Understanding Karma


I have been reading several books on Buddhism lately as I find it to be a particularly interesting and compelling religion. I would not call myself a converted Buddhist but their emphasis on kindness and compassion as well as their general outlook towards life deeply moves me. An interesting revelation I had during a recent reading was on the subject of karma. Many people associate karma with some sort of good doled out by the universe as a reward for a positive deed, or as something bad sent by the forces of the world to punish us for our bad deeds. That is not the case. 

Karma actually has nothing to do with reward or punishment. Karma is explicit to cause and effect. There is no divine or spiritual judge that determines an appropriate reward for a good deed or a painful punishment or harsh reminder for something done wrong. First of all, the Buddhists don’t believe in such a divine power. There is no “god” figure, no being in the clouds who watches everything we do and sees that we are met with appropriate recompense. There isn’t even non-anthropomorphic version of god in Buddhism. There is simply life, that which is. They believe we are all bound together as one and that there is no true sense of self, only an illusion of such. Therefore, there is no force that would serve as executor of any karmic will and karma has nothing to do with justice, a reward, or punishment. 

Karma is simply about cause and effect. Good thoughts and good deeds create good consequences. Bad deeds and bad thoughts create bad consequences. It is really that simple. What karma is truly defined as within Buddhism is “volitional action” as Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula teaches us. 

With the emphasis on volition, one could surmise that it really is the thought that counts. If our intent is do something good then we generate good karma, not in the form of a reward but in the form of good consequences not just for ourselves but for the universe and all living things. Even if what we intended does not go as planned, and something objectively bad happens, the kindness and compassion behind the volition of the action is felt as a ripple effect through the world and good consequences may ultimately come of it. A hypothetical example would be to suppose that you give a stranger on the street $5, presumably for shelter or food. Your intent, your volition, was to provide a service for a stranger in order to ease their suffering. Suppose instead that that stranger spends the money on alcohol and gets wasted instead, passing out in an ally covered in their own vomit, perpetuating their suffering. That would seem a negative outcome no? But suppose the next day or maybe a few days later after the hangover at least, that stranger realizes they have had enough and decide to get their life together. Or suppose that someone else saw that kind gesture of yours. Maybe this person was a selfish scrooge of an individual, but upon seeing your random act of kindness, they became more compassionate and charitable, and decided to give their time and wealth to enrich the community rather than buy fancy cars? This would be a good outcome as a result of your good volition. Good karma if you will. 

I find this definition of karma to be truly beautiful for two reasons. First, because karma is about the intent behind a thought or action and not the result, it gives more leeway for mistakes or mishaps. If you’ve ever tried your best at something and still failed or tried to help someone with kind words and instead only made things worse, then you know how bad it can feel that all that hard work or good intention goes to waste because of the wrong result. Karma isn’t about being perfect or about being good, but it is about trying to be good. If we continuously put good thoughts and good intentions into the world, then eventually good consequences will happen. 

Second, I love the idea that karma, being at the core of Buddhist belief, believes that we should do good for goodness sake rather than for the sake of any sort of reward. If your values or sense of right and wrong only exist because someone tells you they must exist, and that you will be punished for failing to abide by the rules, then do you truly have and morals or values? How good is a charitable deed if the only reason you did something was because you wanted a reward? Not good or at least not as good as it could be. Think of the prevalence of random acts of kindness we see on the internet. I really love a lot of those videos but somewhere amongst them there have got to be those deeds that are either outright staged or done merely because the camera is rolling, and the good Samaritan wants to make sure their kindness and heroism is acknowledged for their own selfish reasons. I suppose in that kind of example that the silver lining is at least that good things are being done but the intent does matter. 

On the other hand, if we only abstain from committing evil or doing wrong because we are afraid of some sort of divine retribution, then what does that say about our lack of morals and character? If your only reason for not murdering the person who bumps you into the sidewalk is because you don’t want to go to hell, then you probably have issues with humanity that you need to address. If your only reason for being faithful to your partner s you are afraid of god’s wrath and not, simply concerned with the happiness and feelings of your partner then that demonstrates a lack of moral depth. 

Not only is karma about doing good for goodness sake without any hope of reward. It is more aptly identified by the Buddhists as the natural law. It isn’t about judgement or a decision to reward or punish deeds. It is simply the laws of nature that good thoughts and actions beget good results and bad thoughts and actions beget bad results. There is no decision in the outcome, only the initiation. As Walpola Rahula says: “good karma (good intention in Buddhism) produces good effects, and bad karma (bad intention in Buddhism) produces bad effects.” 

With this in mind let each of us set out to attempt to put positive thoughts and kind actions into the world such that we may all receive the good effects. We do this not for a reward or because we fear a punishment for failing to do so, but because it is the natural order of the universe that good karma produces good effects. This would cause less suffering and the happiness of the entire world would benefit as a result. I hope you will consider the idea of karma as you navigate your lives. 

Check out the book: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. This book was the first book of Buddhism I have read that clearly defined and explained Karma. This book was inspirational in my writing of this passage and in furthering my understanding of Buddhism. 

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