What is karma? It’s simple.

optical illusion

I recently posted an article about “karma” that I found on the Examiner that I thought was very well written. As with any concept in Buddhism, describing what “karma” is the length of an article can be very tricky and difficult to do in a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand manner. I thought the author of this article, Emily, achieved both and therefore posted it on my Facebook account.

My friend pointed out that the way Emily described karma diverged from the way another author, Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, described karma from another article I had posted on Facebook a while back. I reread both articles and she was right, they did conflict in the way they described “karma”. But both descriptions seemed valid. Both authors seemd to know what they were talking about and I never thought twice to think they conflicted until my friend brought it up. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Who has the more accurate description of karma?

I think the major difference between the two articles is in the perspective of the author. The link from the Examiner is from a writer named Emily Brede, who has “studied the Buddhist suttas for more than 10 years”. She also “regularly attends local Buddhist events run by groups such as the Buddhist Bodhi Association of Columbus”. Therefore, I think she takes Buddhism from a lay person’s point of view. It shows in how she starts her article – she claims karma “is not a theory or something to believe in” and doesn’t require one “to believe in reincarnation or higher mental states to see this demonstrated.” This more philosophical take on Buddhism is much more appealing and makes more sense to nonbelievers and Westerners foreign to Buddhism.

The author of the link I posted before is a Burmese monk by the name of Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw. As you mentioned the way he describes “karma” in his article is very different than Emily’s. In his beginning sentences he describes karma as a “law of moral causation”, a “theory”, a “ doctrine”, and a “belief”. This blatantly contrasts Emily’s POV.

So why does the same concept of “karma” described by two different people that have studied Buddhism come out so differently? Both explanations make sense to me. If my friend hadn’t pointed out the differences, I would never have thought twice about it. And if someone asked me what karma was, I’d mostly likely come up with a description different from both of theirs. I’d choose different words and different phrases and that’s because I’m coming from a different background. I see karma in my life probably in a different way both of those authors see karma in their lives.

It would be similar to a situation where I tell two different people to describe a lamp in a full article. They might start with similar descriptions (the light bulb, the shade, the material, etc) but they’d eventually diverge, using their personal experiences and knowledge to describe it the way they know it. They’d make comparisons and analogies, bring up stories and related situations, whatever means possible to best communicate their thoughts. And though both people might directly contrast in their descriptions (maybe one describes  the lamp as furniture and one says it’s not furniture), we can understand them in both perspectives, whether we agree or disagree, and obtain a deeper understanding of whatever it may be, karma or lamp, that words maybe can’t fully articulate.

12 Replies to “What is karma? It’s simple.”

  1. I agree with your analysis. The fact that both authors have diverging descriptions doesn’t mean their definitions are mutually exclusive. Emily described karma as basically “cause and effect” and the other author says it is “moral causation” and also uses the phrase “cause and effect,” so at the core of their definitions they are essentially making the same point.

    Also, it’s quite natural for there to be different interpretations of the same teachings and concepts because, as you said, everyone is bringing to the table their own assumptions, knowledge, and experiences. So I think the idea of the “most accurate” definition is less important than the one that makes the most sense for you.

  2. Excellent blog! As an extremely off-topic aside, when I was in a writer’s workshop, one day the instructor asked us to sit in a circle, and she placed a water bottle on a stool in the center, and then asked us to describe the water bottle.

    What you described is exactly what happened – after getting past the description, however florid it may have been, people started to describe in one way or another their own personal relationship to the bottle.

  3. Charita: Yes, I like the idea that the most accurate isn’t as important as what makes sense. But I also think the tricky part is that you can’t stray too far from what is “accurate”. After all, you can’t go around making comments about karma like Sharon Stone did after the Sichuan Earthquake happened: “All theses earthquake and stuff happened and I thought, ‘Is that karma?’ When you are not nice that bad things happen to you.” Karma is still a concept taught by the Buddha that has a distinct meaning to it. So how do we write something as accurately as possible when it’s inevitable that it will be influenced by personal bias? (This reminds me of Sotomayor)

    John: Wow, I wish we did that exercise in some of the writing workshops I’ve been in. As a side note, that is why I have a problem with people who read the Bible and try to teach it to me thinking that they hold the ultimate, one and only truth. I don’t mind learning more about the Bible – in fact, I find it quite interesting. But to me, the truth is that every Christian person I know has given me slightly different versions of something as uniform as the Gospel. Yet, each of them, especially if they are of different denominations, assert that each has the “real truth” and the others are misguided. From my perspective, I think they’re just missing the point.

    By the way, did you guys understand why I put that image in the post?

  4. Asked to describe a lamp, a Zen person would just turn on the lamp.

    What would be the equivalent method with the concept of karma?

    Now I’m drinking green tea . . . aaahhh!

  5. “How many Zen people does it take to turn on a lamp…”

    Oh wait, never mind.

    From a book I read recently from a Japanese Buddhist priest (Hosso, not Zen), he stated:

    To restate the truth taught by Śākyamuni [Buddha], all things are brought into existence based on a wide range of causes and conditions. All things (all dharmas), whether they be psychic or material phenomena, occur because various elements harmonize temporarily in specific conditions. Not being established for more than an instant, they absolutely do not exist as fixed, unchanging substances. Therefore, once the provisional combination disintegrates, all phenomena disappear at once. In this way, all dharmas are in a continual state of flux.

    Sums up karma and interdependence pretty well, methinks. 🙂

  6. Karma = things are interdependent = existence is dense.

    This is a theory in the same sense that the theory of evolution is “just a theory,” and we believe karma when we observe it and impute what we observe to karma.

    However, with enough observation one can indeed readily conclude that karma is a law of moral causation.

    No contradiction as to what karma is; there is a difference in how they arrive at the viewpoints however. One is more or less doctrinal, the other is experientially derived.

  7. Perhaps it’s the result of my upbringing, but I have to agree with Mahasi Sayadaw. The approach Emily Brede takes is more tangible and practical, without a doubt, by using the analogy of how a person’s actions affect those around them. But I think it fails to take into account how one’s karma stems from previous existences as well as the current, maybe because the idea of rebirth is unpalatable to many people.

  8. The picture: I see it as a man with at least three penises, spitting something out of his mouth. I’m guessing if you look at it in a different way it appears as something else? I dunno! 🙂

    I like your blog, by the way. I just came across it.

    Keep writing!


  9. Karma is that inherent ingredient of cosmic system which facilitates movement from one manifestation to another… from one body to next! Life in cosmic system belongs to our soul atman… the spirit within! Every soul atman manifests human body to work out it’s karma… remove dross impurities within! From first manifestation to last… 8.4 millionth manifestation… effort of every soul atman remains regaining its lost original pure prime pristine primordial form at the earliest!

    The moment complete dross impurities within soul atman removed… human beings reached stage of enlightenment (kaivalya jnana) and finally salvation (moksha)! Manifestation after manifestation… body of body human beings are expected to negate presence of karma in the body! Our soul atman… the spirit within is absolute master and controller of human form. It is not within the capability of human body to manifest a soul atman!

Comments are closed.