The Buddhist doctrine of karma

~By Samnak PJ Concepcion~

In Dedication to Samnak PJ Concepcion a very wise Korean monk

The Buddhist doctrine of karma presents some difficulties in understanding it. The doctrine is based on the historical Buddha’s insight on dependent origination or conditioned existence (Sanskrit: pratitya samutpada; Pali:paticca samupada) during the great awakening. The doctrine of dependent origination deals with the cause of the reality of suffering within samsara or the cycle of birth and death. The doctrines of karma and of dependent origination do not show life’s absolute origin that has proved unthinkable because all beings have an infinite nature. The term karma is derived from the Sanskrit root kr, which means to do and to act. Therefore, karma means literally a deed and an act. The Buddhist outlook defines karma as volition. An early scripture, theAnguttara Nikaya, quotes the Buddha as saying, “Volition, O monks, I declare to be karma. Having willed, a person acts through the body, speech, and mind – – Cetanaham bhikkave kamman vadami. Cetayitva kamman karoti kayena vaca manasa.”

 The will determines the act. The will directs the mind toward good, bad and neutral actions. The actions are good if they do not cause suffering to anyone and the actions are bad if they cause suffering to anyone (Majjhima Nikaya, I, 414.)

 In the realm of ethics, karma expresses action and reaction. The action becomes the cause that gives rise to the effect and the result, vipaka in Sanskrit. Therefore, karma is translated into English as causation or causality. 

 Using analogy, karma is likened to a seed that will produce the fruit, phallain Sanskrit. The fruit explains the seed. Within the seed, the fruit’s potential state has bloomed already. Both seed and fruit are interrelated. Further, the natural law of causation like gravitation does not have a lawgiver. The natural law of causation works within its own field without the influence of an outside force or an external ruling agency. Put another way, karma rejects the principle of first cause.

 Karma occurs within a state of continuous flux. Therefore, karma can not mean fate and fixed destiny. Change and human effort can influence the course of karma. Karma explains the arising and the passing away of the things in the world. “Whatever arises, all that cease.” The twelve laws of karma’s cause and effect relationship or their dependent origination is shown as follows,

1. Why does the reality of suffering, old age, sickness, and death exist?

2. They exist because human beings are born. (The reality of suffering… applies to all beings.

3. Birth takes place because of the will to live.

4. There’s a will to live because human beings cling to the world’s objects.

5. They cling to the world’s objects because they crave to enjoy them.

6. They crave to enjoy the world’s objects because of their sense experience.

7. They have sense experience because they have sensual and mental contact.

8. They have sensual and mental contact because they have six sense organs (In Buddhism, the mind forms the sixth sense.)

9. They have six sense organs because the physical and mental phenomena exist.

10. The physical and mental phenomena exist because of the human embryo’s initial consciousness.

11. Human beings have this initial consciousness because of the impressions of karma.

12. They have the impressions of karma because of ignorance.

Therefore, ignorance causes the reality of suffering within samsara, the continuous cycle of birth and death.


Samsara is based upon dependent origination. The doctrine is explained in the formula, “When A is, B arises. A arising, B arises. When A is not, B is not. A ceasing, B ceases” or in the formula’s equivalent proposition in Pali, “Imasmin sati idam hoti. Imassupada idam uppajjati. Imasmin asati idam na hoti. Imassa nirodha idam nirujjhati.”

 The twelve laws of karma comprise samsara, the continuous cycle of birth and death. They say that a person suffers and he dies whenever he goes around the cycle. The Buddhist doctrine of transmigration and the cycle of birth and death must be understood in this light: death means the end of a phase that gives birth to a new phase within the cycle. The dying phase or event like a flowing river passes on to new forms of being within the cycle. Death does not mean the stopping of the physical body’s functions and the ceasing of thought of the human being.


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