Thursday, June 28, 2012


The third preliminary is the contemplation on karma.  Karma means action, or cause and effect.  For the purpose of this contemplation it is necessary to give up any preconceptions based on pop culture's notion of good and bad karma for it does not encompass the Buddha's intent when he gave these teachings.  The key point of karma is summarized very well in the Essence of Dependent Origination dharani:

om ye dharma hetu prabhava hetun tesam tathagato hayavadat tesam ca yo nirodha evam vadi maha shramana soha
All phenomena arise from causes and those causes have been taught by the Tathagata,
Their cessation too has been proclaimed by the great practitioner of virtue.

There are several implications to consider when contemplating karma.  The first is that the world is shaped by our intentions.  We find in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa:

The variety of the world arises from action.
[Action] is intention and that which is produced through intention.
Intention is mental action-
It gives rise to two types of action, physical and verbal action.

 And also in the Dhammapada: 

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.
Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.
Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.
Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.

Right now we are the culmination of all of our past thoughts, actions, choices and habitual tendencies.  The thoughts, actions and choices that we make today will determine who and where we are in the future.  

Often we hear the following, "What are you gonna do, that's life."  I think we have all said that at one time or another, but if you think about that statement within the context of karma it is filled with ignorance.  A lot of the time we have this notion that life happens to us, rather than we who are responsible for creating our reality.  It is a matter of determining whether we are an active participant or a passive observer.  

Think of this in terms of worldly pursuits- our education, health, career and family.  How does this implication- that the world is shaped by our intentions- play out in these settings?  Are we active participants or passive observers?  

Think of this in terms of our spiritual growth.  Our religion is not simply some organization that we belong to,  it is an expression of our spirituality whether we acknowledge it or not.  I think this is the intent when the Buddha said the following:

I can show you the door, but you must walk through it. 

The second implication is that actions never fail to produce an effect.  In the span of a day we have numerous thoughts, choices and actions.  It is easy (easy for me at least) to write off the little things as 'This doesn't matter', or 'just this one time'.  But just as a birds shadow may not be readily apparent as it soars through the sky only to return again when it lands, every act we engage in influences the course of our life.  A great saying by Lao Tzu:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

And also the Buddha:

You will not be punished for your anger,
You will be punished by your anger.

The third implication is that the eight worldly concerns lead us astray.  The eight worldly concerns are getting caught up in happiness and suffering, praise or blame, fame or shame, and gain or loss.    Like a fish on a hook, we latch onto these concerns and through the process of cause and effect we are caught in an unending cycle of negative mental states.  

The fourth implication is that of generating merit.  Merit is a concept that isn't understood or appreciated in the West.  Merit really refers to a positive potential of mind.  It is a mind that, when adequately prepared and cultivated, is able to withstand significant hardship, loss, pain and suffering.  We often do not think of our mind in this manner, but it is equivalent to always carrying a trump card so that no matter what cards you are dealt in life you can still play the game. 

When we understand karma and its intimacy with our present and future state, then we can embrace the larger scope.  It is we who are responsible for our own happiness and suffering and our effect on the world around us.  Our intentions, choices and actions create the world around us each and every day.  Karma is not something you believe in, it doesn't matter if you believe or not.  Cause and effect do not operate on moral imperatives, it is we who punish ourselves. 

Having embraced the larger scope we come to a decisive experience of karma.  As long as we rely on conditioned phenomena we are subject to karma.  As long as we rely on mind and mental factors we will never move beyond suffering, because we will continue to plant seeds that will indefinitely ripen.  We need to come to a direct experience of the unconditioned nature of mind, only then is it possible to break free from the cage of karma, habitual patterns and afflictive emotions.  

It is vital that we come to a decisive experience of karma by studying, contemplating and meditating on the teachings. 

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