Karma in Buddhism
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Karma (Sanskrit, also karman, Pāli: kamma) is a Sanskrit term that literally means "action" or "doing". In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to the intention (cetanā) beyond ones deeds. Those intentions are considered to be the determining factor in samsara, the cycle of rebirth.
A main problem in Buddhist philosophy is the relation between the doctrine of no-self, and the "storage" of the traces of one's deeds
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Buddhist understanding of karma
- 3 Development of the concept
- 4 Within the Pali suttas
- 5 Within Buddhist traditions
- 5.1 Early Indian Buddhism
- 5.2 Mahayana tradition
- 6 Modern interpretations and controversies
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Web references
- 11 Sources
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Karma (Sanskrit, also karman, Pāli: kamma) is a Sanskrit term that literally means "action" or "doing". The word karma derives from the verbal root kṛ, which means "do, make, perform, accomplish."
Buddhist understanding of karma
Rebirth and intention
In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to the intention (cetanā) beyond ones deeds.  Those intentions are considered to be the determining factor in samsara, the cycle of rebirth in the six realms. Gethin:
[R]ebirth in the lower realms is considered to be the result of relatively unwholesome (akuśala/akusala), or bad (pāpa) karma, while rebirth in the higher realms the result of relatively wholesome (kuśala/kusala), or good (puṇya/puñña) karma."[note 1]
The cause for our rebirth in samsara are our intentions,[note 2] the kleshas[web 2][note 3] or taṇhā,[note 4] which create impressions[note 5] or tendencies in the mind.[web 3] The Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.63:
According to Peter Harvey,
It is the psychological impulse behind an action that is 'karma', that which sets going a chain of causes culminating in karmic fruit. Actions, then, must be intentional if they are to generate karmic fruits.
These impressions, or "seeds", will inevitably ripen into a future result or fruition. If we can overcome our kleshas, then we break the chain of causal effects that leads to rebirth in the six realms.[web 2] The twelve links of dependent origination provides a theoretical framework, explaining how the disturbing emotions lead to rebirth in samsara.[note 7]
Fate and linearity
Karma is not the same as "fate" or "destiny".[web 5] Certain experiences in life are the results of previous actions, but our responses to those experiences are not predetermined, although they bear their own fruit in the future. Karmic results are not a "judgement" imposed by a God or other all-powerful being, but rather the results of a natural process.
In the Buddhist view, a proper understanding of samsara will lead one to have compassion for all beings, including ourselves, who are trapped in this cycle of birth and death.[web 2]
The Buddha's theory of moral behavior was not strictly deterministic, but incorporated circumstantial factors. His description of the workings of karma is not an all-inclusive one, unlike that of the Jains. 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. The Buddha gave answers to various questions to specific people in specific contexts, and it is possible to find several causal explanations of behavior in the early Buddhist texts.
Karma, no-self and rebirth
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 problem is aggravated when the trace remains latent over a long period, perhaps over a period of many existences. 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.
Development of the concept
The concept of karma originated in the Vedic religion, where it was related to the performance of rituals or the investment in good deeds to ensure the entrance to heaven after death, while other persons go to the underworld.
In early Buddhism, rebirth is ascribed to craving, not to the deeds one performs. There is no cohesive presentation of karma in the Sutta Pitaka, which may mean that the doctrine was incidental to the main perspective of early Buddhist soteriology. Schmithausen is a notable scholar who has questioned whether karma already played a role in the theory of rebirth of earliest Buddhism. According to Schmithausen, "the karma doctrine may have been incidental to early Buddhist soteriology."
According to Vetter, the Buddha at first sought "the deathless" (amata/amrta), which is concerned with the here and now. Only after this realization did he become acquainted with the doctrine of rebirth. Bronkhorst disagrees, and concludes that the Buddha "introduced a concept of karma that differed considerably from the commonly held views of his time." According to Bronkhorst, not physical and mental activities as such were seen as responsible for rebirth, but intentions and desire.
The doctrine of karma may have been especially important for common people, for whom it was more important to cope with life's immediate demands, such as the problems of pain, injustice, and death. The doctrine of karma met these exigencies, and in time it became an important soteriological aim in its own right.
The Three Knowledges
The understanding of rebirth and the reappearance in accordance with one's deeds are the first two knowledges that the Buddha is said to have acquired at his enlightenment. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha gained full and complete insight into the workings of karma at the time of his enlightenment. According to Bronkhorst, these knowledges are later additions to the story, just like the notion of "liberating insight" itself. According to Tilmann Vetter, originally only the practice of dhyana, and the resulting calming of the mind may have constituted the liberating practice of the Buddha.
According to Vetter, probably in the first centuries after the Buddha's death the following ideas were introduced or became important:
- all evil deeds must be requited or at least be superseded by good deeds before a person can become released,
- pleasant and unpleasant feelings in a human existence are the result of former deeds,
- evil behavior and its results form a vicious circle from which one can hardly escape,
- Gotama could become Buddha because he did good deeds through countless former lives, devoting their result to the aim of enlightenment,
- by confession and repentance one can (partly) annul an evil deed,
- evil deeds of non-Arhats (as to Arhats see point 1) can be superseded by great merits,
- one can and should transfer merit to others, especially for their spiritual development.
Within the Pali suttas
Karma and rebirth
The Cūlakammavibhanga Sutta ("The Shorter Exposition of Action," Majjhima Nikaya 3.203) describes the types of rebirth that various kinds of actions produce. For example, negative actions such as killing lead to rebirths in the lower realms (such as the hell realm), and virtuous action such as gracious behavior under duress leads to rebirth in the human or other higher realms.
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 non-virtuous actions and the rebirth that they impel.
Inevitability of results
In AN 5.292, the Buddha asserted that it is not possible to avoid experiencing the result of a karmic deed once it's been committed.
In the Anguttara Nikaya, it is stated that karmic results are experienced either in this life (P. diṭṭadhammika) or in a future lives (P. samparāyika). The former may involve a readily observable connection between action and karmic consequence, such 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.
The Sammyutta Nikaya makes a basic distinction between past karma (P. purānakamma) which has already been incurred, and karma being created in the present (P. navakamma). Therefore in the present one both creates new karma (P. navakamma) and encounters the result of past karma (P. kammavipāka). Karma in the early canon is also threefold: Mental action (S. manaḥkarman), bodily action (S. kāyakarman) and vocal action (S. vākkarman).
Within Buddhist traditions
Early Indian Buddhism
As the earliest Buddhist philosophical schools developed with the rise of Abhidharma Buddhism, various interpretations developed regarding more refined points of karma. A major problem is the relation between the doctrine of no-self, and the "storage" of the traces of one's deeds. Various solutions were offered:
- Sammitīya — the avipranāśa or 'indestructible', a dharma of the citta-viprayukta class
- Sarvāstivādin/Vaibhāṣika tradition — prāpti and aprāpti or adhesion and non-adhesion, and the avijñapti·rūpa or form that does not indicate.
- Sautrāntika tradition — the bīja or seed, the ekarasa-skandha or aggregate of unique essence, the mulāntika-skandha or proximate root aggregate and the paramārtha-pudgala.
- Yogācāra/Vijñānavādin tradition — the ālaya-vijñāna or store house' consciousness.
The Vaibhāśika-Sarvāstivāda 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 Abhidharmahṛdaya by Dharmaśrī was the first systematic exposition of Vaibhāśika-Sarvāstivāda doctrine, and the third chapter, the Karma-varga, deals with the concept of karma systematically.
Another important exposition, the Mahāvibhāṣa, gives three definitions of karma:
- action; karma is here supplanted in the text by the synonyms kriya or karitra, both of which mean "activity";
- formal vinaya conduct;
- human action as the agent of various effects; karma as that which links certain actions with certain effects, is the primary concern of the exposition.
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. Chapter four the Kośa is devoted to a study of karma, and chapters two and five contain formulation as to the mechanism of fruition and retribution. This became the main source of understanding of the perspective of early Buddhism for later Mahāyāna philosophers.
The Dārṣṭāntika-Sautrāntika school pioneered the idea of karmic seeds (S. bija) and "the special modification of the psycho-physical series" (S. saṃtatipaṇāmaviśeṣa) to explain the workings of karma.
In the Theravāda Abhidhamma and commentarial traditions, karma is taken up at length. The Abhidhamma Sangaha of Anuruddhācariya offers a treatment of the topic, with an exhaustive treatment in book five (5.3.7). The Kathāvatthu, which discusses a number of controverted points related either directly or indirectly to the notion of kamma." This involved debate with the Pudgalavādin school, which postulated the provisional existence of the person (S. pudgala, P. puggala) to account for the ripening of karmic effects over time. The Kathāvatthu also records debate by the Theravādins with the Andhakas (who may have been Mahāsāṃghikas) regarding whether or not old age and death are the result (vipāka) of karma. 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."
In the canonical Theravāda view of kamma, "the belief that deeds done or ideas seized at the moment of death are particularly significant."
The Milindapañha and Petavatthu
The Milindapañha, a paracanonical Theravāda text, offers some interpretations of karma theory at variance with the orthodox position. 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). Nāgasena makes it clear that demerit cannot be transferred. 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."
Indian Yogācāra tradition
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.[web 6] 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.[web 7]
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.
According to Bronkhorst, 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.
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.
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?[note 8]
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.[note 9]
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.
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.
East Asian traditions
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.”
Zen's most famous koan about karma is called Baizhang's Wild Fox (百丈野狐). The story of the koan is about an ancient Zen teacher whose answer to a question presents a wrong view about karma by saying that the person who has a foundation in cultivating the great practice "does not fall into cause and effect." Because of his unskillful answer the teacher reaps the result of living 500 lives as a wild fox. He is then able to appear as a human and ask the same question to Zen teacher Baizhang, who answers, “He is not in the dark about cause and effect.” Hearing this answer the old teacher is freed from the life of a wild fox. The Zen perspective avoids the duality of asserting that an enlightened person is either subject to or free from the law of karma and that the key is not being ignorant about karma.
Modern interpretations and controversies
Buddhist modernists 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.
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.
Loy argues that the idea of accumulating merit too easily becomes "spirtitual materialism," a view echoed by other Buddhist modernists, and further that karma has been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps and everything else.
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.
- Consciousness (Buddhism)
- Karma in Hinduism
- Karma in Jainism
- Merit (Buddhism)
- Pratitya-samutpada (Dependent Origination)
- Samsara (Buddhism)
- Twelve Nidanas
- The driving force behind rebirth in the six realms of samsara is karma:
- Peter Harvey: "The movement of beings between rebirths is not a haphazard process but is ordered and governed by the law of karma, the principle that beings are reborn according to the nature and quality of their past actions; they are 'heir' to their actions (M.III.123)."
- Damien Keown: "In the cosmology [of the realms of existence], karma functions as the elevator that takes people from one floor of the building to another. Good deeds result in an upward movement and bad deeds in a downward one. Karma is not a system of rewards and punishments meted out by God but a kind of natural law akin to the law of gravity. Individuals are thus the sole authors of their good and bad fortune."
- Alexander Berzin: "In short, the external and internal cycles of time delineate samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth, fraught with problems and difficulties. These cycles are driven by impulses of energy, known in the Kalachakra system as "winds of karma." Karma is a force intimately connected with mind and arises due to confusion about reality."[web 1]
- Paul Williams: "All rebirth is due to karman and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karman. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara." 
- Rupert Gethin: "[Karma is] a being’s intentional 'actions' of body, speech, and mind—whatever is done, said, or even just thought with definite intention or volition"; "[a]t root karma or 'action' is considered a mental act or intention; it is an aspect of our mental life: 'It is "intention" that I call karma; having formed the intention, one performs acts (karma) by body, speech and mind.'"
- Disturbing emotions
- "Thirst", craving
- See also Saṅkhāra
- There are many different translation of the above quote into English. For example, Peter Harvey translates the quote as follows: "It is will (cetana), O monks, that I call karma; having willed, one acts through body, speech, and mind." (A.III.415).
- The twelvefold chain as we know it is the result of a gradual development. Shorter versions are also known. According to Schumann, the twelvefold chain may be a combination of three succeeding lifes, each one of them shown by some of the samkaras.
- MMK (XVII.6), cited in Dargyay, 1986, p.170
- Mūlamadhyamakavṛtty-Akutobhayā, sDe dge Tibetan Tripi!aka (Tokyo, 1977) pp. 32, 4.5, cited in Dargyay, 1986, p.170.
- Chapple 1986, p. 2.
- Gethin 1998, p. 119.
- Harvey 1990, p. 39.
- Keown 2000, Kindle Location 794-797.
- Williams 2002, p. 74.
- Bronkhorst 1998.
- Gethin 1998, p. 119-120.
- Gethin 1998, p. 120.
- Bronkhorst 1998, p. 12.
- Harvey 1990, pp. 39-40.
- Schumann & 1997 88-92.
- Gethin 1998, p. 27.
- Keown 2000, p. 794-796.
- Kalupahana 1975, p. 127.
- Bhikkhu Thanissaro 2010, pp. 47-48.
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- Samuel 2010.
- vetter 1988, p. 78.
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- Schmithausen 1986.
- Bronkhorst 1998, p. 13.
- Schmithausen 1986, p. 206-207.
- Bronkhorst 1998, p. 3.
- Bronkhorst 1998, p. 16.
- Bronkhorst 1998, p. 14.
- Matthews 1986, p. 125.
- Goldstein 2011, p. 74.
- Bronkhorst 1993.
- Vetter 1988, p. 87.
- MN.3.203, Bodhi, pg 1053, 1055
- MN.3.203, Bodhi, pg 1058-1065
- McDermott 1980, p. 175.
- McDermott 1984, p. 21.
- Lamotte 2001, p. 18.
- Dowling 2006, p. 85.
- Ryose 1987, p. 3.
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- Lamotte 2001.
- Park 2007, pp. 234-236.
- Matthews 1986, p. 132.
- McDermott 1975, p. 424.
- McDermott 1975, pp. 426-427.
- McDermott 1980, p. 168.
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- McDermott 1984, pp. 109-111.
- McDermott 1977, p. 463.
- McDermott 1977, p. 462.
- Harvey 2000, p. 297.
- Lusthaus 2002, p. 194.
- Lusthaus 2002, p. 48.
- Lamotte 2001, pp. 13,35.
- Bronkhorst J, Karma and Teleology: A Problem and its Solutions in Indian Philosophy. The International Institute for Buddhist Studies of the International College for Advanced Buddhist Studies, Tokyo, 2000. pg 
- Harvey 2000, p. 130.
- The "Akutobhaya" and early Indian Madhyamika (Volumes I and II) (Buddhism, India, China, Tibet) by Huntington, Clair W., Jr. Ph.D. thesis. University of Michigan: 1986 pg 4
- Dargyay 1986, p. 172.
- Dargyay 1986, p. 173.
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- Dōgen Kigen, Shobogenzo: The Eye and Treasury of the True Law, trans. Kosen Nishiyama and John Stevens, Vol. 1 (Sendai, Japan: Daihokkaikaku Publishing Co., 1975), p. 142 149.
- Lopez 2001, p. 239.
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- Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism" by Dale S. Wright Journal of Buddhist Ethics Volume 11, 2004 pg 81
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- "Karmic Calculations: The Social Implications of Karmic Causality in Tibet; Erin Burke. Chrestomathy: Annual Review of Undergraduate Research at the College of Charleston Volume 2, 2003 pgs 32-33
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