Notes on the Clockwork Universe

These are the notes on the talk Clockwork Universe – at the Planet Yoga studio, September ’09.

Beings are the owner of their kamma

Heir to their kamma

Born of their kamma

Related through their kamma

and have kamma as their refuge


The first thing to note every time you approach the topic of Karma is that is it listed as an ‘imponderable’ – that is a topic that you can never really work out, no matter how much you try. The intricate workings of it are simply out of reach of a normal mind. Even amongst scholars, meditators and sutta freaks there is much disagreement exactly what is karma and what is not.

Does this mean we can’t take anything from it at all ? If you consider your pet dog – it has an understanding of the world around it – some things are to be avoided, some things are to be played with, some things are to be slept on and everything is to be chewed. A dog has a working understanding of the human world around it that is enough to get it along happily. It has some principles that guide it, and for the most part it works.

Same for us with karma. It is fun to speculate about. But the best we can really do is take a couple of guiding principles and formulate a working model of karma. And this working principle is this :

be careful what you do, because it will affect you in the future.

Pretty simple really.

The Words

First to distinguish some of the vocabulary. Kamma means ‘action’. Or often qualified as ‘willed action’.

  • Kamma is the Pali word, used in Theravada Buddhism.
  • Karma is the Sanskrit word of the exact same meaning.
  • Kaama (with a long initial ‘a’) means sensual desire, usually lust. This is the word in the ‘Kaama Sutra’, which of course has little to do with the concept of Kamma.


  • Kamma is an aspect of willed action, that will have a particular kind of result in the future.
  • Vipaka (vipaaka) Kamma is the result of that action.

(Most people do not distinguish between kamma and vipaka.)

So if you think that your car getting stolen is some kind of kamma consequence of stealing a horse in a former life, the theft is your action – kamma, and the car being stolen is the Vipaka – consequence.

Naturally this example is simplistic and silly, but it serves to draw the distinction between the action and result, or the kamma and vipaka.

Cause and Effect

While kamma is often explained as ‘cause and effect’ it should be understood that it is not ALL cause and effect. If you plant an apple seed, and a tree grows, this is not kamma. If you make a decision to learn the guitar, and then later you are asked to play at a party – this is cause and effect, but it is nothing to do with karma. Probably.

As mentioned, there are all kinds of interpretations, and people can argue in a myriad of different ways, but at the end of the day, unless you have some immense supernormal powers you can’t really be sure what events are kamma and what are not.

Original Context

It is always helpful to go back to the original context in which these teachings arose. In the case of karma the idea ran like this :

If you were to travel up one bank of the Ganges with a huge ‘razor rimmed’ wheel, slaughtering every living being – would there be any kammic consequence?

If you were to travel down the opposite bank giving out flowers, incense and money – would there be any kammic consequence ?

If with a razor-edged disk one were to turn all the living beings on this earth to a single heap of flesh, a single pile of flesh, there would be no evil from that cause, no coming of evil

You can see here that we are not just talking about cause and effect – the cause of slaughtering has the effect that the economy collapses, the place smells with flesh etc.. The question is will there be some kind of moral consequence on yourself for doing this deed?

Perhaps you can point to a psychological consequence – in that your mind would become an unpleasant place to live. Perhaps this is kamma. Many people think so.

Yet in the suttas, it seems that the consequence they talk about is one of rebirth in a higher or lower realm. Going back to the original texts, this is the angle presented, though there are arguments both ways.

Three Kinds of Wrong Thinking

  • Everything happens because it is God’s will
  • Everything happens because of chance
  • Everything happens because of Kamma

The first is a very real and difficult question for monotheistic religion. Is God willing to stop evil, but unable? Or is he able to stop evil, but unwilling? How can you explain famine, evil, or disasters ?

The second is closer to many modern views. You get your cards dealt by sheer chance, and then it is up to you to make the best of them, until your number is up. There is no rhyme or reason to it all

The last is a mistake that many Buddhists, and also other Indian spiritualists, fall into. Over-attributing events as been due to kamma. If an apple falls on your head, or you break your arm, it is probably not due to Kamma, but to sitting in the wrong place (or right place if you are I. Newton) or slipping on a banana peel.

We might also add these days, genetic determinism. This is the tendency for science to place much too much attention on our genes, to the detriment of our free will. The hunt has been on for the ‘gay’ gene, or even the ‘God’ gene with the presumption that our genetic makeup is determining our actions.

Yet as a society we reject the over extension of this principle. A male for instance, is more likely to commit crime than a female – but in a court of law this cannot be used as an excuse. Unless you have serious brain damage, or can be shown to be positively insane, you are held accountable for your actions. There is the presumption of free will.

As for health, there is one interesting sutta where the Buddha specifically warns not to over attribute health issues to karma. He gives a number of possible causes for any ill health that might arise:

  • Phlegm (water element)
  • Wind
  • Humours (probably something like chi energy)
  • Change of seasons
  • Undue care of the body
  • Attacks (unexplained)
  • And Kamma

Clockwork Universe

So we have a basic idea of the universe in Buddhism, which we might call the ‘clockwork universe’ as it seems to run along based on layers of laws. Even the highest Gods are subject to the same laws of existence that the rest of us are bound to. There is no external creator, there is no watchmaker.

The commentators, who expanded Buddhist teachings after the passing of the Buddha, gave five general sets of laws, under which the whole universe, including the levels of heavens and hells, and including the Gods and humans, all dwell.

  1. Utu Niyama – Physical Laws
  2. Bija Niyama – Laws of heredity
  3. Citta Niyama – Laws of Mind
  4. Kamma Niyama – Law of Kamma
  5. And Dhamma Niyama – everything not already included in the above.

All of this governs what we call Samsara.

And the teaching goes that Samsara sucks! It doesn’t make much sense, it isn’t really fair, and Enlightenment is transcending it.

There is famine, disease, death, confusion. There are ‘worldly winds’ that delude and it is impossible, despite the many beautiful things in the Cosmos, to find any lasting place of ease and contentment.

Don’t misunderstand. We are not saying that the Cosmos is always terrible. There are many marvels and beautiful states to be developed. The observation is that it is unstable, and age, sickness and death are always stalking you. Until the day you become one of the arahants.

That is the cosmology anyway – it is a big topic and one deserving of its own talk. But for the sake of exploring Kamma, it is a working overview.

A Psychological Model

To steer away from the more cosmological models and interpretations of Kamma, we can look at a few aspects of psychology to show how the theory of Kamma fits in with the process of perception and consciousness (that were covered in earlier talks).

Vinyana (vi~n~naana) or cognizing, occurs when we put our attention on something. You pick something out of your immediate environment for special attention. The prefix ‘vi’ means ‘special’ and nyana (~naana) means ‘knowing’. So when you focus on something, it becomes ‘cognized’ and under a special form of knowing – how is it special? There is increased Kamma involved when you focus the attention, and this is what we call ‘learning’.

Learning in Psychology

A great early psychologist called Thorndike did many experiments on the way cats learn. He put them in a cage with a simple lever system whereby they can release themselves and get their food. They were then placed back in the cage, but rather than hitting the lever again, they just did random acts until they chanced upon the lever again. This continued, but with each occasion they hit the leaver a bit sooner than previous times. They learned very slowly.

Monkeys on the other hand, exhibit strong ‘insight learning’. That is in a similar experiment, they are able to ‘work out’ what needs to be done (to get the bananas) and thereafter repeat that process without need for experimentation. This means that when they have had the insight, they have learned already.

If you observe your own way of learning, it is something similar. You have to place conscious attention on an act, say, one aspect of a golf swing, or how to operate a clutch when learning to drive.  But the conscious attention gets in the way after a while, so you then focus elsewhere, and let your subconscious take over the learning (look up ‘latent learning’). It seems that conscious attention makes for accelerated learning – more so than other animals exhibit. You can turn around your habitual learning very quickly.

Imagine you have never learned to type. By using a keyboard you will learn passively and speed up. But you will never be an accurate or fast typist. But you can use conscious engagement with a methodology and learn to type anew. Very quickly you can lose your old habits, and gain new ones. The cats in Thorndike’s experiments found this difficult.

Kamma Angle

This is how kamma is working. We are told in the suttas that Intention is Kamma. That means that where there is strong intention (i.e. conscious engagement or focusing of attention) there is strong kamma. If this interpretation of kamma is correct, it means you can very quickly turn your kamma around. You do not have to be the victim of your old kamma, but can be the master of your future.

Checking back with the suttas again, the Buddha himself always talked about kamma as being NOW affecting your FUTURE. He was not describing it in terms of your PAST affecting you NOW.

To Illustrate, we can again switch to psychology

Freud vs Teleologists

Freud’s model of psychology explained the character, or personality, as being built from the past. If there was something wrong with you now, it was due to the past, and to correct it you had to delve into your unconscious with the aid of an analyst. Fixing certain past events, your present character improves. In theory.

But Freud was to a large part supplanted by more humanist theorists, who said that your past is not so important. As a human you can re-learn, you can shake off your past. They say your personality/character is built from your hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future. You can take control of yourself.

The former model seems to be how people interpret kamma – your past is guiding, steering and controlling you. You have little choice in such a model, as even your intentions and character have been shaped by kamma. But the Buddha said that intention is kamma – he did not say it is vipaka kamma. That means that your intention is up to you, and not up to your past kamma.

It also means, like the second group of psychologists, you have the chance to re-learn, to change quickly and to grow. In this model you have oodles of free will. And you are advised to wield it wisely.

In Conclusion

Kamma is your present, free willed intention, attention and conscious engagement that you can direct to make a better future. It is not a kind of determinism whereby most everything that happens to you is a result of past kamma. And without doubt – there is a lot of free will involved.

This is in contrast to many interpretations of Kamma.

Even in the early commentaries we find this distinction not drawn. Where the Buddha pointed to your present affecting your future, the commentators sought to explain every little thing that happened in terms of previous kamma.

If there is one thing that we can be sure of, in Buddhism, there is a lot of free will, and you can turn your character and kamma around quickly.

Post Script

There are many views about kamma, and many aspects not covered in the talk or these notes on the talk. Such as 1 action 1 result kind of kamma that has support in the suttas. Or the more Indian accumulative kamma where your past good and bad actions are combined to give an overall kammic place in the world. This view also has sutta support. There is also the  topic of how to clean up old kamma, or to protect yourself from bad kamma catching up with you. Then there is the difference (if any) between kamma and the Christian notion of forgiveness.  Many interesting angles that will have to wait until future talks ….

Click here for a lengthy study guide on Kamma by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Though justice by thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice none of you

Should see salvation, we do pray for mercy

3 replies on “Notes on the Clockwork Universe”

  1. I should add that as far as I know, I am the only person who has ever linked kamma to the process of perception and to learning.
    If we take kamma to be this accelerated learning ( and there are many counter arguments) then we can compare to the psychologists with concrete research.
    You heard it here first !

  2. Thanks again! That was very insightful…especially appreciated the emphasis on letting go of the past and the present being the only time/place we are free to make a change.

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