Karma: Beyond Buddhism to universal relevance

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means ‘action’ and a fundamental principle of Buddhism. It is a Buddhist law that means each and every action we take has a result or reaction that will manifest in our futures.

Positive actions will lead to positive results, such as good re-births, being treated well by others, good health, being surrounded by caring friends and family and also increased happiness for ourselves and those around us.

Negative actions will lead to unfortunate results such as bad re-births, being unable to achieve what we want, being mistreated by others, and experiencing a lot of suffering.

Thus, Karma is also known as a law of cause and effect. In a practical sense it can also be viewed as evolutionary action since through our positive actions we are evolving our mind and setting up positive causes and conditions to influence our current and future lives.

If we make a conscious effort to engage in positive actions and refrain from negative actions it then follows that we (our mind) will experience more happiness and less suffering. In this way, Karma is intricately related to the state of our mind (the topic of the previous blog post).

Up till now our world has primarily placed its focus on the law of demand and supply – consumption and production (which has given rise to a culture of materialism, competition, attachment, greed and an overemphasis on the physical realm) as the driver and focus of our global economy. Believing that we possess only one life has compounded this culture. Many agree that the foundation on which our current economic system is based is inherently unbalanced and flawed.

When viewed from an ethical perspective, believing that our actions have no lasting personal consequences and that we possess only one life reduces the responsibility one feels for ones actions, each other and our environment. Therefore, holding onto such an attitude does not contribute to a sustainable and happy life (in fact it is the cause of much environmental degradation and suffering). If we can open up and transform our minds to embrace an understanding of the law of Karma and the possibility that the mind may survive physical death, the suffering and challenges that we are currently facing on a personal and global level could be greatly reduced.

From a secular stance, an understanding of the law of Karma and reincarnation (the belief that our mind survives physical death) could assist in solving the crises of the environment and spirit that we are now facing across the globe. Moving from an economy obsessed with economic development and the physical realm to one that values and respects relationships with each other and nature and promotes cultural and spiritual development is the key and also the challenge of the 21st Century.

In this light Karma can be viewed as a universal law that can apply to all beings – one that goes beyond religion to encompass a holistic, sustainable and practical way of living. In other words it means we are the creators of our own happiness and future rather than giving our power away to an external entity, person or circumstance. We are the architects of our own heaven and hell so to speak. The more people who adopt this attitude the greater the sense of responsibility generated and the greater chance we have of achieving a happy life.

A bit more on Karma…….

There are many types of Karmas: international, national and individual. All are intricately interrelated and only understood in their full complexity by an enlightened being like Buddha – someone who has realized the ultimate nature of reality.

It is said that even in each different colour of the peacocks’ feather there are traces of Karma left from many different causes – but only someone like the Buddha can explain in detail their causes because he has eliminated all the subtle defilements within his consciousness and can perceive the ultimate nature of reality. The law of Karma can thus contribute to a deeper understanding of biological evolution since it acknowledges the mind (not just genetics) as a determinant of ones circumstances and physical characteristics.

Buddhists believe that when we do an action with our body, speech or mind, a subtle imprint is left on our mind stream which (depending on the causes and conditions) will ripen at some time in the future.

So, according to Buddhist belief, we cannot escape from the law of Karma – it is a fact of life, just like drinking poison you cannot escape getting sick whether you believe it is harmful or not.

But not all Karma is weighted the same. By this we mean that the strength of the results of your actions will depend on the following five factors:

  • Whether the action is repeated
  • Whether the action is done with an underlying intention (those aware of the law of Karma and who have spiritual insights have a greater responsibility to act with morality than those who unconsciously perform negative actions) – is the action performed out of self-interest or to harm or is it performed to benefit?
  • Whether the action is done without regret
  • Whether the action is done to a being who possesses extraordinary spiritual qualities or those whom hold positions of respect (like your parents, your teacher, your guru)
  • Whether the action is done to those who have benefited you in the past.

All of the above variables determine how powerfully the karmic forces will impact your future experience. A very simple example would be if you killed a dog unintentionally due to a car accident versus if you intentionally set out to kill the dog. Killing the dog unintentionally bears much less negative karma than if your intention was to kill.

Another interesting factor is that Karma increases, which means that if we do a negative action and do not apply an opposing force such as a virtuous action or a purifying practice, then the negative Karma increases exponentially, causing us much suffering. However, if we do even the smallest positive action – like giving milk to a starving kitten this action will continue to bring benefits, if we do not do negative actions to counteract it.

Karma also doesn’t decay like external things or ever become inoperative.

Buddha said: “If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition and if you want to know your future life look at your present action

So whatever we do for others, we are creating Karma. Good or bad karma depends on our actions and motivation. Think of a set of identical twins. Despite the same physical characteristics they have different personalities and experience different life circumstances and opportunities. This is because their personality and life experience are a consequence of their past actions which were driven by their mind – it’s thoughts, choices and subsequent actions.

The good news is that everything is impermanent, which means that our negative Karma is never permanent. The negative imprints on our mind can be purified. In Buddhism we do purification practices that involve feeling regret for our negative actions, reliance and devotion to the Buddha, feeling compassion for those we have harmed, utilizing the power of remedy which involves doing positive actions to counteract the negative imprints and the determination and promise to ourselves not to repeat the same negative actions again. Whether we are Buddhist or not we can feel regret, compassion and promise to ourselves not to repeat the negative action.

Up till now science has been unable to prove with certainty that we only possess one life. In fact, there have been many instances where children have recounted previous lives and the details confirmed. Therefore, from a practical and secular perspective, if we at least try and live our lives with an understanding of the law of Karma and open up to the possibility that our mind may survive physical death, greater inner purpose and responsibility for others and our environment will naturally arise which, in turn, will lead to greater levels of inner and outer happiness.

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