Perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in all of buddhism and eastern philosophy: karma explained.
'What is karma' explained by a Buddhist teacher
In this short article, we will cover what Karma is and what it isn't; how it relates to destiny and free-will; and, its relationship to your happiness and your peace-of-mind.
Before I start, let me get this out of the way right upfront: Karma is not a universal morality system; it's not a bad behaviour boomerang. In Buddhism, there is no deity watching over anyone, rewarding do-gooders and smiting wrong-doers.
So, what is Karma then?
Karma is a deep topic, and in Buddhist Philosophy, that's saying a lot, so let's keep this simple: Karma, at its most basic level, is a Sanskrit word for "Action." Karma is the word given to what we do, say, and think. Wave at someone you see? That's an action, so you've just created some Karma. Decide not to get out of bed when your alarm goes off? You've just created some Karma. Asked a question that you otherwise wouldn't have? There's some more Karma for you. Hey! Creating karma is pretty easy, huh? Uh-oh.
So if Karma is just our actions, what is all this "good Karma" and "bad karma" and what determines "good" or "bad"?
The Buddhist concept of Karma is deep and includes the notion of the intentions, the motivations, and the consequences of our actions (i.e., our thoughts, words, and deeds). The things that we think, say, and do can generally be classified as either good, bad, or neutral, and the results of those actions will consequently have good, bad, or neutral results.
The ultimate factor that determines whether or not the Karma that we create is good, bad, or neutral is determined by the intentions that underlie the actions that create the Karma; and the underlying motivation that drives that intention is an underlying factor that salts the intention with additional good or bad, so to speak.
For example, it is not unusual for "good deeds" to be motivated by selfish intentions. To illustrate this, sometimes we give to others, not as a genuinely altruistic act of kindness or generosity, but rather with the hope of receiving something in return (e.g., a good reputation as a kind person, a positive perception of our own affluence, the desire for a return favour from others, et cetera -- please see my recent post on 'Compassion versus Pity' for more details on this specific notion). Actions of these sort, do not create the "good" Karma that we may think that they would. In the end, it's our underlying intentions that determine the nature of the Karma that we generate.
It's our intentions that drive Karma. They determine what is "good" or "bad" Karma.
This is so important.
Karma is volition action, not unintentional action. So we only create Karma through the actions that we specifically intend to manifest. Those actions can be thought-actions, speech-actions, or bodily-actions.
Intention is everything. And, what motivates our intentions underscores the type and potential strength of the Karma that we create.
So Karma is just a single word for "Cause and Effect"?
While Karma is complex and is influenced by many variables, from a very high-level, and specifically from the perspective of a one-lifer lay point-of-view, can Karma be regarded as cause-and-effect; because, when you create Karma (e.g., do something) you invite associated consequences to "return to you;" this isn't cosmic or metaphysical, it's closer to common sense than anything: if you pour water on a table (Karma), the table will become wet (consequence). If you smile at someone (Karma), the person will likely smile back at you (consequence). If you inflict harm on someone (Karma), they will likely inflict harm on you (consequence).
In short, Karma isn't what happens to you, Karma is what you do.
Additionally, one of the results of a karmic action is that it has a distinctly behavioural effect on who we are: the things that we do, we tend to repeat again in the future; think of it like reinforcing a habit, a behavioural habit. The more we behave a certain way, the more likely we will behave in a similar way in the future. Knowing that, it's important to keep in mind that we have a powerful ability within ourselves to influence who we become tomorrow by being more mindful of how we behave today. This can get deep pretty quickly, but in brief, the more skilful and mindful that we become in our practice of kindness and mindfulness, the more we will tend to lean toward kinder thoughts, speech, and actions in the future; or conversely, the more we allow ourselves to respond to difficult people and challenging situations with impatience or frustration, the more we will tend to respond to all of life's stressors with the added stress of our own destructive negativity. And this is one of the reasons why meditation is so important, to create space between our motivations and our actions so we can make better decisions in real-time, rather than in retrospect.
Digging deeper, I could spend days writing on the four major characteristics of Karma in great detail, but from a very high-level, the important take away is that you create karma with your thoughts, words, and deeds; and when you create Karma, you create the conditions for the consequences of said Karma to return to you. So, if you were to harm someone, you create the conditions for that person to want to harm you back. If you are kind to someone, you create the conditions for that person to want to be kind to you. Karma can be seen as the potential-energy we create with our thoughts, speech, or actions.
There is no "destiny," Karma is not fixed/pre-determined.
At this point it is important to reinforce once again that Karma is action, that's it. However, the notion of Karma does come with the notion of the associated consequences: do something bad, you create the conditions for bad things to come your way; do something good, you create the conditions for good things to come your way.
For some people this is too subtle to understand, or worse yet, not interesting enough to ponder upon and contemplate deeply. And while really understanding Karma takes work, rest assured that the benefit of doing so can have profound effects on the quality of our lives.
What about free will?
The question of free-will often comes up when discussing Karma.
Let it be said that we always have a choice in how we act and how we interact with the world around us, and thus we have the agency to create our own future (and to create the set of consequences that we will experience as a result). And while Karma may influence the events that we experience in life, we always have a choice in how we can respond to those events, and how we choose to use that free-will determines the nature of the Karma that we create.
From a practical perspective, it is always beneficial to regard the positive and negative situations that we find ourselves in, and the opportunities or disadvantages that we experience, as being the ripening of our previous karma. The karmic results of our past thoughts, words, and deeds are inescapable and are the cause for the conditions that we will inevitably experience. However, that has nothing to do with "destiny" or a lack of free-will, because our past Karma has no influence on how we choose to react or respond to these ripening situations or conditions, we are merely presented with a choice, but how we react, and the choices that we make, do directly create the cause of future karma.
And while our Karma may dictate the ripening of certain conditions, we can condition our past Karma positively through "righting our wrongs," which further enhances our degree of agency. Clearly neither our Karma, nor our lives, are predetermined.
Fortunately, by understanding Karma, we can begin to practice being more mindful of the things we think, say, and do before we find ourselves involved in situations that we may come to later regret. Being familiar with Karma can help us to see the value in becoming more interested in making skilful choices which directly lead to increasing the potential for our own deeply-rooted sense of peace and well-being; because the fulfilment that comes from a life well-lived is worth much more than that of any possession, money, or power.
What are the benefits of understanding Karma in this way?
When we understand how Karma works and when we start to use mindfulness to observe Karma in action, it has the added benefit of allowing us to see how our actions can lead to the many wanted and unwanted outcomes that we experience in our life. It allows us to take ownership of the things that we do that create problems and not to blame others or the myriad external circumstances that we have such a strong tendency to point our fingers at.
As a result of cultivating this skilful view of karma and understanding its role in our life, all of our relationships, especially the one with ourselves improve. It also starts to serve to function as an internal B.S. meter, or lie-detector, stopping us from conveniently twisting our perspectives of reality by telling ourselves lies about who did what-and-when in order to mask our uncomfortable and unwanted inner-feelings and doubt. And ultimately, it will prevent us from doing the very things that would have caused us to start all that story-telling in our mind to begin with.
The freedom and peace that comes from this Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi) cannot be over-stated.
By putting an end to that kind of victim-mentality and insidious story-telling, we are free to peacefully accept responsibility for our unskilful actions, to resolve to act more skilfully moving forward, and to move on without the unnecessary burden of shame, anger, embarrassment, or any of the many other unhelpful emotions that tend to bring us down and get into way of true growth and happiness.
Buddhism's lessons on Karma serve to help us understand how happiness really works. Karma is the opportunity we have each moment to choose what sort of person we are to become today, and consequently, how the world engages with us tomorrow. It's about recognising the motivations, intentions, and thoughts that lead to the creation of our day-to-day problems and our day-to-day opportunities.
By coming to understand the infallibility of the Buddhist notions of cause-and-effect, Karma helps us to develop unshakeable wisdom and a strong determination to cultivate the views and behaviours that nurture our more skilful and peaceful nature, in situations both good and bad. And doing so cultivates that true nature, our Buddha Nature, that always exists within us when we aren't aggravated or troubled. Doing so creates the conditions for us to experience a greater and more consistently predictable sense of peace, happiness, and harmony with ourselves and with others.
If there is any one thing to remember about Karma, it's this: we create the causes that create our conditions.
Articles may be updated periodically. This one was updated on 27-SEP-2021
If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a donation to our student community to help make future teachings possible. Why Donate? Learn More Here.
But perhaps most of all, would you mind sharing this with others on your social media platform of choice?
If you liked this, you may also enjoy these popular posts...
AUDIO: Tonglen Meditation — Benefits and Techniques to Cultivate Compassion and Awakening [Dharma Talk MP3]
Falling Asleep During Meditation? 5 Tips to Quickly Stay Focused and Energised
What Are the Eight Worldly Concerns and Why Must We Let Them Go?
The Relationship Between Meditation, The Dharma, and Enlightenment
How to Nurture Your "Buddha Nature" to Develop a Strong Sense of Happiness
The Importance of Contemplating Death (and how it can help you) - Buddhism
Other Recent Posts:
AUDIO: Mettā Meditation and Analytical Meditation - How to Do Them Correctly [MP3+Transcript Included]
The Four Elements: Understanding The Buddha's Teachings on Nonself & Anattā
A Guide to Giving Constructive Feedback and Advice Like a Buddhist
Practical Guide to Patience & Tolerance for Buddhist Practitioners
Pity vs Compassion: How to Spot the Difference
Buddhist Renunciation for Laypersons Explained (a practical how-to guide)
Meditating on Emptiness? Stop, You're Wasting Your Time - Buddhism Explained
The Sagacious Buddhist Blog
by Anagārika Pasannacitta
Pasannacitta is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
do good. be kind. help others. be peaceful.™