Discovering Buddhism at Home -FAQ
Does karma ripen only in future lifetimes or can it ripen within this lifetime as well?
A student asked the elders whether karma can ripens only in future lifetimes or quite quickly.
OK. Here's the good word on "instant karma" from Gen Jampa Ignyen, former tutor for the Buddhist Studies Programme (Basic Programme Plus) at Chenrezig Institute, former monk and long-time student at Sera Monastery, with a PHD in Abhidharma...read: highly qualified.
JI says that "instant karma", such as that in the toe-stubbing example [referred to in the student question] doesn't happen. However, it is possible for the results of karma created in this lifetime to be experienced in this lifetime, if it is a sufficiently powerful action.
For example Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, through jealousy tried to kill the Buddha. This is one of the five so-called instantaneous (heinous) acts. In that same lifetime, a crack opened in the Earth and Devadatta fell straight into one of the hell realms. So, that's an example of negative action coming to fruition in one lifetime, and there are many other such examples.
We also discussed if this was possible with a sufficiently powerful positive action; although JI could not think of a scriptural reference to such an act, he agreed that it was logically possible.
Purification done with the four opponent powers (discussed in Module 2 and other modules) does lay down positive karma. And, I think Kendall may be correct to say that it is possible for actions done in relation to karmically powerful objects such the Buddha, one's guru, etc. to ripen in the same lifetime as the act was created.
In the toe-stubbing example, perhaps it is more accurate to say that if I have just done or said something negative, that action will create disturbance and conflict in my mind. If I am disturbed and conflicted, I'm not mindful, therefore not watching where I'm going, so "accidents" happen. If I think of it as "instant karma" that may be useful in helping me to stay more mindful of my
speech and actions.
The discussion with Jampa Ignyen got considerably more complex than this email would indicate. I'm not sure that I understood all the implications of what he was saying once he got warmed up. Certainly it was outside the scope of Discovering Buddhism, not to mention my tiny mind!
I hope this helps to clarify something.
If during meditation I quiet my mind, why is a subsequent arising thought connected to what we have learned is the continuous stream of thought since beginningless time?
A student writes:
Hi, I have a question regarding mind. During meditation, when one quiets the mind, however briefly, then a thought arises, seemingly independent of any previous thought, how is this thought dependent on any previous thought and how is this related to the continuous stream of thought since beginningless time?
T. Y. responds:
The purpose of the Continuity of Consciousness Meditation is simply to assist us to see, to understand, that there is a mental continuum functioning, with causal aspects. And, to understand that this continuum is both beginningless and endless. These results will not necessarily come after only a few sessions with this meditation, but at the very least we can begin to understand the continuity of mind moments and the cause/effect aspect of this stream of mental events.
You are quite correct to note that the memories of past thoughts and emotions are existing in the present. They are not just distorted by conceptualization, they are concepts. Concepts are necessarily distortions of reality.
The point of the exercise, as I mentioned above, is just to get a handle on how this continuum works. Without a strong experience of this continuity, it is impossible to have complete faith in the idea of past and future lives. Without a strong sense of the reality of past and future lives, karma doesn't make sense, purification doesn't make sense, the possibility of enlightenment seems to be a fiction.
So, especially for those of us who have been born and raised in cultures with philosophical and religious traditions that do not subscribe to the principle of past and future lives, this meditation is useful. But, I suspect if one were to scratch the surface of the minds of many who have been born in Buddhist and Hindu cultures, which do share this belief, you would still find many people who are not truly convinced. If they were convinced, they would lead very different lives.
Just relax into the meditation, don't try too hard, and watch what is going on in your own mind. Start with the present and just stay with that for a while, watching how things arise in dependence on what came before. Then, slowly follow things back in time, looking for those connections and relationships that give rise to patterns of behavior, karmic patterns. Don't analyze what comes up, don't engage with it, just watch. Save the analysis for after the meditation session.
And, feel free to continue this discussion if you are still having problems with it.
Does it affect our karma to engage in negative actions during dreams?
A student writes:
Buddhism states that intention is everything. Our motivations need to be positive, our intentions good in order to plant virtuous seeds in our karma. Bad intentions or motivations plant negative seeds that will later ripen.
But what about dreams? In dreams sometimes we do terrible things, with horrible intentions, and wake wondering . . . Was that really me?? Do these dream intentions affect our karma at all? They can be really intense and so real, it seems like they would have an impact on the mind. I know sometimes they are very disturbing they feel so real.
T. Y. responds:
…I sent your email to a friend, Jampa Ignyen. JI has been the tutor for the Basic Program at Chenrezig Institute on several occasions, studied for many years at Sera Monastery up to the point of being able to take his geshe exams which he decided not to do, got his PhD in Australia last year with a dissertation on Abhidharma...in other words, a highly qualified Australian.
"This is certainly a favourite topic of debate. In general it is regarded that dreams are wrong awareness (log shes) since the objects that appear in dreams do not exist though they appear to be real. For instance in a lucid dream one realizes it is a dream though the vivid appearance of its reality is compelling. Though dreams are illusory they can have a message, or teach us important things, or be 'true,' it is just that the landscape is fictitious.
"Actions committed in relation to illusory dream objects are incomplete actions because the four parts of an action: motivation, basis, preparation and conclusion are incomplete. Here since the actual basis or the object in relation to which the action is committed does not exist only three parts of the action are possible. For instance if one kills a dog thinking it is a human one does not obtain the karma of killing a human, since the object is not a human. If one kills a dream human it is not actually killing a human since a dream human is not a human etc. Or if one were to shoot the image of a human on a movie screen thinking it was really a person, one would not be killing a human. In these cases the discrimination or recognition of the object is incorrect, and it must be correct to complete the four parts of an action. However since three parts of an action form a significant measure of a complete action, it has the potency to lay down karmic seeds in the mental continuum especially when the intention is strong. Therefore dream actions are significant. And for that reason in vinaya, actions committed in dreams need also to be purified by applying the four opponent powers etc."
Hope this answers your question.
Garry Benson adds:
In terms of karma a dream does not necessarily indicate an intention to commit a bad deed if you dream it - in some cases it represents a deep-seated test of the quality of your vows. The dream simile occurs over and over in the sutras to teach about emptiness - the sutras say, "Dreams are false and illusory." A consciousness perceiving these is nevertheless mistaken because, for example, a mirror image of a face or a dream of a face appears to be a face, but is illusory.
So dreams are classed as imaginary forms.
Dreams appear in the earliest Buddhist writings, and played no less an important role in Buddhism than in our lives today. For example, in the well-known "Vajra (Diamond) Sutra", the Buddha taught that:
"All conditioned dharmas are like a dream, like an illusion, like a bubble, like a shadow, like a dewdrop, like a lightning flash; you should contemplate them thus."
According to the Prasangikas a dream consciousness is solely a mental consciousness appearing in the aspects of the five sense consciousnesses. Dreams symbolise the changing and impermanent nature of all things known to the senses. Sights, sounds, smells, flavors,
sensations of touch and thoughts are all dream-like, fleeting, and ultimately unobtainable.
In "The Great Wisdom That Crosses Over Sutra," Nagarjuna's presentation of dreams represents the available knowledge of third and fourth century India. When Buddhists in India dreamed they dealt with their dreams in a variety of ways. Certain types of dreams occurred frequently enough to the ancients to merit listing as separate categories for dream-analysis.
The categories show the following different kinds of dreams. The most distinctive use, for Buddhists, was
1) seeing dreams as a simile for emptiness, the ultimate nature of all things.
2) seeing dreams as portents of things to come, which overlapped with another type of dream:
3) as messages or teaching by the gods, spirits or bodhisattva.
4) Buddhists in India and in China thought, like Freud and Jung, that it was possible to diagnose aspects of the dreamer's mental and physical health from the symbols of dreams.
5) Buddhist psychologists saw dreams as the return at night of things thought on during the day.
6) Finally, Nagarjuna explained dreams as a standard for testing the quality of a bodhisattva's vows.
When we talk about karma as “cause and effect,” is the cause only directly related to one effect or does causality have broader effects manifesting over beginningless time?
A student writes:
Sorry to bring up the dreaded Karma again but a lingering thought is forming. I tend to view Karma as an action/reaction process. But causality could be differentiated from the simplicity of simple cause and effect (action/reaction).
Causes for suffering are beginningless, or, the causality could be related in infinitely various ways to all things previous ad infinitum. Although the difference appears discrete, I feel a different concept of the situation of Karma. Perhaps I'm confusing word's here?
Or is it the same thing? Like, if we plant a seed of Karma, it doesn't just grown on it's own, independently, does it? Can Karma be differentiated from causality? Or is causality merely an aspect of Karma?
Karma literally means action; action, cause and effect. How can you separate them?
How can beings in the lower realms ever exhaust their negative karma and gain higher rebirth since they constantly accumulate more negative karma while in the lower realms?
A student writes:
I have finished the Module on Karma, and I have a question concerning the Purification of Karma, the burning off of Karma, and the ripening of Karma. I think that I understand the accumulation of Karma but what I don't understand is how Beings in the lower realms are able to get rid of Karma. In particular animals, and specifically carnivores who continually accumulate Karma by killing and eating sentient beings. I realize that they are in the situation they are in is because of past Karma, but how are they able to purify Karma in their present situation since they are unable to practice the Dharma. Again I realize that Karma has a life time and will eventually burn out but these poor beings are accumulating Karma every day to survive therefore it would seem that they would never reach a higher realm again and probably continually end up in even lower realms.
Another student responds:
Great question. Karma ripens according to natural law. I think it quite possible that once the life of a 'lower animal' (keeping in mind that we are animals too) has been exhausted, then a strong positive intent from the past may very well manifest in a higher rebirth. Also, I imagine that the prayers we offer for all sentient beings cannot hurt. :)
Also, I'm not quite sure that the killing done by lower animals accumulates the negative karma we might think. We must keep intention in mind you know. They may kill with the intent to survive, where as humans often kill with other intentions. And even though we know that we can survive without meat, we create a whole industry and habit around it? Whose karma is the worse?
I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the aspects of volition and the path to Bodhicitta with its need to stay in Samsara for the sake of ALL sentient beings.
Karma means volitional act, that is, something you do, say, or think that is in fact in your control. Any such act has moral consequences, called vipaka (Pali meaning result or fruit).
There are three types of karma:
1 negative or unwholesome karma is the cause of suffering in the lower realms
2 wholesome karma is the cause of birth in the higher realms
3 and immutable karma is the cause of birth in the formless realms.
Is there a way to negate or enhance these forms of karma? In Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment Atisha says you can.
For the first the development of morality by Taking Refuge through the 10 Non-virtuous Actions, including the Vows not to kill, not to steal, not to speak of the faults of others etc.
For the second selfhood must be eliminated by the aspiration to gain freedom from cyclic existence.
For the third, all wrong views must be dismantled to eliminate afflictions, even propensities.
The following quote was written about the same time that Buddha Siddartha Gautama was born.
'One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.'
- Heraclitus, Fragments, LI, c. 500 BC
If we think about the quote, it means that every moment we are presented with the possibility of changing the future. We change, and our future changes too.
Unfortunately, for most of us Samsara is like being in a space ship, hurtling out of control and surviving on recycled air and water. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy karma becomes a recycling of past actions, present actions and future effects as dukkha (suffering) arises. This ego-clinging is the source of all delusion, suffering and dis-ease.
So if dukkha arises within itself and not externally, how can we break this endless recycling?
For me the path to Bodhicitta by taking Refuge in the Three Jewels is the answer. And the study of the Dharma such as The Four Great Vows:
However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them;
However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them;
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them;
However incomparable the Buddha-truth is, I vow to attain It..
There are also wonderful role models, from Milarepa who achieved enlightenment in one lifetime to today's Nelson Mandela and HH the Dalai Lama who once wrote:
'The true religious persons accepts the truth that he or she is responsible for the pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings they experience, these being the fruits of karma [actions].'