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Understanding the Law of Kamma
P. A. Payutto

Kamma as a law of nature

Buddhism teaches that all things, both material and immaterial, are entirely subject to the direction of causes and are interdependent. This natural course of things is called in common terms "the law of nature," and in the Pali language niyama, literally meaning "certainty" or "fixed way," referring to the fact that specific determinants inevitably lead to corresponding results.

    The laws of nature, although uniformly based on the principle of causal dependence, can nevertheless be sorted into different modes of relationship. The Buddhist commentaries describe five categories of natural law, or niyama. They are:

    1. Utuniyama: the natural law pertaining to physical objects and changes in the natural environment, such as the weather; the way flowers bloom in the day and fold up at night; the way soil, water and nutrients help a tree to grow; and the way things disintegrate and decompose. This perspective emphasizes the changes brought about by heat or temperature.

    2. Bijaniyama: the natural law pertaining to heredity, which is best described in the adage, "as the seed, so the fruit."

    3. Cittaniyama: the natural law pertaining to the workings of the mind, the process of cognition of sense objects and the mental reactions to them.

    4. Kammaniyama: the natural law pertaining to human behavior, the process of the generation of action and its results. In essence, this is summarized in the words, "good deeds bring good results, bad deeds bring bad results."

    5. Dhammaniyama: the natural law governing the relationship and interdependence of all things: the way all things arise, exist and then cease. All conditions are subject to change, are in a state of affliction and are not self: this is the Norm.

    The first four niyama are contained within, or based on, the fifth one, Dhammaniyama, the Law of Dhamma, or the Law of Nature. It may be questioned why Dhammaniyama, being as it were the totality, is also included within the subdivisions. This is because this fourfold categorization does not cover the entire extent of Dhammaniyama.

    To illustrate: the population of Thailand can be sorted into different categories, such as the royalty, the government, public servants, merchants and the populace; or it may be categorized as the police, military, public servants, students and the populace; or it can be divided up in a number of other ways. Actually, the words "the populace" include all the other groupings in the country. Public servants, householders, police, the military, merchants and students are all equally members of the populace, but they are singled out because each of those groups has its own unique characteristics. Those people without any relevant feature particular to them are grouped under the general heading, "the populace." Moreover, although those groupings may change according to their particular design, they will always include the word "the populace," or "the people," or a similar generic term. The inclusion of Dhammaniyama in the five niyama should be understood in this way.

    Whether or not these five natural laws are complete and all-inclusive is not important. The commentators have detailed the five groupings relevant to their needs, and any other groupings can be included under the fifth one, Dhammaniyama, in the same way as in the example above. The important point to bear in mind is the commentators' design in pointing out these five niyama. In this connection three points may be mentioned:

    Firstly, this teaching highlights the Buddhist perspective, which sees the course of things as subject to causes and conditions. No matter how minutely this law is analyzed, we see only the workings of the Norm, or the state of interdependence. A knowledge of this truth allows us to learn, live and practice with a clear and firm understanding of the way things are. It conclusively eliminates the problem of trying to answer questions of a Creator God with the power to divert the flow of the Norm (unless that God becomes one of the determining factors within the flow). When challenged with such misleading questions as, "Without a being to create these laws, how can they come to be?" we need only reflect that if left to themselves, all things must function in some way or other, and this is the way they function. It is impossible for them to function any other way. Human beings, observing and studying this state of things, then proceed to call it a "law." But whether it is called a law or not does not change its actual operation.

    Secondly, when we analyze events, we must not reduce them entirely to single laws. In actual fact, one and the same event in nature may arise from any one of these laws, or a combination of them. For example, the blooming of the lotus in the day time and its folding up at night are not the effects of utuniyama (physical laws) alone, but are also subject to bijaniyama (heredity). When a person sheds tears it may be due largely to the effects of cittaniyama, as with happy or sad mental states, or it could be the workings of utuniyama, such as when smoke gets in the eyes.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, here the commentators are showing us that the law of kamma is just one of a number of natural laws. The fact that it is given as only one among five different laws reminds us that not all events are the workings of kamma. We might say that kamma is that force which directs human society, or decides the values within it. Although it is simply one type of natural law, it is the most important one for us as human beings, because it is our particular responsibility. We are creators of kamma, and kamma in return shapes the fortunes and conditions of our lives.

    Most people tend to perceive the world as partly in the control of nature, partly in the control of human beings. In this model, kammaniyama is the human responsibility, while the other niyama are entirely nature's domain.

    Within the workings of kammaniyama, the factor of intention or volition is crucial. Thus, the law of kamma is the law which governs the workings of volition, or the world of intentional human thought and action. Whether or not we deal with other niyama, we must deal with the law of kamma, and our dealings with other niyama are inevitably influenced by it. The law of kamma is thus of prime importance in regulating the extent to which we are able to create and control the things around us.

    Correctly speaking, we could say that the human capacity to enter into and become a factor within the natural cause and effect process, which in turn gives rise to the impression that we are able to control and manipulate nature, is all due to this law of kamma. In scientific and technological areas, for example, we interact with the other niyama, or natural laws, by studying their truths and acting upon them in conformity with their nature, creating the impression that we are able to manipulate and control the natural world.

    In addition to this, our volition or intention shapes our social and personal relationships, as well as our interactions with other things in the environment around us. Through volition, we shape our own personalities and our life-styles, social positions and fortunes. It is because the law of kamma governs our entire volitional and creative world that the Buddha's teaching greatly stresses its importance in the phrase: Kammuna vattati loko: The world is directed by kamma.*

The law of kamma and social preference

Apart from the five kinds of natural law mentioned above, there is another kind of law which is specifically man-made and is not directly concerned with nature. These are the codes of law fixed and agreed upon by society, consisting of social decrees, customs, and laws. They could be placed at the end of the above list as a sixth kind of law, but they do not have a Pali name. Let's call them Social Preference.[a] These codes of social law are products of human thought, and as such are related to the law of kamma. They are not, however, the law of kamma as such. They are merely a supplement to it, and do not have the same relationship with natural truth as does the law of kamma, as will presently be shown. However, because they are related to the law of kamma they tend to become confused with it, and misunderstandings frequently arise as a result.

    Because both kammaniyama and Social Preference are human concerns and are intimately related to human life, it is very important that the differences between them are clearly understood.

    In general we might state that the law of kamma is the natural law which deals with human actions, whereas Social Preference, or social laws, are an entirely human creation, related to nature only insofar as they are a product of the natural human thought process. In essence, with the law of kamma, human beings receive the fruits of their actions according to the natural processes, whereas in social law, human beings take responsibility for their actions via a process established by themselves.

The meaning of kamma

Etymologically, kamma means "work" or "action." But in the context of the Buddha's teaching it is defined more specifically as "action based on intention" or "deeds willfully done." Actions that are without intention are not considered to be kamma in the Buddha's teaching.

    This definition is, however, a very general one. If we wish to clarify the whole range of meaning for kamma, we must analyze it more thoroughly, dividing it up into different perspectives, or levels, thus:

a. Kamma as intention

Essentially, kamma is intention (cetana), and this word includes will, choice and decision, the mental impetus which leads to action. Intention is that which instigates and directs all human actions, both creative and destructive, and is therefore the essence of kamma, as is given in the Buddha's words, Cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami: Monks! Intention, I say, is kamma. Having willed, we create kamma, through body, speech and mind.

    At this point we might take some time to broaden our understanding of this word "intention." "Intention" in the context of Buddhism has a much subtler meaning than it has in common usage. In the English language, we tend to use the word when we want to provide a link between internal thought and its resultant external actions. For example, we might say, "I didn't intend to do it," "I didn't mean to say it" or "she did it intentionally."

    But according to the teachings of Buddhism, all actions and speech, all thoughts, no matter how fleeting, and the responses of the mind to sensations received through eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, without exception, contain elements of intention. Intention is thus the mind's volitional choosing of objects of awareness; it is the factor which leads the mind to turn towards, or be repelled from, various objects of awareness, or to proceed in any particular direction; it is the guide or the governor of how the mind responds to stimuli; it is the force which plans and organizes the movements of the mind, and ultimately it is that which determines the states experienced by the mind.

    One instance of intention is one instance of kamma. When there is kamma there is immediate result. Even just one little thought, although not particularly important, is nevertheless not void of consequence. It will be at the least a "tiny speck" of kamma, added to the stream of conditions which shape mental activity. With repeated practice, through repeated proliferation by the mind, or through expression as external activity, the result becomes stronger in the form of character traits, physical features or repercussions from external sources.

    A destructive intention does not have to be on a gross level. It may, for example, lead to the destruction of only a very small thing, such as when we angrily tear up a piece of paper. Even though that piece of paper has no importance in itself, the action still has some effect on the quality of the mind. The effect is very different from tearing up a piece of paper with a neutral state of mind, such as when throwing away scrap paper. If there is repeated implementation of such angry intention, the effects of accumulation will become clearer and clearer, and may develop to more significant levels.

    Consider the specks of dust which come floating unnoticed into a room; there isn't one speck which is void of consequence. It is the same for the mind. But the weight of that consequence, in addition to being dependent on the amount of mental "dust," is also related to the quality of the mind. For instance, specks of dust which alight onto a road surface have to be of a very large quantity before the road will seem to be dirty. Specks of dust which alight onto a floor, although of a much smaller quantity, may make the floor seem dirtier than the road. A smaller amount of dust accumulating on a table top will seem dirty enough to cause irritation. An even smaller amount alighting on a mirror will seem dirty and will interfere with its functioning. A tiny speck of dust on a spectacle lens is perceptible and can impair vision. In the same way, volition or intention, no matter how small, is not void of fruit. As the Buddha said:

"All kamma, whether good or evil, bears fruit. There is no kamma, no matter how small, which is void of fruit."

    In any case, the mental results of the law of kamma are usually overlooked, so another illustration might be helpful:

    There are many kinds of water: the water in a sewer, the water in a canal, tap water, and distilled water for mixing a hypodermic injection. Sewer water is an acceptable habitat for many kinds of water animals, but is not suitable for bathing, drinking or medicinal use. Water in a canal may be used to bathe or to wash clothes but is not drinkable. Tap water is drinkable but cannot be used for mixing a hypodermic injection. If there is no special need, then tap water is sufficient for most purposes, but one would be ill-advised to use it to mix a hypodermic injection.

    In the same way, the mind has varying levels of refinement or clarity, depending on accumulated kamma. As long as the mind is being used on a coarse level, no problem may be apparent, but if it is necessary to use the mind on a more refined level, previous unskillful kamma, even on a minor scale, may become an obstacle.

b. Kamma as conditioning factor

Expanding our perspective, we find kamma as a component within the whole life process, being the agent which fashions the direction of life. This is kamma in its sense of "sankhara,"[b] as it appears in the Wheel of Dependent Origination[c],where it is described as "the agent which fashions the mind." This refers to the factors or qualities of the mind which, with intention at the lead, shape the mind into good, evil or neutral states, which in turn fashion the thought process and its effects through body and speech. In this context, kamma could be defined simply as volitional impulses. Even in this definition we still take intention as the essence, and that is why we sometimes see the word sankhara translated simply as intention.

c. Kamma as personal responsibility 

Now let us look further outward, to the level of an individual's relation to the world. Kamma in this sense refers to the expression of thoughts through speech and actions. This is behavior from an ethical perspective, either on a narrow, immediate level, or on a broader level, including the past and the future. Kamma in this sense corresponds to the very broad, general meaning given above. This is the meaning of kamma which is most often encountered in the scriptures, where it occurs as an inducement to encourage responsible and good actions, as in the Buddha's words:

"Monks! These two things are a cause of remorse. What are the two? Some people in this world have not made good kamma, have not been skillful, have not made merit as a safeguard against fear. They have committed only bad kamma, only coarse kamma, only harmful kamma ... They experience remorse as a result, thinking, 'I have not made good kamma. I have made only bad kamma ...'"

     It is worth noting that these days, not only is kamma almost exclusively taught from this perspective, but it is also treated largely from the perspective of past lives.

d. Kamma as social activity or career

From an even broader radius, that is, from the perspective of social activity, we have kamma in its sense of work, labor or profession. This refers to the life-styles and social undertakings resulting from intention, which in turn affect society. As is stated in the Vasettha Sutta:

"Listen, Vasettha, you should understand it thus: One who depends on farming for a livelihood is a farmer, not a Brahmin; one who makes a living with the arts is an artist ... one who makes a living by selling is a merchant ... one who makes a living working for others is a servant ... one who makes a living through stealing is a thief ... one who makes a living by the knife and the sword is a soldier ... one who makes a living by officiating at religious ceremonies is a priest, not a Brahmin ... one who rules the land is a king, not a Brahmin ... I say that he who has no defilements staining his mind, who is free of clinging, is a Brahmin ... One does not become a Brahmin simply by birth, but by kamma is one a Brahmin, by kamma is one not a Brahmin. By kamma is one a farmer, an artist, a merchant, a servant, a thief, a soldier, a priest or even a king ... it is all because of kamma. The wise person, seeing Dependent Origination, skilled in kamma and its results, sees kamma as it is in this way. The world is directed by kamma. Humanity is directed by kamma ..."

*  *  *

Having looked at these four different shades of meaning for the word "kamma," still it must be stressed that any definition of kamma should always be based on intention. Intention is the factor which guides our relationships with other things. Whether we will act under the influence of unskillful tendencies, in the form of greed, hatred and delusion, or skillful tendencies, is all under the control of intention.

    Any act which is without intention has no bearing on the law of kamma. That is, it does not come into the law of kamma, but one of the other niyama, such as utuniyama (physical laws). Such actions have the same significance as a pile of earth caving in, a rock falling from a mountain, or a dead branch falling from a tree.

Kinds of kamma

In terms of its qualities, or its roots, kamma can be divided into two main types. They are:

    1. Akusala kamma: kamma which is unskillful, actions which are not good, or are evil; specifically, actions which are born from the akusala mula, the roots of unskillfulness, which are greed, hatred and delusion.

    2. Kusala kamma: actions which are skillful or good; specifically, actions which are born from the three kusala mula, or roots of skill, which are non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion.

    Alternatively, kamma can be classified according to the paths or channels through which it occurs, of which there are three. They are:

    1. Bodily kamma: intentional actions through the body.

    2. Verbal kamma: intentional actions through speech.

    3. Mental kamma: intentional actions through the mind.

    Incorporating both of the classifications described above, we have altogether six kinds of kamma: bodily, verbal and mental kamma which is unskillful; and bodily, verbal and mental kamma which is skillful.

    Another way of classifying kamma is according to its results. In this classification there are four categories:

    1. Black kamma, black result: This refers to bodily actions, verbal actions and mental actions which are harmful. Simple examples are killing, stealing, sexual infidelity, lying and drinking intoxicants.[d]

    2. White kamma, white result: These are bodily actions, verbal actions and mental actions which are not harmful, such as practicing in accordance with the ten bases for skillful action.[e]

    3. Kamma that is both black and white, giving results both black and white: Bodily actions, verbal actions and mental actions which are partly harmful, partly not.

    4. Kamma which is neither black nor white, with results neither black nor white, which leads to the cessation of kamma: This is the intention to transcend the three kinds of kamma mentioned above, or specifically, developing the Seven Enlightenment Factors or the Noble Eightfold Path.

    Of the three channels of kamma -- bodily, verbal and mental -- it is mental kamma which is considered the most important and far-reaching in its effects, as is given in the Pali:

"Listen, Tapassi. Of these three types of kamma so distinguished by me, I say that mental kamma has the heaviest consequences for the committing of evil deeds and the existence of evil deeds, not bodily or verbal kamma."

    Mental kamma is considered to be the most significant because it is the origin of all other kamma. Thought precedes action through body and speech. Bodily and verbal deeds are derived from mental kamma.

    One of the most important influences of mental kamma is ditthi -- beliefs, views and personal preferences. Views have an important bearing on individual behavior, life experiences and social ideals. Actions, speech and the manipulation of situations are based on views and preferences. If there is wrong view, it follows that any subsequent thinking, speech and actions will tend to flow in a wrong direction. If there is right view, then the resultant thoughts, speech and actions will tend to flow in a proper and good direction. This applies not only to the personal level, but to the social level as well. For example, a society which maintained the belief that material wealth is the most valuable and desirable goal in life would strive to attain material possessions, gauging progress, prestige and honor by abundance of these things. The life-style of such people and the development of such a society would assume one form. In contrast, a society which valued peace of mind and contentment as its goal would have a markedly different life-style and development.

    There are many occasions where the Buddha described right view, wrong view, and their importance, such as:

"Monks! What is Right View? I say that there are two kinds of Right View: the Right View (of one) with outflows, which is good kamma and of beneficial result to body and mind; and the Right View (of one) without outflows, which is transcendent, and is a factor of the Noble Path.

"And what is the Right View which contains outflows, which is good and of beneficial result to body and mind? This is the belief that offerings bear fruit, the practice of giving bears fruit, reverence is of fruit, good and evil kamma give appropriate results; there is this world, there is an after-world; there is a mother, there is a father; there are spontaneously arisen beings; there are mendicants and religious who practice well and who proclaim clearly the truths of this world and the next. This I call the Right View which contains the outflows, which is good, and is of beneficial result to body and mind ..."

*  *  *

"Monks! I see no other condition which is so much a cause for the arising of as yet unarisen unskillful conditions, and for the development and fruition of unskillful conditions already arisen, as wrong view ..."

*  *  *

"Monks! I see no other condition which is so much a cause for the arising of as yet unarisen skillful conditions, and for the development and fruition of skillful conditions already arisen, as Right View  ..."

*  *  *

"Monks! When there is wrong view, bodily kamma created as a result of that view, verbal kamma created as a result of that view, and mental kamma created as a result of that view, as well as intentions, aspirations, wishes and mental proliferations, are all productive of results that are undesirable, unpleasant, disagreeable, yielding no benefit, but conducive to suffering. On what account? On account of that pernicious view. It is like a margosa seed, or a seed of the bitter gourd, planted in moist earth. The soil and water taken in as nutriment are wholly converted into a bitter taste, an acrid taste, a foul taste. Why is that? Because the seed is not good.

"Monks! When there is Right View, bodily kamma created as a result of that view, verbal kamma created as a result of that view, and mental kamma created as a result of that view, as well as intentions, aspirations, wishes and mental proliferations, are all yielding of results that are desirable, pleasant, agreeable, producing benefit, conducive to happiness. On what account? On account of those good views. It is like a seed of the sugar cane, a seed of wheat, or a fruit seed which has been planted in moist earth. The water and soil taken in as nutriment are wholly converted into sweetness, into refreshment, into a delicious taste. On what account is that? On account of that good seed ..."

*  *  *

"Monks! There is one whose birth into this world is not for the benefit of the many, not for the happiness of the many, but for the ruin, for the harm of the manyfolk, for the suffering of both Devas and men. Who is that person? It is the person with wrong view, with distorted views. One with wrong view leads the many away from the truth and into falsehood ...

"Monks! There is one whose birth into this world is for the benefit of the many, for the happiness of the many, for growth, for benefit, for the happiness of Devas and men. Who is that person? It is the person with Right View, who has undistorted views. One with Right View leads the many away from falsehood, and toward the truth ..."

"Monks! I see no other condition which is so harmful as wrong view. Of harmful things, monks, wrong view is the greatest."

*  *  *

"All conditions have mind as forerunner, mind as master, are accomplished by mind. Whatever one says or does with a defective mind brings suffering in its wake, just as the cartwheel follows the ox's hoof ... Whatever one says or does with a clear mind brings happiness in its wake, just as the shadow follows its owner."


[*] Numbers indicate references to the Pali Canon, which are gathered in a separate References file, while letters ( e.g., [a]) refer to footnotes. [Back to text]

a.  In the Thai language, the words "gummaniyahm" (kammaniyama) and "sungkom niyom" (social preference) have a certain amount of fluency that is lost in the translation. [Back to text]

b. Volitional formations. [Back to text]

c. Paticcasamuppada. [Back to text]

d. These are the practices proscribed by the Five Precepts, the basic moral standard for a practicing Buddhist. [Back to text]

e. The ten bases of skillful action: Refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, malicious tale-bearing, abusive speech, frivolous speech, covetousnsess, ill will and wrong view. [Back to text]


Updated: 3-5-2000

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