Clearing Away Extraneous Conceptions about Karma

Karma concerns what happens to us, and the whole question of ethics. Of course, it is an extremely complex subject. In fact, in the Buddhist teachings it is considered the most complex topic. There are countless beings and all of these countless beings have been experiencing rebirth with no beginning and interacting with each other, so all of the various factors that affect absolutely everyone are all interconnected. Thus, to know karma fully is not a matter of just knowing the karma of one individual being. Only the omniscient mind of a Buddha could understand the whole picture. Only a Buddha’s omniscient mind has that scope, everybody else’s mind is limited. Nevertheless, we can try to learn about and understand all the various factors involved in the process of karma and in this way have a general understanding of how it works and how we can affect it.

Western Explanations of Karma and Ethics

The general Buddhist method for learning about something is to first learn what it is not. By eliminating what something is not, we get a clearer idea of what something actually is. The reasoning behind this is that so many of us have preconceptions. We may have preconceptions about what karma is and about how to explain what happens to us. We may have preconceptions about ethics and about how Buddhist ethics works [See: What Is Ethics?] When we listen to an explanation about karma, quite naturally we project our preconceptions onto it. This makes it very difficult to get a correct Buddhist understanding. First, we need to clear out all of these incorrect preconceptions of what karma means so that our minds are more receptive and open to gain a correct understanding. This is the general method, not only concerning karma but all the major topics.

In this vein, I would like to explore some of the non-Buddhist explanations of what happens to us, of ethics and karma. By excluding these explanations, we can gain a much clearer understanding of the Buddhist teachings on karma.

Chance or Probability

One view is that what happens to us happens just by chance. There is no particular reason why we are happy or unhappy, or why we meet somebody, or why this or that happens to us. Buddhism definitely does not say that, it says that there is a cause; it is not chaotic.

A variation on that would be the Western scientific explanation that what happens to us is a function of probability, a mathematical formula of probability. Given all the circumstances in a situation, you could mathematically predict what will happen. Buddhism does not say that either.


Another explanation would be that what happens, happens by luck. This person won the lottery, he was lucky. This person lost on the stock market, she was unlucky. What is actually behind that is some inherent force; someone is inherently a lucky person. We say, “This is my lucky day” as if there is something inherently in the day making it lucky. “Carrying a rabbit’s foot brings me good luck.” Buddhism certainly doesn’t say that, even though one might get that impression by seeing people wearing red strings or, as in Southeast Asian countries, getting amulets to wear around their necks to bring luck. This is not the Buddhist teaching.

Fate or Destiny

Another theory is that what happens to us is fate or destiny. This could be impersonal or personal. If it is explained in an impersonal way: that is just the way it is. This is your destiny, written in a book somewhere in the sky, the Akashic records kept in some cave somewhere or something like that. This is not the Buddhist point of view.

God’s Will

A variation on that is that fate or destiny is coming from a personal source. In other words, God’s will. That is called kismet in Islam. Actually, in later Hinduism in India, which is very strongly influenced by this Islamic idea, there is a strong belief in God’s will, mixed with the Hindu understanding of karma. It is not only limited to that culture, it is in other cultures as well. “If you are sick and don’t take any medicine, it is God’s will whether you get well or not.” It is this type of view, the fundamentalist Biblical point of view.

Good Fortune

Then, we have an ancient Roman view, the idea of good fortune and the goddess Fortuna. If you succeed at something, this indicates that the goddess Fortuna has given you good fortune. Therefore “might makes right.” If some dictator comes along and succeeds, no matter how cruel he is, the goddess Fortuna was with him, so it is good. Fortune is based on the winner. If you survive the lions in a coliseum, the goddess Fortuna has given this to you. If the lions eat you, the goddess didn’t give you the fortune to survive. This is a very success-oriented attitude. In fact, we inherent a lot of that in our business mentality. If someone wins or succeeds in his business, he is a good businessman. “He made a fortune!” In English, we use the word “fortune” for riches and success. It is not only an ancient belief. We have this heritage. In Buddhism, we certainly don’t mean that ethics is based on force, might and strength.

Reward and Punishment Based on Following Laws

Another theory is that what happens to us is based on following laws; in other words, reward and punishment. One theory would be that there are laws given by some higher authority in heaven, given by God. If you follow the laws, you are rewarded and will be happy; if you break the laws, you are punished and will be unhappy. What happens to us is a matter of obedience, how obedient we are to the laws. So, ethics is only based on obedience.

A variation of that in the West comes from the ancient Greeks. It is based on law, but rather than these laws being created in heaven, they are created by a legislature, by people. It is a secular system but, again, it works on the basis of reward and punishment. If you follow the civil laws then you are a good citizen, you will be happy and the whole society will be happy. If you break the laws then you will be unhappy, the society will have problems and you will be punished.

Let us pause a moment, having gone through the first section of the non-Buddhist views, the Western views, before we go on to the Asian views that differ from the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist explanation. It is helpful to consider or reflect on whether we instinctively, or on an emotional level, have any of these preconceptions or views. Do we think that what happens to us is just by chance? A mathematical probability? Luck? Destiny? Power? That if we make the most money, we will be happier, or that we will be happy by following either the heavenly or the civil laws? Think about that for a moment. These are our Western preconceptions. There may be more but these are the only ones I could think of at the moment.

We need to look quite specifically, at why we feel good now, why we feel happy, why we feel unhappy. Do things go well or not go well for me because of chance, fate, luck or what?

I think for many of us, it is a combination of several of these factors. If we get a promotion or a raise, we might say, “It was because I followed all the laws, I was successful and I was lucky. It was a lucky break.” Sometimes we think it was fate: “It was fate that I lost my job.” None of these are the Buddhist way of understanding.

Asian Explanations of Karma and Ethics

Hinduism: Performing One’s Duty

The Hindu view is that karma is associated with some sort of duty or destiny. We are born into a certain caste and a certain social situation – as a man or woman, a ruler, servant, or soldier – and each of these castes and social roles has a certain set of standard actions associated with it. There is a certain way that a wife or a servant is supposed to act. These are personified in the great epic stories by Hanuman, Sita, Ram, and so on. If we live up to our duty and follow the social role that we are born into, everything will go well and we will get a better rebirth. If we are born as a woman and we are good housewives, we will be happy, and in our next life, we may be born as something even better.

I use that as an example because there are so many women here. I think you can appreciate what this way of thinking would be like and the implications of this way of thinking. We see this very clearly in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is a warrior and has to fight a war against his relatives and is completely undecided about what to do. Krishna advises him that he must fight. It is better to fight and do your duty than to go against your duty as a warrior. Then you will be happy and everything will go well. Although Buddhists use the same word, “karma,” it has a very different meaning.

Confucianism: Being in Harmony and Conforming to the Process of Change

What about the Chinese way of thinking? We have the classical Chinese point of view of Confucianism, which has a great deal of influence on the way of thinking in the People’s Republic of China as well. There are certain role models and if everybody follows their role model correctly – a father is a father, a son is a son, the ruler is the ruler, the subjects are the subjects, the party members are the party members, the proletariats are the proletariats – then everything will go harmoniously. One needs to flow with the process of change and be harmonious with it, so in a time of war, fighting is proper and everybody will be happy. If at the time of war you don’t fight, it is against the harmony and is terrible and will cause disaster – you will be punished. So, if you don’t fight, it is nonvirtuous; if you fight, it is virtuous. Likewise, when the times change and it is peaceful, if you fight, it is nonvirtuous, and if you are peaceful, it is virtuous.

How did people know whether the times had changed or not? The emperor said s,o. We have exactly the same thing now: the communist party chairman says it is the time for the Red Guard, and if you are a Red Guard, it is proper; if you are not a Red Guard and you don’t destroy everything, it is really wrong. When the party chairman says it is time to make money, if you make money you are flowing with the process of change and it will be harmonious, and if you don’t, you are out of synch. This is the traditional Chinese way of thinking about what brings happiness: fit into society and follow what the government says.

This is not only Chinese thought. We also have this in the West. If we conform to the latest fashion and wear our dress at this rather than that length, we will be happy and will fit in. If we wear our dress at a different length, we are out of fashion and are not going to be happy. The emperor or empress of fashion dictates to us what the fashion is going to be for this year. That is not the Buddhist point of view. How much that influences our way of thinking! It influences the type of music teenagers listen to, the way they cut their hair, whether they have tattoos or body piercing. It is really quite a common way of thinking.

Popular Chinese Buddhism: Doing Good Deeds as a Business Investment

Another Chinese view is the Chinese Buddhist view, which is very strongly influenced by Chinese culture; it is not at all the same as the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist view. To be fair, this is the popular Chinese view of karma, not the most sophisticated view. It comes from the translation term. This is a very good example of what I feel so strongly: that the word used to translate a Buddhist term influences so strongly the way of understanding that it is crucial to choose the least misleading term.

The ancient Chinese translated the word karma with the Chinese character that is always used in compound words having to do with business, so they got the connotation of karma being like a business investment. Doing good deeds is like making an investment that you get a lot of merit from. We have made a good investment and now we have to put that investment in the bank so we will get good returns (merit) on our investment. That is why we try to do so-called good deeds: to make a lot of gain or money (merit) from that. People with this way of thinking think, “I am going to make an offering to the temple, I am going to build a statue because it is a good investment. I will get a lot of merit and as a result I am going to win happiness and good fortune.” If you miss the opportunity to donate to a temple, you are not a good businessman, because you missed the opportunity to make a good investment.

We see this even now. When the Tibetans build temples or big statues, who gives the most money? The Chinese. It is because of this mentality. The Chinese, in fact, were the ones in classical history who gave the most donations for building the huge monasteries in Tibet. The persecutions made against Buddhism in China centuries ago, like during the Ming Dynasty (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), were basically because the government was spending too much money on temples and people were giving too much money. That is why there were persecutions against Buddhism and even movements against the government. We have this mentality in the West as well: “I can buy my happiness.”

Western Humanism: Happiness from Making Others Happy and Not Causing Harm

The last non-Tibetan Buddhist view is not specifically Asian. It is in the West particularly. It is called “humanistic ethics.” Do no harm to others and don’t make others unhappy; try to make everyone happy. This is the whole system of ethics. “Ethics” means to try to bring the most happiness to the most people. Don’t use the animals in laboratory experiments for medicine and this type of thing. It is very common.

That is not actually the Buddhist teaching either. The main reason for that is because we have no idea whether what we do will make the other person happy. We can have all the wonderful intentions in the world, like when we cook something and serve it to our good friend, but he could choke on it and die. That is an extreme example, but it is interesting because then we would feel guilty, wouldn’t we? We would feel terribly guilty, “It was my fault! I was a bad person!” It is very strange to base ethics on this. After all, who is responsible for my friend’s death?

The idea of ethics of most progressively thinking, “spiritual” Western people is this humanitarian one. We don’t usually think that it will make us happy to follow fashion or that we can buy our happiness or that being a good housewife will make us happy. But, we do think that if we make others happy, we are an ethical person and things will go well for us.

Another example: we are taking care of somebody and she gets sick and dies. We feel it was our fault and think, “I should have been able to make her happy and cure her,” as if what happens to someone else were totally up to us. We can contribute to what happens, but we are not the only force that determines it.

We try not to harm others, but from the Buddhist point of view, we are talking about our motivation, not the effect that our action has. Our motivation is to try not to cause harm, but we have no idea what effect it will have on the other person. In Buddhism, ethics is not based on the result that you cause for the other person; it is based on your motivation. You can’t determine good, bad, virtuous or nonvirtuous by the effect it has on others, because you have no control over that. You only have control over your own motivation.

We also have a combination of these non-Buddhist views. “How will I be happy? If I am married and have the right partner, get a good job, a house, make a lot of money (because this is what an educated person should do), and try to be a good person and not hurt anyone, then I will be happy. This is the highest virtue.” This is what our parents tell us! And, “If there is war, you go and do your duty.” What comes from propaganda in our society? “Follow fashion.” “Be successful.” “Conform.” Buddhism does not agree, it does not say that our happiness or unhappiness comes from any of these things. I think the survey of these other possibilities is helpful in clarifying our normal preconceptions, what we normally think.

The Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Understanding of Karma

Now that we have cleared away some of the foreign concepts, we can ask about the Indo-Tibetan understanding of karma and why we experience things.

From the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist point of view, a destructive action is one done under the influence of some disturbing emotion like anger, greed or naivety – naivety being, for instance, like thinking that there will not be any effect to our actions so it doesn’t matter what we do. This causes suffering. We are not talking about the suffering it causes others but the suffering it causes us; it is in terms of our own future experience. In other words, what we experience in life is the result of the attitudes and emotions that motivate us to do what we do.

The Four Facts of Life

This is all explained or understood in terms of the four noble truths, which I call the four facts of life. These are four facts that anybody who sees reality clearly will see as true; ordinary people will not really see that they are true.

In simple language, the first fact is that life is difficult; it is full of problems. A lot of people are not willing to admit or even look at that. This is referring to every moment of our ordinary lives. Sometimes we feel unhappy. It is not very nice; it is a problem. Sometimes we feel happy, but the happiness is mixed with problems and confusion. The problem with this is that it does not last and it does not really cure anything permanently. After eating a meal, we have the happiness of feeling full, but that does not prevent us from becoming hungry again. Another problem is that we can’t predict what is going to follow. Are we going to feel happy about something else? Are we going to feel unhappy? Are we going to fall asleep and feel neutral? We have no idea what we will feel next. There is no security to be gained from this type of passing happiness.

When we are unhappy, we are obviously dissatisfied and repelled by it. We just want to get rid of it because it disturbs us. When we are happy, we get attached to it. We don’t ever want it to go and we are not satisfied; we are greedy, we want it to be more. It is like surfing through the television channels. We find something, but because we are greedy, we think, “Well, maybe there is something better on another station.” No satisfaction. These experiences are problematic.

We also have a neutral feeling, where nothing much is happening. It makes us dull and naive. We think that it is going to last forever – “Now I have the peace of being asleep. Now everything is okay.” But, it doesn’t last.

All of that is the first fact of life, the first noble truth.

The second fact is that these dissatisfying experiences have a cause. Ordinarily, we feel that is just the way it is, it has no cause or it happens from all the ideas we mentioned earlier – chance, luck, or whatever. Buddha said the deepest cause, the true cause, is karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes. Both come from confusion. “Confusion” does not mean dementia or Alzheimer’s; confusion means either we don’t know what is happening or we have an incorrect idea of what is happening. The first fact of life is the results of karma; and the cause, the second fact, is karma and disturbing emotions.

The third fact is that it is possible to achieve a full stopping of all this, which means they will never come back again. It is not just suppressing them so that they do not come back for a long time. We are not talking about that, although maybe you can do that. Buddhism says that we can get rid of them, so that they never come back again.

The fourth fact is that to bring this about you have to do something; it is not just going to happen by good luck or whatever. We have to change our attitudes to get rid of the confusion and get rid of the karma. The destructive behavior that brings unhappiness comes from disturbing emotions like anger, greed, and so on. When we talk about any of these – constructive, destructive, or neutral actions, which bring us unhappiness, happiness (unsatisfying happiness), and neutral feelings respectively – they all come from disturbing attitudes in terms of “me,” confusion about how the “I” exists and about reality.

What is the importance of this? In general, we talk about karma as the cause of what we experience. We are not saying that it comes from an outside force. It is not coming from the devil or from demons that are sending us or giving us this bad karma, as in, “The devil made me do it.” Karma and all these things come from our own confusion. This confusion is not part of our nature and it does not come from God. God did not create us this way. It did not come about because of original sin. This confusion has no beginning from the Buddhist point of view. It is nobody’s fault; you can’t blame anyone.

Karma is always together with the disturbing emotions and attitudes. It does not exist independently by itself, affecting what happens to us by its own inherent power. It doesn’t come from outside and we can’t blame it on anyone else, nor on ourselves. We can’t feel guilty about it, because of original sin – as in “I am a bad person” – it is just a beginningless phenomenon, not the actual nature of who we are.

The Three Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Views

There are three basic presentations of karma in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The first is that of the Vaibhashika school, one of the four Indian tenet systems. It derives from the Indian abhidharma text written by Vasubandhu, Abhidharmakosha (Chos mngon-pa’i mdzod), A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge. The second presentation derives from his brother Asanga’s text, Abhidharmasamuccaya (Chos mngon-pa kun-las btus-pa), An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, and is Mahayana. Specifically, it is from the Chittamatra point of view, and the Madhyamaka presentation is a slight variation on it. All four Tibetan traditions agree on all of this. The only exception is in the Gelug tradition, which asserts that Prasangika-Madhyamaka has its own presentation. Gelug Prasangika basically follows Vasubandhu’s system, but with some major amendments to it.

Here, let’s look only at Asanga’s system. It is the least complicated to understand.

Karma Is an Impulse, Not the Act Itself

According to this view, karma (las) is a mental impulse. It is synonymous with the mental factor of an urge (sems-pa). An urge is a mental factor that accompanies every moment of our experience. It is the mental factor that brings us in the direction of a particular experience, either simply to look at or to listen to something, or, in this case, to do something with or to it, to say it, or to think it. Whether it is physical, verbal, or mental karma, the karmic impulse is the mental factor of an urge to do, say, or think something. It is like the impulse to hit someone, to tell the truth, or to think longing thoughts about a loved one. It is also the mental urge to continue doing, saying, or thinking something, as well as the mental urge to stop engaging in them and to do, say, or think about something else. Usually, we are not at all aware of these compelling mental urges or impulses. In Western terminology, we would say they are usually “unconscious.”

Karma is not some kind of mental mechanical law. Karma is a mental factor (sems-byung), a subsidiary awareness accompanying our experiencing of things. It is a way of knowing something that assists a primary consciousness, for instance visual or mental consciousness, with taking its object. When we are looking at a piece of paper, for example, one aspect of the way we are seeing it may be the impulse to tear it up. It is a mental event. That mental impulse that accompanies our seeing the piece of paper is the karma here. Karma is not the physical action itself of tearing it up, or even the mental action of thinking about tearing it up; karma is what brings on first the mental action and then the physical action. Karma both leads into these actions, sustains them and brings them to a halt, but is not the actions themselves.

When the impulse comes up, that is the karma. We always have a choice about whether or not to act it out, even though sometimes the impulse or urge to do or say something is very compelling. If we act it out, the action that it leads us to do has consequences on our own later experience.

Results of Karmic Actions

What comes from karmic actions – in other words, what comes from compulsive behavior? Some of the things include feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness, experiencing a rebirth state and an environment, experiencing being male or female, American or German, being in a clean place or a dirty place, and so on. Another thing that comes from them is a compulsive feeling or desire (’dod-pa) to act in a similar way to how we acted before. This is also a mental factor, a subsidiary awareness, and, when it arises, it accompanies our cognition. We would like to act that way, we feel like acting like that, and we want to do it again. Whether or not we pay attention to this feeling as something worthwhile to act out depends on many other variables, not the least of which are the external circumstances we are in. Experiencing the feeling may or may not bring about the arising of an impulse to repeat that action, and the impulse to repeat it may or may not lead to actually repeating it. If the impulse arises, that impulse is another karma.

Another result is the experiencing of something similar to what we did before, but now happening back to us. For example, we were always complaining and now we are always meeting people who complain to us.

Finally, our perception of things is very limited. We can only see what is in front of our noses. We cannot really see why someone acted in a certain way or what the consequences of our actions will be. I call this “periscope vision,” because it is like looking through a periscope in a submarine. We are constantly producing and experiencing this periscope perception.

All of that is the result of acting out the impulses of karma. It is very complex because the results of karmic behavior are constantly going up and down – in one moment we are happy, in the next we are unhappy; now this happens and now that happens; now I feel like doing this and now I feel like doing that. While our experiences are going up and down, we also experience periscope vision, we don’t really understand what is going on. We look through the periscope and see something and the “I feel like” factor comes in. We see chocolate and, liking it, we feel happiness and feel like eating it.

“Liking it,” by the way, is the mental factor of seeing the chocolate with pleasant contacting awareness (reg-pa). In the West, we speak of “liking something” in a more abstract way than in Buddhism. Here, “liking something” refers to the mental factor that actually accompanies the cognition of “something we like.” It too is a product that ripens from karma, the same as is feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness.

Please note that liking chocolate and feeling like eating some are not disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs). They may or may not act as a circumstance for longing desire (’dod-chags) for the chocolate to arise, which is a disturbing emotion. Longing desire exaggerates the good qualities of something. Liking chocolate and feeling like eating some could also be circumstances that give rise to naivety (gti-mug) about the effect of eating it right before supper – another disturbing state of mind. On the other hand, they could act as circumstances for the mental factor of ethical discipline to arise – a constructive state of mind – to restrain from acting out our longing desire or naivety.

Suppose longing desire and naivety both arise. We might then lose sight of the fact that we are on a diet, it doesn’t agree with us, or whatever. This means we no longer maintain mindfulness (dran-pa) of that fact, which is equivalent to not remembering it.

Then, because of all these contributing factors that result from karmic actions – namely, seeing chocolate through our periscope, liking it, and feeling like eating it – the impulse comes to eat it. That impulse is a new karma. We then act it out and, from this, come all the consequences. Some of the consequences are mechanical results, like gaining weight and so on. Other results are more long-term things, such as later feeling like eating some more. It is these long-term effects that we are trying to get rid of when we try to purify karma.

Question about Intuition

Is intuition mentally originated or not? Is it more mental, or is it more soul and spirit?

As I often explain, if you have a pie that you are cutting into two or three pieces, there are many different ways to do it; each language is cutting it into two or three different sized pieces. When we talk about our experience, we can divide it as you have divided it – into spirit, soul, and mind – or you can divide it the Tibetan way, and they don’t correspond at all. Let me explain how, from a Tibetan Buddhist point of view, we would explain intuition.

In Buddhism, we are talking about how you know something. Our Western way of saying that we can know something either “intellectually” or “intuitively” doesn’t correspond exactly to the Tibetan way of cutting the pie. In both systems, the division is according to how we do know something that is more obscure than what we can see.

Consider the case of knowing somebody else’s state of mind. According to the Buddhist framework, we could know it by relying on a line of reasoning: “This person is not speaking to me and has a certain expression on her face. Usually, somebody who looks like that is upset about something. Therefore, she is upset.” That would correspond to what we call in the West “an intellectual knowing.” Buddhism calls it “inferential cognition” (rjes-dpag).

Alternatively, we know she is upset without relying on a line of reasoning. Either we just presume she is upset based on what we “feel,” which means based on what we think. Buddhism calls that “presumption” (yid-dpyod), an unreliable way of knowing something. What we presume is true may or may not be the case. Alternatively, we may have so much experience in the past that we just see it and “know.” In the West, we would say that the latter case is an intuitive knowing, because we did not have to reason it out. But in fact, Buddhism would say that we are still using inference, although it may not be verbal. Based on recognizing certain signs, we conclude that the person is upset. Another possibility is that we could know that someone else is upset by ESP. Buddhism identifies that as a form of non-conceptual straightforward mental cognition. In the West, such a knowing is another example of what would be called “intuition.”

Another example is an understanding of voidness, the nature of reality. We could understand it based on logic and reasoning, or we could automatically understand it from habit, based on a lot of experience from past lives. Maybe you would call the one “intellectual” and the other “intuitive” in Western terms.

From another point of view, when we say in the West that we have just an “intellectual understanding” of voidness, we usually mean that our understanding is not deeply felt on a gut level; while an “intuitive understanding” is deeply felt. From a Buddhist analytical point of view, the difference between the two understandings lies in the level of conviction that accompanies the understanding. The same level of conviction can accompany a cognition of voidness whether it arises from reliance on a line of reasoning or from habit and familiarity.

That is the way that Buddhism explains it, we don’t use concepts like “soul” or “spirit.” It is not in terms of where the understanding comes from, but rather, how does it arise, which mental factors accompany it, and what are the levels of intensity of those factors.

One last point: Just as I explained karma by pointing out different conceptual frameworks that we are not explaining, similarly, to answer your question, we would have to exclude all of the things that are not part of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist explanation, like soul, spirit, and so on. We are describing an experience; it is just a matter of how you describe it. They are different systems.