Karma: It’s Not About what we Do.

Via Culadasa and Matthew Immergut
on Feb 3, 2015
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Hartwig HKD/Flickr

Karma: that word that gets thrown around a lot.

People talk about “good” karma versus “bad” karma, or “your” karma versus “mine.”

But despite the term’s popularity, it seems like everybody has a different idea about what it actually means. If karma is truly one of the Buddha’s most important teachings, as he himself repeatedly emphasized, then to follow in his footsteps, we need to be clear about its definition.

The Problems with “Agricultural” Karma

Probably one of the most popular misunderstandings about Buddhist Karma is the idea that everything that happens to us is our karma. If we win the lottery or have an attractive partner, it’s because we performed good deeds in the past—we have “good” karma. If we get hit by a truck or our partner cheats on us, it’s because we misbehaved and have “bad” karma. And, of course, what we do now will determine our future results. Let’s just call this the agricultural view of karma: we reap what we sow.

So, what’s wrong with this idea? Well, whether we’re Buddhist or not, it creates lots of intellectual problems.

The first is that believing we reap what we sow simply seems to contradict a great deal of our experience. We act with kindness, maybe dropping a few coins into a homeless man’s can, only to have him call us a cheap yuppie. Or our chronically underperforming co-worker who spends most of the time surfing Facebook and pilfering office supplies gets a promotion.

In other words, the wicked very often seem to prosper, even thrive, while the good seem to get a goodly portion of crap.

How can this apparent contradiction be resolved? Proponents of agricultural karma will often use time as a rationalization. They will claim that just as a seed takes time to fruit, so do the fruits of your actions take time to ripen. Certainly, this helps. However, some things in life are still hard to explain.

Why, for example, do innocent infants die? They’ve barely had enough time to learn how to digest food properly, let alone perform some wicked deed. (Of course, we need to leave Stewie from Family Guy out of this equation, as well as the idea of the infant proposed by famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who viewed it as a viscous and greedy succubus bent on completely draining the mother of her vital energy.)

I’m sure you’ve already come up with the answer: we must be dealing with more than one lifetime. In fact, the claim is that we have an infinite number of lives extending into the past. With this explanation, all the rewards and atrocities of life fit together like a skillful game of Tetris. We have an account for why infants die, or why we can be completely loving and faithful to our partner, only to end up alone; it’s just our karmic comeuppance from cheating in a previous life.

Sure, we still might feel unhappy because our partner is now dating a princess from Bhutan, but at least we can mourn with a sense of ease, knowing there is some order to events in the universe, and that these personal painful events are just the fruits of old, bad karma. We can also rest easy because in the future, we’ll also reap the rewards of our fidelity—it just might take time.

If we stop here, then all is well.

However, if we push a little further beyond this logical seal, then we confront what we call “the administrative nightmare.” How can all those good and bad deeds possibly be kept track of? And not just in one lifetime, but across infinite lifetimes? What conceivable cosmic ledger could account for all those transactions? It seems like an administrative impossibility to coordinate that vast amount of information and organize events so everything unfolds correctly, and justice gets served to the right people, at the right time, in just the right way. The organizational details are so complex that it leads people to say that karma is some infinitely subtle, ineffable cosmic order, inaccessible to even the most sophisticated minds.

An even bigger problem is that, with infinite lifetimes, absolutely everyone would have enough karma for nearly anything to happen to them. Put it this way: we all have everything coming.

The irony is that this view of karma ends up undermining its original purpose of explaining an individual’s unique, personal history.

Even if we manage to somehow dismiss these logical problems, we’re left with one that chafes at the heart of Buddhism. This view of karma presupposes an abiding self that’s responsible for these events, whereas the Buddha’s central message was the radical proposal that there is no self (anattā). The agricultural view of karma rests on there being some sort of enduring “you” (call it a self, soul, mind-stream, or whatever) who is responsible for what “you” did in the past, and a “you” who will benefit or be cursed in the future.

This view of karma contributes to acting in self-cherishing, ego-reinforcing ways. In other words, it supports the very self-illusion that the Buddha considered the root of our suffering.

Karma as Intention

What did the Buddha really mean by karma? The answer is simple: intention.

He said, “Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect.” Defining karma in this way, the Buddha departed radically from all previous thinking about karma.

In the traditional Brahmanical culture of India, karma generally referred to action. Do good deeds, and the universe will reward you in turn. But by redefining karma as the intentions behind one’s actions, the Buddha was pointing to a deeper truth: the kinds of intentions we habitually entertain—whether they’re generous and loving, or selfish and aversive—will determine the kind of mental space we inhabit. We can’t fully control whether our dog runs away, or whether our partner cheats on us, but we do have a say in what kind of person meets those events.

Karma as intention was the central message the Buddha emphasized over and over. The more any acts of body, speech, or mind are motivated by poisonous intentions such as greed and hatred, the more toxic we become, and the more we suffer, no matter what happens to us externally. The reverse is also true: intentions of compassion and wisdom shape us into beings with greater patience, who are less susceptible to suffering, no matter what happens to us externally.

To put it succinctly: Buddhist karma is not about what happens to you, but who it happens to.

Yes, the Wicked can Prosper

The Buddha’s focus on intention rather than actions and external circumstances allows us to fully acknowledge that the wicked can prosper, and that selfish behavior can bring a person great fortune and power. However, the mental state of such a person surrounded by luxury is a whole different matter. This also means that acting with compassionate intentions won’t magically prevent us from confronting the slings and arrows of life’s misfortune.

But acting out of wholesome intentions opens up the possibility of becoming a person who encounters these challenges with less grumpiness and greater ease. We have exemplars of this possibility in our great spiritual luminaries, such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn. The fruit of their karma was not the atrocities they were victims of, but the equanimity and active compassion they show in the face of such extreme oppression and violence.

So too, getting sick is not the result of one’s bad karma. People grow old, experience the pain of illness, and eventually die. The Buddha never said you could plant the right karmic seeds to avoid any of these. They’re simply not optional.

However, whether or not we suffer when confronted by them is entirely up to us.

Not Everything is your Karma

In a sense, it’s true that karma means we reap what we sow. The only difference is that we’re sowing in the furrows of the mind, and less so in actual fields in the physical world.

That’s not to say our actions don’t have consequences. If we go around smiling at people, we’ll likely be smiled at in return. If we go around slapping people, we’re sure to get slapped. Yet, the ultimate outcome of our behavior is somewhat unpredictable. We could smile at a stranger, only to have them beat us up in return.

This unpredictability happens because there are other levels of causality working in the universe.

Not everything is our karma.

The Buddha actually taught about these other levels of causality quite explicitly in what are called the five Niyāmas. It’s worth going through them briefly. Here, we give them a modern twist.

The first level of causality is called the Utu Niyāma, or the level of physics and chemistry.

The second level is known as Bīja Niyāma, or biological causality. This new level is necessary because living organisms are more complex than just their physical and chemical constituents.

Continuing up the ladder of emergent complexity, we see that some living organisms have nervous systems and minds, which can’t be fully understood by just looking at the previous two levels of Utu and Bija Niyāma. Therefore, the Buddha talked about the Citta Niyāma, or psychological causality.

Now, some minds have a more hard-wired relationship with the previous levels. Take a lizard, for example. It behaves fairly predictably, based on tight wiring between chemical signals and genetic codes. We will never train a lizard to fetch a newspaper. Other minds, such as those of dogs and horses, have greater flexibility. Yet, teaching a dog to fetch the newspaper depends on an outside stimulus—specifically, our persistent efforts. The behavior doesn’t come entirely from inside the dog’s mind. And in fact, there may be only one animal on this planet with “self-forming” minds: humans. For us, we have to identify another level of causality: karmic or intentional causality, known as the Kamma Niyāma.

Kamma Niyāma opens a space for reflexivity, self-organization, and changing ingrained habits of body, speech, and mind. The preciousness of human life rests in this potential. Karmic causality, in other words, is a whole new level of causality in the universe, allowing us the chance to awaken to the highest level, called Dhamma Niyāma, or Ultimate Reality.

Dhamma Niyāma describes the absolute, indivisible reality, the universe in its entirety. All divisions from these heights are products of a mind struggling to grasp the ultimate. We build conceptual models to try to understand this level, and some models are certainly better than others. If that weren’t the case, the Buddha wouldn’t have bothered teaching. But at this level, all models are equally empty.

To say that everything is our karma is to usurp this vast spectrum of causality into a singular, self-centered mind.

When we realize the complexity we’re dealing with, we no longer see events as a result of karma, but rather as the product of certain physical causes and conditions. We also no longer fall prey to magical thinking, believing, for example, that by giving away money and being nice, we will get money in return and be showered with niceness.

Instead, we realize that when we replace hatred with compassion, or greed with generosity, those intentions will shape the type of being we become, whether rich or poor.

That’s karma.



Authors: Culadasa and Matthew Immergut

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr


About Culadasa and Matthew Immergut

Culadasa (John Yates, PhD) is a former professor of neuroscience and has practiced Buddhist meditation for over four decades. He is the director of Dharma Treasures Buddhist Sangha in Tucson, Arizona. He has studied both Theravadin and Tibetan traditions, providing his students with a broad and in-depth perspective on the Buddha Dharma. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Using Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science.

Matthew Immergut, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purchase College, SUNY with a focus on new religious movements, charismatic authority, and the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and social theory. He is a longtime meditator, student of Culadasa’s, and the second author of The Mind Illuminated.


79 Responses to “Karma: It’s Not About what we Do.”

  1. Alistair Holmes says:

    Hi Matthew,

    Re the first of the second set of points, when I posed the equivalent of what you have called "the administrative nightmare" to my learned friend, he countered that it isn't necessary to deduce which specific act in the past has caused its subsequent specific result. As a hypothetical example, we can't and don't need to ascertain that a $100 windfall received today is the result of offering $5 to the homeless person on 47th & 8th at 1.10pm on July 14, 2003. It is acknowledged that as far as we are concerned the result could have come from any one of numerous acts of giving that one may have performed in this life (or in past lives if one subscribes to that view). It is not saying that giving works only some of the time, but that it works all the time and on this basis one can act with confidence that our positive actions will bring positive results in the future in accordance with the karmic law patterns (such as giving leads to material prosperity; ethical living to health and long life). All we need to know is that any result comes from planting some similar seed in the past because results have to be similar, as well as subsequent to, their cause. (This position is premised, of course, on the acceptance of karmic laws as immutable, as well as precise and complete, such that giving, for example, is always a cause, and indeed the only cause, of prosperity – unless the seed is destroyed prior to fruition by some negative action).

    Re the second point – just to add that this issue, among other things, seems to get to the heart of the debate as to whether something needs to have some nature of its own in order to function. The Mind Only school, for example, asserts that the consciousness storing the vast array of karmic seeds, as well as the seeds themselves and the mechanism by which they ripen, must have some nature of their own in order to function. The Middle Way denies that and i think that is one expression of it as they contend that the mere "I" imputed upon an ever changing stream of consciousness can serve as a valid basis for the accumulation, storage and ripening of karma not just within a single lifetimes but from lifetime to lifetime. An extremely subtle debate for sure.

  2. Christine Johnson says:

    The essential point I take away, is that given "karma" as a collection of mental factors (intentions, motivations, habitual dispositions) no remainder is left for a self of persons nor a self of phenomena.

    That by "acting out of wholesome intentions [one] opens up the possibility of becoming a person who encounters these challenges with less grumpiness and greater ease."

    I don't read encountering the "challenges" as a lesser accomplishment. But concordant with the delightful humor of the piece, this is one obvious outcome and one that shouldn't precipitate a metaphysical debate on the nature of awakening.

  3. Matthew says:

    Hi Bill

    Thanks for this. Your points are well taken and it is quite similar to the thread presented by Edward S. above.

    But I want to take a different approach here and discuss the nature of authority on the spiritual path. One form of authority is tradition and scripture. We look to the wisdom of the past as a source of knowledge and guidance for our practice and beliefs in the present. This is certainly a legitimate form of authority and quite beautiful and important. But it is not the only form of authority. Another is our personal experience. Assessing this form of authority means asking a very simple but critically important question: does the path, practice and beliefs we've adopted yield results? Does it, to put it simply, move us away from suffering and toward greater compassion and love for ourselves and others?

    So my question for you is as follows: have the teachings of karma that you've presented above yielded the expected results in your personal experience? If the answer is yes, that your personal experience and the teachings align, then that's wonderful! You have two forms of legitimate authority for making claims about the authority of specific teachings. If the answer is "no" or "not always," then we have a very interesting situation. This situation is one in which we find a gap or disconnect between what we believe and our actual experience. This often causes some tension and as we've pointed out in the article above, there are a variety of intellectual moves we use to resolve this tension, and to have our beliefs align with our experience.

    So what has your experience been? Have the traditional Tibetan teachings of karma as presented above aligned with your experience? Or has there been a disconnect? And if the latter, how have you resolved that tension?

    Be well


  4. Peter M says:

    Thank you for this detailed clarification Master Culadasa.
    This makes – to me – a lot of sense.

    In your opinion: Where do the "external events" that befall us come from? What is there cause?

    In addition: Do you feel that our mental ability to respond to events (external or internal like thoughts, emotions) is a choice irrespective of our past deeds?

    With kind regards, Peter

  5. Edward S Teddy S says:

    Very beautifully written and thank you for a wonderful response Alistair.

    Master Culadasa says

    "karma does produce consequences of a type that include things that happen to us via the first three niyamas, but these are indirect consequences. That is, there are other factors at work besides karmic intention. Our thoughts and intentions may make us into the sort of people who do things that put ourselves in the way of great pain and suffering. However, karma didn't so much make these things happen as cause us to put ourselves in a position to experience them. "

    That seems close to agricultural karma.. I think that the Tibetan system goes a little farther in its extension to say that the very event you experience is also your karma. Not just the mental attitude you have towards it even if there are other factors at work by indirect consequence. I could also, be completely wrong! Only our direct insight via analysis will be substantial enough for us to feel firm in our understanding. Reading others articles and so forth are only supplementation for it.

    The initial presentation from Matthew and Master Culadasa seems to hint at a self existent substantial world that performs functions entirely of its own accord separate from a perceiver labeling events. The subject object distinction is where I have a hang up. Do objects perform events on their own, entirely without a perceiver perceiving the events and labeling them as such?

    Well surely the world was created before I was born and the bases where here for me to label life, body experience, etx,

    But the entire way that i put all of that together and create the mental picture of what all that means and further more the very events themselves such as the label big bang etx. Did those events occur before we had a basis for describing them, labeling, them and constructing them together to make up the stories we now call evolution ?

    Perhaps that seems very foolish to consider that we would have a part in that construction of what we know call universe, however what construction do we know aside from the construction that we piece together and label as "events"? Its something I need to study alot more of and i know that there is a beautiful and very very subtle distinction beyond my current understanding and the various extremes of eternalism and nihilism i go into when thinking about this.

    They say that Je Tsongkapa after he had the ability to communicate directly with Manjushri was still not at the highest level of Madyamaka. I wonder where there puts us -L O L .

    The presentations from Berzins archive are for me the greatest I have found on many subject matter, especially rebirth and mental continuum. I mean i have literally had my mind blown away by his explanation of the 4 kinds of continuum and rebirth from the Buddhist WV and not a permanent soul theory. Anyways.

    In his presentation of karma he Includes.

    " There are 4 General Laws of karma.

    1.The certainty of results. Meaning we can be sure that if we experience unhappiness that the unhappiness is from a deconstructive type of behavior and if we experience happiness we did something constructive in the past.

    2.The second law of karma is the increase of results: from a small action very large results can follow

    3.The third law is that if we have not committed a certain kind of action, we will not experience its results. Many people die in an airplane crash, but a few people survive. Why? They haven’t committed the cause to die in that crash, so they don’t experience the results.

    4.The fourth law is: if we have committed an action, the karmic aftermath on our mental continuum is not going to go away by itself; it is not going to get so old that it doesn’t ripen. Eventually, at some point, unless we purify it, it will ripen. It may take a million years, but it will ripen unless we purify it away. "

    I ultimately think that the subtle distinction of that is beyond taking it at face value and both systems here are at least in agreement that the bulk of what karma is, is intention. That also seems to be where alot of our work needs to occur. At the level of intention.

    Great discussion and for me it now rests in more study.


  6. BillMcM1776 says:

    Hello Matthew!

    Nice to hear from you here!

    "Your points are well taken…but I want to take a different approach here."

    I'm going to take it then that you concede that in Tibetan Buddhism they are being literal when they say that,
    "One cannot meet a consequence if he has not
    committed an action."

    Q – "have the teachings of karma that you've presented above yielded the expected results in your personal experience?"

    A – Sometimes dramatically, other times, dramatically not. However, what I personally expected has not always been an accurate reflection of what Tibetan Buddhism tells us to expect. I have had many spiritual crises where I thought something in the teachings was flawed, only to learn later that the only thing that was flawed was my own understanding of them! So, the more complete answer would be, yes I believe the teachings on karma to be accurate, and my own experience to date has tended to validate this. In fact, the further I get down the path, my astonishment has been at how accurate and profound the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures have been!

    Q – "..has there been a disconnect? And if the latter, how have you resolved that tension?"

    A – What you describe as tension has often been more extreme for me personally, so I would call it a crisis – an experience that turns your belief system upside down. How do you resolve it? The only way possible – by continuing to study, and discussing the matter with serious practitioners who have studied the subject thoroughly. It is also critical to have a teacher whose knowledge is greater than your own. On a more personal level, patience, humility, and effort are critical. I also find some solace in the Bible and the apparent moment of doubt that Jesus experiences in Matthew 27:46, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?". If Jesus, as the Rolling Stones say, had his moment of doubt and pain, who am I to think I won't?

    It is wonderful having this discussion with you!

  7. Kevin says:

    So are you saying one should consider Je Tsongkapa's teachings on karma to be incorrect if they don't align with one's personal experience?

  8. Vincent99 says:

    Buddha said , ''I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir'…

    "[This is a fact that] one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained..

    Many westerners have trouble accepting Buddha's teachings about karma. They tend to misinterpret what the Buddha taught about karma. Most westerners argue that innocent babies don't deserve to die or be stricken with grave illness. Well, karma is a law, just like gravity. If a baby climbs over a ledge, he/she will fall to her death. It is not cruel, it is the law of nature.

  9. Ted Lemon says:

    I think it's really great that this debate is happening. I feel like I need to make a few observations so that I can quit plotting what to say during my meditation, so here goes. I think there are three important topics to consider here: first, the nature and benefits of debate, second, the nature of the Dharma, and third, the actual question we are discussing.

    I've noticed a few responses to this discussion that seemed to be coming from a place of real discomfort with what is being said. This discomfort is a really wonderful thing—it's what we want to have happen when we engage in debate. The discomfort tells us that our debate partner has made a point that some part of us believes, but that contradicts what we think we believe.

    I have a tendency to respond, when this discomfort comes up, by wanting to correct my debate partner, for the benefit of people who might be misled. But actually I'm responding for my own benefit, to try to address the discomfort. The discomfort is actually coming from a form of grasping: grasping to some intellectual understanding of the dharma as being the correct understanding. It can be interesting to respond on an intellectual level, to try to construct a response that refutes the argument that has hit home, but the more valuable thing to do is to try to figure out _why_ it hit home.

    —to be continued—

  10. Ted Lemon says:

    The second point I wanted to raise is related: the nature of the Dharma. We tend to talk about the Dharma as if it's the teachings that are written down in the Pali canon or by more recent sages like Je Tsongkapa, or even more recent sages like Master Culadasa, whose writings we are discussing here, or some dear teachers of the Tibetan tradition whose names have not come up yet. But not one single word in the Pali canon, nor one single word that Je Tsongkapa wrote, nor even one word Master Culadasa has said, nor that our other teachers have said, is the Dharma.

    The Dharma is the realizations that arise in us when we study and struggle with what these sages have written, or with the words that we have heard from our teachers, or that arise in us when we undertake the practices that we have been advised to do. What is going on here is that great sages who have actually experienced the Dharma in their own minds are attempting through skillful means to awaken us to the ignorance that exists in our minds. We call the teachings "the Dharma," but that is because they are the closest thing we have to Dharma until they do their work on us.

    Master Culadasa's book on meditation consists of a number of different approaches to the question of how to meditate. Two of these are a series of models he uses to describe how the mind works, each model more fine-grained than the previous one, and a series of practices that one does in order to reach more complete stages of meditation. The models provide a way for us to reason about what we are doing that fit in very neatly with the practices we are taught to do.

    The reason for this long essay on the nature of debate, and of the Dharma, is to get to where I can draw the following analogy: the teachings on agricultural karma are very much like the models that Master Culadasa uses in his book. They are not the ultimate truth. They are not how the world actually works. They are not even how we want it to work. What they are is a practical mental model for how the world works that is applicable at a certain stage in our practice of virtue.

    —to be continued—

  11. Ted Lemon says:

    What Matthew and Master Culadasa have presented here is actually a very brief exposition on this model, which is described in great detail in the Tibetan teachings, and I'm sure also in the Pali Canon, although I have very limited knowledge there and am only speculating. The model makes a great deal more sense if you factor in all the other teachings about karma and rebirth that appear in the Abidharmakosha. For instance, the hell realms and the deva realms serve to use up great masses of negative or positive karma. They are like the giant suns and black holes to our gentle planet on which normal human life can occur.

    That said, it is just a model. It is helpful for approaching the practice of virtue because it provides a context in which we can reason about our actions and make choices about how to live without fearing worldly consequences. By internalizing this model, along with the teachings on emptiness, despite not being stream-enterers or enemy-destroyers, we are nevertheless able to some extent to practice selfless generosity and to restrain ourselves from engaging in negative deeds like lying that seem in a worldly sense to be of short-term benefit.

    I have practiced using the "agricultural" model of karma from the Abhidharmakosha for the past seventeen years. It has helped me to be more generous, to be more forgiving, to avoid engaging in activities that are harmful to others like lying and supporting war. My life, and my relationships to the people I love, have changed utterly since I started practicing using the agricultural model of karma. I haven't actually heard anything in this teaching that would lead me to want to abandon this practice.

    At the same time, Master Culadasa's criticisms of the model are completely valid. It is true that if one internalizes this model without also studying emptiness, one can get the impression that the benefits of acting with an understanding of karma accrue to "me." This is completely untrue, because this "me" to which the benefits would accrue doesn't exist in the way we think it does. And so it's possible to get attached to results and wind up weakening one's practice of virtue in the process, and losing faith when the fruits of the practice don't come in the way we expect. Master Culadasa's teachings on no self, which come from the Theravada tradition, are immensely helpful in avoiding this error, or at least mitigating it.

    So I think it's a mistake to read this teaching and reject it because it seems to contradict the Tibetan teachings. In a sense it does contradict the Tibetan teachings. But it does so in a profoundly useful way. This is good advice for practitioners of these teachings, from which we can benefit even if we change nothing else about our attitude toward those teachings. But it's also helpful to the extent that it allows us to let go of our attachment to the intellectual form of the teachings, which is not the true Dharma.

    As a person who is not a stream enterer nor an enemy-destroyer, I have very limited experience of what the Dharma is. I am relying utterly on the skillful means of my teachers, and on my own practice, to get to the point where I might actually experience it for myself in a comprehensive way. And it is with this in mind that I approach both the Tibetan teachings, and these teachings that Master Culadasa and Matthew have kindly offered to us.

  12. Matthew says:

    Hi Bill

    Hehe. No, I'm not conceding to anything just yet! I need to look deeper into the sources you refer to.

    In terms of A), then that's a wonderful situation. You have two sources of legitimation for such claims – authority of tradition as well as personal experience.

    In terms of B). There are certainly other ways to resolve the tension. Yes, some people continue to travel down the same path, sometimes sticking to it with a dogged determination that can both be noble and blind. Others choose to drop it and go in another direction, very often with lots of anger and hurt. Others may choose some middle ground between the two – neither rejecting it nor fully traveling down the same road.

    But more than anything, I'm glad you turned what was a crisis into inspiration!
    Be well

  13. Matthew says:

    Hi Kevin

    No. I'm not saying that at all. I'm simply saying that there are different sources of authority we can draw from on the spiritual path. One source of authority is scripture. Another is experience. Another is a teacher. Another is the community of practitioners. etc.


  14. Matthew says:

    Hi Ted

    I'm so glad you decided to write this rather than continuing to "write it" in your meditation sessions! You capture the idea of "attachment to views" very well and also suggest an interesting way to work with such attachments.

  15. Matthew says:


    Elegant, poignant and heart felt! Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a wise and balanced view.



  16. Peter M says:

    Hello Ted, thank you for your comment … I agree and in that sense the article has truly helped me along in a big way.
    Hope you are well!

  17. Peter M says:

    Hello Ted, …. long time no hear 🙂

    Thank you for your comment that I both value and agree with.
    The article is super valuable for me – in the sense that it triggered my own misunderstanding to arise – and it has helped me tremendously already.

    All the best to you and Andrea

  18. Ted Lemon says:

    Thanks! There's nothing like struggling with gross distraction for 45 minutes to really hone the argument that is causing the distraction… 🙂

  19. Ted Lemon says:

    I'm glad to hear it. It was nice to see your name on some postings here—it's been a long time!

  20. @CharlesXu10 says:

    Thanks for writing this article. I've got a quick question: How does "However, whether or not we suffer when confronted by them is entirely up to us." make any sense? When we starve, the suffering is real. Similarly, when we cut ourselves – by accident or on purpose – the pain is real. When we fall sick to major depressive disorder, the suffering hurts so much. No doubt, when the Dalai lama had his home invaded by the PRCs, the bullets, the killings, the destruction, the oppression were real. I'm sincere in reading what's in your mind. Because to me, the problem of Karma seems analogous to the problem of evil. I've tried to resolve them for decades. I'm not trying to discredit your effort. In fact, I think you did well mocking at the silliness of what you termed "agricultural karma" and contrasting anattā with the concept of an eternal self/soul that somehow is a (active-passive) aggregate of all things karmic. But, something is still lacking in the argument about karma here. (Nonetheless, I laud your effort in encouraging people to have kind, wholesome intentions and be genuinely kind when they perform good deeds – instead of being bean-counting karma accountants obsessed with rewards and punishments.)

  21. Matthew says:


    I laughed out loud at the image of a "bean-counting karma accountants". Very funny.

    Anyway, the distinction being made here is between pain and suffering; "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional". This distinction between pain and suffering goes back to the Salltha sutta. Here's a link http://www.buddhasutra.com/files/sallatha_sutta.h….

    Also, you might want to check out the book, "Suffering is Optional" http://www.amazon.com/Suffering-Optional-Three-Ke

    Thanks for your comments.


  22. To say that the agricultural view of Karma has a lot of intellectual problems and then suggest intentional karma might have fewer is rather optimistic since I see a lot of evil perpetrated in this world from good intentions.

    I almost thought you had it later when you wrote that given infinite lifetimes “we all pretty much have everything coming to us.” This is very much the shared fate of humanity. And it’s likely all these good intentions that are paving the way to hell.

    Even if we follow the Buddhist path of intention we don’t get very far intellectually since we quickly run into the Diamond Sutra that teach us we will never achieve good merit by doing meritous deeds for good merit. Where does this leave intention? Where does this leave the devoted fellow with the good intentions who’s wife just ran off to Morocco with her yoga instructor. His intentions were good, but now his heart is broken.

    Certainly there are other ways of approaching life besides succumbing to the passivity of karma, but this would involve a sober look at karma as a set of limiting factors that we do not have to identify with. If we maintain a subject object view of karma and reality then it will limit is every time. When we learn to associate ourselves as universal subject rather than as ‘nothing’ (which seems to be the Buddhist way) we figure out that we have true power of choice that goes beyond the limitation of the karmic grooves we spend most of our time in.

    “The irony is that this view of karma ends up undermining its original purpose of explaining an individual’s unique, personal history.”

    I didn’t realize the purpose of Karma was to explain an individual’s unique and personal history. I’ve always thought of it as a way a describing the human condition. And doesn’t Buddhism undermine an individual’s unique, personal history altogether.

    And something I’ve never understood about Buddhism: if there is no abiding self, then how is there anyone to connect one moment with the next. If the peace you experience in meditation in nothingness, then how do we distinguish it other things. For if it has some distinguishing feature, then it can’t be nothing.

    Another way to look at this lack of abiding self is to ask who is responsible if I am nothing? If what I did yesterday is not connected by some abiding self then I’m no longer responsible for any of my past actions. If there’s no abiding self,

    I can’t believe it took two PhDs to write this article. Half of it was copied out of a text book and the other half shows little understanding of philosophy. The asinine conclusion completes this misguided article perfectly.

    “When we realize the complexity we’re dealing with, we no longer see events as a result of karma, but rather as the product of certain physical causes and conditions.”

    When we strip the intellectual sounding words from this sentence it reads: “…we no longer see events as a result of karma, but rather as the product of karma.”

  23. Matt Gallup says:

    Matthew! Teddy! Peter! Ted! Hey look, were all on the interwebs together. I don’t really have a comment. Just wanted to say Hi and that I miss you jokers.

  24. Jed Forman says:

    agricultural karma, but this article show a poor understanding of the literature. You don’t need to a appeal to an ultimately existing self to explain reaping of karmic actions (mental continuum suffices and an explanation) nor do infinite seeds have to be stored in that continuum (else how could an Arya or Arhat before parinirvana burn off past seeds? it would take forever). As seeds ripen, new ones are created. To say “we have everything coming” ignores the whole point about conditions in addition to karmic causes. We have the seed for lust but renunciation creates conditions where it can’t flower.

    Your presentation has many more logical problems: if other causal factors can supersede karmic factors, why does intention matter that much? On your analysis, I can never be safe “no matter what happens externally” because karmic factors are not the only at play. If it’s possible to suffer less “no matter what happens” then everything in one’s experience must be interrelated with karma else it always threatened to be sideswiped by non-karmic factors. This is the whole point of the niyamas; they aren’t themselves karma but karma surely effects them. You’re right that there is debate on this point, specifically between Theravada and Mahayana, but my point is that saying that karma dictates your world does not necessarily mean that “this vast spectrum of causality into a singular, self-centered mind.” Everything can be interrelated with your karma and even though karma is not the sum of causality.

    In short, don’t try to pass off a definitive notion of karma on equally shakey grounds as those you claim have been tossing the term around. If you’re going to try to clarify a complex subject, take some time to delve into the literature (not one out of context sutra) and give a thorough going analysis of the different strains of thought. You’re just complicating the confusion by passing off a cursory haphazard analysis as definitive.

  25. Gabriel says:

    I think the title of this article should be called something like “Karma, a Buddhist perspective” Just for people to understand that is your view of karma as a Buddhist meditator or philosophy supporter. If in fact this is not a mistake I would be concerned about your writings, because they would be in intent of “ascribing supporters to Buddhism”…

    Karma, for me is inclusive of many of the “forms of karma” that you discard, the simple add up. The fact that buddhism or your view of it doesn´t support it, doesn´t mean they are not true or don´t apply in our world and in our human lifes.

    Because you are talking from a Buddhism perspective you discard other karma views, including “rationalizing about past life’s for explaining a baby dying etcc…”..just because you don´t believe it, just because YOUR mind can´t conceive this happening, does not mean its not true or cant happen, it just means that you are a Buddhist, at list in your thinking.

    I think Buddhism in many of it´s forms is great, but, as any philosophy, it has it´s limitations. Why? Because it was conceived by humans, as in “human limitated mind”.

    “Maybe that´s why you cannot conceive many things, just as I do.

    (Your quote)”The irony is that this view of karma ends up undermining its original purpose of explaining an individual’s unique, personal history.” Maybe for you, for me is completely FALSE. I don´t have any problems to “intellectually accept this”. Again, the “administrative impossibility” is your problem as a Buddhist thinker or maybe just as a person who can´t conceive this happening. ”

    There are no “Sophisticated minds” that can understand this, because we are humans, we thing logically…our essence is spiritual, and in those realms, even if you can access it in a whole measure, you can deduce that there is no human logic creating these laws. Human laws rule us partially….they are not ruling the greater deal of our humans lives…for example, as you may understand, good intention is going to have an effect on your mind (and others of course) but there are not any human laws about it obviously.

    Yo obviously can´t conceive that there is “some sort of enduring “you” (call it a self, soul, mind-stream, or whatever) who is responsible for what “you” did in the past, and a “you” who will benefit or be cursed in the future.”, it´s because of your philosophical view! Don´t tell others what to think! Just say “this is what I think”! That is what I think…

    I don´t think it´s “ego reinforcing”..And i don´t thing the great Buddha has the last word for any of our humans lifes either. Maybe you thing he does..

    “the mental state of such a person surrounded by luxury is a whole different matter”…..WHAT???? Are you implying that people surrounded by luxury have some sort of “low state of mind”? please tell my I am wrong…or explain because if you did mean otherwise I had a problem receiving that message.

    I can certainly tell you that your conception of the five Niyamas is distorted. So you actually see the world, the physical world “separated” form what you think and do? Earlier in the article you say otherwise, but then you say “everything that happens is no your karma”, and writ the five Niyamas and say that that is the proof of it?

    I think your mistake is trying to understand and make generalizations based on one way of thinking. I think, with both your backgrounds, and having the possibility to write for this web page that influences many people, you both should know better.

  26. Jen says:

    What a big sigh of relief and a much needed breath of fresh air!
    Thank you so much for writing this!
    Thorough, thoughtful and well done.

  27. Tara says:

    I think an important distinction is "intention followed by appropriate action" not just "intention." Otherwise we wind up with a lot of people intending to behave dharmically and then shrugging their shoulders when they fail to, because the intention was there.

  28. CA Adish Kumar Jain says:

    It is good to understand the science of "Karma Philosphy", But it is important to study the Karma theory in Jain Religion. Jainism is based on this science and denies even any divine intervention in this law of nature. Just as fire moves up,  wind moves horizontatally and water  moves  down,  similarly whatsoever happens absolutely is called the nature. 

  29. Studied humanities at Hamburg and Freiburg i. Bg. 1965 artdirector in Switzerland.

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