One thing I really enjoy about reading the suttas is that they contain real-world examples. Lately, I’ve struggled with trying to understand my degree of responsibility for how other people act, and I was wondering if the suttas have any guidance on this? I’ve read that intent is a key element of personal responsibility/karma. Here are some example scenarios:
You are upset and scold someone and they in turn get upset and are in a car accident later. Are you responsible for that accident and accrue negative karma? Or, are you only responsible for your harsh speech and only that negative karma?
This time, you follow the Buddha’s guidelines for wise/skillful speech to give someone advice, and they still get upset and are in a car accident. Are you responsible for that accident and accrue negative karma?
You follow the Buddha’s guidelines for wise/skillful speech to give someone advice, and they later get upset, but this time, tragically go on a shooting spree and kill several people. Are you responsible for that violence and accrue even more negative karma than in the prior example?
A more complex case relates to the Vesali sutta (Vesali Sutta: At Vesali) in which monks commit suicide after hearing the Buddha give “a talk on the unattractiveness [of the body]”. The Buddha, in this same sutta, then advises monks to focus on mindfulness of breathing and goes on to describe the 16 contemplations as a more suitable topic for meditation.
A key challenge in understanding our personal responsibility (and resultant karma) for how other people choose to act is that lay persons live in a complex world. Thus, we may have to discipline a colleague as part of our work. While the Buddha’s advice for wise speech is helpful, sometimes a colleague is just not ready to listen, but we must still talk with them because it is required by our work (for example, if the colleague is doing something dangerous). Any advice you have from the suttas would be welcome.
When the Buddha spoke at Vesali, he was not upset, nor did he actually instruct the monks to actually do anything other than to meditate on ugliness and its development
SN54.9:1.3: Now at that time the Buddha spoke in many ways to the mendicants about the meditation on ugliness. He praised the meditation on ugliness and its development.
Killing oneself is not meditating nor does it keep the first precept.
Notice that the Buddha gave advice about meditation. When driving, one drives. When meditating, one meditates. Therefore, if one gives advice, one can be mindful of how it is given. Indeed, medicines have contraindications such as “may impair driving”.
Unskillful: “Think about X”
More skillful: “When you have a quite moment to reflect, consider X”
Ultimately, the Buddha provided gentler advice:
SN54.9:8.4: That’s how this immersion due to mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated so that it’s peaceful and sublime, a deliciously pleasant meditation. And it disperses and settles unskillful qualities on the spot whenever they arise.”
In the same way, a mendicant who has three factors soon acquires great and abundant skillful qualities. What three? It’s when a mendicant sees clearly, is responsible, and has supporters.
And how does a mendicant see clearly? It’s when a mendicant truly understands: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’. That’s how a mendicant sees clearly.
And how is a mendicant responsible? It’s when a mendicant lives with energy roused up for giving up unskillful qualities and embracing skillful qualities. They are strong, staunchly vigorous, not slacking off when it comes to developing skillful qualities. That’s how a mendicant is responsible.
And how does a mendicant have supporters? It’s when from time to time a mendicant goes up to those mendicants who are very learned—knowledgeable in the scriptures, who have memorized the teachings, the texts on monastic training, and the outlines—and asks them questions: ‘Why, sir, does it say this? What does that mean?’ Those venerables clarify what is unclear, reveal what is obscure, and dispel doubt regarding the many doubtful matters. That’s how a mendicant has supporters.
A mendicant who has these three factors soon acquires great and abundant skillful qualities.”
“For these two, defilements grow. What two? One who is remorseful over something they shouldn’t be, and one who isn’t remorseful over something they should be. These are the two whose defilements grow.”
“For these two, defilements don’t grow. What two? One who isn’t remorseful over something they shouldn’t be, and one who is remorseful over something they should be. These are the two whose defilements don’t grow.”
edit: can someone be responsible for what they do not control? can someone be responsible for what they cannot control? I don’t think so, but maybe It’s helpful to examine of what is control, and what is uncontrollable.
Thanks–it is interesting that the passage mentions “one who isn’t remorseful over something they should be”. I thought that “restlessness and remorse” were one of the five hindrances? Perhaps it should be “restlessness and inappropriate remorse” are a hindrance since it appears that the Buddha mentions that remorse is warranted in certain situations.
Well, actually I think this might be a matter of stages. While building a solid foundation of sila (moral conduct), I don’t think appropriate remose can be a hindrance; it might be essential at least in some cases. But later - remorse won’t, maybe, be there at all… Just as the caterpilar is gone when the butterfly is present.
With regards to the hindrance of remorse it is a problem if it stops you from acting correctly and if it paralyzes you from avoiding incorrect actions as well. So this is the difference between hiri which means shame but actually implies Self respect and ottappa which is fear of wrongdoing grounded on our respect of others. Shame that keeps us from violating our own self respect and prevents evil actions with our own dignity on the line. It works to our benefit, and respect of others is in ottappa fear of having acted wrongly and it affects how we avoid wrong actions to others as well, due to the respect we have for others. In both cases we are impelled to prevent evil actions from arising and to stop acting evil now.
“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.”
— AN 6.63
Taking responsibility for one’s actions
"‘I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir’…
"[This is a fact that] one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained…
"Now, based on what line of reasoning should one often reflect… that ‘I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir’? There are beings who conduct themselves in a bad way in body… in speech… and in mind. But when they often reflect on that fact, that bad conduct in body, speech, and mind will either be entirely abandoned or grow weaker…
“A disciple of the noble ones considers this: ‘I am not the only one who is owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator; who — whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir. To the extent that there are beings — past and future, passing away and re-arising — all beings are the owner of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.’ When he/she often reflects on this, the [factors of the] path take birth. He/she sticks with that path, develops it, cultivates it. As he/she sticks with that path, develops it and cultivates it, the fetters are abandoned, the obsessions destroyed.”
— AN 5.57
We are all responsible for letting go of ill-will. Resentment generally arises out of a sense of lack of control, which arises out of craving for continued existence. Responsibility guided by sila remains.