Ultimate stages of the path: Actions and their effects

In the previous posts, we have been explaining our problem – namely that we have a precious human life, we may die at any time and when we do we will most likely fall into the lower realms.  Our short term solution to this problem is simple refuge where we request the Buddhas to bless our mind at the time of our death so that we can continue with our practice in our next life.  While this is fantastic, there are two limitations to this approach.  First, for their blessings to work we need to have karmic seeds on our mind that they can bless.  If there are no seeds in the field, no amount of water and sunlight will work to produce a crop.  Second, it is less certain because we are dependent upon somebody else to avoid lower rebirth – it would be much more certain if we had the power ourselves to do it.  For this reason, simple refuge is not enough, we need special refuge – namely the power within our own mind to control our process of death and rebirth.

On the path to enlightenment, there are two essential wisdoms we need to acquire:  a wisdom understanding the functioning of conventional phenomena and the wisdom understanding ultimate truth emptiness.  According to Sutra, the fundamental characteristic of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition is the union of these two wisdoms as explained in the Prasangika school (the highest school of emptiness).  The Prasangika school explains how everything is a mere appearance to mind.  The Tantra-Prasangika school, which is the highest school according to Tantra agrees that everything is a mere appearance to mind, but the nature of all of these appearances is the ocean of our very subtle mind of great bliss and emptiness.  So the Sutra Prasangika school explains the surface or shape of the ocean, the Tantra Prasangika school unites the surface with its underlying ocean.  Before we can gain the union of conventional and ultimate truth, however, we must first understand each wisdom individually and then we learn how to unite the two.  A basic explanation of the wisdom realizing emptiness has already been explained.  Here I will first explain the basics of the wisdom understanding the functioning of conventional phenomena and then I will explain the union of the two.

Conventional phenomena function according to the laws of karma.  The basic law of karma says the nature of our actions determines the nature of our future experiences.  If we engage in negative actions we create the causes to experience future suffering and if we engage in virtuous actions we create the causes to experience future happiness.  Every action produces four main effects:  (1) the ripened effect, namely the cause to take a certain type of rebirth, (2) the effect similar to the cause, namely whatever we do to others we create the cause for others to do to us in the future, (3) the environmental effect, namely our future environments will be the nature of the actions we engage in, and (4) the tendency similar to the cause, namely whatever we do now we create a tendency to do similar things again in the future.  These four main effects hold for both virtuous and non-virtuous actions.  There are also four general characteristics of the law of karma:  (1) the results of actions are definite, namely each action produces a specifically defined result, (2) the results of actions increase, namely the longer the duration between when an action is engaged in and when the effect is experienced the more pronounced will be the effect, (3) if an action is not performed its result cannot be experienced, namely if you don’t create the cause for something you will never experience its effect and if you experience some effect than you definitely created the cause for it in the past, and (4) an action is never wasted, namely if you engage in some action you will definitely experience its fruit in the future.  It is possible, however, to neutralize existing karma.  For example if we get angry it destroys our virtuous karmic seeds and if we engage in purification it destroys our negative karmic seeds.  This is not an exception to the fourth general characteristic, rather these are specific actions which function to neutralize previously existing seeds.  If we understand the basic law, the four effects and the four general characteristics of karma then we understand how conventional phenomena function.  When our own actions are consistent with this basic understanding, we have the actual wisdom understanding the functioning of conventional truths.  If our actions are still running contrary to this understanding, this shows we may understand karma intellectually but we have not realized its truth as a wisdom.

How then can we unite conventional and ultimate wisdom?  This is perhaps best explained through the analogy of waves and the ocean.    Each being is a wave on the same ocean of our mind.  Our ignorance grasps at each being as being somehow separate from all the others, but in reality we are all waves on the same ocean and thus are the same nature, like one giant entity of all living beings.  If we think we are separate, then we quickly think that our wave is more important than others.  On the basis of this mistaken belief, we become willing to harm other waves for the sake of ourselves.  If I harm the wave next to me, the ripples from that action will eventually find their way back to me – others will harm me for the sake of their wave.  The same is true for helping the wave next to me.  When we are all the same ocean and every wave’s existence depends entirely upon the waves around it, it is clear that it is impossible to do anything to another wave without it affecting our wave.  The ocean in the analogy is our mind.  The entire universe is by nature our own mind.  The world we see is simply the aspect or shape the body of water that is our mind has taken.  Every time we engage in any mental action, we introduce forces into the ocean of our mind, reshaping it in different ways.  Some actions make the waters more turbulent (negative actions) some actions make the waters more calm and translucent (virtuous actions).  From this we can understand the general law of karma from the point of view of emptiness.

We can understand the four effects from the point of view of emptiness as follows:  The ripened effect is a rebirth.  We can think of each rebirth as the rising of a wave and each death as the falling of a wave.  If I create a wave through some action, eventually that will filter back where, when my wave is at the bottom of its cycle, the forces of the waves flowing towards me cause a specific type of wave to rise.  The remaining three effects can be understood as the specific types of ripples on any given wave that has arisen.  When a wave rises, it does not just arise as a smooth, uniform thing, but it can take all sorts of different shapes and have all sorts of little ripples on it.  These are the other three effects.  The effect similar to the cause can be understood exactly as the ripened effect, just on a smaller scale as the ripple of one of our past actions coming back to us.  The environmental effect is if I spread contamination and negativity to the waves around me, then the environment of my wave will be contaminated and negative.  The tendency similar to the cause can be likened to if I push on the water in a similar way many times then the pattern of the waves which emerges will reflect that tendency.  Thus the more “natural” current of my actions will be consistent with the types of waves I normally create.

The four general characteristics of karma from the point of view of emptiness can be understood as follows:  The results of actions are definite – if I push on a body of water in a specific way, it will produce a very specific type of wave.  Just as the physical laws of liquid dynamics are definite, so too are the karmic laws of the liquid dynamics of the ocean of our mind.  The results of an action increase – if I get angry at somebody, they are likely to get angry at the people in their lives, who in turn will get angry at the people in their lives in an ever increasing effect.  The longer this process goes on, the more rounds of subsequent transmission there are, and as a result, the more the result will be when it eventually cycles back to me.  When an earthquake takes place in the ocean, the resulting tsunami grows in strength as it approaches the shore because the liquid forces get compressed into a smaller and smaller space as the water grows more shallow.  What started out as a small wave in the middle of the ocean becomes a giant tsunami when it reaches the shore.  If an action is not performed, its result cannot be experienced – a wave will not arise if there are no forces creating it, and if a wave did arise there must have been some forces which created it.  An action is never wasted – since within a body of water, all waves and currents are united into a single indivisible entity, everything that happens anywhere affects everything everywhere.  If you create a wave, it will definitely produce a result and the only way to stop it is to engage in the opposite of that action (anger, or the wish to harm others, is the opposite of virtue, or the wish to help others; purification is the opposite of negativity).

If we have gained the wisdom realizing karma, our natural conclusion is to avoid all negative actions and to engage in exclusively virtuous actions.  We also come to the conclusion that it is wise to engage in purification to neutralize our past non-virtues and to engage in dedication to protect our virtues from being destroyed by our subsequent anger.  Understanding the laws of karma from the point of view of emptiness we arrive at exactly the same conclusion, but in a more qualified way because we understand that everything is by nature the ocean of our mind, everything is inseparably interconnected and so it is obvious to us how all of our actions will produce effects.  We also understand that all action is, ultimately, mental action and so our focus will be on always controlling our mind – not allowing delusions to develop and actively striving to create virtuous patterns of mind.

If we consistently engage in virtuous and pure actions, eventually we will create the conditions for a “great wave” similar to the “great wave” of Je Tsongkhapa’s deeds.  Our enlightenment will radiate out in all directions pacifying all the waves around us.  In math, there is a concept called orthoganality.  If you have a bunch of vectors going in different directions, there is one vector called the orthogonal vector which will function to neutralize all of the other vectors bringing everything back to zero.  In exactly the same way, the great wave of a Buddha is a mental vector that is exactly orthogonal to all of the previous contaminated and negative mental vectors we have ever done.  The effect is to exactly and perfectly counter all the contaminated cross-currents within the ocean of our mind which will change the shape of the ocean of our mind from a turbulent, violent samsara into a perfectly still and clear ocean of blissful omniscient wisdom shared by all.  What does this enlightened orthogonal vector look like?  It looks like the object of our self-generation meditation.  Through our Tantric practice, we train in putting the ocean of our very subtle mind of bliss and emptiness in the shape of Keajra (supporting and supported mandala).  We keep doing this again and again, creating again and again this type of wave.  It builds in force until eventually it becomes a great wave of a Buddha.  Conventionally we manifest the great wave and experientially we enjoy the resultant clear light bliss and emptiness of having liberated all beings.  How wonderful!

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