9. Karma | Vaibhashika


9. Karma

While the Vaibhāṣikas acknowledge the profound and ultimately inconceivable nature of karma, they still attempted to give a rational account of its basic workings and to show how it was a middle way between determinism and absolute freedom.

The Mahāvibhāṣa (MVŚ) notes that there are different but related ways in which the term karma is used:

It can refer to actions in a general sense and it can refer specifically to ethical actions which have desirable or undesirable effects.

Karma is also used to refer to the actual retribution causes (vipāka-hetu) of actions,

which play a crucial role in determining the various spheres (dhātu), planes (gati) and modes of birth (yoni) of a sentient being’s existence

and in differentiating the various types of persons (pudgala) with their various life-span, physical appearances, social status, etc.

It is also important to note that, karma is not the only contributing factor to rebirth, as Vasubandhu states: "It is not karma alone which is the projector of a birth (janman)."

Karma is also related to the defilements since the defilements act as the generating cause and supporting condition for karma.


There are 3 main types of karma:

1) bodily,
2) vocal
3) mental.

Out of all the different elements of karma, it is the volitional aspect (cetanā), which comprises all mental karma, that is the most central and fundamental, since it is originates and assists the other types of karma.

Saṁghabhadra, citing the sūtras, states that volition (i.e. mental karma) is karma "in the proper or specific sense inasmuch as it is the prominent cause (viśiṣṭa-hetu) in projecting a sentient existence."

The Vaibhāṣikas also had further classifications of the different types of karma. For example, there are:

1) Volitional karma (cetanā) and karma subsequent to willing (cetayitvā);

2) Informative (vijñapti) and non-informative (avijñapti) karma. This refers to bodily and vocal actions which inform others of the corresponding mental state.

3) Skilful (kuśala), unskilful (akuśala) and morally neutral (avyākṛta) karmas.

4) Karmas which are with-outflow (śrava) and outflow-free (anāśrava) karmas.

5) Determinate (niyata) and indeterminate (aniyata) karma.

6) Karma that is done (kṛta) and karma that is accumulated (upacita).

7) Projecting (ākṣepaka) and completing (paripūraka) karmas.

The informative and non-informative category is particularly important. For the Vaibhāṣika, both types are real entities and are included as cetayitvā karma.

Also, the nature of informative karma is material; it is the specific bodily shape at the time of the accomplishment of an action (which includes sound).

Saṁghabhadra defends this by arguing that if all karma is mere volition (as held by Sautrāntika), then as soon as one has the intention to kill, this is the same as committing the deed.

Vaibhāṣikas also held that non-informative karma was a kind of subtle "non-resistant" matter which preserved karmic efficacy, a view that was vigorously attacked by the Sautrāntikas.

Like other Buddhist schools, the Vaibhāṣikas taught the 10 paths of karma as a major ethical guide to what should be avoided and what should be cultivated:

Vasubandhu said:

Types of virtue and non-virtue,
if they are condensed roughly,
are spoken as ten paths of karma.

There are 10 non-virtues that are the main causes of birth in the lower realms. They are:

A. 3 physical non-virtuous activities:

1) Killing,
2) Stealing,
3) Adultery;

B. 4 verbally created non-virtuous activities:

4) Lying,
5) Divisive Speech,
6) Harsh Speech,
7) Idle Gossip;

C. 3 mentally created non-virtuous activities:

8) Envy,
9) Malice,
10) Wrong View.

It should be emphasized that volition remains the core of this teaching, that is, even if one avoids acting on one's harmful intentions, the intention itself remains an unskilful karma.

Karma through time

The Vaibhāṣika theory of karma is also closely related to their theory of tri-temporal existence, since karmas also exist in the past and in the future.

Indeed, the efficacy of past karma is part of their argument for "all exists", since, for the Vaibhāṣika, if a past karmic retributive cause ceases to exist completely, it cannot lead to the karmic effect or fruit.

At the very moment when a retributive cause arises, it determines the causal connection with the fruit-to-be; i.e., ‘it grasps the fruit’.

At a subsequent time, when the necessary conditions obtain, it, although past, can causally actualize the fruit by dragging it, as it were, out of the future into the present; i.e., ‘it gives the fruit’.

This was of course rejected by the Sautrāntikas, who posited a competing theory, known as the theory of seeds,

which held that a volition creates a chain of momentary dharmas called seeds, which are continuously transmitted in the mind stream until they sprout, producing the karmic effect.

Saṁghabhadra critiques this theory by pointing out that when a seed turns into a plant, there is no interruption in the process.

But in the Sautrāntika view, there can be an interruption, as when a person has thoughts of a different ethical type or when they enter into meditations that completely interrupt mental activity (such as āsaṁjñī-samāpatti or nirodha-samāpatti).

Karmic retribution

In Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma, the nature of karmic retribution, i.e. how a person experiences the results of their actions, is not fixed and depends on different conditions, such as the spiritual status and wisdom of the person. 

There are 6 factors that affect the gravity of karmic retribution (and subsequently, how bad one's future rebirth is):

1) The actions performed after the major karmic act.

2) The status of the ‘field’ (kṣetra-viśeṣa), referring to the ethical and spiritual status of the person.

3) The basis (adhiṣṭhāna), which is the act itself.
4) The preparatory action (prayoga) leading up to the main act.
5) Volition (cetanā), the intentional mental force behind the act.
6) The strength of the intention (āśaya-viśeṣa).

There are also said to be some karmas that may or may not lead to retribution at all, these are indeterminate (aniyata) karmas

- which are contrasted with determinate karmas, i.e. those that necessarily cause retribution (whether in this life, in the next or in some further life).

These indeterminate karmas can be rendered weak or fruitless through the practice of the spiritual path. The "Salt-simile sūtra" (Loṇa-phala-sutta) is cited in support of this.

Determinate karmas are particularly dark acts, such as killing one's parents, which cannot be so transformed.

Another important distinction here is that between karma that is done (kṛta) which refers to preparatory and principal actions, and karma that is accumulated (upacita) which refers to the consecutive actions which "complete" the action.

For example, one may prepare to kill someone and attempt to do so, but fail. In this sense, the action is not accumulated. Also, an action not done intentionally is not accumulated.

Yet another key distinction is that between projecting (ākṣepaka) and completing (paripūraka) karmas:

A projecting karma is a single act which is the principal cause that projects one's future existence (as well as for the intermediate existence, the antarā-bhava),

while completing karmas are responsible for specific experiences within that one existence, such as lifespan.

Finally, it is important to note that in this system, karma is primarily individual:

That is to say, one person's karma will not cause a retribution fruit to be experienced by another person.

However, there is a karmic fruit which is experienced by a collective of individuals, which is the fruit of dominance (adhipati-phala), which affects the vitality and durability of external things, such as plants and planets.

This is used to explain how, when persons do good actions, the external world is affected by the "4 increases": "of lifespan, of sentient beings, of external items of utility and enjoyment (pariṣkāra), and of skilful dharmas."

In this sense then, there is "collective karma."

Thus, for the Vaibhāṣikas, the whole universe is the collective karma (i.e. the fruit of dominance) of all beings living in it.