Kamma as Natural Law

by Punnadhammo Bhikkhu

In theistic religions there is an entity, either God or one of his lieutenants, that judges the deeds of men and women, usually after death, and assigns reward and punishment accordingly. This divine judge is usually portrayed as both just and merciful. How does this differ from the Law of Kamma as conceived in Buddhism?

In Buddhism Kamma is an impersonal process following causal laws. No divine entity is required. The working out of these laws is as natural and as inexorable as the law of gravity. This is an important point because many people, more or less unconsciously, carry over from Christianity or other theistic systems the idea that Kamma is, or ought to be, "fair " and perhaps even "merciful. " It is neither.

To call it fair or just is to apply the pathetic fallacy. It is applying emotive or moral values to a natural law. But at least from an external viewpoint one could see the process as somehow justin the sense that good deeds bear good fruits and evil deeds the reverse. Worse is the feeling (usually it is that rather than an articulated belief) that Kamma can somehow or sometimes be merciful. This is a dangerous misconception indeed. To press the simile given before a little further, is the law of gravity being fair when a baby falls out of the third story window? Whether it is a baby or a bag of rubbish the object accelerates towards the centre of the earth at 9.8 meters per second per second and there is of course no chance that gravity will be more merciful to the baby than the rubbish!

But if there is no Lord of Kamma how does this process work? The materialist skeptic sees the whole thing as superstition. When the baby suffers (say, by falling out of the window) how can that be caused by previous actions of the baby (likely in a previous existence)? There seems to be no apparent causal mechanism and indeed no workable hypothesis for one.

It might be noted in passing that Isaac Newton was criticized by fellow scientists for reintroducing " occult forces " into nature. That is to say mysterious forces acting at a distance without any reasonable connection. How can the motion of the moon effect the tides on earth? His so-called Law of Gravity was pure superstition.

But this is not the main answer to the materialists. They are asking the wrong questions because they make the wrong assumptions. Kamma is not, in ultimate reality, done by persons nor is Vipaka experienced by them; because there are no existent persons there to do or to suffer! To speak of Kamma and its effects in terms of persons is a very crude approximation; so crude that it distorts reality. Thinking and speaking in these terms does indeed sound superstitious, for the very good reason that it is.

Kamma works on an entirely different level. When it is considered in its proper place, at the level of mind moments in a stream of consciousness, then it takes on an entirely different aspect. We may venture to define the Law of Kamma as "for every kusala kamma there must be a kusala vipaka and for every akusala kamma, an akusala vipaka. " * Considered like this the Law of Kamma seems completely natural. Indeed it is a mere extension of a universal natural principle of balance to the psychological realm.

*[Kusala = wholesome or profitable, according to context. Akusala = the opposite of kusala, unwholesome or unprofitable. Kamma = action, Vipaka = result of action.]

In physics we have a series of conservation laws. Conservation of momentum, conservation of energy, conservation of mass etc. At every level the universe shows that it is in balance; for every positive charge there must be a countervailing negative charge. For every particle of matter, a particle of antimatter etc. One physicist answered an objection to the Big Bang theory as a type of creation ex nihilo by observing that the "vector sum " of the universe is zero. Therefore when a universe comes into being, nothing happens. His punchline was "creation is a free lunch. "

When any subsystem of the universe is out of balance, powerful natural forces work to put it back into balance. Why should the psychological sphere be exempt from this universal law? Kamma is best conceived as a type of conservation law acting on mind-moments. This is not to say that we cannot use the approximation of persons to advantage; but we must be clear that it is only a conventional way of speaking. Just as it might be useful to the electrician to think and talk in terms of electricity " flowing" from place to place along copper wires even though, has he any physics, he actually knows it does not; so it is useful to think and speak in terms of morality as a cause-and-effect process effecting persons. Do evil deeds and you will suffer for it. Never mind, at this level, that the you that suffers is merely an abstraction. But at the same time, never forget it!

Never forget it because the way to finally get beyond the Law of Kamma is to activate the Higher and Ultimate Laws of the transcendental. In Nibbana there is neither cause nor effect, neither good nor evil and this too is an inexorable reality. It is the final and fundamental reality beyond all dualities and the most skilful understanding and use of the Law of kamma is that in alignment with this Higher Truth.

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