“The teaching of karma, or action, forms the cornerstone of the whole Buddhist doctrine: action is the ultimate explanation of human existence and of the physical world, and it is in terms of karma that the Buddhist masters have constructed their philosophy.” 1 - Etienne Lamotte
Karma is indeed the foundation of Buddhist thought, but it is often misunderstood. In the present day English speaking world despite having gained currency in colloquial speech few know the actual meaning of term. The semantic warping of the idea of karma in recent decades is perhaps a topic worthy of investigation, but my purpose here is to provide the basic details of what precisely karma means in Buddhism. Many Buddhists themselves only have a vague idea of what the term means, and more often than not it is cloaked in nebulous sentiments. Nevertheless, as the great Lama Tsongkhapa of Tibet stressed, understanding of karma is important:
“Attaining certain knowledge of the definiteness, or nondeceptiveness, of karma and its effects is called the correct viewpoint of all Buddhists and is praised as the foundation of all virtue.”2
Being that understanding karma is absolutely essential for a practitioner of Buddhadharma it would be wise for any interested individual to thoroughly study the subject. It is my hope here to provide the basics as well as resource texts from which further study can be undertaken.
In discussing karma (Pāli: kamma) it would be best to begin with how the term was specifically defined by the Buddha himself. Action (karma) is volition (cetanā) from which a process of activity is carried out via body, speech and mind. The word karma itself is derived from the verb-root kṛ in Sanskrit which is related to the English word create, where the relatively same syllable fulfilling the same function is found. Both Sanskrit and English are Indo-European languages and hence having descended from the same prehistorical language they have such similarities as this. Consider the following quote by the Buddha in the Aṅguttaranikāya:
"Oh monks, I say that action is volition; after having willed it, one accomplishes action by means of the body, the voice and the mind."3
Karma produces effects (vipāka-phala) and this is certain according to the Buddha. Furthermore, those actions do not perish.
“Action does not perish, even after hundreds of millions of cosmic eras. When the complex [of conditions] and [favourable] times come together, they ripen for their author.”4
The result of karma is primarily, though not exclusively, experienced as agreeable or disagreeable sensation. Tsongkhapa emphasizes this as follows.
“All happiness in the sense of feelings of ease - whether ordinary or noble beings, including even the slightest pleasures such as the rising of a cool breeze for a being born in a hell - arises from previously accumulated virtuous karma. It is impossible for happiness to arise from nonvirtuous karma.
All sufferings in the sense of painful feelings - including even the slightest suffering occuring in an arhat's mind-stream - arise from previously accumulated nonvirtuous karma. It is impossible for suffering to arise from virtuous karma.”5
In other words, good deeds lead to ease while evil deeds bring about suffering. When the Buddha speaks of action not perishing even on a scale of cosmic time he is referring to karmic effects experienced in a future lifetime. Karma is intricately linked to the process of rebirth (punarbhava), whereby postmortem one's psycho-physical continuity re-emerges as a new life due specifically to the ripening of one's past karma. It goes without saying that karma and rebirth are intrinsically related and one may not be deprived of the other.
The quality of karma is threefold consisting of meritorious action (puṇyakarma) / favourable action (kuśalakarma), demeritorious action (apuṇyakarma) / unfavourable action (akuśalakarma), and immovable action (āniñjyakarma), which is favourable action associated with the form and formless realms (rūpārūpyapratisaṃyukta). The form and formless realms are the two higher planes of existence in Buddhist cosmology. These three kinds of karma are karmic formations (saṃskāra), that is to say things arisen due to action, conditioned by ignorance (avidyā). Ignorance is further twofold: ignorance of results, which produces demeritorious formations (apuṇya-saṃskāra), and ignorance of reality (tattvārtha-avidyā), which produces meritorious and immovable formations (puṇya-āniñjya-saṃskāra).6
Now, in simpler terms, these three types of karma foster existence through karma (karmabhava) and these are all conditioned by ignorance, which can be divided into two types. The first is ignorance of result, whereby one is unaware of the effects of deeds driven by such mental afflictions as hatred and greed, resulting in suffering. The second is ignorance of reality, whereby although one has awareness of good and evil (and consequently the causes of ease and suffering), one still continues to produce karma, albeit resulting in favourable circumstances such as being in a state of ease or in dhyāna (meditative stabilization).
It is important to understand that even so-called good karma, while still producing favourable results such as ease (sukha), is conditioned by ignorance and results in further effects propelling one's saṃsāra (i.e., one's involuntary rebirths). In other words, you cannot liberate yourself from saṃsāra on good karma alone. Amassing vast amounts of good karma would result in being reborn as some high deity beyond what most humans could conceptualize, but such a state would be impermanent and when the effect of that karma expired one would fall down into a lower realm on the cosmological ladder.
That being said, the conditions for liberation from saṃsāra of course will be more available if one is in a state of ease and possessing both the mental capacity and circumstances, such as having the time, resources and teachers, to pursue liberation. Such a capacity and circumstances are unavailable to beings reborn in the lower realms, the cause of such rebirths being demeritorious actions. On the reverse, the causes for being reborn as human and having access to means appropriate for pursuing liberation are meritorious actions. Again, good deeds do not bring about liberation – they only foster the conditions unto which that liberation is made possible.
This is why in Buddhist cultures you see individuals, both lay and monastic, frequently engage in activities that generate merit (puṇya) such as making offerings, circumambulating stūpas clockwise (in ancient India this was a way of venerating someone or something) and prostrating themselves before images of buddhas and/or bodhisattvas. The purpose of this is to karmically cultivate favourable conditions whereby one at the most basic level can live a life free of as much distress as possible as well as to foster circumstances, either in this life or in a future life, where one can actively work towards achieving complete liberation from saṃsāra. In liturgy and in prayers practitioners will often dedicate the merit they have accumulated from their recent activities either towards all sentient beings, hoping that they will all without exception karmically benefit from the virtuous deeds recently carried out, or towards their own enlightenment, whereupon they will be liberated from saṃsāra and, at least in the case of Mahāyāna traditions, they will be in an optimal position to be of benefit to others having experientially understood exactly how liberation from suffering was achieved.
It is important to understand that ignorance (avidyā) is not some kind of substance or force from which action occurs. Ignorance here is the antonym of knowing. It is the absence of knowing the consequences of results and/or reality itself. When full knowledge of consequences is present, one does not commit unwholesome actions, the results of which will be experienced as suffering. When full knowledge of reality is present, there will be, at least in the case of an individual seeking cessation of rebirth, simply no more karma produced which would result in rebirth. To obtain such knowledge includes a process of ridding oneself of mental afflictions such as malice and greed which hinder attainment of wisdom – namely, wisdom of how reality is and how ones own existence works within it. To do this demands attainments in meditation whereby perceptual objects experienced within the mind are stopped while simultaneously the effect of ceaselessly flowing defilements (pravāha) and their outflow in accordance with the state of the mind (anusraveyus) end. At that point insight, not tainted by perceptual objects which give rise to defilements, manifests.
This raises the question why an individual who completely rids themselves of the aforementioned ignorance still visibly continues to live until physical death. In the case of an arhat, one who has rid themselves of the aforementioned ignorance, they produce no new karma, but are still subject to their old karma for the duration of their physical life. This is called “nirvāṇa with remainder” (sopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa). Upon passing away they attain “nirvāṇa without remainder” (nirupadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa), whereby having cut away all causes for future rebirths and their old karma finally expiring, they pass into final nirvāṇa like the flame of candle being blown out.
In the case of a Mahāyāna bodhisattva there would still be full knowledge of reality, though she would still take rebirth, albeit voluntarily, as cessation of rebirth would result in being unable to be of aid to anyone. In some traditions of Mahāyāna it is said that an arhat still suffers subtle ignorance and will eventually re-emerge within reality, albeit in favourable circumstances and walking the bodhisattva path. However, such a view is not universal.
I said above that the result of karma is primarily, though not exclusively, experienced as sensation. As explained above an arhat lives out their old karma while producing no new karma. This is an example of an effect of karma not specifically being sensation. As recorded in the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha made the distinction between “old karma” and “new karma” as follows.
"Monks, I will teach you new & old kamma, the cessation of kamma, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma. Listen and pay close attention. I will speak.”
"Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear... The nose... The tongue... The body... The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.”
"And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.”7
Old karma is the fruition of past actions in the form of being or existence. New karma are the actions carried out by way of the existence one has obtained via past action.
At this point there is a distinction to be made between karma that produces rebirth and the karma that will define the qualities of that existence. Asanga defines these two types as follows in the Abhidharmasammucaya:
“The results of favorable and unfavorable actions are produced in the good and bad destinies (sugati, durgati). This also, through the projecting action (ākṣepaka-karma) and the completing action (paripūraka-karma). What is projecting action? It is the action by means of which the result of fruition is produced. What is completing action? It is the action by means of which, after having been born, one experiences good and bad results.”8
In other words, good and evil deeds dictate one's destiny post-mortem – one can be reborn in any of the six realms on the cosmological ladder which includes the hell realms through animal and human embodiments up to celestial existence as a deity. Evil deeds drive a being into the hell realms. Good actions lead one into more favourable kinds of existences. There is action which specifically “projects” or specifically produces a future life while there are other actions which dictate what kind of life it will be.
It is often asked if there is such a thing as collective karma. In other words, is it possible for a group of individuals to collectively produce karma and mutually experience its effects? While there might be some who would contest this, Vasubandhu in the Abhidharmakośa explains the reality of collective karma using the example of an army or group set on killing.
When many persons are united with the intention to kill, either in war, or in the hunt, or in banditry, who is guilty of murder, if only one of them kills?
As soldiers, etc., concur in the realization of the same effect, all are as guilty as the one who kills.
Having a common goal, all are guilty exactly as he who among them kills, for all mutually incite one another, not through speech, but by the very fact that they are united together in order to kill.
But is the person who has been constrained through force to join the army also guilty?
Evidently so, unless he has formed the resolution, "Even in order to save my life, I shall not kill a living being."9
The magnitude of this is potentially frightening as an individual participating in a military of a million personnel at war has the potential to suffer immeasurably in the future even if they themselves do not harm anyone. It is not just the pilot dropping the bomb who commits an evil deed, but every member of logistics and command supporting the action is equally guilty of the act.
This being said, a simple examination of Buddhist nations will reveal such ideas are not visibly accepted. Most Buddhist countries or countries with significant Buddhist populations support the death penalty with minimal opposition to it. The supporting participants in a justice system which executes a criminal support the act of killing, and it is not simply the executioner and judge which condemns the convict to death who are guilty, but a whole organization of individuals who support and aid in carrying out the deed, both by condoning the act and actively aiding in it by their own free will. Nevertheless, justice systems in places like Thailand and even Japan are notoriously inhumane and brutal to prisoners, despite their ancestral religion attempting to teach compassion.
On a cosmological scale karma also plays a key role. In contrast to theists who assert the universe was created by a supreme deity, in Buddhism it is said that the universe and all its variety comes into existence due to karma. In other words, intelligent design by way of a deity is flat out rejected. Again, quoting Vasubandhu:
Who created the variety of the world of living beings and the receptacle-world which we have described in the preceding chapter?
It was not a god who intelligently created it.
The variety of the world arises from action.
The variety of the world arises from the actions of living beings.
But in this hypothesis, how does it happen that actions produce at one and the same time, pleasing things, - saffron, sandalwood, etc. - on the one hand, and bodies of opposite qualities on the other?
The actions of beings whose conduct is a mixture of good and bad actions produce bodies resembling abscesses whose impurities flow out through the nine gates, and, in order to serve as a remedy to these bodies, they also produce objects of pleasing enjoyment, colors and shapes, odors, tastes and tangibles. But the gods have accomplished only good actions: their bodies and their objects of enjoyment are equally pleasing.10
Sentient beings, which includes both human and non-human beings, collectively create reality via their volitional activity. This is of course quite alien to prevailing ideas in the modern western world, which at their core are inherently materialistic and deny ontological legitimacy to the mental sphere of our reality. In one sense this is to be expected of ordinary people who accept their sensory experience as solid and real, though in Buddhism such experiences are seen in a much different light. Mental activity is the basis of reality, not innate physical matter and insentient physical processes.
The process of how karma comes to fruition as vipāka was historically a long debated topic amongst Buddhist intellectuals in India. In other words, everyone agreed that volitional action resulted in the effects as outlined above, but the actual process of how that occurred was never something everyone agreed upon.
For example, the early Theravadins asserted that actions persisted in an unripened state until meeting with the causes for fruition, though they failed to account for a link of continuity between the cause and effect. The Sarvāstivāda school in Kashmir conceived of the result of karma persisting like a debt. The Sautrāntika school of thought said that actions created traces (vāsanā) within the continuum of mind, whereby they came to fruition when the mind encountered specific circumstances which enabled the ripening of a past action. The Saṃmitīya school taught the existence of a dharma which they called “indestructible” – while not mental, it followed the mind until it came to fruition via cause and condition, or death. When an individual died, one special “indestructible”, based at the moment of death on the state of mind of the dying, would determine whether they took rebirth in a higher and lesser realm.
The nature or mechanism of how karma ripens into a result experienced by the original agent was never unanimously agreed upon. This fostered a lot of scholastic debate in ancient India and influenced later doctrines and practices. In any case, everyone did agree with the original assertion of the Buddha that volitional action results in either suffering or ease depending on the quality of the original action. The mechanism of how this occurred was left to later thinkers to ponder and discuss.
Ultimately, the whole point of understanding karma is soteriological in nature – that is to say liberation from suffering. It is through understanding and penetrating karma that one abandons those actions and mental inclinations towards nonvirtuous ends, whereupon one then fosters favourable circumstances in which spiritual practices may be directed towards liberation. Here I will conclude with another quote from Tsong Khapa:
At this point master the classifications of virtue and nonvirtue, as well as their effects. You must then make it your practice to properly cast aside nonvirtues and adopt virtues. For, unless you reflect at length on the two kinds of karma and their effects, and then properly cast aside the nonvirtuous and adopt the virtuous, you will not stop the causes of miserable rebirths. Thus, you may fear the miserable realms and yet not be able to escape what you fear.
Consequently, in order to be protected from the miserable realms at the time when you must experience the effects, you have to restrain the mind from engaging in nonvirtue at the time when you are creating the causes. This, in turn, is contingent upon attaining conviction about karma and its effects.11
Suggested Further Reading:
The following texts are essentially classical textbooks written by erudite Buddhist masters which go into great detail elucidating not only karma, but all aspects of Buddhadharma. Historically they have played a key role as foundational reference works which were thoroughly studied. They are all available in English translation.
Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. An extensive treatise on the prevailing theories of karma in Vasubandhu's time. See Vasubandhu, Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated into French by Etienne Lamotte. English translation by Leo M. Pruden. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press: 1987.
Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya by Vasubandhu. There is a chapter in this work specifically dedicated to discussing karma. See Vasubandhu, Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya. Translated into French by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, English translation by Leo M. Pruden. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.
Abhidharmasamuccaya by Asanga. Another work worth investigation as it explains karma in fine detail. See Asanga, Abhidharmasamuccaya The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy). Translated into French and annotated by Walpola Rahula, English translation by Sara Boin-Webb. Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 2001.
1Vasubandhu, Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated into French by Etienne Lamotte. English translation by Leo M. Pruden (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press: 1987), 15.
2Tsongkhapa, Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Volume One. Translated by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), 211
3Cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmi, cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti kāyena vācāya manasā. See Karmasiddhi Prakarana The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu, 15.
4Na praṇaśyanti karmāṇi kalpakoṭiśatair api sāmagrīm prāpya kālaṁ ca phalanti khalu dehinām. Ibid., 16.
5Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, 210.
6See Asanga, Abhidharmasamuccaya The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy). Translated into French and annotated by Walpola Rahula, English translation by Sara Boin-Webb (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 2001), 116-117
7See Kamma Sutta: Action, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/index.html
9Vasubandhu, Abhidharma-kośa-bhāsya. Vol. 1. Translated into French by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, English translation by Leo M. Pruden (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991), 649.
11Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzan-grags-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, 209.