From Thought to Destiny: Introduction

Quarter Moon Teaching

Sow a thought,
and you reap an act;
Sow an act,
and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit,
and you reap a character;
Sow a character,
and you reap a destiny.”
– anonymous

This quote may have a Buddhist origin. No one seems to know where it came from, but various Nineteenth Century Western writers referred to it without attribution and it seems now to be variously attributed to each of them, but some think it may be a translation from Chinese, so its resemblance to Buddhist thought might not be a coincidence.

This poem concisely and precisely as pie captures the foundational set of Buddhist teachings on Karma. The word “karma” in Sanskrit, or “kamma” in Pali (which is roughly Sanskrit without r’s), means action, action of all kinds. For instance, you can recognize this root in the Noble Eightfold Path in which Pali “Samma Kammanta” is English “Right Action.”

Traditionally the central concern of karma in India, before and after the Buddha, has been the relationship between our present actions and our future welfare or destiny. The Sanskrit word for action is Karma. For the brahmins since before the Buddha the ritual aspects of action were the determinants of destiny, and knowledge of the rituals gave brahmins their authority. The Buddha rejected this and stressed the volitional or intentional aspects of karma as the determinants of future welfare, character or destiny.

So the Buddha often used “karma” in a technical sense as for something having two components: Intention and Action, that is, why you do something, and what it is you actually do. For the Buddha intention is critical: If no intention is present, for instance in the case of killing a bug accidentally, there is no karma at all:. It matters to the world, but not generally to the character, welfare or destiny of the actor. But if intention is present, then the nature of the intention will help shape character and destiny.

There is a great assortment of intentions, but the Buddha recommended avoidance of those rooted in Greed, Hatred or Delusion, because actions that have these as intentional components (1) are likely to hurt others, (2) tend to make us greedy, hateful and deluded people and (3) bring us personal suffering, if not now then in the future. Through karma we not only make the world, we also make ourselves. The more you steal the more you become a thief, the more you kill the more you become a killer, the more you gossip the more you become a gossip. Actions become habits. These habit patterns form who we are, and even manifest themselves in characteristic physical attributes such as beauty or ulcers. In fact the Buddha often referred to a Law of Karmic Payback whereby we reap what we sow in some rather specific ways. Our character propels us forward into life circumstances, into new rebirths, into states of woe or bliss and eventually into nirvana, that is, the ending of Karma.

So, the focus of Buddhist practice, that is, of the Noble Eightfold Path, is the choice of that first thought from which, as the poem tells us, everything else follows. Understanding what else follows is important in understanding the choice we make in the first thought. I herewith begin a possibly lengthy series of Uposatha Day teachings on the topic of this little poem. It will take us from Karma past Rebirth and on to Nirvana.

This is a challenging topic that is often poorly understood. Aspects of this topic are also quite controversial in the West. Western minds, particularly the Law of Karmic Payback and Rebirth. This will require some careful consideration of a range of viewpoints.

to be continued

8 Responses to “From Thought to Destiny: Introduction”

  1. Mike Says:

    Sadhu, sadhu,sadhu bhante. Thank you for this uposatha day post.

  2. Rui Sousa Says:

    Thank you Venerable, that was a very interesting article on the mechanics of kamma, I look forward for the next chapter.

  3. Terasi Says:

    Dear Bhante, thank you for this post. It helps me understand one bit further about the relationship between Intention to the forming of habit patterns. I am looking forward to the next post continuing this matter.

    However, I am not clear about these two things:
    – Does Action without Intention still form a Karmic Payback?
    – I think I understand how habit patterns can manifest into ulcers, but how come it manifest into beauty? Do you mean beauty in this life, or beauty in next life?

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      – Does Action without Intention still form a Karmic Payback?
      No, just in case I do not come back to this point. It does not participate in further karma, except maybe obliquely.
      I will reply to the other question in the course of this series, but the short answer is beauty in this life and in the next life.
      I want to encourage questions like yours throughout this series because the mechanisms of karma and rebirth often raise eyebrows and drop jaws. There is much that is still unsettled and unsettling in my own mind. I would like to try with the help of the small readership here to make as much rational sense of this as possible.

  4. Christine Mauro Says:

    Dear Bhante: I am struggling with the notion that action without intention will not form a kammic payback. To take a rather extreme example, if I unintentionally drive over and kill a young child who unkown to me was playing behind my car, there will be all kinds of significant consequences. I’m wondering if this is because that action of my driving without checking the environment was in fact the result of numerous past and present intentional activities. The intention to get to my work on time perhaps, along with the intention to avoid the unpleasant consequences of being late. These could all be repetitive forms of behavour that have set up kammic patterns from which I act, even though I’m often unconscious of them (created my ‘character’ as referred to in the poem you quote). And if through my previous behaviour I haven’t established patterns of strong mindfulness, then I’ve laid the seeds and ground for unskillful actions which will lead to my suffering and the suffering of others.
    I wonder if every action we take is in fact intentional and that the practices that the Buddha has provided give us the tools to see those intentions, the energies around which our actions have become organized, at ever subtler and more continuous levels. These practices give us the basis for making wise choices, which will result in the good kammic consequence of reducing suffering for ourselves and others. At some point, it may even somehow bring us to the unconditioned, to the end of kamma. (That’s a concept that’s beyond me – at least on an intellectual level.)
    I’m looking forward to your further discussions here. From the beginning of my practice kamma has been an intriguing, sometimes baffling, sometimes irritating concept.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Christine,

      Thanks for your comment. It is good to try to find every crack in the way the mechanisms are described. That helps us to understand the teaching, and sometimes to discover a crack that won’t go away.

      As I understand it, actions that are clearly without intention are automatic reflexes of the nervous system, things done with no way to foresee consequences, things done while dreaming, things done without knowing they are being done. These are often stated not to have karmic significance, that is, they do not contribute to making us who we are. For example I might grab the wrong hat because it looks like mine; this does not help to make me a thief or trigger some payback later, like a dog chewing up my cell-phone.

      Let me take an example somewhat like yours, What if I hit a deer with my car? I did not specifically intend to kill a deer, but I knew this is a popular deer crossing, and yet chose to drive fast anyway, so the action was not without intention. Carelessness, or specifically driving too fast, may be an habitual (karmic) pattern for me, but a different kind of habit pattern from intentionally killing. The karmic impression is a lot different from intentionally aiming for a deer and killing it. It reinforces my tendency toward carelessness, not my bloodlust. The example you cite is similar but not so clearly a matter of carelessness; it might be a complete fluke. Like with the deer, it does not have the (horribly consequential) karmic force of intentionally killing a child. As I understand it, it is actually karmically neutral.

      But it is important to see that even when we do something karmically neutral it can nevertheless indirectly change who we are. This is where the “all kinds of significant consequences” you mention come from, I think. It can, for instance, provide feedback that our carelessness actually does do harm, a wake-up call. Accordingly we can choose change our practice, to practice more care in the future. This choice is itself a karmic action. Also, we can suffer guilt if we kill a deer or certainly if we kill a child. Merely witnessing the death of a child can also affect who we become, in a different way. Thoughts of guilt are themselves unskillful (in Buddhism) karmic actions that tend to follow established habit patterns, and will therefore vary enormously from person to person but when they arise have strong adverse effects on the future well-being.

      It will be fun in the coming weeks for the readership and me to explore such real-life(-like) cases.

  5. Randy Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    “The Buddha recommended avoidance of those rooted in Greed, Hatred or Delusion…”

    I believe I have a decent handle on what Greed is, although in my mind there is some concern about when enough is enough and when greed comes into play. Hatred is pretty easy for me to identify as well, but I have some serious concerns about how to identify what Delusion is. I mean gee, does a deluded person know they are deluded?

    Seriously now, I have been fooled numerous times in the course of this lifetime and I don’t ever remember being aware of it at the time.

    Any idea how a fool avoids being fooled?

  6. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Randy, on Tuesday you can read my next posting on “From Thought to Destiny: Thought.” This will probably answer your question inadequately, but at least set you up for an incisive follow-up question.

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