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The Pali word kamma (the more commonly known term is the Sanskrit karma) means ‘action’ and in Buddhist doctrine refers to any intentional mental, verbal or bodily act. The Buddha says, ‘I say that intention is kamma, because having first intended one acts with body, speech or mind’ (A.III,415) According to the Buddha, every intentional action modifies our consciousness, thus building our character and thereby influencing our behaviour, our experience and consequently our destiny. Positive intentional actions (motivated by generosity, love and wisdom) tend towards consequences that are experienced as positive while intentional negative actions (motivated by greed, hatred and ignorance) tend towards consequences that are experienced as negative.

The doctrine of kamma is probably the most misunderstood of all the Buddha’s teachings. The four most common misunderstandings are these.

  • 1. Everything which happens to us is the result of our past kamma. In actual fact Buddhism recognized at least four other broad causes of why things happen including natural laws (dhamma niyàma), biological laws (bãja niyàma), physical laws (utu niyàma) and psychological laws (citta niyàma).
  • 2. We can never escape from the consequences of our past actions. If this were true then we would be completely determined by our past and be unable to change and attain enlightenment. In actual fact, several strong intentional good actions may very well modify or even cancel out a bad action and vice versa. Thus it is correct to say that we are conditioned by our kamma rather than determined by it.
  • 3. Our experience in the present life are due to what we did in our last life and what we do now will have an effect in the future life. In reality, many of our actions have a result immediately or soon after we have done them, i.e. in the present life.
  • 4. The fourth common misunderstanding is what might be called ‘kammic naivety,’ i.e. if you kick a monk in this life you will be reborn with a club foot in your next life, if you swear in this life you will have bad breath in the next life, if you are generous in this life you will be rich in your next life. This, of course, is rather silly.

Because kamma is primarily psychological (i.e. intention), its manifestation is primarily psychological. It only affects our physical form and circumstances to the degree that the mind can have an influence on the physical, as for example when prolonged worry can cause physical illness. The main effect kamma has upon us is how we feel (happy, neutral or unhappy) and which realm we will be reborn into.

The arahant, the liberated one, does not generate any more kamma. He continues to act and perform volitional actions, but without clinging. Hence his actions no longer constitute kamma. They don't leave any imprints upon the mind. They don't have the potency of ripening in the future to bring about rebirth. The activities of the arahants are called "Kriyas", not kammas. They are simple actions. They leave no trace on the mental continuum, just like the flight of birds across the sky.