The subject of karma is always a difficult one to talk about.
For a start, it requires you to believe something that you can’t know one way or another.
I didn’t get into Buddhism to believe stuff blindly, so that’s a big red flag for me.
And for another thing, people have used karma as a way to justify pretty much every inequality going – highly exploitative class systems, gender inequality, discrimination against people with disabilities, homophobia.
This isn’t surprising – people in power will do just about anything to keep it – but it’s no less shocking for that.
This has nothing to do with spirituality. It’s a bastardisation of karma theory designed to enslave and we must challenge that wherever we find it.
Spirituality is about love. Spirituality is not about finding ways to disconnect emotionally from others so you can exploit them without feeling bad.
To explain karma theory properly is at least one chapter in a book, and probably a book itself. Not really blog post material.
So I’m inclined not to bother. But a couple of people have asked me to write about karma and karmic view, and I do think it’s an interesting subject.
So here we are.
I guess the first question is…
What is karma?
Different religions have different views on this. Hindu, Jain and Buddhist karma are all slightly different concepts.
In short, the Buddhist view of karma is that when you act, you create the conditions that will bring about a future consequence.
The act can be of body, speech or even mind. The mind has the lowest karmic charge, acts of the body have the highest (because the act of mind must be more fully formed and have more energy to give rise to bodily action).
An ethical universe
The idea is that we live in an ethical universe and that the law of karma is similar to the laws of physics. It’s not a value judgement, it’s just how things are.
If you act out of love, generosity, kindness, peace, mental clarity, etc, you set up the conditions that will result in future positive conditions for yourself. The opposite is also true.
These positive ‘fruits’ may not ripen until a future life, but the seed has been sown and the fruit will surely come.
Unless, that is, you become a Buddha. Because if you become a Buddha, you no longer act in a way that will cause that karma to ripen. Even though there will still be innumerable positive and negative seeds sown from your countless previous lives, and some of them will not yet have come to fruition, you have ended the ‘growing process’, so they can’t ripen.
How I see karma
My own take on karma is roughly traditional, but I have my own little quirks built in here and there. (I should also point out that ‘traditional’ varies slightly depending on the tradition).
What I see is that we are process. That means we are movement, or momentum. That movement is inevitably going in one direction or another. In that sense, what I do now will have consequences in the future, as well as in the present, because it’s moving me towards a place that I will one day arrive at.
I’ve noticed that it’s possible to generate positive emotions, and to act on them. This seems to give me a pleasant experience in the present, and gives people around me a good time. I tend to make better decisions and people seem more inclined to do nice things for me.
It’s not quite as simple as that – people are all different. Sometimes when I do nice things, it’s interpreted as a not-nice thing. The person who sees it like that responds negatively. Perhaps they attack me. Perhaps they back away from me. Perhaps they’re not focused on me one way or the other and instead only see their own wants and needs.
And sometimes I act out of a positive emotion, but my wisdom isn’t enough to see that what I’ve actually done has caused some harm. In that case, I’ll still tend to get a negative result, even though my intensions were good.
Talking of people experiencing the same thing in different ways, there’s this idea of ‘karmic view’ – that what we experience is the result of our past karma.
I’m not talking about individual events here, so much as a general outlook.
For example, a dolphin perceives everything totally differently from a human. There’s some overlap in the karmic view, but their minds are different and their senses are different. They hear a different range of sound, for example.
I don’t hear ultra-low frequencies. Before there were machines that measured these, for humans they didn’t exist. Maybe for dolphins they did (I’m not too up on my dolphin biology I’m afraid, but you get the idea).
I can’t perceive radio waves either. But they’re around all the time too.
As we’re all humans (born in the human realm because we have roughly the same karma), we have roughly the same karmic view. But within one species with roughly the same apparatus for perceiving reality, there are still differences.
We can perceive the same stuff, but interpret it in different ways. I see a heroin-addicted beggar and feel compassion. You see the same beggar and feel anger. Many other people don’t notice them at all (because their head’s in the clouds having a happy time, or because they’re totally focused on winning the next deal, or because they’re so caught up in their own pain they can’t see beyond it).
Mythically (or perhaps literally, who knows), Buddhist cosmology sees a world filled with all kinds of beings. These include ghosts, gods and hell beings. They experience things very differently from us. The same world can be a heaven for one being and a hell for another. Can you relate to that?