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Karma and the Consequences of Our Actions

by Ratnadharini

Karma and the Consequences of Our Actions
by Ratnadharini

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM742
Talk given at Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre, 2005

A recap of the previous talks; quote from the Dhammapada; conditioned co-

production and the law of karma; skilful and unskilful mental states

We come to the third of the mind-turning reflections. Just to re-cap: we’ve already heard
about and reflected on the precious human birth, which has its emphasis on the
opportunity we have in this lifetime to practise the Dharma and all the favourable
conditions that have given rise to that possibility. And we’ve heard in the second
reflection, the reflection on impermanence and death, which stimulates the sense of
conviction and urgency and purity of practice. Those two talks, those two reflections,
very much go together. Now we come to the third and fourth of the mind-turning
reflections, which again go together. You could have the one on karma and rebirth first,
or the one on the faults of conditioned existence first. It doesn’t really matter. They go
I’m going to be talking about karma and rebirth, mainly in fact about karma and karma-
vipāka. Probably the best-known formulation of the law of karma is the one that we all
know from the Dhammapada. I’m just going to remind us of some of those verses from
the first chapter of the Dhammapada. This is Bhante’s translation. The Dhammapada
must be one of the earliest Buddhist texts. It must be pretty close to what the Buddha
actually taught.
The Buddha says:
Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind and produced by mind. If one
speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cartwheel
follows the hoof of the ox (drawing the cart).
Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind and produced by mind. If one
speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never
Those who entertain such thoughts as ‘He abused me, he beat me, he conquered
me, he robbed me,’ will not still their hatred.
Those who do not entertain such thoughts as ‘He abused me, he beat me, he
conquered me, he robbed me,’ will still their hatred.
Not by hatred are hatreds ever pacified here (in the world). They are pacified by
love. This is the eternal law.
Others do not realize that we are all heading for death. Those who do realize it
will compose their quarrels.
The evildoer grieves in both worlds; he grieves ‘here’ and he grieves ‘there’. He
suffers and torments himself seeing his own foul deeds
The doer of good rejoices in both (worlds); he rejoices ‘here’ and he rejoices
‘there’. He rejoices and is glad seeing his own pure deeds.
The evildoer burns in both (worlds); he burns ‘here’ and he burns ‘there’. He
burns (with remorse) thinking he has done evil, and he burns (with suffering)
having gone (after death) to an evil state.
The doer of good delights in both (worlds); he delights ‘here’ and he delights
‘there’. He delights (in this life) thinking he has done good and he delights (after
death) having gone to a state of happiness.”
I think probably those verses would be enough to reflect on in terms of the law of
karma. It’s all in those verses. They are well worth reflecting on.
The most essential formulation of the Buddha’s Enlightenment experience, the
formulation that we know of as conditioned co-arising, or dependent origination, is the
most essential way of expressing the experience of the Buddha at his Enlightenment. It
was the realization, the actual experience he had, that transformed his life and answered
the questions that he had set out with on his noble quest. One of the simplest ways of
expressing that is that all things arise dependent upon conditions, and they cease when
those conditions no longer hold. It sounds very basic and it sounds quite easy, but it is so
far-reaching and so hard to grasp. It’s an understanding that wasn’t in this world until
the Buddha saw it and realized it for himself.
That most essential formulation is given shape, is given application in many different
ways. It can be applied to everything. There are many ways in which we’re familiar with
it: the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Nidānas, are some of the most familiar. But it’s
the same thing when we come to look at karma. The law of karma is usually expressed
as: ‘Skilful actions lead to happiness or desirable outcomes. Unskilful actions lead to
suffering, or undesirable outcomes’. It’s a particular set of actions, and we’re going to
look at what those actions are. Some particular actions have particular outcomes, and
other actions have the opposite outcome.
Karma literally means action, though it’s got many, many associations. Action in this
case refers to actions of body, speech and mind. It’s not just overt actions and their
outcomes: it’s primarily our mental states. The distinction that is being made in the
formulation of karma is between skilful or unskilful actions. I’m sure you all know this
already, but skilful actions are those that are performed on the basis of positive mental
states, that is, the opposite of unskilful mental states. Unskilful mental states are usually
referred to as mental states based in greed, hatred and delusion or ignorance. Anything
we do when we’re in a mental state that is tinged with craving, or anger, or hatred, or
ignorance is going to have a painful outcome. Anything that we do when we’re in a
positive mental state based on the opposite of those is going to have a ‘good’ outcome.
That is the law of karma.
One of the first things that needs saying is that it doesn’t work the other way round. It’s
very important to make this point quite early on. If we’re having a painful experience,
an experience of suffering, it does not necessarily mean that it is as a result of an
unskilful action.
The 5 niyamas and the karma niyama; karma-vipaka - pleasureable and painful

The teaching that makes sense of that is the teaching of the Five Niyamas, which I hope
you’re all familiar with. The five niyamas explain different modes in which
conditionality can be enacted, in which it takes place. There’s the physical inorganic, the
utta-niyama. There’s the biological, which is the bija-niyama. Then there’s what’s
referred to as the non-volitional mental, which could be seen as psychological, but the
distinguishing feature of it is that it’s non-volitional, which is citta-niyama or mano-
niyama. Then there’s the ethical mental events. That’s volitional aspects of conditionality
which is karma-niyama, which is what we’re going to be particularly looking at. Then
there’s a fifth category, which is spiritual or Dharmic niyama. It’s a bit harder to say
exactly what that is, but it could be seen as other power, something coming from outside
normal conditionality coming into play. It could be seen in our experience as the spiral
path, so it’s a sense of a different kind of conditionality, a different experience of
We’re going to look more closely at karma-niyama. This is conditionality which takes
effect on the basis of volitional mental states, volitional activity. Maybe one of the first
things to say is that there is karma and there is karma-vipāka. As a result of our karma, or
our volitional activity, there is an effect which is pleasurable or painful, which is the
consequences we reap as it were of our states of mind, which is our karma-vipāka.
There’s not much we can do about karma-vipāka. In fact there’s not much we can do
about pleasure and pain generally. Pleasure and pain can be caused by other niyamas, or
it can be the effect of karmic activity of our own. But either way, once we’re into the
effects of something, it’s non-karmic at that point. There’s nothing good or bad about it.
It’s just pleasurable or painful. Life is pleasurable or painful. It just is. We can’t do much
about that and actually it can be quite a relief to know that. It can encourage us to let go
of the past and not to angst too much about the past.
We can choose how we respond to pleasure and pain, and this is something that is key to
our understanding of how the world works, because the alternative model would be either
that everything is just random, so it’s just luck and there’s no reason why some people
should have more pleasurable experiences in life and other people should have more
suffering, it’s just random. The extreme opposite of that is that somewhere it’s just fate,
whether it’s to do with God or not. It’s just written in stone and there’s nothing that we
can do about it. In between those two extremes is the possibility of change and the
possibility of choice, or in Bhante’s terms the possibility of a creative rather than a
reactive response, and the possibility of transformation.
This is where the whole question ...

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