Archive for August, 2020

Right View and Kamma

“He has right view, undistorted vision, thus: ‘There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed; there is fruit and result of good and bad actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings who are reborn spontaneously; there are good and virtuous ascetics and brahmins in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.’”

(From Majjhima Nikāya 41.14; Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. and ed., In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, p. 160.)

In early Buddhist sources the Buddha makes few philosophical claims. Most of his teaching describes the path that he found led to a supreme happiness, or awakening, how to understand and practice that path, and his encouragement to others to do so. One philosophical claim that he did make, however, is that we can choose what actions we take, and that the choices have real consequences. This is the principle of kamma (Sanskrit: karma).

The Buddha’s explanation of kamma is essentially that action and its results are real, and that by cultivating skillful action one can develop actual spiritual attainments. These attainments provide insights into how things really are, which, when clearly seen and acted upon, give rise to long term happiness and the possibility of liberation.

Some of the Buddha’s contemporaries claimed that one’s welfare depended on proper performance of ritual action. The Buddha challenged this idea, describing it as wrong grasp of rules and observances. Instead, he taught that kamma equated to one’s volition (cetanā): “It is volition that I call kamma; for having willed, one acts by body, speech, and mind” (AN 6:63). The quality of the intention underlying any volition determines whether the resulting action is skillful or not.

According to the Buddha, skillful intentions, such as non-greed, goodwill and compassion, when developed and acted on, produce long-term results that support one’s well-being and happiness. Unskillful intentions, such as greed, ill-will, and wishing harm, developed and acted on, ultimately give rise to results that are contrary to one’s well-being and happiness. The Buddha urged his followers to purify their intentions, and the resulting actions by body, speech, and mind, in order to cultivate long-term happiness and develop the path to liberation.

Key to developing the path taught by the Buddha is the first element of the Noble Eightfold Path, right view (sammādiṭṭhi). Right view as explained by the Buddha consists of understanding the four noble truths, and accepting (as a working hypothesis at least) that the principle of kamma is correct. As always, he invited his followers to test these things to see for themselves if they are true.

I can’t say for sure that kamma works just as the Buddha described it, but I try to act on it as my working hypothesis. The principle motivates me to look at the quality of the intentions underlying my bodily actions, speech, and thinking. The happiness and sense of peace that comes from acting this way seems to confirm the Buddha’s claims. I also experience the principle of kamma as empowering, since it says that my well being and happiness is ultimately something that depends on my choice, not on fate, or the actions of a god or other being.

As with many of the Buddha’s teachings you can try them out as a personal experiment. If you’re inclined, this week try tuning into to the quality of your intentions before, during, or after you act on them. You might consider to what extent the intention was influenced by craving or aversion. If so, did the action seem to give rise to harm or well being for yourself, or for others? Conversely, you might notice if your actions are motivated by non-greed, goodwill, or compassion. If so, what result did that seem to produce for yourself, or for others?

For those wishing to explore this topic further, Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has given many Dhamma talks on the the theme. You can find them by visiting Dhammatalks.org and searching on “kamma” and “karma”. A longer discussion by Ṭhānissaro on the topic that I find valuable is:

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu – The War on Karma

May we all find happiness in acting on skillful intention.

Best wishes,


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