Understanding Karma: A simple lesson

imagesUnderstanding the way that karma works is deceptively simple but nevertheless remains debated and puzzled about not only by those who know little about the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, but also by seasoned practitioners of these religions.  In a humble attempt to de-mystify the way that karma works, I am drawing upon the teachings of Lama Surya Das, an ordained Tibetan Buddhist teacher, as he put forth in his book Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Life.  His easy-to-grasp description of the way this cosmic law works is one of the best I have ever read.

Karma is basically the law of cause and effect, not much different than the unalterable law of physics, “For every action, there is a reaction” and the basic Biblical truth, “You reap what you sow”.   Far from being the bringer of divine retribution, however, the law of karma puts control of our lives, happiness, and destiny into our own hands.  Although collective karma plays a part in the things that happen to us, due to our world and the creatures in it being inseparably connected, we are given the responsibility and privilege of designing our lives.  We do this by making choices, large and small, day in and day out.  Each choice, no matter how insignificant, has an impact on our lives for good or for ill.  This is why mindfulness and being conscious of our choices is so important.

It is important to know that karma does not always play out in an eye-for-an-eye way, but in similar energetic occurrences that are tailored directly to your own unfolding situation.  For example, if you steal someone’s bike, you will not necessarily get your own bike stolen in return.  What is more likely to happen is that you will suffer a loss or betrayal that creates in your own heart the same pain that was visited upon the victim of your thievery.  Because we each are different in our attachments and emotional makeup, the creativity of karma must be rather great in order to ensure that the causes and effects are balanced and just.

Although Buddhism does not subscribe to the thought of absolute right and wrong, one’s karma is built by a pooling of actions that are either skillful (lead to true happiness for self and others) or unskillful (causing pain to self and others).  In this way your presence in the world sows either blessing or curse upon your own life and on the lives of those around you.  Karma is never predestined, never completely beyond our control.  We create our fate as we go along, even as we lie in the sometimes uncomfortable bed we have made for ourselves in the past (some of these choices and consequences can even follow us from past lives, explaining the periodic bounty in the life of an unpleasant person and/or extreme hardship in the life of the kind and the good).

So, for those of us who desire to be happy and create a different, better future for ourselves, the power lies in our moment-by-moment choices.  Events like how we react to unpleasant occurrences, whether in anger and retribution or forgiveness and peace, adds to our karma pool and these behaviors will later bring us either trouble or joy (respectively).  There is no circumventing karma and whether or not the process can be sped up or mitigated is hotly debated.  However, we are fortunately able to manipulate it to create the best chance of happiness for ourselves.  There is nothing about the law of karma that lends to the adoption of a victim mentality!  Simply, if we truly want to be happy, we must do all we can to bring love and kindness rather than selfishness and hurt into the world.  Sooner or later, we will be eating that cake that we baked.

In an attempt to most concisely explain the way karma looks in our lives, Das quotes Padma Sambhava, who said, “If you want to know your past life, look into your present condition.  If you want to know your future life, look at your present actions”.

May we all use our actions today to add beautiful things to our karmic pool and, in doing so, enrich the lives of others around us.  🙂


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