In its traditional Buddhist form, rather than current colloquial understanding, karma is the intentional actions of body, speech or mind and the imprints those actions leave in our minds. So the things we say, do and think, and the imprints in our minds left by them determine how we are going to understand the world we live in, and how we are going to act in the future. Karma tells us that there is a relationship between what we do and how we feel that results from the intention behind our actions. This means karmic actions have a moral dimension, with intention being crucial. Unintentional actions, such as a tree falling on a house, do not fall under the doctrine of karma.
Quick Introduction to Karma Definitions and Notes
- Karma is, collectively, the motivational dispositions stored in our brain which, when conditions warrant it, assemble into narratives that suggest how we should act.
- Karma is the destiny that you earn though your actions and thoughts.
- Karma is an echo of the past that determines the future.
- Karma means and explains that our past actions actually bind us to our present actions.
- Karma a foundational thesis of Indian moral philosophy.
- Karma are the intentional acts that result in states of being and the arising of new Selfs from moment to moment.
From Thanissaro Bhikkhu: The general understanding of the doctrine of karma is that actions from the past determine present pleasure and pain, while present actions determine future pleasure and pain. So karma is the moral principle that governs human conduct. It declares that our present experience is conditioned by our past conduct and that our present conduct will condition our future experience. But if past action were the sole determining factor, then present action should have no effect on our present experience of pleasure or pain.
In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his own teaching on karma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the ancient Indian notion of karma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of all past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible.
Karma – Extended Discussion Points
Karma Is Not
Karma is not “you reap what you sow”; it is not you get what you give. Karma is not doing bad things and having bad things happen to you in response; it does not work in a system of quid pro quo — do something good and something good will happen to you. Karma is not a bank that tracks our actions from life to life, karma doesn’t explain how good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, through rebirth or otherwise. Karma is not a cosmic or metaphysical force by which we are rewarded or punished for our actions. It is also not inevitable fate, nor ultimate destiny.
Karma Is Not Fatalism
Colloquially, “karma” is often used as shorthand for fate. Bad fate at that, an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past for which we are somehow vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. “I guess it’s just my karma.” The fatalism implicit in this statement can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice: “If he’s poor, it’s because of his karma.” “If she’s been raped, it’s because of her karma.” From this it seems a short step to saying that they deserve to suffer, and so they don’t deserve our help. From this false perspective, karma is seen as linear. From this false perspective, we are not responsible for our karma. From this false perspective we are unable to change our karma. All of these perspectives on karma are wrong and can be dangerous, often leading us to blame the victim or to lack compassion for one who is suffering.
Karma is the motivational dispositions stored in our minds (technically our kconsciousness) which, when conditions warrant it, assemble into narratives that suggest how we should act. Karma is memory fragments that arise and create stories which will motivate us to act with body, speech, and mind. Without karma, we would be unable to function in the world; we wouldn’t know how to act; in fact there wouldn’t even be a world as we would have no past references to make sense of phenomena.
Karma is our storehouse of imprints left behind after previous actions (karma literally means action), that determine our destiny in the sense that they make the world seem consistent with our previous understandings of things—so we can know the difference between a stick and a snake, a difference that is meaningful. These narratives, which are actually our conventional fictions about things, not objective truths about them, are constructed from memory fragments that we earn and accumulate through past actions, speech, and thoughts.
In this way, karma means and explains that our past actions actually bind us to our present actions and it is this continuity that allows us to survive and navigate the world. Poetically put, karma is an echo of the past that determines (at least in part) the future.
With respect to our individual senses of self, Karma is the intentional acts that result in states of being and the arising of new selfs from moment to moment. In other words, using explanations from Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, our awareness of self, our self-knowledge can be explained by a momentary identification with a mental event that presently functions as a cognizing subject but is not existent since there is no present and there are no moments.
Without karma there would be no self – we recall past actions and thoughts and add to these recollections to create our ever-evolving “self” which is subject to ever more additions of karma. Without karma, inaccurately or incompletely recalled as it usually is, we would be completely non-functional and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a toothbrush and a snake, a difference that is meaningful.
From Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Buddha’s basic observation that underlay his teachings on karma is that it is possible to develop a skill. This simple fact carries a number of important implications for any teaching on proper actions.
- Actions give results, and their results follow a discernible pattern, otherwise, it would not be possible to develop a skill.
- Some results are more desirable than others, otherwise there would be no point in developing a skill.
- By observing one’s mistakes one may learn from them and use that knowledge to act more skillfully and live with less suffering and discomfort in the future. Thus, karma is a foundational thesis of Buddhist moral philosophy.
- Results can be observed while one is acting, as well as after the action is done. This means that actions have both immediate results and long-term results, a fact that makes this non-linear process very complex.
This means that the mind is a crucial agent in determining actions and their results, and there is an opening for feedback to influence the process of action. The feedback loops, and the non-existence of objective cause and effect, amongst other things, makes karma a non-linear process with room for free will.
Further, the general understanding of the doctrine of karma is that actions from the past determine present pleasure and pain, while present actions determine future pleasure and pain. This makes karma the moral principle that governs human conduct. It declares that our present experience is conditioned by our past conduct and that our present conduct will condition our future experience. But if past action were the sole determining factor, then present action should have no effect on our present experience of pleasure or pain.
In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his teaching on karma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the ancient Indian notion of karma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible, what makes changing our karma possible.
The Buddhist concept of karma, as we have said, is both non-linear and complex. Karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present events and being able to reshape the past; present actions shaping (conditionally, not causally) not only the future but also the present. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat limited.
The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction. In both cases, however, what we do shapes our present and future.
So, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, karma focuses on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are or where you come from is not anywhere near as important as the mind’s intentions and motives for what it is doing right now.
Karma wants us to take stock of how well we play the hand we’ve got; it wants us to respond with right effort: abandon and refrain, develop and maintain. If you’re suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going (abandon and refrain). If you see that other people are suffering, and you’re in a position to help, you focus not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present (develop and maintain).
From the standpoint of karma, where we come from is old karma, over which we have no control (in the sense that it is already imprinted and so “fixed”) though we can modify it when it arises in the present, or burn it off before it ripens when it has arisen or if we have made it arise. Our present and future karma, over which we have much control, results from what we do in the here and now, “moment-by-moment,” hopefully mindfully. Again, this is from changing conditions arising from our actions, and not from some form of predestination or other metaphysical or occult force.
Intention and Karma
An important facet of karma refers to one’s intention or motivation while doing an action. Since karmic action is always intentional it is within our own hands whether or not to engage in the action. A hurricane is not a karmic event, not a phenomenon you caused through a bad deed. Again, karma always arises from intentional action. It can’t be any other way: how could we be responsible for lightning striking our home?
If we chose to ignore the workings of karma, we will create a universe of problems for ourselves.
Intention is the most important of all mental events because it gives direction to the mind, determining how and when and where we focus our attention, and whether we engage with virtuous or non-virtuous actions and objects. What any intentional act leaves behind is a residual energy to repeat itself, an imprint in our memory or, to use a Buddhist term, “alaya” storehouse, making karma into what is often called “habit energy.”
Summing up, from Nagarjuna’s perspective, we discover that there is no way for there to really be production of karma because karmic production is only possible if the three times (past, present, and future) are separate and independent, if there really is an independent past, a separate present, and an autonomous future. But the “three times,” as independent entities, is an impossibility and as a result, karma, as a real, self-supported entity is an impossibility. It is important to recognize that Nagarjuna is talking about karma as an objectively-real, self-sufficient entity. It is impossible for there to be any karma that exists independently, without depending for its existence on other (prior) actions, karma. This concept solidifies the philosophical underpinning to allow Buddha’s assertion that karma can be changed (for better or worse!) by our present actions . Karma simply supplies the grist for our mill of conventional storytelling, and as such (the stories are made up of prior actions that are not inherently or objectively real) we do have the power to change these stories.
Karma, then, is not an inevitable force, it is simply the collection of stories in our storehouse or alaya consciousness (in the fourth aggregate) which, when conditions allow, arise and create new events, new perceived phenomena, as these old karmic imprints are the basis for our narratives, even though they are not intrinsically or inherently “real,” but are rather simply previous constructed ideas and impressions.
What’s In Your Cup?
You’re holding a coffee cup when someone comes along and bumps into you. Coffee spills everywhere. Why did you spill the coffee? You spilled the coffee because there was coffee in your cup. Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea. The point is, whatever is in the cup is what spills out.
When life comes along and shakes you, whatever is inside you comes out. So we have to ask ourselves, “What’s in my cup? What did I put in my cup today?”
From Rev. Kalen McAllister, Inside Dharma
Burning Off Karma
- Reset intentions. An overarching personal intention to be of benefit to others when they upset us resets our karmic path: use chants, exercises: (1) When you are upset, ask–what can I do to be of benefit to here right now right here? (2) Forcefully remind yourself that others who seem to be upsetting you are really trying to end their suffering in fact, everything any of us do is an attempt to end our suffering, so I must be compassionate, not angry. (3) Establish a chanting practice: (1) “Each and every living being is supremely kind to me.” Or, (2) “May I be safe, well, peaceful and happy. May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me, be safe, well, peaceful, and happy. May all being be safe, well, peaceful and happy.”
- Create and activate an antidote. In your mind, write an exactly opposite story and replace the old story with it as quickly as possible. Do this in a right mindstate: if the story is making you angry, activate patience; if the story is making you stingy, become generous.
- Learn to burn off the story by simplyobserving it. In meditation, allow the story to arise, then pull back and become an observer of yourself thinking the story. It can be helpful to do this with full sentences: “Oh, this is the story where I get angry at my sister again.” This allows the story to exhaust itself because there is no buy-in, and the whole point of stories is our buy-in. They are there in our memory to tell us what to do; if we don’t use them that way, they lose their effectiveness. If skillfully and consistently applied, this will work for everything from “I hate my boss” to a chronic depression.
- Firm commitment to behavior change. Very firmly and deeply commit to not telling the story and not doing the unwholesome action that arises from the story–for example, if you were quitting smoking, when the urge arises, you might metaphorically slam your fist on the table and sternly assert “I will not smoke” and then just not do it. Don’t get discouraged if this doesn’t work perfectly; just keep strengthening the commitment until it overrides the old story. When an unwanted behavior arises, screaming at yourself (in your head, of course) “STOP IT!” often does exactly that, it stops it.
- When possible, remove or change the initiating conditions. If you can, change the conditions that would stimulate you to pull the story–remove ashtrays if you want to stop smoking, don’t go to bars if you want to stop drinking, for example. This suggestion seems obvious enough, but look carefully for conditions stimulating the undesired behavior, e.g., in addition to not going to the bars, don’t even walk down the beer and wine aisle at the grocery store if you are trying to stop drinking.
- Stop believing your stories are true and valid and meaningful. Realize through study and understanding that your stories are false, that they are all nonsense. Know deeply that the stories are empty. Remind yourself of this every time a troubling story seems to arise, then assert “I don’t need to act from this silliness.” Believe that right view is no view.
- Believe strongly in the doctrine of the Two Truths (see discussions of the two truths elsewhere on org).
- Use reminders to stay on track: wear a mala (reminder beads as a bracelet or necklace), set your phone or computer to ring or send you reminders, put sticky notes on the bathroom mirror or car dashboard.
More Burning Off Karma
Classical early Buddhism says there are several possibilities for burning off karma, and in fact that we may need to try and apply all of these methods as much as we can:
- Avoid having negative thoughts; either that do or that do not lead to negative actions in the future. This leaves no option but to act positively and wholesomely and that burns up our negative karma.
- Observe and studyour own mind and encourage positive thoughts that lead to positive actions.
- Intentionally stop negative karmic seedsfrom ripening (just don’t do it).
- Ultimately, when we realize emptiness directly and remove all our delusions, we are not under the control of past karma anymore. Until then, practicing with emptiness will greatly reduce and burn off negative karmic seeds. (See meditation and practice notes elsewhere on deepdharma.org).
Karmic Lists from the Buddhist classic The Book of Gradual Sayings
4 Qualities of Karma
- Karma is fixed, meaning imprints won’t change of their own accord
- Karma expands (even small seeds can generate big events)
- Results do not arise without seeds
- Once created, karma will not disappear of its own accord
4 Results of Karma
- Our imprints are projected onto the world, creating and interpreting everything, creating an external world to match our internal world
- Predisposition to reproduce behavior
- Predisposition to reproduce the experience (feelings associated with the cognitive story)
- Perceptual distortion to conform to the structure of the pattern
7 Karmic Proclivities
- Sense greed
- Craving for becoming
Zen Purification Vow
According to the Lotus Sutra, this purification vow is a confession and renunciation meant is to have us “sit upright [renounce our past unwholesome actions] and contemplate the true characteristics of all things.”
All my ancient, twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion.
Born through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.
A Note on “Collective Karma”
The notion of collective karma, of collective responsibility for something resultant, makes groups, as distinct from their individual members, out to be moral agents. Defining a group as somehow existent separate from its members is problematic as basic middle way philosophy teaches that “the group” cannot be separate from its members. Another problem here is the question of who defines and how they define the group.
Collective karma assumes that there is a magical force within the collective membership that is independent of the members (an atman of sorts!). This contradicts impermanence and emptiness, key doctrines and beliefs of middle way philosophy. Finally, this assumes that a group can be held blameworthy and responsible for the individual acts of its members; that a group, again magically, can have a singular intention and consciousness. The most disturbing implications of collective karma are when this false concept is used to justify injustices or, at worst, atrocities. To give an extreme example, somehow or another, the Jewish people of Europe were thought by enough other people that they had collectively made a conscious decision to act in some way that everyone would agree was impure or evil, and in doing this brought the holocaust upon themselves.
In addition to the obvious generally-accepted immorality of such atrocities, Buddhism teaches us that we, and only we, can end our suffering because we, and only we are the source of our suffering. Buddhism teaches that we can’t blame our mental health on others, collectively or singularly. Were others collectively or individually responsible for our suffering, there would be no way to end our suffering and no reason for Buddhism to exist. And I wouldn’t have written this and we wouldn’t be here talking today.
In the New York Times obituary of Bernie Glassman it explained that his form of social engagement and collective karma, which is similar to other Buddhist forms of collective karmic belief, had roots in his early Judaism’s tikkum alam, the Jewish idea that we are responsible for “repairing the brokenness of the world,” which is certainly not consistent with the Buddha’s teachings on karma.
Further Observations to Assist Your Practice
As much as possible, hold yourself in one of these 20 positive mindstates
–From Asanga (4th century C.E.)
The 9 Calming Mindstates
- Generosity –This is the practice of giving simply because there is need. Giving without asking anything in return, sometimes described as giving without characteristics. With time and practice, gift and giver and receiver become undistinguishable; then there is never again a need to take. The three types of giving are (1) material, (2) spiritual, and (3) the giving of no-fear.
- Compassion –When our self-centeredness, our hedonic desire to get our way, lessens, compassion appears naturally and on its own to guide us. Compassion is the empathetic call to action. Compassion is what makes us safe and strong, not meek or weak nor easy to manipulate.
- Patience – Patience is being present with whatever is happening, in an aware but non-judgmental way. It is looking clearly without filtering events through our old habitual responses and stories, and then acting appropriately from the deep understanding that simple awareness provides. It is an unembellished awareness of present-time conditions. It is the antidote to anger and resentment.
- Humility and Modesty – Not needing to assert ourselves and our stories over others, not needing our story to be right, not having to have our opinions validated, not really believing our opinions, and ideas as factual, that’s what makes us humble and modest. That is the ground on which peace of mind is centered. This is where real strength of character comes from, from always being the smallest person in the room.
- Moral Restraint – Once we start lying to ourselves and telling ourselves it is alright to do things we know are wrong, we become more and more corrupted in our relationships with others and more and more perverted in our view of what we should do and what is. Moral restraint–moral discipline–is what guides us when there is doubt, when old, unhelpful, afflicted habits rear their heads.
- Truthfulness – Truthfulness is the cornerstone of a peaceful life. Lying to others is never beneficial. Worse than just making us lie in the future, it trains us to live in a world of wrong views, wrong intentions, and wrong actions.
- Dependability – Without dependability there can never be peace of mind, in us, for us, about us, and about those with whom we interact.
Usually seen as negatives, 8 and 9 here are viewed as positive mindstates here.
- Regret –This gently judgmental but lightweight mindstate is what prevents us from falling into the pit of guilt and recrimination. Regret reminds us that we need to change strategies. It is a gentle “oops” that keeps us on the right track when we have erred.
- Distaste – Developing a mild aversion to all that is unwholesome in body, speech, and mind, is a critical component of wisdom. Without it we can misuse our practice and, for example, use it to become better warriors or better thieves.
The 11 Virtuous Mental Qualities
- Sense of propriety – Maintaining a sense of what is appropriate behavior and acting from that sensibility to stop negative actions and perform positive actions.
- Considerateness – acting with decency, civility, and other-centeredness towards others. It is the basis for unspoiled moral discipline.
- Suppleness – Flexibility that arises from practice and mindfulness. It enables the mind to engage in positive acts by interrupting mental or physical rigidity.
- Equanimity – The peacefulness and the inner sense of joy that arises from clear-mindedness, from not being dulled by old stories or overpowered by delusions about my Self and self-need being prime and most important. Equanimity is always accompanied by universal compassion for the well-being of others.
- Conscientiousness – Just being careful to avoid negative acts and to do, think and speak in ways that are beneficial.
- Renunciation – Renouncing old stories and attachment to unwholesome behaviors; more deeply, renunciation is letting go of our attachment to Self. It is deeply practicing with No-Self.
- Imperturbability – No animosity toward or frustration with anything external, with peoples, places or events or situations, or with internal thoughts. It is being present: alert, mindful and aware.
- Unbewildered clarity – Understanding the meaning of things by seeing through the lens of open-minded wisdom, without the obstacles of our old stories. It is realizing emptiness as ultimate truth.
- Non-violence – Being non-threatening, not making others fearful–being non-violent in thought, speech, and action. Requires intention always set to being beneficial.
- Enthusiasm — Eagerness to continue that arises from seeing peacefulness arise from seeing the benefits of our practice in action.
- Faith – The experience that these mindstates work as a path to a happier, healthier life leads us to “have faith” in them and to want to practice them with enthusiasm.