Kamma is simply action, a "deed." Actions are performed in three ways: by body, mind and speech. Every action of importance is performed because there is desire for a result; it has an aim, an objective. One wishes for something specific to happen as the result of it. This desire, no matter how mild it may be, is a form of craving. It expresses the thirst (ta.nhaa) for existence and for action. To exist is to act, on one level or another. Organic existence consists of chemical action; psychic existence consists of mental action. So existence and action are inseparable.
But some actions, those in which mind is involved, are bound to have intention. This is expressed by the Pali word cetanaa, volition, which is one of the mental properties. There is another word, chanda, which stands for wishing, desiring a result. These words all express some kind of desire. And some form of desire is behind practically every activity of life. Therefore "to live" and "to desire" are one and the same thing. (There is one ultimate exception to this statement, which we shall come to later. It is that of the Arahat.)
An action (kamma) is morally unwholesome when it is motivated by the forms of craving that are associated with greed, hatred and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha). It is morally wholesome (in ordinary language, good) when it is motivated by the opposite factors, disinterestedness (greedlessness), amity and wisdom. An act so motivated is prompted by "intention" rather than "craving." Yet in every act of craving, intention is included. It is that which gives direction and form to the deed.
Now, each deed performed with intention is a creative act. By reason of the will behind it, it constitutes a force. It is a force analogous to the other great unseen, yet physical, forces that move the universe. By our thoughts, words and deeds we create our world from moment to moment in the endless process of change. We also create our "selves." That is to say, we mould our changing personality as we go along by the accumulation of such thoughts, words and deeds. It is the accretion of these, and the preponderance of one kind over another, that determines what we shall become, in this life and in subsequent ones.
In thus creating our personality, we create also the conditions in which it functions. In other words, we create also the kind of world we are to live in. The mind, therefore, is master of the world. As a man’s mind is, so is his cosmos.
Kamma, then, as the product of the mind, is the true and only real force in the life-continuum, the flux of coming-to-be. From this we come to understand that it is the residue of mental force which from the point of death kindles a new birth. It is the only actual link between one life ("reincarnation") and another. And since the process is a continuous one, it is the last kammic thought-moment at the point of death that forms the rebirth-linking consciousness—the kamma that reproduces. Other kamma, good or bad, will come into operation at some later stage, when external conditions are favourable for its ripening. The force of weak kamma may be suspended for a long time by the interposition of a stronger kamma. Some kinds of kamma may even be inoperative; but this never happens with very strong or weighty kamma. As a general principle, all kamma bears some kind of fruit sooner or later.
Each individual’s kamma is his own personal act, its results his own personal inheritance. He alone has complete command over his actions, no matter to what degree others may try to force him. Yet an unwholesome deed done under strong compulsion does not have quite the same force as one performed voluntarily. Under threat of torture or of death a man may be compelled to torture or kill someone else. In such a case it may be believed that the gravity of his kamma is not so severe as it would be had he deliberately chosen to act in such a way. The heaviest moral responsibility rests with those who have forced him to the action. But in the ultimate sense he still must bear some responsibility, for he could in the most extreme case avoid harming another by choosing to suffer torture or death himself.
This brings us to the question of collective kamma. As we have seen, each man’s kamma is his own individual experience. No one can interfere with the kamma of another beyond a certain point; therefore no one can intervene to alter the results of personal kamma. Yet it often happens that numbers of people are associated in the same kind of actions, and share the same kind of thoughts; they become closely involved with one another; they influence one another. Mass psychology produces mass kamma. Therefore all such people are likely to form the same pattern of kamma. It may result in their being associated with one another through a number of lives, and in their sharing much the same kind of experiences. "Collective kamma" is simply the aggregate of individual kammas, just as a crowd is an aggregate of individuals.
It is in fact this kind of mass kamma that produces different kinds of worlds—the world we live in, the states of greater suffering and the states of relative happiness. Each being inhabits the kind of cosmic construction for which he has fitted himself. It is his kamma, and the kamma of beings like himself, that has created it. This is how it comes about that in multidimensional space-time there are many lokas—many worlds and modes of being. Each one represents a particular type of consciousness, the result of kamma. The mind is confined only by the boundaries it erects itself.
The results of kamma are called vipaaka, "the ripening." These terms, kamma and vipaaka, and the ideas they stand for, must not be confused. Vipaaka is predetermined (by ourselves) by previous kamma. But kamma itself in the ultimate sense (that is, when resisting all external pressures and built-up tendencies) is the product of choice and free will: between wholesome and unwholesome deeds, good or bad actions. Hence the Buddha said: "Intention constitutes kamma." Without intention a deed is sterile; it produces no reaction of moral significance. One reservation, however, is here required; if a deed done in "culpable negligence" proves harmful to others, the lack of mindfulness, circumspection or consideration shown will constitute unwholesome kamma and will have its vipaaka. Though the harm done was not "intended," i.e. the deed was not motivated by hate, yet there was present another "unwholesome root," delusion (moha), which includes, for instance, irresponsible thoughtlessness.
Kamma is action; vipaaka is result. Therefore kamma is the active principle; vipaaka is the passive mode of coming-to-be. People believe in predeterminism, fatalism, merely because they see results, but do not see causes. In the process of dependent origination (pa.ticca-samuppaada) both causes and effects are shown in their proper relationship.
A person may be born deaf, dumb and blind. That is the consequence of some unwholesome kamma which manifested or presented itself to his consciousness in the last thought-moment of his previous death. Throughout life he may have to suffer the consequences (vipaaka) of that deed, whatever it may have been. But that fact does not prevent him from forming fresh kamma of a wholesome type to restore the balance in his next life. Furthermore, by the aid of some good kamma from the past, together with strong effort and favourable circumstances in the present life (which of course includes the compassionate help of others), the full effects of his bad kamma may be mitigated even here and now.
Cases of this kind are seen everywhere, where people have overcome to a great extent the most formidable handicaps. The result is that they have turned even the bad vipaaka to profit for themselves and others. One outstanding example of this is the famous Dr. Helen Keller. But this calls for almost superhuman courage and will-power. Most people in similar circumstances remain passive sufferers of the effects of their bad deeds until those effects are exhausted. Thus it has to be in the case of those born mentally defective or in the lower states of suffering. Having scarcely any capacity for the exercise of free will, they are subject entirely to predeterminism until the bad vipaaka has run its course.
So, by acknowledging some element of predeterminism, yet at the same time maintaining the ultimate ascendancy of will, Buddhism resolves a moral problem which otherwise seems insoluble. Part of the personality, and the conditions in which it exists, are predetermined by the deeds and the total personality of the past; but in the final analysis the mind is able to free itself from the bondage of past personality-construction and launch out in a fresh direction.
Now, we have seen that the three roots of unwholesome actions—greed, hatred and delusion—produce bad results; the three roots of wholesome actions—disinterestedness, amity and wisdom—produce good results. Actions which are performed automatically or unconsciously, or are incidental to some other action having an entirely different objective, do not produce results beyond their immediate mechanical consequences. If one treads on an insect in the dark one is not morally responsible for its death. One has been merely an unconscious instrument of the insect’s own kamma in producing its death.
But while there is a large class of actions of the last type, which cannot be avoided, the more important actions in everyone’s life are dominated by one or other of these six psychological roots, wholesome and unwholesome. Even where a life is physically inactive, the thoughts are at work; they are producing kamma. Cultivation of the mind therefore consists in removing (not suppressing) unwholesome mental states and substituting wholesome ones. Modern civilisation develops by suppressing unwholesome (the "anti-social") instincts. Consequently they break out from time to time in unwholesome eruptions. A war breaks out and the homicidal maniac comes into his own: murder is made praiseworthy. Buddhism, on the other hand, aims at removing the unwholesome mental elements. For this, the special techniques of meditation (bhaavanaa) are necessary.
Good kamma is the product of wholesome states of mind. And to be certain of this, it is essential to gain an understanding of the states of consciousness and one’s most secret motives. Unless this is done, it is next to impossible to cultivate exclusively wholesome actions, because in every human consciousness there is a complex of hidden motivations. They are hidden because we do not wish to acknowledge them. In every human being there is a built-in defence mechanism that prevents him from seeing himself too clearly. If he should happen to be confronted with his subconscious mind too suddenly he may receive an unpleasant psychological shock. His carefully constructed image of himself is rudely shattered. He is appalled by the crudity, the unsuspected savagery, of his real motivations.
The keen and energetic social worker may find that he is really actuated by a desire to push other people around, to tell them what is best for them and to force them to do his will. The professional humanitarian, always championing the underdog, may find to his distress that his outbursts of high moral indignation at the injustices of society are nothing more than an expression of his real hatred of other humans, made respectable to himself and others by the guise of concern for the victims of society. Or each may be compensating for hidden defects in his own personality. All these facts are well known to present-day psychologists; but how many people submit themselves to the analyst’s probings? Buddhism teaches us to do it for ourselves, and to make ourselves immune to unpleasant or shocking revelations by acknowledging beforehand that there is no immutable personality, no "self" to be either admired or deplored.
An action (kamma), once it is performed, is finished so far as its actual performance is concerned. It is also irreversible.
The moving finger writes, and having writ
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Can lure it back to cancel half a line—
Nor all your tears wash out one word of it.
Edward Fitzgerald: The Rubaiyyat of
The moving finger is no mystery to one who understands kamma and vipaaka. Ask not whose finger writes upon the wall. It is thine own.
What remains of the action is its potential, the inevitability of its result. It is a force released into the stream of time, and in time it must have its fruition. And when, for good or ill, it has fructified, like all else its force must pass away—and then the kamma and the vipaaka alike are no more. But as the old kammas die, new ones are created—every moment of every waking hour. So the life-process, involved in suffering, is carried on. It is borne along on the current of craving. It is in its essence nothing but that craving, that desire—the desire that takes many forms, is insatiable, is self-renewing. As many-formed as Proteus; as undying as the phoenix.
But when there comes the will to end desire, a change takes place. The mind that craved gratification in the fields of sense now turns away. Another desire, other than that of the senses, gathers power and momentum. It is the desire for cessation, for peace, for the end of pain and sorrow. The desire for Nibbaana.
Now this desire is incompatible with all other desires. Therefore, if it becomes strong enough it kills all other desires. Gradually they fade out; first the grosser cravings springing from the three immoral roots; then the higher desires; then the attachments, all wilt and fade out, extinguished by the one overmastering desire for Nibbaana.
And as they wilt and fade out, and no more result-producing actions take their place, so the current of the life-continuum dries up. Unwholesome actions cannot be performed, because their roots have withered away; there is no more basis for them. The wholesome deeds in their turn become sterile; since they are not motivated by desire they do not project any force into the future. In the end there is no craving force left to produce another birth. Everything has been swallowed up by the desire for the extinction of desire.
And when the object of that desire is gained, can it any longer be a desire? Does a man continue to long for what he has already got? The last desire of all is not self-renewing; it is self-destroying. For in its fulfilment is its own death. Nibbaana is attained.
Therefore the Buddha said,
"For the final cessation of suffering, all kamma, wholesome and unwholesome, must be transcended, must be abandoned. Putting aside good and evil, one attains Nibbaana. There is no other way."
The Arahat lives then only experiencing the residuum of his life-span. And when that last remaining impetus comes to an end the aggregates of his personality come to an end too, never to be reconstructed, never to be replaced. In their continual renewal there was suffering; now there is release. In their coming together there was illusion—the illusion of self. Now there is Reality.
And Reality is beyond conception.