day two : evening

A Healthy Understanding of Kamma

We talked last night about how kamma is often misunderstood and as a result often disliked. Part of the problem, in America at least, is that the teaching on kamma is sometimes seen as psychologically unhealthy. This is because it’s believed to be deterministic. As a result, the complaint is that the idea of kamma makes people get fatalistic about their own suffering, complacent about their pleasure, and callous and indifferent to other people’s suffering.

But this view is based on a misunderstanding of the Buddha’s actual teachings on kamma. Tonight I would like to show how the Buddha taught kamma in a way that is psychologically very healthy. The first step will be to talk about what constitutes a healthy attitude toward action. The second step will be to see how the Buddha taught a healthy attitude toward action to his own son, Rāhula. And then the third step will be to draw some implications from what he taught Rāhula.

To begin with, suppose you have a child. When you train your child, what principles would you want to teach the child to give it a healthy attitude to his or her own actions?

The first principle would be, “Think before you act. Choose carefully what you want to do because your actions do have results. Some actions can be very harmful, others can be very helpful.” That’s the first principle, the principle of heedfulness.

The second principle would be, “Your intentions make a difference.” If the child breaks something intentionally, the punishment should be very different from when he breaks it unintentionally.

The third principle would be, “Pay attention to what you’re doing and see the results you’re getting. If you see that you’re doing something hurtful, stop.” Further, “If you see you’ve done something harmful, resolve not to repeat it.” This is the principle of compassion.

The next principle would be, “Admit your mistakes. If you broke something, don’t say that it was already broken before you stepped on it. If you’ve made a mistake, talk it over. Don’t be debilitated by remorse. But at the same time, don’t be callous about the harm you’ve done.” This is the principle of integrity along with truthfulness.

Finally, “Learn from your mistakes so that you don’t have to repeat them.”

Now in order to teach your child these principles, you have to be a good parent, too. If your child comes and says that he crashed your car, take a long deep breath, and tell him not to do it again. If you fly off the handle, your child will never admit a mistake to you ever again.

So these are the basic principles in teaching a healthy attitude toward action and toward the mistakes people make in their actions. Nobody is born totally perfect, so we have to be willing to admit the fact that we will make mistakes, but we should also be willing to learn from them.

These are actually the same principles that the Buddha taught to his son, Rāhula [§3]. The Commentary says that Rāhula was seven years old when the Buddha gave him those instructions. The basic instructions are these:

The first principle is to be truthful, which means not only being truthful to other people but also being truthful to yourself. As the Buddha told Rāhula, if you feel no shame at telling a deliberate lie, you’re totally empty of goodness. Truth is the basis for all progress in the life of the mind.

Then the Buddha taught Rāhula how to use his actions as a way of purifying his heart and mind. First, he said, “Before you act, ask yourself, ‘What are the consequences you anticipate from the action?’” This applies to actions of the body, actions of speech, actions of mind. If you foresee any harm from the action, don’t do it. If you don’t foresee any harm, you can go ahead and do it.

While you’re doing it, if you see that it’s causing any unexpected harm, stop. If you don’t see any harm, you can continue with the action.

Once the action is done, you’re still not done. You have to look at the long-term consequences. If you see that the action did cause harm, talk it over with someone else who has experience on the path—to gain that person’s perspective on what you did wrong and what might have been better to do instead— and then resolve not to repeat the same mistake again. If you don’t see any harmful consequences, take pride in the fact that your practice is developing and continue trying to get better and better.

When you look at these instructions, you see that they embody the four principles of a healthy attitude toward action—heedfulness, compassion, truthfulness, and integrity: heedfulness in that you take the results of your actions seriously; compassion in that you don’t want to do any harm; truthfulness in your willingness to admit your mistakes; and integrity in taking responsibility for any harm that you’ve done.

These are good qualities to bring to meditation practice as well.

Other lessons that can be drawn from these instructions concerning the nature of action: what might be called the metaphysical implications of a psychologically healthy attitude toward our power of choice and the power of our actions.

• One, you are free in how you choose to act. If you didn’t have freedom of choice, the whole idea of teaching a path of practice to put an end to suffering wouldn’t make any sense, for no one could choose whether to follow the path or not [§6].

• Two, actions have results.

• Three, your intentions are important, but good intentions are not enough. You have to learn how to make your intentions skillful. This is why we have to check the results of our actions. Simply meaning well, we can still cause harm. It’s through experience, learning from our mistakes, that we learn what genuinely is helpful and genuinely is harmful.

In fact, to see things in this way is the beginning of wisdom. You may remember from the first passage in the kamma readings [§1], that the question leading to discernment is, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” The wisdom here consists in understanding two things. The first is realizing that happiness and suffering come from your actions. And the second is realizing that long-term happiness is better than short-term.

There’s a passage in the Dhammapada where the Buddha says that if you see a long-term happiness that would come from abandoning a short-term happiness, you should be willing to give up the short-term happiness for the sake of the long-term. A British translator once translated this passage into English and added a footnote, saying that this could not possibly be what the passage really means because the principle is so basic that everybody knows it. Still, even though everybody may know it, not everybody acts on it, which is why the Buddha has to remind us.

• A fourth metaphysical implication that can also be drawn from the Buddha’s instructions to Rāhula is that the results of actions follow a pattern. Otherwise, you couldn’t learn from a mistake. If you do one thing today and the same thing tomorrow but get different results, you can’t learn from your past actions. However, it’s because there is a pattern to actions and their results that we can learn.

This pattern has two features. In some cases, you do an action and you can see the results immediately. This is why the Buddha recommends looking for the results of an action while you’re doing it. In other cases, you don’t see the results until a long time after. This is why he recommends checking the results of the action after it’s done. Sometimes the patterns combine, so that you see the results both immediately and after a long time.

As we will see tomorrow, these two features of the causal pattern are very important. The fact that they are actually two patterns interacting is what allows the Buddha’s teachings on causality to avoid determinism on the one hand and chaos on the other. In other words, there are patterns, so there is no chaos; but you are free in the present moment to change your actions, which means that there is no strict determinism. In this way, the Buddha finds a middle way that allows for freedom within the patterns of cause and effect in our actions.

In fact, these interacting patterns form the basic metaphysical principle on the nature of causality that the Buddha discovered in the course of his awakening. Together they form the fourth metaphysical implication of a healthy psychological attitude toward actions: that actions have a pattern that we can learn and master, but that the pattern is not deterministic. We can use our understanding of this pattern to manipulate causes and effects in the direction we want. This pattern, and its implications, will be the theme for tomorrow night’s talk.

Finally, the instructions to Rāhula carry some implications in terms of the qualities of mind that need to be trained in order to follow this practice.

The first quality is attention—in particular, appropriate attention, asking the right questions about your actions before you do them, while you’re doing them, after they’re done.

The second quality is ardency, which is the whole-hearted desire to be skillful. This grows directly from appropriate attention: If you see that something is skillful, you want with your whole heart to develop it. If you see that something is unskillful, you want with your whole heart to avoid it [§23]. This connects with the principles of heedfulness and compassion. When these two principles combine, they form the foundation of wisdom and discernment.

The third quality you need to develop is alertness, the ability to see clearly what you’re doing while you’re doing it, and the results you’re actually getting as they arise. In other words, you don’t see just what you hope to be getting; you see what actually happens as a result of your actions. This connects to the principle of honesty or truthfulness.

The fourth quality is mindfulness, remembering to keep asking the right questions, the ability to remember your purpose in practicing, and also the ability to remember what you’ve learned from past actions: where to look in the present moment, and how to handle different issues as they come up. When you combine mindfulness with ardency, they connect with the principle of integrity, in that you want to remember your mistakes and not repeat them.

These four qualities are the qualities that go together in establishing mindfulness—which is the topic for tomorrow morning’s talk.

All of these qualities should be developed in all of your actions, which is why the Buddha’s instructions to Rāhula are a good example of how to give beginning instructions in meditation. The Pāli word for meditation, bhāvanā, means to develop—and specifically, to develop good qualities of mind. Now, this process doesn’t begin only when you sit down with your eyes closed. It begins in the way you conduct your entire life, because the same mind is acting in all circumstances, whether your eyes are opened or closed. If you’re dishonest in your daily life, you’ll find it hard to be honest with yourself in meditation. If you’re careless in your daily actions, it’s hard to be careful as you meditate.

As I said earlier today, having purified virtue is one of the qualities that develop mindfulness. And one of the reasons why this is so is that the qualities of mind implicated in the Buddha’s instructions to Rāhula are developed through observing the precepts. To observe the precepts requires these same qualities of mind. You need to use appropriate attention to ask yourself how you will observe the precepts in your life, and in particular, what changes you need to make in your behavior to bring it in line with the precepts. You also need ardency in the whole-hearted desire to follow the precepts strictly, alertness to make sure that you really are following them, and finally mindfulness in keeping the precepts in mind. Without these qualities, you cannot observe the precepts. When you observe the precepts, you reinforce these qualities. When they’re reinforced, you can bring those developed qualities into your meditation.

It’s important to realize that the lessons from these instructions to Rāhula go all the way from the most basic level of the practice to the highest. When the Buddha in another context discusses the role of emptiness as applied to concentration practice, he tells you to examine your state of mind to see where it still contains disturbance and where it’s empty of disturbance. If you detect any disturbance, you ask yourself what you are doing in your concentration to cause that disturbance. When you see a perception that causes a disturbance, you let it go—in the same way that the Buddha told Rāhula to examine his actions and let go of any unskillful ones.

As you follow this process of looking for disturbances and their causes, and letting go of the causes, the state of mind empty of disturbance gets greater and greater, the disturbances and the perceptions causing them get more and more subtle, until you finally reach awakening. This process follows the same pattern that the Buddha taught to Rāhula. Examining your actions, seeing the causes and the results in your mind in the present moment, letting go of anything unskillful: This can take you all the way to the end of the path.

Several years back when I was teaching the passage on the Buddha’s teachings to Rāhula to a group of people in America, there was a psychotherapist in the group. She was teaching a mindfulness-based therapy group, and so she took the instructions to Rāhula, copied them out, gave them to the members of the group for their last session together the next day. After they had read the passage, she asked them, “What do you think of the Buddha as a teacher and a parent?” They replied, “If our parents had taught us like this, we wouldn’t need you now.”

Q: The Buddha trained Rāhula in how to comport himself so that he would not be a nuisance to other people. Unfortunately, not everyone in the world is Rāhula. What attitude should one adopt in the face of people who do things that are unreflective and who have no sense of their own limits? Should we develop patience, tolerance, forgiveness? What other things should we do, especially given that we have not yet attained the first level of awakening?

A: When dealing with difficult people, the approach we take should be determined by whether they are responsive to our actions or not. Some people are responsive and we can actually have a good influence on their actions. In that case, try to be proactive in helping them. Others are difficult to deal with and will not respond. That’s where you have to develop equanimity and forgiveness. And this is why it’s good to think about the principle of kamma in general. That helps put your actions and the other person’s actions into a larger perspective.

Q: Some people are upset because other people don’t share their point of view or because other people do things that they think are stupid or say things that are stupid or useless from their point of view. What advice can we give such people to understand that maybe the problem is not with other people but with them?

A: First, make sure the problem is not with you. Then if you see that the problem really is with that other person, you will probably have to give advice in an indirect way. This will take time, but often in cases like this, indirection—combined with a lot of compassion—is a lot more effective than direct comments.

Q: Do you think that there is a god or a creator?

A: In the Buddhist cosmology, there are gods, and some of them think that they created the world, but according to the Buddha, they did not. Many of the gods are just as deluded as human beings are, and some even more so.

There’s a famous story in the Canon, in Dīgha Nikāya 11, where a monk is meditating and begins to see some devas. So he asks them a question, which boils down to this: “Where does the physical universe end?” They reply, “We don’t know, but there are devas who are higher than we are. Maybe they know.” So the monk meditates some more and meets a higher level of devas. He asks them the same question, and they reply, “We don’t know, but there are devas who are higher than we are. Maybe they know.” So the monk gets sent up, up, up, up, up the deva bureaucracy in this way until finally he reaches a level of devas who say, “We don’t know, but there is a great Brahmā. He should know.”

So, the monk meditates some more and finally has a vision of the great Brahmā. He asks the great Brahmā, “Do you know where the physical universe ends?” And the great Brahmā answers, “I am the great Brahmā, knower of all, all-powerful, creator of all that has been and will be.” Now if this were the Book of Job, the monk would have said, “OK, I understand.” But this is the Pāli Canon, so the monk says, “That’s not what I asked you. I want to know where the physical universe ends.” But the great Brahmā simply says again, “I am the great Brahmā, knower of all, seer of all, creator of all,” etc., altogether three times. Finally the great Brahmā pulls the monk aside by the arm and says, “I don’t know, but I have this large multitude of followers and they believe that I know everything. They would be disappointed if I admitted my ignorance in front of them.” So the Brahmā advises the monk, “Go back to the Buddha and ask him the question.”

So the monk goes back to the Buddha and the Buddha says, “That’s the wrong question to ask. The right question is, ‘Where does the experience of the universe end?’ That ends in the mind, the awakened mind, the consciousness of awakening is what goes beyond the universe.”

That’s the story. There is another place where the Buddha says that if you think there is a creator god who is responsible for the pleasure and pain you experience, you can’t really practice the Dhamma. You have to realize that the important issues are the things that you create. When you solve the issue of your own creations, then you’re done with the problem.