Monthly Archives: July 2013

Fundamental View: Talk 7

Presented at the Buddha Centre, Second Life on July 27 and 30, 2013.

Talk 7

The Way of Transcendence

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Buddha did not like to answer questions about the world, whether it is eternal or not or whether it is finite or not, the relationship between the soul (atta) and the body, and the post-mortem status of a Tathagata. He discouraged speculating about these matters. The Buddha said instead of speculating about such things, one should work on oneself. This need not imply the questions have no answers. Thus, the Buddha describes the world of sangsara; he denies the reality of the soul; and he affirms the Deathless. One cannot infer from this passage that the Buddha denies ontology, the science and philosophy of being, although it is widely interpreted this way. What the Buddha seems to be criticizing is not the validity of ontology, but rather the soteriological value of a certain mode of questioning, i.e., trying to infer the nature of the trans-dual from the standpoint of the dualistic reasoning faculty.

In these passages and others, the Buddha presents the alternatives in terms of two or four logical contraries. For example, the statements (a) after death a Tathagata exists, (b) after death a Tathagata does not exist, (c) after death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist, and (d) after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist. The Buddha makes it clear none of these statements is true or false. He does not state there is no truth. Rather, he implies the truth cannot be realized in this way.

Rather, one must work on oneself in order to discover the actual experience of the trans-dual. Spiritual realization is essentially non-rational and experiential. Therefore, it cannot be reached by questioning. Therefore, enlightenment too cannot be reached by questioning. The Buddha points toward the answer by indicating the inquirer should pursue self-knowledge, especially the Four Truths. The Four Truths are not theories but matters of fact subject to experiential verification. By starting with consciousness, one establishes what is known. One can reason from the known to the unknown. Thus, the Four Truths are not merely psychological; they are ontological. Suffering, desire and its cessation, and the path itself exist within an ontological framework. They also indicate its nature, and it, theirs. In this way, the Buddha developed a phenomenology of transcendence.

The apparent denigration of questioning in these passages may also reflect a division already present in the early sangha between the proponents of wisdom, the cure for ignorance, and the proponents of renunciation, the cure for desire. In time, these separated into the Mahayana and the Hinayana schools so-called.[1]

Ignorance is the root cause of the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda), and desire, the seventh of the intermediate causes. The proponents of wisdom argued, since ignorance (awijja) is the root of the chain of cause and effect, the most efficient way to attain enlightenment is to cultivate wisdom directly. Wisdom corresponds with Right View, the first step in the Eightfold Path. The Buddha says Right View is based on seclusion, cessation, and dispassion, “maturing in release.” A more ascetic school, probably associated with monasticism, held that renunciation of craving and purification, as exemplified by the sangha and by the Buddha himself, should be regarded as primary.

The primacy of desire seems to underlie the popular interpretation found in many books that the path consists of ethics and meditation, with wisdom as the goal of enlightenment itself and in that order. Such a view seems to be inconsistent with the Eightfold Path, as pointed out by Dr. Peter Masefield. Meditation is presented as the culmination of a path that begins with wisdom and intention. This is followed by ethics or self-control. This view leads to different conclusions as to how the mind ought to be cultivated initially, either by developing the mind and the will or by following ethical precepts and practising meditation. The latter is included in the former, but at a later stage. The Dalai Lama discusses the value of knowledge and meditation in relation to each other in an interesting YouTube video. He warns that the practice of meditation, pursued in isolation, without the corresponding development of the mind, can lead to dullness rather than clarity.[2]

The Buddha describes a series of monks who attain a little. Agitated by the experience of awakening, they fall into various kinds of error. The lowest one falls into the error of pride because of the prestige of becoming a monk; he denigrates others. The Buddha says this monk has only attained the “twigs and leaves” of the spiritual life, which he compares to the heartwood of a tree. The next lowest monk becomes attached to morality and becomes self-righteous. The Buddha says this monk has attained the outer bark of the spiritual life and stopped there. The Buddha warns against attachment to rules. The pre-eminent example is Dewadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and brother-in-law. Dewadatta broke away from the Buddha and attempted to establish a separate sangha based on a much stricter interpretation of the rules than that of the Buddha himself. The next monk becomes attached to concentration; he becomes arrogant. He has attained the inner bark of the spiritual life. The next monk achieves knowledge and vision; he looks down on others. His is the sapwood. Finally, the monk who achieves perpetual emancipation has attained the heartwood of the tree, enlightenment itself. The Buddha says there is no falling away from it. It is a qualitative and definitive change of state.

The implication of this story is that the path leading to enlightenment begins with ordination and leads to enlightenment by way of the progressive cultivation of self-control, concentration, and wisdom. In this case, wisdom is not conflated with emancipation but is its immediate precursor. Emancipation is represented as a “leap” in which time ceases (i.e., the eternal present of the metaphysical point of view).  In the Einsteinian equations, this would mean one is travelling at the speed of light. The Dalai Lama attributes this ability to the residents of Shambhala. Thus, wisdom is second only to enlightenment. It is also the first step of the Path. This dual view of wisdom creates a paradox.

The Eightfold Path is the subject of the Fourth Truth of Buddhism. It consists of eight steps: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The Eightfold Path is the template for the practice of the Buddhist path or way, not only in the Pali Canon but also in all of Buddhism. Its purpose is the fading away of lust, abandoning the fetters, uprooting the underlying tendencies, understanding sangsara, destroying the taints, and realizing the fruit of true knowledge and liberation for the sake of knowledge, vision, and final nibbana without clinging. In other words, detachment and wisdom are both the means and the goal.

Right View is formally the knowledge of the truth of dukkha, suffering, formulated in the Four Truths. Right Intention is the intention to renounce unwholesome kamma. Right speech is the renunciation of wrong speech, such as lying, gossip, etc. Right Action is the observance of the other moral and ethical norms. Right Speech and Action are separated in the Eightfold Path. Right Livelihood consists of earning a living by ethical means. Right Livelihood prohibits Buddhists from engaging in certain types of professions. Trading in arms, human beings (i.e., including slavery and prostitution), flesh (i.e., breeding animals for slaughter), intoxicants, and poisons are prohibited.[3] Right Effort is the desire and effort to cultivate wholesome kamma, apparently an intensification of Right Intention. Right Mindfulness is clarity of consciousness with respect to the experience of body, mind, and phenomena (sangsāra). Right Concentration refers to the practice of meditation, consisting of seclusion, the cultivation of mindfulness, and mental concentration leading to the four meditative states (the jhānas).

There are several things worth noting about this presentation of the path. First, the Pali word samma, often translated “right,” which precedes each of these steps, actually means “perfect.” This meaning contradicts the view that the Eightfold Path is a progression from an inferior to a superior state. Right View is often interpreted as a kind of catechism intellectually acknowledged by the convert. This interpretation makes Right View more of a formality than an accomplishment. Similarly, “transmission” is conferred in this degenerate age on mass audiences the person conferring the transmission, usually a religious authority in a vertical ecclesiastical establishment, does not and will never know or even meet necessarily.

Dr. Peter Masefield makes a similar observation with respect to the meaning of ariyan in the name of the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path. Ariyan is commonly translated as “noble.” Dr. Masefield criticizes this translation of the word. He substitutes the word “supermundane” (or supra-mundane). Henceforth, we will use the words “perfect” and “supermundane” in preference to “right” and “noble.”

Perfect View refers to an awakening by which the subject experiences the truth of the dhamma as direct intuitive certainty. By definition, this excludes the perfection of the will; otherwise, no reference would need to be made to Perfect Intention.  In my view, since it is will, volition, or intention that underlies kamma, the establishment of Perfect View alone cannot mean one no longer generates kamma. This experience is also referred to as “opening the dhamma eye” (dhammachakkhu).

By this experience, one becomes a sawaka, a hearer. One wonders about the notion that Perfect View automatically means one becomes a stream-enterer. A stream-enterer is assured of enlightenment and has ceased to generate new kamma, according to my understanding of the definition. Karmic non-generation could only be true of the aspirant who has perfected his intention.

Nevertheless, the attainment of Perfect View is far more than a conversion in the popular sense. Technically, Perfect View is a qualitative transformation of the mind. Perfect View might be compared with the Christian concept of conversion (metanoia). The Supermundane Eightfold Path must be understood as a progressive refinement of a substance, such as gold, which has already gone through a fundamental transformation but is not defiled by any of its changes. This is the meaning of the “graduated path.” It is, in short, the reification of a potential that manifests decisively in the first step.

The “awakening” experience is reported in all the wisdom traditions of the world. What is unique to Buddhism is that the central aspect of Perfect View consists of a deep realization of the truth of suffering, including its cause and cure. This realization is the immediate trigger of the realization of Perfect View. Elsewhere the Buddha says impermanence (aniccha) is the decisive experience of his enlightenment. Still others mention mindfulness of the breathing. All these things are related; all lead to the comprehensive and essential realization of emptiness, nibbana, and finally the leap of emancipation into the trans-dual itself. Masefield quotes a passage in which the Buddha says, “’Right view races on ahead,’ which it does according to the commentary, ‘in order to prepare the path’” (p. 39, quoting the Samyutta Nikaya i.33).  It is, as it were, a decisive glimpse of a future accomplishment.

Therefore, it follows that there are at least two distinct transformative states, perhaps more: an initial awakening and enlightenment or emancipation. Enlightenment and emancipation can be further differentiated with reference to the Buddha’s enlightenment at the age of 35 and his “passing on” (parinibbāna) at the age of 80. We have also referred in a previous talk to an illumination or kundalini-type experience he had while still an ascetic. In addition, there is his childhood experience under the rose apple tree.

The Supermundane Eightfold Path is clearly a sequence of steps, with apologies to Bhikkhu Bodhi. Nevertheless, the conventional order of the path is often given as beginning with the cultivation of ethics or self-control (vinaya). Ethics are followed by the cultivation of meditation, culminating in wisdom as the result of the practice of the foregoing. Intention and effort are barely mentioned. The actual sequence of the path as presented by the Buddha (I do not believe any texts present the Eightfold Path in any other order) proceeds from the establishment of perfect wisdom to the will to attain to self-control (speech, action, and livelihood) to cultivating wholesome kamma. The path culminates in meditation, consisting of mindfulness and concentration. The sequential view of the Supermundane Eightfold Path presents a very different picture of the path than the usual presentation by those who might wish to make the observance of Vinaya the foundation of the path and meditation its exclusive spiritual practice, with little emphasis on study. However, this can lead to an imbalance that can lead to delusion.

Another noteworthy point is the inclusion of Perfect Livelihood in this very august list. This shows the householder is able to pursue the path as such; a monk cannot practise perfect livelihood, since a monk is forbidden from working. The only possible conclusion is that the Supermundane Path is not reserved for a monastic elite, but for a spiritual elite that includes both monastic and lay Buddhist practitioners. The ariyasangha exists within and above the puthujjana sangha. The Buddha recommended the practice of meditation to both householders and women.

The Buddha also addresses the thorny question of who can teach dhamma. He had already devolved the formula of ordination to the monks (bhikkhus). This made the Buddhist order (sangha) a decentralized, if not perfectly flat, social network rather than a pyramidal one. According to the Buddha’s last words, the sangha did not become truly hierarchical until after his death, when a hierarchy based on seniority was instituted.

The Buddha states that anyone who has attained the first jhana may teach dhamma. Technically, such a person is on the top rung of the ladder, since the jhanas are attainments associated with Perfect Concentration. On the other hand, the attainment of the first jhana is still a cognitive or intellectual state, characterized by thinking, rapture, and the pleasure of seclusion. The Bodhisatta experienced it spontaneously as a child beneath the rose apple tree. Contrary to the rather overwrought accounts of the jhanas in popular Buddhist literature, in both Asia and the West, the first jhana is not hard to attain. In this sense, Bhikkhu Bodhi is right in his statement that the steps of the Eightfold Path are components of an inherently non-linear whole.

Two Ordinations

When Ananda suggested that the spiritual life consists half of virile effort [sic] and half the companionship of good friends and comrades, the Buddha declared the companionship of good friends and comrades to be the entire spiritual life. The sangha is presented as a horizontally extended network of equals. The Buddha says to achieve such a community each member must rely on the others as they rely on the Buddha himself; everyone teaches everyone else. This is the ultimate egalitarianism. It is joined by a common veneration for the Buddha, less as an idol than an equal, “by relying upon the Buddha [also] as a good friend.” The sangha also shared property equally.

Nevertheless, the Buddha also ordained other ascetics (samanas), as though they were being released from the household life into homelessness. The ascetics say to the Buddha, “We were very nearly lost, we very nearly perished, for formerly we claimed that we were ascetics, though we were not really ascetics; we claimed that we were Brahmins though we were not really Brahmins; we claimed that we were arahants though we were not really arahants. But now we are ascetics, now we are Brahmins, now we are arahants.”

The Bodhisatta began his spiritual career as a samana. This is a nice inversion of the relationship of Gotama to the group of five ascetics with whom he started. They rejected him because, being close to death, he violated his vow of abstinence (in their view) by eating some rice pudding offered him by a village girl, Sujata. She believed he was a nagi, the spirit of the tree under which he sat. Now the Buddha is receiving the ascetics into the homeless life. The interaction is clearly a kind of transmission. It includes elements of supplication, characterized by humility and contrition; conversion; and usually some instruction by the Buddha (the so-called “dhamma in brief”). The transmission is followed by an acceptance and a sending forth, in what appears to be a formalized, ritual context.

The ascetics were samanas. They were the yogis of other non-Vedic schools who were, like the Buddha, hostile to the Brahmans. They came to the Buddha and accepted his dhamma. He in turn recognized them and accepted them into the sangha. Then they immediately go forth into seclusion, apparently from the sangha as well, often to attain enlightenment.

The Buddha seems to have instituted two parallel formulas of ordination, including an extended sangha community. A reclusive ascetic elite lived between society and the sangha. One thinks immediately of the Tibetan mahasiddhas of the 8th to 12th centuries. A similar tradition survives today amongst the Thai forest monks. Admission to the extended sangha appears to have been highly decentralized and relatively easy. Admission to the ariyasangha appears to have been the prerogative of the Buddha and perhaps his closest disciples.

Such ascetics must have lived on the edge of the sangha. They still engaged in alms gathering; therefore, they could not have been utterly solitary. Even Kondannya, the Buddha’s first disciple, did not live so far that he was unable to travel on foot to the Buddha and worship his feet before returning to his Himalayan retreat. There he died the next day. The texts imply that the imminent death was the reason for the visit, so it could not have been far. These ascetics practised the last three steps of the Supermundane Eightfold Path – Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness, and Perfect Concentration. They lived alone in clearings, forests, and other utterly secluded places.

The practice of meditation leads naturally to progressively subtler states of mind. This is characterized by the realization of sentience in itself, mind, emptiness, concentration, and bliss. It culminates in the “divine eye” of the “pure bright mind” (pabhassara chitta). This is commonly referred to as Luminous Mind. This is a clear precursor of the Mahayana doctrine of the Clear Light.

He realizes his identity with all other beings. He understands his former births and the mechanisms of kamma and rebirth. An important point is the repeated statement that all of these states are realized in and with the body. The Buddha rejected the theory of a soul that separates from the body. However, the Buddha does not deny the reality of meditative states of mind. Since the soul does not dissociate, these states can only be experienced in the body. Realizing the nature of reality, he achieves transcendence and experiences the direct and intuitively certain fact of liberation. This group may have been the nucleus of what became the sangha of arahants.

Another place to which the Buddhist ascetics retired was the charnel ground. The Indian charnel ground was not a pleasant place. It was filled with the remains of corpses in all stages of decomposition. Some still had pieces of cloth clinging to them, which the Buddhist ascetics gathered, pieced together, and sewed into robes. Ascetics survived on the food offerings left for the dead by relatives and friends.

The standard period of meditation in a charnel ground was 12 years. Padmasambhava is said to have completed the charnel ground meditation more than once. Meditating in charnel grounds was a pan-Indian practice. It was also observed by non-Buddhist samanas (ascetics) outside the Brahman orthodoxy. Samanas must have included proto-Shaivite and proto-Tantric practitioners. Sleep deprivation[4] and fasting was also practised in the sangha. Here is more evidence of a proto-Tantric thread in early Buddhism.

Meditating in a charnel ground brings one face to face with the reality of human existence, with a bodily immediacy of transformative power. Such practices appear to have been reserved for an elect within the Buddhist community. They requested permission from the Buddha to go forth. They also gained inspiration from a personal encounter with the Buddha himself. Not only monastics approached the Buddha in this way. Householders too “went forth.” Some achieved full enlightenment after a relatively brief time.

If there is a hierarchy here, it is not political. Rather, it is based on a profound personal encounter with the Buddha. In fact, it is a kind of transmission, as Dr. Masefield has suggested. It is an initiation in the literal sense of the word. If the Buddha was approached for permission to go forth, one wonders if there were also occasions when permission was not given. Unless simply formulating the intention to ask was sufficient for permission to be given. I have not discovered any texts were permission was not given, but they may exist. 


In summary, the discussion of the Buddhist way of transcendence involves questions concerning the ontological status of enlightenment, the role of questioning, the role of rationality, and the nature of the human state. The Buddha said asking and answering such questions would not lead to the desireless state. Nevertheless, the Buddha himself asked and answered such questions in a 45-year conversation with anyone who cared to approach him.

The Supermundane Eightfold Path begins with the cultivation of wisdom. The Buddha describes the world of sangsara; he denies the reality of the soul; he affirms the Deathless. The Buddha recognized that reason could only lead so far. The mastery of reason must be followed by a leap into the void. Reason must be cultivated to be transcended. Ignorance is the root of the chain of cause and effect (paticchasamuppāda). The direct cognition of trans-dual reality can induce an intellectual simulacrum of the experience of transcendence that can trigger the Buddha potential (tathāgatagarbha), resulting in complete transcendence.

By cultivating the appropriate qualities, anyone can achieve awakening. The realization of the ubiquity of suffering leads to the deep ontological realization of suffering, impermanence, and emptiness. This definitive transformation of state makes one a hearer (sāwaka) of the dhamma. It sets one upon a path that leads inevitably to enlightenment. It is subject only to the contingency of unfruited kamma. The attainment of Perfect View is not absolute. It is only the first step, decisive though it is. Volition is always present. Therefore, one can still formulate the kamma to deviate from the path.

The sangha within the sangha includes a puthujjana sangha and an ariyasangha, as suggested by Dr. Masefield. Although it is the culmination of the path, many people, including householders, may practise meditation beneficially. It is not secret. Enlightenment consists in the attainment of the Divine Eye of the Luminous Mind. There is no soul. All spiritual realizations are experienced in the body. All are described as immediate, certain, and blissful. Enlightenment is not affectless. It is a state of deep and abiding bliss.

[1]  “Hinayana” is not necessarily a pejorative term. It is clear the Mahayana and Vajrayana both assume the truth of the Hinayana as their foundation. For example, it is a “downfall” of the bodhisatta vow to disparage the Hinayana. Therefore, in my view this word should be translated “basic” or “fundamental” dispensation or way (yāna, meaning a “going” or “proceeding”).

[3] Theoretically, therefore, a Buddhist society will be completely demilitarized, vegetarian, and abstinent.

[4] According to the Pali Canon, the monks slept only four hours a day.


Fundamental View: Talk 6

Presented at the Buddha Centre, Second Life on July 20 and 23, 2013.

Talk 6

The Problem of Samsara

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


The Tathagata, the Buddha, exposed attachment, ego-conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. He exposed the gratification and danger of the world (sangsāra). The gratification of the world attracts beings to rebirth in the world. The danger of the world attracts beings to transcendence. Although the Buddha realized these things prior to his enlightenment, he did not claim to have discovered the way leading to the escape from sangsara until he became enlightened. Following his discovery of the way of transcendence, he proclaimed the way of transcendence as the solution to the problem posed by the dichotomy of the gratification and danger of the world.

When the Buddha was staying in Jeta’s Grove, in Anathapindika’s Park, the Buddha discussed these issues with the wanderers of other sects. With respect to the gratification and danger of the world, the wanderers and the Buddha agreed. But with respect to how to escape from the world, the Buddha disagreed with the wanderers, stating they did not understand the way of escape from the world in relation to sensual pleasures, form, and feelings. He declared their doctrines in this regard were deficient and prone to error. In these respects, the Buddha declared his doctrine to be superior.

To illustrate this point, the Buddha compared the wanderers of other sects to blind men trying to describe an elephant. According to this famous simile, some blind men experienced different parts of an elephant – the head, an ear, a tusk, the trunk, the body, a foot, the buttocks, the tail, and the tuft at the end of the tail. Limited by their inability to perceive the elephant as a whole, the blind men declared the part they experienced was the whole elephant. Thus, those who experienced the head declared the elephant is like a water jar. Those who experienced the ear said an elephant is like a winnowing basket. Those who experienced the tusk declared the elephant is like a plowshare. Those who experienced the trunk said an elephant is like a plow pole. Those who experienced the body said the elephant is like a storeroom. They all disagreed with each other and, because they disagreed, fell into disputatiousness.

In this brilliant simile, which may be compared with Plato’s famous metaphor of the cave, the elephant is the dhamma, and the blind men are those who do not know the dhamma or know only one aspect or part of the dhamma. Similarly, the adherents of sects, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, see only one part. Not knowing the whole, they fall into disputatiousness.

One sees this very keenly in the world today. Muslim fights with Jew, Christian fights with Muslim, Hindu fights with Buddhist, Chinese fight with Tibetans, and Buddhists all fight amongst themselves, each one convinced their religion is uniquely superior, yet everyone just sees part of the whole. In fact, the Buddha says this problem is so acute, it is the major cause of unwholesomeness: “I do not see even one other thing on account of which unarisen unwholesome qualities of mind arise and arisen unwholesome qualities of mind increase and expand so much as on account of wrong view.” Our time is not very different. The truth of the dhamma does not lie in any part, but in the whole. One might call this the perennial or primordial philosophy, the realization that underlying all religions and worldviews there is one, comprehensive, integral spiritual truth, which can only be discovered by comparing, collating, and reconciling all spiritual views by means of the methods of questioning and logical syncretism. When this approach is pursued to its logical conclusion, one arrives at the ekayana, the single or universal vehicle, in which all dissenting views are mutually harmonized and reconciled through a process of comparison and analysis.

The Problem of Samsara

The Pali word sangsāra literally means “faring on.” It refers to the process of rebirth, essentially cyclical in nature. Birth gives rise to life. Life ends in death, which leads to further rebirth based on unfruited kamma, in an endless, continuous cycle. The concept of sangsara is essentially involved with the idea of time. Life, death, and rebirth are a universal process that does not apply merely to human beings. It applies to all living beings. Indeed, it applies to all existent things or processes. It is the essence of each moment, the essential nature of which is change.

No matter how closely one examines any existent thing, one can subdivide it further into constituent existents. All existent things can be similarly subdivided ad infinitum.  The essential nature of things is found to be subject to change and time, and lacking any particularity, in the sense of any object that cannot be further subdivided. Non-particularity or non-locality leads inevitably to the ultimate realization that there are no ultimate, inherently permanent things or essences. This is the ontological reification of the doctrine of no-self (anattā).

The contemplation of the foregoing leads in turn to the realization that all existent things are essentially impermanent and of the essential nature of emptiness. Emptiness is no different from mind or sentience. Impermanence leads to the realization of the essential emptiness of things, which culminates in nibbana. Ontological emptiness is the essential realization that underlies the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. There is no substantive substrate modified by processes. Rather, process itself is the essential nature of reality. It is rather like the vibrating “rubber bands” of string theory.

The foregoing description of reality leads to the realization that sangsara itself is essentially infinite both in extent and in duration. Finite objects and experiences precipitate out of this fundamental reality, but sangsara itself can have no beginning. How can time have an originating moment? How can there be a time before time? The Buddha says, “this sangsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned by beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.” In terms of the law of kamma, every effect results from a cause; every cause is equally an effect and every effect is equally a cause – a paradox noted by Nagarjuna. There are no uncaused effects, and no ineffective causes. The identity of cause and effect is the basis of the Buddhist rejection of the notion of theism. Theism posits a First Cause, itself uncaused or self-caused. The Buddha realized the self-contradictory nature of a First Cause. If God is self-caused, the Buddha reasoned, why not simply posit the self-caused nature of being itself? Thus, there is no necessity to posit a creator. Simply posit the beginninglessness of existence as such. In this way, one also realizes the identity of sangsara and nibbana, the finite and the infinite.

Despite the Buddhist doctrine of the beginninglessness of sangsara, the Buddha clearly states sangsara can be transcended. Through the realization of one’s essential nature, the Buddha potential (tathāgatagarbha), the essentially mirage-like nature of sangsara may be discovered. Thus, one gains control of the process of kamma and liberation from it. The transcendence of sangsara leads to a metaphysical quandary, for, if sangsara is beginningless, how can it have an end? Let us look at this more closely, in terms of the individual karmic continuity.

Since sangsara is beginningless, this means each individual karmic continuity is co-extensive with it. The Buddha says,

For a long time, monks, you have experienced the death of a father … the death of a brother … the death of a sister … the death of a son … the death of a daughter … the loss of relatives … the loss of wealth … loss through illness; as you have experienced this, weeping and wailing because of being united with the disagreeable and separated from the agreeable, the stream of tears that you have shed is more than the water in the four great oceans. For what reason? Because, monks, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. … It is enough to experience revulsion toward all formations, enough to become dispassionate toward them, enough to be liberated from them.

In other words, transcendence arises within sangsara because of the experience of sangsara itself. At some definite point in this process, out of the blind instinctual craving that is sangsara, beings achieve a level of complexity where the realization dawns, either because of hearing dhamma or even without hearing dhamma, that sangsara itself is inherently unsatisfactory. Because of the realization that sangsara is unsatisfactory, one formulates the desire or intention to escape. Eventually, this desire or intention toward transcendence results in the realization of transcendence itself, and one is emancipated. The realization itself is identical with the attainment, but this process may take eons to develop, and more eons to be established, consisting of millions or even billions of rebirths, or it may be instantaneous, but it is ultimately attributable to this realization of unsatisfactoriness. Thus, unsatisfactoriness arises in time and eventually results in the annihilation of time, at least for the individual subject.

The arising of this realization occurs in time and results in the liberation from time. It is a finite process, and yet sangsara itself is infinite. If the karmic continuity is beginningless, if we have all experienced not merely many, but an infinite number of rebirths, then logically it should be the case that everyone has had this realization. If this realization leads inevitably to transcendence, eventually, it follows that in infinite time all beings should all have experienced both this realization and its result. Therefore, all beings should already be liberated and sangsara itself should already have ceased to exist. Clearly, this is not the case. One is still here, mired in sangsara, mirage though it is. Thus, it seems that there is an essential self-contradiction inherent in the idea of sangsara itself.

I puzzled over this problem for several years before I discovered the solution. When I did discover the solution, I wrote this poem. It became the final poem of my book, Khatas. It is called “The Gordian Not.” It commences with a quotation from chapter 76 of the great Dzogchen text, the Kunjed Gyalpo: “Never having been born, it cannot cease.”

There is no former, there is no future.
All is endless now,
Samsara a mirage of time
Cast upon the mind.
One wills to stay entwined
And so experience the dream of time
Or not. So dawns the life divine.

Reading it now, I realize I anticipated this poem in another prose poem that appears earlier in the book, called “Long Koan.”

The present moment alone is real. Where does it come from? It seems to have come out of the past. Where is it going? It appears to be going into the future. But neither the past nor the future is real. Therefore the real comes out of the non-real and goes into the non-real. Since the future is unreal, there is nowhere to go. Just be as you are, and the world will go its own way. Attachment leads to a degenerate age. But, without a past or a future and of the essential nature of emptiness, what is the present moment doing?

Buddhism refers to the three times – past, present, and future. Kamma creates this experiential structure. One experiences it as the sequence of cause and effect. However, neither the past nor the future actually exists, any more than cause and effect exist as separate entities. One imagines they exist because of memories encoded in the brain. Memories create the perception of past causes. From the notion of past causes, one extrapolates future effects, but memory is just information. It too exists in a single timeless moment, the present. Paradoxically perhaps, the essential nature of the present is change. One also distinguishes cause and effect. Upon analysis, one realizes these are not two things. They too are singular; every cause is also an effect, and every effect is a cause. The great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, discusses this.

In this way, one realizes that kamma itself is singular, momentary, and ever-present. What one calls the karmic continuity or mind stream is just a perception. Therefore, rebirth too is just a perception. It is as illusory as sangsara itself. This is not to say that rebirth does not occur in a samsaric sense. The Buddha clearly taught rebirth is experienced.

One may doubt the historical veracity of the specific rebirths described in the Pali Canon, especially the Jataka tales. These stories are largely based on Indian folklore. However, the concept itself is so pervasive all through the canon, it is hard to believe either the Buddha did not teach this or he himself did not experience past life memories. The whole canon witnesses to the fact that he did. It is not the phenomenon of rebirth we are contesting. Rather, we are contesting its nature.

Rebirth is not extended in an infinite past and future continuum. If it were, sangsara would not exist, for the reasons I have cited. It is right here, right now. It is the essential nature of present, momentary, changeable being. Once one realizes this fact, the whole problem of sangsara falls away. It is not that one is reborn infinite numbers of times in an infinite, objective continuum. Rather, one is being reborn continuously, right now, right here. The now is all there is. It is the nature of the experience of the present.

The ignorance at the root of the volition or intention to be reborn also exists right here and now as its essential nature. The potential for awakening also exists right here and now and nowhere else. Therefore, awakening itself also exists right here and now and nowhere else. I believe this is the essential viewpoint of Zen, or at least some schools of Zen.

From time to time, one hears about certain schools of Zen. They say there is no such thing as rebirth. This way of putting it is somewhat distorted. Clearly, there are an infinite number of these moments; reality is infinitely differentiated. I am not you and you are not me; there is a metaphysical point of view. Being singular, it is inherently indestructible and therefore immortal, or “deathless” as the Buddha said. What one experiences as kamma is simply one’s progressive realization of one’s individual relationship with all that is. It defines and limits our momentary experience of the present. It is our “identity,” but it is not an isolated self. It is not a “thing” (atta).

The body is just an assemblage of such points of view. It is a colony of beings. All these beings are inter-associated by kamma. Extending outward, the body includes all beings ultimately. One speaks of a sequence of such points of view. In reality, this is just an illusion. There is only the singular momentary point of view that changes continuously. It is this dynamic that generates the illusion of time, sangsara, rebirth, and everything. It is all rooted in volition. The essential nature of reality must be volitional. If it were not essentially volitional, it would be conditioned, but what can the absolute be subject to other than itself? To be subject to nothing other than oneself is the definition of volition. Thus, to become awakened all that is necessary ultimately is to choose to be awakened. One chooses to be what one already is essentially. Nothing else is required. The difficulty of actually doing this is not because the task is complex. It is because it is simple. In fact, it is the simplest thing.

One might object to this line of thinking, does not this view of the infinitely differentiated present moment contradict the Buddha’s view of anatta, “no-self”? To respond to this, one must precisely delineate what the Buddha was rejecting. It is striking when one reads the Pali Canon that the Buddha refers to the self just as often as he denies its existence. The problem lies with the English word “self” as a translation of atta or attan. Atta is the Pali variation of the Sanskrit word, atman. The literal meaning of this word is “breath.” The PED glosses this as “[t]he soul as postulated in the animistic theories held in N India in the 6th and 7th cent. B.C. It is described in the Upanishads as a small creature, in shape like a man, dwelling in ordinary times in the heart. It escapes from the body in sleep or trance; when it returns to the body life and motion reappear. It escapes from the body at death, then continues to carry on an everlasting life of its own.  … A ‘soul’ according to general belief was some thing permanent, unchangeable, not affected by sorrow.” The Buddha clearly rejected the word “self” to describe this doctrine. It is a very misleading translation. It has led to endless confusion, not only amongst English-speaking Buddhists, leading to the idea the Buddha denied the reality of the individual person – an absurd conclusion, since here we are, discussing it, illusory but nonetheless sentient.

The English word self comes from the Indo-European root *s(w)e-, meaning “separate, apart.” It refers to individuality or the metaphysical point of view. “Soul,” referring to the spiritual and emotional part of a person, is a much better translation of Pali atta. What the Buddha is denying is the reality of a soul, a living being associated with the heart, separable from the body, permanent, changeless, and intrinsically blissful. It is clear the idea of the metaphysical point of view does not correspond to the Pali concept of atta at all. It is more akin to what Mahayanists call the mind stream (sangtāna). This concept resurfaces in Einsteinian relativity in the idea of the four-dimensional continuum. The metaphysical point of view is non-spatial, non-local, non-extended, kinetic, and neither different from nor identical with what one experiences. Although it is experienced as a continuum, its essential nature is non-continuous and momentary. The mind stream is the reality of our self. It is not identical with the concept of a soul.

The absurdity of the notion that the Buddha rejected the idea of a person in any sense is shown by the fact that all through the Pali Canon he refers constantly to the Deathless. Thus, he clearly posits immortality in some sense. The irreducible is by definition permanent, changeless, and blissful. This element is the dhamma, the subject of realization. Impermanence itself posits permanence. To say otherwise is to posit the error of nihilism. The Buddha explicitly rejected this.

The Buddha does not refuse to discuss doctrines like eternalism and annihilationism, etc. because he has no theory of ontology. Rather, it is because of the inherently confusing and paradoxical nature of the trans-dual. Whenever the Buddha appears to repudiate these doctrines, or avoids their discussion, they are always set up as systems of logical contraries. This structure clearly indicates the paradoxical nature of the trans-dual. The trans-dual must be the essential nature of reality in its ultimate or absolute aspect. The non-recognition of the trans-dual has become the source of endless confusion, especially amongst the adherents of the Therawada sect.

Fundamental View: Talk 5

Presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on July 13 and 16, 2013.

Talk 5

The Way of Kamma

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


In a previous talk, we referred to the dhamma “with its dark and bright counterparts.” In this talk, one again meets with the concepts of dark and bright, this time in relation to kamma, the law of cause and effect. The Buddha refers to four possible combinations of kamma: dark, bright, dark and bright, and neither dark nor bright. Of these, the first three cause more kamma. The neither dark nor bright is said to lead “to the destruction of kamma.” The destruction of kamma is of course of special interest to anyone on the spiritual path. The Buddha further attributes this realization to “direct knowledge,” i.e., gnosis.

Dark kamma is said to have dark results. The Buddha calls these “afflictive.” He identifies them with “hellish states,” or states of intense suffering and pain.

Bright kamma is said to have bright results. The Buddha calls these “non-afflictive.” He identifies them with spiritual (dewa) states, or states of intense pleasure and bliss.

Dark and bright (or bright and dark) kamma is said to be mixed. The Buddha says these combine afflictive and non-afflictive aspects. He identifies them with human states, as well as lower spiritual and higher animal states, in which pleasure and pain are mixed up.

Finally, the Buddha says neither dark nor bright kamma leads to the destruction of kamma. He declares these are associated with the volition or intention to abandon dark, bright, and mixed kamma. In other words, renunciation.[1]

The Buddha says good kamma produces other kinds of kamma. Only by giving up negative and positive kamma can one go beyond kamma itself.

The Buddha says kamma is not just physical. Kamma includes verbal and mental actions. The root factor is not action. Rather, the essential karmic factor is volition or intention, the so-called sankharas. The sankharas are the second link of the paticchasamuppada, the chain of cause and effect, next after ignorance. The sankharas are the volitional formations or potentialities. The Buddha makes this point repeatedly. In fact, the Buddha makes this distinctive contribution to Indian philosophy. Thus, mental actions underlie verbal and physical actions and actually determine them.

The Buddha describes three kinds of righteous and unrighteous physical actions. He describes four kinds of unrighteous verbal actions. He also describes three kinds of unrighteous mental actions. Together, these actions produce kamma.

The three kinds of physical actions are killing, stealing, and sexual wrongdoing. These ethical principles correspond to three of the five precepts (pansil). Sexual wrongdoing includes having sex with a woman who is under the protection of her family, a married woman (i.e., adultery), a woman who is protected by law, or a woman who is engaged. These forms of abstinence correspond to the positive action of compassion. Right actions became the basis of the Mahayana reinterpretation of Buddhist ethics, in which abstinence is transcended by positive actions. This relationship is similar to the distinction between Right Intention and Right Effort.

The four kinds of verbal actions are lying, perjury, harmful speech, and gossip. These are variations of wrongful speech. The positive actions that correspond to these are truthful, positive, constructive, and beneficial speech.

The three kinds of mental actions are covetousness, hatred, and wrong view. Wrong view refers to denying the truth of the dhamma. Wrong view includes not believing in the law of kamma, the existence of other worlds, rebirth, and the reality of spiritual knowledge or gnosis. The positive actions are a positive mental attitude and right view. Right view is the first step of the Eightfold Path. Right View includes belief in kamma, other worlds, rebirth, and the reality of spiritual knowledge or gnosis.

Pansil literally means “five precepts.” The fifth precept is drunkenness. Drunkenness is not included here. ”Drinking fermented grains that cause heedlessness” seems to be a later addition to Pansil. In the Vinaya, it is not given a very prominent place at all. Today, this precept includes all alcoholic beverages. It has been extended to include all non-prescription drugs. However, one often finds the first four precepts grouped together in the Pali Canon without referring to drinking alcohol at all. In this way, one can see how Pansil was expanded over time.

The Buddha affirms the ability of the person to affect their future destiny and rebirth by cultivating positive kamma. This includes rebirth in the spiritual (dewa) realms. The “liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, that is taintless with the destruction of the taints” may also be developed in this way. Thus, the Buddha says direct knowledge, i.e., gnosis, can also be realized through intention or volition. The cultivation of wisdom and the destruction of the taints are the positive and negative conditions respectively.

The Buddha further describes the exact mechanism by which kamma works. “Unwholesome” kamma results in rebirth in non-human, suffering states. “Wholesome” kamma results in rebirth in a human state. Human rebirth always results from the fruition of “wholesome” kammas. If one is reborn as a human being due to the fruition of positive kammas, negative kamma may still come about in the human life. In this case, negative effects (experiences) that reflect the nature of the negative kamma will undermine the positive rebirth. The Buddha gives seven examples of good and bad kammas and their results. Killing living beings, injuring living beings, anger and irritability, envy, stinginess, obstinacy and arrogance, and lack of spirituality are associated with shortness of life, sickliness, ugliness, weakness, poverty, low birth, and stupidity respectively. Not killing living beings; helping living beings; a positive, constructive attitude; good will; generosity; flexibility and humility; and spirituality are associated with long life, health, beauty, influence, wealth, high birth, and wisdom. The result corresponds to the good or bad kamma.

Negative Kamma Result Positive Kamma Result
Killing living beings Shortness of life Not killing living beings Long life
Injuring living beings Sickliness Helping living beings Health
Anger, irritability Ugliness Positive, constructive attitude Beauty
Envy Lack of influence Good will Influence
Stinginess Poverty Generosity Wealth
Obstinacy, arrogance Low birth Flexibility, humility High birth
Non-spirituality Stupidity Spirituality Wisdom

Based on what I have said, you may engage in a spiritual exercise in which you identify all your good and bad qualities. Based on this analysis you can then identify the karmic propensities (sankhāras) to which they correspond. You can use this as a way of understanding yourself as well as directing your future development. Honestly assessing your bad qualities can lead to a picture of the kammas that have led to those qualities. By consciously cultivating their opposites, you can generate merit tailored to your personal kamma.

By purging yourself of bad kamma by means of abstinence and renunciation on the one hand and cultivating good kamma through the cultivation of merit on the other, you can generate good kammas that will yield the fruits to which they correspond in the future. There is no reason why you must wait until the next life. If bad kammas are destroyed and good kammas cultivated, there is no reason why they cannot generate good results in this life too. However, you must not cultivate these kammas out of a purely selfish motivation (itself a negative kamma).

The cultivation of merit is the basis of New Thought, the Secret, and other popular self-help philosophies based on cultivating positive thinking. This way of thinking is consistent with the dhamma, provided they are undertaken with a good intention and due regard for existing karmic conditions. However, one thing the Secret ignores is the need to purge bad kamma by means of renunciation and abstinence. Ignoring negativity can lead to serious errors, including false expectations. It does not follow that you will experience the fruits of these actions in this life. They may or may not come to fruition based on other karmic factors operating from the past, and the available conditions in the present.

One might ask, does this not contradict the Buddha’s view on caste? It seems to follow from this way of thinking that one will only be born in a high caste because of good kamma. In fact, it is not contradictory. It may be true that only someone with the right kamma will be born in a high caste. If one is born in a low caste, that too is caused by kamma. However, anyone can change their kamma by means of volition and intention. On the other hand, the Indian caste system locks one into one caste for life. The Buddha does not reject the idea of inferior and superior persons. Spiritual egalitarianism is absurd. Rather, the Buddha rejects the concept that one cannot change one’s kamma – in other words, that kamma is fate. In fact, the Buddha associated with everyone and accepted all castes into the sangha for just this reason.

All the qualities we have talked about are qualities of the person or conditions more or less established at birth. They are tendencies to experience rather than experiences as such. The expansion of this way of thinking to include experiences raises problems like the rape or murder of a child or mass disasters like a tsunami or the Holocaust. I am not aware the Pali texts address these problems specifically. There may be some evidence the Buddha did not think all experiences are karmic. However, I assume the answer lies in the intricacy and complexity of the web of interconnections that constitutes the doctrine of the universal interconnectedness of things (paticchasamuppãda) and the literal infinity of the number of past rebirths. Over infinite time incredibly intricate combinations of circumstances can come together in which all the participants share essentially the same kamma.

The Buddha summarizes this view of kamma in the following: “Beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.” The word “action” here refers to kamma.

An interesting but often-overlooked implication is the specific relationship between past and future lives. Some Western, popular, New Age views of kamma tend to see the kamma of one’s present life as a “fulfilment” or positive continuation related to past lives. One is “rewarded” for good behaviour and “punished” for one’s mistakes. Such a view seems to come out of the theistic tradition based on the notions of teleology and judgment. They imply there is some kind of “development” through a series of lives that makes some sort of sense and is leading toward some kind of goal. This goal is often expressed as acquiring wisdom or insight. Sometimes this is expressed in the notion that one “chooses” each subsequent rebirth in order to learn some sort of “lesson.”

While it is true fruited kamma creates the conditions for the arising of future kamma, the idea of any meaningful development is contradicted by Buddhist ontology. First, sangsara has no beginning. Everyone has lived infinite numbers of lives. It follows that everyone has literally been and done everything, everywhere. The only exception is rebirth in the Pure Abodes, from which there is no return to the human state.  Thus, there is no “divine plan.”

There is no teleology here. There is no direction and no goal. Rather, there is a chaotic, seething broth. Sometimes this is ecstatic. More often, it is agonizing. In any case, it is purposeless, senseless, and meaningless. Realty has no goal. There is no redemption in, by, or of experience. It is just what it is. Finite beings arise out of this infinite process because, while kammas are being produced, they are also being “fruited.” Each “fruiting,” if I may use that word, automatically negates its cause by exhausting the energy of the underlying sankharas.

Once these karmic propensities come to fruition, their energy is exhausted and they effectively vanish. This has to be the case; otherwise, there would be infinite numbers of sankharas operating in every moment. In this case, there would be no finite beings. Each moment results from all those unreified sankharas. Each rebirth is more like a photographic negative of the previous birth than a continuation. For example, a painful human birth may exhaust the negative sankharas, leaving the karmic continuity one calls the “self” free to experience the fruits of good kamma in a very blissful rebirth, perhaps even a birth as a dewa. The reverse may also be true.

The question also arises, what happens to the karmic continuity once one achieves fundamental “awakening”? Once one achieves true awakening, also called “stream-entry,” one ceases to generate both good and bad kammas. These are the “neither dark nor bright” kammas. Thus, only prior kammas continue to manifest beyond this point. The Buddha says of those who enter the stream, they may experience enlightenment in as short a time as seven days or in as long a time as seven rebirths. The root factor is the unfruited kammas that still exist upon awakening. This implies kamma is not completely destroyed by the fact of awakening.

Perhaps the phenomenon of authentic, highly realized, but non-enlightened, practitioners, who suffer themselves or experience other sorts of strong good and bad propensities, are in fact intensely “working out” the results of their previous sankharas at an accelerated rate. This might explain such “crazy wisdom” teachers as the homosexual Ramakrishna; Chögyam Trungpa, who drank himself to death; the alcoholic and womanizer Gendün Chöepal; the sex-crazed and abusive Adi Da; and Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “Great Wild Beast,” who was the spiritual teacher of Gerald Yorke, the personal representative to the West of the 13th Dalai Lama. I am of course excluding mere fakers from this list.


The Buddha says he experienced seven eons or world ages in which he was reborn in many dewa worlds because of practising meritorious deeds and cultivating a mind of loving kindness in a former life for seven years. He also experienced hundreds of rebirths on earth as a righteous world monarch. The Buddha identifies acts of generosity, self-mastery (also referred to as moral discipline), and abstinence (also referred to as the development of meditation), the fruits of which lead to meritorious rebirths.

The Buddha emphasizes generosity and self-control, leading to favourable rebirths in human or trans-human states characterized by long life, beauty, happiness, fame or good reputation, power and influence, and sublime sensory experiences. The Buddha further declares that confidence in the Buddha, the Eightfold Path, the dhamma, and the sangha are even more meritorious. Gifts of food made to the righteous are especially meritorious. Gifts of food are greater even than gifts of great wealth. They confer long life, beauty, happiness, and strength on the giver. They must be given faithfully, respectfully, at the right time, and with a generous heart, without denigrating oneself or others.

Once again, the Buddha emphasizes such gifts need not be self-sacrificial or rooted in self-hatred. This is similar to our discussion of metta meditation. It is ok to love oneself and to give oneself good things, if this love is universal and not self-centred. This is only true, however, of those who are morally pure. For those who are morally impure, generosity alone is not sufficient to obtain a superior rebirth. Once again, the Buddha declares one can achieve a specific kind of rebirth. The quality of the rebirth corresponds to one’s intention.


Other actions that produce superior merit include taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha; not killing; not stealing; abstaining from sensual wrongdoing; abstaining from wrongful speech; and abstaining from wines, liquors, and intoxicants. In other words, spirituality and ethics are also, like gifts, meritorious karmic factors. By these means, one will enjoy freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.

An even more powerful practice is the observance of the uposatha days. Observing uposatha days may be compared to the Judaeo-Christian practice of Sabbath. The strictest observance includes the new moon, first quarter moon, full moon, and third quarter moon. Tibetan Buddhists also have Tsog offering days tied to the cycle of the moon. The Buddhist practice calendar is based on the phases of the Moon. This is similar to Islam.

The Buddha adapted the Vedic practice of uposatha for his sangha (community). Where the uposatha days are observed, especially the Therawada, they are determined by reference to the lunar calendar. Thus, the uposatha days as practised today do not necessarily correspond to the true astronomical phases of the moon. Rather, they vary from them by a day or two. In Islam, the timing is kept very strictly. Each mosque has a “moon sighting” committee that establishes the beginning of Ramadan, for example. It is obvious that this practice is inherently astrological and implies a belief in the significance of the lunar cycle.

On these days, Pansil is strictly observed, including celibacy. In addition, the pious eat only a single meal during the waxing of the sun – an Ayurvedic practice believed to bestow good health. They abstain from entertainment and personal adornments and perfumes and avoid the use of high and luxurious beds and seats. These extended ethical practices are called the eight precepts.

The Buddha says observing the uposatha confers even greater merit on the practitioner than the greatest worldly benefits. These benefits include long life and spiritual happiness. In a somewhat less rigorous observance, only the new and full moons are observed. Variations also exist.

Many Buddhists spend these days making offerings to the sangha. They study the dhamma or listen to dhamma teachings and meditate. Thus, the externalities of Vedic ritual have been replaced by ethical and spiritual observances that emphasize the inner, spiritual life. It is not hard to see how these practices, if they were practised by society as a whole, would produce a virtual paradise on earth, a so-called “pure land.” This is in contrast to what one sees in many parts of the world today, where human behaviour is governed by gross selfishness and greed.


The Buddha also discusses meditation, which (he declares) is even more meritorious than ethical observances, by a factor greater than 16 times. We have discussed metta meditation at some length, so I will not repeat myself here. Concerning metta meditation, the Buddha says, “The liberation of mind by loving kindness surpasses [the ethical practices] and shines forth, bright and brilliant.” The Buddha says metta meditation frees the mind from limiting and constricting kammas. One imbues the four directions with a mind of loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.

Finally, greater even than all of the foregoing is the merit produced by realizing impermanence, were it but for an instant.


In summary, kamma is good, bad, and mixed. One can also cultivate the kamma of abstinence or renunciation. Only by this means is kamma transcended. Kamma can only be transcended; it cannot be destroyed. Upon awakening, it is still necessary to work out the “unfruited” kammas inherited from the past. Thus, the Buddha distinguishes between awakening, which is the same as Right View, and enlightenment. Enlightenment results in the complete transcendence of rebirth and represents the end of the Path (at least as far as one knows). For all one knows, enlightened beings may enter into a completely new project upon transcending sangsara. Such a project might be entirely beyond human comprehension.

Fruited kammas disappear, but unfruited kammas determine the quality of one’s subsequent experiences and the conditions of one’s future rebirths. However, kamma is not fate. Because of the Buddha potential (tathāgatagarbha) that is one’s true nature, one is an essentially volitional being, free to choose. The primacy of volition can be demonstrated ontologically; reality itself cannot be conditioned. Therefore, although one finds oneself immersed in kamma, how one chooses to interact with those conditions is one’s own choice. That one is essentially free in a causal world is also the proof of our essential divinity. Intention is the ultimate cause of kamma. It is also possible to infer our kamma from our experiences. This meditation can become the basis of self-development. By abstaining from and purifying unwholesome kammas, cultivating wholesome kammas, and practising detachment and compassion, one can ultimately transcend kamma altogether, and so improve one’s circumstances and ultimately attain emancipation.

In order to benefit from the accumulation of merit, one must be good intentioned. The merit of wholesome actions is negated by bad intentions. Merit can be accumulated by performing both positive and negative actions, offering gifts to the dhamma, meditation and other spiritual practices, and especially spiritual realizations. These practices are not equal. Ethics are the least important. Dhamma offerings, spiritual practice, and especially spiritual study and realization produce far greater merit than ethical practices alone, by an astronomical order of magnitude. The kamma generated by such actions is extraordinarily efficacious.

[1] It is not clear from the text whether the Buddha means renunciation destroys existing unfruited kamma, or simply prevents the arising of new kamma.