From Thought to Destiny: Action (Karma)

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter Moon, August 18, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”

To avoid evil,
To do good,
To purify the mind.
This is the advice of all Buddhas.
Dhammapada, 183

In Buddhism it is in our deeds that the rubber meets the road. And deeds unfold from thoughts as their forerunner, from our intentions and impulses to the very way we conceptualize reality. To what end? So that we become masters of Doing the Right Thing.

I should note that to many who first approach Buddhism are not so much interested in become a Saint as they are in being personally happy, or at least less miserable. In Buddhism these two aspirations are actually identical. People used to say, in an innocent age, What’s Good for General Motors is Good for the U.S.A. In Buddhism, What’s Good for General Beings is good for U.M.E. To the extent that we consider the two aspirations to be at cross purposes, we will achieve neither.

Let’s get clearer about what actions are. Actions are commonly listed as coming in three colors in Buddhism:

  • Actions of Body. These are perhaps the most typical, driving a car, eating, browsing the Internet.
  • Actions of Speech. I presume the Buddha included Speech as a separate category in order to underscore how much power the word has in human affairs. Otherwise there is sometimes a tendency to discount speech: Sticks and Stones can Break my Bones but Names can never Hurt me, and Actions Speak louder than Words. But not always: The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.
  • Actions of Mind. I presume the Buddha included the category of Mind to underscore the need to watch the mind even when it is not spinning off physical actions, particularly because thoughts by themselves can help shape habit patterns, character and destiny. For instance, simply entertaining angry thoughts can turn into angry habit patterns, and into an angry character.

For the Buddha actions (karma) are always harvested from thoughts, that is, characterized by volition (cetena). An act of speech is set in motion by an intentional thought, perhaps a by desire to serve with good advice, or by a malicious desire to spread gossip. And act of body is triggered similarly, perhaps by anger, by a desire to acquire or by a desire to give. Now, an act of mind is pure volition that does not translate into visible action, for instance, plotting a revenge that will never happen or daydreaming about ice cream.

An action that is not volitional at all falls outside the scope of karma altogether. Things that are not karma would include involuntary responses, things done while unconscious or asleep, or things done otherwise without volition. In short, in karma one must first sow a thought before reaping an act.

The verse at the beginning of this post enumerates the three practices of Buddhist ethics. Ethics or Right Conduct permeates Buddhism and it is conducted and developed on many levels, physical, affective and cognitive. “To avoid evil” refers to the practice of following Precepts. “To do good” refers to the practice of seeking Benefit. And “to purify the mind” refers to the practice of developing Virtue. These provide the guidelines for sowing acts, and in the order given are progressively more sophisticated and challenging.

To Avoid Evil (Precepts)

This practice essentially follows codes of conduct. Traditionally lay people throughout the Buddhist world take five Precepts, as follows:

  1. Not to kill living things,
  2. Not to take what is not given,
  3. Not to commit sexual misconduct (generally adultery),
  4. Not to tell a falsehood, and
  5. Not to consume an intoxicant.

There are alternative sets for different circumstances or levels of practice commitment. Monastics follow an extensive set of precepts.

Precepts are almost invariably stated as abstentions, for instance, “do not kill,” rather than “protect life,” etc., which is why they are summarized with the phrase “to avoid evil.” They also almost always regulate actions of Body and Speech but not of Mind.

In Buddhism precepts are a matter of Vow, that is, they are undertaken voluntarily as an individual decision, rather than imposed by a God or a Pope or other authority. Although their appearance may be similar, practicing with precepts thereby involves a gentle sense of personal responsibility that differs from following the commandments of other religions.

Weaknesses of precepts as a guide to ethical conduct are that they generally allow loopholes and they don’t permit appropriate exceptions, that is, they are porous and rigid. Advantages are that they are sharply defined and that, as such, are easy to learn and remember for the young or beginning Buddhist, that they clearly highlight some problem areas in human conduct, that they don’t require detailed understanding of the circumstances in which one proposes to act, and that they do not demand regulating the mind in any refined way, which would be a much more challenging task than regulating body or speech.

Following precepts however requires discipline. Precepts generally do not refer directly to the thoughts behind one’s actions. However, the main challenge in following Precepts comes from the demands of one’s unskillful thoughts, which must often be brought under control in one way or another in order to act in accordance with the precept, for instance, in order not to steal a cookie while struggling with an enormous sweet tooth. Also, violations of Precepts occur only with intention, that is, as karma. Accidently sitting on Puff, the family cat, cannot violate the Precept against killing living beings.

To Do Good (Benefit)

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.
“… if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.
MN 61

The practice of doing good is to assess the overall benefit for self and others of potential actions and to choose to act accordingly. One might see a turtle in the road while driving, stop and move it to the side if it is not too dangerous to do so; one might cook a meal for one’s family; one might rescue a flood victim from rising waters.

Doing Good generally results from some skillful thoughts, rooted in compassion, good-will and renunciation. It also often requires moderation of unskillful thoughts, rooted in greed and hatred and delusion, that might overwhelm one’s plans with self-centered motives. Finally, it works best with a skillful clear assessment of the circumstances and likely benefits and costs of the proposed action. More generally this can be seen as manifesting concern for the well-being of every being, that is, of showing loving-kindness and compassion in all one’s actions, without bias to self or other, family or friend or stranger.

Characteristic of Doing Good is the absence of a clear level of obligation. Some people use all of their available energy feeding the homeless, adopting rescue dogs, campaigning for Universal Health Care, while others, for no apparent lack of good-will, sit at home, read the news and fret. Sometimes people are lazy or just lack imagination or self-confidence. Others are clever in reasoning that it is not their problem, but someone else’s responsibility. The point is whereas Precepts alone tend to produce a uniformity in behavior, Doing Good does the opposite.

To Purify the Mind (Virtue)

Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. AN 5.57

Precepts and Benefit are practices found in most religions. Purifying the Mind has some aspects that are uniquely Buddhist. Purifying the Mind is forward looking; it’s task is to develop Virtue, a character fine-tuned physically, affectively and cognitively to live harmlessly and for the benefit of all. The focus in Virtue turns from external acts and looks inward, to purifying thoughts in order to end personal suffering, to let go of the delusions of the self with its demands for personal advantage and to set the conditions for acting harmlessly and beneficially in the world in the future.

Purifying the Mind is the perfection of the human character, and it employs every practice and technology available in the Noble Eightfold Path. In particular, it takes Avoiding Evil and Doing Good as foundations. The latter are included in Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, that is, the training in Right Conduct. In addition it works closely with the mind so that skillful thoughts dominate more and more, and Eventually (with a big ‘E’) unskillful, unwholesome thoughts are absent. This is done through Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, that is, the training in Cultivation of Mind or Meditation. Finally the enormous human capacity for delusion, misperception, rationalization and distortion are met with Right View and Right Intention, that is, the trainings in Wisdom.

Briefly, Developing Virtue involves Doing Virtue, that is Avoiding Evil and Doing Good, as much as anything else, just as becoming a master potter involves throwing pots more than anything else. But attention is given all the while to the overall shape of the character, and further training in Meditation and Wisdom takes place out of the shop, just as a potter might attend classes in color and design to round out her skills.

The development of Virtue adds another significant element to practice of Right Conduct. When I choose an action it is not enough to ask, Does it respect the Precepts? and Is it Beneficial? Now I must also ask, What are the consequences for my character? For whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. To assess this I must closely track my own intentions. These along with what I actually do are Karma, and to that I will fall heir. For instance, if I do something out of spite, that will leave a trace in my personality: If I do this often I will slowly acquire a Habit of spitefulness. If I continue to exercise this habit spitefulness will eventually begin to color my Character, even my appearance and I will gain a reputation as a spiteful person. Beyond that my Destiny will be shaped and Nirvana will become quite distant. So I try to avoid doing anything that involves spite, or any unskillful thought.

The theme of the present Uposatha Day series, From Thought to Destiny, will build for the most part on the practice of developing Virtue, or Purifying the Mind. But next week let me discuss Precepts and Benefit a bit more, since in these three practices together the rubber meets the road. Subsequently I will go on to reconsider Virtue, then Habit, Character and Destiny, which tell us where the road is taking us.

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