Try our new website New materials, revised articles, guided meditations, new design

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Overcoming the Compulsiveness of Karma with Ethical Self-Discipline

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, September 2012

Session One: The First Level of Ethical Self-Discipline

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:26 hours)


Our topic for today is – I’ve called it Overcoming the Compulsiveness of Karma with Ethical Self-Discipline. We are discussing here the relation of karma and ethical self-discipline, and the main point of the discipline and ethics is to overcome karma. This all fits within the context of what’s known as the four noble truths:

  • Buddha taught that we have a great deal of suffering.

  • These come from causes.

  • There is a situation in which all the suffering and its causes can be gone forever.

  • And this can be attained through the pathway of correct understanding of reality, ethics, and so on.

Now, this is a structure that you find in general in Indian philosophy and thought or religion, but Buddha called these points the true suffering, the true causes, the true stopping of them, and the true path that leads to it (so he said the others weren’t going deeply enough). And these are seen as true by aryas, the highly developed, highly realized beings who have seen reality.

It’s interesting that they use the term arya. That’s the name of the people who came about five hundred years before the Buddha and brought the Vedas and conquered India and so on. So these are the conquerors. So what he’s saying is that these are the ones who have not only seen what are the true sufferings and their causes, etc., but they have overcome them, so they are the victors. This is a term that’s used throughout Buddhist terminology.

Karma is one of the main causes of suffering – it’s one of the true causes of true suffering – and it requires ethical self-discipline to overcome it. It’s very important to understand what is karma. If we look at the Sanskrit word, it derives from the root kr, which means “to do” (like the word dharma comes from the word dhr, “to protect”). And so then you add an ending to it, this ma, and you get “that which acts” or “that which drives actions” (just as dharma would be “that which protects us, protects us from suffering”).

So karma is that which drives us into acting and brings about suffering, and Dharma is that which will protect us from suffering. Now, what that means is that karma is not the actual actions themselves. Although you have a difficult problem here, a confusing problem, because it’s translated into Tibetan with the word which means “actions” (las). Most Tibetan teachers when they talk about karma will translate the Tibetan translation for it, so you get the idea that karma means the actions themselves, but then this becomes very confusing. If the true cause of suffering was our actions, then all you would need to do is stop doing anything, and then you would be free. So that doesn’t make any sense.

So what we’re talking about here with karma is the compulsion that drives us to act, speak, and think in ways that are mixed with confusion. There’s this confusion about how we exist, how others exist, and what is reality. So because we’re confused about who we are and what’s going on in the world, then we act in very compulsive ways. These compulsive ways can be compulsively negative, like always yelling and being cruel to people and so on. Or it could be compulsively acting in a positive way, like for instance being a perfectionist, neurotically a perfectionist, or “I have to be good” and then being very compulsive about that, or “Everything has to be clean,” this whole syndrome of being a perfectionist. It produces a lot of suffering actually, doesn’t it, although it’s acting in a very positive type of way.

So we’re not talking about stopping acting in a positive manner. We’re talking about getting rid of the neurotic compulsiveness behind it. That is the cause of suffering. Behind that perfectionism is confusion about how we exist. We’re thinking of ourselves as this big solid “me, me, me,” and then this “me” has to be perfect, good. And why? So that mommy or daddy will pat me on the head and call me a good girl or a good boy? I mean, what’s behind this? As one of my teachers said, “Then what are we going to do? Wag our tail like a dog?”

The Three Levels of Ethical Discipline

So we are working to get rid of karma, this compulsiveness that is one of the causes, one of the true causes, of our suffering. We work on this in stages according to the Mahayana lam-rim. Lam-rim is the Tibetan term which means “the graduated stages of the path.” And Mahayana is the area of Buddhism, the realm of Buddhism, the schools of Buddhism, in which this developed – initially to a very, very small extent in India but highly developed and elaborated in Tibet. And again – I studied many Asian languages, so I’m always trying to be precise with the languages – when it’s translated as graduated path, it is not actually talking about something that you’re walking on, but rather we’re talking about states of mind, levels of understanding, and internal development that like a path will lead us to the goal. This way of developing ourselves is built one step on the next. And what we’re doing is basically broadening the scope of our motivation, our goal, our aim, and so on, step by step. So what we’ll look at is how in each of these steps we’re working to overcome karma with ethical discipline. This is involved in all these stages.

I should just say very briefly the three levels are

  • Working to overcome worse rebirths so that we continue to have better rebirths. We want to attain specifically not just better rebirths, but rebirth with a precious human life.

  • And then on the second level, we want to overcome rebirth altogether. You might have heard this term samsara. Samsara is referring to uncontrollably recurring rebirth. From a Mahayana point of view, we go on forever, eternal, so even after we become a Buddha, we continue to exist (this is the Mahayana presentation). But what we want to overcome is this compulsive uncontrollably recurring rebirth filled with more and more suffering and problems. So here we’re aiming for liberation from that.

  • And then on the third level, we are aiming to reach a state in which we are able to help everybody else get liberated from this, which means to become a Buddha, an omniscient being, so that we understand (among other things) the karma of everybody so that we know how best to help them.

So karma is involved in all these areas.

Working to Overcome Worse Rebirths

Let’s first look at overcoming worse rebirths. When Buddha spoke about true sufferings or true problems – suffering sometimes is a little bit awkward term – we are working here to overcome primarily the first type of problem or difficulty that we face, and this is our usual understanding of the word suffering, so unhappiness, pain, horrible things happening to us, and so on. So physical and mental suffering – this is what we want to overcome.

Worse rebirths are going to be filled with really terrible suffering. If we think of being born as a fish in the ocean that’s swimming around, and then all of a sudden a larger fish comes and just bites us in half, or an insect being eaten by a larger insect, and stuff like that, it’s not a very pleasant prospect. It’s not something that we would like to experience, is it? Or you know how animals are always looking around to make sure that no bigger animal comes and takes its food away, this paranoia and fear? Or think of these chickens in what the Dalai Lama calls “chicken prisons” in which they can’t move and they’re just raised to eventually be eaten in a McDonald’s, half of which is thrown in the garbage (and Buddhism describes much worse situations, but we don’t need to go into that at the moment). So we want to avoid that, we really do, and what we want to attain is happiness. Everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. That’s a basic axiom in Buddhism. And what we’re talking about here is just our ordinary happiness (we’ll speak about that more when we get to the second scope).

What is the true cause of unhappiness and this gross suffering? Negative karma is the primary cause. So it’s the compulsiveness to act in destructive ways brought on by, and accompanied with, disturbing emotions. This is a very important thing to understand, that when we talk about destructive behavior or negative behavior, we are not talking about an ethical system which is based on laws, whether we’re talking about laws which are coming from a divine origin or we’re talking about civil laws made up by a government. In those types of systems of ethics, to be an ethical person basically we have to be an obedient follower, either a citizen or a follower of a religion, and obey the laws. And of course in conjunction with law, then there is innocence and guilt, isn’t there, and judgment. So this is completely not the Buddhist concept of ethics.

Here we are talking about an ethical system that is based on confusion. I need to elaborate on that. When we act in a destructive way, it’s not because we are disobedient, but rather we are just confused about reality. That’s why we act in a destructive way. Like for instance sticking your hand in a fire or on a hot stove, something like that. It’s not because we were disobeying the law which said, “Don’t put your hand in the fire.” You put your hand on the hot stove basically because you didn’t know that it was hot – you know, like one of these electric stoves. You didn’t know. Confusion. So we’re confused. We didn’t know that if we acted in a certain way, it’s going to produce problems.

I said something to you, and I didn’t know that it would hurt your feelings. It wasn’t that I was bad because I said it. I just didn’t realize that it would hurt your feelings, so I was confused. Or we could have purposely said it to hurt you, but that is also being confused about the reality of the other person – that the other person is a human being, just like us; they want to be happy; they don’t want to be unhappy. And if they acted in an unruly manner toward us, that was because they were confused.

So when we act in a destructive manner, this is brought on by, and accompanied by, some disturbing emotion. What is a disturbing emotion? What’s the definition? It’s an emotion that when it arises makes us lose our peace of mind and makes us lose self-control. That’s very interesting. It’s a very good, useful definition. We can usually sense that when we’re feeling nervous and we don’t have peace of mind and we’re acting compulsively, some disturbing emotion is behind it.

So what are our major disturbing emotions? There’s a cluster of attachment, longing desire, and greed. We exaggerate the positive qualities of something, totally ignore or deny any negative qualities, and

  • If we don’t have it, we want it. That’s longing desire.

  • If we have it, we don’t want to let go. That’s attachment.

  • And even if we have it, we’re not satisfied; we want more. That’s greed.

So this a disturbing state of mind, isn’t it? It prevents us from enjoying anything.

And then we have anger. There are many grades of anger.

And simply naivety, naivety about the effect of our behavior on ourselves and on others. Like being a workaholic, pushing yourself so much. We’re naive that it’s going to be harmful to our health, to our family, and so on, so it’s very self-destructive. Or we are always late and don’t keep our appointments with others. This is naive, to think that it’s not going to hurt the other people and they’re not going to feel that. So it’s destructive behavior.

So these are states of mind that cause us to lose peace of mind and self-control. And they accompany that compulsion to act in a destructive way, like working too hard or saying, “Don’t ever leave me. I can’t live without you,” this type of thing. It’s very destructive, isn’t it? So there’s the disturbing emotion behind it and the compulsion to always say that, to always act in that way. They go together. So that causes our problems, the suffering. It’s destructive. We’re unhappy.

And in addition, destructive behavior is accompanied by a few further states of mind which also cause us to act in a compulsive manner, compulsively destructive manner:

  • First, we have no respect for good qualities and those who possess them.

  • We have no self-control to restrain ourselves from acting negatively.

  • We have no moral self-dignity. “I respect myself so much I’m not going to act like that.” Self-respect is a very important thing. If you have self-respect, you’re not going to come crawling after somebody and begging them, “Don’t leave me” and so on. You have a sense of self-dignity. But here you don’t, when you have destructive behavior.

  • And the fourth one is that we don’t care about how our actions reflect on others. For instance if you go on a holiday and you act in a very rowdy way, always getting drunk and being loud and ruining the hotel room and so on, it would give a bad name to German tourists, for example. So you don’t care about how this would reflect on your fellow countrymen.

So these are another cluster of attitudes that accompany this compulsive destructive behavior.

So we need ethical self-discipline to refrain from negative actions. And we get that ethical self-discipline by removing one aspect of confusion – in other words, we understand behavioral cause and effect. In other words, we understand that if we act in these destructive ways, if we let ourselves be controlled by our disturbing emotions, it’s just going to produce a great deal of unhappiness and problems for myself and others.

It’s very important to understand here that basically we’re talking now about the first level of ethical behavior, which is self-control. And self-control is not based on wanting to be obedient and a good citizen or a good follower of your religion, but rather we exercise self-control because we understand that if we act completely out of control, it’s going to produce a lot of problems. This is a very important thing to stress, I think, in our presentation of Buddhism, in our understanding of Buddhism. If our ethics are based on obedience, then we know from daily experience that people rebel against having to be obedient, having to follow the laws, especially if you’re a teenager. Or we think that somehow we can get around the laws. “We can get away with it,” we say in English. We’re not going to be caught. Whereas here ethics is simply based on understanding, so rebellion is not really an issue.

Now of course it’s not so easy to understand the relation between destructive behavior and unhappiness and suffering, so you might not believe that, in which case you would say, “Well, this ethics is ridiculous.” But on one level, when you have some life experience, you see that if you are always acting in negative ways, you’re not a terribly happy person. Other people don’t like you, do they? They’re afraid of you. They’re afraid to meet you because you might get angry with them: “I’m afraid to speak with you because you may explode.” So from our experience we can understand that just on a very basic, superficial level, acting negatively and destructively brings unhappiness.

That’s an interesting point because of course we could act in a destructive way and feel very happy about it. Like for instance there’s this mosquito buzzing around your face when you’re trying to sleep, and you smack it and kill it, and you feel, “Yeah, I got it!” and you’re really happy. But if you think about it, you are always in this sort of paranoid state that there’s another mosquito that’s going to come, because your way of dealing with something that annoys you is to kill it. Right? So you’re not looking for a peaceful solution. A peaceful solution if you’re in a place with a lot of mosquitoes is a mosquito net, or put some screening on the windows.

So this definition of the disturbing emotion that goes with the destructive behavior is very helpful in this context. The definition of destructive emotions that accompany destructive behavior – disturbing emotions – is exactly the meaning of the word disturbing. We lose peace of mind, and we lose self-control. That is not a happy state of mind, is it?

“I’m paranoid and afraid that another mosquito is going to come and upset my sleep.” You don’t have peace of mind, and you don’t have the self-control to just be able to relax and go to sleep, because you’re afraid. And the way that we’re acting is compulsive, isn’t it, neurotically compulsive, as if you’re about to jump up from bed, put on one of these pith helmets that the British used to wear when they went on safari in Africa, and now you’re on safari, hunting in the room to see if there’s another mosquito.

So that’s the first scope, working to overcome worse rebirths by exercising ethical self-control so that when we feel like acting in a negative way, we don’t do it. Okay? So let’s spend a few moments digesting that, thinking about that from our own experience.

This, by the way, is a type of meditation that is emphasized in – emphasized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama – emphasized in the Tibetan teachings as being extremely helpful. And this is sometimes translated as analytical meditation, but I find that the word analytical perhaps is a little bit misleading, a little bit too technical. So I use another technical term instead: discerning meditation. Discern means to try to see this in your life. In other words, we try to see in our lives a certain point in the teachings, to try to examine our lives and see, “Ah, yes. I see that when I acted in this destructive way, it was very compulsive, and there was a lot of attachment or a lot of anger behind it. And what was the result? I was really quite miserable.” You try to confirm that by seeing that in your own experience. So by discerning this, by seeing it, we become more and more convinced that this is really true. And it’s only on the basis of that belief that this is a fact of life, this conviction that this is a fact of life, that we will actually start to change our behavior. This is a very important form of meditation because the word meditation in the original languages means “to build up a beneficial habit.” This is the connotation of the Tibetan term (sgom), “build up a beneficial habit.” And the Sanskrit term (bhavana) implies “to make something actually happen” – in other words, to make an actual transformation in ourselves.

Okay, we’ll take a five-minute break.