Praying for Our Karmic Creditors

Dr. Juan Bulnes


About 3 months ago, I asked Dr. Yutang Lin whether he could perform a Puja for my karmic creditors. He agreed and said he would perform the Puja to Green Tara on April 3, 2005. After performing it, Dr. Lin asked me to write down my experiences related to this Puja, for the benefit of other practitioners.

Why I Requested this Puja

The idea did not happen overnight. About two years ago, after an experience that has been written down and is available in Yogi Chen’s website under the topic of Powa, I felt the motivation to request a Puja for my ancestors, and Dr. Lin kindly agreed to perform such a Puja to Amitabha Buddha. I prepared a list with the names of more than 500 direct ancestors, and included by reference many others whose names I do not know, and I also listed many siblings and children of the ancestors, for a total of more than 1300 names. The experience of researching my ancestors with the motivation to help all of them attain liberation, and the signs experienced at the time of the performance, confirmed the importance of this practice. I believe requesting that Puja was one of the most important things I have done in my life. My karmic relationship with my parents and ancestors had often been confused during my youth and adulthood. More than 28 years ago, Yogi Chen instructed me on the importance to love our parents unconditionally, and I sought to do as he advised, changed my behavior, and got many benefits for doing so. However, it is only after the performance of the Amitabha Puja for my ancestors in February 2003, that I have felt completely at peace in my relationship with them. Several months ago I noticed my mind was often dwelling on memories of the past, especially on various things that I would do differently if I could. This fact, coupled with the experience of the Puja for ancestors, one day reached the threshold of causing me to request this Puja for my karmic creditors. It was not an easy thing to do, because I had never heard of such an idea. But Dr. Lin responded enthusiastically from the first mention of it; he scheduled a Puja to Green Tara at the first available date, which was April 3, 2005, and instructed me to start creating a list of my karmic creditors.

Preparing the List of Karmic Creditors

For several days after making the request for this Puja, I saw in my dreams some relationships of long ago, people that otherwise had not come into my memories for many years. For example, a certain professor and his wife, both long deceased, came into my dreams. When I examined the relationship, it is clear that he and his wife had treated me extraordinarily well, giving me my first job and offering me their sincere friendship, so I owe him a great deal. In another dream I saw a friend of my teen years that I have not seen ever again; I never thought that my connection with that friend had been very strong, but the dream clearly said otherwise.

On one level, I felt the sadness of failing to appreciate people who really cared for me. On a deeper level, it was as if these persons are asking me to remember them in this Puja. Dr. Lin confirmed this interpretation, saying: "Beings, especially those deceased, are desperate for this kind of opportunity!"

I promptly started writing the list for fear that I would soon forget about these dreams. So, in the first week or so, I had written between 1 and 2 pages of former relationships. But soon the progress slowed down. No more dreams, less memories coming to my mind. I did not try hard: thinking there was still plenty of time, I simply sought to remember the matter from time to time. While adding some names to the list, I soon began to see how complicated it is to determine who are our karmic creditors. I have lived in three different continents, being active in at least three very different linguistic and cultural environments. A large part of my memories seem to have faded away. When I try to remember the names of colleagues in companies I have worked for, or the names of fellow students, and those of other friends, it is clear there are many persons whose names I no longer remember; in many cases even if I hear the name I would not recognize it. I am sure there are many persons that I do not recall ever having met.

I understood as a practical matter that we transmigrate even in this lifetime. There is so much I have completely forgotten due to changing continent, language and cultural environment, and also by aging. That helps me understand why it is normal that I’d have no memory whatsoever of events in my previous lives–and yet, those karmic creditors of previous lives are surely there! A couple of years ago, I came across some personal diary that I had written in German about 37 years ago. The experience of reading that old writings of mine was uncanny: it seemed written not by me, but by some typical student of that place and time. I found it hard to conceive that I would have been thinking and writing in that manner. I had no connection with the writer! But the young man who wrote those lines, who was not a Buddhist in those days, blundered through life, creating various kinds of karmic debts that I may never remember, or perhaps will remember at the time of death.

I have often heard that at the time of death our whole life experience passes like a movie in front of our inner eye, in great detail, in a split second. People who have come alive of a nearly mortal accident report this experience. Bob Dole, former Republican Senator and presidential candidate who was almost mortally wounded during the war, told the following in a TV interview on “Meet the Press” on April 10, 2005.

Interviewer: "A month later this is what you wrote happened 60 years ago this very week: "I felt a sting as something hot, something terribly powerful crashed into my upper back behind my right shoulder. ... My body responded before my brain had time to process what was happening. As the mortar round, exploding shell, machine gun blast--whatever it was, I'll never know--ripped into my body, I recoiled, lifted off the ground a bit, twisted in the air and fell face down in the dirt. For a long moment, I didn't know if I was dead or alive. I sensed the dirt in my mouth more than I tasted it. ... Then the horror hit me--I can't feel anything below my neck! I didn't know it at the time, but whatever it was that hit me had ripped apart my shoulder, breaking my collarbone and my right arm, smashing down into my vertebrae, and damaging my spinal cord." April 14th, 1945, Hill 913, northern Italy. You remember it like yesterday?"

Mr. Dole: "Oh, yeah. I remember my--I think what they call a near-death experience. Your life kind of just... floats in front of you. I thought about my little dog. I thought about my parents. I thought about my brother, my sisters, Russell, Kansas. All those things just sort of flash by you.

Nikolai Gulmiyov, a great Russian Communist poet who was executed by firing squad on order of Lenin, alludes to this experience, foretelling the manner of his death, in an amazing poem titled "The Worker". He must have heard of this experience, for he fought in World War I.

When my time comes, will I be ready to face all the neglected relationships that I have failed to repay in this lifetime?

Some Realizations

As the date of the Puja approached, I repeated the mantra of Green Tara as advised by Dr. Lin. In the last few days before the Puja, I remembered more relationships and the list of names grew to 5 typewritten pages. Some of the newly remembered relationships were such that I would have felt sorry if I had missed them! 

I was no longer overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task. Instead, I experienced a growing understanding that it is impossible to draw anywhere a boundary that defines who are my karmic creditors. There can never be an end to the list! We do not know who all of our creditors are. Moreover, I soon found that "one thing leads to another," in an endless chain of karmic connections. Of course some are particularly important in the life of a person; and that is a good reason for doing this Puja. But how could I be satisfied with naming just those that seem most important while leaving out so many others? In summary, I experienced the very important fact that we are all connected and you cannot leave anyone out.

While adding some more names the last day before the Puja, I suddenly realized I cannot leave out the benefactors of our society, such as the great scientists, leaders in government and culture, military personnel who defend our nation, and of course the philosophers and the religious leaders who help us live better lives. But how could I possibly draw a list, for example, of all the great scientists that have bequeathed us the merits that we enjoy today as a society? So I added to the list a generic mention of all these benefactors.

Pope John Paul II died the day before the Puja, and I realized that he is indeed one of my benefactors, so I listed him by name as one of my karmic creditors.

The day before the Puja I was crossing a busy street, walking on a designated pedestrian crossing; the cars on one lane had properly come to a full stop to yield my right of way, as mandated by California law. Thus I was walking confidently, while feeling pleased with the good behavior of these drivers, when suddenly on the other lane a car passed at high speed in front of me and did not even try to slow down. He was clearly violating the speed law and the law that mandates yielding to pedestrians on the designated crossing. In a reaction of anger, I mumbled, mutedly, a profanity towards the driver, who most likely remained unaware of it. I am prone to such reaction when someone endangers my physical integrity by sheer recklessness. I picked up this bad habit when growing up in Santiago, Chile, where drivers are ill-tempered and routinely curse each other. In some rare occasions a display of anger can be useful to stop an accident. But in this case it was useless, gratuitous, something done for the sake of "getting even." I have done such acts hundreds of times, considering it harmless, even quaint, as a kind of cultural ritual. But this time something new happened in my mind! I instantly realized that I had just created one more karmic creditor–even if he did not know of my swearing! Thus I remembered that there must be hundreds of drivers that I have similarly cursed in my life. That I suddenly had this realization is one more benefit of this Puja.

I ended the list with a "catch all" paragraph: to include all those karmic creditors that I have forgotten to name. Thinking of so many cases like that driver, and worse offenses, I wrote down a request of forgiveness for my transgressions against my karmic creditors, and I also apologized for any failures to write their names properly or even to remember them.

In conclusion, the list of our karmic creditors is endless: every animal whose meat we have eaten, or whose milk we have drunk, is a karmic creditor to us. So are the horses that have carried us and our forefathers, and the dogs that have loved us unconditionally, and the hamsters and monkeys that have participated in the experiments to develop the medical drugs and procedures that prolong our lives. So are the soldiers who have died defending our nation and those who are sacrificing for it now. So are the policemen and policewomen who risk their lives to keep order in our cities–for without them, we would rather soon become victims of robbers and hooligans. So are the doctors who have cared for us, and those who taught them, and so on and so forth. The more you think of it, the clearer it becomes that we can never repay our debts, and that the list of creditors never ends.

What about Our Karmic Debtors?

I address here a question that perplexed me when I was preparing the list. When I first requested the Puja, Dr. Lin used the words "a Puja for your karmic creditors and debtors." But as I prepared the list, I could only think of creditors, i.e., of debts I owe, and never thought of anyone as my debtor. By the last day before the Puja, I had concluded that it was not for me to say whether some person owes me something in the karmic sense. Therefore, in the "catch all" paragraph I just mentioned, I simply wrote "and karmic debtors if any." 

A week has passed since the Puja, and I have gained a new understanding about this point of karmic debtors. It is certain that we have done at least some good deeds in our lives, because every human being has loved someone, or saved the live of some insect. Most likely there is someone somewhere who thinks of us as their creditor. But does that make that person our debtor? I have concluded that it is unwholesome for a Buddhist practitioner to think that he or she has any karmic debtors. If we entertain that thought, we make ourselves un-free; we become like a miser hoarding IOUs (abbreviation for "I owe you"), i.e., worthless pieces of paper declaring that someone owes something to us. The Diamond Sutra (Prajnaparamita Sutra) tells us so in many different phrases, such as:

A good man or good woman, that has raised aspiration toward the unsurpassable right and full enlightenment, should raise such an intention: 'I should rescue all sentient beings through cessation of sufferings; after all sentient beings have been rescued through cessation of sufferings there is not even one sentient being that, in reality, has been rescued through cessation of sufferings." (From section 17 of the Sutra. Translated from the Chinese by Dr. Yutang Lin, available at
Or the following:

" If a Bodhisattva announces: I will liberate all living creatures, he is not rightly called a Bodhisattva. " (Further down in section 17. Translation by A. F. Price).

Thus this Puja has helped me to better understand the truth of these teachings.

Experiences during and after the Puja 

I brought to the Puja a special offering: a pot of beautiful white azaleas. It had two intertwined trunks of equal strength and size, braided around each other. The plant was as perfect as it can be! Although it was supported by the pair of closely interwoven trunks, the foliage appeared like just of one tree. The numerous beautiful white flowers intermingled with the green leaves in a perfect natural arrangement. I felt it was very auspicious that I found this tree for this Puja. The flowers symbolize the path, so this offering may be thought of as requesting the sublimation of all the karmic hindrances and vicissitudes we have encountered in our path through life! When I offered this tree into the fire altar, a thick, long column of white smoke shot up to the sky, rising continually straight up for a long while. I felt very happy to see this!

Now several days have passed. When I happen to remember any of my karmic creditors, I no longer feel regret for anything I have done. Instead, I sense peace. And sometimes I say to myself: "I am glad that I had all those creditors, because thanks to that kind of connection I was able to give them the gift of the merits of this Puja.

Even though I was raised Catholic, I never felt any special connection to the Pope. But this time, as I mentioned above, his death the day before the Puja brought me the realization that he is one of my creditors, and thus I named him in the list offered to Green Tara, the mystical mother of all Buddhas. The Pope’s funeral was celebrated on Friday, April 8, after a partial solar eclipse on April 7. That night I met the Pope John Paul II in a dream; the funeral may still have been going on at the time of the dream, for it was day in Rome while still night in California. The dream was very vivid and went on for a good while. I saw this face and head, very close to mine, like two friends sitting next to each other, just the two of us in intimate conversation. His smile was very warm and welcoming, like a best friend. I was telling him about some of the best experiences in my life, and he listened with great sympathy, occasionally asking a question in order to further the conversation. He was wearing his usual dress, the white papal robe. His face was very lovely, full of health and vitality–the way he looked when he became Pope about twenty-six years ago.

May all sentient beings be released from their karmic entanglements by praying for their karmic creditors!

Written on April 11, 2005
Revision with help from Dr. Lin
Mountain View, California


Dr. Lin's comments:

Thanks to Juan for telling in such details his whole learning process in connection with this topic as a Dharma practice. I believe that this article will help many practitioners.

The two quotes from the Diamond Sutra he listed above were originally taken from other sources, and there was some problem in those versions. So I pointed them out and then Juan changed the quotes to the present ones. The second one remains not exactly as the Chinese version would have it.

April 11, 2005
El Cerrito, California

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