Karma – Notes

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

Next Blog will look at the Kamma Sutta


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