Deeds and their results

There are many types of cittas, moments of consciousness. Cittas can be kusala, wholesome, akusala, unwholesome, or neither kusala nor akusala. The sense-impressions such as seeing or hearing are neither kusala nor akusala, but shortly after they have arisen and fallen away there are cittas which react to the object experienced by the sense-impressions, and they react either in a wholesome way or in an unwholesome way. There are more often akusala cittas which can be rooted in attachment, aversion or ignorance, than kusala cittas which are rooted in non-attachment and non-aversion, and which may be rooted in wisdom as well. Akusala cittas can motivate evil deeds and kusala cittas can motivate good deeds. We read in the Gradual Sayings (V, Book of the Tens, Ch. 17, §8, Due to greed, hatred and delusion) that the Buddha said to the monks:

Monks, the taking of life is threefold, I declare. It is motivated by greed, hatred and delusion. Taking what is not given, sexual misconduct,falsehood spiteful speech, harsh language, idle babble, covetousness, ill-will and wrong view is threefold, I declare. It is motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.

Thus, monks, greed is the originator of a chain of causal action, hatred is the originator of a chain of causal action, delusion is the originator of a chain of causal action. By destroying greed, hatred and delusion comes the breaking up of the chain of causal action.

We read about a "chain of causal action". The Pāli term kamma, also known in its Sanskrit form karma, literally means action or deed. A good deed brings a pleasant result and a bad deed brings an unpleasant result. The results of our own deeds come to us sooner or later, this is the law of kamma and result, and nobody can alter the operation of this law. The Buddha’s teaching on kamma and result is difficult to grasp. It is not a dogma one has to accept. There can be theoretical understanding of kamma and result, but by theoretical understanding this law cannot be fully comprehended. Only by direct understanding of the physical phenomena and mental phenomena of our life the condition of kamma which produces result can be seen more clearly. Therefore it should not be expected that the law of kamma and result can be fully understood when we begin to investigate the Buddha’s teaching on this subject.

A deed done in the past can produce result later on. Kamma can be compared to a seed developing into a tree which bears fruit later on. Evenso, a bad deed, for example killing, can produce an unpleasant result such as illness or pain. A good deed, for example a deed of generosity, can produce a pleasant result, such as the receiving of beautiful things. When we think of a deed and its result we usually think of a deed which has an effect on someone else. In order to understand the law of kamma and its result we should not think in terms of the conventional realities of persons and situations, but we should have understanding of the ultimate realities of cittas and their accompanying mental factors and of physical phenomena, realities which arise and then fall away immediately. We cannot be sure whether someone else performs kusala kamma or not from the outward appearance of things. We may see someone else giving things away but there may not be the performing of a deed of generosity. The giving may be motivated by selfish motives, and then giving is not kusala kamma. It is the wholesome or unwholesome intention or volition which constitutes kusala kamma or akusala kamma. The terms kusala kamma and akusala kamma can be used in the sense of good deeds and evil deeds, but when we are more precise kamma is the intention or volition motivating deeds performed through bodily action, through speech and through the mind. When we speak of the different types of kusala kamma and akusala kamma we should remember that kamma is intention or volition, a mental reality. Kamma is a mental factor accompanying citta, and it arises and falls away together with the citta.

How can a deed performed in the past produce its result later on? Kamma, or the volition which accompanies the citta when a good deed or a bad deed is performed, falls away immediately together with the citta. However, since each citta which falls away is succeeded by the next citta, kamma can be accumulated from moment to moment. Its dynamic force is carried on and when the time is ripe it can produce its result. That is the chain of causal action we read about in the above quoted sutta. The same sutta mentions the kinds of akusala kamma performed through body, speech and mind. Not every akusala citta is of the intensity of akusala kamma which can produce a result. When there is clinging to a pleasant sight or sound there is akusala citta but not akusala kamma which could produce a result. Clinging, however, has many degrees. It can be more subtle or it can be strong, such as covetous­ness, the desire for someone else’s property. This has the intensity of akusala kamma when one plans to take away what belongs to someone else. Kusala kamma comprises abstaining from evil deeds as well as the performing of good deeds, deeds of generosity and mental development, such as the study of the Buddha’s teachings and the development of understanding of the realities of our life.

Moments of happiness and misery alternate in our life. The experiences of pleasant objects and unpleasant objects through the senses do not occur by chance, they must have a cause: kamma is the cause. We read in the Gradual Sayings (IV, Book of the Eights, Chapter I, §5, Worldly Failings) that the Buddha said to the monks:

Monks, these eight worldly conditions obsess the world; the world revolves round these eight worldly conditions. What eight?

Gain and loss, fame and obscurity, blame and praise, bodily ease and pain.

Monks, these eight worldly conditions obsess the world, the world revolves round these eight worldly conditions.

Gain, loss, obscurity and fame,
And censure, praise, bodily ease, pain-
These are man's states impermanent,
Of time and subject unto change.
And recognizing these the sage,
Alert, discerns these things of change;
Fair things his mind never agitate,
Nor foul his spirit vex. Gone are
Compliance and hostility,
Gone up in smoke and are no more.
The goal he knows. In measure full
He knows the stainless, griefless state.
Beyond becoming has he gone.

The person who has reached the state of perfection has equanimity towards the vicissitudes of life. He is freed from the chain of causal action, there is no more rebirth for him. So long as one is full of attachment, aversion and ignorance, one wants pleasant objects and dislikes unpleas­ant objects. However, the experience of pleasant objects and unpleasant objects is not in any one’s power, it depends on kamma which produces result. One day there is gain, the next day loss; one day there is praise, the next day blame. Sometimes we are healthy, sometimes we suffer from sickness and pain. The experience of pleasant or unpleasant objects through the senses is not a reward or a punishment. The idea of reward or punishment stems from the conception of a supreme being, a God, who is the judge of man’s deeds. The cause of the experience of pleasant and unpleasant objects through the senses is within ourselves: it is kamma. There is seeing and hearing of pleasant and unpleasant objects time and again. Seeing and hearing are the results of kusala kamma or akusala kamma. These results arise just for a moment and then they fall away. When we define what was seen or heard or think of the nature of the object, the moments of result have fallen away already. It is hard to tell whether seeing or hearing is the result of kusala kamma or of akusala kamma. Thinking of what was seen or heard is not result; when there is thinking there is kusala citta or akusala citta, but mostly akusala citta. In order to understand the ultimate realities of kamma and its result we have to be very precise. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and the experience of tangible object through the bodysense are cittas which are results of kamma. Our reactions in a wholesome or in an unwholesome way to the objects which are experienced are not results of kamma, they are kusala citta or akusala citta. Kusala citta and akusala citta can be called the active side of life, since they can perform good deeds and bad deeds which will cause the appro­priate results later on. The cittas which are results of one’s deeds can be called the passive side of life. We have to receive results, whether we like it or not.

Cittas arise because of their own conditions, they are beyond control. Sometimes it seems that we ourselves can cause the enjoyment of pleasant objects. However, there have to be the right conditions for the enjoyment of pleasant objects and enjoyment cannot last as long as we wish. We can enjoy pleasant music by turning on the radio, but kamma is the cause of hearing, not a self. It also depends on conditions whether we can afford a radio or not. One may live in poverty and not be able to afford a radio. It is due to kamma if one is born into a poor family and has to live in uncomfortable circumstances. It is due to kamma if one is born into a family which is well-to-do and if one can live in comfort.

In order to understand that birth into pleasant surround­ings and in unpleasant surroundings is the result of kamma we have to go back to the first moment of a lifespan. There was a citta at the first moment of our life, and this is the rebirth-consciousness. This citta must have a cause and the cause is in the past, it is kamma. Birth is result, we could not select our parents, nor time and place of our birth. The first moment of life is called rebirth-consciousness because there is not only this present life, there were also past lives. It is difficult to understand that kamma of the past produces the birth of a being. We can notice, however, that people are born into different circum­stances, with different bodily features and different mental capacities. This does not happen by chance, there must be conditions for such differences. There are different kam­mas which cause different kinds of birth. In the "Discourse on the Lesser Analysis of Deeds" (Middle Length Sayings III, number 135) we read that Subha asks the Buddha what the cause is of the different results human beings experience from the time of their birth:

"Now, good Gotama, what is the cause, what is the reason that lowness and excellence are to be seen among human beings while they are in human form? For, good Gotama, human beings of short lifespan are to be seen and those of long lifespan; those of many and those of few illnesses; those who are ugly, those who are beautiful; those who are of little account, those of great account; those who are poor, those who are wealthy; those who are of lowly families, those of high families; those who are weak in wisdom, those who are full of wisdom."

The Buddha answered Subha:

"Deeds are one's own, brahman youth, beings are heirs to deeds, deeds are matrix, deeds are kin, deeds are arbiters. Deed divides beings, that is to say by lowness and excellence."

Some people are born in countries where there is war and famine, others in countries where there is peace and prosperity. This does not happen by chance; kamma, a deed performed in the past, is the cause. If kamma is the cause of birth, what is then the role of the parents? Parents are also a condition for the birth of a child, but they are not the only condition. Kamma produces at the first moment of life the citta which is the rebirth-consciousness. The new human being which comes to life consists of mental phenomena and bodily phenomena. The physical phenomena which arise at the first moment of life must also have a cause: kamma is the cause. Thus, at the first moment of life there is mental result as well as physical result of kamma. Kamma is not the only factor from which bodily phenomena originate. There are four factors in all: kamma, citta, temperature and nutrition. After kamma has produced bodily phenomena at the first moment of life, the other factors also produce bodily phenomena. As to the factor of temperature, there has to be the right temperature for the new being in the womb in order to develop. When the mother takes food, nutrition is suffused in the body and then nutrition is also producing bodily phenomena for the being in the womb. Citta is a condition as well for bodily phenomena arising throughout our life. If there were no citta we could not stay alive, we could not move, we could not perform any activities. If we remember the four factors which produce bodily phenomena, namely kamma, citta, temperature and nutrition, it will help us to understand that the body does not belong to a self. What we call "my body" consists of bodily phenomena which arise because of different conditions and then fall away.

Kamma produces bodily phenomena at the first moment of a lifespan and also throughout life. It is kamma which produces the sense organs of eyesense, earsense, smellingsense, tastingsense and bodysense. The sense organs which are the physical results of kamma are the means for the experiences which are the mental results of kamma: seeing, hearing and the other sense impressions. Thus, kamma produces result at the first moment of life, it produces the births of beings, and in the course of life it also produces pleasant and unpleasant results in the form of experiences through the senses.

Kamma can cause rebirth in unhappy and in happy planes of existence. Besides the human plane of existence there are other planes of existence. Birth in an unhappy plane is the result of akusala kamma and birth in a happy plane is the result of kusala kamma. Hell planes and the animal world, for example, are unhappy planes. The human plane and heavenly planes are happy planes. It may be felt by some that the existence of hell planes and heavenly planes is mythology. It should be remembered that conventional terms are used to designate different degrees of unpleasant results and pleasant results of kamma. Birth in a hell plane is an unhappy rebirth because in such a plane there are conditions for the experience of intense suffering. Birth in a heavenly plane is a happy rebirth because in such a plane there are conditions for the experience of pleasant objects. Life in a hell plane or in a heavenly plane does not last forever. There will be rebirth again and it depends on kamma in which plane rebirth-consciousness will arise. Birth in the human plane is the result of kusala kamma, but in the course of life there are conditions for the experience of both pleasant and unpleasant objects through the senses, depending on the different kammas which produce them.

It may happen that someone who has obtained wealth with dishonest means lives in luxury. How can bad deeds have pleasant results? It is not possible for us to find out which deed of the past produces its corresponding result at present. A criminal can receive pleasant results but these are caused by good deeds. His bad deeds will produce unpleasant results but it is not known when. In the course of many lives good deeds and bad deeds were performed and we do not know when it is the right time for a particular kamma to produce result. A good deed or a bad deed may not produce result during the life it was performed, but it may produce result in the following life or even after countless lives have passed. In the scriptures it is said that when kamma has ripened its fruit is experienced. We read in the Dhammapada, (verses 119 and 120):

Even an evil-doer sees good so long as evil ripens not; but when it bears fruit, then he sees the evil results.

Even a good person sees evil so long as good ripens not; but when it bears fruit, then the good one sees the good results.

Several other conditions are needed for akusala kamma or kusala kamma to produce their appropriate results. The time when one is born or the place where one is born can be a favourable or an unfavourable condition for kusala kamma or for akusala kamma to produce result. For example, when one lives in a time of war there are more conditions for akusala kamma and less conditions for kusala kamma to produce result. A particular kamma may be prevented from producing result when there is a very powerful counteractive kamma which has preponderance. For example, when someone is wealthy and lives in comfort, there are pleasant results for him, caused by kusala kamma. However, he may suddenly lose his wealth and be forced to live in miserable circumstances. His loss is caused by akusala kamma which has ripened so that it can produce unpleasant result. This is an example which shows that the way different kinds of kamma operate in our life is most intricate.

Time and again there is result in the form of the experience of pleasant and unpleasant objects through the senses and after such experiences there are kusala cittas or akusala cittas, but more often akusala cittas. There is likely to be attachment to pleasant objects and aversion towards unpleasant objects. Like and dislike alternate in our life. Attachment and aversion are of many degrees, they do not always have the intensity to motivate evil deeds. In that case there is no accumulation of kamma, but there is accumulation of defilements. Attachment and aversion arise and then fall away, but the conditions for these defilements are accumulated so that they can arise again. There are different types of condition which operate in our life. Kamma is one type of condition, it can produce result in the form of rebirth, or, in the course of life, in the form of the experience of pleasant or unpleasant objects through the senses. Defilement is another type of condition, it is the condition for the arising again of defilements. On account of pleasant and unpleasant results of kamma defilements may arise which are so strong that they motivate the committing of evil deeds. Thus, the result of kamma can condition defilements and defilements can condition the committing of akusala kamma which will in its turn produce result. This process is like an ever-turning wheel.

The Buddha’s teaching on past lives, the present life and future lives, on the cycle of birth and death, is difficult to grasp. We can have more understanding of this teaching if we can see that, in the ultimate sense, life lasts merely as long as one moment of citta which arises and falls away. We are used to thinking in conventional terms of person, situation, life and death. In the conventional sense life starts at the moment of conception and it ends at the moment of death. In the ultimate sense there is birth and death at each moment a citta arises and falls away. The citta which has fallen away conditions the arising of the next citta. There has to be a citta arising at each moment, there is no moment without citta. Cittas arise in succession in the current of life. When the end of a lifespan approaches, the last citta, the dying-conscious­ness, falls away, but it is succeeded by the next citta. That citta is the first citta of a new life, namely the rebirth-consciousness. There can be theoretical under­standing of death and rebirth, but all doubts can only be eliminated by the development of direct understanding of the mental phenomena and physical phenomena which arise and fall away. If there is direct understanding of the conditions for the citta which arises at this moment, doubt about rebirth can be eliminated. Just as the citta of this moment is succeeded by the next citta, evenso the last citta of this life will be succeeded by a following citta, the rebirth-consciousness.

It is dukkha to be in the cycle of birth and death. Why do we have to receive an unpleasant result of a deed committed in a past life? In a past life one was another being, different from what one is now. But why should we receive the result of a deed committed in the past by another being? A deed in the past which produces result now was committed by a being from which we have originated. It is indeed sorrowful that unpleasant results have to be received for evil deeds which may have been committed many lives ago. This is the law of kamma and its result, and it operates, whether we like it or not. A person in this life is different from what he was in a past life, but all that was accumulated in the past, kusala kamma and akusala kamma, defilements and good qualities, all accumulations have been carried on from moment to moment and they condition what is called the present personality. The Path of Purification (XVII, 167) explains:

And with the stream of continuity there is neither identity nor otherness. For if there were absolute identity in a stream of continuity, there would be no forming of curd from milk. And yet if there were absolute otherness, the curd would not be derived from the milk, So neither absolute identity nor absolute otherness should be assumed here.

The rebirth-consciousness has not been transferred from the past life to this life, it is completely new. However, the conditions for its arising stem from the past. The Path of Purification (166) illustrates this with similes. An echo is not the same as the sound but it originates from the sound. The impression of a seal stamped on wax is not the same as the seal itself, but it originates from the seal. These similes clarify that the present life is different from the past life, but that it is conditioned by the past. There is no transmigration or reincarnation of a self. The person who is reborn consists of five "groups of existence", the "khandhas", namely physical phenomena and mental phenomena which are arising and falling away. There is no permanent, unchanging substance which passes from one moment to the next one, from the last moment of life to the first moment of a new life. We read in the scriptures about the former lives of the Buddha and his disciples. The "Birth Stories" relate the former lives of the Buddha when he was still a Bodhisatta and accumulated wisdom and all the other excellent qualities, the "Perfections", which were the right conditions to become a Buddha in his last life. There were accumulations of wisdom and of the Perfections, but not a person, not a self who accumulated these. There were only the khandhas arising and falling away. Since each citta is succeeded by the next one within the current of countless lives, accumulations are carried on from one life to the next life.

Can one speak of evolution in the succession of different lives, a development from animal life to the human life and then to life in heavenly planes? There is no specific order in the kinds of rebirths, there is not necessarily develop­ment from life in lower planes to higher planes. In reality rebirth depends on the kamma which produces it. Kusala kamma may produce rebirth in a heavenly plane and after that it may be the right time for akusala kamma to produce rebirth in a hell plane. Only the person who has attained enlightenment has no more conditions for an unhappy rebirth. When one has reached the state of perfection all defilements have been eradicated and thus there are no more conditions for any kind of rebirth. This means the end of dukkha.

The Buddha, in the night he attained enlightenment, had penetrated the conditions for being in the cycle of birth and death and also the conditions for being freed from this cycle. Kamma which produces rebirth is part of a whole chain of conditions for the phenomena which constitute the cycle of birth and death. It is like a vicious circle of interdependently arising phenomena, forming a chain of twelve links, the first of which is ignorance and the last one death. This is called "Dependent Origination". The "Dependent Origination" is an essential part of the Buddha’s teachings. Ignorance is mentioned as the first cause of the interdependently arising phenomena of the cycle. So long as ignorance has not been eradicated there are still conditions for the performing of kamma which produces rebirth. At rebirth there is the arising of mental phenomena and physical phenomena. There is the experience of objects through the senses and the mind-door. On account of the objects which are experienced different feelings arise and feeling in its turn conditions craving. Due to craving there is clinging which conditions the performing of kamma and this produces again rebirth. So long as there is birth there is old age and death, and thus there is no end to dukkha. This is the teaching on the "Dependent Origination" which shows the conditions stemming from the past life for phenomena in the present life, and conditions of the present life for phenomena in the future.

Ignorance is mentioned as the first factor of the Dependent Origination, but no first beginning of the cycle has been revealed. The Path of Purification (XIX, 20) explains:

There is no doer of a deed
Or one who reaps the deed's result;
Phenomena alone flow on
No other view than this is right.
And so, while kamma and result
Thus causally maintain their round,
As seed and tree succeed in turn,
No first beginning can be shown.

It is of no use to speculate about the beginning of the cycle. The Buddha taught that when ignorance has been eradicated by wisdom, there aren’t any more conditions for the performing of kamma, and thus no conditions for rebirth. Through wisdom there can be the reversal of the vicious circle made up by the links of the Dependent Origination. This means the end of the cycle, the end of dukkha. The commentary to the first book of the Abhi­dhamma, the Expositor (I, Part I, Chapter I, 44) explains by way of a simile the conditions leading to the contin­uation of the cycle and those leading to the end of it :

"leading to accumulation" are those states which go about severally arranging (births and deaths in) a round of destiny like a bricklayer who arranges bricks, layer by layer, in a wall. "Leading to dispersion" are those states which go about destroying that very round, like a man who continually removes the bricks as they are laid by the mason.

When understanding has been developed to the degree that enlightenment is attained there will be "dispersion", the removal of the conditions for being in the cycle.

The teaching on the Dependent Origination explains why we are in this life, why we have to suffer old age, sickness and death. It explains the conditions for our life, for what we call our body and our mind. We may know in general that mind and body are dependent on conditions, but through the study of the Buddha’s teachings we will know more in detail what these conditions are and how they operate from birth to death. It is kamma which produces bodily phenomena from the first moment of life and also throughout life. Besides kamma, citta, temperature and nutrition also produce bodily phenomena. Kamma produces throughout life the sense-organs, the physical conditions for the pleasant and unpleasant experiences which are the mental results of kamma. We are heirs to kamma, it is unavoidable that there are loss, pain and other adversities of life. There are many kinds of kamma which were performed in the past, and what is done cannot be undone. When it is the right time kamma produces its appropriate result. Ignorance of cause and result in life conditions aversion and frustration on account of unpleasant experiences and this means more suffering. Understanding of the cause of suffering does not mean the immediate elimination of grief and depression. However, understanding can help one to be less overcome by despair about what is unavoidable, what is beyond control. More understanding means less suffering. The Buddha did not only teach that life is dukkha, he also taught the release from dukkha, namely the development of the wisdom which can eradicate ignorance and all defilements.