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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
MAY ALL BEINGS BENEFIT!
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.