Dhamma Talks at George Washington University

Kamma in Theravāda Buddhism

A Presentation by Phramaha Thanat Inthisan, Ph.D
At George Washington University
Invited by Professor Dr. Aviv
February 17, 2012

I. Kamma and Its Fruit

As regards kamma (Pāli for karma), traditionally in Theravada Buddhism this is understood as a person’s wholesome or unwholesome volitional actions (more accurately, volitions) shaping the outcome of his present life as well as of his future ones. In this sense it goes hand in hand with the idea of rebirth. Kamma is not the result of an action (that is called vipāka), just as it is not some kind of fate hanging over a person’s life. Previous kamma does not cause present kamma.
However, kamma is more properly articulated in terms of the law of Nature in the present world. “The Law of Karma is nothing other than the Law of Nature [idappaccayatā] expressed in terms of action.” In other words, given this and this, this and this is the result. If this and this is not given, the result is something else. The law of kamma as the law of action applies to everything in the world, i.e., to natural phenomena, to human beings, and to society as a whole. As regards natural phenomena, e.g., the planets follow certain elliptical orbits around the sun (cf. actions) because of the law of gravity. House plants, again, will dry up if someone does not water them. The law of kamma applies to human beings in terms of the bodily, the mental, and the spiritual. For instance, if one eats too many chocolate donuts, one gets fat (the bodily factor). If the student does not study for the calculus examination, he probably does not pass (the mental factor). If the lay Buddhist practices concentration meditation at the end of a stressful day at work, he probably calms his frayed nerves (the mental factor, again). Moreover, if a person attaches to feelings of pleasure or displeasure, the result is a state of suffering (the spiritual factor). The law of kamma regarding the spiritual dimension states, “Action motivated by defilement or ignorant intention, causes suffering; Action motivated by mindfulness and Wisdom does not.” The law of kamma, finally, also applies to society as a whole. Simply put, the law of action in this case means: do good, get good; do bad, get bad (the Thai ทำดีได้ดี ทำชั่วได้ชั่ว). For example, if a society condones violence and explicit sex on television and in the movies, the result is the undermining of social values.
“Do good get good, do bad get bad” as a karmic principle, nonetheless, does not mean that in every case good people are subsequently rewarded and the evil are punished. Such thinking is naïve. The law of conditionality does not work this way. It does mean that, according to the law of karma for society’s welfare, the good or bad we do reverberates for the benefit of or the damage to society as a whole: “There are immediate effects on the society and the person’s external circumstances. The welfare or decline of a society is thus dependent upon the good and bad actions of each of its members.” The good that we do lives on after us for the betterment of all. Yet so does the evil live on for the detriment of all. Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the state of Virginia, and the United States of America, for example, will never be quite the same after the killings of faculty members and students there by the mass murderer on April 16, 2007. However, in terms of the individual, “Do good, get good, do bad, get bad” does not always apply: it all depends on the law of conditionality. For instance, the bank robber does not always suffer incarceration. If he is clever enough, he may elude capture by the police. Also, the person who does good deeds does not always receive good in return. For instance, if this person happens to live in a bad neighborhood, the law of conditionality being what it is, he may very well be the victim of a violent crime. Yet if conditions in the neighborhood improve and incidents of crime decrease, the person who does good will more likely get good in kind. This is the law of conditionality.
Articulating kamma in terms of the law of Nature (or in terms of the maxim, “Do good, get good, do bad, get bad”) does not really get to the heart of the matter, however. The Buddha asks,

And what, monks, is kamma that is neither dark [bad] nor bright [good], with
neither dark nor bright results, which leads to the destruction of kamma? The volition
to abandon the dark kamma with dark results, and to abandon the bright kamma with
bright results, and to abandon the dark and bright kamma with dark and bright
results—this is called the kamma that is neither dark nor bright, with neither dark nor
bright results, which leads to the destruction of kamma.

Three things should be noted here. First, kamma for the Buddha means more than it is taken to mean traditionally. There is a third kind of kamma that is kamma in the truest sense. Besides the badand the good kamma, there is a kind that goes beyond both of these. It is non-preferential: it goes beyond good and evil. It does not put any stock in good actions; it does not put any stock in bad actions. Good kamma does not ensure liberation; it is not enough. Something more is needed. “. . . [M]erely producing good kamma does not extinguish mental suffering completely and absolutely, because one goes right on being infatuated by and grasping at good kamma.” Secondly, it is possible to kill both bad kamma as well as good kamma. So neither the good nor the bad has any further control. One reaches a point where the intentional acts produced are not really intentional acts (the first two kinds of kamma) any more. He is watching the world go by without being caught up in it (the third kind of kamma). Lastly, the third kind of kamma is the ending of the defilements; it is the Noble Eightfold Path. It is the eradication of the state of suffering. The third kind of kamma, the destruction of the other two, is nothing other than Nibbanā itself. “The ending of kamma is the same thing as Nibbāna . . . / Nibbāna is freedom from kamma and its results.”

II. Kamma and Selfishness,
and the Three Kinds of Individuals in the World

Roughly speaking, then, there are three kinds of people in the world: those who are foolishly selfish, those who are wisely selfish, and those who are wisely un-selfish. The foolishly selfish do what is evil out of ignorance, e.g., kill another living being. The wisely selfish do what is good but for selfish reasons, e.g, perform meritorious actions to better their situations in life. The wisely selfish exhibit a selfishness based on a wisdom of sorts, but this wisdom is rooted in greed. The wisely unselfish show an unselfishness that, ultimately, is the end of kamma. The wisely unselfish let a world go by that is empty of the selfish self.
The foolishly selfish acquire bad kamma, the wisely selfish good kamma, and the wisely un-selfish no kamma at all. The foolishly selfish are foolishly greedy. The wisely selfish are wisely greedy, but greedy nonetheless. The wisely un-selfish have no greed. The foolishly selfish live a life of delusion. The wisely selfish, despite their wisdom, also live a life of delusion. The wisely un-selfish live a life of wisdom. The foolishly selfish live a life of suffering. The wisely selfish, still selfish despite their wisdom, also live a life of suffering. The wisely un-selfish, totally free of self, are free of suffering. So the best way to live is with no kamma, with no greed, no delusion, and no suffering. The wisely un-selfish live this way. This is Enlightenment.

As regards kamma (Pāli for karma), traditionally in Theravada Buddhism this is understood as a person’s wholesome or unwholesome volitional actions (more accurately, volitions) shaping the outcome of his present life as well as of his future ones. In this sense it goes hand in hand with the idea of rebirth. Kamma is not the result of an action (that is called vipāka), just as it is not some kind of fate hanging over a person’s life. Previous kamma does not cause present kamma.
1. However, kamma is more properly articulated in terms of the law of Nature in the present world. “The Law of Karma is nothing other than the Law of Nature [idappaccayatā] expressed in terms of action.” In other words, given this and this, this and this is the result. If this and this is not given, the result is something else.

2. What is Kamma ? what is it? Let us look at the meaning of the term itself. Karma means “action,” that is to say, the act of doing this or that. Immediately, we have a clear indication that the real meaning of karma is not fate; rather, karma is action, and as such, it is dynamic. But karma is more than just action, because it is not mechanical action, nor is it unconscious or involuntary action. On the contrary, karma is intentional, conscious, deliberate action motivated by volition, or will.
3. The result of Kamma: Kusala and Akusala, Good and Bad, Kusala: result is happiness, Akusala: result is suffering
4. Do good get good , Do bad get bad, : A man breaks a window, throw the stone to the pond. Kamma & Its fruit or Kamma Vipaka, ripened result, Kama Phala, fruit
5. All living beings divided by Kamma ! The are many differences amongst living beings, human and animals. The are some wealthy , poverty , strong or weakness. These circumstances are decided by Kamma.
6. How many way to create Kamma ? Specifically, the unwholesome actions that are to be avoided are related to the so-called three doors of action–namely, body, voice, and mind. There are three unwholesome actions of body, four of speech, and three of mind. The three unwholesome actions of body are (1) killing, (2) stealing, and (3) sexual misconduct; the four unwholesome actions of voice are (4) lying, (5) harsh speech, (6) slander, and (7) malicious gossip; and the three unwholesome actions of mind are (8) greed, (9) anger, and (10) delusion.
7. What is the Law of Kamma. ? The law of kamma regarding the spiritual dimension states, “Action motivated by defilement or ignorant intention, causes suffering; Action motivated by mindfulness and Wisdom does not.

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