Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings. Often people think of karma as some kind of external, impersonal force that “rewards” us for our good deeds and punishes us for our bad. Consequently, even some people with an otherwise good understanding of Buddhism reject karma (usually along with rebirth) as being non-rational.
But karma is not external, nor is it about rewards and punishments. Karma simply means “action.” As an ethical term, it refers to the intentions underlying our actions, understood very broadly as anything we might think, say, or do. As the Buddha said, “I declare, intention is karma” (Cetanāhaṁ kammaṁ vadāmi).
What this means is three-fold:
- First, ethically speaking, we can see our intentions as being either skillful or unskillful. Skillful intentions embody qualities of mindfulness, contentment, clarity, and care for the well-being of oneself and others. Unskillful intentions embody the opposites: they are motivated by impulsive selfishness, craving, confusion, and ill will.
- Second, the importance of this distinction is that skillful actions (i.e. those arising from skillful volitions) lead on the whole to a decrease in unhappiness and an increase in ease. Unskillful actions, as you might expect, do the opposite. So in choosing our actions, we also choose (whether we know it or not) the consequences of those actions. We create much of our own suffering and happiness through our actions.
- Third, habits are like muscles in the brain. By exercising a habit, it becomes stronger. As the Buddha said (and with apologies for the gender-specific language), “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness,” and “What a man wills, what he plans, what he dwells on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness.”
We create our consciousness through the actions we take — even our thoughts and words. And so, as Eliot observed, not only do we create our actions, but our actions create us.
Mindfulness (sammā sati), right view (sammā ditthi), and right effort (sammā vāyāma) can free us from this feedback loop. Together they act to break open a circular track and turn it into a path that leads to awakening.
We need mindfulness because without it, we become submerged in our thoughts and feelings. Unable to stand back, we act unreflectively, strengthening our unskillful habits and creating suffering for ourselves.
Right view is important because it allows us to evaluate our potential actions. We can realize, “If I act in this way (e.g. angrily) then there will be painful consequences. On the other hand, if I act that way (e.g. with patience and kindness) then the consequences will be more beneficial for me and others.
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We need right effort because it’s not enough just to know what we should do. We also have to be willing to act. On the one hand, right effort is our commitment to bring into being and sustain the skillful. On the other it’s to eradicate and prevent the further arising of the unskillful.
Karma is essentially a feedback mechanism, showing us the extent to which we’re in tune with reality.
Something the Buddha was quite clear about is that not everything we experience is a result of karma. Some Buddhist traditions seem to have overlooked that fact, however. So it might rain on your wedding day, or you might hit a red light when you’re already late. But that’s not the result of your karma. (Neither is it ironic, as many people have no doubt pointed out to Alanis Morissette.) But how you respond emotionally to such events, and how much you suffer as a result, does depend on your karma. If you’ve developed the emotional “muscles” of acceptance, patience, and flexibility, then you’ll be able to meet these events with elegance and with a minimum of suffering, or perhaps none. If, by a lifetime of exercise, you bulk up your emotional muscles of impatience and anger, then once again you’ll experience these events as acutely frustrating, painful, and stressful.
The extent to which we’re able to meet life’s difficulties with grace is the measure of our wisdom.
One thing we have to be aware of is the tendency to say “My intentions were pure, therefore I’m not responsible for the fact that you got hurt by my actions.” Our own intentions are never entirely clear to us. That’s why the Buddha pointed out that we have to look at the consequences of our actions to help us divine intentions that might be hidden to us. If we’ve caused pain to ourselves or others, then we likely had some kind of unskillful motivation mixed in with the skillful.
Karma, then, isn’t anything mystical. It’s simply a description of the psychology of happiness. It’s not an external force, but a feedback mechanism. And it’s not a judgement, but the natural result of how we act.