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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Introductory Lecture on Karma

Introductory Lecture on Karma

Alexander Berzin
Xalapa, Mexico, May 2, 2006

The Four Noble Truths in Everyday Language

I’m very happy to be here in Xalapa once more, and the topic that I’ve been asked to speak about this evening is karma. Of course when we study some topic in Buddhism it is important to have some idea of why we want to study it, what is its importance, and how it fits in the whole context of Buddhism. Buddha basically was speaking about everybody’s experience, what we experience in life, what’s going on. What is the most fundamental thing that we all experience, everybody? It is that sometimes we are unhappy and sometimes we are happy. This is the way we experience our lives, isn’t it?

When we examine that situation of sometimes being unhappy, sometimes being happy, we discover that there are a lot of problems associated with that. When we are unhappy, obviously, that is suffering. Nobody likes to be unhappy, do they? We can be unhappy in seeing things, like a friend go away, or hearing things, unpleasant words, and we can also be unhappy when thinking various things with various emotions. But sometimes we feel unhappy and it doesn’t seem to have any relation whatsoever with what we’re actually seeing or hearing, or what’s going on around us. This is a problem, isn’t it?

But what about happiness? Sometimes we feel happy, don’t we? We feel happy seeing things, hearing things, hearing a loved one, and also we can feel happy thinking about something, like remembering a wonderful time we had with someone. But when we look more deeply, we find that this happiness that we experience also has some problems associated with it. First of all, it never lasts, and we don’t know how long it is going to last. And it never seems to be enough. We might be happy eating one spoonful of food, but that’s not enough – we want to eat more and more and more.  Actually, that’s a very interesting question – how much of something do you have to eat in order to actually enjoy it? Think about that one. Another fault, another shortcoming of this happiness is that we don’t know what’s going to come next. We could continue to be happy in the next minute, or we could be unhappy. It could change, so there’s no security in this happiness.

This type of insight or analysis into happiness and unhappiness is not anything unique, actually, to Buddhism; many great thinkers in the world have observed this and taught this. But what Buddha taught, what Buddha understood was a deeper type of problem, or suffering. He looked more deeply at this up-and-down situation of everybody’s life, that happiness and unhappiness goes up and down, up and down, and what he understood was that the cause for that happening was actually part of every moment that we experience. In other words, the way in which we experience things with the up-and-downs of happiness and unhappiness perpetuates that unsatisfactory situation.

So Buddha then looked and saw what that cause was that was there in each moment and which was perpetuating this unsatisfactory situation, and he saw that it was confusion about reality. In other words, confusion about how we exist, how everybody around us exists, about how the world exists.

This is quite different from what many others have said. Some others have said, for instance, that the up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness that we experience is basically because of reward and punishment: from following the laws or not following the laws. The basic issue for feeling happy or unhappy was obedience, according to many teachers. But Buddha said: no, that wasn’t the case. The actual cause was our confusion, not an issue of obeying or disobeying; it’s being confused about life. Then, Buddha went on to say that that confusion was not an integral and necessary part of life, of how we experience things. It didn’t have to be there: it is something that can be removed, and it can be removed completely, so that it never returns. Then he said that the actual way to do that was to change our way of experiencing things.

Getting rid of that confusion was not a matter of asking somebody else to get rid of it for us, but it was basically a matter of changing our own attitudes, our own understanding about reality. If we can replace misunderstanding with understanding, and then have this understanding all the time, then we discover that we don’t have this constant up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness, and we don’t perpetuate that up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness. So that’s a very basic teaching of Buddha, putting it in very everyday language.

Karma Deals with Behavioral Cause and Effect

When we speak about karma, karma is the basic explanation of how and why our experiences of happiness and unhappiness go up and down – that’s what karma is all about. In other words, how does our confusion produce this up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness, pleasant and unpleasant experiences? In other words, it’s dealing with cause and effect, and cause and effect here is an extremely complex topic. As Buddha said, a bucket of water is not filled by the first drop and it is not filled by the last drop; it’s filled by a whole collection of drops. Similarly, what we experience in life is the result of not just one cause – the cause isn’t just one thing that we just did immediately before now or what we did eons ago. It’s the result of an enormous amount of causal factors and conditions.

This is actually quite consistent with a scientific point of view, because what it’s saying is that events don’t occur in isolation, that actually everything is interconnected. Just to use a very simple example, we wouldn’t all be here in this room listening to this lecture if the Spanish didn’t come to the Americas, would we? That is one cause for us being here. Like that, there are so many different causes, direct and indirect, that contribute to what we’re experiencing right now or at any moment.

Karma, however, is explaining the causes that are specifically connected with our own minds. But there are many other causes that contribute to what we experience – physical causes, for instance, the weather, and so on. Many things that affect us are coming not only from our own minds, but from the minds of others. Let’s say the politicians who decide various policies that affect us, and that can be mixed with some confusion as well, can’t it?

Karma is not speaking about faith, it’s not speaking about destiny and predestination and things like that, but rather it’s speaking about how we experience things and how our attitudes affect what we experience in life. The word karma is used in a very general sense to refer to everything that’s involved here in terms of behavioral cause and effect; in other words, the cause and effect relationship that comes from our behavior and attitudes. “Karma” can be referring to the whole topic of behavioral cause and effect in general, or it can refer very specifically to one aspect of that entire process. So if we want to understand the mechanism of karma, we have to look at it with a little bit more precision, in some detail.

Several Systems of Explanation of Karma

When we start looking at more precise explanations within Buddhism, we discover very quickly that there isn’t just one explanation. Some Westerners find that a bit uncomfortable. But if we have a problem or situation, we can explain it in several different ways, depending on our point of view. In the West we do that, we can explain things from a social point of view, from a psychological point of view, from economics point of view – that’s nothing surprising. These various explanations really help us to understand in a more full way what is going on. And each of those ways of explaining what’s going on is based on a certain system of thought – a system of psychology, a system of politics, economics, and so on. We have something similar here in Buddhism, and therefore we find that there are several explanations from different philosophical tenet systems for how karma works. We also have that in the West even within one discipline, like psychology – there can be an explanation from the point of view of Freudian psychology, an explanation from the point of view of Jungian psychology; one can explain things in a socialist way, or in a capitalist way. We find that in Buddhism, and it’s helpful, actually, to look at several of these systems, because they give us different insights into how karma works. For our purposes it is not necessary to go into detail about the differences of the systems, but it’s helpful to be aware that there are several systems.

That of course means, implicitly, that we can also have Western systems that explain what is going on with what we experience as well. That doesn’t necessarily contradict what we say with karma.

Karma as the Mental Factor of an Urge

Karma itself, when we speak of it as a specific item, a specific thing, is referring to – if we follow one system of explanation – a mental factor. What do we mean by “mental factor?” A mental factor is a way of being aware of something. Let’s take an example: we see somebody and we walk over toward them. There are many mental factors that are involved here in that experience. These are different aspects of how we are aware of this person. Some are very basic, like distinguishing this person from somebody else, or from the wall. Interest – that’s a way of being aware of the person that would accompany seeing them. Concentration might be there, various emotions can be there. All these are mental factors, and they network together in that moment of seeing the person and walking over to them.

Which mental factor is karma? Karma is the mental factor that is drawing us to the person; it’s the urge that accompanies seeing the person and then going toward them. That’s why in some theories karma’s explained almost like a physical force. Of course there can be other mental factors, like intention. What do we intend to do with this person? We could intend to hug them or we could intend to punch them in the face. There are many other factors that are involved, but karma is simply this mental force urge that is drawing us into that action of hugging or punching as we’re seeing them and as we’re going toward them. Also, remember that mental urges are not just for physical actions such as hugging or punching. There could also be a driving mental urge with which we think about something; it’s not only in terms of saying something or doing something physically. Whether we are thinking something, whether we are saying something, whether we are doing something physically – all of these things involve some sort of mental urge.

The Effects of Karmic Behavior

Buddhism, like science, teaches very much in terms of cause and effect. So, if drawn by karma – this urge – we do things, say things, and think things, then there’s going to be a result. Karma is not speaking so much about the effect of our behavior on others – although, of course, it does have an effect on others. This is because, really, the effect on others of what we do to them is, to a great extent, up to that other person. Some effects on the other person of what we do to them are due to just physical factors: you hit somebody and the skin gets bruised. That’s just physical cause and effect; we’re not talking about that with karma. But the effect that it has on the other person in terms of how they experience what we say or do to them, that’s up to them, isn’t it? We could say something very cruel to somebody, for example, and their feelings could get very hurt; they could be very upset. But they could also think that we are completely stupid idiots, and so they don’t believe us and don’t take us seriously. Or they might not even hear us or they might hear us incorrectly. Their mind could be preoccupied with something else, for example. So, even if we had terrible intentions to really hurt this person’s feelings, there is no guarantee that it actually will – although obviously Buddhism teaches that we try not to hurt anybody. But that’s not involving karma here.

When we speak about the karmic results of something, it’s the karmic results that we ourselves will experience as a result of acting in this impulsive, compulsive way, with these karmic urges.

What are the effects within ourselves? One of the effects – and this is very similar to what Western science would say – is that we condition ourselves to thinking in a certain way, speaking in a certain way, and acting in a certain way, so it builds up a tendency to repeat that way of behaving. And as a result of that tendency to repeat the action and also of a potential to repeat that action – we also make some difference between potentials and tendencies, although there’s no need to go into detail about that – as a result of them, we would want to repeat that act.

What does it actually produce, this tendency or potential? The tendency produces a feeling – feeling like going over to you and giving you a hug, for example, or feeling like going over to you and saying something nasty. And then, when we feel like doing it, of course we have the choice whether to do it or not. That’s a very important point, to realize that we do have the choice to act out what we feel like doing or not. But if we decide that we’re going to do it, or if we don’t even consider whether we are going to do it or not, we just act it out, then the next stage is where karma comes in. Karma is the urge, the drive, the compulsion with which we actually do it.

Then, there are many other things that ripen from these tendencies. One thing is also, basically, the content of what we experience. “Content” is a big word; I guess we have to be a little bit more specific. It has to do, here, with, for instance, meeting this person and not meeting that person. It also involves the way that people act toward us. We have to be quite careful how we say that, in order to be more precise. Our karma is not causing the other person to yell at us – they yell at us as a result of the tendencies that they have to yell at people. But our own karma is responsible for experiencing other people yelling at us.

That’s not the easiest thing to understand, of course, but I think one way of approaching an understanding of that is with an example. If a baby is wearing diapers and soils the diaper, then the baby has to live with that; the baby has to live with the mess that it makes. Let’s leave aside the whole issue of whether or not somebody changes the diaper of the baby, but the point here is that you create a mess, and you have to experience the mess. We create messes in life, and as life goes on, we get into more and more messes; basically, it works like that. More specifically, we act in a certain way toward others, and we will experience others acting in a similar way toward us. But another very important principle here with karma is that this doesn’t work instantly. We could speak very kindly and gently toward someone, and they still get very crazy, yelling at us with anger.

This is why to really understand karma, one has to bring in the whole discussion of rebirth, that things take a very, very long time before they produce an effect, and that they may not produce an effect in this lifetime. In fact, most of the time they don’t. That’s not terribly easy for us as Westerners to accept. For some people it sounds as though Buddhism is saying, “Be good in this lifetime and, in the afterlife, you will experience the results in heaven; be bad and, in the afterlife, you will experience the results in hell.”

We have to really examine this quite closely: Is Buddhism saying the same thing, or is it different? That’s not a very easy topic, it is very complicated topic, because to really understand karmic cause and effect, we need to understand rebirth – the Buddhist concept of rebirth, not some non-Buddhist concept of rebirth. Who is it that commits a karmic cause and who is it that experiences its result? Is there a “me” that can be rewarded or punished.

But, leaving the issue of rebirth and who experiences it aside, as I mentioned in the beginning, Buddhism is not speaking about a system of reward and punishment based on obedience of laws. Buddhism is not saying that this life is some sort of test, and we will get the results of the test in our next life. It’s simply saying that things take a long time to produce their effect. We can see that in terms of the environment. We act in a certain way and it produces some effects in our lifetime, but it is going to produce an awful lot more effects in the lifetimes of future generations. It is something similar to that.

Happiness and Unhappiness

A whole different dimension with which karma ripens – in other words, another dimension with which results come from these karmic actions – has to do with what we were speaking about in the beginning of this lecture, which is this dimension of happy and unhappy. Repeating certain actions, we experience certain things happening to us – people acting toward us in certain ways, or it could be a rock falling off the top of a cliff onto our head. We experience these things with happiness or unhappiness. Think about that. There are some people, when they step on a cockroach, they feel very happy – I got this horrible thing! Others, when they step on a cockroach, feel disgusted, and feel very unhappy. Some people, when somebody hits them, or yells at them, feel very unhappy and very sad, and other people feel happy, “Yes, I’m a sinner; I’m no good; I’m bad; I deserve to be yelled at and hit.”

You know this saying, I think it comes from here in Mexico, or maybe somebody just made it up as a story and I believed it, but it goes: “If my husband hits me that means that he really loves me; if he doesn’t hit me that means he doesn’t care.”

This happy or unhappy seems to be almost a different type of dimension, doesn’t it? What happens to us in terms of one dimension is what we compulsively do, out of repetition, and what we experience, things happening to us – that’s one dimension; and the other dimension is how we actually experience that, with happiness or unhappiness. These things that we experience, these two dimensions, are both ripening from karmic actions in the past, but from different ones. If we look just at the dimension of happy and unhappy, this is a very general dimension. It comes from whether we act in a destructive way or a constructive way. If we act destructively, the result is experiencing unhappiness; we act constructively, the result of that is experiencing happiness.

Constructive and Destructive Behavior

Now it becomes very interesting when we investigate what Buddhism means by constructive and destructive. Naturally enough, there are several explanations of this. But as we saw, we can’t really specify the nature of an action in terms of the effect it has on somebody else, because who knows what the effect will be: there are so many other factors that are going to be involved. So constructive and destructive has to do with the state of mind with which we act. If our action is based on greed, or attachment, or anger, or just complete naivety, it’s destructive. On the other hand, if our action is based on no anger, no greed, not being attached, not being naive, then it is constructive. Obviously if it’s further than that, if it is based on love and compassion, generosity, etc., it is also constructive.

There are also other factors. It is very interesting to examine these other factors that make an action constructive or destructive. One factor is ethical self-dignity, or moral self-dignity. That has to do with our self-image and our self-respect. If we have no respect for ourselves, then we don’t care about the effect of our behavior on ourselves. It’s the attitude of “whatever.” With that kind of low self-esteem, we act destructively. In other words, if I think of myself in positive ways, if I have respect for myself as a person, then I’m not going to act like an idiot. I’m not going to act in a stupid, cruel type of way, because I don’t want to lower myself to act that way – I have a much higher opinion of myself, of what I can do. This is the factor we are talking about here: either having a sense of ethical self-dignity or having no sense of ethical self-dignity. This is a very, very crucial factor determining whether we act in a constructive way or a destructive way.

Another factor is caring about how our behavior reflects on others. What are we talking about? If I act in a terrible way, how does that reflect on my family? How does it reflect on my country? If I act in a terrible way, what are people going to think of Mexicans? If we are Buddhist, if I go out and get drunk, and get into a fight, how does that reflect on Buddhism and Buddhists? Because we have enough respect for our family, for our group, whatever it might be – religion, country, city – with that sense of concern about the effect of our behavior, with concern about how our behavior reflects on others, if we have that, we will refrain from acting destructively; if we don’t have that, we act destructively. This is an extraordinarily profound insight in Buddhism. What is the crucial factor? Self-esteem, self-dignity and a sense of esteem of our community.

That gives us a big insight into some of the factors that need to be taken into consideration in terms of dealing with terrorism. If you deprive a person and their community of all sense of self-dignity, making their lives really horrible and thinking terrible things about them, they feel that it doesn’t matter what they try to do. If they have no sense of self-worth or worth of their community, then why not go out and be destructive? They feel they have nothing to lose. This is, I think, a helpful thing to remember in terms of how we deal with others, particularly in problematic situations in the world. It is important never to deprive someone of a sense of self-dignity or a feeling of worth of their community.

These are some of the mental factors that are involved here with what makes an action destructive or what makes an action constructive. It is also things like taking seriously the fact that the way we act and behave toward others is going to affect them. This refers to having a sense of consideration or care – I call it the “caring attitude.” But sometimes we are very naive, we think that I can say anything to you and it doesn’t matter. I don’t really take your feelings seriously. Then we lack a caring attitude.

If we act with these types of mental factors – greed, anger, no sense of self-worth, no consideration for how what we do reflects on others, not caring, not taking seriously that what we do is going to have an effect on others and also an effect on ourselves – what is the result of that? Unhappiness. This unhappiness, though, is not a punishment.

We need to think really quite deeply about this. Could that state of mind with all these negative factors really be a happy state of mind, and could it really produce an experience of happiness in us? Or could it only produce unhappiness? If we think about it more and more, it actually does make sense that that state of mind, that negative state of mind, would result in experiencing unhappiness, and if we have the opposite state of mind, without greed and anger and all these other things, that would produce happiness. Therefore, we have these general categories of behavior – constructive and destructive – and they’re going to result in our experiencing happiness and unhappiness.

Then, in addition, we have specific types of actions that we do: yelling at somebody, or being kind to somebody, and so on, and these also have their effects in terms of tendencies to repeat that behavior and tendencies to get into situations in which others act that way toward us.

Another result of our karmic behavior – but there’s no need to go into great detail here – concerns what type of rebirth we have: are we going to be reborn with the basic body and mind of a dog, of a cockroach, of a human being. What kind of body and mind will we have as the context for experiencing certain things happening to us and our acting in a certain way. There are many other details here, but I want to just cover, in this introductory lecture, the most general principles.

Determinism or Free Will

So, on one hand, we experience certain types of behavior repeating and things happening to us; and on another side, we experience all of this with the up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness, which sometimes matches our behavior and sometimes doesn’t seem to match it at all. And all this is going up and down, up and down all the time and we don’t know what’s going to come next. And of course what happens to us is not just caused by me and my karma alone. It also is affected by what is going on with everybody else in the universe and their karma, and what they are doing, plus what’s happening with the physical universe itself – the elements of the universe: weather, earthquakes, that sort of stuff. Because of that, it’s very hard to predict what we are going to experience next – the factors that affect that are just too, too complex, and in fact Buddha said that it is the most complicated thing of anything to understand.

We have to be quite clear here, because so many people ask this about karma – is it determinism or do we have free will? Neither of those is correct, both of them are extremes. Determinism usually implies that somebody else has determined for us what we’re going to do or what we’re going to experience – some external being, a higher being, or whatever. Buddhism says that that’s not the case; it’s not that somebody else has decided what we’re going to do and we are just puppets, acting out some play that somebody else has written for us.

Free will, on the other hand, is a little bit like somebody sitting in a restaurant, holding a menu in front of them and deciding what to order. Life is not like that. To imagine that life is like that, Buddhism says, is incorrect, it’s confused. It might seem and feel like there’s a separate “me” – separate from life, separate from experience, and who outside of everything that is currently happening can look at life like a menu and choose items on it. There’s no “me” separate from life, or separate from experience, and what’s going to happen to us doesn’t exist like little items on the menu that we can choose, as if they were sitting there already, and then we just press the button and it comes out of the vending machine, or something like that. I think that’s a useful image to see how silly it is. It isn’t that experiences are existing like candy bars inside the vending machine and you choose which one you want; press the button, put the money in, and out it comes to you. Life isn’t like that, is it? It isn’t that we decide beforehand, “Today, I will experience happiness and I will experience everybody being nice to me.” Then we put our money in the machine of life and out pops what we’ve chosen. That’s free will, isn’t it? It’s free will to decide what is going to happen to us and what we are going to do. But what happens to us is far more subtle and sophisticated than these two extremes of determinism or total free will.

Confusion as the Source of Karma

We said earlier in the lecture that what was really quite unique in Buddhism was that Buddha taught the cause for this constant up-and-down of our experiencing happiness and unhappiness and for all sorts of things happening to us that we really don’t want to happen and that we don’t have any control over. The cause is part of every moment of our experience and is perpetuating this whole syndrome – and that cause is confusion. Not only that, but when we act with confusion – whether destructively or constructively – it reinforces what is called the “constant habit” – the habit of constantly acting with confusion – and so we continue to act with confusion every single moment.

What is this confusion? That’s a very deep topic in Buddhism; but if we put it in really simple terms, then what we’re talking about is confusion about how I exist, how you exist and how everybody exists. For example, we think that I am the center of the universe; I’m the most important one; I should always get my way; I’m always right; people should always have time for me. We can recognize this attitude in terms of our cell phones: we feel that I should be able to call anybody at any time and interrupt them regardless of what they’re doing, and they should be available for me, because what I have to say is far more important than anything whatsoever that they could possibly be doing now. Based on this confusion, we can act destructively toward somebody – yell at them, be cruel to them – and we would do so because they don’t do what I want them to do or they’re doing something that I don’t like. They should do what I like because what I want is obviously more important than what they want. Or, based on the same confusion, we could be doing something nice for somebody, being kind to them, because I want them to like me; I want them to be happy with me. I want to feel necessary in that I’m doing something for somebody else that I think they need, so I’ll tell my daughter how to raise her children and how to run her house. Isn’t that being helpful? And it doesn’t matter whether the daughter doesn’t want our advice and help or not, but we think that I’m the most important, and I want to be necessary, and obviously I know better than my daughter how to raise her children and she obviously needs to hear that from me.

So there’s this confusion, and that’s behind both destructive and constructive behavior. It is because of this confusion that we perpetuate this up-and-down, up-and-down cycle. So we have to examine how to get rid of it.

Ridding Ourselves of Confusion

When we look at the mechanism of how these karmic tendencies and habits ripen, particularly the tendencies, then it all has to do with our attitude toward this up-and-down happiness and unhappiness that we experience. We have two mental factors that accompany our experiencing happiness and unhappiness and which are significant here. The first is called “craving.” When we experience happiness, we crave – which means we have a very strong desire – not to be separated from it. “Don’t go away, stay here with me all the time, can you stay longer” – this type of thing when we’re enjoying being with somebody. Or we are enjoying and feeling happiness with eating chocolate cake and so we don’t want to be parted from that happiness. Because of that, we continue to eat more and more and more and more, don’t we? That’s craving. Then, when we are experiencing unhappiness, we crave to be parted from it as quickly as possible. Underlying both of them is the second mental factor – a strong attitude of identifying “me,” a solid “me,” with what we’re experiencing. I have got to have this happiness and whatever it is that’s giving me happiness, more and more, and not be parted from it. I have to be parted from what I don’t like. I don’t like what you’re saying, so you better shut up or I’m going to yell at you.

When we experience the up-and-down happiness and unhappiness in our lives with this craving and a strong identification of a solid “me” with what’s going on – which is after all based on confusion – this causes all these karmic tendencies to ripen. In that way, we are perpetuating our up-and-down, up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness and repeating all our previous behaviors, because this is what ripens from those tendencies. What’s really awful is that this confusion is there with every moment of happiness and unhappiness. And it perpetuates more moments of happiness and unhappiness, which are also going to be with confusion. The confusion that we experience now is the result of our confusion before, when we were experiencing happiness and unhappiness.

This uncontrollably recurring cycle, this self-perpetuating cycle – this is what in Buddhism is called “samsara.”  If we can get rid of this confusion, then the whole system of karma falls apart and we are liberated from samsara. If we replace confusion with correct understanding – and I won’t go into all the details of what that means, just get the general idea – if we replace confusion with correct understanding, then there is no basis for this solid “me” – no basis for “I’ve got to have this and not have that.” There is no craving, so there is nothing to activate these tendencies and habits. And if there’s nothing to activate these tendencies and habits, you can’t say that you still have tendencies and habits.

 I’ll try to give an example. If there is a tendency to see dinosaurs, then when dinosaurs become extinct, there is no tendency anymore to see dinosaurs when you walk through the jungle, is there? There used to be this tendency: when I walked through the jungle I always saw dinosaurs. Now there are no more dinosaurs, so there’s no more tendency to see dinosaurs. Using that example, when there’s nothing to cause a tendency to ripen – a dinosaur walking in front of you, causing a tendency to see a dinosaur to ripen – if there is nothing to activate the tendency, you don’t have the tendency anymore. And if the karmic tendencies are not ripening anymore because there are no more tendencies, then we are not experiencing the up-and-down happiness and unhappiness anymore, and we are certainly not experiencing any confusion with it either; that’s gone, too.

This is the way that we become liberated from this whole samsaric situation. We no longer experience this unsatisfactory, insecure up-and-down of happiness and unhappiness, but we have instead a very steady experience of a very different type of happiness, a very different quality – not a type of happiness that is mixed with confusion, and not the type of happiness of “I’ve won the game and so here’s my reward.” It’s a type of happiness that one experiences from being free of a difficult situation. I think a simple example, although not an exact example, for approaching what this is talking about would be the happiness that we feel when we take off our tight shoes at the end of the day – it’s a joyous relief that we are free from this pain.

Also, what we experience with liberation is that our actions are no longer driven by these compulsive urges of karma with which we act in a certain way, experience certain things. Rather, if we are working, beyond just liberation, to become a Buddha, what drives our actions is compassion – the wish for others to be free from their suffering and causes of that suffering.

Concluding Words

This is a basic introduction to some of the principles involved with karma. There’s much, much, much, much more that can be said and explained. Some of it is explained with certain general principles, like this type of action results in this type of effect, and if this factor is there the result will be stronger, and if it’s not there – if you do something by accident as opposed to doing something on purpose – the effect is going to be different, and so on. There’s a lot of detail there.

Also, in terms of what actually is going to ripen right now, that is very difficult to generalize with principles, because that is affected by everything else that is happening all around us. What happens to us now, we can’t just generalize that from general principles, because what happens now is affected by everything else that’s happening. Just think about if you have an accident on the road, what brought that about? It’s karma that brought everybody else on to that road from their sides, and the traffic conditions, and the weather, and the condition of the road. So many things have brought about that particular thing of having an accident that is ripening now.

If we are interested in this topic, there is a great deal of room to explore many different aspects of it. The more we learn about karma, I think the more helpful that is in overcoming being under the control of karma, so that we not only get liberated ourselves from samsaric suffering, but we’re in a better position to be able to help everybody else as well.

[For a more detailed explanation, see: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Explanation, Except for Gelug Prasangika.]

What questions do you have?


Participant: In this context, guilt is out of the picture? It has nothing to do with guilt here, does it?

Alex: Correct. The Buddhist explanation of karma has nothing to do with guilt. Guilt is based on thinking in terms of a very strong solid “me” as a separate entity and what I did as some other separate entity, like two ping-pong balls, or something like that. And then we believe that entity “me” is so bad and that entity “what I did” was so bad. So there’s also a judgment of these two seemingly solid entities and then not letting go – that’s guilt. It’s like never throwing away the garbage from your house, but just keeping it inside and saying how terrible it is, how bad it smells, how dirty, and never letting go.

Participant: It sounds very clear and very logical, and I can understand the whole system, and how to get rid of the confusion, and the urge, tendencies and everything. But I think that understanding it is not enough to get rid right now of the experience or the impulse of acting compulsively.

Alex: Correct. Yes, that’s why first we need to exercise ethical self-control. Remember, we mentioned that there is a slight interval between when I feel like saying, “What an ugly dress you’re wearing today,” and when I actually would say it. If we can catch that space, then we have the ability to decide what the effect is going to be if I tell this person that she is wearing an ugly dress. And if we see that that would not be a productive thing to say, we don’t say it. That’s where we start – with ethical discipline and self-control.

Also, we can examine what emotion am I feeling when I want to do something? Is my wish to do something based on a disturbing emotion, such as greed? Is it based on anger; is it based on naivety? Do I think that saying that your dress is ugly is not going to have any effect on you? Or is my wish to do something based on kindness, and these more positive things? This is why the definition of a disturbing emotion or attitude is very helpful: it is a state of mind, which, when it arises, causes us to lose peace of mind and lose self-control.

You can tell when you’ve lost peace of mind: our heart beats a little bit faster; we feel a little bit uneasy. So we try to notice, for instance, subtle things, like am I saying something out of pride? For example, somebody says, “I didn’t understand that,” and you say, “Oh, but I did!” You’ll notice a little bit of uneasiness, there’s some pride behind this, some arrogance, and so this is what you look out for.

But to understand reality, which means gaining the understanding of voidness and so on, is very, very difficult, and even when we get it, we have to accustom ourselves to it, so that we have it all the time. That’s why we start with ethical self-discipline, to stop ourselves from acting destructively.

Participant: I got a little lost. I think you mentioned that there are two emotions that perpetuate this happiness and unhappiness, these fluctuations. Were you saying that one of these is craving, and another one was what?

Alex: What I was explaining were the two factors that activate karmic tendencies – this comes from the teachings on the twelve links of dependent arising. One is craving, the other – I was simplifying – the other is actually called an “obtainer attitude or emotion,” and it is a list of about five different possibilities. This is what will obtain the result, and so the most prominent one is identifying a solid “me” with what we’re experiencing, with what’s going on.

Participant: Is this identifying a solid “me” in relationship to something? It’s clear that there’s confusion here, and that we have to take care of that and get rid of the confusion. But what exactly are we confusing and what are we confusing it with?

Alex: That’s not an easy question to answer in a simple way. We are confusing the “me” that does exist, the conventional “me,” with the false “me” that doesn’t exist. What we’re doing is imagining that the actual “me” that does exist exists in some impossible way, it’s an exaggeration. It’s adding something that’s not there. For instance: I am happy or I am unhappy. It’s not that you are unhappy; I am unhappy. When there is an experience of happiness or unhappiness, we refer to that in terms of I’m happy. It’s not that you’re happy or somebody else is happy – I’m happy. That “I” or “me” is the conventional “me,” which does exist.

Let me use an example for this conventional “me.” Suppose we watch a movie and let’s say the movie is “Gone with the Wind.” In it, there is a happy scene, then an unhappy scene, and then another happy scene. Well, what’s going on here? This happy scene is a scene from “Gone with the Wind” and that unhappy one is another scene from “Gone with the Wind.” “Gone with the Wind” is how we would conventionally label the whole thing, all the scenes, both the happy and the unhappy ones. “Gone with the Wind,” however, is just a title, just a name. But when we talk about “Gone with the Wind,” we’re not just talking about the title. We’re talking about the actual movie – what the title refers to. That’s the conventionally existent movie: it exists. The movie is not something separate from each of those scenes – a movie separate and independent from those scenes would be a false movie. It doesn’t exist. The conventionally existent movie is merely what can be labeled or imputed, we say, on the basis of the scenes.

Similarly, we have happy moments in life, we have unhappy moments in life and so on, and how do we refer to all of that? We refer to it as “me” – the conventional “me,” which does exist: it’s not you, it’s “me.” Similarly, that movie is “Gone with the Wind,” it’s not “Star Wars.” But there’s no “me” that’s separate from the moments of experiencing happiness and unhappiness and which is experiencing those moments. That would be a false “me,” a “me” that does not exist. And “me” is just a word; so “me” is merely what that word is referring to on the basis of all the moments of experience of a life.

The confusion, then, would be to think that there is some separate “me” that is inside this body, inhabiting it, connected to it somehow, pushing the buttons, and now that “me” is experiencing a pain in my foot, and I’m very unhappy and I don’t like that. It is as if there were a separate “me” from that whole experience inside that alien thing called the body. Then, on the basis of confusing this separate “me” – this false “me” – with the conventional “me” and identifying with that false “me,” we feel, with craving, “I’ve got to get parted from this unhappiness, from this pain, from the unhappiness that I experience with the physical pain.” Of course when we don’t have that misconception of a solid “me,” that doesn’t mean that we just sit there and continue to have the pain. If our foot is on fire, of course we take our foot out of the fire, but the concept of the “me” that’s behind it is quite different. There’s no panic.

But this concept of a false “me” versus a conventional “me” is very complex and advanced. So, let’s leave it for now. Let’s end here, instead, for this evening with a dedication. We think: whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper, grow stronger and stronger, and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.