Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way
An Overview of the Buddha’s Teachings on Kamma
What is ‘kamma,’ and what does it have to do with Awakening? Well, as a word, ‘kamma’ is the Pali language version of the Sanskrit term ‘karma,’ which has slipped into colloquial English as meaning something like a person’s fate or destiny. Taken in this way, the notion can support a passive acceptance of circumstances: if something goes wrong, one can say ‘it was my karma,’ meaning that it had to happen. Where the idea really goes astray is when it is used to condone actions, as in ‘it’s my karma to be a thief.’ If karma meant this, it would rob us of responsibility for our lives. Furthermore, there would be no way in which we could guide ourselves out of our circumstances or past history: which is what Awakening is about. However, ‘kamma’ in the way the Buddha taught it means skillful or unskillful action – something that we do now. It’s the active aspect of a cause and effect process known as kamma-vipaka, in which vipaka or ‘old kamma’ means the effect, the result of previous actions. And, for the most part, we get bound up with the results of our actions.
However, as ‘action,’ kamma supports choice. We can choose what actions we undertake. Cause and effect governs the activities of volcanoes, plants and planetary systems, but kamma relates specifically to beings who can exercise choice over what they cause – which means you and me. Also, not everything that we experience is because of past kamma (other than that of being born). So if you’re sick or caught up in an earthquake, it’s not necessarily because of you did bad things in a previous life. Instead, kamma centres on your current intention or ‘volition’ (cetana). The teachings on kamma therefore encourage a sense of responsibility for action; the responsibility to give attention to the many conscious and half-conscious choices we make in terms of what we do. What this means is that in this present moment we do have a choice as to how the future pans out: whether we will feel joyful and at ease with ourselves, or anxious and depressed depends on our actions now. And similarly, through our actions now, we can be liberated from the past, present and future. That’s what Awakening to kamma brings about.
Bodily, verbal and mental kamma
‘Kamma’ means ‘action’ in a more than physical sense; it also includes verbal action – whether we insult and yell at people, or say truthful and reliable things; and that includes the ‘internal speech’ of thinking! But actually the kamma of our emotive responses – ‘mental’ (or ‘heart’) kamma – is the strongest.3 Responses – and the inclinations that they’re based upon – govern the actions of body and speech, and also engender results in the domain of emotions, attitudes, and mind-states. Similarly, we only do things physically or verbally because of convictions, assumptions, interpretations and attitudes – mind. By itself, the body does neither good nor evil; these ethical qualities are rooted in the mind that initiates the physical deed. It’s the same with speech and thought: language is neutral – it’s the kindness or malice of the mind using the language and concepts that brings fortunate or unfortunate results.
Considering kamma in this light motivates us to clear the mind of ill-will or greed, because these lead to verbal and physical actions that leave an unpleasant tone: they engender harshness and grasping and demanding – and later on, worry, regret, and doubt. On the other hand, actions and thoughts based on compassion give the mind clarity and warmth. Hence the teachings on cause and effect: they remind us to check, investigate, and purify the mind-state associated with any action. As our actions bring conflict or harmony into the context within which we live, taking hold of kamma allows us to have a positive effect on the world around us. Understanding kamma then also offers us the significant realization that our own well-being is not separate from how we act towards others.
The dynamics of kamma
The law of kamma is that an effect or result is inevitable from an active cause. If I curse and abuse someone today, the effect of that is that they get hurt – and that means that they’re probably going to be unpleasant towards me in the future. It’s also likely that that action will have immediate effects in my own mind: agitation and remorse. Or, it may be that I get accustomed to acting in that way: so I continue to act abusively, develop an insensitive mind and lose friends. So effects accrue both in terms off-states of mind (offence and remorse) and also behavioral structures (a pattern or program of being loud-mouthed or self-centered). The really problematic stuff is the ongoing programs, ‘formations,’ or, in Buddhist language, sankhara.
These behavior patterns become part of our identity, and because we don’t see past our own ingrained habits, these patterns and programs sustain the rolling-on, or samsara, of cause and effect.
It’s important then if we want to get free, to get a hold on how we’re operating. And it’s possible, because the kamma-vipaka process forms feedback loops of mental feelings of stress or agitation or ease that we can contemplate and consider. Moreover we can respond in different ways to the results of our actions – so each effect does not inevitably engender a corresponding cause. Here’s the choice: I can pause, come out of the mind-state of irritation or recklessness, give it due consideration, and try to do better in the future. That’s the first step towards liberation. The teaching on kamma is most readily accessible in the context of external behavior. The Buddha saw that clarity in regard to behavior offers a pragmatic way in which suffering and stress can be avoided, and peace, trust and clarity generated. Hence he spoke of dark kamma – actions such as murder, theft, falsehood and sexual abuse that lead to bad results; and bright kamma – actions such as kindness, generosity, and honesty – that do the reverse. He also referred to a mixture of bright and dark kamma – actions which have some good intentions in them, but are carried out unskillfully. An example of this would be having the aim to protect and care for one’s family but carrying that out in a way which abuses one’s neighbors.
Kamma is also dynamic – we act according to input, and as we receive the feedback of agreeable or disagreeable results, that moderates our further actions. However as some feedback doesn’t occur immediately, and may even take years to occur, aspects of the feedback loop are chaotic.
This means that our rate of learning doesn’t necessarily keep up with the rate at which we can commit further action. We were blithely polluting the atmosphere for decades before it became clear what was going on; by which time other actions had taken place – establishing industries and lifestyles dependent on unsustainable resources – that make it difficult to bring about change.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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