Karma: Part I


The actors assume their places for the next take. The assistant cameraman, visibly vexed by the redundancy of filming another scene, raises the clapperboard again. Snap! The sharp sound breaks the silence in the air. The film is rolling, and the director, looking on in angst, calls, for what he hopes to be the last time, “ACTION!”

This scenario should not be new to us. We are all actors playing our unique roles on the movie set of Samsara. But this is no typical acting gig. That is to say, in this movie, we have no say over what role we get to play or what props we get to work with. We must simply make do with what we have. Lurking behind the scenes of this movie is also an invisible hand, a powerful force that silently pushes the scene forward and drives the script of our lives: our love for action.

The Sanskrit term, Karma, is the ancient Indian word for “action”. Though, it has now become a staple word in our modern English vocabulary; even news anchors and late night show hosts like Stephen Colbert use it, for it is hard to find a word that so aptly captures why good things in this world can turn bad and bad things good than the word “karma”. But sadly, over years of linguistic conditioning, our culture has bended and twisted it to suggest an entirely different meaning: a fatalistic acceptance and hopeless surrender to one’s circumstances. “Oh well, I guess it’s my karma” is apparently the wise man’s way of saying that he resolves himself to his fate and would be foolish to believe otherwise. This modern interpretation of karma is not only inaccurate, but completely turns the underlying spirit of the word on its back and saps it of its vitality, like an upturned turtle being baked in the scorching sun.

If we are to make any sense of how the complicated web of life works and use it to better our lives, we must endeavor to understand karma, it’s significance and take home some of its important lessons. Many Buddhists have come to understand karma as a single unifying doctrine for how the world works. But it’s not as simple as it seems. To give the word and its implications the justice it deserves, and to gain an appreciation for the profoundness of what the Buddha realized, we should first profile the word as it organically evolved in ancient Indian history.

A History of Karma

The first appearance of the word, Karma, came in the Vedas, an ancient collection of Indian scriptures dating back to the period from 1800 –  1200 B.C. The Vedist view of karma was centered upon performing rituals and sacrifices to the gods. When done in a prescribed manner, usually by officiating priests known as Brahmanas, these actions would, in effect, act as insurance policies against suffering and misfortune in one’s life, and in the after-life, would guarantee one’s place in the heavens. This view, that the fate of man’s existence in the world rested in the hands of the gods (Indra, Vishnu, and Shiva, just to name a few) dominated early Indian thought. Many Indologists explain its rise as an outgrowth of the prior period’s anthropomorphic view of nature: natural forces like rain, wind and fire were thought of as possessing human form and feelings. Stemming from these animist beliefs, these beings were gradually deified and looked upon to possess divine and supernatural qualities that governed the fate of man.

As the Vedic religious order began to be challenged around the time of 800-500 B.C. by a new breed of Indian philosophers, new schools of thought emerged to explain the universe and man’s place in relation to it. Out of this movement came the Upanishads, a set of manuscripts written around 500 B.C. that formed the foundation of the philosophical teachings of Hinduism. The basic belief of the Upanishads is that man is endowed with the ability to seek his own salvation. Spiritual fulfillment is not a result of propitiating the gods, but a product of leading a moral and disciplined life. The goal of the spiritual life is to realize each person’s higher self (atman) and to bring it into union with the universal self called Brahman. This concept of karma took on a very different meaning from what was preached in the Vedas. Rather than being action aimed only to ingratiate oneself with the gods, it is action driven by self-discipline. In other words, since everything originates from the self, one is to be held personally responsible for one’s actions.

At around the same time, another movement, which came to be known as the Sramana school, gathered momentum. The word, Sramana, comes from the root word, Sama, which means to be in tune or in harmony with. The goal of the Sramana is to develop one’s mind to be in harmony with the universal laws of nature through the practice of self-discipline, meditation and asceticism. What we now know, in our present day, to be Buddhism and Jainism originated from the Sramana movement. But there were also other schools that originated from it. One of them, called Ajivika, became regarded as the ancient school of Indian fatalism. According to the Ajivikas, karma and causality as it relates to the self is a fallacy. Happiness and suffering is not determined by one’s actions but come from the inherent nature (svabhava) of unchanging physical substances that compose the universe. The Ajivika school strongly denied one’s ability to exercise free will, and instead, advocated a doctrine of absolute determinism.

In a similar vein, the popular Indian school known as Jainism also promoted determinism, but not through external causes, like the Ajivikas did. Instead, they agreed with the view in the Upanishads, maintaining that only the actions of the self or soul (jiva) determine one’s happiness or suffering. In the philosophy of Jainism, karma is a linear and deterministic law. Once the wheels of karma have been set into motion, it becomes something completely beyond our power to control. Karma is also distinctly physical in nature; it reduces to a physical substance (asava) that stays attached to the soul until one achieves moksa or liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The only way that one can reach this liberated state is to burn off all of one’s old karma by practicing physical austerities, meditation and non-violence.

Fast Forward to the Buddha’s Scene

By the time Siddhartha Gautama entered the homeless life as an ascetic, these doctrines of karma were already deeply entrenched in Indian society and culture, and were widely being promulgated by the great spiritual teachers and philosophers of his time. But contrary to what many have come to attribute as the Buddhist doctrine of karma, the Buddha didn’t merely take these prevailing beliefs and rebrand them as his own, he actually made a trailblazing discovery into the nature of karma, something his contemporaries had not made before him and one that would ultimately change the course of how karma was to be understood.

In the wake of his enlightenment, the Buddha awakened to three liberating insights. The first two spoke of the realities of conventional existence in the phenomenal world, a world which we call Samsara. His third and final insight was what decisively broke through the veil of ignorance that kept him bound to the cycle of life and death. All three relate to karma and underpin his central teachings on causality and rebirth.

The karmic effect of an action is not determined solely by the action itself, but by the circumstances of the act, including one’s intention, state of mind and the actions taken before, during and after the act.


The Insights: Act One, Two & Three

In his first insight, attained during the first watch of the night of his awakening, the Buddha recollected all his manifold past lives, spanning from one birth to many hundreds of thousands of eons of births before his present life. This insight helped him recall the vivid details of each life, including his appearance, which family he had been born into, etc. Eventually, this knowledge led him to his next insight, attained during the second watch of the night, where he gained the knowledge of the passing and reappearance of all beings in the cosmos. With the divine eye, he could see how beings were born beautiful and ugly, inferior and superior, fortunate and unfortunate based on the karma they had created by their body, speech and mind.

In the third watch of the night, he awakened to his final insight, the knowledge of the ending of all mental effluents, giving rise to the revelation of the four noble truths. If the first two can be regarded as karma characterizing the mundane world, the third insight belonged to a new class of karma, the karma leading to the end of all karmas – a blowing out, if you will, of the candle flame fueling perpetual rebirth in Samsara. It is the unique seal that gives Buddhism its distinct flair and luster, sieving it from all the other grains of spiritual philosophies and disciplines that existed at the time of the Buddha.

Karma in the Buddhist viewpoint is malleable. It’s like soft clay that can be reworked and remolded based on the intentions and skillfulness of the sculptor.


Karma through the Buddhist Lens

So what did these three insights lead the Buddha to discover about the nature of karma? Unlike his contemporaries, the Buddha realized that the law of karma, or causality, does not follow a simple linear or deterministic relationship. The occurrence of one event does not casually pre-determine the outcome of another event. Karma is not a one-for-one relationship between past action and future result. Rather, it is a non-linear process occurring within the context of changing variables and new actions that mutually interact to produce karmic results. In other words, you can think of this relationship as like a microphone placed next to a speaker. When sound gets fed into the microphone, the speaker generates a corresponding sound as output. But the process doesn’t end there. The sound from the speaker gets fed back into the microphone as new inputs into the system, which in turn distorts the amplitude and quality of the speaker’s sound. This process continues indefinitely in an endless feedback loop, with variables taking on circular relationships.

In simple terms, what does this complex relationship between action and result say about karma?  The microphone/speaker analogy tells us that the karmic effect of an action is not determined solely by the action itself, but by the circumstances of the act, including one’s intention, state of mind and the actions taken before, during and after the act. In fact, there are a number of variables at play in determining the karmic result that go beyond just the initial act.

The important thing to know is that once the initial action has been carried out, the karmic result is not yet written in stone. There is still something that can be done to change the karma’s quality and intensity.

Authoring your own Script

Unlike most other Indian doctrines on karma, karma in the Buddhist viewpoint is malleable. It’s like soft clay that can be reworked and remolded based on the intentions and skillfulness of the sculptor. If an unwholesome act, like killing, stealing, or sexual misconduct, is succeeded by more unwholesome actions, the negative karmic cycle is perpetuated without end. The same sound gets fed back into the microphone and strengthens the intensity of the karma. However, if one is skillful in working with his/her past karma, new wholesome karma can be created in the present to replant one’s karmic seedbed. This is why repentance in the Buddhist practice is so important (more to come on repentance in the next few articles). Repentance effectively acts as one of the skillful inputs that offsets the results of our past unskillful karma. In the study of sound waves, there is a term for this called “destructive interference”, when the crest of one wave meets the trough of another, thereby completely canceling out the initial sound wave. In short, skillful action as it relates to transmuting old karma is like putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that removes the karmic noise created by our past unskillful behavior and allows us to dwell peacefully and unperturbed in the present moment.

Synopsis of Part I

The Buddha’s groundbreaking insight into the nature of karma uprooted the prevailing views of his time that karma was a linear and deterministic law. His discovery was revolutionary, revealing the truth that one was not destined for an inescapable fate determined by one’s past actions, but that one has complete control over one’s karmic experience by skillfully maneuvering new inputs into the karmic process. This revelation turned out to be one of the Buddha’s crowning achievements, leading to his profound discourse on paticca-samuppada (dependant origination) and overturning the traditional views on karma that Indian society had maintained for many centuries prior to his arrival.

In the next article, we will look at the four different characteristics of karma as explained by the great Tibetan Buddhist monk and philosopher, Tsongkhapa, in his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.

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