What Kamma Is -- By Ven. U. Thittila
(from Gems of Buddhist Wisdom)
(from Gems of Buddhist Wisdom)
Kamma is a Pali word meaning action. It is called Karma in Sanskrit. In its general sense Kamma means all good and bad actions. It covers all kinds of thoughts, words and, deeds. In its ultimate sense Kamma means all moral and immoral volition. The Buddha says: "Mental volition, O Bhikkhus, is what I call action (Kamma). Having volition one acts by body, speech and thought". (Anguttara Nikaya III.415).
Kamma is neither fatalism nor a doctrine of predetermination. The past influences the present but does not dominate it, for Kamma is pas as well as present. The past and present influence the future. The past is a background against which life goes on from moment to moment. The future is yet to be. Only the present moment exists and the responsibility of using the present moment for good or for ill lies with each individual.
Every action produces an effect and it is a cause first and effect afterwards. We therefore speak of Kamma as "the law of cause and effect". Throwing a stone, for example, is an action. The stone strikes a glass window and breaks it. The 'break' is the effect of the action of throwing, but it is not the end. The broken window is now the cause of further trouble. Some of one's money will have to go to replace it, and one is thus unable to save the money or to buy with it what one wants for some other purpose, and the effect upon one is a feeling of disappointment. This may make one irritable and if one is not careful, one may allow the irritability to become the cause of doing something else which is wrong, and so on. There is no end to the result of action, no end to Kamma, so we should be very careful about our actions, so that their effect will be good. It is therefore necessary for us to do a good, helpful action which will return to us in good Kamma and make us strong enough to start a better Kamma.
Throw a stone into a pond and watch the effect. There is a splash and a number of little rings appear round the place where it strikes. See how the rings grow wider and wider till they become too wide and too tiny for our eyes to follow. The little stone disturbs the water in the pond, but its work is not finished yet. When the tiny waves reach the edges of the pond, the water moves back till it returns to the stone that has disturbed it.
The effects of our actions come back to us just a the waves do to the stone, and as long as we do our action with evil intention the new waves of effect come back to beat upon us and disturb us. If we are kind and keep ourselves peaceful, the returning waves of trouble will grow weaker and weaker till they die down and our good Kamma will come back to us in blessings. If we plant a mango seed, for instance, a mango tree will come up and bear mangoes, and if we sow a chilli seed, a chilli plant will grow and produce chillies. The Buddha says:
"According to the seed that's sown,
so is the fruit ye reap there from,
Doer of good will gather good,
Doer of evil, evil reaps.
Sown is the seed, and thou shalt taste
The fruit thereof."
Everything that comes to us is right. When anything pleasant comes to us and makes us happy, we may be sure that our Kamma has come to show us what we have done is right. When anything unpleasant comes to us, hurts us, or makes us unhappy, our Kamma has come to show us our mistake. We must never forget that Kamma is always just. It neither loves nor hates, neither rewards nor punishes. It is never angry, never pleased. It is simply the law of cause and effect.
Kamma knows nothing about us. Does fire know us when it burns us? No. It is the nature of fire to burn, to give out heat. If we use it properly it gives us light, cooks our food for us or burns anything we wish to get rid or, but if we use it wrongly it burns us and our property. Its work is to burn and our affair is to use it in the right way. We are foolish if we grow angry and blame it when it burns us because we made a mistake.
There are inequalities and manifold destinies of men in the world. One is, for example, inferior and another superior. One perishes in infancy and another at the age of eighty or a hundred. One is sick and infirm, and another strong and healthy. One is born a millionaire another a pauper. One is a genius and another an idiot.
What is the cause of the inequalities that exist in the world? Buddhists cannot believe that this is indeed all against the theory of "chance", in the world of the scientist all works in accordance with the laws of cause and effect. Neither can Buddhists believe that this unevenness of the world is due to a God-Creator.
One or the three divergent views that prevailed at the time of the Buddha was:
"Whatsoever happiness or pain or neutral feeling the person experiences all that is due to the creation of a Supreme Deity".
(Gradual Sayings, I. 158). Commenting on this fatalistic view the Buddha said: "So, then, owing to the creation of a Supreme Deity men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, abusive, babblers, covetous, malicious, and perverse in view. Thus for those who fall back on the creation of a God as the essential reason, there is neither the desire to do, nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed." (ibid.)
Referring to the naked ascetics who practised self-mortification, the Buddha said: "If, O Bhikkhus, beings experience pain and happiness as the result of God's creation, then certainly these naked ascetics must have been created by a wicked God, since they are at present experiencing such terrible pain". (Majjhima Nikaya, II 222).
According to Buddhism the inequalities that exist in the world are due, to some extent, to heredity and environment and to a greater extent, to a cause or causes (Kamma) which are not only present but proximate or remotely past. Man himself is responsible for his own happiness and misery. He creates his own heaven and hell. He is master of his own destiny, child of his past and parent of his future.
The Laws of Cosmic Order
Although Buddhism teaches that Kamma is the chief cause of the inequalities in the world yet it does not teach fatalism or the doctrine of predestination, for it does not hold the view that everything is due to past actions. The law of causes described in Buddhist philosophy is one of the five orders (Niyamas) which are laws in themselves and operate in the universe. They are:
1. Utu Niyama, physical inorganic order, e.g., seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., belong to this group.
2. Bija Niyama, order of germs and seeds (physical organic order) e.g. rice produced from rice seed, sugary taste from sugar cane or honey, peculiar characteristics of certain fruits, etc. The scientific theory of cells and genes and physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.
3. Kamma Niyama, order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results. As surely as water seeks its own level so does Kamma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result, not in the form of a reward or punishment but as an innate sequence. This sequence of deed and effect is as natural and necessary as the way of the moon and stars.
4. Dhama Niyama, order of the norm, e.g. the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisatta in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature, the reason for being good and so forth may be included in this group.
5. Citta Niyama, order of mind or psychic law, e.g. process of consciousness, arising and perishing of consciousness, constituents of consciousness, power of mind, etc. Telepathy, telesthesia, retrocognition, premonition, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading, all psychic phenomena which are inexplicable to modern science are included in this class. (Abihdhammavatara p. 54).
These five orders embrace everything in the world and every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by them. They being laws in themselves, require no lawgiver and Kamma as such is only one of them.
Classification of Kamma
Kamma is classified into four kinds according to the time at which results are produced. There is Kamma that ripens in the same lifetime, Kamma that ripens in the next life, and Kamma that ripens in successive births. These three types of Kamma are bound to produce results as a seed is to sprout. But for a seed to sprout, certain auxiliary causes such as soul, rain etc. are required. In the same way for a Kamma to produce an effect, several auxiliary causes such as circumstances, surroundings, etc., are required. It sometimes happens that for want of such auxiliary causes Kamma does not produce any result. Such Kamma is called "Ahosi-Kamma" or "Kamma that is ineffective".
Kamma is also classified into another four kinds according to its particular function. There is Regenerative (Janaka) Kamma which conditions the future birth; Supportive (Upattham-bhaka) Kamma which assists or maintains the results of already-existing Kamma, Counteractive (Upapidaka) Kamma which suppresses or modifies the result of the reproductive Kamma, and Destructive (Upaghataka) Kamma which destroys the force of existing Kamma and substitutes its own resultants.
There is another classification according to the priority of the results, There is Serious or Weighty (Garuka) Kamma which produces its resultants in the present life or the next. On the moral side of the Kamma the highly refined mental states called Jhanas or Ecstasies are weighty because they produce resultants more speedily than the ordinary unrefined mental states. On the opposite side, the five kinds of immediately effective serious crimes are weighty. There crimes are: matricide, patricide, the murder of an Arahanta (Holy-one or perfect saint), the wounding of a Buddha and the creation of a schism in the Sangha.
Death-proximate (Asanna) Kamma is the action which one does at the moment before death either physically or mentally - mentally by thinking of one's own previous good or bad actions or having good or bad thoughts. It is this Kamma which, if there is no weighty Kamma, determines the conditions of the next birth.
Habitual (Acinna) Kamma is the action which one constantly does. This Kamma, in the absence of death-proximate Kamma, produces and determines the next birth.
Reserved (Katatta) Kamma is the last in the priority of results. This is the unexpended Kamma of a particular being and it conditions the next birth if there is no habitual Kamma to operate.
A further classification of Kamma is according to the place in which the results are produced, namely:
(1) Immoral Kamma which produces its effect in the plane of misery.
(2) Moral Kamma which produces its effect in the plane of the world of the desires.
(3) Moral Kamma which produces its effect in the plane of form.
(4) Moral Kamma which produces its effect in the plane of the formless.
Ten immoral actions and their effects:
I. Immoral Kamma is rooted in greed (Lobha) anger (Dosa) and delusion (Moha).
There are ten immoral actions(Kamma) - namely, Killing, Stealing, Un-chastity, (these three are caused by deed). Lying, Slandering, Harsh Language, Frivolous talk, (these four are caused by word). Covetousness, Ill-will and False View, (these three are caused by mind).
Of these ten, killing means the destruction of any living being including animals of all kinds. To complete this offence of killing, five conditions are necessary, viz: a being, consciousness that it is a being, intention of killing, effort and consequent death.
The evil effects of killing are: Short life, Diseasefulness, Constant grief caused by the separation from the loved, and Constant fear.
To complete the offence of stealing five conditions are necessary, viz: Property of other people, consciousness that it is so, intention of stealing, effort and consequent removal. The effects of stealing are: poverty, wretchedness, unfulfilled desires and dependent livelihood.
To complete the offence of un-chastity (sexual misconduct) three conditions are necessary, viz: intention to enjoy the forbidden object, efforts and possession of the object. The effects of un-chastity are: having many enemies, getting undesirable marriage partners.
To complete the offence of lying four conditions are necessary, viz: untruth, intention to deceive, effort, and communication of the matter to others. The effects of lying are: being tormented by abusive speech, being subject to vilification, incredibility and stinking mouth.
To complete the offence of slandering four conditions are necessary, viz: division of persons, intention to separate them, effort and communication. The effect of slandering is the dissolution of friendship without any sufficient cause.
To complete the offence of harsh language three conditions are necessary, viz: someone to be abused, angry thought and using abusive language. The effects of harsh language are: being detested by others although blameless, and harsh voice.
To complete the offence of frivolous talk two conditions are necessary, viz: the inclination towards frivolous talk and its narration. The effects of frivolous talk are: disorderliness of the bodily organs and unacceptable speech.
To complete the offence of covetousness (abhijjha) two conditions are necessary, viz: another's property and strong desire for it, saying "would this property be mine". The effect of covetousness is the un-fulfillment of one's wishes.
To complete the offence of ill-will (Vyapada) two conditions are necessary, viz: another being and the intention of doing harm. The effects of ill-will are: ugliness, various diseases and detestable nature.
False view (Micchaditthi) means seeing things wrongly without understanding what they truly are. To complete this false view two conditions are necessary, viz: perverted manner in which an object is viewed and the misunderstanding of it according to that view. The effects of false view are: base attachment, lack of wisdom, dull wit, chronic diseases and blameworthy ideas.
(Expositor Pt. 1.p. 128).
II. Good Kamma which produces its effect in the plane of desires
There are ten moral actions - namely, generosity (Dana), morality (Sila), meditation (Bhavana), respect (Apacayana), service (Veyyavacca), transference of merit (Pattidana), rejoicing in other's merit (Pattanumodana), hearing the doctrine (Dhammadesana), and forming correct views (Ditthijukamma).
"Generosity" yields wealth. "Morality" causes one to be born in noble families in states of happiness. "Meditation" helps you to be born in planes of form and formless planes and helps to gain Higher Knowledge and Emancipation.
By giving respect we gain respect. By giving service we gain service. "Transference of merit" enables one to be able to give in abundance in future birth. "Rejoicing in other's merit" is productive of joy wherever one is born. Both hearing and expounding the Doctrine are conducive to wisdom.
III. Good Kamma which produces its effect in the planes of form.
It is of five types which are purely mental, and done in the process of meditation, viz:
(1) The first state of Jhana or ecstasy which has five constituents: initial application, sustained application, rapture, happiness and one-pointedness of the mind.
(2) The second state of Jhana which occurs together with sustained application, rapture, happiness, one-pointedness of the mind.
(3) The third state of Jhana which occurs together with rapture, happiness and one-pointedness of the mind.
(4) The fourth state of Jhana which occurs together with happiness and one-pointedness of the mind.
(5) The fifth state of Jhana which occurs together with equanimity and one-pointedness of the mind
IV. Good Karma which produces its effect in the formless planes.
It is of four types which are also purely mental and done in the process of meditation, viz:
(1) Moral consciousness dwelling in the infinity of space.
(2) Moral consciousness dwelling in the infinity of consciousness.
(3) Moral consciousness dwelling on nothingness.
(4) Moral consciousness wherein perception is so extremely subtle that it cannot be said whether it is or is not.
Kamma, as has been stated above, is not fate, is not irrevocable destiny. Nor is one bound to reap all that one has sown in just proportion. The actions (Kamma) of men are not absolutely irrevocable and only a few of them are so. If, for example one fires a bullet out of a rifle, one cannot call it back or turn it aside from its mark. But, if instead of a lead or iron ball through the air, it is an ivory ball on a smooth green board that one sets moving with a billiard cue, one can send after it and at it, another ball in the same way, and change its course. Not only that, if one is quick enough, and one has not given it too great an impetus, one might even get round to the other side of the billiard table, and send against it a ball which would meet it straight in the line of its course and bring it to a stop on the spot. With one's later action with the cue, one modifies, or even in favourable circumstances, entirely neutralizes one's earlier action. It is in much the same way that Kamma operates in the broad stream of general life. There too one's action (Kamma) of a later day may modify the effects of one's action (Kamma) of a former day. If this were not so, what possibility would there ever be of a man getting free from all Kamma for ever? It would be perpetually self-continuing energy that could never come to and end.
Man has, therefore, a certain amount of free will and there is almost every possibility to mould his life or to modify his actions. Even a most vicious person can by his own free will and effort become the most virtuous person. One may at any moment change for the better or for the worse. But everything in the world including man himself is dependent on conditions and without conditions nothing whatsoever can arise or enter into existence. Man therefore has only a certain amount of free will and not absolute free will. According to Buddhist philosophy, everything, mental or physical, arises in accordance with the laws and conditions. If it were not so, there would reign chaos and blind chance. Such a thing, however, is impossible, and if it would be otherwise, all laws of nature which modern science has discovered would be powerless.
The real, essential nature of action (Kamma) of man is mental. When a given thought has arisen in one's mind a number of times, there is a definite tendency for recurrence of that thought.
When a given act has been performed a number of times, there is a definite tendency to the repetition of the act. Thus each act, mental or physical, tends to constantly produce its like, and be in turn produced. If a man thinks a good thought, speaks a good word, does a good deed, the effect upon him is to increase the tendencies to goodness present in him, to make him a better man. If, on the contrary, he does a bad deed in thought, in speech or in action, he has strengthened in himself his bad tendencies, he has made himself a worse man. Having become a worse man, he will gravitate to the company of worse men in the future, and incur all the unhappiness of varying kinds that attends life in such company. On the other hand, the main part of a character that is continually growing better, will naturally tend to the companionship of the good, and enjoy all the pleasantness and comforts and freedom from the ruder shocks of human life which such society connotes.
In the case of a cultured man even the effect of a greater evil may be minimised while the lesser evils of an uncultured man may produce its effect to the maximum according to the favourable and unfavourable conditions.
Lessons Taught by Kamma
The more we understand the law of Kamma, the more we see how careful we must be of our acts, words and thoughts, and how responsible we are to our fellow beings. Living in the light of this knowledge, we learn certain lessons from the doctrine of Kamma.
Knowing that the Law is our great helper if we live by it, and that no harm can come to us if we work with it, knowing also it blesses us just at the right time, we learn the grand lesson of patience, not to get excited, and that impatience is a check to progress. In suffering, we know that we are paying a debt, and we learn, if we are wise, not to create more suffering for the future. In rejoicing, we are thankful for its sweetness, and learn, if we are wise, to be still better. Patience brings forth peace, success, happiness and security.
The law being just, perfect, it is not possible for an understanding person to be uneasy about it. If we are uneasy and have no confidence, it shows clearly that we have not grasped the reality of the law. We are really quite safe beneath its wings, and there is nothing to fear in all the wide universe except our own misdeeds. The Law makes man stand on his own feet and rouses his self-confidence. Confidence strengthens, or rather deepens, our peace and happiness and makes us comfortable, courageous; wherever we go the Law is our protector.
As we in the past have caused ourselves to be what we now are, so by what we do now will our future be determined. A knowledge of this fact and that the glory of the future is limitless, gives us great self-reliance, and takes away that tendency to appeal for external help, which is really no help at all "Purity and impurity belong to oneself, no one can purify another" says the Buddha.
Naturally, if we realize that the evil we do will return to strike us, we shall be very careful lest we do or say or think something that is not good, pure and true. Knowledge of Kamma will restrain us from wrong doing for others' sakes as well as for our own.
The more we make the doctrine of Kamma a part of our lives, the more power we gain, not only to direct our future, but to help our fellow beings more effectively. The practice of good Kamma, when fully developed, will enable us to overcome evil and limitations, and destroy all the fetters that keep us from our goal, Nibbana.