- Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr
What is kamma?
Etymologically, the Pali word kamma (Sanskrit: karma) is
derived from the root "kam" meaning "to do," "to commit," or
"to perform." Kamma literally means action, something we do or perform.
But according to the Buddhist philosophy, not all actions are designated kamma;
only those actions that are volitionally motivated are called kamma. The Pali
word for volition is cetana. It is the most crucial conditioning factor behind
human actions and determines the nature of such actions. The Buddha has clearly explained:
"Monks, volition do I call kamma. Having willed, man commits kamma
through body, speech, and mind." In his Abhidhammasamuccaya, Asanga, an
eminent Mahayana commentator, defines volition as "mental construction or mental
activity, the function of which is to direct the mind in the sphere of virtuous, evil, and
The doctrine of kamma is based on the principle of causality or the law of
cause and effect. It is the natural law of morality, which asserts that an intentional
action will lead to a result proportionate in nature and intensity to that intention.
Kammically productive actions are those which are based on skillful or unskillful
volition. The Pali word for skillful is kusala, which is variously translated as
wholesome, good, meritorious, virtuous, and intelligent. The Pali word for unskillful is akusala,
translated as unwholesome, evil, bad, deleterious, unvirtuous, and unintelligent. A
skillful action produces a result which is desirable, good, and happy, while an unskillful
deed brings about just the opposite. As the Buddha has eloquently declared : "Just as
the seed is sown, so will the fruit be obtained. The doer of good receives good; the doer
of evil receives evil."
Often the word kamma is used not only in reference to an intentional action,
but also, wrongly, to indicate the result thereof. This kind of confusion is common even
among the educated, not to mention the untrained, who tend to be rather indiscreet in
their choice of terms. Kamma means an action, never its result. The Pali words
for the result are phala, vipaka, or kammavipaka. It is
important to be aware of this distinction to avoid misunderstandings about kamma.
Skillful or unskillful intention constitutes the motivation underlying the performance
of an action. When there is an intention to perform kamma, there arises
volitional energy that provides a moving force for the action, whether wholesome or
unwholesome, depending on the kind of volition at the moment. This action may be expressed
through any of the three channels of body, speech, and mind. In fact, it is intention that
conditions man's action and constitutes the basis for all mental formations.
The law of kamma and moral justice
The law of kamma has nothing to do with the idea of moral justice. Although
some scholars try to claim their common origin or confuse them through analogy, there is
no justification for such efforts. To begin with, the theory of moral justice is grounded
on the assumption of a supreme being or a so-called creator God, the lawgiver who sits in
judgment over all actions. It is he who is believed to mete out justice, giving punishment
to sinners and rewards to believers as the case may be. But the meaning of the expression
'moral justice' in theistic religions is ambiguous, and history has shown that much
injustice has been made in the name of moral justice. The criteria for defining moral
justice are, to say the least, rather arbitrary and subjective. Often they serve only as a
pretext for righteous bigotry and political opportunism, with decidedly self-defeating
The law of kamma, on the other hand, is a natural law. It is a law of cause
and effect, of action and reaction. The law of kamma operates on its own,
requiring no assumption of a God, and has nothing to do with the idea of reward or
punishment. In fact the concept of justice is irrelevant, a mere expedient in the cause of
convenience of expression, a convention. Of course, the law of kamma operates
with full and perfect justice, but that is quite a different matter from the concept of
justice as understood in theistic religions. When the Buddha says, "The doer of good
receives good, the doer of evil receives evil," he is not passing a judgment of
reward or punishment, but simply stating the fact of how the law of kamma
operates. If you fall down from a tree and break your leg, it is not a matter of justice
or punishment, but simply the operation of the law of gravity, a natural law which we all
are subject to. Likewise, if you eat good food and remain healthy, your health is only
natural, not a reward given to you by some supreme being. Whether a supreme being exists
or not, you will remain healthy and strong if you treat yourself properly in accordance
with the law of nature. Of course, we may refer to the broken leg as a punishment and good
health as a reward, but that is just a way of talking. The law of kamma operates
in much the same manner, the difference being that it functions within the framework of
morality, based on the principle of cause and effect.
There are those who assert that it is God who made all these laws, and if the law of kamma
were true, it must also have been created by God. We can see that the introduction of God
into the subject only serves to confuse and obscure the issue. Historically, the Buddhist
doctrine of kamma was first condemned by Christians as the teaching of Satan, or
a heretic view at best. However, with better understanding and the subsequent realization
of the sound logic and validity of this particular doctrine, some Christian scholars have
compromised by reducing it to one of the 'Laws' established by the 'Father in Heaven.'
This maneuver calls to mind the practice of Hindus of old who first condemned the Buddha
and later reduced him to one of Vishnu's incarnations. But since the existence of God is
as yet a matter of conjecture, such a claim does not hold much weight and may serve only
to divert us from pursuing the subject in the right direction.
Results of kamma
Kamma can be committed through the three doors or channels of action: actions done
through the body, such as giving things in charity, killing, stealing, or taking narcotic
drugs, are called bodily actions (kayakamma); those performed through speech,
such as telling the truth, lying, or using abusive language, are called verbal actions (vacikamma);
those performed through the mind, such as indulging in hateful thoughts or practicing
concentration and insight meditation, are called mental actions (manokamma).
Most people do not see thoughts as a kind of action and fail to realize how they can be
anything more than mere subjective phenomena. But it is interesting to note that Buddhism
not only lists the function of the mind as constituting a kind of action, but gives it
prime significance. According to Buddhism, it is through mental action that man can be
elevated to the highest stage of spiritual development, and it is again through mental
action that he will be tempted to commit the most heinous crime. Thus cultivation of mind
occupies the most important place in the Buddhist scheme of spiritual training.
A volitional action, good or bad, skillful or unskillful, is bound to produce some
appropriate result one way or another. Sometimes the consequences of an action are
immediate and explicit; sometimes they are not. This really depends on many factors. Some
actions may bear fruit in the present life, others may bring results in some future
lifetime. However, the most immediate and obvious result of an intentional action can be
observed at the time the deed is committed. A good deed, for instance, results in the doer
being a good individual, and a bad action renders him a bad one. This is the law of kamma
in operation right at the time an action is performed, which can be empirically
Says the Buddha: "All sentient beings are the owners of their kamma,
inheritors of their kamma, born of their kamma, related to their kamma,
supported by their kamma. Kamma is that which divides beings into coarse
and refines states."
Determining the quality of actions
We have seen that intention, according to the Buddha's teachings, constitutes kamma.
In English, we tend to use the term 'intention' rather loosely to indicate our willingness
or purpose in an action. For instance, we may say, "I intend to write home" or
"He said it intentionally." Sometimes, intention is implicit in the inference
even if the word is not used. "He looks at the picture" clearly indicates an
intention involved in the act of looking. However, intention in such instances contains no
specific moral implication and the actions so performed do not fall into either the
wholesome or unwholesome category, but are of an indeterminate nature.
This is the point of distinction. The Abhidhamma classifies intention or volition as a
mental concomitant (cetasika) that is present in all types of consciousness.
There is no consciousness that arises without it. Volition has the function of assisting
the mind to select objects of awareness. By nature it is morally indeterminate, but
becomes qualified as wholesome or unwholesome in accordance with the wholesome or
unwholesome mental concomitants which arise with it. It is on the basis of these factors
that an action is determined as morally good or bad. Of course, for the sake of
convenience we may refer to a particular element of intention as skillful or unskillful
volition, but the Abhidhamma analyses this down to the very fundamental qualities of each
and every individual type of consciousness.
A simple indeterminate action may turn into a morally skillful or unskillful one
depending on associated factors. With the accompaniment of wholesome mental qualities, an
otherwise morally neutral action will be transformed into a wholesome one. If the
accompanying mental qualities are unwholesome, the opposite will result. If we understand
this rather intricate relationship between the action and the mental states at the time
the action is carried out, there will be no difficulty in determining the moral
implication of our own actions in everyday life.
We may further clarify this through an illustration. Take, for instance, the simple act
of eating or drinking. Ordinarily, this in itself cannot be classified as morally good or
bad and is, therefore, not kammically productive. However, such ordinary actions are bound
to become either morally wholesome or unwholesome if and when founded on, or accompanied
by, wholesome or unwholesome mental qualities (with volition playing an important
Eating with mindfulness and clarity of mind as a form of meditative practice is
wholesome because it is accompanied by awareness and wisdom, which are positively
wholesome mental qualities. Such an act is therefore a morally good action. Drinking
intoxicants that cloud the mind and produce heedlessness is morally unwholesome, as is
borne out by the crime and violence that are associated with such consumption. Its effect
is much different from drinking a glass of pure water.
All actions lead to certain results; every action produces a reaction. If you walk, you
get to a certain place; if you eat, you get full; if you lie down and close your eyes, you
will fall asleep. But the Buddhist doctrine of kamma does not concern these
morally indeterminate actions because they have no ethical implication and have little to
do with moral training. However, these very same ordinary actions are potentially good or
bad from the moral standpoint if and when they are accompanied by respective moral or
immoral volition. With understanding they may be employed for the purpose of moral
development or even for spiritual practice. The teachings of kamma concern those
volitional actions, including walking, eating, and sleeping, which bear moral significance
and provide the ground for moral consideration and cultivation.
Defining good and evil
Sometimes the terms 'good' and 'evil' are used to translate the Pali kusala
and akusala, but students should also be aware of the fine points of distinction
that exist between them and keep in mind those differences when referring to specific
instances concerning Buddhist ethical values. For example, detachment, being content with
little, and renunciation are considered kusala, but they are not necessarily good
for most people; melancholy, attachment, and worry are akusala, but they are not
generally taken to be evil. Even greed, positively an akusala state, may often be
considered good by some, say, in business and politics. The concepts of good and evil have
something to do with social values, whereas kusala and akusala are more
connected to the inner qualities of the mind. That is why non-judgmental terms like
'wholesome' or 'unwholesome' are more preferable. If 'good' and 'evil' are used, they
should be used with due caution and awareness.
Kusala and akusala are mental qualities, which initially affect the
conditions of the mind. From this source of actions, kamma is performed through
the body, the speech, or the mind itself. Thus wholesome or unwholesome actions are
generally determined by the condition or the contents of the mind. Buddhist commentators
define kusala as being characterized by (1) a healthy mind which is free from
illness and affliction (arogya); (2) a clear mind which is untarnished and
unstained (anavajja); (3) a judicious mind imbued with wisdom and knowledge (kosalasambhuta);
and (4) a content and happy mind which has well-being as its reward (sukhavipaka).
The definition of akusala is directly opposite to that of kusala for it
is associated with the mind that is weak and unhealthy, harmful, ignorant (lacking in
knowledge and understanding), and resulting in pain and suffering.
Thus kusala represents the mental conditions that promote mental quality, and akusala
is that which causes mental degeneration and brings down the quality and efficiency of the
Examples of wholesome and unwholesome kamma
If we understand the explanation given above, there will be no problem distinguishing
wholesome from unwholesome actions. In general we may say that such positive actions as
charity, meditation, and supporting one's parents are wholesome, and negative actions such
as quarreling, stealing, and making fun of others are unwholesome. This is almost a matter
of common sense. Nevertheless, for the sake of further clarity in the subject we may refer
to the Buddha's teachings on the ten unwholesome actions and the corresponding wholesome
There are three unwholesome actions that are performed through body, namely, killing,
taking what is not given, and indulgence in sexual misconduct. There are four kinds of
verbal actions which are unwholesome: false speech, malicious or slanderous speech, harsh
speech, and frivolous speech. There are three kinds of unwholesome mental actions:
covetousness, ill will, and false view. In nature and content, these last three are
closely identified with the three roots of unskillful action, namely, greed, anger, and
ignorance. Other examples of unwholesome kamma may include the following mental
concomitants as well as their resultant actions through body, speech and mind: greed or
desire for sensual pleasure, dejection, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety,
uncertainty of mind or lack of resolution, jealousy, avarice, and miserliness.
On the wholesome side, there are also ten skillful actions, three bodily, four verbal,
and three mental, consisting of abstention from the ten unwholesome actions mentioned
above. Wholesome actions depicted in this way are somewhat negative, at least in tone,
through the use of the Pali word veramani, which means 'abstention.' But a
negative expression does not necessarily mean a negative state of mind or action.
Abstention from false speech, for instance, is a negative expression, but it also implies
a positive commitment, since such abstention itself naturally signifies truthfulness.
Refraining from stealing not only specifies that one should avoid such an act, but also
implies a positive quality of respect for others' property rights.
The Buddha pointed out how the ten wholesome actions can be followed in both the
negative and positive aspects. This may be listed as follows:
1. Abstaining from destruction of life, one cultivates loving-kindness and compassion,
working for the welfare of all beings.
2. Abstaining from taking what is not given, one cultivates respect for others'
property rights and earns a livelihood through fair means.
3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct, one practices self-restraint and observes good
4. Abstaining from false speech, one adheres to truth, is honest and trustworthy.
5. Abstaining from malicious speech, one endeavors to reconcile people and promote
harmony among community members.
6. Abstaining from harsh language, one practices pleasant and courteous speech.
7. Abstaining from frivolous speech, one speaks only speech which is useful,
reasonable, and appropriate to the listener, time, and purpose.
8. Abstaining from covetous thoughts, one practices generosity and altruism.
9. Abstaining from thoughts of ill will, one cultivates goodwill and kind thoughts
toward all beings, wishing them freedom from fear and suffering.
10. Abstaining from wrong view, one develops right understanding and right conviction
in the law of kamma, believing in the fruits of wholesome and unwholesome
Some of the more obvious examples of kusala mental qualities include
concentration, mindfulness, calm, non-arrogance or humility, desire for that which is good
(kusalachanda), joy in the Dhamma, and insight in the realization of Truth.
Criteria of wholesome and unwholesome actions
Generally, this may be just a matter of common sense for most people. Any judicious
person can tell whether an action is wholesome or unwholesome, good or evil. According to
Buddhism, it is action which defines a person as good or evil. We are what kamma
makes of us.
However, in an age when there is a universal clamor for individual rights and freedom
of expression, ethical concepts such as right and wrong, good and evil, are consistently
reduced to a matter of mere personal opinions and social preferences. Logical positivism,
a 20th century philosophical school, for instance, asserts that metaphysical theories and
ethical propositions are fundamentally meaningless because a valid statement must be
characterized either by its analytical property and conclusive verifiability, or at least
by its being capable of confirmation through empirical experiment and observation.
So it is relevant here to point out that Buddhist ethical thoughts and values are not
mere personal opinions or social preferences, but represent solid reality connected with
human life and are based on the principle of moral causality.
Firstly, there is the consideration from the perspective of the consequences of a given
action. That action is wholesome which produces a wholesome result and brings about
happiness and benefit to oneself and others. If an action results in unhappiness and harm,
if it causes loss and negative results, then it is an unwholesome or bad action. Says the
Buddha: "On account of whatever kamma one experiences distress, pain and
distraction, that is unskillful kamma. On account of whatever kamma one
experiences no distress (negative outcome), but a heart bright and full of joy, that is
skillful kamma." Thus a good or evil action may be determined on the basis
of results. The Buddha adds, "Realizing what kamma is beneficial, one
should, therefore, strive to act accordingly without delay."
Secondly, we can also determine whether a kamma is wholesome or unwholesome on
the basis of its mental properties. If an action is based on any of the three wholesome
roots (kusalamula), then it is a wholesome action, but if it is rooted in any of
the three unwholesome qualities (akusalamula), then it is an unwholesome action.
These so-called 'roots' are, in fact, mental concomitants, qualities of mind that
accompany the consciousness at the moment an action is committed. Each moment of
consciousness is characterized as wholesome or unwholesome according to the accompanying
mental concomitants. The three unwholesome roots are greed (lobha), anger (dosa),
and delusion (moha). The three wholesome roots are non-greed (alobha),
non-anger (adosa), and non-delusion (amoha). Just as a tree is fed by
its roots, a person's actions are also determined by the nature of these fundamental
mental qualities that are associated with them.
Belief in kamma
The law of kamma operates universally, with absolute impartiality, and
all are bound to experience its effects. There is no discrimination whatsoever with regard
to race, sex, social status, or religious beliefs. However, one needs to be reminded that
what is involved in a single act of omission or commission may be more than just the
direct kammic factors of, say, a physical action and wholesome or unwholesome qualities of
mind. Thus, in many cases the resultant consequences of a more objective nature may not be
immediately apparent. For instance, due to certain factors involved a murderer may be able
to escape the hand of law for some time, which may give him a false sense of relief and
security. However, the Buddha has given us the express assurance that, "All kamma,
whether wholesome or unwholesome, will bear fruit. There is no kamma, no matter
how insignificant, which is without fruit." He has also said: "As long as an
evil deed is not yet ripened, the evil one may perceive his evil deed as sweet as honey.
But when it ripens, he will come to grief."
So, although religious beliefs may be an important factor in motivating moral actions,
the consequences thereof do not depend on beliefs or conviction. If a man falls from a
tree, he will experience the effect of the fall just the same, whether he is Buddhist or
Moslem. Likewise, eating good and healthy food gives us the necessary nourishment, no
matter what religion we may follow. A good or evil action is bound to bring about a good
or bad result, as the case may be, regardless of the religion of the perpetrator of that
action. This is the universality of the Dhamma.
Kamma and predestination
For a theory to be scientifically sound, it needs to be formulated on a
scientific method. This involves procedures for seeking knowledge based on a recognition
of problems or hypotheses, collection of data through systematic experiment and
observation, and formulation of a rational theory. By now the time-honored Buddhist law of
kamma, with its attendant doctrine of rebirth, has already been accepted by many
of the world's leading intellectuals as logical and scientific. Professor Carl Gustav
Jung, the eminent psychologist, has conceded that it is something worthy of serious study.
He observed: "As a student of comparative religion, I believe that Buddhism is the
most perfect one the world has ever seen. The philosophy of the Buddha, the theory of
evolution, and the law of kamma were far superior to any other creed."
The law of kamma is a direct result of the Buddha's enlightenment. Even from
the perspective of common sense there is hardly any principle more logical than the law of
kamma, which postulates that good actions beget good results and bad actions
beget bad ones. Ethically, this seems to be the only sound and tenable proposition.
One can observe and experiment with the law of kamma with one's own sense
faculties and reasoning powers. Let us suppose, for instance, that we start smoking an
occasional cigarette. An unskillful kamma has been committed. Now we can observe
the changes (results of kamma) that are taking place as we continue to repeat the
unskillful action. Smoking one cigarette acts as a potential for our indulgence in the
next. As a result, a taste for tobacco, an inclination, and the habit to smoke develop,
leading finally to addiction. By looking closely at the whole process, we will be able to
see how we experience results proportionate to the actions that we have willfully
Kamma may also be understood in term of impulses. Smoking builds up impulses,
both psychological and physical, and compels us to smoke even more until it becomes
habitualized. The same is true with other more subtle actions. When we are annoyed or
irritated, we may choose either to use this opportunity to practice kindness and transform
our annoyance into a more positive experience, or we may act out our negative emotion and
express anger through some physical or verbal action. Any course of action we undertake is
a potential for further similar reaction under similar circumstances. By repeatedly
practicing to transform anger to kindness, we can develop a kindly nature and cheerful
character. On the other hand, if we repeatedly shout at someone every time we get angry,
that kamma will result in transforming us into hot-tempered and quarrelsome
people. This is how we can empirically observe and experiment with the law of kamma,
and see for ourselves how this law of cause and effect, action and reaction, operates in
our daily lives. Based on this principle, we can expand the fields of our observation and
experiment to increase our knowledge and understanding of kamma. Of course, the
most comprehensive and infallible method is naturally the one employed by the Buddha and
his noble disciples, which involves the special psychic instruments of higher spiritual
The law of kamma is different from the idea of fatalism or predetermination.
In fact, Buddhism rather talks about causal relationships than things being predetermined.
The Anguttara Nikaya mentions three views which Buddhism does not subscribe to.
The first is past-action determinism, which asserts that all our experiences in the
present life are solely determined by past actions. The second is theistic determinism,
which means that all our experiences and all events are due to God's creation and will.
And the third view rejected by the Buddha is called accidentalism, which holds that all
experiences are merely manifestations of fortuitous elements, uncaused and unconditioned.
This fallacious view rejects the principle of causality and the law of kamma.
The first two views allow no room for free will, and are fatalistic in nature. The
third is obviously untenable for the simple reason that it goes directly against common
sense and the well-established truth of causal relationship. Buddhism advocates the middle
course with the law of kamma, which states that our experiences are conditioned
by our actions rather than being predetermined or willed by God. It realistically allows
for a plurality of causes or conditioning factors, including the factors of will and
natural phenomena. In this way the Buddhist doctrine of kamma seems most sensible
and has a strong appeal for modern critical minds.
Development of kammic impulses
When an action is performed through body, speech, or mind, there is always some
energy involved. This energy is capable of being fortified, developed, or transformed. If
a given action is repeatedly committed, the energy to commit the same deed will be
strengthened, and consequently a tendency and habit will be formed. It is this tendency to
habituation that makes it possible to train and develop both positive and negative
tendencies. For example, by consistently practicing meditation, we will find that the
practice becomes more and more natural to us and we gradually cultivate the tendency and
habit to meditate with greater ease. A person who repeatedly practices generosity develops
the energy of giving and is therefore better prepared to give even more. The first act of
giving may be difficult, if only because one is not used to it, but the first gift makes
the second and subsequent ones easier, for it acts as the potential for a more advanced
development of personal character. In the same way, if one repeatedly indulges in lying,
it will become a habit. The first act of lying contains within itself the potential for
lying the second time, and the third, and the fourth, until one becomes a compulsive liar.
Habits are not physical, but they manifest themselves through physical actions.
Understanding the law of kamma helps us to see the possibility of free choice and
how we are truly responsible for our actions. We will also perceive that it is always
within our capacity to train ourselves, to undo negative habits and cultivate positive
Each and every person is comprised of five aggregates, which are corporeality, feeling,
perception, mental formations, and consciousness. These are all different forms of energy,
compounded, co-dependent, and co-functioning in the ever-changing flow of life. They
represent a complex entity of fundamental elements which are interdependent and
interrelated. Some of these forms of energy are gross, others are more subtle and refined.
The energy of kamma is a more forceful part of mental formations and is thus
intricately interwoven with all other forms of energy. Previous kamma therefore
plays an important role in influencing later actions, though not necessarily the only one.
The continuity of the five aggregates, supported by various conditioning factors,
signifies the possibility of a life process without the intervention of a soul element,
and ensures the uninterrupted continuation and operation of kamma.
Kamma from previous lives
The mind stream which flows from moment to moment through life, continually
rising and falling, carries within itself the conditioned potential of a person's
personality, temperament, likes, dislikes, and all other mental constructions and
impressions. Although these potentialities exist in a state of constant flux and are
subject to the laws of change and conditionality, each successive moment of consciousness,
with all its mental corollaries, is conditioned by its preceding moment. This process
continues throughout the present life and passes on to the next in an unbroken stream.
What we are now is therefore, to a large extent, inherited from what we were in the past.
This partly helps to explain why we characteristically possess certain inclinations and
attitudes and why we sometimes have an inexplicably strong like or dislike for certain
individuals we encounter for the first time.
Based on the doctrine of kamma, it is possible to understand the present in
reference to the past and to foresee the future through inference from the present. But
this is no more a foregone conclusion than the statement, "We are what we were."
Predetermination is not a Buddhist idea, neither is fate, destiny, or accidentalism. Kamma
is open to the influence of conditioning factors, both in the present as well as the
future. Even conditioned impulses, which hold the makings of the future, are subject to
the influence of free will, that is, whether or not we choose to act on them. For example,
an alcoholic is offered a bottle of whiskey: he experiences an impulse to drink. Based on
past observation, we can predict with a high degree of probability that he would lose no
time in emptying its contents into his stomach. Although that seems to be the most natural
course of action, yet at that critical moment he still has the choice whether to act on
the impulse or resolve to fight back by denying himself the unwholesome drink. In other
words, he is not totally predetermined to consume the whiskey. Kamma could be
influenced by other physio-psychological conditions as well.
One Buddhist meditation technique involves constant awareness of one's own thoughts.
This is the most effective way to check the constantly changing states of mind, to see
clearly how impulses arise, and how they are conditioned. By giving ourselves more space
to reflect and contemplate, we will be able to get in touch with our own inner nature and
our weaknesses and strengths. Most importantly, this awareness enables us to make better
choices, to deal directly with our own impulses, not only by acting them out in a
beneficial manner, but transforming them, if they are negative, to positive ones.
Mindfulness helps us to make wise decisions with regard to our impulses so that we are not
tempted to perform unwholesome actions, but rather engage in wholesome ones.
Our interest and receptivity to the Dhamma can also be explained according to the law
of kamma. In fact, the existence of child prodigies can also be rationalized on
the basis of the law of kamma, together with the Buddhist teachings on rebirth.
It is likely that if we had studied and practiced the Dhamma in our previous lives, we
would be more inclined to do so in the present. If we had mastered the subject in the
past, it is natural that we should find it easy in the present. By extension, this
principle is also cited to explain why some children are so extraordinarily receptive to
certain subjects, and not to others. They study them as if they had thoroughly understood
them in the past and are merely revising what had been previously mastered.
Other conditioning factors
The law of nature has been explained by Buddhist commentators as consisting of
five distinct aspects. Underlying all these aspects is the principle of causal dependence
and its expression in various modes of relationship. All things exist and operate, or
cease to exist, in accordance with these five aspects of the law of nature. They are the
principles by which the world and all its phenomena are regulated and controlled. The Pali
term is niyama, which literally means 'certainty,' the fixed order of nature.
According to this, specific conditions inevitably determine certain corresponding results
or effects, and each determinant may simultaneously interact with the others and be
likewise determined by them.
The first aspect of the natural law is its physical inorganic order (utuniyama).
This concerns physical phenomena that take place on account of natural conditions, such as
seasonal cycles, heat and cold, rain or snow, flowers blooming in spring and drying up in
time of drought, and wax melting with the heat and hardening with the cold.
The second is that of the physical organic order (bijaniyama), which refers to
the natural law pertaining to heredity, the transmission of hereditary character and the
genetic processes. The natural law of physical organic order can be observed in such
phenomena as how a particular kind of tree grows from a certain seed, how fruits taste
according to their species, how children bear physical resemblance to their parents, and
how animals, birds, and insects, look, live, reproduce, and behave in certain ways
according to their species.
The third aspect of natural law concerns the nature and functions of mind (cittaniyama),
such as the mental perception of sense-objects, the experience of sensations, the various
mental processes that take place from moment to moment, the rising and cessation of
consciousness, the attributes of mind and mental concomitants, hypnotic experiences, and
mental states in varying levels of development.
The fourth aspect of natural law is a moral one. This is the principle of kamma,
or the law of action and result (kammaniyama). It specifically refers to the
process of volitional activities and explains how certain actions lead to corresponding
consequences, why people are born with certain peculiarities of character, and human
behavior in the context of mental construction and proliferation. The law of kamma
is based on the axiomatic principle that all actions inevitably lead to results
proportionate in nature and degree to the deed.
The fifth aspect of natural law is the order of the norm, the all-encompassing law of
causality and conditionality (dhammaniyama) that regulates and controls all
phenomena and governs the interrelatedness and interdependence of all things. This order
of the norm is manifest in how things change and decay, how life is characterized by
birth, old age, disease and death, how all existential realities are marked by the three
characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-substantiality, how the law
of gravity operates, how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, how the whole
cosmic order exists and functions, and so on.
As can be seen, kamma constitutes but one aspect of natural law. The
simplistic supposition that all life experiences are due to kamma is therefore
incorrect. Understanding these different underlying elements in the physical and psychical
spheres helps us to gain a clearer understanding of how a single event may have resulted
from more than one cause and how different determinants may synchronously be involved in
conditioning certain phenomena or experiences. Usually, when more than one principle is at
work, the more predominant one will prevail. For example, extreme temperature (utuniyama)
may influence the conditions of the mind (cittaniyama) and cause one to feel ill
at ease. Or strong will power (cittaniyama) may temporarily override the effects
of negative environments (utuniyama) and the results of kamma (kammaniyama).
Kamma and not-self
The law of kamma does not necessarily presuppose the existence of a
permanent self. On the contrary, it indicates the negation of self, as we shall presently
The idea of a permanent self is conceived on a psychologically deep-rooted fear of
death and annihilation. To maintain a sense of security and ensure self-preservation, the
false concept of an immortal soul, believed to be unchanging and eternal, is created. But
according to the law of causal dependence, this concept is untenable and unwarranted
because all things, animate or inanimate, are relative and must depend on certain
conditions for their arising and existence. Since all things are conditioned, it follows
that they are also liable to change and disintegrate according to the conditions on which
Instead of the soul theory, the Buddha taught the doctrine of no-soul or nonself (Pali:
anatta). According to this doctrine, such a thing as soul or self is illogical
and impossible. It is a false concept which bears no relation to reality, and is a
prolific breeding ground for defilements such as selfishness, conceit, attachment, hatred,
and desire. The Buddha's philosophical position is unique in the history of human thought
for he unequivocally rejects the concept of soul which had previously been unquestioningly
accepted. The Buddhist doctrine of nonself stands firm on the ground of sound logic and
good reason, and is completely compatible with the law of kamma.
To begin with, self and kamma are two reciprocally conflicting terms. The
operation of the law of kamma presupposes both conditionality and changeability.
In other words, it is only on account of a person's inherent susceptibility to
conditioning that kamma will find space to function. Self as an unchanging
absolute entity would not meet that requirement and is therefore irrelevant as far as the
law of kamma is concerned. In this way, the doctrine of nonself further
substantiates the law of kamma and makes it more acceptable to the
The conception of soul or self originates from a lack of understanding of the true
nature of mind. To rudimentary logic, it seems that there must be an everlasting entity
within which thinks, feels, perceives, and makes decisions. Self, according to the common
view, is the thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, perceiver of perceptions, and
maker of decisions. Self is that which is punished and rewarded by the will of the
so-called supreme God. Thus is man forever in fear and dread of the Almighty he himself
Buddhist philosophy requires no such imaginary entity. All physio-psychological
phenomena are in a state of flux, arising and falling, according to the physical or
psychological conditions present at the moment. What is conveniently called 'thinker' is
nothing but the thought itself, which keeps rising and falling like all other realities.
This is true of sensations, perceptions, and all other mental activities. There is no
thinker behind the thoughts, no feeler behind sensations, no perceiver behind perceptions,
no decision maker behind the process of making decisions. All these mental activities keep
flowing from one moment to another in an intricately interwoven relationship, giving a
false notion of permanent self to the unenlightened mind. As kamma is itself part
of the mind stream, there is no need at all to introduce the concept of self as an agent
of the action or a recipient of the result thereof.
Practical objectives of the doctrine of kamma
As kamma directly concerns what we do and how we do it, belief in the
doctrine of kamma can be of great help in the way we conduct ourselves and
interact with others, as well as in our spiritual endeavor. The teachings enable us to
establish a clear moral understanding based on reason and the principle of cause and
effect. With confidence in the law of kamma, one develops a more realistic and
rational attitude toward life and its experiences and is inspired to rely on one's ability
to fulfill one's own aspirations rather than resort to prayer for extraneous assistance
The law of kamma helps us to be more convinced of our own potential and
responsibilities, both personal and social, and encourages us to do what is good and to
refrain from what is evil or unwholesome. It teaches us to cultivate responsibility toward
oneself by giving up bad habits and actions, and responsibility toward others by showing
them kindness and compassion. Kamma demonstrates that each and every one of us is
endowed with potential for greater development and it is within our reach to create a
better world, full of love and joy, or to destroy it with hatred and war. We have the
choice before us. Understanding kamma helps us to make the right choice.
Kamma truly puts us in control of our life. We can deal with our present
aspirations and plans, and direct future courses of action for our own good as well as for
the good of others. This means that we are our own masters and are therefore under an
obligation to act with utmost care and responsibility.
Because, according to the doctrine of kamma, people should be judged by their
actions, not by social status, caste, or creed, the teachings on kamma have
contributed to the establishment of a universal ethical standard in which moral integrity
becomes the norm and the measurement of a person's worth. Kamma is that
"which classifies beings into coarse and refined states," says the Buddha. He
further declares: "Not by birth is one an outcast, not by birth is one a Brahmin. By
action is one an outcast, by action is one a Brahmin."
Belief in the doctrine of kamma is also essential in the realization of Nibbana.
Man must first believe in his own potentialities and the possibility of their cultivation.
Spiritual practice means that a person must strongly believe in self-improvement, in
removing from his or her mind all that is bad or negative and developing what is positive
and good. Without such conviction, spiritual advancement is virtually impossible. Although
Nibbana is beyond kamma, it is realized through the relinquishment of
evil kamma, the cultivation of the good, and the purification of mind. Belief in kamma
may almost be regarded as the be-all and end-all of spiritual discipline.
[Originally published in Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know
Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 109-131.]