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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Overcoming the Compulsiveness of Karma with Ethical Self-Discipline

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, September 2012

Session Four: Overcoming Karma

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:16 hours)

Overcoming Karma with the Three Levels of Spiritual Aim

We have seen that karma and discipline are involved with each of these three graduated spiritual aims, and we have also seen the way that karma works, the way that it functions, how it perpetuates various sufferings.

So what destructive behavior brings about is experiencing being unhappy, and we experience nasty things happening to us similar to what we did to others, and we experience feeling like repeating our destructive behavior. And from our constructive behavior – but still we’re talking about compulsive behavior – we experience this ordinary happiness that never lasts and never satisfies, and we experience nice things occurring to us similar to what we did, but again they don’t last. But from both of them, whether constructive or destructive actions, we experience uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We’re reborn over and over and over again because compulsively when we die we grasp on for another body; we want to continue existing. Okay?

So to fulfill the first aim, to stop the suffering of suffering or unhappiness, we need the ethical self-discipline of refraining from destructive behavior. Right? When we feel like acting destructively, not to do it. We need that discipline. To do this we have to stay mindful – now we have mindfulness – mindful of the unhappiness and suffering that would follow if we acted out that feeling, what we want to do (I want to yell at you).

Mindfulness, that’s a difficult term. Something verwärtigung? I forget the German word. What it is is the mental glue. It is the same word as remembering. It is remembering. So always remembering – that’s what we mean by mindfulness. What is the German word? Vergegenwärtigung. I have no idea what that means in German, by the way.

Participant: It means calling something back after it has slipped.

Alex: Yes, exactly. That’s what it is. It’s the glue that holds us so that we’re always remembering. And if you lose it, you have to remember again. I forget that this is going to cause me a problem, so I want to hold on to that and remember it. That’s mindfulness.

So we need concentration in order to stay with it, to hold on. And for this we need a caring attitude. We care about the effect of our behavior on ourselves and on others, so we take our lives seriously. We care about how we act, and so we’re careful.

Then we also need to pay attention to what I feel like doing. This is Wachsamkeit. And we have to watch out for feeling the compulsion to act or speak and think in a destructive way.

And then we need alertness. Alertness is that when we detect that we feel like acting compulsively in a destructive way – when I detect that, when I notice that, that’s what alertness does. It’s going to have its disadvantages. It’s going to bring problems. So we detect that we feel like acting destructively, and then the alertness rings the alarm: ding, ding, ding! So then, because of the alarm, we notice it. So the attention helps us to bring that mindfulness back and refrain.

These are the pieces that are involved. It’s very important to differentiate clearly. Right?

Basically there’s the mental glue, mindfulness, which stays there with concentration. And we’re paying attention to what we feel like doing because we care about what we will experience. And if we notice that we’re feeling like acting destructively and we’ve lost that mindfulness, then that alertness which is keeping watch detects it. The alertness – Wachsamkeit – that will then activate the restraints so we don’t act it out, and then we set that mindfulness again. Do you follow that?

The main thing that we need with this type of discipline – we need it in concentration meditation as well – is the mindfulness. Hold on, right? Mental glue. Hold on to the object, hold on to the state of mind that you want to develop, hold on to remembering that if I act destructively it’s going to cause me unhappiness. So that glue. Very important. Then everything else follows from that. If you’re setting the glue, then you’re paying attention, and you would be alert when that glue loosens. And if you care about what you’re going to experience, you’ll set it again, remember it again. And the more that we practice this, the more easily we will remember that if I deal in a destructive way it’s just going to bring more unhappiness.

Now, to fulfill the second aim, liberation from the suffering of change (that’s our ordinary happiness) and all-pervasive suffering (that’s uncontrollably recurring rebirth), we have to stop activating the karmic potentials and tendencies (you activate them so that they would give a result). So how do we activate them? What activates them? And what activates them is how we respond to feeling happy or unhappy.

First we have what’s called craving. It’s literally the word thirst (sred-pa, Skt. trshna). If we’re feeling unhappy, we crave – like a thirsty person – to be parted from that unhappy feeling. And if we’re feeling this ordinary happiness, which of course never lasts, then like a thirsty person we want to not be parted from it. It’s like when you’re really, really thirsty and you have a little sip of water, then you crave not to be deprived of the water. You know, you’re only allowed a little sip, and you don’t want somebody to take the glass away, because you’re really thirsty. So that starts the activation process. Right? Feeling unhappy – “Oh, I’ve got to get rid of this” – you freak out. Or I’m feeling happy and “Oh, I want this to last. I don’t want it to stop.”

Then the second step is that we grasp for a solid “me,” the “me” who needs to be free from the suffering and not parted from the happiness. “Me, I have to be free from suffering. Me, I have to never be parted from happiness. Me, me, me,” as if there’s some separate independent “me” that has to be happy regardless of what’s going on. That’s what activates karmic tendencies and potentials, this combination (I’m simplifying it, by the way). So we’re doing that all the time. We don’t want to stay unhappy, and we don’t want our happiness to end – all the time. It doesn’t have to be conscious. It could be an unconscious process that’s going on.

So in order to stop that, we have to realize what’s called voidness, which is that the projection of “me” existing as some independent, separate thing that has to always be happy and never unhappy and so on – that doesn’t correspond to reality. Right? Voidness means “No such thing. It doesn’t correspond to reality.” So if we can understand that and stay focused with that, then “Now I’m experiencing happiness. Now I’m experiencing unhappiness. So what? So things go up and down, no problem.” We’re not freaking out about the whole thing. And “Me, I have to be happy. And this thing that I’m experiencing is so terrible” – we make a big deal out of it – this is what you have to stop because that activates these karmic tendencies and potentials.

I’m unhappy, and I don’t like what you’re doing. And so if I grasp at “me, me, me” – I don’t like it, I don’t want you to continue, I don’t want to stay unhappy with what’s going on – then that activates the tendencies and potentials so that I feel like yelling, being hostile toward you, and then compulsively I act out that wish by yelling at you. Do you follow that? It’s very interesting.

So if you can realize that, then you can just relax: “Happy, unhappy? Okay. No big deal.” We’re not activating karma. I mean, obviously the understanding has to be quite deep to be able to get to this level – I’m simplifying it – but this is just to give you the general idea.

And as I explained, a cause can only be a cause in relation to there being a result. If there can’t be a result, then there is no cause, so you can’t say that there is a potential anymore. Okay? So that’s how you get rid of it. And also with that understanding of voidness – no solid “me” and so on – you also get rid of the disturbing emotions that would accompany destructive behavior or compulsive behavior in general. So at the same time as starting to slow down the process of activating old karmic aftermath, we stop more compulsiveness arising. In other words, our understanding of no solid “me,” to put it simply, won’t activate old karmic tendencies and potentials; and the ones that still ripen (because it will take a long time to get rid of them) – it will weaken the anger and so on so that when that feeling to yell arises, we won’t act it out. So it will help us to lessen creating more karma.

So we need the ethical self-discipline to stay mindful of voidness – to put it very simply, to stay mindful that “Happy, unhappy? So what?” There’s no “me” that “Oh, I have to be happy all the time. I can’t be unhappy.” Okay?

It’s very interesting if you think in terms of what happens now. “I have to be entertained all the time,” this type of thing. “I have to have music all the time. I have to have the television on all the time. Otherwise I’m going to be unhappy.” This is activating old karma. They’re afraid to be quiet; they’re freaked out: “Oh, I’ll be unhappy if I’m not listening to music.” This is very interesting. You know, these people who have their iPods going on in their ears all the time.

So we need to stay mindful of voidness – again with attentiveness, alertness, caring attitude (I care about what I’m going to experience).

Then to fulfill the third aim – just very briefly – to know fully the karma of others, we need the force of bodhichitta behind our understanding of voidness. Bodhichitta is that “I am moved by deep, deep love and compassion for everybody, and I take responsibility that I really am going to help them, or try to help them,” and then we focus on our own individual enlightenment – my own individual enlightenment, not your individual enlightenment, not Buddha’s individual enlightenment, but my own – which hasn’t happened yet but which can happen on the basis of all my what we call Buddha-nature potentials, the qualities of the mind and so on, the purity of the mind, etc., all the good qualities, so all our energies. “I’ve got to overcome all these projections of putting things in boxes and so on because it’s preventing me from helping others. And I have to reach this state in order to be able to best help everybody.” And that puts much more energy behind our understanding of voidness, our understanding of reality, the interconnectedness of everything, so it breaks through the habits that cause our mind to make things appear in boxes. It gives much more energy behind it.

That’s easy to understand by a simple example. If I come home and I’m tired and I live by myself, I can just simply “Oh, forget about making something for dinner” and just relax and go to sleep. But if we have children, it doesn’t matter how tired we are; we have that energy to make a meal for them and take care of them. So our concern for others, wanting to take care of them, to help them, and so on, gives us much more energy.

So this is what’s involved with this third aim. We need the discipline to stop being selfish, just thinking of ourselves, to think of others, and to aim for reaching the most highly developed state that’s possible, that of being a Buddha.


This is a brief presentation of how we overcome negative karma, then all karma, then how we reach the state where we can understand others’ karma and help them to overcome it. And obviously discipline is involved with all of them – but it’s not just discipline, because there are all these other factors that go with it: the mindfulness, attention, caring, and so on.

And this understanding of voidness is important really throughout. Otherwise you have a very dualistic way of approaching this – one “me” who’s the policeman and another “me” who’s the naughty one who has to be disciplined. If you approach this whole topic of developing ethical discipline in that dualistic way, it’s going to be very, very problematic. The point is to just do it, right, without “Oh, I’ve got to do this” and “me, me, me” and “Oh, terrible me. I’m so bad.” Forget about all of that; just do it. Okay?

So thank you very much. Again we’ll have a dedication. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody to overcome all aspects of karma and all limitations.