Karma may be the most widely mentioned – and misunderstood – Buddhist concept outside Buddhist circles. You might, “Well, that’s karma!” when someone more or less gets their comeuppance. This view of karma isn’t entirely off base, but Buddhist karma is subtle and complex: It’s about the state of your mind when you form an intention, perform an action, and experience the consequences, and how you can affect this process in order to avoid causing suffering for yourself and others.
Read/listen to Buddha’s Teachings Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Can People Improve Their Fortunes Through Their Behavior?
Various Theories of Karma
The Buddha’s View of Karma: It’s Complicated
Many Chances for Input into the Karmic Process
Karma That Ends Karma
Disclaimer: It’s Not All About Karma
Karma may be the Buddhist concept most widely mentioned outside of Buddhist circles, and also the most widely misunderstood. Typically, you might hear it said, “Well, that’s karma!” when someone more or less gets their comeuppance. In other words, even when operating in secret, each person is subject to a kind of moral tally. This tally is either tracked by a deity or registered through a mechanical, natural-law sort of process. This means that for the time being, you may appear to get away with doing something selfish or harmful, but you usually can’t escape the negative results of your actions forever. Also included in the popular understanding of karma is that it often operates in a beautifully ironic or poetic way – such as when someone who has made a habit of cheating people ends up losing their own savings through some kind of scam.
This comeuppance view of karma isn’t entirely off base. Buddhist karma is a kind of natural law of moral cause-and-effect, and it means you ultimately can’t get away with anything regardless of whether you get caught. However, Buddhist karma also means everything you do has some kind of effect, and you’d better think carefully about what kind of results you want. Karma in Buddhism is also quite subtle – rather than being a simplistic system of reward and punishment, it’s about the state of your mind when you form an intention, perform an action, and experience the consequences, and how you can affect this process in order to avoid causing suffering for yourself and others.
In this episode, I’ll introduce you the Buddha’s teachings on karma. Note: I call karma “the law of moral cause-and-effect.” Karma is specifically about causal relationships between our behavior and the circumstances of our lives. There are many different causal forces in the world – physical, chemical, biological, social, cultural, economic, etc. – but karma is about the causal force of individual human action. Now, karma can be influenced by, and influence, other forces, so at times it can be difficult to differentiate causes from one another. But karma is not about luck or fate. That’s why I call it a “moral law,” in the sense that karma is concerned with “principles of right or wrong behavior.” Of course, in Buddhism the terms “right” and “wrong” refer not to a divinely determined system of morality, but to a pragmatic observation about what ultimately brings about the results you want. More on that in a moment.
Can People Improve Their Fortunes Through Their Behavior?
The Buddha’s teachings on karma essentially began with the following question: “In this great drama called human life, what’s the connection between our behavior and the relative happiness or misery of our circumstances?” In other words, can we improve our fortunes by acting in particular ways, and if so, how much? When observing human life, it’s clear that hard work and virtue often pay off, but many times someone’s fortunes are terribly constrained by the circumstances of their birth. The happiest life can be derailed by tragedy, war, or injustice through no fault of your own, while the lucky people who escape such challenges often assume their fortunate circumstances are what they deserve, for one reason or another (because they’re high-caste, or white, or American, or good, or wealthy, or…).
The primary question of the Buddha’s time was how human beings could substantially affect their fortunes, particularly in the future. Karma means action, deed, or intent, and theories of karma are about what kinds of actions lead to good results, and what kinds lead to bad results. Karma also came to refer generally to the principles underlying the relationship between deeds and consequences. It’s important to note, too, that the religious thinkers at the time of the Buddha weren’t just concerned about what happened to them in this lifetime – the predominate cosmology in India was belief in the cycle of transmigration, in which human beings are reborn again and again and again. This upped the ante on the question of karma, because it needed to account for how you ended up in your current life circumstances as well as pointing out what you could do to improve your lot lifetime after lifetime.
Various Theories of Karma
As I discussed in Episode 6, the various competing spiritual traditions in India at the time of the Buddha differed largely on how they viewed karma. The religion of the establishment, based on the Vedic scriptures, believed in cosmic principles and forces that needed to be appeased and dealt with in certain very prescribed ways in order to maintain or improve your future fortune. In their world, you should accept and fulfill your duty within the caste (or social class) you were born into, even if it was lowly and poor, because your actions in a past life accounted for your current caste (the situation was, they would say, “your karma”). Acceptance and duty might improve your circumstances in a future life, particularly if you also performed the proper Vedic ceremonies and rituals or had a qualified Brahmin priest perform them for you.
Newer religious sects, including Buddhism, threw out the connection between karma and the Vedas. Some people concluded there was no cycle of transmigration, so you might as well just do anything you could to enjoy pleasure and comfort in this life and avoid any negative repercussions from your actions. After all, everything ended at death. Another religious group believed in transmigration but not karma – so you would be reborn, but nothing you did in this life affected your rebirth, which was just up to fate. According to these folks, morality was a mere social convention to keep the peace in the meantime.
The Jain religion, which arose around the same time as Buddhism, was founded by Mahavira, who taught that your life principle, or jiva, is a non-material essence trapped inside the matter of your body. According to the Jain view, karma is generated by any actions you take in the world that cause harm – to yourself, other people, any living being whatsoever, and even to non-living elements. Karma has a heavy or sticky quality that causes your jiva to be more tightly bound to your body, and the more harm an action causes, the heavier the karma generated. The Jain ideal was – and still is, to this day – to absolutely minimize harm and practice austerities until your karma is completely dissolved. Then your jiva can float free from your body and rise up to exist forever in bliss, free from the material realm. Rebirth only happens because you die without having managed to free yourself in this way.
The Buddha similarly advised his followers to seek liberation from the whole cycle of transmigration, but his take on karma was radically different from that of the Jains or any other religious thinkers of his time. The Buddha’s enlightenment consisted primarily of two insights: 1) how karma worked, and 2) what actions you can take to decrease suffering for yourself and others, and ultimately achieve happiness and peace even given the inherently unstable fortunes of human life. The Buddha realized the whole karmic process – forming an intention to act, committing an act, and experiencing its results – was profoundly influenced by the state of mind of the person doing the action.
In other words, karma wasn’t as simple as, “Do X, and Y will happen.” Sure, there were general karmic patterns – like acts based in greed, hate, and delusion tend to cause suffering – but the situation was complex. It was more like, “Do X – and what happens next will depend on what you’ve done in the past that made it likely you would do X, the clarity of your perception when you chose to do X, your intention when you did X, and the quality of your attention as you did X.” In addition, whatever happens as a result of doing X, your experience of that result will be influenced by how you view yourself, the whole situation, and your intentions for the future.
The Buddha’s View of Karma: It’s Complicated
This may sound complicated, and like it’s a view of karma unlikely to yield a workable system of moral behavior. However, what this complexity amounts to is numerous opportunities for us to have input into the process of karma and affect outcomes. Clearly, intention matters – the karmic repercussions if you deliberately kill someone are very different than if you accidentally cause someone’s death through negligence. But intention is just the beginning. Actually, it’s not even the beginning!
To make the rather complex Buddhist theory of karma approachable, let’s envision three scenarios:
Let’s say Doug works in the financial sector and has the opportunity to make a lot of money by doing something shady and illegal. This maneuver will deplete the pensions of a bunch of people. In scenario one, Doug has nurtured resentment against people who have more money than he does, and he feels he deserves more wealth. Part of him knows it’s wrong to steal, but he talks to some like-minded friends who help convince him to do it. Amazingly, once the act is completed he isn’t caught. However, forever after Doug feels a certain level of stress about the deep, dark secret behind his improved financial situation. It makes it difficult to trust people, because he never knows what their reaction would be if they knew. After a few years, he ends up with stress-related health issues. He continues to justify his theft internally because it would be too overwhelming to consider regret, so when he gets the chance to profit from another shady maneuver, he goes ahead and does it again. This time he gets caught and ends up in jail.
In scenario two, Doug is faced with the same opportunity to make money from an illegal financial maneuver, and he still resents people with wealth and feels he deserve more of it. He knows it’s wrong to steal, so he appeases his nagging conscience by talking to a couple friends who do their best to live moral, honest lives. They ask him some hard questions and discourage him from going through with his plan. However, he can’t overcome the temptation and does it anyway. Afterwards he isn’t caught, but something isn’t right. He feels stressed, suspicious, and secretive. He explores his feelings and subsequent health issues through therapy and mindfulness practice. He decides the costs are too high to confess his crime and face the consequences, but he opens himself up to regret and finds some ways to make amends with his ill-gotten gains. He still carries the shame of his past action, but has also learned a lot from it.
In scenario three, Doug notices how he envies the wealth of others and tends to dwell on a sense of lack in his life. It’s difficult, but he gradually explores his feelings and assumptions through spiritual practice. Over time, he gains more and more personal conviction that the best things in life are not those obtained with money. When Doug is faced with the opportunity to make a bunch of cash through an illegal financial deal, he isn’t even tempted to sacrifice his peace of mind by doing it, and instead thinks with sympathy of the people who stand a chance of being swindled out of their pension funds.
Many Chances for Input into the Karmic Process
These scenarios are limited and hardly begin to illustrate the complexities of karma, but hopefully you get the idea that there are countless points of choice throughout our lives where we can influence the karmic process and improve our future fortunes. Long before we’re faced with a difficult choice, we can work on ourselves in order to positively affect our worldviews, habits, and ability to perceive things clearly. When we’re faced with a choice, we can question our perceptions of the circumstances, and seek wise counsel. We can check our intentions – are they entirely self-serving? Are we working hard to justify doing a harmful action? As the whole karmic process plays out, are we paying attention to what’s actually happening? Are we being honest with ourselves, or are we suppressing or denying aspects of our experience? After we do something, are we willing to take responsibility for it, or do we try to shift the blame or hide the facts?
There will probably be other Buddhists and scholars who would disagree with this statement, but I personally think this complex karmic process with many critical openings for input is exactly what the Buddha was trying to convey with teaching of Dependent Co-arising. Sometimes called the Twelvefold Chain of Dependent Origination, this is perhaps the most cryptic of all the Buddha’s teachings – and, frankly, I was kind of dreading getting around to the point where I would need to cover it in this series of podcast episodes. Now, bear with me as I briefly summarize this teaching so I can put in the context of what we’ve been discussing so far.
Dependent Co-arising is meant to explain the mechanism by which the cycle of human suffering gets perpetuated (in ancient Indian terms, the cycle of transmigration). Essentially, why do we keep performing actions which eventually lead to an increase in misery? Why do we keep letting ourselves be motivated by selfishness and blinded by ignorance, even though it ends up causing pain for ourselves and others? In this moment we’re averse to pain, so why doesn’t future pain seem to be much of a deterrent?
According to the Buddha, twelve factors have to be present in order for us to stay trapped in behavior with negative karmic consequences: a body, senses, consciousness, contact (between senses and sense objects), feeling, ignorance (of what leads to suffering and how to end it), mental fabrications, craving, clinging, becoming (moving toward the generation of something new), birth (the beginning of something new), and aging and death (the inevitable decay and end of whatever has a beginning).
Rather than get caught in trying to make sense of all the elements in Dependent Co-arising as conceived by philosophical ancient Indians, try to focus on the whole point of the teaching: There are critical points in the unfolding of karma where we can make a change – weak links in the chain, if you will. One of these is breaking the link between feeling (let’s say you have a positive feeling toward someone or something) and craving (deciding you’ve got to have more of said thing or person for your very own). It’s possible to ride out feelings without coming to further conclusions. And even if you find yourself craving, you still have a chance to break the chain before things turn into active clinging or fabricating a plan that involves an unwholesome action. Another critical point in the chain is ignorance, particularly of the Four Noble Truths, which are about how craving leads to stress and dissatisfactoriness, if not suffering, and what you can do about that. If we challenge our ignorance through practice and personal insight, we stand a much better chance of breaking free from the cycles of suffering.
Karma That Ends Karma
The Buddha identified four kinds of karma. The first is negative karma with negative results, where injurious behavior of body, speech, or mind leads, eventually, to painful feelings. The second is positive karma with positive results, in which non-injurious behavior leads to pleasant experiences. The third is mixed – positive and negative – karma with mixed results (this is probably the category in which most actions fall). The fourth kind of karma is that which leads to the ending of karma, or liberation. This is considered by far the best kind of karma from a Buddhist perspective, and it’s equated with the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhist practice. (Note that the Buddha described the ultimate spiritual goal, as did many of his contemporaries, as liberation from the cycle of transmigration. Such liberation would, of course, mean the end of your karma, or any concern about affecting your future fortune through your behavior. If this spiritual goal doesn’t appeal to you, you can think of this in whatever terms do – inner peace, spiritual fulfillment, enlightenment, etc. – because the same karmic principles apply.)
The choices we make at all points in the karmic process affect the results any particular action has in our life. As the third scenario points out – where Doug isn’t even tempted to steal – our ability (or our responsibility) to affect our future begins now. This is the whole point of Buddhist practice – to do things now that will set us up to make the best possible karmic decisions in the future. We examine our assumptions and try to see through our delusions and resentments. We form relationships with good people who share our aspirations, giving us positive social support when we feel weak or tempted. We aspire to transcend our greed and anger. We do our best to behave morally – that is, refrain from killing, stealing, misusing sex, lying, and abusing intoxicants – because immoral actions cause suffering for self and other, and increase our self-attachment. Meditation and mindfulness help hone our ability to see things clearly, including our own thoughts, feelings, and agendas.
Disclaimer: It’s Not All About Karma
Before I wrap up our discussion, I should mention that the Buddha did not teach that everything that happens to you is due to karma, or your actions in this life or in previous lives.
There are non-Buddhist religions and certain Buddhist sects, particularly Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, which believe pretty much everything that happens to you is because of karma. Your physical appearance, illnesses, apparent good luck, even the fact that you found this podcast to listen to, are all due to actions you took in the past. This view obviously relies heavily on the literal belief in transmigration, which is what might explain a baby being born with a birth defect (because the baby can’t have done anything in this life to deserve such an outcome, so it must have been his or her behavior in a previous life).
With all due respect to other people’s religions, I do not believe this is what the Buddha taught. In the Sivaka Sutta, someone addresses the Buddha, saying, “Master Gotama, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who are of this doctrine, this view: Whatever an individual feels — pleasure, pain, neither-pleasure-nor-pain — is entirely caused by what was done before. Now what does Master Gotama say to that?” The Buddha replies that such brahmans and contemplatives are wrong, because there are feelings that arise based on other factors such as phlegm, internal winds, malfunction in the gall bladder, the change of the seasons, and uneven care of the body. Those who believe everything is due to past actions, or karma, the Buddha says, “slip past what they themselves know, slip past what is agreed on by the world.”
Even given this Pali canon passage, some Buddhists maintain that everything you experience is due to karma (they would say a malfunction in your gall bladder was caused in some way by karma). However, I believe this view of karma has no basis in the Buddha’s teachings, but was instead clung to by people for one – or both – of two reasons: 1) They want to blame people for their own unfortunate circumstances in order to be free from a sense of responsibility toward their fellow human beings, and 2) they would rather believe they are to blame for all of their own circumstances and experiences than accept that life can be random and beyond our control. After all, maybe you’re faced with great pain, difficulty, or injustice right now, but because everything’s due to karma, you can behave in ways that will ensure you don’t suffer in the future.
Most modern Buddhists accept that there are many forces that account for our personal fortunes beyond karma. In fact, some of us have even started to think about things like cultural, social, racial, gender-based, and national karma – in other words, the principles of moral cause and effect applied to collective action and collectively-experienced results. At the same time, the effects of personal karma are incredibly profound and far-reaching; there is little that happens to us, especially as we get older, that isn’t influenced in some way by our past actions. Small choices to eat junk food, gossip, or worry add up over the decades and affect our health and relationships. Fortunately, karma which leads to freedom from karma – positive spiritual practices – also add up over the decades and help us weather the inevitable storms of human life with dignity and even joy.
Like most Buddhist concepts, karma isn’t simple, and just when you think you’ve got your mind around it, it may seem to slip away. Don’t let that discourage you! Just remind yourself of the take-home message: our behavior profoundly affects our future. We have to be patient, because the connections between a particular action and its results are far from simple and may play out over a long period of time. In addition, no result has a single cause, and no cause has a single result. Instead, karma is more like a flow of causes and conditions you can’t instantly redirect, but you have almost infinite opportunities to nudge the flow in the direction you want it to go.
Read/listen to Buddha’s Teaching Part 6
Recommended Source if you want to know more about the Buddhist teaching of karma:
“Wings to Awakening: Part I”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/part1.html.
 See Episode 2 for a discussion on the Buddhist use of the term “right”
 “Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising” (SN 12.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.002.than.html.
 “Ariyamagga Sutta: The Noble Path” (AN 4.235), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.235.than.html.
 “Sivaka Sutta: To Sivaka” (SN 36.21), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.021.than.html.