So what is Kamma?
Having examined what kamma is not, we will now look at what it is. Firstly, the Buddha said his idea of kamma was not derived from hearing about it from someone else, thinking it a good idea and then accepting it. Rather, it was the result of a direct personal experience on his part. Like the other truths he realized at his awakening it was “something not heard before” (pubbe ananussutesu, SV,422) In the hours leading up to his enlightenment he had three profound insights which he called the Threefold Knowledge (tevijja). These are the knowledge of former existences (pubbe-nivāsānussati-ñāṇa), the knowledge of the passing away and arising of beings (cutūpapāta-ñāṇa), and the knowledge of the destruction of the mental defilements (āsavakkhaya-ñāṇa) (10) In the first of these three he saw with startling vividness and in great detail the long parade of his former lives.(11) In the second he saw beings dying and being reborn according to their kamma. (12) It was these first two of the Threefold Knowledge that gave the Buddha his distinct understanding of kamma and rebirth. It is interesting to note that the Buddha conceded that some of the other ascetics of his time were capable of having at least to some degree these same experiences. However, he claimed that they usually drew wrong conclusions from them (D.I,13).(13) This would explain why teachers such as Mahāvīra taught versions of kamma and rebirth before the Buddha.
As mentioned before, kamma is not some force or energy in the universe separate from the individual but exerting its influence on him or her. Rather, it is an aspect of consciousness. It is a psychological mechanism, a way the mind works. The Buddha underlined this point several times but particularly when he said that intention (cetanā), a mental phenomena, is kamma.(14) It should be pointed out that cetanā is more than just a consideration to act, it implies drive, impulse and volitional force as well (cetanā, patthanā, paṇidhi, sankhāra, A.V,213).
The results of our actions, good or bad, are dependent on our mind, not on any mystical external force.(15) Nowhere did the Buddha say or even imply that kamma is an “inexorable moral law built into the cosmos”. In its simplest terms, intention or volition modifies consciousness, this moulds our character, which in turn influences how we impact on and relate to the world and consequently it to us.(16)
How Does Kamma Work?
So how does kamma work? Many, probably most, of our intentions are scattered and feeble, and their corresponding vipāka will be weak. Some are focused and purposeful and their vipāka will be strong. An occasionally outburst of temper or an act of generosity is unlikely to have a noticeable kammic effect. The Buddha talked about being “addicted” to (anuytta) certain types of behaviour, of the individual who “often thinks about and ruminates over” (anuvittaka, anuvicāra) certain things, and of particular thoughts or actions being “pursued…persistently done, made a foundation, carried out, consolidated” (e.g. A.I,29; M.I,116; A.V,342). When some behaviours start to become character traits then their vipāka manifests noticeably and impacts more dramatically on a person’s life.(17a,b) An action such as violent assault or murder although taking only a brief period of time would probably have a very strong and noticeable vipāka because of the passions provoking them would likewise have to be very strong. It is also the case that the vipāka of some intentions can be modified even perhaps to the degree of being almost cancelled out by several stronger contrasting intentions. One often hears statements such as: “If you murder you will be reborn in purgatory.” Interestingly, the Buddha said that he would disagree with such an assertion.(18) Consider it.
Let’s say a 20 year-old youth commits a murder, gets a 20 year sentence, and lives for another 30 years after his release. In the two decades prior to his crime he was an average child and young man with no criminal record. The murder was an example of a minor argument that got out-of-hand leading to tragedy. In the first few years after his sentence the young man suffered from separation from his family, endured deep remorse and shame for what he had done and the rigors of imprisonment. But gradually he became a model prisoner. After his release he founded an organization helping troubled youths which turned many of them away from crime. The problem with assertions such as: “Murderers are reborn in purgatory”, is that they are simplistic, sweeping generalizations(19) that fail to take into account the rich and varied landscape of the human mind. In the case of the hypothetical murderer mentioned above, the vipāka of his heavy kamma and murder is a very heavy kamma (garuka kamma) would be lessened by his years of painful remorse, sorrow and regret, all of which would be the vipāka of his actions, while what remained may be further diluted or perhaps even cancelled out completely by the subsequent many years of good kamma he did.
Let us look at a case from real life, that of Oskar Schindler, the subject of the book Schindler’s Arch and the film Schindler’s List. By any standards Schindler had been a disreputable character. He was a member of the Nazi Party, a traitor spying for German Intelligence against his own country, a habitual adulterer, a sleazy businessman and black-marketer, and something of a drunkard. But witnessing Nazi crimes in 1943 changed him. With great courage and at very real peril to himself and his family he saved some 1200 people, all of them complete strangers, from certain death. Paradoxically, the very vices Schindler had perfected in his dishonest business deals: bribery, lying, blackmail and flattery, helped him save these people. He had committed a great deal of negative kamma but overwhelming more positive kamma. Stories such as this should make us very cautious of the usual black and white, good and bad approach to kamma. And not surprisingly, the Buddha warned against making just such sweeping generalizations.(19).
Now let us look at vipāka, the results of kamma. In its simplest terms intentional morally positive actions have a positive effect on the actor and intentional morally negative actions have a negative effect. What constitutes morally positive and negative actions in Buddhism is very similar to what is generally recognised as being good and bad by most other religions and by most ethicists.(20) But while intention is important there is of course a difference between intending to do something and actually doing it. Thinking of sharing something with someone would be good kamma having positive vipāka, but going beyond the thought to actually share would have stronger positive vipāka. The results of some deeds can be fixed and unalterable (micchatta-niyata rāsi, sammatta-niyata rāsi). These would be exceptionally positive or exceptionally negative deeds.  But there are other deeds for which the vipāka can be uncertain (aniyata) because they would be susceptible to being diluted or perhaps even cancelled out according to circumstances.(21)
Many expositions of kamma include what was previously called kammic parallelism, the idea that the vipāka of a kammic deed will be identical to or very similar to that deed. Thus we are told that if you are mean with your money you will be reborn poor and if you are generous you will be reborn rich. There are several discourses where the Buddha seems to endorse the idea of kammic parallelism. It would be worthwhile to examine these discourses a little closer to see if this is really the case. The most well-known such discourse on kamma is the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta.(22) In this discourse the Buddha said, in effect, that showing deference and reverence towards those worthy of it leads to rebirth into a high class family, killing results in having a short life expectancy, being free from jealousy and envy will result in being reborn with attractive facial features, generosity towards others causes one to be rich in the next life, etc. Let us examine this last claim.
Being rich means having access to large amounts of money, money being material objects. But exactly how does a psychological state like generosity attract to the individual who has it material objects such as paper bank notes and metal coins? There is another thing that needs to be examined. Is being rich necessarily a blessed and enviable condition and thus a suitable “reward” for being good? Is it possible for a rich person to be unfulfilled, depressed, miserable or chronically ill? Most people would probably agree that it is possible. This being so, why should a virtue such as generosity lead to wealth, which may or may not go to together with happiness? Would it not be more desirable to be poor or at least of modest means and be happy and fulfilled? Again, most people would probably agree that it would. For these and other reasons it is difficult to see a connection between generosity and wealth, or any of the other kammic correlations mentioned in the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta for that matter. If we look at all the positive vipākas mentioned in the discourse we notice that one thing they have in common is that they are all associated, at least in popular imagination, with happiness. Everyone dreams of having longevity, wealth, fame, talent and beauty, because superficial consideration associates such states with happiness. Deeper and more realistic consideration will cast serious doubt on this idea, although it is a widespread assumption.
Because kamma is a psychological phenomena, logically its result must be psychological too.  Thus the vipāka of positive kamma must be positive mental states – happiness, contentment, ease, self-appreciation, sanguinity, peace, joy, a clear conscious, good cheer, delight, and so on. The vipāka of negative kamma is negative mental states – unhappiness, guilt, shame, depression, self-loathing, despair, morbid brooding, dread, fear and so on. Ultimately, what allows us to say a person is happy and content is not the extent of their possessions, their facial features, their immediate environment, their lifespan or whether or not they have a physical deformity, but their attitude towards these things. So why in the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta did the Buddha say that killing leads to being short-lived, generosity to wealth, etc?
It seems likely that he was using long and short life, beauty and ugliness, wealth and poverty, etc., as tropes or metaphors for happiness and unhappiness. The person who the Buddha was addressing in the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta may also help explain why he said such things. His interlocutor was a person named Subha and throughout the discourse the Buddha addressed him as “student” (māṇava). This indicates that Subha was young, perhaps quite young. Given this, it makes sense that the Buddha would explain his ideas in simple terms that took into account common perceptions and his interlocutor’s lack of sophistication. If this interpretation is correct, it means that we will be misled if we take the Buddha’s words in the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta literally. It is interesting to note that the Buddha said his discourses were of two types, those of indirect meaning (neyyattha) requiring interpretation and not to be taken literally, and those of direct meaning (nītattha) that mean exactly what they say. I suggest that the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta is an example of the first and was not meant to be taken literally.(23)
Kamma and Physical Form
When the Buddha spoke of the deed-born body (karajakāya, A.V,300), and of the body being the result of “old kamma” (purāṇa-kamma, S.IV,132) he did not mean physical appearances or attributes are the vipāka of past actions good or bad. (24) Rather, he meant that when we are reborn it is usually into a physical body and thus it is legitimate to say that the body is caused by kamma.
Another place in the Tipiṭaka where the idea that vipāka can manifest itself in the physical domain is in Lakkhaṇa Sutta which deals with the signs of a great man (mahā-purisa-lakkhaṇa). According to this concept, the body of all fully awakened Buddhas exhibit 32 special signs. Some of these signs are very curious, even grotesque, to the modern mind, although apparently they were associated with auspiciousness by the ancient Indians. According to this discourse the Buddha had these 32 signs and each was the result of him “doing mighty deeds of great benefit, of being unwavering in good conduct of body, speech and mind” throughout many of his past lives. Thus for example, he had legs like the swift-running antelope because as a teacher in past lives he has helped his students quickly master their lessons. He had webbed fingers and toes as a result of acting kindly towards others. Because he spoke to others in a gentle and considerate manner his tongue was long enough to lick his forehead. His deep blue eyes were the result of his kindly and benign gaze, and his arms were long enough to touch his knees without bending, the result of reaching out to help others, etc. (D.III,142). This clearly links physical attributes to past kamma. It will also be noticed that some of these vipākas would be examples of kammic parallelism. How can this be explained given the earlier assertion that kamma consequences have mainly a psychological affect and that kammic parallelism is a naive idea?
Many scholars agree that the doctrine of the 32 special signs belongs to a late, probably the latest, strata of the Tipiṭaka, the Buddhist scriptures. It should also be pointed out that this doctrine contradicts numerous statements in the Tipiṭaka where the Buddha is depicted as being physically no different from other humans. When King Ajatasattu went to meet the Buddha he was unable to distinguish him from the surrounding monks (D.I,50) and Pukkusāti sat talking to the Buddha for hours before realizing who he was (M.III,238). If the Buddha really had any of the signs, Ajātasatthu and Pukkusāti would have noticed it and immediately known that they were in the presence of an extraordinary individual. When Upāka encountered the Buddha walking along the road to Gaya, the thing he noticed most about him was his “clear faculties and radiant complexion”. (M.1,170) He did not mention seeing any of the special signs, which if the Buddha really had, would have been glaringly noticeable. So we have numerous texts depicting the Buddha as physically normal or assuming his physical normality, and a small number claiming that he had the 32 signs. Given this it is reasonable to assume that passages mentioning the 32 signs are interpolations.
But the doctrine of the 32 signs raises other problems for the idea that kammaic consequences can manifest themselves in the body. As we saw previously, the Cūḷakammavibaṅgha Sutta could be interpreted as saying that past good deeds can manifest themselves as physical beauty, i.e. that beauty is a “reward” for having done good. However, notions of what is and is not beautiful differs in both time and place, sometimes quite dramatically. The Kayan people of northern Burma and Thailand for example, consider abnormally long necks to be beautiful, while only a century ago Chinese men found tiny female feet to be extremely alluring. Most people nowadays would be revolted by such deformities. The 17th century European ideal woman was pale and pudgy, characteristics now associated with poor health. Today the ideal is to be slim and tanned. Closer to home, the 32 signs were considered auspicious and desirable in ancient India while today they are thought of as freakish, as anything but beautiful. So the question is this: how does kamma predetermine what will be considered beautiful in the future so that a good person is reborn with physical features in a culture and at a time when such features are perceived as attractive? No explanations are forthcoming. Indeed, such implications never seem to be considered. Once again we have the problem of kamma being thought of as an omniscient intelligence in all but name.
Having said all this, there may be a few area where vipāka could manifest itself in the physical domain. It is generally accepted that the state of a person’s mind can have some effect on their health; aggravating certain illnesses, helping to heal others, or even actually causing some illnesses. This is consistent with the Buddha’s comment that some physical afflictions may have a kammic cause.(2) Some research suggests that certain mental activities can have an effect on the brain. There is evidence that children who have musical training have a higher IQ than those who do not, and preliminary research suggests that keeping “mentally active” can stave off dementia which is caused by brain deterioration due to ageing. However, there is a big difference between all this and the idea that if you kick a monk in this life you will be reborn with a club foot in the next life.
Another example of kamma influencing the physical might be where certain mental states influence the countenance. The Buddha said that a loving disposition or profound inner peace can give the face a radiant complexion (S.I,5; III,236; V,301). However, as such physical attributes may change when the mental states change it is not certain whether they can be considered vipāka.
Two examples from possible real-life events may help clarify the working of kamma. A man drives home one day to find his house on fire. The fire brigade has already arrived and is attempting to put out the blaze and the neighbours are standing around watching. The man is horrified by the sight and spends the next two hours in intense anxiety hoping that at least some of his home and possessions will be spared. When it becomes clear that the fire is going to destroy everything he falls into despair. A sympathetic neighbour takes him to her home so he can sit for a while and plan what he is going to do over the next few days. Trying to cheer him up she say: “Well, at least you have insurance.” Suddenly a look of horror passes the man’s face, he lets out a groan and hangs his head in his hands. He has just remembered that only last month he allowed his insurance policy to lapse due to being busy. Over the next few months the man suffers depression and anxiety, anger and regret as he struggles to come to terms with the disaster. Eventually he gets over it but still occasionally angrily reproaches himself when he remembers the fire and his failure to keep his insurance policy up-to-date.
Let’s say that on the other side of the city, at about the same time, there was another fire in which a woman’s business went up in flames. She too reacted with dismay and anxiety but within a few hours she got over it, almost returned to her usual sanguine, state and set about trying to deal with her immediate problem. Her reaction would certainly be untypical in such circumstances but by no means be impossible. Why did the man react so differently from the woman? Why did he experience such prolonged suffering and distress and the woman so little?
The answer is because of their respective kamma, i.e. because of their different past actions. In the case of the man, for much of his life he has reacted negatively every time he experienced a setback or when something went wrong. He would get exasperated, annoyed and petulant, cursing under his breath, angrily blaming either himself or others, and experiencing all the consequent negative feelings. His reactions to the fire and the accompanying suffering are the vipāka for this previous kamma. And his reaction now will further reinforces and makes it much more likely that he will react similarly in the future. No one of his negative outbursts had much of an effect, but one following another, a previous one reinforcing a present one, gradually built up so that eventually it has become part of his character. Now it is almost inevitable that he will react negatively to reverses. His present reactions are literally determined by his past actions. The burning house had nothing to do with his or anyone else’s kamma. It was simply an event taking place in the world. It had a cause or causes, but not a kammic one. It could have been caused by an electrical fault, being struck by lightning, perhaps even arson. How he reacted to, how he felt about the burning house is the vipāka of his previous kamma.
Why did the woman react to an almost identical event, the destruction of her business, so differently? It could have been because she was always naturally sanguine and easygoing, something carried over from her past life a Buddhist might say. But in this case, when she was young she used to react negatively when things went wrong, but over time she came to realize how counter-productive this was. She learned various relaxation techniques and eventually took up meditation. The meditation taught her to watch her various reactions and to try to be detached from them. This gradually allowed her to be much more balanced in the face of the various ups and downs in her life and maintain a sense of equanimity. She still reacted negatively to various reversals but a little less each time. Her ability to keep relativity calm, i.e. her vipāka, when her business was destroyed was a direct result of her past actions, i.e. her past kamma. Again, the burning of her business had nothing to do with her or anyone else’s kamma. It was just “one of those things”.
Natural Causation, Kammic Causation
These two examples will probably make sense to most people. Some however, might ask: “But why do good people sometimes suffer while the bad sometimes get off scot-free?” Buddhist philosophy teaches causation, the idea that events have a cause or causes. But it makes a distinction between natural causation and moral or kammic causation. A rain storm is a natural event with a natural cause or series of causes. Getting angry because the rain has spoiled my weekend plans and spending Saturday and Sunday cursing the weather and sulking, is a kammic event which will have negative vipāka, in fact the unpleasant feeling of anger and annoyance is the vipāka. I have no control over the rain but I do have, or can have, some control over my reactions to and attitude towards the rain. Buddhist psychology makes a distinction between pain (dukkha) and suffering (domanassa).(25) Pain is physiological, while suffering is psychological. If I drop a heavy object on my foot I will experience physical pain. I may also get angry at myself for being careless, curse and swear and fly into a rage. This second reaction compounds the unpleasantness I am experiencing. I have no control over my pain, unless I take a painkiller. It has a natural cause or causes. But I do have, or can have, some control over my reaction to the pain. Concerning the rain, I could cheerfully accept that outdoor activities are not possible this weekend, find something else to do and enjoy myself doing it. There are a mass of complex reasons why people experience pain or pleasure – being in the wrong or the right place at the wrong or right time, or because it is “just one of those things”. The universe and every force and object within it is in a constantly dynamic state. Sometimes things and events move in ways that are to our benefit and sometimes they move in ways that are to our detriment. Our ability to control or predict what the universe does or will do is limited.
So why do good people sometimes have to endure pain and bad people sometimes enjoy pleasure? Because they, like everyone else, exist in a dynamic universe. Why people experience happiness or suffering is another matter altogether. That is due to their kamma. If we are able to understand, learn to control and gradually change how our minds work we will suffer much less, we may even be able to get to the stage where we are free from suffering and are able to abide in a state of continual peace and happiness.
Speculating about Kamma
It is correct to say that we are conditioned by our kamma rather than determined by it. And as we have seen, vipāka is conditioned too; by our kammic background, by the intensity of our intentions, by acting with mixed motives, by what we do subsequent to any particular action, etc. The idea that a single act inevitably leads to a single effect of exact strength or proportion simplifies the multifaceted phenomena that is kamma. The Sammohavinodani correctly says: “From one reason there is not one or many results, nor through many reasons is there only one result; but rather from many reasons there are many results.”  Consequently, the Buddha said that it is impossible and even unwise to speculate about what the vipāka of any particular kamma will be.(26) By this he did not mean that we should not bother about trying to understand the general principles of kamma. But pontificating about what kamma caused one person to have a certain experience, or what will be the vipāka of something another person is doing, or what kind of rebirth a third person will have because of what they are doing, is unlikely to be accurate. It is difficult enough knowing our own kammic background, desires, motives and reactions, let alone those of others. Only an enlightened person has the wisdom and insight to do this with any degree of accuracy. (27)
Having said this, it is at the same time true that understanding the basic concept of kamma and contemplating it can be helpful for the spiritual life. Considering that one’s actions will sooner or later have an effect is a strong inducement to do good and avoid evil. (28a,b) When we see others behaving badly or when we become a victim of their bad behaviour, contemplating that they, like us, will be affected by what they are doing can help free us from being judgemental, self-righteousness, angry or vengeful. (29a,b) When we see others acting with virtue, heroism or unselfishness and benefiting from it this can make us try to emulate their behaviour.
- Although killing one’s mother, one’s father or an arahat, injuring a Buddha or causing a schism in the Sangha, are mentioned in the Nikāyas as very negative kamma, they are nowhere specifically said to be deeds of immediate and fixed consequence (ānantariya). See A.I,27; III,438-9 and Sn.231. [back]
- The five causes of things; seasonal causes (utu-niyāma), biological causes (bīja-niyāma), kammic causes (kamma-niyāma), psychological causes (citta-niyāma) and (dhamma-niyāma); is a commentarial idea first mentioned in the Atthasālinī, 5th century CE. In reality, kammic causes and psychological causes are the same. [back]
- Ekato hi kāraṇato na idha kiñci ekaṁ phalam-atthi, na anekaṁ; nāpi anekehi kāraṇehi ekaṁ; anekehi pana kāraṇehi anekam-eva hoti, p.147). [back]