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  • karma (Sanskrit), Pāli: kamma

'action', correctly speaking denotes the advantageous and disadvantageous intentions (kusala- and akusala-cetanā) and their concomitant mental factors, causing rebirth and shaping the destiny of beings.

These karmical intentions (kamma cetanā) become manifest as advantageous or disadvantageous actions by

  • body (kāya-kamma)

  • speech (vacī-kamma)

  • mind (mano-kamma)

Thus the Buddhist term 'karma' by no means signifies the result of actions, and quite certainly not the fate of man, or perhaps even of whole nations (the so-called wholesale or mass-karma), misconceptions which, through the influence of theosophy, have become widely spread in the West.

"intention (cetanā), o monks, is what I call action (cetanāham bhikkhave kammam vadāmi), for through intention one performs the action by body, speech or mind. . There is karma (action), o monks, that ripens in hell.... Karma that ripens in the animal world.. Karma that ripens in the world of men.... Karma that ripens in the heavenly world.... Threefold, however, is the fruit of karma: ripening during the life-time (dittha-dhamma-vedanīya-kamma), ripening in the next birth (upapajja-vedanīya-kamma), ripening in later births (aparāpariya-vedanīya kamma) ...." (A.VI.63).

The 3 conditions or roots (mūla) of disadvantageous karma (actions) are greed, hatred, delusion (lobha, dosa, moha); those of advantageous karma are: unselfishness (alobha), hatelessness (adosa = mettā, good-will), undeludedness (amoha = paññā, knowledge) .

"Greed, o monks, is a condition for the arising of karma; hatred is a condition for the arising of karma; delusion is a condition for the arising of karma ...." (A.III.109).

"The disadvantageous actions are of 3 kinds, conditioned by greed, or hate, or delusion.

"Killing ... stealing ... unlawful sexual intercourse ... lying ... slandering ... rude speech ... foolish babble, if practised, carried on, and frequently cultivated, leads to rebirth in hell, or amongst the animals, or amongst the ghosts" (A. III, 40). "He who kills and is cruel goes either to hell or, if reborn as man, will be short-lived. He who torments others will be afflicted with disease. The angry one will look ugly, the envious one will be without influence, the stingy one will be poor, the stubborn one will be of low descent, the indolent one will be without knowledge. In the contrary case, man will be reborn in heaven or reborn as man, he will be long-lived, possessed of beauty, influence, noble descent and knowledge" (cf. M. 135).

For the above 10-fold advantageous and disadvantageous course of action, see kamma-patha. For the 5 heinous crimes with immediate result, s. Ānantarika-kamma.

"Owners of their karma are the beings, heirs of their karma, their karma is their womb from which they are born, their karma is their friend, their refuge. Whatever karma they perform, good or bad, thereof they will be the heirs" (M. 135).

With regard to the time of the taking place of the karma-result (vipāka), one distinguishes, as mentioned above, 3 kinds of karma:

  • 1. karma ripening during the life-time (dittha-dhamma-vedanīya kamma);

  • 2. karma ripening in the next birth (upapajja-vedanīya-kamma);

  • 3. karma ripening in later births (aparāpariya-vedanīya-kamma).

The first two kinds of karma may be without karma-result (vipāka), if the circumstances required for the taking place of the karma-result are missing, or if, through the preponderance of counteractive karma and their being too weak, they are unable to produce any result. In this case they are called ahosi-kamma, lit. 'karma that has been', in other words, ineffectual karma.

The third type of karma, however, which bears fruit in later lives, will, whenever and wherever there is an opportunity, be productive of karma-result. Before its result has ripened, it will never become ineffective as long as the life-process is kept going by craving and ignorance.

According to the Com., e.g. Vis.M. XIX, the 1st of the 7 karmical impulsive-moments (kamma javana; s. javana) is considered as 'karma ripening during the life-time', the 7th moment as 'karma ripening in the next birth', the remaining 5 moments as 'karma ripening in later births'.

With regard to their functions one distinguishes:

  • 1. regenerative (or productive) karma (janaka-kamma),

  • 2. supportive (or consolidating) karma (upatthambhaka-kamma),

  • 3. counteractive (suppressive or frustrating) karma (upapīlaka-kamma),

  • 4. destructive (or supplanting) karma (upaghātaka- or upacchedaka-kamma).

(1) produces the 5 groups of existence (materiality, feeling, perception, mental constructions, consciousness) at rebirth as well as during life-continuity.

  • (2) does not produce karma-results but is only able to maintain the already produced karma-results.

  • (3) counteracts or suppresses the karma-results.

  • (4) destroys the influence of a weaker karma and effects only its own result.

With regard to the priority of their result one distinguishes:

  • 1. weighty karma (garuka-kamma),

  • 2. habitual karma (ācinnaka- or bahula-kamma),

  • 3. death-proximate karma (maranāsanna-kamma),

  • 4. stored-up karma (katattā-kamma).

(1, 2) The weighty (garuka) and the habitual (bahula) advantageous or disadvantageous karma are ripening earlier than the light and rarely performed karma. (3) The death-proximate (maranāsanna) karma - i.e. the advantageous or disadvantageous intention present immediately before death, which often may be the reflex of some previously performed good or evil action (kamma), or of a sign of it (kamma-nimitta), or of a sign of the future existence (gati-nimitta) - produces rebirth. (4) In the absence of any of these three actions at the moment before death, the stored-up (katattā) karma will produce rebirth.

A real, and in the ultimate sense true, understanding of Buddhist karma doctrine is possible only through a deep insight into the impersonality (s. anattā) and conditionality (s. paticcasamuppāda, paccaya) of all phenomena of existence. "Everywhere, in all the forms of existence ... such a one is beholding merely mental and physical phenomena kept going by their being bound up through causes and effects.

"No doer does he see behind the deeds, no recipient apart from the karma-fruit. And with full insight he clearly understands that the wise ones are using merely conventional terms when, with regard to the taking place of any action, they speak of a doer, or when they speak of a receiver of the karma-results at their arising. Therefore the ancient masters have said:

'No doer of the deeds is found,
No one who ever reaps their fruits;
Empty phenomena roll on:
This view alone is right and true.
'And whilst the deeds and their results
Roll on, based on conditions all,
There no beginning can be seen,
Just as it is with seed and tree.' " (Vis.M. XIX)

Karma (kamma-paccaya) is one of the 24 conditions (paccaya) (App.: Kamma).

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