“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.”
The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, 6.63
Lots of people in the modern United States think they know what karma is. Karma, as the saying goes, is a bitch, often accompanied by an image or a story of a person who engages in some obvious misconduct and quickly suffers her/his comeuppance for it.
But karma is not a bitch. Karma is a law of nature, like gravity. It is true that, if you jump off of a building, gravity will seem like more an enemy than a friend, but that’s not gravity’s fault. We all know solid bodies, including our own, will fall in space. Neither gravity nor karma really cares about you per se. Both are completely impersonal. If you attribute hostility or any other emotion to them, you are making a mistake.
Buddhists say that karma is just the law of cause and effect. Do X, expect Y. Do good, expect to be happy. Do bad, expect to be sad. In modern scientific terms, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, except that the reaction, or action, follows in the same direction as the intent.
Karma can be where Buddhism seems to veer closest to being metaphysical. Likely part of the reason humans like to make up gods is because the temporal connection between the cause and the effect can be highly attenuated. Again, if you believe in rebirth, the effects of your misdeeds may not visit you until a subsequent lifetime, or the reason for your misfortune right now may be a misdeed in a previous lifetime. Paradox alert: some practitioners celebrate when anything bad happens to them because they see it as burning off bad karma. But if you don’t have karma as an explanation, when something bad happens to you, and you can’t connect it clearly to some obvious misdeed, then it might make sense to posit some unseen entity that controls your destiny. Again, karma is not some deity punishing you for your bad deeds, it is simply the law of cause and effect operating as a natural feature of the universe.
Hint: according to Buddhism, you control your own destiny. One way of understanding Buddhism is as a radical statement of your own responsibility for all that you are, or are not. The advantage of positing a deity is that our deities are usually more or less anthropomorphic, meaning they are more or less susceptible to cajoling, whining, and appeals. If you’re lucky and do the right things, your god might let you off the hook. Not karma. You screw up deliberately (and, as the quotation above indicates, intention counts for a lot in karma), you will pay the price. You behave yourself deliberately, you will enjoy the benefit.
People often use the metaphor of seeds for explaining karma. You reap what you sow. Plant cactus, you’ll get cactus. Plant daffodils, you’ll get daffodils. This metaphor does extend to the climate of cultivation, meaning that you can mitigate the effects of karma with your current conduct. If you’re on your best behavior, the effect of past bad karma will not be as severe as if you continue your bad behavior. On the other hand, if you’re gleefully indulging your bad girl/bad boy, the effects of your bad karma will be even worse.
At one level, this all sounds very simple, and in some sense it is. But the Buddha and other teachers sometimes sound a bit, um, obsessive about karma. Tibetans believe a figure called Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet. Padmasambhava is reputed to have said that, while his view (in the Buddhist sense) is as wide as the sky, his attention to the law of karma was as fine as barley flour. I have never encountered any barley flour, but I assume it must be pretty fine stuff. Again, this takes us back to mindfulness and your mindless, repetitive thoughts. If you let the mindless tape run, you’re more likely to allow accumulated intentions that you are not consciously aware of influence your conduct and thereby unwittingly accumulate bad karma. The more mindful you become, the more likely you are to be aware of your intentions at all times and thus choose to act with only good intentions and accumulate good karma.
It can be tempting to use karma as an excuse to blame the victim. Something bad happened to you? Tough. You deserved it. But one should mostly apply karma to one’s self. The skeins of karma are tangled and complicated and we can’t see most of them, so it’s not a good idea to be too confident in our evaluation of other people’s karma. Recall that the law of karma is very different from the notion of “sin.” Being impersonal, suffering from bad karma does not make you a bad person, it just means you’re still human. We should also focus more on the cause end of the chain than the effect end. Just behave yourself and know that you will be happier in the long run, without having to trace any particular moment of happiness to any particular previous, meritorious act. Similarly, don’t try to connect anyone else’s current misery to her/his previous unmeritorious act. A chief Buddhist virtue is compassion and one should always do what one can to help other people without stopping to ask how they got themselves into that situation. Failing to be compassionate is bad karma for you regardless of the karma that got the beneficiary of your compassion where s/he is right now.
To repeat an important point: one advantage of believing in reincarnation is that it gives you more time to work off bad karma and accumulate good karma. You never exhaust all of your karma. Even the Buddha had some pretty bad things happen in his life after he achieved enlightenment. In an interesting parallel to the Christian story of Satan as an angel who fell from grace, the Buddha had a cousin, Devadatta, who jumped the shark and tried, unsuccessfully, to kill the Buddha. The people he hired to kill the Buddha became fearful when they tried to implement their plan and instead became Buddhists.
Karma obviously ties in well with the Noble Eightfold Path. Unsurprisingly, following the Noble Eightfold Path is a good way to maximize good karma while minimizing bad karma. Right view, intention/thought, speech, action, livelihood, etc. are all steps to more good karma and less bad karma. So again, to sum up, just behave yourself, and you’ll be happier in the long run.