The Power of Positive Karma

Rebirth and karma are the Buddhist beliefs that Westerners find hardest to accept. Yet are they really so foreign to us?

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche
1 May 2006
Photo by Schicka.

Beings evolve through karma, take birth because of karma, enjoy and (function) through karma.

—Karmavibhanga Sutra

Buddhism teaches that in our true nature, we are enlightened—totally open, peaceful, joyful, compassionate, and omniscient. The Buddha proclaimed:

Profound, peaceful, and free from concepts,
Luminous and uncompounded—
A nectar-like nature—that I have realized!

This aspect of our mind is “the true nature of the mind.” When we become aware of and perfect it, we become blossoming buddhas.

We’re all attracted to these highest views. But some students of Buddhism just want to meditate on the nature of the mind, emptiness-wisdom, free from concepts, without opening their hearts to the merit-making practices that are indispensable to liberation. They regard important practices like praying and generating devotion as “theistic” and “dualistic.”

There are many ways to make merit, or positive karma. The most comprehensive are the six perfections (paramitas) that Mahayana Buddhism prescribes as the path to enlightenment. They are: giving (generosity), discipline (morality), patience (fearlessness), diligence (eagerness), tranquillity (contemplation), and wisdom.

The first five perfections, collectively referred to as “skillful means,” are especially for accumulating merit. The sixth, wisdom, involves realizing the true nature of mind, which is wisdom-emptiness.

The undervaluation of skillful-means practices to develop merit is unfortunate. Their purpose is to refine and transform our mind. Devotion opens our hearts. Compassion dissolves ego. Prayer unites us with our enlightened qualities. Pure perception transforms our awareness. Serving others, especially those who rely on us, is the purpose of dharma. There is no such thing as a buddha who doesn’t help others. So the more we open our hearts to skillful means, the more quickly and surely we reach buddhahood. We should never abandon these practices, for the path of skillful means is perfected in the goal of enlightenment, just as bricks become the finished house.

The Need for Dualistic Practice

Why do we need dualistic practices, such as generating merit, to reach a state that transcends duality? Because we have to start from where we are. Our mind’s true nature is covered by karmic turbulence caused by our grasping at self and our negative mental habits. “Grasping at a self” refers to the way we grasp at mental objects as truly existing, perceiving them dualistically as subject and object. The aspect of our mind that perceives this way is conceptual mind. Conceptual mind and the true nature of mind are like the surface and depths of the ocean: The surface is choppy with wind-tossed waves; beneath it is still and peaceful.

Most of us can’t glimpse into the depths, our true nature, because our conceptual mind is constantly churning out turbulence. Grasping at self tricks us, like a nightmare, into believing that we are separate from the world and each other. This triggers negative emotions, from craving and anxiety to jealousy and aggression, which spill out into unhealthy words and actions.

Every dualistic perception, every negative thought, feeling, word, and deed, leaves a negative karmic imprint in our conceptual mind that walls us off from our true nature. On the other hand, positive mentalities leave positive karmic imprints that open our mind, loosen grasping at self, and thin out the barriers to our true nature.

As long as we have dualistic concepts and emotions, the world is solid to us. Our suffering is all too real. Circumstances matter. If our surroundings are chaotic, it will be hard to find tranquillity. If we experience peace and joy, however, we will be inspired to generate even more peace and joy. Then whatever we say and do will be the words and deeds of joy and peace. We progressively loosen our grasping at self, and eventually we glimpse the luminous nature of our mind. If we perfect this realization, we uproot grasping at self and become fully awakened.

Merit and Emptiness

I am not saying that we should not meditate on the nature of the mind. My point is that we should do so in conjunction with skillful means. Buddhist masters have always said that buddhahood is the result of two accumulations: of skillful means and of wisdom. Merit and wisdom are each as indispensable to attaining enlightenment as two wings are to a bird’s ability to fly. Chandrakirti (7th century) writes:

With two widely opened white wings
Of relative truth [skillful means] and absolute truth [wisdom]
The kings of swans [bodhisattvas] and their flock of swans [disciples]
Soar through the ocean of supreme Buddha qualities.

Practicing skillful means such as generosity and morality is a powerful way to create positive karma. The more wholeheartedly we devote ourselves to it, the deeper its positive imprints go in our mind and the more walls we break through. Trying to meditate on emptiness without accumulating merit may not make an impact on the walls barricading our true nature. So its effect is uncertain at best. Saraha (1st century) writes:

Without compassion [merit], the view of emptiness
Will not lead you through the sublime path.

And Gampopa (1079-1153) says:

Great wisdom will not take birth in you
If you have earned little merit.

Attempting to meditate on emptiness without merit can invite self-deception. We might think that we are in a state of awareness without grasping, when we are actually grasping at a subtle level at meditative experiences like clarity, joy, and no-concepts. It is grasping, or attachment, that keeps us in samsara. Tilopa told Naropa (11th century):

Son, appearances are not the issue.
Rather, attachment to them is.
So Naropa, cut [your] attachment.

Or,  meditating only on emptiness, we could drift into the absence of thoughts. Contemplating in this state creates no merit, but leads to rebirth in samsara’s formless realms. Jigme Lingpa says, “If you are attached to ‘no-thoughts,’ you will fall into the formless realms.” Beings there remain semi-unconscious without making progress for possibly millions of years.


So we need to create circumstances conducive to our development. Since we live in a world that is created by and operates through karma, we have to abide by its laws and travel the path of positive karma. To emphasize the importance of making merit, we should note that even the buddhas observe karma. Guru Padmasambhava said, “My realization is higher than the sky. But my observance of karma is finer than grains of flour.”

Some people think karma is fate. “It must be my karma,” they sigh, resigning themselves to some calamity. But karma doesn’t have to be bad. It can be good. And we make our own karma. Every thought, feeling, and deed sows a habitual karmic seed in our mind that ripens into a corresponding positive, negative, or neutral experience. Anger and jealousy manifest as painful, unhappy experiences. Selfless, joyful thoughts and feelings flower into wondrous, fulfilling experiences.

So we don’t have to resign ourselves to “our karma.” We control our karma. Every moment is a new juncture, a chance to improve our way of thinking and thus our circumstances. This principle of interdependent causation is the bedrock of the Buddha’s first teachings, the four noble truths.

Karma, Merit, and Samsara

No matter how seemingly pleasant, samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, is a delusory nightmare of confusion and suffering. Nothing lasts. In some lives we may be reborn in higher realms; in other lives we go to lower realms, depending on which of our karmas are ripening and how we lived our preceding life.

Our cycling in samsara stems from grasping at self. Nagarjuna writes:

If we grasp at the (five) aggregates, we are grasping at self.
If we grasp at self, from that (arises) karma, and from (karma arises) birth.
Through these three, without a beginning, middle, or end,
Revolves the fire-brand circle of samsara
By depending on each other as the cause.

So Shantideva asks:

All the violence, fear, and suffering that exist in the world
Come from grasping at self.
What use is this great evil monster to us?

To uproot grasping at self, we need to realize wisdom. To realize wisdom, we need merit. Merit releases us from negative emotions, the cause of samsaric suffering, and loosens our grasping at self. As that happens, we glimpse the true nature of our mind. Once we do, we can meditate on the true nature to perfect the realization of wisdom. Until then, we need to make merit.

If we don’t tackle our negative emotional patterns, we are bound to repeat them and remain in samsara. Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) writes: “The root of all ills is taking rebirth in samsara. That must be stopped. Stopping it depends on preventing its causes, which are karma and negative emotions. Between these two, if there is no negative emotion, karma will not become the cause of rebirth. However, if you have negative emotions, then even if there is no accumulated karma, new ones will quickly pile up.”

So we need to check ourselves and start from where we are. There are three possible mindsets: negative, positive, and perfect. By perfect I mean total wisdom, the nonconceptual realization of our true nature.

Chances are, we are a mix of positive and negative, as only realized masters are perfect. As long as we are mired in negative emotions, we can’t leap to perfection, just as we can’t jump from a mountain base to its peak. So we need to go from negative to positive to perfect. Acting as though we were near spiritual perfection when we aren’t is just fooling ourselves.

Atisha (982–1055) once said, “The ultimate meaning of all teachings is emptiness, of which compassion (skillful means) is the essence.”

“Then how come,” his disciple asked, “so many people say that they have realized emptiness when they haven’t made a dent in their hatred and attachment?”

“Because,” Atisha replied, “their claims are mere words.”

Our ego is solid like a rock. The more we generate compassion and devotion and make merit, the softer it gets. Eventually it becomes intangible. One day, it dissolves. All the cloud-like traces of negative karmas vanish from our sky-like mind, and our sun-like unstained enlightened nature shines forth spontaneously. The Buddha says:

Sentient beings are buddha in their true nature.
However, (their true nature) has been covered by adventitious obscurations.
When their obscurations are cleared, they are the very Buddha.


We sometimes think that karma depends only on what we do. But what counts most is our mind. The Buddha said:

Mind is the main factor and forerunner of all actions.
Whoever acts or speaks with a cruel mind will cause miseries for himself …
With a pure thought, will cause happiness for himself.

Karma has its greatest chance to change our lives when we leave our body at death. When we enter the bardo, the transitional passage between death and our next incarnation, all we are is mind. Freed from the strictures of our physical surroundings and body, our mind runs its own show. Our karmic habits unfold as the terrain, sights, and sounds of the bardo and propel us to our next birth.

If we have cultivated compassion and devotion, loving images will greet us. Flowers may shower upon us from the sky. Buddhas and teachers to whom we prayed could appear. Negative mental habits, however, will manifest as frightful images.

People often assume that they will come back as people. But a human rebirth requires much merit and many aspirations. It doesn’t happen automatically.

There are six realms in samsara, and infinite Pure Lands, or paradises, outside samsara. We go where our karma impels. Nagarjuna says:

Greed, hatred, and ignorance give rise to unvirtuous deeds.
(Thoughts with) no greed, hatred, and ignorance give rise to virtuous deeds.
Unvirtuous deeds cause all suffering and (births in) inferior realms.
Virtuous deeds (cause births in) higher realms and happiness in all our lives.

In particular, Nagarjuna explains:

Hatred leads you to the hell realm.
Greed leads you to the hungry ghost realm.
Ignorance mostly leads you to the animal realm.

Some modern Buddhists don’t accept rebirth and karma. These teachings, however, go back to the Buddha. The Lankavatara Sutra says:

There are six realms of transmigration where beings take birth.
They are the realms of gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell.
You take birth in those realms because of superior, middling, and evil karmas.

There is much evidence to support the notion of rebirth. Many masters remember their past lives and see where they will be reborn. Apang Terton (1895–1944/5) told his family, “I will be reborn in the Sakya family. Come visit me when I am three.” Sure enough, Kyabje Sakya Trizin (1945–) was later born in the Sakya family and remembered details of his life as Apang Terton.

When my own teacher, Kyabje Dodrup-chen Rinpoche, was a toddler, he described details of his previous life and Guru Padmasambhava’s Pure Land, which he had visited between lives.

Tibet also has a remarkable tradition of delogs, or returners from death. Delogs travel extensively in other worlds until they revive, days later, to share what they learned. My new book, Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth, includes eleven such first-hand accounts. Although these delogs never met, their descriptions of the six realms, Pure Lands, and bardo are strikingly similar.

Pure Lands

It is at death that merit makes the greatest difference for our future. If we made merit and aspirations, we could go to a Pure Land, a paradise of light and love where beings become enlightened in one lifetime.

Many of us like it here on Earth. For all its attributes, however, the human realm is filled with struggle and uncertainty. Who knows, if we come back here in our next life, whether we will have the leisure to practice? Also, human beings are highly emotional. There is no telling whether, in a fit of passion, we might make some big mistake and regress.

However, in the Pure Lands, where we are supported by countless enlightened beings, we never regress or experience negative emotions. We evolve until we become enlightened. It is the ultimate example of positive karma building on itself until perfection is attained.

Some people have the misimpression that going to the Pure Land is selfish. When beings first take rebirth there, they have clairvoyance and can help those with whom they were linked in their previous lives. As they grow, they do even more. When they become enlightened, they become a source of boundless service for all beings through infinite manifestations. Their manifestations appear wherever they can help. As the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra says, “It is impossible to liberate others while you are bound. It is possible to liberate others when you are free.”

In Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth, I focus on Sukhavati, the Blissful Pure Land, as the easiest Pure Land to take rebirth in. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, the body of love and wisdom, manifested it so that beings with good karma could take rebirth there without needing high spiritual realization. All we need are four causes.

First we need to repeatedly think in detail about and visualize Amitabha and his Pure Land. If these perceptions become part of our mental habit, they will arise before us when we die. Second, we need merit, as the fuel to ferry us there. Third, we need to commit to lead all beings to the Pure Land, thus magnifying our merit. Fourth, we need to make strong aspirations and dedicate our merit as the cause of our and all beings’ rebirth in the Pure Land. This augments our merit many times and ensures that our merit goes towards rebirth there.

Sometimes our obstructions and resistance to practice feel insurmountable. But if we stay on the path of training, accepting the teachings as they are, we will be making progress—whether we can see it or not—and the goal of peace, joy, and enlightenment will be ours to share with all.

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet, where, as a young boy, he was recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist master. In 1958, he fled the Communist Chinese invasion and settled in India, teaching university-level Tibetan and Tibetan literature.  In 1980, Tulku Thondup was invited to Harvard as a visiting scholar. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he translates and writes on Tibetan Buddhism. His most recent book is Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth