day three : evening

Kamma & Causality

The texts tell us that after the Buddha’s awakening, he sat in meditation for 49 days, experiencing the bliss of release. However, when he reported his awakening to others, his shortest expression of what he experienced was a principle of causality. Many people find this disappointing. They would like to hear that enlightenment has lots of lights and action, and they want to hear about all of the blissful and wonderful things the Buddha experienced during those 49 days.

A second reason why people are disappointed by the fact that the Buddha summarized his awakening in terms of a causal principle is because causality seems very dry. It’s a question of metaphysics, and many people like to believe that the Buddha avoided metaphysics and taught only psychology instead. It’s true that he avoided many metaphysical questions—such as whether the universe was finite or infinite, eternal or not—but he avoided them not because they were metaphysical, but because they were irrelevant to developing the path to the end of suffering.

However, there are some metaphysical issues that are relevant to the path. Because the Buddha taught a path of action, he had to teach a metaphysics of action, to show how action works. His reason for focusing on this principle of causality as the most basic lesson of awakening was to show us how the mind works, and particularly, how we can use the actions of the mind to put an end to suffering. This is why he had to explain causality to show what human action is, what it can do, and why. And as I explained last night, the principle of causality he awoke to is directly related to a psychologically healthy attitude toward action, an attitude that enables us both to live skillfully in general, and in particular to master the path of action that the Buddha taught. So the metaphysics and the psychology he taught actually fit seamlessly together.

Causality was a very hotly debated topic in India during his time. Some teachers taught determinism; other people taught chaos; others said that human action had no power at all. So the Buddha had to explain causality to show that human action was capable of putting an end to suffering and that we have the freedom to choose to follow the path to the end of suffering—or not.

We have to remember that, for the Buddha, the mind is basically an active phenomenon. And his basic image for your mind’s relationship to the environment is that you like to feed. You start with desire that comes from hunger. We take on a sense of becoming, which is a sense of your identity in a particular world of experience. The world, here, is related to whatever you want to feed on, and your sense of identity has to do with two things. One is your sense of what abilities you have to find the happiness you want. This is called your self as a producer. The other sense of self concerns your identity as the being who is going to experience that happiness. That’s the self as consumer. Both of these senses of self need to feed. The producer needs nourishment to produce; the consumer can’t stand not feeding.

Because the mind is proactive, we approach all experience with a question: “What to do?” As long as hunger is driving the mind, the question becomes, “What to do in order to feed our hunger?” Our intentions aim at finding an answer to that question. We want to escape the feeling of pain that comes with hunger, and we want to feel the pleasure that comes when our hunger is assuaged. We pay attention to this question and our perceptions are shaped by it. We’re doing this all the time, creating kamma this way in the present all the time. And our kamma gives results—sometimes what we want, sometimes not.

Now, the Buddha’s explanation of the principle of causality to explain kamma sounds very simple on the surface. It’s composed of two pairs of principles working together:

“When this is, that is.

“From the arising of this, comes the arising of that.

“When this isn’t, that isn’t.

“From the stopping of this, comes the stopping of that.” [§7]

At first glance these statements seem to say nothing more than that there are causes and there are effects. That’s the first impression you get. But when you look more carefully at them, taking the connected statements in pairs, you see that there are two principles interacting.

The first pair is this: “When there is this, there is that. When this isn’t, that isn’t.” This describes causality in the present moment. The cause is simultaneous with the result, and when the cause disappears, the result immediately disappears.

The second pair describes causality over time. “From the arising of this, comes the arising of that. From the stopping of this, comes the stopping of that.” The cause may appear and disappear at one time, but the effect can come and go either right away or much later.

An example of the first kind of causality would be if you put your finger on the stove. You don’t have to wait until your next lifetime to get the result. Similarly, if you spit into the wind, it’s going to come right back at you immediately. That’s simultaneous causality.

An example of the second type of causality: When you plant a seed in the field, you won’t get a mature plant right away. It will take time, well after you stopped the action of planting the seed.

What does this have to do with us? Our experience consists of the combination of these two principles. At any one moment in time, you will have the results of some past actions appearing. You also have your present actions, along with some of the results of those present actions. From the point of view of kamma, this means that your experience is shaped to some extent by past actions, but also by present actions, and the present actions are actually the most important ones to attend to because you have freedom of choice concerning which actions you’ll do in the present. Your past actions are like raw material for the present moment, and your present actions are the act of shaping that raw material into an experience.

To compare this to food: Your past actions provide the raw food, and your present actions put it in a form that you can actually feed on it. As a matter of fact, you experience your present kamma prior to your past kamma, in the same way that you find food only after the act of looking for it.

This point comes in dependent co-arising: As we will see, present kamma consists of fabrication and the sub-factors coming under the factor of “name” in name and form. Past kamma is the experience of the six senses [§9], which comes after the factors of fabrication and name [§8]. What this means in terms of our direct experience is that by the time we’re aware of sensory input, we’re already primed to experience it in a certain way. This fact can cause us a lot of trouble, but it also opens the way to free us from suffering. If suffering depends on the way we prime our minds, then if we prime them in a skillful way, we don’t have to suffer even when the input from the senses—past kamma—is bad.

So in this way you have two principles of causality combining to form a causal pattern that follows some regular laws but nevertheless allows for freedom of choice. This combination is also precisely what would be required in order to develop skills. It’s because actions and their results follow a certain regular pattern that we can learn from them. It’s because we have freedom of choice in the present moment that we can use what we’ve learned to become more and more skillful.

All of this is why the Buddha never says that someone deserves to suffer because of an action. He simply says that certain actions tend to lead to certain results. But those results will also be shaped by the state of mind when those results come. If we develop a good state of mind in the present, we don’t have to suffer even when encountering the effects of our bad past kamma. If we didn’t have this ability to choose our approach to the present moment, we would simply have to suffer from our past actions. And as the Buddha noted, if this were the case, no one could reach an end of suffering or gain awakening [§14].

Now, because the two different principles are interacting, they create a complex system. In physics, these are called nonlinear systems, which have many feedback loops. An example of a feedback loop would be what happens when you put a microphone connected to a loudspeaker in front of the loudspeaker. A sound picked up by the microphone will get amplified many, many times until it’s deafening. That’s called a positive feedback loop, not because it’s positively good, but because it tends to intensify the original event.

Another example would be a heater connected to a thermostat in the same room: When the heater raises the room temperature to a certain point, the thermostat will turn it off. When the room cools to a certain point, the thermostat will turn the heater back on. This is called a negative feedback loop—again, not because it does anything negative, but because the two members work in different directions to keep each other in check.

As we’re practicing, we’re going to learn that our mind has many feedback loops, both positive and negative, and we’re going to try to take advantage of that fact: to intensify the things that we want to intensify, and to keep in check the things that would cause suffering if they got out of control.

One first step in taking advantage of feedback loops comes from realizing that complex nonlinear systems actually come from many simple patterns working together. The practical lesson is that we should first learn those simple patterns and not be too concerned with the complicated ways those patterns can interact. If you’re skillfully in control of the simple patterns and consistently trying to develop skill in your actions, the results—however complicated—will eventually get better and better. There may be some ups and downs, given that your past actions are still influencing the system, but the overall trend will tend upward.

For example, in meditation, if you focus on the breath long enough, developing mindfulness, alertness, and ardency, you may not know when the results are going to come, and you may experience many setbacks, but you can have confidence that, given the fact that you keep trying, the results will eventually come at some time.

The primary simple pattern of causality at work in the mind and in the world concerns moral decisions: Skillful intentions lead to pleasant results, and unskillful intentions lead to unpleasant results. This means that you can learn from your past skillful and unskillful actions, and you don’t simply approach the present moment with totally fresh eyes. You may have heard some people say that each new present moment is a unique moment, but that would mean that anything you learned from the past would be irrelevant for deciding what to do right now. The Buddha, however, says that there are causal patterns that are true across the board. If you can keep those patterns in mind, then you can know how to approach any moment skillfully.

An example would be the four noble truths [§2]: knowing what suffering is, what its cause is, what its cessation is, and what the path to its cessation is, and knowing also that each of those carries a duty. Suffering is to be comprehended, its cause is to be abandoned, its cessation is to be realized, and the path is to be developed. You can apply this framework to any moment in time and reap beneficial results.

However, complex patterns, even though they start from simple principles, do become complex as they create feedback loops, and the feedback loops feed into one another. In particular, the complexity relative to our practice to put an end to suffering comes from the psychology of a conscious mind. Sometimes intention comes before sensory input, but it can also come after. Consciousness can come both before and after craving. But even though these facts may make training the mind complex, in the practice we can learn how to take advantage of this complexity, because these feedback loops allow you to change your mind at many points in the system of causes and effects.

Now, there are two major drawbacks in trying to master a complex system. The first is that sometimes no clear pattern is visible in the short term. Think of weather systems, for instance. Even though weather is shaped by some very basic physical principles, we all know how inaccurate weather predictions tend to be. This is because weather is a complex system. The same happens in our own minds. This is one of the reasons why we suffer from the results of our intentions, even though we don’t intend to suffer, because sometimes it’s very difficult to see any direct connection between our intentions, on the one hand, and the pleasures and pains we feel on the other. If lightning struck every time you did something unskillful, nobody would do anything unskillful. The problem is that often we don’t directly see the connection.

In fact, as the Buddha said, it’s not always the case that our actions in this lifetime will yield their results in this lifetime. Sometimes their results won’t even come in the next lifetime. They’ll come only many lifetimes down the line [§§12–13]. This means, of course, that we can experience the results of actions done many lifetimes ago, with no idea at all of where those results come from. This not only allows us to do unskillful things without thinking we’re going to suffer, but it can also drive us crazy.

Some scientists once did an experiment with pigeons. With one group of pigeons, every time a pigeon pressed a green button, it got food. Every time it pushed a red button, it got nothing. These pigeons were very well adjusted. They pushed just the green button and paid no attention to the red one. With the other group of pigeons, though, if a pigeon pushed a green button, sometimes it got food and sometimes it didn’t. If it pressed the red button, sometimes it got food and sometimes it didn’t. These pigeons became neurotic because they couldn’t trust the buttons that fed them. This is human life. This is also why when we meditate there are a lot of ups and downs.

So, that’s the first drawback of a complex system. It’s because of this drawback that we need to learn Dhamma from people like the Buddha, who was able to gain an enlarged perspective that allowed him to see the patterns that we would otherwise miss.

The second drawback is related to the first. Because complex patterns are so unstable and, in their details, unpredictable, there’s no guarantee that, when you change the input, the system will show the effects of your actions right away. This means that when you start practicing, there’s no way of predicting how soon you’ll see the results you want. Sometimes you can meditate for days, for example, and see very little change in your mind. At other times, the changes come pretty quickly. It’s all too easy, in the first case, to get discouraged, or in the second case to get complacent. It’s because of this drawback that we need close contact with the Saṅgha—people who have encountered the same vagaries in their practice, and can give you timely help: encouragement when you need it, and warnings when you get complacent.

It’s in this way that the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha help us overcome the aspects of complex causality that would otherwise work to our detriment.

But there are three other features of complex patterns that actually work to our advantage—if we know how to make use of them.

The first deals with a feature I’ve already mentioned: the fact that feedback loops can be negative or positive. This gives you some control over what you do and don’t want to develop in the mind. If there’s a skillful quality you want to develop, you can try to create a positive feedback loop to make it stronger: This is what we do when we develop a sense of pleasure while focusing on the breath. Over time, the pleasure strengthens our concentration, and the concentration strengthens the pleasure and rapture. In this way, when they reinforce each other, they can provide nourishment for other skillful qualities in the mind as well.

On the other hand, if there’s an unskillful quality you want to weaken—or if your skillful qualities are getting out of balance—you can create a negative feedback loop to bring things under control. For instance, if you’re thinking thoughts of lust, reflection on the unattractiveness of the body helps to bring those thoughts in check. Or if you’re getting a little overcome by pleasure and rapture in your concentration, you can remind yourself to bring your focus to a more subtle level of energy in the body, and that brings the rapture under control.

The second feature of complex patterns that we can use to our advantage is called scale invariance. What this means is that patterns operating on the small scale also operate on the large scale. For example, scientists sometimes can create weather patterns in laboratories, and that can teach them about weather patterns in real life.

The same principle applies to the mind. If you learn how to deal with what’s going on in the present moment, you learn the larger patterns of kamma as they apply over large spans of time. And when you learn about the larger patterns of kamma over large time scales, they can teach you lessons about how to deal skillfully with your mind in the present. In fact, that’s what the Buddha did on the night of his awakening. He learned about the pattern of intention and views on the large scale in his second knowledge, and then applied that pattern to his mind in the present moment in the third knowledge.

A third feature of complex patterns that we can use to our advantage is that in any complex system, the principles that put the system together can also be used to take the system apart. For example, in mathematics there is something called the three-body problem. A French mathematician, Henri Poincaré, discovered that if you traced the gravitational relationship among the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon—which is a complex system—it’s possible for the Moon’s trajectory to reach a point called a resonance. When it reaches a resonance, it will leave its orbit and go flying off in a direction that cannot be predicted—even though up to that point it has been following the laws of gravity. The laws of gravity interact in a way that gets the Moon out of the laws of gravity and its relationship to the Earth.

In the same way, even though our experience is created by fabrication, and our experience of space and time is shaped by our actions, we can still use our actions to get outside of those dimensions, to gain release.

Sometimes you hear the idea that it’s impossible to reach an unconditioned dimension through the conditions created by actions, but that idea comes from understanding causality in an overly simplistic way. When we understand that causality in the mind is complex, that complex system allows us to use our intentions to get beyond intentions. This is how the Buddha’s path works. Even though suffering is caused by actions of the mind, we can use actions of the mind to get beyond suffering.

This is why the Buddha expressed his short explanation of his own awakening in terms of his double principle of causality. It’s because our actions fall into a causal pattern that we can learn from our actions. At the same time, the complexity of the pattern allows us to have freedom of choice and to use that freedom of choice to attain the ultimate freedom.

So for a quick review of how we can take advantage of the Buddha’s principle of causality:

• First: because complex patterns come from simple patterns, we focus on the simple patterns. We don’t have to try to comprehend the whole thing. In fact, the Buddha said that if you tried to comprehend all of kamma, you’d go crazy [§11]. But if you understand that there are certain patterns that the mind follows, and that kamma follows certain patterns—in other words, skillful intentions lead to pleasant results and unskillful intentions lead to unpleasant results—that’s all you have to focus on: the simple patterns. Try to create as many skillful causes as you can, and learn to have some patience as the results take their time to work out.

• Second, about scale invariance: If you understand your mind here in the present moment, you understand the issues of becoming throughout the universe, and vice versa. This is why, when we focus on the breath right now, we’re learning about principles at work in our experience of the entire cosmos. It’s also why learning about kamma on the large scale can help us in our understanding of the mind in the here and now.

• The third principle is that you can attain something that is unconditioned by developing the conditions of your mind. This is what makes ultimate freedom possible, and why fabricating a path to an unfabricated dimension actually makes sense.

Q: You’ve said that in saṁsāra everything is conditioned, which means that also my choices are conditioned, but if there is free choice, does that mean that there is an unconditioned part of me which allows for me to make the choice, is that the case?

A: Absolute freedom lies very close to freedom of choice. It doesn’t cause freedom of choice, so you can’t say that an unconditioned part of you allows you to make the choice. But an unconditioned dimension can be accessed by exercising freedom of choice. As we meditate, we try to exercise freedom of choice more and more consciously by becoming more and more skillful in our choices. The more skillful our choices, the more we’ll create conditions in the mind where we can see even more subtle levels of what’s involved in making a choice.

Most people don’t fully exercise their freedom of choice. They simply allow their old habits to take over. But when we decide to meditate, we’re going against our old habits, which means that we’re trying to exercise more and more freedom of choice. Once we discover what those choices are, where the freedom lies in those choices, we will also discover that there is a point where the mind is free not to make any choices at all. That’s the point where the unconditioned is found. That’s the first stage of awakening. So it’s by pursuing freedom of choice, which deals in conditions, that you find ultimate, unconditioned freedom.

Q: Does all the raw material for our present experience come from past kamma? Or do other forces outside of us play a role as well?

A: There’s a sutta [§10] where the Buddha is asked if everything we experience comes from past kamma, and he says No: Past kamma is only one member of a long list of things that give rise to feelings of pleasure and pain. Other members in the list include such things as bodily imbalances, changes of the season, and mistreatment of the body. But then in another sutta [§9], he says that the experience of all the six senses should be viewed as old kamma. The six senses, of course, include the body, which is the means by which we experience things like bodily imbalances and the change of the seasons. So in the final analysis, your experience of these things would count as old kamma. As for mistreatment of the body, that would count as new kamma.

The best way to make sense of these two suttas is to note that the list in the first sutta comes from the medical treatises of the Buddha’s time. From the point of view of the Buddha’s theory of kamma, this list can be used as a way of explaining how kamma, old and new, works through the laws of the physical world so that you can figure out how to treat illness and pains. If you can track down the physical cause of a pain, you treat the physical cause. You don’t just chalk it up to old kamma and leave it at that. Only when you can’t succeed in treating the pain through physical causes do you class it as an old kamma pain and simply try to work around it.

So yes, the raw material of your experience all comes from past actions, but it can come in different ways—some of which can be manipulated by our knowledge of science and medicine, some of which can’t. The Buddha’s main emphasis is on training the mind so that when we’re in situations where we can’t shape things through science or medicine, we still won’t have to suffer when the raw material from our past kamma is mostly bad.

Q: Does the law of kamma guarantee that justice will always be done?

A: No. Remember that it deals only in tendencies—certain types of actions tend to lead to certain results—but that the larger field of each individual’s past kamma, plus his or her present kamma, can influence a particular kamma plant either to yield abundant fruit or hardly any fruit at all [§13]. This means that when you sow seed in your kamma field, you get the same kind of plant whose seed you sow, but the size of your harvest will vary in line with many other factors, some of which may not seem fair.

The suttas tell the story of a murderer, Aṅgulimāla, who killed a large number of people but then had a massive change of heart, trained under the Buddha, and became an arahant. After he became an arahant, the result of his kamma from killing all those people was simply that people would throw rocks at him when he was on his almsround. You can imagine that the relatives of the people he killed would be unhappy that he didn’t suffer more than that, but if you put yourself in his place, you can see that it’s a good thing that justice isn’t always done. As the Buddha said, if we had to pay back all the bad kamma we’ve done in the past before reaching awakening, no one would ever reach awakening [§14]. His main purpose in teaching was to help us put an end to suffering, regardless of whether that suffering is “deserved” or not.

Q: With regard to the three-body problem, it’s going to take many millions of years for the moon to reach the resonance where it leaves its orbit around the Earth. I don’t have that much time.

A: Fortunately, the mind is not like the moon. The moon doesn’t know what it’s doing. We as human beings are able to know what we are doing. And we can direct our minds into that spot of resonance where we can make our way out of saṁsāra. The spot will be found right at the point where attention and intention meet in the present moment.