Buddhist karma is a natural rule of moral cause-and-effect that states that you can’t get away with anything in the end, regardless of whether you’re caught or not. The Sanskrit term karma (also karman, Pli: kamma) literally means “action” or “doing.” Karma is a Buddhist word that refers to purposeful behavior that has long-term consequences.
The kind of reincarnation in samsara, the cycle of rebirth, is thought to be determined by those objectives. Karma in Buddhism is also rather complicated — rather than being a simple system of reward and punishment, it’s about the state of your mind when you make an intention, act, and experience the repercussions, and how you may influence this process to prevent inflicting suffering to yourself and others. Buddha quotes on karma collected by Reneturrek.com may be a good source to learn about karma.
Karma is concerned with the causal linkages that exist between our actions and our living conditions. That’s why I refer to it as a “moral rule,” in the sense that karma is concerned with “good or wrong behavior standards.” Of course, in Buddhism, the labels “right” and “wrong” refer to a pragmatic observation about what finally produces the desired consequences, rather than a divinely created code of morality. The Buddha’s karma teachings fundamentally began with the following question: “What is the connection between our behavior and the relative happiness or suffering of our circumstances in this great play called human life?”
To put it another way, can we enhance our fortunes by acting in certain ways, and if so, how much can we increase our fortunes? It’s also worth noting that religious intellectuals in India at the time of the Buddha weren’t simply concerned with what happened to them in this life; the dominant cosmology in India at the time was the belief in the cycle of transmigration, in which human beings are reborn again and again. Some people came to the conclusion that since there was no such thing as a transmigration cycle, you should just do whatever you can to enjoy pleasure and comfort in this life while avoiding any negative consequences of your actions.
The Buddha, like the Jains and other religious leaders of his time, counseled his followers to seek liberation from the entire cycle of transmigration, but his perspective on karma was vastly different. The Buddha’s enlightenment was essentially comprised of two realizations: 1) how karma works, and 2) what acts might be taken to reduce suffering for oneself and others, and ultimately achieve pleasure and peace, despite the innate unpredictability of human fortunes. The Buddha observed that the state of mind of the person performing the action had a significant impact on the entire karmic process — having an intention to act, committing an act, and experiencing the consequences.
To put t another way, karma wasn’t as straightforward as “do X, and Y will happen.” Sure, there were broad karmic patterns – deeds motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, for example, likely to result in suffering – but the situation was complicated. When Doug is presented with the opportunity to make a lot of money through an unlawful financial transaction, he resists the temptation to risk his peace of mind and instead thinks of the people who may be swindled out of their pension savings.
These examples are simplistic and do not begin to convey the complexities of karma, but they should give you the sense that there are numerous opportunities during our lives to influence the karmic process and better our future fortunes. Other Buddhists and experts are likely to disagree with this assertion, but I believe that the Buddha was attempting to express this intricate karmic process with numerous important input opportunities with his teaching of Dependent Co-arising.
According to the Buddha, twelve factors must be present for us to remain trapped in negative karmic behavior: a body, senses, consciousness, contact (between senses and sense objects), feeling, ignorance (of what causes suffering and how to end it), mental fabrications, craving, clinging, becoming (moving toward the generation of something new), birth (the beginning of something new), aging and death.
The first is bad karma with negative consequences, in which harmful activity of the body, voice, or mind eventually leads to unpleasant feelings. The second type of karma is positive karma with favorable outcomes, in which non-harmful activity results in pleasurable experiences. (Note that the Buddha, like many of his contemporaries, described the ultimate spiritual aim as liberation from the cycle of transmigration.) Of course, such emancipation would imply the end of your karma, as well as any fear of influencing your future fortune by your actions. This is the basic aim of Buddhist practice: to do things now in order to make the finest karmic decisions possible in the future.
Before concluding our talk, it should be pointed to you that the Buddha did not teach that everything that happened to you is due to karma, or your former lifetimes’ actions. The Buddha argues that those who believe everything is due to past actions, or karma. However, we believe that this view of karma has no basis in the Buddha’s teachings and was instead clung to by people for one – or both – of two reasons: 1) they want to blame others for their own unfortunate circumstances in order to avoid feeling responsible toward their fellow human beings, and 2) they would rather believe they are to blame for all of their own circumstances and experiences than accept that life can be random and beyond our control.
After all, you might be going through a lot of pain, hardship, or injustice right now, but because everything is based on karma, you can act in ways that will save you from suffering in the future. At the same time, the consequences of personal karma are enormous and far-reaching; there is little that happens to us that isn’t influenced in some way by our past actions, especially as we grow older. Fortunately, positive spiritual practices that lead to freedom from karma accumulate over time and help us weather the unavoidable storms of human life with dignity and even joy.