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

The Arising of Meditation

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Many spiritual seekers across the world and across belief systems hold the Indian ideal of meditative practice as one of it’s greatest contributions to world culture. Meditation is spoken of in the Bhagavad-gitta, “Better than information, however, is meditation, and better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind.” Many religious and philosophical traditions engage in some form of meditative practice whose processes can be traced back to Indian origins. Bhavana, translated as cultivation or development is often used in the West as a synonym for meditation. Pragmatically, cultivation of how you are and development of a positive personal character is what meditation practice is directed toward. No matter the tradition, Buddhist or otherwise that applies meditative practice they do so to bring into existence a more positively developed personal character or clearer view of reality. It is a spiritual exercise that develops mental experiences that differ greatly from any normal perception of how we are.

Meditation is an English word that was chosen to describe the Indian spiritual practices because those practices had many parallels to existing Western meditative techniques. “Meditations” have come from such diverse Western sources as Marcus Aurelius and Descartes and medieval European monasteries. Meditative practice has been offered in a wide variety of guises from the contemplative meditations of Christian sects to contemporary mindfulness meditations that have arisen from Hindi and Buddhist practices to become secular based pursuits. Some of these practices may not seem to have any connection to Hindi or Buddhist meditative practices but that is a matter of cultural perception, or of lack of knowledge of those practices. Even in Western context the main purpose behind meditation was to develop a spiritual practice, one that would alter the practitioner’s perception of the how they interacted with the world. The commitment and concentration necessary in meditation was proven through experience to have a positive effect on a practitioner’s spiritual development.

Generosity, morals, tolerance, energy, and wisdom presented in the Six Refinements as personal virtues make sense; the addition of meditation to that list may not. Meditation is a psycho-physical activity that most see as consisting of sitting and “not thinking”. And that is true, or not . . . dependent on what type of meditation is being practiced. Look again and as the personal virtues of generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and wisdom are presented in the Mahayana tradition they too are physical practices as one must act in these ways for them to have value as virtues. The idea that meditation does not fit as a personal virtue is the result of a misunderstanding of a particular aspect of meditative practice. A regular, committed meditative practice leads to the development of thoughtfulness, imagination, serenity and contemplation that like the other refinements becomes a noticeable component of a persons character. The practitioner approaches the experiences in life with an equanimity and serenity that is noticed by others and thus becomes an example to others.

Meditation, in the list of Refinements, comes after the refinement of energy because it takes vitality and vigor to pursue a redirection and reconfiguration of one’s conscious thinking and subconscious input. Energy and meditation are closely tied as one directly develops the other in a never-ending loop. The Mahayana legacy masters understood that the realizing of raw energy, or “energy of spirit” required the guidance of a meditative and wise mind. In the early encounters between Buddhist meditative practices and the West a fundamental misunderstanding of that practice had scholars announcing that Buddhists were “anti-social and unintelligible,” that they separated themselves from society in order to pursue their religion. That the Buddha required all early disciples to walk the land, coming together during the rainy season to study and practice is proof enough that the Buddha realized the importance of being socially engaged. Contemporary thought and experience is proving that social engagement has long been an extremely important aspect of Buddhism, including meditative practices.

Meditation has been a core practice for Buddhists as evidenced by the earliest Buddhist texts such as the Potthapada Sutta, from the Digha Nikayas. The “three poisons” of greed, aversion and delusion could be negated by the discipline and concentration required of meditative practice. The first goal of meditation was to remove these obstructions to a calm and deliberate pursuit of enlightenment. A practitioner also worked through meditation to come to an awareness of their own mind and dispositions, this being the single most productive knowledge for any human being. This “reflexive awareness” allowed the practitioner the ability to overcome the “five hindrances”, conscious triggers that were known to cause human suffering – sensual desire, ill-will, tiredness/laziness, elation/depression, and doubt. Meditation could give one the mental skills needed to realize and combat these forces working against human flourishing.

Traditional Buddhists did not feel that just anyone, in any situation could make use of meditation as a skill. They felt that one had to have a certain moral platform, and innate or taught mindful character, and a teacher and surrounding group of like-minded individuals to have any chance of reaching a level of understanding that would make meditative practice useful. This thinking spurred the development of monasteries and the building of temples, one where monastics could be trained, the other where the laity could come and worship.

Early in the developing tradition there were two distinct types of meditative practice that develop parallel and then became inexorably linked as one strategy to achieve a strong spiritual practice. These were calming (samatha) and insight (vipassana) meditation. Calming meditation is recognized today as “mindfulness breathing” meditations where focusing on the breath brings the practitioner to a “one-pointedness of mind”, the ability to concentrate moment-to-moment without distraction. Insight meditation cultivates the practitioner’s ability to think specifically about the arising of enlightening wisdom. This practice paralleled the example set by the Buddha as he sat and meditated to realize how human beings and their world actually worked. These meditative techniques were taught separately and then as Buddhism matured there was the realization that calming and insight we co-dependent in that the strength of one technique offered strength to the other. Calming enabled the mind to avoid distraction and to focus intently so that reflection on the dharma would be deeper and more meaningful in the pursuit of enlightenment.

There is also a purely metaphysical aspect in the traditional Buddhist understanding of meditation. Experienced meditators were thought to develop miraculous, some might say magical powers as a result of their devoted practice. Pursuing meditative practice to a certain point they would have access to five powers (abhijna): divine eye with the ability to view worldwide suffering and that of other existences as well — divine ear with the ability to hear the calls for assistance from all places and the teaching of the dharma no matter where it is being spoken – clairvoyance — knowledge of past lives — and magical powers such as teleportation, shape changing. There may, or may not be magical abilities that arise from highly developed meditations . . . there is no doubt that real positive mental and physical transformations do occur.

No matter the tradition that applies meditative practice they do so to bring into existence a more positively developed personal character or clearer view of reality.

Siddhartha chose to sit in meditation at the base of a bodhi tree, so that he might awaken. He could have chosen to speak in front of hundreds of people, to speak one-on-one with a king or brahmin, to continue to travel across India to achieve that goal. He must have recognized that to find the answer he sought would take a calm, balanced bodymind, and an insight into how his own experiences reflected the moment-to-moment experiences of all other peoples. Mediation was a key component of Siddhartha’s awakening.