To be happy, successful, and secure, we must first learn to see ourselves and the world as they truly are and should then shape our everyday activities in keeping with this view. We must also look for solutions to our problems in terms of the relationship of cause and effect, for the universal law of causality operates in the field of human behavior as much as it does in the physical world.
The foundation for a fruitful life is an understanding of the moral law of kamma. Kamma is volitional action, action that expresses morally determinate intentions or volitions. We need to recognize clearly that wholesome and unwholesome deeds produce corresponding good and bad results. As a person sows, so shall he reap. Good begets good, and evil begets evil. This retributive power is inherent in volitional action or kamma.
Kamma is also cumulative. Not only do our deeds generate pleasant and painful results, but in their cumulative force they also determine our character. The deeds we perform in any one life are transmitted to future lives in the form of dispositions. These dispositions constitute our character traits.
Inherent in the action is the power of producing its due result. This happens without the intervention or help of any external agency. Buddhism denies the existence of a Creator-God. Kamma is neither fate nor predestination, but our own willed action considered as capable of producing results. Understanding the kammic moral law of cause and effect, we will learn to control our actions in order to serve our own welfare as well as to promote the good of others.
There are ten unwholesome courses of action (akusala-kammapatha), deeds which originate from the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. These are: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, useless talk, covetousness, ill will, and false views. Contrary to these, there are ten bases of merit (puññakiriya-vatthu), deeds which spring from the virtuous qualities of detachment, goodwill, and wisdom, and which generate wholesome kamma: generosity, morality, meditation, reverence, service, transference of merit, rejoicing in the good deeds of others, hearing the Dhamma, expounding the Dhamma, and straightening out one’s views.
It is lack of right understanding and ignorance of the underlying laws of life that account for the prevalence of materialism in today’s world, even in the traditional homelands of the Buddha-Dhamma. When people become convinced that everything perishes at death, they lose sight of lofty ethical ideals and become indifferent to the long-range consequences of their deeds. Their entire lives revolve around the blind pursuit of sensual pleasures. Thus we find that today people worship money regardless of how it is earned, hunt for pleasure no matter where it is found, chase power and fame regardless of the cost to their personal integrity.
Ignorance of the law is no valid excuse in a court of law, and so it is with regard to the moral law of kamma: the law operates regardless of whether one believes in it or not, due effects following from their respective causes. Just as an infant will get burnt if it touches fire regardless of whether or not it understands the dangers in playing with fire, so those who violate the laws of morality will have to face the consequences when their kamma ripens, regardless of whether or not they accept the teaching of kamma.
Just as a shadow is connected with an object, so is rebirth connected with kamma. Craving (tanha), selfish desire, prompts us to do life-affirming deeds, kamma, volitional action. No force in nature is ever lost, and moral energy is no exception. So long as craving and ignorance remain in the mind, kamma must find expression at death. The inevitable fruit of craving for existence is rebirth.
Buddhism affirms the continuity of the individual life-flux at death, but denies the existence of a permanent soul. Mind is a flux of mental processes without any persisting core, yet this flux, though insubstantial, continues from life to life as long as it is driven on by the thirst for more becoming. The mind of a dying person, owing to the latent craving for continued existence, grasps at some object, idea, or feeling connected with an action done during his lifetime, and this grasping vitalizes an appropriate germ of life. The new form of life may be human or non-human, in keeping with the kamma or moral forces generated during the deceased’s lifetime. The germ of life kindled by the process of rebirth is endowed with an initial consciousness (called the patisandhicitta) in which lie latent all the past impressions, characteristics, and tendencies of that particular individual. Hence death leads to birth and birth to death. Rebirth is thus possible without a transmigrating soul.
The twin Buddhist doctrines of kamma and rebirth are the “middle way” that provides a satisfactory answer to the problem of life. The middle way avoids the extremes of theism and materialism, preserving moral accountability without the problems raised by positing an almighty yet benevolent God. A human being is the visible expression of his or her own past action. One is born from one’s past kamma, supported by one’s present kamma, and at death goes where one’s accumulated kamma leads one.
Buddhism teaches that human beings evolve according to the quality of the kamma they have performed during their lifetime. This supplies a rational basis for morality in place of the commandments of a Creator-God. According to the Buddha’s teachings, there can be regression (“kammic descent”) from the human plane to subhuman realms such as the animal world, and progress (“kammic ascent”) from the human plane to the heavenly planes. Taking into account the dangers of a fall to subhuman realms, one should always act with care. Virtue, based on a righteous code of conduct, protects one from regression and ensures spiritual progress.
A true follower of the Buddha accepts the moral law of kamma as just, recognizing it as the chief reason for the many inequalities among human beings in regard to health, wealth, and wisdom. He also learns to face life’s losses, disappointments, failures, and adversities calmly, without complaining; for he knows that they are the result of his own past misdeeds. If he asks himself: “Why has this happened to me?” the answer will be expressed in terms of action and result. He will try to solve his problems to the best of his ability and will adjust himself to the new situation when external change is not possible. He will not act rashly, nor fall into despair, nor try to escape his difficulties by resorting to drink, drugs, or suicide, as so often happens in Sri Lanka. Such conduct only shows emotional immaturity and ignorance of the Buddha’s teachings.
For a genuine Buddhist, then, one’s everyday activities, by way of thought, word, and deed, are more important than anything else in life. A proper understanding of the Buddhist moral law of kamma and rebirth is essential for happy and sensible living and for the welfare of the world. In the Buddha’s own words:
The slayer gets a slayer in his turn;
The conqueror gets one who conquers him;
The abuser wins abuse, the annoyer frets.
Thus by the evolution of the deed,
A man who spoils is spoiled in his turn.
— Samyutta Nikaya, Kosala Samyutta, trans. by Sir Robert Chalmers
Although we imagine ourselves to be a self — a real substantial individual — according to the Buddha’s teaching we are in reality nothing more than a flame-like process, an ever-changing combination of matter and mind, neither of which is the same for two consecutive moments. All the components of our being are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and devoid of self. Life is not a being, an identity, but a becoming; not a product, but a process. There is in actuality no doer, only a doing; no thinker, only a thinking; no goer, only a going.
The Buddha teaches us how to put an end to the beginningless cycle of rebirths in which we undergo the manifold kinds of suffering. The way to end the cycle is by removing the causes that drive it forward life after life. The principal cause is craving, which assumes many forms. Craving impels a person to engage in action (kamma) designed to satisfy the craving, yet as craving is essentially insatiable the result is rebirth.
Craving is a powerful mental force latent in all unenlightened beings. The cause of craving is ignorance (avijja) of the true nature of life: not knowing that life is an ever-changing process, subject to suffering, and totally devoid of a self or core. All life, wherever it is found, bears this same nature: a process stamped with the three marks of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and egolessness (anicca, dukkha, anatta).
The Buddha realized for himself the true nature of life and through this realization attained to something beyond life and death: a reality that is permanent, blissful, and deathless. This state cannot be described but has to be realized inwardly as a matter of direct personal experience; it has to be attained for oneself and by oneself. This ultimate reality, where thought expires in experience, is Nibbana, the goal of the Buddhist path.
The Buddha’s teachings may thus be condensed into these four verifiable truths, called the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause (i.e., craving), its cessation (i.e., Nibbana), and the way leading to cessation of suffering (i.e., the Noble Eightfold Path). These are eternal truths, truths that do not change and cannot change with time and place.
The only way for us to avoid unhappiness and dissatisfaction is to eliminate the craving that gives birth to it; for everything eagerly sought for and clung to is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever — no person, no object, no experience. Whatever arises must perish, and to cling to the perishable sooner or later ends in suffering. It is by no means easy to eliminate craving; in fact, it is the most difficult challenge of all. But when we do so, we will reach a state of inward perfection and unshakable calm.
We can reach the end of suffering by cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path in its three stages of morality, concentration, and wisdom — sila, samadhi, pañña. Morality purifies conduct and concentration makes the mind calm. When the mind is calm and concentrated, wisdom arises, clear insight, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are. With the arising of wisdom, craving in all its forms is forever destroyed; the flame of life is then extinguished for want of fuel. The Unconditioned has been won — Nibbana, which is deathless, blissful, and real.
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of the following eight factors, inter-related and inter-connected, ordered into three groups:
Wisdom group (pañña)
- Right understanding: knowledge of the true nature of life; understanding the Four Noble Truths.
- Right thought: thought free from sensuality, ill-will, and aggression.
Morality group (sila)
- Right speech: abstinence from falsehood, slander, harsh speech, and useless words.
- Right action: abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
- Right livelihood: avoiding any means of livelihood that involves harm or exploitation of others.
Concentration group (samadhi)
- Right effort: training the mind to avoid unwholesome mental states and to develop wholesome mental states.
- Right mindfulness: developing the power of attentiveness and awareness in regard to the “four foundations of mindfulness” — body, feelings, mind, and mental phenomena.
- Right concentration: cultivation of one-pointedness of mind.
These eight factors summarize the Buddha’s teaching and its practice. They are the very heart of the Buddha-Dhamma. It is not enough to know and admire the Dhamma; it must be practiced in daily life, for the difficulty of knowing what is right is nothing compared to the difficulty of putting it into practice. We really know something only when we do it repeatedly, when we make it part of our nature. The practical side of the Dhamma is the threefold training in morality, concentration, and wisdom, which collectively constitute the Noble Eightfold Path, the “middle way” discovered by the Blessed One for the realization of Nibbana.
Monastics and laypeople alike tread the same path. Both start from the same foundation, right understanding; both pursue the same goal, Nibbana. The only difference lies in the degree of commitment to the practice and the pace of progress. But whether as a layperson or as a monk, the systematic practice of the Eightfold Path will foster the growth of the wholesome qualities leading to liberation — generosity, goodwill, and wisdom. As these qualities gradually reach maturity, they will weaken and finally snap the fetters of greed, hatred, and delusion which have held us for so long in bondage to the round of rebirth and suffering.