My last post was on bringing awareness of karma into our life. Karma explains what positive and negative actions are and helps us to live and act accordingly. Rigpa has a wonderful free daily email with inspiring quotes from Buddhist teachings (sign up here) and in the last couple of weeks two of them were on karma. The first one from November 21 explained karma:
“Karma means that whatever we do, with our bodies, speech, or minds, will have a corresponding result. Each action, even the smallest, is pregnant with its consequences. It is said by the masters that even a little poison can cause death, and even a tiny seed can become a huge tree. And as Buddha said: “Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain.
Similarly he said: ‘Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel.’
Karma does not decay like external things, or ever become inoperative. It cannot be destroyed ‘by time, fire, or water.’ Its power will never disappear, until it is ripened.”
In the Judeo-Christian culture I was brought up in negative actions are thought of in a very moralistic way. I find it very helpful that in Buddhism the concept of Karma is not moralistic. It is simply telling us that there is a natural law of cause and effect. Every action has an effect. In essence it means that positive actions bring positive results (happiness) and negative actions bring negative results (suffering).
I often still fall into the trap of thinking of negative actions in a moralistic way and as sins. This kind of thinking is quite ingrained in our culture and language. For example we often speak of the act of doing something negative as “committing a negative action”. It seems to me that the word “committing” is already moralistically charged because it is usually used in the context of “committing” a sin or a crime. For me it immediately invokes the idea that I need to be punished or that my action made me a bad person.
The wheel of life
In Buddhism it is not seen like that. The Dalai Lama often says that when we do something negative the action is not good but it doesn’t mean that it makes us fundamentally a bad person. When we commit a negative action we do not commit a sin and are a doomed bad person but we have done something that creates harm and is not in accord with the natural law.
I don’t know if the word sin originally really had such a moralistic meaning. I recently read that idea of original sin could be compared to a fundamental ignorance that prevents us from being able to see how things are. Sin was then explained as “missing the mark”, of not being in or acting in accord with how things are. That is very similar to how karma is explained in Buddhism.
In Buddhism an action is called negative when we are not acting in accord with the natural “law”. “Law” is another charged word so maybe it would be better to say “being in accord with the natural order” or “being in harmony with how things are”. It means we are doing something that is not good for us and for others.
Even vows in Buddhism are not really moralistic. For example, when we take vows not to lie, in Buddhism we say “I commit to training in refraining from lying”. There is an understanding we are not perfect and that we need to practice and train in avoiding these actions.
In my last post I focused on the underlying principle and how motivation determines whether an action is positive or negative. What make an action positive or negative is the motivation and intention behind it. A positive action is considered to be something that is done without attachment and aversion in the mind. The main message of the teachings on karma is therefore to always have a pure mind and good intention.
Here is another quote on karma from the December 3 Rigpa Glimpse of the Day email that also highlights this:
“Every single negative thing we have ever thought or done has ultimately arisen from our grasping at a false self, and our cherishing of that false self, making it the dearest and most important element in our lives. All those negative thoughts, emotions, desires, and actions that are the cause of our negative karma are engendered by self-grasping and self-cherishing. They are the dark, powerful magnet that attracts to us, life after life, every obstacle, every misfortune, every anguish, every disaster, and so they are the root cause of all the sufferings of samsara.”
The teachings on karma do not only only explain the fundamental principles of cause and effect but they also highlight ten action which are considered negative. Three of these ten are physical acts: taking life, taking what is not given, and sexual misconduct; four are verbal acts: lying, sowing discord, harsh words, and worthless chatter; and three are mental acts: covetousness, wishing harm on others, and wrong views.
In Buddhism these ten actions are not commandments like in Christianity, but guidelines. The ten actions are considered to be negative but ultimately what determines whether they are negative depends on the intention behind them. That means that karma is not black and and white. It also means that it is not so easy to determine if an action is positive. Only someone who has fully awakened from ignorance and can see all the factors involved can truly see it.
Thus the teachings on karma are also telling us that we need to be very careful in judging the actions of others. Especially in the case of realized spiritual practitioners, even if on first sight their actions might look negative their motivation might be very pure and well intended.
Since motivation determines whether an action is good or bad, the physical and verbal acts can actually not be considered definitively negative. If the intention behind them is good they can be positive. There are examples in the scriptures of seemingly negative actions that were actually positive. In the “King of Samadhi: Commentaries on the Samadhi Raja Sutra and the Song of of Lodrö Thaye”, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche said:
“…the question arises: ‘Should any action that appears to be negative be avoided in all cases?’ The answer is no. There are some circumstances in which a negative action of body, when carried out intelligently, for the sake of others and without any selfishness whatsoever directly benefits other beings.
A story from a past life of the Buddha illustrates this. It is the story about a shipload of five hundred merchants on a ship traveling from India to the islands off the coast laden with riches. Among the travelers was a murderer named ‘Spear-wielding Criminal’ who intended to kill everyone aboard the ship to keep the riches. The bodhisattva “Prince Fortitude,” who was the ship captain, knew about this intention and thought, ‘If I kill him first, I can save him from the negative karma, from killing five hundred people.’ So the bodhisattva killed the criminal. Instead of creating negative karma from this act, he accumulated a vast amount of merit. So this story illustrates that, by using discriminating knowledge and pure motivation, a negative action can become virtuous. If our motivation is utterly free from disturbing emotions, the action can be carried out if it relieves the suffering of others or benefits a vast number of beings.”
The centre of the Wheel of Life, featuring a pig, snake and bird representing the three poisons ignorance, anger and desire
However the negative actions of the mind can never be positive. If your mind is full of confusion, malice and wanting then whatever you do will be negative, even if it might look good from the outside. This is also an important point. One’s actions might look very good from the outside but if the intention is selfish or self-serving or one’s mind is full of anger and malice then even the most noble looking actions are actually negative.
The heart of Buddhist ethics is very practical and not moralistic. The ten negative actions are not declared as sins but they are given as guidelines that will help us avoid accumulating negative karma. The teachings explain that if we engage in certain actions we run the risk of harming others and creating negative karma. When the seeds that we have created will ripen then we will experience suffering. That’s why ultimately harming others is not good for ourselves. When we harm others we are ultimately harming ourselves.
I have heard these warnings to abstain from the negative actions described as light beacons on a shore that tell a seafarer to avoid dangerous currents and cliffs. If you know the shore very well you can sometimes overstep these boundaries without harm. But because there is a great danger and likelihood that you will be doing something negative, it is advised to abstain from them.
Another way of looking at these negative actions is relating them to the general principle of motivation and intention that karma is based on. When we are self-centered and see our own well-being and happiness as more important than that of others, what do we do? We take what doesn’t belong to us. We starts fights with others. We attack them physically and might even kill them. We take advantage of others for our own pleasure. We lie to achieve our goals. When someone displeases us we respond with abusive language. We talk badly about others behind their backs and sow discord to further our own agendas. We say all sort of thoughtless negative things in idle gossip. We covet things that others have that we don’t. We harbor anger and malice towards others. We develop views, concepts and attitudes that are not reflecting how things are and just create confusion and suffering.
The ten negative actions seem to be simple a list of the things that we do when our heart and mind are not pure and we are afflicted by the three poisons of anger, attachment and ignorance. When we find ourselves doing something on the list then maybe a good first step would be look at our mind and heart. And check our intention and motivation. Because that is the root out of which these actions arise.
The Great Tibetan Saint and Yogi Milarepa
It is said in the teachings that there is one positive side to negative actions: They can be purified! Karma is that we are very powerful. In the same way that we can create negative karma we can create positive karma and purify past negative actions. Even the most harmful actions can be purified. For example the story of the life and liberation of Milarepa is a great example of this. How to do that in detail is another story, … maybe a topic I could pick up at some point in the future.