma and how by becoming more and more habituated to the action, we not only have more and more suffering in store for us in the future, but we will slowly become used to doing worse and worse actions. Killing an insect as a child to killing a human as an adult is not that great a step.

Having killed, a person spends eons in the hell realm, but when he is finally reborn as a human, the tendency to kill is still there, which means he will kill again in this life and again he will have to experience the four suffering results. He will have to spend eons in the hells again, and when he is finally reborn as a human, the possessed result means the environment he is born into is barren and desolate. There is nothing in his mind that helps him realize he needs to purify his past nonvirtuous actions, and nowhere in his environment where he can meet anybody that can guide him. Because of having killed, he is very likely to be killed or have a very short life. But worst of all, he is more than likely to kill again and set up the whole cycle again. This goes on endlessly. There is no greater tragedy than this.

Feeling ill will towards someone is the result of having a previous feeling of ill will. It is also the cause to feel ill will in the future; the action perpetuates itself in this way. Our grievance seems totally justified, but at the same time, no matter how much we have been harmed, we are completely blind to how much more we are harming ourselves. That act of ill will could well result in our being born in the lower realms, where the suffering is so intense we as humans can never imagine it.

And even more terrible than the experience waiting for us in the lower realms is the fact that we are bound to repeat this nonvirtue over and over again. In the lower realms, a being experiences the result for a certain period of time. It could be eons, which seems like forever, but there will come a time when the suffering caused by that karma is used up. It is not permanent.

By creating and following that habit—creating the result similar to the cause—we create the cause for suffering not once but over and over again. We are addicted to nonvirtue and so we are unable to ever break free of the cycle of suffering we have created. Suffering creates negativity creates suffering creates negativity. It never ends.

We continually harm ourselves and other; we continually bring confusion, depression, pain, anger and so many other negative emotions to ourselves and others.

We can see this terrible suffering result of the result similar to the cause almost everywhere around us, in newspapers, on TV, with our friends’ lives and so on. The suffering people are experiencing and the unskillful ways they are dealing with them and therefore compounding them can teach us how vital it is to break this vicious circle.

The problem we are experiencing at this moment is just the package; it’s the box that all the other sufferings are packed in. It is not until we unpack our new refrigerator from its box that we see what we’ve really bought. Actually, there is a whole set of problems waiting for us inside that package. And each is itself a package that contains a whole new set.

Even when we are not experiencing overt suffering, because we are clinging to the happiness of this life, the thought of the eight worldly dharmas keeps us trapped in samsara and bound to suffering. This evil thought—wanting possessions, comfort, praise and reputation and not wanting their opposites—robs us of any chance of peace in this life. It completely overwhelms our mind and tortures us with desire and longing and because of the result similar to the cause, we waste our entire life chasing sense pleasures that are utterly unsatisfying.

We can break this cycle, and that is so important to know. And when we do and start living in morality, then the four results of karma work in our favor. By abandoning nonvirtuous actions, we are reborn in an upper realm, with a beautiful environment (the possessed result) where we experience great happiness (experiencing the result similar to the cause). But most importantly of all, we create the cause similar to the result, and in that life we continue to create the causes for future happiness, and because karma is expandable, it just gets better and better, all the way to liberation and enlightenment.

Unless we have completely purified our previous negative karma, we have these negative karmic imprints within us, so that is why taking vows from a spiritual master is so important. By vowing to refrain from the worst actions such as killing, we can cut that habitual mind state.

By doing something like taking the eight Mahayana precepts, even for a day, we can start to reverse the process, ensuring that in the future we will experience the four happy results of ripening, possessed and so on, instead of the four suffering results.

Each problem we experience or we see others experiencing shows us clearly that if we don’t do everything possible now that we have this perfect human existence, then we will never be able to break the chain of suffering that binds us. We have met Buddhadharma, which has the unmistaken path to liberation, and we have met the virtuous friend who can reveal that unmistaken path, so therefore now is the one chance we will ever have to pull ourselves out of this samsaric prison.

Natural Evolution Is Creating the Result Similar to the Cause

While we are experiencing the most terrible suffering we are creating the cause to experience even more terrible suffering. Can you imagine anything worse than that? We can see this all around us all the time. Animals are designed especially to perpetuate this suffering. They need to survive, they need to eat, therefore they need to kill, and so they have evolved to be so skilled at doing that.

I once saw a documentary on TV that showed a worm with a white body and brown head that lived in a tree being eaten by this small animal whose main food was this worm. To get the worm it had evolved very long thin finger-like claws that could get into the tree and pluck the worm out. Those claws were so perfectly made for the job of killing those particular worms. It takes a long time. It climbs the tree, sniffs for the worm, digs into the bark, bites a bit, digs a bit, then uses its long, thin claws to get at the worm. Incredible! It was born with that body and that instinct to climb the tree and kill those worms. It wasn’t made in a factory; it was the creation of God, it was the creation of karma. And from the worm’s side, it is exactly the same. It was the creation of that being’s karma to be born to live in a tree and be killed by that other animal.

In the same way, woodpeckers are designed to be experts at digging into trees and getting their food. I saw there was one bird in Africa or Asia that can perfectly dig into bamboo at just the right place to get the insect inside the bamboo. It can’t see the insect but knows exactly where and how far to dig with its beak. Incredible!

Snakes don’t have a choice to become vegetarian. All their lives are spent chasing mice or frogs. They don’t see a tasty carrot and wish that they could have it! When we see a frog half eaten by a snake, its body half in, with only its head and forelegs outside, still alive, struggling, desperately holding on to plants to stop from being eaten, we can see how tightly it holds on to life, how terrified it is of dying. But there is nothing it can do. We have been a frog countless times and we have been eaten by a snake in just that fashion countless times.

Both hunter and victim have created the karma to be locked in this cycle of killing and being killed. Scientists would probably call this intuition, but intuition needs a cause. This is really a perfect example of karma, of how the being creates the result similar to the cause.

Looking at documentaries, watching nature, we can easily feel sorry for the suffering of the animals, but feel that we have no real connection with them. These are worms, or birds, or lions or some other animal, but we are humans and so we can never experience what they are experiencing. However, we have collected countless karmic imprints since beginningless time, and so we too have the karma to be born as that worm in that tree or as a woodpecker. If we don’t purify that karma, then since we have endless lifetimes ahead of us, we will one day be that worm or that woodpecker, helpless to avoid being killed or to kill.

Only now do we have the ability to do something about that karma. Only by eliminating delusion and karma can we be free from samsara and free from the terrible cycle of giving and receiving harm. Just praying is not enough; we must actualize the antidote, the path, to destroy the cause of samsara.


Understanding the four suffering results of nonvirtuous karma can—and should—really scare us and, conversely, understanding the four happy results of virtuous karma can and should really inspire us and make us happy. We have done so much that is negative and so much that is positive in our countless rebirths and it can seem overwhelming. Therefore we need to focus on purifying our nonvirtuous karma and increasing our virtuous karma.

In a way, many of us without a knowledge of karma are still going in the right direction. In my early courses in Nepal and India there were many young people called hippies who in many ways were very mixed up but who had worked out for themselves many of the ideas that Buddhism has. Without thinking about a next life or enlightenment, without knowing the definition of Dharma or having an idea what is good and bad karma, they had a sense of right and wrong and they could see how negative a selfish mind was. At a time when ego was seen as something very good in the West, these young people could often see through the games that ego plays. Although the Western idea of ego and the emotional I that Buddhism talks about are not completely the same, by having thought through all this, they had gone a long way to understanding the source of suffering.

There were many hippies that just seemed to naturally have a very good heart, without any training or mind development at all. There was often a strong sense of sharing and generosity in a group of hippies. I don’t think many went as far as the Mahayana mind training ideals that the other person is more precious that we are, but at least they seemed to care for each other as if they were all equals. When I saw this I thought it was wonderful. 

And one of the most beautiful things I noticed in many of these young people was that they didn’t have expectations of results. This is more beautiful than someone who accepts and understands karma but still does everything with the expectation that he or she will get a result, some reward for the work done. In Asian countries such as Tibet, Thailand or Japan, families are Buddhist, but so often there is little real understanding. People follow the traditions of that country and the ways of their parents and grandparents.

Faith is so strong, but it is not a faith built on understanding. They have faith that generosity is good, but so often the thought is that if they act generously they will become rich. “If I make an offering to the monastery, I will be rich in a future life, I will be rich in this life, I will have no sickness, a long life, and my business will be successful.” Even though they have faith in karma, there is so much clinging. This is how it seems to me, at least, and of course this is a gross generalization. And of course, being generous and not killing, and other acts such as that, even with a faulty motivation, are still very preferable to stealing and killing and the other nonvirtues.

There is no mistake that the action of offering to the Buddha is reliable. In regards to that the Tibetans are very fortunate. And they have incredible high lamas, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and so they have an incredible opportunity. And there are laypeople who have incredibly strong compassion and are so generous, but normally, generally, a lot of what the lay Tibetans do is for this life and their own mundane happiness in the next.

Compared to them, the hippies seemed such simple, gentle, open people, genuinely giving and caring, not expecting too much for themselves. Although they didn’t talk about future lives, they didn’t seem to care too much about this life. Their focus was on inner freedom and the happiness of all beings, and that to me seemed real Dharma.

5The Sutra of the Ten Bhumis (Skt. Daúabhûmika-sûtra, Tib:phags pa sa bcu pa'i mdo) is the name given to the 31st chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which describes in detail the ten bhumis or levels of realizations. Vasubandhu wrote an important commentary to this sutra: the Dashabhumivyakhyana. [Return to text]