What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?

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What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?

Revised January 28, 2020; June 7, 2022 (#2); July 21, 2023

Things Happen Due to Causes and Conditions

1. A key concept in Buddha’s 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 fertile soil, water, and sunlight).

That is explained simply in “Working of Kammā – Critical Role of Conditions.”

That is why in Paṭicca Samuppāda, “paccayā” does NOT mean “it will happen”; see, “What Does “Paccayā” Mean in Paṭicca Samuppāda?.”

Nature’s Laws – Dhamma Niyāma

2. Nature enforces this cause and effect via dhamma niyāma (dhammaniyāmatā or dhammatā.) It comes from niyama (meaning “fixed.”)

Some Commentaries describe “five types of niyāma dhamma”: kamma niyama, citta niyama, utu niyama, bīja (or bija), and dhamma niyama. However, I have not found any such description in the Tipiṭaka.

Everything happens according to Paṭicca Samuppāda. The “WebLink: suttacentral: Paccaya Sutta (SN (12.20)” explains the word dhammaniyāmatā:

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo? Jātipaccayā, bhikkhave, jarāmaraṇaṁ. Uppādā vā tathāgatānaṁ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṁ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā.”

There is a discourse by Waharaka Thero which addresses this issue about the “five dhammatā”. For the benefit of those who can understand the Sinhala language here is the link: “WebLink: waharaka.com: කර්මය, නියාම ධර්ම.”

3. First of all, there are actions by individuals that lead to harmful consequences right away. If one jumps from a tall building, one is bound to get hurt or worse. That is a result of dhamma niyāma (the law of gravitation is a dhamma niyāma,) which is cause and effect. Paṭicca Samuppāda is the ultimate dhamma niyāma. It explains how and under what conditions kamma vipāka produces results.

When something appears in this world, it does not stay the same. It changes in unexpected ways (vipariṇāma) and is eventually destroyed. Thus anything in the world (a saṅkhata) is subjected to the utu niyāma. Whatever results that kamma vipāka may bring in, they will also eventually go away.

Bīja (or bīja) niyāma is irrelevant to the workings of the plant seeds, as some books explain. It dictates how kamma bīja (seeds) lead to their fruits (vipāka). A “puñña kamma seed” or a “good seed” will always produce excellent results, and a “pāpa kamma seed” or a “bad seed” will generate a bad result. A Sotāpanna would have made all those kamma seeds, that make it possible to have rebirths in the apāyā ineffective. Thus a Sotāpanna will NEVER be born in the apāyā.

In the same way, there is no separate citta niyāma that involves laws associated with the working of the complex mind. For example, by purifying the mind, one can attain the Sotāpanna stage and thus make INEFFECTIVE all those kamma seeds that could lead to birth in the apāyā.

Kamma vipāka are the root causes of all that happens in this world, but their effects can be altered and even stopped by exploiting the other laws of nature. That is what a Buddha discovers when he attains Enlightenment. All kamma vipāka are made ineffective at reaching full Nibbāna or Arahanthood.

The main point is that most bad consequences can be avoided by understanding Dhamma, living a moral life, and being mindful (yoniso manasikāra).

We Have Done Many Good and Bad Kamma in Our Past Lives

4. In this beginning-less long journey of rebirths called saŋsāra (or saṁsāra,) each of us has done an uncountable number of both good and bad things. When we do a good or an immoral act, the kammic energy associated with that act gives rise to a seed, called a kamma seed. It is energy (not a material thing) that stays with our minds until it gets a chance to come to fruition. An apple seed will not germinate and grow into an apple tree until the right conditions (soil, water, sunlight, etc.) appear. In the same way, all our kamma seeds lie in waiting for the right conditions to appear. If we allow such “conditions,” we will have to experience the result of that kamma or kamma vipāka at that time.

Our kamma seeds (kamma bīja) are subjected to dhamma niyāma or Paṭicca Samuppāda. In either case, a seed gives rise to a plant or a vipāka according to the type of seed. Someone, who did something terrible 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.

Conditions Must be Right to Bring Vipāka of Past Kamma

5. We can keep an apple seed (for example) in a dry, cool place for a long time. Some seeds have been kept intact for thousands of years. It will not germinate until we plant it in 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 become suitable for it to germinate. We all have accumulated numerous kamma seeds over these repeated rebirths. What we need to do is to provide conditions for good kamma seeds to germinate and NOT allow conditions for bad ones to germinate.

Thus kamma is the act, AND kamma vipāka is the result of that act. But since the right conditions need to appear for a kamma seed to “germinate,” the vipāka may not come until later in the same life, the next life, or even many lives later.

That is why it is not easy for people to see that their actions will have consequences. Dhamma niyāma 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. We cannot change the dhamma niyāma, but we can use it to OVERCOME a cause (a power) of the previous kamma.

Being Aware of the Conditions Is Key

6. We can take many steps to suppress the bad kamma vipāka coming to fruition and ALSO to get good kamma vipāka to come to fruition. As emphasized above, we all have an unlimited number of both good and bad kamma vipāka waiting to bear fruit. Rather than giving in to bad vipāka 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 care for one’s physical body, it may become fertile ground for many bad kamma vipāka to come to fruition. If we eat healthily 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, keep the brain in good condition. But the best is meditation, and Vipassanā or insight meditation is better than Samatha meditation. For example, even if one’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease, one can avoid getting it by keeping the brain active and healthy.

Outcome Can be Changed – Environment And Associations Are Critical

7. One may be born into poverty because of a past kamma vipāka 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 vipāka waiting to come to fruition. Indeed, birth to a poor family did not set up optimum conditions. But one has control over the citta niyāma mentioned at the beginning (see, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas)”). One could use one’s mind to overcome this condition and cultivate the background to succeed.

That 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 direction. It is not that any person is intrinsically good or bad. Instead, at any given phase of life or even through most of this life, some people may display their “bad habits” that have come to the forefront. One will be affected negatively by associating with such people.

The environment is CRITICAL for young children starting from the time of conception. Even the fetus in the womb is affected by the environment. For example, a loving mother and father showing affection to each other positively affect the baby. When the father abuses the mother, it will lead to a negative effect on the children.

It is critical to have a nurturing environment within the family, and also in the school. A significant part of an individual’s character is molded by the first 10-15 years of life. That is when they can acquire habits and once established, it will take a lot of effort to change them. The parents must instill good habits: moral behavior, eating well, exercising, associating with good friends, avoiding bad friends, studying well, etc.

“Wearing Out” Some Kamma Seeds

8. 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. In the same way that one can be debt-free by paying off existing loans, one can “pay back” old debts accumulated in the cycle of rebirths. That can be done by “transferring merits” when one does good deeds, and also by doing the Ariya Mettā Bhāvanā. See, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidana)- How Does That Happen?” and “5. Ariya Metta Bhāvanā (Loving Kindness Meditation).”

Laws of Kamma Are Complex

9. The world is VERY complicated. Because many causes/conditions act simultaneously to enforce the “cause and effect,” it is impossible to sort through each 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, most of which are from the past.

The main thing we have to remember is that each action by us will have consequences (law of kamma). There is nowhere to hide. Even if we can fool law enforcement sometimes, nature cannot be fooled.

We need to make a concerted effort to get rid of bad habits and acquire and cultivate good habits. A habit can snowball into a saŋsāric habit, good or bad. The environment is an essential factor in getting rid of bad habits and acquiring/cultivating good habits.

We need to be constantly aware that there are zillions of kamma bīja (good and bad) waiting to germinate. We should not provide conditions for “bad seeds” to grow. Thus we should avoid bad company, bad environment, etc. We must also provide conditions for “good seeds” to germinate (i.e., study well, provide the requirements to get a promotion or a job, and learn and practice Dhamma). I am sure you can apply these principles to your life; each is different.

Then some things happen due to random events: floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. When those happen, thousands of apparently “unconnected” people may be affected similarly.

Nibbāna Attained via Removing Upādāna (and Taṇhā)

10. Finally, there is a misconception that one must eliminate all kamma (more accurately kamma vipāka) to attain Nibbāna. That is entirely false. One reaches Nibbāna via removing deep-seated cravings, called āsavā; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavas.” More details in “Difference Between Taṇhā and Upādāna.”

Another way to say the same thing is to say one needs to remove lobha, dosa, and moha or the defilements in mind.

However, one could remove most of one’s bad kamma vipāka via cultivating Ariya Mettā Bhāvanā; see, #8 above.

Some of the main concepts are discussed further in the “Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka,” “Habits and Goals,” “Sansāric Habits and Āsavas,” “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavas,” and other related posts.

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