On Living Life Well: Echoes of the Words of the Buddha from the Theravada Tradition

On Living Life Well: Echoes of the Words of the Buddha from the Theravada Tradition

by John Ross Carter (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781928706892
Publisher: Pariyatti Publishing
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Pages: 420
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

John Ross Carter is a professor of philosophy and religion, the Robert Ho Professor in Asian Studies, and the director of Chapel House at Colgate University. He received the D.Litt degree (honorus causa) from Kelaniya University in Sri Lanka. He has published numerous articles and studies on the Theravada and the Japanese Pure Land traditions and is the cotranslator of Dhammapada. He lives in Hamilton, New York.

Read an Excerpt

On Living Life Well

Echoes of the Words of the Buddha from the Theravada Tradition

By John Ross Carter

Pariyatti Publishing

Copyright © 2010 John Ross Carter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-928706-90-8


Our Actions(Kamma)

G.D. Wijayawardhana

The late Professor G.D. Wijayawardhana, former holder of the most prestigious chair in Sinhala literature, at the University of Colombo, leads us into our consideration of what one must do to live life well. One begins by carefully considering one's actions, being keenly aware of one's intention and conscious of likely consequences. We learn that action, when understood this way, refers to "volitional acts of moral significance which find expression in thought, speech, and physical deeds...." With this insight into the significance of action, the talks begin.

The matter of kamma is very central in Buddhist thought. Most readers will have read something in English on this subject. I want to address this topic more from the point of view of a practicing Buddhist. So the considerations might not be so philosophical, but they represent the point of view of an ordinary Buddhist.

The word kamma is the Pali form, but we in Sri Lanka are more accustomed to the Sanskrit form, karma, since we have a tendency to use the Sanskrit forms in our Sinhala texts. For our purposes, the two forms are identical in meaning. The word karma means "action." Since action can be of so many kinds, the word would have many meanings. For example, karma could mean an occupation that a person is pursuing. It could be any social function or duty, even religious duties, expected of a person. In the Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary, there is a very long entry on kamma with numerous meanings offered for the word.

In this chapter we will not be so concerned with all the different meanings, but will concentrate on its more technical meaning of moral action which would bring on some effect (P. vipaka) either beneficial or nonbeneficial, either now or in a future birth. It would be best to leave the word karma untranslated, keeping in mind the technical sense in which we are using it.

The concept of karma is not confined to Buddhism alone. It was part and parcel of the religious traditions in the Buddha's day and also remains an important concept in the religious traditions of India today. Brahmanism and the Sanskrit Upanisads, Jainism, even the Sikh religion all share with Buddhism the concept of karma as moral action leading to results in one's present life or future lives. So karma was part of the common tradition which Buddhism acquired from the religious milieu of the time. Although karma, as it is understood in Buddhism today, is basically similar to the idea in other traditions, there are differences in the way it is presented. This makes the Buddhist understanding of karma unique.

Any moral action could be karma, but there is another aspect to it. It should be volitional — it should be an act done with definite intention. It is not ordinary action that one does, like driving a car down to the city. Such activity is a karma, but such activity has no question of morality involved. Similarly, if one accidentally treads upon a beetle and kills it, although technically an action, it does not come within the sphere of karma as we are considering it because the action was not the result of volition. Karma is a moralistic action that is volitional and is committed with a definite intention in mind.

There is a basic division in the notion of karma. Karma could be morally desirable, and as such it is called, in Pali, kusala kamma, "wholesome kamma," and includes all action that is conducive to beneficial or wholesome results. And there is akusala kamma, actions that are undesirable, not wholesome, and will lead to undesirable consequences. For example, an act of harming a person or slandering a person would be akusala kamma, an action leading to an undesirable effect. Whereas listening to the preaching of dhamma or looking after your elders or giving alms would be kusala kamma.

There is another category that is called avyakata kamma, meaning action that is not explained, action that is not defined. In this category are those actions that are neither wholesome nor unwholesome, neither moral nor immoral. Although the Buddha in his teachings presented this category of kamma for our consideration, at the moment it really does not matter.

Cetana is a Pali term for this volition that prompts kamma. Cetana can be translated as "one's will" or "one's desire." Actually the Buddha has placed so much emphasis on this cetana which stands behind karma that he has gone to the extent of saying, "I call cetanakarma," which means that fundamentally it is the volition behind it that would make an act good or bad.

For an act of kamma to be complete it should have volition behind it. If we consider killing, the texts give several prerequisites that should be completed for an act of killing to be an act of karma. One has to know that what is being killed is a sentient being. Then one has to make a definite effort to kill from one's own volition. And the texts continue the elaboration.

Kamma could be performed in various ways. There could be physical kamma, that is, an action of killing or stealing and so forth. These are bodily actions and are called kaya kamma, physical volitional action. Looking after one's aged parents would be a kaya kusala kamma. Killing an animal, say, would be a kaya akusala kamma. There are actions performed through words, verbal actions, called vaci kamma. or example, when a monk is preaching he is performing an act of vaci kamma. If one is stating a falsehood with the intention of harming or slandering someone, one is performing a vaci kamma that is akusala. The next process, the third, is mental kamma, mano kamma, an action completed by the mind. An example would be meditation, bhavana, a wholesome act of mano kamma. An action that is confined to the mind and does not involve the body or speech remains an action, kamma. What motivates karma? Three things: greed or craving (lobha), hate or animosity (dosa), delusion or lack of proper understanding (moha). These are the three motivating factors for akusala kamma.

Kamma means, therefore, volitional acts of moral significance which find expression in thought, speech, and physical deeds, and which are either desirable or undesirable, and which give results either immediately or in some stage of your cycle of existence. According to one's karma, it is said, a person fares in this cycle of existence, born as a being in a fortunate existence as in a heavenly world, or in an unfortunate existence in a state of suffering as in a life of an animal, or born as an intelligent or unintelligent being. Having a sickly disposition and the like are determined because of one's past karma at conception and even more so at the moment of one's death when one is leaving this life. Sometimes a person who has given himself to a life of unwholesome deeds, if he has committed some wholesome act in his lifetime and he can recall it and it appears in his mental processes at the time of his passing away, it is said that such would be conducive to his being born in a comfortable state. What really matters most is what enters your mental processes at the time of passing away.

Buddhism holds that the very continuance of one's existence in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, which goes on for innumerable years, is due to karma. Individuals, including the Buddha himself before he was born in his last birth, have to go through many rebirths in the cycle of samsara. So long as one's karmic force remains active, is not stopped by higher attainments or the realization of Nibbana, one continues in various stages of samsaric existence.

Karma would affect you in many ways. It can even modify character in this world, this very life itself. Whatever you do could help to modify your character in this life without having to await a next life. Or karma could, of course, lead to results in another existence. There are certain actions the fruits of which are experienced in this existence, in this very life itself (dihe- dhamma-vedaniya). There are numerous instances in stories in the texts where people experience the fruits of their good or bad actions in that very existence without waiting for their fruitions in a future life. An act of dana, an act of giving, which you perform while you yourself are in grave need, when you yourself are hungry and in need of food — but you have the magnanimity to give food to the Buddha or to an Arahant — sometimes that kind of action with the thought of sacrifice, and the sincere feeling that you have, could produce results in this very life, and thus might modify your future career. So even though you are destined to be a particular kind of person by the karmic force from your past birth, some wholesome act that you have performed in this life could change the whole course of events and then lead you to a better existence, a better disposition, a better character.

There are other karmas that would give fruition only in your next existence or not at all, that is, not further along in the samsaric process. There is a third kind of action which could produce an effect any time during your existence in samsara. One cannot anticipate exactly when it would arise to lead one to a worse or better state. There is a fourth category which is sometimes cancelled out. Although you have accumulated consequences of previous actions, there are other extraneous factors which intervene in the course of your life that do not bear any fruition but simply are cancelled out at a certain stage of your existence because of the force of other actions that you have performed.

There is a very interesting example in the story of Angulimala, mentioned in Buddhist texts, which is very well known in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Angulimala was a highwayman who killed so many people that he even lost count of the number. Being a very bright pupil, as a child he had gone to study under a certain teacher, who became aware that Angulimala would surpass him some day. He became jealous of his pupil's performance and thought of a ruse to get him killed. So he said to his pupil that the benefits of his learning would not arise unless he killed a thousand people. The teacher thought that in the course of attempting to kill that many people Angulimala would himself get killed. Goaded by this vicious thought, Angulimala began and continued killing people. He killed more than a thousand. However, because of the latent karmic force that destined him someday to meet the Buddha, to listen to his teaching and to become an Arahant in that very life, it so happened that while killing people, he came within the Buddha's vision and the Buddha decided to pay him a visit. The Buddha preached dhamma to him and Angulimala became an Arahant and realized Nibbana. Thus he brought an end to his existence in this life cycle.

Although it is a very serious action to kill a living being, for Angulimala, even though he had killed thousands of human beings, the whole karmic process of killing did not take effect because of his previous karmic energy. He was able to realize Nibbana and thus this activity of killing was cancelled out and had no further unwholesome effect on him. There is, then, this body of karma which, due to various extraneous factors that influence it, could just exhaust itself without giving any kind of fruition. With regard to these categories, therefore, an act either has to bear fruition in the period specified or not at all.

Karma also has intensity. Some karma is very strong and would certainly lead to good or bad results. These are called garuka, "heavy," karma, either good or bad. Such action has more potential to bear fruit at a certain stage. For example, an act of killing one's mother or father is a very serious karma which will definitely yield serious consequences in the next birth. It might not necessarily yield detrimental consequences in one's present life. One might be happy to inherit one's father's property by killing him. But certainly, in one's next birth one is going to pay for it. The consequences of these heavy karmas one cannot escape.

There are other karmas which one has been practicing over a long period of time. Going to the temple, listening to bana preaching, paying homage to the Buddha, and doing this over a long period of time so that it becomes one's second nature — this kind of karma also has its special specificity in bearing fruition. For example, a person on his deathbed has a tendency to bring into the mental faculties this karma that he or she has been practicing over long years and this will be conducive to his or her being born in a better state in his or her next birth. The action of practicing a particular set of karma, whether wholesome or unwholesome, over a long period of time so that it becomes second nature, has a very strong force of its own.

There is another kind of karma which one performs nearer the moment of death, which would stick in one's mind, which would recur in one's mind, which one would find hard to forget. That kind of action would also have a special effect as a contributing factor in determining one's future existence, because there is a likelihood of remembering it at the moment that one is leaving this world. So a wholesome karma on this occasion would certainly lead to a conception and birth in a favorable state.

Once again, there could be so many actions, karmas, that do not belong specifically to any of these categories but one simply acts and at some point or other there is the fruition. So, we believe that our life in samsara, whether we are to be born an endless number of times in samsara, or whether our samsaric existence which is, of course, suffering is going to be terminated soon, or whether we are being born in a favorable existence, all this is conditioned by our karmic energy or the way we have acted in this life and in previous existences.

This brings us to a very central problem in this whole view of karma which has been raised time and again and discussed through and through. That is whether karma in Buddhism is a fatalistic force, whether one can escape from it. If you have done good or bad deeds in the past, will retribution follow in any case? Do we have any control over it? Is there no personal effect that one can exert upon it? Whether one likes it or not, regardless of how one might strive to act against it, is it going to lead one to what one is destined for — in short is this whole idea of karma a fatalistic phenomenon from which one has no escape?

This was a question to which people have applied their minds in almost all religions of India. Most of the religions during the Buddha's time had something or other to say about this problem. For example, Jainism holds that karma is more or less an inevitable force that one must expiate at some stage. So if one is to escape the evils of karma one would have to undergo some mortification so that expiation is achieved. Without that the process would go on. The only escape was by means of undergoing rigorous penance because the karma has to yield its effect one way or other. In order to escape its effect in a future birth the only thing one could do would have to be voluntary, to subject yourself to intense self-mortification. Therefore through one's own conscious will one tries to get past some of these bad effects. Jainism preaches that the consequences of karma are inevitable; you will have it one way or the other. Of course they say that expiation is possible by means of voluntary self-mortification which would lead to some kind of escape, but it is really the hard way.

On the other hand, the Ajivakas, another ascetic sect existent at that time, strictly believed that karma has its consequences, whether one likes it or not. And the only way to recover from its effects is to go through endless life cycles in samsara and suffer for one's karma so that eventually the effects of all these karmas will be exhausted, and only then will one be able to find some kind of relief. There is expiration here through nearly endless cycles of life in samsara. Perhaps one might refrain from accumulating bad karma, but for what you have accumulated there is no solution other than going through the consequences in innumerable existences of life.


Excerpted from On Living Life Well by John Ross Carter. Copyright © 2010 John Ross Carter. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


What Must I Do to Live Life Well? John Ross Carter,
I Foundations for a Way of Life,
I Our Actions (Kamma) G.D. Wijayawardhana,
II The Three Characteristics (Tilakkhana) Mahinda Palihawadana,
III On "Dependent Origination" (Paticcasamuppada) with Special Reference to "Clinging" (Upadana) Mahinda Palihawadana,
IV The Four Noble Truths Mahinda Palihawadana,
Questions and Responses,
V Virtue, Concentration, and Insight (Sila, Samadhi, Pañña)—I Mahinda Palihawadana,
Questions and Responses,
VI Virtue, Concentration, and Insight (Sila, Samadhi, Pañña)—II (continued) Mahinda Palihawadana,
VII Liberation in Theravada Mahinda Palihawadana,
Questions and Responses,
VIII The Character of Buddhism According to the Canonical Texts (TIPITAKA) Venerable Dhammavihari,
IX The Therapeutic Quest Padmasiri de Silva,
X The Place of Ethics and Morality in Buddhist Thought P. D. Premasiri,
Questions and Responses,
XI Buddhist Insights into Human Rights L.P.N. Perera,
XII Wherein Do We Most Frequently Fail to Live as Buddhists? Lily de Silva,
Questions and Responses,
II In Practice,
XIII Buddhist Beliefs and Practices G. D. Wijayawardhana,
XIV Women in Buddhism Lily de Silva,
XV The Ceremony of Protection (Pirit) Lily de Silva,
XVI Buddhist Temple Worship W. S. Karunatillake with Venerable Dhammarakkhita,
XVII Lay Buddhist Rituals C. Witanachchi,
Lokiya: Happiness in this Life,
Samsaric: Happiness after Death,
Nibbanic Happiness,
XVIII Ritual and Meditation—Contrast or Convergence C. Witanachchi,
Questions and Responses,
XIX On Meditation: Questions and Responses Venerable Amarasiri with Venerable Dhammasara at Parama Dhamma Cetiya, Mt. Lavinia, Sri Lanka,
XX On Meditation Godwin Samanaratna,
III In Sri Lanka,
XXI The Arrival of the saNgha Mahinda Palihawadana,
XXII The Fusion of Ideologies Mahinda Palihawadana,
XXIII The Propensity to Violence Mahinda Palihawadana,
XXIV Buddhism and the Scientific Enterprise Mahinda Palihawadana,
XXV Sinhala Buddhist Literature G. D. Wijayawardhana,
Questions and Responses with G.D. Wijayawardhana, XXVI,
XXVII Historical and Cultural Background of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva A. B. Dissanayaka,
Appendix I In the Monastic Life,
On Becoming a Bhikkhu Venerable Paññasiha Mahanayaka Thera of the Maharagama Bhikkhu Training Centre (with Venerable Dhammavihari, interpreter),
A Conversation at Gätembe with Venerable Pollamure Sorata Thera,
Appendix II In Forms of Service,
Dimensions of Development in Sri Lanka A Welcoming Introduction to Marga Institute Victor Gunawardene,
Sarvodaya Cyril Fernando,
Questions and Responses,
Sri Lanka — A Very Interesting Country Marion Creekmore, U.S. Ambassador,
Questions and Responses,
Observations for Undergraduates in a Fascinating Country Teresita C. Schaffer, U. S. Ambassador,

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