Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Law of Karma: A Practitioner's Perspective

The concept of karma is central to Buddhism. However, while growing up in India, I became so
disillusioned with this idea, as well as with the ancillary concept of reincarnation, that I would reacting violently to such terms. In this blog, I explain how I developed such antipathy, and how I overcame it on my path to becoming a Buddhist.

Though people often use the word “karma” to mean fate, it means action. The concept of Dependent Origination in Buddhism teaches that everything that happens to us — good or bad — is a result of our karma from the past. Understanding how karma works and having faith in the workings of it are important for Buddhists.

The concept is problematic when it is misunderstood and consequently applied incorrectly. In India, the ideas of karma and rebirth have been used to justify persecution of the weaker segments of society —lower caste people, women, children, and animals among others. Karma is understood to mean that those who are born into higher caste families and with good health are blessed in the present life because they engaged in noble karma in their previous birth. People born in lower castes are suffering in this birth because they engaged in bad karma in their previous life. This justifies suffering due to poverty, congenital problems, and gender, and discourages helping people in such situations, as it would be tantamount to interfering with the law of karma. One of the most horrific arguments I encountered went like this: If person A is privileged, he is entitled to punish person B who is poor or weak because the good karma of person A qualified him to torment person B, who obviously had bad karma. By victimizing poor people, person A is merely enforcing the law. I saw that such a belief in karma thus led to the commission of more bad karma.

Disgusted with that, I declared that I did not believe in karma or reincarnation. I instead insisted that good fortunes and bad fortunes were all matters of random acts of nature. I held this belief until I
met my mentor and friend, Dr. B. Alan Wallace, who patiently answered all of my questions about karma. I am grateful to him for making me realize that I was upset at the wrong interpretation of the law of karma and not the law itself.

We need to remember that the chief goal of Buddhism is to alleviate human suffering. If a person is suffering and her friends tell her that she is in that state because of her bad karma, it would make that
person's the suffering worse. Buddhism is not supposed to do that! It is should make us feel better!

Here are some suggestions I have about the law of karma:

1. If a person who is in a position to help someone who is suffering and does not help, that person earns bad karma.

2. The karma described above becomes even worse if the individual, in addition to not helping, tells the victim that it is because of victim's bad karma. Lord Buddha related the parable of a person who
has been injured by an arrow. The injured person wants the arrow out of his body: telling the suffering person who fired the arrow or what the arrow was made out of does not help him. Telling such a suffering person that he deserved it because of his past bad karma is like rotating the arrow while it is sticking in his body. In April 2008, senior Sacramento Bee reporter Stephen Magagnini and I shared a ride to attend a rally in San Francisco in support of Tibet ahead of the Olympics in China. Steve, who was there to cover the event for his paper, had heard a statement by some Buddhist monks that the people of New Orleans were suffering from the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina in
2005 because they had previously engaged in bad karma. I explained to Steve that the monks had themselves engaged in bad karma by saying that.

3. When someone is suffering, the understanding of the law of karma can bring solace to that person, but is up to that person to have the conversation with himself about karma.

4. Karma is not a static thing. It is like a bank account; you make deposits to it and withdrawals from it. We cannot go back in the past, but we have a lot of control over our karma, or actions, from this
moment on. We can act with compassion and help others in order to increase our balance of karma.

5. There is absolutely no room for regret. Even our worst actions of the past are in the past. Our previous acts of bad karma have value only if we can learn from them. Otherwise, there is no point in
pondering over them or feeling guilty about them. You may think of yourself as the worst specimen of humanity on Earth. Still, it does not help to have guilt or regret. What matters is how you conduct
yourself from this point on in life. Of course, that is easier said than done, and it is even more difficult to apply this reasoning to others who have committed bad karma in the past. But we need to watch great beings like Jesus, Nelson Mandela, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Jesus forgave people who were about to assassinate him. Nelson Mandela did not have a single word of malice against the individuals who had wrongly incarcerated him for so long. Why can’t we have similar compassion for ourselves and for others?

After the tragedy of 9/11, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a letter to then-President George Bush. Here is an excerpt from the letter:
"It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence. But how do we deal with hatred and anger, which are often the root causes of such senseless violence."

His Holiness was clearly worried about America's violent response to the tragedy.  Of course, the US not only invaded Afghanistan, but also Iraq, on the pretense of the imaginary weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussain was allegedly hoarding.

Many who had protested against the Iraq War were dismayed when His Holiness met with then President George Bush. But for those who understand the law of karma correctly, such instances of forgiveness or compassion do not come as a surprise. George Bush may have committed a massive error in ordering the invasion of Iraq. But, for someone like His Holiness, Bush is a person who can make a fresh start any time. It does not mean that he would not have to reap the consequences of his karma of starting an unjust war. But, because Bush cannot go back in time and reverse his decision, it would be useless for him to crush himself under a load of guilt. Instead, if he understood the law of karma, Bush would dedicate his life to alleviating the suffering of victims of war.

In the light of the arguments above, let us address one of the most vexing problems in trying to explain the law of karma: how could we justify Nazi atrocities against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Russian prisoners of war during World War II? Can we ascribe the atrocities to the bad karma of all those who perished in the Holocaust?

This is how I will explain the working of karma in the situation above.

1. Before we talk about the karma of those who perished in the concentration camps, we need to discuss the karma of the those who perpetrated the crime and those who — despite being in the position to do something to stop it — watched it happen silently. These two groups of people earned bad karma at such an astronomical scale that it would be stupid to talk about the karma of those perished.

2. Whether the victims of World War II had bad karma or not would be best left to the victims. If thinking about the law of karma gave some modicum of peace to those who were being marched towards the gas chambers, the law has done some good. But if the onlookers then and now attempt to justify what happened in those times, they earn bad karma. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has said on occasions that the atrocities China has perpetrated in Tibet could be the result of past bad karma of the Tibetans. His Holiness, being a Tibetan and the spiritual leader of the people of Tibet, can make a statement like that. This thinking gives him peace. But for non-Tibetans, making such a statement, instead of helping the Tibetan cause, is a sure ticket to earning bad karma. The goal of Buddhism is to make us feel better now and in the future; the goal is not to make us feel bad or get paralyzed about what we or others might have done in the past, and it is certainly not to condemn those who are already suffering.

Now the million dollar question: How should we view, in the context of the law of karma, the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust, their collaborators, and the current Chinese regime?

According to my understanding of the law of karma, those who were present at the time of World War II ought to have adopted all means — including violent ones — to stop the persecution of the Jews. It's hard, but it is possible to use force to stop a crime without being malicious. However, when the offense has already taken place, there is no room for any ill will towards the perpetrators or collaborators. In fact, it is possible to generate compassion for those people, knowing
that the consequences of karma await them. The concept of justice in Buddhism is to prevent further harm rather than extracting retribution. This view stands in sharp contrast with the common
understanding of justice in the West, where victims are considered to be entitled to a sense of revenge against those who have harmed them. I think the desire for revenge or retribution has an evolutionary
root: A person who hurt us once was likely to harm us again in the future. Revenge was a means to neutralize that threat. Revenge does make sense thought of like that. However, in most situations in our time, that sort of thinking is not valid. There is no need to kill a person as a punishment for murder. There are other methods to ensure that a convicted killer does not repeat the act. Gandhi once said,"I do not want to be the enforcer of the law of karma." Likewise, the law of karma helps us develop compassion for those who have engaged in bad karma before. It does not encourage us

to ourselves engage in bad karma towards those who are suffering.

I end this blog with an excerpt from the book The Way of the Bodhisattva: (Bodhicaryavatara).

"Superficial similarity, however, masks a radical difference. According to Buddhist teachings, the definition of moral good or evil is made exclusively in terms of cause and effect. An act is considered evil, negative, non-virtuous, not because it is a transgression of a divinely ordained principle laid down by the creator of the universe, but because it is productive of suffering in this for future existence. Virtue, on the other hand, is that which brings about happiness and tends to spiritual development. The experiences of the infernal states are the ineluctable result of evil attitudes and actions. Whether or not the modern Westerner wishes to believe in the existence of infernal realms is in a sense beside the point. Every evil and unwholesome action simply bring forth suffering, and it hardly matters whether one conceives of this in the picturesque terms of Dante’s Inferno or shares the view of Jean-Paul Sartre that "hell is other people.” Nevertheless, it is important to grasp that the idea of eternal damnation as a punishment for sin is foreign to Buddhist understanding.

Suffering is a consequence of one's own action, not a retribution inflicted by an external power. Infernal torments, moreover, though they may last for eons, belong to samsara and are not exempt from the law of impermanence. And even if the notion of a divine vengeance regarded as an approximation, in mythological terms, to the concept of karmic consequences, it is perhaps worth suggesting that the impersonal view proposed by Buddhism should have the advantage of exorcizing the paralyzing sense of guilt, or revolt, that can be so often be the outcome of a too, anthropomorphic theism.  The doctrine of karma has only one message: the experience of states of being follows upon the perpetration of acts.  We are the author of our destiny; and being the authors, we are ultimately, perhaps frighteningly free." 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Suffering and Nirvana: What the Buddha Taught

Following is the outline of the talk Tenzin Prgye will deliver at Tibet House California on August 17th, 2016.

It was the sight of suffering that compelled Siddhartha Gautama to leave his palatial home, his family and become an ascetic. He became a Buddha or an awakened one when he found the solution that eliminated his suffering. Then he shared his wisdom for around fifty years with a huge number of people. 

That was 2550 years ago. Do the circumstances of Lord Buddha's lifetime compare to the lives of modern human beings?  I doubt that. I feel that we need first thoroughly to investigate our suffering and then test the teachings of Lord Buddha as an antidote. We failed to do so; we may be applying for write medicine on the wrong ailment.  

We will end the talk with the analysis of Buddha's teaching for the elimination of human suffering. 
  1. Shamatha and Vippashyna meditation for busy people
  2. Nature of our suffering, "When bad things happen to good people."
    1. Is suffering just a disagreeable feeling?
    2. Why do the righteous suffer?
    3. Is there a reason?
    4. Can there be an exception for nice people? 
    5. Can suffering ever be justified?
    6. Can religion help?
    7. Buddhist view of suffering and its relevance to modern times
  3. Measurement of Suffering
  4. Relationship between Happiness, Well-being, and Suffering
  5. What should we do to relieve our suffering
  6. Analysis of Buddha's teaching for alleviation of suffering

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A Unified View of Buddhist Teaching

When I first encountered Buddhism, I was euphoric to find the number of books available on the topic. There were bookshelves after bookshelves at the local bookstores. Just now, I did a search on Amazon, and it returned 197,008 items about Buddhism. I read several of them and found all of them helpful. But, in the process of reading all them,  I was also getting confused about the core message of Buddhism. Fortunately, I encountered teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and his approach helped me see the overall framework of Buddhist teachings. I was happy to discover that Buddha's teaching, contrary to my earlier impression, have a coherent structure,

What I found most comforting about Buddhism was the emphasis on the Four Noble Truths. Buddha's first teaching to his first five disciples, who were his erstwhile friends, was the Four Noble Truths. A long career spanning fifty years followed his first teaching; Lord Buddha was a prolific teacher. But he never veered from what he taught at his first sermon. That makes sense because the Four Noble Truths were the essence of Buddha's Enlightenment. And he set out to share that knowledge with the world. It would not have made sense to make changes to the ultimate wisdom he had already received.

It is important to all Buddhist practitioner to have a firm understanding of the framework, most importantly the Four Noble Truths. Without a good knowledge of this context, there is a danger that one may not gain all the benefits Buddhism has to offer. One may go to retreats here and there, attend classes on meditation, read books on compassion and so on. They are all good. But without the understanding where to locate those retreats, Dharma classes, and books on the framework, one's practice will remain incomplete.

I am an engineer by profession, and I learn by drawing pictures. I have created a diagram to depict the unified view of Buddhist practice.

The different bubbles on the map are not to be followed in sequence; rather one should be prepared to deal with several of them concurrently. For example, one may be working on the solution of one suffering while also analyzing another unrelated suffering.

You can download the original file

Below is the outline of the information shown in the diagram. As I had mentioned earlier, the Four Noble Truths are the bedrock of Buddhist practice. One cannot claim to practice Buddhism without having the understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

The ordering of the Truths is scientific: We have the problem statement, its cause, the solution, and the path to the solution. First among the Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering. One cannot make progress on the path without knowing his or her suffering first.

    1. The Truth of Suffering
      1. The Types of Suffering
      2. The Five Aggregates
    2. The Truth of Origin
      1. The 12 links of Dependent Origination, also known as the Law of Karma
    3. The Truth of Cessation
    4. The Truth of Path
      1. Ethics
        1. Balanced Speech
        2. Balanced Livelihood
        3. Balanced Action
      2. Meditation
        1. Balanced Effort
        2. Balanced Mindfulness
        3. Balanced Concentration
      3. Wisdom
        1. Balanced View
        2. Balanced Resolve
The members of the Eightfold Path are often called Right View, Right Resolve, etc. But I prefer to use the word Balanced instead of Right.
There is an enormous amount of text dealing with the Wisdom aspect of the Truth of the Path. The practitioner must keep in mind that alleviation of suffering is the ultimate goal. Keeping a keen eye on suffering also helps the practitioner gauge his or her practice. Every word of wisdom or advice must have a positive effect on the practitioner. If this information seems self-centered, please keep in mind that those who have achieved the highest level of compassion, suffer less, compared to those who have not.
If one feels that he or she has accumulated a large amount of wisdom and discovers that his or her suffering is not lessening, that person review the application of wisdom; there has to be something lacking in putting wisdom to practice. 

The Question of Validating the Path: His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The following excerpt is from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's book Transforming the Mind: Eight Verses on Generating Compassion and Transforming Your Life. In the paragraphs below, His Holiness has shared something crucial for those who wish to benefit from Buddhist practice.

His Holiness teaches that there are four valid factors of knowledge

  1. Valid scripture
  2. Valid treatises or commentaries
  3. Valid teacher
  4. Valid experience.

Here His Holiness advises that practitioners must start with "Valid Experience." 
The Question of Validating the Path

When you consider the reasoning I have just outlined, you might think it all sounds fairly rational and seems to make good enough sense. But what evidence do we have to show that these arguments are valid and that their logic is meaningful? ls there a proof that we can observe or experience?

On this question, I would like to refer to an explanation that I find personally helpful, which is taught in the Sakya teachings, in the Lamdre tradition of Path and Fruition. According to this, there are four valid factors of knowledge, namely valid scripture, valid treatises or commentaries, valid teacher, and valid experience.

In terms of their origin, of course, the valid scriptures were taught first, and the valid commentaries were elaborated on them later. Then, on the strength of their study, valid teachers emerged who became masters of those commentaries. This led to their having valid experiences. However, from the point of view of the development of one's own personal conviction it is suggested that this order is reversed-in other words, one must first begin with some kind of personal experience. If we take the case of reflecting upon the Four Seals, or the empty nature of phenomena, or the benefits of altruism, unless we have some taste or personal experience of the theme, that is, unless we have a glimpse of its truth, it is less likely that we will be inspired deeply enough to persist in our practice.

Of course, there are many different levels and degrees of spiritual experience. There are profound levels of realization, which I for one may not have, but there is also a beginning level which we all have. In my own case, whenever I contemplate on the virtues of compassion and altruism I feel deeply moved. But how can we know that such experiences are valid? One way is to look at the effects they have upon us. When we reflect on certain spiritual qualities and cultivate them, and when we begin to feel deeply inspired, this creates a sense of inner strength. This experience makes us more courageous, more expansive, and less prone to worry or insecurity. All these are indications of the validity of our experience.

So, as I mentioned before, reflecting on certain spiritual qualities often moves me deeply, and this profound inspiration then increases my admiration of the masters who personify these values. Contemplating in this way, I begin to recognize that perhaps there is some truth in the biographies of the great masters and in their accounts of profound spiritual realization. No doubt we have to accept that anecdotal accounts and biographies are often prone to exaggeration, especially in the case of over-enthusiastic presentations of a guru's qualities by his own disciples. However, we cannot dismiss an entire category of literature on the grounds that it is untrustworthy. This cannot be the case-there must be some accounts of masters that relate to genuine experiences.

Indeed, this is not the only instance of exaggeration in the Bud­dhist literature. When I read a very sophisticated commentary written  by a great scholar on a short text written by one of his masters, the commentary is sometimes so detailed and comprehensive that I begin to wonder whether the author of the original short text really had all these points in mind!

So when you can relate to the experiences narrated in the biographies of the masters from the vantage point of your own personal experience, you begin to develop deep admiration for the valid masters. From valid experience, then, you proceed to valid masters, and once you respect the valid masters, you then develop conviction in the treatises they have written, which in turn helps you to develop a deep conviction in the basic source of the teachings, namely the Buddhist scriptures. I personally find this way of approaching the teachings very helpful: you start from your personal experience, which constitutes the cornerstone of your spiritual practice.

For a Buddhist practitioner, especially for a Mahayana practitioner, it is vital to have deep admiration for the Buddha, and that admiration must be grounded in a profound understanding of the essence of his teaching, the Dharma. The understanding of Dharma should itself be based on the understanding of selflessness or emptiness that I mentioned earlier. To perceive the Buddha merely as a historical person who was a great teacher, with admirable and extraordinary qualities and immense compassion, is not the perspective of a serious practitioner. A Buddhist's appreciation of the Buddha should be grounded in knowledge of his central and most profound teaching, which is emptiness. Such a person should realize that Buddhahood, or complete enlightenment,  is the  embodiment  of  the  four kayas  or four "Buddha-bodies." This principle should itself be understood in relation to another fundamental point which is that, at the deepest level, mind and body are non-dual. Therefore the fully enlightened state should be understood as the total non-duality of wisdom and compassion.

To sum up the discussion so far, the Four Seals or axioms of the Buddhist teachings  tell  us that  the suffering that  none  of us wishes to experience comes about as a result of afflictive thoughts and emotions, which in turn have their roots in false views. The four main false views are holding things to be permanent, believing impermanent things will bring happiness, holding things to be desirable, and believing that things enjoy independent existence. These views can all be eliminated, and this is done by developing insight into the true nature of reality. As you cultivate this insight and enhance it, false views are gradually eradicated along with their derivative thoughts and emotions. This process requires discipline. It is through such a process that transformation takes place.

In terms of the actual method of bringing about a transformation of heart and mind, the Buddhist tradition explains that there are two main dimensions to the path, which are known as "the method aspect" and "the wisdom aspect." One could  say  that the  method  aspect, which  includes  the various  skillful  means

The Sanskrit word kaya means "body"in the sense of a body or embodiment of numer­ ous qualities. The four kayas are: Svabhavikakaya, the Buddha-body of enlightened nature; Jnanakaya, the Buddha-body of perfect wisdom; Sambhogakaya, the Buddha­ body of perfect  resource; and Nirmanakaya , the  Buddha-body  of  perfect emanation. employed on the path, is a preparatory phase. It enables the practitioner subsequently to apply the wisdom or insight that eliminates negative afflictions directly.

Basics of Buddhism by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a 3-day teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, India. The topic of the lesson was Bodhicaryāvatāra or The Way of the Bodhisattvaava, a text written of Venerable Shantideva.

But His Holiness did not start his talk with Bodhicaryāvatāra. He spent the first day and the half of the second day going over the basics of Buddhism. Most of the attendees had a copy of the text Bodhicaryāvatāra in their hands, and they were flipping through the pages to spot the location His Holiness was teaching from.

I had witnessed something similar during His Holiness's talk at the American University in 2010. According to the published agenda, His Holiness was supposed to speak about a topic in Buddhist philosophy. Instead, His Holiness spent the scheduled time going over the basics and he never came around to the topic that was published.

I have observed the same pattern in most of the books His Holiness has written: He spends the first several pages going over the basics of Buddhism.

Here are those topics.

  1. The Four Noble Truths
  2. The Four Seals of Buddhism
  3. The Five Aggregates
  4. Two types of Buddhist Meditation: Shamatha and Vipashyana
Regarding the Four Noble Truths, in his book Transforming the Mind: Eight Verses on Generating Compassion and Transforming Your Life, His Holiness writes "Actually, contemplating on the Four Noble Truths is the foundation of the Buddha Dharma."

I appreciate His Holiness's emphasis on teaching the basics. Buddhism contains a vast body of text, some of them deals with topics that are complex bordering on esoteric. It is easy for practitioners to lose sight of the fundamental goal of Buddhism: Working on Human Suffering.