A Kammic Puzzle

Venue: Long Residence
(In commemoration of the 7th death anniversary of Mr. Long Heng Hua)

As Buddhists we believe that even in death, a person may be in a state where he can still observe the living. It would therefore be proper for the living to engage in activities that can honour the dearly departed person. Some of the ways of doing this are:

    1. Performing meritorious deeds such as offering dana to monks, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, observing the precepts, speaking and listening to the Dhamma, meditating, and then dedicating the merits to the departed.


  1. Making a physical offering to the departed (he might not be able to actually “eat” this but can obtain the essence of the food).

When the departed person rejoices in the merits shared, wholesome kamma is created which benefits him and all concerned.

A person who decides to be charitable may be faced with the dilemma of where and to whom he should donate. When asked this, a Buddhist will naturally say “the Sangha” which is the highest field of merit. However, others may disagree.

Once, King Pasenadi asked the Buddha the same question. In reply, the Buddha said it should be given wherever the heart feels happy and confident of giving, e.g. if a person feels happier donating to an orphan rather than a virtuous monk, so be it. King Pasenadi then asked which recipient is the greatest source of merits. The Buddha replied that this is a different question altogether and said that gifts that are given to the virtuous result in the greatest fruition (and such a virtuous person need not necessarily be a monk).

At an Internet forum, questions were posed relating to two different situations:

    • Situation 1
      A person firmly believes that a monk is an arahant and makes an offering to him. However, in reality, although he appears saintly, this monk is a rogue monk. Is the merit gained through this offering big or small?


  • Situation 2
    The situation is now reversed – a person donates to a monk without knowing that he is an arahant. So, is the merit gained here greater or lesser?

Let us reflect a little on this. If we look at the above from the notion that kamma is dependent upon intention, then some of us may think that Situation 1 would result in a higher gain of merit, since the intention was to give to an arahant and not just any ordinary monk. A story in the scriptures seems to supports this theory: A blind monk who was an arahant accidentally stepped on and killed insects. Other monks denounced him for killing living beings but the Buddha said this monk committed no crime for he did not see and had no intention to kill. So, the intention should be more important than the result, right?

Actually, we should bear in mind that in Situation 1, the intention is not fulfilled as the monk is in reality not an arahant. The giver fails to perform what he intended to do. On the other hand, the giver in Situation 2 fulfils his intention of giving to a monk, who happens to be an arahant, and thereby making his giving great in merits.

In another example, a person shoots to kill A but misses and kills B who was standing nearby instead. Once again, the intention was not fulfilled as the intended victim did not die. B was killed by him by accident, just as the blind monk unintentionally killed the insects. However, having done something that is motivated by an intention to kill, an act of akusala (unwholesome) has occurred nonetheless.

In the Vinaya Pitaka, we find a case of a lady, very advanced in pregnancy, who wanted to abort her child. A monk gave her some medicine for the purpose. However, the medicine ended up killing the mother instead, while the baby survived. When the matter was reported to the Buddha, he decreed that the monk did not commit a parajika (defeat) offence of killing a human being. A parajika is a serious breach of the Vinaya which results in irreversible expulsion from the Sangha. The monk incurred a thullaccaya (grave offence) nonetheless but falls short of being expelled. This is because, once again, the intention to kill the child was not fulfilled, although an akusala action has still been committed.

Situation 1 can be likened to the simile of squeezing juice from a fruit which looks luscious on the outside but is instead dried up inside. You get a small amount of juice. Reverse that and we have something like Situation 2. You have a fruit that looks ordinary but is actually very juicy inside. When squeezed, a full glass of juice is obtained.

For further reflection, a Vinaya commentary points out cases pertaining to matricide and patricide which seems to be an apparent contradiction to what has been said above. A person sees some movement in the bushes and thinking it is an animal, shoots it, then later finds out that he has shot and killed one of his parents instead. Even though it is a case of mistaken identity, the commentary considers this to be a garuka (heavy) kamma, which will without fail result in rebirth in hell in the next life. It argues that he has intended to kill whatever living being that had been behind the bush and has succeeded in doing so. Since the living being is actually his parent, it is said to be an act of matricide or patricide.

Though I have no doubt that the act of killing has been fulfilled, I personally have doubts whether this can be rightly classified as matricide or patricide. Nonetheless, this case tells us that a situation of mistaken identity does not absolve the crime.

In conclusion, to judge whether or not a good or bad kammic act is done, the following factors must be scrutinised:

    1. the object
    1. knowledge of that object
    1. intention to do something onto that object
    1. effort to fulfil that intention
  1. success in fulfilling that intention through that effort

I hope this talk will help you to disentangle confusions that you may have about kamma, instead of making you more confused!

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