The Theory of Karma — Actions and Results
The Theory of Karma and rebirth are often treated as Buddhism’s cultural baggage: a set of Indian beliefs that—either because the Buddha wasn’t thinking carefully or because his early followers didn’t stay true to his teachings—got mixed up with the dharma even though they don’t fit in with the rest of what he taught. Now that the dharma has come to the West, it’s time, we believe, to leave all this unnecessary baggage unclaimed on the carousel so we can focus on his true message in a way that will speak directly to our own cultural needs. However, the real problem with karma and rebirth is that we tend to misunderstand what these teachings have to say. This is because Buddhism came to the West at the same time as other Indian religions, and its luggage got mixed up with theirs in transit. When we sort out which luggage really belongs to the tradition, we find that its bags marked “Karma” and “Rebirth” actually contain valuables. And to help show how valuable they are, here’s a set of answers to some frequently asked questions on these topics.
The theory of karma can be thought to be an extension to Newton’s third law of action and reaction where every action of any kind including words, thoughts feelings, the totality of our existence, will eventually have a reaction, same type of energy coming back to the one that caused it. It implies that absolutely nothing exists, which does not comply with the law of cause and effect. On the scale of the Universe it would imply absolute determinism of all actions, feelings, thoughts and developments for the past and for the future making both calculable, if the current state of the Universe would be known fully.
In terms of spiritual development, Karma is about all that a person has done, is doing and will do. Karma is not about punishment or reward. It makes a person responsible for their own life, and how they treat other people.
The “Theory of Karma” is a major belief in Hinduism, Ayyavazhi, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. All living creatures are responsible for their karma – their actions and the effects of their actions.
Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.
The teaching about actions and results is the Buddhist moral law of Kamma-Vipaka. Kamma (Karma in Sanskrit) is the action and Vipaka the result, though generally the word Kamma is used to cover both actions and results.
This is a law of nature and applies to all beings whether they are Buddhists or not. It does not apply to a Buddha or an arahat since they have gone beyond the plane at which the law of kamma operates, though they may continue to feel the consequences of previous bad actions. This teaching is common to all the traditions. It explains the great differences between people in the world.
This law applies to all actions which have a moral content. A morally good and wholesome action has good consequences. A morally bad and unwholesome action has bad consequences.
The mental qualities which motivate an action determine the moral quality of the action. An action motivated by generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom has good or unhappy consequences. An action motivated by attachment, ill will and ignorance, which are the Three Fires, defilements or unwholesome roots, have bad or unhappy consequences.
The word action has a wide meaning in this context, and includes physical, verbal and mental actions (or body, speech and mind). This law applies only to intentional actions. Unintentional or accidental actions do not have any such consequences.
For an intention to give good results, it has to be free of greed, aversion, and delusion. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on delusion, in which case it would lead to bad results. Believing, for instance, that there are times when the compassionate course of action would be to kill, to tell a lie, or for a teacher to have sex with a student. To give good results, an action has to be not only good, but also skillful. This is why the Buddha taught his son, Rahula, to develop three qualities in his actions: wisdom—acting for long-term happiness; compassion—intending not to harm anyone with his actions; and purity—checking the actual results of his actions, and learning from his mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t. This is how good intentions are trained to be skillful. Beyond that, there are two main levels of skill: the skillful actions that lead to a good rebirth, and those that lead beyond rebirth entirely, to the deathless.
Normally, when our karma manifests as trouble and pain, we ignorantly pray: “God, when will you liberate me from this agony?” Sage Kashyapa tells us that this is not the way we should pray because we are once again falling into the trap of karma. Instead, pray:
Dear God, I know that this is the bitter fruit of my own past actions. Please forgive me for the mistakes I have knowingly or unknowingly committed in the past. Give me the wisdom and openness to accept it in the right spirit and willingly learn all the lessons that my karma brings me. Let every circumstance in my life make me evolve and grow.
With this prayer, we accept the fact that our own behaviour in the past has sown the seeds of karma which are sprouting now in the present. This prayer also becomes a powerful resolution that activates our awareness and burns heaps and heaps of our karma to ashes.