On Karma

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!

26 Replies to “On Karma”

  1. Seth, you make some good points. I have never been entirely sure about the whole karma thing myself and I think there is some reason to believe that the Buddha didn’t teach it but it was added later on to make the Buddha-dharma fall more in line with mainstream Indian thinking. So I tend to accept karma in principle but with reservations.

    I do think we see examples in nature and the life of the universe where energy and matter are recycled. For instance, the leaf that falls from a tree does not somehow magically disappear. The earth absorbs it and the molecules and atoms transformed. That’s why I try to keep an open mind about this subject. Who knows how consciousness really works? I don’t. Wasn’t it Shakespeare who wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies”?

    You are correct that if rebirth were a reality, the person reborn would be an entirely new person. Many people fail to grasp that fine point. As far as how karma works in that case, I find it is helpful to think of karma as traces of past lives imprinted on our consciousness. Kind of like visiting a nightclub and getting your hand stamped. Only the stamp doesn’t come off. Take a shower, change clothes, it doesn’t matter, the stamp, perhaps faded, is still there. Not the best example in the world, but I’m sure you get my drift.

    1. If you present Alzheimer’s patients with a jig-saw puzzle, let them solve it, and then show it to them again at a later date, the following occurs: they don’t remember seeing the puzzle — it’s totally unfamiliar to them — but it takes them less time to solve it the second time around. That’s the most sense I can make about how karma might work in a positive way in a second lifetime. That’s how we become Buddhas over many lifetimes. Only it isn’t “we” who become them 🙂

  2. Questions of where the first transmigrating entity came from and at what point in the evolutionary process did it arise constitute other logical hurdles for the idea of tranmigration. Another issue is that such an entity must have multiplied somehow to keep up with the number of available bodies, which increase exponentially as the human population grows. If it multiplied, then it could no longer represent the identity of a single individual. But let us remember that Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul, so there is nothing to transmigrate. I can only think that, as suggested by the previous posts, the notion of rebirth in its literal sense is only a next-life balm offered to skeptical practitioners living in a world where just rewards or punishments do not necessarily occur during this particular life.

    1. Good points, Amaury. I agree. Thanks, as always, for your comments. I’m trying to imagine how a proponent of rebirth might respond to your points. They might say that Buddhism doesn’t posit any beginning to the universe — that it’s always been in existence. New additional transmigrating entities can come from the other five realms, e.g., the animal realm, the deva realm, etc. Buddhism lacks a theory of biological evolution, but perhaps by adding a theory of how life and consciousness arise out of the detritus of exploded stars there could be some explanation of how the first entities came to enter the cycle of rebirths. I suppose traditionalists might also tell us not to worry about such questions, that they are a distraction from awakening. But my mind can’t help thinking and wondering.

  3. I don’t see the question of the origin of life affecting the issue of transmigration one way or the other. Everything in the universe is subject to birth, old age, sickness and death – and some form of rebirth or recycling: stars, universes, you, me. That’s all transmigration amounts to, this seemingly endless cycle of birth and death. Red giants form new stars. Stars that explode in supernova send matter and energy out to be reformed, recycled. Black holes suck matter and energy in and then what happens to it? I don’t think anyone knows yet. My guess is that our “Big Bang” was just all that star stuff coming out of the back end of a black hole. Just more recycling. Anyway, the cycle of birth and death is the nature of everything in the universe. The transmigration of human beings is part of that same universal process, so then the question of how human life began doesn’t matter all that much.

    The only problem when you add karma to the mix, positing karma as the cause for rebirth or recycling, and when recycling for human beings is viewed in terms of rebirth as a new human being, due to the lack of any empirical evidence to support that view.

    As far as the different realms are concerned, they can be view more in terms of states of consciousness as opposed to physical realms. This is explained in Jikkai or the Ten Worlds, a T’ien-tai concept developed from this line in the Flower Garland Sutra: “inherent in each living being are the the ten potential states (worlds).”

    1. I agree, David, that 1) all things are subject to arising and passing and that 2) all physical things are endlessly recycled. I also agree that the six realms are fine metaphors for human potentials, as Mark Epstein pointed out in “Thoughts Without a Thinker.” Buddhist texts intend the six realms to be both metaphorically useful and literally true, however. It sounds like you agree with me that their literal reality is not something we are ready to positively assert.

      Where we disagree is the idea that mental processes can be recycled after death (except in the sense of our thoughts living on in the culture and the minds of others). You are more open to the idea of mental events continuing on without a material substrate, I am more skeptical of it. That’s not to say there is zero evidence for disembodied mentality. People do report out-of-the-body experiences, past life experiences, clairvoyance, etc. Its just hard to know exactly what to make of such experiences at this point in time. Are they real or illusory? If they are in some sense real, how can they be explained? Will our understanding of the material world have to yield substantially to accomodate them, or are they explainable within our current framework? Too soon to tell, but also too soon to throw out materialist monism, I think, because of the seemingly insoluble problems that dualism philosophically presents.

      Lastly, I think Amaury’s question about where all the additional mental entities come from when the human population increases is a valid question. As I tried to indicate, I think believers in rebirth have an answer to that in terms of transmigation from other realms, but that doesn’t really work for me. All those animals (for example) suddenly being reborn as humans in the last century — what held them back up until recently? Why this sudden, massive increase in their good karma? It doesn’t really make sense.

  4. It doesn’t make sense because as far as I’m concerned the six realms should not viewed that way, but more as you indicated “metaphors for human potentials” or as life-conditions that are potential in every living being as any given moment in time. In cases like this, I am never too sure about how literal the ancient Buddhists meant these things. Perhaps I am projecting my own modern mind-set onto them, but I like to think they did not always take these ideas quite as literally as we tend to think.

    My gut feeling is death is the end. That’s it. There is nothing else. But I am open to any possibilities as long as they don’t involve God or going to a Pure Land. I do agree with Amaury that karma can be a next-life balm and perhaps that’s what it was intended to be.

    However, I still don’t see how the question of additional mental entities and increasing population is relevant. There’s nothing in Buddha-dharma that I know of which precludes the notion of new life forming. In fact I don’t think anyone ever addressed the question of how life began at the very beginning, which is why, for instance, the formula for dependent origination starts with the present life and not the very first life. Since they didn’t have an answer, they just skipped over it. Works for me most of the time.

    By the way, when I was much younger I had a few out of body experiences but there was nothing real about them at all.

  5. The increase in human population comes into play because of the following. The Buddhist notion of rebirth we are discussing includes a human identity component. We are not talking about the origin of life. We are talking about the point when life evolved beyond bacteria to fish and to the first mammals into humans. So, one question is, when is there a first human with an identity to be transferred to a next life? Where does the “soul” or essence that carries that identity come from? Some have suggested that it may come from other realms. If so, however, it is also a form of transmigration without a human identity, which is what we are concerned with. We may have a deva or a hungry ghost identity, but that is not a human identity. To equate another type of sentient being’s identity with a human identity doesn’t make sense, among other things because the moral karma of humans cannot be the same as that of devas, hungry ghosts, etc. The other issue is, after a human identity has formed, it can only logically transmigrate to another, single human identity; it cannot split, unless we posit transmigrating twins, triplets, quintuplets or whatever. So, as the human population grows exponentially, the question arises, where do the new bodies get their particular “souls.” That’s how demographics becomes an issue.

  6. First of all we are not talking about soul or essence really, we are talking about consciousness. Does anyone know where it comes from? We may understand the physical components of the human mind but there are non-physical aspects that are yet to be figured out. You’re talking about evolution and I feel that consciousness evolved just in the way that process is described. There’s nothing in Buddhism inconsistent with evolution. I admit there are unresolved questions regarding transmigration. Is a fish only reborn as another fish? Or can a fish be reborn as a human and vice versa? I don’t think that can be answered. Either way you go it seems rather silly. However, that does not completely negate the idea of transmigration.

    There is more to karma than just the moral component: heredity and environment have their contributions as well as a number of other factors. If you look at the six realms as life-conditions instead of separate worlds filled with separate beings, then can a fish or a dog be born (or reborn) into a state of hell? Absolutely. And again, the karma that is carried over into another lifetime is not anything you can pinpoint, rather what’s carried over are traces, imprints, seeds of past causes which also reflect past conditions of life.

    There is no science or philosophy in this world that can wrap everything up with a bow, all neat and tidy. There are loose ends and holes in everything. I have a tangential interest in discussions like this, but frankly I am more interested in how Buddhism can help me get through this life. I figure that as long as I am doing my best to be a decent person, the next life, if there is one, will take care of itself.

    1. This is my absolutely, positively last comment on the issue of migration from realm to realm and where the first human mentality came from. There is a wonderful Wikipedia entry on Buddhist Cosmology:


      It supplies a great description of the Buddhist standard cosmological model, and the section on Temporal Cosmology addresses some of the questions we have been discussing here.

      ‘Nuff said.

  7. ‘Nuff said? You didn’t happen to read Marvel comics in your younger years by any chance? That’s where I picked up that particular phraseology.

  8. I totally agree, Seth.

    I recently am reading 2 sources about Dzogchen (Vajrayāna/Nyingma) and both heretically deny the Karma-Rebirth doctrine. I enjoy them both, though of course I don’t really understand them.
    My sources:
    1) Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s book “The Crystal”
    2) A sect called “Aro” has a good short description here.

  9. Thanks, Sabio. I haven’t read the Dzogchen literature (except for Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s “Fearless Simplicity”) and don’t know enough to comment on the view of karma from that perspective. Have you found a good Dzogchen teacher?

  10. The Dzogchen branch of Tibetan Buddhism is perhaps the most foreceful exponent of the notion of individual transmigration. The Dalai Lama, the pre-eminent leader of that tradition, is considered the rebirth of a long line of manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. The Panchen lamas, which are the second most important personages in the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, constitute a reincarnation lineage which is said to be reiterations of Amitabha Buddha. Upon the death of Dalai lamas and Panchen lamas, a committee of seers is tasked with finding their reincarnations and with trying to persuade them to enter the path (and to obtain their families’ consent) and be trained for their future leadership roles. Sabio’s sources are most heretical.

    1. Dzogchen isn’t a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but a practice within the Nyingmapa and Kagyupa schools. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Gelugpa school, and not to my knowledge, a Dzogchen practitioner.

      1. Yes, I am coming to understand that the expression “Tibetan Buddhism” is a bit misleading much like “Japanese Buddhism” or “American Christianity” would be. Dzogchen, it seems, is and has been practiced by people in all 4 major schools and others including Bön — if I understand correctly. And likewise, considered heretical by many too. Viva la heresy!

        BTW, it is funny that “Amaury Cruz” is a link to a law firm. Either it is a joke, or someone takes themselves pretty seriously!
        Or both or neither! Smile

        No, no teacher yet – though that is key to the tradition, it seems with transmission and all. I am still exploring and still largely uninformed. But I am loosely associated with a local group. You must admit, a skeptic in a Vajrayāna group is odd.

  11. Seth: “Dzogchen is the consummate practice of Tibetan Buddhism. It is practiced mainly by the Nyingma Lineage in Tibet, although all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism practice it to some extent.” See http://www.dzogchen.org/teachings/faq.htm#C2.

    Otherwise, why would the the Dalai Lama be giving “Dzogchen teachings in the West”? See: http://www.scribd.com/doc/8300188/Dzogchen-HH-Dalai-Lama.

    There are many centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S teaching Dzogchen and affiliated with the Dalai Lama. I am pro bono attorney for one of them here in Miami and attended a conference by the Dalai Lama discussing Dzogchen under the sponsorship of this Tibetan Buddhist center.

    Why would he also write a book called “Dzogchen, Heart and Essence of Perfection”?

    See also the following, in part discussing Dzogchen in Tibet. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/advanced/dzogchen/basic_points/brief_history_dzogchen.html,

  12. BTW, it is funny that “Sabio” means wise in Spanish. Either it is a joke, or someone takes himself pretty seriously. Or both or neither! Smile.

    1. @ Amaury :
      Thank you! “Sabi-o” is meant to mean “a little”+”sabi” = little wisdom –> very little wisdom.
      So, do tell us, why do you link to a law firm? In blogging, the link to a name is suppose to take someone to a blog by the author. Taking us to a law firm seems to me to be:
      (a) see, I am a Lawyer
      (b) please give us your business

      Is there something I am missing?

      @ Seth :
      From what I read, the Dalai Lama is a practitioner of Dzogchen.

      @ Seth and “Amaury Cruz & Associates” :
      I am not sure of the “rebirth” notion in Dzogchen, but my impression of the “karma” notion is that it is boldly “heterodox” while still claiming to be consistent with the Heart Sutra and radical emptiness. All of this is way to philosophical to me, but I thought it interesting. Overall, I agreed with Seth’s pragmatic approach.

  13. Sabio:

    To answer your questions:

    First, the “Leave a Reply” form calls for a website, not a blog. I don’t know if the custom is to link to a blog; this is the first blog I have ever participated in. If so, I don’t have one strictly speaking. But if you go to the inside pages of my website, you will find information that could be considered a kind of blog. In the future, I intend to have a pure blog about legal matters. I have another website, if you are interested, displaying some of my photography work: http://www.excelenz.com.

    As to (a), yes, I am a lawyer. I have not suggested it is better or worse than anything else to be a lawyer. Do you have a problem with lawyers?

    As to (b), there are many ways to advertise for business, and I use some that sometimes work, although in my field (intellectual property) word of mouth –reputation– is by far the best. Posting in a Buddhist blog would be an odd way to troll for clients. My firm’s services are expensive and directed at companies or individuals that own intellectual property and are well-off. Very few Buddhist I have ever known have those characteristics.

    As I mentioned, I do pro bono (free of charge) work for a Buddhist center in Miami. I have provided hundreds of hours of pro bono work to this center and other Buddhist groups as well as non-profits and the poor. Believe it or don’t, some lawyers are altruistic and want to do good.

    And my name is Amaury, not Amaury Cruz & Associates, which is my firm. Accuracy and respect make for a little wisdom.

    Have a happy holidays.

  14. @ Amaury
    Cool name, btw.
    Ah, you are new to blogging — that is an explanation in itself. From what you write, you sound like you could offer some fantastic material on philosophy, Buddhism and law — I look forward to your site, should you develop it.
    Fantastic (or should I say “excellent”) photos — love them.

    Concerning Lawyers — I have lived in countries without lawyers — not a pretty site. So it is not lawyers, but the laws that are passed that allow lawyers to feed without benefit that I dislike — so it is bad law that I dislike. Ironically most of our law makers are lawyers. However, I think you are showing that it can be a noble profession.

    Yes, I thought posting on a Buddhist site would be a very odd way to troll for a business like yours and looking at the high quality of your law site, I said that playfully.

    May I suggest linking to your photos or to (which I hope is the case) a blog where you share your insights and learnings!

    Peace bro,
    Prudentia (google tells me that is Latin for “Little Wisdom)
    XiǎoZhì (Chinese)
    थोड़ा ज्ञान (Hindi)
    Smile 🙂

  15. In Tibetan Buddhism transmigration is wrapped around the idea of reincarnation and what Buddhism actually teaches is rebirth (Seth’s “new person”). So, the Tibetan approach is “heretical” although I hate to use that word.

    I’ve attended quite a few teachings given by the Dalai Lama and he has not talked much about Dzogchen as far as I can recall. I tend to view the Dalai Lama more as a Madhyamaka teacher.

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