Kamma and Rebirth

Kamma and Rebirth

Ajahn Sumedho (The Anthology – Peace is a simple step)

Kamma is a subject people like to talk about, to speculate about with opinions and views concerning what we were in the past and what might become of us in the future, about how our kamma affects someone else’s and so forth. I try to point out how to use this.

Kamma and rebirth are words; they’re only concepts that point to something we can watch. It’s not a matter of believing or disbelieving in kamma, but of knowing what it really is.

Kamma actually means ‘action’, or the result of action (17) and we can observe it by being aware of what we are conscious of in the moment. Whatever arises – thought, mood or memory, pleasant or unpleasant – it’s bound up with kamma; and it’s something moving from its birth to its death. You can see this directly, but it’s so simple that of course we would like to speculate about it. Why do we have the kamma we do have? What happens if we aren’t enlightened; will we be born in a higher realm if we practice hard, or will the kamma from previous lives overwhelm us? Or we speculate about rebirth: what is it that carries on from one life to the next if there’s no soul? If everything’s anattā, how can ‘I’ have been something in a previous life and have some essence that is born again?

But if you watch the way things operate independently of yourself, you begin to understand that rebirth is nothing more than desire seeking some object to absorb into, which will allow it to arise again. This is the habit of the heedless mind. When you become hungry, because of the way you’ve been conditioned you go out and get something to eat. That’s an actual rebirth: seeking something, being absorbed into that very thing itself. Rebirth is going on throughout the day and night, because when you grow tired of being reborn you annihilate yourself in sleep. There’s nothing more to it than that. It’s what you can see. It’s not a theory, but a way of examining and observing kamma.

‘Do good and you’ll receive good; do evil and you’ll receive evil.’ We worry, ‘I’ve done so many bad things in the past; what kind of result will I get from all that?’ Well, all you can know is that what you’ve done in the past is a memory now. The most awful, disgusting thing you’ve ever done, which you wouldn’t want anyone to know about – the one which, whenever anybody talks about kamma and rebirth, makes you think, ‘I’m really going to get it for having done that’ – that thing is a memory, and the memory is the kammic result. The additions to it, like fear, worrying and speculating, are the kammic results of unenlightened behavior. What you do, you remember; it’s as simple as that. If you do something kind, generous or compassionate, remembering it makes you feel happy; and if you do something mean and nasty, you have to remember that. If you try to repress it, run away from it, become caught up in all sorts of frantic avoidance behavior, that’s the kammic result.

Kamma will cease through recognition. In mindfulness you allow kammic formations to cease rather than recreating them, or annihilating them and recreating them. It’s important to recollect that whatever you create, you destroy, and what you annihilate, you create – one conditions the other, just as the inhalation conditions the exhalation.  One is the kammic result of the other. Death is the kammic result of birth, and all we can know about that which is born and dies is that it is a condition and not-self. No matter what the memory might be, it’s not-self. If you have the memory of murdering 999 people, that’s just a horrendous memory now.

Maybe you think, ‘That’s getting off too easily; somebody who’s killed 999 people should suffer for a long time and be punished and tormented!’ But it’s not necessary to go to any lengths to punish anyone, because their punishment is their own resultant mind-states. Who knows what wretched future births they may have to endure? But what we can know is that as long as any of us persists in being ignorant, unenlightened and selfish, we will create more kammic cycles. Our lack of forgiveness and compassion, our trying to get even with ‘those evil criminals’; that’s our kamma and we reap the kammic result of the miserable state of hatred.

As Buddhists, we take refuge in the Ultimate Truth, and in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha as conventional forms. This means that we have confidence in the Ultimate Truth, in the Uncreated and the Unconditioned – not in what we conceive, but in recognizing conditions as conditions and allowing kammic formations to cease.  We just keep recognizing conditions, instead of creating more kamma around those conditions through fear, envy, greed and hatred. This is a gentle recognition that kammic formations are what we are not.  There’s nothing we can say about what we are, because in Ultimate Truth there are no beings: nobody is ever born or dies.

Our path of practice is to do good, to refrain from doing evil with body and speech and to be mindful. Don’t create complexities around that or seek perfection in the realm of the senses. Learn to serve and help each other. Take refuge in the Sangha by being confident of your intentions to be enlightened, to do good, to refrain from doing evil.  Maybe you’ll fail sometimes, but that’s not your intention. And always allow others to fail. We may have ideas and opinions about each other, but give each other space to be imperfect, rather than demanding that everyone be perfect so as not to upset you. That’s very selfish, but that’s what we do; we pick and choose: ‘These people are the ones we want; those are the ones we don’t want … These are worthy; those are unworthy… These are the ones who are really trying; those are the ones that aren’t …’

For peace of mind, when somebody does something wrong, recognize it as a kammic ornamentation. Thinking, ‘How dare they do that? How dare they say that? How many years have I been teaching now, giving myself up for the welfare of all sentient beings and I don’t get any thanks for it’ is an unpleasant mental state. It’s the result of wanting everybody else never to fail me and always live up to my expectations, or at least cause me no problems – of wanting people to be other than they are. But if I don’t expect you to be anything, I don’t create anyone in my mind. If I think, ‘That’s so and so, who did this, and then he did that’ I’m creating a person out of kammic conditions, and I suffer accordingly with an unpleasant memory every time I see you. And if you’re ignorant and do something to me, and I do the same to you, we just reinforce each other’s bad habits.

We break these habits by recognizing them, by letting go of our grudges and memories, and by not creating thoughts around the vipāka, the conditions of the moment. By being mindful we free ourselves from the burden of birth and death, the habitually recreated pattern of rebirth. We recognize the boring, habitual recreations of unsatisfactoriness, the obsessions with worry, doubt, fear, greed, hatred and delusion in all their forms. When we’re mindful, there’s no attachment to ideas and memories of self, and creativity is spontaneous.

There’s no one who loves or is loved; there’s no personal being who is created. In this way we find the real expression of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity which is always fresh, always kind, patient and ever-forgiving of oneself and others.


(17)  More precisely, ‘kamma’ refers to intended action – bodily, verbal or emotional/psychological – while vipāka, or ‘old kamma’ refers to the results of actions – such as moods, tendencies and attitudes.  Ajahn Sumedho here often uses ‘kamma’ to refer to ‘old kamma’. The point is of course that what one experiences as ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is caused and conditioned, either as an impulse and intention or as the result of action (which itself becomes the basis for further new actions).