The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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As one scholar states, "the Buddhist theory of action and result (karmaphala) is fundamental to much of Buddhist doctrine, because it provides a coherent model of the functioning of the world and its beings, which in turn forms the doctrinal basis for the Buddhist explanations of the path of liberation from the world and its result, nirvāṇa."
The results can sometimes be seen, yet we are often unaware of them.
Buddhism places specific emphasis on karma because every action, conscious or unconscious, and its result leaves an imprint on the mind - a sort of forward momentum that influences all successive life events.
Etymology & terms in translation
In the Devanagari script karma is rendered कर्मन्; the Pāli variant is kamma. The terms in translation are as follows: Traditional Chinese: 業, yè, Burmese: ကမၼ, Standard Tibetan: ལས། las (pronounced ley), Thai: กรรม gam, Sinhalese: කර්ම karma, Japanese: 業 or ごう, gou.
In the early sutras, as found in the Pali Canon and the Agamas preserved in Chinese translation, "there is no single major systematic exposition" on the subject of karma and "an account has to be put together from the dozens of places where karma is mentioned in the texts."
Nevertheless, the Buddha emphasized his doctrine of karma to the extent that he was sometimes referred to as kammavada (the [[holder of the view of [karma]]) or kiriyavada (the promulgator of the consequence of karma).
- "I am the owner of my karma. I inherit my karma. I am born of my karma. I am related to my karma. I live supported by my karma. Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit."
Intention and the moral quality of actions
According to Buddhist theory, every time a person acts there is some quality of intention at the base of the mind and it is that quality rather than the outward appearance of the action that determines the effect.
If one appears to be benevolent but acts with greed, anger or hatred, then the fruit of those actions will bear testimony to the fundamental intention that lay behind them and will be a cause for future unhappiness.
However, although a good deed may produce merit which ripens into wealth, if that deed was done too casually or the intention behind it was not quite pure, that wealth so obtained sometimes cannot be enjoyed (AN.4.392-393).
There are two classes of determined deeds which always produce good or bad results (fixed results, P. niyato-rasi) respectively, and a class of deeds which may produce either good or bad results (non-fixed results, P. aniyato-rasi) presumably depending on the context, although the Buddha does not elaborate (DN 3.217).
- See also: Anatta.
The Cūlakammavibhanga Sutta ("The Shorter Exposition of Action," Majjhima Nikaya 3.203) is devoted to describing the various rebirths that various kinds of actions produce; negative actions such as killing lead to rebirths in the lower realms such as hell, and virtuous action such as gracious behavior under duress leads to rebirth in the human or other higher realms.
Further, within human rebirths in particular, virtuous actions produce desirable qualities and good fortune such as physical beauty, influence, and so forth, whereas nonvirtuous actions lead to ugliness, poverty, and other misfortunes.
The Mahākammavibhanga Sutta ("The Greater Exposition of Action," MN.3.208) is a similar exposition, with the additional stipulation that other rebirths may intervene between the time of the virtuous or nonvirtuous actions and the rebirth that they impel.
The former may involve a readily observable connection between action and karmic consequence, as when a thief is captured and tortured by the authorities, but the connection need not necessarily be that obvious and in fact usually is not observable.
(P. ànantarika-kamma) provoke a rebirth in hell immediately subsequent to death,
according to the Vinaya:
killing an arhat,
intentional shedding of a Buddha's blood, and
causing a schism in the sangha (Vinaya 5.128).
Karmic action & karmic results vs. general causes & general results
Any given action may cause all sorts of results, but the karmic results are only that subset of results which impinges upon the doer of the action as a consequence of both the moral quality of the action and the intention behind the action.
In the Abhidharma they are referred to by specific names for the sake of clarity, karmic causes being the "cause of results" (S. vipāka-hetu) and the karmic results being the "resultant fruit" (S. vipāka-phala).
As one scholar outlines, "the consequences envisioned by the law of karma encompass more (as well as less) than the observed natural or physical results which follow upon the performance of an action."
The law of karma also applies "specifically to the moral sphere . . not concerned with the general relation between actions and their consequences, but rather with the moral quality of actions and their consequences, such as the pain and pleasure and good or bad experiences for the doer of the act."
In the Buddhist theory of karma, the karmic effect of a deed is not determined solely by the deed itself, but also by the nature of the person who commits the deed and by the circumstances in which it is committed.
- A certain person has not properly cultivated his body, behavior, thought and intelligence, is inferior and insignificant and his life is short and miserable; of such a person ... even a trifling evil action done leads him to hell. In the case of a person who has proper culture of the body, behavior, thought and intelligence, who is superior and not insignificant, and who is endowed with long life, the consequences of a similar evil action are to be experienced in this very life, and sometimes may not appear at all.
Contemporary scholar Bruce Matthews asserts that the Cūlakammavibhanga Sutta (M.3.203) indicates that karma provokes "tendencies or conditions rather than consequences as such;" presumably he counts the rebirths resulting from karma described in the sutta as "tendencies or conditions" rather than "consequences," although he does not elaborate the point.
Nonetheless, the Buddha advocated the practice of wholesome actions: "
Refrain from unwholesome actions/
Perform only wholesome ones/
Purify the mind/
This is the teaching of the Enlightened Ones" (Dhp v.183).
These ideas undermine the important concept that a human being can change for the better no matter what his or her past was, and they are designated as "wrong views" in Buddhism. The Buddha identified three:
Pubbekatahetuvada: The belief that all happiness and suffering, including all future happiness and suffering, arise from previous karma, and human beings can exercise no [[volition to affect future results (Past-action determinism).
Karma is continually ripening, but it is also continually being generated by present actions, therefore it is possible to exercise free will to shape future karma. P.A. Payutto writes, "the Buddha asserts effort and motivation as the crucial factors in deciding the ethical value of these various teachings on kamma."
All were confronted with a central issue, as one scholar summarizes:
- When [the Buddhist understanding of karma is correlated to the Buddhist doctrine of universal impermanence and No-Self, a serious problem arises as to where this trace is stored and what the trace left is.
The crucial problem presented to all schools of Buddhist philosophy was where the trace is stored and how it can remain in the ever-changing stream of phenomena which build up the individual and what the nature of this trace is.
In other cases it is safer to say that the concern for an intelligible karma vocabulary was one among many complex factors that helped give decisive shape and substance to already distinct or emerging sectarian positions."
One scholar summarizes the various orientations as follows:
- Different sects gave different names to their theoretical candidates for the "carrier of the Karma" . .
Again, the central question that these entities seem to have been constructed to answer is that of how the karmic force inheres in the psychophysical stream without thereby coloring or pervading each discrete moment of that stream.
The Theravāda maintained that they are not—not, apparently because there is no causal relation between the two, but because they wished to reserve the term vipāka strictly for mental results-- " subjective phenomena arising through the effects of kamma."
As scholar Peter Harvey notes, "one curious feature of the Abhidamma view of the perceptual process is that the discernments related to the five physical sense organs are always said to be fruitions of karma."
However, in agreement with scholar L.S. Cousins he agrees that the most "plausible" explanation "is that karma affects discernment by determining which of the many phenomena in a person's sensory range are actually noticed . . in the same room, for example, one person naturally tends to notice certain things which give rise to pleasure, while another tends to notice things which give rise to some displeasure."
- Kamma Niyama — Consequences of one's actions
- Utu Niyama — Seasonal changes and climate
- Biija Niyama — Laws of heredity
- Citta Niyama — Will of mind
- Dhamma Niyama — Nature's tendency to produce a perfect type
With regard to function
- Reproductive karma (janaka-kamma) - karma which produces the mental and material aggregates at the moment of conception, conditioning the rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi vinnana).
- Supportive karma (upatthambhaka kamma) - karma ripening in one's lifetime which is of the same favorable or unfavorable quality as the reproductive karma which impelled the rebirth in question.
That is to say, in the case of an animal with an unpleasant life, the karma creating unpleasant conditions would be considered supportive of the reproductive karma which impelled what is considered an unfavorable rebirth.
- Destructive karma (upaghātaka kamma) - karma powerful enough to conteract the reproductive karma entirely, by ending the life in question.
With regard to potency
- Weighty kamma (garuka kamma) — that which produces its results in this life or in the next for certain, namely, the five heinous crimes (ānantarika-kamma)
- Proximate kamma (āsanna kamma) — that which one does or remembers immediately before the dying moment
- Habitual kamma (āciṇṇa kamma) — that which one habitually performs and recollects and for which one has a great liking
With regard to temporal precedence
- Immediately effective kamma - (diţţhadhammavedaniya kamma) - in the present lifetime
- Subsequently effective kamma - (upapajjavedaniya kamma) - in the immediately following lifetime
- Indefinitely effective kamma - (aṗarāpariyavedaniya kamma) - in lifetimes two or more in the future
- Defunct kamma (ahosi kamma) - (kamma whose effects have ripened already
With regard to the realm-setting of the effect
- Unwholesome (akusala) kamma pertaining to the desire realm (kamavacara)
- Wholesome (kusala) kamma pertaining to the desire realm (kamavacara)
- Wholesome kamma pertaining to the form realm (rupavacara)
- Wholesome kamma pertaining to the formless realm (arupavacara)
The Milindapañha and Petavatthu
In particular, Nāgasena allows for the possibility of the transfer of merit to humans and one of the four classes of petas, perhaps in deference to folk belief (see below, The transfer or dedication of merit).
One scholar asserts that the sharing of merit "can be linked to the Vedic śrāddha, for it was Buddhist practice not to upset existing traditions when well-established custom was not antithetic to Buddhist teaching."
The Vaibhāṣika-Sarvāstivādin school and the Abhidharma-kośa
The Vaibhāśika-Sarvāstivāda, which had by far the most "comprehensive edifice of doctrinal systematics" of the nikaya schools, was widely influential in India and beyond--"the understanding of karma in the Sarvāstivāda in turn became normative not only for Buddhism in India but also for it in other countries."
The 4th century philosopher Vasubandhu compiled the Abhidharma-kośa, an extensive compendium which elaborated the positions of the Vaibhāṣika-Sarvāstivādin school on a wide range of issues raised by the early sutras.
Vasubhandu elaborates on the causes (S. hetu, Tib. rgyu) and conditions (S. pratyaya, Tib. rkyen, Pāli: paccaya) involved in the production of results (S. vipākaphalam, Tib. rnam-smin-gyi 'bras-bu), karma being one source of causes and results, the "ripening cause" and "ripened result."}
- Acting causes (S. kāraṇahetu, T. byed-rgyu) – all phenomena, other than the result itself, which do not impede the production of the result.
- Simultaneously arising causes (S. sahabhuhetu, T. lhan-cig 'byung-ba'i rgyu) – causes that arise simultaneously with their results. This would include, for instance, characteristics together with whatever it is that possesses the characteristics.
- Congruent causes ( Skt. saṃmprayuktahetu, T. mtshungs-ldan-gyi rgyu) – a subcategory of simultaneously arising causes, it includes causes share the same focal object, mental aspect, cognitive sensor, time, and slant with their causes—primarily referring to the primary consciousness and its congruent mental factors.
- Equal status cause (S. sabhagahetu, T. skal-mnyam-gyi rgyu ) – causes for which the results are later moments in the same category of phenomena. For example, one moment of patience can be considered the cause of the next moment of patience.
- Driving causes (S. sarvatragohetu, T. kun groi rgyu) – disturbing emotions and attitudes that generate other subsequent disturbing emotions and attitudes in the same plane of existence, though the two need not be of the same ethical status.
- Causal conditions (S. hetupratyaya, T. rgyu-rkyen) - corresponds to five of the six causes, excepting the kāraṇahetu, which corresponds to the three conditions below
- Immediately preceding conditions (S. samanantarapratyaya, T. dema thag rkyen) - a consciousness which precedes a sense or mental consciousness without any intervening consciousness and which produces the subsequent consciousness into an experience-ready entity
- Focal condition (S. alambanapratyaya, T. dmigs-rkyen) - or "object condition" - an object which directly generates the consciousness apprehending it into having its aspect, e.g. the object blue causes an eye consciousness to be generated into having the aspect of blue
Five Types of Results:
- Ripened results (S. vipakaphalam, T. rnam smin gyi 'bras-bu) - karmic results.
- Results that correspond to their cause (S. niṣyandaphalam, T. rgyu-mthun gyi 'bras-bu) - causally concordant effects
- Dominating results (S. adhipatiphalam, bdag poi bras bu) - the result of predominance. All conditioned dharmas are the adhipatiphala of other conditioned dharmas.
- Man-made results (S. puruṣakāraphalam, T. skyes bu byed-pa'i 'bras-bu) - a result due to the activity of another dharma
- Results that are states of being parted (S. visamyogaphalam, T. bral 'bras) - not actually a result at all, but refers to the cessation that arises from insight.
The Pudgalavāda view
Although the views of the Pudgalavāda were considered somewhat heretical by other Indian Buddhist schools, they were in all likelihood the most populous non-Mahayanist sect in India, estimated at between a quarter of all non-Mahayana monks up to double the number of the next largest sect. According to scholar Joseph Walser,
- The Pudgalavādins argued that karma was a composite entity consisting of several temporal components and one atemporal one. Following the Buddhists sūtras, they claimed that mental saṃskāras (mental formations corresponding to karma) were of the nature of volition. Vocal and bodily karma, however, consisted only of the motion (gati) that could be observed. The motion itself is conditioned and therefore impermanent. The Pudgalavādins were, however, aware that the Buddha also taught the persistence of karma. In this the Pudgalavādins appealed to a text that was also considered authoritative by the Sarvāstivādins:
“Karma does not perish, even after hundreds of millions of cosmic eras. When the complex [of conditions and (favorable) times come together, they ripen for their author.” One particular subsect of Pudgalavādins—-the Saṃitīyas—-took the imperishability of karma to be one thing and the causes and conditions of karma to be another. They posited the existence of an entity called, appropriately enough, the “indestructible” (avipraṇāśa), separate from the karma itself. This “indestructible” acts like a blank sheet of paper on which the actions (karma) are written.
- . . .The Pudgalavādin Abhidharma puts a definite spin on the sūtra tradition in their claims that karma persisted because of avipraṇāśa (in the case of the Saṃitīyas) and in claiming that pudgala was neither saṃsṛkta nor asaṃsṛkta (in the case of all Pudgalavādins). Yet the payoff for these maneuvers was sufficient to warrant such a move.. . in positing an avipraṇāśa, the Saṃitīyas could appeal to the words of the Buddha saying that karma was indestructible. By claiming that the pudgala was existent, they could meaningfully talk about the owner of karma while at the same time be able to explain how this owner could move from saṃsāra to nirvaṇā."
Transfer or dedication of merit
Initially in the western study of Buddhism, some scholars believed that the transfer of merit was at first a uniquely Mahāyāna practice and that it was developed only at a late period, perceiving that it was somewhat discordant with early Buddhist understandings of karma theory. Scholar Heinz Bechert dates the Buddhist doctrine of transfer of merit (Sanskrit: puṇyapariṇāmanā) in its fully developed form to the period between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. However, Sree Padma and Anthony Barber note that merit transfer was well established and a very integral part of Buddhist practice in the Andhra region of southern India. In addition, inscriptions at numerous sites across South Asia provide definitive evidence that the transfer of merit was widely practiced in the first few centuries CE.
- An idea that has posed a number of thorny questions and conceptual difficulties for Buddhist thought and the history of the Mahāyāna is that often referred to as 'transfer of merit' (puṇyapariṇāmanā). The process of pariṇāmanā (Tib. yons su bsno ba) in fact constitutes a most important feature in Mahāyāna, where it denotes what might perhaps best be termed the dedication of good (puṇya, śubha, kuśala(mula); Tib. bsod nams, dge ba'i rtsa ba) by an exercitant in view of the attainment by another karmically related person (such as a deceased parent or teacher) of a higher end. Yet such dedication appears, prima facie, to run counter to the karmic principle of the fruition or retribution of deeds (karmavipāka).
Generally accepted in Buddhism, both Mahāyānist and non-Mahāyānist, this principle stipulates that a karmic fruit or result (karmaphala) is 'reaped', i.e. experienced, solely by the person - or more precisely by the conscious series (saṃtāna) - that has sown the seed of future karmic fruition when deliberately (cetayitva) accomplishing an action (karman).
- The related idea of acquisition/possession (of 'merit', Pali patti, Skt. prāpti), of assenting to and rejoicing in it (pattānumodanā), and even of its gift (pattidāna) are known to sections of the Theravāda tradition; and this concept - absent in the oldest canonical texts in Pali, but found in later Pali tradition (Petavatthu, Buddhāpadāna) - has been explained by some writers as being due to Mahāyānist influence, and by reference to Nalinaksha Dutt's category of 'semi-Mahāyāna.'
Scholar Tommi Lehtonen notes that (fellow scholar) "Wolfgang Schumann says that that "the Mahāyāna teaching of the transfer of merit `breaks the strict causality of the Hinayānic law of karman (P. kamma) according to which everybody wanting better rebirth can reach it solely by his own efforts’ . Yet, Schumann claims that on this point Mahāyāna and Hinayāna differ only in the texts, for the religious practice in South East Asia acknowledges the transference of karmic merit (P. pattidāna) in Theravāda as well."
In the Yogācāra philosophical tradition, one of the two principal Mahāyāna schools, the principle of karma was extended considerably. In the Yogācāra formulation, all experience without exception is said to result from the ripening of karma. Karmic seeds (S. bija) are said to be stored in the "storehouse consciousness" (S. ālayavijñāna) until such time as they ripen into experience. The term vāsāna ("perfuming") is also used, and Yogācārins debated whether vāsāna and bija were essentially the same, the seeds were the effect of the perfuming, or whether the perfuming simply affected the seeds. The seemingly external world is merely a "by-product" (adhipati-phala) of karma. The conditioning of the mind resulting from karma is called saṃskāra.
The Treatise on Action (Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa), also by Vasubandhu, treats the subject of karma in detail from the Yogācāra perspective. According to scholar Dan Lusthaus, "Vasubandhu's Viṃśatikā (Twenty Verses) repeatedly emphasizes in a variety of ways that karma is intersubjective and that the course of each and every stream of consciousness (vijñāna-santāna, i.e., the changing individual) is profoundly influenced by its relations with other consciousness streams."
As one scholar argues, whereas in earlier systems it "was not clear how a series of completely mental events (the deed and its traces) could give rise to non-mental, material effects," with the (purported) idealism of the Yogācāra system this is not an issue.
- The happiness and suffering of all beings,
- are due to karma, the Sage taught;
- Karma arises from diverse acts,
- which in turn create the diverse classes of beings
In Mahāyāna traditions, karma is not the sole basis of rebirth. The rebirths of bodhisattvas after the seventh stage (S. bhūmi) are said to be consciously directed for the benefit of others still trapped in saṃsāra. Thus, theirs are not uncontrolled rebirths.
Karma theory in Indo-Tibetan Mādhyamaka philosophy
Nāgārjuna articulated the difficulty in forming a karma theory in his most prominent work, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way): If (the act) lasted till the time of ripening, (the act) would be eternal. If (the act) were terminated, how could the terminated produce a fruit? The Mūlamadhyamakavṛtty-Akutobhayā, also generally attributed to Nāgārjuna, concludes that it is impossible both for the act to persist somehow and also for it to perish immediately and still have efficacy at a later time.
Mādhyamaka schools deriving from Nāgārjuna subsequently took one of two approaches to the problem. The Svātantrika-Mādhyamaka generally borrowed the philosophy of karma from the Yogācāra. The Prāsaṅgika-Mādhyamaka refuted every concept of a support for ongoing karmic efficacy, while nevertheless postulating that a potential (T. nus pa) is formed which substantiates whenever the situation is ripe. Candrakīrti, the definitive exponent of Prāsaṅgika, argued that because this potential is not a thing, that is, not an "inherently real phenomenon," it does not need to be supported in any way. One scholar argues that "in India, the Prāsaṅgikas' various viewpoints of karma were never organized into a coherent and convincing system."
Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, argued that the Prāsaṅgika position allowed for the postulation of something called an "act's cessation" (las zhig pal) which persists and is in fact a substance (rdzas or dngos po, S. vastu), and which explains the connection between cause and result. Gorampa, an important philosopher of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, accused Tsongkhapa of a doctrinal innovation not legitimately grounded in Candrakīrti's work, and one which amounted to little more than a (non-Buddhist) Vaiśeṣika concept. Gelugpa scholars offered defenses of the idea.
Dōgen Kigen argued in his Shobogenzo that karmic latencies are emphatically not empty, going so far as to claim that belief in the emptiness of karma should be characterized as "non-Buddhist," although he also states that the “law of karman has no concrete existence.”
In the Vajrayana tradition, it is believed that the effects of negative past karma can be "purified" through such practices as meditation on Vajrasattva. The performer of the action, after having purified the karma, does not experience the negative results he or she otherwise would have.
The Karma Buddha family in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism
The dhyani Buddhas, also called Five Wisdom Buddhas, are built on five Buddha families (Kullas, Buddhakula). One of them is named the Karma family presided by Buddha Amoghasiddhi. The symbol/emblem of that family is the double vajra.
Modern interpretations and controversies
Since the exposure of the West to Buddhism, some western commentators and Buddhists have taken exception to aspects of karma theory, and have proposed revisions of various kinds. These proposals fall under the rubric of Buddhist modernism. As one scholar writes, "Some modern Buddhist thinkers appear largely to have abandoned traditional views of karma and rebirth in light of the contemporary transformation of the conception of interdependence," preferring instead to align karma purely with contemporary ideas of causality. One scholar writes, "it is perhaps possible to say that both Buddhism and Buddhist ethics may be better off without the karmic-rebirth factor to deal with." Often these critical writers have backgrounds in Zen and/or Engaged Buddhism.
The "primary critique" of the Buddhist doctrine of karma is that some feel "karma may be socially and politically disempowering in its cultural effect, that without intending to do this, karma may in fact support social passivity or acquiescence in the face of oppression of various kinds." Dale S. Wright, a scholar specializing in Zen Buddhism, has proposed that the doctrine be reformulated for modern people, "separated from elements of supernatural thinking," so that karma is asserted to condition only personal qualities and dispositions rather than rebirth and external occurrences.
One scholar and Zen practitioner, David Loy, echoes these remarks. He writes, "what are we going to do about karma? There's no point in pretending that karma hasn't become a problem for contemporary Buddhism . .Buddhism can fit quite nicely into modern ways of understanding. But not traditional views of karma." Loy argues that the traditional view of karma is "fundamentalism" which Buddhism must "outgrow."
- Karma has been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps and everything else. Taken literally, karma justifies the authority of political elites, who therefore must deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. It provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relationship between one's actions and one's fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it's already built into the moral fabric of the universe. In fact, if there is no undeserved suffering, there is really no evil that we need to struggle against. It will all balance out in the end.
Loy goes on to argue that the view that suffering such as that undergone by Holocaust victims could be attributed in part to the karmic ripenings of those victims is "fundamentalism, which blames the victims and rationalizes their horrific fate," and that this is "something no longer to be tolerated quietly. It is time for modern Buddhists and modern Buddhism to outgrow it" by revising or discarding the teachings on karma. Other scholars have argued, however, that the teachings on karma do not encourage judgment and blame, given that the victims were not the same people who committed the acts, but rather were just part of the same mindstream-continuum with the past actors, and that the teachings on karma instead provide "a thoroughly satisfying explanation for suffering and loss" in which believers take comfort.
The question of the Holocaust also occurs in the Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Re-Discovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, which describes a group of Jewish religious leaders who meet with the Dalai Lama. They ask one of the Dalai Lama's party, a Buddhist scholar named Geshe Sonam Rinchen, if the Holocaust would be attributed to past karma in the traditional Buddhist view, and he affirms that it would. The author is "shocked and a little outraged," because, like Loy, he felt it "sounded like blaming the victim."
Many modern Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh prefer to suggest the "dispersion of karmic responsibility into the social system," such that "moral responsibility is decentered from the solitary individual and spread throughout the entire social system," reflecting the left-wing politics of Engaged Buddhism.
Is there collective or national karma?
Other modern Buddhists have sought to formulate theories of group, collective and national karma which are not found in traditional Buddhist thinking. The earliest recorded instance of this occurred in 1925, when a member of the Maha Bodhi named Sheo Narain published an article entitled "Karmic Law" in which he invited Buddhist scholars to explore the question of whether an individual is "responsible not only for his individual actions in his past life but also for past communal deeds."
As one scholar writes, "a systematic concept of group karma was in no sense operative in early Theravada" or other schools based on the early sutras. "Instead," he writes, "the repeated emphasis in the canonical discussions of karma is on the individual as heir to his own deeds. It is only in this century, then, that one finds a conscious effort to split with this tradition."
Buddhism does not deny that the actions taken by one generation of the citizens of a given country will have effects on later generations, for example. However, as noted above, all effects of actions are not karmic effects. Karmic effects impinge only on the mindstreams of those sentient beings who perform the actions. As Nyanatiloka Mahathera writes, individuals
- should be responsible for the deeds formerly done by this so-called 'same' people. In reality, however, this present people may not consist at all of the karmic heirs of the same individuals who did these bad deeds. According to Buddhism it is of course quite true that anybody who suffers bodily, suffers for his past or present bad deeds. Thus also each of those individuals born within that suffering nation, must, if actually suffering bodily, have done evil somewhere, here or in one of the innumerable spheres of existence; but he may not have had anything to do with the bad deeds of the so-called nation. We might say that through his evil Karma he was attracted to the miserable condition befitting to him. In short, the term Karma applies, in each instance, only to wholesome and unwholesome volitional activity of the single individual.
Thus, in the traditional view the effects of the actions of other beings—such as the leader of one's country, or prior generations of its citizens—might well serve as causes of suffering for an individual on one level, but not they would not be the karmic causes of the suffering of that individual—those causes would function in congruence with the karmic causes. There is, therefore, no "national karma" in traditional Buddhism. One "scholar of engaged Buddhism" wrote an article asserting that the "collective karma" of the United States deriving from the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse would potentially "play out for generations," a view that is not supported by traditional Buddhist views of karma. The effects may well be felt by Americans for generations, but they would not constitute "collective karma."
"Collective karma" could be spoken of only in certain limited senses in the canonical tradition. In Vasubandu's Karmasiddhiprakarana, among other places, it is asserted that a group of individuals who collaborate and share the same intention for a planned action will all incur karmic merit or demerit based on that action, regardless of which individual actually carries out the action. The fruition of their merit or demerit, however, will not necessarily be experienced by each of the individuals together, and/or at the same time.
Likewise, "family karma" is possible only when it refers to karmic dispositions which are similar in each individual family member. One scholar points out, "statements concerning group karma . . .are subject to conceptual confusion. It is important to distinguish group karma from what might be termed conjunctive karma, that is, the karmic residues which we experience as a result of the actions of everyone or everything operating casually in the situation, but which are justified by our own accumulated karma. . . the actions of many persons . . .mediate our karma to us. But this is not group karma, for the effect which we experience is justified by our own particular acts or pool of karma, and not by the karmic acts or pool of the group, even though it is mediated by the actions of others."
Buddhist modernists also often prefer to equate karma with social conditioning, in contradistinction with, as one scholar puts it, "early texts [which] give us little reason to interpret 'conditioning' as the infusion into the psyche of external social norms, or of awakening as simply transcending all psychological conditioning and social roles. Karmic conditioning drifts semantically toward 'cultural conditioning' under the influence of western discourses that elevate the individual over the social, cultural, and institutional. The traditional import of the karmic conditioning process, however, is primarily ethical and soteriological—actions condition circumstances in this and future lives."
Essentially, this understanding limits the scope of the traditional understanding of karmic effects so that it encompasses only saṃskāras—habits, dispositions and tendencies—and not external effects, while at the same time expanding the scope to include social conditioning that does not particularly involve volitional action.
When people are happy and contented, they tend to take life for granted. It is when they suffer, when they find life difficulty, that they begin to search for a reason and a way out of their difficulty. They may ask why some are born in poverty and suffering, while others are born in fortunate circumstances. Some people believe that it is due to fate, chance, or an invisible power beyond their control. They feel that they are unable to live the life they desire so as to experience happiness always. Consequently , they become confused and desperate. However, the Buddha was able to explain why people differ in their circumstances and why some are more fortunate in life than others. The Buddha taught that one’s present condition, whether of happiness or suffering, is the result of the accumulated force of all past actions or karma.
Definition of Karma
Karma is intentional action, that is, a deed done deliberately through body, speech or mind. Karma means good and bad volition (kusala Akusala Centana). Every volitional action (except that of a Buddha or of an Arahant) is called Karma. The Buddhas and Arahants do not accumulate fresh Karma as they have destroy all their passions.
In other words, Karma is the law of moral causation. It is action and reaction in the ethical realm. It is natural law that every action produces a certain effect. So if one performs wholesome actions such as donating money to charitable organisations, one will experience happiness. On the other hand, if one perform unwholesome actions, such ass killing a living being, one will experience suffering. This is the law of cause and effect at work. In this way, the effect of one’s past karma determine the nature of one’s present situation in life.
The Buddha said,
"According to the seed that is sown,
So is the fruit you reap
The door of good will gather good result
The door of evil reaps evil result.
If you plant a good seed well,
Then you will enjoyed the good fruits."
Karma is a law itself. But it does not follow that there should be a law-giver. The law of Karma, too, demands no law giver. It operates in its own field without the intervention of an external, independent agency.
Here's a verse.
If you want to know the causes in your past life,
The way you live at present is the effect of your past life.
If you want to know what your future life will be,
What you do at present is the cause of your future life.
There are two kinds of Karma:
- 1. persistent, repeated action
- 2. action done with great intention and determination
- 3. action done without regret
- 4. action done towards those who possess extraordinary qualities
- 5. action done towards those who have benefited one in the past.
- 1. evil retribution has little chance to come to an effect
- 2. good retribution becomes more and more significant in enhancing our lives in happiness and wellness.