Notes on Karma

Notes for the final talk at Wat Yannawa 2008. Topic : Karma

  • Sanskrit = Karma
  • Pali  = kamma
  • But the word kama (with a long ‘a’ sound) means sense desire – usually referring to lust. This is where we get the sexual ‘kama sutra’ from.

Kamma is one of those topics in Buddhism that attracts a lot of attention, and a lot of superstition. Practically every group it seems has an interpretation of kamma and how it works. While many of these theories might in fact be correct, or partially correct, the fact is that in the original suttas kamma does not crop up very often, and where it does, it is in reference to your behaviour – you have a responsibility to act in accordance with Dhamma. A detailed analysis or explanation of kamma and how it works was not offered.

On the other hand, the Commentaries, the set of texts that grew up later explaining specific or general points in the Buddhist outline of matter, mind and man, attributed many things to kamma. Where something happens to the Buddha or one of the disciples, the commentaries interject a kammic explanation, that is usually very simplistic.

The Imponderables

There are four imponderables in Buddhism – four things that you should not trouble yourself with trying to work out. If you try, you will experience ‘extreme vexation’ or ‘go mad’. Another reference says your head will split into seven pieces (a splitting headache!). The four are:

  • The mind of a Buddha
  • The mind of an Arahant
  • The mind of one in Jhana (absorption meditation)
  • Kamma, and the beginning of the universe

This is worth bearing in mind, so that you do not fall into trying to trace everything back into your past. Kamma is mentioned so that you are careful in the present moment, not so that you become a victim of your past.

Feeling your Kamma

We have looked a lot at making the mind still in meditation. But there comes the point where you exit meditation, and the world which had ended, springs back up again. this weight of character, of history, of good or bad health – all this is your burden, or your kamma. Here it is that you can start to make positive changes apart from the meditative practise of letting things go. But you have to be careful you are acting from wisdom. Most importantly you can see the effect of certain actions, and contemplate that. Some qualities lead to peace and stability of mind, others lead the opposite way. Seeing the cause and effect is using kamma in the right way.

Three Wrong Views

It seems that it is not just the modern era that produces speculation on the nature of the universe. The India of the time had produced a rich array of religions, sects, and teachings – this long before Hinduism and Buddhism cemented their positions. Three views were held by the Buddha to be incorrect:

Everything happens due to God – God in those days was not quite the same as what we mean by God in the Christian sense, but the principle is the same. If God controls everything, why disasters, murders, why is there evil in the world? Is God able to stop evil but unwilling, or willing to stop evil but unable?

Everything happens due to Chance – a fairly common, if unexpressed, modern view. There is no rhyme or reason to the way things happen, it is all just blind chance, so you might as well cram as many sense pleasures into your short existence as you can, before your luck runs out. Curiously, such views tend to foster superstition as a desperate attempt to tip luck in ones favour.

Everything happens due to Kamma– which is often how people interpret the law of karma. In fact not everything is guided by karma. Common sense dictates that there are numerous causes for things. Some days when the traffic lights are all red you are tempted to think it must be your bad kamma ( or in the words of the six year old Calvin to his toy tiger Hobbes “someone up there is out to get me”). If your car is stolen, it is probably because you left the keys in it, and not because of past actions bearing fruit.

These days we can add a fourth category – Neurological determinism. This is a branch of science that has been attracting some fierce debate in recent times. Are ‘you’ just a jumble of neurons wired in a certain way? Neurology would have us think so – everything depends on the wiring of your brain, which is a mechanical device. Here your character, your decisions … everything is determined by your brain, and free will is just an illusion. If the neuron’s wiring determines your character and decisions, then who is responsible for your actions? If you commit a crime, are you responsible, or the victim of a malfunctioning brain? The matter is discussed in an excellent Guardian article, which points out how our society presumes a free will, and punishes if you use it in a way that is not appropriate. One of the points it raises is people with brain damage that can be shown with scans, are often not considered responsible for their crimes. Yet we also know of people with immense ‘brain damage’ that results from surgery, who nonetheless manage to live responsibly – many of these cases are patients with extreme epilepsy, who have fully half their neo-cortex removed. Another case is the ‘Boy with No Brain’. boy-with-no-brain .

The General Message

So Kamma cannot be worked out in all its details, but there is a general message that comes through clear. That is you have free will, and you should be careful of your choices. In all three ‘wrong views’ above, there is a kind of determinism, which dumps responsibility away from yourself. Kamma is about choice in the present moment, and nothing to do with the past. In fact, if there was any good English word for a translation of ‘kamma’ it would be choice. In the following stock passage, you can replace the word ‘kamma’ with ‘choices’ and it makes perfect sense:

I am the owner of my kamma,
heir to my kamma,
born of my kamma,
related to my kamma,
abide supported by my kamma.
Whatever kamma I shall do,
for good or for ill,
of that, I will be the heir.

or more lyrically the Sutta Nipāta 654

Tis karma makes the world go round,
Karma rolls on the lives of men.
All beings are to karma bound
As linch-pin is to chariot wheel

By karma praise and fame are won
By karma too, birth, death and bonds
Who that this karma’s divers modes discerns
Can say “there is no karma in the world

Samyutta Nikaya XXXV.145

Kamma Sutta

Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
For free distribution only.

Monks, I will teach you new & old kamma, the cessation of kamma, and the path of practise 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.

[What is the cause by which kamma comes into play? Contact.]

“And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.

“And what is the cessation of kamma? Whoever touches the release that comes from the cessation of bodily kamma, verbal kamma, & mental kamma: This is called the cessation of kamma.

How are the six senses to be seen as kamma?

To the regular person there is the ‘world’, and to the meditator there are the ‘six senses’ – these two terms were used interchangeably, but the latter has more of an emphasis on practise. Instead of the ‘world’ and ‘my problems’ ‘my life’ ‘my childhood’ etc.. there is only the present sense arising in consciousness in the present moment. If you are conscious of seeing, you are not feeling your body. If you are conscious of hearing you are not conscious of tasting etc.. If you are thinking, it is only thinking arising in the present moment, and you do not need to relate to it in any other way. You are only dealing with what is right in front of you in consciousness, in the present moment.

Old Kamma

Now, when you walk in a room what do you see? The curtains, the carpet, the air conditioners, the sounds, the smells, the woodwork ? It depends on your kamma. If you have made furniture in the past you will notice the furniture. If you see a Buddha Image and have practised in front of such images in the past it will remind you of that. Someone else who has been warned of graven idols’ will react differently. What you ‘see’ is not so much what is really there, but the way that your character, your interests, your past actions, your kamma direct you. In this sense you are ‘creating the world around you’, but not to the extreme that new age philosophy would have it. Your kamma is not manipulating the physical world, but only your interpretations of it (your constructs).

Present Kamma

Your actions of body, speech and mind are present kamma. In this sense kamma can be translated as ‘action’. When you act on something you make it important, you inject consciousness, and a heightened learning takes place that supersedes passive learning. When you act on a feeling you strengthen that feeling. When you do something, you make it easier to do that thing again. If you like football, and go play with your friends, and watch it on tv, perhaps you will enjoy freezing on a bitter playing field in the UK. [maybe you had to be at the talk to understand that reference].

A beautiful phrase of the Buddha’s sums it up

To that on which a man thinks and ponders often there is a leaning in the mind

Sow a thought, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Your actions are determined by free will, and bringing consciousness to your self opens that door of choice, rather than acting blindly according to your past habits.

Cessation of kamma

Ceasing from all action of body, speech and mind is cessation of kamma – this refers to meditation. When the mind stops, then the ‘world’ ends (See Buddha’s words to Rohitissa  on reaching the end of the world). What is the experience when the mind stops ? It is not a blank nothing, but a brightening and clear aware consciousness that has no bounds. Thinking, the action of the mind, stops, but the mind itself (citta) carries on bright and aware. It is just no longer jumping around.

This is not an all or nothing experience, but one of going deeper and deeper into the layers of the mind, of self and of silence. Anyone can start to experience this with some training, as the mind unravels.

Path leading to the Cessation of Kamma

You will have to exit meditation, and the ‘self’ fires itself back up again. But you have a different perspective on it now, and it becomes more clear how to practise in the long term. Purifying ones action (morality) and purifying the mind (Right Efforts) leads to a loosening of the ‘self’ that is ego created. Past Kamma will still catch up with you but has less power to harass. The analogy is like a rolled up wet cloth – it takes a long time to dry out. But a rolled out cloth dries quickly (your past kamma ‘dries off’ quickly if you are practising)

Another example is the story of the goat – if your goat is stolen, and you catch up with the thief, only to find it is a beggar, you might well take back your goat, and give the beggar a beating too. If you find the thief is a rich man you can only politely ask for your goat back. Hilarious way of putting it, but this analogy comes from the Buddha himself. He also compared one who practises as a lake, compared to an immoral person being like a cup of water. A sprinkle of salt will affect the water badly, but have no effect on the lake.


There are lots of stories about kamma. They might be right. Collective kamma. Attracting good and bad things to you by your mentality. Speculating on kamma started at the time of the commentaries just after the Buddha’s time, and continues to this day. Outlined above is the Theravada perspective from the suttas (not the commentaries) and it is pretty straightforward. Be careful what you do, and what habits you are developing. Don’t worry about past kamma, and don’t get to speculating on it. Your responsibility is in the present moment, not in deciphering the past. You are the captain of your soul, not the victim of your history.

For the keener scholars click here for a thorough study guide on Kamma by Thanissaro Bhikkhu