Karma-vibhanga, Deeds and their Results

160 public domain photographs from Borobudur, Java, showing the reliefs the results of good and bad deeds, together with a translation of the Karma-vibhanga text and further information.

 

01-14
Health and Wealth
15-22
Rebirths
23-50
Permutations
51-61
Unwholesome Deeds
62-80
Wholesome Deeds

 

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15-22 Rebirths

The following twenty or so reliefs show various rebirths and examples of what deeds have led to these various results. As the deeds are explained much more abstractly in these teachings, we sometimes have to infer the concrete action they are illustrating.

It appears that on many of these panels we now have two pairs of causes and results. The close correlation we saw on the previous panels is now lost. It may be the sculptors were following a somewhat different text, and it may be they wanted to be more plastic about the deeds that lead to these various results. BBelow I try to identify the various hells that are resultant.

Rebirth in Hell

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth in hell? It is said: [1] Wrong living in body, speech and mind through having severely corrupt thoughts. [2] A deed based on annihilationist view. [3] A deed based on eternalist view. [4] A deed based on nihilistic view. [5] A deed based on inconsequence view. [6] A deed based on a selfish doctrine. [7] A deed based on ungratefulness. [8] Bad deeds having immediate results. [9] Making false accusations against virtuous noble ones.

86. Killing Humans and Animals leads to Rebirth in Hell

Although the characters on the right are largely destroyed we can see they were fighting, one has a raised sword, and is chopping the other down. They have been reborn in the Reviving (Sañjīva) hell and again attack each other.

Left of centre a butcher kills a sheep, while a baby lamb looks on. The gruesome result is shown on the far left. Someone is reborn in hell, and is having his head sawn in half by his tormentors. This is the result of his violence in a previous life.

87. Execution and Entrapping leads to Rebirth in Hell

On the right a queen looks on as someone is executed by having an elephant trample on him. In the Crushing (Saṁghāta) hell mountains close in on the victims and crush them to death. The rocks are shown in stylised fashion at Borobudur.

Just left of centre we see a man is smoking out small animals after which he will no doubt kill them. The punishment is rebirth in the Fearful (Raurava) hell. Here two scenes from that hell appear to be given, in the first he is being executed by a man with a sword. In the second two men are pierced through with sharp thorns from the trees.

88. Wrong Speech and Action leads to Rebirth in Hell

We can infer from the punishment shown right of centre that the deed must be one of trickery or deception, i.e. a form of wrong speech. He is then reborn in a hell where he has his lips burned through with a hot iron.

Left of centre we see one man about to slap what is probably his father, or at least someone of good standing. Later he is reborn in the Burning (Tapana) hell, where he will suffer being burned, and by the look of it, being pulled apart by birds and dogs.

89. Killing Animals and Humans leads to Rebirth in Hell

Two men are preparing a fish and turtle stew, the creatures are being dropped into the boiling water alive. A similar fate awaits the perpetrators in hell, they will be boiled alive as we see, and beaten with clubs if they try to escape.

Left of centre a man prepares to kill a defenceless woman on the floor before him. He suffers rebirth in the Great Burning (Mahā Tappana) hell on the far left, where he is thrown into the burning flames.

90. Drinking and Whoring leads to Rebirth in Hell

On the far right we see a group of revellers who are drinking liquor and then engaging in drunken whoring. The result seems to be rebirth in a hell where they are plunged up to their knees in what must be hot water.

The scenes left of centre are mostly destroyed and we cannot make out the deed properly. But the result is something very similar, perhaps exaggerated by being plunged up to the waist in boiling waters.

91. Encouraging Violence and Killing Birds leads to Rebirth in Hell

Although it is not quite clear what the cause on the far right is, it is probably encouraging violence of one sort or another. The result is he is reborn in a hell where the blades of grass are like swords and it cuts through his feet.

Left of centre we see hunters using blow pipes and sticks to kill birds and animals. The result is the trees have leaves like swords that cut through the victims reborn there.

92. Adultery and Murder leads to Rebirth in Hell

The man sitting under the tree on the far right is evidently asleep, while his wife is in the arms of another as they engage in adultery. The hell the adulterer is reborn into has dogs trying to rip him apart, and trees that have blades on their trunk, so either way he gets ripped apart.

Left of centre we see a murder scene as one man with raised sword attacks another who is falling away. Again on the far left the hell is hot waters, this time up to the neck. As they try to escape, their tormentors push them back in. This is the last of the rebirths in hell.

Rebirth as an Animal

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth as an animal? It is said: [1] Wrong living in body, speech and mind through having intermediately corrupt thoughts. [2] Deeds arising from various types of lust. [3] Deeds arising from various types of hatred. [4] Deeds arising from various types of delusion. [5] Causing regret to those gone forth, mother or father. [6] Deriding animals. [7] Similarly, it is said endeavouring in deeds like the cow-vow and dog-vow offerings; and endeavouring in preparing this.

93. Wrong Living in Speech or Body leads to Rebirth in the Animal Realm

It appears that the scene on the right must portray a verbal deed of medium wrongness. The result that is shown as retribution for this is rebirth as a bird.

Left of centre we see someone beating another with a stick. The victim’s hands are tied. There does seem to be an attempt to distinguish between the deadly attacks portrayed previously, and this one which causes harm, but not death. The result is being reborn as a quadruped. A horse, sheep and cattle are shown as examples.

94. Unknown Deeds leading to Rebirth as a Garuḍa and Nāga

It is clear the text the sculptors knew had extra rebirths not seen in our Sanskrit text. It must have been quite normal to add to the text when something was thought to be missing. We do not know the deed on the right, but whatever it was it led to rebirth as a garuḍa, as three are seen under the trees.

Similarly we cannot make out the deed left of centre, but its outcome: rebirth as a nāga, is clearly shown on the far left. As we seem to be moving from deeds of more to less severity, presumably these were deeds of minor wrong-doing.

Rebirth in Yama’s World

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth as a preta in Yama’s world? It is said: [1] Wrong living in body, speech and mind through having a mind of revenge and anger. [2] Greed. [3] Dishonest greed. [4] Wrong livelihood. [5] Dying of hunger, thirst or anger. [6] Dying with a mind attached to possessions.

95. Wrong Living leads to Rebirth in Yama-loka

The Yama-loka is the world where Yama is king, and those reborn there are pretas, sometimes referred to as hungry ghosts. As we will see this is also an appropriate designation here. On the right the standing couple are offering a seat to the brahmin, below them someone obstructs this offer, and we can understand it is his rebirth we are dealing with.

Left of centre three men are trying to offer a gift, while the prospective recipient turns away preventing it. The result of these obstructions of good deeds is to be reborn as a preta, who is figured on the far left, with protruding belly, and wasted rib cage.

Rebirth in the Asura World

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth in the Asura world? It is said: [1] All wrong living in body, speech and mind that is mild. [2] Conceit. [3] Great conceit. [4] Conceit regarding attainments. [5] The ‘I’-conceit. [6] Wrong conceit. [7] Well-performed deeds having wholesome roots but which ripen in birth in the Asura worlds. [8] Everything arising from excessive passion and having a bad character, but having wisdom as a cause.

96. Conceit and Wrong Deeds lead to Rebirth in the Asura World

Two causes are depicted on the right. On the far right we again see someone refusing a request from those who sit in front of him, maybe out of conceit or another bad mental state. In between the trees two people fight, but only with their bare hands, not with sticks or swords as before.

The resultant birth on the left is as an asura. Asuras were originally gods (sura) until out of conceit they fought against the gods, became anti-gods (a-suras) and were thrown out of heaven. As conceit describes well the asura it is probably one of the causes as well.

Rebirth in the Human World

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth in the human world? It is said: The ten wholesome deeds that are either well-practiced or poorly practiced. What ten? [1-3] The threefold deeds by way of body: not killing, taking what is not given or sexual misconduct. [4-7] The fourfold deeds by way of speech: restraint from false, malicious and rough speech; and frivolous talk . [8-10] The threefold deeds by way of mind: being without avarice, having good will and right view.

97. Restraint leads to Rebirth in the Human World

On the far right, just left of centre, and on the left we see men hold up their hands in gestures of refusal. This has to be different from the preceding paragraphs, of course, and it appears in each case to signal that they are refusing to over-indulge in food and drink.

It is this sense of moderation that marks them out for rebirth in the human world, though it appears this was not illustrated on this panel.

98. Refraining from Verbal Misconduct leads to Rebirth in the Human World

We see five scenes. The four from the left probably illustrate [4-7] restraint from verbal misconduct, although the only thing we can really make out is that the main character is being demonstrative.

On the far right we see someone making an offering to a teacher, perhaps this indicates [8] being without avarice. Again it seems the result is not illustrated.

99. Being without Avarice leads to Rebirth in the Human World

On the far right we see people have brought offerings for a brahmin and it may be that this cause is once again [8] being without avarice here.

The great wealth that is being offered by the merchant standing over the large jar of jewellery may indicate the same thing. I think we must presume it is the king who is the recipient here. Others sit under the trees with smaller offerings in their hands.

100. Generosity and Restraint leads to Rebirth in the Human World

We have a clear case of doing good deeds by helping the poor on the right as a distribution of money or food takes place. It may be the brahmin is a teacher, and the rich man making the distribution is his disciple following his instruction.

On the left a prince has his hand around his consort’s shoulder protectively, and turns away from the four women on the right. This is probably illustrating [3] restraint from sexual misconduct.

Rebirth in Heavenly Sense Worlds

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth in the heavenly sense worlds? It is said: The fully complete ten wholesome deeds which are the same as the previous list, but to perfection.

101. Wholesome Deeds lead to Rebirth in the Sense Heavens

I would think that this panel shows children paying respect to parents by making offerings and giving them support, which is not specified, but is a generally good deed. It may just be there is no family relationship though, and it is again a panel about lack of avarice.

The way we know the reward is set in heaven is through the celestial tree in the middle, with kinnaras on either side, and bags of riches underneath. Otherwise the depiction on the left of a man meeting a woman and taking her by the wrist would not tell us very much about the meaning.

102. Ten Deeds lead to Rebirth in the Sense Heavens

The tree and kinnaras again give us the clue that the result is rebirth in one of the sense heavens. On the left a person with a halo is surrounded by consorts and attendants. He is now a deva, following his good deeds. Notice the heavenly musician playing a large lute.

The deed which caused this rebirth is not so clear, it is perhaps an act of generosity, if we note the servants carrying the cask. Or perhaps the main figure is teaching restraint.

103. Wholesome Deeds lead to Rebirth in the Sense Heavens

The deed on the far right appears to be twofold: one monk is sat in a pavilion teaching three of his students, and two men are distributing alms to the poor.

The result is rebirth in a vimāna or celestial palace in heaven. What seems to be a portrait of a vimāna looks very much like a temple, as we see on other reliefs, and there may have been thought to be a correlation between the two. A temple being a heavenly mansion on earth.

Rebirth in Heavenly Form Worlds

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth in the heavenly form worlds? It is said: The fully attained four concentrations, and from that, full excellence in the ten wholesome deeds.

104. Complete Concentration leads to Rebirth in the Form Worlds

In the middle, between the two trees, we see someone sat in meditation on the form concentrations (jhāna levels 1-4). On the right we see three people led by a lady giving alms to two brahmins, earning themselves a great reward.

The six figures on the left are once more gods in heaven, but not in the sense worlds, as a distinct lack of barely clothed females indicates. They are rather the sexless brahmā gods of the form worlds.

Rebirth in Heavenly Formless Worlds

Herein, what is the deed that leads to rebirth in the heavenly formless worlds? It is said: The four formless attainments: [1] The sphere of endless space [2] The sphere of endless consciousness. [3] The sphere of nothingness. [4] The sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception There is the developing and making much of these attainments.

105. The Formless Attainments leads to Rebirth in the Formless Worlds

We see four monastics sitting in the wilderness, where trees, grasses, and animals abound. This must represent the four formless attainments, although we cannot see any difference in the meditators of course as it is all internalised.

The formless worlds being exactly that: without form, they are not depicted by the sculptors. From some of these worlds, in the pure lands (śuddhāvasa), the beings will never return but attain nirvāṇa during their heavenly existence.

 

01-14
Health and Wealth
15-22
Rebirths
23-50
Permutations
51-61
Unwholesome Deeds
62-80
Wholesome Deeds

 

Photographs by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

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