Must Payback of Karmic Debts Be Complete for Enlightenment?

From issue 258 (October 2010) of ‘For You Information’, in the article ‘On Worship, Sutras & Mantras’, there was this question, ‘Can mantras erase kammic debts?’, followed by this answer, ‘All kammic debts will be erased as soon as one becomes enlightened, eg. Angulimala.’ In response, a reader sent me this question, ‘Do we have to clear our karmic debts before we can become enlightened?’ Below is my reply to share with more readers.

According to the Angulimala Sutta, (http://accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html), the incident of Angulimala being stoned occurred on the morning after (not before) he attained Arahanthood. As the Buddha told him then, ‘The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for many years, many hundreds of years, many thousands of years [due to his negative kamma accumulated from having killed many], you are now experiencing in the here and now [in a karmically ‘diluted’ manner, due to the merits of his sincere repentance and successful spiritual cultivation]!’ This implies that remnant karma (Sanskrit word for ‘kamma’) can still operate after Arahanthood to affect physical well-being, though Arahants are already free from mental dis-ease.

It is a common misconception that all karmic debts have to be cleared before one can become enlightened. The Buddha himself spoke against this idea, which was wrongly adhered by some (Jains) in his time, who even try not to create any form of karma at all, thinking that all karma (be it positive or negative) must be exhausted for liberation to be possible. It is impossible to always not create any new karma while always letting past karma bear fruit — as every intentional thought (unless it has neutral effects) already creates new karma, including the very thought of wanting to let past karma bear fruit. Another example of why it is impossible to let all karma wear itself out is that if one does nothing all day long, one does not readily provide ample conditions for all kinds of past karmic seeds to ripen. But if one does much all day long, one creates new karma, instead of merely exhausting past karma.

What the Buddha taught instead, is that to reach enlightenment, we need merits (pure positive karma). The more the merrier! This is especially so for the attaining of Buddhahood, which requires boundless merits and wisdom to benefit many. Abundant merits also help to dilute and thus limit the ill effects of one’s own negative karma. When there is good practice, the effects of negative karma can become mitigated till they are negligible, just as a small pinch of salt (representing negative karma) thrown in a big freshwater lake (representing positive karma) is insignificant in saltiness — though it is in the lake. An analogy along this line was given by the Buddha in the Lonaphala Sutta (http://accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.099.than.html).

Meritorious practices such as mantra-chanting and mindfulness of the (names of the) enlightened thus do not so much erase karmic debts, but dilute their effects — ideally, till they are sufficiently insignificant in impact. It is precisely because it is difficult to personally eradicate great amounts of negative karma (which creates many spiritual obstacles) that many Buddhists practise mindfulness of Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha) to dilute negative karma with the merits of Amituofo, and to ‘carry one’s negative karma to be born in his Pure Land’, whereupon the blessed environment there disables or de-conditions its ripening, while one practises more efficiently to attain enlightenment.

On a related note, perfectly enlightened beings like the Buddha, who have perfect wisdom, surely know what negative karmic seeds (‘karmic debts’) they have sown when previously unenlightened, thus also knowing how to not provide them with the necessary conditions to bear fruits. When the Buddha seemed to experience discomfort such as having a headache (which is another example of how karma need not be exhausted before enlightenment), what he was probably doing was to skillfully demonstrate the far-reaching power of past karma — as a moral cautionary lesson — to remind us to be mindful of every little intentional act, as it creates karma. (In a past life as a boy, he had playfully hit the head of a fish.) If it is a must to experience all of our boundless karma created in boundless past lives before enlightenment, enlightenment would take boundless time to be attained. In other words, it would be impossible. It seems logical at first, that the clearing of karmic debts must nicely coincide with the moment of enlightenment, but as illustrated above, this is not so. If so, may we create abundant merits with wisdom for the well-being of one and all!

(This article was sent to For You Information)


  • Thank you for sharing this article. I always thought one needs to exhaust all the karma before one becomes enlightened as taught in the Dependent Origination that one has to exhaust all causes and conditions to stop rebirth. So how do we reconcile that? Karma is indeed hard to erase because every action, every thought, every speech with an INTENTION create karma, whether negative or positive. While I hold Dependent Origination close to my heart, I am trying to be mindful all the time not to create karma. That itself is already a karmic thought!
    I thank you for all your enlightening Dharma sharing!

  • Thank you for your good questions! Here are the answers to share…

    The teaching of Dependent Origination does say that one must not create causes for rebirth, in order to end rebirth. However, it does not say that rebirth can be ended by exhausting all karma (which is impossible, as shown in the main article above). What needs to be ended is the generating of craving (for future worldly lives) and ignorance (of how to end rebirth). These (craving and ignorance) are the links to break, to be free of the 12 cyclic links of Dependent Origination (which represent the rounds of rebirth).

    Karma is a neutral law. When one creates good karma and is not yet enlightened by the end of that life, one will be reborn in a higher realm (unless one aspires to go elsewhere.) Vice versa, when one creates bad karma, one will be reborn in a lower realm. The cause of rebirth is only conditioned by the workings of karma, while it is caused by the continual workings of craving and ignorance. The only kind of karma we should stop creating is bad karma, which harms oneself and others, while it is good to create good karma to benefit one and all.

    The fruits of good karma used with wisdom can aid the path to enlightenment too. These are reasons why the Buddha frequently encourages us to ‘avoid evil, do good’. He didn’t teach us to ‘avoid evil, avoid good’. [To ‘purify the mind’ refers to not creating attachment and aversion (which are two sides of craving) towards good and evil, and to realise wisdom of things as they are (which counters ignorance).] Even the Buddha-to-be had immense good karma to be reborn as a Prince, but instead of resting on his laurels, he used the golden opportunity to seek enlightenment. His ex-status as royalty was also useful in influencing more with the Dharma (though he never did politicking).



  • Thank you for your Dharma sharing! The teaching of Dependent Origination as Buddha said is indeed very profound because we cannot see the interplay of karma, both past and present that present itself when we are face with the present moment so to exhaust that karma at that present moment will again depend on alot of cause and conditions that we cannot see. As a practitioner,we need to be mindful moment by moment so that we will do the right thing with our body, action and speech. The only way we can truly do this is only when we fully understand no self, impermanence and suffering then we will not be attach to anything and with our trained buddha nature, do good for the benefits of others.
    To illustrate it in a coarse sense – “take this, take that, you can have it all because they are not mine. Today all gone, never mind, tomorrow may have a whole lot coming again so come and take them!”
    Isn’t that a wonderful feeling – can give to make people happy yet have no fear, no kiasuism! That is the beauty of non-attachment!
    With metta, thanks again for this wonderful article! 🙂

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