A Refuge in Skillful Action
Is human action real or illusory? If real, is it effective? If it is effective, does one have a choice in what one does? If one has a choice, can one choose to act in a way that will lead to genuine happiness? If so, what is that way? These are questions that lie at the heart of the way we conduct our lives. The way we answer them will determine whether we look for happiness through our own abilities, seek happiness through outside help, or abandon the quest for a higher-than-ordinary happiness altogether.
These questions were precisely the ones that led Siddhattha Gotama—the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be—to undertake his quest for awakening. He felt that there was no honor, no value in life, if true happiness could not be found through one’s own efforts. Thus he put his life on the line to see how far human effort could go. Eventually he found that effort, skillfully applied, could lead to an awakening to the Deathless. The lessons he learned about action and effort in the course of developing that skill, and which were confirmed by the experience of his awakening, formed the basis of his doctrine of kamma (in Sanskrit: karma). This doctrine lies at the heart of his teaching, and forms the essence of the Triple Refuge. Put briefly, it states that action is real, effective, and the result of one’s own choice. If one chooses to act skillfully and works to develop that skill, one’s actions can lead to happiness, not only on the ordinary sensory level, but also on a level that transcends all the dimensions of time and the present. To understand this doctrine and get a sense of its full implications, we must first have some background on how the Buddha arrived at it. This will help us to see how kamma can act as a refuge, and what kind of refuge it provides.
People often believe that the Buddha simply picked up the doctrine of kamma from his environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. Northern India at his time was a place of great intellectual activity, and—as science made new advances and called many of the old, established beliefs into question—all of the great philosophical and religious issues of human life were up for grabs. The foremost science at that time was astronomy. New, precise observations of planetary movements, combined with new advances in mathematics, had led astronomers to conclude that time was measured in eons, incomprehensibly long cycles that repeat themselves endlessly. Philosophers of the time tried to work out the implications of this vast temporal frame for the drama of human life and the quest for ultimate happiness. These philosophers fell into two broad camps: those who conducted their speculations within the traditions of the Vedas, orthodox religious and ritual texts; and other, unorthodox groups, called the Samanas (contemplatives), who questioned the authority of the Vedas.
By the time of Siddhattha Gotama, philosophers of the Vedic and Samana schools had developed widely differing views of the laws of nature and how they affected the pursuit of true happiness. Their main points of disagreement were two:
1) Personal identity. Most Vedic and Samana philosophers assumed that a person’s identity extended beyond this lifetime, eons before birth back into the past, and after death on into the future. There was some disagreement, however, as to whether one’s identity from life to life would change or remain the same. The Vedas had viewed rebirth in a positive light, but by the time of Prince Siddhattha the influence of the newly discovered astronomical cycles had led those who believed in rebirth to regard the cycles as pointless and confining, and release as the only possibility for true happiness. There was, however, a Samana school of hedonist materialists, called Lokayatans, who denied the existence of any identity beyond death and insisted that happiness could be found only by indulging in sensual pleasures here and now.
2) Action and causality. The ancient Vedas had formulated a doctrine of kamma, or action, which stated that correctly performed actions played a causal role in providing for one’s happiness in the life after death. The primary actions recognized by these texts, though, were ritualistic: ritually performed sacrifices, often involving the slaughter of animals, and gifts to priests. To be effective, the ritual actions had to be correctly performed. This concern for correct performance led the Vedists to compose ritual manuals prescribing in minute detail the proper things to do and say in the course of their rituals. They even included special chants and spells to compensate for any inadvertent mistakes in the course of a particular ritual, so great was their conviction that the quality of an act depend on its physical expression.
The Samana schools rejected the Vedic teachings on kamma, but for a variety of different reasons. One set of Samana schools, called the Ajivakas, asserted that an individual’s actions were not in the least bit responsible for the course of his/her life. One branch of the Ajivakas taught that all action in the cosmos is illusory, as the only truly existing things are the unchanging substances of which the cosmos is made. Thus there is no such thing as right or wrong, good or evil, for in the ultimate sense there is no such thing as action.
Another branch of the Ajivakas taught that action was real but totally subject to fate: deterministic causal laws that left no room for free will. Thus they insisted that release from the round of rebirth came only when the round worked itself out. Peace of mind could be found by accepting one’s fate and patiently waiting for the cycle, like a ball of string unwinding, to come to its end. Although these two positions derived from two very different pictures of the cosmos, they both led to the same conclusion: Good and evil were illusory social conventions, human beings were not responsible for their acts, and human action had no role in shaping one’s experience of the cosmos.
The Lokayatans came to a similar conclusion, but for different reasons. They agreed with the Vedists that physical action was real but they maintained that it bore no results. There was no way to observe any invariable cause-effect relationship between events, they said; as a result, all events were spontaneous and self-caused. This meant that human actions had no consequences, and thus there were no such things as good and evil because no action could have a good or evil effect on anything else. They concluded that one could safely ignore moral rules in one’s pursuit of sensual pleasure, and would be a fool to deny oneself immediate gratification of one’s desires whenever the opportunity appeared.
Another school, the Jains, accepted the Vedic premise that one’s actions shaped one’s experience of the cosmos, but they differed from the Vedas in the way they conceived of action. All action, according to them, was a form of violence. The more violent the act, the more it produced effluents, conceived as sticky substances that bound the soul to the round of rebirth. Thus they rejected the Vedic assertion that ritual sacrifice produced good kamma, for the violence involved in killing the sacrificial animals was actually a form of very sticky bad kamma. In their eyes, the only way to true happiness was to escape the round of kamma entirely. This was to be done by violence against themselves: various forms of self-torture that were supposed to burn away the effluents, the “heat” of pain being a sign that the effluents were burning. At the same time, they tried to create as little new kamma as possible. This practice would culminate in total abstinence from physical action, resulting in suicide by starvation, the theory being that if old kamma were completely burned away, and no new kamma created, there would be no more effluents to bind the soul to the cosmos. Thus the soul would be released.
Despite the differences between the Vedic and Jain views of action, they shared some important similarities: Both believed that the physical performance of an action, rather than the mental attitude behind it, determined its kammic result. And, both saw kamma as acting under deterministic, linear laws. Kamma performed in the present would not bear fruit until the future, and the relationship between a particular action and its result was predictable and fixed.
These divergent viewpoints on the nature of action formed the backdrop for the Bodhisatta’s quest for ultimate happiness. On the one side stood the Ajivakas and Lokayatans, who insisted for various reasons that human action was ineffective: either non-existent, chaotic, or totally pre-determined. On the other side stood the Vedic and Jain thinkers, who taught that physical action was effective, but that it was subject to deterministic and linear laws, and could not lead to true happiness beyond the round of rebirth. The Buddha’s position on kamma broke from both sides of the issue, largely because he approached the question from a radically new direction.
THE PRINCIPLE OF SKILLFUL ACTION
Instead of arguing from abstract science, the Bodhisatta focused directly on the level of immediate experience and explored the implications of truths that both sides overlooked. Instead of fixing on the content of the views expressed, he considered the actions of those who were expressing the views. If views of determinism and total chaos were followed to their logical end, there would be no point in purposeful action, and yet the proponents of both theories continued to act in purposeful ways. If only physical acts bore consequences, there would be no point in teaching a proper understanding of the nature of action—for the mental act of understanding, right or wrong, would have no consequences—and yet all sides agreed that it was important to understand reality in the right way. The fact that each side insisted that the other used unskillful forms of observation and argumentation to advance its views implied that mental skills were crucial in determining the truth. Thus the Bodhisatta looked directly at skillful mental action in and of itself, followed its implications in developing knowledge itself as a skill—rather than as a body of facts—and found that those implications carried him all the way to release.
The most basic lesson he learned was that mental skills can be developed. As one of the Pali discourses notes, he found that thoughts imbued with passion, aversion, and delusion were harmful; thoughts devoid of these qualities were not harmful; and he could shepherd his thoughts in such a way to avoid harm. The fact that he could develop this skill meant that mental action is not illusory, that it actually gives results. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as skill, for no actions would be more effective than others. The fact of skillfulness also implies that some results are preferable to others, for otherwise there would be no point in trying to develop skills. In addition, the fact that it is possible to learn from mistakes in the course of developing a skill—so that one’s future actions may be more skillful—implies that the cycle of action, result, and reaction is not entirely deterministic. Acts of perception, attention, and intention can actually provide new input as the cycle goes through successive turns.
The important element in this input is attention. Anyone who has mastered a skill will realize that the process of attaining mastery requires attention to three things: (1) to pre-existing conditions, (2) to what one is doing in relation to those conditions, and (3) to the results that come from one’s actions. This threefold focus enables one to monitor one’s actions and adjust them accordingly. In this way, attention to conditions, actions, and effects allows the results of an action to feed back into future action, thus allowing for refinement in one’s skill.
In the first stage of his practice, the Bodhisatta refined the skillfulness of his mind until it reached a state of jhana, or concentrated mental absorption, marked by perfect equanimity and mindfulness. The question that occurred at that point was how much further the principle of skillful action could be applied. Did intentional action directly or indirectly explain all experience in the world, or only some of it? If all of it, could the same principle be used to gain escape from the suffering inherent in the world, or were the Jains right in saying that action could only keep one bound to the cycle of suffering?
As the texts tell us, the Bodhisatta’s first attempt to answer these questions was to direct his mind—now stable, bright, clear, and malleable—to knowledge of previous lifetimes. If it were true that he had been born before, his actions from past lives might explain experiences in this life—such as the circumstances into which he was born—for which no actions in this life could account. He found that he could indeed remember previous lives, many thousands of them: what he had been born as, where, what his experience of pleasure and pain, how he had died and then experienced rebirth as something else.
This first insight, however, did not fully answer his question. He needed to know if kamma was indeed the principle that shaped life, not only in terms of the narrative of his own lives, but also as a cosmic principle effecting the lives of all beings. So he directed his mind to knowledge of the passing away and arising of beings throughout the cosmos, and found that he could indeed see beings dying and gaining rebirth, that the pleasure and pain of their new lives was shaped by the quality of their kamma, and the kamma in turn was dependent on the views that gave rise to it. Right views—believing that good kamma, based on skillful intentions, gave rise to happiness—lay behind good kamma, while wrong views—not believing these principles—lay behind bad.
Even this second insight, however, didn’t fully answer his question. To begin with, there was no guarantee that the visions providing this knowledge were true or complete. And, even if they were, they did not tell whether there was a form of right view that would underlie a level of skillful kamma that would lead, not simply to a pleasant rebirth within the cycle of rebirth, but to release from the cycle altogether.
Here was where the Bodhisatta turned to look again at the events in the mind, in and of themselves in the present, and in particular at the process of developing of skillfulness, to see if it offered any clues as to what a right view leading out of the cycle of rebirth might be. As we noted above, the process of skillfulness implies two things: a non-linear principle of cause and effect, involving feedback loops to allow for greater skillfulness; and the fact that some results are preferable to others. The Bodhisatta used these principles, in their most basic form, to divide experience into four categories based on two sets of variables: cause and effect on one hand, and stress and its cessation on the other. He then dropped the categories in which the first two knowledges had been expressed. In other words, he dropped the sense of “self” and “others” in which the narrative of the first knowledge had been expressed; and the sense of “beings” inhabiting a “world” in which the cosmology of the second knowledge had been expressed. In his place, he analyzed experience in categories empty of those concepts, simply in terms of the direct experience of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path of mental factors leading to its cessation.
In the first round of this new insight, he was able to identify each of these categories: stress, in ultimate terms, was attachment to anything that might be identified as a “self.” The cause of stress was craving, which in turn was based on ignorance about the true nature of stress. The cessation of stress was the total abandoning of craving, while the path to the cessation of stress was a cluster of eight factors: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In the second round of this insight, he realized the duties that had to be performed with regard to each of these categories. Stress was to be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path developed.
He then pursued those duties until the mental powers of the path were so fully developed that stress was totally comprehended. This meant that there were no more objects on which craving could land, and so it was naturally abandoned. Thus in the third round of this insight he realized that the duties with regard to all four truths had been fulfilled. At that point there was nothing further for the mind to do—there was nothing more it could do in these terms. Right view and concentration—the mental qualities lying at the heart of the path—had done such a thorough job of ferreting out stress and craving that, as their final act, they detected the subtle stress and craving inherent in the act of right view and right concentration themselves. Thus, as its final act, the mind let go even of these path factors, just as a carpenter would let go of his tools when they had finished their job.
As a result, all present mental input into the processes of experience naturally came to a halt in a state of non-fashioning. This state opened onto an experience of total liberation, called Unbinding (nibbana; in Sanskrit, nirvana). Realizing that this Unbinding was the total cessation of suffering and of the processes of death and rebirth as generated in the mind, the Bodhisatta, now the Buddha, knew that his questions had been answered. Skillful action, based on right view in the form of the four categories based around stress—which he termed the four noble truths—could indeed bring about a total happiness free from the limitations of birth, aging, illness, and death.
THE TEACHING OF RIGHT VIEW
The texts tell us that the Buddha spent the first seven weeks after his awakening experiencing that happiness and freedom. Then he decided to teach the way to that happiness to others. His teachings were based on the three insights that had led to his own experience of awakening. Because right view lay at the heart of his analysis of kamma and the way out of kamma, his teachings focused in particular on the two forms of right view that he learned in the course of those insights: the form he learned in the second insight, which led to a favorable rebirth; and the form he learned in the third insight, which led out from the cycle of death and rebirth once and for all.
The first level of right view the Buddha termed mundane right view. He expressed it in these terms:
“There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits and results of good and bad actions. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are contemplatives and brahmans who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.”
This passage means that there is merit in generosity; that the moral qualities of good and bad are inherent in the universe, and not simply social conventions; that there is life after death; that one has a true moral debt to one’s parents; and that there are people who have lived the renunciate’s life properly in such a way that they have gained true and direct knowledge of these matters. These beliefs form the minimum prerequisite for following the path of skillful action that will lead to happy results within the cycle of rebirth. Thus this might be termed right view for the purpose of a happy rebirth.
The second level of right view, which the Buddha termed transcendent right view, he expressed simply as:
“Knowledge in terms of stress, knowledge in terms of the origination of stress, knowledge in terms of the cessation of stress, knowledge in terms of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress.”
In other words, this level of right view consists of knowledge in terms of the four noble truths, and might be called right view for the purpose of escaping from rebirth altogether.
Just as the third insight grew out of the first two insights, the second level of right view grows out of the first. Its purpose is impossible to fathom if taken outside of the context of mundane good and bad kamma and their good and bad results. Together, the two levels of right view provide a complete and complementary picture of the nature of kamma as viewed from two different perspectives. The first level views kamma as a cosmic principle at work in the narrative of each individual’s many lives. The second form views kamma as a principle at work in the present moment, approached from a frame of mind empty of the categories of self and other, being and non-being, which lie at the essence of narratives and cosmologies.
To see how these two levels of right view complement one another in shaping the form and content of the Buddha’s teachings, we can look at his most common mode of presenting his teachings: the “graduated discourse” (anupubbi-katha), beginning with the principle of good and bad kamma and gradually building up through the topics of generosity, virtue, heaven, drawbacks, and renunciation, ending with the topic of the four noble truths. There were several reasons for this gradual approach, but primarily they came down to the fact that the four truths were too abstract to appear immediately relevant, and the goal of escape from rebirth made no sense unless viewed in the proper context. The role of the graduated discourse was to provide that sense of relevance and context.
Starting with the first level of right view, the Buddha would describe good actions under two main categories: generosity and virtue. Together, the two categories could be stretched to cover almost any type of good physical, verbal, or mental deeds. For example, generosity covers not only the giving of material gifts, but also generosity with one’s time, knowledge, gratitude, and forgiveness. Virtue begins with the five precepts—against killing, stealing, illicit sex, lying, and taking intoxicants—includes prohibitions against five forms of wrong livelihood—selling slaves, intoxicants, poisons, weapons, and animals to be killed for food—and goes on to cover abstention from all forms of harmful behavior. Thus good behavior, taken under the categories of generosity and virtue, means both refraining from harmful behavior and performing actions that are beneficial.
Having described good actions, the Buddha would describe their rewards, as results of the cosmic principle of kamma. The rewards here include both those visible in this world and those to be anticipated in the next. The Buddhist texts contain glowing descriptions both of the sense of well-being in the immediate present that results from good actions, and of the exquisite pleasures that rebirth in heaven entails. Implicit in these descriptions is the dark side of the principle of kamma: the inherent punishments that come from bad behavior, again both in this world and in the next: in the various levels of hell and other lower births—such as a common animal—and again in this world on one’s return to the human state.
However—because finite actions can’t produce infinite results—the rewards of kamma, good or bad, are not eternal. This point led naturally to the next topic in the discourse: the drawbacks of the cycle of rebirth as a whole. No happiness within the cycle is permanent; even the most refined heavenly pleasures must end when the force of one’s good kamma ends, and one is forced to return to the rough and tumble of lower realms of being. The changeability of the mind lying behind the creation of kamma means that the course of an individual’s life through the realms of rebirth is not necessarily ever upward. In fact, as the Buddha saw from his remembrance of his own lives, the course leading from one rebirth to another is filled with aimless ups and downs, like a stick thrown into the air: sometimes landing on this end, sometimes on the other end, sometimes in the middle. The amount of suffering and stress suffered in the course of these many throws is more than can be measured.
These considerations led naturally to the next topic of the discourse: renunciation. Having realized the fleeting nature of even the most refined pleasures in the round of rebirth, the sensitive listener would be prepared to look favorably on the idea of renouncing any aspiration for happiness within the round, and cultivating the path to release. The texts compare this mental preparation to the act of washing a cloth so that it would be ready to take dye. This was when the Buddha would take the listener beyond the level of mundane right view and broach the transcendent level.
The texts describing the steps of the graduated discourse describe this step simply as “the teaching special to the Buddhas: stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path,” i.e., the four noble truths. However, the four noble truths are simply one out of three interrelated versions of transcendent right view taught in the texts: (1) this/that conditionality (idappaccayata), (2) dependent co-arising (paticca samuppada), and (3) the four noble truths (ariya sacca). In order to gain a full picture of the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of kamma, we should look at all three.
The most basic version of right view is simply the causal principle of feedback loops that the Buddha found in the process of developing skillful action. He called this principle “this/that conditionality” because it explains experience in terms that are immediately present to awareness—events that can be pointed to in the mind as “this” or “that”—rather than principles hidden from awareness. He expressed this principle in a simple-looking formula:
“(1) When this is, that is.
(2) From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
(3) When this isn’t, that isn’t.
(4) From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.”
Of the many possible ways of interpreting this formula, only one does justice both to the way the formula is worded and to the complex, fluid manner in which specific examples of causal relationships are described in the texts. That way is to view the formula as the interplay of two causal principles: one diachronic, acting over time; and the other synchronic, acting in a single instant of time. The two principles combine to form a non-linear pattern. The diachronic principle—taking (2) and (4) as a pair—connects events over time; the synchronic principle—(1) and (3)—connects objects and events in the present moment. The two principles intersect, so that any given event is influenced by two sets of conditions: input from the past and input from the present.
Although each principle seems simple, their interaction makes their consequences very complex. To begin with, every act has repercussions in the present moment together with reverberations extending into the future. Depending on the intensity of the act, these reverberations can last for a very short or a very long time. Thus every event takes place in a context determined by the combined effects of past events coming from a wide range in time, together with the effects of present acts. These effects can intensify one another, can coexist with little interaction, or can cancel one another out. Thus, even though it is possible to predict that a certain type of act will tend to give a certain type of result—for example, acting on anger will lead to pain—there is no way to predict when or where that result will make itself felt.
The complexity of the system is further enhanced by the fact that both causal principles meet at the mind. Through its views and intentions, the mind keeps both principles active. Through its sensory powers, it is affected by the results of the causes it has set in motion. This allows for the causal principles to feed back into themselves, as the mind reacts to the results of its own actions. These reactions can form positive feedback loops, intensifying the original input and its results, much like the howl in a speaker placed next to the microphone feeding into it. They can also create negative feedback loops, counteracting the original input, in the same way that a thermostat turns off a heater when the temperature in a room is too high, and turns it on again when it gets too low. Because the results of actions can be immediate, and the mind can react to them immediately, these feedback loops can sometimes quickly spin out of control; at other times, they may provide skillful checks on one’s behavior.
For example, a man may act out of anger, which gives him an immediate sense of dis-ease to which he may react with further anger, thus creating a snowballing effect. On the other hand, he may come to understand that the anger is causing his dis-ease, and so immediately attempt to stop it. However, there can also be times when the results of his past actions may obscure his present dis-ease, so that he doesn’t immediately react to it at all. This means that, although there are general patterns relating habitual acts to their results, there is no set one-for-one, tit-for-tat, relationship between a particular action and its results. Instead, the results are determined by the entire context of the act, shaped by the actions that preceded or followed it, and by one’s state of mind at the time of acting or experiencing the result.
In this way, the combination of two causal principles—influences from the past interacting with those in the immediate present—accounts for the complexity of causal relationships on the level of immediate experience. However, the combination of the two principles also opens the possibility for finding a systematic way to break the causal web. If causes and effects were entirely linear, the cosmos would be totally deterministic, and nothing could be done to escape from the machinations of the causal process. If they were entirely synchronic, there would be no relationship from one moment to the next, and all events would be arbitrary. The web could break down totally or reform spontaneously for no reason at all. However, with the two modes working together, one can learn from causal patterns observed from the past and apply one’s insights to disentangling the same causal patterns acting in the present. If one’s insights are true, one can then gain freedom from those patterns. This allows for escape from the cycle of kamma altogether by developing kamma at a heightened level of skill by pursuing the noble eightfold path.
In addition, the non-linearity of this/that conditionality explains why heightened skillfulness, when focused on the present moment, can succeed in leading to the end of the kamma that has formed the experience of the entire cosmos. All non-linear processes exhibit what is called scale invariance, meaning that the behavior of the process on any one scale is similar to its behavior on smaller or larger scales. To understand, say, the large-scale pattern of a particular non-linear process, one need only focus on its behavior on a smaller scale that is easier to observe, and one will see the same pattern at work. In the case of kamma, one need only focus on the process of kamma in the immediate present, in the course of developing heightened skillfulness, and the large-scale issues over the expanses of space and time will become clear as one gains release from them.
The teaching on dependent co-arising helps to provide more detailed instructions on this point, showing precisely where the cycle of kamma provides openings for more skillful present input. In doing so, it both explains the importance of the act of attention in developing heightened skillfulness, and acts as a guide for focusing attention on present experience in appropriate ways.
Dependent co-arising shows how the cosmos, when viewed in the context of how it is directly experienced by a person developing skillfulness, is subsumed entirely under factors immediately present to awareness: the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental fabrication, and consciousness, and the six sense media—i.e., the five senses plus the mind. The standard list of causal factors runs as follows: the suffering and stress of aging, illness, and death depend on birth; birth in turn depends on becoming; and so on down through clinging, craving, feeling, sensory contact, the six senses, name and form (mental and physical phenomena), sensory consciousness, mental fabrications, and ignorance. Although the list reads like a linear pattern, the precise definitions of the terms show that it is filled with many feedback loops. Because it is non-linear, it thus functions on several scales: “Birth,” for instance, refers both to the birth of a physical organism and to the birth of a sense of being in the mind.
Included in this list is the Buddha’s ultimate analysis of kamma and rebirth. For instance, the nexus of kamma, clinging, becoming, and birth accounts for the realm in which birth takes place. Kamma (covered under the factors of name and form) gives rise to the five aggregates, which form the objects for craving and clinging. Once there is clinging, there is a “coming-into-being” in any of three realms: the sensual realm, the realm of form, and the formless realm. These realms refer not only to levels of being on the cosmic scale, but also to levels of mental states. Some mental states are concerned with sensual images, others with forms, and still others with formless abstractions.
The relationship between birth and becoming can be compared to the process of falling asleep and dreaming. As drowsiness leads the mind to lose contact with waking reality, a dream image of another place and time will appear in it. The appearance of this image is called becoming. The act of entering into this image and taking on a role or identity within it—and thus entering the world of the dream and falling asleep—is birth. The commentaries to the Pali texts maintain that precisely the same process is what enables rebirth to follow the death of the body. At the same time, the analogy between falling asleep and taking birth explains why release from the cycle of becoming is called awakening.
Once there is birth in a particular realm, the nexus of name-and-form with consciousness accounts for the arising and survival of the active organism within that realm. Without consciousness, the mental and physical organism would die. Without the mental and physical organism, consciousness would have no place to land and develop. This nexus also explains the feedback loops that can lead to skillful action. “Name” includes the sub-factors of attention, intention, feeling, perception, and contact, which are precisely the factors at work in the process of kamma and its result.
The first lesson of skillfulness is that the essence of an action lies in the intention motivating it: an act motivated by the intention for greater skillfulness will give results different from those of an act motivated by greed, aversion, or delusion. Intention, in turn, is influenced by the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the act of attention to one’s circumstances. The less an act of attention is clouded by delusion, the more clearly it will see things in appropriate terms. The combination of attention and intention in turn determines the quality of the feeling and the physical events (“form”) that result from the act. The more skilled the action, the more refined these results will be. Perceptions arise with regard to those results, some more appropriate than others. The act of attention selects which ones to focus on, thus feeding back into another round in the cycle of action. Underlying the entire cycle is the fact that all its factors are in contact with consciousness.
This interplay of name, form, and consciousness provides an answer to the quandary of how the stress and suffering inherent in the cycle of action can be ended. If one tried simply to stop the cycle through a direct intention, the intention itself would count as kamma, and thus as a factor to keep the cycle going. This double bind can be dissolved, however, if one can watch as the contact between consciousness and the cycle naturally falls away. This requires, not inaction, but more and more appropriate attention to the process of kamma itself. When one’s attention to and mastery of the process becomes fully complete, there occurs a point of equipoise called “non-fashioning” (atammayata), in which the contact between the processes of kamma and consciousness—still fully conscious—naturally becomes disengaged. One modern teacher has compared this disengagement to that of a fruit naturally falling, when fully ripened, from the tree. This is how the cycle of action comes to an end in the moment of awakening.
As this analysis shows, the most important obstacle to release is the ignorance that keeps attention from being fully perceptive. As the Buddha traced the element of ignorance that underlay the processes of mental fabrication, he found that it came down to ignorance of the four noble truths: the identity of the truths, the duties appropriate to each, and the mastery of those duties. When this ignorance is fully overcome, the craving that keeps the cycle going will have nothing to fasten on, for all its possible objects are seen for what they are: suffering and stress. With no place to land, craving disappears, and the cycle can come to an end.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
Because knowledge in terms of the four noble truths is what ends ignorance and craving, the Buddha most often expressed transcendent right view in their terms. These truths focus the analysis of kamma directly on the question of stress and suffering: issues at the heart of the narratives that people make of their own life experiences. As the Buddha noted in his second insight, his memory of previous lives included his experience of pleasure and pain in each life, and most people—when recounting their own lives—tend to focus on these issues as well.
The four truths, however, do not stop simply with tales about stress: they approach it from the problem-solving perspective of a person engaged in developing a skill. What this means for the meditator trying to master heightened skillfulness is that these truths cannot be fully comprehended by passive observation. Only by participating sensitively in the process of developing skillful powers of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment—and gaining a practical feel for the relationship of cause and effect among the mental factors that shape that process—can one eradicate the ignorance that obstructs the ending of kamma. Thus, only through developing skillfulness to the ultimate degree can the cycle be brought to equilibrium and, as a result, disband.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF UNBINDING
The truth of the Buddha’s understanding of the processes of kamma—as informed by this/that conditionality, dependent co-arising, and the four noble truths—was confirmed by the knowledge of Unbinding that followed immediately on his mastery of heightened skillfulness. He found that when skillfulness is intentionally brought to a point of full consummation, as expressed in the direct awareness of this/that conditionality, it leads to a state of non-fashioning that opens to a level of consciousness in which all experience of the cosmos has fallen away. When one’s experience of the cosmos resumes after the experience of awakening, one sees clearly that it is composed entirely of the results of old kamma; with no new kamma added to the process, all experience of the cosmos will eventually run out—or, in the words of the texts, “will grow cold right here.”
This discovery confirmed the basic premise that kamma not only plays a role in shaping experience of the cosmos, it plays the primary role. If this were not so, then even when kamma was ended there would still remain the types of experience that came from other sources. But because none of the limitations of the cosmos—time, space, etc.—remain when all present kamma disbands, and none resume after all old kamma runs out, kamma must be the factor accounting for all experience of those limitations. This fact implies that even the limiting factors that one encounters in terms of sights, sounds, etc., are actually the fruit of past kamma in thought, word, and deed—committed not only in this, but also in many preceding lifetimes. Thus, even though the Buddha’s development of heightened skillfulness focused on the present moment, the resulting awakening gave insights that encompassed all of time.
FAITH IN THE PRINCIPLE OF KAMMA
From this discussion it should become clear why kamma, as an article of faith, is a necessary factor in the path of Buddhist practice. The teaching on kamma, in its narrative and cosmological forms, provides the context for the practice, giving it direction and urgency. Because the cosmos is governed by the laws of kamma, those laws provide the only mechanism by which happiness can be found. But because good and bad kamma, consisting of good and bad intentions, simply perpetuate the ups and downs of experience in the cosmos, a way must be found out of the mechanism of kamma by mastering it in a way that allows it to disband in an attentive state of non-intention. And, because there is no telling what sudden surprises the results of one’s past kamma may still hold in store, one should try to develop that mastery as quickly as possible.
In its “empty” mode—i.e., focusing on the processes of action, without referring to questions of whether or not there is a self or a being behind the processes—the teaching on kamma accounts for the focus and the terms of analysis used in the practice. It also accounts for the mental qualities needed to attain and maintain that level of focus and analysis.
In terms of focus, the principle of scale invariance means that the complexities of kamma can be mastered by giving total attention to phenomena in and of themselves in the immediate present. These phenomena are then analyzed in terms of the four noble truths, the terms used in observing and directing the experience of developing the qualities of skillful action. The most immediate skillful kamma that can be observed on this level is the mastery of the very same mental qualities that are supporting this refined level of focus and analysis: mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, together with the more basic qualities on which they are based. Thus, these mental qualities act not only as supports to the focus and analysis, but also as their object. Ultimately, discernment becomes so refined that the focus and analysis take as their object the act of focusing and analyzing, in and of themselves. The cycle of action then short-circuits as it reaches culmination, and Unbinding occurs.
It is entirely possible that a person with no firm conviction in the principle of kamma can follow parts of the Buddhist path, including mindfulness and concentration practices, and gain positive results from them. For instance, one can pursue mindfulness practice for the sense of balance, equanimity, and peace it gives to one’s daily life, or for the sake of bringing the mind to the present for the purpose of spontaneity and “going with the flow.” The full practice of the path, however, is a skillful diverting of the flow of the mind from its habitual kammic streams to the stream of Unbinding. As the Buddha said, this practice requires a willingness to “develop and abandon” to an extreme degree.
The developing requires a supreme effort aimed at full and conscious mastery of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment to the point of non-fashioning and on to release. A lack of conviction in the principle of kamma would undercut the patience and commitment, the desire, persistence, intent, and refined powers of discrimination needed to pursue concentration and discernment to the most heightened levels, beyond what is needed for a general sense of peace or spontaneity.
The abandoning involves uprooting the most deeply buried forms of clinging and attachment that maintain bondage to the cycle of rebirth. Some of these forms of clinging—such as views and theories about self-identity—are so entrenched in the narrative and cosmological modes in which most people function that only firm conviction in the benefits to be had by abandoning them will be able to pry them loose. This is why the Buddha insisted repeatedly that conviction in the fact of his awakening necessarily involves conviction in the principle of kamma, and that both forms of conviction are needed for the full mastery of the kamma of heightened skillfulness leading to release.
There are many well-known passages in the Canon where the Buddha asks his listeners not to accept his teachings simply on faith, but these remarks were directed to people just beginning the practice. Beginners need only accept the general principles of skillful action on a trial basis, focusing on the input that their intentions are putting into the causal system at the present moment, and exploring the connection between skillful intentions and favorable results. The more complex issues of kamma come into play at this level only in forcing one to be patient with the practice. Many times skillful intentions do not produce their favorable results immediately, aside from the sense of well-being—sometimes clearly perceptible, sometimes barely—that comes with acting skillfully. Were it not for this delay, the principle of kamma would be self-evident, no one would dare act on unskillful intentions, and there would be no need to take the principle on faith. The complexity of this/that conditionality is the major cause of the confusion and lack of skill with which most people live their lives. The ability to master this process takes time.
As one progresses on the path, however—and as the process of developing skillfulness in and of itself gradually comes to take center stage in one’s awareness—the actual results of developing skillfulness should give greater and greater reason for conviction in the principle of kamma. Except in cases where people fall into the trap of heedlessness or complacency, these results can spur and inspire one to hold to the principle of kamma with the increasing levels of firmness, focus, and refinement needed for awakening.
This, then, is the sense in which kamma, or intentional action, forms the basic refuge for the person on the path. On the one hand, as a doctrine, it provides guidance to the proper path of action, and encouragement to muster the energy needed to follow the path. On the other hand, as the actual principle by which skillful action is brought to a pitch of non-fashioning on the threshold of the Deathless, it provides the mechanism by which human effort and action can bring about the ultimate in genuine happiness.