What is Karma?

Karma is best described in the west as Cause and Effect, causality, or conditioned activity. Also known as action in Sanskrit. Karma is strong imprints in our mind due to all our of our actions over lifetimes that will at a later time bring results. It is not fate or destiny, it is not harsh or cold, but a simple concept that shows us our responsibility for our actions and is a tool to help us out of samsara or cyclic existence. Karma is the creator of samsara. If there was no causality there would be no way out of trouble or bad situations, we could only continually react to the constantly changing situation around us. It is also the central pillar of the 4 basic thoughts or common preliminaries, it is said that nothing can happen in our Buddhist practice until we understand Karma clearly. So lets explore this together.

Karma can be described from three different perspectives, first is the basic perspective is of avoidance, or to do no harm. Here we have the negative actions that we should avoid, with the body: Killing, stealing, and causing sexual harm; with the speech, Lying, slander, divisive speech, and idle talk; and with the mind, ill will, envy, and the cultivation of false views. Secondly we have five extremely harmful actions they are 1) to kill one’s own father, 2) to kill one’s own mother, 3) to kill an arhat or bhodisattva, 4) to physically injure a Buddha or one who represents a Buddha such as one’s teacher, this applies to representations of the Buddha as well, and 5) to divide the sangha. These actions result in impressions that would be very difficult to work with and it is said that they result in rebirths in the paranoia, ghost, and hell realms. Speaking of working with Karma lets move on to the next view.
Second view: Karma is neutral it is not bad, not good, and is only the result of our actions, either the flowers we have plated or the weeds that grow when we don’t care. Here we can talk about how it works and its effects. When speaking of Karma or cause and effect the example of planting a seed works very well. When we plant a carrot a carrot grows, not an apple tree. Both the carrot or the apple tree are simply what they are, not good or bad, totally neutral. When we understand karma as Causality it shows us that Karma can be changed, until something matures we can work with it, remove the cause and the effect is lessened or removed. The four factors that maximize the effect of karma are 1) That we know and understand the situation, 2) Wish or plan to do it or wish or plan to have it done 3) Then do the act or have it done, and 4) Being happy or satisfied about the results afterwards. For example, we could water or not water the seeds we talked about earlier. A more human example might be that we consciously stop feeding our anger or jealousy habit, and focus on love and generosity instead. This is for all karma, whether we did something that made people sad or happy. Here we have the opportunity for “premeditated” happiness when we use this system for doing good. There are other things we can do to lessen or maximize the effect of Karma. Classically as written in the Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa mentions four things we can do. 1) regret for the action, 2) make reparations for its ill effect, 3) resolve not to repeat it, and 4) renewal of our refuge in the 3 Jewels or in more modern terms 1) Understanding that something is wrong, 2) wishing to remove it and using the 100 syllable mantra as in the Ngondro, 3) deciding not to do it again and then, 4) Doing the opposite.

When we do something negative, one should in every case aim for the opposite. And the balance should not just be 50 50. We cannot afford to think ok I just did something bad, now I need to do something good. Just think that if in your life the good and the bad were equal how terrible that would be. We would all love to have 100% positive things in life, to have this we would need to do only 100% positive things. So one can imagine easily just how the scales should be tipped. Working with difficult situations in this way gives us life experience and maturity that we can then share with others.

So very clearly here the easiest way to work with Karma is to focus on the positive. And when consciously committing positive acts remember the aforementioned criteria. But never forget that it is because of Karma that the positive impressions of meditation lead to enlightenment. Meditation is the cause and the effect is enlightenment.

On the last view, we can get a little philosophical and we can understand that there is no Karma. The Chittamatra or mind only School of Buddhism teaches us that there is only mind but when we ask if there is nothing else but mind, how can there be mind? Is there mind? The Madhyamaka school would say that even the idea of mind is still a concept and not truly or independently existent….

So if the idea of mind is only a concept then so is Karma. Any concept has no intrinsic existence in and of itself. Now, this does not mean that we can forget about it. But we can understand it as a tool until we reach enlightenment. Much like in the following example, imagine that we are hiking in the mountains, we reach a river that we need to cross, but it is not only moving too fast but it is far too deep to walk across. The solution we need a boat, our boat is Karma, we use it to sail, row, or steam to the other side. But we do not after crossing carry it up the mountain with us. We leave it on the shore, thankfully and respectfully, and carry on.

If we conceptually understand that cause and effect is truly existing, we could falsely believe that everything else is truly existent. The effect is dependant on the cause and so on. This is clearly not the case. A good example is a seed and the tree. When we examine the chain of cause and effect we can easily see the fault in the logic when we ask what came first, the seed or the tree? This dependant existence or dependent arising is dualistic in its very nature. We must eventually find a way past this dualism, past the black and white, we must even go even beyond the grey which is in the middle of them both. Beyond even the middle way…

So karma, action, or causality, no matter how we call it we can associate it with freedom. Freedom to choose our own adventure so to speak. A full and complete understanding of karma gives us the freedom to be the master of our own disaster, we decide if our film is a comedy or a tragedy. I understand that for some, this is very bitter medicine. When we hear this we must understand that there is no one to blame for our situation other than ourselves. We cannot blame others, an unseen fate, or even some god. We can only respond with I am responsible and now that I am here in the situation, how can I in the future do better and improve. And not just for myself, but for the benefit of all.

“What we are today the different realms we have gone through and will go through results from the karma that conditions the projections of mind and thereby forms it illusions.” Kalu Rimpoche, Luminous Mind.


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