If we want to understand kamma and rebirth
correctly, we have to see them in the light of non-self. They proclaim non-self quite
vividly and yet most people usually don't take that into consideration at all, but talk
about "my" kamma and "my" rebirth. Especially "my" rebirth,
which is absurd. Do they mean the last one or future one? Do we think it will be
"me" again? However in ordinary language we have little choice, yet the spoken
word has evolved out of our thinking processes.
People often ask what is reborn, if it isn't "me"? Kamma as a
residual effect in the rebirth consciousness is reborn. but it certainly doesn't look or
act like the one we know, doesn't have the same name, may not have the same form or sex,
may not even be human. It has no other connection than kamma. Since we can see quite
clearly that the one who is reborn only connects through kamma in the rebirth
consciousness with a previous life, we can see just as clearly that kamma is impersonal,
without identity. While we talk about "my" kamma, it's really an impersonal
process. It is not crime and punishment, although it may appear like that, and is one of
the most commonly held views. Many of our entrenched views are so deeply ingrained that it
becomes extremely difficult to understand anything radically different.
Kamma, actually, just means action. In the India of the Buddha, that's
how it was understood. In order to make people aware of what it really implies, the Buddha
said: "Kamma, oh monks, I declare, is intention," which arises first in our
thoughts, then generates speech and action. This was the new interpretation that the
Buddha gave to kamma, because it was largely misunderstood and used as predetermined
destiny. There were teachers in his day that taught it that way, which was denounced by
the Buddha as wrong view, misleading and liable to have unwholesome results. This view of
pre-determined destiny is just as rampant today as it was at the Buddha's time. It is
often voiced like this: "There's nothing I can do about it, it's my kamma." This
is the greatest folly one can adhere to, because it puts the onus of one's own intentions
on some nebulous previous person whom one doesn't even know. In other words, one doesn't
take responsibility for one's own actions, which is a very common failing.
It is harder to find a person who does take responsibility than to find
one who doesn't. Most people don't want to take responsibility for themselves, if they can
just manage to stay alive. From that difficulty arises the idea of pre-determined destiny.
"What can I do, it's not my fault, it's my kamma." That takes away all
possibility for practicing the Dhamma. The Buddha said: "If that were so, the holy
life would not be possible, nor would it be feasible to become enlightened." This is
the first wrong view that one has to quickly eliminate from one's thinking process, if one
wants to practice a spiritual discipline.
Kamma is intention, and intention is now, which means kamma is being
made now, in every waking moment. However when two people make the same kamma, they do not
get the same results. This is another point the Buddha emphasized. Since kamma is
impersonal, it is strictly concerned with a flow of events which are creating results by
themselves. It's a matter of cause and effect. That's all there is, and the Buddha's
teaching is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect.
Sometimes we see people who are very nice, they would not hurt a fly,
and yet a lot of misfortune befalls them. Or others who are difficult and unfriendly, but
everything always seems to go right for them. How is it possible? It depends entirely upon
their accumulations of good or bad kamma that have resulted in their particular mind
continuum. The Buddha gave the following simile: "If one puts a teaspoon of salt in a
cup of water, that cup becomes undrinkable. If one puts a teaspoon of salt in the Ganges
River, it doesn't make the slightest difference to the river, the water remains exactly
the same." If one makes bad kamma and has only a cupful of good kamma; the results
will be disastrous. If one has a river full of good kamma to support one, the results will
be negligible. Therefore, we can never compare the results that people have, because we
don't know their past histories.
The residual mind continuum that we bring with us certainly has a
bearing on this life, particularly on where we are born, under what circumstances and in
what sort of family. The Buddha gave a simile for that: "If there is a herd of cows
locked in a barn, and the barn door is opened, the cow that is the strongest will go out
first. If there isn't one like that, then the one who is the habitual leader will go out
first; if there is no habitual leader then the one nearest the door will go out first. If
there is none like that, they will all try to go out at the same time" This depicts
the mind moments at death. Since death is imminent for everyone no matter what their age,
it is skillful to be ready for it now.
The last thought moment at death is the one that impels the rebirth
consciousness to its next destination. We can compare that to going to sleep at night and
our last thought moment is that we will wake up at four o'clock in the morning. Most
people can easily do that. The last thought moment becomes the first one upon waking.
Dying is exactly the same, except that the body that wakes up is a new one, and looks
different now. It is likely that it will be a human being again, unless one has behaved
too badly for such a rebirth. Even though people often wish for rebirth in a deva realm,
most people probably return as human beings.
The last thought moment is the one that connects with the strongest
experience in this life time. If, for instance, one has murdered a person, that would be a
very strong memory and could be the last thought moment. If one has built a monastery or
temple that may be a very strong though formation. Or, if one has always kept one's moral
conduct intact, that may be the last thought moment. Whatever is the strongest in one's
mind, that is most likely to arise.
Otherwise one's habitual thinking takes over. If one has usually been
dissatisfied or angry, then that will be in the mind. If one has had much living-kindness,
compassion and helpfulness toward others, those thoughts will arise.
If there is no particular thinking habit, then that which comes nearest
the sense doors at death takes precedence. The last sense to go is hearing. It is very
common, therefore, in most religions that some devotional words are chanted by monks or
priests which may help to have a good last thought moment. If these last mental formations
are wholesome, one's rebirth will be favorable. That doesn't mean that the rest of the
kamma resultants disappear. It only means that the impulsion that arises at death takes a
certain direction. Therefore the last thought moments are of crucial importance.
If one has been a very generous person, that can be a last thought. It
is therefore considered extremely beneficial to remind a dying person of all the good
things they have done in this life, such as their generosity, bringing up their children
well, their kindness, because ordinary worldlings are apt to have regrets and self-blame.
It has in recent years been recognized that dying is a very important part of living, even
though in the West many people do not believe in rebirth. Everyone pays a lot of attention
to a baby being born, because that baby is going to be around for a long time, and will be
an important member of the family. But few have paid sufficient attention to the death
moment, because after all that person is gone, finished. but it is now understood that
this is not a wholesome way of treating a human being and in the West there are many
hospitals for terminally ill and dying people, where great attention is paid to their mind
states, to reduce or eliminate fear and anxiety. Yet, hardly anyone there believes in
rebirth, but even without that, death is considered very important.
Another factor has entered into our death experience. We are now
technologically advanced enough, so that in some instances, people who were clinically
dead, could be brought back to life, using new methods that are available in Western
hospitals. A number of these people talked to their doctors about their "death"
experiences. Some doctors, particularly Dr. Moody, wrote about these phenomena. An
outstanding feature of the stories told, is the fact that they were practically identical
in their important aspects. This gives us another clue to non-self (//anatta//). All of
them, without fail, were extremely pleased with their "death" and reluctant to
come back. One woke up extremely angry at the doctor for being instrumental in
re-establishing the life continuum.
The experiences were all connected with a very bright light, containing
total awareness of the mind, but lacking a body. Each person was able to see his/her own
body in the hospital bed and wandered off towards the bright light, quite aware of these
occurrences, including watching the doctor at work. Then, removing themselves from the
hospital and entering an area of bliss, happiness and great peace, some of them talked
about beings they met. Most of them described one particular being which was
"light." None of the descriptions had any religious symbolism in them but all of
them were similar, some identical. With such books becoming more widely known the death
moment has gained its rightful importance.
In the five daily recollections the Buddha asks us to remember that we
are of the nature to die. At other times he talks about the fact that the last thought
moment is extremely important and consequently it is essential to get one's thoughts in
order now. On one's deathbed it's too late. The wholesome aspects of our thoughts are
always connected with loving kindness, compassion, generosity and equanimity. If we arouse
those in our minds now, as a habitual way of thinking, we can carry that with us to our
deathbed. We are then assured not only of a favorable rebirth, at the very least, but also
of harmony during our lifetime. This will make it possible for us to easily practice the
Dhamma again. If we are born into a very poor family where nobody has enough to eat, it
will be very difficult to sit down in meditation, because in a poor family everybody has
to work to survive. If we are reborn in a society where meditation is unknown, it will be
very difficult to continue our practice. It is not wise, therefore, to wait till old age
and death, but rather get our thinking process in order now. This entails knowing our
thought-formation, through mindfulness and attention.
Our appearance here is very short-lived -- even 70 years is not very
long -- so we can think of ourselves as a guest performer, always waiting for applause.
Naturally that makes life pretty difficult. First one has stage fright. Is one going to
perform properly? Having given the performance, will the applause be following? If one
doesn't get it, one feels devastated. Being a guest performer on this planet is a skillful
way of thinking, but waiting for the applause is wrong view. If we know that we're being
the best we can with all our faculties, we don't have to wait for somebody else's
approval. We can have right intention again and again. That's what matters most, because
intention towards goodness concerns both oneself and others. Less self-concern frees us to
We must not decline in Dhamma and meditation practice, of course,
because only if we have developed ourselves to some extent, can we help others, otherwise
we act in ignorance, which will not bring good results.
If we are concerned with our next rebirth, we are really living in a
dream. The person who is making the kamma now is not the one who's going to reap the
results. The only connection will be the kammic residue, the result (//vipaka//). Even
this connection is very tenuous, because we can break the chain. If a person has made a
lot of bad kamma and in the next rebirth makes much good kamma, the bad resultants may
never fruit, and vice versa.
The case in point is Angulimala, who killed 999 people and yet became
an Arahant, because he came to be in a monastery under the Buddha where his bad kamma
didn't get a chance to fruit. However, Mahamogallana, already an Arahant, was killed by
robbers and his bones pulverized, due to past kamma. We cannot establish a credit account
of good kamma against all eventualities, because we have no jurisdiction over the person
who will inherit the kamma that we made in this life. But making good kamma now, brings
immediate results, happiness and contentment in the mind, and usually some happiness for
others also. If one is able to give happiness to others, there is again a cause for joy
It's useless to think about kamma made in a past life, or to be made in
a future life. None of us will know anything about the next life, nor do we remember
anything from our last life. Why worry about these then? Only this moment, right now, is
important. The past is like a dream and the future is yet to come. When the future
actually happened, it's always the present. Tomorrow never comes; when it does, it's
called today. One cannot live in the future nor in the past. One can only live this single
moment. If we really paid attention to every single moment, we would meditate well. We
would also have no doubt about impermanence (//anicca//). In fact we would see it so
clearly, we could let go of our attachments, our clinging.
We could consider thus: "Have I used every moment to the best
advantage?" If we have made some bad kamma in the past, we can resolve to quickly
perform some good action. That's the only value the past can provide. Otherwise the most
effective and compelling aspect of impermanence is that we are moving away from thought,
speech and action so quickly, that we cannot even remember them, never mind hold on to
Yet we're trying to hold on to other people, to our ideas, views and
opinions; we hang on to this body, to physical manifestation and mental aberrations and
try to make them solid. It's impossible and cannot be done, there's only each moment. We
can easily see in digital clocks how each moment comes and goes. Just watch a clock for
five minutes, and realize five precious moments of your live are gone. The past is
actually forgotten, except some highlights, but otherwise it has disappeared. That shows
us with clarity that we are a flowing phenomenon without any substance. We're putting a
substance into it, out of an ignorant appraisal of totally untrue reality, in which we are
living. It is like a theater, something we have made up ourselves, where people wear
costumes and say their lines and believe this to be real life. We want to keep the theater
going, but that is not possible and so everybody has //dukkha//, which cannot be
eliminated through non-knowing or indifference, but only through a change of awareness and
Kamma-making is initially in the mind. Our mental formations make our
kamma. Unless we become master of our mind, we cannot escape from making bad kamma. The
mind is constantly in danger of thinking something unwholesome. The negativities in the
mind are innumerable: "I don't like it, can't stand it; I'm afraid, it's
boring..." All are negativities concerned with anger. "I want to get it, keep
it, renew it," are also bad kamma, connected with greed. All arise in the mind.
Very few people watch their mind. They believe it to be difficult and
tiring. But it's much more tiring to make bad kamma, because the results are heavy and
unpleasant. Very few people have that inner buoyancy which denotes independent joy. Most
people are bogged down by their mind's negativities, not by outer circumstances. Watching
one's own mind and making sure that one practices the four supreme efforts is the most
beneficial thing one can do for oneself, and secures good kamma.
Out of our thoughts arise speech and action. We can't talk without
having thought it first, and we can't act without having made up our mind to do so.
Although people speak and act so impulsively that they are not aware that a thought has
gone ahead, that doesn't mean there was none. It just means that mindfulness and clear
comprehension were lacking. Our mind is the most precious asset we have. No jewel can
compare with it, because the mind contains the seed of enlightenment. Unless we use it
properly, we're foolishly burying a jewel in the dirt. People often do so, primarily
because they have had no training otherwise.
When we recognize that we have this most precious jewel of a mind, we
will guard it from being scratched, bumped and dirtied, losing its luster and brilliance,
but rather make sure that it remains pure and luminous and thereby make good kamma. The
action itself, the Buddha said, is not of the foremost importance, it's the intention
behind it. Even generosity can be extended from a wrong motivation. If the intention is to
store up some merit for the future, that's rather selfish. If it's done out of compassion
for those who have less, that is the ideal way. Yet, even with wrong motivation, it's
still better to be generous than not. There's good kamma in it, because one has let go of
something that one owns.
The guard we keep on our mind will assure that whatever we do is done
with right intention, the second step on the Noble Eightfold Path, which is our guideline.
Kamma making depends on the mind, and the mind's purity depends on meditation. If we
meditate diligently and regularly, eventually we will see with clarity what goes on in our
mind. Some people are satisfied with gaining a little peace, but even that is already an
advantage and growth aspect. If we watch the mind in meditation, we will learn to watch
the mind also in daily living. Then we have a very good chance of making good kamma.
If we become tired of the ever-recurring cycle of loss and gain, praise
and blame, fame and ill-fame, happiness and unhappiness (the eight worldly dhammas), we
need to make a determined effort to shed clinging and craving. This effort has meditation
as its base, but that's not all. Meditation is a means for gaining access to the ability
to rid oneself of the tendencies of greed and hate. The meditative process gives the mind
the clarity to see these tenancies within oneself, so that one can do something about
Our duty in this life as human beings with senses and bodies intact,
and able to hear the true Dhamma, is to guard our mind and experience its original nature,
which is purity, luminosity, pliability. Such a mind can reach the depth of the teaching,
where we find nobody that owns the mind.