Are social-ills the result of kamma?

It is beautiful to see how ‘Ajahn Brahm’ and the BSWA has been a force for positive change when it comes to righting-the-wrong of patriarchy in Theravada Buddhism. It seems implicit in this good-work that patriarchy is recognised as a socio-cultural disorder - a hangover from the past. An injustice that the modern-world is struggling to overcome. It appears as if this kind of social and cultural change is part of an ongoing process that is connected to previous developments. A growing awareness and response to injustice and discrimination over time.

It is curious that slavery seemed to be practiced during the Buddha’s lifetime and, this was not seen as an (enduring ill) that needed to be opposed - a wrong that needed to be done away with. I wonder if there was a view at the time that slavery was a consequence of kamma? People were slaves because of the outcome of something they had done in their past-lives. As such, slavery was not a major concern as once that kamma had been exhausted they may not be in that situation - if they made enough merit. With this kind of logic it may be possible to explain-away all sorts of enduring-ills in society - including patriarchy, homophobia etc. I have always felt uncomfortable when it comes to ‘kamma’ being explained in this way.

I have seen it on this ‘site’ and, it is fairly common in Buddhism - and elsewhere. Situations where suffering is taking place and it is explained-away as kammic-consequence. Does Buddhism recognise other forms of causation other than an individuals-kamma that may explain enduring-ills in a way that acknowledges the existence of social and cultural dynamics and there consequences?

Does anyone know of EBT teachings that are relevant to this question?

Does Buddhism teach stoic-acceptance of social-ills because it tells us that human beings are fundamentally flawed? The 3-roots lie at the root of ‘human nature’ and we have to accept that the situation is hopeless as to ‘do good’ and ‘be good’ is something we need to aspire to but the likelihood of success is somewhat remote - maybe next life if all goes according to plan? I have a sinking-feeling that this abysmal picture of human beings may be contributing to the problem. Many people are resigned to the violence and ignorance in the world because they ‘believe’ there is nothing that can be done about it. Does Buddhism incline towards this way of looking?

Could Buddhism actually contribute to the problem?

There are five Niyamas. (Utu, Bija, Citta,Dhamma, Kamma)
Kamma is only one of them.

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Please share your dhamma-knowledge in more detail? Can you tell me more about the first 4?

Utu: Dhamm affected due to seasonal changes. (winter, summer etc) This includes seasonal world destruction as well.
Bijja: Dhamma due to nature of the seed. Mango seed produces mango trees. Even Buddha got sick. When you are born you are subject to sickness, old age, and death.
Dhamma: Gravity, death etc.
Citta: Superhuman activities.

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Interesting that utu is separated from Dhamma, both being natural forces. Though I guess bija is too.

Is this in a sutta or abhidhammic classification?

I was looking for a sutta which I think is in the book of the 5s which talks about the ways to lose your wealth, where again kamma is but one portion. Maybe it was 8s. I can’t find it!

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Dhamma Niyama Sutta.


Niyāma: the ‘fixedness of law’ regarding all things; cf. tathatā. - Pañca-niyāma is a commentarial term, signifying the ‘fivefold lawfulness’ or ‘natural order’ that governs: (1) temperature, seasons and other physical events (utu-niyāma); (2) the plant life (bīja-n.); (3) kamma (kamma-n.); (4) the mind (citta-n.), e.g. the lawful sequence of the functions of consciousness (s. viññāṇa-kicca) in the process of cognition; (5) certain events connected with the Dhamma (dhamma-n.), e.g. the typical events occurring in the lives of the Buddhas. (App.).

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  1. Utu Niya¯ma physical inorganic order (e.g. seasons)
  2. Bi¯ja Niya¯ ma physical organic order, order of germs and seeds
  3. Kamma Niya¯ ma order of action and result (actions produce results)
  4. Citta Niya¯ ma order of mind or psychic law (e.g. process of consciousness)
  5. Dhamma Niya¯ ma order of the norm (e.g. gravitation

Do you see anything in these five forms of causation that is relevant to how societies change over time?

“Social change refers to any significant alteration over time in behavior patterns and cultural values and norms. By “significant” alteration, sociologists mean changes yielding profound social consequences. Examples of significant social changes having long‐term effects include the industrial revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the feminist movement. Today’s sociologists readily acknowledge the vital role that social movements play in inspiring discontented members of a society to bring about social change. Efforts to understand the nature of long‐term social change, including looking for patterns and causes, has led sociologists to propose the evolutionary, functionalist, and conflict theories of change […]. All theories of social change also admit the likelihood of resistance to change, especially when people with vested interests feel unsettled and threatened by potential changes.” - CliffsNotes

Could the reason be as follows:

I am curious as to why the cause and effect process - illustrated in the quote about ‘social change’ (above) - is not included in the list of niyamas? Its interesting the EBT teaching that ‘Pasana’ mentioned - but could not find - does it have some relevance to social change?

The way I understand Buddha did not teach collective kamma.

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I am not talking about the notion of collective-kamma. The other niyamas you provided are not defined as kamma - either. They are different kinds of causation but, they do not say anything about social change over time. Could this be a consequence of not knowing what had come before and not having a clue about how things may change over time? It would appear that the ‘Aryan invasion’ of the region that the Buddha lived in, was largely unknown among the Brahmins, though I think there are fragments about ‘horsemen’ and that’s about it! Perhaps, this lack of a genuine historical narrative made reflection on social change a consideration for later generations?

The Brahmins did not seem to envision a world that was substantially different - past and future - from the society they inhabited. The social-order was established by divine-decree from the beginning of this round of creation. Its the same with a lot of ancient cultures including indigenous creation myths.

Isn’t this Samsara?
It does not matter how it changed, it is Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta. (ie: Dhamma Niyama)

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I live in a society where there is religious-pluralism. As a consequence of this social-change regarding ‘freedom of belief’ I can practice Buddhism in a society whose (predecessors) would have had me persecuted and executed - if I was caught taking the 3 refuges. In this context, how is social-change irrelevant? I would think it is (at least) as important as ‘seasonal change’ in terms of its impact on human wellbeing?

Regarding ‘seasonal change’ and the weather, I wonder if climate-change may have an impact in this niyama of cause and effect? There are ‘natural’ forms of seasonal change and there are human-induced forms of seasonal change. This is something that our spiritual ancestors may not have envisaged? We needed the industrial revolution before the arising of our current developmental trajectory heading head-long into a place we don’t really want to find ourselves.

The climate-crisis is the most important form of change we are faced with in the modern world. It may be the prime-mover of social change in the future. Changes that can be managed responsibly or, we can ignore the issue with serious consequences for the welfare of Buddhists - and everyone else. With regard to this predicament the EBT’s provide us with inadequate ‘direct’ guidance? If this is true, how should we deal with issues that are of vital importance that are beyond the scope of the teachings?

Buddhism teaches that it is important to be reborn in a place which is conducive to practice.
That is why we are lucky that we can learn Dhaam via the internet.


In my opinion, although the context has changed the causes of our ‘social-ills’ a.k.a dukkha remain. This is why the 4NT are as relevant today as ever. Also why I believe people like Ajahn Brahm, Thich Nhat Hanh and HH Dalai Lama are effective in social change. They have dedicated their lives to understanding the 4NT and 8FP.

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Yes, but there are some Buddhists that feel that social-activists like: Ajahn Brahm, the Dalai Lama and, the brilliant ‘Thich Nhat Hanh’ have overstepped the mark - when it comes to their advocasy. I think we could add ‘Bhikku Bodhi’, ‘Sulak Sivaraksa’ and, many others to the list of Buddhists who are helping to bring about important forms of change - in Buddhism and beyond. Forms of change that seem to have a lot to do with recognising social and environmental issues and dealing with these problems on that level of engagement. A process that has little to do with kammic- consequences and more to do with education and social/environmental awareness.

"All theories of social change also admit the likelihood of resistance to change, especially when people with vested interests feel unsettled and threatened by potential changes.” - CliffsNotes

Perhaps, this is what has to be made clear i.e. Buddhism does not have the answers when it comes to facing climate change - and the enormous social change that will follow in its wake? ‘Kevin Rudd’ referred to climate change as:

“the greatest [moral], economic and social challenge of our time”.

Is this a moral-issue for which Buddhism has no answer - beyond platitudes - and, if so, why?

Buddhism is the answer to the climate change!

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Moral issues surely come from a lack of morality. That is greed, hatered and delusion. The buddha and all the modern day teachers teach their antidotes generosity, compassion and awareness . This is their strength.


I agree, but how does that ‘play out’ in real-world situations when it comes to practical and workable solutions that address human-induced climate change, habitat loss and deforestation, damaged and depleted marine ecosystems, mass-extinction, the growing gap between the rich and poor i.e. intragenerational and intergenerational equity etc.

We all have the best of intentions and we all know we need to be kind and generous and is-that-it? The problems are complex and they take a bit more applied constructive engagement than merely saying: may all beings be well and happy and, dropping some coins in a charity box - do you agree? So, how do we get to that level of engagement with the problems we face from an understanding ‘in principle’ that the 3-roots is the source of the problem to, ???

Maybe, Buddhism - early Buddhism - does not have the answers? If this is the case, we may be obliged to look beyond the EBT’s to help us to address the greatest [moral], economic and social challenge of our time? What might that mean - any ideas?

I believe monastic communities (could be) a wonderful response - exemplary - when it comes to a real-world solution to these kinds of issues. Perhaps, the answers were there in Buddhism right from the beginning but no one takes it that seriously i.e. Buddhists living in the developed world?

I lived at ‘Wat Buddha Dhamma’ a couple of times. They had a lay-community there at one point supporting a monk (Ven. Khantipalo). Would this be one way forward whereby Buddhists could help to realise viable social-alternatives that try to address important social and environmental issues - could they self-organise?

There may be other ‘meaningful’ ways to realise vital change. Does anybody have ideas that may be relevant to this thread? Something/anything that does not involve just ‘accepting’ the given situation and resigning ourselves to it because human-beings are just bad-apples - puppets of the 3-poisons - we can’t do anything about it (its hopeless).

Regarding the subject of kamma, its well worth reading Ajahn Amaro’s little booklet “Who is Pulling the Strings” in which he discusses the five niyamas and also investigates superstition, karma and the Buddha’s teaching on causality.

He also gave an excellent talk with the same title at Amaravati monastery a few years ago and it can be found on the Amaravati website.