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17 million words and counting!
Vajratara, Sheffield, UK
Coleen, FBA Team
Candradasa, FBA Team
Ratnavyuha, Auckland, NZ
Kalyanavaca, London, UK
Kuladharini, Glasgow, UK
Vajradarshini, Valderrobres, Spain
Candradasa, FBA Team
... unskilful motivations; consequences
I want to move on and zero in a bit more to draw out some of the distinctive features of
the Buddhist notion of karma, and in particular distinguishing it from the Vedic notion of
karma, and I want to make two points (I'm sure there are more points, but I want to make
First of all, [the Buddhist notion of karma] is agent-centred rather than act-centred (I'm
going to explain that jargon in a minute). Secondly, it operates within the current
lifetime, and not only in relation to the rebirth process.
So, first of all it is agent-centred. What was distinctive about the Buddha and the
Buddha's idea of karma, as distinguished from the Vedic one, was that the Buddha
ethicized the idea of karma.
Previously karma was seen in ritualistic terms, in other words in terms of the
performance of a particular ritual in the appropriate way. So [in the Vedic notion of
karma] you do this ritual in the right way and you gain positive karmic consequences as a
result. The most outstanding example of this was the performance of certain rites after
the death, particularly performed by the son for the dead father. The performance of
these rites in the proper way would lead to what was called 'positive karma' which would
supposedly somehow be transferred to the departed relative, and which would benefit
them in the after-death state (That opens up another whole area about the transference of
karma, which I'm not actually going to go into, but you might want to ask about that at
Instead of this — instead of seeing karma in terms of ritual and the performance of
particular actions in the right way — what the Buddha said was that what is most
important about karma is intention — the intention behind your action — not the surface
of the action. So in many places karma is equated with chetana, or volition/will.
So it is volition, or will, that is karma in Buddhism... and this is a very radical thing to
say; it's a very radical move in terms of how to govern one's conduct or behavior. So
action becomes a primarily mental thing, as opposed to simply a physical action or
But this is not to say that overt action — physical action or speech — is unimportant. It's
more to say that the ethical quality of a speech act or a physical behavior can only be
understood by understanding the motivation that drove it. So you can't simply look at
someone's physical behavior and know that they have performed a unskilful (or indeed a
skilful) action. You need to know more about what was driving them; more about their
Intentions can be divided into two kinds: kusala which means 'skilful', or akusala which
means 'unskilful'. A skilful intention is one that arises from positive emotion, and these
in particular are defined as generosity, intelligence and compassion (or love). These are
skilful motivations for action. Then the unskilful motives or intentions are seen in terms
of craving, hatred and spiritual ignorance (delusion).
So, as I said, the ethical quality of an action can't be understood simply by examining the
surface of it.
Just to give an example: two people might give me a gift. One of them may give me a
gift because he wants to express his gratitude for me helping him to fix his roof (very
unlikely, actually — but maybe... maybe that would happen!). So, out of gratitude he
gives to me. The other person wants to ingratiate himself with me because he wants to
prepare the ground to borrow some money. So, superficially they are both giving; it
seems a very positive thing. But actually they are driven by quite different motives: one
by a very positive motive of gratitude, the other by a desire to try to manipulate me, to
prepare the ground to get something out of me.
So you can see that superficially the actions are the same, but actually they will have very
different consequences. That is what I'm going to come on to now — the effects of
karma; the consequences of karma.
Every act that we perform — every intentional act that we perform, that is — modifies
our being; it modifies who we are. As I have said earlier, we are constantly changing,
and what makes us change is each little intention, each little act that we perform over the
days, weeks, years, etc. Sometimes these acts modify us in a big way and sometimes in
just a small way: it depends on the act.
These consequences or effects are called vipakas, or fruits, and I think the metaphor —
the analogy — of fruit is very good, because... well, what is a fruit? It is something that
grows on the basis of, say, a tree. So, let's say your previous action is the tree. The tree
is there. That tree will blossom into fruit. There will be a natural organic consequence, if
you like. So it's not that somebody then comes along and sticks some fruit on the tree.
It's kind of implicit — it's kind of organic within the tree itself — that the fruits will arise;
that the fruits will emerge.
I think this is quite important really. It's not that somebody will come along and punish
you for being bad; it's that the consequences of your conduct are inherent in the conduct
itself. They are inseparable, if you like. And the primary consequence is that you will be
changed by your conduct.
Let's just take an example: I act out of a very hateful, angry state of mind over a period
of time. What will the consequences of that be? The primary consequence will be that I
will be a hateful, angry person — that is the primary consequence. There will probably
be other consequences too — like, people won't like me very much; they won't want to
help me — but these are secondary consequences. The primary consequence is that I will
be changed by acting out these particular intentions and volitions.
The thing is, it is not always obvious that we are reshaping our being in this way, and
sometimes it can take actually quite a long time for the fruits of our conduct to show
themselves, either skilful or unskilful.
I don't know whether any of you have read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray,
but it is a very good novel and well worth reading... Dorian Gray is this extremely selfish
aesthete. He is very, very handsome, and (I can't quite remember how this happens in the
book) he makes some kind of pact whereby however evilly he acts, he continues to look
very young and handsome and people continue to like him, but his portrait, which he
keeps in his attic, shows all the marks of his evil, unskilful conduct. Towards the end of
his life — he is still very beautiful, people still like him, and so on — he goes up to the
attic and has a look at this picture, and it's all old and really ugly, and — you know — his
face is festering... this sort of thing... and, well, actually he dies at that point, and, if you
like, the consequences of his previous actions are then transferred from the picture onto
Now I don't want to say that karma is like that. I'm just using this as an analogy to say
that it's not always obvious. You may, for example, act very skilfully and positively for
many years, and seemingly all these bad things happen to you — you know — people are
horrible to you, you get mugged, your car gets stolen... and you think to yourself, 'What
have I done to deserve this?' And actually maybe you have not done anything to deserve
it: these things happen.
Or maybe you see somebody else who seems incredibly selfish and just wants to get
whatever they can out of other people... and seemingly they do very well! They do very,
very well out of life... and you're thinking, 'How can this be true? How can this principle
of karma be true if this person who is acting so unskilfully is seemingly being rewarded
I think, you know, it's a question of confidence. In the longer term there will be an effect.
Sometimes things come to a head, and the consequences arrive all at once. But I am
making this point because I think we can think there should be some sort of quid-pro-quo
thing: 'I've done this good thing, so where's the benefit?', or 'I've done this bad thing —
oh my god, where's the punishment coming from?' But it's much more complex than
that. It is probably better to think in terms of a series of actions that amount to a habit,
and that habit has its effect on you as a person, and then it will have wider effects on your
social circle and on the world generally — rather than in terms of individual actions
having much of an effect.
So from a Buddhist point of view what we are trying to do is strengthen the skilful
motivations, the skilful intentions, and weaken and eradicate the unskilful ones. That, if
you like, is the purpose of Buddhist ethics. That is what it aims to do.
And we do this through purifying the mind, through working on the mind directly, rather
than through any external ...