In the next three lessons you will study three key concepts
of the Buddha's Dhamma — kamma, enlightenment and rebirth.
In the lesson on dependent arising you learned how, due to
our ignorance, volitional formations arise in the mind and
that these leave imprints in the mind with the capacity
to mature and bear fruit in the future. Volitional formations,
you learned, are equivalent to kamma. In this lesson you explore
the concept of kamma in greater detail.
Kamma is intention
The word kamma literally means action, deed or doing.
In Buddhism, however, kamma specifically refers to volitional
What really lies behind all action, the essence of all action,
is volition, the power of the will. It is this volition expressing
itself as action of body, speech and mind that the Buddha
This means that unintentional action is not kamma. If we accidentally
step on ants while walking down the street, that is not
the kamma of taking life, for there was no intention to kill.
If we speak some statement believing it to be true and it turns
out to be false, this is not the kamma of lying, for
there is no intention of deceiving.
Kamma manifests itself in three ways, through three "doors" of action.
Acting physically, with the body serving as the
instrument for volition, is bodily kamma.
Speaking , expressing our thoughts and intentions,
is verbal kamma, which can be performed either directly through
speech or indirectly through writing or
other means of communications.
Thinking, planning, inwardly desiring, without
any outer action, is mental kamma.
What lies behind all these forms of actions is the mind,
and the chief mental factor which causes the action is the
The potential of our willed actions
The Buddha teaches that
our willed actions produce effects — both
immediately visible psychological effects and effects of moral
Psychological effect of kamma
When a willed
action is performed it leaves an imprint which can mark the
beginning of a new mental tendency. It has a tendency to repeat
itself, to reproduce itself, somewhat like a protozoa or an
amoeba. As these actions multiply, they form our character.
Buddha emphasizes the need
to be mindful of every action and choice, for every
choice of ours has a tremendous potential for the
Our personality is but a sum of all our willed
actions, a cross-section of all our accumulated kamma. So by yielding
first in simple ways to the unwholesome impulses of the mind,
we build up little by little a greedy character, a hostile
character, an aggressive character or a deluded character.
On the other hand, by resisting these unwholesome desires
we replace them with their opposites, the wholesome qualities.
Then we develop a generous character, a loving and a
compassionate personality, or we can become wise and enlightened
beings. As we change our habits gradually, we change
our character, and as we change our character we change
our total being, our whole world.
A moral equilibrium
Whenever we perform an
action with intention, that action deposits a "seed" in
the mind, a seed with a potency to bring about effects in the
future. These effects correspond to the ethical nature of the
original action — unwholesome
kamma leads to our harm and suffering, while wholesome kamma
eventually returns to us and leads to our happiness and well
is a moral application of the principle that
for every action there is an equal and an opposite reaction.
Seen from this standpoint of karmic law, the universe appears
to maintain a certain moral equilibrium, a balance between
all the morally significant deeds and the objective situations
of those who perform them. So the law of kamma is a moral application
of the general principle that for every action there is an
equal and an opposite reaction.
The working of kamma is not, however, mechanical. Kamma
is willed action and the kamma is something alive
and organic. Therefore kamma allows much room for variation,
for the play of living forces.