Abhidhamma Teachings on Kamma


Unwholesome kamma:

Unwholesome kamma is threefold according to the doors of action, namely: bodily action, verbal action, and mental action.

How? Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are bodily actions generally occurring through the door of the body, known as bodily intimation.

False speech, slandering, harsh speech, and frivolous talk are verbal actions generally occurring through the door of speech, known as vocal intimation.

Covetousness, ill will, and wrong view are mental actions generally occurring only in the mind without (bodily or vocal) intimation.

Covetousness is the mental factor of greed, arisen as the wish to acquire another person’s proerty. Even though greed arises for another’s property, it does not become a full course of action unless one gives rise to the wish to take possession of that property.

Ill will is the mental factor of hatred, which becomes a full course of action when it arises with the wish that another being meets with harm and affliction.

Wrong view becomes a full course of action when it assumes the form of one of the morally nihilistic views which deny the validity of ethics and the retributive consequences of action. Three such views are mentioned often in the Sutta Pitaka:

  1. Nihilism, which denies the survival of the personality in any form after death, thus negating the moral significance of deeds.
  2. The efficacy of action view, which claims that deeds have no efficacy in producing results and thus invalidates moral distinctions.
  3. The acausality view, which states that there is no cause or condition for the defilement and purification of beings, that beings are defiled and purified by chance, fate, or necessity.

Wholesome kamma of the sense sphere:

Wholesome kamma of the sense sphere is threefold according to the doors of action, namely, bodily action pertaining to the door of the body; verbal action ertaining to the door of speech; and mental action pertaining to the door of the mind.

Similarly, it is threefold as giving, virtue, and meditation. But it is eightfold according to the classes of consciousness.

It is also tenfold as:

  1. Generosity/giving
  2. Virtue
  3. Meditation
  4. Reverence
  5. Service
  6. Transference of merit
  7. Rejoicing in others’ merit
  8. Hearing the Dhamma
  9. Teaching the Dhamma
  10. Straightening out one’s views

All these twenty kinds (unwholesome and wholesome) are known as kamma pertaining to the sense sphere.

Four types of Kamma

I. By way of Function

With respect to function there are four kinds of kamma, namely:

  1. Productive kamma
  2. Supportive kamma
  3. Obstructive kamma
  4. Destructive kamma

Four types of kamma: The word kamma means literally action or deed, but in the Buddha’s teaching it refers exclusively to volitional action. From a technical standpoint, kamma denotes wholesome or unwholesome volition (cetana), volition being the factor responsible for action. Thus the Buddha declares: “It is volition, monks, that I call kamma, for having willed, one performs an action through body, speech or mind."

The law of kamma is self-subsistent in its operation, ensuring that willed deeds produce their effects in accordance with their ethical quality just as surely as seeds bear fruit in accordance with their species. The direct products of kamma are the resultant states of consciousness and mental factors that arise when kamma finds the right conditions to fructify. Kamma also produces a distinct type of matter in the organic bodies of living beings, called materiality originating from kamma.

With respect to function: Kammas perform different functions, of which four are mentioned here. Any kamma, under different circumstances, can perform any of several of these functions.

Fourfold kamma at a glance

  • By way of function
    • Productive kamma
    • Supportive kamma
    • Obstructive kamma
    • Destructive kamma
  • By order of ripening
    • Weighty kamma
    • Death-proximate kamma
    • Habitual kamma
    • Reserve kamma
  • By time of ripening
    • Immediately effective kamma
    • Subsequently effective kamma
    • Indefinitely effective kamma
    • Defunct
  • By place of ripening
    • Unwholesome kamma
    • Sense-sphere wholesome kamma
    • Fine-material-sphere wholesome kamma
    • Immaterial-sphere wholesome kamma

Productive kamma is wholesome or unwholesome volition which produces resultant mental states and kamma-born materiality both at the moment of rebirth-linking and during the course of existence. At the moment of conception, productive kamma generates the rebirth-linking consciousness and the kamma-born types of materiality constituting the physical body of the new being. During the course of existence it produces other resultant cittas and the continuities of kamma-born materiality, such as the sense faculties, sexual determination, and the heart-base. Only a kamma that has attained the status of a full course of action can perform the function of producing rebirth-linking, but all wholesome and unwholesome kammas without exception can produce results during the course of existence.

Supportive kamma is kamma which does not gain an opportunity to produce its own result, but which, when some other kamma is exercising a productive function, supports it either by enabling it to produce its pleasant or painful results over an extended time without obstruction or by reinforcing the continuum of aggregates produced by another kamma. For example, when through the productive function of wholesome kamma one is reborn as a human being, supportive kamma may contribute to the extension of one’s life-span and ensure that one is healthy and well provided with the necessities of life. When an unwholesome kamma has exercised its productive function by causing a painful disease, other unwholesome kamma may support it by preventing medicines from working effectively, thereby prolonging the disease. When a being has been reborn as an animal through the productive force of unwholesome kamma, supportive kamma may facilitate the ripening of more unwholesome kamma productive of painful results, and may also lead to an extension of the life-span so tat the continuity of unwholesome-resultants will endure long.

Obstructive kamma is kamma which cannot produce its own result but nevertheless obstructs and frustrates some other kamma, countering its efficacy or shortening the duration of its pleasant or painful results. Even though a productive kamma may be strong at the time it is accumulated, an obstructive kamma directly opposed to it may counteract it so that it becomes impaired when producing its results. For example, a wholesome kamma tending to produce re birth in a superior lane of existence may be impeded by an obstructive kamma so that it generates rebirth in a lower plane. A kamma tending to produce rebirth among high families may produce rebirth among low families; kamma tending to longevity may tend towards shortness of life; kamma tending to produce beauty may produce a plain appearance, etc. In the opposite way, an unwholesome kamma tending to produce rebirth in the great hells may be counteracted by an obstructive wholesome kamma and produce rebirth in the minor hells or among the petas.

During the course of existence many instances may be found of the operation of obstructive kamma. For example, in the human realm such kamma will obstruct the continuum of aggregates produced by kamma, facilitating the maturation of kamma that results in suffering and causing failures in regard to property and wealth or family and friends, etc. In the lower realms obstructive kamma may counteract the rebirth-producing kamma, contributing to occasions of ease and happiness.

Destructive kamma is wholesome or unwholesome kamma which supplants other weaker kamma, prevents it from ripening, and produces instead its own result. For example, somebody born as a human being may, through his productive kamm, have been originally destined for a long life-span, but a destructive kamma may arise and bring about a premature death. At the time of death, at first a sign of a bad destination may appear by the power of an evil kamma, heralding a bad rebirth, but then a good kamma may emerge, expel the bad kamma, and having caused the sign of a good destination to appear, produce rebirth in a heavenly world. On the other hand, a bad kamma may suddenly arise, cut off the productive potential of a good kamma, and generate rebirth in a woeful realm. According to Ledi Sayadaw, destructive kamma can also be responsible for cutting off the efficacy of any of the sense faculties – the eye, ear, etc. causing blindness or deafness, etc., and can also cause sexual mutation.

II. By Order of Ripening

With respect to the order in which the effect of kamma takes place, there are four kind of kamma, namely:

  1. Weighty kamma
  2. Death-proximate kamma
  3. Habitual kamma
  4. Reserve kamma

The order in which the effect of kamma takes place: This section concerns the order of precedence among different kammas in taking on the role of generating rebirth-linking in the next existence.

Weighty kamma is kamma of such powerful moral weight that it cannot be replaced by any other kamma as the determinant of rebirth. On the wholesome side, this kamma is the attainment of the jhanas. On the unwholesome side, it is the five heinous crimes together with a fixed wrong view that denies the basis of morality. The five heinous crimes are:

Parricide, matricide, the murder of an Arahant, the wounding of a Buddha, and maliciously creating a schism in the Sangha. If someone were to develop the jhanas, and later were to commit one of the heinous crimes, his good kamma would be obliterated by the evil deed, and the latter would generate rebirth into a state of misery. For example, the Buddha’s ambitious cousin Devadatta lost his psychic powers and was reborn in hell for wounding the Buddha and causing a schism in the Sangha. But if someone were first to commit one of the heinous crimes, he could not later reach a sublime or supramundane attainment, because the evil kamma would create an insurmountable obstruction. Thus King Ajatasattu, while listening to the Buddha speak the Samannaahala sutta, the Discourse on the Fruits of Recluseship, had all other conditions for reaching stream-entry; but because he had killed his father, King Bimbisara, he could not attain the path and fruit.

Death-proximate kamma is a potent kamma remembered or done shortly before death, that is, immediately prior to the last javana process. If a person of bad character remembers a good deed he has done, or performs a good deed just before dying, he may receive a fortunate rebirth; and conversely, if a good person dwells on a evil deed done earlier, or performs an evil deed just before dying, he may undergo an unhappy rebirth. For this reason in Buddhist countries it is customary to remind a dying person of his good deeds or to urge him to arouse good thoughts during the last moments of his life.

When there is no weighty kamma, and a potent death-proximate kamm is performed, this kamma will generally take on the role of generating rebirth. This does not mean that a person will escape the fruits of the other good and bad deeds he has committed during the course of life. When they meet with conditions, these kammas too will produce their due results.

Habitual kamma is a deed that one habitually performs, either good or bad. In the absence of weighty kamma and a potent death-proximate kamma, this type of kamma generally assumes the rebirth-generative function.

Reserve kamma is any other deed, not included in the three aforementioned categories, which is potent enough to take on the role of generating rebirth. This type of kamma becomes operative when there is no kamma of the other three types to exercise this function.

III. By Time of Ripening

With respect to the time of taking effect, there are four kinds of kamma namely:

  • Immediately effective kamma
  • Subsequently effective kamma
  • Indefinitely effective kamma
  • Defunct kamma

Immediately effective kamma (ditthadhammavedaniya) is kamma which, if it is to ripen, must yield its results in the same existence in which it is performed; otherwise, if it does not meet the opportunity to ripen in the same existence, it becomes defunct. According to the Abhidhamma, of the seven javanas in a javana process, the first javana moment being the weakest of all generates immediately effective kamma.

Subsequently effective kamma is kamma which, if it is to ripen, must yield its results in the existence immediately following that in which it is performed; otherwise it becomes defunct. This type of kamma is generated by the last javana moment in a javana process, which is the second weakest in the series.

Indefinitely effective kamma is kamma which can ripen at any time from the second future existence onwards, whenever it gains an opportunity to produce results. This kamma, generated by the five intermediate javana moments of a cognitive process, never becomes defunct so long as the round of births continues. No one, not even a Buddha or an Arahant, is exempt from experiencing the results of indefinitely effective kamma.

Defunct kamma this term does not designate a special class of kamma, but applies to kamma that was due to ripen in either the present existence or the next existence but did not meet conditions conducive to its maturation. In the case of Arahants, all their accumulated kamma from the past which was due to ripen in future lives becomes defunct with their final passing away.

IV. By place of ripening

With respect to the place in which the effect takes place, there are four kinds of kamma, namely:

  1. Unwholesome kamma
  2. Wholesome kamma pertaining to the sense sphere
  3. Wholesome kamma pertaining to the fine-material sphere
  4. Wholesome kamma pertaining to the immaterial sphere


The source for the above material:
Bhikkhu Bodhi, General Editor. A Comprehensive Manual of the Abhidhamma. Copyright © 1993, 1999 by Buddhist Publication Society, P. O. Box 61, 54, Sangaraja Mawatha, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Used with permission.

Related Topics (links):
The Great Exposition on Kamma
Kamma - The law of cause and effect

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