POSTCARD#415: Bangkok: I remember when I seriously started to look into Buddhism, one of the monks in Wat Pah Nanachat said I was wandering through my life without a map! I was simply reacting according to “an inheritance of Kamma and the furtherance of habits and biases”, as Ajahn Sucitto might say. Join us again as Ajahn explores the depths of the Sacca Parami, Truth, providing a ‘mind map’ to help us find our Way
The Inheritance of Kamma
What keeps it all going? Is there something beyond this passing show? These are the kinds of questions that arouse people in the search for spiritual truth. And at the heart of such a quest is the need to acknowledge and put aside assumptions generated by the floods of sensuality, becoming, views and ignorance. It means paying attention in an appropriate, enquiring and in-depth way. This is the intention based on truthfulness – not to become something, but to come out of false assumptions.
A basic assumption is that things have a fixed or predictable nature. Even though rationally we know that isn’t true, our emotional reflexes get confused and upset by changes in the weather or our health, by delays in transport and by changes in other people. The reflex assumption is that sense objects provide a true and lasting feeling – that the impression of a taste, sound or sight as either pleasant or unpleasant is true. And that sets up ‘must have’ or ‘can’t stand it.’ The feeling depends as much on our state of mind as on the sense object itself. Intention, or inclination of the mind, has changed how we experience the food.
Maybe I don’t notice how it tasted because I was talking to a friend. In that case the change has occurred through a shift of attention. Or maybe we feel that the unpleasant taste of the food ruined the whole evening. In this instance the issue is one of contact; that is, the impression ‘unpleasant’ has coated the mind. The unpleasantness is transferred so everything we experience during the evening is perceived through the filter of that contact impression. Contact impressions and transference are dependent on changeable factors, and therefore they are unreliable.
For instance, person A is in a bad mood because of being stuck in a traffic jam and late for an appointment. Feeling irritable, he or she finds human contact irritating. So he/she speaks dismissively to person B, who then feels that person A doesn’t like them, or that they’ve done something wrong, and so person B feels confused. That’s how suffering gets transferred.
If I believe he or she always is, or always should be, a certain way, I fix a sensitive, changing, affective mind into a stereotyped object called a person. Through such views we project irritation, adoration or neediness and make others into the heroes and villains of our lives. These projections may have some truth in them, for example, ‘He’s an idiot’ might mean something like, ‘I notice that his way of chairing the meeting yesterday didn’t bring the results I’d wish for.’ The falsehood is that ‘He’s an idiot’, that piece of behaviour has been made into a three dimensional person and cast in stone. This is what ‘becoming’ does: it stretches an event into an entity. I participate in the creation of these caricatures, demons and angels, and that limits my responsiveness and our freedom.
This mental activity is kamma: as your mind acts, assumes and projects, so you create an inheritance; stuck in a world of ‘them and me’ with its fixed opinions, disappointment and confusion. Kamma means action; it’s based on intention, attention and contact. It has results, and this is what’s running your life. In this respect, the first step towards abiding in truth is to be clear about good and bad kamma: to recognize and refrain from the bad, and to pick up the good. So it’s better to know that one feels irritation, admiration, or jealousy and look into that, rather than keep making our emotional responses into ‘other people’ who then control your life.
When we look at things in terms of truth, we can acknowledge contact impressions in terms of pleasant and unpleasant feelings: perhaps as familiar, poignant or uncomfortable perceptions and impressions. We can witness skilful, unskilful, compassionate or confused psychological intentions and states of mind, and we can sense whether attention is weak, bright or obsessive. Contact, intention and attention, and all of this kammic stuff are changeable. There are no fixed things, entities or people. But there is an inheritance and potential furtherance of habits and biases. As we see that our world is dependent on contact, intention and attention, we start to take steps to generate bright impressions, based on kindness, compassion and wise understanding. And as we develop those intentions, and all the intentions that the pāramī represent, our attention gets clear and well focused.
(continued next week 16 April 2021)