day four : evening

Past Kamma

Last night, we talked about the fact that your present experience is composed of three things: results from past actions—and here “actions” mean “intentions”— your present intentions, and the results of your present intentions.

Tonight I’d like to talk about the attitude we should have toward our past actions.

We can’t go back and change those actions, but we find that we do have various ways of dealing with their results as they come up in the present moment.

There’s a teaching that you sometimes hear, that to know a person’s past actions, look at that person’s present condition; to know a person’s future condition, look at his present actions. This, though, is much too simplistic. It assumes that we have a single kamma account, like a single bank account, and what you see in the present moment is the running balance.

Actually what you see in the present moment is only one small piece of a person’s past kamma. For instance, you may see someone who seems to be happy, with lots of good fortune in life, but that person has many seeds of kamma in his background and some of those seeds can be very bad. In the same way, you may see someone who seems very unfortunate right now—in other words, some bad seeds are sprouting right now—but they may also have some very good seeds in their background that are either ready to sprout or may sprout sometime in the future.

The image that the Buddha uses to help us understand our past kamma is not a bank account. It’s a field full of seeds. In some of his explanations of this image, the soil in the field represents your past kamma. In other words, your field has some good soil and some bad soil. In some of the other ways he explains this image, the seeds represent the kamma, but the message is the same: You can have good seeds and bad seeds in your field. In either case, he says that in the present moment you can add water to the seeds in some parts of the field and you will encourage some of them to grow, which means that you have to be very careful about what you water.

Now in some cases, the seeds are not ready to sprout no matter how much water you add. Some are ready to sprout only if you add water, and some will sprout whether you add water or not. In any case, the “water” stands for your attention and your delight in things. So that’s what you have to watch out for: what you’re paying attention to, how you’re paying attention to it, and what kind of delight you find in it.

This fact has many implications. One is that you don’t need to ask which deed in the past left which seed in the field. As I mentioned last night, if you tried to trace back all of your past kamma, you’d go crazy [§11]. So, sometimes when you hear someone asking, “Oh, what kamma caused all these people to die?” Or: “Why is this person suffering?” you know the general principle: that there was some bad kamma in the past, but you don’t know exactly what the actions were. The Buddha’s recommendation is that you focus instead on accepting that there are good and bad seeds in your field and in the fields of other people, and then proceed from there. If we had only good seeds, we wouldn’t be human beings. We’d be up in one of the heavens some place. All you have to focus on is watering the right seeds and planting good new seeds in your own field, and to encourage other people to water and plant the right seeds in theirs. That’s the first implication.

The second implication is that there’s no need for remorse over your past bad actions, because remorse can be debilitating. Simply recognize the fact that you have made mistakes, resolve not to repeat them, and then spread thoughts of goodwill to yourself and to all other beings [§19]. Remember that the simple intention to incline your mind in a skillful direction is, in and of itself, already a skillful action. Nourish that inclination. That’s the second implication.

The third implication is that there are many potentials in the present. For example, there are potentials for pain as well as potentials for pleasure right here in your body. You can make yourself miserable by focusing unskillfully on the potentials for pain, and you can actually get the mind in a good state by focusing skillfully on the potentials for pleasure. If your focus is skillful, using the right intentions and perceptions, you can focus even on the potentials for pain in a way that puts the mind in a good shape.

The same principle applies to the potentials in the mind. Your mind has the potential both for many skillful attitudes and for many unskillful attitudes. Here it’s important to note that the Buddha never says that the mind is naturally good or naturally bad. He notes instead that the mind is very changeable—it can change so quickly that even he, the master of apt analogies, couldn’t find an analogy for how quick it is to change. Even “the flash of an eye” is too slow by comparison. He also notes that the mind has potentials in both directions, skillful and not skillful. So, to be wise, we focus on developing the skillful attitudes and learn how to undercut or weaken the unskillful ones. We do this by watering our skillful attitudes with our attention and delight.

Our problem is that we often delight in unskillful attitudes. We have a potential for anger, and sometimes we really enjoy it. The Buddha said what you should try to do is develop a delight in developing what’s skillful, and a delight in abandoning what’s unskillful. This is one of the traditions of the noble ones.

Some of the implications of the Buddha’s teachings on past kamma apply directly to your meditation. For example, if you find that there’s a lot of pain, don’t just sit there with the pain. Ask yourself skillful questions about it. This would count as the water of appropriate attention. At the same time, look for alternative potentials in the body and then develop those.

I’ll give you an example. Several years back, we had a meditation session out under the trees in the monastery, and it was a beautiful day: a light breeze; the temperature was just right. And for me, it was a very pleasant meditation. However, a woman in the group had brought along a friend who had never meditated before. After the end of the meditation, the friend announced to the group, “I have never suffered so much in my life.” She suffered because of what she was paying attention to: how she couldn’t move, how much pain she was feeling, how bored she was. If you pay inappropriate attention to the things that you don’t like about the present moment, you actually weaken yourself. If you focus on the potentials for strength, this gives you more strength. This is one of the ways that we can learn to develop endurance and patience: You don’t focus on the difficulties. You focus instead on the areas that are energizing. Try to create a good positive feedback loop.

And finally, many of the same implications of the Buddha’s teachings on past kamma apply to the attitudes you should take when dealing with other people. This is an example of scale invariance, in that the same lessons apply on different levels of your experience, both inside and out.

When you’re dealing with other people, pay attention to the fact that—just as you have a large field full of many different seeds of kamma, but you don’t know what those seeds are—other people have their own large but unknown fields, too. This means that if you see someone suffering, you don’t just say, “That’s their kamma,” and just leave it at that. You have to remember that here’s your chance to help them, because you may have the seeds for that same kind of kamma in your background as well. If you ever fall into their situation, would you want the people around you to be indifferent? Here’s your chance to develop the kind of kamma that would lead other people to want to help you.

There’s also the possibility that the person who is currently suffering may have some good seeds that are just about ready to sprout. All you have to do is give that person the right help and encouragement, and those good seeds will be able to sprout.

So, you don’t know the other person’s potentials, just as you don’t know your own. The right attitude is that you always focus on the possibility that there are some good potentials in all of us. In this way, thinking about past kamma in the correct way actually encourages an attitude of compassion for the sufferings of others.

It also encourages an attitude of heedfulness about your own possible sufferings. Even though things may be going well right now, you never know when some bad seeds may mature and sprout, so you should always prepare your mind not to be overcome by pleasure or pain, so that you’ll be able to endure whatever comes up and deal with it skillfully.

This is why we develop concentration and discernment to get rid of our greed, aversion, and delusion: so that no matter what plants come up in our field, none of them will cause us to suffer or to act in ways that create more seeds for future sufferings.

Q: I was in a situation where I was forced to do something that harmed someone else. How do I live with this fact so that it is not too heavy to bear?

A: Remember that kamma depends on many different factors. When you’re forced into doing something harmful, the kamma is much less heavy than if you had done it on your own initiative through anger or ill will. Remember, too, the Buddha’s recommendation that you not get involved in thoughts of remorse. Instead, simply recognize that it was a mistake and resolve not to repeat the mistake. Then spread thoughts of goodwill to yourself, to the person you harmed, to the people who forced you to do the harm, and then to all beings. You spread goodwill to yourself to give yourself more encouragement to do good now and into the future. You spread it to others to strengthen your desire not to harm anyone at all.