21. Doesn’t the teaching on kamma teach people to be callous toward the sufferings of others?

No. Knowing that you have both good and bad seeds in your field that haven’t yet matured, the teaching on kamma teaches you to ask this question instead: What’s the wisest way to view other people whose bad seeds are currently sprouting? And the answer is: with compassion. Is your compassion so rarified that you give it only to people who have never done anything wrong? If it were, you wouldn’t find anyone to receive it.

So when you see someone suffering, you don’t say, “They deserve it,” and leave them to their suffering. Actions yield results, but nobody “deserves” to suffer. The path is for putting an end to suffering, “deserved” or not. You look for the potential good seeds in other people’s fields that are about to mature, and try to give whatever help that will aid those people in not suffering from the bad seeds. After all, that’s how you’d like them to treat you when your bad seeds start to mature. And in acting this way, you create good kamma for yourself.

When you see someone who’s suffering, the Buddha recommends that you reflect: “I, too, have experienced that sort of suffering in the course of my many rebirths.” When you see someone who’s happy, he has you reflect in a similar way, “I, too, have experienced that sort of happiness in the course of my many rebirths.” This reflection helps you not to be jealous of the happiness of others, or to look down on those who are suffering. You’ve been there, too—and it’s likely that you’ll return there at some point if you don’t find a way out of rebirth. So be compassionate to everyone you meet [§41].

As for whether your attempts to help another person will bear fruit, it’s useful to remember the Buddha’s observation about the three groups of sick people, mentioned in Question 4: 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 get medicine. As he noted, 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. In the same way, the Buddha said, there are those who will gain awakening even if they don’t hear the teaching, those who will gain awakening only if they hear the teaching, and those who won’t gain awakening even if they do hear the teaching. It’s because the second group exists that he teaches everyone who comes to him.

The same principle can be applied to kamma in general: Some people born with bad kamma will see the results of that kamma run out on their own in this lifetime even if they don’t get help from others; some will get past that kamma only if they get help from others; some won’t get past it even with the help of others. It’s because the second group exists that we should all have compassion and be helpful to one another.

22. But can’t kamma be used to justify social injustices?

Only by people who don’t really understand or believe in kamma. If someone has the kamma that tends to poverty or a painful death, there are plenty of natural causes or accidents that will provide an opportunity for that kamma to bear fruit without your getting involved. You don’t have to play the role of kammic-law enforcer. If you decide to oppress that person economically or bring about his painful death, you don’t get away with it. That bad kamma now becomes yours. And if, unbeknownst to you, that person has had a taste of awakening, your kamma becomes many times over bad.

23. Don’t people believe in kamma just because they want the universe to seem just?

If they do, they’re in for a disappointment. When you sow seeds in your kamma field, you get the same kind of plant whose seed you sow, but—as we noted above—the size of your harvest will vary in line with many other factors: other actions you do before or after, and your state of mind when the seed ripens. This means that a minor action might yield huge results, or a major action, small results.

A long discourse [§11] tells of Aṅgulimāla, a bandit who murdered many people but then had a total change of heart and became fully awakened. The only result coming from the kamma of all those murders was that people threw things at him when he was on his almsround. The relatives of those he killed probably didn’t think that justice was served, but that was how kamma worked in his case.

And we’re fortunate that kamma isn’t always just. As the Buddha said, if we had to pay back all the bad kamma we’ve done in the past before reaching awakening, no one would ever awaken [§10].

It’s important to remember that our common idea of justice requires a story that begins at a particular point in time. Only then can we determine who threw the first stone and tally up the score of who did what after that first provocation. But in the Buddha’s view of the universe, a beginning point for the process of rebirth is inconceivable. Not just unknowable, inconceivable [§15]. This means that trying to tally up the score of who did what to whom is futile. The only way to find peace is to get out of the process entirely: That’s how we stop doing harm to one another, and how we stop harming ourselves.

24. You say that I experience other people’s present actions through my senses, which are my old kamma. But you also say that those people have the freedom to choose their actions in the present. Isn’t there a conflict here?

Remember, the principles of kamma explain pleasure and pain. That’s it. Like you, other people are free to choose their intentions in the present, but you don’t directly experience their intentions. You experience actions inspired by their intentions, and the pleasure or pain you take from those actions will be filtered by your past and present kamma. Your good kamma seeds may sprout in time to help you not to suffer from someone’s bad intentions toward you, or your bad seeds may be sprouting in a way that interferes with their wise efforts to help you.

25. Can the Buddha’s teachings on kamma be divorced from his teachings on rebirth?

Not really. If there were no life before birth, kamma would have no role in explaining pleasure and pain early in life. And as the Buddha said, many people are rewarded in this lifetime for doing unskillful things—he cited people who are rewarded for killing the enemies of a king, stealing from an enemy of a king, or telling a lie that entertains a king—and you can probably think of similar examples in modern business and politics [§12]. Sometimes the results of those unskillful actions don’t even show until many lifetimes later—because the causal principle underlying kamma is so complex [§14].

26. But kamma and rebirth are metaphysical issues. Didn’t the Buddha avoid metaphysical issues?

There’s no word for “metaphysics” in ancient Indian languages. The Buddha avoided two sorts of issues that we would call metaphysical—(1) the size and duration of the cosmos, and (2) the identity of the self—because they were distractions on the path. But because he taught a path of action to put an end to suffering, he had to explain the metaphysics of action: whether it’s real, whether it gives results, what determines those results, and how far actions go in causing suffering in the first place. If he hadn’t taken a stand on these matters, he wouldn’t have been able to explain how action had the power to bring suffering to an end.

27. If there’s no self, what gets reborn?

The Buddha never said that there is no self. He never said that there is a self. The whole question of whether or not the self exists was one he put aside.

There’s a common misconception that the Buddha started with the idea that there was no self and, in the context of no self, taught the doctrine of kamma, which makes no sense: If there’s no self, nobody does the kamma and nobody receives the results, so actions and their results wouldn’t matter, because there’s no one choosing to act, and no one to suffer the results. But that’s putting the context backwards. Actually, the Buddha started with the reality of kamma, and then viewed ideas of “self” and “not-self” as types of kamma within that context. This means that he focused on seeing the way we define our sense of self as an action. Then the question becomes, when is the act of identifying things as your self a skillful action, and when is it not? When is the act of identifying things as not-self a skillful action, and when is it not? When a healthy sense of self is needed to be responsible, self-reliant, and heedful of the future, it’s a skillful action. When the perception of not-self helps you not to identify with desires that would lead to harm, it’s a skillful action.

In other words, both “self” and “not-self” are strategies for achieving happiness. They should be used—and mastered—as needed for the sake of true happiness, and abandoned when no longer needed. So instead of getting involved in the tangle of trying to define what a self is and whether it exists, the Buddha advised treating “self” and “not-self” as processes to be mastered, as tools.

Similarly with rebirth: He avoided talking about what gets reborn and instead focused on how it happens, as a process. Because the process is a type of kamma, it’s something you’re responsible for, and it’s also a skill you can master: either with relative skill, reaching a comfortable rebirth, or with consummate skill, learning how not to be reborn at all.

28. What is the process by which rebirth happens?

The Buddha’s short explanation is that, at the moment of death, an act of craving heads toward a new birth in a new world of experience. If you cling to that craving, you’re reborn. The analogy he gives is of a fire jumping from one house to another. Just as a fire depends on the wind to sustain and carry it from one house to the next, when you cling to craving here and now, at the moment of death, it sustains and carries you to the next life [§36].

In a longer explanation, the Buddha lists four stages to the process:

• First, based on ignorance, there’s craving, which can be for any of three things:

—sensual fantasies;

—becoming—a particular identity in a particular world of experience; or

—non-becoming, the desire to destroy a particular identity in a particular world of experience.

One of the Buddha’s discoveries is that this last craving, instead of putting an end to becoming, actually creates new becoming. This is why the path to the end of kamma and rebirth has to develop dispassion for all three forms of craving so as to put them aside.

• Next, based on craving, there’s clinging—you feed mentally off the craving, in hopes that it will take you to even more food.

• Then there’s becoming, in which a potential world of experience, together with a potential identity within that world, appears to the mind.

These worlds can exist on any of three levels:

—the sensory level—ranging from the pains of hell and the animal realm, through the mixed pleasures and pains of the human world, and on up to the pleasures of the sensual heavens;

—the realm of form—heavens in which the inhabitants enjoy the pleasures of pure form;

—the realm of formlessness—heavens in which the inhabitants enjoy formless pleasures, such as the pleasure of infinite space or of infinite consciousness.

The range of worlds and identities that will appear in this way at your death will come from your past actions—in body, speech, and mind. Unskillful actions will produce painful becomings; skillful actions, pleasant ones. This is why it’s important to develop skillful actions throughout life. In this way, such practices as generosity, virtue, and meditation not only lead to happiness in this lifetime, but also provide the possibility of happy future lives.

• Then there’s birth, when you move into taking on a role in one of the potential worlds of experience [§37].

These four steps are the same process you experience when the mind goes for a distracting thought while you meditate—which is why learning how to keep the mind concentrated on a single object without getting waylaid by distracting thoughts is an excellent preparation in learning to die skillfully.

29. Didn’t the Buddha teach people to believe only things they can see for themselves? How can people see kamma and rebirth for themselves?

The Buddha was very clear on the point that some of his teachings couldn’t be proven until you had put them into practice. This means that they have to be adopted as working hypotheses. A discourse on this topic [§39] includes teachings on topics like these:

Is there kamma?

Does kamma give results?

Are pleasure and pain totally determined from the past?

Is it possible to experience formlessness?—in other words, does awareness need a body, or can it exist independently of a body?

Is nibbāna for real?

In each case, if you want to put an end to suffering, you need to take a position that seems most conducive to following the path leading to that goal.

Similarly, when the Buddha was teaching the Kālāmas [§38] to test views for themselves, the test was this: When this view is adopted, does it lead to skillful or unskillful actions?

So the same principle applies to the teaching on kamma and rebirth: If you adopted these views as a working hypothesis, would they lead you to be more careful or less careful in trying to be skillful in your actions? A good experiment would be to devote a year to living as if you really believed in kamma and rebirth, and to see how that affected the way you behaved and thought about your behavior.

30. Didn’t the Buddha simply pick up his ideas on kamma and rebirth from the culture around him?

It’s true that the word “kamma” already existed in his culture, but the questions of whether kamma was real, whether it bore results, and whether you had any control over your kamma were all hotly debated. Similarly with rebirth: Some people believed in it, others didn’t, and even those who did believe in it didn’t agree as to whether kamma had any impact on it.

So given that there was no general agreement on these topics, we can’t say that the Buddha simply absorbed his teachings on them unthinkingly from his environment. As with everything he taught, he chose to teach only what was relevant to the path of putting an end to suffering. He saw on the night of his awakening that people’s intentional actions do have an impact on their rebirth, and that if they don’t believe in kamma and rebirth, they tend to create bad kamma that leads to the suffering of bad rebirths. That’s why he taught kamma and rebirth as the major principles of basic right view.

31. But how could a human mind possibly know these things?

There are two ways to answer this question: the typical way and the Buddha’s way. The typical way—which has been typical from ancient India until now—is to define what a human being is, or what the mind is, and from that definition to decide what a human mind can know. If, for instance, you define the mind as just a brain, and a brain is just a bunch of atoms, your definition of the mind prejudges what it can and cannot know.

But the Buddha’s approach was the other way around. As he said, if you define yourself, you place limitations on yourself. So, instead of starting out with a definition of the mind, he explored the skills that the mind could develop, to see what those skills could enable it to realize. In mastering those skills, he learned that there was a lot more to the mind than he had originally thought, and that it was capable of knowing many things that he hadn’t imagined possible: all the way to a deathless happiness. Through his example, he’s showing how to drop some of your own cultural baggage—such as materialistic, Romantic, or Judeo-Christian views of what you are—and to try on views that will allow you to test whether he was right: by developing the same skills he did.

32. Can’t I just be agnostic about kamma and rebirth, and practice without taking a position on these issues?

Even though you can’t know the truth of kamma and rebirth prior to your first taste of awakening, you’re already placing bets on these issues all the time. Every time you act, you’re calculating whether the results will be worth the effort. The fact that you’re expecting results means you believe in the power of kamma to at least some extent. Even if you deny that you’re acting with any expectation of results, part of the mind is calculating that your denial will give good results of one sort or another. If you do something you know is unskillful, but tell yourself it won’t matter, you’re taking a position against kamma. If your calculation of the results doesn’t include the possibility that they could extend into future lifetimes, you’re taking a position against the idea that kamma can influence rebirth. So you’re taking positions on these issues all the time. The Buddha’s simply pointing out that you’ll benefit from adopting his position consciously and consistently: Kamma works 24/7, so it’s good to take it as a working hypothesis 24/7.

33. But kamma and rebirth focus on past and future. Doesn’t the Dhamma teach us to focus totally on simply being mindful—i.e., fully present—in the present moment?

The Buddha talks about the importance of focusing on the present moment only in the context of what he taught on kamma: You focus on the present because you know that there’s work to be done in training the mind in developing skillful present intentions, and you don’t know how much more time you have to accomplish that training. If you don’t train it now, you’ll suffer both now and on into the future.

And it’s important to note that mindfulness doesn’t mean being fully present in the present moment. It means keeping something in mind. Right mindfulness means keeping in mind lessons from the past—either teachings you’ve learned from others, or lessons you’ve learned from your own experience—so that you can apply them skillfully, by also being alert, in shaping your present intentions.

When the Buddha’s discussions of kamma touch on the far past and the distant future, he always concludes by coming back to the present: Just as the past has been shaped by previous kamma, the future will be shaped by what you do now. He discourages people from asking what particular actions led to their present state, or what particular future state they can expect from their current actions. Instead, he asks them to keep the general principle in mind—that skillful actions lead to good results, and unskillful actions to bad—and to focus on being as skillful as possible in the present moment, ideally for the sake of reaching awakening through the level of skill that puts an end to kamma.

Even the highest insights that arise in meditation focus on kamma in the present moment. As the Buddha says, you develop discernment by noticing which of your mind states are skillful actions, which are unskillful [§45]. Then you pay attention to how you can develop the skillful ones and abandon the unskillful ones [§§2021]. In this way, you come to see how you shape the present moment through your present intentions—which, in the context of meditation, the Buddha calls “fabrications” (saṅkhāra). Even the highest states of bliss attained in meditation are dependent on inconstant causes—your own actions—which means that they, too, are inconstant. Seeing this, you arrive at a wise value judgment: You want something more dependable than that. That’s when you realize that you have to let go of even your most skillful intentions: not staying in the state of bliss but also not going anywhere else. When you can drop the present intentions that keep your awareness of space and time going, the unfabricated—the experience of nibbāna—is found.

So, in practice, the present isn’t divorced from the past and future. It’s tied to the past and future through the dynamics of kamma, and the goal of the practice is to get beyond past, present, and future entirely.