We create our own karma

Tenzin Palmo, an English woman and meditation teacher, gave a public talk at Kwongminshan hall. Here's a gist of what she said, as well as some Q&A from the audience.

June 4, 2005: Karma and rebirth are central to the Buddhist concept of life, yet they are much misunderstood, even by Buddhists.

Karma is simply action with intention. Such action plants a seed that in a future time will sprout. For instance, if on the road you tread on an ant without knowing, there is no karmic consequence. But if you saw an ant and deliberately killed it, then there is karmic consequence.

There is really no right or wrong action, only skillful and unskillful ones, said Buddha. Unskillful acts cause harm. You see an ant and you feel the desire to kill that inoffensive creature. Your desire to kill stems from the unwholesome state of mind -- ignorance, aversion and anger.

Somehow, the sight of ants and other insects arouse hostile feelings that drive us to do harm. If we are aware how these feelings are affecting us, and deliberately seek to replace them with love and compassion towards all living beings, there will not even arise the intention to harm, whether an ant or another human.

We always have a choice to carry out skillful or unskillful acts. Any action committed under an unwholesome state of mind is negative -- it doesn't matter that the eventual outcome is positive. Likewise, an action may look negative but if it has a positive or wholesome motivation behind it, the action itself is positive.

In all our actions, it is the underlying reason, the intention or motivation that determines whether they are positive or negative. Hence, it is important to be mindful of what we really intend to do, so that we not only don't deceive others, but we don't deceive ourselves, too.

Motivation, not just the act itself, determines karmic consequence. A person holding a blade to cut someone would bring on good or bad consequences depending on whether he is a surgeon or a killer. When people started to meditate, they usually discovered to their shock that there were many ugly motivations swirling in their minds. They realised that they were not that nice after all.

Moment to moment we're performing acts that will bear future karmic consequences. Therefore, we need a set of precepts to guide us in performing only skillful, wholesome acts that in turn generate positive consequences. These are the Five Precepts codified in Buddhist teachings -- to avoid alcohol or drugs, not to utter false speech, not to have sexual misconduct, and not to steal or kill.

You may say that you don't kill anything. But by eating meat, you're allowing animals to be killed. There's a terrible industry going on right now, an industry of nonstop slaughter of animals, all because we desire meat as food. If we simply stop eating meat, if there's no longer any demand for meat, the slaughter industry would grind to a halt.

In Singapore you enjoy eating chicken rice. You won't bear any direct karmic consequence for the dead chicken because someone else has done the killing. Nonetheless, you are equally guilty of the karma of killing as well as the end-result of that killing, which is your plate of greasy chicken meat on the rice.

We are also now experiencing the result of karma in the past. The situation resulting from the past karma is unavoidable but how we respond to that situation is within our control. Our response, in turn, creates further karma, and so it goes on, moment to moment in an endless, seamless cycle.

Hence, to experience an unavoidable good or bad situation is not important to our future -- what is crucial is the way we deal with the situation.

We think that a good and happy life is highly desirable, and if we have sufficient wealth, and good health and good relationships, we can achieve happiness. From a spiritual point of view, the happy life is as useless and unproductive as a life of sorrow and misery.

Individuals who have extremely good karma are reborn in the heavens where they enjoy great pleasure and have almost anything they desire. Those who have done terrible deeds would probably be reborn in hell, a realm of pain and intense suffering. But whether in heaven or hell, you're so completely caught up in your own pleasure or pain, that you are unable to think or do anything else.

The human realm is the ideal middle plane for seeking spiritual liberation because it has a mixture of pain and pleasure, gain and loss. These create the right balance that encourages us to seek the spiritual path and stay on course.

Our lives are not pre-programmed. Folks think that when they're born, there's a computer printout of algorithms (preset rules of action) somewhere that determines their life. Nothing could be further from the truth, because nothing is pre-determined. Starting out in life is like starting out on a road. In the beginning of your journey, you may have no choice which road to travel. But frequently, you will come to a junction where you have a choice to take a turn and continue on a different road.

One day, the Buddha and Ananda were walking along a country road when they saw the corpse of a man who had died from alcoholism. The Buddha said the dead man had once been a monk but chose to return to his wealth and family. He faced all kinds of trouble and eventually drank himself to death.

Life's happenings may seem random, but in truth each time we come to a turn, it's up to us to choose.

How is it then that I have such bad health and money problems although I've led a kind and religious life? How is it that my neighbour who has been a crook and cheat all his life, is doing so well? What's the point of it all?

We have led countless past lives and we will continue to lead countless future lives. When we see our present situation, we see only a small part of an endless tapestry. We're not seeing the total picture; hence we don't understand why good people sometimes have bad things happening to them.

In all honesty, despite the outward appearance of being a good, law-abiding individual, we've actually done many bad and good things that our karma is now such a mixture. That is why so many seemingly good people are suffering terrible karma.

Strive to live a sensible, wholesome life regardless of the current situation we're in. If we live wholesome lives, there would be nothing to fear when we die, because our good karma goes along with us at death. Therefore, we take great care in choosing our actions for they're our companions on the journey of life after life.

The concept of karma and consequences is a wonderful way to govern our conduct and actions. Karma makes us responsible people who deal with life's situations, relationships and problems skillfully. Karma gives us the sense of being masters of our fate and future. We can choose to eliminate our negative qualities and develop our good ones, in order to build future good karma.

Because our present circumstances are the result of karma, there is no such thing as good or bad luck. It is pointless to consult fortune-tellers. What they say of our future is useless, no matter how "accurate" have been their prediction of other people who consulted them. Karma and our conscious intention to choose our impending course of action will determine our own future. As the Buddha constantly reminded us, if we want to know our future, we should review our present. In this sense, the future is predictable simply because it depends on our present thoughts, intention and action.

Remember how precious and rare it is to be born a human and to live a full human life. It is extremely unlikely that we have been born as humans, and what more, in a materially comfortable country, where the Dharma is freely taught and practised. Despite such good fortune, we've already wasted much of our life. Don't go on throwing the rest away.

We gain mindfulness from hearing and reading the Dharma. We become self-aware of our inner bodily sensations and our mental process. Without self-awareness we're no different from our pets and from the common herd of humans the world over.

In the cycle of many lives, we go up occasionally and we down frequently. It's like a game of Snakes and Ladders. The snakes are very long and the ladders are short. When we hit a bad patch, we slide down the long snake, not knowing why.

If there's only one thing you are capable of, be happy and bring happiness to others. In this aspect, you're as strong as Superman. You can bring benefits to others.

Inwardly, sit up straight and resolve that from now onwards, I want to be master of my life, I want to use this life in positive ways -- to bring happiness to others and to myself.

Ultimately, there is no karma, no rebirth. Karma and all of reality is created by our mind. In a strict sense, reality doesn't exist except within our perception. Our mental state is a constant stream, and on this stream we're constantly creating new karma and new lives, which in turn feed into the stream. Only when one is in the state of realisation of non-self and emptiness will one stop feeding the stream and no longer create new karma. -- Francis Chin

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