Monthly Archives: February 2021

What Is Karma?

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes: “All the seeds of all the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.” I love this saying. It’s the fundamental message of karma. No single flower or seed is independent in and of itself… It carries within it the past and the future… All the flowers of yesterday and all the flowers of tomorrow.

Ven. Thubten Chodron wrote, “Karma means action, and refers to intentional physical, verbal, or mental actions. These actions leave imprints or seeds upon our mindstreams, and the imprints ripen into our experiences when the appropriate conditions come together. For example, with a kind heart we help someone. This action leaves an imprint on our mindstream, and when conditions are suitable, this imprint will ripen into our receiving help when we need it. The seeds of our actions continue with us from one lifetime to the next and do not get lost. However, if we don’t create the cause or karma for something, then we won’t experience that result: if a farmer doesn’t plant seeds, nothing will grow. If an action brings about pain and misery in the long term, it is called negative, destructive, or nonvirtuous. If it brings about happiness, it is called positive, constructive, or virtuous. Actions aren’t inherently good or bad, but are only designated so according to the results they bring.”

This is how I think of karma itself… the fertile ground where the seeds of our thoughts, words and actions are planted, grow and finally bloom.   I think of my life as a field–a karma field–and in that field are all the seeds I’ve planted. There are roses and poppies and watermelon and strawberries and apple trees and mixed in are the most noxious weeds and brambles and thorns. Vines that grow and choke the good crops. Each of these is something that I planted with my intention or volition… But since karma is not predetermination, the trajectory of my life is not set completely by my past actions. So, if I’m unhappy in my life, I need to look at what I’m doing now – what seeds I’m planting now – and do something different… concentrate on the present. Andrew Palmer (a really great local Zen teacher) said, everything that I’ve done in the past is done. Everything I do from here on, is a matter of choice. And I can deliberately, intentionally do things that will lessen the consequences of my past actions. 

Wise Effort

The Wisdom Trainings consist of Right of Wise View and Wise Thinking. The Ethics Trainings are Wise Speech, Action and Livelihood. The Meditation Trainings are Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness and Wise Concentration. From the connected discourses on the path #6, called “A Certain Bhikkhu” (Monk) comes this teaching:

At Savatthī. Then a certain bhikkhu approached the Buddha…. Sitting to one side, that bhikkhu said, “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘the holy life, the holy life.’ What, venerable sir, is the holy life? What is the final goal of the holy life?”

“This Noble Eightfold Path, bhikkhu, is the holy life; that is, right view through right concentration. The destruction of greed, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is the final goal of the holy life.”

We start our study of the Meditation Trainings with Wise Effort, which is essentially the intentional and sustained practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. When we make a commitment to master anything in life we need determination and perseverance. The “Holy Life” is no different. With wise effort we develop mindfulness and concentration as well as wisdom and ethics.

The Dalai Lama was giving a talk one day while sitting under the Bodhi tree, and the pilgrims had come from miles and miles on foot from the high Himalayas to be with the him in Bodhgaya, and he said to them, “Okay, you’re here, and you think you’re very fortunate because you have the blessings of being under this Bodhi tree where the Buddha was enlightened, with all these famous lamas, and the Dalai Lama himself, and you have the teachings, the sacred meditations, and mantras, and all these things. It won’t do you any good. The only thing that makes it work is if you take the trouble to practice it. All the rest of it is very nice, but you might as well watch Dallas or something like that. It’s not so different. Maybe you would learn more from Dallas, I don’t know. At least it wouldn’t be pretentiously spiritual.” What is needed then is “effort.”  

Effort is central in our spiritual practice. It’s the effort of learning how to cultivate or generate that which is skillful – which means awareness, loving-kindness, or caring for the world around you, or living more in the present, the effort to abandon the habits, the fears of things that we get caught in that create suffering and that keeps us in the muck. This is wonderful because it’s a teaching that we can apply to our daily life; it’s not just a retreat teaching; it’s small habits and all the little pieces of life. Our life is made up of little activities, little habits, and little ways.

Training in Samadhi

The third principle or training in the Noble Eight-Fold Path is Samadhi: concentration, reflection, inquiry, mindfulness, meditation. This training includes the final three steps of Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration. These are the Buddha’s instructions that help us cultivate the energy and courage to engage our thoughts, emotions, and bodies in a way that is open, compassionate and non-judgmental.

The journey of the spiritual seeker in meditation is compelling and challenging. As we sit, we begin to notice our thinking, actually hear what we tell ourselves moment to moment, and discover that these thoughts guide our lives. We begin to have a deep experience of the suffering we create for ourselves. We experience the noble truths of suffering and the causes of suffering. Because of this experience in meditation, we are able to let go of our habitual ways of thinking. Consequently, the wisdom and ethics trainings of the noble eight-fold path become more natural. We cause less harm to ourselves in the ways we speak and act.

Sharon Salzberg, wrote in her book Faith, “It is a great turning point in our spiritual lives when we go from an intellectual appreciation of a path to the heartfelt confidence that says, “Yes, it is possible to awaken. I can, too.” A tremendous joy accompanies this confidence. When we place our hearts upon the practice, the teachings come alive.”

This is the power of meditation. We begin to embody the Dharma and live from it’s truth. Our mistakes become teaching tools rather than weapons we use against ourselves. Our skillfulness, an indication that we are living from our innate wisdom. The inevitable ups and downs of life are more easily met. Our experiences help us awaken to our own Buddha-Nature.


The Burmese lay teacher Satya Narayan Goenka, said: “This is the Teaching of the Buddha as it affects the lay-person’s life. It is at once an ideal and a method. As an ideal, it aims at the evolution of a person toward the attainment of Nirvana — in this very life itself, by one’s own efforts. As a method, it teaches us that the ideal can become real by the practice and development of the Noble Eightfold Path. Each of us develops according to our own ability; according to our needs, using our own minds, by our own efforts come to know ourselves, train ourselves, and free ourselves from craving and attachment, aversion, and most of all — from ignorance.” The great thing about the Buddha-Dharma is that it is a teaching for everyone. The Buddha’s teaching opened the doors of social freedom to all, regardless of caste, color, sex, or class. In his teachings all people unite “even as do the waters of the rivers that flow into the sea.” Our religion or our parentage or social class doesn’t really matter, what does matter is the skillfulness of our actions.  In many, many of his talks, the Buddha gave practical guidance for the lay life and sound advice to cope with life’s difficulties.

Knowing that the economic aspect of a community profoundly affects its other aspects, he once said, “The layperson’s objective [is to] live a long and dignified life with the wealth obtained through rightful means.” He said that society, as with all conditioned phenomena, “has no finality of form and therefore changes with the passage of time.” People are driven to action by beliefs and desires; so social change is created by ideology and economics… And aren’t we seeing that now… how quickly our ideas and behaviors change… we all have the right to work, to feed and house our families.  A hungry person is an angry person. When we’re restless, irritable, and discontented we can hardly be in a condition to develop our spiritual or our ethical life. Economic insecurity leads to all kinds of problems not just tension and irritability, but loss of self-respect…isolation…

So, the Buddha taught that there are Five Aspects of Right Livelihood. These are:

  • One should have “a peaceful occupation” and should not gain from harming living beings or violating their rights.
  • Growth and awareness – We can use our livelihood to grow in consciousness
  • Simplicity – To have spiritual aspirations and build on those in our work without complicating either
  • Service – To help others, to serve with love and compassion no matter what livelihood we have chosen; and
  • One should have an appropriate happiness. There are five aspects considered conducive to an appropriate happiness:
  • To have work and to be skilled, efficient, energetic, earnest, and learned in whatever profession on chooses;
  • To earn a living wage;
  • To be content and live within one’s means; to conscientiously protect one’s income and family’s means of support;
  • To have good work that is honest and contributes to the well-being of all
  • To make a steady effort and work well to make a useful contribution to society

I read this, by Krishnan Venkatesh, today as I was preparing for this talk: “Many of us crave careers about which we can be wholeheartedly enthusiastic, but it can be a good thing to be in two minds about our jobs and to not identify with them too strongly. In Pali, the prefix samma means “complete, perfected,” rather than simply “right,” with its connotations of orthodox correctness. Thus, samma-ajiva may mean something more like “livelihood fully understood and rightly conducted, with all its tensions.” This would involve a saner relation to our work lives, in which we strive to be the best we can, and yet do not expect our jobs to give us the impossible, namely complete happiness and fulfillment.”

Then the Buddha taught that there are Three Positive Aspects of Right Livelihood:

  • Rightness regarding actions: as workers we should fulfill our duties diligently and conscientiously, not wasting time, claiming to have worked longer hours, padding the expense account or pilfering from the company’s goods.
  • Rightness regarding persons: due respect and consideration should be shown to employers, employees, colleagues, and customers. An employer, for example, should assign his workers positions according to their ability, pay them adequately, promote them when they deserve a promotion and give them occasional vacations and bonuses. Colleagues should try to cooperate rather than compete, while one should be equitable in one’s dealings with customers.
  • Rightness regarding objects: business transactions should be presented truthfully, without misrepresentations of the work to be provided, the quality or quantity of work, deceptive advertising, or subterfuge. Even when we present ourselves, we should be honest about what we can do, how we’ll do it, and when we’ll have it done.

And finally The Four Standards for Gaining Wealth:

  • One should acquire wealth only be legal means;
  • One should acquire wealth peacefully, without coercion or violence;
  • One should acquire wealth honestly – not by trickery or deceit, and
  • One should acquire wealth in ways which do not entail harm and suffering for others.

Thich Nhat Hanh taught that Right Livelihood is not just a personal matter…but that it is our collective karma.  We humans have created an elaborate civilization in which we depend on each other for everything. Our work provides goods or services to others, and we get paid to support ourselves and our families. Maybe your work brings you great joy and fulfillment; maybe it’s just a way to pay the bills, either way we can appreciate the value of our work.

Jack Kornfield wrote, “You know, you can work and treat each person you meet as somebody else to deal with in your work, or you could treat each person you meet as your brother or your sister, or you could do what Mother Teresa did in her work and treat each person you meet as Jesus, and care for them, and wash their feet, or love them, or do whatever you do in the same way you might love Jesus or the Buddha. You can work on one day and just get through the day or the night. And you can work on another day and have each person that comes to you, and each person you meet, be a place where your heart really opens, and where you share a love and a caring and a tenderness.”