From Thought to Destiny: Habits as Karma

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon, September 16, 2010.

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

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with renunciation, abandoning thinking imbued with sensuality, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with renunciation. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with non-ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with non-ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmlessness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmfulness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmlessness.” Dvedhavitakka Sutta, MN 19

We sow thoughts and reap acts. The verse after which this series of postings is named tells us we sow acts to reap habits. Actually habits are generally shaped as a cumulative consequence of many actions. This section begins to look at habits. In the following weeks we will turn to the character and then the destiny mentioned in the verse, all of which flow from our actions.

The Products of Karma. Karma, in its base meaning, is volitional action. Actually since actions can be of mind as well as of speech and of body, karma can be volition (thought) with or without physical act. We have seen that thoughts are classified as skillful or unskillful (or neutral), and that unskillful thoughts tend (1) to be experienced as painful, (2) to distort my perceptions and (3) to lead to harmful consequences when I enact them. For instance, if I get angry at you, this is immediately stressful for me mentally (dukkha). Under this mental condition you are likely to appear before me as either a jerk or a schmuck, rather than the good supportive friend that would otherwise stand there. This compound condition might induce me to perform an unskillful action, for instance, to break the pencil you are using in two and to throw the two pieces onto the floor (That’ll show you!) or to issue an abusive slur (That’s telling you!), which is harmful to you and will also lead to further regret for me especially after you have remorphed back into your normal more amicable form.

With regard to (3), we have seen that our actions lead to beneficial, or harmful results according to the triple criteria (a) of precepts, (b) of seeking benefit and (c) of encouraging or discouraging purity of mind. In the scenario just painted I would violate the precept of not taking what is not given or of right speech. I would also fail to use kindness and wisdom in order to seek benefit for all. Finally I would fail to purify the mind, instead probably reinforcing a bad habit, widening a fault in my character, maybe influencing my rebirth and chances for reaching Nirvana, and possibly leading later to an additional unfavorable experiential result. It will be helpful to clearly distinguish beneficial or harmful results into two groups, which I will call External and Internal results or consequences. Seeking benefit (b) focuses on external results, that is, harm or benefit in the world, Purity of mind focuses on internal results, that is, the consequences of an action for the actor’s personal development, including how it helps shape habits, character and destiny, and the actor’s future experiences. Notice that external results also impinge on the actor, but through a different channel. In a huff of anger I might feed what you have been fixing for lunch to the dog (a demonstrative stance to make some point the nature of which I will probably soon forget). This has an external result that both you or I go hungry, and an internal result that I reinforce my tendency toward anger, that I experience later remorse, etc.

The word “karma,” and now “karmic,” has extended meanings. Many words extend meanings by association; this is called metonymy. For instance, the word “cup” in its root sense is used to describe a kind of container for (generally hot) liquids. However, it also is used to describe an amount of liquid, an amount typically contained in a cup. It is also used to describe other cup-shaped things, that may contain other sometimes non-liquid things, like a breast, for example. It is even used as a verb to describe a position in which hands together form something like the shape of a cup. The word “karma” is similarly used to describe things that carry forward into the future as a result of kamma in its root sense. These are exactly the internal results, that is, they impinge on the personality, the acting agent. The idea is that every action leaves a residue, that you are the heir of your actions. So “karma” is used to describe later habit patterns that develop under the influence of our volitional acts, any other factors that carry over to effect our character, then ultimately our destiny, insofar as this is shaped by our actions, including our capacity for realizing Nirvana.Internal results are also called Karmic results. The rest of this series of postings is almost exclusively about understanding karmic results.

Now, there is a simple method that if followed scrupulously will result in the most virtuous habit patterns, a sparklingly clear character, and a destiny headed directly toward Nirvana. This is simply the practice of only acting on the basis of skillful thoughts, never on the basis of unskillful thoughts, the continuous practice of virtue in every situation, the practice of making your every action a selfless gift. “Simply” here means simple to describe, unfortunately not simple to live up to. A lot gets in the way, including our responses to external conditions, our own delusive perception, our laziness, our lack of faith in the efficacy of such a way of being in the world. Instead we do the best we can. The precepts and the ability externally track harm and benefit can help keep us pointed in the right direction, and so can the evolution of our karma in all of the extended senses. So understanding how our actions influence our personal development, our habits, our character and our destiny, also help us in choosing our actions. Our choice of actions are our practice, and the study of karma it its various senses is to develop an understanding of the Buddhist model of human development, which is necessary for fully understanding the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths. We use the words Merit and Demerit or Meritorious and Demeritorious to quantify the karmic influence of our actions.

Habits as Karma.

The bread and butter products of our karmic acts are the development of our (karmic) habit patterns, and this is the topic of today’s episode. Here Buddhism assumes a very commonsense model of behavioral learning: If you do something over and over, you get in the habit of doing that thing, that is, you are even more likely to do it over and over in the future; you will be better at it, it will be more natural. An analogy is the rut that a cart wheel makes in a road. With time a rut develops through repeated trips of the cart and that enforces more and more the habitual path of the wheel. Almost all of Buddhist practice works on this principle.

For instance, each time I steal something, I am reinforcing my tendency to steal, and as I reinforce that tendency I am increasingly likely to steal in the future. I can turn myself rather quickly into an habitual thief. Similarly, each time I give something away selflessly I am reinforcing my tendency toward generosity. Each time I get on a bike without falling over I am moving myself more and more toward being like Lance Armstrong. Each time I act like a buddha I become more like a buddha. Each time I drink alcohol I move myself in the direction of alcoholism. All things being equal, the action creates or reinforces the habit and the habit in turn disposes one toward the action. On the other hand, if I fail to reinforce a habit the associated impulse will slowly fade, like atrophying muscles. For instance, if I have an angry disposition, by avoiding acting out of anger I will gradually come to be a less angry person and will eventually no longer even recognize that as an aspect of my character. Simple. If I as a matter of practice stop channel surfing my habit of channel surfing will begin to recede. If I stop gossiping I will later have less of an impulse to gossip. To develop skillful habits we choose skillful actions and avoid unskillful actions. Our skillful habits will then incline us toward skillful actions, they will come more naturally with less effort. Practice virtue and we become more virtuous, practice stillness and we become by nature still.

Developing Skillful and Losing Unskillful Habits. The task of losing an unskillful habit is exemplified by an alcoholic on the path of abandoning that habit. He might join Alcoholics Anonymous as a source of advice and support. Buddhism is Samsara Anonymous, and in fact alcoholism is just one of the more vexing of the many thousands of samsaric attachments, so the program is actually similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. We begin by recognizing the faults in our habit patterns, generalizing from a keen awareness of the faults in our actions and in our motivations. Repentance is the important factor, which in Buddhism is to fully acknowledge our unskillful acts. This is by no means in order to develop a sense of guilt, which would be an unskillful thought, but rather with the same purpose of someone trying to improve his putt: He needs to acknowledge when the ball has gone into the hole and when it has not; dishonesty or denial only cheats himself.

Each unskillful act arises out of conditions. Interrupt any of those conditions and the act will not arise. Most importantly, should you sow an unskillful thought, you do not actually have to reap an unskillful act; if anger arises, resist the impulse to act out the anger long enough for it to fall again; if greed arises, resist the impulse to act out the greed long enough for it to fall again. Following precepts can itself become a habit pattern that furnishes this resistance to unskillful impulses; basically your behavior follows a clear script regardless of what volitional thoughts might arise. Secondarily, if an unskillful thought arises, you can transform that thought into something skillful by reconsidering the preceding thought. Thoughts of hatred and revenge, for instance, can be transformed into compassion by implicating pain and suffering in the motives of the one who made you mad. Working directly with thoughts establishes new thought habit patters; recall that the volitional thoughts themselves are karma.

You can instead learn to sow skillful thoughts directly, which will tend to displace the unskillful. For instance, you can use metta meditation to establish thought patterns pointed toward loving-kindness for all beings, even those we would otherwise identify as enemies. Stillness and mindfulness are skillful thought patterns that you can develop through meditation. Precepts also have the tendency to encourage skillful thought patterns. There is a tendency for the mind to attune itself to the body (or to speech) just as there is a tendency for the body to attune itself to the mind. So, for instance, you might scrupulously follow the precept not to kill any sentient being initially with no motivation other than to follow the precepts. After a while, pure motives of loving-kindness will begin to fill themselves in as you continue to follow this precept, displacing any inner grumbling you might have about the “stupid precepts.” Following rites and rituals will tend similarly to clear away any unskillful thoughts that you might have since such thoughts are not attuned to what the body is doing. Rites and rituals like food offerings to the Buddha might have no external benefit, yet as enactments tend to be filled in by corresponding skillful volition, and therefore bring internal benefit.

Our external conditions tend to exert a strong influence on our behavior. Therefore changing those conditions can change the habit patterns we develop or lose. If we are alcoholics or smokers trying to clean up our act it is best not to frequent bars and night clubs or visit drinking or smoking friends. Right Livelihood is the avoidance of workplace conditions that obligate us to engage in unskillful behaviors, like slaughtering animals. Avoidance of angry people and stressful conditions will discourage the arising of anger and thereby the acting out of anger and the development of angry habit patterns. Many conditions of modern society are poorly conducive to skillful thought, action or habit. Employment is largely a matter of what has been called wage slavery in which the employee has little freedom to make his own decisions, works largely for the benefit and under the absolute authority of others, and therefore suffers a constant sense of resentment, spilling over into anger. Red tape and red lights make it difficult to get things done, cars, insurance, traffic tickets, long commutes are ways of life that cause much frustration. In general life has a kind of stuckedness we call Samsara, such that whenever we demand something of the world, the world demands more back from us, which escalates our demands. We desire a shiny new wide-screen TV, we are obligated to work more or go into debt. We worry about its durability and the day it will lose its shine, so we buy an extended warranty and worry about the possibility of theft. So we buy a home security system, go further into debt, and fear all the more for our financial security, and become infuriated should we lose our jobs. Tension leads to craving for distractions and we begin to overeat or drink ourselves silly. Because of this behavior our spouse eventually leaves us. It goes on and on, little of which is conducive to the cultivation of skillful personal qualities. This is the infamous Rat Race. Monastic practice and any progress we make in renunciation of the various points of stuckedness in samsaric existence are signficant contributors to developing skillful thoughts, actions and habits.

In summary, karma is the key to the entire path and should be understood and practiced , as the Buddha says, “seeing danger in the slightest fault.” We might extend this to seeing benefit in the slightest virtue. Habit is the most immediate and observable results of our karmic actions. I will post one more essay on Habit, next uposatha day, in order to consider two questions important for the overall understanding of karma. First, Can habit patterns have non-karmic roots? This is relevant to our understanding or interpretation of rebirth. Second, How do we experience our habit patterns? This is important to our understanding of the Law of Karma, aka, the Fruition of Karma, the often observed retributive aspect of karma. Both of these themes will be fully developed when we discuss Destiny.

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