Working of Kammā – Critical Role of Conditions

May 21, 2017

1. We can see various levels of human happiness/suffering around us. We see some people live with relatively higher levels of health, wealth, and happiness, while others live in poverty, ill-health, and misery.

  • We become distraught upon hearing that a child died prematurely, or someone was brutally murdered. Of course, we should generate empathy and sympathy, and also do our utmost to prevent such horrible occurrences.
  • However, we also need to look at the CAUSES for such things to happen. Once we understand the underlying causes, we will be able to prevent such things happening to us in the future, if not in this life, in future lives.
  • Nothing happens in this world without a reason or without a cause (normally multiple causes). In order to prevent tragic outcomes, we need to locate the causes and eliminate them.
  • This is the key message of the Buddha: It is not possible to eliminate the suffering that has arisen (we can minimize it), but we can eliminate FUTURE suffering from arising.

2. The principle of cause and effect (hetu/pala) is a key principle in Buddha Dhamma, as in modern science.

  • Science is all about finding out HOW things HAPPEN around us due to CAUSES. A pebble on the ground will not go up by itself unless some energy is given to it, i.e., we have to pick it up and throw it up.
  • We receive sunlight because of the Sun is putting out a vast amount of energy every second. And science has figured out how that happens: That energy comes from nuclear reactions in it; Sun is a giant fusion reactor.
  • With the development of modern science we have figured out that nothing happens without a cause; normally there are more than one cause that lead to an effect.

3. However, science has not yet figured out that what happen to humans or any living being are also due to causes.

  • Does it just happens that X is born healthy and wealthy, Y is born healthy but poor, and Z is born handicapped and poor?
  • There must be REASONS why X, Y, and Z are born that way.
  • Not only that, many times a person born rich can become poor, and vice versa. Or a person in good health can die suddenly in an accident or by a heart attack. There must be reasons for such “turnarounds” too!
  • The laws of kammā can explain all the above. But the laws of kammā are not just based causes and effects, they DEPEND on CONDITIONS. That is what prevents laws of kammā being deterministic, i.e., one’s future is NOT determined by one’s past actions or kammā .

4. Science has been unable to come up with explanations for the effects discussed above. There are two key reasons for this lack of progress in science.

  • First, unlike with inert objects like a pebble, a living being has a mind. When a person moves, the cause for that movement originates in that person’s mind, i.e., the person decides to move. Your hand will not move until you decide to move it. And you have the power to STOP its movement too!
  • The second difference is that for living beings there is a rebirth process. The laws of kammā cannot be explained without accepting the rebirth process. This is why not believing in rebirth is a strong micca ditthi. With that wrong vision, one will never be able to figure out the true nature of the world and explain why there are so many variations of happiness/misery in living beings; see, “Vagaries of Life and the Way to Seek “Good Rebirths” and “Micca Ditthi, Gandhabbaya, and Sotapanna Stage“.
  • The present life of about 100 years is only an extremely short time in our sansāric journey (rebirth process). As we go from life to life, our mental states as well as our physical appearances change; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.

5. So, anything and everything in this world happen due to reasons or causes. However, just because there is a cause, it is not guaranteed that it will give rise to the corresponding effect.

  • In the terminology of Buddha Dhamma, past kammā do not necessarily lead to kammā vipāka. 
  • We can grasp this key idea with an example.

6. A seed CAN give rise to a tree. It has the POTENTIAL to bring a tree to existence. However, for that to happen, suitable CONDITIONS must be present.

  • If we keep a seed in a cool, dry place it will not give rise to a tree, and will remain a seed with that POTENTIAL for hundreds of years.
  • Eventually, that potential to bring about a tree will go away and the seed will be “dead”.

7. When a strong kammā is done, that creates a kammā beeja, or a kammā seed, that works pretty much like a normal seed that we discussed above.

  • For that kammā beeja to bring about its result, i.e., kammā vipāka, suitable CONDITIONS must exist.
  • If suitable conditions do not materialize for long times, then that kammā beeja will lose its energy and it is said that it will become an ahōsi kammā , i.e., that kammā will not bring about any kammā vipāka.

8. As we mentioned above, the other important factor in this complex process is that a given living being has gone through a rebirth process that has no discoverable beginning.

  • In this unimaginably long rebirth process, we all have accumulated uncountable kammā seeds, both good and bad. 
  • Those good kammā seeds can bring about good results (health, wealth, beauty, etc), and bad kammā seeds bad results (ailments, handicaps, poverty, etc).
  • But either kind can run out of energy without giving results (vipāka), if suitable CONDITIONS do not appear within a period of time.

9. A seed cannot germinate unless required CONDITIONS are provided (i.e., it should be placed in the ground and water, sunlight, and nutrients need to be provided).

  • In the same way, we can avoid many possible bad kammā vipāka by being mindful and not providing conditions for them to appear.  We can also MAKE conditions for good kammā vipāka to bring about good results.
  • For example, if one goes into a bad neighborhood at night, that is providing conditions for any suitable bad kammā seeds waiting to bring about their bad vipāka. On the other hand, we cannot be successful in any project unless we are willing to provide right conditions: to pass an examination, we must prepare for it by studying.
  • Even if one is born poor, one could work hard and come out of poverty. If one is prone to catching diseases, one could eat healthy, exercise, and overcome at least some of the recurring ailments. Kammā is not deterministic, see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

10. But of course it will be difficult to overcome the results of very strong kammā seeds. One may be born handicapped due to a strong kammā seed that was generated in a previous birth.

  • In the same way, strong good kammā seeds can bring about good results without much effort. Some are born rich, healthy, and wealthy due to a past strong good kammā seed coming to fruition.

11. So, I hope it is clear that one’s happiness in this life could be determined by several different factors.

  • In relatively few cases, one could automatically (without much effort) receive health, wealth, and RELATIVE happiness due to strong kammā seeds. In the same way, some others could be facing miserable lives.
  • However, on the average, one’s happiness in this life is to a large extent is determined by one’s willingness to make right CONDITIONS for good vipāka to take place and prevent bad vipāka from appearing.
  • Even more importantly, one could make conditions for health, wealth, etc in future lives by living living moral lives and doing good deeds.

12. Now let us look at what happens when a result materializes due to a kammā vipāka. Once a bad vipāka materializes, we can certainly manage it to minimize its effects, and in some cases even get rid of it by working to making conditions for a good kammā seed to overcome it.

  • For example, if one comes down with cancer, in some cases it can be overcome by good medical treatment, i.e., making conditions to counter the initial effect.
  • If one is born tall or short, there is nothing much one can do about it. If one is born handicapped, one will have to live the whole life that way.
  • As we can see, we can improve some of those kammā vipāka, while we cannot do much about some others.
  • Even the Buddha could not avoid certain vipāka. He had back aches and Devadatta was able to injure his foot. Ven. Moggallana was beaten to death.

13. Another observation we can make from the above discussion is that when one becomes an Arahant (or even a Buddha), his suffering is not completely ended at the Arahanthood. He still had to suffer due to the physical body that had already “started”.

  • So, what was meant by “removal of suffering” when one attains Nibbāna? It is the future suffering (i.e., suffering in future lives) that is ended. When an Arahant attains Parinibbāna (i.e., physical death), he/she will not be reborn in this suffering-filled world of 31 realms, and that is when the suffering completely ends.
  • However, as we have discussed, part of suffering ends with the attainment of Arahanthood: suffering associated with “sankhāra dukkhā” or what is called “samphassa jā vedanā“; see, “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways“.

14. Of course, IN THE LONG RUN (in the rebirth process), no matter how hard one strives, it will be IMPOSSIBLE to attain PERMANENT happiness anywhere in this world. This is called anicca nature. That is why we need to strive to attain Nibbāna to avoid future suffering.

  • However, it is not an easy task to even to beginning to comprehend the anicca nature, until one enters the mundane Eightfold Path by getting rid of the 10 types of micca ditthi, which include not believing in rebirth or the concept of a gandhabbayā; see, “Micca Ditthi, Gandhabbaya, and Sotapanna Stage“.
  • Only when one enters the  mundane Eightfold Path that one will be able to grasp the Three Characteristics of Nature (anicca, dukkha, anatta), and start on the Noble Eightfold Path to attain Nibbāna.
  • The two types of Eightfold Paths were discussed by the Buddha in the “Maha Chattarisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)“.  Also see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart“.

15. Finally, the role of conditions in the laws of kammā are inherent in the Paticca Samuppāda; see, “What Does “Paccaya” Mean in Paticca Samuppada?” and “Pattana Dhamma – Connection to Cause and Effect (Hethu Phala)“.

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