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Teachings from Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation

Day 1: Karma, Cause and Effect
8 January, 2015

During the first Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering for Nuns last year, the Karmapa began teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (literally, The Ornament of Precious Liberation). This is the most important treatise written by Gampopa the Physician (Sgam po Lha rje, 1079–1153), for it combines the instructions of two great rivers—the kadampa and mahamudra lineages. All kagyu practitioners should value, take an interest in, and study this text. The Karmapa said that he himself considers it very important.

The Karmapa continued his teachings, saying that this year, we have not only the nuns from the kagyu monastic colleges, we also have nuns from the practice sections of the nunneries. If they had no other jobs to do, they were allowed to stay on after the Kagyu Monlam for this gathering of nuns. This enables them to receive these teachings and also promotes the connection between our branches of teaching and practice. Only if these two come along together will we be able to uphold the Buddha’s Dharma. Here in Bodhgaya, nuns focusing on practice can gain more interest and excitement about study, and nuns focusing on study can become more enthusiastic about practice.

This blending together of the two sections provides a way of finding mutual faith and pure perception; it is only through teachings and practice that the sangha can uphold the teachings of Buddha, so it is critical to unify them. If there is a gulf between those focused on study and those focused on practice, then not only will this cause discord within the ordained sangha, it will also cause the teachings of Buddha to wane, so a separation should be avoided. In particular, learning alone is not enough. In order to teach the dharma truly, we need experience in our being, for only then are the instructions no longer dry—they become rich and moist.

Now to turn to the text. We had completed the Fifth Chapter on the sufferings of samsara, so now we come to the Sixth Chapter on karma, cause and effect What causes the sufferings that were explained in the previous chapter is the karma of afflicted action. Talking about karma cause and effect in terms of virtue and non-virtue is an extremely simplified way of understanding it. We do something to someone else and same thing will happen back to us. But when we look at karma more deeply, it’s not at all simple or easy to understand. Actually, karma cause and effect is a difficult and complicated topic, because it is related to all sentient beings in the entire universe.

For example, think about rain falling from the sky. At first glance, it seems to be a simple event, but if we look into its causes and conditions, we discover that rain is an intricate phenomenon, dependent on many different aspects coming together—temperature, winds, clouds forming, and so forth. This is why our weather forecasts are often so inaccurate. This complexity of falling rain is similar to that of karma cause and effect and the reason why it is said that only the omniscient Buddha can know, for example, the causes of the colors in a peacock’s feather. Knowing karma falls within the sphere of the Buddha’s omniscience, so even listener arhats cannot know karma cause and effect. It is difficult even for a bodhisattva to explain it. Karma is not just a connection between a few individuals—it’s the interrelationship of all sentient beings throughout the sum of space in the entire universe. The results are also extremely complex as there are myriads of circumstances that affect the ripening of karma.

This presentation of karma cause and effect is a particular feature of Buddhism. Ultimately, many religions come down to a single cause, but in Buddhism, we talk about everything arising from a variety of different causes and conditions; no single autonomous creator or thing can be established. A multiplicity of situations gives rise to a phenomenon, so it is difficult to state that there is a single, autonomous, or initial cause. If we can come to an understanding of karma cause and effect like this, it will not only help us understand Buddha Dharma, but also benefit us in this human life as well.

In Buddhism, we talk about the ten non-virtues: the three related to the body, killing, stealing, and improper sexual conduct; the four related to speech, lying, abusive language, slander, and meaningless talk; and the three related to mind, envy, malevolence, and distorted views. Of course, in general, there are many different non-virtues, which are not included in these ten; they simply represent the most severe, or most perilous of the misdeeds. In addition, you must engage in these ten intentionally and be aware you are doing them for the act to count as non-virtue. If you are simply walking along and without thinking, brush off an insect and kill it, that’s not a non-virtue because it is not intentional. It is killing, but it is not deliberate.

For both the ordained and lay sangha, Buddhism teaches a discipline to refrain from committing these ten non-virtues. They are unwholesome by nature, even if you don’t have vows, even if you are not a Buddhist. If you yourself commit the three non-virtues that relate to the body, of course, you are at fault, and not only that, if you order someone else to do these, you accumulate the same karma as if you had done them yourself. It is the same with the four misdeeds related to speech. And here, you do not have to actually say something to accrue a misdeed. For example, suppose that you pretend to be mute and someone asks you if you are clairvoyant. If you nod your head, they’re going to understand that you are.

To actually commit one of the ten non-virtues, there are five aspects that must be present: the basis, conception, intention, affliction, and completion of the act. If all five are not involved, it is not considered an actual commission of a non-virtue. If we have time, we can talk more about these later.

Day 2: The Ten Non-Virtues
9 January, 2015

The Gyalwang Karmapa opened the second teaching session by continuing the reading transmission, this time giving the section of the text relating to the ten non-virtuous actions. He then explored these in greater depth, picking up from the previous day.

He first explained what refraining from the non-virtues actually means. Merely not doing a negative action is in itself neutral, and doesn’t necessarily become a virtuous action. Instead, in order for it to become virtuous, we need to actively refrain from the non-virtuous action.

To take the example of killing, in order for non-killing to become virtuous, when looking at the being you would kill you then have to understand that when the wish to kill arises, this is extremely bad. You also need to see that the preparation for killing is extremely bad, and then actively decide to refrain from that. This active refraining is what becomes a virtue. So merely passively not killing is not the actual virtue of abstaining from killing.

Next the Karmapa explored the five aspects that must be present in a non-virtuous action—conception, affliction, intention, preparation, and completion—in more detail.

The reason that conception is included is because it needs to be an accurate conception. For example, if you thought that Tashi was Lobsang and then kill Lobsang, it would be mistaken. So we need to distinguish whether the conception is accurate or not.

Next are the afflictions, which motivate the action but are not the actual deeds. They are conditions that instigate the act but are not the act itself. Then comes the motivation, such as an intention to kill. We’d have to say that this is a misdeed because without this wish or intent, then there’s no killing. For example, if you have a sheep but don’t have the motivation to kill, then you won’t sharpen the knife or engage in any preparations. For that reason the intention or wish to kill is non-virtuous.

Then there’s the preparation or action of killing, such as catching and stabbing a sheep. There are many different ways to slaughter a sheep. If you don’t use them then the sheep won’t die. Without the preparation or action there’s no misdeed. Finally, there’s the completion of the act, but it’s difficult to say this itself is a misdeed. The actual misdeed with killing is the motivation or intent to kill, and the physical and verbal acts we perform leading up to it and in carrying it out.

The misdeeds and non-virtues of body and speech are relatively straightforward and easy to understand, but those of mind are a bit more difficult and less straightforward. In brief, covetousness is an affliction that’s a type of desire, malice is a type of aversion, and wrong view is a type of ignorance.

There are two types of afflictions, latent and manifest. As an analogy, take a glass or bowl filled with very dirty, silted water. If you let it sit for a while and don’t disturb it, the silt and contamination will settle to the bottom and we won’t be able to see it, as if the water was clear.

Similarly our mind is polluted and contaminated with the afflictions. At times there’s no connection between the five faculties of our mind and external objects, and so the afflictions then settle down. However, just as with a glass bowl of water, if you stir it with a stick all the muck and silt will immediately come up in the water and it’s instantly evident how contaminated the water actually is. When our five faculties encounter external objects of form, this becomes the condition that stirs up the latent afflictions within the mind and they become evident.

The Jewel Ornament of Liberation talks about many different types of results coming from each non-virtue. When discussing fully ripened results, we often say all happiness arises from virtue and all suffering from non-virtue. But we need to distinguish fully ripened results from the feelings of pleasure and pain. For example, through performing virtues, we can also experience suffering or other results that are painful. Likewise, through non-virtues we can have the dominant result that is pleasurable. These are temporary feelings of pleasure and pain from our actions.

Many different dominant and compatible results are also described. The text states that the dominant result of killing would be dying before your life force is exhausted. This is difficult for us to see and tell, but we know of people who die early, such as young people who suddenly die. Another dominant result of killing is that the potency of medicines will decrease: you could eat as much medicine as if it were tsampa, and still it would not benefit you. A single dose isn’t enough, and you need a double dose to be effective. You might eat one hundred supplements or receive one hundred different long-life empowerments, but more beneficial for your life is to spend a single day with the vow of non-killing. This will give you more power, cure illness, and allow for long life.

The Karmapa stressed the subtlety and complexity of karma, cause and effect. During Buddha’s own lifetime, people would ask questions about profound emptiness to Shariputra. There was no need to ask the Buddha because Shariputra would be able to give a good answer. But questions about karma cause and effect even Shariputra wouldn’t answer. They would only ask these questions of the Buddha. Karma, cause and effect is extremely subtle and very problematic—so complicated only the Buddha can truly fathom it.

Day 3: The Ten Non-Virtues (continued) and The Three Vows
10 January, 2015

Today the Gyalwang Karmapa once again began by giving more of the reading transmission of the text, before revisiting the previous day’s teaching on the ten non-virtues. Out of the five aspects that must be present, including conception, motivation, affliction, preparation and completion, he explored the aspects of preparation and completion a little further.

Returning once again to the example of killing, in terms of the preparation, there are two ways to do this—either carrying out the killing yourself, or having another person do it. Either way it becomes the actual commission of the act. This includes killing with a weapon, poison, or killing with mantras and spells, etc. In Tibet it used to be that if you killed someone with a weapon or poison, it was considered a sign of weakness and was seen as bad. But to kill someone with sorcery or spells was a sign of a lot of power, and this was considered good! But in terms of karma, cause and effect, these methods of killing are the same.

There is a question that comes up about rejoicing. Suppose that instead of doing the killing yourself you have someone else do it. The question is that if you rejoice when someone else kills on your behalf, do you yourself incur the actual commission of that act? The great master Shakyaprabha said that if you rejoice mentally in something and express it through body and speech, then you’ll incur a defeat. But we need to examine further whether that’s the actual commission of the act or not.

For the completion of the act after engaging in the preparations, if the other being who’s being killed dies before the killer, then the killer has the actual commission of the act. But if the other being doesn’t die, or if the killer dies before the one being killed, then it’s not the actual commission of the act. Also, if we’re walking and we accidentally kill a bug by stepping on it, this is merely the preparation of killing and not actual commission of killing. Likewise, if a physician has the wish to help and gives wrong medication and then the patient dies, this is also not the actual commission of killing.

If you don’t have the actual commission of the misdeed then it won’t produce fully ripened results. But the Karmapa cautioned that we have to be careful, as there are some instances where these acts may still produce results.

He then turned to the four non-virtues of speech, and in particular, lying. A lie does not necessary have to be a lie spoken out loud. We can also tell it through a manner of not-speaking, as if pretending not to understand. There are ways to lie without speaking, and you can also have someone else tell a lie. The completion of the act is that the other person understands the meaning of the lie you are telling.

When we’re telling lies there’s a difference between telling lies and lies that are one of the four defeats. For the lies that become one of the four defeats, these are about having supreme human qualities. But for lies that are the ten non-virtues, these are those that fulfill the aspects of basis, preparation, intention and completion. If any of those aspects are not fulfilled, such as the completion because the other person doesn’t understand the lie, then it’s merely idle chatter not a lie.

Next the Gyalwang Karmapa discussed an important exception: that the seven non-virtues of body and speech may be allowed for bodhisattvas. For example, there may be occasions when bodhisattvas are required to use harsh speech.

But, this could then raise a difficulty, because harsh speech is motivated by the afflictions. If harsh speech is allowed for bodhisattvas, does this mean that the afflictions in general are allowed for bodhisattvas?

Here we need to distinguish between harsh speech, and harsh speech that is non-virtuous. When we talk about it being motivated by the afflictions, then we take it for granted we are discussing non-virtuous harsh speech. But when bodhisattvas are using it, we’re talking about harsh speech that is not motivated by afflictions.

Next the Gyalwang Karmapa shifted emphasis slightly, turning to the topic of the three vows. All three vehicles of the dharma, the Foundational, Mahayana, and Vajrayana vehicles, are taught in order to tame our own minds and that of others. There is not a single teaching that is not a remedy for the afflictions. For this reason, the practices of all three vehicles are included in the practice of keeping the three vows, which are the Pratimoksa, Bodhisattva, and Vajrayana vows. In the Tibetan tradition all three vows are practiced in their entirety by a single sentient being. Doing this is extremely difficult, and extremely amazing.

There are many different presentations of the three vows written by the great masters of the past, and these also include many debates. Are the three vows the same in essence, or separate? The reason why there are so many different explanations, debates, and commentaries on this is because it’s such an important point.

Each of the three types of vows needs to function as an antidote for our afflictions. They are the same in this. However they each emphasize different afflictions. For example, the Pratimoksa vows primarily emphasize the antidotes for desire, the Bodhisattva vows mainly emphasize the antidotes for hatred and aversion, while the Vajrayana vows emphasize the antidotes for ignorance.

The Gyalwang Karmapa explained that within the context of the Vajrayana vows, we need to distinguish the afflictions carefully. It can happen that at the time of the cause, the motivation is compassion, but at the time of the act, the motivation is aversion and hatred: this is wrathful activity. Therefore, in certain circumstances wrath and hatred may also be allowed for bodhisattvas.

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