Stream of Kamma, Stream of Causal Dependence

This article was just a small part from the book.
GOOD, EVIL AND BEYOND : Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching.
by Bhikku P.A. Payutto
Translated by Bruce Evans
Suppose we are standing on the bank of a river, watching the water flow by. The water flows in a mostly flat area, therefore it flows very slowly. The earth in that particular area is red, which gives this body of water a reddish tint.
In addition to this, the water passes many heavily populated areas, from where people have long thrown in refuse, which, in addition to the industrial waste poured into the water by a number of recently built factories, pollutes the water. The water is therefore uninhabitable for most animals; there are not many fish in it. Summarizing, the body of water we are looking at is reddish, dirty, polluted, sparsely inhabited and sluggish. All of these features together are the characteristics of this particular body of water. Some of these characteristics might be similar to other streams or rivers, but the sum total of these characteristics is unique to this stream of water.
Presently we are informed that this body of water is called the Tah Wung River. Different people describe it in different ways. Some say the Tah Wung River is dirty and doesn’t have many fish. Some say the Tah Wung River flows very slowly. Some say that the Tah Wung River is red-colored.
Standing on the river’s bank, it seems to us that the body of water we are looking at is actually complete in itself. Its attributes, such as being sluggish, red-colored, dirty, and so on, are all caused by various conditioning factors, such as the flowing water contacting the red earth. In addition, the water which we are looking at is constantly flowing by. The water which we saw at first is no longer here, and the water we are now seeing will quickly pass. Even so, the river has its unique features, which do not change as long as the relevant conditioning factors have not changed.
But we are told, then, that this is the Tah Wung River. Not only that, they say that the Tah Wung River is sluggish, dirty, and short of fish. Just looking, we can see no “Tah Wung River” other than this body of water flowing by. We can see no “Tah Wung River” possessing this body of water. Yet they tell us that the Tah Wung River breaks up the red earth as it passes, which makes the water turn red. It’s almost as if this “Tah Wung River” does something to the red earth, which causes the earth to “punish” it by turning its water red.
We can see clearly that this body of water is subject to the process of cause and effect governed by its various conditioning factors: the water splashing against the red earth and the red earth dissolving into the water is one causal condition, the result of which is the red-colored water. We can find no “body” doing anything or receiving any results. We can see no actual Tah Wung River anywhere. The water flowing past us now flows right on by, the water seen previously is no longer here, new water constantly taking its place. We are able to define that body of water only by describing its conditioning factors and the events which arise as a result, causing the features we have observed. If there was an actual and unchanging Tah Wung River, it would be impossible for that flow of water to proceed according to its various determining factors. Finally we see that this “Tah Wung River” is superfluous. We can speak about that body of water without having to bother with this “Tah Wung River.” In actual fact there is no Tah Wung River at all!
As time goes by we travel to another district. Wishing to describe the body of water we saw to the people there, we find ourselves at a loss. Then we recall someone telling us that that body of water was known as the Tah Wung River. Knowing this, we can relate our experience fluently, and the other people are able to listen with interest and attention. We tell them that the Tah Wung River has dirty water, not many fish, is sluggish, and red-colored.
At that time, we realize clearly that this “Tah Wung River,” and the role it plays in the events we describe, are simply conventions of language used for convenience in communication. Whether the convention of Tah Wung River exists or not, and whether we use it or not, has no bearing whatsoever on the actions of that body of water. That body of water continues to be a process of interrelated cause and effect reactions. We can clearly distinguish between the convention and the actual condition. Now we are able to understand and use the convention of speech with ease.
The things which we conventionally know as people, to which we give names, and refer to as “me” and “you,” are in reality continuous and interconnected streams of events, made up of countless related constituent factors, just like that river. They are subject to countless factors, directed by related determinants, both from within that stream of events and from without. When a particular reaction takes place in a causal way, the fruit of that action arises, causing changes within the flow of events.

The conditions which are referred to as kamma and vipaka are simply the play of cause and effect within one particular stream of events. They are perfectly capable of functioning within that stream without the need for the conventions of name, or the words “me” and “you,” either as owners or perpetrators of those actions, or as receivers of their results. This is reality,[1] which functions naturally in this way. But for convenience in communication within the social world, we must use the convention of names, such as Mr. Smith and so on, for particular streams of events.
Having accepted the convention, we must accept responsibility for that stream of events, becoming the owner, the active perpetrator and the passive subject of actions and their results, as the case may be. But whether we use these conventions or not, whether we accept the labels or not, the stream of events itself functions anyway, directed by cause and effect. The important point is to be aware of things as they are, distinguishing between the convention and the condition itself. One and the same thing, in the context of its actual nature, is one way, but when spoken of in conventional terms it must be referred to in another way. If we have an understanding of the actual reality of these things we will not be deluded or confused by the conventions.
Both reality and convention are necessary. Reality (often referred to as paramattha) is the natural state. Conventions are a useful and practical human invention. Problems arise when we confuse the two, clinging to the reality and trying to make it follow conventions. Within the actual reality there is no confusion, because the principle naturally functions by itself, not being subject to anybody’s ideas about it – it is people who become confused. And because reality is not confused, functioning independently of people’s desires, it frustrates those desires and makes people even more confused and frustrated. Any problem occurring is purely a human one.

The word “reality” might seem somewhat arbitrary to those not familiar with Buddhism. In the context of this work, we could define it more clearly as “the natural world as distinct from human conventional appendages. [top]
This article was just a small part of the book.
GOOD, EVIL AND BEYOND : Kamma in the Buddha’s Teaching.
by Bhikku P.A. Payutto

Translated by Bruce Evans

To read a book.