There is no “time off” from karma

By LYNN J. KELLEY | From “The Buddha’s Advice to Laypeople” blog

The Dhammapada is probably the most popular Buddhist literature in the world. It consists of 423 verses — sort of poetry, sort of philosophy, and a useful set of instructions to guide our deepening practice of the Dhamma. There are more than 50 translations from the Pali into English, and many more into other languages. For our reflections, I’ve chosen Gil Fronsdal’s translation because his purpose aligns with my own: to translate the Buddha’s teachings with all possible accuracy and in a way that enables the practitioner to deepen her wisdom in the here and now.

Without further ado, we begin:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

Gil explains in a footnote that “preceded by mind” is sometimes translated as “impelled by mind”, giving the image more force. But our minds don’t compel us to do anything; we decide how to act, whether consciously or subconsciously motivated. If our mind is habitually angry or selfish or confused, our actions are likely to be the same. And if our thoughts tend to be kind, generous, and wise, then our actions are likely to be more in that vein.

We can examine our experience and our words and actions using this question: “What made me think that?” or “Why did I behave that way?” We can look into the causes and conditions within this human system, including our bodies and minds, to unveil our motives and intentions. The investigation itself will help us understand how thought becomes action, with whatever results follow.

It’s no accident that this pair of verses sits in the opening position. They introduce two important themes. The first is that we, and no one else, are responsible for our actions of body, speech, and mind. We all influence each other to different degrees, but the ultimate choices lie within us. We could think of the tired but true metaphor that we don’t choose the cards we are dealt (heredity, place of birth, inherent intelligence), but we do choose how to play those cards. This is the only leverage we have on the direction our lives take.

The second important theme is that actions have consequences; that what we do matters. When we treat ourselves and each other with respect and kindness, we are making a better world both internally and externally. If we are dishonest, even if we think no one can see, we ourselves can see; we know that we are diminishing our worth.

We would do well to  try to observe ourselves as if from another (impartial) person’s perspective. Do we behave in ways that we criticize in others? Do we turn away from the responsibility of serious reflection? There is no “time off” from karma; we only have now.

READ ON: “The Buddha’s Advice to Laypeople” blog