If you put the word karma into Amazon Books on the internet the result will demonstrate beyond all doubt that it is a hot topic. There are well over 100 books with the word karma in their titles, most of them purporting to explain what karma is. And judging from these titles kamma fits comfortably with astrology, God-consciousness, good sex, tarot reading, the evolving soul and much else besides, and it is an ancient wisdom, a power, a science, a cosmic force and a way of healing your past and your future. Two titles that caught my attention were The Good Karma Divorce: Avoid Litigation, Turn Negative Emotions into Positive Actions, and Get On with the Rest of Your Life, and The Lightworker’s Guide to Everyday Karma: A Karmic Savings and Loan Series Book. Buddhist authors too have produced many books on kamma, one of the most recent being Pa-auk Sayadaw’s The Workings of Kamma. Towards the beginning of his book the author states: “The workings of kamma and kamma’s result is so profound and difficult to see that only a Buddha’s Knowledge of Kamma & Results can see it clearly: His disciples do not possess this knowledge, not even Arahats.” Apparently undeterred by this the author proceeds to explain kamma in 362 pages replete with over 30 charts and diagrams, nearly a thousand notes and 46 pages of endnotes. He draws on the Tipiṭaka, but far more so on the commentaries, sub-commentaries and works such as the Visudhimagga and the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha.
The book you now hold in your hand takes a different approach. It deals with kamma and its related doctrine of rebirth exclusively as they were explained by the Siddhattha Gotama, known to history as the Buddha and the founder of the religion called Buddhism. In the centuries after the Buddha his teachings were subject to exegesis by various thinkers and scholars; they were interpreted and expanded, annotated and developed. In the process deeper meanings were sometimes drawn out of them and obscure points clarified. But just as often this exegesis obscured or distorted the Buddha’s original teachings and sometimes led to unjustified conclusions. This was particularly true of kamma and rebirth.
Today, the information in most books on kamma and rebirth by Buddhist writers are actually an amalgam of ideas the Buddha taught together with ones that developed sometimes centuries after his passing. And it is all presented as if it were the words of the Buddha himself. This would be equivalent to quoting Aquinas or Kierkegaard and attributing it to Jesus. Often what is presented as the Buddha’s teaching of kamma and rebirth is actually the ideas from the Milindapañha written perhaps 400 or 500 years after the Buddha, of Buddhaghosa who lived some 900 after him or Anuruddha, the author of the Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, who lived about 1400 years after him. This is not to say that these later ideas are necessarily wrong. Some of them help to clarify things the Buddha said or take them to their logical conclusions. But they are all the product of scholarly speculation and hypothesizing, while what the Buddha taught was the outcome of his awakening experience. Thus this book will look at kamma and rebirth based on how these doctrines are presented in the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka, the oldest and most authentic record of the Buddha’s teaching.
The small numbers in the text refer to the notes at the back of the book. The larger numbers in bold refer to discourses of the Buddha in Appendix I which further explain the text. Appendix II is an article written shortly after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami trying to explain that tragedy from a Buddhist perspective. This article attracted a good deal of attention and was widely reproduced or referred to on the internet and so I have thought it worthwhile to reproduce it here.
I would like to thank Anandajoti Bhikkhu who read through the manuscript and made many corrections and useful suggestions. As always, he had been generous with his time, editing know-how and knowledge, without necessarily agreeing with everything I have written.