Understanding Karma

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

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

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching outdoors at Manjushri London (currently Jamyang Buddhist Centre), 1983. Photo by Robin Bath.
The Importance of Understanding Karma

To achieve fully the most supreme peace, which is freedom from all suffering and the removal of every single obscuration, it is necessary to actualize completely the whole path, the Dharma jewel. This starts by correcting each tiny action: avoiding all negative, harmful actions and practicing all positive actions. This is called "observing karma." Therefore, understanding karma is the root of all perfections and happiness and the very foundation of the path to enlightenment.

Understanding and the practice of protecting karma is so important for everyone, for beginners just starting to practice Dharma, for those who have an established Dharma practice and even for advanced meditators with high Tantric realizations.

Many Westerners have the idea that that karma is just an Eastern custom, or that it exists only for those who believe in it and not for those who don’t. Some even think that karma has no existence at all, merely being some unverifiable theory fantasized by certain Eastern yogis or by the Buddha.

This thinking is totally wrong; it is such a poisonous mind; thinking like this, we destroy both temporal and ultimate peace for ourselves and others. Therefore, because of that, we should cast it out like used toilet paper.

The basic teaching on karma—that suffering arises from nonvirtuous actions and happiness arises from virtuous actions—is not just an Eastern trip, something for Asians who believe in past and future lives. If that were so, then not only would Buddhism be utterly unnecessary, but also Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of these teachings on karma, would have been the cause of the suffering of those beings who believe in karma. This is like saying that those who believed in the ten commandments would go to hell, whereas those who believed in neither God nor the ten commandments would not. All such conceptions are completely wrong.

Whether we believe in karma or not, all living beings—human and non-human—suffer. No matter how much we try to gain comfort, there is no satisfaction, and the limited comfort we gain always quickly finishes. There is no definite peace and no control over the sufferings of death and rebirth. All this shows clearly that no living being is free of karma and that karma exists in fact.

All our experiences of happiness and suffering depend on karma. No matter how much we desire happiness, if we follow ignorance alone, without respecting karma, we’ll have nothing but suffering to experience. We can clearly see that irrespective of how much some people strive for life’s comforts, they continually suffer one problem after another, while others always experience comfort and happiness with hardly any effort.

Since we create the karma, and since to observe karma means to correct each tiny action, then how should it be observed? Avoiding nonvirtuous actions and practicing virtuous ones is observing karma, and to so we must be able to distinguish between them.

As the great guru, Nagarjuna, says:

The action arising from hatred, greed or ignorance is nonvirtuous;
The action arising from non-hatred, non-greed or non-ignorance is virtuous.

Also, the great bodhisattva, Shantideva, says:

From virtuous actions all happiness arises;
From nonvirtuous actions all suffering arises.

The actions we create by negative impulses, harming ourselves and other living beings, are nonvirtuous. The actions we create created by positive impulses, benefiting ourselves and other living beings, are virtuous. Nonvirtuous actions only bring suffering results, causing rebirth in the lower realms or even suffering in the upper realms. Virtuous actions only bring happy results, such as birth in the upper realms and all other happiness.

The worst hindrance to creating virtuous actions is attachment to the comfort of this life alone. We should always be conscious of our actions of body, speech and mind, checking up continuously, avoiding the slightest negative action and trying to create even the tiniest virtuous action.

It is important to avoid drawing false conclusions on the basis of incomplete understanding and faulty logic. Seeing bad people enjoying a wealthy lifestyle we might think that there is no correlation between happiness and virtuous actions or between suffering and nonvirtuous actions, but we are very foolish to deny these fundamental truths just because we don’t have that personal knowledge. It has, in fact, been the experience of a great many ordinary beings, let alone the enlightened beings who fully see the three times—past, present and future—and who have shown us the path to discover all this.

Of all the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha, the most essential one, the one that leads us all the enlightenment, is karma. Observing karma is our most vital practice. In the same way that even though a patient might take his medicine, if he then reverts to his unhealthy diet and wrong living he will get sick again, if we don’t observe our karma and stop creating harmful actions, we will have to experience suffering in the future.

Just as the patient following the regime given by the doctor will get better, even if he just takes a little of the medicine, on the basis of observing karma, even a little meditation on the graduated path works. Because karma is expandable, the impression left on the mindstream has the ability to ripen into a very positive result. On the basis of observing karma, all the realizations on the path come.

Actually it is not easy to know every single action and to know what is right and what is wrong. For that we need wisdom and a deep understanding of the mind, seeing clearly the different functions of the mind, recognizing the different negative thoughts. Without checking thoroughly we can go through a whole day thinking we haven’t done anything negative. Without the wisdom to recognize positive from negative actions, we can think we are perfect and not realize we are in fact ignorant.

Because we are not feeling angry at that moment, we might think we have no anger. Just because anger isn’t manifesting at that precise moment doesn’t mean the seeds of anger aren’t there, that we are free from anger. And the same with attachment, just because we aren’t feeling attachment at this moment doesn’t mean we are free from it.

We can easily understand this when something happens and anger arises. We might not always feel angry, but the potential for anger is always there. And the same with attachment. It is just a matter of becoming visible at different times. Only when we are completely released from ignorance—the cause of anger and attachment—can we say we are free from anger and attachment. That is why it is so important to always check whether we are under the control of the thought of the eight worldly dharmas and whether we have created any of the ten nonvirtuous actions.

We need to be able to identify these negative minds in order to deal with them, which is why understanding subjects such as karma is vital. Unless we can see below the actual action it is so difficult to judge whether that action is harmful or not. The action itself is not an indication of whether it is positive or negative; it is the mind, the motivation creating the action that determines this.

Even though the action might look generous on the surface, if it is done for the wrong reason, such as reputation, it is a negative one, and conversely, even though an action might look negative, if the motivation is positive, then it is a positive one. Only by checking our motivation, will we be able to know the difference.

The ten nonvirtues are just an example given by Guru Shakyamuni Buddha for ordinary people to recognize what negative karma is. Understanding them, we can easily figure out the other negative actions. However, they are very useful because from them we can see that every negative action has a different suffering result. When we start to get a feeling for what result arises from what action, and whether it leads to the lower suffering realms or an upper rebirth, we can more easily avoid creating negative karma and purifying what we have accumulated on our mindstream. Then somehow the mind feels more confident; we start to feel more relaxed.

Among all the research we can do, I think the best research is studying karma. The deeper understanding of karma that we have, the more answers we get. It goes deeper than mere intellectual knowledge, like facts coming out of a computer printer, we gain a deep-seated feeling for what is actually true. In this way our understanding of ourselves and other beings becomes more and more profound. We’re no longer on the surface of the ocean but diving down deep, discovering all the different fish and jewels and animals that are down there.

With such a profound understanding about the mind, about karma, we become a truly wise person. And also a truly good and helpful person, because with such an understanding we will never harm others. Understanding karma clears away the confusion and brings peace in the life, whereas lacking that understanding causes confusion, blocking us from understanding life, ourselves, other beings, and so it brings harm to ourselves and others. No matter how many eons we study at the very best universities there are, because they have no concept of karma in their curriculum, we will still be blind. They will show us the ocean, but all we’ll see is a big expanse of blank blue. It’s like the universities believe that there is nothing below the surface!

Any knowledge not based on analyzing the nature of the mind and its experiences is so limited in this way. No course at university can give us anything of any worth compared to understanding karma. Therefore we need to read as much as we can about karma—there are many books in English now on the subject—and explore it as much as possible. That is where our real life, at the most profound level, is explained.

Understanding cause and effect on a superficial level is not that difficult. We can easily see with our own eyes the external cause of something. But going deeper and seeing the main, internal cause is much more difficult. Our neighbor has a beautiful garden. It’s easy to see that they have it because they are rich, but we need to see deeper than that. Why are they rich? What are all the causes and conditions. And the flowers in their garden are so thick and plentiful, whereas our garden is full of weeds and nothing seems to grow, even though we seem to put as much work into it. Why is this?

Not understanding karma, we make so many mistakes because we are simply not aware of what is the cause of happiness or suffering. This is the biggest mistake, and the first. Even though some people hear Dharma and have an intellectual understanding of it, because they don’t continually meditate on the subjects, they don’t have much feeling for it, and so they don’t really care and they continuously make mistakes.

Reading novels or watching movies is pointless; it doesn’t change anything and it just wastes our time and increases our attachment. We read the story or see the film and we get involved, and unless we have some understanding of how underneath the excitement of the heroes’ lives there is suffering, we want to emulate them. Think of all the time people waste on books, movies and television. Hours and hours of wasted life, every day! There are so many better ways to spend our life than that.

Reading books on karma, on the other hand, is so helpful because it shows us how we can correct our life, how we can live it purely. Instead of bringing more attachment it brings peace of mind and deep understanding. There are now so many books on karma, such as translations of the sutras or the life story of the Buddha.

These books really help our life, not just in a long-term spiritual way, but in a very pragmatic way, such as understanding the cause of a relationship problem. Opening a Dharma book can give us the clue to why we are so unhappy with our partner and give us the key to solving the problem.

Observing karma and acting to transform our life is the key to becoming a truly happy person. If we don’t do this, no matter how learned we are—even though we can recite all the sutra and Vajrayana teachings by heart, like having a whole library in our mind—there is still no way to avoid being born in the hell realms. Even with the most advanced psychic powers, being clairvoyant or being able to transform things, we are still heading for the lower realms. This has happened to many Vajrayana practitioners in previous times. They have been so skillful at opening the chakras or the nadis and other highly advanced practices, but because they have not observed karma, because they have not respected it, instead of achieving their goal when they died, they were reborn in the lower realms.

Without observing karma we can fall into terrible suffering. There is the story of the meditator in Tibet who did a long retreat, reciting mantras and visualizing the deity for years and years, doing everything well, but he did not observe his karma, and so when he died he was reborn as a hungry ghost, in the fearful aspect of the wrathful deity he had been meditating on. He was in fact what we call Tau, these beings who live on the smell of burning food. His friend, who was also retreating, did sur or burnt-food offerings every night as part of his practice, putting tsampa (barley flour) onto the fire and saying mantras in order to make charity to the hungry ghosts. And so the meditator who died appeared before him one night in the form of Yamantaka, brought by the smell of the offering. He explained that his practice had been so powerful he had this shape, but because he hadn’t observed his karma, he had been born as a hungry ghost.

When Atisha was going to Tibet, he was stopped by a very fearful looking being. He saw that it was trying to get to Tibet and that if it did it was cause great harm to the people there. So Atisha offered it torma cake and demanded it didn’t continue its journey. He was able to dispel it in this way. Atisha had been told by his guru about hungry ghosts or hell beings like this, with fearful forms, who has been meditators in a previous life, but who had not observed karma and so had this terrible rebirth. This was a lesson to Atisha about how profound karma is.

We are so fortunate. We have met the teachings and we have some idea of karma. Before we stumbled along blindly, trying to be happy, but having no real idea of the causes of happiness and suffering, never really knowing why no matter what we did things still seemed to go wrong and we found suffering while we were looking for happiness. Now we have the perfect, infallible route out of suffering. We can see that whatever happiness we now have is the result of the virtuous actions we have done in the past, and conversely the suffering we feel comes from nonvirtuous actions, and seeing that we know exactly what we need to do to correct the situation.

How fortunate we are! Here we have the knowledge of the root of all happiness. We have at our fingertips the means to transform any action into the cause of future happiness, simply by recognizing karma and avoiding what leads us to suffering. This is something we can do it continuously in the future, until we reach the ultimate happiness of nirvana and enlightenment.

Because of this we are so free. If we wish to be happy we have the tool to make us happy; if we wish to be free from suffering, to never experience it again, we have the perfect tool to obtain that. Before we had this wisdom we were never free. We would try for happiness but our ignorance would lead us to the exact opposite result. There would always be a mistake in everything we did. But now we can sow the seed of happiness with every action. We are incredibly free, so we should feel so joyful.

Receiving a whole world filled with precious jewels—a whole universe full of precious jewels—is nothing. Material possessions don’t bring happiness. They don’t show us why we aren’t happy or help us become happy. We can’t buy our way out of suffering. But understanding karma and being able to transform our mind because of that understanding can bring us a happiness beyond anything we can even imagine. So it countless times more worthwhile than owning a universe full of precious jewels.

Through the wisdom of understanding karma we can start to relate how we are happy or suffering now with actions we have done in the past and because of that purify what needs to be purified and accumulating the positive actions that bring true happiness. Recognizing our faults from the past doesn’t mean we feel guilty about past negative actions; we don’t have to put ourselves down and feel miserable about it. We simply see we have made this and this mistake and determine not to do it again. Guilt only closes our mind and blocks us from future happiness—it has no benefits whatsoever—whereas regretting having done it and determining not to do it again opens the mind up and leads us to purify and become happier and happier.

Recollecting negative actions we have done in the past has great benefit. If we don’t remember any negativity we have created, that’s fantastic! Maybe we’ve never done one single negative action and so we don’t need to purify! But if we have, then we really need to do something about the seeds of those negative actions that are there on our mindstream, and the first thing to do is to remember them. Only then can we really effectively purify them and only then can we be sure we will never experience the suffering results from them at some time in the future. Recollecting our own negative actions, in this way is the door to all future happiness.

It might make us feel bad about ourselves, thinking we really are a very negative person, but this will give us the energy to really purify. We have been living in a dirty house for so long and never really seeing the dirt. But now we have, and so we know what we need to do now is give it a really good clean. We want to live comfortably, without health problems; we don’t want dirty clothes and magazines cluttering all the rooms, and dirty dishes and bad smells in the kitchen; we don’t want the bathroom full of germs. Suddenly seeing how dirty the house is, now we can see why we get sick so easily, why we get depressed, why our friends no longer come around.

When we go to primitive countries we see the living conditions of the people there. To us it’s so obvious the filthy conditions and the lack of sanitation, the unwashed food they eat and the contaminated water they drink all contribute to them being so sick, and yet they themselves don’t know this. They believe their house is clean and the food they eat is healthy.

In the same way, without seeing the negativities we have created in the past, we can spend our whole life believing we are perfect, pure, good, that we never make any mistakes, that we have no delusions, and at the same time have no idea why we have to suffer the way we are. We are just like those primitive people who think everything is clean and who don’t know why they get sick.

Trying to hide our mistakes from ourselves, thinking that we have no delusions, when of course we do, doesn’t help at all. Denying there is a problem is no solution. If we do that we blindly stumble from one problem to another, continuously, in relationships, at work and so on, in this life and in our future lives. Only by understanding karma and seeing why we are suffering can we stop this continual round of problem after problem.

Understanding Karma Is the Essence of Dharma Practice

The Buddha is so incredibly kind and compassionate to have revealed the teachings to us, to have shown us the essence of what is happiness and what is suffering. He showed us that not harming others is the very first step towards the happiness of future lives and then liberation and enlightenment. Only seeking happiness and freedom from harm for ourselves is not the way to end samsara, we need to work for others’ happiness. Revealing this great truth is the incredible kindness the Buddha has shown us.

And he has given us the tools to do this by revealing the various levels of vows we can take to protect our mind. All the vows, the pratimoksha vows, the bodhicitta and tantric vows, and lay vows such as the eight Mahayana precepts, and the vows of the ordained Sangha—the 36, the 253, the 365 vows and so on—are all ways to help us prefect our work for other sentient beings, in order to best benefit them.

Because everything stems from not harming and helping others, everything comes down to protecting our karma. We need to develop the good qualities of our mind, and that means observing our karma and acting skillfully to only do positive actions. If we are weak and don’t protect our karma, we can’t develop our mind, and more obstacles will come, blocking any chance for realizations.

The more we can understand what karma is, the more faith we will have in it and the stronger our determination will be to protect it. Then we will have less obstacles and be able to develop realizations quicker. So everything comes back to karma, to understanding it and to observing and protecting it—avoiding all negative actions and doing only positive ones. That’s the whole answer. However much benefit we can be for others, however much we can achieve our own happiness now and in the future, everything relies on the karma. Everything comes from protecting our karma. Therefore, it is extremely important to meditate on the karma.

To avoid rebirth in the lower realms we need to abandon negative actions such as the ten nonvirtues, and to effectively do that we need to purify the imprints of past negative actions that remain on our mindstream and accumulate merit by doing positive actions. We can only do this when we understand the process, how negative action brings negative result and vice versa. In other words we need to understand and have faith in karma, to observe it and protect it. Everything stems from that. Not just avoiding the lower realms, but all happiness in the upper realms and ultimately liberation and enlightenment.

When we truly see our own situation, how we have been so unskillful in the past and have such a store of negative imprints on our mind awaiting to ripen, we feel like we have taken poison, like we are on fire, like we have awoken in the middle of a rattlesnake’s nest. We are just a step away from the unbearable sufferings of the lower realms. And we can see how all other sentient beings are the same. Seeing this, unbearable compassion will naturally arise for them.

From that compassion, bodhicitta—the mind that seeks enlightenment for the sake of all others—will come, and that will lead to the wish to achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible to help all others out of samsara without even a second’s delay. This in turn will lead to a wish to practice tantra, which is the lightning way to achieve our goal. From that enlightenment is possible, the state where we are truly able to achieve perfect works for ourselves and for all other sentient beings. This all comes from the essential practice of meditating on karma and the lower realms.

Next Chapter:

What Karma Is »