What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?

Revised January 28, 2020

Things Happen Due to Causes and Conditions

1. A key concept in Buddha Dhamma is cause and effect. Nothing happens without a cause or a reason.

  • But even if root causes are there, we can stop them from bringing their results by blocking the CONDITIONS for them to come to fruition (a seed has the potential to bring about a tree, but for that to happen the seed must be given fertile soil, water, and sunlight).
  • That is explained with simple terms in “Working of Kammā – Critical Role of Conditions.”
  • That is why in Paṭicca Samuppāda, “paccayā” does NOT mean “it will happen”; see, “What Does “Paccayā” Mean in Paṭicca Samuppāda?“.
Nature’s Laws – Niyāma Dhamma

2. Nature enforces this cause and effect via five primary unshakable laws (niyāma dhamma or sometimes called dhammatā.) The correct word is niyama (meaning “fixed), but it is commonly called niyāma.

  • They are kamma niyama, citta niyama, utu niyama, bīja (or bija), and dhamma niyama.
  • We will discuss these in detail in another post. But the point here is that kamma is NOT deterministic, other than for ānantariya kamma (killing one’s parents or an Arahant, injuring a Buddha, etc.) Everything plays out due to a complex process involving all five niyama dhamma.

3. First of all, there are actions by individuals that lead to harmful consequences right away. If one jumps from a tall building, one is bound to get hurt or worse. That is a result of dhamma niyama (law of gravitation is a dhamma niyama,) which is cause and effect. Paṭicca Samuppāda is the ultimate dhamma niyama. It explains how and under what conditions kamma vipāka produces results.

  • When something appears in this world, it does not stay the same. It changes in unexpected ways (viparināma) and eventually destroyed. Thus anything in the world (a sankata) is subjected to the utu niyama. Whatever results that kamma vipāka may bring in, they will also eventually go away.
  • Bīja (or bija) niyama is not relevant to the workings of the plant seeds, as some books explain. It dictates how kamma bīja (seeds) lead to their fruits (vipāka). A “puñña kamma seed” or a “good seed” will always produce excellent results, and a “pāpa kamma seed” or a “bad seed” will generate a bad result. A Sōtapanna would have made all those kamma seeds, that make it possible to have rebirths in the apāyā, to be ineffective. Thus a Sōtapanna will NEVER be born in the apāyā.
  • Citta niyama involves laws associated with the working of the complex mind, and that can affect kamma vipāka in a significant way. For example, by purifying the mind, one can attain the Sōtapanna stage and thus make INEFFECTIVE all those kamma seeds that could lead to birth in the apāyā.
  • Kamma vipāka are the root causes for all that happens in this world, but their effects can be altered and even stopped by exploiting the other laws of nature. That is what a Buddha discovers when he attains Enlightenment. All kamma vipāka are made ineffective at reaching full Nibbāna or the Arahanthood.

The main point here is that most bad consequences can be avoided by understanding Dhamma, living a moral life, and being mindful (yōniso manasikāra).

We Have Done Many Good and Bad Kamma in Our Past Lives

4. In this beginning-less long journey of rebirths called sansāra (or samsāra), each of us has done an uncountable number of both good and bad things. When we do a good or an immoral act, the kammic energy associated with that act gives rise to a seed, called a kamma seed. It is energy (not a material thing) that stays with our minds until it gets a chance to come to fruition. An apple seed will not germinate and grow into an apple tree until the right conditions (soil, water, sunlight, etc) appear. In the same way, all our kamma seeds lie in waiting for the right conditions to appear. If we allow such “conditions,” we will have to experience the result of that kamma or kamma vipāka at that time.

  • Our kamma seeds (kamma bīja) are subjected to the bīja niyama mentioned above. In either case, a seed gives rise to a plant or a vipāka according to the type of seed. Someone, who did something terrible that only an animal would do, will pay for that may be with a birth in the animal realm; someone who did an act of generosity may get rewarded accordingly.
Conditions Must be Right to Bring Vipāka of Past Kamma

5. We can keep an apple seed (for example) in a dry, cool place for a long time. Some seeds have been kept intact for thousands of years. It will not germinate until we plant it in fertile soil and provide water and sunlight. In the same way, a kamma seed (good or bad) can lay dormant for a long time until conditions become right for it to germinate. We all have accumulated numerous kamma seeds over these repeated rebirths. What we need to do is to provide conditions for good kamma seeds to germinate and NOT allow conditions for bad ones to germinate.

  • Thus kamma is the act, AND kamma vipāka is the result of that act. But since the right conditions need to appear for a kamma seed to “germinate,” the vipāka may not come until later in the same life, next life, or even many lives later.
  • That is why it is not easy for people to see that their actions will have consequences. Kamma niyama is not the only law that is in effect; there are four more as mentioned above, and they all work together. It is a very intricate network. In particular, because there is a citta niyama (principle of thoughts), we also have some control over kamma vipāka. We cannot change any of the five niyama, but we can OVERCOME a cause (a power) due to a niyama by building an opposing force.
Being Aware of the Conditions Is Key

6. We can take many steps to suppress the bad kamma vipāka coming to fruition and ALSO to get good kamma vipāka to come to fruition. As emphasized above, we all have an unlimited number of both good and bad kamma vipāka waiting to bear fruit. Rather than giving in to bad vipāka and saying “what to do, this is my kamma,” we can find ways to suppress those. And rather than saying, “I must not have done any good kamma, and this is my fate,” we can probe and locate those hidden good kamma seeds and cultivate them.  Let us consider some examples:

  • If one does not take care of one’s physical body, it may become fertile ground for many bad kamma vipāka to come to fruition. If we eat healthily and exercise, the body will not be vulnerable to ailments or injuries.
  • The brain needs good food and exercise too. A healthy body and mind exercises such as solving problems, even word puzzles, keep the brain in good condition. But the best is meditation, and vipassanā or insight meditation is better than Samatha meditation. For example, even if one’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease, one can avoid getting by keeping the brain active and healthy.
Outcome Can be Changed – Environment And Associations Are Critical

7. One may be born to poverty because of a past kamma vipāka that came to fruition at the death of the previous life. But this is NOT a reason to give up. Any person has an unlimited number of good kamma vipāka waiting to come to fruition. Indeed, birth to a poor family did not set up optimum conditions. But one has control over the citta niyama mentioned at the beginning (see, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas)“). One could use one’s mind to overcome this condition and cultivate the background to achieve success.

  • That is why the environment is critical to anyone. One needs to surround oneself with optimistic, moral people, who will help cultivate the good qualities that lie dormant. At the same time, one needs to avoid “bad company” that could pull one in the wrong direction. It is not that any person is intrinsically good or bad. Rather, at any given phase of life or even through most of this life, some people may be displaying their “bad habits” that have come to the forefront. One will be affected negatively by associating such people.
  • The environment is CRITICAL for young children starting from the time of conception. Even the fetus in the womb is affected by the environment. For example, a loving mother and father showing affection to each other positively affects the baby. When the mother is being abused by the father it will be a negative effect.
  • It is critical to have a nurturing environment within the family, and also in the school. A significant part of an individual’s character is molded by the first 10-15 years of life. That is the time they can acquire habits, and once established, it will take a lot of effort to change them.  The parents must instill good habits: moral behavior, eating well, exercise, associate with good friends, avoid bad friends, study well, etc.
“Wearing Out” Some Kamma Seeds

8. It is also possible to remove many of one’s bad kamma seeds.

Laws of Kamma Are Complex

9. The world is VERY complicated. Because all those five niyama are acting simultaneously to enforce the “cause and effect,” it is not possible to sort through each event in isolation and say, “this is THE reason for this particular event.” There could be a dominant cause in some cases, but most times, it is a combination of several, and most of those are from the past.

  • The main thing we have to remember is that each action by us will have consequences (law of kamma). There is nowhere to hide. Even if we can fool the law enforcement sometimes, nature cannot be fooled.
  • We need to make a concerted effort to get rid of bad habits and to acquire and cultivate good habits. A habit can snowball into a sansaric habit, good or bad (related to the law of citta and law of bīja). The environment is an essential factor in getting rid of bad habits and acquiring/cultivating good habits.
  • We need to be constantly aware that there are zillions of kamma bīja (good and bad) waiting to germinate. We should not provide conditions for “bad seeds” to grow. Thus we should avoid bad company, bad environment, etc. We must also provide conditions for “good seeds” to germinate (i.e., study well, provide the necessary requirements to get a promotion or a job, and learn and practice Dhamma). I am sure you can apply these principles to your own life; each one is different.
  • Then some things happen due to random events: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. These come under utu niyama or circumstances that occur due to physical causes in the environment. When those happen, thousands of apparently “unconnected” people may be affected the same way. Again, this is partly due to the incredible number of kamma we have accumulated in this beginning-less rebirth process. There is ALWAYS something from the deep past that is going to MATCH any circumstance.
Nibbāna Attained via Removing Upādāna (and Tanhā)

10. Finally, there is a misconception out there that one needs to get rid of all kamma (more accurately kamma vipāka) to attain Nibbāna. That is entirely false. One reaches Nibbāna via removing deep-seated cravings, called āsavā; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā.” More details at “Difference Between Tanhā and Upādāna.”

  • Another way to say the same thing is to say one needs to remove lōbha, dōsa, and mōha or the defilements in mind.
  • However, one could remove most of one’s bad kamma vipāka via cultivating Ariya Metta Bhāvanā; see #8 above.

Some of the main concepts are discussed further in the “Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipaka,” “Habits and Goals,” “Saṃsāric Habits and Āsavas,” “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā,” and other related posts.

Next, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma“, ……………

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