The Relevance of Karma in Our Daily Lives

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Today I’d like to speak about the relevance of karma in our daily lives. For this, of course, we need to understand what is meant by karma. What it’s referring to is the mental urges that we have that draw us into various types of actions, whether it is physical actions, verbal actions (like saying something), or indicating something with gestures, and thinking something. Another explanation of it is in terms of physical and verbal actions, that the karma is actually the impulse of energy – both coarse and subtle – that’s involved with carrying out the actions. But in neither of these two theories or explanations is the karma the actual action itself. 

Having acted on the basis of this urge or impulse of energy, this then leaves a certain type of aftermath afterwards or impression – not a physical impression, but a more abstract impression – on our mental continuum. This is in the form of potentials – either a positive or negative potential – and tendencies, positive or negative. There’s a slight difference between these two, but there’s no need for us to get into the technical detail now. When certain conditions are present, then one aspect of these potentials and tendencies is the ability to give rise to an effect – when the conditions are present. So when the conditions are present, it gives rise to a ripening, an effect, a result. 

There are many different types of results that come about from these karmic tendencies and potentials. The most general one is a feeling of happiness or unhappiness, some sort of level of that, that accompanies any moment of our experience. If it’s unhappiness, it’s the result of destructive karma, destructive behavior. If it’s happiness, it’s the result of constructive behavior. 

There’s also a feeling to repeat the action. It’s not the actual urge, the karmic urge. Karma doesn’t ripen from karma directly. It’s the feeling: I feel like yelling at you – or hugging you. Based on that feeling, then there will be an urge actually to do it that draws us into the action. So there’s that distinction. Feeling like doing something is like wanting to do it. But I think “feeling” is, at least in English, a little bit more descriptive. We feel like repeating something similar to what we did before – yelling, or acting in one way or another – and we also feel like getting into a situation in which something similar will happen back to us. Mind you, it is not the result of our karma, or karmic tendencies, that the other person acts back to us in a similar way to the way that we acted, because that’s ripening from their karmic tendencies. The only thing that ripens is our feeling to get into that, to meet with this person. 

Another thing that ripens is the actual life form type of body, the type of mental activity that we can have, the limitations of the mental activity – if you have a dog brain or a human brain. There are certain limitations. So this type of life form that we take is also going to be something that ripens from these tendencies, because it has to do with what actually brings us the mental continuum to connect with, in the case of a mammal, the sperm and egg of a parent, because you feel like joining with that. 

Now, of course, when we look at our experiences in daily life, we could say that whatever experiencing – happy, unhappy – whatever we do, etc., is the ripening of our karmic potentials and tendencies. But although there are certain types of karmic behavior that will bring about a ripening of their potentials and tendencies in this lifetime, particularly the type of actions that are very, very strongly motivated, either positively or negatively, and especially if they are directed at those who have been extremely kind to us, like our teachers or parents. But the vast majority of what ripens is ripening – and what we experience as this ripening – is the result of karmic potentials and tendencies from previous lifetimes. 

This is of course very difficult because for many of us – perhaps most of us, as Westerners – we are certainly not convinced of past and future lifetimes. I think that’s a whole different issue (a separate issue, I should say) that I don’t really want to discuss here – we don’t have the time – in terms of past and future lives and how we become convinced of them. But I think that, even without believing in past lives and future lives, that the whole discussion of karma can have very strong relevance in our life – how we deal with what happens to us. 

First of all, when we have developed – well, it’s usually called, in Western circles, “mindfulness” although that’s not quite using the technical term in Buddhism of “mindfulness” in the precise way, according to its definition – but when we have become attentive of what’s going on in our mental and emotional life, mindfulness then will be the mental factor which is like a glue, mental glue, that holds us to that attentiveness. When we become very attentive, then we will notice when I feel like doing something, when I feel like saying something – when that arises – and we will notice there is certainly a space between when I feel like doing it and when actually there’s that urge that actually gets me into doing it. 

Very often there are people who – at least we say in English, colloquially – that just say the first thing that comes to their heads without thinking, we would say in English. They just have no internal censor in terms of what they say and what they do. They just, impulsively, whatever comes up, they do or say. But when we notice that there is a space in between when the feeling arises and when we act on the basis of that feeling, then that allows us to use what’s called discriminating awareness to decide do I want to act this out or not. Would it be helpful or would it just cause a lot of problems? And then, if it’s going to cause a lot of problems – it’s destructive – you don’t act it out. We don’t have to tell somebody, “What an ugly dress you’re wearing.” Not really helpful. 

The point is that we understand that these feelings of acting in a certain way, or speaking in a certain way, have come from habits. Remember we were talking about habits from this lifetime or from previous lifetimes? Actually that’s irrelevant. The point is that I’m just acting impulsively based on previous patterns, previous habits, and there’s no reason why I have to be a slave to these impulses. I’m a human being. I’m not an animal that just acts without any control, based on its instincts. As a human being I have intelligence. Intelligence means the ability to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. So, whether they’re past lifetimes or not, I see that this is really stupid to act on the basis of these habits, and so I don’t want to do that because it just gets me into more and more problems, and so I’m going to try to overcome it. 

I think that, in certain ways, we need to look at these repeating patterns like an addiction. We can be addicted, of course, to alcohol or cigarettes or drugs. But we can also be addicted to gambling; we could be addicted to sex; we could be addicted to yelling at people. There are many methods, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, to overcome addictions. These are things that we need to apply; otherwise, we’re out of control and it just produces more and more problems. 

Now, of course, the thing that we have to add here is that in some programs one bases one’s true identity on “I’m an addict,” and you never really let go of it. Underlying that is the assumption that you can never really eliminate it completely. You can never achieve a true stopping of it. Now, from a Buddhist point of view, you can achieve a true stopping of it so that it never arises again, so you don’t have to worry about it again. That’s what a Buddha has achieved in full. So, again, our discussion of “is there a Buddha?” becomes relevant here. Can we really get out of our addictions? 

But this is where renunciation comes in. Renunciation is “I’m determined to give it up.” And the emotional feeling that is involved with it is just total disgust with it and boredom: “I’m just bored of this addiction. I’m bored of always losing my temper and yelling. So, when I feel like yelling, I’m going to try to stop it. I’m going to try to at least, at the first step, not act it out.” 

Now another thing that we need to pay attention to, with this trying to apply the teachings on karma in our daily lives, has to do with a misunderstanding that can come in terms of: whatever I experience is the ripening of my karma. That is a defeatist attitude, that I deserve this: I was a bad boy or girl in the past, and now I deserve this, what’s happening to me. Now, of course, we find teachings which say that if we didn’t put up the target, nobody would shoot at us, shoot an arrow at us. That’s from Shantideva. And so, if I hadn’t acted destructively in the past, I wouldn’t experience people getting angry with me now and treating me badly, etc. But the point here – Shantideva’s point – is not to blame the other person, but to put the blame on ourselves. But that could go to the extreme of “I’m such a bad person and I deserve this. So I’ll just shut up, and not complain, and accept the punishment,” as it were. I don’t think that’s the most healthy way of dealing with this teaching, nor that it is the intended way of putting it into practice. 

Instead, we look at another aspect of the karma teachings, which is that if I’m experiencing something now, happening to me, then I can infer from the teachings of karma what the cause was in my behavior. Because there’s plenty of teachings that enumerate: if we are always experiencing that our relations don’t last, we can’t stay with our loved ones, and people are always breaking up with us, and so on – that that’s the result of divisive language, saying nasty things to people about their friends. So, of course, if I’m experiencing this, this is the ripening of my karma. Because we’re getting into situations in which others are doing something similar to us – that we or others specifically, or just life in general, causes separations. But a further thing that will ripen from it is a tendency to repeat that type of behavior. 

If we really examine ourselves, we might find (and we probably will find) the teachings of karma are correct – that we have a tendency to criticize, to say nasty things about other people to those who like these other people, or are friendly with them, or who are studying with them, or whatever. We tend to be overly critical. We never say good things about anybody; we only say bad things about them. It’s very common, isn’t it? We’re really anxious to point out their shortcomings, and to tell everybody about that, and complain about it. But how often do we really focus on the good qualities of others, and praise them to other people? For most of us that’s quite rare. 

I think this is one of the most important points that we can learn from these teachings on karma and that we can apply in our daily lives. We find the patterns that we have that are corresponding to the type of things that we are experiencing, and rather than saying, “I was such a bad boy or bad girl in a past lifetime, that I did this, and now I’m experiencing my relations are always breaking up,” but I can focus now on becoming more and more aware that I have this pattern of being too critical – always saying bad things about others – and work on that. When I feel like saying something terrible about somebody else, to think more about their good qualities. 

There are many, many examples of different types of karmic syndromes that we can identify. We’re poor, and what we find is that we’re always taking advantage and using things of other people, exploiting them, never paying for anybody else, always expecting that they’re going to pay for us, etc. We can notice these correlations in what we experience happening to us and our feelings and tendencies to act in a certain way. I’m referring specifically to using things of other people without asking: use their telephone to make a long distance call; just go and take something from their refrigerator without asking; this type of thing. 

Another aspect that has to do with overcoming this feeling of being defeatist, that I deserve it, is to realize that results don’t come from just one cause. Buddha said that a bucket is not filled by the first drop or the last drop; it’s filled by the collection of all the drops. So, whatever we experience is not just the result of one nasty thing – a suffering type of experience – one nasty thing that we did in the past, or even an accumulation of several nasty things that we did in the past. But rather, there’s almost a countless amount of causes and conditions that have had to come together in order for us to experience something. 

We’re talking not just about… Let’s say we get hit by a car. It’s not just that I might have injured somebody else – maybe not with a car, but with something else – not just that, but how about all the karmic forces with the other person who actually hit us. Then there’s the weather. There’s: why did I go out at that time? There are the people who built the road. There are a tremendous amount of causes and conditions which had to come together – the traffic at that time, etc. – that had to come together for me to actually experience being hit by the car. 

If we can broaden our view of cause and effect – in terms of so many causes, we realize there are so many conditions have to come together for some result to come about – then we start to deconstruct the solidity of “Me, I’m the guilty one. I deserve this. It’s all my fault.” Now of course we’re responsible. There’s a big difference between being responsible in terms of our behavior and taking responsibility for our behavior – a big difference between that and saying, “Everything is my fault. Look what happens.” 

But we need to deconstruct what’s called the three spheres involved, or the three circles involved: “me who’s experiencing this,” and “what I experience,” and the other is the actual “what I did in the past,” etc. There’s many ways of formulating these three circles involved. When we’re grasping onto a solid “me” that was so bad in the past, and now I deserve what is happening to me then, in a sense, we become the victim, or we become the criminal that’s being punished. We hang onto that, and this is a very unhappy state of mind, isn’t it? And we make a big deal out of what we’re experiencing now, “Oh this is so terrible.” And we make a big deal out of what we did in the past, “Oh it’s so terrible what I did.” And now the whole thing gets involved with guilt, etc., feeling sorry for ourselves. All of this just makes our experience of daily life worse and worse. 

So it’s very important to bring in some understanding of voidness here. Without that, things become a little bit too solidified, and it’s very easy to go to certain extremes that are just going to cause more problems, more suffering. And, as we said in terms of going in a safe direction in our life – refuge – you just do it. Similarly, in terms of acting with consideration of the cause and effect of karma then, likewise, you just do it – in terms of being constructive and refraining from acting in a destructive way. 

Of course, the texts say the causal factors for refraining from a type of destructive behavior is thinking about the disadvantages of acting it out; and because we don’t want to experience those suffering results, we refrain from acting out the urge. But, a great deal of the time, we don’t actually think very actively along those lines. It again becomes an experience of “it just feels right” to not yell at somebody. This becomes very interesting, actually, because there are certain types of negative behavior that – “it just doesn’t feel right to cheat,” or “it just doesn’t feel right to go around and scratch cars,” or stuff like that. So fine, that’s okay. We perhaps have not really actively thought about the negative consequences of that. 

But what about killing mosquitoes? Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have experienced that it feels right to smack the mosquito, or to go around like I’m on a safari in Africa, hunting the mosquito in my room that is keeping me awake at night and killing it. That feels right. Even if we realize how ridiculous we’re acting by going on a safari against this mosquito – and thinking of absurd examples is actually quite helpful in this case – nevertheless, we still go on the safari, don’t we? So, for that, it is absolutely necessary to think about the disadvantages that would come from killing the mosquito and not being tolerant. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we have to feed the mosquito, but to try to use a peaceful method of putting a jar over it when it lands on the wall, putting a piece of paper underneath the jar, and removing it from our room. It’s a practical method, but you have to be careful that you’re not still going on the safari, because one still could have the safari mentality with the jar or the glass and the piece of paper. 

Actually it’s a very interesting experience. Are we doing this just because I don’t want to experience the itch, or are we thinking in terms of the mosquito? Obviously we’re depriving the mosquito of food. Of course, we could practice generosity and put it in somebody else’s room! But if we are continually killing mosquitoes or killing flies, or whatever it might be, you have to think about what is the habit that it’s building up. The habit that it’s building up – or tendency – is that anything that annoys us, our first response is to kill it. To use a violent means to get rid of it, rather than trying to use a peaceful means. So if we’re going to hunt the mosquito with a jar and a piece of paper, at least don’t do it with hatred for the mosquito: “Unacceptable life form. I have to get rid of it. It’s invaded my space.” 

Then, of course, there are more advanced things – that this mosquito has been my mother in past lifetimes, etc. – but for most of us that’s quite difficult to be sincere about. My point being that for certain things it seems right, it just feels right, to not act destructively; but for other things we really do have to reaffirm the motivation. 

Another point that I wanted to mention is in terms of the factors that actually will activate our karmic tendencies and potentials to ripen. If we look at the teachings on the twelve links of dependent arising, it speaks about the factors which will activate the karmic potentials at the time of death, for – the literal term is “throwing” our mental continuum – into a future rebirth. These are the links of craving… actually, the word that is translated as “craving” here, the Sanskrit word for it is the word “thirst.” 

The other factor is usually translated by most people as “grasping,” but I think that is not the clearest translation because there are other terms that are translated as “grasping” and it’s not the same as these other terms. Grasping for true existence – it’s not the same term. It is the word that literally means “to obtain something, to get something.” So I call that an “obtainer” emotion or attitude. It’s an emotion or an attitude that, if we develop it, will obtain for us, or get for us, future rebirth. This refers to a list of disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that are included here. It could be one or another or more of these. The most significant one is in fact involved with identifying something within our aggregates, something that we’re experiencing and identifying it as “me” – “me” as the one that’s experiencing it. Although in the twelve links these are enumerated in terms of what will activate throwing karma for a future rebirth, I think that it is indicative of what will activate our karmic potentials in each moment, and there are some explanations like that. 

This, I think, is quite relevant to how the teachings on karma apply in our daily lives. First of all, what’s craving? What is this thirst? It is referring to the feelings of some level of happiness or unhappiness. It’s an attitude or emotional state, in reference to happiness or unhappiness, that we’re experiencing each moment as something that ripens from our karmic tendencies and potentials. Remember, one of the main things that ripen from these tendencies and potentials is some level of happiness that accompanies each moment of our experience. What is the thirst here? What is the clinging? It is making a big deal out of the level of happiness or unhappiness that we are experiencing. Focusing on the happiness, there’s a thirst for this to not end. If it’s unhappiness or suffering, for this to end, to not continue. If it’s a neutral feeling – let’s say like when we’re asleep, although technically it refers to when we are in a deep meditative absorption – also for that to not decline. Obviously, there can be different grades of this thirst that we have, this clinging. 

The main obtainer attitude is grasping for a solid “me” in terms of this, in terms of what’s happening in our aggregates. So I’ve got to have this happiness continue. I’ve got to get rid of it. The thirst or the clinging is focused on the feeling itself, and the obtainer attitude is focused on the “me” as the one who’s experiencing it. So, even if we don’t have a deep understanding of the voidness of feelings and the voidness of “me,” we can still apply here, in daily life, as we’re experiencing – as we do, every moment – some feeling of happy or some feeling of unhappy. We can still apply, for instance, the teachings on the so-called eight worldly dharmas, for example. 

Remember, what this word “worldly” jigten (’jig rten) actually means. Ten (rten) is a basis, and jig (’jig) is something that falls apart. So these are various attitudes that we have that do not have a stable basis. Here it is the attitude of feeling overjoyed and so on when happy, and really depressed when we’re unhappy. What is it that has an unstable basis? It’s the happiness and unhappiness. Then we overreact to it – overjoyed or completely depressed. And then, like a thirsty person, “I’ve got to have this happiness and not ever lose it,” like having water; and “I’ve got to get rid of this unhappiness,” like the suffering of being thirsty. 

To overcome this sort of childish type of feeling – if we use the type of terminology that Shantideva does – then we need to develop equanimity. Equanimity here, to put it in simple language, means that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. So sometimes I’m going to feel happy and sometimes I’m going to feel unhappy. There’s no way of predicting when I’m going to feel happy or unhappy. My mood could change instantly, for no apparent reason. The level of that happiness or unhappiness is not necessarily dramatic by any means: could be very low level. The key word here is “nothing special.” 

But actually that’s a very profound point. Nothing special. There’s nothing surprising, nothing extraordinary. What do you expect? Of course things are going to go up and down, so don’t make a big deal out of it. So, whatever we experience in life, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re unhappy. Basically – sure, we realize that the unhappiness comes from acting destructively and happiness comes from acting constructively, etc., but don’t cling to it. Don’t cling to “Me, me, me,” like “I’m so happy, and I want to be happy” and “Oh, I’m so miserable and I want to get out of it.” 

Now obviously, conventionally, we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. Conventionally, we are aiming for liberation and enlightenment in which we’re free from unhappiness, from suffering. But don’t make a big deal out of it, is the point. This, I think, is a very important point in terms of the relevance of these karmic teaching in our daily life – that it indicates to us what will bring us more peace of mind. What will bring us more peace of mind is to have equanimity in terms of our changing moods, as we go through each day, because of course, naturally, sometimes we’re going to feel happier and sometimes unhappier. That’s only part of samsara, what to expect. Just continue with whatever type of Dharma practice we’re doing. If we’re not feeling terribly happy at the moment, so what? 

This doesn’t mean that we should stop being happy and stop being unhappy in a conventional sense, just to become somebody with no feelings whatsoever. It’s certainly not that. It’s okay to be happy and it’s okay to be unhappy. Something nice happens, we feel happy. Something not very nice happens – we went to the restaurant and we wanted to order our favorite dish, and they don’t have it anymore; they’re out of it – well, not so happy. But don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s okay to feel happy or unhappy. Maybe that’s a silly example, but a better example is a loved one dies. Well, it is natural that we’re going to feel sad and unhappy. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, it’s very healthy to mourn. Don’t cling to it and don’t identify with it. “Oh I” – the big “me” – “am so miserable.” Or “I’m so happy.” You’re with somebody: “Aren’t we happy! Aren’t we having a great time!” I mean, this is – it just solidifies the whole thing, destroys it, in many ways.

So we just experience the up and downs of life – happy, unhappy – no big deal, nothing special. And if I’m unhappy and things are going badly, I need to look at what might have been a karmic cause of that, see am I repeating something that is similar to that, and work on that. 

Now one last thing that I want to mention is in terms of motivation, in terms of the three scopes that we have in lam-rim, the graded stages. In general, teachings on karma are presented with the initial scope motivation. I want to refrain from acting destructively because I fear the consequences that I will experience. I don’t know what other people will experience from my actions; I can’t guarantee that. But, from my side, I really do not want to have this suffering that would result from it, the unhappiness and so on. I fear that, I dread that – in a healthy way: we’re not talking about punishment in hell – so, particularly or specifically, I want to avoid suffering in future lives. This is the initial scope motivation.
On the intermediate level, the intermediate scope, we would want to avoid all types of karmic behavior because I want to gain liberation. If I don’t, it will just continue with this up and down, up and down, and how horrible that is. 

The advanced level is that I want to refrain from acting destructively – refrain from all types of karmic behavior, as well – because, if I don’t, it really hampers my ability to help others. How can I help others if I am constantly going through these ups and downs? I mean, how can I help them fully if I’m constantly going through these ups and downs, and some rather unpleasant things happen to me, etc.? So our main thought is: this negatively affects my ability to help others. We’re not actually thinking, in this humanitarian way, that it hurts others. We’re thinking of my ability to help them.
There’s a big difference here between the attitude toward ethical behavior which is that as long as I don’t hurt anybody by what I do, it’s okay; I want to avoid hurting others, causing harm to others – that’s one attitude which is characteristic, I think, of Western humanitarianism – and the Buddhist attitude. It’s not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. The only thing is that you can’t guarantee what the effect is of our behavior on others. We could steal something from them, and they’re very happy that we stole it, because it was in a horrible condition and they can collect the insurance. So, of course, we develop love and compassion in Buddhism. So, of course, we don’t want to harm others. But here the main emphasis is on: I don’t want to do anything that limits my ability to help others. That is, I think, a little bit deeper, a little bit more – when I say the word “profound,” I don’t know if that’s really fair to say, but this is the main emphasis here in the discussion of karma in Buddhism. Because it fits in, all together, with this whole spiritual path of working toward enlightenment, that we’re trying to be able to help others as fully as is possible. 

In terms of our daily behavior, the relevance is, I think, more strongly – if we want to do this in a Mahayana way – that if I act destructively, and so on, I’m always bragging about myself, doing these sort of things, nobody is going to trust me and how can I really help anybody? If I’m always cheating others, how can I really help anybody? And so on. Or, more specifically, if I am experiencing the results, the ripening, what’s ripening from karma, which is that – to use our example – nobody stays with me, relations break, and so on, how can I actually really help others? Say if I’m a teacher, or so on, that my students never will stay with me; they will always leave. So that motivates you much more strongly. Now I’m going to stop criticizing others, and so on, and speak about the good qualities of others. 

The last point that I want to mention is in Vasubandhu’s text on Abhidharmakosha (the Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge). Vasubandhu was a great Indian master. He mentions that there are two types of mental factors that are always present with any constructive action. Although Asanga, in his text, defines these mental factors in one way, we need to understand these factors in the way that Vasubandhu himself defines them. The first of these factors is to have respect for good qualities and those who have them. The second is refrain from being really – “brazenly” is the word – destructive. “Brazenly” means you just don’t care. I’m not going to exercise any self-control. I just don’t care and so I don’t refrain at all from doing some destructive behavior. I just do whatever I feel like doing. 

So here, if it’s constructive behavior, I refrain from that. If it’s destructive behavior, I’ve no respect for anything positive or people who are positive, and I don’t exercise any self-control. And if it’s constructive, I do have respect for positive things and those who are positive, and I do exercise self-control. I just don’t act brazenly destructive. This reminds us, perhaps, of “it just feels right.” 

This indicates in our daily life what we need to try to emphasize, remind ourselves of, reaffirm – that I do have great respect for good qualities, like patience, and kindness, and so on. I do have great respect for those who are like that. It’s very inspiring for me. And I do want to exercise some self-control, and not just be – not care what I do, and just act completely destructively and horribly. 

In short, in terms of acting constructively, we don’t do that on the basis of: I want to be good. I want to be a good boy or a good girl. I don’t want to be bad. That’s not the basis. But rather, we act constructively on the basis of this respect for good qualities and those who have them, and it feels right to refrain from just acting openly destructive without any self-control – just do it.