day five : afternoon

Meditation on Kamma

We’ve talked about how meditation is a type of kamma. Kamma can also be a topic of meditation. This contemplation is aimed primarily at giving the mind a sense of values—as to what is important in life, what things are not important—and to give us even more motivation to do what is skillful and to avoid what is not.

• One contemplation on kamma is based on the definition of kamma in what is called mundane right view. This definition is useful to contemplate because it shows that taking kamma seriously is not a selfish attitude. Some people say that if you’re concerned with your kamma, you’re not concerned about other people. But when you actually look at how the Buddha introduces the topic of kamma, he focuses on what we might call the social virtues: the virtues that make human society pleasant and amenable to our wellbeing—in the sense that “our” wellbeing means everybody’s. Here’s the definition:

“There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are the fruits and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings, there are contemplatives and brahmans, who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.” [§2]

If you look at this definition as a whole, you see that it affirms the teachings on kamma and on rebirth. For example, the “spontaneously reborn beings” are the beings reborn in the heavens, the hells, or the realms of the hungry ghosts. Notice that this passage is not saying that one knows about kamma or rebirth; instead, these teachings are for you to adopt as working hypotheses. We take these hypotheses as basis assumptions for our practice, but we won’t be able to confirm them until our first taste of awakening.

The passages related to the social virtues are the ones that sound the strangest. For example, “There is what is given.” This sounds perfectly obvious, but it had a special meaning in the time of the Buddha. For millennia, the brahmans had been preaching about the virtue of giving, especially when things were given to brahmans. In the texts of old brahmanical ceremonies for making merit for the dead, for example, there’s a part of the ceremony where the brahmans will address the bereaved and say, “We are speaking in the voice of your dead relatives: ‘Give to the brahmans!’” When the bereaved gave to the brahmans, the brahmans—again assuming the voice of the dead relatives—said, “Give more!”

You can imagine the reaction that eventually developed. Over the centuries, there sprang up schools of contemplatives who said, in reaction, that there is no virtue in giving. One of their arguments was that people do not have free will, therefore even when they give things, it doesn’t mean anything because they had no choice in the matter. Another argument against the merit of giving was that when people die, that’s the end, there’s nothing left over, so there’s no virtue in giving to something that will eventually die and be totally annihilated.

So when the Buddha was saying that there is what is given, he was basically saying two things. One is that we have free will. We have the choice of giving or not giving, so there is virtue in giving. Two, he was saying that there is something more to the human being than just the body. There’s something that goes beyond the body. When you give to a human being—or to any being, in fact—you’re giving something to someone who has worth.

An important point in the Buddhist approach to giving is that the Buddha never said to give only to Buddhists. Instead, he said, “Give wherever you feel inspired or you think the gift would be well used.” So by affirming the fact that “there is what is given,” the Buddha was affirming one of the basic social virtues, because “giving” here includes not only giving material things, but also more immaterial things. You give of your time, you give of your energy, you give of your knowledge, you can give of your forgiveness, you can give the gift of the Dhamma. It’s through these gifts that human life becomes worthwhile and human society becomes helpful for everyone within it.

The second phrase that sounds strange is, “There is mother and father.” Again, this sounds almost too obvious to say, but again in the Buddha’s time it had a deeper meaning. Those contemplatives who said that no one has any free will also drew the conclusion that the help that your mother and father gave you when you were young has no meaning because they had no choice in the matter; therefore you don’t need to feel any gratitude toward them. So when the Buddha was saying that there is mother and father, he was saying basically that they did have the choice. They chose to help you when they could have chosen to abort you. They didn’t abort you, and they helped you gain all the capabilities you need in order to function in society. So even if they weren’t perfect parents, they still deserve your gratitude.

This principle applies to all the people who have helped you. You have to realize that they had the choice of whether or not to help, and in many cases it took a lot of effort to offer that help. This is why they deserve your gratitude.

In Thailand there is a saying that gratitude is a sign of a good person. The reasoning behind this is that if you appreciate the help that you have received from others and show gratitude for the effort that they put into it, you will also be more likely to provide help to others.

So you can see that the Buddha’s teachings on kamma affirm the social virtues of generosity and gratitude. Without these two virtues, human society would be chaos. Therefore, the Buddha is encouraging us to develop these virtues in ourselves as well. And his teaching on kamma—as following a pattern that allows for free will—is what actually allows for these virtues to have meaning and to make sense.

• Another contemplation on kamma is contained in the passage called the Five Recollections, which is repeated daily in chants in many Buddhist monasteries and centers like Le Refuge. The first four reflections say, basically: “I am subject to aging, I am subject to illness, I am subject to death, I am subject to separation from all that I love.” In the Thai translation, instead of saying “subject to,” they say that aging is normal, illness is normal, death is normal, separation is normal. It’s when we accept these things as normal that we can begin acting heedfully in life.

Finally, the fifth reflection is this:

“Now based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect that I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator, whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir? There are beings who conduct themselves in a bad way, in body, in speech, and in mind, but when they often reflect on that fact, that bad conduct in body, speech, and mind will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker.” [§20]

This reflection on kamma, like the other four reflections, teaches heedfulness. But it also teaches confidence: That through the power of our actions, we can find a way out of the sufferings of repeated birth and death. We keep in mind the fact that our only true possessions—given that we are subject to aging, illness, death, and separation—are our actions and their results. Ajaan Suwat liked to comment that the Buddha often teaches that this thing is not-self, that thing is not-self, this thing is not mine, that thing is not mine, but then would have you say to yourself, “I am the owner of my actions.” In this case, the sense of “I” does not increase your clinging. It actually makes you more heedful of your only real treasures—your actions and their results—and confident that developing skillful actions will really make a difference. So the “I” here is a useful “I” to develop for the sake of following the path.

Now, if you look at your actions over the past week or so, what kind of treasures are they? Are they something that you want to put in a suitcase and carry with you on into the future? If they’re not, you know what to do this week. You have to act in ways that will create treasures that you would like to keep with you. You have to treat your actions as your most important possessions.

There’s a passage in the Canon where King Pasenadi comes to see the Buddha in the middle of the day and the Buddha asks him, “Where have you come from in the middle of the day, great king?” And this is an instance where the king is remarkably frank. “I’ve been spending my time,” he said, “in the sorts of things that people intoxicated with power and obsessed with greed are obsessed with.” And so the Buddha asks him, “Suppose that there were a reliable man coming from the east, saying that there’s a massive mountain moving in from the east, trampling all living beings in its path. Another trustworthy man comes from the south and says that there’s a massive mountain coming in from the south, crushing all living beings in its path. Another reliable man comes from the west.… Another one comes from the north and says there’s another massive mountain coming in from the north. So all together there are four massive mountains moving in from the four directions, trampling all living beings in their wake. Given that human life is so rare and you have heard this news, what would you do?”

The king replies, “There’s only one thing I should do: calm my mind and do what is skillful and meritorious.”

So the Buddha says, “Death is moving in on you. Given that human life is so precious, what should you do?”

And the king repeats, “There’s only one thing I should do: calm my mind and do what is skillful and meritorious.”

This is the principle of heedfulness combined with confidence: realizing that human life is short, that our actions make a difference, and the only thing that we can take from our life is our actions and their results. So we become more careful about what we choose to do.

The Buddha in another case talks about seven treasures that he says are worth much more than gold or silver. These treasures are seven qualities of mind: conviction, virtue, a sense of shame, a sense of compunction, learning, generosity, and discernment. Each of these qualities is something you can take with you after you die. Even here in this life, fire will not burn them, water will not wash them away, kings and thieves will not take them. (I think it’s interesting that the Buddha put heads of state and thieves in the same passage.)

When you reflect on each of these qualities, you realize that they protect you from doing unskillful things even when it’s otherwise difficult to resist doing such things. You sometimes read about people living in times of war: When one side does something really awful, the other side takes that as an excuse to do something awful in return. It’s very rare to find people who hold to their values and behave nobly in difficult situations like that. But if you have a sense of conviction, a sense of shame, a sense of compunction, a sense of discernment, these treasures will prevent you from doing things that you will later regret. I’ve learned of people who have done something really horrible in a war and then for the rest of their lives they say, “I would give a million dollars if I could go back and undo that thing.” This means that these qualities, the qualities that would have protected them from doing that thing in the first place, are more valuable than a million dollars. That’s the principle of heedfulness.

• A third contemplation builds on the second one.

“A disciple of the noble ones considers this: I am not the only one who is the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir. To the extent that there are beings, past and future, passing away and rearising, all beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and have their actions as their arbitrator. Whatever they do for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir. When he or she often reflects on this, the factors of the path take birth. He or she sticks with that path, develops it, cultivates it. As he or she sticks with that path, develops it, cultivates it, the fetters are abandoned, the obsessions destroyed.” [§20]

This takes the last contemplation and extends it from yourself to all beings. It gives rise to a different quality of mind. It goes beyond heedfulness and extends to something called saṁvega. Saṁvega means a sense of dismay, a sense even of terror, at having to stay in this world with no end in sight, always being required to do good actions, and otherwise in danger of falling into deep suffering. In other words, in order to find wellbeing, we constantly have to keep doing good actions again and again and again. No matter where we go, no matter what level of being we’re reborn on, we’re constantly doing actions and it’s very easy when we’re suffering to say, “Oh, I don’t have the strength to do good actions.” When we’re very happy, it’s very easy to become complacent and to let our good actions slip. So when you think about the danger of continuing to stay in this world of actions, with the constant requirement to be heedful and skillful no matter where you go, it gives rise to a sense of saṁvega.

But on this level, too, the reflection on kamma also gives rise to a sense of confidence that there must be a path of practice to get out of all this. And that’s what the noble eightfold path is: a path of action that leads to the end of action [§5]. As the passage says, when you reflect on these facts, it gives rise to the motivation to follow the path to awakening so that you don’t have to come back to any world at all.

Now it turns out that actions inspired by heedfulness and those inspired by saṁvega are in many cases the same: generosity, virtue, and meditation. So as we’re following the path, we try to contemplate kamma in order to make sure that we’re heedful to act in ways that are skillful, and also to give us the inspiration to find the path that leads to the point where we can go beyond action entirely. In other words, we look for the actions that will lead us to the end of action [§5].

It’s in this way that contemplation of kamma is a useful adjunct to meditation and is something that we should always try to keep in mind.

Q: So there’s no self. So in that case, who acts and who creates the kamma?

A: The Buddha never said that there is no self. When he teaches not-self, he’s teaching a technique, a strategy for getting rid of attachment.

There’s a common misconception that the Buddha starts with the idea of there being no self, and in the context of no self teaches the doctrine of kamma, which doesn’t make sense: If there’s no self, who does the kamma and who receives the results? But that misconception gets the context backwards. Actually, the Buddha starts with the doctrine of kamma, and then views ideas of “self” and “not-self” as types of kamma. In other words, he focuses on seeing the way we define our sense of self as an action. Then the question becomes, when is the activity of identifying things as your self skillful, and when is it not? When is the activity of identifying things as not-self skillful, and when is it not?

There are some instances where the Buddha advises using a skillful sense of self to help you on the path, to give you the motivation to practice and the encouragement that you’re capable of the practice. There are other instances where he teaches the concept of not-self, to teach you to abandon any attachments that are not worth identifying with, so as to help you go further on the path. At the end of the path, you let go of both concepts. So if you ask who’s doing your kamma, the answer simply is you.

Q: What purpose does a spiritual life fulfill when you speak of no-self?

A: Again, there’s a distinction between no-self and not-self. No-self would be to say that there is no self. Not-self simply says that there are certain things that are not yourself or are not worth clinging to as you or yours. It’s a value judgment, not a metaphysical position. The Buddha did not teach no-self, but he did teach not-self. He didn’t answer the question as to whether there is a self or is not a self. But he did teach not-self as a strategy, a strategy to let go of your attachments. When you let go of your attachments entirely, the mind reaches a dimension outside of space and time. It’s the ultimate happiness, and as Ajaan Suwat used to say, when you experience the ultimate happiness, you don’t worry about whether there is or is not a self to experience it. The experience in and of itself is sufficient. If you’d like to know more on this topic, look at the book, Selves and Not-self. It’s available on In French and in English.

Q: Kamma and Rebirth. As an individual, one accumulates personal kamma during one’s entire life, but Buddhism refutes reincarnation, the idea of a soul or a self that goes from one body to another. Still, it speaks a lot about rebirth. So then what is reborn and how is individual kamma transmitted from one life to the next? Without this transmission, it would not be able to find one, or at least would not be possible outside of this life?

A: The question of what is reborn is one that the Buddha didn’t answer. He just said that kamma does transmit. Instead of talking about what gets reborn, he talks about how rebirth happens, which involves a series of processes over which we can gain conscious control. He doesn’t say how kamma gets carried along in those processes, but he simply says that the results of your kamma are there, waiting for you on the other side, like your relatives. And depending on whether your kamma is good or bad, the kamma waiting for you on the other side will either be good or bad relatives. Scary, no?

Q: After the falling apart of the physical body, is there still something that lives? And if there is, could you please say more about it?

A: The Buddha said that consciousness does not have to depend on the body. It can also continue to function when supported simply by acts of craving and clinging—in which case the craving at the moment of death, realizing that it can’t stay in this body, will go for another body. Consciousness clings to that craving, and then to the body that the craving pulls it to. That’s how rebirth happens. The Buddha doesn’t talk much about what it is that’s reborn, but does talk about how it happens, because how it happens is something that you are responsible for and something that you can learn how to train yourself to do skillfully. If you become really skillful, then you don’t have to go finding a new rebirth. At that point there’s simply the consciousness of awakening, which is outside of space and time.

Q: Kamma and Rebirth, second try. How does individual kamma migrate from this life to the next one? Is this a relevant question? If no, how can our next life be better if we don’t have the benefit of a kind of karmic legacy? Thank you, Ajaan, for clarifying this “critical” question.

A: It’s not a matter of migrating. Our kamma is actually what creates our experience of the next life—or rather, it supplies the raw material for our experience of the next life. When we leave this life and go to the next one, it doesn’t feel like we’re going someplace else. Just as we have a sense of our present life as “right here,” the next life will also have a sense of being “right here,” right at our consciousness. It’s like going from one dream to another. Even though the appearance of the location in the second dream is different from the location in the first, it still has a sense of happening “right here” just as the first one did.

To give another example, when you’re in France, France seems like “right here.” When you’re in Florida, Florida seems like “right here.” So the kamma that we create right now does create, as I said, the raw material for our next lifetime, but it doesn’t have to go anyplace else to do that. It all stays right here. So you don’t have to be afraid of missing out on your legacy. Just make sure that your legacy is good—because even if it’s not good, it will still be your legacy.

Q: Volume Three in Kamma and Rebirth: An unborn consciousness. If I correctly understand, there is among the foundations of consciousness something that is unborn, independent of the five khandhas, a continuum impregnated by our old kamma, tendencies, potentials, etc., on which our next life is going to be established. Could you please say a little bit more about this base of consciousness? Can one say that one would see it in meditation?

A: There is an unborn consciousness but it does not participate in anything. It doesn’t participate in kamma; it’s not impregnated by anything; it doesn’t participate in going to the next life. As the Buddha explained the process of rebirth, our normal consciousness can be based on craving and clinging, and the clinging and craving then build on that consciousness. In this way they keep each other going indefinitely. The unborn consciousness is not involved in any of this. The way to find it in meditation is to follow the path, developing your concentration together with your discernment, to the point where you have your first taste of awakening.

Q: Without the five senses, can there be a consciousness?

A: Yes, consciousness can survive totally on the sense of the mind. At the moment of death, all it has to latch onto is craving, and that craving is what leads to a new rebirth.

Q: If there is rebirth in a cycle, why is there not a fixed number of souls? Why are there more and more millions of human beings every ten years?

A: Do you think the human beings are coming just from the human realm? There are lots of beings on the levels of animals, in the hells, in the many heavens, so the new human beings could be coming from lots of different sources that we can’t count. I don’t think there has been a census of hell in a long time.

Q: When you speak of rebirth on different levels, hungry ghosts and devas, what is that?

A: Hungry ghosts and devas are levels of beings that some people who meditate can actually see. Basically, devas are beings who live with a lot of happiness. Hungry ghosts, as their name indicates, live with a lot of hunger because their only nourishment is the merit of others that has been dedicated to them. Pictures of hungry ghosts in Thailand have very large stomachs and extremely small mouths.

There is a story they tell of a hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts tend to live around monasteries because that’s where merit is being dedicated, just like dogs going to a place where a lot of food is being handed out. A hungry ghost was once living up in the rafters in the meditation hall of a particular monastery. One night a group of people came from Bangkok. Now, in Thailand when groups of people come to a monastery, they sleep in the meditation hall. These people were lying in a row on the floor of the hall, and the hungry ghost looked down and noticed that their feet weren’t even. So he went down and pulled them in line so that their feet were all even. When he got back up in the rafters, he noticed that their heads weren’t even. So he went down and pulled them in line so that their heads were all even. He went back up into the rafters and noticed that their feet weren’t even. This went on all night, and the people didn’t get any sleep. This has become a famous analogy in Thailand for people who try to straighten everything out and never come to an end.

Q: Is there a level of human beings in rebirth?

A: What do you think we are? We are beings that have been reborn as human beings, after having come from who-knows-where. As for higher levels, those are the devas.

Q: At our death can we be reborn, find again the people who are dear to us, who have died and are in another life?

A: Yes, we can. As I explained yesterday, it’s through our kamma that we are related. The people to whom we are dear, or are dear to us: We have lots of kamma with them, so we’re likely to meet them again.

Q: What is merit in Buddhism?

A: Merit has two meanings in Buddhism. The first meaning covers the actions that are skillful, leading to a happiness that harms no one. These actions include acts of generosity, virtue, and meditation. The second meaning of merit is the sense of wellbeing and happiness inside that results from doing meritorious actions. When we dedicate merit to others, we’re basically hoping that they will be happy and appreciate our skillful actions, too.

Q: When each of us has our own personal kamma, the act of dedicating a part of our merit to others, to other people, including animals, spirits, and devas, etc., with the purpose of ameliorating their kamma: Would this serve any purpose other than being just a symbolic gesture of our own generosity?

A: The Buddha says that if someone has been born as a hungry ghost, then the merit we dedicate to that person will automatically reach that person, because hungry ghosts know immediately when someone has dedicated something to them. If they rejoice in the merit, then their act of rejoicing is meritorious, and allows them to gain in that merit. If they don’t rejoice, they don’t get anything. Similarly, devas can also know this, and the same conditions apply: If they rejoice in the dedication, the act of rejoicing brings them happiness. If they don’t rejoice, they gain no merit.

As for beings on other levels, there’s a chant in Thailand that says, “If the devas know of my act of merit, could they please notify the other people that I am dedicating my merit to.” Now, devas don’t always do as they’re asked, so you can never be sure that this will reach someone else. But you dedicate the merit just in case there are those who can know of it and appreciate your merit. Their act of rejoicing in your merit becomes their own merit.

Two stories to go along with this: My teacher had a student who, before she started meditating, used to practice magic. She insisted that it was white magic, but you never know. In any case, she thought that her powers of magic could negate any past kamma. But her meditation started teaching her otherwise. In particular, as she began meditating, she began to see visions of hungry ghosts. She didn’t like this and wanted it to stop. But my teacher told her to use this as a good lesson in kamma. First, ask the hungry ghost what it did to get such a bad rebirth. She found that hungry ghosts, unlike prisoners, tended to be very honest in reporting the wrong they had done. Then my teacher told her to dedicate the merit of her meditation to the hungry ghosts, and in some cases they were actually able to escape from the state of being a hungry ghost. But in some cases they weren’t. Their kamma was still too heavy. So, other people’s ability to accept your merit dedication really varies from case to case.

The second story, from the Pāli Canon, deals with the topic of devas not always doing what they are asked to do. There was once a monk living in the forest, and one day he went down to a pool of water to bathe. There was a lotus in the pool, so he leaned over to smell the lotus. Immediately, a deva appeared and accused the monk of being a thief of a scent. The monk said, “Oh, come on! You’re being too stringent!” And the deva said, “Look, if you’re really serious about the practice, even the slightest unskillful thought or action is something you should stay away from.” The monk was a little shocked and then thanked the deva for warning him. Then he added, “If you ever see me doing anything like this again, please warn me again.” And the deva said, “I’m not your servant. You look after your own practice,” and then disappeared.

Q: What is the power of your last wish or last intention before the moment of death?

A: The strength of your last mind state really depends on the totality of your kamma. Other things you have done prior to that moment may actually outweigh the power of that mind state. For instance, if you have any particularly heavy kamma—and “heavy” in this case means either very, very good or very, very bad—that will be more powerful. If there’s anything that you’ve done habitually during life, that will also have more power than your last mind state—which means that you’ve got to practice until it becomes a habit. If you’ve been habitually practicing, that will help push you through. But the important principle to remember is that every skillful intention counts, even if everything around you and inside your body is falling apart. It’s never too late to make a skillful choice.

Q: Suppose you know you’re going to die in three minutes. How do you train your mind at that point?

A: The first point of advice is: Don’t wait until you’re two or three minutes from death. Try to practice in advance as much as you can. But if you suddenly realize that death is imminent, remember that you really have to let go. Of everything. The Buddha’s advice is that if you’re worried about what you’re leaving behind, the first order of business is to get rid of all worries. You have to drop all worries about your family or any unfinished business in this world, because as the Buddha said, even if you’re worried about these things, at this point you can’t help them. So, one, don’t worry about things you’re leaving behind.

Then, two, if you’re concerned about leaving behind human sensual pleasures, remember that the pleasures of heaven are better than human pleasures. Even better than Pommard.

There’s one discourse, a sutta, where the Buddha recommends telling a person on his or her deathbed about the pleasures of each level of heaven, saying that each one as you go up is better than the lower one, so set your mind on the higher one rather than the lower one. But then the Buddha recommended telling the person that even the devas in the higher levels still suffer from a sense of self-identification. In other words, there’s a sense of clinging to their idea of who they are. A greater wellbeing would be to let go of any sense of self-identity entirely.

Now, if you only have two or three minutes, you can skip all of those levels of heaven and just remind yourself: “Anything that comes up in the mind is not me, not mine. Let it go, let it go, let it go.” And remember that your awareness will outlast anything else that comes up: thoughts, pains, visions of this place or that, this person or that. So stay with that awareness. Then, if you can get away from those concerns, try to do away with any sense of self around that awareness. If you can learn how not to identify with any sense of self around that awareness, then awakening is possible at the moment of death.