Kamma is one of the central concepts of Buddhism. Despite this it is also one of the most misunderstood by both Buddhists themselves and by non-Buddhists. These misunderstandings usually become apparent at the very beginning of any discourse on kamma.
Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism
The common assertion is that kamma and rebirth were universally believed in ancient India and that the Buddha simply took them for granted and incorporated them into his Dhamma. The evidence shows otherwise. The Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures, show no knowledge of kamma or of rebirth. In Vedic thought, the individual’s destiny was determined by certain rituals and by the gods, not by kamma. And at death the individual was not reborn, he or she went to the world of the fathers (pitṛloka), i.e. heaven. The other body of early Hindu scriptures, such as the Satapatha Brāhmaṇa, uses the word kamma but only in the sense of performing Vedic sacrifices and related rituals.
The first non-Jain non-Buddhist text to mention kamma and rebirth or something like it, are the early Upaniṣads; the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, the Chāndogya and the Kauṣītaki Upaniṣad. But their versions of these doctrines differs dramatically from the Jain and Buddhist ones. For example, the Kauṣītaki says that when people die they all go to the moon which is the gateway to heaven. There they are asked a question in order to pass. Those who cannot answer this question become rain which then falls to earth, then they become worms, insects, fish, birds, lions or humans according to their kamma. Those who can answer the question enter heaven and go into the presence of Brahma (Kau.1.2). Whether kamma here means moral causation or the proper performance of Vedic rituals is unclear; but it very likely means the latter. The Chāndogya teaches something similar but when the dead fall to the earth as rain they become plants which when a man eats them pass with his semen into his wife’s womb and become a new being. Interestingly, the Chāndogya also says that “this (teaching) has not been known to Brahmins before”, in other words, it was something new to the Vedic tradition. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanisad Yājnavalkya makes it clear that kamma in the sense of moral causation is a secret teaching only to be revealed to the initiated (Br.3.2). But why should such an idea be kept secret? It may be because it was not part of original Vedic thought and Yājnavalkya wanted to avoid accusations of unorthodoxy. Other Upaniṣads do not mention kamma or rebirth and the Kaṭha Upaniṣad actually says that no one knows what happens to a person after they die (Kath.1.20).
It is also necessary to consider the age of the Upaniṣads. Many scholars consider the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad to date around the 800 or 700 BCE, although this dating is very uncertain. Equally uncertain are the dates of the Buddha, although most scholars consider him to have lived during the 5th century BCE. But although the earliest reference to some form of repeated birth and death determined by some form of kamma probably predate the Buddha the evidence that these ideas were universally or even widely accepted around the time of the Buddha is, as was see above, not compelling. The Buddhist scriptures themselves offer further evidence of this. Samaññaphala Sutta gives an overview of the doctrines preached by six of the most prominent teachers during the Buddha’s time and only one of them taught a form of kamma (D.I,52-59). Likewise, there are frequent criticisms in both the Buddhist and Jain scriptures of those who denied kamma and rebirth. For example, a popular teacher of the time Makkhali Gosala taught: “There is no kamma, no deed, no (point in making an) effort” (A.I,286). While some rejected kamma and rebirth as relatively new and non-traditional ideas others such as Prince Pāyāsi dismissed them on rational grounds. Seeing no empirical evidence for them this educated sceptic came to the conclusion that: “There is no other world, there are no spontaneously born beings, nor is there any fruit or result of good or evil deeds” (D.II,316). Prince Pāyāsi must have been fairly well-known as he is also mentioned in the Jain scriptures.
The earliest unambiguous and detailed mention of kamma is in the Jain scriptures. Jainism pre-dates Buddhism by perhaps a decade or more and its founder, Mahāvīra, and his teachings are frequently referred to in the Buddhist scriptures. However, the Jain doctrine of kamma is markedly different from the Buddhist one. For example, according to Jainism, every action, intentional or not, creates kamma, and kamma is believed to be a kind of material substance than adheres to the soul and weigh it down. Jainism also posits a soul passing from one life to the next, something that Buddhism rejects.  It is certainly possible that the Buddha was influenced by the Jain doctrines of kamma and rebirth but clearly he did not simply take them for granted and unthinkingly and uncritically adopt them. It is much more likely that Mahāvīra had partial glimpses of kamma and rebirth while the Buddha’s awakening gave him a complete understanding.
By about the turn of the first millennium diverse ideas about kamma and rebirth were on the way to being integrated into Hinduism. But even then and later these ideas were by no means universally accepted. Hinduism generally evolved or absorbed new concepts without abandoning earlier ones, meaning that it presents a wide range of sometimes contrasting or even contradictory doctrines. Even when kamma and rebirth became widely accepted in Hinduism they fitted into it somewhat awkwardly. The belief that the gods can and do intervene in human affairs, that devotion (bhakti) to a particular god leads to salvation, that evil can be washed away by bathing in sacred rivers, that performing certain rituals, visiting certain holy shrines or passing away in Varanasi guarantees salvation, seems to cancel out the idea of kamma. Some schools of Hinduism rejected kamma in favour of fate (daiva) while others maintained that the individual’s destiny was determined by time (kāla), inherent nature (svabhāva), chance (yadṛccha) or that it is predetermined (bhāvivaśāt). The Śvetāsvatara Upaniṣad rejects a variety of explanations including kamma, saying that ultimately they are all controlled by God (Ss.v.2-3). Many passages in the Dharmaśāstras mention kamma while at the same time recommending all the various ways it can be circumvented. The great attractions of Hinduism is that it has a wide range of moods, impulses and manifestations.
Meaning of Kamma
Before looking at the Buddha’s doctrine of kamma it will be helpful to look at the word itself. The Pāḷi word kamma like its Sanskrit equivalent karma, is derived from the root kṛ and means to work, act, do, carry out or perform. In pre-Buddhist Brahmanical literature it meant doing or performing the various Vedic rites and rituals correctly, their efficacy relying on their proper performance. In Buddhism and Jainism in normal parlance it means to work, act or do in the usual sense of these words. Thus a livelihood or profession is kammanta, farming, i.e doing agriculture is kasakamma, añjalikamma is the act of showing respect towards someone, and a kammakara is a workman or labourer. But as a technical term in Buddhism kamma refers to the idea that intentional mental, verbal and bodily actions have an ethical significance and consequence. Correctly speaking, kamma is a morally significant intentional action and vipāka is the consequence or result of such an action. When something negative or unwelcomed happens to someone nowadays they may say: “It’s my bad kamma.” More correctly they should say: “I’m experiencing bad vipāka.” or “I’m experiencing the results of bad kamma.”
The importance of intention, volition or will in kamma can be understood by asking whether plunging a knife into someone would be a good or a bad act. Most people would say it would be bad. In fact, they would probably consider it to be criminal. But a Buddhist would answer: “It depends.” The person wielding the knife could be a surgeon performing a life-saving operation on a patient, or a gangster attacking a hapless victim in a dark alley. It is the intention behind an act that gives it its ethical quality.
Before explaining what the Buddha said about kamma let us have a look at what kamma is not. The most widespread misunderstanding about kamma is the idea that everything that happens to the individual is due to ethical or unethical deeds they did in the past. Breaking a leg, being cheated on by one’s spouse or being poor are, it is asserted, all due to having done morally bad things in the past. On the other hand, having an attractive face, winning the lottery or getting a raise are supposedly due to having done something good. Everything from one’s social status, to the country one is born into, to the state of one’s health, etc, are all due to past kamma. Such claims directly contradict the Buddha’s Dhamma. According to the Buddha there are three false and pernicious views – the belief that everything that happens is due to past kamma (pubbekatahetu), that everything is due to the will of a supreme God (issaranimmānahetu), and the belief that everything that happens is without a cause (ahetu-appaccayā). (1)
There are sound reasons for rejecting each of these beliefs, but we will examine the one about past kamma. If everything that happens to an individual is due to something they did in the past then logically their whole life must be pre-determined. They would not be able do or refrain from doing anything because the course of their whole life would be fixed beforehand. If they were good it would not be due to any choice or effort on their part, but because of something done in an earlier life, and so on ad infinitum. If this were true there would have been no need for the Buddha to teach the Noble Eightfold Path because it would be impossible to practice any of its steps unless past kamma made it possible.
An example of the kammic determinism misunderstanding relates to good and bad health. One often hears people, including monks who should know better, explain that the various illnesses and bodily afflictions people suffer from are due to having done some evil in a past life. I have heard cancer of the larynx described as a kammic consequence of habitual lying, of deafness being caused by a refusal to listen to Dhamma sermons and leg problems the result of eating chicken drumsticks. Several years ago a senior Thai prelate was reported in the media as saying that HIV and AIDS are a kammic consequence of perverted sexual practices. Given how widespread such ideas are it is interesting to see how they compare with the Buddha’s statements about sickness and health. He said that disease and physical afflictions can have a variety of causes, of which kamma is only one. Some sickness is caused by an imbalance in the bodily humours, some by carelessness, some by accidents, and some are caused by climatic changes.(2) In several other discourses he identified poor diet and overeating as causes of physical afflictions (A.III,144; Vin.I,199). On one occasion he mentioned that the reason he enjoyed good health was because he ate moderately (M.I,473), again confirming that sickness or health need not automatically be attributed to past kamma. Interestingly, the Buddha also said that not only do many sicknesses have natural (i.e. non-kammic) causes, but that our experience tells us this is so and that this is a widely acknowledged to be the case. Had he lived in the 21st century he would have added that modern medical science also confirms this.
Another popular misunderstanding, related to the first one, is that kammic consequences must play themselves out. According to this notion we are fated to experience the vipāka of whatever kamma we have done. For example, if someone commits murder it is inevitable that they will be murdered in the next life. We can call this notion kammic inevitability. The adherents of some theistic religions compare this notion unfavourably with the doctrine of divine forgiveness, saying that God will forgive sins but “you can never escape from your kamma”. Let us see what the Buddha has to say about this.
In one terse verse from the Dhammapada the Buddha seems to subscribe to the idea of kammic inevitability.(3) But in more detailed discourses it is clear that he does not. In one of these he said that an immoral or negative deed done by someone whose character is predominantly virtuous would have a much weaker effect than it would have otherwise. Conversely, a few virtuous deeds done by someone whose character was predominantly immoral and negative would make little difference.(4) Clearly, a kammic deed does not necessarily have a vipāka of identical strength, but rather can be modified or “diluted” by the general quality of the mind or by subsequent actions.
In another discourse the Buddha said that someone born into very disadvantaged circumstances (because of negative past kamma?) could, because of the good they did subsequently, even attain enlightenment.(5) Again this confirms that negative kamma from the past can be covered, checked or dissipated (pithīyati) by positive actions in the present (6a,b)
One misunderstanding about kamma that always attracts attention, usually quite sceptical attention, and a good deal of jocular comment as well, is the claim that a kammic consequence, i.e. vipāka, always exactly parallels the deed that caused it, or at least is very similar to it. It is supposedly quite literally a case of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” or “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Several examples of such a notion have been given above but here are a few more culled from contemporary Buddhist literature. If you swear you will have bad breath in your next life. If you are mean with your money you will have financial straits in your next life, and a person who donates medicine to monks will have good health in the next life. There are several discourses of the Buddha that could be interpreted as suggesting this sort of parallelism. However, later we will see that this may not be the case.
Recently John Horgan wrote an article for Scientific American called ‘Why I Don’t Dig-Buddhism’.  in which he made an interesting observation about the religion, although with the qualification “at least in its traditional forms”. Horgan wrote: “One of Buddhism’s biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn’t invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.” Horgan’s observations are quite justified. Many Buddhist explanations of kamma give the impression that it is some kind of universal force or influence capable of keeping a record of everyone’s actions and arranging for each to have an appropriate vipāka. One Buddhist scholar recently described it as an “inexorable moral law built into the cosmos”. Kamma is presented as something like gravity, momentum or magnetism; an ethereal cosmic energy outside the individual and as intelligent as any supernatural being, only without most of the usual divine attributes; e.g. human-like form, personality, the ability to hear and answer prayers, etc. This mysterious force, so the claim goes, is apparently able to know and tabulate every thought, word and deed of the world’s six billion people and then adjust the material environment so that each of them receives their just deserts. In this notion of kamma it is a supreme deity in everything but name. As we shall see, nothing like this is suggested in any of the Buddha’s discourses.
Always Somewhere Else, Always The Negative
For reasons that are not clear, the majority view of kamma seems to be that it is all about either past lives or future lives and primarily concerned with the negative. The refrain is usually something like: “If you are poor in this life it is because you were mean in your last life”, or: “If you are mean in this life you will be poor in the next life.” Only occasionally is it suggested that kamma might have its effect soon after being done or at least at some point in the present life. Equally rare is discourse discussing positive kammic consequences. 
This partial, one-sided emphasis gives the impression that the doctrine of kamma is concerned with either the past or the future lives and with evil and its negative consequences. Comments such as: “You can never escape from your kamma” imply the same thing. And even when positive kamma is mentioned the discussions rarely goes beyond an either/or, good/bad polarity. In contrast to this, the Buddha’s explanation of kamma was more nuanced, realistic and experiential. He taught that vipāka can manifest in the present life, the next life or in subsequent lives.(7) He spoke of certain kamma having an immediate result (ānantarika kamma, A.III,439). Presumably this refers to deeds the effect of which are experienced immediately or shortly after having been done. When you reach out and help a stranger you do not have to wait for the next life to experience the result of such a good deed. Usually the stranger’s expressions of thanks makes you feel good. And even if you receive no thanks or gratitude you feel good knowing that you have done the right thing. The Buddha sometimes spoke of kammic consequences that are “neither unpleasant or pleasant” (adukkham-asukkhaṁ), that is to say, which are the effect of actions that are ethical neutral. At other times he mentioned actions that are “ethically mixed” (vītimissa Dhamma, M.I,318). He was an insightful enough psychologist to know that we are sometimes “in two minds” about the choices we are about to make, the things we are doing or we have done.(8) Some, perhaps many, of the things we do are motivated by a mixture of positive and negative intentions and thus will have mixed vipāka.(9) Such subtle distinctions and their implications rarely get a mention in discussions on kamma.
- See ‘Karma and the Problem of Rebirth’ in Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, edited by W. D. O’Flaherty, 1983, pp.217ff. [back]
- http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2011/12/02/why-i-dont-dig- buddhism/ [back]
- Typical of this is the entry on karma in the Thomas Gale Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (2004) which defines karma as “the belief that acts bring about their retribution…” [back]