17 million words and counting!

Social network icons Connect with us on your favourite social network The FBA Podcast Stay Up-to-date via Email, and RSS feeds Stay up-to-date
download whole text as a pdf   Next   Previous   

Understanding Karma and Buddhist Ethics

by Nagapriya

... example, this event that we are participating in arises in dependence on
conditions. 'Clear Vision' have organized this event: they sent out publicity. You came
here. I've come here. And we are here, and we have an event. Later on, maybe about
four o'clock, we will all have gone and the event will be over. So it has come about in
dependence on conditions, and will cease again when the conditions cease.

In some ways this seems trivially true; it seems very obvious and straightforward. I'm
sure all of you could understand what I just said about this event arising in dependence on
conditions. But we tend to look at other things — perhaps not events, but objects — in
isolation. We see them as having some identity, some independent nature, that is
independent of their surroundings; an identity that persists through time.

And I think part of the reason why we do that is that we can name things. So I'm named
Nagapriya, and one attaches to this name various qualities, traits, etc., that maybe one
sees persisting through time. And one then moves from that to think, 'Aha — yes —
there is something that defines this person that is Nagapriya. There is some essence

But from the Buddhist point of view, this is a mistake. Continuity does not mean
identity; it does not mean permanence. And I am going to be playing around this
distinction probably in most of what I say.

So, let's just look at a natural object — let's say a tree. We look at a tree and we think,
'Yeah — a tree has recognizable characteristics,' and we tend to (in our mind at least)
abstract that tree from its surrounding environment as though it has some kind of nature,
some 'tree-ness' if you like, that is there.

But if we look at it a bit more closely... well... take the soil away and what's going to
happen to the tree? It will fall over; it will die. Without rain, again it will just dry up and
die. There are many conditions that are needed to keep the tree growing, changing and
staying alive, and if those conditions are removed the tree starts to disintegrate: it
becomes dead wood, rots again into the soil, maybe provides the basis, the nutriment, for
another tree...

So I think what happens is that on the whole (and I include myself in this) we lack the
imagination to see how things are conditioned and we tend to see them as having this
kind of fixed, permanent nature. And obviously with things like mountains, and planets,
it's even more difficult to see how they are changing, but we just need a longer-term

Ok — so this doctrine has two important implications. First of all, because things arise in
dependence on conditions they are impermanent. Whenever the conditions that support
that object or event are taken away, the thing itself ceases; it shows its impermanent

If we see this impermanence, this can lead to what we might describe as a 'serene
withdrawal' from attachment to things. A lot of pain is caused by thinking that things are
going to continue. So we break our best watch, somebody scratches our car, or whatever,
and we get upset because we were hoping that that watch, that car, was going to stay like
that more or less permanently. So everything is impermanent, and if we realize this, there
is this serene withdrawal.

Secondly (and in a way this is merely an extension of the first point), nothing has a fixed,
unchanging nature — and that includes us. This is what is known as the principle — or
doctrine, if you like — of anatta or no-self (not-self). So, we too arise in dependence on
conditions, and we are constantly changing, both physiologically and psychologically
(mentally). Our bodies are constantly changing: we take in food, we pass out waste, we
gain more wrinkles as time goes on, maybe a few grey hairs, maybe we start losing our
hair. Maybe we shrink; maybe we grow. And, of course, eventually we die; all of us die.

But not only our body is changing. Our mind is changing as well. We develop new
habits. We develop new skills. Maybe we become happier, or maybe we become less
happy. We gain more knowledge, perhaps, over time, and, as I say, maybe gain more
skills, more confidence. So we're constantly changing.

And to draw this out a bit more fully I want to introduce you to quite an important and
fundamental model — a Buddhist model — of the human being... [DISPLAYS
DIAGRAM]... This is called the Kandhas (or the Skandhas) — the 'Five Kandhas'. This
is a way, really, of just trying to see how we are constantly changing and we don't have a
fixed nature, or fixed self.

So there are five kandhas (or it is often translated as 'heaps' — or sometimes
'aggregates'). First of all we've got Vijnana: consciousness.

Then we've got Samjna: our perception. This is the process of interpreting our experience
— like recognizing 'that's a chair,' 'that's my friend over there,' etc. — memory — all
these sorts of functions that perhaps we don't think about too much, but are going on all
the time. [It's] the process of interpreting our world to make it meaningful — to make
sense of it, if you like.

Then we've got Rupa: form, or body. This refers to the physiological aspect of us. All
the other kandhas are mental.

Then we've got Vedana, which is feelings and sensations.

And finally (and in a way this is the most important one for today) we've got Sankara —
and I have rendered it here as 'volition, or habit'. Sometimes it is translated as 'volitional
tendencies' — it's given all sorts of different translations in different places — but let's
stick with that for now.

So we usually define or describe ourselves in terms of our sankaras, in other words in
terms of our habits. These are usually what are most recognizable about people — you
know, 'such-and-such, he's into football; such-and-such, they've got this tendency to talk
very loudly,' etc. Things like that. We generally define people in terms of their leading
habits or qualities — 'such-and-such is an angry person; such-and-such is a very shy
person' — and we see these things as not really changing.

I want to use an analogy to try to illustrate this business about the sankaras, and it may or
may not work for you, but I want to use the analogy of a football team. Let's, just for
argument's sake, call this football team 'Manchester United' (a bit of local colour!)...

...So we talk in terms of a team, or, if you like, in terms of a 'self', that somehow seems to
have a certain identity that persists through time. The sankaras are each of the individual
players. Eleven players — so, just for now, there are eleven sankaras. You've probably
got a lot more than that... but let's say there's eleven.

And we think that there is a 'core' to this — but really what is the core to this team? Is it
Ryan Giggs? Or it is Roy Keane, the captain? Well... sometimes they don't play. So,
when they don't play, where is the core of Manchester United? Where has it gone? We
still talk in terms of the 'team' having this identity.

Actually there is only a notional sense of identity; the identity comes from description.
There is no identity there. We impose that on the experience of these eleven players, if
you like.

Perhaps you could say, 'Well, what is distinctive about Manchester United is the red
shirts.' But actually, sometimes they play away! They wear blue shirts; even white
shirts. So where is Manchester United, when they're wearing those shirts?

Perhaps it's the manager? But managers change over time. Even if they stay for quite a
long time, they move on. Perhaps it's the fans? Well, the fans too grow old... die... there
are new fans.

All of the players that play for the team at the moment will one day no longer play.
There will be eleven new players. But we will still talk about Manchester United.

So you can see there is this constant change going on, and it's not an absolute change —
it's not that one day there is one set of eleven players and the next day there's a different
set of eleven. There is continuity. Players play for several years; a new player comes in;
one player drops out; etc. So there is this sense of continuity, and that's very real, that's
very present. But we need to avoid moving from there to think that because there is that
continuity, there is some fixed unchanging Manchester-Unitedness.


The reason why I'm banging on about this a bit is that we need to understand this
business about the sankaras changing over time, and continuity, if we are going to
understand the Buddhist idea of karma and the idea of rebirth. We could say that if we
did have a core, unchanging self, we couldn't change, and from a Buddhist point of view
we couldn't gain Nirvana; we couldn't gain Enlightenment. So actually it is a great boon
that we are constantly changing.

Differences between Buddhist and Vedic views of karma; chetana — will; skilful
and ...

download whole text as a pdf   Next   Previous