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About Karma

What is karma?

The term karma has become a familiar one in many circles of western culture but few people know its real meaning in a truly Buddhist context. Here below are some basic definitions and explanations from Buddhist scriptures and some authentic Buddhist teachers.

The Sanskrit term karma (Pali: kamma) literally means "action"1 or "deed"2. But in the Buddhist context the term has a more specific denotation.

The Buddha says in the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon:3

'I declare, O Bhikkhus, that volition is karma. Having willed one acts by body, speech, and thought.'

Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw (a Theravada Buddhist teacher), in the Buddha.net webpage The Theory of Karma explains:

"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."

So the term karma only pertains intentional, voluntary actions. But there are some further clarifications to be made here.

An intention is a thought. (See our Buddha & Bill webpage Right Intention.) In his book Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha Ringu Tulku says something that is already quoted in our webpage Right Intention but is very appropriate to repeat here:4

"Here [in regard to 'Right Thought', also known as 'Right Intention'], it is most important to comprehend the predominant influence of thought. Whatever actions we do, right or wrong, are preceded and initiated by a thought. Many people will not agree with this and claim that their emotions, like anger for instance, will come up more closely, we will find this to be a misperception. For anger to arise, first there has to be the concept of something being unpleasant. This process will usually happen so fast that it goes unnoticed. It does not mean, though, that there is no initial thought giving rise to our anger. But since we are so used to it, that thought happens too quickly to be recognized. Everything that follows from this initial thought, all our positive and negative emotions, and even all the positive and negative deeds that we do, are habits we have acquired over time."

(See Right Intention for more information regarding intentions and bad habits.)

Also, the term karma does not apply to the actions of fully enlightened beings such as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (also known as Shakyamuni). This is because, since they are fully enlightened, their voluntary actions voluntary actions are not considered to be karma even though they are beneficial to all living beings.5 (This is explained below, under the question, "What is the cause of karma?")

In Buddhism, what is the "Law of Karma?"—or, rather, the "principle of karma?"

There is no term or phrase in the Pali or Sanskrit scriptures of Buddhism for a concept that literally translates as the "Law of Karma" The use of the term "law" in this context is a western invention. To properly understand karma, it is perhaps better to use another term, "the principle of karma."

In the simplest terms, the principle of karma means that any wholesome, positive action will eventually result in a corresponding "fruit"—usually meaning more pleasure or prosperity or some other good fortune for the doer; unwholesome or negative action will eventually result in suffering for the doer; neutral actions eventually result in neutral consequences. Negative actions include killing, injuring others, lying, stealing, and generally all actions that intentionally harm others. Positive actions are generally those that intentionally do good for others.

In both Sanskrit and Pali, the term for the mental "ripening of fruit" of karma is vipaka.6 In Sanskrit, a term for the actual ripened mental fruit of karma is vipaka-phala7; a Pali term for this is kamma-vipaka. Wholesome resultant mental fruit of good, skillful actions (called kusala in Pali) includes happiness, joy, and bliss. Unwholesome resultant mental fruit from bad, unskillul actions (called akusala in Pali includes unhappiness, pain, and misery.8 In Pali, a wholesome resultant material or corporeal thing resulting from wholesome karma (kusala) is called anisamsa. Examples of anisamsa are prosperity, health and longevity if they are the results of wholesome karma. The Pali term for an unwholesome material or corporeal thing resulting from unwholesome karma (akusala) is adinaya. Examples of adinaya are poverty, disease, and a short life-span if they are the results of unwholesome karma.9

It is important to realize that the principle of karma is not something established or controlled by some kind of divine being. According to the Buddha, there is no such being. In Buddhism there is belief in "gods" who dwell in the "realm of the gods" (more about this later) but, according to the Buddha, such gods are themselves subject to the principle of karma, do not administer the principle of karma, and are not eternal.

The principle of karma should also not be thought of as some kind of automatic mechanism which has the purpose of dispensing justice by rewarding people for doing acts of kindness, etc., and punishing people for doing harm to others, etc. For one thing, holding such a view is tantamount to believing that some people should be harmed to achieve no other result than to make them suffer. That would be hypocritical and not in accord with the principle of Right Intention.

One might think that the principle of karma is the way it is because people should be punished when they do evil acts in order to deter them from acting evil again, and in order to serve as an example for others to deter them from acting evil in the future. For that to be true, there would have to have been some kind of creator who designed the universe to operate in such a deliberate way. But that would not be in accord with the teachings of the Buddha. Also, even the good benefits resulting from positive karma are eventually followed by suffering — the principle of karma only applies to the unenlightened such as ourselves who become attached to such good benefits and so suffer when they eventually come to an end.

It would also be a mistake to think that Buddhism is a religion which mainly encourages people to do good deeds simply to be rewarded through the principle of karma. This might be the way that some Buddhists think, but that is not in accord with Right View. The purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path is not to eliminate suffering by trying continuously to generate benefits which will make us happy. The purpose of the as presented in the Fourth Noble Truth is to become enlightened— to realize the true nature of reality and thereby attain true happiness and serenity.

The principle of karma says that whatever I did before in my past lives and in this present life had made me what I am now. But that does not mean that my future is completely predetermined. I can still make choices free of old karma that create new karma. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Kyabgon writes in his book The Essence of Buddhism:10

"Even though the happiness, unhappiness, pleasure, or pain that we experience is proportional to our karmic merit or demerit, we should not just accept the situation in which we find ourselves. Buddhism does not encourage a sense of fatalism. Believing in karma does not mean that we should say, 'Well, this is my karma, and my karmic lot is so terrible that I can't do anything about it. I'm a loser; I'm a failure.' If we find ourselves in an unsatisfactory situation, we should try to improve it or get out of it. There may be a number of options available. Instead of promoting the idea of fatalism, karmic theory actually supports the idea of taking personal responsibility for our actions...

"Many of our experiences are not purely a result of karma but are due to our own folly, negligence, or lack of responsibility. For example, if we get sick, obviously we are not going to say, 'Well, it's because of my karma that I'm sick, so I'm not going to seek medical attention.' We know we should see a doctor and find out what this illness is about. Karmic theory concurs with taking responsibility and wanting to improve the situation, in terms of not only individuals but society as well. Here in the West, people have criticized Buddhists for not being socially aware and not taking social action. They say that people are poor in the East mainly because, in Buddhist countries, they have been taught that it's their karma to suffer and be oppressed, that the situation has nothing to do with social factors and there is nothing they can do to improve it.

"However, karmic theory does not say that people should just accept the way things are; we should try our best to change things, to transform ourselves, or to improve social conditions. When our best efforts fail, however, that is the time for us to accept the situation. Suppose that no matter what we do, we still can't change things and here is nothing we can do about it. In such a situation, instead of getting frustrated, angry, or depressed, we should try to learn to live with it. Feelings of enormous psychological stress, anxiety, and suffering simply make things worse. If we feel extremely angry and frustrated about a situation that we can't change, that tends to produce more negative karma, and thus we will experience even more torment and suffering in the future."

It is a mistake also to think of the principle of karma as being so absolute that all negative past actions must necessarily result in negative fruit. It is possible to perform postive actions in the present that will cancel out past negative actions in terms of their potential results in the future. Traleg Kyabgon writes in his book The Practice of Lojong:11

"To understand the notion of confession, we need to have a general understanding of the way karma operates. We generate demerit when our past motivations have been tainted by thoughts of aggression, anger, egoism, jealousy, and resentment. When our physical actions spring from aggression, or we gossip with malice and rejoice at hearing about somebody else's difficulties, we create imprints that go underground and become latent karmic tendencies. When we fail to act in an aware and considerate fashion, these negative karmic imprints accumulate and fester, hidden from our consciousness until appropriate circumstances trigger them and they find their expression in the form of bad experiences.

"Luckily, for us, the karmic causal nexus is not a mechanical, predetermined operation, but is instead. quite malleable. We are at condemned to suffer its consequences. Buddhism doesn't entertain the notion of any kind of moral law. The reference to a 'karmic law' is a Western concept that has been introduced into Buddhist thinking. The relationship between cause and effect is far too complex and indeterminate to be a 'law.' There is some kind of karmic causal nexus, but there is no such thing as a cosmic law, because cause and effect is all about human action. In previous centuries, Western thinkers used to speak about moral laws and natural laws in political and moral philosophy, but nobody seems to favor this interpretation anymore. Even in physics, people are speaking less and less about natural laws. Hinduism does promote the belief in a universal cosmic order, which for them is encapsulated in the notion of karma. However, if the cosmos were indeed orderly, behaving in compliance with it should be enough to prevent disruptions or unexpected events from occurring. But that is not what happens in fact."

To really understand the principle of karma—and its limitations—one must understand the cause of karma.

What is the cause of karma?

The Theravada Buddhist teacher Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, in the Buddha.net webpage The Theory of Karma explains:

"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.

   Who is the doer of Karma?
   Who reaps the fruit of Karma?
   Does Karma mould a soul?

"In answering these subtle questions, the Venerable Buddhaghosa writes in the Visuddhi Magga:

'No doer is there who does the deed;
'Nor is there one who feels the fruit;
'Constituent parts alone roll on;
'This indeed! Is right discernment.'

"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 O.

"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."

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Ringu Tulku in his book Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha gives essentially the same explanation but with more elaboration:12

"What does it mean when it is said that karma arises from ignorance? It is very important to understand this, but at the same time, it is quite difficult comprehend. Thus, it is better to explain it strictly according to the tradition. In the Buddhist sense, ignorance is equivalent to the identification of a self as being separate from everything else. It consists of the belief that there is an "I" that is not part of anything else. On this basis we think, 'I am one and unique. Everything else is not me. It is something different.' This is what is called atman in Sanskrit, meaning a self or ego in terms of an existing entity.

"In Buddhist terminology the term 'ego' means the following. When we look at ourselves, we find that we are not just a single entity. We are compounded: we consist of form, feeling, consciousness, and so forth. Nevertheless, We take all these different constituents as being just one thing. We conceive of them as an 'I' and say, 'This is me.' Thereby, we make an identification and a projection.

"From this identification stems the dualistic view, since once there is an 'I,' there are also 'others.' Up to here this is 'me.' The rest is 'they.' As soon as this split is made, it creates two opposite ways of reaction: 'This is nice. I want it!' and 'This is not nice. I do not want it!' There may be a neutral reaction as well, but this can be neglected as it does not constitute a major problem. The first two are far more serious.

"On the one hand there are those things that seem to threaten and undermine us. Maybe they will harm us or take away our identity. They are a danger to our security. Due to this way of thinking, aversion comes up, which in turn gives rise to fear and anxiety. We are afraid that the threat associated with these things might prove true. So we reject them and try to run away from them or fight them off. Thus aggression arises.

"Then on the other hand there are those things that are so nice. We think, 'I want them. I want them so much. I must run after them all have to get them since I have got them I cannot part with them!' Through this way of thinking, first attraction and desire occur, then clinging, and finally strong attachment arises.

"In this way the mental poisons are aversion/attachment based upon ignorance, or not knowing how reality truly is. The functioning of karma is propelled by these. So long as we are subject to these three poisons, we are in samsara. Tibetans have a a traditional painting called 'the Wheel of Life,' which depicts the samsaric cycle of existence. In the center of this wheel there are three animals: a pig, a snake, and a bird. They represent the three poisons. The pig stands for ignorance...it always sleeps in the dirtiest places and eats whatever comes to its mouth. Similarly. the snake is identified with anger because it will be aroused and leap up at the slightest touch. The bird represents desire and clinging. It is used as a symbol because it is very attached to its partner. These three animals represent the three main mental poisons, which are at the core of the Wheel of Life. Stirred by these, the whole cycle of existence evolves. Without them, there is no samsara.

"Samsara, therefore, is not a place. It is a state of mind. Wherever these three mental poisons are active, samsara is present. It is a state of mind in which we are constantly running. Either we are running away from something, or we are running after something else. Being caught in this circle, here is no peace, no relaxation, and no rest. As long as our frame of mind is like that, we are in samsara and always running. Suffering is also to be understood in these terms. All our problems are rooted in either trying to get something, or in trying to avoid something else. In this constant endeavor we are never satisfied...

"Within this frame of mind we create karma in three different ways, through actions that are positive, negative, or neutral. When we feel kindness and love and with this attitude do good things, which are beneficial to both ourselves and others, this is positive action. When we commit harmful deeds out of equally harmful intentions, this is negative action. Finally, when our motivation is indifferent and our deeds are neither harmful nor beneficial, this is neutral action. The results we experience will accord with the quality of our actions.

"Yet, no matter how good our actions may be, as long as we are caught in a state of mind dominated by aversion and attachment based upon ignorance, we remain within the samsaric world. We can reduce our suffering and augment our happiness but cannot dispel all the causes of suffering. The true cause of all our suffering is ignorance, which gives rise to aversion and attachment. These three are called 'the mental poisons,' and as long as we do not succeed in uprooting these, we will continue to suffer. We can even run after all kinds of things, after wealth, fame, or pleasure. We can even run after enlightenment or spiritual attainment. Yet, this kind of spiritual activity will not make any real change, it is still the same mentality, the same attitude of being constantly in pursuit of or on the run from something.

"Deep down inside, we all have a very bask feeling of insecurity. In a way the know that our identification with a self is not based on anything real, concrete, or substantial. There is not really anything to hold on to. For this reason, we feel insecure in a very deep-rooted way. Yet, despite our faint notion of its insubstantiality and intangibility, we try to hold on to this self. We do lot want to know about or accept the truth. We want to make sure that there is something to identify with. There is the urge to define ourselves in terms of thinking, 'I am here and the others are there.' This is our main ignorance and it causes us to react within the pattern of aversion and attachment.

"The Buddha has said from his experience that once we succeed in eliminating our ignorance, we will actually break the functioning of karma. There ill no longer be any basis for it. Without ignorance, there will be no attachnent and no aversion, and thus there will be no ground on which to create ny karma. This state of freedom from ignorance is called nirvana, and a person who has reached this state is called an arhat. The Tibetan word for arhat is dra chom pa, which means literally 'the one who has defeated all enemies.' The enemies to be defeated are our mental poisons. Someone who has uprooted all mental poisons through eliminating ignorance has attained the state of nirvana. This is freedom from all suffering without exception. Since all confusion and misinterpretation have ceased, there is no more duality and thus no more suffering. This is expounded in the teaching on the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation."


Scriptural stories about Buddha's disciple Maudgalyayana (a.k.a. Maha Mogalana) offer some memorable insights into the workings of the Law of Karma. See:


1Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Third Revised and Enlarged Edition (c. 1970), p. 77.

2The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen (c. 1991), p. 112.

3Translation from the webpage The Theory of Karma by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.

4Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (c. 2010), p. 40.

5See The Theory of Karma by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. Most Buddhist texts do not say directly that a fully enlightened being is exempt from the Law of Karma. But it is common to say that the Buddha was liberated from the cycle of life and death —also known as "the wheel of karma" when he became fully enlightened, which means that he was no longer subject to the Law of Karma. At the same time, it should be recognized that a fully enlightened being is filled with universal compassion and has absolutely no motivation to do anything that would be truly harmful to any living beings.

6See: The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen (c. 1991), pp. 244-245; Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Third Revised and Enlarged Edition (c. 1970), pp. 196-197; The Theory of Karma by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.

7See Wikipedia—"Karma in Buddhism". This Wikipedia article cites William S. Waldron, The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought, RoutledgeCurzon c. 2003, ISBN 0-203-45117, p. 61 as the source for this information.

8Both Pali terms kusala and akusula are defined by Traleg Kyabgon in his book, The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice (c. 2001), p. 34.

9Both terms, anisamsa and adinaya are defined in the webpage The Theory of Karma by Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.

10Traleg Kyabgon, The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice (c. 2001), pp. 32-33.

11Traleg Kyabgon, The Practice of Lojong - cultivating compassion through training the mind (c. 2007), p. 111.

12Ringu Tulku, op. cit., pp. 29-31.


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