Why karma is not moralistic

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.

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9 Responses to Why karma is not moralistic

  1. varuni chaudhary says:

    Dear Bernie,
    the way you described the cultural differences and also the comparison between Christianity and Buddhism was interesting, especially since we easterner’s look at it from the other side of the yardstick.
    v

  2. Hi Bernie,
    Glowena here. But for you I may never have met Rinpoche back there at Clear Lake in 2000 and therefore over the past 11 years I have often thought of how incredible karmic links can be … me here in the hot Caribbean … you somewhere in America, Rinpoche all the way from Tibet in touch with Guru Rinpoche all the way back in the 8th century and the lineage of masters since then coming together in a small town called Clear Lake. Who knew!!

    I glimpsed you a few times at LL and often wondered what you have been doing since the end of the 3 year retreat. Have you re-integrated into society or been assigned by Rinpoche yet?

    Since I was not raised to be a scholar but a christian parson’s daughter and practical artistic doer I am lucky to have made a karmic connection with our Rinpoche whose ability to teach at so many levels is most incredible. For me coming from a very special culture blend that increasingly dispenses with preliminaries and pre-ambles of all kinds and breaks everything down to bare essentials with immediate effect plus having just entered my 70th year of this life I consider myself extremely fortunate to have sat with Rinpoche through some 17 Retreats plus all the HR transmiss ions over the years to extract a thorough but very simple distilla tion of the Dharma … especially of karma which I hope does not miss the mark for whomever I may decide to share it with. Since you share this karmic connection perhaps you could comment on that for me.

    Having an understanding of the various stages of emptiness which for me is the environment necessary for practice, realisation and attainment, I find that if I concentrate on integrating the practice of awareness of the awareness (emptiness) it provides a pause, an opportunity, an early warning moment for the spiritual forces inherent in that awareness realm to either avoid succumbing to the stimuli coming from the negative memories/reference points to ACT on that (negative) aspect of the stimuli or, preferrably, having access to the essence of the negativity buried within the stimuli … can choose a positive aspect of that essence to focus the action on, or harder still can invoke the “look directly into the nature of the stimuli” method until it fades thereby further weakening the negative stimuli at source (which happens every time we fail to act on it) eventually dissolving it all together. By so doing I think that I avoid new karma, weaken or dissolve the old, and create new merit.

    Ofcourse one looks forward to the day when realisation of the higher levels of emptiness have stablized sufficiently to yield the siddhis that will enable us to benefit beings by ameliorating the effects of the consequences of karma on those who may not have accumulated sufficient merit for themselves.

    For one who is not of a scholarly inclination and need practical, not complicated methods to successfully integrate the essentials of Dharma in a dynamic and violent society like mine where every thing is played out, in your face, constantly and with vigor and rigor, this type of essential method seems beneficial.

    It is almost impossible not to be constantly conscious of karma here in Jamaica. It springs into your face the moment you open the newspaper or turn on a radio or tv. And our present Prime Minister and his team who have adopted the most aggressive style we have ever experienced have become the object of extremely vivid karmic activity. It has gotten so bad that there is almost instantaneous ripening. Last week he stood in parliament and spent an hour skillfully preparing and delivering what was such a devastating coup de grace to the Opposition Leader that a radio commentator referred to his performance as “six-love in a domino game” meaning that he had distroyed his opponent. The next morning … not 15 hours later he, his first lady and Constituency Manager, Mayor of Kingston and Deputy Leader of his political party were the subject of the most humiliating wikileak revelation published not only locally but around the world … it made the BBC world news. Even people who know little or nothing about karma were referring to his shame as “karmic”.

    And so there is so much to work with here … for not rejoicing at his misfortune was indeed a challenge for this local practitioner.

    Love & Blessings,
    Sanctuaria.ning.com

  3. Hi Glowena, nice to hear from. I am very happy that the Dharma is helping you so much in your life. Sandra and I live in Hawaii now and doing well. The blessings of our three year retreat keep blossoming. Lots of Love Bernie

  4. Elisabeth Timys says:

    Reading your comments on the relationship between karma and morality, there were still some points that seemed unclear to me, maybe especially because I am a person who is not very acquainted with the Buddhist concepts (only in some measure) and because I am used with another understanding of the morality concept, in general, and in Christianity in particular.

    As I understood from your comments, if karma is related with the way things are and a negative action is an action not respecting this natural order, my question is how it is suppose to know a person what is natural and what is not? In my view, natural is all there is, because it is, being an effect of a cause. In other words, the ontological reality of a phenomenon should not be dependent on a value judgment. And if only natural order exists, how unnatural actions are supposed to originate? For me, stating that some thing is natural does not explain anything. Why that thing is considered natural? Who establishes that a phenomenon is natural and another one is unnatural? Finally, the principle separating what is supposed to be natural and what is not should be a kind of law too.

    In my view, taking into consideration the usual notion of law in the scientific domain, as a regular relationship between some phenomena or quantities or forces, karma is still a law. It is like when knowing that if we fall from the 25th floor of a building we are most likely to die if nothing in our way stops our fall on the pavement. But like in physics, the effect of any law can be annihilated by the effect of another law. So, karma even if it too has laws that can annihilate each other, as a general law, integrating all these laws, is still a law.

    And if karma is a law, we arrive at the paradox that liberating ourselves means to obey a law, the karma law. But karma law is acting upon us anyway, since it is natural, whether we want it or not. Therefore, there has to be something else besides karma, related with our will to consciously accept or not the karma law, to take advantage of its positive side. But then, that other something, that free will accepting the karma or not ignoring it in what relationship is with karma? Is it under its power or not?

    By the way, morality, in my view, is not primarily linked with idea of punishment, as it seems to be in your comments, but with the idea of moral law, which is not necessarily linked with a particular religion, but with the philosophical idea of separating thoughts and actions as good or bad (to be followed or avoid) from the perspective of the relationships between sentient beings. Besides, there is a descriptive notion of morality (dependent on a subjective view or on some particular culture or value system), and a normative notion of morality (as an absolute, objective, universal set of values, supposedly independent of our thought). It is unclear to me if karma is related with the first meaning of morality or with the second one in your comments.

    You said that you like the idea of karma because it means that not the person is punished or that a bad action does not mean a bad person. But, if the notion of person in Buddhism is an illusory concept, a fruit of ignorance, it means that the idea of person itself is bad in Buddhism, considering you as a separate person means ignorance and the root of any bad action. What difference does it make from a Buddhist perspective if other judge you as a bad person or not, if you are not at all a person different than the others? It is almost like you would appreciate the karma idea because of a defensive reason, to protect your image as a good person, out of pride, to protect your self-esteem. Furthermore, if there are no persons, then there is no point in judging an action from the point of view of benefit brought to other persons.

    But if the person exists, even from a relative perspective, as something maintained during the successive rebirths, then the effect of a negative action is supported by that person as some kind of punishment, even if it administered in an impersonal way or even if it is given in order to learn. In fact, in our society, punishments are administered in general in the same way (by the state, as an abstract entity, or in order to learn something from being punished).

    How the goal of obtaining the happiness of a person exists, if the person does not exist? And how can we pursue our happiness not ignoring other happiness (for example, participating in a retreat means frustrating the needs and wishes of the loved ones, not giving them the happiness they would like to have). Who are we to judge that the way we view happiness is more valid than the way others, the loved ones, see happiness, justifying the sacrifice of their happiness for our notion of happiness?

    And, if the world we perceive is depending on our mind, what is the point of stating an objective, natural karma, independent of our thought? Is its source outside of our mind or not? Is it the law of our mind? Could a mind be an impersonal mind, separated by its very essence related with the notion of the free will of a person?

    You said that the ten commandments should be seen as mere a kind of guidance, not a clear cut rule, that what is important is not the actions, but the intentions behind them. But my view is that, from the perspective of an unrealized being, the difference is irrelevant. As long as we are not able to be aware of our true intentions behind an action, the safest way is to consider those commandments as commandments. Who are we to judge our true intentions? And is there another person able to judge our true intentions, when even the judgment of a person is undermined by a nonconceptual thought? It seems that only the karma is the one to judge, but not like a human person, but mere like a passive, cold computer, taking in consideration a constellation of rules (very complex, but still rules, unknown to us in their details).

    You mentioned that in the Judeo-Christian culture in which you were educated negative actions are viewed from a moralistic point of view, understood by you as meaning to label something a sin or not (and a sin, I suppose it is conceptualized in your opinion as something implying a punishment, even if you admit that originally it might have another meaning) and that that is one of your reasons to reject that culture. As it seems to me, you maybe rejected that culture based not on what you are sure it is the truth, but because it made you to feel bad about yourself. Seemed to me that it is more like a reason like that: the truth should make me feel good about myself, I am not feeling good about myself, therefore that could not be the truth. So, the truth is judged based on a subjective feeling, from a self-centered point of view. But spiritual realization means to be detached from a self-centered point of view. So, what difference does it make if karma makes us feel bad or good about ourselves? Furthermore, karma may make one to feel bad or good about oneself depending on his view and understanding of the karma. It could be seen bothy as a damnation or a way to use it to escape from its power, provided by the karma itself, in a paradoxical manner.

    I think that one is inclined to reject the idea of the judgments of our deeds as good or bad by another person, a God, based on the idea that a person has free will, therefore its judgment or even its punishments could be arbitrary from our limited perspective, or because we are proud (we are more willing to be judge by a computer-like phenomena, then by a person). But, in any Christian scriptures, God’s judgments are not considered to be arbitrary, and are not to be thought like that, but are given by a wiser person then we are. Then, what difference does it make if the consequences of our actions are brought about by a natural and impersonal law as it is conceived to be karma, or by a person in accordance with its wise mind? It seems to me that the difference is that in the case of God, there is also the possibility of a warm judgment, out of love, pity, mercy and compassion, as from a person to person, from a free will to a free will capable of understanding our weaknesses, and willing to help us surpass them in the way our parents wanted to when they punished us. But indeed, for our limited power of mind, it is hard to understand how righteousness for which we all strive for (assured by a karma law) and love could be united in the same judgment, as in the parable of the lost son from the New Testament. God not only judges, but also forgives. In fact, it is said in the New Testament and by the Saint Fathers that not God is judging us, but we are judged by our own consciousness, by the mere incompatibility between our being devoid of love and the love of God, which impede our union with Him, burning us with our own unaccomplishable desires.

    In fact, only in the rigid Judaism the sin is viewed only as an act, irrespective of the thoughts leading to it. But in almost all forms of authentic Christianity, based on the Gospels, the thought is viewed as more important than the act in judging what is sin or not, being one of the main things that differentiate Christianity from legalist Judaism. From a Christian point a view, to sin means to break the relationship with God, not to take into consideration His will and cutting in this way your source of life. In fact, it means to adopt a self-centered way of being, thinking that one is able to decide by himself for himself. From a Christian point of view, the only way a person can get rid of its self-centeredness is by centering its thought on God, out of love for Him. Thinking that one is able to reach true happiness and save himself from death only by himself or with the help of other people, without the help of God is considered to be not only impossible, but a kind of self-centeredness, a sign of the original sin of pride or vanity.

    So, it seems to me that the way toward freedom means paradoxically, either way, a kind of accepted obedience: toward an impersonal, cold law, or toward the loving will of God.

  5. Hi Elisabeth,

    thanks so much for your comment. I am impressed how thoroughly you thought about this topic and brought in so many different perspectives.

    Terms like natural can be used in different ways. In Buddhism natural refers to understanding and be in complete harmony with how things are. In my tradition this is very thoroughly explained, shown and discovered through study and practice . We have wisdom inside us that can understand this truth and the path is to uncover this wisdom. Buddha told his disciples to test the truth of the teachings step by step as we progress in our study and practice. So it it is really not just ideas or dogmas but something we develop personal confidence and conviction in over time.

    You asked so many questions in your comment that I am not able to go into every one of them. I will essentialize the essence of the Buddhist teachings as I understand it, maybe this will help you to find a starting place for your explorations.

    The main message of the Buddhist teachings is to refrain from harm, to cultivate virtue and to train the mind. it is really about becoming a good human being. A Buddha is someone who has fully developed his or her potential for wisdom and compassion.

    The main message of karma is that positive actions bring positive results and negative actions sow seeds for negative results (or suffering). What determines whether an action is positive is the intention behind it. What makes our intention negative are negative emotions.

    By the way this is not so relevant for us right now but just for completeness sake: When are completely enlightened we go beyond the domain where karma is created but until then we subject to it. When we are enlightened we are completely free of negative emotions and will no longer cause harm to others.

    If you are interested in exploring the Buddhist teachings more more deeply I would suggest to do it step by step for example by taking a course. Rigpa, the network of meditation centers under the direction of my teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, offers courses in many places of the world (See: http://www.rigpa.org) and also online courses (see: http://www.rigpaonlinecourses.org/). Or you could start by reading books like The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche or The Joy of Living and Joyful Wisdom by Mingyur Rinpoche

    Good luck with your explorations

    All my best

    Bernie

  6. Elisabeth Timys says:

    Thank you very much for your trouble answering me. Because from your answer and your posts seemed to me that you do not mind to reflect on the problems, and that this is even a duty for a practicing Buddhist, I dare to ask you some more questions, even though you will not have the time to answer to me in detail.

    In fact, I did read some time ago “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche and I watch some video lectures of Mingyur Rinpoche, and I read a lot of Buddhist literature on internet (from Pali Canon, for example) or other books on Tibetan Buddhism, and for me the things are not still so clear as you suggest they should be if I would read them, for example in what respects karma notion. That is why I asked you those questions in my first post, trying the see how the personal experience of someone who had the chance to practice in a three year retreat could add to them on the practice aspect of the Buddhism. Since you said that we are suppose to verify the teachings received from the Buddhist teachers, for me it would be helpful to understand what it means exactly to verify (by what means?) concepts like karma or rebirth, for example, i. e. those concepts that contradict the most the Christian spiritual path in its true meaning (not a Gnostic one, for which after intensive lectures I do not find reason to accept that it was a genuine one). I could not find a reason in my Buddhist lectures for which the idea of karma is not a dogma. Even the fact that every one has a potential of wisdom and compassion is a dogma, similar with the humanist dogma in the western philosophy, which is scientifically or objectively impossible to prove.

    How is Buddhism different than mere humanist philosophies or stoic philosophies (they also meant practicing the virtue they theorized, having a practical aspect, as it was also with the Socrate’s philosophy)?

    How is one suppose to know from personal experience, not based on the authority of a teacher or of the Buddha as a historical figure, that karma is a reality? As I understood, Buddha rejected the idea of God, among other things, because His existence was impossible to prove based on his experience, and uncertain, as loving a girl from another country you have never seen, but only knowing her name. But isn’t the idea of Karma the same? The fact that from good actions may arise good consequences for others in the long run that may be reflected in the wellbeing of the actor can be established by reason only, not needing to postulate a mysterious karma, as a law of physics of morality. The same evidence used for proving the Karma existence can be used also to prove God’s judgment in what respects that relationship recognized by reason. What kind of personal experience convinced you of the reality of karma and not of the reality of God as a source for that relationship? But, with that relationship is still the problem of establishing what is good action or not, in the situation that of an unrealized person, because there is a saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” when those intensions arise from an ignorant mind?

    You said that negative actions arise from negative emotions. But what emotions are negative? I did not find a criterion for that, especially in tantrism, where they are used on the path. It seemed to me that negative emotions are the ones generated by deluded cognitions. But what kind of criteria involving only personal experience could be used to establish that a state obtained through Buddhist practice is not similar with a state of serenity obtained by consuming drugs, or through psychotherapy? And, taking a Christian perspective, the happiness in this life is not a goal for obtaining the happiness in the other life, the eternal life, but on the contrary, the goal is to accept first suffering in order to obtain the true kind of happiness. So, for me is hard to understand what kind of happiness is the goal in Buddhism.

    How am I suppose to refrain from harm if the notion of harm is depending of the adopted dogmas of what harm can be? For example, the only way I can refrain from harm is being death, because only then no living entity will have to suffer for me and for maintaining my life (I have to eat something, and that something is a plant or an animal). Even breathing means to decrease the oxygen available for others, and producing residues with which I can intoxicate others. And even being death I could cause harm to others. By leaving a loved one for a spiritual path I cause harm etc. So what harm is acceptable and which not? I remember now an episode’s from the Buddha’s life as told in the legends in which, Buddha being fully realized, his wife was upset that he ordained as a monk their son, not asking her before he made that decision. And after she complained to him about that, he acknowledged that he made a mistake (causing her harm), and gave a rule for the Sangha that parents’ accord is to be necessary in order to ordain a monk. It is an example for me of not understanding what harm means in Buddhism. Is the Buddha’s wife harmed or not in this case (or in the case in which she was abandoned)?

    Natural in your acceptance seemed to me mere the way persons should be, strive to be, than the way they really are. It is as if we would affirm that in the seed of an oak there is an oak having the nature of straight branches (if that hind of feature is really genetically coded, which is not at all sure). In a way it is, as a potentiality, but not as an actuality. The seed is still not an oak yet. So nature would paradoxically something virtual. But, in my opinion, it does not mean that if from that seed grows an oak with twisted branches that is not a real oak too, only because it has distorted branches. It is still in its nature an oak with a real nature, even if it does not have straight branches. How it is the process of torsion to be understood: as nature or not?

    In the same manner, an optical illusion is natural or not? In my view, it is an effect of a cause, and from that perspective should be natural. Realizing buddhahood or the true nature of things means not to be subject of the cause and effect law?

    It is unclear to me, also, what is the meaning of the “domain” notion in which karma is created or not and what do you mean that karma is created? By what or by whom? For me the verb “to create” has a meaning only used for a person. How an impersonal reality could be said to create?

    Thanking you for reading my message,

    Elisabeth

  7. Hi Elisabeth,

    nice to hear back from you. I am again impressed by your thoughtful reflections.
    I’ll try to answers a few of your questions that stood out for me.

    How do we verify the teachings?
    Both through reflections and personal experience
    For example the main aim of the Buddhist path is to understand our mind
    That’s why we practice meditation to get to know our minds
    The teachings guide us to do that and then our experience will validate whether it is true or not.
    It has been tested like this for over 2500 years.

    You are right karma is very difficult to verify!
    My teachers say that it is one of those statements that only a Buddha can completely understand.
    They says that there is about 95% of the teachings that we can verify completely in our experience.
    Based on what we can verify we can have trust that the rest is true even though we don’t fully understand them yet

    The way my teachers teach is to combine the intellectual with meditation and personal experience.
    There is a purely scholarly approach but then you really have to start from scratch learning a rigorous system of Buddhist philosophy …
    Either way you have to go step by step systematically, otherwise it just goes round and round in circles

    Here is an example how the Buddhist approach to reflecting could be applied to the principle of cause and effect
    We can begin begin by looking at the world and then we can see things like:
    – We sow a flower seed and given the right conditions it becomes a flower and not a fruit tree or a potato
    – We think positive thoughts and your mind becomes positive
    – We keep thinking hateful thoughts and our mind becomes full of hate

    So if we look around in the world and see the principle of cause and effect happening pretty much everywhere
    then we will be able to begin to feel confidence in the principle.
    The next step is to come to the conclusion that this principle is worthwhile to apply to our lives eg in our actions

    Here it gets a little more difficult. For example, it is hard to see directly how a negative action creates suffering, or a positive action creates happiness
    Because sometimes there can be a long time between cause and effect
    …. but even with this we can get some clues
    For example, if we look into our heart we can examine how it feels when we harm others, how we feel cold and closed inside
    And we can experience how when we help others we feel happy and joyful

    When you begin to reflect on this topic I would suggest to keep it simple at the beginning. Look at the bigger bigger and the main points first. For example the normal and twisted oak scenarios are interesting but doesn’t really led to anything conclusive. There is always the possibility that there is a cause for these abnormalities even though we can’t see it.

    Two more quick answers on other questions you asked:
    – The criteria for whether an action is negative is whether it is done with attachment and aversion

    – How we can live without harming it is also a very good question!
    My teacher has responded to the question that we might feel that is impossible not to harm that what it really means is to try to do so as little as possible. According to the Buddhist teachings what really determines if an action is positive of negative is the motivation and the intention to harm kill. That is much easier to focus on!

    Reading books and watching videos of teachings is an excellent start. I am glad you did that. I think you are ready to go deeper. For this you will need ongoing interaction. More than we can do on the comment section of a blog post. If you want to really explore this consider joining the courses that my teacher’s meditation centers offer.

    See: http://www.rigpa.org and http://www.rigpaonlinecourses.org

    The next term of online class is going to start next week. You would be starting with meditation. (I will be teaching the online meditation course in the US) The meditation course actually includes some basic Buddhist principles but those will be covered in more detail in the second course.

    Mediation is important to start with because it helps us to get in touch with ourselves more deeply. This helps to have a more direct experience of the world and a sense of our place in it . It will help us get a feeling of a natural purpose and meaning. Then the many questions and doubts actually settle and the important issues become much clearer.

    All my best

    Bernie

  8. Elisabeth Timys says:

    Thank you for your kindness of answering to some of my questions and for offering me suggestions for my future spiritual path. But, I think I am still not ready to follow them because …

    My problem is that maybe I am too aware that a man does not have too much time in a life to try and get to that level that allows him/her to verify all the spiritual paths that are offered on the spiritual “market” as the most valid” or the “the most efficient” and so on … and I am trying to be a too cautious “consumer”. The source of my caution may be the fact that I think that after one becomes involved in a spiritual path, investing a lot of time and money in it, it would be harder for him/her to give up in following that path, even though he/she may realize (consciously or unconsciously) that it is the wrong one, or he/she is starting to question that path, given that his/her expectations were not met in the wished measure. He/she may think that it is too late to change his/her mind, and choose otherwise, putting his/her material and affective investments above the saving truth, forgetting that ultimately the truth matters. He starts favoring the interpretation of the things in the way he would have wanted them to be, not as they really are. It is like one who pays a lot of money for a long holydays of his/her dreams on a cruse, for example, only to find out that he/she was cheated, and the conditions were not the one perceived to be advertised in the touristic leaflet distribute by the vendor, not seeing maybe some footnote disclaimers written with small fonts, or not the ones expected. And, in order to mask to himself/herself his/her disappointment with his/her only bad choice, he/she begins to praise that cruse (to him/her, or to others) and to find all sorts of excuses for the lousy conditions found there, and even to illusion himself/herself that they were beautiful, that he/she was, in fact, the one having wrong and unrealistic expectations, accepting all the blame put by the vendor on his/her shoulders. Or it is like waiting a bus that is very late, and instead to choose another way to get in the desired placed, one continues to wait, because of the time invested so far.

    Maybe that was the reason I asked you about the provability of the notion of karma in Buddhism, because if there is rebirth and karma (the two notions seem to be tightly related, since it is obvious that some “bad” guys as they seem to be do not get in this life what they deserve), we have more than a life to waste with trials. But, for example, in Christianity, there is only one chance, in this very life, for saving ourselves and enter into eternal life. One can choose based on how generous the two offers may seem to be, because it is more comfortable and convenient to think that we still have another chance, no matter how improbable it would be, given the extremely low chance of a rebirth as a human. But it would be only a subjective choice, based maybe, for some people, on their wishes, or even because we are eager to be complacent with our present laziness, postponing for an uncertain future the spiritual hard work. But what may seem generous to us, cutting us some slack from one point of view, may have nothing to do with the real truth or generosity. The “generosity” of a spiritual path from this perspective I think that logically has nothing to do with its truth. So, I wanted to know the opinion of an insider in what respects the way it is viewed, and particularly how the notion of karma might be experienced through practice, which, in my opinion is one of the most important pillars of the Buddhist philosophy if not the most important one. I wanted to know if it is more than a dogma, as you previously said that nothing in Buddhism is based on dogma. For me to know that is important, because I do not see how one is suppose to choose, for example, between Christianity and Buddhism not knowing, or at least believing, beforehand, if karma is a reality, or if God is a reality, if not for other reason, for the reason that believing in karma is not believing in God’s revealed word. In my opinion, no matter how much we would like to delude ourselves (maybe because out of some subjective reasons, for soothing our anxieties in what respects our spiritual choices comparing them with others’ choices), saying that any spiritual path is as good and valid as the other one because all arrive at the same point and each is appropriate for a particular person, at one point or another we still have to choose only one spiritual path as the only one valid. And Christianity, if is studied not on the surface, based on the popular religious culture, but more profoundly, based on the saints fathers work, leaves no other option of spiritual salvation. And, from what I have read, Buddhism, too.

    The crux of the matter, I think, in deciding between the two, is deciding if a man is able to save himself/herself from this unsatisfactory state of life totally by himself/herself, that is only by acquiring knowledge and experience by himself/herself and from others, or it needs the help of a God, who is his/her creator. And, in this case, the choice could be made also based on subjective and self-serving reasons, out of pride, for example, because one feels better saving himself/herself than being saved of helped by someone else, to which he/she should be grateful and indebted. It seems to me to be quite a paradox the fact that Buddhism, which emphases as I perceived it so much on the notion of egolessness, or selflessness, may be chosen more likely by some people out of an egotistic reason, not wanting to beg for mercy in front of anyone, humiliating himself/herself by recognizing that he/her would never be able, or virtuous enough to deserve or to be worthy of being saved or forgiven by someone else, recognizing her/his true status to be, in fact, nothing by himself/herself in front of God. It may seem more convenient and reassuring to think that in a way “we” (even though the idea of we or I is supposed to be obsolete and rejected) all are already like gods, and the “only” work we have to do is recognizing that and behave accordingly, based on the consequences implied by that fact. To live in ignorance in what respects our own godly status may seem to be a more bearable fault of ours as humans than to think that we are fallen creatures because of our disobedience out of lack of love and trust for a being above our status, the one who is the source of our life and virtue. It may be give maybe a false feeling of empowerment. The paradox for me is still more profound, in that those people, who reject worshipping God out of a hidden pride, finally end up worshipping more gladly a man like them, thinking that their freedom is less endangered in that way, without understanding fully the significance in the long run for that worshiping, thinking that it is an inoffensive thing, compatible with any spiritual path. But for some religions, that means to bow in front of, or recognize as one’s master an idol, that is something or someone created, and not in front of and recognizing as the master the creator himself.

    Logically (if logic counts), in my opinion, if I would manage to prove a philosophy 95%, it says nothing regarding the truth of the remaining 5%, especially when that 5% includes the essence of that philosophy. There are some examples in the history of science in which scientific theories that were ascertained as universal truths, as, for example, the mechanics theory was, were proven afterwards that were false in many respects. Furthermore, logically, no theory is provable through empirical evidence (because there are an infinity of other theories that may be compatible with those empirical facts), only refutable (as Kuhn said) by an empiric counterexample. Besides, there is a saying that “the devil is in detail”. Maybe that comes from the Christian theology that says that people are deluded by devil through verisimilar lies, or partial truths, or by mimicking at start the effects obtained following a true spiritual path when we follow a false spiritual path in order to lose the sight of the right track (as some saint fathers said, the devil could transform himself in an angel of light and confer us unimaginable powers, even to heal illnesses, an apparent good deed, only that in those cases a physical or psychic illness is replaced with a more serious one, a spiritual illness).

    I think that judging only by our psychological states is also not a very trustworthy criterion in choosing one spiritual path over the other. Besides, why bother with the hardship of following a spiritual path, when the state of well being, knowing my own mind, or other sought effects might be obtained more easily by studying psychology and following its therapeutic techniques (with officially certified teachers or therapists), or even, maybe, by taking some drugs. In other words, I am not convinced why the personal meditation it would be a more objective method to gain knowledge about mind (after all, the only knowledge I could get would be limited to my personal experience that is inevitably subjective) than combining the old, intuitive and usual introspection (the look in our heart as you said it, not some sophisticated mental techniques and trainings) with the study of the psychological research (made on more minds than one). Or why I should follow a Buddhist path in order to know my mind, if that is its only spiritual purpose or reason, instead of studying psychology and practicing its methods, if mind is approached scientifically in Buddhism as well as in psychology, as an objective reality to be observed? My life could be more pleasurable, apparently more pleasurable, either way (following a Buddhist path, or psychological study). But for me the question still remains: what about death? The purpose is only to learn to accept it by giving it a meaning, a less fearful one, for example, for seeing it as an illusion of ours, or to admit that there is a path for it to be defeated or surpassed by gaining a new life maintaining our status as a personal being, not as an impersonal existence? I have recently read a comparison made by a monk about religions. He starts with the example of a man fallen in a pit. Different religions give different solutions to that situation. For example, the answer given by Islamic religion would be that it is the faith of that man and the will of God to stay in that pit, and he should resign himself with that situation. Buddhist religion, in his view, would say to the man in order to relief his distress that in fact there is no pit there, or even a fallen person in that pit for that manner, or that what is a pit, and what is not a pit is only a relative matter depending on his conceptual thinking that tricks him into believing that he is confronted with a real and worrying situation. Finally, Christian religion would try to pull the man out of the pit, sending a savior to him to land him a helping hand if he wants to be saved and pulled out, recognizing that being in a pit is not a good thing (that is, repenting himself/herself).

    I am not sure also that the fact that a spiritual path is considered to be thousands years old is by itself an argument for its validity (ignoring for the moment the fact that we are in no position to be certain that its present form coincides in spirit at least with its initial form, in my opinion). Sorcery and shamanism are also thousands years old, and the evil is even older than that, much, much older. And, if I understood well, some Buddhists claim that Buddhism is a universal spiritual path, existing not for 2500 years, but eons and eons before, with several archaic Buddhas, and that each superior spiritual master or prophet is in fact an emanation of one such Buddha (born to save people in a particular time), as it is thought also by Jesus. But for me it was particularly hard to understand (besides the fact that I do not understand what emanation is, beyond the example with the ray of the sun that in my case was unhelpful) why, if Jesus is equated with a Buddha, he did not teach about meditation, karma, rebirth etc. The invoked explanations I am currently aware of do not stand to me to the test of my reason. If his teaching is considered an expedient method for Jews, I do not see why it would have been harder for them to understand Buddhism in its classical form than for the supposedly more primitive and unlearned people from the time of the historical Buddha. Besides, for example, in the Gospels remained data, in accordance with which it seems that some Jews were prone to believe in rebirth in a way or the other, considering their questions. So, they would have been ready to accept ideas in that direction, but Jesus did not encourage that kind of thinking in any way, making instead statements incompatible with many Buddhist ideas and principles. If some higher priesthood afterwards, as it is claimed by some Christian Gnostics or their followers, out of their personal interests, wiped out from the Gospels the texts referring to rebirth or other Gnostic ideas, how come they were so stupid to not erase completely the passages regarding the belief in rebirth of some Jews (besides the fact that too many copies of the Gospels should have been changed, and for that time, I think, it would have been a very hard task to do, if not an impossible one)? If they wanted to rewrite the Gospels in accordance with their interests in promoting Christianity, how come they left in the Gospels embarrassing facts about apostles, for example, and their lack of faith in Jesus? And if Jesus was really a Buddha, he should have known how to protect his written message from the Gospels, not to let to be forged and distorted, as it was the case with the historical Buddha, whose message is consider to be maintained intact for 500 years, until it got an official written form. Besides that, reading the entire Gospels, it is clearly that Jesus’ teaching, although it has some particular similarities with Buddhist teachings, is still nothing like them in its essence. To affirm the contrary it would seem to me to be like saying that humans are like dinosaurs because they also have a skeleton, for example, and the remaining differences are negligible. To say that all religions are alike because they all promote in way or another a core of humanistic values (as it is love, life, and respect for the freedom of others) is to reduce them to the humanist philosophy and psychology, and undermine their spiritual reason to be in what respects the prospects regarding afterlife. Because their essential differences, from what I could understand, is the one regarding our faith after our death. So, in my opinion, from a Buddhist point of view, the Jesus’ death and some of its teachings have no meaning, or even are in contradiction to the Buddhist teachings.

    Your argument regarding the way we can recognize the truth of the law (or, more exactly, “feel confidence in the principle”, which is in fact more like a kind of belief than a certain knowledge) of cause and effect by observing its pervasiveness and constancy, if I understood it well, reminds me of the empiricists claims, like Hume’s ones. He invoked the example of the sun rising in the future to demonstrate that we are unjustified in making predictions of the future based on past, because we, in fact, have no reason to think that it will rise tomorrow, only because it rose today or yesterday and in all days of our life. So, pervasiveness and constancy, in themselves, are not thought to be necessary and sufficient conditions for truth. Besides, the law of cause and effect in the psychological domain seems to me, as you noticed yourself, to be less obvious or perceivable, especially because, sometimes the effect is produced after a long time, even in a next life, when we are not able to recall its corresponding cause, or indirectly, by a long chain of events, that is hard to be followed by reason or otherwise for most of the people. So, that is one of the reason I had questions and doubts regarding the role of the karma in teaching people in order to progress spiritually, by given them lessons when they are not even able to remember them when they need that memory the most, at least consciously anyway (surpassing the problem that it is hard to say if the one who suffers the effect is the same one who produced the cause, that is if there is someone in fact learning a lesson). In fact, in order to notice that law in the psychological domain, as you described it, to see that when acting good you feel good inside, and the reverse, I think someone has to be already spiritually progressed, at least as much as to be able to correctly define what is good or not (or what is attachment, and what is aversion). Besides, to feel good inside psychologically is not the same with feeling good spiritually, in my opinion, and one can be very easily confound the two states. Sometimes, as it was said by a Christian saint, the greatest miracle and the start of feeling good inside is feeling all our misdeeds and faults and repent about them, which is not a very pleasurable state by itself. On the contrary … a state which we are trying to avoid with all our forces, as long as it is possible. And there remains the mystery for me of why if bad actions bring bad feelings that are so easy to be noticed (because they are intuitive and self-evident), so many people prefer those bad feelings. And if it is not that easy to feel them, then trusting one’s feelings in what respects the effects of one’s actions, or spiritual practices may not be a very safe way to proceed in judging a spiritual path, especially when one is at its start.

    Furthermore, I think that the law of cause of effect noticed in this life, even psychologically, is compatible with almost any kind of religious and scientific position, even with the notion of a creator God, so it seems to not to be a specific Buddhist principle, proving its entire validity. It remains to be proven for other lives, if they really are, but that as I view it, it is impossible to be done based solely on one’s personal experience.

    So, that is why I have doubts regarding the way we can ascertain that some effects regarding our psychic states or even behaviors may be trustworthy criteria in choosing or proving the validity of a spiritual path by themselves.

    You said in a previous message that a Buddha is someone who refrain from harm, but given also your answer here it is unclear to me if a Buddha does no harm with his/her actions, or only does no harm intentionally, and which is the case with the harm felt by Buddha’s wife when ordaining their son. Because even if we do a harm unknowingly, we are still responsible of our ignorance about not foreseeing the consequences of our actions, and then, one may say that, in a way, that act cause a harm intentionally, by not paying sufficient attention, thought, and knowledge in pursuing that action. Therefore, being an intentional harm anyway, we would never escape karma, and the buddhahood goal would be actually unreachable. A Buddha is supposed not to be ignorant, as I understood it, so he should do no harm in action, too, not only in intention.

    The example about the twisted oak was given not because I did not see the possibility that there is an invisible cause for its abnormalities. In fact, I start my reasoning with the fact that a cause twisted the oak. My problem was that in that case I do not understand the concept of nature. Nature is what produced by a cause (visible or invisible, good or bad), or nature is the virtual untwisted oak from the seed, untouched by twisting causes? And can a twisted oak to become by itself untwisted, returning to its virtual state from the seed, other than by giving another seed, but which would not be itself anymore? And even if the next time will give rise to a perfect oak, escaping from all twisting causes, is there a guarantee that the seeds of that oak will give rise to other untwisted oaks, immune to all the twisting causes? If not, that would be also, a dogma.

    Frankly, in spite of what it is claimed, I do not see any difference between Buddhism and other religions in what respects the belief in dogmas. The same could be said by a Christian, too, that 95% of the Christian teachings are provable to be effective (all the morals from the Gospels) in one’s life if they are followed, and only 5% is a matter known from direct experience by some advanced Christians: the saints, who got to a state where they were convinced of and experienced the reality of the Trinity, and that Jesus was actually the only son of the God, the only redeemer, and not only a man, a simple prophet, or wise man (but who was not wise enough to know who he really was, claiming about himself foolish things, apart from his other sensible teachings), an emanation of some impersonal Absolute, or one of the perfect manifestation or aspect of our uncreated divine nature etc., as it said by some people ignoring the Jesus’s explicit words about who he was, as if they should know better than him such a thing or as if those Gospels are untrustworthy and, even though he was so perfect, his true message was lost, not being able to se secure it.

    In fact, if I had to resume all that, my point is that, presently, I was not convinced that Buddhism is based on no dogmas, that it is scientific so to speak, even if it claims to be so (I hope not for advertising reason in order to be more attractive or more catchy). Even science is based on dogmas and beliefs (that is improvable statements by one’s normal personal experience, the primitive of a scientific paradigm, as it is for example the fact that there is an objective world out there that could be studied in an objective way). Buddhism may be pragmatic on the short term, as science is, with its relative seemingly momentary pragmatic efficiency, but I have not found any guaranties about its actual truth, or long-term, afterlife efficiency, other than believing, as in a dogma, in what the historical Buddha said or some other persons who claimed to be spirtually awaken and realised as buddhist followers. Maybe is about the risk of choosing between a kind of happiness here, or another kind of happiness in an uncertain afterlife …

  9. Bernie Schreck says:

    Hi Elisabeth, thanks again for sharing your reflections. You really give these things a lot of thoughts, have read a lot of books and learned about a lot of different traditions. I hope that you will find something that seems worthwhile for you to explore personally. I am sure that you can find something that won’t cost a lot. For example learning how to meditate isn’t going to harm anyone or brainwash them but if you give it a chance you find out if it helps you. Einstein said “Theory is if we know everything and nothing works. Practice is when everything works and we don’t know why.” By the way, I didn’t mean to try to steer or pressure you into following the Buddhist path. I was just giving you some advice on how you could go about it, since you seemed interested. We all need to find our own paths. In my case, the Buddhist path has helped me tremendously to get in touch with my deeper self and finding meaning and purpose in life. I hope you find the same. If you put that intention out into the universe with your heart, maybe it might help to make this happen. All my best Bernie

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