Death, Karma and the Shortcomings of Samsara

General Introduction and Review

The various Tibetan traditions coming from the Buddha – Kadam, Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma – all follow a presentation of ways to train our attitudes that comes from a common source: Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Shantideva’s presentation, in turn, encompasses all the points found in the lam-rim teachings of the graded path, meaning all the graded pathway minds leading to enlightenment. There is nothing in these graded paths that couldn’t be considered training of our attitudes. Still, the particular points that we’re discussing apply to a specific line of teachings called “lojong,” “mind training,” “attitude-training.” They are condensed into The Seven Point Mind Training, as presented in the text by Geshe Chekawa, and in the commentary called The Rays of the Sun, by Namkapel, a disciple of Tsongkhapa.

The seven points for attitude-training are:

  • the preliminaries,
  • the method of training in the two bodhichittas – relative and deepest,
  • transforming adverse circumstances into a path to enlightenment,
  • condensation of the practice in one lifetime,
  • the measure of having trained our attitudes,
  • the close-bonding practices for mind training,
  • the points to train in for mind training.

Death and Impermanence

Now that we have all achieved the working basis of a precious human body, we all wish to be happy; none of us wishes to have any suffering or problems. The happiness that we wish for doesn’t come from out of nowhere – it comes from causes. So we need to think very deeply about the causes that bring about our happiness and eliminate our problems. In order to be able to pursue the spiritual path, we must take advantage of the precious human life that we have. Of course, in order to live we need to earn a living and do the various things that are necessary for our daily life. But we cannot place the main emphasis on acquiring money and material objects. Furthermore, money and material objects are not the sole cause for happiness. Not everybody who is wealthy is happy. When we are aware that there are a lot of wealthy people with many material possessions, who are miserable and have severe mental suffering, we can’t say that the sole cause of happiness is material possessions.

In order for our happiness to come about, it must have some prior cause. Happiness depends primarily on the state of mind. If a person’s mind is happy, then whatever his or her external circumstances may be, this person continues to be happy. If someone is basically a happy person, polite, considerate to others – a cultivated, good type of person – then whether or not they actually believe in religion or Dharma doesn’t make any difference. If we are refined and considerate of others, we build up positive force (merit) in any case. If, on top of that, we were to study and practice, training in the various methods of Dharma, there would be an even stronger benefit and building up of positive force from being a kind and helpful person. That will benefit not only this life, but also future lives as well.

So, this is a very worthwhile pursuit as regards making the best use of the working basis that we have. We need to realize that this precious human body will not last forever, that however perfect our circumstances may be, this life is something that will pass. This is because everybody is subject to impermanence and death. The main point is not to waste our time. Therefore, it is extremely important to think about impermanence and how all situations pass.

There are various ways of presenting impermanence. There is a discussion of it in the context of it being one of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, for instance, or we can speak of it in terms of general impermanence and its levels: gross and subtle. Here, we are speaking in terms of the grosser aspect of impermanence, the type that is seen by anyone who dies.

The Disadvantages of Not Being Mindful of Death and Impermanence

We would do well to consider the benefits of meditating on and building up an awareness of impermanence, and the disadvantages of not being aware of it. The text speaks first of these disadvantages and then of the extreme importance of remaining aware of impermanence and death. It is important because, whether we believe in it or not, there are future rebirths: we may fall to one of the worse states or one of the better ones. So, it is most important to be aware of our negative potentials that may lead to a worse rebirth, and in turn take care in our actions and the things we do now, since they will affect our future.

If we aren’t really mindful of death all the time – even if we practice the Dharma – we won’t involve ourselves fully in the Dharma or fully take it seriously. If we are truly aware of death and impermanence, and of how what occurs in the future depends on what we do now, it is unnecessary to have police keeping check on us. Our own awareness of cause and effect will act as guards and keep us from acting inappropriately.

Whoever we are, looking at things in light of the fact that we all are going to die will make us realize there is no point in fooling others or acting in an uncaring manner. At least we’ll see that it is absurd to fool ourselves by acting self-destructively, since in the future we will have to face the consequences of what we have done. So it is extremely important to be aware of impermanence and death all the time.

How do we train to gain that awareness of death and impermanence? We do this first by being aware of the fact that none of our possessions, our friends, relatives and so forth, will be of any help at the time of death. Then, we need to reflect on all the circumstances that will occur at the time of death, that all the objects we have acquired – perhaps through deceit, or cheating, or going to a lot of trouble to do so – are not going to be helpful at all when we die. But we are going to have to endure the consequences of any deceptive means that we may have used.

It is certain that we are all going to die because we all are under the influence of the disturbing attitudes and the various impulses of karma on our mental continuum. Even kings must die, and some are even executed. If we spend our time totally ignoring this fact, fooling ourselves, lying, doing all sorts of deceitful things, we are in for a surprise at the time of death: a great deal of regret and remorse. If we were mindful and aware of the fact that we will die, we would act in a much better way while we are alive, and wouldn’t have to die with regret and remorse.

Although it is impossible to prevent ourselves from dying, we can prepare so that at the time of death we don’t have to die in a state of terror. It is only a matter of time until death comes, so it is worthwhile for us to prepare for it now.

These points are presented in the text as follows:

  • death is definite,
  • the time of our death is uncertain,
  • except for the Dharma, there is nothing of help at the time of death.

These are the three points to consider.

The Certainty of Death

With respect to the fact that death is certain, it is said that if even the innumerable Buddhas and arhats have to die, what can be said about ordinary people such as us? No matter who we are, once we are born, it is one hundred percent sure that we will die. There’s nobody who doesn’t have to die, so there is no question of our avoiding it. And if we look at the various Buddhas who, before becoming enlightened, had achieved the state of an illusory body and subsequently attained enlightenment in that state without actually passing away, there are very few. Most have demonstrated passing away into parinirvana. If we take examples in history – kings and emperors, and so forth – we cannot find anyone who has actually achieved immortality.

There is no place we can go to escape death and, although we may have a very strong body, there is no body strong enough to resist death. Just like being in a place surrounded by mountains on all sides, trapped with no way to escape, likewise, when it comes to death, there is nowhere we can run to escape it.

Imagining things that might happen from which there would be no way to escape, like a nuclear war, does us no good. In any case, death is inescapable. We cannot put the blame on external things that might cause our death, always living in fear of things such as nuclear war. The causes for death are accumulated within our mental continuum – the disturbing attitudes, karma and so forth are the internal causes that will bring about our death, together with external contributing circumstances. The main point is, having been born in a body with disturbing attitudes and karma on our mental continuum, it is certain we are going to die. This is because the moment the body is actualized, at the same time are actualized the causes for death.

Speaking of impermanence and the suffering of all beings, which will be discussed more extensively later, one of the sufferings we can all see is old age. As we get older, for instance, we start losing the power of our senses, an indication of the certainty of death coming.

There are reasons why death will come for certain. First, there are various things that can happen to us, causes within us: we get old and everything degenerates, the power of medicine to cure us weakens, and we die. Second, there’s no addition coming to our lifespan, it is constantly decreasing. Of course, there are prayers and certain long-life pujas and practices like that, but to increase the actual lifespan is difficult.

The basic lifespan that we have comes from the positive force, karma and so forth that we have built up in previous lifetimes. Just as the days are constantly passing, if last year we had one hundred years left of our lifespan, this year there would only be ninety-nine. And no matter what length lifespan we might imagine, we can see that between this morning and now, part of that has passed. Our lifespan passes away with each breath, with each moment. The time is constantly passing. It is not going to wait. We cannot sit back and stop our lifespan, even for a moment. There’s no place we can go, nothing we can do, to avoid the constant running out of time we have left to live.

There are many metaphors for life passing away. For instance, like the water in a waterfall, once it starts to go over the edge there is no way it can stop, it must continue falling down. Or, like a stream, constantly flowing past, think how quickly life passes. Like a flash of lightning blazing through the sky, it doesn’t stop for a moment. It just passes by.

As to the next point, out of a lifetime of, say, a hundred years, half of that is probably spent sleeping, especially if we consider how much we slept this year. Of course, the case of an insomniac is different, but generally most of us use up a tremendous amount of time sleeping. If we take a period of sixty years for this life, the first twenty are sort of wasted fooling around. Think of the time one is actually able to divert, to put to any use: if we add all the time spent in these sixty years sleeping and eating and being sick, if we discount all that time, there is probably a period of only about six years left. Actually think about how much time during the course of a day is wasted in all sorts of trivial activities taking care of our body.

One great lama said in his biography, “I spent my first twenty years never getting down to really doing my practice, the next twenty years saying, ‘Well, I’m going to get to it any day,’ and I’ve spent the last ten years saying, ‘Oh! I wish I could have gotten to my practices earlier!’ That is how I have wasted a perfect human life.”

Of course there are exceptions, people who from early childhood are interested in studying and improving themselves. But most of us don’t feel that as a child and, in the first twenty years, we hardly ever get down to any serious work on self-improvement. The next twenty years of our life we’re involved in setting ourselves up, making a living and then we’re always procrastinating, saying, “Well, first I have to establish myself and do all these various things.” So, ten years pass, then thirty, then forty. Then we start thinking, “Now I’m getting old, I can’t do anything. I can’t see so well anymore, so I can’t strain my eyes. And I can’t hear very well and have to listen too hard to understand anything someone is saying.” We give up our aspirations to learn.

This shows how difficult it is to actually realize a spiritual life. It is much easier to simply live a worldly one. So if we’re really going to lead a spiritual life, we cannot always put it off or put it off until we’re older. We’ll find that we won’t be able to do what we had hoped and have only a great deal of remorse, wishing we had trained ourselves earlier. If we’re going to lead a spiritual life, a religious life, this is something we have to do with great resolve and determination from this moment on, right now.

We need to think, “In this life I’ve met with the teachings of both Hinayana and Mahayana and, within Mahayana, I’ve met with both sutra and tantra.” We need to see that the responsibility lies in each of us. The Buddha has shown us what to do, what path to follow. We can’t put the responsibility on anybody else. Whether we follow it or not is completely up to each and every one of us.

The nature of life is instability, changing from moment to moment. The force of life is quite weak and cannot be relied upon. So, as wandering beings whose lifespan is continuously passing and disintegrating, when we realize our situation, we realize that we’re on the verge of just falling off, right out of this lifetime. If we live out our lives completely ignoring this reality, that is truly pathetic.

All this points to the fact that death will come, for sure. If we take all the people in this world, no matter how many billions there may be, none of them will be around a few centuries from now, even though the population of the earth might greatly increase. And if we consider the people here, in this audience, a hundred years from now, maybe a few of the babies might still be around, but the rest of us will definitely have passed away by then! If we think what will happen to this building and the rest of the buildings around here a few centuries from now, they will probably be gone as well. Take the example of a tree: a deciduous tree might be full of leaves, but when winter comes they fall to the ground. The world is constantly moving on. If we wake up very early in the morning just before dawn, it is very fresh. Then the sun rises and travels through the sky without stopping for a moment. Our life is just like that: day and night continue to pass without ever stopping.

The Lack of Certainty of the Time of Death

In history, there are legends of immortals in the far-distant past. They lived immeasurable life spans, but these days we certainly don’t have anyone like that anymore. If we ask – since we’re all going to pass away – when death will come, there’s no certainty about the time, and that’s the second point. It’s very clear that, no matter where we go in the world, there’s no certainty as to when exactly our life will end. We’re not referring here to other continents, as presented in A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge. Right here on this earth, the reality is that there is no definite lifespan.

If we look at many people in this world, they are not willing to face the reality of death. There are a lot of places where retired old people are completely unwilling to accept the fact that they are going to die. They spend all their time as tourists traveling around the world, dressing up very fancily, wearing a lot of make-up and trying to look young, in an attempt to run away from the reality of their lives. But they need to prepare their minds in terms of when and where death will come.

Once, after a medical examination, the doctor told me, “There’s a hundred percent sure guarantee that you’ll live to the age of sixty.” But I gave the guarantee back. What is sure is that nobody can ever guarantee what will or won’t happen in a fixed period of time.

An important point is that many more circumstances bring about death than those that sustain life, many sicknesses, and so on. We don’t actually have to look outside for the causes of death: they are all collected within our mental continuum. Even circumstances that would ordinarily sustain life can cause death. For instance, we eat in order to live, but eating can cause us to have difficulties with our stomach, digestion, liver and so forth. By eating something to sustain our life, we could cause our death.

The next point is how weak the body is, how extremely fragile, how it could break at any moment. Our body is not strong, or tough, or capable of resisting all things. If we consider various structures made of the different elements – buildings, mountains, and so forth – although they seem very strong to us, they pass away. Wind and water wear them away, so there is no need to mention that our body wears out and passes away. The heart is beating all the time, but if it were to stop for a minute, we would just die. The skeleton covered with skin looks beautiful, but inside the skin it is very delicate and fragile. If we look at the delicacy and the intricacy of the human body, and really get into that, it is quite understandable to think it is so incredible that only God could have made it. But if we really look at the human body, it is something so fragile and easily breakable. Since life can pass so quickly – and it definitely will – we need to apply ourselves to the practice of the Dharma.

Nothing Is of Use at the Time of Death Except for the Dharma

The next point in the outline is that nothing will be of use at the time of death, except the Dharma. We need to be very clear that at the time of death, nothing is of help except the spiritual training in the Dharma. None of the material objects and various things we may have collected will be of any help at the time of death. We’ll just have to leave it all behind. Had we been the wealthiest person in the world, no matter how much money we may have had in the bank or in investments, at the time of death we certainly couldn’t carry it with us. There’s absolutely no hope whatsoever.

The same goes for relatives and friends, who can’t be of any help at the time of death. There are people who seem so devoted, they are willing to give up their lives for us, but they can’t actually do that. If everyone has to die, what is the use of these people anyway? When the end of life comes, if I say, “I’m a monk” or “I’m the Dalai Lama,” that will not keep death away from me. And I have to face my own death myself, alone. Because of having been born, there’s nothing else for everyone here but to be leaving, alone, at the time of death. With all the people that Mao Zedong had around him, the enormous army that he amassed, all the power he had, at the time of his death not one of his soldiers was able to help him, or go with him, and he had to face his death completely alone.

This body that each of us has been so intimately connected with, experiencing heat, cold, hunger and thirst, will eventually have to split apart from the mind. We consider our body so important, yet it is just going to turn into a corpse. A corpse usually makes us feel quite nauseated. We consider it to be filthy and contaminating, but where does a corpse come from? It comes from our own body. Where do you think the filth of a corpse comes from? The body that turns into a corpse will not be of any help to us at the time of our death. So in this way, it is very clear that the body, wealth, friends and relatives, none of these things are going to be any help at all the time of death.

People, without thinking of death, go on accumulating and saving things, putting them in empty plastic boxes, then in wooden boxes. When they see a beautiful empty tin they collect it, and go on collecting, just for nothing, just to leave it all behind.

We’ve established that our mental continuum continues from past into future lifetimes, and it is on this basis that we have labeled the “me” and so forth. So the mental continuum is something that continues on, unable to carry any type of material objects. All that can go on that mental continuum are the various potentialities built up in this lifetime. If we build up constructive potentialities, various types of positive force, this is going to benefit future lifetimes. Potentials are something that we can build up through Dharma practice.

Let us consider various circumstances that can occur at the time of death. We might have some sickness and go to various doctors who say, “There is nothing that can be done about this now, it is going to be a long sickness.” Think how uncomfortable we may become, how everything becomes more and more desperate as we realize we are going to die. On the last day of our life we just lie in bed, terrified, as the signs gather, watching life ebbing away. There is nothing we can do: we have no control over the process. We eat our last meal and medicine has no ability to help us at all. Everything just gets more and more pathetic. We want to speak but we can’t, our lips are all dried out. Our ability to see, hear and smell pass, then our ability to breathe passes and we just pass away. Whatever nice name we may have had during life, it now turns into the late Tashi, or the late Kunzang, or whatever.

So, if we think of the circumstances of our impending death and how it is going to happen, we need to have the firm conviction that only some type of spiritual practice can be of any help when death comes. The most effective spiritual practice is developing the two bodhichittas: relative and deepest. So, thinking how death and impermanence will come, we need to resolve very strongly that we are going to develop bodhichitta.

Karma: Behavioral Cause and Effect

The next point in the preliminaries is the discussion of karma: behavioral cause and effect. After we die, there are only two directions we can go, up or down – to either better states of rebirth or to worse ones. Because the mental continuum has continuity, it is definitely going to take rebirth, and under what power will it do so? This is going to take place under the influence of karma; in other words, the causes that have been built up.

The Laws of Karma

There are various quotes from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland about the certainty of karma. If we have built up positive force having done constructive acts, the only result that can come from that is happiness. If we have done destructive acts and built up negative force, the only possibility that can come from that is unhappiness and problems. This is something that is definite and for sure. Whatever type of karmic force we have built up, the results will be in accordance with that.

The next point is the increase of karmic effects. From just a small action, we can get a tremendous result. From positive acts can come great results on the positive side, and from destructive acts can come extremely negative results. It is quite possible that, from a very small negative action, a great disaster will follow. We’ve seen this in the various textual accounts, where somebody called a monk a bad name like monkey or jackass, and as a result for hundreds of lifetimes he was reborn as the type of animal he had called the monk. These are all examples of the increase factor.

Take the example of the actual seeds of plants. If it is the seed of a medicinal tree or plant, the seed itself will have those medicinal qualities. If it is the seed of a poisonous plant, the seed itself will be poisonous. Thus, from a seed of poison comes a plant of poison, and from a seed of medicine comes a plant of medicine. Likewise, something large, like an oak, comes out of a small seed like an acorn. These are apt examples for the characteristics of karma.

As Shantideva says in Compendium of Trainings, “If something is helpful in the long run but harmful in the immediate circumstances, it is worth doing. This is because we need to think in terms of long-term effects. But if something is only helpful in the short run but harmful in the long run, then it is something we may not do.” Of course, there’s no need to mention it if something is harmful both in the long and in the short run.

Think of the example of killing either an animal out of desire for its meat or an enemy out of anger. In the short run, we’ll feel relief and might get a fleeting rush of happiness. But in the long run, we may have to face the consequences of murder. So it will definitely bring a great deal of unhappiness and suffering. On the other hand, if we protect and save the life of some creature that is going to be killed, this only brings happiness as a result – in the long and in the short term. From a small seed a large tree grows, and likewise, from a small action great results can come. So it is very true that great happiness or suffering can come from small causes.

Here is a quote showing how karma and various potentials go with us: “Like a bird’s shadow accompanies it wherever it goes, although it may fly very high, and its shadow may not be clear on the ground, it always goes with the bird. When the bird lands, its shadow becomes clear.” Likewise, the potentials of karma we have built up come and go with us wherever we may go, over the continuity of our lives. Although it may not be clear now how they ripen; nonetheless, at some time, as we go along, those potentials will become clear again.

Let us consider various types of actions we might take – let’s say calling somebody a bad name – that cause others to become unhappy. Nobody likes being called a bad name, so it causes unhappiness. This builds up in us negative potential for further destructive action. This won’t just disappear. The point is that karma is not wasted: it is just a matter of time until it ripens.

There are several opponent forces that we can apply, and different methods to avoid having to experience the negative consequences of our actions. We can do constructive acts as opponents. These are things that we build up gradually, not just spectacular actions of giving our body away and things like that. As it says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, we have to start in a low-key fashion and build up to more extensive acts. So we needn’t get discouraged when we read about the acts of the great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas who gave their bodies away and so forth. We can think how they started out, just like us, by doing small types of positive actions. The same thing goes for giving up our destructive actions and distorted habits. We start out small and work up to it by ridding ourselves of bad habits, slowly. This concludes our point on how results increase relative to our actions.

The next point is, if we have done a certain action, we will meet with the result, and if we haven’t done a certain action, we will not meet with the result. If we haven’t done an action, we will not meet with the consequences, no matter if the result may be happiness or unhappiness. Unless we have collected the causes, we will not experience the result. And, if we have taken an action, it will not have been in vain. Whether it is a positive or a negative potential that we have built up, it will not ripen until we meet with circumstances that will cause it to ripen, and in the interim it will not just disappear. It is just a matter of time until it ripens.

The next point tells us how, if we have built up positive potential from constructive actions and then gotten very angry, it will devastate and extremely weaken the power of that positive force. So, unless something happens to completely devastate the force of what we’ve built up, when the circumstances are around and gathered, the potential we have accumulated will ripen, as we have collected it.

The present external circumstances of the Tibetans losing their country correspond to inner causes. A long accumulation of destructive actions has caused us to lose our country, live in exile and experience hardships. Take the situation in Africa, with the tremendous drought and famine that has been going on, or millions of people infected with and dying from a virus. This has to do with worldwide karmic patterns, which come from the various forces in the mental continuums of various humans. Of course, we could include animals, but primarily it all rests on potentials in human mental continuums that belong in the category of shared karma, or general karma. These bring about changes in world karma and cause events like the tremendous drought and famine in Africa.

Even in such situations, where there is a large-scale disaster, we find that there are some individuals who survive and don’t have a tremendous amount of difficulty, and that this comes from their own individual potentials and karma. So, when we experience terrible situations, we need to think how this is coming as a result of things we have done in the past, potentials that we have built up. When we think this way, our mind can be a little more relaxed, less uptight and disturbed by the difficult situation we might find ourselves in.

Developing Inner Discipline

We can then reflect, “Just as now in the present I want happiness and don’t want suffering and problems, also in the future I’m going to continue to have that same nature – I’m not going to want problems. I’m going to want happiness in the future as well; therefore I had better do something about it now.” With this way of thinking, we will not need jails, civil laws and police to keep us from being unruly people. We will find that our own sense of responsibility, knowing that we’re going to have to suffer the consequences of our actions, will hold us back from robbing and cheating and killing, and taking the types of actions that will only bring us great suffering in the future.

If we have inner discipline, outside restrictions are not necessary. There are still many places in India where people do not need to lock their doors, and if there is a theft, they feel it is a disgrace to the whole community because their inner discipline of restraining from such unlawful activities means so much to them. The best way is to have our own self-discipline without having to depend on someone else to check our actions. If we look at places in the West, with sophisticated police forces with walkie-talkies and all sorts of electronic equipment, we find that it seems as though the stronger the police force is in such places, the higher is the crime rate. People lacking inner discipline aren’t prevented from committing crimes. So it is clear that external restrictions and force don’t prevent one from committing crimes, but that it is internal forces that cause antisocial actions.

The Chinese have really had to depend on reinforcing laws and checking on people’s activities. However, without enthusiasm and inner cooperation, it is very difficult to bring law and order into a society. It appears that trying to bring about control through police forces and the like becomes a cause for more abuses of the system. This is because the police and the jailers themselves commit more crimes. So, it is extremely important to put the emphasis on our own inner sense of responsibility for our actions, as well as the eventual results of those actions.

Divisions of Karma: The Ten Destructive Actions

In A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge, there are various divisions of karma: karma built up from actions of body, speech and mind; actions the results of which there is certainty of experiencing and those without such certainty. There are results that are certain to be experienced in this lifetime, or in our next lifetime, or the one after that, or in lifetime beyond that. These are some of the many divisions in the presentation of karma.

Although there are many types of karmic actions relative to the infinite types of beings, they can all be condensed into the ten major ones. These include three of the body, four of speech and three of the mind. When we look at these ten from the standpoint of negative actions, there are ten destructive actions, and restraining ourselves from committing them would be the ten constructive actions. It is extremely important to have confident belief in the laws of behavioral cause and effect and the process that follows, in terms of constructive and destructive actions. This is one of the major points in the Buddhist teachings.

Let us take the destructive action of killing. It breaks down into the intention; the recognition of the object; the disturbing attitude involved, such as desire or anger; and the completing action. To take a life is one of the heaviest things that we can ever do. Even a tiny insect cherishes its life more than anything else. Most Tibetans, even in early childhood, say that to kill a small insect is something very bad and negative. Even though small children may not know what these words mean, nevertheless from childhood they know the phrase, “To kill a small insect is a bad thing to do.” So, tiny children saying things like that is a very good thing.

As for killing animals for meat, we need to certainly avoid eating meat that has been obtained in any way other than the manners referred to in the three recognitions. According to the vinaya rules of monastic discipline, sick monks and nuns may eat meat if served to them, so long as they have the following three recognitions: they recognize or acknowledge that (1) they have not seen the animal being killed specifically for them, (2) they have not heard that the animal was killed specifically for them, and (3) they have no doubt that the meat was either obtained from an animal that died a natural death or was bought from the marketplace properly. We don’t order animals to be slaughtered for us, on purpose. In a place where there is a tremendous amount of meat available then it is one thing, but if we are in a place where meat is not readily available, or if we think it might be killed for our particular benefit, we can try to decrease our meat intake as much as possible. As for myself, in 1965, for two years I stopped eating meat completely. But I developed difficulties with hepatitis and wasn’t able to keep up the restraint from eating meat. But if it doesn’t affect our health, to stop eating meat is best.

Stealing is also very negative, as is improper sexual conduct, such as having sexual relations with someone else’s partner. This is extremely destructive, especially if children come out of it, causing a lot of complications. We need to avoid engaging in these types of relations other than with our own partner.

Then we have the negative actions of speech, which are lying, speaking divisive language, abusive language, and idle chatter such as gossip. This last one doesn’t seem so bad, but it ruins reputations and is a tremendous waste of time. And then come the negative actions of mind, which include being covetous, having malicious thoughts, and distorted antagonistic thinking.

With regard to coveting, it is very difficult to control. One person’s neighbor had a beautiful radio and tape recorder. He asked, “Oh, let me just see it for a while,” and then developed a tremendous craving to own it. Thinking with ill-will toward others is malicious thought, such as if we dislike somebody, and as he goes by, generating the wish that he would stumble and fall. Antagonistic distorted views are those that repudiate what actually exists in reality and embrace those that make up what doesn’t exist.

For instance, the Chinese don’t accept various things that actually do exist and have a completely materialistic outlook. Some people don’t accept consciousness, and even if they do accept it, they don’t accept that consciousness has continuity in former and future lifetimes. On the basis of that, they deny the value of positive actions and deny the existence of liberation and so forth.

As for constructive actions, for example, when the actual situation arises in which we are about to kill, and at that time we think about the disadvantages and restrain ourselves from actually doing it, that is the actual constructive action of refraining from killing. The constructive action of stopping oneself from killing doesn’t occur just in general when there is no situation in which we might kill. It has to be at a time when we could actually kill something and the thought arises that stops us from doing it. The ten constructive actions are such types of acts.

With respect to slander and lying, there are some people who always like to tell lies or just add a few words. But even if we don’t care about the practice of the Dharma, we need to take care of our own reputation. In addition, it is important not to deceive others, so it is very negative to develop the habit of lying. In that case, no matter what we do, it is extremely important to be careful about our behavior, to be restrained and calm, to be someone who is kind and helpful to others. Look at the example of ants and bees, in English they are referred to as “social insects” because they live in large communities. We have to say that humans are social animals as well. We live in society, and therefore it is necessary to be considerate toward other people.

Social animals and insects, when faced with an external enemy, defend themselves. They have few quarrels among themselves, and when they do, they resolve it right away. We need to try to practice tolerance from within, and then expand this to other communities. When we all have to work and live together, to cheat and fool each other is of no help, is it? If we were totally independent, if we could live like mountain goats that don’t have to depend on each other for survival, then that would be an excellent thing to do. But, as long as we must depend on other human beings for help and kindness, we will have to learn how to live with them. We need to learn the means of peaceful coexistence.

As we live in society and everybody wants happiness, the only way that we are going to get happiness is for everybody to cooperate, so that there are close bonds and harmony between everyone. Where that doesn’t exist, even within a family, when there isn’t a close bond and harmony, it just doesn’t work. It causes a great deal of unhappiness and discord. If everybody is harmonious, then there is a good possibility of happiness coming to the entire group.

This is the worst mistake that the Chinese communists have made in spreading doubt and suspicion between relatives, between children and parents, between people. This is where they have failed to spread the ideal goals of socialism and communism. The Chinese are really quite pitiful. They deny religion; they deny other things entirely out of ignorance and don’t know what they are doing. There is nobody in this world that doesn’t care for and cherish oneself. But when communist governments try to bring socialism at the point of a gun or a club, it shows they don’t have any respect or regard for the individual and little sincere concern for others. So how can they achieve their goals?

It is important to really make a careful study and investigation of behavioral cause and effect. There are many learned people here, geshes and others, who are involved with this. They can have great interest and investigate what is the connection between outer elements and inner elements, outer processes of cause and effect and inner processes of cause and effect. All of these have to be investigated very carefully. This completes our discussion of behavioral cause and effect.

The Shortcomings of Samsara

Now, the fourth preliminary is about the sufferings or problems of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Of the two types of suffering, that of the individual classes of life-forms and general suffering, this refers to the general experience of suffering. It can be divided into six types of suffering and problems.

The first point is that there is no certainty in samsara. Our status can always change. We’ve had infinite lifetimes and so friends from previous lives will turn out to be enemies in this life, and enemies from past lives will be friends in this one. We can see the same thing happening within one lifetime as well. So we need to think about those who are nice and those who are nasty toward us, and look at how we label them as friends and enemies on that basis. There is no certainty that someone will act nicely or nastily toward us – it can change. This is very easy to see when someone we call our dearest friend says something to us and, on the basis of that, our feelings about that person change quite quickly. First, we have doubts about what their feelings really are, and then we start to have all sorts of prejudices about that person. Very quickly, this person turns into an enemy that we may hate. So we need to realize that nobody is an absolute friend or an absolute enemy who will always stay in that category.

The next point is that there is no satisfaction in samsara. One of the most wonderful fruits that we could have is satisfaction or contentment. But that is very rare. Someone could have enormous sums of money or material wealth, but if in their mind they are not content with that, they experience the same type of suffering as if they were poor. It doesn’t matter how much they have, in their mind they are poor and they suffer.

We also need to think about all the various lives and bodies we have had. Think if we had had human lives all the time, from the time of the Buddha until now, how many bodies would we have taken? When we think about it, we are born, we try to accumulate a tremendous amount of possessions, we die; then we are born again, we accumulate more things, we die again; we are born, accumulate more things, die yet again. It just goes on and on and on. If we think of all the milk we have drunk, the ocean isn’t big enough to hold it all. If we were fifty years old, try to imagine all the food we would have eaten in those fifty years – probably enough to fill this temple. And it has all gone out as feces. How much feces have you released in this lifetime as well?

If we haven’t been able to take advantage of this existence, then it is like wasting our energy and our teeth, and we have unnecessarily caused a lot of pain to our jaws, chewing things. So you see, it is quite important to try to see the actual reality of the situation in which we live, because when we are not aware of the reality it causes a lot of problems. If we are born into this life as a pig, what good qualities do they have? They say pigs were born to be slaughtered, and this seems quite true. Even if it is not slaughtered, there could be a point in just keeping it to have some pleasure, but what to do with the pigs, or the piglets? There’s no beauty in their shape, they are so dirty, and it is just pathetic and very pitiful. When people see a little puppy or a kitten, they say, “Oh, how cute!” But when they see little pigs eating garbage and feces, they don’t say, “How cute!” They just hold their nose. So if we’ve made no use of our life, and have just spent our lifetime eating a tremendous amount of garbage like a pig, food or whatever, what was the point of all we’ve done? And we’ve been doing this for beginningless lifetimes.

Look at all the times the Tibetans have warred with the Chinese. Sometimes the Tibetans would catch Chinese, tie them together by the hair, and sit on them. They used many other brutal ways of torture too. This is in the history books. If we look at some accounts of the past, we can find some amazing and horrifying things that occurred.

In the collected works of the Fifth Dalai Lama, we find the account of a particular attendant of the First Dalai Lama who was reborn as a bird. If we can believe some accounts, this person was later born again as the very great guru Suchicho through different rebirths. So, from this type of example we can see that we have been born here and then there, in all types of situations, just as in a children’s game, landing in different places on a board. Or, as in gambling with dice, different throws come up and we’re constantly taking births by the force of our delusions and our karma.

If this situation were just like a plant or a tree in a field – we cut it and it grows, we cut it and it grows – there’s no point. There’s nothing that the tree can possibly do, except constantly to grow and be cut down, grow and be cut down. Whereas here in our case, something can be done about it because our changing rebirth situations are under the influence of our mental continuum and the mental continuum is under the influence of various impulses and karmic potentials that are built up in it. So we can actually do something about changing the potential in order to break the pattern. We’re not just puppets.

We’ve taken many different types of rebirth, but how many times have we actually been able to take the essence of a meaningful rebirth and made it worth having; and how many lives have we just wasted? The millions and billions of rebirths that we’ve had without taking advantage of any of them – this is really pathetic. We need to think how we have taken countless bodies, yet up to now we have never taken real advantage of them, and in this way we need to develop a feeling of disgust with ourselves.

Being born over and over, with no respite, taking countless bodies, good and bad, again and again – trying to fathom this endless round of births, contemplating it, can be a basis for developing renunciation, a determination to be free from the uncontrollably recurring cycle of birth and death.

The next point concerns how people can lose their status and go from high to low, or low to high. Beings born as human can be great rulers, high officials and so forth. Then, because of circumstances, they fall to being slaves. Or beings born as gods can fall to the worse realms. We can see very clearly from the examples of people around us how one can fall from high to low, or can rise from low to high. So we need to look at ourselves and consider our situation: we have a working basis of a body with a higher status rebirth, and out of the higher status rebirths of being either a human or a god, we have a human rebirth, which is best.