In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to write about how we can know that a spiritual teacher is an authentic. But since my reflections in the last few days have been on karma I decided to write about that instead. A few months ago I already did a short series of posts on that topic, You might find it helpful to read these, because they cover some of the basic explanation that I will not repeat here. Start with this post and then use the link on the top right of the post to go to the next two.
Karma fits very nicely into my recent series of reflections of what Buddhism is about. It is a key principle in the Buddhist teachings. Essentially, karma is about the principle of cause and effect; that everything in this world is interdependent. Every actions has an effect on us and the world around us and contributes to our and others future reality.
Karma is often misunderstood as predestination but actually the teachings on karma are telling us that through our actions we create our world. It can be difficult to understand that karma is not moralistic and not a punishment. But actually it is simply about cause and effect. It means that we are powerful. We create our reality with our actions. Whatever we do leaves very subtle imprints in the ground of our mind and creates seeds that will ripen in the future. Thus, our past actions have created our present reality and right now we are creating our future with our present actions.
In my practice there is a beautiful one line essentialization and reminder of the message of karma:
“Unalterable are the laws of karma, cause and effect cannot be escaped.”
Karma is telling us that we better pay attention to what we do, speak and think. It says that positive actions bring happiness and negative actions will bring us suffering.
The main reason why I have been reflecting on karma recently is because I want to bring it more into my day to day awareness. One of the things I am trying to understand better is what exactly positive and negative actions are.
There are ten actions that are said to be negative but the main factor that determines whether an action is positive or negative is the intention with which it is carried out. Today, instead of going into detail about the ten negative actions I want to reflect more on the underlying principles.
What makes an action negative? It is said that an action becomes negative if it is done with attachment and aversion. Attachment for example refers to a self-centered attitude of wanting. We then often act without regard or awareness of others for our own self-gratification, often at the expense of others. Aversion is usually triggered by negative feelings towards others and circumstances. Something bothers us and all we want to do is to remove this sore spot in our world without much regard for others.
The underlying attitude behind negative actions is a self-centered attitude with which comes an often unconscious disregard of the needs of others. The basis of this self-centeredness is the idea of an independently existing self. This idea gives rise to a mindset of “I” versus “other” or “me” against “the world”. This then leads to the idea that “I” am more important than others. We operate on the basis that what “I need” is more important than what others need. We don’t give a lot of thought to whether doing or getting what we want effects others.
It might seem that we need such an attitude to take ourselves in this world. But actually the teachings are not saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. The main point is the attitude we have when we take care of ourselves. Granted if we have more awareness and care for others our own needs will probably be less than they are now, but these choices will be made with wisdom, love, compassion and joy. Self-centeredness limits our mind and prevents us from seeing how things are. It also closes our heart and prevents us from feeling love and compassion. All this is the cause of suffering.
Being free of aversion also doesn’t mean we become a doormat. For example, if we engage in a conflict with hatred we create negative karma. But if the same action is done with the intention to defend ourselves or to stop injustice and done without malice and hatred in our heart then it is not negative.
The underlying attitude behind positive actions can be said to see ourselves as part of a bigger world and live with awareness of that connectedness and oneness with the world. It is an attitude of respect and care for the world and all beings within it. The key is the motivation behind our action, whether it is self-centered or is infused with a good heart and awareness of others and our environment.
One the burning questions often in my mind is: How can I bring this into my life? Reflecting on this made me realize that even the ordinary things we do all day can become positive actions if our being is infused with a deeper awareness that sees the need of others.
Even washing the dishes can be a positive action that will plant seeds for future happiness and well being. We can see the dishes need to be done and do them with joy, rather than frustration about the endless stream of housework. Or we do them because we see our wife is tired. Or we use them as an opportunity to practice, imagining that cleaning the plates we clean the obscurations of all beings. The possibilities are endless! We can infuse whatever we do with good heart and awareness of others and use it as an opportunity to purify our mind and heart and to develop love, compassion and and wisdom.
We are powerful. We can take charge of our minds and our lives and use our present life to create a positive future reality. How? By being mindful of what we do and aware of how our minds are. By avoiding actions that create causes for future suffering and engaging in actions that sowing positive seeds. If we are in fully harmony of our true being then what we do will be naturally virtuous. As long as we don’t live with a true understanding of reality, as long as we engage in them with the sense of a separate “I”, “others” and an “external outer world” these actions leave imprints in our subtle consciousness. When we have awakened to that realization it is said that all our actions will effortlessly and naturally benefit others.
Ultimately, when our being has fully transcended the realm of dualistic existence then we will cease to be bound by karma, but until that time it is important to pay attention to karma. The great master Padmasambhava said:
“Though my View is as spacious as the sky, my actions and respect for cause and effect are as fine as grains of flour”