Last revised on July 10, 2021
English is a language of many languages. Words from languages the world over have crept into general usage within the English lexicon, especially within the last century or so. One such word is karma.
The basic understanding of this word karma is that you do something and it comes back at you in a near or distant future. If it’s a ‘good’ deed, you’ll get something good back, if it’s a ‘bad’ deed then be prepared to face the ill consequence.
The way karma works in reality though is much different and, in fact, forms the very basis of how morality was practiced and inculcated among people in India more than 25 centuries ago. Today the same techniques are practiced in a systematic training of mindfulness called Vipassana meditation.
The five precepts or Punchsheel
Speaking of foreign words in English lexicon, punch means five in Hindi. So the popular fruity picnic drink originally used to be a blend of juices from five fruits. That’s what gave it the name fruit-punch which stuck. That also explains why five fingers tightened into a fist to hit somebody is also called a punch.
However, contrarily to violent affairs, here we’re talking about the five moral precepts or punch-sheel. The foundation of any practice that requires focused attention such as Vipassana meditation, is basic moral conduct. Without this in place, you can not have peace of mind. That’s just human nature. We can’t be happy when performing acts that make others unhappy. So taking on the five precepts is the very first step toward learning Vipassana meditation.
These five precepts are to refrain from:
- harming life (killing)
- taking what is not given (stealing)
- performing sexual misconduct (coercive, manipulative, casual)
- false speech (lies, offensive, and idle speech)
- consuming intoxicants (alcohol, drugs etc)
These precepts direct one to the correct way to live in harmony with one’s environment and those who inhabit it. This basic moral conduct is an essential precursor to the next step in developing mindfulness.
Concentration of mind or Samadhi
It is humanly impossible to even begin developing the right kind of concentration that’s needed to practice mindfulness without first practicing the five precepts. So, the very first step in the development of mindfulness ensures a level of moral behavior.
However, punchsheel covers only the physical conduct. And to ensure moral behavior, one must have a level of control over the mind so they can direct their actions despite external influences or internal tendencies. The practice of Samadhi helps to achieve deeper states of concentration needed to practice mindfulness. It also helps gain a level of control over the mind so that even in your daily life you can direct it according to your goals rather than have it control you. And that’s how developing Samadhi can help one practice morality.
A note on deeds: Conventionally, we all agree that a person’s physical behavior is the most important. After all, that’s what conveys their moral conduct and shows how they treat others. Next, we give importance to the type of speech others use. Is it hurtful? Is it abusive? Or is it polite and full of nice words? We can easily determine their moral values by observing their physical and vocal deeds. Lastly, we tend to give the least importance to mental deeds. Because mental actions remain largely hidden from sight, unless those actions propel their vocal or physical behavior, we can’t use them to discern a person’s moral status.
In the tradition of Vipassana meditation though, mind matters most. Mental actions are most important because that’s where all deeds originate. Vocal and physical actions are merely downstream reflections of mental actions. Mind is also the field where consequences are determined instantly based on the action – the true definition of karma.
Development of wisdom or Gyan
Trying to adhere to a basic code of conduct and developing some level of mental control are definitely helpful in maintaining a moral behavior. However, a perfect system of checks and balances would have an alerting mechanism when your behavior does begin to deviate. After all we often forget all about being nice to others or refraining from actions that could be hurtful directly or indirectly.
In a fast paced world, it’s very easy to get carried away by external stimuli or our own prejudices and insecurities pushing us to immoral behavior. The third step in developing mindfulness through Vipassana meditation entails the development of sense faculty of gyan or wisdom. This type of wisdom involves an objective and acute awareness of bodily sensations that are perceived moment after moment.
The development of gyan reduces the disconnect we experience between our inner worlds – the surface versus the depth of the mind. In everyday life, we function at the level of conscious mind that operates at the surface level. Then there is unconscious mind which operates at the depth level. Ironically, this so called unconscious mind is the one that’s most active – constantly responding to stimuli that the conscious mind may not even register.
For example, our mind captures every single detail of a scene without us even thinking about it. Yet when we are asked to recall the situation, most of the times we can play everything out from memory. Like playing out a movie, we can even recall minute details in our imagination such as smells, colors, and textures of the surroundings. All external stimuli triggers various hues of mental activity – perceptions, memories, emotions – which, in turn, generate sensations in the body of which we largely remain unaware or indifferent at best.
The truth is that our unconscious mind is constantly reacting toward subtle sensations that go unnoticed by the conscious mind. If you experience an itch somewhere in the body, for example, you’ll immediately reach and scratch the area without even thinking about it. That’s also why you can squish a mosquito that’s biting you in your sleep only to realize that upon waking up the next morning. You conscious mind was asleep but the unconscious constantly awake and monitoring bodily sensations and reacting accordingly.
Likewise, our emotions generate corresponding sensations in the body that, in daily life, we don’t tend to give any importance to. How do you feel when you’re angry? How about when you’re happy? Different emotions have different sensations arise that can be felt in one or more parts of the body. This is a common experience, one you can have even without practicing meditation. However, with Vipassana meditation, you come to be aware of the constant undercurrent of emotions arising in our unconscious mind and bodily sensations corresponding to it.
Practicing Vipassana meditation, the disconnect between the conscious and unconscious minds begins to diminish. The practice build a bridge across our inner worlds. No longer does a sensation arises in the body and passes without your notice.
When you get angry, you may feel your body heating up. When you’re resentful, you may notice this weird churning somewhere in your chest. When you’re afraid, you may feel a surge of airy sensation in the bottom of your torso. Whatever experience you’re going through, you’ll be drawn to notice some sort of sensation in the body, pleasant or unpleasant, depending on how you perceive it.
Development of this level of awareness provides you with an alerting mechanism when you’re apt to behave in a way that’s disharmonious to yourself and those around you. You realize the truth that you can not hurt others with first hurting yourself. That is the true meaning of karma.
Vipassana gives one a moral compass to navigate though the vicissitudes of life. Various situations make it difficult to practice moral behavior and we get swayed by emotions into performing actions that are hurtful to us and others. The practice of Vipassana changes this by modifying our behavior pattern at the deepest level of the mind.
When our reactions dampen, we naturally gain enough time in the moment to act in ways that are beneficial regardless of how tiring a situation is. Having gained some mastery over the mind by practicing samadhi with the backdrop of sheel, we’re able to overcome strong emotions as soon as we notice them arising and before they overpower us.
That is how Vipassana supports and promotes moral behavior. Today this ancient technique is taught in traditions most adherent to the way it was imparted originally over 2500 years ago. For more information about these courses, please visit www.dhamma.org.