Buddhist Nature of Karma
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu
1. Kamma as both
intentional action (cetanaa) and unintentional action (acetanaa)
Kamma in Buddhism includes both intentional actions
and unintentional actions. The difference between these two classes of kamma is
that the ethical value and moral consequence of the latter is minimized or lesser than
that of the former. The reason behind this is that all ethical kammas are
manifested or originated from intention (cetanaa). Having intention as motive force
or functioning energy, kamma is manifested whether, physically, verbally or
mentally [A. III. 413] while some kamma performed without intention at all
or the intention misdirected to someone or something else, instead of directing to the
Following the Buddha, Vasubandhu rightly states kamma
is just the product of intention (cetanaak.rta) [Ko'sa. IV. 1.] As a product
of intention, those ethical kamma, namely physical deed, verbal deed and mental
deed, performed in association with intentional motive (cetanaa) are forceful in
bearing ethical fruit; whereas those actions unassociated with intentional motive done are
ethically unimportant. With respect to intentional actions, kamma bears its
fruition in full level while in case of unintentional deeds; its fruition is ethically
lessened or minimized or neutralized whenever there is an opposed deed of suppressive
kind. In other words, the level of moral responsibility in regard with unintentional deeds
is lesser than that of intentional ones in any case. [MLS. I. 267ff; 371ff].
2. Kamma as Ones
Heir and Creator
According to Buddhist ethical theory of kamma, each
individual is responsible for whatever performed by him. He is subject to bear
consequences of his own. It is in this sense that kamma is both ethical
agents heir and creator. In the Majjhimanikaaya, the Buddha declares that he
knows that being are inferior, exalted, beautiful, ugly, well-faring and ill-faring
according to their kamma preformed [M. I. 183;, 32, 482; M. I. 31; A.
III. 99; A. I. 164; A. III. 18]. With the divine, purified, superhuman eyes,
the Buddha sees clearly that human beings and other beings are heirs to what they have
done and doing:
Possessed of my own deeds, I am the inheritor of deeds,
kin to deeds, one has deeds as a refuge. Whatever deed I shall do, whether good or evil, I
shall become the heir of it - This is to be repeatedly contemplated by woman and by man;
by householder, and by him who has been taken into order. [A. III. 72. Translation
by McDermott (1984): 2].
It is stated clearly in the A"nguttaranikaaya
that "kamma is of ones own performance, not performed by ones
father, mother, brother, sister, friends and comrades; not by kinsmen, deva,
recluses and braahma.na. It is the ethical agent who performs it. It is, therefore,
the agent that who experiences the fruit thereof." [A. I. 139; GS. I.
123-4]. The same idea is echoed lucidly in the Jaataka, where it reads "The
fortune and misfortune of human being are in fact his own kamma, not
Becoming (bhava) of a being in terms of morality
and amorality, development and degeneration is originated from his ethical performance. If
ethical performance (kamma) is of ones own, becoming (kamma-bhava)
of ones own: "Whatever it does determines what it becomes, and the impressions
which gathers. I therefore declare that creatures are the heirs of their own actions and
behaviours." [Jataka no. 382, quoted from Krishan (1997): 68].
Understanding whatever we are now is consequence of both
past and present kamma, one should be aware of his ethical performance for the
future of his and the others:
Kamma bodily, verbal or mental, performed by the
agent is that agents possession and goes with him and follows him like a shadow.
Mankind therefore should act out of goodness and should accumulate things that will be of
benefit in the present and future. Goodness and benefit are your refuge in the future
world [S. I. 93].
Knowing happiness and suffering, well-being and
ill-welfare, profitableness and unprofitableness, harmony and disharmony etc., are the
result of the ethical autonomous law of kamma, one should diligently perform good
discarding evil: "An evil deed left undone is better, for it cause suffering later. A
good deed performed is better for doing it produces happiness." [Dhp.314].
3. Kamma as Personally
In Buddhism the law of ethical responsibility is expressed
in the form of good producing good, bad producing bad and the very doer is subject to
experience that fruit. Ethical good or bad results, which one has to bear, are ones
own kamma, both the past and the present. The evil done by oneself, caused by
oneself, arising in oneself, ethically destroys the foolish one. The same must be said
true of the good [Sn. 666]. There is no deed, which performed by man to be blotted
out; each deed comes home [Dhp. 165]. The evil doer definitely finds unhappiness
waiting for him, in this world and the worlds to come. The Dhammapada driving home
the same point states "It is the agent who performs evil to bear the suffering. It is
the agent who cultivate good to enjoy the purification."
From this ethical base each individual is heir to
his own kamma, whether ethically good or bad, it is logically entailed that
in order to destroy the evil to attain moral perfection (siila paramita), one has
to perform efforts and practice morality leading to the same: "If you are afraid of dukkha,
do not conduct evil, secretly or openly. Because if you are planning to perform evil deed
or are performing it right now, even if you could ascend in flight, you would not be able
to avoid the unpleasant consequences." [Ud. 51].
The Buddha repeatedly proclaims that leading to the way to
liberation is ones own business by removal of the thorns of moral defilement
practicing the noble eight-fold path: "Walking this way you should make an end to
suffering. This is the way made known by me when I have learnt to remove all darts. You
yourselves should make an effort; the Awakened Ones are only teachers." In this
regard, the Buddha is not a Saviour, but rather the way-pointer showing the
tranquillity ad insight meditation, which should be observed by the liberation seeker:
"All of you must put your own effort; the Tathaagatas
ethically points out the way." [Dhp. 275-6. tr. by Abeynayake (1984): 188]
In the Paaraayana vagga of the Suttanipata,
the Buddha precisely says:
as Becoming Driver
"I shall not be able to liberate any one in this
world who is doubtful. Realising the supreme dhamma, you yourselves shall across
this stream." [Sn. 100. Translation by Abeynayake (1984): 188].
"You should have yourself as a refuge. Do not hold
anything else as a refuge. Having Dhamma as a refuge, do not hold to anything
else." [S. III. 42; D. II. 101; D. III. 77].
According the Buddha, the course of the agents
existence or becoming is essentially affected by his own kamma. Kamma is
functioning effectively not only in determining certain distinctions between individuals,
groups, nationalities and species, but also as a causal factor, in determining into which
of the six gatis he will be reborn.
In the rebirth-process (uppatti-bhava) as presented
in the doctrine of dependent origination (pa.ticca samuppaada), kamma plays
an important role as life-formation or becoming driver (sa"nkhaaraa). It is in
this sense that cetanaa is identified with sa"nkhaaraa [A. I.
32; M. I. 389; S. III. 60. For full discussion in this connection, see EB.
IV. 86-97; Matthews (1983): 57-64; Guenther (1991): 31-54]. The life-formation
is conditioned by ethically evil mental action, namely, ignorance (avijjaa).
Moreover, at the time of death (mara.na) everything in this world, usually mistaken
by a man as his in the form of this is mine (etam mama), this is
I (esoham asmi) and this is myself (eso me attaa) is
to be left behind. The only thing loyally followed is but ones own kamma.
This Buddhist attitude is best exemplified in the following passage, where the Buddha uses
a beautiful simile to express the idea: "All his property, grain, hoarded wealth,
silver and gold and his slaves, servants and skilled workmen, he has to leave (in this
world). He can not take anything with him (after his death). But he owns, takes with him
his kamma, which pursues him like a shadow." [S. I. 93; KS. I.
117-8. Translation by Krishan (1997): 66].
The same teaching, expressed in another beautiful way, is
found bringing home the idea that we will become of whatever we have performed during our
lifetime: "All ethical good or bad deeds performed by mortal beings now are what they
will own, what they will take, when he is reborn, and that will concomitantly pursue them
like a shadow." [S.I.72; KS. I. 98].
Unless and until we clear our debts or immoral deeds done,
we can not escape from its unpleasant fruition in the future:
I declare that of intentional deed performed and
accumulated there can be no wiping out without experiencing the result thereof, and that
these may ripen, either in this life or the life-after. There is no ending of evil
resulting from intentional deeds done and accumulated without experiencing the result
thereof. [A. V. 292; GS. V. 189-90].
The process of life formation is therefore depended on our
accumulation of kamma. Kamma is the samsaric link, which connects one life
to another. It is not out of place to note here that in rebirth process three factors
should be present, namely, couples sexual intercourse, the female in her period and
being to be reborn (gandhabba) [MLS. I. 265f.]. Of these, gandhabba
is the important factor through which a new life is planted. Gandhabba is the
rebirth-consciousness (patisandhivi~n~naa.na) according to Paali Abhidhamma,
or an immediate stage (antaraabhaava) held by Sarvaastivaadin, or sa"nkhaara.
Conditioned by ignorance (avijjaa) in the past, sa"nkhaara is in turn
condition for the five links in the present, namely rebirth-linking consciousness (pa.tisandhi-vi~n~naa.na),
physical-mental group (n ma-r pa), the six bases of sense (sa.laayatana),
contact (phassa), and sensation (vedanaa). These five as kammas, in
turn, constitute the rebirth process (uppatti-bhava) in the present. This process
will further becomes another process with craving (ta"nhaa), clinging (upaadaana)
and new being manifested through kamma (kamma-bhava). This becoming of kamma
in the present is repetition of the formation of kamma (sa"nkhaara) in
the past and it will produce similar results in the future, such as birth (jaati),
aging (jaraa) and death (mara.na), which is the subsequent process of
rebirth [BE. s.v. bhava (1): 10-11]. The only way to escape from it is to
follow the noble eightfold path (a.t.tha"ngika-magga), namely, right view (sammaadi.t.thi),
right thought (sammaasa"nkappa), right speech (sammaavaacaa), right
action (sammaakammanta), right livelihood (sammaa-aajiiva), right efforts (sammaa-vaayaama),
right mindfulness (sammaasati) and right meditation (sammaasamaadhi).[ D.
II. 312; M. I. 61; M. III. 251]
5. Kamma as Social Career
From the Buddhist point of view, human profession or work
or career is the result of what he has been pursuing with motive (cetanaa),
invested energy and creative thinking. In other words, our profession is a series of
accumulative and habitual actions (aaci~n~na-kamma), both past and present. Kamma
as social career or profession, which in turn makes the differences in social status
amongst mankind, is of the Buddhist distinctive contribution to the ethical theory of kamma
in Indian history of thought as well as to moral education and development of mankind.
Vaase.t.tha, you know that among humans, those who make a
living as cowherds are farmers, not brahmins. Those who make a living through the arts are
known as artists, not brahmins. People who make their living by selling and trading are
known as merchants, not brahmins. Those who make a living by serving others are known as
servants, not brahmins. Whoever makes his living stealing is known as a thief, not a
brahmin . . . Whoever governs the land is known as a king, not a brahmin.
I do not refer to people as brahmins according to their
birth. I refer to those free of unwholesome tendencies and attachments as brahmins . . .
Those who do not know, say that people are brahmins by birth. Actually, people should be
dubbed brahmins or non-brahmins by their action (kamma), should be dubbed farmers,
artists, servants thieves or king, etc. by their actions or the way they make their
living. All learned people, who see dependent origination and know kamma as well as
its consequences clearly, see kamma in accordance with the truth: that this world
proceed according to kamma, all beings proceed according to kamma, and
beings are bound together in action like the bolts that hold a vehicle together as it
rolls along." [Sn. 612-654.]
Thus, in Buddhism, all kinds of measuring or evaluating
the ethical agent from his social footing or class, instead of his ethical virtues,
personality and social career, are proved irrational, and therefore, should be avoided by
6. Kamma as Social Status
Judge and causes of Inequality in Human Society
The followings are common questions, which may be asked by
or to the Buddhist: what is the cause of inequality amongst mankind and between
mankind and animals? Is there any definite cause for this inequality or is it
only accidental? What are the Buddhist answers to the questions why one should
be born endowed with excellent mental, moral and physical qualities while the other is
not? Why should one born a millionaire whereas the other absolute
poverty? Why should some be congenitally blind, deaf and deformed?
Why lowness and excellence are seen among mankind? Why are men seen
short-lived and long-lived, ill and ill-free, ugly and beautiful, weak and mighty, poor
and wealthy, of lowly families and of high families, of little wisdom and of insight
etc.?[M. III. 202-203]
The Buddhist reply to these questions would be that that
difference of social status or inequality amongst mankind has kamma as its cause,
heir and creator [M. III. 203; 280; GS. III. 60, 137, 249; MLS. III.
249]. The attribution of inequality to a single cause namely Gods will or to
accidentalism is rationally rejected in Buddhism. The Buddha does not admit the existence
of a Creator as an almighty being or as uncaused causer, nor the different phenomena of
this world happen accidentally.
In ethical teachings of the Buddha, it is stated that the
inequality in human society and between human and animal world is attributed to the
agents kamma both in this and the previous lives. It is explained in the Suttanipaata
that "The world revolves by kamma. The mankind moves by kamma. As pin
holds fast the rolling chariots wheel, so beings are in bondage held by kamma."
[Sn. 654]. Furthermore, Buddhism traces all differences, biological, physical,
epistemological, intellectual, social, economic even hereditical, amongst the species to kamma
[Asl. 205]. According to Buddhism, the inequality amongst mankind and animals is
due not only to heredity, environment but also to the operation of the law of kamma
or in other words, to the result of our own inherited past actions and our present doings
[Cf. Narada (1973):186-8]. Due to the various effects of kamma performed, all
men are not all alike (manussaa na sabbe samakaa). The kamma makes
mankind some wise, some foolish, some of high degree, some of low degree, some rich, some
poor, some powerful, some weak, some healthy, some sickly, some short-lived, some
long-lived [M. III. 135ff; Milin. 100].
According to the Buddha, actions indulging in violence,
anger, jealousy, arrogance and niggardliness are conductive to short-life, ill-health,
ugliness, poverty and birth in low family, whereas, actions of diverse nature conductive
to long-life, good health, good looks, prosperity and birth in high family.[ M. III.
135]. The Buddhas observation on kamma is best exemplified in the following
passage: Owner of their own kamma are living beings, heirs of their kamma,
have kamma as the wombs from which they spring, having kamma as their
refuge. Kamma marks of living being, making them become depraved and excellent. [M.
V. P. 14/511/176].
The Abhidharmako'sa traces the diversity of the
world from kamma: "the world in its diversity is born of kamma." [Ko'sa.
IV. 1]. It goes further stating that rebirth in different forms of existence such as
animal, man, ghost, gods, etc. is due to the past kamma [Ko'sa. IV. 1]. As
to the diversity amongst species, the A.t.thasaalaanii explains that
"Depending on the difference of kamma, the specific difference in the births
of being, high or low, happy or miserable, appears. By the difference of kamma
manifested, the specific difference in features of being, beautiful or ugly, well-built or
deformed, appears. The same hold with gain or loss, fame or disgrace, blame or praise and
happiness or suffering." [Asl. 205f]
On the basis of this theory of kamma, Buddhism does
not approve caste-based society (va.rna/va~n~naa). Buddhism evaluates mankind
according to their ethical behaviours instead of their birth or class. The following
passages of the suttas illustrate nicely how the Buddha rejects the evaluation of
morality based on birth or class:
"People are not outcastes or brahmins by birth. They
are outcastes or brahmins because of their kamma, ethical actions and behaviour,
whether good or bad." [Sn.136]
Brahmin, I do not call a person excellent or lowly just
because he is of high birth nor low birth. Similarly, I do not call a person excellent or
lowly just because he has great wealth or he is of poverty. Actually, some people, while
of high birth, still enjoy killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying,
provoking people, using crude language, speaking non-sense, being covetous and causing
conflict, which all constitute improper understanding (micchaadi.t.thi)." [M.
Thus, our present divergences whether intellectual,
epistemological, moral, social or temperamental are due to our ethical actions (kamma),
both past and present.
(References to the Pali texts and their translations are
to the Pali text society standard edition.)
Abeynayake, Oliver. (1984) A Textual
and Historical Analysis of the Khuddaka Nikaya. Colombo: Tisara Press.
Guenther, Herbert V. (1974). Philosophy
and Psychology in the Abhidharma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Krishan, Yuvraj. (1997). The Doctrine
of Karma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Matthews, Bruce. (1994) Craving and
Salvation, a Study in Buddhist Soteriology. Delhi: Sri SatGuru Publications, 1st
McDermott, James Paul. (1984) Development
in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Narada, Mahathera. (1973) The Buddha
and His Teaching. Singapore: Singapore Buddhist Meditation Center.
Payutto, Bhikkhu P. A. (1993) Good,
Evil and Beyond Kamma in the Buddhas Teaching. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.