Sravasti Abbey’s reply to a question posed to the Ask a Buddhist column at SpokaneFAVS.
By Ven. Sangye Khadro
Question: In Buddhism, it seems like karma is similar to Christianity’s concept of predestination. How is it different?
What is karma?
Let’s start by looking at what karma is before talking about what it isn’t—it’s definitely not predestination!
Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action,” and it refers to the process whereby our intentional actions bring effects that we will experience in the future. In general, positive actions (such as helping people and being generous) lead to good experiences and happiness, while negative actions (such as harming others and being deceitful) lead to bad experiences and unhappiness.
How does it work? Everything we do, say, and think leaves imprints on our mind. These imprints have the potential to ripen when they meet with the right conditions and cause us to have various experiences.
Karmic imprints are sometimes called “seeds” because they work somewhat like ordinary seeds that produce flowers or vegetables when they meet with the right conditions, such as rich soil, moisture, and heat. Similarly, our karmic seeds can be ripened by conditions in our environment (e.g. a natural disaster or contagious disease) or simply by our thoughts, emotions, and the choices we make.
Karma is not predestination
So how is karma different from predestination? For one thing, the Christian idea of predestination is based on the belief in a powerful creator who has a certain amount of control over our experiences and destinies. Buddhism has a different explanation for why things happen: both external events and our experiences of them are created by our own minds, mainly through the process of karma. The Buddha talks about this in the first two verses of the Dhammapada (Collected Sayings):
Mind is the forerunner of all states;
Mind is chief, mind-made are they.
If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows,
Like the wheel that follows the cart-pulling ox.
Mind is the forerunner of all states;|
Mind is chief, mind-made are they.
If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows,
Like one’s shadow that never leaves.
In other words, if we act with an “impure mind” (anger, greed, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness, and so on), we will experience suffering. And when we act with a “pure mind” (compassion, kindness, non-attachment, unselfishness, and so on), we will experience happiness. Therefore whether we are happy and or unhappy mainly depends on ourselves, on our thoughts and actions, rather than on an external creator. The connection between mental states and our physical and mental well-being is supported by scientific research conducted in recent decades.
Karma can be changed
Another difference is that predestination usually means we have no choice or free will over our lives and our experiences. Explanations of karma might sometimes sound like this, for example, if I do something negative, I am doomed to suffer and there’s no way out. But this is not correct; there are things we can do to change our karma. Karmic seeds are not like words carved in stone that can never be erased. They have the potential to bring results, but it’s not definite that they will.
We can see this with ordinary seeds. You might plant some zucchini seeds in your garden, hoping they will produce luscious zucchinis, but that’s not certain. The seeds might be eaten by birds or rodents, or they might start to grow but then the little sprouts are killed by frost or a drought. In a similar way, there are things that can counteract the ripening of our karmic seeds so they won’t bring their results. One is a practice known as “purification,” which basically involves generating several positive attitudes such as acknowledging we did something unwise and feeling regret for it, and resolving to try not to do it again. It is said that there is no deed so bad that it can’t be purified by following these four steps. And conversely, our good karmic seeds can be lost or damaged, especially by strong anger or hatred, so we need to be careful about protecting those!
A natural law
Karma is sometimes called “the law of cause and effect.” But the word “law” here should be understood as a naturallaw, like gravity, rather than a code of rules invented by someone. Through his meditative insights, Buddha became aware of karma and explained it to us so that we could have more control over our lives and experiences. If we learn about karma and do our best to refrain from negative actions and do positive actions, we will experience more happiness and less suffering.
People sometimes wonder if karma only works if you believe in it. If that were the case, we could just say, “I don’t believe in karma” and we wouldn’t have to face the results of our actions. That would be like hoping to get off the hook for crimes we commit simply by declaring that we don’t believe in the police and judicial system. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that.
It might help to recognize that all religious traditions have similar explanations about the importance of living ethically, even if they don’t use the word “karma.” For example, the Bible says that we will reap what we sow. But unlike theistic religions, Buddhism says there is no one who rewards us for positive actions or punishes us for harmful ones. Instead, the results of our actions follow naturally, just as we enjoy good health from eating nutritious food, but get sick if we eat unhealthy or contaminated food.
Going beyond karma
This is just a brief introduction to a very complex topic—Buddhists normally spend years studying the intricacies of karma and how to put it into practice in our lives. But our ultimate goal is actually to liberate ourselves from karma. Buddhism teaches a path of spiritual and mental development that enables us to transcend karma and its effects and attain a state of genuine freedom and peace, so we can be more beneficial to others and the world.