Karma is one of the principle teachings of the Buddha, but it is also one of the most misunderstood, particularly here in the West. What exactly is meant by karma, and why is it important to understand how it works?
Simply put, karma is the law of cause and effect. Dropping a ball and having it bounce back up is a very simple example of karma. But the law of karma extends into all of our physical and mental activities. The Buddha taught that what binds us in samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth and suffering, are the defilements or poisons, which can be summarized as hatred, greed and ignorance. Ignorance specifically means ignorance of the law of karma, the fact that our actions have consequences that are exacting. The conditions of our present life are due to the karma we have created in our past lives and in this life. If one is wealthy, it is due to the generosity shown in past lives. If one is poor, it is due to a lack of generosity in past lives.
Please note that the teaching of karma is not judgmental. This is not a good and evil thing, but rather an explanation of why things happen. We create the conditions of our own life. It is never a case of somebody doing something to us, despite external appearances. The Buddha taught that nothing happens without a cause. If we suffer, it is because of we created the causes for suffering. Since all sentient beings suffer as a result of the causes they themselves have created, there can be no judgment of others as we are all in the same boat.
Karma also does not equal fate or predestination. Karma means simply “action”. Thus karma is dynamic. It is in a state of constant flux. Action here means voluntary, intentional, deliberate action, not unconscious or involuntary action. It is action that we consciously take and thus must bear the consequences of.
Newton stated that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, any action we take will produce a karmic effect that produces, sooner or later, a reaction. The reaction may be experienced as good, such as being born into wealth, or it may be experienced as bad, such as being born into poverty, but in reality it is simply a reaction to an action, cause and effect. As the Buddha taught, if we plant an apple seed, we get an apple tree. We don’t get an orange tree. The reaction always matches the original action.
For example, if one were to kill another human being, the karmic effect of that would be that that person would be killed him- or herself. But that effect may not be experienced for lifetimes as the effect will only ripen when the appropriate scenario presents itself. That is, the karmic effect will only manifest in a way and at a time that matches the original cause. The problem with this is that as sentient beings we cannot recall our past lives, so if something like that happens to us, seemingly out of the blue, we have no idea what the original cause is. We cannot see the connection between the cause and the effect. Therefore we have no way of understanding karma unless we hear the teachings of the Buddha who realized how karma works as he meditated under the Bo Tree on the night of his enlightenment. It is because of his enlightenment and subsequent teaching that we can learn how karma works and how to create the conditions that we wish to have in our lives. We gain happiness when we engage in intelligent or skillful means, and we suffer when we engage in unintelligent or unskillful means. It really is that simple.
What then are the unwholesome actions we wish to avoid doing so that we can experience happiness rather than suffering? There are said to be ten unwholesome acts in general, three of the body, four of speech, and three of the mind. The three of the body are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The four of the speech are lying, slander, harsh speech, and malicious gossip. The three of the mind are greed, anger, and delusion. Of course, these ten unwholesome actions manifest in numerous ways, but they generally fall into these ten categories.
The unwholesome actions have suffering as their fruit. They often lead to rebirth in the lower realms, the hell, hungry ghost, and animal realms, where suffering is intense and overwhelming. One cannot achieve enlightenment in the face of the suffering of the lower realms.
Wholesome actions can take two forms. One form is simply not performing unwholesome actions. While not creating negative karma, this approach also does not accumulate much positive karma either. It is more productive to engage in positive actions as opposed to negative ones, such as generosity, virtuous conduct, meditation, reverence, helping others, dedicating merit to others, rejoicing in the merit of others rather than feeling jealousy, hearing the Dharma, and teaching the Dharma. Such actions produce merit, which results in happiness. All of these actions produce tangible benefits. For example, hearing the Dharma results in wisdom, generosity results in wealth, and so forth.
The intent behind a particular action, whether wholesome or unwholesome, affects the weight of the karma accrued as a result. If the intent of an action is to cause harm to another, harm is caused to another, and there is no remorse, the action will carry the heaviest weight. If all of these conditions are not present, then the weight will be less, though there will still be an effect. Thus karma is not a matter of strict black and white, that if you do such-and-such an action, such-and-such a result will ensue. It is never that simple. And it should also be mentioned that not every action produces karma. Sleeping, walking, breathing, etc., have no moral consequence as there is no motivation associated with them that would produce karma.
The teaching of karma should not be thought of as a teaching on how we are punished for evil deeds. Rather it is more productive to think of the teaching of karma as the method by which we can become masters of our own lives, how we can create happiness time and time again and ultimately create the conditions that will result in our enlightenment and the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Buddha in the palm of our hand.