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Several questions on the law of karma

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  • Several questions on the law of karma

    Dear monastics,

    I would like to ask a couple of questions on the law of karma:

    1) Can we ever appropriately understand the law of karma? I heard that only the Buddha himself was able to fully understand the workings of the law of karma. Does that mean that mere mortals like me cannot fully know what's going on there?
    If so, I was wondering whether I should ask the following questions in the first place.. Anyway:

    2) In one talk I heard Ajahn Brahm explaining that we send us to the heaven realms or hell realms for as long as we think we deserve it.

    On the other hand, I read that the Buddha gave the following simile on the likelihood of getting back to human status from the lower realms:
    "A yoke with a single hole was floating at random on the sea, and a blind turtle living in the sea were to surface once every hundred years — the likelihood of the turtle pushing his neck through the hole in the yoke would be greater than that of a being in the evil destinations regaining human status."
    (Cited from "Going for Refuge & Taking the Precepts", by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight, 16 June 2011, . Retrieved on 24 November 2012.)

    So if it is so unlikely to get out of the lower realms, it doesn't seem to fit with what Ajahn Brahm was saying there. What he said there sounds more as if I choose beforehand how long I think I deserve to stay there, thinking for instance: "Fair enough, I have done this and that unskilful act, therefore I now deserve to go to hell for, say, 1000 years." And if it was like this, with oneself choosing beforehand how long one shall stay there, to me it would seem rather easy and predictable to get out of the lower realms again. And therefore what Ajahn Brahm was saying there to me wouldn't match with the Buddha's statement that it is extremely unlikely to get out from the lower realms.

    How does this fit together? Or am I completely misunderstand something there?

    3) Where actually is our karma stored?

    Is there some kind of invisible, all seeing and knowing universal supervisory authority which spills out rewards for skillful acts and penalties for unskilful acts for every living being?

    Or is it rather as if karma is somehow stored in every being's own innate feeling of self-worth? A kind of self-worth mechanism that works identically in every being and that guarantees accurately that if a being does something skillful it would send itself to heaven and if it does something unskilful it send itself to hell?

    Or is it something completely different?

    4) Is it possible to weaken the bad karmic consequences of unskilful actions with forgiveness?

    I'd like to thank you again very much for providing this service here.

    With metta,

  • #2
    Dear Michael,

    1) AN4:77 says that the "result of kamma is an inconceivable matter" (acinteyya). In other words, trying to figure out the specific relationship between kammic causes and their effects is often not possible, simply because the tangle of causes is incredibly complex. This does not mean that one cannot understand the laws of kamma. Laws are general principles that show you a general tendency. For example, you know you will tend towards a good rebirth if you are a good person, but you cannot be absolutely sure of it.

    2) The first thing here is that choice usually does not mean conscious choice, but is more like an underlying sense that you deserve punishment. A very common experience people have when they think they are about to die is a life review. You see your life in perspective and just as you judge people in this life according to their actions, so you judge yourself according to what you see in your life review. You don't really have much choice; it is something that just happens. What Ajahn Brahm probably means by choice is that if you are wise you understand how to forgive yourself and you are then able to let go of any guilt. In this way you can avoid a bad rebirth. But it takes a lot of mindfulness and wisdom to be able to do this, especially if your death happens suddenly.

    Once you have decided that you deserve punishment, it very difficult to change that perception when you are reborn as an animal, for instance. These realms are so sticky precisely because it is so hard to change your thinking as an animal.

    3) Now this is getting tricky. The Buddha never really spoke about this issue, perhaps because he was afraid of giving people a misleading perception that his teachings included an existing self. In fact, in later Buddhist history this issue caused a lot of problems for Buddhist philosophy. The Sarvāstivādin school of Buddhism tried to solve the problem of how kamma is stored by postulating that dhammas (the phenomena of experience) exist in some sense both in the past and the future. You can probably see how this is hard to distinguish from postulating an existing self. Indeed, the Sarvāstivādins where heavily criticized for their theory, particularly by the later philosopher Nāgārjuna. I have to admit I don't think the Sarvāstivādin theory works. So the problem remains unresolved.

    One approach to this question may be to ask where memories are stored. According to Buddhism it is possible to remember one's past lives. But clearly memories of past lives cannot be stored anywhere physically and they must therefore form part of one's mental continuum, that is, be part of the one's stream of consciousness. Since memories and kamma are closely related (especially if we assume that kamma is about punishing ourselves because we think we deserve it), I would say that kamma is also somehow part of this mental stream that goes from life to life. It can perhaps be regarded as impressions on the mind that ripen given the right circumstances. These kammic impressions are not permanent - and they will continuously be shaped and molded by one's subsequent actions - but they may last over very long periods of time, until eventually they are fully exhausted. This is just my speculation and hopefully it is not too misleading.

    4) Yes, this is certainly possible. Forgiveness is an act of good kamma and good kamma always dilutes the effect of previous bad kamma. See the simile of the grain of salt, here.

    With metta.


    • #3
      Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu!

      Good questions and good answers...


      • #4
        Thank you very much for your long reply, Ajahn Brahmali. Your answers seem to make sense to me.

        If I may just add one question:
        Could you please clarify for me what is meant by the statements "In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced", and "'When a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced" in the sutta to which you referred me?

        With metta,


        • #5
          Dear Michael,

          The point of the statement "In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced" seems to be to point out the wrong idea that once you have done a willed action, the result of that action is set in concrete. The point this sutta makes is that although all willed actions have results, those results will vary enormously dependent on your general conduct.

          The second phrase - "When a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced" - I take to mean that an action that has negative kammic consequences always will bear painful results, whereas the opposite is true for good actions. But the degree of pain and pleasure will depend on a number of other factors.

          With metta.


          • #6
            Thank you, Ajahn Brahmali, your explanation of the second phrase has made the 'Law of Kamma' sound less scary.

            I've always been interested in Buddhism and kept eight precepts occasionally. Many years ago I read one of Ajahn Buddhadhassa's book, which might have meant for monastics or for something, but the content was scary and I felt horrified as the information there seemed to point out that my destination was surely be a hell realm!

            To be honest with you, one of my Mara friend 'Fear' got hold of my mind and urged me to stop reading Buddhist texts for years!

            Thanks to Ajahn Brahm's teachings, I am back with many Kalyanamittas always help keep me on track!

            And big thanks to you, Ajahn Brahmali.




            • #7
              Dear Ajahn Brahmali,

              Your clarification sounds plausible to me. Thank you very much for your taking the time to explain this to me.

              With anjali,
              Michael Steinfeld



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