January 23, 2005

Untangling karma (or kamma)

When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn't, that isn't. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.

There are many misconceptions about kamma (often refered to in sanskrit as karma). Westerners often associate kamma with fate or moral justice, making comments on negative personal situations like, "It must be my bad karma!" However, kamma is not the same as fate — in fact, kamma is about having free-will over your actions. Other people consider kamma to be like money: You can earn kamma by doing good things, you lose it by doing bad things and as long as you don't go over-drawn on your karma bank account you will be fine. This is also a misconception.

The word 'kamma' translates as 'action'. All actions are bound by the law of cause and effect. Each of our actions, no matter how small, have an effect. This law is one which scientists should be quite comfortable with, it is like saying that everything happens for a reason. A well-known physicist is famous for proving: 'For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction'. Over 2000 years prior to this, the Buddha had already pointed out that every action has an effect that is relative to the intention of the act. The effect may be immediate (e.g. you give someone a present and they are happy) or it may not occur immediately but, instead, the fruits of the action may come later (e.g. you teach someone and it becomes useful later). In actual fact, human behaviour is so complex that an action may have effects now and in the future. Who is to know what effect this blog entry might have in the future? — Probably very little! Kamma, then, is not a simple linear sequence of cause and effect but something that could span weeks, months, years, and lifetimes.

At this point we realise that we may never understand even a small proportion of the effects of our actions. If we really were able to see the consequences of our actions then it is likely that we would be much more careful people — people in power, leaders, politicians take note!


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  1. thanks for this explanation!

    23 Jan 2005, 17:11

  2. Is transmigration for the incompleted effects of the action from previous life? If karma is the reason for us to live the life and if possible nirvana is the end of the revolving circle, where is the begining of all these?

    Years ago there was this Radiohead song called Karma Police complaining about the British political systems, I think. :) and it was very interesting song, though nothing much to do with the real karma.

    24 Jan 2005, 04:11

  3. Thanks for your comment. :) Where is the beginning of all this kamma? Well, by the law of cause and effect it is not possible for there to be an absolute beginning, because something will have always caused that beginning. Christians believe that God created the world. Scientists believe that a 'big bang' created the world. Buddhists would just ask: What caused the big bang or God to exist? There must have been something that caused these phenomena, therefore they were not the absolute beginning.

    Nice that you mentioned that Radiohead song — one of my favourites!

    24 Jan 2005, 08:59

  4. Eons of Eons…. just like to say one universal truth. "萬般帶不走,唯有業隨身." which means "everything goes, except kamma

    25 Jan 2005, 15:39

  5. JooB

    กรรม คือ กิจที่ที่บุคคลจงใจทำหรือทำด้วยเจตนา ถ้าทำด้วยไม่มีเจตนาไม่เรียกว่า กรรม
    กรรม นั้น ดี หรือ ไม่ดี กรรมจะดีหรือไม่ดี ก็สุดแต่ผลที่เกิดขึ้นจากกรรมนั้น ๆ ถ้าให้เกิดผลเป็นคุณเกื้อกูลแก่ตนเองและผู้อื่น
    ก็เป็นกรรมดี เรียกว่า กุศลกรรม

    In Buddhist teaching, the law of karma, says only this: `for every event that occurs, there will follow another event whose existence was caused by the first, and this second event will be pleasant or unpleasant according as its cause was skillful or unskillful.'

    26 Jan 2005, 02:14

  6. RP

    Phenomena are preceded by the heart,

    ruled by the heart,

    made of the heart.
    If you speak or act with a corrupted heart,
    suffering follows you,
    as the wheel of the cart

    the track of the ox

    that pulls it.
    Phenomena are preceded by the heart,

    ruled by the heart,

    made of the heart.
    If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart,
    then happiness follows you,
    like a shadow

    that never leaves.

    From : A Study Guide, prepared by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

    26 Jan 2005, 02:20

  7. Chinese… Thai… anyone others? I am going for the most multi-lingual blog award! :)

    26 Jan 2005, 18:47

  8. Does kamma also relate to oneself?

    What I mean is, if you act in such a way that is deemed "good", and the only good thing come out of it is your own feeling of goodness about the deed you just did, does that also count as kamma?

    For example: if I stop myself swearing to myself in the middle of an empty field, have i done something good enough to warrant 'good kamma', but will it actually have any effect on something else at a later time?

    Just pondering….
    Paul

    P.S. Buddhism seems pretty cool. I might describe myself as a wannabe Buddhist. But I'm quite stuck in my Western ways. I'm off to China next summer though, perhaps I can learn stuff about Eastern cultures during that trip.

    30 Mar 2006, 23:03

  9. I think that kamma simply means action, and so our actions can easily have an effect on oneself. The result of the action is usually called 'kamma-vipaka'. There might be many results to an action, either in the present or in the future. For example, I might buy a friend a gift, which results in them being happy, but a few days later it might have made another friend jealous. Even simple actions (kamma) could have many results (kamma-vipaka). This is why the Buddha said that if we really understood kamma then we would be very careful beings.

    Your example, stopping yourself swearing in a field, is a good one. Firstly, it is easy to fall into habits like swearing a lot, and sometimes it is difficult to stop ourselves giving over to these habits. We have to make an effort to stop ourselves. So, although the act of swearing in a field might appear to have no effect on anyone else, it is an action, and it will have a result. The immediate result might be a slight feeling of happiness that you have avoided swearing. As you are developing 'not swearing' practice, there might be results in the future where you are also able to not swear, and furthermore there might be situations where you don't swear at other people. The point being that a simple act like stop yourself from swearing might have lots of good results.

    31 Mar 2006, 11:44


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