Wheel of Sharp Weapons: Overcoming the Three Poisons

We have been speaking about tonglen, giving and taking, as discussed and presented in lojong, the mind training teachings. We find this at the beginning of this text by Dharmarakshita, and also in the beginning of a later text, Seven Point Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. In both presentations, the emphasis is on deepest bodhichitta as the way to be able to destroy or get rid of self-grasping. This is what we’re actually trying to do with tonglen practice. 

Obviously, we’re trying to help others, but in order to do that we have to recognize that the cause of their problems and our own problems is this grasping for an impossible false self or false identity – of us, of others, of suffering, of cause and effect, and of everything. This comes from a long Indian Buddhist tradition including Nagarjuna’s teachings, Shantideva’s teachings, etc.

In Wheel of Sharp Weapons, we are focused on taking on the three poisonous, toxic, disturbing emotions: longing desire, anger and naivety.

Confusion between Love and Longing Desire

We put the main emphasis on longing desire since that is usually singled out as the greatest obstacle to meditation, and specifically to concentration.

It is sometimes confusing for us Westerners because we confuse attachment with love. There is a difference here, particularly in terms of romantic love. The word “attachment” in English has two usages: one is positive, such as in the bond between a mother and a baby. If this sort of positive attachment or feeling of connection between the two isn’t made, it is extremely detrimental to the health of the baby. When we talk about overcoming attachment, we’re not talking about getting rid of a feeling of connectedness with others. That absolutely is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the unhealthy type of attachment, where we exaggerate the good qualities of someone or of something we have, and do not want to let go.

That destructive type of attachment is quite different from love. When we speak about love in Buddhism, we define it as the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. It’s unconditional; it doesn’t matter what the other person does or what they do for us. It does not entail clinging to the person and making demands that they never leave us.

Differentiating between a Person and Their Behavior

In dealing with others, we need to differentiate clearly between the person and their behavior. The person is an imputation on their behavior, but also on everything else as well, like their body, their mind, etc. If they act in a destructive type of way, we need to reject that behavior and see it as something that they need to overcome. But we don’t lose the wish for the person to be happy and to stop acting destructively so that they don’t continue to build up the causes to be unhappy and to suffer.

There’s a big difference, then, between a person and their behavior. We don’t want to identify and solidify the person with their negative behavior. Similarly, when we love somebody, we also don’t want to identify them with their behavior, as in, “I love you as long as you’re nice to me, and if you’re not nice to me, I don’t love you anymore.” That’s not what we’re talking about with love in Buddhism.


Remember the defining characteristics of longing desire: it exaggerates the good qualities of someone, adds good qualities that aren’t there, and ignores the negative side. Because of that, it doesn’t actually deal with the reality of the person. People aren’t objects that we can possess. When we have love for someone in the Buddhist sense, we don’t want to possess them, as in “You are mine,” and then act as if we owned them. We can develop this type of destructive attitude in many types of relationships. It can be in the family, “You are my child and you have to obey me,” or it can be in a work situation, “You are my employee, and you have to do what I say.”

Possessiveness is all about “me” and “mine.” It’s based on grasping for a solidly existing methat can possess a solidly existent “you” or a solidly existing “thing” as “mine.” This possessiveness comes along with one of the strongest root disturbing attitudes, the one I call a “deluded outlook toward a transitory network” (jig-lta). It’s a terrible term, but there’s no easy way of translating the Sanskrit or Tibetan word. If we look at the definition, it’s an attitude that’s aimed at the network of our ever-changing aggregates – the body, mind, everything we perceive, the emotions and so on. What this attitude does, in a sense, is throw out a net onto them. The net is the concepts of a solidly existing “me” and “mine,” which come from self-grasping. 

We do this all the time. For instance, we throw the net of the concept of a solidly existing “me” onto some aspect of our aggregates – for instance our looks, our wealth, our intelligence, or whatever – and take that as the solid identity of this solidly existing “me.” And we likewise cast the net of the concept of “mine” onto some other aspects of our aggregates – for instance, another person that we interact with, like our partner, child or employee – and take them to have the solid identity of “mine.” This is “me” and you are “mine.” We catch them in our net of the concept of a solidly existent “mine” and hold on to them strongly as if they will never change and will always be our possession. Our longing desire for someone and attachment to them is based on this deluded outlook and the possessiveness it entails, and that comes from self-grasping.

A common variant of this deluded attitude is there when we look at ourselves in the mirror and we see we’re overweight and getting grey. We have thrown the net of a solidly existent “me” onto another self-image and grasp at that to be “me” and what we see in the mirror, “That’s not me!” Or, we look at what the scale shows when we weigh ourselves and we say, “That can’t be me.” We have this very unrealistic idea of “me.” This is part of self-grasping.

Ridding Ourselves of Self-Grasping

If we’re going to successfully practice tonglen or any other practices aimed at getting rid of this self-grasping for a false “me,” we need to recognize that such grasping leads to these disturbing emotions and attitudes. We need to identify these disturbing emotions and see that they don’t work as mechanisms for making something secure, since what they aim to make secure can’t possibly be made secure. A solidly existent, false “me” can’t be made secure because it doesn’t exist. Grasping for one only brings suffering.

What makes tonglen aimed at the disturbing emotions difficult is that we don’t want to do it. We grasp for a “me” that doesn’t want to experience our suffering, let alone the suffering of others. We don’t even acknowledge that we have suffering, as though there were a “me” that’s separate from all of what we experience. It’s as if our suffering were a room: I come into the room and now experience it, and then go out of the room. Or I don’t even want to go into that room, so here I am. It could be described as a dualistic feeling; there are many ways of describing it. It’s as if there is a “me” that exists all on its own, isolated from everything. Believing that this corresponds to reality then leads to feeling that I don’t want to deal with you; I don’t even want to deal with me. It’s this type of thing.

We have a very strong habit and tendency to feel like that. It’s very insidious. It’s not just that we believe this, it feels like this. That’s what makes it so compelling. When we have this voice in our head, it feels as though there’s “me” inside there talking, complaining, “What should I do now?” Then we make a decision as if we press a button inside and operate this machine, this body, and that certainly is not the way it is. 

We have that tendency: “I don’t want to take on your suffering. I don’t want to take on these poisonous attitudes of everyone.” This feeling ripens from karmic tendencies and the tendency to grasp for an impossible “me.” What is it that prevents us from wanting to help others to deal with their suffering? It is because of all the various things we experience that are ripening from our destructive behavior.

Karmic Cause and Effect

Let’s look at the second section of the text, which deals with karma. Karma is this compulsion that drives us to act in a way that is similar to our past behavior and to encounter things happening to us that are similar to what we did before.

If we want to stop and get rid of these obstructions that block us from helping ourselves and others, we need to first stop our destructive behavior. When we start to feel like doing something, we need to discriminate: Is this helpful or is this harmful, beneficial or detrimental? We have the freedom to decide whether or not we do it. If it’s going to be harmful, don’t do it. This first level of eliminating our destructive behavior entails using self-control. But we also want to counter it with something positive – constructive behavior instead.

When we lack discrimination and self-control, we act out of this compulsion. How it’s described is that an impulse draws us into actually doing an action. Once the impulse is activated, we don’t have control over it; we just do it. We can only prevent the impulse from arising when we merely feel like doing or saying something. Acting out our compulsive impulses leaves karmic aftermath on our mental continuum. 

There are several varieties of karmic aftermath, but we don’t need to go into all the details. For instance, we build up karmic tendencies to repeat our past behavior. In the West, we talk about neural pathways. When we strengthen a neural pathway by repeated similar types of behavior, the tendency to act in that manner once more becomes easier and easier. Also, we get into situations in which we experience things similar to what we did to others happening to us. We don’t usually make this connection in our Western way of looking at things, but this is more what Dharmarakshita is talking about in this section. It is this second type of ripening that is similar to the causes.

Aspects of Karmic Aftermath

In the first type of ripening that is similar to its cause, the karmic aftermath ripens into a feeling of liking or wanting to repeat the action. We want to look at our phone again; we want to yell at somebody again; we want to deal with something in a very selfish way, because we’ve done that before and we’re accustomed to that. It’s almost like our default setting. It can also be more positive behavior, such as perfectionist types of actions. We want to clean the house yet again, or correct our paper yet again, even though we’ve gone over it so many times. However, when we feel like repeating our previous types of behavior or want to do it again, then, as I said, we do have the space to decide yes or no. This first case is a little bit easier to deal with.

In the second case of ripening that is similar to its cause, the karmic tendency also ripens into a feeling like doing something, for instance looking at our phones while crossing the street. Compulsively we do that and what happens is this acts as a circumstance for us to experience getting hit by a car. This is quite important to understand in terms of the ripening of this karmic aftermath. Our karmic aftermath doesn’t cause the other person to hit us. Often, we have that misunderstanding, thinking, “I’m responsible for what you did. It’s all my fault.” This’s not the case.

The karmic aftermath ripens into our experiencing being hit. It’s their karmic aftermath that ripens into them hitting us. When we discuss the ripening of karma, we are talking about what we experience. For example, we experience having this type of body; that’s another thing that ripens from karmic aftermath. We experience having this type of body that is going to grow old and fall apart and die. That’s just part of the uncontrollably recurring aspect of samsara.

We grow old, we get sick, and we die with this limited body and limited mind, which can’t understand everything. We’re helpless as a baby with the very inefficient type of body that we have at that time. It’s really incredible that such a limited body and mind work and function at all: but on the other hand, having this type of limited body and limited mind has a lot of flaws. We have this term “sentient being.” A Buddha is not a sentient being, not someone with a limited mind or as I also call it, “limited hardware.”

But, to get back to this ripening that is similar to the cause in what we experience, we get into situations in which we experience things happening to us similar to what we did to others by feeling like doing something and the impulse to do it. That makes us get into a situation, for instance, always being attracted to a partner who abuses us: somebody that is always going to yell at us, and so on. When get attracted to someone, why do we feel attracted to this one and not that one? That’s the ripening of karma. Compulsively we pursue that type of relationship and then we experience that they are cruel to us, they yell at us, they don’t treat us nicely, and so on.

This is how we experience this ripening of karma. It’s not simply that we experience getting angry and yelling at people, and so we always continue to yell at people. It’s this second aspect of karmic ripening similar to its cause that Dharmarakshita is going to focus on. We need to build up more positive habits, more positive neural pathways, so that they will ripen into getting into situations in which things work out and go well on a regular basis.

When positive force is built up, we need to dedicate that positive force toward enlightenment with bodhichitta. Doing so acts as a cause that will bring us to enlightenment, rather than as a cause to just make for a nicer samsara. We need to have a nicer samsara in the sense that if we’re overwhelmed with starvation or living in a war zone and so on, there’s very little that we can do.

We want better situations, but that’s not the ultimate aim. That’s just a provisional step along the way. Bodhichitta is really essential here. 

In the end, it comes down to the fact that we are our own worst enemies. We are the creators of our own happiness and the creators of our own unhappiness. We can’t place the blame on others; we need to place the blame on ourselves. This is not in the sense of a solidly existent “me,” and we put all the blame on it, and therefore, “I’m guilty and I’m bad and all of that.” It is not in that sense at all.

We see that self-cherishing, “I am the most important one; I always have to have my way” – this is the problem. It’s based on believing that this “me” that always have to have its way is a solidly existent thing.

Dharmarakshita puts it nicely:

(46) In short then, whenever unfortunate sufferings we haven’t desired crash upon us like thunder, this is the same as the smith who had taken his life with a sword he had fashioned himself. Our suffering’s the wheel of sharp weapons returning full circle upon us from wrongs we have done. Hereafter let’s always have care and awareness never to act in non-virtuous ways.

In this second section, then, Dharmarakshita goes through a long, long list of negative things that happen to us. Dharmarakshita sums up the second section, by saying that basically we are like the person who makes swords who is killed by a sword he has made. That’s the summary.

I would like to spend time on some of the verses in text, working with them, although we don’t have enough time to go through them all. I think this is really how we can best work with this text. We can see how some of these syndromes that are explained in each of these verses might apply to us and see that this is what is preventing us from being able to help others with tonglen practice, or just to help others just in general. We can see that we’re always getting into difficult situations, and because we’re in these difficult situations, it prevents us from helping others.

I’ve chosen a few verses for us. Let’s spend some time on each of them, contemplating and seeing if each makes sense in terms of our own experience. Does it give us a clue to what to work on?

Using Harsh, Abusive Language

(14) When we hear only language that is foul and abusive, this is the wheel of sharp weapons returning full circle upon us from wrongs we have done. Till now we have said many things without thinking; we have slandered and caused many friendships to end. Hereafter let’s censure all thoughtless remarks.

When we hear people saying nasty things to us, saying cruel things to us, making fun of us, criticizing us all the time – when we hear these sorts of nasty things, this is the wheel of sharp weapons coming back to us. It’s the result of us saying nasty things about others.

We say nasty things about others and then we compulsively get into situations in which we encounter people who are going to say nasty things to us – it happens back to us. If we want to break that syndrome, which is just repeating and repeating itself, we have to first recognize in ourselves that we say nasty things to other people. “I say cruel things.” The text says to censure or discredit all faults in our speech. 

Instead of saying nasty things, say positive things about others, or at least neutral things about others. Atisha said it very nicely in A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems:

(28) When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.

We have to be careful with what we say. If it’s going to be something nasty or something stupid, don’t say it. Hold your tongue, as we say in English, and try to say positive things.

Let’s examine ourselves. Especially if we find people say nasty things to us, are we saying nasty things to others at all? Are we thinking nasty things, even? Then we make this decision hereafter to censure all thoughtless remarks.

An Example of How Our Harsh Speech Is an Obstacle

Speaking about being judgmental, we might not want to help somebody, even if they’re suffering, and we say, “You deserve that. You’re no good; you’re lazy and that’s why you don’t go to work and you’re hungry,” and so on. We don’t want to help them or take on their problems because we have this tendency to say nasty things about them and to think nasty things about them. Try to connect this with what is preventing us from really helping others.

Also, obviously, if everybody is saying we’re stupid and saying nasty things to us, it’s very hard, then, to be positive. It’s easy to get discouraged. We want to change that pattern. That’s the first step to be able to do these advanced practices like tonglen, these bodhisattva practices.

Guided Meditation on Foul, Abusive Language

Let’s take a moment to think about this first topic, which is saying nasty things about others. We don’t necessarily have to say it to their faces; often we say it behind their backs. We’re very good at saying nasty things about various politicians, aren’t we?


Again, there’s a big difference between recognizing that a politician, for example, or just somebody is doing something destructive and wanting that to stop. There’s a big difference between that and saying nasty words to them or about them. Those are quite different, aren’t they? We can still wish for the person to be happy while also wishing for them to stop doing the destructive things they’re doing. We have to discriminate.


Try to recognize, behind saying nasty and cruel words, are we exaggerating the negative qualities of someone or something? That aspect, as our motivating emotion, is actually anger. “So terrible! Worst thing in the world!” and so we say nasty things about it. We identify the person with what they’re doing: “You’re bad! You’re so horrible because what you do is so horrible!” This is throwing out the net of “you” and “yours”; it’s the same thing as “me” and “mine.”


Recognize how, if we are compulsively saying nasty things about others, why would we want to take on their problems and help them? It’s a big obstacle to wanting to do that.

When somebody has been verbally very nasty toward us, how do we respond? When they’re not around, do we say nasty things about them? How do we deal with that type of situation? That type of experience is what we are talking about.

Think about it and reflect about experiences with this person who is always so nasty toward us, and what they said to us, yelling at us, and criticizing us, and making fun of us in front of others, and so on. How do we speak about them afterwards with others? 

Can we just transform that, and say, well, this person had a lot of problems and it made them act in very unpleasant ways? But, they also have very good qualities too, and in that way, not hold a grudge, and not speak badly about them?

If we speak badly about them, this is a karmic cause for encountering and getting involved with people who will speak badly to us. That’s the wheel of sharp weapons coming back like a boomerang to us.

Comments or Questions

What comments or questions do you have about this particular exercise, from your own reflections, from your own experience?

Is It Fair That We Experience Karmic Consequences?

In my contemplation, speech is one thing, but I understand now that it also applies to our thinking. To not think badly about others, that is even much more difficult. Behind their back I might think, “What an awful person.” I think it, but I could have said it. I guess that is the same. I was also thinking about the ripening. I don’t know if it goes on a one-to-one basis, but the ripening can take a long time. It may have been using a lot of slander in previous lives, which only now comes to ripening. I thought that’s not fair to me. That’s what I thought about it. But, of course, it’s fair; I have done this. Can I then offset this negative karma by accumulating merit? Would that then be fair?

To answer that, we first need to understand the very big topic of merit. There’s a very long article about that on the website.

[See: Merit: Does Happiness Need to Be Earned?]

Does merit mean that we have to earn something and then we deserve it because then it’s fair? This whole idea of merit implies that. It’s not that we have to earn it or deserve it in order for something positive to happen.

Instead of the terms “sin” and “merit,” Buddhism is talking about negative potential and positive potential, negative force and positive force; simply cause and effect. If we have a lot of negative force, we want to counter it with positive force; but, we also want to somehow stop building up more negative force, and purify it away.

To do that, we need to understand the twelve links of dependent arising. This is very central to the Buddhist teachings. The twelve links describe samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth and uncontrollably recurring situations. Because of the first link, this ignorance, this unknowing, we don’t know that how we imagine that we and others exist doesn’t correspond to reality. Based on that ignorance, we act in disturbing ways because of the disturbing emotions we develop. Acting in destructive ways builds up karmic aftermath, which carries on into future rebirths.

How does it ripen? To experience the karmic results of our previous actions in a future rebirth, we first need the development of the body, the aggregates and so on. After that develops, the karmic aftermath ripens into the aggregate of feeling. There’s the feeling of happiness or unhappiness. It talks about neutral feelings as well, but they do not refer to the point that’s right between happy and unhappy. Neutral feelings refer to what we would experience in some of the states of higher dhyana concentration, where we are deeply absorbed in trance-like states in which we don’t feel either happy or unhappy. That’s what neutral feelings refer to. Normally, in every moment we feel somewhere on the spectrum of happy or unhappy. 

Then, we have what’s usually translated as “craving,” but actually the Sanskrit word means “thirst.” We’re dying of thirst. For example, we have a little bit of happiness, then we want more and more and we don’t want to be parted from it, because we’re so thirsty. If we have unhappiness, again like a thirst, we want to get rid of it. We’re exaggerating the qualities of happy and unhappy. 

Next, we have this word usually translated as “grasping,” but it is not the same Tibetan and Sanskrit word as in the expression “grasping for truly established existence.” It is a different word in Tibetan and Sanskrit, meaning “to obtain.” I call it an “obtainer.” It is something from which we obtain the result. There are many subdivisions here but the main one is aimed at “me.” “I want to not be parted from happiness and I want to be parted from unhappiness.” Thirsting and an obtainer attitude trigger the karmic aftermath into ripening; they activate it.

This is very profound if you think about it and apply it in ordinary life. What is actually happening? “I feel like doing something, because I feel unhappy. So, I feel like yelling at you and saying something nasty about you because I am experiencing being unhappy. I believe that somehow if I express my unhappiness by yelling at you, it’ll make it feel better.” But of course, it doesn’t.

We think it will make “me” – this solid “me” – feel better. That triggers the compulsion to actually say something nasty. That’s the mechanism of the twelve links. It’s incredible how it explains how this whole karmic thing works. 

Where do we attack this? We can say that we have to get rid of the unawareness; we have to get rid of the ignorance. This is true. Also, on a practical level, when we experience feeling happy or unhappy, it is “nothing special.” This is the expression that the young Serkong Rinpoche uses all the time. “I feel happy or I feel unhappy; well, nothing special about that; so what?”

It will pass. Everything is impermanent. It changes all the time. In this way, we don’t have to have this thirsting, this clinging, and all that comes from it. “I feel like going and having a piece of cake” – so what? We don’t have to do it. We grasp, as in, “I’m unhappy, and eating chocolate is going to make me happy.” We grasp, thinking, “I’m happy being with you, so don’t leave me. Don’t ever go. I can’t live without you.” We grasp and we’re attached, because we’re feeling happy and we don’t want it to go away. 

“I want more and more.” But how much of delicious food do we have to eat in order to enjoy it? It’s a very interesting question. If we eat more, will we enjoy it more – really? There are all these things to analyze within ourselves. If we want to break these syndromes, we have to see what to work on. 

It all boils down to this: When, out of feeling happy or unhappy, we want to do something, we feel like doing something, the happy or unhappy feeling is ripening from one karmic aftermath, while wanting to repeat doing something again is ripening from another karmic aftermath. It could come from all sorts of different things in previous lifetimes. Whether it’s fair or unfair, it’s irrelevant. It’s just what’s happening.

What we want to do is not act it out. Don’t activate more karmic aftermath with what we want to do. If we’ve gotten rid of any possibility for us to ripen and activate this karmic aftermath, then we can’t say that the karmic aftermath can hamper us in any way. Something can only be a cause in relation to an effect. If something can’t give an effect any longer, it’s no longer a cause. It’s gone. If we get rid of what will activate something in order to bring about a result – on the deepest level, that would be the understanding of voidness ­– then that potential is no longer a potential. It’s no longer there; it’s no longer a cause. That’s how we get rid of it.

It’s very important to understand these twelve links. They are not just some intellectual scheme. They give us a clue as to how to deal with karma. How do we change our behavior? To recognize this, we need to investigate and apply the practice of the four close placements of mindfulness on the feelings of happy and unhappy. We recognize them in terms of the cause of suffering, the second noble truth. It’s how we respond to feeling happy and unhappy that causes all our problems. 

So, nothing special; if we are happy, that’s nice, and if unhappy, not so nice. But, so what? “I don’t feel like going to work today.” So what? Nothing special; go to work anyway. It’s like that, isn’t it? This is the type of attitude. “I would like to sleep longer. I’m so happy lying here in this nice, warm, comfortable bed.” So what? We have to get up. “I want to stay in bed, because I’m so happy here. But I can’t and I’m so frustrated.” “Me, me, me, poor me, I have to get up. Poor me, I have to go to work.” 

Thinking like that, we really suffer, don’t we? But, if we can apply this type of “nothing special” response to happy and unhappy, and just deal with what we need to deal with in an intelligent way, we won’t cause ourselves problems and suffering. We just do what needs to be done. We could describe that as acting in a non-dual way. We can describe it in many ways. The duality would be what we have to do and the “me” that doesn’t want to do it. There are many ways of describing this way of acting. The point is to just do. Just do it, with wisdom and compassion, in that sense.

Again, there’s no reason why the universe should be fair. Is it fair that when you bang your foot against the table, and it hurts? Is it fair?

Why shouldn’t the universe be fair?

Why should it be? If you think about it, if we think the universe should be fair, it’s because it was created by God and God wants everything to be fair. For example, is it fair that my business investment didn’t work? It’s just reality. This is cause and effect. Fair has to do with some sort of judgment and the implication is that there is a judge that’s outside the system that judges it. The idea of fairness and justice is really coming from a different cultural framework than the Buddhist one. So much of our misunderstanding comes from looking at Buddhism and trying to fit it into the conceptual constructs of our own cultural framework. It doesn’t fit. That’s projection, we project our Western concepts onto Buddhism.

Another example of projection is merit. Merit implies we have to deserve positive results. We have to earn them. We can start to think about it by considering, “Does my dog deserve to be fed?” What does the dog need to do to earn the right, the merit, to be fed by me? Does that plant deserve to be watered? It becomes silly after a while. Just because it exists, the dog needs to be fed. It doesn’t have to do anything in order to be fed. This is love.

The dog just wants to be fed. When we take on the responsibility of having an animal, the animal doesn’t have to do anything in order to be fed. When we have a baby, the baby doesn’t have to do anything; whether the baby is naughty or not, we still have to feed the baby. We certainly wouldn’t think, “You don’t deserve to be fed; you were crying all night, you kept me up, so I’m going to punish you and not feed you today.”

This is a different conceptual framework, that you have to earn something and then you deserve to be paid. Unfortunately the idea of merit seems to be like that; it gives that flavor, so I avoid that term. It is very different from saying that the people who translate the word as “merit” are stupid and no good; they are bad translators. It’s very different, isn’t it, to say that this term leads to misunderstanding and therefore to offer an alternative that doesn’t lead to this misunderstanding. But we don’t judge the translators who use the term “merit” as being stupid and say something nasty about them, like “They’re terrible!”

If we start saying terrible things about them, then they’re going to start saying terrible things about us. It works like that, doesn’t it? This is the whole point. It’s not that we lose our ability to discriminate what is helpful and what is harmful. We can still discriminate without saying nasty things about what is harmful and about the person who does what’s harmful. It’s important to differentiate.

Keeping a Distance from Someone Who Says Nasty Things to Us

Thinking about this, I have an example with someone who was very nasty, and I felt sorry for that person. I had a feeling that I should help her somehow, but it’s difficult because the relationship is so bad. I don’t think or speak badly about her, but I stopped the relationship. I feel like this person is like a sister that I should take care of, even if she’s nasty to me. It’s very strange. Now, I also get a guilty conscience, thinking, “I haven’t talked to her for three months; now I should talk to her again.” I can’t get free of it. Can you say something about this?

The fact that we don’t say things nasty back to them, or about them, is very helpful in terms of the karmic habits that we build up. But, taking some distance from the person when they are not receptive to our help is also a very wise policy. The more that we stay with them, the more that we are offering the circumstances for them to continue to say nasty things. In order to help them avoid building up more negative karmic consequences, we take a distance. This is quite helpful – it’s not as though we are abandoning them. We can take that distance with the motivation of helping them to avoid more suffering. 

The concept of “should” is a bit heavy. “I should do this, because if I don’t do this, I’m bad.” If we can quiet that down a little bit, then the question is simply about whether or not it is helpful to contact this person. You can try and see what their response is if you do contact them or wait until they contact you. Maybe they don’t want to have any further contact. But I think the initial thing is to try, after a sufficient period of time, and see how they respond. Everything develops over time; things change. To push yourself on the person, especially if you get a negative response, when they are not ready is not helpful.

I have had the same experience. I wanted to establish contact again with someone and sent an email with something like, “How are you doing?” The person answered with one word, “fine,” and that’s it. Obviously the person doesn’t want to engage.

Explaining Karma without Mentioning Past Lives

My question is about karmic consequences and how to deal with them. I understand that it’s helpful to deal with things in a different way, to change habitual patterns. But, in some Asian cultures, the karmic explanation has been misused to explain how and why things are as they are. “It’s karma.” They kind of state the problem, for example, “All these kids are starving.” I can’t tell them that they don’t have the right attitude and should deal with hunger in a more constructive way. They don’t see it as cause and effect. It’s problematic. But, when it comes to dealing with making people more able to help themselves, it’s complicated to give explanations about karma, especially to explain the things they did in former lives.

To explain things in terms of former lives is not very skillful to start with, especially if we say, “You deserve it, so shut up.” But when there is suffering, and there are people in a famine and they are starving or have no drinking water, like in Puerto Rico now, we have to give them whatever we can give them. If you want to talk about karma in that situation, what you want to encourage them to do is to share whatever they can with everybody. The causes of poverty are not sharing, not giving and not being generous. Therefore, if in passing out food and water, or something like that, the people just hoard everything for themselves and don’t share it with everybody else, that’s going to build up more karmic causes to have more poverty and more starvation. In giving, you definitely give, and you encourage all involved to share with all the people who are suffering. I think that’s the only way to deal with it in a Buddhist manner. But you certainly don’t say you deserve this, because in a past life you did this and that.

Whether a person believes in past lives or not, what we want to do is recognize the relationship of cause and effect. The explanation of karma is that if we have acted in a certain way, we will have the tendency to repeat that behavior, and the tendency to get into situations in which something similar happens to us. For example, if others don’t share with us, we need to examine, “I don’t share, and I have the tendency to not want to share, to hoard things. But then nobody else will share with me, which is only natural.”

We don’t have to think in terms of what we did in a past life to recognize if others don’t want to share with us. What comes together in the package of that is that I don’t want to share with them.

We look in ourselves: How am I acting in a selfish way that I don’t want to share, and it gives us a clue how to improve the situation. “If I share with you, you’re more likely to share with me.” 

We can deal with this without having to explain previous lives, because that can turn people off and they can misunderstand this as “you deserve this, so shut up.” We want to avoid this almost self-righteous thing.

The Legal System and the Lack of Fairness in the Universe

I was wondering why we have these scoring systems. In Norway, we have a court that is supposed to have an ideal of being just and fair. I can understand that the universe doesn’t have to be fair. I wonder why we make the effort to have a court system that is supposed to be objectively fair.

I think the court system and justice exist because if someone is causing a great deal of harm, we want to prevent them from causing more harm. Whether that’s fair or not fair is irrelevant. It’s just the fact that out of compassion, we want to prevent more suffering. Therefore, we do whatever is necessary, differentiating the person from their behavior. I wouldn’t look at it as, “You’re bad and I have to punish you,” but rather, “I am helping you by preventing you from causing more harm.”

I am not that familiar with Norwegian law, but it seems as though you’re far kinder in the administration of law than in many other countries where they execute criminals or put someone into a horrible prison situation where they are beaten up and raped and all sorts of horrible things happen.

It’s out of kindness that we want to help this person; and if they’re so badly ingrained in a negative habit and it’s very hard to help them, at least we can prevent them from causing more harm. From a karmic point of view, they have caused themselves so much suffering, that it’s like saying “why kick a dying dog,” causing it more pain. There’s no reason for that.

This is very personal because I was in court, arrested for fighting back with a police officer, when police were using unnecessary violence. Actually, I lashed out with instinct. I didn’t think whether that person deserved it or not. I felt attacked and afraid. People were harming me with force, and they were more trained and stronger than me, and then I don’t really know what happened. When I think about it, it seems that when I got the punishment in court, it was unfair. Why didn’t the police officer get some kind of similar outcome? I just noticed in myself that it was very tough to hear that the universe isn’t fair.

The instinct to fight back is the compulsive behavior. We expect that it should be fair: “If I have to experience negative consequences from having used violence, then the police officer should have to as well.” It should be fair. But, the universe isn’t necessarily fair, and the point is not to get angry at that. That’s just the way it is. What can we do? 

Remember dependent arising. It’s not just up to us. There’s the judge, the jury, and values, and political things that are going on, and all sorts of other considerations of why the police aren’t similarly disciplined for using violence as we are.

You can explain this in terms of karmic things, past lifetimes, and so on, if that makes any sense to you – or not. The point is not to get angry about the whole situation and to just deal with it. But when we are attacked, of course, there’s a difference between defending ourselves on the basis of anger and fear or defending ourselves, in theory, on the basis of compassion. With compassion, “I want to stop you from doing something that’s going to be so disastrous to you as well.” It’s not acting on the basis of anger and that’s hard. It’s very, very hard, but that’s the ideal. But, it doesn’t just mean you let everybody slap you around.

It’s kind of difficult to balance what you were just saying. I was in “fight or flight” mode, but of course the ideal is that if I were ever to be in a similar situation, I would behave differently. But I don’t feel like I had control over the situation at all.

Exactly; that is the big problem that we face in terms of karma. That we feel like doing something, and then we instantly compulsively do it. When we become more attentive to what’s going on in our minds, then what is happening slows down, in a sense. At least our perception of what’s happening in our minds slows down, so that we can use our judgment to decide whether or not it’s going to help to hit this really strong policeman. What is that going to do? It’s not going to do anything. It’s just going to get me beaten up more. Then you might peacefully go down on the floor and cover your head or something like that.

It may not be fair that this is the case, but if this is the situation, we have to deal with it. This is the point. If we can take some political action to change it, we can do that. But there are a lot of things that are not fair. It’s just the way that it is as part of samsara. This is what I mean when I say the universe isn’t necessarily fair, or that it should be. 

We try to bring about change to make things more reasonable. Let’s take one more example from the text.

Not Being Able to Finish Anything

(21) At times when we’re frustrated from the depths of our minds that our works are never accomplished, this is the sharp weapon of negative karma circling back on us from having caused interference to the hallowed ones’ deeds. Now, let’s rid ourselves of all our interference-making.

I think this is a very relevant verse. If we’re never able to finish anything that we’ve started because there are always interruptions and we can’t finish, this is the result of having interrupted others, so that we prevent them from finishing what they’re doing. 

Many people are doing that so much these days with constant texting and messaging and all of these types of things. We’re constantly interrupting others as if we’re so important, and of course we’re not finishing what we’re doing, because we’re constantly multitasking. If we are constantly being interrupted and compulsively always have to look at our phone at these messages, we can’t really help anybody. Right in the middle of any task we get a message, and we’re so addicted that we have to look at it, and we have to answer it. From a karmic point of view, if we stop interrupting everybody else, that would be the way to get others to stop interrupting us. Then we would be able to accomplish something.

This is very relevant. We’re not so important that we have to tell everybody and send them a picture of what we ate for breakfast, or what we see out of the window on the bus. Who cares? We think it’s so important: “I’ll send it to you and you better like it, and send me something back.” Somehow that’ll make us feel secure, connected and loved. What is happening in the world now is a really strange syndrome, with all this messaging and the hope that it’s going to make us more secure by feeling connected. But, it doesn’t; that’s the problem. 

This whole point of interrupting is very essential. When we hear of the ten destructive types of behavior, idle chatter is basically referring to interrupting somebody else. In the text it refers to hallowed ones, someone who is doing something positive. We are interrupting with something that is meaningless that we consider meaningful. Is it really meaningful that people see what we ate for breakfast, and approve of it, and like it? That’s idle chatter. Causing interruptions is what’s really behind that.

Guided Meditation on Interrupting Others

Let’s examine ourselves. Do we do this?

When we send an email or a message, or call somebody on the phone – older people still like to use the phone and actually speak to somebody – do we expect that they’re going to drop everything and speak to us? We send a message and we expect that the recipient is going to drop everything and answer us immediately. Do we get angry and impatient when they don’t, as in, “Why haven’t you answered me!?”

It’s really funny. Within the core team of my work, we have one messaging service that we use to communicate with each other. There’s one person on the team who writes and then he turns it off. He doesn’t wait for me to answer; I find that terribly frustrating. I answer and I have to wait until later when he turns the messaging service back on, looks at it, and then answers. This is the type of thing that we need to examine. Do I expect that I’m so important, “me, me, me,” this solid “me,” that you have to drop everything and answer me instantly because I’m more important than what you’re doing? 

Of course, the karmic consequences are that we’re never going to accomplish anything, because we are multitasking and getting interrupted and distracted and so on.


This habit of interrupting others is very delicate actually. There are two situations: one is interrupting others with something meaningless and the other thing is if we’re working as part of a team and need to communicate with each other to ask somebody to do this or that in order for us to be able to continue what we’re doing. 

I face this all the time. Someone on the team has a question regarding the work they are doing, and if I don’t answer immediately, then it delays their work. But, the result of that, at least in my case, is that I’m never actually able to accomplish what I need to do because I’m answering everybody’s questions.

When I need something from them, likewise, I certainly don’t like to be kept waiting. It can be a very difficult situation to deal with that in a work situation. One is to not to send work-related emails after work hours or on the weekend; however, I don’t work at set hours. I basically work all the time and I don’t take weekends off, or things like that. If I’m doing something on the weekend, my thought is that if I don’t ask them to do it now, I will have forgotten by Monday.

But, if I send the email, they might get annoyed, or not look at it. I’m guilty of this. In universities you have office hours, and if students want to come and ask questions, these are the designated times. Other than that, students can’t come and bother anyone. That doesn’t work when you’re working in a team, does it? 

In terms of these emails, when it’s outside of work hours, it isn’t a bad idea to put it in the Outbox and send it Monday morning. Be patient about not being able to get an answer over the weekend, or at night when working late. That’s very tough. We need to ask individual team members what their customs are and respect that.

One guideline, at least with personal conversations that are not work-related, is to start out with asking, “Are you busy?” or “Do you have a moment?” If a person is busy, ask that they let you know when it would be a good time to call back and have a chat. This is, I think, a very helpful strategy.

But that “me, me, me,” wanting that instant gratification – not in terms of instant gratification of getting a “like” on a Facebook page ­– but the instant gratification of getting an answer to something that we need in order to be able to continue our work, that’s tough.

In our modern society in which we are multitasking all the time, it really is very hard to accomplish anything, isn’t it? How do we deal with that, when everybody else is multitasking?


What’s your experience? Do you work in a team?

My experience is that there’s a difference between sending an email and expecting it to be read and answered. I work in the government: I am not in private enterprise. And I used to get text messages and emails sent by my senior officer during night and on the weekend as well, but we had a mutual agreement. She just wanted to get it off her chest as she had a huge workload and worked so many hours. However, she didn’t expect me to answer it. Of course, I had to accept that because she was the boss, but I could see that she was working hard.

If people try not to get their job emails during the weekends, then they won’t even check. I think it’s a matter of expectations. If they think that they have to answer immediately, then they get frustrated. An understanding can be arranged to send emails out so that the flow in work isn’t stopped, and not expect others to have to open it before Monday, and that’s fine.

I think that’s very wise. But then we have to negotiate what works and what doesn’t work with each member of the team.

We can also turn off that notification sound. I always mute that sound, because then I feel like I’m in an experiment, you know? Nobody should have to have these sounds on.

Mute your mobile device or your laptop so that it doesn’t make that sound when we get a message. Almost instinctively we feel that we have to reply. Again, this idea that “I don’t want to miss something, maybe it’s important.”

I work with my team in a similar way as mentioned and I think it works quite well. We don’t expect others to read emails during the night time and on the weekends, but if something is really urgent, we text.

Correct; we have to set up some convention. I know in my work, if the website goes down, I have to contact my technical guy to restart the server, otherwise it’s down for the whole weekend. There are certain things that are very urgent. Again, we have to negotiate according to the schedules and circumstances. Some people might only work at night and don’t work in the morning. Each person is different.

I found it’s a good idea to discipline myself. I don’t have to say something the moment I think it and disturb a person. If I’m afraid of forgetting it, I write it down and then say it when it’s appropriate, instead of the moment that it comes up. That can be very disturbing.

Right; we can note it down or write the email and put it in the Outbox and not send it. There are certain strategies that we can do. There are two sides to this: the compulsion to interrupt people, wanting to send a communication and get an instant answer, and the compulsion to look into and answer anything that comes into our Inbox. This is hard to resist. Even if people turn off the sound so that they don’t hear it coming in, they are often still checking their phone all the time. It becomes addictive that we’re always looking. This is difficult.

There’s also the problem if we don’t answer as emails come in, we get blasted with surprises and problems first thing Monday morning.

The problem that I have supervising about fifty-four people – and others who supervise large groups of people might also have – is if I don’t answer and take care of things as they come in, I phrase it that “I get punished,” because then I have fifty emails to answer at once and it’s just overwhelming. How to make that balance? It’s very difficult. The more that we indulge in it, the more it happens. 

Dealing with karma is not very easy, but at least we have these guidelines from the text to help us.