Karma, Merit, Buddhist Vows, and the Spiritual Friend
As a long-time member of my Dharma Center, many people get referred to me for such amplification. This is not due to any great insight on my part. Twenty years ago when none of us were very familiar with the concepts the Lamas were trying to teach us, most of the obvious questions got asked repeatedly until we finally hashed out them out fully. If you went through that process, as I did, you accumulated a lot of sheer information about the Buddhist point of view. This has little to do with your own actual insight, but it can be helpful to those who have the obvious questions.
So I spent the better part of an afternoon on the couches in the basement of my center, below the shrine hall, chatting with a couple of gentlemen about my age, one of whom was an ex-professor, like myself, and was full of professor questions, just like I was 20 years ago. The other fellow was more typical and ordinary, coming to Buddhism from the mildly skeptical, but not very systematically thought out, secularism of our own time.
We touched on karma and the general fact that much of what happens to us in our present lives does not immediately appear to have any relation to our present moral qualities and our actions in this life.
Generally speaking, according to the Lamas, what happens now to an ordinary fellow like myself is the product of my actions perhaps 3-4 lifetimes ago, and, in some cases, even longer. The reason for this is that we normally create karmic accumulation faster than we can process the results. This is particularly true if our immediate past lives have been human ones. Human beings generally have the greatest freedom of action of any of the other possibilities out there. The more you can do, the greater the bill you run up.
This is the Buddhist answer to the “when bad things happen to good people” problem. You might be a good person now, but you really don’t know what you might have been or done in a past life.
If a karmic accumulation is about to ripen into a result in your life, there may be relatively little you can do to forestall it. However, there are many things you can do as a Buddhist to make good use of your suffering. Trouble, pain, and sickness are teachers, if you let them be. Reflecting on them as they occur and understanding abstractly that they result from your prior actions, can motivate you to do more to seek enlightenment and eliminate all your suffering permanently.
Further, if you are capable of this, reflecting that everybody, sooner or later, will be blindsided by suffering equivalent to your own, can lead you to aspire to relieve their sufferings as well. There are specific and formal practices where you visualize yourself doing exactly this—removing the suffering of others and giving them happiness. These are particularly useful when you yourself are suffering or ill.
The point of such practices is not to fool yourself that you can wave a magic wand and make everything all better. What you are doing when you use them is planting the desire to help and foster others deeper into your mindstream by using the great power of the immediacy and definiteness of your own suffering.
From another perspective, the fact that this delay of several lives exists in the ripening of karma is a great opportunity. As I have written before, my teachers have practices for the purification of unripened karma, some of which are stronger than others, depending upon the student’s readiness to practice them, and more karma can be purified faster by the stronger practices. These remedies are very powerful antidotes to future obstacles that may arise from your past actions.
This is of particularly vital importance for any unripened karmic problem from the very remote past. The Lamas say that karma works rather like compound interest, and even the smallest bad action can have truly horrible results when it finally ripens, the longer it takes to do so. Hence, karmic purifications of many kinds are normally present in most of our practices, and we make intense efforts to apply them.
Besides clearing away obstacles, a Buddhist tries to “accumulate merit”. This translation causes some confusion, but there is no better equivalent in English. The basic sense here is that one is using the same karmic process that creates suffering and obstacles to create opportunities for religious growth.
As I told the two gentlemen who were quizzing me—merit makes the mare go. Without the force of karmic accumulation behind it, nothing of significance can be accomplished or will occur, whether it fulfills worldly goals or spiritual ones. Simply to achieve a human birth, and contact with the Dharma as well, requires an immense amount of meritorious karmic accumulation. It does not happen by chance.
Both to make spiritual progress in this life, and to assure continuous contact with the Dharma in future lives, you have to deliberately create the conditions that will lead to this. One of the most powerful means available for this is known as the Seven Branch Prayer. This is a coordinated series of wishes and aspirations with profound future effects on one’s karma and mindstream.
The seven branches are: paying homage to all the buddhas of the past, present, and future; making mental offerings to them; confessing all harmful actions and resolving not to repeat them; rejoicing in the meritorious accumulation of all beings without exception; urging all Buddhas everywhere to teach the Dharma; asking that they not pass into Nirvana but continue to benefit beings; and, finally, dedicating every drop of merit you have ever accumulated to the enlightenment of all beings without exception.
These seven branches have a specific order. Each subsequent branch is stronger in effect and gathers more meritorious accumulation than the preceding one.
Two of the things my teachers also tell us to do is to aspire to help others with the merit generated by our practice, and to always end practices by expressly dedicate any merit accumulated to the enlightenment, not only of yourself, but of everybody. Meritorious accumulation can be destroyed by conflicting emotions such as anger, and, as everybody is prone to these, work at accumulating merit can be deeply undercut by this fact. But, if you share your accumulation with others by proper aspiration and dedication, you then make the effects in your mindstream and your future permanent and lasting.
It is said that the proximate cause for a future human birth is doing at least one of the following four things in your current life: not killing, not stealing, not lying, not committing sexual misconduct. Thus, if we can keep them, the Lamas encourage us to take at least one formal vow in this lifetime not to do one of these things. Serious and committed lay practicioners—upasakas, if male, or upasikas, if female, in Sanskrit or genyen in Tibetan—take all four of these vows plus a fifth vow not to take intoxicants in order to protect the other four vows.
The vows help you to avoid misconduct by implanting a “vow form” in your mind so that thinking of misconduct causes what we would call, I think, cognitive dissonance. However, it is very important to take only the vows you can keep, for once broken they cannot be retaken in this life.
For example, my teachers would discourage a police officer who became a Buddhist from taking the vow not to kill, since the job itself may force killing on that officer. Breaking the vow would then create a further karmic problem beyond that of taking a life in the line of duty.
Similarly, they would not encourage someone who is young, and not married or in a committed, long-term, relationship, to take the vow to avoid sexual misconduct.
They are quite realistic about these things, and point out that it is of much greater final benefit to your future to practice the type and amount of Dharma that your circumstances and situation permit, rather than trying to take on tasks of moral conduct which you are not yet ready for.
There is a difference between actions that merely stain or sully the vows and actions that truly break them. If killing an ant infestation is unavoidable, then you have sullied the vow not to kill, but have not broken it. You can then apply remedies to purify your action and renew your vow.
My own experience, however, is that even things like insects in the house can often be managed without killing, using things like a peanut butter jar and some cardboard. Taking the vow not to kill makes it far easier to take the time to do this, to reach for the jar rather than the fly swatter, and, in the end, it probably takes as much time and trouble to swat a fly as it does to jar one.
The Buddha himself made the Indian rainy season a time of special meditative retreat for monks and nuns because stepping on bugs is well-nigh unavoidable during rainy season, if you are out of doors.
The two gentlemen I was talking to also wanted some clarification about the concept of relating to a lama as a “spiritual friend”. I pointed out that this was the difference between merely listening to teachings from a lama, and developing a relationship where the lama actually guides your Dharma practice itself.
Everybody does not do the same practices all at once, particularly in the Tibetan traditions where there are so many practice options. There is a general sequence of practices that most of us follow, and there are common practices and rituals that we all do as a group, but the Lamas vary this considerably to meet individual needs.
So the relationship of “spiritual friendship” demands a great deal of intimacy, and a great deal of trust. Though some of what is involved is more or less equivalent to Christian “pastoral counseling”, it extends far beyond this, because Buddhism regards your life as an ongoing construction project which you have to make deliberate and focused efforts to complete. The lama is there not only to teach you about Buddhism, he or she is also there to teach you how to do Buddhism.
Yes, there are women lamas, both living today, such as the resident lama at my Dharma Center, as well as famous ones from the past: Gelongma Palmo, Yoginis Niguma and Sukkhasiddi, Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Labdronma, and others.
This spiritual friendship develops over time, and as the months pass into years and your practice matures, so does your relationship with the lama. The degree to which this occurs depends not only upon time, but also upon karma. Some people can, through the force of past lives, relate to one lama deeply and immediately. This was so in my case. One interview was enough to cement my confidence and trust in our spiritual friendship.
Others must search more widely among the teachers of the various traditions to find someone with whom they truly connect. Often the karmic link will be stronger with the specific teaching tradition or lineage at first. It then matures later into a specific spiritual friendship with a given lama.
I know that my own relationship with the Karma Kagyu lineage is very strong. Among my spiritual friends, past and present, are Tilopa the yogi, with his charnel ground bone ornaments and his vividly direct instructions; Naropa the scholar and unvanquished debater of the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, who gave up fame and renown to follow his guru, and was a worthy vessel who did everything his guru asked, even at risk of his life; Marpa the Translator, gruff and straightforward, a Tibetan layman who gathered his entire inheritance to climb over the Himalayas to India to seek the pure dharma; Milarepa, the cotton-clad yogi, whose iron determination in the face of all obstacles brought him complete Buddhahood in one lifetime; Gampopa the great medical doctor and monk, skilled in teaching and impeccable in practice; and, finally, His Holiness Karmapa, the first serially reborn Tibetan lama, or tulku, whose 17 manifestations have adorned the world since the 12th Century.
The life stories of these men are as vivid to me as the memory of my own father. There are many great teachers of the other Buddhist traditions, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but none are more vivid to me as these. May all beings benefit from merely reading or hearing their names.