What to Consider When Remembering Death

The Difficulty of Obtaining a Precious Human Rebirth and How to Take Best Advantage of It

It is important to think in the beginning about the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth with all its respites from situations preventing Dharma practice and all its enrichments with favorable circumstances and opportunities to practice. There are many things to think about and to consider, such as how such a working basis is difficult to obtain from the point of view of examples, from the point of view of its nature, and from the point of view of its causes.

Now, we have actually obtained such a basis that is so difficult to obtain. And how is it that we have come to have such a human rebirth? It is because we have done such a great deal of spiritual work in our past lives, which has brought about the causes for being reborn as we are now. An example for understanding this would be like having done the work required to roll a large metal ball halfway up a mountain. In other words, we’ve done all the work to get a human lifetime now and what behooves us at this point is to go further, to make further progress. Having gotten this ball halfway up the mountain, if we don’t act carefully, there’s the danger that it will roll back to the bottom and it will be very difficult to roll it back up again.

What we need to do then is, on the basis of the precious human life that we now have, to try to develop compassion, love and a dedicated heart of bodhichitta. The best that we could do, after all, is to try to become enlightened on this basis. But if we don’t make proper use of what we have now, but simply make prayers to be able to get such a precious human rebirth in the future, it would be similar to having a large basket full of rice and, putting it to the side and not using it, just sitting and praying to get another basket of rice!

We have this excellent working basis now that we can use for Dharma practice and we need to make efforts and prayers to make full use of it. We should be very happy that we have it. The way to approach this is to think, “If I’ve obtained something precious like this working basis, I’m going to make use of it properly today and pray to be able to continue to do so tomorrow.” In the morning when we wake up, it is important to think, “How wonderful it is that I’ve woken up! I haven’t died during my sleep!” And then it is important to start ourselves off for the day by making the strong intention, “Today I am going to continue to make proper use of my precious human life!”

The type of life that we have now is so precious; it has eight respites or temporary freedoms from eight difficult situations in which we’d have no chance to make spiritual progress. These are eight situations as non-humans and eight human situations with no chance. So when we wake up in the morning, we need to think how fortunate we are not to have died during the night. If we had died and been reborn with any of these eight situations with no chance to make any spiritual progress, such as being reborn as an insect crawling on the floor, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to hear about these preventive measures of the Dharma. So it is important to feel very happy and grateful at our fortune to wake up in the morning and continue to have the opportunities that we have, and to set the strong intention to make the fullest use of them. At night, if we have thought in this way and have set a very strong intention to make full use of our opportunities, then even while we sleep it will be very constructive.

When Tsongkhapa writes here, “I request inspiration to develop without disruption an attitude to take its essence in all ways day and night,” he is referring to the type of practice that we can do both in the morning and at night – namely, take advantage of the essence of our precious human life.

This place in the text, where Tsongkhapa speaks about this topic, is the place where we need to fill in all the various teachings and methods concerning the same topic that are found, first of all, in the sutras. The sutras are the words of the Buddha himself. Likewise, the various shastras or explanatory texts that were written by the Indian Buddhist masters, and similarly all the texts that were written by the Tibetan masters of all the traditions of Buddhism in Tibet: Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug – whatever particular methods are found in any of those sources regarding this subject matter, we need also to apply here. In other words, we need to fill in and apply here any teaching that deals with the precious human rebirth, with its respites and enrichments, no matter what valid Buddhist source it comes from. It is like, for instance, if we had a sugar bin, we put all our sugar in it, regardless of which store we got the sugar from.

If we have such a precious working basis and we don’t make proper use of it, it is going to be very difficult to get one again. If it were the case that we could constantly get such a precious human life over and again, that would be one thing; but in fact that is not the case. Therefore, if we don’t make proper use of it now, we’re not likely to get the chance again. It’s like someone who is very strong and courageous, if they have no limbs and are put out on the ground some place, it doesn’t matter how strong and courageous they are, there is not much they can do. Likewise, there will not be very much we can do once we’ve lost our precious human body.

If our human body were something extremely strong and imperishable, that again would be one thing; but it’s not like that. It is something that doesn’t have very great strength. Also, once we’ve taken a birth, there is nothing that can happen except to die. And if there were some place that we heard of where we can go where people don’t die, that would be wonderful, we could go there. But, in fact, there is no such place. As there is no place we can go to escape death, it is important to be mindful of death.

Death and Impermanence

When we hear about death and the lower realms, most of us find it very unpleasant in comparison to hearing about various mundane worldly matters and concerns. To hear about them would be like listening to a bad story. We wouldn’t like or enjoy that. To hear, instead, that there is no such thing as death or the lower realms would be like listening to a very nice story. But to hear a nice story that says that there are no such things, when in fact there are, is a great deception; it is just a lie.

If we decide that since we don’t like to hear stories about death and the lower realms, it is better not to listen to them because they are so unpleasant and upsetting, and if, with such an attitude, we could make death and rebirth in lower realms not happen, it would be very nice. But in fact, that is not the case. Not liking to hear about them or not believing in them doesn’t make them go away. And, in fact, the accounts of them are not just made-up stories: it is all for real. Since our mortal end is something that definitely will come to each of us, and it’s just a matter of it being sooner or later, it is necessary to hear about it and to try to find some method to avoid being completely terrified when it happens.

It’s not just a matter of being totally freaked out, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die!” and being completely upset. That is not the point, because in fact there are methods, preventive measures, that we can take to ensure that our death will not be such a frightening experience. If there are such methods and we don’t use them, then that’s a real shame; it’s a big waste.

We might also have the fault of thinking that it’s better not to be mindful of death. But, if we’re not mindful of death, then the fault follows that very often we won’t be mindful of taking the preventive measures of Dharma at all. And even if we are mindful of these various Dharma measures that we could take, if we are not continually mindful of our impending death, we don’t see our practice of them through to their completion. When we undertake Dharma practices and don’t see them through to the end, the fault is that we haven’t been mindful enough of death.

There are others who spend their lives doing all sorts of destructive things, such as stealing, murdering and so forth. They engage in all these things because they as well are not mindful of their impending death and what may follow. If, during our life, we’ve busied ourselves with only mundane affairs – especially negative, destructive ones – then when our death is just about to come, there is no need to mention that, of course, we’re going to be very upset. Everybody around us is also going to be completely upset and unhappy. But, in addition to being upset, we’re going to die in a miserable state of great regret. All of these are the faults of not having been mindful of death before it happens.

On the other hand, when we are mindful of death, it acts as an incentive pushing us into Dharma practice. So when we think of spiritual practice and what the incentive is that drives us into it, the first incentive is being mindful of our impending death.

When the Buddha set flow the first round of transmission of the Dharma, one of the first things that he taught about was impermanence – how no situation remains static or lasts forever. The Buddha himself, for example, was born into a royal family; he was a prince with incredible wealth and splendor. But when he saw near the royal city a corpse being carried by, this was the circumstance that made him leave all of this wealth and go on his spiritual quest. Seeing an example of death was the circumstance that sent him into his spiritual practice.

Not only is awareness of death and impermanence the incentive to begin our spiritual practice of Dharma, it is also an incentive to keep us going throughout the course of our practice and to see us through to its completion. This is something that can be seen from paintings of some of the greatest practitioners and realized beings. Many of them are wearing human bone ornaments and using human bone implements, such as a skull cup or thighbone trumpet. The purpose of all of that is to help them remain continuously mindful of death and impermanence.

Furthermore, continuing to think about and remain mindful of impermanence is the incentive that drives us to the actual completion of our spiritual journey. If we have a very strong realization of impermanence, then we have an extremely strong, spiritually oriented mind. When the Buddha himself passed away at Kushinagar, there, as well, the final thing that he indicated to everyone was impermanence.

When we actually gain the realization of death and impermanence – the realization that nothing remains static – this is an actual path of mind of someone of initial scope. It’s the realization that will lead us on to develop the path of mind of someone of an intermediate scope motivation and it will act as an incentive to progress even further to become someone of an advanced scope. This awareness of impermanence is essential for being able to develop love and compassion, and, in fact, for being able to have a completely pure and proper spiritual practice at all. Moreover, if, on the basis of a firm realization of impermanence, we’ve been able to practice the Dharma well, it is possible that when we die, we will be able to go in a very happy state of mind, very peacefully. Of course, there is no way that we’re not going to die, but realization of impermanence makes our passage of death something that we can face with a happy and peaceful state of mind, with no regrets.

How to Be Mindful of Death

There are many points that can be discussed in terms of death and impermanence, and the various advantages of being mindful of it and the disadvantages of not. But in short, when we ask, “Well, how do we actually stay mindful of death?” this is described in the first two lines of the next stanza:

(3) At death, my body and life force will perish quickly, like bubbles on a moving stream. Remembering this and having found stable certainty that after death, the fruits of my lustrous and murky actions will follow behind,

The first point that we think about is the certainty factor of death – the fact that death will come for sure. The second point is that there is no way to tell when death will actually come. The third is to consider how, at the time of death, except for having taken the preventive measures of Dharma during our lifetime, nothing else will be of any use.

There are many points to consider in terms of how death is certain. No matter what type of body we may have taken rebirth with, there is no kind of body that will never perish. These days, there are very good hospitals, extremely skillful doctors and very powerful medicines and wonder drugs. But no matter how strong all of these things may be, there is still no cure for death. There is nothing that can eliminate death and no hospital we can go to to escape from it, because if there were, surely they would have built one. Even the fully enlightened Buddha himself, Buddha Shakyamuni, although he had become totally clear-minded and fully evolved, he nevertheless demonstrated to us an ordinary manner of passing into a final release of death at Kushinagar. We can all go there and see this place.

Some people have lived for even thousands of years. Yet no matter how great a Methuselah someone might be – and some of these people might still be around – nevertheless, none of them will escape death or have escaped finally dying at some point.

Although there are so many places to go, there are no places to go where we can escape death. Some Tibetans have traveled all over India in the hope of finding somewhere with the medical treatment to avoid dying from a terminal sickness they had, but there was no place that any of them could find. They’ve even come to the West in search of great hospitals, but when our time is up, our time is up. We have to die. No matter how great the hospitals we might have, or how fantastic the amount of wonder drugs we might have, when our time is up there is nothing that can be gained from them. Even doctors themselves get sick and have to stay in the hospital and die.

Furthermore, there is no way of telling for sure when death will come; it is something that can happen at any time. It’s described here in the example of the text: “At death my body and life will perish quickly like bubbles on a moving stream.” When we look at bubbles or foam on a rushing stream, we can plainly see that they are things that don’t last at all. They are unstable and can go at any time. Our life is exactly the same.

All these points are things that we can see for ourselves. There is, in fact, no certainty of the time when our death will come. It’s not necessary to study this in texts, we can see for ourselves from our own life experiences. The point of all this is that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that if we don’t practice now, we can be lazy and leave it for tomorrow. This is because we never know when we will die. Therefore, we need to firmly decide to take and follow the preventive measures of the Dharma right now, acknowledging that death can come quickly. As our text says, “our body and life will perish quickly.”

We can see many examples of how quickly things come to an end. After the sun rises, it quickly sets, and when we’re on a moving train or in an airplane, it doesn’t sit still but continually goes toward its destination. Life goes by in the same manner. Death is something that will definitely come; there is no way of avoiding it. And even if we fool ourselves into just being concerned with building up wealth and material possessions for this lifetime alone, what we have built up is going to be of no use. At the time of death, we won’t be able to take any of it with us.

Lustrous and Murky Karmic Potentials

And so, if we ask what can come with us after we die, the example is that of a shadow following a body. What come with us like the shadow of our body are the various potentials that we’ve built up in our life, both the lustrous and the murky ones – the so-called “white” and “black” karmic potentials.

We all want happiness and no one wants problems and suffering. Where do these come from? All our happiness comes from the lustrous, positive actions we’ve taken; whereas all our problems and sufferings come from the murky, negative things that we’ve done. If these are the two types of things that we take with us when we die – the karmic potentials from these two types of actions – then it’s obvious that we would be much better off if we had more of these positive potentials with us. We want to bring with us into future lives lustrous, positive potentials for happiness that we’ve built up from our constructive actions. We don’t want to have any murky, negative potentials from destructive behavior that will cause us problems and unhappiness. That’s the point of taking all the preventive measures of Dharma and following a spiritual practice. We do that in order to build up these positive potentials or potentials for happiness that will then be of benefit in future lives. We realize that, except for this, nothing will be of any help at the time of our death. The proper decision to make, then, is to put all of our energies in this direction.

There are innumerable lustrous and murky actions. But they can all be abbreviated into the ten constructive or virtuous actions and the ten destructive or nonvirtuous actions. It is important to know the details about what each of these constructive and destructive actions are. Knowing that is a basis that we can expand upon as we progress to become someone of an advanced scope of motivation.

If, after we died, there were no such thing as rebirth, then death would be just a solitary event and there would be no big deal about it. But since the text says “after death,” and it speaks about what follows then, we can be sure that it is for real that there are future lives. There are many people who assert that there is no such thing as rebirth. But despite their merely thinking that there is no such thing, there is no way that they can be absolutely sure. Although we might not be able to actually see future lives, there is no way that we can say for sure that they don’t exist at all.

In fact, there are future lives; it is all for real. And what determines the type of rebirth we take? It’s the types of karmic potentials we’ve built up – either lustrous, constructive ones or murky, negative ones. These determine the type of rebirth that we take. Although we can’t see hell beings or hungry ghosts, we can in fact see the animals and creeping creatures all around us. If we don’t stop acting destructively, we could be reborn with exactly the same types of bodies and in exactly the same types of awful situations as they are. That we can say for sure. If we think about all the problems and sufferings that the animals must face, and all the difficulties of such a rebirth, we will develop a state of dread. We will not want to experience those things ourselves. We’ll look for some source of safe and sound direction or refuge to take in order to avoid such a terrible rebirth.

Safe Direction — Refuge

If there were no safe direction to take to be able to avoid this, then not to think about all these horrible problems would be better. But, in fact, there is a safe direction to take; there is a refuge that can be found. If we ask, “What are the methods to take?” then, first of all, we need to know that there are great beings who have indicated the methods to take; namely the Buddhas.

Buddhas have both a Corpus or Body of Enlightening Forms (a Rupakaya) and a Corpus or Body that Encompasses Everything (a Dharmakaya). If we ask, “How do Buddhas attain a Corpus of Enlightening Forms?” it is as a result of having built up positive potential or merit over three zillion eons. Similarly, if we ask, “How do Buddhas attain a Corpus that Encompasses Everything, a Dharmakaya?” it is as a result of having completely developed their minds to be able to understand everything – and particularly, to be able to understand voidness (emptiness), the total absence of impossible ways of existing.

A Corpus of Enlightening Forms, a Rupakaya, has two aspects: a Corpus of Full Use or Sambhogakaya, and a Corpus of Emanations or Nirmanakaya.

A Corpus of Full Use, a Sambhogakaya, is an assortment of bodies that make full use of the vast-minded Mahayana teachings. Only highly realized bodhisattvas – arya bodhisattvas with first to the tenth level bhumi minds – are able to actually meet and receive teachings from them. Such bodies reside only in pure land Buddha fields, such as Akanishtha Realm, the realm that has nothing higher. They do not appear in ordinary fields or impure lands. They only expound the vast-minded measures of Mahayana and, unlike Supreme Emanation Bodies (Supreme Nirmanakaya), Sambhogakaya bodies never demonstrate a parinirvana, a passing away with final release. Further, these bodies appear with all thirty-two major and eighty minor physical features of a Buddha.

Although a Rupakaya includes among its enlightening forms these Samboghakaya bodies, still it is necessary for Buddhas to appear in forms that will be able to benefit everyone, not just benefit arya bodhisattvas. The types of enlightening forms that ordinary non-arya beings who have not beheld reality can meet are those that constitute a Corpus of Emanations, Nirmanakayas – emanations of Sambhogakayas.

A Corpus of Emanations, a Nirmanakaya, includes three types of enlightening bodies: Supreme Emanation Bodies, Emanation Bodies as Artists, and Emanations as Personages.

Buddha Shakyamuni is an example of a Supreme Emanation Body. If one has the appropriate pure karmic potential, it is possible to actually meet with such an emanation body and receive teachings directly from him. But since we haven’t built up a pure potential, we haven’t been able to meet with one. The types of emanation bodies we can actually meet are either Emanations as Artists or as Personages.

An Emanation as a Personage whom we could meet might be, for example, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara in the form of a personage. An example of an Emanation as an Artist would be as in the following story. There was once a king of the heavenly musicians or gandharvans who was extremely proud of his ability to play the lute. The Buddha manifested an emanation as an artist who was even more skilled at playing the lute and, in this way, used various means to help that person.

We can think of all the different types of Buddhas in terms of the sutra presentation or the tantra presentation. In terms of the sutra systems, there’s the discussion of the thousand Buddhas of this fortunate eon. There is also the discussion of the Buddhas of all three times and ten directions. In terms of the tantras, there are all the various Buddha-figures or yidams that, again, are different types of enlightening forms. All of these different forms in which a Buddha can appear constitute the actual rare and supreme gem of the Buddhas, from whom we derive a safe direction in life.

In terms of our own practice, it is important to respect and recognize the various representations of the Buddha. We need to consider all representations of a Buddha, from large paintings in Buddhist temples down to children’s tiny drawings, as actually being Buddhas. This is because when we develop an accumulating path of mind (a building-up path of mind) – the first of the five paths of the mind – and, specifically, of the three levels of such a mind, we develop a great level of it – we will be able to actually hear and receive teachings from the enlightening speech of all representations of the Buddhas, even children’s tiny drawings. Also, when we attain a great level of an accumulating path of the mind, we will be able to recall and recite all the various teachings that we’ve ever heard, with no effort. We will have great skills and abilities like these with that level of pathway mind.

So, this is the supreme and rare gem of the Buddhas, the ones that actually show us the safe direction to take in life, refuge. There are numerous good qualities of the enlightening body, speech and mind of such beings, and all these qualities are described in the great texts. You have excellent spiritual masters here and you can study all of these qualities with them.

When we are aware of all these good qualities, skills and abilities, we will have an exceptionally strong and stable state of respectful belief in what is fact. If we are not aware of all the good qualities, it will be difficult to have a really deep and stable respectful belief. All we can have is some type of devotional attitude of considering the Buddha as someone very holy and precious, but that is no foundation for gaining any progress.

As for the actual supreme and rare gem of the preventive measures, the Dharma, this refers to the qualities of the riddances (abandonments) and the qualities of the realizations on the mind-streams of an enlightened being, a Buddha. Not only that, it is these qualities of riddances and realizations on the mind-streams of all highly realized beings, all aryas. These are the actual Dharma source of safe direction. In terms of the conventional way of approaching this gem, we recognize all the texts and scriptures as being representative of this Dharma refuge.

The actual supreme and rare gem of an intent community, a community intent on a positive goal, the Sangha, would be the ones who help us in realizing this goal of the Dharma source of safe direction. Specifically, the actual supreme rare gem of the Sangha is all highly realized beings, all aryas themselves. Aryas are those who have beheld reality or voidness, straightforwardly and nonconceptually. They have beheld that there is no such thing as true identities. Such beings are the actual source of direction from an intent community.

In general, if we have four monks or four members from any of the four divisions of those who have taken robes, this constitutes a Sangha or intent community. When we have just one monk, for instance, this person would not be considered a Sangha, since being only one person, he cannot be considered an intent community. That person would merely be known as a mendicant monk or bhikshu. It takes four or more persons who have taken robes to constitute an intent community, or Sangha.

While we’re practicing, it is important to recognize that only the arya Sangha is the actual community that acts as a source of safe direction, and to practice with that recognition. The monastic community is merely a representation of them. The arya Sangha acts as our actual friends and helpers on the path. Among the Three Jewels of Refuge, then, the Buddha Gem are those who actually indicate the safe direction to take; the Dharma Gem is the actual direction to take; and the Sangha Gem are the actual helpers, those who will help us in the task of taking a safe and sound direction in life.

If I relate to you the account of Sthiramati (Blo-gros brtan-pa), a child of the gods, this will perhaps help you to understand the Three Gems. When we talk of gods, the gods don’t have the ordinary types of problems that we face as human beings. They don’t have problems about wealth and various possessions and things; they have a life filled with great pleasures. Where they live, everything is in the nature of precious gems and jewels. They are always having fun; they always have lovely gods and goddesses around them as their companions; and they live a very long life of leisure and pleasure. But even though they have such long lives, there are none who can escape death. It’s just a matter of time.

Just before they die, the gods receive various signs of their impending death. Normally, their bodies are very fragrant, but when they are about to die, they start to give off extremely offensive odors. They always wear various flower garlands; but, at the time of their death, these flower garlands begin to wilt. Although they would usually play around and enjoy themselves with all the other gods and goddesses, when these signs appear, everyone leaves them alone. Only those who are really firm and steadfast friends will come to see them. But even they will only do so from afar, standing at a distance and just looking at them. In addition, when a god is about to die, he is able to see the type of rebirth that he will take in his next life.

There was one god by the name of Sthiramati. This specific god saw that he was going to fall into one of the worse states of rebirth in his next life and that, after that, he would be reborn as a pig. He had tremendous mental suffering and torment at this. In general, when we speak about physical suffering and pain, the worst is that experienced by the various creatures in the hells; but in terms of mental suffering and torment there is nothing greater than that experienced by the gods in such circumstances.

Sthiramati normally went for advice to the King of the Gods, Indra. Sthiramati went to him and asked for something that he could do to prevent this. The King of the Gods said, “I have nothing that can help you out, no methods to give you some safe direction out of this. The only one who does is the Buddha, and I’ll lead you to him.” So he took this child of the gods, Sthiramati, to meet the Buddha.

The Buddha instructed him to do the various ritual procedures of the Buddha-figure Ushnishavijaya, a personal deity with three faces and eight arms, four on each side. The god did all the various practices and procedures for the nine deities of the circle of Ushnishavijaya, and as a result was able to completely deplete the negative potentials that he had built up for such a terrible rebirth.

At that point, he was in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods. Above that heaven is Ganden (Tushita) heaven and he was able to be reborn in this heaven, even higher than the one where he had already been. Indra, the King of the Gods, has the ability to see the various stages of rebirth that people take in realms that are lower than that of his own; but since this god had been reborn in a realm higher than his, he was unable to see him. So he asked the Buddha, who told him that this god was reborn in Ganden heaven, the one that is higher than Indra’s.

If we think about this example, the Buddha is the actual one who indicated a safe direction for Sthiramati to take, the one who indicated the refuge. The actual safe direction was provided by this god’s practice of the methods for actualizing the nine deities of Ushnishavijaya. This was the actual safe direction, the refuge that allowed him to deplete his entire negative potential. That is why it is said that the supreme and rare gem of the preventive measures themselves, the Dharma Gem, is the actual safe direction to take. Indra, in this example, would be the Gem of the Intent Community, the Sangha, in the sense that he helped this god find a safe direction by bringing him to the Buddha.

In short, the actual practice of observing our behavior in terms of lustrous and murky actions and acting accordingly in order to bring about proper results would be the actual preventive measures, the Dharma, that provide us with a safe and sound direction in life.

Avoiding Destructive Actions

Acting constructively in a lustrous manner builds up a positive potential. The result of that is rebirth in one of the better states. If we’ve committed murky, negative actions and have acted destructively, this builds up a negative potential. As a result of this negative potential, we are born in the worse states, and this is certain. The certainty factor of karmic actions refers to this point.

If we want to know how to think about the various types of murky, destructive actions, these are condensed into ten: three of body, four of speech and three of mind. If we consider the first of these as an example, the first type of destructive action of body is taking a life. The initial result of taking a life is rebirth in one of the worse states. This is known as the “ripened result”; it is the first thing that ripens as the result of such an action. Then there are two types of result that correspond to their cause: There are results that correspond to their cause in our experience and results that correspond to their cause in our behavior. From taking a life, a result that corresponds to its cause in our experience would be, after having a worse state of rebirth then, even if we are reborn as a human being, experiencing a very short life filled with great sickness and difficulties. This corresponds to what we did, in the sense of shortening someone else’s life. As a result that corresponds to its cause in our behavior, from early childhood we will instinctively be very sadistic and like to kill.

Likewise, there is a comprehensive or dominating result that many beings who have taken the lives of others will experience. This is that, in the country where we are born, the medicine, for instance, will be ineffective and weak, and the food will have very little nutritional value.

Just as there are these four types of result from taking the lives of others, there are four similar types of result that come from the rest of the ten destructive actions.

When we have a state of mind with which we see all the disadvantages of killing, and then resolve, from being aware of these disadvantages, that we’ll restrain ourselves from taking a life and then actually refrain from killing, that exercise of restraint is a lustrous positive action of body. It is the constructive action of refraining from killing.

If, from seeing the disadvantages of killing in some particular situation, we resolve to refrain just once from taking another’s life, and we restrain ourselves in that situation, we will experience one round of results from that constructive act. However, if, in the same situation, we take a vow never to kill again and, after that, we restrain ourselves at all times from ever killing, then even while we are asleep, we will continue to build up the positive potential of continuing to refrain from killing.

Among the close disciples of the Buddha Shakyamuni, each had their specialties. There was the highly realized Katyayana (Ka-tya’i bu) whose specialty was being able to tame and deal with people from the border regions. He once met a slaughterer of animals and asked this man to take a vow not to kill, not to slaughter any more. This person said, “I can’t do that, I can’t promise not to slaughter during the daytime. But I will promise never to slaughter animals at night.”

At that time, there were many great treasures and jewels to be found in the oceans, and many merchants used to go to sea, seeking their fortune. These merchants would always take a guide with them, since in those times sea journeys were extremely difficult and dangerous. Once, a group of merchants asked the highly realized Sangharakshita (dGe-’dun ’tsho) to come with them as their guide. Encountering bad weather and huge waves, they lost their way and landed in a strange, unknown land.

One night, when Sangharakshita was wandering about this strange land, he came upon a beautiful house with excellent provisions. He slept there very well that night. When he awoke the next morning before dawn, his host said, “Please, leave here before the sun rises, because during the day I have terrible problems that plague me the entire day until the sun sets.” He explained that as soon as the sun rose, all the animals around would come to his house and attack him. The animals with horns would butt and gore him, those with teeth and fangs would bite him, and those with claws would scratch him. This horrible scene would continue until the sun set at night. “But as soon as the sun sets,” he said, “until it rises again in the morning, everything is just peaceful, lovely and beautiful here.”

Later, Sangharakshita met once more with the Buddha and described that in a far-off land there was this very strange and unusual situation. The Buddha then explained, “This is the rebirth of a person, a slaughterer, who took vows before the highly realized Katyayana to abandon slaughtering animals only at night, but said that he had to continue slaughtering them during the day. This situation you saw is the result of that type of action.”

So, as we can see from this example, whatever type of karmic potentials we’ve built up from various types of actions, there is a certainty factor about the type of results that follow from them.

Furthermore, there is a factor known as the increase factor concerning karmic behavior. In other words, from a very small action, wide and enormous results can ripen. For instance, consider a tiny acorn – a large and mighty tree can grow from it. That is on an external level. On an internal level, from a seed of a karmic potential built up from a small action, a very great result can also ripen. For instance, if we make a proper fully outstretched prostration, it builds up the same amount of positive potential or merit as that which is required to be reborn as a universal cosmic emperor, a Chakravartin King, and that will be for as many times as the amount of grains of dust beneath us.

There was someone who composed a misleading text about certain rituals involving snakes. As a result of this, something terrible happened with his head: it split open and he started to scratch. Then, he actually turned into a snake. Likewise, there was someone who said to a monk, “Your voice is like that of a dog,” and was reborn as a dog five hundred times. So even from a small slip like that, saying that someone’s voice is like a dog’s, terrible disastrous results can follow.

In the beginning of the universe, the first ruling monarch was known as the “commonly chosen monarch.” This monarch not only had dominion over the four island worlds – the so-called “four continents” – and the secondary island worlds, but had also built up the positive potential to be able to share the throne with the King of the Gods, Indra, in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods. While he was sharing the throne, the anti-gods, the asuras, who were always attacking the gods, became very strong and were winning the battle. He was now torn between two choices: whether to help the gods in this war or to take advantage of the situation and try to usurp the throne in this heaven and rule by himself. But try as he may, he was never able to take over the throne completely. The reason why he lacked the potential for this to happen was that at the time of a previous Buddha he had made an offering of five peas to the Buddha. When he had offered the five peas and placed them in the full begging bowl of this previous Buddha, four of them landed inside the bowl, but one stayed on the lip of the bowl. As a result of the positive potential built up by the four peas that remained in the bowl, he had dominion over the four continents and was able to share Indra’s throne. But he could only occupy half the throne of the King of the Gods, because of the pea that stayed balanced halfway into the bowl on the lip.

These types of examples give us food for thought concerning how karmic potentials grow with the increasing factor of karma. It is extremely important to think about the various factors concerning karmic behavior and their results.