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Ethical Implications of the Buddhist Theory of Kamma
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

I. General Buddhist Ideas on Kamma

1. Kamma is ethically human actions, tendencies, and behaviours as well as their interactions and consequences, in threefold dimension of time namely the past, the present and the future.

2. Kamma associated with intention or motive (cetanaa) is of greatly ethical important in terms of both determining its degree of intensity and bearing its fruition. Kamma without intentional force (cetanaa) is ethically minimized and even unimportant.

3. Kamma is not only a reference to the past deeds working in the present and but also to the present performance working and bearing fruit both in the here and the hereafter. Comparatively, the present kamma is forceful in determining one’s social status and career.

4. Being an ethical law, it explains how good kamma (pu~n~naa/kusala) conduces happiness (sukha) and well-being, and evil kamma (paapa / akusala) and suffering (dukkha). In its disposition, the doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil, evil. One becomes ethical by merit action, bad by demerit action.

5. As a law of ethical responsibility, it points out that an ethical agent of an action is responsible for bearing the consequences of his own deeds. In other words, he who does an act reaps its consequences.

6. As a law of retributive justice, kamma of ethical agent is explained as the main cause of the comic phenomenon of happiness, suffering and inequality in human society as well as between human and animal worlds.

7. Kamma is not a fate or predeterminism. It can be changed and transformed according to human will (cetanaa) in relation with the agent’s conditions and efforts as well as his surroundings, whether material, spiritual, educational, cultural, or social.

8. Improving our kamma from lower to higher, evil to good, mundane to super-mundane is the motive of Buddhism aiming at establishing a perfectly human world.

II. Ethical Implications of the Buddhist Theory of Kamma

1. Being both the cosmic law of causality as well as the law of morality, the Buddhist theory of kamma points out that ‘being’ or ‘existence’ is always dependent co-arisenly or inter-being involving actions, ethically good or bad. And being a variety of dhamma, kamma is subject to change (anicca), subject to conflict (dukkha), non-substantial (anatta) and devoid of any independent existence of their own (su~n~na). In other words, kamma are subject to origination (uppaada), decay (vaya) and constant transformation (.thitassa~n~natatta"m).

2. Thus, according to Buddhist theory of kamma, human nature is not depended on the nature of his past actions (puraa.nakamma) but rather is largely determined by the nature of his present actions (navakamma). The past kamma may have some influence on the moral life of the agent in the present. The present kamma, however, are the final authority functioning actively in determining the individual moral status. In other words, belief in the Buddhist theory of kamma inevitably rejects fatalism, pre-determinism and God-determinism.

3. Understanding the Buddhist theory of kamma will help man in being a person with rationality, performing his best in the present for moral and intellectual perfection. He neither turns back and clings to things that have passed, nor does dream about things have yet to come. He sees clearly the present with certainty tirelessly seeking to practice and complete the task at hand here and now without any hesitation.

4. Understanding the Buddhist theory of kamma gives rise to positivist approach of life. Every effect must have its cause, whether single, double, multiple, mutual or interactive. On this basis, all failures or succeeds, disappointments or appointment, suffering or happiness, profitableness or unprofitableness etc., in life are dependently co-arisen. The better the cause he knows the better performance he prefers. The better performance he does, the better consequence welcomes him as reward for his wise deeds. Such a thinking and reacting is proved helpful to prevent man from the nihilistic, materialistic or egoistic approaches of life, which are seen as harmful to ethical progress.

5. In order to avoid all undesirable and unprofitable consequences, the causes of which performed from the past, the ethical agent tries to supersede the past evil kamma with the present virtues. He overcomes greed by generosity, hatred by compassion and loving-kindness, ignorance by wisdom, falsity by truthfulness and vices by virtues. Apart from this he finds time, energy and investment in merit accumulation. He happily does charity, rendering social service, observing five ethical precepts, practicing brahmacariya and cultivating mind-development etc.

6. He gets experienced from the past, from himself as well as from others. He becomes kind, co-operative and helpful to others. He will not blame anyone for his failure rather than investigating the reasons for better improvement and performance later. He believes good qualities, behaviors, practices and tendencies, pertaining to the improvement for himself, others, families, societies, nations and for the whole mankind. On this basis, all kinds of superstitions, animal-sacrifice, worshipping God or gods for luck, health, position, fame, name or wealth etc. are avoided. All kinds of discriminations, whether on sexes, races, castes etc will be rooted out. Every person is equal before the law of kamma whether human justice finds him/her or not. He respects others’ rights and personality.

7. Realizing the independent working of the principle of kamma, the ethical agent becomes active and confident in working out for his own accomplishment. He knows no prayer, supernatural powers and external helps trying his best on the basis of the principle of self-help, self-reliance, self-effort, self-improvement and self-attainment for his training as well as attainment, whether mental, moral, intellectual and enlightened.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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