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Misunderstandings of the Law of Kamma
P. A. Payutto

Who causes happiness and suffering?

According to the Buddha's words, "Through Ignorance, bodily actions ... verbal actions ... mental actions ... are created, of one's own accord ... through external influences ... knowingly ... unknowingly." There are also instances where the Buddha refuted both the theory that all happiness and suffering are caused by the self (known as attakaravada) and the theory that all happiness and suffering are caused by external forces (known as parakaravada). This highlights the need to see kamma in its relation to the entire stream of cause and effect. The extent of any involvement, either one's own or of external factors, must be considered in relation to this process. Otherwise the common misunderstanding arises that all events are caused by personal actions, to the exclusion of everything else.

    What must be grasped is the difference between kamma in the context of natural law, and kamma in the context of ethics. When speaking of kamma as a natural law, a process that exists in nature and incorporates a wide range of conditioning factors, we do not overemphasize the role of individual action, so we say that kamma is not the only cause of happiness and suffering. But on the level of ethics, the teaching of kamma is meant to be used on a practical basis. Consequently, full responsibility is placed on the individual. This is emphasized in the Buddha?s words from the Dhammapada, "Be a refuge unto yourself."

    In addition to meaning that we must help ourselves, this injunction also includes our relationship when helped by others. That is, even in the event of help arising from external sources, we are still responsible for accepting such help on all or any of the following three levels: (a) In the invitation, whether intentional or otherwise, whether conscious or not, of such help; (b) In fostering such help through appropriate behavior; (c) And at the very least, in the acceptance of such help. For this reason, the principle of kamma on the level of natural law and on the level of ethics do not conflict, but actually support each other.


Beliefs that are contrary to the law of kamma

There are three philosophies which are considered by Buddhism to be wrong view and which must be carefully distinguished from the teaching of kamma:

    1. Pubbekatahetuvada: The belief that all happiness and suffering arise from previous kamma (Past-action determinism).

    2. Issaranimmanahetuvada: The belief that all happiness and suffering are caused by the directives of a Supreme Being (Theistic determinism).

    3. Ahetu-apaccayavada: The belief that all happiness and suffering are random, having no cause (Indeterminism or Accidentalism).

    Concerning this, we have the Buddha's words:

"Bhikkhus, these three sects, on being questioned by the wise, fall back on tradition and stand fast on inaction. They are:

1. The group of ascetics or Brahmins which teaches and is of the view that all happiness, suffering and neutral feeling are entirely a result of kamma done in a previous time.

2. The group of ascetics and Brahmins which teaches and is of the view that all happiness, suffering and neutral feeling are entirely a result of the will of a Supreme Being.

3. The group of ascetics and Brahmins which teaches and is of the view that all happiness, suffering and neutral feeling are entirely without cause.

"Bhikkhus, of those three groups of ascetics and Brahmins, I approach the first group and ask, 'I hear that you uphold this teaching and view ... Is that so?' If those ascetics and Brahmins, on being thus questioned by me, answer that it is so, then I say to them, 'If that is so, then you have killed living beings as a result of kamma committed in a previous time, have stolen as a result of kamma done at a previous time, have engaged in sexual misconduct ... have uttered false speech ... have held wrong view as a result of kamma done in a previous time.'

"Bhikkhus, adhering to previously done kamma as the essence, there are neither motivation nor effort with what should be done and what should not be done ... Not upholding ardently what should be done, nor abandoning what should be abandoned, those ascetics and Brahmins are as if deluded, lacking a control, incapable of having any true teaching. This is our legitimate refutation of the first group of ascetics and Brahmins holding these views.

"Bhikkhus, of those three groups of ascetics and Brahmins, I approach the second group ... and say to them, 'If that is so, then you have killed living beings because of the directives of a Supreme Being ... stolen the goods of others ... engaged in sexual misconduct ... uttered false speech ... have held wrong view because of the directives of a Supreme Being.'

"Bhikkhus, adhering to the will of a Supreme Being as the essence, there are neither motivation nor effort with what should be done and what should not be done ...

"Bhikkhus, of those groups of ascetics and Brahmins, I approach the third ... and say to them, 'If that is so, then you have killed living beings for no reason whatsoever ... stolen the goods of others ... engaged in sexual misconduct ... uttered false speech ... have held wrong view for no reason whatsoever.'

"Bhikkhus, adhering to accidentalism as being the essence, there are neither motivation nor effort with what should be done and what should not be done ..."[42]

    The first of these three schools of thought is that of the Niganthas, about which we can learn some more from the Buddha's words:

"Bhikkhus, there are some ascetics and Brahmins who are of this view, 'All happiness and suffering are entirely caused by previous kamma. For this reason, with the exhausting of old kamma through austerities, there will be no influence exerted by kamma-results. When there is no more influence of kamma-results, kamma is ended. With the ending of kamma there is an ending of suffering. With the ending of suffering there is an ending of feeling. With the ending of feeling, all suffering is eventually extinguished.' Bhikkhus, the Niganthas are of this view."[43]

    The following words from the Buddha clearly illustrate the Buddhist view:

"Listen, Sivaka. Some kinds of feeling arise with bile as condition ... with changes in the weather as condition ... with inconstant behavior as condition ... with danger from an external source as condition ... with kamma-results as condition. Any ascetic or Brahmin who is of the view that, 'All feeling is entirely caused by previous kamma,' I say is mistaken."[44]

    These words discourage us from going too far with kamma by considering it as entirely a thing of the past. Such a view encourages inactivity; passively waiting for the results of old kamma to ripen and taking things as they come without thinking to correct or improve them. This is a harmful form of wrong view, as can be seen from the Buddha's words above.

    Significantly, in the above passage, the Buddha asserts effort and motivation as the crucial factors in deciding the ethical value of these various teachings on kamma.

    The Buddha did not dismiss the importance of previous kamma, because it does play a part in the cause and effect process, and thus has an effect on the present in its capacity as one of the conditioning factors. But it is simply one of those conditions, it is not a supernatural force to be clung to or submitted to passively. An understanding of the Principle of Dependent Origination and the cause and effect process will clarify this.

    For example, if a man climbs to the third floor of a building, it is undeniably true that his arriving is a result of past action -- namely, walking up the stairs. And having arrived there, it is impossible for him to reach out and touch the ground with his hand, or to drive a car around. Obviously, this is because he has gone up to the third floor. Or, having arrived at the third floor, whether he is too exhausted to continue is also related to having walked up the stairs. His arrival there, the things he is able to do there and the situations he is likely to encounter, are all certainly related to the "old kamma" of having walked up the stairs. But exactly which actions he will perform, his reactions to the situations which he meets there, whether he will take a rest, walk on, or walk back down the stairs and out of that building, are all matters which he can decide for himself in that present moment, for which he will also reap the results. Even though the action of walking up the stairs may still be influencing him (for example, with his strength sapped he may be unable to function efficiently in any given situation), whether he decides to give in to that tiredness or try to overcome it are all matters which he can decide for himself in the present moment.

    Therefore, old kamma should be understood in its relation to the whole cause and effect process. In terms of ethical practice, to understand the cause and effect process is to be able to learn from old kamma, understanding the situation at hand, and to skillfully make a plan of action for improving on and preparing for the future.


Can kamma be erased?

At one time the Buddha said:

"Bhikkhus, there are those who say 'Whatever kamma is made by this man, he will receive identical results thereof.' If such were the case, there could be no higher life, no path could be perceived for the successful ending of suffering.[a]

"But with the view, 'When kamma based on a certain kind of feeling is made (pleasant or unpleasant, for example), results arise in conformity with that feeling,' the higher life can be, there is a way for the ending of suffering.

"Bhikkhus, for some people, only a little bad kamma can lead to rebirth in hell, but for others that same small amount of bad kamma will produce results only in the present moment, and even then, only the most extreme aspects of it will become apparent, not the minor.

"What kind of person is it who, for only a little bad kamma, goes to hell? There are those who have not trained their actions, have not trained in moral restraint, have not trained their minds and have not developed wisdom. They are of little worth, are of small status and dwell discontented over minor kamma results. This kind of person it is who, over just a little bad kamma, can go to hell (like putting a lump of salt into a very small vessel).

"What kind of person is it who, for exactly the same amount of bad kamma, receives fruit only in the present, and even then, the minor aspects of that kamma do not manifest, only the major? There are those who have trained their actions, have trained in moral restraint, have trained their minds and have developed wisdom. They are not of little worth, they are great beings, they have a measureless abiding. For this kind of person, just the same kind of minor bad kamma gives results only in the present, and even then the minor aspects of that kamma do not manifest, only the major (like putting a lump of salt into a river)."[45]

*  *  *

"Listen, householder, some teachers give the teaching and are of the view that those who kill living beings must without exception go to the woeful states, falling to hell; that those who steal must without exception go to the woeful states, falling to hell; that those who commit adultery must without exception go to the woeful states, falling to hell; that those who lie must without exception go to the woeful states, falling to hell. Disciples of those teachers, thinking, 'Our teacher gives the teaching and is of the view that those who kill living beings must all fall into hell,' conceive the view thus, 'I have killed living beings. Therefore I, too, must go to hell.' Not relinquishing that speech and that view, he indeed goes to hell, just as if pushed there by force.

"As for the Tathagata, fully enlightened Buddha, he arises in the world ... He speaks in dispraise of killing living beings ... stealing ... adultery ... lying, in many ways, and teaches, 'Killing of living beings ... stealing ... adultery ... lying should be abandoned.' A disciple of the Teacher, reflecting thus, 'The Blessed One speaks in dispraise of killing living beings ... in many a way, and teaches the abandoning of killing living beings. I have killed many beings already. That killing of living beings by me is not good, is not worthy. I will suffer on account of those actions, and on their account I will not be beyond reproof.' Reflecting in this way, he gives up killing of living beings, and is one who abandons the killing of living beings from that moment on. Thus does he abandon that bad kamma ...

"He abandons the killing of living beings ... lying ... malicious tale-bearing ... coarse speech ... frivolous speech ... covetousness ... enmity ... wrong view. He is one endowed with Right View, he is a Noble Disciple with a mind free of greed, free of aversion, not deluded but possessed of self awareness and firm mindfulness. He dwells with a mind full of goodwill, spreading to the first ... second ... third ... the whole four directions, above, below, spreading out wide to the whole world, to all beings in all places, with a mind full of goodwill that is expansive, grand, boundless, free of enmity and ill will. Having so thoroughly developed the Mind Deliverance through Goodwill, any moderate amount of kamma previously done will no longer manifest ..."[46]

    These words have been quoted to prevent misunderstandings in relation to the fruition of kamma. The present extract is only a small portion of the material available, as to present it all would take up too much space.


Do kamma and not-self contradict each other?

There is one question which, though only occasionally asked, tends to linger in the minds of many newcomers to the study of Buddhism: "Do the teachings of kamma and not-self contradict each other?" If everything, including body and mind, is not-self, then how can there be kamma? Who is it who commits kamma? Who receives the results of kamma? These doubts are not simply a phenomenon of the present time, but have existed from the time of the Buddha, as can be seen in the following example:

    A bhikkhu conceived the following doubt,

"We know that body, feeling, perception, volitional impulses and consciousness[b] are not self. If so, then who is it who receives the results of the kamma made by this 'non-self'?"

    At that time, the Blessed One, knowing the thoughts of that bhikkhu, addressed the bhikkhus thus:

"Bhikkhus, it may be that some foolish people in this Teaching and Discipline, with mind fallen into ignorance and confused by desire, might conceive the teaching of the Master to be rationalized thus: 'We know that body, feeling, perception, volitional impulses and consciousness are not self. If that is so, who is it who receives the results of the kamma created by this "non-self"?' All of you now, having been thoroughly instructed by me, consider these matters: is form permanent or impermanent?"

"Impermanent, Lord."

"Is what is impermanent (a cause for) happiness or suffering?"

"Suffering, Lord"

"Of that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and normally subject to degeneration, is it proper to say that 'this is mine, this is me, this is my self'?"

"No, it is not proper, Lord."

"For that reason, form, feeling, perception, volitional activities and consciousness, of whatever description, are merely form, feeling, perception, volitional activities and consciousness. They are not 'mine,' not 'me,' not 'my self.' Reflect on this as it is with wisdom. The learned, Noble Disciple, seeing in this way, does not attach to form, feeling, perception, volitional impulses or consciousness. He is free of those things, and has no further task to do."[47]

    Before examining this scriptural reference, consider the following illustration: Suppose we are standing on the bank of a river, watching the water flow by. The water flows in a mostly flat area, therefore it flows very slowly. The earth in that particular area is red, which gives this body of water a reddish tint. In addition to this, the water passes many heavily populated areas, from where people have long thrown in refuse, which, in addition to the industrial waste poured into the water by a number of recently built factories, pollutes the water. The water is therefore uninhabitable for most animals; there are not many fish in it. Summarizing, the body of water we are looking at is reddish, dirty, polluted, sparsely inhabited and sluggish. All of these features together are the characteristics of this particular body of water. Some of these characteristics might be similar to other streams or rivers, but the sum total of these characteristics is unique to this stream of water.

    Presently we are informed that this body of water is called the Tah Wung River. Different people describe it in different ways. Some say the Tah Wung River is dirty and doesn't have many fish. Some say the Tah Wung River flows very slowly. Some say that the Tah Wung River is red-colored.

    Standing on the river's bank, it seems to us that the body of water we are looking at is actually complete in itself. Its attributes, such as being sluggish, red-colored, dirty, and so on, are all caused by various conditioning factors, such as the flowing water contacting the red earth. In addition, the water which we are looking at is constantly flowing by. The water which we saw at first is no longer here, and the water we are now seeing will quickly pass. Even so, the river has its unique features, which do not change as long as the relevant conditioning factors have not changed.

    But we are told, then, that this is the Tah Wung River. Not only that, they say that the Tah Wung River is sluggish, dirty, and short of fish. Just looking, we can see no "Tah Wung River" other than this body of water flowing by. We can see no "Tah Wung River" possessing this body of water. Yet they tell us that the Tah Wung River breaks up the red earth as it passes, which makes the water turn red. It's almost as if this "Tah Wung River" does something to the red earth, which causes the earth to "punish" it by turning its water red.

    We can see clearly that this body of water is subject to the process of cause and effect governed by its various conditioning factors: the water splashing against the red earth and the red earth dissolving into the water is one causal condition, the result of which is the red-colored water. We can find no "body" doing anything or receiving any results. We can see no actual Tah Wung River anywhere. The water flowing past us now flows right on by, the water seen previously is no longer here, new water constantly taking its place. We are able to define that body of water only by describing its conditioning factors and the events which arise as a result, causing the features we have observed. If there was an actual and unchanging Tah Wung River, it would be impossible for that flow of water to proceed according to its various determining factors. Finally we see that this "Tah Wung River" is superfluous. We can speak about that body of water without having to bother with this "Tah Wung River." In actual fact there is no Tah Wung River at all!

    As time goes by we travel to another district. Wishing to describe the body of water we saw to the people there, we find ourselves at a loss. Then we recall someone telling us that that body of water was known as the Tah Wung River. Knowing this, we can relate our experience fluently, and the other people are able to listen with interest and attention. We tell them that the Tah Wung River has dirty water, not many fish, is sluggish, and red-colored.

    At that time, we realize clearly that this "Tah Wung River," and the role it plays in the events we describe, are simply conventions of language used for convenience in communication. Whether the convention of Tah Wung River exists or not, and whether we use it or not, has no bearing whatsoever on the actions of that body of water. That body of water continues to be a process of interrelated cause and effect reactions. We can clearly distinguish between the convention and the actual condition. Now we are able to understand and use the convention of speech with ease.

    The things which we conventionally know as people, to which we give names, and refer to as "me" and "you," are in reality continuous and interconnected streams of events, made up of countless related constituent factors, just like that river. They are subject to countless factors, directed by related determinants, both from within that stream of events and from without. When a particular reaction takes place in a causal way, the fruit of that action arises, causing changes within the flow of events.

    The conditions which are referred to as kamma and vipaka are simply the play of cause and effect within one particular stream of events. They are perfectly capable of functioning within that stream without the need for the conventions of name, or the words "me" and "you," either as owners or perpetrators of those actions, or as receivers of their results. This is reality,[c] which functions naturally in this way. But for convenience in communication within the social world, we must use the convention of names, such as Mr. Smith and so on, for particular streams of events.

    Having accepted the convention, we must accept responsibility for that stream of events, becoming the owner, the active perpetrator and the passive subject of actions and their results, as the case may be. But whether we use these conventions or not, whether we accept the labels or not, the stream of events itself functions anyway, directed by cause and effect. The important point is to be aware of things as they are, distinguishing between the convention and the condition itself. One and the same thing, in the context of its actual nature, is one way, but when spoken of in conventional terms it must be referred to in another way. If we have an understanding of the actual reality of these things we will not be deluded or confused by the conventions.

    Both reality and convention are necessary. Reality (often referred to as paramattha) is the natural state. Conventions are a useful and practical human invention. Problems arise when we confuse the two, clinging to the reality and trying to make it follow conventions. Within the actual reality there is no confusion, because the principle naturally functions by itself, not being subject to anybody's ideas about it -- it is people who become confused. And because reality is not confused, functioning independently of people's desires, it frustrates those desires and makes people even more confused and frustrated. Any problem occurring is purely a human one.


    As can be seen in the passage above, the bhikkhu who conceived this doubt was confusing the description of the reality, which he had learned, with the convention, to which he still clung. This was the cause of his bewilderment and doubt. Referring to the original wording, it goes something like this: "If kamma is created by not-self, what self is it that receives the fruits of kamma?" The first part of the sentence is spoken according to his acquired knowledge of the reality, while the second part is spoken according to his own habitual perception. Naturally they don't fit.

    From the foregoing, we can summarize thus:

  • The teachings of not-self and kamma are not at all contradictory. On the contrary, not-self lends weight to the teaching of kamma. Because things are not-self, there can be kamma, and kamma can function. When the process of events is operating, all the factors involved must arise, cease and interact unhindered, so that the stream of events can proceed. There can be no permanent or actual entity to block this flow. If there was a self, there could be no kamma, because a self (by definition) is not subject to cause and effect. Nothing can effect its existence, or cause the self to be other than what it is. In the end we would have to divide the individual into two levels, such as is held by the sassataditthi (belief in an intrinsic self) sects, who believe that the self who creates and receives the fruits of kamma is merely the external or superficial self, while the real self, or essence of the self, lies unchanging within.
  • The creation of kamma and its results in the present time is done without the need for an agent or a recipient. We should consider thus: "Which factors are operating here? What relationships are involved? What events are arising within the stream as a result, and how are they effecting changes within the stream?" When a cause, known as kamma, or action, arises, there follows the result, known as vipaka, within that stream of events. We call this "cause and effect." This process is not dependent on an owner of those actions, or a doer and a recipient of results as an additional, extraneous entity. Kamma is the flow of cause and effect within that stream of events, unlike the conventions which are pasted over them.

    When there is an agreement to call that stream of events Mr. Smith or Miss Brown, there arises an owner of actions, a doer and a recipient of results. However, the stream of events proceeds regardless, completely perfect within itself as far as the cause and effect process goes. It does not depend on names in order to function.

    When it is time to speak in the context of a stream of events, describing its operation, its causes and its results, then we can so speak. When it is time to speak in the context of conventions, describing actions and the fruits of actions in personal terms, we can speak thus also. With right understanding, we do not confuse the two levels.

    Even with regard to inanimate objects, such as the river above, most people still manage to cling to conventions as actual entities. How much more so when it comes to human beings, which are more complex and intricate junctions of causal processes, involving mental factors. As for these mental factors, they are extremely subtle. Even impermanence is incomprehensible to many people. There are those who say, for instance, "Who says memory is impermanent and unstable? Memory is permanent, because wherever and whenever it arises, it is always memory, it never changes."

    Some people may agree with this line of reasoning, but if the argument is applied to a material object the error becomes more obvious. It is like saying, "Who says the body is impermanent? The body is permanent and unchanging, because wherever and whenever the body arises, it is always the body, it never changes." It is easier to see the mistake in this latter argument, but actually both arguments are equally mistaken. That is, both confuse memory, for instance, and the label "memory," or body and the label "body." The arguments suggest that memory and the body are stable and unchanging, but in fact what they are saying is that the names "memory" and "body" are (relatively) stable and unchanging.

    Studying the law of kamma solely on the level of convention sometimes leads to a simplistic view of things, such as believing that a certain person, having committed such-and-such kamma, on such-and-such a day, ten years later receives such-and-such bad result. The cause and effect process referred to jumps over a span of ten years all in one step. The total stream of events involved is not taken into account, and so it is difficult to see the real process involved. Studying the same case in terms of the natural stream of events helps to see the operation of cause and effect relationships more completely and in more detail, revealing the real significance of the results which have arisen and how they have come about.

    Suppose a certain Mr. Brown has an argument with his neighbor and kills him. Although he goes into hiding, eventually he is arrested and convicted. Later, even after having been freed at the end of his prison term, Mr. Brown still experiences remorse on account of his bad actions. He is often haunted by the image of the murder victim. His facial features and physical bearing change, becoming agitated, fearful and depressive. These mental states, coupled with his strong physical bearing, together cause him to become even more violent and bad-tempered. As time goes on his physical features take on coarse and hostile characteristics. He hides his suffering with aggressive behavior, becoming a danger to society and to himself, unable to find any real happiness.

    In this example, we can say simply that Mr. Brown has committed bad kamma and suffered the results of his actions. This is speaking conventionally, and it is readily understood by most people. It is a way of communication, facilitating the exchange of ideas, but it speaks merely of the external appearance of things, or the grosser results of the relevant factors which are concealed within. It does not pierce the true essence of the matter, of the interrelated factors reacting according to the natural laws.

    However, if we speak in terms of reality, we can speak of the essence in its entirety, referring to it as a process of events. For example, we could say that within the operation of this set of five khandhas, a mind state based on anger arose. There followed the mental proliferation in accord with that anger, leading to physical action. Conceiving in this way habitually, the mind began to assume those tendencies. Physical repercussions from external sources were experienced, adding to the unpleasant feeling, and so on.

    Speaking according to the conditions in this way, we have all the necessary information without the need for reference to Mr. Brown or any kind of self. The process contains in itself natural elements of various kinds arising and reacting with each other to produce actions and reactions, without the need for a doer or a receiver of results.

    Whether speaking according to the conditions as given here, or according to the convention as related above, the reality of the situation is identical -- neither is deficient or more complete -- but the description of things as a natural condition is given in terms of the natural facts, without the appendages of conventional imagery.

    In any case, even with these examples, there may still be some doubt on the matter, so it might be helpful to conclude with a story:

    Tit Porng[d] went to visit the Venerable Abbot of the nearby monastery. At one point, he asked:

    "Eh, Luang Por, the Buddha taught that everything is not-self, and is without an owner -- there is no-one who commits kamma and no-one who receives its results. If that's the case, then I can go out and hit somebody over the head or even kill them, or do anything I like, because there is no-one committing kamma and no-one receiving its results."

    No sooner had Tit Porng finished speaking, when the Abbot's walking stick, concealed somewhere unknown to Tit Porng, swung down like a flash. Tit Porng could hardly get his arm up fast enough to ward off the blow. Even so, the walking stick struck squarely in the middle of his arm, giving it a good bruise.

    Clutching his sore arm, Tit Porng said, "Luang Por! Why did you do that?" His voice trembled with the anger that was welling up inside him.

    "Oh! What's the matter?" the Abbot asked offhandedly.

    "Why, you hit me! That hurts!"

    The Abbot, assuming a tone of voice usually reserved for sermons, slowly murmured: "There is kamma but no-one creating it. There are results of kamma, but no-one receiving them. There is feeling, but no-one experiencing it. There is pain, but no-one in pain ... He who tries to use the law of not-self for his own selfish purposes is not freed of self; he who clings to not-self is one who clings to self. He does not really know not-self. He who clings to the idea that there is no-one who creates kamma must also cling to the idea that there is one who is in pain. He does not really know that there is no-one who creates kamma and no-one who experiences pain."

    The moral of this story is: if you want to say "there is no-one who creates kamma," you must first learn how to stop saying "Ouch!"


a.  An example of this kind of belief: If you break down a termite mound in this life, in a future life you will inevitably have your house broken down by those very same termites, possibly reborn as human beings. [Back to text]

b. The five khandhas, or aggregates of existence. [Back to text]

c. The word "reality" might seem somewhat arbitrary to those not familiar with Buddhism. In the context of this work, we could define it more clearly as "the natural world as distinct from human conventional appendages." [Back to text]

d.  Tit Porng: "Tit" is a Thai name for one who has ordained as a bhikkhu for some time and later disrobed. "Luang Por," literally meaning Venerable Father, is a term of respect given to venerated monks. [Back to text]


Updated: 3-5-2000

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