Be Ordinary

We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the path.

But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our “self-improvement.”

-Chogyam Trungpa

What is Karma?

karma, you missed some peopleKarma is one of the words that you hear often; but, if you know what karma means, you rarely hear it used correctly. (Unless you use then karma has a whole different meaning.)

When you hear the word karma, it’s usually used to mean:

A force or action, by nature or the universe, that is vengeful towards a so-called or alleged social rule breaker.

“Tameka Raymond’s [the ex-wife of the singer Usher] son is declared brain dead, and folks are saying karma got her.”

A equal return, by nature or the universe, on an action done by the actor.

“I’m a true believer in karma. You get what you give, whether it’s bad or good.”

A way for one to perform self-flagellation for guilt.

“Suffering eco-karma for deciding to take a cab this morning. Gridlock and late. That’al teach me.”

(FYI all these statements were found within seconds of each other via Twitter.)

All in all, it seems like karma is some kind of vengeful phenomenon. All fine and dandy when the situations bandied about are as deep as the latest top 40 pop song. But what about this type of assertion of “karma”?

On the Puzzle Peace of Mind website the question below was asked and even though the question does not say “karma” outright, the code word is “punishment.”

“In trying to reconcile Buddhism with autism,  I was under the impression that in Buddhism, my son (who has autism) is being “punished” for something he did in a past life.   I couldn’t accept that of course.  I was given another theory.  Perhaps my son chose his current path, to live a life in a disabled body, in order to learn a lesson from the experience- to gain further enlightenment.  Any merit to that theory?”

It was directed at Dr. William Tuladhar-Douglas, at University of Aberdeen, a lecturer in Anthropology of Environment and Religions and the director of the Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research. One of his areas of study is Mahayana Buddhism.

Tuladhar-Douglas give one short answer and five long answers.

Annotated short answer:

“No, for a Tibetan Buddhist it doesn’t make sense to say your son has chosen a rebirth conditioned by autism in order to learn on his own behalf; but it does make sense to say that he has chosen a rebirth conditioned by autism in order to teach both others and himself. The difference is very important: only a being who has fundamentally altruistic motives can choose their own rebirth.

…the causal conditions that give rise to his particular birth are far too complex for any ordinary individual to assess. Popular beliefs may blame difficult lives on past misdeeds; but Buddhism certainly does not support that belief.”

Of the five long answers by Tuladhar-Douglas, it is the first two that may be the most important to understanding the idea of karma.


The first thing to get out of the way is the “it’s all because of past karma” theory. This is a kind of fatalism. …. While Buddhism does use karma to explain some events, it prefers common sense explanations. For example, injuries caused by ordinary natural causes (cutting your finger while preparing vegetables) are not attributed to karma (though the inattentiveness that led you to slip might be). Diseases are caused by dietary imbalance, bacteria and so forth, and the appropriate response is eating better, bed rest and fluids or what have you.

And two:

For Buddhists, it is the intention behind an action that generates karma, not the act itself. Past mental states – greed, anger, envy; courage, compassion, gentleness – bear fruit in present circumstances. Encountering present circumstances with mindfulness and compassion bears positive fruit in future circumstances, as well as advancing a person along the path to freedom.

Another way of saying what karma is can be found on the Access to Insight website, via an article written by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on karma.

“Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past.”

Karma, you’re doing it wrong

The third answer by Tuladhar-Douglas really gets to the heart of why the current way of thinking about karma can be seen as negative.

“A second theory to reject: “Disability/poverty/infant mortality and so forth is always a result of bad karma”. From (1) it may well be the case that some other causal factors are involved (such as post-natal mental disability triggered by disease); but much more importantly, the causal relations that bind all life together are so incredibly complex – taken across millions of individuals, undergoing millions of rebirths – that a simplistic explanation that blames a present difficult circumstance on some past moral failure is taken to be a sign of meanness on the part of the speaker.”

And, this way of thinking can even be destructive of self and others. Also from the Access to Insight website.

“In the eyes of most Americans, karma functions like fate — bad fate, at that: an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. “I guess it’s just my karma,” I’ve heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance. The fatalism implicit in this statement is one reason why so many of us are repelled by the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous myth-making that can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice in the status quo: “If he’s poor, it’s because of his karma.” “If she’s been raped, it’s because of her karma.” From this it seems a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer, and so doesn’t deserve our help.”

Karma is not fate, it is not vengeance and it’s not a very sexy concept unless you are into karmic feedback loops and correcting behaviors so they don’t happen again. Also, a better way of seeing a karmic feedback loop is:

“The nature of this freedom [karmic freewill] is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.”

The water is the karmic feedback loop. We can at times find ourselves able to divert the karmic loop and other times do nothing but let the karmic loop happen.  And even when you are letting the karmic loop happen, the knowledge that you know the loop is happening in the first place is the first step in learning how to divert the loop.


“If you’re suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. “

Hopefully by now, you are well-informed on what karma is and hopefully you see your suffering or sometimes the suffering of others as a karmic opportunity.

And right now you have a great karmic opportunity to help others by spreading this post. If you see someone using karma in way that describes fate or vengeance, send them a link to this. Not only are you helping squash the misunderstanding of karma, you may also be helping someone begin their journey to diverting their karmic loop. (Also, by sharing, you are saving my sanity…)

5 Tips On Buddha’s Way of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

It’s so great to know that this website can help some people, whether it be helping someone discover Buddhism or helping someone with anger or even helping someone feel emotionally validated.

One of the most popular posts on this website is “Buddha on Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Right & Wrong.”

When I wrote this post, I was definitely deep in the middle of trying to figure out my actions vs. the actions of someone else. It was a hot emotional storm, I needed answers. I looked to Buddhism because it’s what I practice.

Anyhow, I think it’s time to revisit the Forgiveness and Reconciliation text. One reason is because it’s been awhile since I’ve read the text and even as I re-read it now, the text has great points that should be kept in mind when faced with dealing with forgiveness or reconciliation. Another reason is because, “why not?”

Tip 1

The Buddha says forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things

Forgiveness is finding a way to be non-reactive and unperturbed by what has happened to you.

That’s the goal and as simple as it sounds, it can be a hard goal to achieve. It means deciding not to retaliate or seek revenge. It also means that you -even- forgive the other person for harming you.

And the thing with forgiveness is that it’s something that can be just for you. Like treating yourself to ice cream. You don’t have to explain to the other person why you are at this state. You don’t even have to tell them. Forgiveness is ultimately for you.

Reconciliation means “a return to amicability.” A return to amicability requires trust being reestablished. Trust is established when respect is shown by both parties for the “mutual standards of what is and what is not acceptable behavior.”

However, if you or the other person do the things below, a return to amicability (and trust) may not be possible at all.

a)Deny responsibility for your actions or maintain you did nothing wrong.

b)Insist that the other person’s feelings don’t matter or that they have no right to hold you to their standards of right and wrong.

c)Do not admit that you hurt the other person and were wrong to do so.

d)Do not promise to show restraint in the future.

Doing any of these things hurts the ability of the other person to trust that you will not hurt them again in the future and this makes a return to amicability mighty mighty hard to do.

FYI: If you are the person who was hurt, you aren’t scott-free from duties either.  You need to conduct the process of reconciliation in a respectful manner.

Tip 2

The values of the culture matter

Sometimes, you’ll find out that it’s not just one person out of whack in your situation. Sometimes it’s the entire fucking culture that’s out of fucking whack. An example of this can be like the following:


“some people have recommended living by a non-dual vision that transcends attachment to right and wrong. This vision, however, is open to abuse as well. In communities where it is espoused, irresponsible members can use the rhetoric of non-duality and non-attachment to excuse genuinely harmful behavior; their victims are left adrift, with no commonly accepted standards on which to base their appeals for redress. Even the act of forgiveness is suspect in such a context, for what right do the victims have to judge actions as requiring forgiveness or not? All too often, the victims are the ones held at fault for imposing their standards on others and not being able to rise above dualistic views.

This means that right and wrong have not really been transcended in such a community. They’ve simply been realigned: If you can claim a non-dual perspective, you’re in the right no matter what you’ve done. If you complain about another person’s behavior, you’re in the wrong. And because this realignment is not openly acknowledged as such, it creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy in which genuine reconciliation is impossible.”


It may be impossible to avoid running into communities like this but you can still do the work it takes to have values in yourself that can contribute to you being able to create future peaceful reconciliations.

If you are in the right, reflect on your own actions before you accuse another of wrongdoing. Ask yourself the following:

Am I free from unreconciled offenses of my own?

Am I motivated by kindness, rather than vengeance?

Am I really clear on our mutual standards?

If you can answer yes to all these questions then bring up whatever issue you have. Again, this may be easier to write on paper than to practice in life; and that’s okay.

Tip 3

Frame the acceptance of blame as honorable

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the ideas of conducting the process of reconciliation in a respectful way and creating values in yourself that can contribute to a peaceful reconciliation.

Encourage the thought that the honest acceptance of blame is a honorable act without shame.  The Buddha says, this is the way to make progress in your spiritual development.

“the ability to recognize one’s mistakes and admit them to others is the essential factor in achieving purity in thought, word, and deed”

Psychology too says the same about apologizing being a means to mature development.

Tip 4

Ground rules matter

Communication is most likely the most important part of reconciliation. One thing to find out is the “root intention” of the people or parties involved. “If those intentions were irredeemably malicious or dishonest, reconciliation is impossible.”

Try to stick to the major wrongdoings that caused the dispute. Promise not to dig up and use the other parties “minor offenses.” If both of the parties have committed wrongdoings, then both parties need to confess to their wrongdoing.

Ultimately the goal of all of this is to help both parties gain a mutual understanding of what actions created the disharmony and then the goal after that will hopefully be a promise to try and avoid those actions in the future.

“Even if the parties to a reconciliation agree to disagree, their agreement needs to distinguish between right and wrong ways of handling their differences.”

Tip 5

Not all disputes will be resolved

How sad my face gets when I read this tip, but it is unfortunately true.

“There are times when one or both parties are unwilling to exercise the honesty and restraint that true reconciliation requires.”

And there you go, a quick review on the great Bu-tastic way Buddha has framed forgiveness and reconciliation.

Autism and Buddhism (It’s Not What You Think)

There is a form of concern for self which is compatible with and even essential to altruism. The care for oneself which enables one to feel empathy with others can be termed “autism.” Autism is necessary for altruism, since it is necessary to be able to accept and even love oneself before one can show true empathy and compassion for others, before one can feel what they feel. Autism is not egoism. Egoism is the enemy of both autism and altruism. Egoism seeks to use others for the material welfare and gain of self. Its “love” is possessive and manipulative. Egoism has to be destroyed if karu.naa [compassion] is to develop.


Elizabeth J. Harris, on the notions of  Buddhist detachment and compassion.

The Uses of Fear

User Via Creative Commons SearchLike the feeling of anger, fear too gets bad of a rap.

We shouldn’t have fear.

We should be fearless.

Fear is weak, fear is the mind killer

(I’ll admit with the last one that fear can short-circuit thinking in ways that kill the mind and that can later harm us.) But let’s try and change the way we look at fear.

Again from the Access to Insight website (where I got the treatise  Buddha on Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Right & Wrong) is a treatise on how to use fear by the monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu of the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego.

[Eds note: I was lazy so I didn’t cut this up like I normally would]

There are three qualities that the Buddha listed as the roots of unskillful behavior: greed, aversion, and delusion. Some psychotherapists have asked why he didn’t list fear as the fourth, because psychotherapy tends to see neurotic fear as the primary source of mental illness. Why didn’t the Buddha have the same understanding?

Because he saw that fear has its uses. It’s not always unskillful. If you go into a forest, it’s right to be fearful. If you weren’t fearful, you’d get complacent and careless. You could die. When you think about your own mortality — how fragile your life is, how fragile your health is, how fleeting your youth is — it’s right to feel a certain amount of fear for the future: How are you going to fare when aging, illness, and death hit you? Think of the Buddha when he was still a young prince, and how he saw an old person, a sick person, a dead person. Think of the fear he felt in realizing that all of the areas in which he looked for happiness in life were subject to aging, illness, and death as well.

The feeling he felt on realizing that is called samvega, which is sometimes translated as urgency, sometimes as a sense of dismay. But it can also be translated as terror: looking into the abyss and seeing you’re about to fall into it. But the story doesn’t stop there. The fourth person he saw was a forest mendicant. And the feeling he felt on seeing the mendicant was pasada, confidence: If there’s a way out, this is it.

This dynamic between terror and confidence informs all of the Buddha’s teachings, all of the Buddha’s practice. Which means that a sense of fear is a legitimate part of the practice. It’s a legitimate motivation for wanting to get your mind to settle down, for wanting to gain some insight into why you are suffering. You realize that if you don’t gain control over your mind, then when aging, illness, and death come, you’ll be at a total loss. At the same time, you have the confidence that if the mind is trained, then you can handle these things and not suffer.

So fear is a legitimate reason for coming to the practice. In fact, it’s probably the most legitimate of all. We don’t like the feeling of fear. The experience of fear is very uncomfortable. We feel small, weak, and threatened. This feeling can become unskillful when it gets mixed up with greed, aversion, and delusion. But a clear-sighted sense of fear combined with confidence that there is a way out can actually get you on the path.

This combination of fear and confidence is what translates into what the Buddha said is the root of all skillful behavior: heedfulness. You realize that there are dangers, but if you’re careful, you can avoid them. If the dangers were inevitable, there’d be no reason to be heedful, for nothing you might do could make any difference. If there were no dangers at all, there’d be no reason to be heedful, either. But there are dangers in life. And it turns out that the dangers lie not so much in aging, illness, and death, but in the way we think about things. Our greed, aversion, and delusion: These are the dangers. But the care with which we learn how to manage our thoughts, our words, and our deeds provides the way out.

So heedfulness reminds us of the dangers but also says, “If you’re careful, if you’re mindful, if you’re alert, if you’re discerning, you can gain release from those dangers.” That’s why we’re here meditating, learning how to train the mind so that it can recognize greed, anger, and delusion when they come. A large part of the problem is that we don’t recognize these qualities for what they are because delusion by definition can’t see itself; often it gets mixed up with the greed and the anger so we don’t recognize them either.

To get past that, you have to learn how to observe your own mind to sense what you’re doing that’s skillful, and what you’re doing that’s not. And to do that you have to observe your thoughts to see where they lead: to pleasure or pain. This is something we don’t normally do. We prefer to get involved in a thought world, totally in that world, trying to shape it whatever way we like. Then, for one reason or another, we drop that, move to another one, and then to another one. It’s like hopping trains. If you’ve ever tried to trace the trains of your thought, you know that they’re a lot more complicated than the railroad network here in America. You hop on a train of thought and find yourself in Burma, England, in the middle of Russia, up to the North Pole, down to the South Pole, out to Mars and Saturn, with brief stops along the way when you’re feeling hungry, tired, or hot.

It’s back-and-forth all over the place. And when our thoughts are totally out of control like this, no wonder they cause suffering. They can latch onto any object and worry it to death — and worry us to death. Unless the mind is trained, it has very little ability to step back and see what’s going on. You need to learn how to see where your thoughts go. In other words, you step out of the thought and see it as a part of a causal process. This thought leads to that reaction, that reaction leads to that thought, that thought leads to that reaction, and so on. To get out of these trains of thought, you also want to see how each thought gets put together. Why do thoughts arise to begin with?

When you understand these processes, then you can step back and — when you notice that a particular thought is leading toward suffering — you can drop it. You can disband it. The more alert, the more mindful you are, the more quickly you can do this until you get to the point where there’s just a brief stirring of a thought — even before it becomes a coherent thought — and you can zap it. You recognize that it’s going to go off in an unskillful direction and you stop it in its tracks by breathing right through the little knot or bundle of energy around which the thought was about to coalesce.

These are some of the skills you develop as you meditate. This is one of the reasons why we start with the breath. We start by thinking about the breath, because if you keep your thoughts concerned with something right here in the present moment, you can start to see the processes of thinking, what’s called fabrication, in action. The breath is called bodily fabrication. It’s what helps to create your sense of the body, the way you feel the body from within. And then you combine that with directed thought and evaluation, which are called verbal fabrication. In other words, you keep directing your thoughts to the breath and then you evaluate it: How does this breath feel? Is it comfortable? If it’s not comfortable, how can you make it better?

This brings in the other level of fabrication, which is mental fabrication: feelings and perceptions. Your perceptions are the labels you apply to things. In the case of the breathing process, this has to do with how you perceive what’s going on when you breathe. When you visualize the breathing process to yourself, what is that visualization like? Is it helpful or does it actually cause harm? If you think of the body as a bellows — pulling the breath in, pushing it out — it’s going to make the breathing process tedious, tiresome. If you learn how to perceive the breathing process more as an energy flow, not just the air in and out of the lungs, but the quality of the energy in the body as a whole — from the top of the head down to the face, down to the torso and down to the legs, and down the shoulders and out the arms — then the breathing is more pleasurable. The whole body is involved in this quality of breath, breathing, energy flow.

The body is wired in such a way that it can actually pick up energy from within itself, one part feeding another. The energy doesn’t have to come in with the air. In fact, the air coming in and out is simply a byproduct of the energy flow in the body. Try holding that perception in mind and see what it does for the breathing. See which parts of the body’s energy can feed the parts that feel starved. If that gets too complicated, just get back to directing your thoughts to the in-and-out breath, evaluating the in-and-out breath, and leave it at that. But as you get more sensitive to the full process of fabrication, you begin to realize what you’re doing is creating a thought world here that includes all forms of fabrication: breath, which is bodily fabrication; directed thought and evaluation — verbal fabrication; and your feelings and perceptions — mental fabrication. They’re all right here.

When they’re all right here, you’re in a better position to see how thoughts and emotions form, how they disintegrate, where they lead. Because it’s inevitable as you’re trying to focus on the breath that other things will come up. In the beginning you realize this only after they’ve taken you far away. You find yourself on the coast of Norway: “How did I get here?” But in the beginning, don’t try to trace it back just yet. Just say, “Okay, I’ve got to go back to the breath.” And fortunately you don’t have to travel every inch of the way from Norway back here. Just drop Norway and you’re here, back with the breath. With the next thought you’re in Africa. Okay, drop that, and come back to the breath. With the next thought you’re thinking about tomorrow’s meal: Drop that, come back to the breath.

An unskillful reaction to all this is to get frustrated. The skillful reaction is to realize that this is what the mind’s been doing all along, so it’s going to take time to change its habits. The important lesson to draw is not to be surprised when the mind wanders off like that. Learn to anticipate it. You realize, “Okay, it’s going to wander off again, so watch for the warning signs.” How does that happen? A sudden curtain falls over the mind and, when the curtain is raised, you’re off someplace else, as in a play. The curtain drops on Act One and when it rises again, you’re in Act Two, off someplace else. How and why does the mind hide these things from itself? And how do you know that it’s about to happen?

When you can anticipate that it’s about to happen, you’ll notice it’s because of a sense of irritation or boredom or antsiness in the mind. Even though you’re standing with the breath, the mind is beginning to look someplace else. When you can catch that happening, remind yourself that it’s a sign the breath isn’t interesting and comfortable enough. Start asking yourself more questions about the breath. How could it be more comfortable? What kind of breathing would feel really, really good, gratifying, refreshing right now? You can ask the different parts of the body. “Hand, what kind of breathing would feel good for you? Left hand, right hand, stomach, legs, chest, abdomen: What kind of breath would you like?” And then let them breathe in whatever way they like.

The more interesting the breathing process — the more you can see the good impact it’s having on the body — then the less likely that the mind will wander off. And the more easily it’ll come back. At the same time, you’re learning some important lessons about how the mind creates thought worlds, and how it creates suffering in the process. This way you can learn how not to engage in those processes, developing the skills that will protect the mind from its own worst habits.

So as you’re practicing breath meditation like this, you’re doing something concrete about all your realistic fears: If death comes, aging comes, illness comes, if somebody drops you off in the middle of nowhere in the dark, how can you keep your mind under control so you don’t suffer? By doing what you’re practicing right now. You’re giving yourself some concrete skills that can underlie a realistic sense of confidence that you can manage your mind, that you can learn how to train the mind, regardless of the situation. This combination of fear and confidence constitutes the heedfulness that underlies the whole path. You become heedful to try to develop skillful qualities, i.e., qualities of mind that will lead to good results, leading you away from suffering; and to abandon and avoid unskillful qualities, the ones that cause suffering. If you develop your mindfulness, your alertness, your concentration, you can do this.

So fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s an important part of wisdom, recognizing that there are dangers in life. It’s a necessary function of the mind, anticipating that dangers are going to happen. The important thing is not to let the fear get tied up in greed, aversion, or delusion. You want to bring more mindfulness, more clarity to the issues you fear, and to gain more skill in the qualities that will help you avoid those dangers.

That’s the important message of the Buddha’s teaching. After he saw the forest mendicant, he became a forest mendicant himself to test and see if the confidence he had placed in that way of living was really well placed. And his awakening proved that it was: It is possible to find a happiness that’s not touched by aging, illness, death, or separation. And as the Buddha said, this realization came not through any special qualities on his part. It came through developing qualities of mind that we all have, that we all can develop, such as ardency, alertness, and resolution, but especially heedfulness: the skillful sort of fear that can get you on the path and see you through to the end.

So don’t hate your fears or fear your fears. Learn how to educate them. When they’re educated and trained, they’re part of the path to the end of suffering. This is part of the Buddha’s genius: He took things that many of us don’t like about the mind, things that actually cause trouble in the mind, and learned how to tame them, to train them, so that they actually become part of the path to the end of suffering. In this way, you can reach a place in the mind where there really is no more reason to fear. As Ven. Ananda said, you use desire to come to the end of desire. In the same way, you can use fear, treating it wisely, to bring yourself to the end of fear. And as it turns out, that’s the only way you can get there.

You can read more of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s writings here