The Four Noble Truths: The Law of Kamma

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Today I shall continue with the Four Noble Truths with a more in-depth explanation of the Law of Kamma.

Kamma literally means action, but in spiritual terms it refers to volitional action. It is the volition or intention to act that results in kamma. The Buddha said, “It is volition (cetana) that I call action (kamma). Having willed, one performs an action through body, speech, or mind.” So, what occurs only in the mind, such as bearing a grudge or having a lustful thought, is also kamma.

Good intention and bad intention will result in good kamma and bad kamma. A person who understands this correctly is said to have Right View.

Question: When one scolds, it is bad kamma? That depends on the intention. If one scolds not out of anger but for the benefit of others, then it is not bad kamma. Even the Buddha himself scolded his monks. We find in the Vinaya Pitaka that after confirming a certain act of misbehaviour, the Buddha always reprimanded the monk or monks at fault before he declared a new training rule. It seems that the Buddha needed to make a strong impression that it’s important for the Sangha to maintain a high level of discipline for the benefit of the individual, the monastic community and lay society. So, such scolding for the benefit of all cannot be bad kamma.

However, most people usually scold out of anger. These include parents who habitually get angry with their children. I remember seeing a relative of mine, scolding her children with all sorts of harsh and bad words. She even caned them severely as if she didn’t care how they felt at all. It scared me and I felt very fortunate that I wasn’t born to her! When parents vent their anger like that, they don’t teach their children what is right. Rather they only instil fear in their children and make them think that expressing one’s anger is the way to achieve one’s purpose. This was true in the case of my relative, because I also saw her daughter treating her younger brother in the same way. So, what do you think? Is it bad kamma?

If we accidentally step on a snail, is that bad kamma? When I was a student and quite new to the Dhamma, I attended a talk in which the speaker said that if one does so, one creates bad kamma. At that time I doubted the truth of his words. After all, the intention is to walk and not to step on a snail. So, it cannot be bad kamma. In the same way, if one feels an itch and scratches, resulting in the death of a mosquito, that is also not bad kamma simply because the intention to kill is not there.

Therefore, in determining whether a certain act is wholesome or not, we only have to look at the deciding factor, intention.

If you can’t see the intention, here’s another way of telling between good and bad kamma:

An act is bad kamma when

  • it is morally blameworthy
  • it hurts others
  • it hurts oneself
  • it causes regression in one’s spirituality

An act is good kamma when

  • it is morally praiseworthy
  • it does not hurt others
  • it does not hurt oneself
  • it helps in one’s spiritual progress

The suttas often mention the 10 wholesome (kusala) deeds and the 10 unwholesome (akusala) deeds. The 10 unwholesome deeds are derived from bodily conduct (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct); speech (lying, instigation, harsh speech, frivolous talk); the mind (ill will, covetousness, wrong view). The 10 unwholesome deeds are directly opposed to these. Most people do not do unwholesome deeds most of the time. However, one must be aware when unwholesome thoughts arise, and make an effort to remove them. If one allows them to linger in the mind, they can lead to much unwholesomeness.

Here are some reflections on kamma:

  • The good or bad things that happen to a person such as good health and longevity or illness and premature death are the results of good and bad kamma respectively. This is known as kamma-vipaka (action and result), just as is commonly said: good begets good, bad begets bad.
  • Kamma is a universal law. Whether or not one is aware of its existence, believes in it or has been told about it — it still applies. I have killed thousands of ants when I was ignorant of the law of kamma, but that does not mean that I can plead ignorance. I have to face the results all the same.
  • Some people do a lot of bad things and yet they are blessed with good things in life. Yet there are some who are very kind, but live in poverty. This is because of the ripening of their past kamma carried forward to the current life. Kamma does not necessarily ripen immediately within the same lifetime.

I hope that with a clearer understanding of kamma, we would be more mindful of our actions, even if they occur only on our minds, so that we can live a better life for the benefit of ourselves and others.

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