What Kamma is

by Sayadaw U Thittila | 1996 | 4,604 words

"According to the seed that's sown, So is the fruit ye reap therefrom. Doer of good will gather good, Doer of evil, evil reaps, Sown is the seed, and thou shalt taste The fruit thereof" Buddha - Samyutta Nikaya Sukhi Hotu Sdn Bhd (#FREE001/1996) Printed By Unique, Penang, 1998...

Part 1 - What Kamma Is

Kamma is a Pali word meaning action. It is called Karma m Sanskrit. In its general sense Kamma means all good and bad actions. It covers all kinds of intentional actions whether mental, verbal or physical thoughts, words and deeds. In its ultimate sense Kamma means all moral and immoral volitions.

The Buddha says:

"Mental volition, O Bhikkhus, is what I call action (Kamma). Having volition, one acts by body, speech and thought."

Anguttara Nikaya, Vol. III, Pg 415

Kamma is neither fatalism nor a doctrine of predetermination. The past influences the present but does not dominate it, for Kamma is past as well as present. The past and present influence the future. The past is a background against which life goes on from moment to moment. The future is yet to be. Only present moment exists and the responsibility of using the present moment for good or for ill lies with each individual.

Every action produces an effect and it is a cause first and effect afterwards. We therefore speak of Kamma as the law of cause and effect. Throwing a stone, for example, is an action. The stone strikes a glass window and breaks it. The breakage is the effect of the action of throwing, but it is not the end. The broken window is now the cause of further trouble. Some of one’s money will have to go to replace it, and one is thus unable to save the money or to buy with it what one wants for some other purpose, and the effect upon one is a feeling of disappointment.

This may make one irritable and if one is not careful, one may allow the irritability to become the cause of doing something else which is wrong and so on. There is no end to the result of action, no end to Kamma, so we should be very careful about our actions, so that their effect will be good. It is, therefore, necessary for us to do a good, helpful action which will return to us in good Kamma and make us strong enough to start a better Kamma.

Throw a stone into a pond and watch the effect. There is a splash and a number of little rings appear round the place where the stone strikes.  See how the rings grow wider and wider till they become too wide and too tiny for our eyes to follow. The little stone disturbs the water in the pond, but its work is not finished yet. When the tiny waves reach the edges of the pond, the water moves back till it pushes the stone that has disturbed it.

The effects of our actions come back to us just as the waves do to the stone, and as long as we do our action with evil intention the new waves of effect come back to beat upon us and disturb us. If we are kind and keep ourselves peaceful, the returning waves of trouble will grow weaker and weaker till they die down and our good Kamma will come back to us in blessings. If we sow a mango seed, for instance, a mango tree will come up and bear mangoes, and if we sow a chili seed, a chilli plant will grow and produce chillies. 

The Buddha says:

"According to the seed that’s sown,
So is the fruit ye reap therefrom,
Doer of good evil gather good,
Doer of evil, evil reaps.
Sown is the seed, and thou shalt taste the fruit thereof."

Samyutta Nikaya, Vol. I, Pg 227

Everything that comes to us is right. When anything pleasant comes to us and makes us happy, we may be sure that our Kamma has come to show us what we have done is right. When anything unpleasant comes to us, hurts us, or makes us unhappy, our Kamma has come to show us our mistake. We must never forget that Kamma is always just. It neither loves nor hates, neither rewards nor punishes. It is never angry, never pleased. It is simply the law of cause and effect.

Kamma knows nothing about us. Does fire know us when it burns us? No, it is the nature of fire to burn, to give out heat. If we use it properly it gives us light, cooks our food for us or burns anything we wish to get rid of, but if we use it wrongly it burns us and our property. Its work is to burn and our job is to use it in the right way.  We are foolish if we grow angry and blame it when it burns us because we have made a mistake.

There are inequalities and manifold destinies for people in the world. One is, for example, inferior and another superior. One perishes in infancy and another at the age of eighty or a hundred. One is sick and infirm, and another strong and healthy. One is brought up in luxury and another in misery. One is born a millionaire, another a pauper. One is a genius and another an idiot.

What is the cause of the inequalities that exist in the world? Buddhists cannot believe that this variation is the result of blind chance. Science itself is indeed all against the theory of Chance. In the world of the scientist all works in accordance with the laws of cause and effect. Neither can Buddhists believe that these inequalities of the world are due to a God-Creator.

One of the three divergent views that prevailed at the time of the Buddha was:

"Whatsoever happiness or pain or neutral feeling the person experiences all that is due to the creation of a Supreme Deity." 

Anguttara Nikaya, Vol. I, Pg 158

Commenting on this fatalistic view the Buddha said:

"So, then, owing to the creation of a Supreme Deity men, will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, abusive, babblers, covetous, malicious, and perverse in view. Thus for those who fall back on the creation of a God as the essential reason, there is neither the desire to do, nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed." 


Referring to the naked ascetics who practised self-mortification, the Buddha said:

"If, O Bhikkhus, beings experience pain and happiness as the result of God’s creation, then certainly these naked ascetics must have been created by a wicked God, since they are at present experiencing such terrible pain."

Devadaha Sutta, No 101,
Majjhima Nikaya, Vol. II, Pg 222

According to Buddhism the inequalities that exist in the world is due, to some extent, to heredity and environment and to a greater extent, to a cause or causes (Kamma) which are not only present but proximate or remote past. Man himself is responsible for his own happiness and misery.  He creates his own heaven and hell. He is master of his own destiny, child of his past and parent of his future.

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