Karma and Finding Happiness

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
San Francisco (Archive #816)

A public talk by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche in San Francisco, USA, on October 3, 1990. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche after the first US course in California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.

To eliminate suffering and obtain happiness, the most important thing is to have a good heart. This is the one answer to all problems. Whether or not you know about bodhicitta, the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment, the answer to all problems is this loving compassionate thought.

Why is altruism the answer to all problems? In order to understand this, we have to think about the evolution of problems, about where problems come from. Here we are not talking about external causes of problems. Problems do depend on external factors, but external things are simply conditions. We have to analyze what makes these conditions become problems, become harmful to our body and mind. Even though special scientific organizations have been set up to research the causes of diseases such as cancer, for example, there are still these problems.

If you are not aware that the cause of problems is something other than outside conditions, you will always have problems. Not having the outside conditions is a problem; having them is a problem. Food, place, climate, non-living things, living beings - not having these, there are problems; having these, there are problems. This makes life very difficult! If you don't have these conditions, you cannot survive - this is one problem; having the conditions is another problem.

What makes factors such as climate, place, food, and other beings harmful to the body and mind? This is a very important point to analyze. In the same room, for example, one person may feel very hot and another feel cool. The same temperature is experienced in different ways by different people. For some the temperature is pleasant and not a problem; for others it is hot and a problem. When a hundred people look at one person, that one person appears beautiful to some of them, ugly to some, and neutral to others. The one person appears differently to different people and affects them differently.

What causes different people to see the same object differently? The way the object appears is related to the minds of the different people. Because people have different characteristics of mind, the one object doesn't appear exactly the same to everyone or affect them in the same way.

There are human beings who have short lives, some even dying in the womb. There are outside conditions for this shortness of life, but the main cause comes from the being's own mental factors. What mental factors? First, self-cherishing. Because of this selfish attitude, disturbing thoughts such as ignorance, anger, and desire arise, and these motivate actions such as killing. Taking the life of another living being leaves an imprint on the mind, and because of this imprint, in this life the person experiences the result of a short life.

Whether you are killed in a car accident, an airplane crash, an earthquake, or by other beings, the main thing that made these conditions for your death is your own mind. Not all of your mind, however. The mind has positive as well as negative factors. Because of disturbing thoughts and the actions motivated by them, you harm other beings; this leaves an imprint on your mental continuum, or consciousness. If the imprint left by the disturbing attitudes and actions is very strong, it becomes ready to be experienced in this life. Just as a seed planted in the ground and then watered becomes ready to produce its sprout, this imprint is actualized at this time.

Even though an earthquake is a disturbance of the elements, what makes the elements unbalanced and causes the earthquake is each of the living beings who experiences it. The earth is meant to be there for our happiness, but even things meant to bring happiness in life can become disturbances to our lives. Even though built to protect life, houses can collapse and kill people.

Even though earthquakes are dependent upon the elements, what makes the elements act in this harmful way comes from the mind of each living being who experiences the earthquake. The imprint left on the consciousness by past actions done out of disturbing thoughts and harmful to other beings becomes powerful and manifests at this time. Seeds planted in the ground, if they are not burned, deprived of water or minerals, or eaten by worms, will definitely bring their own result of stems and fruit. If there are no obstacles, the seeds will definitely bring their own result. Of course, if the seed is destroyed or removed, nothing will grow there. In the same way, so many imprints have been planted by our mind and actions motivated by our mind. These can be purified. By practicing the path, we can purify and remove the imprints left on our consciousness by our past actions. There is no need to experience the resultant problems. We experience problems because we have done nothing to eliminate these imprints that bring problems.

Experiencing danger to your life from an earthquake comes from your own mind, as do being killed by others and living in dangerous places where there many diseases and so forth. The place where you live also comes from your own mind; it is the result of the imprint left on your mental continuum by karma and disturbing thoughts. Killing and harming others in this life also comes from your own mind. It originates from the imprint left by karma and disturbing thoughts, basically by self-cherishing.

Even when an earthquake happens, there are many people who live in the city who are not there when it happens - perhaps because they are traveling in another country. Even though a problem happens in the place they live and is experienced by many other people, they do not experience it. Other people may be outside when their house collapses, so nothing happens to them.

These people might not have created the negative karma of harming and killing other sentient beings out of disturbing thoughts of selfishness, anger, desire, ignorance, and so forth, thus leaving an imprint on the consciousness that results in dangers to the life, such as earthquakes, epidemic disease, and so forth. Or they have harmed and killed others out of disturbing thoughts, but the imprint left on their mental continuum is not yet ready to be experienced. Just as a seed may not be ready to produce its sprout, the imprint may not be ready to produce its result of danger to the life. This is why at the same time as many people are dying, other people are not experiencing the problem.

It is your own mind that endangers your life, and it is your own mind that experiences the danger. It is the production of your own mind, your own disturbing thoughts. All these dangers come from your own mind. The basic cause is the self-centered mind, the egoism that cherishes only oneself and is concerned only about your own happiness. The actions motivated by this selfish attitude and the other disturbing thoughts then leave imprints on the mental continuum. If you had removed these imprints by practicing the methods that develop your own positive attitudes, you would not have to experience the result. Even if the imprint was not purified completely, by confessing and by practicing the meditation methods, you would not have to experience the four suffering results, which include dangers to your life from earthquakes, floods, disease, and many other things; again doing the action of killing; and experiencing a short life through being killed by others. You can stop the experience of these four suffering results.

Even though you may not have been able to generate the remedy of the path and thus cease the imprints left on your mental continuum, you can practice perfect confession with the remedy of the four powers: the power of reliance; the power of regret, regretting negative actions done out of disturbing thoughts through reflecting on their shortcomings; the power of transforming the body, speech, and mind into virtue all the time; and the last power, making the determination not to commit again the negative actions that harm oneself and others. If an action harms other sentient beings, it harms you.

With meditation on the four powers, you can stop your experience of the four suffering results. Just as rice burnt in a fire cannot grow, negative actions purified by meditating with the four powers do not produce a result. Even though the imprint is not completely removed, by generating the remedy of the path within your own mind through this meditation method of perfect confession, you can completely stop the experience of the four suffering results, even of killing.

Relationship problems - disharmony in a family or a couple separating - occur in the same way. You experience these problems and have to live in an undesirable place, one that is filthy or muddy. And in this life you again find it very difficult to control desire, to stop sexual misconduct. Because of this, again in this life, you disturb other people and harm their relationships.

The problem related to the place is called the possessed result. Doing the action of sexual misconduct again and again - even though you may think it is bad to disturb the harmonious relationships of others, you are unable to control yourself - is creating the result similar to the cause. Disharmony in your relationships is experiencing the result similar to the cause. (The other result, a suffering rebirth as an animal, preta, or hell being, is experienced in dependence upon how heavy the action is.)

Again, these problems come from your own mind, from the karma motivated by disturbing thoughts, basically by self-cherishing. Because the karma leaves an imprint on the mental continuum, which is experienced in this life, you experience many relationship problems, one after another, even though this is not what you want. Even though you want harmonious relationships, you experience the opposite. Again, if we had generated the path that removes the imprint left by karma and these disturbing thoughts, we wouldn't have to experience these problems at all. Or if we had done meditation with perfect confession, we could have purified it. In other words, we could have stopped the experience of all four suffering results. The imprint would still be there, but we would have made it unable to function. By practicing perfect confession with the four powers, we can stop the experience of all these four problems.

Being poor, being unable to find a job, losing your job, having difficulty supporting yourself - all these are experiencing the result similar to the cause of the negative action of stealing, done out of disturbing thoughts such as selfishness. You find it very difficult to earn money or even if you accumulate wealth, other people steal it; somehow you don't get the chance to enjoy it. Or even if you are wealthy, you don't have complete control over it; you have to use it together with other people. You are always losing things or being robbed. If other people don't steal your things, somehow you lose them. All these are examples of experiencing the result similar to the cause of stealing other people's belongings.

And even though you may think it is bad to steal, somehow you can't control yourself and again in this life you steal. This is experiencing the result similar to the cause of the past karma of stealing.

In terms of the place, you are reborn where there is a lot of drought and famine. Crops don't grow well, or even if they grow, they are destroyed by insects. Living in a place where there are such problems is the possessed result of the action of stealing.

Then, if you are running a business - a restaurant, a farm, a bus company - you have no success. No people come, and you do not make money. This result also comes from the mind of the person who is experiencing the problem. It is the result of the past karma of stealing done out of disturbing thoughts.

And there is the other result of a suffering rebirth as an animal, preta, or hell being, depending on how heavy the negative karma is. Again, all these problems came from one's own mind. Because the imprint left by the negative actions was not purified through meditation and perfect confession, you do not stop the experience of the four suffering results of stealing. Since nothing was done to purify them, the four suffering results are being experienced in this life.

In this life you may be reborn in a place where there are many dangers to your life and many people cheat you. This is the possessed result of the negative action of telling lies. Even though you ask others for their help, instead of helping you, they lie to you. Or no matter how hard you try to speak the truth, other people don't trust you and think that you are telling lies. This is experiencing the result similar to the cause of telling lies. You uncontrollably tell lies again in this life. This is creating the result similar to the cause, the past action of telling lies. The other result is a suffering rebirth as an animal, preta, or hell being. Again, all these problems came from your own mind.

Each of the positive actions of not killing, not stealing, not telling lies and not committing sexual misconduct has four positive, or happy, results. For example, the result of the positive action of living in the vow of not killing is to be reborn in a beautiful, clean place where there's no danger to life but only conditions that prolong life. You also have a long life. And you don't endanger the lives of others; you perform the positive action of living in the vow of not killing. Rather than taking a suffering rebirth as an animal, preta, or hell being, you take a happy rebirth as a human or worldly god. From the positive action of not killing, you experience these four happy results.

By living in the morality of not telling lies, you experience the four happy results, which are the opposites to the four suffering results of telling lies that I explained before. You also experience four happy results by living in the morality of abandoning stealing: you are wealthy and successful in business, live in a place where all your needs are met, and are reborn as a human or a god. Living in the morality of abandoning sexual misconduct also has four happy results: you have harmonious relationships with your family and friends; you live in a clean, healthy place; you again live in the morality of abandoning sexual misconduct; and you are reborn as a human or a god.

Basically, everything we experience in our lives from our own minds. All our happiness and all our problems come from our own minds. The difficulties in our lives come from our disturbing thoughts, especially our self-cherishing, and the happiness we experience comes from our positive attitudes, from our non-angry mind, our non-attached mind, our non-ignorant mind.

Your own mind, your own actions and disturbing thoughts, make external things conditions for happiness or for problems. For example, the reason a person appears warm and kind, a place good, or an object desirable is the production of your own positive attitude, or good karma. The same object appearing to other people as undesirable and ugly is the production of their disturbing thoughts and the negative karma produced by them. (I have just explained this in detail with the examples relating to the four positive actions of living in the morality of abandoning killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and telling lies and to these four negative actions done out of disturbing thoughts.) Why does the one object appear in different ways to different people? Because the appearance is a creation of the mind of the person perceiving it. It comes from their minds, from their own positive or negative attitudes.

Now, what makes these actions of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and telling lies become negative? The disturbing thoughts of anger, ignorance, and attachment, but basically self-cherishing. Actually, if you kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, and lie with an attitude free of self-cherishing, your actions become virtue. If there is no self-cherishing thought, there is altruism, the thought to cherish other sentient beings. The three actions of the body (killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct) and the four of speech (telling lies, slandering, gossiping, and speaking harshly) can become virtue, the cause of happiness, if there is no self-cherishing attitude. However, there is no way to transform any of the three negative actions of the mind (heresy, covetousness, and ill will) into virtue.

Every problem that we experience in our life comes from one basic root, our own mind. The actual evolution is that all the external factors described by science and Western culture as the main causes of problems are the conditions for problems. What makes all these external factors - people, climate, food, and so forth - become conditions for disease and shortness of life? Your own mind, your own negative actions and disturbing thoughts, especially your self-cherishing.

The person who has more self-cherishing has more anger, more desire, more jealousy, more pride. The stronger the selfish mind, the more strongly and easily other disturbing thoughts arise.

A very selfish person has few friends, or no friends.

If somebody who is sick needs medicine and you have it, you give it to them. If somebody needs food or clothing, you give it to them. With a positive attitude, you do what you can to bring happiness to others, even by talking to them.

There are many different levels of happiness. Now the happiness of this life is very short: only a few years, a few months, a few days, a few hours. More important than the happiness of this life is the happiness of the life after this. Even when the body disintegrates, the continuum of the consciousness does not cease. It migrates and takes another body. The consciousness continues, even without this body.

There are many people, both young and old, who can see past and future lives. Many people are born with the ability to remember their past lives and see their future lives, as well as those of other people. By developing their mind through meditation, others can also remember the past lives and see the future lives of themselves and others. Those who have attained clairvoyance can see past and future lives.

Even though reincarnation may not be an object of your own present knowledge, your own past and future lives are the objects of knowledge of other beings who have more developed minds or who, due to karma, have the power to see past and future lives. You yourself may not have the mental capacity or the karma to see the past and future lives of yourself and others, but this phenomenon exists.

When we talk about conception, for example, we are actually talking about something being conceived there in the fertilized egg. Even from the word conception, we can understand that something is received there and that the consciousness already exists before taking place on the fertilized egg.

There is continuation of consciousness, so there are future lives - not just one, not just hundreds, not just thousands. How many times a person is born, dies and takes another life depends on how long they take to cease the cause of death and rebirth. The cause is karma motivated by disturbing thoughts, the main disturbing thought being ignorance of the ultimate nature of the I. Until you cease the cause of suffering death and rebirth, which means karma and delusions, you have to die and be reborn, die and be reborn, die and be reborn. To cease the suffering of death and rebirth, you have to cease the cause, and this may take hundreds, thousands, even millions of lifetimes.

Now you can see that it is much more important to bring others long-term happiness, the happiness of future lives, which involves many lifetimes, than to bring comfort in their day-to-day life. If you have a good heart, an attitude of loving compassionate altruism, you will want to cause others to experience this long-term happiness.

But even more important than this is the cessation of death and rebirth, and of all suffering - old age, sickness, meeting undesirable objects, separating from desirable objects, not finding satisfaction even after finding the desirable object - and its cause, karma and disturbing thoughts. Cessation of all these is ultimate liberation, happiness that lasts forever and never decreases. Bringing this ultimate happiness to others is much more important than bringing them temporary happiness in many future lives. If you have the loving compassionate thought of altruism, you will want to cause others to experience this happiness.

Now, even more important than this is the peerless happiness of full enlightenment, the state of perfect peace. The ultimate happiness I just mentioned is the cessation of only karma and disturbing thoughts, of actions motivated by ignorance, anger, attachment, and so forth, and the resultant suffering. Now we are talking about something much higher: the cessation of even the imprints left on the mental continuum by delusions, such as ignorance of the ultimate nature of the I and so forth. This cessation cuts off the subtle obscurations, the subtle mistakes of the mind. By ceasing these, you experience complete peace, peerless happiness.

Cessation of all mistakes and completion of all qualities is the perfect state called full enlightenment. It is much more important to bring sentient beings this peerless happiness. The greatest benefit you can offer other sentient beings is full enlightenment, the mental state free of all mistakes and perfect in all realizations. If you have good karma, you also bring sentient beings to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment.

From their side, sentient beings may not ask to be led to enlightenment; they may not even know about the terms fully awakened mind, full enlightenment, or ultimate liberation. However, when they do business in their everyday life, for example, they try to make the greatest profit. And when they go shopping, even for food or clothing, they try to buy the best quality goods they can afford.

Therefore, enlightenment is what they are seeking - it's just that they don't know that they can achieve such a thing. It is the same as a person who doesn't know they have cancer. Because they don't recognize their disease, their understanding of their state of health is limited. When the doctors explain their condition or the cancer evolves and the person discovers that they have it, they find that their former connotation of health is incomplete. By becoming aware that they have cancer, they then feel that to be healthy means to free of the cancer.

Sentient beings need full enlightenment. Therefore, the greatest benefit you can offer sentient beings is to bring them to full enlightenment. If you have loving kindness, compassion, and altruism, starting from the one person you live with and extending up to all the people in your country, then to all the rest of the human beings and animals on this earth, you bring them happiness. By having a good heart, you cause them to be happy - from the temporary pleasures of day-to-day life up to full enlightenment.

If you do not have a good heart but instead have only self-cherishing and other disturbing thoughts, any action you do is concerned only with your own happiness, not with the happiness of other living beings. Instead of using yourself for the happiness of others, dedicating yourself to their happiness, you use other sentient beings only for your own happiness. And because you are concerned only about your own happiness, the actions you do only harm others, directly or indirectly. You harm everyone.

Let's use the example of one couple. If the husband does not practice good heart but the wife does, if he harms her, she does not get angry or retaliate. Therefore, even though he doesn't practice good heart, he experiences peace because he doesn't receive harm from her. His peace depends upon her, upon her practicing the good heart. If she doesn't practice good heart, he doesn't even receive that peace, which is the absence of that harm.

Then, even though he may have a very selfish mind, because of her good example, even he starts to practice the good heart. That then brings more peace, so there is incredible happiness in their life.

Like this, if you have a good heart, starting from your family, all sentient beings do not receive harm from you, which means they receive peace. Absence of that harm is the peace they receive from you. That peace depends on you. By having a good heart, you cause other sentient beings to have not only happiness in day-to-day life or in future lives, but ultimate happiness. Not only do you free them from true suffering and the true cause of suffering, but you bring them full enlightenment.

Other sentient beings receive all this happiness from you. Each of us is completely responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings, starting with our family. It is in our hands. Whether we cause all sentient beings happiness or harm is completely in our own hands. The happiness or harm that numberless sentient beings receive from you completely depends upon your own attitude, upon whether or not you practice good heart.

So, when you get up in the morning, remember the purpose of your life. Ask yourself, Why do I have this human body? The purpose of having this precious human body is to pacify the sufferings of all other sentient beings and bring them happiness. This is the meaning of human life. This is the purpose of my life. This is my job.

Feel the responsibility: I'm responsible for pacifying the sufferings of all sentient beings and bringing them happiness, all the different levels of happiness up to enlightenment. As you dress, think, In order to serve other sentient beings, I need to be healthy and have a long life; therefore, I am wearing these clothes. When you eat and drink, again remember the meaning of your human life, that you are responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings. "In order to serve others, I need to be healthy and have a long life; therefore, I need food and drink for this body." You use food and drink as medicine.

When you go to work, again feel, "I am responsible for pacifying the suffering of all sentient beings and for obtaining their happiness. This is my job." Remember especially the kindness of the people who employ you, "Because of their kindness in giving me this job, I have more opportunity to serve others and to practice Dharma, to meditate and develop my mind. Therefore, I can bring sentient beings all this happiness, up to full enlightenment." Like this, remember their kindness. Then think, "Their happiness depends on other people doing this work for them; therefore I am working for them." That is the happiness you are offering them. By doing the work, you succeed in your wishes because you are giving that person what they are looking for. Your work does help them.

And not only does your work help the people who gave you the job, but the many thousands of people who receive the result of your work. Your work contributes comfort and enjoyment to all the people who use your product. Remember that you are also bringing happiness to all these people.

If you can, generate bodhicitta, the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment yourself in order to free every sentient being from all suffering and lead them to enlightenment. However, whether you have bodhicitta or not, with a good heart remember your responsibility and the meaning of your life, "My job is to pacify all the suffering of others and obtain all their happiness." Remembering the kindness of others, go to work.

Also, while you are working, from time to time remember, "I'm working for other sentient beings, to pacify their suffering and bring them happiness." In this way, your whole day of work, however many hours you do, becomes virtue. The more we can remember our motivation for the happiness of others, the more our work becomes virtue, which means the cause of happiness for us. And that work done with a positive attitude benefits all sentient beings. All the hours we work become Dharma.

At night when you go to bed, again remember your responsibility, the meaning of your life, which is to pacify the suffering of all sentient beings and bring them happiness. "Therefore, in order to be healthy and have a long life, I am going to bed." You use sleep as a medicine, in order to be able to serve others, in order to develop your mind, your good heart.

If you use all your enjoyments, such as living in a luxurious house or apartment, eating expensive food, wearing expensive clothes, in the best way, with the attitude of developing the good heart, they are not wasted. Otherwise, if you live with self-cherishing thought, clinging to your own happiness of in this life, all your actions from morning until night become non-virtue. No matter how many hours or how hard you work, no matter how exhausted you become, all your work becomes non-virtue because the motivation is one of worldly concern. Washing, eating, drinking, sleeping, wearing clothes, working - everything becomes non-virtue, the cause of suffering. And since everything is done with a selfish attitude, there is no happiness or satisfaction in your life. Even though you may look successful on the outside, in your heart there is a lot of pain. Your mind is not happy; it is uptight and painful. You feel as if you have a rock inside your heart.

With an altruistic motivation, if we remember that we are responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings, whatever work we do from morning until night becomes virtue. Everything becomes the purest action, the purest Dharma, because it is unstained by self-cherishing thought. In this way, your life and work are meditation. If you interpret meditation as only sitting with crossed legs and closed eyes, you will become very confused. This will make your life very difficult. If you think meditation is what you do only in your meditation room and that life outside the meditation room is not really meditation, what you are doing every day on your meditation cushion in your meditation room is not practical; it is not benefiting your working time. You have to integrate your work and meditation, and practicing awareness of altruism is the best meditation.

When we have some problem in our life that we have to go through, it is extremely important to make it meaningful or worthwhile. When you can make the problem beneficial for other sentient beings, you transform the problem into happiness.

How do you transform a problem into happiness? You have to see the benefits of the problem.

You can use any disease you have for meditation, for example, by thinking of those who have the same disease as you, but have a worse case or other problems as well. In this way all the causes of disease are purified and you recover, now and in the future. In this way your disease becomes purification, like a Vajrasattva retreat, and helps you to accumulate merit. The disease itself becomes meditation, developing your mind in the path to enlightenment so that you can pacify the sufferings of all sentient beings and lead them to enlightenment.