The emphasis on karma (kamma) in Early Buddhism was upon a series of factors that comprise the very angst of life: individualistic, sociological, and psychological components all constitute early doctrinal factors resulting in karmic-effect. Essentially, Kamma referred to what an individual inherits from oneself in some previous form of existence—not what one inherits from their ancestors. Hence, the Buddha and his sages declared that it was not so much [the action] itself, but rather the exclusive-intentional willing of the individual that is of decisive significance in determining karmic consequences. This Buddhaic-teaching had a two pronged effect upon disciples: one became remorseful over their karmic-[intent] because the wrong they committed could never be [undone]:
Yet where deeds are performed intentionally, their fruition in time is inexorable. Sutta Nipāta 666 declares that man’s kamma is never lost (na nassati); it comes back to haunt him. In a similar vein, A 5.292 strongly denies that intentional (sancetanika) deeds can be wiped out once accumulated, unless their result is first experienced, in either this state of existence or another. That kamma should not work itself out is as much an impossibility as that the mortal should not die. *Not even Brahma, on the one hand, and Mara, on the other, are able to delay the inexorable fruition of deeds in due time. (James P. McDermott, Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism.)
[The other resource for this blog is McDermott’s book, Development in the Early Concept of Kamma/Karma]
*The same could be said concerning all divine agencies being unable to wipe-out karma. Even the Great God Jehovah can only obstruct it, but never dissolve it away.
The second effect is that they would abstain from all further evil, in order to avoid estrangement from the Buddha as well as being able to avoid the need for remorse in the future. This leads us to the main focus of this blog and that is final cessation of all karma, kammanirodha. This was the main hope, for in Buddhism this occurs through a direct intuitive realization of nirvana.
The roots for this occurs within man himself, for he creates his own karma, for it is the product of his own thought. As the great Dhammapada teaches:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of him who draws the carriage. But if a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
Thus the Lankavatarian adage: What the mind focuses on determines its reality. Hence the Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn states, under the section, “Thought”:
What the mind focuses on
determines its reality.
The radiant Unborn Mind Essence
antecedes as well as reflects the
nature of phenomenal form; this
super-essential Light is the radiance
of our Original Nature, like divinity
Our corruptible form-nature, which
includes all impurities of speech,
etc, is also made manifest in and
through the self-same sweetness of
Trouble and misery will continue to
plague and carry you away like the
incessant spinning and suffering
wheel (dependent origination) of
samsara, one that vainly follows the
tail of causal reality and rebirth.
When the mind is quiet and serene
after Recollecting ITs True Nature,
thoughts of clarity will result as
revealed through that self-same
Essence; hence blissfulness will
follow you like a deathless shadow.
So it follows suit that within Buddhism, the real significance of the doctrine of karma and its fruits lies in the recognition of the urgency to put a stop to the whole process.
The Mahakammavibhahgasutta provides further definition of the way in which kamma inevitably works itself out. In this sutta Gotama rejects the view that everyone who kills, lies, steals, and so forth will be reborn in an undesirable state. Indeed, he holds that some such individuals may even be reborn in a heavenly realm. Similarly, not everyone who refrains from immoral acts will be reborn in a good course. The sutta goes on to explain how this view can be reconciled with belief in the inevitable working out of the effects of kamma: practical experience shows us that in their lifetimes individuals are capable of doing both good and evil deeds. Moreover, depending on the circumstances, actions may come to fruition either here and now or in some future state. Thus the effect of a comparatively weak deed (duhbalakamma) may be superseded by the effect of a comparatively strong deed (halavakamma) or by the accumulated effects of a series of deeds. This means that although an individual may have been a murderer, a liar, and so forth, on death he may nonetheless arise in a pleasant state if the effects of his accumulated good deeds are sufficient to supersede the results of his wrong doing. The fruits of the deeds which have thus been superseded will then be experienced once the fruits of the deeds which have superseded them have been exhausted. (McDermott, ibid)
McDermott further expounds upon kammanirodha itself:
In addition to present and past kamma, the Buddha also speaks of kammanirodha (literally cessation of action). Kammanirodha involves both the exhaustion of past deleterious kamma and the avoidance of further action which may prove deleterious in the long run. The way that is said to lead to such cessation of action is the *noble eightfold path. The fact that such a way to kammanirodha exists, even though the past may belong to Mara, is a clear indication of the recognition of human free will. The question of free will is not one that is explicitly asked in the Pali canon, however. Rather, belief in the existence of free will is implicit in the notion of human responsibility, an idea which is closely connected with the whole Buddhist concept of kamma. (McDermott, ibid)
When a Noble Disciple understands kamma, the origin of kamma, the variety of kamma, the resultant of kamma, the cessation of kamma and the practice leading to the cessation of kamma, then he fully understands the noble practice which leads to the complete destruction of defilements and final cessation of kamma.
As an aside it’s interesting to note that the Jaina tradition conceived of karma as something like dust which sticks to the soul (jīva). The road to liberation consisted in the gradual removal of all of this dust until the purified soul, free from the last traces of karma, rises to the highest level of the universe.
McDermott also expounds upon the notion of cetanā that was described in our opening blog of this series:
…the early Buddhist understanding of kamma of what has often been translated as “volition,” namely, cetanā. Kamma is virtually defined as cetanā: “I say, monks, that cetanā is kamma; having intended (cetayitvā), one does a deed by body, word, or thought.” In the words of Herbert V. Guenther:
“Cetanā, to state it plainly, is something that corresponds to our idea of stimulus, motive, or drive. Especially this latter concept of drive, as a stimulus arousing persistent mass activity, assists in explaining the origin of activity as well as that which is excitated and is forthwith active. That which is aroused to activity is the sum total of all potentialities.” (Herbert V. Guenther, Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma.)
In other words, cetanā is not a matter of will alone, but also involves the impulse or drive to carry through with what is intended. Deliberate intention to do a deed plays an essential role in determining the ethical quality of that deed. Thus, a person who commits accidental manslaughter is not subject to kammic consequences as serious as those suffered by the perpetrator of a premeditated murder. (McDemott, ibid)
Hence it cannot be overemphasized enough in this series that the wily ol’ skandha, volition, is at the heart of all karmic consequences. And it is the act of grasping that sets it into motion. So the word karma is used here to denote volitional acts which find expression in thought, speech or physical deeds, which are good or evil or [a mixture of both] and are liable to induce consequences, which partly determine the good or evil of these acts. Vasubandhu reinforces this volitional affair:
Vasubandhu goes beyond any of the texts of the Theravada Tipiṭaka in making clear in practical terms which acts fall into the undefined category. The Buddha is taken as the final authority in this matter. Any act of which the Buddha did not say that it was either good or bad, writes Vasubandhu, is undefined, or ethically neutral (avyākṛta). This means that any act done without grasping and which was neither specifically enjoined nor prohibited by the Buddha may be classed as avyākṛta. Thus the acts of everyday existence are undefined, so long as they are done without grasping (tṛṣṇā). [Emphasis mine]
McDermott also emphasizes the individual-nature of karma:
Throughout much of the Pali canon there is a strong emphasis on the personal nature of kamma. One’s kamma is said to be his own. Each being must be an island unto himself, working out his own salvation. No sponsor (pāṭihhoga)—whether Brahmin or recluse, whether Brahma or Mara—can protect a man against the fruit of his evil deeds. (McDermott, ibid)
This reinforces a fundamental of what it means to be a Buddhist. The Blessed One said, “Be an Island unto yourself”. There is no “personal savior” here. One is exclusively responsible for one’s own actions and will pay a karmic penalty for the consequences of those volitional acts. In light of this the effectiveness of any Vedic sacrifice discussed in the last blog is denied.
The Buddha also rejected self-mortification as a means to acquiring good kamma, and as a way to Nibbāna. In his own quest for enlightenment, he came to realize that austerities can be more of a hindrance than an aid. In their stead he came to favor a middle path between self-mortification and the life devoted to sensual pleasures. For all the attention given to kamma in early Buddhist thought, the way to Nibbāna, the ultimate goal, remained—as ordinarily conceived—precisely the cessation of kamma (kammanirodha).