- Basic Buddhism
- A Modern Introduction to the
- by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara
- CHAPTER 9
- The Doctrines of Karma
The Buddhist doctrine of kamma [karma] ("deeds",
"actions"), and the closely related doctrine of rebirth, are perhaps the best
known, and often the least understood, of Buddhist doctrines. The matter is complicated by
the fact that the other Indian religious traditions of Hinduism and Jainism have their own
theories of Karma and Reincarnation. It is in fact the Hindu versions that are better
known in the West. The Buddhist theory of kamma (to give the Pali word) and
rebirth are quite distinct from their other Indian counterparts.
In Buddhism the law of kamma is the moral law of causation
- good actions give good results and vice versa. It is the quality of an act which
determines its consequences. But what determines the karmic quality of a deed? In Hinduism
it is the correct performance of a person's "duty", especially his caste duties
that counts. Early Buddhism, which recognised no caste distinctions, evaluates the karmic
quality of an act in terms of moral and ethical criteria. In particular it is the mental
factors which accompany the commission of deed that determines its consequences or
"fruits" (vipāka). All negative kamma (i.e. those leading to bad
consequences) arise from the three roots of unwholesomeness. These are greed (lobha),
aversion (dosa), and delusion (moha). Accordingly good kammic results
follow from deeds that spring from generosity (caga), loving-kindness (mettā)
and wisdom (vijjā). The Buddha emphasised that it is the mental factors
involved, rather than the deeds themselves, that determine future consequences. Thus the
same deed committed with different mental factors will have different consequences.
Likewise purely accidental deeds may have neutral consequences; however if the
accident occurred because insufficient mindfulness was exercised it could have adverse
results for the person responsible for it.
The theory of kamma presupposes that individuals have
"free will". Everything that happens to an individual is not the fruit of some
past kamma. In fact the experiences that involve an individual may be of three kinds: some
are the result of past action, some are deliberately committed free acts; and the
remainder could be due to chance factors operating in the environment. The doctrine of
kamma is not a theory of predestination of any kind. One common misunderstanding is not to
distinguish between the action and its results - between kamma and vipāka.
It must also be mentioned that the fruiting of an act may be postponed, and that it is
possible to reach enlightenment - the goal of the Buddha's path - before all the previous
kammas have yielded their results.
The Buddhist theory of rebirth asserts that the fruits of
some kamma may manifest themselves in "future lives". This brings us to the
Buddhist theory of rebirth. Similar concepts occur in other religious systems - e.g. the
Platonic theory of the "pre-existence of the soul" and the Hindu-Jain theory of
re-incarnation. Such reincarnation theory involves the transmigration of a soul. In
Buddhism, however, it is the unripened karmic acts outstanding at the death of an
individual which conditions a new birth. The last moment of consciousness too is also a
conditioning factor, but it is the store of unripened kamma generated by volitional acts
(the sankhāras) of previous existences which generates the destiny of the new
individual. A newly born individual needs not only the genetic blueprint derived from the
genes of the natural parents, but also a kammic blueprint derived from the volitional acts
of a deceased person.
The question has been posed whether the new individual is
the same as the old individual whose kamma it has inherited. The Buddha's answer to this
question was somewhat enigmatic: "It is not the same, yet it is not another" (na
ca so, na ca ańńo). To understand the Buddha's reply we have to investigate the
criteria which establish personal identity. Is the child the same as the adult it later
becomes? In the Buddhist sense we are making two observations at two points of time in a
constantly changing psycho-physical entity. For legal and conventional purposes some
arbitrary criteria are used, such as physical continuity over time, or the retention of
memory. These define only a conventional person. Just as it is a conventional or
"fictional" persons who lasts continuously from birth to death, so it is just
such a conventional person who persists from one life to another. In the Buddhist view of
rebirth the only links between two successive lives is the karmic residue carried over and
an element of consciousness, called the re-linking consciousness: (paisandhi
vińńāna), which momentarily links the two lives. In Buddhism there is no
conception of a transmigrating soul which inhabits successive material bodies until it
unites with God.
Buddhism uses the Pali term sasāra to denote the
"round of births" in various planes of existence governed by the law of kamma.
The acceptance of the validity of the hypothesis of sasāra is very difficult for some
people, while for others it is the most natural of hypotheses. Some features of the
observable world suggests it. In the Culakammavibhanga Sutta the Buddha is asked:
"What is the reason and the cause for the inequality amongst human beings despite
their being human?" (the context making it clear that it is inequality at birth that
is meant). The Buddha answered: "Beings inherit their kamma, and it is kamma which
divides beings in terms of their inequality". The theistic hypothesis cannot give a
rational answer, except in terms of an iniquitous and unjust "God".
Some support for the theory of rebirth comes from reports
of recollections of past lives, whether spontaneously or under hypnosis, which have been
reported from all parts of the world. While many such reports may be mistaken or even
fraudulent, some are undoubtedly genuine. According to Buddhism individuals can develop
the power of "retrocognition" (i.e. the ability to recall past lives), but the
development of such supernormal powers is usually the accompaniment of progress along the
spiritual path of enlightenment. IT may be possible that some karmic factors may
predispose some individuals towards such experiences. However parapsychological
experimentation is still in its early stages, and many people have no personal
recollection of their own previous lives. For such individuals the dogmatic acceptance of
the doctrines of kamma and rebirth is not expected.
The central tenets of Buddhism relate not to any abstract
theories about rebirth or karma but to the interpretation of human experience which is
within the capacity of every person to verify. This verification can be undertaken, not in
terms of an abstract cycle of lives, but also in terms of the one life we are all familiar
with. The Buddhist sasāra is to be seen in every moment of existence, as well as
the whole "cycle of births".
One would expect that in the Kālāma Sutta, the discourse
in which the Buddha decries the acceptance of theories on the basis of authority (which
was quoted earlier), that he would address himself to the question of belief in the
doctrine of kamma and rebirth. This he does. Referring to the "four-fold
confidences" which the "noble person" (āriya puggala), i.e. the
person who follows the path of the Buddha, attains to, the Buddha states:
" `If there is the other world and if there is the
fruit and result of good and bad deeds, then there is reason that I shall be reborn into
the state of bliss, the celestial world, on the dissolution of the body, after death.'
This is the first confidence that he attains.
" `If, however, there is no other world and if there
is no fruit and no result of good and bad deeds, then I shall myself lead he a happy life,
free from enmity, malice and suffering in this very life'. This is the second confidence
that he attains."
Thus even the extreme rationalist who would suspend
judgement on the truth of the sasāric hypothesis (i.e. the doctrines of karma and
rebirth) would find that the Buddha-Dhamma would not have lost its rationale. He can
aspire to the second confidence of the "noble person" and make the one life that
he is sure of, a happy one.(26)