Buddhism A–Z
What is Karma in Buddhism?

The Sanskrit word karma (in Pali, kamma) means “action,” and in Buddhism, it refers to volitional or intentional action. The Buddhist doctrine of karma explains the causes and effects of what we think, say, or do.

People sometimes use the word karma to refer to some kind of fate; e.g., “It’s my karma to be stuck in this job.” But in Buddhism, karma is the cause only; the effect is the fruit of karma. It’s also important to understand karma as a kind of natural law, like gravity. There is no supernatural intelligence guiding it and handing out rewards and punishments.

In general, positive or wholesome karma ripens into beneficial consequences, while karma marked by hate, anger, and ignorance ripens into harmful consequences. However, Buddhist practice is not just about creating beneficial karma. Ultimately, it is about completely breaking the fetters of action and consequence that keep us tied to samsara.


It’s most important to understand the role of intention in karma. Intention (cetana in Sanskrit and Pali) in Buddhism is an omnipresent mental factor that is part of each moment of consciousness. The Buddha said, “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. After having intended something, one creates action through body, speech, and mind.”  (Anguttara Nikaya 6.63) Intention comes before thought, word, and deed, and is the driving force behind karma.

For this reason, moral behavior begins by purifying intentions. Unwholesome intentions create harmful karma, even if one manages not to act on the intention. In some early scriptures, it’s said that an enlightened being, an arhat or buddha, has released intentions and does not create karma. 

The Buddha’s teaching of the twelve links of dependent origination describes the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The first link, ignorance, gives rise to the second, mental formations, which includes intention and the seeds of karma. And this leads to the third, the awakening of sensory awareness, and so on. Someone without intentions, an arhat or buddha, is  a “never returner,” no longer subject to birth and death. 

The Five Niyamas

Karma is one of the five Niyamas, which are sets of natural laws. They are how the Buddha accounted for everything that happens in the cosmos. These are not always presented in the same order, but here is a common order, in Pali:

First is Uti Niyama, the natural law of non-living matter. This law orders the weather and changes of seasons. It determines the nature of fire and water and all inorganic things. Natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, are caused by Uti Niyama, not karma. 

Second is Bija Niyama, the law of seeds. Traditionally this was about the nature of plant life, but some modern scholars say it could be about genetics in general. 

Third is Kamma Niyama, the moral law of cause and effect. 

Fourth is Citta Niyama, which governs mental activity and psychology

And fifth is Dhamma Niyama. Very roughly, this has to do with the Buddha’s teachings and the realization of enlightenment

These sets of laws do impact each other, but the larger point is that karma does not send typhoons and forest fires to punish evil communities.  Someone who generates much wholesome karma might still be caught in a natural disaster.

This Life, and the Next

Most schools of Buddhism teach that the effects of karma may happen immediately or after many lifetimes. Note that appreciation of karma does not necessarily require belief in reincarnation. The life you are living now is being shaped by the karma created in this life.

Buddhist teachings on karma differ in some ways from how karma is understood in other Asian traditions. For example, in Buddhism, karma is not fate. In some other traditions, a person who has done harmful things in the past will be fated to endure harmful things in the future. But in Buddhism, the fruits of past karma can be reduced by present action, especially by sincere practice of the Eightfold Path.

When practice of the Path destroys attachment to a sense of self, it’s said the link to karma is broken as well. This is the ultimate liberation.


The ultimate goal in Buddhism is to break free from the cycle of suffering and rebirth (samsara) and attain liberation (nirvana). This is achieved by understanding the nature of karma and the causes of suffering and by cultivating wisdom, ethical conduct, and mindfulness. Enlightenment can be understood as complete freedom from karma, neither generating it nor suffering its effects.

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Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.