What is Karma?
Karma is a topic that can be a bit confusing. The concept is a part of many traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, Shintoism, and more. Because of the different interpretations of karma, the common meaning of the word in the West, and the origins of the principle in a time and culture far different from ours in the West, many people hold a very loose understanding of what karma is, how it affects us, and what it means in our practice and daily lives. The Buddhist texts are full of quotes about karma, and it really is something worth investigating.
The word karma comes from the Sanskrit language, an ancient Indian language. The Buddhist texts were originally written in the relate Pali Language, where the word is kamma. As the prominent scholar-monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out on his website AccessToInsight, karma may be understood as “action,” but there really is not one word to define karma. One of the important pieces of understanding karma is in understanding karma as intentional actions, or actions which we volitionally take.
The other piece of karma often missed is that kamma is only a piece of the puzzle. The full picture is kamma-vipaka. Vipaka is the result of intentional action. That is, we take some intentional action (karma), and have a result from the action (vipaka). We often use the word karma to encapsulate both pieces, but understanding the meaning of the two terms can help us to define and understand karma. At it’s most basic, karma is the teaching that our intentional actions have consequences. I often refer to karma as “cause and effect.”
Traditional Teachings of Karma
Karma was an immensely important teaching of the Buddha’s time. Karma in Buddhism differed greatly from the understanding of karma at the time. Unlike existing traditions and religions, the Buddha’s dharma taught that karma was not directly linear. Although the Buddha taught we are subject to karma of past lives and actions years ago, we are not completely prisoner to our karma in any way.
In traditional Buddhism, the goal of practice is to escape samsara, the cycle of rebirth we all experience. The way we escape the cycle of rebirth is through karma. We must follow the dharma, act in wholesome ways, and create skillful karma in order to escape this cycle and achieve liberation. The Maha Kammavibhanga Sutta is one of my favorite classical teachings on karma, and I highly recommend reading it!
Indian schools of the Buddhas time often taught that karma was linear. This means that actions of yesterday impact our days today, actions today impact tomorrow, etc. The Buddha taught that karma didn’t work so simply, and was actually a bit more complex. Specifically, the Buddha taught that our present is shaped by both past actions and present actions, and our present actions impact our present in addition to the future.
Another interesting fact about karma is that it’s not restricted to actions. The Buddha taught that any volitional act is karma. This includes things like the words we speak and our intentions and thoughts. In the Nibbedhika Sutta, the Buddha said:
“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.”
The common misunderstanding is that karma is incredibly direct and linear. You may hear someone say that it is their karma when something bad happens to them. The conventional understanding seems to be that if I cut people off in traffic a lot, my karma is that I’m going to get cut off in traffic a lot. Although this may happen to be true for other reasons, this is not how karma works in the Buddhist understanding.
Many of us take karma as a tit-for-tat principle. If we do something to someone, someone else will do it to us. One of my favorite examples is lying. If I lie to you about something, the karma isn’t that somebody else is going to lie to me necessarily. There are many effects to this action, but here are a few I see. First, I’m cultivating a mind inclined toward dishonesty. When I lie, it may make it easier to lie in the future. When I lie to you, I’m also cultivating a relationship that is not open and honest. Finally, I have to sleep with myself. I may deal with guilt, aversion, or another form of suffering. There are also more concrete effects that may arise. I may end up having to make amends for lying or cover up with more lies.
My Take on Karma
Again, I really see karma as cause and effect. We don’t have to be religious, believe in rebirth, or take Buddhism as a religion to investigate karma. We can see how this teaching comes to life both in and out of formal meditation practice. We see how our actions create our future and the present experience. It is intensely practical and real.
Karma may be complex, but the basic principle is relatively simple. When we action intentionally, we are creating our options for the future. In this moment, you have a choice of how you are going to act. Your choices in this moment are influenced by your past choices and present choices.
Let’s say I actively cultivate anger and hatred. When I am faced with a difficult situation or somebody saying something harmful, my “choices” that I am capable of may be to scream, storm off, or physically fight. If I actively cultivate mindfulness and compassion, my choices of which I’m capable may be to take a deep breath before responding, respond with kindness, or gently let the person know that what they said was harmful.
This understanding of karma is comfortable for me for a few reasons. First, it keeps us accountable with our actions. If I do something unskillful and nobody knows except me, there are still consequences. I see this in my own life, and try to remain mindful of karma. I also like to remember that we do have some free will in how we act, speak, and think. I have a choice today in how I respond to life, but those choices are dependent upon my behavior.
Good Karma and Bad Karma
Many people want to know what is good karma and what is bad karma, not realizing that this is a bit of a black-and-white understanding of the teaching. Karma is relative and not just separated between right and wrong or good and bad. When you do something or say something, it may not always be 100% good or bad. Sometimes we do things that are skillful but somebody ends up feeling difficult emotions.
The idea of good karma and bad karma doesn’t really serve us. We get stuck in fixed views around this and put things in oversimplified boxes. Instead, we can tune into the experience of karma and how it affects us. When we behave in a way that perpetuates suffering, we notice it and work to behave differently. When we act in a way that perpetuates liberation, we also recognize it without grasping and appreciate it. We can let go of the idea of “good” and “bad” in relation to karma and instead use it as a practice.
Using Karma as a Practice
The first step toward using karma as a practice is investigating what it means to us. I’ve shared a bit about what karma is and what my opinions are on the subject, but you may benefit from seeing for yourself what is true. Can you see how your actions impact your future choices and behaviors? What is your experience of cause and effect in your life?
It can take work to break down our delusion around karma. Like many things with practice, we need to remember and recognize. We often fall into forgetting that our actions have consequences, and taking karma as a practice may involve reminding ourselves of this truth. We can see it in mindfulness practice, looking at the way the mind works and responds to experience. We can use the insight gained in formal meditation practice to help us in our daily lives.
The way I use karma as a practice is often by looking at my experience in difficult moments and moments of joy. In difficult moments, I look at what got me here. Sometimes, there are causes and conditions that were out of my control (in my opinion). I didn’t choose the family I was born into, my genetics, or how somebody else behaved. However, I can often see how my own volitional actions brought me to where I am. This isn’t to praise or blame myself, but to nonjudgmentally observe my experience.
Check out our Karma Quotes page for more thoughts on karma.
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