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  • Joan van den Brink

What is karma?


"Karma is, like everything, in constant flux. We create our own present and future by the choices we make in each moment. Understood in this light, the teaching of karma does not encourage resignation, but empowers us to become the protagonists in the unfolding drama of our lives."

Human beings have long ascribed to fate, destiny or even God's will problems they felt powerless to resist, resigning themselves to these perceived forces. The ancient Greeks envisioned three elderly goddesses—the Fates—who controlled people's lives. The goddess Clotho determined birth, spinning the thread of human life; Lachesis dispensed that thread, steering the path a person would follow in life; and Atropos cut the thread thus determining an individual's moment of death.

The idea of karma predates Buddhism and had already permeated Indian society well before Shakyamuni’s time. The pre-Buddhist view of karma, however, like the Ancient Greeks, contained an element of determinism. It served more to explain people’s lot in life and to compel them to accept it rather than inspire hope for change or transformation.

This attitude exerts an influence on the hearts and minds of many people living today. Expressing frustration over this tendency, British author and essayist George Orwell wrote: "For the ordinary man is passive. Within a narrow circle...he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavouring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him."

The idea that something other than ourselves controls our destiny can in one sense be seen as a form of avoidance—a rationalization to escape facing and challenging real problems and suffering. It may also be an expression of a deep, subconscious sense of helplessness.

Buddhism teaches a solution to human suffering and provides a way to overcome or transform this sense of helplessness. Ultimately, it teaches that the cause of misery lies not with any external force or circumstance, but with us. We create both the cause and the solution to our suffering.

The Sanskrit word karma means action. According to Buddhism, we create karma on three levels: through thoughts, words and actions. Acts of course have a greater impact than mere words. Likewise, when we verbalize our ideas, this creates more karma than merely thinking them. However, since both words and deeds originate in thoughts, the contents of our hearts--our thoughts--are also of crucial importance.

The latent force of both our good and bad actions remains in our lives. Once committed, any human action, whether good or bad, does not simply vanish into the past with time. Each act remains in one's life at the present as a potential force or energy, influencing the course of one's existence from the point of that action forward. Karma may be seen as life's ingrained habits, leanings or tendencies—actions that tend to repeat themselves, or that we tend to repeat.

Buddhism teaches of the eternal or unending nature of life as a cycle of birth and death. So when people speak of 'past karma', they really mean the present influence on one's life of actions taken in the past (in past lives). As one of the ancient Buddhist texts states: "If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present."

Karma can be thought of as our core personality, the profound tendencies that have been impressed into the deepest levels of our lives. The deepest cycles of cause and effect extend beyond the present existence; they shape the manner in which we start this life--our particular circumstances from the moment of birth--and will continue beyond our deaths. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to transform our basic life tendency in order to realize our total human potential in this lifetime and beyond.