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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 neutral activities."

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 effects.

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 experienced.

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 supportive role).

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 mind.

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 ones.

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 morals.

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 actions.

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 committed.

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 knowledge.

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 ones.

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 discuss.

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 they depend.

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 critically-minded intellectual.

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 has created.

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 and support.

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.]


Updated: 3-5-2000

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