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Buddhist Nature of Karma / Kamma

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 right object.

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 One’s 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 agent’s 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 one’s own performance, not performed by one’s 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 another’s."

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 one’s own, becoming (kamma-bhava) of one’s 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 agent’s 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 Ethical Responsibility

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 one’s 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 one’s 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:

"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].

4. Kamma as Becoming Driver

According the Buddha, the course of the agent’s 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’ (eso’ham asmi) and ‘this is myself’ (eso me attaa) is to be left behind. The only thing loyally followed is but one’s 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, couple’s 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 the wise.

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 God’s 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 agent’s 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 chariot’s 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 Buddha’s 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. II. 179]

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 Ed. 1983.

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 Buddha’s Teaching. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.


http://members.xoom.com/budtoday/english/buddha/teachings/011-tnt-kamma Updated: 12-4-2000

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