How Karma Works

Several days ago, I received a comment on an old post asking about the Buddhist concept of rebirth.  The author of the comment stated that he was confused about the notion of rebirth as it is based on the concept of “no- soul.”  If there is no soul, he asked, then how does our accumulated karma travel into the next life?

This is a frequently asked question, and a great subject of confusion.

First, we have a question of semantics.  What do we mean by when we say “no-soul?”  It refers to Buddhist doctrine that rejects the concept of atman (self, soul, ego) as a metaphysical reality that is eternal and independent.  In the West, we often call it the doctrine of “no-self,” “non-self,” or “no-soul.”  It also corresponds with svabhava, which denies that living things possess an intrinsic essence, nature, or being.

Now this does not deny the reality of the conventional sense of “I.”  You, me – I – does exist but only as a temporary combination of various elements, traits, inclinations, and physical characteristics.  This combination will disintegrate when we die.  Buddhism says we have a problem because we tend to fixate on “I” which leads to delusions, the root of sufferings.

I will point out that when we use terms such as “no-soul” or “no-ego,” we are applying atman to Western concepts that Buddha and the early Buddhist were not aware of, for these ideas did not exist in their world.  They did not have the same sense of self, soul, God, or religion as we have in the modern age.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh describes atman this way,

“Impermanence is the same as non-self. Since phenomena are impermanent, they do not possess a permanent identity.  Non-self is also emptiness.  Emptiness of what?  Empty of a permanent self.  Non-self means also interbeing.  Because everything is made of everything else, nothing can be by itself alone.  Non-self is also interpenetration, because everything contains everything else.  Non-self is also interdependence, because this is made of that.  Each thing depends on all other things to be. that is interdependence.  Nothing can be by itself alone.  It has to inter-be with all other things. That is non-self.”

When the Buddha awakened, he no longer saw reality as a compartmentalized realm where everything is separate.  Instead, he saw impermanence and interdependence.  Because of impermanence, nothing is permanent, eternal.  Because of interdependence, everything (everyone) is inter-connected.

Rebirth is also confusing.  Many people get it mixed up with reincarnation.  But reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.  Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies.  With this concept you could possibly remember past lives (but I doubt it).  Again, Buddhist philosophy rejects the notion of a soul or a self that is permanent.  You will never be reborn as the same person ever again.

What Buddhism teaches is rebirth, the cycle of birth and death. You may carry over into your next life some karma, or traces, of your former lives, but you will forever be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past.  If fact, according to Buddhist teachings, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

Zen teacher John Daido Loori says,

“The self is an idea, a mental construct…  That being the case, what is it that dies?  There is no question that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it.  They take on another form, another shape.  You can call that another life, but as there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next.  Quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next.  Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment.”

Karma is based on intention.  Good intentions create good karma.  Bad intentions create negative karma.  But instead of focusing on the action aspect of karma, we should view karma as potential.  Karma is like mental seeds planted within the mind that have the potential to ripen and exert some sort of influence at a future time.  Awarness of this potential helps us make wiser choices.

Geshe Tashi Tsering in his book The Buddha’s Medicine for the Mind: Cultivating Wisdom and Compassion, explains further:

“This potential is a karmic seed, a seed planted in our mind by physical, verbal or mental action. The strength or depth of this seed is determined by a number of factors, including how strong our intention is, whether we clearly understand what we are doing, whether we act on our intention and whether the physical and verbal action is completed.”

Seeds will remain in the mind until they ripen or until they are destroyed.  Seeds left by negative mental events and actions are destroyed by applying the four opponent or antidotal powers (support, regret, resolve, and action as antidote).  The power of regret for the negative act, together with a firm resolve not to act that way again in the future, is said to be very effective in the purification of karma.

Accumulated Karma is merely the collection of karmic potential we have gathered up in our journey (or journeys) through life.  The karma seeds are “carried” through the cycle of birth and death via a stream of consciousness, a continuum of consciousness.

I’ll be the first to admit that the explanation is not entirely satisfactory.  It leaves some questions unanswered.  However, I don’t spend a great deal of time about it.  I don’t believe it is absolutely necessary to accept the notions of karma and rebirth in order to be a Buddhist.  But belief in and/or acceptance of karma and rebirth is a matter that goes beyond the scope of this post.  So, for today, it is enough to simply say… don’t worry, be happy.

After thirty years of Buddhist practice and study, I’ve learned that the most important thing is the first thing we’re all taught in the beginning.  The only thing that matters is the present moment, our present life.  We should be concerned with what we do in the present, in the timeless reality of now, and not what may, or may not, happen sometime in the future.

The conventional arises from afflictions and karma;
And karma arises from the mind;
Tendencies are accumulated in the mind;
When free from tendencies it’s happiness.

Nagarjuna, “Commentary on Awakening Mind” (Bodhicittavivarana)


How to Become a Healing Buddha

Healing Buddha is the heart of the Tibetan healing tradition.  I’ve stripped the Healing Buddha teachings and practice down to some basics and fashioned a practice that is fairly simple and effective.  For me anyway.

The goal is to become a Healing Buddha.  This simply means to awaken all the healing qualities within you.  Practice involves visualization meditation and recitation of mantra.   It’s not absolutely necessary to do both, but both are there for you.

In Medicine Buddha Sadhana, scholar and teacher Thrangu Rinpoche has this to say,

“The primary technique in the meditation consists of imagining ourself to be the Medicine Buddha, conceiving of yourself as the Medicine Buddha.  By replacing the thought of yourself as yourself with the thought of yourself as the Medicine Buddha, you gradually counteract and remove the fixation on your personal self.  And as that fixation is removed, the power of the seventh consciousness is reduced.  And as it is reduced, the kleshas or mental afflictions are gradually weakened, which causes you to experience greater and greater well-being in both body and mind.”

Buddhism divides the mind into eight consciousnesses.  The first five consciousnesses correspond to our senses, the sixth to our thoughts, and the eighth is the base-consciousness, where all our potential energies are stored.

The 7th or mano-consciousness (mano = mind) bridges the conscious and sub-conscious realms of the mind.  There is where illusions, particularly our false idea of a “self” originate.

The Healing Buddha is imaginary, of course.  We use the Healing Buddha as a symbol, an archetype, an image-guide.  To become a Healing Buddha is to manifest our Buddha-nature, to fully active all our inner qualities of compassion and wisdom.

According to the sutras, the Healing Buddha made twelve aspirations or vows that practitioners are encouraged to pledge themselves.  However, for us it is enough to generate bodhicitta, the thought of awakening.  Bodhicitta represents the aspirations of all Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and sages.

Visualization is an essential part of Healing Buddha practice.  The theory behind visualization is that by creating a picture in the mind of an icon, image or symbol and using it for single-minded contemplation, facilitates the actualization of the qualities represented.  Obviously, it is healing, wholeness, and compassion which are some of the quantities Healing Buddha represents.

At home, I often focus on a hanging scroll dharma mandala I made that displays the seed symbol for the Healing Buddha (right).  When away from home I have a little card with an image of the Healing Buddha that I can use.  Or, no matter where I am, I can just close my eyes and visualize.

At this point, though, you might wonder why go to all the trouble of visualizing buddhas and symbols when to simply sit, focus on your breath, and allow feelings of loving-kindness to arise should suffice.  The breath is an object of meditation, no different from focusing on a mandala or visualizing Healing Buddha.  The advantage visualization provides is that it helps us tap into one of our most powerful inner forces, the imagination.

Imagination plays a critical role in the creating of the false sense of ‘self’ as well as other illusions.  Imagination is also said to rest in the 7th consciousness.  So, with visualization, we use imagination as a counter-force, to reduce the power of flawed thinking that hinders the development of our positive inner qualities.

Lama Govinda in Creative Meditation says that the “power of creative imagination is not merely content with observing the world as it is [and] accepting a given reality.”  So when we talk about “seeing the true aspect of reality” we don’t mean just the mundane reality of our phenomenal world.  It also means going beyond our ordinary awareness of things.  Concentration on a image produced by the mind adds a new dimension of absorption and engagement.  Visualization gives our tool of meditation a little more heft.

It’s said that the root of the Healing Buddha’s power is his great compassion.  We can interpret that to mean that healing power comes from developing our own great compassion.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche (Ultimate Healing) tells us,

“Compassion is the best healer.  The most powerful healing comes from developing compassion for all other living beings, irrespective of their race, nationality, religious belief, or relationship to us.”

Healing Buddha practice is not limited to sickness, injury or death.  The universality of the teachings and practice makes it a useful method for transforming the mind and transcending all forms of suffering.

Here is a simple Healing Buddha meditation to use.  It is based on Medicine Buddha Sadhana by Ngawang Losang Tenpa Gyältsän, translated by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche.  The meditation can be done silently or while chanting the Healing Buddha mantra.

Visualize the Healing Buddha above the crown of your head.  Purifying rays of light pour down from the Healing Buddha’s heart and body, eliminating your sicknesses and afflictions, and their causes, all your negative thoughts and emotions.

Imagine your body completely filled with light, becoming clean and clear like crystal. Then visualize rays of this light radiating out in all directions, purifying the sicknesses and afflictions of all sentient beings.

Conclude the meditation and/or mantra chanting by visualizing the Healing Buddha melting into light which you absorb into your heart.

When I get into this whole-heartedly, it feels very powerful.

Healing Buddha Mantra: Tayatha Om Bekandze Bekandze Maha Bekandze Radza Samudgate Soha


Thich Nhat Hanh Walk With Me

Thich Nhat Hanh is a very popular Buddhist teacher.  Like the Dalai Lama, he is practically a one man publishing industry, he has so many books out.  Fortunately, he is the real deal.  I’ve never felt peacefulness and quietude as I have when I’ve attended one of his dharma talks.  His words, though simple and spare, are the stuff of poetry, and the wisdom he shares ‘goes beyond.’  Every thing I’ve read or heard of his has provided me with a different perspective, often on the things in life I tend to take for granted.

For instance, I like the way he describes how to eat mindfully in “Peace is Every Step,”

[We] look down at the food in a way that allows the food to become real.  This food reveals our connection with the earth.  Each bite contains the life of the sun and the earth.  The extent to which our food reveals itself depends on us.  We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread!  Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.

In 2014, Thay, as he’s called by his students, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage, a stroke.  He was in a coma for seven weeks and lost the ability to speak.  Since then, his recovery has been slow.  I believe he remains speechless but he has traveled to Thailand and his home, Vietnam.  I assume he is currently at his residence at Plum Village in France.

I’m looking forward to seeing Walk With Me, the new documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Sherlock Holmes).  The filmmakers describe Walk With Me as a “meditation on a Zen Buddhist monastic community, who have dedicated their lives to master the art of mindfulness with their world-famous teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.”  The film was released into cinemas worldwide during the fall but I don’t go to theaters any more so I’ll have to wait for it to show up on cable.

Here’s the official trailer:


A Brazen Buddha Melts. . .

People today want meditation without magic, mysticism, or religion.  It’s like some folks are attracted to Buddhism that doesn’t seem like Buddhism and/or they are completely turned-off by anything Religulous.  Maybe they just want to meditate.  But if you are doing any form of mindfulness, you are kinda practicing the Buddha’s teachings.  Personally, I feel that what people are looking for can be found within the context of Buddhism.  You don’t have to go “secular” or divorce yourself from the teachings.  I mean, unless, you really, really want to…

Way back I wrote about a small Chinese Buddhist school that had existed for about two hundred and seventy years when they were discovered during the 19th century.  I don’t think they’re still around.  Joseph Edkins described them in Chinese Buddhism (1893):

They are a kind of reformed Buddhists…  The name of the sect is Wu-wei-kiau, which, translated literally, means the “Do-nothing sect.”  The idea intended by it is, that religion consists, not in ceremonies and outward show, but in stillness, in a quiet, meditative life, and in an inward reverence for the all-pervading Buddha.  Buddha is believed in, but he is not worshipped.  There are temples, if they may be so called, but they are plain structures, destitute of images, and having in them only the common Chinese tablet to heaven, earth, king, parents, and teacher, as an object of reverence.

The use of wu-wei in the name refers to the Taoist/Buddhist term for “non-action,” meaning to take action in a more natural way without struggle or excessive effort.

The approach of the Wu-wei-kiau seems like a secular, modern one to me, like they were thinking outside the box.  They felt empowered to interpret Buddha-dharma their own way and yet they remained wayfarers on the Buddha path.  The Wu-wei-kiau didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

No one has to bow, wear robes, take vows, have an Asian name, sit in the traditional Asian posture, or believe in karma or rebirth.  At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss all that with a closed mind or eschew other aspects of Buddhism, particularly the teachings that don’t rely on abstract metaphysics.

I can’t help but feel that those who take a purely secular or clinical approach, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deprive themselves of considerable mind-nourishment.

In the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), meditation master Chih-i wrote,

If people rely exclusively on [meditation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings?  The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.

Anyway.  Here is a story Edkins relates in his book, about a time when some “foreign priests” came to visit Lo-tsu, the founder of the “Do-Nothing Sect.”  It might give us some more insight into the matter:

The foreign priest then asked him why he did not chant books of prayers.  He answered, “That the great doctrine is spontaneous, man’s nature is the same with heaven.  The true unwritten book is always rotating.  All heaven and earth are repeating words of truth.  The true book is not outside of man’s self. But the deceived are ignorant of this, and they therefore chant books of prayers.  The law that is invisible manifests itself spontaneously, and needs no book.  The flowing of water, the rushing of the winds, constitute a great chant.  Why, then, recite prayers from books?”

The founder of the Wu-wei religion was again asked why he did not worship images of Buddha.  He answered,

“A brazen Buddha melts, and a wooden Buddha burns, when exposed to the fire.  An earthen Buddha cannot save itself from water. It cannot save itself; then how can it save me?  In every particle of dust there is a kingdom ruled by Buddha.  In every temple the king of the law resides.  The mountains, the rivers, and the great earth form Buddha’s image. Why, then, carve or mould an image?”

. . . again he is asked why he does not burn incense?  He replies, “That ignorant men do not know that everyone has incense in himself. What is true incense?  It is self-government, wisdom, patience, mercy, freedom from doubts, and knowledge.  The pure doctrine of the Wu-wei is true incense, pervading all heaven and earth.  Incense is everywhere ascending.  That incense which is made by man, the smoke of fragrant woods, does not reach heaven.  The winds, clouds, and dew are true incense, always shedding itself forth through the successive seasons of the year.”

He was asked once more, “Why do you not light candles?”  He answered, “That the world is a candlestick.  Water is the oil.  The sky is an encircling shade.  The sun and moon are the flame lighting up the universe.  If there is light within me, it illumines all heaven and earth.  If my own nature be always bright, heaven will never become dark.  It will then be perceived that the king of the law is limitless.

That’s what I’m talking about…

I hate wearing robes and bowing but I like to chant.  I don’t worship Buddha images but I like having them around.  I don’t mind lighting candles and I enjoy the smell of incense, but I don’t think they are absolutely necessary.  I don’t consider myself reformed or particularly secular, just a Buddhist.


Dalai Lama Chanting Heart Sutra Mantra with Music

I’ve written about fifteen posts about the Heart Sutra, or some aspect of it.  You can find them here.  It’s been said that the Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell, containing only 632 characters in the traditional Chinese version, distilled from the voluminous Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra.

It is recited daily in Buddhist homes and temples and monasteries all over the world.

Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Heart Sutra, “A wonderful gift.”  And Zen Teacher Norman Fischer writes that “The insight of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom as taught in the Heart Sutra, is the ultimate truth, transcending of all conventional truths.  It is the highest vision of the Buddha.”

Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, and nothing will be the same again, says Karl Brunnhölzl at Lion’s Roar.

The mantra at the end encapsulates the teachings of the Heart Sutra.

tadyatha [om] gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

I translate it as:  tadyatha gone gone gone beyond gone far beyond be set upon awakening.

If I do say so myself, I think this translation is perfect for chanting in English.  However, when I recite the sutra itself, I usually do it in Japanese.

In his book, The Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama notes,

“We can interpret this mantra metaphorically to read “Go to the other shore,” which is to say, abandon the shore of samsara [suffering], unenlightened existence, which has been our home since beginningless time, and cross to the other shore of final nirvana and complete liberation.”

Here, then, is the Dalai Lama reciting the Heart Sutra mantra accompanied by some ambient music I put together.  I hope it will meet with your approval.