Notes: The Future of Kamma

Following are the notes on the talk

‘The Future of Kamma’

by Cittasamvaro, 21st October 2010

in the 2010 Talk Series

LIFE: in the Frame of Mindfulness

Each year in the Dhamma Talk Series, there is a talk on Kamma (Sanskrit – ‘Karma’). This topic always generates some interest and interaction – people love to speculate on this.

Yet in Buddhism we are told that your head will explode before you figure it out.

The talk started with several stories from around the world, each followed by the question – is this Kamma? Is this God? Is this Chance?

These three questions are found in the Suttas, and so are things answered by the Buddha. Inevitably he would teach that not everything is due to Kamma, God or Chance. (are some things attributable to God though?)

The stories mentioned are reproduced below.


While it is fun and interesting to speculate on stories such as these that you hear or read about, and similar less extreme events that have happened to you personally, at the end of the day it is simply that: Speculation.

In Buddhism we recognise that there is enlightenment, something that is beyond the normal way of experience or understanding. How can you come to this knowledge? You need a different way of working things out than you are accustomed to. You can’t figure your way there.

The Way of Wisdom, which is Theravada Buddhism, trades in your wonderful ideas and beliefs for what you can actually know. And what you can know is very little. There is this anger arising, lasting abating. There is this greed arising, lasting abating. There is the aspect of Dukkha here all the time. There is the aspect of Metta that is worthy of development…. etc.

It is not much, but it is real. This that you can know directly for yourself is not open to dispute. If you put aside your speculations and interpretations, you are left with a small handful of leaves of reality. This is the basis from which wisdom is built. Wisdom is the tool that will reveal more and more to you directly, independent of what the books say, independent of your beliefs.

The Crocodile and the Baby

A few years ago at a talk on Kamma a man asked the speaker as follows:

What should you do if a crocodile is attacking a baby? Do you jump in and try to kill the crocodile, and isn’t that bad kamma? Or are yo saving the baby which is good kamma? Is it the baby’s kamma to get eaten, and therefore you should leave it alone?

These kind of questions are frequently raised. But for what purpose? Just because it is fun to speculate about.

Human beings love to specualte. By doing this you generate a working model of the world around you, that you develop over the years. It makes you feel safe and helps you to function. But really, it covers that fact that you really don’t know much.

A dog for instance also has a working understanding of the world around it. The dog might not know about democaracy, or taxes, but its understanding works ok for it to get by. This is really how we humans are. But we are always inventing scenarios to hypothetically test our constructs.

In Buddhism you want to recognize things for what they are. In this case you recognize the speculating mind as just that. It is not that you cannot or should not think at all. Just that you understand it for what it is.

The  crocodile and the baby situation is not going to arise in your life. Most of the time it is fairly obvious what you should do. If you are focussing on observing, rather than figuring things out with ‘logic’ you are not too often faced with ridiculous decisions like this.

Would you shoot Hitler if you had a chance? Should you, could you, what if, how could …. there is no end to this kind of thinking.

Buddhist Take

Since Buddhism does not ask you to believe in much, and emphasises relying on what you can actually know directly, this kind of speculation should be understood for what it is.

And yet we do have a teaching on kamma. Basically it is this:

What actions of body, speech and mind you make, will have an effect on your future.

This rule you are asked to take on trust. It is part of Right View. Nothing complicated or earth shattering. And really, nothing much to disagree with.

One sutta explains that if you have this kind of view, you will be careful of your actions. If you do not hold this view, you will be careless with your actions.

Another sutta says, if you have this view, since your actions actually DO have results in the future, you would be correct. If you hold the opposite view, since your actions actually do have a result in the future, you would be incorrect.

If you are interested in this topic, and want to know exactly what was taught in the suttas (it takes some time to get used to the way the suttas are worded) there is an excellent, detailed and fully referenced study guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu here.

Aspects of Kamma

There are actually many aspects to kamma. Each of which deserves a separate talk. Kamma and Rebirth. Kamma in the context of Indian thought. The cleaning or clearing out of old kamma, and a very interesting discussion on Kamma vs Forgiveness. Here in this talk, the emphasis is on separating the actual teaching of kamma from speculating about different stories.

Suffice to say though for the present, that not everything happens because of your kamma. If you fall ill this might or might not be kamma. Illness in the suttas was attirbutable to bad food, to the bile system, the bodily winds, to the change of seasons etc.

In another place the Buddha is fronted with the idea that all pleasant or unpleasant experience is born from your kamma – an idea that is taught today as Buddhist, especially in the Abhidhamma. In the sutta (M 101.20) the Buddha refutes this with a clear example. If you make yourself tired through physical exertion and striving, your body will ache in the morning. The aching is due to the exertion, and is not a consequence of kamma.

This is enough to make the point that not everything is down to kamma. You get your car stolen – it is more likely because you left your keys in it, than being due to kamma. (Was it your Kamma to leave the keys in???? This is back to ‘Speculation’, and has no part in Buddhism).

The Future of Kamma

If you look at the context of kamma as it appears in the original teachings, you can note that it is always about the future, and never about the past.

Kamma = what you do now affects your future.

Kamma does not equal what happens now being dependent on your past

To illustrate. In psychology, Freud said your character was dependent on your experiences as a child. Even your decisions in the present, are governed by your past experiences that have shaped you. It is very hard to be truly creative, and impossible to be free in this kind of outlook. Your personality is determined (actually it is a theory of ‘reductionalism’ rather than pure ‘determinism’). There is little room for free will, or intentional change/growth.

On the other hand, modern psychologists reject this theory, and are more ‘humanist’. They say your personality depends on your hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future. In this outlook, you have a huge amount of free will. You are the master of yourself, if you wish to be.

For example, even if something bad happened to you, as a human, you can choose to learn from the experience and grow from it, rather than it forming some kind of neurosis that will haunt you in the future.

In the same way, if you think of yourself now dependent on your past kamma, then there is little free will. Even your decisions are determined by your past.

But this was clearly not the way that the Buddha was teaching. (Again, many scholars will disagree with this).

You are responsible for your actions here and now and they will shape your future.


A few talks back, we looked at how cats learn quite slowly. Given a task to complete, such as hitting a lever to get food, they show no insight learning. Even when they hit the lever and get the food, when you place them back in the same scenario, they do not remember the solution. Higher mammals do however.

Monkeys show ‘insight learning’ which means once they have figured something out, the next time they are presented with the scenario, they remember the solution. Birds are pretty fast insight learners in many situations. Dolphins too. One dolphin was taught to use money (which the experimenters quickly realised coud be any kind of paper, not just real money). They were taught to collect paper from the pool, and trade it in for fish. One enterprising dolphin figured out it could tear the paper into bits, and get a fish per bit of paper.

When you put conscious attention onto something you accelerate learning. Learning means: that particular action will arise readily in the given circumstance.

Typing for example. If you just one finger type, and answer emails, you will learn slowly, and inaccurately where the letters are. After a time you might hit 10 or 15 words per minute.

If you go through the exercises however, and put conscious attention on which fingers to use with which keys, and how to meter your rythmn, then you can up your speed to 40+ words per minute. Conscious attention onto activity increases the speed and likelihood of that action recurring.

Conscious attention also has the limitation that it can only focus on one thing at a time, so to perform complex actions such as driving a car, you have to learn each aspect of the task with attention, and then leave it to the subconscious to carry out. That’s why you can drive for hours on a kind of ‘autopilot’ while conscius attention is busy planning something or just thinking.

We use this method of accelerated learning in various ways to overcome the force of habit. Giving up smoking is a good example. With conscious effort you can overcome the ofrce of habit quite quickly.

In terms of meditation a few hours practising/talking about metta practise can radically change the way you interact with people. You have placed conscious attention on it, and so that state of mind has a greater propensity to return.

A note to finish on. According to Buddhism, ‘bad’ actions are more a result of the unconscious, inattentive mind. ‘Good’ actions are done with more mindfulness. Thus a ‘good’ deed has results that far outweight a ‘bad’ deed. So in case you are worried about your kamma – jsut do good; it will quickly outweigh negative kamma.

Extra notes

As it was asked for, here is a shortened list of results of free will when you start to consider it in depth – this topic will be covered in the talk on Free Will some other day

  • If you intend and the result does not occur
  • If you intend and the result does occur
  • If you don’t intend but the result occurs (i.e. you run someone over)
  • If you don’t intend and the result occurs
  • If you don’t intend, the result occurs but you don’t know it occurs
  • If you don’t intend, the result occurs and you know it (you might still feel guilt and remorse at accidentally killing someone – is that kammic result?)
  • If you intend, and the result occurs but you don’t know it
  • If you intend and the result does not occur, but you don’t know it (I kill your dog fore barking, but you rescue it and it lives)
  • If you intend and the result occurs and you know it
  • If you intend and the result does not occur and you know that etc…..

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Lady Luck’s Sick Joke

A Russian man who won a five-star trip to London will not be able to claim his prize as he is in prison.

Sergei Repinovsky, 27, filled in a ticket for a local prize draw sent to him by a relative – hoping to win a teapot for his cell.

But instead he won the top prize of an all-expenses paid trip to London, including seven nights in a luxury hotel.

just starting a prison sentence.

Repinovsky told prison governors about his win but was told he could not go because he was serving 10 years for fraud.

Prison spokesman Sergei Manygin said: “Prisoners are only allowed to leave the prison under special circumstances and even then they cannot go out of Russia.

“And the prisoner will not even be able to wait until he gets out because as far as I know the British Embassy refuses to give visas to Russian ex-convicts.”

Repinovsky said: “I entered the competition just for fun hoping to win an electric teapot or a coffee-machine. But Lady Luck decided to play a sick joke on me.”

Missing Link found in church

A Catholic who believed his prayers were answered when he was rescued from a lift was killed when he went to church to give thanks and the stone altar fell on him.

Gunther Link, 45, died instantly as he was crushed under the ancient 860lb monument in the Weinhaus Church in Vienna, Austria.

Link’s body was found by parishoners attending Mass the next day after he had been reported missing by his cousin.

Police spokesman Roman Hahslinger said: “He was a very religious man and had been scared when he was trapped in the lift and had prayed for release.

“A short while later he was pulled out of the elevator and he went straight to the church to thank God.

“He seems to have embraced a stone pillar on which the stone altar was perched and it fell on him, killing him instantly.

“We have found his fingerprints on the pillar. We are now investigating the case further.”

Patient ‘lost’ for three days in lift

A hospital patient was trapped for more than three days in a broken lift after sneaking away from his bed for a cigarette.

Relatives, hospital staff and police searched for days after wheelchair-bound Karlheinz Schmidt, 68, went missing from the Charite Hospital in Berlin.

It was only when technicians were finally called out to fix a broken lift that the severely dehydrated man was found – 80 hours after first getting into the lift.

Schmidt, himself a retired elevator technician who was left disabled following an industrial accident 16 years ago, said: “I left the ward to go outside for a cigarette but the lift just stopped.

“I didn’t have any water and it was really hot and sticky. The only thing I had to eat was a couple of biscuits that were in my pocket. I didn’t think I was going to get out of there alive.”

Schmidt’s son Roland, 35, says he now plans to take action against the hospital.

“It’s unbelievable that nobody noticed the lift was broken for over three days, and when I finally got to see my dad two hours after he had been found, he still hadn’t been given anything to drink. It’s amazing that he’s still alive. We plan to press charges.”

Girl’s miracle escape from lightning strike

A Russian teenager survived a lightning strike which was so powerful it vaporised a gold cross on her neck.

The bolt hit Marina Motygina, 16, from Ekaterinburg in western Russia on the top of her head and seared through her body into the ground.

The necklace she had been wearing was ‘atomised’, leaving burns in the shape of a cross on her neck, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.

Only a couple of links of the chain could be found.

A doctor at the local hospital who treated her said: “It is a miracle she has survived. She is fine now but will be staying in hospital for another two weeks.

“But she will have deep scars on her neck where the cross was for the rest of her life.”

Buffalos save woman from bear

Five water buffalos saved their owner in China by hitting and driving away a bear.

Luo Fengju, 55, of Chengning town, Yunnan, was attacked by a black bear as she was about to return home with the buffalos.

“I was collecting my field tools when I suddenly heard a noise. When I looked up, the bear was already standing before me,” she told the Chuncheng Evening Post.

Luo said the bear took a swipe at her face and knocked her to the ground.

She tried to crawl away while calling for help: “But the bear rushed over and caught my right leg. I thought I was going to die.”

However, the five water buffalos, which were grazing nearby, suddenly dashed over and attacked the bear.

“The bear let go of me and was growling at the buffalos, trying to scare them off,” said Luo.

The buffalos formed a circle around Luo, and one of them butted the bear with its horns, forcing it to retreat.

“Without the five of them, I don’t know what would have happened. I am 55-years-old, how could I possibly fight with a bear?”

Villagers said when they arrived the buffalos were still surrounding their owner, who was covered in blood.

The buffalos are now being treated as heroes and being given extra food.

Woman cured by lightning

A Serbian woman has been cured of a deadly heart condition – when she was struck by lightning.

Shocked doctors who’d been treating Nada Acimovich, 51, for arrhythmia – irregular heartbeats that can be a killer – discovered she had made a complete recovery.

The condition – for which Tony Blair had treatment five years ago – is normally treated with mild electric shocks to reset the heart’s rhythm.

Mrs Acimovich, of Sljivovica, Serbia, was saved from death by her rubber soled shoes but the electric jolt put her heartbeat back to normal, say medics.

“In the first place she’s lucky to be alive because of the lightning strike, but she’s now going to live for much longer too,” explained one

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One reply on “Notes: The Future of Kamma”

  1. Thank you very much Phra Pandit. Very good, I’ve saved it for future reading. See you next Thursday 28/10/10 at PPA

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