What is Kamma?

What is Kamma? Buddha said: “Oh monks, it is volition that I call Kamma.” The popular meaning of kamma is action or doing, but as a technical term, kamma means volition or will. When you do something, there is volition behind it, and that volition, that mental effort, is called kamma. Buddha explained that, having willed one then act through body, speech and mind.  Whatever you do there is some kind of kamma, mental effort, will and volition. Volition is one of the fifty-two mental states which arise together with consciousness.

When you do something, such as make an offering to the Buddha, there is volition which prompts you to give, and that volition is called kamma. Thus, kamma is the cause, not the effect. Some people say that kamma means the cause, the deeds, and also the effects. But in Theravada Buddhism, kamma never means the effect or the result. Kamma means only the cause.

Kamma belongs to the mental aggregates. There are five aggregates: materiality, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Volition belongs to the aggregate of formations. The aggregate of formations is mental, and just as other mental states, it lasts only a very short moment. It comes into being, stays only a little bit of time, and then passes away But volition is different from other mental states in that it has the ability to leave some potential. When it dies, it does not disappear altogether. It leaves something, some power or potential to give results, when circumstances favour those results to appear.

One does kamma here and now, but the results may be in this life the next life, or in some life after the next life.  Kamma or volition has potential to give results, and this potential is a tremendous force. Kamma does not end with the demise of the present life; it goes on and on. But we cannot say that kamma is stored somewhere in our body or consciousness because everything is impermanent and must be continually changing. Kamma is likewise impermanent and so disappears, but it leaves a potential in the continuity of beings so that, when circumstances are favourable for results to appear, those results appear.

Once again, kamma is not stored anywhere, but when it disappears, it leaves a potential for results. Similarly, a tree can be said to have the potential to give fruits. There are no fruits in the trees at first, but when the opportune times arises, fruits appear.

Another illustration we can use is that of the old Buddhist simile of the sun, cow dung, and gem (gem is like a magnifying glass). When there is sun, and when you put a magnifying glass on the dried cow dung, you get fire. One cannot say that the new fire was stored in the cow dung, or in the sun, or in the magnifying glass. But when these things come together, we have a fire. The circumstances were favourable for the fire to appear. Likewise, the results of kamma.

Kamma and its results are not the same thing. It is not the case that kamma gradually matures into results. One kind of Hindu philosophy teaches that the result is alread in the kamma in unmanifested form, and the kamma matures itself into the result. So cause and effect are essentially the same in that philosophy. But Buddhism does not accept that. Buddhism teaches that kamma and result are void of one another, although no results exist without kamma.

The results depend on kamma entirely but the results do not exist within kamma, nor does kamma persist within the results. Kamma and results belong to different times. The results are born wholly depending on kamma done in the past, and when circumstances combine in a way that is favourable for the results to appear (like sun, dung and gem), results will appear.

The technical name for results of kamma is vipaka, which we call the fruit of kamma. Kamma or volition from the past leaves a potential for the fruits or vipaka to arise in the present. But the past kamma does not influence present volition. A person’s reaction to past results will either produce good or bad results for the future, depending on the nature of the volition. If they react with what we call wise attention (yoniso manasik„ra), the result or fruit will be good in the future. But if they react with unwise attention (ayoniso manasikara), the results or fruit of such volition will be bad in the future.

So you cannot do much about the fruits of past kamma, but you can react to those fruits with wise attention and thus have good results in the future. Wise attention will allow you to do good kamma, while unwise attention will cause you to do bad kamma. The future results or fruit will depend on your volition (kamma), in the present.

Not everything, however, is due to kamma. Sometimes we are wont to say that everything is due to kamma, that “it is your kamma and you have to bear this and that because of it.” Although kamma is a law governing the whole universe, it is only one of the laws. Other natural and psychic laws also govern the life of beings.

In addition, we must distinguish between the results of past kamma and present kamma. Present kamma is not the result of past kamma. The result of past kamma is resultant consciousness known as vipaka. The resultant consciousness is the result of past kamma, but that resultant consciousness does not influence the performance of the kusala (wholesome) or akusala (unwholesome) acts of the present. Kusala or akusala kamma is not the result of past kamma; rather you are accumulating fresh kamma in the present life, and that will give results in the future.