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Karma. What is Karma ? . Karma is found within many forms of Indian religion including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Sanskrit karma (Pali: kamma ) means ‘action’. It is linked to systems of cause and effect, as well as being a key factor in rebirth.

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what is karma
What is Karma?
  • Karma is found within many forms of Indian religion including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
  • In Sanskrit karma (Pali: kamma) means ‘action’.
  • It is linked to systems of cause and effect, as well as being a key factor in rebirth.
  • Ideas concerning the nature of karma have evolved over time and karma did not start off as an ethical concept.
what is karma1
What is Karma?
  • In the early Vedic period it was believed that after some time in the afterlife rebirth into one’s own family was automatic irrespective of good or bad actions.
  • In the later Vedic period karma was understood as sacrificial acts which, if correctly performed would enable a desired result to come into effect, if the sacrifice was performed incorrectly then the desired result would simply not occur.
  • In texts such as the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads it was explained that actions performed on a small scale (microcosm) would have an effect on the cosmos as a whole (macrocosm)
what is karma2
What is Karma?
  • In the Upaniṣadskarma acquires an ethical dimension of good and bad deeds became a determining factor in the quality of one’s rebirth.
  • This ethicised concept of karma became widespread and was a key factor in the formation of the emerging religions at the time.
  • In Jainism karma is seen as good or bad actions and conceived of as matter which is sticking to the soul. Over many lifetimes beings can try to attract less and less karmic matter and remove the one that is already there.
  • In Buddhism karma is understood as good or bad intentional actions performed in mind, body and speech. Unlike Jainism, Buddhism places great emphasis on intention.
what generates buddhist karma
What Generates (Buddhist) Karma?
  • There are many different concepts of karma but we concentrate here on Buddhist karma.

“It is ‘intention’ that I call kamma; having willed or formed the intention, one performs acts by the body, speech and mind.”

AnguttaraNikayaiii, 415

Translation from Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 120.

(Full text of the Nibbedhika Sutta can be found here)

what generates karma
What Generates Karma?
  • Intentional actions that produce karmic results can be split into three categories:
  • Actions of body
  • Actions of speech
  • Action of mind
  • What this means is that the individual is responsible for their own karmic results. The way in which they think, the physical actions they perform and what they say will produce further karmic actions and results.
  • Knowing this one can change the behaviour and attempt to generate good karmic results.
what generates karma1
What Generates Karma?

In later Buddhist Literature we find reference a list of 10 meritorious deeds (Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha25) :

  • It is also tenfold according to (i) generosity, (ii) morality, (iii) meditation, (iv) reverence, (v) service, (vi) transference of merit, (vii) rejoicing in [others’] merit (viii) hearing the doctrine, (ix) teaching the doctrine, (x) and straightening one’s views.

Translation from NaradaMahathera,A Manual of Abhidhamma, (Bangalore: Power Press 1956), vol. I p 241.

what does buddhist karma do
What does (Buddhist) Karma do?
  • Karma, within Buddhist thought, is a system of cause and effect. Rather than being linked to ritual actions karma is understood to concern all intentional thoughts and actions.
  • What this means is that actions have a moral quality to them. Intentional actions that are good and well meaning will have positive outcomes whereas intentional actions that are selfish, discriminatory and hurtful will produce negative outcomes.
  • Karma also plays a great part in determining the future rebirth of an individual.
how is karma carried over to the next existence
How is karma carried over to the next existence?
  • The nature of the relationship between karma and rebirth is complex.
  • Whilst karma will have a certain influence of the quality of life in the next life it does not necessarily dictate the rebirth destination.
  • Instead the moment of death is very influential in determining rebirth. If an individual dies in a peaceful manner, with religious thoughts then they are more likely to have a good rebirth. If someone dies unexpectedly, violently or with a bad state of mind this can lead to a poor rebirth.
  • The reason for this is that at the time of death only the mental factors can get carried over.
how is karma carried over to the next existence1
How is karmacarried over to the next existence?

Dilemma: If Buddhism does not propagate a soul or self, how is karma meant to get carried over from one existence to the next?

  • The being who is reborn is neither the same nor different from being who dies (like an old person is neither the same nor different from the baby he was)
  • Person is analysedas being made up of physical and mental phenomena (5 aggregates, skandhas; 12 spheres, ayatanas; 18 elements, dhatus, etc.)
  • These phenomena (body, feeling, volitions, etc.) are all subject to change at any time.
how is karma carried over to the next existence2
How is karma carried over to the next existence?
  • The occurrence of these physical and mental phenomena follows laws of causality called “Dependent Origination” (pratityasamutpāda).
  • The causal connectedness of phenomena does not stop at death, only a particular configuration of events breaks up and a reconfiguration takes place.
  • As the body can not be carried over into the new existence, great emphasis is given to the mental events at time of death.
  • The mental events or, to phrase it differently, what type of karma come to the foreground at the time of death, are crucial in determining the next existence.
how is karma carried over to the next existence3
How is karmacarried overto the next existence?
  • Even if a being has committed many bad deeds but has managed to attain a good rebirth they will at some point suffer the effects of past bad actions. A good death can result in a good rebirth but this is not tantamount to having a long and good life.
  • In the Abhidharma the karma that comes to the forefront at the time of death is divided into a hierarchy of four basic types: weighty, proximate, habitual, and performed.
  • The nature of one’s death is conditioned by the type of karma that comes to the fore at the time of death.
k arma at the time of death
Karma at the time of Death
  • All Buddhist texts agree that if the dying person has committed a deed that is deemed to be ‘weighty’ that particular action will inevitably determine the state of mind of the individual at the time of death. If the deed is bad (such as killing a parent) this will result in rebirth in hell. If the deed is good (such as having achieved a particularly high stage of meditation) it will result in rebirth in one of the corresponding heavens.
  • Most of us will not be in a situation that we have committed such a weighty deed and in that case other deeds will come to mind.
karma at the time of death
Karma at the time of Death
  • These can be either ‘habitual’, that is grounded in deeply ingrained good habits(such as going to the the temple on full moon days, making offerings to the Buddha and Saṅgha or listening to sermons) or bad habits (such as excessive drinking, lying and stealing).
  • Or ‘proximate’ karma, that means something that happened just before death, will become the determining factor. This is the doctrinal rationale for the widely held belief that chanting, reminding the dying person of past good deeds and generally creating a calm and peaceful atmosphere can contribute to a better rebirth.
  • Finally, if there is a lack of such significant deeds then the the so-called ‘performed’ karma (a rather general category) will come to the fore and condition rebirth.
karma at the time of death1
Karma at the Time of Death
  • The last thoughts of an individual are dictated by his/her prior karma and will shape their future rebirth. The more calm, prepared, conscious and aware a person is the better their rebirth is considered to be.
  • In Buddhist cultures it is believed that it is possible to create a good death moment by chanting or directing the dying persons mind towards the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha.
  • If someone dies in an untimely or violent manner, or disturbed by thoughts of bad deeds, or if a woman dies whilst pregnant this is commonly regarded as a bad death.
karma in practice
Karma in practice
  • Actions that are considered to be wholesome (Sanskrit: kuśala/ Pali: kusala) will have pleasant results (vipāka).
  • Good karma is also known as merit (puṇya/puñña). The production of merit is important as it can have positive effects on the lives of individuals, generate desirable rebirths and also allow one to access higher levels of spiritual attainment.
  • The generated merit can also be ‘given’ away which in itself is a meritorious deed.
Acts, such as giving the gifts to the Saṅgha, result in good karma if done in with positive attitude (Thailand 2008).
karma in practice1
Karma in practice
  • Actions that are considered to be unwholesome (akuśala/askusala) will have unpleasant and even painful results.
  • Whilst the effects of bad karma are unpleasant they do not perpetuate further bad karma. Instead it is the way in which one deals with it that will produce either good or bad karma.
  • As with good karma this can also have a determining effect on one’s future rebirth. If one’s bad karma surfaces at the moment of death then this can lead to an undesirable rebirth.
  • As no one knows for sure where a loved one is being reborn, giving of merit and even material goods to the deceased are very common.
summing up
Summing up:
  • Early Vedic beginnings: rebirth into own family automatic
  • Late Vedic: karma as sacrificial action
  • Upanishads: karma begins to acquire ethical dimension
  • Jain: karma as good and bad acts conceptualized as matter regardless of intention
  • Buddhist:
    • karma as good and bad intentional acts
    • karma linked with the quality of rebirth
    • “Dependent origination” explains how karma get carried over without a soul or self as carrier
    • At death only mental factors can get carried over
    • How to have a good or bad death