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Examining Karma Immediately after 9/11

Alexander Berzin
Mexico City, Mexico, September 22-23, 2001
Lightly edited transcript

Session Two: The Fundamental Features of Karma

The Meaning of Karma

There are many explanations of karma in the different Indian Buddhist tenet systems. Let us use the least complicated of them, the main explanation followed by the non-Gelug Tibetan traditions. We also find it in the Gelug explanation of all the Indian Buddhist tenet systems except Prasangika and Vaibhashika. According to this explanation, karma is a mental urge, literally, that brings us in the direction of an action or experience. It is not the action itself; it is the urge that leads us to it. When we have the urge to go to the refrigerator, the karma is not actually the going to the fridge, but the urge to find something to eat. It could be an urge to act constructively or destructively.

Of course, it is very complex, but very simply put, what happens is as follows. In every moment, we have periscope vision. It is like being in a submarine and looking through a tiny lens to see just a little bit of what is going on. We only see what is right in front of our noses. We are “sentient beings.” The English term does not mean very much. The original term means that we have limited awareness because we have limited bodies. We do not have state-of-the-art equipment. Our hardware is deficient. Buddhas, on the other hand, have omniscient awareness and state-of-the-art equipment. They have bodies of light that perceive everything. We know the world through eyes, ears, nose, and so on, and a type of brain that will only permit periscope vision. This limited body and awareness is samsara. It is not our fault. It is just that we are in a terrible situation. This is a very profound point. It is the deeper significance of the all-pervasive affecting problem – continually being born with limited minds and limited bodies that act as the basis for karmic bingo and the up-and-down sufferings of samsaric life.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful our submarine is, we are still looking through a periscope. No matter how beautiful our body is, we are still limited. This can help us develop renunciation – total disgust with being stuck in a submarine with periscope vision. But please, with this image, don’t get the wrong idea that there is a solid “me” inside our body and mind. It’s only an analogy to help us understand the all-pervasive affecting problem of samsara. The whole situation is ridiculous. Just to aim for a beautiful body is so trivial! Although it is nice to have a beautiful body, it is not going to get us anywhere. Having our hair done, building our muscles, putting on makeup, etc., does not change the fact that we are limited.

As a result of this periscope vision, we conceive of a solid “me” inside our body and mind and a solid “you, out there.” Why? Because this limited hardware works on a conceptual system. A Buddha does not use such an operating system. A Buddha’s mind is totally nonconceptual. Computers represent the world in numbers, combinations of zero and one, on and off. Then it represents that in terms of numbers and letters on the screen, and so on. It is not the actual world; it is a representation of it. That is like conceptual thought. We experience a virtual world as a voice in our heads saying words. “Oh, my god, what should I do now? It is hot outside, blah, blah, blah.” That is the sentient-being operating system at work.

Because there is this voice chattering on in our heads, we think there is a solid “me” in there. It is weird, isn’t it? Not only do we think like that, what is insidious is that it feels as though that is the way things are. This ignorant, confused belief – and not the impossible “me” that it thinks exists – is what presses the button in the karmic bingo game. This causes karma to ripen.

Karmic bingo is a multi-dimensional game. One type of ping-pong ball is a feeling of happiness, unhappiness or neutrality. Another type of ball that comes up is what we feel like doing. Based on that feeling, there is an urge, and that urge is the next karma. Because of confusion, we do whatever we feel like doing. This happens so quickly, we are not even aware of it. We think, “Of course I can do what I feel like doing. It’s natural.” What we feel like doing almost becomes sacred. Then we act out the urge. Actually doing it or even thinking about doing it, throws another ping-pong ball into the vat.

Where is this process coming from? Not from the Devil or from demons. It comes about because we are viewing the world with this limited body and awareness. We are seeing everything through the periscope. There is the silly voice in our head and it gives us the impression that there is a solid “me” and a solid “you.” Very boring. Very stupid.

When we die and are, so to speak, out of the submarine, we feel we are going to drown in the ocean of clear light vision, and other visions we perceive. We can’t take it. We panic. The urge comes up to grab for the next submarine. That is rebirth. We want to get back into a limited submarine. We press another button and up comes a ping-pong ball in the shape of another limited body. We are acting out of confusion. This confusion is not a curse from God. It was not given to us by someone else as a challenge to see if we could get out of the game. It is not there inherently, like original sin, because we are bad, or because Adam screwed up. It is not part of our innate nature, even though it is beginningless. It is something that can be removed. This is the basic thing that we need to realize.

As awesome as the interconnected multidimensional reality might be, we can deal with it. There is a possibility to get out. If we did that, not only would we get rid of suffering, but it would put us in a position to help others much more. We cannot help others who are in submarines if we are also in a submarine. If we are out of a submarine, dealing with the whole ocean, we can help them much more. That is the solution: stop the game and get out of the sub. Let us reflect on that for a moment.

We are all in submarines, looking through periscopes, seeing very limited fields of vision, with all this junk coming in over the loudspeaker – constantly. Because of that, we are all trying to get some new submarine when we die, because we think it will make us happy. And none of us knows what will happen next. When we die, out of our panic we will just jump into another sub. Everyone is doing the same thing. It is pathetic. That is the awful vision of samsara in a very simplistic image.

Karmic Forces

According to the explanation we are using, karma is a mental urge that brings us into the direction of a certain experience. Of course, we have a choice about whether or not we act on an urge. If we have the urge to say something unpleasant to someone, “What an ugly dress you are wearing today”; if we are mindful when the urge arises, we could control it and not act it out. Often we just act our urges out. That action itself is a karmic force, which could be either positive or a negative. These are usually translated as “merit” and “sin,” which I find to be very misleading terms. Karmic actions are, more precisely, positive or negative karmic forces.

When an action is finished, the karmic force continues, but now as a karmic potential on our mental continuum. The concept of networks can perhaps help us here, but it is not discussed as such in the Buddhist technical terminology. It is a Western addition to the explanation. We can say that each time we act in a positive or negative way, the karmic force from both the action and the karmic potential left after the action networks with the other positive or negative forces on our mental continuum from previous actions and the karmic potentials they left. We are talking about samsara-building forces. We are building samsara; negative or ordinary positive forces result in samsaric experience.

If we do not dedicate the positive force from a constructive action for liberation or enlightenment, it does not act as a cause for liberation or enlightenment. The texts don’t speak so much about dedicating positive forces to liberation. It is only when we dedicate a constructive action with bodhichitta that the positive force becomes enlightenment-building and builds up a network of enlightenment-building positive force – the so-called “collection of merit.”

Karmic Aftermath

So whether samsara-building or enlightenment-building, the action itself acts as a karmic force. When the action is finished, what are we left with? It is not just the karmic potential phase of the karmic force. There are other things as well that are left on our mental continuum. Here I am coining a term to cover all of them: “karmic aftermath.” We can speak of two kinds of karmic aftermath: karmic legacies (sa-bon, seed) and karmic constant habits (bag-chags). The difference between the two is that karmic legacies ripen occasionally, whereas a karmic constant habit gives results every single moment in terms of our experience. Karmic legacies include both the karmic potential phase of the karmic force, as well as karmic tendencies. But let’s not get into the subtle differences among them.

[For more detail, see: Logical Pervasions of the Technical Terms for the Different Types of Karmic Aftermath.]

Karmic legacies ripen on and off. One aspect of their result is feeling different levels of happiness or unhappiness, going up and down. All sorts of different karmic legacies are ripening at different times. It is changing every single second of our lives and we never know what we are going to experience in the next moment. We could feel good or feel terrible doing exactly the same thing. Isn’t that horrible?

Another result coming from these legacies is experiencing the aggregates of a rebirth. Sometimes we experience a nice rebirth state, sometimes a terrible one. It is not constant at all. Sometimes we get a comfortable sub; sometimes we get a very uncomfortable one.

The environment in which we are born is called “the dominating result” or "comprehensive result." Are we in a calm part of the ocean? Are there treacherous currents?

The next result is in terms of what we feel like doing. What do we like to do? We feel like doing things that are similar to what we did before. Not only do we have no idea whether we will feel happy or unhappy in the next moment, we have no idea what we will feel like doing in the next moment.

The last result that comes from karmic legacies is experiencing situations happening to us that are similar to what we did to others. If we want to shoot at other submarines that come along, another one will come along and shoot at us. Feeling happy or unhappy, what we feel like doing, and what happens to us are all going up and down continually. All of this is awful.

Karmic constant habits produce results in every moment in terms of our constantly experiencing periscope perception. This is the constant theme throughout the ups and downs of samsara. Within that context, depending on whether we feel happy or unhappy, what we feel like doing and what is happening to us, urges come up and we act on them. That is what is going on with samsara to give a brief presentation of how karma is working in very simplistic terms.

Let us spend a minute digesting that.

We can see how it is a cycle. To analyze the cycle in more depth, there is the system of the twelve links of dependent arising. The topics of karma and the twelve links are pieces of the same puzzle.

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]

How Dedication Works

To be enlightenment-building, a positive action must be dedicated with bodhichitta, even if that bodhichitta was artificial. It does not have to be sincere. It can be contrived. What does contrived mean? It is not that we have no feeling whatsoever. Bodhicitta is based on love, compassion and universal responsibility, which means that in aiming to become Buddhas ourselves, we wish everybody to be happy and to be free from suffering, and we take on the responsibility of helping everyone – all limited beings, all “sentient beings,” – not just to overcome their ordinary sufferings, but also to reach liberation and enlightenment. Let us look at this more carefully.

“All sentient beings” includes every insect in the world. Are we really working to benefit every mosquito in the world? Let’s be honest. First of all, what are we working to liberate all of them from? Supposedly from samsara, which means from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. If we don’t even understand rebirth, let alone believe in it, how could we sincerely be working to liberate all mosquitoes from rebirth? We are not even thinking about rebirth. We are just thinking, “La-dee-da, may everyone be happy, have a nice meal, a nice house...” That is very nice, but it is not the “great compassion” that is behind bodhichitta. Even if we are sincere in our wish to help only human beings – and maybe pet dogs and cats – just in this lifetime, that is not enough for the positive force of our constructive actions to network as an enlightenment-building positive force. There has to be some level of “great compassion,” which is aimed at all limited beings equally.

What if there are disturbing attitudes mixed in with our constructive actions? Well, bear in mind that we have to be an arhat to be totally free from all grasping for an impossible “me” and from all disturbing emotions and attitudes. Does that mean that until we become an arhat, we cannot do any enlightenment-building positive actions? No, it does not. We can build up such actions way before becoming an arhat. This is a very important point. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says it in a very nice way. He says, “Unless you are an arhat, no action will be 100% selfless and free from incorrect views, disturbing attitudes, and so on. So what we need to try to do is minimize the selfishness.”

Let’s not fool ourselves. Until we are liberated, there will be some aspect of wanting to be happy ourselves or to feel useful, which is actually an ego thing. There is no reason to feel guilty about it. We have to work with this at our own level. We might think, “Although I would like to be happy too, I am really sincere in my wish for others to be happy. May this positive action enable me to help them as much as is possible to become enlightened.” That much is sufficient.

Let that sink in for a moment.

This can increase our self-confidence in being able to build up some enlightenment-building positive force. As the teachings always say and His Holiness repeats, “Enlightenment is in your own hands.”

If a positive action is held by the force of renunciation or by the force of bodhichitta, it acts as a cause for liberation or enlightenment, respectively. If the positive action is not held by either renunciation or bodhichitta, it will result in a happier experience in samsara. The action itself can be exactly the same; it is just a matter of what we dedicate it toward. If we don’t dedicate it at all, it will automatically get saved in the samsara-builder folder on our internal mental hard drive, and then act as a pleasant samara-building positive force. We need consciously to save the positive force in the enlightenment-builder folder, and we do that with the dedication.

What happens if we forget to dedicate the positive force right away, but remember a few minutes later? Does it count? It counts so long as we did not get angry in between. If we get angry, it destroys or weakens the positive force. That is why the texts say that anger is so negative, especially anger at a bodhisattva. As long as we did not get angry, we can move the positive force from the samsara-builder folder to the enlightenment-builder folder. If we did get angry, we have deleted it. It is finished. Having saved it with a bodhichitta dedication, we do not destroy it even if we get angry afterwards. There will be negative consequences of the anger, but that is beside the point.

Question: What types of actions can be dedicated?

Alex: Anything that is constructive, meaning any action we do out of a wish to be helpful, not out of greed or attachment, anger, or naivety. Or any action of refraining from acting destructively even though the urge comes up, because we know it will cause problems. Refraining out of a desire to avoid punishment would still be somewhat constructive, but it is much more forceful when we refrain from acting destructively because of an understanding of karmic cause and effect. To make the dedication, we need to think: “May the positive force from this action act as a cause for my enlightenment so I will be able to help everybody.”

Without the idea of a network, we tend to think of whatever we do as isolated actions, like collecting isolated good deeds into a box. This is why I find it very helpful to think of our positive actions or understanding going deeper, making a stronger impression and networking with all of our other positive actions and understandings. The force gets stronger and stronger and in this way actually does act as a cause for enlightenment.

The idea of a network is very helpful also because it brings in the understanding of interdependence and dependent arising. Our good deeds are not isolated. Similarly, if we just understand isolated little points about the Dharma and never connect them, and never see how they all fit together, our understanding is not terribly strong. We are just accumulating facts. So we also need to network the deep awareness we gain from our meditation experiences with everything else that we have learned. Otherwise, again, they are just isolated experiences and do not have much weight.

The Basis for Buddhist Ethics

In Buddhism, we usually discuss destructive actions in terms of a list of ten, often translated as “the ten nonvirtuous actions.” “Nonvirtuous,” however, comes from a judgmental religious background. There is no judgment here. The discussion of karma is very much connected to the discussion of ethics. There are many systems of ethics in the world. The main system in the West is a combination of Biblical and Ancient Greek thinking. Both are based on obedience to law: one is heavenly law coming from God and the other is legislated law, made by an elected group of citizens. In both cases, being an ethical person is an issue of obedience. Obeying results in reward, disobeying in punishment. Western ethics is very much involved with moral judgment – good, bad, innocent, guilty. It brings in an emotional package of feelings of guilt, fear of punishment, and so on.

In the Buddhist worldview, there is no judgment, no judge, and no guilt. Ethics is not a matter of obedience to laws. There are certain relationships of behavioral cause and effect. If you bang your foot against a chair, it will hurt. The fact that it hurts is not a punishment; it is not an ethical judgment. We are not bad people, guilty or sinful: we just hit our foot against the chair and it hurts. Similarly, if we act under the influence of the disturbing emotions, we are going to experience problems, but not because we were bad, but because we were confused. If we do not act under the influence of disturbing emotions, we will not experience such terrible problems. Generally, we will experience happiness. The happiness will not last, but things will go okay. So, rather than being based on obedience, ethics is based on discriminating awareness.

If we act in certain ways, we will eventually experience corresponding results. It is our choice. If we don’t care about experiencing problems and we want to act destructively, fine. We have that choice. Of course, in doing so we may harm others, so that is another consideration. But basically, when someone acts destructively it is because they are confused about cause and effect, not because they are bad. It becomes much easier to develop compassion for destructive people when we know that they are so confused they don’t know that they are hurting themselves.

In terms of ourselves, what we need to work on is not obedience but discriminating awareness, usually called “wisdom,” to discriminate between what will be constructive and what will be destructive. Then, because we do not want to experience problems, we refrain from acting destructively. If we understand that we can get hurt standing in the middle of a very busy, dangerous road, we discriminate that not standing in that road will decrease our chances of getting hurt. This gets into the discussion of how we develop ethical discipline and caring what happens to us.

The Ten Destructive Actions

Although there is the standard list of ten destructive actions, it is important not to think that there are only ten. We can cut a whole pie into ten pieces or we can cut part of a pie into ten pieces. Likewise, here we are cutting only part of our destructive types of behavior into ten. There are obviously more than ten types of destructive actions.

Also, I think it is very important to look at these ten as general categories; many other actions can be fit into them. For example, taking the life of others could also include breaking someone’s arm. We have to be a little flexible. I am sure you have had teachings on these ten, but let me cover them briefly.

The Three Destructive Physical Actions

The ten general categories of destructive actions are made up of mental, verbal and physical actions. Destructive physical actions include taking the lives of others – killing, taking what has not been given to us – stealing, and contrary sexual behavior – sexual behavior that is contrary to ridding ourselves of disturbing emotions. Just as killing can include harming others, taking what has not been given can include making a long-distance telephone call on someone else’s phone without asking. It is using something that is not appropriate for us to use.

These actions are accompanied by a disturbing emotion. For example, we want to hurt or kill somebody because we are angry, we don’t like them. Or we are greedy: we want to get our inheritance more quickly. Or we are naive: we sacrifice someone to the sun god so that our crops will grow better. With stealing, it is naive to think we can take something belonging to someone else and they will not mind.

Contrary sexual behavior is sexual activity that is contrary to trying to rid ourselves of disturbing emotions. Usually it is longing desire, greed, or attachment. We are not satisfied with our partner, so we have to have someone else’s too. We are not satisfied with the position that we have been using, so we get into sexual acrobatics to find something even better. Our sexual behavior can also be based on anger, as in raping the wives and daughters of our enemies. An example of naivety is thinking that it doesn’t matter that our partner does not want to have sex, so we force ourselves on them.

There is also the naivety with which we think that sex is a path to liberation. It sounds funny but it is not so unusual. When we examine ourselves, isn’t there some idea that if our sex life is healthy and good, it will bring lasting happiness? There are schools of Western thought that hold that all our problems come from sexual frustration, and one must seek the perfect orgasm. It is also naive when we are older to try to do it like we used to. Contrary sexual behavior is acting in a way that produces more and more problems and unhappiness for us.

The Four Destructive Verbal Actions

Then we have destructive verbal actions. Verbal means communication. It does not necessarily have to be with words. We could lie with words, with gestures, or even with silence. Of course, the most serious lie is about our own spiritual attainments. Misleading others, especially if one is a spiritual teacher, by saying, “I have had this extraordinary meditation experience and that experience” and going and on and on is very serious. Exaggeration is also a form of lying. It is very important to be totally honest particularly about our own attainments and experiences. We might lie out of attachment, because we want people to respect us, for example. We might lie out of anger, like giving someone we don’t like the wrong directions. Or we may lie out of naivety, thinking we can say little white lies or exaggerate and it does not matter.

Then there is divisive language, which is causing friends to part or those who are already apart to be further separated. It is a good exercise to try to train ourselves not to speak about any other person unless they are present. Often when we tell stories about someone else, exaggeration comes in and it causes division, even if we did not intend that. However, we might want to say something divisive if our child is hanging out with drug dealers, but we would need to take care that there is no disturbing emotion behind it. If people say bad things about someone else to cause them to separate, we might think they are terrible, but that is judgmental. We are not talking about being judgmental. Rather, we recognize that this person does not understand the karmic consequences of what they are saying. For one thing, if someone is always talking about how terrible other people are, don’t we begin to suspect that they may be saying terrible things about us behind our backs? The result of causing people to part is being abandoned. It is very sad. If we repeat a divisive story that we heard, it just carries the whole thing further and makes it a negative action for ourselves as well. It is best to just drop it. We can just think it is sad that this person is speaking so divisively. There is no point in repeating it.

Then there is using harsh and cruel language. This is saying things with a disturbing emotion that hurts other people’s feelings. It could be yelling at someone, swearing at them, or abusing them. It might also be sugarcoated. Sarcasm also hurts. We have to be very careful about what we are saying, how we are communicating and so on. Making a rude mudra to the person in the car next to us likewise falls into this category.

Then we have idle chatter. This can be subtle. We tend not to take it seriously but it is really quite destructive. For one thing, it is interrupting others, like the unbelievable amount of cell phone calls we make to relay some trivial event. It also includes repeating stories. There is no point to it. It just wastes an unbelievable amount of time. We could also include constantly having the TV or radio on, disturbing everybody around us. We need to pay attention to how we are communicating.

The Three Destructive Mental Actions

Then we have the destructive ways of thinking. It is very important here to recognize that we are not talking about disturbing emotions. Just as karma and disturbing emotions are different, so too are karmic actions and disturbing emotions. There is nothing that is both a karmic urge and a disturbing emotion, and there is nothing that is both a karmic action and a disturbing emotion. What we are describing here in this list are actions, ways of thinking that, like the karmic urges that bring them on, are accompanied by disturbing emotions.

First is covetous thinking. When someone gets a new car, we want one just like it or one even better. So we think over and again how to get one. Many disturbing emotions come along with covetous thinking – greed, jealousy, and the likes. The destructive action is thinking about it.

Then we have thinking with malice. It is not just wishing someone ill. It is a whole line of thought, plotting to get even and hurt someone. These mental actions become obsessions. They eat away at us. We cannot get them out of our heads. There are many subtle levels to them.

The last mental action, and the tenth general category of destructive actions, is thinking with a distorted antagonistic attitude. This is sometimes translated as “wrong views,” which tends to imply “heresy.” Those are inappropriate translations. We are not even talking about a distorted attitude. We are talking about a whole way of thinking accompanied by a distorted antagonistic attitude. It is denying something that is true, constructive, or ethically neutral and being very antagonistic about it. It is like thinking, “They believe in rebirth? That is complete garbage! Anyone who thinks like that is an idiot! I’m going to tell them that” It does not have to be philosophically oriented. We might have a distorted antagonistic attitude about our friend watching TV, about someone studying art history, or about someone going to a Dharma center that does things differently from our Dharma center. We keep on thinking about it negatively, even though these things are neutral or constructive.

Thinking with a distorted antagonistic attitude is not just denying the Triple Gem. How many times do we do that? Not too many. One thing that fits in to this category, which we do very easily, is being judgmental of others. It is actually a very common destructive action. We see something we don’t like and obsess about criticizing it in our minds.

There are two general categories of constructive actions. One is simply restraining from acting destructively because we understand the problems that will arise. It is not simply, “I don’t hunt, fish or shoot people.” Rather, it is like when a mosquito is buzzing around our heads and the urge comes up to smack it, but we don’t act it out because we realize that it would be destructive. If we kill anything that annoys us, where do we draw the line? Another level of constructive action is to do the opposite of the corresponding destructive action. For example, it would be to actually save the mosquito’s life, to put it in a cup and take it outside, rather than take its life.

Coming to Understand the Need for Omniscience

When we talk about grasping for solid existence, we are talking first of all about perceiving a very limited amount of reality. Our limited minds make it appear as though what we see exists solidly and independently, isolated from everything else. It not only appears like that, it feels like that. When I look at that person in front of me, it appears and feels as though there is a young Mexican woman. It does not appear as though this is just one instant in a long line of continuity, from childhood to old age. It certainly does not appear as a mental continuum that in this particular moment is generating a female Mexican body and in a previous life was a mosquito, an African man, or a ghost. This is periscope vision. This is what happens every single instant of our existence. It feels as though this is all that this person is.

Not only does it appear and feel like that, but taking it one step further, we believe it to correspond to reality. Grasping for solid existence implies this second step as well. “Grasping” is not very precise. It is a bit too strong. We are cognizing it and believing it. We have two sets of constant habits here. One is the karmic constant habit, which causes periscope vision. The other is the constant habit of confusion, which produces in every moment the appearance that what we see through the periscope, namely the appearance of solid existence, is all that there is. We can see that these two types of constant habits always work together. These are known as the obstacles preventing omniscience; only as a Buddha do we get rid of both of them. Karma itself and the disturbing emotions, which come from believing what we see, prevent liberation. They keep the ups and downs going. So, we get rid of the ups and downs with liberation and then we get rid of the periscope with enlightenment. Once we get rid of believing that what we see in the periscope is all that there is, then we have to get rid of it appearing, and feeling like that.

Tsongkhapa pointed out that the process of cognizing and believing in solid existence is going on every single moment, not just when we are emotionally upset. The way he said it is that the object of refutation is present in every moment of our cognition, not just in our crazy moments of cognition. Also, it is not just happening during our conceptual cognition, which means that we have to start questioning every single moment of our cognition.

That is very profound. When we look around the room, what do we see? Whatever we see is false. On a relative level, sure it is accurate that there are all these people. But each person is a mental continuum that has interacted with every other mental continuum from beginningless time. It is unbelievable. We don’t see that, do we? Even if we don’t think in terms of rebirth but in terms of each person’s ancestors, it is unbelievable. We don’t see that and it doesn’t feel like that, but that is what is in front of us. A Buddha is aware of all of that. We can start to sense what omniscience means. If we really want to help others, we have to see all the relationships, interconnections, and so on.

When we start to get a more accurate picture of what an omniscient mind is and start to really appreciate how important it is to achieve omniscience to really help everybody, our aiming for enlightenment becomes much more meaningful. Our refuge and bodhichitta aim become much more firm. Unshakable. If we have no clear idea of what it means to be a Buddha, it is completely superficial to say we want to achieve enlightenment. This is why it is very important to study the qualities of the Triple Gem in detail, not just as lists of the thirty-two this and the eighty that, but to have a feeling for what they mean. If we think that enlightenment is a myth or fairytale, it is very hard to actually see the necessity for it, which is such an integral part of bodhichitta. Of course there are ways of presenting the qualities of a Buddha that are like telling a story to child, but don’t be satisfied with that level. There are many deeper levels to explanation.

The foundation of all Dharma practice is a very secure and firm refuge, a safe direction. Don’t trivialize that, please. It requires having a very clear idea of what we are aiming for, what is the goal, what is the direction that we want to go in. The clearer it is, the firmer our practice will be.

If we combine clarity about our goal with an understanding of Buddha-nature, we will have a genuine, clear understanding and conviction that it is possible to achieve enlightenment for others’ sake. If we think it is not possible or we have doubts, how can we aim for it? What would be the point? If becoming a Buddha is a fairytale, our practice is a joke. Buddhism would be reduced to “just be a nice person,” which is what any religion teaches.