37 practices: verse 8

8. To refrain from harm at all costs

The suf-fer-ings of the three lower realms, / These states of mind so difficult to bear,

According to the teachings of the Sage / Are the result of actions that do harm.

Therefore, even with my own life at stake, / From harmful actions always to refrain:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 8 audio above. Audio for verses 8-10, the three levels of practice, is here.

Now that we have, in verses 1-7, begun to disengage ourselves from samsaric habits and gathered the support we need,  we are ready to enter the actual path of awakening, which consists of three levels of motivation and practice.

The first level begins when we simply recognize how much we suffer because of our habitual emotional reactivity — the three poisons of desire, anger, and ignorance (the latter most easily understood as the solidification of our ephemeral, illusory experiences into fixed perceptions, opinions, and judgments). In the four noble truths, the Buddha taught that our experience is permeated with various types of suffering, that this suffering has a cause (the three poisons), and that by removing the cause it can be brought to an end. Once we truly understand this, we will automatically be motivated to apply the antidote.

According to Geshe Jampa Tegchok, “This verse explains how to observe karma and its effects, which is the main practice at the initial level.” The cause of suffering, as taught by the Buddha, is the harm we do to others through actions, words, and even thoughts. As long as we don’t tame the habitual reactions that cause us to act in harmful ways toward others, we will continue to reap the inevitable result, which is future suffering for ourselves.

There are many resources for studying the details of the karmic process, including chapters in Ornament of Precious Liberation by Gampopa and The Torch of True Meaning (aka The Torch of Certainty) by Jamgon Kongtrul. Traleg Rinpoche wrote a very illuminating book for those who want to go into this topic more deeply, Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters.

However, Jamgon Kongtrul advises us: “This topic is so incredibly profound and vast that until one has realized one taste [the level of realization in which the true nature of phenomena is directly experienced], one will not fully comprehend it. Though ordinary beings cannot fully appreciate it, karmic cause and effect can be roughly summarized thus: Virtuous causes produce pleasant results, and unvirtuous causes produce painful results.”

So the main point of the teachings on karma is simply that in order to avoid suffering — our initial motivation for practicing the dharma — we need to refrain from unvirtuous or negative actions, those that cause harm to others.

Will I really go to the three lower realms? If you believe in rebirth as taught by the Buddha himself, there is certainly the possibility, if we don’t use this lifetime constructively, that we could end up next time around in what are called the lower realms. These are traditionally expressed as the animal, hungry ghost, and hell realms, and it’s worthwhile becoming familiar with the traditional descriptions of these states. Again referring to The Torch of True Meaning, it is said that among those unlikely to get a human life next time are those “who are not afraid of the sufferings of future lives,” and therefore don’t worry about the consequences of harmful actions. That said, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (see the introduction to his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead) explained all six realms as psychological states we can easily recognize in ourselves and others in this very lifetime. Verse 2 describes the lower realms psyhologically, and if we think about it, even these states of psychological suffering echo the descriptions of the lower realms and can cause us to suffer quite intensely. In class we did a guided meditation using Taranatha’s vivid descriptions of the lower realms in Essence of Ambrosiahis classic text on the three motivations for practice (our very topic).

How do we know which actions to refrain from, and which to engage in? Geshe Jampa Tegchok advises us: “Non-meritorious karmas are of many types, but the majority of them can be included within the ten destructive actions. These are termed destructive or negative because they destroy our happiness and directly or indirectly harm other beings.”

The first step in avoiding harmful actions is to know what these ten actions are. I recommend memorizing this list, using it as a trusty guide, and studying the detailed explanations in the resources mentioned above.

Contemplation: Now that we have identified what actions will cause us future suffering, it’s helpful to reflect on which ones we may sometimes find ourselves committing intentionally or unintentionally, and to plan how we might consciously minimize our engagement with each of these actions, especially those that fall within our habitual patterns of reactivity.

Is it possible to refrain from harm completely, and if not, what’s the point? We had a lengthy discussion of this in class. Participants felt that some of the more challenging actions to refrain from include stealing, aka taking what is not given (e.g., using someone else’s shampoo when you know they wouldn’t mind but you haven’t actually asked), lying (white lies to spare others’ feelings, or slanting the truth to make ourselves look better), and idle speech, including gossip and distractions such as frivolous reading and TV. Some of these may not even feel wrong in certain situations, though we are advised that they always carry some karmic weight, even when we choose to do them out of a benevolent intention. Divisive speech that promotes disharmony is often hard to resist, and we inevitably take lives inadvertently through gardening, driving our car, and so forth. And what if our house is overrun with termites, or we need to remove a tick from a loved one or pet?

Isn’t it hypocritical to make resolutions to refrain from actions we can’t always avoid? This question often comes up when people are considering lay vows. We are generally encouraged to take them, because they serve as restraints on our conduct when we do have a choice, and can help minimize inadvertent harm by increasing our mindfulness. It’s all training until we actually reach buddhahood, so we need to be patient with ourselves (and others).

Our part of the bargain is to do our best to avoid infractions, but we have a Buddhist motto to remind us not to hold ourselves (and others) to an impossible standard:  “Mistake by mistake, I travel the perfect path.” We also have ways to purify karma when we mess up, such as the four opponent powers (see The Torch of True Meaning, chapter on the hundred-syllable mantra), aka the four points of confession: recognize/regret, resolve not to do it again (even if you know you probably will, this resolution helps weaken the pattern), rely on the refuges as your support, and remediate through purification practices and by making amends when possible.

What about emptiness? Well, that is peeking ahead to the second turning of the wheel! In the first turning, or set of teachings, the Buddha explained how relative reality works and what conduct we need to reject or adopt if we want to free ourselves from suffering. In the second turning, he clued us in to ultimate reality, or emptiness, which sees relative reality as ephemeral, illusory, and not existing in an ultimate, unchanging way.

The Buddha did not teach that ultimate truth nullifies relative truth. Remembering the ultimate emptiness of all our experience can help us keep things in perspective and not solidify or fixate too tightly on anything that happens, but at this initial level of the path, we’re working with relative truth. (No worries, verses for practicing with emptiness are coming up!)

Meanwhile, Dilgo Khyentse leaves us with this advice: “As the great master Padmasambhava [Guru Rinpoche] said: ‘Although my view is higher than the sky, my attention to actions and their effects is finer than flour.'” He explains what this means: “Relative truth functions inexorably within ultimate truth. A thorough realization of the empty nature of all phenomena has never led anyone to think that positive actions do not bring happiness, or that negative actions do not bring suffering.”

This initial level of understanding and practice is the cornerstone of all progress on the path. If we don’t do our best to refrain from harming others by leaving our homeland of the three poisons, we won’t get anywhere, no matter what else we study, contemplate and meditate.

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 9: to strive for unchanging freedom

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)