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The Fourth Karma and the Painful Point

Protea, photo by Jennifer Woodhull

Protea, photo by Jennifer Woodhull

COLUMN: Dispatches from the Front Lines

by Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

Dispatches from the Front Lines is a bimonthly column initiated by Shastri Jennifer Woodhull of Cape Town, South Africa. It’s intended to open up dialogue concerning the conflicts dogging Shambhala groups and centers all over the world. So far, Jennifer has been the only contributor. What will make this column genuinely helpful to the larger mandala — and, by implication, to all of our local sanghas — is a broader range of contributions. You don’t have to be in an official leadership position in your center or group; you need only to have practiced bringing your local conflict to the path of warriorship, and to be willing to say something about that experience. Please see the submission guidelines, and go for it!

When the going gets rough, we call on our protector deities to execute the four karmas, or actions: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and destroying.

Those of us who have had the good fortune to witness our Dorje Kasung at work have seen what this looks like in practice. On meeting a difficult situation, they first attempt to pacify it. If it declines to be pacified, they offer some kind of enrichment: giving the situation something it may need, such as reassurance, support, or simply space. Should difficulties persist, the protector magnetizes assistance from other appropriate resources.

The fourth karma, destroying, is held in reserve for when all else fails. Some translations call this action “subduing,” but I prefer the daring and outrageousness of “destroying.” When you get to the point of taking up the sword of the fourth karma, I reckon you’re ready to call it like it is.

But wait: don’t the lojong teachings caution us not to “bring things to a painful point”? What could be more painful than “destroying”? How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory teachings?

I recently found myself obliged to contemplate this question at a deeper level than the merely theoretical. To my surprise, it dawned on me that the two teachings — those of the fourth karma and the lojong slogan — are closely related. It was because things had come to such a painful point that they seemed to call for the sword. And it was because of hesitation to apply the sword that things had come to such a painful point.

It seems to me that the difference between the fourth karma and bringing things to a painful point comes down to the willingness to take responsibility for my own understanding of the situation I’m in. A superficial reading of that statement might suggest a sort of finger-wagging — a less kind version of the Vidyadhara’s famous OM GROW UP SVAHA.

Taking responsibility when you have a sword in your hand isn’t in the same realm as paying your taxes on time or taking your turn at washing the dishes. To execute the fourth karma properly requires serious windhorse. This is where the Shambhala teachings on confidence and bravery come into their own. This is where the practices of patience, daring and skillful means are at their most demanding.

How do we know whether our confidence is justified, our bravery sufficient? How can we tell our patience from hesitation, our daring from impulsiveness, our skill from arrogance? For the most part, we can’t. And I’d say that this particular don’t know is precisely where the rubber meets the road. It’s right here, on the thin line between confidence and doubt, that the practice of warriorship is situated. The work of holding one’s seat here is the practice of warriorship.

Road out of town, photo by Jennifer Woodhull

Road out of town, photo by Jennifer Woodhull

The warrior’s journey is an intensely lonely one. Although most of us have worked at least to some extent with loneliness as path, when the fourth karma looms as a real option we discover new depths of aloneness. We find ourselves in a confusing, messy situation, and eventually come to some understanding of what’s going on. But there’s no objective standard by which to measure the validity of our view. No one else can tell us whether it’s time to lift the sword, or guarantee that it will strike true. We’re one hundred percent alone with our decision; and, whether the stroke succeeds or goes awry, we’re one hundred percent alone with the consequences.

One way to know when it’s time to implement the fourth karma is that the painfulness of the point things are coming to keeps intensifying. What brings things to a painful point is hesitation: allowing the confusion and mess to multiply while waiting for someone to confirm that the way we’re seeing it is accurate, or at least justifiable. Or waiting for another player to make a decisive move. Or waiting for an external savior to arrive from Halifax and take the situation in hand.

But it’s a mistake to imagine that triumphant final credits roll as soon as we finally penetrate the fog of doubt and hesitation. Now we have to actually execute the fourth karma. Here, it’s helpful to contemplate just what the sword in our hand is going to destroy. The point of the four karmas is to get situations unstuck. So the fourth karma, properly practiced, cuts through fixation—including our own. Once the sword has struck, things are going to unfold without reference to our opinions, beliefs, preferences, fears or hopes. We won’t be able to control the fallout, and we’re going to be first in line for its effects.

So the very action of the fourth karma rudely pops any fantasies we may have of nobly wielding the sword of virtue while those we deem nonvirtuous fall to ignominy. The enemy that falls to the sword is not a human adversary, but the project of ego, itself. It’s only from ego’s point of view that adversaries exist; so the sword has no bias toward this or that individual. Ego permeates the entire situation, which otherwise wouldn’t be stuck. Unsticking the situation requires cutting through all self-serving strategies — some of which, this side of enlightenment, will reliably haunt our best attempts at genuine warriorship. The success of the fourth karma depends on how far we’re able to go in renouncing our carefully crafted roles in ego’s movie of heroes and villains.

I’ve found it helpful to think of the fourth karma as a gift to the situation. As an act of generosity, it’s subject to the threefold purity: no gift, no giver and no act of giving. So in the practice of this karma, there’s no one wielding the sword, no stroke and no sword. There’s just the courage to own your best understanding of the situation; the practice of staying with your fear; and the willingness to support yourself unconditionally as fixation is severed and the illusion of control falls apart.

Read previous articles in this Column by clicking here.


Jennifer Woodhull

Jennifer Woodhull

Jennifer Woodhull grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and returned there after 30 years in the U.S. She took refuge at Karme Dzong, Boulder in 1984 and was empowered as a shastri in 2012. Jennifer is a full-time PhD student in religious studies at the University of Cape Town.

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8 responses to “ The Fourth Karma and the Painful Point ”
  1. Vivi Spicer
    Jun 14, 2015

    Wow, Jennifer. So much of what your wrote echoed my experience as “been there, done that”. Also loved the quote from the VCTR from “Smile at Fear”.

    And I agree that, for me, the placement of your article side by side with the one about Jill Scott made her departure more bittersweet and your writing more poignant.

  2. This teaching as come right on time. Thank you, Shastri Jennifer!

  3. Mark Turnoy
    Jun 10, 2015

    Thanks so much for writing this article, Jennifer. The distinctions you make in the article, the clarity of it, were really helpful and impressive! I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently and a little writing, and really appreciate your choice of subject and how you explained it in a practical as well as inspiring way.

    I hadn’t looked at the Times here in quite a while, and it was wonderful to read the tribute to Jill Scott and your article this morning. Good luck in your return to school, which I hadn’t heard about. Best wishes!

  4. “Before you slash the enemy, look into his or her eyes and feel that tenderness. Then you slash. When you slash your enemy, your compassionate heart becomes twice as big. It puffs up; it becomes a big heart; therefore, you can slash the enemy. If you are small-hearted, you cannot do this properly.” VCTR, Smile at fear, pg. 62.

  5. Basia Solarz
    Jun 1, 2015

    I appreciate this very much, Jennifer. It seems important to understand, as you have pointed out so well, just what it is we are cutting with our swords. Warriorship in this situation seems to be about seeing and offering the wisdom of our anger–its clarity and insight–without the fixation that feeds confusion and aggression.

    It is also good to be reminded that the sword cuts in all directions–my own fixation will the first to land on the cutting block. I realize from contemplating what you’ve offered here that unless and until I am willing to cut my own fixation first, I don’t want to be in the business of swinging my sword in the direction of others.

    Thanks again.

  6. Ernst Kleisterlee
    Jun 1, 2015

    Using the sword of the fourth karma out of generosity to the whole situation: a great eye-opener for me! Thanks for this column!

  7. Helena Fagan
    May 31, 2015

    I love this! Thank you for writing with such clarity and strength. An incredibly helpful discussion of the four karmas.

  8. “How can we tell our patience from hesitation, our daring from impulsiveness, our skill from arrogance?”

    As an on the spot reality check, I find it helpful to check your heart. Is there compassion (warm heart) for the other in the situation — or is our motivation based on one of the kleshas (anger or a desire to avoid or escape a painful situation)? Compassion doesn’t have an agenda, so another on the spot test is to ask whether our actions are result driven. The fourth karma is like a reset button, like being in the middle of a board game, reaching out and turning over the board and scattering the pieces — and then being willing to accept responsibility for the consequences. It is a creative act, in an odd way.

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. I hope you will continue with this series.

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