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Jul 19th
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Home Practice The Triple Refugee An Introduction to Kamma - The Nature of Kamma

An Introduction to Kamma - The Nature of Kamma

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Article Index
An Introduction to Kamma
The Nature of Kamma
The Power of Kamma
Classification of Kamma
What Kamma is Not
Bibliography and Notes
All Pages

The Nature of Kamma

Kamma means any intentional action done by body, speech, or mind. It is the inner intention that the Buddha called kamma, not the outward deed. So to understand kamma properly we must examine our motivation. When we do any good deeds, such as giving charity, if we hope for good results this will affect the result of our action. The Visuddhimagga says: "A deed undertaken out of desire for fame is low. One undertaken with desire for the fruits of merit is moderate. One undertaken with the clear understanding that it is the custom of the Noble Ones is superior." So it is vital to cultivate insight to purify the mind of ulterior motives, otherwise even our good deeds will tend to prolong suffering in the cycle of existences, not to speak of bad deeds.

The Buddha said that beings are the owners of their kamma (kammassakā), heirs of their kamma (kammadāyāda), have kamma as their origin (kammayonī), are related to their kamma (kammabandhū), and have kamma as their refuge (kammappatisaranā), whatever skilful or unskillful action they do, they will inherit its results.

In this life, people are said to be the owners of their property, and they will go to extraordinary lengths to protect it. They say, think, and believe firmly, "This is my watch, my car, my house, my wife, my children, my own body." However, they are not able to take any of these things with them when they die. Everything must be left behind — except for kamma. Whatever good and bad actions they have done throughout life follow them to give results in due course, just like a shadow that never leaves. That is why the Buddha said that beings are the owners of their kamma.

The potential of kamma is not destroyed at death, but we cannot point out where it is stored up. A tree has potential to give fruits in due season, but we cannot point out where the fruits are stored in a tree. Even though a tree is capable of giving fruits, if the weather is not right, no fruits will appear. It is similar with kamma. Only powerful kammas will give a definite result, the result of lesser kammas is not definite. If this were not so, there could be no escape from suffering. Some kammas give results in the same life, others will give their results in the next life. The remainder give results in the lives after that, so everyone has a store of good and bad kamma that is waiting for the right season to give its fruit. In this life too, everyone is doing many good and bad kammas. Powerful good kammas can prevent bad kammas from giving their result, or mitigate their effects. Likewise, powerful bad kammas can prevent good kammas from giving their result, or spoil their effects. The Buddha illustrated this with a simile. If you put a spoonful of salt in a cup of water it becomes undrinkable, but if you put a spoonful of salt in a lake you cannot even taste it. In the Milinda Pañhā, the Arahant Venerable Nāgasena compared good kamma to a boat, and bad kamma to rocks. Even a small rock will sink, but if many small and large rocks are put into a large boat they will not sink. So we should do as much good kamma as we can, we should not do any more bad kamma at all, and we should cultivate knowledge, wisdom, and awareness so that we know the difference and can control our emotions.

Most important, kamma is the sole refuge of all beings. It is both the cause of our difficulties, and the means of our escape. Buddhists should rely on their own efforts to gain salvation. Even the very best teacher can only point out the right way. We have to travel the path by our own efforts. We do unskillful deeds due to our own foolishness, and we must acquire wisdom and discipline to correct our own defects. No one else can do it for us.


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