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KAMMA AND REBIRTH

He, refraining from such views, grasps
at nothing in the world; and not grasping,
he trembles not; and trembling not, he by
himself attains to perfect peace. And he
knows that rebirth is at an end, that the
higher life has been fulfilled, that what had
to be done has been accomplished, and that
there is no more becoming.

Digha Nikaya XV - 68

KAMMA IS A SUBJECT people like to talk about, to speculate about with opinions and views concerning what we were in the past and what might become of us in the future ... about how our kamma affects someone else's, and so forth. What I try to do is point out how to use these. Kamma and rebirth are words – they're only concepts that point to something that we can watch. It's not a matter of believing in kamma or disbelieving, but of knowing what it really is.

Kamma actually means to do, and we can observe it by being aware of what we are conscious of in the moment. Whatever it is: whatever feeling or sensation, thought or memory, pleasant or unpleasant, it's kamma – something moving from its birth to its death. You can see this directly, but it's so simple that, of course, we would like to speculate about it: why do we have the kamma we do have, what happens if we aren't enlightened, will we be born in a higher realm if we practise hard, or will the kamma from previous lives overwhelm us? Or, we speculate about re-birth: what is it that carries on from one life to the next if there's no soul? If everything's anatta, how can 'I' have been something in a previous life and have some essence that is born again?

But if you watch the way things operate independently of yourself, you begin to understand that rebirth is nothing more than desire seeking some object to absorb into, which will allow it to arise again. This is the habit of the heedless mind. When you get hungry, because of the way you've been conditioned, you go out and get something to eat. Now that's an actual rebirth: seeking something, being absorbed into that very thing itself. Rebirth is going on throughout the day and night, because when you get tired of being reborn you annihilate yourself in sleep. There's nothing more to it than that. It's what you can see. It's not a theory, but a way of examining and observing kammic actions.

'Do good and you'll receive good; do bad and you'll receive bad.' We worry: 'I've done so many bad things in the past; what kind of result will I get from all that?' Well, all you can know is that what you've done in the past is a memory now. The most awful, disgusting thing you've ever done, that you wouldn't want anyone to know about, the one that, whenever anybody talks about kamma and rebirth, makes you think: 'I'm really going to get it for having done that' – that is a memory, and that memory is the kammic result. The additions to that – like fearing, worrying, and speculating – these are the kammic results of unenlightened behaviour.

What you do, you remember; it's as simple as that. If you do something kind, generous or compassionate, the memory makes you feet happy; and if you do something mean and nasty, you have to remember that. If you try to repress it, run away from it, get caught up in all sorts of frantic behaviour – that's the kammic result.

Kamma will cease through recognition. In mindfulness, you're allowing kammic formations to cease rather than recreating them, or annihilating them and recreating them. It's important to recollect that whatever you create, you destroy, and what you annihilate, you create – one conditions the other, just as the inhalation conditions the exhalation. One is the kammic result of the other. Death is the kammic result of birth, and all we can know about that which is born and dies is that it is a condition and not-self.

No matter what the memory might be, it's not-self. If you have the memory of murdering 999 people – that's just a horrendous memory now. Maybe you think, 'That's getting off too easy; somebody who's killed 999 people should suffer a long time and be punished and tormented!' But it's not necessary that we go to any lengths to punish anyone, because the punishment is the memory. As long as we remain ignorant, unenlightened, selfish beings, then we tend to create more kammic cycles. Our lack of forgiveness, lack of compassion, of trying to get even with 'those evil criminals' – that's our kamma: we have the kammic result of the miserable state of hatred.

As Buddhists, we take refuge in the Ultimate Truth, and in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha as conventional forms. This means that we have confidence in the Ultimate Truth, in the Uncreated and the Unconditioned – not in conceiving, but in recognising conditions as conditions, and allowing kammic formations to cease. We just keep recognising conditions, instead of being fascinated and creating more kamma around those conditions through fear, envy, greed and hatred. This is a gentle recognition that kammic formations are what we are not. There's nothing we can say about what we are, because in Ultimate Truth there are no beings: nobody is ever born or dies.

Our path of practice is to do good, to refrain from doing evil with body and speech, and to be mindful. Don't create complexities around it, or seek perfection in the realm of the senses. Learn to serve and help each other. Take refuge in Sangha by being confident of your intentions to be enlightened, to do good, to refrain from doing evil. Maybe you'll fail sometimes, but that's not your intention – and always allow others to fail. We may have ideas and opinions about each other, but give each other space to be imperfect rather than demand that everyone be perfect in order not to upset you. That's very Selfish, isn't it? But that's what we do, pick and choose: 'These are the ones we want; these are the ones we don't want.... These are worthy; these are unworthy... These are the ones that are really trying; these are the ones that aren't. . . .'

Now, for peace of mind, when somebody does something wrong, recognise it as a kammic formation. To think, 'How dare they do that? How dare they say that? How many years have I been teaching now, giving myself up for the welfare of all sentient beings and I don't get any thanks for it ... !' – that's an unpleasant mental state. That's the result of wanting everybody else never to fail me, to always live up to my expectations, or at least to cause me no problems – of wanting people to be other than they are. But if I don't expect you to be anything, I don't create anyone in my mind. If I think, 'That's so and so, who did this, and then he did that!' then I'm creating a person out of kammic conditions and I suffer accordingly with an unpleasant memory every time I see you. Now if you're ignorant and do that to me, and I do it back to you again, then we just reinforce each other's bad habits.

We break these habits by recognising them, by letting go of our grudges and memories, and by not creating thoughts around the vipaka [See Note 1], the conditions of the moment. By being mindful, we free ourselves from the burden of birth and death, the habitually recreated pattern of kamma and rebirth. We recognise the boring, habitual recreations of unsatisfactoriness, the obsessions with worry, doubt, fear, greed, hatred and delusion in all its forms.

When we're mindful, there's no attachment to ideas and memories of self, and creativity is spontaneous. There's no one who loves or is loved; there's no personal being that is created. In this way, we find the real expression of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity that is always fresh, always kind, patient and ever-forgiving of oneself and others.


Notes

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1. vipaka: just as kamma is the 'cause' or action, vipaka is the 'effect' or reaction/result.


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