When we take a deep look at who we are, we still see some kind of continuity to our ever-changing existence, even though we may not actually find an independent and permanent entity called me. Exploring that continuity is how we can come to understand the notion of karma.
Karma literally means “action,” particularly as it relates to the continuity of cause and effect. In a way it’s like shooting pool. If we’re dazed and confused as we play the game, then we’re just sort of knocking the balls all over the place. If there’s clarity and precision as you set up your shot, the balls go where you want them to go. When we look at our pool table, we can see the balls form a pattern, just as in this very moment the various elements of our lives form some kind of pattern. As we survey our situation on the table, we have some kind of response to it, and we prepare to take our next shot. As we pick up our pool cue, we have some assessment, some feeling, and some kind of intention going forward.
When we take our shot, we not only move the cue ball (me), but also affect the motion and pattern of all the other balls (others) on the table. In so doing we create a new situation, albeit one that is highly dependent on the immediately previous situation. We can’t just take all the balls off the table and place them wherever we want in the middle of a game (life). So every moment has its own unique patterning as we approach it. Based on our past thoughts and actions, mixed with our current intentions, we move ourselves through life and move those around us. If we can learn to see the patterns of our actions and their effects, over time we will develop an understanding of how the karma game of our lives works.
Positive karma—again, a relative term—basically describes a series of actions in which our intentions and efforts move our lives in a positive direction, that is, a pattern of action that moves both us and others toward some kind of desirable outcome. We can think of such good outcomes as similar to a good lay of billiard balls on the table: it leaves us with a clear view of a reasonable sequence of mostly accessible shots. For example, you might end up in a good situation, living a relatively wakeful life in a sympathetic environment, actually able to enjoy yourself and appreciate your existence, and foster positive circumstances for yourself and the people around you.
Negative karma basically describes those situations in which our intentions and efforts have left us with a counterproductive arrangement of circumstances. This would correspond to a bad lay of the balls on the table, with lots of tough angles and no reasonable sequence for progressing through the table. We might find ourselves in a difficult situation, in response to which we have become angry and resentful, and therefore find ourselves in an unpleasant and challenging environment day after day.
From Awakening from the Daydream: Reimagining the Buddha’s Wheel of Life, by David Nichtern, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications, www.wisdompubs.org. David Nichtern is a senior Shambhala teacher and professional musician.
DZONGSAR KHYENTSE RINPOCHE
We often hear that the tantra is for the disciple of superior faculties. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a high IQ to practice. These superior faculties have nothing to do with how many degrees you have or whether you can count stars or solve a Rubik’s Cube. In the Vajrayana, the greatest faculty is devotion. Listening, contemplating, studying, and analyzing are common methods for seekers of truth, but in the end, the real understanding of emptiness can arise only when the mind is free of reference points, cultural hang-ups, values, the burden of logic, dialectics, reason, speculation, rationalism, and hypotheses. This is called devotion. Of all possible superior faculties, devotion is supreme.
From The Guru Drinks Bourbon?, © 2016 by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, www. shambhala.com. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a Bhutanese lama and an award-winning filmmaker.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
If about the last of October you ascend any hill in the outskirts of the town and look over the forest you will see amid the brown of other oaks which are now withered and the green of the pines, the bright red tops or crescents of the scarlet oaks very equally and thickly distributed on all sides even to the horizon. Complete trees standing exposed— the edges of the pond—where you have never suspected them, or their tops only in the recesses of the forest surface, or perhaps towering above the surrounding trees, or reflecting a warm rose red from the very edge of the horizon in favorable lights. All this you will see, and much more, if you are prepared to see it—if you look for it. Otherwise, regular and universal as this phenomenon is, you will think for threescore years and ten that all the wood is at this season sere and brown. Objects are concealed from our view—not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because there is no intention of the mind and eye toward them. We do not realize how far and widely—or how near and narrowly we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of nature are for this reason concealed to us all our lives. Here too, as in political economy, the supply answers to the demand. Nature does not cast pearls before swine. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate—not a grain more.
From Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner, 2016, Yale University Press. The 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) is celebrated for his many essays about nature and the environment, as well as for his influential works Walden and Civil Disobedience.
I remember observing a conversation long ago between two people, one of whom thought service ought to be spontaneously motivated and the other who thought that if you practice service, it becomes spontaneous. It’s almost a chicken and egg question—which comes first, the desire to be of service or the service itself? As with the chicken and egg question, the answer is “it doesn’t matter.” What’s important is the action. If an honest assessment of our own inclinations reveals that “the love of the good” is weak in us, what are we to do? What if we are inclined to do good but feel overwhelmed by obligations and other activities? This is a rich area for inquiry. We can start by reflecting on what it is we do with our time, whom we choose to associate with, and how we manage our energy. It may be that buried within our activities and relationships, there is wholesome intention that has gone unrecognized. By focusing on these inclinations, we can help them flourish; we can establish confidence in our own goodness.
From Lynn Kelly, “Goodness,” The Buddha’s Advice to Laypeople (blog), September 1, 2016. Lynn Kelly is an independent teacher living in Brisbane, Australia, where she regularly posts to her blog. https://buddhasadvice. wordpress.com.
WUMEN HUIKAI (1183–1260)
Whenever a question was posed, Master Million-Million simply raised a finger. Now, Million-Million had a houseboy, and one day a visitor asked this boy: “What is the dharma-essence your master teaches?”
The boy held up his finger, like the master.
Hearing of this, Million-Million chopped the houseboy’s finger off with a cleaver. Howling in agony, the boy turned and fled. Just then, Million-Million called to him. When the boy looked back, Million-Million held up his one finger. Suddenly, the boy was enlightened!
When Million-Million was about to follow the vanishing way of things, he said to the assembly: “I received this one-finger Ch’an from Heaven-Dragon. I used it for an entire lifetime, and never exhausted it.”
With those words, he passed into extinction.
Koan from No-Gate Gateway, trans. David Hinton in Existence: A Story, © 2016 by David Hinton. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, www.shambhala.com. (The celebrated 13th-century compilation of 18 koans with commentary by the Chan master Wumen Huikai is also known under the title The Gateless Gate.) David Hinton is a writer and translator of classical Chinese texts.
Just you wait
one day in about 8,000 years
when the Truth is forgotten
he’ll come around and make it all right.
Funny thing about the future,
it’s not about hope
which is what you want to happen
it’s not about worry
which is what you don’t
it’s what the sign in the dive bar
“Free beer tomorrow.”
Larry Oakner is a poet whose work has appeared most recently in the Shambhala Times, the Jewish Literary Journal, and Lost Coast Review.
In brief, when calamities befall me like bolts of lightning, It is the weapon of destructive karma returning upon me Just like the ironsmith slain by his own sword; From now on I will be heedful of nonvirtuous acts.
–Dharmarakshita, The Wheel of Sharp Weapons
When we fall ill, when someone dies, when plans created with painstaking care don’t work out, we are surprised—it seems like calamities befall me like bolts of lightning— because we believe life is not supposed to be like that. Especially when we live in a wealthy country that is relatively peaceful, it’s easy to take our good circumstances for granted. However, as long as we are in cyclic existence, unsatisfactory experiences and outright suffering will naturally come to us. Suffering is not a punishment, and it does not indicate failure. It is simply the weapon of destructive karma returning upon us like an ironsmith slain by his own sword. The smith crafted the sword in order to earn a living but was killed by his own creation. Similarly, we do harmful actions thinking they will further our ambitions, but they plant the seeds for our misery.
No one else is to blame for this situation. We made the weapons. If we did not make the weapons, nobody could take them and throw them at us. If we did not create the karma, pain and frustration would not come our way. Rather than accusing others of being the source of our misfortune, we need to investigate our situation well and see that we are being slain by the weapons we created through the force of our own self-grasping ignorance and the afflictions it nourishes. In this way, we begin to take responsibility for our experiences. That gives us real power, because we see that we can change our experiences by changing our attitude and actions.
From Good Karma: How to Create the Causes of Happiness and Avoid the Causes of Suffering, © 2016 by Thubten Chodron. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, www.shambhala.com. Thubten Chodron, a Tibetan Budddhist nun of the Gelug school, is the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.