The Modifiability of Karma     



英文讀誦:Susan Brown Carlton


We are the heirs and owners of our karma.

Through being present and awake to our intention at the beginning of an action,

we can reshape and direct the patterns of our mind, and then change the karma in our life.


More than two thousand and five hundred years ago, Buddha sent a hopeful message addressing the caste hierarchy of India : it is not your birth that decides if you are noble or lowly; it is your karma (kamma in Pali) that decides what you will be. Karma is a vast and profound topic in Buddha’s teaching. 

What is karma?

The word karma comes from the Sanskrit verbal root kṛwhich means “to make, perform, accomplish, prepare, undertake.” The noun form ‘karman’ literally means “action, performance, activity.” or “religious act or rite”. 

To gain a better understanding of karma in Buddha’s teaching, it will be helpful to relate it to the cultural and historical context first. At the time of the Buddha, the notion that karma brings result and the doctrine of transmigration were deeply ingrained in Indian religion. According to the classic Vedic sacrificial religion, if the gods are pleased, they will grant good fortune. The fundamental rationale of the whole sacrificial system is that correct ritual actions will bring about desired results: the well-being of the individual, society and universe. The good or bad deed that one performs in this life will decide if one’s next life is fortunate or unfortunate. However, how to tell if the deeds are good or bad is based on correctly or incorrectly performing the ritual action. 

The Buddha assimilated the notion of rebirth in a series of lives, but transformed the concept of karma from the ritual level to the ethical level, from outer performance to inner power.   In Anguttara-Nikaya Buddha gave this definition: “It is volition (cetana), monks, that I call kamma. For having willed, one performs an action through body, speech and mind.”  Buddha said that karma is volition, because it is the motivation behind the action that directs the karmic result. Through our volition we can shape the patterns of our mind and perform the action of mind, the action of speech and the action of body

In the context of Buddha’s teaching, karma is not only a single action, but also a dynamic process in our life. The law of karma is the law of cause and effect.  Everything we do must produce results which we will have to experience sooner or later. Two twin verses indicate precisely the principle of karma in the opening sentences of the great Dhammapada : 

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with an impure mind one speaks or acts, suffering follows him in the same way as the wheel follows the foot of the drawer (of the chariot).

All the phenomena of existence have mind as their precursor, mind as their supreme leader, and of mind are they made. If with a pure mind one speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his shadow that never leaves.

The Buddha’s teaching inspires us to pay attention to how our mind creates our own world and shapes our destiny. Karma is certain and definite. The consequence of our actions will definitely be experienced. Thus, men become heirs of their own deeds.

Is karma modifiable?

When we consider the strict lawfulness of karma, another question arises. “Is karma fatalism?” “Is it modifiable?” I would like to answer this question by relating the following fable:

 In a small village lived two people. Because of their stealing, they were punished by having two big letters, “ST”, carved on their foreheads. One of them thought that he was doomed to failure all the time; then, he abandoned himself to drinking and committing more robberies. Consequently, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and was called “Super Thief”. However, another one believed that he could create a new life. Even though at first abuse rained down on him again and again, he didn’t resist it. He considered the scolding as an alarm to warn him to be benevolent diligently towards people. After ten years, people respected and loved him; they called him “SAINT”.

The story shows us the law of cause and effect: in one short moment, an individual can respond poorly to a situation and begin a negative chain of karma.  And in one short moment, he can make a wise choice through right mindfulness. The “saint” character took all the responsibility for what was happening to him (the karma of result), and did not form new ill intentions toward the people who insulted him nor did he underestimate himself (the karma of cause). On the contrary, he respected every new moment of his life (the karma of cause), and was able to find a path filled with opportunity (the karma of result).

Thus, we can see two dimensions of karma:  (1) Our past karma, which is unchangeable. (2) Our future new karma, which we can change by our present actions. Asserting that all the effect of the bad karma can be mitigated, Francis Story said “People believe in determinism, fatalism, merely because they see results, but do not see causes.” 

The Ven. Nyanaponika also states clearly that the lawfulness of karma is not rigid. Karma is modified as it ripens by both external and internal factors.  Between the cause and effect, a lot of changeable conditions exist. A karma event may have its result strengthened by supportive karma, weakened by counteractive karma, or even abolished by destructive karma. If the combination of all the causes and conditions required has not ripened yet, the result can also be delayed.  At the same time, the delay may give another opportunity for supportive karma, counteractive karma, and destructive karma to operate.  In addition, the Ven. Nyanaponika said, “The ripening also reflects the kamma’s ‘internal field’ or internal conditions—that is, the total qualitative structure of the mind from which the action issues. To one rich in moral or spiritual qualities, a single offence may not entail the weighty results the same offence will have for one who is poor in such protective virtue.”

The fact that karmic results are modifiable frees us from determinism and fatalism, and keeps the road to liberation constantly open before us.


The Buddha’s interpretation of karma had the profound meaning of making us responsible for our own spiritual progress. We are the heirs and owners of our karma. Through being present and awake to our intention at the beginning of an action, we can reshape and direct the patterns of our mind, and then change the karma in our life. Therefore, through simple awareness of intention moment to moment, we can transform our personalities, overcome the limitation of our lives and create new patterns of well-being.


業可以轉變嗎 ?






兩千五百多年前,佛陀為印度的階級制度帶來希望的信息:並非你的出身決定你是高貴或貧賤,而是你的業(巴利文稱之為kamma) 決定你的一切。在佛陀的教導裡,業是一又廣又深的論題。


「karma」(業)這個字出自於梵文「kR」 這個動詞詞根,意指造作、執行、完成、準備、從事,它的名詞「karman」,字面的意思為行為、履行、活動,或是宗教行為或儀式。


佛陀吸收了印度多世再生的輪迴觀念,但把業的概念從儀式層面提昇到倫理道德層面,從外在的表現提昇為內心的力量。在《增支部》(Anguttara-Nikaya)裡,佛陀為業下了定義﹕「比丘們,我把思(cetana) 稱之為業。因為必先作意,才能引發身、口、意的行為。」佛陀說,業就是思,因為業的果報是由行為背後的動機來決定的。經由我們的意志,我們可以形塑心的樣貌,引發身、口、意的行為。

在佛陀的教誨裡,業並非單一的行為,而是我們生命互動的過程。業的法則就是因果律。我們所做的一切必定會產生果報,而我們遲早要承受這份果報。在法句經(Dhammapada) 雙品開頭的兩句偈頌就精確地詮釋出業的法則﹕






在一個小村莊裡住了兩個人。因為偷盜,他們被懲罰在額頭上烙印兩個大字母「ST」。其中一個人認為自己這輩子註定是失敗了,因此就自暴自棄,酗酒並累犯多次搶劫。結果他被判了無期徒刑,大家稱他為「超級強盜」(Super Theft) 。另一個卻相信自己可以洗心革面。雖然剛開始時,他一再遭人譴責,但他都沒有反抗。他將人們的唾罵當成警訊,是來提醒他更要精進行善。十年後,他終於受到人們尊敬及愛戴,大家稱他為「聖者」(SAINT)。







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