Understanding Karma From A Buddhist Perspective


by Jayaram V

This essay is about understanding the working of karma in daily life from a Buddhist perspective to cultivate discernment with mindfulness on the Eightfold Path

You do not have to be a Hindu or a Buddhist to see the effects of karma. They can be felt and seen by you in many aspects of your life. Indeed, they can be seen at many levels, of not only individuals but also groups, nations, the world and the universe itself. There is no effect without cause, and no cause without another cause, or effect working as the cause. We all are caught in this chain reaction, and keep revolving in this world, until we resolve the causes of which we are the effect. Karma binds you to your future as well as to the future of those with whom you interact. It is why renunciation and detachment have so much importance in our spiritual traditions.

Actions have consequences, and they in turn produce further consequences. It is hard to escape from them. Anyone can see it through simple observation. Your thoughts and decisions have consequences. If you do not weigh those consequences and live purely by instinct or desires, you know what happens. You will not have respite from problems and suffering. Many people waste their lives in the pursuit of self-destructive habits and behavior. They do not realize the damage they do to themselves and to their loved ones until they become wiser and learn to see things as they are.

We do not see things as they are. We bring our desires, attachments and expectations into them, which distort our perception and cognition. Because of them, many times we do not even notice what is in front of us. The first lesson you learn in Buddhism is to see things as they are. With proper training and self-discipline, you can even see the subtle workings of the world and hidden processes, which precipitate reality.

There are many known and unknown aspects about life. Some aspects of Karma may not be visible, just like some diseases that remain latent and erupt years later. From experience and through study we learn that the known should be verified through observation and direct experience. The unknown or the subtle aspects of karma should be known from the wise masters (arahants etc.) who have gained an insight (prajna) into the nature of things.

Ordinary people miss many visible truths, but the wise masters who train their minds and senses through years of practice see clearly what usually misses our attention. They make the right effort on the Path to practice concentration and mindfulness in the right manner to cultivate right wisdom. We must visit them and seek their advice or study their teachings and try to sharpen our intelligence and perception.

The mind is the obstacle when we are ignorant, and the mind is the facilitator when we have intelligence and discerning wisdom (buddhi). Within the field of the known, if we pay more attention to the world and to ourselves, without preconceived notions, judgment, bias and expectations, we may gain more knowledge of how karma works and why we need to live life more responsibly. Awareness of how karma operates should make us all live responsibly and avoid harmful consequences to the extent possible.

If you plant a tree and water it, it will slowly grow into a tree. If it is ravaged by a natural calamity or destroyed for some reason, you have to see in it the impermanence of life and cultivate detachment. This is the path of wisdom. The wise ones understand impermanence and see things as they are from a distance. They float on the surface of the river of phenomena, rather than going deep into it and becoming stuck.

If the tree survives, it will bring you some happy rewards, providing shelter to people and sanctuary to all the creatures that depend upon it. Its presence will fill your mind with positive feelings. If you keep seeing it every day and develop an attachment to it, the tree begins to grow in you also and develop roots. Then, it becomes a problem. Even though, you did a good karma, you remain bound. The roots that you develop in your mind are why you are bound to existence and the cycle of transmigration.

Nurture the tree, but learn to see it as a tree, without any relationship or affinity. See it as an independent object, having an existence of its own, not as something you own, create, want, love, nurture or care for. It is called seeing things as they are. In that seeing, you become free from the formations of your mind and your creations. You become an observer of the phenomena as they float before your eyes, seeing them distinctly as they are, rather than what you want them to be.

You should see people in your life also in a similar manner. Treat them as individuals having their own karma, destiny and lives, without the urge to control them, impress them, correct them or bind them to your desires and expectations. If you set them free, you will be free from their causes and the consequences of their karma. The same holds true for your children. See them as beings, having their own destinies, participating in the cycle of transmigration.

The wise ones learn to see things objectively as separate and distinct from themselves, without forming the bonds which common people form and become bound. They have compassion, love, friendliness, humanity, truthfulness, and other virtues, but without relationship, attribution, desires and expectations. By that, they arrest the formation of karma and continuation of their future existence.

Science recognizes the interdependence of life forms and the consequential nature of all actions and movements. Every action creates its own ripples in the universe. We can see the ripple effect of a supernova even after a billion years as gravitational waves. Every movement needs an impetus or a cause. Without a cause, there can be no movement, no phenomenon and no birth and death. In case of living beings, the impetus or the cause arises from desires or karma. The principle of karma is inherent in existence. Here are few known examples of how karma effects our mundane lives.

  • If you eat unhealthy food, you will suffer from health problems.
  • If you marry a wrong person, your marriage life will be a source of suffering.
  • If you do not take your education seriously, you will end up doing odd jobs.
  • If you betray friends, you will not have genuine friendships.
  • If you fall into self-destructive habits, you will end up paying a heavy price.

They are few examples of how actions have consequences. Anyone with commonsense should be able to see it and avoid living irresponsibly. Yet, you can see many people making the same mistakes even when they can foresee the consequences. They engage in unwholesome thoughts, pursue wrong careers, choose wrong life partners, neglect their education, career, family or children, abuse their bodies, betray their relationships or succumb to drugs and other self-destructive habits. Why it is so?

You can see people being helplessly driven into the vortex of suffering by their own choices and actions when they have an opportunity to avoid all of it or some of it. Once, again we can see here the play of karma. People are propelled by their strong, natural tendencies, or their predominant nature, attitude or irresistible desires to act out their accumulated karmas. Those tendencies or predominant desires arise from their past life karma only, whereby they are helplessly driven by their own intrinsic nature to engage in actions, which make their lives difficult and miserable.

You may not see the connection between such illogical actions and your past life karma, without purifying your mind and cultivate clear seeing. The monks who practice Right Living on the Eightfold Path and purify their minds and intelligence (Buddhi) awaken to the truths of objective reality (anatta), without becoming involved with it. They discern their past life impressions and their influence in shaping their current lives. The Jataka tales provide a glimpse into the past births of Buddha and how they led him to the awakening under the Bodhi Tree.

With right thinking, right views, right intentions, right actions and right knowledge, you can cultivate clear seeing and discern the working of Karma. Even without that, if you learn to live responsibly and avoid unwholesome karma, you can avoid a lot of suffering in your life. Simple actions such as speaking gently, speaking right words, avoiding hurting and harming others, being kind to others and truthful to your close relations, keeping your promises, having right intentions, helping others, not stealing form others, etc., will decidedly have a positive impact upon your life.

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