SuttaCentral

Can everything be explained as the result of Kamma or not?

Hello, community of SuttaCentral! :wave:t4: I am somewhat confused regarding one of the subtle intricacies of the teaching on Kamma, and I was hoping that someone here has the answer.

I understand that Kamma is not to be seen as predestination, and that being clear on this is, in fact, a very important component of the Buddha’s teaching. But how exactly the law of Kamma allows for variation and freedom of choice is what’s not very clear to me.

What has caused this confusion is the brief introduction to Sivaka Sutta in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation. In it, Ven. Thanissaro states that the sutta has been misunderstood as saying that not everything is the result of Kamma, because even the body is old Kamma. He argues that one of the main points of the sutta is that the results of Kamma find their expression through the other laws of the universe, such as biology or physics, but I think this is at odds with the actual text of the sutta. In my view (which, of course, might be wrong), even though the body is a result of old Kamma (through rebirth, in my understanding), that does not necessarily explain the arbitrary malfunctions of the body, which the Buddha explicitly lists as separate from the results of Kamma.

So, to get to my main point, is it the case that every seemingly random event in one’s life is the ripening of Kamma, finding expression through the other laws of the universe? Or is it rather the case that some things are indeed arbitrary occurrences with no relation to past Kamma whatsoever?

If the first interpretation is correct, then I see no conflict with the teaching that Kamma is not predestination, as this fits in perfectly with Thanissaro Bikkhu’s commentary that present Kamma can influence one’s experience at the moment of the ripening of old Kamma. Whereas if the second interpretation is correct, this also is not at odds with the teaching that Kamma is not predestination since, at any given moment, a random event in the universe can influence the ripening of Kamma.

So which view is correct?

Thank you, and Metta.

P.S. I also posted this on Stack Exchange, in a more restricted way, due to the rules for questions over there

Saying that everything is due to kamma is different from saying that everything depends on kamma.

The former is an extreme view which the Buddha rejects in EBTs.

The latter is aligned with the principle of dependent arising / origination.

This is because rebirth depends on a beginningless stream of ethical choices (i.e kamma) rooted in the fundamental ignorance of the four Noble truths and its liberating implications.

And everything someone experiences in the present happens in the context of he/she being first born.

That’s why the Buddha says that your body is equivalent to your old kamma.

Hence, with the ending of kamma there comes the end of rebirth.

However, that doesn’t mean that once you are born you are not exposed to random events, not traceable to a specific type or flavour of ethical choice.

And as the sutta you pointed says, some painfully feelings in the body will arise from causes other than a specific choice or has done in the past, remote or near.

I suggest checking the excellent workshops held at BSWA. I recall Ajahn @Brahmali talking about this in a couple of instances.

:anjal:

7 Likes

Bhante Sujato also talks about this during the “myth busting” section of his Kamma and Rebirth talks.

My personal take is that there isn’t much point in wondering about what happened in past lives. That is unknowable until one is very far down the path. So all we do when we try to guess the answer to a question like, “What did I do in a past life to cause me to stub my toe this morning?” is just engage in mental proliferation. Chances are you stubbed your toe because of a lack of sampajañña. We don’t need to go to past lives to find the causes of most things. Asking, “But what was the kamma in a past life that caused me to lack sampajañña?” is also just mental proliferation, in my opinion. We lack sampajañña because we haven’t practiced enough in this life. Anyway, I think dwelling on past lives isn’t of any practical use to developing and maintaining wholesome states, or decreasing and eliminating unwholesome states, in this life (which is the work we have to do here and now).

Again speaking personally, I think rejoicing in the fact that we created the causes in past lives to be born

  1. during a time when a Buddhadhamma exists,
  2. in a place where we can learn and practice it,
  3. and with enough free time and health to learn and practice it

is about as far as we need to take it.

9 Likes

I appreciate your answers a lot, thank you very much.

I notice that I’m hesitant to accept the possibility that Ven. Thanissaro is wrong with that view, because he is usually a very reliable source of insight, especially when it comes to the Pali canon, as opposed to conclusions based on the commentaries. But in this case I can’t find support for that understanding of that sutta elsewhere.

And, at the same time, I might need to accept that this is part of what the Buddha meant when he said that Kamma is an imponderable, and stop trying to understand the different causes behind events in the world, and focus on doing good deeds while trusting that it is for my long term benefit in some way I can’t know right now.

2 Likes

Here’s a sutta that might be helpful in which the Buddha teaches that Kamma is just one of eight possible causes of our experiences.

with metta,

1 Like

This is the very sutta I was referencing in my original post XD But thank you so much for contributing with an answer, anyway!

Metta to you, as well.

1 Like

I don’t see the point in seeing the difference here then, since both sides doesn’t mean predestination.

Anyway, here’s some of my personal understanding of kamma.

Say if events happens randomly, not necessary due to kamma. Kamma as mental imprints would have different people react differently to the same things. React here means mere feelings. As to what happens after feelings, from craving (likes or dislike) or mindfulness and other wholesome qualities, it depends on one’s present action and thus new kammas, therein lies the freedom to choose, in the now, present moment.

Eg. plane encounter a turbulence and people inside got an experience of going up and down. There’s 3 people as a case study,

  1. One of them is a kid, dunno the dangers of turbulence, and think it’s roller coster, having fun.
  2. Another is a survivor of a plane crash, she developed fear of flying but was forced to fly this time and is currently having a panic attack.
  3. Just beside her, is another survivor of plane crash, he developed gratitude for the extended lifespan he got and cherish each day as extra, doesn’t have fear of death and is able to remain calm and secure throughout the experience.

We can say that the kid had no past experiences conditioning fear of turbulence, but the other 2 has, yet, what’s important is how to deal with the experiences, one of them managed to put a positive thing to the experiences in life, another let it cripple her.

Overall, can we say either the turbulence is caused by the collective past kamma of all the passengers on board, or not? Maybe, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. What’s more important is the feelings is the result of past kamma, and the actions to deal with the feelings right now.

Actually, I just thought of a better example, of 3 prisoners who watched the TV, seeing a rapist who got caught and there’s overall cheer of the prisoners, and some are planning what to do to the rapist who dared to commit such evil crime.

Prisoner no. 1 didn’t go to jail because of rape, but due to say tax evasion, he didn’t felt any guilt due to the news, but is able to maintain equanimity, because he learned meditation from the visiting monks.

Prisoner no. 2 and 3 both went into jail because they raped. When they saw the news, their feelings are worse compared to the other prisoners, and when they heard what the others are planning to do to the new incoming rapist, they don’t feel like advertising their presence.

However, prisoner no. 3 had since learnt meditation from prisoner no. 1 and had repented, called the victim and their family to ask for forgiveness and forgave himself, taking the 5 precepts seriously to never repeat such a mistake again. He might feel unpleasant due to past kamma, but he also has present good kamma of keeping the precepts and being harmless, due to that confidence, he is not afraid of what the other prisoner’s plan for the incoming rapist. Forgiving oneself, he freed himself of guilt.

So in this second case study, it seems that the news as experience doesn’t seem to be related to past kamma, but the reactions of feelings is only there for those who had done past bad kamma. However, present good kamma can dilute the effects of past bad kamma.

2 Likes

The whole course with resources here … Karma & Rebirth Course (2015) – Wisdom & Wonders

To me the best way to approach this is remembering that the Buddhist idea of kamma / karma cannot be understood or considered independently of the idea of dependent origination.

Categorical statements such as the one that equates the six sense bases (five of which relate to the body) to old kamma in SN35.146 should be understood in that context.

Also, it is possible that such a categorical statement was made by the Buddha as an antithesis or synthesis to other existing points of view. In other words, it is part of a wider dialetical context.

And as a way to point his audience to the more profound and comprehensive framework of dependent origination.

If we don’t do so we are left with conflicting standpoints and possibly miss the insightful aspect of the statement.

If we look at the immediately comparable point of view of the Jains, for example, their concept of spiritual path is mostly based on submiting the body to pain.

To the jains, by pursuit of bodily pain the immortal soul (jiva) can shed off / destroy all karma around it and be set free and rise up to the ceiling/apex of the universe according to their cosmology (aka Siddhashila - Wikipedia).

In that case, the Buddha was making a statement that would call the attention of the followers of that path, only to then tell them that the reality of things is a bit more complex than just that.

People would hear that and think “yes, I agree with that” but then they would enquire further and understand that Buddha had redefined the idea of karma to something which is part of a more complex picture of dependent origination.

Eventually, once they realise that the Buddhist path is not about pursuing a way or method to destroy all kamma in the Jain sense but instead to cease the origination of it, they would come across the Buddhist concept of kamma that leads to the cessation of kamma (see AN4.237).

And when they got to that point they would be then presented to the eighfold path, which is defined by the Buddha in EBTs as consisting exactly to what the kamma that leads to the end of kamma is, as the very SN35.146 in which the Buddha says that the six sense bases / six sense fields are what old kamma consists of.

:anjal:

1 Like

Being reborn is vipaka. Kamma is an emotional reaction based on the 3 poisons. An Arahant, even though alive and acting in the world, is no longer generating emotion and kamma. However, they can still not escape their vipaka, like Maha Moggallana who was murdered by bandits because he wasn’t able to hide himself with supernormal powers. The reason he was killed by bandits is because he killed his parents in a previous life.

So kamma is an emotional reaction. Arahants don’t get sensual/lust, hatred or delusion/conceit perceptions so they are unable to emotionally react to the 3 poisons. Whereas everyone else must use effort and fight against the unwholesome perceptions that arise in their mind. If they lose the battle and react to those perceptions, then kamma is generated.

Also reactions to wholesome perceptions generate good karma, which is what brahma viharas is.

Sorry shouldnt the question is he was killed by bandits is because he killed those bandits in a previous life ?

No, the bandits were paid to kill him, they were greedy for money. I believe Maha Moggallana was also greedy for money in his previous life when he killed his parents.

He wanted to spare them such a fate by giving them time to reconsider and abstain from their crime. But their greed for the promised money was so great that they persisted and returned even on the seventh day. Then their persistence was “rewarded,” for on that seventh day Moggallana suddenly lost the magic control over his body. A heinous deed committed in days long past (by causing the death of his own parents) had not yet been expiated, and the ripening of that old Kamma confronted him now, just as others are suddenly confronted by a grave illness. Moggallana realized that he was now unable to escape. The brigands entered, knocked him down, smashed all his limbs and left him lying in his blood. Being keen on quickly getting their reward and also somewhat ill as ease about their dastardly deed, the brigands left at once, without a further look.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel263.html#ch8

If my memory serves me right, his parents didn’t like his wife and withheld money/dowry so moggallana tied them up and killed them, so they didn’t know it was their son killing them, it’s been a while since I read the story so I’m fuzzy on the details.

That story is regarded as being a later addition. So I don’t think it’s a good example of how the Buddha didn’t intend to explain everything in terms of kamma.

Sorry Arturo, I should have read your post more closely. That said, it appears to me the whole point of that sutta is to teach that not everything experienced is a result of kamma. So, I’m not sure why Ven. Thannisaro thinks it’s misinterpreted.

In light of the degree of free will we presumably have, the sutta makes sense, especially with respect to assault, which the Buddha indicates is one of the eight causes of experience. For example, there’s a story of an insane person striking Ajahn Cha during one of Ajahn’s talks. To me, it doesn’t make sense to say that Ajahn Cha’s kamma forced that insane person to punch him (Ajahn Cha). On the other hand, it does seem like the insane person’s kamma may have led him to strike Ajahn Cha. Ajahn Cha just seemed to caught in the flow of the other person’s kamma.

1 Like

It should be the other way around.

Kamma=action, vipaka= result.

Likely what Ajahn Chah experienced is a vipaka of his past kamma, whereas the past kamma of the insane person doesn’t dictate the insane’s person’s current action of hitting people.

Result is conditions, feelings, etc. The insanity condition maybe a vipaka, the choice of action (kamma) during insanity is unfortunate that it’s uncontrollable, but it’s not predetermined by the vipaka of insanity, but conditioned by it.

Results doesn’t determine the new kamma generated now, it conditions it at the most.

1 Like

This is very insightful, thank you very much. What is the teaching that you’ve learned? From these similes, and the story below about Ajahn Chah, I take it that your position on Kamma and Vipāka is that some things are results and other things are just random?

I like to have deep understanding of things, as much as possible, and as long as it is beneficial, but I’ll let this go after I am done with this thread :stuck_out_tongue: In line with what @Gabriel_L has posted regarding dependent origination, and calling to mind that other sutta about the origin of suffering (neither from others, nor oneself, nor both, nor neither, but from dependent origination), perhaps the beneficial thing to do is to focus on present Kamma and experience.

1 Like

I just have a long period of time attending a lot of dhamma talks, Dhamma camps, read books like “the workings of kamma” by Pa Auk etc. The example is more of my common sense notion. I have heard of kamma as mental imprints before, but also that clearly the pure psychological perspective is not enough to account for kamma across lifetimes.

1 Like

Everything can be explained as the result of Dependent Origination/ Codependent arising/ Dependent Conditionality/ Paticca Samupada (take your pick :joy:).

Kamma is only a secondary consequence of DO. It is DO and not Kamma that is the cornerstone of the Buddha’s philosophy.

The intricacies of Kamma are difficult to comprehend unless one is a fully awakened Buddha (which I am most certainly not!). This is precisely because phenomena arise based on conditionality (DO) and not causality (as a doctrine of Kamma would suggest). Multiple factors are necessary for Kamma to ripen. Personal factors such as conscious attention & craving are somewhat under voluntary control and so receive a lot of attention in the suttas. However, environmental factors such as Biology, Physical circumstances etc are also necessary.

IMO, the present condition of a Sentient Being in the current instant of the cosmos can be thought of as a snapshot representing the influence of all possible conditioning factors, similar to how the current price of a Stock reflects everything about that stock in the present moment. The actions of the company will produce changes in the stock price, just as a person’s actions will produce changes in his personal situation within the cosmos. We can identify trends, wherein successive actions build upon each other. Certainly if a stock is highly priced as of now, we can infer that good actions must have been done in the past. But one should be wary of extrapolating such trends! Environmental factors also play a part. A sudden change in government policy for example can unduly affect the stock price just as surely as the King’s actions can elevate a murderer to a high position, just because he killed the King’s enemy.

3 Likes

Thanks Venerable for responding. You helped me take a closer look at kamma:-)

Perhaps it’s true that the insane’s person kamma didn’t cause him to hit Ajahn Cha. That seems unlikely, however, After being struck, Ajahn Cha said something to the effect that person had no mindfulness. Not being mindful seems to be likely result of the insane person’s past kamma and less likely the ripening of Ajahn Cha’s kamma. So, it still seems possible that the assault was the primary cause of the event rather than Ajahn Cha’s kamma.

That said, echoing @faujidoc1 good points regarding dependent origination versus kamma, it seems impossible to know all the conditions and streams of kamma involved in that event. I was just trying to give an example that seemed to fit the sutta previously mentioned where the Buddha says that assault is among the eight causes of experiences, with kamma just being one of them.

with metta,

1 Like

Did the Buddha ever taught of collective past kamma ? If my memory correct , Buddha never taught it according to bhante dhammanando .