How can we avoid returning to negative mind states?
by Janice Schuster
Through the generosity of Dianne McKinnon, who kindly translated, the following question and answer came from an exchange between Geshe Jinpa Sonam and a student attending a recent Sunday afternoon teaching via Zoom. As Dianne stated, “As is always the case, the advice and information Geshela’s answer provided is quite profound and useful. Therefore, I thought it would be good to share it with the group.” They have been lightly edited (by Janice) for this post.
Terms such as stream enterer and no more returner are used to describe those who have accumulated merits and the benefits of Buddha’s teachings. But all of the time, in the media and even in our daily lives, we see people who have been blessed with power, wealth, influence and beauty (or all of the above) who use these assets for ill purposes. They are used to deceive others, to take advantage and to manipulate things for personal benefit. Sometimes even religious people, or people who claim to be religious, use religious or ethical teachings for their own purposes.
If we accept cause and effect, it follows that these people must have accumulated good karma at some point in their past lives to have such assets now. But now they are squandering the fruits of their former lives. How do we avoid a similar fate if we will be reborn in some future life with perhaps no memory of what we have accomplished here? How can we assure that we are non-returning to the negative mind states and self-cherishing mind once we have started to eradicate them?
To see that one’s virtue is strong and lasting (does not go to waste) we first look at two things. To ensure strong virtue we enforce our action with bodhicitta. To make sure that we don’t “lose” it, dedicating is important. It is thereby stored and will not be lost.
There are many kinds of karmic fruitions that accord with virtue. One has wealth and possessions due to being generous, one has a fine appearance due to meditation, etc. In regard to our actions the timing of when we will see them ripen into fruition differs. There are karmas that will come to result in this life, or come to fruition within two lifetimes, or come to fruition in many lifetimes in the future. Then according to Buddhism these fruitions will accord with their causes. There are wholesome and unwholesome acts, and what comes back to us or what ripens from these will accord with what has been committed. So, there is virtuous or non-virtuous; good and bad. A good or wholesome act will always bring us a positive or favorable result and a bad or non-virtuous act will always bring us something negative or unfavorable. This is what is taught.
Good karma being wasted is not something that is possible, as it is taught that whatever karma we create will absolutely eventually ripen. In other words, we must experience its result. It is certain that we will experience the result. Once we have completed an act (through thought word or deed) a karmic imprint is planted. It could bring an effect in this life, in the next life, or in 1000 lifetimes in the future when those imprints awaken and activate. Again, these three accord with the different timelines of ripening mentioned earlier.
The best way to see to it that merit from our actions is not lost is to dedicate it. In terms of karmic action, we should always be cautious with our actions, and mindful of whether our actions are virtuous or if we are falling into non-virtue. The more we are virtuous in this life, the more it becomes familiar. Being virtuous will become our natural mode of action and those habits will imprint and carry over into being our habitual tendencies in future lives. We first establish the habit of goodness or virtue and through reinforcement/habituation we become better and better, more wholesome and virtuous, as part of this natural process. In The Way of the Bodhisattva it says: Mounted on the horse of bodhichitta, which puts to flight all mournful weariness– what lucid person could be in despair, proceeding in this way from joy to joy?
In terms of taking things in the other direction, the road of non-virtue, if we look we will see that this isn’t something we have to prod on or nurture. It comes to us quite naturally. This is because of habituating/reinforcing this over many, many lifetimes. We have planted many imprints of negative actions. Not only are we usually apt to commit negative actions and to react in a negative fashion, we are good at them without having to carefully train, urge them on, or make effort.
So, it’s very important for us to think about these two paths - the crossroads of virtue and benefit vs non-virtue and harm. Which do we want to reinforce? Whatever we choose, we will eventually get very good at. This is important to know because the karma we accrue is a little different when it is karma connected with something we are familiarizing in. There is a momentum that comes as we regularly condition in and familiarize in more and more, that pulls us along until we culminate in the full perfection of that activity or mindset. So, we must exercise caution in regard to just what it is we want to involve in the process of bringing to perfection. So, this is incredibly good when it comes to creating new habits and employing this momentum to the road of virtue.
Now to answer the question about non-returning to negative states: when, through former good action/karma, a human life with some special qualities is attained, but then these qualities are used for negative action, this is due to meeting negative conditions. The virtuous causes have brought the good results, but then negative conditions are met with. The best way to guard from this happening in our next life is to seal all positive deeds with dedication in this life, and to regularly make aspiration prayers to meet with good masters, gurus and spiritual friends in one’s future lives. And this is very important, for even though one might have the results of benefits and advantages that arose from the perfect causes accrued in a former life, if one meets with negative circumstances/influences one can really turn back to negative and perverted actions and views. Thus, to make perfect stainless aspirations assures that both perfect causes and conditions of goodness and virtue and positivity will follow. Without this deep and sincere aspiration to once again meet the path and authentic teachers, there is the danger that one will have the positive results of former virtue (wealth and means for example) but then meet with negative conditions ripening and end up misusing or causing harm through those resources. This is not uncommon. It’s actually a common occurrence to have gained the causes of qualities, but then be involved in conditions that are the influence to squandering and misusing them. So, we must make efforts that are focused on accumulating both the perfect causes and conditions.