Karma: Part III (The Finale)


Warren Buffett laughs during appearance with Bill Gates for town hall style meeting with students at Columbia University in New York

I’m often asked what qualities make a good Buddhist practitioner. On most days, without skipping a beat, I would usually go off on a discourse about the six paramitas or the noble eightfold path, but on this day, I felt inclined to raise a few eyebrows in the crowd. A couple of bankers were in the group, who seemed rather aloof to our whole conversation, so to keep them engaged, I boldly responded,

“A good Buddhist practitioner must also be a good investor!”.

Too cool to be interested in this whole touchy-feely spiritual affair soon turned into curious anticipation as their eyes, as if sparkling with dollar signs, a good indication they had been conditioned by their jobs for too long, darted towards me. I then went on to say,

“Believe it or not, the Buddha was one of the greatest investors who ever lived”.

“I thought Buddhism was all about living a simple life free from worldly possessions and attachments” retorted one, who seemed intent on a reasonable explanation for my audacious claim.

“You’re certainly right about that”, I said, “but what I’m talking about here is not investing in material wealth, but spiritual wealth”.

The Buddha, through countless lifetimes of investing his time, energy and spirit onto the path of awakening, amassed a spiritual fortune that ultimately freed him from the fetters of mental poverty, or what we as Buddhists call dukkha. Dukkha refers to the enduring sense of insecurity that we all feel, but hopelessly fail to shrug off in our lives. It is the insecurity that comes from our endless cravings and our futile pursuit of permanence in an impermanent world. Like financial insecurity, it eats away into our well-being and is accompanied by constant fear and anxiety about losing all that is most dear to us, including our loved ones, our own lives, our good health, our status, wealth, achievements and so on.

After giving them a short introduction about the Buddha and the objective of following the Buddhist path, my conversation soon segued into a discussion on karma: the complex matrix of cause and effect that underlies all volitional experience. Sensing a bit more enthusiasm from the two budding financiers, I decided to introduce Tsong Kha Pa’s exposition on the four characteristics of karma. I figured more finance talk would keep their flippant minds engaged, so after quickly going over the first two characteristics, I moved on to the third – karma is expandable.

When asked what is the single most important factor for his success in investing, Warren Buffett’s response has always been “compound interest”. Since the “Oracle of Omaha” made his foray into investing at the tender age of 11 when he used his savings from delivering papers to buy his first piece of farmland in his hometown, he has been preaching all over the world about the magic of compounding.

But even before Buffett came onto the investment scene, this timeless principle was already being espoused by another famous figure in modern human history – Albert Einstein. When asked about its inconceivable powers, Einstein famously said,

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it earns it, he who doesn’t pays it”.

Suspecting I was veering off topic now, one of the bankers butted in, “but what does compound interest have to do with karma?”

 “Well, like money,” I went on to explain, “karma is inflatable and can grow exponentially over time”. His stolid gaze suggested I needed to justify my claim, so I continued to go on.

According to Tsong Kha Pa, the effect of a karmic action is not experienced with the same magnitude and intensity as the original input. For instance, if a child during the Great Depression stole a dollar from a stranger, presumably to buy himself and his family some food so they wouldn’t have to starve, causality and some simple math would tell us that if that debt rolled over unpaid for about a lifetime, that child would owe that stranger just over $1,000 today!

Of course, from the standpoint of karma, this number would vary depending on the impetus for stealing as well as other factors like his state of mind before and after the incident, how shameful he felt about it and what, if any, remedial action was taken. Though his intention was probably not evil under such dire circumstances, the fact that karma is certain and grows with time would still not absolve him from his obligation to pay the stranger back at some point in the future, with interest.

Karma, believe it or not, is interest-bearing. Tsong Kha Pa tells us that unsettled debts only grow over time so we ought to think twice before committing more bad karma or letting our old karmic debts collect any more interest. This phenomenon, or what Einstein likes to call the “eighth wonder of the world”, extends beyond the realm of money. In fact, it applies to all aspects of our lives. If a farmer plants one rice seed in the spring, by the time autumn comes around, he will have reaped not one rice grain, but hundreds of them. From the perspective of time, karma grows exponentially, so we must not overlook even the smallest vices, for if left unrepented, they can lead to immense suffering in the future. In the Udānavarga, a collection of aphorisms spoken by the Buddha and his disciples, there is one verse that says:

“Do not scorn even the tiniest sin,
Thinking that it will do no harm;
It is through the accumulation of drops of water
That a great vessel gradually fills”

What applies to little vices also pertains to small acts of kindness. Small virtuous deeds, when compounded over time with more acts of kindness, can lead to sublime states of joy in one’s current life and future rebirths. To explain this effect, recall the simile of the microphone and speaker earlier in Part I. When small virtuous acts are fed into the microphone (denoting the inputs to the karmic cycle), the resulting “sound output” of pleasure and happiness encourages more virtuous action, creating a feedback loop that grows in intensity and amplitude over time.

But as Tsong Kha Pa further elaborates in his treatise, the compounding effect of karma is not only limited to the time dimension. Besides time, there is also the rate of growth. From the Buddhist viewpoint, the rate corresponds to the expansion of karma that occurs in the present moment.

In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha said, “There is the case where a trifling evil act done by a certain individual takes him to hell. There is the case where the very same sort of trifling act done by another individual is experienced in the here and now, and for the most part barely appears for a moment.”

From the perspective of the present moment, karma is expandable. The Buddha explains this phenomenon in his classic salt and bowl simile. One day, the Buddha asked his disciples, “If a man drops a fist of salt into a bowl filled with water, what do you think? Would the water in the bowl be too salty and unfit to drink?”, to which his disciples responded “Yes, my lord”. Then the Buddha went on to ask, “Now suppose that man were to drop a fist of salt into the River Ganges. What do you think? Would the water in the river be too salty and unfit to drink?”. His disciples, smiling and with palms joined, all replied “no”, assimilating the wise lesson given by the Buddha.

Like the salt in bowl example, the karma we experience in the here and now is largely dependent upon the quality of our minds. If through meditation and the cultivation of virtue, we have purified and trained our minds to be expansive and magnanimous, then a trifling evil act barely elicits a ripple of disturbance on the placid waters of our consciousness. If on the other hand, our mind has been heavily soiled with the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion, even the most insignificant act of evil is enough to tip over the boiling cauldron and send us pouring forth into the evil realms.

The Buddha reminds us that we must create fertile conditions for the karmic seeds sowed in our everyday thoughts, speech and actions as what we harvest is largely determined by how well the soil bed of our minds has been cultivated. By regularly developing our virtue and purifying our minds, we are actively nurturing the conditions for our karma to blossom into the fruit of true wisdom and happiness.

By now, the two bankers’ initial cynicism had turned into buoyant optimism. They felt empowered by the realization that karma worked like a financial investment: you pick the right asset to own (perform virtuous karma), let the power of compounding take over by layering more acts of good karma onto it, and patiently wait for the financial windfall (joy and happiness) to come. To them, the concept of spiritual investing sounded all too familiar. Their faces beamed with delight. Sensing their eagerness compounding by the minute, I averted my attention to the final characteristic of karma – karma does not get lost.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a well-known saying about the law of karma that goes like this:

“Even in one hundred eons,
Karma does not perish.
When the circumstances and time meet,
One must bear the effects”

My mind, still humming off of financial themes, lands on another familiar tune, this time from the field of accounting.

In the corporate world, proper accounting practice requires that all companies keep a general ledger. The general ledger reflects all of the company’s business activities since inception by keeping a detailed record of all its debits and credits. Karma works in much the same way. All the good and bad karma we have ever performed are recorded as debits and credits in the general ledger of our lives. These transactions, however petty the amount, never get wiped off the books. In effect, there is only one way to get even with old amounts, and that is to create new karma or adjusting entries to balance the old accounts.

The general ledger is like the storehouse for all the karma accumulated over our lifetimes. In this secure granary, every karmic seed is counted for and does not fall through the cracks. That is why Tsong Kha Pa, in his final description on karma, admonishes us to be circumspect in our actions, as we are held accountable for each and every karmic entry we ink into our minds.

But as we know, karma is not deterministic, so even though our past actions, including all our bad karma, get recorded, they do not have to cause us suffering if we know how to post the right adjusting entries to our general ledger! This is where the Buddha’s teachings shed some light on the path to happiness. By elevating the quality of our present intentions and actions through the cultivation of virtue, concentration and wisdom, we are actively making new entries to cut our losses or better yet, turn them into gains.

When we experience failure or setbacks in our lives owing to our past unvirtuous karma, we have the choice in the present moment of receiving the karma as a loss that only perpetuates further suffering, or skillfully adding in new entries of goodness and virtue to shore up our accounts. Insofar as a company’s value is not determined by its historical performance or the size of its past gains or losses, the value of our lives is not determined by the happiness or suffering of our past, or even the present for that matter. Our past and present happiness and suffering merely represent the settlement of old receivables and debts. It is, however, in the all-important making of virtuous action in the here and now that determines the future profitability of this going concern.

The bell outside the meditation hall rings, as if to signal the end of trading for the day. While markets will close until the next morning bell, in reality, our karma never stops growing and collecting interest until the day it reaches maturity, the time when we must receive or pay for our actions in full.

The two bankers never thought that Buddhism would make so much “financial” sense. But now, they see that karma functions a lot like the principles governing money, except with even greater influence over their happiness and well-being. As the Buddha’s teachings percolate into their minds, they are becoming increasingly sold on the idea that one’s true net worth is not determined by one’s monetary wealth, but by one’s lifetime accumulation of virtuous karma.

Since the talk, they along with many others have partaken in a whole new genre of investing, what we have come to term as spiritual investing. They now regularly come to the temple for investment advice.


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