Basic Principles

1. What is kamma?

The word “kamma” has two meanings, depending on context. Primarily, it means intentional actions in thought, word, and deed [§1]; secondarily, the results of intentional actions—past or present—which are shaped by the quality of the intention behind those actions [§2].

2. How do actions determine results?

Skillful intentional acts—those that would lead to no harm for yourself or anyone else—tend toward pleasant results. Unskillful intentional acts—those that would lead to harm for yourself or others, or both—tend toward painful results [§16]

It’s important to emphasize the word tend here, as there’s no ironclad, tit-for-tat deterministic connection between an intentional act and its results. One of the Buddha’s images for kamma is a seed [§§19,47]. When you plant a bitter melon seed, it’ll tend to produce a bitter melon vine. When you plant a grape seed, it’ll tend to produce a grape vine. You can’t expect a grape seed to produce a bitter melon vine, or a bitter melon seed to produce a grape vine. That much is certain. But as to whether either seed will produce a strong, healthy vine depends on more than just the health of the seed. The soil, the sun, the rain all play a role, and then there’s the possibility that the seed might be damaged or destroyed by a fire, eaten by an animal, or squeezed out by plants growing from other, stronger seeds in the field surrounding it.

In the same way, when you plant a “kamma seed,” it’ll tend to give pleasant results if it’s skillful, and painful results if it’s not. For instance, acts of generosity, over the long term, tend to lead to wealth; taking intoxicants tends to lead to mental derangement. But how strong those results will be and how long they will take to ripen will depend on many factors in addition to the original actions: the actions you’ve done before, the actions you’ve done after, and in particular, the state of your mind when the results are fully ripe [§11].

In fact, this last factor—how your mind acts around the ripening of old kamma seeds—is the most important factor determining whether you suffer from those results. If your present actions—your new kamma—are unskillful as they engage with the results of old kamma, you can suffer even from the results of good past kamma. If your present kamma is skillful, it can minimize the suffering that would come from bad past kamma. For instance, if you treat the pleasure coming from past good kamma as an excuse for pride or selfishness, you’re going to suffer. If you treat the pain coming from an unskillful action as an opportunity to comprehend pain so as to release yourself from its power, you’ll suffer much less.

3. If your intentions influence the quality of the result, does this mean that every action done with good intentions will tend toward a good result?

For an intention to give good results, it has to be free of greed, aversion, and delusion [§31]. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on delusion, which can easily disguise subtle aversion or greed. When that’s the case, acting on the intention would lead to bad results: believing, for instance, that there are times when the compassionate course of action would be to kill, to tell a lie, or to have illicit sex. To give good results, an action has to be not only good, but also skillful: in other words, free of delusion.

To minimize delusion, you have to gain practical experience in what actually gives good results in the long term, and what doesn’t. This is why the Buddha taught himself to develop three qualities in his actions:

wisdom—aiming to act for long-term happiness;

compassion—intending not to harm anyone with his actions; and

purity—checking the actual results of his actions, and learning from his mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t. It’s through developing purity in this way that good intentions are trained to be skillful.

Beyond that, there are two main levels of skill: the skillful actions that lead to a good rebirth, and those that lead beyond rebirth entirely, to nibbāna (nirvāṇa): a dimension totally outside of space and time, and totally free from suffering.

4. How long do the results of kamma last?

This depends on the original action and on the actions surrounding it. Sometimes they last only for a moment, sometimes for a period in this lifetime, after which they end. Sometimes they last until the next lifetime, and other times—if they’re really strong—they can last for many lifetimes [§1]. There are also cases where the results of an action won’t appear in this lifetime or even in the next lifetime. This is because your other actions get in the way of their appearing. In this sort of case, the results won’t show until a later lifetime [§14].

But just because you’re born with bad kamma from a past lifetime doesn’t mean you’ll have to suffer from it throughout this lifetime. There’s a passage where the Buddha describes three kinds of sick people: those who will recover from their illness even if they don’t get medicine, those who will recover only if they get medicine, and those who won’t recover even if they do get medicine. It’s because the second group exists that doctors give medicine to all three groups, because it’s impossible to know beforehand to which group a sick person belongs [§6].

In the same way, if you’re born poor as a result of having been ungenerous in the past, it’s no sign that you have to stay poor. Some people get out of poverty with little effort on their part—this is a case where the old kamma simply runs out on its own. Some get out of poverty only if they make an effort—a case where new kamma can hasten the end of the old kamma. And some won’t get out of poverty no matter how hard they work—a case where the old kamma is really strong. It’s because the second group exists that people should do what they can to counteract the bad effects of old kamma. Even if their efforts don’t yield effects in the present life, they will form the basis for happiness later on.

5. Does kamma shape everything you experience?

The Buddha used the teaching on kamma to explain only three things:

• your experience of pleasure and pain;

• the level of rebirth you take after death, in terms of such things as your wisdom or lack of wisdom, wealth or lack of wealth, and the length of your lifespan; and

• what to do to get out of the cycle of rebirth. The noble eightfold path—right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration—is this last type of kamma: the kamma that, in leading to nibbāna, puts an end to kamma [§§1,17].

Aside from these issues, the Buddha said that if you tried to work out all the ramifications of the results of kamma, you’d go crazy [§15]. Because his teaching deals simply with suffering and the end of suffering, that’s as far as he took the issue.

6. Is it true that “If you want to see a person’s past actions, look at his present condition; if you want to see his future condition, look at his present actions”?

That’s much too simplistic. It implies that you have a single kamma account, like a bank account, with your present situation showing the running balance.

As mentioned above, kamma is like seeds in a field. You’re planting kamma seeds in your field with every intention, and those seeds mature at different rates. So you’ve got lots of kamma accounts at different stages of development. All you can see at any one moment are the seeds that are currently sprouting. As for the other seeds that haven’t yet sprouted, good or bad, you can’t see those at all.

7. Is there a general principle underlying the way these kamma seeds interact?

Yes. In describing the factors leading to suffering, the Buddha explained the underlying pattern as a combination of two causal principles. In the first principle, results arise at the same time that their cause arises, and disappear at the same time that the cause disappears: When this is, that is. When this isn’t, that isn’t. This is causality in the present moment. In the second principle, the arising of a cause leads to the arising of the result either in the present or at a later point in time; the cessation of the cause leads to the cessation of the result, again, either in the present or at a later point in time: From the arising of this comes the arising of that. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that. This is causality that can extend over time [§7].

An example of the first principle would be when a mental pain comes as soon as a desire arises, and ceases as soon as the desire ceases. An example of the second principle would be when a desire gives rise to an action, either immediately or later in time. Because the desire will stop at some time, the action and its results will eventually have to stop as well, even though they may outlive the desire.

These two principles constantly interact, so that—in terms of kamma—your present experience is shaped by three factors:

• the results of past intentions—and this includes all your sense spheres: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind;

• your present intentions; and

• the results of your present intentions.

Past intentions provide you with the raw material or potentials for your present experience, but your present intentions are what shape those raw potentials into your actual experiences, in the same way that a cook takes raw ingredients and prepares food that can be eaten. Because the results of many past actions, as they ripen, could be offering all sorts of raw materials at any point in time, and because you’re potentially free to create any type of new kamma at all, these conditions can interact in many complex ways.

In fact, in your experience of the present, your current intentions come prior to your awareness of the senses [§9]. What this means is that you don’t simply respond to sights, sounds, etc., after they happen. You actually approach sensory input with some intentions already in mind. These intentions determine what you will notice coming in through the senses, how you’ll interpret it, what you’ll want out of it, and what you’ll do with it. If you’re looking for something to get angry about, you’ll find some sight, sound, etc., to feed your anger. If you’re looking for reasons to be kind to someone, you’ll find them. As we noted above, if these present intentions are unskillful, they’ll lead you to suffer even from pleasant sights, sounds, etc. If they’re skillful, you can avoid suffering even when sights, sounds, etc., are painful.

For this reason, your present intentions are very important. In fact, without present intentions you’d have no experience of the world of space and time offered by the senses at all. You’d be free from their limitations. On the ultimate level, this fact is what makes awakening to a dimension outside of space and time—nibbānapossible. On the immediate level, it explains why even though you may have bad kamma seeds from past unskillful intentions ripening in your kamma field, you have some freedom in how you treat the ripening seeds so that you don’t have to suffer from them. You can be proactive in preventing suffering. The more alert you are to what you’re doing in the present, and the more mindful you can be about how to act skillfully, the more freedom you have to choose the skillful course of action here and now.

This is why we meditate: to provide ourselves with more freedom in the present. In particular, by intentionally trying to focus on one object—such as the breath—we become sensitive to other present intentions, some of which are very subtle. This sensitivity enables us to expand our knowledge of what’s actually going on in the mind, and this in turn expands the range of our freedom of choice in the present. We’re better able to train the mind in the skills it needs to create positive present kamma, to deal positively with the raw material from past negative kamma, and eventually to go beyond the kamma of intentions entirely. That’s how suffering comes to an end.

8. If there’s freedom of choice in the present moment, does this mean we have free will?

To a certain extent. As with so many other issues, the Buddha took a middle path between the two extremes of determinism and total free will. If all your experience were predetermined from the past—through impersonal fate, the design of a creator god, or your own past actions—the whole idea of a path of practice to the end of suffering would be nonsense [§§35]. You wouldn’t be able to choose to follow such a path, and there wouldn’t be such a path for you to choose in the first place: Everything would have already been determined for you. But if, on the other extreme, your choices in the present moment were totally free, with no constraints from the past, that would mean that your present choices would in turn have no impact on the future. It’d be like flailing around in a vacuum: You could move your arms in any direction you wanted, but you’d get nowhere.

The Buddha took this issue so seriously that, even though he rarely sought out other teachers to argue with them, he would if they taught determinism or the chaos of totally random freedom.

In contrast, he taught that we have the potential for free choice in the present moment, but that this potential can be limited by unskillful actions in the past. These limitations can be felt both in the range of outside conditions those actions make available to you, and in the range of the habits you’ve developed inside. Still, the potential for free choice can be developed, particularly in the area where it matters most: our freedom to choose and follow the path that leads to true happiness.

One of the main purposes of Buddhist practice is to improve the habits you bring to shaping each present moment so that they can lead in that direction. Take, for instance, the three habits that the Buddha recommended as part of the practice of mindfulness so that it would lead to concentration and discernment:

alertness, the ability to be clearly aware both of what you’re doing as you do it, and of the results that come from what you’re doing;

mindfulness, the ability to keep in mind lessons you’ve learned, both from Dhamma instructions and from your own actions, as to what’s beneficial and what’s harmful to do; and

ardency, the whole-hearted desire to act as skillfully as you can with every moment [§44].

As you develop these habits, you build a fund of knowledge as to what works and doesn’t work in leading to true happiness. You also become a more discerning judge of which actions lead to which results, and what really qualifies as true happiness. As your mindfulness develops into strong concentration, you learn how not to be overcome by pleasure or pain—by maintaining your focus in the practice of concentration even in the presence of intense pleasure, and by comprehending pain to the point of not suffering from it. This increased strength of mind expands your freedom. You have more choices available to you, and you’re more able to act on skillful intentions regardless of the circumstances shaped by your past intentions. You become like an expert cook, able to make good food out of whatever, good or bad, is growing in the kitchen garden.

9. When people talk about kamma, why do they tend to focus on the punishments and hardships coming from past kamma?

Because they ignore the positive role that present kamma can play in shaping your life. They think that past kamma is deterministic, leaving you helpless in the face of misfortune in the present moment—which is not how the Buddha taught kamma at all. In fact, when he introduced the topic of kamma to his listeners, he focused on how it empowers you in the present moment, at the same time allowing for qualities we all know to be good—like generosity and gratitude—to actually make sense [§23]. Here’s why:

• In terms of empowerment, the Buddha’s teachings on kamma and causality explain why we can develop skills that lead to the end of suffering. On the one hand, because certain actions tend to lead to certain results, we can learn from past actions the general pattern as to what would and wouldn’t work in leading to more happiness. If the relationship between actions and results were totally random, we couldn’t learn any skills at all. On the other hand, if past actions totally determined your present situation—including your present actions—you wouldn’t have the freedom to choose to learn a skill in the first place. So the Buddha’s combination of causal influences plus freedom of choice provides just the right conditions for why we can develop skills in our actions that will lead to the happiness we desire.

• As for the good qualities of the heart, if our actions were totally predetermined, generosity would be nothing special: People would give, not because they wanted to, but because they had no choice. There would be no reason to be grateful for the goodness that other people have done for us: They would have had no choice in the matter.

But because people do have some freedom of choice, the choice to be generous is something praiseworthy. It means that you are sensitive to the needs of others, and can restrain your own selfishness and greed. And when other people help us, they deserve our gratitude. Their help may have caused them hardships, but they went ahead and did it for us anyway out of the goodness of their hearts.

In fact, one of the first lessons the Buddha teaches about freedom of choice is in the practice of generosity. It’s when we first give a gift—not because we are told to, but because we want to—that we begin to realize that we don’t have to be driven by our selfishness and greed. To protect the sense of freedom around this act, he taught his monks not to put any pressure on their supporters to give. Instead, monks should teach people to give where they feel inspired. That’s how freedom of choice becomes real in people’s lives.

10. You say that certain actions tend to lead to certain results. Can you give some examples?

Yes. On the unskillful side, the Buddha noted these tendencies:

killing — to a short life;

stealing — to loss of wealth;

sexual misconduct (having sex with minors, with people already in another committed relationship, or with those who have taken a vow of celibacy) — to rivalry and revenge;

telling lies — to being misrepresented and falsely accused;

divisive speech — to the breaking-up of your own friendships;

harsh speech — to hearing unappealing sounds;

idle chatter — to hearing words that aren’t worth taking to heart;

taking intoxicants — to mental derangement;

beating others — to sickness and poor health;

being ill-tempered and easily angered — to ugliness;

being envious — to being uninfluential;

being ungenerous — to poverty;

being disrespectful and arrogant — to a low birth;

not asking knowledgeable people about what to do to bring about long-term happiness — to a lack of discernment [§§2526].

These are actually some of the slightest results coming from these actions. If you engage in them repeatedly, they can lead to the lower realms of rebirth, such as rebirth as a common animal, in hell, or as a hungry ghost. (In Buddhism, all of these states are temporary, and will end when the power of the actions leading there runs out.)

It’s also possible for unskillful actions to have a snowball effect, in which one unskillful action makes it more likely that you’ll engage in more unskillful actions, at the same time putting yourself in a position where you don’t want to hear the truths about the long-term results of your unskillful actions. This increases the likelihood that you’ll do even more unskillful things. The pursuit of power is particularly harmful in this way: You have to harm those who threaten your power, and when you get used to doing harm, you don’t want to hear the truth of what harmful actions can do to you. This makes it less and less likely that you’ll change your ways [§31].

On the skillful side, the opposite of the above actions can lead to higher rebirths—in the human or the heavenly realms—which likewise last as long as the actions leading there still give results. For example, the Buddha noticed these causal relationships:

abstaining from killing — to a long life;

abstaining from stealing — to no loss of wealth;

abstaining from sexual misconduct — to freedom from rivalry and revenge;

and so on.

11. If hurting others tends to lead to illness in the next lifetime, is illness in this lifetime always the result of past kamma?

As with every other experience of pain, illness can come from a wide variety of kammic factors, past and present. You’ve already noticed this yourself: When you intentionally stick your finger in a fire, the resulting pain doesn’t come from an action in your previous lifetime. It comes from a choice you made here and now.

The Buddha himself argued against the idea that all pain comes from past kamma, and in the course of his argument he provided a list of other factors that could give rise to illness. The list comes from the medical beliefs of his day, and although it includes a lot of other causes besides past kamma—things like a chemical imbalance in the elements in the body, the change of the seasons, or poor care of the body—all the causes included in the list come under what, in another discourse, he identifies either as past kamma or present kamma [§§2,5].

So his list conveys two points. First, when the kamma leading to a disease plays out, it can often fall under the laws recognized by science. When it does, as when it’s a result of poor diet or body chemistry, the knowledge of medical science can be used to alleviate it—if the person has the good kamma to be able to find the proper treatment.

Second, some diseases come primarily from past kamma; some primarily from present kamma. If it’s a present-kamma disease—coming, say, from poor treatment of the body or unhealthy attitudes in the mind—it can go away when the present kamma changes. If it’s a past-kamma disease, there are times when treatment in the present can make it go away—in which case, the seeds of good kamma are ripening to counteract the effect of bad kamma seeds. But there are also times when the past kamma is so strong that no treatment will help it. In cases like this, though, your present kamma—your attitudes, intentions, and mental skills—can be changed so that even in the face of the illness in the body, your mind doesn’t have to suffer.

12. Can kamma get in the way of making progress in Dhamma practice?

When the Buddha talks about people who can and can’t achieve awakening even though they hear the Dhamma, he focuses primarily on present kamma: whether you’re paying attention, whether you have respect for the Dhamma, and whether you want to understand. But he also mentions some cases where past kamma can get in the way: the prime case being when a person is born with dull discernment [§§2729].

However, even if your discernment is dull, there are ways of compensating for it. As the Buddha recommends, try to find wise people and ask for their advice as to what’s skillful or not; what’s blameworthy or not; what, when you do it, will lead to long-term happiness; what, when you do it, will lead to long-term harm and suffering [§26]. Then try to put their instructions into practice, and ask them questions when you don’t get good results.

Still, there are five actions that, if committed in the present life, can make it impossible to gain awakening in this life—or even to go to a good rebirth immediately after death. They can have this effect even if the person who has done them otherwise has a favorable attitude toward the Dhamma. These actions are: killing one’s mother, killing one’s father, killing an arahant (a fully awakened follower of the Buddha), causing the Buddha to bleed (when doing this through malicious intent), and causing a split in the Saṅgha, the order of monks [§30]. If done in a previous lifetime, these actions don’t make progress impossible—one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples is said to have killed his parents in a lifetime eons ago—but their consequences can persist in other ways for a long time. For this reason, you should avoid these actions at all cost.

13. What’s the best way to act if you know you’ve done unskillful things in the past?

First off, remember that each moment that you’re still alive gives you the opportunity to change your ways and engage in skillful actions. And remember, too, that actions tend to give certain results, and that these tendencies can be strengthened or weakened by other actions. This means that if you’ve been acting unskillfully but then, seeing the error of your ways, begin to act more skillfully, your newer actions will weaken the results of your older, unskillful actions. In fact, the Buddha points out that simply affirming the intention to act skillfully is already a positive first step.

So if you’ve done something unskillful, recognize that the action was unskillful and wrong, but that feelings of remorse and guilt won’t undo what you’ve already done—in fact, too much remorse or guilt can actually sap your confidence that you can change your ways. Then resolve never to repeat that action again. To strengthen your resolve, both for your own good and for the good of others, spread thoughts of goodwill and compassion to yourself and to all beings [§32]. If you can maintain an attitude of goodwill to all—wishing for everyone to act in ways that will lead them to true happiness, and being happy to help everyone in that direction—you’ll be less likely to do them, or yourself, any further harm.

14. Can you get out of the consequences of unskillful actions by getting other people to do them for you?

No. In fact, one of the worst ways you can harm others is to get them to act in unskillful ways, because those actions then become their kamma. And the fact that you got them to harm themselves would be bad kamma for you.

15. Is it possible to burn off old kamma—say, by simply putting up with pain?

No. In the Buddha’s time, an ascetic group called the Nigaṇṭhas believed that they could burn off old kamma by not reacting to the pain of their austerities, and the Buddha reserved some of his sharpest ridicule for that belief. As he said, the Nigaṇṭhas should have noticed that the pain they experienced during their austerities ended when they stopped the austerities, which meant that the pain was the result not of old kamma being burned off, but of their present kamma in undertaking the austerities [§4].

Still, it is possible to weaken the results of bad past kamma. The Buddha compared past bad kamma to a big lump of salt. If you put the salt into a small glass of water, you can’t drink the water because it’s too salty. But if you toss it into a large, clean river, it doesn’t make the water of the river too salty to drink. The river here stands for a mind that has developed four qualities:

• unlimited goodwill and equanimity: wishing for the happiness of all beings, and yet being equanimous when seeing that some beings are currently beyond help, in that they refuse to create the causes for true happiness, so that you can focus your energies, not on the futile attempt to change their ways, but on areas where you can make a difference;

• mature virtue: avoiding killing, stealing, illicit sex, lying, and taking intoxicants;

• mature discernment: understanding the causes for suffering and mastering the skills needed to put suffering to an end; and

• the ability not to allow pleasure or pain to overwhelm the mind.

When the mind has strengthened these four qualities, then the results of past bad kamma hardly touch it at all [§10].

16. Can rituals put an end to old kamma? Can prayer? Can an awakened being end my old kamma for me?

No, no, and no. The four qualities for weakening old kamma listed under the previous question are skills. Skills of this sort can’t be mastered simply by following a ritual formula, nor can anyone else—regardless of that person’s level of awakening—master them for you. You have to master them yourself.

As for prayer, you can—as a way of focusing your intention—make a determination to master these skills, but prayer on its own won’t be enough to do the job. As the Buddha said, if results could be obtained simply through prayer, who in the world would be ugly, in pain, or die young? [§§3435]

17. Does forgiveness have any effect on kamma?

It can’t erase the effects of old bad kamma, but it can help prevent new bad kamma.

When people wrong you, it’s always wise to forgive them. Although this won’t negate the bad kamma of their actions, it does remove you from what the Buddha called vera, or animosity: the kammic mud fight of trying to settle old scores. You console yourself with the thought that, if you didn’t have that kind of kamma in your own background, you wouldn’t have been wronged that way in the first place. In fact, in light of rebirth, you don’t know how long the back-and-forth of that kind of kamma has already been going on. If you tried to get back at the people who’ve wronged you, you’d simply be continuing the mud fight, creating more of that kamma, which would tend to lead to another round of the same sort of thing. Do you want that? If not, forgive the other side. This doesn’t mean that you have to love them. You simply promise yourself that you won’t try to get back at them.

By being generous with your forgiveness, you pose no danger to others, even those who have wronged you, and in that way you pose no danger to yourself. And by setting a good example in this way, you might also inspire others to be forgiving as well. This will help them pose no danger to themselves, either. In this way, you not only think thoughts of goodwill, but also show goodwill in action to all sides. As the Buddha said, animosities aren’t ended by more animosity, but by putting animosity aside [§13].

18. Can we know who we’ve had kammic relations with in previous lifetimes?

There are some people who can develop that ability in their meditation. However, the Buddha didn’t encourage speculation in this area, because it would get in the way of trying to free yourself from kamma, which is what his teaching is all about. And he commented once that—given how very, very long the process of rebirth has been going on—it would be hard to find someone who hadn’t been your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your daughter, or your son in a previous life. Our roles have switched around that much. He made this comment, not to encourage sentimental feelings toward everyone you meet, but to encourage a sense of dismay over how ephemeral our relationships are, and to encourage a desire to be released from the whole show [§41].

19. Is there such a thing as group kamma?

It’s not the case that first you’re born into a particular group of people at a particular point in time and then, as a result of joining them, you assume the kamma committed by earlier members of that group. It’s actually the other way around: First, through your own individual intentions, you develop a particular type of kamma. Then you’re born into a group of people who have similar kamma in their individual backgrounds. In the Buddha’s terms, we’re “kamma-related,” or related through our kamma [§26].

What this means is that if a particular group—a family, a nation—suffers hardships, it’s not because earlier members of that group created bad kamma. It’s because the individuals currently in that group have bad kamma in their own individual backgrounds. And remember: People are not always reborn, life after life, in the same family, ethnic group, nation, gender, or even species. Sometimes a person goes from a class of oppressors to a class of the oppressed, and sometimes back. The Buddha’s image is of a stick thrown up into the air: Sometimes it lands on its base, sometimes on its tip, sometimes smack on its middle. We’re slippery characters, changing roles all the time [§41].

20. As a summary, what would be a good way to teach children some healthy lessons about kamma?

You might try the lessons the Buddha gave to his own son, Rāhula [§42].

First he taught Rāhula how important it was to be truthful—and this means being truthful to yourself as well as to others. In the Buddha’s words, a person who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is totally empty of goodness. Truth is the basis for all progress in the life of the mind, and forms the basis for all the Buddha’s remaining instructions on how to learn from your actions. You can’t learn from your actions unless you’re true to yourself in admitting what you did and why.

The Buddha then taught Rāhula to examine his actions as he would examine his face in a mirror. Before acting—in body, speech, or mind—Rāhula should ask himself if he foresaw any harm coming from the action, either for himself or for others. If he foresaw harm, he shouldn’t do the action. If he didn’t foresee any harm, he could go ahead and act.

While acting, he should check the immediate results coming from his action. If any harm came up, he should stop the action. If not, he could continue with it.

After the action was done, he should check the long-term results of the action. If it actually did cause harm, then if it was an act in body or speech, he should talk it over with someone more experienced on the path. For a child at present, this would mean talking it over with his or her parents. This gives the child the opportunity to learn from the parents’ experience—assuming that the parents are wise enough not to make the child regret being open and honest with them.

If the action was simply a mental action, the Buddha told Rāhula that he should feel a healthy sense of shame around the action—shame in the sense of the opposite of shamelessness—and resolve not to engage in that kind of thinking again.

If, however, the action caused no harm, Rāhula should take delight that he was making progress, and continue training to become even more skillful in his actions.

These instructions in how to learn from your mistakes give at least three sorts of lessons about kamma:

A. First, they teach some important lessons about action in general.

• One, you have the ability to choose how to act.

• Two, actions have results.

• Three, your intentions are important in determining results, but good intentions are not enough. You have to learn how to make your intentions skillful by looking at the results your actions actually give, so that you get more experienced in anticipating the results that will come from your actions.

• Four, the results coming from your actions follow a pattern. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to learn any lessons from actions today that would apply to actions tomorrow.

• Five, this pattern can show itself both in the present and over time. This relates to the two principles underlying actions. The Buddha’s recommendation to examine the results of actions while doing them relates to the first principle, that actions can shape the present moment. When you slam the door on your finger, you don’t have to wait for the next lifetime to feel the pain. The Buddha’s instructions to check the long-term results of the action relate to the second principle, that actions can take time to show their results. When you plant a seed, it’ll take time, sometimes a lot of time, for the plant to mature.

Keeping these two principles in mind as you look at your actions teaches you to be responsible for what you do. Seeing results in the present shows you that you don’t have to be a passive victim of present circumstances. You can take the initiative to make changes. Seeing results that take time to ripen teaches an important lesson in delayed gratification: Don’t measure your pleasures and pains only by how they feel in the present. Think about the long-term harm that can come from indulging in some pleasures, and the long-term benefit that can come from doing difficult tasks.

• Six, even if you’ve acted unskillfully in the past, you can change your actions now and into the future. This is perhaps the most important lesson of all.

B. To carry through with these instructions develops some important character traits:

Heedfulness, in realizing that your actions can mean the difference between benefit and harm.

Compassion, in not wanting to do harm to anyone.

Truthfulness, in being willing to admit your mistakes.

Integrity, in taking responsibility for any harm you’ve done.

Wisdom, in being able to convince yourself to choose your actions based on the long-term results they’ll give, and not on your moods as to what you like or don’t like to do.

C. Finally, carrying through with these instructions also develops the three qualities, mentioned above under Question 8, needed to develop mindfulness and concentration:

Alertness, in clearly seeing what you’re doing while you’re doing it, along with the results that come from your actions.

Mindfulness, in remembering to examine your intentions and actions at all times, and in remembering lessons you’ve learned from past actions; and

Ardency, in trying to do your best to avoid harm.

These are some of the ways in which the Buddha’s instructions to Rāhula provide an excellent introduction for children in how to understand the principles of kamma and make good use of them in their lives. And, of course, these lessons aren’t meant only for children. Adults can benefit from following them as well.