Actions are Skilled (wholesome) or unskilled (unwholesome)
The Buddha was asked this question: “What is the cause, what is the reason, that we find amongst humankind, the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?”
The Buddha replied: “”All living beings have actions (karma) as their own, their inheritance, their natural cause, their family, their refuge. It is karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.”
Newton’s Third Law states that when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. The third law is also known as the law of action and reaction. This means that with every effort, there is always an equal and opposite response. The forces of two parties on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions. Accordingly, it is foolish to commit to an action and not expect a counteraction. More recently, Chaos Theory introduced the idea of the Butterfly Effect, stating that conditions or actions can result in a deterministic, nonlinear way in significant differences at a later state. Nothing vanishes without a trace.
Every action, deliberate or not, has an effect, a consequence. Singular actions unavoidably unfold into similar results. Unwholesome (unskilful) actions bear negative results and bring suffering to self and others. Wholesome (skilful) activities will deliver positive results and bring comfort to self and others. Ways of thinking also create causes that, in time, will produce effects. Every single thought has the potential to bring happiness or misery. Karmic results can express themselves in this life or future lives. This is why it is essential to be mindful of not only one’s actions but also of one’s thoughts and how they are expressed. Nothing ever just vanishes without a trace.
We know that human beings are tied to the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion. It is a simple fact, observable every day, everywhere. Clearly, every living being’s circumstances are different and unique. Why is that so? The Buddha explains that all the differences between living beings arise from karma-related conditions and circumstances. Many influences make up personality; education, environment, genes, among others. However, karmic background reaching back uncountable lifetimes makes for the ground all other characteristics grow on. This is how the Buddhist see it. There is a lot of supporting circumstantial evidence, such as memory of previous lives.
Buddhism values actions based on skilful or unskilful. Skilful is intelligent, unskilful is unintelligent. Gifted activities promote conditions towards liberation. Efforts lacking skill lead away from enlightenment. It is as simple as that. In Buddhism, actions have no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral quality.
Action is a result of choice. There always needs to be the intention. The quality of action can either be wholesome, unwholesome, neutral or ineffective. When the three defilements of ignorance, attachment and aversion are present, the action can be considered unskillful.
Neutral actions are actions that have no consequence. Ineffective actions are those where volition is absent. Actions yield outcomes either immediately, in this life, the next or in some distant lifetime. The long term effects of actions must always be considered.
The intention of an action determines its karmic value. A destructive action taken by accident has a different karmic value than the same action taken deliberately in anger. Past karma relates to karma that occurred in the past. Present karma is created right now. Past karma can’t be changed, but current karma can. Karma works on many levels. It has subtle and grosser qualities that influence many ways, yet all results stem from a cause, and all actions belong to the perpetrator. The consequences of the acts may not show immediately, nor can one necessarily link the effects to the cause in obvious ways. Karma is interwoven into all matters at all times. So the outcomes of actions will also be modified by an infinite number of additional causes and effects. There is no good karma or bad karma. Karma itself is indifferent. It is simply the working law of cause and effect.
In Buddhism, the idea of self is merely an illusion. No entity can be identified as ‘self’. Everything is a component of something else. Nothing arises independently or has lasting certainty. Perception, consciousness, mind and body continually change. When the body dies, mental activity ceases. What is referred to as ‘self’ is neither self-abiding nor detached from the rest of the world. It is ‘neither self nor non-self. (more on ‘self’ in another post). As stated before, the consequences of karma can span over many lifetimes. As long as ignorance, attachment, and aversion perpetuate, karma will unfold in future lifetimes. Wholesome karma heads to the stream that points to Nirvana.
Rebirth is not reincarnation. Reincarnation suggests a soul or subtle essence with a personal imprint. This soul transmigrates from one body to the following body. In rebirth, there is only a causal connection between one life and another. The karmic accumulations, good or bad, of life (which in itself is an accumulation of connected past-lives), will condition a new birth. (see Bardo post)