A few words on karma

“Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” is one of the richest books I’ve ever read on weaving Buddhist teachings into the way we live our daily lives. The book interleaves clear expositions of basic Buddhist teachings with seemingly mundane walks in Nature. The author – Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano – teases out from the cycles of the seasons and from the growth, blossoming and decay of all things what the Buddha was talking about. Below is his concise and direct exposition of kamma (the Pali pronunciation of the more familiar Sanskrit word ‘karma’). This work, by the way, is the book for Buddhist sympathizers who find their deepest connection to spirituaity in the back woods and blooming things of the world:

“Kamma, we should always remember, is intentional action; so when we are in doubt about the morality of some action we are considering, or when we cannot find a rule that exactly covers the case, or when we have done something that has resulted in harm to others, it is helpful to examine our motives. Unintended actions are not kamma. No future suffering, no moral degradation, comes to us because of harm we have not meant to happen and have not tried to bring about.  We are only responsible for what we directly intend and do. As long as we act with sincere good will according to virtuous principles we are acting correctly. Since the world is a snowstorm of contradictory conditions flying this way and that, and since other beings are constantly doing actions themselves and experiencing the results of actions, we can never be certain that misfortunes will not occur for someone.

When, however, we become aware that on some occasion we have indeed intended and acted badly, violating a precept or otherwise behaving in an ignoble way, we should face up to the misdeed without evasion, recognize our mistake, and distinctly resolve not to behave in that way again. Then we should go on about our business without unduly steeping ourselves in regret, which benefits no one. There is, when we look around us, always much good to be done, even in small, daily matters of courtesy and friendliness, and this sort of action, gladly undertaken, refreshes and elevates the mind.

Our duty is always to consider carefully and act as mindfully and honorably as we can. But we cannot stop here, because if we wish our deeds to become purer and more beneficial to ourselves and others we must observe more, learn more, contemplate more. The better we behave, the easier it will be for us to understand the Dhamma; the better we understand the Dhamma, the more we wil be inspired to cultivate virtue. The noble person, the person of outstanding character, is the result of countless actions that he or she has done, countless efforts made according to noble standards. We ought not to think that we can govern all our actions with sheer improvisation, trusting to our supposed natural goodness. As long as desire and aversion burn and confusion and delusion gust across the mind we are liable to err and therefore should anchor ourselves to what is firm, to the Dhamma which the Buddha taught for our welfare.

Buddhist ceremonies, rituals, and observances have value insofar as they arouse and support wholesome states of mind; and these wholesome states, to be useful, must find expression in our overall behavior through body and speech. Periods of formal sitting meditation likewise have value when there is a genuine effort at developing wholesome states of mind. Admiring the ideal of emancipation or resolving to strive for it certainly gives worthwhile inspiration, but we must always have moral discipline to guide our striving. Any spiritual advance is accompanied by and indicated by worthier and nobler behavior — conscientious avoidance of bad deeds and performance of the good.

When we restrain and govern ourselves conscientiously, when we act with good intentions, we make it possible to establish right concentration. It is fortunately not a question of possessing some prodigious mental power but of putting the energy we have to work in the best way. Misguided energy, however strong, is useless; but energy that is controlled and guided by Dhamma can accomplish much good work. At its simplest, the concentration we need is just a steadiness of observation, a willingness to hold still, to gather our will and pay attention to what is happening for longer than our jittering whims would dictate. When the mind has such concentration it can see and understand things more clearly; that is, with insight; and eventually it is just such insight or wisdom which cuts off sorrow and opens the way to ultimate liberation.

Whether we are already eager to reach that liberation or only hoping for a little balance and peace here and now, the cultivation of virtue is  a happy duty that should never be neglected. We might worry, we might complain that purity of action by body, speech, and mind is too hard to attain, we being fallible mortals with so many burdens and distractions and a lamentable history of failed resolutions. But we are not asked to perform heroic deeds of abnegation. The work of Buddhist moral discipline is the practicable work that begins with reverence for what is honorable and pure and continues with many small daily actions. If we should ask ourselves, “Am I capable of saintliness today?” we would instantly say no; but if we ask, “Can I refrain, for this moment, from speaking out in anger?” or “Can I possibly give a friendly greeting to my neighbor?” we would surely have to admit we have the power for at least that much good. Then let us bring about that good, and we shall see what we can do next.

In one discourse, after urging the monks to abandon unwholesome things, the Buddha used the same striking terms regarding the wholesome:

“Develop the wholesome, bhikkus. It is possible to develop the wholesome. If it were impossible to develop the wholesome, I would not say, “Develop the wholesome…” If this development of the wholesome would lead to harm and suffering, I would not say, “Develop the wholesome.” But as the development of the wholesome leads to welfare and happiness, therefore I say “Develop the wholesome.”

(Anguttara Nikaya 2:19)

Such development can be accomplished; it is not impossible; it is not beyond us. Higher states of virtue, concentration, and wisdom are attainable and worth attaining – that is why the Buddha taught the Dhamma as he did. If we find the Dhamma inspiring, if we think it can lead us to a nobler life, then we ought to follow it according to our power – which will grow as we determine to make it grow,

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