Intention: The Filter of Karma…

Karma cannot be deceived. It keeps unfolding. It is painfully democratic…. We cannot opt out of it. There is no timeout in life. Whatever we do lays a seed in our deepest consciousness, and one day that seed will grow. Every thought that occurs, especially if we water it with intention, plants a seed… –Sakyong Mipham, “Ruling Your World,” p. 52


I have discussed the difference between “karma” and “vipaka” several times in the past. Basically, the term karma, which means “action,” is what we do, not what happens to us; and vipaka, which means “ripening [effect]” is the result of our karma, i.e., our actions, good, bad, or indifferent. So, it is vipaka that happens to us, not karma. This is why it’s incorrect to say, when something bad happens to us, “Ah, well, I guess that’s just my karma.”

People who rob banks, get caught, and go to prison, don’t usually say, “Ah, well, I guess it’s just my karma,” as if they’d expected to be treated any differently after having been caught. Yet, interestingly enough, people who do say this are often implying that they have, somehow, been treated unfairly, or somehow, received treatment that they did not deserve in relation to what they did. And what they don’t realize is that karma, which is a far from linear process, has just handed them an opportunity to “act,” which could effect a completely different outcome — should they choose wisely. It is important to note, here, that it is not, as has so often been misstated, Buddhists who are fatalistic and morbid. Buddhists actually believe that it is possible to escape the web of karmic entanglement, if not the actual effects of the causes we ignite.

There is a man with whom I once regularly rode the bus. He is a Bible-believing, tract-distributing, testifying Christian. We are on very friendly terms, despite his unsuccessfully trying to bring me to Jesus, gently, several times. I’ve seen and heard him engage many people in repentant prayer as they’ve waited for the bus, as well as on the bus.Yet, what interests me most is his premise. He tells people that no matter what they’ve done in their pasts, immediate or otherwise, that simply by repeating the “Believers Prayer” with him, and giving their heart to Jesus, right there at the bus stop, that they will automatically be forgiven all their sins — completely — and no matter what they have done. He also tells them that should they backslide, they need only read the prayer, as spelled out on the tract he leaves with them, and repent, once again, sincerely, and they will once again be forgiven. Finally, in addition to that, he tells them that even if they completely return to a life of sin, and find themselves on their deathbeds, all they have to do is repent, and immediately after dying, they will go to be with Jesus in heaven — so great is His desire to forgive… And it is this “promise” upon which many professing “Christians” rely. Personally, I question this man’s interpretation of both the gospels and thus, Jesus Christ.

Buddhists believe that we keep coming back until we get it “right.” There’s no “final judgment” or end of days; in fact, we should be so lucky. Whereas a Christian commits murder, sincerely repents, dies and goes to be with God, a Buddhist commits murder, sincerely repents, dies, experiences rebirth, then because of wrongly taking a life, will “live a short life” or possibly be murdered him- or herself… Yet, because of the cycle of endless rebirths, part of the experience of samsara, and the intricately woven, multidimensional web of the karma of endless past lives, this “effect” might not come to fruition until many lifetimes later; or, it could manifest in other ways such as that person eventually also experiencing the loss of a loved one through violent means. The perfect and perennial example, here, is Maha Moggallona who, despite being one of the Buddha’s most accomplished monks, was murdered due to having murdered his own parents in a former life. He was assassinated, beaten to death — the method he had used to murder his own parents…

Additionally, if we kill someone, and it was because we were in a really bad mood that day, rather than in self defense (which would still be a “bad”), since we don’t believe in a personal deity, there’s no appeals process available. Karma is totally impersonal and completely unforgiving in that it requires the “cause” we’ve committed to play out to its inevitable effect; but for Christians, apparently, it is possible to spend one’s entire life stealing, lying, and murdering, but if they can just “go to Jesus” a few moments before they die — they’re forgiven. Now, to me, that sounds like a gross circumvention of justice, and it begs the question, “Is ‘forgiveness’ the same as not having to reap what one has sown?” Or to put it another way, can one willfully commit unconscionable acts, repeatedly, with no repercussions, simply by “going to Jesus?” Could Hitler have said, before he purportedly committed suicide, “Wow, Lord, maybe I overreacted,” and be standing at the Pearly Gates to greet “errant” Jews who finally saw the light and also became “Christians?” Or could he even be standing at the Pearly Gates with St. Peter to tell Jews who never came to Jesus that they’d best be set to spend eternity in another type of oven?

Karma is destiny, not fate; and many people don’t realize that there is a difference between the two. Fate implies that our experience is preordained and that no matter what we do, we’ll get the same result (particularly regarding unpleasant results). Conversely, destiny, also implies that certain events are bound to happen, but unlike fate, destiny can be shaped, i.e., there is the possibility of our influencing and thus, changing it. Therefore, in the language of karma, whenever we act, whether verbally, physically, or even thought-fully, we enter into an unerringly balanced mechanistic process of intricately interwoven cause-and-effect that favors no one person over another. And yes, this is a hard pill to swallow because such phenomena as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia make this appear to be otherwise — but consider for a moment if this were true. Would it not call into question everything from the concept of babies being born “innocent” to the nature of “injustice,” itself?

Now, let us drill down even further. The term karma, refers to not only our actions, but also the intent that fuels those actions — and it is this line of reasoning that brings us to the always controversial Buddhist teachings that say there is truly no “good” or “bad” except in the relative sense. This view exists because karma is viewed through the filter of intention…I know of two situations where angry men have laid hands on other individuals with such force that they have broken those individuals’ ribs. I maintain that in the first case, they were “wrong,” and in the second case, they were “right.”

In the first situation of rib-breaking, the man used a baseball bat to break someone’s ribs in a fight predicated merely by drunkenness. In the second situation, a paramedic was administering CPR — and if you’ve ever been certified to administer CPR, you’ve most likely heard the shocking statement that if you administer CPR, and there are not any broken ribs, you’re probably not doing it right… So, my point, however simply supported, is that one could either be a person who gets into a bar fight every now and then, and only occasionally breaks a few ribs, or be a paramedic, and break ribs every day. In reference to rib-breaking, the vipaka for bar brawlers will be substantially different from that of the paramedics (unless it is their intention to break ribs)…

For a Buddhist, karma (his or her actions) is “God,” and consequently, this “God” determines whether our lives are pictures of peace, pandemonium, or a pairing of both. The pairing of both is often the result of past karma coming to fruition (ripening, or becoming vipaka), whether from earlier in our present lives, or from past lives. Unlike instant, repeated forgiveness that absolves us from any responsibility or culpability for our actions, the keyword for Buddhists is ‘intention.’ So, rather than repeatedly praying for forgiveness, we instead seek to refine our intentions (thoughts) — the source and fuel of our actions, so that our intentions, and thus, karma, will first be purified, and then, extinguished.

And interestingly enough, the term nirvana, which is popularly interpreted as meaning some kind of phenomenal liberation or bliss, literally means “blown out,” as in “extinguished,” with regard to the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion, the hallmarks of samsara (suffering)… This summons another interesting difference between Christian theology and Buddhist thought. Christians are first born again in hopes of living forever; but Buddhists seek to end suffering, once and for all, by quenching the flame of repeated rebirths, and never returning (unless they take the Bodhisattva vow)… Hence, the Buddha’s “parinirvana,” or final death…Buddhists believe, regarding the Buddha, unlike Christians believe, regarding Jesus Christ, that the Buddha was a man; he’s dead; and he’s not coming back. Finally, unlike Christians who worship Jesus Christ, we do not worship the Buddha, or pray to him. The Buddha was a man. A man. We rejoice that he achieved his supreme intention. And we rejoice that all men and women can be as he was.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

And of course, Namaste.


The Bodhisattva Vows from

Mukpo, Mipham J. Ruling Your World. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2005. Print.

The Killing of Maha Moggalana. Wisdom Quarterly Blogspot (Monday, Dec. 28, 2009).


Election Seasoning…

Election years are probably my least favorite years, with the year prior to them ranking a close second. No! Actually, it is the year after election year that is my least favorite because it takes me that long, and then some to recover from the previous two years, and then it’s about time, again, for the same insidious cycle to commence, once again. Obviously, there’s a bit of clinging going on, here…

During election years, a type of lynch mob mentality suffuses the atmosphere, and we spend a good deal of time finger-pointing and harshly criticizing others for doing and saying things that even we, ourselves, do and say. Nonetheless, we often feel justified in our critiques because it is not we who are “public officials”…

But what good is having decent, ethical elected officials in office if we, ourselves, don’t religiously practice those same purportedly valued ethics? We want them to “be there” for us, but can we in our own, however unintended, hypocrisy, be there for them when their time of testing occurs? And knowing that they, too, are aware of this dilemma, can we blame them too harshly when they decide to play for keeps instead of standing for justice?

Like many people this election season, I have my causes and candidates — favored and least favored. What I hope will make a difference for me this year, as I walk the fine line between Engaged Buddhism and insidious, silent consent is this:

Though karma guarantees our just desserts, it is only self-reflection and compassion that can cleanse the palate of our shared, conditioned existence, thus preparing us for a next and better course…


Who Are You?

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
[I really wanna kno-ow!]

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?

—The Who (Who else?)

I regularly visit a Community Center in which there are two rooms: one with two PCs, a printer, and a television; the other with a lone television. The use of these items is restricted to members, but their guests, particularly if they are young children, are allowed to use them within reason. Despite signs limiting users to 30 minutes, and requesting the use of headphones when listening to music on the PCs, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the signs usually disappear or, at least, get torn down. So, lately, the World Cup has been blasting on one TV while country and rap are blasting on the two PCs adjacent to that TV. Two YouTube videos and one large television, all blasting, so that no one can really hear anything struck me not only as impolite, but imbecilic. I’ve often wondered why this seems to bother no one but me…

Yesterday, I entered the community room to find only one other person there. He was listening to a music video, without headphones, and the television was on, loud. I sat down at the other computer and began typing. The young man immediately cranked up the volume of the music video. Nope! Nothing personal. We’ve never met. I got up and turned off the television; took out some ear buds; went to YouTube, and found one of my favorite recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. Which one, you ask? Well, it’s the only one he ever wrote — and he never finished it because he died. Nonetheless, it makes me feel… happy.

The man listening to the video got up and left as soon as it finished. Immediately after, another man entered the room. And he doesn’t like me very much because I’m not “friendly.” With him. He was with his son — one of the most adorable post-toddlers I’ve ever seen. About six-years-old. Once Rocky had set up his son on the PC next to mine, with a very loud video game, he went over to the television, turned it back on, and cranked up the volume to capacity. This was personal. And he does it all the time. I didn’t’ even bother to turn around. In fact, I started swaying to the beat of Mozart’s “Offertorium.” It  really  rocks. OK. Not really. But I’m sure you get the drift.

Rocky and I have had our disagreements in the past. That no longer happens because I do my best to avoid him and keep my mouth shut no matter what he says. He’s a blatant heterosexual — who hates women (yes, I meant ‘hetero’). And all women are stupid: from the mother who gave him away, to the wife who left him for someone else. If you don’t stop doing what you’re doing to give him your 100% attention because he feels like shooting the breeze, right now, even if you’re filling out a job application on a computer that could crash at any minute (and he  knows  this), you’re a female canine. And if you won’t turn around and talk to him while he “walks” his cute son, he’ll get your attention another way — like by turning up the volume of the television — to capacity. It’s all about “him.” And believe it or not, I don’t mean this in a critical or disparaging way.

If Rocky can’t get your attention in a positive fashion, he’ll settle for it in a negative one. If you and he are not able to politely chit-chat about the shape of your behind, he’ll settle for being yelled at for having had the gall to even imagine that topic was up for discussion. Without my attention or venom, or anyone else’s, Rocky does not “exist.” He has no “identity.” He needs our praise, or our derision, because either way, we are engaging with each other. Without that engagement, he is alone. Doesn’t matter. Isn’t “somebody.” Honestly, I’ve gone from hating this man, to feeling sorry for him, to realizing that in my pity, I was actually being arrogant. Because I am still miles away from figuring out how to have a civil, decent, respectful, or sacred discussion with him about the shape of my behind, I have elected not to speak to him, at all.  I’ve come to realize that Rocky thinks that his noticing my behind is what makes me  somebody, in fact, a woman. And this is not  meanness, or evil on his part. It’s ignorance. He believes that it is other people who make us “somebody,” and that there is “somebody” (contrary to Buddhist philosophy). Truly, if we can cease to exist because someone, anyone, looks the other way, depending on how one interprets it, that says a lot, or very little…

We all suffer from some type of ignorance – even if it’s just ignorance about the existence of our ignorance. The Buddha taught, in the Four Noble Truths, that there is suffering; a cause for that suffering, a way out of that suffering, and that that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. Conquering ignorance is the only way to end suffering. And when we suffer, others suffer, by default. This is why we ‘hurt the ones we love,’ as well as everyone else.

I can’t yank Rocky out of his suffering any more than the Buddha could have yanked me out of mine. Though someone can show me the ‘Path,’ it is I who must walk it. It is I who must do the work.  And I have work to do. I suffer every day. But one thing is different. I no longer think that yelling at Rocky to turn down the volume will make me “happy.” Yes, it would make Rocky “happy” for a minute or two; and it would make the room quieter, but that’s nowhere near being a permanent solution — for either of us. So, I offer Rocky my silence because it’s as close to acting lovingly as I can get right now, and much more compassionate than blasting him for his ignorance – a malady from which we both suffer. How can I hate someone for suffering from a disease, a disease from which I, too, suffer? This is why I suspect that ‘compassion’ is very personal, and in no way related to ‘pity.’

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

[An interesting note about the preceding quotation: The bumper stickers that say, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” are, apparently, a bastardization of this].

In closing, I’d like to share a brief excerpt, here, from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It has helped me grapple with the sometimes confusing concept of personal meditation as public activism, i.e., working on oneself as a way of changing the world for the better (or as I secretly like to think of it: “being an effective ‘meditation cushion quarterback'”):

“MEDITATION IS NOT TO GET OUT OF SOCIETY, TO ESCAPE FROM society, but to prepare for a reentry into society. We call this “engaged Buddhism.” ….How do you expect to leave everything behind when you enter a meditation center? The kind of suffering that you carry in your heart, that is society itself. You bring that with you, you bring society with you. You bring all of us with you. When you meditate, it is not just for yourself, you do it for the whole society. You seek solutions to your problems not only for yourself, but for all of us.”

Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1993). Engaged Buddhism In S. Bercholz & S. Chödzin (Eds.), Entering the stream: An introduction to the Buddha and his teachings  (pp. 247-249). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.



Related References:

The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access To

What is the Eightfold Path by Dana Nourie from Secular Buddhist Association

The Noble Eightfold Path by Walpola Rahula from

Falser Words Were Never Spoken from The New York Times Opinion Pages

Mozart Requiem in D minor (K. 626) from YouTube