Thursday, July 31, 2008

Karma and its Fruit

By Nyanaponika Thera

Most writings on the doctrine of karma emphasize the strict lawfulness governing karmic action, ensuring a close correspondence between our deeds and their fruits. While this emphasis is perfectly in place, there is another side to the working of karma — a side rarely noted, but highly important. This is the modifiability of karma, the fact that the lawfulness which governs karma does not operate with mechanical rigidity but allows for a considerably wide range of modifications in the ripening of the fruit.
If karmic action were always to bear fruits of invariably the same magnitude, and if modification or annulment of karma-result were excluded, liberation from the Samsaric cycle of suffering would be impossible; for an inexhaustible past would ever throw up new obstructive results of unwholesome karma.

Like any physical event, the mental process constituting a karmic action never exists in isolation but in a field, and thus its efficacy in producing a result depends not only on its own potential, but also upon the variable factors of its field, which can modify it in numerous ways. We see, for example, that a particular karma, either good or bad, may sometimes have its result strengthened by supportive karma, weakened by counteractive karma, or even annulled by destructive karma. The occurrence of the result can also be delayed if the conjunction of outer circumstances required for its ripening is not complete; and that delay may again give a chance for counteractive or destructive karma to operate.

It is, however, not only these extraneous conditions which can cause modification. The ripening also reflects the karma's "internal field" or internal conditions — that is, the total qualitative structure of the mind from which the action issues. To one rich in moral or spiritual qualities, a single offense may not entail the weighty results that the same offence will have for one who is poor in such protective virtues. Also, analogously to human law, a first offender's punishment will be milder than that of a re-convicted criminal.

Of this type of modified reaction the Buddha speaks in the continuation of the discourse quoted above:

"Now take the case when a minor bad deed has been committed by a certain person and it takes that person to hell. But if the same minor offense is committed by another person, its result might be experienced during this lifetime and not even the least (residue of a reaction) will appear (in the future), to say nothing of a major (reaction).

"Now what is the kind of person whom a minor offense takes to hell? It is one who has not cultivated (restraint of) the body, not cultivated virtue and thought, nor developed any wisdom; one is narrow-minded, of low character and even for trifling things suffers. It is such a person whom even a minor offense may take to hell.

"And what is the person by whom the result of the same small offense will be experienced in one's lifetime, without the least (future residue)? One who has cultivated (restraint of) the body, who has cultivated virtue and thought and who has developed wisdom; one is not limited by (vices), is a great character and lives unbounded (by evil). It is such a person who experiences the result of the same small offense during this lifetime, without the least future residue.

"Now suppose one throws a lump of salt into a small cup of water. What do you think: would that small quantity of water become salty and undrinkable by that lump of salt?" — "It would, Lord." — "And why so?" — "The water in the cup is so little that a lump of salt can make it salty and undrinkable." — "But, monastics, suppose that lump of salt is thrown into the Ganges river. Would it make the Ganges salty and undrinkable?" — "Certainly not, Lord." — "And why not?" — "Lord, great is the mass of water in the Ganges. It will not become salty and undrinkable by a lump of salt."

It is an individual's accumulation of good or bad karma and also one's dominating character traits, good or bad, which affect the karmic result. They determine the greater or lesser weight of the result and may even spell the difference between it occurring at all.

But even this does not exhaust the existing possibilities of modifications in the weight of karmic reaction. A glance into the life histories of people we know may well show us a person of good and blameless character, living in secure circumstances; yet a single mistake, perhaps even a minor one, suffices to ruin one's entire life — one's reputation, career, and happiness — and it may also lead to a serious deterioration of one's character. This seemingly disproportionate crisis might have been due to a chain-reaction of aggravating circumstances beyond one's control, to be ascribed to a powerful counteractive karma of one's past. But the chain of bad results may have been precipitated by the person's own action — decisively triggered by one's initial mistake and reinforced by subsequent carelessness, indecision or wrong decisions, which, of course, are unskillful karma in themselves. This is a case when even a predominantly good character cannot prevent the ripening of bad karma or soften the full force of the results. The good qualities and deeds of that person will certainly not remain ineffective; but their future outcome might well be weakened by any presently arisen negative character changes or actions, which might form a bad counteractive karma.

Consider too the converse situation: A person deserving to be called a thoroughly bad character, may, on a rare occasion, act on an impulse of generosity and kindness. This action may turn out to have unexpectedly wide and favorable repercussions on one's life. It might bring about a decisive improvement in one's external circumstances, soften one's character, and even initiate a thorough "change of heart."
How complex, indeed, are situations in human life, even when they appear deceptively simple! This is so because the situations and their outcome mirror the still greater complexity of the mind, their inexhaustible source. The Buddha himself has said: "The mind's complexity surpasses even the countless varieties of the animal kingdom." (SN 22.100) For any single individual, the mind is a stream of ever-changing mental processes driven by the currents and cross-currents of karma accumulated in countless past existences. But this complexity, already great, is increased still very much more by the fact that each individual life-stream is interwoven with many other individual life-streams through the interaction of their respective karmas. So intricate is the net of karmic conditioning that the Buddha declared karma-result to be one of the four "unthinkables" (acinteyya) and warned against creating it as a subject of speculation. But though the detailed workings of karma escape our intellection, the practically important message is clear: the fact that karmic results are modifiable frees us from the bane of determinism and its ethical corollary, fatalism, and keeps the road to liberation constantly open before us.

The potential "openness" of a given situation, however, also has a negative side, the element of risk and danger a wrong response to the situation might open a downward path. It is our own response which removes the ambiguity of the situation, for better or worse. This reveals the karma doctrine of the Buddha as a teaching of moral and spiritual responsibility for oneself and others. It is truly a "human teaching" because it corresponds to and reflects a human's wide range of choices, a range much wider than that of an animal. Any individual's moral choice may be severely limited by the varying load of greed, hatred and delusion and their results which one carries around; yet every time one stops to make a decision or a choice, one has the opportunity to rise above all the menacing complexities and pressures of one's unfathomable karmic past. Indeed, in one short moment one can transcend eons of karmic bondage. It is through right mindfulness that one can firmly grasp that fleeting moment, and it is mindfulness again that enables one to use it for making wise choices.
Originally published in The Vision of the Dhamma (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994).
Copyright © 1994 Nyanaponika Thera

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