by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart.
If you speak or act
with a corrupted heart,
then suffering follows you -
as the wheel of the cart,
the track of the ox
that pulls it.
Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart,
made of the heart. If you speak or act
with a calm, bright heart,
then happiness follows you,
like a shadow that never leaves. - [Dhp 1-2]
In the chapter on the Buddha's life, we discussed how the religious schools of the Buddha's time had different understandings of karma. The Brahmins believed that you attained good karma by the correct performance of rituals. The Jains believe that karma consists of extremely fine and subtle matter that pollutes the soul, and it is through the practice of austerities that you free yourself from it. The Ājīvikas believed in unalterable destiny, or fate.
(Note: The Jains still exist in India. The Ājīvikas went out of business in the early 2nd millennium.)
The Buddha's teaching on karma is that virtuous actions lead to good karma, and immoral actions lead to bad karma. It is one of the fundamental principles of the Buddha’s teachings that our actions have results. Our future is not determined by a deity or higher power, nor is our future random. It is like the law of gravity, a natural force of nature.
Karma as Intention
Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and mind. - [AN 6.63]
As noted, the word "karma" literally means "action". However, the Buddha also says that it is the intention behind the action that determines the karmic result. So an unskillful action does not have a negative result if the intention was skillful, (i.e., accidents happen). Conversely, a skillful action does not bring merit unless the intention was also skillful (i.e., accidents happen). The monastic code makes this clear:
The system of penalties the Buddha worked out for the rules is based on two principles. The first is that the training aims primarily at the development of the mind. Thus the factors of intention and perception often determine whether or not a particular action is an infringement of a rule. For instance, killing an animal accidentally is, in terms of the mind of the agent, very different from killing it purposefully, and does not count as an infringement of the rule against killing.
- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "Introduction to the Patimokkha Rules"]
This does not mean that sloppy inattention gets you off the hook. What we are discussing is "skillful intention". This includes a) an altruistic motivation, b) wisdom, and c) appropriate attention. The brahma vihāras cultivate the first of these three qualities, right view coupled with reflection and discernment cultivates the second, and breath meditation cultivates the third.
We usually put our energy into "doing the right thing". There is nothing wrong with that; it is a noble effort. But we can get tied up in knots trying to reason out the ethical response to a situation. The Buddha is suggesting that we might be better served by working on our motivation.
Some years ago I was working in a very stressful environment, and I had an uncomfortable meeting with the head of my department. I had been thinking about skillful intention, and so during the meeting I put my energy into thoughts of love and compassion. I took a leap of faith, and tried my to conjure up a wholesome state of mind, and let the results take care of themselves.
The result was powerful. The words that came out of my mouth were skillful, thoughtful, and intelligent. I respectfully acknowledged the other person while still standing my ground. What could have been an ugly scene had an optimal result. We aired our differences, and no employees were injured.
So the first point to make about karma is that our actions have results. The second point is that the intention behind the action determines the result.
Karma as a Complex System
The third point about karma is that it is non-linear, and it is not deterministic. This is perhaps the most common misunderstanding about karma. When something goes wrong you will hear people say that it is due to their bad karma.
The results of our past actions are one factor in what happens in the present moment, but they are not the only one. What happens at any given time is the result of so many causes and conditions that the Buddha said that if you try to understand them all, you will go mad:
The result of kamma is an inconceivable matter that one should not try to conceive; one who tries to conceive it would reap either madness or frustration. - [AN 4.77]
A few years ago when the tsunami struck Asia, I heard a prominent Tibetan Lama say that the reason all those people died was because of their karma. This is a complete misunderstanding of why things happen. Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates move, not because everyone who lives near the fault line did something bad in a previous life.
Some people want the law of karma to be this way, to be deterministic and punitive, to be a doctrine of righteousness:
There are many people who would like the teaching of karma to be a theory of justice. People really would like the world be a just place. Karma is one way of getting justice out of the world, because it guarantees that the sucker will get his due sooner or later. The idea here is that there is a wonderful correlation that every action has a karmic result, or every result has a karmic source. If someone has stolen from you, or has done something terrible to you, as a result you have became poor by the end of your life, while the offender has become rich and dies rich. We would like to think that the offender will get his just punishment in the next life. That is the balance – the confirmation of justice is maintained by having a theory of multiple lifetimes in which everything works out eventually. But I don’t think that the Buddhist idea of karma was meant to be a form of justice. It is not supposed to explain everything and why everything is happening the way it is.
- [Gil Fronsdal, "Karma and Intention"]
Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. Everyone has good and bad karma. An important factor is what karma manifests at a given time. This is why good people can have unhappy lives, and bad people can have good lives. In the "Mahākammavibhanga Sutta: The Greater Exposition of Action" [MN 136] the Buddha says this about karma and rebirth:
Ānanda, there are four kinds of persons to be found existing in the world. What four? Here some person kills living beings, takes what is not given, misconducts himself in sensual pleasures, speaks falsehood, speaks maliciously, speaks harshly, gossips; he is covetous, has a mind of ill will, and holds wrong view. On the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell.
But here some person kills living beings…and holds wrong view. On the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world.
Here some person abstains from killing living beings, from taking what is not given, from misconduct in sensual pleasures, from false speech, from malicious speech, from harsh speech, from gossip; he is not covetous, his mind is without ill will, and he holds right view. On the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world.
But here some person abstains from killing living beings… and he holds right view. On the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. - [MN 136]
Part of the Buddhist tradition is that the state of mind at death is extremely important in determining our next rebirth. If the mind is at ease when we die, the probability that good karma will manifest increases. If the mind is agitated when we die, the probability that negative karma will manifest increases.
(Traditional Buddhists are particularly adamant about being allowed to die in peaceful circumstances. The consciousness is quite fragile at the time of death, and for some time afterwards, as people who have near-death experiences tell us. The usual time to wait for cremation is three days, although this varies by school. More importantly the area around the body should be free from negative energy. There should be no crying, sadness or hysteria. It is particularly auspicious to have a monk or nun preside over the death.)
There is a famous story about Mahatma Gandhi and his death. Because of the political turmoil in India, Gandhi had a pretty good idea that he might be assassinated. But he was determined to die with love in his heart. He said, "If I am to die by the bullet of a madman, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me".
On January 30, 1948 Gandhi was fatally shot three times by a young man named "Nathuram Godse". Before he fell to the ground Gandhi raised his hands to his face in the traditional Hindu greeting - to Godse - before he fell to the ground.
The Probabilistic Nature of Karma
So, you might ask, if what happens to us is the result of such complex conditions, why bother to cultivate virtue?
One reason is that while we cannot guarantee a wonderful future for ourselves, we can improve the odds. By cultivating generosity, kindness, love, compassion, wisdom, virtue, you will not only be a happier, more contented person, the chances of you having a happy future are greatly enhanced. You are playing the lottery with a lot of possible winning numbers.
The other reason is that even when we do something unskillful, the negative effect is dampened. The negative energy is absorbed and dissipated. The Buddha uses the analogy of a lump of salt to demonstrates this point:
Here, bhikkhus, some person has created trifling bad kamma yet it leads him to hell, while some other person here has created exactly the same trifling kamma yet it is to be experienced in this very life, without even a slight [residue] being seen, much less abundant [residue].
What kind of person creates trifling bad kamma that leads him to hell? Here, some person is undeveloped in body, virtuous behavior, mind, and wisdom; he is limited and has a mean character, and he dwells in suffering. When such a person creates trifling bad kamma, it leads him to hell.
What kind of person creates exactly the same trifling bad kamma and yet it is to be experienced in this very life, without even a slight [residue] being seen, much less abundant [residue]? Here, some person is developed in body, virtuous behavior, mind, and wisdom. He is unlimited and has a lofty character, and he dwells without measure . When such a person creates exactly the same trifling bad kamma, it is to be experienced in this very life, without even a slight [residue] being seen, much less abundant [residue].
Suppose a man would drop a lump of salt into a small bowl of water. What do you think, bhikkhus? Would that lump of salt make the small quantity of water in the bowl salty and undrinkable?
For what reason? Because the water in the bowl is limited, thus that lump of salt would make it salty and undrinkable.
But suppose a man would drop a lump of salt into the river Ganges. What do you think, bhikkhus? Would that lump of salt make the river Ganges become salty and undrinkable?
For what reason? Because the river Ganges contains a large volume of water, thus that lump of salt would not make it salty and undrinkable.
So too, bhikkhus, some person here has created trifling bad kamma yet it leads him to hell, while some other person here has created exactly the same trifling kamma yet it is to be experienced in this very life, without even a slight [residue] being seen, much less abundant [residue]. - [AN 3:100]
The greater our virtue, the greater our wisdom, and the greater our appropriate attention, the larger our "volume of water". The occasional indiscretion gets absorbed like a lump of salt in the Ganges.
There is a touching story in the Pāli Canon about the afore-mentioned King Pasenadi and his Queen Mallika. As you may recall, Mallika was a particularly virtuous, saintly person, and the King - despite the usual ups and downs of a royal marriage - loved her dearly. But she had committed an act of sexual indiscretion, and then compounded it by lying to the King about it. When she died this weighed on her mind, and as a result she was reborn in one of the hell realms. However, because she was an otherwise virtuous person, she only spent 7 days there, after which she was reborn in "the Tusita heaven".
While all this was happening, King Pasenadi, who was concerned about her welfare, asked the Buddha where she had been reborn. Out of compassion, the Buddha did not tell him. Also, King Pasenadi's faith in the Dharma was weak, so the Buddha did not want to discourage him. Thus, according to the story, the Buddha "willed" King Pasenadi to forget to ask the question.
After that seventh day, the Buddha went to King Pasenadi's palace for almsfood. The King finally remembered (!) to ask where the Queen was reborn. The Buddha told him that she was reborn in the Tusita heaven. The King was very pleased and said, "Where else could she be reborn? She was always thinking of doing good deeds. Venerable Sir! Now that she is gone, I, your humble disciple, hardly know what to do." In order to encourage the King in the Dharma, the Buddha told him:
Even royal chariots rot,
the body too does rot, decay,
but undecaying’s Dhamma of the Good
who to the good declare.
- [Dhp 151]
(Note: This story is not a discourse of the Buddha or one of his disciples. It comes from the Dhammapada-aṭṭhakath, which is a commentary on the Dhammapada. The reference is iii, 119-123. But whether it is true or not, it's still a good story. Internet search: "buddhist women mallika")
So the odds of a favorable result improve in two ways. One is that we simply have more good karma, so good karma is more likely to manifest. The other reason is that even when bad karma does manifest, it is absorbed by our river of virtue.
So far we have discussed past karma. But there is also present karma, the choices we make in the present moment.
Your state of mind influences the experience of the present moment. Someone cuts you off in traffic. That is simply an event. The next issue is what state of heart and mind do you bring to the experience? Are you tired and frustrated and angry? That will manifest in one way. Are you calm, and tranquil and happy? That will manifest in another way.
We are cultivating a mind that is more skillful, more altruistic and wiser, calmer and more serene, and that affects what manifests in the present moment. Two people can have the same experience, and have two different responses to that experience. And the same person can have a different response to the same set of conditions depending on their state of mind in the present moment.
This makes it possible to intervene in the present moment and modify the result. A skillful action with a skillful intention makes it possible to create a positive outcome even if negative karma is manifesting.
An extreme example of this is Angulimala, the serial killer who became an Arahant. If unwholesome karma always manifested as an unwholesome result - if it was deterministic - it would not have been possible for Angulimala to become enlightened. He would have had to suffer the consequences of his actions first. [MN 86]
(Note: Angulimala did not get off the hook entirely. People knew who he was, and they used to throw things at him when he went on alms rounds. But being an Arahant is a better outcome than being reborn in hell.)
A trained mind exercises choice. It is an empowered mind. An untrained mind does not exercise choice. It acts on impulse. One of the things that we are doing by training the mind is we are asserting control over it. We are subduing the Nazis running around in our heads:
There was a period of time in my Buddhist practice where I became very good at ... learning how to just be with things, and just let go of everything else. I would just let go and let go and just be really present. That can be very peaceful, and life could be very peaceful, very content, and very happy just being present by letting go. That was quite fine when I was a monk since I did not have to make a lot of choices. Then I became a parent, and just letting go and being present was not going to be enough. Lying in bed at two o’clock in the morning when the kid has an earache, or the two kids are fighting. Just let go, let go - this is not enough. You have to make a choice about how to act. You have to be creative and think ahead. A lot of thought has to go into how to respond to this situation. You cannot just sit there and be present to this situation. Being present and letting go is very important, but there is more to it. Something is required of us.
So what do we do about that part of life when something is required of us? Buddha’s teachings about karma have a lot to do with this aspect of our lives, the places where we have choice, and how we make choices. The practice of mindfulness brings us to that place where we see that we have a choice.
- [Gil Fronsdal, "Karma and Intention"]
You don't have to believe an abstract theory on karma and you do not have to believe in rebirth; you will see it work in this lifetime. A mind that is cultivating virtue is evolving toward greater joy, greater happiness, and less suffering. You may need a little faith in the process, but eventually you will reap the fruits of skillful intentions. You do not need to wait until some future life. You do not even have to believe that there will be a future life. A heart that is open, warm, kind, loving, wise, and at peace with itself is its own reward.
The End of Karma
You may have surmised by now that there are limits to what good karma can bring you. All unenlightened beings have mixed karma, and bad karma can always manifest. And the physical forces of the universe play their part. There are always those pesky tectonic plates moving about. Conditioned existence is very risky and full of dangers.
The Buddha was after something better than simply improving the odds. And according to the Buddha's teaching, as beings are born and reborn into different realms, even skillful beings eventually fall into bad habits. They become proud. They become vain. They become pleased with themselves, and oops, there you go, sliding down the karmic chain. They inevitably end up in an unhappy place. This dance has been going on throughout limitless lifetimes.
On the night of his Awakening, therefore, he kept looking. He did not just want to acquire good karma, he wanted it to end. He wanted to free himself from the uncertainties of conditioned existence.
This is a radical notion. Now, the path to ending karma runs through the process of first developing good karma. So don't think that everything that we are doing is for naught. This is a journey of a thousand miles. You can't skip steps. That is why there are books on meditation called "Breath by Breath" and "With Each and Every Breath". It is one breath at a time. It is one moment at a time. And progress is not linear. It is steps forward and back and forward and back. Remember patience and persistence?
But out there over the horizon is this intriguing notion that we can stop creating karma altogether. We can free ourselves from the uncertainties of conditioned existence. We can guarantee our happiness, and we can end our suffering:
Bhikkhus, there are these four kinds of kamma proclaimed by me after I realized them for myself with direct knowledge. What four? There is dark kamma with dark result; there is bright kamma with bright result ; there is dark-and-bright kamma with dark-and-bright result; and there is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither-dark-nor-bright result, kamma that leads to the destruction of kamma. These are the four kinds of kamma proclaimed by me after I realized them for myself with direct knowledge. - [AN 4.232]
It is this fourth kind of karma, karma that leads to the destruction of karma, that the Buddha was looking for. This is the topic of the next chapter, the law of causation, "dependent co-arising", and the chapter on "Awakening".
In this chapter we examined the law of karma:
- The law of karma is a process of cause and effect, actions and their results.
- The quality of our intentions determines the karmic result.
- Karma is a complex system, non-linear and not deterministic.
- Karma works on probabilities, and the more good karma we have the better our odds of having a favorable result. A developed, skillful mind absorbs and dissipates the effects of occasional unskillful actions.
- We can affect the results of past karma by training our minds to make skillful choices in the present moment.
- The ultimate goal is to end the creation of karma completely.