Ajahn Sucitto (1949-present): Mr. Karma
What is ‘kamma,’ and what does it have to do with Awakening? Well, as a word, ‘kamma’ is the Pali language version of the Sanskrit term ‘karma,’ which has slipped into colloquial English as meaning something like a person’s fate or destiny. Taken in this way, the notion can support a passive acceptance of circumstances: if something goes wrong, one can say ‘it was my karma,’ meaning that it had to happen. Where the idea really goes astray is when it is used to condone actions, as in ‘it’s my karma to be a thief.’ If karma meant this, it would rob us of responsibility for our lives. Furthermore, there would be no way in which we could guide ourselves out of our circumstances or past history: which is what Awakening is about. However, ‘kamma’ in the way the Buddha taught it means skilful or unskilful action – something that we do now. It’s the active aspect of a cause and effect process known as kamma-vipaka, in which vipaka or ‘old kamma’ means the effect, the result of previous actions. And, for the most part, we get bound up with the results of our actions.
However, as ‘action,’ kamma supports choice. We can choose what actions we undertake. Cause and effect governs the activities of volcanoes, plants and planetary systems, but kamma relates specifically to beings who can exercise choice over what they cause – which means you and me. Also, not everything that we experience is because of past kamma (other than that of being born). So if you’re sick or caught up in an earthquake, it’s not necessarily because of you did bad things in a previous life. Instead, kamma centres on your current intention or ‘volition’ (cetana). The teachings on kamma therefore encourage a sense of responsibility for action; the responsibility to give attention to the many conscious and half-conscious choices we make in terms of what we do. What this means is that in this present moment we do have a choice as to how the future pans out: whether we will feel joyful and at ease with ourselves, or anxious and depressed depends on our actions now. And similarly, through our actions now, we can be liberated from the past, present and future. That’s what Awakening to kamma brings about.
The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘Kamma and the End of Kamma’ by Ajahn Sucitto, which can be downloaded for free from here. Ajahn Sucitto was abbot of Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery in England between 1992 and 2014 and has been a Buddhist monk since 1976, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho.