What may be the most explored topic in Buddhist thought and also the biggest stumbling block next to anatta for newcomers is karma. The concept existed in Hinduism before and alongside Buddhism historically in its development in Jainism as well. But Jainism and Hinduism, since they’re atmanic systems, believing that a permanent and individual consciousness survives the death of the body, clash a great deal with Buddhist karmic theory, which is anatmanic, non soul based, in nature. There are also many misunderstandings of it, mostly rooted in an Abrahamic concept of a deity bestowing the world with a natural law of sorts, as well as the principles of “you reap what you sow’ and “an eye for an eye” neither of which completely or accurately reflect what is rooted in a fundamentally nontheistic and non Abrahamic system. To explain karma even briefly within the limit I place on myself in these articles is difficult, since I don’t want to go in unnecessary tangents, but at the same time there will be aspects of the study of karma that I’ll probably skip over for brevity. I’ll again use metaphors as I did with rebirth, so don’t be surprised if I utilize figurative language as opposed to exact and precise philosophical language, which I’ll nonetheless strive to use as much as I can and as clearly as I can.
To explain karma in metaphors is somewhat unclear at times and is much harder to describe discursively, since there’s overlap in part with the Hindu concept that has promulgated much more in the West and is the default understanding most people have of the idea of “karma”. A relatively simple term to start off with is causality. We all agree on the fact of our actions having consequences. The divide comes with the nature of the consequences and how they’re determined. A theistic explanation will involve God in one sense or another, either explicitly with miraculous events and even with mundane things we take for granted, like the sun rising. The reason I find this framework unconvincing and irrelevant is not only because I find the unfalsifiable nature of the God invoked incredulous but our own actions are reduced to a scope where we have little to no actual control, since the ground of all being, God, is the one sovereign over all things. Our actions have consequences that we immediately recognize at times, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we get away with bad actions, sometimes we aren’t rewarded for our good actions. And in this sense, the karmic theory most people postulate, even without a God in the equation, serves as a cosmic equalizer for justice and injustice. If people get away with something heinous, it’s claimed that karma will reflect back on them in the future or even in a future life, which tends to explicitly involve the supernatural and soul-based theory in Hinduism and Jainism. We want an explanation for the inequality and inexplicable events that happen to us: natural disasters, intentional crimes against our family members or ourselves, and many other good and bad things. But explaining everything with karma in terms of Buddhism has never been the case or what Buddhists practice in explaining causality and the like. There are things Buddhists classify as not related to our volitional actions, which are what karma is referring to as a word. There are things we do that are natural and involuntary, such as blinking or genetic things we can’t do anything about, such as our eye color or some tendency towards alcoholism or schizophrenia. These aren’t things that we deserve by karma, except maybe in Hindu thought, though I imagine even that’s potentially rare amongst more modern thinkers.
There are said to be five types of causality in Buddhist thought, karma included amongst them. Two in particular are very much out of our control, what I would tentatively classify as causality of physics (weather, heat, etc) and causality of metaphysics (the basic occurrence of laws in our universe). The other two are related more to the human condition, but can extend in part to the non human world. The causality of heredity and causality of psychology are potentially more intertwined than we realize in some ways, assuming psychology is in part hereditary and genetic. But taking them separately, hereditary causality affects things we inherit in our genetics. This is how we can explain otherwise confusing results of people’s pairing and breeding. Genetics is scientific and able to be understood even more these days and thus we can see that applying karmic theory to a person’s being born blind, for example, is something even Christianity can agree with Buddhism on to be mistaken. There is the story of the man born blind and Jesus’ disciples ask if this man was made blind by his or his parents’ sin. Jesus answered neither, that this was something out of human control and meant to show the greatness of God. The psychological causality is more complicated and has been visited in my article on dependent origination, “Neither DeterminismNor Destiny”. This is just a slight delving into what can be a subject of study for a lifetime in Buddhism alone, let alone comparative religion of ethical systems and understandings of causality. But I hope this has helped bridge a gap that many might see as very vast in terms of Eastern and Western understandings of things, which I also spoke about in part over a week ago in “Looking At EasternReligion From the West”
Karma as a term just means action, but doesn’t reflect on every action we do. Some things are benign and don’t reflect something ethical in nature. Eating meat probably doesn’t create bad karma, as it were, which could be understood as bad habits of behavior instead of some nondescript energy that has a negative quality to it. An example from the Bible, which I can’t help but reference both as someone raised Christian and a religious studies major who is curious about religious philosophy, is the idea that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you live a life of violence, you shouldn’t be surprised if you yourself die in a violent way or by violence. Perhaps this isn’t always the case. But karma isn’t divine justice or equalizing right and wrong, because both of these things involve a principle or entity that is anthropomorphic in nature. Humans make ethical judgments, nature doesn’t, nor does the law of karma and vipaka. Vipaka is a concept that isn’t visited a lot in understanding karma, partly because karma is more often understood in Hindu terms, which doesn’t utilize the concept of ripening and fruit as a metaphor for the results of your actions, which much like fruits, don’t all progress at the same rate. In this way, if I had to give a technical explanation of karma and vipaka, it would be that any action that reflects a habit or ethical tendency reverberates and affects others in some sense, though the primary recipient is yourself, even if you manage to get away with murder and theft your entire life. The string of behavior that you generate through these bad actions without even considering the consequences creates a bad seed in yourself that will develop subsequently into a bad fruit that may not be anything that affects you from outside, but merely rots you away from the inside proverbially speaking. Karma and vipaka are, to simplify, principles of act and result that work both externally and internally by context and consideration of the actions themselves. To say someone has bad or good karma is only to claim they are exercising poor judgment of the gravity of their behavior and the results to both others and themselves of those actions performed for various reasons, good or bad.
To reiterate, the idea of karma should not be seen as anything like cosmic justice, since that is reflective of an overly human centered perspective on how the world progresses. Karma is virtually neutral; it doesn’t work like humans think it should necessarily. It follows something closer to nature in that it reflects our own developed habits. When you behave in a way that benefits others, you can benefit yourself, though not always. And inversely, if you behave in a way that hurts others, you can hurt yourself, though not as one might expect. I hope I communicated some of the ideas of karma as I’ve learned about them in my research of Buddhism. Next time will be a study on a symbol called the endless knot. Until then, Namaste and aloha.