Ask A Buddhist: What is karma?

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Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

Q. What is karma?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131A. I’ve avoided this question for two months, as it is the strongest thematic thread in all of Buddhism, tying together the most basic instructions for beginners and the densest canonical material. I’d be a fool persuading any reader to accept a definitive answer to this question, because there’s theory — lots of it — and then there’s personal experience, the learning of karma’s truth over time. As a practitioner, my understanding of it continues to evolve. After all, the Buddha urged personal experience over untested adoption of any theory.

Mixed in with one’s work, family life, meditation, study and most prominently, one’s daily foibles, is the fact of karma. Whether you believe in multiple lifetimes or you’re a one-lifer, we are each the heir of our past actions. In either case, the deeds of this lifetime do not die with the body, but continue to ripple outward. Consider: the present moment conditions the next moment and then the next and the next and the next. Can we ever know, or control, all the consequences of an action? Can we say with certainty that there’s finality to its trajectory? The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, states, “It is said by the masters that even a little poison can cause death, and even a tiny seed can become a huge tree.” To really consider and absorb this conception of karma leads to recognition that even the smallest deed has significance.

The Buddha made it clear that all karma begins with intention — this idea is one of the major distinctions between Buddhism and Hinduism and Jainism, two religions contemporary with the Buddha and against which he distinguished his philosophy. In Jainism, even if you accidentally harm another, you assume negative karma. Karma in Hinduism is institutionalized into Vedic sacrifice and the caste system.

This past summer when visiting India, I was distressed to find few people moved to action by the visible and brutal poverty everywhere I turned. When I asked a handful of teenagers if they worked to end this economic disparity, I was told that the poor must have done something awful in a previous lifetime to be in their dire current circumstances. Karma (not only for some Hindus) has been used to rationalize everything, from sexism and economic oppression to birth handicaps.

The Buddha clearly rejected this fatalistic view. According to his teachings, the three doors of karma are thought, speech and action. The Buddha radically transformed the ritualistic and fixed paradigms of karma into a moral principle by focusing on cetana, a word that means volition or motivation. Simply put, if you intend to harm another, it is quite different than accidentally harming someone.

Karma, says David Loy in the introduction to “Karma, Fate or Freedom?” (Buddhadharma Magazine Fall 2013), can be understood “as the key to spiritual development, revealing how one’s life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of one’s actions here and now.” The opening words of the Dhammapada, one of the most beloved of all Buddhist scriptures states, “Mind is the forerunner of all things: think and act with a corrupt heart and sorrow will follow one as surely as the cart follows the ox that pulls it. Mind is the forerunner of all things: think and act with a pure heart and happiness will follow one as surely as one’s never-departing shadow.”

Although karma is a foreign word, the same principles of virtue have pervaded Western civilization both through philosophy and religion. Plato believed that human well-being was the fruit of moral thought and conduct. Like the Buddha, Spinoza said happiness is not the reward of virtue: happiness is virtue itself. Emerson, in his 1858 Divinity School speech, wrote:

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws … These laws refuse to be adequately stated. They will not be written out on paper, or spoken by the tongue. They elude our persevering thought; yet we read them hourly in each other’s faces, in each other’s actions, in our own remorse … He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.

Another teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, used the analogy of watering seeds: we make choices to water either wholesome or unwholesome seeds. If we are careless, if we water the seeds that bring suffering to ourselves and to others, these can become our habits and eventually our character.

A well-known Cherokee story, “The Two Wolves,” further illuminates this idea: An elder was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said, “A fight is going on inside me … it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, hatefulness and lies. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, humbleness, kindness, friendship, generosity, faith and truth. This same fight is going on inside of you and inside every other person, too.”

The children thought about it for a minute. Then one child asked, “Which wolf will win?”

The elder replied, “The one you feed.”

In Buddhism, meditation plays a central role in transforming old karma and creating new karma. Meditation provides a critical time of reflection to discern exactly what our conscious and unconscious motivations might be in a particular circumstance; it allows us to explore our experience without immediate speech or action; and lastly, meditation plays a key role in unwinding the momentum of damaging habit patterns. By choosing to investigate — and perhaps change — what motivates your actions, you can change the kind of person you are.

The Buddha instructed us to not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; “However small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain,” he said. Similarly, he enjoins us not to overlook good actions because, in the end, “even tiny drops of water will fill a huge vessel.” We experience karmic consequences not just from what we have already done, but what we have become; and finally, the intentions behind our present actions shape who we will become. The Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s instructions for purifying one’s intentions through virtue, is also his prescription for happiness.

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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