The Buddhist Law of Kamma


(From “The Buddhist” December, 1957)

“By Kamma the world moves, By Kamma men live, And by Kamma are beings bound, As by its pin the rolling chariot wheel; By Kamma one attains glory and praise, By Kamma bondage, ruin tyranny, Knowing that Kamma bears fruit manifold. Why say ye, `In this world no Kamma is`?”

KAMMA literally means “action.” In its ultimate sense Kamma means good bad volition (Kusala Akusala Cetanas). The Buddha declared “O Bhikkhus, volition is Kamma. Having willed, one acts by body, speech and thought. “There is no Kamma where there is no consciousness (Nama) nor is any action a Kamma which is unintentional, for Kamma depends on the will or volition that is involved in the doing. Any deed which is devoid of intentions therefore not called Kamma. In the working of Kamma, mind is the most important factor. All our actions, words and thoughts are biased by the mind or consciousness we experience at such particular moments. For it is said “By mind is the world led, by mind is drawn and I all men own sovereignty of mind.” When we perceive the inequalities and the manifold destinies of men and the various gradations of beings prevalent in the world today, we being to wonder why it is that one is born in to a condition of affluence and another into a condition of poverty and wretchedness? Why it is that when a man is virtuous and good, ill-luck should always dodge his foot-steps? Why is a man poor in spite of his honest dealings and another rich and respected despite his numerous shortcomings and evil modes of life? Why should a child die when still a baby, why should one be beautiful and another repulsive? Why should one be a mental prodigy and another an idiot or an imbecile? Why should one be brought up in the lap of luxury and another steeped to the lips in misery? How are we to account for this immense diversity? A number of thinking men believe that variations of this nature are entirely due to heredity and environment. No doubt they are partly instrumental, but surely they cannot be solely responsible for the subtle destinations that exist between certain individuals. Take the case of twins for example, who may be physically alike and may share equal privilege of upbringing, yet turn out to be both intellectually and temperamentally different. According to Buddhism this variation is due not only to heredity and environment but also to our own Kamma, or in other words, our own actions. For it is said that we ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and our own sorrow. We create our own heavens and our own hells. In short we are the architects of our own fate.

According to the Chulakamma Vibhanga Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, it is said that on one occasion a certain young man named Subha approached the Buddha, and questioned him as to why it was that there were low and high states among human beings. “For,” said he, “we find among mankind those of brief life, the hale and the ailing, the good-looking and ill-looking, the influential and the uninfluential, the poor and the rich, the lowborn and the high-born, the ignorant and the intelligent.

The Buddha replied “Every living being has Kamma as its own, its inheritance, its cause, its kinsman, its refuge. Kamma is that which differentiates all living beings into low and high states.” In enumerating the causes for such differences he went on to say that if a person destroys life, is a hunter who besmears his hands with blood and is not merciful towards living beings. He as a result of his killing, when born amongst mankind, would have a brief life. On the other hand if a person avoids killing and is merciful towards all living beings, he, as a result of it, when born amongst mankind, would enjoy long life. If a man is in the habit of harming others with fist or cudgel, he, as a result of his harmfulness, when born amongst mankind, would suffer from various diseases. While if a person is not in the habit of harming others, he as a result of his harmlessness, would enjoy good health. If a person is wrathful and easily irritated by trivial words and gives way to anger, ill-will and resentment, he, as result of his amiability, would be good-looking when born amongst mankind. If a person is jealous, envies the gains of others and stores jealousy in his heart, he, as, a result of his jealousy, when born amongst mankind, would be uninfluential. While if a person is not jealous, does not envy the gains of others, he, as a result of his non-jealousy, would be born influential. If a person is stubborn or haughty and honours not those worthy of honour, he, as a result of his arrogance and irreverence, when born among mankind, would be reborn in a low family. If a person is not stubborn or haughty and honours those worthy of honour, he on account of his humility and deference, when born amongst mankind, would be reborn in a high family. If a person does not approach the learned and the virtuous in order to inquire what is evil and what is good, what is right and what is wrong, what conduces to one’s welfare and what to the reverse, he, as result of his non-inquiring spirit, when born amongst mankind, will be of low intelligence. While if a person does approach the learned and the virtuous and makes the above inquiries, he, as a result of his inquiring spirit, when born amongst mankind, will be intelligent. "Depending on this difference in Kamma appears the difference in the birth of beings, high and low, base and exalted, happy and miserabled. Depending on this difference appears the difference in the individual features of beings as beautiful and ugly, high born and low-born well-built and deformed. Depending also on this difference in Kamma appears the difference in the worldly conditions of beings as gains and loss, fame and dishonour, blame and praise, happiness an misery. Thus, we see that our mental, intellectual, moral and spiritual differences are mainly due to our own actions. Yet we must bear in mind the fact that although Buddhism attributes this variation to Kamma, yet it does not assert that everything is due to Kamma. This gives rise to the question; Is one bound to reap all that one has sown in just proportion? Not necessarily is the answer because in the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha states:­ “If any one says, O Bhikkhus, that a man must reap according to his deeds, in that case, O Bhikkhus, there is no religious life nor is an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow (Dukkha). But if any one says, O Bhikkhus, that what a man reaps accords with his deeds, in that case, O Bhikkhus, there religious life and an opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow.” In Buddhism therefore it is always possible to mould one’s Kamma as one is not always compelled by an iron necessity. Although it is stated that neither in heaven nor in mid-sea is there a place where one can escape one’s evil Kamma, yet one is not bound to pay all the past arrears of past Kamma. There is a chance for even the most vicious person to become virtuous by his own effort. We are always becoming something and that something depends on our own will and actions. Who thought that Angulimala the highway robber and murderer would have become a saint? But he did become an arahat and erased, so to say, all his past Akusala Kamma. Who ever thought that Asoka who was nicknamed Canda or Wicked Asoka on account of the astrocities committed by him to expand his empire would ever win the noble title Dhammasoka or Asoka the Righteous? But he did completely change his career to such an extent that historians commented thus: “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highness and the like, the name of Asoka shines and shines almost alone above a star.” These two instances illustrate the fact that a complete reformation of character could be brought about by our own thoughts and actions.

In the working of Kamma it should be understood that there are forces that counteract and support this selfoperating law. Birth (Gati) time or conditions (Kala) beautiful (Upadhi) and effort (Payoga) are such aids and hindrances to the fruition of Kamma. If for instance a person is born in a noble family, his fortunate birth will act sometimes as a hinderance to the fruition of his evil Kamma. If on the other hand he is born in a poor unfortunate family his unfavourable birth will provide and easy opportunity for his evil Kamma to work. This is known as Gati Sapathi (Favourable Birth) and Gati Vipathi (Unfavourable Birth). An unintelligent person who by some good Kamma is born in a royal family will on account of his noble parentage be honoured by the people. If the same person were to have a less fortunate birth, he would not be similarly treated. Thus it is seen that due to counteractive and supportive factors Kamma is some times influenced by external circumstances. Every birth is conditioned by a past good or bad Kamma which predominates at the moment of death. The Kamma that condition the future birth is called Janaka Kamma. Our forms are but the outward manifestation of the invisible Kamma force. This all pervading force carries with it all our characteristics, which usually lie latent, but may rise to the surface at unexpected moments. The death of an individual is merely temporal end of a temporal phenomenon, though the present form perishes another form which is neither the same nor entirely different takes place according to the thought that was powerful at the moment of death, as the Kammic force which propels the life flux still survives. It is this last thought which is technically called Janaka Kamma that determines the states of the individual in his subsequent birth.

The Samyutta Nikaya states:­ “According to the seed that’s sown. So is the fruit ye reap therefrom, Doer of good will gather good, Doer of evil, evil reaps. Sown is the seed, and thou shalt taste , The fruit thereof.” The so-called “I" which is composed of mind and matters compelled to act. It receives impressions from internal and external stimuli. Sensations arise thereby and owing to the latent ignorance and craving one does both good and evil, which consequently produces rebirth in states of happiness. Evil acts lead to misery, good acts lead to happiness. Furthermore, good actions are necessary to escape this cycle of rebirth. One accumulates Kamma by not knowing things as they truly are, as it is said that no Kamma is accumulated by a person who has completely eradicated his craving. It is this doctrine of Kamma that gives consolation, hope and self reliance to a Buddhist. When the unexpected happens to him and when he is best with insurmountable difficulties and unbearable misfortune he consoles himself with the thought that they are the results of his own past doings. A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the truth of the doctrine of Kamma does not pray to another to be saved but confidently relies on himself for his salvation. It is this belief that validates his effort and kindles his enthusiasms and prompts him to refrain from evil and do good without ever being frightened of any punishment or tempted by any rewards. The words, “rewards” and “punishment” do not enter into discussions, concerning Kamma as we Buddhists do not recognize an Almighty Being who sits on judgment in the heavens above. On the contrary, we do firmly believe that we are the architects of our own fate. "Sabbe satta bhavantu Sukhitatta" "May all beings be well and happy"

Kamma as we have seen is action and Vipaka, fruit is its reaction. It is not predestination which is imposed on us by some mysterious unknown power, to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. It is one’s own doing which reacts on one’s own self. It is a law in itself. It is this doctrine of Kamma which a mother teaches her child when she says: “Be good and you will be happy and others will love you. But if you are bad, you will be unhappy and others will hate you.”

(Chandra was educated at Vishakha Vidyalaya, Colombo and has been living in the United Kingdom since 9. Chandra is a Justice of the Peace (U.K.) was a Member of the Parole Board in the U.K., the fist lady Magistrate in the Petty Sessional Division of the Thames and also sat in the Crown Court. She is now retired and resides partly in the U.K. and Sri Lanka.)