Pebbles and Ghee: Realities of Karma

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Talk given at Buddha Center, Second Life, 011918


The law of nature is the dharma in action; it is karma. It is a reality that once an action is taken the karmic consequences happen. How to view this appropriately is the subject of this parable told by S. N. Goenka (great Vipassana teacher).

The Pebbles and the Ghee (story told by S. N. Goenka)

One day a young man came to the Buddha crying and crying; he could not stop. The Buddha asked him, What is wrong, young man?

Sir, yesterday my old father died.

Well, what can be done? If he has died, crying will not bring him back.

Yes, sir, that I understand; crying will not bring back my father. But I have come to you, sir, with a special request: please do something for my dead father!

Eh? What can I do for your dead father?

Sir, please do something. You are such a powerful person, certainly you can do it. Look, these priestlings, pardoners, and almsgatherers perform all sorts of rites and rituals to help the dead. And as soon as the ritual is performed here, the gateway of the kingdom of heaven is breached and the dead person receives entry there; he gets an entry visa. You, sir, are so powerful! If you perform a ritual for my dead father, he will not just receive an entry visa, he’ll be granted a permanent stay, a Green Card! Please sir, do something for him!

The poor fellow was so overwhelmed by grief that he could not follow any rational argument. The Buddha had to use another way to help him understand. So he said to him, All right. Go to the market and buy two earthen pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha had agreed to perform a ritual for his father. He ran to the market and returned with two pots. All right, the Buddha Said, fill one pot with gee, with butter. The young man did it. Fill the other with pebbles. He did that too. Now close their mouths; seal them properly. He did it. Now place them in the pond over there. The young man did so, and both of the pots sank to the bottom. Now, said the Buddha, bring a big stick; strike and break open the pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha was performing a wonderful ritual for his father.

According to ancient Indian custom, when a man dies, his on takes the dead body to the cremation ground, puts it on the funeral pyre, and burns it. When the body is half burned, the son takes a thick stick and cracks open the skull. And according to the old belief, as soon as the skull is opened in this world, the gateway to the kingdom of heaven is opened above. So now the young man thought to himself, The body of my father was burned to ashes yesterday. As a symbol, the Buddha now wants me to break open these pots! He was very happy with the ritual. Taking a stick as the Buddha said, the young man struck hard and broke open both the pots. At once the butter contained in one pot came up and started floating on the surface of the water. The pebbles in the other pot spilled out and remained at the bottom. Then the Buddha said, Well, young man, this much I have done. Now call all your priestlings, and miracle workers and tell them to start chanting and praying: Oh pebbles, come up, come up! Oh butter, go down, go down! Let me see how it happens.

Oh sir, you have started joking! How is it possible, sir? The pebbles are heavier than water they are bound to stay at the bottom. The can’t come up, sir; this is the law of nature! The butter is lighter than water, it is bound to remain on the surface. It can’t go down, sir; this is the law of nature!

Young man, you know so much about the law of nature, but you have not understood this natural law; if all his life you father performed deeds that were heavy like pebbles, he bound to go down; who can bring him up? And if all his actions were light like this butter, he is bound to go up; who can pull him down?

The key question in the parable is, “What can I do for your dead father?” In that question the Buddha is opening up the son to his misunderstanding of karma, of human physics in action and its interconnection with death and rebirth. Some view karma as a sort of balance sheet. They hold the notion that one can balance the ledger by engaging in a wholesome act in order to negate the effect of an unwholesome act. Also, that certain rituals can be performed to alter the past of the dead in order to gain them entry into a place of ease and comfort after death or, that through prayer or merit offered that the circumstances of the dead can be eased and the dead will be reborn in better circumstances. That is not how karma, the law of nature works.

Rites and rituals performed by the various Hindi holy men were done with the intent that the dead could enter a heavenly realm, there to be judged according to their karmic condition. The young man beseeched the Buddha to use his power to allow his father permanent residence there, to bypass the law of nature.

The answer to the question of what can be done for the dead is the living can honor them, but the living cannot assist their journey any further. What was done in life, wholesome and unwholesome determines their destination and path to rebirth. The energy of each of their deeds transmigrates into the next birth. From the perspective of rebirth that is why one’s energy during a current life should be spent performing intentional wholesome actions and avoiding the intentionally unwholesome actions.

Having an appropriate view of karma and rebirth will strengthen Buddhist practice. The past is the past and cannot be changed. Whatever the dead did in life, the living cannot change. Whatever the dead are experiencing cannot be altered by the living. No merit ritual or ceremony (puja) can affect their rebirth or their place in any other realm. Their karma is a product of their lives. Their rebirth is on them.

A person commits the murder of another human being. This engenders the very worst of karma. That person chooses to spend the remainder of their life performing only wholesome deeds. That engenders good karma. Do these combined actions balance out the karmic sheet? No. A human life was still taken. While the good done is a factor, so too the negative is a factor in rebirth.

A practitioner might come to the conclusion then that if wrong is done during a life then why try to atone for it by doing good if it isn’t going to have an effect on rebirth? Engaging the bodymind in a transformation from unwholesome thought and action to one of wholesome thought and action results in energy that carries forward into the next rebirth. The idea is do better in the next rebirth.

From an appropriate view of practice there is a critical point to make here concerning karma and rebirth. Focusing on performing wholesome acts in order to ensure a good rebirth misses entirely the intent of the Four Noble Truths. We do good because it is the path to the alleviation of discontentment, anguish and unsatisfactoriness (suffering) in ourselves and others. The possibility of a better rebirth is a bonus. The possibility of a worse rebirth is a warning.



During this session one of the sangha asked what my own view on rebirth is, do I believe or disbelieve.  For any of us walking the Noble Path this is an important consideration because it points to our view and intent.

Trained in the contemporary Pragmatic Buddhist tradition my view of rebirth is not belief or disbelief.  I’ve never experienced undeniable, unassailable evidence of the reality of this concept so I am, well let’s call it an agnostic when it comes to rebirth.

I choose to perform wholesome acts with wholesome intent in order to alleviate the suffering of myself and others, not with the idea of procuring a better ‘next life’.  Focusing on doing acts of intentional good in this life does act as a sort of spiritual insurance I will admit.  If rebirth is a reality then I am covered.  If it is not then I will leave a legacy of wholesome thought and action as an example for others in their lives.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng


Appropriate Speech: Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is the path of moral discipline (sila) one walks on the Eightfold Path. Together they make up the visible components of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). Ethical voice arises in speech driven by wholesome intent, in speech grounded in the realities of karma and causal conditioning. There are four aspects speech that arise in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions. We must always be mindful because what we do matters.

Aphorisms are phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery. They come in handy tools as for memorization and for teaching ethical ideals and moral behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” and it’s meaning can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its intent. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice the dharma.

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The Eightfold Path: Willingness and Experience

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

With the Four Ennobling Truths, Siddhartha set the groundwork for all Buddhists who would follow his teachings. In pragmatic Buddhism we use ennobling rather than the traditional translation of noble because like fertile ground the Truths are empty until used. Ennobling is an adjective, one that brings recognition that the Four Ennobling Truths are only furrows in a field. It isn’t until one is willing to plant the seeds, cultivate the ground, and experience what grows there is only emptiness.

Contemporary Buddhist scholars like Stephen Batchelor and David Kalupahana experience Siddhartha as presenting not a list of observations that if one believes their truth then that person can join the Buddhist club. Instead they experience the truths as a sequence of dependent origination or causality. The first Truth is, so the second is, the third is, the fourth is, and the fourth leads back to the first; and forms a causal loop. They are the truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.

Why do we think this is what the Buddha meant? By looking at each of the ennobling truths we can see the corresponding action it requires.

#1 Unsatisfactoriness exists for human beings.

You must become fully aware of all the types of suffering that plague mankind and the world he lives in. Only by fully knowing unsatisfactoriness can we recognize the causes. You must accept that all human beings will encounter moments of suffering.

#2 The cause of unsatisfactoriness is craving, unnatural attachments and dualistic thinking that neglect an understanding of dependent origination,

You must look within (rigorous self-honesty) and without for the causes. The realization that nothing arises from nothing is where we begin. Craving for permanence and fear of change, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Universe works, and an attachment to ego must be recognized as that cause.

#3 There is a path that leads to the cessation of craving and unnatural attachments of the mind, and thus there is a way to positively transform unsatisfactoriness.

The lessons of the Middle Path will lead us to the realization that suffering can be alleviated. You discover through experiential verification that the realities of the causal process of the Universe coupled with impermanence empower you to make the changes needed, to engage in positive transformation.

#4 This path is Eightfold.

In the Eightfold Path you find the dispositions of human beings that directly effect HOW you interact in an interconnected world. Like all Buddhist “lists” the Eightfold Path is not meant to stand alone but to be a dynamic and integral part of Buddhist practices, all which have an impact on HOW a Buddhist lives their life in relation to the causal Universe. The ideals of encompassing and corrective view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration when applied in conjunction with the Six Refinements become a “power tool” in the Buddhist toolbox.

The English Buddhist monk Novera said, “The four truths are not to be understood or known, they are injunctions in which we are directed to ACT!”

Wisdom, the sixth refinement is gradually developed as you practice generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and meditation, and acting with wisdom also helps us gradually develop those characteristics. For example the wise application of generosity takes more than just giving. You must learn to develop a clear and realistic view of the situation, what is needed as opposed to what is wanted. To start there will be a level of self-regard to your giving and that is a part of the gradual turning from that self-regard to selfless compassion. Your intent will undergo that change if you are mindful. The other aspects of the Eightfold Path – speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration – also have value in determining acts of generosity. Looking deeply into the Eightfold Path you’ll recognize the elements of the Six Refinements. View and intention are acts of wisdom. Speech, action and livelihood are acts of morals and ethics. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are acts of a meditative bodymind.

Like all Buddhist teachings meant to be useful and productive in the alleviation of suffering, their intent should lead us back to the ideals of the Four Ennobling Truths.