Is Kamma Wholly Individual?

If kamma is individual then why is it that one suffers the effects of another? Like how the bad name of one’s father’s actions makes one’s life harder in life. Like how because of the profession of one’s father others see one in a different light. Isn’t in this case one’s father’s actions are affecting his son and not just him as an individual?

It would be very beneficial if one could clarify this thoroughly.

Let’s start by reading over this introductory essay by Nina Van Gorkom.


by Nina van Gorkom


A. When people have an unpleasant experience they are inclined to ask: “Why did this have to happen to me?” One might be very good and kind to other people and yet receive unkind words in return. Could you tell me whether it is true that good deeds will bring a good result? I sometimes doubt it.

B. People ask this question because they do not always understand the reason why they have to suffer in life. It is difficult to know which cause in the past brings about this or that unpleasant experience at the present moment. The Buddha said that everything that happens must have a cause. When we suffer it must have a cause either in the far past or in the proximate past. If we know how causes and effects in our lives are interrelated, it will help us to develop the right attitude towards unpleasant experiences and sorrow.

A. Are the bad deeds one did in the past the cause of unpleasant experiences at the present moment? The deeds which are already done belong to the past. How can those deeds bring a result later on?

B. In order to have a deeper understanding of how cause and effect are interrelated it is necessary to know first what motivates good and bad deeds; moreover we should know how we accumulate wholesome tendencies in doing wholesome deeds and how we accumulate unwholesome tendencies in doing unwholesome deeds.

A. Why do you use the words “wholesome” and “unwholesome” instead of good and bad?

B. The words “good” and “bad” generally imply a moral judgement. The Buddha would not judge people as “good” or “bad.” He explained about the conditions for their behaviour and about the effects of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. An unwholesome deed is a deed which brings harm to oneself or to other people, either at the moment the unwholesome deed is done or later on, whereas a wholesome deed is one which will lead to happiness. Unwholesome is in Pali akusala, and wholesome is kusala. With unwholesome mental states or “akusala cittas” one can perform unwholesome deeds or “akusala kamma”; and with wholesome mental states or “kusala cittas” one can perform wholesome deeds or “kusala kamma.”

A. What is a citta? Is it a soul or “self” which directs the deeds? Is it under one’s control whether one will have a kusala citta which can perform kusala kamma, or is it beyond control?

B. A citta is not a soul or “self.” There are many different cittas which succeed one another, there is no citta which lasts. Each citta which arises falls away immediately. We can experience at one moment that we have an akusala citta. However, this does not last, it falls away again. At another moment we might experience that we have a kusala citta; this does not last either, it falls away again. There can only be one citta at a time; we cannot have an akusala citta at the same moment as a kusala citta. Cittas replace one another continuously. How can we take something for self if it does not even last for a second?

It is not in our power to have wholesome cittas whenever we want to. People would like to be good the whole day but they cannot have kusala cittas continuously; it is beyond their control.

All cittas are beyond control. We cannot help it that we like certain people and certain things, and that we dislike other people and things. We cannot direct all our thoughts, we may be absent-minded although we do not want to. No two people can have the same thoughts, even if they think of the same object, for example, of a country where they both have been. One’s thoughts depend on many conditions, for example, on experiences and accumulated tendencies in the past, on the object which presents itself at the present moment, on good or bad friends, or on the food one has eaten.

As it is not in one’s power to have a certain citta at a certain moment, we cannot say that there is a “self” which directs our deeds. Our actions depend on the tendencies that have been accumulated in the past and on many other conditions.

A. I notice that some people always seem to do the wrong thing in life, whereas for other people it is not difficult to be generous and honest. What is the reason that people are so different?

B. People are so different because of different tendencies and inclinations which have been accumulated in the past. People who are very often angry accumulate anger. When the accumulated anger is strong enough they will perform akusala kamma through speech or deeds. Everybody has accumulated both unwholesome and wholesome tendencies.

A. Is it correct that good and bad deeds performed in the past are never lost, that they continue to have an influence at the present moment?

B. That is true. Experiences one had in the past, and good and bad deeds committed in the past, have been accumulated and they condition cittas arising in the present time. If the citta at the present moment is akusala citta, there is a new accumulation of unwholesomeness, and if the citta at the present moment is kusala citta, there is a new accumulation of wholesomeness.

Therefore cittas which arise are not only conditioned by the object that presents itself through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body-sense or mind, but they are conditioned as well by the tendencies and inclinations accumulated in the past and by many other factors.

Cittas are beyond control; they are, as the Buddha said, “anattā.” When the Buddha said that everything is anattā, he meant that one cannot have power over anything at all. Everything in our life occurs because there are conditions, and everything falls away again.

Good deeds and bad deeds which we performed will bring their result accordingly. The result will take place when it is the right time, when there are the right conditions for the result to take place. It is not in anyone’s power to have the result arise at this or at that moment. Cause and result are beyond control, they are anattā.

Part 2.
A. I understand that akusala cittas which perform akusala kamma are cause and that those cannot bring a pleasant result; they will bring an unpleasant result, whereas kusala cittas which perform kusala kamma will bring a good result. Each cause will bring its result accordingly. Could you explain how the result is brought about? Is it a punishment or a reward for one’s deeds?

B. There is no question of punishment or reward because there is no one who punishes or rewards. It is the course of nature that one reaps what one has sown. Accumulated akusala kamma produces at the right time a citta which experiences an unpleasant object; this citta is the result of a bad deed one did in the past. Accumulated kusala kamma produces at the right time a citta which experiences a pleasant object; this citta is the result of a good deed one did in the past. The citta which is result is called “vipākacitta” There will be different results at different moments. For most people it is not possible to find out which deed of the past produces the result one receives at the present moment. However, it is of no use to know in detail what happened in the past; we should only be concerned about the present moment. It is enough to know that akusala kamma produces an unpleasant result and that kusala kamma produces a pleasant result. The result is produced either shortly afterwards or later on. We cannot blame other people for an unpleasant result we receive. An unpleasant result is the consequence of our own bad deeds.

A. How often during the day is there vipāka? Is there vipāka at this moment?

B. Yes, there is vipāka now, because you are seeing and hearing. Every time you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and experiencing a tangible object through the body-sense there is vipāka. All impressions that we experience through the five senses are vipāka

A. How can I find out whether there is pleasant or unpleasant vipāka? I am seeing right now but I have no pleasant or unpleasant feeling about it.

B. It is not always possible to find out whether the object is pleasant or unpleasant. When we see or hear we cannot always find out whether there is kusala vipāka or akusala vipāka. When we feel pain or when we are sick we can be sure that there is akusala vipāka. The moment of vipākacitta is very short, it falls away immediately.

When we see, we experience colour through the eyes. Then we like or dislike it, we recognize it, we think about it. The seeing of colour is vipāka. Like or dislike and thinking about the object are not vipāka. Those functions are performed by other cittas, which are akusala cittas or kusala cittas. The cittas that like or dislike, and the cittas that think about the object, are not results but causes; they can motivate deeds which will bring fresh results.

All cittas succeed one another so rapidly that there seems to be only one citta. We are inclined to think that like or dislike and thinking are still vipāka, but that is a delusion.

A. Does everyone receive both akusala vipāka and kusala vipāka?

B. Everyone has accumulated both unwholesome deeds and wholesome deeds, therefore everyone will receive both akusala vipāka and kusala vipāka. However, we can develop understanding of cause and effect and this helps us to be patient, even under unpleasant conditions. For instance, when we understand what vipāka is we will be less inclined to feel sorry for ourselves or to blame other people when there is akusala vipāka. If we feel sorry for ourselves or blame other people, there is a new accumulation of unwholesomeness and this will bring us more sorrow in the future.

A. But I cannot help disliking unpleasant vipāka. How can I change my attitude?

B. You can change your attitude by understanding what is vipāka and what is no longer vipāka. It is very important to know that the moment we feel dislike or regret is not the same as the moment of vipāka. People are inclined to think that the dislike which arises after the vipāka is still vipāka. When they say “This is just vipāka,” they do not distinguish unpleasant feelings from the moments of vipāka. If they do not really know what is vipāka and what is not vipāka but akusala citta, or akusala kamma, they accumulate unwholesomeness all through their lives. By ignorance, by not knowing when the citta is akusala, one accumulates unwholesomeness.

A. I am inclined to blame people who speak harsh words to me, even when I am so kind to them. Are those people not the cause that I receive unpleasant vipāka?

B. We are inclined to think in this way if we haven’t yet understood what vipāka is.

Let us analyse what is really happening when we hear harsh words spoken by someone else. When those words are produced by akusala cittas, it is an unpleasant object we receive through the ear. It is not really we who receive the unpleasant object, but the vipākacitta receives the unpleasant object through the ear. The vipākacitta is the result of akusala kamma performed in the past. This was the right moment that the akusala kamma, performed in the past, caused vipākacittas to arise at the present moment. The person who speaks harsh words to us is not the cause of akusala vipāka; the cause is within ourselves. Someone who speaks harsh words to us is only one of the many conditions for vipākacittas to arise. Our own accumulated akusala kamma is the real cause of akusala vipāka.

A. It seems to me that kamma is a fate which directs our lives.

B. Kamma is not an unchangeable fate outside ourselves, but our own accumulated unwholesome and wholesome deeds, and at the right moment it will produce its results in the form of vipākacittas.

A. If a third person would pass and if he would hear harsh words spoken to me, he might have akusala vipāka as well, although the words are not directed to him. Is that right?

B. If it is the right moment for him to have akusala vipāka, he will receive the unpleasant object as well; he might have akusala vipāka through the ear. Whether the words are addressed to him or to someone else does not make any difference.

A. Is it right that the vipāka might not be as unpleasant for him as for the person to whom the harsh words are addressed?

B. Is it necessary to have aversion every time we hear an unpleasant sound?

A. No, it is not necessary.

B. Aversion has nothing to do with vipāka. Considering whether the words are addressed to oneself or to another person and the unpleasant feelings about it are no longer vipāka. If we feel aversion there are akusala cittas, conditioned by our accumulations of aversion in the past. There are some short moments of vipāka only at the moment we receive the sound, before the unpleasant feelings arise. Kamma conditioned the vipākacittas right at that moment. Kamma is the real cause of vipāka, not this or that person. If we want to have the right understanding of vipāka, we should not think in terms of “I,” “those people” and “harsh words.” If we think of people and if we consider whether harsh words are addressed to ourselves or to someone else, we will not see the truth. If we think in terms of cittas and if we understand conditions for cittas, we will understand reality. When someone speaks harsh words it is conditioned by his accumulated aversion. It is not really important whether he addresses those words to us or to someone else.

If we understand vipāka we will take the unpleasant experiences of life less seriously. It will be of much help to us and to other people if we try to understand ourselves, if we know different cittas arising at different moments. After we have had akusala vipāka we should try not to think much about it. When we think about vipāka it already belongs to the past. It is therefore better to forget about it immediately.

A. I still do not understand why I have to receive harsh words in return for my kindness. How can the result of kusala kamma be akusala vipāka?

B. This could never happen. Kusala kamma has kusala vipāka as its result; however, the good result might arise later on. It is not possible to tell at which moments akusala kamma and kusala kamma produce results. Akusala vipāka is not the result of one’s kindness; it is the result of one’s accumulated akusala kamma. Kindness will certainly bring a good result, but that might take place later on.

A. I cannot help feeling sorry for myself when there is akusala vipāka. What can I do to prevent the accumulation of more unwholesomeness?

B. When there are conditions for akusala cittas we cannot prevent their arising. They arise very closely after the vipāka, before we know it. They are “anattā,” they do not belong to a “self.” However, we can develop more understanding of the different phenomena that arise. The akusala cittas that arise after the vipāka are not the same as the vipākacittas and they have conditions different from the conditions for the vipākacittas.

If we understand that feeling sorry for ourselves and blaming other people is done by akusala cittas and that in this way we accumulate more unwholesomeness, we will be less inclined to do so. If we understand that at this moment we cannot do anything about the vipāka which has its cause in the past, we will be able to forget about it more easily. At the moment we are aware of akusala vipāka, it has fallen away already and belongs to the past.

Life is too short to waste energy in worrying about things of the past. It is better to accumulate kusala kamma by doing wholesome deeds.

We read in the Kindred Sayings (Saṃyutta Nikāya I, Sagāthā Vagga, Ch. III, Kosala, 111, §5) that King Pasenadi came to see the Buddha at Sāvatthi. The king had been zealously busy with all such matters as occupy kings. The Buddha asked him what he would do if he would hear from loyal men, coming from all four directions, about a great mountain, high as the sky, moving along and crushing every living thing. The Buddha said:

  • “And you, sire, seized with mighty dread, the destruction of human life so terrible, rebirth as man so hard to obtain, what is there that you could do?”

“In such a mighty peril, lord, the destruction of human life so terrible, rebirth as man so hard to obtain, what else could I do save to live righteously and justly and work good and meritorious deeds?”

“I tell you, sire, I make known to you sire: old age and death come rolling in upon you, sire! Since old age and death are rolling in upon you, sire, what is there that you can do?”

“Since old age and death, lord, are rolling in upon me, what else can I do save to live righteously and justly, and to work good and meritorious deeds?”

Taken from:

Kamma amd its Fruit: Selected Essays
Edited by Nyanaponika Thera

Book Publication No. 413

Copyright © Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, (1975, 1990, 2003)
BPS Online Edition © (2006)
Digital Transcription Source: Buddhist Publication Society

Rūpehi bhikkhave arūpā santatarā.
Arūpehi nirodho santataro ti.

“Bhikkhus, the formless is more peaceful than the form realms.
Cessation is more peaceful than the formless realms.”
(Santatarasutta, Iti 73)

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