The Theory of Karma in Buddhism
Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.
Either this inequality of mankind has a cause, or it is purely accidental. No sensible person would think of attributing this unevenness, this inequality, and this diversity to blind chance or pure accident.
In this world nothing happens to a person that he does not for some reason or other deserve. Usually, men of ordinary intellect cannot comprehend the actual reason or reasons. The definite invisible cause or causes of the visible effect is not necessarily confined to the present life, they may be traced to a proximate or remote past birth.
According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, "nature and nurture", but also to Karma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.
Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:
"What is the cause, what is the reason, O Lord," questioned he, "that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?"
The Buddha’s reply was:
He then explained the cause of such differences in accordance with the law of cause and effect.
Certainly we are born with hereditary characteristics. At the same time we possess certain innate abilities that science cannot adequately account for. To our parents we are indebted for the gross sperm and ovum that form the nucleus of this so-called being. They remain dormant within each parent until this potential germinal compound is vitalised by the karmic energy needed for the production of the foetus. Karma is therefore the indispensable conceptive cause of this being.
The accumulated karmic tendencies, inherited in the course of previous lives, at times play a far greater role than the hereditary parental cells and genes in the formation of both physical and mental characteristics.
The Buddha, for instance, inherited, like every other person, the reproductive cells and genes from his parents. But physically, morally and intellectually there was none comparable to him in his long line of Royal ancestors. In the Buddha’s own words, he belonged not to the Royal lineage, but to that of the Aryan Buddhas. He was certainly a superman, an extraordinary creation of his own Karma.
According to the Lakkhana Sutta of Digha Nikaya, the Buddha inherited exceptional features, such as the 32 major marks, as the result of his past meritorious deeds. The ethical reason for acquiring each physical feature is clearly explained in the Sutta.
It is obvious from this unique case that karmic tendencies could not only influence our physical organism, but also nullify the potentiality of the parental cells and genes – hence the significance of the Buddha’s enigmatic statement, - "We are the heirs of our own actions."
Dealing with this problem of variation, the Atthasalini, being a commentary on the Abhidharma, states:
"Depending on this difference in Karma appears the differences in the birth of beings, high and low, base and exalted, happy and miserable. Depending on the difference in Karma appears the difference in the individual features of beings as beautiful and ugly, high-born or low born, well-built or deformed. Depending on the difference in Karma appears the difference in worldly conditions of beings, such as gain and loss, and disgrace, blame and praise, happiness and misery."
Thus, from a Buddhist point of view, our present mental, moral intellectual and temperamental differences are, for the most part, due to our own actions and tendencies, both past and present.
Although Buddhism attributes this variation to Karma, as being the chief cause among a variety, it does not, however, assert that everything is due to Karma. The law of Karma, important as it is, is only one of the twenty-four conditions described in Buddhist Philosophy.
Refuting the erroneous view that "whatsoever fortune or misfortune experienced is all due to some previous action", the Buddha said:
"So, then, according to this view, owing to previous action men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, covetous, malicious and perverts. Thus, for those who fall back on the former deeds as the essential reason, there is neither the desire to do, nor effort to do, nor necessity to do this deed, or abstain from this deed."
It was this important text, which states the belief that all physical circumstances and mental attitudes spring solely from past Karma that Buddha contradicted. If the present life is totally conditioned or wholly controlled by our past actions, then certainly Karma is tantamount to fatalism or determinism or predestination. If this were true, free will would be an absurdity. Life would be purely mechanistic, not much different from a machine. Being created by an Almighty God who controls our destinies and predetermines our future, or being produced by an irresistible Karma that completely determines our fate and controls our life’s course, independent of any free action on our part, is essentially the same. The only difference lies in the two words God and Karma. One could easily be substituted for the other, because the ultimate operation of both forces would be identical.
Such a fatalistic doctrine is not the Buddhist law of Karma.
According to Buddhism, there are five orders or processes (niyama) which operate in the physical and mental realms.
Every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes which are laws in themselves. Karma as such is only one of these five orders. Like all other natural laws they demand no lawgiver.
Of these five, the physical inorganic order and the order of the norm are more or less mechanistic, though they can be controlled to some extent by human ingenuity and the power of mind. For example, fire normally burns, and extreme cold freezes, but man has walked scatheless over fire and meditated naked on Himalayan snows; horticulturists have worked marvels with flowers and fruits; Yogis have performed levitation. Psychic law is equally mechanistic, but Buddhist training aims at control of mind, which is possible by right understanding and skilful volition. Karma law operates quite automatically and, when the Karma is powerful, man cannot interfere with its inexorable result though he may desire to do so; but here also right understanding and skilful volition can accomplish much and mould the future. Good Karma, persisted in, can thwart the reaping of bad Karma, or as some Western scholars prefer to say ‘action influence’, is certainly an intricate law whose working is fully comprehended only by a Buddha. The Buddhist aims at the final destruction of all Karma.
The Pali term Karma literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal, or physical, is regarded as Karma. It covers all that is included in the phrase "thought, word and deed". Generally speaking, all good and bad action constitutes Karma. In its ultimate sense Karma means all moral and immoral volition. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deeds, do not constitute Karma, because volition, the most important factor in determining Karma, is absent.
The Buddha says:
Every volitional action of individuals, save those of Buddhas and Arahants, is called Karma. The exception made in their case is because they are delivered from both good and evil; they have eradicated ignorance and craving, the roots of Karma.
"Destroyed are their germinal seeds (Khina bija); selfish desires no longer grow," states the Ratana Sutta of Sutta nipata.
This does not mean that the Buddha and Arahantas are passive. They are tirelessly active in working for the real well being and happiness of all. Their deeds ordinarily accepted as good or moral, lack creative power as regards themselves. Understanding things as they truly are, they have finally shattered their cosmic fetters – the chain of cause and effect.
Karma does not necessarily mean past actions. It embraces both past and present deeds. Hence in one sense, we are the result of what we were; we will be the result of what we are. In another sense, it should be added, we are not totally the result of what we were; we will not absolutely be the result of what we are. The present is no doubt the offspring of the past and is the present of the future, but the present is not always a true index of either the past or the future; so complex is the working of Karma.
It is this doctrine of Karma that the mother teaches her child when she says "Be good and you will be happy and we will love you; but if you are bad, you will be unhappy and we will not love you." In short, Karma is the law of cause and effect in the ethical realm.
Karma is action, and Vipaka, fruit or result, is its reaction.
Just as every object is accompanied by a shadow, even so every volitional activity is inevitably accompanied by its due effect. Karma is like potential seed: Vipaka could be likened to the fruit arising from the tree – the effect or result. Anisamsa and Adinaya are the leaves, flowers and so forth that correspond to external differences such as health, sickness and poverty – these are inevitable consequences, which happen at the same time. Strictly speaking, both Karma and Vipaka pertain to the mind.
As Karma may be good or bad, so may Vipaka, - the fruit – is good or bad. As Karma is mental so Vipaka is mental (of the mind). It is experienced as happiness, bliss, unhappiness or misery, according to the nature of the Karma seed. Anisamsa are the concomitant advantages – material things such as prosperity, health and longevity. When Vipaka’s concomitant material things are disadvantageous, they are known as Adinaya, full of wretchedness, and appear as poverty, ugliness, disease, short life-span and so forth.
As we sow, we reap somewhere and sometime, in his life or in a future birth. What we reap today is what we have sown either in the present or in the past.
The Samyutta Nikaya states:
Karma is a law in itself, which operates in its own field without the intervention of any external, independent ruling agency.
Happiness and misery, which are the common lot of humanity, are the inevitable effects of causes. From a Buddhist point of view, they are not rewards and punishments, assigned by a supernatural, omniscient ruling power to a soul that has done good or evil. Theists, who attempt to explain everything in this and temporal life and in the eternal future life, ignoring a past, believe in a ‘postmortem’ justice, and may regard present happiness and misery as blessings and curses conferred on His creation by an omniscient and omnipotent Divine Ruler who sits in heaven above controlling the destinies of the human race. Buddhism, which emphatically denies such an Almighty, All merciful God-Creator and an arbitrarily created immortal soul, believes in natural law and justice which cannot be suspended by either an Almighty God or an All-compassionate Buddha. According to this natural law, acts bear their own rewards and punishments to the individual doer whether human justice finds out or not.
There are some who criticise thus: "So, you Buddhists, too, administer capitalistic opium to the people, saying: "You are born poor in this life on account of your past evil karma. He is born rich on account of his good Karma. So, be satisfied with your humble lot; but do good to be rich in your next life. You are being oppressed now because of your past evil Karma. There is your destiny. Be humble and bear your sufferings patiently. Do good now. You can be certain of a better and happier life after death."
The Buddhist doctrine of Karma does not expound such ridiculous fatalistic views. Nor does it vindicate a postmortem justice. The All-Merciful Buddha, who had no ulterior selfish motives, did not teach this law of Karma to protect the rich and comfort the poor by promising illusory happiness in an after-life.
While we are born to a state created by ourselves, yet by our own self-directed efforts there is every possibility for us to create new, favourable environments even here and now. Not only individually, but also, collectively, we are at liberty to create fresh Karma that leads either towards our progress or downfall in this very life.
According to the Buddhist doctrine of Karma, one is not always compelled by an ‘iron necessity’, for Karma is neither fate, nor predestination imposed upon us by some mysterious unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. It is one’s own doing reacting on oneself, and so one has the possibility to divert the course of one’s Karma to some extent. How far one diverts it depends on oneself.
Is one bound to reap all that one has sown in just proportion?
The Buddha provides an answer:
Although it is stated in the Dhammapada that "not in the sky, nor in mid-ocean, or entering a mountain cave is found that place on earth where one may escape from (the consequences of) an evil deed", yet one is not bound to pay all the past arrears of one’s Karma. If such were the case emancipation would be impossibility. Eternal recurrence would be the unfortunate result.
Ignorance (avijja), or not knowing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of Karma. Dependent on ignorance arise activities (avijja paccaya samkhara) states the Buddha in the Paticca Samuppada (Dependent Origination).
Associated with ignorance is the ally craving (tanha), the other root of Karma. Evil actions are conditioned by these two causes. All good deeds of a worldling (putthujana), though associated with the three wholesome roots of generosity (alobha), goodwill (adosa) and knowledge (amoha), are nevertheless regarded as Karma because the two roots of ignorance and craving are dormant in him. The moral types of Supramundane Path Consciousness (magga citta) are not regarded as Karma because they tend to eradicate the two root causes.
In answering these subtle questions, the Venerable Buddhaghosa writes in the Visuddhi Magga:
For instance, the table we see is apparent reality. In an ultimate sense the so-called table consists of forces and qualities.
For ordinary purposes a scientist would use the term water, but in the laboratory he would say H 2 0.
In this same way, for conventional purposes, such terms as man, woman, being, self, and so forth are used. The so-called fleeting forms consist of psychophysical phenomena, which are constantly changing not remaining the same for two consecutive moments.
Buddhists, therefore, do not believe in an unchanging entity, in an actor apart from action, in a perceiver apart from perception, in a conscious subject behind consciousness.
Who then, is the doer of Karma? Who experiences the effect?
Volition, or Will (tetana), is itself the doer, Feeling (vedana) is itself the reaper of the fruits of actions. Apart from these pure mental states (suddhadhamma) there is no-one to sow and no-one to reap.
(A) With respect to different functions, Karma is classified into four kinds:
1. REPRODUCTIVE KARMA
2. SUPPORTIVE KARMA
That which comes near the Reproductive (janaka) Kamma and supports it. It is neither good nor bad and it assists or maintains the action of the Reproductive (janaka) Karma in the course of one’s lifetime. Immediately after conception till the death moment this Karma steps forward to support the Reproductive Karma. A moral supportive (kusala upathambhaka) Karma assists in giving health, wealth, happiness etc. to the being born with a moral Reproductive Karma. An immoral supportive Karma, on the other hand, assists in giving pain, sorrow, etc. to the being born with an immoral reproductive (akusala janaka) Karma, as for instance to a beast of burden.
3. OBSTRUCTIVE KARMA OR COUNTERACTIVE KARMA
Which, unlike the former, tends to weaken, interrupt and retard the fruition of the Reproductive Karma. For instance, a person born with a good Reproductive Karma may be subject to various ailments etc., thus preventing him from enjoying the blissful results of his good actions. An animal, on the other hand, who is born with a bad Reproductive Karma may lead a comfortable life by getting good food, lodging, etc., as a result of his good counteractive or obstructive (upabidaka) Karma preventing the fruition of the evil Reproductive Karma.
4. DESTRUCTIVE (UPAGHATAKA) KARMA
(B) There is another classification of Karma, according to the priority of effect:
(C) There is another classification of Karma according to the time in which effects are worked out:
(D) The last classification of Karma is according to the plane in which the effect takes place, namely:
Question: Do the Karmas of parents determine or affect the Karmas of their children?
Answer: Physically, the Karma of children is generally determined by the Karma of their parents. Thus, healthy parents usually have healthy offspring, and unhealthy parents have unhealthy children. On the effect or how the Karma of their children is determined: the child’s Karma is a thing apart of itself – it forms the child’s individuality, the sum-total of its merits and demerits accumulated in innumerable past existences. For example, the Karma of the Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhartha was certainly not influenced by the joint Karma of his parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. The glorious and powerful Karma of our Buddha-to-be transcended the Karma of his parents which jointly were more potent than his own.
Question: If the Karma of parents do not influence those of their children, how would the fact be explained that parents who suffer from certain virulent diseases are apt to transmit these evils to their offsprings?
Answer: Where a child inherit such a disease it is due to the force of the parents’ characteristics because of the force of the latter’s Utu (conditions favourable to germination). Take, for example, two seeds from a sapling; plant one in inferior, dry soil; and the other in rich, moist soil. The result is that the first seed will sprout into a sickly sapling and soon show symptoms of disease and decay; while the other seed will thrive and flourish and grow up to be a tall and healthy tree.
It will be observed that the pair of seeds taken from the same stock grows up differently according to the soil into which they are put. A child’s past Karma may be compared to the seed: the physical disposition of the mother to the soil; and that of the father to the moisture, which fertilised the soil. Roughly speaking, to illustrate our subject, we will say that, representing the sapling’s germination, growth, and existence as a unit, the seed is responsible for one-tenth of them, the soil for six-tenths, and the moisture for the remainder, three-tenths. Thus, although the power of germination exists potentially in the seed (the child), its growth is powerfully determined and quickened by the soil (the mother) and the moisture (the father).
Therefore, even as the conditions of the soil and moisture must be taken as largely responsible factors in the growth and condition of the tree. So must the influences of the parents (or progenitors, as in the case of the animal world) be taken into account in respect to the conception and growth of their offspring.
The parents’ share in the Karma determining the physical factors of their issue is as follows: If they are human beings, then their offspring will be a human being. If they are cattle then their issue must be of their species. If the human being is Chinese, then their offspring must be of their race. Thus, the offspring are invariably of the same genera and species, etc., as those of the progenitors. It will be seen from the above that, although a child’s Karma is very powerful in itself, if cannot remain wholly uninfluenced by those of it parents. It is apt to inherit the physical characteristic of its parents. Yet, it may occur that the child’s Karma, being superlatively powerful, the influence of the parent’s joint Karma cannot overshadow it. Of course, it need hardly be pointed out that the evil influences of parents can also be counteracted by the application of medical science.
All beings born of sexual cohabitation are the resultant effects of three forces:
The physical dispositions of the parents may, or may not, be equal in force. One may counteract the other to a lesser or greater extent. The child’s Karma and physical characteristics, such as race, colour, etc., will be the produce of the three forces.
Question: On the death of a sentient being, is there a ‘soul’ that wanders about at will?
Answer: When a sentient being leaves one existence, it is reborn either as a human being, a celestial being, (Deva or Brahama), and inferior animal, or a denizen of one of the regions of hell. The sceptics and the ignorant people held that there are intermediate stages – antrabhava – between these; and that there are being who are neither of the human, the celestial, the Deva or the Brahma worlds nor of any one of the stages of exist recognised in the scriptures – but are in an intermediate stage. Some assert that these transitional stages are possessed of the Five Khandhas (Five Aggregates: they are Matter (rupa); Feeling (vedana); Perception (sanna); 4. Mental-activities (sankhara); and Consciousness (vinnana).
Some assert that these beings are detached ‘souls’ or spirits with no material encasement, and some again, that they are possessed of the faculty of seeing like Devas, and further, that they have power of changing at will, at short intervals, from one to any of the existence mentioned above. Others again hold the fantastic and erroneous theory that these beings can, and so, fancy themselves to be in other than the existence they are actually in. Thus, to take for example one such of these suppositious beings. He is a poor person – and yet he fancies himself to be rich. He may be in hell – and yet he fancies himself to be in the land of the Devas, and so on. This belief in intermediate stages between existences is false, and is condemned in the Buddhist teachings. A human being in this life who, by his Karma is destined to be a human being in the next, will be reborn as such; one who by his Karma is destined to be a Deva in the next will be appear in the land of the Devas; and one whose future life is to be in Hell, will be found in one of the regions of hell in the next existence.
The idea of an entity or soul or spirit ‘going’, ‘coming’, ‘changing’ or ‘transmigrating’ from one existence to another is an idea entertained by the ignorance and materialistic, and is certainly not justified by the Dhammas that there is no such thing as ‘going’, 'coming’, ‘changing’, etc., as between existences. The conception, which is in accordance with the Dhamma, may perhaps be illustrated by the picture thrown out by a cinema projector, or the sound of emitted by the gramophone, and their relation to the film or the sound-box and records respectively. For example, a human being dies and is reborn in the land of Devas. Though these two existences are different, yet the link or continuity between the two at death is unbroken in point of time. The same is true in the case of a man whose further existence is to be in hell. The distance between Hell and the abode of man appears to be great. Yet, in point of time, the continuity of ‘passage’ from the one existence to the other is unbroken, and no intervening matter or space can interrupt the trend of a man’s Karma from the world of human beings to the regions of Hell. The ‘passage’ from one existence to another is instantaneous, and the transition is infinitely quicker than the blink of an eyelid or a lightening-flash.
Karma determines the realm of rebirth and the state of existence in that realm of all transient being (in the cycle of existences, which have to be traversed till the attainment, at last, of Nibbana).
The results of Karma are manifold, and may be effected in many ways. Religious offerings (dana) may obtain for a man the privilege of rebirth as a human being, or as a deva, in one of the six deva worlds according to the degree of the merit of the deeds performed, and so with the observance of religious duties (sila). The jhanas or states of absorption, are found in the Brahma world or Brahmalokas up to the summit, the twentieth Brahma world: And so with bad deeds, the perpetrators of which are to be found , grade by grade, down to the lowest depths of Hell. Thus are Karma, past, present and future were, are, and will ever be the sum total of our deeds, good, indifferent or bad. As was seen from the foregoing, our Karma determines the changes of our existences.
"Evil spirits" are, therefore, not beings in an intermediate or transitional stages of existence, but are really very inferior beings, and they belong to one of the following five realms of existence:
1. World of Men: 2. The Lowest plane of deva-world; 3. The region of hell; 4. Animals below men, and 5. Petas (ghosts).
Number 2 and 5 are very near the world of human beings. As their condition is unhappy, and they are popularly considered evil spirits. It is not true that all who die in this world are reborn as evil spirits; nor is it true that beings who die sudden or violent deaths are apt to be reborn in the lowest plane of the world of devas.
Question: Is there such a thing as a human being who is reborn and who is able to speak accurately of his or her past existence?
Answer: Certainly, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and is in accordance with the tenets of Buddhism in respect to Karma.
The following (who form, an overwhelming majority of human beings) are generally unable to remember there past existences when reborn as human beings: Children who die young. Those who die old and senile. Those who are addicted to the drug or drink habit. Those whose mothers, during their conception, have been sickly or have had to toil laboriously, or have been reckless or imprudent during pregnancy. The children in the womb, being stunned and started, lose all knowledge of their past existence.
The following are possessed of a knowledge of their past existences, viz: Those who are not reborn (in the human world) but proceed to the world of the devas, of Brahmas, or to the regions of Hell, remember their past existences.
Those who die suddenly deaths from accidents, while in sound health, may also be possessed of this faculty in the next existence, provided that their mothers, in whose womb they are conceived, are healthy. Again, those who live steady, meritorious lives and who in their past existences have striven to attain, often attain it.
Lastly the Buddha, the Arahantas and Ariyas attain this gift which is known as pubbenivasa abhnna (Supernatural Power remembering previous existences).
Question: Which are the five Abhinna? Are they attainable only by the Buddha?
Answer: The five Abhinna (Supernatural Powers): Pali - abhi, excellent, nana, wisdom) are:
The Abhinna are attainable not only by the Buddha, but also by Arantas and Ariyas, by ordinary mortals who practise according to the Scriptures (as was the case with hermits etc, who flourished before the time of the Buddha and who were able to fly through the air and traverse different worlds).
In the Buddhist Scriptures, we find, clearly shown, the means of attaining the five Abhinna. And even nowadays, if these means are carefully and perseveringly pursued, it would be possible to attain these. That we do not see any person endowed with the five Abhinna today is due to the lack of strenuous physical and mental exertion towards their attainment.
In the working of Karma there are maleficent and beneficent forces and conditions to counteract and support this self-operating law. Birth (gati) time or condition (kala) substratum of rebirth or showing attachment to rebirth (upadhi) and effort (payoga) act as such powerful aids and hindrances to the fruition of Karma.
Though we are neither the absolutely the servants nor the masters of our Karma, it is evident from these counteractive and supportive factors that the fruition of Karma is influenced to some extent by external circumstances, surroundings, personality, individual striving, and so forth.
It is this doctrine of Karma that gives consolation, hope, reliance and moral courage to a Buddhist. When the unexpected happens, and he meets with difficulties, failures, and misfortune, the Buddhist realises that he is reaping what he has sown, and he is wiping off a past debt. Instead of resigning himself, leaving everything to Karma, he makes a strenuous effort to pull the weeds and sow useful seeds in their place, for the future is in his own hands.
He who believes in Karma does not condemn even the most corrupt, for they, too, have their chance to reform themselves at any moment. Though bound to suffer in woeful states, they have hope of attaining eternal Peace. By their own doings they have created their own Hells, and by their own doings they can create their own Heavens, too.
A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the law of Karma does not pray to another to be saved but confidently relies on him for his own emancipation. Instead of making any self-surrender, or calling on any supernatural agency, he relies on his own will power, and works incessantly for the well-being and happiness of all. This belief in Karma validates his effort and kindles his enthusiasm, because it teaches individual responsibility.
To the ordinary Buddhist, Karma serves as a deterrent, while to an intellectual, it serves as in incentive to do good. He or she becomes kind, tolerant, and considerate. This law of Karma explains the problem of suffering, the mastery of so-called fate and predestination of other religions and about all the inequality of mankind.