Today we have come
to a couple of related ideas which are common in Buddhism and
they are the ideas of karma and rebirth. These ideas are closely
inter-related, but because the subject is a fairly wide one,
we will begin to deal with the idea of karma today and rebirth
in the following lecture.
We know that what
binds us in samsara are the defilements desire, ill-will
and ignorance. We spoke about this when we talked about the
Second Noble Truth the truth of the cause of suffering.
These defilements are something which every living being in
samsara shares, whether we speak of human beings or animals
or beings who live in the other realms which we do not normally
perceive. In this, all living beings are alike and yet amongst
all the living beings that we can normally perceive, there are
many differences. For instance, some of us are wealthy, some
are less wealthy, some are strong and healthy, others are disabled
and so forth. There are many differences amongst living beings
and even more so there are differences between animals and human
beings. These differences are due to karma.
What we all share
desire, ill-will and ignorance are common to all
living beings, but the particular condition in which we find
ourselves is the result of our particular karma that conditions
the situation in which we find ourselves, the situation in which
we may be wealthy, strong and so forth. These circumstances
are decided by karma. It is in this sense that karma explains
the differences amongst living beings. It explains why some
beings are fortunate while others are less fortunate, some are
happy while others are less happy. The Buddha has specifically
stated that karma explains the differences between living beings.
You might also recall that the understanding of how karma affects
the birth of living beings in happy or unhappy circumstances
the knowledge of how living beings move from happy circumstances
to unhappy circumstances, and vice versa, from unhappy to happy
circumstances as a result of their karma was part of
the Buddhas experience on the night of His enlightenment.
It is karma that explains the circumstances that living beings
find themselves in.
Having said this
much about the function of karma, let us look more closely at
what karma is. Let us define karma. Maybe we can define karma
best by first deciding what karma is not. It is quite often
the case that we find people misunderstanding the idea of karma.
This is particularly true in our daily casual use of the term.
We find people saying that one cannot change ones situation
because of ones karma. In this sense, karma becomes a
sort of escape. It becomes similar to predestination or fatalism.
This is emphatically not the correct understanding of karma.
It is possible that this misunderstanding of karma has come
about because of the popular idea that we have about luck and
fate. It may be for this reason that our idea of karma has become
overlaid in popular thought with the notion of predestination.
Karma is not fate or predestination.
If karma is not
fate or predestination, then what is it? Let us look at the
term itself. Karma means action, means "to do". Immediately
we have an indication that the real meaning of karma is not
fate because karma is action. It is dynamic. But it is more
than simply action because it is not mechanical action. It is
not unconscious or involuntary action. It is intentional, conscious,
deliberate, willful action. How is it that this intentional,
will action conditions or determines our situation? It is because
every action must have a reaction, an effect. This truth has
been expressed in regard to the physical universe by the great
physicist Newton who formulated the law which states that every
action must have an equal and opposite reaction. In the moral
sphere of conscious actions, we have a counterpart to the physical
law of action and reaction, the law that every intentional,
will action must have its effect. This is why we sometimes speak
either of Karma-Vipaka, intentional action and its ripened effect,
or we speak of Karma-Phala, intentional action and its fruit.
It is when we speak of intentional action together with its
effect or fruit that we speak of the Law of Karma.
In its most basic
sense, the Law of Karma in the moral sphere teaches that similar
actions will lead to similar results. Let us take an example.
If we plant a mango seed, the plant that springs up will be
a mango tree, and eventually it will bear a mango fruit. Alternatively,
if we plant a Pong Pong seed, the tree that will spring up will
be a Pong Pong tree and the fruit a Pong Pong. As one sows,
so shall one reap. According to ones action, so shall
be the fruit. Similarly, in the Law of Karma, if we do a wholesome
action, eventually we will get a wholesome fruit, and if we
do an unwholesome action eventually we will get an unwholesome,
painful result. This is what we mean when we say that causes
bring about effects that are similar to the causes. This we
will see very clearly when we come to specific examples of wholesome
and unwholesome actions.
We can understand
by means of this general introduction that karma can be of two
varieties wholesome karma or good karma and unwholesome
karma or bad karma. In order that we should not misunderstand
this description of karma, it is useful for us to look at the
original term. In this case, it is kushala or akushala karma,
karma that is wholesome or unwholesome. In order that we understand
how these terms are being used, it is important that we know
the real meaning of kushala and akushala. Kushala means intelligent
or skilful, whereas akushala means not intelligent, not skilful.
This helps us to understand how these terms are being used,
not in terms of good and evil but in terms of skilful and unskilful,
in terms of intelligent and unintelligent, in terms of wholesome
and unwholesome. Now how wholesome and how unwholesome? Wholesome
in the sense that those actions which are beneficial to oneself
and others, those actions that spring not out of desire, ill-will
and ignorance, but out of renunciation, loving-kindness and
compassion, and wisdom.
One may ask how
does one know whether an action that is wholesome or unwholesome
will produce happiness or unhappiness. The answer is time will
tell. The Buddha Himself answered the question. He has explained
that so long as an unwholesome action does not bear its fruit
of suffering, for so long a foolish person will consider that
action good. But when that unwholesome action bears its fruit
of suffering then he will realize that the action is unwholesome.
Similarly, so long as a wholesome action does not bear its fruit
of happiness, a good person may consider that action unwholesome.
When it bears its fruit of happiness, then he will realize that
the action is good. So one needs to judge wholesome and unwholesome
action from the point of view of long-term effect. Very simply,
wholesome actions result in eventual happiness for oneself and
others, while unwholesome actions have the opposite result,
they result in suffering for oneself and others.
unwholesome actions which are to be avoided relate to the three
doors or means of action, and these are body, speech and mind.
There are three unwholesome actions of the body, four of speech
and three of mind that are to be avoided. The three unwholesome
actions of body that are to be avoided are killing, stealing
and sexual misconduct. The four unwholesome actions of speech
that are to be avoided are lying, slander, harsh speech and
malicious gossip. The three unwholesome actions of mind that
are to be avoided are greed, anger and delusion. By avoiding
these ten unwholesome actions we will avoid their consequences.
The unwholesome actions have suffering as their fruit. The fruit
of these unwholesome actions can take various forms. The fully
ripened fruit of the unwholesome actions consists of rebirth
in the lower realms, in the realms of suffering hell,
hungry ghosts and animals. If these unwholesome actions are
not sufficient to result in rebirth in these lower realms, they
will result in unhappiness in this life as a human being. Here
we can see at work the principle of a cause resulting in a similar
effect. For example, habitual killing which is motivated by
ill-will and anger and which results in the taking of the life
of other beings will result in rebirth in the hells where ones
experience is saturated by anger and ill-will and where one
may be repeatedly killed. If killing is not sufficiently habitual
or weighty to result in rebirth in the hells, killing will result
in shortened life as a human being, separation from loved ones,
fear or paranoia. Here too we can see how the effect is similar
to the cause. Killing shortens the life of others, deprives
others of their loved ones and so forth, and so if we kill we
will be liable to experience these effects. Similarly, stealing
which is borne of the defilement of desire may lead to rebirth
as a hungry ghost where one is totally destitute of desired
objects. If it does not result in rebirth as a ghost, it will
result in poverty, dependence upon others for ones livelihood
and so forth. Sexual misconduct results in martial distress
or unhappy marriages.
actions produce unwholesome results suffering, wholesome
actions produce wholesome results happiness. One can
interpret wholesome actions in two ways. One can simply regard
wholesome actions as avoiding the unwholesome actions, avoiding
killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and the rest. Or one can
speak of wholesome actions in positive terms. Here one can refer
to the list of wholesome actions that includes generosity, good
conduct, meditation, reverence, service, transference of merits,
rejoicing in the merit of others, hearing the Dharma, teaching
the Dharma and straightening of ones own views. Just as
unwholesome actions produce suffering, these wholesome actions
produce benefits. Again effects here are similar to the actions.
For example, generosity results in wealth. Hearing of the Dharma
results in wisdom. The wholesome actions have as their consequences
similar wholesome effects just as unwholesome actions have similar
Karma, be it wholesome
or unwholesome, is modified by the conditions under which the
actions are performed. In other words, a wholesome or unwholesome
action may be more or less strong depending upon the conditions
under which it is done. The conditions which determine the weight
or strength of karma may be divided into those which refer to
the subject the doer of the action and those which
refer to the object the being to whom the action is done.
So the conditions that determine the weight of karma apply to
the subject and object of the action. Specifically, if we take
the example of killing, in order for the act of killing to have
its complete and unmitigated power, five conditions must be
present - a living being, the awareness of the existence of
a living being, the intention to kill the living being, the
effort or action of killing the living being, and the consequent
death of the living being. Here too, we can see the subjective
and the objective conditions. The subjective conditions are
the awareness of the living being, the intention to kill and
the action of killing. The objective conditions are the presence
of the living being and the consequent death of the living being.
are five conditions that modify the weight of karma and they
are persistent, repeated action; action done with great intention
and determination; action done without regret; action done towards
those who possess extraordinary qualities; and action done towards
those who have benefited one in the past. Here too there are
subjective and objective conditions. The subjective conditions
are persistent action; action done with intention; and action
done without regret. If one does an unwholesome action again
and again with great intention and without regret, the weight
of the action will be enhanced. The objective conditions are
the quality of the object to whom actions are done and the nature
of the relationship. In other words, if one does a wholesome
or unwholesome action towards living beings who possess extraordinary
qualities such as the Arahants, or the Buddha, the wholesome
or unwholesome action done will have greater weight. Finally
the power of wholesome or unwholesome action done towards those
who have benefited one in the past, such as ones parents,
teachers and friends, will be greater.
The objective and
subjective conditions together determine the weight of karma.
This is important because understanding this will help us to
understand that karma is not simply a matter of black and white,
or good and bad. Karma is moral action and moral responsibility.
But the working of the Law of Karma is very finely tuned and
balanced so as to match effect with cause, so as to take into
account the subjective and objective conditions that determine
the nature of an action. This ensures that the effects of actions
are equal to and similar to the nature of the causes.
The effects of
karma may be evident either in the short term or in the long
term. Traditionally we divide karma into three varieties related
to the amount of time that is required for the effects of these
actions to manifest themselves. Karma can either manifest its
effects in this very life or in the next life or only after
several lives. When karma manifests its effects in this life,
we can see the fruit of karma within a relatively short length
of time. This variety of karma is easily verifiable by any of
us. For instance, when someone refuses to study, when someone
indulges in harmful distractions like alcohol and drugs, when
someone begins to steal to support his harmful habits; the effects
will be evident within a short time. They will be evident in
loss of livelihood and friendship, health and so forth. We cannot
see the long-term effect of karma, but the Buddha and His prominent
disciples who have developed their minds are able to perceive
directly the long-term effects. For instance, when Maudgalyayana
was beaten to death by bandits, the Buddha was able to tell
that this event was the effect of something Maudgalyayana had
done in a previous life when he had taken his aged parents to
the forest and having beaten them to death, had then reported
that they had been killed by bandits. The effect of this unwholesome
action done many lives before was manifested only in his last
life. At death we have to leave everything behind our
property and our loved ones, but our karma will accompany us
like a shadow. The Buddha has said that nowhere on earth or
in heaven can one escape ones karma. So when the conditions
are correct, dependent upon mind and body, the effects of karma
will manifest themselves just as dependent on certain conditions
a mango will appear on a mango tree. We can see that even in
the world of nature certain effects take longer to appear than
others. If for instance, we plant the seed of a papaya, we will
obtain the fruit in shorter period than if we plant the seed
of a durian. Similarly, the effects of karma manifest either
in the short term or in the long term.
Besides the two
varieties of karma, wholesome and unwholesome karma, we should
mention neutral or ineffective karma. Neutral karma is karma
that has no moral consequence either because the very nature
of the action is such as to have no moral consequence or because
it is done involuntarily and unintentionally. For example, sleeping,
walking, breathing, eating, handicraft and so forth in themselves
have no moral consequence. Similarly, unintentional action is
ineffective karma. In other words, if one accidentally steps
on an insect, being unconscious of its existence, this also
constitutes neutral karma because there is no intention - the
intentional element is not there.
The benefits of
understanding the Law of Karma are that this understanding discourages
one from performing unwholesome actions which have suffering
as their fruit. Once we understand that in our own life every
action will have a similar and equal reaction, once we understand
that we will experience the effect of that action, wholesome
or unwholesome, we will refrain from unwholesome behavior, not
wanting to experience the effects of these unwholesome actions.
And similarly, understanding that wholesome actions have happiness
as their fruit, we will cultivate these wholesome actions. Reflecting
on the Law of Karma, of action and reaction in the moral sphere
encourages us to renounce unwholesome actions and cultivate
wholesome actions. We will look more closely at the specific
effects of karma in future lives and how karma conditions and
determines the nature of rebirth in our lecture next week.
from "Fundamentals of Buddhism", by Dr. Peter Della