節錄自085 期 2006.03.20 Jenkir Shih
異鄉手記The Modifiability of Karma
We are the heirs and owners of our karma. Through being present and awake to our intention at the beginning of an action, we can reshape and direct the patterns of our mind, and then change the karma in our life.
More than two thousand and five hundred years ago, Buddha sent a hopeful message addressing the caste hierarchy of India : it is not your birth that decides if you are noble or lowly; it is your karma (kamma in Pali) that decides what you will be. Karma is a vast and profound topic in Buddha’s teaching.
What is karma?
The word karma comes from the Sanskrit verbal root kṛwhich means “to make, perform, accomplish, prepare, undertake.” The noun form ‘karman’ literally means “action, performance, activity.” or “religious act or rite”.
To gain a better understanding of karma in Buddha’s teaching, it will be helpful to relate it to the cultural and historical context first. At the time of the Buddha, the notion that karma brings result and the doctrine of transmigration were deeply ingrained in Indian religion. According to the classic Vedic sacrificial religion, if the gods are pleased, they will grant good fortune. The fundamental rationale of the whole sacrificial system is that correct ritual actions will bring about desired results: the well-being of the individual, society and universe. The good or bad deed that one performs in this life will decide if one’s next life is fortunate or unfortunate. However, how to tell if the deeds are good or bad is based on correctly or incorrectly performing the ritual action.
The Buddha assimilated the notion of rebirth in a series of lives, but transformed the concept of karma from the ritual level to the ethical level, from outer performance to inner power. In Anguttara-Nikaya Buddha gave this definition: “It is volition (cetana), monks, that I call kamma. For having willed, one performs an action through body, speech and mind.” Buddha said that karma is volition, because it is the motivation behind the action that directs the karmic result. Through our volition we can shape the patterns of our mind and perform the action of mind, the action of speech and the action of body
In the context of Buddha’s teaching, karma is not only a single action, but also a dynamic process in our life. The law of karma is the law of cause and effect. Everything we do must produce results which we will have to experience sooner or later. Two twin verses indicate precisely the principle of karma in the opening sentences of the great Dhammapada :
All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).
All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves.
The Buddha’s teaching inspires us to pay attention to how our mind creates our own world and shapes our destiny. Karma is certain and definite. The consequence of our actions will definitely be experienced. Thus, men become heirs of their own deeds.
Is karma modifiable?
When we consider the strict lawfulness of karma, another question arises. “Is karma fatalism?” “Is it modifiable?” I would like to answer this question by relating the following fable:
In a small village lived two people. Because of their stealing, they were punished by having two big letters, “ST”, carved on their foreheads. One of them thought that he was doomed to failure all the time; then, he abandoned himself to drinking and committing more robberies. Consequently, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and was called “Super Thief”. However, another one believed that he could create a new life. Even though at first abuse rained down on him again and again, he didn’t resist it. He considered the scolding as an alarm to warn him to be benevolent diligently towards people. After ten years, people respected and loved him; they called him “SAINT”.
The story shows us the law of cause and effect: in one short moment, an individual can respond poorly to a situation and begin a negative chain of karma. And in one short moment, he can make a wise choice through right mindfulness. The “saint” character took all the responsibility for what was happening to him (the karma of result), and did not form new ill intentions toward the people who insulted him nor did he underestimate himself (the karma of cause). On the contrary, he respected every new moment of his life (the karma of cause), and was able to find a path filled with opportunity (the karma of result).
Thus, we can see two dimensions of karma: (1) Our past karma, which is unchangeable. (2) Our future new karma, which we can change by our present actions. Asserting that all the effect of the bad karma can be mitigated, Francis Story said “People believe in determinism, fatalism, merely because they see results, but do not see causes.”
The Ven. Nyanaponika also states clearly that the lawfulness of karma is not rigid. Karma is modified as it ripens by both external and internal factors. Between the cause and effect, a lot of changeable conditions exist. A karma event may have its result strengthened by supportive karma, weakened by counteractive karma, or even abolished by destructive karma. If the combination of all the causes and conditions required has not ripened yet, the result can also be delayed. At the same time, the delay may give another opportunity for supportive karma, counteractive karma, and destructive karma to operate. In addition, the Ven. Nyanaponika said, “The ripening also reflects the kamma’s ‘internal field’ or internal conditions—that is, the total qualitative structure of the mind from which the action issues. To one rich in moral or spiritual qualities, a single offence may not entail the weighty results the same offence will have for one who is poor in such protective virtue.”
The fact that karmic results are modifiable frees us from determinism and fatalism, and keeps the road to liberation constantly open before us.
The Buddha’s interpretation of karma had the profound meaning of making us responsible for our own spiritual progress. We are the heirs and owners of our karma. Through being present and awake to our intention at the beginning of an action, we can reshape and direct the patterns of our mind, and then change the karma in our life. Therefore, through simple awareness of intention moment to moment, we can transform our personalities, overcome the limitation of our lives and create new patterns of well-being.