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Kamma – Actions and Results

color-006-buddhist-wheel-of-life-paro-dzongThe teaching about actions and results is the Buddhist moral law of Kamma-Vipaka. Kamma (Karma in Sanskrit) is the action and Vipaka the result, though generally the word Kamma is used to cover both actions and results.


The first two verses of the Dhammapada summarize as:

‘Mind foreruns all conditions [….] they are mind made. If one speaks or acts with a wicked mind, because of that, pain follows one. If one speaks or acts with a good mind, because of that, happiness follows one.’
The Dhammapada, vv. 1and 2.

This is a law of nature and applies to all beings whether they are Buddhists or not. It does not apply to a Buddha or an arahat since they have gone beyond the plane at which the law of kamma operates, though they may continue to feel the consequences of previous bad actions. This teaching is common to all the traditions. It explains the great differences between people in the world.

This law applies to all actions which have a moral content. A morally good and wholesome action has good consequences. A morally bad and unwholesome action has bad consequences.

The mental qualities which motivate an action determine the moral quality of the action. An action motivated by generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom has good or unhappy consequences. An action motivated by attachment, ill will and ignorance, which are the Three Fires, defilements or unwholesome roots, have bad or unhappy consequences.

The word action has a wide meaning in this context, and includes physical, verbal and mental actions (or body, speech and mind). This law applies only to intentional actions. Unintentional or accidental actions do not have any such consequences.


At the time of the action an element of kammic energy comes into being. It becomes a part of the consciousness of the individual and moves on in the stream of consciousness. Suitable circumstances activate this element of energy to give the good or bad consequences. Buddhism teaches of rebirth and the continuity of life, and this consequence may be activated in the present or future lives. A person’s life is governed by the active units of kammic energy, and changes in these explain the changes in the person’s life.

Each unit of kammic energy has its own momentum. When it is activated the unit of energy continues to have effect until its momentum is exhausted. Thereafter the unit of energy does not exist and has no effect.

Kamma includes the intentional actions of past lives and present life. Several kamma units may act together to determine the present life situation of a person. At the moment of death the unexhausted units of kamma move with the consciousness on to a new life. It is the kamma which provides the power to move the person through Samsara, the cycle of life. This process comes to an end on the person realizing Nibbana. After that no new kamma is formed though the person may have to feel the consequences of past kamma.

A person may reduce the effect of bad kamma and create good kamma by good wholesome actions. There is no predetermination or predestination, or control by any other person. A person is able to change the direction of his life by personal effort, to make it better or bad. Because of his kamma a person encounters the changing situations of life. He has, to some extent, in his present life the potential to change his future life. This is why it is said that according to Buddhism, a person in living creates his own life.

Each person has his own individual kamma, in the same way that he has his own consciousness. The separate kammas of different persons in a group or family may have some relationship, but they remain separate. They do not become a kamma common to each person in the group or family. Sometimes different persons in a group may have similar kamma. This explains the common fate suffered by many persons at the same time, in such situations as floods or other disasters.


The causes of kamma are ignorance and attachment. Ignorance of the Buddhist teaching and attachment to worldly things. These are two of the mental defilements, which together with the third, ill will (or anger), constitute the Three Fires or unwholesome roots. Intention (or motivation) and consciousness are the doers of the kamma, and consciousness which feels the result

Good kamma

Actions which create good wholesome kamma are set out as:

  • Generosity
  • Morality
  • Reverence
  • Meditation
  • Service to the community
  • Transference of merit
  • Rejoicing about other’s good fortune
  • Hearing the teaching
  • Explaining the teaching
  • Understanding the teaching correctly

Some of the benefits of good kamma are birth in fortunate circumstances, opportunity to live according to the Dhamma and happiness.

Bad kamma

Actions which create bad unwholesome kamma are set out in three sections as:

  • Three caused by actions:
    1. Harming living beings (killing)
    2. Stealing (defined as taking what is not one’s own)
    3. Misuse of the senses (sexual misconduct)
  • Four caused by speech:
    1. Lying
    2. Slander
    3. Harsh speech
    4. Frivolous talk (i.e.gossip etc)
  • Three caused by mind:
    1. Attachment
    2. Ill will (anger)
    3. Ignorance.

Some of the disadvantages of bad kamma are birth in unfortunate circumstances, not having opportunity to live according to the Dhamma and unhappiness.

Kamma may be classified in different ways. For instance, according to function, strength, time of operation and so on.


The law of kamma places the responsibility of his or her life on the individual. He must bear the consequences of his bad actions, and enjoy the consequences of his good actions. He may alter his future life for good or bad by good or bad actions, respectively.