So I received a nice email about my last post that included some questions. So I thought to answer them here, so that everyone can also read them. (Hopefully, perhaps, generating more discussion?)
1) When doing a good deed with an understanding of emptiness, you argue that there are two causal chains: first, the good deed itself, second, the recognition of emptiness while doing the deed. The first, you say, results in having a good experience in return. The second will result in “thinking about emptiness again.” However, Je Tsongkhapa says that all karmic deeds ripen as an experienced result and a tendency to repeat that action again. In this case, the good deed itself will ripen both as a good experience as well as the tendency to do the good deed again. If so, in what way is emptiness necessary in creating the upward spiral? You might say that doing the deed with an understanding of emptiness creates a more powerful karmic seed causing the deed to ripen sooner, making an upward spiral more possible, but this seems like a slightly different point than you’re making.
Je Tsongkapa, if you don’t know, is the founder of the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. So what he says is a big deal. But in fact Je Tsongkapa is getting this from the Buddha; the text we usually refer to for this kind of information is called the Abhidharma Kosha (Treasure House of Higher Knowledge), which is a compilation of knowledge taught by the Buddha and compiled by Master Vasubhandu.
Master Vasubhandu writes in his book that there can be four results from any given mental seed you plant: a similar result, a habit, the environmental result, and the projecting result. For example, if I give away some money then I will receive some money in the future (similar result), I will give money away again (the habit result), I will see other people giving money away (the environmental result), and in the future I will see something big happen (the projecting result). So here we’re talking about the habit result: if you do something once, you plant a seed to do it again.
So this is a good question, but not the same as what I was talking about. The thing to get clear on, as is so often the case understanding seeds, is the time gap. There is no necessary relationship between the amount of time it takes each of these four results to come back. In fact, these four results, if they occur, must almost necessarily not occur at the same time, because the projecting result must come later.
Let’s discuss an example. Let’s say I want to pay off my student loans. So I write a check for my student loan payment. What seeds have I planted? I gave something away, so something will come back to me (money, probably). And I created a habit to pay my student loan bill. Where will this get me?
By itself, possibly not very far. I had a friend who borrowed $60k to go to school (this is back in the mid-’90s). I was complaining about my student loan debt ($23k) and how hard it was for me to make payments at that time. (This was just out of school, I was making $26k a year). He had a job similar to mine, at a similar income level, and told me that his payments weren’t even keeping up with the interest–he was making monthly loan payments and his principal was increasing.
So how would planting good seeds get him out of this? By itself, it might not. He gave money away, but it’s not enough. And he has the habit to give, but this won’t fix his problem, if his principal is increasing with each payment he makes.
But what if every time he gave away money he thought about the emptiness of what he was doing? It’s true that by improving his motivation (step #2 of the four steps) he will plant a more powerful seed that will come back stronger and faster. But what I was arguing was that when he gets the similar result (money coming back), because he thought about emptiness, he will replant the seed that produced that result as well.
So maybe the easiest way to understand what I was describing is that not only will the resultant habit potentially be starting an upward spiral, but, by thinking about emptiness, then the similar result will be as well.