Karma in Buddhism

Karma in Buddhism

Karma or karman Sanskrit कर्म (pali. kamma, Chinese 業 yè, kor. 업 ǒp, jap. gō, viet. nghiệp) - is a basic and very important concept in all schools of Buddhism. Literally, the word means "deed" or "action."

Thus, in the Buddhist sense, it does not mean result, referred to as fruit (pali, Sanskrit: vipaka, Chinese: 果 guǒ), effect or destiny. The law of cause and effect is called kamma-vipaka (action-fruit) in Pali, and it says that every action has an effect - good actions return as happiness, bad actions return as suffering.


Karma here means an intentional action that is a cause: beneficial (pali, Sanskrit: kusala, Chinese: 善業 shànyè) or harmful (pali, Sanskrit: akusala, Chinese: 惡業 èyè) and that will bring about a certain effect. The moral value of a particular action is determined by the will that accompanies it at the time (Pali and Sanskrit: cetana, Chinese: 意趣 yìqù).

The will that has harmful roots (pali, Sanskrit: hetu also mula, Chinese: 因 yīn): (1) desire (pali, Sanskrit: lobha or tanha), (2) anger (pali: dosa, Sanskrit: dvesa), (3) ignorance (pali, Sanskrit: moha or avijja) bears harmful fruit. Ignorance here means innate ignorance of the Truth (pali: sacca), i.e. the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Characteristics of Existence, etc.

Will associated with beneficial roots (or causes), namely: (1) absence of desire (pali, Sanskrit: alobha), or renunciation, (2) absence of anger (pali: adosa), or loving kindness (pali: metta, Sanskrit: maitri), (3) wisdom (pali: amoha or paññā, Sanskrit: prajña) bears beneficial fruit.

Ten kinds of harmful actions are listed under the name of pali: kamma-patha. The three evil actions of the body are: murder, theft and unlawful sexual intercourse. The four evil actions of speech are: lying, detraction, rude speech and thoughtless chatter. The three evil actions of the mind are: lust, anger and false views.

The Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta states, "Beings are the owners of their own karma, the inheritors of their own karma, their karma is the womb from which they are reborn, their karma is their friend, their refuge. Whatever karma they produce - bad or good - they will be its heirs."

"The one who kills and is cruel goes to hell, or if he is reborn among people, he will live a short life. The one who tortures others will suffer illness.

The wrathful will have an ugly appearance, the envious will be deprived of influence, the miser will be poor, the stubborn will have a low birth, the idle will be deprived of knowledge. Otherwise, a person will be reborn in heaven or as a human being will live a long life, will have a beautiful appearance, influence, noble birth and knowledge." (Majjhima Nikāya 135)

Adhipateyya Sutta: "Killing stealing unlawful sexual intercourse lying slander offensive speech foolish chatter when produced, continued and often repeated lead to rebirth in hell or among animals or among spirits." (Anguttara Nikāya III 40)


Karma is dynamic in nature, and with respect to the time at which the karmic effect occurs, a distinction is made between (1) karma that matures during this life, (2) karma that matures in the next rebirth, and (3) karma that matures in later rebirths.

Regarding its function, the Abhiddhamma Pitaka scriptures distinguish between: (1) regenerative (or productive), (2) supporting (or consolidating), (3) opposing (or suppressing), (4) destructive (or replacing) karma. Regenerative produces the five focuses of existence (body, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness) - both at rebirth and during life. Supportive does not produce karmic effects, but is only able to sustain the karmic effects already produced. Opposing karma balances or suppresses other karmic effects. The destructive one abolishes the influence of the weaker karma and only affects its own effect.

Regarding the priority of their results, a distinction is made between karma: (1) heavy karma, (2) habitual karma, (3) near-death karma and (4) accumulated karma.

Heavy karma is the result of the so-called five shameful actions with immediate destiny, namely: (1) killing one's father, (2) killing one's mother, (3) killing an arahat (saint), (4) injuring a Buddha, and (5) causing division in the community of monks.

Heavy and habitual actions mature earlier than light and rarely produced actions. Near-death karma, that is, beneficial and harmful will present immediately before death, which can often be a reflection of previously fulfilled good and bad actions, its sign or sign of future existence produces another rebirth.

However, in cases where any of these three actions are absent at the time of death (e.g., a person is unconscious), rebirth is produced through previously accumulated karma.

In the context of Japanese Buddhism, karma is also classified as: Doji no Inga (Japanese) - cause and effect at the same time; Iji no Inga - cause at a different time than effect; Inshokadai - small cause and extensive effect (the longer the lapse of time between cause and effect, the greater the effect).

Four characteristics of karmic deeds

The results arising from karmic actions are experienced only by the being who performed them (no one can liberate or save us from the results of our own karmic actions, and these results will be experienced only by us, not by others)
Karmic actions strictly lead to corresponding results,

which we will experience in the future as happiness or suffering, respectively (there is no place for sin and punishment or destiny, as it is solely the law of karmic causes worked out from past rebirths that condition present actions, and these actions will result in corresponding results in the future, i.e., suffering or happiness, according to the Twelve Links process of interdependent creation).

A highly significant result on our future can be produced when even a small cause prevails

The law of karma's causes and results will never fail us or disappear on its own (every karmic action leads to a karmic result and the causes of subsequent actions, the wrong action leads to the experience of suffering in the future, and the right action leads to happiness)

Description of wrong actions

In Buddhism, a number of moral principles are distinguished and are described in the Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline) code for monks and laymen, as well as in collections of teachings related to Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana.

These moral principles are related to the Buddhist Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering and apply not only to humans (unlike the Christian Decalogue), but to all "sentient beings" including animals. The most universal list distinguishes the 10 wrong acts described below.

10 wrongful acts

3 acts of the flesh:

killing (due to attachment, anger or stupidity)
stealing (by force, stealth or by deception)
improper sexual acts (incest, adultery, with a minor under someone's care, with a person maintaining proper vows).
4 speech acts:

lying (about supposed successes, to hurt others or for one's own benefit, without reason)

divisive speech (breaking up friendships, insinuations, rumors)
hurtful speech (openly spoken, obnoxious, reproaching mistakes)
unhelpful speech (misleading, thoughtless gossip, inappropriate or inappropriate without preparation for the listener)
3 acts of the mind:

greed (for one's own property, for someone else's property, for riches that do not belong to anyone, such as land)

wrong wishes (out of hatred, envy, stupidity, e.g., for the wrong person)
misconceptions about Buddhist truths, such as karma, siunjata, etc.
The 10 right deeds involve abandoning the 10 wrong deeds and performing the opposite effect of deeds for one's own or others' benefit, e.g., instead of stealing, one performs deeds related to cultivating generosity and helping those in need.

How is karma created?

Beings, through their actions, accumulate impressions in the mind, either negative or positive, depending on whether they are beneficial to other beings or harmful. As a result of its act, a being will sow karmic seeds in the mind if the following factors are present:

Awareness of the position it is in
Intention to commit the act and a plan to carry it out
Committing the act or persuading someone else to commit it
Satisfaction with the results of this action

When all four elements are present, the karmic footprint is the strongest and the results of the deed will be the most intense. For example: a driver who inadvertently caused a car accident and injured a pedestrian: (1) was aware that the pedestrian might suffer, (2) did not want to hit the pedestrian, (3) yet did so, (4) was not at all happy about it. In this case, the karmic trace left in the mind of the unfortunate driver will be only partial.

How does one experience karma?

Karma, both that which brings happiness and that which brings suffering, is expressed on four different levels:

in what we experience in the time between death and the next rebirth
in the body we obtain as a result of rebirth - in its health, intelligence, power and beauty
in the environment in which we are reborn - the country, culture, family and conditions of daily life

through the inclinations and predilections we bring to the new life
Until the beginning of adolescence, beings mainly experience impressions of their previous lives. Then, until adulthood, the karma of the present life is formed.

The adult life, in turn, creates the karma of the future incarnation, and when beings reach the end of their existence, it is usually already apparent what direction the next rebirth will take.

Accumulation of merit

Merit accumulation (pali puñña) is a commonly used term for the accumulation of future karmically beneficial (pali, Sanskrit kusala) actions. The Theravada Suttas list three main merit-generating activities: (1) Offering (or generosity, pali, Sanskrit dāna), (2) ethics or morality (pali, Sanskrit sīla) and (3) developing the mind (or meditation, pali bhāvanā).

Later writings give seven more (pali dasa puñña): (4) showing reverence (pali apaciti), (5) serving (pali veyyāvacca), (6) imparting merit (pali pattānuppadāna), (7) enjoying the merit of others (pali abbhānumodana), (8) explaining the Doctrine (pali desanā), (9) listening to the Doctrine (pali savana), and (10) straightening one's own right view (purifying views, ditthujukamma).

Karma and the doctrine of non-self

The law of cause and effect is impersonal in Buddhism and for its proper understanding it is necessary to know the doctrine of lack-self (pali: anatta, Sanskrit: anatman, Chinese: 人空 rénkōng), which says that in a person or other being, that is, in the five clusters (pali: khandha, Sanskrit: skandha) - which build up the body and mind - nothing can be found that is an unchanging personality or soul (pali: atta, Sanskrit: atman) that exists independently of other things.

Beings are an accumulation of impermanent (pali: anicca) phenomena whose existence is the result of past actions, is dependent on conditions (pali: paccaya) and is subject to a process of constant change.

The Visudhimagga states, "Except for the Fruit of Karma, he sees no one behind the deed, no one receiving. And with full insight he understands that the wise only use conventional names when they speak of any action, they speak of the doer of the deed or when they speak of the recipient of the karmic effect when it arises."

In Buddhism, it is the Insight (pali: vipassana) into the three qualities of existence (also called the three Dharma Seals of dharma mudra): impermanence, lack of contentment and no-self that leads to liberation (pali: vimokkha, Sanskrit: vimoksha).

Its three aspects, also called the three "Gates of Liberation," are: unconditioned liberation (pali, Sanskrit: animitta), desire-free liberation (pali: appanihita, Sanskrit: apranihita) and emptiness liberation (pali: suññatā, Sanskrit: śunyata).

The first cause of existence

The law of karma precludes the existence of a so-called "first cause." According to Buddhist teachings, the cause-and-effect sequence has always existed.

According to the theory of Interdependent Emergence, the "first link" among the twelve links of interdependent emergence describing the process of Samsara's existence is ignorance, but it is conditioned by previous forms of existence i.e. rebirths according to the law of reincarnation through the law of karma and defilement.

The Visudhimagga states that desire and ignorance are "the special causes of Karma that lead to unhappy and happy destinies." In the same work it is given that it is ignorance that is the "causeless root-cause (pali hetu) of the world."

The sutras, on the other hand (Majjhima Nikāya 9.), state that "With the arising of blemishes (pali āsava), ignorance arises." Asava are sensual desire (pali: kāmāsava), desire for eternal existence (pali: bhavāsava), misconceptions (pali: ditthāsava) and ignorance (pali: avijjāsava).

Nyanatiloka Mahathera in the Buddhist Dictionary states on this subject of ignorance that: "in as the root-cause it can be pictorially represented as the Wheel of Existence."

In the Madhyamaka Buddhist view based on Nagarjuna's proof, this lack of a "first cause" is one of the main arguments for the "emptiness" (siunjata) of all manifestations of phenomena in terms of ultimate truth, which refers to an even more profound understanding of the law of karma.

Causality at the external/internal level vs. Western philosophies

At the "external" level, this means that in the universe, phenomena are interdependent and interdependent, specific causes cause specific results, and knowledge of these connections is the key to understanding the surrounding world. This principle is identical to the approach of Western science[footnote needed].

In Buddhism, causality also applies to the "inner" world. All actions taken consciously by beings, whether physical, verbal or mental, leave impressions in the mind that cause subsequent effects in the form of habits, tendencies and inclinations in the mind.

Western psychology and psychiatry have also been studying causality in the mind for years. According to Buddhists, knowledge of the mind and how it functions, which can be achieved through the practice of meditation, leads to achieving control over the mind and liberation from suffering.

The Buddhist concept of karma also assumes that the "inner" and "outer" worlds condition each other, and that the minds of all beings at the deepest level are inseparable from each other (the doctrine of no ego).

The absence of ego means that beings are like waves on the ocean - if they do not see their depth, they will not recognize that they are all ocean. Actions that are either altruistic or selfish plant certain impressions in the mind, which not only create the mental construct, but also the external world.

Thus, actions for the benefit and happiness of others bring happiness and success to ourselves in the future, while actions harmful to others are the cause of our own future difficulties and misfortunes.

The law of karma and the concept of sin

In Buddhism, the concept of sin is not used, as this contradicts the laws of karma, reincarnation, siunjata, buddha nature.

The law of karma shows, for example, that the results arising from given actions are experienced only by the being who performed them, and no one can liberate or save from this "from outside."

Actions strictly lead to corresponding results, which will be experienced in the future as happiness or suffering respectively (in this or future lives) also according to the process of reincarnation.

This law of reincarnation contradicts the notion of the "inevitability" of sin. Everything is interdependently existing, so that results that would "result" in suffering at a given convenient time can be superseded by new actions whose results will "result" in happiness at that very time.

Furthermore, the law of the twelve links of interdependent origination describes the process of reincarnation so that the first and fundamental link is ignorance. Under the influence of this ignorance one is individually subject to suffering.

If one removes this ignorance, the unconditioned bliss of nirvana and the innate wisdom of siunjata inherent in everyone of being in harmony with the nature of reality as it is, and not as it merely appears to manifest under the influence of the mind's defilements, will be discovered.

The law of karma vs. fatalism

There is no fatalism in Buddhist karma. The law of karma describes that actions whose results would "result" in suffering in the next rebirth can be superseded by new actions even before death, the results of which will "result" in happiness in the next rebirth.

Tibetan Buddhism further emphasizes that one's own karma can be influenced even after death in the transitional state of the bardo before the next birth (reincarnation), e.g. by not undergoing dissipation in the post-mortem state of the bardo, which would lead to an unfavorable rebirth afterwards.

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