If you want to know your past, look at your present circumstances. If you want to know your future, look at what is in your mind. If we know that our fate is in our hands, then the quality of our actions becomes a central issue. The whole point of karma is to recognize how our actions determine our future, so that we can begin to act properly. It’s not just a cosmological or philosophical matter. It’s entirely practical. The main point is not to get in trouble again.
So what is karma? It is a particular aspect of the law of cause and effect that relates to our experience of happiness and suffering, and that basically depends upon our motivation. When we engage in an act, no matter how it appears, what is important is our motivation.
We cannot perfectly foresee the outcomes of our actions. But we are always in charge of our motivation. It’s up to us to decide if we want to cause harm or bring some benefit. Nobody can say that we are not in control of our motivation, unless we are mad and unable to think about it. An act that is motivated by an altruistic frame of mind is ethical, no matter how it looks. And an ace that is motivated by a wish to harm is unethical, no matter how it looks.
This is the very basis of ethics. If we don’t relate our actions to motivation, we can never clearly know what is right or wrong. From the Buddhist viewpoint, we define right and wrong in terms of what leads to happiness or suffering. It is not some idealized dogma of good and bad somewhere sitting in space.
What about a deluded motivation? We might be deluded about our understanding of the world and about the nature of happiness and suffering, but anyone, deluded or not, has the capacity to check if he is acting under the inspiration of altruism or of malevolence.
What if your intention is good, but the results are harmful? That’s where ignorance and confusion interfere with our altruistic actions. That is why we need wisdom. Buddha said that those who have fully realized emptiness are those who see the best. In other words, they see what needs to be done and what is to be avoided. We are able to choose the correct means because we can foresee what will happen.
That’s why we say that the essence of Buddha’s teaching is the union of compassion and wisdom, the view of interdependence and emptiness. An altruistic attitude is altruistic. It is not confused in itself. But without wisdom, we can ace with obscured compassion or stupid compassion.
So how do I gauge my motivation? I can always ask myself, how much are my actions motivated by my own self-centered purpose? Do I really ace out of generosity and love? That’s why mindfulness and checking our motivations and actions throughout the day is important. It’s something that, at least at the beginning, is clearly defined and is certainly within our scope to begin to practice.
And then, by cultivating love and kindness and compassion at all times, we can ensure that our motivation becomes more and more altruistic. As I said, without introspection we risk developing some kind of stupid compassion, because we lack discrimination. So, again, we find that compassion and wisdom go together.
You have a scientific background. What convinces you that karma is real? First of all, we currently see reality from a very limited point of view. We do have our own experience, which we can investigate for ourselves. What are the results of anger, hatred, jealousy, and so forth? We need to be honest and investigate as much as we can. Although there are compelling testimonies related to memories of past lives—such as those related by Professor Ian Stevenson, who studied hundreds of cases—convincing the scientific community will require more investigation and solid evidence.
There are three kinds of valid proof that are recognized in the Buddha’s teachings. One is direct evidence. For example, when you see a fire, you know it is a fire. Another is inference. When you see smoke, you know that if you investigate, you will find a fire. The first two examples relate to obvious phenomenon and partially hidden phenomenon. Then there is the third kind of phenomenon—those that are very hidden and not within our present capacities of perception and investigation.
In the case of very hidden phenomena, we have to rely on the valid testimonies of others. It doesn’t mean that we have to believe whatever people tell us. But in the case of the Buddha, we can judge the Buddha’s behavior, teachings, and any other aspect that we can consider. If the Buddha seems perfect on all counts, why on one single point would he suddenly become ill-willed and wish to fool us and try to lead us into error? It’s much more likely that this person—with the credible array of qualities that we can perceive and testify to—is providing a valid testimony when describing the laws of karma.
Now, you might think that this is blind faith. But when we speak about the big bang theory or about particles and electrons, what are we doing? We are relying on the testimony of a certain number of scientists, because we believe that a number of independent scientists cannot all be crooks at the same time. So if they agree on a particular point, we can assume that they are providing a valid description of the laws of nature. And so we say, “Okay. It must be true. “They might have imperfect knowledge, but we agree that they are not fundamentally telling lies or inventing things out of thin air. We believe that there are sound reasons for their conclusions, which we ourselves cannot access at the moment. But we could achieve their understanding if we spent ten years learning mathematics and physics.
Likewise, the Buddha never said, “This is a mystery that will always be beyond your reach. Forget about it. You just have to accept it. “Instead, he said, “Don’t accept what I say just because I say it. You can have respect for me but do what it will take to find out for yourself. In the meantime, this is what I’ve seen with my own experience. Planes have no mind. Sentient beings have a mind. And there’s karma. There are past lives. I’ve found that. You can find the same. You just have to make the effort to become a buddha.”
In our culture, people have an aversion to accepting responsibility for their own fate, at least to the extent that Buddhism proposes. This question really has to do with the nature of consciousness. If consciousness is entirely produced in the brain, then we can forget about karma. Without the context of past and future states of existence, karma would be limited to the short-term consequences of our actions.
But if consciousness is not completely reliant on physical support, then we can begin to view it in a much vaster context. Then you can think of past states of existence, what they are and what kind of imprint they carry through our stream of consciousness. How do they affect the present consciousness and our experience of happiness and suffering in this life?
How can a person dismiss another’s misfortune, saying, “Oh well, that’s his karma because he did this or that”? We can say that the quality and nature of our present experiences are the result of past actions. But we are certainly nor able to describe exactly what the causes are. That’s why we say ordinary beings cannot judge ordinary beings. Only an enlightened being can see deeply into the reasons for that person’s actions.
In terms of karma, it is important for us to understand that our human existence is itself the result of highly positive past actions. It didn’t come out of nowhere. We have accumulated aspirations that cause us to be born as human beings, so that we can use our suffering to motivate our desire for freedom. That’s why we say that human life is like one meal out of hundreds of days of starvation. The understanding of karma is a crucial element in making us appreciate the unique opportunity of our precious human life rather than taking it for granted. That can help motivate us toward positive actions.
And positive actions will change our experience of our consciousness in some way? As I said, we are the architects of our future. We are responsible for the kind of rebirth we are going to have and the kind of physical circumstances we’re going to encounter. In one way, you could say we should not underestimate the power of mind, because the mind we have now, whether altruistic or self centered, will shape the way we perceive the world and our experiences of happiness and suffering in the future.
Let’s rake the classic example of a glass of water. A human being sees a glass of water as something to drink. A fish experiences it as its habitat. A hungry ghost will see it as pus and blood. A being of the god realm will perceive it as ambrosia. The different types of consciousness are relating to a similar set of phenomena in different ways. That has to do with common karma—similarly structured consciousness because of past actions. Bur our individual karma is the cause for each of us to experience these phenomena in these different ways.
Photo © Marion Stalens
Then it’s also a question of changing our perceptions? It’s a question of purifying our perceptions. If you are consumed with hatred, you see everything in terms of hatred. You could be surrounded by kind and wonderful people in a beautiful, healthy place, but if your mind is filled with hatred you cannot appreciate it, and the world will appear as a dead and hateful place to you.
Hence the importance of mind training. Our traits—the way we relate to the world and to our own mind—are the result of the accumulation of countless thoughts and emotions. By transforming the content of these thoughts and emotions, nurturing wholesome states of mind—such as altruistic love and compassion—and using antidotes against afflictive states of mind—such as animosity, obsession, and envy—we can gradually change our way of being, in the same way we usually acquire new skills.
How does purification affect our future karma? We can use purification to interfere with the consequence of negative karma before it matures. The reason we can alter the consequences is that nothing is permanent. Everything has cause and effect. The fruition of karma depends on cause and conditions. Those are impermanent themselves, and they are interrelated. So you can always act on anything, up to the moment it happens. Of course, if you have already experienced the fruit of your karma, it’s too late. But until the maturation, you can always intervene.
Imagine that you throw a mixture of seeds on the ground. Half are poisonous plants and the others are fruit and flowers. If the conditions are right—the earth is moist and there is warmth from the sunlight—the seeds will grow into plants if you do nothing to prevent it. But if you start looking when they just start to grow, and eliminate the poisonous plants and help the other ones to grow, you will experience different results.
We use what are known as the “four strengths” to precisely interfere with negative karma before we experience the full maturation of an action. The first strength is to recognize and admit we have caused harm. Then, recognizing the harm we have caused, we regret what we have done. Regret can be used as a tool to become aware of our mistakes and not repeat them. On the contrary, guilt, which is a pessimistic view about ourself and our future, is counterproductive. The next strength is to engage in the kind of practice that will begin to eliminate the reasons why we engage in harmful actions. Meditation that leads to wisdom is recommended—that is, understanding the cause of our confusion and the true nature of reality. The fourth strength is to resolve that we are not going to do it again.
So, again, it all comes down to motivations and actions. Altruistic motivation builds up our positive tendencies and perceptions. It also purifies our karma. As we purify our vision, we come to see more precisely into the nature of interdependence, the emptiness of existence, and the true nature of reality. That is pure vision. That is what will change the way we experience the world.
The Laws of Karma
1. Karma is definite: An action will definitely bring its specific results unless it meets an obstacle. A positive action will result in happiness. A negative action will ultimately produce suffering.