What Is Karma?
Karma is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Buddhism. The misunderstandings are unfortunate because the principle of karma is crucially important for our understanding of why we practice and what happens when we practice. In this series, I will try to correct a number of these misconceptions. The first misconception on my list is the notion that karma means cause and effect.
Karma isn’t cause and effect
The confusion of karma with the law of cause and effect has two sources, cultural differences and translation difficulties.
When Western scholars and philosophers were first exposed to Buddhist thought, they naturally tried to fit Buddhist concepts into Western frameworks. Western thinking, particularly since the development of the scientific method, is largely reductionist and relies heavily on the notion of cause and effect: one thing acting on another to produce an effect. Scientific research seeks to trace the chain of causes that produce a given effect. Since karma apparently describes how the world and living beings comes to exist, it is often interpreted as a theory of causation and christened (irony intended) “the law of karma” (after other scientific laws such as the law of gravity).
The heavy handed application of Western thought structures to Eastern thought has often created serious impediments to accurate understanding. The application of Western grammatical concepts to the Tibetan language is one instance that I have run up against. In the case of karma, Western notions reinforced by naive Eastern explanations, have led to a host of problems. How does an action in the past cause a specific experience in the present without some kind of pre-determinism? If everything is pre-determined, how can we attain freedom from the cycle of existence?
When we look at karma directly without the distorting lens of Western notions of causality, we see more clearly. To do so, we first need to look at the language itself and clear up some translation points.
The full term for karma in Tibetan is las.rgyu.abras which in translation yields action-seed-result. The Tibetan language expresses abstract ideas by joining together two or more words that cover a range of experience. For instance, distance is expressed by joining together the words for near and far, size by joining together the words for large and small, and quantity by joining together little and many. What abstract idea do the words seed and result convey? They convey the idea of growth. So, karma describes the way actions grow from seeds into results.
The idea of growth is very different from the idea of cause and effect. When I push my foot down on the gas pedal, I cause my car to go faster. An intricate chain of linkages between the gas pedal and the rotating wheels of my car is responsible for the effect. At each stage one mechanical device acts on another to produce a precise effect, some movement in the quantity, direction, or speed of another mechanical element. The overall effect is that the wheels rotate faster and my car speeds up. The way that my action causes the car to go faster has nothing to do with growth.
Compare this chain of cause and effect to the growth of a tree. An oak tree starts with an acorn. An acorn is not a tree. The acorn, under the right conditions (we’ll come back to this point in future articles) starts to sprout. After a short time, the acorn is gone and a shoot with growing roots and a growing stem has formed. Bark, branches, and leaves form. Totally new features emerge at different stages. An oak tree consists of many different kinds of structures, all of which have grown from the original acorn.Karma describes growth, not causation. An acorn doesn’t cause an oak tree. It grows into an oak tree. Actions don’t cause our world of experience. They grow into our world of experience.
Karma is growth
Karma describes the way actions grow into experience. In the Tibetan tradition, an action grows into four results: the result of full ripening, the result from what happened, the result from what acted, and the environmental result. These four results evolve from the initial action in the same way that branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit and a forest evolve from a seed. The branches, leaves and forest aren’t the seed. They grow and evolve from a seed.
If we consider our acorn again, we can loosely associate these four results of an action with different aspects of the growth of an oak tree. I will use the example of lying to illustrate the correspondences.
The result of full ripening is the projected experience that the action is based on. Full ripening corresponds to the trunk and branches of the oak tree. The full ripening of lying is to experience the world as a place where people are basically stupid and easily deceived.
The result from what happened describes the result of our action on others and corresponds to the leaves and flowers that the tree produces. Lying results in the experience of not being listened to or trusted by others.
The result from what acted is the result of our action on us and corresponds to the acorns that come from the flowers. Lying plants the pre-disposition to lie which grows until we feel that we have to lie just to function in the world. Lying becomes a fixed pattern of behavior.
The environmental result is the way our action changes our environment and corresponds to the way the oak tree shapes the environment around it, cutting off light to other trees and providing places for birds and insects to live. Lying creates a world of mistrust with all the social and economic consequences of that distrust.
Karma, then, describes how our actions evolve into experience, internally and externally. Each action is a seed which grows or evolves into our experience of the world. Every action either starts a new growth process or reinforces an old one as described by the four results. Small wonder that we place so much emphasis on mindfulness and attention. What we do in each moment is very important!
Karma and Growth
Our personality is a complex system (irony intended). It is the product of many forms of conditioning. Reactive emotional patterns established in our physical, emotional, family, educational and cultural development play a significant role. How do these patterns come about?
For our example, we will take the pattern of a fern leaf.
Could something along these lines be taking place in us? My own experience leads me to say, “Yes, probably.”
Take a simple behavioral pattern such as starting something before we finish what we are currently doing. Observe where that pattern of behavior occurs in our life. In our work, we start a new project before we finish the old one. In eating, we take a bite of our sandwich before we finish swallowing the food already in our mouth. In conversations, we start into a new sentence before we have completed our thought.
Once in place, such patterns permeate our lives. We repeat the same dynamic over and over again. We are complete automatons. We may appear to be as graceful and delicate as a fern, but it’s pattern, all the way down.
The work of meditation is twofold. Through mindfulness, we are able to see these patterns and how automatic and pervasive they are. Through insight, we can see into a pattern, see the form that generates it, and release our identification with the form. (These last points will be topics of future articles.) When the identification is released, the form disintegrates and the corresponding pattern of behavior falls away.
All of our actions, including the stories we tell ourselves, the ways we interact with other people, or the little things we do in private (leaving dirty dishes in the sink until the morning), have the potential to grow into a pattern. As we repeat the same action, a pervasive pattern of behavior takes shape, like our fern-leaf. The essential dynamic of the original action begins to operate in other areas of our life and comes to permeate our whole personality.
Hence the importance of mindfulness. Since everything we do becomes part of our personality and shapes our world of experience, as I described in the last newsletter, we need to be aware of what we are doing in every moment. Every action can have very significant consequences for us. For me, this principle is the essence of the teachings of karma: every action shapes our personality and our experience of the world.
What Does Karma Explain?
As many of you know, I have a penchant for getting to the root of things. Off-hand comments or questions often point to deeper problems. In this case, the comment was, “How can you say that innocent children who have been slaughtered in a civil war must have been murderers in a previous lifetime — that’s outrageous!” What struck me was the sense of outrage, the same kind of outrage I’ve heard many people voice about the Catholic notion of original sin. I think it was James Joyce who said that the doctrine of original sin was inhumanely cruel. Is karma also inhumanely cruel?
In pursuing that question, I came to the conclusion that karma serves two very different functions: explanation and instruction.
What does karma explain? Supposedly, it explains why, in this life, we are the way we are and what place our present experience has in the scheme of things.
To see what you’ve done, look at what you are.
To see what you’ll be, look at your actions.
Let me elaborate on these two points.
First, why are we the way are? What forces determine what happens in our lives? Each of us is one among millions of people. We see a huge range in individual experience — in wealth, happiness, health, fortune, personalities, opportunities and outcomes. While we see that certain principles do operate (being honest usually elicits respect), we also see huge inequities and tragedies that defy logical explanation. Karma seemingly offers an explanation for these inequities by extending the time scale from this life to an infinity of lives in the past and future.
A second concern is the significance of our existence. In the end, everyone dies, even the most enlightened of spiritual masters. Karma, again, offers a world view that makes our every action in this life significant in the scheme of things: if we do good now, we will experience happiness in future lives. If we free ourselves from ignorance, we manifest in the world to help others.
How explanations function
We seek explanations when we are confronted by a mystery — “Why did that happen?” or “Why is this happening to me?” The function of an explanation is to remove mystery. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have looked up at a clear blue sky and asked, “Why is the sky blue?” There it is, as blue as can be, and we feel the mystery and something stirs in us, a curiosity, an opening.
The sky is blue because the chemical composition of the atmosphere is such that light of certain frequencies are absorbed or scattered and the result is a blue sky. No mystery.
But the explanation leaves us dead inside and we realize that we weren’t really looking for an explanation at all. The mystery drew and held our attention.
Explanations take the mystery out of life. They give the impression that everything makes sense to us. When things make sense, we stop looking.
Mystery makes many people uncomfortable. They seek explanations avoid dealing with such questions as “Why is my life the way it is?” or “What is the significance of my existence?” Explanation has, in my view, the opposite intention of spiritual practice. The former seeks to remove mystery, the latter to open to mystery and live in it.
Balances the universe
The karmic explanations of individual differences and what happens to us after death constitute an ordering principle in the universe. Good is rewarded, not necessarily tomorrow or the next life, but some time in the future. Bad is punished, again, not necessarily tomorrow or in this life, but some time in the future. The time frame may be vast, but the order is established: good actions lead to good experiences, bad actions to bad experiences.
Allows projections of human values on world of experience
We tend to project human values onto the universe. Several years ago, I taught a class on karma. I asked everyone what they thought karma was. Over 80% replied that they felt karma made the universe just. The idea was comforting. The desire for justice is a human desire. It means that the individual is recognized as an individual by the society he or she lives in. Karma is viewed as the universe’s recognition of us as individuals. The universe is just — everybody gets what they deserve.
Can be used to justify political/social systems
Once we accept the idea that karma ensures that the universe is a just place, the prevailing political system can use karma to “justify” the inequities that it produces. If you are born into a ruling family, you enjoy the results of the good you did in past lives. If you are born a slave, then your fate is the result of what you did in past lives. Your effort in this life is not to strive to be a ruler or king, but to work out your karma, whatever it is. Countless conquerors, kings. and warlords have, over the centuries, used karma to justify their actions. Countless others have taken the attitude “It’s their karma” to avoid helping others in need.
Rigidity in moral position
The acceptance of karmic explanations easily solidifies into a belief system. In this context, “belief” is an idea that we accept without verifying it through our own experience. Since beliefs are the underlying structure that tells us who we are and what our place in the world is, we resist very strongly (sometimes violently) any interpretation of events and experiences that bring them into question.
Beliefs about the world and about who we are form the basis for our determining what is morally right and wrong. When beliefs are firmly in place, we find it very difficult to accept actions that, however appropriate for the situation, violate our sense of right and wrong.
Example of innocent children
So we return to the children killed in the civil war. How do we explain this event if we believe in karma? Our only explanation is that, yes, these children did commit horrendous actions in past lives and the karma has now ripened.
For me that “explanation” is not only unconvincing but also unnecessary. The children died. They did nothing to “deserve” such deaths. The reason I look for an explanation is to avoid the mystery of their deaths, to protect myself from the pain it brings up in me, a pain that reminds me that I, too, am subject to tragic and arbitrary death, that my life could end at any time, and that I have no idea what the future holds for me. That is the mystery of life.
Ironically, when we probe deeper into classical treatments of karma, we find that the explanation karma appears to offer isn’t much of an explanation. Traditionally, only a fully awakened being (a buddha) can see exactly how an action develops into a result. Karma, itself, is a mystery.
I feel that karma as explanation adds very little to our lives. It lulls us into the belief that there is an order to the universe, it allows us to project a universe that we would like to exist, it can be used to justify horrific inequities and rigid moral positions and in the end only replaces one mystery with another.
Karma as instruction, however, is a different story. Karma as instruction is very simple: how we experience our world depends on our actions; pay attention to our actions. The couplet I quoted earlier takes on a new meaning:
To see what you’ve done, look at what you are.
To see what you’ll be, look at your actions.
Verifiable through our own experience
When we look at what we are now, how we act, how we react, how we view the world, how we view others, we are, in effect, looking at the results of actions that have been motivated by habituated patterns. When we look at our habituated patterns carefully, we see how they are self-reinforcing and lead to the same circumstances again and again. An American version of this idea is:
If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got.
Karma as instruction means to observe our actions and appreciate how consequential each action is in reinforcing or dismantling an habituated pattern.
Evokes reliance on natural intelligence rather than set rules
When we look closely at life, we see that we can’t always rely on a set of rules to determine right and wrong. For every rule we can think of a situation when the appropriate action is contrary to the rule. Instead, we must rely on our natural intelligence. We have to show up in our life, see what is happening, make a decision to serve what is true and accept the results.
Brings us into the mystery
When we bring our attention to bear in a situation and act, we step into the mystery: the point where we are at the limit of our ability in attention and we don’t know whether we are in pattern or presence. We know only from the result whether we acted out of habituated pattern or out of direct awareness. If the situation blows up in our face, we have to pay. We see our part in it if, and only if, we have brought all our attention to our action. We learn where we were weak, blind, stupid or out of touch. There is no easy way to learn and I view any lesson as cheap if it doesn’t cost us our ability to make further efforts in waking up.
As we work with attention, we become less rigid. Each situation has to be taken on its own merits. We become increasingly clearer about the nature and effects of habituated patterns, the differences between habituation and presence and the efforts presence requires. We don’t need beliefs, we don’t need comforting, we don’t need explanations.
Each situation is a mystery. Can we be present in the mystery?