Karma Explained

SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

Translating the word, Karma

Karma does not mean fate.  Rather it is Sanskrit for action, but it is used with the connotation of consequence, but that is not to say it is a direct cause and effect process.  In Tibetan the concept is conveyed by las.rgyu.abras that is literally, action-seed-result.  Therefore it is not entirely correct to speak of good or bad karma.  In other words, there is not one single moment when we do not "make" karma. 

  • Translator Ken MacLeod explains "Actions donít cause our world of experience. They grow into our world of experience. "

The Law of Karma?

There are no laws of karma.  That is, there is no set of commandments or statutes, no rule book, no universal set of does and don'ts to govern the behaviour of beings.

We could perhaps say that there is a law of karma.  Here we are using the word, law, in the same sense as when we speak of the law of gravity.   Under normal conditions and in the physical universe as we experience it, when a fruit disconnects from a tree (and if nothing interrupts it) it travels towards the ground. This is just what happens.

Buddhists do not generally believe in a cosmic judge who assigns consequences; result follows naturally from the action.   However, since we will inevitably regret karma that is the product of harmful or negative actions, we do hear some Buddhists using expressions such as, "Incurring a karmic debt" or "Having to repay karmic debts" as if we were talking about book-keeping practices. 

In that case, karmic is being used as a kind of shorthand to refer to the condition or status of consequences as if it were possible to halt the flow of karma and examine the state of on-going process.

What influences karmic consequences?

We are told that there are five conditions that modify the "weight" of karma -- three are subjective and two objective. 

The three subjective conditions are 

(a) persistence or repetition of the action  
(b) wilful intent on doing the action, and 
(c) absence of any regret. 

The objective conditions are 

(d) the quality and 
(e) degree of indebtedness incurred towards the one[s] at which the action is directed.

Khyabje Kalu Rinpoche (d.1989) discussed two forms of karma in Luminous Mind, (Wisdom Publications:)

Among the different types of karma, we can further distinguish
propelling karma and completing karma

o  Propelling karma, as its name suggests, propels one into a state of existence, whatever that may be. 

o  Completing karma determines the specific circumstances within that state of existence; it fills in the basic outline produced by the propelling karma. 

These two types of karma can combine so that

" ... if the karma propelling a certain mode of existence were positive and the completing karma that fills in the particulars were negative, we may take birth in a higher state of consciousness, but we would experience unpleasant conditions in that lifetime. For example, although we might take birth as a human, we would be poor. 

Conversely, a negative propelling karma associated with a positive completing karma would cause us to take birth in a lower-realm existence in which we would enjoy good circumstances.  For example, we might be born in the West as a domestic animal that had very privileged living conditions."

  • His Eminence Jamgon Tai Situ (in Shenpen Osel:)
    "If we think of doing good karma as opposite to bad karma, and doing 
    one good thing to purify one bad thing, then enlightenment will never 

Some teachers have pointed out that there are other factors that contribute to consequences.  Accidents happen, too.  

  •  Reincarnation and karma:  Contrary to the widely-held notion prevalent on some television shows, we are not always "given" choices so that we can "learn a lesson."

Karma and Incarnation

Khenpo Karthar, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, says in response to the question about whether we have any choice in our birth family:

                                        " ... .  In fact, we did not have a choice at all.
It was brought about by our karma. Choosing implies that we pick the
human form and we have the capacity to choose which family (the
father and mother with whom we want to take birth).  We do not have
that choice.  Based on the strength of positive and negative karma, this
had to happen, so there is no choice involved. We could say that
ignorance is implied there because we had no choice. Because of not
having a choice about our parents or where we will take birth, it could
be said that ignorance is involved. To give an example of the force of
karma, it is very similar to going up in an airplane and throwing
thousands of pieces of paper out of it. How far they would go and
where they land depends on how the wind blows them. Likewise,
where we are born, what family we are born in and what sort of form
we have, are based on the power of the karma, not on our choice.

For some spiritually advanced beings, it is quite different. They have
[many] fewer defilements. They do have a choice as to where they will
take birth, even in what form and in what family."


LK, at the Kagyu list reminds us that the term karma only refers to consequences of intentional acts (since we usually have no control over any other kind.)

Karma itself is the result of volitional (chosen) action. Not always are the choices completely conscious, they can be the result of such things as affect, subconscious disposition and of course, conscious decision. 

In addition to that karma or volitional action has two sides, the side of its intention, and the side of its reception. One might intend something in one way, only to have someone receive it in entirely another way.  Karma generates one or another kinds of reaction, or vipaka. This is why the terms are often found together in Pali writings eg. Kamma-Vipaka or 'action-reaction,' and in Tibetan ones too. 

Most karmas (volitional actions) ripen (cause a vipaka or reaction) in the lifetime we are in.  Sometimes they don't entirely ripen or completely bear fruit (Skt. vipaka) in this lifetime or in the recent memory of one still living.  In that case, if there is "more to come in the story" then we refer to this as a 'seed of karma.'  That seed waits for the right conditions to bear fruit.   It is these 'seeds of karma' that can carry over for weeks, years, or even lifetimes.


Reaction:  Formulating a third principle that describes the conditions of the material universe, Sir Isaac Newton (late 1600's) stated:  "To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Existence entails a chain of action-reaction.  However we must also consider this metaphor within the context of the findings concerning entropy [the tendency towards disorder] of Clausius, and also of Ludwig Bolzmann in the late 1800's.  But the law of karma has been known for thousands of years. Therefore karma is not good or bad in the context of whether it is beneficial to the progress of all sentient beings.  Karma just is.  It is a function of existence.

Some may prefer a metaphor taken from botany -- seeds that ripen into sprouts and then into plants that fruit, and then eventually die, etc. 

Back ] Home ] Up ]  

Wheel of Life ] Distinctions ] Bodhicitta ] Four Maras ] Hells ]

Copyright 1998-2018 Khandro.Net All rights reserved. This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others. However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our links.