top of page

What is Kamma and Rebirth?

by Ayya Khema

KAMMA AND REBIRTH are two fascinating subjects, and are often misunderstood. It’s important for us to have a deep awareness of them. We’ll have a look at kamma first.


“I am the owner of my kamma. I inherit my kamma. I am born of my kamma. I am related to my kamma. I live supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I create, whether good or evil, that I shall inherit.” The Buddha said that we need to remember this every day. Why is it so important to remember it every day?

The word kamma, literally translated, means action. It was used in this way at the time of the Buddha: “Kamma yoga” means the yoga of action. But the Buddha said, “Kamma, O monks, I declare, is intention.” It’s not just any action, but the intention behind it. Intention is not only in what we do, it is also in what we think and speak. The way we use the word kamma is technically not quite correct because we mean our deeds and also the results. However, since kamma is in common usage now, we will retain it.

There is a great deal of difference between what we do intentionally and what we do unintentionally. If we accidentally step on an ant and kill it, we probably didn’t see it. It may be a lack of mindfulness, but it’s not the kamma of killing. There was no such intention behind it. But if we have an ant heap in our garden and wanting to get rid of it we pour poison over it and destroy as many ants as we can, that is the kamma of killing because there is intention behind the act. The Buddha’s genius shows the difference between “action” and “intention.”


What we intend brings results, and our actions are caused by thinking about them first. So our thinking is one facet of ourselves that needs to be watched most carefully. This is what we are trying to learn through meditation. Unless we get to know our thinking process, we won’t make good kamma, no matter what we do, because we won’t know the intention. When we know our thoughts, then we can change them, and that change will hopefully go in the right direction, in the direction of making good kamma.


Some people think: “I want to make good kamma, so that I get a pleasant rebirth.” This is a commercial interchange, to do something in order to get something. It’s better than not thinking about it at all and just blithely going along with whatever instinct dictates. But it can’t have the result one is hoping for, because it’s a totally ego-centered approach.


Good actions should be performed because of wisdom, knowing that otherwise there will only be unhappiness for oneself. Goodness is necessary to live in peace and harmony with oneself and others. To consider results is attachment and expectation. All expectations are bound up with disappointments. No expectation can ever materialize in the way one hopes. Expectations lead us into the future rather than keep us in the present. Next life, life after next, or the life after that, which one? What about the next five minutes? Good action ideally becomes so ingrained in oneself that nothing else is possible. As long as something else is still possible, wisdom must dictate the right direction.


When two people do the same thing, there won’t be the same result. The Buddha compared making bad kamma to putting a teaspoon of salt into a cup of water or putting a teaspoon of salt into the river Ganges. A teaspoon of salt put into a cup of water makes it undrinkable. But a spoonful of salt dropped into the Ganges is going to make no difference at all. If one has a river full of good kamma, one unprofitable, unskillful action will make no difference. If one has only a cupful of good kamma, one unskillful action will sour the whole life. Since we have no definite idea of what we have behind us, we had better presume it’s only a cupful. We sometimes wonder why some persons doing all sorts of unwholesome deeds still seem to live very happily. Family, bank account, health are all fine. Why isn’t he getting his punishment? He’s not getting it because he isn’t deserving it just yet. We get exactly what we deserve. It’s not accidental, nor is it chaotic. There’s no reason to think that chaos prevails in the universe. Moon, stars, sun— everything acts according to a pattern, even this little globe on which we live. It is the same with our kamma. Kamma is impartial and this is often forgotten. It doesn’t have preferences. It is cause and effect. It doesn’t take individuals into account. Whatever has been put into the stream of happening is in there and will eventually bring a result.


We bring certain tendencies with us from past lives, yet most of the things that happen to us are results of present actions. We don’t have to think, “Ah, that was because three lifetimes ago I must have done this or that,” or “If I do this now, next lifetime I’ll be all right.” This is taking the easy way out and not taking responsibility. If one takes full responsibility for oneself— and every thinking, intelligent person needs to do that— then we can also recollect that we have done or omitted certain actions in this lifetime and that the results are right here and now.


The connection can easily be found. Whatever skillful, profitable actions we have actually accomplished in this lifetime show results. They show in our abilities, our strength, our health, our character. We are the makers of our own destiny. Nobody else can really do anything for us. If we believe that somebody else can act for us, we haven’t understood what the saying, “I am the owner of my kamma” means. It’s the one thing we own. Everything else is on loan. We can take nothing with us except that. Everything else goes to our heirs, those who come after us. Kamma is ours.


We bring tendencies with us, which create our opportunities. We have choices, but not unlimited ones. We all had the choice whether to come to this retreat or not. You made the good kamma of choosing to come. Once you’re here, you have constant choices. When hearing Dhamma, you can either be half awake and not get much of the meaning or you can be completely attentive. When listening totally, you again have choices. You can immediately forget it or you can try to remember it. Should you make the choice of trying to remember it, you then have the choice of actually trying to live by it or remembering it as something interesting. If you make the choice of living by it, you can choose to do so all the time or only on special occasions.


The choice is ours, constantly, every single moment. Every moment, except when we are asleep, is a kamma-making moment. That’s why it’s essential to perfect the skill of living in each moment. If we don’t watch each kamma-making moment, it’s not going to work out on the credit side. There are too many negative moments possible. Each mind-moment has to be watched because they are choice moments and these choice moments make kamma. The more profitable and skillful choices we make, the more opportunities we have. It’s like living in a house with many windows and doors and having that many choices through which window or door to leave. If we make enough wrong choices, our opportunities diminish to the point of finding ourselves in a prison cell where there are no opportunities at all until we are released. If we’ve ever wondered why some people appear to have many opportunities to do different, interesting things and we ourselves have not, it’s strictly due to the kamma we have made.


The Buddha said that some people are born in the light and go to the light. Some people are born in the light and go to the dark. Some people are born in the dark and go to the light. And some people are born in the dark and go to the dark. This means no matter where we’re born, our choices and opportunities exist. There was a woman called Helen Keller who was born deaf, dumb, and blind. She managed to get a university education, write books, and be instrumental in helping handicapped people to a better life. Obviously she was born in the dark, but she went to the light.


All of us have opportunities every single moment. If we don’t make use of them, the same opportunity may never come again. Because we have lost that one, we have lost one of the windows or doors of the room we live in. Total attention to each moment is necessary.


The Buddha also compared kamma to a spider’s web, a web so intricately woven that one cannot find the beginning or end of the thread. It’s impossible for us to know whether we are sick today because of doing something unskillful fifteen years ago, or because we didn’t watch what we ate yesterday. The cause and effect of actions and results are so intricately intermeshed that we cannot see clearly how something came about. The major happenings in our life can can be seen, however. It’s easy to recollect bad choices, made because of self-indulgence, and the results that accrue from them.


Kamma is really not important as it has come to us from the past or will accrue to us in the future, because the past is like a dream and the future is “the not yet come.” The only thing of any interest to anyone is now. Everything else is like living in a dream world, never being totally awake, never quite knowing what’s going on. There’s no real joy in that. It has a foggy unreality about it. Everyone who is not enlightened lives in some fog, but one can try to wake up from the dream. Actually there is no moment other than the present one. We cannot possibly relive yesterday or experience tomorrow now. There is only one thing we can do and that’s be alive now. But one has to be totally awake and aware to accomplish that. Awake and aware to one’s intentions.


Mind is the master. What hasn’t been created by thought doesn’t exist. It may be created by somebody else’s thought, but it doesn’t exist for us. Thought is the underlying cause for all our kamma. We have three doors: thought, speech, and actions. These are the three with which kamma is made and through which we contact the world.


Although the thought is the basic underlying cause, it still makes the weakest kamma if it doesn’t result in speech or action. Let’s say we hate somebody and the thought flits through the mind, “If that fellow comes near me again I’m going to kill him,” but we never say or do anything about it. Although it makes very unprofitable kamma as an unskillful thought, nothing much has resulted, so the kamma is fairly weak. If we think it often enough, then we’re putting a groove into the mind that will eventually result in speech. If the same fellow does come near us we may say, “If you come near me again I’m going to kill you.” That’s much stronger kamma. First of all we have created an enemy and we have solidified the thought through speech. If we say it often enough we may eventually come to the deed. Obviously that is the heaviest kamma and will have very strong results. The thought needs to be watched and it needs to be changed when necessary. If an unskillful thought arises one should be careful to refrain from letting it turn into speech or action.


Rebirth is one of those subjects that often meets with fascination, hope, wishful thinking, or total rejection. One of the classic similes for rebirth is the one about the candle. A candle has burned down to its last little bit. A new candle is lit from the old flame, then the old candle goes out and the new one is burning. There is evidently a new body of wax, but is it the same flame or a different flame? If you’d have an opinion poll you’d find the answers half for the same flame and half for a different flame. The truth is neither. What you have is a transference of energy. The heat has been transferred. Heat is energy and this is what we have in rebirth— a transference of the heat of our passion for life. Our passionate desire for survival, which does not diminish until enlightenment.


Once the Buddha was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, “Sir, what happens to the enlightened one after death? Where does he go?” The Buddha said, “Wanderer, make a fire from the sticks that are lying around here.” So he did. Then the Buddha said, “Now throw some more sticks on to it.” He did, and the Buddha asked, “What’s happening?” Vacchagotta answered, “Oh, the fire’s going well.” The Buddha said, “Now stop throwing sticks on it.” And after a while the fire went out. The Buddha said to him, “What happened to the fire?” “The fire’s gone out, Sir.” The Buddha said, “Well, where did it go? Did it go forward? Backward? Right? Left? Up or down?” The wanderer said, “No it didn’t. It just went out.” The Buddha said, “That’s right. That’s exactly what happens to the enlightened one after death.”


There are no more sticks thrown on the fire of passionate desire, of craving, of wanting to be, and the fire goes out. There is no kamma being made by the enlightened one, so there is nothing to be reborn. With us— in whom there is the craving for survival— that’s our passport to rebirth. The heat of the passion is the transference of energy. Sometimes the reverse side of the same passion arises. One doesn’t want to live because life is too unpleasant. “I” want to live or “I” don’t want to live is the same ego-delusion. The desire for survival is our strongest craving. It’s so strong that even on one’s deathbed, there is very rarely a gentle giving up and giving in.


It is said that the moment of death can be the most favorable moment for enlightenment because one has to give up one’s ownership of the body. But most people don’t want to let go. Since the body gives up anyway they are forced to do so, but mostly under protest. If one gives up voluntarily, however, that can be a moment of enlightenment. While one is still living comfortably and everything seems to be going rather well— the food’s all right, the digestion works, it isn’t too hot or too cold, the mosquitoes aren’t biting, nobody’s saying nasty words— at such times there is no great urgency to let go. Liberation doesn’t seem to be the greatest priority then. But at death, it may be the one thing one can still do— namely let go.


What is embedded in the mind through habitual thoughts, speech, and actions creates a kammic aggregate. What is reborn is a genetic blueprint and a kammic blueprint, totally impartial. The Buddha said that it’s wrong to think that the one who makes the kamma and the one who reaps the consequences is the same person; likewise that the one who makes the kamma and the one who reaps the consequences is a different person. The answer lies in the middle. There is continuity but no entity. There is no individual person who is doing it and reaping the result, but there is continuity. That one isn’t the same person being reborn is quite clear because body, thoughts, and feelings have changed. Everything has changed from the moment of kamma-making to the moment of kamma-reaping. But that there is continuity between the one who has made the kamma and the one who reaps the kamma is also clear. Kamma runs through our lives. It has our past actions embedded in it, but it doesn’t mean that we can say, “Well, that’s just my kamma,” and leave it at that.


There were teachers in the Buddha’s time who taught that everything was kamma, which leaves out completely one’s own choice. The Buddha denounced this teaching. There were also teachers in the Buddha’s time who said that nothing is kamma. It doesn’t matter what one does, there is no result. The Buddha denounced that teaching too. There is kamma and there are results, but there is also personal choice.


With reference to rebirth the Buddha compared one’s last moments of thought at the time of death to a herd of cows in a barn. When the barn door is opened the strongest will go out first. If there isn’t a cow that is the strongest, then the one that is the habitual leader will go out first. If there is no such cow, then the one nearest the door will go out first. Otherwise they are all going to try to get out at once.


What this means is that one’s last thoughts create the impetus for one’s rebirth. It doesn’t mean that past kamma is eliminated, only that our new birth situation is affected. The heaviest, strongest deed we have done will undoubtedly come to mind and give us our new direction. If there is no such deed, then it is our habitual way of thinking that will enter the mind. If we have usually been concerned with love and compassion, that will be in our last thoughts also. If we have no specific thought habits, then what is nearest to death’s door will occupy the mind. Hearing is the last sense to go. If we want to help someone who is dying, we could talk to them about their good deeds. What they hear last may result in a favorable rebirth. Without any of these possibilities, then the thoughts all go around and anything may happen. One takes pot luck, so to say.


Since we will all experience the moment of death we might as well prepare for it. We need to be ready for this important moment. Preparation for death means acquiring the habit of thinking five precepts and not habitually break them. Most people have moments of negligence when some precept may not be observed, but the habitual breaking of one of the five precepts makes a human rebirth very difficult.


There’s a story that once the Buddha walked with his monks by the seaside and he said to them, “Monks, if there were a blind turtle swimming in the oceans of the world and also a wooden yoke, and this blind turtle came up for air once every hundred years, do you think, monks, that this blind turtle could put her head through that wooden yoke?” The monks said, “No, Sir. That’s impossible. They couldn’t be in the same place at the same time if they’re swimming around in the oceans of the world.” The Buddha said, “No. It’s not impossible. It’s improbable, but not impossible.” And he added, “The same improbability reigns over being reborn a human being.” This should make us reflect that we need to do something useful with the fortunate rebirth we have attained. If it’s that improbable, we may not make it again.


Not only do we have a human rebirth— which in itself is a great advantage— but we also have our limbs and senses intact. We have sufficient food and are still healthy enough to sit in meditation. We are also very fortunate to have the Dhamma available to us. One can say that we are on the “top of the heap,” and if we don’t see that as an obligation we haven’t understood what it means to be the owner of our kamma. It’s not only an opportunity and an advantage, but an obligation as well. We must use this rebirth to full advantage.


There’s another aspect to rebirth that needs to be considered: we’re all being reborn at every moment. Very few people have the mindfulness or the attentiveness to become aware of that. But we can become aware of being reborn every morning. That’s not so difficult. The day is over and night falls. Body and mind are “dead” tired and we fall asleep. In the morning there is a reawakening like a new birth. It becomes light again. Body and mind are fresh and young again, and we have the whole day at our disposal to use in the best possible way, just as if it were a whole new life. Look upon each morning as a rebirth and we may understand that only this one day exists. We also may get the idea to use each day to its fullest advantage. That means growth— spiritual, mental, emotional growth. It doesn’t mean rushing about and doing as many things as one can.


This is a far more important aspect of rebirth than thinking about one’s next life. What will happen next time is completely dependent upon what we are doing now, therefore only “now” is important. “Now” is the cause, next life is the result. It’s also much more important than trying to figure out what happened in one’s former birth. That is all over. That most of us can’t remember past lives has a good reason. We experience enough dissatisfaction in this life without having to resurrect the sufferings from earlier lives. A mind still battling with its present defilements is incapable of dealing with such double suffering.


Our rebirth this very morning can bring us that feeling of urgency that is an important ingredient of the spiritual life. Urgency arises when one knows true suffering, the urgency to do it now and not to wait.

​Excerpted from Khema, Ayya (2005-06-10). Being Nobody, Going Nowhere: Meditations on the Buddhist Path (pp. 77-86).

Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

bottom of page