Law of Kamma


1. The Five Universal Laws

In Buddhism, there are 5 universal orders or laws (Niyamas) that operate in the physical and mental realms.

They are:

a) Utu Niyama: the caloric or physical inorganic order, e.g., seasonal changes of weather, nature of heat, energy, chemical reactions, etc.

b) Bīja Niyama: germinal or physical organic order, e.g., rice from rice seeds, sweet taste of sugar, different ways of plant propagation, etc.

c) Kamma Niyama: moral or cause and effect order. Moral and immoral acts produce desirable and undesirable results.

d) Citta Niyama: order of mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness, power of mind, telepathy, mind reading, recollection of past lives, divine eye, psychic power, etc.

e) Dhamma 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.

Every mental and physical phenomenon can be explained by these all-embracing 5 orders that are laws in themselves. Kamma as such is only one of these 5 orders that demand no giver, nor enforcer, as is the case with all natural laws.

2. The Importance of Understanding the Law of Kamma

The Law of Kamma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism:

Although this belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in its complete form, which we have today.

Puzzled by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, the young Brahmin Subha approached the Buddha and asked him to explain the reason for the cause of inequality:

"What is the cause and condition why human beings are seen to be inferior and superior? For people are seen to be short- lived and long-lived, sickly and healthy, ugly and beautiful, un- influential and influential, poor and wealthy, lowborn and highborn, stupid and wise.”

The Buddha's reply was:

"All living beings are owners of their actions (kammasaka), heirs of their actions (kammadayada); they originate from their actions (kammayoni), are related to their actions (kammabandhu), have their actions as their refuge (kammapatisarana).

It is action (kamma) that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.”

(Majjhima Nikāya Sutta No. 135, Culakammavibhanga Sutta)

The Expositor, a commentary of the Abhidhamma elaborates:

"Depending on the difference in kamma appear the differences in the destiny of being without legs, with two legs, four legs, many legs, with perception, without perception, with neither perception nor non-perception.

Depending on the difference in kamma appear the differences in the birth of beings, high and low, base and exalted, happy and miserable.

Depending on the difference in kamma appears the difference in the individual features of beings as beautiful and ugly, highborn or lowborn, well built or deformed.

Depending on the difference in kamma appears the difference in worldly conditions of beings, such as gain and loss, fame and disgrace, blame and praise, happiness and misery."

Thus, from the Buddhist standpoint, our present mental, moral intellectual and temperamental differences are, for the most part, due to our own actions and tendencies, both past and present.

Although Buddhism attributes this variation to kamma, as being the chief cause among a variety, it does not, however, assert that everything is due to kamma:

The Law of Kamma, important as it is, is only one of the twenty-four conditions described in the Paṭṭhāna or Conditional Relations, one of the treatises in the Abhidhamma.

3. What is Kamma?

The Pali term kamma (Sanskrit: karma) literally means action or doing:

Any kind of volitional or intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as kamma. It covers all that is included in the phrase: ‘thought, word or deed’.

Generally speaking, all good and bad actions constitute kamma. In its ultimate sense, kamma means all moral and immoral volition (kuśalā- akušala cetana).

In Aṅguttara iii, 415, the Buddha says: "I declare, O Bhikkhus, that cetana (volition) is kamma. Having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought."

Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deeds, do not constitute kamma, because volition, the most important factor in determining kamma, is absent.

Without volition, a deed is sterile; it produces no reaction of moral significance.

Kamma is not fate nor is it predestination, imposed on us by some mysterious unknown power controlling our lives:

It is one’s own doing that reacts on one’s own self, and so it is possible to divert the course of our kamma to some extent. How far one diverts it will depend on oneself.

So we have a certain amount of free will. The past influences the present but does not dominate it for kamma is both past and present deeds.

4. How does the Law of Kamma Operate?

Kamma is action and vipāka, fruit or result is its reaction.

Kamma is the cause and vipāka is the effect. According to the Law of Kamma, every volitional activity is accompanied by its due effect.

The Samyutta Nikāya I, 227 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 shall taste the fruit thereof.

Kamma is a law in itself that operates in its own field without the intervention of an external independent ruling agency.

The Law of Kamma acts in the following manner.

a) All immoral actions give immoral resultants.

There are 10 immoral actions, namely: bodily action of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct; verbal action of lying, slandering, harsh speech, frivolous chatter; mental action of greed, ill-will and delusion.

b) All moral actions give moral resultants.

Abstention of the 10 immoral actions listed above, constitute moral action.

In addition there are also 10 bases of meritorious action, namely: charity, morality, mind culture, reverence, service, transference of merits, rejoicing in others’ merits, teaching the Dhamma, listening to the Dhamma and forming right views.

c) A person does moral/immoral actions and gets moral/immoral resultants.

It is not possible for one person to perform moral/immoral actions and another person to receive the moral/immoral results.

d) In judging each moral or immoral action, we consider these 4 ‘fields of kamma, namely:

1) as one’s own act, 2) as instigating another, 3) as consenting to another’s instigation, and 4) as commending the act.

5. What is the Cause of Kamma?

Ignorance (avijjā) or ‘not knowing things as they truly are’ is the chief cause of kamma. “Dependent on Ignorance arise Volitional Activities (saṅkhāra)” states the Buddha in Paṭicca Samuppāda or Dependent Origination.

Associated with ignorance is its ally craving (tanḥā), another root cause of kamma. Unwholesome actions are conditioned by these two causes.

All good deeds of a worldling, though associated with the 3 wholesome roots of generosity, loving-kindness and knowledge are nevertheless regarded as kamma because the two unwholesome roots of ignorance and craving are dormant in them.

No kamma is accumulated by one who has eradicated craving and has understood ‘things as they truly are’.

Buddhas and Arahants do not accumulate fresh kamma as they have eradicated ignorance and craving, the root causes of kamma. “They have destroyed the germ, their desires no longer grow.” (− verse 14, Ratana Sutta).

Although volition is present whenever there is bodily, verbal or mental action, in the case of an Arahant, that volition is not accompanied by craving at the end of each impulsive moment, and it completely disappears without leaving any trace and without transforming it into kamma. Hence there is no rebirth for the Arahant. However, they will still receive the results of their past kamma.

6. Who is the Doer of Kamma? Who Reaps the Vipāka?

The answer is given in the Viśuddhi Magga (Path of Purification).

“No doer is there who does the deed.
 Nor is there one who feels the fruit.”

According to Buddhism, there are 2 types of truthconventional truth and absolute truth:

For conventional purposes, we use such terms as man, woman, animal, being, self and so forth. In reality, there is no unchanging entity or any being in the form of a man, woman, animal or anything permanent that can be called a self.

The so-called fleeting form consists only of mental and material processes that are constantly changing, not remaining the same for two consecutive moments.

This so-called being is a combination of five Aggregates (khāṇḍas) that are the aggregates of Matter, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formations and Consciousness.

There is no doer apart from the action, no thinker apart from the thought. Who then is the doer of kamma? Who feels the effect?

Volition or intention (cetana) is itself the doer.
Feeling (vedanā) feels the fruit or effect.

Apart from these mental processes, there is none to sow and none to reap. So kamma is not an accretion of the self or soul since there is no permanent self or soul to begin with.

7. Where is all the Kamma Stored?

An action (kamma) once performed, is finished as far as its performance is concerned. It is also irreversible. What remains of the action is its potential, the inevitability of its result (vipāka).

Even within a lifetime, a person has performed a lot of actions, either moral or immoral. So he must have accumulated a lot kamma. Where is all this kamma stored?

In answer to this question by King Milinda, the Ven. Nāgasena replied:

“Kamma is not stored somewhere in this fleeting consciousness nor in any part of the body:

But dependent on mind and body, it rests, manifesting itself at the opportune moment, just as mangoes are not said to be stored somewhere in the mango tree, but dependent on the mango tree they lie, springing up in due season".

In the same way, fire is not stored in a match but under the right conditions of friction, the match will produce fire.

Kamma is an individual potential that is transmitted from one existence to another.

8. Classification of Kamma

Kamma is classified 4-fold according to its function, priority of effect, time of taking effect and the plane where the effects take place.

a) Function

There are 4 classes of kamma according to function.

Every birth is conditioned by past good or bad kamma, which predominates at the moment of death. The kamma that conditions future birth is called Reproductive kamma.

Now another kamma may intervene to assist and maintain or to weaken and obstruct the fruition of the Reproductive kamma. Such actions are called Supportive or Obstructive kamma respectively.

According to the Law of Kamma, the potential energy of the Reproductive kamma may be totally annulled by a more powerful opposing past kamma,

which seeking an opportunity may quite unexpectedly operate, just as a counteractive force can obstruct the path of a flying arrow and bring it to the ground.

Such an action is called Destructive kamma, which is more powerful than the other two in that it not only obstructs but also destroys the whole force.

b) Priority of Effect

First is Garuka or Weighty kamma, which produces its effect in this life or the next for certain:

Among the weighty or serious actions, the moral ones are the Jhānas or Mental Absorptions

while the immoral ones are the 5 immediately effective heinous crimes, namely: matricide, patricide, murder of an Arahant, wounding of a Buddha and creating a schism in the Sangha or Monastic Order.

In the absence of a Weighty kamma to condition the next birth, a Death Proximate kamma may operate. This is the action one does or recollects immediately before the dying moment.

Owing to its significance in determining the future birth, the custom of reminding the dying person of his good deeds and making him perform wholesome actions still prevails in Buddhist countries.

Habitual kamma is next in priority of effect. It is the action one constantly performs and recollects and which one has great liking.

The last is Cumulative kamma that embraces all that cannot be included in the above three. This is, as it were, the reserve fund of a particular being.

c) Time of Taking Effect

There are moral and immoral actions that produce their effects in this very life or in a subsequent life or in any life in the course of one’s wandering in Samsara:

These actions are Immediately Effective, Subsequently Effective and Indefinitely Effective kamma. When such actions that should produce their effects in this life or subsequent lives do not operate, they are termed Ineffective.

d) Plane where Effects Take Place

The last classification is according to the plane in which the effects take place, namely:

1) Immoral actions that ripen in the Sensual Plane (Kāma loka) of misery, namely: hell, animal, ghost and demon realms.

2) Moral actions that ripen in the Sensual Plane (Kāma loka) of happiness, namely the human and the six celestial realms. In Abhidhamma, they are the eight types of wholesome consciousness (sobhana citta) pertaining to the Sensual Sphere.

3) Moral actions that ripen in the Form Plane (Rūpa loka) of Brahmas with form. They are the rūpa jhānas, namely: the first, second, third and fourth jhāna.

4) Moral actions that ripen in the Formless Plane (Arūpa loka) of Brahmas possessing mind only but without form. They are the arūpa-jhānas, namely: Realm of Infinite Space, Realm of Infinite Consciousness, Realm of Nothingness, and Realm of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.

9. Is One Bound to Reap All That One Has Sown in Just Proportion?

While the Law of Kamma states that we reap what we sow, there is another aspect of kamma that is also very important, namely, that kamma-results can be modified:

This means that the Law of Kamma does not operate with mechanical rigidity but allows for modifications in the ripening of the fruit.

It is this dynamic aspect of kamma that the Buddha declared in Aṅguttara I, 249 as follows:

“If anyone says that a man must reap everything according to his deeds, in this case there is no religious life, nor is there an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow".

"But if anyone says that what a man reaps accords with his deeds, in that case there is a religious life, and an opportunity is afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow”.

These statements by the Buddha tell us that kamma is not fate or predestination. Nor is one bound to reap all that one has sown in just proportion.

We can explain this by the simile of the billiard ball, whose direction can be changed or even stopped by sending another billiard ball to hit it at an appropriate angle.

Like any physical event, the mental process constituting a kammic action does not exist in isolation. Thus its efficacy in producing a result depends not only on its own potential but also upon the potential of other kammas.

We see for example, that a particular kamma either moral, or immoral, may sometimes have its result strengthened by supportive kamma, weakened by obstructive kamma, or even annulled by destructive kamma.

The occurrence of the result can also be delayed if the condition for ripening is not complete; and that delay may again give chance for obstructive or destructive kamma to operate.

Besides external conditions, the spiritual quality of the mind from which the volition arises can affect the results:

To one rich in moral or spiritual qualities, a single offence may not entail the weighty results the same offence will have for one who is poor in such protective virtues.

The Buddha compares this with the taste of water from a cup wherein a lump of salt has been added against the taste of water from the Ganges River in which the same lump of salt has been thrown in.

Thus although Aṅgulimāla killed many people before he met the Buddha, and his action would have landed him in the woeful states in future existences,

his attainment of Arahantship effectively closed the door to future rebirth and suffering, although he would still have to bear the dire consequences while he lived.

So complicated is the web of kammic conditioning that the Buddha declared kamma-result to be one of the “four unthinkables”, that are beyond the range of thought and should not be speculated upon.

But though the working of kamma is beyond our intellect, the important practical message is clear:

the fact that kamma-results are modifiable frees man from the shackles of predestination and fatalism and keeps the road to liberation constantly open before him.

Everyone has a certain amount of free will to mould one’s life or modify one’s actions. Even the most vicious person can become a virtuous person if he wants to change his life and makes the effort to do so.

However, everything in this world, including man himself is subject to conditions and without the necessary conditions, nothing can arise.

10. Lessons Learnt from Kamma

The kamma doctrine of the Buddha is a teaching of moral and spiritual responsibility for oneself and others:

The more we understand the Law of Kamma, the more we realize how careful we must act in thought, speech and deeds if we wish to accumulate wholesome kamma.

For when a certain thought, speech or deed is performed regularly, there is a definite tendency to repeat the act. Thus each act, mental or physical tends to produce its like and be in turn produced, a condition called asevana or habitual recurrence.

Wholesome actions performed regularly tend to increase the tendencies to goodness while unwholesome actions performed regularly tend to do the opposite.

The advice given by the Buddha in the Dhammapada sums up the lessons to learnt from kamma:

Do not disregard evil lightly, saying: “It will not come nigh unto me”; by the falling of drops even a water jar is filled; likewise the fool, gathering little by little, fills himself with evil. (Verse 121)

Do not disregard merit, saying: “It will not come nigh unto me”; by the falling of drops even a water jar is filled; likewise the wise man, gathering little by little, fills himself with good. (Verse 122)

According to Venerable Ledi Sayadaw, by the declaration:

“All living beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are related to their actions, have their actions as their refuge”,

the Buddha also meant that the wholesome and unwholesome actions performed once by a being during his lifetime, may ripen even after a lapse of thousands of existences or world cycles.

The wholesome kammas that yield good results and unwholesome kammas that yield bad results always accompany the life-continuum of a being.

Therefore one should always love and esteem good conduct more than one’s own life by performing meritorious actions. On the other hand one should always shun evil conduct more than the danger of death and refrain from evil deeds.