Sunday, October 25, 2009




Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Hong Kong, 2009



Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

The term “Kamma” literally means any action, or any kind of work. But in Buddhist philosophy, it means moral action and is defined as volition, conation, intention, or motivation. Here, it is the intention of an act that is emphasized as moral action even if the action is not executed at present.

The concept of “Kamma” in Buddhism
According to Buddhism, the “Kamma” can manifest in three different ways. These are (a) Kaya-“Kamma” = bodily or physical “Kamma”, (b) Vaci-”Kamma” = vocal “Kamma” and (c) Mano-”Kamma” = mental “Kamma”.

There are two main kinds of conditions which are causative factors of “Kamma”. These are (a) External stimulation and (b) Conscious motivation and unconscious motives. The external stimulation is through the six senses. This refers to sensory contact (excitation) of both physical and mental origination. The reference is to our contact with the external world and mental imagination within us. According to Buddhism the stream of consciousness (vinnana-sota) consists of both conscious and unconscious aspects. One’s conscious activities merge into the unconscious and accumulate there in potential form. They later begin to influence conscious behavior. These hidden psychological dispositions or impulses are called anusaya (latent dispositions, or dormant proclivities) or asava (flow, secretions).

The seven latent dispositions of “Kamma”:
Kama-raga (the innate desire for sensual gratification)
Bhava-raga (desire for being, desire for self-perpetuation)
Patigha (aggression, predisposition to acts of violence)
Ditthi (beliefs and various perspectives, all based on ego-centricity)
Vicikiccha (doubts, lack of clarity, diffidence)
Mana (conceit which manifests as feelings of equality, superiority, and inferiority)
Avijja (ignorance, that is, of the nature of actuality)

What is deposited in the inner recesses of our mind is all gathered through our various lives in the samsaric process. Therefore, their presence cannot be explained with reference to the present life alone.

The Role of “Kamma” in Individual Existence
If we confine our attention to the correlations between “Kamma” and its effect, we cannot say that “Kamma”-conditionality is deterministic. If we believe that all our sufferings in life are due to past “Kamma” and nothing could be changed in this present life then the living of a holy life would be rendered as meaningless. But if we believe that just as a person performs a deed of which the consequence is to be experienced by him and thus he experiences its consequence in his present life. This would make the holy life meaningful and there will be an opportunity for the complete destruction of suffering in this present life.

In the case of a person who has not properly cultivated his character, mind and intellect, even a trifling evil deed leads him to a lower destiny. On the other hand, in the case of a person of opposite (good) character, the consequences of such trifling acts sometimes may not appear at all. This could be explained by the fact that if a person puts a lump of salt into a little cup of water, that water becomes undrinkable, but if the same person puts a lump of salt into the river Ganges that mass of water does not become undrinkable.

Buddhist rejection of “Kammic” determinism
Buddhism does not say that everything is due to past “Kamma” and refutes the erroneous view that whatever we experience is due to past “Kamma”. This is because of the fact that owing to previous action men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, babblers, covetous, malicious, and perverse in view. Thus for those who fall back on the past “Kamma”, there is neither any desire to do, nor any effort to do, nor any necessity to do a good moral deed, or abstain from undertaking a bad action. So, the present “Kamma” (volition) is not the effect of a previous “Kamma”. If it were it would lead to a theory of kammic determinism (sabbam pubbekata-hetu). According to the Abhidhamma, “Kamma” is only one of the 24 conditions that explain the structure of individual existence.

According to Buddhism there are five orders or processes (niyamas) which operate in the physical and mental realms. These are (a) Utu Niyama (the physical inorganic order), (b) Bija Niyama (the physical organic order), (c) “Kamma” Niyama (the moral order), (d) Citta Niyama (the psychological order) and (e) Dhamma Niyama (the spiritual order).

The outcome of “Kamma”
The outcome of “Kamma”, which is called vipaka, is threefold (a) In this life (dittheva dhamme), (b) In the next life (upapajje) and (c) In future lives (apare va pariyaye). We are our own creators as well as our own enemies. This law of “Kamma” explains the problem of suffering, the mystery of so-called fate and predestination in other religions and the inequality of mankind.

There are four kinds of “Kamma” and vipaka (result). These are (a) Dark “Kamma” with dark results (kanha-”Kamma” and kanha vipaka), (b) Bright “Kamma” with bright results (sukka-”Kamma” with sukka-vipaka), (c) “Kamma” that is both dark and bright with dark and bright results (kanha-sukka) “Kamma” and kanha-sukkavipaka) and (d) “Kamma” that is neither dark nor bright with results that are neither dark nor bright.
It is this fourth category that leads to the cessation of “Kamma”. This is called “Nibbana” which is “the cessation of “Kamma”” (“Kamma”-nirodha) and the Noble Eightfold Path is called the Path leading to the cessation of “Kamma” (“Kamma”-nirodha-gamini-patipada).

The Buddhist conception of “Kamma” has nothing to do with predestination. That which we have done in the past has made us what we are now. That which we are in the process of doing now, this day, this minute, is making what we shall be in the future. The future will be a process of becoming largely what we make it. It is always being shaped, but never finished. There is no evidence of the future being predetermined independently of us; but we do know that we largely determine it by our own acts.

There is no fixed future, but only possible futures which depend largely on our present thoughts and actions. Just as we have been making ourselves in all our previous lives, it is now the time for us to determine our future. There is no god that can help us or stop us from doing so. Our present good “Kamma” can, if sufficiently powerful, completely change the results of our past bad deeds. The past gives us certain tendencies and latencies. It is for us to fashion our future though our moral action, determination and motivation to execute right actions to make a significant contribution towards the society.

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