“Countless rebirths lie ahead, both good and bad. The effects of karma (actions) are inevitable, and in previous lifetimes we have accumulated negative karma which will inevitably have its fruition in this or future lives. Just as someone witnessed by police in a criminal act will eventually be caught and punished, so we too must face the consequences of faulty actions we have committed in the past, there is no way to be at ease; those actions are irreversible; we must eventually undergo their effects.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from ‘Kindness, Clarity and Insight’
The Sanskrit word Karma (or kamma in Pali) literally means action. In Buddhism however, karma mainly refers to one’s intention or motivation while doing an action. The Buddha said:
“It is volition that I call karma; for having willed, one acts by body, speech, and mind.”
AN 3:415, from In the Buddha’s Words, p. 146.
(In the west, the word karma is often used for the results of karma; the Sanskrit words for the effects or results of karma are ‘vipaka’ or ‘phala’. )
Article Source: http://viewonbuddhism.org/karma.html
The shortest explanation of karma that I know is: ‘you get what you give’. In other words; whatever you do intentionally to others, a similar thing will happen to yourself in the future. Causing suffering to others will cause suffering to ourselves, causing happiness to others will result in happiness for oneself.
Perhaps our biggest to understanding or even believing in karma may be time. The ‘re-actions’ or results of our actions usually show up with a big time delay, and it becomes extremely hard to tell which action caused which result. Actions done in a previous life can create results in this life, but who can remember their past life, and who can tell exaclty which action caused which result? For ordinary humans, the mechanisms of karma can be intellectually understood to some extent, but never completely “seen”.
The idea behind karma is not only found in Buddhism and Hinduism; it seems that the Bible certainly conveys the same essence. although here God is the medium that links actions to their results:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A person reaps what he sows.
All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you,
do even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Also the ‘Golden Rule’ of Confucianism makes a similar statement:
Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?”
Confucius answered, “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”‘
From His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book Path to Bliss:
“Some people misunderstand the concept of karma. They take the Buddha’s doctrine of the law of causality to mean that all is predetermined, that there is nothing that the individual can do. This is a total misunderstanding. The very term karma or action is a term of active force, which indicates that future events are within your own hands. Since action is a phenomenon that is committed by a person, a living being, it is within your own hands whether or not you engage in action.”
Simply said, if we chose to ignore the workings of karma, we tend to create many problems for ourselves.
For example, if we like to have something expensive, but we cannot afford it, it becomes very tempting to steal. If we are smart and attentive enough, we may never be caught stealing. However, by stealing, (according to the law of karma) we create problematic situations for ourselves in the future, like poverty, or being the victim of robbers. Therefore, if we chose to ignore karma, the results of our actions will still haunt us.
Every mainstream religion teaches us about the consequences of our actions. The explanations may differ, but does it really matter in the end whether the law of karma causes us trouble or God himself in his final judgement?
When we meet with big problems; disease, loss of family or friends, getting trapped in a war or natural disaster. At those times, we suddenly wonder: “Why me?” The law of karma does not look for a reason outside ourselves for our good or bad fortune, it simply explains our own suffering as a result of our negative deeds towards others, and our happiness as a result of our actions to help others.
Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
Two of my personal favourite reasons to believe in karma, are that it represents ultimate justice as everyone will harvest the results of their actions, and even if karma would not exist, as long as I try to avoid negative actions, the world would be a better place to live in for everyone anyway.
Science itself comes with another argument for karma. In physics. like every other Western science, there is a direct causal relationship between action and reaction. It may be interesting to look at the next explanation of the four laws of karma and see how “scientific” it sounds.
As the Buddha taught:
“Do not think a small sin will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container,
The little sins that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.
Do not think a small virtue will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container,
The little virtues that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.”
The Auspicious or Endless Knot (see image on the right) symbolises the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. (It can also be seen as an auspicious sign for long life, as it is endless.)
A very good and succinct explanation by Geshe Tashi Tsering in his book The Buddha’s Medicine for the Mind: Cultivating Wisdom and Compassion:
“Intention is the most important of all mental events because it gives direction to the mind, determining whether we engage with virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral objects. Just as iron is powerlessly drawn to a magnet, our minds are powerlessly drawn to the object of our intentions.
An intention is a mental action; it may be expressed through either physical or verbal actions. Thus, action, or karma, is of two types: the action of intention and the intended action. The action of intention is the thought or impulse to engage in a physical or verbal act. The intended action is the physical or verbal expression of our intention. Karma actually refers to the action of intention but in general usage it includes the intended action and the seeds that are left in the mind as a result.
How do we accumulate karmic seeds? Every physical and verbal action is preceded by mental activity. Goodwill motivates a kind gesture; ill will motivates nasty words. Ill will is the intention to cause mental, emotional or physical harm. Thus, before and during a bad action, ill will is present in our mind. The presence of ill will before and during this act has an impact and influence on the mind due to which a certain potential is left behind. This potential is a karmic seed, a seed planted in our mind by physical, verbal or mental action. The strength or depth of this seed is determined by a number of factors, including how strong our intention is, whether we clearly understand what we are doing, whether we act on our intention and whether the physical and verbal action is completed.
Seeds will remain in the mind until they ripen or are destroyed. Seeds left by negative mental events and actions can be destroyed by the four opponent or antidotal powers. The most important of these four powers are regret for the negative act and a firm resolve not to act that way again in the future. Seeds left by positive mental events and actions can be destroyed by anger.
Even if we do not act on a negative intention, a karmic seed of diminished potency is still left in the mind. This uncompleted seed is easier to remove. If it is not destroyed, a negative seed will eventually produce an unpleasant and negative effect while a positive seed will produce a pleasant and positive effect. Karmic seeds do not go to waste even after one hundred aeons. They will come to fruition when the time comes and the conditions assemble.
Actions motivated by the wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings and dedicated to that end have a special feature. The positive effects of such an act will be experienced many times over without being exhausted. For this reason, virtue dedicated to complete enlightenment is likened to a magnificent tree that bears fruit every season without fail. Such virtues will bear fruit until Buddhahood is attained.”
A fragment of the The Sutra of the Causes and Effects of Actions by Shakyamuni Buddha, from Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archives that probably conveys the idea very straight-forward:
- “Then the Buddha spoke to Ananda thus, “This question that you are asking–it is all on account of a previous existence, in which every one’s mind was not alike and equal. Therefore, in consequence, the retribution is of a thousand and a myriad separate and different minds.
- Thus the person who in this world is handsome comes from a patient mind, and the ugly comes from amid anger; the needy come from meanness.
- The high and noble comes from prayer and service, and the lowly and base comes from pride.
- The great and tall person comes from honor and respect and the short-legged person comes on account of contempt.
- The person who hinders the bright splendor of the Buddha is born black and thin; and the one who tastes the food of the fast is born deprived of food.
- The person who is too sparing of fire and light is born infirm; the one in whose eyes fault always appears is born night-blind.
- The person who slanders the Law is born dumb; and the person who does not want to hear the Law is born deaf. …..
- The person who is compassionate is born long-lived, and the one who kills living beings is born short-lived.
- The one who gives gifts is born rich.
- The one who gives a gift of horse and carriage to the three jewels has many horses and carriages.
- Then the person who reads and asks about the sutra is born intelligent; but the stupid person comes from an animal existence.
- The person who cannot stay in his place comes from among the apes; the one who binds the hands and feet of living beings is born paralyzed in hand and foot.
- The person who is of evil passions comes from snakes and scorpions; the one who keeps the precepts (sila) is complete in the six kinds of organ, but the person who breaks the precepts is incomplete in the six kinds of organ.
- The unclean person comes from the existence of pigs; the person who likes song and dance comes from among actors. The one who is greedy comes from dogs; the one who eats alone, their neck is goiterous.
- The one who castrates living beings has incomplete pudenda; the one who on one side abuses his superior has a short tongue.
- The one who seduces the spouse of another, after dying falls among the geese, and a person who commits incest will fall into the existence of sparrows.”
Results are similar to the cause. Simply said, when I cause other people harm, I will harvest suffering myself. It is important to note here, that “positive” actions are defined as actions that have happiness as a result; “negative” actions are defined as actions that lead to suffering as a result.
- No results without a cause. As is obvious within science, things do not just appear out of nothing.
- Once an action is done, the result is never lost. Similarly as above, things do not just disappear into nothing.
- Karma expands. Once we have an imprint of an action in our mind, it tends to be habit-forming. As is often said in wars for example, killing the first enemy is tough, but after a handful, one quickly loses count and it becomes “normal”. Also psychology often stresses a similar point when e.g. explaining actions of adults from their childhood experiences.
- A previous action, or karmic potential.
- Conditions: the circumstances must be available before I can undergo a specific result (vipāka).
- A deluded mind. Without delusions in our mind, we will never experience the results of previous actions. This happens to Arhats and Buddhas; their minds have been purified from delusions, and they are beyond the realm of karma.
It should be realised that without any karma to ripen at all, we could never experience anything unpleasant – most likely, when this occurs, we are in a blissful state of nirvana or full enlightenment.
The severity of the results of our actions depends on various factors:
- Our intention or motivation – the intention is the most important aspect by far, as karma is mainly connected to the intention of the action, be it positive or negative.
- The nature of the action: obviously, gossiping is less severe than killing.
- The actual deed: whether we kill in self-defence or sadistically torture someone to death does make a difference, usually this directly related to intention.
- The basis or object: it does make a difference whether we kill our mother or an ant.
- Repetition; how often do we repeat the action, which reinforces the habit, and makes even killing feel less negative.
- Doing the reverse: if we always behave negatively to others and never try to do any good, consequences will be severe.
How we experience the result of an actions does depend on our other actions in life. For example, if we experience the result of being hungry for a day, there is a huge difference whether we experience this as a malnourished person in a hopeless situation, or as a healthy fast for an obese person.
From: The Four Noble Truths by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
Question: “Could Your Holiness please explain why the result of karma is sometimes instant and why on other occasions we have to wait lifetimes before the causal effect occurs?”
Answer: “One factor would be the intensity of the karmic action itself. Another factor is the extent to which the various other conditions that are necessary for that karma to ripen are complete, and this is dependent, in turn, on other karmic actions. Vasubandhu addressed this in the Abhidharmakosha, in which he states that, generally speaking, the karmic actions which are the most forceful tend to produce their effects first. If the intensity of a karmic action is euqal to that of another karmic action, then the result of the action with which the individual is most familiar tends to ripen first. However, if two karmic actions are equally forceful and equally familiar, then the one that is committed earlier tends to produce its results first.”
Interestingly enough, the Buddhist answer to this question forces you to think and decide for yourself.
Positive actions are defined as their result being a pleasant experience, negative actions are defined by their unpleasant results.
Obviously, the results mentioned here are unlikely to come immediately (so-called ‘instant karma’ is considered rare), instead the karmic result may take lifetimes to ripen. For example, if I steal an ice-cream and enjoy eating it afterwards, the enjoyment is not a karmic result of stealing the ice-cream; it may be the result of helping someone else long ago. The karmic result of stealing an ice-cream is an unpleasant experience, such as being robbed.
In A Living Buddhism for the West, Lama Anagorika Govinda expresses another approach:
“All the suffering of this world arises from a wrong attitude.
The world is neither good or bad.
It is only the relation to our ego that makes it seem the one or the other.”
This approach relates to the way our mind perceives the world; see the page on delusions.
Nobody likes to suffer, so we all like to rid ourselves of negative karmic potential.
There are several possibilities, and in fact we may need to try and apply all of these methods as much as we can:
- To avoid having negative thoughts that lead to negative actions in the future, we need to observe and control our own thoughts and behaviour, and destroy our negative attitudes.
- Similarly, we can observe/study (meditate) our own mind and encourage positive thoughts that lead to positive actions.
- We can avoid negative karmic seeds to ripen by purifying it, using the four powers of purification (see below). Although this does not eliminate the negative karmic actions, it can avoid the results to occur.
- Ultimately, when we realise emptiness directly, and remove all our delusions, we are not under the control of past karma anymore.
The purification practices found within Buddhism are not unlike the practices applied in many other religions. The most essential mental factor that one requires is sincerity or honesty with oneself. When one wants to purify past negative karma, one has to do some action with the correct motivation.
This is summarised in the following Four Powers of Purification:
- Power of the Object: One should practice thinking of all sentient beings one may have hurt. Traditionally, one remembers all sentient beings and the Three Jewels of Refuge (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), by generating compassion for all sentient beings and taking refuge.
- Power of Regret: This should not be senseless guilt or self-recrimination, which are said to be useless emotional torture. What is intended here is to examine oneself and one’s actions and to recognise that negative actions done in the past were very unwise.
- Power of Promise: As a logical consequence of the above, one should promise not to repeat these negative actions. It is good if one can promise to avoid a negative behaviour for a specific time, or at least promise that one will put effort in avoiding repetition. Not being honest at this stage makes the practice useless or even harmful to oneself.
- Power of Practice: Basically any positive action with a good motivation can be used as practice. Traditionally in Buddhism, one can practice e.g. making prostrations (throwing oneself to the floor – as a means to destroy pride), making offerings (to counteract greed), reading Buddhist texts (to counteract ignorance and negative thoughts), reciting mantras etc.
It is often explained that one needs to clear a field by purifying it from rocks and weeds, then planting seeds by study and meditation, giving water and fertiliser by doing positive actions, and automatically new harvest will grow.
“What fisherman looks for water in dry, dead riverbeds?
He who hopes for spiritual progress, but cultivates neither wisdom nor merit.”
His Holiness the 7th Dalai Lama, from ‘Songs of spiritual change’ translated by Glenn Mullin.
To begin with, I need to understand that I cannot immediately change my present situation, but I should understand that:
- The reason why I am experiencing this is only due to my own actions in the past, my mind filled with delusions or positive thoughts, and the right circumstances for the karma to ripen.
- I can chose to have a selfish reaction to my situation and create my own suffering in the future.
- I can chose to have a reaction considering others’ welfare and create happiness for myself as well in the future.
- If I react without thinking, it is easy to create negative results for the future, and even make that a habit.
- The others whom I like to blame for hurting me, are merely the circumstances that make my negative karma ripen.
- Understanding karma means that I have full responsibility for everything that happens to me in the past, present and future.
- Positive thinking and acting will do others and myself much more good than being negative and acting that way.
“Karma is not something complicated or philosophical.
Karma means watching your body, watching your mouth, and watching your mind.
Trying to keep these three doors as pure as possible is the practice of karma.”
Lama Thubten Yeshe, “The Bliss of Inner Fire”
In a time long past, there was an old monk who, through diligent practice, had attained a certain degree of spiritual penetration.
He had a young novice who was about eight years old. One day the monk looked at the boy’s face and saw there that he would die within the next few months. Saddened by this, he told the boy to take a long holiday and go and visit his parents. ‘Take your time,’ said the monk. ‘Don’t hurry back.’ For he felt the boy should be with his family when he died.
Three months later, to his astonishment, the monk saw the boy walking back up the mountain. When he arrived he looked intently at his face and saw that they boy would now live to a ripe old age.
‘Tell me everything that happened while you were away,’ said the monk. So the boy started to tell of his journey down from the mountain. He told of villages and towns he passed through, of rivers forded and mountains climbed.
Then he told how one day he came upon a stream in flood. He noticed, as he tried to pick his way across the flowing stream, that a colony of ants had become trapped on a small island formed by the flooding stream. Moved by compassion for these poor creatures, he took a branch of a tree and laid it across one flow of the stream until it touched the little island. As the ants made their way across, the boy held the branch steady, until he was sure all the ants had escaped to dry land. Then he went on his way. ‘So,’ thought the old monk to himself, ‘that is why the gods have lengthened his days.’