Understanding of The Law of Kamma

I would like to give the reader the definitions of some terms I will be using in this part of the lecture. These definitions can also be found in Buddhist Dictionary’ by Nyanatiloka.

By citta, I mean consciousness. There are 89 types of consciousness (or 121 by a different reckoning). By cetasika, I refer to mental factors or mental concomitants which are bound up with the simultaneously arising consciousness (citta) and conditioned by its presence. Another term, rupa means form, matter or corporeality. The Abhidhamma describes all phenomena in these three aspects: citta, cetasikas, and rupa.

Of these three aspects, the mental factors comprise feeling, perception, and 50 mental formations; altogether 52 mental concomitants.

Another term I will use is cetana. Cetana, which means volition or will, is one of the seven cetasikas inseparably bound up with all consciousness. These seven cetasikas are sensorial or mental impression (phassa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), volition (cetana), concentration (ekaggata), vitality (jivita), and advertence (manasikara).

Finally, I will explain one more term. Although I am using the Pali form of the word, kamma, you probably already know the Sanskrit form of the word, which is karma. In Pali, the conjunct consonants are assimilated or simplified, and so “r” and “m” become “mm”. But both words mean exactly the same thing.

What is Kamma? Kamma is explained as an action or deed. Basically, kamma means work or job or action or deed, but in the Buddhist sense, kamma is defined as that by which actions are done or that through which actions are done. The actions themselves are not called kamma.

When we do something, there arises in our mind a type of consciousness, and that type of consciousness is accompanied by what we call volition, cetana and that cetana is called Kamma. Buddha explicitly said:

“Volition (cetana) I call Kamma. Through volition, one performs action by body by speech, or by mind.”

Whatever action we do, there arises in our minds a type of consciousness, either wholesome or unwholesome, and that type of consciousness is accompanied by volition, by cetana, and that cetana is what we call kamma.

So kamma is the volition in our minds, the volition associated with wholesome and unwholesome cittas. Volition (cetana) accompanies every types of consciousness; it is one of the seven cetasikas bound up with all 89 or 121 types of consciousness. But by kamma, we mean the cetana which accompanies only the wholesome and unwholesome types of consciousness. So cetana accompanying the wholesome or unwholesome cittas is called kamma.

You may be familiar with the twelve links of the Dependent Origination, and there you will find the term sankhara, which means mental formations.  Mental formations really means kamma here, and it is this kamma which produces results in this life or in future lives.

Thus we have the chain: on ignorance depend on kamma-formations; on kamma-formations depends consciousness; on consciousness depends mind and matter; on mind and matter depend six sense bases; on six sense bases depends contact; on contact depends feeling; on feeling depends craving; on craving depends clinging; on clinging depends the process of becoming; on the process of becoming depends rebirth; and on rebirth depend old age and death.

Before going further, I would like to mention that kamma is not the result of action, but the cause, although in common usage we use the word in the sense of meaning results. Kamma is also not fate or predestination, although in some senses it seems to be. Kamma is not fate in the sense of being something imposed on us by an external agent; but it is a significant determinant of our life and future lives.

One more thing that should not be applied to the doctrine of kamma is the idea of mass kamma or collective kamma. There is no operation of a collective kamma affecting a group of people. There may be, however a group of people who do something together and who get the results of their individual kamma together In that case, the results of each individual kamma is operating.

The law of kamma is a law of cause and effect which states that where there is cause, there is effect; no effect comes into being without a cause. We might also describe kamma as a law of action and reaction: when there is action, there is reaction.

The workings of kamma are a natural law, like law of gravitation. Nobody can interfere with this law, not even the Buddha. We have an old story of how Buddha could not save his relatives from being killed; He could not prevent them from being subject to the effects of their kamma.  The first factor in the Noble Eightfold path is Right Understanding. One of the basic requirements of Right Understanding is an understanding of the law of kamma.

Is everything due to kamma? In the Buddhist Dictionary Venerable Nyanatiloka writes: “Totally wrong is the belief that, according to Buddhism, everything is the result of previous action.” Any kammically wholesome or unwholesome volitional action is not the result of former action because it is the action itself; that is, volition is not influenced by the results of past kamma.  There are several categories of cittas, of consciousness.

One of the types of cittas is called resultant. Resultant consciousness is the result of kamma, but other types of consciousness are not the result of kamma. So not everything is due to kamma.

For example, we see something desirable, and that seeing consciousness is caused by kamma. But our reaction to that seeing or to that object is not caused by kamma. Our reaction is a new kamma that we perform. Seeing a desirable object is a result of good kamma; seeing an undesirable objects the result of bad kamma. If we see a beautiful rose, that is the result of good kamma. The rose is not the result of kamma - it is just a natural object. But the consciousness that sees this rose is the result of good kamma.

Then comes your reaction. If you have attachment to the rose, then your reaction is unwholesome (akusala); if your reaction is to see the true nature of the rose -that it is impermanent, without a soul, and subject to the laws of rise and fall -then your reaction is not to get attached to it, which is wholesome (kusala). That reaction is either kusala or akusala and will give results in the future.

Whatever you come cross in this life is the result of kamma in the past, but your reaction to it is not the result. Your reaction is a new kamma. Who is the doer of kamma? Who enjoys or experiences the results of kamma? This is very difficult to explain because Buddhism does not accept a person or being or Atman (in Pali: atta meaning self or soul) inside the person. Yet we say that if you do good deed, you get good results in the future, and so on.

The way to explain this seeming paradox is to say that Buddhism accepts both identity and diversity There is continuity but not identical mind and matter existing for a long time. At every moment, new mind and matter arise and disappear. So there is something like continuity but what is not identical to what existed before; nothing from this moment is taken over to the next moment.

Thus, in the ultimate analysis, there is no doer of kamma and no experiencer of results because there is no doer over and above the doing, no experiencer of the results over and above the’ occurrence of the result.  Apart from the action, we see no one we call an agent of the action. In conventional language, of course, we have to say that beings get results of good kamma or bad kamma, but the term “being” is just a mode of usage used for convenience.