The Mechanism of Karma

Explanations of Karma

If we’re going to work to overcome karma, to rid ourselves of this compulsiveness in our behavior, we need to know how karma works. There are several detailed explanations of this to be found in Buddhist literature. In general, there is the explanation found in the Pali tradition and those found in the Sanskrit traditions. Pali and Sanskrit were two languages of ancient India. The Theravada tradition follows the Pali version. What I’m going to explain comes from the Sanskrit tradition, which itself has two versions. I will try to present the variations between the two, but without too much emphasis on the differences, because there’s a lot that they accept in common.

But before we do that, one piece of useful advice. When we find several different explanations of phenomena in Buddhism, such as with karma, it’s important not to approach it from the attitude that we may have inherited from biblical thinking: one God, one Truth: “Only one way is right and all the others are wrong.” Rather, each of these explanations looks at karma from a different angle and helps us to understand it by the varying explanations it gives. They’re all helpful for enabling us to overcome suffering, and that’s the whole purpose.

“Feeling Like Doing or Saying Something” as the First Step in How Karma Works

In Sanskrit, abhidharma is the type of literature that discusses karma. In this abhidharma tradition, we would start with the word “feeling” in terms of explaining what we experience. This is a very difficult word because in our Western languages it has so many meanings. Here, I’m not using “feeling” in the sense of feeling happy or unhappy, or feeling some emotion or an intuition. I’m using it in the sense of feeling like doing or saying or thinking about something. The word in Tibetan for this means a wish, a desire to do something.

In daily life, when we feel like doing, saying or thinking about something, why do we feel like that? It can be due to the circumstances that we’re in, for instance the weather, the people we’re with or the time of day. It’s also affected by whether we’re feeling happy or unhappy. “I feel unhappy, so I want to go do something else.” It can also be because of past tendencies to act or speak or think in certain ways. Some motivating emotion is also going to be present. “I feel like yelling at you because I’m angry.” Perhaps you just said something nasty to me, and I’m angry and unhappy about it. My tendency is to yell whenever somebody says something nasty to me, so that supports this feeling I have. Then there’s also a grasping for a solid “me.” Me, me, me. “You said something nasty to me,” or “How dare you say that to me?” All of those factors network together when we feel like doing, saying or thinking about something. Thinking about something could be, for instance, plotting “What can I say that’s really going to hurt you?” That type of thinking.

Mental Karma

Based upon such a feeling, mental karma arises, namely a compulsion. The compulsion here is a mental urge that draws us into thinking – thinking to act out what we had previously felt like doing. It draws us into the act of thinking about it, which may or may not lead further to actually carrying out what we think to say or do. A motivating emotion, intention and grasping for “me” all accompany this mental urge to think about doing or saying something.

If we slow things down in meditation so that we become sensitive enough to distinguish what is happening in our minds, we’re able to differentiate the steps, although usually they occur very quickly. For example: I feel like yelling at you, since I’m angry. A compulsive urge draws me into thinking about yelling, at the conclusion of which I will decide whether or not actually to say something. If I decide to yell, then the next steps follow.

The Simpler Explanation of Physical and Verbal Karma

Next comes physical or verbal karma, and for this we have two explanations due to the two different Sanskrit versions or traditions. Let’s start with the simpler one. According to this explanation, physical and verbal karmas, like mental karma, are also mental urges, compulsive urges that draw us into starting an action, continuing the action, and eventually stopping the action. The mental urge to think to do or say something is known as the “motivating urge” and the mental urge that draws us into actually doing or saying it is known as the “causal urge.” Note that even if we think to do or say something, we may or may not do or say it; and if we do or say something, we may or may not have thought about it consciously beforehand. All four cases are possible.

The emotions that accompany each step of an action may change and be quite different. For example, my baby is sleeping. There are a lot of mosquitoes in the room. If we’re in a malaria zone, I’m concerned that maybe my baby will get bitten and come down with malaria. The “motivating emotion” that accompanies the motivating urge that draws me into thinking to smack the mosquitoes may be compassion for my baby. If, after thinking to kill them, I decide actually to do it, then my emotion most likely will change. The “causal emotion” that accompanies the causal urge that draws me into actually smacking the mosquitoes is now hostility and anger. I need to have hostility toward the mosquitoes, otherwise I wouldn’t really try to kill them. I don’t want to just scare them or shoe them away, I want to hit them hard enough so that I kill them. My emotion has changed.

It’s very interesting if you really slow things down to see how your emotional state can change. For instance, if you see a cockroach, originally you could think with compassion for your baby, “I don’t want that cockroach to crawl on my baby’s face.” Then, with anger, “I really want to kill that cockroach, squish it till it's dead!” But as you step on it and hear its body crush under your foot, your emotion now becomes repulsion. By the time the urge arises to end the action of stepping on it by lifting your shoe when you see the mess that has oozed out around it, your emotion is now total disgust. So your emotion changes very much during the whole process and all of that affects the strength of the compulsiveness with which you’re acting and will affect the results that follow.

This is the simpler explanation of karma: whether it’s mental, verbal, or physical karma, all karmas are mental factors. They are all mental urges, just different types of mental compulsion differentiated according to what type of action they draw us into – a physical, verbal or mental act.

It’s very important not to confuse karma (the compulsiveness) with the positive or negative emotion that accompanies it. They are not the same. There’s nothing that is both a karmic urge and an emotion. Karma is like a magnet that draws us into thinking to act, acting, continuing to act, and then stopping. And unless we do something to come out from under its compelling power, it's out of control.

The More Complex Explanation of Physical and Verbal Karma

According to the second explanation, mental karma – compulsive mental urges – draw us into all three types of actions: thinking, saying or doing something. Physical and verbal karma, on the other hand, are not mental factors, but are forms of physical phenomena. Each, actually, entails two types of form, a revealing form and a non-revealing form, depending on whether or not they reveal the motivation. In either case, the karma is still not the same as the action itself. To rid ourselves of physical or verbal karma, it is still not the case that we need to stop doing or saying anything.

The Revealing Form

  • In the case of physical karma, the revealing form is the compulsive shape that our actions take. In a sense, it’s like the compulsiveness that shapes the physical actions we do and thus shapes the form our body takes when doing the actions. The compulsive shape reveals the motivation behind the actions, which means both our intention and the emotion that accompanies it. For example, when we feel like tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention, we might compulsively hit them quite hard or touch them quite gently. The physical karma is the compulsiveness of this shape that our action takes. It reveals the intention – to get someone’s attention – and the emotion behind it – annoyance or affection.
  • In the case of verbal karma, the revealing form is the compulsive sound our voice takes when we say something, in terms of both the words we choose and the tone of voice we use to say them. This too reveals the underlying motivation, both the intention and the emotion. For example, again when we feel like calling out someone’s name to get their attention, we might compulsively shout their name in an aggressive tone of voice or say it with a kind, gentle tone. The verbal karma is the compulsiveness of the sound of our voice. It reveals the intention – to get their attention – and the emotion behind it – annoyance or affection.

The Non-Revealing Form

The non-revealing form is more subtle. It's not something visible or audible and it doesn't reveal our underlying motivation. The closest we have in our Western way of thinking is a subtle vibration. Whereas the revealing form of our physical and verbal actions ceases when the actions end, the non-revealing form occurs both while we are doing or saying something and continues as part of our mental continuum after our action comes to an end. It only ceases when we make the definite decision never to repeat again the action that led to this non-revealing form – for instance, by taking a vow or giving up a vow.

When we speak of someone as compulsively acting in a forceful way or compulsively speaking in an aggressive tone – in other words, as having a quality of compulsiveness about the characteristic, habitual way in which they act or speak – this refers to the non-revealing form of their physical or verbal karma. Even when they aren't doing anything or not saying anything, we could say that they’re still a compulsively aggressive person.

Note that being compulsive is not the same as being impulsive. Being “impulsive” means you just do whatever comes into your head, with no forethought. Being “compulsive” means that you have no control over what you’re doing or saying or how you do it or say it. Irresistibly, you follow certain patterns of behavior over and again, like tapping your fingers on the table or speaking aggressively with no warmth in your voice.

Imprints on the Mental Continuum: Potentials and Tendencies

According to both explanations of karma, after an action is finished – whether a physical, verbal or mental one – it leaves certain aftermath on our mental continuum. These are neither forms of physical phenomena (not like non-revealing forms) nor are they ways of being aware of something. They are more abstract and are imputed on our mental continuum like, for instance, our age. This karmic aftermath includes karmic potentials and karmic tendencies.

Karmic Potentials

Karmic potentials, which from a certain point of view could also be termed “karmic forces,” are either constructive and destructive. Many translators call the constructive potentials “merit” and the destructive ones “sins,” but I find those terms borrowed from biblical religions inappropriate and misleading. I prefer to render them as “negative karmic potentials” or “negative karmic forces” and “positive karmic potentials” or “positive karmic forces.” Here, let's just call them “positive potentials” and “negative potentials.”

It is a bit complicated, because destructive and constructive actions – actions brought on by or entailing destructive or constructive karma – are also negative or positive potentials. So there are karmic potentials that are our actions themselves and karmic potentials that continue imputed on our mental continuum.

These karmic potentials serve as “ripening causes.” Just like fruit on a tree grows gradually and when it’s ripe, it falls from the tree and is ready to be eaten, karmic potentials build up with each other – they network together – and when sufficiently built up, they ripen into their karmic results. Their results are always ethically neutral – Buddha did not specify them to be constructive or destructive, since they can accompany any type of action: constructive, destructive or neutral. For example, negative potentials ripen into unhappiness, while positive potentials ripen into happiness. We can be happy while helping someone, killing a mosquito or washing the dishes. We could also be unhappy while doing any of those.

Karmic Tendencies

Karmic tendencies occur only as aftermath of our karmic behavior. If an action was neutral, like washing the dishes, the karmic tendency afterwards is also neutral. If the action was constructive or destructive, then the positive or negative potential of them take on the essential nature of karmic tendencies. In other words, they function as karmic tendencies but remain constructive or destructive. Since karmic tendencies, in the broad sense of the term, can be positive, negative or neutral, as a whole they are often referred to as being neutral.

Karmic tendencies, literally “karmic seeds,” function as the obtaining causes of their results. In other words, like a seed for a sprout, they are that from which the result arises. The result may be, for instance, repeating a previous type of action.

Reflection on Karmic Potentials and Tendencies

The differences among the various types of karmic aftermath, including non-revealing forms, is very subtle and extremely complex. When we’re first learning about karma, it's not necessary to differentiate them all in detail. More important is to get the general idea of karmic aftermath and recognize what this is referring to.

For example, suppose you yell at someone. The action of yelling itself already signals a potential to yell again in the future. Once this episode of yelling has ended, we could say that the potential to yell once more still continues on your mental continuum and we could describe that as your having a tendency to yell at people.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on that, choosing a typical type of behavior we have. Try to discern as follows: There’s a certain pattern to my behavior, because I tend to repeat the same types of action over and again. Because of that pattern, I definitely have the potential to repeat that behavior yet again. That’s because I have a tendency to act in that way. My behavior is, in fact, compulsive because I act like that again and again, with no control. The more I act like that, the stronger my potential grows to repeat it again. Further, the stronger the potential, the more quickly that I’ll actually do it again, for instance yell at someone.

Describing this mechanism from a physiological point of view, you could say that our repetitive behavior forges a strong neural pathway and because of that pathway, we have a great potential to repeat that behavior.

Let's describe our behavior in further detail. For example, I lose my temper a lot very easily, and I yell at people. There’s a compulsiveness about that, which is almost like a vibration about me that people pick up on if they’re very sensitive. They think, “I have to be careful when I’m with this person, because he can lose his temper very easily.” They would describe me as someone with a strong tendency to lose his temper and yell. There’s always this potential that I will actually yell, and when I do, there’s a compulsive aspect to my voice that’s harsh and really nasty. If you say something touchy to me, then undoubtedly I will feel like saying something nasty back to you, and the compulsiveness of my karma will draw me into actually yelling. I’m out of control.

Please try this type of introspective reflection. If we can identify our karmic tendencies and potentials, we can start to work on ridding ourselves of them. So ask yourself, what are my tendencies? What are the patterns that I have that I follow compulsively? Remember, these compulsive patterns can be either positive or negative, like yelling or being a perfectionist.

Karmic Results

When the circumstances are complete, various karmic potentials and tendencies bring about our experiencing of one or more things: happiness, unhappiness, repeating our behavior, experiencing things happening to us similar to what we’ve done to others, and so on. Again, its very complicated. But it’s very important to understand that we’re not talking about the karmic potentials and tendencies bringing about the things that we experience. They bring about our experiencing of them. For instance, if I’m hit by a car, my karmic potentials and tendencies didn’t create the car, and they didn’t make the driver hit me. The driver hitting me was the result of his or her karmic aftermath. My karmic aftermath was only responsible for me experiencing being hit.

Do you see the difference? We’re talking about what I experience. I experience the weather, for instance, but my karmic potentials don’t create the weather. My karmic potentials give rise to my getting wet when I go outside in the rain without an umbrella, but they don't create the rain. The rainwater, of course, is what makes me wet, but that’s not karma. The fact that whenever I go out when there’s a threat of rain, I compulsively forget to bring an umbrella – that’s because of a karmic tendency and potential. Because of that tendency, I experience getting wet as a result.

Different Types of Karmic Results

We experience many things depending upon the circumstances. Here, we just gave the circumstance of it raining. What do we experience?

  • We experience feeling happy or unhappy. That’s very interesting because all sorts of nice things can be going on around us and still we might feel unhappy. We could be doing the same thing at two different times, and one time while we’re doing it we feel happy, but the other time we feel unhappy. This happens as the result of karmic potentials.
  • We experience certain situations that are specific to us, like seeing or hearing something. For example, why do we frequently witness violent scenes of people fighting with each other? Obviously, our karma didn’t create these fights, yet we always seem to witness them and we have no control over that. Our experiencing seeing such things is also the result of our karmic potentials and tendencies.
  • In various situations, we feel like repeating our previous actions. For instance, I feel like yelling at you or I feel like hugging you. What we feel like doing or would like to do comes from the karmic aftermath of having acted like that before. Note that karma doesn’t ripen from karma. Karmic aftermath doesn't ripen into the compulsiveness that draws us into repeating an action; rather it ripens into the wish or feeling like doing it. Feeling like doing something may or may not lead to the compulsiveness with which we carry out the action.
  • In some other situations, we experience things happening to us that are similar to what we have done to others before. So from that tendency to yell at people, we experience other people yelling at us. If we cheat others, we experience others cheating us.

This is not always so easy to understand, since it usually entails previous lives. But it’s very interesting to analyze certain patterns within ourselves. Take speaking divisively, for instance, which is saying nasty things about someone to others, such as their friends, to cause them to break off their relation with this person. As a karmic result of the aftermath of such behavior, we experience our own friends leaving us. Our friendships or partner relationships don’t last; people go out of our lives. We caused others to part, and now we experience that our own relationships don’t last.

You could understand that on a karmic level, but also on a psychological level as well. If I’m always saying nasty things about other people to you, my friend, especially when I’m saying nasty things to you about your other friends, what would you think? You would think, “What does he say about me behind my back?” Naturally we would experience that friendship ending.

If we think more deeply about these karmic causal relationships, they start to make sense. We experience things happening to us similar to things that we’ve done to others. Remember, we’re talking here about what we experience, not about what the other person does to us. They have their own karmic causes that led them to do what they did.

Yet another type of result of karmic aftermath is our experiencing things along with others also experiencing them, such as being in certain types of environment or societies and the way all of us are treated there. For example, being born in or living in a place that is very polluted or where there’s very little pollution. Or we could experience living in a society where there’s a great deal of corruption, or in one where people are honest. These are things we experience together with others in the same place or society.

Reflection on How Karma Works

These are all the types of things we experience as the result of karmic aftermath. We experience feeling happy or unhappy, seeing or hearing various things, things happening to us, and all of these together will act as circumstances in which we also feel like repeating our previous patterns of behavior. If we act out that wish, there’s a compulsiveness that drives us to act it out. It often feels as though we have no decision. Once I feel like yelling at you, for instance, then compulsively I yell and repeat the pattern. Although we could make the decision not to act out that feeling to yell, things happen so quickly that compulsively we yell. We repeat the pattern and strengthen the potential to yell yet again and again because that tendency is there, and there’s a certain compulsiveness about how we speak and a certain compulsiveness about the way that we act. That’s how karma works.

Take some time to reflect on all that and to let it sink in.