Few words have probably been so misinterpreted as the Buddhist concept of karma. One often thinks of fate – something that is predetermined and which we cannot do anything about. When someone suffers from an adversity in life, we can hear that “this was his karma”. If we are rich or poor, healthy or sick then this could be a result of our karma. Nothing could be more wrong. Karma (Sanskrit) simply means action and actions, as we all know, have consequences.
In Buddhist teaching, karma is closely linked to the concept of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda), i.e. the basic principle of cause and effect. This doctrine is not just about causation, but also about interdependence – some phenomena depend on others (a roof is dependent on the walls, but is not caused by them). The doctrine is easy to understand, but the implications are endless.
It is in this context that we should see the Law of Karma, which says that all our volitional actions in one way or another have consequences – for ourselves, but often also for others.
Buddhism is foreign to the Christian concept of morality, i.e. that we should act in a certain way because this has been commanded by God. Instead, it talks about skilful and unskilful volitional actions, where the former have positive and the latter negative consequences. The actions do not have to be something we do or say, but can also be what we think.
The consequences, the karma effects (Sanskrit: karma-vipāka = action and results) can be dramatic or subtle, direct or indirect, come close to the action or much later (even in a future life if one believes in rebirth).
From this, one might be tempted to believe that all positive things that happen to us depend on past good deeds (in present or past lives) and all negative on past evil acts, and consequently that those who suffer from misfortune bear the blame themselves.
That is not the case. According to the Buddhist view, the whole existence (all that arises and everything that happens) consists of an intricate fabric of causal relationship governed by five different laws; in addition to the Karma Law, there are physical laws (e.g. the law of gravitation), biological laws (e.g. photosynthesis or respiration), psychological laws (e.g. stress and burnout), and finally the Dharma Law (that all people have the potential to become enlightened).
What happens to us can then be an effect of any of these laws. It can be the effect our own karma actions (we get a punch in the face after starting an argument in the queue to a night club), the effect of the physical and biological laws (we slip on an icy spot, fall and get a haematoma). We can also be innocently affected by the unskilful acts of others, e.g. get run over by a drunk driver.
Most often, however, the connection between karma and its effects is not so direct and clear, but instead both complicated and often also interacting with other karma-vipāka as well as the other causal laws. The reason we slipped on the icy spot was perhaps that we in anger had left our home after a domestic quarrel.
If we consider our own karma, we can quite easily realise that good actions often have positive consequences. If we are generous, kind and helpful, we will usually be treated the same way, and vice versa, if we are aggressive and unfriendly, we can expect people in our environment to respond to us in the same way.
“How people treat you is their karma –
how you react is yours”.
Karma effects can also arise from not taking actions. This gives us an extra responsibility to act when we are confronted with something we experience as wrong. Lack of civil courage and inaction when we see someone being ill-treated does not only cause suffering to the affected person, but also to ourselves as feelings of guilt.
But does the same apply to our thoughts that we harbour on the inside, hidden from the people around us? Here, modern neuroscience confirms what Buddha claimed 2,500 years ago. Every time we think a thought, this gets imprinted in our brain in the form of a network of activated neurons, and the more often the same runs through our minds the stronger this network becomes. These repeated thoughts then become increasingly firmly imprinted in our brains – we get stuck in our habitual patterns and finally we become our own thoughts.
From a karmic perspective, unskilful thoughts give rise to negative karma effects. Carrying bitterness, anger or envy within ourselves, leads to suffering and mental restrictions. Conversely, equanimity and friendly thoughts make us happier and more content with life.
Although it is difficult to break old habits, we as human beings are malleable and with our own free will we all have the ability to break free from the spirals of negative karma actions and their effects, for the benefit of both ourselves and others.
This, however, requires both insight and a willingness to change. We also need some psychological and spiritual maturity to fully realise the consequences of our actions. This is what the whole Buddhist practice – wisdom, meditation and ethics – is about.
This blog post has been inspired by Nagapriya (2004), Exploring karma & rebirth.