Good, Evil and Beyond

Kamma in the Buddha's Teaching


P. A. Payutto

Translated by Bruce Evans






1. Understanding the Law of Kamma
    Kamma as a law of nature
    The law of kamma and social preference
    The meaning of kamma
        a. kamma as intention
        b. kamma as conditioning factor
        c. kamma as personal responsibility
        d. kamma as social activity or career
    Kinds of kamma

2. On Good and Evil
    The problem of good and evil
    The meaning of kusala and akusala
    Kusala and akusala as catalysts for each other
    Gauging good and bad kamma
        Primary factors
        Secondary factors

3. The Fruition of Kamma
   Results of kamma on different levels
    Factors that affect the fruition of kamma
    Understanding the process of fruition
    Fruits of kamma on a long term basis -- Heaven and Hell
    Summary: verifying future lives
    Kamma fruition in the Cula Kammavibhanga Sutta

4. Kamma on the Social Level
    The importance of ditthi in the creation of kamma
    External influences and internal reflection
    Personal responsibility and social kamma
    Responsible social action

5. The Kamma that Ends Kamma

6. Misunderstandings of The Law of Kamma
    Who causes happiness and suffering?
    Beliefs that are contrary to the law of kamma
    Can kamma be erased?
    Do kamma and not-self contradict each other?

7. In Conclusion
    The general meaning
    Intelligence over superstition
    Action rather than prayer
    Non-adherence to race or class
    Self reliance
    A caution for the future




The work presented here is based on a single chapter from Buddhadhamma, by Venerable P. A. Payutto. Buddhadhamma is perhaps the author's most formal and ambitious book to date, a volume of over one thousand pages dealing with the whole of the Buddha's teaching. Although the work is scholarly in approach, it renders the Buddhist themes so often misunderstood or considered beyond the scope of the ordinary layman more approachable in practical terms.

    The venerable author is one of the foremost Buddhist scholars in Thailand today. His vast output of material ranges from simple explanations of basic Buddhist themes to more substantial Dhamma teachings of a commentarial nature (such as Buddhadhamma) and social analyses from a Buddhist perspective (such as Buddhist Economics). Venerable Payutto is unusually gifted in this regard, having had experience of both Eastern and Western cultures in the course of his scholastic and teaching careers. This, combined with an inquiring mind, exhaustive research, and an intuitive understanding of rare scope, gives the venerable author an outstanding position from which to present the Buddha's teaching.

    For the modern Westerner, the teaching of kamma offers a path of practice based not on fear of a higher authority, nor dogma, but founded on a clear understanding of the natural law of cause and effect as it relates to human behavior. It is a teaching to be not so much believed in as understood and seen in operation.

    Buddhism is a religion that puts wisdom to the fore rather than faith. Intelligent and honest inquiry are not only welcomed, but encouraged. Part of this inquiry requires a good background understanding of the way cause and effect function on the personal level. This is the domain of ethics or morality, and the specific domain of kamma. What criteria are there for right and wrong behavior? As concepts, these words are open to a wide range of interpretations, but in the study of kamma we are concerned with finding definitions that are workable and sound. Such definitions must not only point out a clear direction for moral conduct, but also provide the reasons and incentives for maintaining it. The teaching of kamma satisfies these requirements.

    Western society today lacks clarity or a coherent direction in moral issues. With the waning of faith in a Supreme Being that followed the advances of science, all that seems to remain as a prescription for life are political systems and social ideals. When authoritarian rule is rejected, it often means a rejection of any coherent behavioral standard. There seems to be no room in modern thinking for morality, except perhaps on the level of ideals such as human rights.

    In the age of personal freedom and the right to self-expression, ethics seem to have been reduced to a matter of personal opinion, social decree or cultural preference. Concepts such as "right" and "wrong," and "good" and "evil," no longer stand on solid ground, and we find ourselves more and more floundering when asked to define them. Are these qualities simply a matter of opinion, or do they have some reality based on natural law? How do they relate to the scientific world of impersonal cause and effect relationships? In the eyes of many, the concepts of good and evil have been reduced to tools for righteous bigotry or political opportunism. This is why it is irksome for so many people to see or hear the word "morality"; the subject is a decidedly boring one for most. In an age when life seems to be offering an endless succession of "cheap thrills," who's interested in restraint?

    Even so, without any clear direction in life we are faced with problems on many levels. With no clear direction, no guidelines on which to base life, it becomes a shabby collection of blunders, as we go clumsily groping from one experience to the next -- even more so when the meaning of life is reduced to a compulsive race to amass "experiences" for their own sake. The result is a society driven by hedonism, fueled by craving, and plagued with problems: on the personal level, depression, loneliness, and nervous disorders; on the communal level, irrational behavior, crime and social unrest. And at the most subtle level, the legacy of the present age is a life out of step with nature, producing the spiritual "angst" which has led to the modern search for enlightenment from Eastern sources.

    It is in the light of precisely this situation that the law of kamma is so relevant. Although the words "kamma" or "karma"[*] are sometimes heard in the present day, the concept rarely emerges from the cloud of mystery that has enshrouded it from its first introduction to the West. Strangely so, because in fact the law of kamma is a singularly dynamic and lucid teaching, one which is particularly pertinent to the modern age. In the law of kamma we are able to find meaningful and relevant definitions of "good" and "evil," an understanding of which not only clarifies the path of ethical practice, but also facilitates personal well-being and fulfillment. Not only individual needs, but problems and directions on a social level can be more readily understood with the help of this teaching. It is no wonder, then, that the Law of Kamma is one of the cornerstones of Buddhism.

    It is my belief that the present book is an invaluable reference for both the casual student and the more committed practicer of Buddhism. The law of kamma, as one of Buddhism's central themes, requires not only a modicum of learning, but also a good deal of inner reflection. The book should therefore not be read as simply a collection of ideas to be committed to memory, but as "food for thought," to be mulled over, reflected on and applied to practical reality. Some of the concepts presented may at first seem strange, but time spent contemplating them will reveal that these concepts, far from strange, are really quite ordinary. They are, in fact, so ordinary that they somehow elude our complicated minds.

*  *  *

I originally set out to make a fairly literal translation of this book, but having completed the first draft I was faced with a number of problems. Firstly, some of the points raised in the book applied specifically to Thai culture and would only be meaningful in such a context. One section, for instance, covered the difference between kusala (skillful) and akusala (unskillful) on one hand, and pua (merit) and papa (demerit or sin) on the other, these words being extensively used in Thailand. But they are fairly untranslatable in English and not particularly relevant to non-Buddhist cultures. For this reason I asked the venerable author for permission to delete this section. Some sections, such as that on intention, were moved from one chapter to another. On all of these occasions I have sought out the venerable author's advice and permission.

    One of the major changes to the book is the addition of Chapter 4, dealing with kamma on the social level, which was put together from a tape recording of an informal series of questions and answers on the subject between myself and the author. The subject is in fact a very broad one, worthy of a book in its own right. It is also one aspect of kamma which is particularly relevant to modern Western interests.

    In general, the natures of the two languages, Thai and English, are vastly different. What is considered good Thai, if rendered directly into English, sometimes turns into bad English. Accordingly I have had to do some editing in the process of the translation, mainly by cutting out repetitious passages. There are a number of Pali words which it was felt were better left untranslated in the body of the text, in the hope that some of these words may, in time, find their way into the English language in one form or another. They are words for which the English language has no direct translations, and as such they represent an unfortunate lack for the Western world as a whole.

    All in all, the book is not strictly a literal translation, as anyone familiar with the two languages will find out. For any shortcomings regarding both the language, the quality of translation, and the amount of editing that has gone into this work, I ask the reader's forgiveness, and can only hope that the shortcomings are surmountable to an earnest student on the quest for truth.

    Finally, I should mention that the manuscript has been read over by so many people as to be too numerous to mention here. I have relied on the suggestions and feedback of all of them to guide my treatment of the translation, hoping to present the book in as "universal" a way as possible, and without this help I am sure the book would be much less polished than it now stands.

    May any merits accruing from the production of this book serve to illuminate the subject of kamma, and thereby lead to a saner world for all.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all footnotes are mine.

Bruce Evans   
Bangkok, 1993




As the translator has pointed out in his own introduction, this work is not a direct translation of the original Thai version, but has been adapted to suit a Western audience. Some parts have been deleted, some trimmed down, some have been rearranged, and there have been a number of footnotes added to explain concepts which might not be readily understood by a Western readership. Even so, the essential meaning of the original remains intact, and in fact the work has in the process become more suitable for readers with a non-Buddhist background. This translation therefore is not only the fruit the translator's admirable ability, but of a concerted effort, based on a desire for true benefit.

    I would like to express my appreciation to Mr. Evans for his good intentions and commitment in translating this work into English and setting the manuscript up for printing on computer. I would also like to express my appreciation to Venerable Maha Insorn Cintapanyo, who helped to finalize the setting up, and the Buddhadhamma Foundation, who have taken on the financial responsibility.

    May the collected wholesome intentions of all concerned serve to encourage right understanding and right conduct, which are the conditions which will bring about peace and happiness in the world today.

P.A. Payutto   
October 15, 1992 (B.E. 2535)   



All beings are the owners of their kamma   
heirs of their kamma   
born of their kamma   
related to their kamma   
supported by their kamma ...


Go to Chapter 1. Understanding the Law of Kamma  

Home Page | Site Contents | Ven. P. A. Payutto Page




[*] Kamma -- the Pali spelling -- which is used throughout this book, is not as familiar as the Sanskrit spelling, karma, although they both mean the same. [Back to text]