II. The Law of Cause and Effect, Action and Reaction (or Kamma)

Cemetery VisitIn the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha has said, “Oh Monks, there are ten ideas, which if made to grow, made much of, are of great fruit, of great profit for plunging into Nibbana, for ending up in Nibbana.” Of these ten, one is death. Contemplation on death and on other forms of sorrow such as old age, and disease, constitutes a convenient starting point for the long line of investigation and meditation that will ultimately lead to Reality. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Buddha. Was it not the sight of an old man followed by the sight of a sick man and thereafter the sight of a dead man that made Prince Siddhattha, living in the lap of luxury, to give up wife and child, home and the prospect of a kingdom, and to embark on a voyage of discovery of truth, a voyage that ended in the glory of Buddhahood and the bliss of Nibbana?

The marked disinclination of the average person to advert to the problem of death, the distaste that arouses in him the desire to turn away from it whenever the subject is broached, are all due to the weakness of the human mind, sometimes occasioned by fear, sometimes by tanha or selfishness, but at all times supported by ignorance (avijja). The disinclination to understand death, is no different from the disinclination of a person to subject themselves to a medical check-up although they feel that something is wrong with them. We must learn to value the necessity to face facts. Safety always lies in truth. The sooner we know our condition the safer are we, for we can then take the steps necessary for our betterment. The saying, “where ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise” has no application here. To live with no thought of death is to live in a fool’s paradise. Visuddhi Magga says,

“Now when a man is truly wise, His constant task will surely be, This recollection about death, Blessed with such mighty potency.”

Now that we have understood why such potency attaches itself to reflections on death, let us proceed to engage ourselves in such reflections. The first question that the reflecting mind would ask itself will be, “What is the cause of death?” Ask the physiologist what is death, they will tell you that it is a cessation of the functioning of the human body. Ask them what causes the cessation of the functioning of the human body, they will tell you that the immediate cause is that the heart ceases to beat. Ask them why the heart ceases to beat, they will tell you that disease in any part of the human system, if not arrested, will worsen and cause a gradual degeneration and ultimate breakdown of some organ or other of the human system, thus throwing an undue burden on the work of the heart — the only organ that pumps blood. Hence, it is disease that ultimately causes the cessation of the heart beat.

Ask the physiologist what causes the disease, they will tell you that disease is the irregular functioning (dis-ease) of the human body, or by the violation of rules of healthy living, or by an accident — each of which can impair some part or other of the human system, thus causing disease. Ask the physiologist what causes the entry of a germ or the violation of health rules or the occurrence of an accident. He will have to answer. “I do not know, I cannot say.” Certainly the physiologist cannot help us at this stage of our reflections of death, since the question is beyond the realm of physiology and enters the realm of human conduct.

When two persons are exposed to germ infection, why should it sometimes be the person of lower resistance power who escapes the infection while the person of greater resistance succumbs to it? When three persons tread the same slippery floor, why should one slip and fall and crack his head and die, while the second slips and sustains only minor injuries, while the third does not slip at all?

These are questions which clearly show that the answer is not to be expected from the physiologist whose study is the work of the human body. Nor is the answer to be expected from a psychologist whose study is the work of the human mind only. Far, far beyond the confines of physiology and psychology is the answer to be sought. It is here that Buddhist philosophy becomes inviting. It is just here that the law of Kamma, also called the law of Cause and Effect or the law of Action and Reaction makes a special appeal to the inquiring mind. It is Kamma that steps in to answer further questions. It is Kamma that determines why one person should succumb to germ-infection while the other should not. It is Kamma that decides why the three men treading the same slippery floor should experience three different results. Kamma sees to it that each person gets in life just what he or she deserves, not more, nor less. Each person’s condition in life with its particular share of joys and sorrows is nothing more nor less than the result of their own past actions, good and bad. Thus we see that Kamma is a strict accountant. Each person weaves their own web of fate. Each person is the architect of their own fortune. As the Buddha said in the Anguttara Nikaya, “Beings are the owners of their deeds. Their deeds are the womb from which they spring. With their deeds they are bound up. Their deeds are their refuge. Whatever deeds they do, good or evil, of such they will be heirs.” As actions are various, reactions also are various. Hence the varying causes of death to various persons under various situations. Every cause has its particular effect. Every action has its particular reaction. This is the unfailing law.

When Kamma is referred to as a law, it must not be taken to mean something promulgated by the state or some governing body. That would imply the existence of a lawgiver. It is a law in the sense that it is a constant way of action. It is in the nature of certain actions that they should produce certain results. That nature is also called law.

It is in this sense that we speak of the law of gravitation which causes a mango on the tree to fall to the ground, not that there is a supreme external power or being which commands the mango to fall. It is in the nature of things, the weight of the mango, the attraction of the earth, that the mango should fall. It is again a constant way of action.

Similarly, in the realm of human conduct and human affairs, the law of cause and effect, of action and reaction, operates. (It is then called Kamma or more properly Kamma Vipaka). It is not dependent on any extraneous arbitrary power, but it is in the very nature of things that certain actions should produce certain results. Hence the birth and the death of a man is no more the result of an arbitrary power than the rise and fall of a tree. Nor is it mere chance. There is no such thing as chance. It is unthinkable that chaos rules the world. Every situation, every condition is a sequel to a previous situation and a previous condition. We resort to the word ‘chance’ when we do not know the cause.

Sufficient has been said for us to know that in Kamma we find the root cause of death. We also know that no arbitrary power fashions this Kamma according to its will or caprice. It is in the result of our own actions. “Yadisam vapate bijam tadisam harate phalam” — as we sow, so shall we reap. Kamma is not something generated in the closed box of the past. It is always in the making. We are by our actions, every moment contributing to it. Hence, the future is not all conditioned by the past. The present is also conditioning it.

If you fear death, why not make the wisest use of the present so as to ensure a happy future? To fear death on the one hand and on the other, not to act in a way that would ensure a happy future, is either madness or mental lethargy. He who leads a virtuous life, harming none and helping whom he can, in conformity with the Dhamma, always remembering the Dhamma, is without doubt laying the foundation of a happy future life. “Dhammo have rakkhati dhamma carim” — The Dhamma most assuredly protects him who lives in conformity with it. Such conformity is facilitated by the contemplation of death. Death has no fears for one who is thus protected by Dhamma. Then shall they, cheerful and unafraid, be able to face the phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.