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Our experienced reality – aka Buddhism and The Secret

May 4, 2012

in Buddhism, Karma and Reincarnation

Ever since I started teaching the topic of Buddhist Philosophy about ten years ago, I’ve used the Law of Attraction (aka The Secret) to explain the Chittamatrin view (*). However, there are important differences and that’s basically what this post is about.

Let’s start with the Dhammapada quote that is usually used to claim that the Buddha taught the Law of Attraction (source):

Mind is the forerunner or all actions;
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.
If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind,
Suffering follows, as wheels follow the hoof of an ox.

Mind is the forerunner of all actions;
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.
If one speaks or acts with a serene mind,
Happiness follows as surely as one’s shadow.

Alright, I cheated: this is not quite the Dhammapada quote usually given to show that the Buddha taught The Secret. That’s because he really didn’t. The Buddha taught karma and while there are similarities to the Law of Attraction, the main conclusions are diametrically opposed.

So what do Tibetan Buddhists say about our experienced reality? They say the way we experience reality is a result of our own mind and our mind is itself a result of the karma of an infinite number of previous lives.

That’s Buddhism in general in fact, though I’m not sure all Buddhists would agree we’ve had an infinite number of previous lives: I suspect that’s specific to the Tibetan traditions.

How does that work? Well, say you’re visualizing abundance for yourself. That’s basically greed. Buddhists would say that not only does this strengthen the imprint of greed in your mindstream, but the fact that you’re focusing on success in THIS life, means you’re not focusing on dharma and you are not on the path to final liberation.

Let’s apply that to me for a second. This post is a dharma teaching in the sense that I’m explaining Buddhism to all who read this. However it’s not a dharma ACTION unless I write it with a pure motivation. If I write this in order to get a good reputation as a blogger, more sales of a future book, more links to this blog etc., I’m basically writing with a worldly motivation and the karmic result will be worldly. It may indeed help me get all those things, but it won’t contribute to me gaining Nirvana or being able to help all sentient beings escape saṃsāra.

However, if I intended to share insights in Buddhism with you all, so that perhaps greed gets a less powerful hold on a few people, so that they may escape saṃsāra more quickly… if that’s my basic motivation, then my karma may still be to get success in this life, book sales, links, fame, but the effort of writing this post will also contribute to me becoming a full-blown Bodhisattva and Buddha in future lives.

That’s how karma works according to Buddhism. The basic point of Buddhist meditation is to create positive impressions in the mind stream so that we may willingly leave saṃsāra as soon as possible.

The word ‘positive’ here means something different from what it usually does. Positive thoughts in Buddhism aren’t necessarily cheerful thoughts. In fact, a positive thought may be the firm conviction that I’m going to die and I’d better spend as much energy on meditation as possible NOW. Or to put a bit more kindly: positive thoughts are all thoughts that lead to ethical actions. Generosity, patience in the face of anger, self-control when tempted etc.

So how does this link in with The Secret? Well, the karma of all our previous lives has left imprints on our minds. Some of those will become conscious in this life, others will lie dormant. Either way: without cleaning up that karma, changing our experienced reality is impossible. Fortunately, Tibetan Buddhism does have ways of cleaning up karma, even though it’s too much for this post.

For now what matters more is that how we experience reality really is up to us. We can be grateful for the riches we have in this life or resentful for all the things that went wrong. We can see the rain as feeding the corn or as an annoyance. To this extent The Law of Attraction really is almost Buddhism: gratitude figures prominently in both.

Just make sure you don’t feel guilty about NOT feeling grateful – just regret whatever past actions you did that causes you to experience your reality like that. That’s the first step towards purifying that karma. Do you all want to hear all the steps necessary to purify karma or is that too much superstition for you all?

(*) The Chittamatrin (Mind Only School) of Buddhist philosophy basically states that everything we experience is in the nature of consciousness. There is no difference between what we see and our own mind, because it’s all literally the production of our own mind. To the extent that we experience things similarly it’s because we have similar karma. It’s our collective karma for instance that creates this earth. Other Buddhists schools like the Madhyamika agree that karma creates our reality, but that it’s not a one on one relationship. If I were to become enlightened right now, my body won’t suddenly change to include all the marks of a Buddha. That’s because the karma that caused me this body may (theoretically) be cleaned up in this life, but the fruit won’t automatically transform with it.

A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.

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