Buddhism in a Nutshell
by Venerable Narada Thera
Kamma or the Law of Moral Causation
We are faced with a totally ill-balanced world. We perceive the inequalities and manifold destinies of men and the numerous grades of beings that exist in the universe. We see one born into a condition of affluence, endowed with fine mental, moral and physical qualities and another into a condition of abject poverty and wretchedness. Here is a man virtuous and holy, but, contrary to his expectation, ill-luck is ever ready to greet him. The wicked world runs counter to his ambitions and desires. He is poor and miserable in spite of his honest dealings and piety. There is another vicious and foolish, but accounted to be fortune’s darling. He is rewarded with all forms of favors, despite his shortcomings and evil modes of life.
Why, it may be questioned, should one be an inferior and another a superior? Why should one be wrested from the hands of a fond mother when he has scarcely seen a few summers, and another should perish in the flower of manhood, or at the ripe age of eighty or hundred? Why should one be sick and infirm, and another strong and healthy? Why should one be handsome, and another ugly and hideous, repulsive to all? Why should one be brought up in the lap of luxury, and another in absolute poverty, steeped in misery? Why should one be born a millionaire and another a pauper? Why should one be born with saintly characteristics, and another with criminal tendencies? Why should some be linguists, artists, mathematicians or musicians from the very cradle? Why should some be congenitally blind, deaf and deformed? Why should some be blessed and others cursed from their birth?
These are some problems that perplex the minds of all thinking men. How are we to account for all this unevenness of the world, this inequality of mankind? Is it due to the work of blind chance or accident?
There is nothing in this world that happens by blind chance or accident. To say that anything happens by chance, is no more true than that this book has come here of itself. Strictly speaking, nothing happens to man that he does not deserve for some reason or another.
Could this be the fiat of an irresponsible Creator?
Huxley writes: “If we are to assume that anybody has designedly set this wonderful universe going, it is perfectly clear to me that he is no more entirely benevolent and just in any intelligible sense of the words, than that he is malevolent and unjust.”
According to Einstein: “If this being (God) is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also his work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an Almighty Being.
“In giving out punishments and rewards, he would to a certain extent be passing judgement on himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to him.”
“According to the theological principles man is created arbitrarily and without his desire and at the moment of his creation is either blessed or damned eternally. Hence man is either good or evil, fortunate or unfortunate, noble or depraved, from the first step in the process of his physical creation to the moment of his last breath, regardless of his individual desires, hopes, ambitions, struggles or devoted prayers. Such is theological fatalism.” — Spencer Lewis
As Charles Bradlaugh says: “The existence of evil is a terrible stumbling block to the theist. Pain, misery, crime, poverty confront the advocate of eternal goodness and challenge with unanswerable potency his declaration of Deity as all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful.”
In the words of Schopenhauer: “Whoever regards himself as having become out of nothing must also think that he will again become nothing; for an eternity has passed before he was, and then a second eternity had begun, through which he will never cease to be, is a monstrous thought.
“If birth is the absolute beginning, then death must be his absolute end; and the assumption that man is made out of nothing leads necessarily to the assumption that death is his absolute end.”
Commenting on human sufferings and God, Prof. J.B.S. Haldane writes: “Either suffering is needed to perfect human character, or God is not Almighty. The former theory is disproved by the fact that some people who have suffered very little but have been fortunate in their ancestry and education have very fine characters. The objection to the second is that it is only in connection with the universe as a whole that there is any intellectual gap to be filled by the postulation of a deity. And a creator could presumably create whatever he or it wanted.”
Lord Russell states: “The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before he created the world he foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain. He is therefore responsible for all of it. it is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, he was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when he decided to create man.”
In “Despair,” a poem of his old age, Lord Tennyson thus boldly attacks God, who, as recorded in Isaiah, says, “I make peace and create evil.” (Isaiah, xiv. 7.)
“What! I should call on that infinite love that has served us so well?
Infinite cruelty, rather, that made everlasting hell.
Made us, foreknew us, foredoomed us, and does what he will with his own.
Better our dead brute mother who never has heard us groan.”
Surely “the doctrine that all men are sinners and have the essential sin of Adam is a challenge to justice, mercy, love and omnipotent fairness.”
Some writers of old authoritatively declared that God created man in his own image. Some modern thinkers state, on the contrary, that man created God in his own image. With the growth of civilization man’s concept of God also became more and more refined.
It is, however, impossible to conceive of such a being either in or outside the universe.
Could this variation in human beings then be due to heredity and environment? One must admit that all such chemico-physical phenomena revealed by scientists, are partly instrumental, but they cannot be solely responsible for the subtle distinctions and vast differences that exist amongst individuals. Yet why should identical twins who are physically alike, inheriting like genes, enjoying the same privilege of upbringing, be very often temperamentally, morally and intellectually totally different?
Heredity alone cannot account for these vast differences. Strictly speaking, it accounts more plausibly for their similarities than for most of the differences. The infinitesimally minute chemico-physical germ, which is about 30 millionth part of an inch across, inherited from parents, explains only a portion of man, his physical foundation. With regard to the more complex and subtle mental, intellectual and moral differences we need more enlightenment. The theory of heredity cannot give a satisfactory explanation for the birth of a criminal in a long line of honourable ancestors, the birth of a saint or a noble man in a family of evil repute, for the arising of infant prodigies, men of genius and great religious teachers.
According to Buddhism this variation is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture,” but also to our own kamma, or in other words, to the result of our own inherited past actions and our present deeds. We ourselves are responsible for our own deeds, happiness and misery. We build our own hells. We create our own heavens. We are the architects of our own fate. In short we ourselves are our own kamma.
On one occasion  a certain young man named Subha approached the Buddha, and questioned why and wherefore it was that among human beings there are the low and high states.
“For,” said he, “we find amongst mankind those of brief life and those of long life, the hale and the ailing, the good looking and the ill-looking, the powerful and the powerless, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, the ignorant and the intelligent.”
The Buddha briefly replied: “Every living being has kamma as its own, its inheritance, its cause, its kinsman, its refuge. Kamma is that which differentiates all living beings into low and high states.”
He then explained the cause of such differences in accordance with the law of moral causation.
Thus from a Buddhist standpoint, our present mental, intellectual, moral and temperamental differences are mainly due to our own actions and tendencies, both past the present.
Kamma, literally, means action; but, in its ultimate sense, it means the meritorious and demeritorious volition (kusala akusala cetana). Kamma constitutes both good and evil. Good gets good. Evil gets evil. Like attracts like. This is the law of Kamma.
As some Westerners prefer to say Kamma is “action-influence.”
We reap what we have sown. What we sow we reap somewhere or some when. In one sense we are the result of what we were; we will be the result of what we are. In another sense, we are not totally the result of what we were and we will not absolutely be the result of what we are. For instance, a criminal today may be a saint tomorrow.
Buddhism attributes this variation to kamma, but it does not assert that everything is due to kamma.
If everything were due to kamma, a man must ever be bad, for it is his kamma to be bad. One need not consult a physician to be cured of a disease, for if one’s kamma is such one will be cured.
According to Buddhism, there are five orders or processes (niyamas) which operate in the physical and mental realms:
i. Kamma niyama, order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable acts produce corresponding good and bad results.
ii. Utu niyama, physical (inorganic) order, e.g., seasonal phenomena of winds and rains.
iii. Bija niyama, order of germs or seeds (physical organic order); e.g., rice produced from rice-seed, sugary taste from sugar cane or honey, etc. The scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may be ascribed to this order.
iv. Citta niyama, order of mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness (citta vithi), power of mind, etc.
v. Dhamma niyama, order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisatta in his last birth, gravitation, etc.
Every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing five orders or processes which are laws in themselves. Kamma is, therefore, only one of the five orders that prevail in the universe. It is a law in itself, but it does not thereby follow that there should be a law-giver. Ordinary laws of nature, like gravitation, need no law-giver. It operates in its own field without the intervention of an external independent ruling agency.
Nobody, for instance, has decreed that fire should burn. Nobody has commanded that water should seek its own level. No scientist has ordered that water should consist of H2O, and that coldness should be one of its properties. These are their intrinsic characteristics. Kamma is neither fate nor predestination imposed upon us by some mysterious unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves. It is one’s own doing reacting on oneself, and so one has the possibility to divert the course of kamma to some extent. How far one diverts it depends on oneself.
It must also be said that such phraseology as rewards and punishments should not be allowed to enter into discussions concerning the problem of kamma. For Buddhism does not recognize an Almighty Being who rules his subjects and rewards and punishes them accordingly. Buddhists, on the contrary, believe that sorrow and happiness one experiences are the natural outcome of one’s own good and bad actions. It should be stated that kamma has both the continuative and the retributive principle.
Inherent in kamma is the potentiality of producing its due effect. The cause produces the effect; the effect explains the cause. Seed produces the fruit; the fruit explains the seed as both are inter-related. Even so kamma and its effect are inter-related; “the effect already blooms in the cause.”
A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the doctrine of kamma does not pray to another to be saved but confidently relies on himself for his purification because it teaches individual responsibility.
It is this doctrine of kamma that gives him consolation, hope, self reliance and moral courage. It is this belief in kamma “that validates his effort, kindles his enthusiasm,” makes him ever kind, tolerant and considerate. It is also this firm belief in kamma that prompts him to refrain from evil, do good and be good without being frightened of any punishment or tempted by any reward.
It is this doctrine of kamma that can explain the problem of suffering, the mystery of so-called fate or predestination of other religions, and above all the inequality of mankind.
Kamma and rebirth are accepted as axiomatic.