The Law of Kamma Explained

The following passage occurs in several places:

All beings are the owners of their actions (kamma), heirs of their actions, born from their actions, related to their actions, and have actions as their refuge. Whatever action they do, whether good or evil, they will inherit its results.

Owners of their actions

In this world, one is said to be the owner of property that one has paid for, but at death we have to leave it all behind. So we do not really own it, we have just borrowed it for a while. In the case of volitional actions of body, speech, and mind however, we do take them with us when we die, so they are truly our own property. No one else owns or is responsible for our kamma. The buck stops here.

Heirs to their actions

When parents die, their children usually inherit their house and other property. The children do not usually inherit the house of their neighbours. If the parents had an expensive house, the children do no inherit a cheap house. When someone is reborn, they inherit the results of kammas done in previous lives. The circumstances in which we are reborn depends on on our kamma. Wealth is the result of generosity, intelligence is the result of questioning, beauty and good health are the results of kindness and compassion, a short life is the result of killing, etc. Nothing that happens to us in unfair in the ultimate sense, since it is the result of our own actions.

Born from their actions

Kamma is the seed that determines the quality of our existence. Mango seeds give mango trees, chilli seeds give chilli seeds. That is only natural.

Related to their actions

When a family gets into difficulties for one reason or another, good relatives will come to help out. On the other hand, bad relatives will cause many problems. Some kammas are supportive, others are counteractive. Though reborn in a happy existence due to good kamma, one may suffer many hardships due to counteractive kamma. Conversely, though reborn into difficult circumstances, supportive kamma may come along to offer many good opportunities to succeed in life.

Have kamma as their refuge

“God helps those who help themselves” as the saying goes. If believing in God was of any use, it would not be necessary to study or work. Merely by praying to God one would become wealthy. However, it is not so. One has to do wholesome kammas to become wealthy. If some seem to become wealthy by doing unwholesome kammas, it is because they did wholesome kammas in previous lives, the present kammas will give bad results in the future. So the law of kamma means that everyone has the opportunity to mould his or her own destiny to ensure happiness in the future.

Ten Kinds of Kamma

Although we talk of bodily kamma, and verbal kamma, it is always the mind that is the motivator, and it is in the mind that kamma is made. Body or speech is just the outward manifestation.

Ten Kinds of Unwholesome Kamma

Three Kinds of Physical Kamma

1. Killing
2. Stealing
3. Sexual misconduct

Four  Kinds of Verbal Kamma

1. Lying
2. Abusing
3. Slandering
4. Idle chatter

Three Kinds Mental Kamma

1. Covetousness
2. Ill-will
3. Wrong-view

Ten Kinds of Wholesome Kamma

There are also ten wholesome kamma that lead to happiness in this life and rebirth in fortunate existences (human, celestial, and brahma realms) in the next. Though you are no doubt familiar with all of the ten unwholesome deeds, you may not be so familiar with the ten wholesome deeds (~_~) so I may need to explain these in a bit more detail. What makes these deeds wholesome is not so much the outward manifestation, but the mental volition involved.

1. Charity (Dāna) means giving. It is accompanied by the wholesome volition of renunciation of attachment. It may be done for many reasons: compassion, reverence, loving-kindness, desiring praise or future welfare, or seeing danger in attachment. It is of three kinds as inferior, medium, and superior. Done with desire for fame is inferior, with desire for future welfare is medium, seeing the danger in attachment is superior.

2. Morality (Sīla) means abstaining from immoral deeds such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants that cause heedlessness. More refined morality means abstaining from sensual indulgence of all kinds such as listening to music, watching films, etc.

3. Meditation (Bhāvanā) means developing the mind through study or contemplation to gain concentration, knowledge, and wisdom. It entails withdrawing the mind from sensual pleasures, and removing mental restlessness and instability.

4. Reverence (Apacāyana) means respect or reverence for someone endowed with virtues such as morality, learning, compassion, or wisdom. It may also be shown towards objects, but it is important to focus the mind on the virtues of good people, for example: “This pagoda marks the spot where the Buddha attained Enlightenment” or “This meditation centre is a place where people are striving to gain insight, so I should be quiet.”

5. Service (Veyyāvaca) means helping others in various ways by sharing one’s knowledge and expertise, providing transportation, giving physical aid, medical care, etc.

6. Transference of merit (Pattidāna) means to invite others to participate in or take delight in one’s own good deeds. In Christian terms it means “Not to hide one’s light under a bushel.” It is the wholesome intention to encourage others to do wholesome deeds by speaking of the benefits one enjoys by doing them.

7. Rejoicing in others’ merit (Pattānumodanā) is finding delight in the virtue and good deeds of others.

8. Listening to Dhamma (Dhammassavana) is the mental action of paying attention to a talk, or reading a book, with the intention to understand the truth.

9. Teaching Dhamma (Dhammadesanā) is teaching and explaining the way things are based on one’s own learning of the Buddhist scriptures or experiences in life and in meditation.

10. Straightening one’s wrong views (Diṭṭhujukamma) is questioning and investigating to eradicate doubts and abandon wrong views.

Kamma is not Fatalism

As I pointed out before, and as this article makes abundantly clear, kamma is the refuge for living beings. Our past kamma is already done, so the only important thing is how we react to the results in the present.

However, there is one aspect of kamma that is fatalistic. Although kamma is the refuge for the wise man, it is a trap for the fool. Allow me to relate a short story from Burmese folk-lore to illustrate the point.

The son of a pious Buddhist was a drunkard and a fool. He had no faith in Dhamma, and never listened to his father. Whatever little profit he made during the day, he spent at night, and so remained poor. After his death the father was reborn as a deity. Seeing his former son in dire straits he made one last attempt to help him. He appeared to his son and told him, “Tomorrow morning, set up your stall in front of the king’s palace. When he comes to buy a vase from you, ask whatever price you wish and he will pay it.” Then the deity appeared before the king in a frightening form, and warned him, “Your kingdom is in great danger from a demon who resides in a vase. Tomorrow morning a vendor will be in front of your palace, and he will have the vase. If you buy the vase and destroy it, the demon won’t be able to harm you.”

The king was terrified, so the next morning he went to the vendor’s stall, found the vase, and asked the vendor how much he wanted for it. The vendor replied, “50 cents” so the king bought it and took it away. The deity was furious, and took hold of his former son by the hair to smack him one, but as he lifted up his head, he saw the words “50 cents” on his forehead. So he let him go, thinking, “What is the use of being angry with this fool?”

Hence the origin of the Burmese expression, “One has one’s kamma written on one’s forehead.”

Although kamma gives us the potential to escape from all suffering, most people do not realise this. We say that they lack perfections (pāramī). If anyone holds wrong views, and clings tenaciously to those wrong views, that is heavy kamma that will prevent him or her from realising the Dhamma. They not only hold wrong views themselves, but they try their utmost to impose those wrong views on others. For the average intelligent person, if they hear or read about right view, they can understand it well enough if they think over it carefully. However, the bigot is blinded by his heavy obstructive kamma and can never understand the Dhamma, even if he is fortunate to meet the Buddha himself.

Right Understanding Arises from Practice

Buddhism is all about cause and effect
If you want to get results you have to make the right causes.

The first step is gaining confidence in the Buddha’s teaching. The Pali word is Saddha, which means confidence based on knowledge, rather than faith. However, there is an element of faith or trust required, since mere logic and reason is not sufficient. One’s knowledge has to be direct and empirical, not just intellectual.

Suffering is the cause, and confidence is the effect

Most people turn to religion only when they experience suffering. The loss of a loved one, divorce, losing one’s job, sickness, or a road accident. When the experience of suffering is personal, and not just theoretical, one begins to contemplate the meaning of life. The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. From our own experience we gain confidence that this is true, and stop trying to deny it.

Confidence is the cause, and effort is the effect

If the Buddha had taught only the First Noble Truth, his teaching would be a pessimistic doctrine. However, he also pointed out the cause of suffering, and how to remove it. If we clearly see the cause of suffering, we will definitely want to remove it. So effort arises. One acquires a sense of urgency and disenchantment with so-called happiness.

Effort is the cause, and mindfulness is the effect

If we try to understand we will learn that the only way to remove craving, which is the cause of suffering, is to be mindful. Mindfulness is an extremely effective method for purifying the mind. In fact, it is the only method that always works. Telling people that immorality leads to hell, doesn’t stop them doing immoral deeds. When desire or anger is strong enough, they will do immoral deeds. Mindfulness prevents desire and anger from becoming strong in the first place. The trouble is, even if we know this, we still sometimes get careless and forget to be mindful.

Mindfulness is the cause, and concentration is the effect

When mindfulness is continuous and constant, the mind becomes deeply concentrated on realities in the present moment. It becomes highly purified and stops running here and there after sensual desires.

Concentration is the cause, and wisdom is the effect

The calm and concentrated mind is like a bright light that dispels the darkness of ignorance. With the benefit of right mindfulness and right concentration we can see things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Our perception changes radically. What we previously perceived as happiness, we now see as nothing but suffering. What we previously perceived as permanent, we now perceive as unstable and unreliable. What we previously perceived as a person or being, I, me, or mine, a self or a soul; we now perceive as empty and void of any such self or person.

Wisdom is the cause, and liberation is the effect

When we no longer cling to ideas of I, me, and mine we no longer suffer due to change and decay. If something changes, we understand, “That is the nature of all things.”

Is there any difference between Reincarnation and Rebirth?

The reality is the same for all of us. Even those who are neither Buddhists, nor Hindus, are reborn, whether they believe it or not. At least they cannot deny that they have been born, can they? So the difference between Rebirth in Buddhism, and Re-incarnation in Hinduism is a matter of concepts. Hindus believe in an immortal soul that is transferred from one existence to the next. Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul, but they do believe in rebirth. There is no eternal essence that remains unchanged throughout life, and even after death.

How Can Rebirth Take Place if there is no Soul?

A fair question, and an important concept to grasp correctly. It may be easiest to understand with the help of a simile. Take a match and a candle. Light the match. Now hold the candle wick directly over the flame, but not actually touching it. Watch closely what happens. After a few seconds the wick will begin to smoulder, and a flame will ignite. A child might say that the flame jumped from the matchstick to the candle, because that is what seems to happen.

A scientist would describe the process differently. He would perhaps say that due to the heat in the match flame, the paraffin wax in the wick vaporised, reached its ignition temperature, and begin to react with the oxygen in the air. This rapid process of oxidation produced the flame in the candle. Nothing jumped from the matchstick to the candle, but the heat was the cause produced by the oxidation of the wood, that led to the result, which was the oxidation of the paraffin wax and the second flame.

Rebirth is similar to this process. A living being does many volitional activities, which are kamma. This is like the heat. The present human body is like the match-stick, the new fetus, which might be a non-human fetus, is like the candle. When the conditions are right, consciousness arises in the new fetus. No soul is transferred, but there is a causal relationship between the two existences. In the case of rebirth, unlike in the simile, consciousness in one existence must cease before it can arise in the second existence.

Please note that just as the flames may be entirely different colours, sizes, temperatures, etc., in the first fuel and the second fuel, the same is true of the form that life takes before and after rebirth. To give a simple example: a female mouse may be reborn as a male elephant, or a Caucasian male may be reborn as an Asian female. It all depends on the mental process that is driven by kamma. One does not always get what one wants, but one always gets what one deserves.

Where To Sir?

Rebirth into the heavenly realms is spontaneous, as there is no gestation or fetal stage. Celestial beings are reborn with their subtle bodies fully developed. In the analogy of the flame, it would be like a gas flame rather than a candle flame.

Yes, kamma is the overriding factor that determines where rebirth takes place, but prayer or aspiration plays a significant role too. To give another simile. Suppose one were to arrive at an airport with sufficient money in one’s pocket to stay at the best hotel in town. If the taxi driver asked, “Where to, sir?” one might say, “Oh! It doesn’t matter. Take me to the nearest hotel.” The nearest hotel might be a bit of dump, whilst the best hotel might be the other side of town. Kamma is like the money in one’s pocket, while aspiration is like what one says to the taxi driver.

If one arrives with only $25 in one’s pocket, one will have to say, “Take me to the cheapest guest house” otherwise when one gets to the five-star hotel, the taxi driver will take the $25 and the concierge will not even let one into the foyer.

Spontaneous Rebirth

Gestation (or incubation) is only necessary in the human and animal realms, where beings are born in the womb or in eggs. In the case of rebirth in celestial realms, and also in the lower realms of hungry ghosts, demons, and in hell, rebirth takes place spontaneously with a fully formed body created by kamma.

Beings in the realms of form (rūpa loka) are reborn there by the power of deep absorption (jhāna) and since there is no sex there, it makes little sense to refer to them as male. This is also the case with the formless realms (arūpa loka), where there in only mind and no matter.

The same could perhaps be said regarding the human fetus that has not yet developed sexual characteristics. It begs the question, Why are some acted upon by testosterone while others are not? However, we are getting into deep waters here beyond my knowledge of biology. According to my understanding, the sex is already determined at conception due to that particular being’s kamma and aspiration. However, it is possible that sex is not determined by the kamma that causes rebirth, but only by supportive kammas that bear fruit afterwards.

The kamma that causes rebirth is like the seed, supportive kammas that function thereafter are like the soil, water, fertiliser, and sunlight. Obstructive or counteractive kammas may also intervene resulting in miscarriage, deformities, or abortion These are like fungal infections, insects, flood, fire, or vermin, that may prevent a seed from developing into a full-grown plant.

Time to Move On

Kamma is the driving force that keeps us revolving in the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra). Kamma is the Almighty creator. The Buddha fully understood the law of kamma and taught us how it works, but predicting its results is even more difficult than predicting the weather. The Buddha warned that to try to reason out the specific causes or results of kamma would lead to insanity. However, what we can do is understand the basic principles of kamma. Then we will avoid unwholesome kamma, cultivate wholesome kamma, and try to gain liberation from kamma.


The Holy Quest

After his enlightenment the Buddha uttered the following spontaneous verse:

Through many births I wandered,
Seeking, but not finding, the builder of this house.
Painful is repeated existence.
Oh housebuilder, you are seen now.
You shall build no house again.
All your rafters are broken,
Your ridgepole is shattered.
To dissolution goes my mind.
Achieved is the destruction of craving.
(Dhammapada, verses 153,4)

The Buddha-to-be, or bodhisatta, began his quest for enlightenment at some far distant point in time. He eventually reached a stage of spiritual maturity when there was no turning back, and enlightenment was certain. Ninety-one aeons ago he was reborn as a youth called Sumedha. His multi-millionaire parents died while he was young. He reflected, “They have died taking nothing with them. It is better to give it all away before one dies, then at least I will take that wholesome kamma with me when I die.” Thus he renounced all his fabulous wealth and became a wanderer. Then he met the Buddha Dipaṅkara, who predicted that Sumedha would become a Buddha named Gotama in the distant future.

The bodhisatta continued to seek enlightenment throughout many existences. When his spiritual virtues were fully ripe he was reborn as Siddhartha Gotama, made the final renunciation of his wealth to seek enlightenment, and gained it after six years of struggle.

The simile of the house-builder refers to the house of selfhood, which is built by kamma, and protected by the rafters of mental defilements, held together by the ridge-pole of ignorance. With the destruction of ignorance, the other defilements and craving for existence were destroyed, as he attained to nibbāna.

First, we should understand that nibbāna is not a place or realm of existence like heaven, and the Buddha didn’t ‘enter’ nibbāna, neither when he gained enlightenment, nor when he died. Throughout his life, he could abide in the attainment of nibbāna whenever he wished, and all noble disciples can do this too. Nibbāna just means cessation or letting go.

When you just let go of something, you cease to suffer, there and then. Unenlightened people can experience a ‘mini-nibbāna’ every time they suppress the urge to defend themselves from some perceived attack. When we don’t suppress that urge, the ego rises up and we instigate another cycle of suffering.

If you can understand that this so-called ego is entirely mind-made, illusory, and has no substance, then you will see that the house is empty. There is no one at home. No soul, no self, no spirit, no person, no me, no you. Just mind and matter arising and passing away, and creating illusions. So where could a Buddha or Arahant go after death? If a fire ceases to burn because the fuel is used up, the flames go out. It makes no sense to ask, “Where did the flame go?” It didn’t go anywhere, it just went out.

However, it is difficult to see this. Usually, the ego does rise up, so we keep on making kamma, which means intentional actions by body, speech, and mind. This is the driving force that accumulates momentum throughout life, and throws us into this or that existence after death. Wholesome kamma leads to happiness, unwholesome kamma leads to misery. When we die, it is just the last conscious moment that determines the arising of the next existence, so it is wise to cultivate good mental habits and to remove bad ones, since we can die at any moment.

How do you know what is right?

Good question. Short answer is, you don’t, at least not to begin with. The Pali words for the eight factors of the noble path all begin with sammā- e.g. sammā-diṭṭhi (right view), sammā-saṅkappo (right thought). However, sammā doesn’t just mean right.

How do we usually translate “Sammāsambuddho?” You never see it translated as the Rightly Enlightened Buddha, do you? The usual translation is the Fully or Perfectly Enlightened Buddha.

So our view has to be gradually straightened and corrected until it is not just right, but perfect and without any blemish. This action of straightening our views is one of the ten wholesome deeds.

Most people, including many so-called Buddhists, have more wrong views than right ones. When we gain sincere and well-placed confidence in the enlightenment of the Buddha, we get rid of the gross forms of wrong views such as those denying the law of cause and effect, and gain mundane right view, but we have not attained nibbāna yet. Self-view is one kind of serious wrong view that must be eliminated before we can realise nibbāna.

Self-view is the belief in a permanent self, soul, person, or being who inhabits the body, and motivates it.

“I think, therefore I am. I think?” “No you’re not, you’re magnetic ink. The folded sheets of paper clatter through the great computer …”

Before I became a Buddhist, I used to listen to the Moody Blues Greatest Hits album, from which these lyrics come. The very rapid, and almost incessant mental process perpetuates the illusion of a permanent self or person. That is why most people find it very difficult to be silent, and to do nothing.

When we meditate, the mind gradually becomes still, then we can see this profound truth of emptiness, or egolessness, and gain a deeper realisation of right view. When the mind is truly empty of self — selfishness, egoism, pride, arrogance, conceit — then you will clearly discern right from wrong.

The Buddha never tried to convert anybody to his viewpoint, because he didn’t have one. He knew what was right, and helped others to see it too. When you see the truth clearly for yourself you will gain confidence in the Buddha. If I insult your intelligence by trying to tell you what to believe, why should you listen to me?

The Four Kinds of Nutriment

All conditioned phenomena arise due to one of four causes. These are known as the four foods, or four nutriments:

1. Physical food.
2. Climate.
3. Mind or consciousness.
4. Kamma (including, but not confined to kamma in past lives).

Physical food is essential for life and strength. Good healthy food eaten in moderation gives us health, beauty, long-life, and strength. Too much rich food can cause poor health, while insufficient or poor quality food can also cause disease.

Climate is another factor. In cold climates we need heating, in hot climates we need air-conditioning. Extremes of cold and heat can also cause diseases or death.

Mind or consciousness is important too. Too much anger, lust, fear, or worry is not good for one’s well-being. How we stimulate the mind affects our happiness. We need wisdom to avoid stimulating the mind in unskilful ways.

Then there is kamma. We do not know what we did in the past, and can do nothing about it now. It will give its result when the conditions are ripe, and if it was powerful bad kamma, we will have to suffer. If we are enjoying good results, we can be happy, but we must plant good seeds for the future while enjoying the fruits of the past.

Pain and Disease

Pain and disease comes from having a body. We have to accept it the way it is. When we were young, we had lots of energy and recovered quickly from diseases, as we get older the body decays and finally perishes. The Buddha’s chief supporter, Anāthapiṇḍika, was in agony on his death-bed, even though he had done heaps of powerful wholesome kamma during his lifetime. However, when Venerable Sāriputta taught him the method of insight meditation he was able to transcend the pain and attained bliss as he lay dying.

Actually all pain is mental, not physical. If you are unconscious, you cannot feel any pain. When we talk about physical pain, we mean the unpleasant feeling that arises through physical contact. Mental pain is the unpleasant feeling arising through mental contact.

If one meditates seriously, it is possible to separate mind and matter and observe even severe physical pain and discomfort with equanimity. It is not easy to sit in meditation at first. The beginner may claim to be in agony after only twenty minutes of sitting still, whereas an experienced meditator can sit still for two hours or more without difficulty. It is not that they have no pain, but they do not magnify it with fear and aversion. When mindfulness and concentration are strong enough, pain is not a problem.

Healing Through Insight Meditation

Ardent meditators with strong faith in the Dhamma have overcome serious medical conditions such as cancer, eczema, tuberculosis, gall stones, etc. Even the average person can soon learn to overcome mild ailments such as colds, headaches, high blood-pressure, etc., and minor mental disorders such as stuttering, acute anxiety, compulsive obsessions, phobias, and depression.

We do not claim that meditation is a cure for all ills. Medication and therapy should also be used, but the concentrated mind has powerful healing qualities.

Severe mental disorders cannot usually be overcome, because the unfortunate victim’s mind is just too weak and distracted.

The Way of Inquiry – The First Discourse

Not my first discourse, I hasten to add, but the Buddha’s first discourse.

That seems like an appropriate place to start. If you are reading this thread then I assume that you wish to know more about the teaching of the Buddha. I will be do my best to reply to any questions that you may have, as long as they are respectful and sincere.


The bodhisatta, Prince Siddhattha Gotama, renounced his palace at the age of 29 after seeing four signs: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk. Seeing that all living beings were trapped by old age, sickness, and death, he resolved to find an escape from this predicament. His noble quest began with the practice of self-mortification because it was believed at the time to be the way to liberation. He practised with five other ascetics as his companions. After six years of strenuous austerities, he realised that this was not the right path, and resumed taking adequate food and rest. Because of this, his five companions thought he had given up the quest, so they left him.

After regaining his strength and health the bodhisatta meditated the whole night and discovered the path leading to enlightnement. By the morning he had eradicated all craving and ignorance, and he gained Buddhahood with the rising of the dawn. Reflecting on the Dhamma that he had realised, he was at first disinclined to teach it, as it went against the current of human desires, and was difficult to understand. Nevertheless, he reasoned that some “with little dust in their eyes” would understand it, so he resolved to teach it.

Realising that his two former meditation teachers had already passed away, he went to Saranath to teach it to the five ascetics who had been his companions in the quest for liberation. When he told them that he had found liberation, at first they did not believe him, because they thought he had given up the path of striving. However, by reminding them of his lifelong honesty, he won them around and they agreed to listen to him. So he gave his first discourse, which is called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – the setting in motion of the wheel of the truth.

This first discourse deals with the Middle Way, and the Four Noble Truths including the Eightfold Noble Path. It is very concise. By the end of the discourse only one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, understood it properly and realised nibbana, the other four had to practise meditation as instructed by the Buddha for some time before realising nibbana. Because he was so quick to understand this concise discourse, Kondañña became known as “Kondañña the Wise.”

The Middle Way

The Buddha began by stating that the way to liberation was the middle way, avoiding the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This middle way comprised eight factors: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

He didn’t explain it in detail, he just stated it in brief.

The Four Noble Truths

Then he stated the Four Noble Truths that he had realised:

1. The truth of suffering (dukkha): birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering, in brief the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.

2. The truth of the cause of suffering is the craving that causes repeated becoming, and takes delight now here now there, namely sensual craving, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence.

3. The truth of the cessation of suffering is the complete cessation and abandonment of this craving, and liberation from it without any remainder.

4. The truth of the way to attain the end of suffering, which is the noble eightfold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

That, very briefly, is the essence of the first discourse. The Buddha went on to explain that until he had thoroughly realised these four noble truths he did not claim to be fully enlightened. Merely knowing these four truths intellectually is not enough, we have to thoroughly understand them to gain liberation.