The Law of Kamma Explained

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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.”

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