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Karma: the law of cause and effect

Some frequently asked questions about karma:

What is karma and how does it work?

Karma is the Sanskrit word meaning 'action', and it refers to activities that we perform consciously, motivated with body, speech and mind. These activities all leave impressions or seeds in our minds that later mature into experiences when the right conditions are met. The seeds of our activities even travel with us from one lifetime to the next, and thus are never lost. However, if we do not create a cause or karma for something, then we will not experience the consequences: if a farmer does not sow wheat, no wheat can be harvested.

Activities themselves are not "good" or "bad" in and of themselves, but they are called so only according to the effect they produce for the person doing the action, and this depends mainly on our motivation. Positive actions result in pleasant experiences and are generally done with the intention of helping others. Negative actions cause problems and negative experiences for the perpetrator, and are usually done with the motivation to help oneself or harm others. In general, this means that if we do something with the intention of causing trouble and harm to others, it is called a negative, destructive, or mischievous activity because it will harm ourselves. When we consciously do an activity to help others, it becomes positive, called constructive or virtuous, because the consequence will also bring happiness for ourselves and others.

The actions of cause and effect on our mind stream are not much different from actions and reactions in science. All results arise from causes capable of producing them. If we sow apple seeds, an apple tree will grow and not a chili pepper. If we sow chili seeds, chili will grow and not an apple tree. If we do positive activities toward others, happiness for ourselves will follow, and if we do negative things, trouble for ourselves will be the result. All of the happiness and prosperity we experience in our lives is ultimately caused by our own positive activities in the past. Likewise, all of our problems are the result of our own destructive activities.

Is karma a system of reward and punishment? Did Buddha create or invent the law of cause and effect?

The misconception in Buddhism that happiness and suffering are reward and punishment respectively, may stem from incorrect translations. From the Buddha on down, there is no one in Buddhism who dispenses reward or punishment. We alone create specific causes through our activities of body, speech and mind, and we alone experience the particular consequences of that result. We are therefore responsible for our own pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

Buddha did not invent the natural law of cause and effect any more than Newton invented gravity. Buddha only described the natural process of cause and effect that takes place in the mind stream of every conscious being. In doing so, he showed us how best to act within the law of cause and effect to achieve the happiness we desire and avoid the problems we don't want.

Do we need to experience the consequences of all our actions?

If seeds are sown in soil, they will eventually sprout when conditions such as water, sun and fertilizer that are essential to their growth are met, unless they burn or are pulled from the ground. Similarly, the ultimate way to eradicate karmic impressions is through meditation on the emptiness. In this way we can completely purify disturbing emotions and karmic impressions, just like burning a seed. At our current level that is difficult, but through purification practices we can stop the maturing of harmful impressions; this is like withholding water, sun, and fertilizer from the seed in the earth, so that it cannot germinate.

How can we purify negative impressions?

Purification of negativities through the four opposing forces is very important. This not only prevents future suffering, but also relieves the guilt or heavy feeling we often experience now. By clearing our minds, we are also able to better understand the Dharma. In addition, we feel calmer, and we can concentrate better. The four opposing forces used to purify negative impressions are:

  • To recognize a negative action and feel genuinely sorry for it (not guilty)
  • Decide not to do negative action again
  • To take refuge and arouse an altruistic attitude towards others
  • To do a specific practice to clear the negative energy away

First, it is important to acknowledge and regret that we have engaged in a negative activity. However, blaming ourselves and feeling guilty are pointless and just a way of tormenting ourselves emotionally. By expressing genuine regret, we acknowledge that we made a mistake. Of course, genuine regret includes attempting to make amends or apologize for our negative act toward someone.

Second, we decide not to do these kinds of negative acts again. If it's something we regularly do out of habit, like criticizing other people, then it would be hypocritical to say we won't do it again for the rest of our lives. It is better to choose a more realistic length of time and decide that we will try not to repeat the activity, and that we will pay extra attention during that period, making an effort not to repeat it.

The third counterforce is trust. Our negative activities generally involve either sacred objects such as Buddha, Dharma or Sangha or other sentient beings. To restore the good relationship with the sacred objects, we rely on them by taking refuge or asking them for instructions. In order to have a good relationship with other sentient beings, we arouse an altruistic attitude towards them, in order to be able to benefit them in the best possible way, by attaining Buddhahood.

The fourth counterforce is doing something positive that brings things back into balance. This can be any positive activity to help others, or traditionally, for example: listening to teachings, reading a Dharma book, doing prostrations, making offerings, reciting the names of the buddhas, reciting mantras, making statues or paintings of the buddhas, printing Dharma-texts, meditating, etc. The most powerful of all the neutralizing exercises is meditating on the void, or emptiness.

The four opposing forces must be repeated regularly. We've done negative things many times, so obviously we can't expect to be able to eliminate them all at once with limited action. The stronger the opposing forces - the greater our regrets, the more powerful our decision not to do it again, etc. - the more powerful the purification will be.
It is good to do the purification through the four opposing forces every night before going to sleep to neutralize any negative activity we have done that day.

Does the law of cause and effect only apply to people who believe in it?

According to the Buddha, cause and effect work like all natural laws and apply to everyone, whether we accept it or not. Positive activities produce happiness and negative activities cause us to suffer (problems). When fruit falls from a tree, it falls downwards, even if we believe it will fall upwards. It would be wonderful if we could avoid the consequences of our activities simply by not believing in them. Then we could eat whatever we want and never get fat or just sleep away our time and still be rich and happy. So even someone who does not believe in past lives and the law of cause and effect, still experiences happiness as a result of his or her own past positive activities.

If we deny the existence of cause and effect, we are often unmotivated to do positive activities and avoid negative ones. In this way we create little positive energy, but if we are brash for example, we create a lot of negative energy all the time. People who understand the law of cause and effect will try to watch that, what they think, say, and do, does not cause suffering to others, while also causing damaging impressions to their own mind streams.

Why do some people who engage in a lot of negative activities succeed and seem to be happy?

When we see dishonest people like felons getting rich, cruel people gaining respect and power as dictators, or nice people experiencing misery, it seems like the law of cause and effect isn't working.
That impression arises because we are only looking at what happens in the short period of this life. However, many of the effects we experience in this life have come from actions in past lives, and many of the activities we perform in this life will mature only in future lives.
The wealth of dishonest people is often the result of their generosity in past lives. However, their current dishonesty leaves negative karmic seeds so that in future lives they will be deceived and experience poverty or even worse, as karma expands with time. Further, we are only looking at a specific period of time. Many fabulously successful people end up in unfortunate circumstances later in life.
Likewise, cruel people now gain respect and power through their positive past activities. But right now, they are misusing their power, creating the cause for future suffering.
Good people who die young are sometimes experiencing the consequences of negative activities (such as killing) from past lives. However, their present kindness will leave positive seeds or impressions on the mind stream that will bring them happiness in the future.

The exact way in which a particular activity matures and what things we have done in the past to bring about a particular effect in our lives can only be totally known by the omniscient mind of a Buddha. 'Ordinary' people normally can't see what is happening in the past or future, and therefore miss the full picture.

Buddhist texts sometimes refer to a certain activity that leads to a certain result, but these are general guidelines. In individual situations things are often somewhat different, depending on the exact causes and circumstances. However, the principle that negative activities cause suffering and positive activities bring happiness does not change. For example, in an individual situation, a negative activity, such as killing, may mature as misery in one of the lower realms of existence, or as an untimely death. This depends on the activity and the motivation as well as on the circumstances in which a particular karmic seed matures.

If people suffer because of their own negative activities, can or should we do something to help them?

Of course! We know what it's like to feel miserable and that's exactly how someone else feels when they are experiencing the consequences of their own negative activities. Out of compassion and understanding, we should certainly try to help. A person's current situation may have been caused by his own activities, but that doesn't mean that we just sit back and say, "oh, what a pity, how pathetic, but you shouldn't have done such negative things," and then leave them to their own fate.

It is not helpful to think too rigidly about karma. Someone does create the cause for a certain negative experience through his or her own actions, but they may also have created the karma to receive help from us. Most importantly, we all know how we feel when we find ourselves in such a horrific situation. We all want happiness and don't want even a moment of suffering. It doesn't matter whose pain or problem it is, we have a responsibility to try to take it away.

It is a huge misconception to think, "The poor are poor because of their actions in past lives. I would be interfering with the natural process of cause and effect if I tried to help." We should not try to rationalize our own laziness, indifference, or attachment to our superior position by selfishly interpreting cause and effect. A sense of compassion and universal responsibility is not only important for world peace, but also essential for our own spiritual development and genuine happiness.

Everyone wants to be happy, and the best way to achieve this is by helping others.

See the next page: Samsara: the world we live in