I am the owner of my karma.
I inherit my karma.
I am born of my karma.
I am related to my karma.
I live supported by my karma.
Whatever karma I create, whether good or evil, I shall inherit.
— The Buddha —
The Concept of Moral Causation
In common parlance, the word karma is often mistakenly used in a broad sense to describe the entire chain of moral cause and effect wherein similar actions produce similar results. This idea of moral causation was first espoused by the ancient Hindus of the Shramana movement in the 1st millennium BC. The principles are also found in Western society embedded in colloquialisms such as “what comes around, goes around”, and in Biblical scriptures such as “A person reaps what he sows.”
More specifically, however, karma is but a single element in the triad of moral causation. The literal Sanskrit translation of the word karma means action which includes actively thinking, speaking, and doing. In the Buddhist tradition, an action is considered significant from a karmic perspective if it includes the elements of intention and volition. The highly respected Tibetan teacher, Geshe Tashi Tsering, describes the role of intention in karma as follows:
“Intention is the most important of all mental events because it gives direction to the mind, determining whether we engage with virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral objects. Just as iron is powerlessly drawn to a magnet, our minds are powerlessly drawn to the objects of our intentions.
An intention is a mental action; it may be expressed through either physical or verbal actions. Thus action, or karma, is of two types: the action of intention and the intended action. The action of intention is the thought or impulse to engage in a physical or verbal act. The intended action is the physical or verbal expression of our intention.”
Therefore, karma — as the First Element of Moral Causation — is the intentional action which creates the potential for an attendant result. This potential is often referred to as a karmic seed. Just as a mango seed once planted will potentially bear mango fruit, so too will a karmic seed potentially bear fruit in the nature of the action from which it was sown. The karmic seed is the Second Element of Moral Causation, and is described by Geshe Tashi Tsering as follows:
Every physical and verbal action is preceded by mental activity. Goodwill motivates a kind gesture; ill will motivates nasty words. Ill will is the intention to cause mental, emotional, or physical harm. Thus, before and during a bad action, ill will is present in our mind. The presence of ill will before and during this act has an impact and influence upon the mind due to which a certain potential is left behind. This potential is a karmic seed, a seed planted in our mind by physical, verbal, or mental action.
This brings us to the Third Element of Moral Causation which is known as vipaka, or the fruit of karma. Once planted, a negative karmic seed will ripen to produce an unpleasant and negative effect (and conversely, a positive karmic seed will ripen to produce a pleasant and positive effect). Without further intervention, the question is not if the action of sowing the karmic seed will bear fruit, but only when the fruit will be born.
When taken together, the Three Elements of Moral Causation — karma (cause), karmic seed (potential), and vipaka (effect) — reveal that we are not only the result of what we were; but that we will be the result of what we now are.
Good Karma v. Bad Karma
In a general sense, karma exists in two varieties — wholesome karma or good karma; and unwholesome karma or bad karma. Wholesome acts are those that spring forth from renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, and wisdom; rather than from desire, ill-will, and ignorance. Whether a particular act is wholesome or unwholesome, however, must ultimately be judged by the effect. Very simply, wholesome actions result in eventual happiness for oneself and others, while unwholesome actions will have the opposite result — suffering for oneself and others.
In the Buddhist tradition, unwholesome actions are divided into three classes:
I. The Three Unwholesome Actions of the Body
- Sexual Misconduct; and
II. The Four Unwholesome Actions of Speech
- Harsh Speech;
- Malicious Gossip; and
III. The Three Unwholesome Actions of the Mind
Unwholesome acts bear the fruit of suffering. By avoiding them, we avoid their consequences which often include unhappiness in this life. We may also proactively engage in wholesome actions — such as generosity, good conduct, meditation, reverence, service, transference of merits, rejoicing in the merit of others, and gaining wisdom through spiritual teachings — and thereby reap the fruit of happiness.
The fullness of the fruit of karma — or the seriousness of the effect — depends on several conditions which, when taken together, determine karmic weight. While it cannot be said that if one commits murder one will necessarily be murdered himself, it is certainly true that such a serious act will yield seriously negative personal consequences such as separation from loved ones, shortened life, paranoia, and fear. The conditions which determine karmic weight include:
- Volition, Intention, and Motivation. Volition is the desire to perform a particular act and is therefore a measure of the extent to which the act is voluntary. Intent is the desire or knowledge to a particular certainty that a particular result will occur. There can never be intent without volition (but volition alone is not enough to constitute intent). Actions lacking intent are less weighty than those in which intent is present. Motive is also connected to karmic weight, so that a killing motivated by extreme ill-will and anger is more weighty than a killing absent such motives.
- The Nature of the Act. From a moral perspective, some acts are more serious than others and therefore yield more suffering — so that, for example, killing is more dire than gossip. Furthermore, the nature of the act is distinguished on the basis of whether or not the subject experiences regret. An absence of honest regret results in the sowing of a more negative karmic seed than if the subject were truly regretful for the unwholesome act.
- The Frequency of the Act. Repeated action bears more karmic weight than an isolated incident. In this respect, karmic weight is cumulative; for when one fails to apprehend the consequences unwholesome actions, more harm is inflicted and therefore more suffering is reaped.
- The Identity of the Object. In a general sense, it makes a difference whether we kill an ant or another human being with the latter being the obviously more serious moral transgression. Furthermore, actions against those who possess extraordinary qualities, or against those from whom we have benefited in the past (such as teachers, parents, and friends), will negatively influence karmic weight.
The question naturally arises as to when, after the commission of any given act, will the fruit of karma be born. In Eastern traditions that adhere to the doctrine of reincarnation, the effects of karma may be experienced in this or in future lifetimes — the cycle of rebirth does not come to an end until one escapes karmic fate through enlightenment and nirvana. In both Eastern and Western theistic traditions, a supreme deity or deities, or those who stand in ordination, act as ultimate arbiters of karmic fate. Putting aside religious dogma, as a matter of reason and practical experience it has been observed that the more weighty the karma, the more immediate the consequences (just as a seed of great potency will bear abundant fruit more quickly). What is certain is that the effect of karma will be realized only when the conditions are ripe for it.
The Physics of Karma
While it is true that many theistic religions generally confer in a supreme deity (or deities) authority with respect to moral causation, the Law of Karma does not require belief in a Divine Arbiter of Fate. On the contrary, the principles of karma are credible not because of fanciful religious traditions, but because of support from parallel principles firmly rooted in the physical sciences. In this respect, karma is unlike many other spiritual concepts in that it does not demand impossible leaps of faith, but instead appeals directly to reason.
a. Karma and Newton’s Laws
Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As a starting point, the Law of Karma is merely an extension of Newton’s Law from the physical to the spiritual plane. Thus, it may be reasonably argued that the forces of cause and effect as applied to inert objects likewise apply to thoughts, words, and deeds. If happiness is given, happiness will be returned; if sorrow is given, sorrow will be returned.
b. The Karmic Equation
In physical science, the laws of the universe are often described by mathematical expression. Given the parallels between physics and karma, it should come as no surprise that the Law of Karma has similarly been defined by an abstract equation which relates a wide variety of variables and complex factors. The qualitative hypothesis of the karmic equation is eloquently set forth in an article entitled, The Force of Equilibrium, as follows:
The karmic equation is an abstract representation of the karma (causes and consequences) of an individual or group . . . since karma is an exceedingly complex energy (even for the evolved individual), the equation must necessarily be symbolic and abstract with an indeterminate series of many-dimensional terms. The reason for this is quite simple; karma is a superposition of inputs (causes) and outputs (effects or consequences) and their interactions, over a diverse continuity and fabric of time, space and consciousness.
The inputs to the karmic equation are the vast sea of causes (physical, emotional, and mental behaviors and motives) which spans past moments . . . All of the past actions have been entered as causes, and new causes are added continuously as the individual lives, thinks, feels, and otherwise experiences. The relationships of an individual to other persons are often major (potent) inputs. The output of the equation is the continuous (weighted) sum of total external forces and influences on the individual or the group . . . Since the effects are continuously responsive to the causes and relationships, the effects constitute a feedback mechanism (the response of the individual creates new causes which in turn modify somewhat the new effects). Each equation is continuously changing, though the changes may be quite small compared to the output or yield. In general, a large number of causes are superimposed (and distributed in time) and transformed to produce timely and appropriate effects.
In Quantum Mechanics and Some Surprises of Creation, Dr. Boris Iskakov states the principle of the karmic equation quantitatively as follows:
There are two equations of karma — the direct and the complex conjugated:
where the operators have the form
A=2h^2V + i2h o/o t-9;
A’=2h^2V – i2h o/o t-9.
Here, Y denotes the probability density wave (the wave function); V, the Laplace operator; 9, the potential energy density; and h, Planck’s constant.
These equations may be solved in the form of karma waves and anti-waves with quantization of probability waves. Connected with them are perturbations of the information-energy field, i.e., wave signals. In principle, such signals may propagate faster than the speed of light.
c. Karmic Polarity
Expanding on the application of Newton’s Third Law of Motion to karma, in The Mechanics of Karma, Dr. Noel Huntley states:
Fundamentally, however, and from a higher viewpoint, in which space and time are spanned, cause and effect is simultaneous. For example, the perpetrator harms the victim. Did the perpetrator cause this harm? From the third-dimensional viewpoint, they apparently did, but taking into account more data we know that the victim also attracted the perpetrator. That is, each sought out the other — it is a simultaneous phenomenon.
This is an example of duality — a two-polarity system. The perpetrator pole and the victim pole are interdependent. You can’t have one without the other . . . Now this duality gives us a mechanism for the return of energy in order to learn lessons. A whole energy (quantum state) divides into two poles. One pole acts as a debt to pay back the energy. The process of paying back the energy is the same as the process of one pole or energy seeking wholeness by returning to the other to cancel it, leaving a condition of unity (higher dimensionally). That is, the energy seeks wholeness and the poles come together causing a return to self of what was inflicted on another . . .
This principle of cancellation given here has general physics applications. When we say bringing together the two poles (to cancel the debt/karma), this is the same as phase conjugation, in which two wave patterns, one reversed relative to the other (which simply means 180 degrees out of phase), come together and cancel one another.
d. Karma and the Conservation of Energy
In response to Ken Wilbur’s article Quantum Questions, Dr. Robert Shacklett defends the idea that physical science can provide important insight into existential concerns which heretofore have been reserved to the esoterica of metaphysics:
Energy conservation is more than just saving fuel. It says, in effect, that in any physical process the total energy before must equal the total energy after the process is concluded. It seems to me that karma is one of these “conservation laws” . . .
In the words of H.P. Blavatsky, “Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is a man who plans and creates causes, and Karmic law adjusts the effects; which adjustment is not an act, but universal harmony, tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigor” . . .
Wilbur is correct in his point that the mystical truths do not need the “proofs” of science. But the illumination from below oftentimes makes these truths sparkle with new brilliance.
The Four Opponent Powers of Purification
At first glance it might seem that the Law of Karma cannot escape the trap door of determinism if for every past action there must be an unavoidable future consequence. Of course, such a superficial view ignores the constant variable of the here and now. While past actions will certainly inform the future, so too will those outcomes be impacted by the present. Therefore, karma is a dynamic, open system rather than a closed, deterministic one.
In the Buddhist tradition, certain forms of action which can be undertaken in the present are so potent as to have the effect of purifying bad karmic seeds. These actions, which are described as the Four Opponent Powers of Purification, essentially nullify potential future suffering. According to Ven. Thubten Chodron, a Buddhist nun and teacher, negative action is a sign of an unbalanced mind and practicing purification serves as an antidote to this condition. She states:
“The four opponent powers are the four steps for purification. To completely purify an action, we need all four steps, and we also need to purify repeatedly. In other words, its not sufficient just doing it once because sometimes one or the other of the four powers may not be so strong. Also, we have done some of the habitual negative actions many, many times, so it is wise to purify many, many times to make sure that our purification really hits home. We can’t just purify once if we have so much energy pushing us in an off-balanced way; we need to purify again and again to build up some force this way.”
A. The Power of Regret
It is important to note that regret is very different from shame. Honest regret is a healthy emotional response which arises once it is recognized that some past action was unwise. However, when regret is internalized and used as a means to rate oneself, it becomes shame which serves as an obstacle to happiness and personal growth. As such, purification by the power of regret not only allows objective assessment of past behavior for the purpose of deterrence, but provides an important opportunity to eliminate shame and to reaffirm self-worth.
B. The Power of Reliance/Repairing the Relationship
As in many other traditions, Buddhism recognizes that the harm we do to others usually arises from an antagonistic, fearful, and self-centered mind. The remedial attitude we are to cultivate is one of altruism, or bodhicitta, which entails working for the benefit of others, cherishing and respecting others, and wanting others to be happy and free of their problems. Also, where we have harmed others, we should repair the harm by making amends to the individuals.
C. The Power of Determination not to Repeat the Action
This particular method of purification promotes self-discipline and teaches the great value of non-action. As previously discussed, repeated negative action increases karmic weight, leads to more suffering, and should therefore be avoided. It is important to be honest with oneself regarding the level of determination not to repeat the action, and to accordingly set personal goals on realistic time frames (eg. “I will not gossip for the next two days” versus “I will never gossip again”). As a final note, Chodron wisely observes that determination and regret are related in important ways. She states:
“One of the reasons we habitually keep on doing the same things is because our determination not to do it again isn’t very strong, and one of the reasons for that is because our regret for having done it isn’t very strong. So it all comes back to regret. The stronger the regret, the more we’re going to have the determination not to do it, then the easier it’s going to be to change our behavior patterns. To develop regret, we have to think deeply about the disadvantages of the action, the disadvantages for others, the disadvantages for ourselves and become convinced of that.”
D. The Power of Remedial Action
Buddhist tradition prescribes several methods of remedial action including reciting sutras and mantras, making offerings, and meditating. For those who do not adhere to Buddhist doctrine, remedial action can take the form of any positive action that can benefit others such as volunteering to help the sick, feeding the homeless, or teaching others to read.
Do not think a small sin will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container,
The little sins that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.
Do not think a small virtue will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container,
The little virtues that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.
— The Buddha —
A View on Buddhism — http://viewonbuddhism.org
Chodron, Thubten Ven., The Four Opponent Powers (lightly edited transcript), Dharma Friendship Foundation (Seattle 1992).
Mahasi, Sayadaw Ven., The Theory of Karma, Buddha Dharma Education Association (1996-2012).
Shacklett, Robert, Physics and the Law of Karma, Foundation for Mind-Being Research (April 1987).
The Upper Triad Material, Karma, 4th Ed., Topical Issue 4.1, Upper Triad Association (October 2006).