First published in Ashin Kelatha Journal in 1999.

by Dr. Khin Maung U

Kamma is a Pali word meaning action or doing. In its general sense kamma means all good and bad intentional actions whether mental, verbal or physical (thoughts, words and deeds). In the Buddhist teachings, all physical (kãrya kamma), verbal (vacî kamma) and mental (mano kamma) actions are known as the three kammas. All beings perform these three kammas at all waking hours. All their work, great or small, is performed by means of these three kammas. These three kammas become inert when a person is asleep. In the case of a dead person, the three kammas cease to function as far as that body is concerned.

In its ultimate sense, kamma means all moral and immoral volition. The Buddha says:
“O Bhikkhus, I declare that volition (cetanã) is kamma. Having volition, one acts by body, speech and thought” (Aînguttara Nikãya).

When any action of thought, word or body takes place, volition determines or causes its concomitants to perform their respective functions simultaneously. For this reason, volition is predominant in all actions. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deeds, do not constitute kamma, because volition, the most important factor in determining kamma, is absent. Thus, the real nature of action (kamma) of man is mental.

According to Abhidhammã, 29 types of consciousness (Citta) consisting of (i) 12 types of immoral consciousness (akusala citta) and (ii) 8 types of moral consciousness (kusala citta) from among the 54 types of mundane consciousness (kãmãvacara citta) pertaining to the sentient realm, (iii) 5 types of moral consciousness (kusala citta) pertaining to the realms of form (rüpãvacara citta or jhãnas), and (iv) 4 types of moral consciousness (kusala citta) pertaining to the formless realms (arüpãvacara citta or jhãnas), are called kamma because they have the power to produce their due effects quite automatically, independent of any external agency.

The eight types of supramundane consciousness (lokuttarã citta) are not regarded as kamma because they tend to eradicate the roots of kamma; in them, the predominant factor is wisdom (paññã) while in the mundane, it is volition (cetanã).

Inherent in kamma is the potential of producing its due effect.

Every volitional action is inevitably accompanied by its due effect just as every object is accompanied by its shadow. Kamma is action and vipãka, fruit or result, is its effect. If kamma is likened to a seed, then the fruit, arising from the tree, is vipãka, effect or result. As kamma may be good or bad, so may vipãka be good or bad. As kamma is mental, so vipãka, too, is mental; it is experienced as happiness or misery, according to the nature of the kamma seed. The concomitant material conditions may be advantageous (ãnisamsa) such as prosperity, health and longevity, or disadvantageous (ãdinava) such as poverty, ugliness, disease, short life-span, etc.

As surely as water seeks its own level, so does kamma, given opportunity, produce its inevitable result not as reward or punishment, but as an innate sequence. From a Buddhist standpoint, happiness and misery are not rewards and punishments assigned by a supernatural, omniscient power to one that has done good or evil. The sequence of action and effect is a natural law of kamma.

There are inequalities and many different destinies of human beings in the world. For example, one perishes in infancy and another lives to the age of eighty or more, one is sick and infirm and another healthy and strong, one is a millionaire and another a pauper, one is handsome and another ugly, one is brought up in luxury and another in misery, one is a genius and another a half-wit.

What is the cause of these inequalities? The Buddha’s reply is:
“All living beings have actions (kamma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is kamma that differentiates beings into low and high states” (Majjhima Nikãya).

According to Buddhism, the disparities that exist in the world are not due to blind chance. They are due, to some extent, to heredity and environment, and, to a greater extent, to kamma which includes not only the present kamma, but also the proximate or remote past kamma. While Buddhism teaches that kamma is the chief cause of inequalities in the world, it does not teach fatalism or the doctrine of pre-destination.

In the Aînguttara Nikãya, the Buddha states: “If anyone says that one must reap according to his deeds, in that case there is no religious life nor is an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow. But if anyone says that which one reaps accords with one’s deeds, in that case there is a religious life and an opportunity afforded for the entire extinction of sorrow.”

Thus, Buddhism does not hold the view that everything is due to past kamma. Kamma is not fate. Kamma is not irrevocable destiny imposed upon us by some unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. The past influences the present but does not entirely control it, for kamma of the past as well as the present are in effect in the present. The past and present influence the future. One’s action (kamma) of a later day may modify the effects of one’s action (kamma) of a former day.

One may at any moment change for the better or for the worse. In Buddhism, therefore, man has a certain amount of free will, and there is almost every possibility to mould one’s kamma. If this were not so, what possibility would there ever be of a man’s getting free from all kamma forever. It would be perpetually self-continuing energy that could never come to an end.

What is the cause of kamma? Ignorance (avijjã), not knowing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of kamma. Dependent on ignorance arise kammic activities. Associated with ignorance is its ally, craving (tanhã), the other root cause of kamma. Evil actions are conditioned by these two causes. All good deeds of a worldling, though associated with the three wholesome roots of generosity (alobha), goodwill (adosa) and knowledge (amoha), are nevertheless regarded as kamma because the two roots of ignorance (avijjã) and craving (tanhã) are dormant in him.

Who is the doer of kamma? Who experiences the effects? Volition (cetanã) is itself the doer. Feeling (vedanã) is itself the reaper of the fruits of action. Apart from these pure mental states there is none to sow and none to reap.

Venerable Buddhaghosa writes in Visuddhimagga:
“No doer is there who does the deed,
Nor is there one who feels the fruit,
Constituent parts alone roll on,
This indeed is right discernment.”

Where is kamma? Kamma is not stored anywhere within or without the body. It is not stored somewhere in this fleeting consciousness or in any other part of the mind or the body. But dependent on mind and matter kamma rests, manifesting itself at the opportune moment. Thus, kamma is an individual force, and is transmitted from one existence to another.

Buddhism teaches that there is no permanent soul, no eternal, immortal soul that directs one’s action. So, if there is no soul, what is it that is reborn? The answer is kammic energy: the actions we have done. These actions do not disappear unless or until they have produced their effects. So each being has body and mind as a result of actions they did in the past or in the present, and thus this kammic action goes on and on.

Kamma may be classified in many ways.
Kamma is classified into four kinds according to the time at which results are produced:
1. kamma that produces results in the same life-time (Ditthadhammavedaniya kamma);
2. kamma that produces results in the next life (Upapajjavedaniya kamma);
3. kamma that produces results in any one (or more) of successive births and is indefintely effective (Aparãpariyavedaniya kamma);
(These first three types require auxiliary causes such as circumstances, surroundings, etc., to produce an effect.)
4. and, kamma that does not produce any result (Ahosi kamma).

The timing of the results of kamma depends upon which thought-moment is associated with the thought-processes (cittavîthi) of volition (cetanã). According to Abhidhammã one thought-process is completed at the expiration of seventeen thought-moments, consisting of seven initial thought-moments followed by seven javana states (at which point an action is judged whether it be moral or immoral, and kamma is performed) and subsequently by votthapana (determining consciousness) and two Tadãlambana (registering consciousness).

Of the seven javana thought-moments, the effect of the first javana thought-moment is the weakest in potentiality, and is manifested in this life (Ditthadhammavedaniya kamma). If it does not operate in this life, it becomes ineffective (Ahosi kamma).

The next weakest is the seventh javana thought-moment; its effect is reaped in the subsequent birth (Upapajjavedaniya kamma). This, too, becomes ineffective (Ahosi kamma) if it does not operate in the next rebirth.

The effect of the five intermediate javana thought-moments (Aparãpariyavedaniya kamma) may take place at any time in the course of one’s wanderings in life continua (Samsãrã) until the final emancipation. No person – not even the Buddha and Arahants – is exempt from this kamma.

Kamma is also classified into four kinds according to its particular function (kicca):
1. Janaka (Reproductive) kamma which conditions the next rebirth;
2. Upatthambhaka (Supportive) kamma which assists or maintains the results of already-existing kamma;
3. Upapilaka (Counteractive) kamma which suppresses or modifies the result of the reproductive kamma; and
4. Upaghãtaka (Destructive) kamma which destroys the force of existing kamma and substitutes its own resultants.

Again, it is the last (seventh) javana thought-process – Janaka (Reproductive) kamma – that determines the state of a person in his/her subsequent birth. As a rule, the last javana thought-process depends on the general conduct of a person. In exceptional cases, perhaps due to favorable or unfavorable circumstances, at the moment of death a good person may experience a bad last javana thought and a bad person a good one. The subsequent birth will be determined by this last javana thought-process, irrespective of the general conduct. This does not mean that the effects of the past actions are obliterated. They will, in turn, produce their inevitable results at the appropriate moment.

o assist and maintain or to weaken and obstruct the fruition of this reproductive (Janaka) kamma, another past kamma may intervene, being supportive (Upatthambhaka kamma) or counteractive (Upapilaka kamma), respectively.

The reproductive (Janaka) kamma can be totally annulled by Upaghãtaka (Destructive) kamma which is a more powerful opposing past kamma, that, seeking an opportunity, may quite unexpectedly operate; it is more powerful than the above two in that it not only obstructs but also destroys the whole force of existing kamma.

There is another classification of kamma according to the priority of effect:
1. Garuka (Weighty or serious) kamma which produces its effects for certain in the present life or in the next (On the moral side, these weighty actions are the jhanas, while on the immoral side, they are heinous crimes (ãnantariya kamma) namely, matricide, parricide, the murder of an Arahant, the wounding of the Buddha, and the creation of a schism in the Sangha);
2. Ãsanna (death proximate) kamma which is the action that one does or recollects – mentally or physically – immediately before the moment of death and it determines the conditions of the next birth;
3. Ãcinna (habitual) kamma which is action that one performs and recollects constantly, and in the absence of death-proximate kamma, produces and determines the next birth; and
4. Katattã kamma which is the last in priority of results and is the unexpended kamma of a particular being that has followed him/her through the continua of kappas (Samsãrã), and it conditions the next birth if there is none of the above kammas to operate.

Kamma is further classified according to the place in which the results are produced:
(1) Immoral (akusala) kamma that produces its effects in the plane of misery: Immoral (akusala) kamma is rooted in greed (Lobha), anger (Dosa) and delusion (Moha). There are ten immoral (akusala) actions (kamma):
• killing (pãnãtipãtã),
• stealing (adinnãdãnã),
• sexual misconduct (kãmesu micchãcãrã)
{these three are committed by deed},
• lying (musãvãdã),
• slandering (pisunãvãcã),
• harsh language (pharusãvãcã),
• frivolous talk (samphappalãpa) {these four are committed by word},
• covetousness (abhijjhã),
• ill will (vyãpãda), and
• false view (micchãditthi)
{these three are committed by mind}.
(2) Moral (kusala) kamma which produces its effects in the plane of the world of desires: There are ten moral (kusala) actions (kamma):
• alms-giving (dãna),
• observance of five or eight precepts (sîla),
• practicing meditation (bhãvanã),
• reverence (apacãyana),
• service (veyyãvacca),
• sharing of merit (pattidãna),
• rejoicing in others’ good actions (pattãnumodanã),
• hearing the doctrine (dhammasavana),
• expounding the doctrine (dhammadesanã),
• and, forming correct views (ditthijukamma).
(3) Moral (kusala) kamma that produces its effects in the realms of form (Rupa): It is of five types, which are purely mental actions (meditation) leading to the five states of rüpa jhãna.
(4) Moral (kusala) kamma which produces its effect in the formless realms: These are four types of purely mental actions (meditation) leading to four types of moral consciousness (arüpa jhãna).

Kammasakatã Sammã-ditthi: Right understanding of the truth about the fact that in the case of beings only the two things – namely, good and bad actions done by them – are their own possessions that always accompany them throughout their life continua, wherever they may wander in Samsãrã.

1. Sabbe sattã kammasakã: Only the volitional good or bad actions done by all sentient beings are their own possessions that always accompany them wherever they may wander in Samsãrã.

2. Sabbe sattã Kamma dãyãdã: All beings are the heirs of their own kamma (good or bad actions).
The kamma performed by beings are always theirs in their future existences. Only Kamma is inherited by beings. The effects of one’s kamma always accompany one in many existences yielding good or bad results at the opportune moments. One can never get rid of that kamma, but one has to enjoy or suffer its results under appropriate circumstances.

3. Sabbe sattã Kamma yoni: All beings are the descendants of their own kamma.
With regard to the present good and evil results, one’s own kamma performed in the present existence with wisdom and knowledge or otherwise as well as one’s own wholesome kamma such as alms-giving, morality, etc., and unwholesome kamma such as killing beings, etc., performed in past existences are the primary causes (parents) of good and evil results.

4. Sabbe sattã Kamma bandhü: Kamma alone is the real relative that all beings can rely on through their life continua in Samsãrã.
Parents, brothers, relatives, etc, whom we love and rely upon, can be loved and relied upon for only a short period, i.e., before our death. One’s own physical, verbal and mental kamma are one’s constant companions who accompany one in future existences, wholesome kamma giving happiness and prosperity. Thus, one’s wholesome kamma alone is one’s real relative who should be esteemed and relied upon.

5. Sabbe sattã Kamma patisaranã: Kamma alone is the real refuge of all beings.
Here, refuge means reliance upon or taking shelter for protection against troubles and dangers. Unwholesome kamma will lead one to be reborn to the lower world where one has to suffer grievously. Performing wholesome kamma will lead one to be reborn as a man or deva, and save him from the lower worlds in the future existences.

In Buddhism, there are four kinds of taking refuge for the future:
(i) taking refuge in the Buddha,
(ii) taking refuge in the Dhamma,
(iii) taking refuge in the Sangha, and
(iv) taking refuge in one’s own wholesome kamma.

This is explained by the following example. All worldlings who indulge in sensual pleasures resemble sick persons who, to be cured, would take refuge in the chief physician (the Buddha), in good medicines (the Dhamma), in the assistant physicians (the Sangha) and in following the physician’s directions (physical, verbal and mental wholesome kamma).

The three refuges, Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, exist only during the Buddhasãsana. They do not exist outside the Buddhasãsana.

The refuge of wholesome kamma exists both within and outside the Buddhasãsana. We can never be free from kamma that is operating all the time in this universe as well as in other innumerable universes. For this reason, kamma is our refuge throughout our life-continua in Samsãrã.

6. Yam kammam karissanti kilayãnam vã pãpakam vã tassa kammassa dãyãdã bhavissanti: Whatever good or bad actions are done by beings bodily, verbally or mentally, they become the heirs of their kamma.

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