Karma Presentation - University of Bristol

• Karma is found within many forms of Indian
religion including Buddhism, Hinduism and
• In Sanskrit karma (Pali: kamma) means ‘action’.
• It is linked to systems of cause and effect, as well
as being a key factor in rebirth.
• Ideas concerning the nature of karma have
evolved over time and karma did not start off as
an ethical concept.
• In the early Vedic period it was believed that after some
time in the afterlife rebirth into one’s own family was
automatic irrespective of good or bad actions.
• In the later Vedic period karma was understood as
sacrificial acts which, if correctly performed would enable
a desired result to come into effect, if the sacrifice was
performed incorrectly then the desired result would
simply not occur.
• In texts such as the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads it was
explained that actions performed on a small scale
(microcosm) would have an effect on the cosmos as a
whole (macrocosm)
• In the Upaniṣads karma acquires an ethical dimension of
good and bad deeds became a determining factor in the
quality of one’s rebirth.
• This ethicised concept of karma became widespread and
was a key factor in the formation of the emerging
religions at the time.
• In Jainism karma is seen as good or bad actions and
conceived of as matter which is sticking to the soul. Over
many lifetimes beings can try to attract less and less
karmic matter and remove the one that is already there.
• In Buddhism karma is understood as good or bad
intentional actions performed in mind, body and speech.
Unlike Jainism, Buddhism places great emphasis on
• There are many different concepts of karma but we
concentrate here on Buddhist karma.
“It is ‘intention’ that I call kamma; having willed or formed
the intention, one performs acts by the body, speech and
Anguttara Nikaya iii, 415
Translation from Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1998), p. 120.
(Full text of the Nibbedhika Sutta can be found here)
• Intentional actions that produce karmic results can be
split into three categories:
• Actions of body
• Actions of speech
• Action of mind
• What this means is that the individual is responsible for
their own karmic results. The way in which they think, the
physical actions they perform and what they say will
produce further karmic actions and results.
• Knowing this one can change the behaviour and attempt
to generate good karmic results.
In later Buddhist Literature we find reference a list of 10
meritorious deeds (Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha 25) :
• It is also tenfold according to (i) generosity, (ii) morality,
(iii) meditation, (iv) reverence, (v) service, (vi)
transference of merit, (vii) rejoicing in [others’] merit (viii)
hearing the doctrine, (ix) teaching the doctrine, (x) and
straightening one’s views.
Translation from Narada Mahathera, A Manual of Abhidhamma,
(Bangalore: Power Press 1956), vol. I p 241.
10 Bad/Unwholesome Acts
10 Good/Wholesome Acts
Taking what is not given
Ethical behaviour
Sexual misconduct
Rejoicing in merit
Divisive speech
Giving merit
Hurtful speech
Giving service
Frivolous speech
Showing respect
Ill will
Listening to preaching
Wrong view
Right View
• Karma, within Buddhist thought, is a system of cause and
effect. Rather than being linked to ritual actions karma is
understood to concern all intentional thoughts and
• What this means is that actions have a moral quality to
them. Intentional actions that are good and well meaning
will have positive outcomes whereas intentional actions
that are selfish, discriminatory and hurtful will produce
negative outcomes.
• Karma also plays a great part in determining the future
rebirth of an individual.
• The nature of the relationship between karma and rebirth
is complex.
• Whilst karma will have a certain influence of the quality of
life in the next life it does not necessarily dictate the
rebirth destination.
• Instead the moment of death is very influential in
determining rebirth. If an individual dies in a peaceful
manner, with religious thoughts then they are more likely
to have a good rebirth. If someone dies unexpectedly,
violently or with a bad state of mind this can lead to a
poor rebirth.
• The reason for this is that at the time of death only the
mental factors can get carried over.
Dilemma: If Buddhism does not propagate a soul or self,
how is karma meant to get carried over from one
existence to the next?
• The being who is reborn is neither the same nor different
from being who dies (like an old person is neither the
same nor different from the baby he was)
• Person is analysed as being made up of physical and
mental phenomena (5 aggregates, skandhas; 12
spheres, ayatanas; 18 elements, dhatus, etc.)
• These phenomena (body, feeling, volitions, etc.) are all
subject to change at any time.
• The occurrence of these physical and mental phenomena
follows laws of causality called “Dependent Origination”
• The causal connectedness of phenomena does not stop
at death, only a particular configuration of events breaks
up and a reconfiguration takes place.
• As the body can not be carried over into the new
existence, great emphasis is given to the mental events
at time of death.
• The mental events or, to phrase it differently, what type of
karma come to the foreground at the time of death, are
crucial in determining the next existence.
• Even if a being has committed many bad deeds but has
managed to attain a good rebirth they will at some point
suffer the effects of past bad actions. A good death can
result in a good rebirth but this is not tantamount to
having a long and good life.
• In the Abhidharma the karma that comes to the forefront
at the time of death is divided into a hierarchy of four
basic types: weighty, proximate, habitual, and
• The nature of one’s death is conditioned by the type of
karma that comes to the fore at the time of death.
• All Buddhist texts agree that if the dying person has
committed a deed that is deemed to be ‘weighty’ that
particular action will inevitably determine the state of
mind of the individual at the time of death. If the deed is
bad (such as killing a parent) this will result in rebirth in
hell. If the deed is good (such as having achieved a
particularly high stage of meditation) it will result in rebirth
in one of the corresponding heavens.
• Most of us will not be in a situation that we have
committed such a weighty deed and in that case other
deeds will come to mind.
• These can be either ‘habitual’, that is grounded in deeply
ingrained good habits (such as going to the the temple on
full moon days, making offerings to the Buddha and
Saṅgha or listening to sermons) or bad habits (such as
excessive drinking, lying and stealing).
• Or ‘proximate’ karma, that means something that
happened just before death, will become the determining
factor. This is the doctrinal rationale for the widely held
belief that chanting, reminding the dying person of past
good deeds and generally creating a calm and peaceful
atmosphere can contribute to a better rebirth.
• Finally, if there is a lack of such significant deeds then the
the so-called ‘performed’ karma (a rather general
category) will come to the fore and condition rebirth.
• The last thoughts of an individual are dictated by his/her
prior karma and will shape their future rebirth. The more
calm, prepared, conscious and aware a person is the
better their rebirth is considered to be.
• In Buddhist cultures it is believed that it is possible to
create a good death moment by chanting or directing the
dying persons mind towards the Buddha, Dharma and
• If someone dies in an untimely or violent manner, or
disturbed by thoughts of bad deeds, or if a woman dies
whilst pregnant this is commonly regarded as a bad
• Actions that are considered to be wholesome (Sanskrit:
kuśala/ Pali: kusala) will have pleasant results (vipāka).
• Good karma is also known as merit (puṇya/puñña). The
production of merit is important as it can have positive
effects on the lives of individuals, generate desirable
rebirths and also allow one to access higher levels of
spiritual attainment.
• The generated merit can also be ‘given’ away which in
itself is a meritorious deed.
Acts, such as
giving the gifts to
the Saṅgha,
result in good
karma if done in
with positive
attitude (Thailand
Members of the
laity listening to
a chanting from
Abhidhamma in
A member of
the lay
giving a bhikkhu
food in
• Actions that are considered to be unwholesome
(akuśala/askusala) will have unpleasant and even painful
• Whilst the effects of bad karma are unpleasant they do not
perpetuate further bad karma. Instead it is the way in which
one deals with it that will produce either good or bad karma.
• As with good karma this can also have a determining effect on
one’s future rebirth. If one’s bad karma surfaces at the
moment of death then this can lead to an undesirable rebirth.
• As no one knows for sure where a loved one is being reborn,
giving of merit and even material goods to the deceased are
very common.
• Early Vedic beginnings: rebirth into own family
• Late Vedic: karma as sacrificial action
• Upanishads: karma begins to acquire ethical dimension
• Jain: karma as good and bad acts conceptualized as
matter regardless of intention
• Buddhist:
• karma as good and bad intentional acts
• karma linked with the quality of rebirth
• “Dependent origination” explains how karma get
carried over without a soul or self as carrier
• At death only mental factors can get carried over
• How to have a good or bad death
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