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Understanding the Distinctions between Kamma, Ethics, Morality, the Rules of the Saṅgha, and the Behavior Required of One Seeking Awakening

There seems to be a good deal of confusion out there concerning the difference between kamma, ethics, morality, the rules for the bhikkhus, and the behavior required for awakening. This is how it breaks down:

Kamma (aka: karma):

Kamma is like a law of physics. There are varying views concerning the mechanism of action of that law, but that it is a law independent of views of how it works is the idea. In the doctrine of Gotama kamma is a two-sided matter: the intentional doing of a deed by body, word, or wish, and the consequence. The factors that influence the outcome are the intent, the deed, and the recipient of the deed.

Intent is intent to harm, intent to cause pleasure, or intent to end kamma.
The deed is the form: by body, speech, or will
The effect of the recipient is in proportion to the degree of his detachment from the world.

The most potent aspect of the deed is the mental.

The consequences of a deed are not one-for-one, but are enormously magnified. To understand this imagine the way a rock tossed into a pond acts on every single drop of water in the pond. Every single drop of water that is acted upon reacts causing a rebound of energy which itself acts on every single drop of water ... and so forth. Now imagine this happening in a sphere and expand that sphere to the entire universe. And of course, as per usual, place yourself at the center of that universe.

The way in which the recipient of a deed can be understood to influence the consequences of the deed through his degree of detachment can be understood by imagining the way two individuals react to a hurtful word. The one who is attached responds with anger. In effect he has absorbed the greater bulk of the energy of the harmful deed and responds with the majority of the reactive force. The man who is detached stands aside, as it were, and the energy passes on to the greater universe. A 'bad' deed done to an attached man will be seen to have a lesser result than one done to a detached man and will occur differently with regard to time; a good deed will have a greater consequence done to a detached man.

The magnitude of the repercussion and it's timing is also influenced by the doer of the deed and the nature of the deed.

Escape from kamma is possible because kamma reaches only as far as that which has become: that is, that arises as a consequence of the conjunction of individualized consciousness with named shapes.

Those that argue that science will never accept the laws of kamma should think about quantum physics and the idea that things become only when there is an observer.


Ethics are rules for behavior that evolve from points of view concerning the nature of existence and kamma. For example the ethics of a person whose view is that there is no self will be different than the ethics of one who believes that there is an essential, everlasting soul. The ethics of a person who believes that what happens to one returns to one in exactly the same form as one has acted on another is different than the ethics of one who believes that the form and magnatude of the rebounding consequences of a deed is in accordance with the intent, the nature of the deed, and the detachment of the recipient of the deed.

Ethics are rules made up by man and can be misconceived.

In the doctrine of Gotama as found in the Suttas ethics, the behavior required for awakening, and the rules for the bhikkhus all derive from the view of kamma put forth there, that is: that the form and magnatude of the rebounding consequences of a deed is in accordance with the intent, the nature of the deed, and the detachment of the recipient of the deed.


Morality is different from both ethics and Kamma. The term 'Moral' is from the word 'Moralis' custom, > mores, norms or what is normal > manners. Morality is an evolving set of rules and attitudes based on what is considered normal good behavior.

The problem with morality is it's baseless claim to the defining of 'right and wrong'. Essentially we can trace most of the problems in the world to reliance on morality.

Rules for Members of the Order

The rules imposed on the members of the Saṅgha are independant of, but consistent with the Ethics that derive from Gotama's view of kamma and the behavior required of one seeking Awakening. Additionally however they may also include rules intended to appease the views on ethics and morality of the lay population. Such a rule, however, will not be inconsistent with kamma or the ethics derived from Gotama's view of kamma.

Originally there were no rules. As the order grew in size rules were imposed according to a set of criteria:

dummañkūnaṃ puggalānaṃ niggahāya||
pesalānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ phāsuvihārāya||
diṭṭhadhammikānaṃ āsavānaṃ saṅvarāya||
samparāyikānaṃ āsavānaṃ paṭighātāya||
appasannānaṃ pasādāya||
pasannānaṃ bhiyyobhāvāya||

For the well-being of the Saṅgha,
for the comfort of the Saṅgha,
for the control of evil-minded men,
for the comfort of good beggars,
for restraint with regard to the corruptions of this seen thing,
for repelling the corruptions arising with regard to the hereafter,
for clarification of the unclear,
for making the clear moreso,
for establishing the Good Word,
for setting up discipline.

For the excellence of the Order
for the comfort of the Order
for the restraint of evil-minded men,
for the ease of well-behaved monks,
for the restraint of the cankers belonging to the here and now,
for the combating of the cankers belonging to other worlds
for the benefit of non-believers,
for the increase in the number of believers,
for establishing the dhamma indeed,
for following the rules of restraint.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the rules were imposed on bhikkhus only, not on the lay population, and the only punishment in terms of the rules themselves was forfiture of a thing gained, or some degree of lessening of the beggars standing in the order ... right down to expulsion. There would be kammic repercussions and punishments by the king for some of the offenses, but that was not the business of the rules.

The rules for the order can be likened to the laws of a state. Laws are created to regulate good standing within the state, but their 'goodness' is in relation to the ethics and wisdom of those who make up the laws.

Behavior required for Awakening

The behavior required of one seeking enlightenment is different from the goal of creating good kamma, the following of ethics derived from kamma, morality, or the rules of the order. It derives from the goal of Gotama's system, which is the escape from kamma.

The rules derive from Sammā Ditthi, High View, or the point of view that experience as an individual follows upon identification with the actions of the individual intending to create experience of existence and that such experience is mistaken and painful and that to avoid the mistake and the pain identification with such actions must be avoided. That is:

This is Pain
This pain arises from Wanting
To end this Pain, end the Wanting
This is the way: High View, High Principles, High Talk, High Works, High Lifestyle, High Self-control, High Mind, High serenity, High Vision and High Detachment[1]

Avoiding identification with the intent to create experience is accomplished by not identifying with the actor or the action and behavior characterized as 'intentional not-doing' — The abstention, when occasion presentes itself, from acting with identification intending to produce a result other than ending.

For example: Sammā Vaca, High Speech consists in abstention from intentionally saying what is not true, or from hurtful or useless speech. High Works and the other dimensions of the 'Way' are similar 'not-doings' or abandoning or letting go of or ending of 'doings'.


[1] For details see The Method



Of Related Interest:
Ethics and Morality, BuddhaDust Archives
Thinking in Ethical Terms, BuddhaDust Archives

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