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)


On the Road to Rishikesh (and Beyond)

50 years ago, this month, The Beatles traveled to northern India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.  They were joined by their wives and girlfriends, along with a number of friends and associates, including Mike Love (Beach Boys), Donovan, and Mia Farrow.

This was a seminal event in the 1960s because it helped put eastern spirituality on the world map, big time.  All the sudden Indian fashion was in vogue (especially Nehru jackets), you started hearing a lot of Eastern flavored songs some featuring the sitar, and it seemed like every rock band now had their own guru (The Who had Meher Baba, The Rascals followed Swami Satchidanada, etc.).

I was a 16-year-old high schooler living in New Orleans.  One day the postman delivered the latest edition of Life Magazine and it had a 10-page layout of color photos of the Beatles and everyone taken at the Mararishi’s ashram.  It looked really cool.  Whether something was cool or not was the barometer by which I judged just about everything.  And still do to some extent.

After seeing these photos, I decided almost immediately that I had to find a new religion and philosophy.  I suspect the Beatles to Indiae had a similar effect on many others of my generation.  George Harrison’s exploration of Indian philosophy and his promotion of Indian music and the sitar (through Ravi Shankar) had already opened the door.  The Beatles stay in Rishikesh pushed it wide open.  This one event was critical in popularizing Indian culture and meditation around the world.

If you don’t already know, then you should understand that The Beatles impact was not only musical, it was also social.

The philosophy I became most interest in was Buddhism, thanks also to the Beat Generation writers who were heavily into Zen.  My high school library didn’t have any books on Buddhism, but it did have a book of quotes by Mahatma Gandhi and that was the first book on Eastern spirituality I read.

Evidently, Ringo didn’t stay at the ashram for long, only 10 days.  Paul stayed for about a month, while George and John stayed 6 weeks.

For the Fab Four, the India trip was also about music.  Many of the songs on the “White Album” were written there, including one called “Sexy Sadie.”  In this song, John satirically expresses the group’s disillusionment with the Maharishi (who claimed to be celibate) after he hit on Mia Farrow.  (“Sexy Sadie, what have you done/You made a fool of everyone.”)  Now that the Maharishi had revealed himself to be a phony, the Beatles had no use for him.  According to Rolling Stone magazine when the Maharishi asked John Lennon why he was leaving the ashram, he said, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.”

That didn’t end everyone’s interest in Eastern spiritually.  Its influence permeated many of John and Paul’s songs afterwards.  George continued to study the sitar and he found the teacher A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, under whose guidance began a practice of japa-yoga.  Donovan and went on to study with other Indian teachers and eventually developed an interest in Buddhism.  Only Mike Love stuck with the Maharishi, embracing TM to this very day.

As for me, I embraced Buddhism and eventually became the world-famous guru, Lama Dharma Rama Ding Dong.

To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of this event, here are some photos (click on them for a larger view).  I don’t know if any of them are from that Life article (I wished I’d kept it), but one or two could be.  I don’t recall the individual photos in the layout very well.  Following the pics are videos of two unreleased Beatles-era John Lennon songs, “The Happy Rishikesh Song” and “Child Of Nature (On the Road to Rishikesh),” the melody Lennon later used for “Jealous Guy”.  This video has lyrics and film from the India trip.

Mike Love in the back with white hat, Mia Farrow next the Maharishi, Donovan in yellow (mellow), John, George, Paul, girlfriends, wives.


John, after accidentally dropping his pick into his guitars, tries to shake it out. Happens to me all the time.

Jammin’ with Donovan
Viewing the photo in this size, it looks like they’re using cell phones!
Entrance to the Maharishi’s ashram today.


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


Morning Meditation

A poem I wrote some years ago:

morning meditation


beyond the gate, the dusty path
is gently swept by the wind
prayer flags that hung serenely
now flutter

and the smell of the shore
salt and seaweed

the morning sun divides the room
into darkness and light
we sit
discarding our selves
descending the mind

contentment floats on currents
of something forgotten
in a dying flame
awakened in the unveiled silence


whatever there is to love
should be loved
in a such a way that leaves
not a scent of indulgence

no scrape of armor
no semblances or
verve pipes

the bell rings
but quietude remains
now listen

the soughing of waves
along the wild shore


A Man who brought Hope and Healing to America

Today we remember a great American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If anyone should wonder why this day is a National Holiday, just read the words below written by his widow Coretta Scott King on behalf of the King Center:

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday celebrates the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America…       We commemorate Dr. King’s inspiring words, because his voice and his vision filled a great void in our nation, and answered our collective longing to become a country that truly lived by its noblest principles.  Yet, Dr. King knew that it wasn’t enough just to talk the talk, that he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible. And so we commemorate on this holiday the man of action, who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day, the man who braved threats and jail and beatings and who ultimately paid the highest price to make democracy a reality for all Americans.

In light of the fact that our nation’s highest office is currently held by an unstable, uninformed, vulgar racist, I think it is all that more important that we take time today to reflect on Dr. King’s spirit.  Even though he was specifically fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans, the heart of his struggle was for the basic dignity and fundamental human rights of all people.

Dr. King did indeed walk the walk, and it cost him his life.

Finding myself in a situation where death hovers above me like a swinging pendulum of sharp steel, I am drawn even closer to Dr. King’s selfless courage, his refusal to give in to hate, fear and injustice.

On April 3, 1968 – one day before his assassination – he delivered a speech known as “The Longevity Speech”  or “Mountaintop Speech.”  His ending words are prophetic.  I think he realized that his days were numbered (perhaps he sensed that those were his final words), and if you watch the video below take notice that when he says “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” his face takes on an emotional expression, his eyes begin to well up with tears.


As Dr. King says “Longevity has its place,” and it does.  At the same time, King knew that no life is wasted when it is lived to fight the fight for justice.  And no death untimely or tragic when it is dedicated to the welfare of others.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Read the full speech here.

Listen to the full speech.

Watch Robert Kennedy deliver the news of Dr. King’s death to a crowd of African-Americans on April 4 just hours after the assassination.