Pu came to the temple wanting to make some offerings. She had a ubiquitous yellow bucket. she was well dressed and in her mid 30s.

If you want to know, at the time, she owned a small book business.

In the temple she kept asking about Karma.

– We always know something is up when people ask about Karma! People only ask about Karma when something bad has gone down!

Turns out she did indeed have a story to tell. She had bought a small bird from a vendor, with the intention to release it. The vendors are located outside temples – because they are not allowed to sell animals inside the temple grounds. Officially, temples do not endorse the selling of animals for release.

  But this is Thailand. The instinct for sacrifice is strong. In the old days you would sacrifice a living animal to a local god. In Buddhism however, we seemingly do the opposite – we sacrifice resources to buy an animal that is destined for the dinner plate, and release it.

This used to involve buying an animal from the market place, but now means any of an assortment of eels, snails, birds, fish, turtles … each has a certain significance. The creatures are conveniently located for sale just outside the temple gates, so you don’t have to sacrifice too much time getting them!!

You might also see spirit house offerings of red Fanta – this too represents the blood sacrifice of old, re-imagined with Buddhist non-harming principles.

  After buying the bird she stopped in a noodle shop before entering the temple. She put the cage down next to the canal (old temples were always built on canals). As she sat down to eat, a cat jumped out. It leapt at the cage and knocked it into the canal. And the poor little bird wound up being a real sacrifice after all.

   What do you think? Had she made bad karma? Should Pu make a special offering dedicated to the bird? Or were her intentions good?

Karma is supposed to be the most difficult thing to understand. In Buddhist philosophy it ranks right up there with Enlightenment itself as one of the ‘Imponderables’; something that you can never figure out.

In fact, according to the Buddha, your head will split into seven pieces before you figure out the working of Karma.

For instance, ask yourself if it was the bird’s karma to drown in the canal? Maybe. But then Pu’s action lacked free will, so she gets away free.

Karma actually means ‘action’. The result of an action is called Karma vipaka – resultant karma.

Kammassakomhi kammaadayavo
kammayoni kammabandhu kamma-patisarano
Yam kammam kaarissami Kalyanam va papakam va tassa dayaso bhavissami

I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma abide supporte by my kamma. Whatever Kamma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir.

In the popular understanding though karma (kamma in Pali) is understood to be a kind of determinism – that is everything that happens is caused by something you did in the past. This is not the correct teaching though.

Here are three wrong views, as taught by the Buddha:

All things happen due to God
All things happen due to chance

All things happen due to karma

So Karma is only one of many causes. Not everything happens due to karma. (so there is definitely room for Murphey’s Law to operate too!!)

According to Buddhist commentators, things happen due to five basic principles :

  • utu-niyāma – physics
  • bīja-niyāma – biology
  • kammaniyāma – karma
  • citta-niyāma – psychology (mind)
  • dhamma-niyāma – dharma (universal law)

So broadly speaking, your actions, especially your intentional actions, will have an influence on what you become. This is one part of Right View – the first fold of the eightfold path. But things happen for different reasons. We can’t attribute everything to Karma.

And Pu will never work out why the bird drowned. Her head will split into seven pieces before she can figure out the Karma of it. But she can be careful with her actions, act compassionately, and be careful with her thoughts – that’s about all any of us can do.


Some more in depth notes on Karma


November 2014 we host Abhidhamma teacher Sayalai Caru Dassini for three talks on Karma – based on the actual Buddhist teachings (rather than the ‘pop’ animist understanding). Get the real story of how Karma works in Buddhist Philosophy – it is not what you think!!!

This is a great topic, and a very well qualified teacher. Don’t miss out.


One reply on “Before your head splits into seven pieces”

  1. Thank you for a great “supplement” to the very theoretical words from the visiting nun. I appreciate your sense of humor!

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