English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Buddhist Theory of Kamma
Narada Mahathera

What is kamma?

Kamma (Sanskrit - Karma) literally means action of deed. In its ultimate sense Kamma means good and bad volition (kusala akusala cetanaa). Every volitional action, except that of a Buddha or of an Arahant, is called Kamma. The Buddha and Arahants do not accumulate fresh Kamma as they have destroyed all their passions. In other words Kamma is the law of moral causation. It is action and reaction in the ethical realm.

Kamma does not necessarily mean past action only; it may be both present and past actions. It is not fate. Nor is it predestination, which is imposed on us by some mysterious unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. It is one's own doing which reacts on one's own self, and so it is possible for us to divert the course of our Kamma.

Kamma is action and Vipaaka, fruit, is its reaction. It is the cause and the effect. Like a mango seed is Kamma, Vipaaka, effect, is like the mango fruits arising from the tree. The leaves and flowers are like the Vipaakaanisamsa - inevitable consequences. As we sow, we reap either 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.

Kamma is a law in itself. But it does not follow that there should be a lawgiver. Ordinary laws of nature e.g. gravitation, need no law-giver. The law of Kamma too demands no lawgiver. It operates in its own field without the intervention of an external, independent ruling agency. Inherent in Kamma is the potentiality of producing its due effect. The cause produces the effect; the effect explains the cause. The seed produces the fruit; the fruit explains the seed, and both are inter-related. Even so Kamma and its effect are inter-related; 'the effect already blooms in the cause.'

Kusala Kamma

There are ten kinds of Kusala kamma or meritorious actions. They are:

(i) Generosity - Daana, which yields wealth.

(ii) Morality - Siila, which gives birth in noble families and in states of happiness.

(iii) Meditation - Bhaavanaa, which gives birth in Realms of Form and Formless Realms, and which tends to gain Higher Knowledge and Emancipation.

(iv) Reverence - Apacaayana, the cause of noble parentage.

(v) Service - Veyyaavacca, which tends to produce a large retinue.

(vi) Transference of merit - Pattidaana, which serves as a cause to give in abundance in future births.

(vii) Rejoicing in others' merit - Pattaanu Moodanaa, which is productive of merit wherever one is born.

(viii) Hearing the Doctrine - Dhamma Savana, which promotes wisdom.

(ix) Expounding the Doctrines - Dhamma Deesanaa, which promotes wisdom.

(x) Straightening of one's own views - Ditthijju Kamma, which strengthens one's confidence.

These ten are sometimes treated as twelve. Then Praising of Others' Good Actions - Pasamsaa is added to Rejoicing in Others' Merit; and Taking the Three Refuges - Sarana and Mindfulness, Anussati are used instead of Straightening of One's Views. Praising others' good deeds results in getting praise to oneself. The seeking of the Three Refuges results in the destruction of passions. Mindfulness" promotes diverse forms of happiness. The Five Ruupa Jhaanas and the Four Aruupa jhaana are also regarded as Kusala Kamma pertaining to the Realms of Form and the Formless Realms respectively.

Akusala Kamma

There are ten Akusala Kammas or evil actions which are caused by deed, word, and thought. Three are caused by deed:- namely, killing Paanaatipaata, stealing-Adinnaadaana and unchastity, Kaameesu. Four are caused by word, namely, lying, Musaavaada, slandering, Pisunaavaaca, harsh speech Pharusaavaaca, and frivolous talk-Samphappalaapa. Three are caused by mind, namely, covetousness-Abhijjhaa, ill-will-Vyaapaada, and false views, Micchaaditthi.

Killing means the destruction of any living being. The Paali term "Paana" strictly means the psycho-physical life pertaining to one's particular existence. The speedy destruction of this life force, without allowing it to run its due course, is Paanaatipaata. Animals are also included in living beings, but not plants. The following five conditions are necessary to complete this evil of killing: (i) a being, (ii) consciousness that it is a being, (iii) intention of killing,

(iv) effort, and (v) consequent death. The evil effects of killing are: short life, diseasedness, constant grief caused by separation from the loved, and constant fear.

Five conditions are necessary to complete the evil of stealing - namely, (i) another's property, (ii) consciousness that it is so, (iii) intention of stealing, (iv) effort, and (v) consequent, removal. The evil effects of stealing are: poverty, wretchedness, unfulfilled desires, and dependent livelihood.

Four conditions are necessary to complete the evil of unchastity, namely, (i) the mind to enjoy the forbidden object, (ii) the attempt to enjoy, (iii) devices to obtain, and (iv) possession. The evil effects of unchastity are having many enemies, getting undesirables wives, birth as a woman or as an eunuch.

Four conditions are necessary to complete the evil of lying namely, (I) an untrue thing, (ii) intention to deceive, (iii) the corresponding effort, (iv) the communication of the matter to others. The evil effects of lying are being tormented by abusive speech, being subject to vilification, incredibility, and a stinking mouth.

Four conditions are necessary to complete the evil of slandering, namely, (i) persons that are to be divided, (ii) the intention to separate them or the desire to endear oneself to one of them, (iii) corresponding effort, and (iv) the communication. The evil effect of slandering is the dissolution of friendship without sufficient cause.

Three conditions are necessary to complete the evil of harsh speech, namely, (i) a person to be abused, (ii) angry thought, and (iii) the abuse. The evil effects of harsh speech are :- being detested by others though absolutely blameless, and a harsh voice.

Two conditions are necessary to complete the evil of frivolous talk, namely, (i) the inclination towards frivolous talk, and (ii) its narration. The evil effects of frivolous talk are:- defective bodily organs and incredible speech.

Covetousness has the characteristic mark of thinking "Ah, would this property were mine! The two conditions necessary to complete this evil are: (I) another's property and (ii) adverting to it, saying: "Would this be mine!" The evil effect of covetousness is non-fulfilment of' one's wishes.

Two conditions are necessary to complete the evil of ill-will namely, (I) another being, and (ii) the thought of doing harm. The evil effects of ill-will are ugliness, manifold diseases, and a detestable nature. False view is seeing things wrongly. False beliefs, like the denial of the efficacy of deeds etc., are also included in this evil.

Two conditions are necessary to complete this evil, namely, (i) perverted manner in which the object is viewed, and (ii) the understanding of it according to that misconception. The evil effects of false view are base attachment, lack of wisdom, dull wit, chronic diseases and blameworthy idea.

The Cause of Kamma

Not knowing things as they truly are does one accumulate Kamma. No Kamma is accumulated by one who has completely eradicated craving and has understood things as they truly are. Ignorance -Avijjaa and craving - ta"nhaa are the chief causes of Kamma.

The Doer of Kamma

Who is the doer of Kamma? Who reaps the fruit of Kamma? Says the Venerable Buddhaghoosa in the Visuddhi Magga:

No doer is there who does the deed,

Nor is there one who feels the fruit.

In the ultimate sense a Buddhist cannot conceive of any unchanging entity, any being in the form of a Deva, a man, or an animal. These forms are merely the temporary manifestations of the Kammic force. The term "being" is only used for conventional purposes. Strictly speaking what we call "a being" is only composed of mind and matter.

Buddhists believe that there is no actor apart from action, no perceiver apart from perception, no conscious subject behind consciousness. Volition or will-cetanaa, is itself the doer of Kamma. Apart from these mental states, there is none to sow and none to reap.

Where is Kamma?

"Where, Venerable Sir, is Kamma?" questions King Milinda of the Venerable Naagaseena. "0 Mahaaraaja," replies the Venerable Naagaseena, "Kamma is not stored somewhere in this fleeting consciousness or in any other part of the body. But dependent on mind and matter, it rests, manifesting itself at the opportune moment, just as mangoes are not said to be stored somewhere in the mango tree, but dependent on the mango tree they lie springing up in due season."

Just as wind or fire is not stored in any particular place, even so Kamma is not stored anywhere within or without the body. Kamma is an individual force which is transmitted from one existence to another.

Classification of Kamma

There are moral and immoral actions which may produce their ' due effects in this very life. They are called immediately Effective - Dittha Dhamma Veedaniiya Kamma." If they do not operate in this life, they become "ineffective - ahoosi."

There are some actions, which may produce their effects in a subsequent life. They are termed "Subsequently Effective - Upapajja Veedaniya Kamma." They too become ineffective if they do not operate in the second birth. Those actions may produce their effects in any life in the course of one's wandering in Samsaara, are known as Indefinitely Effective -Aparaapariya Vedaniya kamma." This classification of Kamma is with reference to the time in which effects are worked out. There are four classes of Kamma according to Function - Kicca. Every birth is conditioned by past good and bad Kamma that predominates at the moment of death. The Kamma that conditions the future birth is called "Reproductive - janaka Kamma."

Now another Kamma may step forward to assist or maintain the action of this Reproductive Kamma. Just as this Kamma has the tendency to strengthen the Reproductive Kamma, some other action which tends to weaken, interrupt, the fruition of the Reproductive Kamma may step in. Such actions are respectively termed "SupportiveUpatthambhaka Kamma" and "Counteractive Upapidaka Kamma."

According to the law of Kamma, the potential energy of the Reproductive Kamma could be nullified by a more powerful opposing Kamma of the past, which, seeking an opportunity, may quite unexpectedly operate, just as a powerful opposing force can check the path of the flying arrow and bring it down to the ground. Such an action is called "Destructive - Upaghaataka Kamma," which is more effective than Supportive and Counteractive Kamma in that it not only obstructs but also destroys the whole force.

There are four classes of Kamma according to the priority of effect. The first is Garuka, which means weighty or serious. This Kamma, which is either good or bad, produces results in this life, or in the next for certain. If good, it is purely mental as in the case of jhaanas - Ecstasies. Otherwise it is verbal or bodily.

The five kinds of Weighty Kamma are: (i) Matricide, (ii) Parricide, (iii) the murder of an Arahant, (iv) the Wounding of a Buddha, (v) the Creation of a Schism in the Sangha. Permanent Scepticism - Niyata Micchaaditthi is also termed one of the Weighty Kammas.

In the absence of a Weighty Kamma to condition the next birth, a death-proximate Kamma - Aasanna might operate. This is the Kamma one does immediately before the dying moment. Habitual - Aacinna Kamma is the next in priority of effect. It is the Kamma that one habitually performs and recollects and for which one has a great liking. The fourth is the "Cumulative - Katattaa Kamma," which embraces all that cannot be included in the above three. This is as it were the reserve fund of a particular being.

The last classification is according to the place in which the Kamma effects transpire, namely:

(i) Evil Kamma - Akusala, which may ripen in the Sentient Plane - Kaamalooka.

(ii) Good Kamma - Kusala, which may ripen in the Sentient Plane.

(iii) Good Kamma, which may ripen in the Realm of Form - Ruupaalooka.

(iv) Good Kamma, which may ripen in the Formless Realms - Aruupaalooka.

Is Everything due to Kamma?

Although Buddhism attributes the inequality of mankind to Kamma as one of the chief causes amongst a variety, yet it does not assert that everything is due to Kamma. If everything is due to Kamma, a person would always be bad if it was his Kamma to be bad. One would not need to consult a physician to be cured of a disease; for if one's Kamma was such, one would be cured.

According to Buddhism there are five orders or processes - niyaamas which operate in the physical and mental realms.

(i) Utu niyaamas: Physical inorganic order; e.g., the seasonal phenomena of winds and rains, the unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, the causes of wind and rains, the nature of heat etc.

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

(iii) Kamma niyaamas: 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 opportunity, produce its inevitable result - not in the form of 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.

(iv) Dhamma niyaamas: Order of the norm; e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisatta in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature, the reason for being good, and so forth, may be included in this group.

(v) Citta niyaamas: order of mind or psychic law; e.g., processes of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, etc. Telepathy, telesthesia, retrocognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought reading all psychic phenomena which are inexplicable to modern science are included in this class.

Every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes which are laws in themselves.

It is this doctrine of Kamma that gives consolation, hope, self-reliance, and moral courage to a Buddhist. This belief in Kamma "validates his effort and kindles his enthusiasm" because it teaches individual responsibility. This law of Kamma explains the problem of suffering, the mystery of so-called fate and predestination of other religions, and above all the inequality of mankind.


[Originally published in Narada's A Manual of Buddhism (Malaysia: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1992), pp. 97-108]


Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

Return to "The Buddha and His Teachings"

Top of Page