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Examining Karma Immediately after 9/11

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

Session Three: The Laws and Varieties of Karma

The First Law of Karma

There are certain general aspects of karma called “the four laws of karma.” If we ask why these laws work the way they do, it is just the way it is. It is like asking why does everybody want to be happy and not to suffer? It is just the way it is. We just have to accept certain things as the way things are.

The first law is the certainty about results. When we experience unhappiness or pain, it is certain that it came from our own previously committed destructive actions. Likewise, when we experience happiness, it is the result of our own previously committed constructive behavior and actions. It is significant that it is expressed in this way. It is not saying that if we act destructively, suffering will definitely result. That would not allow for the purification of karma. It is not saying that we will be punished. It is saying that when we are unhappy, it is certain where it came from. It did not come from a higher being, or from an unrelated circumstance. It did not come from nowhere. It came from our own previous behavior.

In Buddhism, when we talk about the relationship between behavior and the experience of happiness and unhappiness, we are not talking about what our behavior causes others to experience. It is not at all certain what the effect of our behavior will be on other beings. Likewise, it is not certain what we will experience as a result of what someone else does to us. If we do experience unhappiness, it is the result of our own previous destructive behavior. Our thinking “ me, me, me” causes some karmic legacy of our own previous destructive behavior to ripen and we experience unhappiness. What other’s do to us is just the circumstance for that ripening to happen.

Question: Do we have a choice about what we feel when someone scolds us, or do we only have a choice about how we react?

Alex: It is hard to separate how we respond to a level of happiness or unhappiness from the actual feeling of that level of happiness or unhappiness. This is because if we are constantly grasping for “me, me, me,” we trigger off the ripening of a karmic legacy so that we feel unhappy when we hear the scolding. But in the next moment, because we continue to grasp for “ me, me, me,” we cling to that unhappiness with the strong desire to be parted from it. That grasping then triggers off the ripening of feeling like saying something back to them, which could then cause an urge to come up to say some nasty words, which we might act out and vocalize. Our grasping could also trigger off a response of feeling like not saying anything, because we see that it would be pointless, and that could lead to the constructive urge to keep silent. But still our grasping to a solid “me” can make us unhappy at hearing these words and make us cling for “me” to be parted from that unhappiness and might also accompany the karmic urge to keep quiet.

It is very complex. It really depends on how we define and analyze the word response. To what degree does a response have to be conscious and with a certain will or intention? How do we understand an automatic response? What in the world does that mean – an automatic response? What makes something automatic? If we are analyzing karma with a level-two setting of complexity, we would have to change the setting and go up to a level-five one to analyze this issue properly.

Although I am expressing it in a humorous way, that really is how we study the Dharma. Don’t ever be satisfied with the level of complexity of your understanding. In fact, that is one of the tantra vows. Until we reach a Buddha’s omniscience, there will always be deeper and more complex levels of understanding as we widen the view of our periscope and start considering all the other factors that are involved, because, in fact, everything is connected with everything else.

Question: Can you give an example of how to eliminate the ups and downs?

Alex: Ups and downs characterize samsara. In order to liberate ourselves from ups and downs, we have to get out of samsara. Liberation comes from straightforward, nonconceptual cognition of voidness and then familiarizing our minds with that cognition so that it becomes constant and we no longer trigger the ripening of karmic legacies. To stop the karmic bingo game, we do not have to get rid of all the ping-pong balls; we have to stop pressing the button.

Karmic legacies and karmic constant habits are not material things. They are not concrete things sitting there in our minds. They are just, in a sense, abstractions: they are convenient ways to describe what is happening. Let me give a simple example. We drank coffee this morning, this afternoon, etc. To explain this, we would say we have a habit of drinking coffee. The habit is not something concrete sitting in our head; it is just a way of putting together and describing this sequence of similar occurrences. As long as there is still the possibility that we will drink coffee tomorrow, we can say we still have that habit. If there is absolutely no possibility of our drinking coffee again, we cannot say that we still have that habit. It is finished. That is how we get rid of a habit: we eliminate the possibility of any further instances occurring in the sequence.

Question: Could it be reduced to just being completely aware of what causes me to be happy and unhappy and then to do what makes me happy and not do what makes me unhappy?

Alex: That is the first step. One then has to go much deeper and start to work with the understanding of voidness. However, though it is just the first step, we cannot skip it. We have to do that step to go further. If we continue to act destructively, we will never have the circumstances to go deeper in meditation, because we will constantly experience unbelievable pain and so on. When we fit this piece of the puzzle together with the precious human rebirth, we realize that we need precious human circumstances to be able to continue practicing. If we don’t, we are never going to get anywhere. To get precious human circumstances we need to stop acting destructively, or at least minimize it.

Another point about the certainty of results: what we are experiencing now is not necessarily based on what we are doing right now. While having an extramarital affair, we may enjoy it and experience happiness. Likewise, if we felt like engaging in sex with another person’s partner and refrain, we may experience unhappiness and frustration. Immediately after a sexual liaison as part of an affair, we may feel guilty or we may feel happy that we got away with it. Thus, the level of happiness or unhappiness we are experiencing is not the result of what we are doing at the moment or even shortly afterwards, but is the result of a karmic legacy from something in the past. That is the only way to explain it. Otherwise, everything is arbitrary.

What someone else does to us or what we are presently doing is a circumstance, but not a determining circumstance for how we feel. What really causes a new ping-pong ball to come up is grasping for a solid “me” that wants to be happy and not unhappy, though that could be completely unconscious, in the Western sense of that word.

Why does one ping-pong ball come up and not another one? We would have to understand all the different factors that act as causes and conditions. That is why it is said that only a Buddha can understand why specific karmic legacies ripen at any particular moment.

The Second Law of Karma

The second law of karma is the increase of results. The usual analogy is that from a small seed, a very large tree grows. The longer we go before we try to purify ourselves of having committed some negative deed, the stronger the force of its karmic legacy becomes and the stronger its results. For example, if we have a misunderstanding with our partner, the longer we leave it without apologizing, the more it grows and the worse it gets. On the positive side, huge consequences could come from attending one Dharma lecture.

How do we understand this? I would like to explain a little of my own process of trying to work with Dharma material to derive insights. I find it helpful to analyze this in terms of networks. And, as I have said, I find it useful to think of putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In terms of the increase of one karmic action, we have to add the teachings on voidness and dependent arising to the teachings on karma. That action itself, that karmic force, does not exist in isolation with a big solid line around it, getting bigger and stronger all by itself. That does not fit in with the rest of the teachings, does it? Many other karmic forces are occurring and they all interrelate with each other.

Let’s use an example. Suppose we came home late and didn’t call beforehand to let our partner know. That is the beginning of the misunderstanding. That is a negative karmic force. Then, the next morning, we didn’t say, “Good morning, dear,” but went to the bathroom first. That is another karmic force and it networks with what we did the day before. Then we read the newspaper during breakfast and didn’t talk. We can see how the negative karmic force is getting greater by compounding and networking with even neutral acts like reading the paper. I think that is how we can understand this teaching on the increase of results. That little action is not growing bigger by its own inherent force. It expands more and more so that the results get bigger and bigger. It is not just a one-shot deal.

It is very important whenever we hear any Dharma teaching to try to fit it together with the other pieces of the puzzle that we have learned. And, as I said, the pieces fit together multi-dimensionally, in many different ways. The piece of voidness will fit into many other pieces of the puzzle. The Buddha or any teacher can only give us pieces of the puzzle; it is up to us to put them together. In putting the pieces together, naturally we have to develop patience, perseverance, concentration, and so on. That is how we make progress on the path. If we just collect pieces of the puzzle and put them in a drawer, we will not get anywhere. To just focus on one piece of the puzzle and not deal with the other ones is not going to get us terribly far either.

Of course, we don’t want to be flooded with too many pieces at once, but we need to realize and appreciate that opportunities for getting pieces of the puzzle are not available all of the time. Who knows what is going to happen in the world, especially now after 9/11? The Tibetans always look at things this way: they go to teachings and so on to plant instincts for future lives. Even if we don’t think in terms of future lives, whenever there are opportunities to get teachings, even if we are not quite ready to deal with them or process them, it is not a bad idea to go and get some more pieces of the puzzle, knowing that we will work with them later.

Sometimes people freak out because they have listened to too much. It is not helpful to go to more teachings in that negative state of mind because we are not receptive. On the other hand, if we go around collecting more and more teachings and never try to process them, that greedy, but lazy state of mind is another extreme. The Buddhist teachings always recommend a middle way between too much or too little. We really need patience to endure the difficulties involved with studying the Dharma, which means not getting angry or frustrated but to try to be as open as possible. Later we may be able to understand things that we cannot understand now. No matter how well we may think we understand something now, in one or two years when we network it with everything else we have learned in the meantime, our understanding will be much different. It will change and get even better in another year. This relates to this law of karma, the increase of results. Everything networks. Nothing exists in isolation.

The Third Law of Karma

The third law of karma is you will not experience a karmic result unless you have built up the karmic cause for it. After 9/11, one man was on TV quite a lot, the CEO of a big stock broking agency. He had seven hundred employees, all of whom were killed. Because he was taking his child to its first day of school, he was not in the building when it was attacked. He did not have whatever karmic cause would have resulted in dying in the attack, which everyone who died in the attack must have had, even from a million years ago. Someone told me that another person jumped out of the eighty-first storey of the building and only broke his legs. How in the world is that possible unless you have not committed the karmic cause to die in something like that? What we can understand from this is that our best defense against disaster is purifying our own karma. If everybody purified their karma, there would not be any more disasters. It indicates the direction to work in.

How do we respond to such a disaster? Sure, we have to try to prevent people from repeating it, but the main thing is to work on ourselves, to work on our own karma and to help others purify their own karma. Buddhism does not advocate a passive position. If there is a wild animal going around and killing people, we don’t just say, “O how nice,” and meditate on compassion and purify our karma. We don’t just tell people that if the beast kills them, we will pray for them. We do have to go out and try to catch the animal and lock it up. But that is not the only thing that we do. We need very much to work on ourselves.

This also indicates how we deal with fear. If we really work on purifying our karma, there is nothing to be afraid of. The qualities of a Buddha include a list of fearlessnesses. Buddhas have nothing to be afraid of because they have purified every possible cause of troubles.

The Fourth Law of Karma

The fourth law of karma is that the ability of a karmic legacy to give a result will not deteriorate or expire, even after millions of lifetimes. If we have not purified a negative karmic legacy, it can still bring suffering results. Likewise, even if the circumstances are not very conducive for a happy result to ripen from a positive karmic legacy, that legacy is not lost. If there is a big war now after 9/11 and it is not possible to go to India or Nepal any more to get teachings, whatever positive things would have brought about our going to teachings will still be valid. At some point, the circumstances will change.

If we apply this to rebirth, it is very helpful, because it doesn’t matter how old we are, it is never too late to start. Even as a very old person, what we do will not go to waste. We are not condemned to sit in an old age home and weave potholders or watch soap operas. We can do something constructive and the positive karmic legacies will carry on into future lives. It will not have been in vain.


Question: I heard one Western Buddhist teacher say that we use up a lot of positive karma to attend and hear teachings. Why do we dedicate positive potentials if what we did consumed positive potentials?

Alex: First of all, if we are experiencing something that is beneficial like going to a teaching, of course that is ripening from a previous positive karmic legacy. But remember our example of the karmic bingo game: every time we press the button we also add a new ping-pong ball to the vat. When we go to a teaching and dedicate the positive potential, it adds further causes for continuing to have such opportunities. It would be foolish not to go to teachings because we want to save the potentials for a rainy day.

Also, one legacy can have many results, in one or more lifetimes, or only one result in one lifetime. On the other hand, many legacies together, built up in either one or in many lifetimes, can also produce many results or just one result. So there are many ways that we can have the karmic legacy to repeatedly go to teachings. As we start to work with karma and try to understand it, we have to try to grow beyond our linear way of looking at things. It is multi-dimensional, non-linear and very complex. It is not as simple as one thing produces one thing. It is not at all simple.

Some results are experienced individually, some universally. We can have results in common with others. The greenhouse effect affects everyone, including the animals. Actions that everyone has done will produce this type of result. We should not think that just because we recycle, we’ll be immune from pollution. We are talking about causes from long ago. That’s not a joke. It has profound significance in terms of how we can affect ecological change. We are not talking about immediate results. Things don’t work like that in the universe. We are talking about something long-term. It is going to be very difficult. How do we eliminate the result of actions that have been going on for millions of years? Even if the entire planet converts to solar energy, will it eliminate the effects of years of burning fossil fuels? No. We have to be realistic in terms of bringing about causes for far-distant results. We cannot think that we are God and can just finish all the problems of the past in an instant or even in a few years. The world is much more complex than that.

Some results are experienced by groups, like the people in Afghanistan or Bosnia. One level of causality involves the historical, economic and political forces that have led up to the present situation. But we cannot say that the war is the karma of the US or of Afghanistan, because these countries are not living beings. Also, all the people who live in the two countries were not necessarily from that country for countless lifetimes. They could have come from all over the place, animal realms and everywhere.

We can start to see how unbelievably complex these karmic forces are. All the actions of everybody in a certain place in a certain time constitute the political, economic or historical situation, but then they are all born elsewhere and other beings are born into that situation. What others have done these days can create a man-made circumstance that we can be born into as a result of a similar situation we have participated in creating centuries ago. We would have to have built up the karma to be born in that present circumstance now, although we might not have created that present circumstance. It gets very complicated very quickly as we start to think about it. All the people who die in a particular war did not necessarily fight a war together in a previous life. They could have, but they could have been carnivorous animals that killed other animals in all different places at all different times. They could be coming from all sorts of places.

Question: What sort of attitude should we take when we are experiencing the results of a certain karma, like losing a loved one in the twin towers? How can we respond so that we are not adding another ping-pong ball?

Alex: First of all, we need to be realistic: it is very hard at our stage not to add more ping-pong balls by getting angry. When we start to gain some understanding of behavioral cause and effect, voidness, dependent arising and so on, we see that realistically it is going to take us a very long time to purify ourselves, and even longer to purify absolutely everybody. But even though it will take a long time, it gives us courage to go ahead anyway. If we want to become a doctor and we see beforehand how much we will need to learn, we could become overwhelmed and give up. But if we really have the goal in mind of helping others, we have to have the courage to go step by step, even though it is an unbelievable amount of training. We just go step by step, realistically.

I cannot emphasize enough that samsara will go up and down. Of course there will be wars; we will get hurt; our meditation will go well one day and terribly the next day, and so on. What do you expect? With this perspective, we don’t get discouraged. We just go ahead. Sometimes we have conducive circumstances; sometimes we don’t. With a realistic attitude, we understand that we will not get rid of the ups and downs until we become arhats. So, we accept the hardships and ups and downs and go on no matter what. We don’t expect miracles. They hardly ever happen. “Oh, my meditation will get better and better everyday, and it is going to be so blissful and…!” Come on. It is not like that.

In terms of our attitude toward others who were killed, we certainly don’t think they deserved to be punished because they built up the negative karma. But we could hope that they have burned off some negative karma by dying in this way so that they will have much more opportunity for positive karma to ripen in future lives. “May they have the conducive circumstances now and in the future to have a much more positive life experience, and less suffering.” We are not so different from them. We were not in the building so that particular circumstance was not there for our negative karma to ripen, but it could happen to us some other time. If we think of beginningless lifetimes, we all have a lot of negative karmic legacies.

We can think about the unbelievable suffering consequences that those who planned and carried out the attack will experience as a result. It is not up to us to punish them. A traditional example is if someone is on fire, what is the point of hitting them? They are going to experience unbelievable suffering in any case. By making them suffer more, we are just creating causes for ourselves to suffer. Karmic results happen naturally, we don’t need to be the agent of the result.

This gets into very interesting social issues. Punishing people who have acted destructively does not accomplish anything. It certainly does not purify the karmic legacy that could cause them to repeat such acts in a future life. It just creates negative karmic legacies for us. Locking them up is undoubtedly a necessary step that we need to take to prevent harm to others in the short term, but it is not the ultimate prevention. Rehabilitation, in the superficial sense, also will not educate and motivate people to the point of purifying their own karma. If they have not purified their karmic legacies, they will repeat destructive actions in other lifetimes. The karmic legacies will not deteriorate if we have not gotten rid of them with the understanding of voidness.

Question: Is there a way to purify collective or universal karma?

Alex: The only way is for everyone to purify themselves. We cannot purify other people’s karma. We can help to show them the way to purify themselves and try to provide conducive circumstances for them, but it is up to each individual.

This has many implications particularly in terms of ecological movements. There is no way to end the ecological problem except to get rid of samsara for everybody. Think about that. Because of our samsaric legacies, we are born with these limited bodies, whether human, animal or whatever. What characterizes this tainted, samsaric, limited body? It produces liquid waste, solid waste, and carbon dioxide. That is what it does. Unless everyone stops taking rebirth in this type of limited body, there is no way that we are going to solve the ecological problem.

That is not a very nice thing to say, but as some of the great masters, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have said: biology describes samsara. The sexual urge to reproduce, aging, sickness, death – that is biology. We have limited bodies as well as limited minds. The humanistic view of the sacredness of biology and of being “natural” and so on looks very nice, until we look deeper. I often point out the difference between “Dharma-Lite” and “The Real Thing” Dharma. “ Dharma-Lite” is sort of a humanistic version: Be a nice person, don’t hurt anybody and everything will be like Bambi and Disney Land. It is helpful, but it is not “The Real Thing.” “The Real Thing” Dharma involves looking at biology, seeing what it does and recognizing it as what we want to overcome. That does not imply that we think our body is the work of the Devil, which would be going to another extreme. We use the body we have to make progress, but we don’t worship it as being so beautiful and wonderful. It is not.

[See: “ Dharma-Lite” versus “The Real Thing” Dharma.]

Question: Before the Buddha’s enlightenment and teaching, how did beings purify their karma?

Alex: Now we get into another topic that is difficult for us Westerners to deal with, which is the concept of no beginning. Just as there is no beginning to samsara, there is no beginning to people achieving Buddhahood. Although in the Kalachakra teachings we have the term Adi-Buddha, it doesn’t refer to the first one who ever achieved Buddhahood. There is no historical first Buddha. There is no logical way of presenting a first Buddha within the context of cause and effect. How would they have become a Buddha? By having some special creativity in them? Someone had to teach them and show them the way, and that someone would have had to have reached Buddhahood himself beforehand. “Adi-Buddha” means Buddhahood based on the primordial state, the primordial basic purity of the mind. There have always been Buddhas and teachings, though they may not have always taught them to others. Of course, there have been dark ages – we are talking about samsara, it goes up and down.

Question: What results in the feeling of happiness after having an affair with another’s partner?

Alex: The first law of karma is that any experience of happiness is the result of constructive behavior. Some people could have sex all the time and never experience enjoyment or be satisfied. That would be the result of previous destructive behavior, perhaps from many lifetimes ago. Other people could enjoy sex even if it is with someone else’s partner. That is why I was saying it is not linear. There are many components to any experience, each of them are ripening from many different things simultaneously.

Question: But isn’t it a bad thing to have sex with another’s partner?

Alex: This is exactly what we are pointing out. The action of adultery is a negative action and will result in unhappiness eventually, but not necessarily immediately afterwards or while committing the act. This is why there is a very complex analysis of different types of results and different types of causes. If we have sex and experience happiness, the physical act of having sex simply provided a circumstance for happiness to ripen. It was not the karmic cause of the happiness. Similarly, if we bang our foot on the table and it hurts, the fact that we have nerves in our foot is one cause for the feeling of pain. But here with karma, we are talking about a ripening result. A certain action leaves a certain aftermath on the mental continuum that eventually, based on many circumstances, will produce an experience on that mental continuum. This gets to level three of difficulty in our discussion of karma.

Question: How does Buddhism explain the fact that we cannot remember our past lives?

Alex: Do we remember what we ate for lunch three months ago and every word that we said during the conversation we had during that meal? Do we remember every word that we said yesterday or even every word that we said five minutes ago? It’s possible that we remember, but most of the time we don’t. Not being able to remember what we did yesterday or when we were three years old does not deny what we did or that we were ever three years old. It points to another limitation of the type of body and mind that we have. It is possible to remember past lives, and some people can, but it is difficult because of the type of hardware that we have. We just don’t retain all of this information. It leads into a discussion of memory and how it works. Buddhism has a lot to say about it, but it is very complex. Another time.

Question: If someone is sexually abused, does that mean they sexually abused someone else?

Answer: One of the things that ripens from karmic legacies is an experience of things happening to us similar to what we have done to others. So, yes, but other karmic factors could have combined to make what we experience as the result of our previous act of abuse heavier or lighter. Please keep in mind that it is not linear. It is not that one karmic cause results in one experience. There are so many different things happening simultaneously.

Factors Affecting the Strength of a Karmic Result

There is so much that can be taught about karma but we don’t have much time. One thing I wanted to discuss is the factors that affect the strength of the ripening of karma. So many things affect it. I have here a traditional list of twelve. Let me just go through them briefly.

  1. The nature of the action involved. Killing someone is heavier than stealing their car.
  2. The strength of the disturbing emotion that accompanies the urge. Were we really angry, a little angry, or what?
  3. Whether a distorted antagonistic attitude accompanies the action. Just shooting someone versus shooting them with the attitude that they are from an inferior race that must be exterminated will give different results.
  4. The amount of suffering caused. There are different results from killing someone quickly and torturing them to death.
  5. The basis at whom the action is aimed. This is referring to the amount of benefit we or others have received from the object of our action, or the amount of good qualities they possess. Assassinating Mahatma Gandhi is much heavier than killing an ordinary person. Hitting a monk or nun is different than hitting a thief.
  6. The status or accomplishment of the being toward whom the action is aimed. Hurting a sick or blind person is heavier than hurting someone who is healthy.
  7. The level of consideration, which refers to the amount of respect we have for the being. Lying to our teacher is much heavier than lying to someone on the street.
  8. Supportive conditions. Killing mosquitoes having taken a vow not to kill is heavier than if we had not taken such a vow.
  9. Frequency. Killing a deer once is much lighter than deer hunting everyday.
  10. The number of persons involved in committing an action. Doing an action individually is not as heavy as doing it en masse.
  11. The follow up; whether we repeat it or not. If we keep repeating an action, it will get heavier and heavier.
  12. The absence or presence of opposing forces, which refers to whether or not we regret what we did, whether we try to purify it, and so on.

The analysis of the strength of results is very complex. There is also the analysis of the completeness of an action. If we kill insects by driving our car, it was not our intention to go out and kill insects, so the result will be weaker than intentionally swatting a fly. If we accidentally shoot the person next to our intended target, the result is weaker than if we shot the person we were aiming at. If we say all sorts of terrible things to someone and they don’t hear us, the action was not complete, although there will still be karmic results.

It is the same with positive actions. Doing a puja or ritual with a group of people has a much stronger effect than just doing it by ourselves. Doing it repeatedly has a much greater effect than just doing it once. Also, the result will be stronger if we do the recitation while thinking of all beings as opposed to doing it with no feeling or no understanding, just repeating blah, blah, blah in Tibetan. The discussion of karma is very vast.

Throwing and Completing Karmas

Many karmic legacies ripen together to shape the rebirth situation we take and others ripen to shape what we experience, our level of happiness, and so on during that rebirth. An action done with a very strong intention and motivation can function as a throwing karma. In other words, it can throw us into another rebirth state. Remember that karmic legacies determine the type of rebirth that we take, our experiencing a situation in which we are born, our experiencing something happening to us, our experiencing feelings of happiness or unhappiness, and our experiencing feeling like doing something. Any action that we do can give any or all of these results once or many times, depending on the heaviness. If there is a very strong intention to hurt or help many people, that action can act as a throwing karma and result in our experiencing a certain type of rebirth. Also, the accompanying emotion, like strong anger or greed or strong compassion and love, can also make the karmic urge function as a throwing karma.

If the intention and accompanying emotion are not so strong, the action could serve as a completing karma, which means it completes the circumstances of a rebirth. Our throwing karma results in being a human, but we are reborn in some place that is having a famine or where there are no opportunities. Or we are thrown into a birth as a dog, but we are the Dalai Lama’s pet.

The Order of Ripening

If we ask which karmic legacy will ripen at the time of death to shape our next life, it is usually the heaviest one, whether it is positive or negative. If nothing is particularly stronger, whatever actually manifests at the moment of death will act as the throwing karma. Because of that, the way that we die is very important. We don’t want to die with great attachment or anger or fear. I sometimes joke that if our last words are “O shit!” – instant fly rebirth. One has to be careful. It is interesting to notice what comes to mind in times of great danger. It tells us a lot about our karmic past.

If we die when we are unconscious, asleep or in a coma the actions that we are most accustomed to will shape the next life. If everything is equal, whatever we did earlier will ripen. That does not refer to what we did when we were one day old. It could refer to the first major thing that we did in our lives, like raising a family or getting an education.

The Certainty of Results

Next we have differentiations made according to whether it is certain or not when the results of a karmic action will ripen. They are differentiated according to whether or not an action was firmly committed, which means actually done, and whether or not its karmic potential was fully amassed, which means planned beforehand. So, we can see there are four possibilities: we planned an action and did it; we planned it but did not do it; we did not plan it but did it; or we neither planned it nor did it.

We have to understand this correctly. The karmic legacies of any destructive action in any of these four possible categories can be purified so that it will be certain that no results will ripen from them. But, if they are not purified, then it is certain that results will ripen. That’s the fourth law of karma, remember? But within this second division, only an action that we have planned and actually committed will have certainty concerning the lifetime in which its results will start to ripen. For the others, the lifetime is uncertain. There are three possibilities: this lifetime, the immediately following lifetime, or any lifetime after that.

Since many of us don’t really think in terms of future lives, it is interesting to know what has the possibility of ripening in this lifetime:

  1. A destructive action done out of extreme regard for our own body, possessions or life. “YOU stole MY car. I am going to get you!”
  2. A constructive action based on extreme regard for our body, possessions or life: like being willing to risk our life to save someone else.
  3. Having extreme thoughts of malice toward a limited being. Hate crimes would be included here.
  4. Actions done with the extreme thoughts of compassion or willingness to help others, like someone who dedicates themselves to volunteer work in old age homes, or the like.
  5. Extreme thoughts to harm the Triple Gem or the spiritual teachers. It is very interesting to note that soon after the Taliban’s destruction of the world’s largest Buddha statue unbelievable disaster has come to them with the US invasion.
  6. Extremely strong positive actions based on confident belief in the good qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This includes giving our financial resources, making texts available, making a Dharma center possible, etc., because we are convinced that it is beneficial. I have a question here. What if we have very strong sincere belief in the benefits of Catholicism and build a church? Would that also give positive results in this lifetime or is this chauvinistically saying that we have to be Buddhist? My teacher Serkong Rinpoche was asked a similar question in Italy. Someone asked, “If you are a Buddhist and take refuge in the Triple Gem, can you still go to church or is that a negative action?” He answered by asking if going to church and following the teachings of Catholicism – love, compassion, forgiveness, charity, praying for world peace, and so on – were contrary to the safe direction of refuge. It is not at all. It is absolutely no problem. So, building a church, a university or hospital to help others falls into this category as well. Likewise, destroying churches and so on brings swift negative results.
  7. Destructive actions brought on by a lack of gratitude toward those who have helped us the most: our parents, our spiritual teachers, and so on. Just by giving birth to us, our parents have helped us a great deal. If we do heavy things to them, it will ripen in this lifetime.
  8. Strong constructive actions done toward those who have helped us the most, with a wish to repay their kindness: like taking care of our parents in their old age with a wish to repay their kindness, or helping a spiritual teacher in terms of their work to benefit others.

If we both plan and actually do such things, the result will ripen in this lifetime. We can see that there is much we can do to shape our experience. Even if we don’t have the strength to stop ourselves from doing some destructive action, we can make it lighter by not being proud of it, by lessening the frequency, and so on, and by having a wish to eventually overcome it. We might not do many positive things, but when we do, we try to really be sincere. There is much we can do to modify the results of our actions: to lessen the results of the negative actions and strengthen those of positive actions.


As we have seen, karma is not talking about fate, destiny, and so on. It is very complex, but when we know some of the complexities, we can start to work with them and shape our experiences. The karmic results of most of what we do will be experienced in future lives, but some of the really strong actions can shape this life. We need not be disappointed if things do not ripen in this lifetime. As we have said, karmic legacies do not expire. When we talk about the certainty of the ripening of something we are talking about the time when it will start to ripen. Many karmic actions will give a long series of results, so a strong positive or negative action could start to ripen in this lifetime, but continue to ripen in many future lives afterwards.

Final Questions

Question: Can you elaborate on how we refrain from pushing the button, to use your example of karmic bingo?

Alex: We work in levels, in stages. On the initial level, when an urge comes to act in a destructive way, we just don’t act it out. As the great Indian master Shantideva advised in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, “Remain like a block of wood.” That’s why it’s important to quiet down and build up the habit of being mindful or aware of what is going on internally: we can notice then when a destructive urge comes up and we don’t act on it. We need to slow down enough to see it and exercise self-control. On the deepest level, we need to overcome the grasping for “me” which causes various ripenings. For that, we need to work with the correct understanding of voidness. This leads into the whole topic of purification, which we don’t really have time for this weekend.

Question: What is the meaning of self-esteem in Buddhism?

Alex: A synonym for self-esteem could be self-confidence, which is one of the four supports for joyous perseverance mentioned by Shantideva. It is described as steadfastness, as being steady. Self-confidence is the feeling that we are capable of practicing, of making advances, of defending ourselves if attacked and so on. If we have self-confidence, we are more secure in what we are doing. If we are deficient in this, which I think many Westerns are, there is the feeling that we are no good or not good enough, incompetent, something is wrong with us, and so on. Then we are not steady at all; we are insecure.

In Buddhism, we reaffirm our Buddha-nature to help us gain self-confidence. We do have the abilities and potentials to attain enlightenment and help others as much as is possible. That’s what Buddha-nature refers to. Naturally, it will take hard work, but it is possible if we apply ourselves steadily. In most of my work, I try to explain Buddhist ideas not only in the standard terminology but to relate it to how we view our experience, which for many of us is in terms of Western psychology, hence the use of terms like self-esteem, insecurity, insensitivity, hypersensitivity, and the like.

Question: When we say “things are the results of actions done in a previous lifetime,” is it something we have to believe by faith or is it something we can demonstrate somehow?

Alex: This brings us back to the discussion of how we explain what happens: is it bad luck, is it destiny, etc.? What sort of explanation will be satisfactory? Look at all the great lamas and practitioners who were put in concentration camps by the Communist Chinese and tortured to death. Is there no cause? The Buddhist understanding of karma seems to make the most sense. At least to me it makes the most sense. It is a matter of working on it individually. What makes most sense to us? And not only what explanation makes most sense, but what type of lifestyle or approach to life does it imply. If we think that everything happens through luck, where does that lead us? Wearing little good luck charms around our necks?

Before accepting or rejecting the Buddhist position, we need to really study it and understand it correctly. If we have an incorrect understanding, we may want to reject that. The Buddhist explanation of karma and rebirth is really very complicated, sophisticated, and difficult to understand. I think it is helpful to realize that these are important issues in Buddhism, so even if we don’t understand them now, we need to resolve to work on them rather than just reject them. Many very intelligent people have found these teachings to be true and look what they were able to accomplish based on that. That helps motivate us to look more deeply. The great masters were not idiots.

Question: Can you elaborate on the relationship between voidness and karma?

Alex: It really is quite impossible to understand karma without understanding voidness. Voidness is an absence of impossible ways of existing. We have to identify impossible ways in which cause and effect could work. It is impossible that everything happens from one cause, from no cause, from an irrelevant cause, or that things happen in a linear way, such that one thing brings about one result. It is also impossible that the result truly exists already at the time of the cause, as in the idea of predetermination, or that the result exists somehow inherently in the cause or in the aftermath of the cause, but in some unmanifest manner, and is just waiting for the right circumstances to pop out and appear. It’s also impossible that at the time of the cause, the result is truly and totally nonexistent and later will just appear from nothing. With voidness, we eliminate thinking that these impossible ways are correct. Then we are left with a network in which everything is interrelated and affects everything else. There are many levels of sophistication of what is impossible and what we actually mean by interrelatedness. We have to go deeper and deeper and it is a very long process.

Question: How long does it take to be reborn?

Alex: There is an intermediate period called “bardo” in between death and conception. It raises the question of when conception actually occurs. When is the physical basis a viable support for a mental continuum? It is a big discussion. The bardo is said to be a seven-day period that can repeat up to seven times, making forty-nine days in total. It could end earlier. We could be born as an insect for a couple of days, go through another forty-nine day bardo, and so on. There are many variations here.

Question: What about relating to the same person over many lifetimes?

Alex: Yes, we do have karmic relations with others, with which we interact with the same person, the same mental continuum, in several lifetimes. The type of relationship we will have with the person in another lifetime will depend on the various factors that affect the heaviness of karma. If we have been terrible to someone, but we are nice to them now, it makes the heaviness of the negativity less. If we have only been nasty, acting negatively now makes it heavier. It is the same whether we are talking about one or several lifetimes.

Question: Does euthanasia result in a positive or a negative karmic result?

Alex: This gets very complicated. The strength of the result of killing will be affected by the motivation and the accompanying emotion. With euthanasia, the intention is there to take the other person’s life, but there is no intention to hurt the other person. The emotion that accompanies it is compassion, love, and so on. Whether that is naive or not is another question. We do many things that we think will help someone else, whereas in fact they do not. The suffering consequence of compassionate euthanasia would be very weak. Thinking compassionately is a positive act and would have positive results. What would make it a bodhisattva action would be acknowledging that there will be a suffering result and being willing to accept that on ourselves in order to benefit the other. Most of us are not faced with this issue in terms of human beings, but many of us are faced with it in terms of our pet dogs and cats. We have to really examine our motivation.

Question: You mentioned astrology earlier. How do you use astrology?

Alex: Astrology only shows certain possibilities. It is like a weather report and gives only a partial picture of karma. I personally have used astrology as a way to sharpen my antennae of sensitivity and intuition about other people. If I am with someone and have a certain intuitive feeling of how to relate to them, I might consult their astrology chart to confirm or modify that. It gives some idea of what to watch out for, what to avoid with the person, whether there could be possible clashes, and what would flow most easily. However, I have discovered from experience over many years that this is not completely reliable. Some people have no strong angles in their chart, there is no reason from their chart to predict a close relationship and yet there is. I don’t just throw out the person because there are no trines or no conjuncts or whatever.

What I have found most helpful from astrology in terms of my own personal development is that is has helped me overcome the impression that there were only a very few people that I could really relate to and have a deep relationship with. If one characterizes a close relationship by having various conjuncts and trines in a chart, they exist with probably a hundred million, if not a billion people. It is not at all limited to one or two. We could have very close relationships with so many other people. This I found very liberating in terms of opening myself up to having very close and meaningful relationships with a very large number of people. Astrology also plays a significant role in the Kalachakra teachings, so my study of astrology has helped me to appreciate that aspect, which is very difficult for some people to work with.


May the positive force of the constructive actions of being here, listening, teaching, and so on act as a cause for all of us to achieve enlightenment and thus be able to bring about circumstances to help everyone else achieve enlightenment too. May whatever understanding we have gained go deeper and deeper and network with everything else that we have understood and that we will understand in the future. May this start to bring results along the path so that we can use these teachings and our understandings to be of best help to everyone.