Karma Is Not Fate
By Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
Critiques of karma often center on the notion of individual responsibility and suggest it produces an unsympathetic attitude toward others and leads to a dubious tendency to blame. The poor are blamed for being poor, and so on. Buddhism is said, falsely, to assign fault to individuals for all their circumstances and to deny agency. If we are poor, for instance, it might be thought, more or less automatically, that we will stay that way until our karmic debt runs out, and then, after we die, we may then be reborn in fortunate circumstances, perhaps becoming a wealthy entrepreneur. This type of thinking cannot be reconciled with Buddhism’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things, though, which fully acknowledges the fertile complexity of influences on persons, including their environment.
Certainly Buddhism contains the idea of an accumulation of karmic imprints and dispositions, a gathering of propensities throughout our lives — habit patterns are formed, and so forth. Even so, this does not mean that we simply wait for particular karmic imprints or debts or inheritance to evaporate or disappear before anything can be done. Buddhist karmic theory is not akin to fatalism or predetermination. We do have real choice in our affairs. If we did not, then karmic theory would truly produce judgmental and moralistic attitudes, and the Buddha’s teachings would be far less inspirational and much less effective.
Karmic theory does not have fixed attributes of this kind, though, and it is not linked to a static moral order. Of course, an element of determinism is involved and has to be accepted. We are who we are because of our karmic inheritance. We would not be as we are without it, but this does not mean we have to remain this way.
More to the point is that karmic theory is supposed to encourage us to think, “I can become the person that I want to be and not dwell on what I already am.” That would be a proper appreciation of the Buddhist theory of karma.