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.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.
Karma 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.