Emptiness; regret; and why do bad things happen to good people

Aug 2, 2021




Venerable Robina,




I have been an avid listener of your teachings and love your style of delivering the key messages. It’s worked wonders for me.


I had some questions that I need help with.


1) If all phenomena are of the nature of emptiness and do not exist from their own side, then so are karmic seeds and latencies. So how do the past seeds and latencies dependently arise? What are the causes and conditions for them to arise?


2) What is the significance of regret of our past (this lifetime) non-virtuous actions? What does it do to our mindstream and our karma?


3) What is a healthy way to regret? I have always regretted my past non-virtuous actions but today after the Prayerathon, I had this strong bout of regret that made me cry inconsolably, in a lot of pain for the people I had hurt with my speech. I almost felt a sense of lack of hope for all the negative karma I had done in this lifetime, can’t imagine across lifetimes. I tried reminding myself that I too have Buddha nature but couldn’t console myself with all the remorse going on. 


Would appreciate your guidance on this.


Deepest Gratitude for all your help and teachings always!




Good to hear from you, dear H.


1. Yes, everything is empty of existing from its own side, you are right. And this is the very reason that past seeds can ripen. Everything exists because they are empty, not in spite of it. 


Simply put, the past seeds and latencies are also dependent arisings. Everything is! Therefore they too are empty of inherently existing.


2. Regret is crucial in the process of purification. It’s the acknowledgement to ourself that we did do something to harm another or break a vow etc. But the attitude is the key thing: we regret it because we don’t want future suffering. It’s like recognizing that you ate sugar and regret it because you don’t want diabetes. 


It naturally leads to “whom can I turn to to give me the remedies to fix it?” And that, of course, is the next step, refuge in the buddha: he’s the doctor. And then the second part of the second step, compassion for others.


It’s the first step that naturally leads to the next three: reliance (refuge and compassion), the remedy, then the resolve not to do it again.


3. Your response sounds good! Compassion! Wonderful. But that’s part of the second step: after relying upon the buddha we then have compassion for those we’ve harmed. But it’s necessary to first have compassion for ourselves, which is what regret is. 


And remember, regret is not guilt. That’s useful. It’s anger towards ourselves.


Does this make sense?







Thank you so so much Venerable! I am so fortunate to be able to ask you these questions and deeply grateful hear back from you. 


Thanks for reminding the “because” part of emptiness and not “in spite of“. I overlook this sometimes. One clarifying question I had – how much of a role does the current thought and action play in deciding what past karmic seeds fructify?? Context being — we do see very good natured, virtuous people facing enormous suffering. Does this mean that our current actions and thoughts have less to contribute to the dependent arising of past karmic seeds?


Thanks for also pointing me in the right direction of regret, guilt and the need for self compassion. I need to introspect more to see how much of my regret is mixed with guilt. Thanks once again for this precious reminder.


Deepest gratitude for all your guidance and help along the way,




Happy to hear your thoughts, H.


Yes, the tendency to think that emptiness contradicts existence is very deep. So we need to train ourselves first intellectually; slowly the experience of the truth manifests.


As you know, there are four ways that our past karma ripens, four tracks of karma, if you like. One is the type of rebirth; the other three play out in a rebirth.


So here we are with a 1. human rebirth: the result of masses of virtue, specifically non-killing practiced, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche points out, in the context of living in vows of non-killing.


Then, within this life we have 2. Tendencies similar to the causes, in other words, our mental habits, which give rise to actions of body and speech; 3. Experiences similar to the cause, the various good and bad things that happen to us in particular at the hands of other sentient beings; and 4. Environmental results, that is to say the very way that the physical world impacts upon us.


So, the main result of non-killing, which we have, is 1. A human birth. If we had the other three results of non-killing in this life we would 2. Have a natural tendency to not kill; 3. We would not get killed or die young; and 4. We’d be healthy and the food and water and air etc. would nourish us, not harm us.


Now, we can see that this is not how it is for most humans! Most humans kill! And look at the suffering we experience at the hands of others: being lied to, stolen from, raped, etc. etc. etc.


So, yes is the answer to your question: “Does this mean that our current actions and thoughts have less to contribute to the dependent arising of past karmic seeds?”


A person who has tendencies to be virtuous from having practiced those in the past can have, in the same life, terrible things happen to them — these are the third result of karma, experiences similar to the cause, which is their past actions similar to that from other karmic seeds in the mind.


In other words, there are these four tracks of karma. A bad person – their tendencies – can have good things happen to them – their experiences. They’re from separate seeds. So good things can happen to bad people and bad things can happen to good people.


This is why we need to live in vows and to purify every day. Then our next life will not only be human but we’ll have the three other good results from practicing virtue: good tendencies, good experiences at the hands of others; and good environmental karma.


Much love, H,





Hello Venerable Robina,


Deepest gratitude for your guidance and teachings always! I cannot thank you enough for taking the time and responding to my emails. 


They really helped me get a better understanding and I am truly blessed to have met you in my Dharma journey. 


Hopefully some day, I will be able to meet you in person!


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