Our experienced reality – aka Buddhism and The Secret

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.

9 thoughts on “Our experienced reality – aka Buddhism and The Secret”

  1. I incorporated your post as a part of my daily devotional. Thank you! The mind really is a powerful thing. As a mental health therapist, I often use the cognitive triangle with my adult clients. The triangle shows the relationship/interaction between your thoughts, your feelings, and your behaviors. Our thoughts have the power to steer our ship in whatever direction they will. Some people do not even know that they have the ability to choose their thoughts. Thanks again!!

  2. Hi Katinka,
    I like your explanations of doctrine.
    In Soto Zen, doctrine plays its part but it is comparatively small. Sitting plays the largest part.
    When sitting Zen you just let all the stuff
    go by–all the thoughts (including doctrine), and the feelings and the sensations and the idea that there is a person who is thinking and experiencing. Just let it all go by, coming and going, coming and going.
    In Soto, this is called being what you really are: the buddha nature before which or within which all the stuff of the world parades—and if that notion arises in meditation you let that bit of stuff come and go too.
    The experience deepens profoundly over time and this is the core of Soto Zen.
    Doctrine can help pry off old limiting beliefs, and in Rinzai Zen, koans are used to gauge advancement. But ultimately, adopting doctine of any kind is not the point and not the substance of Buddhism.
    Being fluent in doctrine is not the same thing as being fluent in Buddhism.
    The heart of Buddhism is not Buddhist Philosophy.
    I hope you also teach your students that the bulk of Buddhism is beyond doctrine, for this is what is so.

    1. I’m going to respond to your last sentence now: no, most of Buddhism is NOT beyond doctrine. There is more doctrine in Buddhism than you are likely aware of and my teachers would say that it’s only when all that doctrine (or at least the essence of it) has been realized as truth not just by mind but in the heart as well – that one has even a small chance at enlightenment.

      For some reason, probably because we’re already so full of stuff in our heads, the Buddhism that has come to the West IS mostly without doctrine. However, there is a difference between being beyond doctrine and being without it. To use a Zen image: how can you kill the Buddha if you haven’t seen him? The doctrine is what we have of the Buddha. To ignore it is ignorant. To kill him/it before having heard what he has to say, just foolish.

      In Tibetan Buddhism two types of meditation are taught: analytic meditation (aka contemplation) and concentration. Without analytic meditation on Buddhist doctrine, how can it be Buddhism? Concentration is a very general human activity and concentration meditation is done in Yoga as much as in Buddhism.

      The Buddha very clearly taught more than just sitting. Analytic meditation is an integral part of Theravada Buddhism as well in the form of Vipassana/Vipasyana (which is more than just mindfulness training).

  3. Katinka, thankyou for your reply,
    Let me clarify,
    Sutras are certainly recited but as I commented, Buddhism employs doctrine in order to pry away thought that hinders enlightenment–not in order to make pundits. Also, Buddhists take vows, including to postpone complete enlightenment in order to help liberate all beings (Mahayana)–but this is no substitute for meditation or introspection.
    No, the heart of Buddhism has never been doctrinal. Remember that the Buddha refused to dispute doctrinal questions–saying that if one has a poisoned arrow stuck in him one needs immediate and practical remedy to remove the arrow —not indulge in speculation. When the tradition was handed to Kasyapa–what did the Buddha do? He did not convey a doctrine–he held up a flower. Kasyapa’s smile at that flower —not an exposition of doctrine — revealed his knowledge and made him the First Patriarch.
    Remember that in Rinzai Zen, Koans are employed to defeat the mind’s dependence upon ratiocination, and to see directly– not to enhance proficiency in doctrine.
    Proficiency in doctrine is not the point of Buddhism, however useful it may be in the process. The purpose of Buddhism is to “show the face I had before I was born”—i.e. direct seeing into the nature of reality. Doctrine is one means to this end–it is not the end itself. Sitting, with Koan or without,
    is the main means of development in Zen. In Vipassana it is mindfulness, not
    aquisition of doctrine that is most emphasized.
    The goal reached surpasses any and all doctrine and any and all practices. That is the final point. And that is the heart of Buddhism.
    As is said in Zen, “Just This”.
    I think your web site generally excellent, and I thankyou for it.

    1. This is a general spiritual website – remember that in the words you use. It’s not appropriate to talk as though what you’ve learned in Zen applies to all of Buddhism. I am tempted (but won’t give in to the temptation) to edit your comment. When you talk about the purpose of Buddhism, you really mean ZEN Buddhism. When you are talking about the heart of Buddhism, you are again talking from the perspective of Zen Buddhism. In fact, you are talking from the perspective of Zen Buddhism as it came to the West, not Zen in general.

      In Japan itself there is lots of study of holy texts, not merely recitation of it. Though I’m sure recitation does happen far more often than actual study. Still, my own understanding of Emptiness / Sunyata is informed by a book on the various schools of Japanese Buddhism on that topic. They could not have gotten to so much detailed insight and disagreement on this deep philosophical topic if they hadn’t actually thought about the texts and studied them in depth before ‘going beyond them’.

      Specifically – In the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism they’d say that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism is the realization of emptiness and bodhicitta. That is: an understanding of the philosophy of emptiness so deep that it informs every moment of life. The same for a deeply felt compassion for all beings. These two threads are definitely also present in Zen. I do think the stress is perhaps not on them as thoroughly though.

      What doesn’t come out in your comments on this topic is that in order to get those two realizations a lot of thinking is involved. There are a lot of meditations on emptiness in Tibetan Buddhism – all of which include thinking as well as self analysis. There are steps to really realizing bodhicitta as well, and that means that on the path to that realization a lot of thinking (and yes, feeling) is involved as well.

      Personally I very much appreciate the attention to nuance of thought in my tradition – you really ought to read up on the Bodhisattva Vows (all 50+ of them) and then see if talking down on other versions of Buddhism is really such a good idea.

      Don’t get me wrong – as I suggested in my earlier comment, there are reasons why Zen is taught without much attention to analytical meditation in the West: it has to do with the fact that we’ve all been bombarded with information all our lives. For many people taking a break from that is all they need or have room for. However, to treat that as though it represents Buddhism as a whole is just not fair to the diversity in the tradition.

      Of course, strictly speaking, koans are a form of analytical meditation. However, meditating on koans is not a way of learning about Buddhism in general, unlike say the Lam Rim, which sums up Buddhist doctrine and practice of Theravada and Mahayana quite nicely while also offering a load of meditations that can help transform one’s life.

      I respect Zen a lot, but if I may generalize, the tradition does seem to forget about respecting other paths within Buddhism a bit. A bit of Western wisdom is appropriate here: to each his own!

  4. One last clarification,
    It is only as a result of an experience that surpasses intellect –direct seeing into reality or essence–that the Sutras may be fully understood then by the intellect–and seen as an accurate description of the reality. There is no realizing the truth of the Sutras before this experience, called Kensho or Satori in Zen.
    The Sutras describe something that the intellect has no experience of.
    Only after the experience can the intellect understand the Sutra as truth.
    Again, thankyou for your website.

    1. Such absolute statements bring out the worst in me I’m afraid.

      I think the process of gaining insight is always a going back and forth between study, concentration on the topic at hand, and relaxing, letting the mind figure it out for itself. My dad, who is a mathematician, does a lot of studying obviously. Deep thinking about math is his job. But the solution often comes when he’s taking his Sunday walk with my mother. That’s when the mind comes up with creative jumps that denote real insight. However, it would be foolish to suggest that he should go walking with my mom instead of study. It is clear that if he just stopped trying to understand those mathematical problems, he would not come up with a solution to them either.

      I think the same must be true for understanding Buddhist sutras: first study, then going beyond them. The puzzle comes first, then the answer. To think you can just skip the puzzle and go straight to the answer is not very realistic.

  5. I have a comment but first I feel I must share something so beautiful as to nearly take my breath away.

    As I am writing it is a beautiful sunshiny day outside. Beyond my window is a pond with lovely dark blue and green hues to it. It is breezy for a few moments and then still outside. The water goes from being as smooth as glass to full of ripples from moment to moment.

    And when it does so the image I see transforms from a reflection of the sky and trees in the water to being tens of thousands of flashing lights-like myriad tiny suns are dancing on the water. I wish everyone reading this could see it. It is truly lovely!

    OK…here is my thought on ideas such as The Secret. I believe that we live in a world of abundance. I believe that we ALWAYS have choices and that a solution exists for every problem. I also believe (and it’s pretty self evident) that there’s a lot more that goes on in our subconscious mind than our conscious mind is generally aware of.

    If our subconscious mind has already decided how the “world works” or what “IS” in a given situation it will ignore any of a number of possible solutions to a problem which may lie right before it. Therefore our conscious mind may never become aware of a solution because the subconscious has already ruled it out.

    If on the other hand, the conscious and subconscious mind believe that we live in a world of abundance and that many solutions lie before us at any given moment, the subconscious may be more free to bring one (or several) of those solutions to awareness in the conscious mind.

    So while The Secret may present this as the subconscious mind creating, I see it as the subconscious mind being open to solutions that are already there.

    I don’t know if what I just wrote makes much sense, but I sincerely hope that it does.

    Take care!

Comments are closed.