From Thought to Destiny: The Law of Karma

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon, October 8, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacter – Destiny”

“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.” Upajjhatthana Sutta AN 5.57

Whatever a hater may do to a hater, or an enemy to an enemy, a
wrongly-directed mind will do us greater mischief.
Not a mother, not a father will do so much, nor any other
relative; a well-directed mind will do us greater service.
Dhammapada 42, 43

There is a relationship between a karmic action and a later subjective result often called a ripening or fruition of karma that is also observed in the West as “One reaps what one sows” or “What goes around comes around,” “Virtue is its own reward,” or even, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” That is, a skillful (wholesome) action has a favorable result, an unskillful (unwholesome) action has an unfavorable result, for the person who commits the karmic act, independently of the benefit or harm experienced by others. This is often called the Law of Karma or sometimes just the Law of Cause and Effect.

The Law of Karma has often been misunderstood, generally in the direction of something much more deterministic than originally formulated in Buddhism, or as something much more mysterious than it needs to be. In the critically thinking West it has additionally been somewhat contentious because it is not clear from the perspective of modern science by what mechanisms it could possibly work. A typical instance of the Law of Karma as commonly conceived, for instance, would be for me to commit some horrendous misdeed one day, like murdering my mother-in-law, then being struck by lightening a year later as a kind of cosmic payback. Or I risk my life to rescue a damsel in the Middle Ages and many lives hence win the Texas Lottery. How would the meteorological elements or randomizing software possibly know to zap me in particular? It turns out that this last kind of case, though attention-provoking, rarely arises in the literature,

The Classical Account of the Law of Karma. Traditionally a karmic act is said to be a seed that according to its variety will produce a fruit (phala), that is either bitter or sweet, that will reach ripening (vipaka) in a personally harmful or beneficial experience at some future time. All of our intentional actions (kamma) leave an imprint and this is something we should be acutely aware of in our practice. It is something we can observe directly and something that gives us immediate feedback on the development of our characters. For instance, if a woman has abortion, how does she feel about it afterwards, immediately, in a year and so on. Often, there seems to be some unanticipated heaviness there, a feeling that something is out of skew that won’t go away. That can be likened to bitter fruit. I personally prefer think of karmic effects metaphorically as heavy or light rather than bitter or sweet. The point is that you are shaping your own character with every action, like the picture of Dorian Gray, which you can leave in the closet or hang on the wall..

At one point the Buddha describes this process very simply as follows:

… these are the drawbacks one can expect when doing what should not be done:

  1. One can fault oneself;
  2. observant people, on close examination, criticize one;
  3. one’s bad reputation gets spread about;
  4. one dies confused; and
  5. on the break-up of the body, after death, one reappears in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell.

Ekamsena Sutta AN 2.18 (numbering mine)

He then presents “the rewards one can expect when doing what should be done” in opposite terms. The last drawback, being born in the plane of deprivation … will be taken up along with Rebirth when we discuss Destiny in future weeks. Apparently in Brahmanism the effects of Karma (which means ritual action rather than any intentional action) is realized only as 5., i.e., after rebirth. Today we will look at the Law of Karma primarily within the current life.

We often confuse Karma with fate, probably because of different understandings of Karma in Hindu sects in India. Karma is the opposite of fate! By defining Karma as intentional action, the Buddha unmistakenly put the emphasis on the power of free will in shaping our futures over the inertia of our past in writing our biographies before they happen. This is what makes liberation or any progress on the Path possible. This is demonstrated by the answers to these questions: Is everything we do a result of past Karma? Is everything that happens to us a result of past Karma? Does our past Karma invariably ripen? The answer to each of these questions is No.

Is everything we do a result of past Karma? Quite simply, no. The Buddha points out that this would make the religious life impossible, or useless. This would be strict determinism. If you are student of philosophy, your answer might actually be a strict determinist. Someone famous (I can’t remember who), when asked if he believed in determinism or free will replied, “I believe in free will. I don’t have any choice.” That is how we are in our practice. What we think is free will, practice and results might be predetermined, but that is beyond my understanding.

Is everything that happens to us a result of past Karma? In Buddhism everything is interrelated by cause and effect, but Karma is only one or five kinds:

  • Environmental causation (utuniyama). For instance, cold causes ice, lightening causes fire.
  • Genetic causation (bhijaniyama). For instance, an apple seed produces and apple tree, dogs produce puppies.
  • Psychological causation (cittaniyama). For instance the smell or a certain flower evokes a memory of a childhood picnic.
  • Karmic causation (kammaniyama). This is what we are exploring here.
  • Natural causation (dhammaniyama). This is all of causation, including all the other kinds and any not included in the other four kinds.

The reason that we talk about kammaniyama so much in Buddhism, to the extent that when we say “cause and effect” without qualification we are assumed to be talking about kammaniyama, just as in English when we say “drink” we are assumed to be talking about something with alcohol in it, is that only Karma falls within the scope of free will. Now if I get hit by a meteor, this is entirely within the realm of physical causation.

Not all Buddhists share this understanding. I think this is particularly the case in Tibetan Buddhism, where it is commonly assumed that the Chinese invasion of Tibet is a Karmic payback for something that all Tibetans must have done in the past, or the Holocaust a result of some evil done by Jews. I have even heard some Burmese Theravadins make similar claims about auto accidents, etc. This viewpoint would entail some kind of Karmic control over the other forms of cause and effect. In any case, the

Buddha clearly refuted this viewpoint:

Now when these ascetics and brahmans have such a doctrine and view that ‘whatever a person experiences, be it pleasure, pain or neither-pain-nor-pleasure, all that is caused by previous action,’ then they go beyond what they know by themselves and what is accepted as true by the world. Therefore, I say that this is wrong on the part of these ascetics and brahmans. Sivaka Sutta, SN 36.21

In the Questions of King Milinda, an early Theravada text, states, “The pain which is due to kamma is much less than that which is due to other causes.” It is pointed out that when the Buddha got a splinter of rock in his foot this was not because of some previous unskillful deed that he had committed in the past, but simply because his cousin Devadatta was trying to kill him.

Does our past Karma invariably ripen? It is also not always the case that a particular action, skillful or unskillful, will have a karmic consequence, and if it does the severity of the consequence is variable. The overall karmic character of the agent can mitigate the effects of individual karmic acts to insignificance, where similar acts would have severe results for others. One also has the free will to completely overcome past evil deeds by refraining now and in the future and be developing an expansive mind of goodwill, compassion, appreciation and equanimity (Sankha Sutta, SN 42.8). The overall state of the mind can dilute the consequences of a new transgression as salt is diluted in a river. (Lonaphala Sutta, Salt Crystal, AN 3.99)

The gist of this is that our practice can free us from the effects of our previous Karma. But this or the unassisted petering out of Karmic consequences might be difficult to verify; trying to trace karmic consequences, according to the Buddha, is so difficult it leads to “vexation and madness.” (Acinitita Sutta, AN 4.77)

Pragmatics of the Law of Karma. The Buddha never taught out of philosophical, or scientific, speculation, only with a practical purpose in mind, only as an inducement or as an aid to practice and thereby purity of thought and action.

The great benefit from belief in the Law of Kamma, according to Ven. P.A. Payutto, is that it encourages “moral rectitude.” A constant awareness that our choice of even the smallest unskillful and skillful actions not only brings immediate harm or benefit into the world but is continually shaping our character and destiny in a negative or positive direction is a strong motivator to stay on task. The result in found in personal well-being, and in the harm or benefit of future actions, since moral rectitude develops personal virtue.

There are some common criticisms of the value of the Law of Karma. Foremost among them is that it encourages selfish motives: Rather than moral rectitude or compassion as a primary motivator, one does Good because the payback will be personally beneficial, for instance, happiness in this life, rebirth in a heavenly realm in the next. These are unskillful, in fact greedy, intentions. There is some truth in this objection, it set up provisional goal on this side of the Perfection of Character. However this is cogent only in the early stages of practice. At those stages one probably deals with a lot of greedy intentions, but working toward a provisional goal is likely to be mixed also with a degree of satisfaction in doing something beneficial and therefore is likely to encourage skillful intentions as well. It is like giving personal recognition to people for charitable giving; when people get into to spirit of giving they care less and less about the recognition. At more advanced stages of practice the distinction between what one does for oneself and what one does for others diminishes. For the Perfected Character there is no difference whatever. In Buddhism it is completely true that Virtue is its Own Reward. But we start out thinking otherwise.

A second criticism is that the Law of Karma is a means of Social control, a way to manipulate people to benefit someone else. The Buddha, perhaps less emphatically than Jesus, a social rebel. He opposed the caste system, for instance. His intentions were never to protect the rich, nor to comfort the poor so that they would not give the rich a hard time. Buddhism does tend to create more personal satisfaction and social harmony even in the absence of significant social change, but has also produced some compassionate rulers. This criticism is most often expressed, albeit naively, with regard to the the Lay support of the Monastic Sangha, which often said to bring much Karmic merit. Undoubtedly such abuse does sometimes arise, this is very bad Karma for the monastics involved. However this institutional relation is bounded by the modest allowances of the monastics, more than offset by the benefits monastics generally bring to communities. It also sets up a powerful practice situation as a well-defined economy of gifts in which both lay and monastics never exchange favors, but only give willingly, and discover such immediate joy, as a Karmic effect, that it actually becomes unclear who is giving and who is receiving.

I have already dispensed above with the misunderstanding that whatever happens to you is an effect of personal Karma. This misunderstanding leads to a compelling criticism of the pragmatic value of the Law of Karma. It would entail, for instance, that if you are rich, it is a necessary consequence of your past good Karma, if you are poor or handicapped, it is a necessary consequence of your bad Karma. The criticism is that this leads to social passivity, to not caring, and likewise becomes an instrument of social control. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, as a Buddhist I can do anything I want to you knowing that you must deserve it. However this would be a misunderstanding of the Law of Karma. It would also not be consistent with the Buddha’s view of Karma as an instrument to shape the future, not as a reason for passivity. It would also be inconsistent with the admonition of the Kalama Sutta, “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful, … blameworthy, … criticized by the wise, … lead to harm and suffering’, then you should abandon them.” (AN 3.65)

How the Law of Karma Might Work.

The Law of Karma makes sense for pragmatic reasons, that is, benefit accrues from believing and acting in accord with the Law of Karma. But is it really true in a verifiable way? More to the point, how could it be true, what is the mechanism behind this principle of cosmic payback?

If you do a quick check, the Law of Karma sure seems to work. If you do someone a favor, you often later find him doing a favor for you. If you use harsh speech, you often get punched in the nose, or something of that nature. If anger is a prominent part of your karmic activities, you often find you develop a less than attractive grumpy appearance, people eschew you, you never seem to be successful. If you act habitually with some kind of sensual greed, for instance, as in chronic overeating or alcoholism, your physical or mental health will commonly deteriorate. It seems to work for institutions as well as individuals. I have heard that the CIA has coined a phrase for this commonly observed phenomenon: blowback. For instance the CIA originally recruited and armed Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and America found itself targeted by the same radicals.

As long as we confine ourselves to what we observe in this life, I don’t think the mechanisms that enable the Law of Karma are particularly mysterious. The cases that follow rebirth will be considered in subsequent weeks as we consider rebirth as a part of human Destiny. The effects of Karma are of three kinds: (1) mental, (2) personal appearance and deportment, and (3) effects that come physically from outside.

(1) Mental Karmic Effects. These are easy to account for in general. As Spinoza says, Happiness is not the reward for virture, it is virtue. First, unskillful actions are accompanied by stress, skillful actions are not. Unskillful habits, as described a couple of weeks ago, repeated over and over eventually determine the emotional tenor of your life, sometimes to the point where you describe your life as “hell.” Skillful habits can make your life “heaven.” Single heavy Karmic acts can have similar effects.

(2) Personal Appearance and Deportment. We have also seen that habitual Karmic acts begin to affect your appearance. If you are angry or greedy by nature you will generally develop an unpleasant appearance, if kindly an angelic appearance. Habits can radically change your appearance. If you habitually overeat you are probably plump. If you drink you probably have a perpetual blush. If you smoke your voice is probably unnaturally low. If you jog regularly you are probably slender. They also change your health and extend or reduce life-expectancy. Generosity or kindliness produces a personality that others find attractive. Anger is generally unattractive. Absence of unskillful habits generally results in industriousness, organizational abilities, equanimity, which are attractive to others and make your efforts more productive.

(3) External Effects. Most of our lives are spent in an interpersonal context and interpersonal interactions follow some predictable patterns as people discover friends and alliances, obstacles and enemies. It is also a context in which natural retributive principles apply. People are naturally attracted to you if they think you can benefit them or you have qualities that they admire. People are repelled by you for the opposite reasons. If you harm someone, you will probably make an enemy and they will most likely seek some kind of retribution. Your attractive qualities, which we saw in (2) are correlated with skillful Karma, will probably make life easier for you, in personal relationships, in business deals, in reputation and popularity. Your unattractive qualities, correlated with unskillful Karma will be the opposite. Likewise your productivity generally correlates with skillful factors, and so on. The harm that arises from unskillful factors will revisit you as people withdraw their support, undermine your reputation or even commit violent acts. Some of the harmful things you might do come back at you directly as a kind of beehive effect; the damage is so widespread that you also become a victim.

This leaves out cases like committing a murder and later getting hit by lightning, but these are so rare, so unverifiable and, although fun, probably so pragmatically thin that they can be discounted. Putting aside for now the application of the Law to span more than one lifetime, I suggest that we can say with a high degree of certainty fortified by the mechanisms laid out here that We Reap what We Sow.

6 Responses to “From Thought to Destiny: The Law of Karma”

  1. Dilani Says:

    May the triple gem bless you, these explanations r very useful for us since we have less exposure to damma discussions… Thank you very much…


  2. Josh Badgley Says:

    Wonderful Bhante, wonderful! It’s as if that which was crooked was set straight! Seriously though, a great post as always, thank you!


  3. Aung Koe Says:

    I like this one and also like all your writing with related references which supposed to be included as we all are preserving actual Buddha teaching, so called Theravada Buddhism. I hope one day I would see all of your collected writing in a BOOK.
    I am very glad that I have a chance to support you at the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara, Maplewood, in Minnesota.
    Aung Koe


  4. Visuddhimagga Says:

    Very helpful 🙂 Thanks and all the best.


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