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.
Karma is one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in all of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy.
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 God 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 it's 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 it's Karma. Get out of bed? You've just created Karma. Asked a question? There's some more Karma for you. Hey! Creating karma is pretty easy, huh?
So if Karma is just our actions, what is all this "good Karma" and "bad karma"?
The Buddhist concept of Karma is deep and includes the notion of the consequences of our actions. The things we think, say, and do can generally be classified as good, bad, or neutral, and the results of those actions will generally be consequentially good, bad, or neutral.
So Karma is just a single word for the concept of "Cause and Effect"?
At a high-level, yes. Karma can be regarded as cause-and-effect, because when you create Karma (e.g., do something) you invite the 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 hit someone (Karma), they will likely hit you back (consequence).
Additionally, one of the results of a karmic action is that it has a distinctly behavioural result: we tend to repeat the same actions again 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 how we are today. The more we practice kindness, the more we tend to lean toward kinder thoughts, speech, and actions; and conversely, the more we allow ourselves to respond to people and situations with impatience or frustration, the more we tend to respond to all of life's stressors with the added stress of our own 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, speech, and actions; and when you create Karma, you create the conditions for the consequences of said action 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 were to be 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.
Karma is not fixed/pre-determined; there is no "destiny."
At this point it is important to reinforce once again that Karma is action, that's it. However, the notion of Karma does comes with the notion of the associated consequences: do something bad, you create the conditions for bad things to come your way; do you something good, you create the conditions for good things to come your way.
For some people this is really subtle, and really understanding this takes some work, but rest assured that we have a choice in how we act and interact with the world around us, and thus we have the agency to create our own future (and the sets of consequences that we will experience as a result). And while our Karma may dictate the ripening of certain conditions, we can condition our Karma positively through "righting our wrongs," which further enhances our degree of agency. Clearly neither our Karma, nor our lives, are predetermined.
What about free will?
Karma may influence the events we experience in life, but we always have a choice in regard to how we choose to respond to those events. We always have free-will. How we choose to use that free-will determines the nature of the Karma that we create. Fortunately, by understanding Karma, we can begin to practice being more mindful of the things we think, say, and do before we're involved in a situation that we may come to regret later. Being familiar with Karma can help us become more interested in making skilful choices that will be conducive to creating a meaningful sense of peace and well-being.
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 next, and consequently, how the world engages with us next. It's about recognising the motivations, intentions, and thoughts that lead to the creation of our day-to-day problems.
By coming to understand the infallibility of the Buddhist notions of cause and effect, Karma helps us to develop unshakable wisdom and the strong determination to cultivate ways that nurture our skilful and peaceful nature, in situations both good and bad. It's about cultivating that true nature, our Buddha Nature, that always exists when we aren't aggravated or troubled for sustainable peace, happiness, and harmony with ourselves and with others.
If there is any one thing to remember about Karma, it's this:
Karma: we create the causes that create our conditions.
Articles are updated periodically. This one was updated on 30-Aug-2020
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Michael Turner is a pre-monastic Buddhist Ariya-puggala and a deeply accomplished enlightenment trainer and dharma life coach. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of Buddhism in our everyday lives to make real progress toward enlightenment and 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 techniques to generate indestructible resilience and inner-strength for more than 25 years and has helped countless numbers of people enhance their practice to make clear progress along the Path.