Study Guide - 5. The Way to a Fortunate Rebirth

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In his account of his “noble quest,” the Buddha says that when he gazed out upon the world soon after his enlightenment, he saw that sentient beings are like lotus flowers at various stages of growth within a pond. While some beings are like lotuses at or near the surface of the pond, capable of awakening merely by being exposed to his world-transcending teachings, the vast majority of people who encounter the Dhamma are like the lotuses growing deep below the surface. These lotuses benefit from the sunlight and use its energy to sustain their life, yet still need time to reach the surface and blossom. So too, the great multitude of people who hear the Buddha’s teachings and establish faith must still nurture their wholesome qualities with the radiant energy of the Dhamma before their mindstreams become mature enough to attain direct realization. This process ordinarily requires many lives, and thus such people have to take a long-term approach to their spiritual development. While practicing the way to liberation, they must avoid a rebirth in the unfortunate realms and win successive rebirths blessed with material security, happiness, and opportunities for further spiritual progress.

These benefits, the enhancing conditions for spiritual development in the Dhamma, come about by the acquisition of puñña or “merit,” a word that signifies the capacity of wholesome action to yield beneficial results within the cycle of rebirths. According to the Buddha’s teaching, the cosmos, with its many realms of sentient existence, is governed at all levels by immutable laws, physical, biological, psychological, and ethical. The process by which sentient beings migrate from one state of existence to another is likewise lawful. It is regulated by a law that works in two principal ways: first, it connects our actions with a particular realm of rebirth that corresponds to our actions; and second, it determines the relations between our actions and the quality of our experience within the particular realm into which we have been reborn.

The governing factor in this process, the factor that makes the entire process a lawful one, is a force called kamma (Skt: karma). The word “kamma” literally means action, but technically it refers to volitional action. As the Buddha says: “It is volition (cetanā) that I call kamma; for having willed (cetayitvā), one acts by body, speech, and mind.” Kamma thus denotes deeds that originate from volition. Such volition may remain purely mental, generating mental kamma that occurs as thoughts, plans, and desires; or it may come to expression outwardly through manifest bodily and verbal actions.

It may seem that our deeds, once performed, perish and vanish without leaving behind any traces apart from their visible impact on other people and our environment. However, according to the Buddha, all morally determinate volitional actions create a potential to bring forth results (vipāka) or fruits (phala) that correspond to the ethical quality of those actions. This capacity of our deeds to produce the morally appropriate results is what is meant by kamma. Our deeds generate kamma, a potential to produce fruits that correspond to their own intrinsic tendencies. Then, when internal and external conditions are suitable, the kamma ripens and produces the appropriate fruits. In ripening, the kamma rebounds upon us for good or for harm depending on the moral quality of the original action. This may happen either later in the same life in which the action was done, in the next life, or in some distant future life. The one thing that is certain is that as long as we remain within saṁsāra any stored-up kamma of ours will be capable of ripening so long as it has not yet produced its due results.

On the basis of its ethical quality, the Buddha distinguishes kamma into two major categories: the unwholesome (akusala) and the wholesome (kusala). Unwholesome kamma is action that is spiritually detrimental to the agent, morally reprehensible, and potentially productive of an unfortunate rebirth and painful results. The criterion for judging an action to be unwholesome is its underlying motives, the “roots” from which it springs. There are three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. From these there arises a wide variety of secondary defilements—states such as anger, hostility, envy, selfishness, arrogance, pride, presumption, and laziness—and from the root defilements and secondary defilements arise defiled actions.

Wholesome kamma, on the other hand, is action that is spiritually beneficial and morally commendable; it is action that ripens in happiness and good fortune. Its underlying motives are the three wholesome roots: nongreed, nonhatred, and nondelusion, which may be expressed more positively as generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. Whereas actions springing from the unwholesome roots are necessarily bound to the world of repeated birth and death, actions springing from the wholesome roots may be of two kinds, mundane and world-transcending. The mundane (lokiya) wholesome actions have the potential to produce a fortunate rebirth and pleasant results within the round of rebirths. The world-transcending or supramundane (lokuttara) wholesome actions—namely, the kamma generated by developing the Noble Eightfold Path and the other aids to enlightenment—lead to enlightenment and to liberation from the round of rebirths. This is the kamma that dismantles the entire process of karmic causation.

The correlation between kamma and its results is indicated in a general way in Text 5.1(1). This sutta refers to unwholesome action as “dark kamma” and mundane wholesome action as “bright kamma.” It also refers to a type of kamma that is both dark and bright. Strictly speaking, this does not denote a single action that simultaneously partakes of both unwholesome and wholesome characteristics; technically such a thing is impossible, for an action must be one or the other. The combined kamma refers to the conduct of a person who intermittently engages in both unwholesome and wholesome behavior. Finally, the sutta speaks of a fourth type of kamma that is neither dark nor bright. This is the action of developing the Noble Eightfold Path, the wholesome world-transcending kamma.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that for Early Buddhism an understanding and acceptance of this principle of kamma and its fruit is an essential component of right view. Right view has two aspects, the world-bound or mundane aspect, which pertains to life within the world, and the supramundane or world-transcending aspect, which pertains to the path to liberation. The world-transcending right view includes an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, and the three marks of impermanence, suffering, and nonself. For Early Buddhism this world-transcending right view cannot be taken up in isolation from mundane right view. Rather, it presupposes and depends upon the sound support of mundane right view, which means a firm conviction in the validity of the law of kamma and its unfolding through the process of rebirths.

To accept the law of kamma entails a radical transformation in our understanding of our relationship to the world. The twin doctrines of kamma and rebirth enable us to see that the world in which we live is, in important respects, an external reflection of the internal cosmos of the mind. This does not mean that the external world can be reduced to a mental projection in the way proposed by certain types of philosophical idealism. However, taken in conjunction, these two doctrines do show that the conditions under which we live closely correspond to the karmic tendencies of our minds. The reason why a living being is reborn into a particular realm is because in a previous life that being has generated the kamma, or volitional action, that leads to rebirth into that realm. Thus, in the final analysis, all the realms of existence have been formed, fashioned, and sustained by the mental activity of living beings. As the Buddha says: “For beings obstructed by ignorance and hindered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture, for consciousness to be established in a new realm of existence—either inferior, middling, or superior” (AN 3:76; I 223). The next selection, Text 5.1(2), draws a finer distinction among the types of unwholesome and wholesome kamma. The text enumerates ten primary instances of each class. Here they are called respectively “unrighteous conduct, conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma” and “righteous conduct, conduct in accordance with the Dhamma” but they are usually known as the ten pathways of unwholesome and wholesome kamma. The ten are subdivided by way of the three “doors of action”—body, speech, and mind. Taking the unwholesome first, there are three kinds of bodily misconduct: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; four kinds of verbal misconduct: lying, malicious speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter (or gossip); and three kinds of mental misconduct: covetousness, ill will, and wrong view. The ten courses of wholesome action are their exact opposites: abstinence from the three kinds of bodily misconduct; abstinence from the four kinds of verbal misconduct; and noncovetousness, goodwill, and right view. According to the sutta, the ten types of unwholesome kamma are the reason that beings are reborn in the bad destinations after death; the ten types of wholesome kamma are the reason that beings are reborn in the good destinations after death. As the sutta shows, the ten types of wholesome kamma are the support, not only for a heavenly rebirth, but also for “the destruction of the taints,” the attainment of liberation. The concluding paragraphs of this sutta give us a brief survey of Buddhist cosmology. The Buddhist cosmos is divided into three broad realms—the sense-sphere realm (kāmadhātu), the form realm (rūpadhātu), and the formless realm (arūpadhātu)—each comprising a range of subsidiary planes.

The sense-sphere realm, our realm, is so called because the beings reborn here are strongly driven by sensual desire. The realm is divided into two levels, the bad destinations and the good destinations. The bad destinations or “states of misery” (apāya) are three in number: the hells, states of intense torment (see MN 129 and 130, not included in this anthology); the animal kingdom; and the sphere of spirits (pettivisaya), beings afflicted with incessant hunger, thirst, and other sufferings. These are the realms of retribution for the ten unwholesome paths of kamma. The good destinations in the sense-sphere realm are the human world and the six sensual heavenly planes. The latter are: the devas in the heaven of the Four Great Kings, who are presided over by four powerful devas (namely, the Four Great Kings); the Tāvatiṁsa devas presided over by Sakka, a devotee of the Buddha who is faithful but prone to negligence (see the Sakkasaṁyutta, SN chapter 11); the Yāma devas; the devas of the Tusita heaven, the abode of a bodhisatta before his final birth; the Nimmānaratī devas (“the gods who delight in creating”); and the Paranimmitavasavattī devas (“the gods who control what is created by others”). The karmic cause for rebirth into the good destinations of the sense-sphere realm is the practice of the ten courses of wholesome action.

In the form realm the grosser types of material form are absent. Its denizens, known as brahmās, enjoy bliss, power, luminosity, and vitality far superior to the beings in the sense-sphere realm. The form realm consists of sixteen planes. These are the objective counterparts of the four jhānas. Attainment of the first jhāna leads to rebirth among Brahmā’s assembly, the ministers of Brahmā, and the Mahābrahmās, according to whether it is developed to an inferior, middling, or superior degree. The second jhāna, attained in the same three degrees, leads respectively to rebirth among the devas of limited radiance, of measureless radiance, and of streaming radiance. The third jhāna, attained in the same three degrees, leads respectively to rebirth among the devas of limited glory, of measureless glory, and of refulgent glory. The fourth jhāna ordinarily leads to rebirth among the devas of great fruit, but if developed with a feeling of disgust for perception, it will conduce to rebirth among the “nonpercipient beings,” beings who lack perception. The form realm also comprises five planes reserved exclusively for the rebirth of nonreturners, called the pure abodes: aviha, atappa, sudassa, sudassī, and akaniṭṭha. In each of the subtle form planes, the lifespan is said to be of enormous duration and to increase significantly with each higher plane. In the third realm of existence, material form is nonexistent and bare mental processes exist; hence it is called the formless realm. This realm consists of four planes, which are the objective counterparts of the four formless meditative attainments, after which they are named: the base of the infinity of space, the base of the infinity of consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nornonperception. The lifespans ascribed to these realms are respectively 20,000; 40,000; 60,000; and 84,000 great eons. (For the duration of one eon, see Text 1.4(3).)

For Buddhist cosmology, existence in every realm, being the product of a kamma with a finite potency, is necessarily impermanent. Beings take rebirth into a realm appropriate for their kamma or deeds, experience the good or bad results, and then, when the generative kamma has spent its force, they pass away to take rebirth elsewhere as determined by still another kamma that has found the opportunity to ripen. Hence the torments of hell as well as the joys of heaven, no matter how long they may last, are bound to pass. The Buddha guides those whose spiritual faculties are still tender to aspire for a human or heavenly rebirth and teaches them the lines of conduct that conduce to the fulfillment of their aspirations. But he urges those with mature faculties to make a determined effort to put an end to the aimless wandering of saṁsāra and reach the Deathless, Nibbāna, which transcends all conditioned planes of being.

While the first two texts in this chapter establish a general correlation between kamma and spheres of rebirth, Text 5.1(3) specifies the underlying karmic causes for the manifest differences in human life. It does so with reference to a well-known saying of the Buddha: “Beings are owners of their kamma, heirs of their kamma; they originate  from  their  kamma,  are  bound  to  their  kamma,  have  their kamma as their refuge. It is kamma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.” The sutta proposes to explain this statement with regard to seven pairs of contrasting qualities observed among people. This text also introduces a distinction between two types of consequences that an unwholesome kamma can have: the more powerful is rebirth in a bad destination; the other is unpleasant fruits within the human state, for example, a short lifespan for one who in an earlier life killed living beings. An analogous distinction obtains among the consequences that a wholesome kamma can have: the more powerful is rebirth in a heavenly world; the other is pleasant fruits within the human state.

The next section deals with merit (puñña), wholesome kamma capable of yielding favorable results within the cycle of rebirths. Merit produces mundane benefits, such as a good rebirth, wealth, beauty, and success. It also serves as an enhancing condition for supramundane benefits, that is, for attaining the stages along the path to enlightenment. Hence, as seen in Text 5.2(1), the Buddha urges his disciples to cultivate merit, referring to his own cultivation of merit over many previous lives as an example.

The Nikāyas concisely organize the types of merit into three “bases of meritorious deeds” (puññakiriyavatthu): giving, moral discipline, and meditation. Text 5.2(2) connects the bases of merit with the types of rebirth to which they lead. In the Indian religious context, the practice of meritorious deeds revolves around faith in certain objects regarded as sacred and spiritually empowering, capable of serving as a support for the acquisition of merit. For followers of the Buddha’s teaching these are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha. Text 5.2(3) extols these as each supreme in its particular sphere: the Buddha is supreme among persons, the Dhamma among teachings, and the Saṅgha among religious communities. The text proposes an interesting twofold distinction of the Dhamma Jewel: among all conditioned things (dhammā saṅkhatā), the Noble Eightfold Path is supreme; among all things conditioned or unconditioned (dhammā saṅkhatā vā asaṅkhatā vā), Nibbāna is supreme. Merely having confidence in the Three Jewels, that is, reverential trust and devotion toward them, is itself a basis of merit; but as the verses attached to the sutta make clear, the Buddha and the Saṅgha additionally function as the recipients of gifts, and in this role they further enable donors to acquire merit leading to the fulfillment of their virtuous wishes. More will be said about this aspect of merit just below.

The following sections of this chapter elaborate on the three bases of merit individually, beginning in section 3 with giving or generosity (dāna). The Buddha often treated giving as the most rudimentary virtue of the spiritual life, for giving serves to break down the egocentric frame of mind on the basis of which we habitually interact with others. Contrary to what a Western reader might expect, however: “giving” for Early Buddhism does not mean simply philanthropic charity directed toward the poor and disadvantaged. While it includes this, the practice of giving has a more context-specific meaning rooted in the social structure of Indian religiosity. In India during the Buddha’s time, those who sought to fathom the deepest truths of existence and attain release from the round of birth and death usually renounced home and family, relinquished their secure place in the cohesive Indian social order, and adopted the precarious life of the homeless wanderer. With shaved heads or matted locks, clad in ochre or white robes or going naked, they would move from place to place without fixed abode, except during the three months of the rainy season, when they would settle in simple huts, caves, or other lodgings. Such homeless wanderers, known as samaṇas (“ascetics”) or paribbājakas (“wanderers”), did not perform any remunerative services but depended upon the charity of householders for their livelihood. The lay devotees provided them with their material requisites—robes, food, lodgings, and medicines—doing so in the confidence that such services were a source of merit that would help them advance a few steps farther in the direction of final emancipation.

When the Buddha appeared on the scene, he adopted this mode of life for himself. Once he commenced his work as a spiritual teacher, he established his Saṅgha on the same principle: the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs, the monks and nuns, would depend on the charity of others for their material support, and they would reciprocate by offering their donors the more precious gift of the Dhamma, the teaching of the lofty path that leads to happiness, peace, and final liberation. Text 5.3(5) testifies to this principle of mutual support. By accepting the gifts of lay people, the monastics give them the opportunity to acquire merit. Since the volume of merit generated by the act of giving is considered to be proportional to the worthiness of the recipient, when the recipients are the Buddha and those following in his footsteps, the merit becomes immeasurable (see MN 142, not included in this anthology). For this reason, the sāvakasaṅgha, the spiritual community of noble disciples, is called “the unsurpassed field of merit for the world” (anuttaraṁ puññakhettaṁ lokassa). Gifts to the Saṅgha, it is said, conduce to great blessings; they lead to one’s welfare and happiness for a long time and can bring rebirth in the heavenly worlds. But as Text 5.3(6) reminds us, this is true “only for the morally pure, not for the immoral.”

This leads to the next base of merit: “moral discipline” (sīla), which for Early Buddhism requires the undertaking of precepts. The most basic moral guidelines inculcated in the Nikāyas are the five precepts, the training rules to abstain from taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and the use of intoxicants. These are mentioned in Text 5.4(1), which, by an interesting twist in terminology, speaks of them as “pristine, traditional, ancient gifts,” thus implicitly subsuming sīla under dāna. The reason the observance of precepts is a form of giving is because one who undertakes precepts will be “giving to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression,” and as a karmic consequence “he himself will enjoy immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.”

While the Buddha enjoins observance of the five precepts upon lay followers as a full-time obligation, he recommends a more stringent type of moral practice for the uposatha, the observance days determined by the lunar calendar: the full-moon day, the new-moon day, and the two half-moon days. (Of the four, in Buddhist countries today it is the full-moon day that is given priority.) On these occasions, devout lay Buddhists undertake eight precepts: the usual five, but with the third changed to complete sexual abstinence, augmented by three other precepts that emulate the training rules of a novice monk or nun. The eight precepts, enumerated in Text 5.4(2), augment the training in sīla as a moral observance with a training in self-restraint, simplicity, and contentment. In this respect they prepare the disciple for the training of the mind undertaken in the practice of meditation, the third base of merit.

The practice of meditation is not only the heart of the path to liberation but a source of merit in its own right. Wholesome meditation practices, even those that do not directly lead to insight, help to purify the grosser levels of mental defilement and uncover deeper dimensions of the mind’s potential purity and radiance. Text 5.5(1) declares that the type of meditation that is most fruitful for the production of mundane merit is the development of loving-kindness (mettābhāvanā). The practice of loving-kindness, however, is only one among a set of four meditations called the “divine abodes” (brahmavihāra) or “immeasurable states” (appamaññā): the development of loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity, which are to be extended boundlessly to all sentient beings. Briefly, loving-kindness (mettā) is the wish for the welfare and happiness of all beings; compassion (karuṇā), the feeling of empathy for all those afflicted with suffering; altruistic joy (muditā), the feeling of happiness at the success and good fortune of others; and equanimity (upekkhā), a balanced reaction to joy and misery, which protects one from emotional agitation.

These meditations are said to be the means to rebirth in the brahma world; see Text 5.5(2). While the brahmins regarded the brahma world as the highest attainment, for the Buddha it was just one exalted sphere of rebirth. The concentration arisen from these meditations, however, can also be used as a basis for cultivating the wisdom of insight, and insight culminates in liberation. Text 5.5(3), the last selection of this chapter, thus grades the different types of merit according to their fruits: from giving (with the various kinds of gifts ranked according to the spiritual status of the recipients) through the going for refuge and the five precepts to the meditation on loving-kindness. Then, at the very end, it declares that the most fruitful deed among them all is the perception of impermanence. The perception of impermanence, however, belongs to a different order. It is so fruitful not because it yields pleasant mundane results within the round of rebirths, but because it leads to the wisdom of insight that cuts the chains of bondage and brings the realization of complete emancipation, Nibbāna.


5. The Way to a Fortunate Rebirth

1. The Law of Kamma

(1) Four Kinds of Kamma (AN 4.232)

(2) Why Beings Fare as They Do after Death (MN 41)

(3) Kamma and Its Fruits (MN 135)

2. Merit. The Key to Good Fortune

(1) Meritorious Deeds (It 22)

(2) Three Bases of Merit (AN 8.36)

(3) The Best Kinds of Confidence (AN 4.34)

3. Giving

(1) If People Knew the Result of Giving (It 26)

(2) Reasons for Giving (AN 8.33)

(3) The Gift of Food (AN 4.57)

(4) A Superior Person’s Gifts (AN 5.148)

(5) Mutual Support (It 107)

(6) Rebirth on Account of Giving (AN 8.35)

4.Moral Discipline

(1) The Five Precepts (AN 8.39)

(2) The Uposatha Observance (AN 8.41)

5. Meditation

(1) The Development of Loving-Kindness (It 27)

(2) The Four Divine Abodes (MN 99)

(3) Insight Surpasses All (AN 9.20)


Next: 6. Deepening One’s Perspective on the World