The Right over the Fruit of Action – on Karma and its Effects
The Tathagata’s mother, Mahaprajapati Gotami, asked him, “O Bhagavan, could you please teach me the Dharma in brief such that, having heard the Dharma from Bhagavan, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute.”
To this the Tathagata responded (saṅkhitta gotamiyovãda sutra, anguttara nikaya),
Gotami, as for the dharmas (path / deeds / thoughts) which you may know as, ‘These dharmas lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontentment; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dharma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.
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In essence, the Tathagata instructs,
Look into the state of your own mind. See how your thoughts, words and deeds affect your mind. See how its aftershocks ripple through the stream of your mind. There, you know which actions can lead you to happiness and which lead to suffering. That is the simplest method for greater freedom and happiness.
Whichever thoughts, words and deeds that make the mind lighter are the right karma (intentional actions of mind, speech and body).
Whatever settles the mind into a state of simplicity and clarity, instead of leading to more complex emotions, disturbances and confusion, is indeed the right karma.
Whichever motivation and actions that leave us blissful and contented even in solitude are indeed the right motivation and actions.
With the cultivation of the right motivation and actions, the wisdom of discernment shines forth. Then, even solitude becomes blissful, and performing actions in this world for the benefit of others becomes even more blissful and relaxing. The wisdom to discern right and wrong based on the consequence of actions is indeed the key to greater freedom and happiness. In this way, we also have the power to bring peace and happiness to the world through our actions.
It brings another question that is discussed widely in India, “Is it correct to do an action with the motivation of reaching a goal?”
Often, in religious and spiritual circles it is told that one should do one’s duties without the
motivation for attaining the result of karma and that our right is only on our duties and not on its fruits. We will come back to the fallacies of this view later.
First, let us dispel another myth. Many, who never learnt Buddhism, think that Buddhism promotes inaction. We shall address this misunderstanding first. The Tathagata showed a path of doing the right actions with the right motivation and the right effort. It is a path of mindfulness, conscientiousness and vigilance. Whether it is the short term goal of finding happiness in this life, or the final ‘goal’ of total freedom in the great evenness beyond all hopes and fears, it is attained through careful actions done with the right motivation. The Tathagata taught that we not only have the power to do actions (karma), but also the power to reach a goal through careful actions.
How does that power come about? Let us be clear. Just craving for the fruit will not bring it. Just praying will not bring it. For example, if you want a mango tree on your land, a mango seed needs to be planted in appropriately prepared soil and then watered and cared for. Without a mango seed, no matter how much you crave or pray on the spot, a mango tree does not sprout up. Instead, disappointment and suffering sprout up. Likewise, to be free from suffering, we need to eliminate the weeds that otherwise grow into the thorny shrubs of suffering. To be happy, we should discern its causes, sow those causes as the seeds of positivity. and thus carefully cultivate a happy mind.
Just focusing on the result, is disastrous because we forget to create the causes. That becomes craving. There is only the desire for a fruit, and no visibility into its causes. For example, when we crave and look out for happiness, we forget to shape the mind for happiness, and end up sowing the seeds of discontentment. So, the focus on the result alone is not good. But, that does not mean that we remain indifferent about the goal. How can we identify the right action if we do not care the goal to which it should lead!
The right approach is to identify causes based on the goal, and then to work on its causes. Then, let those causes gradually grow into the result. You plant a mango seed because you want a mango tree. You will water and nurture the plant, and check that it is growing healthy. But, it does not help if you expect a mango fruit to appear on the day-one or try to squeeze a mango out of a sapling.
Now let us come back to the fallacy of the idea of doing action without motivation for the result.
Many people think that they need to blindly do the duties as prescribed in some religious texts or based on their caste and race. By following that, they do not get the expected results. Then, they speculate that a God is intervening to judge and give fruits based on His or Her will. They imagine the discrepancy between expected result and the actual result to be caused by God’s Will. For them, the choice is only ‘to do or not to do’ the duties. Beyond that they imagine that the future is in the hands of a God. Thinking in this way, they remain in bondage. They philosophize that the human role ends in just doing the duties as prescribed somewhere.
Think about it. You sow spinach seeds, but along with spinach seedlings you see the sprouts of weeds. Do you take the weeds to be God-given, remain indifferent of the result and let the weeds overtake and cover the whole field? Or, is it prudent to weed out the soil and plan to have a good harvest of spinach? That also applies to our happiness, sufferings, and various emotions.
The worst happens when such religious duties involve killing animals for sacrificial rituals, taking war as the sacred duty of a caste, killing humans to protect religion, suppressing sections of society in the name of enforced duties, etc. While none of these bring any genuine happiness, they keep hoping that the God will reward after this life. How can we even assess the authenticity of this hope and the efficacy of these duties unless we check the result of actions!
Likewise, to be free from suffering, we need to eliminate the weeds that otherwise grow into the thorny shrubs of suffering. To be happy, we should discern its causes, sow those causes as the seeds of positivity. and thus carefully cultivate a happy mind.
The Buddha’s teaching dispels such confusions. Siddhartha, the seeker of freedom, observed the ripples that occur in the stream of mind after an action. He saw how these ripples build up over time and mold the person of tomorrow. He saw that the intention behind the action powered these ripples. He could see the direct connection between actions and results. There was nothing there for a God to fill in. Then, as Tathagata – the Awakened One who passed beyond confusion – he taught the way of discerning the consequence of actions and making intelligent choices.
The fruits of actions are indeed in our hands because we can choose the right action mindfully, conscientiously and with ease. We don’t need to remain in the shackles of fate, caste, religion or race. There is no need to blindly follow any scripture. No need to perform the duties prescribed in those without examining their consequences. No need for us to be slaves of any tradition. A life of conscientiousness and awareness can easily lead us to greater freedom.
Another question might arise now, “Since karma sets in motions the ripples within the stream of our minds, are we destined to remain slaves to the numerous negative karmas that we already committed in the past?”
The answer is no. There are ways to pacify and set right the waves of turbulence building up within one’s own mind-stream. There is always a way to weed out the farm before it become full of thorny shrubs. It is the best if the soil itself is prepared not to have many weeds. If not, as weeds begin to show up, we can remove them instead of waiting for them to grow and cover the entire field. That is also how we can clean up the mind for greater happiness and freedom. The Tathagata taught how to transform our being by pacifying those turbulences and opening up to greater wisdom that is in the very nature of our minds.
Mindfulness is a powerful and simple practice that the Buddha gave to the world to accomplish this. Through cultivating mindfulness, we become continually aware of the state of our minds. That alone is sufficient to stay in the right course of action and result.
This journey with clear discernment of the consequence of actions, lead us to freedom, wisdom and compassion that we experienced never before. To point out this innate ability and freedom that we possess, is indeed the very essence of Buddha Dharma.
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