Gyalwang Karmapa Concludes His Teaching on the Four Thoughts

by Jo Gibson on 30 May, 2016

Bulach, Switzerland – May 28, 2016

In the afternoon session, the Karmapa examined the remaining two thoughts: karma, cause and effect, and the defects of samsara.

His Holiness began by dispelling some common misunderstandings of the term karma. He noted that this Buddhist principle was very much linked to themes from the morning session, such as the difficulty of attaining a precious human birth and interdependence. Karma should be considered in a broad way. “As we all are interdependent, everything I do not only affects myself, my family, or people close to me, but has an effect on the whole world. It is very important, therefore, that we all take responsibility for our actions,” he stated.

Many people take a too simplistic view of the workings of karma, for example, supposing that since I criticised people in my last life that is why I am being criticised now. This superficial approach only leads to confusion, especially when we see bad people seemingly prosper while good people suffer. In reality, because of its profundity, karma is very complex, the Karmapa said, and the way we accumulate karma and experience its results depends on the environment and the time in which we live. Karma should be seen on a vast scale, working throughout the whole universe and accumulated over innumerable lifetimes, he stated. Furthermore, just as in a court of law where the people’s motivations are examined, we can see how very different they are.

We all have to take responsibility for our actions, but those who choose to follow the mahayana path assume an additional responsibility for the well-being of all sentient beings, based on the pure motivation to work for the benefit of others. If we claim to be Mahayana practitioners, an honest appraisal of whether our ideas about ourselves match the reality is very important. Are we really good people or not? To be a good practitioner, we need to be a good person.

Becoming Dharma practitioners, however, does not immediately make us into good people. The practice of genuine Dharma should be transformative, the Karmapa remarked, bringing out our good qualities step-by-step. Generally, when things such as cars no longer function properly, we discard them but people are not objects that can be thrown away; we need to work with them. When we take on the responsibility of dedicating ourselves to the benefit all sentient beings, we need a firm foundation of love and compassion; otherwise it can become a heavy burden.

With that advice, His Holiness moved on to discuss the defects of samsara, the fourth thought that turns the mind to Dharma, noting that by stages the four thoughts had become more complex.

Fundamentally all beings want to be happy; no one wants to suffer, he began. However, when we ask ourselves what real happiness is, some of the things we wish for are counterproductive. Consequently, though we want to be happy, all we achieve is suffering. What we perceive as happiness is suffering, and what we see as suffering might be happiness. This is especially true in the 21st century with its high level of material development. Many people mistakenly believe that when they possess all the material goods they seek, they will be happy. But their desires can never be fulfilled. The more they have, the more they want, and it is this constant desire, which prevents them from attaining true happiness. Further, it endangers the environment because many of these things come from natural resources that are limited. His Holiness concluded:

Limited resources can never quench the thirst of limitless desire. Many scientists tell us that if we continue to consume as we do, the world will come to an end. And I think because of that, if we try to find happiness in material resources this is not just a mistake, it is a disaster. This attitude is destroying our environment and destroying the habitats of many sentient beings. For the sake of future generations, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves whether what we are doing is right.

He then discussed the three types of suffering according to Buddhism: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering. Suffering is more than physical discomfort. It is the manifestation of the result of our negative actions. The suffering of suffering is clearly visible suffering such as physical pain. The suffering of change is the suffering of impermanence. We normally experience it as happiness, but it will transform into suffering, because its basic nature is suffering. All-pervasive suffering is found everywhere in samsara, His Holiness explained:

True happiness means to be free of the afflictions. If we are under the influence of negative actions or the three poisons [ignorance, hatred, and attachment], it is difficult to be free and independent. Being under the power of these afflictive emotions is all-pervasive suffering.

Buddhism defines true happiness as liberation from all negative actions and afflictions, he continued. We have to free ourselves from ignorance and mental obscurations. The power of advertising and our consumer culture causes us to lose our independence by persuading us that we need and should want things that are not necessary to our lives. In truth, what we want is not that important, and what we actually need is very little. To lighten the mood, His Holiness told a joke, though he had doubts about whether its actual source was the Buddha.

Once someone came and said to the Buddha, “I want happiness.” Buddha told him that first he needed to delete the “I” so that he would lose his fixation on a self. Secondly he should get rid of “want.” Finally he would be left with “happiness.”

The essence of the Buddhist teaching is that the happiness we seek is inside, in inner peace and contentment, and can never be found from external things. Even breathing, the Karmapa reminded everybody, could be a source of wonder and happiness.

The remaining time was given over to questions from the audience.

First came a request for advice on prayers and practices that could be used with dying people. His Holiness suggested that various yidam deity practices or mantras could be useful, including the Akshobhya mantra, and also we could read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. If the dying person were a Buddhist, the prayers and mantras should be recited aloud, otherwise, quietly or perhaps in secret.

The second question concerned the meaning of buddha nature. His Holiness began with a story. A student once asked a lama who had attained enlightenment, “What is it like to be a Buddha?” (Usually one of the signs of the Buddha’s enlightenment is the ushnisha or protuberance on his head.) The lama rubbed his flat, bald head and replied, “It’s nothing. It’s delightful.” Buddha nature is like that, the Karmapa suggested. He continued to say that in explaining buddha nature, the Jonangpa tradition follows the zhentong (or empty of what is other to it) view, which speaks of the emptiness of objects and the wisdom of the subject. It asserts that mind’s nature is free of all adventitious stains, and to fully manifest this nature is to become enlightened.

The next question asked whether pure love could be impermanent. The Karmapa explained that the view of impermanence means that everything changes from moment to moment, but this does not negate the existence of a continuum. There can be a continuum of love. But love is often self-centred in which case it would not be sustainable.

In response to a question about using one’s own language when reciting sadhanas and mantras, the Karmapa stated that it is important to understand the meaning of what we are chanting. He advised that if an accurate translation of the practice were available in the mother tongue, it could be used. Many Westerners, however, still prefer to recite in Tibetan, as they feel it has more blessing. The Tibetan translators left the mantras in Sanskrit because the written form of the syllable as well as the sound were important.

His Holiness was then asked to comment on whether our mind could transform karma. It is said that everything is the appearance of our mind. It is also said that everything is the result of karma. If both are correct, does this mean that our mind can change a negative into a positive result? Can it shift karma?

The Karmapa responded that when it is said that all is the magical play of the mind, as long as we have not resolved dualistic perceptions, we would be caught up in these perceptions. And due to this, our freedom is limited. Some high level bodhisattvas can transform karma but we are ordinary beings. It is said that those in the hell realms are trapped there by wrong perception; if their minds were not deluded, they could be free. For as long as their negative karma is not exhausted, they will experience this suffering. For this reason, we need to understand in depth the principle of karma, cause and effect.

A further question concerned how to fit the preliminary practices (ngondro) into a busy schedule. The Karmapa suggested using holiday time for intensive practice in retreat. Alternatively, he joked, during Sagadawa or during the Month of Miracles, as the effects of our actions are magnified 100,000 times, one prostration could become 100,000, and one mandala offering could become 100,000, and so forth. Another possibility, in order to make a meaningful connection, would be to practice diligently to the best of one’s ability for a month without keeping count and offer that as the practice.

The penultimate question asked: Who are we? Are we the one who is watching or is even the watcher being observed? “Who are we when we see a vase in front of us? “ His Holiness responded. We first see the vase and are able to point at it, he said, but when we investigate more closely we realize that it does not exist in the way we perceive it. Similarly when we look at ourselves, we will not find an inherently existing ‘”I.” There is, however, a kind of naked or bare perception due to the vase and the self being appearances that arise in dependence on causes and conditions.

The final question concerned whether it is possible to practice in more than one sangha. His Holiness explained that when we talk about the sangha it refers to the Dharma community living harmoniously together, so harmony is of prime importance. If we practice in two sanghas, there may be differences in view, which could create difficulties for our practice. However, if we can practice in harmony we can practice in one, two, or even a hundred sanghas.

With this final question, the dialogue and day’s discussion of the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind came to a close.