This lecture looks in detail at the law of kamma, at how the mind works, rebirth and then briefly at other natural laws.

According to the Visuddhimagga, if you understand kamma, you go beyond all doubts and understand the whole doctrine. Kamma is a Pali word. You may possibly know it better in its Sanskrit form - Karma. This is a word which is used in a variety of different ways by people from different religious and cultural traditions, and it often has different meanings given to it, which has led to a certain amount of confusion and misunderstanding. This is an explanation of kamma as it is understood in the Buddhist tradition. Please set aside any preconceived notions which you may have.

Very simply the word kamma means action. It is simply the law of cause and effect (kamma and kamma vipaka) Kamma is the action,vipaka the effect or ripening. Wholesome actions produce wholesome effects, unwholesome actions produce unwholesome effects. As you sow, so shall you reap. Above all it is the volition which precedes the action which determines whether it is wholesome or unwholesome; this means an action where there is a desire for a result. The Buddha said, "It is volition (or will - Cetana) which I call kamma. Through volition one performs kamma by means of body, speech and mind."

This desire, no matter how mild it may be, is a mild form of craving (tanha) and it lies behind practically every activity of life. Therefore to live and to desire are more or less the same thing. Desiring is a creative act - it creates k. Our personality is moulded by the accumulation of these desires. These are acts of thought, word and deed. Both kamma and vipaka are essentially mental, but we also use the term 'action' to denote acts of word or deed. There is an ascending order of importance: if I think "I want to kill you", that is not as strong as saying "I want to kill you", which is in turn is not as strong as actually carrying out the deed. Every volitional action has consequences. It must be emphasised that we are talking here only of volitional actions - in Buddhism intention is of paramount importance; purely mechanical actions, like switching on a light, have no kammic consequences. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions are not kamma. The function of volition is to direct the mind in the sphere of good, bad or neutral activities. Volitional actions are: will, determination, desire, hate, ignorance, conceit, wisdom. An action started with good intention cannot have unwholesome effects, even if it misfires (helping an old lady across the road, I trip and push her into the ditch). A knife can be used to kill you or by a surgeon to remove your appendix.

Vipaka is the effect. Sensations, perceptions are vipaka. Whatever you see, hear, smell, taste or experience through the sense of touch is vipaka. This is a passive experience which we cannot control; but we may judge it to be pleasant or unpleasant. This judging is not vipaka. It is reaction and this causes kamma. Seeing a colour is vipaka, liking it or disliking it is not. These are not results, but causes - causes which have kammic consequences. This is the crucial moment when we can create either wholesome or unwholesome kamma. The liking or disliking which arises after the moment of cognition is no longer vipaka. We should try to understand what is vipaka and what is no longer vipaka.

Let us look again at the first two verses of the Dhammapada:-

"All (mental) states have mind as their forerunner, mind is their chief, and they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with a defiled mind, then suffering follows one even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox."

"All (mental) states have mind as their forerunner, mind is their chief, and they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one's shadow that does not leave one."

You cannot judge if a man is doing right or wrong until you know his mind. To your mind his behaviour may be wrong, but in his mind there may be nothing like that. The position has been likened to a man building a wall, or digging a ditch - he goes up or down strictly in accordance with his own efforts. Or, just as a seed which has been sown in the soil produces plants according to its intrinsic nature, so each action will produce its appropriate effects. If you sow an acorn, you will not get an apple tree. So we are responsible for the way we are. We cannot blame our present problems on our parents (because they were not arahants!), or on the government (because they are not all arahants!). We cannot say, "It's not fair. Poor me. I don't have the best of everything, but the world is against me." We cannot gain our own happiness at the expense of others.

Classification of Kamma 10 kinds of akusala kamma:-

Actions of body - killing, stealing, sexual misconduct.

Actions of speech - lying, slander, harsh speech, vain talk.

Actions of mind - covetousness, illwill, wrong view (i.e. everything has originated without a cause; good and bad produce no effects; there is nothing after this life).

10 kinds of kusala kamma: - generosity (dana), morality (sila), meditation (bhavana), reverence (pacayana), service(veyyavacca), transference of merit (pattidana), rejoicing in others' merit (pattanumodana), hearing the doctrine (dhamma-savana), teaching the doctrine (dhamma-desana), straightening one's views (ditthijjukammavasena, i.e. viewing rightly, such as it is beneficial to give alms).

There are two stages of kamma: 1. Cetana kamma - volition. Thought alone, but kamma is not complete. 2. Cetayitra kamma - having willed, one acts. Then it becomes complete. For an action to become complete there are five stages which must be completed. For example in the case of killing:- 1. There must be an animal to be killed. 2. You must be aware of the animal. 3. There must be the idea of killing, a plan formulated. 4. The plan must be carried out. 5. The animal must die.

For stealing, there must be:- 1. Another's property. 2. Knowledge that it is so. 3. Intention to steal. 4. Effort to steal. 5. Actual removal of the item.

For sexual misconduct, there must be:- 1. The thought to enjoy. 2. Consequent effort. 3. Means to gratify. 4. Act of gratification.

For lying, there must be:- 1. An untruth 2. Intention to deceive. 3. Utterance. 4. Deception takes place. Killing an adult more serious than killing a child.

Kamma has been classified in four different ways:- 1. The Time at which It Bears Fruit 1. Dhitthadhamma-vedaniya-kamma. Bearing fruit in this life, effective immediately, even today or tomorrow. 2. Upapajja-vedaniya-kamma. Bearing fruit in the next life, subsequently effective, needing time to mature. 3. Aparapariya-vedaniya-kamma. Bearing fruit in later lives, effective indefinitely. Not even the Buddha or Arahants can escape the effects of this kamma. The Buddha's foot was cut when Devadatta tried to kill him - due to having killed his step-brother in a previous life with the object of taking his property. 4. Ahosi-kamma. Ineffective kamma, kamma which has been eradicated or vanished due to good kamma or any other heavy kamma.

2. Its Functions

1. Janaka-kamma. Generative or reproductive kamma, which predominates at the moment of death and conditions the present existence. It is janaka kamma which produces the five aggregates and determines the plane of existence in which we are reborn. 2. Upatthambhaka-kamma. Supportive kamma, supports the agreeable or disagreeable phenomena arising during the lifetime and aids their continuance. Moral supportive kamma assists in giving health, wealth, happiness; immoral supportive kamma assists in giving pain, sorrow, e.g.birth as a beast of burden.

3. Upapilaka-kamma. Counteractive or obstructive kamma, which counteracts the agreeable or disagreeable phenomena arising during the life time and does not allow them to continue, e.g.birth as a human, but with ailments; or as a dog - in the affluent West where life can be pleasant.

4. Upaghataka-kamma. Destructive kamma, which destroys weaker kamma and admits only its own agreeable or disagreeable results, a person may be killed or completely changed, either good or bad. It is like a counteractive force which obstructs a flying arrow. An example would be a farmer sowing a seed (generative kamma); irrigating, fertilising, etc. (supportive kamma); drought which causes a poor harvest (counteractive kamma); and fire which destroys the entire harvest (destructive kamma). The rebirth of Devadatta in a royal family was due to good generative kamma. His becoming a monk and attaining high spiritual powers was good supportive kamma; intention to kill the Buddha, expulsion from Sangha - counteractive kamma; destructive kamma brought his life to a miserable end.

3. The Order in which It Takes Place (Priority of Effect)

1. Garuka-kamma. Weighty kamma.

2. Asanna-kamma. Death-proximate kamma.

3. Acinna-kamma. Habitual kamma.

4. Katatta-kamma. Reserve or cumulative kamma.

Weighty kamma may be either moral (attainment of the jhanas) or immoral (matricide, parricide, murder of an Arahant, wounding of the Buddha, causing a schism in the Sangha, permanent scepticism - niyata micchaditthi). These actions are so weighty that they take priority in effect over all others. Devadatta had developed high spiritual powers, but due to weighty kamma (wounding the Buddha, causing a schism) he lost his psychic powers and was reborn in an evil state. Death-proximate kamma is an action or thought which occurs immediately prior to death. The last thought-moment is very important for the place of future rebirth. Hence the Buddhist custom of reminding a dying person of his good deeds whilst he is on his death bed, or hearing the dhamma. A bad person may die happily and receive good rebirth if he remembers a good act at the last moment. An executioner remembered having given alms to Sariputta. Although he enjoyed good rebirth, he will not be exempt from the effect of his evil deeds; they will have their effects as conditions arise. Usually the last thought-moment is conditioned by one's general conduct throughout one's life. Habitual kamma is that which one constantly performs throughout one's life; for example, a butcher may recall his habit of killing animals. Someone else may recall a habit of giving alms regularly. Reserve kamma includes all kamma that cannot be included in the first three categories. Actions done once and soon forgotten, done at random without much deliberation; when other kammic effects are not present, this kamma will bring a result, like a reserve fund.

4. The Plane in which the Effect Takes Place

1. Immoral kamma which ripens in the sense sphere(kamaloka).

2. Moral kamma which ripens in the sense sphere.

3. Moral kamma which ripens in the realms of form (rupaloka).

4. Moral kamma which ripens in the formless realms (arupaloka).

(Immoral kamma means: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct (bodily actions); lying, slander, harsh speech and vain talk (verbal actions); greed, ill-will and wrong belief (mental actions). Moral kamma means: generosity, morality, meditation, reverence, service, transference of merit, rejoicing at others' good actions, hearing the dhamma, expounding the dhamma, and correcting one's views.) Moral kamma of the rupalokas means the five jhanas attained by meditation. Moral kamma of the arupalokas is connected with the 4 arupa jhanas.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that kamma carries with it the idea of predestination or fatalism, that since everything is conditioned by kamma, there is nothing we can do to influence the course of our lives. This is not so. If everything down to the minutest details were preconditioned, either by kamma or by the physical laws of the universe, there would be no room for the functioning of freewill. It would be impossible for us to free ourselves from the mechanism of cause and effect and to attain Nibbana.

"If one says that in whatever way a person performs a kammic action, in that very same way he will experience the result - in that case there will be no (possibility for a) religious life and no opportunity would appear for the complete ending of suffering. But if one says that a person who performs a kammic action (with a result) that is variably experienceable, will reap its results accordingly - in that case there will be (a possibility for) a religious life and an opportunity for making a complete end of suffering." (A.3:110)

Kammic laws state tendencies, not inevitable consequences. It is true that once an act has been performed, we cannot altogether avoid its consequences, BUT it is how we react to what we experience that determines whether we shall create wholesome or unwholesome kammic results in the future. A man born in poverty, squalor, etc. may be in an environment conducive to crime, but he may not commit any. A man born into wealth, etc. may commit theft. It is how we act in the present which will determine what we shall experience afterwards; we make our own heavens and we make our own hells. This is the very opposite of predestination.

Who controls kamma? Kamma operates without the intervention of any external, independent, ruling agency. Wholesome actions produce wholesome effects, unwholesome actions produce unwholesome effects. Like gravity, it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of punishment or reward meted out by an omniscient and omnipotent law-giver, or even an all-compassionate Buddha. The cause produces the effect, the effect explains the cause. Actions cause reaction. Kamma is always just, never unjust; it neither loves nor hates, is never angry nor pleased. Kamma knows nothing about us; its action is like that of fire - it just burns. As children we are warned not to play with fire, but if we do so and we get burned, we are not being punished. We are simply receiving the consequences of an unskilful action. You cannot blame the fire for burning us, it is not punishing us, neither are our parents even though they warned us.

"So, when a fool does wrong deeds, he does not realise (their evil nature); by his own deeds the stupid man is tormented, like one burnt by fire." (Dhp. v.136)

If one really wants to use the word `punish' at all, it is better to talk about our being punished by our misdemeanours, rather than for them. Christmas Humphreys, a former judge and founder of the Buddhist Society, used to tell a convicted criminal that it was he the criminal who sent himself to prison - as a result of his actions. There is no one either to punish or to reward us. Each of us has to accept responsibility for his or her own actions. Not even the Buddha himself can save us from the inevitable consequences of our ill-considered actions. He said,

"You yourselves must make the effort. Buddhas do but show the way."

And in a famous passage recorded shortly before his death, he again emphasised the importance of self-reliance:

"Dwell making yourselves your island (support), making yourselves, not anyone else your refuge; making the Dhamma your island (support), the Dhamma your refuge, nothing else your refuge."

Speaking to his son Rahula, the Buddha emphasised the importance of reflection before, during and after any action in order to ensure that one's intentions are wholesome. "If there is any deed, Rahula, you wish to do, reflect thus:

`Is this deed conducive to my harm, or to others' harm, or to that of both?' Then this is a bad deed entailing suffering. From such a deed you must desist. If there is a deed you wish to do, reflect thus: `Is this deed not conducive to my harm, nor to others' harm, nor to that of both?' Then this a good deed entailing happiness. Such a deed you must do again and again." (M.N.I,61)

In the Dhammapada it says,

"That deed is not well done, which one regrets when it is done and the result of which one experiences weeping with a tearful face..........". (v.67/8)

When the Buddha was once asked why it was that his monks always appeared to be radiant, his reply was that since they neither repent the past, nor yearn for the future, therefore are they radiant.

The question is sometimes asked - what should we do when we know that we have committed an unskilful action? Given the impersonal nature of the operation of the law of kamma, it can be seen that guilt is not an appropriate emotion for the Buddhist to feel. If we make a mistake, then we should acknowledge it, do whatever we can to rectify the problem and resolve not to repeat the error - then drop the matter. There is nothing to be gained by feeling guilty. This is only clouds our view and makes it more difficult to assess the situation honestly and clearly. Indeed, one should regard guilt as an unwholesome mental state and one which should therefore be avoided.

Certainly there is no idea of original sin in Buddhism. The mind is completely clear at birth, but becomes stained by adventitious defilements. Unlike some other religions, there is no office of priest in Buddhism in the sense of one who can intervene on our behalf to grant us pardon and forgiveness for our mistakes or errors. The role of the monk is to teach the laity and to inspire them to live according to the Buddha's principles by setting an example to them, but the monk is not a confessor-figure or an intercessor on behalf of the layman. In the Dhammapada it is said,

"By oneself is evil done and it is oneself who suffers; by oneself is evil not done, and by oneself one becomes pure. The pure and the impure come from oneself; no one can purify another." (v.165)

Although Buddhism has no formal system for the granting of `pardon' for one's misdeeds, the law of kamma means that the greater the number of one's wholesome actions, the less will be the effect of one's unwholesome ones. The Buddha likened the situation to putting a lump of salt into a small cup of water. Owing to the smallness of the quantity of water, it would be rendered undrinkable. On the other hand, if a lump of salt were put into the river Ganges, the mass of water in the river is so great that it would remain drinkable in spite of the salt. "In exactly the same way we may have the case of a person who does some slight evil deed which brings him to a state of misery, or, again, we may have the case of another person who does the same trivial misdeed, yet he expiates it in his present life. Not even a small effect manifests itself (after death), not to say of a great one." (A.N.I,p.249) This is not like Hinduism, where it is said that kammic effects cease after one's having been born for a certain number of lives; they wear away with the passage of time. Although the general principle of kamma is clear enough, its exact workings are very complicated. You need to be a Buddha to understand it completely.

One factor which makes its detailed operation so difficult to understand is that kamma operates over a number of lifetimes. There is no one-to-one, immediately-obvious connection between cause and effect. So we must now spend a little while looking at the Buddhist teaching regarding what is called "rebirth". Unless we can grasp this particular point, then we shall have difficulty in fully accepting the laws of kamma. As long as our perspective is limited to only one lifetime, it is difficult to allow enough time for kamma to operate.

To help us understand rebirth, it will be helpful first of all to consider the mind and how it works. According to the Abhidhamma, the Bhavanga consciousness is a passive life stream which starts to flow at the moment of conception and which continues until the moment of death; it is unbroken unless a conscious thought/external object appears through the sense doors. It is in some ways similar to the western concept of the unconscious, but the unconscious is reckoned to be always present - bhavanga is not. It is only present when other forms of consciousness are not; no two forms of consciousness can exist together; bhavanga is the life continuum, an indispensable condition of existence. All past impressions and experiences are stored in bhavanga. Whatever we have seen, heart, felt, perceived, thought, experienced and done is stored in bhavanga.

Mind in Buddhism is a sixth sense. It can receive objects or stimuli through what we call sense-doors, i.e. eye-door, ear-door, tongue-door, nose-door, body-door. The mind can also receive its own objects, i.e. ones that are generated within the mind and which do not come through one of the other five sense doors. For consciousness to arise there must be contact (phassa) between an object and its appropriate sense. For example, we can say that visual consciousness is the result of contact between the eye and the object which is being seen. This contact must precede all other mental states. Bhavanga is interrupted by 17 thought-moments.

There are 6 sense doors, so there are 6 kinds of consciousness. The first 8 thought-moments are passive (vipaka) but then follow 7 javanas which are active, where kamma is created. Vipaka is the effect. Sensations, perceptions are vipaka. Whatever you see, hear, smell, taste or experience through the sense of touch is vipaka. This is a passive experience which we cannot control; but we may judge it to be pleasant or unpleasant. This is not vipaka. It is reaction and this causes kamma. Seeing a colour is vipaka, liking it or disliking it is not. These are not results, but causes - causes which have kammic consequences. This is the crucial moment when we can create either wholesome or unwholesome kamma. The liking or disliking which arises after the moment of cognition is no longer vipaka.

We should try to understand what is vipaka and what is no longer vipaka. This is a constant process of change. There is nothing apart from this process of cause and effect. Each moment both conditions and is conditioned. Death can be looked at on 2 scales - moment to moment, or life to life. Every moment there is the death of cells and thoughts, every moment their rebirth. Death has been described by Venerable Narada Thera as "a temporary end to a temporary phenomenon". Even though the present form may perish, it is followed by another form which is conditioned by the preceding one, but which is neither the same as nor absolutely different from it. The relationship is one of cause and effect.

So, what happens, when the body eventually fails? The mental energy does not cease just because the body ceases. Let us come back to volition; volition has a result. Its result or effect is to continue, to exist, to become more and more, to grow, to accumulate. It is a creative act. In this context, it does not matter whether the volition is wholesome or unwholesome, its effect is still the same. It is volition which generates kamma, and it is the accumulation of kamma which drives our existence forward and makes us continue. Kamma is the powerhouse and as long as we have a store of kamma, existence must continue. A very rough analogy is to compare it with the flow of electricity. Just because one device, say a light bulb, may break, that is not the end the flow of electricity; it can be made to flow to a new device and display its energy elsewhere - as heat, light or motion. Similarly, the mental energy continues to flow and will associate itself with a new form - it may be a human form, an animal form, a divine form, and so on. What determines where it will form this association? The answer is our kammic inheritance. If we have performed skilful actions, then we may expect rebirth in a happy plane; but if we have performed unskilful actions, then we may expect rebirth in an unhappy plane.

This process is a continuous one. We go on circling in the rounds of birth, death and rebirth in accordance with our kammic inheritance. This is what we call samsara. The only way to escape from this is to follow the Buddhist path and realise nibbana. When an Arahant dies, there is no more rebirth because an Arahant has destroyed all the defilements which lead to rebirth. This kind of death is call sammuceda marana; it is like the flame of a lamp when it goes out.

A man's character is the sum of his tendencies produced by prenatal and present volitional activity. Once ignorance is destroyed, the thirst for life is destroyed. There are no roots to his actions, either wholesome or unwholesome. Only the Arahant does not accumulate any new kamma, because his actions are not rooted in ignorance and craving which are the roots of kamma. He is free from continuity and becoming, free from defilements. He must still must use up any remaining kamma even though he is not creating any new kamma.

Ultimately, our aim is to become Enlightened, i.e. an Arahant, which may be translated as a "saint". The deeds of a saint are said to be kiriya (functional), meaning that he has gone beyond both good and evil; his actions are pure and do not produce any kammic effects at all. He has gone beyond actions rooted in attachment, pride, self-assertion. So the Buddha's teaching on kamma is not that ultimately we should aim simply to eliminate unwholesome kamma and generate wholesome kamma. If we do this we shall still be tied to samsara. The aim is to stop generating all kamma; only then can the cycle of birth and death be ended, but it is better to produce good kamma, not bad kamma. The Buddha said, "Righteous things (dhamma) you have to give up: how much more the unrighteous things (adhamma)." (Majjhima nikaya I, 22) "For the final cessation of suffering, all kamma, wholesome and unwholesome, must be transcended, must be abandoned. Putting aside good and evil, one attains Nibbana. There is no other way." (quoted by Francis Story)


When the physical body ceases to function, this is called sammuthi marana. Death may occur for a variety of different reasons. The example is given of an oil lamp which may be extinguished either because the oil is finished, or because the wick is finished, or because both the oil and the wick finish simultaneously, or because of some outside agency - like a gust of wind. Similarly, death may occur for four reasons: first, through the expiration of the natural age limit or what we may call "old age"; secondly, through the expiration of the force of the reproductive kamma; thirdly, through the simultaneous expiration of both; and fourthly, through the intervention of a destructive kamma.

The thought process of a dying person may take one of three different objects:-


1. a kamma (action) which has been performed previously in life; it is a recurring of the consciousness which one experienced while performing the action. If the person had committed one of the five heinous crimes (garuka kamma) such as parricide, or if he had developed the jhanas, he will experience a kamma like this.


2. any symbol (kamma nimitta) which was conspicuous during the performance of some important action, either good or bad. For example, a butcher may see a knife or dying animal, and a religious devotee may see an object of worship.


3. a characteristic symbol of the place in which one is bound to be reborn (gati nimitta). So the person may have a vision of fire, or a celestial mansion. This may explain why some people die happily and others fighting against it, because they see where they are going. Some people die with a smile on their faces, some are full of fear. Taking one of these three as the object, the rebirth consciousness takes place in the future existence.

This is the reason we try to make the last moments of a person's life as wholesome as possible by trying to generate pleasant thoughts in the mind. Monks may be called to the deathbed in order to chant suttas which will condition a beneficial state of mind. If no monk is available, then attempts may be made to remind the dying person of good deeds which have been performed earlier in life, or to encourage the mind to dwell on a wholesome image, such as a Buddha rupa. So we should try to recall our good actions, put aside terror and meet death with the calm confidence that our destiny is under our own control.

The last thought-moment, what we call cuti citta, is of great importance, because it is this thought-moment which conditions the re-linking consciousness, patisandhi citta, the first thought-moment of the new life. The cuti citta should be wholesome, that is rooted in generosity, love and wisdom (alobha, adosa, amoha), rather than rooted in greed, hatred and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha). This is one reason why we should strive constantly throughout our lives to be mindful. We do not know when death will occur, it may strike us at any time. Therefore, we should be prepared for this event at all times and try to ensure that our state of mind is wholesome.

Cuti is the final thought-moment - the exit of a particular life. Patisandhi is the initial thought-moment of the next life - the entrance. Death occurs immediately after the cuti consciousness. Although, with death, the physical body disintegrates, the life-stream is not annihilated and the kammic force that propels it remains. Death is only a prelude to birth. Death is not the complete annihilation of a being; it means the extinction of three things: psychic life (jivitindriya), heat (usma=tejodhatu), and consciousness (vinnana). But death in one place means birth in another, just like the setting of the sun in one place means the rising of the sun in another.

Rebirth will occur in accordance with one's kamma. Just as every object is accompanied by a shadow, even so every volitional activity is accompanied by its due effect. Every birth is conditioned by past good or bad kamma which predominates at the moment of death. Buddhists recognise 31 different planes of existence, some of them pleasant, some of them unpleasant.

In a previous lecture we have already covered the idea of 31 different planes of existence; birth can take place in any one of these according to our kammic inheritance. Now we come to a subtle, but important, point concerning what it is that takes rebirth. We are not talking about a solid being with an everlasting essence which moves from one plane to another. It is not correct to say that "I" may reappear as a god or as an animal. "I" am not a solid being, but only a process of ever-changing energies - the five aggregates. These aggregates are never the same from one moment to the next; they are always changing. This process goes on from one moment to another, throughout our lives. Even as you are reading these words, there is change taking place and there is no solid essence which underlies this process of change and which endures everlastingly. "When the aggregates arise, decay and die, O monk, every moment you are born, decay and die." (Paramatthajotika I)

Think about yourself as a child of only five years old, then think about yourself as an adolescent of 15 years, then think of yourself as you are today. Are you still the same person? This question was answered by Nagasena when he was questioned by King Milinda. His reply is a masterpiece: "Na ca so, na ca anno". Neither the same, nor yet another. You are not the same person that you were at the age of 5, nor are you someone completely different. There is a connection of cause and effect. The "new" being is connected with the old one in terms of belonging to the same continuum of cause and effect. In a similar way, we are process which is connected by the operation of cause and effect. Every moment there are cells in our body which are dying, but every moment conditions are giving rise to the birth of new cells. So this process of "rebirth" is going on continuously from moment to moment, we do not have to wait until the end of this life in order to be aware of rebirth taking place.

The law of kamma explains many things about the differences between human beings. Why is one person by nature happy, another unhappy? Why is one person born into wealth and luxury, another into poverty? Why does one person enjoy good health, whilst another is born with severe handicaps? Why can twins show completely different temperaments? These are just a few of the many differences between human beings for which we often ask for explanations. Are we to explain these differences simply with a shrug of the shoulders - just chance? Are we the result of random events or perhaps the decisions of a creator? Bertrand Russell: "If I were granted omnipotence and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts." (Religion & Science p.221) No, according to Buddhism, nothing arises without a cause. Chocolate cake does not simply appear out the void. It arises because of conditions. In the case of a human being, there are three conditions - sperm, egg and kamma-energy. A dying person sends forth kammic energy, like a flash of lightning, which sparks life into the new cell formed by the union of sperm and egg. "All beings have kamma as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is kamma that differentiates beings into low and high states." (M.N., III, 135) Where is kamma stored? It is not stored in the consciousness or anywhere else. Where is wind or fire stored? It is just a potential; just as mangoes are not stored in the mango tree, but dependent on the tree and other conditions they arise in due season.

Nothing actually passes from one life to the next. There are various analogies which have been used to illustrate this process. When a photograph is taken, nothing actually passes from the subject to the photo. Similarly, think of a reflection in a mirror, an echo, or the lighting of one lamp from another. These are simply transmissions of energy and in the case of a life and death it is the transmission of kammic energy. Think of a wave. We may think (wrongly) that something is travelling along the surface of the water, but in reality it is simply a rising and falling of new masses of water caused by the transmission of energy.

All life is a continual process of becoming, change, transformation. In an ultimate sense there are no real beings or things, neither creator nor created, just a process. The active side is kamma-bhava, the passive side kamma-vipaka. There is no real being that wanders through this round of rebirths, merely the ever-changing, two-fold process of kamma activities and results. The present life is the result of past kammic activity, the future life the result of present kammic activity. There is no ego which is either the performer of kammic activity, or recipient of the kammic results. Habitual action, e.g. killing, begets the propensity for similar action; so at death the kammic energy will have the propensity to seek out a similar place where killing may take place, i.e. a place of unhappiness. Kamma is neither predestination nor fatalism. There is no such thing as group or national kamma. Man has the power to shape his future destiny by means of his will and actions.

This is a quotation from the Visuddhimagga, which was written in the fifth century A.D. by Buddhaghosa.

"Whosoever has no clear idea about death, and does not know that death consists in the dissolution of the five groups of existence (i.e. form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness), he thinks that it is a person or a being that dies and transmigrates to a new body, etc. And whosoever has no clear idea about rebirth and does not know that rebirth consists in the arising of the five groups of existence, he thinks that it is a person, or a being, that is reborn, or that the person reappears in a new body. And whosoever has no clear idea about the Samsara, the round of rebirths, he thinks that a real person wanders from this world to another world, comes from that world to this world, etc. And whosoever has no clear idea about the phenomena of existence, he thinks that the phenomena are his Ego or something appertaining to the Ego, or something permanent, joyful, or pleasant, And whosoever has no clear idea about the conditional arising of the phenomena of existence, and about the arising of kammical volitions conditioned through ignorance, or avijja, he thinks that it is the Ego that understands or not understands, that acts or causes to act, that enters into a new existence at rebirth. Or he thinks that the atoms or the Creator, etc. with the help of the embryonic process, shape the body, provide it with various faculties; that it is the Ego that receives sensuous impressions, that feels, that desires, that becomes attached, that again in another world enters into existence. Or he thinks that all beings are coming to life through fate or chance." (Vsm.XVII)

"No doer of the deeds if found, No one who ever reaps their fruits; Empty phenomena roll on: This is the only right view. "And while the deeds and their results roll on and on, conditioned all, There is no first beginning found, Just as it is with seed and tree... "No god, no Brahma, can be called The maker of this wheel of life: Empty phenomena roll on, Dependent on conditions all." (Vsm.XIX)


A long perspective is needed. In the West this idea of rebirth is not an easy one to accept because it is not part of the culture. Sometimes people ask for proof that it takes place. What kinds of proof are available?


Why can we not remember previous lives? Can you remember what you did last week, let alone last year or 20 years ago? Generally we cannot recall even the first few years of our present life. Also the previous life may not have been in a human form or in a plane where memory functions well.

1. It is sometimes observed that some babies cry a lot and cannot easily be comforted. Other babies seem to be of a happy nature. A possible explanation is that they are remembering a previous existence which may have been either unhappy or happy.

2. Some meditators have developed special skills which have enabled them to recollect previous lives. This is not the primary purpose of Buddhist meditation, but this ability may come as a by-product of much intensive practice. (see Richard Randall - Life as a Siamese monk).

3. If there is any recollection of previous lives, this is more likely to be present in very young children whose memories have not yet been obscured by the events of the present life. There is some evidence of young children who talk about this life not being their "real" life and that they used to life in different surroundings and with different people. There is a most interesting book by Dr. Ian Stevenson called "20 Suggested Cases of the Re-incarnation Type", in which he has researched examples of young children claiming to have lived elsewhere. Often they describe their previous life in great detail, i.e. the kind of house they lived in, the person to whom they were married, etc. On investigation, Stevenson found that many of their claims were entirely accurate and that a person did die in that particular place just a short time before the present subject was born.

4. How are we to account for the phenomenon which is known as an infant prodigy? To say that a special skill is simply a "gift" does not really explain anything. On the other hand, we may say that the special abilities of a Mozart have been acquired in previous existences and have been brought forward by the child into this present one.

5. Hypnosis has been used by some Westerners to "regress" people to former lives. One of the most remarkable stories is that of Edgar Cayce, which is told in the book Many Mansions by Gina Cerminara. Cayce was an American doctor, born in 1877 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in the U.S.A. He died in 1945. When he was 21 years old, Edgar Cayce had a very serious illness, but he managed to recover and people said that his recovery appeared to be miraculous. Actually, Dr. Cayce discovered that by hypnotising himself, he was able to see back into his past lives and eventually into the past lives of other people as well. Because of his clairvoyant powers he became known as the "Miracle Man of Virginia Beach".

By looking back into a person's previous lives, Dr. Cayce was able to see how their present condition had been shaped by their previous kammic actions. He was, therefore, able to explain the causes of illnesses which had previously remained undiscovered. Thousands of people visited him in order to have the reasons for their sickness explained and in many cases an appropriate cure was recommended successfully. Scientists who were inclined not to believe in such things as kamma and the doctrine of rebirth came to be convinced of their existence because of Dr. Cayce's findings. Although we do not necessarily have to agree with everything described in this book "Many Mansions", we can see that Dr. Cayce was clearly able to demonstrate a connection between the performance of unwholesome (papa) deeds in a previous existence and the experience of suffering in a later existence. This is entirely in agreement with the Buddhist doctrine of kamma.

In Dr. Cayce's book there is an example of a person who became blind. He went to talk to Dr. Cayce, who was able to see into his past lives and said that previously he had been the leader of a barbarian tribe. He had defeated his enemies and as a punishment had blinded them. His present blindness had resulted from his previous unskilful actions. So this kind of suffering cannot be overcome by new medicines. Dr. Cayce said that kamma is like a boomerang - its effects always come back to us.

This may all seem very complicated to you, but you may take some encouragement that the Buddha told Ananda that it is only a Buddha who can understand the workings in complete detail. The important points which you should understand with regard to the Buddhist doctrine of kamma are:-

1. There is no soul or ego which transmigrates from one life to another.

2. There is only a process of ever-changing mental and physical phenomena.

3. This is not a doctrine of predestination; it is a law of cause and effect.

4. Wholesome deeds have wholesome effects; unwholesome deeds have unwholesome effects.

Not everything in life happens due to kamma. Kamma is only one of five natural laws. These five laws or processes are known as NIYAMA and they are:-

1. Utu niyama. The physical inorganic order, e.g. temperature, seasons, wind and rain. All changes that take place in our bodies.

2. Bija niyama. The physical organic order, e.g. seeds and plants, germs, sugary taste from sugar cane, rice grows from rice seed, the science of cells and genes.

3. Kamma niyama. The operation of cause and effect.

4. Citta niyama. The law of the mind and how it operates, which we have already examined tonight; e.g. the process of consciousness, the power of the mind such as clairvoyance, thought-reading, telepathy, premonition, etc.

5. Dhamma niyama. Event connected with the Dhamma, e.g. gravitation and similar laws of nature, the reason for being good, and certain phenomena which occur at the birth of a Buddha. So we can see that kamma is only one of five processes.