How do actions determine results?
Skillful intentional acts—those that would lead to no harm for yourself or anyone else—tend toward pleasant results. Unskillful intentional acts—those that would lead to harm for yourself or others or both—tend toward painful results [§16]
It’s important to emphasize the word tend here, as there’s no ironclad, tit-for-tat deterministic connection between an intentional act and its results. One of the Buddha’s images for kamma is a seed [§§19,47]. When you plant a bitter melon seed, it’ll tend to produce a bitter melon vine. When you plant a grape seed, it’ll tend to produce a grape vine. You can’t expect a grape seed to produce a bitter melon vine, or a bitter melon seed to produce a grape vine. That much is certain.
But as to whether either seed will produce a strong, healthy vine depends on more than just the health of the seed. The soil, the sun, the rain all play a role, and then there’s the possibility that the seed might be damaged or destroyed by a fire, eaten by an animal, or squeezed out by plants growing from other, stronger seeds in the field surrounding it.
In the same way, when you plant a “kamma seed,” it’ll tend to give pleasant results if it’s skillful and painful results if it’s not. For instance, acts of generosity, over the long term, tend to lead to wealth; taking intoxicants tends to lead to mental derangement. But how strong those results will be and how long they will take to ripen will depend on many factors in addition to the original actions: the actions you’ve done before, the actions you’ve done after, and in particular, the state of your mind when the results are fully ripe [§11].
In fact, this last factor—how your mind acts around the ripening of old kamma seeds—is the most important factor determining whether you suffer from those results. If your present actions—your new kamma—are unskillful as they engage with the results of old kamma, you can suffer even from the results of good past kamma. If your present kamma is skillful, it can minimize the suffering that would come from bad past kamma.
For instance, if you treat the pleasure coming from past good kamma as an excuse for pride or selfishness, you’re going to suffer. If you treat the pain coming from an unskillful action as an opportunity to comprehend pain so as to release yourself from its power, you’ll suffer much less.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Treatises book, “Karma Q & A : A Study Guide, “Basic Principles.”