THE FOUR FUNDAMENTAL THOUGHTS
So far, we have been presenting the preliminaries to the preliminaries.
The Ngöndro practice begins with the Four Foundations, also known as the Four Fundamental Thoughts, or the Four Contemplations, according to the different translations. We have already discussed them in the course of last year teachings on Gampopa’s “Jewel Ornament of Liberation”, and it may therefore be unnecessary to go too much into details. However, the Ngöndro approach is more practical: we are talking here about how to actually practise these Four Thoughts, how to really experience them. There lies the difference.
As I already explained (but this must be very strongly emphasised), to understand something and to put it into actual practice are two different things. When we talk about understanding, analysis and rationalising, we usually think that it is just logic: we think in a logical way, come to a logical conclusion, and that is the end. From a Buddhist point of view, that is not the end, that is not the real understanding. The real understanding is the experience. There is a great difference between talking about something that you know all about but have not seen and something you have actually seen. A learned professor who has studied everything about Lhassa and somebody who has actually been there will talk a little differently about Lhassa. In the same way, to come to a conclusion through our logical, rational analysis, or through our experience, these two are not the same.
To understand through books and teachings is quite easy, because most of the things we discuss in Buddhism are not completely illogical. (Maybe some are, but ...) Therefore it is easy to understand. However, a real change in ourselves cannot happen with that kind of understanding. What we need to do here is to bring this understanding deep into ourselves, so that it becomes a real experience, not just leave it at an intellectual level. That is what we mean by contemplation, or meditation. This is the purpose of the Four Foundations, to make these understandings really sink into us and become part of our system. When that happens, then it really works, it makes a difference, it changes something. Our fundamental outlook, our basic way of seeing things changes so that all the rest, our beliefs, our ways of reacting, also change, because they are dependent on this outlook. If we do not change our basic way of seeing things, the other things will not change either and we will continue to react as before. We may have some information on how things really are, but that does not really matter much, because it does not change us and we still function in the same way. When it becomes our experience, then we are transformed.
These four basic thoughts are very simple, but very strong and effective if we can really understand them. They are, as most of you know: the Precious Human Life, Impermanence, Karma and Samsara.
1. The Precious Human Life
When we get up in the morning, we feel the presence of our guru, the lineage of the guru and all the enlightened beings are in front of us, and we start our practice with the four fundamental thoughts. We recite the lines that are meant to remind us of them. Of course, what is important is to remember them. As we said before, to understand something is fundamental, but once we have understood, the only way to integrate it into our way of seeing things, is to think about it again and again, to be more and more aware of it, to familiarise ourselves with that understanding and to get so strongly habituated to it that it becomes our natural way of seeing things. There is no other way. It will then become part of our experience. This is how the practice is done.
In the actual Ngöndro text, there are just two lines to remind us of the Precious Human life:
The first meditation topics concerns the precious human life endowed with every freedoms and assets. It is difficult to get and can be easily destroyed, so now is the time to make it meaningful.
The English translation does not sound very poetic, but it gives the meaning. You can find the definition of what is meant by “the precious human body” in “The Torch of Certainty1” and other books. Sometimes it is explained that the human body is not necessarily precious, and is only considered precious when certain conditions are combined. But in fact, all human life is precious, because if we already have a human life, we can make it precious. Whether we make it precious or not depends very much on ourselves. See whether you have a precious human body or not. If you have one, value it and make good use of it. If you do not, then make it precious
Most of the time, we do not value very much our lives as human beings. When we do not value something, we do not appreciate it. When we do not realise the true value of something, we cannot enjoy and use it properly. It is only when we know that what we have is really precious that we can use it according to that value.
Suppose you have a crystal glass, but you do not know it is crystal - you will use it for everything and maybe break it. If you know it is a precious crystal glass, then you will take care of it and even if you only drink water in it, you will feel proud and happy because you may be drinking water, but in a crystal glass!
Therefore, we have first to appreciate what we have. If we do not, we will not value it or enjoy it, so what is the use of having it?. It is very important.
I was so shocked the first time I came to England. A professor came to see me and told me he was going to commit suicide. I asked why, and he told me that for the second time, he had not been allowed to attend a 7 days conference in America! I was stunned. But he actually meant it, he was very serious. He had prestige, a position, everything, he made lots of money, and just because he could not go to America (he could have gone with his own money if he had wished to) because his department had refused him the authorisation, he was about to commit suicide! How little he valued his life! It is very foolish, isn’t it? But it happens - I think maybe many people died for less than that!
If we know how precious our life is, then we would not waste it in sadness, depression or worries because of small things. We usually worry ourselves to death, don't we? For almost nothing, very small things, we can make ourselves so unhappy and tense! We waste our time and do not enjoy life at all because we always worry. If we make them big, very small things can actually become overwhelming, although they will seem insignificant to somebody who has seen many problems. When I first came in the West - maybe I should not tell this, but - I felt that all the problems people were telling me about were actually no problems, they were so small compared to those people encounter in other parts of the world!
Therefore, when we know that our life is important, valuable, precious, that it is not something we should waste, we will appreciate it and use it more purposefully. We will not waste it by making ourselves uselessly miserable. If something goes wrong, then all right, it goes wrong, but we still have our life, which is very precious. If we understand this deeply, then even if we have nothing left, completely nothing but just our life, we should still be very happy. Even if we have only a very little time left, we will not panic and waste that little time too in unnecessary worries, but we will use it purposefully. We are actually very powerful. As you all know, human beings are considered the most intelligent species on earth - at least - and maybe we are. Of course we can use our intellect, our power for right or wrong purposes: we can use it to destroy ourselves and the whole universe or to benefit ourselves and others. But whichever way we use it, we have this very big power, this big opportunity.
To understand deeply the preciousness of our human life means to understand the great opportunity we have: we can do so many things, so many good things for ourselves and for others. If we really want to and if we really try, we can even put an end to all our problems.
When we develop that understanding, whatever we do is affected and influenced by it, therefore we cannot do anything really negative, really bad, because that would mean wasting our time.
Moreover, this does not only change our way of looking at ourselves but also our way of looking at others. When we appreciate ourselves, when we value our own life, then we value others’ too. Only when we value ourselves and our own life can we value others’. If I appreciate myself as I am, I will not waste my life, and if I appreciate others’ I will not waste their time either. If I really see things that way, I am completely transformed, I have become a very nice person, a good human being. Just through really meditating, truly contemplating and understanding this first foundation, the Precious Human Body, we can actually transform ourselves and become better human beings.
Of course, when we talk about the precious human life, some people may laugh at it (I did too!... You know: “What is so precious about it?”) However, if we really think about it, if we first understand it, then think it over again and again, remember it, make it part of ourselves, then maybe...
Once we have understood the preciousness of human life, we should also realise that it is not easy to get, and that it is very delicate, very easy to lose. When we understand it deeply, we will feel a strong inspiration, a strong urge to make something purposeful out of our life, for us and for others.
If we really have that understanding, that attitude, it means we have accomplished the first foundation: we have become better human beings, who value their own lives, abilities and capacities, who also have concern for others and are willing to work for their own and others’ benefit.
I think that the preciousness of human life is very much linked with our own pure true nature. For me this is quite clear, I believe in the purity of our true nature. But often, when I talk with other people, even very clever people, I find it difficult to make them understand it. They do not believe in that. Is there a way to explain it clearly so that they might accept the notion? I have tried many times different ways, but I do not succeed.
Neither do I! That’s why I did not mention that! But maybe they will understand it slowly. Usually, when we teach, for instance when we teach language to children, we have to use a gradual method. For many years, I have been writing school books for children and I had great difficulties to write for primary classes, because one has to write in a very graded manner. You cannot put in a book for the 2nd class what they will only learn in the 4th class. When you write a lesson for the 1st or 2nd class, you have to make sure that you include only what they have already learned or are about to learn. If we jump from the basics, that is the precious human body, to the Buddha nature, it is difficult to grasp. Maybe if we go step by step, people will find a connection. Of course, the Buddha nature is a very important, even essential, concept in Buddhism, and especially in Mahayana and Vajrayana. In another way, it may not be so difficult to grasp and accept for many people.
When I come in contact with another person who is suffering, it just breaks my heart. What can I do? I mean, it definitely gives me the responsibility to work on my mind, to become a better person myself, but that is what I can do for myself. Now what can I do for that other person who suffers, how can I alleviate his/her sufferings, make it lighter?
You cannot help other people completely, that is true. But what is to be done about that, what can you do? When you understand that you cannot do much for somebody else, it means that somebody else cannot do too much for you either, can he/she? Therefore, for your own good, you must work your own way. You must transform yourself, and then only you may be able to help others and show them how to help themselves. But of course, you can take the horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink.
How much you can help others depends a lot on how much you have understood how to help yourself, how to deal with your own problems. If you do not know how to deal with your own sufferings, how could you help somebody else who is suffering too? But if you can, if you actually know very well how to deal with your problems, then it is more likely that you will be able to help others, because you know yourself how to work it out.
Many people come to me to ask: “How should I teach somebody to be completely happy and have no problems?” I do not know, maybe the first step is to learn it yourself! If I do not know how to be happy myself, I cannot possibly help others to be happy either. In this modern time, people seem to prefer teaching rather than learning themselves. Actually, it is very important first to learn how to do something yourself, then you will not need much training to know how to teach others what you know. Therefore, it is one more reason to practise, to learn, to experience yourself, in order to have more experience, more understanding, more knowledge and more skill to help others. The more you see the sufferings of others, the more you feel frustrated that you cannot help, the more inspired and motivated you become to learn how to get out of sufferings yourself.
The second foundation is impermanence. The root text says:
“Secondly, the universe and everything that lives therein is impermanent, particularly the lives of beings, who are like water-bubbles. The time of death is uncertain, and when you die, you will become a corpse. Dharma will help you at that time, therefore practise it diligently now.”
It is not really saying “you”, it is saying “me”. All these sentences are like reminders to ourselves.
We have talked quite a lot about impermanence last year, we find it explained in all the books, and we all know about it. Therefore, we will not explain it this time, but rather talk about how to really experience impermanence. How can we bring our rational, intellectual understanding of impermanence into our daily life? As I said before, the only way is to practise it, to think about it again and again, to be aware of it , to try and see impermanence all around us.
All of us know that there is nothing really permanent: everybody dies, everything changes, we can see the evidence of it everywhere. It is no secret, it is not difficult to understand. However, when something happens to us, like for instance, if this vase falls down and breaks, or my watch stops working, then I get completely upset. I know that this watch is impermanent, that it will stop some day, but when it actually breaks, it is hard for me to accept. Therefore we need to remind ourselves, to be aware of this fact again and again. It is not an understanding that should come to us from time to time, when we read books on Buddhism, or when we meditate on impermanence. It should become our basic way of seeing things. That is what we try to do, because if we really understand impermanence, it can actually change our life, change our way of reacting, our character, our personality.
Let us take a simple example and imagine three or four persons staying together, a family, a group of friends or more people, like a centre: quite often they will be quarrelling, fighting, sometimes for very small things! If they really understood impermanence, they would not react like that. Members of a family can think they are together for a whole life, but who knows how long this life will last: maybe only till tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or next year ... When we know that it is not going to last very long anyway, we will try to make the best out of that short time. If we develop that whatever happens, it cannot be for a very long time anyway, then even if something goes wrong, it will not be so difficult to bear. It does not mean that we should not solve our problems - of course we should solve them! But we will not make it an issue for which we are ready to fight bitterly, for which we are ready to completely devastate our own and others' lives. We will naturally become easier to live with, because we will no longer react with excessive sensitivity to small things. We will no longer be like what a Tibetan saying defines as a “ball of pus”: when a wound gets infected, full of pus, then even the soft and light contact of a feather is very painful, isn’t it? If we are like that, we will react badly to the slightest annoyance, whereas if we understand impermanence more deeply, we will not take whatever happens so seriously any more. I do not mean that we should not take anything seriously, that we should not bother about anything, but that we do not take it too seriously, that we no longer make ourselves miserable for small things. Thanks to this, we can delay our reactions. Even if somebody says something unpleasant to us, we can think “All right, he/she said something bad to me, but if I react by answering something bad to him/her, it will hurt him/her and create more problems, so I will try to reason and solve the problem in a more amiable way. I do not have to become completely angry and start fighting. I will work it out slowly.” All our emotions, especially the negative ones - like anger - are such that if we can delay our reaction for a short while, they go away. If we can delay our reaction for a few seconds, the better part of our consciousness may start functioning and we will refrain from reacting according to the negative impulse. We will then be glad that we resisted the impulse of doing what we would have regretted afterwards, and it will give us lots of confidence and joy.
If we develop such an attitude within our family, we will end up with lots of love and compassion, because all the people react in the same way, except a few. There are always exceptions at both ends. You can compare humanity to a Gauss curve:
At one end, we have the "best few": they will not change whatever we do, they will remain very good all the time. At the other end, we have the "worst few". We cannot change them either, they will remain bad whatever we do. But these are the minority, all the rest, the majority can be influenced. If we do good things, if we are kind to others, they will be kind and good to us. If we are unkind to them, they will be unkind to us. If I smile to you, you smile back. If I frown at you, you frown back. It is like the story I have certainly told you already, the story of the wise shepherd:
There was a wise shepherd who used to sit on a hill looking after his sheep. His village was down the valley. One day a man came and asked him: “What kind of people live down there in that village?" The shepherd asked him: “What kind of people lived in the village you come from?” And the man answered: “They were very nasty people, quarrelsome, inhospitable, very bad people.” “Well”, replied the shepherd, “the people down there are exactly like that, just the same, horrible, inhospitable, nasty.” Later, another man came and asked the same question. Again, the shepherd asked him what kind of people were living in the village he came from. And the man answered: “Oh, they were so nice, friendly, hospitable, really good people.” And the shepherd told him “Well, the people down there are just the same, very nice, helpful, hospitable”.
Why did he give two completely opposite answers to the same question? Because whether people are nice or not depends about 90% on how we are ourselves. If we are nice, compassionate, open and generous, then other people will naturally be kind to us too. If we are kind with them, why should they not be kind to us? But if we are rather bad, rather harsh, then it is likely that most people will also behave like that with us. Therefore, if you always have the impression that everybody behaves badly towards you, it probably means that there is something wrong with you.
There is a story from Cashmere - I will not tell the whole story, it is a long one. There was a father and his son. Before he died, the father gave many recommendations to his son. Out of these, two were quite confusing: the first was that he should never walk in the sun, and the second that he should marry a new girl every day. He had always been an obedient son, very respectful towards his father, so he did not question his father's instructions. Moreover, apart from these two confusing points, all the other instructions were very good. He was now facing a big problem. He could walk only when there was no light, that was not too difficult, but how could he find somebody to marry him for just one day? At last, after having searched for a long time, a beautiful girl accepted the deal. The ceremony was prepared and he asked her once more whether she was sure to agree to marry him, because the next day, he would divorce and marry someone else. She answered it was all right. The next morning, when he about asked her to go away, she replied: “No, actually, you have misunderstood your father’s instructions. He did not mean that you have to marry another girl every day, you can marry me again! What he meant was that every morning, you should treat your wife as if she was newly wed!” He thought that she was probably right, that this might be true, and they lived on together very well. However, as he dare not walk out in the sun, he was sitting inside the house, not going anywhere, and his business was declining. When his wife advised him to go to his shop, he explained her that he could not, because his father had instructed him not to walk in the sun. She told him that he was wrong, once again he had misunderstood his father’s intention. What his father really meant was that he should go to his shop before sunrise, and only come back after sunset, so that he would not walk in the daylight at all!
Sometimes, people think that if we are talking or thinking about impermanence, we become very gloomy, very serious, but actually, it is completely the opposite! If we really understand, if we are really convinced of impermanence, we become broader-minded, more open. Everything changes anyway, even I will die, and I do not know when that will happen. The moment I die, all the small problems I have today disappear at once! If I know I can die tomorrow, I will consider the small problems I have today from a broader perspective. I will not take them so badly because I am prepared for the worst.
There is an English saying that says more or less: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, do your utmost.” It is a nice saying, isn’t it?
It is not that we just hope for the best and then sit down doing nothing, that does not work! We should do our best, our utmost, whatever we can, and then only, hope for the best. Of course, when we do our best, we hope for the best, but at the same time, we get prepared for the worst, because anything can go wrong at any moment. When we do that, even if things come to the worst, we are prepared to face it. When we have a deep understanding of impermanence, we are always prepared for the worst, therefore small problems can be taken in the right way, we will not react too negatively if something goes wrong, and if things turn out well, then it is very good. Our clinging to things is a little softened, loosened, we become broader, more open, more spacious, and therefore more joyful! This really happens. The more we understand impermanence, the more generous and open we become, because we know that, anyway, whatever comes will go, good things as well as bad ones.
Besides this, understanding impermanence will lead us to a greater understanding of the true nature of things. It will make us see more clearly the way things really are on a personal, experiential level. Although understanding impermanence is very simple, it actually leads us close to seeing the inter-relatedness, the interdependent nature of things, what we call “Shunyata”, or emptiness, which is the basic, essential philosophy of Buddhism. Understanding Shunyata is actually nothing more than the subtlest, most minute understanding of impermanence. Impermanence means that everything changes. Everything, even when seemingly static, is changing, and change takes place within relatedness, each thing affecting each other. This is something we can see, we can understand. If we look more deeply, more closely at this flower, we will understand that it is made of many different parts, in interrelation not just with one or two things, but almost with the whole universe! This flower has connections throughout the whole universe. Therefore, it is not a solid, undividable, independent entity, it is not just one thing, but it is a very intricate complex, completely interdependent, “inter-related”. The Buddha once explained
the phenomena of the whole universe by comparing them to a net of jewels. There is a voluminous Sutra on this subject. He describes a net of very big, shiny and beautiful jewels, like diamonds, cut in more than 100,000 facets each, and they all reflect one another. The whole universe, the way things are is like this: each phenomena reflects all the others, contains the causes and effects of all the others, all things are interrelated. There is not one thing which is just one, unchanging and independent, not related to something else. The Buddha also compared the whole process, the whole universe, all phenomena to dreams, mirages, waves, water bubbles. These different examples mean that things are at the same time there and not there. They can be compared to a dream. When we say this, let us be very clear: it is not a dream, it is like a dream. Saying that the world is like a dream means that the world has the same nature as that of a dream. In a dream, we see and experience things very clearly, everything is there. However, when we wake up, we realise that there was actually nothing. The way things are, their nature is something like that. It is very much there, but at the same time, it is not as much there as we think. In the same way, it is like mirages and other examples. All these examples are similar in one point, not all, to the way things are.
If we understand impermanence very deeply, then we also understand emptiness. (We have not talked about emptiness so far - and I am not going to talk about it as last year we talked about emptiness all the time2.)
Impermanence does not mean that everything stops, it means that everything changes. Because of impermanence, of inter-dependence, there is the possibility of change, of growth, of apparent growth and apparent dissolution. Therefore, what we are now will not last. If we are in a problematic situation, if we experience some misery, or sufferings, if bad things are happening to us, it can change. And if we are in a good position, that can change too. If we are in a very difficult situation we could even change it ourselves. That is the main understanding: as there is nothing permanent, nothing really stable and static, we can change things, we can improve them, we can make them better or worse.
Our life is also changing all the time, we can die any time, all kinds of things can happen. Therefore, if we want to improve our life and our mind, we should do it now, because if we do not do it now, we might not get as good an opportunity in the future.
The first of the Four Thoughts is meant for those who have little confidence, little self-respect : they should contemplate the precious character of having a human body. There are also people who are too proud of themselves, who think they are very good and fortunate, and that they will always be (they may have done too much of the “precious human life”!). Those should reflect more about impermanence, to avoid becoming too slack, too complacent. They may think with great self-satisfaction: “I have a precious human body, yeaaah!” But that is not enough: things are going to change, and what then?
Meditation on impermanence is meant to push us, to make us work hard in our practice of Dharma. It is an understanding that gives us a strong motivation to practice Dharma. When we die, everything is going to change, and the only thing we can really bring with us is our mind, our actions and reactions. Therefore, the only way we can help ourselves is to change our way of reacting, to change our mind. Only Dharma can help, which is why we should practise Dharma.
This is what the stanza of the text says. That kind of reasoning will give us more interest, more enthusiasm in our practice of Dharma.
In the prayer we recite at the end of the teachings, we say that we dedicate the merits of our virtuous actions. How would you define a virtuous action? I am not interested in an academic definition, I would like your own definition.
“Sönam3”, virtue ... “Sönam” is a very difficult word to translate into English. “Virtue” has been used, but I do not know how close or how far it is from the actual meaning. “Sönam” means the result of a positive deed.
So now you probably want to know what a positive deed is? A positive deed is any deed that brings a positive result, which means a good, happy result, that benefits ourselves and others, now or in the long run. In a way, it is any action that is not negative or neutral. What is negative is what brings harm, unhappiness, disharmony, discomfort to me and others, now or in the long run.
What does not bring any result is a neutral deed.
In concrete terms, anything that we do with a positive mind, that is compassion, wisdom, a good heart, love, kindness, the wish to help, wanting to do good for others or ourselves, all these are positive.
If I give this teaching, and you come to listen to it, with the intention to benefit yourself and others, if we have that motivation, then it becomes a positive deed, and when we dedicate it, it has also a positive result.
But if I do it in a different way, with a different motivation, like for instance, because I have nothing else to do, or because I feel very big and important when I sit on a throne and talk to people, then my motivation is not positive, but rather negative.
What is diligence?
Working hard! Diligence is working hard, but not just that. The real definition of diligence, “tsöndrü4", is feeling joyful in doing something positive. We should not work hard with too much resistance, feeling as if it were an obligation! Diligence is finding joy in doing good things.
Summary of previous days of teachings:
We are going through the Ngöndro practices or the preliminaries to Mahamudra. Before we actually start practising Mahamudra, these are the practices which are done as a foundation, a preparation, as laying the basic understanding through which we slightly change our way of seeing things. We bring some of our understandings gained through analysis down to our own experience. These preparations make us more fertile to receive the Mahamudra teachings and practices. They help us to actually understand what we are talking about. It is not that Mahamudra teachings should not be given to those who are not prepared, who have not done the preliminaries because they might understand Mahamudra and we should keep those teachings secret! That is not it! It is because they would not understand Mahamudra, they would not know what we are talking about, and therefore the teachings would not be of any use. A very precious thing, a great treasure would be wasted because, not seeing the expected result, they would completely reject it, thinking it completely useless - just because they do not understand it. Therefore, this preparation is very important. The more prepared we are, the more we will be able to bring some or all of these teachings into our actual experience, the more fertile we become to really receive the Mahamudra teachings and understand something, get something out of the them.
The Ngöndro starts with the 4 Foundations, or 4 Thoughts, out of which we have already discussed the first two, that is the Precious Human Life, and Impermanence. We now come to the third one: Karma.
Karma means the actions and reactions, the causes and effects. It is actually the basic understanding of interdependence, of interrelatedness. The stanza in the text is just a reminder. It says:
Thirdly, after your death, you will have to experience your own karma, having no degree of control over what happens. So give up harmful actions - all your time should be spent in the practice of virtue. Thinking this way, evaluate your life daily.
The karma is very important from the Buddhist point of view. It is not just something you believe in, but something you understand. Whether you believe it or not, your understanding of it makes a great change. Last year, I explained in detail what karma is. In a nutshell, karma means that whatever we do gives a result, a reaction. Anything that happens is the continuation of something that went on before. The theory of karma and the theory of interdependence are actually the same. A combination of particular elements will give rise to a particular situation. Another combination will trigger another situation. It is like chemistry. If we combine hydrogen and oxygen, we get water. This applies to the phenomenal world, but also to all our actions. We are ourselves completely responsible for what will happen to us in the future as well as for what we are now, because what and how we are is the result of our past actions. Unless we make some major changes, what we will be in the future will be quite similar (with slight differences of course) to what we are now. The karmic process does not function as if somebody was recording our actions in a notebook and deciding afterwards how we should be rewarded accordingly. “He/she did this, next time he/she should be given that!” It does not work like that.
Anything that happens, anything we do with strong feelings, with strong emotions is incorporated in our own mind stream, in our way of thinking and reacting. It reinforces our emotional and thought patterns, it becomes part of our own personality, and therefore it gives rise to a similar result. Many people tell me “This psychological problem I have now comes from a big shock I experienced in my childhood.” This is well-known nowadays, isn’t it? How does it happen? It is the same process, it is how karma works. It is not that what happened, what you did in your childhood, was recorded, written down, so that you are now suddenly given back what you deserve. What happens is that whatever we do, whatever strong reaction we have, becomes part of our being. It matures in us and when certain circumstances are combined, that reaction reappears, sometimes with even greater power. When it has grown so strong, there is not much we can do about it.
This process does not only take place in the course of one lifetime, but it builds up for many, many lifetimes. We can witness how the karma works in this lifetime, and if we put this process in the broader perspective of many lifetimes, we will understand more easily how it functions.
Sometimes, when something bad, negative happens to us, we get very disturbed and frustrated: “What is this? How can this happen to me? I do not deserve it!” We get very upset because of insufficient understanding of karma. If we understand karma, it will be easier for us to accept what we are going through. Of course, life is not always a walk in a rose garden. There is good and bad. Sometimes very good things happen, sometimes very bad ones. If we can take those bad things as the result of our own karma, we will not look for something or somebody to blame it on, and we will not get angry. Usually, we think we do not deserve bad things and we do get angry and resentful. We should not. It happens because of our own past, of something we did ourselves. However, there is no need to blame ourselves either, because the causes may go back to circumstances in far away past. When something negative happens to us, we get the chance to purify our karma. We can actually use obstacles as an opportunity to get rid of all our negative karma. Karma is not something unchangeable, because karma is inter-relatedness, interdependence.
It is something very important to understand: karma is something that inevitably has to change. It has no other way but to change, because it is not permanent or independent. Karma is interdependence, cause and effect. Therefore, if we understand karma, when something negative happens to us, we will not lose hope, we know it is only temporary. It can be changed by our own efforts also. Even if a very negative event, a very big obstacle comes our way, we should take it as no more than an obstacle, no more than a temporary negative event that we need to get through, to work with, to purify. Those big problems we may encounter are also part of our mindstream; therefore we should not get afraid but try to solve them with a quieter, more reasonable, less agitated mind. If we can do that, we have purified that obstacle.
Karma is not difficult to understand. In a nutshell: if we do something good, with a good intention, it will have a positive result; if we do something bad, something harmful, then it will have a negative result. If I smile at him, he smiles back. If I frown at him, he frowns back. If I throw a stone in the sky, it will fall down and hit me, if I throw a flower, it will also fall back without hurting me. Everything is like that. Let us assume that it is understood.
What we are trying to do in the Ngöndro is to bring that understanding into our own experience. For instance, if I develop strong anger, if I make myself full of hate and resentment for a long time, what will be the result for me, what will I become? And if instead of anger and hate, I generate love, kindness, compassion, joy and if I cultivate these long and strong enough, what will I become then? This will maybe help me understand how karma is working.
It is said that there are many possibilities to get the realisation, enlightenment, in the period following our death - maybe you have read the Tibetan Book of the Dead5. Of course, these possibilities exist, but it will be difficult to actualise them unless we are prepared to. In this life too, there are countless opportunities to become a millionaire for instance, aren’t they? There are possibilities, but it isn’t very likely that we will become millionaires, is it? In the same way, the opportunities are there after our death, but unless we have trained ourselves during this life, it will not be so easy to catch them at that time. What we are now will continue. In this life, we have childhood, youth, old age. Sometimes people think when they are young that all their problems, all the crazy ideas circling very fast in their mind will calm down when they grow older. I think it is completely wrong. I can tell you from my own experience: in 40 years, I did not change! If I did not change much for the past 40 years, I think I will not change much for the next 40 years either! If during the first 30 years of our life, we generate what makes us more nervous, more anxious, that is what we will become, and it continues not only in this life but in the next ones too, in a long chain. Realising this is understanding karma and bringing this understanding into our actual "system".
Of course, we cannot understand the karmic process in every detail: it is too complicated because it is all mixed up. Nobody has only good or only bad karma, we all have jumbled up karma, what we call “kitchery” in India. Do you know what a “kitchery” is? If you go to India you definitely should try it, remember that! It is a mixture of many things, mainly rice, to which you add meat, vegetables, anything you can take hold of, and then you make a “kitchery”. It is the easiest thing to cook, and it is delicious. All the bachelors in India eat kitcheries. Our karma is a “kitchery”: there is a little of everything in it.
When we have this strong understanding of karma, of how it works, the necessity to work on our negative emotions, on our negative way of living and doing things becomes obvious. We know that if we make very strong negative karma, it will get out of hand and be very difficult, if not impossible, to control. If you suffer from a depression, even if you know you should not fall in that state, you cannot dismiss it, because it has now developed to an uncontrollable stage. Maybe if you had known about it before and done something to stop it a long time ago, you could have prevented it, but now you are no longer in control of the situation. In the same way, when our negative karma comes to full maturity, it is very difficult to control. Understanding this, we will naturally feel the urgency, the high priority, of doing what is positive and refraining from the negative right from the beginning. It is not that somebody else tells us: "You should not do this! These things are forbidden by religion, or by some commandment!” Sometimes, everywhere but especially in the West, people take religion that way, like the 10 Commandments in the Bible, and they react by thinking: “That’s a commandment! Who is he to order me around?” If we see it like that, we do not want to do it. On the other hand, if we understand karma, we will just do it for our own sake. Of course we want to benefit ourselves, unless we are crazy! Thus we naturally try to work with our negativities, refrain from doing negative things, because we know they would have painful results for us or for others. If we know clearly that something is not good for us and not good for others, neither in the short term nor in the long run, then we have no reason to do it. Even if the wish to do it is there, we will be able to work with it more easily. There is a story to illustrate this:
There was a shepherd who was not very intelligent, but who was very tenacious. Very impressed by a hermit, he went to ask him for a practice, but as he did not understand too much, he asked for a very simple thing. The hermit told him to take two bags full of pebbles: one with black pebbles, one with white ones. While sitting looking after his sheep, he should watch his thoughts: for each negative thought, he would take a black pebble and put it on one side. If a positive thought came in his mind, he would take a white pebble and put it on the other side. He did this, and after a while, he saw that the pile of black pebbles was really growing high, while the white one was very small. He was a little worried, and went back to the hermit to ask what to do. The hermit answered: “It does not matter, do not bother, just keep on doing that.” After a while, slowly, the two piles came to the same height, and after some time, the white pile became bigger than the black one.
If we know what is wrong and what is right and if we are a little bit watchful, we will refrain from the negative. We should not be too watchful. Being too watchful is not good, because we will only be able to sustain the effort for a short time and then get too tired to go on. When we intend to walk a long way, we walk slowly, we do not run, do we? If we start running, we will not get very far. Therefore it is better to be watchful without tension, in a light way.
To summarise, we try to understand clearly, through our own experience, the working of karma. Of course we cannot have a complete understanding of how it functions because it is very complicated. It would imply a clear knowledge of past and the future that we do not have, although we can apprehend some of it.
As we say in Tibetan: “To know what you were in the past, just look at yourself now. To know what you will be in the future, just look at your present actions.” We do not have to consult a fortune-teller to know what we were in our former life: what we where then was approximately the same as what we are now. And if we wish to know the future, we just have to look at what we are doing now, what we will be in the future will be approximately the same.
When we understand that doing something positive has a positive result, and doing something negative has a negative result, then the only thing we have to do is be a little watchful, do what is positive and refrain from what is negative. That is the whole idea. When that is done, we have become a better person. If we really believe that if we do something harmful we will get a negative result, we cannot possibly become a completely bad person, and that conviction will necessarily strengthen our positive way of doing things.
This is why understanding karma is so fundamental.
How can we be sure that our actions are positive or negative?
Generally speaking, if an action is harmful to you and to others, it is negative. If an action is beneficial to you or to anybody, it is positive. But as we cannot always say with everything we do whether it will have a harmful or beneficial result, we should watch our motivation. When something we do is motivated, inspired by a good heart, love, compassion, joy, wanting to do something good, wanting to help, then it is positive. If it is inspired, motivated by negative thoughts and emotions, like anger, jealousy or any of the mind poisons, then it is negative.
You said that each time something negative happens to us, we should not react with resentment and anger, but instead see it as an opportunity to purify our bad karma. What would be the right attitude, between anger, resentment and falling in the other extreme of being overjoyed each time something bad happens to us, because of the possibility to purify our bad karma?
I do not think you would be too happy anyway! Nothing bad actually happens to you if you feel happy when it is there. Those who experience life in this way will never have any problem, they will always be happy, because if something good happens, then they will of course be happy, and if something bad happens, they will think: “Oh!, still better!” Unfortunately, it does not happen like that. For most people, when a bad thing happens to them, they feel lots of resentment, which makes things even worse. If you encounter difficulties, that is bad enough. If you add anger and resentment on top of it, you make things even worse: your mind is more agitated, more painful. Sometimes, people aggravate the problem so much through resentment that even when the problem itself is gone, they continue to live on with such feelings, they still burning with the same anger and resentment. It is a wrong way of reacting, although quite common. If we understand that what we face is a karmic reaction, that it is happening because of many different reasons, that it will change sooner or later and that it is not just happening to us but to everybody else, then even if we are not happy, at least we will not create that extra burden of taking the situation badly. If we can see the situation more clearly, we will not add needless problems on top of those already there. This in itself already makes things lighter.
1 The Torch of Certainty, Jamgon Kongtrul, ed.
2 See Rinpoché's teaching on Gampopa's "Gems of Dharma, Jewels of Liberation"(Dagpo Targyen) edited under the title "A Guide to Tibetan Bhuddist Practice" by Maggy Jones in Samye Ling, Scotland
3 Sönam (bsod nams)
4 Tsöndru (brtson ‘grus)
5 Bardo Thödol or “Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate Period after Death”
© Ringu Tulku