Mirror of Freedom

Practice Questions: Part Two

Question: One of the most difficult concepts for Westerners to assimilate is that of karma. For instance, someone may live a virtuous life but then at a certain point have an accident and experience a great deal of trouble. It doesn't seem fair to say that this misfortune is occurring now because five thousand lives ago that person performed some negative action. It's not easy to accept. Could you please help us understand the law of karma and how to incorporate it into our everyday lives?

Response: It's as if at some point we wrote a story. It may have been well written or it may have been badly written. It might have been a story that made us laugh in some places and cry in others. If we put it away for a while and didn't think about it, many years later we might find the story again and read it. When we got to the funny parts we'd laugh, and when we got to the sad parts, cry. There would be no benefit in saying the story wasn't "fair," because it was we who wrote it in the first place. We should have been more careful about what we wrote.

In the same way, when we are dealing with our karma, we are addressing what has already taken place. It won't be of any use to cry out now, claiming that what's happening isn't fair. The negative actions producing our present suffering were committed in a previous lifetime. We should have been more careful in the past. The point is to engage in actions that will produce favorable results, not to dwell on the inevitable results of former negative actions.

This applies not only to our suffering. Our past actions account for our happiness as well. The problem is that we want only our positive karma to ripen and not the bad. But if we want only good seeds to ripen, we should plant only good seeds.

It's as if we planted rice, wheat and barley indiscriminately in a plot of land and then at harvest time complained about the confusion of grains growing there. If we didn't want them, we shouldn't have planted them in the first place. Whenever a seed is planted, the result is inevitable. So instead of becoming upset at harvest time, we should be careful at planting time.

Question: Some people respond passively to the law of karma. When something negative happens to them, they simply say it is their fate. How do we accept the law of karma and at the same time work actively with our problems—by purifying the negative karma that we have accumulated?

Response: Yes. It's like the example of having written a story. If you don't like what you wrote long ago, write something new. It's always possible to rewrite your story. The way to do this in a spiritual sense is to confess and purify previous harmful actions and vow never to commit them again, and to perform positive and beneficial actions that will create a new story line for the future. A very effective means of purifying is to invoke what are called the four powers. First, we invoke the power of witness, visualizing our object of faith—one who embodies limitless wisdom, compassion and a capacity to benefit—in the space in front of us. Second, we express our sincere and deep regret for all the nonvirtue we've committed throughout countless lives. Third, we make a commitment, now that we understand the consequences of our acts, never to repeat such acts again, no matter what happens. Finally, we visualize blessings in the form of light and nectar flowing from our object of faith through our body, washing away all sins and obscurations. This practice is the most effective if done while praying or reciting mantra.

Question: Some people have occupations that apparently cause them to accumulate a lot of negative karma—for instance, butchers and farmers who use insecticides. Sometimes what they do is necessary for the functioning of society. Will these people be forever bound to samsara because of the karma they generate in earning their living?

Response: The taking of life under any circumstances entails some karmic results, but the nature of those results depends upon the motivation of the person who is killing. If the motivation of a butcher or a farmer who sprays insecticides is not self-centered or based on anger, greed or desire for gain, and if that person is truly acting out of compassion, thinking, "If I don't do my job, people will starve," then it is possible that the karmic results will be mitigated. This is not to say that there will be no karmic consequences but they will not be as severe.

Question: Some aspects of the law of karma are difficult to grasp. For instance, as a result of previous negative actions, my car might be stolen. The person who steals the car will in turn generate negative karma. It seems that, in order for my own karma to ripen, I impose karma on other people. What is the interdependence of people's karma?

Response: Interdependence exists among all things on the phenomenal level, so it is entirely possible that there is a connection between our karma and that of others. If a person gives a gift to someone, he or she creates merit. The recipient of the gift experiences it as the ripening of his or her good karma, so there is a positive connection between the subject and the object of the action. In the case of the stolen car, there is a negative connection. Even as the owner is experiencing the result of negative karma by losing the car, the thief is creating negative karma.

All of this is just an indication of the causes and conditions, positive or negative, that interact in order to produce the phenomenal level of reality. There is interdependence in the arising of all phenomena. The reason this is so, as one famous text states, is that the essential nature of all phenomena is emptiness. This allows any and all connections to take place. If things were not empty, they would always be the same and, therefore, could not interact.

Beyond that, it is very difficult to make any specific comments about exact karmic connections, because dharmata, the true nature of reality, is inconceivable. The ordinary mind finds it very difficult to come to grips with the extraordinary interdependence that accounts for the way we experience things on a phenomenal level.

Question: The true nature of mind is sometimes described as "clear light" and sometimes as "emptiness." Is emptiness luminous? Sometimes during practice one experiences light, but sometimes one seems to go beyond that experience. What is happening?

Response: The term "clear light" as it is used in the teachings does not mean light in the visual sense. It refers to the unimpeded expression or ongoing nature of awareness. The term "emptiness" means that the nature of mind cannot be proved or established to have any substantial existence or any specific characteristics that define it ultimately. So neither term is to be understood in a visual way.

Question: During practice, I sometimes experience deep longing or sadness. Is this the all pervasive suffering described in Buddhist teachings, and if so, how can I dispel it?

Response: To feel sadness or longing in practice is not necessarily a bad thing. If it reflects a disgust with samsara, a sincere sense of being disheartened because we understand ordinary existence to be fraught with suffering, then it may be beneficial. But the pain or sadness that comes with that realization is useful only if it inspires us to do something about it, to exert ourselves in our practice, so that we can overcome the causes of suffering for ourselves and others. If we just indulge the sadness and don't use the means that are available to dispel it, then it won't be beneficial.

Question: Some practitioners seem to have a strong interest in the dharma, the Buddhist teachings, but at the same time are resistant to it. They don't know what it will involve; they seem afraid. What can be done?

Response: This kind of resistance could be due to different factors. Not everyone is the same, so it's not possible to give a simple answer. Some people are initially interested in the teachings, find them very appealing and begin to practice. But after a certain point, something goes awry and they end up holding extremely wrong views and negativity toward the dharma. This, in many cases, can be attributed either to karma created in past lifetimes or to conditions and circumstances in this lifetime, for example a hindering or demonic force that influences the mind and creates doubts. Ideally, a person who wants to practice but feels a resistance to it should consult a master with the ability to see beyond the surface of things in order to determine what kind of ceremony, practice or other step would be useful.

Question: In the Mahayana, the motivation for practicing is to benefit others. But we are very attached to our egos and our own needs, so when we start to practice, we may outwardly accept this motivation but internally want to keep some of the benefit of practice for ourselves to solve our own problems. This often creates inner conflict. What is your advice?

Response: It is rare to find someone with no self interest. We need to begin by understanding the limitations of a self-centered approach, to realize that our deeply ingrained self-centeredness and egotism will ultimately prevent us from attaining omniscience and liberation, both of which we need to benefit others. With this understanding, we can begin to cultivate the altruistic motivation of bodhicitta. It takes time, patience and diligence, but if we meditate on it again and again, gradually our character will change. Most of us start out with a largely selfish motivation and very little altruism. The more we practice and focus on the shortcomings of selfish motivation and the benefits of altruistic motivation, the more the scales will begin to tip, until our self-concern is equal to our concern for others. Then as our concern for others becomes predominant, we will finally get to a point where there is no self-cherishing and our concern is solely for the welfare of others. This depends entirely on our efforts to cultivate pure motivation in meditation and the diligence we bring to our practice.

Question: Is it possible that through prayers, dedication of merit and so forth I can actually help someone? If this were really possible, it seems that many people would already have done so and all the problems of the world would be solved.

Response: There definitely is benefit to praying and dedicating merit on behalf of another. Suppose there were a group of people in a room lit by a single oil lamp and the oil began to run out. All the people in the room wouldn't have to get together to add oil to the lamp. If just one of them did so, the light would last longer and benefit everyone.

The extent to which others benefit from our prayers and practice is determined partly by their own receptivity. If some people in this group left the room or closed their eyes, they wouldn't benefit from the light. We ourselves benefit from praying in this way because our merit increases. The more we pray and dedicate the merit, the more we become capable of helping beings in an effortless way. The merit of buddhas and bodhisattvas praying and dedicating has accumulated over time so that they can effortlessly manifest countless emanations to benefit enormous numbers of beings. So there is a cumulative power to our prayers and dedication as well. The extent to which it will benefit another in the immediate situation is determined both by that person's receptivity and by our own power and ability to benefit.

Question: If enlightened beings are endowed with great compassion and wisdom, why do we have to request the same things of them over and over again in prayer, using the same words? Shouldn't they already know and give what we need? Have they forgotten their commitment to us?

Response: To use an example, the sun shines in the sky, radiating light and warmth without bias, unconditionally, without holding anything back. It doesn't think to itself, "If people pray to me, I will shine on them, give them light and warmth, and if they don't I won't." But if someone sits in the small mouth of a north-facing cave, that person will be exposed to only a small bit of sunlight and won't feel any warmth. That isn't the sun's fault. And it's not that the sun's light and warmth aren't available. Likewise, someone may sit in the sun with eyes closed and feel its warmth but not see the light. Or someone may crouch in a deep well where there is neither light nor warmth from the sun.

Prayer is like coming out of the cave, climbing out of the well or opening one's eyes to the sun, which is always shining, and enjoying its light and warmth. It's not that enlightened beings withhold anything, but that we fail to open ourselves to their blessings through prayer.

Question: What blessings do we receive as a result of our prayers and practices?

Response: Blessings can be experienced as increased understanding—understanding of the moral consequences of our actions, what we should accept or reject as correct or incorrect action. They can also take the form of experiences that arise in practice. Finally, blessings come through the fruition of our practice, when we actualize the true nature of mind.

Question: During visualization practice, what happens in our minds? Do we actually see the deity, or do we imagine the deity, creating a mental picture?

Response: To understand our present condition and the purpose of visualization, take water as an example. Although water in its natural state is liquid, under very cold conditions it will freeze. If we thaw the ice by warming it, it will return to its natural state. Just as water is liquid by nature, the three avenues of body, speech and mind are inherently the three vajras: vajra or wisdom form, speech and mind—the form, speech and mind of the deity. Due to the chill of delusion, we fail to recognize this. To bring about a change, a thaw, we do development stage practice, clearly visualizing our body, speech and mind as the body, speech and mind of the deity. This purifies the thought patterns in our minds that conceive of appearances as solid and real. Then the indwelling mandala of the deity that is the pure display of the true nature of reality, the ground of being, can become apparent.

Question: Although their appearances vary, are all deities in essence the same, or do they actually have different powers and do they make possible different realizations? Will a person experience different results according to which deity is used in meditation?

Response: Each deity is a different expression of what is essentially the same nature, pristine awareness, just as the force of electricity itself is always the same, though it can be used in different ways—to create warmth, light or combustion. All deities are expressions of pristine awareness, but because of the individual motivations, needs and inclinations of beings to be tamed, they arise in various forms—with different colors, postures, expressions, implements and adornments—and manifest different kinds of activities—pacifying, increasing, wrathful and the activity of power.

Question: Why are faith and devotion necessary, and how can they help one's practice? What advice would you have for someone who does not naturally have an inclination toward devotion?

Response: In order to complete a task, we must be convinced that it is useful and valuable. In the same way, in our practice, we need to have confidence in the teacher and in the value of the teachings themselves. We may not have great faith and devotion at first, but if we begin with that basic confidence, we can proceed. This initial faith is a sort of joy or good feeling about our connection with the teacher and the teachings, and it is what leads us to pursue that connection.

This type of faith can lead to a second kind—a feeling in one's heart that undertaking practice will truly bring happiness and relieve suffering. We have confidence that our lama or teacher has direct personal experience of the inner meaning of the teachings born of his or her own practice and the means to convey the information and techniques that will permit us to gain that experience ourselves.

Finally, an infallible conviction in the teachings and the teacher arises as the benefits of practice—a lessening of our afflictive emotions, negative karma and thus our suffering—become more and more apparent.

Those who are not naturally inclined toward devotion will realize the value of the teacher and teachings to the extent that they practice. With the results of practice will come faith.

Question: What makes change possible in the mindstream? Is it the blessings of the deity or the power of our sincere devotion?

Response: Both are needed; we can't have one without the other. Most important from our own point of view is our faith and devotion, which inspire us to pray and invoke the blessings of the deity, the source of and object of our faith. This allows blessings to enter and transform our mindstream, which enable us to attain the final goal of spiritual practice—full realization of the truth of our nature so we can be of ceaseless benefit to others.


These questions were asked of Chagdud Rinpoche by sangha members of Chagdud Gonpa Odsal Ling in the fall of 1992. Rinpoche's responses were translated by Richard Barron.

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