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Karman: Buddhist Concepts


The Indian religious worldview emerging about the time of the Buddha centered on three interrelated notions: rebirth, karman, and liberation. These concepts informed the cosmology, eschatology, and soteriology of the developing traditions, which taught that sentient beings have been reborn repeatedly in diverse forms of life, in places ranging from various hells to the highest heavens, over vast tracks of time. This process of rebirth is guided and even generated by the force of a person's actions (karman ), which possess the power of inevitably working their consequences. Thus, deeds in the present will unfailingly bear their fruit in this or a future life, and present conditions, pleasurable or disagreeable, including one's form of existence, length of life, social station, and personal appearance, are the effects of deeds performed in the past. The span of one's existence through cycles of birth and death (sasāra ) stretches back endlessly into the past and will continue without limit into the future, unless liberation is attained. The understanding of the mechanism of karmic bondage and the nature of emancipation evolved variously within the different traditions, andalthough notions of karman are also found in pre-Buddhist Upaniads and in Jain thoughtthe precise relationships among the traditions remains uncertain.

K arman in Early Buddhist Thought

The concept of karman as causal action and its consequence is often said to be the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy and its basis for explaining human existence and the physical world. It is, however, less a clearly articulated doctrine than an elemental insight, in terms of which Buddhists have apprehended the temporal, existential dimension of human life rooted in the realization of non-self. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Buddhist thought within the Indian context, non-self is expressed in the early tradition as the rejection of the bifurcation of experience into subject and object (five aggregates), and further as release from painful, repetitive existence through the eradication of delusional egocentric craving (dependent arising).

Although karman in Indian thought originally presupposed an enduring entity as both agent of action and recipient of rebirth, it also appears in legendary accounts of the Buddha's enlightenment. The early tradition teaches that he attained three insights during the three watches of the night following his awakening: he saw his own previous lives and how each conditioned subsequent ones; he saw that beings everywhere also underwent repeated rebirths, receiving the results of acts performed in past lives; and he perceived the desires and attachments that bound one to further painful rebirth and the method by which to eradicate them. The critical role of karman in constituting samsaric existence was expressed by the notion of dependent arising, the core motif of which was formulated as: "When this arises, that arises; when this is not, that is not" (Majjhima-nikāya I, 262263).

The concept of dependent arising was developed into a twelve-link chain: conditioned by ignorance, mental formations arise; conditioned by formations, consciousness arises; and so forth, leading finally to old age and death. These links are seen as elements within phases of past karmic acts (ignorance, formations) leading to present conditions (consciousness, mind-objects, six senses, sensory contact, feeling) and present actions (craving, grasping, becoming) leading to future consequences (birth, old age and death). The reverse chain leads from eradication of ignorance to the cessation of the successive links and liberation from karman -formed existence. Thus, the earliest strata of Buddhist texts state: "One who sees dependent arising rightly sees karman and its matured fruit" (Suttanipāta ), and further, "One who sees dependent arising sees dhamma [dharma ]" (Majjhima-nikāya I, 190191).

The Ethicization of K arman in TheravĀda Thought

In early Buddhist tradition, karman is understood not only as an aspect of the Buddha's awakening, but also as broadly ethical in implication, in contrast to the Brahmanic tradition, in which the notion of karman concerned the efficacy of sacrificial rites. In Vedic tradition, it is the enactment of sacrifice itself and its ritual correctness, rather than moral quality, that are determinative of the result. Karman in early Buddhist thought also differs from the contemporaneous Jain tradition, in which it is conceived as material accretion or residue, so that, for example, any act destructive of sentient life will bear fruit, even though it may have been unintended. Buddhist tradition asserts intention (cetanā ) or the originating impulse as the critical element of any karmic act. The Buddha states: "Monks, I say that intention is acting; by intention, one performs an action of body, speech, or mind" (Aguttara-nikāya III, 415). It is the intention functioning as the motive force giving rise to deeds that determines their quality and thus their karmic effect. Hence, harm inflicted inadvertently does not necessarily bespeak an evil act entailing unwholesome retribution, and even meritorious acts may in fact be injurious. The monk Nāgasena explains that since the offering of a meal to Śākyamuni by Cunda was done with good intentions, even though the Buddha fell ill and died upon eating it, Cunda was not at fault (Milindapañha ).

This emphasis on intention as determinate of the quality of acts was developed by early Buddhists through various classifications. All human activity is classified in terms of three modes of action: bodily, vocal, and mental. Thoughts of theft or murder bear karmic effects, even though not physically enacted. In addition, a twofold classification of acts centering on intention was expounded: the act of intending and acts performed having been intended. The former category consists of mental acts, while the latter consists of bodily and verbal acts that arise as manifestations of volition (Abhidharmakośa ).

The Moral Quality of Acts

Karman is classified by moral quality as good or wholesome (kuśala ), unwholesome (akuśala ), and indeterminate (avyākta ). Unwholesome or "unskillful" acts result in unhappy rebirth (in the realms of hell, animals, or spirits), and a list of "ten evil acts" is organized in terms of bodily, vocal, and mental deeds: taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct; false speech, slander, harsh speech, frivolous talk; greed, malice, and false views. Good or "skillful" acts, given in a corresponding list of ten admonitions, result in propitious rebirth (as a human or deva ). Indeterminate acts do not produce a karmic result. Here again one sees the centrality of intention in early Buddhist thought, for present conditions, which are the results of past actions, are themselves indeterminate. In this way, Buddhists sought to avoid any determinism of the moral quality of present acts by direct causation from the past.

Further, the early tradition asserts the strictness of the causal working of karman. One's karman is one's own; whether good or bad, it is like "a treasure not shared with others, which no thief can steal" (Khuddakapātha, p.7). Thus, the consequences of one's actions will return upon oneself alone. Karmic effect is open to various forms of conditioning, and the results of a particular act may vary depending on when it is performed (the time of death is particularly potent), the combination with other acts, the quality of habitual conduct that forms its context, or the attitude taken toward the act before or even after it has been performed. For example, the degree of deliberation preceding an act, and the presence of regret or of repentance and expiation after, may influence the karmic effect of both good and evil acts, either intensifying or meliorating the result. Nevertheless, however conditioned, karman unfailingly brings about consequences. It may ripen quickly in the present life or bear its fruit only in some future life, but its effect will not be lost and its potency not exhausted or nullified until it works itself out.

Karman in early Buddhist tradition thus suggests a moral eschatology in which one's future depends on the moral qualities of the thoughts underlying one's acts in the present. The ethical import is to shun evil acts and strive to do good: "Watchful of speech, well restrained in mind, / One would not do what is unwholesome by body too; / These three modes of action one would purify; / Let one fulfill the path made known by the sages" (Dhammapada, verse 281). This vision, however, is complicated by two intertwined issues: the soteriological aim of liberation from karmic functioning itself, rather than skillful application of it, and the rejection of enduring, substantial existents, including a "self" that can inherit the consequences of its own past acts.

Merit and Liberation

While karman expresses the moral logic at work within the cosmos of living beings, liberation in the Buddhist path ultimately involves transcendence of existence as continual rebirth, which is karmically generated and characterized as delusionally driven and painful. Because the notion of karman continued to underpin ideas of merit (puya ) accumulation originating in the Vedic context of sacrificial rite, two general goals were upheld by early Buddhist practitioners, reflecting distinct attitudes toward karman.

On the one hand, acts may be distinguished as sources of merit or demerit, the former leading toward happy future conditions and the latter toward painful states. In the early tradition, meritorious action is enumerated as giving (dāna ), moral conduct (śīla ), and meditative practice (bhāvanā ), but dāna as almsgiving is given particular attention as a source of merit for laity. Further, the degree of merit accrued in an act of giving is said to turn on the worthiness of the recipient, who is a "field of merit" in which the gift as seed is brought to fruition. Any act of charity may bear fruit, but the greatest rewards lie in the supreme field of merit, the community of monks (sagha ) led by the Buddha. The practical significance of this metaphor for the symbiotic relationship between monks and laity is evident, but it has also been suggested that the importance placed on the recipient stems from the original sacrificial context of the act of almsgiving as a form of worship.

On the other hand, the goal of the Buddhist path is not higher states of existence or ascension through the five "courses," including human and deva, of the realm of desire into the loftier realms of form and formlessness. Rather, one seeks to sever the bonds to samsaric existence altogether. This is nirvāa, which, in terms of karman, is "extinction" of afflicting passions giving rise to acts of karmic retribution and cessation of the resultant pain of continual rebirth. Since any thoughts of attachment within the realms of rebirth, even to meritorious acts or blissful states of life, are themselves karman that will bind one to further samsaric existence, liberation is attained only when one produces no karman and one's karman from the past has been exhausted. Acts performed with detachment and equanimity (upekā ) bear no further results, whether good or bad. Hence, it is by purification of the mind through right conduct, meditation, and religious insight, so that one's acts are free of greed, malice, and delusional thinking, that nirvāa is attained.

Some studies of the present Theravāda tradition have distinguished these two patterns of religious acts as kammatic and nibbanic, the former emphasizing giving and right conduct and directed toward achieving higher states within samsaric existence, while the latter focuses on meditative practice leading to liberation from sasāra. The former turns on the karmic effects of merit-making, while the latter seeks the eradication of karman through perfect disinterestedness.

The working of karman, however, also serves to conjoin these two patterns. Since the path to liberation traverses many lifetimes, present merit may be understood to lead to conditions favorable to purifying practice and eventual attainment of nirvāa. In addition, through transference of merit, one may generously turn the effects of a meritorious act to benefit another. That persons must each bear the results of their own deeds is a fundamental postulate of the notion of karman emphasized in the early tradition. At the same time, however, examples are recorded of a person ascribing a good deed, such as a gift of food to monks, to other beings, including famished spirits and devas, so that they might receive the merit. Such a notion of compassionate transference later developed into a hallmark of Mahāyāna tradition.

The Analytic Stance of the Scholastic Traditions

Scholastic traditions developed in the monastic communities in the centuries following the Buddha's death, resulting in a literature of doctrinal systematization and categorization known as abhidharma (further teaching). Adopting an objectifying stance of exhaustive analytical reflection, the abhidharma broke down all existents and phenomena into constituent, elemental factors (dharmas ) categorized as consciousness, mental attitudes, material elements, elements neither mental nor material such as causal relation, and the uncreated. These psychological and physical dharmas (numbering seventy-five in the Sarvāstivāda school and eighty-two in the Theravāda abhidharma ) were said to arise in composites in the present instant, then immediately pass away. Thus, although normally experienced as continuous and integral, mental functioning is merely a rapid series of discrete instants of consciousness, each arising as a psychophysical combination of numerous dharmas, and objects grasped as enduring and real are no more than momentary aggregates of dharmas informed by conceptual construction. What is actually and irreducibly existent are only the elemental factors coming together and passing away.

In the abhidharma schools, the notion of karman functioned as a fundamental causal principle underlying the linear, temporal flow of all things, but a number of contentious issues relating to it were debated. For example, although the Theravāda tradition emphasized intention as determinant of the moral quality of even physical acts, Sarvāstivādins asserted that bodily and vocal acts, being material, manifest but are distinct from intention as a mental act. Further, major issues arose regarding karmic causation. How can actions occurring in the present moment and then passing away bring about consequences in the future? The Sarvāstivādins argued that dharmas themselves, as elemental factors, exist in the future and past as well as in the present, although the modes of existence differ. Dharmas existing in the future move, through causes, into the present and arise in fusion with countless other dharmas as actions or composite things before slipping into the past. Since the dharmas continue to exist even though they have vanished from the present, they hold the energy to cause their results to appear upon maturation. How can there be continuity between the agent of an act and the receiver of its fruit? If there is only flux, there can be no reception of karmic results, but if there is continuity, an enduring entity seems implied. The early tradition teaches that the person who commits the act and the person who receives the fruit are neither wholly identical nor wholly different. In order to explain the continuity of the series of psychophysical moments that is the subject of karmic working, Sarvāstivādins argued that there exists a dharma of "possession" (prāpti ), 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.

Such views were rejected as contrary to the Buddha's teaching of impermanence by other schools, notably the Sautrāntikas, who 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.

The MahĀyĀna View of Karman

The Prajñāpāramitā sūtras (c. first century ce) and early Mahāyāna thinkers rejected the realism of scholastic traditions that presupposed the enduring own-being (svabhāva ) of all dharmas and fixed the transcendent, uncreated dharma of nirvāa as the ultimate religious goal. Instead, they sought to articulate the soteriological realization of non-self in terms of a thoroughgoing nondiscriminative wisdom in which the dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy and the nature of all things as dependently arising were expressed as emptiness or voidness (śūnyatā ).

Nāgārjuna (c. 150250 ce), in Mūlama-dhyamaka-kārikā, sought to demonstrate the logical incoherence of the substantialist assumptions governing ordinary human experience ofand speech aboutthe world, including causation. He argued, for example, that notions of agent and act are mutually dependent, so that any conceptual reification will render the wholeaction itselfuntenable. Further, if karman persists until its result arises, it is permanent and unchanging; if it expires, it cannot function as cause. In either case, it cannot produce a result. Karman must be neither continuous nor discontinuous; this eradication of objectifying conceptual bifurcation pervades the world of non-self or emptiness. To go beyond emptiness-contemplation as the elimination of discriminative discourse only and to explore the active functioning of wisdom, the Yogācāra thought of Asaga (c. 320390 ce) and Vasubandhu (c. fourth century ce) adapted, from a Mahāyāna perspective, such abhidharma conceptions as the subconscious mind (bhavaga ), from which conscious processes arise and into which they subside and the karmic seeds (bīja ) of mental activity. Time is a succession of discontinuous instants, with mind and all things mutually giving rise to each other and perishing moment by moment. This instantaneous "other-dependent" co-arising of mind and world is not different from emptiness, wisdom, or true reality.

By asserting "form is itself emptiness, emptiness is form," Mahāyāna thought departed from earlier tendencies toward mutually exclusive, substantialist-leaning conceptions of samsaric and nirvanic realms, or the karma -created and uncreated, and thus from the ethical focus developed in Theravāda tradition and the atomistic analyses of karmic causation in the scholastic tradition.

Karmic Existence and Transcendent Wisdom

The implications regarding karman of the notion of nonduality in Mahāyāna thought may be considered from the perspectives of both the being of wisdom (a bodhisattva ) and the person of karmic existence (a foolish, unenlightened being). For the bodhisattva, the strictness of karmic working emphasized in the early tradition is broken in several ways by the wisdom in which such dichotomies as form and emptiness, sasāra and nirvāa, and blind passions and enlightenment are simultaneously established and dissolved. Although the early tradition asserts that karman is personal, the bodhisattva's transcendence of the dichotomy of self and other leads to the practice of merit transference, by which one vows to ferry all beings to the other shore of nirvāa before crossing over oneself, giving the merit of one's practice to others. Self does not exist merely as self, but upon the foundation of both self and other arising in mutual dependence, that is, in emptiness. This thinking is developed in Yogācāra writings in the concept of "shared karman," in which karman is at once individual and conjoint.

Further, although the notion of karman asserts a correlation between the moral quality of past deeds and the circumstances of rebirth, the bodhisattva may choose to be reborn in realms of suffering to save beings there. Above all, the bodhisattva relinquishes the earlier view that liberation lies in departing from sasāra and entering nirvāa, abandoning all attachments, even to nirvāa.

While attainment of nondiscriminative wisdom is a prominent feature in most East Asian Buddhist traditions, including Huayan, Tiantai, and Chan, realization of nonduality from a stance within karmic bondage has also been developed, most clearly by Shinran (11731263), founder of the Japanese Shin Buddhist tradition (Jōdo Shinshū) of the Pure Land school. In Shinran's thought, persons come to know the depths of their karmic bondage, reaching back into the unknowable past, through receiving the wisdom of Amida Buddha as the genuine entrusting of themselves (shinjin ) to the Buddha's vow to bring them to enlightenment though his own fulfillment of practices. They awaken to their inability to free themselves from blind passions through religious practices or meritorious acts, which are inevitably tainted by self-attachment, and at the same time they realize that their birth in the Pure Land and attainment of enlightenment are fully settled, for they have attained the Buddha's mind as shinjin. Thus in Tannishō, Shinran states, "Hell is decidedly my home," and also speaks of "the attainment of buddhahood by the person who is evil" (akunin jōbutsu ), expressing the nonduality of karmic existence and Buddha's wisdom found throughout Mahāyāna tradition.

The notion of karman has been considered an integral element of Buddhist awakening to human existence. At the same time, however, the significance of moral actionin relation to religious practice in the Theravāda tradition and to nondichotomous wisdom in Mahāyāna traditionshas been a recurring issue throughout Buddhist history, and recent concerns to formulate a Buddhist social ethics have drawn renewed attention to issues of karman.

See Also

Buddhist Philosophy; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas; Sarvāstivāda; Sautrāntika.


Carter, John Ross, and Mahinda Palihawadana, trans. The Dhammapada. Oxford, 1987.

Egge, James R. Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravāda Buddhism. Richmond, UK, 2002. Considers the harmonization of the ethicized and soteriological strains of karman in Theravāda texts.

Heine, Steven. Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan. Honolulu, 1999. Highlights the tensions between the ethical and the nondiscriminative treatments of karman in Chan/Zen tradition.

Hirota, Dennis, trans. Tannishō: A Primer. Kyoto, 1982. A parallel translation with original text. Also in Dennis Hirota et al., trans., The Collected Works of Shinran, Kyoto, 1997.

Keyes, Charles F., and E. Valentine Daniel, eds. Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry. Berkeley, 1983. Includes articles on modern Tibet and Southeast Asia.

Kumoi Shōzen, ed. Gō shisō kenkyū. Kyoto, 1979. Includes articles on a wide range of Buddhist traditions and a bibliography of research in Japanese and European languages.

Lamotte, Étienne. Karmasiddhi Prakaraa: The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated by Leo M. Pruden. Fremont, Calif., 1987. Introduction includes a summary of views on karman in various abhidharmic schools.

Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih lun. London, 2002. Considers Buddhist conceptions of karman on the way to arguing a phenomenological understanding of Yogācāra.

McDermott, James Paul. Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma. New Delhi, 1984. Lucid survey of the issues in the literature of the early tradition through Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa.

Neufeldt, Ronald W., ed. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. Albany, N.Y., 1986. Includes articles on Buddhist traditions in China, Tibet, and Japan.

Obeyeskere, Gananath. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002. Surveys the notion of rebirth in diverse cultures and delineates a theory of its evolution in Indian traditions through ethicization based on karman to a notion of salvation as transcendent nirvāa.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley, 1980. Includes several articles on Buddhist tradition and an extensive bibliography.

Ueda Yoshifumi. "Freedom and Necessity in Shinran's Concept of Karma." Translated by Dennis Hirota. Eastern Buddhist 19, no. 1 (1986): 76100. An adaptation and translation of Bukkyō ni okeru gō no shisō. Kyoto, 1957. See also Ueda Yoshifumi and Dennis Hirota, Shinran: An Introduction to His Thought. Kyoto, 1989.

Warren, Henry Clarke. Buddhism in Translations (1896). Cambridge, Mass., 1953. Convenient collection of important passages in Theravāda tradition in a section on "Karma and Rebirth."

Dennis Hirota (2005)

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