Possibilities: Karma, Merit and Vipaka

August 5th, 2011

In my last post, I described a different way of looking at “truth” that divided up what we experience into things that are “necessarily real” — objects and other phenomenon that are independent of individuals, usually measurable in some way — and those that are “unnecessarily real” — that is, we really experience these things, but we can do without them (they are unnecessary). The “unnecessarily real” usually aren’t measurable by any scientific method, and they may or may not be desirable (a smile is unnecessarily real, because it comes and goes, but it’s worth keeping around). The focus of that post was on dukkha, and how we add layers of meaning to our experiences, and in that way we create unnecessary dukkha — but it’s important to recognize that dukkha is real in this sense, not a delusion; people do genuinely suffer.

In just the way that dukkha is unnecessarily real — it is something we create that we can learn to stop creating, and live without — karma, too, is unnecessarily real. We know that both fit in the category of “unnecessarily real” because the Buddha’s system is all about the ending of karma, and through that, the ending of dukkha.


The Buddha talks about four kinds of karma: the good stuff, the bad stuff, the neutral stuff, and the karma that ends karma — the latter being the practices we engage in where we learn how to slow and still the process of causation. But if we can end karma, then karma is also one of those things that is not necessarily real: it is something we create on the fly, something that we can — in a sense at least — choose not to create.

Karma is real in the same way that dukkha is real — we create the effect we feel — usually not through conscious intention, but through the things we do without being keenly aware of the deeper reasons why we do them.

Yet when I look at the way karma plays out in my life, I find it to be a little more real than other “unnecessarily real” effects, because, once I have done whatever acts that bring about karmic effects, they are not something I can undo. I can choose to not smile. I can choose to recognize the pain of “Why me”ness that I add to physical pain, and let go of and end it. But once I have acted, the results that will come back to me will do so no matter whether I’ve changed and become a better person in the meantime or not. This means that karma isn’t “stored” in my own being the way my smile is, or the way I overlay extra dukkha over my pain is — entirely self-created and self-contained. Somehow, karma is an effect that has a greater reality in the world than the simplest of unnecessarily real things.

Where Karma is Stored: Merit, Vipaka

Looking at it, it seems to me that the fruits of our karma (aka “vipaka” or “merit”) are stored in memory. Once upon a time the storage of merit would only reside in people’s memories of us: in direct memories, in memories shared and passed on in stories and song, perhaps, but all in the minds of individuals. Once we invented ways to record our memories and stories in other media, some of our merit gets stored there, too; and now in old radio plays and TV shows, and in history books.

To make this clearer, we can use the remarkable character of Angulimala, from the suttas. Angulimala was a famous brigand who terrorized people traveling from one city to another along paths through the jungles of ancient India — his name means “necklace of fingers” because he collected the pinkies of those he killed, and was apparently trying to get a full thousand. The Buddha chose to walk down a road Angulimala was known to travel, and when he encountered the murderer in the flesh, he converted him through clever wordplay.

After some time spent learning the Buddha’s methods, Angulimala was liberated from suffering, “fully enlightened” we might say, and yet, one day, as he and his teacher walked through a village, the locals recognized him and took to beating on him. The Buddha encouraged him to bear up under the attack, reminding him that it was just that unused merit coming to fruition.

Angulimala’s past actions had given him a reputation, and his reputation caught up with him — his merit had been banked in the minds of those who recalled his past deeds. It didn’t matter that — in some reality — he was, no longer, the person who had committed those evil deeds, and that he would never again do those evil deeds, not then nor in the future.  His past actions could bear fruit as long as people were familiar with who he *was* rather than who he’d *become*.

If Angulimala got in a boat, and sailed across to South America, and behaved well (as would be consistent with his new frame of mind) he would not encounter his banked merit. If someone who recalled him, got in a boat and followed him to South America and told stories — if the fellow who came after was a persuasive storyteller — Angulimala might again be confronted with that banked merit.1

The karma — our actions — that come back to us are the results of our actions in the world, actions that are stored in the memories of those we interact with (and probably in our own memories as well). It seems a fuzzy system to me: human memories are fickle — and tainted, too, by the preconceptions of those hearing stories, or interpreting actions seen — but this seems to work as a general interpretation, as something we can see in the evidence of our own lives. It is this very fuzziness that requires the circular logic of the Buddha’s definition of how karma plays out (as described in The Causes of Three Kinds of Results of Karma).

Karma and causation in this sense are really one and the same thing. If something bad happens to us (effect) and we have any responsibility for it at all, it seems to have been caused by something we *did* (cause) — at its very root, by something we *thought* (or assumed, anyway) which manifested in the world as action or as speech, or as refraining from action or speech (in the refraining, thought alone counts, too) and the Buddha’s insight was that the only category of things we do/say/think that gets us in trouble, for which we have responsibility, is the category of acts derived from a certain sort of selfishness — more like self preservation than anything else, but it’s preservation of that unnecessary sense of self, not the necessarily real body (there is nothing selfish in seeking food, water, shelter, medicines, when they are the necessities of life).

The Buddha points out that specific acts are not tied to specific events in response to those acts. There is no act (say: stealing) that one always gets punished for; life is too complex for that to be the case, for it to even make sense that it could be so. Even aside from the way we can recognize that “what goes around doesn’t *always* come around” — much as we might want to think the bank robber living on his hoard in Panama is *actually* suffering terribly for his crime deep down in his soul — we know that deeds we might want to say are inherently wrong not only aren’t always punished, they aren’t always wrong, either. That mother stealing food from a wealthy hoarder to feed her starving children isn’t doing anything inherently wrong.

There is no “inherent” anything — that’s what’s meant by emptiness.

Karma, then, is a general principal, not some Cosmic Law that balances the universe for us. That’s not a comforting thought (not for the moral among us anyway, who would like to be rewarded for our good acts, and know the bad guys get what they deserve) but it is what’s apparent, what we can see through observation is true. And the Buddha says this: he says that we can’t tell from looking at the act what karma it generates; we can only know that it will generate whatever karma it will.

When we plant the seed, if all conditions are right, a tree will grow. We can’t know, when we plant the seed, if a tree will grow — we will only come to know that it will when it does. If we don’t plant a seed, even if all the conditions would have been right for it, there will be no tree.

If we perform an act out of a particular sort of ignorance (the seed), and all the conditions are right, we will reap the fruits of the act (kamma, vipaka — dukkha!). If we don’t perform that self-serving karmic act, we don’t reap those fruits, because the seed was never planted.

This is all we can know: that karmic acts can reap karmic fruits and there is no certainty as to which will beget which — and I say that this is because the unused vipaka is stored in other humans, as dodgy memories all tangled up with their own perceptions, so whether they will come to fruition or not cannot be known in advance. There is no certainty built into the system. But the point is, the only real point is, that we have choices in how we act, and we can only be held responsible for those choices. We are not responsible for the things that happen to us as a result of conditions beyond our control, nor because others misunderstand what we do.

Karma is created through our interactions with others, and stored in our memories and theirs, of those actions. It is the interactions that matter, because it is there that our karma-tree is growing, and it is also where we may cause suffering for others that is not their karma, not their responsibility2. By stilling the cause of dukkha in ourselves, we lessen suffering in the world as a whole at the same time. This, to me, is the most important point of the Buddha’s system: it’s not about ending dukkha just for me; my efforts do not only have an effect on me, but they lessen the suffering of others who would otherwise be harmed by my behavior when they have not planted any particular seed that resulted in my dukkha-tree lashing them.

I am only responsible for my actions, and while I get to feel the effects of my actions coming back to me, and that is a concern, it’s the effect of my actions on others that is key: that’s where the results of my actions are stored, and that’s where the consequences will echo off into the future, long past the breakup of the body that acted to create the karma.


These last three posts all connect an understanding of Buddhism that is a bit different from traditional views. We considered that causation is about effects from causes, rather than a cause always leading to an effect. The way that cause is followed uncertainly by effect makes for a fuzzy system that lacks predictability, but it’s an honestly stated understanding of the way things work, based on what we see in our subjective lives, and in the physical workings of the world around us (seeds do not always result in trees).

In the next post we return to causation in its specific formulation as Dependent Arising, so that we can take a look at how misunderstanding the directions of the connections leads to confusion, and how paying attention to the lack of certainty (necessary reality) allows for a more realistic focus on where we should direct our efforts in practice.



1 Note that this means that a good storyteller could get us in trouble with the people in the new location without us ever having done anything evil in the past. But the Buddha’s point with his description of karma is that we are *only* responsible for the things we have actually done — we cannot be held responsible for anything else — it is only our underlying intentions that matter, because they are the only causes of outcomes that we have control over.

2 So if we are the ones who tell evil stories about some innocent people just because we don’t like the way they look, and that gets them beat up, that is not their karma coming to fruition, not anything that they have responsibility for. But we might get a karmic response to our actions later, when their friends come beat us up for spreading lies. However if we don’t plant the seed of hatred, we avoid possible karmic results for us, and prevent the others from suffering effects that were not because of anything they did in the first place.

6 Responses to “Possibilities: Karma, Merit and Vipaka”

  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I like your idea of merit being stored in people. I think it’s stored in yourself as well — the more I yell at other drivers, the more I reinforce my tendency to suffer anger when I’m driving; if I practice metta, I’m more likely to recognize and respond to my felt sense of connection with others. We share our central nervous systems with each other, and everything we do say and think leaves its mark somewhere.

    The little Insight group I sit with on Wednesdays has rephrased the dedication of merit thusly: “May the benefits of our practice be shared with everyone we come into contact with.”

    As for Angulimala escaping his merit, maybe not. If he did make his South American excursion, he’d be putting himself into exile, leaving behind every comfort and reassurance. The loneliness might even be more unpleasant than getting beaten up.

  2. star says:

    The rephrasing of the dedication of merit is lovely and apt. As for Angulimala, if he is liberated, then the choice he makes to move to South America, and his experiences there, should be things he can work with. It would only be through clinging to his past, and to expectations of how things should be, that he would experience loneliness or feel a loss of comfort and reassurance.

  3. […] reverberate in the lives of others, as theirs do in ours. As Linda Blanchard points out in a recent post on her Just a Little Dust blog, the real significance of karma may lay the way our actions live on […]

  4. […] reverberate in the lives of others, as theirs do in ours. As Linda Blanchard points out in a recent post on her Just a Little Dust blog, the real significance of karma may lay the way our actions live on […]

  5. […] reverberate in the lives of others, as theirs do in ours. As Linda Blanchard points out in a recent post on her Just a Little Dust blog, the real significance of karma may lay the way our actions live on […]

  6. […] Just A Little Dust Suffering from a passion for words, and to understand what the Buddha taught, and why « Possibilities: Karma, Merit and Vipaka […]

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