What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?

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 a fertile soil, water, and sunlight).
  • This is explained with simple terms in, “Working of Kammā – Critical Role of Conditions“.
  • This is why in paticca samuppada, “paccaya” does NOT mean “it will happen”; see, “What Does “Paccaya” Mean in Paticca Samuppada?“.

2. Nature enforces this cause and effect via five main absolutely unshakable laws (niyama dhamma or sometimes called dhammata): kamma niyama, citta niyama, utu niyama, beeja (also called bija niyama; but it is pronounced “beeja”), 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 anantariya 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.

  • First of all, there are actions by individuals that lead to bad consequences right away: if one jumps from a tall building, one is bound to get hurt or worse. This is a consequence of dhamma niyama (law of gravitation is a dhamma niyama); here cause and effect can be easily seen. Paticca samuppada is the ultimate dhamma niyama; it explains how and under what conditions kamma vipaka produces results.
  • When something appears in this world, it does not stay the same. It undergoes change (viparinäma) and is eventually destroyed. Thus anything in the world (a sankata) is subjected to the utu niyama. Whatever results that kamma vipaka may bring in, they will also eventually go away.
  • Beeja (or bija) niyama is not relevant to the workings of the plant seeds as some books explain. It dictates how kamma beeja (seeds) lead to their fruits (vipaka): a “punna kamma seed” or a “good seed” will always produce good results; and a “päpa kamma seed” or a “bad seed” will always produce a bad result. A Sotapanna would have made all those kamma seeds, that make it possible to have births in the apayas, to be ineffective; thus a Sotapanna will NEVER be born in the apayas.
  • Citta niyama involves laws associated with the working of the complex mind and that can affect kamma vipaka in a major way; for example, by purifying the mind, one can attain the Sotapanna stage and thus make INEFFECTIVE all those kamma seeds that could lead to birth in the apayas.
  • Kamma vipaka are the root causes for all that happen in this world, but their effects can be altered and even stopped by exploiting the other laws of nature. This is what a Buddha discovers when he attains Enlightenment. All kamma vipaka are made ineffective by attaining full Nibbana 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 (yoniso manasikara).

3. In this beginning-less long journey of rebirths called sansara, each of us have done an uncountable number of both good and bad things. When we do a good or a bad act, the kammic energy associated with that act gives rise to a seed, called a kamma seed. It is an energy (not a physical thing) that stays with our minds until it gets a chance to come to fruition. Just like an apple seed will not germinate and grow into an apple tree until the right conditions (soil, water, sunlight, etc) appear, all our kamma seeds lie in waiting for the right conditions to appear, and at that time we have to experience the result of that kamma or kamma vipaka.

  • Our kamma seeds (kamma beeja) are subjected to the beeja niyama mentioned above. In either case, a seed gives rise to a plant or a vipaka according to the type of seed. Someone, who did something bad 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.
  • We can keep an apple seed (for example) in a dry, cool place for a long time; some seeds have been kept for thousands of years. It will not germinate until we plant it in a 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 becomes right for it to germinate. We all have accumulated numerous kamma seeds over these repeated rebirths, and what we need to do is to provide conditions for the good kamma seeds to germinate and NOT provide conditions for bad ones to germinate.
  • Thus kamma is the act AND kamma vipaka is the result of that act. But since the right conditions need to appear for a kamma seed to “germinate”, the vipaka may not come until later in the same life, next life, or even many lives later.
  • This 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 these kamma vipaka. We cannot change any of the five niyama, but we can OVERCOME a cause (a power) due to a niyama by building an opposing power.

4. We can take many steps to suppress the bad kamma vipaka coming to fruition and ALSO to get those good kamma vipaka to come to fruition. As emphasized above, we all have basically unlimited number of both good and bad kamma vipaka waiting to bear fruit. Rather than giving in to bad vipaka 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 vipaka to come to fruition. If we eat healthy 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, keeps the brain in good condition. But the best is meditation, and vipassana or insight meditation is better than samatha meditation. For example, even if one’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease, one can possibly avoid getting by keeping the brain active and healthy.
  • One may be born to poverty because of a past kamma vipaka 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 vipaka waiting to come to fruition. It is true that a birth into a poor family did not set up optimum conditions. But one has control over the citta niyama that was mentioned at the beginning (see, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Asavas)“). One could use one’s mind to overcome this condition, and cultivate the background to achieve success.
  • This 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 directions. 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. Associating with such people, one will be affected in the negative way, bring up one’s own bad habits (or “gathi” in Pali or Sinhala).
  • The environment is CRITICAL for young children starting from the time when they are just conceived in the mother’s womb. Even the fetus in the womb is affected by, say a loving mother and father showing affection to each other or when the mother is being abused by the father. It is critical to have a nurturing environment within the family and also in the school and in any other activity. A significant part of an individual’s character could be molded by the first 10-15 years of life. That is the time they can acquire habits and once acquired, it takes a lot of effort to change them.  It is the duty of the parents to instill good habits: moral behavior, eating well, exercise, associate with good friends, avoid bad friends, study well, etc.

5. It is also possible to remove many of one’s bad kamma seeds. When we acquire a “bad kamma seed” we get indebted to another being. Just like one can be debt-free by paying off existing loans, one can “pay back” old debts that have been accumulated in the cycle of rebirths by “transferring merits” when one does good deeds, and also by doing the Ariya metta bhavana; see, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidana)- How Does that Happen?” and “5. Ariya Metta Bhavana (Loving Kindness Meditation)“.

6. The world is VERY complex. Because all those five niyamas are acting simultaneously to enforce the “cause and effect”, it is not possible to sort through each and every 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 those are from the past.

  • The main thing we have remember is that EACH and EVERY action by us will have consequences (law of kamma). There is nowhere to hide; even if we can fool the law enforcement sometimes, the 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 law of citta and law of beeja). Environment is an important factor in getting rid of bad habits and acquiring/cultivating good habits.
  • We need to be constantly aware that there are zillions of kamma beeja (good and bad) waiting to be germinated. We should not provide conditions for “bad seeds” to germinate (i.e., avoid bad company, bad environment, etc), and provide conditions for “good seeds” to germinate (i.e., study well, provide the necessary conditions to get a promotion or a job, and learn and practice Dhamma so that whatever good thing that is forgotten comes to the forefront of the mind). I am sure you can apply these principles to your own life; each one is different.
  • Then there are things that happen due to apparently random events: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. These come under utu niyama: events 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 unimaginable 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.

7. Finally, there is a misconception out there that one needs to get rid of all kamma (more accurately kamma vipaka) in order to attain Nibbana. This is completely false. One attains Nibbana via removing deep-seated defilements, called asavas; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavas“. However, one could remove most of one’s bad kamma vipaka via cultivating Ariya metta bhavana; see, #5 above.

Some of the main concepts are discussed further in the “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka“, “Habits and Goals“, “Sansaric Habits and Asavas“, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavas“, and other related posts.

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

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