The doctrine of karma holds that, through the working of a just, automatic, and impersonal cosmic law, one's actions in this incarnation and in all previous ones will determine which position in the hierarchy of living things one will occupy in the next incarnation. An individual's karma can be improved through certain acts and omissions. By following the five precepts or commandments, a Buddhist can better his or her karma. These commandments are: do not kill, do not steal, do not indulge in forbidden sexual pleasures, do not tell lies, and do not take intoxicants or stupefying drugs or liquors. [Library of Congress *]
The concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.
Karma (Kamma) is a concept found in several Eastern religions, although sometimes with different meanings. It generally includes reincarnation in its set of beliefs. According to the BBC: “Teachings about karma explain that our past actions affect us, either positively or negatively, and that our present actions will affect us in the future. The karma theory is the scorecard of life and your actions. Karma is the mechanism that determines the quality of life. The happiness of a being's present life is the result of the moral quality of the actions of the being in its previous life. A soul can only achieve liberation by getting rid of all the karma attached to it. Karma is a logical and understandable way of making sense of good and evil, the different qualities of different lives and the different moral status of different types of creature, without having to involve rules laid down by a god. Karma works without the intervention of any other being - gods or angels have no part to play in dispensing rewards or punishments. [Source: BBC]
Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index
Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs
Buddhist Views on Karma
Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: Kamma (Karma) “means 'action'. The Law of Kamma means that there are inescapable results of our actions. There are deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others' harm, one's own harm, or to the harm of both. Such deeds are called bad (or 'unwholesome') kamma. They are usually motivated by greed, hatred or delusion. Because they bring painful results, they should not be done. There are also deeds of body, speech or mind that lead to others' well being, one's own well being, or to the well being of both. Such deeds are called good (or 'wholesome') kamma. They are usually motivated by generosity, compassion or wisdom. Because they bring happy results, they should be done as often as possible. [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]
According to the BBC: “Buddhism uses an agricultural metaphor to explain how sowing good or bad deeds will result in good or bad fruit (phala; or vipaka, meaning 'ripening'). Early Buddhist writings suggest that not all that we experience is the result of past action; it may be due to natural events of one sort or another. This is one point on which early Buddhism appears to differ somewhat from later Tibetan teachings, which suggest that all the good and bad things that happen to us are the results of past actions. Whilst there might be doubt, or different opinions, about why we are experiencing some sort of misfortune, there is no doubt that we can resolve any suffering in the present moment through the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and action based upon good motives. [Source: BBC |::|]
“For Buddhists, karma has implications beyond this life. Bad actions in a previous life can follow a person into their next life and cause bad effects (which Westerners are more likely to interpret as 'bad luck'). Even an Enlightened One is not exempt from the effects of past karma. One story tells that the Buddha's cousin tried to kill him by dropping a boulder on him. Although the attempt failed, the Buddha's foot was injured. He explained that this was karmic retribution for trying to kill his step-brother in a previous life. |::|
“On a larger scale, karma determines where a person will be reborn and their status in their next life. Good karma can result in being born in one of the heavenly realms. Bad karma can cause rebirth as an animal, or torment in a hell realm...This view of the world can raise a particularly charged question. Do Buddhists believe that disabled people are suffering for misdeeds in a past life?The subject is more complicated than it appears, says the Venerable Robina Courtin, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, in this radio discussion on religious attitudes to disability.” |::|
The Buddha on Karma
On the Inheritance of Deeds (Karma), The Buddha said: “ For, owners of their deeds (karma) are the beings, heirs of their deeds; their deeds are the womb from which they sprang; with their deeds they are bound up; their deeds are their refuge. Whatever deeds they do -- good or evil -- of such they will be the heirs. And wherever the beings spring into existence, there their deeds will ripen; and wherever their deeds ripen, there they will earn the fruits of those deeds, be it in this life, or be it in the next life, or be it in any other future life.” [Source: Mario Bussagli, “5000 Years of the Art of India” (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d.). Internet Archive, from CCNY]
According to the BBC: “The Buddha taught about karmic 'conditioning', which is a process by which a person's nature is shaped by their moral actions. Every action we take molds our characters for the future. Both positive and negative traits can become magnified over time as we fall into habits. All of these cause us to acquire karma. This shows why Buddhists place such importance on being mindful of every action they take. Acting on karmic habits increases their strength. Buddhists gradually weaken any negative thoughts and impulses that they experience, through allowing them to arise and depart naturally without acting on them. In this way karmic habits can be broken.”
Hayes wrote: “The Buddha pointed out that no being whatsoever, divine or otherwise, has any power to stop the consequences of good and bad kamma. The fact that one reaps just what one sows gives to the Buddhist a greater incentive to avoid all forms of bad kamma while doing as much good kamma as possible. Though one cannot escape the results of bad kamma, one can lessen their effect. A spoon of salt mixed in a glass of pure water makes the whole very salty, whereas the same spoon of salt mixed in a freshwater lake hardly changes the taste of the water. Similarly, the result of a bad kamma in a person habitually doing only a small amount of good kamma is painful indeed, whereas the result of the same bad kamma in a person habitually doing a great deal of good kamma is only mildly felt. This natural Law of Kamma becomes the force behind, and reason for, the practice of morality and compassion in our society.” =|=
Karma and Merit
The most effective way to work actively to improve one's karma is to earn merit. Any act of benevolence or generosity can gain merit for the doer. Theravada Buddhists tend to regard opportunities for earning merit as primarily connected with interaction with the sangha (monks), contributing to its support through money, goods, and labor, and participating in its activities. Some of the favorite ways for a male to earn merit are to enter the sangha as a monk (after the age of twenty) or as a novice, or to live in the wat as a temple servant; in the case of a female (usually the elderly), the favorite way is to become a nun. Other activities that gain merit include sponsoring a monk or novice, contributing to a wat, feeding members of the sangha at a public meal, and providing food for either of the two daily meals of the sangha. *
Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one’s actions,” it is a moral force that survives death, determines one’s existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives.
The concept of karma in Buddhism is similar to that in Hinduism and other Indian beliefs and is referred to once as “a long, long faring on, both for me and for you.” Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "work" or "action” and the “result of a work or action.” It describes a "reap what you sow" and the “cause and effect” doctrine in which good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished on both universal and individual levels and influence one’s reincarnation. The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one's karma by learning from one's mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself.
Earning Merit, See Buddhist Rituals and Practices
Karma, Character and Behavior
Buddhism and Hinduism teaches one to accept the injustices of life and be patient for rewards that may not materialize until their next life. High positions are not earned and low positions must be accepted. Some scholars have argued that beliefs in transmigration and karma originated as a way to explain social and economic discrepancies, to create an incentive to act morally and to offer people who were dealt a bad set of cards some hope in the future, in their next life.
It has also been argued that beliefs of karma and reincarnation encourage passivity with Hindus accepting their often miserable fate and taking little initiative to improve their lives or get rid of the poverty and misery around them. The beliefs also produce a resigned inshallah approach to life--- with victims of bad events chalking up the events to bad karma, and in some cases even feeling relieved because they feel their bad karma has been used up and better things will happen in the future.
Parkish Louis, of the Indian Social Institute, a Delhi think tank, told the Financial Times, "People have been for centuries oppressed, passive, paralyzed and marginalized by beliefs of karma and destiny. People are accepting their misery in the name of religion and beliefs.” This attitude is also said to encourage irresponsibility and make people more accepting of corruption than they otherwise would be.
Buddhism and Karma
Lobha (greed), dosa (hatred) and moha (delusion and confusion) are seen as the primary sources of wrong deeds. Merits and demerits accorded by karma are thought to be carried into later lives as humans or animal, into Buddhist hell or purgatory and into the realm of ghosts. In some schools of thought nirvana and the end of the reincarnation cycle can not be realized until all and karma is worked off.
Good karma and bad karma are seen as independent bodies that can not affect or cancel out one another.” Karma is also something that is “one’s own” but generally needs other to be realized, and is sometimes viewed as volition and will not just acts. The part of One passage from an early Buddhist text goes: “when one has willed one does a deed by his body, speech or thought.”
Some Buddhists see karma in Judgement-Day-like terms. A Thai man told Smithsonian magazine, "In our stories, there is a place we go for judgement when we die. If we have done bad deeds, this god writes them on tablets of rotten dog skin, and if we have done good deeds he writes them on tablets of gold." [Source: Roger Warner, Smithsonian magazine]
Karma is also seen as something necessary for human and animal life to exist. Without it reincarnation would not be possible and without reincarnations material life would not be possible either. In addition, karma is meant to be approached with a live-for-moment kind of attitude, not dwelling on deeds in the past and not looking forward to possibilities in the future.
Dependent origination is the idea that what seems permanent and "real" is but the product of sensory creation, one thing creating another without stop. Also known as the “Chain of Causation” or “Conditions Arising,” it is a central theme in Buddhist philosophy and is viewed as a 12-linked chain that explains how things are connected and attachments leads to problems. If the chain is unraveled nirvana is attained. While The Buddha sat under the Bodhi he came to the realization that: “He who sees dependent see Dharma. He who sees Dharma sees dependent origination.” Hunter defines dependent origination as “an abstract law of continency denying independent existence to finite thing, though not denying their total reality. Such reality as they have is conditional on occurrence of something else that has already taken place and is conditioned by it.”
Dependent origination operates in three modes within the context of karma and reincarnation: 1) the Past (conditioned by karmic formation or ignorance of karmic formations); 2) the Present (conditioned by consciousness defined by names and shapes; names and shapes detected with the senses; the impact of the senses on feelings; the relationship between feelings and cravings, grasping and becoming); and 3) the Future (conditioned by rebirth, living and dying). Implied in this construct is that transcendence can be achieved by overcoming each stage in a kind of step by step progression with the understanding that if one stage can be overcome the stages before can also be overcome.
In his sermon on dependent origination, Buddha said:
On ignorance depends karma;
On karma depends consciousness;
On consciousness depends name and form;
On name and form depend the six organs of sense;
On the six organs of sense depends contact;
On contact depends sensation;
On sensation depends desire;
On attachment depends existence;
On existence depends birth;
On birth depend old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair.
Thus does the entire aggregation of misery arise. (Indian Philosophy, p. 278.)
The Buddha taught that growth and development through dependent origination was a 12-stage process that was like a circular chain, not a straight line, with each stage giving rise to the one directly after it: 1) Ignorance: inability to see the truth, depicted by a blind man; 2) Willed action: actions that shape our emerging consciousness, depicted by a potter moulding clay; 3) Conditioned consciousness: the development of habits, blindly responding to the impulses of karmic conditioning, represented by a monkey swinging about aimlessly. [Source: BBC |::|]
4) Form and existence: a body comes into being to carry our karmic inheritance, represented by a boat carrying men; 5) The six sense-organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body (touch) and mind, the way sensory information passes into us, represented by the doors and windows of a house; 6) Sense-impressions: the combination of sense-organ and sensory information, represented by two lovers; 7) Sensation: the feelings we get from sense-impressions, which are so vivid that they blind us, represented by a man shot in the eye with an arrow; |::|
8) Craving (tanha): negative desires that can never be sated, represented by a man drinking; 9) Attachment: grasping at things we think will satisfy our craving, represented by someone reaching out for fruit from a tree; 10) Becoming: worldly existence, being trapped in the cycle of life, represented by a pregnant woman; 11) Birth: represented by a woman giving birth; 12) Old age and death: grief, suffering and despair, the direct consequences of birth, represented by an old man. |::|
See Wheel of Life
Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Karma
The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “ There is a tremendous variety among the living beings existing in the world. People and animals are of different sorts. What is it that causes us to take rebirth in a particular form? Does it happen through coincidence, through accident, by chance without any reason or is there some principle behind it? What is it that determines the form of rebirth we take? Buddha answers these questions, with the Pali term "kamma". Kamma is the factor which determines the specific form of rebirth, what kind of a person we are, at the outset of our life, and it is kamma again that determines a good number of the experiences that we undergo in the course of our life. ***
“The word "kamma" means literally action, deed or doing. But in Buddhism it means specifically volitional action. The Buddha says: "Monks it is volition that I call kamma. For having willed, one then acts by body, speech or mind". What really lies behind all action, the essence of all action, is volition, the power of the will. It is this volition expressing itself as action of body, speech and mind that the Buddha calls kamma. ***
“This means that unintentional action is not kamma. If we accidently step on some ants while walking down the street, that is not the kamma of taking life, for there was no intention to kill. If we speak some statement believing it to be true and it turns out to be false, this is not the kamma of lying, for there is no intention of deceiving. ***
“Kamma manifests itself in three ways, through three "doors" of action. These are body, speech and mind. When we act physically the body serves as the instrument for volition. This is bodily kamma. When we speak, expressing our thoughts and intentions, that is verbal kamma, which can be performed either directly through speech or else indirectly through writing or other means of communications. When we think, plan, desire inwardly, without any outer action, that is mental kamma. What lies behind all these forms of actions is the mind and the chief mental factor which causes the action is the volition. Every choice of our's has a tremendous potential for the future.” ***
Jain Beliefs: Karma Is a Substance
According to the BBC: “The Jain idea of karma is much more elaborate and mechanistic than that found in some other Eastern religions. Jains believe that karma is a physical substance that is everywhere in the universe. Karma particles are attracted to the jiva (soul) by the actions of that jiva. It may be helpful to think of karma as floating dust which sticks to the soul, or as types of atomic particle which are attracted to the soul as a result of our actions, words and thoughts. On their own, karma particles have no effect but when they stick to a soul they affect the life of that soul. [Source: BBC |::|]
“We attract karma particles when we do or think or say things: we attract karma particles if we kill something, we attract karma particles when we tell a lie, we attract karma particles when we steal and so on. The quantity and nature of the karma particles sticking to the soul cause the soul to be happy or unhappy and affect the events in the soul's present and future lives. It's a compound process in that the accumulation of karma causes us to have bad thoughts, deeds, emotions and vices, and these bad actions (etc) cause our souls to attract more karma, which causes more bad thoughts, and so on. |::|
“The mental, verbal and physical actions of the jiva attract karma to it. The more intense the activity, the more karma is attracted. The karma sticks to the jiva because negative characteristics of the jiva, passions like anger, pride and greed, make the jiva sticky. Karma can be warded off by avoiding these negative characteristics. If the being is without passions then the karma does not stick, thus a person can avoid karma sticking to them by leading a religiously correct life. Karma must be burned off the jiva in order for it to make spiritual progress. Living according to the Jain vows is the way to get rid of karma. The jiva takes its karma with it from one life to another. |::|
“Karma can be avoided in two way: 1) By behaving well - so no karma is attracted; 2) By having the right mental state - so that even if an action attracts karma, the correct mental attitude of the being means that karma either doesn't stick to that soul or is discharged immediately Some karmas expire on their own after causing suffering. Others karmas remain. The karma that has built up on the soul can be removed by living life according to the Jain vows. These types of karma can be split equally into destructive and non-destructive karma.
“Destructive karmas: 1) mohaniya-karma (delusory): deludes the jiva, causes attachment to false beliefs, prevents the jiva living a correct life; 2) jnana-avaraniya-karma (knowledge-obscuring): interferes with the jiva's intellect and senses, prevents the jiva understanding the truth, blocks the jiva's natural omniscience; 3) dars(h)an-avarniya-karma (perception-obscuring): interferes with perception through the senses; 4) antaraya-karma (obstructing): obstructs the energy of the jiva, blocks the doing of good acts that the jiva wants to do. |::|
Non-destructive karmas: 1) vedaniya-karma (feeling-producing): determines whether the jiva has pleasant or unpleasant experiences; 2) nama-karma (physique-determining): determines the type of rebirth, determines the physical characteristics of the new life, determines the spiritual potential of the new life; 3) ayu-karma (life-span-determining): determines the duration of a being's life (within the limits of the species into which the jiva is reborn); 4) gotra-karma (status-determining): determines the status of a being within its species.
Hindu Beliefs about Karma
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "work" or "action” and the “result of a work or action." The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one's karma by learning from one's mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself. In Hinduism, the concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.
According to the BBC: “Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara) and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived (karma). In a lifetime people build up karma, both good and bad, based on their actions within that lifetime. This karma affects their future lives and existences. People must take responsibility for their actions either within this life time or the next. Death is a key part of this cycle and is treated with specific importance. Death is the last samsara (cycle of life) referred to as the 'last sacrifice'. Moksha is the end of the death and rebirth cycle and is classed as the fourth and ultimate artha (goal). It is the transcendence of all arthas. It is achieved by overcoming ignorance and desires. It is a paradox in the sense that overcoming desires also includes overcoming the desire for moksha itself. It can be achieved both in this life and after death. [Source: BBC ]
Indian religious tradition sees karma as the source of the problem of transmigration. While associated with physical form, for example, in a human body, beings experience the universe through their senses and their minds and attach themselves to the people and things around them and constantly lose sight of their true existence as atman , which is of the same nature as brahman . As the time comes for the dropping of the body, the fruits of good and evil actions in the past remain with atman , clinging to it, causing a tendency to continue experience in other existences after death. Good deeds in this life may lead to a happy rebirth in a better life, and evil deeds may lead to a lower existence, but eventually the consequences of past deeds will be worked out, and the individual will seek more experiences in a physical world. In this manner, the bound or ignorant atman wanders from life to life, in heavens and hells and in many different bodies. The universe may expand and be destroyed numerous times, but the bound atman will not achieve release. [Source: Library of Congress]
Living Life Based on Karma
According to the BBC: “The word karma means 'action', and this indicates something important about the concept of karma: it is determined by our own actions, in particular by the motives behind intentional actions... Buddhists try to cultivate good karma and avoid bad. However, the aim of Buddhism is to escape the cycle of rebirth altogether, not simply to acquire good karma and so to be born into a more pleasant state. These states, while preferable to human life, are impermanent: even gods eventually die.” [Source: BBC |::|]
“Skilful actions that lead to good karmic outcomes are based upon motives of generosity; compassion, kindness and sympathy, and clear mindfulness or wisdom. The opposite motives of greed, aversion (hatred) and delusion, when acted upon, lead to bad karmic results. Karma is not an external force, not a system of punishment or reward dealt out by a god. The concept is more accurately understood as a natural law similar to gravity. Buddhists believe we are in control of our ultimate fates. The problem is that most of us are ignorant of this, which causes suffering. The purpose of Buddhism is to take conscious control of our behaviour. |::|
Hayes wrote: “Much of what one experiences is the result of one's own previous kamma. When misfortune occurs, instead of blaming someone else, one can look for any fault in one's own past conduct. If a fault is found, the experience of its consequences will make one more careful in the future. When happiness occurs, instead of taking it for granted, one can look to see if it is the result of good kamma. If so, the experience of its pleasant results will encourage more good kamma in the future. =|=
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except the caged bird, Buddha Channel
Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018