Action, or karma in Buddhist parlance, is something that we can’t get away from. Like something rather nasty and smelly on the soul of one’s shoe, it follows one around wherever one goes. While we live, we can’t exist without some sort of action, and every action has a reaction; what goes around, comes around. And it doesn’t matter whether anyone’s watching or not, for the law of karma states that all seeds have a result, whether good, bad, or indifferent. The wise Thai monk Ajahn Chah taught that when people do selfish or wicked things in private, thinking that if they don’t get caught, they won’t face the consequences of their actions simply display a lack of understanding of the Dharma. He has emphasized that we never really get away with anything. But, if we practice according to the Dharma, then we can watch the results of previous actions (karma-vipaka), allowing them the space to arise without reacting to them and creating more karmic reverberations. Venerable Chah relates this process to knowing the universal characteristic that everything is impermanent (anicca). The fruit of actions (karma-phala) will inevitably ripen one day; but if we keep in mind that it is impermanent, we can bear it well.
If we develop a strong conscience of what are wholesome actions and what are unwholesome, then even when we are alone, and no one can see what we’re up to, we will do what’s good. This is because their will be that little voice inside one saying, “Hey! Don’t do it. It’s bad karma, man!” Wherever one might be, in a deep hole or up a tree some place, one will be aware of what one is up to, and act accordingly. Some of us may already posses such a voice, albeit not very loud. If carefully attended to, however, this inner voice will grow in volume over time, eventually booming out its advice, and it’ll be impossible to ignore. In such a state of self-awareness, Ajahn Chah has said that we should pay attention to our wholesome activities too, appreciating any good things that we do. This way, we will cultivate wholesome action as a habit, whilst avoiding unwholesome karma through knowledge of its negative results. We will be able to judge on a moment to moment basis as to what is appropriate behavior, without dithering over the pros and cons. We will instinctively know by listening to that inner voice what is right and what is not right: We will live more wisely.
The above reflections first appeared on the blog ‘