Kamma, Rebirth and Nibanna —

1 of 3

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha



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 action. 

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 calls kamma.

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 volition.

The potential of our willed actions

The Buddha teaches that our willed actions produce effects — both immediately visible psychological effects and effects of moral retribution.

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.

The Buddha emphasizes the need to be mindful of every action and choice, for every choice of ours has a  tremendous potential for the future.

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 being.

Kamma 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.