Today we will continue to explore how Buddhist philosophy can be pertinent in our lives regardless of our religious orientation or spiritual path.
Last week, when we discussed the Four Noble Truths, we ended with a list of components on the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads to the end of suffering. Who remembers the first three Noble Truths? ______
Right view is the foundation for all the other factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. It directs us to both the starting point and the goal of our spiritual practice, and it provides a roadmap for understanding the other interrelating components on the path.
Right view steers us towards right action and thus towards freedom from suffering. The Buddha said that wrong view is the factor most responsible for the arising of unwholesome states of mind, and that right view is the factor most helpful for the arising of wholesome mental states. He taught that there is no single factor so responsible for the suffering of living beings as wrong view, and no factor so potent in promoting the good of living beings as right view (AN 1:16.2).
In its fullest sense, Right View involves a correct understanding of the entire Dharma or teachings of the Buddha and other sages. But for practical purposes, I will emphasize two kinds of Right View. One is mundane Right View, which is concerned with laws that affect our level of happiness or suffering in daily life. The other is supramundane or superior Right View, leading to liberation from all worldly preoccupations.
For those of us who might need a bit more practice before we are ready for enlightenment, I’ll focus on mundane Right View, which involves a correct understanding of the Four Noble Truths; of the way our actions come into being through 12 steps of dependent origination; and of the law of karma. Last week we reviewed the Four Noble Truths, and at another time, we can investigate dependent origination. For now, let’s examine the concept of karma.
Karma means volitional action that impels and organizes the mind and body towards a goal. According to Buddhism, each moment of our lives is not determined by luck or chance, but it is a result of previous thoughts, words or deeds.
The Buddha taught, “Beings are the owners of their actions, the heirs of their actions; they spring from their actions, are bound to their actions, and are supported by their actions. Whatever deeds they do, good or bad, of those they shall be heirs.”
Unwholesome karma is action that impedes spiritual development and leads to suffering for oneself and others. Wholesome karma is action that is morally commendable, fosters spiritual growth, and produces benefits for oneself and others.
According to the Buddha, every volitional action has consequences. If I unknowingly step on an ant, my act does not have karmic results because it was unintentional. What matters is the ethical quality of our actions.
Karma is considered wholesome or unwholesome according to whether its roots (or motives) are wholesome or unwholesome. The three classic unwholesome roots are greed, hatred (or aversion), and delusion; and the three wholesome roots are their opposites, traditionally expressed negatively. Non-greed implies renunciation and generosity; non-aversion implies loving-kindness, compassion, and gentleness; and non-delusion implies wisdom. If we are guided by generosity, ethics and wisdom, the results will support our freedom and happiness, but if our actions stem from greed, aversion and delusion, then we will intensify suffering in our lives.
Karmic law works on the simple principle that unwholesome actions ripen into suffering, and wholesome actions into happiness. To recognize this principle is to hold mundane right view, affirming that people can choose their actions freely, within limits set by their conditions. At any moment, we have an opportunity to wake up mindfully and to let go of unskillful thoughts, words or deeds.
Karma does not imply condemning ourselves or others who face suffering. It’s not about “deserving” judgment, but about understanding what causes and what diminishes suffering. Whenever we recognize pain within or around us, we can open or hearts to meet it with love, alleviating suffering through our acceptance of the present reality. Understanding karma can empower us to bring forth what’s best inside us to transform ourselves and our future.
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh likens the mind to a storehouse filled with many different seeds for 52 qualities of mind that were identified by the Buddha. Whatever seeds we water will blossom and develop into plants. If we repeatedly act out of anger, a big angry plant will grow. But if we practice tending that plant with kindness, eventually the angry stems and leaves wither and die. Consistent tenderness can nourish and strengthen the roots until new sprouts of kindness replace angry stalks.
Just as real seeds need certain conditions to germinate and ripen—such as light, warmth, soil nutrients and water—so does karma. The results of our actions depend on particular conditions for fruition, and we cannot anticipate when these conditions will occur. Sometimes the results of our actions are immediate. If I smile and greet someone on my morning walk, the person usually responds with a friendly reply. If I speak impatiently at a checkout counter, the sales clerk may react with tension, and what could have been a pleasant interaction becomes rushed and impersonal.
Other times the consequences of our actions are not evident until a later point in our lives, or even after our death. In the late 1980s I volunteered on a creative arts delegation in León, Nicaragua. The couple who housed me became my friends, and years later they named their second daughter after me. Mark and I attended the baptism of little Virginia, and, as her godmother, I helped support her through school. Now she is finishing college with a degree in psychology. Her older sister recently delivered a baby girl, whom she named “Ginger.” After so many unanticipated events have transpired, I imagine that this international connection between our families will unfold with more surprising karmic consequences long after I die.
An entire society may be founded on incorrect moral values, and even though governors of that society may applaud particular kinds of action and condemn other kinds, this does not make the actions validly right or wrong. The Buddha saw moral standards as objective and invariable. The deeds themselves, through their inherent moral or immoral nature, inevitably generate appropriate results.
When I was teaching a music therapy training in Bulgaria in the 1990s, I witnessed the karmic consequences of 40 years of repressive Communist rule. Because secret police had pressured neighbors and even family members to report suspicious activity, people tended to mistrust one another and to avoid the honest self-disclosure that is a part of successful therapy. The social fabric had been torn in that country, and some of my students did not take the initiative to complete their homework. As children, they had learned that it was dangerous to stand out in a group, and that it was safer to hide their talents. Those who graduated from the training had a new, more hopeful vision for Bulgaria’s future and were motivated to alleviate suffering in their society.
Mundane Right View of karma and its fruits provides a rationale for engaging in wholesome actions, but by itself it does not lead to liberation. It is possible for someone to accept the law of karma and yet have only worldly goals.
Superior Right View, which leads to liberation, entails a profound comprehension of the Four Noble Truths and the natural laws that enhance or diminish suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path starts with a conceptual understanding through reflection about the significance of these truths in our lives. This Path reaches a climax with a direct intuition of those same truths, fully comprehended. Thus Right View of the Four Noble Truths forms both the beginning and the culmination of the way end suffering.
Are there any questions or comments?