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Bhante Mahinda

1 Feb 2022


The term KAMMA (in Pali) and KARMA[1] (in Sanskrit) is derived from the Sanskrit root √KṚ or KARA, which literally means ‘action’. While the concept of karma is widespread amongst the different Indian religious and philosophical traditions, each has varying interpretations of karma and its functions[2].


What is unique about the Buddha’s explanation of karma is that it is based on morality, ethics and intention (CETANĀ). The Buddha defined karma as follows: 




That is: CETANĀ or volition is the karma I preach: having generated that volition in the mind, one commits karma through body, speech and mind. 

In other words, karma from the Buddhist perspective is not just any kind of action. It refers to a volitional or intentional action which is generated through body, speech and mind, and may be wholesome or unwholesome, good or bad, depending on the factors which condition our mind at the time of performing the action. 

The law of karma is simply stated as ‘good begets good, evil begets evil’. It is a natural law of cause and effect, without any law-giver. When we perform a good, wholesome or skilful action, the energy we experience makes us feel calm, composed and peaceful. An action is said to be good, moral, wholesome or skilful when the mind is conditioned by generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. 

On the other hand, when we perform a bad, unwholesome or unskilful action, we experience uneasiness, some gross or restless feelings, or even remorse. An action is bad, immoral, unwholesome or unskilful when the mind is conditioned by the tendencies of greed, hatred and delusion.

The energy field generated through our thoughts, speech and body actions can be felt and experienced. This is the karmic energy or force. Wholesome actions condition peaceful and pleasant feelings, whereas unwholesome actions condition agitated and unpleasant feelings.

Verses 1 and 2 of the Dhammapada say: 

If a person thinks, speaks or acts in an unwholesome or unskilful manner,

[conditioned by greed, hatred or delusion] then the unwholesome consequences of suffering follow him – as the wheels of a cart follow the hooves of the ox that draws it. 


If on the other hand one thinks, speaks or acts in a wholesome and skilful manner, [conditioned by the absence of greed, hated and delusion, and flowing with generosity, loving kindness and wisdom] then the wholesome consequences of happiness follow him – just as a shadow follows the man who casts it. 

Unwholesome consequences of one’s actions are a burden, just as an ox is burdened by the cart it pulls. But wholesome consequences of one’s actions are no burden at all, just as your shadow follows you without any effort. 

When a person leads a moral and wholesome way of life, by avoiding killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and indulgence in intoxicants, he or she is protected from the harmful effects of such unwholesome actions. Such a person has no guilt or remorse – there is no burden to carry. 

The law of karma operates on the basis of conditionality. In other words, things do not happen simply by chance, nor are they totally predetermined or fated to happen. When certain causes and conditions arise, we will see the arising of certain effects. Happiness and sorrow all arise dependent on causes and conditions. 

Karma does not mean we are destined to experience the exact result of our each and every action, as if each action were accounted for individually. In the Lonaphala Sutta[1], the Buddha clearly stated that this is a wrong view. He described our experience of karma like putting salt into pure water: if we put a handful of salt into a cup of water, it would immediately become too salty to drink. But if we put a handful of salt into the Ganges River, we wouldn’t even be able to taste the difference.

Then the Buddha went on to say that in a similar manner, a person may commit a minor unskilful action – but if he has done a lot of merits, and has developed and strengthened his mind, he will experience the result of his unskilful action in this life as something very minor and almost unnoticeable. On the other hand, if that person has done very little merit, or constantly engages in other unskilful actions, one small unskilful action may be enough to result in rebirth in the lower realms of existence. 

According to the law of karma, our present life is conditioned by the actions of our past lives. We are the sum total of our past thoughts, speech and bodily actions. And what we will bein the future will be the result of our present thoughts, speech and bodily actions. In other words, we are constantly being moulded by karmic forces. This is how we account for the differences between individuals.

Some are born into the lap of luxury, while others are born in poor and miserable conditions, without even the basic requirements of life. Some are intelligent while others are foolishand dull. Some are strong and healthy, others are weak and sickly. Some are ugly and others good-looking. Karma accounts for all these differences and inequalities. 

While the actions which we perform will give rise to a corresponding effect, it may not necessarily arise immediately. Some actions may give rise to results within this lifetime only after a period of time; some may only ripen in the next life; and still others may ripen in successive births. We can compare this to the germination of seeds. The seeds of some plants germinate very quickly; others may take a longer time. Mung beans, for example, sprout within a few days, but the seeds of mango or avocado may take a longer time to germinate. 

That is how we explain why some good people may encounter various misfortunes and suffering, and on the other hand, a wicked and cunning person may be enjoying his or her life. This is not the result of his wicked actions, but because of some wholesome actions which he has performed in the past, whether in this present life or in his previous lives. When the unwholesome karma ripens, he will certainly reap the unwholesome consequences. 

When a kind and virtuous person suffers, he suffers not because of the good or wholesome deeds which he is doing in the present. He suffers because of certain evil or unwholesome actions which he has done in the past.



[1] The Sanskrit spelling is preferred in common usage.

[2] For example, in the Vedas, karma referred to religious acts, such as rites or sacrifice to a specific deity, in the hope that the deity would bless them with something in return. The Brahmanical tradition believed that only actions, physical or verbal, caused an effect; morality or intention had nothing to do with karma. Others believed that karma is conditioned by God. 

[3] AN 3.99 

Photo credits: Thoughts by Vie Studio, Salt by Tara Winstead and Table by Rachel Claire via Pexels

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