Category: Buddhist Philosophy
The Law of Karma in Buddhism refers to the cause and effect relationship of the elements that comprise our experience of the world. It also refers to our wholesome and unwholesome intentions (and their associated mental factors) that shape our lives and cause us to be reborn into the various realms of existence. The Buddha's doctrine of karma is based on the principle of Dependent Origination.
Before we go further into the Law of Karma, let me answer the most basic question first:
What is Karma?
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "to act, do, or make." Our karma manifests as skillful or unskillful actions of body, speech, and mind. These actions originate from our intentions and may express themselves outwardly or remain internally as unexpressed thoughts, desires, and emotions.
To many cultures, especially in India, karma dictates whether right and wrong actions should bring benefits and punishments in this life or a future existence. The conditions of life like gender, social status, work, relationships, etc. are strongly affected by the sum of one’s karma.
According to the Buddha, karma may be determined by external stimuli, conscious intentions, and unconscious intentions. How this works exactly is inconceivable to people with unawakened Third Eye. Buddhism, as well as other non-theistic traditions, also hold that people who are on their way to Enlightenment generally behave in certain ways that allow them to stop adding to their already existing karma. They achieve this through the possession of esoteric knowledge, meditation, asceticism, and other forms of spiritual practice. Once they reach enlightenment, all of their existing karma are completely purged.
The Law of Karma
The Law of Karma states that all of our actions whether physical, verbal, or mental have consequences that correspond to the quality of those actions. But what does this mean?
It simply means this...
All of us create intentions each and every day. These intentions may fade from our memory in the course of our lives, but they leave traces on the mind that have the potential to manifest in the future once the right conditions that will allow them to develop become present.
It's just like that famous statement from the Bible: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." You may not get what you asked for immediately, but once you create an intention, it will stay there just waiting for the right opportunity to express itself. So when someone tells you "be careful what you wish for," you might want to listen to the advice.
Wholesome and Unwholesome Karma
The Buddha differentiates karma into two types:
1. Wholesome Karma - actions based on generosity, non-attachment, goodwill, and understanding.
2. Unwholesome Karma - actions based on greed, hatred, and delusion.
According to Buddhists, wholesome actions produce merit, which contributes to a person’s spiritual growth. You can make merit by performing any of these acts:
- generosity or giving,
- moral purity of thought, word, and deed,
- cultivation of the heart/mind,
- honoring others,
- offering service,
- involving others in good deeds,
- being thankful for others' good deeds,
- listening to teachings,
- instructing others in the teachings, and
- straightening one's own views in accord with the teachings.
The effects of our karma may be immediately apparent, allowing you to witness them within your present life, or they may manifest some time in the future, i.e., your next life. So that's kind of a guarantee that if you do something good, the favor will be returned to you, maybe not today or tomorrow, but certainly in the future.
The Buddha also taught that it is not possible for wholesome actions to produce negative results, and for unwholesome actions to produce positive results. However, even if wholesome actions can produce merit (which consequently ripens into favorable conditions such as good health or good fortune) if they were done carelessly or the intention behind them was not quite pure, you may not be able to enjoy the effects of those actions.
The reason is that every time you act there is a certain quality of intention found at the base of your mind. It is that quality that determines the effect of the action rather than its external appearance. Thus, you may appear to be doing something good, but if your original intentions were based on greed or anger, then the consequences of your actions will still become negative.
Karma and Rebirth
"The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life (tasting the fruit of his karma)." - Dhammapada 334The ground in which the seeds of karma grow and develop is called Samsara or the cyclic process of birth, life, death, and rebirth. According to the teachings, the life of an individual is not a single episode which starts at birth and ends completely at the time of death. A single lifespan is part of a series of lives that has no exact beginning and can continue as long as there remains a desire for existence.
An individual can be reborn in various Worlds or Realms of Existence depending on one’s karma. Aside from the human realm, which we are all familiar with, there exists higher realms of bliss, power, and splendor and lower realms of more intense suffering. Wholesome karma causes you to be reborn into the higher realms and take a higher form of existence. Unwholesome karma causes you to be reborn into the lower realms and, therefore, suffer the consequences of your previous acts. A being may, therefore, travel for aeons through Samsara driven by the decisions it has made in its present and previous lives.
Once reborn, karma continues to operate, affecting the circumstances in one’s life. This is why the Buddha said, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.” The consequences of a karmic deed cannot be avoided once it has been performed.
However, karma does not operate in a linear fashion. There are cases when these consequences are not experienced immediately after rebirth. Thus, a person may be born in a higher realm even if unwholesome actions were committed in the previous life or in a lower realm even if wholesome actions were committed. This is explained in the Mahākammavibhanga Sutta (The Greater Exposition of Kamma).
Karma and Determinism
The Law of Karma may seem deterministic by description giving some people reason to believe that their karma is their destiny or fate and there is nothing they can do to change it, but it is not the only system that operates in the realm of Samsara. There are several other forces or laws that govern this world. The Law of Karma is actually considered by Buddhists to be conditional rather than deterministic. The consequence of one’s act is not determined only by the action itself, but also by the nature of the person who commits it and by the circumstances in which it is committed.
We must remember that the Law of Karma is purely a process that gives order to existence. Surely, it may at times seem unfair, but that's just because of our limited perspective. By means of consciousness expansion developed via the techniques taught by the Buddha, we may be able to see how things work out the way they are supposed to. Actually, one of the spiritual attainments the Buddha talked about in the scriptures is the ability to know one’s previous lives, which somehow allows you to get a better view of how karma actually operates. Furthermore, karma is continually ripening, but it is also continually being generated by present actions. Therefore, all of us are given the opportunity to create good intentions in our present life to affect our future karma.