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Working with Karma - #2

The Buddha’s teachings are very vast and profound. The translations in Tibetan alone total 103 volumes. These are massive volumes of the Buddha’s original teachings. Then there are the numerous commentaries and explanations given by the Buddha’s disciples, great Indian scholars, and panditas that serve to further clarify and to make more precise the very profound meanings of the teachings. These make up additional volumes numbering almost 200. Add to these the numerous Tibetan commentaries that have been passed down through the generations to the present day, the existing volumes of Buddhist teachings have reached well into the thousands! Numerous commentaries given by the different scholars and yogis accompany every original teaching. This is important so as to present a complete view which would otherwise be difficult for one person alone to give. Of course, the commentators from the past were themselves high-realized masters. Through rigorous debates among themselves, they were able to make the explanations ever clearer and more precise for the followers at large. Each generation of realized masters contributes towards improving the explanations. This work continues today. The result is anyone who takes the time to look for an explanation to a subject will no doubt find a very clearly presented one.

Despite the vast volumes of teachings that are available to us, I feel that the Dharma can be followed in a very simple way without studying all of them. In our centers in France, we try to follow in a very simple way. People do not have so much time to study and learn. From the very large commentaries, the realized masters have neatly extracted the precise meanings and incorporated them into what we’d call, essential practices. These are then introduced to the people so they could easily follow the Dharma. If you can understand and can get the basic meanings, then everything becomes very simple for you. There may be intellectuals, or practitioners, or scholars who wish to study and to do research in the Dharma. They can study the detailed proofs of the different theories which can be very complicated. They can rely on the extensive volumes of explanations which are there to validate and to clarify them.

What is karma?

Karma can be translated from the Sanskrit or Tibetan term as cause and effect, or action and result. Very simply, the Buddha explained that we are human beings and as such, we have to go through birth, aging, and then death. Some of us think that death marks the end of living. Others among us believe that there is continuity after death. Some people think in terms of existence versus non-existence. The Buddha’s answer is that we are here now as human beings but when we die, our mind continues.

There is a term, reincarnation, which is a Christian term. The Christian explanation is somewhat different than the Buddhist’s concept. I discovered this during an inter-faith dialogue with a Catholic priest. By karma in the Buddhist context, we are simply saying that since we exist, then at the end of life, we have to go somewhere. This is all we mean by reincarnation. It is easier to understand if you do not have a preconceived notion of reincarnation which might confuse you. The Buddha told us that it is the mind that reincarnates.

Each human being has a mind. Each human being has a body. Each human being has a name. The mind identifies with the body with a name and thinks that there is a self, “I am so and so.” The Dharma explains that it is due to our habitual tendencies that we feel that there is a “self”. Some realized lamas have described the mind as being like energy, like air, without any form whatsoever. There are many terms used to label it, such as soul, thoughts, or consciousness. These terms can be confusing. For simplicity’s sake, I always refer to it as the mind.

When one dies, the mind does not stay with the body. The mind actually separates from the physical form. Reincarnation in the Buddhist context means that my mind continues while my body changes into another form. My mind continues into another form of being. The Buddha explained that there are six “form” realms of beings as well as some formless states of beings. The basic point is that the mind can take on any form or any state of being. Which form you end up with depends on your own knowledge and ability which is your karma. Your reincarnation is directly based on your karma. If I go into the city, I will choose according to what I feel like. For example, I can choose to go to a park, or to a restaurant, to a shop, etc. How I choose will depend on my own inclinations and feelings. Our rebirth after the present life is similarly based on our inner conditions. Since our inner conditions are based on our karma the Buddha said that our own basic individual karma would “choose” or “influence”, or “determine” the form of rebirth. With the passing of one life form, the mind without a body is like air, transparent. The mind can feel without an “I” and it can perceive any condition, or any form of life. Having taken rebirth, we will again go through the life cycle creating more karma until its end marked by death. This is a fundamental truth that the Buddha discovered, and he called this endless cycle of rebirths samsara. The crux of his teachings is that if we live in tuned to only how we feel, or we simply follow whatever and wherever we are connected, then we will always act akin to the same influences and conditions which bind us. We will never get free. We will inevitably continue to accumulate causes of like karma, and experience like results.