Two Meanings of Karma

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The law of karma is a fundamental principle of the Buddhist worldview. In brief, karma refers to the idea that intentional actions have consequences for the agent, in this life and in future lives; in fact, it is karma that leads to rebirth. Buddhists understand the law of karma as another manifestation of dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), the law of case and effect, whereby everything that exists arises due to specific conditions. In this sense, the law of karma is a sort of natural law, so that actions are naturally followed by consequences, not as the result of divine judgement. But they will follow: the Buddha emphasised that actions lead inevitably to appropriate consequences: 

Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea,

Nor by hiding in a mountain cave:

No place on earth is to be found

Where one might escape one’s wicked deeds.[1]

The inevitability of karmic consequences is a large part of the way that traditional Buddhism has presented its ethical teachings. Evil actions, like killing, stealing, lying and so on, are bad karmas and will lead to rebirth in an unpleasant human situation or in hell. Good actions, on the other hand, such as generosity (especially giving to Buddhist monks), makes merit and leads to good rebirth in a pleasant human situation or in heaven. Western Buddhists, while aware of the traditional teachings on karma, are generally more inclined to understand the law of karma in a psychological sense, as a reminder that good actions will produce pleasant experienced consequences in this life, and that bad actions will lead to unhappiness. My contention in this article is that in fact we should understand that ‘karma’ here is being used in two ways, and has two quite distinct meanings, which traditional Buddhists have not necessarily noticed, but which is important for western Buddhism.

I will call the two meanings of karma universal and psychological. When western Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they often have in mind only one meaning of the term, and that is the psychological meaning of karma. In its psychological meaning, the law of karma in Buddhism amounts to this: intentional actions of body, speech and mind have psychological consequences for the agent, such that good actions bring positive experiences in their train, and bad actions bring negative experiences. For instance, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then this generosity has certain consequences: I feel happier, because my concern has been habitually directed beyond myself; I feel inspired, because my giving to the monks has brought me into contact with Dharma-practitioners; I feel my life is more meaningful, because my generosity has brought me into connection with the sangha in a general sense. Conversely, if I make a habit of fiddling my tax-return and stealing packets of coffee from work, then there will be certain consequences: I feel unhappier, because of the edge of anxiety that HMRC will catch up with me, or the kitchen manager at work will notice my theft; I feel more anxious, as I need to be careful who I am honest with, especially at work; I feel my life is a struggle, because I’m not able to relax into every moment with a good conscience.

The psychological meaning of the law of karma is extremely important for understanding how practising ethics has good consequences and leads to a happier, more integrated sense of self. This is the best basis for further progress on the Buddhist path. As an aside at this point, it is worth noticing that Buddhist ethics is based on the axiom that ‘actions have consequences’, but a good action is one that has good consquences for everyone, not just for oneself. The law of karma follows from the ethical axiom, but the psychological consequences for onself should not be the only considersation for our actions. But perhaps for a lot of us the promise of greater happiness acts as a prompt to remember to be good.

However, when traditional Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they usually have in mind something different to the psychological meaning of karma, which I will call the universal meaning of karma. In this more traditional meaning, the law of karma amounts to a theory about universal moral justice: intentional actions of body, speech and mind will have felt consequences in this life, or, more likely, in future lives. According to the universal law of karma, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then such generous acts create merit, which is something like a positive balance on a cosmic balance-sheet, and which, after I have died, will come to fruition in my having a pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a well-off family, perhaps in a Buddhist country, or perhaps in a heavenly realm. Conversely, if I fiddle my taxes and steal the coffee, then such acts of taking the not-given will create demerit, which is something like a negative weight on the cosmic balance-sheet, which, after I have died, will have the result of putting me into a less pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a family of thieves, or among tax-collectors or coffee-growers, or perhaps in a hell-realm.

The universal law of karma is part of Buddhist cosmology; beings move between the various realms of existence – human, divine, hellish, animal – as a result of their karma. Due to universal impermanence, all beings arise and pass away continuously, and the effects of both good and bad actions only last for a certain period of time before they are exhausted. Hence the gods may fall and the inhabitants of hell may find their way back into the daylight, all through the law of karma. This universal karma is a system of cosmic justice, whereby moral acts never fade into oblivion, but register in the fabric of reality, their moral quality conserved until the very universe rewards and punishes good- and evil-doers.

My thought is that the Buddhist tradition has never distinguished these two meanings of the law of karma, the universal and the psychological. I think that the reason is that the universal idea of karma has its origin in ancient Indian religious and philosophical thought, and was not originally a psychological doctrine. In the Brahmanical religion of before the Buddha’s time, karma meant ritual action. For instance, a son might perform karmas at the funeral of his father, to ensure the deceased person’s passage to the world of the ancestors. Such karmas involved placing ritual items in the ritual fire, and it was believed that correctly performed ritual karma effected the nature of the universe. Around the time of the Buddha, the Jains formulated a new teaching about karma. For them, karma was a kind of substance that clung to one’s soul and kept one in conditioned existence and transmigration. Good karmas were purer than bad karmas but better than both was no karma. Again the effect of karma was inherent in the nature of the universe, but now the effect was individualised and ethical. Then the Buddha gave this individualised and ethicised idea of karma a psychological turn, so that the most important kind of karma was mental intention, and it was not a kind of substance but something more abstract.[2]

So although the psychological sense of karma has always been part of the Buddhist teaching, it has not usually been distinguished from the universal sense of karma. But actually, the two meanings of karma have very different implications. The universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief. It is not possible for ordinary people to understand the workings of universal karma; as the Buddha said, the workings of karma are unthinkable. It is simply a matter of trusting that this is the way that the universe works. Moreover, a belief in the universal law of the karma is tied up with a belief not only in rebirth but also in the various realms of existence posited by Buddhist cosmology. All in all, the universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief.

By contrast, the psychological law of karma is not a matter of belief, but is something that we can observe and test for ourselves. Indeed, most of us have to some extent learned to do good and avoid evil just because of our past mistakes. But mostly this psychological law of karma appeals to our intuitive sense of morality as well as being easily testable through actual experience. The truth that good actions have good consequences which are experienced in the here and now seems to be part and parcel of the Dharma, which is said to be evident, timeless, inviting, guiding, to be experienced individually by the wise.

My sense is that Western Buddhists are generally more inclined to think of the law of karma in the psychological sense. This makes sense, as the psychological sense of karma is practical and empirical. The universal sense of karma is, by contrast, religious and indeed a matter of metaphysical speculation, since our knowledge of it is dependent on the the Buddhist tradition. It seems to me, moreover, that the universal meaning of the law of karma is incompatible with the scientific world-view in many ways, and for this reason many western Buddhists actually do not believe in the law of karma as universal justice, while nevertheless the law of karma as a clear psychological teaching is central to their conception of the Dharma. So the distinction of psychological and universal meanings of the law of karma is important for clarifying what is distinctive about western Buddhism.


[1] Dhammapada, verse 127, my trans.

[2] Richard Gombrich traces the origins of the Buddha’s teaching of karma in Brahmanical and Jain traditions in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, London, 2009.

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The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order

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This post might be mainly of interest to people in the Triratna Buddhist Order and community as it assumes some prior knowledge about Sangharakhita’s teaching about the ‘five niyamas’. Sangharakshita’s teaching was presented by Subhuti in a new way in his 2010 paper, ‘Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma’.[i] However, according to my understanding of the Pāli language and the Theravādin commentarial tradition, the word niyama does not mean what Sangharakshita or Subhuti take it to mean, and Sangharakshita’s list of five niyamas is a creative re-interpretation of Mrs Rhys-Davids’ creative mis-interpretation of what the commentators say.[ii] I have explored all this in an article on ‘The Five Niyāmas as Laws of Nature’, published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, but I will not repeat anything of that here.[iii] In this post I want instead to engage in a philosophical re-interpretation of Sangharakshita’s ideas about the ‘five niyamas’ in terms of natural order. My aim is to clarify some of the philosophical and metaphysical claims implied by the Buddhist teaching of conditionality.

In an earlier post,[iv] I made the claim that Buddhism is a form of naturalism. The Dharma is the Buddha’s teaching, but the word also refers to immanent natural order in the universe and in human life.[v] The basic principle of this natural order is, according to the Buddha, paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent-arising, the principle that things arise on conditions and cease with the cessation of those conditions. We can talk about paṭicca-samuppāda simply as ‘conditionality’.

Now I would like to rectify some terms. When we say that conditionality is a principle of natural order, the word ‘order’ refers to the regulated condition, the fixed arrangement found in the existing state of things, in nature.[vi] However, when Sangharakshita writes about the ‘five niyamas’ as ‘five orders of conditionality’, he is using the word ‘order’ to mean grades in an ordered or hierarchical structure, characterized by sequence.[vii] But this ambiguous use of the word ‘order’ covers up an important point, which is that conditionality as such, that is, the principle of natural order, is not characterized by grades or any hierarchical structure; rather, it is simply the principle that characterizes reality. There is just one principle of conditionality, metaphysically speaking. However, this principle describes the arising and ceasing of conditioned things, and so we could perhaps speak of various grades in an ordered structure of paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā, or ‘dependently-arisen phenomena’. So the ‘five orders of conditionality’ might more accurately be understood to mean ‘five orders or grades of conditioned phenomena’, all equally subject to the one principle of conditionality or natural order.

However, the idea of ‘five orders of conditioned phenomena’ itself creates a philosophical problem. It ought to mean that there are five kinds of dependently-arisen things, five domains of reality. But reality is not like this. Reality, as far as we know anything about it, is not divisible into five parts but is a whole which consists in a seamless web of everything. Of course there are different kinds of things – stars, mangoes, Buddhists, words – but the categorical distinctions between things are made by human minds as they try to categorise what they perceive and think about. The ‘five orders of conditionality’, then, are more like five kinds of natural law, five different sets of laws used to describe the observable regularities within the arising and ceasing of conditioned phenomena. Laws are products of thought, so if the ‘five orders of conditionality’ are really five kinds of natural law, the important implication follows that the distinction of five kinds of law is a conventional rather than absolute distinction, the creation of human thought rather than being part of nature. It is probably possible to have a list of three kinds of law, or six, or ten. But Sangharakshita’s list of five has a certain integrity that is satisfying to the mind.

What are these five kinds of natural law? The first is physical law, describing matter and forces and so on. The second is biological law, describing living organisms. The third is psychological law, describing non-deliberate mental processes such as perception and identity. We might consider psychological and biological laws in some sense to be reducible to physics; or we might prefer to understand biological and psychological laws to be irreducible, and to view them as emergent properties of the working-out of increasingly complex physical laws. These are large philosophical issues. In either case, the stage is set for the remaining two kinds of law, which are both distinctive productions of the Buddhist experience: the law of karma, and finally the Dharma itself, understanding the word ‘Dharma’ here in the particular sense of those teachings concerning the way to liberation.[viii]

So the so-called ‘five niyamas’ turn out to be five kinds of laws which describe the arising and ceasing of conditioned phenomena comprehended within the principle of conditionality. Since natural laws as such are human productions of thought, there being five kinds of law is simply a convention, a way of putting things. On the other hand, there being a law of karma and there being a Dharma in the sense of a teaching of the way beyond the world of experience, reveals the full scope of natural order in the Buddhist world view. This world view includes, under the idea of a law of karma, a conception of ethical recompense integral to the workings of nature. I am aware that the traditional Buddhist teachings on the law of karma are far from intelligible within a scientific world view. However, we can reduce the religious teachings on karma to two ideas which are highly intelligible: first, that ethical judgements can be objective, and, second, that we can reach these ethical judgements as part of our reflection on natural order. That is to say, good and bad, right and wrong, are neither subjective and relative, nor transcendent and absolute, but emerge as natural properties of reality. Finally, the Buddhist world view includes a soteriology or doctrine of salvation, under the idea of the dharma as the teaching of the way leading beyond ordinary experience to liberation and nirvana, which is yet comprehended within the idea of nature as a whole. That is to say, liberation is neither a matter of non-natural grace nor of chance mysticism. Hence, the Buddhist conception of a natural order, that is, its conception of Dharma as immannent natural order in the universe, includes physical, biological and psychological descriptions of a dependently-arisen reality, as well as ethical and soteriological teachings concerning the possibilities of human experience as part of nature. This is the full scope of Buddhist naturalism.


[ii] All the Pāli source texts pertaining to the ‘five niyamas’ have been usefully translated by Jayarava at http://www.jayarava.org/texts/the-five-Fold-niyama.pdf

[v] See Margaret Cone, The Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, dhamma, 3(i), q.v.

[vi] See OED, order, q.v.: ‘III. Sequence, disposition, or arrangement; arranged or regulated condition’, especially ‘15. the fixed arrangement found in the existing state of things; a natural, moral, spiritual, or social system in which things proceed according to definite, established, or constituted laws.’

[vii] See OED, order, q.v.: ‘I. Any of the grades or ranks in an ordered or hierarchical structure (characterized by sequence)’, especially ‘3. A rank, row, or series.’ The OED lists a remaining meaning of ‘order’, viz.: ‘II. A rank or class of people or things’, as in the Triratna Buddhist Order.

[viii] See The Dictionary of Pāli, vol. II, dhamma, 1(ii), (iii), (iv), q.v.

Dependent-Arising and Interconnectedness

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In my book This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality,[1] I make a connection between the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising, paṭicca-samuppāda, and what I claim to be the Buddha’s vision of reality as an interconnected whole. In my book I also invoke the name of Joanna Macy as someone who has written of paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of ‘interdependence’ and ‘mutual co-arising’.[2] Some Buddhist friends, however, have let me know that they do not believe that the Buddha’s teaching of conditionality can be rightly articulated in terms of interconnectedness and mutual arising, and they disapprove of Macy’s approach. In this essay I want to explain why I disagree.

However, I am not claiming that the Buddha taught interconnectedness. In the Pali canon, the Buddha is not recorded as saying anything at all about interconnectedness, nor much about the world of nature, because his emphasis is so overwhelmingly pragmatic and spiritual. Nevertheless, I think Joanna Macy’s discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of dependent-arising as implying ‘mutual arising’ and ‘interdependence’ is very useful for modern westerners. If we have had a scientific education, we might have unconsciously internalised a mechanistic view of how everything works. Talk of ‘causation’ and ‘cause and effect’ are likely to produce in our minds the idea of linear causal mechanisms, like billiard balls causing movement in other billiard balls. This conception of causality is culturally conditioned, being the result of the European scientific revolution. The idea of conditionality working in a much more complex, interconnected way suggests a more holistic and organic conception of causality in terms of complex non-linear causal processes. Such thinking is closer to the Buddha’s pre-scientific mode of thought. It certainly brings us closer to the workings of nature, and perhaps of reality too.

Beyond the idea of interdependence as a way of characterising causality, I believe that that the vision of reality as an interconnected whole is a particularly important implication of the teaching of dependent-arising. I would agree with anyone who says that the Buddha did not teach interconnectedness in that sense, but I do not think interconnectedness is at odds with the Dharma.

It seems to me that the emphasis (in the discourses that have come down to us in the Pāli canon) is on the implications of dependent-arising for existence through time, rather than for connectedness across space. That is to say, dependent-arising is generally expressed in the Pāli canon in terms of temporal relationships, and has the implication that all dependently-arisen things, just because they are dependently-arisen, are impermanent. They arise, they remain for a certain time, and then they pass away. Nothing is permanent, all is change. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all process, without fixed self (anattā).

The temporal implications of dependent-arising became the paradigm for the arising of insight, which is the goal of Buddhist practice. We see this in the story of the conversions of Sāriputta and his friend Mogallāna, who were to become the Buddha’s chief disciples. Sāriputta became a follower of the Buddha having heard a formulation of dependent-arising from a disciple of the Buddha called Assaji. Having been asked by Sāriputta for the essence of the Dharma, Assaji tells him:

‘Those things conditionally arisen – the Realized One has told their cause,
and the ceasing of them too; this is the great renouncer’s teaching.’[3]

Then – and this is the important point here – ‘Hearing this formulation of the Dharma, the spotless, stainless vision of Dharma arose in Sāriputta the wanderer, that whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease.’ We read this quite often in the Pāli canon. Someone hears the Dharma, and then they have a vision of the temporal instability of phenomena, and this is a vision of reality which is the beginning of the path of transformation and awakening.

My suggestion is that modern western Buddhists are, generally speaking, less fixated on the possibility of temporal stability, that is, on the possibility of immortality or the attainment of eternity, and more concerned about our identities in relation to a world of people and things. This means that we might experience our ignorance and our clinging more in terms of representations of spatial relationships then in terms of temporal durations. We might be more anxious what we have than how long we will have it. The teaching of dependent-arising, as well as implying that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise will naturally cease’, will also imply that people and things all depend on other people and things. In such a network of conditions, where can we find a reliable identity, and what might it be it by itself? Hearing the Dharma, one might have a vision of the interconnectness of all phenomena, and it might be this vision of reality which for us is the beginning of the path of transformation.

With this in mind, here are ‘Four Theses on Interconnectedness’. I should say that I am using the term ‘interconnectedness’ here to mean paṭicca-samuppāda, and you could equally use the terms ‘interdependence’, ‘mutual co-arising’ or conditionality.

  1. Reality (or nature) is an interconnected whole.
  2. Reality (or nature) is patterned by many kinds of laws.
  3. Particular things are connected to other particular things.
  4. Interconnected things do not exist independently.

These four theses constitute a metaphysical worldview that is a platform for Buddhist insight practice. They are logically independent but are themselves interconnected as to what they mean. The fourth thesis is a way of putting Nāgārjuna’s conception of śūnyatā, or emptiness, which states that all dharmas are without svabhāva or own-being.[4] Nāgārjuna himself believed that his conception of emptiness was a restatement of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way between existence and non-existence, especially as found in the Kaccāyana Sutta.[5] The third thesis is another way of putting the general formulation of paṭicca-samuppāda, (‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises,’ and so on) and warns us against understanding interconnectedness as some vague all-is-one kind of view. The second thesis, as well as being the basic assumption of the scientific worldview, is a paraphrase of the Buddha’s definition of paṭicca-samuppāda as ‘this stability of reality, this fixed course of things (dharma-niyāmatā)’.[6] The first thesis, that nature (or reality) is an interconnected whole, is not an explicit part of the traditional Buddhist world-view, but would appear to be implied by it.

Things are interconnected, they do not exist in themselves. When we consider human experience in this light, it is all network, without fixed self (anattā).


[1] Published by Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2011, especially in ch.8.

[2] In Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, State University of New York Press: Albany, 1991, and also in Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, Rider: London, 1993, part 2.

[3] Vinaya-piṭaka i.40. A full translation of this incident is in my book on pp.36–8.

[4] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.1.

[5] Mūlamadhyamika-kārikā, ch.15. The Kaccāyana Sutta is in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:15.

[6] Saṃyutta-Nikāya, 12:20.