Khenpo Karma Namgyal
A teaching from the seminary on “The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind”
at Karma Chang Chub Choephel Ling in Heidelberg, June 2013.
The first thought to turn our mind to the Dharma is the precious human body, and the second thought to turn our mind to the Dharma is impermanence. Since our body is fragile, we need to take care of it, and since it is impermanent, it will not last long.
Impermanence pertains to the container and the contents, i.e., the world and living beings. Contemplating and acknowledging that our life is precious because it is impermanent induces us to engage in the practice as soon as possible. If our life ends at death, then it doesn’t matter if we don’t practice or don’t do anything. But life doesn’t end at death, and karma (‘the truth of cause and effect’) continues. Therefore, contemplating karma is the third thought that turns our mind to the Dharma. Contemplating karma inspires us to learn what we need to give up and what we need to take up. It’s important and necessary to know this.
The main purpose of practice is to become free from suffering and attain peace. Every living being wants to be free from suffering and wants to experience peace. I think that every major religious tradition teaches its followers methods to achieve these goals, but the methods taught by each system vary.
Karma refers to actions that we carry out with our body, speech, and mind. There is good karma and there is bad karma, and both depend upon our mind. A thought first arises in our mind and then we speak and act.
It’s important to know how to deal with our emotions in order to refrain from creating bad karma and how to create good karma. It’s hard to recognize our negative emotions, and even if we do, it’s not easy to apply the antidotes to overcome them and to uproot their source. As long as we don’t eliminate our negative emotions, we’ll continue creating negative karma and thus will remain in ‘the rounds of existence,’ samsara, that is marked by suffering and pain. The main point of Buddhist practice is to recognize and deal with our negative emotions. What we don’t need is bad karma. If we want to kick it out of our lives, it’s first necessary to recognize our negative emotions. Whether we admit it or not, I think we all have them.
In Buddhism, it’s taught that there are two types of negative emotions. One type is inactive and the other type is active. Since all of our negative emotions aren’t always obvious, we usually call the inactive kind “sleeping negative emotions.” For example, because it’s usually asleep inside someone and only arises on and off and when conditions prevail, we might not notice that this person has attachment. If we do not control an emotion when it arises but let it take control, then negative karma is active, i.e., we create negative karma and will suffer as a result. For example, anger. Some people get angry once a day. I think we should find out what would be good to do when we become angry. Do we follow after our anger or do we try to overcome it? It’s said that the antidote of anger is compassion. Speaking for myself, I don’t think that I will resort to the antidote of meditating compassion at the time anger is in my mind. As a solution, sometimes we go somewhere else or kick our own leg while attempting to hit another target. I’ve been told that some people feel good by shouting when they are angry. In any case, we will do something when we are angry and, depending on the situation, it will definitely not be good. We might argue or fight. So, first we have a negative emotion and depending upon the conditions, then we create karma. For this reason, the Tibetan term for “karma” is läs (‘karmic action/deed, the principle that every action produces a result’). If we don’t believe in the truth of cause and effect, then it won’t be easy to understand why it’s important to stop a negative emotion or to apply an antidote when it arises, and we just go on with it instead.
It’s taught in Buddhism that any karma that we created and create will never be wasted. That’s the problem, and sometimes it’s scary. For example, the consequences of things we do on account of our anger will not disappear like a rainbow or a scent but will remain with us throughout our life and lives. If we really look at our day, we will notice that often we don’t really feel comfortable. This is so because most of the time our mind follows after negative emotions and seldom after positive ones. If we think deeply about causes and conditions, we will see that we create lots of karma every single second of the day and then we will be discouraged, thinking that we can’t clean it up at all. This means that we’ll never become like a Buddha.
From time to time, it’s important to make the aspiration prayer to meet good teachers, to receive advice and practice instructions from them so that we know how to clear away all negative karma that we created in our past lives. Great masters tell us that we have to know and apply the antidotes to negative emotions when they arise and that we need to purify the bad karma that we created throughout all lifetimes. We don’t know what kind of karma we have accumulated and cannot count how much we have created. If we think about becoming free from our past karma and about not creating new negative karma, it seems as though we’ll never become enlightened. It’s impossible to watch for 24 hours a day how we follow after our negative emotions and to apply an antidote. A very nice example that great masters present on clearly seeing and swiftly purifying our past negative karma is using a torch to cast light into a dark place that has not ever been lit in millions of aeons by the sun’s rays. In the same way, if we have an effective method to deal with our negative karma, it won’t take as long to recognize and purify it as it took to create it. If we have methods of practice that are like the torch in the example, we feel a little bit relaxed because we know that it’s possible to become like a Buddha.
Since we are human beings, we have negative emotions. Sometimes we might sit down in meditation and think about them, e.g., about our anger or attachment. We have much experience with anger, so we can check whether the research findings about dealing with anger are beneficial and effective or not. If we experience that applying the suggested methods helps us stop anger when it arises, we can use them, just like medicine that we take when we are sick. If we discover that through practice our anger is increasing and causing more difficulties than had previously been the case, it’s necessary to find another method. Of course, it’s not easy to control our anger and is very difficult to fully uproot it so that we never get angry again. Everyone has to check for themselves. If we find that anger never helps anybody, we might try finding and applying a method to eliminate it.
I have seen that people who tend to be angry have many problems. It even has an effect on their health. Anger is short-lived, though. So far, I’ve never experienced anybody who is angry 24 hours a day. Like everything else, anger depends upon causes and conditions, so it doesn’t last. Without thinking about karma when I become angry, I try to be alone and not do anything until I calm down. If we follow after our anger, it’s certain that even our children will do everything to avoid us. Shantideva wrote that people who have anger will have no friends. I don’t think that people enjoy our company when we are angry. In brief, we need to check for ourselves whether the results of anger are good or bad. It will not be possible to stop creating bad karma as long as we succumb to our anger. But there are situations in which anger is justified and then it is okay.
It’s much harder to stop having desire than anger. Although we know that we have much desire, we have a hard time doing anything about it. There are prayers that we can recite. Since I realise that many heartaches and problems are caused by this emotion, I recite the aspiration prayers, too.
I’m fascinated by electronic devices that I see at the market, e.g., computers and iPads, but am at ease when I’m free of the feeling that I must own the things that I see and like. Everyone has own preferences. Nepalis like technical apparatus and go to much trouble to earn or collect money to buy them. Not only that, but having finally acquired something, we experience more suffering than we did to purchase it. For instance, I have to lock the door to my room in the monastery when I leave because I worry that somebody might steal my only special possession, which is my laptop. Rich people must be all the more worried about their cars, houses, and so forth. There’s a story about a Nepali who bought a new car and went to a picnic party with his family. He was extremely scared that naughty children would scratch his new car, so he let his family join their friends while he sat in his car on the parking lot and waited for the party to end. In that way, we’ll surely not be happy while we have intense desire, but it’s due to ignorance that we won’t recognize that we are actually experiencing suffering. If we practice reducing our desires by not making up excuses to get what we think we can’t live without and thus struggling to get what we want, we will not only suffer less in our future life but also less in this life. Of course, we need certain things to survive, but I think we should try to differentiate and reduce our inner hunger for things that we really don’t need. As a result, we will create less bad karma and will experience less suffering. If we don’t try to overcome and eliminate our desires, then ‘cyclic existence,’ samsara, will really become cyclic existence - and we’ll never get out. So it’s necessary to learn how to get out of samsara by first recognizing our negative emotions, by reducing and eventually eliminating them, and by striving to attain nirvana. Now, nirvana isn’t a location outside samsara and can’t be reached by a plane or with a car, rather, it’s only our momentary mind.
Three images are depicted in the center of paintings of the Wheel of Life. They symbolize the three main negative emotions, which are also called “mind poisons.” These three negative emotions are the root of samsara that, should we not do anything about it, grows bigger and bigger and lasts longer and longer. In Tibetan Buddhism, to have a long life we pray to Buddha Amitayus and recite his Mantra. We can use our negative emotions as a long-life mantra for samsara. But, instead of doing what others say and do, I think it’s necessary for anyone who wants to be a follower of the Buddha to acknowledge karma.
Normally we say that the main cause to be born as a human being is desire. We have many desires and can’t give them all up at once. I think that we really must learn to be content. Seeing that we think we need more and more, it doesn’t seem to be easy for us to be content. It’s taught in Buddhism that contentment is a quality of an Arhat. Of course, we can’t become totally satisfied and content. If we can be satisfied with what we have, then we will be free from a lot of suffering. Actually, the way to attain contentment is through practice.
I don’t think that just knowing the meaning of the Dharma will free us from suffering. If we want to become free from suffering, we need to practice giving up negative actions and taking up positive actions. I don’t think that we will achieve our aim of being at peace if we don’t. We practice because we want to be happy and at peace in this life, too. Even though we learn about the Bodhisattva vow, due to our past karma, we think of ourselves first. If we run after peace and happiness by simply trying to reduce a few negative emotions, I think peace and happiness will run far away from us.
Why do we learn the teachings, recite lots of Mantras, make donations, or do a few good things? We do these things so that we, our family, as well as our friends have peace and happiness. I think that we will experience positive results by being practical. For instance, we won’t recover from a sickness by refusing to drink hot water that our doctor prescribes. If we drink it and recover, then because of our experience, we will really believe in our doctor and will always follow his or her advice. Likewise, I don’t think that just receiving the Dharma teachings from friends or a teacher and being learned will really improve our situation.
In Buddhism, we speak a lot about the importance of having faith and devotion. To engender faith and devotion in our hearts, it’s necessary to have observed and examined our experiences. If we are aware of our experiences, we will realise and appreciate that the advice that the Buddha offered is really helpful. Then faith and devotion will naturally arise in our hearts and we won’t think that it’s difficult to follow the Buddha’s words. Just like Tibetan medicine is bitter and doesn’t taste good, because we trust our doctor and know it helps us recover from a sickness, we close our eyes and swallow it when he or she tells us to. In the same way, by having faith and devotion in the Buddha, we will be interested in his teachings and won’t have a hard time following them. Often I give the example of how our young novice monks are interested in football. They know the name of every German football player. In the past, we didn’t let our young monks play football because we feared a revolt would break out. But they hid somewhere and played anyway. It was very difficult to stop them, so now we don’t forbid them to play and they don’t play that much. We tell them, “Play. Play until you break your leg.” On one very rainy day I was surprised to see them play football on a small patch of land near the monastery. They were so happy slipping and sliding in the mud. This shows that regardless of whether the sun is shining or it’s raining, they are really interested in playing football. Of course, it would be good if they were just as happy to hear the bell announce that it’s time to memorize or recite texts. In the monastery, there is the wake-up ring, the sleeping-time ring, the meal ring, the Puja ring, and so on. When the Puja ring sounds, some monks arrive five minutes later, whereas no bell is rung for them to go out to a football match. Without being able to answer where the eastern or western directions are and not caring whether the sun is shining or not, the young ones just go out to play. Only a few monks know where east and west are. So, the monks’ enthusiasm for football exemplifies what it means to be interested.
Actually, it’s not that easy to distinguish what is good karma and what is bad karma. In Buddhism, there are three kinds of negative karma created with our body, four kinds made with the use of our speech, and three kinds created with our mind. It’s said that good karma is created by doing something good for others with a good motivation. Bad karma is created by having a bad motivation, even when doing something that seems helpful and good.
The fourth thought to turn the mind to the Dharma is samsara (‘the rounds of cyclic existence’). What is the defect of samsara? Suffering. The cause of suffering is bad karma, and the cause of peace and happiness is good karma. As said, it’s not easy to distinguish between the two. Usually we think that anything we did or do is good karma and anything we didn’t or don’t do is bad karma. One of the negative emotions is pride, which everyone has. Applying the antidote to overcome being proud is not at all easy because pride arises in our mind all the time. When we acted, we automatically think something like, “What I did is really great. What others do isn’t good and isn’t right. What can I do for them?” That’s why we should follow the advice of good teachers or read books about good guidance.
These days, there’s lots of information available to everyone, and it’s especially hard to differentiate which information on the internet is right or wrong. I don’t think we can rely on the internet. If we want to learn the Dharma, it’s important to read books that were written by famous masters who really spent their lives practicing. To learn about the four thoughts, a very special book of the Kagyü Lineage to read was composed by Lhaje Gampopa and is entitled “The Precious Ornament of Realisation.” The teachings on cause and effect that he offered in that book are exceptional. English translations have been made, and it’s sufficient to understand the meaning. If we are guided by a very good master or teacher, it’s not necessary to ponder which karma is good and which karma is bad. If we don’t have a qualified master, then studying the instructions that are presented in a right book is beneficial. But, to clearly know which karma is good and which karma is bad, we have to be enlightened. It’s more or less like that.
We really don’t think about cause and effect and even if we don’t forget but know about it, we don’t take care. As a result, there’s no way of becoming free from suffering. We have to create our own freedom from suffering. The Buddha taught that nobody else can free us or anybody else from suffering. We have to do it for ourselves, so we really need to be aware of cause and effect. I can’t claim to be a perfect practitioner, but I try to take care of my karma - on time. For example, often I manage Karma Lekshey Ling Monastery in Nepal and I could easily keep donations that sponsors give me. Since I’m too scared of karma, I immediately forward donations to the committee representatives that they were meant for.
As mentioned, we have been friends with negative emotions for aeons and aeons. Because we are habituated to them, it’s not easy for us to control them. If we are attached to electronic equipment, for instance, it would be best to reduce our hunger to own them and not to buy any more – and not to make more garbage. I have experience and know that electronic gadgets become garbage in two or three years and then have to be thrown away. Desire never ends and we continually want more and more. I found that the aspiration prayer to have no desire is very effective. It’s written in “The Dorje Chang Lineage Prayer”: “Revulsion (and renunciation are) the feet of meditation, it is said. Hankering after food and wealth disappears for the meditator who cuts off ties to this life. Grant your blessing that attachment to honor and gain cease.”
There are unbelievably many different kinds of biscuits for sale at supermarkets. I don’t know how they make such a variety. When I was about 15 or 16, I was hospitalized for some time. Friends brought me biscuits instead of flowers. I really got fed up with biscuits. Ever since then, I have never had any desire for biscuits or sweets. If somebody gives me a biscuit or chocolate, I do not keep it but give it away. So, I don’t suffer from not having any. Of course, I haven’t given up hunger for other things. Let’s take the example of money. People are always running after money, and I think it’s a big problem in the world. In olden times, rich people had gold and silver that was dug up from the earth. Nowadays, money is printed on paper that is won from trees. People aren’t only interested in paper money but also in numbers on their bank slips. I don’t think material things will confer peace, rather, we need to learn to create satisfaction by ourselves. I have met many German people who complain about a lot of things in their society. I can only tell them to compare their lives with how people live in Africa, India, or Nepal. Everything is very good in Germany. People have enough to eat and have houses, but they aren’t satisfied, need more, and complain. So, if we don’t learn to be content, then we carry a heavy load - and we own that load.
If reading Buddhist texts were enough, then maybe I’m already enlightened. I’ve read many books, e.g., the 16 volumes of the “Prajnaparamitasutra” four times, which means thousands of pages. There’s a blessing, but it doesn’t really affect the mind. I think we must bring practice into our daily lives and not only read and recite texts. Of course, reciting texts is part of the practice. Let me give an example that is inspired by one that Patrul Rinpoche gave in his book, “Words of My Perfect Teacher.” It occurred in Tibet. We will pretend it happened in Germany. There was a teacher who had three students. Let’s pretend that one monk stayed in Heidelberg, one stayed in Hamburg, one stayed in Kamalashila, and another one visited the three places and returned to the master. The master asked him, “What is the Lama in Hamburg doing?” The monk answered, “Oh, he is really practicing the Dharma. He has many students and gives very good teachings.” The master didn’t seem to be impressed but simply replied, “Oh, that is part of the practice.” Then the master asked, “What is the Lama in Heidelberg doing?” The monk answered, “He is carrying out great activities. He is collecting many donations from sponsors, is building Stupas, and is making statues.” The master responded, “Oh, that is part of the practice.” Let’s look at the monk that we are pretending lived in Kamalashila. The master asked, “What is he doing?” The monk answered, “He is doing nothing. All he does is sit near a rock and cry.” In response, the master took off his hat as a sign of deep respect and said, “This shows that he is really doing good work.” Now, crying is not a practice, but the monk saw many ants under the rock and cried because he had great compassion for them. From my experience, I think this example illustrates that we can read a lot of Dharma texts and recite many Mantras but that we don’t always have real compassion.
A kind and compassionate heart is the door for creating good karma. If we have a kind and compassionate heart, then anything we do will be for others. Like our boys who constantly think of opportunities to play football, if we have a kind and compassionate heart, we will only think about ways to help others. Then we won’t categorize karma into three of body, four of speech, and so forth. Every action will be good karma and will bring us and others more peace and happiness. If we look at Dharma deeply, then the main point is practicing with our own mind to cultivate a good heart.
From time to time in public teachings, His Holiness the Karmapa gives many question marks by saying, “Before we become a good practitioner, we need to become a good person.” I feel that I’m a good practitioner but don’t feel that I’m a good person. So, how can it work? If we really follow the guidance of the practice instructions, then everything we do will become good karma and will be the source of peace and happiness.
In this world, there are so many different kinds of human beings, so many different kinds of animals, so many different kinds of mountains, so many different kinds of houses, so many different kinds of biscuits, and of course computers. I’m getting more and more confused about cars. This year I learned that a Porsche costs more than a house. The teachings state that all things are created by our own karma. It’s hard to believe that all these things come from human beings’ minds and don’t grow like grass or trees. But it’s taught that grass, trees, water, and so forth depend upon the individuals living in that area. If people have good karma, then their environment will be nice. Because it’s hard to believe, we can check for ourselves. For instance, we have a good feeling when we enter nice people’s homes and have a strange feeling about the house when they have moved out and it’s empty. Having experienced this, I believe that our environment really depends on our karma. For example, I have a completely different feeling when crossing the border from Germany to Denmark or Belgium. It’s said that only an enlightened Buddha can see karma, but to be born at the same time with others in a specific country or place is due to a karmic connection.
I think I have a karmic connection with German people. This is my ninth visit. The German embassy in Kathmandu automatically gave me a 2-year visa, not one that is restricted to specific dates. So, I think that the container, the environment, really depends on the contents, the people living there. Anyway, we all need peace and happiness and therefore need to look for the source of peace and happiness. The Buddha taught that the cause of peace and happiness is good karma. This doesn’t mean that the Buddha will reward anybody who follows rules that he made. It doesn’t matter if we believe in the Buddha’s teachings or not, if we believe in karma or not, any good we do is the cause of peace and happiness.
From time to time, the Buddha stated that he didn’t teach anything. It’s hard to believe because there are so many volumes of scriptures containing the words of the Buddha that were translated from Sanskrit into the Tibetan language. Seeing all those volumes makes it hard to understand what the Buddha meant when he said this. What it really means is that the Buddha didn’t invent rules about cause and effect. He saw karma and in his teachings speaks to us about it. I heard that some scientists are saying that the Buddha was the first scientist. In a discussion that I had with a friend yesterday, I told him that whether we believe in a future life or not, if we follow the Buddha’s teachings on karma, nothing will go wrong, and if we don’t, then we will be in trouble. To create a better life and future, I think we should acknowledge and follow karma. To do this, we need to have trust in karma and discover for ourselves whether it is true or not. When we find that the law of karma is true and isn’t some kind of theory, then we will really take care.
In Buddhism, it’s taught that everything that occurs in the world is the result of karma. That’s why we must follow the Dharma. But it’s easier said than done. Sometimes we ignore the truth of karma and choose to do what we like and want to do. If we have confidence and trust that karma is true, we will be attentive and careful. For example, if somebody offers us a huge sum of money to swallow poison, we won’t because we know that it will be the cause of a terribly painful result. In that way, if we really believe and trust that bad karma causes much suffering, we won’t ignore it and won’t do whatever we want. Just as there are aspiration prayers to reduce our desires, there are aspiration prayers to win full trust in karma. We can recite them. And when we have gained full trust in karma, we can really take care. Since there are many explanations and examples, it’s not hard to talk about karma, but it’s hard to be attentive of it. If we take it easy, I think it’ll be easy.
As said, all teachings of the Buddha relate to cause and effect. One aspect of the Dharma concerns the path of samsara, i.e., how suffering is created, and one aspect of the teachings concerns the path of nirvana, i.e., how peace and happiness are created. The teachings on cause and effect are included in every teaching that the Buddha presented. Cause and effect also pertain to the Four Noble Truths, so karma is specific to Buddhism that followers of other religions rarely appreciate. But karma means ‘actions’ and everyone acts and experiences the results of their actions.
There are many discussions on how karma is stored in our mind. It’s not easy to explain. We can ask, “Is there a karma bank account? Who has an account? Who is managing our account and will inform us whether we have a good or bad account?” There is no accountant who keeps a list and tells us about our losses or gains at the stock market. I can say that karma is our life. Therefore, from among the four thoughts to turn our mind to the Dharma, the fourth is samsara.
(End of available recording.)
Through this goodness, may omniscience be attained
And thereby may every enemy (mental defilement) be overcome.
May beings be liberated from the ocean of samsara
That is troubled by waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
By this virtue may I quickly attain the state of Guru Buddha, and then
Lead every being without exception to that very state!
May precious and supreme Bodhicitta that has not been generated now be so,
And may precious Bodhicitta that has already been never decline, but continuously increase!
May the life of the Khenpo Karma Namgyal remain steadfast and firm.
May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).
Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception
swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.
Since the recordings of the entire seminary were missing on the CD that was sent to me, it wasn't possible to transcribe the teachings in their entirety. Nevertheless, gratitude to Helen Konietzny for having sent the CD with the recording for this manuscript. Many thanks to Martin Weyers from Ludwigshafen for the photo of Khenpo Karma Namgyal during the teachings in Heidelberg & to Lama Dorothea Nett for having organized this seminary. These instructions that Khenpo Karma Namgyal generously offered in English were transcribed & edited slightly by Gaby Hollmann from Munich. Copyright: Dharma Downloads at Karma Lekshey Ling in Kathmandu & Karma Chang Chub Choephel Ling in Heidelberg, 2013. – May virtue increase!