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The Buddha's Words on Kamma

Four Discourses of the Buddha from the Majjhima Nikaya

Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli

Edited with Preface and Introductions by Bhikkhu Khantipalo

The Wheel Publication No. 248/249

Courtesy of Dharma Net
For free distribution only, as a gift of dhamma.


The Dog-Duty Ascetic
The Shorter Exposition of Kamma
The Great Exposition of Kamma
The Brahmins of Sala


Kamma concerns everyone. We make it, a great deal of it, every day while we are awake. We decide whether or not to get up -- kamma. (Good kamma if one gets up vigorously, bad kamma if slothfully or grudgingly.) Let's have a cup of tea, breakfast -- maybe some greed is involved, so bad kamma. We sympathize with someone's sickness and give help -- good kamma. We get flustered because the bus is late to take us to work -- bad kamma. Once we're there perhaps we get impatient with someone, or angry with them, or threaten them -- worse and worse kamma. But perhaps we are generous and kindly to someone there -- excellent kamma. Work brings on dull mental states, then we shake ourselves out of that listlessness and resentment (bad kamma) and vigorously try to get back to mindfulness (good kamma).

In the crowded bus returning home someone stamps on one's foot, one curses -- bad kamma -- but after quick reflection one realizes "Ah, no mindfulness" and this is good kamma. At home at last, one comforts the sick, then plays with the children and tells them some Jataka stories -- all good kamma. But then, tired and dull, one switches the radio (and/or television) on and, not listening to it, leaves it going as a sound to drown silence, then one eats too much and feels lethargic -- bad kamma. But perhaps instead one pays respect to the Buddha-image, does some chanting and then meditates -- all kinds of good kamma. When the body is tired one goes to sleep holding some meditation subject in mind -- good kamma.

All these decisions, choices and desires are kammas made in the mind. More kamma is made when one talks after having decided. Still more kamma is added if after this one acts as well.

"Good" and "bad" kamma are distinguished by the roots of the actions. What is one's motivating force when one helps the sick? This is a case where there are various possibilities. Is it just because one wants rich Aunty's money when she dies, or out of genuine compassion? Obviously, in the latter case much better kamma is made. But there are examples where there is no doubt. One's toes are stamped on and one curses: this can never be good kamma simply because it is rooted in hatred. Or one gobbles down too much food -- just greed-rooted kamma in this case. Again those dull or day-dream periods at work, not looking at things as they are at all, this is rooted in delusion. When any of the mentally defiled states of mind has arisen, when these three "roots of evil" are in control, then bad kamma is sure to be made.

Once it is made there is no way of erasing it or changing it and some day or other it will begin to fruit. The fruit of bad kamma is never happiness, as we can read in these discourses. It always comes up as pain, anguish, frustration, or the limitation of opportunities. Who wants them? Then make no more bad kamma! Everyone has laid in a stock already quite capable of giving rise to sufferings for lifetimes to come. There is no need to increase it.

Everyone wants happiness! But it too arises conditionally. Now a great producer of happiness is the making of good kamma. What is good about it? It is rooted in non-greed (generosity, renunciation), or in non-hate (loving-kindness, compassion) or finally in non-delusion (wisdom, understanding). The sure way to gain happiness, then, is to make good kamma, as much as possible every day.

It is only people who make a real effort to grow in Dhamma (that is, to make good kamma), who have any chance to succeed in meditation on the path to final liberation. Whatever one's goal in this life -- happiness here and now, a good rebirth in the future, or to end the whole birth and death process by attainment of Nibbana, one cannot go wrong by making good kamma.

And what about those who do not believe in kamma and its fruits? They still make it whether they believe or not! And they get the fruits of the kamma they make, too. But the doing, not the believing, is the important thing.

"Do good, get good,
do evil, get evil."

The Dog-Duty Ascetic
Kukkuravatika Sutta


There were some strange people around in the Buddha's days believing some strange things -- but that is no different from our own days when people still believe the most odd off-balance ideas. In this sutta we meet some people who believed that by imitating animals they would be saved. Maybe they're still with us too!

Belief is often one thing, action another. While beliefs sometimes influence actions, for other people their beliefs are quite separate from what they do. But the Buddha says all intentional actions, whether thoughts, speech or bodily actions, however expressed, are kamma and lead the doer of them to experience a result sooner or later. In this sutta the Buddha classifies kamma into four groups:

(i) dark with a dark result,
(ii) bright with a bright result,
(iii) dark and bright with a dark and bright result,
(iv) neither dark nor bright with a neither dark nor bright result.

Dark (evil) kamma does not give a bright (happy) result, nor does bright (beneficial) kamma lead to dark (miserable) result. Kamma can be mixed, where an action is done with a variety of motives, some good, some evil. And that kind of kamma also exists which gives up attachment to and interest in the other three and so leads beyond the range of kamma.

Majjhima Nikaya 57: Kukkuravatika Sutta

The Shorter Exposition of Kamma
Culakammavibhanga Sutta


You want: long life, health, beauty, power, riches, high birth, wisdom? Or even some of these things? They do not appear by chance. It is not someone's luck that they are healthy, or another's lack of it that he is stupid. Though it may not be clear to us now, all such inequalities among human beings (and all sorts of beings) come about because of the kamma they have made individually. Each person reaps his own fruits. So if one is touched by short life, sickliness, ugliness, insignificance, poverty, low birth or stupidity and one does not like these things, no need to just accept that that is the way it is. The future need not be like that provided that one makes the right kind of kamma now. Knowing what kamma to make and what not to make is the mark of a wise man. It is also the mark of one who is no longer drifting aimlessly but has some direction in life and some control over the sort of events that will occur.

Majjhima Nikaya 135: Culakammavibhanga Sutta

The Great Exposition of Kamma
Mahakammavibhanga Sutta


This celebrated sutta shows some of the complexities of kamma and its results. Beginning with a strange view expressed by a confused wanderer and a confused answer given by a bhikkhu, the Buddha then gives his Great Exposition of Kamma which is based upon four "types" of people:

the evil-doer who goes to hell (or some other low state of birth),
the evil-doer who goes to heaven,
the good man who goes to heaven, and
the good man who goes to hell (or other low birth).

The Buddha then shows how wrong views can arise from only partial understanding of truth. One can see the stages of this: (1) a mystic "sees" in vision an evil-doer suffering in hell, (2) this confirms what he had heard about moral causality, (3) so he says, "evil-doers always go to hell," and (4) dogma hardens and becomes rigid when he says (with the dogmatists of all ages and places), "Only this is true; anything else is wrong." The stages of this process are repeated for each of the four "persons," after which the Buddha proceeds to analyze these views grounded in partial experience and points out which portions are true (because verifiable by trial and experience) and which are dogmatic superstructure which is unjustified. Finally, the Buddha explains his Great Exposition of Kamma in which he shows that notions of invariability like "the evildoer goes to hell" are much too simple. The minds of people are complex and they make many different kinds of kamma even in one lifetime, some of which may influence the last moment when kamma is made before death, which in turn is the basis for the next life.

Majjhima Nikaya 136: Mahakammavibhanga Sutta

The Brahmins of Sala
Saleyyaka Sutta


The brahmins of this discourse, intelligent people, asked a question about the causality of rebirth -- why is one reborn in the states of deprivation (the hells, animals, and ghosts) while others make it to the heaven worlds?

The Buddha then analyzes what kind of kamma will take one to a low rebirth. You see any of your own actions here? Then you know what to do about it, for if one makes any of these ten courses of unwholesome kamma strong in oneself, a result can be expected at least "on the dissolution of the body, after death," if not in this life.

The ten courses of wholesome kamma follow. They should be strengthened in oneself, repeated frequently so that they become habitual. If one recognizes any of one's own actions among them, then just guard against the conceit: "I am good."

The last part of the sutta deals with the aspirations which one may have for rebirth at the time of death. Of course, one's previously made kamma must be such that it will support such aspirations. A miser might aspire to riches but his kamma will give him poverty. If a person has kept the Uposatha and generally all the precepts and been generous and truthful as well, this is the passport to heavenly birth (from the gods of the Four Kings up to the gods that Wield Power over others' Creations). Beyond this, it is necessary also to be proficient in jhana and one will gain rebirth among the Brahmas (from the Divinity's Retinue to the Very Fruitful gods) according to proficiency in this. For the next five Brahma-planes, the state of non-returning is required, while for the last four one must have gained the formless attainments. Finally, one may aspire to no rebirth: to Arahantship, but of course the aspiration alone is not sufficient -- practice and sufficient insight-wisdom are needed.

Majjhima Nikaya 41: Saleyyaka Sutta

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