Some aspects of Karma

There are two important teachings in Buddhism. They are the doctrine of Karma and the concept of rebirth. According to the Buddhist concept of rebirth all living beings, including humans and animals, are caught in a cycle of births and deaths, called Samsara, whose beginning is inconceivable. Life in Samsara is impermanent, unsatisfactory and without substance. Beings continue in Samsara because of craving and hatred rooted in ignorance. There is craving for sensual pleasures which are never fully satisfied as new kinds of desires continue to arise. Obstacles to the realization of one’s sensual pleasures lead to hatred of individuals and unpleasant situations. The Buddhist prescription to escape the suffering of Samsara is to overcome craving and hatred by wisdom. The Buddhist doctrine of Karma is the Law of cause and effect, action and reaction, seed and fruit. Wholesome actions result in happy consequences and unwholesome actions lead to unhappy results . The quality of one’s life and its life span are determined by one’s own past actions, both good and bad , in this life and in previous lives. That is why the Buddha declared in the Majjhima Nikaya that “Beings are the heirs of their deeds; bearers of their deeds; and the deeds are the womb out of which they spring.”

Karma is a word in Sanskrit. In the Language of Theravada Buddhism – Pali, it is called Kamma. Both these words literally mean action. However, in the Buddhist perspective all actions are not Karma but only actions that a re accompanied by Cetana or volition. There should be intention and conscious motive. For this reason, the Buddha stated in the Anguttara Nikaya, “O Monks, it is volition that I call Kamma. Having willed one acts through body, speech and mind”. The growth of hair and the  digestion of food are also actions of sorts but they are not Karmic activities in the absence of cetana. So is reflex actions where one responds to a situation without thought such as the killing of mosquitoes without thinking. In this connection, it should be noted, however, that a disciplined Buddhist would not kill a mosquito even by reflex action but would merely drive it away with a wave of the hand. Karma has two aspects, namely, Karmic activities and Karmic results or Karma Bhava and Karma Vipaka. There is often a tendency to confuse Karmic results with Karmic actions. People often say that their difficulties and sufferings in this life are due to their past Karma but it is really because of their Karma Vipaka or Karmic results. Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera in a booklet titled, Karma and Rebirth (B.P.S. Kandy) has remarked that the whole life process has an active and passive aspect. The active and causal aspect consists of Karmic activities. They could be wholesome, unwholesome or neutral. On the other hand, there is a passive or caused aspect which is Karmic Vipaka or Karmic results. Thus, an ever-changing two fold process of Karmic activities and Karmic results.

Two Theories of Note

It is sometimes argued that the Buddhist doctrine of Karma is fatalistic. It is a misunderstanding of the Buddhist view of Karma. The Buddha did not subscribe to two well known theories that prevailed during His time in India. One is the theory of strict determinism according to which everything in one’s life is pre-ordained, either by the will of a creator or by one’s past actions. According to this view, man has no control whatsoever over his destiny. The other is the theory of complete determinism, where an individual has absolute freedom to decide one’s future. In Buddhism, while the main quality of one’s life is determined by past actions, there is a limited free will to change one’s destiny by Karmic activities, in the present and the future.

For instance, a person may meet with a serious motor accident and suffer grave injuries. This may be due to bad Karma of the past since the victim would have to undergo substantial suffering, both physical and mental. It may be that a bus driven by a reckless driver had crashed on to his car causing this grave injury. One could react to this unfortunate accident basically in two ways. One may get angry with the bus driver and hate him for what he had done. He may harbour vengeance against the driver. He may also complain that while so many cars move on the roads it had to be th e car in which he was travelling th at had to face the results of the negligence of the bus driver. He may also envy the other travellers in his car who may have got away with a few minor injuries.

On the other hand, another person in similar circumstances may have an attitude of compassion towards the bus driver realising that under the Law of Karma he would have to pay for hi s negligence in the future. He may advise the driver to be careful in the future and not cause similar suffering to other users of the road. He may also wish that his fate would not be experienced by other living beings. The former attitude would generate unskilful Karma, which will have its unhappy consequence either in this life, the next life or in future lives. The later attitude, would lead to skilful Karma whose happy results would be experienced in the future.

One must guard against being the agents of other people’s Karma Vipaka . A person may suffer on account of the evil ways of a bad man. Apart from efforts to guid e such an evil man along noble ways, where feasible, one should not harbour hatred or vengeance towards such people. Such action would add to the difficulties caused by the adverse impact of his evil life. With ill-will towards him, one’s mental poise and equilibrium would be totally disturbed. Quite apart from this factor, it would generate unwholesome Karma as one would then harbour ill-will towards another.

A noble approach would be to show compassion to such evil men recognizing the suffering that lies in store for them in the future , in accordance with the Buddhist doctrine of Karma.

It must be emphasized that the Law of Karma is a natural law. It is not a law established by the Buddha. The Buddha only uncovered this law of nature. Earlier Buddhas had also done so but with time it had fallen into disuse and was forgotten until re-uncovered by Gautama Buddha. It is similar to the law of gravitation. If a man jumps from a high building and injures himself, there is no point in blaming the law of gravitation, but oneself. Similarly, one must learn to live in accordance with the Law of Karma so that one would not have to suffer the unhappy consequences of unskillful actions. Moreover, such a course of action would ensure that one lives in peace with all living beings and with one’s environment’s causing no harm to anyone. Karma is a strict accountant. One would have to experience thus consequences of one’s action, wholesome or unwholesome, either in this life, the next life or in the lives to come. It would follow like ones own shadow. Of course there are times that Karmic activity would have been weak where an action had been committed without a decisive volition. The results of such weak Karmic activity may not materialize if the necessary conditions for their fruition are not fulfilled. However, one way to overcome the consequences of one’s unwholesome action is to realize Nibbana. When one has realized Nibbana and is an Arahat, such a person would not be born again. In these circumstances, the results of all the Karma that have to be experienced in the next life and future lives would become Ahosi Karma as one would not be there to experience them.

To Negotiate Unwholesome Karma

The results of wholesome and unwholesome Karma could run simultaneously. A person may be born to a wealthy and powerful family with high social standing because of ones wholesome Karma in previous lives. However, the same person could suffer from congenital ailments such as a hole in the heart on account of unwholesome Karma. So one could experience both the results of good and bad Karma at the same time. When one is going through a bad period where failures by far exceed successes, the best strategy from a Buddhist stand point would be to accumulate as much wholesome Karma as possible. For the main cause of one’s failures are the results of unwholesome Karma of the past. The only way to effectively negate the impact of unwholesome Karma would be to undertake wholesome activities.

As pointed out by Ven. Mahinda, a Malaysian national, in a publication entitled “Karma and Rebirth” (on page 9) there is a cancellation ofthe results of unwholesome Karma by the consequences of wholesome Karma.” However, the impact of the results of unwholesome Karma can be minimized by the consequence of wholesome Karma. For instance, two individuals may have to lose a certain amount of money in view of a robbery committed in a previous life. One of them would be wealthy because of his generosity in previous lives while the other is living in very poor circumstances. The rich man would be able to bear the loss of money without any difficulty having no sleepless nights over the loss. Its impact on the poor man would be decisive, necessitating him and his family to even forego essentials of life in view of the loss.

The doctrine of Karma is essential ingredient in the teaching of the Buddha. Buddhists should endeavour to accumulate as much wholesome Karma as possible. This would enable them to be born in satisfactory planes of existence during their long journey in Samsara, this would be conducive to the progressive elimination of craving and hatred with the development of wisdom, to realize Nibbana, the escape from the cycle of births and deaths.

Rajah Kuruppu – Courtesy Vesak Lipi