Gathering 20: Action and Consequence

In the Upajjhatthana Sutta, the Buddha recommended that everyone, “women and men, householders and renunciants”, set five truths in mind and take time each day to contemplate those:

  1. It is in the nature of beings to age, and I cannot expect to escape aging.
  2. It is natural, in the course of things, to experience injury and disease; I cannot expect to avoid injury and disease.
  3. All who live will die; I cannot expect to evade death.
  4. In time, I will lose and be separated from all that I cherish and hold dear; I cannot expect to prevent that loss.
  5. My actions have consequences; I am the owner of my actions, born of my actions, heir to my actions, related to the world through my actions; whatever I do, rightly or wrongly, I alone will reap the consequences; I cannot reject responsibility for my actions.

Tibetan Wheel of Life

Samma kamma, Correct Action, is central to the Buddha’s Path. (As are the other Path factors—Clear Seeing, Purposeful Intention, Deliberate Speaking, Worthwhile Livelihood, and so forth. Because nothing in the Buddha’s Dhamma is absolute, and all truths are relative to the conditions that reveal them as truths, then each Path factor is central to successful cultivation of the Path when you look at the Path from one particular point of view; change your point of view, and a different factor may show itself as central. But all are necessary to the task of bringing the Path to life. If that seems confusing, it’s because it is. But it’s not impenetrable, and confusion diminishes with contemplation.) The centrality of kamma, Action, is shown in the Five Precepts; in many Buddhist traditions, these are promises that one makes, to oneself and publicly to the community, when entering and participating in that community:

  • Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I accept, as a practice holding to the path, that I will not kill.)
  • Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I accept, as a practice holding to the path, that I will not take what is not given.)
  • Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I accept, as a practice holding to the path, that I will refrain from sexual misbehavior.)
  • Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I accept, as a practice holding to the path, that I will avoid false speech.)
  • Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami (I accept, as a practice holding to the path, that I will avoid intoxicants that disrupt propriety.)

Throughout the teachings, the Buddha made it clear that the kamma he was talking about—the kamma that “bears fruit” in one’s life, in one’s relationships with others, and in the wider community to which one is bound by innumerable strings of interrelatedness—is intentional kamma; he was not talking about actions that one is forced into performing, or that are entirely accidental. And he did not limit his definition of kamma to physical actions.

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. With intention set, one performs kamma with the body, with speech, and with the mind.”

Considered simply as a word meaning “action”, kamma doesn’t seem very complicated. The complications begin when one begins considering those “fruits”—the various ways in which kammic action produces results that the one performing the action (as well as those with whom he shares his life, closely or remotely) must live with. And the complications emerge (as do so many of the complications that one finds in considering Buddhist teachings) from the meaning that the term kamma had in the Brahminic culture of the Buddha’s time.

For the Brahmins, as for the Buddha, kamma was intentional action that bore fruit. But in the Brahminic world, kamma was ritual action, involving sacrifice, and the fruit it bore, if the sacrifice were performed properly and the kammic ritual were conducted by a Brahmin priest with the proper skills and training, was the intervention of the gods to bring about the result desired by the one who commissioned the ritual—the birth of a son perhaps, recovery from illness, safe delivery of a shipment of merchandise, victory in battle, an abundant harvest, rebirth in fortunate circumstances—the sorts of things for which people have petitioned the gods since the beginning. The workings of kamma were mechanical; prepare in just these ways, say just these prayers, perform this particular sacrifice, with these exact words and with this exact timing and intonation, and the result is guaranteed. And if it didn’t work, it was not because kamma failed, or because the priests didn’t do it right; it must have been because the petitioner was concealing something or was in some way impure.

The Buddha’s teaching about kamma was much more pragmatic, in the sense of the old joke:

Patient: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor: “Well, stop doing that.”

The Buddha, time and again, refused to talk about the exact mechanism of kamma, and he seldom, if ever, pointed to kamma as the explicit cause of a particular and immediate condition; in fact, in the Sivaka Sutta, when the wandering ascetic Moliya Sivaka asked him if all experience was the result of our previous actions, the Buddha explicitly guided Sivaka toward a more nuanced understanding:

“Certain experiences, Sivaka, result from an excess of bile; you know that from your own life, and it’s also a matter of common knowledge. Other experiences emerge from a sinus infection, a gassy stomach, a change in the weather, assault by bandits, a bad fall. Or by your own actions. You know this, Sivaka, from your own life, and it’s also a matter of common knowledge.

“When anyone says that all experience, whether painful, pleasurable, or neutral, comes about as the kammic result of one’s own actions, that person is going beyond when he can know for himself and also beyond what is commonly accepted as truth. And that’s wrong.”

A paraphrase of Buddha’s words from the Sivaka Sutta

As the term kamma has come into our modern vocabulary (usually in its Sanskrit form, karma), it has become bound up with the notion of rebirth or reincarnation. And it’s certainly true that, in many or even most Buddhist cultures, that association is accepted as common belief. We perform good kamma in order to secure a more fortunate rebirth; contrariwise, if someone is born in a condition of poverty and deprivation, it must be due to bad kamma which that person performed in a previous life.

That way of understanding kamma makes no sense to me, and I don’t find it in what I’ve read of the Buddha’s teachings. (I’ve written an essay, which I’ve revised several times over the years, which goes into much greater length about how I’ve come to understand the subtleties of kamma and the non-identical notions of rebirth and reincarnation; if you have the time to read that, you might find it interesting.) What I find in the teachings is an understanding of the relationship between action and reward that is quite clear, but also subtle; it points us toward a path of practice that is focused on skillful kammic action, but it does not deny the role of chance in our affairs.

The reason for acting well, for considering the Five Precepts carefully and making an effort to observe them in our lives, is not to bring about any particular result nor to gain some particular reward from the world, but to make ourselves into better persons. My observation through what has, most surprisingly, become a fairly long life, is that people who behave well—who practice good kamma, who are kind and generous and honest, who maintain themselves in a state of open friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity—are most likely to have good friends, to find themselves in a position to do useful work, to have wide and rewarding interests, to be generally free from anxiety, fear, remorse, boredom, and resentment, to live active and happy lives, to meet misfortune with fortitude and determination, and to approach the inevitable end gracefully. People who, on the other hand, are always looking out for Number One, who lie, cheat, and cause harm, are likely to be always angry, generally unhappy, and afraid to die.

On Sunday, we’ll start a discussion of kamma which is likely to continue for several gatherings; we’re also likely to revisit the Path factors which we’ve discussed in past gatherings—seeing clearly, intending purposefully, speaking deliberately.