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.

What Karma Is

What Mind Is

We have a body and a mind. The body has color, form and shape, whereas the mind is colorless and formless. The definition of mind is that which is clear and knowing. Like a mirror has the power to reflect back objects when it is not obscured by dust, the mind is not obstructed by form so it has the ability to experience objects.

I haven’t really read many Western psychology books. In America some years ago I was given what was supposed to be a very good book. Although I didn’t read the whole thing, still I didn’t find any clear, simple definition of mind. It didn’t seem to be there.

Tibetan monasteries, such as Sera, study mind from very early on, and through debate, the monks analyze the internal phenomenon called mind in the same way Western scientists analyze external phenomena. Analyzing what mind is, what suffering is, how to avoid it and so on, they study the path all the way to enlightenment, taking their knowledge to such a profound level. In the same way that a person might try to learn every tiny component of an airplane, they learn every single detail of liberation, in incredible detail.

This definition of mind comes in the beginner’s classes. The young monks learn this and then the various mental factors: what they are and how they function. For an elementary subject it’s very profound, but it’s also fundamental, because by understanding this subject as the kind compassionate omniscient one, the Buddha, explained, we have so much of wisdom to judge the rest of the teachings and we can discriminate what is right and what is wrong. We are able to make far fewer mistakes and it become so much easier to help others and to help ourselves.

Within the mind there are many different minds, divided into the main or principle consciousnesses and the secondary mental factors. There are six principle consciousnesses, a direct perception for each of the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching—and one mental direct perception. Along with these minds there are said to be 51 mental factors, minds that accompany each principal consciousness.

The principal consciousness is like the boss and the mental factors are like the employees who work for the boss. Traditionally there are fifty-one mental factors divided into different types.1

As well as the positive minds, like love, there are the six root delusions—greed, hatred, ignorance, self-importance, afflicted view, and afflicted indecision2—and twenty secondary delusions such as jealousy, distraction, dullness as well as the four changeable mental factors, minds that can be positive or negative, like sleep. Besides these positive and negative minds there are two groups of minds that accompany and color the principle consciousnesses.

There are the five object-ascertaining mental factors: aspiration, appreciation, recollection, concentration and intelligence, minds that enhance the experience of the object in some way, and, more importantly for our understanding of karma, there are the five omnipresent mental factors, minds that always exist and function with the principal consciousness on the same object and are similar in five ways to the principal consciousness. They are contact, discernment, feeling, intention and attention. Attention is the aspect of the mind that brings the principle consciousness fully on to the object it is apprehending, like an employer giving a job to his employee. Before that, however, there is intention, the mind that is like a magnet that initially makes the mind move to the object. That intention is karma. Therefore, from body and mind, karma is in the category of mind. Karma is not substantial; it is a formless phenomenon.

Form and Formless

If the mind is formless whereas the body is form, how can the formless imprints determine something physical like our bodies? This is very simple. Our own daily experiences give us the answer. Think about what happens when we are angry. The anger definitely produces physical effects and changes in our body. It is the same when we have strong attachment or strong pride. And because of these changes in us, others are affected. Think of the changes that occur in us and in the people around us at times of really strong fury.

Basically it is the same as when an architect designs something. The building is first there only in his imagination, then it becomes plans and then it is actualized.

The great 500-foot Maitreya statue that the FPMT is building in India came from the mind of Lama Yeshe. The work that all the people are doing on the project all over the world is to fulfill Lama’s wish, which is to benefit sentient beings as extensively as possible. Having the Maitreya Buddha statue will be of immense benefit to the area around Kushinagar where it will be located, but also the whole of India, so in that way we are helping to repay the kindness the Indian people showed the Tibetans when they fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion and for being the home of Buddhadharma. This huge statue will be of unbelievable benefit to the world, and it has come from the mind of one person.

All the desirable enjoyments in this world, and all the disastrous undesirable things, come from the power of the mind. The deaths of millions of people, terrible environmental disasters, all come from the formless mind, from the power of the negative mind. And likewise all good things come from the power of the positive mind. One person, by developing a good heart and wisdom, can benefit many millions of people on this earth; another, with negative intentions can destroy many countries and harm many millions of people. The Buddha was one person and yet through the power of his positive intentions, countless billions have attained happiness.

The mind is so powerful and therefore potentially so dangerous. An unsubdued mind can create such suffering, but when it is fully subdued and well trained in loving kindness and compassion, it is able to offer inconceivable benefits to uncountable numbers of sentient beings.

This question of how form can come from the formless looks difficult, but it is actually explained in the twelve links of dependent origination, the description of how everything comes from the mind. [In the chain of twelve cause-and-effects, ignorance creates karma creates name and form and so on, showing how this life and this body are created by the first link, ignorance.] The consciousness carries the potential or imprints, like a chairlift carries people. All impure and pure things come from the mind in basically the same way. If you try to think of some explanation other than the twelve links, there is no answer.

Definition of Karma

Karma can be defined as intention (Tib: sem-pa). It can be explained as the action of the principal consciousness. "Karma" is a Sanskrit term that simply means action, so it is an action of the thought. As we have seen, it is one of the five omnipresent mental factors, the factor of intention. This intention is broken into two: the motivation of cause and the motivation of time. Before any act there must be a motivation, an intention, otherwise there would be no energy for the mind to act. That is the motivation of cause. But even during the act there is still some motivating energy and that is the motivation of time. Both are karma.

The first one, the motivation of cause, gets us to initiate the action, like before we meditate the wish to meditate arises. While the action is actually happening, there still needs to be an accompanying motivation, otherwise the action would never be completed, and that intention is called the motivation of time.

These two motivations exist in any action—reciting mantras, reading sadhanas, even mundane actions like walking, sitting, sleeping and so on. There is the intention than initiates the action, the motivation of cause, and the intention that causes the action to continue and be completed, the motivation of time. Therefore we need to ensure that we not only have the best possible motivation before we do the action—the motivation of cause—but also while we are doing it—the motivation of time—so that the action is as pure as possible. That way, what we do becomes very powerfully positive karma.

Therefore it is important to check not just before we act but while we are acting. Otherwise, for instance with an act of charity, we can generate a very positive motivation before the act, but while we are doing that action the mind can degenerate into wanting recognition and thanks or some other negative thought. Then we have still created good karma with our initial motivation, but the motivation of time is negative karma and so the action is not completely perfect.

Everything that is normally regarded as a cause of happiness—possessions, education, success in business, taking medicine when sick—are actually only conditions, rather than actual causes. For example, there are many cases where a doctor is able to recognize the exact symptoms of a sickness, diagnose it accurately, and prescribe the correct treatment, yet the patient isn’t cured and can even become worse and die. The answer is that the patient had not created the good karma to be cured.

To treat an illness with medicine is not the final answer. If the patient has created the cause to have that illness, then it will recur, no matter how skillful the doctor is in diagnosing the physical cause. The patient has to have the karma to meet the right doctor and the right treatment, but also have the good karma to recover through that treatment. If the main cause to recover, which is the patient’s own mind, the patient’s good karma, is not there, nothing will work.

Therefore, the real answer has to come from the patient’s side. And it is exactly the same with all the rest of the external methods that are commonly regarded as causes of happiness, whether it is education, success in business, or whatever. From the Dharma point of view—in other words, in reality—these are simply conditions. Then external factors that seem to bring us comfort and pleasure are only conditions and that is why, when other causes are at work the very same things can just as easily bring us unhappiness and problems.

Karma is the action of the mind, the intention that moves us towards an object that in turn creates verbal or physical actions. There are three types of karma, virtuous, nonvirtuous and changeable.

Virtuous karma always brings rebirth in upper realms, whereas nonvirtuous karma, any action done with greed or hatred and ignorance, brings rebirth in lower realms.

We can quite easily see this if we simply remain conscious of all our actions and check why we do the things we do. Then, through meditation and investigation, we can develop our wisdom and learn to control and destroy the negative impulses that arise and at present control us. Without that awareness, there is no way we can be in control.

Everything we say or do is determined by the intention behind the act, so everything comes from the mind, from the karmic seeds that are on our mindstream. First of all there is the motivation, then the action of body, speech or mind follows from that. Therefore whether that action is virtuous of nonvirtuous depends on whether the motivation behind the action is virtuous of nonvirtuous. We might do an act of generosity with a pure heart but end up unintentionally killing a being. Although there might be some consequences from the accidental killing, the action is virtuous because the motivation is virtuous.

Karma relates closely to the law of cause and effect that we see operating all the time in the natural world. Everything in the external physical world is a product of cause and effect, so it is illogical to think that the internal environment of the mind is any different. Just as the plant comes from the seed—result comes from cause—so every experience of happiness and suffering comes the imprints left on the mind from some previous positive or negative action. At every moment external and internal contributory factors are triggering reactions in the mind that is conditioned by karma, actualizing the different experiences that make up our universe. Because the mind and the emotions are involved this internal evolution is much more extensive than the simpler cause-and-effect relationship there is in nature, but the essence is the same.

Born as a human being, what has actualized for us now is a happy samsaric rebirth. Every aspect of that rebirth, the environment we were reborn into, our body—from the head right down to the feet—and the mind with all its propensities and emotions, all of this is completely the result of karma. Motivated by a fundamental ignorance of the way things exist, we now have this body, this mind, these external conditions. It hasn’t happened because of God, or because of the action of separate beings. Our body physically comes from our parents’ sperm and egg, but we are the result of the ripening of our own previous karmic actions.

That intention, that karma, comes from our own mind. It has nothing to do with anybody else at all. So whether we are male or female, whether we have two, three, ten arms, whether we have a long face or a bald head, whether we are fat or skinny, we are totally responsible for it. It all stems from a basic ignorance, from not knowing the nature of I, which leads to attachment and aversion arising in the mind, which leads to this samsaric body and mind, but it is all a result of karma.

And in the same way, every experience we have with this samsaric body, whether it is happiness of suffering, comes from our own karma, from our own previous motivation. Compared to the unbelievable suffering of the hell beings, the hungry ghosts and the animals, the suffering in the human realm is very slight, and we have the opportunity to do something about it. Our present suffering is dependent on our previous karma, but our future happiness is dependent on our present karma, the motivation we have for all the actions we are doing now. If we have a positive motivation we can have future happiness, even liberation and enlightenment. Our present situation is still suffering, although nothing compared to the lower realms, because it was motivated by ignorance, but mixed with that ignorance there must have been a huge amount of positive karma to give us the degree of happiness we are now experiencing. So in that way, our life is a virtuous, positive one.

Just believing an action is positive doesn’t make it positive. Unless we understand karma and know the difference between positive and negative karma, we can unintentionally create the cause for terrible suffering. We might honestly think that killing a chicken is beneficial for the chicken. Holding it, wringing its neck, cutting its head off, we might see this as a beneficial action designed to bring happiness to the chicken. That doesn’t mean it is a positive action.

Positive actions only come from positive motivations, so therefore we must understand what they are. It is impossible to determine whether an action is positive or negative by the external action alone. If the action was motivated by a selfish mind it is negative, if by a generous, beneficial mind it is positive. Therefore, in Buddhism, whether it is the Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana path, the main emphasis is on taking care of the mind, observing the mind and keeping it pure. This is the same with all religions.

If we can always keep our mind pure, generous and beneficial, even though we don’t believe in God, we will always be happy and get whatever we want, we will make others happy and never give them any harm. Others will admire us and help us if we ever get into trouble. In fact, explaining the benefits of keeping the mind pure can never be finished.

On the other hand, if mind is not kept pure, no matter how much we meditate, learn the highest techniques, or even have incredible healing powers, it will be impossible to receive the highest sublime happiness, enlightenment, and so lead other sentient beings to enlightenment.

How difficult or easy it is depends on the individual, how strictly we take care of our mind. Because samsara—suffering—is a creation of the mind, there is a possibility to avoid it, and because enlightenment—happiness—is also a creation of the mind there is a possibility to achieve it. Any living being who has a mind has this potential, and at this time, as we are born as human beings, we have an incredible chance to create good karma, the cause which definitely brings happiness and ultimately enlightenment.

In any one day we create countless actions of body, speech and mind, spontaneously, without control, so in any one day we create countless causes of suffering. So many actions which are just the cause of suffering. What we don’t do with our speech we do with our body; what we don’t do with our body we do with our mind, and everything stems from the motivation in our mind, all the time like this, over and over again every second. Everything stems from the movement of the mind. Karma, karma, karma, negative karma, negative karma, negative karma. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a strong violent action, like killing a person or an animal, or strongly abusing someone. It can be very small, but some habitual thing we do all the time. It can also be a positive thing, and again maybe not some great compassionate act like saving a life, but some small habitual thing like smiling at someone. Some small thing that comes from karma, from a movement of the mind.

Positive karma, negative karma, it is just a movement of the mind, just a function of mind. Everything is habitual, and so we can change that function by changing the habit. We can learn to recognize a harmful habit as negative karma and work on the mind until that is changed into a positive, beneficial state of mind. It’s just a matter of function. Karma is not magic.

The Definition of Nonvirtue

If we don’t know about karma our life is a total hallucination. If we don’t understand about true suffering and its cause, about the four noble truths, about how we are creating the causes every moment to be reborn in the unbearable suffering of the lower realms, then we are living in a complete fantasy. We believe we are making ourselves happy while all the while creating the causes for suffering. We are always hoping for happiness and satisfaction but because the method is completely wrong and we follow ignorance, anger and attachment to get what we want, we always ending up with suffering.

Perhaps we believe we are happy. We have many friends, a healthy body, many bright, shiny sense objects as possessions, but these appearances can stop in the snap of the fingers. Then what? That all depends on karma, and being completely trapped in the hallucination of this life, caught up only in gaining pleasure in this life, being completely unaware of karma, there is very little chance what happens next will be good.

Like this, we are tied to nonvirtue. The definition of a nonvirtue is any action that results in suffering, in rebirth in the lower realms and so forth. On top of that, it is any action motivated by an afflicted mind, by ignorance, attachment (especially the attachment that clings to this life), or anger. Nonvirtuous actions are actions that disturb our mental continuum, unlike virtuous actions that bring peace and calmness to the mind. The disturbed, agitated mind is suffering and so nonvirtuous actions are the cause of suffering. We can refine our definition a little by saying, if nonvirtue is any action that results in suffering then any nonvirtuous action is any action motivated by a nonvirtuous thought, such as ignorance, anger, or attachment.

Here we have to specify which ignorance we are referring to. There is the ignorance of the concept of true existence and the ignorance of karma, and here it specifically means the ignorance of karma.

This is the sort of ignorance where we can practice morality or generosity, not with the genuine wish to help others but to receive wealth or a good reputation. The action might be good, it might help another being, but it is nonvirtue because it is done with the motivation of attachment. But this is not attachment to the happiness of future lives, which is still Dharma, but attachment clinging to the happiness of this life.

When we talk about suffering we are specifically talking about the suffering of suffering. The Buddha in The Four Noble Truths Sutra describes three types of suffering: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and pervasive compounded suffering. The suffering of change is relying on sense pleasures which will sooner or later let us down, pervasive compounded suffering is the dissatisfaction of simply having an imperfect samsaric body and mind and the suffering of suffering is what we all think of as suffering or pain. Any action which results the suffering of suffering is the definition of nonvirtue.

On top of this, we can say attachment clinging to this life, the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, is a very basic nonvirtue. This is such an important one because we spend most of our life—for some people, their whole life—from birth until death, with just this motivation. And so, every single thing becomes negative karma, whether we live for twenty years, a hundred years, or more than hundred years.

Having a good understanding of the definition of nonvirtue is crucial, otherwise we might just think nonvirtue refers to the obvious wrong actions people do like killing, and because we don’t do them we are a pure person. Because we are not a criminal, breaking the law and wanted by the police, there is nothing wrong with our way of life. If we think like that, we will be confused when we suffer because we won’t be able to see any reason for it; it will seem unfair. We also need to look beyond just this one life, because our mind has no beginning. This is just one samsaric rebirth in many. Even if we have been listening to Dharma or meditating for many years, doing many retreats but somehow we don’t relate karma to past lives, then we can be shocked when a disease happens as it seems to come from nowhere for no reason.

So few people have any idea what virtue is and so they constantly believe what they are doing is the cause of happiness. Whatever they do, whether it’s education, work, relationships, they never relate it to the need for positive motivation, therefore, twenty-four hours a day every action of body, speech and mind is done only with attachment clinging to the happiness of this life. They seek power, reputation, wealth and a long and healthy life in order to fulfill their ambitions, not to practice Dharma. They seek reputation and power not to benefit other sentient beings but for their own satisfaction. This is a worldly action, a nonvirtuous attitude.

With such a motivation, with the mind immersed in nonvirtuous actions like that, their whole life goes like that and their whole perfect human rebirth is utterly wasted. Its sole use is to create the causes to be reborn in the lower realms.

1. The different types of mental factors are: five omnipresent mental factors, object-ascertaining mental factors, wholesome mental factors, main afflictions, derivative afflictions and variable mental factors. See Tsering, Tashi Buddhist Psychology and Rabten, Geshe Mind and Its Functions. [Return to text]

2. For an explanation, see Rabten, Geshe, The Mind and its Functions, 142-151. [Return to text]

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