Karma in Buddhism

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For the use of this term in other Indian religions, see Karma.
Translations of
English: karma
Pali: kamma
Sanskrit: karma
(Dev: कर्मन्)
Bengali: কর্ম
Burmese: ကံ
(IPA: [kàɴ])
Japanese: 業 or ごう
(rōmaji: gou)
Khmer: កម្ម
Sinhala: කර්ම
Tibetan: ལས།
(Wylie: las;
THL: lé;
Thai: กรรม
Vietnamese: nghiệp
Glossary of Buddhism

Karma (Sanskrit, also karman, Pāli: kamma) is a Sanskrit term that literally means "action" or "doing". In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to action driven by intention (cetanā) which leads to future consequences. Those intentions are considered to be the determining factor in the kind of rebirth in samsara, the cycle of rebirth.

A main problem in Buddhist philosophy is how karma and rebirth are possible, when there is no self to be reborn, and how the traces or "seeds" of karma are stored throughout time in consciousness.


Karma (Sanskrit, also karman, Pāli: kamma, Tib. las[1]) 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."[2]

Karmaphala (Tib. rgyu 'bras[3][1][note 1]) is the "fruit",[4][5][6] "effect"[7] or "result"[8] of karma. A similar term is karmavipaka, the "maturation"[9] or "cooking"[10] of karma:

The remote effects of karmic choices are referred to as the 'maturation' (vipāka) or 'fruit' (phala) of the karmic act."[5]

The metaphor is derived from agriculture:[6][11]

One sows a seed, there is a time lag during which some mysterious invisible process takes place, and then the plant pops up and can be harvested.[6]

Buddhist understanding of karma[edit]

Tibetan Bhavacakra or "Wheel of Life" in Sera, Lhasa.

Karma and karmaphala are fundamental concepts in Buddhism.[12][13] The concepts of karma and karmaphala explain how our intentional actions keep us tied to rebirth in samsara, whereas the Buddhist path, as exemplified in the Noble Eightfold Path, shows us the way out of samsara.[14]


Rebirth,[note 2] also called transmigration and reincarnation, is a common belief in all Buddhist traditions. It says that birth and death in the six realms occur in successive cycles driven by ignorance (avidyā), desire (trsnā), and hatred (dvesa). The cycle of rebirth is called samsarā. It is a beginningless and ever-ongoing process.[15] Liberation from samsarā can be attained by following the Buddhist Path. This path leads to vidyā, and the stilling of trsnā and dvesa. Hereby the ongoing process of rebirth is stopped.


The cycle of rebirth is determined by karma,[15] literally "action".[note 3] In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to actions drive by intention (cetanā),[21][22][6][note 4] a deed done deliberately through body, speech or mind, which leads to future consequences.[25] The Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6.63:

Intention (cetana) I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.[web 1][note 5]

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.[26]

And according to Gombrich,

The Buddha defined karma as intention; whether the intention manifested itself in physical, vocal or mental form, it was the intention alone which had a moral character: good, bad or neutral [...] The focus of interest shifted from physical action, involving people and objects in the real world, to psychological process.[27]

According to Gombrich, this was a great innovation, which overturns brahmanical, caste-bound ethics. It's a rejection of caste-bound differences, giving the same possibility to reach liberation to all people, not just Brahmanins:[28]

Not by birth is one a brahmin or an outcaste, but by deeds (kamma).[29][note 6]

How this emphasis on intention was to be interpreted became a matter of debate in and between the various Buddhist schools.[30] For example, the Sautrāntika, a subsect of the Sarvastivada, the most important of the early Buddhist schools,[31] regarded the intention to be the stimulus for karma, action which leads to consequences.[30] The Vaibhāṣika, the other sub-sect of the Sarvastivada, separated the intention from the act, regarding intention as karma proper.[32][note 7]


Karma leads to future consequences, karma-phala, "fruit of action".[33] Any given action may cause all sorts of results, but the karmic results are only those results which are a consequence of both the moral quality of the action, and of the intention behind the action.[34][note 8] According to Reichenbach,

[T]he 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.[36]

The "law of karma" applies

...specifically to the moral sphere [It is] 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.[36]

Good moral actions lead to wholesome rebirths, and bad moral actions lead to unwholesome rebirths.[15][note 9][note 10] The main factor is how they contribute to the well-being of others in a positive or negative sense.[40] Especially dāna, giving to the buddhist order, became an increasingly important source of positive karma.[41]

How these intentional actions lead to rebirth, and how the idea of rebirth is to be reconciled with the doctrines of impermanence and no-self,[42][note 11] is a matter of philosophical inquiry in the Buddhist traditions, for which several solutions have been proposed.[15] In early Buddhism no explicit theory of rebirth and karma is worked out,[18] and "the karma doctrine may have been incidental to early Buddhist soteriology."[19][20] In early Buddhism, rebirth is ascribed to craving or ignorance.[16][17]

In later Buddhism, the basic ideas is that intentional actions,[43] driven by kleshas ("disturbing emotions"),[web 3] cetanā ("volition"),[21] or taṇhā ("thirst", "craving")[44] create impressions,[web 4][note 12] tendencies[web 4] or "seeds" in the mind. These impressions, or "seeds", will ripen into a future result or fruition.[45][note 13] If we can overcome our kleshas, then we break the chain of causal effects that leads to rebirth in the six realms.[web 3] The twelve links of dependent origination provides a theoretical framework, explaining how the disturbing emotions lead to rebirth in samsara.[46][note 14]

Complex process[edit]

The Buddha's teaching of karma is not strictly deterministic, but incorporated circumstantial factors, unlike that of the Jains.[47][48] It is not a rigid and mechanical process, but a flexible, fluid and dynamic process.[49]There is no set linear relationship between a particular action and its results.[48] 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.[50][48]

Karma is also not the same as "fate" or "destiny".[web 5] Karmic results are not a "judgement" imposed by a God or other all-powerful being, but rather the results of a natural process.[51][26][6] 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.[52] Unjust behaviour may lead to unfavorable circumstances which make it easier to commit more unjust behavior, but nevertheless the freedom not to commit unjust behavior remains.[53]

Liberation from samsara[edit]

The real importance of the doctrine of karma and its fruits lies in the recognition of the urgency to put a stop to the whole process.[54][55] The Acintita Sutta warns that "the results of kamma" is one of the four incomprehensible subjects,[56][web 6] subjects that are beyond all conceptualization[56] and cannot be understood with logical thought or reason.[note 15]

According to Gombrich, this sutra may have been a warning against the tendency, "probably from the Buddha's day until now", to understand the doctrine of karma "backwards", to explain unfavorable conditions in this life when no other explanations are available.[60] Gaining a better rebirth may have been,[61][62] and still is, the central goal for many people.[63][64] The adoption, by laity, of Buddhist beliefs and practices is seen as a good thing, which brings merit and good rebirth,[65] but does not result in Nirvana,[65] and liberation from samsara, the ultimate goal of the Buddha.[66][60]

Development of the concept[edit]

Vedic religion[edit]

The concept of karma originated in the Vedic religion, where it was related to the performance of rituals[67] or the investment in good deeds[68] to ensure the entrance to heaven after death,[67][68] while other persons go to the underworld.[68]

Early Buddhism[edit]

Tillman Vetter notes that in early Buddhism rebirth is ascribed to craving or ignorance.[16] Buswell too notes that "Early Buddhism does not identify bodily and mental motion, but desire (or thirst, trsna), as the cause of karmic consequences."[17] Matthews notes that there is no cohesive presentation of karma in the Sutta Pitaka,[18] which may mean that the doctrine was incidental to the main perspective of early Buddhist soteriology.[18] Schmithausen is a notable scholar who has questioned whether karma already played a role in the theory of rebirth of earliest Buddhism.[69][20] According to Schmithausen, "the karma doctrine may have been incidental to early Buddhist soteriology."[19]

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.[70] Bronkhorst disagrees, and concludes that the Buddha "introduced a concept of karma that differed considerably from the commonly held views of his time."[71] According to Bronkhorst, not physical and mental activities as such were seen as responsible for rebirth, but intentions and desire.[72]

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.[64]

The Three Knowledges[edit]

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.[73] According to Bronkhorst, these knowledges are later additions to the story,[74] just like the notion of "liberating insight" itself.[74] 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.[75]

Later developments[edit]

According to Vetter, probably in the first centuries after the Buddha's death the following ideas were introduced or became important:[76]

  1. all evil deeds must be requited or at least be superseded by good deeds before a person can become released,
  2. pleasant and unpleasant feelings in a human existence are the result of former deeds,
  3. evil behavior and its results form a vicious circle from which one can hardly escape,
  4. Gotama could become Buddha because he did good deeds through countless former lives, devoting their result to the aim of enlightenment,
  5. by confession and repentance one can (partly) annul an evil deed,
  6. evil deeds of non-Arhats (as to Arhats see point 1) can be superseded by great merits,
  7. one can and should transfer merit to others, especially for their spiritual development.

Within the Pali suttas[edit]

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.[77]

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).[78] 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,[78] 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).[79] 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).[80]

Within Buddhist traditions[edit]

Various Buddhist philosophical schools developed with the rise of Abhidharma Buddhism and later developments. They gave various interpretations 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,[42] for which various solutions have been offered.

Early Indian Buddhism[edit]

Vaibhāṣika-Sarvāstivādin tradition[edit]

The Vaibhāśika-Sarvāstivāda was widely influential in India and beyond. Their understanding of karma in the Sarvāstivāda became normative for Buddhism in India and other countries.[81] According to Dennis Hirota,

Sarvastivadins argued that there exists a dharma of "possession" (prapti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though immediately passing away, creates the "possession" of that act in the continuum of instants we experience as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the act is "possessed" until the actualization of the result.[82]

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.[83]

Another important exposition, the Mahāvibhāṣa, gives three definitions of karma:

  1. action; karma is here supplanted in the text by the synonyms kriya or karitra, both of which mean "activity";
  2. formal vinaya conduct;
  3. 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.[84]

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.[80] This became the main source of understanding of the perspective of early Buddhism for later Mahāyāna philosophers.[85]


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.[86] According to Dennis Hirota,

[T]he Sautrantikas [...] insisted that each act exists only in the present instant and perishes immediately. To explain causation, they taught that with each karmic act a "perfuming" occurs which, though not a dharma or existent factor itself, leaves a residual impression in the succeeding series of mental instants, causing it to undergo a process of subtle evolution eventually leading to the act’s result. Good and bad deeds performed are thus said to leave "seeds" or traces of disposition that will come to fruition.[82]

Theravādin tradition[edit]

Canonical texts[edit]

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).[87]

The Kathāvatthu, which discusses a number of controverted points related either directly or indirectly to the notion of kamma."[88] 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.[88] 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.[89] 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."[89]

In the canonical Theravāda view of kamma, "the belief that deeds done or ideas seized at the moment of death are particularly significant."[90]

Transfer of merit[edit]

The Milindapañha, a paracanonical Theravāda text, offers some interpretations of karma theory at variance with the orthodox position.[91] 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).[92] Nāgasena makes it clear that demerit cannot be transferred.[93] 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."[94]

The Petavatthu, which is fully canonical, endorses the transfer of merit even more widely, including the possibility of sharing merit with all petas.[92]

Mahayana tradition[edit]

Indian Yogācāra tradition[edit]

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.[95][web 8] 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.[96] The seemingly external world is merely a "by-product" (adhipati-phala) of karma. The conditioning of the mind resulting from karma is called saṃskāra.[97][web 9]

The Treatise on Action (Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa), also by Vasubandhu, treats the subject of karma in detail from the Yogācāra perspective.[98] 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.[97]

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.[99]

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.[100] Thus, theirs are not uncontrolled rebirths.[100]

Mādhyamaka philosophy[edit]

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?[note 16]

The Mūlamadhyamakavṛtty-Akutobhayā, also generally attributed to Nāgārjuna,[101] 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 17]

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

Tsongkhapa (Gelugpa)[edit]

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.[102] 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.[103] Gelugpa scholars offered defenses of the idea.[103]

Purification of karma[edit]

In the Vajrayana tradition, negative past karma may be "purified" through such practices as meditation on Vajrasattva because they both are the mind's psychological phenomenon.[104][105] The performer of the action, after having purified the karma, does not experience the negative results he or she otherwise would have.[106] Engaging in the ten negative actions out of selfishness and delusions hurts all involved. The other way around, loving others, receives love; whereas; people with closed hearts may be prevented from happiness.[105] One good thing about karma is that it can be purified.

Thubten Zopa Rinpoche explains that purification entails applying the four powers, where each action has four aspects that determine if the action is complete or incomplete. These aspects are: motivation, object, performance and completion. If an action is complete is all four aspects, this is throwing karma and can determine throwing rebirth into the six realms; or, if beneficial with good karma to better rebirth. A missing aspect becomes completed karma, thus determining future life quality and a completed negative action keeps suffering ongoing. The first of the four purification powers is taking refuge and generating bodhicitta, the second is release to counteract the results similar to the cause, the third is remedy with applying antidotes to throwing karma and the fourth is indestructible determination by overcoming tendency to habitually create negativities over and over again.[note 18] This logic is common to all Vajrayana practices. Realizing emptiness is the ultimate purification. The four powers are confessional and are different than Christian confessionals; however parallels exist. Eact action leaves an imprint to ripen as positive for happiness or negative for suffering. [109] Proper application requires a qualified lama to guide the process with view, reading the method alone may be insufficient. [110]

The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains elaborate karma purification practices to naturally liberate cyclic rebirth action. This includes natural liberation practice with the mind; with the spiritual teacher; with naked perception; with homage to sacred enlighten families for habitual tendencies; with confessional acts, with death signs visual recognition; with death ritual deception for fear; with recollection for consciousness transference; fundamentally with hearing great liberation; and with wearing through the psycho-physical aggregates.[111]


In the Nyingma school, the teaching of karma is within the pre-liminary practices of the Longchen Nyingthig, "The Heart-essence of the Vast Expanse". This is a terma or "spiritual discovery", a hidden teaching from Padmasambhava which was revealed by Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798).[112] It is one of the most widely practiced teachings in the Nyingmapa school.[113] The Heart-essence of the Vast Expanse teaching cycle has the following structure:[114]

Patrul Rinpoche wrote down Jigme Lingpa's pre-liminary practices and they were translated into a book called The Words of My Perfect Teacher. [note 22] [113] It describes ten negative actions which are to be avoided,[119][120][note 23] and positive actions to be adopted.[121] According to Patrul Rinpoche, each negative act produces four kinds of karmic effects:[122]

  1. The fully ripened effect: rebirth in one of the lower realms of samsara;[123]
  2. The effect similar to the cause: rebirth in a human form, in which we have a predisposition for the same negative actions, or undergo the same negative actions being afflicted on us;[124]
  3. The conditioning effect: the negative act shapes our environment;[125]
  4. The proliferating effect: a continuous repetition of former negative actions, which keeps us wandering endlessly in samsara.[121] Positive actions comprise the vow never to commit any of the negative actions.[121] According to Patrul Rinpoche, the quality of our actions determine all the pleasures and miseries that an individual experiences.[126]

Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, a qualified Longchen Nyingthig commentator, explained harmful karma’s remedy is to first meet the spiritual friend, then listen to teachings and reflect on them. When karmic obstacles arise, the student may generate confidence in karmic laws; regret past actions and the student may apply other appropriate remedies. [127] Continuing harmful karma may lead to lower rebirth. Lessening past results with meritorious activity results in higher rebirths. [128] Students achieving pure karma will be welcomed to go directly to liberation in any instant. [129] Since harmful actions are rooted in negative emotions and these are rooted in the self belief, some realize no-self to believe and then end both karma and the emotions. Students may then attain the Arhat’s nirvana result, with and without residue, similar to the no more learning path. [130] Bodhisattvas may pray for all karma to ripen upon them to purify its effect most beneficially for the student. [131]

Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse’s Longchen Nyingthig commentary explains that forgetting about death and karma is shown when we complain about everyone else. [132] The sutras say Mara's third arrow is directed to those with wrong views, such as not believing in cause condition and effect (karma).[note 24] Protection may be achieved with discipline, meditation and wisdom. [133] Exhausting karma leads to enlightenment and it's impossible to be independent and in control of anything having so many causes.[134] Scientific people may believe in karma and not in reincarnation as its' effects from virtute and non-virtue.[135] This may corrode the ultimate truth beliefs in an interdependent reality, shunyata, and the triple gem, which request Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to not pass into Parinirvana. [134] Karma is synonymous with reincarnation.[136] Karmic debts pass from each lifetime.[137] Merit produces good karma. [138]

East Asian traditions[edit]


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.”[139]

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.


The Japanese Tendai/Pure Land teacher Genshin taught a series of ten reflections for a dying person that emphasized reflecting on the Amida Buddha as a means to purify vast amounts of karma.[140]

Modern interpretations and controversies[edit]

Social conditioning[edit]

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."[141]

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.[141]

Karma theory & social justice[edit]

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.[142]

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."[143] 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.[144]

Loy argues that the idea of accumulating merit too easily becomes "spirtitual materialism," a view echoed by other Buddhist modernists,[note 25] and further that karma has been used to rationalize racism, caste, economic oppression, birth handicaps and everything else.[145]

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.[146]

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,[147] and that the teachings on karma instead provide "a thoroughly satisfying explanation for suffering and loss" in which believers take comfort.[147]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In common Tibetan common speech, the term las, "karma", is often used to denote the entire process of karma-and-fruit.[1]
  2. ^ Sanskrit, punaraāvŗtti, punarutpatti, punarjanman, or punarjīlvātu
  3. ^ In early Buddhism rebirth is ascribed to craving or ignorance,[16][17] and the theory of karma may have been of minor importance in early Buddhist soteriology.[18][19][20]
  4. ^ 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";[23] "[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.'"[24]
  5. ^ 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).[26]
  6. ^ Sutta-nipata verse 1366
  7. ^ Gombrich: "Bodily and verbal action manifested one’s intention to others and therefore were called vijñapti, ‘information’."[32]
  8. ^ 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).[35]
  9. ^ 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)."[37]
    • 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."[38]
    • 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 2]
    • 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." [39]
  10. ^ 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.[23]
  11. ^ Dargray: "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."[42]
  12. ^ See also Saṅkhāra
  13. ^ For bīja, see also Yogacara#Karma, seeds and storehouse-consciousness
  14. ^ 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.[46]
  15. ^ Dasgupta explains that in Indian philosophy, acintya is "that which is to be unavoidably accepted for explaining facts, but which cannot stand the scrutiny of logic."[57] See also the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, "Discourse to Vatsagotra on the [Simile of] Fire," Majjhima Nikaya 72,[58][web 7] in which the Buddha is questioned by Vatsagotra on the "ten indeterminate question,"[58] and the Buddha explains that a Tathagata is like a fire that has been extinguished, and is "deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea".[59]
  16. ^ MMK (XVII.6), cited in Dargyay, 1986, p.170[42]
  17. ^ Mūlamadhyamakavṛtty-Akutobhayā, sDe dge Tibetan Tripitaka (Tokyo, 1977) pp. 32, 4.5, cited in Dargyay, 1986, p.170.[42]
  18. ^ Patrul four powers: Patrul Rinpoche's four powers are explained as support, regretting having done wrong, resolution and action as the antidote. [107] Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang explained the essence to Patrul Rinpoche's four powers in that support has two aspects (inner and outer), regret is remorse, resolution is a vow to not repeat, and action as antidote is to develop real wish to practice dharma. [108]
  19. ^ karma as actions: Paltrul Rinpoche explains karma as actions: the cause and effect principle, which encompasses the whole process: cause, conditions, effect as action.[115] Within this he means that his teacher’s mind is not beyond samsara, but is a perfect example to disciples on actions to follow the path in progression of vehicles;[115]
  20. ^ Guru Yoga: Kenpo Ngawang Pelzang’s Guru Yoga practice explanation offers a karma purification practice where the student first visualizes the merit field, performs the seven branch offerings, prays with resolute trust, and takes the four empowerments with the teacher. The seven branches offering actions each have associated antidotes to poisons:
    1. prostration for pride
    2. offering for attachment
    3. confession for aversion
    4. rejoicing for jealously
    5. exhorting Buddhas to turn dharma wheel for ignorance
    6. requesting Buddha not to enter nirvana for wrong views
    7. dedication for uncertainty. [116]
  21. ^ Transference: Khepo Ngawang Pelzang explains the swift transference practice action within great perfection, as a main practice branch. When awareness is vulnerable to circumstances, this belongs to the generation and perfection phase, with five transference methods. Whereas, transference is unnecessary for someone with impregnable and perfectly stable awareness, who then must still meditate on the visualizations and transference practice itself. These are "buddhahood without meditation" instructions. [117]
  22. ^ Perfect Teacher: Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu, who received the teaching from Jigme Lingpa, was Paltrul Rinpoche’s Perfect Teacher.[118]
  23. ^ Ten actions to be avoided:[119][120]
    1. Taking life
    2. Taking what is not given
    3. Sexual misconduct
    4. Lying
    5. Sowing discord
    6. Harsh speech
    7. Worthless chatter
    8. Covetous
    9. Wishing harm on others
    10. Wrong views.
  24. ^ Mara's arrow:[133]Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse is referring to Jamgon Kpngtrul LodroTaya writings and "taming the mind" from Kongtrul Rinpoche's reference
  25. ^ Ken Jones, The Social Face of Buddhism: An Approach to Political and Social Activism, Wisdom Publications, 1989, quoted in "A Buddhist Ethic Without Karmic Rebirth?" by Winston L. King Journal of Buddhist Ethics Volume 1 1994


  1. ^ a b c Padmakara Translation Group 1994, p. 101.
  2. ^ Chapple 1986, p. 2.
  3. ^ Lichter & Epstein 1983, p. 232.
  4. ^ Kalupahanna 1992, p. 166.
  5. ^ a b Keown 2000, p. 36-37.
  6. ^ a b c d e Gombrich 2009, p. 19.
  7. ^ Kopf 2001, p. 141.
  8. ^ Kragh 2001, p. 11.
  9. ^ Keown 2000, p. 810-813.
  10. ^ Klostermaier 1986, p. 93.
  11. ^ Keown 2000, p. 37.
  12. ^ Kragh 2006, p. 11.
  13. ^ Lamotte 1987, p. 15.
  14. ^ Bucknell 1984.
  15. ^ a b c d Buswell 2004, p. 712.
  16. ^ a b c Vetter 1988, p. xxi.
  17. ^ a b c Buswell 2004, p. 416.
  18. ^ a b c d Matthews 1986, p. 124.
  19. ^ a b c Schmithausen 1986, p. 206-207.
  20. ^ a b c Bronkhorst 1998, p. 13.
  21. ^ a b Bronkhorst 1998.
  22. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 119-120.
  23. ^ a b Gethin 1998, p. 119.
  24. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 120.
  25. ^ Gombrich 1997, p. 55.
  26. ^ a b c Harvey 1990, pp. 39-40.
  27. ^ Gombrich 1997, p. 51.
  28. ^ Gombrich 1996, p. 65-66.
  29. ^ Gombrich 1996, p. 68.
  30. ^ a b Gombrich 1007, p. 54-55.
  31. ^ Gombrich 1007, p. 54.
  32. ^ a b Gombrich 1007, p. 55.
  33. ^ Kalupahana 1992, p. 166.
  34. ^ Reichenbach 1988, p. 399.
  35. ^ Waldron 2003, p. 61.
  36. ^ a b Reichenbach 1990, p. 1.
  37. ^ Harvey 1990, p. 39.
  38. ^ Keown 2000, Kindle Location 794-797.
  39. ^ Williams 2002, p. 74.
  40. ^ vetter 1988, p. 84.
  41. ^ Vetter 1988, p. 85.
  42. ^ a b c d e Dargyay 1986, p. 170.
  43. ^ Vetter 1988, p. 52, note 8.
  44. ^ Bronkhorst 1998, p. 12.
  45. ^ Harvey 1990, p. 40.
  46. ^ a b Schumann & 1997 88-92.
  47. ^ Kalupahana 1975, p. 127.
  48. ^ a b c Bhikkhu Thanissaro 2010, pp. 47-48.
  49. ^ Harvey 2012, p. 42.
  50. ^ Kalupahana 1975, p. 131.
  51. ^ Keown 2000, p. 794-796.
  52. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 27.
  53. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 153-154.
  54. ^ Gombrich 2009, p. 21-22.
  55. ^ Vetter 1988, p. 79-80.
  56. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez Jr. 2013, p. 14.
  57. ^ Dasgupta 1991, p. 16.
  58. ^ a b Buswell & Lopez Jr. 2013, p. 852.
  59. ^ accesstoinsight, Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire, transalated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  60. ^ a b Gombrich 2009, p. 20-22.
  61. ^ Vetter 1987, p. 50-52.
  62. ^ Vetter 1988, p. 80-82.
  63. ^ Gombrich 1991.
  64. ^ a b Matthews 1986, p. 125.
  65. ^ a b Collins 1999, p. 120.
  66. ^ Vetter 1988, p. 79.
  67. ^ a b Samuel 2010.
  68. ^ a b c vetter 1988, p. 78.
  69. ^ Schmithausen 1986.
  70. ^ Bronkhorst 1998, p. 3.
  71. ^ Bronkhorst 1998, p. 16.
  72. ^ Bronkhorst 1998, p. 14.
  73. ^ Goldstein 2011, p. 74.
  74. ^ a b Bronkhorst 1993.
  75. ^ Vetter 1988.
  76. ^ Vetter 1988, p. 87.
  77. ^ McDermott 1980, p. 175.
  78. ^ a b McDermott 1984, p. 21.
  79. ^ SN.4.132
  80. ^ a b Lamotte 2001, p. 18.
  81. ^ Ryose 1987, p. 3.
  82. ^ a b Hirota 2004, p. 5100.
  83. ^ Ryose 1987, pp. 3-4.
  84. ^ Ryose 1987, pp. 39-40.
  85. ^ Lamotte 2001.
  86. ^ Park 2007, pp. 234-236.
  87. ^ Matthews 1986, p. 132.
  88. ^ a b McDermott 1975, p. 424.
  89. ^ a b McDermott 1975, pp. 426-427.
  90. ^ McDermott 1980, p. 168.
  91. ^ McDermott 1984, p. 110.
  92. ^ a b McDermott 1984, pp. 109-111.
  93. ^ McDermott 1977, p. 463.
  94. ^ McDermott 1977, p. 462.
  95. ^ Harvey 2000, p. 297.
  96. ^ Lusthaus 2002, p. 194.
  97. ^ a b Lusthaus 2002, p. 48.
  98. ^ Lamotte 2001, pp. 13,35.
  99. ^ Bronkhorst 2000.
  100. ^ a b Harvey 2000, p. 130.
  101. ^ Huntington 1986, p. 4.
  102. ^ Dargyay 1986, p. 173.
  103. ^ a b Dargyay 1986, p. 176.
  104. ^ Kalu Rinpoche 1993, p. 204.
  105. ^ a b Zopa Rinpoche 2004, p. ix.
  106. ^ Thrangu Rinpoche 2012, pp. 20-21.
  107. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2011, pp. 263-267.
  108. ^ Kenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, pp. 226-227.
  109. ^ Zopa Rinpoche 2004, p. 1-3.
  110. ^ Zopa Rinpoche 2004, p. 6.
  111. ^ Sogyal Rinpoche 2009, p. 4.
  112. ^ Padmakara Translation Group 1994, p. xxxii-xxxiv.
  113. ^ a b Padmakara Translation Group 1994, p. xxxv.
  114. ^ Padmakara Translation Group 1994, p. xxxv-xxxviii.
  115. ^ a b Patrul Rinpoche 2011, p. 382.
  116. ^ Kenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, pp. 265-277.
  117. ^ Khepo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, pp. 281-286.
  118. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. xxiiv.
  119. ^ a b Padmakara Translation Group 2001, p. xxiv-xxvii.
  120. ^ a b Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 101-110.
  121. ^ a b c Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 117.
  122. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 112-117.
  123. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 112.
  124. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 112-116.
  125. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 116.
  126. ^ Patrul Rinpoche 2001, p. 118.
  127. ^ Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, p. 48-49.
  128. ^ Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, p. 56.
  129. ^ Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, p. 63.
  130. ^ Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, p. 72.
  131. ^ Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang 2004, p. 179.
  132. ^ Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse 2004, p. 72.
  133. ^ a b Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse 2004, pp. 30-31.
  134. ^ a b Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse 2004, pp. 67-69.
  135. ^ Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse 2004, pp. 134.
  136. ^ Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse 2004, p. 27.
  137. ^ Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse & 2004 175-76.
  138. ^ Dzonsar Jamyag Khentse 2004, pp. 154-55.
  139. ^ Dōgen 1975, p. 142, 149.
  140. ^ Lopez 2001, p. 239.
  141. ^ a b McMahan 2008, p. 198.
  142. ^ McMahan 2008, p. 174.
  143. ^ Wright 2004, p. 81.
  144. ^ Wright 2004, p. 89-90.
  145. ^ Loy 2008, p. 57.
  146. ^ Loy 2008, p. 55.
  147. ^ a b Burke 2003, p. 32-33.


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  • Vetter, Tilmann (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, BRILL 
  • Waldron, William S. (2003), The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-vijñana in the context of Indian Buddhist Thought, Routledge 
  • Walser, Joseph (2005), Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, Columbia University Press 
  • Wardner, A.K. (1970), Indian Buddhism, Delhi 
  • Watson, Burton (1993), The Lotus Sutra, Columbia University Press 
  • Williams, Paul (2002), Buddhist Thought, Taylor & Francis, Kindle Edition 
  • Williams, Paul, ed. (2005), Buddhism—Critical Concepts in Religious Studies II, Shi Huifeng 
  • Wright, Dale S. (2004), "Critical Questions Towards a Naturalized Concept of Karma in Buddhism", Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 11, 2004 


Further reading[edit]

Scholarly sources
  • Neufeldt, Ronald W., ed. (1986), Karma and rebirth: Post-classical developments, SUNY 
  • Gananath Obeyesekere (2002). Imagining karma: ethical transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek rebirth. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23243-3. 
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
Primary sources
  • Dalai Lama (1992). The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins. Wisdom.
  • Geshe Sonam Rinchen (2006). How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising. Snow Lion
  • Khandro Rinpoche (2003). This Precious Life. Shambala
  • Ringu Tulku (2005). Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion.

External links[edit]