Buddhism and Karma

Introduction to the Buddhist Understanding of Karma

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Karma is a word everyone knows, yet few in the West understand what it means. Westerners too often think it means "fate" or is some kind of cosmic justice system. This is not a Buddhist understanding of karma, however.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "action." Sometimes you might see the Pali spelling, kamma, which means the same thing. In Buddhism, karma has a more specific meaning, which is volitional or willful action. Things we choose to do or say or think set karma into motion. The law of karma is therefore a law of cause and effect as defined in Buddhism

Sometimes Westerners use the word karma to mean the result of karma. For example, someone might say John lost his job because "that's his karma." However, as Buddhists use the word, karma is the action, not the result. The effects of karma are spoken of as the "fruits" or the "result" of karma.

Teachings on the laws of karma originated in Hinduism, but Buddhists understand karma somewhat differently from Hindus. The historical Buddha lived 26 centuries ago in what are now Nepal and India, and on his quest for enlightenment he sought out Hindu teachers. However, the Buddha took what he learned from his teachers in some very new and different directions.

The Liberating Potential of Karma

Theravada Buddhist teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains some of these differences in this illuminating essay on karma. In the Buddha's day, most religions of India taught that karma operated in a simple straight line- past actions influence the present; present actions influence the future. But to Buddhists, karma is non-linear and complex. Karma, the Ven. Thanissaro Bhikku says, "acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present."

Thus, in Buddhism, although the past has some influence on the present, the present also is shaped by the actions of the present. Walpola Rahula explained in What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1959, 1974) why this is significant:

"...instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are — what you come from — is not anywhere near as important as the mind's motives for what it is doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we've been dealt, for that hand can change at any moment. We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we've got."

What You Do Is What Happens to You

When we seem stuck in old, destructive patterns, it may not be the karma of the past that's causing us to be stuck. If we're stuck, it's more likely that we're re-creating the same old patterns with our present thoughts and attitudes. To change our karma and change our lives, we have to change our minds. Zen teacher John Daido Loori said, "Cause and effect are one thing. And what is that one thing? You. That’s why what you do and what happens to you are the same thing."

Certainly, the karma of the past impacts your present life, but change is always possible.

No Judge, No Justice

Buddhism also teaches that there are other forces besides karma that shape our lives. These include natural forces such as the changing seasons and gravity. When a natural disaster such as an earthquake strikes a community, this is not some kind of collective karmic punishment. It's an unfortunate event that requires a compassionate response, not judgment.

Some people have a hard time understanding karma is created by our own actions. Perhaps because they are raised with other religious models, they want to believe there is some kind of mysterious cosmic force directing karma, rewarding good people and punishing bad people. This is not the position of Buddhism. Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula said,

"The theory of karma should not be confused with so-called 'moral justice' or 'reward and punishment'. The idea of moral justice, or reward and punishment, arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is a law-giver and who decides what is right and wrong. The term 'justice' is ambiguous and dangerous, and in its name more harm than good is done to humanity. The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment."

The Good, the Bad and the Karma

Sometimes people talk about "good" and "bad" (or "evil") karma. Buddhist understanding of "good" and "evil" is somewhat different from the way Westerners usually understand these terms. To see the Buddhist perspective, it's useful to substitute the words "wholesome" and "unwholesome" for "good" and "evil." Wholesome actions spring from selfless compassion, loving-kindness and wisdom. Unwholesome actions spring from greed, hate, and ignorance. Some teachers use similar terms, such as "helpful and unhelpful," to convey this idea. 

Karma and Rebirth

The way most people understand reincarnation is that a soul, or some autonomous essence of self, survives death and is reborn into a new body. In that case, it's easy to imagine the karma of a past life sticking to that self and being carried over to a new life. This is largely the position of Hindu philosophy, where it is believed that a discrete soul is reborn again and again. But Buddhist teachings are very different.

The Buddha taught a doctrine called anatman, or anatta — no soul, or no self. According to this doctrine, there is no "self" in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, our personality and ego, are temporary creations that do not survive death.

In light of this doctrine — what is it that is reborn? And where does karma fit in?

When asked this question, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, borrowing concepts from modern psychological theory, said that what gets reborn is our neurosis — meaning that it is our karmic bad habits and ignorance that gets reborn — until such time as we awaken fully. The question is a complex one for Buddhists, and not one for which there is a single answer. Certainly, there are Buddhists that believe in literal rebirth from one life to the next, but there are also others who adopt a modern interpretation, suggesting that rebirth refers to the repetitious cycle of bad habits we may follow if we have an insufficient understanding of our true natures. 

Whatever interpretation is offered, though, Buddhists are united in the belief that our actions affect both current and future conditions, and that escape from the karmic cycle of dissatisfaction and suffering is possible. 

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism and Karma." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/buddhism-and-karma-449992. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). Buddhism and Karma. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-and-karma-449992 O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism and Karma." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-and-karma-449992 (accessed June 9, 2023).