Kamma (karma) and Re-birth

What is Kamma?

Kamma is one of the natural laws of the universe governing all sentient beings.

The Pali word Kamma (Karma in Sanskrit) literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action, whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as Kamma. Inherent in kamma is the potentiality of producing its due effect, which operates in its own field without the intervention of any external, independent ruling agency. Kamma produces results (Kamma vipaka) which the doer has to experience. This is a reaction in accordance with the natural law of cause and effect.

What are good and bad kamma?

The words good and bad are subjective and relative terms, very much depending on the society in which one lives. For example, Buddhists regard animal sacrifice as bad, while in some belief systems, this is regarded as good practice producing beneficial results. Therefore, in Buddhism, an action (performed with intention) that produces a beneficial result is described as a wholesome (skilful, favourable) kamma and an action that produces a negative or detrimental result is described as an unwholesome (unskilful, unfavourable) kamma.

In general, any act which is harmful to oneself and to others is unwholesome kamma. Wholesome or skilful kamma is the development of virtue (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (panna). To develop virtue, one should practise at least the five precepts (panca-sila). Concentration is developed by meditation, and wisdom arises when the above two qualities are developed and with the practice of insight meditation.

(a) If I run over a dog accidentally, do I have to suffer the kammic consequences?
(b) I had to put down my dog as a result of a severe illness, will I suffer from bad kamma as a result?

In the first instance, there was no intention to run over the dog, hence it would not produce unwholesome kamma.

In the second case, there was a definite intention to kill the animal, hence it is an unwholesome action. However, if the action was motivated by compassion, and not to get rid of a troublesome pet, the resultant unwholesome kamma may be lessened due to the thoughts of compassion.

A similar situation is when a doctor or a relative of a terminally ill patient has to make a decision to switch off the life support system. In this case, one could say that the patient was being prevented from undergoing the natural and inevitable process of death by maintaining the life support system. Therefore it is probable that no unwholesome kamma would result by letting the natural process take its due course.

It is the intent of the action that determines appropriate results.

The Buddha said: 'Volition, O monks, I declare is kamma'
(Cetanadham bhikkhave kammam vadami)


I see many people doing evil things such as cheating, robbing others etc, and living a good life, while there are some who have been very religious but have lost their fortunes or been struck down by a terrible disease. How do you explain this?

The working of kamma is so complex that only a Buddha who has the wisdom can fully comprehend it in all its details. The law of kamma is dynamic, i.e. the result of a particular kamma may undergo change or may be cancelled out altogether due to a previous or a subsequent opposing kamma. The result of kamma may not manifest immediately, or even in this lifetime, but may produce a result in a future life.

If a person is born into favourable circumstances, enjoys wealth and good health, this is indeed due to his wholesome kamma from a past life. The results of a particular kamma will surface when the conditions for its manifestation are appropriate. So if a person considered to be good is struck down by a terrible disease, it could be the result of a past unwholesome kamma coming to the surface.

If one kills another person, does he get killed in return in a future birth?

This is a common misconception. As stated before, kamma operates in a complex manner, and may not necessarily operate in a straightforward way which we can understand. Following are some of the probable consequences of unwholesome kamma as described in the ancient texts:

Killing: shortness of life, ill health, frequent grief due to separation from the loved, and frequent fear.

Stealing: poverty, misery, disappointment and dependent livelihood.

Sexual misconduct: having many enemies, union with undesirable husbands and wives, birth as a eunuch.

Lying: being subject to abusive speech and vilification, untrustworthiness, and a smelly mouth.

Is there a difference in kamma between harming a human and an animal?

The intensity of the kamma depends on the level of existence of the being affected. Humans are on a higher plane of existence than animals, hence harming a human produces more intense kamma. Similarly, harming a virtuous person produces even greater intensity of unwholesome kamma. The effects of wholesome kamma are also intensified if the recipient of our action is a person of high virtue. That is why Buddhists like particularly to perform acts of generosity towards virtuous monks.

What proof is there of past life?

In attaining enlightenment, the Buddha developed the power which enabled him to see how beings pass from one life to another. The ability to recall past lives can be acquired through meditative practice.
In recent times, there have been a number of investigated cases of spontaneous recall of their previous lives among very young children.
The Buddhist explanation for ‘gifted’ children is that they are only experiencing memories from a previous existence. Differing kammic inheritance, brought from previous lives, may also explain the differences between identical twins.

See the pioneering investigations carried out by
The late Dr
Ian Stevenson of University of Virginia


Suggested reading:
Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation
By Dr Ian Stevenson

Are the personality and physical characteristics of a person determined by previous kamma?

A being is born into particular circumstances as a result of his previous kamma. Other factors such as inherited genes and the environment are physical factors necessary for the manifestation of the individual’s kamma. Buddhist belief is that, in general, a thought, volition, or desire which is extremely strong during lifetime becomes the predominant factor in determining the subsequent birth.

Frequently, strong mental traits are carried over.

Is kamma carried by the soul during reincarnation from one life to another?

The non-existence of a permanent soul or spirit that reincarnates from one life to another is fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. A permanent soul cannot exist in the ever-changing, interdependent process of mind and matter which constitutes a living being. However, the momentum of accumulated kamma results in a new existence. The individual so born is neither the same nor different from the previous being. Buddhism, therefore, describes this process as ‘rebecoming’ or ‘rebirth’ in preference to reincarnation which implies a resurrection of the same entity. It is the force of one’s accumulated kamma which drives life onward from one existence to another. Only an enlightened being (arahant) creates no more kamma.

Are animals subject to rebirth and can humans be reborn as animals or plants?

According to Buddhist teachings, animals are sentient beings, just as humans. Their mind functions at a lower level than humans but they experience feelings and possess conciousness. Therefore they are subject to the same laws of existence including kamma. A being (including human) that has acquired unwholesome kamma as a result of unskilful activity may be born as an animal.

Animal plane of existence is below that of humans and classed as one of the unhappy states. Beings born into lower planes are unable to engage in skilful activities to aquire wholesome kamma due to the nature of their existence. Therefore they may remain trapped in this state for a long time, until such time that the unwholesome kamma which resulted in that birth is exhausted. They will then be reborn into a higher plane such as human.

The belief that a human being could be born as a plant or a tree is not supported in Buddhist teachings. A plant does not have the same type of conciousness (vinnana) as a sentient being.

Buddha emphasised the importance of human existence that gives the best opportunity to develop the mind to the highest level, and to attain Nibbana.

See Planes of Existence.

If the present life is the result of past actions, is a person’s life already predetermined?

The present life is very much conditioned by past kamma, not only from the immediate past life but from preceding lives as well, depending on the intensity of the particular kamma. However, life is in a state of flux and the results of past kamma can undergo change due to subsequent actions. Hence, to that extent, everything is not predetermined. On the question of freewill, the whole existence is relative, conditioned and interdependent, hence there cannot be absolute freewill. It is important to understand that how we act today conditions the life we will have in the future.

See also Law of Kamma