Working of Kammā – Critical Role of Conditions

May 21, 2017; revised May 11, 2022

1. We can see various human happiness/suffering levels around us. Some people live with relatively higher levels of health, wealth, and happiness, while others live in poverty, ill-health, and misery.

  • We become distraught upon hearing that a child died prematurely or someone brutally murdered. Of course, we should generate empathy and sympathy and do our utmost to prevent such horrible occurrences.
  • However, we also need to look at the CAUSES of such happenings. Once we understand the underlying causes, we will be able to prevent such things from happening to us in the future, if not in this life, in future lives.
  • Nothing happens without reason or a cause (commonly multiple causes). If we understand that specific causes can lead to bad outcomes, we need to block such causes. If we suspect such causes are already there, we must stop making conditions for those causes to bear fruit.
  • That is the key message of the Buddha: It is not possible to eliminate the suffering that has arisen (we can minimize it), but we can eradicate FUTURE suffering.

2. The principle of cause and effect (hētu/phala) is a key principle in Buddha Dhamma, as in modern science.

  • Science is all about finding out HOW things HAPPEN around us due to CAUSES. A pebble on the ground will not go up by itself, i.e., we have to pick it up and throw it up.
  • We receive sunlight because the Sun puts out a vast amount of energy every second. And science has figured out how that happens: That energy comes from nuclear reactions; Sun is a giant fusion reactor.
  • With the development of modern science, we have figured out that nothing happens without a cause; usually, more than one cause leads to an effect.

3. However, science has not yet figured out that humans (and other living beings) are also subject to the principle of causes and conditions. That is Paṭicca Samuppāda in Buddha Dhamma.

  • Does it just happen that X is born healthy and wealthy, Y is born healthy but poor, and Z is born handicapped and poor?
  • There must be REASONS why X, Y, and Z are born that way.
  • Not only that, a person born rich can become poor, and vice versa. Or a person in good health can die suddenly in an accident or by a heart attack. There must be reasons for such “turnarounds” too!
  • The laws of kammā can explain all the above. But the laws of kammā are not just based on causes and effects; they DEPEND on CONDITIONS. That is what prevents laws of kammā from being deterministic, i.e., one’s future is NOT determined solely by past actions or kammā. Past kamma cannot bring vipāka unless suitable conditions are present.

4. Science has been unable to come up with explanations for the effects discussed above. There are two critical reasons for this lack of progress in science.

  • First, unlike inert objects like a pebble, a living being has a mind. When a person moves, the cause originates in that person’s mind, i.e., the person decides to move. Your hand will not move until you choose to move it. And you have the power to STOP its movement too!
  • The second difference is that there is a rebirth process for living beings. The laws of kammā cannot operate without the rebirth process. That is why not believing in rebirth is wrong (micchā diṭṭhi.) With that wrong view, one will never be able to figure out the true nature of the world; see “Vagaries of Life and the Way to Seek “Good Rebirths” and “Micchā Diṭṭhi, gandhabba, and Sotāpanna Stage.”
  • The human life of about 100 years is extremely short compared to the saṃsāric journey (rebirth process). Our mental states and physical appearances change as we go from life to life; see “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.

5. So, anything and everything happens due to reasons or causes. However, just because there is a cause, it is not guaranteed to give rise to the corresponding effect.

  • In the terminology of Buddha Dhamma, past kammā do not necessarily lead to kammā vipāka. 
  • We can grasp this key idea with an example.

6. A seed CAN give rise to a tree. It has the POTENTIAL to bring a tree to existence. However, for that to happen, suitable CONDITIONS must be present.

  • If we keep seed in a cool, dry place, it will not give rise to a tree and remain a seed with that POTENTIAL for hundreds of years.
  • Eventually, that potential to bring about a tree will disappear, and the seed will be “dead.”

7. A strong kammā creates a kammā bīja, or a kammā seed, that works pretty much like an ordinary seed that we discussed above.

  • For that kammā bīja to bring about its result, i.e., kammā vipāka, suitable CONDITIONS must exist.
  • If suitable conditions do not materialize for a long time, then that kammā bīja will lose its energy, and it is said that it will become an ahōsi kammā, i.e., that kammā will not bring about any kammā vipāka.

8. As mentioned above, the other important factor in this complex process is that a living being goes through a rebirth that has no discoverable beginning.

  • In this unimaginably long rebirth process, we all have accumulated uncountable kammā seeds, both good and bad. 
  • Those good kammā seeds can bring about good results (health, wealth, beauty, etc.), and bad kammā seeds lead to bad results (ailments, handicaps, poverty, etc.).
  • But either kind can run out of energy without giving results (vipāka) if suitable CONDITIONS do not appear.

9. A seed cannot germinate unless suitable CONDITIONS appear (i.e., it should be in the ground, and water, sunlight, and nutrients must be present).

  • In the same way, we can avoid many possible bad kammā vipāka by being mindful and not providing conditions for them to appear.  We can also MAKE conditions for good kammā vipāka to bring about good results.
  • For example, if one goes into a bad neighborhood at night, that provides conditions for any suitable bad kammā seeds waiting to bring about their bad vipāka. On the other hand, we cannot be successful in any project unless we are willing to provide the right conditions: to pass an examination, we must study.
  • Even if one is born poor, one could work hard and overcome poverty. If one is prone to catching diseases, one could eat healthily and exercise, to overcome at least some recurring ailments. Kammā is not deterministic, see, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.

10. But of course, it won’t be easy to overcome the results of powerful kammā seeds. One may be born handicapped due to a potent kammā seed generated in a previous birth.

  • In the same way, potent good kammā seeds can bring about good results without much effort. Some are born rich, healthy, and wealthy due to a strong good kammā seed coming to fruition.

11. So, I hope it is clear that several different factors could determine one’s happiness.

  • In relatively few cases, one could automatically (without much effort) receive health, wealth, and RELATIVE happiness due to strong kammā seeds. In the same way, some others could be facing miserable lives.
  • However, on average, one’s happiness in this life is primarily determined by one’s willingness to make the right CONDITIONS for good vipāka to occur and prevent bad vipāka from appearing.
  • Even more importantly, one could make conditions for health, wealth, etc., in future lives by living moral lives and doing good deeds.

12. Now, let us look at what happens when a result materializes due to a kammā vipāka. Once a bad vipāka emerges, we can minimize its effects. Sometimes we can overcome them too.

  • For example, if one comes down with cancer, it can sometimes be overcome by good medical treatment, i.e., making conditions to counter the initial effect.
  • If one is born tall or short, there is nothing much one can do about it. If one is born handicapped, one will have to live that way.
  • We can see that we can improve some of that kammā vipāka, while we cannot do much about others.
  • Even the Buddha could not avoid certain vipāka. He had backaches, and Devadatta was able to injure his foot. Ven. Moggallana was beaten to death.

13. Another observation from the above discussion is that when one becomes an Arahant (or even a Buddha), suffering may not entirely end at the Arahanthood. Some sufferings associated with the physical body would be there until the death of the physical body.

  • So, what was meant by “removal of suffering” when one attains Nibbāna? There will not be any future suffering, i.e., after the death of the physical body. When an Arahant reaches Parinibbāna (i.e., physical death), they will not be reborn in this suffering-filled world of 31 realms, which is when the suffering ultimately ends.
  • However, as we have discussed, part of suffering ends with the attainment of Arahanthood: suffering associated with “saṅkhāra dukkhā” or what is called “samphassa jā vedanā“; see, “Vedana (Feelings) Arise in Two Ways.”

14. Of course, IN THE LONG RUN (in the rebirth process), no matter how hard one strives, it will be IMPOSSIBLE to attain PERMANENT happiness anywhere in this world of 31 realms. That is called anicca nature. That is why we must strive to achieve Nibbāna to avoid future suffering.

15. Finally, the role of conditions in the laws of kammā is inherent in the Paṭicca Samuppāda; see “What Does “Paccaya” Mean in Paṭicca Samuppāda?” and “Pattana Dhamma – Connection to Cause and Effect (Hethu Phala).”

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