Transforming Nonvirtue into Virtue

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Root Institute, Bodhgaya, India (Archive #513)

In this teaching excerpt, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises the importance of having a pure motivation free from worldly concerns, so that our actions become Dharma. This excerpt is from a series of ten discourses given by Rinpoche from February 16–25, 1990, at Root Institute, Bodhgaya, India, as part of the Third Enlightened Experience Celebration (EEC3). Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron and Ven. Robina Courtin.

The Bodhgaya teachings are based on the fifteenth century Kadampa mind training text, Opening the Door of Dharma, by the Tibetan yogi Lodro Gyaltsen, and form the basis of Rinpoche’s book The Door to Satisfaction, published by Wisdom Publications.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Lawudo Retreat Center, Nepal, 1990. Photo: Merry Colony
Having a pure motivation

No matter what action you do, it is extremely important to have the right motivation. Whether you are a farmer or a meditator, if you act out of desire for this life’s comfort and reputation, you are no different from an animal.

When I asked one abbot what worldly dharma means, he replied that it means gambling, working in the fields and so on—that these are worldly activities. It is very common to think of worldly actions in this way, relating just to the action and not to the motivation, the attitude. If done with a pure motivation, however, actions such as gambling or working in the fields can become pure Dharma.

By itself, no action can be defined as a worldly action. It could be holy Dharma or worldly dharma, virtuous or nonvirtuous—it could be anything. Only by knowing the person’s motivation can you label their action holy Dharma or worldly dharma, whether it is farm work or meditation practice.

In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo gives the following example: Four people are reciting praises to Tara. The first person recites the prayer with the motivation to achieve enlightenment for the sake of other sentient beings; the second with the motivation to achieve liberation for the self; the third to achieve happiness in future lives; and the fourth seeking happiness only in this life.

The first person’s action of reciting the prayer becomes the cause of enlightenment. The second person’s action does not become the cause of enlightenment as it is done with the motivation to achieve self-liberation. This action becomes the cause of just that, liberation, which means release from samsara; it is not the cause of enlightenment, which is the mental state free of all mistakes and perfect in all qualities, all realizations.

The third person’s recitation becomes the cause of achieving neither full enlightenment nor liberation. Since the action is done with the motivation to achieve only the happiness of future lives, it becomes the cause to achieve only samsaric happiness, with rebirth as a god or human being.

The recitations of these three people are all actions of holy Dharma. The fourth person’s recitation, however, is not holy Dharma; it is worldly dharma because the action is done with worldly concern, clinging to this life. That motivation is nonvirtuous. As I mentioned earlier, actions done out of worldly concern, attachment clinging just to the happiness of this life, are nonvirtuous and result in rebirth in the hell, preta or animal realms. So, even though the prayer itself is Dharma, the person’s action does not become holy Dharma.

Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo uses the action of reciting a prayer as his example in order to clarify a common mistake. It is very easy to think that because a person’s action is related to Dharma—reciting a prayer, reading a Dharma text, meditating—it is a Dharma action. It is very easy to believe this.

If the action of reciting a prayer with worldly concern can bring success, if it can become the cause of happiness, then robbing banks is also a cause of happiness. By robbing banks, a person can become wealthy and live in comfort; the person’s comfort depends on stealing. So, does stealing cause happiness? There is some similarity. If that nonvirtuous action of stealing done out of self-cherishing, attachment, anger or some other delusion causes happiness, then you could experience happiness from nonvirtue. This mistaken idea naturally follows.

Only actions that are not motivated by worldly concern, and are remedies for worldly concern, become Dharma. From morning until night, whatever actions we do—sleeping, eating, sitting, walking, talking—if done as remedies for delusions, become Dharma. Actions done out of worldly concern, attachment to this life, however, become worldly dharma, or nonvirtue. They do not become holy Dharma.

As the great bodhisattva Shantideva says in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Though wishing to achieve happiness and to cease suffering, not knowing the secret of the mind, the supreme meaning of Dharma, beings wander meaninglessly.

Here, “the secret of the mind” does not mean some high realization such as clear light or the illusory body or their unification; it is not talking about anything very complicated. We can interpret “the secret of the mind” as meaning these different levels of motivation. This verse emphasizes the importance of watching and protecting our mind, keeping it in virtue, because happiness and suffering are dependent upon our own mind, our own good and bad thoughts. One way of thinking creates happiness; another way of thinking produces sufferings and problems. Everything—from day-to-day problems and the sufferings of the six realms up to liberation and enlightenment—depends on our mind, our way of thinking.

You may not be aware of this secret of the mind, that all your happiness and suffering come from your own mind, your way of thinking and your attitude. By knowing this secret, you can eliminate the wrong ways of thinking that produce your problems and all the sufferings of your future lives, all the obstacles to achieving enlightenment. With the correct way of thinking, you are able to obtain any happiness you wish.

The two beggars

Another quotation from Opening the Door of Dharma says:

Before Dharma activities, the function of the mind [which means the motivation] is the most important. If we talk or work with a negative mind, we receive suffering from that action, as in the example of the head cut off by the wheel. If we talk or work with a calm mind, we will receive happiness from that action, as in the example of the moving shadow.

This means that we receive suffering from actions done with the three poisonous minds.

The examples mentioned relate to the following story, as told by His Holiness Zong Rinpoche. Two beggars went separately to beg food from a monastery. One went in the evening when the monks were fasting, so he didn’t get any food. The other beggar went at the right time, when the monks were having lunch, so he received plenty.

The beggar who didn’t receive any food got very angry. Out of anger, he said, “I wish I could cut off the heads of all the monks and watch them drop on the ground!” Very soon after he had said this, he was lying down at the side of a road when a chariot came past, and one of its wheels cut off his head.

The other beggar who got plenty of food was very happy. Feeling grateful to the monks, he said, “I wish I could offer the monks nectar of the gods!” This wish generated enormous merit in his mind. Afterwards he went to lie in a park under a tree, where he stayed for the rest of the day. Throughout the whole time, the shade of the tree did not move away from him. At that time the local people were searching for someone with special qualities to be their new king. Seeing the beggar who was always covered by the shade of the tree, they asked him to be their leader.

There are three types of karma (in terms of when it ripens): karma that you create and experience the result of in this life; karma that you create in this life but experience the result of in the next life; and karma that you create in this life but experience the result of only after many lifetimes.

Even though the beggar did not actually offer nectar to the monks, since the Sangha are a very powerful object because of the number of vows they hold, merely by having the wish to offer them nectar, he accumulated great merit. For this reason, the result of that karma was experienced in the same life.

The bodhisattva captain

There are also other stories. Generally, killing is negative karma. However, in one of his past lives, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha killed a human being. He was the captain of a ship that was carrying five hundred traders, and one person on board was planning to kill all the others. Realizing this and thinking that the person would go to hell and experience suffering for many eons if he succeeded in his plan, the captain felt unbearable compassion for him. He thought, “I will go to hell in his place. I will kill him before he has the chance to kill the others. Even if the karma of killing him means that I have to go to hell, I’ll still do it.” So, out of unbearable compassion, the captain killed the trader.

However, because of the motivation of great compassion, this action of killing did not become negative karma; instead, it became a special means of accumulating merit and shortened his stay in samsara by 100,000 eons. The text says very clearly here that this action did not become negative karma, though sometimes this is disputed. Some people find it very difficult to accept that this action of killing done out of compassion is virtuous. They argue that the motivation is virtuous but the action itself is nonvirtuous, so the bodhisattva captain would have to experience some negative result because of that. Some geshes may argue like this in the context of Hinayana teachings, but it says very clearly here, in this Paramitayana text, that the captain’s action was not negative karma.

In the Hinayana teachings, it is fixed that the three actions of body (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct) and the four actions of speech (lying, slandering, gossiping, speaking harshly) are negative. There is no permission given to perform these actions because Hinayana teachings emphasize the action more than the attitude. However, in the Paramitayana teachings, Buddha permitted these actions when a bodhisattva sees that the action will definitely bring great benefit to sentient beings. Buddha permitted this because there is no danger to the bodhisattva in terms of the development of their mind. Their action does not become an obstacle to the achievement of enlightenment; instead, it actually helps the bodhisattva to achieve enlightenment more quickly. When there is great benefit, and especially when there is no danger, Buddha permitted such actions.

Hinayana is the foundation of Paramitayana, but Hinayana teachings do not mention bodhicitta, which is revealed in the Paramitayana. In Paramitayana, the mind of bodhicitta can make nonvirtuous actions virtuous. In developing the mind, you first transform the indifferent mind into virtue; then, by generating bodhicitta and gradually developing it, after some time you are advanced enough to be able to transform even nonvirtue into virtue. Bodhicitta enables us to do this.

In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo explains that the captain’s action of killing “accumulated much merit”; but here in the text, this is clarified even further: “This action of killing did not become negative karma and, on top of that, became a special method for completing the merit and so forth.” Many other teachings agree with this, and even from a worldly point of view, it makes sense.

The text also says:

If you give food and drink in order to tease someone or to cause a problem, unhappiness comes instead of happiness.

In other words, you give food and drink to someone with the motivation to harm them, to cause trouble. Here, even though the action may look very nice, the results will actually be negative—unhappiness in this life and suffering in future lives—because the motivation is negative. This is the opposite to the example of the bodhisattva captain whose action of killing did not become negative karma but instead became a means to accumulate merit.

The text continues:

If you give with devotion, respect, compassion and so forth, there is great joy from your own side, and from the side of others. Great joy also results from that karma later. Therefore, everything is dependent on the mind. Happiness, suffering, negative karma, positive karma: everything has to do with different minds.

In other words, everything has to do with your own attitude, your own way of thinking, your motivation. Lama Tsongkhapa says in one of his lamrim teachings that, apart from some exceptional actions, unless an action is motivated by one of the three principal aspects of the path, it becomes a cause of samsara, a cause of suffering. The exceptional actions that do not depend on motivation are those done in relation to holy objects such as Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Making offerings to these holy objects, even with the motivation of worldly concern, results in happiness.

A sutra says: “The world is led by the mind.” This means that the mind is the producer, or creator, of the world. All happiness, for example, is led by the virtuous mind. All the good things—the body of a god or human, the good places, desirable sense objects—arise in dependence upon the virtuous mind. By practicing bodhicitta, we are able to generate all the rest of the Mahayana path, tantric realizations and enlightenment. All these come from, or are led by, bodhicitta.

All suffering is led by the nonvirtuous mind. All the bad things—the bodies of the suffering transmigratory beings, the lower realms—arise in dependence upon the nonvirtuous mind.

Everything comes from the mind, but the mind is formless. The sutra then says: “The mind does not see the mind.” I think this means that, because the mind does not have color or shape, we cannot see or feel it in the way we can see and feel our body and other objects. Our mind and our delusions are formless and colorless. However, our ignorance believing in true existence is harder than a rocky mountain. Our delusions are harder than steel.

Rocky mountains and steel have a beginning and an end; they can be destroyed by external factors, such as the fire at the end of the eon or the rising of seven suns. However, the continuity of our delusions, our ignorance, does not have a beginning. Our ignorance is beginningless, yet it still hasn’t changed. This is amazing. And unless we train our mind and actualize the path, our delusions have no end. If we are able to generate the remedy of the path, we can end the delusions.

The quotation from the sutra finishes: “Whether an action is virtue or nonvirtue, it is collected by the mind.”

Transforming nonvirtue into virtue

Aryadeva tells the story of an arhat who had much pain and asked another monk, his disciple, to suffocate him. So the disciple suffocated the arhat. This disciple then asked Guru Shakyamuni Buddha about the karma of his action. Buddha said that since the action was done with a good motivation, it did not create the karma of killing an arhat, which is one of the five uninterrupted negative karmas. Because the action was done with a good heart, as the arhat was in much pain, Buddha said it did not become an uninterrupted negative karma, only virtue.

However, there is another aspect to consider in the killing of beings to relieve their suffering. If a person or animal is going to be reborn in hell, since the suffering here in the human realm is nothing compared to that, it may be better for them to have one day longer here where the suffering is less. If the being is going to be reborn in the higher realms, as a god or human being, it is just a question of changing the body. This requires thorough checking. In fact, we need clairvoyance to make a decision like this.

Killing such beings may become virtuous because it is done with a good heart; but thinking about the nature of the being’s future life, whether it will be in a lower or higher realm, makes a difference from the side of the other being. This is why Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment says that it is difficult to work for other sentient beings without clairvoyance. (Maybe everyone should spend some years in a cave on Mount Kailash or do shamatha retreat in a Calcutta street or at Old Delhi Railway Station!)

There is another story of an old monk who had a son who was also a monk in the same monastery. One day the temple bell rang to call all the monks to confession. Hearing this, the young monk told his father to hurry up. By going quickly, the old monk died. When the young monk checked with Buddha, Buddha said that because the action was done with a good heart, it did not become the uninterrupted negative karma of killing one’s father.

Aryadeva also gives another example: Someone saw a statue of Buddha sitting out in the rain, so he put his shoes on the head of the statue to protect it. After the rain stopped, somebody else came along and said, “Oh, how terrible it is to put shoes on a statue of Buddha!” and removed them. Both of these people created the cause to be born as wheel-turning kings. Why? Because both actions were done with good motivation. Both the one who put his shoes on the Buddha statue to protect it from the rain and the other who removed them created good karma.

The motivation is the essential thing, especially the causal motivation, as I mentioned earlier. If possible, the motivation at the time should also be virtuous, but of the two, the causal motivation is more important. Apart from those exceptional actions I have already mentioned—actions done in relation to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—it is the causal motivation that determines whether an action becomes virtue or nonvirtue.

This is written particularly clearly here in Opening the Door of Dharma. I will repeat it again:

For most people, killing is negative karma. However, because the action of the captain who killed a human being was motivated by great compassion, it did not become negative karma. On top of that, it became a special method of completing the merit and so forth.

An enormous amount of merit was accumulated because the captain sacrificed himself completely, happy to be reborn in hell by killing the man and thus saving him from hell.

It is said many times in the teachings that bodhicitta is a special method of accumulating merit. This is also very clearly explained in the extensive thought training teachings of Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen. So, we can transform nonvirtue into virtue. It’s all a question of motivation.