What is Karma in Buddhism?
When it comes to the concept and word “Karma” (aka “Kamma” in Pali), you are bound to hear all sorts of explanations and definitions as to what it means.
To muddy the water more, the word has become part of our modern everyday terminology and often used incorrectly as if it some supernatural power you have no control over or gives you special favors!
So, what is karma, how does it impact you, and why should you care? Let’s find out!
Karma You Believe It?
The word “Karma” means “deed” or “action” in the ancient Sanskrit language and is a central teaching to all schools of Buddhism, and all teachings and interpretations of the Dharma.
Karma governs the concept of “cause and effect”, meaning that all “intentional” deeds produce results that the doer (“you”) will eventually feel.
Based on that fact, you would obviously want to do “good deeds” so that you would receive positive karmic effects. Otherwise, any “bad deeds” you do would produce negative (unwholesome) karmic effects. And it’s just not you who has Karma, but also other types of sentient beings, communities, countries, and even the earth.
There are three types of Karma as identified by the Buddha:
- Karma generated by the body (your actions)
- Karma generated by speech (your words)
- Karma generated by the mind (your thoughts)
This means any actions you intentionally do with your body, speech, or mind will create karmic results.
- Wholesome karmic actions are based upon generosity, compassion, kindness, sympathy, mindfulness, or wisdom
- Unwholesome karmic actions are based upon greed, hatred, and delusion
- Neutral (or “Ineffective”) karmic actions have no impact and include unintentional actions (such as sleeping, breathing, eating, unintentionally stepping on an ant, and killing it, etc.)
Buddhists do not use the words “good” or “bad”/”evil” because karma does not operate within those terms. “Wholesome” and “Unwholesome” are routinely used instead because they relate to what is “wholesome” (skillful/intelligent) and “unwholesome” (unskillful/unintelligent) in relation to progressing towards the path of enlightenment.
If you ever played the “hot or cold” game, where there is a hidden object and you tell the other person if they are getting “hotter” or “colder” in relation to where they are as they search for it, you can begin to understand the purpose here. The more unwholesome karmic actions you make, the “colder” you get towards achieving enlightenment. The more wholesome karmic actions you make, the “warmer” you get towards finally achieving enlightenment.
There are four types of karmic results:
- Negative Karma: Actions that only produce negative karmic effects
- Positive Karma: Actions that only produce positive karmic effects
- Both Negative and Positive Karma: Actions that produce some negative, and some positive, karmic effects
- Neither Negative or Positive Karma: Also known as “karma without outflows” is the type of karma of enlightened beings (such as the Buddha or one of his enlightened disciples)
And remember, it’s what you intentionally do that matters. For example, if you unintentionally stepped on spider, there is neither wholesome or negative karma regarding that action (“Neutral” karmic action).
However, if you are out to get the spiders at all costs, then its unwholesome karma seeds you are planting!
We are caught in the endless cycle of birth and death (known as saṃsāra) due to karma. For those who casually in our society refers to “karma”, and think they are using the “Buddhist” concept of it, this is a bit of a shock.
In Buddhism, the focus on “karma” is primarily related to rebirth. The entire reason we focus on generating wholesome karma is due to rebirth. The entire reason we want to achieve enlightenment and realize nirvana is so we can stop producing all types of karma (so we can end the cycle of birth and death – saṃsāra).
Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:
All sentient beings are trapped in the ocean of birth and death due to their karma. Karma is like the string that holds prayer beads together. The string connects all the beads; likewise, karma connects our lives from the past to the present and into the future, continuously causing us to be reborn in the six realms of existence.
Karma, when the conditions are right, impacts our present and future rebirths. Thus, it’s important to always create wholesome karmic actions, and not negative ones.
It is not until we achieve awakening (enlightenment) that we can achieve no karma (known as “karma without outflows”) and end the cycle of birth and death (known as saṃsāra).
The Buddhist focus on Karma is about:
- Stopping or reducing the amount of unwholesome karma we generate (because it prevents us from reaching enlightenment, which keeps us in the cycle of birth and death)
- Generating more wholesome karma (because it is skillful which helps us progress on the path towards enlightenment, which will eventually lead us out of the cycle of birth and death)
- Stop creating “any” karma so we can end our cycle of rebirth (enlightened beings have “karma without outflows”, and thus rebirth ends for them)
Watch Out, Karma Is Right Behind You!
Still others commit all sorts of evil deeds, claiming karma doesn’t exist. They erroneously maintain that since everything is empty, committing evil isn’t wrong. Such persons fall into a hell of endless darkness with no hope of release. Those who are wise hold no such conception. ~ Bodhidharma
Is Karma lurking around every corner? Do you have to enter the Buddha’s witness protection program? Just like Indiana Jones learned in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, stealing produces unwholesome karma which he experienced fast in the form of a huge boulder that raced towards him:
So, does “karma” happen this quickly? If Indiana Jones did something good, would he have been awarded gold coins falling from the sky?
As we talked about in the prior section, the Buddhist focus on karma is regarding rebirth. Indiana Jones could go around stealing (an unwholesome karmic act) historic artifacts all day and nothing may ever happen to him in this “lifetime”. Now some would say that Indiana Jones in his prior lives had accumulated so much “wholesome” (or what they would call “good”) karma, that he is skating by in this life with all this unwholesome karmic action.
Personally, that is going back to the thinking that someone or something is keeping score of if you are “good or bad” and giving our presents.
Karma “is what it is”, and nothing more. That means it has no ulterior motives and is simply a result of your actions. If Indiana Jones wants to create a lot of unwholesome karma and think he is doing fantastic and living lavishly later, the one thing he forgets is that karmic actions do not disappear. He is only ensuring he stays in the cycle of birth and death longer and longer.
Further, his unskillful actions can come back to “bite” him in this life in ways he may not imagine. The energy from actions does not go away! Thankfully, we know from the movies that Indiana Jones is ultimately the “good guy” constantly fighting the evil Nazi forces (and oddly, later on, fighting the Soviets who wanted an alien spaceship, but that’s a different movie).
There are three things to know about karmic actions:
- Karmic causes do not disappear: When you intentionally create karmic actions (wholesome or unwholesome), there is no off switch
- No canceling: Creating positive karma won’t cancel out negative karma (e.g., murdering someone, then trying to cancel that negative karmic action by helping an old woman cross the street)
- Karmic results come either quickly or slowly: Just like a plant, they can sprout fruit quickly, in a few months, or in years, depending on the conditions, but they always are focused on rebirth
It is important to note that “Karma” is not some retribution by a God or gods, some cosmic force, or being that decides what punishment you get. Karma is entirely under your control if you understand it and change your ways. As Ven. Master Hsing Yun said:
The Buddha said that the cycle of birth and death is a delusion that we cling to because we are not able to see beyond it. He said that we do not understand how to escape the cycle because we do not understand how it works. More than anything else, it is karma that keeps sentient beings trapped in the cycle of birth and death. However, if karma is truly understood, sentient beings can be liberated from this cycle.
So understanding you are not forever “chained” to unwholesome Karma is important: you do have a choice on what happens to you, and ultimately that means an end to saṃsāra…the cycle of birth and death. It also means, if you are Indiana Jones, you can gain wholesome Karma through helping others, and the world, be a better place.
Saint Karma Is Coming to Town!
Is Karma like Santa Claus who is keeping a list of who is naughty and who is nice? As we explained in the prior section, karma is not a being or something that is here to reward or give out punishment. Karma is about our own actions, and how it relates to us staying in this cycle of birth and death.
However, even in Buddhist circles, rebirth is used to illustrate “punishment”. This makes me shake my head that it is still believed, or at least reinforced, in our modern world.
Here are two examples of Buddhists explaining Karma incorrectly:
- If you are born a woman, it is due to your prior lives bad karma and you deserve punishment and the status you are in
- If you are born an animal, we are justified in killing and eating you and treating you any way we wish
I am illustrating those two on purpose, but there are plenty of others (to include the divide between poor and rich people) where “past karma” is the reason you are in the situation you are in now. I disagree.
Women have been a target even in the Buddha’s day, to the point of where he had to be “convinced” of having Buddhist nuns, and gave plenty of “extra” precepts (such as a Bhikkhuni, a female monastic, had to take orders from a Bhikkhu, a male monastic, even if they just became a monk that day). That’s right, a woman monk who may have been one for 40 years would have to take orders from a teenage monk who had no experience!
It is now largely debated that these extra rules were created by male chauvinist monks hundreds of years ago (yes, it exists everywhere). I’m sure this will not make me popular with some Buddhists out there, but they need to move on with that gender plays no role in enlightenment or who can and should be a monastic. I have learned and benefited numerous times from female monastics and find them to be wonderful teachers, compassionate, and great ambassadors of Buddhism.
Regardless, nothing can escape the fact that we are all born out of causes and conditions, and karma seems (at least to me) to have no part in your gender (we know now that a number of biologic causes and conditions help to decide this to a large extent).
Even the Buddha said that a woman is (of course) a sentient being and can achieve enlightenment just like any man could. Ouch, that was quite painful to the ears of men back in the Buddha’s day! While we have seen Mahayana Buddhism embrace (largely, but not always) female monastics (with some who have headed up temples!), Theravada sadly places impossible restrictions (such as in Thailand where a male monk would be severely punished for ordaining a female monk).
Animals are also brought up as “paying” for a lot of unwholesome karma in the past lives. Therefore, if you are “reborn” as a pig, for example, you are going to end up as bacon and you better just accept that fact.
Once again, this is oversimplifying things to make those who produce unwholesome karma feel better about themselves. Killing is killing, it is an intentional act. Abusing an animal is an intentional act. And this all makes those who do it animals themselves! These people may claim that there are “realms”, such as the “animal realm”, you can experience as part of rebirth, and thus that animal is going to have to pay out its past karma in this life. But that is not what is going on.
- First, these realms are something you can and do experience in the here and now. If you start acting and thinking like an animal, then you are in the animal realm. It can be as simple as that. If animals are a result of past karmic actions (which I do not), I would challenge they are a result of past wholesome karmic actions. I have seen and known animals that are more compassionate, caring, and loving than certain humans. Humans can easily live in the animal realm in the here and now.
- Second, there is the concept of nonself in Buddhism (read here for more), therefore “you” are not being “reborn” as an animal, a woman, a man, a poor person, a rich person, a rock, etc. If you need a physical way to think of this, think of a large body of water, such as a lake or ocean (this is a representation for consciousness, which is what transfers in rebirth). That lake or ocean has the same water all the time (yes, I understand about evaporation, etc., but go with me on this for a second). However, certain actions…such as the gravitational force of the moon, or wind, etc., makes “waves”. These “waves” are the physical existence we have now. They are temporary, just like us, created by causes and conditions. They are unique things and change from “birth” to “death” of the wave (like us), and then get reabsorbed into the ocean/lake again. Did the wave “die”? No, it was always water and continues to be water. The physical form of the “wave” was the illusion. However, those of us who have lived by oceans and lakes know that the waves cause actions also (even though they are neutral), where we can see another wave forming, or perhaps a smaller ripple effect. Something never becomes nothing.
While I went on a little rant here, the point is that karmic actions are not a punishment that “forces” you to be something else, and therefore it becomes the justification for others to treat that something else badly.
Anyone who believes in this, and creates unwholesome karmic actions, as a result, is creating their own garden that is keeping them far away from the Buddha’s eightfold path.
Go Bankrupt on Karmic Debt
So far, a lot of this can sound scary. What if you have created a lot of unwholesome karmic actions in your past? Are you “accumulating” karmic “debt”? Here’s one remarkable thing about karma: you have the power of your own destiny.
Just like Sarah Connor said in the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day:
The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.
For example, let’s return to Indiana Jones while accumulating unwholesome karma at the beginning of his first movie, was a good guy. He fought for what was right, saved lives, and his intention was to bring historical artifacts to museums for the world to see. This allowed him to diminish any unwholesome karma he created, so anytime the ‘conditions’ were right for negative karmic results to appear in his life, they were less severe than if he was one of the evil Nazi villains he was always running into.
As Barbara O’Brien explained in a comment in one of her articles:
In Buddhism, it’s extremely important to understand that karma is not fate. Because you have done X amount of “bad” stuff doesn’t mean you have a karmic debt of X that you have to “work off,” in this life or another one. Karma can be changed at any time by one’s own thoughts, words and deeds.
So, stop thinking about what happened in the past, and work on doing good in the present! Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained it best:
Also, while negative karma and positive karma do not cancel each other out, the more good deeds we perform our negative karma will manifest as less severe effects, and our positive karma will ripen more quickly. This is like adding fresh water to a glass of salt water: the salt has not been removed, but the taste is much less salty.
Plant Some Wholesome Karma Seeds
Often in the Buddhist sutras, karma is typically called “seeds”. This is because, just like seeds, they may be dormant for many years (or lifetimes) until the conditions are right for them to grow.
Karma works the same way by waiting in your consciousness (known as the Alayavijnana or “Store Consciousness”) for the right conditions to sprout up in your “Mind Consciousness” (which is the one you are aware of all the time).
Throughout this article, I focused a lot on saying that the purpose of karma, as it relates to Buddhism, is about rebirth. However, that will lead many (unskillfully) to think and ask, “well if it does not benefit me now, then why should I care?”.
When we move past the notion of “self“, we are more able to be less focused on what happens to “me”, and that concept becomes less important. And it does not become less important because “you” are not important, you are! The ability to even be here right now, as a human being, is a wonderful thing and rare.
Further, being able to even have the teachings of the Buddha (and thus Buddhism and Buddhist thought) available to you is even more rare and amazing. What are you doing with this gift? What keeps me focused on learning more about Buddhism, and practicing, comes down to a turtle. Yes, a Turtle.
A parable of the Buddha illustrates why what we do in this “life” is important, and everything connected to it (including helping others, keeping yourself healthy, learning, staying on the path towards enlightenment, and even ensuring you generate wholesome karma):
The story is told in a Buddhist sutra of a lone blind turtle who dwells in the depths of a vast ocean, coming up for air only once every hundred years. On the surface of the same ocean floats a golden yoke. It is more common for the turtle to place its head through the yoke when it takes its centennial breath, the sutra says, than it is for a being imprisoned in the cycle of rebirth to be born as a human with the good fortune to encounter the teaching of the Buddha. Human birth in a Buddhist land is compared to a rare jewel, difficult to find and, if found, of great value, because it is in the human body the path that leads to liberation.
As Buddhists, there are many ways we go about generating wholesome karma, which is nicely summed up in the Five Precepts, and by following the Noble Eightfold Path. We can do things such as helping others, donating (to include ensuring Buddhist teachings are available to others who would like to have them), etc.
These are karmic actions…seeds…that help others, and as a reaction, it also benefits ourselves (yet doing it solely to help ourselves is a contradiction in terms and actions!).
The seeds of your karmic actions are not just implanted in you, but others. This wonderful video from Thailand (actually it’s a commercial) shows how the wholesome karmic actions of a restaurant owner came back to help him 30 years later (which was never his intention, and that needs to be emphasized!).
While one may look at this and think that karma is some ‘supernatural’ force that allowed him to benefit when he needed it, but it wasn’t. In fact, by planting the seed of kindness (wholesome karma) for the child whose mother was sick, that same child devoted his life to saving others. The child was impacted by the wholesome karmic actions of the man.
A great explanation of this is by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh who explains that we shouldn’t always view Karma as “negative”:
Karma in Buddhism is action. Action in the form of the thinking. Thinking is acting. Speaking is acting. And doing things is acting. And every act has a result. That is Karma. And nothing can be lost. It continues always. The shameful action continues and if you perform positive Karma, it will continue very well if you help other people.
So Karma should be understood in a positive way also. To produce a type of loving kindness, compassion and understanding is a wonderful Karma that can bring happiness to so many people. To say something that inspires confidence and remove doubt and suffering, that is wonderful Karma. And to do something to help people suffer less, that’s wonderful Karma, and that Karma we encourage, and the Buddha always will produce this Karma during his whole life. So Karma should not be seen only as something negative. Why the negative Karma should not be continued, should not continue the cycle of Samsara. The good Karma should be included to be reborn and reborn because if you practice love and kindness, you produce love and kindness in your child, in your student. And if he continues, if she continues, she will practice love and kindness and will transmit to her children and that is why we encourage the continuation, the rebirth of the good things. We only want to discourage the continuation and the rebirth of bad Karma.
In one of my favorite books, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh went deeper on this (page 114 and 115) where he mentioned the topic of Right Livelihood (of the Noble Eightfold Path). In this, he explained that a schoolteacher who works to make their students’ lives better through love and understanding is right livelihood and is thus generating wholesome karma. But what if the teacher eats meat, and thus means someone must be a butcher…and lives in wrong livelihood because they must kill…and unwholesome karma is being generated.
Yet, if the butcher, or the son who inherits attempts to make the lives of the animals better, does his own slaughter to minimize cruelty, etc., still is generating an impression on his consciousness. This is because even though his intention is “good”, it is still murder of a sentient being and impacts his practice of Buddhism (especially during meditation). This is a dilemma and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh says, because the person wants to be kind and take care of the animals, but also wants the regular income of the business. He recommends:
He should continue to look deeply and practice mindfulness with his local Sangha. As his insight deepens, the way out of the situation where he finds himself killing to make a living will present itself.
Ask yourself daily if you are on the path towards liberation (enlightenment)? If so, we stop focusing so much on self and instead gain greater compassion for all living beings.
However, if we focus more on self and attachments, we regress from where we should be going and what path we should be on. Instead, we stay stuck on that NASCAR racetrack known as Samsara. You may sometimes go in for a pit-stop between lives, but your race car is still the same and can get worse. Stop crashing into other cars and the racetrack wall, and use start gaining some wholesome karma. Let your pit crew help you when you stop creating the wrong actions!
As we saw in the comedy movie Talladega Nights, Cal Naughton Jr. kept helping his teammate and the star, Ricky Bobby, to win the race through his wholesome karmic actions. Yet Ricky never reciprocated and let him win. We saw later in the movie where Ricky lost everything, and eventually realized what he did to his best friend, and Cal won the NASCAR race he always wanted to win. That is some fine “Shake N’ Bake” of Karma folks!
Planting Your Garden
Since you can’t get rid of any unwholesome karmic actions you’ve done, there is only one solution: increase wholesome karmic actions and plant those seeds as often as you can. Even if you don’t believe in rebirth, doing good…wholesome…things help sentient beings, like people and animals.
Did you help someone change their flat tire? Help someone pick up groceries after they broke their shopping bag? Help an animal get out of a busy street? All are wholesome seeds. Or do the most traditional and time-honored Buddhist activity: giving.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t have Buddhist monks on alms rounds where you can give food, just give your time, money, effort, faith, and love to those who need it. Everyone is experiencing dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction, etc.) in one form or another, so do something to help them. Just make sure you’re not doing it for any “selfish benefit” (even though you may want wholesome karma) because it’s your intention that matters.
Perhaps if we could all be like this “unsung hero” in a Thai life insurance company commercial, who engaged in wholesome karma not for himself but for others, we would have a much better world!
- Featured Photo: CC photo by Jack Lazar on Flickr
- To learn more about rebirth in Buddhism, and how Karma plays an important part (especially with the Alayavijnana or “Store Consciousness”), please read my article here: https://alanpeto.com/buddhism/understanding-reincarnation-rebirth/
- Recommended Books: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, and The Core Teachings by Ven. Master Hsing Yun
- Recommended Reading: Buddhism and Karma by Barbara O’Brien, Karma on Wikipedia, The Theory on Karma on Buddhanet, Karma on Buddhanet