Theory of Karma

The Karma (actions) & Vipaka (results of those actions)

Buddhism is basically about our actions (Karma) and their reactions (Vipaka).

In other words, Karma is action, and Vipaka, fruit or result, is its reaction.

“Dear Monks, I would say that motive (thought) is Karma” were Buddha’s exact words.

The deeds done in accordance with the motives may be good or bad.

Good deeds earn a person merits (Anisamsa)  and bad deeds earn a person demerits (Adinaya).

Karma belongs to all beings. It is inherited and related by them.It has become the root cause of their happiness, sorrow and suffering.It has become their refuge. Therefore, the consequences of a good or a bad deed a person does, would solely be his.

Thus, from a Buddhist point of view, our present mental, moral, intellectual and temperamental differences are, for the most part, due to our own actions and tendencies, both past and present.

Just as every object is accompanied by a shadow, every activity is inevitably accompanied by its due effect.

Karma is like a potential seed giving birth to a tree. Vipaka is the fruit arising from that tree – the effect or result.

Karma and Vipaka are both intellectual (of the mind).

Good deeds (Beneficial Karama) give results (Anisamsa) like prosperity, health and long life.

Bad deeds (Detrimental Karma) give results (Adinaya) like misery, poverty, illness and a short life span.

As we sow, we reap somewhere and sometime, in this life or in a future birth. What we reap today is what we have sown either in the present or in the past.

There are four different classifications of Karma :

a)  With respect to different functions

b)  With respect to the priority of effect

c)  With respect to the time, in which effects are worked out

d)  With respect to the plane, in which the effect takes place


a) With respect to different functions, Karma is classified into four kinds:

1. REPRODUCTIVE (Janaka) KARMA

Every birth is shaped up by a past good or bad karma, which prevails in the mind of a person at the moment of his death. This karma, which stipulates the future birth is called Reproductive Karma.

The death of a person is merely an exit from one birth to enter another. One may call the death as a temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.

Though the present form perishes, another form which is neither the same nor absolutely different takes its place, according to the potential thought generated at the moment of death. This is because the Karmic force which boost the ‘life – death cycle’ (Samsara) survives till one attains the enlightenment.

It is this last thought, which is technically called Reproductive (janaka) Karma, that determines the state of a person in his subsequent birth. This may be either a good or a bad Karma giving a good or a bad result.

The sex of a person is determined at the very conception of a being. It is conditioned by Karma and is not a casual combination of sperm and ovum cells.

The Pain and Happiness one experiences in the course of one’s lifetime are the inevitable consequence of Reproductive Karma.

2. SUPPORTIVE (Upathambhaka) KARMA

Karma which comes and helps the Reproductive (Janaka) Karma is called

Supportive Karma.

It is neither good nor bad as it only assists or maintains the action of the Reproductive (Janaka) Karma in the course of one’s lifetime.

From immediately after the conception, till the death moment, this Karma steps forward to support the Reproductive Karma.

An ethically supportive (kusala upathambhaka) Karma assists in giving health, wealth, happiness etc. to the being born with a good Reproductive Karma.

An unethically supportive (akusala upathambhaka) Karma, on the other hand, assists in giving pain, illness, sorrow, etc. to the being born with a bad Reproductive Karma.

3. OBSTRUCTIVE KARMA OR COUNTERACTIVE KARMA (Upabidaka Karma)

Obstructive / Counteractive Karma weakens, interrupts and retards the fruition of the Reproductive Karma.

For instance, a person born with a good Reproductive Karma may be subjected to various ailments etc., thus preventing him from enjoying the blissful results of his good actions.

An animal, on the other hand, who is born with a bad Reproductive Karma may lead a comfortable life by getting good food, lodging, etc., as a result of his good counteractive or obstructive (upabidaka) Karma preventing the fruition of the evil Reproductive Karma.

4. DESTRUCTIVE (UPAGHATAKA) KARMA

According to the law of Karma the potential energy of the Reproductive Karma could be abolished by a powerful opposing Karma of the past; which, seeking an opportunity may quite unexpectedly operate, just as a powerful counteractive force can obstruct the path of a flying arrow and bring it down to the ground.

Such an action is called Destructive (upaghatakaKarma. This is so effective that it destroys the whole force. This Destructive Karma also could be either good or bad.

Ex: The story of Devadatta who tried to kill Buddha and who caused a schism in the

Sangha (disciples of the Buddha) when his attempts failed.

Devadatta’s good Reproductive Karma gave him birth in a Royal family.

His continued comfort and prosperity were due to the action of the Supportive Karma.

The Counteractive or Obstructive Karma came into operation when he was subjected to much humiliation as a result of his being excommunicated from the Sangha.

Finally, the Destructive Karma brought his life to a miserable end when he was dragged to hell alive.


b) With respect to the priority of effect, Karma is classified into four kinds:

1. WEIGHTY (GARUKA) KARMA

Serious and influential Karma which are cumbersome come into this category. They may be good or bad deeds.

The results are produced in this birth or in the next birth definitely.

The good Weighty Karmas give intellectual powers such as Jhana (a state of deep mental unification) or, great physical merits.

There are five immediately effective heinous crimes (pancanantariya karma) which come into this category:

Killing one’s mother (Matricide)

Killing one’s father (Patricide)

Killing an Arahant

The wounding of a Buddha

Creating schism in the Sangha

If, for instance, any person were to develop jhana (a state of deep mental unification) and later were to commit one of these heinous crimes, his good Karma would be obliterated by the powerful evil Karma. His subsequent birth would be conditioned by the evil Karma in spite of his having gained the jhana earlier.

Ex: 

1) Devadatta lost his psychic power and was born in an evil state, because he wounded     the Buddha and caused a schism in the Sangha.

2) King Ajatasatta would have attained the first stage of enlightenment (Sotapanna) if he had not committed patricide. In this case the powerful evil Karma acted as an obstacle to his gaining Sotapanna.

Permanent Scepticism (Niyata Micchaditthi) is also termed as one of the Weighty (garuka) Karmas.

2. PROXIMATE (ASANNA) KARMA OR DEATH-PROXIMATE KARMA

The deed or thought which one does or remembers immediately before the moment of dying.

Owing to the great part it plays in determining the future birth, much importance is attained to this deathbed (asanna) Karma in almost all Buddhist countries.

The customs of reminding the dying man of good deeds and making him do good acts on his deathbed still prevails in Buddhist countries.

Sometimes a bad person may die happily and receive a good birth if he remembers or does a good act at the last moment.

Ex:

An executioner who casually happened to give some alms to the Venerable Sariputta remembered this good act at the dying moment and was born in a state of bliss.

This does not mean that although he enjoys a good birth he will be exempted from the effects of the evil deeds which he accumulated during his lifetime. They will have their due effects as occasions arise.

Sometimes, a good person may die unhappily by suddenly remembering an evil act of his, or, by harboring some unpleasant thought compelled by unfavourable circumstances.

Ex:

Queen Mallika, the wife of King Kosala of Pasenadi, remembering the only lie she had uttered in her lifetime, to cover some misbehaviour to her husband, suffered for about seven days in a state of misery in hell after her death.

Such reverse changes of birth account for the birth of virtuous children to vicious parents and of vicious children to virtuous parents. As a result of the last thought moment being conditioned by the general conduct of the person.

3. HABITUAL (ACCINA) KARMA

Habits whether good or bad become one’s second nature, tending to form the character of a person. At unguarded moments one often lapses into one’s habitual mental mindset. In the same way, at the death-moment, unless influenced by other circumstances, one usually recalls to mind one’s habitual deeds.

EX:

Cunda, a butcher, who was living in the vicinity of the Buddha’s monastery, died yelling like a pig because he was earning his living by slaughtering pigs.

King Dutthagamini of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was in the habit of giving alms to the Bhikkhus (monks) before he took his own meals. It was his habitual Karma that gladdened him at the dying moment and gave him birth in the Tusita heaven.

4. RESERVE OR CUMULATIVE (KATATTA) KARMA

These are actions that are not previously mentioned and which are soon forgotten by a person. These may be good or bad. In fact, this is the reserve fund of a particular being.

c) With respect to the time in which effects are worked out, Karma is classified into four kinds:

1. Immediately Effective (ditthadhammavedaniya) Karma

Immediately Effective Karma is that which is experienced in this present life.

According to the Buddha’s teachings, one does both good and evil during the javana process (impulsive moments), which usually lasts for seven thought-moments.

The effect of the first thought-moment, being the weakest, one may reap in this life itself. This is called the Immediately Effective Karma.

If it does not operate in this life, it is called ‘Defunct or Ineffective’ Karma.

2. Subsequently Effective (uppapajjavedaniyaKarma

The next weakest is the seventh thought-moment.

Its effect, one may reap in the subsequence birth. This is called ‘Subsequently Effective’ Karma.
This too, is called Defunct or Ineffective Karma if it does not operate in the second birth.

3. Indefinitely Effective (aparapariyavedaniya) Karma

The effect of the intermediate thought-moments may take place at any time until one attains Nibbana.

This type of Karma is known as ‘Indefinitely Effective’ Karma.

No one, not even the Buddhas and Arahantas, is exempt from this class of Karma which one may experience in the course of one’s wandering in Samsara, even if he attains the enlightenment.

4. Defunct or Ineffective (ahosi) Karma

There is no special class of Karma known as Defunct or Ineffective, but when such actions that should produce their effects in this life or in a subsequent life do not operate, they are termed Defunct or Ineffective Karma.

d) With respect to the plane in which the effect takes place:

Our every action, be it of body, speech or mind, which is called “Karma” determines our destination.

The consequences of those actions, which is called “Vipaka” take us through this eternal ‘samsara’ (the life-death cycle) whether we like it or not. It is those “Karma Vipaka” which decide, on which realm (plane of existence) we should be born.

According to Buddha, there are three ‘planes of existence’ in which there are thirty one realms a ‘being’ can be born.

The Three ‘Planes of Existence’ and the number of realms in them :

Kamaloka – (World of Desire) / (Sensuous World)

Characterized by sensual pleasures. There are eleven realms. Inhabited by humans, animals, lower demi-gods, ghosts and hell-Beings.

Rupaloka – (World of Form) / (Fine Material World)

Those who are born in these have at least attained some level of jhana; thus, having managed to suppress hatred and ill-will temporarily. They experience extremely refined degrees of mental pleasure.

There are sixteen realms inhabited by Devas (gods).

Arupaloka – (World of Formlessness) / (Immaterial World)

Consists of  four heavens (realms), whose inhabitants are possessed entirely of mind. They have no physical body and unable to hear Dhammateachings. Those who have died while meditating in the formless jhanas are born here.

A person could be born in any of the above places according to the results of the deeds he has done and the thoughts that were born in his mind. But, none of those places are equal to one another.

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