The Buddha’s View Of Karma (1 of 2)
by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche

The Buddha made an enormous contribution to the topic of karma, and it is plain that it meant a great deal to him. He believed in karma, and he believed he had become a Buddha because of his past lives and through the coming together of various causes and conditions. Some scholars have suggested that the notion of karma is not in fact traceable to the Buddha and claim that it is an afterthought added by later followers. There is no textual authority whatsoever for this claim, and the evidence points to the contrary. It is an issue that partly stems from the inability of modern scholars to concede the immensely impressive memory faculties of ancient Eastern peoples. They had no choice but to commit huge amounts of material to memory — a culturally nurtured talent that remains to this day.

In any case, the Buddhist canon was put together very soon after Buddha’s parinirvana (after he passed away), and there is virtually no doubt he himself spoke directly of karma. We can have real confidence in the authenticity and veracity of the words contained in Buddhism’s “three baskets,” the three primary categories of the Buddhist canon, which are the Vinaya (monastic rules), the Sutras (Buddha’s discourses), and the Abhidharma (metaphysics, philosophy, logic, and his teachings on subjects like medicine). Many scholars believe that the Vinaya and the Sutras represent earlier collections than the Abhidharma. We will be weighing this initial discussion of Buddha’s karma teachings toward his earlier Sutra teachings. These discourses were given, and are preserved, in the Pali language, which is something akin to a derivative of Sanskrit.

Of course, there is always debate about things going this far back in history, and scholars have questioned whether Buddha would have thought of karma on his own, “out of the blue,” so to speak, or whether he was influenced by other strands of thought, such as those of the Vedas, and Brahmanical thought generally. Other commentators definitely suggest that he was the originator of the concept. It actually seems likely that Buddha was familiar with other theories of karma floating around at the time, but this is of no great importance. What really does matter is that he believed in karma and had a great deal to say about it. He did not simply appropriate stock ideas into his own system but gave the concept a radically different interpretation and, crucially, spoke of it in a systematic fashion, which was unprecedented. In no other source, for example, be it the Mahabharata, the Vedas, or the Upanishads, do we find a systematic description or philosophy of karma. Nor can we find an explicit description of human nature in the Vedas and Mahabharata, which, as we have seen, are nevertheless based on an assumption of a certain kind of human nature based on the old creation myths, which define man in relation to family lineage, especially paternal lineage. One’s individual nature is defined by these extraneous factors. We will turn presently to look at what the Buddha himself thought of human nature because so many hinges on this.

Buddha’s ideas on human nature differed from others of his time. He did comply though with prevalent physical understandings that saw the body as comprised of the five elements of earth, fire, wind, water, and space. Of course, this is not meant literally to mean that our body is made up of actual dirt and a fire burns inside, or that our breath is actually wind blowing, and so on. It refers to the qualities of the elements: solidity, heat, the need for liquid in the body, and the need for oxygen through prana and breath, and the essential space created by cavities between internal organs. As we know, if through illness these spaces are filled, if there are leakages or blockages or we cannot breathe, we die. When these five elements are present, the body maintains its cohesive nature, but when they fail at some level, the body begins to disintegrate.

This idea is very old, pre-existing the Buddha, but he believed in and accepted this bodily aspect of a human being, which is termed “form.” However, in addition to the body, the Buddha added feeling, perception, disposition, and consciousness, commonly known as the five aggregates, or skandhas. This was a completely new idea, as until then people had thought of the individual as a unitary entity, based on the dualistic philosophy of a substance standing apart from mind/body — a belief in some kind of principle, like jiva, or soul. Non-Buddhists, or non-followers of the Buddha, as they might be described, believed in a body and mind, and then something extra. The body and mind go together, and that extra entity, whatever we choose to call it, jiva or atman or so forth, remains separate and eternal, while all else is not. Buddha did not think that these two, body and mind, came together and were then somehow mysteriously conjoined with another separate entity. He saw real problems in the idea of a jiva in that it seemed not to perform any kind of mental function. It did not help in any way for us to see, smell, taste, touch, walk, plan, remember things, or anything whatsoever.

Rejecting obscure ideas of an extra entity attached or added to the mind-body formation, of which there was no really consistent or precise description anyway, Buddha proposed that the best way to see our nature was to see it as made up of many elements. He basically suggested, very pragmatically, that we pay attention to ourselves, which until then had never really been talked about at all, with a few extraneous exceptions. This type of inward-looking involved systematic meditation of a kind not well known at all. Through introspection, through introspective analysis, one might say, Buddha discovered a way of coming to an understanding of our own nature through looking at its different elements. So, for instance, we observe our body to determine how the body functions, and similarly, our feelings to see how they operate, and our perception to learn how we perceive things. We observe our dispositions and our volitional tendencies to determine how they contribute toward the creation of certain fixed habits, and so on. In other words, we observe things in great detail, eventually seeing our preference for some things, wanting contact again and again, or wanting to see something regularly or return to a certain smell. Similarly, we observe consciousness, that which recognises all of these things, that which says, “I am experiencing this,” or “I am perceiving that,” or “I am feeling this way”; or noticing the drive toward certain pleasurable perceptual experiences, or the aversion to certain unpleasant perceptual experiences or feelings.

Observations of this nature are the basis for insight meditation (vipassana). It has all to do with paying attention to such things. The more we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, the closer we approach the establishment of vipassana meditation. So even in the midst of our thinking, feeling, and emotions, as we experience them, if we pay attention, we are doing vipassana meditation. What is not often recognised, though, is that we are not simply engaged in passive observation but also in making connections and interconnections, observing how various factors impact each other — for instance, how our feelings are actually guiding what we see, or how our feelings are guiding our ears to what we actually hear in any given moment. After all, two people can be in the very same room and one person will hear one thing and the second person something else. If a third person were present, he or she might hear nothing at all. Therefore, by making connections of this kind, we come to understand how things are actually working. Again, this is not simply observing things in isolation, without making connections. This is quite a common mistake. A narrow meditative focus may help with our concentration, but it will not avail us of any information, and so will not give us any insight. We are just watching our thoughts in doing this. On the other hand, if we follow through and observe the interconnections unfolding, we will notice our sensory perceptions are impacting our thinking patterns and our feelings and emotions, and that all these things are mutually co-influencing each other.

It is through conscious awareness that we come to see the breadth of all this activity. We come to realise that our thoughts about ourselves and the way we come to think of our actions and interpret their impact on our environment, and on others, are always changing. We are always within a dynamic context then. There is no fixed entity beyond this. Buddha did not believe in such a thing as a permanently abiding soul. He was very strong on that negation. He did allow for an operational kind of self though, just not a permanent self. For the Buddha, an individual was physically composed of the five elements, and psychophysically, the five skandhas, and through disciplined introspection, we would come to experience that composition in detail and finally conclude with certainty the absence of any fixed nature, the absence of a fixed self. Therefore, when we say that a certain individual creates karma, it is not meant that an individual with a fixed nature, having an inward “true self,” creates it. This contrasts fundamentally and radically with the classical Indian literatures, in which it is said that body and mind are like the husk, and jiva or atman, the grain. The husk can be peeled away to expose the grain. Consequently, for followers of this idea, atman is thought to be responsible for all of our actions, and everything issuing from that, any kind of karmic action performed, is seen to stem ultimately from this solid core.

Buddha radically challenged the Brahmanical view of karma, as typified in such works as the Dharmashastra, which maintains that people born into high status, or “high birth,” are necessarily deserving of their status. Here nobility is a birth right. One’s caste determines everything. Those born into a poor family or low caste are automatically despised, denied social recognition, and any chance of advancement is blocked, irrespective of the merit of their actions and the quality of their character. Buddha differed profoundly on this and was steadfastly opposed to the notion of someone’s being noble simply by birth, and to the idea that high birth represented a fixed state of affairs. In the Sutta Nipata (3.9, 55–57, 60–61), he states:

Indeed, the designation, name and clan in this world risen here and there was settled by convention. The ignorant declare to us this groundless opinion, unknown latent so long, one is a Brahmin by birth. One becomes neither Brahmin nor non-Brahmin by birth, one becomes a Brahmin by karma, one becomes a non-Brahmin by karma. The wise see the deed karma in truth, seers of dependent co-origination, those who know the results of deed. The world fares by karma, mankind fares on by karma, deeds binding beings as a lynchpin, the quickly moving chariot.

Again, the Buddha put more emphasis on individual actions than did the more traditional versions of karma, with their emphasis on clan and the interpenetration of karmic consequences between family members: the father suffering because of the son, the son suffering for the father, and so on. This was a noble achievement and a completely unique position up until that point. It could not be said that he held Brahmins in low opinion though or that he objected to them on grounds of social justice. He was merely equating the good fortune to be born a Brahmin with any other type of good fortune, such as being born wealthy, beautiful, or strong. Again, it is not the birth, or the prevailing situation of our birth, that matters but why one was born into wealth, or born beautiful, or strong. Being born a Brahmin might be a good thing, but it is due to a Brahmin’s past deeds, not his or her birth; that is what made the difference. In some way, Brahmins have done things well in a previous life, or previous lives, and it has resulted in the present favourable circumstances in which they find themselves. But fundamentally, they are no different from everyone else. Buddha’s basic point was that we become noble through deed. Therefore, by developing good character, and cultivating the necessary mental and spiritual faculties, we become, in fact, noble. Even a poor, powerless person, if he or she leads a dignified way of life, is noble; and conversely, a rich, powerful person leading an undignified life is ignoble.

Buddha thought everyone had the opportunity to be excellent and that becoming a Brahmin, a true Brahmin or noble person, did not follow from one’s father’s being a Brahmin. It came through good work and through living one’s life in a proper fashion, through leading the good life in the true sense. To paraphrase a passage in the Anuttara Nikaya: “If one has done good work and lived well, then no one can stop the individual from living the blessed life, that would surely follow. One is protected even from natural disasters or other calamities.” In this sutra, he says that no one can snatch away from us our good work, which is significant, as this is precisely what the Mahabharata allows for, as we have seen — the fruits of our good deeds can be taken away. People continue to believe such things, even in the West, but the Buddha categorically stated that this cannot happen and seems to have made a concerted effort to allay our fears on this score. Contrary to the conventional ideas of his time, Buddha did not regard karma as an inexorable law, almost mechanical in operation. Rather, he gave elasticity to the causal mechanism of its operation. In other words, an existing cause did not necessarily mean an effect would ensue, or that it would ensue in exact and direct proportion to the cause.

Buddha continually employed the example of seedlings in his discourses, a very ancient analogy, perhaps because of its great similitude to the fluid characteristics of karmic cause and effect. There are other analogies, but none as fitting. First, the right environment has to be present for a seed to sprout — the right amount of moisture, sun, soil conditions, and so on — and yet even then its germination cannot be accurately determined, nor can the duration of the event. And it is possible that the seed will produce no effect whatsoever — the sprout may not manifest even after the seed is sown in a seemingly perfect environment and tended with the greatest care. There are all kinds of variables in the analogy, which point to karma’s not being a one-to-one mechanical kind of operation. In terms of how karma is created mentally, the right environment has to be present for our thoughts, the karmic seed, to take root. The environment in this case is often our general mental attitude and beliefs. So when a fresh thought appears in one’s mind, what then happens to that thought depends on the mental condition that is present. Whether that thought will take root and flourish, or whether it has very little chance of survival, depends on this environment. Thus one of the reasons for the enduring use of the seed analogy is that it is unpredictable what will happen after a seed is planted. A seed may fail, or may produce only a very faint effect, an insipid sapling, or become something that takes off and grows wild like a weed. A lot of our thoughts, feelings, and so on, exist in this way, depending on the environment. A thought that comes into our head when our mood is low, for instance, or when we are depressed, will be contaminated by that mood. Even positive thoughts that crop up will manage to have a negative slant put on them, and this is how karma works. The karmic seed is planted, and then, depending on the conditions, the seed may remain dormant for an extended period of time, or it may germinate in a shorter period of time. Therefore the effect does not have to be a direct copy of the cause, so to speak. There is no necessary or direct correspondence between the original cause and the subsequent effect. There is variance involved, which might mean that there is invariance as well, in a particular instance.

Even though each individual, however, he or she acts, necessarily bears the fruit of that deed, there will always be variance and elasticity built into the workings of karma. For instance, in the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha states that even individuals who commit terrible things while alive will not necessarily go to hell. This type of idea is often seen as a modern one, but it can be found in this sutra. The reasoning here is that of all the mentation done in our life, of paramount significance is what we think about at the time of our death. What is addressed here is the quality and depth of our sincerity as we “take stock” of our life: reflecting and reviewing our past, regretting certain things, wishing we could have done better here and there, and so forth. Even though there is nothing to be done at this stage, it is important to reflect in this manner. These are just examples of the types of words and thoughts we might use, of course. A Buddhist might reflect on appreciating the Buddha and his teachings and the precious few opportunities he or she had to practice meditation or follow the spiritual path. Or we might reflect on a time we were kind to somebody, helped a neighbour, or vice versa. Thinking these types of thoughts, according to Buddhism, significantly mitigates the circumstances of one’s life. Of course, the opposite type of attitude, that of bitterness, is very unfortunate. To think, “Why am I dying? My friend is far worse than I ever was and is still alive and doing well!” This sort of response would not help at all.

As we have seen so far, two of Buddha’s principal assertions on karma are that we are personally responsible for our actions in life and that the consequences of these actions are not fixed. Even if we were to do evil deeds, we are not necessarily condemned, be it to hell, or to something similar. We can make reparations at the point of death. Also, hell itself is not a permanent station in Buddhism; it too is temporary. Third, he strongly emphasised the idea of character as a crucial ingredient of our karma. While alive, we should think about what kind of person we are becoming. It is not just the action performed that is important but also the character formation that goes with it. Of course, character has to do with the accumulation of so-called karmic dispositions, a long-standing part of Buddhist philosophy. What is not so explicitly stated though, but rather is implied in the sutras, is that in trying to develop certain character traits, an individual does in fact, as a consequence of this effort, become a different person. Once more this relates back to the idea of anatta, or the selflessness of the agent who acts. In modern parlance, we might say that it is not about trying to find out “who I am,” as if that were a fixed thing, or “who am I really.” Rather the whole point of our existence is to learn to see things in a different light, to feel things in a different way. We are right back to the five skandhas at this point — seeing and feeling things differently, taking cognisance of things differently, and trying to develop different dispositions (which would follow from the above anyway). This is how to develop the character required to really live fully in this life, and it will also help in the next.

The type of character associated with a Buddhist life is often envisaged as austere, of low means, and with sights fixed firmly on a future reward in a blessed next life. The Buddha was not particularly encouraging toward that ideal but rather emphasised the notion of character, which in essence centres on selflessness. If one has done terrible things in this life, and comes to deeply regret them, then one becomes noble. If a person of high standing, a so-called noble person, remains arrogant and conceited throughout his or her life, indulging in associated vices, then that person is not noble. The notion of selflessness means just that. This is how one builds character. Again we must remember that most of the literature of the Buddha’s time addressed karma exclusively in terms of action, which of course recognises that acting in a particular fashion brings certain fruit, but the notion of building up character, of deliberately developing into the sort of person one should really become — this was absent. The traditional approach, as we saw, was mainly concerned with doing one’s duty, the performance of sacrifices and ritual, and so on. For the Buddha, the deeds we as individuals perform are the deeds we must bear responsibility for, not those of our family or our society.

Yet not everything we experience is due to karma, which is another novel aspect to the Buddha’s thinking, and a somewhat neglected one. He did not state that the entirety of our experience is due to what we have done before, whether pleasant or unpleasant. We can experience things we are not responsible for. In the end, it is the way we deal with things that counts, which is a reflection of character. We look to build ourselves up, so we are not so problematised, thinking “This is really me,” or asking “What is the real me?” Rather it concerns looking at all aspects of ourselves and then working on specific things. “How do I feel? How do I perceive things?” Reflecting on this type of thing is far more profitable. Being cognisant of the many things happening within and to us helps to build up our character and become a stronger person. At such a point, we can then act nobly. Therefore, a noble person is one with character, and an ignoble person lacks character.

The Buddha was a very practical teacher. He was blessed with great insight of course, and would entertain metaphysical ideas, but his pragmatism was never lost in the abstractions. Indeed, karma and rebirth can certainly be considered metaphysical, but he grounded them in the empirical, in what we can experience. The great difference in the Buddha’s contribution is in the way he married metaphysics to everyday experience. Rather than talk abstractly about souls, and journeys of the soul through different lives, he was very much concerned with how we experience things in our everyday lives.

When the Buddha stated that we could become a noble person or an ignoble person, he was also implying a form of death and rebirth. We can become somebody very different from what we were before. Running counter to this though, we often become completely engrossed in the notion of a fixed, underlying self. Taking this course, the whole notion of self-transformation proves to be untenable, unreal. It would be a superficial change, analogous to an actor’s changing costumes, which is exactly the image, as we know, used in the traditional eternalist stance. The Buddha, in rejecting the entire eternalist framework of his day, was saying that actor and costume are the same. One is what one is acting. However we act it out, however we project ourselves — that is what we are. That is all we need too, according to the Buddha; there is no need for something “extra.”

The performer of actions is not an agent disassociated from his or her action. Commonly though, it is thought that the acts one performs and the agent responsible for the actions are separate — the actions being one thing and the agent, the actor, something different. It seems plausible in a sense, because a single agent performs a great many different actions while remaining, seemingly, much the same over the course of his or her life. The Buddha disagreed with this entirely, maintaining that the agent and the action are enmeshed, so to speak. Agents are transformed by the actions they perform. The actions engaged in, the karmic activities, in other words, produce effects on the agents themselves. There is mutual influence here, and it is not the case that stable agents carry out different forms of action while remaining unchanged themselves. This was a radical idea for the time, as we have discussed, in comparison to prevailing Indian thought, which always positioned the agent as remaining the same, and only the actions as changing.

To reiterate, “karma” basically means action. When we talk about karma, we talk about action, which in Buddhism entails thinking in terms of cause and effect. Actions are performed because there are certain pre-existing causes and conditions giving rise to the impulse to engage in particular actions, and from this the karmic effect issues. In the performance of actions, there is usually a propelling factor. We feel compelled by something to do certain things, and when we engage in those actions, based on those impulses, the actions then produce relevant effects. As we have seen though, this does not mean that every action performed has a particular cause and a particular effect. Nevertheless, the Buddhist theory of karma is irrevocably tied to this mechanism, for want of a better word, and hence to the responsibility of the individual, as opposed to a divine governance of sorts. To quote the Buddha himself:

Possessed of my own deeds, I am the inheritor of deeds, kin to deeds, one who has deeds as a refuge. Whatever deed I shall do, whether good or evil, I shall become the heir of it — This is to be repeatedly contemplated by woman, and by man; by householder, and by him who has been taken into the order.

The Buddha, radically, interpreted the individual as a compound of many different elements, physical and mental — a psychophysical complex. Therefore our feelings, thoughts, emotions, memories, dispositions; our perceptual capability, our cognitive capacities, and our physical conditions — all are constantly interacting and impacting each other.

And agents themselves are also continually interacting with other agents. Logically, then, we need not feel compelled to identify ourselves with a single thing, a core element to our psyche, as it is really a matter of being in a constant state of flux. In this sense, karma could be said to operate as streams of networking karmic processes, where all kinds of living, breathing individuals are involved. The really important principle to grasp about this approach is to look closely at things, for things in their nature are complex. Acknowledging this will bring us great reward — knowledge in fact. Doing the opposite, looking at things in a very simple way, keeps us trapped in ignorance.

The Buddha believed completely in this, which is why the Dharma, in this context, literally means the teachings that shed light on the dharmas, or on phenomena. Here “dharmas” refers to the elements, the mental and physical factors that constitute our being, and existence generally. Through this interrelationship of dharmas, the agent and action are completely attached to each other in the idea of karma. The Buddha uniquely challenged our “common sense” feeling of there being an agent existing without reference to actions and disputed the one-way paradigm of action as being subordinate to the agent. According to him, we become what we are as a result of what we are doing, and hence the great emphasis on the importance of karma, of action in the wider sense. It follows from this, too, that if we do not think about karma, then we cannot really be Buddhist, as we will be unable to fully relate to who we are, or what we are, as an individual.

By seeing all these things at play, we become a different person, which, after all, is the whole point of embarking on the Buddhist path in the first place. Indeed, we would not have undertaken such a path if we had not felt a great assortment of imbalances and conflicts going on within us — itself a situation expressing the very many different elements of our personality. In fact, we might never actually be convinced of finding “ourselves,” even if we were to end up in the Himalayas meditating for years, thinking of peeling away all our hang-ups and baggage, jettisoning all kinds of things, and finally reaching ecstasy in a big breakthrough moment. Even here, in this very real scenario, deep down, there may remain a nagging doubt that we might be kidding ourselves. Buddha thought that the truth of identity is much more than this. It is much more profitable he would say, and very much more enlightening, to look for more certainty through dealing with the things that we can actually see about ourselves.

This interconnectedness of everything is termed “interdependent arising” in Buddhism. As everything is interdependently arisen, we do not have the perspective of a solitary agent performing a variety of actions but a complex multifaceted individual engaged with many diverse roles, intersecting with a very complex world. This is the real core of it all and is really what is behind the great emphasis on the practice of mindfulness and awareness, for if things were simple in themselves, there would be no real need of paying too much attention to them. If this were in fact the case, we could just keep on digging and digging for this simple kernel of truth, which once found, promises to enfold us in some kind of measureless bliss and perception. Contrary to this idea, the Buddha taught that learning about karma and learning about ourselves are much like everything else in that they concern the observation of how things work, inside and out, and in mutual relationship. This is the way to lift the veil of ignorance and come to a real understanding. He also said that we should understand everything to be non-substantial and impermanent, which is frequently interpreted negatively; it is not necessarily meant this way, but rather as a way to encourage paying attention to the nature of phenomena. By really looking at phenomena, we will find ourselves with no choice but to recognise their impermanence and non-substantiality, which is a good thing for us to do and is inevitable, as this is the reality we have. If we see things as they are, then true transformation can take place.

By not recognising things as compounded, or as aggregations, as is said, we simultaneously fail to see how karma is created. Furthermore, there can be no avoidance of having to deal with karma, as far as the Buddha was concerned, because of the kind of beings we are. As we have seen, karma is vitally linked to Buddhism’s goal of reducing suffering; and the more we understand how we create karma, the greater the chance we have of achieving this. The less we understand karma, the greater the chance that certain actions will be repeated, that we will fail to learn from our mistakes, and that we will perpetuate our suffering through the enactment of deep-seated habits, the very deep-seated habits that are involved in developing a certain character. Thus we suffer through not paying attention to the cause and effect relationship. We do not comprehend properly what brings us satisfaction in life and what might allow us to flourish.

Because the agent is in a constant state of flux, the Buddha said, we take rebirth, which is again contingent on the idea that even while alive we are not the same person. The person who was born at the time of birth and the person who actually dies at the end of our life are not exactly the same. It is described as “the same, but different.” So to comprehend being reborn in another life form, it might help to think that the reborn “individual,” or whatever we want to call it, is not exactly the same being as the one who lived the previous life. And yet, the reborn being still carries certain dispositional properties, certain mental imprints, or karmic imprints, from the past life into the present — things are carried on. This is true for us even as we live this present life. After all, it is clear that the person born and the person who dies are not the same. A newborn baby and an eighty-year-old person about to die are not the same. So the idea of rebirth is extrapolated from that notion, and if everything about the idea of being is intimately tied up with this notion of becoming, then being this or that kind of individual is no different from becoming this or that kind of person.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche 35.