Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
is an impersonal, natural law that operates in accordance with our
actions. It is a law in itself and does not have any lawgiver. Kamma
operates in its own field without the intervention of an external,
independent, ruling agent.
Kamma or karma can be put
in the simple language of the child: do good and good will come to you,
now, and hereafter. Do bad and bad will come to you, now, and hereafter.
In the language of the
harvest, kamma can be explained in this way: if you sow good seeds, you
will reap a good harvest. If you sow bad seeds, you will reap a bad
In the language of
science, kamma is called the law of cause and effect: every cause has an
effect. Another name for this is the law of moral causation. Moral
causation works in the moral realm just as the physical law of action and
reaction works in the physical realm.
In the Dhammapada, kamma
is explained in this manner: the mind is the chief (forerunner) of all
good and bad states. If you speak or act with a good or bad mind, then
happiness or unhappiness follows you just as the wheel follows the hoof of
the ox or like your shadow which never leaves you.
Kamma is simply action.
Within animate organisms there is a power or force which is given
different names such as instinctive tendencies, consciousness, etc. This
innate propensity forces every conscious being to move. He moves mentally
or physically. His motion is action. The repetition of actions is habit
and habit becomes his character. In Buddhism, this process is called
In its ultimate sense,
kamma means both good and bad, mental action or volition. 'Kamma is
volition,' says the Buddha. Thus kamma is not an entity
but a process, action, energy and force. Some interpret this force as
'action-influence'. It is our own doings reacting on ourselves. The
pain and happiness man experiences are the result of his own deeds, words
and thoughts reacting on themselves. Our deeds, words and thoughts produce
our prosperity and failure, our happiness and misery.
Kamma is an impersonal,
natural law that operates strictly in accordance with our actions. It is
law in itself and does not have any lawgiver. Kamma operates in its own
field without the intervention of an external, independent ruling agency.
Since there is no hidden agent directing or administering rewards and
punishments, Buddhists do not rely on prayer to some supernatural forces
to influence karmic results. According to the Buddha, kamma is neither
predestination nor some sort of determinism imposed on us by some
mysterious, unknown powers or forces to which we must helplessly submit
Buddhists believe that man
will reap what he has sown; we are the result of what we were, and we will
be the result of what we are. In other words, man is not one who will
absolutely remain to be what he was, and he will not continue to remain as
what he is. This simply means that kamma is not complete determinism. The
Buddha pointed out that if everything is determined, then there would be
no free will and no moral or spiritual life. We would merely be the slaves
of our past. On the other hand, if everything is undetermined, then there
can be no cultivation of moral and spiritual growth. Therefore, the Buddha
accepted neither strict determinism nor strict undeterminism.
The misinterpretation or
irrational views on kamma are stated in the Anguttara Nikaya which
suggests that the wise will investigate and abandon the following views:
- the belief that
everything is a result of acts in previous lives;
- the belief that all is the result of creation by a Supreme Ruler; and
- the belief that everything arises without reason or cause.
If a person becomes a
murderer, a thief, or an adulterer, and, if his actions are due to past
actions, or caused by creation of a Supreme Ruler, or if that happened by
mere chance, then this person would not be held responsible for his evil
another misconception about kamma is that it operates only for certain
people according to their faiths. But the fate of a man in his next life
does not in the least depend on what particular religion he chooses.
Whatever may be his religion, man's fate depends entirely on his deeds by
body, speech and thought. It does not matter what religious label he
himself holds, he is bound to be happy world in his next life so long as
he does good deeds and leads an unblemished life. He is bound to be born
to lead a wretched life if he commits evil and harbors wicked thoughts in
his mind. Therefore, Buddhists do not proclaim that they are the only
blessed people who can go to heaven after their death. Whatever the
religion he professes, man's kammic thought alone determines his own
destiny both in this life and in the next. The teaching of kamma
does not indicate a post-mortem justice. The Buddha did not teach this law
of kamma to protect the rich and to comfort the poor by promising
illusory happiness in an after life.
According to Buddhism
kamma explains the inequalities that exist among mankind. These
inequalities are due not only to heredity, environment and nature but also
to kamma or the results of our own actions. Indeed kamma is one of the
factors which are responsible for the success and the failure of our life.
Since kamma is an
invisible force, we cannot see it working with our physical eyes. To
understand how kamma works, we can compare it to seeds: the results of
kamma are stored in the subconscious mind in the same way as the leaves,
flowers, fruits and trunk of a tree are stored in its seed. Under
favorable conditions, the fruits of kamma will be produced just as with
moisture and light, the leaves and trunk of a tree will sprout from its
The working of kamma
can also be compared to a bank account: a person who is virtuous,
charitable and benevolent in his present life is like a person who is
adding to his good kamma. This accrued good kamma can be
used by him to ensure a trouble-free life. But he must replace what he
takes or else one day his account will be exhausted and he will be
bankrupt. Then whom will he be able to blame for his miserable state? He
can blame neither others nor fate. He alone is responsible. Thus a good
Buddhist cannot be an escapist. He has to face life as it is and not run
away from it. The kammic force cannot be controlled by inactivity.
Vigorous activity for good is indispensable for one's own
happiness. Escapism is the resort of the weak, and an escapist cannot
escape the effects of the kammic law.
says, 'There is no place to hide in order to escape from kammic results.'
Our Own Experience
To understand the law of
kamma is to realize that we ourselves are responsible for our own
happiness and our own misery. We are the architects of our kamma. Buddhism
explains that man has every possibility to mould his own kamma and thereby
influence the direction of his life. On the other hand, a man is not a
complete prisoner of his own actions; he is not a slave of his kamma. Nor
is man a mere machine that automatically release instinctive forces that
enslave him. Nor is man a mere product of nature. Man has within himself
the strength and the ability to change his kamma. His mind is mightier
than his kamma and so the law of kamma can be made to serve him. Man does
not have to give up his hope and effort in order to surrender himself to
his own kammic force. To off-set the reaction of his bad kamma that he has
accumulated previously, he has to do more meritorious deeds and to purify
his mind rather than by praying, worshipping, performing rites or
torturing his physical body in order to overcome his kammic effects.
Therefore, man can overcome the effect of his evil deeds if he acts wisely
by leading noble life.
Man must use the material
with which he is endowed to promote his ideal. The cards in the game of
life are within us. We do not select them. They are traced to our past
kamma; but we can call as we please, do what suits us and as we play, we
either gain or lose.
Kamma is equated to the
action of men. This action also creates some karmic results. But each and
every action carried out without any purposeful intention, cannot become a
Kusala-Kamma(skillful action) or Akusala-Kamma(unskillful action). That is
why the Buddha interprets kamma as volitional activities. That means,
whatever good and bad deeds we commit ourselves without any purposeful
intention, are not strong enough to be carried forward to our next life.
However, ignorance of the nature of the good and bad effect of the kamma
is not an excuse to justify or avoid the karmic results if they were
committed intentionally. A small child or an ignorant man may commit many
evil deeds. Since they commit such deeds with intention to harm or injure,
it is difficult to say that they are free from the karmic results. If that
child touches a burning iron-rod the heat element does not spare the child
without burning his fingers. The karmic energy also works exactly in the
same manner. Karmic energy is unbiased, it is like energy of gravity.
transformations in the characters of Angulimala and Asoka illustrate man's
potential to gain control over his kammic force.
Angulimala was a highway
robber who murdered more than a thousand of his fellow men. Can we judge
him by his external actions? For within his lifetime, he became an
Arahanta and thus redeemed his past misdeeds.
Indian Emperor, killed thousands and thousands to fight his wars and to
expand his empire. Yet after winning the battle, he completely reformed
himself and changed his career to such an extent that today, 'Amidst the
tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history,
their majesties and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka
shines and shines almost alone, as a star,' says a well-known world
historian H.G. Well.
Which Support Kamma
Although Buddhism says
that man can eventually control his karmic force, it does not state that
everything is due to kamma. Buddhism does not ignore the role played by
other forces of nature. According to Buddhism there are five orders or
processes of natural laws(niyama) which operate in the physical and mental
- seasonal laws (utu
niyama): physical inorganic order e.g., seasonal phenomena of winds and
- the biological laws (bija niyama): relating to seasonal changes etc.,
- the kammic law (kamma niyama): relating to moral causation or the
order of act and result,
- natural phenomena (dhamma niyama): relating to electrical forces,
movement of tides etc., and
- psychological laws (citta niyama): which govern the processes of
Thus kamma is considered
only as one of the five natural laws that account for the diversity in
Can Kamma Be
Kamma is often influenced
by circumstances: beneficent and malevolent forces act to counter and to
support this self-operating law. These other forces that either aid or
hinder this kamma are birth, time or conditions, appearances, and effort.
A favorable birth (gati
sampatti) or an unfavorable birth (vipatti) can develop or
hinder the fruition of kamma. For instance, if a person is born to a noble
family or in a state of happiness, his fortunate birth will provide an
easy opportunity for his good kamma to operate. An unintelligent person
who, by some good kamma, is born in a royal family, will, on account of
his noble parentage be honored by the people. If the same person were to
have a less fortunate birth, he would not be similarly treated.
Good appearance (upadhi
sampatti) and poor appearance (upadhi vipatti)are two other factors that
hinder or favor the working of kamma. If by some good kamma, a person
obtains a good birth, but is born deformed by some bad kamma, then he will
not be able to fully enjoy the beneficial results of his good kamma. Even
a legitimate heir to a throne may not perhaps be raised to that high
position if he happens to be physically or mentally deformed. Beauty, on
the other hand, will be an asset to the possessor. A good-looking son of
poor parents may attract the attention of others and may be able to
distinguish himself through their influence. Also, we can find cases of
people from poor, obscure family backgrounds who rise to fame and
popularity as film actors or actresses or beauty queens.
Time and occasion are
other factors that influence the working of kamma. In the time of famine
or during the time of war, all people without exception are forced to
suffer the same fate. Here the unfavorable conditions open up
possibilities for evil kamma to operate. The favorable conditions, on the
other hand, will prevent the operation of bad kamma.
Effort or intelligence is
perhaps the most important of all the factors that affect the working of
kamma. Without effort, both worldly and spiritual progress is impossible.
If a person makes no effort to cure himself of a disease or to save
himself from his difficulties, or to strive with diligence for his
progress, then his evil kamma will find a suitable opportunity to produce
its due effects. However, if he endeavours to surmount his difficulties,
his good kamma will come to help him. When shipwrecked in a deep sea, the
Bodhisatta during one of his previous births, made an effort to save
himself and his old mother, while the others prayed to the gods and left
their fate in the hands of these gods. The result was that the Bodhisatta
escaped while the others were drowned.
Thus the working of kamma
is aided or obstructed by birth, beauty and ugliness, time and personal
effort or intelligence. However, man can overcome immediate karmic effects
by adopting certain methods. Yet, he is not free from such karmic effects
if he remains within this Samsara?cycle of birth
and death. Whenever opportunities arise the same karmic effects that he
overcame, can affect him again. This is the uncertainty of worldly life.
Even the Buddha and Arahantas were affected by certain kammas, although
they were in their final birth.
The time factor is another
important aspect of the karmic energy for people to experience the good
and bad effects. People experience certain karmic effects only within this
lifetime while certain karmic effects become effective immediately
hereafter the next birth. And certain other karmic effects follow the
doers as long as they remain in this wheel of existence until they stop
their rebirth after attaining Nibbana. The main reason for this
difference is owing to mental impulsion (Javana Citta) of the people at
the time when a thought arises in the mind to do good or bad.
Those who do not believe
that there is an energy known as kamma should understand that this karmic
energy is not a by-product of any particular religion although Hinduism,
Buddhism and Jainism acknowledge and explain the nature of this energy.
This is an existing universal law which has no religious label. All those
who violate this law, have to face the consequences irrespective of their
religious beliefs, and those who live in accordance with this law
experience peace and happiness in their life. Therefore, this karmic law
is unbiased to each and every person, whether they believe it or not;
whether, they have a religion or not. It is like any other existing
universal law. Please remember that kamma is not the exclusive
property of Buddhism.
If we understand kamma as
a force or a form of energy, then we can discern no beginning. To ask
where is the beginning of kamma is like asking where is the beginning of
electricity. Kamma like electricity does not begin. It comes into being
under certain conditions. Conventionally we say that the origin of kamma
is volition but this is as much conventional as saying that the origin of
a river is a mountain top.
Like the waves of the
ocean that flow into one another , one unit of consciousness flows into
another and this merging of one thought consciousness into another is
called the working of karma. In short, every living being, according to
Buddhism, is an electricity current of life that operates on the automatic
switch of kamma.
Kamma being a form of
energy is not found anywhere in this fleeting consciousness or body. Just
as mangoes are not stored anywhere in the mango tree but, dependent on
certain conditions, they spring into being, so does kamma. Kamma is like
wind or fire. It is not stored up anywhere in the Universe but comes into
being under certain conditions.
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