Karma in Buddhism
Created | Updated Jan 6, 2012
The word 'karma' literally means 'action' or 'to do'. In Buddhism, however, the word is used to mean volitional, or intentional, actions.
In the Buddhist view, all creatures are caught in samsara – the endless chain of birth, death and rebirth. That which determines our capture in this chain is our karma, past and present. Past karma has an effect on our present situation in life and the difficulties or advantages we have experienced, and this karmic cause-and-effect is entirely our own fault and responsibility, not at the whim of any divine being.
Types of Karma
Karma can be divided into two main types – skillful and unskillful karma – and each intentional action that you take will bring about a similarly skillful or unskillful effect in time. All of our unskillful karma comes from the three fires that are inherent in our nature: greed, hatred, and ignorance. It is possible to extinguish these fires through mindfulness and selflessness; but in accepting that we are unlikely to achieve this entirely without leading a monastic life, it is important to note that we can perform skillful actions despite the inherent tendency in all creatures to act unskillfully. Skillful actions often derive from giving (be it the giving of a material object such as money, or a spiritual object such as hope), goodwill, and mindfulness. Buddhists see that there are three doors through which we act and generate karma: body, speech, and mind. In accordance with this system we generate skillful or unskillful karma even from thinking of performing wholesome or unwholesome actions.
To clarify: examples of unskillful actions of the body may include stealing and physical violence, while skillful actions of the body may include giving and self-control. Karma is not set in stone and we cannot make actions black or white; hence Buddhists will not refer to 'good' or 'bad' karma, but 'skillful' and 'unskillful' karma, implying that you can improve your karmic action as you would any other skill. Buddhists acknowledge that karma is dependant on the intent of the creature. There is a third type of karma that may also be noted; this is neutral karma – karma that is bereft of intent and has little moral implication. Examples of this may include breathing and walking.
The Wider Implications of Karma
One may wonder about the wider implications of karma, which may be regarded without applying any context of religious belief. Indeed, it may be easier to understand the implication of karma by seeing it as simple cause and effect. If you were to harbour unskillful thoughts, such as anger and hatred, it is inevitable that you would turn to unskillful speech, such as malicious gossiping and lying. This would eventually cause hurt and suffering to the object of your hatred. Once you have established yourself as a malicious gossip or one who causes upset to others, it is likely that you may be alienated from your social circle and will eventually find yourself alone and the victim of similar malicious gossip. In this way, if you perform an unskillful karmic action you will eventually suffer the effects of this action. In Buddhist terms we do not always experience the effects of our skillful or unskillful karma in this life, but will work off or enjoy the effects of our karma in future rebirths. A higher stockpile of skillful karma will lead to more comfortable rebirths, whereas a higher stockpile of unskillful karma will result in a less comfortable rebirth.
Due to the highly personal nature of karma, it is important to note that there are five conditions that alter the weight or significance of the karma generated: If your actions are performed repeatedly, they are more significant. The presence or absence of regret in performing an action changes the weight of the karma. When an action is performed on those who possess extraordinary qualities, such as a Buddha (an enlightened being), the karmic weight is increased. If the action is performed on someone who has benefited you in the past, such as a teacher or a parent, the karmic weight is increased. When the action is done with great determination or with exceptional intent the karmic weight is increased.
It is impossible for us to identify the results of any past karma, but it is not wise to blame a situation on karma and claim no responsibility for it, as karma is not a form of destiny or fate but simply the medicine you prescribe for yourself.