232 – Spiritual Inquiry Part 2: Resistance to Questions and Karma Work Versus Awakening
234 – Spiritual Inquiry Part 4: Investigating and Resolving Karmic Issues

An important part of Buddhist practice is spiritual inquiry. Buddhism teaches us that there are underlying reasons for every selfish and neurotic thing we do, and that we can discern what those reasons are and work on them. This karma work can lead to lasting and transformative change. In this episode I describe karma work and discuss how to identify your karmic issues. In the next episode I will talk about the process of karmic inquiry once you have identified a karmic issue you would like to resolve.

Read/listen to Part 2 or Part 4.


Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Workings of Karma in Our Lives
What I Mean by Karma Work
Identifying Our Karmic Issues
Taking Our Karmic Inventory


This is the third episode in my series on spiritual inquiry. In previous episodes I talked about “coming up with spiritual questions,” but I’ve changed my terminology to “inquiry.” I’m not talking not so much about coming up with neat questions that can be expressed in one sentence, ending with a question mark, but about arousing and maintaining a questioning mind, or engaging on a process of internal investigation and discovery.

The first episode in this series defined spiritual questions and talked about why they matter. In the second episode I discussed reasons we may find it difficult to come up with spiritual questions, and reviewed the relationship between karma work and awakening work.

In this episode and the next I’ll be talking about karma work and its related spiritual inquiry. I won’t talk so much about karma work itself – that is, the work you have to do to manifest change in your body, speech, and mind once you gain a liberating insight into what is driving your harmful behaviors. Karma work is a huge topic, but I discuss it in Episode 72 – Taking Care of Our Lives: More About the Karma Relationship Side of Practice. The practice tools we employ in karma work include wrestling with the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, precept practice, engaging with Sangha and Buddhist forms, and taking up the practice of vow.

Before I get to a discussion of how to identify your karmic issues, I want to say a few clarifying words about what exactly I mean by “karma work,” because this helps set the stage for how you go about the process of karmic inquiry.


The Workings of Karma in Our Lives

Karma is the law of cause and effect as it applies to human behavior and experience, but we often use the possessive – “my karma” – to refer to way past causes and conditions manifest as our particular body, mind, heart, tendencies, conditioning, habits, etc. I find it helpful to think of all of this as our “karmic package” – the whole ball of matter and energy and momentum that comprises your “self” in a conventional, practical sense. Some of your karmic package you have a degree of control over, but a lot of it ends up feeling like an inheritance you didn’t ask for. You may like some of your karma (e.g. strength, health, intelligence, determination), but there’s probably a fair amount of it you’d rather not have (e.g. physical or mental disabilities, a tendency toward anger, depression, or anxiety, or a distrust of other people).

Classically, the Buddhist term “karma” refers only to cause and effect as it applies to how your past behavior has influenced your current experience and situation, but it isn’t necessary to define the term so narrowly. In fact, separating out the causes you alone are responsible for is nearly impossible. In the Acintita Sutta (or the “Unconjecturable Sutta”), the Buddha stated there were four things that were a waste of time to contemplate, because doing so will just make you crazy (this translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

“There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

The Buddha-range of the Buddhas [that is, the range of powers a Buddha develops as a result of becoming a Buddha] is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

“The jhana-range of a person in jhana [that is, the range of powers that one may obtain while absorbed in a deep state of meditative concentration]…

“The [precise working out of the] results of kamma

“Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

“These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.”[i]

Each one of us, especially the older we get, is responsible in part for many of our shortcomings and neuroses. Moment by moment we have chosen what to focus on in our life. At times we have indulged anger, fear, greed, or selfishness, making it more likely we will be tempted to do so in the future. Perhaps, at least at times, we have chosen to dwell in self-pity, laziness, or stinginess. Perhaps we have neglected to engage in what we know are healthy behaviors such as exercise, eating well, maintaining positive relationships, or meditation.

However, our karma – who and what we are, and where we find ourselves – is also the result of an infinite number causes that were beyond our control or understanding. Our life has been shaped by things like genetics, culture, socioeconomic circumstances, race, and gender – and by the interactions between all of those forces. The behavior of other people has profoundly influenced us, particularly that of our parents, siblings, and significant others. Some of our karma seems due largely to chance or mysterious factors, like personality, physical and mental disabilities, or our tendencies toward anger, anxiety, or depression.


What I Mean by Karma Work

Karma work is about understanding and taking responsibility for the karma you have ended up with. Working out where that karma came from – who is to blame for it – is of extremely limited usefulness. Occasionally, we might end up with an insight like, “Oh, I’m like this because my mom did such-and-such,” or “The abuse I suffered has caused me to be anxious.” This is useful only in so far as it allows us to understand, accept, and work with our karma. If such insights leave us stuck in self-recrimination or resentment of others, they are worse than useless.

It’s not even helpful to get stuck in self-blame, although we may indulge in this because we think it’s a way to take responsibility for our karma. However, in my Zen lineage we regularly recite a “karma verse” which goes like this:

All harmful karma ever committed by me since of old,

On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,

Born of my body, mouth, and thought,

Now I atone for it all.

In Buddhism, greed, anger, and ignorance are called the “three poisons,” or the basic cause of all of our selfish and harmful behaviors. In the karma verse we admit that we perpetuate the three poisons through our actions of body, speech, and mind, but we also say the three poisons are “beginningless.” Even if you can identify negative aspects of your karma that you bear some responsibility for – like anger issues, addiction, or the need to control or judge other people – can you explain how that negative karma began? Some kids are born with a tendency to react with anger, while others are introverted and shy. Who knows why? Some people can partake in certain activities and substances without an issue, while others have a strong tendency toward addiction. Who knows why? Maybe you have a compulsion to control or mistrust others, but chances are good that this aspect of yourself is a reaction to negative childhood experiences. If it is, why did the people who hurt you end up the way they were? Probably their own negative childhood experiences! And so, you trace the cycle of suffering back and back and… eventually it’s impossible to find a place to lay the ultimate blame.

However, we are not simply victims of our karma. That is one of the central messages of Buddhism. Change is possible. Greater freedom is possible. It is possible to live a wise, more compassionate, and skillful life. It’s not easy, but everything you do matters. Every choice you make in this moment conditions the future. It is very difficult to change habits of body, speech, and mind that have been built up over a lifetime, but you might think of each choice you make as a drop in a bucket. Eventually, inevitably, the bucket will fill. As I discussed in Episode 217 – The Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow Part 2: Ending All Delusions, the Buddhist mythology of rebirth can be a useful framing when it comes to karma work: We clean up as much karma as we can in this lifetime. We don’t expect perfection, but we do our best, before we die, to minimize the negative karma we leave behind and maximize the benefit we can make on behalf of self and other. Doing this affects the future in a positive way.


Identifying Our Karmic Issues

To begin our karma work, we need to become familiar with our karmic issues. How do we identify them?

We all know we’re not perfect. We may feel like we’re quite familiar with our faults and shortcomings. However, few of us are in the habit of examining these things closely. Instead, we tend to react to evidence of our issues with denial, blaming, defensiveness, or resignation. In practice, we need to learn how to examine our karmic issues with more objectivity, setting aside our self-concern as much as we can.

Instead of getting all wrapped up in a narrative about who we think we are, who we should be, or who we want to be, we try to relate to our karmic issues almost as if they belonged to someone else. Instead of thinking, “I’m a terrible person because my mind is so full of judgements about other people,” you think (as much as possible), “Interesting! Look at all those judgements about other people. What’s that about?” This kind of objectivity can be difficult, but you might find it liberating to be invited to view things this way. As long as we’re still wringing our hands about our karma – miserable that we ended up this way or wallowing in self-blame – we won’t get much karma work done! It is very helpful to find your own karma fascinating, and even to develop a sense of humor about your shortcomings.

Karma work begins with what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” If you’re not currently facing a life-or-death matter like addiction, such an inventory may seem like a negative, burdensome, and unnecessary project. However, such an inventory is an essential part of Buddhist practice. As I discussed in Episode 231, this work is part of what Zen master Dogen called “studying the self.” Although our negative karmic patterns may feel more like annoyances than emergencies, any negative karma we remain unaware of, or refuse to work on, controls us. We continue to perpetuate it and affect others with it. Our experience of life is constrained by it – compromising our peace of mind, our intimacy with others, and our ability to settle deeply in meditation and engage in awakening work.

A mature Buddhist practitioner is intimate with their karma, good and bad. You might say they have done a thorough cleaning of their karmic closet. They have discovered the skeletons that were hidden in there, and done their best to bring them out into the light of day and give them a proper burial. If skeletons remain, the practitioner is well aware of them and how they affect actions of body, speech, and mind. Ideally, we also learn how to compensate for our karmic issues – not excusing or enabling them, but minimizing the harm they cause for self and others.


Taking Our Karmic Inventory

As you take your moral – or let me call it “karmic” – inventory, some things may immediately jump out at you. Obviously harmful behaviors like addictions, stealing, lying, cheating, or abusing others are definitely karmic issues that need to be part of your practice. Depression and anxiety are karmic issues (this is not to say they don’t have a physical component). I’ll get to how we delve deeper into these matters in a bit.

Other karmic issues are more subtle. We may be vaguely aware there’s something not-so-great going on, but our issues can remain skeletons in our closet – maybe we glimpsed them once or twice when the door was open, but we shut the door again quickly. How do we do an inventory of our unresolved stuff?

Essentially, we pay careful attention to our life. Where does dukkha – dissatisfactoriness or suffering – arise? Where do we find ourselves behaving in ways we know are unhelpful? In what ways do we fall short of our own aspirations? Where are our relationships marked by conflict? In our relationships, where do we find ourselves manifesting defensiveness, avoidance, resentment, or an effort to control? (In some senses, other people bring out the worst in us, which in the case of karma work is a good thing!)

In what ways are we inhibited from speaking or acting in a way that feels authentic? What negative thought patterns do we tend to get caught in, such as catastrophizing, nurturing resentments, or building the case for a nihilistic worldview? What are your greatest fears? What fears are beneath those fears? What issues keep showing up for you in life, in one form or another? What needs or beliefs drive your harmful behaviors? What are you attached to and why? Why aren’t you completely and utterly satisfied with yourself and your life? What gets in the way of your intimacy with others, and with all of life?

The list of possible lines of karmic inquiry are infinite. We learn to pay careful attention whenever we break precepts, feel dukkha, cause suffering for others, feel negative emotions, act contrary to our aspirations, or feel like we’re being inauthentic. At a more subtle level, we learn to notice any tightness that arises in the body or mind.

We turn our attention to our karmic issues not because we’re embarking on an endless self-improvement project, but because noticing any tightness in the flow of our life is an opportunity to achieve greater freedom, wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness. We don’t have to tackle all our karmic issues at once. We don’t have to add judgement and self-recrimination when we recognize one of the skeletons in our closet. We don’t have to fixate on an ideal about who we should be, and constantly compare ourselves with it. If, as I discussed earlier, we can be somewhat objective about our karma, we can roll our sleeves up and engage in our karma work as way of taking care of this precious human life. We’re not asked to flagellate ourselves for being flawed, we’re encouraged to realize our full potential.


Once you’ve identified a karmic issue you’d like to work on, what next? I’ll talk about this in the next episode, taking you through the process of delving into the underlying causes of your negative karmic patterns, and then finding greater freedom through insight and through habit change.


Read/listen to Part 2 or Part 4.



[i] “Acintita Sutta: Unconjecturable” (AN 4.77), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.077.than.html .


Picture Credit

Dorian Wallender from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


232 – Spiritual Inquiry Part 2: Resistance to Questions and Karma Work Versus Awakening
234 – Spiritual Inquiry Part 4: Investigating and Resolving Karmic Issues