Buddhist Theory of Kamma

by Venerable Narada Maha Thera

Kamma is the law of moral causation. The theory of kamma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.

What is the cause of inequality that exists among mankind?

Why should one person be brought up in the lap of luxury, endowed with fine mental, moral and physical qualities, and another in absolute poverty, steeped in misery?

Why should one person be a mental prodigy and another an idiot’?

Why should one person be born with saintly characteristics and another with criminal tendencies?

Why should some be linguistic, artistic, mathematically inclined, or musical from the very cradle.

Why should others be congenitally blind, deaf, or deformed? Why should some be blessed and others cursed from their births?

Either this inequality of mankind has a cause or it is purely accidental. No sensible person would think of attributing this unevenness, this inequality, and this diversity to blind chance or pure accident.

In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve. Usually, men of ordinary intellect cannot comprehend the actual reason or reasons. The definite invisible cause or causes of the visible effect is not necessarily confined to the present life, they may be traced to a proximate or remote past birth.

According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture”, but also to kamma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.

Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:

“What is the cause, what is the reason, 0 Lord,” questioned lie, “that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?”

The Buddha’s reply was:

“All living beings have actions (Kamma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is kamma that differentiates beings into low and high states.”

The Buddha then explained the cause of such differences in accordance with the law of cause and effect.

Certainly, we are born with hereditary characteristics. At the same time, we possess certain innate abilities that science cannot adequately account for. To our parents, we are indebted to the gross sperm and ovum that form the nucleus of this so-called being. They remain dormant within each parent until this potential germinal compound is vitalized by the karmic energy needed for the production of the fetus. kamma is therefore the indispensable conceptive cause of this being.

The accumulated karmic tendencies, inherited in the course of previous lives, at times play a far greater role than the hereditary parental cells and genes in the formation of both physical and mental characteristics.

The Buddha for instance, inherited, like every other person, the reproductive cells and genes from his parents. But physically, morally and intellectually there was none comparable to him in his long line of Royal ancestors. In the Buddha’s own words, he belonged not to the Royal lineage, but to that of the Aryan Buddhas. He was certainly a superman, an extraordinary creation of his own kamma.

According to the Lakkhana Sutta of Digha Nikaya, the Buddha inherited exceptional features, such as the 32 major marks, as the result of his past meritorious deeds. The ethical reason for acquiring each physical feature is clearly explained in the Sutta.

It is obvious from this unique case that karmic tendencies could not only influence our physical organism, but also nullify the potentiality of the parental cells and genes – hence the significance of the Buddha’s enigmatic statement, – “We are the heirs of our own actions.”

Dealing with this problem of variation, the Atthasalini, being a commentary on the Abhidharma, states:

“Depending on this difference in Karma appears the differences in the birth of beings, high and low, base and exalted, happy and miserable. Depending on the difference in karma appears the difference in the individual features of beings as beautiful and ugly, high-born or low born, well-built, or deformed. Depending on the difference in karma appears the difference in worldly conditions of beings, such as gain and loss, and disgrace, blame and praise, happiness and misery. “

Thus, from a Buddhist point of view, our present mental, moral intellectual and temperamental differences are, for the most part, due to our own actions and tendencies, both past and present.

Although Buddhism attributes this variation to kamma as being the chief cause among a variety, it does not, however, assert that everything is due to kamma. The law of kamma, important as it is, is only one of the twenty-four conditions described in Buddhist Philosophy.

Refuting the erroneous view that “whatsoever fortune or misfortune experienced is all due to some previous action”, the Buddha said:

“So, then, according to this view owing to previous actions men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, covetous, malicious and perverts. Thus, for those who fall back on the former deeds as the essential reason, there is neither the desire to do, nor effort to do, nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from this deed. “

It was this important text, which states the belief that all physical circumstances and mental attitudes spring solely from past kamma that Buddha contradicted. If the present life is totally conditioned or wholly controlled by our past actions, then certainly kamma is tantamount to fatalism or determinism or predestination. If this were true, free will would be an absurdity. Life would be purely mechanistic, not much different from a machine. Being created by an Almighty God who controls our destinies and predetermines our future, or being produced by an irresistible kamma that completely determines our fate and controls our life’s course, independent of any free action on our part, is essentially the same. The only difference lies in the two words God and kamma. One could easily be substituted for the other because the j ultimate operation of both forces would be identical.

Such a fatalistic doctrine is not the Buddhist law of kamma, Five Processes for Kamma Niyama.

According to Buddhism, there are five orders or processes (niyama) which operate in the physical and mental realms.

They are:

1. Utu Niyama –

physical inorganic order, e.g. seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., all belong to this group.

2. Beeja Niyama –

order of germs and seeds (physical organic order), e.g. rice produced from rice-seed, sugary taste from sugar-cane or honey, peculiar characteristics of certain fruits, etc. The scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.

3. Kamma Niyama –

order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results. As surely as water seeks its own level so does kamma, given the opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the sun and the moon.

4. Dhamma Niyama –

order of the norm, e.g. the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature. The natural reason for being good and so forth, may be included in this group.

5. Citta Niyama –

order or mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of the mind, etc. including telepathy, telaesthesia, retro-cognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading and such other psychic phenomena which are inexplicable to modern science.

Every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes which are laws in themselves. kamma as such is only one of these five orders. Like all other natural laws they demand no lawgiver.

Of these five, the physical inorganic order and the order of the norm are more or less mechanistic, though they can be controlled to some extent by human ingenuity and the power of mind. For example, fire normally burns, and extreme cold freezes, but man has walked scatheless over fire and meditated naked on Himalayan snows; horticulturists have worked marvels with flowers and fruits; Yogis have performed levitation. Psychic law is equally mechanistic, but Buddhist training aims at control of mind, which ispossible by right understanding and skilful volition. The kamma law operates quite automatically and, when the kamma is powerful, man cannot interfere with its inexorable result though he may desire to do so; but here also right understanding and skilful volition can accomplish much and mould the future. Good kamma, persisted in, can thwart the reaping of bad kamma, or as some Western scholars prefer to say ‘action influence’, is certainly an intricate law whose working is fully comprehended only by a Buddha. The Buddhist aims at the final destruction of all kamma.

WHAT IS KAMMA?

The Pali term kamma literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal, or physical, is regarded as kamma. It covers all that is included in the phrase “thought, word and deed”. Generally speaking, all good and bad action constitutes kamma. In its ultimate sense kamma means all moral and immoral volition. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deeds, do not constitute kamma, because volition, the most important factor in determining kamma, is absent.

The Buddha says :

“I declare, 0 Bhikkhus, that volition is kamma, having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought. ” (Anguttara Nikaya)

Every volitional action of individuals, save those of the Buddhas and Arahants, is called kamma. The exception made in their case is because they are delivered from both good and evil; they have eradicated ignorance and craving, the roots of kamma.

“Destroyed are their germinal seeds (Khina beeja); selfish desires no longer grow,” states the Ratans Sutta of the Sutta nipata.

This does not mean that the Buddha and Arahants are passive. They are tirelessly active in working for the real well being and happiness of all. Their deeds ordinarily accepted as good or moral, lack creative power as regards themselves, Understanding things as they truly are, they have finally shattered their cosmic fetters – the chain of cause and effect.

Kamma does not necessarily mean past actions. It embraces both past and present deeds. Hence in one sense, we are the result of what we were; we will be the result of what we are.

In another sense, it should be added, we are not totally the result of what we were; we will not absolutely be the result of what we arc. The present is no doubt the offspring of the past and is the present of the future, but the present is not always a true index of either the past or the future, so complex is the working of kamma.

It is this doctrine of kamma that the mother teaches her child when she says “Be good and you will be happy and we will love you; but if you are bad, you will be unhappy and we will not love you.” In short, kamma is the law of cause and effect in the ethical realm.

KAM MA AND VIPAKA

Kamma is action, and Vipaka, fruit or result, is its reaction.

Just as every object is accompanied by a shadow, even so every volitional activity is inevitably accompanied by its due effect.

kamma is like a potential seed: Vipaka could be likened to the fruit arising from the tree – the effect or result. Anisamsa and Adinaya are the leaves, flowers and so forth that correspond to external differences such as health, sickness and poverty-these are inevitable consequences, which happen at the same time. Strictly speaking, both kamma and Vipaka pertain to the mind.

As kamma may be good or bad, so may Vipaka, – the fruit – is good or bad. As kamma is mental so Vipaka is mental (of the mind). It is experienced as happiness, bliss, unhappiness or misery, according to the nature of the kamma seed. Anisainsa is the concomitant advantages material things such as prosperity, health and longevity. When Vipaka’s concomitant material things are disadvantageous, they are known as Adairaja, full of wretchedness, and appear as poverty, ugliness, disease, short life-span and so forth.

As we sow, we reap somewhere and sometime, in this life or in a future birth. What we reap today is what we have sown either in the present or in the past.

The Samyutta Nikaya states :

“According to the seed that’s sown, So is the fruit you reap there from, Doer of good will gather good,

Doer of evil, evil reaps,

Down is the seed and thou shalt taste The fruit there of”

Kamma is a law in itself, which operates in its own field without the intervention of any external, independent ruling agency.

Happiness and misery, which are the common lot of humanity, are the inevitable effects of causes. From a Buddhist point of view, they are not rewards and punishments, assigned by a supernatural, omniscient ruling power to a soul that has done good or evil. Theists, who attempt to explain everything in this and temporal life and in the eternal future life, ignoring a past, believe in a ‘postmortem’ justice and may regard present happiness and misery as blessings and curses conferred on His creation by an omniscient and omnipotent Divine Ruler who sits in heaven above controlling the destinies of the human race. Buddhism, which emphatically denies such an Almighty, All-merciful God-Creator and an arbitrarily created immortal soul, believes in natural law and justice which cannot be suspended by either an Almighty God or an All-compassionate Buddha. According to this natural law, acts bear their own rewards and punishments to the individual doer whether human justice finds out or not.

There are some who criticize thus: “So, you Buddhists, too, administer capitalistic opium to the people, saying: “You are born poor in this life on account of your past evil kamma. He is born rich on account of his good kamma. So, be satisfied with your humble lot, but do good to be rich in your next life. You are being oppressed now because of your past evil kamma. There is your destiny. Be humble and bear your sufferings patiently. Do good now. You can be certain of a better and happier life after death.”

The Buddhist doctrine of kamma does not expound such ridiculous fatalistic views. Nor does it vindicate a postmortem justice. The All-Merciful Buddha, who had no ulterior selfish motives, did not teach this law of kamma to protect the rich and comfort the poor by promising illusory happiness in an after-life.

While we are born to a state created by ourselves, yet by our own self-directed efforts there is every possibility for us to create new, favourable environments even here and now. Not only individually, but also, collectively, we are at liberty to create fresh kamma that leads either towards our progress or downfall in this very life.

According to the Buddhist doctrine of kamma, one is not always compelled by an ‘iron necessity’, for Kamma is neither fate nor predestination imposed upon us by some mysterious unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. It is one’s own doing reacting to oneself, and so one has the possibility to divert the course of one’s kamma to some extent. How far one diverts it depends on oneself.

Is one bound to reap all that one has sown in just proportion?

The Buddha provides an answer:

“if anyone says that a man or woman must reap in this life according to his present deeds, in that case there is no religious life, nor is an opportunity, afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow But if anyone says that what a man or woman reaps in this and future lives accords with his or her deeds present and past, in that case there is a religious life, and an opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of ‘a sorrow” (Anguttara Nikaya)

Although it is stated in the Dhammapada that “not in the sky, nor in mid-ocean, or entering a mountain cave is found that place on earth where one may escape from (the consequences of) an evil deed”, yet one is not bound to pay all the past arrears of one’s kamma. If such were the case emancipation would be an impossibility. Eternal recurrence would be an unfortunate result.

About editor 1963 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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