The Buddhist Concept of Karma

Sept 2004

Although Buddhism is still very much a minority religion in Western countries, it is making a definite cultural impact. Meditation, for example, is fast becoming mainstream. Ideas and jargon from Buddhist sources are trickling into the culture. As often as not, they become distorted in the transfer. It makes some kind of sense to call a perfume "Sangsara", but a rock group called "Nirvana?"

One of the most commonly appropriated of these words is "karma." This has a precise technical meaning in Buddhist thought, which is pretty much lost in common usage, leading to no end of confusion. In Buddhist use, karma always means "volitional action." It is a willed action, originating in the mind of an individual, which has a determined effect at some future time. Put crudely, the law of karma says that if you do good, you will experience good and if you do evil, you will experience evil.

Put this way, karma sounds like a type of moral judgment. However, that cannot be because in Buddhism there is no one to do the judging. It is better to think of karma as a kind of natural law, like gravity. A colloquial expression that comes close to the idea is "what comes around, goes around."

There is some controversy in Buddhism about the role of karma. On the one hand, the Abhidhamma texts teach that every sense impression, thus all our experiences, can be classed as called the result of karma. On the other hand, the Buddha stated at one point that it is an error to believe that everything is determined by karma. My own feeling is that in this passage the Buddha was refuting the view of the determinists who left no room for free-will. It is our own free-will to choose this action or another, but having made the choice, the result follows inexorably.

Sometimes this teaching is decried as a harsh doctrine which blames the victim, and even justifies social abuses. If someone is born poor, this argument goes, karma makes a convenient excuse for leaving them that way, because it is their own fault from a previous life. This is a gross distortion that cannot be justified from the Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, karma means that we have a responsibility to act compassionately towards others. To fail to do so is to make negative karma for ourselves. Judgmental attitudes are negative mind-states which cause bad karma in and of themselves.

But what of the case of someone born with a physical challenge like blindness? Some critics find it cruel to "blame" the person's previous actions. This is also a misunderstanding. The emotive word "blame" should not enter into it. The determining power of karma is not a moral judgment, but simply an explanatory tool. If karma is rejected as an explanation, are the alternatives any less "cruel?" It is then either the deliberate act of a creator-deity or the result of blind chance in a hopeless and meaningless universe.

When a person accepts the concept of karma, and tries to live her life accordingly, the effect is certainly not a heartless acceptance of suffering. On the contrary, she will endeavour to guide her thoughts, words and actions according to karmically positive qualities like wisdom, compassion and generosity. The Buddha taught that nothing is more corrosive of personal or social well-being than the belief that there is no fruit of good or evil deeds.

It can be seen that the Buddhist teaching of karma neatly resolves many of the philosophical questions that have bedeviled western philosophy. It allows a central role for free-will in an otherwise determined universe. It does away with the so-called "problem of evil." Most cogently, it provides a sound basis for ethics that is neither arbitrary nor judgmental.

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