The Mondul Ottawa Khmer Buddhist Monastery
Kamma in Buddhism

As Buddhists, we must understand kamma (action and the result of action) as it is explained in Buddhism. We should not blindly follow the kamma teachings of other religions; otherwise, we will pitifully spin around according to kamma without being able to get beyond its power or realize its end.

Why do we need to know the essence of Kamma? Because our lives are inseparable from it and happen according to it. To be more precise, we can say that life is actually a stream of kamma. Desire to do deeds (kamma) causes one to perform actions and receive the results of those actions; then, desire to do deeds arises again and again endlessly. Therefore, life is merely a pattern of kamma. If we rightly understand kamma, we can lead our lives at peace, without any problems or suffering.

There are two primary kamma doctrines. One has been taught since before the Buddha’s time and is still taught outside Buddhism; the other is the Buddhist principle of kamma. The first doctrine presents only half of the story. In that doctrine, one cannot conquer kamma and remains always under its domination; one actually desires to be under its power and asks for its help, without ever trying to fight for one’s own liberation. One thus performs kamma as if accumulating assets for more satisfactory rebirth. One never thinks of ending kamma. One expects to rely on it instead of trying to end it. In Buddhism, we can understand kamma up to the level that we can conquer it and be liberated from it, that is, not carry the burden of kamma any more. We neither sit waiting for things to happen, nor leave our fate in the hands of gods, nor follow superstitions like purifying our kamma in sacred rivers.

To be beyond kamma seems incredible to most people; they may consider it a deception or a salesman’s trick. Nonetheless, it really is possible if we take the Buddha as our True and Noble Friend. This will help us in practicing the complete set of Ten Rightnesses: the noble eightfold path plus right insight knowledge and right liberation in accordance with the law of specific conditionality (idappaccayata). In such practice, there is no foolish feeling that leads to desire for the various results of kamma (actions). A doctrine master from Southern India and contemporary of the Buddha heard that the Buddha taught the cessation of kamma. He then sent his disciples to ask the Buddha questions and to ask for His instructions. This well-known story is told in the Solasapanha, Parayanavagga of the Khuddakanikaya in the Pali Canon. Many people learn the Buddha’s answers from this story and take them for study and practice.

Nowadays, wrong teachings concerning kamma are publicized in books by various Indian and Western writers under titles such as "Kamma and Rebirth." Although they are presented in the name of Buddhism, they are actually about kamma and rebirth as understood in Hinduism. So the right teaching of Buddhism is misrepresented. This should be recognized and corrected so that the Buddhist kamma principle can be preserved in its undistorted essence. The Buddha accepted as correct — that is, as not a wrong understanding of kamma — the half-formed teaching concerning good and evil deeds and their results that was presented before his time and outside his teaching. However, he added to it a final aspect, namely, the end of kamma, which is the essential Buddhist principle, thus completing the teaching on kamma. This cessation of kamma goes by two names. It can be called “the third kind of kamma” because there are good deeds, evil deeds, and the kamma leading to the end of both good and evil deeds. Sometimes four kinds of kamma are distinguished: good deeds, evil deeds, mixed deeds, and the kamma that is the end of all kamma. When enumerated in this fourfold way, the additional kamma taught in Buddhism becomes the fourth kind of kamma. However, if we take mixed kamma as falling under good actions and evil actions, then there are only three kinds of kamma, with the kamma that ends all kamma as the third kind again. This three-fold formulation is easy, convenient, and concise. If the third kind of kamma is left out, the teaching misses the essence of kamma in the true Buddhist sense.

Kamma and Rebirth: Rebirth occurs every time one does a deed, and that rebirth occurs spontaneously at the moment of action. We need not wait for rebirth to come after death, as is generally understand in the worldly sense. When one thinks and acts, the mind is spontaneously changed through the power of desire and clinging, which lead immediately to becoming and birth in accordance with the law of Dependent Co-origination (paticca-samuppada). There is no need to wait for physical death in order for rebirth to occur. This truth should be realized as the true teaching of Buddhism, as a core principle of the original, pristine Buddhism that states there is no self (atta) to be reborn. How the concept of rebirth after death crept into Buddhism is difficult to explain, and we need not concern ourselves with it. Simply preventing rebirth within the stream of Dependent Co-origination is enough for us to be free. Stopping egoistic rebirth is truly in accordance with Buddhism, and such action will be the kind of kamma that can be taken as refuge. When a good deed is done, goodness spontaneously arises; when an evil deed is done, evilness spontaneously arises. There is no need to wait for any further results. If there will be any birth after death, that rebirth only occurs through the kamma one has done in this very life and the results of which have already occurred here. We need not worry about rebirth such that it obstructs our practice.

Receiving the Fruits of Kamma: We should see the truth that a mind performing a deed is kamma itself and the subsequent mind is the result of that kamma. Other results that follow it are only uncertain by-products, since they may or may not occur, or do not keep up with our expectations due to other interfering factors. That the results of actions occur for the minds performing them is most certainly in line with the Buddhist principle that there is no self or soul to be reborn, as stated by the Buddha in the Kevatta Sutta. To hold the view that a soul or somebody is reborn deviates from the truth of not-self. Whenever a good or evil deed is done, goodness or evilness spontaneously arises accordingly without having to wait for later results. Nonetheless, most people expect certain results according to their wishes; then, they are disappointed when other factors interfere. Such intervening circumstances may lead one to hold a wrong view that good actions brings bad results and bad actions brings good results. We should be careful of this wrong view and should develop right understanding concerning the fruits of kamma.

Our understanding of how the results of kamma are received must always be self-apparent, immediate, and inviting of inquiry, and should never contradict the truth that the five aggregates of human life are not-self. Mind is merely a phenomenon pushed this way and that by conditions, stimulated to do things by environmental factors. The resulting reactions are accepted and regarded as good or evil according to one’s feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Either kind pushes us into suffering, thus we should aim at ending kamma and getting beyond it. Then, we will have realized, awakened, and fully blossomed, which is genuine Buddhahood.

There is a moralistic teaching of kamma that retains an illusion of self that owns this and that. This version contradicts the principle of not-self stressed by the Buddha. We should correctly understand this perspective; otherwise, we will not benefit from practicing kamma teachings, since we will not be able to go beyond kamma. Endlessly remaining under the power of kamma is not the kamma teaching of Buddhism. Instead, wholeheartedly practice the kamma that ends all kamma. This will prevent us from unwittingly going astray.

Activity & Reactivity: The actions or movements of sentient beings that are done with volition, particularly that of craving and arising through defilements, are called kamma. An activity that is not caused by defilement, for example, one with an Arahant’s intention, is not called “kamma”; it is called "kiriya (activity)." The result of kiriya is called "patikiriya (reaction)," while the result of kamma is called "vipaka (fruit of action)." These results occur justly in accordance with the law of nature. Ordinary people have ordinary volitions (cetana) as the causes of their actions, which are consequently kamma. Good volition leads to good action; evil volition leads to evil action. Through moral and cultural training, everybody is taught to do good deeds that do not cause trouble to others and bring good results to everyone. Therefore, kamma concerns the law of nature and is scientific.

Types of Kamma: There are many types of kamma depending on the characteristics of the deeds and their doers. Some act with selfishness concerning the selves they desire to be. Some perform actions that lead to the ending of the self-illusion and the realization of Nibbana. Some people are pleased with worldly prosperity, others with heavenly prosperity, and some with the realization of Nibbana, such that they always seem to contradict each other. Some like to show off their good deeds, while others perform their good deeds secretly. Some proclaim their meritorious deeds with fanfare, while others do not need such fanfare. Some do their deeds with excessive ritual, while others do theirs without any ceremony at all. Some do theirs out of magical or superstitious fear, while others do theirs properly as Buddhist practice. Obviously, there are many types of kamma. Nevertheless, they all can be classified into two categories: those with self and for the sake of self, and those that aim for the ending of self-clinging and selfishness. Some do deeds in a business-like manner, expecting excessive profits. Others wish for the end of the vicious circle of life and death. Look for yourselves! Ordinary people do good deeds merely for the sake of inordinate profits.

Kamma and Not-Self: The question of kamma and not-self is confusing and difficult to understand for various reasons. A monk once asked the Buddha, "How does kamma done by not-self give results for self?" This question arose because of the teaching on not-self that points out how the "actor" is merely a mind-body process void of self. After an action (kamma) is done by a selfless mind-body, how could it have any results for a "self" who is the "doer" who intentionally did that deed. The new concept of not-self contradicts the old concept of self. There is a self that claims to be not-self and does things in the name of not-self, but the sense of self still exists to receive the results of the deeds. Hence, this monk’s question. If we see it rightly, we will understand that when the mind-body is not-self, the results of its actions will happen to a selfless mind-body, also. However, if that mind-body is full of a sense of self, the results of its actions will always happen to this apparent self If kamma is not-self, its result will be not-self, and what occurs in accordance with kamma will be not-self. The things, whether human or animal, that we conventionally speak of as "actors (doers of kamma)" will also be not-self. The facts of kamma and not-self are never separate and never oppose each other.

The ending of kamma is the same thing as Nibbana, in other words, is synonymous with Nibbana. From where, then, come the teachers who instruct the people that death is the end of kamma? When someone dies, people murmur, "oh well, his kamma is finished." Moreover, they often say that one dies according to ones merits and kamma, without realizing that what is happening to them now is also according to their good and bad kamma, until they really reach the end of kamma, namely, Nibbana.

Nibbana is freedom from kamma and its results. Further, Nibbana is freedom from the vicious samsara (cyclic existence) that keeps spinning according to kamma. Nibbana, therefore, is lovely and loveable, not frightening in the least. Even so, people prefer being trapped within the vicious cycles of birth and death according to their kamma, particularly the kamma they desire as a result of their defilements, although they never really get what they wish. Those who have big egos will normally hate and fear the end of kamma because ego-self desires kamma-results that appear lovely according to its viewpoint.

Kamma is attachment (upadhi) or burden. When one performs kamma, life happens according to kamma, that is, one is bound by kamma no matter whether it is good or evil kamma. Good kamma makes one laugh and bad kamma makes one cry, but both weary us almost to death. Even so, people still like to laugh, since they misunderstand that good kamma is great virtue. When kamma does not bind our lives, it is as if there are no chains on our legs, whether iron chains or diamond-studded golden chains. Life becomes a burden when it is weighed down by kamma and we have to carry and support it. The end of kamma makes our lives light and free, but only a few people appreciate this as it is obscured by the veils of atta (self).

In conclusion, as Buddhists let’s try to do only the kamma that is the end of kamma. When we see that kamma has occupied and ruled our lives, we will strive to practice, improve ourselves, and fight in every possible way to triumph over both good and evil kamma, so that none of them will oppress our minds. Let’s develop minds that are clean, clear, and calm because no kamma and no results disturb it. Nowadays, most people understand kamma as something bad and undesirable. This is correct because both good and evil kamma are despicable in that they cause the vicious cycles of birth and death to go on without cessation.

Kamma in Buddhism is that kamma (action) which leads to the end of all kamma so that life is above and beyond kamma. Far from despicable, it is something to be understood and fully integrated into our lives. "Living beyond kamma" is something to be realized and attained.

        Mokkhabalarama, Chaiya
        April 7, 1988

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