Master Lu, 2009 Feb 9
Many of us are familiar with the saying, “what goes around comes around”. This is equally true from the perspective of Buddhism. Good deeds and good beliefs refer to benevolent actions and compassionate thoughts. Each of these is recorded, and when the time is right – positive karmic rewards will result. Similarly, evil actions and thoughts are also recorded, and the negative karma or punishments are never missed. However, the positive karma from benevolent actions and compassionate thoughts cannot counteract the negative karma from evil actions and thoughts. In other words, if a person has performed many good deeds, but at the same time has also committed a serious sin – this person will receive positive karma but also cannot escape from the negative karma. This explains why sometimes someone who is widely considered to be a good person can end up suffering in hell when s/he passes away.
Virtue is a profoundly emphasised element in Buddhism. What is virtue, and what is the purpose of accumulating virtues? Virtues are in fact benevolent actions and compassionate thoughts. However, vows need to be made in front of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for these benevolent actions and compassionate thoughts to become virtues. If vows have not been taken, or the mind has not been brought forth to perform benevolent actions and to have compassionate thoughts, they will merely remain at the level of self-expression, regardless of whether they were self-motivated or influenced by Buddhism. For example, a person has been vegetarian for many years but he has never made a vow in front of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to be vegetarian. Even if he remains vegetarian for ten years, it would merely be considered as his preference. It is therefore important to make vows in front the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to commit yourself to perform benevolent actions, including helping others, making donations, volunteering, etc. In fact, even actions such as displaying filial piety and being kind to siblings should also be taken as vows or as mind to be brought forth in front of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Buddhist temples, where Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are given offerings (including the shrine where Guan Yin Bodhisattva is worshipped), every benevolent action you perform is automatically considered as a virtue and no further vows are required. Benevolent actions and compassionate thoughts are only transformed into virtue when they are witnessed by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, just like asking a JP to certify a document before it is considered to be legitimate.
So what is the purpose of accumulating virtues? We are all familiar with the danger of negative karma – they are hidden in our Alaya consciousness like viruses hidden in a computer. When the time comes, they are activated as spirits that take actions on humans. This is why some people can suddenly go from good health to suffering from a terminal illness, being involved in a fatal accident, or experiencing calamity. For some people, their negative karma is so severe that their entire life is not smooth – their complexion is dull, and they complain about everything. If a person commits sins or kills other living beings, but his positive karmic rewards have not yet finished – then the evil actions or thoughts will be transformed into negative karma and stored in the Alaya consciousness. The Alaya consciousness is the eighth consciousness in our eight consciousnesses. It is the fundamental consciousness. There are innumerable seeds stored within this consciousness, which can lead people to perform benevolent or evil actions (mainly by targeting the thought process). Only virtue can enter and counteract the negative karma stored in the Alaya consciousness, and therefore cease the negative karma. This is what “The body is a Bodhi tree, the mind is like a bright mirror stand. Time and again brush it clean, and let no dust alight” means – that we need to use our virtue to clean the dust in our mind.
One of the most important purposes for accumulating virtues is to counteract and cease negative karma, which is the first task for every Buddhist cultivator. Only when the negative karma is ceased, that your mind can be purified, your wisdom can be obtained, and enlightenment can then be possible.
 “Bringing Forth the Mind” (Fa Xin) in Sanskrit is bodhicitta-samutpāda.