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The first paragraph of the Lonaphala Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, states:

"Monks, for anyone who says, 'In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced,' there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress. But for anyone who says, 'When a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced,' there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress.

I feel that this is not the best possible translation for this paragraph of the sutta.

Please explain what it really means.

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This is how I understand it. You don't get back exactly what you put in, but you get back the results of it. Example, if you kill someone, it is not necessary that you will get killed back in return but you will get results from your killing which depends on many factors. This sutta, Buddha taught us that is possible to work on those many factors that could produce a better results.
Like , if I killed someone, then later worked to become a stream enter, a result that could have sent me to hell next life changed to make me a sickly person. Etc. A Finger bandit arahat is another example. It is clear to me that karma is not fate or fixed destinations or replacement of a will from a god.

  • I scored you answer down because to me the answer is not related to the theme or context of the sutta. – – Dhammadhatu Jan 10 '18 at 9:35
  • I believe this is the correct answer. Basically the sutta is a caution against popular interpretations of karma. It’s not like if you drop a ping pong ball on someone, that someone else is going to drop a ping pong ball on you too, and then some other person is going to go: “ha, karma is an XYZ!” Rather a person creates karma and then its result is experienced in such and such a way dependent on other factors. – James Yen May 19 at 18:17
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Translation:

Bhikkhus, if someone says: "how many actions a person done are how many results a person get back". Bhikkhus, if that be so, there is no meditation for enlightenment and there is no apparent path to end suffering rightfully.

Bhikkhus, if a person says: "how many actions a person done, only results which possible to get back, are how many results a person get back". Bhikkhus, if that be so, there is no meditation for enlightenment and there is no apparent path to end suffering rightfully.

http://www.84000.org/tipitaka/read/v.php?B=20&A=6567&Z=6647&eng=metta_e

(I modified from that link.)

Why I translate like that?

I combine above titles with their explanation below. Because in ancient theravāda study system culture, sutta's context must relate each others. This is called tanti-bhāsā.

Here bhikkhus, a certain person doing a trifling evil action would pull him to hell. Here bhikkhus, a certain person doing a trifling evil action of the same nature would feel it here and now and mostly nothing would be apparent.

Bhikkhus, what kind of person doing a trifling evil action, on account of it, be pulled to hell?.

Here bhikkhus, a certain person is undeveloped, in body,2 virtues,2 in mind,[3] in wisdom,[4] is insignificant with a small self[5] living in unpleasantness. Bhikkhus, such a person doing a trifling evil action would pull him to hell (uppapajja-vedanīya; this life's and hell in next life's results of puthujana are possible to get back).

Bhikkhus, what kind of person doing a trifling evil action of the same nature would feel it here and now and mostly nothing would be apparent?

Here bhikkhus, a certain person (ariya) is developed, in body, virtues, in mind, in wisdom, is with a significant self immeasureable and living in pleasantness. Bhikkhus, such a person doing a trifling evil action of the same nature would feel it here and now (diṭṭhadhamma-vedanīya; this life's results of ariya are possible, but hell in next life is impossible) and mostly nothing would be apparent.

So, "how many actions, ditthadhamma-vedanīya and hell in upapajja-vedanīya, a person done, only results which possible to get back, are how many results a person get back". (puthujana can get both diṭṭhadhamma-vedanīya and hell in upapajja-vedanīya back, but ariya can get just diṭṭhadhamma-vedanīya back.)

Therefore buddha taught in Cakkhu Sutta:

  1. “Monks, if anyone takes faith and is settled in these things (be sotāpanna-ariya), it is said he lives in conformity with faith, has entered the righteous way, the way of Great Beings, has gone beyond the field of ordinary man, and it is not possible that he is doing actions that lead to hell, the animal womb, or the sphere of ghosts be born there. It is not possible that he should die without realizing the fruits of entry in the stream of the Teaching.
-1

While I am not fluent in the exact translation, the translation offered is as follows:

Monks, for anyone who says, 'In whatever way a person makes kamma, that is how it is experienced,' there is no living of the holy life, there is no opportunity for the right ending of stress. But for anyone who says, 'When a person makes kamma to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced,' there is the living of the holy life, there is the opportunity for the right ending of stress.

There is the case where a trifling evil deed done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling deed done by another individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

Based on reading the above two paragraphs, it appears the meaning of the sutta is:

  1. When the Holy Life has been lived, an act of evil kamma, performed due a lapse of mindfulness, does not necessarily bring an evil result, i.e. a result of suffering (which can only occur due to egoistic attachment or self-view).

  2. When the Holy Life has been lived, where there is skill in mindfulness & wisdom, an act of evil kamma, performed due a lapse of mindfulness, only brings the result of vedana (feeling). Where a certain individual is developed in [contemplating] the body, developed in virtue, developed in mind, developed in discernment: unrestricted, large-hearted, dwelling with the immeasurable, the following occurs in relation to an act of evil kamma, in the here-&-now:

On cognizing a mind-object with the mind, he does not lust after it if it is pleasing; he does not dislike it if it is unpleasing. He abides with mindfulness of the body established, with an immeasurable mind, and he understands as it actually is the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Having thus abandoned favouring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, he does not delight in that feeling, welcome it, or remain holding to it. As he does not do so, delight in feelings ceases in him. With the cessation of his delight comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of being; with the cessation of being, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.

MN 38

As was taught in AN 3.61:

Now it is for one who feels that I proclaim: ‘This is suffering,’ and ‘This is the origin of suffering,’ and ‘This is the cessation of suffering,’ and ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’

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