Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tricycle Interview with Matthieu Ricard - Karma Crossroads

Interesting interview.

Karma Crossroads

According to the law of karma, the choices we make in every moment determine our fate. Matthieu Ricard offers some useful guidelines for navigating the karmic course to true happiness.

Matthieu Ricard, born in France in 1946, trained as a molecular biologist at the prestigious Institute Pasteur before trading in his lab coat for the robes of a Tibetan Buddhist monk in 1972. In 1975, Ricard became the close student and attendant of revered master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and traveled with him in Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Tibet until Khyentse Rinpoche’s passing in 1991. The author of several books, including The Quantum and the Lotus and Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Ricard lives in Shechen Monastery in Nepal.

During one of his frequent visits to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with Ricard about karma, a foundational Buddhist concept that is often invoked in Western culture but rarely well understood. -Mark Magill

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A lot of people think of karma in terms of “What did I do to deserve this?” It implies a notion of fate or cosmic justice.

This is a view that is inspired by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Buddhism, there is no notion of an external entity judging our actions and bestowing punishment or reward.

What is the Buddhist view?

At each point in our lives, we are at a crossroads. We are the fruit of our past and we are the architects of our future. When we ask, “Why did this happen to me?” it is because of our limited view. If we throw a stone up in the air and forget about it, when it falls down on our heads, we shouldn’t complain, although we usually do. We have this notion that what happens to us is somehow independent of our own actions. We can ask, why did this happen? but the more important question is, what we are going to do about it?

If you want to know your past, look at your present circumstances. If you want to know your future, look at what is in your mind. If we know that our fate is in our hands, then the quality of our actions becomes a central issue. The whole point of karma is to recognize how our actions determine our future, so that we can begin to act properly. It’s not just a cosmological or philosophical matter. It’s entirely practical. The main point is not to get in trouble again.

So what is karma?

It is a particular aspect of the law of cause and effect that relates to our experience of happiness and suffering, and that basically depends upon our motivation. When we engage in an act, no matter how it appears, what is important is our motivation.

We cannot perfectly foresee the outcomes of our actions. But we are always in charge of our motivation. It’s up to us to decide if we want to cause harm or bring some benefit. Nobody can say that we are not in control of our motivation, unless we are mad and unable to think about it. An act that is motivated by an altruistic frame of mind is ethical, no matter how it looks. And an act that is motivated by a wish to harm is unethical, no matter how it looks.

This is the very basis of ethics. If we don’t relate our actions to motivation, we can never clearly know what is right or wrong. From the Buddhist viewpoint, we define right and wrong in terms of what leads to happiness or suffering. It is not some idealized dogma of good and bad somewhere sitting in space.

What about a deluded motivation?

We might be deluded about our understanding of the world and about the nature of happiness and suffering, but anyone, deluded or not, has the capacity to check if he is acting under the inspiration of altruism or of malevolence.

What if your intention is good, but the results are harmful?

That’s where ignorance and confusion interfere with our altruistic actions. That is why we need wisdom. Buddha said that those who have fully realized emptiness are those who see the best. In other words, they see what needs to be done and what is to be avoided. We are able to choose the correct means because we can foresee what will happen. That’s why we say that the essence of Buddha’s teaching is the union of compassion and wisdom, the view of interdependence and emptiness. An altruistic attitude is altruistic. It is not confused in itself. But without wisdom, we can act with obscured compassion or stupid compassion.

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