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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In Buddhist philosophy there are Three Characteristics of Existence realized by the Buddha. These characteristics arise from the realities of causality and causally conditioned phenomena, and fall away due to the same realities. These characteristics are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. You cannot practice the three characteristics, yet your practice is interdependent on your realization of these philosophical concepts.

A passage in many discourses reads: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded (the conditioned) things; they are of the nature of arising and falling away. Having come into being, they cease to exist.” Things are characterized as impermanent because they are subject to three stages of being: arising (uppada), falling away (vaya), and decay or change (thitassa annathatta). Impermanence is a synonym for the Buddhist ideal of ‘arising and falling away’ or ‘birth and death’. Birth in the human sense, birth of an idea, also in the sense of the combining of material phenomena from constituent parts into what is viewed as an object fit into this concept. Death as applied to living beings is readily understood; death of inanimate phenomena is sometimes termed destruction even though nothing is every truly destroyed. Inanimate death is experienced as the breaking down of its present form.

Impermanence is causality and it causally conditions all phenomena, and the same is true for suffering and not-self. Things are impermanent due to the causal nature of the Universe and human beings suffer and exist as not-self due to that same nature. All phenomena from the material to the immaterial, from rocks to emotions act as both cause and effect as they arise and fall away. A rock striking you on the head can be a cause of pain; emotional pain can be a cause for you to throw a rock. All things are causally conditioned due to the causal nature of the Universe. You were not in pain until the rock hit you on the head; you reacted with emotion when you threw the rock. Experiences are causally conditioned by internal and external factors.

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Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part V

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Secular Buddhist groups are arising in the West, most notably in America. Overall mission statements for these groups vary with one constant; they walk the Middle Path without any religious or spiritual context. Groups like the Secular Buddhist Association and many individuals practice the dharma without any affiliation with a traditional Buddhist lineage or school. These practitioners look to the wide variety of Buddhist writings, podcasts and You Tube videos, along with in-person sessions with other avowed secular Buddhists for information and instruction. They view dogmatic beliefs, unquestioning devotion, and religious ritual as having no value, though many still find value in the facilities and training offered by traditional Buddhist groups.

In his book ‘After Buddhism’, Stephen Batchelor offers Ten Theses of Secular Dharma. He prefaces the list with “In 2005 I started to formulate a series of theses to define the kind of secular Buddhist space in which I found myself then and continue to find myself today – the kind of space I have been writing about in this book. I offer a revised version of them here.”

We’ll continue now with the seventh theses: The community of practitioners is formed of autonomous persons who mutually support each other in the cultivation of their paths. In this network of like-minded individuals, members respect the equality of all members while honoring the specific knowledge and expertise each person brings.

The first sentence is the definition of a sangha (community), religious or secular. All members are equal and their knowledge and expertise honored while accepting the role of the teacher as mentor and monitor. A danger here is that a strictly secular view of equality may lead to everyone trying to be the teacher. In non-denominational Buddhist groups, like the Engaged Dharma (EDIG) sangha at the Buddha Center in the virtual world of Second Life (SL), the desire for some members to make truth claims about their chosen tradition arises. It is the responsibility of the individual on the teacher’s cushion to guide members away from what they think they know, to learning and accepting the value of lessons and ideals from other traditions.

The eighth theses: A practitioner is committed to an ethics of care, founded on empathy, compassion, and love for all creatures who have evolved on this earth.

This is the proper attitude whether from a religious or secular view. (Note: I guess Mr. Batchelor doesn’t believe in life on other planets 🙂 )

The ninth theses: Practitioners seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves.

This is proper thought and action whether from a religious or secular view.

Bathelor’s theses seven through nine are pragmatic ways of being whether a practitioner views their path as secular or religiously oriented. These views are instrumental in the forming of ethical ideals that lead to taking morally appropriate actions in a given situation.

It is theses ten where the religious and the secular find the broadest divide: A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike.

Mr. Batchelor is swiping a broad brush over “religion” based Buddhist practices. He is inferring that Buddhist practitioners who commit to a traditional path hesitate to look outside those teachings and texts to strengthen their practice. Admittedly there are instances where this is true. There are those who choose the Mahayana path and vehemently will defend that path while denigrating the path chosen by others. There does arise the statement that, ‘this Buddhism is the True Buddhism’. This statement is a direct view into the immature practice of the speaker. This is not a new development in Buddhism, it has been happening since the Buddha’s death.

The practice of Buddhism now, in the West is encountering a culture and social system new to its experience. It has found itself in a society that favors individualism in its most selfish form over awareness of societal impact, and a society that favors consumerism over altruism. What is needed to counter these aspects of Western society is a pragmatic path that accepts that the ‘walls’ between traditions will have to be pulled down. The Buddhism that will eventually arise will have components of all the Buddhist traditions, humanism, naturalism, pluralism and science. It will be a Pragmatic Buddhism.