The Practice of Karma
My previous column outlined the basic principles of karma. Now I would like to look at karma as a spiritual practice, and do so by considering an event in the life of T'hrinlay Wangmo, a woman of remarkable realization and power.
T'hrinlay Wangmo lived in Tibet during the Chinese occupation and was known for her outspokenness and courage. The incident in question, recounted by her brother Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, occurred many years ago.
It seems that one day, as T'hrinlay Wangmo was riding her horse along a certain road, she was seized and brutally beaten by the highest Chinese official in the area, who used as his weapon the thick branch of a thorn tree. As she was being beaten, she understood that this incident was the ripening of her own negative karma that was now exhausting itself, and so she was not angry at her tormentor. Her understanding of karma enabled her to accept responsibility for what was occurring (the karma of result). And since she knew through her own practice how easy it is for negative feelings and aggression to arise, and how hard they are to work with, she did not form ill thoughts or intentions toward the official (the karma of cause). In fact, she managed to use this horrific situation as an occasion to generate a positive intention toward all who suffer. As Chagdud Tulku tells us, "In that tumultuous moment, she made a prayer that, by her suffering, others might be spared."
This story raises a key question: what understanding of karma enabled her to act in such an extraordinary way?
Knowing that everything we do produces results we will have to experience sooner or later directs us to pay full attention to all our actions. In T'hrinlay Wangmo's case, so great was her respect for each moment of her life that even while she was being savagely beaten, she did not lose her mindfulness and awareness. She was fully present to what was going on. Beyond this, rather than reacting with terror, rage or aggression, she was able to find in her suffering a path filled with opportunity. By seeing it as the fruition of her own previous actions, she was able to take full responsibility for it and use it.
T'hrinlay Wangmo consciously used this experience as a vehicle to exhaust her own previous negative karma. Buddhism teaches that it is important to let karma ripen in an open and fearless way, simply surrendering to its upwelling within us. Holding our awareness open and steady, we can let our feelings, thoughts and memories arise and experience them fully without comment, reaction or intervention. When we do so, the karma exhausts itself, the debt it implies is discharged, and positive karma is generated.
T'hrinlay Wangmo's acceptance provides much food for thought. We Westerners tend to have difficulty working creatively with our own suffering: either we feel guilty and therefore diminished, or, feeling wronged, we react with anger and aggression. The teaching on karma cuts through all of our attempts to hate ourselves or hate others. It says that like everyone else we have accumulated a certain amount of negative karma in the past, and such karma is going to come to fruition sooner or later. In a certain way, this is an occasion for optimism and good cheer because we are exhausting some of our store of demeritorious and obscuring karma. This understanding enables us to relax about our lives and find a new interest and appreciation in how things unfold for us.
T'hrinlay Wangmo's approach creates the kind of powerful acceptance without which no real spiritual path is possible. At the same time, her acceptance is neither passive nor despairing. In fact, it represents an utter affirmation of life, even-or perhaps especially-in its most negative and painful manifestations. Knowing that the blind, impulsive reactions of ego have nothing to offer, she waits for something deeper and less personal to show itself.
First to appear is simply an open and clear mind, unobscured by negativity. Then, emerging out of this, a selfless aspiration arises that in her pain she may bear the suffering of others. This situation thus provides T'hrinlay Wangmo, the aspiring bodhisattva, with a unique opportunity to fulfill her vow to willingly suffer pain on others' behalf, to lighten their burdens and to help them on their paths. It is interesting that T'hrinlay Wangmo, accepting her life at that moment as the fruition of her own previous deeds, was able to come to new courage, empowerment and dignity, even in the midst of brutality and potential degradation. T'hrinlay Wangmo shows us a profound spiritual truth: if we are willing simply to experience the ripening of our own karma without judgement and reactivity, then out of that will arise something positive and pure.
I have so far been speaking of the ripening of negative karma simply because it is usually the most problematic for us. But the same principles apply when the ripening circumstances are positive. When things are going really well for us, we need equally to avoid reacting impulsively by grasping on to our good fortune or jumping to conclusions that our ego has been fortified or confirmed. We need to resist thinking that this proves our superior worth and attainment. As in the case of pain, we need to abandon our judgementalness and boycott our impulsiveness, waiting for the deeper, wiser and more compassionate dimensions of being to show themselves.
T'hrinlay Wangmo's experience also shows us how karma provides guidelines for working with others. An understanding of karma enables us to be more tolerant and compassionate in the face of others' confusion and shortcomings, because we see that people actually have far less freedom than we might think. We realize that everyone wants to be happy and everyone is doing the best they can to achieve this, even when their efforts are misguided. In a certain sense, T'hrinlay Wangmo was able to accept the horribly ignorant aggression of the Chinese official because she had first understood how negativity arises within herself and how hard it is to deal with. And she was able to wait until the right moment in her relationship with him, later when he was no longer crazed by his aggression, to show him extraordinary and openhearted kindness.
Afterwards T'hrinlay Wangmo's remarkable mastery of the situation produced equally remarkable results, the fruition, we could say, of her sowing of positive seeds as she was beaten. The official, having inflicted numerous wounds and convinced that he had beaten her nearly to death, let her fall to the ground. She immediately jumped up, leapt on her horse, and with a triumphant cry, galloped off. The official managed to catch up with her, to find that not only was she neither angry nor afraid, but her wounds had already healed. Amazed and moved, he invited her to his house, gave her abundant hospitality and a gift of money, and begged her to pray for him when he died.
The positive karma from this event continued even further, for sometime later when T'hrinlay Wangmo was in the region's capital, she passed a funeral procession. She inquired about the identity of the deceased and was told, "That is the governor of this region, who just died." T'hrinlay Wangmo began to pray for him, happy that she was able to help him even now and to be able to fulfill his former request. What was initially an horrific incident with the potential for untold negative karma for all concerned was transformed by T'hrinlay Wangmo into a situation of blessing, by virtue of her understanding of karma and her willingness to act in its light.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. His most recent book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.