Monday, June 2, 2008

Kamma and Natural Disasters III

This post should read together with the two earlier ones. The Pail word kamma (pronounced like summer) means ‘action’ and in Buddhist doctrine refers to any intentional mental, verbal or bodily act. The Sanskrit equivalent is karma (pronounced like farmer) and the Pali kama (again pronounced like farmer) means ‘lust’ or ‘sensual desire’ – don’t confuse the three. The Buddha says: ‘I say that intention is kamma, because having first intended one acts with body, speech or mind’ (A.III,415). According to the Buddha, every intentional action modifies our consciousness, thus building our character and thereby influencing our behaviour, our experience and consequently our destiny. Positive intentional actions (motivated by generosity, love and wisdom) tend towards consequences that are experienced as positive while intentional negative actions (motivated by greed, hatred and delusion) tend towards consequences that are experienced as negative.
The doctrine of kamma is probably the most misunderstood of all the Buddha’s teachings. The four most common misunderstandings are these. (1) Everything which happens to us is the result of our past kamma. In actual fact, Buddhism recognized at least four other broad causes of why things happen, including because of the operation of natural laws (dhamma niyama), biological laws (baja niyama), physical laws (utu niyama) and psychological laws (citta niyama, Atthasalani.854; A.III,62). (2) We can never escape from the consequences of our past actions. If this were true then we would be completely determined by our past and be unable to change and attain enlightenment (A.I,249). The Buddha spoke of two types of determinism (niyativada); theistic determinism (issaranimmana hetu) which says that God knows and controls everything and thus has determined everything before it has happened and (2) kammic determinism (pubbekata hetu) which says that everything we experience, pleasant, painful or neutral, is due to our kamma, that is, how we have acted in the past. The Buddha said that both these ideas are not only false but also pernicious (A.I,173). Determinism means that the individual cannot choose one course of action over another, cannot make an effort to change anything and is not responsible for anything he or she does. Such a belief can only lead to irresponsibility and inactivity - ‘What can I do? It’s my past kamma.’ As the Buddha very correctly said, ‘If anyone were to say that we experience (the results of) a deed exactly as we have done it then it would be impossaible to cultivate the spiritual life’ (A.I,248). In much of Buddhist Asia the widely held belief that everything is due to kamma is used as an excuse for peoples’ lack of social concern. What Buddhism does teach is that several strong intentional good actions may very well modify or even cancel out a bad action and vice versa (Dhp.173). The Buddha also said that a minor negative action done by a bad person may well have a significant consequence while a relatively strong negative action done a basically good person may have little effect, and visa versa. He compared it to throwing a hand full of salt in a pot of water and another hand full in a large lake (A.I,248). Thus it is more correct to say that we are conditioned by our kamma rather than determined by it. (3) Our experiences in the present life are due to what we did in our last life and what we do now will have an effect in the future life. In reality, many, probably most, of our actions have a result immediately or soon after we have done them, i.e. in the present life. Why the insistence on every life but the present one? Lend someone a helping hand and chances are you will notice the positive effect of it very soon. Punch someone in the head and you might find yourself down at the police station very soon. (4) The fourth common misunderstanding about kamma is what might be called ‘kammic naivety;’ i.e. kick a monk in this life and you will be reborn with a club foot in your next life, swear in this life you will have halitosis in the next life, be generous in this life you will be rich in your next life. This, of course, is just plain stupid. Because kamma is primarily psychological (i.e. intention), its manifestation is primarily psychological. It only affects our physical form and circumstances to the degree that the mind can have an influence on the physical, as for example when prolonged worry can contribute physical illness. The main effect kamma has upon us is how we feel; happy, neutral or unhappy. Some of the things people say because of kammic naivety could only be described as laughable (e.g. be nasty to the Tibetans and you’ll have an earthquake on your hands. Why didn’t the people who decided on and implemented China’s Tibet policy have their houses fall down?). Others cause a lot of pain. A mother who had recently given birth to a severely deformed child told me through her tears that a Thai monk had informed her that this was her punishment for having done something evil in her former life. Even if this were true it would have been a tactless and cruel thing to say. Nothing I could say to the poor woman was able to undo the damage this ignorant comment had caused and later she turned to Christianity.


Sean said...


I just found your blog yesterday, and I have to say its wonderful. You've helped me understand kamma, and corrected some of my misconceptions.

I was wondering, is there anyplace I can find "Atthasalani.854". I was hoping to be able to read it, but I haven't been able to find it online.

Many thanks,

sagicaprio said...

Excellent explanation! But I would add that present moment is the most crucial time to determine either the outcome of the past and the future, or I would say the present karma is the most important thing that can change our destiny. I believe we are conditioned by our past karma but we can change it to a certain level with our present good deeds. Like the Buddha said karma is like a handful of salt so it depends on are we going to put that salt in a small glass or in a lake.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Sagicaprio, the Atthasalini is Buddhaghosa's commentary on the Dhammasangani. I dont think it has been translated into English yet. And when it is it will prove to be an excellent cure for insomnia. Thanks also for pointing out the importance of present moment awarness in modifying kamma.

solitaire said...

Venerable Sir,

Thank you for your clear elucidation of Buddhist teachings. I have only just discovered your blog and will definitely return often.

Thank you.

Anandajoti said...

Dear Sagicapriya, Atthasalini has been translated under the title: The Expositor by Pe Maung Tin in 1920; and into German under the title: Darlegung der Bedeutung by Bhikkhu Nyanaponika in 1942. Both are available from the Pali Text Society (

Dear Venerable, this is the best blog on the web, and will grow in importance as it goes on. I have already introduced many people to it. Well done!

sagicaprio said...

hmm, I think both of you have mistaken me with Sean :)...I think Sean was the one who asked about Atthasalani :)

Andrew said...

Dear Venerable Sir,

Your articles are always interesting and informative and thanks for explaining Kamma , I find it now very clear.
Please keep writing articles like this it is a delight to read.

Best Wishes
andy c

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Sagicaprio,
Sorry about that. Must be your bad kamma.

Ti-lakkhana said...

Dear Bhante,

You said: "‘kammic naivety;’ i.e. (...) be generous in this life you will be rich in your next life. This, of course, is just plain stupid."

However, in MN 135 the Buddha said:

"... If instead he comes to the human state, he is poor wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to poverty, that is to say, not to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, perfumes, unguents, bed, roof and lighting to monks and brahmans."

"... If instead he comes to the human state, he is rich wherever he is reborn. This is the way that leads to riches, that is to say, to be a giver of food, drink, cloth, sandals, garlands, perfumes, unguents, bed, roof and lighting to monks and brahmans."

Do I understand it wrong? Please, could you explain the meaning of this sutta?


Robert said...

"In much of Buddhist Asia the widely held belief that everything is due to kamma is used as an excuse for peoples’ lack of social concern."

This is what really disturbs me because it's constantly cited to me by non-Buddhists in the west as an example of why Buddhism is a bad influence and why Buddhist countries are in such bad shape. Unfortunately I don't know that there's much that westerners can do to change this sort of attitude in Asia.

Ti-lakkhana: The Buddha did give some very general examples of "if you do this then this kind of general stuff will happen in your next life" and he also told some specific stories to people about why some event happened to them, however this is one of the "special powers" of a Buddha (knowing exactly how kamma worked itself out) and not one of the abilities of a regular monk, especially not an unenlightened monk.

In AN 4.77 it says "The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it." In other words, you can't point to one event and say exactly why it happened.

There's also something called "appropriate attention." Inappropriate attention includes: "This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past?" (MN 2)

Robert said...

"In other words, you can't point to one event and say exactly why it happened."

BTW, I meant "with regard to kamma and past lives" not in general. Obviously you can look at certain events in your current life, such as getting thrown in jail, and get some sense of what the causes were that preceded them, such as committing a crime.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

‘If you are good and generous in this life you will be rich in your next life.’ Think about this statement for a while and its problems will become apparent. Is it possible for a rich person to suffer from depression, to be miserable unhappy, to get Parkinson’s Disease to have a very unhappy marriage, etc? There does not seem to be any relationship between money and happiness – so in what way can it be a ‘reward’ or as a positive result (vipaka)? But to say, ‘If you are good and generous you ill be reborn happy’ (whether rich, middle or poor) does make sense – to me at least.

Ti-lakkhana said...

Dear Bhante,

Yes, the Buddha already taught us that happiness is not to be found in any of the realms of samsara (not even in the pleasurable heavens) since dukkha covers it all , hence the need to search for Nibbana; but in this particular case the Buddha is asked:

"Master Gotama, what is the reason, what is the condition, why inferiority and superiority are met with among human beings, among mankind? For one meets with short-lived and long-lived people, sick and healthy people, ugly and beautiful people, insignificant and influential people, poor and rich people, low-born and high-born people, stupid and wise people. What is the reason, what is the condition, why superiority and inferiority are met with among human beings, among mankind?"

And he gives specific answers.


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