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In SN 35.145 (below), we see that the body, intellect etc. is "old karma", capable to be felt. But it doesn't say whose "old karma" it is. The sutta also talks about "new karma" generated by decisions and actions within our control, but also not pinned to a specific individual self identity. Also SN 12.37 reiterates this.

"Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear... The nose... The tongue... The body... The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.

The following comes from SN 12.17 (although this quote comes from here). Here, karma is not pinned to a specific self identity or a specific individual. Karma is attributed to past decisions and actions, coming from dependently originated conditions.

Again, when the Buddha was asked by the naked ascetic Kassapa whether suffering was of one's own making or of another's or both or neither, the Buddha replied "Do not put it like that." When asked whether there was no suffering or whether the Buddha neither knew nor saw it, the Buddha replied that there was, and that he both knew and saw it. He then said "Kassapa, if one asserts that 'He who makes (it) feels (it): being one existent from the beginning, his suffering is of his own making,' then one arrives at eternalism. But if one asserts that one makes (it), another feels (it); being one existent crushed out by feeling, his suffering is of another's making,' then one arrives at annihilationism. Instead of resorting to either extreme a Tathaagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle way (by dependent origination)".

From MN 38, SN 22.85, SN 12.20 and other suttas, and from "sabbe dhamma anatta" (all phenomena is not self - Dhp 279), we have learned that there is no specific individual self that is permanent, unchanging and continues to wander within this or other lives. The endeavouring being (self) (AN 6.38) is ever-changing and arises from dependently originated conditions.

So, where does the "old karma" which generated our physical body and our mind come from?

Does it come from our parents, family, community, media, books, surroundings?

Are there any scriptural references or commentaries to support this?

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  • Would you welcome answers from outside of pali canon as well or rather restrict this to just theravada? – Yeshe Tenley May 5 at 13:58
  • @YesheTenley You can answer outside of Pali Canon and Theravada. – ruben2020 May 5 at 14:12
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When you feel a breeze on your skin, where does the breeze come from? Is there a single time or place where we can say "The breeze started here"? Is there a group of air molecules such that we can say "These molecules (and no others) are the breeze"? A breeze comes from everywhere and nowhere. It is the culmination of all the movements of the atmosphere, dependent on all the breezes that came before, and on the heat of the sun and the earth as they pass through the days and the seasons.

Karma is like the breeze: neither here nor there, not specific to this or that, not inherent in him or her or them. It's not personal. It's the culmination of all the movements of human minds as they brush past and push against each other, dependent on all the actions of all who have come before. Our bodies are given to us by the actions or our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents, etc... Our minds our shaped by the minds of our parents, which were in turn shaped by the minds of our grandparents... Our bodies and minds are continuations of karma that ran through them to us, and continues on from us to others.

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SN 35.145 & SN 12.37 provide a supramundane (lokuttara) definition of "old kamma"; in that SN 12.37 says the sense bases and collection (kaya; body) of aggregates: "is not yours, nor does it belong to others". This teaching is also found in SN 5.9 (about the nun Selā). In other words, SN 35.145 & SN 12.37 appear to say "old kamma" is not actions made by a "person" or "self" in the past; as is ordinarily or mundanely understood by puthujjana.

SN 35.145 & SN 12.37 appear to never say: "old karma generated our (lol) physical body and our mind". Instead, these suttas appear to say the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body & mind are the places where old kamma was manifested in the past & also can manifest in the present.

For example, if old habitual kamma was made in the past of eating a certain food; when the habitual underlying tendency flows out (asava) in the present; the mental mind memory of that food will flow out (asava) in association with causing a simultaneous salivation of the tongue and arousal of the body. It could even cause subtle manifestations in the eye; preparing the eye for new pleasure seeking new kamma.

Thus, taking the Jain meaning of "vedaniyaṁ" to mean "producing feeling", these suttas appear to say old kamma is the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind & aggregates that were mentally conditioned or proliferated about in the past (abhisaṅkhataṁ; accusative; past participle) , willed in the past (abhisañcetayitaṁ; accusative; past participle) and produce feeling in the present (vedaniyaṁ).

Again, for puthujjana stuck in materialism or physicalism, "mentally conditioning or proliferating about" the eye means, in the past, the mind proliferated ideas about/via the eye & the seen, such as "beautiful, ugly, etc".

Therefore, unlike the puthujjana, the mind of the Noble Disciple does not venture back to the past (MN 131) but practises vedanānupassanā in the present, namely, the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body & mind are to be "felt" ("vedaniyaṁ"), in the present moment, as explained in the Salt Crystal Sutta.

Now, a trifling evil deed done by what sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment? There is the case 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.[1] A trifling evil deed done by this sort of individual is experienced in the here & now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.

Lonaphala Sutta: The Salt Crystal

For example, when an Arahant (such as Angulimala) is attacked by others for old kamma, those verbal & physical attacks are merely sounds at the ear and touches on the body. For an Arahant, there is no self that did old kamma. Any manifestation of old (purāṇa) willed (abhisañcetayitaṁ) proliferated (abhisaṅkhataṁ) kamma (kammaṁ) will only produce feeling (vedaniyaṁ) for the Noble Disciple that only feels the "first arrow" (per SN 36.6).

However, if the mind does recollect "past abodes" (per SN 22.79), the past again is not viewed in terms of "self" or "personal kamma" but merely as mere impersonal aggregates (SN 22.79).

In short, there is really no such thing as "old kamma". Instead, there is only the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body & mind is the present moment; in their present state; where any manifestation of old kamma will only produce feeling (vedaniyaṁ) for the Noble Disciple that only feels the "first arrow" (per SN 36.6).

That is why SN 35.145 ends as follows:

And what is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.

Note: the phrase in SN 12.37 (""is not yours, nor does it belong to others") is also found in SN 5.9, which is related to SN 5.10, which are both about the non-reality of "a being". Therefore, as said, these old-kamma suttas redefined "old kamma" and removed "the being" from old kamma.

Note: as repeated inexhaustible times on this forum, "a being" is merely "a view", per SN 5.10 and SN 23.2.

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  • I've marked this answer down as it is obviously incorrect (and repeated a great number of times) since SN 5.10 does not say that "a being" is merely "a view", but rather says "There's the convention 'a being.'" – Yeshe Tenley May 7 at 11:19
  • Also, SN 12.37 does not "appear to say "old kamma" is not actions made by a "person" or "self" in the past;" rather, it literally says, "It’s old deeds, and should be seen as produced by choices and intentions, as something to be felt." You seem to be missing "produced by choices and intentions" and "old deeds" – Yeshe Tenley May 7 at 11:38
  • SN 12.37 clearly says the old kamma is "not yours". I recommend reading the sutta accurately to avoid your apparent doctrine of self and eternalism. – Dhammadhatu May 7 at 20:11
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This sutta:

"Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear... The nose... The tongue... The body... The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma."

... with its delineation between 'new' and 'old' kamma is simply referring to a delineation according to when the action was taken and when the fruit manifests.

Evidence in support of this can be found in SN 12.37:

Mendicants, this body doesn’t belong to you or to anyone else. It’s old deeds, and should be seen as produced by choices and intentions, as something to be felt.

"So, where does the "old karma" which generated our physical body and our mind come from?"

It comes from actions performed in the past that are manifesting now. In a conventional sense those actions were performed by us in the past. Hear the words of the Buddha in MN 135:

"“What is the cause, Master Gotama, what is the reason why even among those who are human beings some are seen to be inferior and superior? For people are seen who are short-lived and long-lived, sickly and healthy, ugly and beautiful, insignificant and illustrious, poor and rich, from low and eminent families, witless and wise. What is the reason why even among those who are human beings some are seen to be inferior and superior?”

Student, sentient beings are the owners of their deeds and heir to their deeds. Deeds are their womb, their relative, and their refuge. It is deeds that divide beings into inferior and superior.”

...

“Take some woman or man who kills living creatures. They’re violent, bloody-handed, a hardened killer, merciless to living beings. Because of undertaking such deeds, when their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. If they’re not reborn in a place of loss, but return to the human realm, then wherever they’re reborn they’re short-lived. For killing living creatures is the path leading to a short lifespan.

And here in SN 11.10:

Whatever kind of seed you sow, that is the fruit you reap. A doer of good gets good, a doer of bad gets bad. You have sown your own seed, friend, now you’ll experience the fruit.

These are just two of many such suttas where the Buddha describes the fruit of good kamma and the fruit of bad kamma as being our own and due to our own actions and inactions. This kamma can ripen in this life or can ripen in the next life, like for instance when faithfulness results in a fortunate rebirth in a heavenly realm.

"Does it come from our parents, family, community, media, books, surroundings?"

Our body is due to the genes we inherit from our parents and the semen and egg that produced them. It is also due to our past karmic actions. There is no real contradiction here, but some might have the conception of an apparent one. This seeming contradiction arises due to ignorance and is not a real contradiction.

Some will regard the real truth to be that our body is due to the genes we inherit from our parents while the explanation due to karmic actions is just a fictional contrivance.

Others will regard the real truth to be that our body is due to past karmic actions while the explanation due to our parents genes is just a fictional contrivance.

The contradiction happens because we regard one or both of the truths above to be real and existing in an ultimate sense. But neither are true in the ultimate sense. They are both simply conventional truths. This is what the Buddha meant when he was admonishing Kassapa with, "Do not put it like that!" The Buddha said this because Kassapa was seeking an answer to the question of suffering as of "one's own making or of another's or both or neither" believing in the true existence of this suffering. Believing in the true existence of what it means to say 'one's own' or true existence of 'another's.'

To state it another way, Kassapa's question presupposed the true existence of 'self' and 'other' and also presupposed the true existence of 'suffering' and the Buddha was trying to tell Kassapa that these presuppositions were groundless and that when one analyzes with the famous Buddhist tetralemma one comes up empty and can then discern that these presuppositions are simply unwarranted. This is subtle and hard to understand for most sentient beings.

If you look closely at what Kassapa is asking it is very close to the opening verse in Nagarjuna's famous treatise:

enter image description here

Kassapa is asking the Buddha whether Karma arises from the past actions of self, of another, of the both or neither and the Buddha answers that none of these is correct. He goes on to tell Kassapa that he teaches via the Middle Way. One gets the distinct sense that perhaps Nagarjuna had SN 12.17 and Kassapa in mind when he wrote that verse! :)

Please see this answer to try and understand what it means to be a conventional truth vs an ultimate/absolute truth.


"I feel MN 135 is a teaching for beginners, given to a lay Brahmin student, while SN 12.17 and SN 12.37 are advanced teachings based on anatta."

While this is true, it is important we don't construe undue inferences from it. Here are some of the wrong inferences to guard against:

  1. Wrong - MN 135 is contradicted by SN 12.17 thus revealing MN 135 as just a fictional contrivance aimed at dull beginners. In fact, MN 135 is not contradicted by SN 12.17.
  2. Wrong - SN 12.17 refutes that we generated our past karma and are owners of its' inevitable fruits in favor of the idea that our past karma is due to others (parents, family, community, surroundings). In fact, SN 12.17 specifically refutes karma arising from some truly existing 'other' just as much as it refutes karma arising from some truly existing 'self'. SN 12.17 is emphatically not trying to say that our old kharma is only due to our parents, family, community, surroundings and now that we're sophisticated students we can finally understand this.
  3. Wrong - SN 12.17 is basically saying that karma isn't true and that all that we see and experience comes from impersonal physical laws that are immutable and the result of a clockwork universe and karma is some fictional contrivance to goad students into moral actions for fear of facing fictional consequences. In fact, karma is true and we do experience the fruits of our past actions in this life and in the next. But this truth is a conventional one just like the truth that our bodies are due to our parents semen and egg conjoining and the genes thereof.

What's remarkable about these two conventional truths - that karma is true and we do experience the fruits of our past actions and that our bodies are due to our parents... is that the Buddha was specifically interested in the first one and not the latter one. The latter one was surely known by the Buddha, but he never made a whisper of concern about it or attached any relevance to it, but the same is not true of the former. That one he did attach relevance to and thought it important that we understand and accept. That is true for both beginners and advanced students alike and SN 12.17 does not contradict this in the slightest.

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  • I feel MN 135 is a teaching for beginners, given to a lay Brahmin student, while SN 12.17 and SN 12.37 are advanced teachings based on anatta. – ruben2020 May 5 at 19:18
  • @ruben2020 see update about these suttas interpreted as for beginners vs more advanced students – Yeshe Tenley May 5 at 20:21
  • SN 12.17 does not talk about the tetralemma (catuskoti). It denies eternalism and annihilationism, and instead points to dependent origination as the right view. But you can find the tetralemma in SN 22.85. In all cases, they point to dependent origination as the right view. – ruben2020 May 6 at 4:10
  • SN 12.17 ... "one's own making or of another's or both or neither" is the tetralemma. – Yeshe Tenley May 6 at 6:11
  • Oh... yes, you're right. It's there too. – ruben2020 May 6 at 8:16

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