Karma is Sanskrit for “action.” According to the doctrine of karma, every thought and action can be thought of as a seed that bears future fruit. Every thought inclines the mind in a particular direction and prepares us for action. Every action changes the world to some extent, and this change reverberates throughout space and time like ripples in a pond. Some physicists even think that every action splits us off from alternative universes in which other actions were taken.
The consequences of our actions are complex, unpredictable, and often unintended. Sometimes small actions have huge consequences we could never have anticipated. We decide to leave the house five minutes earlier or later, or travel by a different route, and end up in an accident. We decide to have lunch at a particular café and meet our future spouse for the first time. We never know.
Of course many of our actions have consequences that are entirely predictable. If we touch a hot stove, we get burned. If we are rude and thoughtless, we are disliked. If we practice regularly, our piano playing improves.
If this was all that was meant by karma, that we sow what we reap, karma would be a no-brainer.
But karma has a surplus meaning. Karma is the engine that drives the cycle of rebirths. If this was only meant metaphorically we could think of ourselves as being reborn in each new moment, each moment being determined by the seeds planted in previous moments. Unfortunately, Buddhism would have us believe in literal rebirth as well.
Karma, as a metaphor for cause-and-effect in this life only, could operate through physical causes and social processes. Karma as a transmission past this lifetime which governs the choice of womb into which some residue mental aspect of ourselves implants itself, is something else indeed. Given what we presently know about the world, it’s hard to imagine what kind of process could steer a disembodied mind (whatever that might be) into a fertilized zygote, and what’s more, do it in a way that rewards past merit. This kind of causation requires us to believe in 1) mind-body dualism, 2) a disembodied mental intervention into another organism’s biological processes, and 3) a moral dimension to this intervention. All of this is somewhat hard to believe, even without the added complication of possible rebirths into other (hell, ghost, deva, asura and brahma) realms!
Of course, the current scientific view of things could be wrong. The hallmark of science is that it’s falsifiable. One could try to believe in literal rebirth, but what evidence would one have to go on? All the evidence I’ve come across in favor of mind-body dualism and rebirth still seems vastly outweighed by counter-evidence that our minds are inextricably entangled with our bodies.
Even if literal rebirth proved to be possible, however, the idea of karma would still be problematic. In Buddhist theory, when some part of our mind is reborn in another body, that new person is not “us.” Under normal circumstances, that new person doesn’t remember his or her past life or actions and has an entirely new personality and identity. Why should that new person have to pay for the past-life sins of someone else? Why should he or she reap the rewards of someone else’s good deeds? Since we will not know we are “us” in our next life, why should we be moral in order to help this next “not-us” future self out?
Karma is supposed to make the universe seem fair, encourage morality, and spur us to greater effort in our Buddhist practice. This conception of karma does none of those things. It still results in a profoundly unfair universe. It does nothing to motivate my practice over and above my belief that practice improves the happiness of myself and others in this one lifetime.
Religions that posit a Just World have to push the rewards for a well lived life and the punishments for a poorly lived one into either heaven or another lifetime because we’ve all observed that the world doesn’t seem quite fair in this one. While we have a saying “what comes around goes around,” we also joke that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Buddhism suggests that the seeds of our good deeds don’t necessarily come to fruition in this lifetime, and the seeds of our past misdeeds sometimes come to fruition in this one. This is supposed to explain the apparent unfairness of life. Does this mean the past bad karma of six million Jews just happened to come to fruition at the same historical moment? That’s an awfully hard pill to swallow!
The existentialist part of me is more at home with the sheer randomness of unfortunate events. That tornado that strikes your town doesn’t destroy the houses of folks with bad karma and skip over the houses of those with good karma like the Angel of Death in Exodus. It isn’t driven by karmic forces but by weather dynamics. Bad things happen to good people. Life is essentially unfair. The happiness one derives from Buddhist practice comes from taming one’s mind, not from more fortunate events coming one’s way (although they may).
The Buddha believed that karma only resulted from intended actions. Unintentional good and bad deeds do not generate karma. This roughly corresponds to the idea of differing levels of premeditation and culpability in Western jurisprudence. This makes a lot of sense in terms of determining how guilty we ought to feel for our mistakes. It doesn’t entirely make sense, however, in terms of understanding the ultimate causes of happiness. If we touch a hot stove we get burned whether we intended to touch it or not. This is the reason we have to be mindful and discerning in all of our actions. While other people may let us off the hook for our good intentions, the universe itself is not so forgiving.
How much better, it seems to me, to let go of problematic ideas of karma and believe instead in simple cause-and-effect. If one trains in mindfulness, compassion, non-clinging and equanimity the mind becomes calm, happy, and tranquil. One improves the quality of one’s life and the lives of others. It’s simple. It’s verifiable. If it turns out it also happens to help some “not-me” other self in another lifetime, well then — that’s gravy!