day six : evening

Cooking Past Bad Kamma

Last night we talked about developing skillful kamma in the present dealing with good and bad potentials coming in from the past, comparing it to being a cook trying to prepare good food from both the good and the bad produce coming in from your field. The raw material coming in from the field: That’s what’s coming from your past kamma. Your skills as a cook: That’s your present kamma. We also noticed that these skills come under two main headings in the Buddha’s teachings. Under the category of name, there are attention, intention, perception, feeling, and contact. Under the category of fabrication, there are three kinds: bodily fabrication, which is the breath; verbal fabrication, which is directed thought and evaluation; and mental fabrication, which is perception and feeling. You will notice that there’s some overlap between these two categories. Both contain feeling and perception, and attention is very close to evaluation.

Tonight I’d like to talk in a little more detail about how to deal with bad produce coming in from the field. Usually, we want to have a choice as to the kind of food coming in from the field, but sometimes the field is producing nothing but bad kamma. You can’t really feed off the crop then. So you have to feed off your present kamma instead. This will also include the skills and right views that you have developed over time, which means that they are another type of past kamma: in other words, our experiences and skills gained in the meditation. Having experience in meditation is like having a spare field to produce alternative crops when the main crop is bad.

This is one of the reasons we have to keep practicing meditation again and again: so that these alternative crops will always be ready to sprout. We keep applying right view to our actions so that it becomes habitual. Otherwise, think of how badly the mind will thrash around when faced with illness and death.

The Buddha talks about how your present state of mind can make a huge difference in your experience of past kamma. This is where he discusses the image of the lump of salt that I mentioned this afternoon. Let me read you the passage:

“Monks, for anyone who says in whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is to be experienced, there’s no living of the holy life, there’s no opportunity for the right ending of stress. Or for anyone who says when a person makes kamma to be felt in such and such a way, that’s how its result is experienced, there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress. There is the case where a trifling, evil deed done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed but done by another individual is experienced in the here and now and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

“Now a trifling deed done by what sort of individual takes him to hell? There is the case where a certain individual is undeveloped in contemplating the body, undeveloped in virtue, undeveloped in mind, undeveloped in discernment, restricted, small-hearted, dwelling with suffering. A trifling, evil deed done by this sort of individual takes him to hell. Now a trifling, evil deed done by what sort of individual is experienced in the here and now and for the most part barely appears for a moment? There is the case where a certain individual is developed in contemplating the body, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment, unrestricted, large-hearted, dwelling with the unlimited. A trifling, evil deed done by this sort of individual is experienced in the here and now and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

“Suppose that a man were to drop a lump of salt into a small amount of water in a cup. What do you think? Would the water in the cup become salty because of the lump of salt and unfit to drink?” — “Yes, lord.” — “Now suppose that a man were to drop a lump of salt into the River Ganges. What do you think? Would the water in the River Ganges become salty because of the lump of salt and unfit to drink?” — “No, lord.”

“In the same way, there is the case where a trifling, evil deed done by one individual [the first] takes him to hell, and there is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by another individual is experienced in the here and now and for the most part barely appears for a moment.” [§14]

The basic principle being explained here is that kamma is not tit-for-tat. In other words, if you kill three people, you don’t have to be killed three times in response. The actual principle is that kamma tends to create a certain type of result, in terms of pleasure or pain—notice the word, “tends”—but the strength of that result depends on the state of mind when the kamma ripens. The skills of being developed in body, virtue, mind, and discernment; the skills of being unrestricted and large-hearted: These make all the difference when past bad kamma is ripening.

Three of these skills require explanation. The first is the quality of being large-hearted. This is a matter of fabricating goodwill and all of the other brahma-vihāras. If you can develop these qualities of mind, they will mitigate the results of bad past kamma. Because we talked about these developments in detail this afternoon, we can move on to the other two.

Those are the skills of being developed in body and developed in mind. In the Buddha’s eyes, being developed in body doesn’t mean making your body large and strong. In another sutta, Majjhima 36, he defines being developed in body as knowing how not to be overcome by pleasure. In the same sutta, he defines being developed in mind as knowing how not to be overcome by pain. The purpose of working both with pleasure and with pain in our meditation is to develop these two skills.

One of the ways we learn not to be overcome by pleasure is by learning how to develop the pleasure of concentration. By gaining mastery over this type of pleasure, we can learn to see sensual pleasures as less and less important. And in the course of mastering concentration, we also have to learn how not to be overcome by the pleasure of the concentration itself. You may have noticed when the breath becomes pleasant and you’ve dropped your focus on the breath to focus on the pleasure, the mind gets very fuzzy and then begins to drift away. To maintain your concentration, you have to maintain your focus on the breath.

That means that you have to learn how not to be overcome by the pleasure. You let the pleasure do its work, whereas your work is to stay with the breath. As you master this aspect of concentration, you learn an important skill in not being overcome by the effects of past kamma, whether good or bad.

As for dealing with pain, there are many ways of developing your present kamma so that you’re not overcome by pain. One is to develop the perceptions of the five recollections that we discussed the other day. In particular, you want to learn how to perceive pain as something normal. Our society regards aging, illness, and death as aberrations, but that attitude leaves us defenseless when they inevitably come, and so we’re more likely to be overcome by them. Remember: Aging, illness, and death are normal. Keeping these facts in mind makes it easier not to get upset when pain comes.

Other teachings that help us to deal with pain: One is the Buddha’s instruction concerning our duty with regard to suffering, which is to comprehend it. This directs us to use our intentions more skillfully. Instead of following the intention to run away from the pain or to suppress the pain, our intention turns to comprehend the pain. If we intentionally take a more proactive stance toward pain, we drop the mind’s tendency to perceive itself as targeted or victimized by the pain.

As for attention, the Buddha tells us to ask the proper questions about the pain. For example, some questions to avoid asking include: “How long have I been experiencing this pain?” “How much longer am I going to have to experience this pain?” If you ask these questions, you’re taking the past, adding the future, and piling them both on the mind in the present moment, weighing it down. Now, the present moment cannot carry all that weight. So if these questions come up in the mind, just let them go, let them go, for they serve no positive purpose at all. Remember that there are many other questions that would serve better to make you more proactive in trying to comprehend the pain as we discussed the other day. Pay attention to those.

Finally, when you deal with pain, you can also develop more skillful perceptions around it—which, again, we discussed the other day. The important point in all these perceptions is to learn how to see the pain as something separate: separate from the mind, separate from the body. This, too, allows the pain to be much less of a weight on the mind.

When dealing with either pleasure or pain in the present moment, attention plays a major role: asking the proper questions when either pains or pleasures arise. For instance, when dealing with pleasure, you treat pleasure not as a goal but as a tool. In other words, you don’t try to wallow in the pleasure as much as you can, asking yourself, “How much happiness can I squeeze out of the pleasure by wallowing here in it?” Instead you ask, “What can I do with this pleasure in order to improve the quality of the mind?” Similarly, you learn how to ask the right questions about the pain so as to investigate it. This includes, for example, the questions about the shape of the pain or the intentionality of the pain. You ask these sorts of questions to flush out any ignorant ideas you may have about pain, ideas that may be hanging on from your childhood, when you had to encounter pain before you understood language. By casting light on those hidden notions, you can free yourself from their power.

Now in addition to physical pain, the Buddha also talks about how not to suffer from the words of other people. The first thing is to learn how to depersonalize their words. The Buddha recommends two ways of doing this.

First, from Majjhima 28: The next time somebody curses you, just tell yourself, “An unpleasant sound has made contact at the ear.” See if you can leave it at that. Don’t add any extra stories. Don’t ask any questions that would add more pain to the unpleasant contact, such as, “Why is this person saying this, why is he abusing me, why doesn’t he like me, why is he evil” etc., etc. Try to keep the sound just at the ear and don’t suck it into the mind.

There’s an analogy that I’ve found useful—and, of course, this didn’t come from the Buddha—and that’s to make sure that your mind is not like a vacuum cleaner. When a vacuum cleaner goes through a room, it leaves all the good things behind and takes in all the bad things: the dust and the dirt. So if you find yourself taking in those unpleasant sounds and making them into big issues in the mind, do what you can to turn the vacuum cleaner off.

That covers the Buddha’s first strategy for depersonalizing unpleasant words.

The Buddha’s second strategy, from Majjhima 21, is to reflect on the different types of human speech that can occur in the world. There are kind words and unkind words. There are true words and untrue words. There are words that are helpful; there are words that are unhelpful. There are words said with a well-meaning mind, and words said with an ill-intentioned mind. This is normal human speech. So when something unkind, untrue, unhelpful is said to you through someone’s ill intent, tell yourself, “This is normal human speech. The fact that you’re being subjected to this is nothing unusual.” This helps to depersonalize the words.

Several years back, a friend of mine gave me a dictionary of recent Thai slang. In Thailand, they have a Royal Academy very much like the French Academy, which, among other things, creates the official dictionary of the Thai language. The slang dictionary is called the Outside-of-the-Academy Dictionary. As I was reading through the dictionary, learning about new Thai slang words, it struck me that more than half were insults. Modern society is very creative at developing new ways to insult one another. So when you are being insulted, just remind yourself, “This is normal.” That makes it a lot easier to take.

The Canon gives two other stories that help give additional skillful perceptions for dealing with hurtful speech. One, also in Majjhima 21, is called the Simile of the Saw. Suppose, the Buddha says, that a group of bandits have pinned you down. They take a two-handed saw and try to cut off your arms and legs. Even in a case like that, the Buddha says, you should not let your mind be overcome by ill will. Instead, you should try to develop a sense of goodwill even for the bandits. In fact, start with them and then expand your goodwill to fill the entire universe. Make your goodwill as expansive as the Earth—something no one can harm. Make your goodwill even more expansive, as vast as space, which no one can harm. In other words, try to develop and maintain the perception that your mind is expansive, much bigger than the harm that anyone can do to you. If you keep this simile in mind—that even if someone is trying to kill you, you should still have goodwill for that person—then, the Buddha asks, “Is there any type of speech that you could not bear?” No. The pain of the speech is so much less, and with that perception in mind, any ill will you might feel seems too petty to be worthy of your attention.

That’s the first perception to hold in mind.

The second one comes in Majjhima 145, in the story of a monk named Puṇṇa. Puṇṇa was going to a very uncivilized section of India and so went to say goodbye to the Buddha. The Buddha said to him, “Those people in that area are very uncivilized. They’re known to be very rough. What will you do if they insult you?”

Puṇṇa replied, “If they insult me, I will say to myself, ‘These are very good people in that they’re not hitting me.’”

And the Buddha said, “What if they hit you?”

“I will say to myself, ‘These are very good people in that they’re not stoning me.’”

“Suppose they stone you?”

“I’ll say, ‘These are very good people in that they’re not stabbing me.”

“What if they stab you?”

“I’ll say, ‘These are very good people in that they’re not killing me.”

“What if they kill you?”

“I will tell myself, ‘At least my death wasn’t a suicide.’”

And the Buddha said, “You’re fit to go.”

So these are some of the perceptions that help us to deal more skillfully with pain and insults. When you have these skills—

• these different perceptions,

• these different intentions with regard to pleasure and pain,

• the different things you pay attention to—in other words, the different questions you ask yourself about pleasure and pain,

—then you will find that you can deal much more skillfully with bad kamma that’s coming in from the past, without creating bad kamma in the present and without really suffering from your past kamma at all.

So try to develop these skills on a daily basis. That way you will have your alternative field of kamma ready to draw on when your other fields yield nothing but rotten vegetables.