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
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
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
o Propelling karma, as its name suggests, propels one into a state of
existence, whatever that may be.
propelling karma and completing karma.
o Completing karma determines the specific circumstances within that
state of existence; it fills in the basic outline produced by the propelling
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
- His Eminence Jamgon Tai Situ (in Shenpen Osel:)
"If we think of doing good karma as opposite to bad karma, and
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
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
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
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 ]