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Overcoming the Compulsiveness of Karma

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Dr. Alexander Berzin

The Initial Level: Refraining from Destructive Behavior

We have seen that karma and discipline are involved with each of the three graded levels of motivation and aim, as presented in the lam-rim graded stages. We’ve also seen the way that karma works and the way it functions to perpetuate various sufferings.

Destructive behavior brings about the experience of being unhappy. We experience nasty things happening to us that are similar to what we did to others, and we experience feeling like repeating our destructive behavior.

From compulsive constructive behavior, we experience this ordinary happiness that never lasts and never satisfies, and we experience nice things occurring to us that are similar to nice things we’ve done before, but again, they don’t last. We also feel like repeating our constructive behavior.

From both of these behaviors, whether constructive or destructive, we experience uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We’re reborn over and again because when we die, we compulsively grasp for another body. We grasp for a solid “me” to continue existing.

To fulfill our initial aim in accord with the lam-rim stages, which is to stop experiencing the suffering of unhappiness, we practice the ethical self-discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. When we feel like acting destructively, we realize all the unhappy things that would follow, and just stop ourselves from acting out our feelings. That requires great discipline, based on correct discriminating awareness of what is harmful and what is beneficial, specifically harmful or beneficial to ourselves. In order to have this ethical self-discipline, we need to stay mindful of the unhappiness and suffering that would follow if we acted out that destructive feeling and did what we felt like doing.

Mindfulness is like a mental glue that keeps us from forgetting that if we act out every negative feeling we have, it will just bring us an enormous amount of unhappiness and suffering. To stay mindful, we need concentration for our attention to stay put in this understanding. For this, we need a caring attitude. We care about the effect of our behavior on ourselves and on others, so we take our lives seriously. We care about how we act, so we’re careful.

We also need to pay attention to what we feel like doing. We have to watch out for when we’re feeling like acting or speaking or thinking in destructive ways. Then we need alertness to keep watch and, with distinguishing and discernment, detect when we feel like doing something and discriminate that what we feel like doing is destructive. We’re not naive: we understand that if we act it out, it’s going to bring problems. These are the pieces that are involved with applying the ethical self-discipline to refrain from acting destructively.

The main thing that we need with this type of self-discipline, as well as in concentration meditation, is mindfulness, the mental glue. We need to hold on to the discriminating awareness and understanding that if we act destructively it’s going to cause us unhappiness. Everything else follows from our mental glue being well set and preventing us from forgetting. If our mental glue is properly set, we’re automatically alert to notice when the glue loosens. If we care about what we would experience as the result of our behavior, we’ll immediately reset our mindfulness if it’s lost. The more that we practice like this, the more easily we’ll remember and exercise the ethical self-discipline of self-control. Ethical self-discipline, then, is a mental factor – the state of mind that causes us to refrain from acting destructively.

The Intermediate Level: Stopping Activating Karmic Potentials and Tendencies

To attain the goal of the intermediate level lam-rim motivation, namely liberation from the suffering of change (ordinary happiness) and all-pervasive suffering (uncontrollably recurring rebirth), we need to stop activating the karmic potentials and tendencies that compulsively bring them about. How do we activate them? By the way that we respond to feeling happy or unhappy.

What first happens when, ordinarily, we feel happy or unhappy is that a mental factor usually called “craving” arises. Literally, however, the word means “thirst.” If we’re feeling unhappy, we thirst to be parted from that unhappy feeling. If we’re feeling ordinary happiness, which of course never lasts, then like a thirsty person, we don’t want to be parted from it. It’s like when you’re really thirsty and have just a little sip of water, you don’t want somebody to take the glass away: you thirst for more. Either of these two forms of thirst starts the activation process. Feeling unhappy, we think, “I’ve got to get rid of this!” Or feeling happy, we think, “I don’t want this to end.”

The second step that happens is that we grasp for a solid “me” who needs to be free from unhappiness and not parted from happiness – “Me, I have to be free from feeling unhappy! Me, I have to never be parted from feeling happy!” “Me, me, me!” as if there were some independently existing “me” that, regardless of what I do, say or think, has to be happy, never unhappy. The combination of this thirsting and grasping activates the karmic tendencies and potentials that will compulsively lead to further rebirth.

I’m simplifying this process here; it’s much more complex than what I’ve explained. Actually, this process of activating karmic aftermath is occurring all the time, not just at the time of death and leading to compulsive, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Not wanting to stay unhappy and not wanting our happiness to end goes on all the time, even unconsciously.

In order to stop this syndrome of activating karmic potentials and tendencies, we need to realize emptiness, which I call “voidness.” Our projection onto ourselves of a “me” that exists as an isolated entity, unaffected by anything it does, and which has to always be happy and never unhappy – that doesn’t correspond to reality. Voidness means there is no such thing; no one exists in that way. If we can understand that absence of anything corresponding to our fantasy and stay focused on that realization, we won’t freak out with thirst and grasping when we experience unhappiness or ordinary happiness. Instead, we’ll think, “Now I’m happy, now I’m unhappy. So what? Feelings go up and down; that’s the nature of life. No problem; nothing special.”

What we have to stop, then, is making a big deal out of our feelings and out of me who am experiencing them, since doing so activates our karmic tendencies and potentials. For example, suppose I experience being really unhappy when I don’t like what someone is doing or saying. If I grasp at “me, me, me, I’m unhappy at what you're doing,” and I thirst to be rid of that unhappiness, that activates my karmic tendency and potential to yell at you. When activated, they give rise to my feeling like yelling, and my tendency for getting angry also gets activated. That tendency for anger, by the way, is not a karmic tendency, but a tendency of a disturbing emotion. Disturbing emotions and attitudes also have tendencies, which accounts for the fact that even when we don't feel these emotions or have these attitudes manifest, there is still continuity of them. But when all these tendencies and potentials are activated, then, with no self-control and certainly no peace of mind, I compulsively act out that wish and yell at you.

But, if I can realize, “I’m unhappy, I don't like what you’re doing, but that’s no reason to make a big deal out of it,” then I don’t focus on me and what I want. As a result, I don’t activate these karmic potentials and tendencies to yell. Obviously the understanding has to be quite deep and well-engrained to be able to get to this level. I’m simplifying it, but this is just to give you the general idea.

How Karmic Potentials and Tendencies Are Gotten Rid Of

A cause can only exist and function as a cause in relation to there being a result that can arise from it. If there can’t be a result of something, then it cannot exist as a cause. More specifically, something can only be a potential for a result if it is actually possible for a result to arise from it. For a result to arise, the potential needs to be activated. But if there is no longer anything that can activate the potential and so it’s impossible for a result to arise from it, then there is no longer a potential. There can only be a potential for a result if there can be a result.

That’s how you get rid of karmic potentials and tendencies. With the deepest non-conceptual understanding of voidness – that there’s no solid “me” and so on – you start to rid yourself of both the disturbing emotions that would accompany destructive behavior as well as the disturbing attitudes that accompany even constructive behavior. This is because the disturbing emotions and attitudes arise because of grasping for a solid “me.” In the long process of gaining this non-conceptual understanding of no solid “me,” however, our disturbing emotions and attitudes start to lose their strength. Because of that, we start to slow down the process of activating old karmic aftermath, since they are activated by the disturbing emotions and attitudes. Thus we weaken the force of our compulsiveness.

In other words, even if our weakened disturbing emotions and attitudes activate our karmic aftermath so that it gives rise to feeling like yelling at someone, we have a better chance not to repeat the action – our behavior will be less compulsive – because our disturbing emotion of anger will be weaker. The more we refrain from acting out what we feel like doing, when it is either destructive or neurotically constructive, the less we create more karmic aftermath. Thus, the process of ridding ourselves of karmic potentials and tendencies speeds up.

For this purification process to succeed, we need the ethical self-discipline to stay mindful of voidness. To put it very simply, we need it in order to stay mindful of “Happy, unhappy, so what! There’s no such things as a ‘me’ that has to be happy all the time and can’t ever be unhappy. I exist, of course, but not in this impossible way.”

It’s very interesting if you think in terms of what happens when we understand this deeply and it has started to affect our experience. For instance, we no longer have the uncontrollable desire or need to be entertained all the time – to have music all the time, have the TV on all the time – otherwise we won't be happy. We will lose as well the compulsiveness of continually checking our phones to see if we’ve received a new message or post on our Facebook wall or to check the news. Because we no longer grasp at a solid “me” that is afraid of missing something or afraid of unhappiness, we become liberated from our compulsive disturbing ways.

The Advanced Level: Overcoming Selfish Concern

Very briefly, to achieve the lam-rim advanced level aim of knowing fully the karma of others so that we know how best to help them, we need the force of bodhichitta behind our understanding of voidness. What is bodhichitta? Based on deep love and compassion equally for all beings, we take responsibility and sincerely resolve to help them all to attain liberation from their sufferings and their causes. But we realize that only if we become omniscient Buddhas ourselves will we know how best to guide each and every one of them. Bodhichitta, then, is a mind that is aimed at our own future enlightenments, which have not happened yet, but which can happen on the basis of our so-called “Buddha-nature” factors. These factors refer to the natural purity and good qualities of the mind that everyone has and which enable everyone to become enlightened. Our intention is to attain our own individual enlightenment and, based on that attainment, help everyone more fully than we’re able to do, and what we’re actually trying our best to do, now.

When with bodhichitta, we apply our minds to the understanding of voidness, there is much more force and energy behind our understanding than before. We are better able to see the interconnectedness of everything, and this breaks through the habits that cause our minds to make things appear in boxes, isolated from each other. In this way, we’re able to understand all the karmic causes for each being’s present situation and the effect of anything we might teach them to help them overcome problems and suffering. We see the full picture of the interconnectedness of what has already happened, what is presently happening and what is not yet happening. This enables us to best advise and help others.

To develop bodhichitta, we need ethical self-discipline to overcome our selfish concerns and focus fully on benefiting others. Here’s a simple example of how concern for others gives us more energy: Suppose we come home after a long, hard day at work and are completely exhausted. If we live by ourselves, we can simply forget about making dinner and just lie down and go to sleep. But if we have children, it doesn’t matter how tired we are, we find the energy to make a meal for them and take care of their needs. Our concern for others gives us much more energy than being concerned only about ourselves.

This is what’s involved with this advanced level of ethical self-discipline. We need the self-discipline to stop being selfish, to stop thinking of ourselves and to think of others, and to aim for reaching the most highly developed state possible, which is that of becoming an omniscient Buddha.


Ethical self-discipline is the key for overcoming, in turn, negative karma, then all karma (both positive and negative), and then overcoming the self-centeredness that prevents us from fully understanding all others’ karma so that we can help all of them overcome it as well. Self-discipline alone, however, will not be enough; our discipline needs to be accompanied with mindfulness, alertness, attention, caring, and so on.

The understanding of voidness is important throughout this progression, otherwise we have a very dualistic way of approaching ethical self-discipline. We imagine that there’s one “me” that’s the policeman and another “me” who’s the naughty one that has to be disciplined. If we approach this whole topic of developing ethical discipline in that dualistic manner, we’ll have a lot of additional problems. The point is just to apply ethical self-discipline without thinking, “I’ve got to do this” and “me, me, me” and “Oh, terrible me. I’m so bad.” Drop all of that and just do it!