How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma

 Revised February 21, 2018; July 24, 2020

In the previous essay, “Ten Immoral Acts (Dasa Akusala),” we looked at the ten different types of acts that will have adverse kammic consequences. Here we will discuss the relative weights of varying kamma and some misconceptions people have about them.

1. First of all, the most potent of all is micchā diṭṭhiThe only akusala entirely removed by a Sotāpaññā is micchā diṭṭhi. But in doing so, he/she removes an unimaginably massive amount of defilements. See, “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sotāpaññā? “.

  • One critical problem many people have is that they try hard to avoid actions with relatively small kammic consequences, while unknowingly doing things that have more definite kammic results. Let us take an example: Suppose we have a large tank of water which is losing water due to many holes at the bottom. Some holes are pinholes, some are a little larger, and there are a few holes that are big and losing water fast. One would want to plug those large holes first. Then one would fix the medium-size holes, and those pinholes are the last to be worried.

2. We can see that many akusala are with “actions” directed towards other beings, whether done bodily, verbally or just by thought.  In principle, a living-being could be in any one of the 31 realms (see, “Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“).

3. The severity of the consequence of any misdeed (i.e., kamma vipāka) involving another living being depended strongly on the “level of existence” of the living being from the lowest level of realm 1 (niraya) to the highest at the 31st realm (fourth arupa loka); Any “Ariya” or a Noble Person (who has attained one of the four stages of Nibbāna), are at the highest levels regardless of the realm.  A hurtful word against an Ariya carries thousand-fold bad kamma vipāka compared to killing a thousand ants.

  • See, “What is Intention in Kamma?“. This post has been updated on February 21, 2018, and provides a simple two-step process to evaluate a given situation.

4. It is difficult to identify whether a given human is just an immoral human or an Arahant by just looking at that person. The human realm is unique in many ways.

Thus, we can try to sort out the kammic consequences of a given immoral act on the “level of consciousness” of the living being.

  • Regardless of the realm, the highest four levels are Arahant, Anāgāmi, Sakadāgāmi, and Sotāpaññā.  Humans can attain all four levels.
  • Out of the 31 realms, we can directly experience only the human and animal realms. Thus, we usually need only to evaluate how our actions affect other humans AND animals.
  • Since any animal is inferior to any human, we need to pay special attention to how we interact with other human beings.
  • In particular, it is not possible to judge whether a given human has attained a Nibbānic state. Even by directing hurtful words to an Ariya (one who has reached at least the Sotāpaññā stage), one could be acquiring thousand-fold more bad kammic potential compared to doing the same to an average human.
  • In some cases, even the person in question may not know that he/she is a Sotāpaññā. There may be “jāti Sotāpannas”, i.e., those who had attained the Sotāpaññā stage in a previous life and thus born as a Sotāpaññā and may not realize it.
  • Thus we need to be very careful with dealing with fellow humans in particular.

5. When we say killing is immoral, it is implicit that killing is taking the life of any living being. But killing a human has a kammic consequence that is much higher compared to killing an animal. Killing a Sotāpaññā has even more drastic results. Sakadāgāmi even higher, Anāgāmi even higher, and killing an Arahant will have the highest, and is of the strongest kind at par with killing a parent (an ānantariya kamma that will cause the very next birth in an apāya).

6. Similarly, other immoral acts will have consequences depending on the “consciousness level” of the living being. It is not a matter of one particular living creature is “better” than another.

  • Instead, it is a matter of how valuable that “level” is, and how difficult it is to attain that “level”. One has been born a human because of the merits one has acquired in previous lives. It is challenging to get a human birth, as we will discuss in a separate post; see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm“.
  • One becomes a Sotāpaññā by cultivating moral behavior and by purifying one’s mind. Thus a life of a Sotāpaññā is much more valuable compared to a normal human being.

7. Even among humans who have not attained any Nibbānic state, there are “different levels of consciousness”: One who has more wisdom (paññā) is at a higher level than one with less.

  • Here wisdom does not mean book knowledge, but knowledge of Dhamma; understanding of the true nature of “this world”, or anicca, dukkha, anatta. Thus the possibility of that person attaining a Nibbānic stage is more likely, compared to one who has less wisdom.

8. Another important thing is not to worry about things that one does not have any control over. Every day, we kill so many small animals unintentionally: stepping on them while walking, cleaning the yard, cleaning the house, and even while boiling water.

  • We need to remember that “kamma is the intention”. We are not boiling water to kill any unseen life forms. Instead, we boil water to make sure we do not get sick by drinking contaminated water.

9. It is not even possible to live “in this world” without harming other beings unintentionally, even though we may be aware that our acts may lead to the destruction of many life forms.

  • Once a bhikkhu who had developed abhiññā powers was getting ready to drink a glass of water, and with his ability to “see” finer things saw that there were many microscopic beings in the water glass. He tried to filter them out, but they were too small. The Buddha then explained to him that it is not possible to live without doing things that are necessary to sustain one’s life.
  • In another example, suppose one has a wound. If left alone, it could lead to one’s death. Thus one needs to apply medication to it. However, that wound is infested with numerous microscopic living beings, and the medication will kill them.
  • Walking on the ground (mainly grass) kills many insects. But we cannot live our lives without going places. What matters is our INTENTION. When one is walking, there is no intention of killing living beings.

10. What we need to do is to be careful not to do any harm to even the smallest of the creatures with a hateful or greedy mind. It is the intention or the state of mind that counts.

  • There is this story about an older woman who was very careful about not breaking the five precepts. But she was extremely greedy; she was quite stingy, did not give much to charity, and kept all her money under her pillow. Because of that greed, she was born a peta (a hungry ghost).
  • It is relatively easy to keep the five precepts. What is harder is to purify one’s mind of greedy, hateful, and ignorant thoughts. That is what needs to accomplished in true “ānāpānasati bhāvanā”; see, “What is Anapana?“.
  • Even though we may not be greedy or hateful in this life, we may have acquired such bad kamma in previous lives. That is why the Buddha said even if one lives morally in this life that does not guarantee a good rebirth unless one has attained the Sotāpaññā stage of Nibbāna; see, “Why a Sotāpaññā is Better off than any King, Emperor, or a Billionaire“.
  • Buddha Dhamma is all about the mind. Purifying the mind is the key, not just to follow set rules. Just following precepts will not be enough

11. Finally, it is essential to remember that hate is worse than greed. Excessive hateful actions lead to rebirth in the lowest realm, the niraya. Excess greed leads to rebirth, mainly as petas (hungry ghosts).

  • A mixture of hate and greed lead to rebirth in all four lowest realms, the apāyā. Even if one does not carry over the hateful or greedy thoughts to speech or bodily actions, they still count, especially if one thinks about them most of the time.
  • That is why it is essential to develop good meditation habits; see, “Bhavana (Meditation)“. A mind free of hate and greed becomes less agitated and peaceful; then, it leads to wisdom (paññā).

More details on the weights of different kamma at 12. Key Factors to be Considered when “Meditating” for the Sotāpaññā Stage. Also, see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

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