There are so many blogs about Karma and lots of lively discussions on social media, so I thought I would add my interpretations and understanding of Buddhist Karma. I was briefly ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in 2002; lived for five years in a meditation retreat hut and also studied full time for five years with an authentic Tibetan Buddhist scholar. I mention that so you know where I’m coming from–mostly the Tibetan Buddhist perspective of Karma but with my own spin on it all.
Karma is a precise science of Eastern psychology and, more generally speaking, refers to people’s actions which have a cause and an effect. It’s an ancient type of behaviourism that came way before B.F. Skinner and thousands of years before Pavlov’s dog salivated.
One big issue that gets missed in the karma discussion is that it all relies on intention. The studies I underwent emphasised that your intention in every moment determines what karmic seeds, or mental imprints, are planted in your mind and also what seeds ripen.
One of the best metaphors to understand Karma is imagining a mind garden, where you plant and reap the fruits of your efforts. Intentions determine what seed is planted and what imprint it will leave on your mind. Intentions are propelled by your view of the world; how you see yourself and how you see others. This view of reality is either ignorant or wise. The quality of your intentions stems from how wise you are. Simple really.
Not so fast. The ignorance we all have is deeply rooted in our mind; implanted by society, family and friends, and can be difficult to remove. Negative karma creates negative results, which cause more negative actions, which become a vicious cycle or what Buddhists call Samsara. It is such an important Buddhist topic that Buddha once said that all his teachings can be summarised with these three points:
Practice virtue, reduce non-virtue and purify your mind.
Good and Bad Karma
Virtuous actions are based on good intentions and non-virtuous actions are based on negative intentions. This brings up the big question of what exactly is good karma and what is negative karma? Karma is a big subject, but according to Buddha, you need to understand how to practice virtue and eliminate or reduce non-virtue, so this is what I’ll speak about. Virtue is synonymous with good Karma and non-virtue is synonymous with bad Karma.
To truly understand Karma, you have to understand what a wise mind is, which is the basis of the good intentions behind your actions.
What is the Wise Mind?
The reason I wrote this blog is that karma is actually very logical and clear. Put simply, a wise mind is a mind that understands emptiness. Emptiness relates to the scientific fact that everything is moving. Buddhism agrees with modern science in this regard, everything is in flux, everything relies on causes and conditions to come into existence and goes through stages of birth, maintenance and death. Everything that physically exists changes.
All the happiness, health and well-being of ourselves and our society relies on good intentions driven by wisdom. Happiness and health are not a given in life; we need to cultivate them. As Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, says:
I wondered why the Buddha kept practising mindfulness and meditation even after he had already become a Buddha. Now I find the answer is plain enough to see. Happiness is impermanent, like everything else. In order for happiness to be extended and renewed, you have to learn how to feed your happiness. Nothing can survive without food, including happiness; your happiness can die if you don’t know how to nourish it. If you cut a flower but you don’t put it in some water, the flower will wilt in a few hours.
Thich Nhat Hanh has taken his realisation of impermanence and Karma and created 14 principles for Engaged Buddhism. These are principles which harness the understanding of Karma and apply it to most effectively produce a healthy and supportive society.
At the centre of the wisdom (that understands change and impermanence) is a huge heart which deeply feels this interconnection with every other person, animal, and environment on the planet. When you understand that everything is interconnected, and you cannot produce happiness just for yourself alone, you begin to understand the words of a Zen master when he said:
Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.
The pure intentions that stem from wisdom boil down to thinking of others as much as you think of yourself. As the Dalai Lama often says:
My religion is kindness.
That’s not some cliché, it’s his deeply held conviction that the essence of everything he represents is kindness towards others, based on the wisdom of inter-connection. The Dalai Lama even says that love and compassion are the meaning of life. The two main wings of the bird that flies to enlightenment are wisdom and compassion. Seeing yourself in the other and acting accordingly. That’s why the Dalai Lama always says that love and compassion are based on logic and reasoning. Of course, logic is the mind’s interpretation of what the heart already knows.
Because we are related and intimately connected with everything else, there is already some intelligence within us that feels for others and knows the right thing to do to help others or at least not to harm them. This could be called a conscience and as the saying goes:
You need a clear conscience to get a good night sleep.
Fundamental Buddhism teaches three things; ethics, concentration and meditation. How is ethics related to meditation? True peace can only be achieved with a clear conscience. In other words, peace and a stable mind are founded on ethics. To be able to relax enough to start to go deep into meditation you need a clear conscience.
How to Purify Negative Karma
Purifying your mind, which is clearing the dust to expose the radiance of awareness, is based on the regret of past misdeeds, which were based on harming others in some way and a commitment to try your best not to harm others again. With this attitude of repentance, your negative karmic seeds are weakened and at the same time, you are ripening good karma from the presence of good intentions. It works best if you truly mean it and don’t just say it. A great way to start any meditation with a positive intention is with this heartful prayer:
I regret all harm I have committed toward myself and others in the past.
From now on may all my actions be motivated by good will toward myself and others.
May this meditation connect me with the heart wisdom to be able to do so.
Notice it always says ‘myself and others’. Love and compassion that do not include yourself are incomplete. The deeper you go inside, the more you realise the inseparability and interconnection of all beings. Good Karma is not self-sacrificial, it’s all inclusive.
I don’t think you have to believe in reincarnation to believe in Karma, plus it doesn’t make a difference anyway. If you believe in future rebirths then you should try and practice good Karma in this life, if you don’t believe in future rebirths then you should try and practice good karma for this life. It makes no difference whether you are concerned about future lives or this one, the methods are the same.
I don’t want to get too deep in discussion of the mechanics of Karma, about the nuts and bolts of what actions cause what effects. There is a Tibetan text called The Wheels of Sharp Weapons which is like a manual for understanding the effects of behaviour. Things like–if you steal stuff, you will get stuff stolen from you, if you lie to people, people will lie to you and deceive you, if you slander people, people will slander you etc. It’s also important to realise the immediacy of karma too. Anger is its own punishment and love is its own reward. As Buddha said:
If you hold onto anger with the intention of harming someone else, it’s like holding onto a hot coal with the intention to throw it, it’s you who will get burnt.
And if you hold onto love in your heart it is a wish-fulfilling gem, creating happiness for you and others.
Karma boils down to this Golden Rule: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. The Dalai Lama says this theme is actually the real message of all the major religions. Views that are meant to bring us closer together as a human family. Healthy religious perspectives are the ones that see all humans and animals as our brothers and sisters; part of the one family or one universal force. It’s not difficult–if you can’t help others at least don’t hurt them or as modern Zen Master, Brad Warner, simply says about Buddhist Karma, and titled his latest book: ‘Don’t be a jerk.’
How to Get What You Want
So how do you use this understanding of Karma to get everything you want in life? The best use of Karma to get what you want is to think of others first. The Dalia Lama says:
If you want to be selfish and get everything you want be ‘wisely selfish’ and help others.
The expansive attitude of including others is exemplified by the Buddhist practice of rejoicing in other’s happiness, so instead of feeling jealous of their good fortune, be happy for them and share in their delight. This reinforces the notion that we are all connected and everyone’s happiness is equally important and worthy. I use a little karmic trick when I’m looking for a car park in a busy place, whenever I see someone else get a great space ahead of me I praise them and wish them well; congratulating them on their good luck to help me find a parking spot. This creates the cause for me to find my own car space, but not always. But what it does always do is help me remain calm and not get frustrated.
I once heard Richard Gere say he mentally wishes great success and happiness toward everyone he meets and it works in keeping him in a positive state of mind, full of empathy and mutual understanding.
Being wisely selfish is to act from the perspective that others are just as important as you. Then you will reap all the fruits of your past good actions and plant seeds for yours, and humanity’s, future happiness. Love and compassion are also their own immediate reward. Love is healthy for us and compassion brings us closer together and develops genuine relationships. Good Karma is based on the genuine intention to bring peace, love and happiness to ourselves and everyone around us.