Karma

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A potter, the image for karmic formations in the Wheel of Life

Karma (Skt.; Tib. ལས་, ; Wyl. las) literally means 'action' but it also refers to the process of cause and effect whereby positive actions result in happiness and negative, harmful actions lead to suffering. The real message of the teachings on karma is responsibility.

Clarifying Misunderstandings

Sogyal Rinpoche says:

Karma, then, is not fatalistic or predetermined. Karma means our ability to create and to change. It is creative because we can determine how and why we act. We can change.[1]

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche says:

Karma refers to all that we have done, and so everything that we are now is, in this sense, a karmic result. All that we are in the present moment, including our body and the other aggregates, is a karmic result. In fact we call them Tib. རྣམ་སྨིན་གྱི་ཕུང་པོ་, nam min gyi pungpo—the ‘aggregates that are the result of karmic ripening’. So, the way we are now is due to our karma. Maybe a Buddha could tell us exactly why we have this kind of hair, or this kind of mouth, or these eyes and so on, because it is very complex and involves not just one or two causes but many many different causes.
Sometimes, in order to help us understand how particular actions contribute to particular kinds of result, such as how good actions bring about good results and how bad actions bring about bad results, the Buddha told stories like those we find in the Jataka tales. But things do not happen just because of one particular cause. We do not experience one result for every one thing that we do. Rather, the whole thing—the entire totality of our experience and actions—has an impact on what we become from one moment to the next.
Therefore karma is not just what we did in our last life, it is what we have done in this life too, and what we did in all our lives in the past. Everything from the past has made us what we are now—including what we did this morning. Strictly speaking, therefore, from a Buddhist point of view, you cannot say that there is anything in our ordinary experience that is not somehow a result of our karma.
I think that it is very important to understand this because often people see karma as a kind of punishment. They think that they did something wrong in the past and now they are being punished for it, and then, after the punishment is over, their karma will be gone. People can even think that there is nothing they can do to change their fate, and that they should just sit there, passively, waiting for it all to play itself out. That is a very bad mistake.
As I said, karma means that everything you are now is the result of many different factors. It is never entirely your fault if you have a problem. It is your karma, yes, but it cannot be seen as exclusively your fault, because things happen for many reasons. Of course, it is partly your fault, but it is not just because you made a mistake in the past and now you are being punished for it. On the contrary, it is due to all the circumstances that you have gone through, all the bad things and even all the good things—everything.
If you see karma in this way, you can see that there is always something you can do to change it. There are factors which have made you what you are now, but that does not prevent you from doing something and creating new causes and conditions.
Of course, we might have some limitations in our capacity to do things, because of our limited intelligence or resources or whatever, but at any given time, we can act in either a positive or a negative way. We always have this choice, all the time. We are quite powerful. We can easily create a lot of harm. Or we could also do lots of good things. And whatever we do will be influenced by the force of our personality and what we are now, so there is always the impact of our past, but there is also our own willpower and our own efforts and intentions in the present. They too have an effect.
If you can see things this way, I think you will understand karma more clearly. Things do happen as a result of particular causes, but that does not mean that everything is totally predetermined. We can change, not necessarily just like that [clicks his fingers], but we can change.

Categories of Karma

Tainted/Untainted

  1. tainted actions
  2. untainted actions

Meritorious/Non-meritorious/Non-transferrable

  1. 'Meritorious actions' (Tib. བསོད་ནམས་ཀྱི་ལས་ Wyl. bsod nams kyi las) are the positive actions that create pleasant experiences within the desire realms; or can lead to rebirth in higher states in samsaric existence.
  2. 'Non-meritorious actions' (Tib. བསོད་ནམས་མིན་པའི་་ལས་ Wyl. bsod nams min pa'i las) are the negative actions that create painful experiences within the desire realms.
  3. 'Non-transferrable actions' or ‘unwavering karma’ (Tib. མི་གཡོ་བའི་ལས་ Wyl. mi gyo ba'i las) refers to abiding in very subtle states of meditation that lead to rebirth in the two highest realms within samsara. It is so called since, apart from ripening in their respective realms―the form realm and formless realm― it does not transfer one to other realms as there’s no flexibility for it to ripen in any other way.

With meritorious and non-meritorious actions there’s some flexibility with how the karma can ripen. It can’t be said with certainty what the result will be.[2]

According to when the result is experienced

  1. karma to be experienced in the present life (Tib. མཐོང་ཆོས་མྱོང་འགྱུར་གྱི་ལས་, thong chö nyong gyur kyi lé).
  2. karma to be experienced after rebirth (Tib. སྐྱེ་ནས་མྱོང་འགྱུར་གྱི་ལས་, kyé né nyong gyur kyi lé)
  3. karma to be experienced in other future lives (Tib. ལན་གྲངས་གཞན་ལ་མྱོང་འགྱུར་གྱི་ལས་, len drang shyen la nyong gyur kyi lé)
  4. karma that is not certain to be experienced (Tib. མྱོང་བར་མ་ངེས་པའི་ལས་, nyongwar ma ngépé lé)

References

  1. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 99
  2. Mipham’s Gateway to Knowledge, and teaching from Haileybury, U.K., 11 April, 2013, Sogyal Rinpoche and Adam Pearcey.

Teachings given to Rigpa Sangha