Buddhism 101: Karma

One thing I wanted to talk about when I started this series was karma. I can think of no word that isn’t offensive that makes me cringe so much whenever I hear it or read it. It is a word so misused and abused that I try never to discuss it directly with non-Buddhists and part of me wants to only ever use the Tibetan word in general, except then I’d have to explain the word each time, and the person would go “Oh you mean karma?” and I’d be back at square one.

Previously I shared a ten (!) year old essay of mine on karma as it is presented textually in Hinduism, which I’d recommend reading too

As I mentioned in that post karma comes from Hinduism, but it’s somewhat different in Buddhism, and in that post and this one I’m not going to talk about karma as some absolute inviolate rule of reality, or that the texts are 100% right. I’m not looking to argue what karma “really is” but just explain how it’s understood in the tradition.

I’ll give you a hint, anytime you see karma in an internet meme, it’s using it wrong, I can almost guarantee it.

Except for this case.

Except for this case.

So what is karma? Well the word is generally translated as action, but reaction would be a more appropriate word. It’s about cause and effect, in fact you could argue karma is both the cause and the effect, but we focus on it being the effect.

Karma…is complicated, but basically it’s the reaction for what you do. As you move through the world you react to the world, it reacts to you, and karma forms. Everything is karma, no good or bad karma, all karma is unwanted in the long quest for enlightenment. Karma is internal psychological patterns, karma is external life patterns, karma is what pulls you into a vagina/womb eventually causing rebirth. It’s not just the bad stuff that happens and you blame karma, karma is the effect that follows cause, external, internal, magickal, energetic, or personal psychological patterns.

I repeat no good or bad karma. Now more recently the language has shifted, so you’ll find wise teachers who know what they’re talking about saying “good karma” but what they’re really discussing is another concept called merit, which we’ll leave aside to avoid complications. All karma is unwanted, it is what keeps you incarnating and keeps you discontent, even the “good” karma. The fact we’re making distinctions between “good” and “bad” karma shows we’re still trapped in karma and can’t escape this divisive dualistic sense of reality we have. Enlightenment is when you’re free of generating karma.

There are a lot of ways you can divide karma, into what caused it, into what influenced it, into what it influences, and more. I’m not going to focus on that. It’s academically interesting, and if you’re studying to be a monk, it’s good to know, otherwise it’s pretty impractical for most people.

I will talk a bit about a few general divisions of karma though to explain what it is. As I said karma is everything, it’s internal psychological patterns, it’s external life patterns, it’s physical, it’s interpersonal, and it’s abstract magickal woogity…and it can be all of these at once.

Say I’m in a discussion with someone, and they say something that pisses me off, that’s my psychological karma. I have some mental construct that reacts to what they are saying. They piss me off so much I punch them. Now I’ve generated at least three kinds of karma. First off whatever mental psychological pattern I had inside of me that let me get so angry, I just fed it, I validated it, so it grows stronger, I reinforced that karma. Any physical injury I did to myself is karma, it is literally the reaction of my fist hitting their face. I might feel guilty for hitting them later, another psychological element of karma. Chances are now they’re even more mad at me, I’ve ruined a relationship, and might be under threat, that is their reaction to me, that’s the interpersonal karma I generated in this interaction. None of this is a judgment on whether I was right or wrong to hit them, this is just simply cause and effect. (Also notice, all of these karmas, and I don’t have to discuss some abstract woogity)

No good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no Cosmic Judge, just cause and effect. Karma.

It’s not always so extreme though. Karma is the situations we are in, and our reactions to them. Are you in a long term relationship? Karma brought you together. I don’t mean there was some cosmic reason that you two had to meet out of the billions of people on this planet, out of billions of planets in our galaxy, out of billions of galaxies, out of billions of alternate realities and realms. I just mean cause and effect. You decided to be nice to someone at work one day, which led to a friendship, and three years later they introduced you two, cause and effect. But if you decided not to be nice, or you broke off the friendship early and you didn’t meet your lover, that’s also karma.

The problem with karma is the anthropomorphizing of it, and the whitewashing judgemental side of it. This becomes really problematic for a lot of reasons. I know people who purposefully do what they consider “good deeds” when trying to get something good to happen because “karma.” If you’re doing good to get good, you’re acting from the wrong place. Also when you get judgmental with it, it’s easy to use “karma” to make you feel better. So-and-so is an asshole, but don’t worry, karma will get them. Rather than you addressing your own issues, or confronting theirs. It’s also abused in this regard to blame people from crap in their life because obviously, karma, they did something to deserve it. It’s also used as a selfish excuse not to help people “Well, it’s their karma to be poor/sick/whatever, if I help them they won’t learn.” All of that is bullshit, and frankly your misusing a word to satisfy your own selfish inactions and misguided ways. The world reacts, we react, we’re all reacting to each other. It’s not judgment that a pen knocked off a table falls to the ground, it’s just how things work on Earth here and now.

But I hear you saying “If there isn’t a judgment behind karma, why are there rules to follow to avoid it?” Because, generally speaking, these rules are good advice. I’m talking about the five precepts of Buddhism, mentioned here. (TLDR: Don’t kill, don’t steal, avoid sexual misconduct (whatever that is), don’t lie, don’t use intoxicants) Now if I steal, I can create karma. I can feel guilty, or afraid of getting caught, that’s karma, or I think I’m better than the people I’m stealing from and that’s misguided, karma. Maybe someone knows I did it, and wants revenge that’s karma. But a great way to avoid that? Not stealing. Not because there is something cosmically wrong with stealing and if I take your wallet I’ve thrown the universe out of balance, but that it is interpersonally wrong in most cases.

There is a lot to be said about motivation in karma. Arguably the most powerful form of karma is the mental karma, because that’s what sticks with you. Physical karma dies with the body, as it’s the karma of the body. Interpersonal karma dies with the person (generally, meeting up again in other lives happens, but very rarely, so it usually doesn’t matter). But your mind continues, even if you don’t remember anything, it’s the same consciousness, and your karma is still there. How many of us have gone to bed in a good or bad mood, and woken up in the same mood even though we’ve forgotten the cause? It’s similar between lives. If you live an angry life, die angry, chances are you’ll be reborn and deep inside your mind somewhere are all those angry habits you haven’t dealt with yet, that’s a mental karma. The understanding and motivation of why you do something are often more important than the action in the long wrong.

thisiskarmaKarma and morality aren’t clear cut though. In the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives there is a time he murdered a pirate, to save the pirate from his own karma, and he didn’t get karma for it, or a time when he committed suicide, to feed a hungry tigress, and didn’t get karma for it. Buddhist hagiographies are filled with things that at the surface might seem morally wrong, but aren’t karmically wrong because of their purpose and understanding, so you get the occasional murder for a good cause, or poisoning a kingdom for the highest good.

Now before you get it into your head to try some of this, when these people did these things, they were supposedly very enlightened people, psychic and wise beyond our wildest dreams. When the Buddha killed the pirate, he did so because as soon as he saw the pirate the Buddha saw in detail what a horrible life that man was going to have in his next incarnation, so he killed him out of compassion to prevent him from the actions that would lead him to that life. Not to save the lives of the people he would kill, but to save the pirate from his own horrible karma. So unless you’re claiming that level of enlightenment, don’t try this at home.

All of this is without a woogity side of karma. Now here is the kicker…not all forms of Buddhism nor all Buddhists believe in a woogity karma. It’s all mental, physical, and social cause and effect. There isn’t some cosmic scorecard checking off mistakes and successes and failures, it’s all recorded and stored in you. When something happens because of karma, it’s through you, your choices and your actions, not because the universe willed it to balance things out. I’m not saying there is or isn’t a woogity side of karma, if there is, it’s not what karma generally refers to, and not what you think it is.

So the next time something bad happens to you, and you think “that’s karma” you’re right, but remember it’s not that you did “bad” that bad happens, nor because you do “good” that good happens. Every thing that happens, good, bad, neutral and boring, are karma. Cause and effect, without cosmic judgment.


8 Responses to Buddhism 101: Karma

  1. mattibun says:

    Brain dump time:

    * Yeah, I use the Pali word kamma often just to dodge the name issue.

    * I view it as intention rather than reaction, though admittedly most people cannot perceive their intentions or what drives them unless they’re doing something that lets them observe the contact->feeling->craving chain of dependent origination, so it feels like a reaction.

    * Karma is the cause, vipaka is the result. I find using both terms in karma conversations really helps clear up a lot of misconceptions. It puts karma purely in the realm of causation.

    * Here’s how I like to explain it. In the field of your life, you’re constantly tossing out seeds. These seeds are karma. When the conditions are correct in the field, these seeds ripen, sprout, and give a harvest to the grower. This is vipaka. Sometimes we get good fruit. Sometimes we get bad fruit. Sometimes a mix. A few rare ones actually change the field’s nature so that it stops growing certain types of seeds (think stream entry, etc.) But we have no control on when or even if these seeds will ripen and give an effect. Death is like burning the field, and anyone who has burned a field knows that if you leave it alone it’ll regrow quite fast. The strongest seeds will pop up first and dictate the next field.

    * Are you familiar with the simile of the salt crystal? http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.099.than.html

    * Only a Buddha can completely trace a single act of kamma to a particular result. In fact, trying to do it will make you go mad. (AN 4.77). However, in aggregate we can see people doing throwing out the same types of kamma again and again and come to some general conclusions, which is why we can point to things like the precepts and say this is a good idea to try out.

    * Reiterating the importance in having it just be the cause/effect relationship. Getting mad at karma is like getting mad at gravity. If you do something stupid and fall from a great height, that wasn’t your “gravity” that did it to you. That was you.

    * I’m familiar with that jataka tale, but it’s not found in the Theravada collection. Personally, I get extremely skeptical about any teaching that uses an upaya explanation to do things that are against the basic precepts. This is one reason why I had a lot of trouble with Ralo’s biography, and with the Bhagavad Gita for that matter. Positive intentions may color the eventual vikapa, but the karmic act is still unskillful.

    • Kalagni says:

      I’m not sure where/when/why, but it seems like karma and vipaka are not considered separate things within Vajrayana, at least by the 12th century.

      I would suspect that is part of the tradition’s heavy focus on shunyata/interdependence. While it might be easy and convenient to split things up into cause and effect, there really isn’t a distinction. Ever cause is an effect, and ever effect is a cause, and even if we take a specific event, like the punching analogy above cause/effect blur into an infinite sequence.

      We think of it as I punch you, you get mad and dislike me. But really it’s I get mad (effect), I’m mad (cause) so I punch you (effect), I punch you (cause) you fall back (effect), you fall back (cause) and get angry (effect), you get angry (cause) and dislike me (effect). Even that sequence could be broken down thousands of times into smaller units of both thought and action.

      While in some ways it could be less precise, I like it because it eliminates the illusion of concrete events of cause and effect, and reveals a continuous stream of them.

      It’s funny you bring up the analogy though, because it’s often expressed in terms of karmic seeds (causes) and karmic ripenings (effects).

      People who get mad at karma, particularly this time around, amuse me. Like you said, it’s like getting mad at gravity, it’s just the way things work.

      I think regarding the killing, that it’s probably pretty smart to be cautious of claims that go against the precepts under the banner of skillful means. That said I think you can view it either two ways, the practicality, or the Absolute.

      In terms of the practicality, you get the horrible hypothetical questions would you kill one person to save ten, one hundred, whatever, and you get into debates from there on how that plays into the precepts. If the Buddha let the hundred/five hundred passengers die when he could stop it, was he killing those people? If he let the tigress kill her cubs, was he killing them? Obviously, no good clear answer. But wrestling with such questions is important for informing our practices, which is part of why the debate is a huge part of monastic training.

      In terms of the Absolute, you walk a huge slippery slope, but it goes back to the wisdom of a Buddha figure. It ties back into the above, making choices for a potentially great good, but also doing it through great insight, into the nature of things and karma. Like in Ra’s hagiography he says something to the extent of “I was only able to conquer (kill) them, because I have conquered the hatred in me.” He’s recognized that he’s killing out of compassion and wisdom, not out of malice, but more importantly he’s aware of the fact that there is no distinction between himself and those he killed (nor the people they killed). His killing or enlightening of them is merely his own enlightenment.

      It’s not unproblematic, and while I might not say I accept it completely I’m always more comfortable in shades of grey than black and white.

  2. […] Buddhism 101: Karma […]

  3. uratriura says:

    Thank you for this post. I would be very interested in the follwoing. Since karma seems to be resolved in the here and now and only specific sections taken to other lives the theory of having several souls forming a group of “learning” from each other (or resolving each others karma or being interwined in each others karma) seems to be obsolete. It simply seems to be a random gathering in random lives. But when and what is this rare case of meeting up again in other lives?

    • Kalagni says:

      Oh, that’s a really good, and complicated question. I might actually have to flesh that out into a post.

      Part of it is I overspoke (or underspoke) on the subject. Technically everyone you meet you have karma with, just like everything that happens is karma, so it’s not significant and important. It can be significant/important when it’s from something really intense, when there are purposeful things at play, when the mental imprint is specific…yeah, definitely going to have to make it a post I think.

  4. uratriura says:

    When you do a post anyway 😉
    I would also be very interested in the following. You said there is no judgment regarding your doings. No kind of “universal track-record”. But then, all the “deeds” (not judged in regions or colors, just “things” one did) do have to be… forthe lack of other vocabulary… stored somewhere. And processed. The have to be evaluated. Because, well, action and reaction. To add a reaction the action needs to be evaluated somewhere. Is that the “self”, maybe the higher self. If the universe pays no attention is it oneself who evaluates the deeds. Is it the (higher) self which grants wishes or damnation? Also karma which is resolved or, how did you put it, not significant. Who is the judge which “action” is so significant that it calls for a very specific reation. And when will it be so intense that it creates such of a flux it interwines souls through different lives. There needs to be a censor. Even if all is just “karma” colorless, tasteless and nobody else is interested. There needs to be a little instance that cares.

  5. Charles says:

    The issue of karma raises the issue of rebirth
    .In Hinduism, it is less complicated.The jiva or atman is reborn again and again, and there is direct continuity between one life and the next, so that karma is enacted upon the same person.Buddhism is different insofar as it does n’t believe in the existence of the self, at least not as substance, more as process. Which is problematic for those who believe that they will reap the rewards of good behaviour in a future life , as well as being problematic for the idea that person A is punished for bad deeds by karma in the next life of said person A,
    This caused problems for Paul Williams, former Buddhist scholar, who agonised over the ethical dimensions of this issue, so that eventually he left Buddhism to become a traditional Roman Catholic.
    It is anything but the simplistic view that person A will be rewarded or punished accordingly.I have seen it stated that the person reborn is neither the same nor different from the former person.There is a continuity, but not in an obvious way. I recall having read that Trungpa said once that what was reborn was one’s bad habits.Certainly food for thought here, and no easy answers, unlike the textbook scenarios.

  6. Brian Wilkins says:

    I just think it’s funny that even talking about karma led you through karma to have to write a post about karma. &c.

    Or, more seriously, thanks for a well thought out teaching on the subject.

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