Buddha's Words on Kamma
Discourses of the Buddha from the Majjhima Nikaya
Edited with Preface
and Introductions by Bhikkhu Khantipalo
Publication No. 248/249
Courtesy of Dharma Net
distribution only, as a gift of dhamma.
The Dog-Duty Ascetic
The Shorter Exposition of Kamma
The Great Exposition of Kamma
The Brahmins of Sala
Kamma concerns everyone. We make
it, a great deal of it, every day while we are awake. We decide
whether or not to get up -- kamma. (Good kamma if one gets up
vigorously, bad kamma if slothfully or grudgingly.) Let's have a
cup of tea, breakfast -- maybe some greed is involved, so bad
kamma. We sympathize with someone's sickness and give help --
good kamma. We get flustered because the bus is late to take us
to work -- bad kamma. Once we're there perhaps we get impatient
with someone, or angry with them, or threaten them -- worse and
worse kamma. But perhaps we are generous and kindly to someone
there -- excellent kamma. Work brings on dull mental states, then
we shake ourselves out of that listlessness and resentment (bad
kamma) and vigorously try to get back to mindfulness (good kamma).
In the crowded bus returning home
someone stamps on one's foot, one curses -- bad kamma -- but
after quick reflection one realizes "Ah, no
mindfulness" and this is good kamma. At home at last, one
comforts the sick, then plays with the children and tells them
some Jataka stories -- all good kamma. But then, tired and dull,
one switches the radio (and/or television) on and, not listening
to it, leaves it going as a sound to drown silence, then one eats
too much and feels lethargic -- bad kamma. But perhaps instead
one pays respect to the Buddha-image, does some chanting and then
meditates -- all kinds of good kamma. When the body is tired one
goes to sleep holding some meditation subject in mind -- good kamma.
All these decisions, choices and
desires are kammas made in the mind. More kamma is made when one
talks after having decided. Still more kamma is added if after
this one acts as well.
"bad" kamma are distinguished by the roots of
the actions. What is one's motivating force when one helps the
sick? This is a case where there are various possibilities. Is it
just because one wants rich Aunty's money when she dies, or out
of genuine compassion? Obviously, in the latter case much better
kamma is made. But there are examples where there is no doubt.
One's toes are stamped on and one curses: this can never be good
kamma simply because it is rooted in hatred. Or one
gobbles down too much food -- just greed-rooted kamma in
this case. Again those dull or day-dream periods at work, not
looking at things as they are at all, this is rooted in
delusion. When any of the mentally defiled states of mind
has arisen, when these three "roots of evil" are in
control, then bad kamma is sure to be made.
Once it is made there is no way of
erasing it or changing it and some day or other it will begin to
fruit. The fruit of bad kamma is never happiness, as we can read
in these discourses. It always comes up as pain, anguish,
frustration, or the limitation of opportunities. Who wants them?
Then make no more bad kamma! Everyone has laid in a stock already
quite capable of giving rise to sufferings for lifetimes to come.
There is no need to increase it.
Everyone wants happiness! But it
too arises conditionally. Now a great producer of happiness is
the making of good kamma. What is good about it? It is rooted
in non-greed (generosity, renunciation), or in non-hate
(loving-kindness, compassion) or finally in non-delusion
(wisdom, understanding). The sure way to gain happiness, then, is
to make good kamma, as much as possible every day.
It is only people who make a real
effort to grow in Dhamma (that is, to make good kamma), who have
any chance to succeed in meditation on the path to final
liberation. Whatever one's goal in this life -- happiness here
and now, a good rebirth in the future, or to end the whole birth
and death process by attainment of Nibbana, one cannot go wrong
by making good kamma.
And what about those who do not
believe in kamma and its fruits? They still make it whether they
believe or not! And they get the fruits of the kamma they make,
too. But the doing, not the believing, is the important thing.
"Do good, get good,
do evil, get evil."
There were some strange people
around in the Buddha's days believing some strange things -- but
that is no different from our own days when people still believe
the most odd off-balance ideas. In this sutta we meet some people
who believed that by imitating animals they would be saved. Maybe
they're still with us too!
Belief is often one thing, action
another. While beliefs sometimes influence actions, for other
people their beliefs are quite separate from what they do. But
the Buddha says all intentional actions, whether thoughts, speech
or bodily actions, however expressed, are kamma and lead
the doer of them to experience a result sooner or later. In this
sutta the Buddha classifies kamma into four groups:
(i) dark with a dark result,
(ii) bright with a bright result,
(iii) dark and bright with a dark and bright result,
(iv) neither dark nor bright with a neither dark nor bright
Dark (evil) kamma does not give a
bright (happy) result, nor does bright (beneficial) kamma lead to
dark (miserable) result. Kamma can be mixed, where an action is
done with a variety of motives, some good, some evil. And that
kind of kamma also exists which gives up attachment to and
interest in the other three and so leads beyond the range of kamma.
Nikaya 57: Kukkuravatika Sutta
You want: long life, health,
beauty, power, riches, high birth, wisdom? Or even some of these
things? They do not appear by chance. It is not someone's luck
that they are healthy, or another's lack of it that he is stupid.
Though it may not be clear to us now, all such inequalities among
human beings (and all sorts of beings) come about because of the
kamma they have made individually. Each person reaps his own
fruits. So if one is touched by short life, sickliness, ugliness,
insignificance, poverty, low birth or stupidity and one does not
like these things, no need to just accept that that is the way it
is. The future need not be like that provided that one makes the
right kind of kamma now. Knowing what kamma to make and what not
to make is the mark of a wise man. It is also the mark of one who
is no longer drifting aimlessly but has some direction in life
and some control over the sort of events that will occur.
Majjhima Nikaya 135: Culakammavibhanga Sutta
This celebrated sutta shows some
of the complexities of kamma and its results. Beginning with a
strange view expressed by a confused wanderer and a confused
answer given by a bhikkhu, the Buddha then gives his Great
Exposition of Kamma which is based upon four "types" of
the evil-doer who goes to hell
(or some other low state of birth),
the evil-doer who goes to heaven,
the good man who goes to heaven, and
the good man who goes to hell (or other low birth).
The Buddha then shows how wrong
views can arise from only partial understanding of truth. One can
see the stages of this: (1) a mystic "sees" in vision
an evil-doer suffering in hell, (2) this confirms what he had
heard about moral causality, (3) so he says, "evil-doers
always go to hell," and (4) dogma hardens and becomes rigid
when he says (with the dogmatists of all ages and places),
"Only this is true; anything else is wrong." The stages
of this process are repeated for each of the four
"persons," after which the Buddha proceeds to analyze
these views grounded in partial experience and points out which
portions are true (because verifiable by trial and experience)
and which are dogmatic superstructure which is unjustified.
Finally, the Buddha explains his Great Exposition of Kamma in
which he shows that notions of invariability like "the
evildoer goes to hell" are much too simple. The minds of
people are complex and they make many different kinds of kamma
even in one lifetime, some of which may influence the last moment
when kamma is made before death, which in turn is the basis for
the next life.
Nikaya 136: Mahakammavibhanga Sutta
The brahmins of this discourse,
intelligent people, asked a question about the causality of
rebirth -- why is one reborn in the states of deprivation (the
hells, animals, and ghosts) while others make it to the heaven
The Buddha then analyzes what kind
of kamma will take one to a low rebirth. You see any of your own
actions here? Then you know what to do about it, for if one makes
any of these ten courses of unwholesome kamma strong in oneself,
a result can be expected at least "on the dissolution of the
body, after death," if not in this life.
The ten courses of wholesome kamma
follow. They should be strengthened in oneself, repeated
frequently so that they become habitual. If one recognizes any of
one's own actions among them, then just guard against the
conceit: "I am good."
The last part of the sutta deals
with the aspirations which one may have for rebirth at the time
of death. Of course, one's previously made kamma must be such
that it will support such aspirations. A miser might aspire to
riches but his kamma will give him poverty. If a person has kept
the Uposatha and generally all the precepts and been generous and
truthful as well, this is the passport to heavenly birth (from
the gods of the Four Kings up to the gods that Wield Power over
others' Creations). Beyond this, it is necessary also to be
proficient in jhana and one will gain rebirth among the Brahmas
(from the Divinity's Retinue to the Very Fruitful gods) according
to proficiency in this. For the next five Brahma-planes, the
state of non-returning is required, while for the last four one
must have gained the formless attainments. Finally, one may
aspire to no rebirth: to Arahantship, but of course the
aspiration alone is not sufficient -- practice and sufficient
insight-wisdom are needed.
Nikaya 41: Saleyyaka Sutta