Karma and Purification

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Part 1

There are four characteristics of karma.

  1. Karma is fixed.

  2. Karma multiplies greatly.

  3. The consequences aren’t experienced if the action is not completed.

  4. Karma is not exhausted by time, only by full experience of the consequences.

There are two types of karma, positive and negative.

  1. Positive karma is wholesome or virtuous or meritorious karma. Positive karma comes from desirable actions.

  2. Negative karma is unwholesome or nonvirtuous karma. It comes from undesirable actions.

Positive and negative karma can each be divided into two types, individual karma and collective karma. Individual karma comes from an act executed by an individual, so the results are experienced by the individual. Collective karma is experienced collectively. It comes from collective action. For example, if five people together complete an action, the results are experienced by all five. All five have to share in the consequences of the action.

Actions can be incomplete, and so can karma. For karma to be complete, four binding factors are required. If any one of the four binding factors is missing, karma becomes incomplete. When all four binding factors are present at the execution of an act, then karma is complete.

Binding factors

The four binding factors are the base, the intention or motivation, the execution of an action, and the completion of an action.

1. Base. The base could be the recipient. In the act of killing, someone is killed, a human being, an animal, and this victim is the base.

2. Intention. When you’re walking on the grass, it’s very likely that you will step on insects you don’t see, hidden in the blades of grass. You may kill an insect, but you didn’t intend to kill. Intention falls under three types of delusion: attachment, anger, or ignorance. If you’re killing an animal for the meat, for example, you could be guilty of attachment or desire. A human being might be killed because of anger or jealousy, a motivating factor that manipulates the mind and its thoughts. Killing may also occur through reckless or mindless behavior. An action is completed without the consequences imagined, but the possible negative consequences are ignored. The person acting thinks, "Whatever happens, I don’t care."

3. Execution. The base exists; intention exists, motivated by attachment, anger, desire , jealousy. And then comes the actual act. The act is manifested in body or speech. Killing or stealing are examples of actions manifested by the body. Lying or divisive speech are examples of actions manifested by speech.

4. Completion. Once the action is fully manifested through body or speech, and there is a sense of gratification, the act is complete. A person kills or steals with intention. The completion of the act gives rise to a sense of satisfaction, "Well, I did it," instead of a sense of regret or remorse. The act is done; there is a sense of gratification or satisfaction; this is completion.

If one of these four factors is missing, then automatically the karma is incomplete or weak. The karma will not be experienced full-force. However, weak karma can become strong through repetition.

Some negative actions are less serious than others. Divisive speech, for example, is less serious than killing. But if you do one of these lesser negative actions over and over throughout your life, you eventually accumulate a lot of strong bad karma.

The four factors that make karma complete or incomplete affect the power of individual karma. It is worse to kill than to talk badly about someone, so the force of karma is not the same. But the fact that you may say bad things all the time could cause you to accumulate a lot of bad karma. Bad karma can become strong through repetition, through repeating a bad action day after day.

Question: What happens if you do a good deed but with a negative intention? Say, I do something for society, but my intention is to reap rewards for myself. Maybe I do charity work, but only so I can gain recognition for myself.

Answer: In that case, although the action in general is good, it is polluted by bad motivation. So it doesn’t bring forth the full force of good karma in consequence. For example, you give $1 million with the goal of receiving recognition; someone else gives $10 with pure motivation. The $10 donation is better than yours, as far as you and your karma are concerned. For the recipient, $1 million is still a lot of money.

Karma occurs in the mind and resides in the mindstream, so your motivation is most important. There is more emphasis on intention than external action.

So, if all four factors are present, then karma, positive or negative, becomes complete. If any one of the four binding factors is not present, then karma, whether negative or positive, becomes incomplete.

If you look closely, you’ll realize that 99 percent of negative karma becomes complete because all four binding factors are present. And much of our positive karma is incomplete because our motivation is often self-interest or recognition.

Many actions we consider positive do not result in positive karma because the four binding factors are not there. Most negative actions result in negative karma because all four binding factors are present.

We end up with much mixed karma in a lifetime because we do good things and bad things throughout our lives. But if we try to weigh them on a scale, the positive karma is lighter than the negative karma, definitely.

Some karma gives rebirth in the desire realm, some in the form realm, some in the formless realm.

The 10 negative actions and 10 positive actions

All karma falls under 10 categories, 10 negative actions or 10 positive actions, similar to Christianity's 10 commandments. The 10 negative actions include actions of the body, speech, and mind.

  1. The negative actions of the body are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.

  2. The negative actions of speech are lying; divisive speech; harsh, insulting words; and idle gossip or chitchat.

  3. The negative actions of the mind are covetousness, ill will, and wrong view.

The 10 positive actions are not killing, not lying, etc. However, it’s not enough to just "not do" a negative action. It is not enough to have abstained from killing over a lifetime. You must also feel compassion for all beings and a wish for their happiness.

Three negative actions of body

1. Killing. Killing is taking the life of any form of sentient being. Cutting down a tree is not killing because a tree is not a sentient being. A sentient being possesses consciousness. A sentient being experiences pain and pleasure, and with that comes emotions, attraction and repulsion. Animals can distinguish between pain and pleasure; so they have emotions.

It is considered more serious to kill a human being than an animal. It is especially serious to kill a highly realized spiritual being. If an ordained monk or nun kills, that is a violation of a primary precept, and he or she is automatically disqualified from being a monk or nun.

Question: Do you have to be vegetarian?

Answer: This is complicated. In Buddhism, eating meat is negative, yes. That’s because eating meat is inter-related to killing animals. But when it comes to vegetarian or non-vegetarian, it is difficult to draw a line. Did you stop eating meat because of dietary concerns or because of concerns about killing? If you’re just not eating meat itself, that is not being a pure vegetarian. Mahatma Gandhi was a pure vegetarian because he did not use or wear leather. But most of us don’t want to wait for the animal to die.

Question: How about Islam, where they pray over the animal before slaughter?

Answer: If I pray over you then kill you, is it okay? No, it’s not good, from the Buddhist point of view. In the past, monks begged for food and ate whatever was given to them. So eating meat was not a violation of precepts. If you look back, further, further, you see how hard it is to be truly vegetarian. You can’t get one grain of rice without killing 10 insects. If you are going to eat meat, it’s best to eat meat already killed, already in the market. That’s less negative than eating with a strong desire or intention for meat, thinking, "If I am without meat tonight, I will go on a hunger strike."

2. Stealing. Stealing is taking, purposefully, intentionally, whatever is not given to you or possessed by you. You purposefully or intentionally separate someone from his or her possession. You take something you don’t have a right to take or to use. Stealing from a church or temple something that belongs to the larger community is considered very serious.

Stealing also includes borrowing something and not returning it. Days, weeks, months, a year pass, and you think, "Oh, that’s good; he has really forgotten about it. I don’t have to give it back." Putting your thumb on the scale and pushing so someone who intends to buy a pound actually gets less, that’s stealing, too.

3. Sexual misconduct. Everybody knows what this means. The main thing to remember is that you can cause tremendous problems, first between the couple, then the family, then the community. This can cause a lot of emotional pain to others.

Four negative actions of speech

4. Lying. Lying is intentionally changing your own perception and telling the other side. You know you’re going to the post office, but when someone asks, you say you’re going to the grocery store. There is an intentional verbal distortion. You know you’re going to the post office, but you change this in the telling, replace that awareness, and tell an untruth.

Question: Why is it important that you have changed your "perception"?

Answer: Having a mistaken perception is not the same as lying. For example, you see a ball that is actually blue, but a trick of the light makes it seem red to you. You say it’s red, but you’re not lying; that actually is your perception.

Question: What about white lies? They aren’t harmful.

Answer: That’s still lying.

Question: Social lies? You distort reality, but for a good reason?

Answer: Your perception is of great value in Buddhism. Your perception makes reality; you don’t want to mess around with that.

Question: Someone asks, "How do I look?" You say, "Very good," but the person doesn’t really look very good. You’ve said so because it makes the person feel good.

Answer: That would result in mixed karma. You lie, but you have good motivation, which is not hurting someone else. Still, there is negative karma for telling the lie. It can be hard to tell sometimes. Perhaps if you take a verbal action, you can save someone’s life. Your motivation is to protect the person’s life or freedom. What motivates you is good, so it’s hard to tell. It’s still a lie, but there wouldn’t be much negative karma. Exaggeration, on the other hand, is very bad. Exaggeration is constantly distorting a thing or event until it becomes serious to yourself and to others. You distort until it becomes bigger and bigger, nationwide with big-screen TV. That’s very bad. So stop that.

5. Harsh words. You use speech to hurt others’ feelings.

6. Divisive Speech. You say bad things with the intent of dividing people. You say, "Oh, did you hear…," and then there’s a big explosion. Causing a division in a spiritual community is considered very serious. Or causing division between a couple or between friends.

7. Idle Gossip or Chitchat. If you carefully examine when you are engaging in gossip or chattering, often you’re trying to pick on others’ mistakes and damage their reputations and, at the same time, cover up your own faults. You are also wasting time, talking about things of no consequence. We have little time in our lives to waste, and idle chitchat and gossip are time-consuming and energy-consuming. Little time is left for dharma.

Question: Please explain incomplete karma again.

Answer: It means "weak." The consequences are not as severe as the full force of karma would be.

Question: How do you get rid of incomplete karma?

Answer: It is good to be aware of our tendencies, to be conscious and keep our bad tendencies from manifesting. In habituation, we keep doing negative actions over and over. It is important to know, "I have this problem. This is my personal problem, and it is not good for me, and it is not good for others," and then sincerely and honestly acknowledge that. Then it is important to make a special effort not to manifest those negative tendencies. Gradually, we become more mindful.

Question: What about what has already been done?

Answer: It’s too late.

Question: Can you balance the bad with the good?

Answer: You can balance, but good things do not eliminate the bad things already done, unless you also do purification practice, Vajrasattva practice or the 35 confession Buddhas.

Question: If karma is incomplete, for example, you did something with intention, but immediately afterward felt regret, would you still need to purify?

Answer: Yes, but it is easier because the karma is weak. It’s like dirt in a cloth. If the dirt also includes grease, it’s harder to get the stain out. It takes time and detergent. Full-force karma takes time and effort to get rid of; incomplete karma is easier. In both cases, purification is needed, and without purification, bad karma never disappears.


Purification is different from other religious practices. It is not enough to go into a church where there is a small window and confess and someone inside says, "Well, you confessed; it’s okay," and you go away. That is not enough in Buddhism.

If you want to purify, you must take four steps. You must have a strong, sincere feeling of regret, not guilt. Guilt is past-oriented. Regret is future-oriented. You must have a strong resolve that you will never repeat the negative action, even if it costs your life. You must place your reliance on a higher spiritual being, such as Buddha, with a deep sense of compassion for others. You must apply an antidote that directly destroys negative karma, like a detergent that gets rid of dirt.

When all four are present, then yes, you can get rid on negative karma -- in one single meditative state, with one single cause. Again, if one of the four is missing, it will not work. Purification is difficult.

Question: Are you a vegetarian?

Answer: Do I look like a vegetarian? Do I look spiritual? I am from Tibet. Due to the harsh climate, a 10-month winter, and the high altitude, vegetables and fruits won’t grow. And Tibetans don’t have modern facilities, such as greenhouses, in which to grow fruits and vegetables. Without meat, they would not survive.

Question: What kind of meat?

Answer: Yak. A yak is a little like a water buffalo.

Question: Is it tender?

Answer: Oh, a very specific desire for meat. Put it in the mouth, and like ice cream, it melts. Tibetans also don’t eat seafood, although that is changing because of modern influences. Now, they can get seafood from India and China. But, if you eat shrimp, you are eating 10 to 15 shrimp at a time, and that is eating 10 to 15 lives. If you eat yak meat, you are eating one life.

Question: How many different kinds of Buddhism are there?

Answer: In Tibet, there are four lineages or orders. There are only subtle differences, except in ritual. In ritual performances, there are huge differences. In general, since Buddha’s time, there are two kinds of Buddhism, Mahayana and Therevada. The Mahayana school of Buddhism is found in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, and Korea. The Therevada school is found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Question: Are you familiar with Tantric Buddhism?

Answer: Oh, I am Tantric! Tantra is more mystical, more esoteric. It is secret teachings, secret because it is not taught to the public. The reason is only to protect others. There is a high risk others might misunderstand and experience psychological damage.

Question: What are the benefits to Tantric Buddhism?

Answer: It can accelerate your spiritual development. It’s like someone driving a car with only one gear; in Tantric Buddhism, you know you are driving a car with five gears.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, May 11, 2001.

Part 2

Karma can be complete or incomplete. For karma to be complete, all four binding factors must be present. If all four are present at the execution of an act, karma is complete. If any one is missing at the execution of an act, karma is incomplete. Of the four binding factors, the fourth, completing the act with pleasure, is crucial. "Complete" karma means the karma carries its full force and brings maximum consequences. "Incomplete" karma means one of the four factors is missing and consequently the karma is weak. It does not produce the maximum consequences, as it should.

There are 10 negative actions that produce negative karma. Some are gross actions, easily understood; some are subtle and beyond the understanding of the ordinary mind.

Of the 10 negative actions, three come from the body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Four come from speech: divisive speech, harsh words, lying, and idle gossip. Three come from the mind: being covetous, ill will, and wrong view.

All negative actions fall under one of these 10 categories; they are intentional physical, verbal, or mental actions.

1. Killing. The act of killing is always negative, but whether full negative karma is experienced depends on the motivation. If anger is the motivation, the full force of karma would result. If killing is done with a positive intention – by killing one you could protect 10 – it’s complicated. But in general, killing a human being is considered wrong. Killing a highly realized being -- an arhat or your own master or teacher -- or killing one’s own parent -- your mother or father -- is considered grave. And purification is very difficult.

2. Stealing. Taking something that is not yours is wrong. It is worse to steal a religious object dedicated to a specific church or temple. It is worse to steal an object people see as special or an object belonging to a larger community.

3. Sexual misconduct. This refers to adultery, sexual abuse, and harm to children.

4. Lying. This is telling someone something that is not true. Lying is intentionally telling the opposite of what’s true. By taking the opposite side, you change your own perception. It is possible to say something that is not true without meaning to tell an untruth; that is not lying. Lying about your own spiritual attainment so you can take advantage of another is a specific form of lying that is considered very serious. If a fully ordained monk or nun did this, he or she would be automatically disqualified. This form of lying has serious potential to ruin another person’s life. Other forms of lying are also negative, but do not have as much potential to harm others.

5. Divisive speech. This is speech that causes divisions between or among people or communities. Causing divisions among sangha members or within a congregation is considered very serious. Causing divisions among spiritual friends with the same goals or the same teacher is considered very serious. (Sangha means members of a spiritual community collectively working to reach a higher form of spiritual realization or attainment.)

6. Harsh words. These are words said with the intention of insulting someone or hurting someone’s feelings. When you inflict your bad mood on others, you hurt them, too.

7. Idle gossip. Having a conversation about work, your experiences, your education is not idle gossip. Idle gossip is any form of talk in which you are motivated by anger, resentment, or dislike. You make false statements to cover up your own flaws. Or you dislike a person and make negative statements about this person; you engage in backbiting.

8. Being covetous. You want to separate someone from an object or person. When you covet something or someone, you experience attachment or jealousy. The Bible mentions coveting another person’s ass; today it would be a Mercedes.

9. Ill will. Expressing ill will is very, very bad. Ill will comes from dissatisfaction or dislike. A feeling of discomfort intensifies until you burst into fire; that is called anger. You hold onto your anger, unable or unwilling to diminish it. Harboring the anger breeds resentment. Holding the resentment longer breeds ill will. Ill will’s development is sequential: Dislike or dissatisfaction is experienced until it bursts into anger; anger is held until it becomes hatred or resentment; hatred or resentment harbors ill will. Anger only comes when we feed emotional discomfort. The more you think about a particular person or event, the more you exaggerate; the more you think, the more you distort. You consciously try to make the event larger, uglier, nastier until it becomes serious to you. It affects your mind; it affects your environment; it affects others who come in contact with your negative atmosphere. When ill will is held, sooner or later, you will cause harm or injury. It is important to understand where ill will comes from – from hatred and resentment, hatred and resentment from anger – because anger comes from our own emotional discomfort. Therefore, the primary cause of anger is within us. It’s nothing more than our own emotional discomfort or feelings.

10. Wrong view. If you believe in God or in a creator and its creations, you may believe any other form of religion is bad. Underneath this is insecurity. This insecurity makes others’ faiths annoying; you might be uncomfortable, for example, attending someone else’s church. In Buddhism, that insecurity is not there. That’s because under a belief in Buddhism must reside investigation and knowledge. Buddhists are asked to listen, then check up on what’s said, to examine oneself and others. In Buddhism, wrong view includes denying the basic precepts, for example, denying cause and effect or denying emptiness.

Four negative results from negative karma

All negative karma results from the 10 negative actions. Negative karma brings four types of results.

1. Fully ripened karma. Fully ripened karma appears in our mental continuum. It causes a physical, emotional, or psychological result. The result of fully ripened karma appears in the body, emotions, or psyche from the moment of birth as a physical, emotional, or psychological problem. You’re born with that problem, so there’s almost no help from the material world to cure it.

2. Result corresponding to previous actions. If you completed lots of killings in your past life, in this life you might experience a strong tendency to kill. Even swatting a mosquito would give you pleasure. Perhaps you know two children in one family, and one takes great pleasure in killing. You see a huge difference between the two children. If you have no concept of karma, you might ask, "Why this one child; why not both since they have the same parents?" In Buddhism, the answer would be, "That child is different because that child had a very different lifestyle in the past and was habituated to killing."

3. Result corresponding to initial experience. If in your previous life you did something to another sentient being and your action caused intense emotional or physical pain, the resulting karma will cause you to similarly. Your undesirable experiences will match what you caused. Karma is very deep, very vast, very complicated. In your second year of the Lam Rim, you will go deeper. Be thirsty and look for an ocean. Don’t try to jump into a lake and forget the ocean.

4. Environmental result. Perhaps you live in a country where generation after generation has experienced war and anger and resentment. Maybe there are constant natural disasters. Maybe the place itself where you’re born is destructive, unhealthy. Every negative action creates a negative result and puts negative energy into the community. Every action has a consequence.

The 10 positive actions

Simply not indulging in the 10 negative actions does not mean you are cultivating the 10 positive actions (not killing, not stealing, etc.) Not killing does not mean you are cultivating life.

You need another form of conscious awareness, more than simply avoiding the negative. You need to engage in a way of living that is life-sustaining.

Consider wildlife protection; that’s an easy way to understand this. Say you see a frog with an injured leg. You make a conscious effort to protect the frog; maybe you move it to a safe place. You don’t kill it. But you also don’t just drive by, the music playing loudly.

This is all about deciding how you are going to live, ethically or unethically? With some sort of spiritual awareness? Some sort of mindfulness? Are you going to make an effort? You must search in every moment for ways to not only avoid negative actions, but engage in positive actions.

Each positive action brings desirable results or consequences in our next life, physically, emotional, psychologically. Our inner tendency then will lead us to live in a wholesome way.


Whether you live 10 years or 50 or 60, you will definitely engage in negative actions, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or accidentally, knowingly or unknowingly. If you take negative action without applying a counterforce right away, the karma may be weak and incomplete, but it will grow stronger as time passes. Thus, as soon as you have committed a negative action, you must sincerely acknowledge that you did wrong. And you must engage in a practice that eliminates or purifies the negative action.

There are two purification practices, Vajrasattva and the 35 confession Buddhas.

In Vajrasattva practice, you engage in meditation, visualization, and recitation of mantras.

1. Meditation. First, you empty your mind of thoughts. You become calm and at rest, staying in an unbiased state without worldly, mundane concerns. You are completely awake, alert, and skillful. You are able to know without applying concepts, without adding or subtracting, without over-estimating value or under-estimating value. You know things as they really are.

2. Visualization. You are empty, but awake and alert. No thoughts, no images, no memories. While in that state you evoke the image of Vajrasattva. You bring into focus your image of Vajrasattva without thinking; this has nothing to do with concepts. Somehow, Vajrasattva becomes real to your meditating mind. Because of this, you have a deep emotional feeling, a sense contact or communication with Vajrasattva is about to happen or is happening.

3. Mantra. You engage in the 100-seed-syllable mantra. With the help of meditation, visualization, and recitation, you create an immaterial energy which directly hits where the negative seeds of karma are imprinted in the body or mindstream. The moment the energy hits, the imprint is destroyed. When the imprint is destroyed, the potential of the negative seed giving rise to negative consequences is destroyed. It’s like throwing a seed into a fire; when the seed is burned, it loses its potential to germinate. You may ask, "How do you prove this, crazy monk?" Try it.

If you are using this to purify from a specific deed, before you sit in meditation, think about the deed and how you regret it. Bring before yourself those negative actions and think how destructive your actions were, how they caused harm to yourself and others. Think about how you’ve harmed not only this life, but your future lives. Think about this until it annoys you, until it gives you goosebumps. Hold that uncomfortable feeling until uneasiness develops. Then engage in meditation. During meditation, there’s no need to think back. When you had the feeling of mental discomfort, you should have evoked a physical response and a feeling of regret, not guilt.

You should focus on this sincere regret; that means focusing on the consequences of the action, not yourself. Guilt focuses on self, how bad you are; that could cause depression. A sincere feeling of regret helps you change your way of being; this I can guarantee.

It is important that you understand the differences between regret and guilt, where regret and guilt come from, the natures of regret and guilt, what feelings each leaves you with, where each takes you. Guilt takes you to the past and won’t change you. Regret or remorse is future-oriented and helps you change your way of living.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, June 16, 2001.