Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1995

A Temple Arises; Ajahn Amaro
Conducting the Orchestra of Form; George Sharp
Renunciation & Devotion: Stalk & Fragrance; Ajahn Munindo
Growing the Dhamma Tree; Lay Supporter
Supporting the Project; Krishna Padayachi
Sutta Class: Morality, Transformation & Liberation; Ajahn Sucitto
In Memory of Luang Por Jun: Pt. 1; Sister Sanghamitta
The temple: A space for Right Ritual; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:


Sutta Class: Morality, Transformation and Liberation

Ajahn Sucitto,

'When, bhikkhu, inwardly your mind is firm and well-composed, and evil and wrong states which arise and overwhelm the mind find no footing, then, bhikkhu, you must train yourself thus: Through metta shall the release of the mind be effected by me, continuously developed, made a vehicle of, made a basis, exercised, augmented, thoroughly set going.'
[Anguttara V111 (Gradual Sayings - the Eights), 63]
As a footnote to the sutta class on Transgression and Forgiveness in the last issue of the Newsletter, there are some interesting teachings in the suttas concerning freeing the mind from the results of unskilful actions. The quotation above may help to remind us of the close relationship between citta, one of the words that gets translated as 'mind', (although sometimes 'heart' is used and possibly 'awareness' might be more useful) and cetana 'will', 'volition', or 'intention', the aspect of awareness that represents its motivating, aiming activity. Cetana is the cause and the result of the mind's conditioning: the Buddha teaches unequivocally that cetana is kamma. In this he differs radically from the Vedic and Jain sages - and many English-speakers who also understand 'karma' to be a mechanical determinism irrespective of mental intention: 'Anything you do will have its effects on your future.'
If kamma really were just a matter of the effects of physical action, then one's non-harmful actions would far outweigh one's harmful actions, and nobody would go to hell.

The Buddha frequently attacks this view, asserting that what is done with cetana is of great significance; action without determined intention is of little significance. For example in the Upalisutta [Majjhima 56], in dialogue with the Jain Tapassi, the Buddha states:
I describe mental action as the most reprehensible for the performance of evil action, . . . and not so much bodily action and verbal action.
Tapassi (and later his fellow Jain, Upali) deny this, although later, when questioned, Upali admits that the teacher of the Jains, Nigantha Nataputta, "does not describe what is not willed as greatly reprehensible." The Buddha then catches him out by getting him to admit that 'will' falls under the heading of mental action kamma. This leads to Upali's transferring his allegiance to the Buddha.

The point is that most people would assume that 'mental action' is thought - a function of mano - mind as a sense organ essentially functioning separately from the 'bodily' senses - rather than the will of the citta that accompanies and morally determines any intended bodily or verbal action.

In the very next sutta 57, Kukkuravatika the Buddha tells the ascetics who practise the austerity of behaving respectively like a dog or an ox, that, at best, they will attain a future birth as a dog or an ox. And, worse, that if they imagine that their austerities will confer divine status on them, they are liable to go to hell - such is the kammic result of the perversion of the citta that results from wrong view; itself is the cause and result of ignorant cetana. Now, in more positive terms, the Buddha also teaches that by correcting or transforming the quality of cetana, one will be able to remove the effects of unwholesome kamma and direct the citta to a pleasant abiding, or even to Nibbana.

In the Kindred Sayings (Samyutta Nikaya) a sutta entitled 'The Conch'[Samyutta 35 - Salayatana Vagga, VIII - (Headmen, 8 )] the Buddha again discusses kamma with a Jain. The Jain says, that according to his teachers, whoever kills, or steals, or commits unwholesome sexual actions, or tells lies, will go to hell; that "according as a man habitually lives, so goes he forth to his destiny."

The Buddha then points out that even one who does commit such deeds spends most of his day and night not doing such things - which is obvious enough, although rarely considered. Therefore, if kamma really were just a matter of the effects of physical action, then one's non-harmful actions would far outweigh one's harmful actions, and nobody would go to hell. The deciding factor is that one who commits unskilful deeds remembers it - it is continually affecting his or her citta. This effect will certainly be strengthened if one follows a teacher who proclaims that the result of unskilful action is hell. Just as in the case of the dog and ox-duty ascetics, the belief in one's mind determines the will, and the will determines the kamma.

This is indeed a powerful reminder of why the Buddha stressed that liberation from views is essential for final liberation. "I . . . do not see any support of views that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. [Alagaddupamasutta, Majjhima 22].

Continuing the theme of The Conch: the Buddha then explains his teaching on morality, kamma and transformation. He strongly censures the actions that were previously condemned by the Jain, and says that if one has committed such an action one should fully acknowledge it, and in remorse, realise that the action cannot be undone. Because of this, in the future one refrains from such actions, and makes a commitment to refrain from them. "Thus does he get beyond those evil deeds."

Does this sound too simple? We should not overlook as many do, that abstaining in heart from unskilful action stems from cetana just as surely as acting unskilfully does. So this process of reflection and remorse - as well as seriously considering that the Buddha censures the above-mentioned actions - establishes the citta in skilful cetana, with its consequent results:
By abandoning covetousness, he becomes uncovetous, by abandoning malevolence he becomes one not malevolent of heart. By abandoning perverted view he becomes one of right view . . . self-possessed and concentrated [he] abides suffusing (the world) with a heart full of kindliness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathy (mudita), equanimity (upekkha) that is widespreading, grown great and boundless, free from enmity and peaceful.
In such a way, the transformation of the will can be effected. The significance of such a transformation makes it possible for a mass-murderer like Angulimala to realise arahantship. [Angulimalasutta, Majjhima 86] Although the details of his practice are not given, the sutta mentions his sincere repentance, his commitment to a life of harmlessness and renunciation, and significantly, the arising of compassion in his mind at the sight of a woman giving birth to a deformed child.

The suttas teach (e.g Majjhima 52, Anguttara 8,65; Samyutta XLVI.54) that the brahmavihara (kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity), if used insightfully, are a vehicle to liberation. Whether this was the case with Angulimala or not, we would surely do well to recognise that they are a natural function of, and aid to, a liberated citta rather than dwell in the kamma-resultant negativity about ourselves and others.

Quotes from the Majjhima Nikaya are taken from Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi's edition, published by Wisdom Publications; quotes from the other Nikayas are from The Pali Text Society's editions.