Buddha taught that the proximal causes of suffering are karma and klesha. Karma is the relation between actions and their effects. According to the Buddhist Mahayana it is our intention that determines the character of the effects of our actions. Accordingly, if we have good intentions the effects will be good, and conversely the opposite. But if we look into this deeper we come to ask, “… good or bad for whom?” The karma associated with our actions (deeds, words and thoughts) accrues to ourselves. It is easy to observe that even with the best of intentions we can still cause suffering for others. This is because even the best intentions such as kindness, generosity and compassion can only be expressed by individuals according to their individual levels of consciousness. One’s level of consciousness is limited by one’s degree of ignorance. So, when Buddha originally taught that the main issue was the issue of suffering, it was about one’s own suffering. Going deeper, the Mahayana teachings introduced the idea that the suffering of others is equally relevant. With regard to the suffering of others, therefore, good intentions alone can not be considered sufficient. So we can say that good intentions produce good karmic effects, but it remains on the relative level because even good karma can cause suffering if you identify with the goodness. Identification is the core mechanism of craving/aversion — the alternating current of ignorance that runs the karma machine called Human Being.
Klesha is another matter. Unlike karma which is routinely characterized as either positive, negative or neutral, klesha is always considered negative except in its most objective understanding. This exception must be understood properly if the point of this discussion is to be clear and meaningful. The objective view that sees klesha as being absent any real negativity simultaneously sees the context in which its relative negativity has vital relevance.
There is a long tradition of translating klesha as “poison”, indicating a negative emotional or psychic state that poisons the mind. The word, poison, originally refers to something deadly that is ingested unwittingly, often through deceit or treachery. Therefore a poison is rightfully understood as something coming in from the outside. In Buddhism, the three cardinal “poisons” are said to be attachment, anger and ignorance. But in the Dzogchen view, Ignorance is an innate condition that permits attachment and anger to “come in” and exact their poisonous effects. Ignorance itself is understood in Dzogchen to be co-emergent with Gnosis\wisdom. Inasmuch as co-emergent Ignorance/Gnosis characterizes the innate condition of a human being, we can conclude that Ignorance is not really a klesha but rather the condition that allows it. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand that poison is only poisonous if its milieu can’t digest it. If cooked a certain way, a poison can even become a great medicine. So, although we certainly must be realistic and practical about our susceptibility to various poisons, we should also understand that it is really just our own digestive weakness that renders the poison poisonous.
Ignorance, then, can be understood as a kind of spiritual digestive problem. Because of this condition our life merely follows the simple organic route of decomposition. Our Ignorance not only enables and perpetuates the factors of our own suffering, but also wastefully submits us to being unwittingly farmed in a very large-scale process of cosmic agrarianism. Our actual value, as micro-organisms, in that cosmic process depends entirely on our remaining ignorant. In other words, if we name the entire biomass of all living organisms on Earth, “the farm”, then what this means is that our ignorance relegates our status in the cosmos to the level of livestock or perhaps merely compost. As livestock or compost we indeed have value to the cosmos, but not to ourselves. Our status in the cosmos can be understood here as our level of being. Our ongoing ignorance, although serving some utilitarian cosmic purpose, but being of no benefit to ourselves as individuals, permits and sustains all 84,000 kleshas in our individual human system.
In spite of the tremendous cosmic momentum that would just mix humans in to the entropic global biomass, there exists a secret escape hatch. The supreme master Padmasambhava taught that human beings possess a special potential that makes them uniquely capable of liberating themselves. In this sense we humans can be understood to be a kind of very special kit. This human-kit requires varying degrees of assembly and/or adjustment in order to realize its full potential which we can call, realization. And the only one capable of actually engaging in this assembly/adjustment is oneself. However, the knowledge necessary for successfully completing this task can only be found through a direct and deliberate connection with beings who have already completed themselves. Such completed beings are called enlightened beings. The so-called Dzogchen lineage is a conduit of specific knowledge concerning the most expedient means to put oneself together completely. Connecting oneself into this conduit means connecting (and remaining connected) to a Dzogchen teacher. Through that connection we can receive the transmission of knowledge, of which there are different levels, ranging from the most tangible physical level to the most subtle non-conceptual level. Without knowledge we can do nothing, but without applying our knowledge, we remain livestock. To apply the knowledge we receive it is necessary to pay attention to certain subtle aspects of ourselves. Exactly how to pay attention is part of the knowledge to be received through transmission. A certain degree of native attentive capacity is in some sense a prerequisite.
In general, to begin Dzogchen practice we must begin to observe ourselves. This may sound like something simple and easy, but it is not at all simple nor at all easy. First of all, what is meant by ourselves? It means all of our various and myriad states, moods, judgments, motives, thoughts, reveries, inclinations, movements, habits, etc. Then, who can be the observer? Wouldn’t the observer just be one of the many aspects of our self? To really observe oneself then would be like trying to pick up a plank of wood that you are standing on. This is where the kleshas can start to be viewed objectively, devoid of any real negativity. Due to innate ignorance, virtually everything that we experience as ourselves is actually just a persistent pattern of self-looping kleshas, so strongly identified with as to be collectively taken as “I”. But this collection is not really “I”. So, to observe oneself, in the Dzogchen sense, you somehow recruit your most objective aspect to take on the role of observer. Although it is also afflicted by innate ignorance, this provisional observing aspect can begin to objectively differentiate the main cast of fictional “characters” who, up till now, have been allowed to function as oneself. Our situation, as uncompleted humans, is something like a grand mansion full of hundreds of live-in staff: cooks, janitors, gardeners, schedulers, buyers, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, nurses, entertainers, librarians, cleaners, decorators, electricians, publicists, accountants and lawyers, all with their respective sub-staff. With the real master of the house understood to be either in a coma, asleep, drunk, imprisoned abroad, or even not yet born, you can imagine the disorder and confusion that would exist as all these live-in characters vie to assert their own narrow perspectives. Such is this thing that we unwittingly consider to be oneself. It is not oneself at all. So, it is necessary to have this vital knowledge in order to begin putting the house in order. Objective self-observation will verify all of this — and we must verify this.
Once a reliable provisional observer/supervisor is in place, and none of the various staff, including the observer, are any longer mistaken for the master “I”, there is a chance to relax and enjoy the great self-liberating spaciousness of reality — unsullied by the meaningless clamor of our frenetic household. If we can find a staff member, or better, a team of such staff who can take this process seriously and really persevere, this human kit can be completed. Each human kit, though basically similar, is truly unique in its configuration and pre-programming. An excellent teacher will therefore be able to work with the student’s nuances as well as with their fundamentals in overseeing the student’s process of self-assembly and discovery of primordial self-perfection. Once completed, we discover that what it really means to be human is infinitely greater than anything we could have imagined in our incomplete state.
About negativity … Considered quantitatively, the majority of our mansion’s staff is either completely negative or can only make negative comments. If we permit negativity to speak through us, as if it were our “I”, de-construction and demolition of the project will result. One of the most insidious aspects of being in an incomplete state of being is that whenever negativity surfaces, it always feels like “I” and always feels justified. However, it is never justified — it is always a corruption of truth. The primordial Buddha, our real nature, is therefore called Samantabhadra. The pathological habit of blaming others and alternately denigrating oneself is the result of giving voice to negativity. At some very high level of development a practitioner may find the capacity to transmute the raw energy of negativity into pristine awareness. Or the master practitioner may even realize that negativity is ultimately the primordially pure symbolic resistance that makes creativity possible. However, in the beginning stages of getting your house in order, it is necessary to simply not permit negativity to speak. Among the great master Atisha’s fifty-nine slogans for remembering how to train the mind, there is one called, “Drive all blame into one”. This can mean the conscious absorption of all blame, universally, into oneself; and it can also mean to see and realize the singular source of all blame dissolving into itself as soon as it arises. The first meaning is for entering the Path of the Bodhisattva, the second is Dzogchen.