We now enter the section of purification, the main subject of this chapter – how we actually purify our negative karma. I am first going to say a few words about negative karma in general, then about purification in general. In future posts we will go into the actual practice of purification.
In science, we divide causes into necessary and sufficient causes. In the Dharma, we divide causes into substantial and circumstantial causes. The substantial cause is the thing that transforms into the next thing, such as an acorn that becomes an oak tree. The circumstantial causes are the causes and conditions which facilitate the transformation, such as the water, soil and sunlight which ripen the seed.
Negative karma is the substantial cause of all our problems, everything else is the circumstantial cause. We often think and blame the circumstantial cause, for example somebody interfering with our wishes, but the real cause is our negative karma. If we have a problem with somebody in our life, then the main cause is our negative karma and the troublesome person is just a circumstantial cause. If we don’t get rid of the substantial cause giving rise to the problem, then the problems will keep coming back. Normally we turn to all sorts of things to eliminate our suffering, but these are just rearranging the samsaric furniture, and don’t really deal with the real cause of the problem which is our negative karma. Understanding that the real cause of our problems is negative karma, we then naturally focus our efforts on purification.
In particular, all of our difficulties in Dharma come from negative karma. If we want to succeed easily in our Dharma practices the main thing we need to do is practice purification. If we clear away all the obstacles, then our practices will become effortless and we will accomplish great results.
Venerable Tharchin says the greatest gift of Dharma is the teachings on how to purify. Where else can we find such things? He said that we should take purification as the leading edge of our practice, and then everything else follows in its wake. He said that purification is like a great plow which clears the way for the rest of our Dharma practice. We need to establish as a reflex every time we have the slightest difficulty in accomplishing anything spiritually we immediately start doing purification. Normally our focus is on changing the circumstantial causes, but if we don’t change the substantial cause nothing really changes. It is like trying to clean the movie screen when the mark is on the projector.
Sometimes when we contemplate our infinite negative karma we can grow despondent thinking we are hopeless and it is impossible for us to purify our negativity. Our alternatives are clear: either we proactively purify our negative karma or it will eventually ripen. There is no third alternative. But the power of the purification practices are FAR greater than the power of our negativity. For example, Geshe-la says with the 35 confession Buddhas, we can purify aeons worth of negative karma with a single prostration. Venerable Tharchin says we can purify all the negative karma ever accumulated with a fully qualified 3 month Vajrasattva retreat. Purification can be likened to defusing a bomb. It is relatively easy to defuse even extremely powerful explosives, but after they explode (our negative karma ripens), then it is very difficult to put back together the billions of pieces.
It is said if we do strong purification, we can purify all our negative karma and close the door on the lower realms forever; if we do middling purification, we can reduce our negative karma; if we do weak purification, we can prevent our negative karma from increasing; and if we do no purification, our negative karma will increase even if we don’t commit any new negative actions.
The practice of purification takes place through the application of the four opponent powers. The actual effectiveness of our purification practices is a function of how well we generate the four opponent powers. The four opponent powers are: the power of regret, the power of reliance, the power of the opponent force and the power of the promise. We will discuss each of these in detail in the coming verses.
2 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of life: The greatest gift of the Dharma”
I really appreciate your explanation about the substantial and circumstantial causes, it is very clear and easy to understand.
Does Geshla explain how a single prostration can have the power to remove aeons worth of negative karma? Can you explain what Venerable Tharchin means by a fully qualified 3 month Vajrassatva retreat?
Purification is one of the four Great Preliminary practices. Is it the one that would make practicing the other three have more power, if you did Purification as your first Great Preliminary?
Ultimately, the power of our purification practices depends upon how well we have generated the four opponent powers (which will be explained in future posts and can be found in many of the books). The power of regret acknowledges we committed negative actions and understands if we do not purify the negative karma we will inevitably experience horrible results. The power of reliance is basically how much faith we have in the Buddhas we are prostrating to (or reciting their mantras). Faith opens up our mind to receiving their special blessings. We can use the example of Christ. It is said if we generate faith in Christ that he died on the cross to save us from our sins, then this faith functions to open our mind to receive his special blessings. What do his blessings do? They take our negative karma and have it ripen on him instead through his crucifixion, etc. He is, essentially, a purification Buddha. The same is true for the 35 Confession Buddhas and Vajrasattva. Their special blessings function to purify our negative karma. The stronger our faith, the more power these blessings have. The power of the opponent force is some virtuous action we perform to directly neutralize the negative karma we have previously created. Venerable Tharchin explains that negative karma is like tiny waves on our very subtle mind. The opponent force is like “opposite waves” that neutralize the negative ones, leaving perfectly still waters within our mind. The power of the promise is, in many ways, the most important because it purifies the tendencies similar to the cause to commit negativity again in the future. We engage in all four of these powers with as qualified of a spiritual motivation as we can muster. Geshe-la explains in the lamrim teachings that bodhichitta is actually the supreme practice of purification, purifying even the deepest negative karma that other methods cannot, because it runs exactly opposite of every single harmful act we have ever engaged in towards all living beings. Normally when we harm somebody, we say, “I will make it up to you. I will make this right.” Bodhichitta does exactly this. We make up for all of the harm we have ever committed by promising to eventually lead each and every one of the beings we have harmed to enlightenment.
A single prostration can purify if it is done with all of the above. A fully qualified Vajrasattva retreat is one that embodies the above.
Yes, I would say it makes the most sense to start with purification as our first Great preliminary. We clear the rocks and weeds from a field before we start planting seeds in it. But, we shouldn’t be too rigid about these things. We request Dorje Shugden to guide us towards which practices we should focus on at any given time. Sometimes we will be inspired to do purification, sometimes inspired to focus on receiving blessings, etc. Everything affects everything else, so we generally work with everything simultaneously. But as a general rule, start with purification.