Revised February 28, 2019; revised May 17, 2019; August 22, 2022
1. This is an important post that should be read carefully. Grasping the basic concept here can prevent many akusala kamma (unmeritorious deeds) and boost the power of a kusala/puñña kamma (meritorious deeds). In addition, it shows the consistency and universality of Buddha Dhamma.
2. The potency of a kamma (good or bad) depends on two key factors. First, we need to clarify some basic ideas.
- Any action or speech originates as a “thought.” As described in the Abhidhamma section, a citta is of duration much less than a BILLIONTH of a second. Such fast thoughts do not even register in our minds. Once in a while, a burst of cittā on a given object gets latched on and stays long enough to register in our minds. Then we consciously think about it and make a decision.
- For example, when I walked to the kitchen to make tea this afternoon, it started as what seemed to be thought of as “having a tea.” In reality, that “thought” itself was due to billions of citta going through my mind; the initial “vague idea of having a tea” very quickly got built up by numerous follow-up cittā until I had to get up and walk to the kitchen.
3. Most such “initial thoughts” just do not cascade into strong enough thoughts to make us physically move or even speak out. If the “impulse of the thought” (or “javana“) is not strong enough, we just disregard it.
- If you think about it, you will realize that thousands, millions of stray thoughts pass our minds each day. When we ride a bus just staring out of the window, we see zillion things go by, and each thing seen is a thought. We do not remember most of it afterward.
- On the other hand, powerful sense inputs prompt us to instantaneous action or speech. Sometimes, we just stay on that stream of thoughts: some people laugh out loud just thinking about a happy event. Other times, if thoughts of a hated person come to mind, one’s face gets dark, and muscles get tightened.
- A mother hearing her child cry out is lifted out of her seat instantaneously: She hears the cry in a series of “citta vithi” of “thought streams” coming through the ear door. Subsequently, millions of “mind-door” citta vithi run within a fraction of a second, identifying that it is a crying sound and it is coming from her child. Subsequently, millions more citta vithi start running, trying to analyze what could be the problem, and then more citta vithi will prompt her to get out of the seat and move towards the source of that sound. All this happens within a fraction of a second, without her being consciously aware.
4. Not all thoughts on the same subject have the same kammic power.
- If some insects get killed while someone is walking on the ground or while cleaning the house, that will have no kammic consequences; because the intention associated with those actions was not to kill any living being.
- As we will see below, several key things contribute to the kammic power: the intention, what kind of knowledge is behind that intention, and whether one does the act enthusiastically are all key factors.
5. Now, let us take an example to see how these different factors contribute to the strength of a kamma. Suppose a person who does not know that stealing is a bad thing to do and that it will have bad consequences steals something from a shop. Since he does it with the wrong vision (10 types of micchā diṭṭhi), he does not feel remorse for it. Thus the kammic strength is very high; see “Micchā Diṭṭhi, Gandhabba, and Sōtapanna Stage.”
- But if he does it on the urging or prompting of another, then it will have less strong kammic consequences since he did not think about doing it on his own, and thus the “javana” or the “impulse power” of the citta is less strong.
- Now, if he comes up with the idea of stealing by himself AND enjoys doing it, that is the worst.
6. So, now we can see different levels of kammic strengths associated with the SAME ACT of stealing:
- If done with wrong vision, with pleasure, and without prompting, it will have the highest strength (of course, this will be the highest BAD strength).
- If done with wrong vision, with pleasure, and with prompting, it will have the next lower strength.
- If done with the wrong vision, with a neutral feeling, and without prompting, it will have the next lower strength.
- If done with the wrong vision, with a neutral feeling, and with prompting, it will have the next lower strength.
Now in the next four cases, the same act was done by a person who did know that it was a bad act and it will have bad consequences and would do it with at least some hesitation, and thus the “javana” or the “impulse of the thought” would be less, and consequently, the kammic power will be less. So, now we have the last four cases:
- If done WITHOUT wrong vision, with pleasure, and without prompting, it will have the highest (GOOD) strength.
- If done WITHOUT wrong vision, with pleasure, and with prompting, it will have the next highest strength.
- If done WITHOUT wrong vision, with a neutral feeling, and without prompting, it will have the next highest strength.
- If done WITHOUT wrong vision, with a neutral feeling, and with prompting, it will have the least strength.
7. Thus, it is clear that just having an understanding of Dhamma (that it is unfruitful to gain anything at the expense of other beings) will automatically make the kammic power less potent; but this “knowledge” is not the “book knowledge”; it is not effective if one has read about it, but the mind has not grasped it. Wisdom and “book knowledge” are two different things.
- If you think about it deeply, it should become clear that it is the comprehension of anicca, dukkha, and anatta that leads to true knowledge (paññā) and helps get rid of avijjā (ignorance). It involves understanding the true nature of this world and that one’s actions are bound to have consequences.
- It works in the other way too. Good actions will lead to good results.
8. Thus, the same reasoning is true for meritorious acts (puñña/kusala kamma). There are eight levels, depending on whether one does a meritorious act with/without knowledge, with joy/with a neutral feeling, and without/with prompting, just like in the case of the greed-based akusala citta. Let us take the case of someone donating to build a shelter for homeless people.
- This kusala kamma (meritorious deed) done with knowledge, joy, and without prompting has the highest merit.
- And THE SAME puñña kamma done WITHOUT knowledge, with a neutral feeling, and with prompting has the LEAST effectiveness.
- Thus the same deed done without comprehension of Tilakkhana is a puñña kamma. The same deed done with comprehension of Tilakkhana is a kusala kamma.
- The intermediate six are just analogous to the ones for the greed-based akusala kamma.
9. Let us examine how these categories play out in the real world for the above-mentioned meritorious act of building a shelter for the homeless:
- If someone understands the value of giving, does it out of the kindness felt for those homeless people, does it without wishing for anything in return, and will be doing it with knowledge. And thus, it will be done without prompting and with natural joy in the heart, realizing that one is making a difference in many people’s lives. This is the highest merit.
- If a person did the same deed, but initially it took some prompting from others or even him/herself, it was not spontaneous and thus will have somewhat less “javana” in the thought process.
- Those two scenarios without joy would have even less “javana” in the thought process. Here one may write a check and may not think much about it afterward. But in the above two cases, the person may stay engaged with the act of building the shelter and gains joyful feeling every time he/she thinks about it.
- Now, those four cases can be repeated for a person who does not understand the true impact of that action. The kammic power will be reduced accordingly. Thus a person who does not have an understanding of kammic consequences, the true nature of this world (i.e., that we all may go through such hard times or worse in other lives, etc.), just writes a check out of necessity, may be even to get some votes (i.e., prompting by oneself after seeing the benefits for one’s political career) will have the least benefits.
- Thus understanding Dhamma (true nature of the world) leads to spontaneous meritorious actions done with a joyful heart; this leads to saddha (true faith), citta pasāda (joy), and adhimokkha (resolve) to get the maximum impact of the impulse kammic power (javana). Adhimokkha (resolve) is a key factor in the kusala-mula Paṭicca Samuppāda, see, “Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda“.
- This post clarifies the types of different citta given in Abhidhamma. See “Akusala Citta and Akusala Vipāka Citta” and #4 of “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”
- There are two akusala kamma rooted in hate and two rooted in ignorance. The ways to sort those are different. I will write another post on them.
- The above description is a simpler version of a post that I did recently: “Javana of a Citta – The Root of Mental Power.” It may be a good idea to read that too.