Notes from Venerable Chodron's Talk: "Verse 4: Karma"

Remembering Karma Helps Us Develop Renunciation

Now we move to the second sentence in verse 4:

"By repeatedly contemplating the infallible effects of karma and the miseries of cyclic existence, reverse the clinging to future lives."

  • The two ways to generate renunciation for all of cyclic existence, even happy rebirths, is by remembering:
  • This talk concentrates on karma.

Observing karma is the core, the foundation of the whole path.

  • It's the first thing we have to do; without it, there's no way to build and get higher realizations.
  • Karma involves ethical discipline and getting our daily life together.

Karma means volitional (intentional) actions that we do physically, mentally, or verbally.

  • Some karma is created with actions that are done accidentally without any intention.
  • But usually when we talk about karma, we're talking about the karma that brings full results (e.g., what we're reborn as). With full results, we're talking about volitional actions with a definite motivation.

So karma isn't magical or mysterious.

  • Karma is actions and actions bring effects.
  • So this is cause and effect in terms of actions and their results.

The Four General Characteristics of Karma

  1. Karma is definite.
    • Happiness comes from positive actions; unhappiness comes from destructive actions.
    • This is not a system of reward and punishment, and it's not something that Buddha made up. He only described what he observed.
    • The Buddha first looked at the effects.
      • Where sentient beings were experiencing happiness, he was able to see what actions caused that happiness; those karmic actions were labeled positive.
      • Where sentient beings were suffering, he saw what actions had caused it, and those actions were labeled negative or destructive.
    • So something is not positive or negative, virtuous or non-virtuous inherently in and of itself, independent of everything else in the universe, just because God or Buddha said so.
      • An action becomes labeled positive if it brings the result of happiness.
      • An action is labeled negative if it brings the result of suffering.
      • This is a very different flavor from the belief that a supreme being invented the cause and effect and dishes out rewards and punishments.
      • In Buddhism, there are no rewards and punishments; things just bring results. The results correspond to their causes.
      • If you plant carnation seeds, you get carnations, not roses.
    • So we aren't rewarded or punished, we just experience results.
    • We are creating our own future by the actions that we do now.
    • Buddhism is a practice of personal responsibility. If we want happiness, the responsibility (and the power) is ours to create the causes.
  2. Karma is expandable.
    • A small action can bring a big result.
    • Analogy: A small seed or cutting can grow into a big tree that bears many fruits.
    • Even small harmful actions can bring a big, painful result.
    • Even a small positive action can bring big results and have a profound effect on our lives.
  3. If the cause hasn't been created, the result won't be experienced.
    • Things don't happen accidentally or randomly, without causes.
    • When people die an untimely death (i.e., before the extent of your life span has been lived out), it's generally due to a very heavy negative karma created in previous lives. It ripens as this heavy event that cuts off one's life prematurely.
    • If you haven't created that cause, even if you are so close to a big accident that could kill you, you don't get killed in that accident.
    • If we don't create the causes for happiness, for realizations of the path, for liberation and enlightenment, we're not going to get them.
    • It is our responsibility to create the causes, to practice, to transform our minds.
    • Remembering this helps us to be very vigilant about the kinds of causes we create and the kinds of things we engage in.
  4. Karma doesn't get lost.
    • Our karma doesn't vanish. Something we do in one life can plant seeds in the continuity of our mind—our ever-changing mind. Those seeds may not ripen for many lives, but they don't get lost.
    • This doesn't mean that things are fated and predetermined and that there's nothing we can do.
    • There's a lot of flexibility within the system of karma.
    • Karma is cause and effect, so it talks about conditionality, not about predestination and rigidity.
    • Re: negative actions, if we counteract them by purification (the four opponent powers), then we cut their energy.
    • Re: positive actions, if they get opposed by our getting angry or generating very strong wrong views, that impinges on the ability of our positive actions to bring their results.
      • So we protect them through dedicating the positive potential or the merit.
      • We also protect them through realizing that we (as the agent of the karma), the karma itself, the action itself, the object of the action, and the result we're going to experience—all these things are empty of inherent existence.
      • So dedicating with an understanding of emptiness helps us protect the seeds of our positive karma so they don't get damaged.
      • Remembering that anger is a conditioning factor that interferes with and dampens the effects of our constructive actions gives us more energy to avoid getting angry and hostile.

Dealing with Cause and Effect in Our Own Lives

So these are the four general characteristics of karma.

  • It's very helpful to meditate on this and make examples from our own lives.
  • Often when people get sick, they ask, "Why me?" They feel like victims.
    • If we have an understanding of karma, we understand that things happen due to causes and conditions, which may be partly from this lifetime and also from prior lives.
    • Still, we created the cause. Instead of rejecting the suffering and thinking life is unfair, we can say, "I created these causes, so I'm getting the result. If I don't like this result, then I have to be careful not to create the causes that bring it in the future."
    • This is a thought training practice. It can help us avoid getting angry when we experience suffering. We see there's no sense blaming anybody outside ourselves, because we're the ones who engaged in the negative actions. It motivates us to clean up our act.
  • Similarly, when we feel we're being treated unfairly, e.g., somebody talks negatively about us behind our back, we may start out complaining and blaming others.
    • When we realize how miserable we are, we can say, "Well, I created the cause for this. Since it's an unhappy result, it was a harmful action I did under the force of my own selfishness. So I have nothing to blame but my own self-centeredness and self-grasping. I've got to do something about those, and I've got to refrain from harmful actions."
    • We can also remember how many times we talked behind somebody's back. We need to clean ourselves up and stop blaming others.
  • We seldom ask "Why me?" when something good happens.
    • We tend to take it for granted when we have food, friends, a place to live, etc., though so many people don't have these things.
    • We need to remember that even one meal comes because of our own positive karma. It reminds us not to take the efforts of other sentient beings for granted, and not to neglect being generous ourselves, because generosity is the cause of receiving. (Not that we should be generous just in order to receive.)

Sometimes people ask why good people have unhappiness while people who have done harmful things have good results?

  • There are certain conditioning factors in life, e.g., social systems, diet, external conditions.
  • There are also karmic things.
    • Ex: A person who does a lot of harmful actions this life but experiences some degree of fame or wealth is consuming his good karma created in previous lives. They are also creating a lot of negative karma that will lead to future unhappiness.
    • Ex: Good people may be experiencing suffering due to negative actions done in a previous life.
  • It is not recommended to explain this to people who are in the middle of grieving and who don't have faith in cause and effect. They can easily misinterpret it to mean we're blaming the victim and saying they deserved to suffer.
    • Nobody deserves to suffer.
    • We're just saying that causes bring results.
  • The fact that causes bring results should not be used as a reason not to help people who are suffering for fear of "interfering with their karma."
    • Karma is not an excuse for not being compassionate or not helping.
    • As much as possible, we should do what we can to alleviate suffering.

The Complexity of Karma

Cause and effect is incredibly complex.

  • How our karma ripens depends on so many different things.
  • One action can bring many different types of results.
  • Within each type of result, exactly how and when and where something ripens is mitigated by so many other factors.
  • When we put ourselves in certain situations (either mental or physical), we can see it's much easier for negative karma to ripen.
    • The environment we place ourselves in can affect what karma ripens at a certain time.
    • The choices we make, the mental attitudes we have, and the motivations we hold all affect the kind of karma that ripens.
  • We have to have a vast mind in terms of understanding karma, and not see it as a simplistic thing.
  • We can make our TV watching or news-reading activities into meditations about karma.
    • Ex: What are the karmic results of the actions that people in the news are doing? What kind of results are they going to experience? We can also generate compassion for people who are so ignorant in that way.

Wealth and Karma

  • Wealth can lead to many problems, but it doesn't have to. If wealth comes to us because we've done good actions and people want to be generous to us, and if we have the bodhicitta as our motivation, then we would use the wealth to help others. We would not be attached to it, get greedy, etc. Just because we have fortunate worldly circumstances doesn't mean we have to misuse them.
  • Where karma ripens most is upon the aggregate of feeling, i.e., the experiences of happiness and suffering that we have.
  • Conditionality is not imposed on us. We are conditionality, we don't exist independent of conditionality. We exist only because of causes and conditions; without them, we don't exist.
    • When we talk about emptiness or nirvana, we're talking about the unconditioned and realizing that is liberating.
    • When we talk about the actions of a bodhisattva or a Buddha, or even an arhat, those are conditioned factors.
    • All of relative existence is conditioned, it's all dependent.
    • In cyclic existence, what we're conditioned by is karma and klesha (the afflictions or the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions). We want to be free of that kind of conditioning, which causes suffering.
    • If you're going to be of benefit and service to others, that depends on conditioning, too.
    • We have to create the path, and the path is a conditioned phenomenon.
    • Conditionality, impermanence—these are neither bad nor good.

Karma and Ethical Conduct

One of the reasons for talking about karma is that it helps us see that having a deluded mind that creates karma binds us into a cycle of suffering. So we talk about karma in order to generate the determination to be free from that cycle.

Another reason for talking about karma is to help us clean up our lives—to really use our human potential and stop creating the cause of suffering for ourselves and others.

These are the ten pathways of destructive actions:

  • Three destructive physical actions:
    • killing
    • stealing
    • unwise sexual conduct
  • Four destructive actions of speech:
    • lying (false speech)
    • creating disharmony
    • harsh speech
    • idle talk
  • Four destructive mental actions:
    • coveting
    • ill will
    • wrong views

It's a good idea to do a little review each evening and see which of these ten destructive actions we engaged in during the day.

  • Then we try during the day to be aware of whether our actions and thoughts are going in any of those directions and apply the antidote if they are.
  • Part of the antidote is thinking about the remedies to the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions that caused them.
    • Ex: If we engage in harsh speech out of anger, then meditate on patience to counteract the anger.
    • Ex: If we lie out of attachment and greed, then meditate on impermanence as an antidote to the attachment and greed.

The Four Results of Karma

We can also avoid destructive actions by thinking about their results. These can be counted as four results, or as three results, one of them divided into two parts.

  1. The maturation (ripening) result: This is the realm, the body and mind, that we are born into. We are currently experiencing the maturation result of previous actions that we did, resulting in our human body and human mind.
  2. The two causally concordant results: This can be in terms of our experience or our action.
    1. Causally concordant in terms of our experience: "What goes around comes around," i.e., in terms of the experience that we cause others, we then experience something similar to it. It's not exact, but if we cause suffering, we experience suffering.
    2. Causally concordant in terms of our action: We have the tendency to do an action again, i.e., we create the tendency or habit toward doing that action. This result can be the most serious of the four results; if we've built up a lot of karma in a very specific negative habit, then we have the tendency to do it again and again, thus creating more and more negative karma. One of the purifying effects for this result is taking and keeping the precepts.
  3. The environmental result: This is the environment we find ourselves living in.
    • Ex: If we've created the action of killing, we may live in an environment where there's a lot of violence, killing, and warfare.
    • Ex: If we've done a lot of stealing, we may live in an environment where property gets destroyed easily (even by hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.).
    • So we can look at our current environment and think about what kind of actions we did in the past that created the cause for this situation.
    • Or we can look at what we're doing now and get an idea of what causes we're creating for the future.

Constructive Actions

We can speak of ten constructive actions. They can be seen in two ways:

  1. Simply stopping oneself from doing a destructive action is a constructive action.
    • This is why taking and keeping the precepts helps us to create so much positive karma.
    • Every moment we are keeping a precept, we are in the act of consciously not doing a particular negative action—that's a constant creation of positive karma.
  2. Doing the opposite of a destructive action is the other way of doing constructive actions.
    • Ex: Instead of killing, deliberately protecting life (saving bugs or protesting the death penalty)
    • Ex: Instead of stealing, consciously respecting other people's property
    • Ex: Instead of speaking harshly, consciously speaking with kindness

Again, an evening review of our actions—constructive and destructive—is important for noting our progress and seeing what we need to work on.

Naturally Negative vs. Prohibited Actions

Some actions are naturally negative, while others are prohibited by the Buddha.

  • Naturally negative actions include things like killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, etc. These are things that, unless they are done by a bodhisattva or a Buddha with an especially pure motivation, are naturally negative because they are done with a negative motivation and doing them creates harm.
  • Actions prohibited by the Buddha include singing, dancing, wearing cosmetics, etc.
    • These are to be avoided because they were prohibited for monks and nuns by the Buddha because they caused difficulty for lay people or it made some other kind of problem.
    • These actions are not negative in and of themselves.

Factors That Make Actions or Karma Heavy or Light

There are different lists of the factors that make an action heavy or light; e.g., one list has six factors:

  1. The first factor is the nature of the action.
    • Physical: Killing is heavier than stealing, which is heavier than sexual misconduct.
    • Speech: Lying is heavier than divisive speech, which is heavier than harsh speech, which is heavier than idle talk.
    • Mental: Wrong views is heavier than ill will, which is heavier than coveting.
  2. The second factor is the object with which (or towards which) we do the action.
    • Doing positive or negative actions in terms of the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, or our spiritual teacher, or an arhat or bodhisattva is much heavier than doing them in terms of "Joe Blow" who does not have that Dharma relationship with us and isn't a being of exceptional qualities.
    • Doing positive or negative actions in terms of those who are poor, needy, sick, or suffering also creates strong karma.
      • This is called the field of compassion.
      • The way we give an offering to the poor or needy also creates strong karma, e.g., it's important to be respectful while offering money to a homeless person, not just throw it in his bowl and walk away as quickly as possible. Try offering with both hands as a gesture of respect. This affects not only the receiver but the giver.
  3. The third factor that makes something heavy or light is the strength of our intention.
    • If we have a very strong intention and/or motivation, the action is going to be much stronger than if our intention is weak. For example, saying harsh words when we're really angry and we really want to lay into somebody and hurt them creates a much stronger karma than making a small comment with a weak intention of anger.
    • Similarly, when doing positive actions, really take the time to cultivate a good intention. For example, the stronger the intention for enlightenment is, the more powerful is the karma from sharing the Dharma with others.
  4. The fourth factor that affects the strength of the karma is how the action was done.
    • Ex: If you torture somebody a long time before killing them, it's much heavier than killing them quickly.
    • Ex: If you speak harshly to somebody, deliberately pushing their buttons so you upset them more, the karma created is heavier than saying something that isn't a deliberate effort to push their buttons.
  5. The fifth factor re: whether something is heavy or light is the frequency of the action.
    • If we do something often, we're putting that energy in our mind repeatedly.
    • The masters recommend that we look at our habitual actions and work with those first.
  6. The sixth factor for whether something is heavy or light is whether we have applied an opponent power to it or not. For example, let's say we have used our speech in a divisive way to create disharmony, and then we feel good about it. If we rejoice about it, then it becomes much heavier than if we realize what we've done and sincerely regretting it and doing some purification, which lightens the karma.

It's very helpful to look at our own lives and make specific examples.

  • Look at specific positive and negative actions we've done, and analyze them in terms of these six factors.
  • This will give us some idea of what's heavy and what's light for what we do frequently.
  • Check if we actually generate the four opponent powers in a strong way or if we just regret our negative actions in a very casual way.

It's also very helpful to do a life review using the framework of the ten destructive actions and the ten constructive actions.

  • See which ones we have done.
  • See which ones to rejoice about in terms of constructive actions.
  • See which ones to purify in terms of destructive actions.
  • Do some analysis about what things have been heavier or lighter in our life. This helps us get some understanding of our habits and also how our mind works.
  • Make some determination about the way we want to behave in the future. The stronger that determination, the easier it will be to carry it out in the future.

Throwing Karma and Completing Karma

  • Throwing karma is the karma that is spoken about in the twelve links.
    • It's the second link when we talk about the 12 links in terms of the process of rebirth (not ego rebirth).
    • It causes the maturation result, the ripening result of what we're born as.
  • The completing karma are the actions that we've done that create the causes for the different circumstances into which we are born (e.g., rich or poor, intelligent or not, well liked or not, etc.). We have many different completing karmas that may ripen during our life, some good, some bad.
  • We can consider the four alternatives somebody might be experiencing:
    • A good result from throwing karma and a good result from completing karma, e.g., a human being with food, access to the Dharma, etc.
    • A good result from throwing karma but a bad completing karma, e.g., a human being living in a war zone
    • Result of an unfortunate throwing karma but a fortunate completing karma, e.g., dogs and cats who are treated as beloved pets, better off than many humans on this planet
    • Result of a harmful throwing karma and a harmful completing karma, e.g., almost all the dogs in India are starving, get kicked, have mange, etc.

Actions That Are Done, Actions That Are Accumulated

  • An action that is done is just an action that we do (perform, commit).
  • An accumulated action (sometimes translated as intended action) is an action that is done with intention.
  • We can talk about four points:
    • An action that is done and was intended, e.g., deliberately deciding to tell the truth about something; there was the intention, and then the words were actually said
    • An action that is done but not intended, e.g., accidentally stepping on an ant, or being drafted and forced into the army, or being tortured and forced to do something
    • An action that wasn't done, but was intended, e.g., intending to give somebody a gift, but not doing it
    • An action that wasn't done or intended, e.g., you dream that you rob a bank then you wake up and regret it

Collective Karma and Individual Karma

  • Individual karma is karma that one creates oneself, as an individual.
  • Collective karma is karma we create together, e.g., sitting in Dharma class together.
    • There is a chance that we will experience a result of this action together since we created the action together.
    • Individuals within the group are still creating their own individual karma, e.g., with their mental attitudes, their motivations when they speak, etc.

Aspects of Causality

Karma is just one aspect of causality. Everything that happens is not happening solely because of karma. In the commentaries, this is broken up into five kinds of causality:

  1. Material causality, like physics and chemistry, refers to the workings of the physical world. Something can happen where this is the major or predominant component, e.g., weather events.
  2. Biological causality, i.e., something happens because that is the way living beings work, that's their biology, e.g., the effects of heredity.
  3. Processes of the mind, how it works—some are not necessarily karma-creating, but they are just present, so something happens because that is how the mind works.
  4. Karma is the fourth causality where there are ethical choices and consequences.
  5. The natural law governing the relationship and interdependence of all things: the way all things arise, exist and then cease; all conditions are subject to change, are in a state of affliction, and are not self.

Remember, karma is talking about the human experience of happiness and suffering, i.e., what causes happiness? What causes suffering?

Notes from Geshe Sonam Rinchen's Book: The Three Principal Aspects of the Path: An Oral Teaching

Overcoming Our Clinging to Future Lives

Tsongkhapa speaks of overcoming our clinging to future pleasures thus:

"Repeatedly considering actions, their unfailing effects as well as the suffering of cyclic existence stops clinging to future pleasures."

  • "Future pleasures" refers to the excellent physical form, possessions, places and companions we hope to enjoy in future rebirths as humans or celestial beings.
  • This may also refer to everything associated with a pure land, when our wish to be born there is not out of altruistic concern for others but out of a wish for security and personal freedom from suffering.
  • Though the desire for well-being in future rebirths is neither harmful nor in conflict with sincere practice of the teachings, it is a hindrance if one is seeking freedom from cyclic existence.

Initial Level vs. Intermediate Level Practices

The practices of the initial level are aimed at overcoming attachment to the pleasures of this life. These practices include:

  • recognizing the preciousness and transience of our human life
  • thinking about the suffering experienced in bad states of rebirth
  • taking refuge
  • reflecting on the connection between actions and their effects

The practices of the intermediate level are intended to overcome clinging to the pleasures of future rebirths. They include:

  • meditating on the preciousness and transience of our precious human life to destroy our preoccupation with this life
  • meditating on the connection between actions and their effects and on the suffering experienced in cyclic existence to overcome clinging to the pleasures we hope for in future rebirths

Karma (Actions) and Liberation

Until we gain liberation, we'll continue to suffer repeated involuntary birth and death as a result of our actions.

  • To attain liberation, we must rid ourselves completely of all activity, wholesome or unwholesome, that is underlain by ignorance, since this keeps us tied to cyclic existence.
  • The only way to liberation is to put the teachings into practice. This can't be done unless we take into consideration the subtle and complex connection between actions and their effects.

Four General Points About Karma

When thinking about karma—the unfailing connection between actions and their effects—there are four general points which apply to all actions, whether they are positive or negative.

  1. Actions and their effects are definite. Each action produces its own specific and individual result, just as barley seed produces barley and wheat seed produces wheat.
  2. Actions and their effects grow.
    • No matter how small an action is, it can produce significant results, just as one small seed can produce a huge tree.
    • We should not think a small negative action is nothing to worry about.
    • Even the most insignificant good deed is worth performing.
  3. If we have not performed an action, we will not experience its result. For example, it's no good hoping to experience the results of virtue which we have not created.
  4. An action once performed is not lost.
    • If we create a negative action, we'll have to experience its consequences.
    • The only way to avoid suffering is not to create its causes or to purify the unwholesome actions we have performed.

Actions and Their Effects

Conviction regarding the connection between actions and their effects gives us the incentive to adopt what needs to be cultivated and get rid of what must be discarded; this is how the Buddha's teachings are practiced.

Consider this sequence:

  • Our precious human life provides us with the freedom and fortune to accomplish enduring happiness, but this life will not last long and we can die at any moment.
    • Our consciousness will go on to another life.
    • At present, we have no control over this process, but must take rebirth wherever our past actions propel us.
  • We've performed all kinds of actions.
    • Depending on which imprint is most influential at death, we'll take either a good or a bad rebirth.
    • What are our mental and emotional habits?
    • Have we performed more wholesome or unwholesome actions?
      • If we're in the habit of thinking and acting constructively, we have created positive energy and our habitual patterns of thought will assert themselves at death, since what is familiar comes to the fore when conscious control weakens.
      • If our hearts are empty of positive feelings and old negative habits are still firmly entrenched, our prospects are bleak.
  • A preponderance of negative actions will lead to a rebirth in one of the three bad states:
    • Hell beings are tormented by intense heat or cold.
    • Hungry spirits constantly experience starvation and thirst.
    • Animals suffer fear and exploitation as a result of their limited intelligence.
  • Sufficient contemplation of any of these forms of suffering leads to despair, which is a necessary condition for taking sincere refuge.
    • We need to look for help from those who are free from fear, compassionate to all without bias, and willing to help us whether or not we help them.
    • As a Buddhist, one takes refuge in enlightened beings who possess these qualities, in their teachings, and in the spiritual community of those who properly practice those teachings. Soundly based conviction that the Three Jewels can help you will bring immense relief and joy and make you want to take refuge at once.
      • Taking refuge in the Buddha means regarding him and all other enlightened beings as those who show you what your true refuge is.
      • When you take refuge in the teachings, you regard their practice, especially the attainment of nirvana, as your true protection because once you have freed yourself from cyclic existence you will never again experience suffering.
      • When taking refuge in the sangha, you regard its members as your role models and friends.
    • Taking refuge entails making a sincere commitment to the Three Jewels in your heart and expressing it in words.
      • The measure of having taken refuge is that you regard no other refuge as higher or ultimately more capable of protecting you.
      • You undertake to observe certain specific and general precepts of training; each time you make an effort to overcome a faulty way of thinking or acting and each time you try to develop or strengthen a good quality, you create your true protection. The Three Jewels can only help you if you do this.

What Makes Actions Powerful

We can avoid bad rebirths by thinking about the infallible nature of the connection between actions and their effects, and putting into practice what we have understood. We also need to understand what makes actions powerful.

  • Actions which are frequently repeated or motivated by strong feelings are powerful.
  • A good action done out of faith, love, or compassion or a negative action done out of anger, jealousy, or lust is much stronger than a similar action done without these feelings.
  • Actions performed towards our spiritual teachers, parents, or others who have been kind to us are weighty.
  • So are actions performed in relation to those with good qualities (such as the Three Jewels) or towards those who are suffering.

These considerations are important because we want our positive actions to be strong in every way and negative ones to be as weak as possible.

The Ten Harmful Activities

Observance of the natural law of karma begins with restraint from the ten harmful activities: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, using harsh language, using divisive language, idle gossip, covetousness, harmful thoughts, and wrong views.


When we are convinced of the connection between actions and their effects and try to live accordingly, we have discovered the correct worldly view.

Our aim should be to protect our three gateways of body, speech, and mind from faulty activity.

  • If we perform any unwholesome actions, purify them.
  • None of us can afford to be careless about the actions we perform.