Presented to the Buddha Center, Second Life on July 13 and 16, 2013.
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.
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|
|Obstinacy, arrogance||Low birth||Flexibility, humility||High birth|
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.
 It is not clear from the text whether the Buddha means renunciation destroys existing unfruited kamma, or simply prevents the arising of new kamma.