Question: You’ve spoken of the five topics that should be contemplated every day: that we’re subject to aging, subject to illness, subject to death, subject to separation from the things and people we love, and that we’re the owners of our karma. This fifth topic is the most difficult of the five to understand. I was wondering if you could explain karma, and in particular the role of mindfulness at the moment of death.

Ajaan Suwat: Listen carefully. I’m going to explain karma in line with the principles of the Buddha’s Awakening. When the Buddha explained karma, he did so in line with one of the knowledges he attained on the night of his Awakening: recollection of past lives. In becoming the Buddha, it wasn’t the case that he had been born only once and had practiced only one lifetime before attaining Awakening. He had been developing his goodness, his perfections, for many lifetimes. That was how he had been able to build up his discernment continually over the course of time to the point where he could awaken to the subtle Dhamma so hard for anyone to recollect, so hard for anyone to awaken to. He had been developing his mindfulness until it was fully powerful, his discernment until it was fully powerful, so that he could come to know the truth. For this reason, our understanding of karma has to depend both on our study and on our practice, training our own minds as the Buddha did so as to gain discernment step by step.

When the Buddha spoke about karma after his Awakening to the truth, he was referring to action. There’s physical karma, i.e., the actions of the body; verbal karma, the actions of speech; and mental karma, the actions of the mind. All human beings, all living beings, experience good things and bad, pleasure and pain, from karma — their own actions.

Karma is something very subtle. When you ask about rebirth and how you’ll experience pleasure and pain in future lives, you should first study karma in your present life, your actions in your present life. Understand your actions in the present life clearly. Once you understand them, once you know the truth of action in the present, then when you train the mind further you’ll gradually come to the end of your doubts. There’s no one who has ever resolved doubts about rebirth simply through reading or hearing the spoken word. Even among those who’ve practiced a long time: if their discernment isn’t up to the task, they’ll still have their same old doubts. The texts tell us that doubt is ended only with the attainment of the first of the noble paths, called stream entry. Stream-enterers have cut away three defilements: self-identity views, doubt, and attachment to habits and practices. When the discernment of the noble path arises, knowledge of birth and death, rebirth and redeath, arises together with it. As for our current level of discernment: if we want to know about these things, we need to do the preliminary work. We need to study the nature of action in the present. So today I won’t speak of future lifetimes. I’ll teach about the three kinds of action — physical action, verbal action, and mental action — in the present.

These three kinds of action are divided into two sorts: good and bad. Bad actions give rise to suffering. Good actions give rise to good results: happiness, prosperity, mindfulness, and discernment, both in the present and on into future days, future months, future years.

Bad actions are called unskillful karma. The Buddha taught that we should abandon this kind of karma. In the area of physical action, that includes tormenting and killing living beings, whether large or small. This kind of action is unskillful because it lacks good will and compassion. All living beings love their life. If we kill them, it’s unskillful because we have no compassion, no pity, no regard for their lives. This is why the Buddha told us not to do it. If we kill other human beings, we get punished in the present both by the civil law and by the Dhamma.

These three things — killing, stealing, and illicit sex — are all called unskillful physical karma. We should contemplate them to see why the Buddha told us not to do them. When we’ve contemplated them, we’ll see that they really aren’t good things to do because we wouldn’t want anyone to do them to us. For example, the wealth that we’ve earned is something we’re possessive of. It’s something we want to use as we like. If someone were to steal it from us or cheat us out of it, then even if that person used to be our friend, that’s the end of the friendship. We can’t live with that person any longer. We’re sure to have a quarrel and a falling out. That person might even have to go to jail for the theft. This is crude karma, the kind whose results are visible in the immediate present.

The same holds true with the third precept. Once we’ve decided to get married, to live with another person, then if that person cheats on us, think of how much suffering there will be for both sides. People who want peace or who are established in morality won’t praise the other person as being a good person. All of these things are unskillful physical actions that the Buddha taught us to abandon.

As for verbal karma, there are four kinds of unskillful action: lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter. And in the area of mental karma, there are three: greed, ill will, and wrong views.

Whoever does any of these ten kinds of unskillful actions — the three kinds of unskillful physical karma, the four kinds of unskillful verbal karma, and the three kinds of unskillful mental karma — is an unskillful person. This is why we’re taught that we’re the owners of our actions. If we act in these mistaken ways, we become mistaken people. We’re the ones who are defiled by those actions: no one else is defiled by what we do. This is why we’re taught to reflect every day that we’re the owner of our actions. If we do something bad, we become bad people and we have to reap the bad results, the suffering that arises from that action. That’s why we’re taught that we’re the heirs to our actions. If we don’t abandon those actions, if we keep doing them often, the results of those actions will follow us wherever we go. There’s no way we can be regarded as good people. This is why we’re taught that we’re followed by our actions. Wherever we go, if we don’t give up that kind of behavior we’ll be mistrusted by society.

The reason the Buddha has us reflect on these things — that we’re the owners of our actions, heirs to our actions, followed by our actions — is so that we’ll pay attention to our actions every day, so that we’ll see them clearly for what they are. If we don’t clearly see the nature and results of our actions, we should contemplate them further. Why does killing result in suffering? When a person kills, why is that person a bad person? The same holds true with stealing and illicit sex. If we examine these actions carefully, making our minds impartial and fair, we’ll see that these actions really are bad. They really result in suffering. We’ll see for ourselves in line with what the Buddha taught. We don’t have to look at anyone else. We just look at ourselves. If we see that what we’re doing isn’t good, then when other people do the same things, the same holds true for them. Whoever does these things is a bad person. If a lot of people do these things, then there’s trouble for a lot of people. If everyone in the world were to do these things, the whole world would be troubled. The peace and happiness the world does experience comes totally from the good actions of good people.

The ten things we’ve been talking about are karma on the unskillful side, but there are also ten kinds of skillful karma — three physical, four verbal, and three mental — in just the same way. These are the actions that bring us happiness and prosperity. In terms of the three kinds of skillful physical karma, we use our discernment and compassion to consider things. We have compassion for animals that are about to be killed. If we see something belonging to someone else that we’d like, we have compassion for them so that we wouldn’t want to steal that thing or cheat the other person out of it. If we see an opportunity for some illicit sex, we reflect on the fact that we’re already married and should have only one heart, one love. We should have compassion for the person we live with. If we cheat on that person, we’ll create suffering for him or her. Having only one heart, one love, is meritorious, for it allows us to live together for life. So if we learn to abandon the pleasures that come from taking life, stealing, and illicit sex, we benefit. We become good people. Society doesn’t mistrust us. The society of good people recognizes us as good people, as clean people, pure in body because our virtues are pure. This is where purity comes from.

To save time, I’ll condense the remainder of the discussion. The ten kinds of skillful actions are the opposite of the ten kinds of unskillful ones. In terms of the three kinds of skillful physical karma, we abstain from the three kinds of unskillful karma. We resolve not to do them, and we follow through absolutely in line with that resolve. The same holds for the four kinds of skillful verbal karma. We resolve firmly not to lie, not to engage in divisive speech, in harsh speech, or idle chatter. We also resolve not to be greedy, not to feel ill will for anyone, and to straighten out our views — i.e., to hold to the principle of karma, seeing that if we do good, we’ll become good; if we do bad, we’ll become bad. When we see things in this way, our views are right in line with the truth.

Unskillful actions come from the mind’s being affected by the defilements of greed, anger, and delusion. People kill and steal out of greed, engage in illicit sex out of greed, steal or kill out of anger. Sometimes they engage in illicit sex out of anger, as a way of getting even. Sometimes they do these things out of delusion, as when they’re tricked into doing them along with other people. That’s why these three defilements — greed, anger, and delusion — are so important. And this is why we develop mindfulness, so that we’ll see how these three defilements are the root of unskillfulness. If they arise, they can cause us to misbehave in various ways, to engage in unskillful karma. So when they arise, we have to use our discernment to hold them in check.

As for skillful mental states, when we understand how unskillfulness comes from these three defilements — when we’ve heard these teachings and considered them on our own — the mind comes to feel shame at the idea of misbehaving in any of those ways. It realizes why they shouldn’t be done. It also develops a sense of compunction, realizing that if we do those things, we’ll become bad people. Our friends — anyone who knows us — will criticize us, won’t want to associate with us, will despise us. When we feel this kind of dread, we can abandon those things.

So when our discernment reaches the stage where we have this sense of shame and compunction, when we resolve not to do wrong in terms of our physical, verbal, and mental karma, then skillful mental states have arisen within us. These states will then lead us to do all sorts of good. We’ll feel compassion for others. We’ll want to help them. This in turn becomes one of our perfections, causing other people, other beings, to love us in return. The happiness that comes from this goodness is called merit (puñña). When we have a sense of shame and compunction, we exercise restraint over our physical actions so that we don’t do anything wrong. This means that our body is pure. We exercise restraint over our speech, not breaking our precepts, and in this way our speech is pure. We exercise restraint over the mind, and in this way our mind is pure. When we exercise restraint and don’t do anything wrong, we’ll know for ourselves that we’re good people — good because what we do is good.

As for the good things that come from doing good: our friends will love us, people trust us, we pose no threat to anyone anywhere. People are happy to welcome us into their society. When we act in this way, we’re not mistrusted wherever we go. Thus, when we do good, that good karma is ours. We’ll be skillful people. If other people do good, that good karma is theirs. As for people who don’t restrain themselves in this way, they don’t have a share in that goodness. This is why the Buddha said that we’re the owners of our actions.

If we do good, we’ll experience good results. If we keep doing good, that goodness will keep following us wherever we go. For example, if a monk observes his precepts, exercises restraint over his words and deeds in Thailand, the people there recognize him as a good person. When he comes to America, we see that he’s a good person who poses no danger to us. The same holds true with us. If we behave in a skillful way, we’re good people. If we go to Thailand, the people there will welcome us. Wherever we go, people will welcome us. It’s when we do evil that people want to keep us out.

So we can see clearly in line with what the Buddha said: living beings are what they are in line with their actions. If we do good, we’re good people and experience happiness. Society welcomes us. We help bring pleasure to the world. When we see the good we’ve done, we’ll feel happy with ourselves. Esteem for ourselves. We can guarantee our own purity. Wherever we go, we can go with confidence, for there are no hidden weak points in our behavior or hearts. We’re not afraid of being found out for anything, for we have nothing to hide. It’s because of our purity that we can be confident and brave. Wherever we go, we know that good people will welcome us.

Moreover, we can help them become better people, too. They can take us as an example, and in this way we serve a beneficial purpose. The activities of good people are much more beneficial than those of people who aren’t good. This is because their minds tend toward self-sacrifice for the sake of the world, the sake of the common good. In this way they win honor, praise, wealth, and happiness. Society spreads their name far and wide for the goodness they’ve done.

Now that you’ve heard about the pleasure and pain that come in the present from good and bad karma we’ve done, do you understand what I’ve said? Do you agree?

Question: What about when you’re about to die? What’s the influence of the karma you’ve done? And what’s the role of mindfulness at that point?

Ajaan Suwat: I’m not yet talking about death. I’m talking about the present to make sure that we first understand the present.

Mindfulness at the point of death, though, is related to present karma. It’s a form of skillful karma. If we’ve done good, then our mindfulness will have the strength to recollect the goodness we’ve done.

Normally, when people are about to die, two kinds of signs can appear. The first is a karma-sign (kamma-nimitta), dealing with actions they’ve done in the past. If a person has done evil, then there may be a sign making him relive that action. When I was a child, there was a man in the village who had slaughtered a lot of cattle. When he was about to die, he started screaming and sounded just like a cow being slaughtered. This is called a sign of unskillful karma. The person relives the karma he did, although this time it’s being done to him: in the case of the man who slaughtered cattle, he sees someone coming to kill him. When that sort of vision appears, the mind will fall in line with it and be reborn in a state of deprivation to suffer the consequences of its evil deeds.

The second kind of sign is a destination-sign (gati-nimitta). You see where you’re going. You may see hell, the realm of the hungry ghosts — everywhere you look you see things corresponding to the bad things you’ve done. If you die at that point, the mind will go to that sort of destination.

Enough of these bad things. Let’s talk about some good ones, all right?

If you’ve done good things and skillful things, then when you’re about to die … Especially if you’ve practiced meditation and attained jhāna, then when you’re about to die the mind can enter one of the rūpa jhānas and be reborn on the level of the rūpa brahmās. If you’ve attained any of the arūpa jhānas, then you can enter jhāna and reach the levels of the arūpa brahmās, in line with the mind’s strength.

As for more ordinary levels of skillfulness — called kāmāvacara-kusala, skillfulness on the sensual level — as when you practice generosity, observe the precepts, and meditate, abstaining from the ten forms of unskillful karma we’ve mentioned: when you’re about to die, a karma-sign will arise and you’ll remember meditating in the past. You’ll find yourself meditating again, being mindful, gaining the same sense of ease you had before. The mind then holds onto its concentration and experiences rebirth in a pleasurable direction in one of the good destinations.

Or you may remember the happiness you felt in doing good — paying respect to the Buddha, lighting candles and incense, giving donations in one way or another. You may get a karma-sign that you’re doing those things again together with your friends, in the same way as we’re meditating together here: paying respect to the Buddha, sitting in meditation, doing walking meditation. If you pass away at that moment, the mind will experience birth in one of the good destinations. In this way, whatever actions you did in the course of your life will appear to you — as if you’re doing them again — as you’re about die.

As for the good destination-signs, you may see gold and silver palaces, riches, things that delight you and give you pleasure, things corresponding to the skillful things you’ve done. If you die at that point, you’ll go to a good destination.

There’s a story in the Dhammapada Commentary about a very virtuous lay disciple who liked to listen to the Dhamma and made a practice of generosity, virtue, and meditation. As he grew older and was on his deathbed, he asked his children to invite some monks to come recite some suttas to him. As the monks were chanting — most likely the Maṅgala Sutta, the Girimānanda Sutta, or the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta — devas from all the various directions came with their royal chariots to take the lay disciple back to their different heavens. This one said, “Come with me.” That one said, “No, come with me.” So the devas started fighting over him.

The lay disciple, seeing this, said, “Stop!” As soon as he said that, the monks — who didn’t see the devas — stopped chanting and went back to their monastery. Soon after, the layman asked his children, “What happened to all the monks?” The children answered, “Well, you told them to stop, so they stopped chanting and went back to the monastery.” “No,” the lay disciple said, “I didn’t tell them to stop. I told the devas to stop fighting.” The children didn’t believe him that any devas had come. All they could think was that he was losing his mind. He insisted, though, that the devas had come to welcome him to their heavens. “If you don’t believe me, take that garland and throw it in the air.” So they threw the garland in the air, and it caught on the edge of one of the devas’ chariots as it was about to leave. The children didn’t see the chariot, all they could see was the garland whizzing through the air. The only person who could see the devas was their father.

This is one of the rewards of acting skillfully, or serving a useful purpose in life. When you’re about to die, the devas come to take you to their heavens. They want you to join them — for there’s happiness in living with wise people, in associating with people who are good.

In short, the three types of skillfulness that lead to a good destination are dānamaya, generosity, helping other people to live in pleasure and happiness; sīlamaya, virtue, observing the five precepts and ten forms of skillful action; and bhāvanāmaya, meditation, developing the mind. I ask that you have conviction in meditation, that you set your minds on doing it. Whether or not your minds settle down doesn’t really matter. Even if you don’t gain release from suffering in this lifetime, you’re developing good habits that will act as supporting conditions in future lifetimes. The reward of your meditation is that you’ll be mindful, discerning, and intelligent. You’ll live long and feel mental wellbeing. If you get to hear the Dhamma in the future, you’ll more easily gain Awakening. These are some of the rewards of meditating.

So don’t let yourselves grow weary of the meditation. Don’t tell yourselves that you don’t get anything from doing it. At the very least, you gain skillfulness on the sensual level; you develop awareness, understanding, and intelligence as supporting conditions for your future happiness, both in this life and on into the next.

That’s enough explanation for now. May each and every one of you meet with peace and prosperity.